Category Archives: Beary Artist

Three Jewels, Four Bears

Little bears are back at QPAC to see Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Jewels. After a cocktail, of course 🙂

At QPAC, 20 June 2019

In 2017, George Balanchine’s pure-dance triptych Jewels had its 50th anniversary. It remains a perfect introduction to ballet: Few full-length story ballets are as satisfying as this storyless one, created for New York City Ballet.

The 1967 triptych may not have any characters or plot, yet it’s one of the most enduringly popular pieces in the repertory, offering what many ballet fans have come to regard as the ideal balance of entertainment.

When the work was first premiered in New York it took a while for the astuteness of its format to be acknowledged. Back in 1967, the choreographer and his company, New York City Ballet, had just moved into the challengingly large space of the Lincoln Center, and they needed to attract a larger, more moneyed crowd. Balanchine told journalists that he had been inspired by a visit to Van Cleef & Arpels, where he had been especially impressed by the emeralds, rubies and diamonds. So those became the names, and colours, of his three new ballets. “What a dreadful idea,” Lincoln Kirstein, New York City Ballet’s co-founder, said when he heard what Balanchine was up to. Never mind. Balanchine had been raised on ballets with dancing candies, dancing rivers, and the like, and he didn’t see anything wrong with this sort of thing.

Furthermore, because his gems had no stories to tell, Jewels could be marketed as the world’s first full-evening abstract ballet. This was a very important innovation. All the full-evening ballets that people were familiar with had complicated plots, with swans and princesses and broken hearts, and that fact helped to stamp ballet in people’s minds as a quaint, fairy-tale business. But here, now, was a three-act ballet shorn of all that old-fashioned stuff, and therefore worthy to stand alongside the most prized art of the period, which was abstract art: Jackson Pollock, Henry Moore.

If early detractors regarded Jewels as a sophisticated but compromised form of product placement, those quibbles have long been superseded by a recognition of the ballet’s superb craft. It’s accepted now that the work’s imaginative logic goes far deeper than the surface metaphor of its title. There may be interlacing patterns of movement that form necklaces, bracelets and pendants; there may be a scarlet coloured swagger to the choreography of Rubies, and a pale and bevelled brilliance to Diamonds. But a far more resonant way of looking at Jewels is to read it as Balanchine’s own very personal account of ballet history.

The three acts of the ballet represent the three countries most vital to his long career. He learned to dance and to make ballets in Russia, where he lived until 1924; he reached an early maturity in France, in particular working under the aegis of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; and New York is where he, with Lincoln Kirstein, founded the School of American Ballet, in 1933, and City Ballet, in 1948.

Each of the three ballets – Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds – comes with its own richly orchestrated score; each has its own distinctively coloured decor and its own bravura style of dancing. Yet because Jewels is essentially an abstract work, these pleasures also come free of the narrative quirks and longueurs associated with the traditional classic. There are no heel-clicking hussars or fairytale characters performing lengthily tangential divertissements; no ladies-in-waiting or bewigged courtiers promenading the stage; no quaint conversations in mime. What Balanchine has given the repertory is a straight two and a half hours of pure, grownup choreography and music.

Nobody can miss how vividly different the three stage worlds are.

Emeralds, in Jewels with Bolshoi Ballet

Emeralds has long been seen as French.

Emeralds, in Jewels with Bolshoi Ballet

In Emeralds, Balanchine works with the fine-spun nostalgia of Gabriel Fauré’s music (taken from Pélleas et Mélisande and Shylock) to conjure the Romanticism of early 19th century ballet. The green of the dancers’ costumes is evocative of enchanted forests, hunting scenes and fleeting courtships; the dynamics of the choreography are uncharacteristically soft for Balanchine, as the phrasing breathes with unusual moments of stillness. And while there is a sweetly youthful virtuosity in the dancing of the principals (two princesses and their boyish suitors), what’s equally memorable is the subtle mysterious magic with which, at moments, Balanchine winds these principals back into the corps de ballet. They seem to fade away from the limelight into the texture of history, like figures from a tapestry.

Emeralds, in Jewels with Bolshoi Ballet

Hundreds of ballet devotees will tell you that it’s the poetically mysterious Emeralds they love the most.

Emeralds, in Jewels with Bolshoi Ballet
Rubies, in Jewels with Bolshoi Ballet

Rubies is quintessentially New York — its speed, density and jazzy modernity characterize this city rather than the US.

Rubies, in Jewels with Bolshoi Ballet

With Rubies, set to Stravinsky’s jazzy Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, Balanchine is impersonating no period other than his own. He choreographs this act as a naturalised, mid-20th century New Yorker, fully at ease with the city’s stridency, its sexual tensions and competitiveness. The central duet is not so much a courtship as a duel of wits and wills. A man and a woman pit their strength and stamina against each other, while the lone siren ballerina (a recurrent favourite of Balanchine) is a teasingly expert dominatrix, her legs slicing over the heads of her male admirers, her hips swivelling with a flaunting irony.

Rubies, in Jewels with Bolshoi Ballet
Rubies, in Jewels with Bolshoi Ballet

The big ovations go to Rubies and Diamonds with their spectacle and virtuosity.

Diamonds, in Jewels with Bolshoi Ballet

Diamonds suggests Russia’s vast rural landscapes and its grand imperial cities.

Diamonds, in Jewels with Bolshoi Ballet

Tchaikovsky’s 1875 Symphony No 3 in D Major (‘Polish’) takes the closing Diamonds act back to the imperial ballet of Balanchine’s childhood, and to a world he saw shattered by the Russian revolution.

The grandeur and pomp of the imperial ballet are qualities with which the choreographer played quite regularly in his work – and from the unusually dull opening waltz in Diamonds, which veers towards a very generic homage to Petipa, you might think he had nothing more to add. But the long unfolding pas de deux at the heart of this act becomes utterly enthralling, a distillation of the rituals and conventions of ballet courtship, a referencing of Swan Lake, Raymonda and Sleeping Beauty that turns into its own absorbing story.

Diamonds, in Jewels with Bolshoi Ballet

The imagery of jewelry runs through each of the ballets: the patterns of the female corps de ballet in Diamonds show us — inevitably — diamonds; Rubies opens (sensationally) with a tense, semicircular group tiara; and a necklace-like corps chain occurs in Emeralds. In all three ballets, women stretch one leg and both arms upward in lines that suggest the refraction of light from a jewel.

Since Balanchine’s death in 1983, Jewels has become a boom industry. Today it’s danced by the chief ballet companies of Russia, France, US as well as by companies all over the world. But the transfer didn’t always work, because, in addition to everything else that Balanchine lavished on this piece, he staffed it with many of his finest dancers: Violette Verdy and Mimi Paul in Emeralds, Patricia McBride and Edward Villella in Rubies, Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d’Amboise in Diamonds. And some of these people, as it turned out, could not be replaced. Or, to put it more accurately, the roles that Balanchine had created for them — often, it seemed, pulling the choreography out of the dancers’ personalities — could not be absorbed by new people in the space of a couple of weeks’ rehearsal or any length of rehearsal.

Suzanne Farrell, in Diamonds, did a sort of ne-plus-ultra Farrell act — more magisterial than she had ever been before. In her 1990 autobiography Holding on to the Air, Farrell writes that Balanchine had originally planned to make a fourth act inspired by sapphires, but the evening would have been very long and anyway, Farrell conjectures, Balanchine perhaps couldn’t decide on the right “blue” music.

Edward Villella’s role in Rubies was something that Balanchine never did before or after: a combination of extreme classical virtuosity with an equally advanced street cool, as if Prince Siegfried had dropped down in Astoria. Most Europeans male dancers playing the role imitate what they see as American hipness, entirely missing the point.

The hardest problem in transferring Jewels has always been Emeralds, and not just one role in it but the whole thing. It’s fairly easy to see what Diamonds is about (majesty, Russia), and Rubies (snazz, jazz, America), but Emeralds is ambiguous. It has a marvellous sort of relaxation. Steps often sneak in behind the beat, and then it is only after another beat that the long tutus swish into place. The music sometimes surges in a big wave, but the choreography will be reticent, even sweet: fluffy little lifts, or developpé lifts. There are many images of lushness and self-enjoyment, “like a cat licking its hair,” as Violette Verdy, the ballet’s foremost star, put it. Verdy, in her solo, snakes her arms into the air and gazes at them admiringly. Later, she hikes her skirts up a bit and looks down happily at her bourrée-ing feet, like a child in new shoes.

Emeralds is both beautiful and also strange, cobwebby, even a little sinister — a memory, a dream. And it was this ambiguity that often disappeared from Emeralds when it was transferred to other companies — indeed, when it was transferred to new casts within New York City Ballet.

The Bolshoi has performed Jewels since 2012. And in 2017, they participated in the Lincoln Center Festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jewels. Nigel Redden, the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, got the idea of presenting Jewels with the French, American, and Russian sections danced by their respective national ballet companies.

The festival showed that the native French instinct for Emeralds is unquestionable. All the nuances, the beautiful smudge of emotion that seemed to have fled from the ballet since the original production, are present again when the Paris Opera Ballet performs. It turns out only the French can do authentic French subtlety, French chic.

Balanchine and the Bolshoi are not a predictable fit, and in the three contrasting sections of Jewels, the company reacts very differently to the challenges of the choreography. As expected, Diamonds was the highlight of the three part Jewels. Watching Olga Smirnova’s perfection, her long lines, beautiful port de bras and exactitude in Diamonds was one of those magical moments in the theatre.

With no blue music or dancing, little bears finished off the day with a little Spanish tapas and sangria 🙂

One Spartacus, Two Spartacus

QPAC, 28 June 2019
At QPAC

The girls are at the ballet, but if you think ballet is for girls, watch Spartacus. There are no swans or fairies, no frilly tutus or lovesick princes here. The curtain rises on Crassus, a Roman general, drawn in a chariot, preening in triumph. Centurions strut with swords. Spartacus, the vanquished king of Thrace, and his men are bound semi-naked in chains, muscles flexing to Khachaturian’s martial score. The first act alone has a gladiator fight to the death, a slave uprising and an orgy.

Aram Khachaturian was just hitting his fiftieth birthday when he produced his music to the ballet Spartacus, but he had envisaged Spartacus as a potential topic for a ballet as early as 1941. Khachaturian was so delayed with other projects that it was nearly a decade later, in 1951, before he finally began writing the score. He composed the music between 1951 and 1954 in Staraya Ruza, a retreat outside of Moscow. Khachaturian, who was severely reprimanded in 1948 for “formalistic tendencies” in his music, was awarded the Lenin Prize in 1954 for the score and thus restored to his previous place in the Soviet cultural hierarchy.

Spartacus was Khachaturian’s third ballet, and within a single decade, Bolshoi Theater in Moscow produced distinct versions of the ballet – by Igor Moiseyev (1958), Leonid Yakobson (1962), and Yuri Grigorovich (1968). The first two choreographers, like Khachaturian, used the ballet as a place to stage the “Friendship of Peoples”, a metaphorical representation of Soviet society as a meeting place for diverse nationalities, conceived of as essentialized folk cultures. In 1968, when Grigorovich staged the ballet, he radically rearranged the score, replacing Khachaturian’s multi-ethnic display with an exhibition of ethnic homogenization. Grigorovich’s revisions reflected Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s campaigns to shape a single, unified Soviet national identity. You can get a film featuring the original cast on DVD from Video Artists International – Vladimir Vasiliev, Ekaterina Maximova, Maris Liepa, and Nina Timofeyeva, a dazzling lineup.

Where are the women?” asked Khachaturian in disbelief when he first saw what choreographer Yuri Grigorovich had set to his music. Grigorovich’s Spartacus is all about the men. And in Russia, that most macho of societies, male ballet has never been a sneering joke about guys in tights. There is no finer expression of manly patriotism than to dance, especially for the Bolshoi.

The original scenario by Nikolai Volkov (based on the novel of the same name by Raffaello Giovagnolli) presented the title character as a Christ-like figure, down to his betrayal by Harmodius, one of his followers. In 1968, choreographer Yuri Grigorovich made several changes to Volkov’s scenario, including the removal of Harmodius. Under his direction, dance (not pantomime) regained the upper hand, and the ballet gained greater focus as the contrast between the “pure” slaves and the “decadent” Romans was emphasized, a point that no doubt this pleased Soviet leaders of the time. Each of the four main characters was given several psychological dance “monologues” in front of a black curtain; these monologues also allowed unobtrusive scene changes. Khachaturian’s very long score was cut, and many of its numbers were moved and rearranged.

The dancing, with an emphasis on athleticism, is quite spectacular. Crassus is the first main character to appear, and Artemy Belyakov immediately established the character of the arrogant general with a display of icy-cold gymnastics. Aegina, his mistress, was danced with aptly frigid precision by Yulia Stepanova. The highlight of her performance comes in Act 3, when she distracts the would-be rebellious slaves with a very suggestive hoochie-koochie dance. Although no less proud than Aegina, Phrygia, the beloved of Spartacus, was characterized by Anna Nikulina as warm and sincere. In the title-role, the quiet and soulful Mikhail Lobukhin tempered his athleticism with true passion. Like Belyakov, he executed chains of astonishing leaps without even looking winded. The Bolshoi corps lived up to its reputation, and the sets and costumes were excellently done.

Anna Nikulina as a gorgeous, lyrical Phrygia and Mikhail Lobukhin as a strong, compelling Spartacus at QPAC
Mikhail Lobukhin in the title role of Spartacus at QPAC

The ballet exemplifies much about the style and aesthetic of the Bolshoi. Spartacus, like the Bolshoi (which means “big” in Russian), is huge in scale, tremendous in effect and not exactly subtle. It’s a big, thumping ballet, set to a big, thumping score by Aram Khachaturian, and it is thrillingly enjoyable for the pyrotechnical feats of its leading dancers, the slightly camp silliness of its balletic warfare, its melodramatic pas de deux and cinematic narrative sweep.

The critic Richard Buckle once said that ballet lives permanently on a tightrope between the sublime and the ridiculous, and no ballet swivels more delicately on that line than Spartacus. From its opening scene, with a tight phalanx of soldiers (the costumes, by Simon Virsaladze, are uber-1960s film-Roman, all short battle dress and strappy leather shin guards) fanning into massed ranks, the ballet moves with impetuous sweep through impassioned virtuosic solos and lyrical pas de deux, full of spectacular overhead lifts and slung-across-the back swirls.

Anna Nikulina as Phrygia and Mikhail Lobukhin in the title role of Spartacus at QPAC
Yulia Stepanova as Aegina and Artemy Belyakov as Crassus in Spartacus at QPAC

It is custom to dismiss Grigorovitch’s choreography as crude and uninteresting, but it’s worth remembering how innovative his partnering work must have seemed in 1968, and how contemporary some of the low, stamping, unballetic movement would have looked. Grigorovitch isn’t really detailing stories of character or narrative through specific steps. His vision is cinematic, making structural use of a curtain that lifts to reveal friezes of supporting dancers and spectacular tableaux, then drops to conceal them and focus our attention on individual dancers, the theatrical equivalent of widescreen pans and closeups.

Bolshoi Ballet with Spartacus at QPAC

Ever since being used as the theme tune to BBC TV’s The Onedin Line, the Adagio from Spartacus – originally danced by the hero and his wife Phrygia – has been an international hit and the single best-known number of the ballet. How much more powerful that Adagio is when heard in context!

A little Russian supper after the ballet 🙂

Last November, the girls were at the Sydney Opera House for Australian Ballet’s version of Spartacus.

At Sydney Opera House. 24 November 2018
At Sydney Opera House, Joan Sutherland Theatre

Australian Ballet’s version of Spartacus mixed a contemporary re-imagining with references to history, literature and, of course, the original Soviet-era version. Choreographer Lucas Jervies and his designer, Jerome Kaplan, chose to ignore the familiar iconography of ancient Rome in favour of sparse, impressionistic imagery and a muted colour palette, to create an allegorical work referencing modern totalitarian regimes as a reminder that this kind of tyranny still exists. Jervies also cast Spartacus as a victim of circumstance. He’s a tragic figure: forced into slavery, forced to fight, forced to kill his best friend and eventually executed.

The opening scene, the first of several spectacular set-pieces, had young men and women, dressed in white shorts and tunics reminiscent of Hitler youth, manipulating red flags to welcome the victorious Crassus with his prisoners, who include Spartacus and his wife Flavia. The couple are separated and sold at a slave auction, with Spartacus bought by a gladiator trainer, and Flavia claimed by Crassus for his household.

Spartacus with Australian Ballet

Spartacus would be nothing without its testosterone-driven gladiatorial showdowns, and Jervies worked with fight director Nigel Poulton to create spectacular skirmishes inspired by boxing and wrestling. The battles are where Jervies applies his serious choreographic efforts and Madden performed them beautifully, as did Marcus Morelli, Jake Mangakahia and the rest of the gladiatorial corps.

Spartacus with Australian Ballet

The most memorable scene takes place in a huge steaming bathhouse where the highlight is a lovely dance for the female slaves, and in which Spartacus rescues Flavia while his compatriots drown the unfortunate occupants of the tubs.

Spartacus with Australian Ballet
Spartacus with Australian Ballet
Spartacus with Australian Ballet

As well as exploring the love affair between Spartacus (Jarryd Madden) and his wife Flavia (Robyn Hendricks), Jervies also played with the relationship between the villain Crassus (Ty King-Wall) and his wife Tertulla (Amy Harris). Whereas Spartacus’ marriage was portrayed as devoted and pure, Crassus’ was rendered more complex by his struggle for domination of both the villa and his wife.

Robyn Hendricks as Flavia and Jarryd Madden in Spartacus with Australian Ballet
Amy Harris as Tertulla and Ty King-Wall as Crassus

Spartacus might be all about the men, but the women still steal the show 🙂

La Bayadère

Little Honey and Isabelle are very excited to be watching La Bayadère with WA Ballet.

An iconic 19th century Russian ballet, La Bayadère was originally performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in St Petersburg in 1877. Created by Marius Petipa with a staggering cast and fanciful scenic ideas with effective connection to the music of Ludwig Minkus, it was meant to impress the St. Petersburg audience. In one sketch, Petipa envisaged a procession with thirty-six entrances and more than two hundred dancers.

The ballet was regularly performed within the former Soviet Union throughout the 20th century. It remained unknown in the West until the Kirov Ballet toured with the Kingdom of the Shades scene, which has become an emblem of Petipa’s emerging formal style and a touchstone for the art and a test of the skill and dedication of every female corps, in the Palais Garnier in May 1961.

Throughout much of the 19th century, when romanticism was in full swing, the Hindu temple dancing girl – the bayadère – was a common motif. The French composer, Charles-Simon Catel composed Les Bayadères in 1810 that reflected a music and design spectacle that emerged with Napoleon’s consulate. Another French composer, Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, composed Le dieu et la Bayadère in 1850. The Bayadère was a symbol of exotic India.

The first dance interpretation, in 1858, was Théophile Gautier’s Sacountala, a ballet-pantomime in two acts, based on the 4th century play, The Recognition of Shakuntala, by the classical Sanskrit writer, Kālidāsa. It is considered one of his best works, and the one that influenced Marius Petipa, via Gautier in his The Pharaoh’s Daughter (1862). With dramatist Sergei Khudekov, their La Bayadère, premiered in St Petersburg in February 1877.

Visually inspired by Gustave Dore’s 1832-1833 designs for Dante’s Divine Comedy, it was immediately recognised as a masterpiece, particularly Act III, but the ballet was not seen in the West until the Kirov Ballet unveiled The Kingdom of the Shades in Paris in May 1961. In the role of Solor, it was Rudolf Nureyev’s first, electrifying appearance outside Russia. The vision of this young man in a flimsy blue Indian tunic – designed by himself – with a white belt round his waist and his forehead adorned with a turban bearing an egret was unforgettable. He was a superb feline opposite his partner Olga Moissieva in the scarf pas de deux, the bird-man soaring through his variation in the second act, which was included in the Shades as an exception for Nureyev that evening.

Paris immediately fell in love with Nureyev. He defected shortly after. It was Nureyev who mounted this act in the West, first for the Royal Ballet in 1963, then for the Paris Opera Ballet in October 1974. He danced the role of Solor himself, partnering Noella Pontois. Natalia Makarova created a full production in 1980 for American Ballet Theatre, and Nureyev did the same for the Paris Opéra in 1992.

Rudolf Nureyev and Olga Moissieva in La Bayadère in Paris, May 1961

Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1877, and then substantially revised by others in 1941, the ballet depicts ancient India as a realm of unprincipled fancy-dress barbarism, akin to Petipa’s treatment of Egyptians in Pharaoh’s Daughter, Turks in Le Corsaire and Arabs in Raymonda. The audience doesn’t go to see this ballet for its xenophobic views, but for The Kingdom of the Shades, the 37-minute interlude midway through this three-hour ballet in which a guilt-stricken warrior dreams that he’s searching for his lost love in the land of the dead.

Choreographed with a sublime classical purity, it has become a touchstone for the art and a test of the skill and dedication of every female corps. The series of arabesques across the moonlit stage demonstrates the strength of the corps de ballet and the beauty of Marius Petipa’s choreography. The sequence doesn’t gain much from being seen in its melodramatic context — and some companies present it as a stand-alone excerpt.

The story, set in a fantastical India of lush splendour, revolves around Nikiya, one of the sacred temple dancers known as bayadères. She is loved by Solor, but he in turn is pledged to the Rajah’s daughter. Betrayed by intrigues and subjected to the strict laws of tradition, the love between Nikiya and Solor cannot end happily. Their unlucky relationship finds a celestial expression in one of the most beautiful white acts in the history of ballet: The Kingdom of Shades. In this ravishing scene the corps de ballet appear one by one to perform a hypnotic chain of ethereal movements, celebrating the clear precision of classical dancing and an overwhelming lyrical calm. This dream image is embedded in the beguiling world of Indian locations, colours and decorations, with a hint of sandalwood in the air. The love drama develops with almost menacing sensuality.

WA Ballet in The Kingdom of the Shades

Petipa’s legacy was enormous. His early ballets were largely forgotten, but the later years of his reign at the Imperial Theaters saw the creation of nearly all of the ballets that would form the base of the classical tradition for the century to come. Not just La Bayadère and The Sleeping Beauty and — with Ivanov — The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, but also Giselle, which was rechoreographed by Petipa in the 1880s (in the version from which most modern productions derive), Paquita and Le Corsaire (both from earlier French ballets), Don Quixote, and perhaps most significantly Raymonda (1898) to gorgeously Russian-inflected music by Glazunov, which contained a wealth of jewel-like dances that choreographers would mine well into the 20th century. Elevated to mythic status, these ballets — and none more than The Sleeping Beauty — would become the root and source of classical ballet not just in Russia but also in France, Italy, and – especially — America and Britain.

The Kingdom of the Shades was inspired by Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Paradiso from The Divine Comedy, and even now we can see Doré’s wispy, angelic figures in Petipa’s dance. The pretext is a vision scene, conjured in the mind of the warrior Solor, who loves the beautiful bayadère; when she dies, he takes solace in an opium dream and finds her in an underworld inhabited by the shades of dead women. His dream begins as a single shade, in white tulle and draped in gauzy veils, steps onto an empty and brightly lit stage from the far upper-right corner. In profile, she takes an elegant, forward-reaching arabesque with her leg lifted high behind her, followed by a deep reclining back bend and two steps forward. She repeats the sequence again as another shade emerges from the wings and follows in synchrony, then another, and another. One by one, as if to infinity, a long chain of shades (sixty-four, to be precise, later reduced to thirty-two) wind their way single file across the stage and back, tracing a serpentine path and advancing steadily to make room for the next row. The visual crescendo builds with each repetition until the stage is full and serried ranks of dancers pose in perfect formation.

The sight of a corps de ballet of some 64 dancers, in white, slowly descending to the stage down a set of inclined planes in an arabesque penchée must have been heart stopping in 1877. It usually is today.

It was a spectacular image that could only have been made in St. Petersburg. Petipa’s dance evoked the sense of individual frailty and the fascination with dreams typical of Gautier, Perrot, and others — that single dancer stepping out alone — but he transposed the fleeting Romanticism of wilis and spirits and women in white into a far grander and more formal Russian idiom — not by adding lavish sets and costumes (although he did that too) but by expanding the entire choreographic structure. The steps were French, but their arrangement — amplified through repetition — echoed the vast architectural proportions of the Hermitage and the Peterhof gardens and recalled court balls. Gautier’s description of a polonaise at the Winter Palace comes to mind: in a torchlit procession led by the tsar, courtiers arrayed in strict lines wound their way through the state rooms in a repetitive dance that lasted for hours, “the slightest awkwardness of gesture, the least misstep, the tiniest movement out-of-time … sharply noticed.” In another key, the dance of the shades (like the polonaise itself) also recalled a simple line dance, a folk ritual elevated to a formal court art.

La Bayadère has all the right ingredients for a classic ballet: an acte blanc (the dream-like Kingdom of the Shades), an ill-fated love intrigue (here a love triangle, between Nikiya, a temple dancer, Solor, a warrior, and the Rajah’s daughter, Gamzatti), and the dramatic death of the central heroine (that of badayère Nikiya who, when poisoned by a snake bite, chooses death over the salvation of an antidote, upon seeing her love Solor turn his back on her, whisked away by Gamzatti). And as in other ballet repertoire staples, much of the remainder of the intrigue is articulated around betrayal, remorse, and an otherworldly – here opium-induced – experience. The contrast between La Bayadère’s two worlds, that of the original action (colourful, opulent and at times overtly flamboyant) and that of the acte blanc (an elegant, pared back demonstration of balletic purity and excellent corps de ballet work) demands different qualities of the dancers, who tap into a complex palette of technical and artistic strengths to deliver an all-round energetic and beautiful performance.

The Kingdom of the Shades was the most faithfully kept act in the Greg Horsman version for WA Ballet.

Sculptures by the Sea

Cairn
by Alessandra Rossi, Italy/WA
Cairn
by Alessandra Rossi, Italy/WA
Cairn
by Alessandra Rossi, Italy/WA
Entwined
by Ben Fasham, VIC

Rolling the earth
by Tae-Geun Yang, South Korea
Rolling the earth
by Tae-Geun Yang, South Korea
Rolling the earth
by Tae-Geun Yang, South Korea
Rolling the earth
by Tae-Geun Yang, South Korea
Life Support
by Karl Meyer, SA

Estripagecs
by Pere Moles, Andorra
Celest
by David Ball, NSW
Thoughts of Pinocchio
by Bongsoo Kim, South Korea
She sells sea shells
by Anne Neil, WA
Sky is the limit
by Evi Savvaidi, Greece
Shifting horizons
by April Pine, England/WA
Circle – “Yakibame” (shrink fit)
by Tetsuro Yamasaki, Japan
Women in bronze
by Sonia Payes, VIC

Mischief at the Theatre

Little Honey and Isabelle are at the theatre for a masterclass in mayhem. As if they need help with creating mayhem! 🙂

The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is at it again, trying to put on another show. We last saw them in 2017 with their attempt at the 1920s murder mystery The Murder at Haversham Manor. That didn’t go well at all, indeed it was the play that went wrong 🙂

James Marlowe and Luke Joslin in The Play That Goes Wrong

The set kept falling apart in magical and dangerous ways… And the Cornley players are not the brightest or most experienced group of thespians, so their solutions to the mounting problems resulted in even greater problems! They’re not fast learners either. There is nothing about a Christmas show that they can’t make worse 🙂

So now Robert Grove (Luke Joslin), the pompous director-in-waiting; Trevor Watson (Adam Dunn), the burly, besieged Stage Manager; Dennis Tyde (George Kemp), the world’s worst actor who still can’t remember his lines; Annie Twilloil (Tammie Weller); Jonathan Harris (Darcy Brown); Sandra Wilkinson (Francine Cain); Max Bennett (Jordan Prosser) are back with a new production of Peter Pan. You’d have thought they would have had enough first time around. And they have talked even more people into joining the world’s most incompetent theatre company in existence!

Add a teddy bear on stage and mayhem is guaranteed! 🙂

The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is a fictitious amateur theatre company, the brainchild of Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields and Henry Lewis of Mischief Theatre. The trio met while students of The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and, after several years of working in comedy together, the writing team delivered their first piece in 2012: The Play That Goes Wrong. This became an international hit and is still running on the West End and Broadway. Their follow-up piece, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, opened in 2014, and The Comedy About A Bank Robbery opened in 2016.

Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields and Henry Lewis

Peter Pan Goes Wrong brings all the right moves in a festive romp of fun and mishap. Once Upon A Time has ruined Peter Pan for us, so it’s a good thing that this brilliantly written and directed production has little to do with the iconic character and everything to do with an intricately cohesive ensemble cast delivering unexpected laughs and mayhem.

Jordan Prosser as Max Bennett as Michael Darling; George Kemp as Dennis Tyde as John Darling; Francine Cain as Sandra Wilkinson as Wendy Darling; Tammy Weller as Annie Twilloil as Mary Darling

Peter Pan Goes Wrong is a trifecta of clever writing, intricate directing and talented actors who cleverly play off their audience. In many ways, it is an actor’s play, showcasing all the havoc and melodrama associated with a play — both on and off stage. Adam Meggido’s direction takes physical comedy to its limits, reinvigorating traditional slapstick. You know the actors are going to slip on the proverbial banana peel, but the gag still finds a way to surprise. One does wonder whether the actors have life insurance!

The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is short of actors (again!) so some actors take on multiple roles. Luke Joslin as Robert Grove plays several characters including Nana the Dog, Starkey the Pirate and, most notably, as Peter’s Shadow, highlighting his talent for interpretive dance in a “sexy” black unitard 🙂

Jay Laga’aia as Francis Beaumont as Cecco the Pirate; Luke Joslin as Robert Grove as Starkey the Pirate; Connor Crawford as Chris Bean as Captain Hook
Darcy Brown as Jonathan Harris as Peter Pan and Luke Joslin as Robert Grove as Shadow

Tammy Weller as Annie Twilloil features her versatility in multiple roles including a mute Tinkerbell, a confused Tiger Lily, a maternal Mrs. Darling, and Lisa the Maid with more costume changes than one would have thought humanly possible.

Tammy Weller as Annie Twilloil as Tinkerbell

Conner Crawford as Chris Bean in the roles of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling shows he has impeccable timing as a comedic actor.

Connor Crawford as Chris Bean as Captain Hook

The revolving set is a death-trap which barely survives the show, as furniture collapses, pieces fall off, doors jam, and actors find themselves mercilessly exposed trying to make magic among the mayhem, colliding mid-air in mal-functioning flying harnesses or dodging falling stage props. The play culminates at the end of Act 2 with more bodies than in the last act of Hamlet and a rotating set delivering choreographed chaos at a level of perfection rarely seen on stage. The challenge of successfully executing such organised pandemonium is a testament to the skill of cast and crew. It requires bundles of energy to sustain this kind of frolic without flagging and the cast possesses them in abundance.

Luke Joslin as Robert Grove as Starkey the Pirate; Jordan Prosser as Max Bennett as Michael Darling; George Kemp as Dennis Tyde as John Darling; Adam Dunn as Trevor Watson the Stage Manager; Jay Laga’aia as Francis Beaumont as Cecco the Pirate
Front row: Tammy Weller as Annie Twilloil as Tinkerbell; Francine Cain as Sandra Wilkinson as Wendy Darling; Jessie Yates as Grace Ofcharles, assistant stage manager; Teagan Wouters as Lucy Grove as Toothless
Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Everybody survived Peter Pan Goes Wrong!

The Play that Goes Wrong was one of the surprise West End hits of recent years. The Wrong-uns of the fictitious and delightfully shambolic Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society have decided there is nothing about a Christmas show that they can’t make worse, delivering complete theatrical mayhem from beginning to end.

The Play That Goes Wrong is the Tom and Jerry of British farce, slapping you silly with mishaps and pratfalls. Watching the play-within-a-play’s troupe of amateur actors trying to perform a murder mystery is like watching a roomful of hapless carpenters hammering their own thumbs, then watching the cabinets crash on their heads.

Luke Joslin as Robert Grove as Thomas Colleymore; George Kemp as Dennis Tyde as Perkins; Nick Simpson-Deeks as Chris Bean as Inspector Carter; James Marlowe as Max Bennett as Cecil Haversham

It is a show in which, you know, things go wrong. Because that’s all that happens; the show seems less written than engineered. You get exactly what the title ­promises — botched lines, toxic props, doors that don’t open or that suddenly come unstuck and break an actor’s nose. To say that the set gets into the act is an understatement; the misbuilt contraption of an English manor gives a spectacular performance!

Sound and lighting technician Trevor Watson, played by Andrew Dunn, is positioned in one of the boxes where the audience had a bird’s eye view of his incompetence which usually consisted of forgetting to play a sound effect, playing the wrong music, or upstaging the performers 🙂

All of the actors did a magnificent job – their energy levels were second to none and their comic timing was nothing short of brilliant. One would hate to see the number of bruises the actors had amassed by the end of each performance!

In what is likely the most well-known scene of The Play That Goes Wrong – Brooke Satchwell’s character Sandra is knocked out cold by a door that is thrown suddenly open. Her fellow actors then try to ‘subtly’ drag her through a set window and out of sight, leaving Satchwell giving an incredibly convincing performance of a rag doll! As a result of Sandra being otherwise engaged, a member of the backstage crew Annie, played by Tammy Weller, finds herself cast into the limelight understudying the role of Sandra.

Luke Joslin as Robert Grove as Thomas Colleymore; Adam Dunn as Trevor Watson, Lighting & Sound Operator; Tammy Weller as Annie Twilloil, the Stage Manager and understudy; Darcy Browne as Jonathan Harris as Charles Haversham; Brooke Satchwell as Sandra Wilkinson as Florence Colleymoore
Luke Joslin as Robert Grove as Thomas Colleymore; Darcy Browne as Jonathan Harris as Charles Haversham; Brooke Satchwell as Sandra Wilkinson as Florence Colleymoore; Nick Simpson-Deeks as Chris Bean as Inspector Carter

At first Annie is uncomfortable with the limelight but soon warms up. When the real Sandra regains consciousness and attempts to take back her role Annie becomes almost blood-thirsty for the limelight. There is no doubt that the acrobatic tussle that builds to a crescendo between Satchwell and Weller, steals the show.

Nick Simpson-Deeks as Chris Bean as Inspector Carter and Brooke Satchwell as Sandra Wilkinson as Florence Colleymoore
Nick Simpson-Deeks as Chris Bean as Inspector Carter; George Kemp as Dennis Tyde as Perkins; Luke Joslin as Robert Grove as Thomas Colleymore; James Marlowe as Max Bennett as Cecil Haversham; Darcy Browne as Jonathan Harris as Charles Haversham; Brooke Satchwell as Sandra Wilkinson as Florence Colleymoore
The Play that Goes Wrong

A thoroughly hilarious and enjoyable performance. As physical comedy, it’s Olympics-grade, and the two hours go at a perpetual sprint.

Beary Graduates at Winthrop Hall

What do you think?

Little Puffles and Jay are at the top of Whitfeld Court admiring Winthrop Hall, the most impressive building on the campus of the University of Western Australia.

Winthrop Hall

Built between 1929 and 1932, the architectural style has been described as ‘Inter-War Romanesque’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘Renaissance’, ‘Western Australian Renaissance’ and more recently as ‘Twentieth Century Referential Architecture’. This vagueness of terminology is the result of its being a mixture of different elements. Winthrop Hall with its Italian style campanile resembles Stockholm City Hall, completed in 1923. It is where the Nobel Prize banquet is held after the award ceremony.

Winthrop Hall, like the other Hackett buildings, is constructed in reinforced concrete and brick and the walls are 2.7 metres thick. It is dressed over most of its exterior with local stone quarried from various sites, sometimes cut smooth and sometimes rusticated.

Sandstone from Donnybrook was used for the columns of the porticoes, Tamala limestone (coastal limestone) was used to face the external walls. Surviving documents indicate that the principal source of stone used for the Hackett Memorial Buildings was Coogee, south of Fremantle.

The building is roofed with orange coloured Cordova tiles (so-called because the shape of them is associated with the Spanish city of Cordoba). Although more expensive than the flatter Marseilles tiles commonly used for building in Western Australia, their curved shape gives them the capacity to shed rain water more reliably. The original tiles were replaced in 2000.

Winthrop Hall – north side

At first floor level on the north and south sides, the exterior of Winthrop Hall is decorated with a balcony which has a colonnade with pairs of columns supporting round arches. These were inspired by the arrangement of columns surrounding the cloister which forms part of a monastery attached to the cathedral at Monreale in Sicily, built on a hill outside Palermo. The columns of the walkways along Winthrop Hall and the Hackett Memorial Buildings are Tuscan in style.

The windows of the hall are glazed with stained glass in various colours. When work began on this part of the building, the architect had the idea of recycling beer and medicine bottles in order to produce panes of light brown colour, one of the costs saving exercises asked for by the Senate.

The architect left no clue in his writing to explain the glazed terracotta gryphon’s frieze that circles the walls of Winthrop Hall just under the roof eaves, except to allude to a ‘Greek’ influence. It consists of alternating motifs of two-winged lions facing a musical instrument resembling a lyre. The tails of the lions differ slightly from each other so that the overall effect is not one of exact repetition.

The frieze appears to be inspired by a frieze surviving at an ancient Greek temple at Didyma near Ephesus in Turkey. It contained temples for the twins Apollo and Artemis. In Greek, Didyma means twin. Lions have often been used as symbols of protection; the significance of the lyre is uncertain, but in ancient art it was a symbol of Apollo, patron god of poetry and music. In Greek mythology, Apollo is the inventor of string-music and string instruments such as the kithara and the lyre.

Winthrop Hall Tower

At its highest point, the Winthrop Hall tower measures 46 meters. With 360 degrees views, it offers the best views of the campus. There are 184 steps to the top. As well as the clock, it has six rooms that originally accommodated staff and research students.

Architects Rodney Alsop and Conrad Sayce had a falling out over the design of the tower roof. Sayce wanted a style of roof similar to Sydney’s Queen Victoria building dome, whereas Alsop preferred an angular Italianate style. As Alsop was the leading architect on the project his Italian style was chosen and as the disagreement grew, Sayce withdrew from the project and subsequently emigrated to South Africa. They never spoke again.

It was originally intended that the tower should have four clock faces, but the number was reduced to one to reduce costs. A Melbourne company, Messrs Ingran Bros, installed the first clock in 1929. The dial was made of ‘opus sectile’, an enamel finish on tile, to match the rondels above the windows on the Arts & Administration Building. After 1945 Ennis and Sons rebuilt the master clock. The dial was replaced in 1953 with one made of terracotta, due to weathering. In 1964 Mr Ron Ennis installed a new electric master clock.

At first floor level, the tower is decorated with an ornamental balconette which was inspired by the early 16th century Belém Tower in Lisbon, Portugal. The Belém Tower is a strong example of the Portuguese Manueline style, but it also incorporates hints of other architectural styles, such as Moorish architecture in the form of delicate decorations, arched windows and balconies. The ornamental balconette was constructed of Donnybrook stone. The capitals of the columns are decorated with representations of the Australian banksia plant. The balustrading features the Cross of the Templars.

The architect Rodney Alsop stated that the design “arose as the natural outcome of the planning, combined with the study of the architecture of older countries, with climate and other conditions not unlike those in Western Australia. […] While the ancestry of the style used is undoubtedly Italian, it has been anglicised and adapted to the local conditions, and cannot be called Italian, Spanish, or any other foreign style. It is my conception of architecture suitable for the University of Western Australia.”

Puffles and Jay stand on the Whitfeld Memorial Seat with the Great Gate visible behind

The Great Gate joins Winthrop Hall to the old Arts & Administration Building. The flanking towers of the Gate are square at the base and octagonal at the top, which was supposed to liken it to the Tudor gateways of Oxford and Cambridge colleges.

The first major art work to be commissioned for Winthrop Hall with funds from the Hackett Bequest, The Five Lamps of Learning (or the Five Lamps of Knowledge) mosaic is set in the lunette above the five windows to the Senate Room. The University commissioned artist Mervyn Napier Waller to design and produce the mosaic in 1931. The mosaic is Byzantine in style, with standing figures elongated to compensate for the angle from which they are viewed from below.

The mosaic features five figures who represent five of the seven virtues of wisdom taken from Isaiah (XI.2): Sapientia (wisdom), Intellectus (understanding), Consilium (counsel), Fortitudo (courage) and Scientia (knowledge). Their names appear in the arches at the top of the five windows to the Senate Room. The five figures hold lighted lamps and reflect the University’s motto, ‘Seek Wisdom’. These figures are contrasted with the five unwise figures in the background with unlit lamps, bowed in poses that express the idea of dejection.

Napier Waller wrote the following in a letter, dated 12 January 1959, to Vice-Chancellor Prescott:

“As you see there are seven gifts of the Spirit; but in my design I have excluded Piety and Fear (of God.) The five windows below also suggested to me that the five gifts of the Spirit could become the five lamps of the wise virgins of Jesus’ parable, with each lighted lamp being one of the expressions of complete wisdom, as read on the soffits of the window below.”

UWA Senate Room

Beneath the mosaic is the Senate Room where the governing body of the university meets. The stained-glass window was commissioned in memory of William Hancock, pioneer radiologist and former member of the University Senate.

UWA Senate Room

The Senate is the governing authority of the University and in the words of The University of Western Australia Act 1911 has “the entire control and management of the affairs of the University and may act in all matters concerning the University in such manner as appears to it best calculated to promote the interests of the University”.

Winthrop Hall Foyer

The foyer features a marble mosaic designed by Napier Waller and constructed from marbles brought from Carrara, Verona, Rome, Belgium and England. Australian marble found to that date was too soft for this purpose. The concrete columns that support the ceiling of the foyer are painted in a manner that was inspired by the coloured columns that were a part of some ancient Egyptian buildings. The C. R. Caslake company of Melbourne undertook the wrought iron work, which comprised the wrought-iron gates leading into the foyer, handrails, balustrades and wall lanterns.

On the left hand side in the foyer there is a bronze bust of Mary Raine (1877-1960) who bequeathed her estate (one million pounds) to the University to support medical research. It was created by renowned West Australian sculptor Robert Hitchcock from a black and white photograph of Mary Raine.

On the right hand side in the foyer there is a bronze bust of General Sir John Hackett (1910-1997), the son of University founder John Winthrop Hackett. The bust was created by John Dowie, who also sculpted the Whitfeld bust from Whitfeld Court.

The windows on the north side of the foyer are glazed in the same manner as most of the other windows in the building, but on the south side two of the windows have been turned into memorial windows.

Memorial window for William John Hancock (1863-1931)

The memorial window for William John Hancock (1863-1931) was proposed by the University’s Engineers Club and installed in 1934. It was paid for by contributions from members of the engineering and medical professions in Perth as well as from the students. The window was created by the Melbourne firm of Brooks Robinson & Co.

Memorial window to Sir Alfred Langler (1865-1928)

The memorial window to Sir Alfred Langler (1865-1928) was designed and executed by Napier Waller. It honours Sir Alfred Langler, the administrator of the Hackett estate under whose stewardship the Hackett bequest grew significantly between 1916 and 1926. The theme was provided by the Parable of Talents, that also inspired the mosaic above the Senate Room windows.

The staircase leading up to the main hall

What do you think now?

Little Puffles and Jay are at the top of the Great Hall in Winthrop Hall.

The main hall

Winthrop Hall measures 41 meters long by 18 meters wide with a height from floor to ceiling of 15 meters. Today, the hall is dominated by the McGillivray organ and the rose window.

The pipe organ had been proposed in 1927 by Professor Ross who combined his position as Foundation Professor of Physics with being Chair of the Music Advisory Board. Funding for the building and installation of the pipe organ only became available when the University received a bequest in 1959 by Dr W. S. McGillivray.

The renowned English firm of J. W. Walker & Sons Ltd was commissioned to make the organ, a quality three manual and pedal instrument, which required sixty craftsmen. The installation ceremony was in 1965.

Situated in the east wall of Winthrop Hall above the pipe organ, the rose window, with a central flower motif of two concentric rings and petal shapes, appears to have been modelled on a window from the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy; Rodney Alsop took a photograph of the window during his travels there in 1925.

If the ceiling appears to sit rather tightly over the top of the window, it is because the height of the building was reduced slightly in order to prevent the cost exceeding the preliminary estimate by even more than it eventually did.

Originally the east wall beneath the rose window was filled with a flat dais, which was modified in the 1960s by the installation of the sloping row of seats and the organ.

At the same time as the McGillivray organ was originally installed, the lower third of the interior walls received a wainscoting of timber panels. This had been in the original plan for the hall, but had not been carried out for lack of funding. The walls had originally been constructed using over-fired bricks (‘clinkers’) which often ended up on a rubbish tip because they were discoloured and slightly misshapen. This was because it was assumed that they would not be visible when the building was finished. In the 1960s, however, ‘clinkers’ had become a trendy design feature and there was some resistance to hiding them. The jarrah panelling that was in the end installed helps to provide good acoustics for the hall.

The walls bear the Coat of Arms of other Australian and some overseas universities.

The architectural design features, including layered walls and the use of sound absorbing materials, particularly Australian Coogee stone, were used to ensure the best sound quality in the hall. The specially designed ceiling allowed sound waves to escape and not reflect back into the building. This was achieved through the use of strips of matting placed between the ceiling beams to allow the sound waves to escape.

Ceiling in Winthrop Hall

The beams of the Great Hall have been decorated in true Renaissance tradition. However, the theme for the decoration is uniquely Australian. Melbourne artist George Benson was commissioned by architect Rodney Alsop to paint the ceiling of Winthrop Hall. Alsop had been in correspondence with the Lord Abbot of New Norcia and Daisy Bates regarding suitable Aboriginal designs. Bates suggested the art of the North-West should be used. Benson, however, selected from a range of designs from across the country. His concern was for colour and pattern rather than accuracy and he based his motifs on symbolic and totemic Aboriginal designs representing them in earth tones such as red, yellow ochre, black from charcoal and pipe clay. The ceiling became the first major artwork in Australia based on Indigenous art. Benson also included ten caricatures (two unfinished) of various local dignitaries, of which only four have been identified: Dr James Battye, Sir Walter James, Judge John Northmore and Dr William Somerville.

Ceiling in Winthrop Hall – detail

The soffits of the main beams are alternately a series of diamonds and squares copied from a shield of a south-western tribesman, while on the others is a running pattern of lines derived from the shield of a local West Australian tribesman. On the longitudinal beams there is an alternating pattern of circles from a chilara, and an unfinished drawing by a south-eastern tribesman.

That was beary interesting, don’t you think so?

The Amazing Artistry of Shaun Tan

Hours to Sunset and Sculpture Garden
UWA Crawley Campus

With the UWA Club opening in 2005, there was a large west-facing on campus begging for a sundial to be created!

Susan Marie, then Director of UWA Extension, had worked with Shaun Tan at Subiaco Library in 2002.

The Tea Party, by Shaun Tan, 2002
Acrylics, oil, collage
Subiaco Library

Shaun’s concept was that the large T-shaped area in the children’s section of the library would depict a flowing landscape with whimsical creatures strolling, swimming, flying and rowing through it, some having conversations and reading books, others breathing fire and stormy oceans, with many drinking cups of tea, made by towering tea pots. Hence the title The Tea Party which nods towards Lewis Carroll, as well as being an alternative, or extended version, of the strange world that was briefly glimpsed in his picture book The Lost Thing.

The entire project took about 3 months, painted using acrylic and oils with some collage of printed materials, fabric, coloured paper and gold leaf. Shaun painted the work in parts, in his backyard, relying heavily on detailed sketches to ensure continuity between the different parts. Once the work was installed in the library, he spent a week on a large ladder joining everything up as a fluid composition.

The Tea Party, by Shaun Tan, 2002, detail
Acrylics, oil, collage
Subiaco Library

On the other side of the wall, at Subiaco Library, is Shaun’s painting The 100 Year Picnic.

The 100 Year Picnic, by Shaun Tan, 2002
Mixed media – collage, acrylic, oils
Subiaco Library

The painting is based on a photograph from the early 1900s, found in the archives of the Subiaco Museum: a group portrait of Subiaco men, women and children (largely anonymous) enjoying a picnic. While the photograph was the main basis for the painted image, it is not reproduced with documentary accuracy – it is a point of departure, rather than a reference, for an imaginary painting. Elements were edited and transformed, abstracted and stylised to some extent and colour used lyrically to create a certain mood.

Photograph from the early 1900s, featuring a group portrait of Subiaco men, women and children (largely anonymous) enjoying a picnic.

It would be another eight years before Hours to Sunset, the sundial on the west-facing wall of the Club would come into being. The design casts the sun as an all-seeing bird, with luminous representations of the sky and heavenly bodies recalling the medieval Book of Hours.

Hours to Sunset, 2013

This type of digitised mosaic image is new and has only become commercially available relatively recently. The mosaic suppliers Bisazza have combined their art selection of premium glass mosaic tiles with mathematical accuracy to translate the beautiful Shaun Tan painting into a mosaic masterpiece.

The image was scanned and reproduced as a pixilated map. Colours were then selected in collaboration with the Bisazza artistic team in Italy and Shaun Tan. These were used to establish 375 sheets of images containing 900 individual tesserae to make up the whole picture.

Artisan tiler Iain H. Middleton from V-vo Architectural Mosaics, with Ankit Gakhar, Darren Hay and Brody Osborne formed the core team for the actual creation of the mosaic. Their job was to ‘stitch’ together an image that is delivered chopped up, by using a technique that appears invisible, yet brings out the true character of this type of glass, its brightness, colour and shape. This then allows the artist’s work to speak to the viewer, not the mechanical interpretation of it.

There are 725 seams in this mosaic, which equate to over 227 meters. To make the work look seamless, a special translucent epoxy grout was incorporated to enhance the image and add robustness and longevity to the piece.

The final unveiling took place on 22 January 2013 and the sundial was officially launched on 8 February 2013, for UWA’s Centenary year.

A sundial indicates time by measuring the angle of the sun in the sky, which moves by 15 degrees each hour. Normally we measure time relative to midday, the time when the sun is highest in the sky. This sundial is different, as it measures time relative to sunset and indicates how many hours of daylight remain in the day.

The sundial is mounted vertically on a wall facing west. A gnomon, projecting horizontally from the top centre point of the sundial, casts a shadow on the wall. During the afternoon the tip of the gnomon’s shadow will move from the bottom of the wall up to the top until, at sunset, it is level with the gnomon. The left-hand curve of the sundial’s markings plots the path of the Sun’s shadow during the summer solstice, the middle line is the path during the equinox, and the curve on the right shows its path at the winter solstice. The hour lines are angled to account for the different length of day between summer and winter.

This way of measuring time is related to ‘Italian Hours’ whereby hours are measured relative to the last sunset. This was commonly used in parts of Europe between the 14th and 18th centuries. You always knew how much time you had left to get your day’s work done before sunset.

Beneath the sundial is a sculpture garden which Shaun designed in collaboration with Susan Marie and landscape architect Helen Whitbread, with a cluster of mosaicked organic shapes and espaliered mandarin trees, nestling in beds of white stones and gravel amidst an imposing setting of stern sandstone.

Shaun wanted to create a friendly and accessible installation and would invite people to move around, to touch and feel the garden elements.

Sitting is touching, isn’t it?

Once more it was over to artisan Iain Middleton, this time for the more difficult task of covering smooth, rounded surfaces with flat, rigid glass tiles.

The freeform shapes at one end evoke big smooth river stones, all three superbly cloaked in the same Venetian glass tiles that make up the sundial. Off to the other side, a gleaming golden egg sits alone at the other end of the small courtyard. Shaun said the golden egg has a suggestion of wisdom, which relates to the University setting.

Shaun described the design as a response to the spare and angular sandstone forms of the site, in which he wanted elements to break the tension of those lines with simple curved organic forms.

“The design also needed to relate to the large sundial above … the vertical image carries a sense of air, light and celestial objects; something on the ground needed to be about the earth, solid mass and gravity,” he wrote.

Shaun Tan, the son of a Malaysian-Chinese father and an Anglo-Irish mother, is a multi-award winning artist and writer who was born in Perth and now lives and works in Melbourne.

As a child growing up in Perth, Shaun enjoyed reading, writing and illustrating poems and stories; and spent a lot of time drawing dinosaurs, robots and space ships. He was impressed by a book of horror poems called The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight, written by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated “in these creepy but also amusing pen and ink drawings by Arnold Lobel. I can still recall the images quite vividly, and borrowed that book many times from the library.” He was attracted by anything about monsters, outer space or robots. He also remembers Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick which he still admires as an adult as an ideal picture book experiment – a whole series of fragmentary sentences and singular strange drawings never fully explained. He also liked Fungus the Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs, but only discovered many of his other books (and acknowledges their influence) as an adult. Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl were also ‘favourites’.

Some of his earliest works appeared in science fiction magazines (including Eidolon and Interzone) where he illustrated the work of authors such as Greg Egan, Karen Attard, Sean Williams, and Leanne Frahm.

In 1992, he won the International Illustrators of the Future Contest, the first Australian to achieve this award. His unique style translates well into film, and Shaun Tan provided concept artwork for the movie WALL-E. He also wrote and directed the short film The Lost Thing, from his book of the same name. The Lost Thing won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. In the same year, he received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, a prestigious international prize for children’s and young adult literature.

His work has won or been nominated for nearly 100 awards. His international awards include Locus Awards, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, Hugo Awards, and a World Fantasy Award. In Australia, his work has repeatedly won Ditmar and Aurealis Awards, as well as Premier’s Awards across the country, multiple Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards, and more.

There aren’t many artists who have the ability to both write and illustrate their own work; but Shaun Tan is an exception. His books include The Playground (1997), The Lost Thing (2000), The Red Tree (2001), The Arrival (2006), Tales from Outer Suburbia (2008), The Bird King and other sketches (2011), The Oopsatoreum: inventions of Henry A. Mintox, with the Powerhouse Museum (2012), Rules of Summer (2013), Cicada (2018), Tales from the Inner City (2018). One of his early picture books, The Rabbits, with words by John Marsden, is now an opera.

Cicada is the subject of an exhibition at the State Library of WA.

Cicada exhibition at the State Library of WA

It is an exhibition of his original artwork and creative process, including a small sculpture of Cicada. Dramatic oil paintings are displayed along with sketches and photographs to provide a window into the making of this picture book.

Cicada exhibition at the State Library of WA

In the picture book, Shaun Tan explores the ponderous themes of migrant workers and workplace bullying through the voice of a hardworking insect who has toiled away, unappreciated and without promotion, alongside humans in a grey office block for 17 years.

Cicada is the story of a scorned insect who works in a sterile office with hostile coworkers. With shadowy illustrations and sparse narration, it examines workplace bullying in a story that is ‘for anyone who has ever felt unappreciated, overlooked or overworked’.
Cicada exhibition at State Library of WA
Tan says the character of the cicada reminds him of his own father, Bing, who moved to Australia from Malaysia to study when he was in his early 20s. He was hardworking but had poor English, the author says. ‘[He] was an architect who worked in a few different offices throughout his life. I often got the impression that his skills were underappreciated in some of these places.’

For Cicada, Tan researched the life cycle of cicadas, which can spend more than a decade underground before shedding their exoskeletons and revealing new wings. There are clear parallels between the life cycle of the cicada and Tan’s story of corporate drudgery. But the author says the meaning of his book is unclear, even to him. It’s an ambiguity he actively strives for.

While Cicada is a picture book, it’s not necessarily written for an audience of children. It talks about things that adults understand — data entry, and human resources departments — and it’s almost completely devoid of colour.

The story is told in monochromatic shades of green and grey for the majority of its 32 pages — familiar territory for Tan, whose book The Arrival was illustrated solely in sepia tones.

‘Belonging’ is a recurring theme in Tan’s work. In Cicada, the protagonist is a data entry clerk who works tirelessly for 17 years alongside humans who never accept him. ‘A lot of my stories are about animals invading human spaces,’ Tan told the Australian. ‘I think it serves as a sort of distorted mirror for ourselves, making us step outside of the narcissistic self-absorption of our species.’
In creating the character of the cicada, Tan says he felt compelled to show ‘the overlooked aspects of ordinary life, almost to try and redress some imbalance in the way that we look at things. To counteract some of those views of the world that might be fairly destructive, even though they may be mainstream and accepted’.
A model (left) and painting (right) of the central character living in the ‘office wallspace’. Tan describes the creation process thus: ‘I made a sculpture of the central cicada character with moveable limbs – basically an action figure – and built simple miniature office spaces out of paper and board. I could then arrange and light these elements on a table top, photograph them, and use the resulting images as “sketches” for both structuring the story and as reference for final paintings. In some cases, the finished illustrations are nearly identical to the photographs.’
Tan made models of the characters and scenes, which he subsequently photographed and then painted. This is an early sculpture of the office-bound protagonist.
The cicada morphs into his insect form in this clay sculpture created by the artist.
The storyboarding for Cicada. Tan says the book was initially much longer, but he pared it back to generate ‘mystery’, creating what he says is the ‘simplest’ book he’s ever done.

Little Puffles and Jay went exploring behind the scenes at the library.

State Library pictorial stack on the third floor

They discovered The Singing Bones, Shaun Tan’s interpretation of 75 fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm.

The Singing Bones, by Shaun Tan

His sculpted figures, inspired by ancient carvings and figurines, evince each tale. Many of them are squat and elemental, as though evolved from earth, rock or clay. Many have the pointed or rounded shapes identifiable as his unique style. They are constructed from papier-mache and clay, some with wire, paper, string, nails or gold leaf. The clay has been carved and painted with acrylics, oxidised metal powder and even shoe polish. Some surfaces look bronzed. Other sculptures feature some of Tan’s signature colours of red and orange.

Shaun Tan has sold most of the sculptures, keeping only keeping only Hans My Hedgehog and Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house.

In The Singing Bones, Shaun Tan reimagines the Brothers Grimm fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel with small, hauntingly macabre sculptures.
Hans My Hedgehog

The State Library owns two of the sculpted figures, Little Brother and Little Sister and Little Red Riding Hood.

Sculpted figures from The Singing Bones, by Shaun Tan
Little Brother and Little Sister (L)
Little Red Riding Hood (R)
Economical with materials and words, Tan’s take on Little Red Riding Hood condenses it to a conversation between the girl and the wolf

Rules of Summer is a predominantly visual and unnerving exploration of what two boys learnt one summer.

Rules of Summer, by Shaun Tan

Rules of Summer is a collection of 26 oil paintings, vignettes loosely tethered to an instructional narrative; a set of seemingly arbitrary directives intended to help a young boy understand his vast, capricious world and his place in it: A Rough Guide to Terror Incognita – “Never drop your jar”, “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline”, “Never leave the back door open overnight”, “Always bring bolt cutters”, or “Always know the way home”. Almost all vignettes feature two brothers (one a couple of years older than the other) and a raven.

We must find a jar so we don’t drop it!

True to its fairy tale form, the younger boy’s rites of passage grow progressively darker when his older, know-all brother takes things too far and their one-sided relationship erupts in violence, estrangement and eventually reconciliation … at least until next summer.

As with Tan’s other books, nothing is what it seems and the path to enlightenment is rarely straightforward. The hapless newcomer unwittingly breaks every rule, triggering absurd repercussions: being stalked by a monstrous hare for leaving a red sock on a clothes line, intimidated by a party of formally dressed falcons for taking the last olive, invaded by a primordial back yard for having left a door open overnight, threatened by a tornado for stepping on a snail and thwarted from entering paradise without a password.

Never step on a snail

Rules of Summer enables Tan to indulge in his first love, oil painting, which brings a lush, palpable sense of place to his imaginary landscapes. The vibrant palette and broad canvasses capture the immense skies and parched flatlands of his childhood in suburban Perth and the secret laneways of his present inner-city Melbourne home, with detours through Manhattan, Tuscany and Mordor. It’s a sweeping perspective that similarly informs his visual style.

The Cicada exhibition is on at the State Library of WA until Wednesday 24 April. If you are beary lucky, you might be able to go behind the scenes.