Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet for the past 11 years, today announced that, due to ill health, he will retire at the end of the 2023 season. At the same time, his wife Mary Li, also with health concerns, will retire from her role as ballet mistress and principal repetiteur with the company.
Li’s contribution to the growth of Queensland Ballet has been quite exceptional. His input has included a doubling of the number of dancers in the company, which now stands at 48 artists; the development of a young artists’ scheme with the Jette Parker Young Artists Program; the growth of an Academy situated at Kelvin Grove State College; the development of the Thomas Dixon Centre as home to Queensland Ballet with the inclusion of a very accessible small theatre; the expansion of company activities to the Gold Coast; and the growth of philanthropy, touring and community activities.
His choice of repertoire has been of exceptional significance too. I have admired in particular his triple bill programs, which always give audiences a varied understanding of the range of styles and subjects that ballet can encompass.Li’s Choice in 2022 was outstanding and I described it as ‘an absolute cracker of a triple bill [showing] Li as a great director’. He has encouraged the work of Australian. choreographers, both established and emerging, and has also staged works from a range of overseas-based choreographers whose productions have not often (if ever in some cases) been seen in Australia. It is hard to forget, for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Liam Scarlett, which was created in conjunction with Royal New Zealand Ballet while that company was under the direction of Ethan Stiefel, and which will tour to Canberra in October.
But perhaps more than anything, Li (and his staff of teachers and coaches) has developed the performance standard of the company to a new level of excellence. His dancers perform with such a love of dance and such a desire to give to the audience. They show a strong and visible engagement with all aspects of a production and it is simply heartwarming to watch them.
Speaking of his retirement Li said:
I am tremendously proud of the company I see before me today. Queensland Ballet stands proudly on the world stage in performance, pathways and participation. I will never be far away but as I take this time and the organisation continues to thrive, I know I am leaving the company in a strong position. While I am very proud of the company’s growth, the major projects we have undertaken and the dreams we have fulfilled, I’m mostly proud of the fact that Queensland Ballet is completely set up for success. Our foundations are stronger than ever and I’m proud to be a part of that legacy.
Queensland Ballet will begin a search for a new director shortly.
Personal recollections I have many fond memories of Li in various of his roles from performer to artistic director. In particular I am pleased that I had the opportunity to record an oral history interview with him for the National Library of Australia in 2019 (TRC 6989 currently needing written permission to access). Vivid in my mind too is LI’s astonishing leap onto the stage in the opening moments of Jiří Kylián’s Sinfonietta with the Australian Ballet in 1997. ‘A soaring entrance,’ I wrote in Dance Australia, followed by the words ‘enthralling jumps and superbly controlled arms’. But perhaps my strongest recollection goes back to c. 1996 when Maina Gielgud was artistic director of the Australian Ballet and was extraordinarily generous in allowing me to watch company classes. I recall on several occasions Li would stay in the studio after class was officially over and practise manège after manège of spectacular grand allegro steps. He would always finish right in front of me, kneeling, and with a flourish of the arms to second position—always a showman.
Li will never retire from being a dancer at heart and I wish him and his wife every happiness in the future.
Marc Taddei, music director of Orchestra Wellington (OW), has made the band a major fixture of Wellington’s music scene. A heartily large number of subscribers means there is always a capacity audience in place and the Michael Fowler Centre is no small venue.
Typically, Taddei chooses a theme to connect the different works on any given programme. A recent one, Elemental Forces, featured the mighty Scythian Suite by Prokofiev. It was a staggering experience to hear the enlarged orchestra play the work. I was quite shocked to learn from the program note that Diaghilev had commissioned the score from Prokofiev just the year following Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, but then declined it even before the composition was finished. (No wonder Prokofiev was sometimes seen leaving Diaghilev’s office in tears). It was 1915, orchestral players were in short supply, mostly being away in the trenches, so the work was never performed and I’m not aware of any subsequent choreography being set to the music. (Diaghilev must have been out of his mind. The final movement of the suite summons a mighty sunrise—probably the most extraordinary sight any human has ever witnessed, even if we do tend to take it for granted, as in ‘the sun will rise again tomorrow’. The dancers would only have needed to start in a crouched position in the dark and to unfold to a standing position into the light, with the slowest motion humanly imaginable. Perhaps Sankai Juku could have managed that? or Cloudgate?
OW’s most recent programme, Myth & Ritual, opened with Richard Strauss’ Salome: Dance of the seven veils. Nobody danced to it—nobody needed to, the music said it all. Then a powerful work for orchestra and saxophone, Zahara, by John Psathas. The soloist, Valentine Michaud, wore a dress (creation might be a better word) that Léon Bakst would have been proud to design.
Then followed Bela Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin in which the orchestra joined forces with Orpheus Choir and with Ballet Collective Aotearoa (BCA). The Michael Fowler Centre may be a large venue but by the time an enlarged orchestra and sizeable choir are in place, there’s not a lot of room left for dancing. It was impressively resourceful then for BCA’s Turid Revfeim, artistic director, and Tabitha Dombroski, choreographic director, to place the cast of six dancers in the high choir stalls, a wide but extremely narrow space, for their playing out of the myth and ritual of this extraordinary work.
Bartok knew what he was doing, even if not everyone has seen what he could see. Note the date of composition, 1918. Whether overt or not, World War One has to be in the subtext of anything produced in Europe at that time. Despite that provenance, the work was received as a scandal and banned on moral grounds but that has not prevented its longevity as a score, even if these 105 years later it can still challenge audiences.
Four street rogues compel a woman to act as seductive target to wealthy passers-by who will then be robbed and beaten to death. One such character emerges, the Miraculous Mandarin, who dies several times, but returns to life. That role was compellingly played by Björn Aslund who faced the orchestra in defiance of the inevitable. The harlot, Mimi, was played with aplomb by Alina Kulikova, and the rough rogues—Alisha Wathen, Zoe White, Callum Phipps and James Burchell—were extraordinarily agile in their clambering through rails and seats. No need to design a set for this—it was there in the architecture of the place.
The dancers are named here because, inexplicably, they were not acknowledged in the printed program on the night— but the imagery they created will linger long in the memory.
Other than that omission, this was a remarkable night at the orchestra that became a night at the theatre. A graphic exhibition in the foyer of the life and work of Bela Bartok, supplied by the Hungarian Embassy, was an added and much appreciated feature.
There is further resonance for those who follow ballet history here that Poul Gnatt, founder of New Zealand Ballet, choreographed Miraculous Mandarin for the national ballet company in the Philippines that he helped to found in 1970s. And in mid 90s, the then artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Ashley Killar, choreographed Dark Waves to Bartok’s Music for strings, celeste and percussion. He based the ballet on a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, and gave to Jon Trimmer one of his finest roles. The work was toured to America (where it impressed the New York critics) though was never performed publicly in New Zealand. (I’d got lucky and seen a studio rehearsal before the company went on tour. They returned to find various arts agencies were trying to close the company down. Triumph to those who said No to that).
There are still a number of dancers from the original cast easily to be located, who would willingly coach a new cast. Killar is still active in the ballet world and lives in Sydney, so there’s not a lot to stop the work being staged again. It’s redolent with New Zealand provenance.
Don’t we need more than one Day?—how about a Week? New Zealand Music gets a Month. Let’s make it a Year for Dance…one day at a time. by Jennifer Shennan
How was your International Dance Week? For me…
Day One—Saturday 29 April I’m in Christchurch to see Woyzeck (which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on On Dancing)—a thrill to watch actors who move in such focussed ways, they could be dancers. Director Peter Falkenberg tells me later he works with Laban movement concepts for each actor’s character before they even get to the script. Aha, so that’s why these actors can dance.
That same day I meet up with three former students from New Zealand School of Dance — 1990s but I remember each of them very clearly, for different reasons, these three decades later. It’s heartening to hear their memories, and to learn about the enterprising ways they have since carved dance-related careers for themselves (dance teachers or Pilates tutors— the world needs more of both, so bravo)—but it breaks my heart to learn they are still carrying student loan debts of up to $60,000 from their student days! They don’t seem as fazed by the facts or the dollars as I am on their behalf, but I know I would feel crippled and unable to sleep, let alone work, let alone dance, if I was shouldering such a debt. It’s madness and has negative effects in several directions—e.g. a further colleague of theirs won’t come back to New Zealand on account of her loan, so grandparents don’t meet their grandchildren … another, with a young family, is back here but can’t get a mortgage to buy a house … another won’t take a job here since that would mean having to pay back the loan. Which political cynic choreographed this chaos of educational economics, this dance of death? [Of course we well remember which Minister of Education introduced the scheme, we just don’t want to speak his name. Australia manages a much better and fairer system apparently].
Those former students and I plan to set up a dance club around the Youth Centre that is soon to open in Christchurch. We’ll be offering 500 year old break dancing (that’s galliards to you—along with some pavans and brawls). All we know at this stage is that it will be free for participants and there will be live music. We can do this. Not all the youngsters will want to join in, but some of them will.
Day Two—Sunday 30 April I spend the day in Christchurch with Ian Lochhead, dance writer and historian, and a trustee of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts. We’re discussing suitable topics for next year’s RKL and thought we’d like to mark RNZBallet’s 70th anniversary in some meaningful way. We plan to canvas attendees widely, inviting their response to the question, ‘Which is your single standout memory of a production across the 70 years or so you’ve been watching this company? The work you recall as suiting the company uniquely and memorably?’ We’ll be intrigued to learn if our initial consensus as to which work is chosen will continue to find favour. The RKL will be a Sunday in late February 2024.
Day Three—Monday 1 May— M’Aidez. I walk on the grass and remember May Day in history … ‘the first day of May, long celebrated with various festivities, as the crowning of the May queen, dancing around the Maypole, and, in recent years, often marked by labour parades and political demonstrations.’ There’s an interesting entry on Alastair Macaulay’s website about the maypole in Black dance history. On Youtube in Ashton’s La Fille malGardée a maypole is sweet and colourful but doesn’t have the urgency that outdoor rituals can offer, and seems to taper off rather than triumph at the cadence. (The late Annette Golding, a dance educator at Wellington Teachers’ College, used to mount a very spirited Maypole on her students back in the day). I spend several hours reading the titles on the spines of Ian’s very considerable dance library. I appreciate an update on the May Day gala dance event being organised by Maryanne Meachen for a performance in Palmerston North.
Day Four—Tuesday 2 May I stay with John Cousins, composer friend, and Colleen Anstey, dancer friend, both of them tango milongueros. They had travelled to Buenos Aires for a tango festivaI a few years back but found themselves undone to learn the stories of Argentinian struggles, sufferings, deaths and disappearances. I listen to John’s very moving composition Tristeza de Corrientes with accompanying images, on the subject, and remember how no dance is isolated from the context of its community.
Day Five—Wednesday 3 May I return to Wellington, to view a filmed excerpt from Mary-Jane O’Reilly’s Giselle, which she has re-named What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? I sincerely hope MJ finds funding to complete the full-length theatre version, as this is a striking and spiky wonderful contemporary re-choreographing of a classic work that departs from, yet pays respect to, the original.
Day Six—Thursday 4 May I teach a Baroque dance lesson to a new and fired student who keeps us going at an impressive pace, and doesn’t mind appreciators watching our work. Robert Oliver, the viol player who accompanies us, is a joy to collaborate with.
I then go to Hunters & Collectors gallery for the opening of the exhibition, geist, photographs of Douglas Wright, by Tessa Ayling-Guhl, taken in 2015, but never before exhibited. They are astonishing images of this visionary dance force. Even though Douglas died in 2018, the memory of him is indelible for many. A dance performance by Björn Aslund, with Robert Oliver, is being prepared to close the exhibition.
I then go to St. James Theatre for a performance of Romeo & Juliet by Royal New Zealand Ballet, choreography by Andrea Shermoly. The role of Juliet is danced by Mayu Tanigaito who gives a beautifully tuned performance … but the real hero of the night is the conductor of New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Hamish McKeich, who leads the orchestra through the mighty and much-loved Prokofiev score, as much drama in the music as ever on stage. Not two years ago Hamish suffered a debilitating stroke leaving him with one arm and one leg seriously affected. This annoyed him as there is much he still wants to do. Hamish conducts this mighty music using just one arm and takes his curtain call from side, not centre stage as the walking stick might slow things down. If that’s not courage then nothing is.
I am reminded of the Auckland-based Touch Compass mixed-ability dance company, founded and led for years by the gifted and intrepid Catherine Chappell. As one performance ended, curtain calls over, audience readying to leave, curtain still up on an empty stage, Catherine’s voice over, ‘Would the dancers go back and help clear the stage of the various props and set please’ … a voice replies, ‘Oh but I’ve only got one arm. ..’ Catherine replies, ’Then that’s the one to use, isn’t it.’ Indeed it is.
Day Seven—Friday 5 May I attend the funeral of the much-loved Margaret Nielsen, pianist and champion of New Zealand composers’ work. Margaret died close to 90, ‘ready to go now as I’ve selected all the music I want at my funeral.’ Many beautiful songs later, came the excerpt from her colleague David Farquhar’s Ring Around the Moon suite—composed as incidental music for a play in 1953—the year of the Queen’s coronation, the ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary, and the founding of New Zealand Ballet by Poul Gnatt. Harry Haythorne used this music to stage the 30th Anniversary Gala—in 1983—everyone from the Company and the School onstage, dressed in swirling blue and dancing every spirited beat. Poul entered last and strode down centre stage, purposefully stepping on the off-beat. When Edmund Hillary was asked what is the essential attribute of a leader, he replied, ‘Well, involve everyone in the team, but the Leader has to have a Plan B.’ Poul always had a Plan B.
Margaret had chosen the Waltz and the Tango from Farquhar’s music. I ask myself—What else is there?
I come home to watch the choreography of the royal procession of the Coronation, and was especially impressed by the troupe of musicians mounted on horseback, playing their instruments and guiding the horses with their ankles and heels. Look, no hands! And there were Black gospel singers who (nearly) danced inside Westminster Abbey. It’s been a while since anyone danced in that Abbey I think.
Every day is Dance Day. That was my Dance Week. How about yours?
Jennifer Shennan, 8 May 2023
Featured image: Poster for Tessa Ayling-Guhl’s exhibition of her photographs of Douglas Wright, 2023. Image courtesy of Tessa Ayling-Guhl
The featured image for this post shows dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet in rehearsal for a new work from Loughlan Prior, Woman of Words, which will have its premiere at the Wanaka Festival of Colour with two performances on 27 March 2023. Woman of Words focuses on the career of New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, and in a recent newsletter Prior writes:
Mansfield played a central role in modern literature by experimenting with style, subject matter and theme, with the analysis of anxiety, sexuality and existentialism embroiled within her writing. In remining true to her brilliant and singular voice, she created a body of work that redefined the genre.
Katherine’s intense, captivating and all too short a life is brought to the stage using integrated text and sound design in collaboration with award winning editor Matthew Lambourn. Beginning with her early years growing up in Wellington, to the height of London bohemia and the Bloomsbury group, to her death at the age of thirty-four, Woman of Words celebrates Katherine’s winding journey and her passion for creativity, love and life.
See this link for more about Loughlan Prior. And if Prior’s recent works are anything to go by, Woman of Words will be a courageous production.
But to my surprise (and pleasure), I was reminded that another choreographer is looking at a woman writer as the subject of a new dance work, this time for Queensland Ballet. British-born Cathy Marston is preparing a one act ballet that focuses on the work of Australian writer Miles Franklin (full name Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin). It will premiere in Brisbane on 16 June as part of a triple bill season named Trilogy. Marston has been called a ‘narrative ballet choreographer’ so it will be interesting to see how the narrative unfolds in My Brilliant Career. But two women writers as subject matter within the space of just a few months has to be somewhat remarkable!
For more about Cathy Marston and the development of My Brilliant Career, see this link from Queensland Ballet. Another link will take you to an interview with set and costume designer for My Brilliant Career, David Fleischer.
Russell Kerr Lecture 2023
From my colleague Jennifer Shennan, here is the news about the next Russell Kerr Lecture.
The fifth Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts will focus on Patricia Rianne, New Zealand dancer, choreographer and teacher with an extended career both here and abroad. She was a member of New Zealand Ballet, Ballet de l’Opéra de Marseilles, Ballet Rambert (in its new guise after Norman Morrice took over the directorship from Marie Rambert), Scottish Ballet, and was memorably partnered by Rudolf Nureyev, Peter Schaufuss, Ivan Nagy and Jon Trimmer. Trisha staged classic productions and choreographed for RNZ Ballet, also in China and Hong Kong, and taught at NZSchool of Dance and London School of Contemporary Dance. Her choreography for RNZB, Bliss, inspired by the story by Katherine Mansfield, will also feature within the lecture.
Sunday 4.00—6.00pm, 26 February 2023 The Long Hall, Roseneath, Wellington. email email@example.com for registration
News from James Batchelor
It is always interesting to hear James Batchelor’s latest news as he traverses the world making work. In 2023, however, in addition to being in Europe on several occasions, he has a number of engagements in Australia, especially in Canberra and Melbourne. He lists the following as ‘upcoming in 2023’:
Performances of Deepspace and Hyperspace in Europe soon to be announced.
Performances of Shortcuts to Familiar Places in Ngunnawal Country/Canberra and Naarm/Melbourne.
Long-form workshop and creation for Canberra Dance Theatre.
New creation with students from the Victorian College of the Arts.
Residencies in Turin, Potsdam and Nîmes for research and development of collaboration Echo Field with Arad Inbar and Leeza Pritychenko.
New creation with Norrdans in Sweden.
Below is a brief trailer for Shortcuts to Familiar Places, a work in which Batchelor explores a movement lineage through his childhood dance teacher Ruth Osborne to the modern dance pioneer Gertrud Bodenwieser.
Talking to Shaun Parker
Just recently I had the pleasure of talking to Shaun Parker about his return season of KING to take place at the Seymour Centre from 24 February to 4 March as part of Sydney WorldPride. I am planning to include a longer website post ‘Talking to Shaun Parker’ in February.
‘Once a dancer, always a dancer’ is a phrase that springs to mind when looking at how David McAllister is managing retirement after serving for two decades as artistic director of the Australian Ballet. Since leaving that directorship role at the end of 2020, McAllister has published Soar, his autobiography; created a new Swan Lake for the Finnish National Ballet; been honoured with various awards; and taught for many organisations and dance schools across Australia (amongst a variety of other activities).
But the most recent news is perhaps the most interesting of all his recent engagements. In a commission that he has described as ‘an exciting retirement opportunity’, he will act as interim artistic director for the Wellington-based Royal New Zealand Ballet until a replacement is chosen to take over from Patricia Barker, who has announced her retirement. McAllister will take up the role early in March. Barker will return to the United States following the regional tour, Tutus on Tour, which concludes on 12 March.
Barker’s retirement comes at a significant point in RNZB’s history. The year 2023 is the 70th anniversary of the company’s foundation in 1953 by Poul Gnatt. Over those 70 years, and looking at the book The Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60 (edited by Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse), it is clear that the company has appointed directors from around the world. But was the last New Zealander to hold the post really Bryan Ashbridge in 1971? One wonders if, in celebration of the company’s stellar history, it is an appropriate time to appoint once more a New Zealander as director? Time will tell and, in the meantime, I’m sure McAllister will do a terrific job and will be admired by all involved. Interesting times for dance in New Zealand.
In 2022 I managed to see more live performances than I did in 2021. I was even able to get to New Zealand to see Loughlan Prior’s Cinderella. There were still a number of online offerings to add to the year’s viewing of course, and online watching has become part of my life I think.
As I did in 2021, I have chosen just five performances as my highlights for 2022, and the pluses and minuses experienced in 2021 were pretty much the same in 2022: difficulties resulting from choosing such a small number, but the advantage of having to focus strongly on what defines for me an outstanding work.
Below are my ‘top five’ productions for 2022, arranged chronologically according to the date of performance. I have included a link to my review in each case and have simply included in this post the main reason why I chose each work. All posts refer to live performances.
LESS (Canberra. Australian Dance Party, March)
LESS was a brilliant collaborative endeavour, and an outstanding site-specific work, the ongoing focus of Australian Dance Party. Here is the link to the review.
(As a Canberra-based writer I also chose LESS as my highlight for 2022 for Dance Australia and my comments should appear in that magazine soon).
Kunstkamer (Sydney. The Australian Ballet, May)
Kunstkamer was an outstanding work that showed the Australian Ballet and its dancers in a totally new light. Here is the link to the review.
Li’s Choice (Brisbane. Queensland Ballet, June)
Li’s choice showed the exceptional diversity of Queensland Ballet’s dancers and the equally exceptional directorship of Li Cunxin and his support staff. Here is the link to the review.
Galileo (Parramatta. Sydney Choreographic Ensemble, June)
Francesco Ventriglia skilfully demonstrated how choreography can convey a huge range of ideas and while doing so make a totally absorbing and focused work. Here is the link to the review.
Cinderella (Auckland. Royal New Zealand Ballet, August)
Loughlan Prior gave his Cinderella a setting and storyline that was a courageous and totally unexpected look at a well-worn story, Here is the link to the review, and another link to an interview with Loughlan Prior in which he talks about Cinderella.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.