ab [intra]. Sydney Dance Company

1 September 2018, Canberra Theatre

In his first full-length work for several years, Rafael Bonachela has made a startling, extraordinarily powerful dance piece to an original score by Nick Wales (extra music by Peteris Vasks), with lighting from the remarkable Damien Cooper and production design from David Fleischer. The title ab [intra] (Latin: from within) we are told refers to ‘the energy transfer between the internal and the external’. The external energy is absolutely clear from beginning to end in ab [intra]. The internal aspect giving rise to the external we can only ponder. But Bonachela likes us to ponder (I think).

Choreographically the piece has two main duets, several shorter duets and trios, a major solo, and several sections for the entire company. The standout section for me was the duet between Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni. The partnering was spectacular, as was the energy of the relationship between the two dancers. It was almost R & J  à la Bonachela. I especially admired it for the clarity of movement it contained. The duet that preceded it, danced by Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll, also had some amazing partnering and it was impossible not to be stunned by the contortions of the body that it contained. How did those two dancers get into and then extract themselves from some of those moves? But quite honestly I preferred the cleaner, and yet still highly physical, look of the Yap/Di Giovanni duet.

Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni in 'ab [intra]', Sydney Dance Company, 2018. Photo: Pedro Greig

Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni in ab [intra], Sydney Dance Company, 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig]

Another choreographic highlight was a solo danced by Nelson Earl. Earl emerged to take centre stage from a line of dancers who walked solemnly onto the performance space to stand in a row around the back and sides of the stage. His solo was characterised by stretched lines of the body and was largely without the curving fluidity of much of the rest of the choreography. At times I even started to think of Charlie Chaplin’s rather eccentric style of moving! But Earl performed with great panache and the rather different look of the choreography was refreshing.

I continue to admire the way Rafael Bonachela handles large groups of dancers. In ab [intra] there were several occasions when the whole company (or sometimes almost the whole company) were onstage together. It is fascinating to see how at times Bonachela has his larger groups of dancers look like a collection of individuals in different poses, making different moves, only for the group suddenly to be moving in unison. It is also fascinating to look harder at what the dancers are doing because it often is that what looks different is actually the same move done with back to the audience, or facing another direction.

Dancers of sydney Dance Company in 'ab [intra]', 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in ab [intra], 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

As far as staging went, ab [intra] was distinguished by a certain restrained power. The lighting was always quite startling and consisted variously of haze, brightness, strong downlights, and occasionally a bank of small, bright lights that moved up and down limiting and then expanding on the space the dancers occupied.  Costuming was quite minimal in appearance. Everything added to the unfolding of the work.

In a brief conversation I had earlier with Bonachela about ab [intra] he mentioned that he hoped the work might continue to be part of the Sydney Dance Company repertoire.  I think it is probably one of those ‘giving’ works in which audiences will see more on second and subsequent viewings. So I hope Bonachela’s wish for it to continue to be shown is realised. At times it seemed slightly too long (at 70 mins) but mostly the strong staging, the remarkable and constantly changing look of the choreography, and the exceptional physicality of the dancers made it one of Bonachela’s (and Sydney Dance Company’s) strongest works to date.

Michelle Potter, 3 September 2018

Featured image: Nelson Earl in ab [intra], Sydney Dance Company 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

 

Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in 'Giselle' Act I. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Giselle. The Australian Ballet (2018)

30 & 31 August 2018, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Maina Gielgud’s Giselle, brought back once more by the Australian Ballet for a Melbourne only season, began beautifully—so beautifully that it gave me goose bumps. Small groups of villagers moved across the stage, interacting with each other, laughing and joking, while Orchestra Victoria, masterfully led by Simon Hewett, put us in the mood for what was to follow. It all seemed beautifully real rather than staged and distant.  Much of this kind of interaction continued throughout with only a few moments where everyone stood around in a semi-circle of inactivity.

The opening night cast of Ako Kondo as Giselle and Ty King-Wall as Albrecht left me a little cold, although Kondo, who always dances superbly, was charmingly shy, perhaps even naive about what was happening to her. She needed a stronger Albrecht to give extra meaning to her portrayal. It takes two for the nature of any relationship to be seen and understood by an audience.

Andrew Killian did a sterling job as Hilarion and Lisa Bolte played Berthe as a motherly figure consumed by domesticity. I have, however, always imagined Berthe as a somewhat more feisty character, who is respectful towards the Duke (Steven Heathcote), Bathilde (Alice Topp) and their entourage, but who doesn’t behave obsequiously towards them. Perhaps the Duke was Giselle’s father? (This was an interpretation in the mind of Laurel Martyn and others and influences how Berthe encounters and interacts with the Duke and his party).

But the real stars of Act I on opening night were Brett Chynoweth and Jade Wood who danced the Peasant pas de deux. Chynoweth in particular danced spectacularly well with beautiful control and great placement at the end of those airborne tours. It was wonderful to watch him, too, when Wood was dancing her variations. There he was going from friend to friend telling them all how wonderful she was.

Brett Chynoweth, and Jade Wood in the Peasant pas de deux, 'Giselle' Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Brett Chynoweth and Jade Wood in the Peasant pas de deux, Giselle Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The mad scene was adequate, but that’s about it.

Act II on opening night also began beautifully with visions of Wilis appearing in the mist as Hilarion ran through the forest in search of Giselle’s grave. But I didn’t feel moved as events unfolded, due perhaps to an ongoing lack of strength in the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht. Valerie Tereshchenko as Myrtha had a fierce look on her face but her gestures and the way she attacked the choreography didn’t quite match the facial expression, which also lessened the emotional impact one expects from Act II.

Ako Kondo, Ty King-Wall, and Valerie Tereshchenko in 'Giselle' Act II. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Ty King-Wall, Ako Kondo and Valerie Tereshcheko, Giselle Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I was lucky, however, to be at the second performance in which Leanne Stojmenov as Giselle danced with David Hallberg as Albrecht. Act II this time was the stronger of the two acts, although it was interesting to see Stojmenov’s reading of Giselle in Act I as a somewhat less naive character, a little coy at times but certainly in it (to start with anyway) for the ride. This of course made her collapse, when she realised she had been betrayed, much stronger.

Hallberg and Stojmenov gave a moving performance in Act II. She had the right ethereal, supernatural touch, he could plead for mercy from Myrtha and make us feel for him. Their central pas de deux unfolded slowly and exquisitely before our eyes. Hallberg’s solo of entrechats six was spectacular from a technical point of view and yet he managed not to look like he was dancing in an eisteddfod. At last I felt emotionally involved, even from a distance since I was sitting in the gallery (aka the gods of former times). Amy Harris as Myrtha in this cast was forceful in her gestures and body language as a whole, and so she drove the action along nicely.

I often wonder to what extent the dancers of the Australian Ballet think about the nature of the characters they are portraying in ballets like Giselle. Do they wonder what goes on inside the minds of those characters? Do they wonder what kind of existence the characters might have beyond the immediate story? And so on. And do they then consider how to encapsulate that character in movement?

But there was a lot beyond interpretation of characters to admire about this production. The corps de ballet in Act I, for example, appeared to have had someone working with them on the use of head, arms and upper body. Fluidity of movement was thus more noticeable than usual. I also admired Hewett’s leadership of Orchestra Victoria. I felt I was listening not to a concert performance of the Adolphe Adam score, but to music to accompany the story as it was unfolding onstage. It was also an experience to sit high up in the auditorium. Apart from the fact that Stojmenov and Hallberg were able to project emotion the way they did right up into the gods, I have never been so aware before of the spatial patterns of the choreography for the corps de ballet.

To finish, there were two interesting happenings with regard to curtain calls. On opening night, minor principals who only appear in Act I joined the cast of Act II for a curtain call—not a usual occurrence. Then, following the second night’s performance, as Stojmenov and Hallberg moved downstage to take another bow together, the cast of Wilis behind them broke into applause—now that’s an accolade.

Michelle Potter, 1 September 2018

Featured mage: Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in Giselle Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in 'Giselle' Act I. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Mao’s Last Dancer. The Exhibition

Immigration Museum, Melbourne, until 8 October 2018

The story of Li Cunxin, current artistic director of Queensland Ballet, and his journey from China to the West, is well-known from Li’s autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer, published in 2003. But the Immigration Museum’s exhibition, subtitled ‘A Portrait of Li Cunxin’ also seen last year in Brisbane, adds very nicely to that story. In one exhibition case, for example, there is a handwritten document that is a draft of Mao’s Last Dancer. The ‘devices’ we use these days for drafting material for publication clearly were not as ubiquitous then as they are now.

But there are some very personal items in this exhibition and many are quite moving. In particular, there is a short film, around 8 minutes of footage, in which Li’s parents are interviewed about their son. They give their side of the story (in their language but translated with subtitles) including their thoughts on seeing Li performing in Nutcracker with Houston Ballet when they were first permitted to visit him. ‘But didn’t you get dizzy?’ his mother says talking about Li’s astonishing capacity for performing multiple (and I mean multiple) pirouettes. Three tiny folding stools are another memento from Li’s days in China. They were made by Li’s father for his family of nine to use around the small table at which they ate. It conjured up some quite lovely images of a family that seemed so closely knit in its poverty

There are also some beautiful photos of Li and his fellow artists, mainly from his days at Houston Ballet where he was mentored by artistic director Ben Stevenson. And another filmed segment gives us an insight into Stevenson’s thoughts on Li’s story.

Mary McKendry and Li Cunxin in the pas de deux from La Esmeralda. Houston Ballet, 1980s. Photographer not identified

But perhaps the section I enjoyed most was a compilation of footage from Li’s performances, again largely from Houston. While most of the footage was showing its age and was grainy and cloudy at times, what emerged was Li’s beautifully articulated movement and the wide range of choreography he performed. My favourite was a tiny section—no more than a few seconds— from the solo from Le Corsaire. It made me realise how lucky we were in Australia to have had Li performing with the Australian Ballet in the 1990s. Those were also the days when writers like me were welcomed into the classroom (with undying thanks to Maina Gielgud) and I recall Li staying on after class was officially finished and practising manège after manège of spectacular movement.

Portrait of Li Cunxin in Brisbane. Photo: © Eduardo Vieira

Everyone who visits this show will have his or her favourite items. Do go and have a look. It’s well worth a visit.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2018

 

 

Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in 'Remember, Mama', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Strength and Grace. Royal New Zealand Ballet

17 & 18 August 2018. Opera House, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Strength & Grace program consists of  four choreographies by women invited to mark the 125th anniversary of women achieving suffrage, with Kate Sheppard and her many New Zealand followers having led the world in that. It’s Sheppard’s face on our $10 bill, she is honoured in many parts of the country, particularly Christchurch her home town, and is considered by many to be New Zealand’s second most influential person, so a good choice by RNZB to allow choreographies to grow from her inspiration.

Overall, each of the four works has considerable strengths, but it is the dancers’ outstanding performances of commitment and calibre that made the night. I consider one of the works would be a true standout in any context or themed season, but each of them will have appealed to one section or another of the audience. It was in fact easy to find colleagues and friends, both younger and older, who had chosen a different favourite. Thankfully it is not a competition.

The first piece, So To Speak, by American choreographer Penny Saunders, explored the domestic relationships within a family. Kirby Selchow and Loughlan Prior, as Mother and Father, used striking gestures of clarity and fine timing in a highly effective opening motif, around a table downstage left, though the work became somewhat diffused when a large chorus-like cast entered. The use of pointe shoes for the Mothers but soft shoes for the Daughters, with close to identical dress for both generations of women, were subtle design choices lost on many I suspect. Dramatic opportunity to express the tensions between parents and children was lightly referenced, but the music of four different composers made for a somewhat meandering choreographic structure. Nonetheless the work made its mark and the performances were strong.

Loughlan Prior and Kirby Selchow in 'So to Speak', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Loughlan Prior and Kirby Selchow in So to Speak, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The second piece, Despite the Loss of Small Detail, by New Zealander Sarah Foster-Sproull, was sharp and spunky, and held great appeal for younger audience members. Eden Mulholland provided a lively percussive accompaniment, and the strength of movement delivered by the dancers certainly matched it. Abigail Boyle was a compelling central figure, supported by a somewhat enigmatic group of dancers. One memorable sequence had them stabbing the stage using pointe shoes as weapons, in a trope reminiscent of Akram Khan’s recent Giselle. The fashion-led design choice of costuming brought whimsy to what was nonetheless a serious declaration of independence.

Abigail Boyle in Despite the Loss of Small Detail, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

Abigail Boyle in Despite the Loss of Small Detail, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

The third work, Remember, Mama, by Australian Danielle Rowe, was to my mind the clearest work overall in both structure and theme. Although it also used four different composers, there was a distinct adjustment within the choreography at each section which made for welcome coherence to its unfolding. Nadia Yanowsky gave a strongly felt performance as The Mother, relating to The Son at various ages played by three different dancers. Shaun James Kelly always dances with quality and was a sparkling delight as the young child, using Mozart’s Ah! Vous Dirais-je Maman to great effect. Fabio lo Giudice was a sultry teenager, but Paul Mathews danced the adult son with a deep empathy and tenderness for his mother that will have touched many. He is a dancer with the intuition of an actor for how to portray character, and is one of the company’s real strengths. The group of men seemed like soldiers lost to the call of war, perhaps. The group of women fought as hard as any soldiers.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Remember, Mama', 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Remember, Mama, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The fourth work, Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer Andrea Schermoly, took as reference one of the pamphlets Sheppard had produced in her stalwart campaigning years, projected as text behind the dancers. (That raised laughs among the audience but would have seemed anything but comic 125 years ago). Of the three composers used, the richest and most eloquent dance music of the whole evening was the Folie d’Espagne of Marin Marais, in a recording by Jordi Savall (the highlight performer of Wellington’s Arts Festival earlier this year). That drew a strong response from the cast of eight women, with particularly galvanised and striking performances from Mayu Tanigaito, Madeleine Graham and Kirby Selchow. Despite many standout performances of the program, a following solo by Selchow gave her a true claim to being the dancer of the evening. The work was at its strongest at that point and might well have finished there, in orbit.

Madeleine Graham in 'Stand to Reason'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

 

(left) Madeleine Graham and (right) Kirby Selchow in Stand to Reason. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photos: © Stephen A’Court

So overall, this is a program of strong choreographic ventures, a few unusual costume design choices, and effective lighting throughout by Andrew Lees. There’s a mosaic of different music compositions (12 in all across four works) and I know that can pose a distracting challenge for musicians and music-followers who tend to stay away because of that. Most memorably there is stunning dancing from a pedigree company that is half the age of the Suffragettes’ achievements

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2018 

Featured image: Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in Remember, Mama, Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in 'Remember, Mama', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

 

Afterthoughts:
The sightlines in the Opera House are quite different from those in the St. James Theatre where the company usually performs, and that needs to be borne in mind for choreographic staging and video projections, both of which were compromised on several occasions. (My two immediate neighbours left at half-time since their view was seriously affected, and the seats were not classed as restricted viewing at the box office). The sound system is also perhaps settling in, and music volumes were at times uncomfortably loud.

This Wellington season of only two performances, and no tour to other centres, has left many dance followers further afield hoping for a future opportunity to see this program. The company website lists “Details Soon” for the Harry Haythorne Choreographic Awards towards the end of the year, now in its fourth year, so they may be planning to attend that season instead. New choreography brings fresh blood, and these stalwart dancers always perform, new work and old, as though lives depended on it. JS

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc.

12 August 2018. The Studio, Sydney Opera House

SPLIT began with two dancers, one wearing a rather drab, blue-grey dress, the other naked, performing on a marked-out square on the floor of the Studio, the Sydney Opera House’s most intimate performing space. Both dancers executed the same movements in unison. At times the choreography consisted of small movements of the arms, even just the fingers. At other times it gathered momentum and was almost wild as arms flew up and around. Sometimes it was done on the spot. Other times it moved around the marked-out square. The dancers were astonishing, both of them, in keeping together no matter what the choreography encompassed. They reminded me of the best Cunningham dancers whose sense of ‘body time’ produces similar qualities.

But, in this opening section, what fascinated me more than anything else was how different the choreography looked on the naked dancer (Lilian Steiner) from the view one had of it on the clothed dancer (Melanie Lane). On the naked body the choreography showed how remarkable and articulate the dancing body can be. This is not at all to take away from the performance of Lane but it was a shock to see how much of the mechanics and beauty of Lucy Guerin’s choreography was lost with a covered up torso (as naive as that might sound).

After this opening, and also longest section, the splits occurred. Over the course of the performance the dancers stopped several times and, using white tape that adhered to the floor, divided into two the space in which they had been dancing. After several such divisions, the space was so small that the show came to an inevitable end. And of course as the space got smaller the connections between the dancers was affected, as of course was their freedom to move.

But, while the split caused by these divisions was spatially determined, there was also an emotional split between the dancers. The  unison dancing gave way to what was a kind of anger-driven connection between them. There were times when silent screams seemed to fill the air and in one tortured moment it looked like Steiner was ripping out Lane’s insides and eating them. A few recurring motifs indicated ongoing conflict.

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

But in my mind there was also a split in Guerin’s approach. At times she seemed to have made SPLIT from a totally intellectual point of view. The beautiful unison of the opening section was quite matter of fact in many respects and throughout that opening section there was no real emotional connection between the dancers and us—no change of facial expression for example. And the spatial division made in subsequent sections was also quite matter of fact. It was simple geometry. Even the timing was intellectually motivated with each section being half as long as the preceding one. So how then did we sit on the edge of our seats as the work progressed? That effect was not matter of fact but emotional involvement. Extraordinary really.

Music was by London-based electronic musician Scanner and was just a two and a half-minute sample on a loop. (I read this in an interesting article about Guerin and her musical tastes in the August 2018 edition of Limelight). It was relentless, as one might expect, but its match with the choreography was absorbing. I also enjoyed being drawn in by the lighting (Paul Lim), which moved between down lights and side lights, with the latter projecting shadows of the dancers onto a white screen at one side of the performance area.

SPLIT was a totally absorbing 45 minute (or so) show and was brilliantly danced by Lane and Steiner. I look forward to Lucy Guerin’s next show and regret it has been so long since I saw her work.

Michelle Potter, 13 August 2018

Featured image: SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

SPLIT. Lucy Guerin Inc. Photo: Gregory Lo

Scene from 'Where we gather' from Two Zero, Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Two Zero. Quantum Leap

For reasons that escape me, my Canberra Times review of Quantum Leap’s Two Zero, filed first thing Friday morning (the morning after!), has not yet appeared online, as is the usual practice. The review may appear in the print edition of The Canberra Times on Monday 13 August. In the meantime, here is an expanded version of that review.

9 August 2018, The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

Two Zero celebrates twenty years of dance by Quantum Leap, Canberra’s youth dance ensemble and the performing arm of QL2 Dance. The program was set up as a continuous performance in eight sections, three of which were restagings of works from previous seasons with the other five being works newly created for this particular occasion.

In the terms of choreography, the standout work was Daniel Riley’s Where we gather. It was first seen in 2013 as part of Hit the Floor Together and was remounted for this 2018 season by Dean Cross with final rehearsals overseen by Riley. Where we gather explored the idea of young people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds working together. It showed Riley’s exceptional use of organic and rhythmic movement patterns, and his remarkable feel for shape, line, and the space of the stage. It had been so well rehearsed and was so beautifully danced that it was hard to accept that the dancers were part of a youth ensemble. The film that preceded it (also from 2013) was a fascinating piece of footage showing, with close-ups and long shots, dancers performing outdoors in a landscape that epitomises the ‘wide brown land’ of Australia. The seamless transition from film to live performance was engaging to say the least as a scrim that had been the screen slowly lifted to reveal the dancers onstage in more or less the same position as the final screen image. And the dancing began. Where we gather with its accompanying film opened the show and set the scene for an evening of which QL2 Dance can only be extraordinarily proud.

'Where we gather' from 'Two Zero'. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

From film to performance of Where we gather from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Jodie Farrugia’s This land is calling from the project Identify of 2011 was remounted for this season by Alison Plevey and was perhaps the most moving work on the program. Its focus on aspects of migration to Australia from the arrival of convicts to the present waves of refugee migration was powerfully yet simply presented. Suitcases were used as props by some, others had nothing, a convict was chained round the wrists. Groupings were sometimes confronting, sometimes comforting. It was a thoughtful and forceful piece of choreography enhanced by lighting and projections that opened our eyes to the extent and diversity of migration to this country.

Scene from 'This land is calling' in 'Two Zero'. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Scene from This land is calling from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

I was intrigued by Eliza Sanders’ section called Bigger. It was a new work for ten female dancers, which examined the impact of shared female experiences and their outcomes. Sanders choreographs in a way that seems quite different from her colleagues. Her movement style is mostly without the extreme physicality of other Quantum Leap alumni and yet is fascinating in its fluidity and emphasis on varied groupings of dancers. I was not all that impressed, however, with its opening where all ten dancers were huddled (or muddled) together each holding some kind of reflecting object. It turned out to be a sort of perspex magnifying glass that indicated (we slowly discovered) the growth of experience. I could have done with less emphasis on the magnifications. The moments without them were full of joyous movement.

Scene from 'Bigger' in 'Two Zero'. Quantum Leap 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Scene from Bigger from Two Zero. Quantum Leap 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Other works were by Sara Black, Fiona Malone, Steve Gow and Ruth Osborne. All added an individualistic perspective to the evening.

One aspect of the show bothered me. Black and white striped, calf-length pants were a feature of the costume design for several sections and were worn under differently coloured T-shirts. They worked in some but not all sections. In Ruth Osborne’s Me/Us, a new work in which the dancers spoke of their thoughts about themselves and where they saw their place in society, they were at their best. Similarly they worked well in Steve Gow’s strongly choreographed Empower. But I thought they looked ugly underneath the white floating garments used in Bigger.

Scene from 'Me/Us' in Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Scene from Me/Us from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Nevertheless, Two Zero was a thrill to watch and its finale Celebrate! showed us a mini retrospective of what had happened before. The achievements of Quantum Leap, its collaborators across art forms, and the remarkable list of alumni who have emerged from it over twenty years, are spectacular. May the work continue for at least another twenty years.

Finale to ‘Two Zero’. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Finale to Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Two Zero: Choreography: Sara Black, Dean Cross, Jodie Farrugia, Steve Gow, Fiona Malone, Ruth Osborne, Alison Plevey, Daniel Riley, Eliza Sanders. Music: Adam Ventoura, Warwick Lynch. Film: Wildbear Entertainment. Lighting: Mark Dyson. Costumes: Cate Clelland.

Michelle Potter, 11 August 2018

UPDATE (13/08/2018): see the shorter review online in The Canberra Times at this link.

Featured image: Scene from Where we gather from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Scene from 'Where we gather' from Two Zero, Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Dark Emu', 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dark Emu. Bangarra Dance Theatre

Below is a slightly expanded version of my review of Dark Emu. The online Canberra Times review was posted earlier at this link.

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26 July 2018, Canberra Theatre

Dark Emu, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s newest production, is inspired by a book of the same name by Bruce Pascoe. In the book Pascoe examines aspects of Aboriginal life prior to the arrival of British settlers. In particular he shows quite convincingly that Aboriginal people were not simply hunters and gathers living in a kind of rudimentary lean-to structure. On the contrary, they cultivated the land, build sturdy and lasting housing for themselves, built dams and used irrigation techniques for their crops, stored food, governed themselves and so on. The history that in general has been passed down to white people simply doesn’t tell us such things. But reading the book in the week before the show, I wondered how Pascoe’s story would translate into dance.

I don’t think it translated very well to tell the truth and I wish I hadn’t read the book in advance. There was a strong historical argument in Pascoe’s book, but in setting out that argument he used very specific examples. In one section of the book, for example, Pascoe talks about the Indigenous use of fire for back burning. A section of the dance clearly was about fire—if nothing else the lighting told us so. But the choreography didn’t really give us the significance of the use of fire, nor that its use was seen very differently by white settlers. The later sections, however, were more obvious when there was some conflict between groups and when Indigenous culture stood tall and proud at the end. I guess the show was meant to portray the spirit of the book and convey an emotional message. But it was somewhat frustrating trying to understand where the work was going.

But putting that aspect of the show aside, there was some excellent dancing and every dancer deserves praise for the poise and commitment they demonstrated throughout the work. I enjoyed the rhythmic movement patterning of sections such as Kangaroo Grass. I also especially liked a trio, Grain Dust, performed by Kaine Sultan-Babij, Beau Dean Riley Smith and Yolande Lowatta. It had some beautifully organic moves and Smith in particular stood out for the way in which he used every part of his body so expressively. In fact, whenever he was on stage, even when wearing that red wig, it was hard to look at anyone else.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Dark Emu', 2018. Photo: Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Dark Emu', 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Beau Dean Riley Smith and dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

I also admired Jacob Nash’s backcloth. Structurally, it reminded me of a kind of Blue Poles set in the bush. In many respects, with its complex lines and swirls and gentle colours, it carried the strongest message of the inventiveness of Aboriginal activity prior to British settlement. But I was surprised when I saw Jennifer Irwin’s costumes close up in media images. From where I was sitting, or  perhaps with the kind of lighting being used, I didn’t notice the extent of the detail that she used (as she usually does) in her choice of fabric. I was not a huge fan of the music (by Steve Francis). Most previous Bangarra productions have always seemed to have had a stronger Indigenous resonance in their scores.


Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Last year’s Bennelong was always going to be a hard act to follow. It managed narrative and emotion and gave us both in spades. Dark Emu was emotive but seemed not to have a strong enough structure to make it as powerful as I had hoped, even with input, apparently, from dramaturg Alana Valentine.

Michelle Potter, 27 July 2018

Featured image: Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Verve. The Australian Ballet

29 June 2018, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The Australian Ballet’s latest triple bill, Verve, once again raises the fascinating question of what is contemporary ballet? And once again the three works on the program, one each from Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour, and Alice Topp are examples of how varied answers to that question can be.

Constant Variants from Baynes was first made in 2007 although this is the first time I have seen it. It opened the program. It is impeccably constructed and is so at one with the music, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, that it is like seeing as well as hearing the sound. It gives us lyrical movement and sculptural poses. There are moments of playfulness and moments of wonderful unison from the dancers—a male trio stands out in particular. Michael Pearce’s set of partial picture frames, variously coloured, glow beautifully under Jon Buswell’s lighting. Constant Variants is calming, beautiful and recognisably classical.

Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Brett Simon in 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Brett Simon in Constant Variants. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The evening closed with Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, first seen in 2015. I felt uneasy in 2015 and still do. Choreographically it is detailed in the extreme and the dancers capture that detail beautifully. But they constantly move sharply, cutting the air with their limbs, and I longed for a bit of curve to break up the razor-edged look. Aggression and anger predominate. But what makes me especially uneasy is that Filigree and Shadow doesn’t lead anywhere. I can’t see a structure, just a constant coming and going. For me that doesn’t work.

Scene from 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Scene from Filigree and Shadow. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Placed in the middle of the program was Topp’s latest creation, Aurum, danced to four separate works by Ludovico Einaudi. And it was astonishing. There is a choreographer’s explanation for the inspiration behind the work, which is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold or metallic lacquer. But to tell the truth Aurum exists without an intellectual explanation. It is completely visceral. It is about us and how we connect and we are just carried along by its emotional power.

Its surging choreography is compelling (althought there were a few moments when I felt I was watching a phrase or two from a work by Jiri Kylian). But I loved the gorgeous, swooping lifts, the stretched and elongated bodies, and the often precarious balances. A particularly moving pas de deux between Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson stood out.

Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo:Scene from 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson in Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

And of course there was that amazing group section, the third of the ‘movements’. It completely engulfed the audience as it pounded its way to a conclusion when the audience broke out into an uproar of pleasure and excitement (and it wasn’t even opening night). Then there was the final section, another pas de deux this time between Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov, which played with shadows and was thrillingly lit by Jon Buswell. It seemed to resolve all the emotional drama that had gone before it.

It is hard to remember another work that has had such an instant impact in Australia, except perhaps Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Let’s hope Aurum gets another showing soon.

Michelle Potter, 1 July 2018

Featured image: Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Aurum. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in 'The Beginning of Nature', 2018. Photo: Chris Herzfield

The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre

14 June 2018, Canberra Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre

Below is a slightly expanded version (with different images) of my review of Australian Dance Theatre’s The Beginning of Nature. The Canberra Times review is available online at this link. In addition, I was lucky enough to be contacted by the composer, Brendan Woithe, after my review appeared. In the ensuing correspondence he explained in some depth how the score could often sound as if it were a powerful electronic soundscape when on stage there were just four string players performing on two violins, a viola and a cello, along with two singers.

It appears, if I understand Woithe correctly, that the sound produced by the string players is manipulated in real time by a computer system, built and pre-programmed by Woithe so that no human intervention is required. The sound produced in this way is combined with the vocals and a small amount of pre-recorded backing at times to produce what we hear during the performance.

As I suggested in my review, the remarkable sound that emerged from this process varied in what it suggested and, as such, made an inestimable, collaborative contribution to the overall work.

The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre. Choreographer: Garry Stewart. Composer: Brendan Woithe. Lighting: Damien Cooper. Costumes: Davis Browne. Indigenous consultant: Jack Buckskin. The Canberra Theatre. June 14 and 15

Garry Stewart has been artistic director of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre for almost two decades now. During that time, he has built up a reputation for choreography that pushes the human body in directions that at times look almost impossible. He often also works with ideas that stretch the imagination to its limits. The Beginning of Nature, his latest work, is no different.

Thematically the work examines rhythms in nature. Sometimes this happens in a gentle way. Stewart’s nine dancers create undulating patterns with their arms, or swirling movements with their hands, or they use their bodies in mesmerising swaying movements. At other times those rhythms are more violent and the dancers throw themselves into moves that are wild and free. Sometimes animal or bird actions are evoked as bodies swarm as one, or tidal patterns emerge as the dancers course across the stage together. There are connections of all kinds, including a moment where two dancers are locked together at the mouth. Some spectacular moves are performed with a dancer balancing on a single part of the body—the head or the hand for example. Other movements find the dancers springing suddenly from a prone position on the floor into the air. There they seem to pause momentarily, execute a cabriole while parallel to the floor, and then return to a prone position. It’s like a sudden explosion from a volcano.

Chris Mills, Harrison Elliot, Zoe Dunwoodie. Kimball Wong, Matte Roffe, David James McCarthy in 'The Beginning of Nature', 2018. Photo: ©

(from front) Chris Mills, Harrison Elliot, Zoe Dunwoodie. Kimball Wong, Matte Roffe in The Beginning of Nature, 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Thomas Fonua in 'The Beginning of Nature', Australian Dance Theatre 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Thomas Fonua in The Beginning of Nature, Australian Dance Theatre, 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy

I also felt there was an atavistic element to the work. The dancers wear their hair in somewhat unkempt styles and, where the hair (or wig) is long, they fling it from side to side as they move. They are also completely involved facially and bodily in expressing the rudimentary forces that are at the heart of the work.

Musically the work is transfixing. A score by Brendan Woithe evokes the sounds of a huge range of natural forces from rain and wind to more gentle aspects of the world and its seasons. It is played onstage by string players from the Zephyr Quartet, with two other actors speaking and singing in the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Hills. A consultant, Jack Buckskin, and his team are responsible for the powerful Indigenous aspect of the work, which highlights a language that had all but disappeared until work began to restore it from a kind of phonetic dictionary assembled by German missionaries. Costumes by Davis Browne are a greenish blue, although the colour changes with the lighting. They are quite simple in design and cut, and can be added to (and subtracted from). Sometimes the dancers appear to be wearing a toga-style dress, while at other times costume is reduced to just a pair of trunks. Lighting by Damien Cooper, with its occasional hazy effects contrasting with patches of brightness and an emphasis on green highlights, is another spectacular feature of a work that is, all in all, a remarkable collaborative endeavour.

Many adjectives come to mind to describe the overall effect of The Beginning of Nature. It is poetic, elemental, ritualistic, and even operatic in the intense theatricality that pervades it. But more than anything The Beginning of Nature is absolutely compelling and engrossing to watch. It simply takes over and sweeps us along. And how beautiful it looks on the stage of the Canberra Theatre with its wide proscenium, giving what Stewart himself referred to as a ‘panoramic feel.’ The panorama of nature is before us.

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2018

Featured image: Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in The Beginning of Nature, 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in 'The Beginning of Nature', 2018. Photo: Chris Herzfield

Snow White. Ballet Preljocaj. Photo: Jean-Claude Carbonne

Snow White. Ballet Preljocaj

9 June 2018, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

A death scene begins and ends Ballet Prelocaj’s Snow White. As the ballet opens, we see Snow White being born and gathered up by her father as her mother writhes on the floor and dies. As the ballet ends the stepmother (the Queen) is forced to dance in burning shoes until she dies. Both moments are compelling and there is nothing sweet and charming (or Disney-like) in this version of the story. Choreographer Angelin Preljocaj has gone back to the original story by the Brothers Grimm, and grim it indeed it is. Having said that there is one truly delightful moment at the beginning when, while holding his new-born child in his arms, the father (the King) passes behind an upstage screen and emerges on the other side with a beautiful little child holding his hand. This theatrical moment showed the passing of time but was enhanced by the absolute delight of the little girl at being on stage.

Choreographically Snow White had one truly astonishing sequence. After having the poisoned apple shoved (and I mean shoved with absolutely vile intent) down her throat by the Queen, Snow White’s apparently lifeless body is discovered by the Prince. He and she have met before and have already established a relationship so he is bereft to find her in this state. A pas de deux begins and what makes it remarkable is that there is exciting partner work here as the Prince lifts and flings Snow White’s apparently lifeless body around him until the apple is dislodged. They then continue the pas de deux with delicious softness and romanticism.

Snow White is forced to eat the poisoned apple in Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White. Photo: © Jean-Claude Carbonne

I also enjoyed the moments when we met the seven miners who discover Snow White asleep in the forest that is their workplace. They were not little people in this Snow White but their occupation was clear as we watched them moving up and down a sheer rock face (sets by Thierry Leproust) using ropes to aid the process. Discovering Snow White lying exhausted on the forest floor they were curious about her. The dance they performed together (in between getting on with their climbing activities) demonstrated their close-knit ties to each other and their curiosity about Snow White. I have to admit I was reminded of Meryl Tankard’s works at this point, partly as a result of the use of ropes as part of the choreography. But there were moments of choreography that looked quite linear or geometric and my mind went back to the Hungarian dancers in Tankard’s Wild Swans.

Other parts of the choreography were not quite so engrossing. The early scene, when Snow White and her father sat on their elevated thrones and watched their subjects dancing, contained some interesting moves that seemed to me to look back to court dancing. But this sequence was far too long and in the end seemed like a fill-in rather than part of the story. Despite this, for the most part you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium throughout this show. It was gripping theatre and included some remarkable costumes, although perhaps not always to my liking, by Jean Paul Gaultier.

Michelle Potter, 11 June 2018

Featured image: Snow White is discovered by the seven workmen in Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White. Photo: © Jean-Claude Carbonne

Snow White. Ballet Preljocaj. Photo: Jean Paul Carbonne

A gripe: I was shocked by the format of the acknowledgment of the traditional custodians of the land on which the Sydney Opera House stands. It was so badly amplified that it was all but impossible to make out what was being said. Western civilisation gone mad!

A second gripe: It is always frustrating when roles are shared by two or more dancers but there is no indication of which of the dancers is appearing at a specific performance. Even a stand with cast list in the lobby of the theatre, or near the doors to the auditorium, or anywhere, would be good. Photographs in a program are not always helpful given that make up and costume (including wigs) often change appearances quite markedly.