My attention was first drawn to La Meri, an American dancer who specialised in ethnic dance from around the world, by my teacher Valrene Tweedie. When La Meri visited Australia and New Zealand in 1936, Tweedie had been inspired by her performances and mentioned them in an oral history interview I recorded for the National Library in 1988. Later, when I was acquiring the Papers of Moya Beaver also for the National Library’s dance collection, I came across the image that is featured on this post. So, clearly another Australian dancer from the 1930s was inspired by La Meri —inspired enough to seek out and keep a photograph of her.
Jacob’s Pillow has just released a podcast using material from its archive in which we can listen to La Meri talking briefly about her career and her vision for ethnic dance. She also mentions the origins of her name and its relationship to her birth name of Russell Meriwether Hughes. Here is a link to the podcast, which includes briefly the voice of Ted Shawn, also drawn from the Pillow’s archive.
Now I am looking forward to reading Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter’s book, La Meri and her life in dance, published in October 2019.
Michelle Potter 23 March 2020
Featured image: La Meri in Goyesca dance. Papers of Moya Beaver, National Library of Australia. MS 9803. (Detail only for the header image; full image below).
I finally got round to getting myself a copy of the DVD Never stand still: dancing at Jacob’s Pillow. And I’m so glad I did. What is particularly satisfying about this DVD documentary is that there is no promotion of a particular company or a person and no media hype. It’s simply about dance in its many and varied forms. ‘Dancing is direct and honest,’ says Mark Morris, one of the several illustrious interviewees appearing on Never stand still. And that’s what we get: direct, honest and simply beautiful dance.
A few sections particularly stood out for me, although others will have their own favourites I am sure. I especially enjoyed segments featuring Mark Morris and his dancers, perhaps because those works of his I have seen recently have not impressed me to any great extent—Beaux danced by San Francisco Ballet and Pacific from Houston Ballet, both of which I saw earlier this year, left me feeling underwhelmed. Never stand still has some lovely footage from Morris’ Italian Concerto and LoveSong Waltzes and a brief look at a work called Falling Down Stairs, which Morris made in conjunction with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom we also see on the DVD. The excerpts from these works show quite clearly what Morris is best known for, his astonishing musicality. And Morris is a forthright and articulate speaker in his interview segments.
I was also especially taken with Shantala Shivalingappa, a solo Kuchipudi dancer born in Madras and raised in Paris. What an amazingly expressive body she has and how she uses it to her advantage. Every movement fills the space and she seems to linger a little at the high point of each movement before seamlessly continuing to the next.
Segements featuring Suzanne Farrell speaking about her transition from Balanchine ballerina to company director make interesting viewing as do excerpts from Balanchine ballets she has set on her own company. Natalia Magnicaballi, a principal with Suzanne Farrell Ballet, is startlingly good in the lead in Tzigane.
Gideon Obarzanek makes an appearance and there are excerpts from his work I want to dance better at parties performed by Chunky Move. I also loved the all too brief footage from Bournonville’s Napoli courtesy of the Royal Danish Ballet, along with a brief discussion of the Danes making their first appearance in the United States at the Pillow at the invitation of Ted Shawn. Then there’s Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Judith Jamison, tap, vaudeville…so much more.
Interspersed throughout the contemporary footage is rare archival material showing some of the early performances at Jacob’s Pillow along with an underlying narrative about Shawn and the founding of the this renowned festival, an annual event held at Becket, Massachusetts, in the beautiful surroundings of the Berkshire Hills. If you’ve been there it will bring back wonderful memories not just of the variety of dancing on offer, but of that glorious outdoor stage, those barns and the spectacular surrounding countryside. If you have not had the good fortune to be there Never stand still will make you want to pack your bags for 2014.
Never stand still is so worth watching and is available online at the usual places for quite a small amount of money, even with our dollar falling against the greenback. Watch the trailer below.
During August The Canberra Times published my Canberra preview for Bangarra’s current production, Belong, and also my reviewof the Canberra season of the Dancers Company production of Don Quixote. The Dancers Company was a breath of fresh air for dance goers in the national capital, especially for those interested in ballet as a genre of dance.
I was especially impressed by Hannah O’Neill and Benedicte Bemet. It is well known now that Hannah O’Neill has a seasonal contract, beginning this month, for the Paris Opera Ballet, so it was good to see her in this early stage of her professional career. She was dancing beautifully as one of Kitri’s friends. She also took the role of the Queen of the Dryads in the dream sequence and it is not too much to say that her serenity in the Queen’s solo, in part deriving from her technical assurance, was thrilling to watch.
But it was Benedicte Bemet, also dancing as one of Kitri’s friends, and as Cupid in the dream scene, who really captured my attention. She too handled skillfully the quite different but equally demanding technical requirements of Cupid’s solo. But what really stood out was her engagement with the art form rather than with just the technique. Her dancing appears to come from deep within the soul. I hope she doesn’t lose such a rare and wholly engrossing quality as she moves into a professional company.
Ted Shawn and Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild
Ted Shawn was the subject of an August post that drew some comments, including one regarding the sponsorship of the Shawn visit by Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild. While on the hunt for information about a production of The Little Mermaid, a work choreographed by Rex Reid and designed by Kristian Fredrikson for Martyn in 1967, I discovered that Shawn was a patron of Martyn’s company, which was variously called Ballet Guild, Victorian Ballet Company and Ballet Victoria depending on the date. Shawn’s name appears on programs as a patron of the company from at least 1958 through to at least 1968 (and perhaps before and after those dates? I have yet to examine earlier and later programs).
Paul De Masson
In last month’s dance diary I mentioned Paul De Masson and indicated that he was to perform in the Melbourne season of Checkmate in the Australian Ballet’s British Liaisons program. I have since discovered from Paul that this is no longer happening. It is unclear why, although it seems not to be his health!!
In August I also had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection with costume designer Jennifer Irwin. Long standing followers of Sydney Dance Company will remember her many costume designs for Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, while those who have followed Bangarra will recall that she and Peter England produced costumes and sets for some of Bangarra’s most celebrated productions across the two decades of its history to date.
Irwin’s other design credits include the ‘Awakening’ section of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Opening Ceremony, much of the Closing Ceremony and the musical Dirty Dancing. In October audiences will see her designs for Stephen Page’s production of Bloodland for Sydney Theatre Company, and in 2012 her commissions include two new works for the Australian Ballet.
Land, sea and sky: contemporary art of the Torres Strait Islands
While in Brisbane for the Queensland Ballet Gala, I took the opportunity to visit an exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art called Land, sea and sky: contemporary art of the Torres StraitIslands. The exhibition included a variety of dance materials. Particularly interesting were several ‘dance machines’, hand held objects manipulated by dancers to give extra strength to the narrative line of the dance. I loved the one made by Patrick Thaiday and commissioned especially for the exhibition. It comprised 20 ‘machines’ each constructed as a stylised, blue cumulus cloud, made of wood and painted with white stars. From each cloud radiated a series of small, movable, dark red poles each with a white star at its top point. It was easy to imagine a dance representing the movement of the stars across the sky using these devices as a major inclusion.
Footage of Dennis Newie teaching dances on the beach to Islanders of various ages was another important feature of the show.
The Australian Ballet’s 2012 season
Late in August the Australian Ballet announced its season for 2012, its 50th anniversary year. What a great program it looks like too. In May I posted on the English National Ballet’s Swan Lakeand remarked how satisfying it was to see a traditional version of this ballet, as much as I love Graeme Murphy’s new take on it. So I am especially looking forward to seeing Stephen Baynes’ new but old version, which will be seen first in Melbourne in September before moving on to Sydney in November.
The year will open with a triple bill of new works by Australian choreographers: Graeme Murphy, Stephen Page and Gideon Obarzanek. Something to anticipate!
Back in May of this year I was lucky enough to see the exhibition of works by photographer E. O. Hoppé at the National Portrait Gallery in London. My post relating to that show concerned portraits of Margot Fonteyn and Olga Spessivtseva. The National Portrait Gallery’s show, Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street, closed shortly after I’d written that post but images of American dancer Ted Shawn, which were part of the Portrait Gallery show, have continued to resonate in my mind ever since.
One, taken in 1922, is a head and shoulders portrait of Shawn in Tillers of the Soil, a stylised dance he created in which he and his wife, the dancer Ruth St Denis, represented an ancient Egyptian couple tilling the soil. The portrait of Shawn is a bold one. And Shawn was a strong, athletic man whose contribution to world dance included the founding of a dance centre in the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts where he trained a group of male dancers, young college athletes who worked on the farm during the morning and trained in the barn during the afternoons. This centre is still used for dance and is the home of the famous Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
Shawn also brought his distinctive brand of dance to Australia in 1947 at the invitation of an enterprising woman in Perth, Ida Beeby, director of the Patch Theatre Guild and Dance School. Shawn gave a series of lectures and several solo programs of dance in Perth. His repertoire was eclectic and uncompromisingly his own. It included dances of American Indian origin, a Japanese sword dance, some Flamenco dances, and an American cowboy number ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ From Perth he took a side trip to Arnhem Land and entertained indigenous dancers at Delissaville, who in fact had come to entertain him, with his rendition of a whirling dervish dance. After Perth he moved on to perform his solo shows in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
Like most artists who visited Australia in the first decades of the twentieth century, Shawn was not averse to making predictions about the future of Australian dance. He wrote regarding Perth:
‘Perth, due to its unique isolation, is ideally the place where a new dance form, growing out of this continent, using the forms of other countries and of the past as a sort of cultural “humus,” can be born, nourished until its integrity is fully established, and then ray out to the rest of Australia and the world’.
Shawn’s visit to Australia has scarcely been examined in this country. A small collection of programs from his Perth seasons is part of the ephemera collection of the National Library of Australia. But Edward Pask in Ballet in Australia. The second act, 1940–1980, the only survey we currently have of Australian dance covering the period of Shawn’s Australian interlude, makes no mention of the visit. I believe, however, there may be archival film footage of his Australian visit in the Jacob’s Pillow Archive at Becket, Massachusetts.