Regina Advento in 'Masurca Fogo'. Tanztheater Wupertal Pina Bausch. Photo: Laszlo Szito

‘Masurca Fogo’. Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch

12 February 2017, Sadler’s Wells, London

It has been a while since I last saw Tanztheater Wuppertal live, so it was with some interest that I bought a ticket for Masurca Fogo (Fiery Mazurka). What struck me, pretty much instantly as the show began, was that there might be a lot of dancing in Masurca Fogo. And in fact there was. It seemed as though every one of the twenty dancers in the cast had a dancing solo, and every one of them performed strongly and skilfully. This, I felt, was a company of dancers, which isn’t always a conclusion one might draw when watching some other works by Bausch.

What was interesting, however, was the sameness that permeated the solos—lots of emphasis on fluid arms and upper body for example. I couldn’t help wondering what the inspiration for the choreography was. Did Bausch, since Masurca Fogo premiered in 1998 when Bausch was still well and truly alive, set tasks for the dancers (a regular part of her choreographic process) from which the movement evolved? Did it involve questions that required focus on the upper body? Whatever was the process involved, it generated, along with the excellent execution of the movement, some rather repetitive moments.

Other dancing moments included a scene where the whole cast crammed into a makeshift beach hut for a dancing party. I also enjoyed the lines of dancers snaking their way across the stage on a couple of occasions, even if this kind of line formation is not uncommon in works by Bausch.

Regina Advento and Pablo Aran Gimeno in 'Masurca Fogo'. Photo: Jochen Viehoff

Regina Advento and Pablo Aran Gimeno in Masurca Fogo. Photo: Jochen Viehoff

But of course Masurca Fogo also contained all those elements we have come to expect from a work by Bausch—personal stories recounted with all kinds of action, surprising happenings, non-sequiturs, water on stage, women in high heels, men in suits, cross-dressing, and so on. Then there were the animals—in Masurca Fogo we had a live chicken picking at pieces of water melon, and a walrus (not real) lumbering its way across the stage.

But what was the essence of the work? Made as a result of a research period in Portugal and presented at Expo 98 as the fifth work in the World Cities series, it was very ‘beachy’ in its approach. Swimsuits, sunshine and a summery feel were predominant, but love and desire were at the heart of it all. There were various sexual allusions throughout the piece, including in the closing moments when we saw footage of flowers unfolding as the dancers lay on the rocky hillside that made up the set. It reminded me of Georgia O’Keefe to tell the truth.

I prefer Bausch in her darker moods. She has more to say then that is worth contemplating. But it was good to see the dancers dancing.

Ensemble, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in 'Masurca Fogo'. Photo: Zerrin Aydin Herwegh

Ensemble, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Masurca Fogo. Photo: Zerrin Aydin Herwegh

Michelle Potter, 14 February 2017

Featured image: Regina Advento in Masurca Fogo. Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. Photo: Laszlo Szito

Regina Advento in 'Masurca Fogo'. Tanztheater Wupertal Pina Bausch. Photo: Laszlo Szito

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

‘Woolf Works’. The Royal Ballet

11 February 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The printed program for Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works gives the piece a subtitle: A Triptych. It is a perfect subtitle since Woolf Works consists of three separate pieces but, like a religious triptych, each separate part tells us something about an overall subject. In the case of Woolf Works this overall subject concerns the innovative, poetic writing of the early twentieth century novelist Virginia Woolf. And the work begins with the voice of Virginia Woolf talking about language in a recording made for the BBC in 1937. Her talk was called ‘On craftsmanship’ and, as she speaks, writing (hers presumably) appears in white on a black front screen. As her voice continues, the writing transforms itself into various white shapes. The lighting changes and the screen lifts. The first section begins.

Although the informative program, innovative in concept and design, never seeks to say what Woolf Works is ‘about’, for me McGregor brilliantly distills each of the Woolf novels he has chosen to work with into certain intrinsic elements. The first movement, I now, I then, inspired by the novel Mrs Dalloway, shows us the changing nature of relationships across a lifetime, even though the novel takes place in just one day. The second section, based on Orlando and called Becomings, examines the trajectory of the universe across time, just as Orlando takes place over several centuries. It might be called a study in time travel and has something approaching science fiction as an intrinsic element. The third section, Tuesday, is inspired by The Waves and seeks to show us the concept of inevitability.

Of the three sections I now, I then seems to me to be the strongest. If you know the novel, you will recognise the main characters of Clarissa Dalloway; Jenny Seton, the close friend whom Clarissa famously kisses; Peter Walsh, the man Clarissa didn’t marry, perhaps to her ongoing regret; and Septimus Warren Smith, the shell-shocked former soldier who eventually commits suicide, never being able to overcome his thoughts about the death of a soldier friend in World War I. But such knowledge isn’t entirely necessary as I now, I then stands on its own as a work about relationships of many and varied kinds.

In I now, I then, Alessandra Ferri plays a meditative, slightly distant Clarissa, lost in her thoughts. It was a pleasure to see her back onstage. In another cast, however, I saw Mara Galeazzi in the role and I preferred her performance. She seemed more emotionally involved in the role and, without wishing to detract from Ferri’s strong technical performance, I admired the way Galeazzi was able to embody the choreography, giving it quite beautiful shape and fluidity. The various pas de deux between Clarissa and the two men in her life (played by Federico Bonelli and Gary Avis in one cast and Ryoichi Hirano and Tomas Mock in the other) were highlights in both casts.

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Clarissa as a younger woman and Jenny her friend, played by Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Francesca Hayward (and in the other cast Yasmine Naghdi and Mayara Magri), had some gorgeous choreography, sometimes performed in unison, often fast and joyous, and always full of the pleasures of youth and friendship. They engaged too with Peter, Clarissa’s early love interest, while the older Clarissa stood thoughtfully in the background. Again pleasure in relating to others was at the heart of the choreography.

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Another exceptionally powerful performance came from Edward Watson as Septimus, whose problematic mental state was made clear as he executed the writhing, twisted choreography.

Strong visual elements in the form of film footage (film designer Ravi Deepres) washed across the performing space and over the set, which consisted of the perimeters of three large, wooden, movable square structures. The footage showed London scenes from the 1920s and, sometimes, the garden of Virginia Woolf’s home and, with Max Richter’s score occasionally interrupted by the sound of Big Ben chiming, the setting was an evocative one.

Becomings was distinguished by some astonishing lighting effects from Lucy Carter. Although her work is an important and quite beautiful element in all three sections, in Becomings it is nothing short of sensational—as innovative as anything Woolf wrote. It sometimes divides the stage space, other times it beams out into the space of the auditorium. It colours the space, and darkens it too, and laser beams occasionally shoot across the stage.

Among this spectacular light (and darkness as the stage is often submerged in near blackness), dancers appear, clad in an assortment of black and gold costumes that range from Elizabethan garb—Eric Underwood at times wears an Elizabethan-style dress that would have delighted Queen Elizabeth I—to contemporary attire (costume design Moritz Junge). There is some spectacular dancing. Legs stretch and extend in seemingly impossible ways and partnering sometimes takes the breath away. Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae stand out, especially in an early pas de deux where the gender of Orlando is explored (perhaps?). Both also stand out elsewhere in this second section, as does Sarah Lamb who always looks good executing McGregor’s flashy, super-extended style. 

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in 'Becomings' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in Becomings from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Despite the dancing and the mesmerising lighting display, Becomings did not have the same attraction for me as I now, I then. It was harder to feel where Woolf fitted in for one thing, even given the emphasis at times on gender issues, which Woolf explores in Orlando. But then perhaps the link is that Woolf was always experimenting, exploring, finding innovative ways to use language, as McGregor and his collaborators are examining how collaboration across the arts can give new insights?

The third and final section, Tuesday, begins with half the stage space being taken up by film footage of very slowly breaking waves. A voice-over reads Woolf’s suicide note left for her husband before she stepped into the river Ouse, her pockets weighed down with stones. After the glitz and glamour of Becomings, Tuesday was quietly reflective and we felt the slow motion of the waves and the inevitability of time passing.

Clarissa appears alone on stage at the beginning of Tuesday. But her memories continue to fill her mind. Children appear from the darkness beneath the images of waves. They run to her. She is joined by Sarah Lamb (as her sister, Vanessa Bell?). Voices are heard over the music and the names of Vanessa’s children are mentioned—Quentin, Angelica, Julian. The corps de ballet dances in wave-like movements. Clarissa stands and watches. Bonelli joins her and they are left alone. Clarissa slips to the floor and the waves retreat.

Scene from 'Tuesday' in ''Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Scene from Tuesday in Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

I found Woolf Works a hugely moving work. I’m sure I missed many of the nuances. But I love that I could make up an interpretation (my own if not McGregor’s) that sent me out of the theatre fulfilled and wanting to see the work many more times. It is an exceptional collaboration with intelligent minds behind it, including that of a dramaturg (Uzma Hameed). This is how dance should be.

Woolf Works is directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor and first took the stage in 2015. Its revival in 2017 is part of the Royal Ballet’s celebration of McGregor’s ten years as the Royal’s resident choreographer and the work will be part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire on its tour to Australia in June/July 2017.

Michelle Potter, 13 February 2017

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

travelogue-costume-detail

Robert Rauschenberg. A retrospective at Tate Modern

10 February 2017, Tate Modern, London

The Robert Rauschenberg retrospective currently showing at London’s Tate Modern until 2 April, is a remarkable exhibition. It brims with the known from Rauschenberg—Monogram, the famous Angora goat with tyre; Bed made from a quilt when Rauschenberg had no money for canvas; the early Black Mountain experiments; the fascinating sound assemblage, Oracle; his silk screen work; in fact memorable items from every decade of his working life.

Monogram 1955-59 Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque and rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters 106.7 x 135.2 x 163.8 cm Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Purchase with contribution from Moderna Museets Vänner/The Friends of Moderna Museet © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York
Monogram 1955-59
Combine: oil, paper, fabric, printed reproductions, metal, wood, rubber shoe-heel, and tennis ball on two conjoined canvases with oil on taxidermied Angora goat with brass plaque and rubber tire on wood platform mounted on four casters, 106.7 x 135.2 x 163.8 cm
Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Purchase with contribution from Moderna Museets Vänner/The Friends of Moderna Museet
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

But it also has some fascinating lesser known items. They include a collection of personal boxes (Scatole personali) of various shapes and sizes containing an assortment of small items (including dead insects, pebbles, dirt and sticks) made in response to reliquaries Rauschenberg saw in the 1950s while touring Italy with fellow artist Cy Twombly; and a large, square, open-topped tank of bubbling mud, or actually bentonite clay and water, that is linked up with a sound system that records the sound of the bubbles plopping and spluttering.

What the exhibition shows quite clearly is that Rauschenberg was fearless in his approach to what constitutes art. He experimented with everything that came his way.

But I was especially interested in Rauschenberg’s collaborations with choreographers, including Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and a range of choreographers working with Judson Dance Theater, and also with his own endeavours in the field of performance art. These activities were nicely represented in the exhibition with video material, photographs and, in the case of Rauschenberg’s performance pieces, his workbooks in which he recorded his movement ideas. Of his own pieces, the best documented was Pelican first made in 1963 for Rauschenberg himself, Per Olof Ultvedt and Carolyn Brown.

Photograph of Robert Rauschenberg’s Pelican (1963) as performed in a former CBS television studio, New York, during the First New York Theatre Rally, May 1965 © The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York Photo: Peter Moore © © Barbara Moore / Licensed by VAGA, NY. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Photograph of Robert Rauschenberg’s Pelican (1963) as performed in a former CBS television studio, New York, during the First New York Theatre Rally, May 1965. © The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York
Photo: Peter Moore © © Barbara Moore / Licensed by VAGA, NY. Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

As video footage in the exhibition shows, Rauschenberg and Ultvedt performed the choreography on roller skates with parachutes attached to their backs and Carolyn Brown executed some balletic moves, including a stunning series of posé turns on pointe. The piece evolved when Rauschenberg was inadvertently described as choreographer rather than stage manager on publicity material for the Pop Art Festival being held in Washington D.C. in 1963. He seized the moment and made Pelican. Others of Rauschenberg’s performance pieces that were well documented in the exhibition included Elgin Tie and Spring Training.

Other dance material on show included some footage from Minutiae, an early work from Cunningham featuring a screen designed by Rauschenberg. While the screen itself was not included in the exhibition, the footage showed several close-up shots of it, including a small revolving mirror and pieces of lace and other fabric, in addition to the largely red paintwork. What was especially interesting was the location of the footage in a room of Rauschenberg’s ‘red’ paintings, made in a period when he moved away from his early experiments with black and white paint. These red paintings, which included Charlene (1954), a stunning work from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, clearly set the context for the Minutiae screen.

Other dance footage included a section from Cunningham’s Travelogue, designed by Rauschenberg in 1977. Again the location of the footage within the exhibition was significant. It provided further context for Rauschenberg’s Travelogue designs. In 1975 Rauschenberg spent time in Ahmedabad, a city in India renown for its textiles, and his use of textiles in his works from this period were hung in one room of the exhibition, along with the Travelogue footage. In Travelogue, this Indian experience is reflected in the costumes he designed, with their ‘wheels’ made from sections of different fabric; in the sheer cloth that hung from overhead as the dance progressed; and in the long strip of sheer, white fabric that the dancers carried at various stages.

On the other hand, the painting Charlene from 1954 has, in one corner of the canvas, a flattened-out umbrella with its sections painted in different colours and his Travelogue costumes are redolent of this part of Charlene. In fact, I was surprised by the extent to which umbrellas and parachutes appeared throughout the exhibition. They seemed to permeate most periods of Rauschenberg’s output.

Untitled (Spread) 1983 Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas 188.6 x 245.7 x 88.9 cm © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York
Untitled (Spread), 1983
Solvent transfer and acrylic on wood panel, with umbrellas
188.6 x 245.7 x 88.9 cm
© Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York

Then the exhibition also had on display material relating to Trisha Brown’s 1979 Glacial Decoy, for which Rauschenberg provided costume designs that required the use of sheer, white materials. He also provided the set, which consisted largely of a series of his photographs that were projected in a particular rotation onto four screens at the back of the stage space as the dance unfolded. There was video footage of Glacial Decoy for visitors to view and also, projected onto an exhibition wall in the manner in which they appeared on stage, were the photographs that made up the set.

One other item (or two items) interested me—Factum I and Factum II. These two works (combines) were painted simultaneously in 1957. Rauschenberg apparently said he made them because he was interested in ‘the role that accident played in my work’. They reminded me of those ‘spot the difference’ games, and the differences included drips of paint in one that were not the same in the other. But given the date at which they were painted—a time when Rauschenberg was closely involved with Cunningham and John Cage—that interest in ‘accident’ in a work must surely reflect the influence of Cunningham and Cage.

This was an exceptional exhibition, curated jointly by curators from Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It was a great insight into the long and varied career of one of the world’s boldest artists, and there was much to be enjoyed for those whose major interest is in dance and collaboration.

Michelle Potter, 12 February 2017

Featured image: Costume from Travelogue (detail) as displayed in the exhibition INVENTION: Merce Cunningham and Collaborators, Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, New York, 2007. Photo: Neville Potter

travelogue-costume-detail

Kristina Chan in 'Champions'. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

‘Champions’. FORM Dance Projects/Martin del Amo

22 January 2017 (matinee), Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney). Sydney Festival 2017

The walk down the corridor to enter Bay 17 of Carriageworks for Champions was accompanied by the recorded sound of crowds cheering and referees’ whistles blowing. We entered the space through an arch of balloons and before us, on a green grass-like floorcloth, was a dancing mascot. The scene was set for Martin del Amo’s Champions, a dance work commissioned by FORM Dance Projects and presented as a sporting event, a football match to be more precise. Del Amo’s program notes stated, ‘It is a commonly held belief that sport and the arts do not go together.’ Champions was del Amo’s comment on that pervasive attitude. It also had political overtones about women in sport, especially in those sports that are more often than not regarded as ‘men’s work’.

The first thing to say is that the mascot—a swan dressed in a tutu—was an entrancing part of the show. Inside the costume, Julie-Anne Long kept us entertained before the show proper began and then mid-piece in the half-time section. She crossed her wrists demurely in front of her à la Swan Lake, executed little piqué style steps, and waved her arms up and down like a dying swan. Smart choreography from del Amo and amusing execution by Long, despite the difficulties her orange webbed feet must have caused her.

The rest of the dancers/football players, all women, included some of the best contemporary dancers working around Sydney today. One by one, as they warmed up for the dance/match, they were introduced by a commentator (real-life sporting commentator Mel McLaughlin), who appeared on video on a series of upstage screens. Then the main section of the work began with a series of group exercises and, a little later, with comments, again via the video screens, about salaries for men and women in sport, in particular salaries received by the Australian men’s soccer team in comparison with the women’s.

Scene from 'Champions', 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Scene from Champions, 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

In preparation for Champions, the dancers had worked with the Sydney-based soccer team, the Western Sydney Wanderers, so there was a certain authenticity to their sporting moves. But from a dance perspective, the most interesting section came when the dancers lined up downstage and began to wave gold pom-poms, as we are used to seeing from cheer squads. Throwing away the pom-poms (thankfully) they began to take a series of poses that seemed to teeter between football moves and contemporary dance poses. At first the moves seemed unconnected but slowly it became clear that in fact there was a set number of moves and the dancers had an individual sequence they were required to follow. At the end of this section the entire row began working as one with every dancer taking on the same pose. I enjoyed the choreographic surprises that characterised this section.

Again interesting from a dance perspective were those moments towards the end of the piece, when individual dancers were lifted high above the heads of the group. Celebratory moments perhaps?

Sara Black in 'Champions', 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Sara Black and dancers in a scene from Champions, 2017. © Heidrun Lohr

Champions was a clever work. It was fun to laugh at the swan mascot and the references being made to certain works from the ballet repertoire. It was interesting, too, to reflect on the sporting commentary and interviews recorded with the dancers and screened for viewing by the audience. Those comments and replies often reflected common thoughts about contemporary dance. A question from the commentator, for example, about what was happening onstage had the reply, ‘A lot of people are baffled by contemporary dance.’

My regret is that the work really didn’t give us much of a chance to see the exceptional abilities of people like Kristina Chan, Miranda Wheen, the Pomare sisters, in fact all  eleven women. Champions was enjoyable but, despite its apparent intentions to make a social and political comment, to me it was a slight work.

Michelle Potter, 25 January 2017

Featured image: Kristina Chan in Champions, 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Kristina Chan in 'Champions'. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Tatsuo Miyajima in 'Spectra'. Dancenorth 2017. Photo: © Prudence Upton

‘Spectra’. Dancenorth

15 January 2017 (matinee), Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney). Sydney Festival 2017

What a delight it was to see Dancenorth, whose home is in Townsville, North Queensland, and who are not all that often seen in southern parts. It was even more of a delight to see them (joined by some artists from the Japanese company, Batik) in a very theatrical production, Spectra. Choreographed by the Dancenorth team of Amber Haines and Kyle Page, the show featured just seven dancers. But they held the audience’s attention from beginning to end with their fluid movement, their astonishing moments of stillness and their absolute immersion in the inherent nature of the choreography.

Program notes indicated that the idea behind the work was an exploration of ‘the Buddhist philosophy of  “dependent origination” which states that the secret of the universe lies in the nature of causality—the way one thing leads to another.’ But even without this note, it was very clear that the dancers were working with the idea of causation, whether in a group when a touch would cause the one touched to move in a particular way, or whether in the movement of an individual whose sense of lyricism and fluidity had a similar effect.

Tatsuo Miyajima and artists in 'Spectra'. Dancenorth 2017. Photo: © Prudence Upton

Tatsuo Miyajima and artists in Spectra. Dancenorth 2017. Photo: © Prudence Upton

But while the dancers were outstanding, the lighting, by Niklas Pajanti, was absolutely brilliant and was what made the performance so theatrical. The work was lit with downlights, sidelights, tiny star-like lights hanging from the flies, rows of lights, flashes of lights, lines of light. It twinkled, shone, glowed, and enveloped the space. Just spectacular. Music was by Jairo Matsumoto and played live onstage by the composer. It added to the sense that this was an act of collaboration of the best kind.

Thrilling.

Michelle Potter, 20 January 2017

Featured image: Tatsuo Miyajima in Spectra. Dancenorth 2017. Photo: © Prudence Upton

Tatsuo Miyajima in 'Spectra'. Dancenorth 2017. Photo: © Prudence Upton

Scene from 'Cry Jailolo'

‘Cry Jailolo’ & ‘Balabala’. Ekosdance Company, Indonesia

8 January 2017, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney). Sydney Festival 2017

Cry Jailolo and Balabala, both choreographed by Eko Supriyanto, were both danced by men and women from Jailolo, a remote town on the western side of the island of Halmahera in the Maluku Islands (formerly known as the Moluccas).

Cry Jailolo, made for seven men, was perhaps the more theatrical of the two works. Not being familiar with the traditional dances of this part of Indonesia I have no idea if the work reflects those traditions, although publicity material states that Cry Jailolo is based on a local dance called ‘Legu Salai’. But whatever its origins the work is a mesmerising 50 minutes or so of changing rhythms, patterns and spatial concerns. It begins with one dancer, barefooted as are all the men, stamping out a rhythm with the sole of one foot and the heel of another. It continues for what seems like a long time but it establishes the overall repetition that characterises the work.

This single dancer is then joined by the rest of the men, who move in a close-knit group around the performing space changing direction every so often when one of the group claps his hands and takes over the leadership. In this section the dancers resemble a school of fish travelling through the water—and indeed Jailolo is a coastal town well-known as a diving centre and for its spectacular sea life.

But soon the story seems to shift to the land and a cyclone appears to hit the town. The men dance individually and in a frenzied manner, twirling and twisting as they manage the conditions. One dancer in particular (the shortest of the dancers seen in the back row of the featured image) was so involved with the wild choreography that he seemed to be in a trance. It was absorbing dancing from an audience point of view too, and it was impossible not to admire the powerful focus the dancers had and the choreographer’s exceptional ability to create patterns and relationships between the dancers.

Cry Jailolo ended as it had begun with a single dancer left on the stage to dance until the lights had completely faded.

Balabala was made on five women, also from Jailolo. It too is said to be grounded in the performing traditions of the region—this time in two dances usually performed by men. But with the choreographer trained in both the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat and classical Javanese dance, references to both were clear. The dancers arm movements and powerful thrusts of the body referenced (for me anyway) Pencak Silat. On the other hand, one dancer in particular often stepped forward in Javanese/Balinese fashion with heel first and toes turned up, and yet another, with her arms moving as if holding a fan and body slightly bent to one side, reminded me of moments in the Balinese Legong.

But Balabala was about giving a voice to women and it was powerfully performed and, again, with a strong sense of focus.

Indonesia is an archipelago of great cultural and ethnic diversity. It is most common for Westerners to see dance from the western islands, especially Java and Bali and, to a lesser extent, Sumatra. It was an exceptional pleasure to see material, albeit created in a contemporary vocabulary, from an area further to the east, ad also to be made aware of the different ethnicity of people from that region.

Michelle Potter, 12 January 2017

Featured image: Scene from Cry Jailolo, Ekos Dance Company Indonesia

Scene from 'Cry Jailolo'

Scene from 'Epic Theatre' Photo Pedro Greig

‘New Breed’ (2016). Sydney Dance Company

9 December 2016, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

The most ‘left-of-centre’ work on this year’s New Breed program was the final offering, Shian Law’s Epic Theatre. His premise, which he enunciated at the end of his work, was that theatre is basically one set of people looking at another set of people. And so he played with who was audience and who was performer, beginning as we entered the performing space for the start of his work. There was, however, a kind of ‘taster’ during the interval when we watched two dancers engaging in a powerful physical encounter outside the theatre space. (Carriageworks doesn’t really have a lobby as such).

Once inside, we were confronted by a line of people, a mix of dancers and audience, with arms linked tightly. The way to our seats was effectively blocked. Gradually we were given an opportunity to move to our seats and once everyone was in, there was some crazy dancing, especially from the tall and physically expressive Sam Young-Wright who, at one stage, stripped down to his underpants. There was also a lot of walking up, down, and around the performing space by dancers and some audiences members. But in the end, as entertaining as it all was, and that entertaining aspect extended to an electronic score played live by composer Marco Cher-Gibard, the idea was more interesting than the performance.

Coming in a close second in the left-of-centre stakes was Richard Cilli’s Hinterland. It began with a section in which a group of dancers ‘commented’ on the dancing of their colleagues with noises of various kinds—grunts, whoops and a range of silly sounds. Then followed a section when the dancers collapsed in a writhing heap while the triumphant strains of Liszt’s Chapelle de Guillaume Tell filled the air. The work finished with a section in which there was an ongoing discussion of which dancer was most like which character in the movie Titanic. (Bernhard Knauer was the iceberg!)

According to Cilli, Hinterland ‘explores the tension between outward appearances and the vast inner landscape.’ A little like Epic Theatre, the idea was a rather more interesting than the outcome. Having said that, some parts Hinterland were quite funny and Daniel Roberts was particularly expert at making his silly noises sound perfectly suited to the movements of his colleagues

I really enjoyed the opening work, Jesse Scales’ What you see, even though it might be regarded as the most conventional of the evening’s offerings—if indeed anything emerging from Sydney Dance can be thought of as conventional. Made for just three dancers, Cass Mortimer Eipper, Nelson Earl and Latsiha Sparks, and performed to music by Max Richter, it consisted basically of three solos, followed by a group section in which the silent screams of each of the dancers was a gripping element. Each solo focused on a different kind of gloom or torment, but the dancing was so good that the darkness of mood did not overpower the work. The whole was carefully composed with each solo following on smoothly from the other, and with the performers often moving down the diagonal with the kind of extreme movement that characterises much of Sydney Dance Company’s work. All three dancers performed exceptionally well and their facial expressions were a powerful means of highlighting the moods of What you see.

Scene from 'What you see'. Photo Pedro Greig

Scene from What you see, Sydney Dance Company. Photo: © Pedro Greig

For me the work of the night, however, was Rachel Arianne Ogle’s Of Dust, which explored connections between the stars, and other cosmic forces, and man’s journey from birth to death. It was a fast moving piece danced to a commissioned score by Ned Beckley. It began with a tightly knit group of dancers, five in all (Juliette Barton, Richard Cilli, Nelson Earl, Cass Mortimer Eipper, and Charmene Yap), pulling each other and the group into a series of constantly changing shapes. There was tension there, but also a feeling of unity. What followed teetered between order and disorder, connections and disconnections with some wonderful dancing from Juliette Barton and Charmene Yap in particular. Partnering was exceptional and the work moved swiftly and lyrically from beginning to end.

Unlike the situation with What you see, perhaps it would have been difficult to make the connection between Ogle’s work and her intentions without program notes, but Of Dust was a beautiful work to watch. It is the first piece I have seen from Ogle, who is based in Western Australia. I look forward to seeing more.

Scene from 'Of Dust'. Photo Pedro Greig

Scene from Of Dust, Sydney Dance Company. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Lighting for each of the four works was by Benjamin Cisterne and was most effective in Of Dust where Cisterne was able to use downlights, circles of light, changing colours, and other devices to add to the feeling that we were looking beyond the earth.

Michelle Potter, 14 December 2016

Featured image: Scene from Epic Theatre, Sydney Dance Company. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Scene from 'Epic Theatre' Photo Pedro Greig

On another note, it is frustrating that Sydney Dance Company no longer provides names  of dancers in the captions attached to its media images. The dancers of Sydney Dance Company are all exceptional performers and deserve to be identified. I can guess but I’d rather be sure by having the company do the work of identification.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘Coppélia’. The Australian Ballet (2016)

10 December 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

On 10 December 2016, I saw the 258th performance by the Australian Ballet of Peggy van Praagh’s production of Coppélia. A few aspects of the van Praagh production seem to have changed over the years since it received its premiere in 1979, perhaps not always for the best, but it remains a strong production and a delightful excursion into the world of 19th century ballet—the original production premiered in Paris in 1870.

At the 258th performance I had the good fortune to see Leanne Stojmenov as Swanilda. Her characterisation was engaging and beautifully maintained from beginning to end, including at those times when she was not the centre of attention but mingling with others on the side of the stage. She smiled, she frowned, she pouted, she stamped her foot, she was playful—her every thought was so clear. Her dancing was calm and assured but still technically exciting. It was a truly charming performance. She was partnered by Ty King-Wall as an attentive Franz who persisted in his pursuit of her, despite her various mini tantrums over his behaviour, and despite that ear of corn that refused to make the appropriate noise for them. Together they were the epitome of a village couple, as indeed they are meant to be.

As Dr Coppélius, Ben Davis gave a competent performance and it is always a pleasure to see Dr Coppélius minus the over the top pantomime-style characterisation that is often the way this character is portrayed. But, by the same token, Dr Coppélius does need to have a strength of character and Davis didn’t quite manage to convey anything that might give us a clue to this character’s personality. He was just a nice old toy-maker/magician. I also missed Dr Coppélius’ appearance in Act III, when he demands and receives compensation for the destruction Swanilda and Franz have caused to his workshop in Act II. Maybe I am imagining that this scene was once part of van Praagh’s production? But it is a part of many other productions and it rounds off that section of the story very nicely.

It was a good day for the male corps de ballet—Franz’s friends danced exceptionally well, especially in Act I. Ella Havelka and Jake Mangakahia led the Act I character dances with good style. And I always enjoy seeing Amanda McGuigan and Ingrid Gow onstage and they stood out among Swanilda’s friends, especially in the dance of the wedding couples in Act III.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', Act III, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Coppélia, Act III (Wedding couples), 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Natasha Kusen danced a lovely Prayer. She brought a peaceful quality to the role and technically scarcely faltered.

Kristian Fredrikson’s designs still look beautiful, although I had forgotten how large (and often overpowering) some of his headdresses are. I had also forgotten how beautiful his all-white costume for Prayer is—so much nicer, and still appropriate, than the very drab, usually grey-ish Prayer outfits seen in some other productions.

Coppélia, and this performance in particular, was an absolutely delightful way to end the Australian Ballet’s 2016 season. It no doubt benefited from input from dramaturg George Ogilvie, who worked with van Praagh and Fredrikson in 1979 on the creation of van Praagh’s production, and who returned to advise on the show this year.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2016

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Coppélia, Act III (Hours of the Night) 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

Emma Grill and Cooper Terry in 'Like a Salmon in the Sahara', PPY2016

‘PPY16 revealed’. Sydney Dance Company

8 December 2016, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

Sydney Dance Company’s initiative, its now annual Pre-Professional Year (the title of the show PPY16 Revealed refers to this year’s venture), is a significant one for the future of the dance industry. And one of the most interesting aspects of the venture for audiences can be found in the comments on the course made by the graduates and printed in the program. Almost all of those who were part of the initiative spoke of their personal growth during the year: ‘A year of intense introspection and self-inquiry’;  ‘This course has been a great platform for me to grow as a person’; ‘The Pre-Professional Year course has thankfully changed my mindset regarding my life and myself’; and, as one smart young person asked, ‘Why was I not exposed to this learning earlier?’ Why indeed?  This ‘dancing for life’ learning may not yet be apparent in the way these dancers perform, but I am sure it will eventually become evident in their work, whatever that may be.

But to the show itself. The technical strength of the dancers was most clearly shown in the closing section, an excerpt from Rafael Bonachela’s 2 One Another, and every dancer responded beautifully. What struck me most was the strength with which the dancers embraced the minutiae of Bonachela’s choreography. Every tiny detail of the choreography was very clear and I was interested to see the assertive, but positive nature of the way they handled those moments when one dancer touched another.

Aidan Daley and Hayley Kelly in Rafael Bonachela's '2 one another', PPY16 revealed. Gez Xavier Mansfield Photography

Aidan Daley and Hayley Kelly in Rafael Bonachela’s ‘2 one another’, PPY16. © Gez Xavier Mansfield Photography

Of the other works, made especially for PPY16, Narelle Benjamin’s Pieces of Cella, a duet for two female dancers, showed some lovely unison movement, some of which I thought recalled yoga poses, but finished with the two dancers almost becoming one as two bodies melded and merged.

Perhaps the standout work for me, though, was Zachary Lopez’s Like a Salmon in the Sahara in which thirteen dancers, dressed in individualistic, all-white outfits, engaged in some fast dancing. I enjoyed Lopez’s ability to group and regroup his dancers, and his broad approach to the use of space—even the running in circles worked nicely. And bouquets to the ‘runner’, the fourteenth dancer who spent the entire time jogging on the spot!

Thomas Bradley’s corporare might have been interesting—if I had been able to see the movement amid the very dark, very gloomy lighting. Pacific from Kristina Chan began nicely with two rows of dancing rising and falling, suggesting the ebb and flow of waves breaking on the shore. But it lost a little of its effect for me as it proceeded, when dancers and sea seemed to become one with each other.

And on second thoughts, perhaps the personal growth of which these emerging dancers spoke in their program notes is already obvious. The variations in body shape and height, and in technical capacity among the dancers were clear, but the focus and determination of each and every one of them was startling.

Michelle Potter, 10 December 2016

Featured image: Emma Grill and Cooper Terry in ‘Like a Salmon in the Sahara’, PPY16 revealed.  © Gez Xavier Mansfield Photography

Emma Grill and Cooper Terry in 'Like a Salmon in the Sahara', PPY2016

Tonia Looker as Titanaia and Harry Skinner as Bottom in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: ©Stephen A’'Court

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Royal New Zealand Ballet

27 November 2016, St.James Theatre, Wellington

Truly, madly, deeply

If I were to list all the good things about this pedigree production, it would amount to a catalogue of joy. And what would be wrong with that?

Ethan Stiefel, previous artistic director of RNZB, certainly knew what he was about when he invited Liam Scarlett to choreograph this full-length work, and negotiated a co-production with Queensland Ballet. By all accounts that collaboration has worked very well, so might set a happy precedent for future co-productions. All those in favour…? The work only premiered last year yet is already a classic.

Nigel Gaynor, at the time Musical Director at RNZB, found close rapport with Scarlett and made a wondrous extension of Mendelssohn’s one act incidental music into a two acter by drawing on other of his numerous compositions. With motifs for many characters ingeniously set for string, woodwind and brass sections, plus of course the quijada (jawbone of an ass), Gaynor creates a seamless accompaniment. He also returns to conducts the excellent Orchestra Wellington. This is ballet musicianship at its best.

Tracy Grant Lord as set and costume designer has always known how to make this company look good (witness Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet). With Kendall Smith’s inspired lighting, the ballet grows from a swirl of smoke on a front cloth into a midnight blue faerie world of phosphorescent glowworms, moonlight, madness, mayhem and enchantment.

Liam Scarlett has made a brilliant distillation of the play, missing not a trick by slanting all the poetry into different characters’ experiences of love, true, mad and deep. This is a young but obviously hugely talented choreographer. And then, O my, there’s the dancing…

Qi Huan, former leading dancer has returned (again) from ‘retirement’ to play Oberon, bringing a maturity in his interpretation of a complex character, powerful, proud, duplicit, scheming, sometimes roving into the human world, yet ultimately forgiving (maybe). You hear his every thought as it motivates his every gesture, charging the role with real theatrical power that makes Oberon the central role to the entire ballet in a way new since the premiere season last year.

Tonia Looker is a gorgeous, romantic Titania, quick to claim the Changeling child, swift to fall in love. Her adoration of Bottom the Ass is quite something to behold. The band of ten Fairies shimmering and quivering in spiky blue tutus are as mercurial as the creatures they evoke. Harry Skinner gets maximum comic mileage from his doltish Bottom and creates an endearingly entertaining Ass that invites empathy for this ambiguous role. Shaun Kelly as the dazzling irrepressible Puck is stunning in his role of wicked mischief-maker. You wouldn’t trust him with your grandmother’s thimble. The Lovers are played with great spirit—by Kirby Selchow and Joseph Skelton, with some deeply lyrical dancing, and by Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews, masters of comic timing. The Rustics are a hoot and they know it.

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Evan Li

Shaun Kelly as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

When all the mayhem is at its wildest, with Puck quaking at Oberon’s wrath, the entire cast of mis-matched lovers—jilted, unrequited, confused, and with the mad rustics in tow—charge on a diagonal across the stage in a comic moment of cartoon art that captures the complexities of the entire plot into a 30 seconds drive-by stroke of choreographic genius. The audience erupts in delight, and Shakespeare the librettist would have been well pleased.

The Changeling child in a onesie, with his toy donkey and bedtime storybook, bookends the whole glorious ballet, winching it in quite close to the world where you and I know of parents who quarrel over who ‘owns’ a child, or who ‘loves’ him more, and where he should live. It is ultimately Scarlett’s triumph to delve into the mystery and chemistry of where love comes from, its turns and tricks and travails that never run smooth, and to flow the faerie in and out of the human world. Take care in shady places. Puck is probably lurking.

There are many warps and wefts of New Zealand and Australia that weave the dancers from the two countries together, and the more you look the more you find. Lucy Green, in a few hours time, will dance Titania in her last performance with RNZB, before returning to Australia to join Queensland Ballet. We’ll be so sad to lose this beautiful dancer, but surely glad that we had such memorable performances from her these past years. Perhaps we’ll charge Puck to steal away her passport?

Lucy Green as Titiania in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo Evan Li

Lucy Green as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Evan Li

 *********************************

There’s an on-stage class to watch before a performance. Thoroughbreds flexing.

There’s a Q&A session with dancers after a matinee; a pre-performance talk on the music; usually a forum a fortnight before; workshops where children learn the moves for the first 32 bars of Bottom the Ass. There’s a solid printed program, plus  complimentary cast sheets. There’s a production team out back, with highest production values that put numerous tired ‘imperial’ visiting ballet companies well into the shade.  The indomitable Friends are selling subs and t-shirts in the intervals, since that’s what Poul Gnatt told them to do in 1953. A mix of Oberon and Puck, that man. All this amounts to RNZB being the best little ballet company on Earth. (The best big company, for my money, is Hamburg Ballet. What’s yours?)

Only the St.James theatre wine-bar seems not to know how to uncork bureaucracy and pour a glass of bubbly for the happy punters. Another job for Puck perhaps?

Jennifer Shennan, 28 November 2016

Featured image: Tonia Looker as Titania and Harry Skinner as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal New Zealand Ballet (2015 season). Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Tonia Looker as Titanaia and Harry Skinner as Bottom in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: ©Stephen A’'Court