‘Faster’. The Australian Ballet … again

15 April 2017, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

It was a treat to see Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory for a second time. This time I had the pleasure of seeing Vivienne Wong and Kevin Jackson dancing major parts, along with Jill Ogai and Jake Mangakahia, all of whom used their technical expertise to enhance Harbour’s choreography.

I was once again transfixed by the seamless quality of the collaboration and I enjoyed in particular watching the changing coloured light that played over Kelvin Ho’s design—it gently moved from russet-orange to silver to blue—which I hadn’t noticed to the same extent on my first viewing.

This time I was also fascinated by the tiny choreographic details that Harbour used throughout—the changing relationship between the wrist and hand, for example. The wrist demanded that the hand sometimes stretch, sometimes drop, sometimes lift. Every part of the body had a defined role to play in Squander and Glory. What can the body do? Every part of the body is significant.

I hope Squander and Glory remains in the repertoire. It is a work that will continue to reveal, I feel sure, more moments to delight the eye with every new viewing.

Looking at Wayne McGregor’s Infra for the second time I admired the dancing of Cristiano Martino, especially in a solo section where his very fluid body was quite mesmerising, and Dimity Azoury’s work in the final pas de deux (and apologies to her equally admirable partner as I am not sure who he was).

Michelle Potter, 19 April, 2017

Featured image: Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Squander and Glory. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Brett Chynoweth, Vivenne Wong and Kevin Jackson in 'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

‘Faster’. The Australian Ballet

10 April 2017, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The Australian Ballet’s latest program of three contemporary ballets is, artistically speaking, a very mixed bill. It certainly shows off the physical skills of company dancers, but choreographically it has its highs and lows.

The program opened with Faster, a work by British choreographer David Bintley, which he made initially for the London 2012 Olympic Games. It may have been an interesting work for that occasion, but I just can’t understand why it was thought worthy of reviving for repertoire. Although dancers have physical skills that are certainly athletic, in my book dancers are artists not athletes. There was nothing in the Bintley work that allowed the dancers to show their artistry. They seemed to run around the stage a lot, occasionally with a jump here, or a twist there. They pretended they were fencing, shooting a ball through a hoop, engaging in high jumps and other aerial sports, and so on. Sometimes they feigned injury, or despair, or something. But really I would rather watch professional athletes engaging in sporting activities rather than dancers pretending. Faster was a very lightweight work and not my idea of what I want to see from the Australian Ballet (or any ballet company for that matter).

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Faster, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The highlight of the evening was Tim Harbour’s fabulous new work, Squander and Glory. Choreographically it explores not so much how the body moves through space—although that happens—but how the body can fill the space around it. Sometimes there were some quite beautiful classical lines to observe, along with large groups of bodies gathered close together and moving across the stage. But at other times that classical look and ordered arrangement collapsed and we could see something more akin to a heap of bodies making shapes, lines and swirls of infinite and fascinating variety. (And I’m using ‘heap’ here in a positive sense rather than suggesting it was a mess).

But not only was Squander and Glory thrilling, and surprising, to watch from a choreographic point of view, it was also a wonderful example a how the collaborative elements can add so much to the overall feel and look of a work. I have long admired Benjamin Cisterne’s powerful and courageous vision for what lighting can contribute to a work, and that vision was absolutely evident in Squander and Glory. His use of a mirrored cloth in the work doubled our view of the number of dancers appearing on stage, and allowed us to see the choreography from two different angles. It brought an extra layer of excitement to the work, and I was amazed and delighted that those mirror images didn’t detract from the work, as so often happens when film clips or projections of some kind are introduced into a dance piece.

Then there was Kelvin Ho’s towering structure in the background, which reminded me of part of a Frank Gehry building, or a cone-like sculpture similar to those made by Australian sculptor Bert Flugelman. But it also had a kind of  mystery associated with it. Logically it had to be a projection but its presence was so powerful, without dominating the choreography or Cisterne’s design, that I had to wonder where it was physically located. It was a brilliant addition to a seamlessly beautiful collaboration, which to my mind was enhanced by the relentless sound of Michael Gordon’s score, Weather One.

'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Squander and Glory, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The program closed with Wayne McGregor’s 2008 work, Infra. I am a McGregor fan for sure, but I found Infra underwhelming after Squander and Glory. The work emerged from McGregor’s thoughts about human intimacy and its varied manifestations. But the expression of these ideas seemed dry and even sterile after the lusciousness and heart-stopping excitement of Squander and Glory. Set design by Julian Opie was a parade of faceless people, drawn as black outlines, hurrying across an LED screen above the stage. But it simply added to that feeling of sterility. Even Lucy Carter’s lighting, which has in the past been absolutely amazing (most recently in Woolf Works), didn’t excite.

Bouquets to the team who created Squander and Glory. It was a truly remarkable new work and certainly made my night at the ballet worthwhile. I look forward to a second viewing.

Michelle Potter,  14 April 2017

Featured image: Brett Chynoweth, Vivienne Wong and Kevin Jackson in Squander and Glory. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Brett Chynoweth, Vivenne Wong and Kevin Jackson in 'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Scene from Rachel Arianne Ogle's 'Of Dust'. Sydney Dance Company's New Breed season, 2016. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Dance diary. March 2017

  • Australia Council dance news

During March the Australia Council announced the results of grant awards for international residences. I was especially interested to note that West Australian choreographer, Rachel Arianne Ogle, is the recipient of a residency at the Cité internationale des arts in Paris. I admired her work Of Dust at Sydney Dance Company’s 2016 New Breed season. In Paris she will work on creating a series of short solo works that will be the foundation for a new full-length work. I look forward to seeing the outcome of this residency.

Other dance awardees include Anna Seymour, born profoundly deaf, who will spend time in New York at the Omni International Arts Centre; Matt Shilcock from Adelaide who will work with Helsinki dance companies; and Melbourne-based Natalie Abbott who will also work in Helsinki.

  • The search for identity. Australian dance in the 1950s

At the recent BOLD Festival in Canberra I delivered a paper entitled The search for identity. Australian dance in the 1950s. Among the several works I looked at was Terra Australis, made for the Borovansky Ballet in 1946, which I considered as a forerunner to the many works on Australian themes that were choreographed in the 1950s. Looking at Terra Australis now, it stands as quite a remarkable production for its time. I was able to play, as part of my presentation, an excerpt from a radio interview with librettist Tom Rothfield, and some footage from both the 1946 production and the restaging in 1947 when the work had new designs.

Martin Rubinstein, Peggy Sager and Vassilie Trunoff in 'Terra Australis'. Borovansky Ballet, 1946.

Martin Rubinstein, Peggy Sager and Vassilie Trunoff in Terra Australis. Borovansky Ballet, 1946.

What especially stood out in the Rothfield interview was the fact that he made it very clear that he and Borovansky had focused on the the fate of the Indigenous population at the time of white settlement. In fact, he spoke strongly of the fact that he and Edouard Borovansky, who was choreographer of the work, hoped to provoke the audience into understanding what he referred to as the ‘true story’ of the arrival of Europeans. Very provocative for the 1940s.

In my research for that paper I also uncovered some interesting material relating to Camille Gheysens, a Belgian-born composer who made his home in Australia and who composed several pieces of music for Gertrud Bodenwieser, including her 1954 work Aboriginal Spear Dance. Gheysens’ patronage of Bodenwieser was significant, although perhaps not without its problems. Bodenwieser dancer, Anita Ardell, in her 2004 oral history interview for the National Library, remarked:

‘I don’t think that Madame really loved his music. Werner Baer certainly didn’t, and he was the musical director of the ABC at the time. But Madame was a very practical person. If this man were going to provide costumes and venues for her choreography, then so be it.’

Camille Gheysens composing, 1950s (?)

Camille Gheysens composing, 1950s (?)

The research period was certainly a thought-provoking time and I hope eventually to be able to post the paper on this site.

  • Trisha Brown (1936–2017)

I was saddened to receive the news of the death of American choreographer Trisha Brown, a most remarkable pioneer of postmodern dance. Alastair Macaulay’s obituary for The New York Times is at this link and there are many tributes to be found on the Trisha Brown Dance Company website.

My opinion of Brown’s works comes from seeing her company not in New York or anywhere in America, but from performances I have seen in London and Paris. In particular I still remember with huge pleasure a set of dances the company performed at London’s Tate Modern several years ago—my review is at this link. I also had the pleasure of seeing Glacial Decoy danced by Paris Opera Ballet and, just recently, I was reminded of this particular work when some brief footage from it, along with Rauschenberg’s photographs that slid across the back screen throughout the work, were shown in the Tate’s recent Robert Rauschenberg retrospective. Vale Trisha Brown. The small amount of her work that I saw gave me much pleasure.

Trisha Brown. Photo: © Marc Ginot

Trisha Brown. Photo: © Marc Ginot. Media Gallery, Trisha Brown Dance Company.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2017

Featured image: Scene from Rachel Arianne Ogle’s Of Dust. Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed season, 2016. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Scene from Rachel Arianne Ogle's 'Of Dust'. Sydney Dance Company's New Breed season, 2016. Photo: © Pedro Greig

The three 'Ghost Figures' from 'Ghost Dances'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

‘RAW’. A triple bill from Queensland Ballet

17 March 2017, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

One of the most refreshing aspects of Queensland Ballet’s current vision is contained in its repertoire. If Li Cunxin can’t always give us a live musical accompaniment, as was the case with the RAW program, he will always present us, especially in a triple bill, with a program that is provocative or filled with choreography that demands attention in some way.

RAW began with Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, a work made in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of World War I. It was created on English National Ballet and my review of ENB’s production is at this link. The work was very nicely staged on Queensland Ballet by Yohei Sasaki, ENB’s repetiteur. It is a beautifully conceived, designed, lit, and choreographed work, and all the best qualities I recall from my previous experience had transferred well to Queensland Ballet.

This time, with the benefit of having seen the work already, I particularly noticed the group sections from both men and women. I was especially admiring of the swirling, breathtaking lifts, often with airborne elements, during a pas de six between three of the women and their partners; the subsequent pas de deux each of the pairs then executed; and the subtle and moving way the women parted from their men at the end of each pas de deux.

Victor Estevez and Mia Heathcote in 'No Man's Land'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Victor Estevez and Mia Heathcote in a pas de deux from No Man’s Land. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

There was also more emotion than I remembered from the previous occasion in the way the women sat, at times, on the raised area of the set as the men engaged in war activities on the lower space. It was the remarkable Mia Heathcote who drew my attention to this quietly dramatic aspect of the work. There she sat, scrunched over, feeling the pain throughout her body, and making me feel the pain as well.

If No Man’s Land opened the program with a flourish, Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances closed it with equal strength. It probably has extra resonance for those of a certain age who recall the once ubiquitous sound of the haunting music of the Andes, and Chile in particular, played by Inti-Illimani. Ghost Dances, made by Bruce originally in 1981, is set to this music. But this is not to detract from the work’s inherent political message concerning the effects of political coups on the population of the country involved, specifically in this case the 1973 coup d’état in which Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile.

Sophie Zoricic and Liam Geck in Ghost Dances. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Bruce’s choreography is somewhat eccentric, although it fits the music beautifully. And, to their credit, the dancers of Queensland Ballet managed with aplomb the tilts and bends of the body and sometimes the head and neck, the upturned feet, and the ever-flowing movement. The three ghost figures wove their way, insidiously, into the popular dancing. Their presence was powerful and meaningful and the exit of the ‘common folk’ at the end, leaving the ghost figures alone on stage, was stark but expected.

In between these two moving and powerful works was Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto, which Horsman has been working on in stages over a number of years. There were some outstanding technical fireworks, especially in the third movement with very fast chaîné turns from all involved, and some spectacular jumps as well. But the opening movement reminded me rather too much of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room as the dancers disappeared into upstage fog, and I longed for more fluidity in the choreography.

Yanela Pinera in 'Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: David Kelly

Yanela Piñera in Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2017

Featured image: The three ‘Ghost Figures’ from Ghost Dances, Queensland Ballet. Photo: © David Kelly

Anca Frankenhaeuser in 'Toccata', BOLD Festival. National Portrait Gallery, 2017

BOLD dances. National Portrait Gallery

10 March 2017, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Canberra’s first BOLD Festival, a varied program of dance events over the period 8–12 March 2017, offered a wide-ranging series of activities. Those activities included performances in a variety of styles, as well as talks and discussions on a variety of topics. Dancers showed a range of skill sets and artists came from across the country. The Festival culminated with a performance, To boldly go…, featuring, again, a wide variety of artists.

For me, however, the surprise highlight was a selection of dances performed at the National Portrait Gallery on 10 March. I guess I am constantly fascinated by what dance looks like in the space of Gordon Darling Hall, which is really the entrance lobby for the Portrait Gallery. I love watching how choreographers make their work fit into this space.

The performances began in the afternoon and, as has been the custom at the National Portrait Gallery, there were three short sessions of a program that consisted of two works. Each short session began with Kym King’s Time, danced by Judy Leech and Rosemary Simons, and concluded with a solo by Katrina Rank, My Body is an Etching 2. Neither was choreographically complex but both had emphasis on small details, which were a pleasure to watch in the intimate space available. I especially enjoyed Rank’s solo, which concerned the notion that a dancer’s body is marked by the individual movements that, across time, have affected that body in some way. As Rank remarked in her program notes, those marks consist of ‘intersecting grooves, gouges, grazes and feather like marks’. To add a visible emphasis to her thoughts, Rank had added a subtle yet clear representation of those etched marks onto parts of her body—down her legs, along her arms and extending up the side of her neck.

Katrina Rank in My Body is an Etching 2. BOLD Festival, 2017. National Portrait Gallery

An early evening session was a set of five works. Tammi Gissell reprised a section from Magnificus, magnificus, a work concerning the red-tailed black cockatoo and choreographed by Gissell herself with directorial input from Liz Lea. Gissell is a strong dancer and her performances are always remarkably emotion-filled. The background to Magnificus, magnifcus, which was made in 2013, is discussed at this link.

In an earlier session at the National Film and Sound Archive that morning, Gissell had talked about the fact that she had been advised by her grandmother not to mess with the black cockatoo and, as she turned her back on the audience, not only did the strip of red in her costume remind us of the black cockatoo’s flaming red tail, but her tensed hands reminded us of the warning. Then, as she stalked off I thought what a wonderful Carabosse she would make!

Tammi Gissell in an excerpt from 'Magnificus, magnificus'. Canberra, 2017
Tammi Gissell in an excerpt from 'Magnificus, magnificus'. Canberra, 2017

Tammi Gissell in an extract from Magnificus, magnificus. BOLD Festival, 2017. National Portrait Gallery

The Magnificus, magnificus extract was preceded by Plastic Time, a work choreographed by Peng Hsiao-yin, artistic director of the Taiwanese dance company Danceology, and danced by Peng and three of her performers. It was amusing to watch the dancers producing, time and time again, plastic bags and other such items from surprising places—and sometimes using them in surprising ways. One dancer looked as though he was using a long strip of plastic as dental floss, for example. But at the same time, Plastic Time made a pertinent political statement about the pollution of our environment.

Then followed three short pieces from Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer. I especially enjoyed Viola Duet in which Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer danced together and yet stayed apart. Their connection with each other, achieved through eye contact, glances towards each other, and changing facial expressions, was remarkable and exceptionally moving.

Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer in Viola Duet. BOLD Festival, 2017. National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery showing was a personal favourite. I am sure others would have their own favourites from BOLD, which was the brainchild of independent artist, Liz Lea. I am amazed at what was accomplished over those five days, given that NO external funding was forthcoming for the Festival.

Michelle Potter, 17 March 2017

Featured image: Anca Frankenhaeuser in Toccata. BOLD Festival, 2017. National Portrait Gallery

Anca Frankenhaeuser in 'Toccata', BOLD Festival. National Portrait Gallery, 2017

All photos: Michelle Potter