Swan Lake revisited. Royal New Zealand Ballet

Production by Russell Kerr, staged by Turid Revfeim—alternate casts in continuing Wellington season
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

I have been privileged to see the three casts of the Wellington season of Swan Lake, in Russell Kerr’s pedigree production (and note there is also a fourth cast, though not performing in the capital). It’s impressive that a relatively small ballet company can field that number of Principals since ours is half or a quarter the size of major world companies who would stage a Swan Lake.

We might also score as the world’s most widely nationally touring company. That dates back to 1950s when Poul Gnatt took ballet to 156 towns throughout the country each year. In part the geography of Aotearoa New Zealand allowed that, provided you could find the stamina, but it was also Gnatt’s intent to take ballet to the people, to the farming community, to schools, to local towns where billets were forthcoming and the provision of suppers became a thing of some local competition—in contrast with his own homeland where people had to travel to Copenhagen to see their national company. Gnatt’s vision seems to have worked since sell-out shows of Swan Lake around the country are still happening, and the zeitgeist of the Company today is causally connected to those beginnings.

I said in my review of this production’s opening night that the corps de ballet of swans are making a particularly beautiful line-up, and that is impressive since most of them would not have danced Swan Lake before. Also noteworthy is that none of the Odette/Odile-Siegfried casts has ever danced these full-length roles before either. And what’s more you can spy last night’s Swan Queen in the line-up of Princesses dancing at court tonight, and here amongst the corps de ballet tonight, as a fragile and beautiful but anonymous swan, is tomorrow’s Odette/Odile. Perhaps it is the freshness of so many premiere performances that is contributing to the rich and committed quality of this production. That, and the staging by Turid Revfeim.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Joshusa Guillemot-Rodgerson with corps de ballet and von Rothbart in Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Kate Kadow as the Swan Queen uses her statuesque physique to real effect and gives a striking performance particularly as Odile. Her Siegfried, Branden Rainers, is a strong and secure partner.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson make another fine pairing in the title roles, again spectacular in the Odile-Siegfried liaison. The solo of the melancholy prince alone on stage between acts is a poignant and beautiful performance I will long remember.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina as Odile and Joshusa Guillemot-Rodgerson as Siegfried in Swan Lake, Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

It is quite a moment when after the matinee performance Ty King-Wall, the Company’s artistic director, takes the stage to announce that both Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson are being promoted to the rank of Principal.

A ballet stage is usually full of beautiful things many, many times rehearsed and then impeccably delivered. Improvisation and spontaneity are not normally on offer, so it is quite wonderful to watch Gallardo Lobaina overwhelmed at the surprise announcement. ‘Is she laughing or crying’ is the 4 year old’s urgent whisper beside me in the dark. The answer is ‘yes’ since she is a quivering, laughing, crying dancer who hasn’t rehearsed this bit, but eventually, after several minutes, finds a fist punch to say ‘OK. Yes. I accept.’

The Jester in that cast, Dane Head, is a truly mischievous character with impeccable timing throughout (echoes of a Mercutio or a Harlequin in some other ballet). Von Rothbart, here played by Zacharie Dun, also has the week’s edge of that role in his scheming duplicity and evil intent (reminding me of the Devil in Denis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, that tour de force of the theatre). Paul Mathews, returning from retirement to play the somewhat bumbling old Tutor Wolfgang, of course wears the same costume by Kristian Fredrikson as did the late Jon Trimmer who created the role, and we welcome the reminder of that.

Russell Kerr’s catch-cry was always ‘There’s no such thing as a small part’ and that would explain why every performer in his productions makes the stage their own. The Spanish, Hungarian and Italian entertainers at court, in von Rothbart’s thrall, are delivered with exceptional panache. Catarina Estevez-Collins has a stand-out quality, but it’s always Kirby Selchow who steals my eye. She is the character who acts before she dances, whereas in ballet is mostly the other way round. Calum Gray continues to impress, and he will likely be a Siegfried in years to come.

Katherine Minor, the ‘fourth’ Odette/Odile (with Kihiro Kusukami as Siegfried) is the cast I didn’t see. Minor is in the corps of swans each night in Wellington, they are all immaculate and identical but there’s an aura of Olga Spessivtseva about Minor that uncannily marks her out from the rest (and what’s more she is a dead ringer lookalike of former Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer, Fiona Tonkin— now there’s New Zealand ballet history for you).

We have already seen Minor as Odile in a recent Tutus on Tour program so we know she can do it, but it’s always the matter of how evenly and convincingly Odette and Odile will play off the double sides of that single role that takes us back to the next performance. In this season and by my reading, it is Mayu Tanigaito who plays both aspects equally and deeply, right from the get-go—the subtle and anguished Odette, equally with the sparklingly duplicit Odile (possibly the somewhat ‘easier’ role to smash out? Who knows? Ask the dancers). Tanigaito appears as each of these persona before she even starts dancing. How that mystery, that alchemy works is another reason we go back to the ballet. So sadly, I’ll just have to imagine how Minor is playing out her double character in the role of a lifetime.

Of course, what Swan Lake is ‘really about’ is the emotional stamina required to continue living when your beloved partner has had to leave—in other words, it’s an essay on grief, how to live with the memory of someone after von Rothbart has stolen her away. That’s ‘really’ why we go to back to see Swan Lake, and why Russell Kerr’s quiet mastering of the layered and ambiguous ending is so very consoling, so very finely wrought.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 May 2024

Featured image: Kate Kadow as Odile with Branden Reiners as Siegfried in Swan Lake Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet

1 May 2024 (and following national tour). St James Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This pedigree production of Swan Lake by Russell Kerr, the beloved father figure of ballet in New Zealand, was first staged on the company in 1996 and again in 2002, 2007 and 2013. Russell Kerr died in 2022 so this re-staging is the first not under his direction.

It proves a triumph on several levels, and is giving many a balletomane a sense of coming home. To some degree that involves the sumptuous sets and distinctive costumes by designer Kristian Fredrikson, which still carry as well as they did nigh on three decades ago. The cut and the cloth, the colours, weight and scale of all of Fredrikson’s work come from a singular vision.  

Mayu Tanigaito as Odette/Odile can trust her formidable technique to release an exquisite interpretation of the dual role. She conveys Odette’s yearning through superb control of port de bras, unfolding arabesques and in the beautifully held balances, which could have lasted even longer, holding her breath and ours. But after a hint of rubato with the masterful conductor Hamish McKeich holding the baton, you have to go where the stunningly beautiful violin solo, played by Donald Armstrong, is leading you. The pathos of doomed love and Odette’s courage to protect both the Prince, and her fellow victims, is rendered with a tenderness that was in splendid contrast with her sparkling duplicity as Odile. Pearl then diamond.

Mayu Tanigaito as Odette and Laurynas Vejalis as Siegfried in Swan Lake, Act II. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Laurynas Vejalis is a pensive Prince Siegfried, and I appreciate enormously the aesthetic restraint that he brings to his phenomenal technique. As a dancer he can do anything, as Siegfried he holds back, until he sights Odile that is. As the four-act ballet progresses this couple perform some of the finest pas de deux we have seen here in recent years.

The ensemble of swans is impressive, many of them younger dancers who will be performing in their first Swan Lake. They may have missed Russell Kerr but they could not have a better introduction than this beautifully realised production. Character dances in the ballroom scene are very stylishly delivered and help build a rich and royal courtly atmosphere, all the more devastating when it falls out of the vertical and collapses into chaos. Von Rothbart wears the most magnificent cloak in history but I felt the mysterious and evil intent of his complex role could have been more convincingly conveyed.

Catarina Estévez-Collins and Monet Galea-Hewitt, with corps de ballet, as Swans in Swan Lake Act II. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Kerr’s production lifts Tchaikovsky’s sublime composition off the page and onto the stage, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra play superbly, with a number of fine players evident in the solos. The different sections of the orchestra are alive to the drama of lyrical and haunting or tempestuous and extrovert passages. Hamish McKeich holds it all together and the triumph belongs equally to him.

Much credit is due to the Company’s new artistic directorate for appointing Turid Revfeim as regisseur of Russell Kerr’s production. Revfeim is another of the country’s ballet legends—an accomplished dancer, teacher and artistic director of an independent ballet collective, a long-standing professional of great stamina and skilled diplomacy. Having worked with Kerr for years she is the perfect person for the job. The modesty apparent in her curtain-call speaks volumes, but as Edmund Hilary would say she ‘has an awful lot to be modest about’. Her program essay reminisces about Kerr’s inimitable way of working, and the high expectations he had of each dancer.

It is good too to be reminded of Shannon Dawson’s words about Kerr … ‘He is a parent of sorts, a father of dance, teaching the young, guiding the teenager and letting the adult go free, and the only thing expected in return is that you do your best.’

Kerr’s own insightful essay in the printed program proclaims ‘There are no swans in the ballet Swan Lake…’ explaining they are all women…’victims of an evil genius’. His reading offers an ambiguous ending to the ballet, suggesting that von Rothbart as the power of evil has been overcome, but perhaps only temporarily? Swan and Prince are together, but the misogynist magician will be back. He was conquered once, for now, but there may come a need to conquer him again. The resourceful lighting design by Jon Buswell contributes much here.

Branden Reiners as von Rothbart in Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Jennifer Shennan, 3 May 2024

Featured image: Mayu Tanigaito as Odile and Laurynas Vejalis as Siegfried in Swan Lake, Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Tutus on Tour. Royal New Zealand Ballet

24 February 2024. Te Raukura, Kapiti
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The two recently appointed directors at RNZB, Tobias Perkins and Ty King-Wall, express in the program’s introduction their hope that the national Tutus on Tour production will leave the audience captivated, moved and wanting more. It did and we do.

The program opens with a set of excerpts from Swan Lake, staged after Russell Kerr’s treasured production from 1996. Usually we see either the complete four act ballet (which RNZB will perform in May this year), or just Act II as a stand-alone piece. Here however is a totally new experience—the full four acts reduced to a 40 minute abridged version, so it’s the classic story but without the trimmings, and on a tiny budget. Far from reducing the impact of the mighty original, this in an unexpected way brings out a poignancy and intimacy in the interactions between the characters, in what is effectively a chamber version of the choreography. And with soloists of this calibre, we lose nothing of the quality.

Turid Revfeim has staged the piece with care—but she swiftly credits David McAllister (who has been Interim Artistic Director at RNZB this past year) with the actual choice and sequence of excerpts. There’s no von Rothbart on stage for example but his evil presence is caught in the orchestral overture (in very good amplification in this excellent venue). The performance is danced to a 2013 recording of Nigel Gaynor conducting the NZSO, back in that memorable era when RNZB retained their own conductor on the staff, and he’d be the best ballet conductor, music advisor and arranger that you could want. We’re off to a very good start indeed, bathing in sumptuous Tchaikovsky.

The cygnets are the pert little favourites and do very well. Laurynas Vejalis, a brooding Siegfried, dances powerful allegro legwork with adagio arms (that’s a whole lot harder to do than it sounds, and the results affect our pulse and breathing). Then he and Mayu Tanigaito as Odette develop an exquisite rapport in the pas de deux from Act II. This was a revelation and may have to do with the smaller proportions of the venue? In a full-sized theatre all the dancers have to project a larger-than-life scale to reach the back of the Gods. Here there’s little distance from stage to audience and that means the pair can dance solely to, with and for each other. Neither of them looks at the audience, we are merely voyeurs of their love-making. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

There’s a charming pas de trois danced by Calum Gray, Catarina Estévez Collins and Cadence Barrack. Calum has a new strength and presence which is a pleasure to see. Then follows a smashing Neopolitan number by Ema Takahashi and Dane Head that sizzles the stage. Wow.

There’s a new Siegfried now, the sharp and spirited Kihiro Kusukami, to dance with Odile, Katherine Minor—and here’s another triumph, again I think in part due to the intimate scale of the venue. Siegfried looks only at his ‘love’ (but it’s ‘the wrong woman’, you fool), while she, the beautiful brazen two-faced prostitute, looks at him just often enough to keep him mesmerised, but also at times at us, not with a smile exactly, more of a sneer and a wink, as if to say ‘Aren’t I clever to seduce a prince like this and do my father’s bidding at the same time?’ It’s a very skilled performance indeed, and cadences a miniature ballet we will long remember.

After the interval comes Alice Topp’s Clay, a pas de deux from her Logos, to music by Einaudi, seen here in 2023. Performed by Mayu Tanigaito and Levi Teachout, this is in extreme contrast of movement style and vocabulary from the previous work and Mayu reveals the great range of her performing ability. With tightly focussed tension, the drama of their pas de deux recalls the choreography of the full work.

Shaun James Kelly has re-worked Prismatic (from the larger cast first seen in last year’s Platinum season). The bright and energised piece pays homage to the neo-classical gem, Prismatic Variations, co-choregraphed by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt in 1959. The ascetic aura of that talisman work cannot be easily imitated, but I do wonder if the dancers’ facial expressions and smiles could be reined in and at least in parts replaced by the meditative neutrality that gave the original work such a celestial aura and mana. There are striking sequences and shapes throughout the choreography, with a final triumphant sculpture of the group of twelve dancers that suggests the crow’s nest or bowsprit of a ship sailing on the high seas. 

I very much value the printed program for its thoughtful and detailed content. The Company is entering a new era, and one can only wish them all safe travels and happy dancing in this tour around the country. Half the Company does the North and half the South Island, which gives valuable access for younger dancers to try new roles. Audiences in twelve centres will be thrilled to have them back. Some in those audiences will remember the tours of 156 towns that Poul Gnatt took New Zealand Ballet to in 1950s. He persuaded them to enrol as Friends of the Ballet and their 5-shillings subs paid for the petrol to drive to the next town. The rest is history.    

Jennifer Shennan, 26 February 2024

Featured image: Front cover image for the program for Tutus on Tour showing Mayu Tanigaito as Odile in Swan Lake. Photo: © Ross Brown

Tribute to Jon Trimmer

2 February 2024. Opera House, Wellington
by Jennifer Shennan

Sir Jon Trimmer, dancer extraordinaire and leading artist of the Royal New Zealand Ballet for decades, died in October 2023. Yesterday a Tribute to the man and artist was presented in Wellington to a capacity audience at the Opera House. Guest of Honour was Jacqui, Lady Trimmer, also a dancer with RNZB, who was at Jon’s side throughout his 60 year performance career 

The event was designed and prepared by Turid Revfeim, former dancer with Company, and more recently artistic director of her independent Ballet Collective Aotearoa.

We were reminded of the extraordinary range of Jonty’s roles in spoken tributes, photo images, film excerpts of him dancing, and live performances by current members of RNZB. Jon had danced in all the classics—(his favourite was Albrecht, and we also saw film of him as the visionary poet in Les Sylphides). In dramatic roles there were so many favourites but let’s mention Friar Lawrence and Duke of Verona in Christopher Hampson’s Romeo and Juliet; the debauched King in André Prokovsky’s Königsmark; Dr Coppélius in Russell Kerr’s Coppélia; the stunning Swan in Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana; a compelling toa/warrior in Gaylene Sciascia’s Moko; the enigmatic Man in Ashley Killar’s No Exit; and the poignant Leopold in Gray Veredon’s Wolfgang Amadeus—in a duet-minuet with the inimitable Eric Languet. In comedy roles Jon relished Stepmother in Cinderella, Pantalone in Veredon’s The Servant of Two Masters, The Matron in Gary Harris’ The Nutcracker, and goofing through the title role in Harris’ Don Quixote.

Jon Trimmer as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in 'A Servant of Two Masters'
Jon Trimmer (left) as the wealthy Pantalone and Harry Haythorne as Dr Lombardi in A Servant of Two Masters. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Martin Stewart, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. PACOLL-8050-36-04

All those memories are worth gold, but it’s apparent to anyone who thinks about it that Gray Veredon was/is New Zealand’s exceptional choreographer with a unique imagination, style and sensibility. Jon was 41 when he first danced the outrageously wonderful solo as The Entertainer in Veredon’s Ragtime Dance Company. No one on the planet ever did or could match that performing. At age 80 Veredon is still active on the international choreographic stage, with recent successes in Warsaw and Venice, and now in Mexico. How fine and fitting it would be for RNZB to re-stage some of his stellar works—perhaps Firebird and Tell Me A Tale for starters.    

In 2006 Peter Coates directed and produced a wonderful documentary of Jon’s career from which excerpts were screened. How wonderful to see and hear Russell Kerr in such good voice analysing Jon’s talents. The film will be a valuable resource for years to come. 

Tributes were received from former artistic directors of RNZB—Harry Haythorne (by proxy from Mark Keyworth), Ashley Killar, Patricia Rianne, Gary Harris, Matz Skoog, Ethan Stiefel and Francesco Ventriglia—and were read by Anne Rowse, former director of New Zealand School of Dance.

Breathing stopped when Helen Moulder started a cameo from her poignant play, Meeting Karpovsky, that she and Jon performed many times. How could she do that with half the cast missing? But suddenly there was Kim Broad who quietly appeared from the shadows in a miraculous summoning of Jon’s presence. That was the true moment of theatre in the whole event.

The next Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, the sixth in the annual series, to be held in Wellington on Sunday 25 February 2024, will be all about Jon Trimmer. Turid Revfeim is the main presenter, with a number of other contributors, and we will also screen the complete Coates’ documentary. For those readers able and interested to attend, please email jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz for an invitation.

We are already thinking ahead that 2025’s lecture will be on Gray Veredon. Perhaps the year after that might be Eric Languet?

Jennifer Shennan, 3 February 2024

Featured image: Jon Trimmer in Helen Moulder’s Meeting Karpovsky. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Myth & Ritual. Orchestra Wellington, with Ballet Collective Aotearoa

3 June 2023. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Marc Taddei, music director of Orchestra Wellington (OW), has made the band a major fixture of Wellington’s music scene. A heartily large number of subscribers means there is always a capacity audience in place and the Michael Fowler Centre is no small venue.

Typically, Taddei chooses a theme to connect the different works on any given programme. A recent one, Elemental Forces, featured the mighty Scythian Suite by Prokofiev. It was a staggering experience to hear the enlarged orchestra play the work. I was quite shocked to learn from the program note that Diaghilev had commissioned the score from Prokofiev just the year following Stravinsky’s  Le Sacre du Printemps, but then declined it even before the composition was finished. (No wonder Prokofiev was sometimes seen leaving Diaghilev’s office in tears).  It was 1915, orchestral players were in short supply, mostly being away in the trenches, so the work was never performed and I’m not aware of any subsequent choreography being set to the music. (Diaghilev must have been out of his mind. The final movement of the suite summons a mighty sunrise—probably the most extraordinary sight any human has ever witnessed, even if we do tend to take it for granted, as in ‘the sun will rise again tomorrow’. The dancers would only have needed to start in a crouched position in the dark and to unfold to a standing position into the light, with the slowest motion humanly imaginable. Perhaps Sankai Juku could have managed that? or Cloudgate?

OW’s most recent programme, Myth & Ritual, opened with Richard Strauss’ Salome: Dance of the seven veils. Nobody danced to it—nobody needed to, the music said it all. Then a powerful work for orchestra and saxophone, Zahara, by John Psathas. The soloist, Valentine Michaud, wore a dress (creation might be a better word) that Léon Bakst would have been proud to design.

Then followed Bela Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin in which the orchestra joined forces with Orpheus Choir and with Ballet Collective Aotearoa (BCA). The Michael Fowler Centre may be a large venue but by the time an enlarged orchestra and sizeable choir are in place, there’s not a lot of room left for dancing. It was impressively resourceful then for BCA’s Turid Revfeim, artistic director, and Tabitha Dombroski, choreographic director, to place the cast of six dancers in the high choir stalls, a wide but extremely narrow space, for their playing out of the myth and ritual of this extraordinary work.

Bartok knew what he was doing, even if not everyone has seen what he could see. Note the date of composition, 1918. Whether overt or not, World War One has to be in the subtext of anything produced in Europe at that time. Despite that provenance, the work was received as a scandal and banned on moral grounds but that has not prevented its longevity as a score, even if these 105 years later it can still challenge audiences.        

Four street rogues compel a woman to act as seductive target to wealthy passers-by who will then be robbed and beaten to death.  One such character emerges, the Miraculous Mandarin, who dies several times, but returns to life. That role was compellingly played by Björn Aslund who faced the orchestra in defiance of the inevitable. The harlot, Mimi, was played with aplomb by Alina Kulikova, and the rough rogues—Alisha Wathen, Zoe White, Callum Phipps and James Burchell—were extraordinarily agile in their clambering through rails and seats. No need to design a set for this—it was there in the architecture of the place.

The dancers are named here because, inexplicably, they were not acknowledged in the printed program on the night— but the imagery they created will linger long in the memory.

Other than that omission, this was a remarkable night at the orchestra that became a night at the theatre. A graphic exhibition in the foyer of the life and work of Bela Bartok, supplied by the Hungarian Embassy, was an added and much appreciated feature.

There is further resonance for those who follow ballet history here that Poul Gnatt, founder of New Zealand Ballet, choreographed Miraculous Mandarin for the national ballet company in the Philippines that he helped to found in 1970s. And in mid 90s, the then artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Ashley Killar, choreographed Dark Waves to Bartok’s Music for strings, celeste and percussion. He based the ballet on a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, and gave to Jon Trimmer one of his finest roles. The work was toured to America (where it impressed the New York critics) though was never performed publicly in New Zealand. (I’d got lucky and seen a studio rehearsal before the company went on tour. They returned to find various arts agencies were trying to close the company down. Triumph to those who said No to that).

There are still a number of dancers from the original cast easily to be located, who would willingly coach a new cast. Killar is still active in the ballet world and lives in Sydney, so there’s not a lot to stop the work being staged again. It’s redolent with New Zealand provenance.

Jennifer Shennan, 5 June 2023

Featured image: Rehearsal for Myth and Ritual

New Zealand Dance Highlights 2021

by Jennifer Shennan

The year everywhere saw curtailment of a number of dance events but the resilience in dancers’ responses still gave us plenty of highlights to savour …

Ballet Collective Aotearoa launched its long-awaited premiere season, Subtle Dances, in the Auckland and Dunedin Arts Festivals early in the year. Artistic direction of BCA by Turid Revfeim, to establish a new national independent ballet enterprise, is supported by her troupe’s pioneering and committed spirit that refuses to let funding challenges affect their vision, as further festival bookings eventuate and new sponsorship initiatives are waiting in the wings. BCA achieved an outstanding professional level of dance and music presentation with this triple-bill that premiered choreographies by Sarah Knox, Cameron Macmillan and Loughlan Prior, in collaboration with the New Zealand String Trio, who played onstage throughout. This was chamber performance of the highest order, and impressive that the two arts could bring such coherence to a triple-bill. It was further affirmation to see Abigail Boyle, nationally treasured dancer, performing at her peak. Young company member Kit Reilly is one to watch out for (he has recently received the inaugural Bill Sheat Memorial Award for a dancer prepared to commit to New Zealand identity in their career).

Later in the year Loughlan Prior achieved what is arguably his finest choreography—Transfigured Night, beautifully themed to the Schoenberg score, performed by New Zealand String Quartet in a NZChamber Music national tour, in an impressive staging where musicians and dancers again shared the stage space. The calibre of choreography, fine dancers and fabulous musicians ensured that the totality was greater than the sum of its considerable parts. That doesn’t happen just by cutting the stage into two halves, but grows out of the skill and vision of the choreographer, and willingness of the musicians to take risks (NZSQ have always been up for that). Laura Saxon Jones, another much valued New Zealand dancer, was here in her prime, as Prior, who knows her work well, intuited exactly how to create a searingly memorable role for her. Thanks to inspired set and costume design by William Fitzgerald (who also danced in the work), the unlikely space of the Fowler Centre was transformed into a grail of poignant and poetic beauty. At the end, audience members, primarily music followers, were either on their feet or reduced to tears by this outstanding work, which would hold its strength in any venue worldwide. Perhaps it is music audiences that will enlarge a future following for dance as they find music treated with equal respect as choreography, without distracting interruptions of shouting and whistling that haul balletic virtuosity out of the context of choreography (as though dancers need encouragement to tackle the next entrechat or pirouette).

Lucy Marinkovich brought her remarkable Strasbourg 1518 back to Circa Theatre after its premiere season there was cut short last year. It remains the most powerful experience of dance theatre seen here in a very long time, and its Auckland season also made huge and visceral impact. Lucien Johnson’s sound design plus saxophone drove the performers into the stratosphere. I remember the narrator from the original production, France Hervé, for the remarkable transition within her role that edged its way through the performance. No easy way to turn that alchemy into words.    

Bianca Hyslop choreographed and Rowan Pierce designed Pohutu, performed for the Toi Poneke gallery, a highly effective setting for a work of empathy with unfolding references to both geographical landscape and mental inscape.

The New Zealand School of Dance graduation offered a program of interesting contrasts within the classical and contemporary vocabularies, and I felt thrilled to encounter the  choreographic instinct and potential of Tabitha Dombrowski’s new work, Reset Run.

Scene from Tabitha Dombrowski’s Reset Rerun, New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Vivek Kinra’s company Mudra presented Navarasa, to his customary highest standard of Bharata Natyam, a consistent contribution to Wellington’s artistic life for decades. One of my favourite things is to observe a dance class, to sight the seeds planted that over time grow into performance. It’s one of the ways to prepare for the privilege of writing about dance in its ephemeral, enduring path. Kinra is one of the most naturally gifted dance teachers across all genres in Wellington, in his command of discipline that is shared with, but not imposed upon, his students. In this Indian dance form there is a wonderful continuity between studio and stage which offers a cleansing and rewarding experience.

I attended a spirited gathering at Parliament, where a book documenting the Irish population resident in New Zealand was launched. Every address was laced with a song, as we are so accustomed to in Maori whaikōrero (oratory) and following waiata (song) but it was especially apparent here that Celtic dance is as readily available as song, poetry, literature, instrumental music—fiddle and pipes—as affirmations in Irish communication. No choreographer to be named here—just dancing from the heart.

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s restaging of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream  brought us many poignant reminders of the premiere season in 2016 and its stellar cast. Previous artistic director Ethan Stiefel had initially proposed and negotiated with Queensland Ballet for the two companies to share a series of productions, which was a truly exciting prospect. Queensland Ballet did mount A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016 but after that, unfortunately, the project did not proceed further. But the calibre of choreography and design (Tracy Grant Lord) of Dream remains intact. It was Scarlett’s masterstroke to frame the plot with a prologue of the young child caught between fractious parents yet resolved by the epilogue, hence the genius to telescope a 500 year old theme into contemporary society. That Liam Scarlett died at 35, earlier this year, is something that Shakespeare, in heartbreaking tragedy, would be challenged to account for.

I watched on Sky Arts several sizzling programs of documentary/performance by Flamenco artists, memorably Rocio Molina. The best-made dance films for my eye are those of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, superb record of the company’s prolific repertoire in perpetuity, and their viewings always prompt me to send a message to everyone in my contacts list to watch if at all possible. 

Dance reading helped fill some of the quieter stretches of the year—Michel Meylac on Russian Ballet emigrés was exactly what it claimed—whereas I found totally delightful surprise, when reading the fresh and fabulous Zadie Smith—Feel Free—to happen upon her essay Dance Lessons for Writers, in which she brilliantly couples and compares Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly … ‘aristocracy v. proletariat…the floating and the grounded …’; Harold Nicholas & Fayard Nicholas … ‘propriety and joy, choose joy…’; Michael Jackson & Prince; Janet Jackson, Madonna, Beyoncé; David Byrne & David Bowie; Rudolf Nureyev & Mikhail Baryshnikov… ‘the one dancer faced resolutely inwards, the other is an outward-facing —artist…’.  It’s heartening to find such perceptive analysis from a writer who is not exclusively describing dance performances, but who can trace and evaluate how these technical and aesthetic qualities resonate with the rest of our experiences.

For the fourth Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, Anne Rowse brought her own 90 years alongside her decades of friendship with 91 year old Russell Kerr to trace their parallel careers—and what fabulously sustained careers those have been. The event was coupled with a celebration of Michelle Potter’s book, Kristian Fredrikson, Designer, generously supported by the Australian High Commission.  

The same event also saw the launch of DNA—Dance Needs Attention, a networking enterprise to invite artistic associates to support each other as individuals in independent dance studies and writing projects. Among early tasks was the opportunity for me to read the manuscript of associate Ashley Killar’s forthcoming biography of John Cranko—a fascinating read and one certainly to watch out for.   

2022 will see Patricia Rianne, in the fifth lecture of the RKL series, trace her own life and  career—including the ballet, Bliss, that she choreographed after a Katherine Mansfield story, for New Zealand Ballet in 1986. There will be several seminars throughout following months in which we will celebrate Poul Gnatt’s arrival in New Zealand in 1952, when he first taught open classes in Auckland as the Borovansky Ballet toured here, before he founded the New Zealand Ballet the following year.

May we all be safe and sound through 2022… 100 years since James Joyce published Ulysees, TS Eliot published The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf is writing, Katherine Mansfield is writing… and Sergei Diaghilev invited Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Erik Satie and Clive Bell to dine together in Paris at the Majestic hotel. Wonder what was on the menu that night. Choreographic scenario, anyone?

Jennifer Shennan, 21 December 2021

Featured image: Scene from Helix in Subtle Dances, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

New Zealand School of Dance. Graduation 2021

22 November 2021. Te Whaea, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The Graduation season of NZSD is always a spirited one and, despite numerous disruptions to the year, this 2021 program of nine short works is an outstanding testament to resilience and determination, qualities that dancers are noted for. Such things can be infectious, all to the good since the world needs more of both. It’s the elevation—the leaping, the jumping, the flying, the jeté, the sauté, the entrechat, the gravity-defying stuff that I’m talking about (—the things dancers in retirement tell you they miss the most. It’s metaphor. Normal humans don’t jump, they just walk and maybe run, as common sense dictates they should, so younger dancers are needed to keep the elevation going. If you agree, read on. If you don’t, I’m not sure I can help].

The opening piece, a perfect curtain-raiser, is the Waltz from Act I of Swan Lake, from Russell Kerr’s renowned production for RNZB some decades back, remembered for the integrity of its staging. Swan Lake is not just about the dancing, it’s a story-ballet about love and loss, and the price to be paid for a mistake. Fundamentally it’s a ballet about grief. Kerr has always known how to fully harness the dramatic power of full-length ballets in the theatre, something many attempt but few achieve. He is the consummate force, call that kaumatua, of ballet in New Zealand, and is only aged 91 so there’s time for us to appreciate him yet. RNZB will next year bring back his production of Swan Lake. I remember the closing cameo of its final scene, the cumulative effect of all four preceding acts, a product of Kerr’s humanity and humility, and I have lived by it ever since. This excerpt was staged by Turid Revfeim, a legendary alumna of NZSD, who brought her typical sensibility and acumen to create the enthusiasm and atmosphere of a 21 year old’s birthday party for us all to share. There’s a lot can go wrong at a 21st birthday of course (and the full-length ballet follows through with that) but here it’s a huge bouquet of fragrant roses as a gift for a birthday celebration. Who’s going to say No Thanks to that on the night? Salute to Tchaikovsky, Russell Kerr and Turid Revfeim, to every dancer, and to everyone in the audience since we’ve all been invited to the party, so to speak.  

Reset Run, by Tabitha Dombrowksi, lists music by Bach, by Kit Reilly, and by Ravel. I am familiar with Dombrowski as a fine and focussed dancer (earlier in the year she was in the cast of Ballet Collective Aotearoa’s memorable season, and also in Loughlan Prior’s stunning Transfigured Night) but I have not hitherto seen her choreography. It proves a revelation. My anticipation is usually on reserve when several musics for a single choreography are involved, since that might mean fragmentation instead of the coherence that a single composition can support. I need not have worried. Lines, patterns, the front view or the back of each dancer, are thoughtfully modulated to balance light and dark. The cast of eight dancers are in black gear, a white stripe down each arm, and a large oval cut out from the back, allowing light from the shadows to shine on skin. The true choreographic strength, maintained throughout, makes each move consequent from the one before it and gives rise to the one that follows. An initial line-up of couples then become a single couple, then become a group. That beautifully built transition transports me back not 24 hours when I’d watched the magnificent and beautiful lunar eclipse in the night sky. No mean feat to evoke that choreography.

Classical Ballet Students in Tabitha Dombroski’s Reset Run. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The following work could not have made greater contrast. Dust Bunny, a ziggy number choreographed by Matt Roffe, is an excerpt from his full-length work Cotton Tail. In cabaret mode, it urges all rabbits to run from the farmer’s gun. Some escape, but of course some do not. The animal rights issue here is poignant and well played but I did wonder if some kind of mask or head covering would help the animal representation.

Airu Matsuda and Jemima Smith in Matt Roffe’s  Dust Bunny. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Lucy Marinkovich always develops her work from researched and specific themes.  Lost + Found offers a meditation on time, and the ephemeral life of a dance. The opening section, effective in silence, captures both linear and circular time.  Further sections layer unison and canon in movement, to the piano music of Jonathan Crayford with atmospheric overtones designed by Lucien Johnson. The climax is a wild and wonderful whirling blur after the manner of dervishes, in the timeless invoking for grace to descend from on high. Where does a dance go when it is no longer being performed? That question is echoed in St.Augustine’s words—’What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I do not know.’  A pointed theme for dance… the most ephemeral of performance arts.

Madelet Sanli, Persia Thor-Poet, Stela Albuquerque and Miriam Joyce in Lucy Marinkovich’s – Lost + Found. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Loughlan Prior, an experienced choreographer with a continually expanding career, made Time Weaver, to music by Philip Glass. A couple dances patterns and lines, holding positions with striking shapes of two bodies, rather than communicating an emotionally engaging pas de deux of the conventional order. The dance comes to seem like the slow-motion capture of an exquisite flower opening—lotus, passionfruit, desert cactus, water lily perhaps—such as David Attenborough would be pleased to have commissioned.

Louise Camelbeke & Zachary Healy in Loughlan Prior's 'Time Weaver'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Louise Camelbeke and Zachary Healy in Loughlan Prior’s Time Weaver. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Somewhat Physical by Jeremy Beck rocks with comic satire, but has a serious underpinning. A rambunctious rendering of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie is resisted by the large group of eleven dancers who stand folded over with arms hanging down. Imperceptibly slowly they unfold to an upstanding position. End of music, bows and applause, thanks for nothing. Chairs are brought in and the dancers set themselves up as an audience. What does that make us? Further sections contain music (Vivaldi, Purcell, Mozart) and movement jokes that question the conventional relationships between what’s seen and what’s heard. The last section seems like a scene from the classic film Allegro Ma non Troppo, with dancers assembled as an orchestra of musicians, flinging their arms off, dancing their hearts out, striking their strings and pounding their percussion. Rossini, Vivaldi, Purcell and Mozart would have loved it—well, it’s for sure at least Mozart would have.      

The Bach by Michael Parmenter, to the opening chorus of Bach’s Easter Cantata, is here in an excerpt (from the original made for Unitec season in 2002, and also performed by NZSD in 2006—apart from Swan Lake it’s the only work not a premiere on this programme.) Its presence here answers that question about where a dance goes when it’s not being performed. In this case it resides, it hides, within the music, poised and ready to explode as soon as the music begins—’to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection.’ Fifteen dancers fill the stage with that joy, spiritual and/or religious, and deliver all the moves of a masterwork. You’d want to study this dance for the art and craft of choreography at its best.

In complete contrast follows So You’ll Never Have to Wear a Concrete Dressing Gown, by Eliza Sanders. An experimental piece, constructed in motifs from images in poems penned by the participating dancers. There is further self-referencing in that each dancer wears a shirt imprinted with the face of a class-mate, in a potentially interesting theme. The faces are distorted when the hands of the dancers are placed on the shirts which I find a little disconcerting—and I wait for the wearer and the face to connect during the dance, though that does not happen. This is an enigmatic work not wanting to follow obvious conventions.

Nexus, by Shaun James Kelly, to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, depicts dancers learning and assembling sequences from classical vocabulary, with frequent motifs of sliding and gliding footwork delivered at speed. I see echoes of Lander’s Etudes, which suits the theme of dancers presenting the movement elements of their art form. In that sense it makes a suitable finale to a Graduation program, though it is the vibes of Parmenter’s work that are still hanging in the air as we dash through the rain to the car park. It’s raining—who cares? We’re dancing. 

Jennifer Shennan, 22 November 2021

Featured image: Contemporary Dance Students in Jeremy Beck’s – Somewhat Physical. New Zealand School of Dance, 2021. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aotearoa with New Zealand Trio

8 & 9 April 2021. Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland
Auckland Arts Festival
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This long-awaited premiere season of a new contemporary ballet company, BalletCollective Aotearoa, was nothing short of a triumph. Come the curtain-call, many in the sizeable audience were on their feet to salute the choreographers and composers, the dancers, musicians and designers, the courage and commitment—the whole fresh resilient New Zealand-ness of it all. Many are in the team but artistic director and producer, Turid Revfeim, is responsible, and deserves acclaim.

Revfeim has led her stalwart little troupe of dancers in and out, around and back through the Covid-induced challenges and shadows of these past many months. They must have walked close to the edge more than once, as funding began then disappeared (the Minister of Arts might ask questions about that), lockdowns descended (‘Just do the right thing and stay home’), schedules postponed (‘Well, let’s just re-schedule then’), flights and accommodation booked then cancelled (‘OK, let’s just re-book then’), ‘Let’s just abandon the project since there’s no budget and it’s so hard to keep going?’ (‘Never, never, never. We will dance’). ‘Intrepid’ and ‘indomitable’ are the adjectives they have earned.

There were shades of 1953 and the pioneering endeavours of Edmund Hillary, or perhaps I mean Poul Gnatt, as the performance got under way. The intensely passionate and utterly stunning musicians of New Zealand Trio were right there, just off-centre, upstage left, for the whole performance. By that staging, the three separate choreographies on the program merged as a trefoil of faith, a shamrock of hope, a clover of charity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. J. S. Bach walked 400 miles to hear a concert. I only had to sit on a plane for one hour.

There is an impressive interview with Turid Revfeim on RNZ Nine to Noon, 9 April, (the podcast on RNZ website is well worth listening to), which sets the background and context of this courageous ballet initiative. If you think this is a rave review of the performance and of the entire enterprise, you are right.  

Scene from Sarah Knox’s Last Time We Spoke. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The opening work—Last Time We Spoke—by Sarah Knox, to composition by Rhian Sheehan, was an abstract yet poetic treatment of themes of how to be alone together. The cast of six dancers in fluid pairings across several sections of the work found connection in the lyrical music to make friends with consolation and memory. Tabitha Dombroski and William Fitzgerald were striking among the cast of six dancers.

Helix, the second work by Cameron Macmillan, one of New Zealand’s ex-pat choreographers whose work we all want to see more of, borrowed its title from the music, Helix, composed by John Psathas, leading New Zealand composer. It was preceded by an excerpt from Island Songs, a different composition by Psathas, a staggeringly virtuosic challenge to musicians who rose to every thrilling, throbbing quaver of its melodic percussion.

Scene from Cameron Macmillan’s Helix. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

In Helix, the drama continued as Macmillan traced a journey, not exactly narrative but with suggestions of story nonetheless—a woman, a man, and shades of relationships between them. Some woman. This was the phenomenal Abigail Boyle who is quite simply the leading ballet dancer in the country, no contest. Just standing still she is dancing, such is her sense of line and presence, but when she moves, o my. Her investment in the role as she journeyed round the corners of the stage carrying her chair, and through the centre of the stage as she contained emotion in her every movement, was a deeply anchored yet airborne performance. Boyle is a national treasure of dance in New Zealand and we are overjoyed to see her performing still at the peak of her powers. William Fitzgerald partnered her with a strong and sensitive quality that reminded us of his dancing which has also been much missed here of late. Tabitha Dombrowski and Medhi Angot were powerful among the committed cast of eight performers.

Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The third work, Subtle Dances, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, composed by Claire Cowan, takes its title from the music, which in turn becomes the title for the triple-bill as well. Prior and Cowan are a pairing of major talents. The work explores and explodes with themes of gender blurring—swirls of hot tango as the boys and girls and boys come out to play. It is saucy, spicy, dark and compelling. Complex courtships, allusion alternating with illusion, remind us of nature’s best dancers. It invites searing performances from all the cast, and confirms this BalletCollective Aotearea as a troupe of striking dance talent, in fabulous collaboration with the phenomenal musicians of the New Zealand Trio.

As soon as the box office opens for their next season we will be in the queue, however many hundred miles of travel that might mean. Here is a link to the RNZ podcast featuring Turid Revfeim.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 April 2021

Featured image: Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

Transfigured Night. Ballet Collective Aotearoa & Chamber Music New Zealand

15 March 2021, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This was an evening of triumph on several levels. Transfigured Night is the first of six concerts in Chamber Music New Zealand’s nationally touring programme for 2021. Audiences in ten cities will have the chance to witness a performance of light and colour, wit and freedom, deep beauty and poignant poetry, of music and dance making love. We don’t often get to watch that, and we won’t forget it. 

The New Zealand String Quartet have earlier worked with choreographer Loughlan Prior in various projects, and their mutual trust and shared excitement is apparent in every quaver and quiver. That is what will have given lift-off to this project. 

The Ides of March was the day Team Emirates New Zealand won two spectacular races in the America’s Cup series, in boats that fly above the water and turn slow pirouettes in high attitude—even those who know nothing about yachting can see that. The Fowler Centre is not a proscenium theatre space and it’s a challenge to stage dance there (it’s where in 1988 Nureyev performed, which proved a mistake). Here though a great triangular sail, white silk with patterns of colour, designed by dancer William Fitzgerald, is back lit and suspended high above the stage—an inspiration to preface the performance and shape the space.

The opening work was the premiere of a composition, I Danced, Unseen, by Tabea Squire. Laura Saxon Jones enters first, to silence—a curious creature, a lithe and hungry fox perhaps, who sniffs out and inspects the music stands and scores, what is all this about? what are these music scores? can you eat them? Hilarious. The whimsy and teasing continue as the musicians enter, wearing similar costumes as the three dancers, all of them echoing the patterns on the sailcloth overhead. There are naughty interferences from the dancers to the players and their instruments, but these musos are staunch, could play blind, and it would take a lot more than choreographed mosquitoes to throw them. It’s a darling and fun-filled opener.

The Dvorak String Sextet in A major, op.48, was superbly played, and the dancers continued in similar vein to find places in the music where they could actively, passively, openly or surreptitiously involve themselves. The three dancers had a million moves, yet the choreographic vocabulary and style were refreshingly free from clichés of ballet so often seen displayed elsewhere ‘just because we can’. They danced as individuals with personality and spirit, and the freedom that conveyed to the audience seemed liberating.  Hardened chamber music followers with little prior exposure to dance may possibly have found it distracting from the music they have long known and loved well, but not those around me who giggled and applauded and loved it, as indeed did I.  It was a commedia dell’arte romp, full of cheer and light, with inspired little fragments of Hungarian folk dance, dumka and czardas, caught in the many nimble rhythm and tempo changes. Two of those repeated movement motifs carried me back decades to pas and port de bras of the little Russian dance in RAD’s Grade 5 ballet syllabus I have loved ever since 1957, happy and grateful for the reminder. 

(l-R) Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald and Tabitha Dombrowski in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

But peel back now for the major work of the second half, Transfigured Night, early Schoenberg. It proved a choreographic masterwork, and will position Loughlan Prior firmly on the international choreographic scene. It’s a safe bet that there will be future seasons of this work, both here and, when it becomes possible, abroad as well. There wouldn’t be another choreographed work anywhere that so centrally positions the intercourse between music and dance. In that sense it harks back to the masques of 17th century Europe, with costumed musicians traversing the stage, playing from memory, mingling with dancers and actors. At the same time Prior is in full control of a contemporary ballet vocabulary that moves like a fresh nor-easterly wind across our harbour. This skipper knows the local conditions.

The skilful absorption of two massive silk cloths, one red and one white, mirrored the theme of human physical interactions, a couple, a trio, a new couple, moving through their dreams and hopes and fears, their longing and love and loss. It moved the audience, aficionados or not, to responses—‘stunning … sublime … superb … breathtaking. When can we see it again?’  The central role played by Laura Saxon Jones was calm yet nuanced, poetic and powerful. It is good to see her dancing here again after several years absence.

Laura Saxon Jones with musicians of New Zealand String Quartet in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

The choreographer and the three dancers are all graduates of New Zealand School of Dance, credit to all concerned, and are now members of Ballet Collective Aotearoa. This new and courageous initiative, directed by Turid Revfeim, is a free-lance ensemble, to date only minimally funded [how courageous is that?], yet poised to offer the country a new and fresh approach to streamlined, clean, clear ballet for our time. The premiere season of BCA, in the Auckland Arts Festival [postponed a fortnight ago due to Covid lockdown] will now instead take place on 8 and 9 April, then in Dunedin Arts Festival on 16 April. We are holding our breath and we won’t be disappointed. The calibre of choreography, dance and music is already assured, with Poul Gnatt’s pioneering spirit in spades. Split Enz have a song—History never repeats. I wager they are wrong.           

Hamish Robb’s superb program notes on music and dance interactions will help keep alive the memory   

Composition: Tabea Squire, Antonin Dvorak, Arnold Schoenberg
Musicians: New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues
Choreography: Loughlan Prior
Dancers: Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald, Tabitha Dombrowski of Ballet Collective Aotearoa
Presenters: Chamber Music New Zealand

Jennifer Shennan, 16 March 2021

Featured image: Scene from Transfigured Night, Ballet Collective
Aoteraoa and New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues, 2021. Photo: © Jack Hobbs

Dance diary. November 2020

This month’s dance diary has an eclectic mix of news about dance from across the globe. I am beginning with a cry for help from a New Zealand initiative, Ballet Collective Aotearoa, led by Turid Revfeim, dancer, teacher, coach, mentor, director across many dance organisations. I am moved to do this as a result of two crowd funding projects I initiated when I was in a similar position and needed an injection of funds to help with the production of my recent Kristian Fredrikson book. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the arts community. It made such a difference to what my book looked like and I will forever be grateful.

  • Ballet Collective Aotearoa

Ballet Collective Aotearoa was unsuccessful in its application to Creative New Zealand for funding to take its project, Subtle Dances, to Auckland and Dunedin in early 2021. The group has secured performances at the arts festivals at those two New Zealand cities. BCA’s line-up for Subtle Dances brings together a great mix of experienced professional dancers and recent graduates from the New Zealand School of Dance. They will perform new works by Cameron McMillan, Loughlan Prior and Sarah Knox.

For my Australia readers, Prior has strong Australian connections, having been born in Melbourne and educated at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School. Then, Cameron McMillan, a New Zealander by birth, trained at the Australian Ballet School and has danced with Australian Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. And, dancing in the program will be William Fitzgerald who was brought up in Canberra, attended Radford College and has been a guest dance teacher there, and studied dance in Canberra with Kim Harvey.

The campaign to raise money for Turid Revfeim’s exceptional venture is via the New Zealand organisation, Boosted. See this link to contribute. See more on the BCA website.

  • Interconnect. Liz Lea Productions

Liz Lea’s Interconnect was presented as part of the annual DESIGN Canberra Festival and focused on connections between India and Canberra. The idea took inspiration from the designers of the city of Canberra, Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, and from the fact that Walter Burley Griffin spent his last years in India where he died in Lucknow in 1937. As a result, the program featured a cross section of dance styles from Apsaras Arts Canberra, the Sadhanalaya School of Arts and several exponents of Western contemporary styles.

Promotional image for Interconnect. Photo: © Kevin Thornhill and Andrew Sikorski. Design by Andrea McCuaig

Interconnect was shown at Gorman Arts Centre in a space that was previously an art gallery. Physical distancing was observed, as we have come to expect. I enjoyed the through-line of humour that Lea is able to inject into all her works, including Interconnect. I was also taken by a short interlude called Connect in which Lea danced to live music played on electric guitar by Shane Hogan, and which featured on film in the background a line drawing of changing patterns created by Andrea McCuaig. Multiple connections there!

  • Gray Veredon

Choreographer Gray Veredon has put together a new website set out in several parts under the headings ‘The Challenge’, ‘New Ways in Set Design’, and ‘Influences and Masters’. His themes are developed using as background his recent work in Poland, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Gray Veredon’s website can be viewed at this link.

  • Jean Stewart

Jean Stewart, whose dance photographs I have used many times on this website, is the subject of a short video put together by the State Library of Victoria. Jean died in 2017 and donated her archive to the SLV. Here is the link to video. And below are two of my favourite photographs from other sources. I can’t get over the costumes in the background of the Coppélia shot! Is that Act II?

Other Stewart favourites appear in the brief tribute I wrote back in 2017.

  • Jacob’s Pillow fire

Devastating and heartbreaking news came from Jacob’s Pillow during November. Its Doris Duke Theatre was burnt to the ground.

Here is a link to the report from the Pillow.

  • Nina Popova (1922-2020)

Nina Popova, Russian born dancer who danced in Australia during the third Ballets Russes tour in 1939-1940, died in Florida in August 2020. I was especially saddened to learn that her death was a result of COVID-19.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More comments and reviews

Kristian Fredrikson. Designer was ‘Highly Recommended’ on the Summer Reading Guide in its ‘Biography’ category.

Mention of it also appeared on the Australian Ballet’s site, Behind Ballet, Issue # 252 of 18 November 2020 with the following text:

KRISTIAN FREDRIKSON, DESIGNER A lavish new book by historian and curator Michelle Potter takes us inside the fascinating world of Fredrikson, whose rich and inventive designs grace so many of our productions.    MORE INFO

I was also thrilled to receive just recently a message from Amitava Sarkar, whose photographs from Stanton Welch’s Pecos and Swan Lake for Houston Ballet are a magnificent addition to the book. He wrote: ‘Congratulations.  What a worthwhile project in this area of minimal research.‘ He is absolutely right that design for the stage is an area of minimal research! Let’s hope it doesn’t always remain that way.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2020

Featured image: Abigail Boyle and William Fitzgerald in a promotional image for Subtle Dances, Ballet Collective Aoteaora, 2020. Photo: © Celia Walmsley, Stagebox Photography