Portrait of David McAllister by Peter Brew-Bevan, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Dance diary. April 2021

  • David McAllister awarded Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award

Congratulations to David McAllister, recently retired artistic director of the Australian Ballet. McAllister received the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award at a special event in Sydney, an award administered by the Royal Academy of Dance. McAllister joins a group of extraordinary individuals from the world of ballet who have been recipients of this award. They include Frederick Ashton, Maina Gielgud, Robert Helpmann, Gillian Lynne, Rudolf Nureyev and Marie Rambert. McAllister has had what is perhaps an unprecedented career with the Australian Ballet. Following training at the Australian Ballet School beginning in 1961, he was a performing artist with the company for 18 years followed by a role as artistic director for another 20 years.

For posts about David McAllister on this website see this tag. While it is available, listen to this interview with McAllister by Fran Kelly.

But in particular see (and listen) to this enticing McAllister story from the National Portrait Gallery inspired by the Peter Brew-Bevan portrait used as the featured image above.

  • Tammi Gissell and Mundaguddah

Mundaguddah is a dance/music collaboration between composer Brian Howard and dancer/choreographer Tammi Gissell. It will premiere on 9 May 2021 at the National Gallery of Australia during Australian Dance Week and is a co-presentation by Ausdance ACT and the Canberra International Music Festival. It will have two showings only, at 12pm and 2 pm.

In Mundaguddah (the spirit of the Rainbow Serpent in Murrawarri language), Gissell explores the idea of personal pre-history in a tribute to the Murrawarri spirit who demands we look, listen, and keep moving in the right direction.

Tammi Gissell in a study for Mundaguggah, 2021. Photo: © Anthony Browell
Tammi Gissell in a study for Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Anthony Browell

Tammi Gissell has featured previously on this website, especially for her work with Liz Lea. Follow this link to read earlier posts. To buy a ticket to Mundaguddah, and to read a little more about the legend of the Rainbow Servant, follow this link.

  • The GOLDS. Tenth anniversary

It’s a little hard to believe that the GOLDS, Canberra’s dance group for older people, is ten years old. But the group celebrated its tenth anniversary in April 2021 with performance excerpts from some of its previous shows, along with a new work, Forever Young, from founder of the GOLDs, Liz Lea. Perhaps the most memorable performance excerpt for the evening was that from Martin del Amo’s Grand Finale, which was originally one section from Great Sport!, an award-winning production held at the National Museum of Australia in 2016. Program notes written by del Amo for the Great Sport! show described Grand Finale as, ‘A team of elegantly clad men and women. engaged in a mysterious game. Collectively celebrating diverse individuality. On their own terms…’

The celebratory event also included short speeches by a number of people connected with the GOLDs group, including two of the current directors of the group, Jacqui Simmonds and Jane Ingall; founder Liz Lea; and Ruth Osborne who spoke on the role the GOLDs have played with QL2Dance. For more about the GOLDs and their performances see this tag.

  • Australian Dance Week 2021

In the ACT Australian Dance Week 2021 was launched at Belconnen Arts Centre on 29 April, International Dance Day, by ACT Minister for the Arts, Tara Cheyne. The event celebrated diversity in dance and included a message from Friedemann Vogel at Stuttgart Ballet, along with performances of Indigenous dance as part of the Welcome to Country, as well as short performances of pop n lock, Indian and burlesque dance.

Burlesque dancer Jazida distributes mini cakes at the ACT launch of Dance Week 2021
  • Fabulous flamenco!

Check out the latest playlist from Jacob’s Pillow featuring clips from performances at the Pillow from flamenco dancers. Here is a link. I have never seen flamenco ‘on pointe’ before, but Irene Rodriguez in the 2019 performance clip from Amaranto shows us how it is possible. Amazing work from her.

  • Site news

Updates and fixes were carried out on the website during April. The main fix was to the search box. It had somehow collapsed and was not retrieving search terms as it should. It is now fixed, thankfully. I also had added, thanks to the team at Racket, a new ‘subscribe’ option. It is now on the home page just under the box headed ‘View full tag cloud’.

Visits to the site have increased dramatically over the past few months with page views going from around 3-4,000 to 8-9,000 a month. Perhaps not surprisingly the most visited area during April was the tag Liam Scarlett.

Thanks to all those who follow On dancing.

  • Press for April 2021

From Michelle: Review of The Point by Liz Lea Dance Company. Limelight, 30 April 2021. Online magazine only at this link.

From Jennifer: Obituary for Liam Scarlett. Dominion Post, 30 April 2021, p. 19. Online version,

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2021

Featured Image: The Dance—David McAllister. © 2016 Peter Brew-Bevan. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Portrait of David McAllister by Peter Brew-Bevan, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra



New York Dialects. The Australian Ballet

17 April 2021 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The first thing to say about this first Sydney program for 2021 from the Australian Ballet is that the dancers look fabulous. They are in terrific form in a technical sense and seem absolutely to relish being back onstage after a grim 2020. Watching them perform was a real thrill.

The program was certainly an interesting one and at the end it became clear what the ‘dialect’ of the title was (or was not) all about. The language of each of the three works, Serenade and The Four Temperaments, both by George Balanchine, and Watermark by Pam Tanowitz, was very much about the vocabulary of ballet (contemporary and otherwise) and the way that vocabulary can be arranged onstage. I’m not sure, however, that this is specifically a New York dialect, except that the two choreographers are or were New Yorkers. If we think of dialect as being a form of language specific to a particular region, it seems to me that what we saw was a choreographic dialect from people who happen to be New Yorkers. I guess I didn’t much like the title of the program. But I did like the dancing and in some cases the choreography.

Serenade has always been a beautiful way to start a program. Although Balanchine liked to say his ballets didn’t usually have a story behind them, I love those moments when there is a backstory there. In Serenade there is the girl who arrives late, for example, and also the mystery ending when two dancers embrace and one is then lifted high and carried into the distance. What has happened? What will happen? Then there’s the opening scene. It always generates a frisson of delight, even though it is expected.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in the opening scene of Serenade, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Throughout the work, Balanchine’s masterful groupings and use of the stage space, and his particular take on the classical vocabulary, are clearly on view. A work to watch over and over.

Second on the program was a new work from Pam Tanowitz, Watermark. I have to ignore that title because it seemed meaningless in relation to the work. Tanowitz’s vocabulary was quirky in parts, with its beats done with feet as if in first position, its jerky arm and hand gestures and its frequent use of drooping bodies. Tanowitz counts former Cunningham dancer Viola Farber as one of her mentors and where the vocabulary was not so eccentric it reminded me a lot of the Cunningham style with its off centre movements and its jetés that never tried to look as though they were like splits in the air.

I also wondered why a line of dancers, midway through the piece, needed to come onstage from the auditorium? And I couldn’t enjoy the ending when the stage space was virtually empty and all the dancers were lined up along the wings. It just seemed like trying too hard to be different. This is the second work by Tanowitz that I have seen and I can’t say I have really enjoyed either of them.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in a scene from Watermark, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Four Temperaments was beautifully danced. Some of Balanchine’s vocabulary in this work might also be called quirky but its flow and role in the overall piece was arresting rather than seeming out of place. There is a coherence there.

The Sydney Opera House was making an exceptional effort with its COVID plan, even though the venue was pretty much at 100% capacity. But one aspect of it all was exceptionally annoying. Cast sheets were not available so it was not always possible to identify the performers with accuracy (and so I have not mentioned any names in this review). There was the option to scan a cast list onto one’s phone but how would that list look on a screen the size of a phone, apart from the fact that there is nothing more annoying than audience members looking at their phones during a performance. At least there could have been a cast sheet affixed to a board somewhere in the foyer. Next time I guess I need to print off a cast list from the Australian Ballet’s website and trust that it will be accurate on the day? Perhaps we could have been warned in advance? Or did I miss something along the line?

Michelle Potter, 20 April 2021

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in a moment from The Four Temperaments, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

.

Dance diary. January 2021

  • Garry Stewart to leave Australian Dance Theatre

I have to admit to being slightly taken aback when I heard that Garry Stewart would relinquish his directorship of Australian Dance Theatre at the end of 2021. He leaves behind an incredible legacy I think. My first recollection of his choreography goes back to the time in the 1990s when he was running a company called Thwack! I recall in particular a production called Plastic Space, which was shown at the 1999 Melbourne Festival. It examined our preoccupation with aliens and I wrote in The Canberra Times, ‘[Stewart’s] dance-making is risky, physically daring and draws on a variety of sources….’ I also wrote program notes for that Melbourne Festival and remarked on three preoccupations I saw in his work. They were physical virtuosity, thematic abstraction and technology as a choreographic tool. Most of Stewart’s work that I have seen with ADT has continued to embody those concepts.

Although since the 1990s I have seen fewer Stewart works than I would have liked, the three that have engaged me most of all have been G (2008), Monument (2013), which I regret was never seen outside Canberra, and The Beginning of Nature (2018), which won the 2018 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Performance by a Company.

At this stage I don’t know where life will lead Garry Stewart after 2021 but I wish him every success. His contribution to dance in Australia has been exceptional.

  • Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet Digital Season

The last time I saw Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, made in 1963 for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, was in 2018. Then I had the good fortune to see Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli leading a strong Royal Ballet cast. It was in fact the standout performance on a triple bill. I also remember seeing a remarkable performance by Sylvia Guillem as Marguerite when the Royal visited Australia in 2002, although I was not so impressed with her partners. (I saw two performances with different dancers taking the male role on each of those occasions).

Zenaida Yanowsky and Roberto Bolle in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet, 2017. From the Royal Ballet website

The streamed performance offered by the Royal Ballet recently featured Zenaida Yanowsky and Roberto Bolle. It was filmed in 2017 and was Yanowsky’s farewell performance with the Royal Ballet. She is a strong technician and a wonderful actor and her performance was exceptional in both those areas. Yet, I was somewhat disappointed. Bolle was perhaps not her ideal partner. Yanowsky is quite tall and seemed at times to overpower Bolle. But in addition I found her take on the role a little cold. She was extraordinarily elegant but I missed a certain emotional, perhaps even guileless quality that I saw in Ferri and Guillem.

  • La Fille mal gardée. The Royal Ballet

The Royal Ballet is once more streaming a performance of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, this time featuring Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in the leading roles. But, as I was investigating the streaming conditions and watching the trailer, I came across a twelve minute mini-documentary about the ballet, focusing especially on its English qualities. It is a really entertaining and informative twelves minutes and includes footage of the beautifully groomed white pony, called Peregrine, who has a role in the ballet. We see him entering the Royal Opera House via the stage door and climbing the stairs to the stage area. Isn’t there a adage that says never share the stage with children or animals? Well Peregrine steals the show in this documentary! But there are many other moments of informative and lively discussion about the ballet and the documentary is worth watching. Link below.

  • The Australian Ballet on the International Stage. Lisa Tomasetti’s new book

Lisa Tomasetti is a photographer whose work I have admired for some time. She has a great eye for catching an unusual perspective on whatever she photographs. Late in 2020 she issued a book of photographs of the Australian Ballet on various of its international tours, including visits to London, New York (and elsewhere in the United States), Beijing, Tokyo and Paris. This book of exceptional images is available from Tomasetti’s website at this link.

  • Coming in April: The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet

The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet has been a long-time in production but it will be released in April. The book is extensive in scope with a wide list of contributors including scholars, critics and choreographers from across the world. Here is a link to information about the publication. The list of contents, extracted from the link, is at the end of this post.

  • Sir Robert Cohan (1925-2021)

I was sorry to hear that Sir Robert Cohan had died recently. He made a huge impact on contemporary dance and its development in the United Kingdom, and his influence on many Australian dancers and choreographers, including Sydney-based artists Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser, was exceptional. An obituary in The Guardian, written by Jane Pritchard, is at this link.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

The Canberra Times recently published a review of Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in its Saturday supplement, Panorama. The review was written by Emeritus Professor of Art History at the Australian National University, Sasha Grishin. Here is the review as it appeared in the print run of the paper on 16 January 2021.

The review is also available online at this link and is perhaps easier to read there.

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2021

Featured image: Garry Stewart. Photo: © Meaghan Coles (www.nowandthenphotography.com.au)

Photos by www.facebook.com/meaghancoles.nowandthenphotography

CONTENTS FOR THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF CONTEMPORARY BALLET

Acknowledgments
About the Contributors
Introduction
On Contemporaneity in Ballet: Exchanges, Connections, and Directions in Form
Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Jill Nunes Jensen
Part I: Pioneers, or Game Changers
Chapter 1: William Forsythe: Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and the Forsythescape
Ann Nugent
Chapter 2: Hans van Manen: Between Austerity and Expression Anna Seidl
Chapter 3: Twyla Tharp’s Classical Impulse
Kyle Bukhari
Chapter 4: Ballet at the Margins: Karole Armitage and Bronislava Nijinska
Molly Faulkner and Julia Gleich
Chapter 5: Maguy Marin’s Social and Aesthetic Critique
Mara Mandradjieff
Chapter 6: Fusion and Renewal in the Works of Jiří Kylián
Katja Vaghi
Chapter 7: Wayne McGregor: Thwarting Expectation at The Royal Ballet
Jo Butterworth and Wayne McGregor
Part II: Reimaginings
Chapter 8: Feminist Practices in Ballet: Katy Pyle and Ballez
Gretchen Alterowitz
Chapter 9: Contemporary Repetitions: Rhetorical Potential and The Nutcracker
Michelle LaVigne
Chapter 10: Mauro Bigonzetti: Reimagining Les Noces (1923)
Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel
Chapter 11: New Narratives from Old Texts: Contemporary Ballet in Australia
Michelle Potter
Chapter 12: Cathy Marston: Writing Ballets for Literary Dance(r)s
Deborah Kate Norris
Chapter 13: Jean-Christophe Maillot: Ballet, Untamed
Laura Cappelle
Chapter 14: Ballet Gone Wrong: Michael Clark’s Classical Deviations
Arabella Stanger
Part III: It’s Time
Chapter 15: Dance Theatre of Harlem: Radical Black Female Bodies in Ballet
Tanya Wideman-Davis
Chapter 16: Huff! Puff! And Blow the House Down: Contemporary Ballet in South Africa
Gerard M. Samuel
Chapter 17: The Cuban Diaspora: Stories of Defection, Brain Drain and Brain Gain
Lester Tomé
Chapter 18: Balancing Reconciliation at The Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Bridget Cauthery and Shawn Newman
Chapter 19: Ballet Austin: So You Think You Can Choreograph
Caroline Sutton Clark
Chapter 20: Gender Progress and Interpretation in Ballet Duets
Jennifer Fisher
Chapter 21: John Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet: A Legacy
E. Hollister Mathis-Masury
Chapter 22: “Ballet” Is a Dirty Word: Where Is Ballet in São Paulo?
Henrique Rochelle
Part IV: Composition
Chapter 23: William Forsythe: Creating Ballet Anew
Susan Leigh Foster
Chapter 24: Amy Seiwert: Okay, Go! Improvising the Future of Ballet
Ann Murphy
Chapter 25: Costume
Caroline O’Brien
Chapter 26: Shapeshifters and Colombe’s Folds: Collective Affinities of Issey Miyake and William Forsythe
Tamara Tomić-Vajagić
Chapter 27: On Physicality and Narrative: Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern (2017)
Lucía Piquero Álvarez
Chapter 28: Living in Counterpoint
Norah Zuniga Shaw
Chapter 29: Alexei Ratmansky’s Abstract-Narrative Ballet
Anne Searcy
Chapter 30: Talking Shop: Interviews with Justin Peck, Benjamin Millepied, and Troy Schumacher
Roslyn Sulcas
Part V: Exchanges Inform
Chapter 31: Royal Ballet Flanders under Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Lise Uytterhoeven
Chapter 32: Akram Khan and English National Ballet
Graham Watts
Chapter 33: The Race of Contemporary Ballet: Interpellations of Africanist Aesthetics
Thomas F. DeFrantz
Chapter 34: Copy Rites
Rachana Vajjhala
Chapter 35: Transmitting Passione: Emio Greco and the Ballet National de Marseille
Sarah Pini and John Sutton
Chapter 36: Narratives of Progress and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal
Melissa Templeton
Chapter 37: Mark Morris: Clarity, a Dash of Magic, and No Phony Baloney
Gia Kourlas
Part VI: The More Things Change . . .
Chapter 38: Ratmansky: From Petipa to Now
Apollinaire Scherr
Chapter 39: James Kudelka: Love, Sex, and Death
Amy Bowring and Tanya Evidente
Chapter 40: Liam Scarlett: “Classicist’s Eye . . . Innovator’s Urge”
Susan Cooper
Chapter 41: Performing the Past in the Present: Uncovering the Foundations of Chinese Contemporary Ballet
Rowan McLelland
Chapter 42: Between Two Worlds: Christopher Wheeldon and The Royal Ballet
Zoë Anderson
Chapter 43: Christopher Wheeldon: An Englishman in New York
Rachel Straus
Chapter 44: The Disappearance of Poetry and the Very, Very Good Idea
Freya Vass
Chapter 45: Justin Peck: Everywhere We Go (2014), a Ballet Epic for Our Time
Mindy Aloff
Part VII: In Process
Chapter 46: Weaving Apollo: Women’s Authorship and Neoclassical Ballet
Emily Coates
Chapter 47: What Is a Rehearsal in Ballet?
Janice Ross
Chapter 48: Gods, Angels, and Björk: David Dawson, Arthur Pita, and Contemporary Ballet
Jennie Scholick
Chapter 49: Alonzo King LINES Ballet: Voicing Dance
Jill Nunes Jensen
Chapter 50: Inside Enemy
Thomas McManus
Chapter 51: On “Contemporaneity” in Ballet and Contemporary Dance: Jeux in 1913 and 2016
Hanna Järvinen
Chapter 52: Reclaiming the Studio: Observing the Choreographic Processes of Cathy Marston and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Carrie Gaiser Casey
Chapter 53: Contemporary Partnerships
Russell Janzen
Index

Backstage, Her Majesty's Theatre Melbourne, New York City Ballet tour, 1958. Photo Walter Stringer

The Four Temperaments. Some reflections

The Australian Ballet’s 2021 season will include performances of George Balanchine’s work, The Four Temperaments, a ballet that had its world premiere in 1946. Then it was performed by Ballet Society, the forerunner to New York City Ballet, in the auditorium of the Central High School of Needle Trades in Manhattan (now the High School of Fashion Industries). For an explanation of the title of the ballet see this link from the George Balanchine Trust website.

Researching the ballet, ahead of its (hopefully live) performances in 2021, has uncovered some fascinating stories, articles and recollections by those who have danced in it over the years, and about the company that first performed it, Ballet Society. According to Bernard Taper in Balanchine. A Biography, Ballet Society was ‘a most peculiar venture’ that was organised by Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein to encourage the production of new works. It was to be an organisation that ‘would cater only to an elite subscription audience’. The press was not invited to the first production, which consisted of The Four Temperaments and Maurice Ravel’s The Spellbound Child (L’enfant et les sortilèges) as staged by Balanchine with an English translation of a text from Colette. The press, however, managed to get to see the show by ‘buying their own subscriptions’ or ‘sneaking into the auditorium on performance nights’. So began a ballet that was ground breaking then and is still remarkable today. It is more often than not described as ‘A dance ballet without plot’ (Balanchine’s subtitle), but according to Taper ‘[it] seemed to demonstrate that ballet could do anything that modern dance could do—and more.’

It was not (and is not) an easy ballet to dance. In the beginning there were the costumes to contend with. The original costumes were designed by Swiss-American artist Kurt Seligmann and were somewhat extravagant and not easy to wear. In Barbara Newman’s Striking a balance, Tanaquil LeClercq, who danced in the corps de ballet in the original production, recalls:

I had a large nylon wig that came down to about my rear end. It had a large pompadour, and it had a large white horn in the middle like a unicorn’s, which made it difficult to do all the things [Balanchine] had made. That was number one. Very irritating. You come to dress rehearsal, and if you swing your arm close to your head, suddenly there’s a horn. The other thing was that [Kurt] Seligmann had made wings, red wings, fingers enclosed, and there was no place to get out. If you got into your costume and then got something in your eye or wanted to unzip yourself to get out, you couldn’t. Once you tied your toeshoe ribbons, that was it. It gave you a  feeling of claustrophobia I can’t describe. All enclosed. Not even gloves with fingers—no fingers at all. It was hideous.

The Seligmann costumes were eventually abandoned and were replaced from 1951 by simple practice clothes, black leotards for the women, and black tights and a white T-shirt for the men, which are still worn today.

Then there was the choreography. Merrill Ashley, in her memoir Dancing for Balanchine, speaks of some of the choreography she found difficult. She danced the leading role in the Sanguinic section when the work was revived for New York City Ballet after slipping out of the repertoire for some years. She writes:

There was one movement about which [Balanchine] was particularly concerned. He wanted me to step backward on pointe and then, without traveling at all, put my heel down flat on the floor and let my body fall back—without losing control. Actually the step was meant to make me look as if I had fallen off pointe suddenly, and was therefore falling back. It was very difficult, especially lowering the foot without moving the heel at all. I wasn’t able to do it right, but when Balanchine told me that no one else had ever done it correctly either, I felt a little better. Although I come closer to it now,  I still move my foot as I lower my heel.

Quite recently the NYCB website published an article by NYCB’s Manager, Editorial and Social Media, Madelyn Sutton. It is well worth a read and it also contains two video snippets. Read and watch at this link.

In Australia, The Four Temperaments premiered in 1985 when the Australian Ballet was under the directorship of Maina Gielgud. The ballet was staged by Victoria Simon and appeared on a program with Balanchine’s Serenade and the first performance of Robert Ray’s The Sentimental Bloke. (It is perhaps of interest to note that in 2021 The Four Temperaments will be part of a similarly constructed program, which will also include Serenade and the first performance of a newly commissioned work from New York-based choreographer Pam Tanowitz). Later, in 2003, Australian audiences saw it on an Australian Ballet program called American Masters, which also included Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries and Jerome Robbins’ In the Night. Again it was staged by Victoria Simon. It was brought to Australia by New York City Ballet in 1997 when that company toured to the Melbourne Festival, and was last performed here by the Australian Ballet in 2013 as part of its Vanguard season. Then it was staged by Eve Lawson. I am curious to know who will stage it in 2021.

Michelle Potter, 13 January 2021

Featured image: Backstage at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, during the 1958 tour to Australia by New York City Ballet, 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia.

(The Four Temperaments was not performed during this 1958 tour. I just like the image and my use of it reflects difficulties associated with permission to use images of The Four Temperaments. The article by Madelyn Sutton mentioned above contains some very nice images.)

Backstage, Her Majesty's Theatre Melbourne, New York City Ballet tour, 1958. Photo Walter Stringer

Bibliography

  • Ashley, Merrill. Dancing for Balanchine (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984)
  • Balanchine, Georg, and Francis Mason. Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet (New York: W. H Allen & Co, 1984)
  • Newman, Barbara. Striking a balance. Dancers talk about dancing. Revised edition (New York: Limelight Editions, 1982)
  • Taper, Bernard. Balanchine. A Biography (New York: Times Books, 1984)

Dance diary. December 2020

The best of everything to those who have followed this website over the past year. Thank you for your loyalty. And here’s hoping that 2021 will be one that is filled with dance, even live dance perhaps? Stay safe and healthy.

  • Highlights of 2020 (on and off stage)

I was very fortunate to see the opening night performance of Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince. It had a short run in Brisbane in February but showings elsewhere were cancelled due to the pandemic. I really would like to see it again as there was a lot there that needed a second look. I hope we will see it again, given that the leadership of the Australian Ballet has changed.

Adam Bull as the Prince in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

By mid year we were still not back in the theatre but Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party created Lake March in which, over several weekends in August, eight dancers, accompanied by two musicians, made their way around Canberra’s three lakes. They paused briefly on occasions to engage with each other and with the rather surprised audience of joggers, bike riders and so on who were also using the lakeside for exercise. Lake March won Plevey a Canberra Critics’ Circle award in December. The citation read:

For courageously working within the restrictive conditions generated by COVID-19 to bring an innovative and entertaining production of dance and live music, presented in several outdoor venues, to an audience of dance goers and the wider Canberra community. Alison Plevey for Lake March.

Australian Dance Party in a moment from Lake March. Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

In October we were able to venture into the theatre for a QL2 Dance program featuring a work called Sympathetic Monsters by Jack Ziesing. It was an absorbing work in terms of its choreographic structure and in its thematic content.

Of course I watched many streamed performances over the course of 2020. It was more than interesting to see close-up images of faces and expressions and also details of costume. Nothing can replace a live performance but I derived much pleasure from streamed performances, especially from companies I wouldn’t normally see. Borrowed Light from Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company in collaboration with Boston Camerata was perhaps the most outstanding example. I was transfixed by this performance and have Jacob’s Pillow to thank for streaming it as part of the Pillow’s Virtual Festival 2020.

Dancers from the Tero Saarinen Company in Borrowed Light. Photo: © Christopher Duggan
  • Sunil Kothari (1933–2020). Indian dance critic

I was saddened to hear of the death of Indian dance writer Sunil Kothari from complications of COVID-19. He visited Australia on a number of occasions and I recall a talk he gave in Canberra for the Canberra Critics’ Circle, several years ago now. He was a passionate advocate for dance and was a mentor to Padma Menon, who performed extensively in Canberra during the 1990s.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer featured as the ‘Publishing Spotlight’ in the Summer 2020–2021 edition of the newsletter of the Friends of the National Library of Australia. The review was written by Friends Committee Member and well known Canberra-based arts and craft specialist, Meredith Hinchliffe. Follow this link to read the review.

  • Site news

At this time of year it is always interesting to look back at which posts were most popular over the course of the year. Leading post was the obituary for Athol Willoughy (and 2020 is not the first year that an obituary has taken first place). Following on were Thoughts on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring (still popular after all these years); Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet; Terrain. Bangarra Dance Theatre; and Moon Water. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan.

Most visits came from Australia followed by the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and France.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2020

Featured image: Gum blossoms, Canberra, 2007 (detail). Photo: © Nick Potter

A New Era. The Australian Ballet in 2021

Ever since the announcement that David Hallberg was to become the new artistic director of the Australian Ballet, there has been speculation about what he might bring to the company. With his extraordinary background across the world, including extended periods as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre in New York and Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, as well as guest seasons with major companies around the world, including an extended position as principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet, it has seemed obvious that he would have much to offer. His contacts, and his wide personal experience, would ensure that he would be able to bring a diverse repertoire of works to the Australian Ballet. The announcement of the Australian Ballet’s season for 2021 shows exactly that.

David Hallberg, 2020. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The season is made up of a gala opening program in Melbourne, two mixed bill programs and three full-length works. Sound familiar? Looking more closely, however, the individual content of each season might be seen as somewhat unexpected. The opening season for Sydney dance goers is New York Dialects. It consists of two works by George Balanchine, Serenade and The Four Temperaments, which show somewhat different aspects of Balanchine’s output; and a newly commissioned work from Pam Tanowitz. Who could not look forward to Balanchine? But I am curious to see what Tanowitz produces as the one work of hers that I have seen (Solo for Russell for a New York City Ballet streaming program) left me cold I have to say.

The other mixed bill has two vastly different works both based on the balletic vocabulary—Petipa’s third act from Raymonda and William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite. I had the pleasure once of seeing the full-length Artifact but have never seen the Suite that Forsythe created from the full-length version. I look forward to the Suite and I am sure it will contain all the startling aspects (blackouts, lowering of the front curtain in mid-performance, and so on) that characterise the full production. An interesting choice from Hallberg.

As for the full-length works, we will get to see (I hope, anyway) Anna Karenina with choreography by Yuri Possokhov, whose choreography I admire immensely; John Cranko’s familiar Romeo and Juliet; and Alexei Ratmansky’s revival of the long-lost Harlequinade, originally created by Petipa in 1900.

Robyn Hendricks in a study for Anna Karenina. Photo: © Justin Ridler

What has impressed me so far is the way Hallberg speaks about the repertoire for the 2021 season. His words are straightforward and clear but they don’t dumb things down at all. His discussion of the Counterpointe program, for example, he says

The juxtaposition of Raymonda and Artifact Suite shows the evolution of classical ballet. Raymonda adheres to tradition and pageantry; Forsythe took this history and ‘imitated’ it, creating a work that overwhelms both dancers and audience with gestural references given new meaning. These seminal works both counteract and perfectly complement each other.

It has also been interesting rereading his autobiography A body of work. Dancing to the edge and back (New York: Atria Paperback, 2017). Now he is the new artistic director, the sections in his book where he talks about seeking to understand more about the nature of ballet take on a new meaning. During the reread I especially admired his enquiring mind, and his interest in an analytical approach to certain aspects of his career.

Hallberg has good connections already with the Australian Ballet as a result of guesting with the company on various occasions, and from the extended time he spent in Melbourne being treated for injury by the company’s rehabilitation team. He is an exceptional dancer (oh those beats!) and I clearly recall the first time I saw him in 2010 in Kings of the Dance. ‘Hallberg danced with classical perfection,’ I wrote. But despite all the positive signs, he has to prove that he can direct a company successfully. A new era? Fingers crossed.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2020

Featured Image: Brett Chynoweth in a study for Harlequinade. Photo: © Pierre Toussaint

David McAllister and Liz Toohey in the Bluebird pas de deux from 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 1984. Photo: Walter Stringer

Celebrate David McAllister

The recently released online tribute to retiring director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, has much to enjoy. Titled Celebrate David McAllister, it is hosted by Virginia Trioli with concept and curatorship from Fiona Tonkin. Tonkin, towards the end of the stream, explains the origin of the initiative.

We never gave up David. We had mainstage galas set for you, we had a one-off ‘gala-ette’, and now we have this online streaming tribute. We could not let COVID-19 stop us offering you a collective, heartfelt thank you

In three parts, it covers first up McAllister’s performing career with some wonderful footage—those fabulous turns in La Fille mal gardée—; the second looks at what Trioli refers to as ‘some of the milestones David has achieved’ during his term as artistic director; and in the final section artists from around the world—dancers, choreographers, directors, crew and others—pass on memories and good wishes for the future.

I especially enjoyed the final section. Some messages were a little tearful, others somewhat hesitant, but all were heartfelt. I loved Liz Toohey leaning forward towards the camera and saying ‘best partner in the world’. Then there was Lisa Pavane stringing together adjectives that began with D, then A, then V, then I and then D again. And just fancy Richard Evans, Executive Director 2002-2007, being taught Giselle in his kitchen (by David of course). ‘I can’t look at Giselle the same way again,’ Evans admits ‘It was a famous night.’

Below is a link to the full feature.

As a sideline to the above, a short video made by the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the Peter Brew-Bevan photograph, part of the NPG collection, is also a good watch, even though it has no focus on the retirement. See this link.

And on a personal note, David launched two of my books A collector’s book of Australian dance (2002) and Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance (2014). He is a terrific speaker! Now there’s a potential future.

David McAllister launches 'Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance'
David McAllister launching Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance, Australian Ballet Centre, Melbourne 2014

Michelle Potter, 15 December 2020

Featured image: David McAllister and Liz Toohey in the Bluebird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 1984. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

David McAllister and Liz Toohey as Princess Florisse and the Bluebird in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 1984. Photo: Walter Stringer

Coppélia. The Australian Ballet. Digital Season 2020

The Australian Ballet’s production of Coppélia dates back to 1979—thirty-one years ago—when it was staged by Peggy van Praggh with George Ogilvie as dramaturg. This 2020 digital screening was dedicated to Ogilvie, who died in April of this year. There is little doubt that Ogilvie’s input had a lot to do with the long-lasting success of the ballet and in fact he returned to work with the Australian Ballet for its 2016 production, which is the one we see in this online screening. Of course it can’t be denied that the visual beauty of the production, with sets and costumes by Kristian Fredrikson, added to its success. Fredrikson, who was born in Wellington, New Zealand, admitted that he designed Coppélia as a tribute to van Praagh who, back in the 1960s, gave him the opportunity to work in Australia. He regarded van Praagh as the person who nurtured his early career. It was indeed a lovely tribute from Fredrikson since Coppélia was a work in which van Praagh herself had shone during her own dancing career.

Peggy van Praagh as Swanilda. 'Coppélia', Act 11, 1940s. Photo: Anthony
Peggy van Praagh as”Swanhilda” (i.e. Swanilda) in Coppélia, Act 11, 1940s. Photo: Anthony. National Library of Australia

The dancing in many of the productions of Coppélia I have seen has often been of a rather mixed quality. But not this time. Led by Ako Kondo as Swanilda, Chengwu Guo as Franz and Andrew Killian as Dr Coppélius, with a stunning supporting cast, there was little to complain about, and everything to admire as far as performance goes.

Ako Kondo in the Spanish variation in Coppélia Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Kondo shone technically and in her acting, as did Guo. I especially loved the moments in Act I where the two of them stood in line to greet the official party arriving in the village square with Kondo declining, in no uncertain terms, to hold Guo’s hand (he had been paying too much attention to the doll on Dr Coppélius’ balcony). I also admired the grand pas de deux in Act III, which unfolded beautifully and was technically spectacular.

Andrew Killian was an interesting Dr Coppélius, not too over the top but very believable as an eccentric man totally absorbed in perfecting his magical powers. There was a lovely, calm rendition of the Prayer solo in Act III from Robyn Hendricks. And the corps de ballet deserves special mention for the vibrantly performed character dances in Act I. The Mazurka had its leading couple, but Guo joined in with a solo that added some spectacular moments in true principal artist fashion—exceptionally controlled turns, magnificent jumps and a truly beautiful showman-style use of head, chest and arms

As has been the case with pretty much every streamed production I have watched recently, it was great to see the occasional close-up shot of an individual dancer to give us a view of facial expressions and, of course, to give insight into the details of costumes.

My review of a 2016 performance, which I saw in Sydney with a quite different cast is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 20 July 2020

Featured image: Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in the grand pas de deux in Coppélia Act III. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Postscript: It was extremely annoying that the cast sheet that was available on the Australian Ballet’s website, supposedly to give us information about the cast, was not the correct one. It was dated the evening performance in Sydney of 16 December 2016 but the cast was entirely different from the one we saw, who also, apparently, performed on 16 December. Perhaps there was a matinee performance on 16 December? But at least there were credits at the end of the film, which helped.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Dance diary. June 2020

  • On streaming

The current corona virus situation has given us many opportunities to see streamed productions from many of the world’s best companies. Some have been thrilling, and have been works, or have involved casts, that I am unlikely to see outside this streaming arrangement. One or two, however, have left me wondering.

The Australian Ballet’s decision to stream its 1986 production of Giselle was an odd one I thought. In the thirty-four years since 1986 much has changed in terms of filming techniques and in what we expect from dancers. I was underwhelmed in particular by the poor quality of the footage and I was not a fan of the characterisations of the leading characters, except perhaps by that of Paul de Masson as Hilarion. Techniques are stronger now as well.

It was also touted as Maina Gielgud’s production, which it no doubt was even it was staged by Colin Peasley. But Gielgud had been director of the company for just a few years in 1986 and, having seen more recent productions that have involved her input, most recently in 2018 but also in 2015, her production has grown in so many ways. Could we not have had something closer to 2020? The 1986 recording was a poor choice.

Then there was Smuin Ballet’s staging of Stanton Welch’s Indigo. I have often wondered about Indigo made originally for Houston Ballet in 1999. Its title seemed curious: how do you make a ballet about a colour? Well of course the title referred to the colour of the costumes, although that is also something of a curiosity to my mind. That aside, I was really disappointed by Welch’s choreography. It was filled with jerky staccato movements and I longed for a bit of lyrical relief. It also seemed to sit awkwardly, I thought, on the physiques of the Smuin dancers. But at least now I have seen it and needn’t muse about the title any more.

  • Australian activity in New Zealand

It is interesting to note that two Australian choreographers are to have their work performed in the coming months by Royal New Zealand Ballet, which will shortly return to full-scale performing. Alice Topp’s Aurum will be part of a mixed bill program called Venus Rising. The program is due to take place in August/September and will also feature works by Twyla Tharp, Andrea Schermoly, and Sarah Foster-Sproull.

See these links for my reviews of Aurum: Melbourne (2018), Sydney (2019). In both cases Aurum was part of a triple bill called Verve.

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Alice Topp's 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Alice Topp’s Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Later, in October through to December, Danielle Rowe, former principal with the Australian Ballet and now making a name for herself as a choreographer, will present her new Sleeping Beauty, also for Royal New Zealand Ballet.

For more information see the website of Royal New Zealand Ballet.

  • Australian Dance Awards

The closing date for nominations for the 2019 and 2020 Australian Dance Awards has been extended. These two sets of awards cover work presented in 2018 and 2019. The closing date is now 20 July. For further information and to nominate follow this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2020

Featured image: Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Giselle. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

A little closer to 2020!

La Fille mal gardée. The Royal Ballet. Digital Season 2020 (and some memories)

I had the pleasure recently of watching, via its digital streaming season, a performance by the Royal Ballet of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée. It featured Marianela Nuñez as Lise and Carlos Acosta as Colas and dates back to 2005. The partnership between Nuñez and Acosta was technically outstanding and delightful from the point of view of the interactions between the two dancers. Ashton’s choreography, of course, was full of beautiful and often unexpected movements, including his constant use of epaulement; and scenes that I relished seeing again—the storm scene for example, with the cast rushing hither and thither was quite absorbing.

Below is a link to the Act I Pas de ruban.

But the production also brought back memories of some other productions I had seen, and some wider contextual issues that have arisen over the years.

Memories of Fille

  • Paris Opera Ballet

Perhaps the most memorable production I have seen was a performance by the Paris Opera Ballet in 2009. It happened on 14 July, the French national day, so there were one or two moments before and during that performance where that significance of that day was not forgotten. Here is a link to the review I wrote.

  • A thoughtful young man

On a contextual issue, I am curious about the image below from an Australian Ballet performance of Fille during the 1970s. Who is the young man standing there looking thoughtful? I have my suspicions! The image was taken by Walter Stringer and is part of his collection held in the National Library in Canberra. Sadly, the colour is fading, or changing, and I have had to put a filter on it so that the face of the dancer is a little clearer.

Dancers in a 1970s Australian Ballet production of La Fille mal gardée. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

(Update on the photograph above: Confirming my suspicion, those who know suggest the thoughtful young man is Graeme Murphy).

  • Alan Alder

And on another contextual issue, I recently made a timed summary of an oral history interview I did with Alan Alder back in 1999. The interview and its summary will shortly go online. In the meantime, below I have posted a short (1 min 12 secs) excerpt from the interview.

Alder was well-known for his portrayal of Alain, Lise’s rich but slightly unusual suitor in Fille, both during his time with the Royal Ballet and later with the Australian Ballet. The role was created by Ashton on Alexander Grant, and later the role was taken on by Donald Britton. But due to circumstances, which Alder explains in the interview, while with the Royal Ballet’s touring company Alder took over the role from Britton. On one occasion, when the touring company was in Edinburgh, Ashton decided to take a trip from London to see how Alder was handling the role. In the brief extract below Alder speak of Ashton’s reaction.

  • David Vaughan

The production by the Royal also brought back memories of my late colleague David Vaughan, former archivist for the Merce Cunningham company and author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets. Cunningham and Ashton were the two choreographers Vaughan admired most of all (although some correspondence I had with him shortly before he died suggests that, had he lived on, he would have added Alexei Ratmansky to that list). But I often wondered what he considered were the characteristics of Cunningham and Ashton that drew him towards these two choreographers. Did he see similarities in their approaches to choreography? Sadly, I never asked and now I will never know.

Michelle Potter, 16 June 2020

Featured image: Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta in La Fille mal gardée. The Royal Ballet, 2005. Photo: © Bill Cooper/ROH