Scene from 'Epic Theatre' Photo Pedro Greig

‘New Breed’ (2016). Sydney Dance Company

9 December 2016, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

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

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

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

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

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

Scene from 'What you see'. Photo Pedro Greig

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

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

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

Scene from 'Of Dust'. Photo Pedro Greig

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

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

Michelle Potter, 14 December 2016

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

Scene from 'Epic Theatre' Photo Pedro Greig

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

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

‘Coppélia’. The Australian Ballet (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2016

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

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

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

‘PPY16 revealed’. Sydney Dance Company

8 December 2016, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 10 December 2016

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

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

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

27 November 2016, St.James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Truly, madly, deeply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *********************************

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 28 November 2016

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

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

Yanela Pinera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

‘The Nutcracker’. Queensland Ballet

23 November 2016, Canberra Theatre

Below is an expanded version of my Canberra Times review of Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Across the world The Nutcracker is the quintessential Christmas experience. Children grow up knowing the story of Clara, and the Nutcracker Prince who takes her on a journey through a snowy forest to the Kingdom of Sweets. Those children (and their parents) look forward throughout the year to its annual return. It used to be a wonderful Christmas experience enjoyed each year by Australian dance audiences too, but that was long ago. Now we have occasional productions but none of the annual excitement. Recently, however, under the energetic and committed direction of artistic director, Li Cunxin, Queensland Ballet has begun to bring back the annual tradition of a Nutcracker Christmas. This year Canberra has been included as part of Queensland Ballet’s season. How lucky we are.

Every Nutcracker has its own character and every production has slight differences in how the story unfolds. Queensland Ballet’s production is by American-based choreographer Ben Stevenson, who currently directs Texas Ballet Theater in Fort Worth. It was Stevenson who, while directing Houston Ballet from 1976–2003, gave Li the chance to dance in the West when, while visiting Beijing, he offered Li a scholarship to appear in Houston. Since then Li has gone on from a major career as a dancer, including as a principal with the Australian Ballet, to his present position with Queensland Ballet.

Stevenson’s Nutcracker has a warm and homely atmosphere to its opening scenes. Children cross the stage in excitement and anticipation. Some drag their parents behind them. Some ride a sled. Some older people slip on the icy surface. They enter a house, complete with sparkling Christmas tree, where young and old mingle, laugh, eat and drink, dance, play (and have the odd argument), and exchange presents. Clara, youthfully and prettily danced by Mia Heathcote, is given a nutcracker doll by a mysterious visitor, Dr Drosselmeyer (Shane Wuerthner), and the story revolves around this toy. There is a strong comic element to the party scene, and there are more elderly characters than is often the case. Thomas Boyd’s set has a charmingly unpretentious and hospitable quality to it. It all makes for a genial gathering.

Mia Heathcote as Clara in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Mia Heathcote as Clara in The Nutcracker, Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

When the party is over and the guests have departed Clara is woken from her sleep by giant mice who attack her. A fight ensues and Clara kills the King Rat (Rian Thompson) with her shoe before her nutcracker toy is transformed into the Prince (Alexander Idaszak) and the journey to the Kingdom of Sweets begins. When she arrives, Clara is entertained by the inhabitants of the Kingdom, from the pastry cooks to the Sugar Plum Fairy (Yanela Piñera). Finally we find Clara and her toy nutcracker back at home. And we wonder if we, and Clara, have been dreaming?

Queensland Ballet tells the story clearly and smartly and the company dances this Nutcracker to perfection. The corps de ballet shone at every moment whether as snowflakes, life-sized toy soldiers, flowers, or other characters. The snowflakes were dazzling and the Snow Queen (Laura Hidalgo) danced an exceptional pas de deux with the Prince. Hidalgo had such a lyrical quality to her movement, and a beautifully fluid upper body. Every single movement was impressively defined, so much so that she looked as though she was dancing in slow motion. She was attentively partnered by Idaszak, who danced strongly but somehow gently and softly as well. But the flowers in the second act Waltz of the Flowers just amazed me with a series of pretty much perfect double pirouettes, moving across the stage in twos and performing in canon. They were led beautifully by Teri Crilly and Camilo Ramos. And everyone looked as though they loved dancing—no ‘pasted on’ smiles here. Wonderful to see.

Of the other divertissements in the Kingdom of Sweets it was quite special to see Mother Ginger (Liam Geck). This variation rarely appears in other productions but is a delightful sequence in which several children appear from beneath the huge, hooped skirt of a very tall, motherly (if somewhat outrageous) figure. The Mirlitons remained as a pas de trois but danced, instead of the usual three ladies, by two ladies and a man (Tara Schaufuss, Neneka Yoshida and Zhi Fang). The Chinese Dance (D’Arcy Brazier and Zuquan Kou) had an unusual martial arts twist; Spanish was a pas de six with the dancers dressed (by Desmond Heeley) in stunning red and black outfits; and the Russian was a solo for Vito Bernasconi. The audience favourite, however, was the Arabian Dance with Lina Kim and Joel Woellner. Their sinuous pas de deux was highlighted by a fabulous lift with Kim upside down in splits being tilted backwards while in the air.

And the choreographic highlight, the pas de deux and variations of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince, was worth waiting for. I have admired Yanela Piñera in other recent Queensland Ballet productions and, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, she again showed her clean, strong technique. This time I especially admired her lovely little twists of the neck and a beautifully executed double turn in attitude that was done as a supported finger turn. She was partnered by Idaszak as the Prince, who once again was a most attentive partner.

There were so many charming, memorable moments, but in the end this evening stood out as a heart-warming performance of a much-loved ballet by a company that in recent years has gone from strength to strength. Despite funding issues, mentioned by Li Cunxin in his post-performance speech, Queensland Ballet stands tall and proud as a company that cares about the art form and its future. May they return many times to Canberra. We are ready and waiting.

Disclaimer: I had two family members in the children’s cast of Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Michelle Potter, 25 November 2016

Featured image: Yanela Piñera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in The Nutcracker, Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Yanela Pinera and Alexander Idaszak as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince in 'The Nutcracker', Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David James McCarthy

On a personal note: I was (rightly) required by The Canberra Times to include a disclaimer to my review as I had two grandsons performing in the children’s cast. But I have to say that I am thrilled that these two young boys will grow up knowing the excitement of The Nutcracker as a Christmas ballet, and knowing the full ballet rather than a version downsized for children!

The online Canberra Times review is at this link.

Scene from 'Gallantries', New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: ©Stephen A'’Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation 2016

19 November 2016, Te Whaea, Wellington

This NZSD Graduation season has all the students performing with a shared confidence and total commitment that offers audiences an energising experience. That is just what Wellingtonians, recently visited by nature’s forces in a major earthquake and subsequent flooding, need for a lift of the spirits.

Meistens Mozart by Helgi Tomasson, from 1991, to seven songs by Mozart and others, is a charming little opener with the enjoyment of youth and friendship shared. Beguiling.

Sophie Arbuckle and Jack Whiter in 'Meistens Mozart', New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Sophie Arbuckle and Jack Whiter in Meistens Mozart, New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Taiaroa Royal and Taane Mete, both of them NZSD alumnae, first staged He Taonga – a Gift in 2009. This powerful group work for an all-male cast of 14 dancers evokes the strength of haka, the most tense and intense dance on earth, yet here using more freely scaled movements of arms and torso. Potent.

Scene from He Taonga, New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A'’Court

Scene from He Taonga, New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’’Court

The Pas de Deux Romantique by Jack Carter, from 1977, to Rossini, is staged by Patricia Rianne and Qi Huan. Mayuri Hashimoto and Jeremie Gan perform with a  competence and grace that disguises all technical challenges and becomes a joy in motion. Uplifting.

The Wanderer, a solo, was made by Victoria Columbus for George Liang to dance at an international competition. Focussed.

Incant – summoning the lost magic of intuition, by Amber Haines, for an all-female cast, proves an enigmatic work exploring things felt and known in the shadow world. Atmospheric.

Dance Gallantries, by Jiri Bubenicek, to Bach sonatas and partitas, is a sharp and fast highly sophisticated work that pits ballet pairings into fresh territory by having the dancers dissolve into nano-seconds of invertebrate states here and there between their straight moves. Dazzling.

Political Mother, an excerpt from Hofesh Schechter’s work which was in a recent International Arts Festival here, is staged by Sam Coren. It is given a searing, tight and impressive delivery by a galvanized group of dancers who work with remarkable rapport. Urgent.

The final Tempo di Valse, by Nadine Tyson, to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, is a return to safe haven, where the sequences and formations are carried with aplomb by a large ensemble of graceful movers. Cadence.

The program is one of striking contrasts in choreography old and new, across ballet and contemporary dance, which are kept as two separate streams in the NZSD curriculum. Given the realities of the professional dance world where many a company demands a spectrum of strengths in styles across both traditional and new repertoire, one wonders what a work danced by students from both streams combined, would be like.

Holly Newsome in 'Political Mother', New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’'Court

©Stephen A’Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2016. (left) Holly Newsome in Political Mother, (right) Laura Crawford and Yuri Marques in Sleeping Beauty. Photos: © Stephen A’’Court

It’s just possible that Taonga does that already, but if so, a program note to that effect would offer us great insight towards a bi-cultural dance society, and closer link between NZSD and RNZB. Choreography by José Limon, Jiri Kylian, Michael Parmenter, Douglas Wright, Eric Languet, Cameron Mcmillan, Andrew Simmons, Neil Ieremeia, Daniel Belton, Malia Johnston and Laura Jones all come to mind, and that’s just for starters. Thought-provoking.

One’s every good wish goes to the students striking out for the next stage of their careers. A graduate company where they might test those waters would be a dream destination. Dreams are free, but do also sometimes come true. With respect, I offer this paragraph as a gauntlet.

Jennifer Shennan, 22 November 2016

Featured image: Scene from Dance Gallantries, New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’’Court

Scene from 'Gallantries', New Zealand School of Dance, 2016. Photo: ©Stephen A'’Court

 

 

 

Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

‘Chroma’, ‘Multiverse’, ‘Carbon Life’. The Royal Ballet

14 November 2016, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

This triple bill of works by Wayne McGregor, including Multiverse his newest commission, was presented in celebration of McGregor’s ten years as resident choreographer with the Royal Ballet. While all three works clearly had the ‘McGregor touch’ in terms of a choreographic interest in the extent to which the body can be pushed to extreme limits, each was also quite distinctive in its own right.

Chroma, the oldest of the three, was first made in 2006. It was the work that inspired Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet at the time, to offer McGregor the position of resident choreographer. Ten years on Chroma retains its minimalist beauty in its design with a set by John Pawson, costumes by Moritz Junge, lighting by Lucy Carter, and a score by Joby Talbot and Jack White III. It is still thrilling to watch choreographically with its extended limbs and emphasis on a fluid torso. But what made a difference in the current production was the presence in the cast of five dancers guesting from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Jeroboam Bozeman, Jacqueline Green, Yannick Lebrun, Rachael McLaren and Jamal Roberts.

It is tempting to say that these dancers brought a different aesthetic to the choreography, and perhaps they did. Certainly I sensed that they injected a more powerful human quality, something emotional into the steps. It is hard to articulate just why the way they danced was different but it seemed like they had a different kind of focus in their movement. A greater sense of physicality and a different muscularity maybe? Whatever it was, it added a different level of interest, which is not to denigrate in any way the five fabulous Royal Ballet dancers who completed the cast: Federico Bonelli, Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae, and Calvin Richardson. The 2016 production indicates that Chroma lives on and has the power to grow. (Thoughts on my first viewing of the Royal Ballet in Chroma in 2010 are at this link.)

Sarah Lamb in 'Chroma'. The Royal Ballet 2013. Photo: © Bill Cooper.

Sarah Lamb in Chroma. The Royal Ballet (2013). Photo: © Bill Cooper.

The closing item was Carbon Life, made in 2012. Again it had lighting by Lucy Carter, sometimes as in the opening moments eerily green, other times full on bright white. Design was by English fashion designer Gareth Pugh and music by pop/funk artists Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt.

Artists of the Royal Ballet production of 'Carbon Life', 2012. Photo: © Bill Cooper / Royal Opera House / ArenaPAL

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Carbon Life. Photo: © Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL

I especially enjoyed some of the earlier sections where unisex seemed to be the order of the day. Men and women wore similar costumes: short black trunks and, for the women, a skin-coloured midriff top that tightly enclosed the upper body and made them appear topless. Added to this costume both sexes had slicked-back hair (wigs?) that added to the similarity in the look of the sexes. Choreographically this section seemed at times like a ballet class engaged in a kind of temps lié exercise.

A later section was distinguished by some incredible costuming consisting of black, stiffened additions to the head, legs and other parts of the body. They were a little like a cross between KKK headgear and Cambodian dance costume attachments, or perhaps a bit like Ballet mécanique. Certainly the shapes were architectural and the body began to sprout structural additions. The singular attraction of Carbon Life, however, was the presence of live musicians onstage/upstage usually partially hidden by lighting or a screen of some sort. Their playing was loud and engaging and, when they appeared to take a curtain call, they too were dressed to kill. But in the end the choreography seemed like a minor player in all this and Carbon Life took on the guise of a fast-paced video clip rather than an exercise in choreography.

In between Chroma and Carbon Life came the newly commissioned Multiverse, which, incidentally, the Australian Ballet adds to its repertoire in February 2017. I thought it was the least interesting of the three works, although program notes were full of explanations and thoughts about McGregor’s intentions, which centred on the current refugee crisis and other such global perils. Musically (or sound-wise) it was diverse and consisted of two pieces by Steve Reich—a specially commissioned work Runner, and a 1965 piece It’s gonna rain, of which the second part is the voice of a Pentecostal preacher holding forth in Union Square in San Francisco on the biblical story of Noah and the flood. Perhaps because I found William Forsythe’s work, Quintett, so moving—it used Gavin Bryars recording of a homeless man singing over and over Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, which sat emotively beside the choreography—I found the use of the preacher’s words unaffecting. Unlike the Forsythe piece, in Multiverse choreography and recording didn’t seem to reflect each other in a thought-provoking manner. After all this, the second Reich piece, Runner, was simply soporific for me.

Nevertheless, Multiverse began strongly with a male duet—I saw Luca Acri and Marcelino Sambé—full of tension and drama. It was by far the most interesting part of the work choreographically. The section that followed referenced the plight of refugees. This idea came across most strongly via the set by Rashid Rana in which fragmented images appeared. Some were contemporary shots, others were from the well-known painting by Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa. But there were rather too many moments when the dancers simply stood still and, while this might be seen as giving way to the power of the images and what they represented, it was hardly compelling from a movement point of view.

Set from 'Multiverse'.© Rashid Rana. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Set from Multiverse. © Rashid Rana. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Perhaps Multiverse needs more than one viewing in order to appreciate its complexities? But then not everyone has such a luxury. The idea of making dance that reflects current society is indeed admirable (and I am a fan of McGregor’s Live fire exercise). But on this occasion it simply didn’t work for me and I began to wonder whether I should not have read the detailed program notes because what was written and what appeared onstage didn’t really match.

Audience reaction was a curious thing too. As the curtain went down, behind me an enthusiastic audience member was cheering long and loudly. Beside me another was boo-ing!

Michelle Potter, 19 November 2016

Featured image: Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', Act I, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan’s ‘Giselle’. English National Ballet

15 November 2016, Sadler’s Wells, London

Akram Khan’s Giselle begins in gloom. A grey wall confronts us and the figures onstage are shadowy. Greyness and gloom in fact pervade much of the production. But it is a truly fascinating work in which we are given enough clues, choreographically (a version of the famous ‘cow hop’ crossing of the stage by the Wilis appears in Act II) and musically, to remind us that we are indeed watching a version of Giselle. All the main characters are there and they have the same relationships with each other as they do in traditional productions. But they inhabit a very different world from the peasants and gentry of the Rhineland.

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English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Khan’s Giselle is set in a community of migrant workers, workers marginalised by factory landlords. Albrecht is a member of the wealthy class. Hilarion is an outcast but a ‘foxy’ person who is able to cross boundaries and broker exchanges. Giselle is a former garment factory worker exiled from her home and family. And so the story goes. Act II takes place behind the wall, in a kind of ghost factory where female factory workers have laboured and where many have died. And so the story goes.

But the fascination is in the choreography as much as in the reimagining of the story and the relocation of it in a world in which globalisation and its effects are powerful forces. The factory workers dance in an orderly fashion, even in a militaristic manner somewhat like factory machines. Hilarion, wonderfully danced by Cesar Corrales, is often animal-like as he insinuates himself into the lives of others. He throws himself acrobatically around the stage. He is everywhere. The music, by Vincenzo Lamagna after Adolphe Adam, is relentless, the dancing compulsive.

Cesar Corrales as Hilarion in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Cesar Corrales as Hilarion in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act I. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

When Albrecht (James Streeter) arrives on the scene the music stops and he has a solo in silence. A duet between Albrecht and Giselle (Tamara Rojo) takes place in the shadows. Then at the wailing sound of a siren (referencing the horn of Adam’s score) the wall lifts and the landlords arrive. The party includes a cold and distant Bathilde (Begoña Cao) to whom Albrecht is engaged. The landlords wear outlandish clothes and pose decoratively, or move in a highly stylised fashion. Giselle recognises the dress Bathilde is wearing. It is a dress she has sewn. Eventually Albrecht leaves with Bathilde and chaos ensues. The dancing becomes frenzied, the grey wall turns red, the music gathers in volume and then stops. Curtain.

Act II is sometimes quite balletic by comparison. The Willis dance on pointe for one thing. Myrtha, strongly and impressively performed by Stina Quagebeur, drags Giselle’s body centre stage and reanimates it. The Wilis wield sticks like giant needles—references perhaps to a former life the Wilis have spent in a garment factory. The Wilis are relentless in their dancing and in their torment of Hilarion. They often crouch like witches, hair streaming down.

Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: Lauren Liotardo

Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Giselle and Albrecht have a pas de deux of swirling lifts, of sweeping proportions and of reconciliation. Eventually Albrecht finds himself alone. Final curtain.

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James Streeter as Albrecht and Tamara Rojo as Giselle in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

There have been many different productions of Giselle over the many years I have been involved with dance. I have my favourites. But the Akram Khan version is perhaps the most startling I have seen. It has a deeply searching quality to it that questions life in our time. And yet it also addresses the themes of the traditional Giselle: love, life, betrayal and reconciliation. I guess, however, I would have liked the characters of Giselle and Albrecht to have been more clearly articulated in the narrative, or in the choreography. I’m not sure it was all that clear just who they were, or where they fitted into the world we were seeing. They have a very clear societal position in the traditional ballet but not so much in Khan’s. Or perhaps this is because I have seen so many traditional productions of Giselle that there is no doubt in my mind where they fit into the story?

But I have nothing but praise for the dancers of English National Ballet. They performed Khan’s choreography with stunning success. A ballet to be seen again and again I think.

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2016

Featured image: Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan's 'Giselle', Act II, English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia', Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

‘Anastasia’. The Royal Ballet

12 November 2016 (matinee), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Having recently reread Different Drummer, Jann Parry’s biography of Kenneth MacMillan, I was full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing MacMillan’s Anastasia, a work that traces the story of Anna Anderson, who believed (wrongly it eventually turned out) that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia who had survived the murderous attack on her parents and siblings, the Imperial Russian family, by Russian revolutionaries in 1918. Parry’s account of the various problems that surrounded the creation and casting of MacMillan’s ballet, which began as a one act work for Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin in 1967, was absorbing reading.

I guess more than anything else, I came away from the performance with renewed admiration for MacMillan’s classical choreography, clearly on view in the first two acts, which were added when MacMillan transformed his one act work into a full-length one in 1971. I loved the way he handled groups, as in the ball scene in Act II where a large corps of swirling dancers wove their way across and around the stage in ever fascinating curving, threading, and criss-crossing patterns. I was also impressed with his use of a kind of canon-style of movement throughout, but especially in Act I where his approach to the choreography for Anastasia’s three sisters stood out.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia' Act I. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia Act I. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

And I admired his pas de deux in Act II which, although it seemed somewhat as though it had been inserted in order to have a grand pas de deux in the ballet, was beautifully lyrical and smoothly integrated within itself—there was no stopping and restarting to separate pas de deux from variations from coda, for example. It also had some breathtaking moments, including that astonishing tilt of the full body by the ballerina as the pas de deux began.

I also admired Bob Crowley’s designs, which in terms of costumes ranged from opulence in the ball scene to stripped back simplicity in Act III, the scene in the hospital/asylum where Anna/Anastasia relives her life. His set designs were also worthy of admiration, with the inherent drama of Anna Anderson’s mental state being foreshadowed with the tilted shapes of the ship on which Act I takes place, and the chandeliers of the palace in Act II, captured forever in mid-swing.

As for the dancing, I saw Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna/Anastasia partnered by Thomas Whitehead as the officer to whom she was attracted in Act II and as her husband in Act III. Cuthbertson was charmingly youthful in Act I and handled Act II nicely as she welcomed and interacted with guests at her coming of age ball.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anastasia and Reece Clarke as Officer in 'Anastasia', Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anastasia and Reece Clarke as Officer in Anastasia, Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But she and Whitehead didn’t really suit each other as partners, largely because their physical attributes are quite different: Cuthbertson is taller and finer in build and more classically proportioned than Whitehead. As a result, the emotional connection that was needed between them was not as powerful as I would have hoped.

Sarah Lamb dancing with Federico Bonelli, as Mathilde Kschessinska and her partner (not given a name in the story’s cast of characters), sailed through the difficult choreography of the pas de deux in Act II making it all look easy. Great to watch. Another Act II highlight was the quartet between Kschessinska and her partner and Tsar Nicholas II, played by Gary Avis, and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, danced by Itziar Mendizabal, in which personal relationships within the royal court were brought into question. Anastasia hovered in the background, wondering.

Sarah Lamb as Mathilde Kschessinska and Steven McRae as her partner in 'Anastasia' Act II. -© ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Sarah Lamb as Mathilde Kschessinska and Steven McRae as her partner in Anastasia Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

As Rasputin, Eric Underwood was moodily present throughout, taking part in the dancing at times, hovering darkly at others. Rory Thomas as the Tsarevitch Alexey, the sickly child and brother to Anastasia and her sisters, handled his role with aplomb.

The production itself, however, which was realised by Deborah MacMillan and staged by Gary Harris, wasn’t entirely satisfying. The third act looks back to the first two acts as Anna relives scenes, largely horror scenes from her life as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and as we see characters from this earlier life move across the stage in front of her eyes.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna Anderson and artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia' Act III. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna Anderson and artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia Act III. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But, as there is a such a clear and strong disconnect stylistically between the first two acts and the third when MacMillan draws so strongly on a contemporary, expressionist mode of dancing, albeit with Anna in pointe shoes, it is hard to reconcile the notion that the last act is part of the same ballet as the first two acts. Design-wise the third act is superb with its stark grey walls and its single iron bed, and choreographically it is mostly quite gripping. But as I left the theatre, having felt the power of the work at many points, I nevertheless wondered whether it would not have been better to have left Anastasia as a one-act production.

Michelle Potter, 14 November 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia, Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia', Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Another note for my Australian readers: As the image of the pas de deux in this post indicates, Sarah Lamb usually dances as Kschessinska with Steven McRae as her partner. McRae was replaced at the last moment by Bonelli.

‘George Balanchine’. Paris Opera Ballet

9 November 2016, Palais Garnier, Paris

This all Balanchine program, which consisted of Mozartiana, Brahms-Schönberg Quartet and Violin Concerto, was staged in honour of Violette Verdy (1933-2016) who directed the Paris Opera Ballet between 1977 and 1980. I recall too that Mme Verdy coached Australian Ballet dancers during the directorship of Maina Gielgud and, of course, Verdy was a ballerina of international standing with a strong heritage of performing Balanchine. She died in February 2016. Earlier performances of this program also included Balanchine’s Sonatine, created for Verdy and Jean-Pierre Bonnefous in 1975, although by the time I got to see the program, Sonatine (for reasons unknown to me) had been dropped.

I have to admit to being slightly disappointed with Mozartiana. I have wonderful memories of it as performed by New York City Ballet where I loved the pride and the dignity that accompanied the dancing, and where the four young dancers who are included in the cast (in New York always from the School of American Ballet) seemed to be the recipients of a great tradition. While there was nothing amiss with the dancing by the Paris Opera Ballet cast I saw, including the young performers from the Paris Opera Ballet School, the work looked like nothing more than a pretty ballet to me. I did especially enjoy, however, the folk overtones in the choreography, and the performance by the second male lead, Fabien Revillion. Mozartiana is a new addition this season to the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet so it will be interesting to see how it develops on this company.

On the other hand, Brahms-Schönberg Quartet, which I had not seen before, and Violin Concerto were a huge pleasure to watch. In part it was seeing them together that gave such pleasure as they embody two quite different aspects of Balanchine’s choreographic approach.

Brahms-Schönberg Quartet, also a new addition to the repertoire of Paris Opera Ballet but originally made in 1966, had startling yet quite beautiful, newly created designs by Karl Lagerfeld. For the ladies, the classical long tutu was maintained but the designs on the bodices were black and white geometric patterns, as were the designs on the jackets and vests worn by the men. Choreographically, the style was clearly classical with groupings occasionally reminding me of those in Les Sylphides, especially in the third movement. There were some very lyrical, swooning lifts in the second movement, in which the colour scheme was pink and black, and some strong male dancing throughout. The final movement, however, came as a shock, albeit a pleasant and probably very Balanchinian one. The ladies continued to dance in pointe shoes but the men were in boots and the movement was in a rousing Hungarian peasant style.

The Stravinsky Violin Concerto, on the other hand, was one of Balanchine’s black and white ballets and showed him in his ‘show pony’ style where dancers bounced through every movement with individuality, even when strong unified movement was required (and given).

Artists of Paris Opera Ballet in 'Violin concerto', 2016: Photo: Sebastien Mathe/Opera national de Pari

Artists of Paris Opera Ballet in Violin Concerto, 2016. Photo: © Sébastien Mathé/Opéra national de Paris

For me, the standout dancer in this work, and in fact in the entire program, was Hugo Marchand who partnered Amandine Albisson in the ‘Aria 1’ section. His own dancing showed great technical skills and his partnering displayed beautiful interaction with Albisson. I also loved his proud carriage of the body and particularly the way his body occupied the space around it—a very unusual quality possessed by very few.

Violin Concerto was given a remarkable performance and, while I’m not sure whether I was imagining this or not, I kept hearing brass instruments situated outside the orchestra pit. Surround sound? But wherever the brass instruments were, the sound from the orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris conducted by Kevin Rhodes was spectacular.

Michelle Potter, 10 November 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet in Brahms-Schönberg Quartet, 2016. Photo: © Sébastien Mathé/Opéra national de Paris

Artists of Paris Opera Ballet in Brahms Schoenberg Quartet, 2016. Photo: Sebastien Mathe/Opera national de Paris

For my Australian and New Zealand readers, sadly Hannah O’Neill was not performing the night I was there.