Kristian Fredrikson design for the Indian Prince (detail) in 'Rose Adagio', West Australian Ballet 1971

Dance diary. January 2019

  • Robert O’Kell

Robert O’Kell danced with the Australian Ballet from 1962 to 1966 and then again in 1969. In 1971 he danced the role of the Indian Prince in a Rose Adagio staged by West Australian Ballet, which was the subject of an earlier post on this website. During a period of research at the National Library I chanced upon some designs by Kristian Fredrikson for this Rose Adagio, and a little later some material from Rex Reid, which identified O’Kell as the Indian Prince in this production. I am curious to know if O’Kell is still alive and if so how he can be contacted. If you can help I would love to hear from you via the comments box below.

  • Oral histories

In January I had the pleasure of recording two new oral histories for the National Library of Australia. The first was with Fiona Tonkin. It was part of a the Australia-China Council project, a collaborative venture between the Australia-China Council and the National Library of Australia to document the role of the Council in Australian cultural life. Tonkin had just joined the Australian Ballet when the company went to China in 1980 and she had some lovely anecdotes about that tour. The China experience was a part only of the interview, which was a ‘whole of life’ recording that now joins the National Library’s extensive archive of dance interviews.

My second interview in January was with renowned photographer Heide Smith. In the interview Smith recalled one of her earliest commissions after migrating to Australia in 1971 with her husband and two daughters—she was commissioned by the arts magazine The Entertainer to photograph various performers working in Sydney. It was the time when Margot Fonteyn was guesting with the Australian Ballet and Smith has, amongst her extensive archive, some beautiful images of Fonteyn and Garth Welch in costume for Raymonda, along with close-ups of each of them.

Garth Welch, Sydney 1971. Photo Heide Smith

Photos of Garth Welch and Margot Fonteyn, Sydney 1971. © Heide Smith. Reproduced with permission.

  • A new Anna Karenina

An article in a newspaper from the United States attracted my attention this morning. The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago (currently directed by former Australian Ballet dancer Ashley Wheater) will open a new production of Anna Karenina on 13 February 2019. It will have choreography by Yuri Possokhov, who is at present choreographer-in-residence at San Francisco Ballet. I was hugely impressed by Possokhov’s version of The Rite of Spring, which I saw several years ago, in 2013 to be exact. It is, unfortunately, the only one of his works that I have seen so far. But it seems that the Australian Ballet is splitting the cost of mounting the new Anna Karenina fifty-fifty with Joffrey. The Australian Ballet, or so the Chicago Tribune announced, will premiere the Possokhov Anna Karenina in Melbourne in May 2020. Something to anticipate?

  • Edna Busse

Edna Busse, ballerina with the Borovansky Ballet in its early days, died on 2 January 2019 aged 100. An obituary will follow later. Posts about Busse are at this tag.

  • Press for January 2019

‘Production brought to life for kids.’ Review of Storytime ballet. Coppélia. The Australian Ballet. The Canberra Times, 21 January 2019, p. 16. Online version

‘Another BOLD program for festival’. Preview of BOLD II, Canberra 13–17 March. The Canberra Times, 28 January 2019, p. 16. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2019

Featured image: Kristian Fredrikson, design for the Indian Prince (detail) in ‘Rose Adagio’, West Australian Ballet 1971

Kristian Fredrikson design for the Indian Prince (detail) in 'Rose Adagio', West Australian Ballet 1971

Dance diary. May 2016

  • von Rothbart

Since seeing Stephen Baynes’ production of Swan Lake, first in 2012 and more recently in its revival of 2016, I have been thinking frequently about the nature of the character of von Rothbart, ‘an evil geni’, according to the cast lists of the earliest Russian productions. After reading on the Australian Ballet’s website that, in the Baynes Swan Lake, Rothbart is a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’ my interest quickened.

Brett Simon and artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo Jeff Busby

Brett Simon as von Rothbart with artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Hugh Colman has dressed Baynes’ Rothbart in a red wig when he appears in the palace ballroom in Act III. I was startled the first time I saw it to tell the truth, so carrot-coloured was it. It is not new knowledge, of course, that Rothbart means ‘red beard’ in German and many designers have referred to that meaning. Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for Rothbart in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake for Houston Ballet, for example, has straggling red ‘hair’ emerging from it and a pair of glassy red eyes on the sides (as seen in the featured image above). I was interested too to discover that, in Cyril Beaumont’s in-depth analysis of the ballet in his book The ballet called Swan Lake, there is a very detailed account of how Rothbart was meant to look in the Petipa-Ivanov version of the story—even down to the angle of the eyebrows and the shape of the beard.

But perhaps most interesting of all about Beaumont’s analysis is that he suggests that a character like Rothbart (one who is able to take on a variety of forms as he does in most traditional productions of Swan Lake) is often encountered in medieval romances and other early forms of literature—he gives an example of Archimago in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, who also has the power to assume diverse forms. In the story as adapted by Petipa for the production of Swan Lake on which most traditional productions centre, the swans are the victims of a character who has bewitched them, and who assumes the form of an owl to watch over them. The owl at times takes on a human form and in Act II appears in various places around the lake as an evil sorcerer. He listens to the conversation between Odette and Siegfried before disappearing. It then makes sense that he assumes another form in Act III, when he brings Odile to the palace, since he knows of Siegfried’s plan to marry Odette, which would outsmart him and remove his power.

I have no issues whatsoever in rethinking the story or the characters—Rothbart can even be a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’. But can he just turn up in Act III without there having some kind of manifestation of what he represents in the previous act? It makes a mockery of the story if some kind of force, call it evil, sorcery, seductive dandyism, or a combination of features, has not had an impact previously.

In the Baynes production, I kept wanting the projections that appear in the sky in Act II to be some manifestation of Rothbart. But I am reliably assured by a well-known dance writer/critic who spoke to an equally well-known member of the ballet staff at the Australian Ballet that those projections are swans and only swans. So for the moment I’ll just keep thinking that the Baynes Swan Lake is dramatically unsatisfying because I can find nothing that strongly prefigures Rothbart’s appearance in Act III.

  • Benois de la danse

Recipients of the 2016 Benois de la danse awards were announced in mid-May. It was a pleasure to read that Hannah O’Neill was the joint recipient of the award for Best Female Dancer for her performance in the title role in Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Paquita. She shared the award with Alicia Amartriain of Stuttgart Ballet.

But I was also delighted to see that John Neumeier had received a Lifetime Achievement Award. I still get shivers down my spine thinking of his exceptional Romeo and Juliet, which I saw recently in Copenhagen. And we have the pleasure of seeing his Nijinsky later this year in Australia.

I am also a fan of the choreography of Yuri Possokhov, who received the award for Best Choreographer (also shared). I haven’t seen the work for which he was awarded, the Bolshoi Ballet’s Hero of our time, but I have great memories of his version of Rite of Spring made for San Francisco Ballet.

The full list of awardees is at this link from Pointe Magazine. There is also the official site of the awards which gives a much longer account of the event, and includes a list of the nominees from whom the winners were selected.

  • Robert Helpmann

While searching for audio excerpts to use in my recent 2016 Dance Week talk, I came across some interesting snippets in an oral history interview I recorded with Bill Akers in 2002. Akers, who held several positions with the Borovansky Ballet and the Australian Ballet, worked closely with Helpmann on many occasions and, in particular, lit Helpmann’s Australian-produced ballets. I found his comments on the relationship between The Display and Yugen especially insightful. Although it is well-known that The Display was, in part, based on an incident that occurred early in Helpmann’s life, before he went to London in the 1930s, that Yugen was in some ways the antithesis of The Display is perhaps not so well-known. In the first audio excerpt, Akers talks about the early incident that clearly stayed in Helpmann’s mind throughout his life. In the second Akers reminds us of that incident, and then mentions how Yugen relates to it.

Akers on Display

Akers on Yugen

The full interview with Akers is available online via the National Library’s oral history site.

  • Press for April

My article ‘Robert Helpmann: Behind the Scenes with the Australian Ballet, 1963-1965’ has been published in Dance Research, 34: 1 (Summer 2016), pp. 47-62. It fleshes out some of the ideas I have considered on this website relating to Helpmann’s two early ballets for the Australian Ballet, The Display and Yugen. The cover image on this issue of Dance Research is by Walter Stringer from the collection of the National Library of Australia. It shows Gail Ferguson as a Woman of the Village, in Yugen, mostly likely taken during a 1970s revival.

Dance Research 34:1 2016 Cover

Dance Research is published by Edinburgh University Press. Further details at this link.

 

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2016

Featured image: Detail of Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for von Rothbart in Houston Ballet’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Michelle Potter, 2011

Season's greetings 2013

Season’s greetings 2013

Compliments of the season to all those who have accessed my website, and especially to those who have added so much with their comments. I look forward to your continued patronage in the coming year.

It has been a terrific year so far in Canberra as the city has celebrated its centenary, and I have also been fortunate to have seen some wonderful dance elsewhere in Australia and around the world. But I have no hesitation in naming my two favourite shows for 2013 as Yuri Possokhov’s Rite of Spring for San Francisco Ballet, and what a wonderful company SFB is; and Garry Stewart’s Monument for the Australian Ballet as a Canberra Centenary event. And as for the latter, what a shame it is that other States will not see it in 2014. I fear it will just slip into oblivion, which seems like a shocking waste to me.

As for dancers, I have loved watching the Australian Ballet’s Eloise Fryer in various roles throughout the year, especially as Dumpy in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. And I never tire of watching Sydney Dance Company’s Chen Wen seen below in Rafael Bonachela’s 2 one another.

Chen Wen in '2 One Another. Photo': Wendell Teodoro

Chen Wen in Rafael Bonachela’s 2 one another, Sydney Dance company. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro

I have a number of dance activities coming up in 2014, news of which I will keep until my December dance diary. In the meantime may the coming festive season be filled with happiness.

Michelle Potter, 22 December 2013

Guide to Strange Places, Beaux, The Rite of Spring. San Francisco Ballet

10 March 2013, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

In a year that has already seen various dance productions set to Stravinsky’s 100 year old Rite of Spring, and will see more as the year progresses, Yuri Possokhov’s new version for San Francisco Ballet will surely have to count as one of the most dramatic. Full of suspense and tension, the work looks to the subject matter of the original staging, that is the pagan ritual of human sacrifice, for its narrative line.

There was a distinctly Russian feel to the work. Costumes by Benjamin Pierce, with their largely red-toned on white designs (with a touch of spring green), recalled the Roerich originals, and the set, also by Pierce, consisted of a sloping platform upstage, OP side, with a mini-forest of poles representing silver birch trees. Again recalling the original, Possokhov’s choreography, which had the women on pointe, emphasised the down beat in the music and often used parallel or turned-in movements. There the similarities ended, however, as Possokhov made the story his own by emphasising the evil he saw as underlying the story of human sacrifice. His two elders, conjoined as a double personification of evil via a costume of stretch fabric and skeletal additions, drove the piece relentlessly to its inevitable and terrifying conclusion in which the birch trees played a major role as they were dragged down onto the body of the Chosen One.

What made this work especially mesmerising was the dancing of Possokhov’s tribe of people. They seemed sometimes sexually driven, sometimes just plain obsessed, sometimes filled with fanaticism. They slithered down the ramp. They seemed to side with the elders once the Chosen One had been selected, waving a hand in the air as if agreeing. They danced with the drive that characterises the music and occasionally played along with it by drumming sticks on the ground. It was absolutely absorbing from beginning to end and brilliantly performed.

The middle work was Beaux by Mark Morris, a subtitle for which might be ‘Boys Playing’ or even ‘Beautiful Boys Playing’. Choreographically there were moments that briefly reminded me of Cunningham, especially when the dancers’ upper body was held still and erect with arms stretched straight right through to the palms while the legs executed various movements. But mostly the movement was softly balletic with men partnering men in ways that are usually reserved for men partnering women. Some charming images remain—a line of men resembling cut-out dolls, a wave from one man to the rest of the cast and three men carrying another aloft and running with him across the stage.

Beaux. San Francisco Ballet

Artists of San Francisco Ballet in Mark Morris’ Beaux. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Set and costumes were by New York-based fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. An oversized painting was hung upstage against a plain cloth. Its myriad of organic shapes in orange, lemon and shades of pink overlapped each other and the cloth was lit variously with similar colours. The nine gentlemen in the cast wore high-necked, sleeveless all-overs in similar colours to those of the painting and with similar shapes printed on them. It was a pleasant work but that’s all.

The program opened with Ashley Page’s Guide to Strange Places, which was premiered by San Francisco Ballet in 2012 and which is danced to music of the same name by John Adams. It seemed to be mostly about legs—especially women’s legs—and how and where they can extend, and how they can be manipulated by a partner. San Francisco Ballet’s dancers are beautifully athletic and so they accommodated the hyper-extensions very nicely. But to me it was uninspiring choreography. The fact that it was meant to refer to an old French book called (in English translation) A Black Guide to Mysterious Provence explained its strangeness to a certain extent. But even thinking along these lines couldn’t save it. It had so little to touch the soul.

My soul was touched by Possokhov’s Rite of Spring and I regret that I only had the opportunity to see one performance.

Michelle Potter, 14 March 2013

Featured image: Artists of San Francisco Ballet in Yuri Possokhov’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet