The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Firebird. Royal New Zealand Ballet

Online screening, 27 August-6 September 2021

I was booked to cross the Tasman to see Royal New Zealand Ballet’s recent double bill program, The Firebird and Paquita, but the pandemic got in the way yet again. So I was pleased that a stream of Firebird was available, filmed in Wellington on its opening night there on 28 July 2021.

This Firebird was commissioned from Loughlan Prior, choreographer in residence with Royal New Zealand Ballet, and, while Prior used the music of Igor Stravinsky, familiar to many dance audiences, what resulted was a unique take on the story rather than what many might expect from a production named The Firebird. In essence, Prior’s Firebird is about hope in a world plagued by environmental crises and other chaotic matters, and the Firebird is portrayed as a phoenix-like character who gives hope as she rises from the ashes of destruction.

For most of the time the setting is grim and dark and seems mostly to take place in a run down corner of a harbour town where, in the background, we can see the remains of a ship and a gangplank or two that give the upstage area some height. This world is populated by two groups of people, the Wastelanders who work to survive in harsh conditions and the Scavengers who are constantly and sometimes unpleasantly on the lookout for food and water. Occasionally the scene shifts from a corner of this settlement to a forest-like area (no trees, just scrims and darkness) where the search for food and water takes place. The main figure among the Wastelanders is Arrow (Harrison James). He is without water and falls asleep in the forest area where he is discovered by the Firebird (Ana Gallardo Lobaina). After their encounter she gives him a feather, plucked from her body: it is capable of drawing up water from the depths of the earth.

But later the Firebird is captured by the Scavengers, led by the Burnt Mask (Paul Mathews) and his partner Elizaveta (Kirby Selchow). The Firebird is eventually released by Arrow’s partner, Neve (Sara Garbowski), but, angry at having been captured, the Firebird calls on the dark side of her powers to create an inferno that initially engulfs the harbour settlement. Then, drawing on her last remaining strength, she extinguishes the inferno and collapses into Arrow’s arms. Her body bursts into flames. But from the ashes she is reborn and hope fills the world.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina’s performance as the Firebird is an absolute standout, as is Prior’s choreography for her. At times, especially in her first solo, her movement is quite grounded, but at other times her arms have such a beautiful, lyrical quality, and the way she moves her neck and head tells us so much about her character. Her various pas de deux with Arrow are filled yet again with swirlingly beautiful arms and exceptional lifts. The duet after their first encounter is especially interesting. Harrison James’ performance here is at first hesitant and anxious; he is unsure of how to react to the creature he has just encountered. But he shows growing pleasure in the meeting and we see those changes of emotion quite clearly in the choreography and the performance of it.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Harrison James in The Firebird. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Another choreographic highlight is the manner in which Prior develops the idea of the inferno that the Firebird creates. Four dancers surround her and support her as she storms her way around the stage, and at times they gather around her in poses that extend her arms so her wing span looks huge and confronting. Lobaina’s death throes are also beautifully structured and performed, as is her rebirth at the end of the work.

The Firebird and the inferno she creates. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court


There were one or two moments that I thought needed some extra work from Prior. These were times when groups of dancers stood around watching the main events. Often they appeared not to be involved in the action taking place before them and they reminded me of the young ladies of the village in some productions of Giselle who stand around admiring each other’s dresses rather than being involved in the downstage action. On the other hand, the final group dance as the Firebird was reborn was great to watch with everyone joining in the spreading joy.

I was not a fan of some of Tracy Grant Lord’s costumes, in particular the ‘dropped crotch’ pants worn by many of the characters. While such clothes are something of a fashion item these days, they just look daggy to me, although I guess that added to the shabby look (no doubt intentional) that distinguished those characters and the roles they were playing. The costume for the Firebird, however, was quite spectacular in colour, fabric and cut.

I was blown away by Jon Buswell’s lighting and the exceptional use of visuals and animation from POW Studios, including the orange-red flame and sparkling red spots of light that preceded the comings and goings of the Firebird. Then there were the images of water covering the stage and the crashing waves that appeared in the background as chaos began to rage through the settlement. And, after the incendiary red orb, the darkness and the clouded sky behind the ruined ship that made up the main part of the set, the arrival of the light was quietly beautiful, especially the huge, softly-petalled pink flower that replaced the darkness of the sky.

The Firebird is reborn. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

In the end this Firebird has to be seen as an outstanding example of collaborative input from an exceptional team of creative artists. I can’t help wondering if the kind of visual additions of a technological kind that we saw in this Firebird is the way forward. I have seen similar uses of technology by contemporary companies in Australia (Sydney Dance Company springs to mind) but ballet companies often seem to be a little more set in their ways, especially in large-scale narrative works lasting two or more hours, which may not be surprising. But let’s keep moving.

Michelle Potter, 29 August 2021

Featured image: The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Firebird, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Liam Scarlett (1986–2021)

One of the most exceptional choreographers of the 21st century, Liam Scarlett, has died aged just 35. How lucky we were in Australia to have had the opportunity to see three of his works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dangerous Liaisons and No Man’s Land, all performed by Queensland Ballet. In addition, Scarlett’s new staging of Swan Lake, made for the Royal Ballet in 2018, is readily available on DVD.

Our New Zealand colleagues saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream before we did in Australia, first in 2015, and Royal New Zealand Ballet is reviving the work later in 2021. RNZB’s response to Scarlett’s death included the photo below with a special caption that read, ‘In loving memory of our friend and colleague Liam Scarlett. His creation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream filled our studios with joy, and our stages with magic.’

Liam Scarlett and Lucy Green on the set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

There have been many comments from around the world on the subject of his death with calls for explanations to be given by various organisations, but nothing can take the place of the words of those who worked with him and those who saw his productions and were astounded by his remarkable abilities. In addition to the posts on this website at this tag and RNZB’s words above, see for example comments from dancers Jack Lister and Laura Hidalgo on the Limelight tribute, and from Karen van Ulzen, editor of Dance Australia, who wrote in a weekly email newsletter, ‘I adored Liam Scarlett’s choreography. When the Queensland Ballet brought his A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Melbourne a few years ago, it was one of those rare occasions when you know you are completely in the hands and imagination of a master.’

Scarlett’s death is a huge loss and we no longer have him beside us giving us works that demonstrate his astonishing talent. Like most of us I am heartbroken, but I’d rather not cast blame or demand explanations but remember the joy he has given to audience members and dancers alike.

Michelle Potter, 23 April 2021

Featured image: Pool of Siloam, Leura, New South Wales, 2021. Photo: © Neville Potter

The Sleeping Beauty. Royal New Zealand Ballet/Orchestra Wellington

29 October 2020, Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This is a long-awaited season since the Company’s program, Venus Rising, had to be cancelled due to the Covid situation earlier this year. That had offered an interesting quartet of works, which we could hope to still see at some future date.

The Sleeping Beauty is a major undertaking for any ballet company, demanding high technical skills from a large cast of soloists. Those we saw perform on opening night were all equal to the challenges and danced with much aplomb, carried by the quality of the Tchaikovsky composition, a masterpiece of instrumental wonder, with Hamish McKeich conducting Orchestra Wellington. My seat allowed a view into the orchestra pit which was an extra thrill since there’s a whole other ‘ballet’ of tension, movement, drama and passion going on there.

2018 was the bicentenary of the birth of Marius Petipa, choreographer of this and other iconic ballets from 19th century Russia. That has occasioned new biographies as well as re-worked productions of his ballets, with the recent version by Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre winning widespread acclaim for its historical aesthetic coupled with contemporary sensibility. (It is worth looking into The New Yorkers of 1 & 8 June 2016 for Joan Acocella’s brilliant appraisal of the Ratmansky production and style, illustrating how a ballet classic can combine the best of old, though that takes both research and vision). Disney’s Maleficent from 2014 offers another take on who is in charge of evil in the world, updating his 1959 animation classic.

It is always the choices of style and setting, design and drama that, dancing aside, carries a production’s conviction in the passage of time from a christening to a 16th birthday to a sleeping spell of 100 years, to a dénouement and a wedding. This production, originally planned by Danielle Rowe, was instead here staged by Artistic Director Patricia Barker, with Clytie Campbell, Laura McQueen Schultz and Nicholas Schultz, and Michael Auer as dramaturg. With five different credits for various aspects of design, they took a generalised fairystory line, concentrating on light and bright pastel colours for the good, to contrast with the dark and shadowy world of evil.

It was a nice touch to have a poetic verse of the storyline projected onto the screen at the beginning of each ‘chapter’ but the design of set and costumes for the Court of the Rose seemed lightweight rather than royal. The courtiers were reserved in personality and confidence, yet overdressed in costume detail, rather than majestic as befits the mighty orchestral score. Only Loughlan Prior as the addled nervous M.C., (whose initial mistake was to leave Carabosse off the guest list, thus causing all the mayhem) brought caricature and comedy to the play, though the courtiers seemed unwilling to respond in character.   

Children in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The already-long ballet incorporated several groups of small children—page boys and court attendants. Charming as they were, they seemed more reminiscent of The Nutcracker than this classic which has an important story with a moral thrust in the forces of good versus evil. The King and Queen stood stiff and passionless with gestures portraying this or that but little in the way of emotion at their impending tragedy—and the seating of them and their baby directly upstage of all the court action effectively disappeared them from the scene as they sat behind all the dancing that followed.

Each of the good fairies performed their brief variations with technical flair and aplomb—Generosity by Ana Gallardo Lobaina, Honesty by Lara Flannery, Serenity by Caroline Wiley, Joy by Cadence Barrack, Curiosity by Madeleine Graham and Clarity by Katherine Skelton.  (It is impressive to note that four different castings of Aurora are planned over the season. Skelton will be one of them and her delicate precision should carry the role well). Sara Garbowski as the Lilac Fairy offered particular warmth in the portrayal of her promise to save the day. My young companions were impressed at the Aurora Borealis lighting effects—‘Hey, that’s where the baby’s name comes from.’ they whispered in delighted recognition. 

Kate Kadow as Princess Aurora danced radiantly and with an assured technique. Kirby Selchow as Carabosse took her role with relish, conveying macabre delight in wreaking havoc and trouble. Disguising her sidekick Morfran, Paul Mathews, to attend as one of the four suitors to the Princess Aurora on her 16th birthday was a clever ruse to introduce the dreaded spindle disguised as a black rose.

Kirby Selchow as Carabosse in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

[Intermission. Some day a production might use the auditorium and foyer to help convey the passage of 100 years? That always seems too long a time for a production to ignore].

In Chapter Three, ‘The Hunt Picnic’ brought a group from a faraway court in Lithuania with a lonely Prince ready for a challenge, so the Lilac Fairy showed him the way to wake the sleeping kingdom. The Prince’s name is Laurynas Vėjalis—whoops, that’s the dancer’s name but I’ll use it for the character too since he was immediately apparent as one and the same. From his first entrance, there was the lyricism, strength, nobility and grace one always hopes for in a Principal dancer. Even while standing still, he conveyed those—then his dancing combined agility and strength with musical cadencing that flooded me with joy. This ability to merge the preparation for, together with delivery of, bravura steps into nonchalant movement, is the true heritage of baroque noble dancing, whence the original fairytale hails.

Laurynas Vėjalis as the Prince in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Vėjalis’ strength and speed of allegro movements of his legs and feet, with a simultaneous bone-creaming adagio quality of arm, head and épaulement movements, all without the slightest suggestion of effort or concentration, is a rare natural talent, in the line of Poul Gnatt, Jon Trimmer, Martin James, Ou Lu, Qi Huan, Kohei Iwamoto, Abigail Boyle, proud legacy of this company. It is good, as always, to see the printed program full of content (the work of Susannah Lees-Jeffries) acknowledging the Company’s previous productions.

In the variations from the guests at the wedding—The White Cat by Leonora Voigtlander, and Puss in Boots  by Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson were suitably coquettish, the Bluebirds by Katherine Minor and Kihiro Kusukami in striking flight, Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf by Georgia Baxter and Jack Lennon bringing character to the scene.

So, all told, a big ballet to big music—though with design of both set and costume in the first two acts less authoritative than might have been. The dancing was stronger and more accomplished than the sense of theatre throughout, where the timing of action needed attention—until along came a Prince who changed all that. I’ll aim to catch the last performance of the tour and see if the production has travelled well, which I’m sure it will.

Jennifer Shennan, 31 October 2020

Featured image: Laurynas Vėjalis as the Prince and Kate Kadow as Princess Aurora in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court.

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. Book review

Kristian Fredrikson, Designer by Michelle Potter
Melbourne Books. AUD 59.95

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This book is treasure and joy. It covers the lifelong career of Wellington-born Kristian Fredrikson, designer for ballet, theatre, opera, film and television in both New Zealand and Australia. The volume is itself an achievement of fine design—superbly presented and generously illustrated, though selective in the careful interpolation of images, both drawings and performance photographs, into the text. It is an appreciative profile by an author who clearly loves the work of her subject but, resisting hagiography, has produced perceptive analysis and an enduring record of his lifetime’s work in a notoriously ephemeral performing art. Both she and the publisher are to be congratulated.

Extensive research (Potter first conducted an oral history with Fredrikson in 1993) has allowed coverage of his prolific body of work. There are frequent quotations from his own unpublished writings about ideas and work processes, which I found illuminating. The appendices provide extensive documentation, leaving the text refreshingly accessible.

There are stimulating insights and analyses of both the aesthetic and historical influences in Fredrikson’s work (Klimt is there, Rothko is there, mediaeval Sicily, 19th century New Zealand, war-time Vietnam, outback and small-town Australia are there). Potter’s invaluable commentaries will help audiences follow, in retrospect, ‘new narratives from old texts’ in the innovative reworkings of classics such as Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake (1985) for Royal New Zealand Ballet, Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara (1992) and his Swan Lake (2002) both for The Australian Ballet.

Tutu for Princess Odile in Harry Haythorne’s Swan Lake, Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1985. The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, New Zealand. Gift of Royal New Zealand Ballet

Long-time ballet followers in New Zealand would say they knew Fredrikson’s work well, keeping memories for decades of his sumptuous Swan Lakes, the ingenious A Servant of Two Masters, a poignant Orpheus, a searing Firebird, an enigmatic Jean [Batten], a spirited Peter Pan, atmospheric A Christmas Carol, and hilarious The Nutcracker. The book also includes his prolific output across other genres of theatre away from ballet. It is fascinating to learn of Fredrikson’s sensitive and restrained approaches to plays and films such as Hedda Gabler, with Cate Blanchett, or those with Australian Aboriginal, Vietnamese or American Indian settings … ‘away from dancers who spend their time twirling around on their toes’. We thus see a different side to the designer who always prioritised the contribution he could make to a collaborative project, rather than use it as an opportunity to primarily display his own aesthetic.       

Interviews with his ballet colleagues, especially Gray Veredon and Graeme Murphy, contribute to the portrayal of a deeply intelligent, thoughtful, private man with uncompromising respect for those trusted choreographers and directors with whom he worked most closely. The standout choreographic collaborations would have been with Murphy, Veredon and Russell Kerr, and they are quoted as appreciating the close integration of design and choreographic ideas, with a sense of movement always portrayed in the designs. Fredrikson did not dress mannequins, he dressed movers.

Dancers, too, appreciated this empathy, even when his costumes of period or character required particular weights, silhouettes and textiles. There are descriptions of his attending dance rehearsals to photograph sequences so as to be sure whatever fantasy he had in mind would also prove practical. Compromises and re-workings were sometimes required. 

Increasingly, today’s ballet practitioners seem less and less interested in the source and history of their art. It is heartening to learn how Fredrikson’s starting point for his concepts grew out of impeccable historical research. Since my own work and interests lie in Renaissance and Baroque dance and related arts, I was pleased to copy out a passage from his own words, about transforming, or inventing a historical period:

The problem is most of us don’t know true period. We look at a Watteau painting and we say, ‘Oh that’s how they dressed in Watteau’s time.’ Well they didn’t. Watteau made up his own people. We look at Rembrandt and say, ‘That’s how they dressed in Rembrandt’s day.’ They did not. Rembrandt created costumes for them… Our understanding of the past is so unreal that even if I do the real history, it’s surreal. And I suppose that’s what I do. I go towards the real history and that seems extraordinary.

I am now very happy to have this quote as a fridge magnet in my kitchen. It seems to echo the equally interesting and challenging practice of a writer using historical or autobiographical fiction as an imaginative way of telling a ‘true’ story.

Study for Captain Hook in Russell Kerr's 'Peter Pan', 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson
Study for Captain Hook and Peter Pan in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan, 1999. © 1998 Kristian Fredrikson

Chapter 6, New Zealand Impressions, has a fabulous full-page image of Captain Hook in Russell Kerr’s Peter Pan. Jon Trimmer is portrayed as the seductively beautiful pirate, Peter Pan squatting at his feet is Everyboy—with a somewhat perplexed expression on his face, wondering why anyone would want to leave childhood and become an adult. The study for the Angel of Death in Murphy’s Orpheus is chillingly beautiful. The priceless comic play of Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi and Jon Trimmer as Pantalone in Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters is evidence of one of the best productions RNZB ever staged.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in A Servant of Two Masters, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not identified. Courtesy Arthur Turnbull LIbrary, Wellington, New Zealand.

But it is the two quietly dramatic photographs from Veredon’s Tell me a Tale that could slow your breathing. The choreography tells a particular story, though it could have been the story of many a family. The cast are early European settlers arriving in New Zealand, meeting and interacting with Maori people. The young pakeha boy befriending a Maori girl brings forth a furious haka from her brother—performed by the much admired (and then much missed ) Warren Douglas. This was the most convincing representation of haka on a ballet stage I have seen in six decades of watching a range of attempts.  What a sorry business that Tale was never restaged by RNZB, and it’s a safe if sad bet it is never likely to be—even though the original cast are around and could still be involved, and indeed the choreographer, one of New Zealand’s finest dance-makers, is still actively staging his works in Europe. I treasure these fine photographs of a talisman work from RNZB ‘s early repertoire, gone but not forgotten. It belongs here in New Zealand, exists nowhere else, and should be neither gone nor forgotten.     

The eighth and final chapter ‘The Ultimate Ballet: Swan Lake’ is an insightful comparison of  approaches taken to this classic work, tracing the five different productions Fredrikson worked on. There are both similar and contrasting elements within those stagings—revealing the nature of von Rothbart’s evil, learning that Odette’s mother’s tears created the lake that her daughter will drown in, and the possibility of lovers separated by death though reuniting in an afterlife. The themes of love, treachery and loyalty are the same as those we live by, so even quite different settings in any production of calibre are as close to home as we choose to invite them.  

You could call this an illustrated biography of the life’s work of a totally committed theatre designer. His life was his work, and the book emulates the man. There is no gossip, no bodice-ripping tell-all of a private life, no imposed psychoanalysis, and Alleluia to that I say. If you want to know who Kristian Fredrikson was and what was important to him, read his work. Read this book.

Kristian Fredrikson with costumes for Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photo: © Ross Giblin. Courtesy Stuff/The Evening Post

Jennifer Shennan, 18 August 2020

Featured image: Stephen McTaggart and Kerry-Anne Gilberd in a scene from Gray Veredon’s Tell Me a Tale (detail). Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1988. Photographer not identified. Collection of Gray Veredon

Abigail Boyle and Jon Trimmer in Russell Kerr's 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, revival of 2007. Photo: © Maarten Holl /RNZB

Dance diary. July 2020

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer

My book, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, is now available in bookshops across Australia, and from online outlets, including the publisher’s site, Melbourne Books, and specialist online sellers such as Booktopia and Book Depository. I am indebted to those generous people and organisations who contributed to the crowd funding projects I initiated to help with the acquisition of hi-res images, where purchase was necessary, and to other photographers and curators who contributed their work and collection material without charge. I am more than happy with the reproduction quality of the images throughout the book.

The featured image on this post is from a New Zealand production of Swan Lake and, in addition to Fredrikson’s work in Australia, his activities in New Zealand are an integral part of the book. So too is his work for Stanton Welch and Houston Ballet, and reflections from Houston Ballet staff on the Fredrikson-designed Pecos and Swan Lake also are integral to the story. The book features some spectacular images from those two works.

Two promotional pieces for the book are at the following links: Dance Australia; Canberra CityNews.

  • Royal Danish Ballet

It is a while since I saw a performance by the Royal Danish Ballet so I am looking forward to watching the company dance via a stream from Jacob’s Pillow taken from a performance they gave there in 2018. More later… In the meantime, read my thoughts on the 2005 Bournonville Festival in Copenhagen. I was there on behalf of ballet.co (now Dancetabs).

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in the pas de deux from The Kermesse in Bruges. Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan
  • Further on streaming

Two productions, which streamed in July, which I watched but haven’t reviewed in detail, were Trisha Brown’s Opal Loop/Cloud Installation and Aszure Barton’s Over/Come. Both were streamed via the Baryshnikov Arts Centre site. I was especially interested in Opal Loop/Cloud Installation because the installation, which provided the visual background for the work, was by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya. Nakaya is renown in Canberra for his fog installation (Foggy wake in a desert: an ecosphere) in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery. My grandchildren love it, some for the way the fog comes from the ground-level structure that generates it, others simply for the presence of the fog! I wondered what it was like to dance amid the cloud/fog in Opal Loop.

But I love watching the loose-limbed dancing that characterises Brown’s choreography and have great memories of watching various of her pieces performed, several years ago now, at the Tate Modern.

As for Aszure Barton, Over/Come was created while Barton was in residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre, and was filmed in 2005. Efforts to find out a bit more about it, especially the dancers’ names, have been pretty much unsuccessful. Two dancers stood out—a tall gentleman wearing white pants that reached just below the knee (his fluidty of movement was exceptional), and a young lady who danced a cha-cha section. I’d love to know who they are.

  • The Australian Ballet

How devastating that the Australian Ballet has had to cancel its Sydney season for November-December, meaning that very few performances from the company have made it to the stage in 2020. I guess I was lucky that I managed to get to Brisbane in February to see The Happy Prince. 2020 is not the kind of farewell year David McAllister would have liked I’m sure.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2020

Featured image: Abigail Boyle and Jon Trimmer in Russell Kerr’s Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet, revival of 2007. Photo: © Maarten Holl /RNZB. Courtesy of Matthew Lawrence

Abigail Boyle and Jon Trimmer in Russell Kerr's 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, revival of 2007. Photo: © Maarten Holl /RNZB
Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Dance diary. June 2020

  • On streaming

The current corona virus situation has given us many opportunities to see streamed productions from many of the world’s best companies. Some have been thrilling, and have been works, or have involved casts, that I am unlikely to see outside this streaming arrangement. One or two, however, have left me wondering.

The Australian Ballet’s decision to stream its 1986 production of Giselle was an odd one I thought. In the thirty-four years since 1986 much has changed in terms of filming techniques and in what we expect from dancers. I was underwhelmed in particular by the poor quality of the footage and I was not a fan of the characterisations of the leading characters, except perhaps by that of Paul de Masson as Hilarion. Techniques are stronger now as well.

It was also touted as Maina Gielgud’s production, which it no doubt was even it was staged by Colin Peasley. But Gielgud had been director of the company for just a few years in 1986 and, having seen more recent productions that have involved her input, most recently in 2018 but also in 2015, her production has grown in so many ways. Could we not have had something closer to 2020? The 1986 recording was a poor choice.

Then there was Smuin Ballet’s staging of Stanton Welch’s Indigo. I have often wondered about Indigo made originally for Houston Ballet in 1999. Its title seemed curious: how do you make a ballet about a colour? Well of course the title referred to the colour of the costumes, although that is also something of a curiosity to my mind. That aside, I was really disappointed by Welch’s choreography. It was filled with jerky staccato movements and I longed for a bit of lyrical relief. It also seemed to sit awkwardly, I thought, on the physiques of the Smuin dancers. But at least now I have seen it and needn’t muse about the title any more.

  • Australian activity in New Zealand

It is interesting to note that two Australian choreographers are to have their work performed in the coming months by Royal New Zealand Ballet, which will shortly return to full-scale performing. Alice Topp’s Aurum will be part of a mixed bill program called Venus Rising. The program is due to take place in August/September and will also feature works by Twyla Tharp, Andrea Schermoly, and Sarah Foster-Sproull.

See these links for my reviews of Aurum: Melbourne (2018), Sydney (2019). In both cases Aurum was part of a triple bill called Verve.

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Alice Topp's 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Alice Topp’s Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Later, in October through to December, Danielle Rowe, former principal with the Australian Ballet and now making a name for herself as a choreographer, will present her new Sleeping Beauty, also for Royal New Zealand Ballet.

For more information see the website of Royal New Zealand Ballet.

  • Australian Dance Awards

The closing date for nominations for the 2019 and 2020 Australian Dance Awards has been extended. These two sets of awards cover work presented in 2018 and 2019. The closing date is now 20 July. For further information and to nominate follow this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2020

Featured image: Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Giselle. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

A little closer to 2020!

SHELTER. Reneff-Olson Productions

The short film SHELTER, from California-based Reneff-Olson Productions, features dancers from across the world. It was made in response to the difficult situation in which performers find themselves at the moment during the COVID-19 crisis. The production company is headed by siblings Alexander and Valentina Reneff-Olson and, speaking of the making of SHELTER, Alexander Reneff-Olson said:

I wanted to bring attention to the current realities performing artists are facing during this time. Self-isolation has kept dancers from performing in conventional ways and traditional venues, but it hasn’t diminished their resilience, even in the face of these unprecedented times.

You might be surprised at the number of people who are involved in SHELTER who have strong connections with Australia and New Zealand. I was when it was suggested by a colleague from San Francisco that I take a look.

First up is perhaps Danielle Rowe, former principal with the Australian Ballet. After leaving Australia, Rowe has had a varied career, first with Houston Ballet, and then Nederlands Dans Theater and various other companies. She is now well into a career as a choreographer. Her work Remember, Mama, for Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2018 program Strength and Grace, was reviewed on this site by Jennifer Shennan. Read that review at this link. Rowe is currently choreographing a production of The Sleeping Beauty for Royal New Zealand Ballet. It is due to open in October (provided that is a possibility given current restrictions).

Nadia Yanowsky and Paul Mathews in 'Remember, Mama', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Nadia Yanowsky and Paul Mathews in Danielle Rowe’s Remember, Mama, Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

For SHELTER, Rowe worked with Garen Scribner, a New York-based actor, dancer and singer, on the choreography and the casting of the dancers who appear in the SHELTER. And, as Alexander Reneff-Olson has commented, Rowe also ‘selected and assigned sections of the choreography to each dancer and provided artistic feedback as the editing progressed’.

Australian Ballet principals, Amber Scott and Ty-King Wall, also appear, as does Artistic Director designate David Hallberg. Then there are Australians who no longer dance in Australia but are busy making exceptional careers elsewhere in the world. They include Benjamin Ella, currently a soloist with the Royal Ballet in London, and Jared Wright, at present a soloist with Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. Royal New Zealand Ballet principal, Nadia Yanowksy, seen in the image above, is also featured in SHELTER.

The project grew from an earlier work called Hey Mami co-choreographed and performed by Rowe and Scribner in 2015. But the idea grew to include 26 dancers and, as Alexander Reneff-Olson explains:

Dani and Garen assigned specific time-codes from Hey Mami for each dancer to learn and film themselves performing, and they offered to virtually rehearse individually with any dancers who wanted to.

The individual segments were then edited by the Reneff-Olson team.

SHELTER also has some quite beautiful scenes shot on the stage of an empty San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. Alexander Reneff-Olson explains:

The city and County of San Francisco gave about a 12 hour advance warning on the shelter-in-place order taking effect, and we used some of that time to capture what footage we could of Joseph Walsh [a principal with San Francisco Ballet] in the War Memorial Opera House, the home of San Francisco Ballet.

The full video can be viewed at this link where you will also find credits and a full list of the dancers who appear.

Michelle Potter, 20 May 2020

With thanks to Kate McKinney of San Francisco Ballet for putting me in touch with Alexander Reneff-Olson, and Renee Renouf Hall for suggesting I take a look at SHELTER.

Featured image: Promotional image for SHELTER.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

Anzac Day 2020. Aotearoa New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

This year, for the first time in over 100 years, all public gatherings to mark Anzac Day were cancelled, due to the lockdown imposed as part of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic: an enemy if ever there was one, not war between nations this time but a hope that all countries might join a common fight.

Traditionally Anzac Day commemorations shape up as a kind of countrywide choreography, starting with a Dawn Parade in every city, town, village or marae—a bugle, a salute, a karakia, a march, a haka, a hymn, a prayer, a poem—‘They shall grow not old’—a minute’s silence and The Last Post

There are church services, radio and television broadcasts, concerts, gatherings and wakes throughout the day to remember sacrifice—the war dead and wounded, refugees and fugitives, and the whole sad sorry waste of it all. It is a statutory public holiday, restaurants, shops, schools and theatres are closed, normal life is on hold for a day, then it’s back to busy business. But ‘normal life’ has been on hold these many weeks now. So how was this Anzac Day different from other years?

Some today stood alone at the roadside in front of their home, before dawn at 6am, holding a candle perhaps, and a transistor radio to hear the national broadcast, or watched television coverage of the Prime Minister standing at her gate. Many families had made sculptures or graphics of poppies to display in their gardens. Some of the 1000s of teddy bears in house windows to cheer passersby these past weeks were today wearing poppies too. Many of us will have been mindful of the shocking statistic that in two months of the 1918 influenza pandemic more New Zealanders died than had been killed during the whole of World War I.

We’ve grown so accustomed to the commercialisation of Christmas and to a degree Easter, surrounded as we are by tsunamis of merchandise ‘to show we care’. Today was differently focused. Some folk had developed their own ideas and found resources to express an experience, share a thought, address a concern, tell a story, to give a voice to hope. Isn’t that what art does? Mere entertainment has to me never seemed sufficient, either in peace or wartime.

Numerous dance companies worldwide, stymied by the current pandemic and obliged to cancel many performances and productions, have in past weeks moved to make selected works from their repertoire available online. The Royal New Zealand Ballet have already screened video of Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel, Liam Scarlett’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella. For today their program from 2015, Salute, was aired, comprising  two works—Andrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele. My review of the Company’s season in 2015 is at this link.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Dear Horizon', 2015. Photo: Ellie Richards
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Dear Horizon, 2015. Photo: © Ellie Richards

What a pity this broadcast could not have included Jiri Kylian’s masterwork, Soldatenmis/Soldiers’ Mass, to Martinu, from the same program—(prohibitive fees or copyright issues perhaps?) since it was a work that suited the Company’s dancers of that time to the drumbeat of their hearts and ours. Laura Saxon Jones, sole female performing alongside all the male dancers of the Company, will never be forgotten.    

Other outstanding choreographies  with a war, or anti-war theme, include Jose Limon’s noble Missa Brevis, dedicated to the spirit of Polish resistance; Young Men, Ivan Perez’ choreography startlingly performed by Ballet Boyz; and of course the legendary work Der grüne Tisch/The Green Table, by Kurt Jooss, a work I used to dream might one day be performed by RNZB, so well it would have suited them until just a few years ago. I remain grateful to have seen the Joffrey Ballet’s  authoritative performances however, and another unforgettable production in which the late Pina Bausch played The Old Woman—a performance of such chiselled beauty stays with one for life, as though she had stepped from a painting by Modigliani, or Munch, or a figure from the mediaeval Danse Macabre of Lübeck Cathedral.   

(I’m often reminded of the very fine study by William McNeill, Harvard historian, who in his book Keeping Together in Time, considers how coordinated rhythmic movement, and the shared feelings it evokes, has been a powerful force in holding human groups together—how armies of the world, train and march and move—be that in quick, slow, double or dead march, the goose step, the North Koreans’ grand battement smash, or the soldiers’ antics at the Pakistan-Indian border).

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Both RNZB works, Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Ieremia’s Passchendaele, retain all the impact and power of their first staging, with the New Zealand Army Band playing to precise perfection, for the former the music of Gareth Farr, for the latter the composition by Dwayne Bloomfield. The contained emotion of the music, particularly in cello and brass solos, stops time.   

Ieremia’s early career, as for so many of the dancers who worked with Douglas Wright, absorbed much influence from the driven and airborne choreography  of that master dance-maker. An indelible image that remains with me is from Wright’s The Kiss Inside—a scene in which a gorilla-suited figure passes a tray of cut oranges around a group of boys (a team of rugby players, refreshments at half time?). Soon, just a little older, the same young men are in a faraway other place, a different game, writhing on the ground, in an agony of wounds, bleating like sheep. The gorilla passes a microphone among them to record their messages for relaying home. The bleating becomes recognisable as a cry of pathos, ‘Mummy, Mummy’ from one dying soldier after another. Says it all really.  

Jennifer Shennan, 25 April 2020

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Passchendaele, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Cinderella' 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

Cinderella. The Australian Ballet. 2020 Digital Season

Like most arts companies around the world, the Australian Ballet is offering audiences a streaming service during the COVID-19 lockdown. Each performance is available for a short time only, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, first seen in Australia in 2013, is the second offering on the program. The cast is led by Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in a partnership that is both moving and elegant. The performance was filmed in Brisbane in 2016.*

This Cinderella is not the usual take on the old fairy tale, although the characters from that fairy tale are present, albeit often in something of a new guise. For the most part the story also follows the narrative of a young girl being brought up in less than agreeable circumstances who finds love after attending a ball, and who then goes through the process of waiting for her Prince to find her after she leaves the ball in a hurry.

The unusual characteristics of Ratmansky’s version were made all the more powerful given that I had, the day before, watched Royal New Zealand Ballet’s streaming of Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella created originally for the New Zealand company in 2007. Hampson’s production had some lovely moments—a moving prologue, for example, in which we witnessed a young Cinderella at her mother’s funeral. It set a context for the rest of the story. There were some exceptional performances too including Jon Trimmer’s brilliant portrayal of the Royal Shoemaker who attempts to discover the inherent qualities of the shoe left behind at the ball by Cinderella.

But choreographically Hampson’s work was not especially inventive and fell within a very traditional balletic mode. Ratmansky’s choreography was still classically based but there was a distinctive touch to it. For a start, there were fewer easily recognisable classroom-style steps, and a much freer use of the arms and upper body.

In addition to this distinctive choreographic vocabulary, I was struck in particular by Ratmansky’s approach to the relationship between his vocabulary and Prokofiev’s score. Watching his choreography made the score sound quite different from what I had heard while watching the Hampson production. Ratmansky appeared to be strongly motivated by the music, more so than Hampson it seemed to me, and created steps specifically to match passages, even notes, in the score. This is not to say that Hampson’s choreography was unmusical, just that for Ratmansky music seemed to be the major force in the development of his movement.

I have reviewed the Ratmansky Cinderella elsewhere on this website so don’t intend to go further into the production. Here is a link to my original review. There is a place for both a traditional production, such as Hampson gives us, and a production that moves in a different direction. The same holds for Nutcracker, Swan Lake and others of the classics. But I loved being able to see the Hampson and the Ratmansky Cinderella side by side. It opened my eyes to an aspect of Ratmansky’s work that I hadn’t noticed in such depth before.

Michelle Potter, 23 April 2020

*For copyright reasons the Australian Ballet’s streamed performances are available to viewers in Australia only.

Featured image: Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters prepare for the ball in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. The Australia Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Cinderella' 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet—another look

Royal New Zealand Ballet is making available a range of videos of productions from the repertoire for free home viewing for a brief period during the covid-19 lockdown. The dress rehearsal of their 2015 production of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream screened last week.

Comment by Jennifer Shennan

This ballet was originally commissioned by director Ethan Stiefel in a promising initiative for Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet to share resources, production and performance rights. The project could have grown to include other productions, teacher and dancer exchanges and residencies, and the concept of trans-Tasman co-productions was heartening. The premiere season of MND was staged here during the term of the next director Francesco Ventriglia.

The shimmering overture of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream evokes a humming faerie world. The dark blue-black midnight stage flickers alight with fireflies and glow worms. This is a visit to Waitomo Caves, after-dark Zealandia, Otari Bush or Botanical Gardens, the remembered hush of night in those places. You don’t need a grandchild holding your hand, though it helps, to know the feeling that magic could be out there, or look there, or quick another one over there. This entire production delivers on the promise caught in those quivering opening moments—with choreography, design and music inseparably part of what is arguably one of the best works in the company’s repertoire.

Liam Scarlett’s exquisite choreography drew galvanised performances from each of the dancers who were members of RNZB back in 2015. This viewing is a welcome reminder of their verve and style, the stage positively buzzing with the wit of a team of dancers who knew each other well and could together rise to a performance of such assured calibre. It is poignant in the extreme that we have loved and then lost so many of these artists in the swift turnover of dancers during the months that followed. There’s always a mobility of dancers amongst ballet companies but the scale and timing of that particular exodus wrought a major shift in the RNZB’s artistic identity.

Nigel Gaynor, music director back in the day, made an inspired full-length score by extending Mendelssohn’s original incidental music with seamlessly interpolated excerpts from others of his compositions. Gaynor conducted the NZ Symphony Orchestra and the result was a transport of delight.

Tracy Grant Lord produced fabulous designs for a number of major RNZB productions—for Christopher Hampsons’s Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet, as well as this Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lighting design by Kendall Smith positively sparkles with the wit of illuminating fairies and caverns themselves, rather than simply throwing light at them.

My review in 2015 was based on the performance by Lucy Green as Titania, Qi Huan as Oberon, both splendidly cast. This video has Tonia Looker and Maclean Hopper as leads and they do an equally fine job. Harry Skinner plays Bottom with a grounded quality that delights without overplaying the role, revealing an actor’s sensibility. Kohei Iwamoto is the quintessential Puck that Shakespeare must have had in mind when he wrote the character—daredevil, wicked, witty, mercurial rascal. Whatever the role, Kohei has always absorbed his virtuosic technique into characterisation and never used it for display. Even to watch him in a studio class was to see how his strength, precision and swiftness could grow into grace and the sprezzatura that Shakespeare knew all about ‘…that you would e’er do nothing but that.’

You could be moved by every moment of this ballet, beginning with a vulnerable young child caught in the crossfire of his quarrelling parents and their eventual hard-earned reconciliation, but one hilarious mid-moment breaks in to the action narrative as all of the cast dash en diagonale across the stage in pursuit of each other for the wrong and/or the right reasons—it’s a like a side-stage glimpse of the backstage life of all these characters—a cheeky wave and a wink to savour forever.

The fairies are a shimmering line-up—Lucy Green and Mayu Tanigaito among them—and Scarlett’s sense of comic timing draws a host of terrific performances—from Abigail Boyle, Paul Mathews, Laura Saxon Jones, Joseph Skelton, William Fitzgerald, Loughlan Prior, Jacob Chown. These assured performers really did work as a magic team, lucky we were. ‘Hence away. Now all is well. One alone stand sentinel …’

A recent saga has seen Liam Scarlett’s career with the Royal Ballet and elsewhere collapse into apparent ruin. The media fair bristled with leaked early reports (oh how salaciousness boosts ratings) but now the investigation seems to be over and the word is mum with the Royal Ballet declaring  ‘There were no matters to pursue…’ So through that vagueness all we know is the heartbreak of Scarlett’s gifts destroyed, his career for now anyway at a standstill. Let’s meantime be grateful for the wondrous talents and team that made this ballet in the first place, and hope there can be some eventual resolution to the current impasse. Good on RNZB for screening his choreographic masterwork. 

Jennifer Shennan, 20 April 2020

Featured image: Tonia Looker as Titania and Harry Skinner as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Stephen A’Court