‘Faster’. The Australian Ballet … again

15 April 2017, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 19 April, 2017

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

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

‘Faster’. The Australian Ballet

10 April 2017, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter,  14 April 2017

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

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

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

‘RAW’. A triple bill from Queensland Ballet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2017

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

Mayu Tanigaito and Daniel Gaudiello in 'Carmen'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

‘Carmen’. Royal New Zealand Ballet

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

16 & 18 February 2017, Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch (opening of national tour)

The first work on this program, l’Arlésienne, is over 40 years old, and the second, Carmen, is pushing 70 years. Both are dramatic one-act ballets by leading French choreographer, Roland Petit, hitherto only known by reputation here in New Zealand, or through film of his work, which often starred the stunning dancer, Zizi Jeanmaire, his wife.

Francesco Ventriglia, RNZB’s artistic director, was influenced by Petit in his own early career and he has judged well how much these works would suit our company. Unlike ballet’s classics, Swan Lake and the like, which can be staged in new settings (much as we are familiar with Shakespeare in modern dress), these works by Petit are not in the public domain, and need to be re-staged with impeccable care by the trustees of his repertoire.

A number of our dancers find scope for their talents, with personality, stage presence, comoedic gifts and individual character (more than in your average/larger ballet company, where the perfect symmetry of the many is aspired to). We saw talent in spades among the different casts in Christchurch.

In l’Arlésienne, a young man on the eve of marriage to a beguiling young woman is suddenly struck with confusion, and haunted by the vision of ‘the girl from Arles’, whom we never meet, save through the reflection of his eyes. Shaun James Kelly played the lead role with an astonishing portrayal of the onset of his mental disarray. The role of the bride was most poignantly danced by Madeleine Graham. and the corps of villagers dance a compelling semi-ritualised support to the unfolding drama. This then is in no way the frivolous cabaret number I had been expecting to act as curtain-raiser for the main work, Carmen. It is a tight and strong classic work that mesmerises the audience towards the inevitability of its conclusion, and Kelly’s performance will be long remembered.

Shaun James Kelly and Madeleine Graham in L'Arlésienne. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: ©Stephen A'Court

Shaun James Kelly and Madeleine Graham in l’Arlésienne. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The opening cast of Carmen had guest artist Natalya Kusch in the title role, her excellent technique and poetic style proving most attractive, and with Joseph Skelton dancing beautifully as Don José, initially unsuspecting but growing into all the heartbreak of the role. Kirby Selchow as the Bandit Woman lit up the stage, and the cameo comic role of the Toreador was hysterically sent up by Paul Mathews. But it was Mayu Tanigaito, in the following cast, who absolutely nailed the role of Carmen as the minx, the coquette, the sexy wild and headstrong woman who will not be tamed, by any man, at any price. Tanigaito is an astonishing performer in any role, one of the RNZB’s strongest dancers. Daniel Gaudiello was a strong and convincing Don José, and Kohei Iwamoto a striking Chief Bandit.

Mayu Tanigaito in 'Carmen'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Shaun James Kelly in 'l'Arlesienne'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

(l–r) Mayu Tanigaito in Carmen; Shaun James Kelly in l’Arlésienne. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2017. Photos: © Stephen A’Court

So, a number of highlights among the members of each cast. My advice is to see them both—but do refrain from the patronising and disruptive outbursts of applause that pepper throughout performances, and drive me to distraction. The dancers know when they’ve done a good multiple pirouette or barrel turn, but this is not the circus. Let them get on with developing the drama or poetry within the work, and please save your applause to the end.

Jennifer Shennan, 24 February 2017

Featured image: Mayu Tanigaito and Daniel Gaudiello in Carmen. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Mayu Tanigaito and Daniel Gaudiello in 'Carmen'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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

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, and 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'