Shaun Parker. The epic journey continues

When I interviewed Shaun Parker in 2017 for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program, his concluding remark was that it had been such a pleasure to be able to talk about ‘the epic journey of past, present and future.’ It was a wonderful way to finish the interview and it gave me the opportunity to write a story, largely about the past and in particular about the origins of Parker’s iconic work Blue Love, for The Canberra Times. Follow this link to read that story.

But Parker has not stood still since that interview. He is currently in Taipei with dancer Libby Montilla. Montilla will be performing Parker’s 20 minute solo work, ReMOTE, at the Kuandu Arts Festival as part of a triple bill program called Vis a Vis. In addition to ReMOTE, the program will feature works by choreographers from Canada and Taiwan.

‘It is wonderful to be performing our work alongside such incredible international artists’, Parker says. ‘And it really helps develop our connections with audiences and festivals across Asia. While we are in Taipei, Libby and I will also be researching new ideas with a Taiwanese bubble artist for a new show. It is going to be a jam-packed time, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.’

Parker has spent a lot of his time outside of Australia touring the works he has made over the 9 years since he founded Shaun Parker & Company in 2010. The company has toured to 19 countries across four continents and shown its work to a quarter of a million people globally. And to help with the development of this global reach, Parker has just recently secured a generous three-year sponsorship from the New York-based Denise and Michael Kellen Foundation. The Foundation, Parker says, has become the company’s ‘Global Partner’ and the sponsorship will help facilitate many programs that Parker believes are anchored in education, social change, and community engagement through the arts. In particular the sponsorship will help Shaun Parker & Company enter the US market.

But in the meantime Parker is working towards a program to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Shaun Parker & Company in 2020. He is planning to return to the stage himself in a revival of Blue Love. After a break from performing he is relishing getting back into training.

‘As a dancer you will always have a desire to dance for an audience again,’ he says. ‘As a choreographer, it is also really important to keep in touch with your body, but also with the energetic relationship between performer and audience.’

In the revival of Blue Love Parker will be performing with his original co-creator and performer, Jo Stone. ‘Jo is an actress who can dance,’ Parker says. ‘And I am a dancer who can act. Sparks fly when we’re on stage together.’

It is a pleasure too to be able to report that Shaun Parker & Company has been nominated as a finalist in the Premier’s NSW Export Awards. The awards ceremony is in Sydney on 16 October.

Michelle Potter, 2 October 2019

Featured image: Portrait of Shaun Parker (supplied)

Read my review of Blue Love from its Canberra performance in 2017 at this link.

Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

Dance diary. September 2019

  • The Australian Ballet 2020

The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season, announced earlier this month, looks to be the most interesting the company has offered for years. I was thrilled to see that Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina was on the list. Although I haven’t seen this particular work I was lucky enough to see San Francisco Ballet perform Possokhov’s Rite of Spring back in 2013. It was totally mesmerising and I can’t wait to see Anna Karenina.

Another work I have seen elsewhere, which I am also anticipating with pleasure, is Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country, which dates back to 1976. Seeing it just a few years ago I wrote, ‘I found myself swept along by a strong performance from Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and by Ashton’s ability to define characters through movement. The young, the old, different levels of society, everything was there in the choreography’.

The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season includes A Month in the Country as part of a triple bill, Molto, which also comprises Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory, one of his best works I think, and a revival of Stephen Baynes’ crowd pleasing Molto Vivace. A Month in the Country needs strong acting (as no doubt Anna Karenina does too), so fingers crossed that the company’s coaching is good.

For other good things on the 2020 program, including Graeme Murphy’s delayed Happy Prince and a new work, Logos, from Alice Topp, see the Australian Ballet’s website.

  • In the wings

Two stories that were meant to be posted in September were held up for various reasons. One is a profile of Shaun Parker who is currently in Taiwan performing at the Kuandu Arts festival in Taipei. The other is Jennifer Shennan’s account of a tribute held recently in Wellington to celebrate 40 years of teaching by Christine Gunn at the New Zealand School of Dance. Jennifer’s story is reflective and personal without ignoring the stellar input from Gunn over 40 years.

The issues that delayed these two posts have been sorted and the stories will appear shortly.

Portrait of Shaun Parker.
  • Press for September 2019

None! I am reminded of Martin Portus’ comment to me in a recent email ‘Ah! The death of the [print] outlet!’


Michelle Potter, 30 September 2019

Featured image: Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

Dance diary. May 2019

  • David McAllister to retire

The news for May is headlined by the announcement that David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet since 2002, will retire at the end of 2020. McAllister has always been generous in situations that are about dance but fall outside performances. He launched, for example, two of my books, A Collector’s Book of Australian Dance and Dame Maggie Scott. A Life in Dance. In this month’s featured image (above) he is seen in the Chunky Move studios in Melbourne launching A Collector’s Book. The banner on the left shows an image that appears in the book and that was taken by Greg Barrett.

I have also enjoyed seeing McAllister at various conferences, including the first BOLD Festival held in Canberra in 2017.

Who will be the next director? The names that have been mentioned in the press so far (I have arranged them alphabetically by family name) include Leanne Benjamin, David Hallberg, Li Cunxin, Graeme Murphy, and Stanton Welch. One or two of them have declared they are not interested (not sure if I necessarily believe that). I have one or two others in my mind but I won’t mention them here! I do hope, however, that whoever survives the selection process and becomes McAllister’s successor will be someone who will be audacious in repertoire choices.

  • Shaun Parker and Company

In September 2010, dancer (and singer in the counter tenor mode) Shaun Parker registered a name: Shaun Parker and Company. Next year the company that bears that name will celebrate its 10th anniversary with, I believe, a special program.

The company has just recently returned from the Middle East and Austria where Parker’s most recent production, KING, was performed. In the meantime, Parker is now working on a new show for young people, IN THE ZONE, which will premiere in Sydney this coming September. It will feature street dancer Libby Montilla and the technology of AirSticks.

Scene from KING, Shaun Parker and Company, 2019. Photo: © Prudence Upton
  • Archibald Prize 2019

Among the finalists for the 2019 Archibald Prize, Australia’s well-known portrait prize hosted by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, was a portrait entitled Mao’s Last Dancer by Chinese-born artist Jun Chen. Chen, who is currently based in Brisbane, was commissioned last year by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to paint a portrait of Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet. It was one of twenty portraits commissioned to celebrate the Gallery’s twentieth anniversary. Chen followed up with a second portrait of Li and entered it for the Archibald Prize. While it didn’t take first place it was good to see a portrait of a dancer among the 2019 finalists. See all the finalists here.

Mao’s Last Dancer: Jun Chen’s portrait of Li Cunxin
  • Following new posts

I have had a number of requests recently asking how to join up to receive notification of new posts. Here’s how to do it:

1, Make a comment by going to the ‘Leave a reply’ form, which you will find at the end of every post.
2. Before hitting the ‘Post comment’ field, check the box that says ‘Notify me of new posts by email’. (Make sure you have also filled out your name and email address. A website address is not necessary).
3. After you have submitted the comment you will receive a follow-up email asking you to confirm. It will say ‘Confirm follow’. Once you have clicked on this field you should begin to receive notifications of new posts.

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2019

Featured image: David McAllister launching A Collector’s Book of Australian Dance, Melbourne 2003. Photo: © Lynkushka

Blue Love. Shaun Parker & Lucia Mastrantone

17 August 2017. Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

I have to admit to being curious as to what Blue Love would be like. The last time I saw Shaun Parker he was a dancer with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre and, for a whole variety of reasons, I had not seen the works he had performed in or made after leaving the company and taking on his own, independent career. Well, I have to say I loved what he presented in Blue Love. It was outrageous at times, very clever at others, sometimes hilarious, and always entertaining.

Much of the pre-show media mentioned that it was a multi-media experience, which it was, especially as a result of the three short films that were screened during the evening. Parker had made these films close to 20 years ago and they showed him and his original co-performer, Jo Stone, engaged in various social activities, occasionally of a somewhat dubious nature. But, as interesting as these films were as a look-back at a certain lifestyle from the 1970s, I was more taken with other aspects of the show.

The way in which Parker involved the audience was a bit like a children’s pantomime for grown-ups, beginning as we entered the auditorium and were welcomed as guests at an intimate party in the home of Glenn Flune (Parker) and his wife Rhonda (Lucia Mastrantone). And you wouldn’t believe the people who were there! As people walked in and settled into their seats, Parker kept spotting (imaginary) celebrities—from Cate Blanchett to Pauline Hanson! Warming up to the laughter all this caused, Parker continued throughout the piece to ask questions of and make comments to the audience. Perhaps the most startlingly hilarious was ‘Would you like a grape?’ during a near nude scene between the Flunes. Glenn Flune’s only covering (apart from shoes and socks) was a strategically placed bunch of grapes. He faced the audience displaying his grapes and asked the question.

Shaun Parker and Lucia Mastrantone in 'Blue Love'. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Shaun Parker and Lucia Mastrantone in Blue Love, Canberra 2017. Photo: © David James McCarthy

I also loved the dance moves that peppered the piece. In fact the dancing in Blue Love was often quite physically demanding. There were many times when Parker lifted Mastrantone and flung her this way and that—not easy by any means. And both performers just took those moves in their stride. Then there were the costumes, so redolent of the 1970s. Mastrantone wore a blue mini-length dress and boots, Parker a brown suit. Then there were the flowers in the hair, the fox fur wrap, the hairstyles, and so on.

Shaun Parker and Lucia Mastrantone in Blue Love, Canberra 2017. Photo: © David James McCarthy

But in the end Blue Love set out to examine human relationships, or those between a man and a woman, in a search for perfect love. There were the cosy bits and the not so cosy, and the unfolding of the ups and downs of the couple led to the finale when the dialogue was composed pretty much entirely of lines from popular songs, mainly from the 1970s with some a little earlier and some a little later. Much laughter here too—laughter that we recognised the sentences, laughter at how smart it all was? And with the final exhortation to love the one you love the Flunes retired to their bedroom.

Blue Love was just a wonderfully entertaining show, behind which there was a clever mind at work focusing the show in a certain direction. I occasionally could hear Meryl Tankard’s voice behind it all, which is not surprising given Parker’s long association with Tankard. This is not to say that Parker does not a have a voice of his own. But there was a wonderful association with what Tankard was able to do—present a larrikin show, wonderfully Australian on the surface but with a more serious subtext. More please.

My preview story for Blue Love is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 20 August 2017

Shaun Parker and Lucia Mastrantone in Blue Love, Canberra 2017. Photo © David James McCarthy

Blue Love. Shaun Parker & Company

Recently I spoke to Shaun Parker about his work Blue Love, which will have a short season at the Canberra Theatre Centre later in August. I was somewhat taken aback (to put it mildly) when I saw the byline for the article that appeared in the print version, and its digital copy, of the The Canberra Times (Panorama) this morning (Saturday 5 August 2017). Apparently someone thought Karen Hardy wrote it. She didn’t. I did. Here is the unchangeable byline I saw this morning.

Here is my text.

Dancer and choreographer Shaun Parker always enjoyed taking dance classes as a young boy in Mildura, Victoria, where he was born. But he went on after he’d finished school to study science at Monash University, and it was there that dance re-entered his life. He discovered a dance society at Monash and found himself dancing every night. Dance, with its wide range of collaborative elements, became an all-consuming passion for him and he enrolled at the Victorian College of the Arts with the aim of eventually pursuing a professional career as a dancer.

Not long after graduating from his tertiary dance training he was selected by Meryl Tankard to join her company, Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre, which was just starting up in Adelaide. He stayed with Tankard for seven years, touring across Australia and around the world with her company.

‘It was a wonderful time with Meryl,’ he says. ‘They were formative years for me and it was such a great experience to learn from her and to be exposed to her knowledge. I was heartbroken when Meryl was removed from her role as artistic director. We were leading the world when she was dismissed. It was brutal and a very traumatic time. All the dancers resigned in protest.’

Parker worked as an independent dancer for the next six years with companies in Australia and overseas, including with leading choreographers and directors such as Kate Champion in Australia, Meredith Monk in New York, and Sasha Waltz in Berlin. But eventually the lure of choreography took over and he began working as a freelance choreographer. It was not long, however, before he realised how difficult it was to work in that way, self-producing, writing grants alone, under-taking all the administrative tasks single-handedly, and so on. It was time, he thought, to set up his own company. It took a year or two of organisation, but Shaun Parker & Company came into being in 2010.

‘I needed someone to help me with the day to day aspects of working independently,’ he explains. ‘Now I have that, and I have a group of dancers that I call on from project to project. I make mainstage dance-theatre works with a humanistic element. And, now that I have a daughter—she’s 11, I have begun making works for families and children. This latter part of my work gives me a lot of joy.’

For Canberra, Parker is restaging Blue Love, a work that began back in 1999 when Parker and fellow performer, Jo Stone, were working in Vienna. They went to a karaoke bar one night and started singing along for fun. Parker says they were ‘daggy pop songs’, but they were all about love and it struck him that sometimes a one-liner from a pop song could be intense and meaningful. It set off a chain of events that culminated with Parker and Stone making three short films, shot in North Bondi. The films were screened around the world—Athens, Berlin, Krakow, London, Melbourne, San Francisco, Verona.

Blue Love, the stage show incorporating the films, premiered in 2005. It examines the idea of perfect love and takes the audience on a multi-media expedition in search of the perfect relationship through the experiences of a couple, Glenn Flune played by Parker and his wife Rhonda performed by Lucia Mastrantone. It is a work that Parker describes as part lecture, part operatic theatre, and part group night, and the films are projected onto the wall of the room that forms the set. They become the home movies of Glenn and Rhonda, which they share with the audience.

But Parker also remarks that Blue Love is a highly physical work and he is only too aware of its demands on his body, especially as he has not performed himself for a while now. So he has been taking ballet classes, doing yoga, doing push-ups, running along the beach, and engaging in other physical activities to get back his former strength. But he says he keeps thinking about what he has to offer audiences who come to see Blue Love now.

‘Bringing Blue Love back after several years allows me to dance for a little longer. It’s wonderful to feel that I haven’t yet been put out to pasture. I think it’s a shame that, after all those years of training, dancers are often cast aside when they are quite young. It’s possible to celebrate maturity. When audiences look at the films we are screening, which were made 18 years ago now, they can see young people. But on stage they see an older couple clearly looking back at a former version of themselves. To me that’s quite poetic.’

Michelle Potter, 5 August 2017

Featured image: Shaun Parker and Lucia Mastrantone in Blue Love.  Photo: Simon Wachter