Sunday, October 31, 2021



An autobiography by Leanne Benjamin with Sarah Crompton.

Published by Melbourne Books.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens OAM

Life is full of co-incidences, and the release of this book in this particular month is one of the happy ones. In early November 2001, I was passing through London on my way home from attending the New York Cabaret Convention and reviewing the premiere by American Ballet Theatre of Stanton Welch’s ballet Clear.  Arriving in London, I discovered that Australian ballerina, Leanne Benjamin, was programmed to dance the lead in the Nureyev version of  Don Quixote.  Newly appointed Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet, Ross Stretton, had arranged to borrow the Australian Ballet’s sets and costumes, and for this performance Benjamin would be partnered by Cuban dancer, Carlos Acosta.

Never having seen Benjamin dance, but certainly aware of her from the reviews of her performances, the opportunity to actually see her dance, particularly with Acosta, was irresistible. I was also interested to see how the Australian production, with which I was familiar, would work on the Royal Ballet dancers, and of course there was the added lure of being able to experience the newly refurbished Royal Opera House.

Though the performance was sold out, I managed  to secure a ‘standing room' ticket to stand at the back of the Royal Opera House stalls. However my excitement was somewhat dampened on arrival by a notice advising that Miss Benjamin was indisposed and her role as Kitri would be danced by Romanian ballerina, Alina Cojocaru. So I never got to see Leanne Benjamin dance.

Although I never did get to see her dance, having just read Benjamin’s captivating account of her career,  which she’s written with dance critic and arts editor Sarah Crompton, I feel I’ve finally caught up with her, and even discovered the reason for her absence on that particular night in November 2001.

“Leanne Benjamin: Built for Ballet” is a fascinating no-nonsense account of the ups and downs of the life of a career dancer. In addition to her undoubted brilliance as a dancer, Benjamin reveals a talent for self-examination, able to assess her own and her colleagues particular talents and flaws with admiral clarity and perception.  

Her knack of being able to verbalize her feelings, particularly with regards to her reasoning for some of the difficult decisions she’s had to make during her long career make fascinating reading.  Her advice for coping with the challenges of constant touring and her descriptions of what she has learned from the many dance luminaries with whom she has created and danced should be required reading for any young person contemplating a career as a professional dancer.  

Born in Rockhampton, Leanne Benjamin, OBE, AM, is not as well known to Australian dance audiences as her illustrious career suggests she should be. That’s because most of her career has been overseas.

Benjamin was only 3 years old when she commenced her dance training in Rockhampton, Queensland.  By the time she was 15 she had been accepted into the Royal Ballet School in London. Her sister, Madonna was already dancing in the corps de ballet of the Royal Ballet when 16 year old Benjamin travelled to London to take up her place in the Royal Ballet School.

She quickly realised that she was never going to fit the traditional mould as a classical ballerina. Her sights were set on becoming a dramatic dancer. Nevertheless, following considerable success in International ballet competitions, by the time she was 18 she was dancing in the corps de ballet of the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet.

The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, later to become Birmingham Royal Ballet, at the time Benjamin joined, was the touring arm of the Royal Ballet, and Benjamin’s athleticism and sense of the dramatic soon attracted attention. By the time she was 22, following her debut in Swan Lake, she was promoted to Principal.  Her descriptions of touring with Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet are insightful and vivid, especially her recollections of performing Giselle in a circus tent during a heavy rainstorm.

Narelle Benjamin and Stephen McRae in Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon". 

Photo:Johan Persson

Initially attracted to the idea of dancing in America, the opportunity to dance more of the Kenneth MacMillan repertoire led to her decision to join the Royal Ballet in 1992. At the time Sylvie Guillem, Darcey Bussell and Viviana Durante were the reigning ballerinas. Ambitious, energetic and not afraid to speak her mind, Benjamin initially felt stifled by the rigid systems in place.  

Choreographer Peter Wright described her as ‘the most difficult ballerina when it came to rehearsals, demanding time in the studio and on stage upsetting everybody’. She remembers Administrative Director of the Royal Opera House, Anthony Russell- Roberts, telling her in no uncertain terms when she was negotiating for more recognition, that if she wanted to stay at the Royal Ballet, she would have to accept that she would never be prioritised before Sylvie, Darcey  and Viviana.  Nevertheless, by the time she retired from the stage at age 49, she had been a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet for more than 20 years.

Though she danced her share of ballet princesses, it was the story-telling aspects of the big traditional ballets that most interested her, particularly those choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. She also revelled in the challenges offered by young emerging choreographers, and following early success  creating the role of Grete in  David Bintley’s  Metamorphosis,  went on to cement her reputation in works highlighting her unique athletic and dramatic gifts especially Wayne McGregor’s Qualia and  Kenneth MacMillan’s  Different Drummer and  The Judas Tree.


Narelle Benjamin and Edward Watson in Wayne McGregor's "Qualia".

Photo: Bill Cooper

Benjamin commenced her ballet career during a golden period of British ballet, a time when the creators of some of the most iconic ballets in the current repertoire were still practicing.  Frederick Ashton coached her for a revival of his version of Romeo and Juliet, and Kenneth MacMillan coached her for his.  She much preferred the MacMillan version.  Their admiration for each other’s talents was mutual and MacMillan became her mentor and lifelong friend.   It was a MacMillan ballet, Mayerling that she chose for her final performance at the Royal Opera House in 2013. Her description of this event is particularly poignant.

MacMillan was not her only influence however. As is the tradition in ballet Benjamin was taught many of her roles by the dancers who had originated them. Antoinette Sibley taught her Ashton’s The Dream. Natalia Makarova taught her La Bayadere. Lynn Seymour coached her for McMillan’s Anastasia. Galina Samsova coached her for Swan Lake; Suzanne Farrell coached her for Balanchine’s Symphony in C.  For Firebird her coach was Monica Mason, who was taught the role by Margot Fonteyn, who in turn had been taught by Tamara Karsavina on whom the ballet had been created by Mikhail Fokine. Benjamin’s accounts of these coaching sessions are illuminating. Since her retirement Benjamin herself has become much sought-after coach.

Benjamin speaks glowingly of her stints guesting with the Australian Ballet under David McAllister’s directorship. She’s rather less effusive when talking of Ross Stretton who, when he was Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet and she was contemplating returning to Australia, refused to engage her as a principal. They appear to have forged an amicable working relationship later when he took over Artistic Directorship of the Royal Ballet.

Her list of dance partners during her career reads like a Who’s Who of male dancers. Jonathan Cope, Jose Carreno, Nigel Burley, Ethan Stiefel, Angel Corella, Carlos Acosta, Steven McRae and Irek Mukhamedov were all favourites. But it is Edward Watson who she credits as being her perfect match as a dance partner, able to challenge and compliment her in temperament, athleticism and artistry.

Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson in Kenneth MacMillians' "The Judas Tree".

Photo:Royal Opera House. 

Far from a simply being a list of her triumphs, though there a plenty of those, “Leanne Benjamin: Built for Dance” captures Benjamin’s thoughts on many topics, including coping with injuries and touring,  the importance of strong family connections, and her marriage to theatre executive Tobias Round. She’s convinced that her best dancing was achieved in the ten years following the resumption of her career following birth of their son, Thomas.

Fortunately many of her performances are preserved on YouTube and DVD, and to be able to dive into them while reading her accounts of their creation added greatly to the pleasure of reading this book which I found difficult to put down once I commenced reading it.

This review also published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW .

"Leanne Benjamin - Built for Dance" -  Available from 

Monday, October 25, 2021

Trio gives Greenaway's "Red Fox" a wonderful run

The Little Red Fox for piano trio 

by Sally Greenaway

Live music stream, October 22

Reviewed by Tony Magee

THIS delightful short piece scored for piano, flute and cello is one of a set of three, commissioned by a Canberra couple, celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary.

Canberra composer Sally Greenaway has beautifully captured the essence of what surely is a young fox, darting about, very playful, cheeky, inquisitive, getting up to mischief and learning heaps every day as he or she becomes more and more familiar with the countryside and the other animals who live there.

Canberra composer Sally Greenaway. Photo: Zhenshi van der Klooster

One is instantly transported to a “Wind In the Willows” style of imagery, charming in its child-like innocence, but equally appealing to an adult audience, as the best prose and programatic music can be.

After a gentle musical introduction, setting the scene, Samuel Payne on cello played a delightful melodic opening in the bass register, then repeated it in the treble, followed by amazing arpeggios, over which David Shaw on flute soared with almost bird-like qualities, the arpeggios then being taken over by Edward Neeman at the piano.

Flute and cello then traded musical phrases, supported by a solid bass foundation from the cello.

The piano followed up with supporting fifths with flute dancing above gleefully and the cello responding with tremolo in falling semitones.

The Little Red Fox had a wonderful time scurrying about and enjoying the day to the max.

All three musicians were perfectly in tune, with beautiful tone production and played with the youthful joy and curiosity required to capture the style of the piece.

Reader alert: Reports are just coming
in that a small red fox has escaped into
the text of this review. He is very
friendly, but caution is advised.

The event was beautifully produced for the streaming audience, with excellent production values, including a countdown with musical accompaniment, a brief but very apt introduction by the composer, exquisite sound quality, excellent balance between the three instruments and interesting camera angles and vision.

I was able to run a line-out from my computer through a really nice Luxman amplifier and a pair of KEF 104aB reference monitor speakers. It sounded great.

During her spoken introduction, Greenaway hinted that we might just catch a glimpse of said fox and sure enough, right at the end and you’d have missed it if you blinked, a little red fox did indeed dart across the screen, disappearing into the musical landscape, looking very pleased indeed.

The Little Red Fox is available on Greenaway’s forthcoming CD, “Delights and Dances” or for purchase via unlimited streaming from

First published in Canberra City News, October 23, 2021

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Madeline Bishop wins her second Iris Award


Madeline Bishop is a photo artist now based in Melbourne. However, she grew up in Canberra, began her career here, and regularly visits the capital - and her family - when you know what permits. She completed a Bachelor of Visual Arts (First Class Honours) at the ANU in 2013, before gaining her Master of Fine Arts (First Class Honours), at the University of Melbourne in 2016.

Some, if not all, of Bishop’s family members have been subjects for her evocative people imagery. So too many friends have found themselves called on as subjects. Her 2014 show at Photo Access exploring the complexity of sisterhood and female relationships is a case in point.

This artist has had considerable success, including being a finalist in the Bowness Photography Prize, the Alan Fineman New Photography Award, the National Photographic Portrait Prize, and the Maggie Diaz Photography Prize. She was also Artist in Residence at Canberra’s Photoaccess in 2014, Photographer in Residence at Carriageworks (NSW 2018), and was a Firecracker Photographic Grant Winner (UK 2020).

In addition to participating in numerous group shows, Bishop to date has had at least thirteen solo exhibitions commencing with three in Canberra - Familial/Familiar at the ANU in 2013, then 80 Denier at Photoaccess and Monuments at Canberra Contemporary Art Space, both in 2014. Since then, she has also exhibited in NSW, Victoria, Western Australia, Northern Territory, and Tasmania. Right now, her Without Your Mother series is showing at Sawtooth ARI gallery in Launceston.

In 2016 Bishop won the Iris Award (Perth Centre of Photography, WA). Her winning image, Liz and Talulah, was from The In Between series exhibited here at Photo Access in early 2018. That series explored the construction of women's identities and the development of relationships within domestic space, using her share house as a site and constructed photographic images as a tool to "consider the social malleability of liminal space and the relationships forged within it".

Now she has just won the Iris Award again with her image Neil and Vasantha, from another series, Without your mother. Her artist statement for this series reads “We begin our lives looking for our mothers. Do we ever stop looking for them and do they ever stop looking for us? As we grow, we attempt to detach ourselves in order to become independent and live adult lives. What remnants of this relationship that defines our early lives remain in the distance of adulthood? Our memories morph, the details become duller and distorted over time and we’re left with a summarised version of what might have happened, similar to a photograph. Some edges will blur and some will sharpen until those are the only parts we can remember.”

Neil and Vasantha © Madeline Bishop

Julie and Jacqui © Madeline Bishop

Shashi Meera and Simran © Madeline Bishop

Stef and Marina © Madeline Bishop

Margaret and Liz © Madeline Bishop

Those who consider photography prizes awarding single images to be unfortunate would be extremely pleased that Bishop has had opportunities to show the full series from which her Iris Award prize winners have come.

The artist’s website,, seems to me to present her works very much as she generally presents them in exhibitions. It also includes images showing her installations in galleries, which reveal her choices to sometimes hang works low near the floor - or even on it. At least some photo historians would wish she had also shown images of exhibitions that included people viewing the works, considering such shots can reveal a great deal about the public response to an exhibition.

Canberra can be proud of Bishop - and indeed of many other artist graduates from the ANU. Hopefully, those who are collectors include some of her works in their collections.

This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 16/10/21 here. It is also on the author's blog here.

Installation View

Book Review

Daniel Palmer & Martyn Jolly| Installation View: Photography Exhibitions in Australia (1848-2020)

In 2014, Canberra-based Dr Martyn Jolley and Melbourne-based Dr Daniel Palmer received a grant to research the impact of new technology on the curating of Australian art photography.


One outcome - their substantial new book, Installation View - enriches our understanding of the diversity of Australian photography. It is a significant new account, told through the most important exhibitions and modes of collection and display. It presents a chronology of rarely seen installation views from both well-known and forgotten exhibitions, along with a series of essays.

Additionally, the authors hope to identify some of the challenges faced by institutions in effectively engaging with new forms and practices of photography enabled through digital circulation. Establishing a dialogue around old and new curatorial approaches, the research is premised on the idea that in this age of photo sharing, when photographs are proliferating as never before, the curatorial selecting, collecting and contextualising functions have never been more important.

The foreword correctly notes that photos can be ephemeral even though the camera records and remembers. It invites readers to visit exhibitions of the past and actively imagine what it would have been like to be there. Somewhat like imagining what today’s virtual exhibitions might look like physically in an actual gallery.


1866_Intercolonial Exhibition_nla.obj-260430885-m

Our appetites are whetted by references to viewing images at exhibitions, to the ghostly figures that are audiences, and to the changes in exhibition spaces since the 1870s - to spaces where photographers’ intentions interact with institutional imperatives and exhibition design.

Then the introduction speaks of the exploration of the “constantly mutating forms and conventions through which photographers and curators have selected and presented photographs to the public”. 

Despite the book’s 424 pages, the authors have had to be selective as to which exhibitions they have explored. I have also had to be selective as to which content to discuss here.

Seeking to demonstrate shifts in how photography has been conceptualised, who has produced it and the types of spaces where it has been exhibited, the authors note that photographers and curators have always grappled with scale so that images command attention. They discuss how photographs rely on other media, including print and reproduction technologies, and graphic design. They suggest that art museums have frequently turned to the nineteenth century to complicate the contemporary moment. 

So, this is not a book for light reading. It is a substantial text to be studied, raising numerous things for us to consider and contemplate. I do not like the design – tiny margins, and a strange style of page and plate numbering – nor the lack of an index and the listing of the plates in the separate appendix. But the content is excellent. All serious creators, photographers and collectors should have a copy on their reference bookshelves.

An important question posed is what constitutes Australian photography? Is it work by Australians, here and on travels? Does it include significant works made by non-Australians whilst visiting these shores for short periods? How important are overseas exhibitions involving Australian-based photographers? Have exhibitions of international works here impacted on local practice? Very early in the book it is asserted that, in the 1980s, photography moved from the periphery to the centre of the art world; and it speaks about the loss of photo medium-specific curators and galleries.

Having personally had 45 years involvement with amateur Australian photography societies, I was enjoyed reading about the involvement of amateur associations and pictorialist photography exhibitions, starting with a description of the first annual exhibition by members of the Amateur Photographic Association of Victoria way back in 1884. Any person interested in photography would be aware of the New Zealand born, Sydney-based Harold Cazneaux. His 1909 solo exhibition in the Sydney rooms of the Photographic Society of NSW was the first such by any Australian.

Another famous Australian, Frank Hurley, had his first solo show in 1911 – again in Sydney, but at the Kodak Salon. Given our recent experiences of exhibitions having to await gallery re-openings after pandemic lockdowns, it is interesting that Hurley had to wait for the influenza epidemic to subside before his venue similarly could re-open.

Reading about the use of photographers’ studios as exhibition spaces in the mid nineteenth century set me thinking about parallels today. Many photographers now would display examples of their works in their workplaces, including their homes, where clients would come to have studio portraits made.

Chapter 11, Exhibiting the Modern World, describes the major 1938 Commemorative Salon of Photography, again in Sydney, as part of the celebrations for Australia’s 150th anniversary. It was a joint effort by amateur and professional associations. Australia’s Bicentennial, 50 years later, is mentioned briefly in chapters about indigenous photographers and digital spaces, but the major 1988 traveling Australian Bicentennial Exhibition with which I was personally very involved is not discussed.

There is a reference to photographic constructions in the form of a ceremonial arch over Sydney’s Bridge Street during the 1954 Queen’s visit which I’m sure some will remember. The extraordinary and famous Family of Man international touring exhibition in 1959, including just two Australians out of 273 photographers, gets a short chapter to itself which refers to this country’s White Australia policy being dismantled against the context of the exhibition’s vision of global humanity.

1967_Expo '67 Montreal 2


1971_Frontiers, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 8_RGB

The ongoing significance of some photography is highlighted by reference to the important After the Tent Embassy show – displayed at our own Woden shopping mall in 1983. It included some works that became incredibly important later. 

Of considerable personal interest to me as an organiser of a current annual Prize for conceptual photography was the chapter Photoconceptualism, discussing the emergence of that style of exhibition practice. The first Australian exhibition to include conceptual photography was held in 1969 at Pinacotheca Gallery in St Kilda.

Juxtaposition of images and texts remains a device employed by many conceptual artists today. Locally, the Canberra PhotoConnect group aims to promote “the evolving practice of photography and its links to the arts and society”. It encourages using poetry as an integral part of image presentation.

Plates in the book, of which there are 218, include a hand-coloured installation shot of Micky Allan’s exhibition Photography, Drawing, Poetry – A Live-In Show. Another has particular local interest, showing Huw Davies at the door of Photo Access in Acton in 1984. The gallery at that organisation’s current premises carries Davies name.

1978 Micky Allan, Photographs, Drawing, Poetry - A Live-In Show, hand-coloured installation shot, GPG, Melbourne, courtesy Helen Vivian

References regarding Bill Henson, Simryn Gill, and Tracey Moffatt representing Australia at the Venice Biennale identify them as key moments putting Australia at the “centre of the art world”. The book also notes that photography has been “so successful at becoming art that the place of photography departments in Australian art galleries appears to have become unmoored”.

During an online conversation about the book, a question posed was whether institutionalisation has left us with sensory deficit. We heard that curators are now working like artists, and vice versa. Mention was made of William Yang using a gallery as a diary space. The audience, which included Yang, also heard that “each person who walks into a gallery changes everything”. Remember that when next you visit a gallery!

 This review was first published in the Canberra Times here. It is also on the author's own blog here.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021



Book by Joe DiPietro

Music and lyrics by David Bryan and Joe DiPietro

Directed by Christopher Ashley

Streaming on Netflix


Reviewed by Len Power 4 October 2021

‘Diana: The Musical’ covers the life of Diana, Princess of Wales from her first meeting with Prince Charles, through their marriage, divorce and her death in Paris.

The show had been due to open on Broadway in March 2020 but the production was suspended due to the Covid epidemic.  Now expected to open on Broadway on November 2nd 2021, a film of the live stage production has just been released on Netflix, giving the world a unique opportunity to see the show before its Broadway run.

The show looks good with a sumptuous scenic design by David Zinn and great costumes by William Ivey Long.  Director, Christopher Ashley, who previously guided the hit show ‘Come From Away’, has given it polish, energy and some surprising theatrical moments that work well.  It’s been filmed very professionally but without an audience due to Covid restrictions.  It would have been good to hear a live audience’s reaction to it.

The trouble with the show is the over-familiar story, the script’s tabloid approach and the condescending portrayal of the British as amusingly eccentric.  In under two hours, there isn’t time for the show to give any of the characters or incidents much depth, so it’s an unsatisfying and often inaccurate whistle-stop tour through Diana’s life.  Significantly, prolific author of romantic novels of the time, Barbara Cartland, is also a character in the musical.  Maybe intentionally, the show plays like the plot in one of her novels.

It’s also not helped by the pedestrian rock score and banal lyrics of David Bryan and Joe DiPietro, who were previously known for the score of ‘Memphis’.  We’re treated to lyrical gems like ‘I could use a prince to save me from my prince’, ‘A fecky, fecky, fecky dress’ and ‘Thriller in Manila with Camilla’.  The composers also couldn’t resist the obvious rhyme of ‘callous’ with ‘palace’.

As Diana, Jeanna de Waal gives a confident star performance.  She sings well and looks good but never for a moment convinces us as Diana.  Roe Hartrampf as Prince Charles is hamstrung with a character written as just an ineffectual, petulant clown and Erin Davie does what she can with a role that portrays Camilla Parker-Bowles as a two dimensional scheming bitch.

Judy Kaye plays Queen Elizabeth II like a cross between Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell and the Queen of Hearts in ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’.  She also doubles pointlessly as a cartoonish Barbara Cartland.  There is some fine singing from the chorus but the choreography generally looks like movement just for the sake of it.

Premiering a new stage musical on a streaming service prior to its Broadway opening is an interesting and innovative approach.  Will this strategy create a ready-made and critic-proof audience for the show on stage?  Only time will tell.

Len Power's reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 in the ‘Arts Cafe’, ‘Arts About’ and ‘Arts Starter’ programs and published in his blog 'Just Power Writing' at