Nikki Tarling in 'Alone', 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Alone. Jack Riley and artists

30 March 2018, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre

Many words come to mind when thinking about Alone, a work by Jack Riley made on four dancers: confronting, demanding, mesmerising, mysterious, thought-provoking, physical, dangerous, even a little spooky at times.

After a bit of silence while we contemplate a shape under a grey blanket, Alone begins with a bang! Riley enters suddenly from a door at the back of the performing space. He flings it open, strides in, closes the door with a huge bang. We notice he is wearing a black, unadorned mask. He proceeds to shine blue lights on the shape in the middle of the floor and around the studio. Then he rips off the blanket and exposes a naked body, lying curled up. Where is this going we wonder? The body is that of Nikki Tarling and slowly, so slowly, she  moves her body, mainly her limbs, until Riley arrives at her side and proceeds to dress her in baggy trousers and a close fitting top.

Throughout this opening adventure I am a little spooked by a black-clad, hooded figure who has quietly appeared and is leaning against a side wall. Throughout the evening he slinks, ever so slowly, around the walls of the studio until, in the last moments of the performance, he has reached the wall on the other side and is hovering near another curled up, naked figure. What role does he play?

Nikki Tarling in 'Alone', 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Nikki Tarling in Alone, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Between the beginning and the end there is some strong dancing. The highlight is a duet between Riley and Tarling, sometimes involving two long rods, initially joined together. But once the rods are separated they become a little like weapons and the relationship between the two dancers has elements of a duel, a challenge, and a desire to gain the upper hand. There are moments that recall moves in fencing and the martial arts, and others of extreme physicality when bodies are thrown around sometimes to the extent that I think the dancers must have fallen and been injured. But no, it’s just Riley’s extreme choreography. It is exciting to watch, heart in mouth.

Jack Riley and Nikki Tarling in ‘Alone’, 2018.Photo : Lorna Sim

Jack Riley and Nikki Tarling in Alone, 2018.Photo: © Lorna Sim

Eventually, Riley relinquishes the mask, which is taken and worn by Tarling. Later, Riley has a solo in which he shivers and shakes. It is more emotional than physical, but it makes a powerful impact. And finally Tarling smashes the rod over Riley. It puts her in control.

 

Jack Riley in Alone, 2018. Photos: © Lorna Sim

What about the hooded character and the second naked body in the upstage corner? Well, to me in the end it seemed that death was hovering over life, and the entire show seemed like a confrontational look at forces that follow us throughout our life. I love a show that gives me the opportunity to have a personal interpretation of a performance, as Alone did. It was also a well structured and well danced show and was a definite step forward for Riley.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2018

Featured image: Nikki Tarling and Jack Riley in Alone, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Nikki Tarling in 'Alone', 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

NOTE: I am sorry not to be able to mention the soundscape that accompanied the show; nor the names of the two other male dancers, who played minor roles in terms of dancing, but whose presence was essential (at least in relation to how I interpreted the work); nor the designer of the very interesting lighting. There was a list of those involved in the show stuck to a wall in the foyer, but the role each played was not identified. Something for next time?

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

Swan Lake—Loch na hEala. Michael Keegan-Dolan

St James Theatre Wellington, 14 March 2018
Choreography: Michael Keegan Dolan. Music: Slow Moving Clouds

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

It is revealing to read an interview with Michael Keegan-Dolan in the local press in which he admits that he thinks this latest production, Swan Lake—Loch na hEala, is his best work to date. Many an artist would say the latest work is the best workbut it’s undeniably true that the thrust and ideas in this work are of unparalleled import and poignancy. It is hard to imagine another theatre work grappling so surely with old story and deep themes, revealing dark secrets and offering balm however briefly. This Lake of Swans is painfully beautiful, heartfelt, soulsprung, footstamped, wingborne, endearingly musiced, beyond reach and entirely present.

Keegan-Dolan’s earlier Giselle, Petrouchka and Rite of Spring, with his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, were all courageous and hugely memorable works, but Loch na hEala may well prove to be the most outstanding visionary work of its generation. It is an honour to write about the production, and important to thank the New Zealand Festival for their decision to bring this astonishing work to our town.

It’s a thrill to see Alex Leonhartsberger, consummate performer, in the central role (revives memories of Douglas Wright’s choreographies when Alex was in the cast). The exquisite Rachel Poirier is a wounded Dying Swan for our time (as Kilda Northcott was a few years back, muse to Douglas). Keegan-Dolan is to Ireland what Wright has always been to New Zealand, and that has to be my highest praise to them both. Kia ora korua. Salute to the pair of you.

Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan's 'Loch na eHala (Swan Lake)', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na eHala (Swan Lake). Wellington, 2018

W. B. Yeats’ poem, The Wild Swans at Coole, resonates with great birds ‘mysterious, beautiful’ that in turn evoke the exquisite 16th century madrigal by Orlando Gibbons ‘The silver swan that, living, had no note…’ (Swans in old tales are often bewitched women, rendered mute) ‘when Death approached unlocked her silent throat’. This trope is achingly, beautifully caught in the final pas de deux of love and comfort that is permitted to the two wounded and damaged characters of this production—Jimmy O’Reilly (read Prince Siegfried), and his adored Finola, (read Odette). It has the fragility of life, held by love, yet dead and gone too soon. You’ll be weeping now if ever you wept at anything. You’ll be back tomorrow night for a repeat viewing. That’s not masochism, it’s just too beautiful to see only once.

W. B. Yeats The Wild Swans of Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Orlando Gibbons’ madrigal, The Silver Swan, is one of the Poems in the London Underground now. The seventh Autumn has come upon me since my Allan slipped down and away, leaving us mute, so shocked at his leaving. Unreal. Not real. Did he not love us enough to fight and slay the dreaded Count Leukaemia von Rothbart and stay with us in the happy nest of our home? What was he thinking to go away and leave the garden unweeded, the lawn all unmown, the orchard overgrowing, the path too thin as its spread of metal wears away, all his books on these shelves with bookmarks still upstanding, his dressing gown hanging on the back of the door, his gumboots by the garden shed, the plum tree that presages Spring, the Christmas pohutukawa of summer, the gold & red leafed grapevine ushering in Autumn, the darling tiny snowdrops so sweet, so perfect, so silent in cold Winter. Why did I waste you? Why did I lose you? Why did I not hold you tighter, stop you getting away? We could have made it. We could have fixed everything. We still could. Don’t unlock your silent throat, don’t sing or Count von Rothbart will get you. The clematis, the one you planted for Beth, needs pruning. Then there’s the little daffodil, the scented one you planted so tenderly under our window when Nell was born. I need you here to help me find that bulb gone underground. Don’t go. Please stay. Don’t leave. No wonder tears drenched my dress as Jimmy danced with Finola. You would have drenched yours too.

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O’Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na hEala (Swan Lake), Wellington, 2018

In the afore-mentioned interview Keegan-Dolan admits he is interested when people come back for repeat viewings of his show, and he wonders why they do. I’ll tell him why. I just did.

Jennifer Shennan, 20 March 2018

Follow this link to Jennifer Shennan’s review for Radio New Zealand’s Upbeat program.

Featured image: Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O’Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na hEala (Swan Lake), Wellington, 2018

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

‘Don’t be afraid of the dark—it is your friend’

All photos: 2018 New Zealand Festival. The Wellington Airport Season of Swan Lake/Loch Na hEala. © Photos: Matt Grace

Artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Murphy. The Australian Ballet

16 March 2018. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

This program was a retrospective of works by Graeme Murphy and was in celebration of his long association with the Australian Ballet. The evening began with a brief film clip of Murphy talking about those moments for a choreographer, and by extension for a dancer and for the audience, when a transformation occurs, when a choreographer is able to draw out from a dancer a quality that is artistry at the highest level. The brief interview (a monologue really) was a deeply personal reflection from Murphy and showed his humanity, his humility, his own artistry, and his respect for dance and those who engage with it.

The program that followed was a fine opportunity to ponder on what is distinctive about Murphy’s choreography. It consisted of excerpts from several of Murphy’s works, largely made originally for Sydney Dance Company, and a performance of Murphy’s Firebird, made for the Australian Ballet in 2009. Although Firebird has never been a favourite of mine—somehow it reminds me of a weird cult activity—it was distinguished on this occasion by an exceptional performance from Lana Jones in the title role. Her immersion in the role was complete and her first entrance was stunningly controlled, and believe me the choreographic requirements of that entrance are demanding.

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in ‘Firebird.’ The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Firebird. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

But what emerged as the evening progressed was the diversity of Murphy’s output. His works have humour, but are also often clearly serious in emotional impact; they occasionally cross cultural boundaries; they are always closely connected to music, and his musical choices are themselves diverse; they can be classical in their dance vocabulary, or not so classical as the work demands; they are sometimes narrative-based, at other times quite abstract. Never a dull moment!

What was also fascinating was being able to see some of Murphy’s signature choreographic phrases and groupings across the course of the evening. What stood out for me was the way he uses small groups of dancers, often four, and has them work together as one. Bodies are thrown, swirled, turned upside down, but always engage in a smooth and lyrical manner.

In terms of the works presented, the highlight for me was Grand, the work he made in 2005 in honour of his mother, a pianist. A grand piano onstage was played by Scott Davie (as it was in 2005) and we were treated to several excerpts from this wonderful, funny, emotional work that was strongly musically oriented in so many ways—’sweeping in conception, intimate in detail and constantly surprising in choreographic invention’ I wrote in 2005. It made me long to see the full work again, but it was a treat to see as many sections as we did. They included the delightfully funny Chopsticks section and the Gershwin number, one of those remarkable uses of four dancers who seem to dance as one whatever impossible moves they are asked to make.

Valerie Tereshchenko and artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Valerie Tereshchenko and artists of the Australian Ballet in Grand, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The big disappointment of the evening was Shéhérazade, that exquisite short work for two men and two women made by Murphy in 1979. It was performed without the luscious, blue silk tent/canopy with its gold decorative elements, which was such an intrinsic part of Kristian Fredrikson’s designs for the work. Without it most of the mysterious and erotic quality of earlier performances was lost, as was the allusion to the art of Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, and the over-ridingly blue and gold colour scheme that Fredrikson imagined (and achieved). Those hanging strips of what looked like tinsel at times were quite out of place. Just before the work’s opening in 1979 Murphy told a journalist: ‘One of the fascinating aspects of this work will be the design inserted into the dancing. In a sense the dancers will be wearing the set.’ Not this time!

Having said that, however, the standout performance of the entire evening came from Lana Jones as the second of the female dancers in Shéhérazade. Jones’ technique was impeccable. But it was her beautiful attention to choreographic detail that grabbed my attention. Those moments when she moved her wrists in little twisting circles, while holding her hands and arms close to her slightly curved body were breathtaking, as was the way she moved her neck and chest at times. And how spectacular she looked in those iconic poses for all four dancers, which mark certain stages of the work.

The evening belonged to Graeme Murphy and I salute him for all those works that have thrilled us over the years. But bouquets to Lana Jones for two standout performances during the evening. She had it all, and I thought she was dancing not just choreography but Murphy’s choreography.

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2018

Featured image: artists of the Australian Ballet in Grand, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

Giselle. English National Ballet

1 March 2018, Aotea Centre, Auckland
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Aforethoughts and Afterthoughts.

English National Ballet’s season of Giselle, in an acclaimed new production choreographed by Akram Khan, has just played at the Auckland Arts Festival. The setting has migrant workers stranded after a clothing factory closes down, and the clash between workers and factory bosses echoes the contrast of villagers and nobles in the 19th century ballet by Coralli and Perrot. Dancing is of the highest standard, the set is monumental, costumes inspired, lighting striking and the atmospheric music composed by Vincenzo Lamagna, scored and conducted by Gavin Sutherland, performed by Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra, makes major impact.

Many of us are thrilled by the contemporary relevance of this setting (Khan is Bangla Deshi. He works in the sophisticated milieu of European dance yet does not resort to any conventions and clichés of ballet). The gesture of Giselle’s arms down-stretched, hands slowly, so slowly, turning palms up as she asks Albrecht ‘Why? What is this about? What am I supposed to do? What are you going to do?’ The cast of co-workers repeat her gesture, as well they might. More Asian than European, more baroque than balletic, it is a telling opening to the story about to enfold.

Others are continuing to think about the echoes of the original storyline, the music, the choreography. There are about four fleeting fragments of ‘the old Giselle’ in the ‘new’ one, and they pull at your heart. Good. The ballet is engaging. No one is unmoved, no one denies the power of the production.

Fernanda Oliveira and Fernando Bufala in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Fernanda Oliveira and Fernando Bufala in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act I. English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

In 2016, Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the company, and herself still a performer in the lead role, commissioned this new version of the classic Giselle from Akram Khan, following a one-act work he had earlier made for the company. We have seen some of Khan’s work performed here by Sylvie Guillem several Festivals ago, and there are trailers aplenty on YouTube to give you the strength of his dance-making. It is poignant to learn that just after the Khan premiere season in London, there followed another season of the production by Mary Skeaping of the original ballet. Now that’s imaginative programming.

This is the first ever visit to New Zealand of English National Ballet, formerly known as Festival Ballet. A number of celebrated New Zealand dancers have been members of the company over decades—Russell Kerr, June Greenhalgh-Kerr, Anne Rowse, Ken Sudell, Donald McAlpine, Loma Rogers, Sue Burch, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them. The company was for a time directed by Matz Skoog, former artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, with Fiona Tonkin as assistant. Amber Hunt, New Zealand dancer, is currently in the company’s ranks.

Rosemary (Johnston) Buchanan, a leading dancer with New Zealand Ballet in 1960s, is now a patron of the company, and her artistic opinions are valued by ENB. It is poignant to witness the camaraderie and loyalty this company maintains for its heritage and history. The program essays are as good as you’ll find anywhere. It is reassuring that archivist Jane Pritchard writes about original and earlier versions of the ballet in a way that they do not need to be put down for new versions to be put up. In 1959, I slept three nights in the queue in His Majesty’s Arcade to buy a ticket in the Gods to see the Royal Ballet with Margot Fonteyn performing Giselle. The theatre and the arcade have since disappeared but the memory remains. Mindful of the achievements in that title role of such dancers as Margot Fonteyn, Patricia Rianne, Olga Spessivtseva, Carla Fracci, that ballet is not something I’m going to let go lightly. Fortunately, I don’t have to.

Old productions. New productions. There’s room for all. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Giselle (by the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre) was staged in Wellington several Festivals back—with Albrecht as a two-timing transgender line-dance teacher. (Well, you know the Irish). This man, whose Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring were staged in Melbourne in 2013 (the music played on two grand pianos on stage), is the fearless mover & shaker you won’t want to miss—though you might need a medicinal whisky, before the show and maybe after as well. He is arguably the best communicator about his choreography I have encountered, and he writes his own program essays. Stand by for his Swan Lake Loch na Neal due in the Wellington Festival mid-March. If you don’t like heat, stay out of the kitchen, but no one should write a feeble-minded review of his work.

There’s always much evidence of the well-to-do among ballet audiences, though we would of course claim that you and I are there for the right reasons. Everyone wishes for fairness in the workplace. There’s always been,and will always be uneven distribution of wealth in the world, no choreography will change that. We should think long and hard about this production of Giselle we have just seen, and maybe also about the time we first encountered it. Ask if any garment in your wardrobe was made in Bangla Desh, or in a sweat factory somewhere else?  Also ask ‘Do all ballet companies, worldwide and close to home, treat their dancers fairly?’ since that would be a good place to start, if this remarkable production with its ethos is to be honoured.

Jennifer Shennan, 9 March 2018

Featured image: English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle., Act II. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

Follow this link for a review of Akram Khan’s Giselle posted in 2016.

Liz Lea in the 'showgirl' sequence from RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

RED. Liz Lea Productions

8 March 2018, QL2 Theatre, Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra

What follows is a slightly expanded version of my review for The Canberra Times of Liz Lea’s RED. A link to the online version of The Canberra Times‘ review is at the end of this post. The print version will appear next week.

The pre-show media for Liz Lea’s new work RED prepared us to expect something a little extraordinary, something a bit bawdy, something with adult themes, something fierce and fractious, perhaps something that was even a bit funny, but definitely something confronting. And yes, it was all of those things. But nothing, nothing at all, prepared us for the emotional power that coursed through RED, and for the brilliantly coherent manner in which the show drew its diverse sections together. And nothing prepared us for the courage and dignity with which Lea put her life before us, her life as a dancer who has battled endometriosis throughout her career.

RED was a multi-media experience. It began with a film clip of a young girl crossing a white bridge; the sound of a counter tenor singing that exquisitely melancholic aria ‘What is life to me without thee’ from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice; and a voice over that began with the words ‘She thought she could have it all.’ That voice returned throughout the work. It was a doctor explaining the nature of the illness from which Lea suffered, and the procedures that she had to endure. I am told that the voice of the doctor was that of Brian Lucas, the dramaturg and Lea’s mentor for the production. Film clips from cinematographer Nino Tamburri also returned from time to time, and Lea talked about her career. Her conversation focused largely on how she managed her condition, but also went right back to her experiences as a thirteen year old dancer. Of course she also danced throughout the hour-long show.

The dancing segments were fast and forceful at times, full of theatrical extravaganza at others. It was easy to see in the choreography, from three choreographers (Vicki van Hout, Virginia Ferris and Martin del Amo) in addition to Lea, the styles with which Lea is most familiar—hints of Indian dance moves, suggestions of martial arts, and a fabulous, stunningly lit showgirl routine, choreographed by Ferris and lit by Karen Norris, with feathers (red of course), fans and sequins. Then there was a ‘codeine nightmare’ when Lea was joined by several older dancers dressed in black (the women mostly with added sparkles to their dresses) who danced with and for her and helped her live out the experience of having to manage excessive pain.

Liz Lea with Greg Barratt and David Turbayne in RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Liz Lea with Greg Barratt and David Turbayne in RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

But it was the ending that reduced me to tears. That incredible Gluck aria returned and Lea, now dressed in a tight, short, black number with high-heeled black patent leather shoes (with red soles), hair pulled back, and looking superbly elegant and glamorous, stood before us. She scarcely moved at first, but slowly her arms began a dance that gathered momentum and seemed to promise a future full of hope. Her limbs stretched this way and that, lyrical, questioning, wondering, and in the very last moment a shower of shiny, red “snowflakes” fell from above. The choreography for this last section was by Martin del Amo. Its simplicity was striking but it was also a breathtaking finale for all that it looked back on, and all that it promised.

Liz Lea in the finale to RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Liz Lea in the finale to RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

RED was a truly remarkable piece of dance theatre with the coherence that only exceptional dramaturgy can achieve. Every aspect of the production was astonishing, but standing out was the power of dance, and the wider multi-media context in which it can and did fit, to transmit a diverse and very human message, and to do so with such emotion and such clarity. As for Lea, how courageous, how remarkable can one artist be? Brava!

Here is the link to the online article in The Canberra Times.

RED: the prequel

RED was launched prior to its opening night performance in one of the courtyards of Gorman Arts Centre. It was a beautiful, clear, not-too-cold night and Gorman was alive. The show was launched by the ACT Minister for the Arts, Gordon Ramsay, and his launch speech was preceded by comments from artistic director of QL2, Ruth Osborne, and Gai Brodtmann, Member for Canberra in the Federal House of Representatives.

We were also treated to a performance by the ‘wuthering’ ladies and gentlemen of Canberra who danced to Kate Bush’s 1970s song Wuthering Heights.

Wuthering Heights community dancers, Canberra 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Wuthering Heights community dancers, Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Also on display in one of the studios of Gorman was a collection of costumes from Liz Lea’s collection covering her productions over the past 20 years, including the costume for her solo work Bluebird. Since its premiere in London in 2005, Lea’s Bluebird has been performed across the world, with its first Australian showing taking place at the Choreographic Centre, Canberra, in 2006.

Costume for Liz Lea's 'Bluebird'. Photo: Michelle Potter

Costume for Liz Lea’s Bluebird. Photo: Michelle Potter

Michelle Potter, 9 March 2018

Featured image: Liz Lea in the ‘showgirl’ sequence from RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Liz Lea in the 'showgirl' sequence from RED, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

In a flash. Australian Dance Party

18 February 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Have you ever wondered what happens inside (and outside) a film studio? Well Australian Dance Party’s latest show, In a flash, gives a clue. Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery, In a flash was made in response to Starstruck, a Gallery exhibition of portraits of Australian film personalities.

Party Leader Alison Plevey assembled four dancers—Adam Deusien, Gabriela Green, Leeke Griffin and Alanna Stenning—to join her for a 25 minute, fast-moving and cleverly thought through piece. The five dancers were joined by photographer Lorna Sim and graphic artist Anna Trundle who, between them, shot and edited live a series of photographs, which were displayed as they were edited on a screen in the performing space.

The piece began in glamorous style, more or less—thongs were the order of the day in the footwear area. The five dancers began outside Gordon Darling Hall and made their way, after peering through the glass panels, inside. Once inside, their dancing was slick and paid homage, music-wise at least, to Strictly Ballroom. Sometimes the early parts of the show had an air of being full-on, over the top Hollywood style. Lots of smiling, lots of make-up, lots of presenting oneself.

Opening number from In a flash. Australian Dance Party 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim edited by Anna Trundle

Early number from In a flash. Australian Dance Party, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim, edited by Anna Trundle

But the glamour quickly gave way to more down to earth matters—behind the scene processes such as preparatory work, working up a curriculum vitae and the like. And costuming became more down to earth too when the glamorous outfits were discarded for rehearsal clothing or regular dance gear.

Adam Deusien, Gabriela Green, Lekke Griffin, Alison Plevey and Alanna Stenning in a scene from In a flash. Photo: Lorna Sim edited by Anna Trundle

(left to right) Adam Deusien, Gabriela Green, Leeke Griffin, Alison Plevey, and Alanna Stenning in a scene from In a flash. Photo: Lorna Sim, edited by Anna Trundle

There was some strong dancing too in the form of solos, duets and company pieces. I especially enjoyed a sequence featuring the tall and statuesque Griffin, who danced with a white sheet of fabric (representing a towel?), tossing it, wrapping it around herself, and using it various other ways. Sometimes when she posed, legs together, body lifted tall and slightly arched back, head held high, she reminded me of swimmer and film star Esther Williams or, more appropriately in the circumstances, the Australian swimmer and also a star performer, Annette Kellerman.

As these performances (perhaps they should be called ‘takes’) were proceeding, Lorna Sim was taking photos, with her apparatus linked to a computer. Occasionally the shots from performance were beautifully edited into portrait-style images. Very appropriate given that we were in the National Portrait Gallery.

Portrait of Leeke Griffin. Photo: Lorna Sim, edited by Anna Trundle

Portrait of Leeke Griffin. Photo: Lorna Sim, edited by Anna Trundle

It was only at the end, however, when Sim faced us and said ‘thank you’ that I realised how cleverly put together In a flash had been. Alison Plevey thinks outside the box. She puts together shows that attract attention instantly, but in the end they go beyond that instant gratification. Demanding they are, but that’s what the best dance is like. I came away pondering about whether I was meant to be sitting in the Portrait Gallery, or in a film/television studio with Lorna Sim as the link with the audience.

Michelle Potter, 20 February 2018

Featured image: Opening scene, In a flash, Australian Dance Party, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim, edited by Anna Trundle

Note: For various reasons, this is the first National Portrait Gallery dance commission that I have attended without seeing first the exhibition that was the inspiration for the show. This of course has it drawbacks. But by the same token, it means I came to the show without prejudices. Take it as it is written.

Eileen Kramer in the film 'Eileen 2017'

Eileen (2017). A film by Sue Healey

A recent acquisition by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra is a short 6 minute film featuring ex-Bodenwieser dancer Eileen Kramer, aged 103 when the film was shot. This is a truly haunting film by Sue Healey, working with cinematographer Judd Overton. Kramer dances, seated for the most part, to a gentle musical score composed by Darrin Verhagen and Justin Ashworth. The choreography is simple. Kramer uses her hands and lifts and turns her head occasionally. Simple but in the end quite moving.

The production is quite stunning with beautiful lighting that sometimes shines onto Kramer’s face, illuminating it with halo-like effect. White smoke haze is blown across the space occasionally. Kramer uses a white cloth fan at times. It is quite large when unfolded and the edges of the cloth extend over the frame so that there are gorgeous moments of tiny movement when the fan is moved. The chair Kramer sits has an antique look to it and is placed on a length of grey fabric that cascades along the floor. The colour scheme throughout is white and various shades of grey.

Here is the wall caption from Healey:

  • Eileen is a portrait of a dancer. Eileen joined the Bodenwieser Ballet—Australia’s first modern dance company—in 1939 and then spent many years living in India, Europe and America before returning to Sydney in 2014. She was living at Thurles Castle, ‘a home for the potentially homeless’, in Chippendale, Sydney, when I first met her, and we have collaborated on many projects since then. At 103 years of age, Eileen Kramer continues to create: she performs, designs costumes, draws and writes on a daily basis. A painted portrait of Eileen, by surgeon Dr Andrew Greensmith, was a finalist in the 2017 Archibald prize: she thinks it is a lovely portrait but notes that it does not move. This portrait does.

So worth a visit to the Portrait Gallery!

Listen at this link to Eileen speaking for the National Library’s oral history program.

Michelle Potter, 18 February 2018

Featured image: Eileen Kramer in the film Eileen 2017

Eileen Kramer in the film 'Eileen 2017'

James Batchelor in DeepSpace. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Deepspace. James Batchelor & Collaborators

23 December 2017. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 24 December 2017

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

James Batchelor in DeepSpace. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

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

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Australian Ballet

5 December 2017, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 7 December 2017

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

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

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

That extra ’some. Liz Lea & Katie Senior

3 December 2017, Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 5 December 2017

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

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