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

 Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Image supplied (no photographer named)

2018—New Zealand Dance Year in Retrospect

by Jennifer Shennan

As New Year approaches I like to think back over Old Year and, without consulting notes, check what dance highlights remember themselves.

During 2018 we have lost four treasured and hugely important people from our dance / arts community.

Nigel Boyes, dearest friend and colleague to so many dancers, particularly members of Royal New Zealand Ballet where he was office manager and archivist for many years, and was also a member of prominent Wellington choirs, died in July. (His obituary is on this website).

Sue Paterson, legendary force in the arts, held a sequence of important positions in dance management over decades—at Limbs Dance Company, at Creative New Zealand, at RNZB, as director of the International Arts Festival—and was a generous member of many governing boards. (Her obituary is online at stuff.co.nz).

June Greenhalgh, wife of Russell Kerr who was a stalwart pillar of ballet history in New Zealand, was a foundation member of England’s Festival Ballet. She performed here in the 1959 – 60 season of New Zealand Ballet, but her abiding contribution was as the lifetime companion to Russell. (Her obituary is on this website).

Douglas Wright, giant of New Zealand dance makers, hugely prolific choreographer and indelibly memorable dancer, was rehearsing his last choreography, M-Nod, from the hospice. He was an artist without peer in this country—working also in literature and in visual arts. (A review of M_Nod, and an obituary, are on this website).

To all four of these dear friends and colleagues – Valete. Requiescant in pace,

Haere, haere atu.

———-

In February we were delighted by the spirited response to the inaugural session in the series of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, held at Victoria University. The lecture, on Kristian Fredrikson’s life and work in theatre design, was delivered by Dr. Michelle Potter who has since continued work on her biography of Kristian which is now heading towards publication. The occasion also included the performance of Loughlan Prior’s choreography, Lark, with Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in the cast, and Hamish Robb accompanying on piano.

A trip to Auckland’s Arts Festival was warranted to see Akram Khan’s dramatic and atmospheric production Giselle performed by English National Ballet. Tamara Rojo, the young artistic director and manager of this company, is clearly a leader of intelligent and visionary force. It’s always edifying to check the New Zealand involvement in the history of any dance company and there are several prominent soloist careers to note of New Zealand dancers who performed with English National Ballet, formerly Festival Ballet—Russell Kerr, Anne Rowse, Loma Rogers, Donald McAlpine, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them.

In Wellington’s International Arts Festival, the hugely memorable Loch na hEala/Swan Lake by Michael Keegan-Dolan (of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre fame) had the stellar Alex Leonhartsberger in the lead male role. Alex has previously danced in Douglas Wright productions and it was a renewed thrill to see him in this season. Keegan-Dolan’s work has interested me intensely for some years and I rate him, with Lin Hwai Min and Douglas Wright, as the three choreographers who have kept my world turning for decades. An intriguing new project, under the auspices of this Festival, will next year have Keegan-Dolan in residence here, developing a new work and offering a public involvement for those interested to trace that process.

Betroffenheit, by luminary Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, in collaboration with Jonathan Young, was another highlight of this Festival season. Its theme explored the reactions and after-effects of an unspecified catastrophic event, and suited well the mood of disastrous developments we see in current world affairs, as well as referencing tragedy at a personal level. It proved a remarkable and mature work of theatre.

Closer to home we saw the remarkable season of Meremere by Rodney Bell. This has rightly proved an award winning choreography and performance, produced under the auspices of Malia Johnston’s MOTH (Movement of the Human). Rodney lives and works in a wheelchair, but his mana and charisma in both his life and his dance are the operatives. It takes about five minutes to forget the fact that he’s using a wheelchair. His stories are what matter. Sarah Foster Sproull also made Drift, for Rodney and a female dancer, resulting in a miraculous menuet for our time.

The second half of RNZB’s Dancing to Mozart—in two works by Jiří Kylián—revealed the calibre of both choreography and performance we have been accustomed to from our national ballet company. At New Zealand School of Dance graduation season, two works After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon, and Wicked Fish by Cloud Gate choreographer, Huang Yi, proved outstanding. The time-honoured question from Irish poet W B Yeats, ‘O body swayed to music, o brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?’ always comes to mind when choreography and performance are equally inspirational. There’s a causal connection of course, but it’s a symbiotic and reflexive one between dancer and dance.

Tempo Dance Festival billed Between Two—with works by Kelly Nash and by Douglas Wright. That season, reviewed on this website, is remembered as a most poignantly crafted, perfectly balanced program with birth and death book-ending the life between. No more fitting tribute to Douglas Wright’s astonishing body of work could be imagined. I do not expect to see again anything like this multi-talented artist who was so resolute in communicating his vision. There was a heartfelt memorial service held in his favourite Cornwall Park in Auckland, and then gatherings at both Nga Taonga Film Archive and City Art Gallery in Wellington, to hear tributes and watch fine films of Wright’s work, including the stunning documentary, Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley.

Many were very sorry that Anton Carter’s contract as director of DANZ, the national networking agency, was ended, since he had been a stalwart and popular supporter of dance events and individuals across many different forms and communities. Although now working at Museums Wellington, he continues to attend performances and that is the kind of loyal support, outside the call of duty, that is so appreciated by dance practitioners.

The news is recently announced that Lucy Marinkovich, outstanding dancer/choreographer working independently on projects with her partner and colleague musician, Lucien Johnson, are the joint winners of the Harriet Friedlander award which gives them $100,000 to reside in New York. When asked ‘How long will you stay there?’ they answer ‘Till the money runs out’. I personally and rather selfishly hope they do not get offered something they can’t refuse since I want to continue seeing their fresh and invigorating dance work here. They have wit and style and ideas, together with all the skills needed to bring dance and music alongside each other where they belong. More of that is needed for all our sakes.

In the books department, Marianne Schultz’ history of Limbs Dance Company—Dance for the People— was welcome (see my review in New Zealand Books, December 2018), as also was the memoir of Sir Jon Trimmer—Why Dance ? by Jon with Roger Booth (my review of that is on DANZ website).

As I write this retrospective I am still happily high from last night’s astonishing Indian dance event—the arangetram, or graduation recital, of Leeshma Srirankanathan, student of Sri Vivek Kinra, of Mudra dance school and academy. This was a two hour wonder of solo performing by an extremely talented 18 year old dancer, and the 42nd arangetram directed by Kinra in his 30 years as a master teacher here in Wellington. Leeshma’s Hindu father and Catholic mother were each honoured in the opening prayers and puja of this event. A lesson of peace and tolerance to the world I reckon, if only the world would listen.

We are anticipating the second Russell Kerr lecture in Ballet & Related Arts which will be delivered on Sunday 10 February, on the topic of Russian Ballet companies that visited Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939. It will be delivered at Victoria University of Wellington by Dr. Ian Lochhead, dance critic for The Press, Christchurch. All are welcome, rsvp for further details to jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz

Happy New Year to all readers, and my thanks to Michelle Potter for hosting this website so generously.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 December 2018

Featured image: Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Photo: © Buskar

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960

June Kerr (1932–2018)

by Jennifer Shennan

Russell Kerr has been the treasured father of ballet in New Zealand since he returned here in 1957 after some years dancing in UK, where he had married fellow dancer, June Greenhalgh. His directorship of New Zealand Ballet in 1960s was a visionary and courageous one and his loyal contribution has continued in all the years since. June danced in the celebrated United Ballet seasons of 1959–1960, but then became the mother of two children. Her contribution to ballet in this country may not have been as publicly visible as her husband’s but it was just as real, and she was with him every step of the way.

June Kerr, nee Greenhalgh, was born in 1932, in Southend-on-Sea, England, the youngest of three children.  Her father had started his seafaring career on sailing ships and later became a merchant navy captain while her mother held the home fires during his extended periods of time away at sea.

As a child June attended the Cone-Ripman school where the curriculum combined general education with ballet and related theatre-arts training.  Originally based in London but relocated during WWII to Hertfordshire, it later became known as Arts Educational School.

Anton Dolin, having danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, became a pioneer of ballet in England (and toured New Zealand with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet in late 1930s). Dolin visited the Cone-Ripman school after World War II and selected 12 young dancers, June Greenhalgh among them, to join a troupe he and Alicia Markova were forming. This later developed into a permanent London-based company, Festival Ballet, of which June was thus a foundation member. (Renamed English National Ballet in 1989, this is the company that performed a season of Giselle in Auckland earlier this year. The ballet world sits across national boundaries and through time, its best dancers becoming citizens of an international ‘country’).

In 1952 Anne Rowse, a young New Zealand dancer training in London, also joined Festival Ballet, and she and June became instant friends. Anne spoke movingly at the funeral of the  lifelong friendship that ensued.

June Greenhalgh in Ruth Page’s The Merry Widow/Vilia. Festival Ballet 1953

In 1953 another young New Zealander, Russell Kerr, joined Festival Ballet. He and June held hands, but he explained to her they’d better not get too serious because he would at some stage be returning to New Zealand, feeling a moral obligation to do that on account of the Government bursary he had been awarded. ‘Not a problem. I’d come too,’ replied June, and so they were married without delay.

Festival Ballet, under the Polish impresario Julian Braunsweg, toured and performed in UK, Europe, Canada and US with memorable programs, and the likes of Igor Stravinsky conducting in the pit. In 1957 the Kerrs left all that behind and came to settle in New Zealand. (Lucky I was, to be a child pupil at Nettleton-Edwards School of Ballet in Auckland where Russell became a partner. I continue to learn from him to this day).

Make no mistake—Russell would become the lion, and June the lioness, of ballet in this country when they moved to Wellington in 1962 and he became director of New Zealand Ballet. (Poul and Rigmor Gnatt had been the pioneering tiger and tigress who preceded them, since 1953). With unstinting loyalty, Kerr delivered pedigree standards of heritage repertoire (Swan Lake, Petrouchka, Prince Igor, Schéhérazade, Coppélia, Nutcracker, and much more), to put New Zealand firmly on the world ballet map. His own choreographic output was enormously prolific and gave the Company some of its greatest hits—Prismatic Variations, Carnival of the Animals, Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol, Terrible Tom … it’s a very long list.

The spouse of such a driven choreographer is the supportive, attentive, unpaid and often invisible, kindest critic who stays calm and acts as a beacon when storms rage and finances plummet—or, in the Kerrs’ case, when Russell worked himself close to death to sustain the company endeavour, through to 1969. A disastrous fire that had destroyed almost all the Company’s resources in 1967 had not helped.

There were later periods directing Auckland Dance Centre, then the Kerrs moved to Christchurch which would remain their home until today. Southern Ballet Theatre was a highly enterprising initiative and for years productions were mounted there on a miniature scale but uncompromising in dance and music standards. There were numerous collaborations with composer, Philip Norman, and designer, Peter Lees-Jeffries, so Christchurch was well served in that time. No-one can remember how it was financed probably because there was no budget worth remembering.

June would accompany Russell to Wellington whenever he was engaged by Royal New Zealand Ballet to stage a production on the company. She was always so pleased to walk in the Botanical Gardens, to visit a gallery, or over a coffee to swap family news, always with the kindest interest and sweetest nature. ‘No I won’t have another coffee thanks. I’ll be meeting Russell for lunch in the rehearsal break so I’ll have one with him then.’ In later years the dear couple would still venture out together to a local café and continue their lifelong habit of people-watching in public places. ‘That’s where you learn about different characters—how they move, what they look like, you can guess much of their experiences from such things. It’s like research for choreography,’ Russell would say.

They were still holding hands when June died last week. The photos on the order of service show a fine-boned, wide-eyed, gorgeous redhead, gamine beauty, a shade reminiscent of Moira Shearer (the ballerina in the famed film, The Red Shoes ). Ballet in New Zealand owes much to the Kerr family.

In 1940, June, aged 8, was on the list of children to be repatriated out of war-time London to live out the duration of the war elsewhere, in her case on the SS City of Benares to Canada. For reasons never explained, her parents removed their daughter from the passenger list the day before it sailed, and just as well because the ship was torpedoed in mid-Atlantic.

June would later tell that story, and when asked ‘What happened to the 90 children on board?’ would answer ‘Oh, they were all saved’ and she went to her grave believing that to be so. In fact, 77 of the 90 children on board died, but it’s a reasonable guess June’s parents believed that an 8-year-old didn’t need to know that. It was a heart-stopping moment at the funeral to learn about what was probably the only ‘lie’ anyone ever told to this kind and trusting woman

June Kerr: Born South-end-on Sea, England, 12 June 1932; married Russell Kerr, 1 son, 1 daughter; died Christchurch, New Zealand, 29 October 2018

A version of this obituary first appeared in The Dominion Post on 24 November 2018. Sources: Russell Kerr, David Kerr, Anne Rowse, Keith McEwing.

Jennifer Shennan, 25 November 2018

Featured image: June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations. Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt; designed by Raymond Boyce. New Zealand Ballet 1960. Photo: © John Ashton

June Greenhalgh & Russell Kerr in Prismatic Variations.Choreographed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt. New Zealand Ballet 1960
Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright (1956–2018)

Douglas James Wright, dreamer of dances
by Jennifer Shennan

Douglas Wright, dancer, choreographer, writer, poet, visual artist, has died at the age of 62.

An obituary is normally about the deceased, but I begin with my declaration of conflict of interest (actually, deeply shared interest)—namely, that Douglas is the single most important artist in my life. His fearless vision through an astonishingly prolific artistic output moved us beyond comfort, beyond normalcy, beyond the already known. Not fantasy, not surrealism, not escapism, but expressionist art of the highest order, framed with wit—dark, caustic, incorrigible, ironic and hilarious by turns, and teeming with alternative perceptions of the natural and social givens. As a New Zealand artist across five genres, Douglas Wright remains a phenomenon without peer.

The Solomon Islands term for a choreographer translates as ‘dreamer of dances’. That epithet pleased Douglas since he often referenced Morpheus, god of dreams, son of Hypnos, god of sleep. His last dance, commissioned by art gallery director Michael Lett, was exquisitely performed by Sean MacDonald at Tempo Dance Festival in October, with final rehearsals conducted at the hospice. Titled M_Nod, with Morpheus in mind, it incorporated a James Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake, an aesthetic that suited Douglas well. The work was dedicated to the late Sue Paterson, Douglas’ long-standing colleague and friend.

In 1998 Douglas was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and in 2000 a Laureate of The Arts Foundation. His company, Douglas Wright and Dancers, only ever received project-based funding from the Arts Council and there can be no easy way to analyse why his phenomenal talent was not better supported and continuously facilitated across the decades. Permanent funding of company management and adequate resources to tour his work internationally were what he wanted and deserved, but they were never forthcoming. In that, we let down both him and ourselves.

Now that Douglas is safely silenced, the tributes are flowing in torrents. Our best honour to him however is to remember his work, and lucky we are that he has written about dance, the most ephemeral of the arts, in depth and detail. The outstanding video documentary Haunting Douglas by Leanne Pooley (Spacific Films) is the finest portrait of a dance artist anywhere.

A consummate man of the theatre, the words Douglas loathed most were ‘bland’ and ‘boring’. His constant attention was to our experiences—the public, the personal and the private. If it had happened, or been thought or dreamt, then spit it out, say it loud, choreograph it, write it, draw it, sculpt it, tell it as it is. If some audiences or critics took offence, at least they were not bored. It was proof they were engaged. An indelible image remains—from Black Milk—when Three Graces, dressed in nurses’ uniforms, brought forward a tray of medical syringes then knelt to inject the stage floor, presumably a local anaesthetic to help us through what was to follow.

Douglas certainly had a gift for naming his dances—listen to them—Now is the Hour, Passion Play, How on Earth, As It Is, Buried Venus, Inland, Forever, Black Milk, Rapt, The Kiss Inside. He did not need tertiary education to lead him to literature, but as a school boy simply raided the library. His voracious reading habits included an early affinity with the writings of Janet Frame. His memoir, Ghost Dance, (Penguin, 2004, awarded the Montana prize for Best First Book) makes clear the abiding importance of his relationship with artist Malcolm Ross. (David Eggleton’s 2004 review for The Listener of Ghost Dance is definitive).

Douglas grew up in rural New Zealand, in Tuakau. The place name means tu = to stand, akau = river bank. You get a good view of a river when you stand on its bank. You get a good view of Douglas Wright through Pooley’s documentary, about his childhood intrigue at the woman dancing in a white dress on the porch of the neighbouring house in moonlight (‘…perhaps she was a moth who laid her eggs in me’) and fascination with his grandmother taking him to Catholic Mass (later referenced in Halo, for Royal New Zealand Ballet).

To his father’s disgust, rugby held no interest for the child but Douglas’ childhood talent for gymnastics brought him junior champion status and photos reveal a strength, grace and line that would eventually lead him to dance. The boy travelled alone from Tuakau to Auckland for regular training sessions, which led into the darkness of predatory sexual abuse in bus stations as bad as anything you’ve imagined. He was robbed of his childhood and the scars lasted for life, yet he could later communicate the complexity of the experiences without letting it destroy him. One poem, in his volume CactusFear (Steele Roberts, 2011) tells us about it, if you can get through it without crying.

After leaving school there was a dramatic drug career, eventually supplanted by his dance career, initially with Auckland-based Limbs Dance Company (1980–1983). Teacher Dorothea Ashbridge imparted the ballet technique that helped Douglas ‘map my body … give names and directions to movements my body already knew’. He spent 1983–1987 with Paul Taylor Dance Company in New York, a spectacular career, with performances and choreography (Hey Paris, Faun Variations) still remembered decades later by New Yorkers who probably see six dance performances every week.

Douglas’ astonishing strength combined with lyricism can be seen in DV8’s talisman and horrifyingly brilliant work by Lloyd Newson, Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, in 1988 (available on dvd). Back in New Zealand Douglas’ grief at losing friends to Aids is choreographed into Elegy, 1992. Although not the death sentence it once signaled, Douglas’ own HIV diagnosis was encompassed in choreographies Forever and Ore.

In 1993 Russell Kerr cast Douglas in the title role of his production of Petrouchka for Royal New Zealand Ballet, described in Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty (VUP, 2013). His insights into performing that celebrated role, created by Nijinsky, are rare, if not unique, in the annals of ballet history. Douglas wrote what Nijinksy was unable to.

Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson
Douglas Wright as Petrouchka 1993, Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Photo Guy Robinson

Three works commissioned by Royal New Zealand Ballet, The Decay of Lying (1992), Rose and Fell, (1997) and Halo (2000) are all remembered by the dancers. Critics were challenged, as critics often are, but Douglas remained disappointed that the company never re-staged any of those works.

Douglas’ mercurial and multi-faceted personality was reflected in his works—by turns ecstatic (Gloria, A Far Cry); melancholic (Terra Incognito, Black Milk); grief-stricken (Elegy, Rose & Fell); satirical (The Decay of Lying); gender-shifting (Hey Paris, Forever); political (Black Milk); spiritual (Rapt, The Kiss Inside). We sense that whatever happened to him surfaced somewhere in one of his choreographies, but were never just about himself. He staged themes that may have shocked, or saddened, but they rang with truth.

Douglas released the artistry in many dancers and they know who they are. Lisa Densem (in the astonishing photo montage by Peter Molloy on the cover of the Pooley documentary) told me, ‘After you’ve worked with Douglas you have had more than a dance experience. He lets you become his friend.’

Several dancers became his muses: Debbie McCulloch with whom he shared an early close rapport; the enigmatic ‘goddess-like’ Kilda Northcott; Sarah Jayne Howard, a fiery furnace of a performer. Alex Leonhartsberger danced like Douglas-come-again, then Sean MacDonald became the final trusted courier of Douglas’ dream visions. Repertoire has been expertly staged in recent years by rehearsal director, Megan Adams.

There were only the briefest tours taking Douglas’ works abroad, yet, had that been responsibly managed and financed, he would have earned an international reputation as the Pina Bausch of the Southern Hemisphere. Nought to be done about that now but live with it. At least his treasures are in Nga Taonga Film & Sound Archive, in art galleries, on bookshelves, and in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Douglas once asked me how baroque dance works—not that he wanted to perform one, just to understand how people danced in different times and places, so I showed him. He instantly caught the implications of the highly stylised technique, then quoted Louis XIV to me, and in one hour learned a sarabande that would take a ‘normal’ student a year to master.

Five of Douglas’ drawings, purchased by the Chartwell Collection for Auckland Art Gallery, hang in a current exhibition there alongside works by Colin McCahon, by Gretchen Albrecht (who provided the backdrop for Douglas’ first full-length work, Now is the Hour) and Jim Allen, celebrated sculptor of light. Douglas’ note alongside his work reads, ‘The figures in my drawings are verbs not nouns’. A number of these drawings are incorporated into his volume of poetry, Laughing Mirror, (Steele Roberts, 2007) where he famously penned the line, ‘Never trust an artist who is always trying to explain their work’.

Perhaps Auckland City Council might consider converting Douglas’ council flat, his home for many decades, in Norgrove Ave, Mt. Albert, into a choreographic residence? Alongside all else, Douglas was a perfectionist, not to say obsessive, gardener. The ancient cycads growing there (he would groom the spider webs off them with a toothbrush) might inspire a younger generation of home-grown dance-makers. Goodness knows, the country needs them.

Helen Aldridge, a Waiheke teacher and arts advocate, commissioned from Douglas a choreography to commemorate the life of her daughter, Deirdre Mummery, who died of an accidental drug overdose. Helen told me she did not know what to expect—perhaps a lament, or lachrimae? Instead, Douglas produced the exquisite Gloria, to Vivaldi, celebrating the life of his young friend. Gold silk-clad dancers fly and twist and turn in an airborne wonder. It’s the best dance ever made, by anyone, anywhere.

Beautifully filmed by Alun Bollinger, it’s there on YouTube (note, inexplicably, in two parts), posted anonymously by ‘a Rugby supporter’. Where is James Joyce when you need him?

Douglas is survived by his loyal and devoted mother, Pat, and the dancers of New Zealand.

Douglas James Wright: born 14 October 1956, Pukekohe; died 14 November 2018, Auckland

Acknowledgements: Megan Adams, Helen Aldridge, Lisa Densem, Sarah (Lawrey) George, Sean MacDonald, Keith McEwing, Leanne Pooley, Turid Revfeim, Guy Robinson, Anne Rowse, Roger Steele

This obituary is posted with the permission of The Dominion Post where it appeared on 17 November 2018.

Featured image: Douglas Wright, 2006. Photo: © John Savage

Douglas Wright, 2016. Photo: © John Savage

For other posts on this website about Douglas Wright, including reviews about some of the works mentioned above, follow this tag link.

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in 'Bennelong.' Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey

Dance diary. December 2017

  • ‘The best of…’ for 2017

At this time of the year ‘the best of…’ fills our newspapers and magazines. My top picks for what dance audiences were able to see in the ACT over the year were published in The Canberra Times on 27 December. A link is below in ‘Press for December 2017.’ Dance Australia will publish its annual critics’ survey in the February issue. In that survey I was able to look more widely at dance I had seen across Australia.

In addition, I was lucky enough to see some dance in London and Paris. Having spent a large chunk of research time (some years ago now) examining the Merce Cunningham repertoire, especially from the time when Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were designing for the company, for me it was a highlight of 2017 to see Cunningham’s Walkaround Time performed by the Paris Opera Ballet. And in London I had my first view of Wayne McGregor’s remarkable Woolf Works.

In Australia in 2017 the absolute standout for me was Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong and that particular work features, in one way or another, in both my Canberra Times and Dance Australia selections. Of visitors to Australia, nothing could come near the Royal Ballet in McGregor’s Woolf Works during the Royal’s visit to Brisbane. At the time I wrote a follow-up review.

Eric Underwood and Sarah :amb in 'woolf Works', Act II. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © ROH/Tristam Kenton
Eric Underwood and Sarah Lamb in Woolf Works, Act II. The Royal Ballet. Photo: © 2015 ROH/Tristam Kenton
  • Some statistics from this website for 2017

Here are the most-viewed posts for 2017, with a couple of surprises perhaps?

1. Thoughts on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring. This was an early post dating back to 2009, the year I started this website. I can only imagine that Rite of Spring has been set as course work at an educational institution somewhere and this has resulted in such interest after close to 9 years?

2. Bryan Lawrence (1936–2017). Obituaries are always of interest to readers, but this one took off like wildfire.

Bryan Lawrence and Marilyn Jones in Giselle. Photo: Walter Stringer
Bryan Lawrence and Marilyn Jones in Giselle, Act I. The Australian Ballet, c. 1966. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

3. Ochres. Bangarra Dance Theatre. This review was posted in 2015 following the restaging of Stephen Page’s seminal work of 1994. It was powerful all those years ago and it is a thrill to see that audiences and readers still want to know about it.

4. New Zealand School of Dance 50th Anniversary Celebration—with Royal New Zealand Ballet. This is a relatively recent post so its position in the year’s top five indicates what a drama has been raging in New Zealand. Its comments are among the best I have had on this site.

5. RAW. A triple bill from Queensland Ballet. It is only recently that I have had many opportunities to see Queensland Ballet. The company goes from strength to strength and its repertoire is so refreshing. I’m happy to see the 2017 program RAW, which included Liam Scarlett’s moving No Man’s Land, on the top five list.

The top five countries, in order, whose inhabitants logged on during 2017 (with leading cities in those countries in brackets) were Australia (Sydney), the United States (Boston), the United Kingdom (London), New Zealand (Wellington), and France (Paris).

  • Some activities for early 2018

In January the Royal Academy of Dance is holding a major conference in Brisbane, Unravelling repertoire. Histories, pedagogies and practices. I will be giving the keynote address and there are many interesting papers being given over the three days of the event.

Then, in February I will be giving the inaugural Russell Kerr Foundation lecture in Wellington, New Zealand, and will speak about the career of New Zealand-born designer Kristian Fredrikson. The event will take place on 11 February at 3 pm in the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Music. The lecture will follow a performance (courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet) of Loughlan Prior’s LARK, created for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 2017.

Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 'Lark' from 'whY Cromozone'. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing
Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in LARK from whY Cromozone. Tempo Dance Festival, 2017. Photo: © Amanda Billing
  • Press for December 2017

‘History’s drama illuminated by dance.’ Review of dance in the ACT during 2017. The Canberra Times, 27 December 2017, p. 22. Online version

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And a very happy and successful 2018 to all. May it be filled with dancing.

2017 weave hustle and halt. Australian Dance Party
weave, hustle and halt. Australian Dance Party, 2017. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2017

Featured image: Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in 'Bennelong.' Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey