Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in 'The Illustrated Farewell'. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © The Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The Illustrated Farewell, The Wind, Untouchable. The Royal Ballet

6 November 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Two new works and one revival made up the Royal Ballet’s most recent triple bill. The opener, Twyla Tharp’s The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ should perhaps be described as new-ish rather than new, since it also drew on material Tharp had made way back in 1973 in a work called As time goes by. Tharp’s work was by far the most attractive item, in a choreographic sense, on the program.

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae made spectacular, separate entrances, covering the stage with expansive grands jetés and bringing their trademark joyous approach to their dancing. Such a pleasure to see them. They then proceeded to dance the first two parts of Joseph Haydn’s 45th (so-called  ‘Farewell’) symphony, scarcely stopping throughout the two movements to catch their breath. They were perfectly matched as partners, executing Tharp’s twisting, turning, demanding movements and making the most of her playful approach at times. A swirl of ballroom steps and even a high-five appeared amongst the more classical moves. It was a virtuoso performance.

Lamb and McRae were a hard act to follow but Mayara Magri held the stage In a solo before the music for the third movement began. Hers was a remarkable display of dancing that showed off both Tharp’s expansive yet intricate choreography and Magri’s strong technical skills. Then, as the music began, Magri was joined by a corps of dancers, who seemed to appear from nowhere. Both this third movement and the fourth were filled with intricate groupings of dancers sometimes dancing in unison but mostly working separately from each other so the overall patterning looked scattered.

Mayara Magri in The Illustrated Farewell. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © ROH. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Mayara Magri in The Illustrated ‘Farewell’. © 2017 ROH. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The work finished beautifully with Lamb and McRae appearing unexpectedly upstage on a raised black platform against a black background. They kneeled in a kind of homage and then disappeared into the black, while below Joseph Sissens, in white trunks and long-sleeved white shirt, melted to the ground in a poignant farewell.

Arthur Pita’s work The Wind, danced to a commissioned score by Frank Moon, followed as the middle piece. Based on a story by Dorothy Scarborough written in 1925, which was subsequently made into a silent movie, the ballet follows events in the life of a young woman from Virginia, Letty Mason, who arrives in Texas in the 1880s and is tormented in mind, body and soul by the wind and the bleakness of the landscape. The story is complex and includes, on an obvious narrative level, marriage, rape, and eventual revenge by Mason. But The Wind suffers from Pita’s condensing of the story and his efforts to include a dimension beyond the obvious. To achieve this latter he introduces two characters, Cynthia (Wild Woman) danced by Elizabeth McGorian, and Mawarra (the Lost) danced by Edward Watson, who appear to represent Mason’s mental state.

In all this Pita leaves little time for including much dancing. In the role of Letty Mason, Natalia Osipova makes a sterling attempt to develop the role but she is given far too little dancing in which to do it. And so it is with the other leading characters—Thiago Soares as the cowpuncher Lige Hightower, who marries Mason; and Thomas Whitehead as Wirt Roddy, a cattle buyer who rapes her.

Thomas Whitehead as Wirt Roddy & Natalia Osipova as Letty Mason in The Wind. © 2017 ROH. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Then there were those three large wind machines that took up a lot of the performance space and blew air across the stage throughout the ballet. I thought they were obtrusive and promoted the idea of the relentless quality of the wind rather too pointedly. Nor am I sure that we needed to see so much wind being generated by the machines. Having Osipova struggling at one stage to keep her wedding veil from either escaping or engulfing her was a little too much.

There was, however, something fascinating about The Wind. Despite the lack of dancing given to some of the Royal Ballet’s strongest artists, there was something powerful about the way Pita had distilled the story. There was a starkness to the work, although perhaps this came more from Jeremy Herbert’s minimal set (apart from the overpowering presence of the wind machines), and a strong lighting design by Adam Silverman, as much as anything else. It reminded me a little of Agnes de Mille’s work, especially her Fall River Legend, and I suspect that The Wind could be revised to have a similar impact as Fall River Legend.

The evening closed with Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable, a work concerning ‘moving with the herd’ first seen in 2015. There was a lot of militaristic moving around in groups with the occasional breakout by a few dancers to form separate groups. Occasionally I had the feeling that the movement was referencing a folk idiom. The best part was probably the atmospheric lighting by Lee Curran.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Untouchable'. 2017 © Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Untouchable. © 2017 ROH Photo: Tristram Kenton

Michelle Potter, 10 November 2017

Featured image: Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in The Illustrated ‘Farewell’. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © The Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in 'The Illustrated Farewell'. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © The Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Shadow Aspect program

Shadow Aspect. Ballet Cymru

5 November 2017, Lilian Baylis Studio, London

There was much that was abrupt in Tim Podesta’s Shadow Aspect, which featured guest artist Mara Galeazzi and dancers of the Welsh company, Ballet Cymru. The lighting came on and off abruptly, for example, and the music changed abruptly from loud and powerful to more gentle when the music was punctuated by a singing voice. Moreover, the choreography was not what one might called softly fluid—it too often had a sharp edge, an abruptness, and sometimes a static quality to it.

Having said that there was a lot to challenge the eye in Podesta’s choreography. I enjoyed the lifts where bodies were thrown across and around each other, the unusual gestures of the hands and arms, and the feeling that at times bodies were collapsing in on themselves. It reminded me a little of William Forsythe’s comments that he was interested in researching what the body can do, although the outcome in Podesta’s case was quite unlike Forsythe. Podesta rarely pushed the body off its central (classical) axis, as Forsythe was prone to do, hence the static feeling I got. Nevertheless, the dancers of Ballet Cymru executed Podesta’s challenging moves with strength and determination.

Podesta has explained in various places what was behind the work, and why it had the title Shadow Aspect. He quotes Carl Jung who said: ‘To know yourself, you must accept your dark side. To deal with others’ dark sides, you must also know your dark side.’

The shadow of the title is the dark side and elsewhere Podesta says that the work has a definite narrative and suggests that the narrative is quite clear, although open to interpretation. I didn’t have time to work out what the narrative was. The choreography was so busy being different that it was enough to take it in without worrying about a narrative. Less focus on being different would perhaps have made the narrative, whatever it was, clearer. Perhaps a dramaturg would be in order?

As for Mara Galeazzi, I have admired her dancing since I first saw her in Winter Dreams with the Royal Ballet in 2010, and I was highly impressed with her performance as Clarissa in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works in its 2017 staging. But, while she danced with her usual technical skill the choreography as set for her in Shadow Aspect, how I longed to see her in a work in which the choreography had more warmth to it.

Michelle Potter, 6 November 2017

Featured image: Program for Shadow Aspect

Shadow Aspect program

Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in 'Lobsters', 2017. Photo: Philip Merry

Lobsters again, again. Borderline Arts Ensemble

4 November, Circa Theatre, Wellington

What a lucky stroke that this little show Lobsters ran for a fortnight season at Circa Theatre (most dance seasons here span two or three days, some are even oncers). That gave us a chance to return for several repeat viewings, and there were fresh revelations on each occasion. A late-appearing review in the local daily, in the 2nd week of the season, was nonetheless unstinting in its praise, which of course lifted telephones all over town and eventually gave this intrepid little troupe the sold-out end to the season they deserved. Good…but never underestimate the power, and therefore the ethics, of the timing of a dance review. (Other early reviews had appeared but were more about the writer than the show).

I see more clearly now what has proved so satisfying about this brilliant little, crazy little work. I say ‘little’ because there’s a cast of five, musos included. The show lasts 75 mins, and the venue is intimate. The more miraculous that the dancing is full and generous, fast and slow and still, requiring total torso and limbs all the way through. The three dancers work to the very edges of the stage. You feel the draught as they race by. You can see every hip tilt, shoulder blade, neck curve and ankle stretch, every toe and finger tip (these are verbs not nouns) and there’s not a falter to be found. It’s high dance classicism in disguise, with a drizzle of cabaret jus and very naughty it is too. After numerous extraordinary encounters with surrealism, the girl and the guy eventually make it. That’s a lovely way to let us out into the evening air.

It seems to me that many choreographic ventures over the last five years, maybe more, have shown a trend of apologising as regards dance vocabulary—born, I suppose, of a desire to eschew existing conventions and to seek novelty. Effectively that results in a fractured, often arhythmic, set of hesitant gestures that question meaning and express doubt, offering relativity of position rather than allowing certainty or clarity, resolution, commitment. Such semaphore-like movement of arms and hands effectively asks questions but does not want answers. Don’t get me wrong. I ask questions all the time and many of them are rhetorical… as in ‘Do you love me?’ [not that I actually ask that one of course]. The price we pay for this contemporary post-modern sensibility and fix on innovation is the absence of line and vitality in dancing, and of synopsis or resolution in choreography.

It’s also frequent practice nowadays for a choreographer to give tasks to dancers in workshop fashion, to ‘ask them questions’, and take their resulting ‘answers’, shaping them this way and that into what is then identified as ‘choreography’. This was of course the choreographic practice of Pina Bausch. She was pure choreographic genius of theatre and her instincts caught life on the wing. Imitation of her, or any other art practice, will ever be only that, and worth not a lot, despite that we are surrounded by it, and very well funded it often is too. ‘Creativity in the moment of choreographic collaboration’ sounds like hogwash to me. I prefer Yeats, see below.

Dynamics of light and shade in the fully committed dancing body that is not fearful of itself seem like a rare treat nowadays. Douglas Wright always offered that in spades, but he doesn’t choreograph any more. Lobsters has caught it, thank goodness.

So an accolade please, to Lucy Marinkovich, for choreographing a stunning and super little show that scores top marks on every front. You can tell, come the curtain call, how much they have all enjoyed performing, but there’s no such distracting evidence allowed during the actual performance, with the intense concentration and stylized espression required of each. We laugh a lot but they don’t—until the curtain call.

The music is superbly imagined and delivered, with music and cabaret audiences as well catered for as they might wish. Lucien Johnson has extraordinary talents, including double blowing into his saxophone (Is that normal? Who cares? It works).

Carmel McGlone is Salvador Dali’s lobster, and he would have been struck dumb by her performance.

Lucy will want to share that accolade with dramaturg Miranda Manasiadis who most certainly knows what she is doing. Two years of shared thoughts and preparations between them is how you get a scenario like this. Frequently of late we see ‘dramaturg’ listed in the credits for a dance show but there’s often little evidence of drama in the result, and it really only means another fee for a member of the ‘creative team’. [RNZB’s The Wizard of Oz, and more recent Romeo & Juliet would be two cases in point. It was the beautiful dancers who delivered on those occasions, and we loved them for it, but drama in the production was little in evidence]. So if there’s to be any point in involving a dramaturg, there’s an art involved in a choreographer allowing space for that work.

By repeated viewings of a performance we get a chance to think some more about the lines by W.B Yeats (my favourite) quote:

‘O body swayed to music, o brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?’

… in other words – how do the performance and choreography relate, intertwine? It can often be hard to tell. In RNZB’s recent Romeo & Juliet, the contrasting casts in the lead roles at different performances gave us a chance to see how. Mayu Tanigaito and Kohei Iwamoto at a matinee transformed the choreography from ‘very good’ by their performance into something ‘stratospheric’, but the critical record has been silent on that, and there is no photographic or videoed evidence of it, which some of us find sad, verging on very sad.

Leah McLean of Borderline Publicity is the best dance administrator I’ve encountered since the longest time. Lobsters really is a team effort and every one of them should take a bow, then pack their bags for the numerous festival invitations that are bound to come their way. Keep your eye on the hustings.

Jennifer Shennan, 5 November 2017

Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in 'Lobsters', 2017. Photo: Philip Merry

Featured image: Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in Lobsters, 2017. Photo: © Philip Merry

Featured image:

Final scene, Le baiser de la fee, Birmingham Royal Ballet, 2017

Arcadia, Le baiser de la fée, Still life at the Penguin Café. Birmingham Royal Ballet

4 November 2017, Sadler’s Wells, London

This triple bill from Birmingham Royal Ballet began with Arcadia, a new work from company dancer Ruth Brill, continued with Michael Corder’s take on Le baiser de la fée, and concluded with David Bintley’s Still life at the Penguin Café, a work whose title has intrigued me for years, although this was my first opportunity to see it.

Arcadia told a story about the god Pan, half human, half animal, and his relations with those who share his world, both his fellow supernatural beings and his human subjects. The work opened beautifully thanks to atmospheric lighting by Peter Teigen, which shrouded a semi-crouching Pan in a mysterious haze. There was some nice, if not world-shattering choreography, especially for Pan who was danced by Brandon Lawrence. He leaped and bounded, and stretched his body as he swept his arms in all directions. But had I not read the program notes I would never have guessed that we were meant to be watching Pan in two moods, frustrated at first and then at peace with himself after the intervention of Selene, goddess of the moon. Perhaps the music, a composition by John Harle originally for violin, piano and soprano saxophone and specially orchestrated for this ballet, was partly the problem. While it was jazzy and made great listening, there didn’t seem to be enough variation in musical mood for Pan’s change of mood to be felt. But it was not helped by the fact that choreographically and dramaturgically that mood change didn’t happen. The dancers just danced on as if nothing had happened.

On the other hand, I thought Corder’s Baiser de la fée, danced to the Stravinsky score and based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The ice maiden, was beautifully structured so the story unfolded clearly and strongly, even given the complexities of the storyline. True, it was quite classical in format—it even had a form of grand pas de deux in the second scene when the Young Man (Lachlan Monaghan), whose fate was sealed when he was kissed as a baby by the Fairy (Jenna Roberts), dances with the bride as she prepares for the nuptials. For some that grand pas might make the work a little old-fashioned, but I loved the clarity of the piece and the way it moved inexorably to the finale when the Fairy claims the Young Man. And the designs by John F. Macfarlane were stunning in their decorative elements and in their use of colour to heighten both mood and the nature of the various characters.

I was fascinated by Still life at the Penguin Café. It dates back to 1988 but its theme of issues surrounding endangered species is still as valid as it was back then. Is there still life for some species who today teeter on the brink of extinction, or are they still life as we understand a still life painting? However we may interpret that title (and there is room for both), Still life at the Penguin Café is a remarkable series of sketches, each one referring to a different species at risk, mostly hilarious on the surface, and always delightfully costumed (design by Hayden Griffin). I guess while the issue of endangered species is not to be mocked, there is room, as Bintley has done, to bring it to our attention in a light-hearted, episodic way. Full marks to the dancers who grabbed the opportunity to display their skills with special mention to Edivaldo Souza da Silva as the Southern Cape Zebra, not to mention those delightful penguin waiters.

I am a big fan of triple bill programs. But it is rare to get a triple bill where every work delivers what media releases tell us it will be like. This program wasn’t an example of such rarity but there was a lot to enjoy.

Michelle Potter, 5 November 2017

Featured image: Finale to Le baiser de la fée, Birmingham Royal Ballet. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Final scene, Le baiser de la fee, Birmingham Royal Ballet, 2017

'The Beginning Of Nature.' Australian Dance Theatre. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

Dance diary. October 2017

  • Coming to Canberra in 2018

In October the Canberra Theatre Centre released its ‘Collected Works 2018’. Canberra dance audiences will have the pleasure of seeing Australian Dance Theatre’s The Beginning of Nature, which will open its Australian mainstage season in Canberra on 14 June 2018.

Canberra Theatre Centre’s program also includes a season of AB [Intra] from Sydney Dance Company and Dark Emu from Bangarra Dance Theatre and, as part of the Canberra Theatre’s Indie program, Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson will perform Cockfight. 

Bangarra Dance Theatre. Study for 'Dark Emu'. Photo: Daniel Boud

Bangarra Dance Theatre. Study for Dark Emu. Photo: © Daniel Boud

  • Eileen Kramer making a splash

The irrepressible Eileen Kramer was in Canberra recently. She made a fleeting visit to have a chat with Ken Wyatt, Minister for Aged Care, about funding for a project she is planning for her 103rd birthday in November. Kramer will perform A Buddha’s wife, a work inspired by her visit to India in the 1960s. It will be part of a project (The Now Project) featuring 10 dancers and co-produced by choreographer/film-maker Sue Healey. Read about the project and listen to Kramer and Healey speak briefly about it on the crowd funding page that has been set up to help realise the project.

  • Fellowships, funding news, and further accolades

It was a thrill to see that Australian Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Garry Stewart, is the recipient of a 2017 Churchill Fellowship. Stewart will investigate choreographic centres in various parts of the world including in India, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

Garry Stewart rehearsing 'Monument' 2013. Photo Lynette Wills

Garry Stewart in rehearsal. Photo: © Lynette Wills

Then, artsACT has announced its funding recipients for 2018 and, unlike last year’s very disappointing round, dance gets some strong recognition. Alison Plevey’s Australian Dance Party has been funded to produce a new work Energeia, Canberra Dance Theatre has received funding to create a new piece for its 40th anniversary, Liz Lea has funding also to create a new work, and Emma Strapps has been funded for creative development of a work called Flight/less.

Also in the ACT, Ruth Osborne has been short-listed as the potential ACT Australian of the Year for 2018. Osborne is artistic director of QL2 Dance and has made a major contribution to youth dance in the ACT. She was a 2016 recipient of a Churchill Fellowship and has recently returned from studying youth dance in various countries around the world.

Ruth Osborne, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Ruth Osborne prior to taking up her Churchill Fellowship. Photo: © 2017 Lorna Sim

Then, from Queensland Ballet comes news of some welcome promotions. Lucy Green and Camilo Ramos are now principal artists, and Mia Heathcote has been promoted to soloist.

  • Jean Stewart (1921–2017)

For a much fuller account of the life and work of Jean Stewart than I was able to give see Blazenka Brysha’s story at this link, as well as an interesting comment from her about one of Stewart’s photos of Martin Rubinstein.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2017

Featured image: The Beginning Of Nature, Australian Dance Theatre. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

'The Beginning Of Nature.' Australian Dance Theatre. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions