Yugen and accidental discoveries

In a recent post I recorded some notes about the Australian Ballet’s 1965 production of Robert Helpmann’s ballet Yugen. I was interested in the design for the production and that the costumes were designed, and some made, at a distance.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Yugen, 1965 or later. Photo: Walter Stringer. Courtesy National Library of Australia

On the other hand, local people made other elements of the design, especially the headdresses and, I have since discovered, probably the cane props that were used in the ballet. These latter items were made, it seems, by a Melbourne-based, probably Chinese artisan. I recently came across a design for a golden tree by Kristian Fredrikson for a production that I have not yet been able to identify. On it there is a note scribbled in pencil, which may or may not refer to the tree and which says ‘Chinese shops in Lit[tle] Bourke [Street] near Swanston [Street] (Yugen) Australian Ballet – sea capes (man who did cane work)’.

But even more interesting material relating to Yugen surfaced accidentally while I was searching through some other archival material. I came across a collection of correspondence from late 1964 between William (Bill) Cronshaw, Geoffrey Ingram and Noël Pelly, then business manager, administrator and publicity manager respectively of the Australian Ballet. The letters and memos I came across concerned the design commission for Yugen. It seems that the original commission went to South Australian artist Lawrence Daws, not Desmond Heeley whose work we eventually saw on stage. Although there is no commissioning letter, and so far no designs by Daws have come to light, a letter written in early December from Cronshaw to Ingram states, ‘I received today a plot plan from Lawrence Daws on the design he has submitted to Helpmann, though this, of course, is dependent on his approving the designs.. There follows a discussion about costing the designs and a note that Bill Akers had some doubts about their viability from a practical point of view.

Two weeks later a note from Pelly to Ingram states that Pelly was enclosing a second print of the promotional brochure, which Pelly says ‘contains no reference to the designer of “Yugen”.’ The brochure is not included with the letter in this case but it seems obvious that in the end Helpmann did not approve the designs by Daws. In a postscript to the letter Pelly notes that he and Peggy van Praagh had had a drink with Daws and his wife in Adelaide a day or so before Pelly sent the letter. Pelly went on to say that Daws ‘seems to have taken the matter extremely well but is acutely curious as to his replacement!’ Three days later, on Christmas Eve 1964, a memo from Stefan Haag of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust to Cronshaw, van Praagh, Akers and Ron Sinclair, notes that the designs for Yugen would be despatched from London ‘next weekend’. A somewhat rapid piece of design work from Desmond Heeley it seems, unless, of course, Helpmann never intended to accept the Daws designs.

Lawrence Daws had spent a large part of 1964 travelling in Asia, including in India, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaya. He returned to Adelaide later in 1964. How the commission for Yugen came about is unclear at this stage and the artist has not been willing to comment.

Not all the reviews of the eventual production of Yugen were positive. Andrew Porter, writing in The Financial Times after the work was shown in the United Kingdom in 1965 wrote, for example, ‘It is a piece of japonaiserie with screens and fans and parasols, and a Noh plot.’ In Australia it was compared by one critic (a little unfairly I think) to ‘a highly refined Japanese Ziegfeld Follies’ and I can’t help thinking that Daws, whose work is introspective rather than decorative, simply did not fit the overt theatricality Helpmann demanded in his works. As Cheryl Stock has written in an article in Brolga in 1996, for Helpmann ‘style and image, the spectacle and the dramatic took precedence over form and structure’; and perhaps it might also be added over any kind of deeply thought through approach.

© Michelle Potter, 9 February 2012.
Please acknowledge this post if you use the information contained in it elsewhere.

Yugen and headdresses

Gail Ferguson as a woman of the village in Yugen, 1965 or later. Photo by Walter Stringer. Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Australia

While pursuing research into the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson I was surprised to find Fredrikson’s name mentioned in production credits for Yugen, Robert Helpmann’s 1965 one-act work for the Australian Ballet. Fredrikson, whose home base was Melbourne at the time Yugen was being created, is listed, along with William Miles, as having made the headdresses.

Yugen was designed by Desmond Heeley who tells me that he worked on the designs in London and sent the drawings to Australia by mail with copious instructions to the wardrobe department at the Australian Ballet. Helpmann requested, however, that the costume for the leading role of the Goddess, danced in the original production by Kathleen Gorham, be made by costume makers who had worked with him on previous occasions at Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden, including Hugh Skillen who made the very delicate headdress worn by Gorham and those who followed in the role.

Fredrikson’s interest in headdresses and wigs—millinery in general—can be traced back to his very first works made in New Zealand. For what is reputed to be his first theatrical commission, the Strauss operetta A Night in Venice, one reviewer wrote:

An intriguing effect has been created for the doxies in the opera by giving them flowing wigs in vivid purple, green, blue and orange. Making these wigs occupied two days—they had to be dyed, teased, shaped, curled, brushed and, where necessary, lacquered.

His interest in framing the face in some way can also be followed throughout his career and many of his designs on paper contain detailed instructions to the millinery department of the companies for which he worked.

In 1965 Fredrikson had just a few design commissions behind him, perhaps the most prestigious being designs for Aurora’s Wedding for the Australian Ballet in 1964. Making the Yugen headdresses to Heeley’s designs was no doubt an important and prestigious step for him and he often mentioned Heeley as an influence on his own work.

Scene from the Australian Ballet production of Yugen, 1965 or later. Photo by Walter Stringer. Reproduced with permission of the National Library of Australia.

For more images of Yugen follow the link.

Michelle Potter, 21 October 2011