Glimpses of Graeme. Reflections on the work of Graeme Murphy. Book review

Book by Michelle Potter. Published by FortySouth Publishing, Tasmania
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The first word of appreciation for this book should go to its design and visual appeal. A well-made paperback volume of good weight and proportion, it feels right in the hand, and its pages stay open (instead of closing themselves as typical paperbacks annoyingly do). In addition the ink of the text sits bright on the page rather than being absorbed into the paper, so that by running your hand over the page you discover a kind of braille, a little dance for your fingertips, in a haptic pleasure I don’t recall noticing in other volumes (clever designer).   

The front cover image is Murphy the man, in dance profile and grinning, the back cover Graeme the young schoolboy, smiling his pleasure for the ice cream sundae he has just enjoyed. The front endpaper has a curtain-call lineup of applause—the back endpaper has Murphy acknowledging that applause—with a facing image of Graeme and his life and work partner, Janet Vernon, back to back. Their combined lifetime contribution to dance in Australia receives tribute in every chapter of the book (heroic couple, generous author).

The frontispiece photo has Graeme Murphy en l’air, not in some balletic cliché of soaring jeté or flying leap, limbs outspread, striving beyond gravity, where aspiration replaces destination. This is not any role performed but the man himself, right here, right now, in the middle of the page, looking straight at you, the reader. Hello.

Portrait of Graeme Murphy, 1986. Photo: © Greg Barrett

Simultaneous movement in both upward and downward directions is implied. The single vertical stroke of the svelte elevated dancer in white trousers and loose-lapelled jacket, legs pointing down with pencil sharp engaged feet in an exquisite fifth position displaying all the stylised turnout that ballet requires of a dancer, (but none of the distorted overarched eagle feet sometimes displayed by those more interested in virtuosity than in dialogue or eloquence). Meantime the upper body is that of a relaxed and graceful man, hands tucked into large pockets, an enigmatic smile hovering around his lips. The floor is not shown in the photo so the image is of a dancer enduringly airborne, not one ounce of the effort involved in an elevation of this order allowed to show. Dancing masters of the Italian Renaissance had a term for this quality—sprezzatura/‘divine nonchalance’—as though to say ‘Look—leaping like this is as easy as breathing. I’ll teach you how to do it if you like.’ Yeah right. It’s a graceful yet wonderfully cheeky portrait, inviting readers into the book (gifted dancer, clever photographer). I savoured the photo for a day before starting to read the text. Felt as though I had been dancing.

The book title is borrowed from Murphy’s first major choreography, Glimpses, 1976. The astonishing photograph from that work reveals his early theatrical vision, with Janet Vernon standing tall on the chest of dancer Ross Stretton. 

Janet Vernon and Ross Stretton in Glimpses, 1976. Photo: © David Parker

Eight chapters celebrate Murphy’s choreographic works in thematic rather than chronological treatment, mainly through excerpts selected from reviews Michelle has written over the years. It has been a colossal choreographed body of work. Over and over Murphy’s collaborations with design artists and composers are acknowledged and there is much discussion of the Australian content within the works, by dint of those collaborations rather than simply in local narratives or settings.

I thoroughly enjoyed reminders of those of Murphy’s works we have seen in New Zealand — with design by Kristian Fredrikson, the striking Orpheus for the RNZBallet’s celebrated Stravinsky centenary season in 1982, devised by artistic director Harry Haythorne.  Our company also staged The Protecting Veil the following decade.  Sydney Dance Company visited with Shining (I recall a mighty performance from New Zealand dancer Alfred Williams). They returned with Some Rooms, a fine work which appealed to audiences wider than just dance aficionados. Berlin was a major work that well warranted the trip to Auckland then, so of interest now to learn of the creative processes of its music ( with Iva Davies and Icehouse) and design (by Andrew Carter).

I also saw Mythologia in Sydney, 2000, though I retain much livelier memories of the inspired Nutcracker, The Story of Clara, and of the remarkable  Swan Lake for Australian Ballet. Harry Haythorne had roles in these two works, but it was his tap-dancing-on-roller-skates routine in Tivoli that warranted yet another trip across the Tasman, to see the hilariously entertaining yet simultaneously poignant production. The closing image has never left me.

It’s also a good memory that Murphy invited New Zealand choreographer Douglas Wright to stage his legendary Gloria, to Vivaldi, on Sydney Dance Company.

Once when I was visiting Harry in Melbourne, he took a phone call from Graeme and I recall a very long conversation, more than an hour, with loads of laughter while Harry winked and indicated I should continue browsing his bookshelf. They were clearly best of mates with a great deal of respect for each other’s work.  

There’s another synergy one can appreciate: Graeme’s work, Grand, was made for and dedicated to his mother—and Michelle has made and dedicated this book to her own mother who died recently.

The book’s text is succinct and its themes clearly delineated. My paraphrasing would not be nearly as useful as my encouragement to you to find and enjoy it for yourself (lucky reader).

Jennifer Shennan, 19 November 2022

Featured image: Cover image (excerpt) of Glimpses of Graeme. Full cover reproduced below.

Talking to Loughlan Prior

While in New Zealand to see Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Cinderella, I had the pleasure of engaging in an extended conversation with choreographer Loughlan Prior. Not unexpectedly, much of the conversation focused on his production of Cinderella, a production dense with allusions of various kinds.

One aspect of the production that intrigued me was the references to Swan Lake that were noticeable during the show. The first was not enormously obvious, but perfectly clear to anyone who had seen Swan Lake multiple times. It happened quite early in the first act when the image of a bird flew across the digital backdrop. Prince Charming, who was somewhat frustrated by his domineering mother, the Queen, gathered up his hunting gear and set off, clearly with the intention of shooting the bird. Shades of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake as he sets off after his birthday celebrations to shoot swans! But Prior’s Cinderella changes the story when the Queen, in an act that demonstrated her overbearing behaviour, shot the bird first. I learnt later that the bird was a magpie and, to emphasise the Queen’s reaction and her overbearing behaviour, a black and white magpie decoration was layered onto the dress she wore to the ball in Act II.

Laurynas Véjalis as the Royal Messenger and Clytie Campbell as the Queen wearing her magpie decorated dress in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

A much more obvious reference to Swan Lake appeared in the second act of Prior’s Cinderella, when guests at the ball were dancing and generally cavorting.

The Step-Sisters at the ball in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The two Step-Sisters, whose behaviour became more and more outrageous as the night wore on (swinging from chandeliers for example), linked arms and performed steps in a manner that was instantly recognisable. If the arms and movements weren’t recognisable to some then the music (performed in this production by a brass band) certainly would have been. Those Step-Sisters were dancing (or trying to dance) the so-well-known Dance of the Little Swans from Swan Lake. Why I wondered?

Prior tells me he had Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake in his mind and also Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which Wheeldon had the Queen of Hearts parody the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty. But he also added that the Little Swans in this case also referred back to the Stepmother who, he said, was ‘an ultra stage-mum’ who had had her daughters taught a fabulous dance that they were not capable of doing properly.

‘This show is quite irreverent,’ Prior explains. ‘It pokes fun at various things.’ He also uses the words ‘eclecticism’, ‘flamboyant’, ‘many cultural references’ and ‘set in a world of excess’. As I wrote in my review, one viewing is definitely not enough to absorb everything about this multi-faceted production.

Prior also spoke of his admiration for and ongoing collaboration with Claire Cowan, composer of the score for Cinderella. ‘Claire is not afraid to use unusual instruments,’ he says. ‘She loves percussion, and there are also four recorders in the orchestra [for Cinderella] giving a medieval feel at times.’ With Cowan he has also established a company called Lo Co Arts and the first full-length work from Lo Co Arts will premiere at New Zealand’s next Tempo Festival.

Prior, now a dual citizen of Australia and New Zealand, plans to work across Australasia (and beyond). To date his major works have been in New Zealand but he is quite clear that he has to be able to work elsewhere as well. ‘It’s crucial for me to be working around Australasia,’ he says. ‘There’s not enough work to be choreographing full-time if I’m just in New Zealand.’ But, going back to Cinderella, he remarks, ‘My real passion is in storytelling. I’m really pleased with what the company has let me do. They trusted me to follow a particular journey.’

Loughlan Prior’s journey is one to follow I suggest. See my review of Cinderella at this link.

Michelle Potter, 20 August 2022

Featured image: Loughlan Prior rehearsing Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson and Shae Berney for Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet

10 August 2022. Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Auckland

Choreographer Loughlan Prior was born and educated in Australia before moving to New Zealand for further dance training. He is now a dual citizen of those countries and his latest work for Royal New Zealand Ballet, where he has been choreographer in residence since 2018, is a production of Cinderella. But it is Cinderella in a whole new guise.

Many of the basics of the storyline we know from traditional productions of Cinderella, even from a few more up-to-date productions, are still there. Cinderella is still subject to bullying and other poor behaviour from the two Step-Sisters and is pushed into compliance by the Stepmother. She still goes to the ball aided by a Fairy Godmother, and the shoe (a pointe shoe as it happens) that is left behind after the ball finds its way to her home (and fits, of course).

Ana Gallardo Lobaina as the Stepmother and Mayu Tanigaito as Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

But Prior has looked beyond and beneath the well-worn narrative and has created a ballet that investigates the notion of having the courage to follow one’s dreams and desires in whatever form they may take. Cinderella (Mayu Tanigaito) doesn’t marry Prince Charming (Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson). He has found love elsewhere with another Prince, Prince Dashing (Shae Berney) from a neighbouring kingdom. The question of sexual orientation is probably the major change Prior has made to the storyline. As for Cinderella, she finds her happiness with the Royal Messenger (Laurynas Véjalis), whom she first meets when he comes to her home with invitations to the ball.

Prior’s Cinderella moves the audience well into the present day, and not simply with the focus on sexual orientation. There are moments when present day fashions for living and entertainment are introduced. In a scene where Cinderella chooses a ball gown we meet the Fab Five, five outrageously garbed gentlemen who act, in a way, as influencers. But perhaps the move to the present is nowhere more apparent than in the final scene at the ball where by the end of the evening alcohol and drugs have been consumed to the extent that some, the Step-Sisters (Sara Garbowski and Kirby Selchow) for example, are somewhat the worse for wear.

The Fab Five with Kate Kadow as the Fairy Godmother. Cinderella, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

And yet there are times too when Prior asks us to look to the past. Before the ballet begins the stage space (with curtain raised) is occupied by a large structure representing a tapestry weaving machine. There three adult dancers and eight or so young children (child labour?) are busy at the machine. We are reminded that in times past stories were told on large tapestries that filled the walls of stately homes. ‘Cinderella’ is the the word being woven and we see this as the house lights go down and the ballet begins.

Prior’s choreography for this ballet covers a range of styles from classical (or perhaps neo-classical is more appropriate) to the crazed disco-style movement that we see in the final ‘Happily ever after’ scene. Highly memorable were the four duets between Cinderella and the Royal Messenger, which grew in intensity as their relationship blossomed. Similarly the duets between Prince Charming and Prince Dashing showed, in choreographic terms, an equality between the two men. Each had moments of partnering and being partnered.

Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson as Prince Charming and Shae Berney as Prince Dashing. Cinderella, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

One of the great strengths of the work was the way in which Prior has developed the various characters so strongly, and how, as a result, the way the dancers rise to the occasion with extraordinarily believable performances. Véjalis stood out for me as the Royal Messenger. He held his body proudly and there was just a subtle lift of the chin and a lilt in his walk that gave him a charm that was somehow quite seductive. No wonder Cinderella fell for him. I also enjoyed the performance by Paul Mathews as Cinderella’s father. The role of the father is often not well-developed in productions of Cinderella but here we understood his plight and rejoiced when Cinderella came to his rescue and allowed him the freedom to be a well and happy man once more. Ana Gallardo Lobaina was a vindictive Stepmother and her performance drew out a spiteful, hateful nature.

I enjoyed the full-of-fun scene when Cinderella chose the dress that she was to wear to the ball and the final moments when she was lifted off the floor and rose into the space above wearing the magnificent, Spanish-style, golden gown of Emma Kingsbury’s design. Kingsbury’s design was an absolute highlight throughout and was as diverse as Prior’s choreography and character development.

But perhaps the most moving scene was that when Cinderella and Prince Charming were alone on stage, each dancing separately and each recalling the lives into which they had been drawn and from which they longed to escape. It was not only beautifully and movingly danced but was lit by Jeremy Fern so that the two dancers were seen as separate people but, as we could see from the projections that appeared in the background, with similar problems that they needed to overcome.

The score for this Cinderella was commissioned from Claire Cowan, who has worked before with Prior and with whom he shares a strong collaborative aesthetic. It too was diverse in musical styles and influences. It had a strong percussion component and a lot of brass, but at times looked back to medieval sounds, Baroque court dances and a host of other new and old musical allusions.

Prior calls this work ‘maximalist’ and it certainly wasn’t minimalist, not choreographically, not musically, not thematically, not in design which included some great visual effects from POW Studios, not in any way. I found some parts of the work, especially the way the Step-Sisters were portrayed, somewhat overdone, and audiences need to be prepared for the unexpected. Audience reaction on opening night in Auckland varied and included spontaneous clapping along with the music and dancing at various times, as well as a few people not returning after interval. Only several viewings would allow us to appreciate and follow fully the extraordinary diversity of ideas that fill the work. There is no doubt that we will never see another Cinderella like this one.

MIchelle Potter, 13 August 2022

A shortened version of this review appeared in Dance Australia. Follow this link.

Featured image: Mayu Tanigaito as Cinderella and Laurynas Véjalis as the Royal Messenger. Cinderella, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Reliving the past

by Jennifer Shennan

Harry Haythorne (Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet 1981—1992) was always an enthusiastic admirer of Gray Veredon’s choreography. In 1981, the effervescent Ragtime Dance Company, to Scott Joplin, had set the stage sizzling and gave Jon Trimmer one of his favourite roles. In 1988 Harry commissioned Tell Me A Tale, which wove elements of 19th century Pakeha settlers interacting with local Maori community, incorporating haka into the danced narrative. To my memory that was the most assured choreographic staging in and of a bi-cultural New Zealand we have seen.

Veredon’s rapport with designer Kristian Fredrikson was evident in the shadowed atmosphere of a powerful set and vintage costumes. Images remain of the performances by Jon Trimmer as the father, Kerry-Anne Gilberd the mother, Kim Broad the son, with Warren Douglas powerfully leading the haka that challenged a love interest across the racial divide. It’s always intriguing to think about what keeps some dance memories alive for decades while others fade.

Kerry-Anne Gilberd and Stephen McTaggart in a scene from Tell Me a Tale. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1988. Photographer not identified. Courtesy Gray Veredon

In 1989, Haythorne commissioned A Servant of Two Masters—with Veredon and Fredrikson again working together. The request was for a set that could easily travel abroad since Veredon’s contacts with the impresario Manfred Gerber enabled the Company’s first tour to Europe. Fredrikson came up trumps with silk banners that filled the stage yet could be folded down into two suitcases. Board a plane with a ballet in your carry-on luggage? Touché. 

To vivacious Vivaldi, the full-length work proved a triumph as Veredon, who knew commedia dell’arte well, made stunning character roles for every soloist in the company, each one of whom rose to the challenge—most outstandingly Eric Languet as Truffaldino and Warren Douglas as Brighella. Even the Artistic Director was on stage as Harry leapt at the chance to play Dr. Lombardi, cavorting opposite Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone. It is true as Michelle Potter points out they did not push their luck by overplaying the farce, but reined in their comic timing which of course controls character the more impressively. Many audience veterans vote Servant as the ‘best ever’ work from RNZB repertoire. The tour proved hugely memorable for the Company for a completely different reason—they were in Berlin when the Wall came down. Dancer Turid Revfeim’s memories and descriptions of the events could and should be the subject of another full-length choreography.

In the book The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60, Veredon wrote a perceptive article, Developing New Synergies, about his numerous seasons with RNZB. His tribute to Jon Trimmer as leading dancer for decades is for the record. Veredon also shares cogent and relevant ideas for choreographic development within a ballet company, and the responsibility to keep the best of the repertoire extant. Ka hau te rangatahi—the new net goes fishing.

Jennifer Shennan, 4 July 2022

Editor’s note: This article began as a comment on the review on this website of the Australian Ballet’s production of Harlequinade but deserved to become a short article on new and old repertoire. Gray Verdon’s comments on repertoire in The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60, as mentioned above, are definitely worth reading especially the last paragraph on p. 166. More about A Servant of Two Masters and Tell me a Tale can be found in Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, pp. 147-156.

Featured image: Jon Trimmer as Pantalone with a group of Zanies in A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photo: © Martin Stewart (?). Courtesy Gray Veredon

Dance diary. May 2022

  • The Johnston Collection. On Kristian Fredrikson

My talk for Melbourne’s Johnston Collection, Kristian Fredrikson. Theatre Designer Extraordinaire, will finally take place on 22 June 2022 just one year later than scheduled. No need, I am sure, to give a reason for its earlier cancellation. I am very much looking forward to presenting this talk, which will include short extracts from some of the film productions for which Fredrikson created designs, including Undercover, which tells the story of the founding of the Berlei undergarment brand.

Further information about the talk is at this link: The Johnston Collection: What’s On.

  • Australian Ballet News

The Australian Ballet has announced a number of changes to its performing and administrative team. In May, at the end of the company’s Sydney season, ten dancers were promoted:

Jill Ogai from Soloist to Senior Artist
Nathan Brook from Soloist to Senior Artist
Imogen Chapman Soloist to Senior Artist
Rina Nemoto from Soloist to Senior Artist
Lucien Xu from Coryphée to Soloist
Mason Lovegrove from Coryphée to Soloist
Luke Marchant from Coryphée to Soloist
Katherine Sonnekus from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée
Aya Watanabe from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée
George-Murray Nightingale from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée

George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu in Graeme Murphy’s Grand. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Kate Longley

In administrative news, the chairman of the board of the Australian Ballet has announced that Libby Christie, the company’s Executive Director, will step down from the position at the end of 2022, after a tenure of close to ten years.

But the Australian Ballet will also face a difficult time in 2024 when the State Theatre at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, where the Australian Ballet performs over several months, and which it regards really as its home, will close for three years as part of the redevelopment of the arts precinct. Apparently David Hallberg is busy trying to find an alternative theatre in Melbourne. But then the company faced similar difficulties a few years ago in Sydney when the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House was unavailable as it too went through renovations. It was perhaps less than three years of closure in Sydney but the company survived then and I’m sure it will this time too.

  • And from Queensland Ballet

Queensland Ballet’s Jette Parker Young Artists, along with artistic director Li Cunxin, a group of dancers from the main company, and Christian Tátchev from Queensland Ballet Academy, will head to London any day now. The dancers will perform in the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House from 4-6 June as part of a cultural exchange between Australia and the United Kingdom. They will be taking an exciting program of three works under the title of Southern Lights. Those three works are Perfect Strangers by Jack Lister, associate choreographer with Queensland Ballet and a dancer with Australasian Dance Collective; Fallen by Natalie Weir, Queensland Ballet’s resident choreographer; and Appearance of Colour by Loughlan Prior, resident choreographer with Royal New Zealand Ballet.

In addition to the performances, Li will be joined by Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare and dancer Leanne Benjamin for an ‘In Conversation’ session, and Tátchev will conduct open classes for dancers from the Royal Ballet School

  • Not forgetting New Zealand

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has also announced a retirement. Katherine and Joseph Skelton will give their last performance with the company in June. It has been a while since I saw Royal New Zealand Ballet perform live but I have especially strong memories of Joseph Skelton dancing the peasant pas de deux with Bronte Kelly in Giselle in 2016. Both dancers are mentioned in various posts on this website. See Katherine Skelton and Joseph Skelton.

RNZB is filming the pair in the pas de deux from Giselle Act II and the film will be made available on RNZB’s Facebook page on 1 June.

  • Street names in Whitlam (a new-ish Canberra suburb)

There has been discussion at various times about naming streets in Canberra suburbs after people who are thought to be distinguished Australians. There was quite recently discussion about abandoning the process completely with complaints being made that the process was not an inclusive one, and that in particular men outnumbered women (along with several other issues). Well not so long ago I joined Julie Dyson and Lauren Honcope in helping the ACT Government select names of those connected with dance to be used as street names in the new-ish suburb of Whitlam. The suburb was named after former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the decision was to name the streets after figures who had been prominent in the arts (given Whitlam’s strong support of the arts). I looked back at what was eventually chosen (and it was for an initial stage of development of the suburb), and its seems to me that the argument that diversity was lacking is not correct (at least not in this case). The names selected for this stage included men, women, First Nations people, and people known to belong to the LGBTI… community. Some have a lovely ring to them too—Keith Bain Crest, Laurel Martyn View, Arkwookerum Street for example. I’m looking forward to what the next stage will bring.

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2022

Featured image: Still from Undercover, Palm Beach Pictures, 1982

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