Russell Kerr (1930–2022) Scripting the Dreams

This is an expanded version of an obituary written by Jennifer Shennan and published in The Dominion Post online on 2 April 2022.

Russell Kerr, leading light of ballet in New Zealand, has died in Christchurch aged 92. The legendary dancer, teacher, choreographer and producer influenced generations of New Zealand dancers. Kerr’s hallmark talent was to absorb music so as to draw out character, narrative, human interest, emotion, poetry and comedy that ballet in the theatre can offer. Thrusting your leg high in the air, or even behind your head, just because you can, is the empty gesture of perfunctory performance that he found exasperating. Shouting and sneering at dancers, telling them they are not good enough, was anathema to him. One dancer commented, ‘Mr Kerr always treated you as an artist so you behaved like one.’

Born in Auckland in 1930, the younger of two sons, Russell was already learning piano from his mother, a qualified teacher, when a doctor recommended dance classes to strengthen against the rheumatoid arthritis that ailed the child. Did that doctor follow the remarkable career that ensued from his advice?  Years later Russell was asked if it was difficult, back then, to be the only boy in a ballet school of girl pupils? He chuckled, ‘Oh no, it was marvellous—there I was in a room full of girls and no competition for their attention. It was great fun.’

Kerr made impressive progress both in dancing and piano, achieving LTCL level, then starting to teach. He could have been a musician, but dancing won out when in 1951 he was awarded a Government bursary to study abroad. In London he trained at Sadler’s Wells, with Stanislaw Idzikowski (a dancer in both Pavlova’s and Diaghilev’s companies), and also Spanish dance with Elsa Brunelleschi. Upon her advice and just for the experience, he went to an audition at the leading flamenco company of José Greco. Flamenco would be one of the world’s most demanding dance forms, both technically and musically. Remarkably, he was offered the job, providing he changed his name to Rubio Caro! How fitting that Kerr’s first contract was as a dancing musician. When asked later how he’d managed it he replied, ‘Oh, I just followed the others.’

Russell Kerr in 1951 shortly before leaving for England

After a time, Sadler’s Wells’ leading choreographer, Frederick Ashton, declared Russell’s body not suitably shaped for ballet. ‘I’ll show you’ he muttered to himself, and so he did. In a performance of Alice in Wonderland, he scored recognition in a review (‘Kerr’s performance as a snail was so lifelike you could almost see the slimy trail he left behind as he crossed the stage.’ As he later pointed out, ‘not many dancers are complimented in review for their slimy trails’). A sense of humour and irony was always hovering.

Kerr danced with Ballet Rambert, and was encouraged towards choreography by director Marie Rambert. Later he joined Festival Ballet, rising to the rank of soloist, earning recognition for his performances in Schéhérazade, Prince Igor, Coppélia, Petrouchka among others. Nicholas Beriosov had been regisseur to choreographer Fokine in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Kerr’s work with him at Festival Ballet lent a pedigree to his later productions from that repertoire as attuned and authentic as any in the world.

The investment of his Government bursary was exponentially repaid when Russell, now married to dancer June Greenhalgh, returned to New Zealand in 1957. He told me he spent the ship’s entire journey sitting in a deck chair planning how to establish a ballet company that might in time become a national one. Upon arrival he was astonished to learn that Poul Gnatt, formerly with Royal Danish Ballet, had already formed the New Zealand Ballet and, thanks to Community Arts Service and Friends of the Ballet since 1953, ‘…they were touring to places in my country I’d never even heard of. So I ditched my plans and Poul and I found a way to work together.’

Kerr became partner and later director of Nettleton-Edwards-Kerr school of ballet in Auckland. (I was an 11 year old pupil there. It was obvious that Mr Kerr was a fine teacher, encouraging aspiration though not competition. We became friends for life). Auckland Ballet Theatre had existed for some years but Kerr built up its size and reputation, staging over 30 productions. Perhaps the highlight of these was a season of Swan Lake on a stage on Western Springs lake. He produced a series, Background to Ballet, for Television New Zealand in its first year of broadcasting, and also choreographed many productions for Frank Poore’s Light Opera Company.

In 1959, New Zealand Ballet and Auckland Ballet Theatre combined in the United Ballet Season, involving dancers June Greenhalgh, Rowena Jackson, Philip Chatfield, Sara Neil and others. The program included Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor to Borodin’s sensuous score, and Prismatic Variations, co-choreographed by Kerr and Gnatt, to Brahms’ glorious St Anthony Chorale. Music as well as dance audiences in Auckland were astonished, and the triumphant season was repeated with equal success the following year in Wellington, when Anne Rowse joined the cast.

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960
June Greenhalgh and Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations, 1960. Photo: © John Ashton

In 1960 a trust to oversee the New Zealand Ballet’s future was formed, and by 1962 Kerr was appointed Artistic Director. His stagings of classics—Giselle, Swan Lake, La Sylphide, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Coppélia, Les Sylphides, Schéhérazade—were balanced with new works, including the mysterious Charade, and whimsical One in Five. Kerr used compositions by Greig, Prokofiev, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Copland for his own prolific choreographic output—Concerto, Alice in Wonderland, Carnival of the Animals, Peter and the Wolf, The Alchemist, The Stranger. In 1964 he invited New Zealander Alexander Grant who had an established reputation as a character dancer with England’s Royal Ballet, to perform the lead role in Petrouchka, a superb production that alone would have earned Kerr worldwide recognition.

A fire at the company headquarters in 1967 meant a disastrous loss of sets and costumes that only added to the colossal demands of running the company on close to a shoestring budget. Kerr’s health was in an extremely parlous state. In 1969 Gnatt returned from Australia and as interim director, with the redoubtable Beatrice Ashton as manager, kept the company on the road.

Russell had worked closely with Jon Trimmer, the country’s leading dancer, and his wife Jacqui Oswald, dancer and ballet mistress. They later joined him at the New Zealand Dance Centre he had established in Auckland, developing an interesting new repertoire. The Trimmers remember, ‘…Russell would send us out into the park, the street or the zoo, to watch people and animals, study their gait and gestures, to bring character to our roles.’  Kerr also mentored and choreographed for Limbs Dance Company. The NZDC operated until 1977, though these were impecunious and difficult years for the Kerr family. But courage and the sticking place were found, and Russell, as always, let music be his guide.

In 1978 he was appointed director at Southern Ballet Theatre, which proved lucky for Christchurch as he stayed there until 1990, later working with Sherilyn Kennedy and Carl Myers. In 1983 Harry Haythorne as NZB’s artistic director invited all previous directors to contribute to a gala season to mark the company’s 30th anniversary. Kerr’s satirical Salute, to Ibert, had Jon Trimmer cavorting as a high and heady Louis XIV.

His two lively ballets for children, based on stories by author-illustrator Gavin Bishop—Terrible Tom and Te Maia and the Sea Devil—proved highly successful, but there was a whole new chapter in Kerr’s career awaiting. After Scripting the Dreams, with composer Philip Norman, he made the full-length ballet, A Christmas Carol, a poignant staging alive with characters from Dickens’ novel, with design by Peter Lees-Jeffries. (The later production at RNZB had new design by Kristian Fredrikson).

Possibly the triumph of Kerr’s choreographies, and certainly one of RNZB’s best, was Peter Pan, again with Norman and Fredrikson, with memorable performances by Jon Trimmer as an alluring Captain Hook, Shannon Dawson as the dim-witted Pirate Smee, and Jane Turner an exquisite mercurial Tinkerbell.

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

His sensitively nuanced productions of Swan Lake became benchmarks of the ever-renewing classic that deals with mortality and grief.

Russell Kerr rehearsing 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl
Russell Kerr rehearsing ‘Swan Lake’. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl

Leading New Zealand dancers who credit Russell for his formative mentoring include Patricia Rianne, whose Nutcracker and Bliss, after Katherine Mansfield, are evidence of her claim, ‘I never worked with a better or more musical dance mind.’ Among many others are Rosemary Johnston, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Dawn Sanders, Martin James, Geordan Wilcox, Jane Turner, Diana Shand, Turid Revfeim, Shannon Dawson, Toby Behan—through to Abigail Boyle and Loughlan Prior.

An unprecedented season happened in 1993 when Russell cast Douglas Wright, the country’s leading contemporary dancer, in the title role of Petrouchka. He claimed Wright’s performances challenged the legendary Nijinsky.

An annual series named in his honour, The Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, saw the 2021 session about his own life and career movingly delivered by his lifelong colleague and friend, Anne Rowse. The lecture was graced by a dance, Journey, that Russell had choreographed for two Japanese students who came to study with him. It would be the last performance of his work, the more poignant for that.

Russell was writing his memoirs in the last few years, admitting the struggle but determined to keep going. He said, ‘Writing about my problem with drink is going to be a very difficult chapter.’ Russell had told Brian Edwards in a memorable radio interview decades back, of the exhausting time when his colossal work commitments had driven him ‘to think that the solution to every problem lay in the bottom of the bottle.’  He eventually managed to turn that around and thereafter remained teetotal for life—but by admitting it on national radio, he was offering hope to anyone with a similar burden, himself proof that there is a way out of darkness.

He viewed the sunrise as an invitation to do something with the day. He would bring June a cup of tea but not let her drink it till she had greeted the sun. Recently he took great joy in seeing photos of my baby granddaughter, rejoicing to be reminded of the hope a new life brings to a family.

Russell concurred with the sentiment expressed in Jo Thorpe’s fine poem, The dance writer’s dilemma (reproduced in Royal New Zealand Ballet at 60):

… the thing…
which has nothing to do with epitaph
which has nothing to do with stone.
I just know I walk differently
out into  air
because of what dance does sometimes.

Russell Kerr was a good and decent family man, loyal friend, master teacher and choreographer, proud of his work but modest by nature, resourceful and determined by personality, honest in communication, distressed by unkindness, a leader by example. A phenomenal and irreplaceable talent, he was a very great New Zealander. 

He is survived by son David, daughter Yvette and their families.

Russell Kerr photographed in 2007

Russell Ian Kerr, QSM, ONZM, Arts Foundation Icon
Born Auckland 10 February 1930
Married June, née Greenhalgh, one son (David), one daughter(Yvette)
Died.Christchurch 28 March, 2022

Sources: David Kerr, Anne Rowse, Jon Trimmer, Patricia Rianne, Rosemary Buchanan, Martin James, Mary-Jane O’Reilly, Ou Lu.

Jennifer Shennan, 3 April 2022

Featured image: Russell Kerr as director of Southern Ballet in 1983

Dance diary. March 2022

  • Anna Karenina. The Australian Ballet

During March I watched a streamed showing of Anna Karenina from the Australian Ballet. Choreographed by Ukrainian-born choreographer (currently resident in the United States) Yuri Possokhov, this production of Anna Karenina premiered in 2021 in Adelaide with just a few performances, but its presentation in other States had to be cancelled, and cancelled, until March 2022 when it opened in Melbourne.

I was struck more than anything by the spectacular set design (Tom Pye), which for the most part was quite minimal but nevertheless evocative, and which frequently moved seamlessly to new features as locations changed. But I found the lighting (David Finn) quite dark for most of the production, with the major exception being the peasant-style ending, which I’m not sure was an essential part of the story to tell the truth. I’m not sure either if the consuming darkness was more a result of the streaming situation or part of the overall production. But the darkness was annoying.

There were some strong performances from Robyn Hendricks as Anna and Callum Linnane as Vronsky but perhaps the strongest characterisations came from Benedicte Bemet as Kitty and Brett Chynoweth as Levin. But I am not sure that this production is ideal for streaming and I am looking forward to seeing it live in Sydney in April.

Bendicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth in Anna Karenina. The Australia Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

But on the issue of the history of productions based on the Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina, I recently came across a ’Stage Direction’ article by Stephen A. Russell published on the website of the Sydney Opera House. It gave an interesting, short introduction to the variety of ways in which the novel has been used in a theatrical manner. The article is currently available at this link, although may not be there for the long term.

  • Henry Danton (1919-2022)

The death of leading dance personality Henry Danton was announced back in February. Read the obituary by Jane Pritchard published in The Guardian at this link.

Henry Danton also played a significant role in the growth of professional ballet in Australia. He was a guest artist with the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet over several years and during that time consistently partnered Lynne Golding, including in the National’s full-length production of Swan Lake and in Protée, staged for the company by Ballets Russes dancer Kira Bousloff before she moved to Perth to establish West Australian Ballet.

  • Bangarra Dance Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre recently announced the departure from the company of three dancers, wonderful artists who have given audiences so much pleasure in recent productions. Baden Hitchcock, Rika Hamaguchi and Bradley Smith have left the company to pursue other options. All three are beautiful dancers and I’m sure their future careers will continue to give us pleasure.

Rika Hamaguchi in the final scene from SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Other news from Bangarra is that the company’s children’s show Waru—journey of the small turtle, cancelled last year due to COVID, will be coming to the stage later this year. Conceived and created by Stephen Page and Hunter Page-Lochard, along with former Bangarra dancers and choreographers Sani Townson and Elma Kris, Waru tells the story of Migi the turtle who navigates her way back to the island where she was born. Waru is on in Sydney from 24 September to 9 October 2022 in the Studio Theatre at Bangarra’s premises at Walsh Bay.

  • Russell Kerr (1930-2022)

Prominent New Zealand dance personality Russell Kerr died in Christchurch earlier this month. Read an obituary with a great range of images at this link. I am expecting an obituary from his close friend and colleague Jennifer Shennan shortly and will publish it on this site when received. For further material on Russell Kerr and his activities on this website follow this tag.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2022

Featured image: Robyn Hendricks as Anna and Callum Linnane as Vronsky in Anna Karenina. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

New Zealand Dance Highlights 2021

by Jennifer Shennan

The year everywhere saw curtailment of a number of dance events but the resilience in dancers’ responses still gave us plenty of highlights to savour …

Ballet Collective Aotearoa launched its long-awaited premiere season, Subtle Dances, in the Auckland and Dunedin Arts Festivals early in the year. Artistic direction of BCA by Turid Revfeim, to establish a new national independent ballet enterprise, is supported by her troupe’s pioneering and committed spirit that refuses to let funding challenges affect their vision, as further festival bookings eventuate and new sponsorship initiatives are waiting in the wings. BCA achieved an outstanding professional level of dance and music presentation with this triple-bill that premiered choreographies by Sarah Knox, Cameron Macmillan and Loughlan Prior, in collaboration with the New Zealand String Trio, who played onstage throughout. This was chamber performance of the highest order, and impressive that the two arts could bring such coherence to a triple-bill. It was further affirmation to see Abigail Boyle, nationally treasured dancer, performing at her peak. Young company member Kit Reilly is one to watch out for (he has recently received the inaugural Bill Sheat Memorial Award for a dancer prepared to commit to New Zealand identity in their career).

Later in the year Loughlan Prior achieved what is arguably his finest choreography—Transfigured Night, beautifully themed to the Schoenberg score, performed by New Zealand String Quartet in a NZChamber Music national tour, in an impressive staging where musicians and dancers again shared the stage space. The calibre of choreography, fine dancers and fabulous musicians ensured that the totality was greater than the sum of its considerable parts. That doesn’t happen just by cutting the stage into two halves, but grows out of the skill and vision of the choreographer, and willingness of the musicians to take risks (NZSQ have always been up for that). Laura Saxon Jones, another much valued New Zealand dancer, was here in her prime, as Prior, who knows her work well, intuited exactly how to create a searingly memorable role for her. Thanks to inspired set and costume design by William Fitzgerald (who also danced in the work), the unlikely space of the Fowler Centre was transformed into a grail of poignant and poetic beauty. At the end, audience members, primarily music followers, were either on their feet or reduced to tears by this outstanding work, which would hold its strength in any venue worldwide. Perhaps it is music audiences that will enlarge a future following for dance as they find music treated with equal respect as choreography, without distracting interruptions of shouting and whistling that haul balletic virtuosity out of the context of choreography (as though dancers need encouragement to tackle the next entrechat or pirouette).

Lucy Marinkovich brought her remarkable Strasbourg 1518 back to Circa Theatre after its premiere season there was cut short last year. It remains the most powerful experience of dance theatre seen here in a very long time, and its Auckland season also made huge and visceral impact. Lucien Johnson’s sound design plus saxophone drove the performers into the stratosphere. I remember the narrator from the original production, France Hervé, for the remarkable transition within her role that edged its way through the performance. No easy way to turn that alchemy into words.    

Bianca Hyslop choreographed and Rowan Pierce designed Pohutu, performed for the Toi Poneke gallery, a highly effective setting for a work of empathy with unfolding references to both geographical landscape and mental inscape.

The New Zealand School of Dance graduation offered a program of interesting contrasts within the classical and contemporary vocabularies, and I felt thrilled to encounter the  choreographic instinct and potential of Tabitha Dombrowski’s new work, Reset Run.

Scene from Tabitha Dombrowski’s Reset Rerun, New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Vivek Kinra’s company Mudra presented Navarasa, to his customary highest standard of Bharata Natyam, a consistent contribution to Wellington’s artistic life for decades. One of my favourite things is to observe a dance class, to sight the seeds planted that over time grow into performance. It’s one of the ways to prepare for the privilege of writing about dance in its ephemeral, enduring path. Kinra is one of the most naturally gifted dance teachers across all genres in Wellington, in his command of discipline that is shared with, but not imposed upon, his students. In this Indian dance form there is a wonderful continuity between studio and stage which offers a cleansing and rewarding experience.

I attended a spirited gathering at Parliament, where a book documenting the Irish population resident in New Zealand was launched. Every address was laced with a song, as we are so accustomed to in Maori whaikōrero (oratory) and following waiata (song) but it was especially apparent here that Celtic dance is as readily available as song, poetry, literature, instrumental music—fiddle and pipes—as affirmations in Irish communication. No choreographer to be named here—just dancing from the heart.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s restaging of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream  brought us many poignant reminders of the premiere season in 2016 and its stellar cast. Previous artistic director Ethan Stiefel had initially proposed and negotiated with Queensland Ballet for the two companies to share a series of productions, which was a truly exciting prospect. Queensland Ballet did mount A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016 but after that, unfortunately, the project did not proceed further. But the calibre of choreography and design (Tracy Grant Lord) of Dream remains intact. It was Scarlett’s masterstroke to frame the plot with a prologue of the young child caught between fractious parents yet resolved by the epilogue, hence the genius to telescope a 500 year old theme into contemporary society. That Liam Scarlett died at 35, earlier this year, is something that Shakespeare, in heartbreaking tragedy, would be challenged to account for.

I watched on Sky Arts several sizzling programs of documentary/performance by Flamenco artists, memorably Rocio Molina. The best-made dance films for my eye are those of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, superb record of the company’s prolific repertoire in perpetuity, and their viewings always prompt me to send a message to everyone in my contacts list to watch if at all possible. 

Dance reading helped fill some of the quieter stretches of the year—Michel Meylac on Russian Ballet emigrés was exactly what it claimed—whereas I found totally delightful surprise, when reading the fresh and fabulous Zadie Smith—Feel Free—to happen upon her essay Dance Lessons for Writers, in which she brilliantly couples and compares Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly … ‘aristocracy v. proletariat…the floating and the grounded …’; Harold Nicholas & Fayard Nicholas … ‘propriety and joy, choose joy…’; Michael Jackson & Prince; Janet Jackson, Madonna, Beyoncé; David Byrne & David Bowie; Rudolf Nureyev & Mikhail Baryshnikov… ‘the one dancer faced resolutely inwards, the other is an outward-facing —artist…’.  It’s heartening to find such perceptive analysis from a writer who is not exclusively describing dance performances, but who can trace and evaluate how these technical and aesthetic qualities resonate with the rest of our experiences.

For the fourth Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, Anne Rowse brought her own 90 years alongside her decades of friendship with 91 year old Russell Kerr to trace their parallel careers—and what fabulously sustained careers those have been. The event was coupled with a celebration of Michelle Potter’s book, Kristian Fredrikson, Designer, generously supported by the Australian High Commission.  

The same event also saw the launch of DNA—Dance Needs Attention, a networking enterprise to invite artistic associates to support each other as individuals in independent dance studies and writing projects. Among early tasks was the opportunity for me to read the manuscript of associate Ashley Killar’s forthcoming biography of John Cranko—a fascinating read and one certainly to watch out for.   

2022 will see Patricia Rianne, in the fifth lecture of the RKL series, trace her own life and  career—including the ballet, Bliss, that she choreographed after a Katherine Mansfield story, for New Zealand Ballet in 1986. There will be several seminars throughout following months in which we will celebrate Poul Gnatt’s arrival in New Zealand in 1952, when he first taught open classes in Auckland as the Borovansky Ballet toured here, before he founded the New Zealand Ballet the following year.

May we all be safe and sound through 2022… 100 years since James Joyce published Ulysees, TS Eliot published The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf is writing, Katherine Mansfield is writing… and Sergei Diaghilev invited Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Erik Satie and Clive Bell to dine together in Paris at the Majestic hotel. Wonder what was on the menu that night. Choreographic scenario, anyone?

Jennifer Shennan, 21 December 2021

Featured image: Scene from Helix in Subtle Dances, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

New Zealand School of Dance. Graduation 2021

22 November 2021. Te Whaea, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The Graduation season of NZSD is always a spirited one and, despite numerous disruptions to the year, this 2021 program of nine short works is an outstanding testament to resilience and determination, qualities that dancers are noted for. Such things can be infectious, all to the good since the world needs more of both. It’s the elevation—the leaping, the jumping, the flying, the jeté, the sauté, the entrechat, the gravity-defying stuff that I’m talking about (—the things dancers in retirement tell you they miss the most. It’s metaphor. Normal humans don’t jump, they just walk and maybe run, as common sense dictates they should, so younger dancers are needed to keep the elevation going. If you agree, read on. If you don’t, I’m not sure I can help].

The opening piece, a perfect curtain-raiser, is the Waltz from Act I of Swan Lake, from Russell Kerr’s renowned production for RNZB some decades back, remembered for the integrity of its staging. Swan Lake is not just about the dancing, it’s a story-ballet about love and loss, and the price to be paid for a mistake. Fundamentally it’s a ballet about grief. Kerr has always known how to fully harness the dramatic power of full-length ballets in the theatre, something many attempt but few achieve. He is the consummate force, call that kaumatua, of ballet in New Zealand, and is only aged 91 so there’s time for us to appreciate him yet. RNZB will next year bring back his production of Swan Lake. I remember the closing cameo of its final scene, the cumulative effect of all four preceding acts, a product of Kerr’s humanity and humility, and I have lived by it ever since. This excerpt was staged by Turid Revfeim, a legendary alumna of NZSD, who brought her typical sensibility and acumen to create the enthusiasm and atmosphere of a 21 year old’s birthday party for us all to share. There’s a lot can go wrong at a 21st birthday of course (and the full-length ballet follows through with that) but here it’s a huge bouquet of fragrant roses as a gift for a birthday celebration. Who’s going to say No Thanks to that on the night? Salute to Tchaikovsky, Russell Kerr and Turid Revfeim, to every dancer, and to everyone in the audience since we’ve all been invited to the party, so to speak.  

Reset Run, by Tabitha Dombrowksi, lists music by Bach, by Kit Reilly, and by Ravel. I am familiar with Dombrowski as a fine and focussed dancer (earlier in the year she was in the cast of Ballet Collective Aotearoa’s memorable season, and also in Loughlan Prior’s stunning Transfigured Night) but I have not hitherto seen her choreography. It proves a revelation. My anticipation is usually on reserve when several musics for a single choreography are involved, since that might mean fragmentation instead of the coherence that a single composition can support. I need not have worried. Lines, patterns, the front view or the back of each dancer, are thoughtfully modulated to balance light and dark. The cast of eight dancers are in black gear, a white stripe down each arm, and a large oval cut out from the back, allowing light from the shadows to shine on skin. The true choreographic strength, maintained throughout, makes each move consequent from the one before it and gives rise to the one that follows. An initial line-up of couples then become a single couple, then become a group. That beautifully built transition transports me back not 24 hours when I’d watched the magnificent and beautiful lunar eclipse in the night sky. No mean feat to evoke that choreography.

Classical Ballet Students in Tabitha Dombroski’s Reset Run. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The following work could not have made greater contrast. Dust Bunny, a ziggy number choreographed by Matt Roffe, is an excerpt from his full-length work Cotton Tail. In cabaret mode, it urges all rabbits to run from the farmer’s gun. Some escape, but of course some do not. The animal rights issue here is poignant and well played but I did wonder if some kind of mask or head covering would help the animal representation.

Airu Matsuda and Jemima Smith in Matt Roffe’s  Dust Bunny. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Lucy Marinkovich always develops her work from researched and specific themes.  Lost + Found offers a meditation on time, and the ephemeral life of a dance. The opening section, effective in silence, captures both linear and circular time.  Further sections layer unison and canon in movement, to the piano music of Jonathan Crayford with atmospheric overtones designed by Lucien Johnson. The climax is a wild and wonderful whirling blur after the manner of dervishes, in the timeless invoking for grace to descend from on high. Where does a dance go when it is no longer being performed? That question is echoed in St.Augustine’s words—’What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I do not know.’  A pointed theme for dance… the most ephemeral of performance arts.

Madelet Sanli, Persia Thor-Poet, Stela Albuquerque and Miriam Joyce in Lucy Marinkovich’s – Lost + Found. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Loughlan Prior, an experienced choreographer with a continually expanding career, made Time Weaver, to music by Philip Glass. A couple dances patterns and lines, holding positions with striking shapes of two bodies, rather than communicating an emotionally engaging pas de deux of the conventional order. The dance comes to seem like the slow-motion capture of an exquisite flower opening—lotus, passionfruit, desert cactus, water lily perhaps—such as David Attenborough would be pleased to have commissioned.

Louise Camelbeke & Zachary Healy in Loughlan Prior's 'Time Weaver'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy in Loughlan Prior’s Time Weaver. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Somewhat Physical by Jeremy Beck rocks with comic satire, but has a serious underpinning. A rambunctious rendering of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie is resisted by the large group of eleven dancers who stand folded over with arms hanging down. Imperceptibly slowly they unfold to an upstanding position. End of music, bows and applause, thanks for nothing. Chairs are brought in and the dancers set themselves up as an audience. What does that make us? Further sections contain music (Vivaldi, Purcell, Mozart) and movement jokes that question the conventional relationships between what’s seen and what’s heard. The last section seems like a scene from the classic film Allegro Ma non Troppo, with dancers assembled as an orchestra of musicians, flinging their arms off, dancing their hearts out, striking their strings and pounding their percussion. Rossini, Vivaldi, Purcell and Mozart would have loved it—well, it’s for sure at least Mozart would have.      

The Bach by Michael Parmenter, to the opening chorus of Bach’s Easter Cantata, is here in an excerpt (from the original made for Unitec season in 2002, and also performed by NZSD in 2006—apart from Swan Lake it’s the only work not a premiere on this programme.) Its presence here answers that question about where a dance goes when it’s not being performed. In this case it resides, it hides, within the music, poised and ready to explode as soon as the music begins—’to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection.’ Fifteen dancers fill the stage with that joy, spiritual and/or religious, and deliver all the moves of a masterwork. You’d want to study this dance for the art and craft of choreography at its best.

In complete contrast follows So You’ll Never Have to Wear a Concrete Dressing Gown, by Eliza Sanders. An experimental piece, constructed in motifs from images in poems penned by the participating dancers. There is further self-referencing in that each dancer wears a shirt imprinted with the face of a class-mate, in a potentially interesting theme. The faces are distorted when the hands of the dancers are placed on the shirts which I find a little disconcerting—and I wait for the wearer and the face to connect during the dance, though that does not happen. This is an enigmatic work not wanting to follow obvious conventions.

Nexus, by Shaun James Kelly, to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, depicts dancers learning and assembling sequences from classical vocabulary, with frequent motifs of sliding and gliding footwork delivered at speed. I see echoes of Lander’s Etudes, which suits the theme of dancers presenting the movement elements of their art form. In that sense it makes a suitable finale to a Graduation program, though it is the vibes of Parmenter’s work that are still hanging in the air as we dash through the rain to the car park. It’s raining—who cares? We’re dancing. 

Jennifer Shennan, 22 November 2021

Featured image: Contemporary Dance Students in Jeremy Beck’s – Somewhat Physical. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Many Happy (re)Turns

By Jennifer Shennan

Anne Rowse is a well-known and much-loved figure in the New Zealand dance scene. Her 90th birthday was recently celebrated in style at several events in her home town of Wellington, and at a family gathering at Queenstown in the following days. London called in long-distance, as did many colleagues and former students from a global spread of cities. 

Anne had early ballet training in New Zealand, continued that in London, then had a performance career with Festival Ballet between 1952 and 1960, when she danced alongside fellow New Zealander Russell Kerr. She retired from performing and returned home with husband Ken Sudell to start a family. After some years she commenced teaching and in 1979 was appointed Director of the National School of Ballet, in 1982 re-named New Zealand School of Dance to mark the introduction of contemporary dance as well as teacher-training courses.

Everyone invited to the birthday events accepted, since ‘Joyous occasions are few. We will celebrate’ (that’s a quote from composer, the late Douglas Lilburn). Perhaps they were also hoping that Anne’s renowned optimism, elegance and positivity would prove infectious, and that they might catch some of whatever she’s got.

Anne recently performed the central role in Doris Humphrey’s movingly beautiful Air for the G-String, something she has done maybe a dozen times over the years, her serenity and presence more poignant on every occasion. (Air, along with a dozen other Humphrey and Limon repertoire, was first staged by Louis Solino when he was on the faculty at New Zealand School of Dance. Anne rates it as a major coup to have appointed Solino to the staff since none of those fine classic choreographies would otherwise ever have been seen here). A number of other highly successful initiatives date back to her time at the School. It is heartening to learn that Anne is mid-stream writing her Memoirs so there will be a record of important dimensions in New Zealand dance.

Early in the week an open class of Renaissance and Baroque dance included Anne dancing a menuet-à-deux from Kellom Tomlinson’s 18th century treatise. With Robert Oliver on bass viol, and Keith McEwing as partner, she brought a striking grace to the menuet—(I here declare a very happy ‘conflict of interest’ since I set the dance). Matz Skoog (former artistic director of RNZBallet) was in the room and reference to his experience in late Baroque theatre productions at Drottningholm in Sweden gave an extra resonance to the lines and legacy we trace in ballet history—not for old time’s sake, but for future time’s sake.

Anne Rowse and Keith McEwing in Menuet-à-deux. Photo: © Sharon Vanesse

A few days later a large crowd of well-wishers attended an event at New Zealand School of Dance where director Garry Trinder and associate director Christine Gunn, together with present and past staff and students, acknowledged Anne’s contribution and celebrated her milestone. Other speakers included Liz Davey and Deirdre Tarrant, and The Royal Academy of Dance, itself celebrating 100 years of achievement, made a presentation of the President’s Award on behalf of Luke Rittner from London.

The junior scholars performed a piece set by Sue Nicholls, a contemporary work by Holly Newsome was danced by 1st year students, then the pas de deux from the second movement of Concerto by Kenneth MacMillan was given a flawless performance by Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy. The luminous choreography, to the Shostakovich Second Piano Concerto, beautifully played by Philip O’Malley, was a blessing without words.

Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy in Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo:© Stephen A’Court

The school song—E te whaea e—was given a robust rendition by all students and staff, thus ending the presentation in high spirits.

Dance … so intensely in and of the present … can equally invoke other times, places and people, their work then and now, their memories of then, and the books they write now.

Many happy returns, Anne. We celebrate 21sts, why not 91sts? See you next year.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2021   

Featured image: Anne Rowse, 2015. Photo: © Kerry Ferigo

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

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's work for 'Trois Grandes Fugues'. Photo © Michel Cavalca

Trois Grandes Fugues. Lyon Opera Ballet

11 March 2020. Opera House Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues is a program of three separate works each set to Beethoven’s Die Grosse Fuge, opus 133. Any dance can offer access into its music. Might three distinct choreographies set to the same music enhance that experience threefold?

Originally composed for string quartet this is dense and passionate music. Here, to different recordings, are set the works of choreographers Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Maguy Marin. Would Beethoven have accepted them all? withheld copyright? encouraged the endeavour? been flattered? had preferences, maybe even a favourite? How about you? Is there any purpose to rhetorical questions? (Of course there is. I ask them all the time and like the fact that they invite but don’t insist on answers).

Childs’ dance was calm, analytical (she had opted for an orchestral version with its larger merged sound, very different from the distinct instrumental voices in the quartet used by the other two choreographers). Here the music score moved the dancers, six couples, through many combinations and permutations, torsos and limbs, verticals and diagonals, within the theme and variations, but chose not to transition the performers into a human, social, dramatic or poetic space. They danced to us.

Scene from Lucinda Childs’ Grande Fugue in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo © Stofleth

(It made me long to see a revival of the similarly abstract yet highly resonant Prismatic Variations, choreographed by Poul Gnatt and Russell Kerr, from our own national ballet company repertoire).  

In real contrast, De Keersmaeker’s choreography was energized by its dancers, six men and two women, excited and committed performers, occasionally stepping back for a breather or to adjust their clothing—then up and at it again, full tilt, every move delivered with clarity and light. They danced for us.

Marin’s piece opened to music only, in the dark. What a powerful reminder of her extraordinary MayB, brought to an earlier festival here. That work distilled her encounters with Samuel Beckett and all the characters in all his plays—opening with a long strain of Schubert played in the pitch dark. (‘I’ve forgotten half my life, but I still remember this’—that’s Leonard Cohen in posthumous song lyrics). Then came the dancers, a quartet of women in dark red dresses, one dancer per instrument, absorbed into Beethoven’s emotion. They were occasionally airborne in galvanised elevation but only as attempt to escape, not to celebrate. At one point they moved forward and sat at the front of the stage, as if to explain something. They danced inside us. 

Scene from Maguy Marin’s Grosse Fuge in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo: © Jaime Roque de la Cruz

The clean, the engaged, the deep? the morning, the evening, the night? air, water, earth? cerebral, social, wild? skin, flesh and blood? reveal, illuminate, absorb? Which would you remember the longest? Which would you prefer? You can of course say yes to everything if you don’t want to judge or to choose.

For this Festival season the artistic director invited three artists to take a week each in a lightly defined curatorial role, to guide us in anticipating and accessing their take on the forthcoming program highlights.

I accepted this as a personal invitation to curate my own Festival (which we all do to some degree anyway, depending on family responsibilities and other constraints)—so my curated version of Trois Grandes Fugues opens with New Zealand String Quartet sitting centre-stage playing the Beethoven through, first as music alone. (It’s in their repertoire, actually now in their dna, and they performed it here in recital only a few weeks ago. The players are second to none in the world so how ironic to have been sitting beside them in the audience). After all, musicians in a string quartet move in a kind of miniature ballet all their own—sustaining urgent eye contact, exchanging taut gestural signals and cues among themselves, not sending communication just one way towards a conductor who is controlling an orchestral ensemble. I’d have asked them to play it again for each of the three choreographies. Then as a sublime and anchoring epilogue, we’d have sat, audience and musicians, in total pitch darkness, while they played it all again a fifth and final time. That way we’d have come to know the music in live renditions (I don’t believe audiences listen with care to recordings …) and the middle slow movement, searching among sadness for some hope, might have become ours to have and to hold forever

Jennifer Shennan, 15 March 2020

Featured image: Scene from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Die Grosse Fuge in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo © Michel Cavalca

The Russell Kerr Lecture, February 2020

by Jennifer Shennan

In 2018, in Wellington, an annual series named the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts was established to honour the celebrated and loved father figure of ballet in New Zealand. [The series’ title was borrowed from the Lincoln Kirstein lecture in Ballet & Related Arts annually offered at New York University. We were particularly inspired by their 2016 presentation by Ian Bostridge on Song & Dance ... it’s online, and well worth listening to].

Russell Kerr rehearsing 'Swan Lake'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl
Russell Kerr rehearsing Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1997. Photo: © Maarten Holl

In 2018 our inaugural lecture was delivered by Dr Michelle Potter, dance historian and writer from Canberra, who gave an insightful profile of the life and work of costume and set-designer Kristian Fredrikson, local Wellington boy made good, with a prolific career both in New Zealand and Australia. (The book resulting from Michelle’s many years of research is to be published by Melbourne Books, in July/August 2020).

Each of our sessions opens with a cameo dance performance which in 2018 was Loughlan Prior’s Lark, a tightly-stitched witty duet, a bespoke choreography for Jon Trimmer (longstanding colleague of Fredrikson) and William Fitzgerald—the older dancer savouring decades of memories and moves, the younger dancer questing to catch them. Piano accompaniment (Glinka, Rachmaninoff, Borodin ) was by Dr Hamish Robb, and Beth Chen, members of staff at Te Koki/New Zealand School of Music, which is the venue  for the event. 

In 2019, Dr Ian Lochhead’s account of the Ballets Russes visits to Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939, opened with the poignant Prelude from Les Sylphides danced by Taylor-Rose Frisby from New Zealand School of Dance—and The Swan by Abigail Boyle, until recently leading artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet. Accompaniment was by Hamish Robb, piano, and Inbal Megiddo, cellist. Ian is planning to publish a longer article to be developed from his script. 

On 9 February 2020, I delivered the third lecture: Douglas Wright—dance-maker, time-keeper, meteor. Tracing metaphors in the work of dancer, choreographer, writer Douglas Wright, 1956–2018.

The opening dance performed was a menuet danced by Anne Rowse and Keith McEwing, to menuets 1 & 2 from the Partita no.1, J. S. Bach, played by Hamish Robb. The lecture began with my story of an encounter with Wright:

Douglas Wright pressed me to show him how the technique and music of baroque dance worked, sensing it as a seeding ground for much of ballet’s vocabulary. His dance intelligence and curiosity were like nothing I’ve ever encountered, so we explored the different accents and interactions that give character to a beguiling menuet, cheerful bourrée, courageous chaconne, flirtatious gavotte, madcap passepied, saucy gigue, majestic courante, tender sarabande.

Douglas liked their effects of distilled emotion, so to remember that, and him, the session opened with a menuet. Typically composed in pairs, the first, major, the second, minor, then back to the major, menuets are in triple-time, stepped in counter-rhythm to the music (2 + 4 against 3 + 3), with further asymmetry between phrase lengths. A subtle pull between movement and music—we want to see resolved, to see how two things can become one.

The handhold central to its ‘narrative’—right, then left, then both—signals a greeting, a conversation, a friendship. We know how to dance a menuet thanks to notation by English dancing master Kellom Tomlinson. The earliest European dance resource in New Zealand is a 300 year old ms. workbook by the same Tomlinson, gifted to the Alexander Turnbull Library through the generosity of the Trimmer family.

Our plan was that Jon Trimmer would dance with Anne Rowse, but once rehearsing, it became clear that Jon’s long-standing ankle injury would prevent him from enjoying the experience. The initial injury from years back didn’t stop him dancing then but he has carried it ever since, a price that dancers often pay. Keith McEwing stepped up to take Anne’s hand on the upbeat, because passing the baton is what dancers do.   

In the following lecture I read a number of excerpts from Douglas’ writings, what he called ‘autobiographical fiction’, Ghost Dance (Penguin 2004) and Terra Incognito (Penguin 2006), and from his two volumes of poems, published by Steele Roberts, Laughing Mirror and Cactusfear. Video illustrations were sourced from the documentary Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley in 2003. The film is an award-winning profile of the work and life of arguably New Zealand’s leading performer and dance-maker, a legend in his lifetime whose astonishingly prolific output will be remembered for decades to come. Haunting Douglas is available on Vimeo, or for purchase from Spasifik Films, and is highly recommended viewing.

Planning is already under way for the next lecture in the series which will be held on Sunday 10 February 2021, with details of topic and presenter to be confirmed.

Jennifer Shennan, 19 February 2020

Featured image: Portrait of Russell Kerr, 2007

Sir Jon Trimmer in open conversation with Garry Trinder

by Jennifer Shennan
9 July 2019. New Zealand School of Dance         

An armchair conversation with Sir Jon Trimmer was the brainchild of Garry Trinder, Director of New Zealand School of Dance. It was held in the theatre at Te Whaea, mid-week of the school’s winter intensive national seminar, so that many young students, parents and teachers could attend. It was also open to the public and a large contingent of Friends and friends, colleagues, admirers, teachers and audience-goers took the chance to express publicly their appreciation of, and thanks for, this dancer’s phenomenal career. It was twilight hour, so a poignant echo that, on innumerable performance nights across the past six decades, warm-up, make-up, dress-up, curtain-up would have been taking place at around the same time. In reviving the memories and pleasures of those performances, the conversation summoned many ghosts, all of them good. No bad ghosts arrived. Love was in the air.

The names of the main players in his early story include: Jonty’s parents and siblings who danced and sang their way around the family home; Pamela Lowe, his older sister whose dance school in Petone he attended; Poul Gnatt who arrived in 1953 like a lightning bolt from afar and established a ballet company on zero resources yet with the highest of aspirations; Russell Kerr, a quiet genius of ballet, music and theatre arts who succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, contributing to its growing international recognition; Alexander Grant, our legendary character dancer expatriate; Peggy van Praagh who offered support during the early years of her directorate of The Australian Ballet—including an enterprising initiative whereby several dancers had three-month exchange residencies between the two companies. Jacqui and Jon Trimmer were later invited to dance with The Australian Ballet on an international tour with guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and entertaining tales were told of those times.

Harry Haythorne, a subsequent director of New Zealand Ballet, was another Australasian success story. He and Jonty were obviously great mates (‘We both knew all the hit songs and numbers from vaudeville and music-hall era—had a ball outdoing each other’). There’s no better illustration of that rapport than their twin roles in A Servant of Two Masters, Gray Veredon’s classic commission with inspired design by Kristian Fredrikson. The Film Archive’s copy of that commedia dell’ arte ballet is still worth viewing for the dazzling line-up of its stellar cast—Trimmer and Haythorne, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Cathy Goss, Karin Wakefield, Lee Patrice, Eric Languet, Warren Douglas, Kilian O’Callaghan. The earlier romp, The Ragtime Dance Company to Scott Joplin, was another of Veredon’s and Fredrikson’s hits. Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana and Ashley Killar’s choreographies No Exit and Dark Waves also gave Jon some of his strongest roles. Many of the heritage works of the Company’s repertoire exist only in memory, but are no less real for that, and a number of them could do with re-visiting.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Sir Jon Trimmer (left) as Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in Gray Veredon’s A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1989. Photographer not known

Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are further impeccable works that secured RNZB’s reputation for full-length choreographies, combining all the power that dancing, music and design can offer. If asked to name one indelible image of Jon Trimmer on stage, I’d probably first lodge a conscientious objection—What, only one?’ but then describe his power as the Duke of Verona in R&J. He strode in, on a high, elevated back platform, glared down first at the Montagues, then at the Capulets—at everyone stunned by the horror of what had played out, then again at both houses —turned and strode off. His demand that warring end and a truce be declared, delivered in so few gestures, carried all the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The timing and the minimalism of those few moments on stage, said it all.

We should tell our grandchildren what we saw. Find the music, tell them the story, show them photos, keep the dress-ups box at hand, take them to a matinee, suggest they draw and write afterwards what they saw, maybe send a postcard to their favourite dancer. Who knows where it might lead, but it can only be a good place.

The clearly important international parts of Jon’s career, with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and Royal Danish Ballet, were referenced, (‘It certainly helped in Denmark to have Poul Gnatt’s mantle on my shoulders. He was still vividly remembered by everyone there—and clearly had been one of their top dancers’) but it is overwhelmingly apparent that the Trimmers’ commitment and loyalty to the Royal New Zealand Ballet has shaped their lives, and that of so many younger dancers and colleagues here whose artistry they have helped to develop. For that we say Thank You.

Garry asked: ‘When did it first occur to you that the recreation and pleasure you took in dancing as a boy could become your life work, your career?’ Jon replied: ‘Well, you know I’m not sure I can say. I just kept on doing what I loved.’

Garry Trinder (right) asks a question of Sir Jon Trimmer. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019.

‘What he loved’ included Poul’s pedigree productions of Bournonville ballets—La Sylphide and Napoli; the talisman Prismatic Variations, Russell’s Prince Igor, Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Christmas Carol, Peter Pan; interesting new work with Russell Kerr in an interlude at Auckland Dance Centre; plus 100 more… Servant, Ragtime Dance Company, La Fille mal Gardée, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet … who’s counting and where do we stop? Clearly this is significant repertoire that earned the Company an international recognition and reputation, as well as its royal charter.

The sagas of company politics, funding and management highs and lows over the years were referred to in the briefest of terms, as also the devastating challenge of the fire that destroyed almost all the company’s resources in 1967. The abiding impression one gains is of the resilience and determination to somehow hold on to the reins—with Poul Gnatt, Beatrice Ashton, Richard Campion, Russell Kerr and the Trimmers as the heroes in those early battles.

Young dancers listening will have taken on board Jon’s words about the importance of breathing while moving—to shape and sustain an arabesque, to support a jump, to control a pirouette … ‘oh and the music of course, that helps enormously.’

Another tip, this one he had from Russell Kerr—’Go and sit outside a café, watch people as they walk by. Study their gait, their timing, how they hold their body. That will tell you much about their character which you can then put into your performance, make it lifelike.’

Jon: ‘I stopped dancing princes at a certain age but went on to old men, old women and witches. Look, it’s been just wonderful to work with all those talented people.’ Jon, one could guess it’s been just as wonderful for them, as it has been for us too.

A friend in the audience commented later—’One thing that struck me was his presence when speaking. When Trinder was talking Jonty seemed like just a genial old man, but as soon as he started to speak you couldn’t take your eyes, or attention, away from him.’ That magnetic presence and practice of paying attention has also worked in the opposite direction and been a way of life for Jon for years. He has watched countless RNZB rehearsals and performances with the most attentive eye, and always found a way of gently encouraging younger dancers, suggesting a tip to a colleague as to how the smallest shift in physics of limbs or expression of eyes or face might enhance their performance. Such generosity in the competitive world of ballet arts is rare, but makes the man worth his weight in gold.

There are more stories to be found in Jon’s recently published memoir, Why Dance?and details of the Company productions are listed in the three published histories of the RNZBallet—at 25, 50 and at 60 years.

Jon has also explored pottery and painting as further means of expression. He is a legendary gardener —and, one senses, a deeply happy man Of course he’s not stupid and wants a much better world for dancers, but the knowledge that he has used his own given talents to the maximum has allowed him to remain positive throughout a career that has seen some tortured ups and downs of politics and make-overs during the decades (every ballet company knows them). His humour is quick but never biting, always gentle with wry amusement, a rich sense of irony, patience in waiting for time to resolve troubles of the political variety, and truckloads of performance memories.

Also apparent is a deep and genuine love of his country—’Oh it was wonderful to travel through the whole countryside as we toured everywhere in the early days—we saw so much, and made so many wonderful friends as billets. We’re still friends.’

Bill Sheat, a pillar in many areas of the arts community in New Zealand, says: ‘During my long term as Chairman of the Board of RNZB I was lucky enough to see Jon T. perform countless times. Whenever he made his first appearance there would be a wave of whispered delight as the audience recognised him. It was a mixture of love, ownership and appreciation.’

Tuesday evening was a sweetheart affair—no notes, no microphones, no bullshit, no self-aggrandisement, no lecturing, no breathless promotions, no shouting and whistling, just an ocean of smiling faces and sustained, warm applause that is echoing yet, and holding history. There is no future without the past.

So what did Jonty do? He joined in the applause of course.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 July 2019

Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer (left) makes a point during his conversation with Garry Trinder. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019

Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. [Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]

Tamara Tchinarova and friends, Christchurch 1939

Russell Kerr lecture, February 2019

The Russell Kerr lecture for 2019 was delivered in Wellington, New Zealand, on 10 February 2019 by Dr Ian Lochhead. Lochhead is dance critic for The Press, Christchurch, and formerly Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Canterbury. His lecture focused on the tours to New Zealand by the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet in 1937 and the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in 1939.

While the lecture as a whole opened up a number of issues that perhaps have not been fully considered in previous writings about the Australasian Ballets Russes tours, for me the most fascinating moment of all came when Lochhead flashed up the image used as the featured image on this post. It is well known to most Australians interested in the tours of the Ballets Russes and shows (l–r) Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, and Tamara Tchinarova (later Tamara Finch) with bicycles. Paul Petroff stands to the right, hands in pockets. It belongs in the Papers of Tamara Finch (MS 9733) and it has always been considered to have been taken somewhere in Australia. But Lochhead showed convincingly that the image was shot in Christchurch in 1939 during the visit to that major South Island city by the Covent Garden Russian Ballet.

Lochhead introduced us (or certainly me) to Olivia Spencer Bower, an English-born artist who lived a large part of her life in New Zealand. Spencer Bower, it seems, was taken with the dancers of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet and the Spencer Bower collection at the Christchurch Art Gallery includes an album of photographs, which she may have taken herself, of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet during its 1939 visit. One, reproduced below, shows a row of at least seventeen dancers holding bicycles and lined up in front of a theatre identified by Lochhead (a Christchurch resident) as Christchurch’s Theatre Royal. It has a large poster advertising the Covent Garden Russian Ballet across its entrance and to the side of the line-up is the tobacconist and hairdresser shop seen in the featured image above. Ismailoff, Volkova, Tupine, and Tchinarova are wearing the same clothes in both images. There is no doubt that the featured image above is not from Australia but from Christchurch.

Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Her Majesty's Theatre Christchurch, 1939. Olivia Spencer Bower photo album, Christchurch Art Gallery
Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Theatre Royal, Christchurch, 1939. Olivia Spencer Bower photo album, Christchurch Art Gallery. Reproduced with the permission of the Olivia Spencer Bower Foundation

It is always a thrill to discover new information about material in archival holdings. And it is even better when new information allows us to revise previous assumptions. The featured image in this post celebrates Christchurch as a venue for the visiting Ballets Russes companies that had such an influence on the growth of dance in the southern hemisphere.

Ian Lochhead’s lecture was preceded by two danced items: a performance of the Prelude from Les Sylphides danced by Taylor-Rose Frisby, a second year student of the New Zealand School of Dance; and The Dying Swan performed by Abigail Boyle from Royal New Zealand Ballet. Frisby showed beautiful control and I look forward to seeing more of her work. Abigail Boyle has featured on this website on several occasions. Live music, and it was exceptional, came from pianist Hamish Robb and cello player Inbal Megiddo, both from the New Zealand School of Music, Te Koki.

It is with a certain regret that I add that Boyle will shortly retire as a performer. Recent news from Royal New Zealand Ballet indicates that Boyle will dance in RNZB’s forthcoming New Choreographic Series and will then pursue a teaching career.

A note on the first Russell Kerr lecture held in 2018 is at this link

Michelle Potter, 15 February 2019

Featured image: Serge Ismailoff, Anna Volkova, Oleg Tupine, and Tamara Tchinarova, Covent Garden Russian Ballet, Christchurch, 1939. Photographer not identified. Papers of Tamara Finch, National Library of Australia

Tamara Tchinarova and friends, Christchurch 1939