Dance diary. July 2021

  • La Bayadère. A problematic ballet?

Houston Ballet has, as a result of concerns and protests from various groups, removed its production of La Bayadère from its current season. The ballet looks back to the nineteenth century when ‘orientalism’ or interest in ‘exotic lands’ beyond Europe was a much-used theme in ballets and other theatrical productions. Recent media reports from Houston have suggested that the ballet contains ‘orientalist stereotypes, dehumanizing cultural portrayal and misrepresentation, offensive and degrading elements, needless cultural appropriation, essentialism, shallow exoticism, caricaturing’ and more.

In Australia, in addition to the middle act, ‘Kingdom of the Shades’, which has often been seen out of its context within the full-length ballet, we have seen three different productions of the full-length Bayadère. Two have been performed by the Australian Ballet—Natalia Makarova’s production staged by Makarova herself during the directorship of Ross Stretton and seen in 1998, and Stanton Welch’s production made originally for Houston Ballet, which is the one recently cancelled, staged on the Australian Ballet in 2014. As well, Greg Horsman produced a new version for Queensland Ballet in 2018.

I have no intention of commenting on the issues raised in Houston, although I am especially interested in ideas about cultural appropriation. But I will say that I thought Greg Horsman’s rethink of the work for Queensland Ballet was a winner from a number of points of view. Horsman has commented to me that he thought his restaging was not, in general, well received. Horsman’s version turned the story on its head somewhat and gave audiences much to ponder, so it is a shame that it hasn’t been shown and discussed more widely. Here is a link to my review of the Horsman production.

Front cloth for Queensland Ballet's 'La Bayadere'. Design Gary Harris
Gary Harris’ front cloth for Greg Horsman’s 2018 production of La Bayadère for Queensland Ballet

  • Philip Chatfield (1927–2021)

Philip Chatfield, who has died aged 93 on the Gold Coast just south of Brisbane, came to Australia in 1958 on the momentous tour by the Royal Ballet. He and his wife, Rowena Jackson, stand out in my memories of that tour, especially for the roles of Swanilda and Franz in Coppélia. Just a few months before they left London on that tour, Chatfield and Jackson married and at the end of the tour settled in New Zealand where Jackson was born. Chatfield became artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet (1975–1978) and they both taught at the National Ballet School, now New Zealand School of Dance. Chatfield and Jackson moved to the Gold Coast in 1993 in order to be closer to family members.

Jennifer Shennan’s obituary for Chatfield is not yet available, but a link will be added in due course.

For more on the Royal Ballet’s Australasian tour of 1958–1959 see this link. There is contentious material contained in that post and in the several comments it received (although not about Chatfield and Jackson).

  • Sydney Choreographic Centre

The recently established Sydney Choreographic Centre, a project headed by artistic director Francesco Ventriglia and managing director Neil Christopher, has moved into its new premises in Alexandria, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. It will be the home of the Sydney Choreographic Ensemble and will offer a range of courses and open classes. A launch has been postponed due to the Sydney lockdown.

For more information about the Centre, and the courses that will commence once covid restrictions have been lifted, see the Centre’s website at this link.

  • And we danced

The third episode of And We Danced, a three part documentary charting the growth of the Australian Ballet, has now been released and all three episodes are currently available (for a limited time) on ABCiview. The second episode remains in my mind the strongest and most interesting, but the third episode does contain some interesting material and again has a focus on social and political matters as they have affected the Australian Ballet. A longer post on the third session follows soon but at this stage I can’t help but mention how moving I found the archival footage of Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Goldsmith was the original Odette in this production and her immersion in the role was exceptional.

Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2002. Photo: © Jim McFarlane
  • Late addition

For just the second time in 60 or so years of watching dance (and even performing it), I walked out of a show. I found Joel Bray’s I liked it but …. unwatchable. I left because I really couldn’t accept the way that various dance styles were described. Perhaps it changed later after I had left, I don’t know, but basically I am opposed to dance, in whatever format, being put down, often in a way that seems ignorant of the true nature of that format.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2021

Featured image: Ako Kondo in Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Sylvie Guillem and the Sydney Choreographic Centre

News flash: The Sydney Choreographic Centre has just announced that Sylvie Guillem is to take on the role of international patron of the Sydney Choreographic Centre. Artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has said of the appointment:

I could not be more thrilled and honoured that Sylvie has agreed to become SCC’s International Patron. I want the Centre to be a place of inspiration and there is no one in the dance world more recognised or inspiring than Sylvie.

Well for those of us who have seen Guillem dance in various situations this appointment augurs well and I hope her input will be extensive, if from afar. I don’t think I have ever really recovered from Guillem’s production of Giselle for the Finnish National Ballet, which I had the good fortune to see twice way back in 2001. The intelligence behind what was a truly inspired production was remarkable. I hope that in some way Ventriglia and his team will be able to harness some of that passion and inspiration to add to what they already have.

Michelle Potter, 4 May 2021

Featured image: Sylvie Guillem in Sacred Monsters. Photo: ©Tristram Kenton

Postscript: Apologies to anyone who accessed this news item in the first few minutes of posting. The hated autocorrect kept changing Sylvie to Sylvia! I think it is all fixed now.

GRIMM. Sydney Choreographic Centre

16 April 2021. Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

GRIMM is the first work from the newly established Sydney Choreographic Centre and a world premiere from its director, Francesco Ventriglia. It takes an unusual look at some of the characters from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), examining the emotions of these fairytale characters and the passage they make from youth to maturity. We meet, for example, Snow White, the Frog Prince, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. We watch as they are pressured by a black clad figure, an evil character encompassing stepmother, witch and any other malevolent figure from a Grimm story. By the end every one of them had been transformed. Even the black clad Evil One (my name for this character) took on a new guise and appeared finally as a figure enveloped by golden clothes and shining lights. 

Ariella Casu (centre) with dancers of the Sydney Choreographic Centre in the final moments of GRIMM, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Asher Smith

Ventriglia’s choreography was fast-paced and filled with astonishing lifts with arms and legs constantly being thrown in all directions. It was quite angular most of the time. I waited for some moments of stillness, and the occasional feeling of roundness and softening of the limbs, but the angularity continued throughout. The duet between Snow White and her partner came closest to having a sense of calm and smoothness, but only occasionally. All the performers were, however, outstanding dancers and I especially admired the strength and emotional power of Ariella Casu, both as the Evil One and in the final moments when her black costume was stripped away to reveal a different side (perhaps?) of her character. 

Although I wished for more diversity in the choreography, at least in its immediate impact, I was stunned by the absolutely brilliant, very contemporary visual effects throughout. The lighting by Alex Berlage left a lot of the stage quite dark for much of the time but the strong side and down lights were exceptional in the way they highlighted the various characters. The projections by Marco Giani were quite minimal in most cases—just narrow rectangles of light filled with largely abstract designs, although they clearly represented forces of nature. But they too added to an understanding of who the characters were and never detracted from the movement. Costumes by James Acheson, especially for the main characters, were impressive and again a strong sense of the contemporary in design was clear.

On the night I attended the performance the audience reaction was astonishing—cheering, stamping on the floor and the like. It took me back to the days when audiences seemed to go wild with excitement at the ballet (as far back as Borovansky even). Let’s see what happens with the next show from this bold new venture.

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2021

Featured image: Holly Doyle as Red Riding Hood is carried off by wolves in GRIMM. Sydney Choreographic Centre, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Asher Smith

Dancers of the Ballet du grand Théâtre de Genève in Francesco Ventriglia's Transit Umbra, 2010. Photo: © Vincent Lepresle

Dance diary. February 2021

  • Sydney Choreographic Centre

To establish a new choreographic venture, the Sydney Choreographic Centre, Francesco Ventriglia, formerly artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, has returned to the southern hemisphere after leaving New Zealand ‘to pursue opportunities overseas’. The Centre, co-founded by Neil Christopher as its general manager, is located in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria and will open in March with an intensive program for emerging choreographers and the opportunity to take class with the resident dancers of the Centre: Ariella Casu, Victor Zarallo, Holly Doyle, Brittany-jayde Duwner and Alex Borg.

The Centre’s first production, Grimm, with choreography by Ventriglia, will open in April at the Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres Parramatta. ‘Expect the unexpected in this very modern version of old stories,’ we are told.

For more on the Centre and its programs, and on the new ballet Grimm, visit the Centre’s website.

In 2014 I had the pleasure of interviewing Ventriglia in Wellington for Dance Tabs. Follow this link to retrieve the DanceTabs article.

  • Oral history news

After an hiatus of very close to 12 months, I was finally able to get back to recording oral history interviews. Given the problems associated with dance in the media, oral history is one very significant way in which careers of those in the dance world can be documented for posterity. Early in February I interviewed Ruth Osborne, artistic director of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2. The interview focused largely on Ruth’s connections with the choreography of Gertrud Bodenwieser and those who carried on her legacy in Australia, in particular Margaret Chapple and Keith Bain. The interview is yet to be fully processed but when that process is completed it will be available online through the National Library’s catalogue.

Ruth Osborne, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Ruth Osborne, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

A little later in the month I recorded Part 1 of what is potentially a two part interview with fashion designer Linda Jackson. Her colleague, the remarkable Jenny Kee, is lined up for April.

  • Tanya Pearson, OAM (1937-2021)

The much admired Sydney-based teacher Tanya Pearson died in February. See an obituary for her in Dance Australia at this link, and watch a lovely 30 minute tribute, filmed in 2012.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

Another review, this time from Lee Christofis, appeared in the March issue of Limelight Magazine. It is a rather special review as Christofis knows something of the backstory behind the National Library’s Papers of Kristian Fredrikson, as his opening paragraph reveals. The online version is locked to non-subscribers but see this link for a taster. The full review is also available in the print edition for March.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2021

Featured image: Dancers of the Ballet du grand Théâtre de Genève in Francesco Ventriglia’s Transit Umbra, 2010. Photo: © Vincent Lepresle