Études/Circle Electric. The Australian Ballet

15 May 2024 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Études and Circle Electric—it is hard to imagine two more different ballets (or perhaps dance works is a better expression than ballets). But they were the two works that shared the Australian Ballet’s Sydney program in May.

Danish-born Harald Lander choreographed Études in 1948 for the Royal Danish Ballet. It is essentially a non-narrative work (an unusual departure for the Danish company at that time) and is based on the structure of a ballet class. It begins with exercises at the barre and moves on to centre work building up to various, often complex, aspects of a class. There are many moments when we can see the relationship between class work and the art of ballet as it appears onstage. This happens as the choreography develops patterns and groupings of dancers, and also in references to other well-known productions, including the Danish classic, August Bournonville’s La Sylphide.

Circle Electric, on the other hand, is a newly commissioned work from recently appointed resident choreographer for the Australian Ballet, Stephanie Lake. The official synopsis says that the work ‘starts as a microscopic investigation of the intricate and the intimate, ultimately expanding to encompass a telescopic view of humanity.’

Circle Electric opened the program and for a moment it looked promising as two lines of dancers, positioned close together and wearing startling costumes (designer Paula Levis), held their arms to the front with fingers dramatically stretched out, then lifted the arms skywards, heads looking up expectantly.

A moment from the opening scene of Circle Electric. The Australian Ballet 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But suddenly the dancers leaned forwards/downwards and engaged in a weird set of shivers, shakes and odd poses. They reminded me of animals in a zoo to tell the truth. Then they stretched upwards again, and dropped down again. This would not have been so bad had there only been one or two iterations of the up/down construction. But it went on and on and on. It was, admittedly, broken up between repeats with duets from other dancers (costumed quite differently) coming out from the wings but then rushing back before the up/down bit began again. Why repeat so many times? It was just frustrating to see it over and over and over again.

The frustrations continued as the work progressed. The many sections that followed seemed not to relate to each other and, when we got past the ‘intricate and intimate’ bit, crowds of dancers came together as a group of some kind and shouted across the stage to each other. Then they turned on the audience and shouted at us. Why?

Then there was the length of the piece. After a 1:30pm start, interval came at about 2:45pm. That’s 70+ minutes of what seemed like disconnected material. It was just too long and much repeated material could easily have been removed. A 30 minute piece perhaps?

The best part of Circle Electric was the outstanding dancing. The bodies of the highly trained dancers of the Australian Ballet can adapt pretty much to any style and they did adapt beautifully to Lake’s individualistic contemporary style.

After Circle Electric, Études was blessed relief. It has an engrossing beginning with its choreography reflecting exercises at the barre made to look so theatrically engaging with shaded lighting and moments when only feet, or some other sections of the body, are lit up. What follows is equally engrossing as it leads us through more examples of ballet technique put side by side with reflections on what makes it to the stage. It is a technically demanding work and there were times when a few wobbles occurred. But basically it was a thrill to watch. All I want to say is, ‘What a relief!’.

I find it hard to understand how David Hallberg would appoint a resident choreographer whose creative impulses can deliver something like Circle Electric, even more so when looking back at the choreographers who have held the position of resident choreographer over the past decades (going way back to Maina Gielgud’s tenure as director). Dance must move ahead for sure, but 70 minutes of dance that seems composed of sections and sections of movement that appear not to have any overall coherence just doesn’t cut it for me (especially when I paid $215 for my ticket).

Michelle Potter, 17 May 2024

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in an early moment from Etudes, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Carmen. The Australian Ballet

17 April 2024 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Changes to artistic directorship in any dance company invariably bring changes to repertoire and this current production of Carmen is quite unlike the Carmen many older dance-goers may remember—Roland Petit’s Carmen first performed by the Australian Ballet in 1973. The current production, created in 2015 by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger, follows the love life of Carmen as told originally in Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella. But Inger has recontextualised the story, giving it something of a focus on the relationships, often violent and aggressive, between men and women.

But wider than repertoire, new directors usually have a personal vision for a company. Two comments from audience members in relation to Inger’s Carmen, had me thinking about Hallberg’s vision for the Australian Ballet. One person was moved to say, ‘The choreography was magnificent’ but I heard another say as she left, ‘Well I won’t be coming to see that again!’.

Choreographically this Carmen is indeed magnificent, and it was danced magnificently by the artists of the company. It is balletic in a sense, especially in regard to the arms, which are often curved up and over the head in a fourth or fifth position of sorts, and also in the spatial patterns that are formed when a group of dancers moves across the stage space as one.

Jill Ogai (centre) and Australian Ballet artists in a scene from Carmen. The Australian Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But there is a very contemporary feel and look to the choreography for much of the time. The feet aren’t pointed to any great extent and, in fact, the heel is often emphasised over the balletic style of the pointed toe, and there is a lot that seems grounded and attached to the floor in some way. In addition the dancers scream and shout about various events that occur, and they do it loudly. It is an unexpected addition but adds an effect that is highly theatrical.

Callum Linnane in a scene from Johan Inger’s Carmen. The Australian Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But whatever the choreography, every single person in the cast, led by Jill Ogai as Carmen, Callum Linnane as Don José, Marcus Morelli as Torero, and Brett Chynoweth as Zuñiga, enters into the spirit of the work, and into their individual roles, with gusto. In addition to the principals, special mention goes to Larissa Kiyoto Ward as Manuela, who has an explosive fight with Carmen at one stage, and Lilla Harvey as an addition to the story as the Boy who watches on throughout.

As for the second comment—’Well I won’t be coming to see that again!’—Inger’s Carmen is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It pulls no punches about sexuality, the often violent interaction of men and women, various traumatic and often abusive moments in life, and the like. But to counter this, there are content warnings given such as, ‘Carmen contains mature adult themes including sexual content and depictions of violence that some people may find disturbing’. It’s probably not a work that one would take children to see but, nevertheless, with input from a dramaturg (Gregor Acuña-Pohl), there is a clarity in the way the narrative unfolds that is absorbing and it would be well worth seeing more than once.

There is a certain simplicity to the design elements of the work including lighting by Tom Visser, costumes by David Delfin and a set of moving rectangular structures by Curt Allen Wilmer and Leticia Gañán. The music from Rodion Shchedrin after Georges Bizet with some additional music from Marc Alvarez was thrilling to the ear.

So what to conclude regarding repertoire and the vision of David Hallberg? Let’s hope he continues to give us outstanding contemporary dance works from across the world (like the Inger Carmen), while not forgetting the occasional item that has something pure and classical about it, and material from Australian choreographers.

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2024

Featured image: Jill Ogai as Carmen and Callum Linnane as Don José in Johan Inger’s Carmen. The Australian Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. March 2024

  • Johan Inger’s Carmen

Coming in April from the Australian Ballet is a production of Carmen by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger. Recent discussions about the background to the work, which was first created in Madrid in 2015, always mention the appearance of a child as a character in the work. One British reviewer has written that the child ‘represents the wider fall out of abuse’. This Carmen, apparently, is dramatically sexual and has a focus on violence towards women. It is described by the same reviewer as ‘uncomfortable to watch’, although she admits that those words are not a reason to stay away from the show!

The work is set to Rodion Shchedrin’s 1967 Carmen Suite, an adaptation of Georges Bizet’s score for the opera Carmen. The Shchedrin score is also frequently mentioned in reviews, especially for its use of percussion instruments. But what especially struck home to me was that Shchedrin’s wife was the acclaimed ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. The score was written for her when she was preparing to dance a version of Carmen choreographed for her (at her request) by Alberto Alonso. The story of the creation of the score appears as a whole chapter in I, Maya Plisetskaya, Plisetskaya’s autobiography published in 2001 by Yale University Press.

It is worth noting too that the same score was used by Natalie Weir for her exceptional work Carmen Sweet, made in 2015 for her Brisbane-based Expressions Dance Company (now no longer in existence).

In the brief clip below, Inger talks about his Carmen, while behind him a rehearsal for a section of the production takes place in London. In addition to Inger’s words, the clip is interesting from the point of view of the choreography, which is classically based to a certain extent, but which has a powerful contemporary feel/look to it. Some dancers from the Australian Ballet also appear in the rehearsal, which was basically for English National Ballet’s performances, which began in February 2024 at Sadler’s Wells.

The Australian Ballet’s production of Inger’s Carmen plays in Sydney 10–24 April.

  • On dramaturgy

I recently received a private comment on my review for Canberra City News of Catapult’s show Awkward. The comment included the suggestion that the show might have been stronger had a dramaturg been employed to develop a more focused approach. Well, I couldn’t agree more. Even if a dramaturg might not always do a stellar job (as was also suggested in the comment), it’s worth making the effort. One of the most remarkable shows I have seen over the past several years has been Liz Lea’s production, RED. Lea employed Brian Lucas as dramaturg for the show and, while the content of RED was highly complex, it ended up being a brilliantly focused production.

A slightly expanded version of my City News review of Awkward is at this link.

  • Press for March 2024

‘Awkward performance dances on too long.’ Canberra City News, 28 March 2024. Online at this link.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2024

Featured image: Jill Ogai of the Australian Ballet in a study for Johan Inger’s Carmen. Photo: © Simon Eeles

Dance diary. December 2023

  • Li Cunxin’s farewell

Li Cunxin’s farewell as artistic director of Queensland Ballet was celebrated in a gala show over three performances on 12 and 13 December. Below is a tribute to Li from a range of people who worked with him, along with some terrific photos and footage from the decade of his directorship, and earlier. So worth a look!

See more about Li and his incredible input into the growth of Queensland Ballet at this link.

  • Leanne Benjamin and that outback photograph by Jason Bell

Early in her autobiography, Built for ballet, Leanne Benjamin talks about the circumstances surrounding the creation of the photo taken of her in outback Australia, which I have used on this website on occasions and which (not surprisingly) always generates comments of one kind or another.

Leanne Benjamin who describes this image with the words ‘flying across the outback in my red chiffon.’ Photo: © Jason Bell, 2006

Benjamin was in Australia in December 2006 as a participant in Advance 100 Leading Global Australians Summit, which she says brought together ‘a diverse group of 100 of the best international  minds in business, science, education, research and the arts’. A photo shoot with English photographer Jason Bell and his team, unrelated to Advance 100, followed. It was specifically for a Royal Ballet series called A World Stage in which artists were shown in images, and sometimes on brief film footage, reflecting their country of origin. Benjamin calls it ‘an advertising campaign … which emphasised the international character of the Royal Ballet, and the Opera House where it has its home.’ Her costume, which she describes as ‘a Chanel lipstick-red dress with a skirt that would flash out behind me as I moved, and catch the breeze if we were lucky enough to get one in forty-degree heat’, was made in London by the costume department of the Royal Opera House.

‘Jason’s idea,’ Benjamin writes, ‘was to go for the centre of the continent, where even the colour of the earth tells you that you are in Australia. We’d hoped to shoot in front of Uluru, the country’s most famous landmark, but we couldn’t get permission to film there. The previous day, the team had been to the iconic domed rocks of Kata Tjuta and I’d had a terrific time, going through my paces on a flat floor, surrounded by looming boulders. It was as if someone had built a perfect set for a shoot.

The next day—the day we actually got the photograph Jason had been dreaming of—the terrain was much rougher, and the weather more overcast. To my surprise, the team had organised for a local ‘truckie’ to drive an authentic Australian road train slowly back and forth behind the shoot for a few hours. ….. This was not a stunt photograph, it was me, launching myself into the sky, in touch with the red, red earth of my beloved country.’

Who can forget that image?

Quotes above are from Benjamin’s book Built for ballet. An autobiography (Melbourne: Melbourne Books, 2021) pp. 21–22.

  • Oral history interview with James Batchelor

My final National Library oral history interview for 2023 was with James Batchelor, Canberra-born performer and choreographer who works between Australia and Europe. Amongst the many topics addressed during the interview was a discussion of his choreographic process, including in relation to two of his most recent works—Event and Short cuts to familiar places—and some information about his trip to the sub-Antarctic, including how it came about and the developments that followed the trip. The interview, once processed, will be available for all to hear.

James Batchelor performing in the Mulangarri Grasslands, Canberra, 2021. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski

  • Stephanie Lake. New resident choreographer at the Australian Ballet

Alice Topp’s term as resident choreographer at the Australian Ballet finished at the end of 2023 and the newly appointed holder of the position is Stephanie Lake. Lake will present her first work for the Australian Ballet, Circle Electric, in Sydney in May 2024 and in Melbourne in October 2024. Circle Electric will share the program with Harald Lander’s Études, which explores the intricacies of the classical ballet technique. The potential is certainly there for audiences to experience two vastly different approaches to dance.

Two of Lake’s recent works (for companies other than her own Stephanie Lake Company), are reviewed on this website at these links: Auto Cannibal (2019) and Biography (2022)

  • Promotions at the Australian Ballet

There were a number of promotions announced as the Australian Ballet’s 2023 season came to an end. Seen below in a scene from Don Quixote are newly appointed principals Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli.

In addition, Yuumi Yamada is now a senior artist, Maxim Zenin, Aya Watanabe, Katherine Sonnekus, Misha Barkidjija and Cameron Holmes have been newly appointed as soloists, and Montana Rubin, Evie Ferris, Saranja Crowe, Sara Andrion, Hugo Dumapit, Adam Elmes, Larissa Kiyoto-Ward, and Lilla Harvey have been promoted to the rank of coryphée.

Yuumi Yamada has constantly impressed me over recent years and her promotion is definitely worth celebrating, but congratulations to all who were promoted. I look forward to watching their progress in 2024.

  • Some statistics for 2023

In 2023 this website received 48,959 visits, that is just over 4,000 per month. The top five 2023 posts in terms of number of visits were, in order, ”Talking to Martin James … about teaching’, ‘Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2023)’, ‘Strictly Gershwin, Queensland Ballet’, ‘Alice Topp’s Paragon’, and ‘David McAllister. An exciting retirement opportunity’. Of posts relating specifically to dance in New Zealand the top five posts accessed, again in order, were ‘(m)Orpheus. New Zealand Opera and Black Grace’, ‘Lightscapes. Royal New Zealand Ballet’, ‘Myth and Ritual. Orchestra Wellington with Ballet Collective Aotearoa’, ‘Platinum Royal New Zealand Ballet’ and ‘Ballet Noir. Mary-Jane O’Reilly and Company’. Top tags accessed, some used largely it seems for research purposes, were Mary McKendry, The Australian Ballet, Vadim Muntagirov, Graduation Ball, and Bodenwieser Ballet

Unfortunately Google Analytics, from which my data is obtained, has changed its format and the ability to access the number of visits from particular cities is limited to just one week prior to the period of each visit! But of overseas cities, London and New York appear every week.


Michelle Potter, 31 December 2023

Li Cunxin, 2023. Farewell image from Queensland Ballet. Photographer not identified.

Season’s greetings and the ‘best of’ 2023

To all those who have accessed this website over 2023, especially those who have made comments on various posts, thank you for your interest. I look forward to your continued involvement in 2024. May the coming year be filled with great dance and may peace descend upon the world.

Below are my ‘top five’ productions for the year arranged chronologically according to the date (month only) of the performance I saw. I have this year chosen to select brand new works rather than restagings. This means I have left out a few amazing productions including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Strictly Gershwin, both from Queensland Ballet, and both of which were just stunning. It is always difficult to choose just five works but I feel it is sometimes a good thing to have to adhere to some kind of restriction, so it’s new works only this year.

What remains (Melbourne. Bodytorque digital—a series from the Australian Ballet, February)

Tim Harbour’s What remains was an exceptional tribute to dancer Kevin Jackson on his retirement as a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. In just a few minutes of film it showed Jackson’s exceptional technique and Harbour’s inventive choreography, while taking every advantage of an ‘off stage’ setting and a score from George Bokaris.

Shortcuts to familiar places. (Canberra. James Batchelor and Collaborators, April)

James Batchelor’s Shortcuts was an examination of how dance is transmitted from generation to generation—a beautifully conceived and outstandingly presented look at the theoretical idea of ‘embodied transmission’.

Paragon. (Sydney. The Australian Ballet, May)

Alice Topp’s Paragon was a tribute to the dancers of the Australian Ballet, past and present, with great input from design and sound collaborators, and with exceptional, visually stunning choreography from Topp. It was an experience, too, to see some of the Australian Ballet’s dancers from past decades return to the stage and to be reminded of their contribution to the art form.

My brilliant career. (Brisbane. Queensland Ballet, June)

Cathy Marston’s examination of Miles Franklin’s novel, My brilliant career, was a masterly production in which every character was clearly drawn choreographically. Marston created a range of movements that gave an exceptional understanding of the nature of each person in the story. My brilliant career was part of a triple bill from Queensland Ballet.

Bespoke. (Brisbane. Queensland Ballet, July)

Bespoke was a remarkable triple bill, the sixth in a series named Bespoke, showing the way artistic director, Li Cunxin, curates an evening of dance. With works from Remi Wortmeyer, Paul Boyd and Natalie Weir, the audience saw an amazing array of ideas and dance styles and approaches from humour to a serious examination of the process of life.

Michelle Potter, 26 December 2023

The Dream and Marguerite and Armand. The Australian Ballet

15 November 2023 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

This double bill of works by Frederick Ashton was an entertaining two hours of ballet. I enjoyed in particular the opening work, Marguerite and Armand, for its episodic structure that gave a strong focus to specific moments of love between Marguerite and Armand, and later the moment of Marguerite’s death from tuberculosis. I enjoyed too the minimal set and its semi-circular nature (design Cecil Beaton) that went well with the general structure of the work.

Valerie Tereschenko danced nicely as Marguerite and made her characterisation reasonably clear. But Maxim Zenin as Armand didn’t offer quite enough of Armand’s emotional state to make his character stand out. So the partnership was not as powerful as it needs to be in this work.

Unfortunately (or fortunately for me), I clearly remember Sylvie Guillem dancing the female lead in Marguerite and Armand in Sydney and Melbourne way back in 2002 when the Royal Ballet, then under the direction of Ross Stretton, visited from London.* More recently (2018) I also saw Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli give a stunning performance with the Royal Ballet in London. So I had high expectations, which I’m sad to say weren’t met. I get the feeling that the Australia Ballet currently concentrates more on technical action at the expense of the need for a powerful dramatic essence.

As for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bendicte Bemet as Titania and Joseph Caley as Oberon danced well but again I felt they lacked strength of characterisation. Were they King and Queen? Did they rule over the Fairies? Were they really arguing over the Changeling? And so on.

Of the other characters, Bottom (Luke Marchant) dancing on pointe is always a highlight in the Ashton production and Marchant looked very comfortable as he hopped and skipped around on pointe. But again he needed stronger characterisation, especially after he had returned to his role as a Rustic and tried to remember what had happened while under the spell cast on him by Puck.

Unfortunately (again) in terms of how I saw the Ashton production and the Australian Ballet’s performance of it, I had just seen Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by Queensland Ballet. Scarlett’s take on the story has so much more to offer than does the Ashton production. And in performing it the dancers of Queensland Ballet demonstrated not only their truly exceptional technical and production values but also the manner in which they have been coached to inhabit a role. It was completely engaging rather than simply entertaining.

While I can say the Australian Ballet’s season of the two Ashton works was entertaining, it did leave me a little cold. I hope there might be more focus soon on dramatic and emotional input. Please!

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2023.

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Dream, 2023. Photo © Daniel Boud


*The Australian Ballet’s website mentions that Marguerite and Armand is having its premiere season in Australia. It might be the premiere for the Australian Ballet, but it’s not the premiere for Australia, the country.

Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2023)

Digital screening, September–October (filmed on 29 September 2023 during the Melbourne season of Swan Lake)

I am not a huge fan of this latest production of Swan Lake from the Australian Ballet—a version directed by artistic director David Hallberg but based on the 1970s production by Anne Woolliams with dramaturgy and a little extra choreography from Lucas Jervies.

On a positive note, the corps de ballet of 26 swans danced as a group with exceptional precision. Whether they were making and holding a line, a circle, a V-shape as in the opening to Act IV, or any other shape for that matter, their groupings were beautifully precise. And their dancing was in unison to the extent that, for example, they usually managed to lift their legs in arabesque to the same height as each other, and execute other steps with amazing togetherness. The four little swans—Evie Ferris, Jill Ogai, Aya Watanabe and Yuumi Yamada—stood out with regard to this unison and precision. It was pure perfection.

Then there were the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. They were exceptional in design, colour and cut. I especially admired the costumes for the character dances, and the very elegant black and white striped suit worn by von Rothbart in ACT III, befitting a Baron I thought.

But that’s about all the positivity I can muster.

I found the production quite lacking in emotional content. While in his between-acts spiel on this streaming platform Hallberg made much of the partnership between Benedicte Bemet as Odette/Odile and Joseph Caley as Prince Siegfried, and while technically they danced well both separately and together, I could not feel or see any passion, or even affection, between them. And there was certainly no changing emotion visible as the situation between them changed. Ballet is a wordless art but when there is a narrative, as there definitely is in Swan Lake, the story has to be clear and prominent enough in a physical sense for the audience to see and understand the narrative, even if, as in the case of Swan Lake, so many of us have seen it so many times that we have a clear idea already about the storyline. Clarity of narrative and the changing of emotions can be achieved by a simple movement of the head, a lift of the arm that is different from what went before, or something quite simple. But it has to be a physical change that we as the audience can notice and feel, not just a thought in the dancer’s head.

Then I was taken aback by the character dances in Act III. There were three (one each from Spain, Hungary and Italy) rather than the more usual four and they were danced largely without any of the passion that characterises national dancing. Everything seemed to be angled towards a perfect, balletic technique—mostly with the frame of the body held erect and little expression in a physical sense or even through facial expression. Character dances are full of physical expression and theatricality growing from a pride by the characters (as played by the dancers) in a particular heritage.

Perhaps my dislike of this Swan Lake reflects a remark made by Lucas Jervies when speaking to Hallberg and Livinia Nixon in the conversations between acts as part of the streaming. Jervies mentioned that Hallberg asked for the production to be ‘boiled down and refined’, and Hallberg confirmed that this was his aim. The ‘boiling down’ just took everything away. A strong (refined?) focus on technique and little else doesn’t make a theatrical production. At least not for me.

I have a subscription ticket to see this Swan Lake in Sydney towards the end of the season there. Perhaps I will feel differently then?

Michelle Potter, 2 October 2023

Featured image: A moment from Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Kate Longley

David McAllister, 2019. Photo: Georges Antoni

Ballet Confidential and Soar. Books by David McAllister

Ballet Confidential
by David McAllister
[Thames & Hudson, 2023]

Soar
by David McAllister with Amanda Dunn
[Thames & Hudson, 2021—also available as an e-book]

Books reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

David McAllister has through this year, 2023, been Acting Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet—to oversee the process of appointing a permanent Artistic Director, and to stabilise the management situation after both the previous directors, Executive and Artistic, had departed suddenly from their positions at Company.   

It’s therefore been timely to be reading Ballet Confidential, to learn about McAllister’s own long-term career as a dancer, then his even longer term as Artistic Director, with the Australian Ballet. As well there is his earlier and more personal memoir, Soar, written with Amanda Dunn, both books published by Thames & Hudson. 

McAllister’s writing is eminently accessible, conversational in tone, addressing the reader directly. He keeps a friendly, light, honest and humorous touch throughout—giving the welcome impression that he takes his art, but not himself, seriously. There is sincere respect for the dancers whose dedication and discipline is the seminal part of any company’s achievements—as well as insights into the management and governance responsibilities involved in directing that river of talent.

McAllister is out to debunk the reputation of ballet as an elite theatre art that entices only its afficionados, and he offers numerous encouragements to those who think ballet is strictly for the birds, who don’t attend performances because they ‘can’t hear the words’ to instead give it a go.

New Zealand readers who have followed the fortunes of our own national company across its 70 years cannot help but compare the scale of company size and resources for dance between the two countries. The Australian Ballet has become a flagship company for its country with a number of high-profile and successful international tours to its credit. Our own company has not toured internationally for a number of years (not a Covid-related phenomenon) but anyone who pays attention to the fortunes and woes of ballet companies worldwide will nonetheless know ours as a stalwart and determined 7 decades-long endeavour that has served drama, joy, vivacity, solace, style and beauty to its home audiences.

Ballet Confidential is not intended as a scholarly history of ballet—but it certainly contains much of interest as McAllister traces some of the seminal figures who have featured in Australia’s dancing life. (In this regard I’d have valued an Index for the book—since Soar does include a very good one, and has photos of very high quality on dedicated paper).

The reader can also recognise telling comparisons with New Zealand in other areas—particularly in the acknowledgment of First Peoples’ prominence in historical, cultural and social identity. There is also the issue of the resources given to sport across its many codes, with all the touring of teams and spectators alike, and the wealth of domestic and international media coverage beyond compare. Ever positive in his thinking, McAllister nonetheless points out the striking progress across the past few years in elite sports training, injury prevention and management that are such a near and present issue for sportsfolk and dancers alike, and that the relevant medical practitioners have been able to share their approaches to the challenges common to both callings.

It is wonderful to be reminded of AB’s major seasons of commissioned full-length choreographies. Graeme Murphy is the shining star in the firmament there—with his extraordinary Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, and the celebrated Swan Lake. (Lucky those of us who crossed the Tasman to see the latter—and top marks to those who made the feature film of Clara, so we have been able to see that too. It’s available for viewing on Vimeo through AB website).  

David tells the story of being a young dancer in his first year at the Company, 1983, cast in Le Conservatoire, the Bournonville work staged by Poul Gnatt on Australian Ballet. (He had earlier staged it on the Australian Ballet School during the 1960s). David enjoys the symmetry and longevity of that association through being Interim AD of the company Gnatt founded here in 1953—’so Poul is still giving me the chance to do something worthwhile all these decades later’.

The announcement just last week of the new Artistic Director of RNZBallet, Ty King-Wall, a New Zealander with many years’ experience in Australian Ballet, is most welcome, and my heart skipped a beat of joy (is that what a cardiologist would say?) to read in King-Wall’s profile that he has danced lead roles in Bournonville choreographies over the years, so he understands the technique and style of our company’s original tradition.

There are other names to slip in here of the ballet links between our two countries and two companies—apart from van Praagh and Gnatt, and Borovanksy before them—that includes sharing Bryan Ashbridge, Jon Trimmer, Jacqui Trimmer, Harry Haythorne, Roy Wilson, Susan Elston, Fiona Tonkin, Graeme Murphy, Jane Casson, Martin James, Adrian Burnett, David McAllister, and now Ty King-Wall with his dancing wife, Amber Scott. These are ties that bind.

Jennifer Shennan, 17 September 2023

Featured image: David McAllister, 2019. Photo: Georges Antoni

David McAllister, 2019. Photo: Georges Antoni

Ty King-Wall to direct Royal New Zealand Ballet

New Zealand-born dancer Ty King-Wall has just been appointed artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet and will take up the position in Wellington in November 2023. He has had a major career as a dancer with the Australian Ballet beginning in 2006. He rose through the company ranks and became a principal artist in 2013, retiring from performing in mid-2022. His career with the Australian Ballet was exceptional and the range of roles he undertook included those in well-known classics as well as in contemporary works by Australian choreographers. Following his retirement, he began teaching at the Australian Ballet School and was recently made Dancers’ Director on the Board of the Australian Ballet.

Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in 'Giselle' Act I. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in Giselle, Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

King-Wall’s partner in life, also with a significant Australian Ballet career, is Amber Scott who, unsurprisingly now, is retiring at the end of September at the conclusion of the Australian Ballet’s Melbourne season of Swan Lake.

King-Wall’s career to date suggests that he will make a major contribution to Royal New Zealand Ballet. Apart from anything else, he is New Zealand-born and received his early training there before joining the Australian Ballet School at the age of 16. It has been some years since RNZB has had a director with strong New Zealand connections and Ty King-Wall is proud of his New Zealand heritage. In an interview after becoming a principal artist with the Australian Ballet he said to Dance Informa, ‘Even though I’ve been in Australia for eleven years now, I’ll always be a New Zealander.’

King-Wall also has a diversity of interests and qualifications. He has two academic degrees: a Bachelor of Arts (Classical Studies/Psychology) from Massey University and a Master of Arts in Cultural Management from the University of Melbourne. His teaching activities include, in addition to his work at the Australian Ballet School, teaching experiences with the Australian Ballet company, New Zealand School of Dance, National Theatre Ballet School and the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. An interest in governance is highlighted by his role as Dancers’ Director on the Board of the Australian Ballet and an interest in health and well-being of dancers is fuelled by his own experiences in recovering from a major injury that kept him from dancing for some time. All these activities and interests (and others) will feed into a new approach to the development of RNZB.

I am especially looking forward to seeing the repertoire that Ty King-Wall will develop over the coming years.

For more about Ty King-Wall as featured on this website, follow this tag. The official media release is here.

Michelle Potter. 13 September 2023

Featured image: Portrait of Ty King-Wall (detail), 2023. Photo: © Erik Sawaya

Dance diary. August 2023

  • Recent (and future) reading

Jennifer Homans’ recent book Mr B. George Balanchine’s Twentieth Century is perhaps the most spectacularly researched and written dance book I have ever read. As the title suggests, its major subject is George Balanchine, who was known to his dancers as Mr B, and Homans certainly tells us a lot about Balanchine’s life, much more than the many other Balanchine-focused books I have read. Little is held back, which sets it apart from those reminiscences that see Balanchine as perfection embodied.

Homans has drawn on a huge range of material including personal letters to and from Balanchine, diaries of dancers who worked with him, interviews with a huge range of those who knew him, and many other examples of primary and secondary source material. His relationships with his dancers and those around him, including his sexual activities, are not ignored. Nor is it only a new understanding of Balanchine that emerges in Homans’ ‘no holds barred’ examination, but we discover in depth the nature of so many of his early dancers, not to mention Lincoln Kirstein, Jerome Robbins, and so many others who were part of the scene. But what was also brilliant throughout was Homan’s discussion of how Balanchine worked with composers and used music as an essential component of his choreography. Most books I have read comment on Balanchine’s musicality but Mr B is for me the first to look in depth, and analytically, at this aspect of his work.

But basically I guess what I loved most was how Homans was able to set Balanchine’s life in a wide social and cultural context. This is what made the book outstanding and I hope to do a more detailed review of this book shortly.

Two books are on my reading list for the immediate future: David McAllister’s Ballet Confidential, shortly to be reviewed on this site by Jennifer Shennan, and a new book from Eileen Kramer, Life keeps me dancing. Inspired by Kramer’s new book, an interesting article appeared in The Guardian. Here is the link.

  • Jennifer Irwin

I have long been a fan of the design work of Jennifer Irwin and this site features many mentions of her costume work, especially for Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Ballet. I have admired her use of materials, the cut of the costumes she makes, the way they move with the dance, the way in some cases a single item on a costume can represent a range of ideas, and much more. So it was a thrill to read that she has just been awarded the Cameron’s Management Outstanding Contribution to Design Award by the Australian Production Design Guild.

Read more on this site about Irwin’s work for various dance companies at this tag, and on Bangarra’s Knowledge Ground. I also interviewed Irwin in 2011 for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program and that interview is available online at this link.

  • Oral history: Daniel Riley

At the end of August I had the huge pleasure of interviewing Daniel Riley in Adelaide for the National Library of Australia’ oral history program. Riley, recently appointed artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre, is the company’s sixth director since its foundation by Elizabeth Cameron Dalman in 1965. He is also the initial First Nations artist to take on the role. The interview has not yet been catalogued but it was a rewarding occasion for me and the interview covers an exceptional range of material. It is certainly an important addition to the National Library’s collection of dance interviews.

Before heading back to Canberra I made a quick visit to the Art Gallery of South Australia and the featured image for this month’s dance diary comes from that Gallery’s extensive and beautifully presented collection of art works from a range of First Nations’ artists.

  • Amber Scott to retire

The Australian Ballet has announced that principal artist Amber Scott will retire at the end of September. Scott joined the Australian Ballet in 2001 and was promoted to principal in 2011. Her diverse career to date has included leading roles in Swan Lake (Stephen Baynes, Graeme Murphy), The Sleeping Beauty (David McAllister), Giselle (Maina Gielgud), La Bayadère (Stanton Welch), The Nutcracker (Peter Wright), Manon (Kenneth MacMillan), Onegin (John Cranko), and The Merry Widow (Ronald Hynd). She will give her final performance at the end of September in the company’s new production of Swan Lake.

For more about Amber Scott see this tag.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2023

Featured image: Detail from (Stitched bark canoe: laden with painted snail shells), 1994 by Johnny Bulunbulun. Art Gallery of South Australia. Photo: © Neville Potter