Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Alegrias'. Photo Sergey Konstantinov

Showcase 2018. The Australian Ballet School

22 September 2018. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

The Australian Ballet School’s annual Showcase came to Canberra this year, and what a treat it was. It is, of course, what it says it is, a showcase of dancing by students of different levels studying at the Australian Ballet School. But it was such an interesting and pleasurable experience to see these students, emerging professional dancers, in a program of eight very different items from seven different choreographers.

Showcase 2018 opened with Alegrias, a feisty flamenco item choreographed by Areti Boyaci, teacher of Spanish dance to Australian Ballet School’s senior students. It was danced by the graduating class (Level 8) to a live accompaniment by guitarist Werner Neumann. Then followed  Mark Annear’s Waltz from Birthday Celebration, danced by youthful, tutu-clad dancers largely from Level 5; the Dryad scene from Don Quixote Act II; a charming new creation, Wolfgang Dance, from Simon Dow, again performed by Level 5 students; Paul Knobloch’s Valetta for the graduating class, which Knobloch choreographed in memory of his grandmother whose name was Valetta; another new creation Ballo Barocco from Stephen Baynes made on Level 7 dancers; Heart Strings, also new, from contemporary teacher Margaret Wilson for Level 6 students; and finally a tango-flavoured item from Simon Dow, Danza de la Vida, for the graduating class.

Two items stood out for me: Ballo Barocco and Heart Strings. Ballo Barocco, danced to four excerpts from different concerti by J. S. Bach, showed Baynes, currently resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet, at his musical best.  The cast of 16 moved smoothly and fluidly from one sculptural pose to another. In between these poses we saw movements in canon form, some spectacular dancing from the men, along with admirable partnering. I loved too the simple, elegant lines of the costumes by Maree Strachan that did not distract from the choreography but, rather, allowed it to shine.

Level 7 dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Stephen Baynes' 'Ballet Barocco'. Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergeyev Konstantinov

Level 7 dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Stephen Baynes’ Ballet Barocco. Showcase 2018. Photo: © Sergey Konstantinov

Margaret Wilson teaches contemporary dance at the Australian Ballet School and I was expecting something rather different from what was presented to us in Heart Strings. With the girls on pointe and clear references to ballet technique, to me the work was contemporary ballet. It was beautifully performed and seemed to focus on limbs—long and extended, lifted and stretched. But what really tore at the heart strings for me was the underlying narrative, which drew on aspects of adolescent life: arguments, bullying, young love and the like. These dancers, adolescents themselves, captured so clearly  the emotion behind these life-moments and just swept us along.

Other highlights? The male dancing in Valetta, which is made for 13 male dancers and just one female artist, was often quite spectacular with its strong patterns and fast pace. The principal male dancer, Thomas McClintock, danced exceptionally well, but in addition had extraordinary stage presence. Someone to watch as he embarks on his professional career. Then it was impossible not to be charmed by the cheekiness of Wolfgang Dance. Performed to the Allegro from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the youngest of the students who toured to Canberra drew us into their games onstage and peeped at us from the wings as they made their exits.

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Valetta', Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergey Konstantinov

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Valetta, Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergey Konstantinov

The one item that left me a little cold was the Dryad scene from Don Quixote.  It was not the dancing that worried me and I especially enjoyed the performance by Ella Chambers as Cupid. But Barry Kay’s costumes are so over decorated, especially those headdresses. I feel it is time to retire them.

Despite the overdressed Dryads, Showcase 2018 gave us a glimpse of a promising future for ballet in Australia.

Michelle Potter, 24 September 2018

Featured image: Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Alegrias. Photo: © Sergey Konstantinov

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Alegrias'. Photo Sergey Konstantinov

Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Crying Men. Black Grace

20 September 2018. Te Rauparaha Stadium, Porirua

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Crying Men broke powerful new ground for Black Grace and director Neil Ieremia in a three-performance season at Te Rauparaha stadium in Porirua.

The opening work, Gone, resulted from a recent workshop conducted with 16 pupils from local schools, Porirua College, Mana College and Aotea College. Its taut atmosphere centred on the theme of sudden disappearance of family and the familiarity of home. The work was accompanied by The Virtuoso Strings, a local young orchestral ensemble (along the lines of  El Sistema) conducted by Liz Sneyd. They played an astonishingly sustained and inventive composition by Craig Utting (tho’ the central string section had over-loud amplification—my impression was it did not need amplification at all).

The second work, E Toa, E Toa, choreographed by Ieremia and by Tuaine Robati, was performed by students from Whitireia Performing Arts. Its beautiful opening image, a circle of female and male dancers, arms intertwined, red hibiscus flowers bright on the dark costumes and bare skin glowing in the light, had a prayer-like quality as the dancers chanted their hope for a better world. It was a focused work from a large cast who moved with compelling energy, and the drum accompaniment was with them every beat of the way.

Both these works made strong atmospheric contribution to the serious theme of the following major work. Gone in particular reminded me of the Urban Youth Movement  workshop projects in South Auckland that were part of Black Grace’s program some time ago.

In Crying Men, a powerful element of theatre was introduced through the script of playwright Victor Roger, centering on the desperation and sorrow of a man unable to break free from the physical violence that has marked his life as husband, father and grandfather. A major work in four scenes, its recorded narration by Nathaniel Lees was poignant but would be wonderful to include as a live component of the work.

Black Grace, 'Crying Men'. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Black Grace, Crying Men. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: © Duncan Cole

Ieremia’s role as the grandfather had pathos, and the early scene of his wife being led away by female aitua (spirits) of death to the afterworld was shocking in its beauty.

A group dance of abstract design, simple in gestures but intricate in the canon and syncopation of its delivery, was a memorable gem that echoed weaving and carving patterns familiar from Pacifica arts.

The tense and violent encounters between three generation of males in one family was the continuing theme of darkness to the dance-play. A shot of humour was allowed in male/female interaction but there was no attempt made to cover up the central issue that remains a challenge in all societies as gender dynamics play out.

It seemed a pity not to employ the very considerable dramatic talents of Sean MacDonald, a foundation member of Black Grace back in 1995—but overall this was a  powerful group performance. If at times sections of the work seemed repetitive or over-long, that I suspect was intended to echo the very point … where is this violence going?  Where does it end?  Not on Mars I think, but right here, in New Zealand, and in the Pacific. In India. How’s Australia doing? Probably every country on Earth has issues that choreography could help to confront. Black Grace is equal to that task.

Jennifer Shennan, 21 September 2018

Featured image: Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: © Duncan Cole

Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Featured image: Scott Elstermann in a moment from a performance by Cunningham Residency dancers. National Gallery of Australia, 2018.

Merce Cunningham Residency. National Gallery of Australia

The National Gallery of Australia, with support from the Embassy of the United States of America, has just finished hosting a dance residency in conjunction with its exhibition American Masters 1940–1980. Three dancers were selected to work with Jamie Scott, a former Cunningham dancer and now one of a number of such dancers charged with staging the Cunningham repertoire.

Cunningham Residency dancers with Jamie Scott (far right?) next to works by Frank Stella and Al Held. National Gallery of Australia, 2018. Photographer not identified. Dance artists not named.

The residency also relates to the centenary of the birth of Cunningham, which occurs next year, 2019.

The first thing to say is the original brief specified that one dancer was to come from the ACT. Well this didn’t happen. I can’t believe that there was not one dancer in the ACT who could have been part of the program in some way. Who knows what might have happened? Merce had courage, took risks, and loved chance. Could not those running the residency have had more courage?

It was a shame too that there seemed to be no way of knowing what exactly the dancers were performing—part of the Cunningham repertoire, but what part(s)? People who watched the performances, but who perhaps came mainly to look at the art on show, may not have cared, but I think the dance community likes to know these things. I certainly do. And who was the musician who accompanied the performances. And what composition was he playing? An announcement, or a cast sheet was needed.

Nevertheless, the three dancers, who had worked with Scott for the time that they did (one week, two, not sure), danced beautifully. It was refreshing to see again the clarity of movement that emerges from the Cunningham technique—the juxtaposition of curves and straight lines, the tilt of bodies, a delicious jump with the leg in a low arabesque that reminded me of Cunningham’s 1958 work Summerspace, the unique partnering where body builds on body, tiny detailed movements of the shoulders or hands or feet, the changing balance of the body, and so on. Aspects of Cunningham technique sometimes look simple, deceptively so, but extraordinary control and strength are needed. The performance, which lasted around 40 minutes (with an abbreviated version performed at an evening event), resonated beautifully against the background of a Sol Le Witt wall drawing, whose apparently simple structure also has a deep, conceptual strength.

It was very disappointing, however, that reference to Cunningham did not appear in the exhibition itself. Why spend what must have been a large amount of money, along with major input from the US Embassy, on a dance residency and then have so little reference to the way in which the artists represented in the exhibition collaborated with Cunningham and his company? Nor, it seems, was there anything in the publication that accompanied the exhibition, apart from a reference to a video made by Nam June Paik with film maker Charles Atlas in 1978. The video, Merce by Merce by Paik, was in fact on show but not in the exhibition. It was on another floor of the Gallery, which I only discovered after asking several people where it was.

This residency was a lost opportunity, and media support was very poor. One expects at least to be given media images that are properly labelled, and to have the performing artists adequately recognised, their work documented, and that information made available to the public.

Michelle Potter, 16 September 2018

Featured image: Scott Elstermann in a moment from a performance by Cunningham Residency dancers. National Gallery of Australia, 2018. Private collection

Featured image: Scott Elstermann in a moment from a performance by Cunningham Residency dancers. National Gallery of Australia, 2018.

 

 

Australian Dance Awards 2018

The 2018 Australian Dance Awards, the 21st since the current format was introduced in 1997, were held in Brisbane on 8 September. Initially they were held annually in Sydney and followed on from the Dancers’ Picnic initiated by Keith Bain to celebrate International Dance Day (29 April). Now they are more inclusive in terms of where they are held with the venue changing each year.

There were some interesting performances during the evening and also a challenging forum, Spring Fling, on the Saturday morning of the awards in which four dance folk—Adrian Burnett, Jana Castillo, Matthew Lawrence and I—discussed, with excellent audience participation, a range of issues associated with the existence (or not) of an Australian ‘style’.

'Elements', Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts, Australian Dance Awards 2018. Photo: Morgan Roberts Photography

Elements, Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts, Australian Dance Awards 2018. Photo: Morgan Roberts Photography

Nominations for 2019 open in December 2018 and close at the end of February 2019. Consider nominating! Check out the procedure via the new website designed as a sponsorship by Designfront.

In the meantime here is a link to the list of winners. Katrina Rank says it all!

Kathrina Rank, Services to Dance 2018

Katrina Rank, Australian Dance Awards, Services to Dance Education, Brisbane 2018. Photo: Lauren Sharman

Michelle Potter, 13 September 2018

Liam Geck as the Jester in ‘Cinderella’ Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo:David Kelly

Cinderella. Queensland Ballet

7 September 2018. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella, which Queensland Ballet performed in its latest season, was first made in 1970, almost 50 years ago. I’m afraid it is showing its age a little. While Queensland Ballet’s dancers go from strength to strength every time I see them, I think they need something more powerful to dance than this Cinderella. Perhaps there is an issue here too in that Alexi Ratmansky’s Cinderella, in which the story has been given a new touch, has had several showings in Australia recently and is due to be seen in Sydney again shortly.

Having had my first professional engagements in pantomime, it was interesting, however, to see the way Stevenson built the Stepsisters (Vito Bernasconi and Camilo Ramos) into the show—outrageous behaviour, over the top costumes, pratfalls everywhere, and of course the roles taken by men. But this kind of acting/dancing belongs to the 1960s (and earlier) when it was a panto tradition. We have moved on a little.

Vito Bernasconi as a Stepsister in Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: David Kelly

Vito Bernasconi as a Stepsister in Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

But on the whole the ballet was nicely danced. Liam Geck as the Jester in the ball scene was outstanding but, again, a jester is such an old-fashioned tradition, this time from Russia. So while his performance was spectacular it was frustrating that there was a jester in there. Why?

All the fairies, Spring (Lina Kim), Summer (Mia Heathcote), Autumn (Neneka Yoshida) and Winter (Georgia Swan), acquitted themselves beautifully, as did Yanela Piñera as Cinderella. Joel Woellner was a very traditional Prince.

Yanela Pinera as Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

Yanela Piñera as Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

This Cinderella is not my favourite ballet. But it did please most of the people in the audience.

Michelle Potter, 12 September 2018

Featured image: Liam Geck as the Jester in Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

Liam Geck as the Jester in ‘Cinderella’ Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo:David Kelly