29 June 2018, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
The Australian Ballet’s latest triple bill, Verve, once again raises the fascinating question of what is contemporary ballet? And once again the three works on the program, one each from Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour, and Alice Topp are examples of how varied answers to that question can be.
Constant Variants from Baynes was first made in 2007 although this is the first time I have seen it. It opened the program. It is impeccably constructed and is so at one with the music, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, that it is like seeing as well as hearing the sound. It gives us lyrical movement and sculptural poses. There are moments of playfulness and moments of wonderful unison from the dancers—a male trio stands out in particular. Michael Pearce’s set of partial picture frames, variously coloured, glow beautifully under Jon Buswell’s lighting. Constant Variants is calming, beautiful and recognisably classical.
The evening closed with Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, first seen in 2015. I felt uneasy in 2015 and still do. Choreographically it is detailed in the extreme and the dancers capture that detail beautifully. But they constantly move sharply, cutting the air with their limbs, and I longed for a bit of curve to break up the razor-edged look. Aggression and anger predominate. But what makes me especially uneasy is that Filigree and Shadow doesn’t lead anywhere. I can’t see a structure, just a constant coming and going. For me that doesn’t work.
Placed in the middle of the program was Topp’s latest creation, Aurum, danced to four separate works by Ludovico Einaudi. And it was astonishing. There is a choreographer’s explanation for the inspiration behind the work, which is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold or metallic lacquer. But to tell the truth Aurum exists without an intellectual explanation. It is completely visceral. It is about us and how we connect and we are just carried along by its emotional power.
Its surging choreography is compelling (althought there were a few moments when I felt I was watching a phrase or two from a work by Jiri Kylian). But I loved the gorgeous, swooping lifts, the stretched and elongated bodies, and the often precarious balances. A particularly moving pas de deux between Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson stood out.
And of course there was that amazing group section, the third of the ‘movements’. It completely engulfed the audience as it pounded its way to a conclusion when the audience broke out into an uproar of pleasure and excitement (and it wasn’t even opening night). Then there was the final section, another pas de deux this time between Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov, which played with shadows and was thrillingly lit by Jon Buswell. It seemed to resolve all the emotional drama that had gone before it.
It is hard to remember another work that has had such an instant impact in Australia, except perhaps Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Let’s hope Aurum gets another showing soon.
The Australian Ballet recently announced that corps de ballet dancer Mason Lovegrove (pictured above) had received the Walter Bourke Award. The prize, which was established in 2005, is named for former Australian Ballet dancer Walter Bourke, and is not awarded annually but on merit. It is to be used specifically to fund a dancer’s professional development on the world stage. Lovegrove plans to use his award to spend time with Houston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and Berlin’s Staatsballett. Meet Mason Lovegrove via the Australian Ballet’s site.
On the trail of Ruth St Denis
Liz Lea’s documentary On the trail of Ruth St Denis will have its premiere screening in Canberra on 20 July at the National Film and Sound Archive’s Arc Cinema. A sneak preview that I had recently reveals a fascinating glimpse of ‘Ruthie’ as she was known, along with a just-as-fascinating glimpse of Lea and her work. Lea will also perform live as part of the event. She will dance The Cobras, a work created by Ruth St Denis in 1906 and as yet never seen in Australia.
On the trail of Ruth St Denis was filmed in India in Agra, Amritsar, Kanpur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai, New Delhi and Varanasi, as well as in Scotland, England and Kuwait. Further details of the documentary are at this link, while further details of the NFSA screening are at this link.
Merce Cunningham Contemporary Dance Residency
In August the National Gallery of Australia will open an exhibition, American Masters, with works drawn from the Gallery’s extensive collection of American art from the 1940s to the 1980s. It was a time in the United States when Merce Cunningham, and his collaborators across art forms, were experimenting with new ways of making dance and, as an adjunct to the exhibition, and with support from the Embassy of the United States of America, the Gallery is hosting a two-week residency for three independent contemporary dance artists (yet to be appointed). The program will be led by former Cunningham dancer Jamie Scott who will remount a range of Cunningham solos, duets and trios on these dancers. A number of public performances will be staged at the end of the residency period. More later.
Press for June 2018
‘Exploring rhythms of nature.’ Review of Australian Dance Theatre’s The beginning of nature. The Canberra Times, 18 June 2018, p. 20. Online version.
‘Dancers following their dream.’ Feature on National Capital Ballet School dancers. The Canberra Times, ‘Private Capital’ 25 June 2018, p. 12. Online version
Michelle Potter, 30 June 2018
Featured image: Mason Lovegrove. Photo: Lynette Wills
The Australian Ballet made a trip to Canberra in May, after an absence of three years, bringing with it an audience favourite, Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. The local press made much of the fact that several Canberra trained dancers would be performing and indeed on opening night Lana Jones led the company as Hanna Glawari, the very widow of the work’s title.
Audiences in Canberra are starved for professional standard performances of ballet and many travel interstate to get their ballet hit. So it was no wonder that The Merry Widow was greeted with huge enthusiasm in Canberra. Those in the audience laughed, clapped, they hummed along with the well-known tunes, and cheered and whistled.
The Canberra dance scene has plenty for audiences to enjoy in the area of community dance, and professional contemporary dance also has strong presence thanks to Liz Lea and to Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party. And of course QL2 makes its mark with its excellent work in youth dance. In addition, some of the country’s best contemporary companies make annual visits to Canberra and have been doing so for decades—Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre for example. So the city can claim to have access to excellent dance throughout the year. But adult audiences need a bit of ballet and wish it would happen more than once every three years.
Maybe a petition to have the national ballet company visit the national capital as part of its regular touring schedule?
Thomas E. S. Kelly
In May, dancer and actor Thomas E. S. Kelly was awarded the Australia Council’s 2018 Dreaming Award at the National Indigenous Arts Awards. The Dreaming Award celebrates an inspirational young artist (18–26 years old) and gives him or her the opportunity to create a major body of work through mentoring and partnerships, nationally or internationally.
I interviewed Kelly in 2013, shortly after his graduation from NAISDA College, for the Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project. The project recorded filmed interviews with emerging artists who were recommended by their training institution as potential leaders in the arts. So it is pleasing to see Kelly fulfilling the promise that his teachers identified.
The project covered various art forms but, as a matter of interest, the other graduate from NAISDA College who was also part of the project was Beau Dean Riley Smith. He too has proved himself to be a future leader. From the Australian Ballet School the two dancers selected were Hannah O’Neill and Joe Chapman. All the interviews are now part of the National Film and Sound Archive’s collection.
Here is the link to the record of Kelly’s interview.
Press for May 2018
’Long-running ballet a firm favourite.’ Review of the Australian Ballet’s The Merry Widow. The Canberra Times, 29 May 2018, p. 35. Online version
12 May 2018, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
If you enjoy sitting in the theatre and being swept away by waltzes and ladies being lifted high in the air by their male partners, along with elaborately decorated costumes and sets and nothing too challenging in the way of storyline, then the Australian Ballet’s Merry Widow is for you. This production was last seen in 2011 but dates back to 1975 when it was commissioned by Robert Helpmann as the first full-length ballet to be made on the Australian Ballet. Choreographed by Ronald Hynd, designed by Desmond Heeley, with music by Franz Lehar arranged by John Lanchbery, and a scenario by Helpmann, it was in the early days closely associated with Margot Fonteyn. She performed the role of the Widow, Hanna Glawari, in Australia as well as elsewhere during guest seasons with the Australian Ballet.
But Australian Ballet principals of the day, including Marilyn Rowe, Marilyn Jones, Lucette Aldous, John Meehan and Kelvin Coe, and others throughout the years, also made it their own. Rowe was repetiteur for this 2018 production.
In the cast I saw Amy Harris and Brett Simon danced the leading roles of Hanna Glawari and Count Danilo Danilowitsch, former childhood sweethearts whose attraction to each other is eventually renewed. While they both danced strongly, for me their involvement in the unfolding story was not the highlight of the show. On the other hand, I admired Sharni Spencer and Joe Chapman as the secondary leads of Valencienne and Camille, the Count of Rosillon. They invested more into the realisation of their characters and, as a result, were much more captivating to watch. And their pas deux in Act II, was really the choreographic highlight amongst all the waltzes and other predictable steps.
There was some strong character work from the male corps de ballet of Pontevedrian dancers in Act II and my attention was especially drawn to a gentleman, who I think was Joseph Romancewicz. He not only danced well but maintained his character when not dancing. It doesn’t always happen and when it does it is very noticeable.
Audiences love this ballet and it is clearly a money-spinner for the Australian Ballet, but after more than forty years I think it needs a redesign. Heeley’s costumes are individually glamorous and suitably of the Belle Epoque period, if sometimes rather too strongly coloured. But when seen en masse against his over lavish sets, and when lit with strong theatrical lighting, the overall design is unsubtle and inelegant to the point of seeming tasteless.
14 April 2018 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
I had the pleasure of seeing Murphy for a second time, this time in Sydney at a mid-season matinee and in a top-notch seat (as a result of many years of subscribing and slowly moving forward into a great position).
Much, if not all, that I wrote after the Melbourne opening still stands. One or two performers, however, stood out for me on this second occasion. In Grand, ‘Alligator Crawl’ by Fats Waller was wonderfully danced by George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu. Xu in particular made the most of the opportunity and looked smart and sassy, as was appropriate in the jazz situation that the music demanded. Then, Yuumi Yamada and Andrew Killian danced beautifully in the duet to the Beethoven ‘Lento e mesto’ from his Piano Sonata in D major. There was a certain vulnerability in the way Yamada moved and yet technically her dancing was strong. Killian was a perfect partner in this situation.
I also omitted to mention the work of filmmaker Philippe Charluet in my previous post. His Reflections, the opening filmed monologue from Murphy, and his introduction to Grand, which showed the incredible Wakako Asano from the Sydney Dance Company production of 2005, were fine examples of Charluet’s work and nostalgic reminders of how exceptional Sydney Dance Company was under Murphy and Vernon.
Shéhérazade, however, remained a disappointment without its silk tent. It might be one thing to perform an excerpt without the full set, which if I recall correctly was the case in Body of Work (2002) when just the opening pas de deux was performed. But the Murphy program presented the full work and it truly lost its mysterious and erotic quality without the original set.
Here is part of what Kristian Fredrikson wrote about the set: ‘Blue silk tent with applied gold patterns, a silk sling, a rope, 4 watchers on illuminated perspex—glittering gauze.’ And here is his description of one highlight where the silk plays a significant role in the choreography: ‘A girl arises from her silk trapeze and dances a yearning solo … at two points of the solo the girl is mirror-imaged by the first girl who slips in and out of the gauze.’ It would have been respectful, as well as giving audiences a true picture of what Shéhérazade was really like, had there been some effort to reproduce the original set.
Note: The National Library of Australia holds some colour photographs from the first performances (1979) of Shéhérazade taken by Don McMurdo, which show the blue tent with its gold designs. I have made concerted and repeated efforts to get permission to use them but I have had no response from the copyright owner. The National Library holds them in trust only and Don McMurdo’s permission is not sufficient. I still hold out hope that one day the Sydney Opera House’s legal team will respond.
UPDATE June 2020: It turns out that the National Library’s images are not from 1979 but from a revival in 1987. I have Janet Vernon and Chrissa Keramidas to thank for this information. One of the images appears in my book Kristian Fredrikson. Designer (with permission from and payment to the Sydney Opera House Trust).
16 March 2018. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
This program was a retrospective of works by Graeme Murphy and was in celebration of his long association with the Australian Ballet. The evening began with a brief film clip of Murphy talking about those moments for a choreographer, and by extension for a dancer and for the audience, when a transformation occurs, when a choreographer is able to draw out from a dancer a quality that is artistry at the highest level. The brief interview (a monologue really) was a deeply personal reflection from Murphy and showed his humanity, his humility, his own artistry, and his respect for dance and those who engage with it.
The program that followed was a fine opportunity to ponder on what is distinctive about Murphy’s choreography. It consisted of excerpts from several of Murphy’s works, largely made originally for Sydney Dance Company, and a performance of Murphy’s Firebird, made for the Australian Ballet in 2009. Although Firebird has never been a favourite of mine—somehow it reminds me of a weird cult activity—it was distinguished on this occasion by an exceptional performance from Lana Jones in the title role. Her immersion in the role was complete and her first entrance was stunningly controlled, and believe me the choreographic requirements of that entrance are demanding.
But what emerged as the evening progressed was the diversity of Murphy’s output. His works have humour, but are also often clearly serious in emotional impact; they occasionally cross cultural boundaries; they are always closely connected to music, and his musical choices are themselves diverse; they can be classical in their dance vocabulary, or not so classical as the work demands; they are sometimes narrative-based, at other times quite abstract. Never a dull moment!
What was also fascinating was being able to see some of Murphy’s signature choreographic phrases and groupings across the course of the evening. What stood out for me was the way he uses small groups of dancers, often four, and has them work together as one. Bodies are thrown, swirled, turned upside down, but always engage in a smooth and lyrical manner.
In terms of the works presented, the highlight for me was Grand, the work he made in 2005 in honour of his mother, a pianist. A grand piano onstage was played by Scott Davie (as it was in 2005) and we were treated to several excerpts from this wonderful, funny, emotional work that was strongly musically oriented in so many ways—’sweeping in conception, intimate in detail and constantly surprising in choreographic invention’ I wrote in 2005. It made me long to see the full work again, but it was a treat to see as many sections as we did. They included the delightfully funny Chopsticks section and the Gershwin number, one of those remarkable uses of four dancers who seem to dance as one whatever impossible moves they are asked to make.
The big disappointment of the evening was Shéhérazade, that exquisite short work for two men and two women made by Murphy in 1979. It was performed without the luscious, blue silk tent/canopy with its gold decorative elements, which was such an intrinsic part of Kristian Fredrikson’s designs for the work. Without it most of the mysterious and erotic quality of earlier performances was lost, as was the allusion to the art of Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, and the over-ridingly blue and gold colour scheme that Fredrikson imagined (and achieved). Those hanging strips of what looked like tinsel at times were quite out of place. Just before the work’s opening in 1979 Murphy told a journalist: ‘One of the fascinating aspects of this work will be the design inserted into the dancing. In a sense the dancers will be wearing the set.’ Not this time!
Having said that, however, the standout performance of the entire evening came from Lana Jones as the second of the female dancers in Shéhérazade. Jones’ technique was impeccable. But it was her beautiful attention to choreographic detail that grabbed my attention. Those moments when she moved her wrists in little twisting circles, while holding her hands and arms close to her slightly curved body were breathtaking, as was the way she moved her neck and chest at times. And how spectacular she looked in those iconic poses for all four dancers, which mark certain stages of the work.
The evening belonged to Graeme Murphy and I salute him for all those works that have thrilled us over the years. But bouquets to Lana Jones for two standout performances during the evening. She had it all, and I thought she was dancing not just choreography but Murphy’s choreography.
My spirits soared as the curtain went up on the opening act of Christopher Weeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at its Sydney opening night. There before us a picnic was taking place in an English architectural setting, which I believe represented the Deanery at Christ Church, Oxford, home of Alice Liddell who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. We met Alice’s family and friends, who would later take on other guises when Alice went down the rabbit hole. And the work of Nicholas Wright, who wrote the scenario and added a love interest to the story—between Alice and Jack (in later acts the Knave of Hearts)—seemed to be setting us up for an interesting evening of ballet.
But after Alice disappeared down the rabbit hole the prospect of an evening of ballet disappeared with her. The most obvious feature of the work was not the dancing but the visual design and effects. True the visual features were spectacular and technically astonishing at times. I loved the tiny door that scuttled across the stage at times (see the featured image). Indeed it said more about the story than a lot of the other parts of the design—an example of ‘less is more’ perhaps? I also liked the Victorian scrapbook-style imagery that accompanied the flower waltz in Act II, except that there was too much else happening design-wise for it to be appreciated. Visual overload throughout I thought. When I go to the ballet, I prefer to see dancing rather than umpteen technical tricks and constantly changing visual ideas, as amazing as they may be.
But then the choreography, when it was given some prominence, wasn’t all that interesting. I guess I have never really been a fan of Wheeldon’s work, but this time I wondered how he envisages movement in relation to the human body. With a few exceptions, notably the very slinky caterpillar, I thought Wheeldon ignored the fact that the limbs are attached to the body. Spiky leg movements seemed to predominate and when the upper body did move it seemed expression-less. Choreographically the work felt very flat, innocuous and unexceptional.
All in all, however, the dancers performed nicely. With her charm and gorgeous ability to draw the audience into her world, Ako Kondo was well suited to the role of Alice. With some spectacular dancing, Ty King-Wall as Jack/the Knave of Hearts, was a joy to watch, and I enjoyed Adam Bull as Lewis Carroll/the White Rabbit, especially for the quirky, anxious character he gave to the White Rabbit. Bouquets too to Kevin Jackson as the tap dancing Mad Hatter and Steven Heathcote for a strong portrayal of Alice’s father/the King of Hearts.
But I really disliked the odd changes that had been made to the character of the Queen of Hearts (Alice’s mother in Act I). All was fine when she was looking to chop heads off left, right and centre, which we know is her wont according to Lewis Carroll. But she was also written into the story as some kind of crazy ballerina who wanted to dance the Rose Adagio but couldn’t. To me the pathetically horrible take on the Rose Adagio showed a major lack of taste on the part of the creative team. Leave that kind of mucking around to the Trocks, when it is funny. I really don’t want to see it on the Australian Ballet, and I especially don’t want to see Amy Harris, who played the Queen of Hearts, lying on her stomach, head pointing upstage, legs spread-eagled to the side, and bottom lifted off the ground and pointed directly at the audience. All we needed was the noise. Hideous!
I am sure Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is already a terrific money-spinner for the Australian Ballet, and probably many (most) people thoroughly enjoyed themselves. But watching itmade me wonder where ballet is heading. Give me something that is less vaudeville/burlesque/circus-like from our national ballet company.
My recent tribute to Tamara Tchinarova Finch brought to light a letter Tchinarova wrote to Xenia Borovansky in 1980 in which she discussed, amongst other things, her thoughts on Xenia Borovansky’s contribution to the growth of ballet in Australia. With permission from the various stakeholders, I am publishing the letter in this post.
It is an interesting letter from many points of view and was written just before the tribute to Borovansky, which I am assuming means the program that Marilyn Jones devised during her brief term as artistic director of the Australian Ballet in 1980. It was a triple bill and consisted of Pineapple Poll, Schéhérazade and Graduation Ball, with Les Sylphides being substituted in place of Graduation Ball in Adelaide and Perth.*
It also mentions the lecture tour by Tchinarova and Irina Baronova, which apparently had been discussed (but initially dismissed) long before it actually occurred in 1994.
*Details of the program are on AusStage at this link.
Bryan Lawrence, who has died in his 81st year, was born Brian Lawrence Palethorpe in Birmingham, England.He began his dance training at an early age in regional schools in England and then trained, on scholarship, at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School (later the Royal Ballet School) from the age of thirteen. After moving into the senior school he began performing in walk-on parts with the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet. He never legally changed his name but used ‘Bryan Lawrence’ throughout his professional career.
Lawrence joined Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet in 1954 and was promoted to soloist in 1955. His first professional dancing part, undertaken while still a student at the Sadler’s Wells School, was in the corps de ballet of The Firebird, as staged by Lubov Tchernicheva and Sergei Grigoriev for Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1954. Lawrence joined the company a little later and toured with them to regional venues in England until 1957.
Following a period of national service with the RAF he joined the Royal Ballet in 1959 and became a soloist in 1961. In 1964 he moved to Australia at the invitation of Peggy van Praagh and joined the Australian Ballet as a principal dancer.
While with the Australian Ballet, Lawrence partnered all the leading dancers in the company, including Elaine Fifield, Marilyn Jones and Kathleen Gorham. He toured with the company on their early overseas engagements, including to the Commonwealth Arts Festival and various cities in Europe, 1965–1966, and on a major tour to Montreal, Canada, for Expo ’67 with subsequent engagements in South America and elsewhere. In an article for The Canberra Times in 1968 he recalled some of the memorable off-stage experiences during the early part of the 1965 tour:
I recall riding a camel across the desert at 4 am to see the Pyramids after a long overnight flight from Perth to Cairo, and doing a class in the temple ruins at Baalbeck at seven o’clock in the morning when the sun became so hot we were unable to continue.
In his career with the Australian Ballet he is especially remembered for his role in The Display, in which he played the role of the Leader. Of his work on that ballet with its choreographer Robert Helpmann he remarked, in an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia in 1986:
It was interesting working with Bobby. I did, I think, most of the choreography for my bits myself. Bobby was inclined to do that. He worked out, obviously, the general thing, the story, but I can remember him saying before lunch one day, ‘Well, you know, think about something to do there.’ And I just worked something out myself and it was accepted.
Lawrence resigned from the Australian Ballet at the end of 1967 and in 1968, along with fellow Australian Ballet principal, Janet Karin, founded the Bryan Lawrence School of Ballet in Canberra. Together, Lawrence and Karin trained many fine artists, including Ross Stretton, Joanne Michel and Adam Marchant, all of whom rose through the ranks of the Australian Ballet to dance principal roles before going on to expand their careers in other significant directions.
The school’s performance group, the Bryan Lawrence Performing Group, presented its first classical production, excerpts from Coppélia, to Canberra audiences in 1970, and its first full-length ballet, Giselle, in 1974. Lawrence appeared in the school’s productions on occasions and was especially admired for his performances as Captain Belaye in Pineapple Poll, Albrecht in Giselle, and Dr Coppélius in Coppélia.He also occasionally choreographed short works for the school’s annual performances.
Lawrence left Canberra for Sydney in 1986. In Sydney he undertook a variety of jobs including a brief period of work as a teacher at the McDonald College. Lawrence remarried in Sydney and lived towards the end of his life in Victoria Falls in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. He was an accomplished pianist and in his retirement enjoyed composing original, short works for piano.
After he left Canberra, the Bryan Lawrence School of Ballet was renamed the National Capital Ballet School in 1987 and the associated performing company became the National Capital Dancers.
Bryan Lawrence is survived by his first wife, Janet Karin, with whom he had two children, a son Nicholas and a daughter Isobel (deceased). He spent many happy years with his second wife, Lyn Palethorpe.
Brian Lawrence Palethorpe: born 4 September 1936, Birmingham, England; died Katoomba, New South Wales, 8 July 2017.
Michelle Potter, 9 July 2017
Featured image: Bryan Lawrence in Les Sylphides. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer
Just recently a colleague in France suggested I might enjoy a BBC radio program she had just heard in a series called Sound of Dance. The particular program, ‘The Contemporary Ballet Composer’, was hosted by Katie Derham and concerned music specially commissioned for dance. It included, as it happened, excerpts from two works we are shortly to see in Australia—’In the garden’ by Max Richter from the score for Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, and ‘Mad Hatter’s tea party’ and ‘Cheshire cat’ by Joby Talbot from the score for Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.* The program also contained excerpts from an interview with composer Sally Beamish, currently working on a score for David Nixon’s The Little Mermaid for Northern Ballet, on how she approached composing for dance.
But ‘The Contemporary Ballet Composer’ finished with a brief excerpt from Elena Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans (which is largely why my colleague suggested I listen—the rare mention of an Australian on the BBC!). What I found somewhat alarming though was that, while choreographers’ names were mentioned for every other piece of music played, Meryl Tankard didn’t get a mention as choreographer of Wild Swans, a ballet based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name. It sent me back to sections from my biography of Tankard, and to the various articles and reviews I had written in 2003–2004 about Wild Swans**:
‘Wild and woolly. Meryl Tankard knits a new ballet’ The Australian Ballet News, Issue 31, 2003, pp. 6–8
‘Dance a wild and wonderful tribute.’ The Canberra Times: Panorama, 10 May 2003, pp. 4–5
‘Wild Swans and the art of collaboration.’ Brolga, June 2003, pp. 26–31
‘Wild Swans and peevish reviewers.’ Australian Art Review, November 2003–February 2004, pp. 41–42
Meryl Tankard. An original voice (Canberra: Dance writing and research, 2012)
As I wrote in the Tankard biography, Elena Kats-Chernin’s music for Wild Swans was
… a luscious and evocative ninety minute score for small orchestra and soprano voice, which has had an ongoing life. A concert suite from Wild Swans is commercially available on compact disc and extracts from it, especially ‘Eliza’s Aria’, receive regular airplay. ‘Eliza’s Aria’ was also used in the United Kingdom in a series of six television and cinema advertisements in 2007 for the financial institution Lloyds TSB thus bringing the musical composition to a much wider (and enthusiastic) audience.
The ballet itself, with its extraordinary and beautifully fluid projections by Régis Lansac and arresting costumes by Angus Strathie, its references to Hans Christian Andersen’s fascination with paper cut-outs, and some spectacular choreographic segments, was a joint commission from the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Opera House in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Opera House. It premiered in Sydney in April 2003.
Sadly, Wild Swans, the ballet, has never been revived and, not only that, it seems Tankard’s name is often disregarded when the music is played, even though she was the choreographer whose work allowed the score to be created. That this happens, and it happens to other choreographers in addition to Tankard, highlights the problems faced by contemporary choreographers in gaining long-term acceptance and understanding of their work and their processes.
Wild Swans was filmed by ABC Television in 2003 and a documentary, ‘Wild Swans’: behind the scenes, was also made in the same year. Unfortunately, neither is readily available commercially. But looking at the documentary again, and rereading what I wrote about the work and the process, it is clear that Wild Swans was an exceptional collaboration. In terms of the score, Tankard and Kats-Chernin worked closely together over an extended period. Kats-Chernin came to early rehearsals with some preliminary musical sketches but admits that she used very little of this material. Giving further insight into the collaborative process relating to Wild Swans, in which on this occasion, given that there was a narrative structure to the piece, Tankard worked in a relatively logical order, Kats-Chernin has written:
We met regularly around my piano, about twice a week and went through everything scene by scene. Meryl would work out the structure and describe the images in her head, and I would improvise all kinds of different versions, and at some point Meryl would say—“yes, that’s it”—and then I would write everything down. In a couple of days she would visit again and we would check the past material as well as try and work on the next scenes. It was good to work in the “running order”, as this way we kept the rhythm of the whole piece in “real time”. We were also lucky that the Australian Ballet arranged for a draft recording of the whole ballet with the Orchestra of Victoria. That way Meryl had a chance to hear all the orchestral colours that I had imagined and which were sometimes very hard to describe in words. Meryl and the dancers then rehearsed with the recording and in the last week of that phase I joined in and we found ourselves working out the final order of which pieces worked and where.(Boosey & Hawkes website)
Occasionally during the process, Kats-Chernin’s contributions were edited out. She has spoken in a quite matter of fact tone about this process:
I’m not precious about discarding material. Composition of this kind is a very practical activity. The audience isn’t coming to hear a concert but to see action and be stimulated by the music. The music is to remind people of the drama and it can’t always be the centre of attention. (‘Wild and Woolly’, p. 7)
The dancers, too, sometimes had their contributions discarded and, reflecting on the dancers’ reaction to the process of creating Wild Swans, Tim Harbour, who played one of Eliza’s eleven brothers, has said:
The work had a very slow evolution. It was quite exhausting really. There was a constant review and editing process. Every day things changed. Sometimes there was a lot of frustration, even indignation amongst the dancers because we’d spend so much time creating steps, the mood, and the emotion and then Meryl would edit it out.
[But], I would have regretted not being part of it. The more you put in in the early stages, the more you get out in the end. And in the end I think the dancers felt an incredible sense of pride in what we as a team achieved. There has never been anything like it in the Australian Ballet. Until now people had to leave the Australian Ballet to get his kind of creative experience. (Meryl Tankard. An original voice, p. 110)
Looking back at my Wild Swans material, and without being at all critical that the score still (deservedly) enjoys popularity, it continues to bother me that the ballet has never been revived. As a work of extraordinary, and absolutely hands-on collaboration it deserves to be seen again.
Michelle Potter, 23 June 2017
* The program is available until c. 16 July 2017 at this link. Podcasts of this series, apparently, are available only in the UK. ** None of these items is available online.