Toa Paranihi and Connore Masseurs in 'S.U.B.'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Royal New Zealand Ballet at the crossroads?

The appointment of Patricia Barker as artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet has not been without controversy! Jennifer Shennan’s review of the 2017 50th anniversary show from New Zealand School of Dance with Royal New Zealand Ballet, in which she mentioned that no graduates from the School had been accepted into the New Zealand company, sparked a number of very thoughtful comments on this website. Scroll down through this link to read those comments. Discussions offline have been continuing with gusto.

This morning the following article appeared in New Zealand’s Sunday Star Times suggesting that things are moving to a whole new level.

Michelle Potter, 24 December 2017

Featured image: Toa Paranihi and Connor Masseurs in S.U.B. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Toa Paranihi and Connore Masseurs in 'S.U.B.'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

 

James Batchelor in DeepSpace. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Deepspace. James Batchelor & Collaborators

23 December 2017. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

How to write about Deepspace, the work James Batchelor has created as a result of time spent aboard the RV Investigator in the Southern Ocean? To begin with, we were not seated in an auditorium but, in Canberra anyway, we found ourselves being ushered onstage to wander the space and surround the action. Batchelor has used this technique before in Island when, just as an aside, I think it worked better, perhaps because of the smaller audience and the more intimate space of the Courtyard Studio on that occasion? Deepspace is an extremely introspective work with a lot of very fine detail in the movement. Sometimes it was not easy to see the detailed action with 50 or 60 other people crowding to get a closer look. It was also quite tiring standing onstage for around 60 minutes, to the extent that some members of the audience left the stage and sat in the auditorium, while others took to sitting cross-legged on the stage. Neither ideal for seeing the action.

Nevertheless, as we have come to expect from Batchelor, who worked on this occasion with one of his long-term collaborators, Amber McCartney, there was much to ponder upon. The opening section reminded me of Merce  Cunningham and his notion of ‘body time’. Morgan Hickinbotham’s soundscape seemed not related specifically to the movement, although I enjoyed the ‘distant’ and somewhat surreal quality it had. But Batchelor and McCartney moved together in the opening section with the kind of unison I have always seen from Cunningham artists who understand so well the concept of body time.

Other sections reminded me of the practice of artists like the American-Japanese pair Eiko and Koma, who always declined to say that their work was Butoh (out of respect) but who moved with an intensity, an emphasis on tiny details and a slowness that was Butoh-like. Butoh-inspired movement came to mind at various times throughout Deepspace but especially in the closing section when McCartney placed a series of small stones on Batchelor’s back and he proceeded to change position and allow the stones to move along his back, and eventually on to the floor. It was certainly mesmerising, but of course one couldn’t help wondering if they would fall off at the wrong time. (They didn’t).

Another section with the same feel came midway through the work when Batchelor, on all fours, moved slowly upstage with McCartney balanced on his back. On reaching the wall at the end of the stage space they both proceeded (very slowly indeed) to stand up, with McCartney eventually reaching Batchelor’s shoulders. In this stacked up position they moved sideways along the wall with McCartney feeling her way with spider-like hands. As well as the Butoh aspect of it all, the notion of balance and support was paramount.

Other sections were somewhat obscure I thought, although I suspect they related to things that may have happened, or discoveries that may have been made on board the Investigator. I rather enjoyed a fast ballroom/waltz-like episode with Batchelor and McCartney moving quite speedily in a circular pattern. But were they skating? On thin ice perhaps? I think that the emphasis that has been placed on the fact that this work grew out of Batchelor’s trip to the Antarctic has led us to ponder too much on how the dance and the expedition relate. What I have enjoyed about Batchelor’s earlier works is that we have been left to ponder meaning without such an obvious lead-in. But then perhaps I was just irritated by the discomfort of having to stand up and often peer through groups of people to see properly.

Michelle Potter, 24 December 2017

Featured image: James Batchelor in a Melbourne showing of Deepspace. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

James Batchelor in DeepSpace. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Ako Kondo as Alice in ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Australian Ballet

5 December 2017, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

My spirits soared as the curtain went up on the opening act of Christopher Weeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at its Sydney opening night. There before us a picnic was taking place in an English architectural setting, which I believe represented the Deanery at Christ Church, Oxford, home of Alice Liddell who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. We met Alice’s family and friends, who would later take on other guises when Alice went down the rabbit hole. And the work of Nicholas Wright, who wrote the scenario and added a love interest to the story—between Alice and Jack (in later acts the Knave of Hearts)—seemed to be setting us up for an interesting evening of ballet.

But after Alice disappeared down the rabbit hole the prospect of an evening of ballet disappeared with her. The most obvious feature of the work was not the dancing but the visual design and effects. True the visual features were spectacular and technically astonishing at times. I loved the tiny door that scuttled across the stage at times (see the featured image). Indeed it said more about the story than a lot of the other parts of the design—an example of ‘less is more’ perhaps? I also liked the Victorian scrapbook-style imagery that accompanied the flower waltz in Act II, except that there was too much else happening design-wise for it to be appreciated. Visual overload throughout I thought. When I go to the ballet, I prefer to see dancing rather than umpteen technical tricks and constantly changing visual ideas, as amazing as they may be.

But then the choreography, when it was given some prominence, wasn’t all that interesting. I guess I have never really been a fan of Wheeldon’s work, but this time I wondered how he envisages movement in relation to the human body. With a few exceptions, notably the very slinky caterpillar, I thought Wheeldon ignored the fact that the limbs are attached to the body. Spiky leg movements seemed to predominate and when the upper body did move it seemed expression-less. Choreographically the work felt very flat, innocuous and unexceptional.

All in all, however, the dancers performed nicely. With her charm and gorgeous ability to draw the audience into her world, Ako Kondo was well suited to the role of Alice. With some spectacular dancing, Ty King-Wall as Jack/the Knave of Hearts, was a joy to watch, and I enjoyed Adam Bull as Lewis Carroll/the White Rabbit, especially for the quirky, anxious character he gave to the White Rabbit. Bouquets too to Kevin Jackson as the tap dancing Mad Hatter and Steven Heathcote for a strong portrayal of Alice’s father/the King of Hearts.

Ty King-Wall as the Knave of Hearts in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Ty King-Wall as the Knave of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But I really disliked the odd changes that had been made to the character of the Queen of Hearts (Alice’s mother in Act I). All was fine when she was looking to chop heads off left, right and centre, which we know is her wont according to Lewis Carroll. But she was also written into the story as some kind of crazy ballerina who wanted to dance the Rose Adagio but couldn’t. To me the pathetically horrible take on the Rose Adagio showed a major lack of taste on the part of the creative team. Leave that kind of mucking around to the Trocks, when it is funny. I really don’t want to see it on the Australian Ballet, and I especially don’t want to see Amy Harris, who played the Queen of Hearts, lying on her stomach, head pointing upstage, legs spread-eagled to the side, and bottom lifted off the ground and pointed directly at the audience. All we needed was the noise. Hideous!

I am sure Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is already a terrific money-spinner for the Australian Ballet, and probably many (most) people thoroughly enjoyed themselves. But watching it made me wonder where ballet is heading. Give me something that is less vaudeville/burlesque/circus-like from our national ballet company.

Michelle Potter, 7 December 2017

Featured image: Ako Kondo as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo as Alice in ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud

Katie Senior and Liz Lea in That extra 'some, Belconnen Arts Centre, 2017. Photo © Lorna Sim

That extra ’some. Liz Lea & Katie Senior

3 December 2017, Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra

It took me a while to work out what the ‘some’ in this very brave and beautiful work meant. It premiered a few months ago as part of Escalate II, an Ausdance ACT mentoring program. I didn’t see it then but kept noticing that the ‘some’ of the title was occasionally written with an apostrophe before it, but at other times without. As one watches the work, however, which I finally had the pleasure of doing, it is perfectly obvious that the ‘some’ should indeed have an apostrophe before it. It stands for the last syllable of ‘chromosome’. The work is performed by Liz Lea and Katie Senior and, as a person with Down Syndrome, Katie Senior carries an extra chromosome in her genetic makeup.

Katie Senior in ‘Tha extra ‘some’, 2017. Photo: Lorna Sim

Katie Senior in That extra ‘some, Belconnen Arts Centre, 2017. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Lea is a wonderfully creative and theatrical director/choreographer and in That extra ‘some, along with movement of various kinds, she has brought together surprises, colour, props, audio, and footage to produce a portrait of Senior that ultimately is one of the most moving works of dance I have seen.

Lea and Senior begin the work sitting on chairs sharing a variety of gestures. They move on to watch film footage together, and they listen as Senior discusses her favourite things. The props we noticed on two small tables as we entered the space are gathered up by Lea and given to Senior to wear and hold—a gorgeous pink hat and a pink sculpture of a cockatoo among them—as Senior tells us what she loves, what is her favourite colour and the bird she likes best. And, what seem at the beginning of the show to be pink decorations tucked inside the neckline of the black outfits they both wear, turn out to be pink rubber gloves. Senior likes washing up!

Senior announces that she is learning Reggaeton, a kind of Latin American Hip Hop, and she and Lea dance together.

Liz Lea and Katie Senior in That extra 'some, Belconnen Arts Centre, 2017. Photo © Lorna Sim

Liz Lea and Katie Senior in That extra ‘some, Belconnen Arts Centre, 2017. Photo: © Lorna Sim

More dancing and more conversation follow. The text of the conversation, which is played over the footage, is extraordinary. It is Senior’s own, hesitant voice and occasionally our expectations are shattered. A discussion of how Down Syndrome affects those who live with it is followed by sentences such as ‘I feel fabulous!’ As the work ends we watch Senior, dressed in beautiful clothes, strolling through a Canberra landscape. Feeling fabulous; looking fabulous.

This one-off performance at Belconnen Arts Centre was in celebration of the International Day of People with a Disability. But what Lea and Senior showed was that living with a disability does not remove a person’s humanity. No wonder we were reduced to tears at times during this very moving work.

Michelle Potter, 5 December 2017

Featured image: Katie Senior (left) and Liz Lea in That extra ‘some, Belconnen Arts Centre, 2017. Photo © Lorna Sim

Katie Senior and Liz Lea in That extra 'some, Belconnen Arts Centre, 2017. Photo © Lorna Sim

 

Eliza Sanders from the 'Enigma' series. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dance diary. November 2017

  • ACT Arts Awards 2017

The ACT Arts Awards for 2017, an initiative of the Canberra Critics’ Circle, were announced in Canberra on 27 November. The major award, ACT Artist of the Year, sponsored by the weekly newspaper City News, went to dancer, choreographer and director, Liz Lea. This award is the subject of a separate post at this link.

In the wider category, where awards go to ACT-based artists across the various performing arts genres, the visual arts and literature, two dance awards were given.

  • Photographer Lorna Sim was awarded ‘For her outstanding contribution to dance in the ACT through her photography of dance, and her 2017 exhibition of dance photographs Enigma.’ One of her remarkable images from Enigma is the featured image on this post.
  • Katie Senior and Liz Lea shared an award ‘For their moving and elegiac dance work That extra ‘some created in celebration of a remarkable friendship.’ For a review of this work follow this link.

Katie Senior at the ACT Arts Awards 2017

Katie Senior (foreground) at the ACT Arts Awards, 2017

  • David Vaughan (1924–2017)

I was saddened to hear of the death in October in New York of British-born dance archivist, historian and critic David Vaughan. I first met Vaughan in  the early 1990s when I was doing research for my doctoral thesis, which concerned Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns and their collaborations with Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Vaughan was the generous archivist of the Cunningham Foundation. I met up with him several times after that and was proud to be a co-curator with him and Barbara Cohen-Stratyner of the exhibition INVENTION. Merce Cunningham and Collaborators at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, New York, in 2007.

David Vaughan’s writing has been widely published in a variety of formats, but the two works that stand out in my mind are his spendid work on the ballets of Frederick Ashton, originally published in 1977 and revised in 1999— Frederick Ashton and his ballets. Revised edition (London: Dance Books, 1999)—and his equally impressive Merce Cunningham. Fifty years (New York: Aperture, 1997), and its accompanying app.

Press conference, Libary for the Performing Arts, New York, 2007. Foreground Merce Cunningham, background (l-r) curators Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, David Vaughan, Michelle Potter

Press conference, Library for the Performing Arts, New York, 2007. Foreground Merce Cunningham, background (l-r) curators Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, David Vaughan, Michelle Potter

  • Degas from Scotland in London

Just recently I saw a small, but quite beautiful show called Drawn in colour. Degas from the Burrell at the National Gallery in London. The works by Degas came mostly from the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, although some items, designed to expand the exhibition, came from elsewhere. The items from the Burrell Collection have rarely travelled before, and most were new to me. I especially liked the one I have chosen as illustration, The green ballet skirt, for the gorgeous way Degas has painted the skirt being so carefully treated by the dancer before (I am assuming) she goes on stage.

The Degas paintings, drawings and sculptures on display in this show are part of an extensive collection of art works given to the city of Glasgow by a wealthy Glaswegian shipping merchant, Sir William Burrell. The exhibition runs from 20 September 2017 to 7 May 2018. More at this link.

Edgar Hilaire Germain Degas, The Green Dress, about 1896-1901

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, The Green Ballet Skirt (ca. 1896). Pastel on tracing paper, 45 x 37 cm. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow (35.242) © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

  • Press for November 2017

‘Moving towards inclusion.’ Preview of the dance component of the Detonate program at Belconnen Arts Centre. Panorama (The Canberra Times), 25 November 2017, pp. 10–11. Online version

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2017

  • Late addition (2 December 2017)

I have just received a link to the latest edition of the remarkable Dance Books catalogue and, rather than wait until my January dance diary, I am including it here as a late addition—a source of Christmas gifts? Follow this link

Featured image: Eliza Sanders from the Enigma series. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Eliza Sanders from the 'Enigma' series. Photo: © Lorna Sim