Artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Murphy. The Australian Ballet

16 March 2018. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

This program was a retrospective of works by Graeme Murphy and was in celebration of his long association with the Australian Ballet. The evening began with a brief film clip of Murphy talking about those moments for a choreographer, and by extension for a dancer and for the audience, when a transformation occurs, when a choreographer is able to draw out from a dancer a quality that is artistry at the highest level. The brief interview (a monologue really) was a deeply personal reflection from Murphy and showed his humanity, his humility, his own artistry, and his respect for dance and those who engage with it.

The program that followed was a fine opportunity to ponder on what is distinctive about Murphy’s choreography. It consisted of excerpts from several of Murphy’s works, largely made originally for Sydney Dance Company, and a performance of Murphy’s Firebird, made for the Australian Ballet in 2009. Although Firebird has never been a favourite of mine—somehow it reminds me of a weird cult activity—it was distinguished on this occasion by an exceptional performance from Lana Jones in the title role. Her immersion in the role was complete and her first entrance was stunningly controlled, and believe me the choreographic requirements of that entrance are demanding.

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in ‘Firebird.’ The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Firebird. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

But what emerged as the evening progressed was the diversity of Murphy’s output. His works have humour, but are also often clearly serious in emotional impact; they occasionally cross cultural boundaries; they are always closely connected to music, and his musical choices are themselves diverse; they can be classical in their dance vocabulary, or not so classical as the work demands; they are sometimes narrative-based, at other times quite abstract. Never a dull moment!

What was also fascinating was being able to see some of Murphy’s signature choreographic phrases and groupings across the course of the evening. What stood out for me was the way he uses small groups of dancers, often four, and has them work together as one. Bodies are thrown, swirled, turned upside down, but always engage in a smooth and lyrical manner.

In terms of the works presented, the highlight for me was Grand, the work he made in 2005 in honour of his mother, a pianist. A grand piano onstage was played by Scott Davie (as it was in 2005) and we were treated to several excerpts from this wonderful, funny, emotional work that was strongly musically oriented in so many ways—’sweeping in conception, intimate in detail and constantly surprising in choreographic invention’ I wrote in 2005. It made me long to see the full work again, but it was a treat to see as many sections as we did. They included the delightfully funny Chopsticks section and the Gershwin number, one of those remarkable uses of four dancers who seem to dance as one whatever impossible moves they are asked to make.

Valerie Tereshchenko and artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Valerie Tereshchenko and artists of the Australian Ballet in Grand, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The big disappointment of the evening was Shéhérazade, that exquisite short work for two men and two women made by Murphy in 1979. It was performed without the luscious, blue silk tent/canopy with its gold decorative elements, which was such an intrinsic part of Kristian Fredrikson’s designs for the work. Without it most of the mysterious and erotic quality of earlier performances was lost, as was the allusion to the art of Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, and the over-ridingly blue and gold colour scheme that Fredrikson imagined (and achieved). Those hanging strips of what looked like tinsel at times were quite out of place. Just before the work’s opening in 1979 Murphy told a journalist: ‘One of the fascinating aspects of this work will be the design inserted into the dancing. In a sense the dancers will be wearing the set.’ Not this time!

Having said that, however, the standout performance of the entire evening came from Lana Jones as the second of the female dancers in Shéhérazade. Jones’ technique was impeccable. But it was her beautiful attention to choreographic detail that grabbed my attention. Those moments when she moved her wrists in little twisting circles, while holding her hands and arms close to her slightly curved body were breathtaking, as was the way she moved her neck and chest at times. And how spectacular she looked in those iconic poses for all four dancers, which mark certain stages of the work.

The evening belonged to Graeme Murphy and I salute him for all those works that have thrilled us over the years. But bouquets to Lana Jones for two standout performances during the evening. She had it all, and I thought she was dancing not just choreography but Murphy’s choreography.

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2018

Featured image: artists of the Australian Ballet in Grand, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

Giselle. English National Ballet

1 March 2018, Aotea Centre, Auckland
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Aforethoughts and Afterthoughts.

English National Ballet’s season of Giselle, in an acclaimed new production choreographed by Akram Khan, has just played at the Auckland Arts Festival. The setting has migrant workers stranded after a clothing factory closes down, and the clash between workers and factory bosses echoes the contrast of villagers and nobles in the 19th century ballet by Coralli and Perrot. Dancing is of the highest standard, the set is monumental, costumes inspired, lighting striking and the atmospheric music composed by Vincenzo Lamagna, scored and conducted by Gavin Sutherland, performed by Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra, makes major impact.

Many of us are thrilled by the contemporary relevance of this setting (Khan is Bangla Deshi. He works in the sophisticated milieu of European dance yet does not resort to any conventions and clichés of ballet). The gesture of Giselle’s arms down-stretched, hands slowly, so slowly, turning palms up as she asks Albrecht ‘Why? What is this about? What am I supposed to do? What are you going to do?’ The cast of co-workers repeat her gesture, as well they might. More Asian than European, more baroque than balletic, it is a telling opening to the story about to enfold.

Others are continuing to think about the echoes of the original storyline, the music, the choreography. There are about four fleeting fragments of ‘the old Giselle’ in the ‘new’ one, and they pull at your heart. Good. The ballet is engaging. No one is unmoved, no one denies the power of the production.

Fernanda Oliveira and Fernando Bufala in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Fernanda Oliveira and Fernando Bufala in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act I. English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

In 2016, Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the company, and herself still a performer in the lead role, commissioned this new version of the classic Giselle from Akram Khan, following a one-act work he had earlier made for the company. We have seen some of Khan’s work performed here by Sylvie Guillem several Festivals ago, and there are trailers aplenty on YouTube to give you the strength of his dance-making. It is poignant to learn that just after the Khan premiere season in London, there followed another season of the production by Mary Skeaping of the original ballet. Now that’s imaginative programming.

This is the first ever visit to New Zealand of English National Ballet, formerly known as Festival Ballet. A number of celebrated New Zealand dancers have been members of the company over decades—Russell Kerr, June Greenhalgh-Kerr, Anne Rowse, Ken Sudell, Donald McAlpine, Loma Rogers, Sue Burch, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them. The company was for a time directed by Matz Skoog, former artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, with Fiona Tonkin as assistant. Amber Hunt, New Zealand dancer, is currently in the company’s ranks.

Rosemary (Johnston) Buchanan, a leading dancer with New Zealand Ballet in 1960s, is now a patron of the company, and her artistic opinions are valued by ENB. It is poignant to witness the camaraderie and loyalty this company maintains for its heritage and history. The program essays are as good as you’ll find anywhere. It is reassuring that archivist Jane Pritchard writes about original and earlier versions of the ballet in a way that they do not need to be put down for new versions to be put up. In 1959, I slept three nights in the queue in His Majesty’s Arcade to buy a ticket in the Gods to see the Royal Ballet with Margot Fonteyn performing Giselle. The theatre and the arcade have since disappeared but the memory remains. Mindful of the achievements in that title role of such dancers as Margot Fonteyn, Patricia Rianne, Olga Spessivtseva, Carla Fracci, that ballet is not something I’m going to let go lightly. Fortunately, I don’t have to.

Old productions. New productions. There’s room for all. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Giselle (by the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre) was staged in Wellington several Festivals back—with Albrecht as a two-timing transgender line-dance teacher. (Well, you know the Irish). This man, whose Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring were staged in Melbourne in 2013 (the music played on two grand pianos on stage), is the fearless mover & shaker you won’t want to miss—though you might need a medicinal whisky, before the show and maybe after as well. He is arguably the best communicator about his choreography I have encountered, and he writes his own program essays. Stand by for his Swan Lake Loch na Neal due in the Wellington Festival mid-March. If you don’t like heat, stay out of the kitchen, but no one should write a feeble-minded review of his work.

There’s always much evidence of the well-to-do among ballet audiences, though we would of course claim that you and I are there for the right reasons. Everyone wishes for fairness in the workplace. There’s always been,and will always be uneven distribution of wealth in the world, no choreography will change that. We should think long and hard about this production of Giselle we have just seen, and maybe also about the time we first encountered it. Ask if any garment in your wardrobe was made in Bangla Desh, or in a sweat factory somewhere else?  Also ask ‘Do all ballet companies, worldwide and close to home, treat their dancers fairly?’ since that would be a good place to start, if this remarkable production with its ethos is to be honoured.

Jennifer Shennan, 9 March 2018

Featured image: English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle., Act II. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

Follow this link for a review of Akram Khan’s Giselle posted in 2016.

Liz Lea in the 'showgirl' sequence from RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

RED. Liz Lea Productions

8 March 2018, QL2 Theatre, Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra

What follows is a slightly expanded version of my review for The Canberra Times of Liz Lea’s RED. A link to the online version of The Canberra Times‘ review is at the end of this post. The print version will appear next week.

The pre-show media for Liz Lea’s new work RED prepared us to expect something a little extraordinary, something a bit bawdy, something with adult themes, something fierce and fractious, perhaps something that was even a bit funny, but definitely something confronting. And yes, it was all of those things. But nothing, nothing at all, prepared us for the emotional power that coursed through RED, and for the brilliantly coherent manner in which the show drew its diverse sections together. And nothing prepared us for the courage and dignity with which Lea put her life before us, her life as a dancer who has battled endometriosis throughout her career.

RED was a multi-media experience. It began with a film clip of a young girl crossing a white bridge; the sound of a counter tenor singing that exquisitely melancholic aria ‘What is life to me without thee’ from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice; and a voice over that began with the words ‘She thought she could have it all.’ That voice returned throughout the work. It was a doctor explaining the nature of the illness from which Lea suffered, and the procedures that she had to endure. I am told that the voice of the doctor was that of Brian Lucas, the dramaturg and Lea’s mentor for the production. Film clips from cinematographer Nino Tamburri also returned from time to time, and Lea talked about her career. Her conversation focused largely on how she managed her condition, but also went right back to her experiences as a thirteen year old dancer. Of course she also danced throughout the hour-long show.

The dancing segments were fast and forceful at times, full of theatrical extravaganza at others. It was easy to see in the choreography, from three choreographers (Vicki van Hout, Virginia Ferris and Martin del Amo) in addition to Lea, the styles with which Lea is most familiar—hints of Indian dance moves, suggestions of martial arts, and a fabulous, stunningly lit showgirl routine, choreographed by Ferris and lit by Karen Norris, with feathers (red of course), fans and sequins. Then there was a ‘codeine nightmare’ when Lea was joined by several older dancers dressed in black (the women mostly with added sparkles to their dresses) who danced with and for her and helped her live out the experience of having to manage excessive pain.

Liz Lea with Greg Barratt and David Turbayne in RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Liz Lea with Greg Barratt and David Turbayne in RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

But it was the ending that reduced me to tears. That incredible Gluck aria returned and Lea, now dressed in a tight, short, black number with high-heeled black patent leather shoes (with red soles), hair pulled back, and looking superbly elegant and glamorous, stood before us. She scarcely moved at first, but slowly her arms began a dance that gathered momentum and seemed to promise a future full of hope. Her limbs stretched this way and that, lyrical, questioning, wondering, and in the very last moment a shower of shiny, red “snowflakes” fell from above. The choreography for this last section was by Martin del Amo. Its simplicity was striking but it was also a breathtaking finale for all that it looked back on, and all that it promised.

Liz Lea in the finale to RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Liz Lea in the finale to RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

RED was a truly remarkable piece of dance theatre with the coherence that only exceptional dramaturgy can achieve. Every aspect of the production was astonishing, but standing out was the power of dance, and the wider multi-media context in which it can and did fit, to transmit a diverse and very human message, and to do so with such emotion and such clarity. As for Lea, how courageous, how remarkable can one artist be? Brava!

Here is the link to the online article in The Canberra Times.

RED: the prequel

RED was launched prior to its opening night performance in one of the courtyards of Gorman Arts Centre. It was a beautiful, clear, not-too-cold night and Gorman was alive. The show was launched by the ACT Minister for the Arts, Gordon Ramsay, and his launch speech was preceded by comments from artistic director of QL2, Ruth Osborne, and Gai Brodtmann, Member for Canberra in the Federal House of Representatives.

We were also treated to a performance by the ‘wuthering’ ladies and gentlemen of Canberra who danced to Kate Bush’s 1970s song Wuthering Heights.

Wuthering Heights community dancers, Canberra 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Wuthering Heights community dancers, Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Also on display in one of the studios of Gorman was a collection of costumes from Liz Lea’s collection covering her productions over the past 20 years, including the costume for her solo work Bluebird. Since its premiere in London in 2005, Lea’s Bluebird has been performed across the world, with its first Australian showing taking place at the Choreographic Centre, Canberra, in 2006.

Costume for Liz Lea's 'Bluebird'. Photo: Michelle Potter

Costume for Liz Lea’s Bluebird. Photo: Michelle Potter

Michelle Potter, 9 March 2018

Featured image: Liz Lea in the ‘showgirl’ sequence from RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Liz Lea in the 'showgirl' sequence from RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Dance diary. Feburary 2018

  • Russell Kerr Lecture

In February I had the pleasure, and honour of presenting the inaugural Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet and the Related Arts in Wellington, New Zealand. I spoke about the life and career of Wellington-born designer Kristian Fredrikson, of whom New Zealanders are rightly proud (as indeed are we Australians).

The lecture was made possible by a fund, recently established by a group of New Zealanders, to honour Russell Kerr, artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet (as it was initially called before receiving its Royal Charter) from 1962 to 1968. Kerr went on to hold many significant positions in the dance world and to choreograph many works for Royal New Zealand Ballet, including acclaimed productions with designs by Fredrikson of Swan Lake (1996), Peter Pan (1999) and A Christmas Carol (2001). The Russell Kerr Lecture will be offered annually for five years and plans are moving ahead for the 2019 lecture, which will be delivered by Dr Ian Lochhead.

The 2018 lecture was preceded by a performance (courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet) of Lark, a short but moving work by Loughlan Prior featuring Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald. Both dancers gave an exceptional performance. Live music was provided by Hamish Robb and Beth Chen from the New Zealand School of Music. Here is what Jennifer Shennan wrote about Lark last year on this website:

Lark, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, of Royal New Zealand Ballet, performed by Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald, proved a masterwork. There’s little surprise in that since Prior has already earned considerable choreographic kudos. 78 year-old Trimmer’s presence on stage, before he even moves a muscles, reeks with the authenticity of a performer who deeply knows how dance works. Fitzgerald moves with a calm clarity that makes virtuosity seem effortless, and his elevation is something to savour. Suffice to say this piece portraying an older dancer as he sifts memories of dances past, alongside a younger dancer’s questing after the kinds of things that will bring meaning to his future performances, had a poignancy to treasure. (Jennifer Shennan)

See this link for a podcast from Radio New Zealand in which presenter Lynn Freeman and I talked about Fredrikson’s career. Unfortunately I have not yet been able to have the spelling of Fredrikson’s name corrected on the RNZ web page.

  • The Piano, Royal New Zealand Ballet

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Piano, with choreography by Jiri Bubenicek, opened late in February in Wellington. Stay tuned for Jennifer Shennan’s review.

(l-r) Hazel Couper, Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in 'The Piano', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

(l-r) Hazel Couper, Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in The Piano, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court. Courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet

  • Press for February 2018

Critics survey 2017. Dance Australia, February/March 2018, pp. 31–32. See this link for a PDF version of my selections.

Featured image: Follow this link for a PDF copy of the lecture handout.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2018

In a flash. Australian Dance Party

18 February 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Have you ever wondered what happens inside (and outside) a film studio? Well Australian Dance Party’s latest show, In a flash, gives a clue. Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, In a flash was made in response to Starstruck, a Gallery exhibition of portraits of Australian film personalities.

Party Leader Alison Plevey assembled four dancers—Adam Deusien, Gabriela Green, Leeke Griffin and Alanna Stenning—to join her for a 25 minute, fast-moving and cleverly thought through piece. The five dancers were joined by photographer Lorna Sim and graphic artist Anna Trundle who, between them, shot and edited live a series of photographs, which were displayed as they were edited on a screen in the performing space.

The piece began in glamorous style, more or less—thongs were the order of the day in the footwear area. The five dancers began outside Gordon Darling Hall and made their way, after peering through the glass panels, inside. Once inside, their dancing was slick and paid homage, music-wise at least, to Strictly Ballroom. Sometimes the early parts of the show had an air of being full-on, over the top Hollywood style. Lots of smiling, lots of make-up, lots of presenting oneself.

Opening number from In a flash. Australian Dance Party 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim edited by Anna Trundle

Early number from In a flash. Australian Dance Party, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim, edited by Anna Trundle

But the glamour quickly gave way to more down to earth matters—behind the scene processes such as preparatory work, working up a curriculum vitae and the like. And costuming became more down to earth too when the glamorous outfits were discarded for rehearsal clothing or regular dance gear.

Adam Deusien, Gabriela Green, Lekke Griffin, Alison Plevey and Alanna Stenning in a scene from In a flash. Photo: Lorna Sim edited by Anna Trundle

(left to right) Adam Deusien, Gabriela Green, Leeke Griffin, Alison Plevey, and Alanna Stenning in a scene from In a flash. Photo: Lorna Sim, edited by Anna Trundle

There was some strong dancing too in the form of solos, duets and company pieces. I especially enjoyed a sequence featuring the tall and statuesque Griffin, who danced with a white sheet of fabric (representing a towel?), tossing it, wrapping it around herself, and using it various other ways. Sometimes when she posed, legs together, body lifted tall and slightly arched back, head held high, she reminded me of swimmer and film star Esther Williams or, more appropriately in the circumstances, the Australian swimmer and also a star performer, Annette Kellerman.

As these performances (perhaps they should be called ‘takes’) were proceeding, Lorna Sim was taking photos, with her apparatus linked to a computer. Occasionally the shots from performance were beautifully edited into portrait-style images. Very appropriate given that we were in the National Portrait Gallery.

Portrait of Leeke Griffin. Photo: Lorna Sim, edited by Anna Trundle

Portrait of Leeke Griffin. Photo: Lorna Sim, edited by Anna Trundle

It was only at the end, however, when Sim faced us and said ‘thank you’ that I realised how cleverly put together In a flash had been. Alison Plevey thinks outside the box. She puts together shows that attract attention instantly, but in the end they go beyond that instant gratification. Demanding they are, but that’s what the best dance is like. I came away pondering about whether I was meant to be sitting in the Portrait Gallery, or in a film/television studio with Lorna Sim as the link with the audience.

Michelle Potter, 20 February 2018

Featured image: Opening scene, In a flash, Australian Dance Party, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim, edited by Anna Trundle

Note: For various reasons, this is the first National Portrait Gallery dance commission that I have attended without seeing first the exhibition that was the inspiration for the show. This of course has it drawbacks. But by the same token, it means I came to the show without prejudices. Take it as it is written.