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

 

New Zealand School of Dance 50th anniversary celebration—with Royal New Zealand Ballet

24, 25 November 2017, St James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This program was a dazzling line-up of works that showcased and celebrated the strengths and talent of young dancers and graduands of New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD). The moment when fledglings leave the nest is always poignant. Some of these young dancers have taken instant wing and are moving straight into positions with prestigious companies—Queensland Ballet, West Australian Ballet for example. Godspeed to them. Most curiously, not one is joining Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB).

With numerous dancers departing from RNZB this week, that raises a number of questions, which this review is not placed to answer, but should none-the-less be somewhere, somehow addressed.  Eva Radich in her Radio New Zealand Concert Upbeat program recently asked the question in interview with the company’s artistic director—’Royal New Zealand Ballet. What’s the New Zealand moniker mean?’ We all need to think about the answer. A major part of New Zealand’s dance identity is at stake. That belongs within, not apart from, international dance identity.

In years back, NZSD graduation was always staged in the Opera House, a similar proscenium theatre to the St.James. Some years ago the School moved into newly refurbished premises, Te Whaea, which includes an in-house theatre, which naturally became the venue for dance performances. While that suited some of the contemporary repertoire and choreographic experimentation programs, it is a truth that ballet repertoire had to become differently scaled and proportioned to fit the much smaller venue. Here, back in a proscenium arch theatre with scope and size on their side, all the students were launched into orbit and became dancers. They’ll have now become infected with what Lincoln Kirstein called ‘the red and gold disease’.

It is pleasing to note that of the 11 works on the program, 5 are choreographed by NZSD alumni.

The opening, Beginners, Please! offers a glimpse of two small children at the barre, in a simple sequence of plié to rond-de-jambe; then light moved to another young pair; then to two current NZSD students. Staged by Sue Nicholls, this was a beguiling cameo that evoked the celebrated ballet Etudes, by Harald Lander, 1948. It is poignant to think that Poul Gnatt would have danced in that work in Royal Danish Ballet, and Anne Rowse, director emeritus of NZSD, sitting to my left, danced it many times in Festival Ballet, as also did Russell Kerr. Martin James, single most illustrious graduate in NZSD’s history, no contest, is sitting to my right. He trained at the School, danced most wonderfully in RNZB, then performed in English National Ballet and elsewhere in Europe, eventually to Royal Danish Ballet where he became leading solo dancer, was knighted for his services to ballet, and eventually became the company’s ballet master. These are the seeding sources that cast prismatic variations across professional dance in New Zealand that students need to know about. We can give more than lip service to that. Given the Danish heritage of RNZB, Etudes is a work many of us have waited years to see here, and why wouldn’t Martin James stage it? This echoes the Maori whakatauki proverb, ‘walking backwards into the future’. We can only see what has already happened. Look at that as you go.  All these thoughts were caught in the little opening miniature. Well done, Sue.

Tempo di Valse, arranged by Nadine Tyson, to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, was ‘an exuberant work for a large ensemble, festive in mood’. Program notes are not always accurate but this one certainly was.

Aria, solo for a masked male, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, to Handel/Rinaldo overture and aria, is a remarkable dance, performed to breathtaking perfection by Mali Comlekci. Small wonder he flies straight into a contract at Queensland Ballet where an outstanding career awaits him. What a shame we won’t be able to see that develop, but we wish him airborne joy.

Mali Comlecki in 'Aria'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Mali Comlekci in Aria. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Curious Alchemy by Loughlan Prior, to Beethoven and Saint-Saens, is a fresh lively lovely dance in which youth is celebrated, and hints of the ties of friendship and the possibilities of relationship are subtly subtexted to the movement which suits the young dancers extremely well. The cast—Clementine Benson, Saul Newport, Jaidyn Cumming and Song Teng —are thrilled to be dancing, and that excitement shines through. Loughlan, himself a spirited dancer with RNZB, and a former graduate of NZSD, is loaded with choreographic energy and ideas, so that is fortunately one continuing career we will be able to follow.

Forgotten Things, by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a very special choreography, initially developed on students at NZSD in 2015, and here brought to a stunning re-staging with a cast of 23 contemporary dance students. The music composed by Andrew Foster, begins full of life-affirming rhythms that evoke the best Renaissance dance music, then moves to percussive richness that support this mysterious procession—Sarah’s best work to date in my opinion. It is a stunning achievement to use parts of the dancers’ bodies, beautifully lit, as nano units of life force, and then thread these as metaphor into life at the level of society and community. This is a work that could be performed by any school or company, classical or contemporary dancers. Now there’s something for every choreographer to aspire to, since that’s nearer the reality of the dance profession today.

The wedding pas de deux from Don Quixote was danced, by Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton, as a gift from RNZB—and what a gift. That pas de deux would have been danced in New Zealand several hundred times over the decades, but never has it steamed and sizzled like this. Skelton dances with calm control of his prodigious technique and has a most interesting career we are always keen to follow. The transition from class-in-the-studio to role-on-stage that Tanigaito always brings to her performances is rare, and something to study, if only you can. She reveals the nature of dance.

Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto pas de deux, dates from 1966 but carries its vintage timelessly. With two grand pianos soixante-neuf on stage, the Shostakovich beautifully played by the School’s pianists, Craig Newsome and Phillip O’Malley, the stage was set for Olivia Moore and Calum Gray to give the performance of their young lives to date.

Olivia Moore and Calum Gray in ‘Concerto’. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

S.U.B. (Salubrious Unified Brotherhood) was a duo by Victoria Columbus working with performers Connor Masseurs and Toa Paranihi. The ‘Nesian identity with rap and break dance, its isolations, its nonchalance, its cut & thrust, its mock battling, was brilliantly timed and caught in this sassy little number.

Toa Paranihi and Connore Masseurs in 'S.U.B.'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Toa Paranihi and Connor Masseurs in S.U.B. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Allegro Brillante, by George Balanchine, dates from 1956 and is more of a period piece. It was performed with great verve and aplomb by the cast of eight dancers.

The Bach, by Michael Parmenter, to a Bach cantata, Erfreut euch, had a cast of 15 dancers who revelled in the exuberant dance sequences and sets of striking ensemble patterns. These were interspersed with walking sequences that stood rhythmically quite apart from the baroque energy and motivation of the danced sections.

The final work, William Forsythe’s In the middle somewhat elevated, was first performed in this theatre by Frankfurt Ballet during the international arts festival 1990. The choreography is as challenging and confrontational now as it was then, as is also the score by Thom Willems. The intensely asymmetrical and aggressive aesthetic comes across as thrilling, or scary, depending on the viewer. I am in the former camp, but can hear what others say—it is either loved or hated. Passionate opinions about dance in a theatre in New Zealand are no bad thing, but it’s for sure that the asymmetries that pull within the classical technique represent a post-modern departure from the canon that Forsythe represents. It’s a pity that the two gilded cherries hanging from on high, giving title to the choreography, are set so high they are noticed by no-one.

The RNZB dancers in the cast who stood out most memorably include Abigail Boyle, Tonia Looker, Alayna Ng,  Shaun James Kelly, Kirby Selchow, Mayu Tanigaito, Kohei Iwamoto, Paul Mathews, Felipe Domingos. We wish all the Company dancers and all the School’s students well.

Jennifer Shennan, 27 November 2017

Featured image: Jill Goh (centre) with dancers from the New Zealand School of Dance in Forgotten Things, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in 'The Illustrated Farewell'. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © The Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The Illustrated Farewell, The Wind, Untouchable. The Royal Ballet

6 November 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Two new works and one revival made up the Royal Ballet’s most recent triple bill. The opener, Twyla Tharp’s The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ should perhaps be described as new-ish rather than new, since it also drew on material Tharp had made way back in 1973 in a work called As time goes by. Tharp’s work was by far the most attractive item, in a choreographic sense, on the program.

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae made spectacular, separate entrances, covering the stage with expansive grands jetés and bringing their trademark joyous approach to their dancing. Such a pleasure to see them. They then proceeded to dance the first two parts of Joseph Haydn’s 45th (so-called  ‘Farewell’) symphony, scarcely stopping throughout the two movements to catch their breath. They were perfectly matched as partners, executing Tharp’s twisting, turning, demanding movements and making the most of her playful approach at times. A swirl of ballroom steps and even a high-five appeared amongst the more classical moves. It was a virtuoso performance.

Lamb and McRae were a hard act to follow but Mayara Magri held the stage In a solo before the music for the third movement began. Hers was a remarkable display of dancing that showed off both Tharp’s expansive yet intricate choreography and Magri’s strong technical skills. Then, as the music began, Magri was joined by a corps of dancers, who seemed to appear from nowhere. Both this third movement and the fourth were filled with intricate groupings of dancers sometimes dancing in unison but mostly working separately from each other so the overall patterning looked scattered.

Mayara Magri in The Illustrated Farewell. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © ROH. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Mayara Magri in The Illustrated ‘Farewell’. © 2017 ROH. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

The work finished beautifully with Lamb and McRae appearing unexpectedly upstage on a raised black platform against a black background. They kneeled in a kind of homage and then disappeared into the black, while below Joseph Sissens, in white trunks and long-sleeved white shirt, melted to the ground in a poignant farewell.

Arthur Pita’s work The Wind, danced to a commissioned score by Frank Moon, followed as the middle piece. Based on a story by Dorothy Scarborough written in 1925, which was subsequently made into a silent movie, the ballet follows events in the life of a young woman from Virginia, Letty Mason, who arrives in Texas in the 1880s and is tormented in mind, body and soul by the wind and the bleakness of the landscape. The story is complex and includes, on an obvious narrative level, marriage, rape, and eventual revenge by Mason. But The Wind suffers from Pita’s condensing of the story and his efforts to include a dimension beyond the obvious. To achieve this latter he introduces two characters, Cynthia (Wild Woman) danced by Elizabeth McGorian, and Mawarra (the Lost) danced by Edward Watson, who appear to represent Mason’s mental state.

In all this Pita leaves little time for including much dancing. In the role of Letty Mason, Natalia Osipova makes a sterling attempt to develop the role but she is given far too little dancing in which to do it. And so it is with the other leading characters—Thiago Soares as the cowpuncher Lige Hightower, who marries Mason; and Thomas Whitehead as Wirt Roddy, a cattle buyer who rapes her.

Thomas Whitehead as Wirt Roddy & Natalia Osipova as Letty Mason in The Wind. © 2017 ROH. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Then there were those three large wind machines that took up a lot of the performance space and blew air across the stage throughout the ballet. I thought they were obtrusive and promoted the idea of the relentless quality of the wind rather too pointedly. Nor am I sure that we needed to see so much wind being generated by the machines. Having Osipova struggling at one stage to keep her wedding veil from either escaping or engulfing her was a little too much.

There was, however, something fascinating about The Wind. Despite the lack of dancing given to some of the Royal Ballet’s strongest artists, there was something powerful about the way Pita had distilled the story. There was a starkness to the work, although perhaps this came more from Jeremy Herbert’s minimal set (apart from the overpowering presence of the wind machines), and a strong lighting design by Adam Silverman, as much as anything else. It reminded me a little of Agnes de Mille’s work, especially her Fall River Legend, and I suspect that The Wind could be revised to have a similar impact as Fall River Legend.

The evening closed with Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable, a work concerning ‘moving with the herd’ first seen in 2015. There was a lot of militaristic moving around in groups with the occasional breakout by a few dancers to form separate groups. Occasionally I had the feeling that the movement was referencing a folk idiom. The best part was probably the atmospheric lighting by Lee Curran.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Untouchable'. 2017 © Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Untouchable. © 2017 ROH Photo: Tristram Kenton

Michelle Potter, 10 November 2017

Featured image: Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in The Illustrated ‘Farewell’. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © The Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae in 'The Illustrated Farewell'. The Royal Ballet, 2017. © The Royal Opera House. Photo: Tristram Kenton.

Shadow Aspect program

Shadow Aspect. Ballet Cymru

5 November 2017, Lilian Baylis Studio, London

There was much that was abrupt in Tim Podesta’s Shadow Aspect, which featured guest artist Mara Galeazzi and dancers of the Welsh company, Ballet Cymru. The lighting came on and off abruptly, for example, and the music changed abruptly from loud and powerful to more gentle when the music was punctuated by a singing voice. Moreover, the choreography was not what one might called softly fluid—it too often had a sharp edge, an abruptness, and sometimes a static quality to it.

Having said that there was a lot to challenge the eye in Podesta’s choreography. I enjoyed the lifts where bodies were thrown across and around each other, the unusual gestures of the hands and arms, and the feeling that at times bodies were collapsing in on themselves. It reminded me a little of William Forsythe’s comments that he was interested in researching what the body can do, although the outcome in Podesta’s case was quite unlike Forsythe. Podesta rarely pushed the body off its central (classical) axis, as Forsythe was prone to do, hence the static feeling I got. Nevertheless, the dancers of Ballet Cymru executed Podesta’s challenging moves with strength and determination.

Podesta has explained in various places what was behind the work, and why it had the title Shadow Aspect. He quotes Carl Jung who said: ‘To know yourself, you must accept your dark side. To deal with others’ dark sides, you must also know your dark side.’

The shadow of the title is the dark side and elsewhere Podesta says that the work has a definite narrative and suggests that the narrative is quite clear, although open to interpretation. I didn’t have time to work out what the narrative was. The choreography was so busy being different that it was enough to take it in without worrying about a narrative. Less focus on being different would perhaps have made the narrative, whatever it was, clearer. Perhaps a dramaturg would be in order?

As for Mara Galeazzi, I have admired her dancing since I first saw her in Winter Dreams with the Royal Ballet in 2010, and I was highly impressed with her performance as Clarissa in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works in its 2017 staging. But, while she danced with her usual technical skill the choreography as set for her in Shadow Aspect, how I longed to see her in a work in which the choreography had more warmth to it.

Michelle Potter, 6 November 2017

Featured image: Program for Shadow Aspect

Shadow Aspect program

Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in 'Lobsters', 2017. Photo: Philip Merry

Lobsters again, again. Borderline Arts Ensemble

4 November, Circa Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

What a lucky stroke that this little show Lobsters ran for a fortnight season at Circa Theatre (most dance seasons here span two or three days, some are even oncers). That gave us a chance to return for several repeat viewings, and there were fresh revelations on each occasion. A late-appearing review in the local daily, in the 2nd week of the season, was nonetheless unstinting in its praise, which of course lifted telephones all over town and eventually gave this intrepid little troupe the sold-out end to the season they deserved. Good…but never underestimate the power, and therefore the ethics, of the timing of a dance review. (Other early reviews had appeared but were more about the writer than the show).

I see more clearly now what has proved so satisfying about this brilliant little, crazy little work. I say ‘little’ because there’s a cast of five, musos included. The show lasts 75 mins, and the venue is intimate. The more miraculous that the dancing is full and generous, fast and slow and still, requiring total torso and limbs all the way through. The three dancers work to the very edges of the stage. You feel the draught as they race by. You can see every hip tilt, shoulder blade, neck curve and ankle stretch, every toe and finger tip (these are verbs not nouns) and there’s not a falter to be found. It’s high dance classicism in disguise, with a drizzle of cabaret jus and very naughty it is too. After numerous extraordinary encounters with surrealism, the girl and the guy eventually make it. That’s a lovely way to let us out into the evening air.

It seems to me that many choreographic ventures over the last five years, maybe more, have shown a trend of apologising as regards dance vocabulary—born, I suppose, of a desire to eschew existing conventions and to seek novelty. Effectively that results in a fractured, often arhythmic, set of hesitant gestures that question meaning and express doubt, offering relativity of position rather than allowing certainty or clarity, resolution, commitment. Such semaphore-like movement of arms and hands effectively asks questions but does not want answers. Don’t get me wrong. I ask questions all the time and many of them are rhetorical… as in ‘Do you love me?’ [not that I actually ask that one of course]. The price we pay for this contemporary post-modern sensibility and fix on innovation is the absence of line and vitality in dancing, and of synopsis or resolution in choreography.

It’s also frequent practice nowadays for a choreographer to give tasks to dancers in workshop fashion, to ‘ask them questions’, and take their resulting ‘answers’, shaping them this way and that into what is then identified as ‘choreography’. This was of course the choreographic practice of Pina Bausch. She was pure choreographic genius of theatre and her instincts caught life on the wing. Imitation of her, or any other art practice, will ever be only that, and worth not a lot, despite that we are surrounded by it, and very well funded it often is too. ‘Creativity in the moment of choreographic collaboration’ sounds like hogwash to me. I prefer Yeats, see below.

Dynamics of light and shade in the fully committed dancing body that is not fearful of itself seem like a rare treat nowadays. Douglas Wright always offered that in spades, but he doesn’t choreograph any more. Lobsters has caught it, thank goodness.

So an accolade please, to Lucy Marinkovich, for choreographing a stunning and super little show that scores top marks on every front. You can tell, come the curtain call, how much they have all enjoyed performing, but there’s no such distracting evidence allowed during the actual performance, with the intense concentration and stylized espression required of each. We laugh a lot but they don’t—until the curtain call.

The music is superbly imagined and delivered, with music and cabaret audiences as well catered for as they might wish. Lucien Johnson has extraordinary talents, including double blowing into his saxophone (Is that normal? Who cares? It works).

Carmel McGlone is Salvador Dali’s lobster, and he would have been struck dumb by her performance.

Lucy will want to share that accolade with dramaturg Miranda Manasiadis who most certainly knows what she is doing. Two years of shared thoughts and preparations between them is how you get a scenario like this. Frequently of late we see ‘dramaturg’ listed in the credits for a dance show but there’s often little evidence of drama in the result, and it really only means another fee for a member of the ‘creative team’. [RNZB’s The Wizard of Oz, and more recent Romeo & Juliet would be two cases in point. It was the beautiful dancers who delivered on those occasions, and we loved them for it, but drama in the production was little in evidence]. So if there’s to be any point in involving a dramaturg, there’s an art involved in a choreographer allowing space for that work.

By repeated viewings of a performance we get a chance to think some more about the lines by W.B Yeats (my favourite) quote:

‘O body swayed to music, o brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?’

… in other words – how do the performance and choreography relate, intertwine? It can often be hard to tell. In RNZB’s recent Romeo & Juliet, the contrasting casts in the lead roles at different performances gave us a chance to see how. Mayu Tanigaito and Kohei Iwamoto at a matinee transformed the choreography from ‘very good’ by their performance into something ‘stratospheric’, but the critical record has been silent on that, and there is no photographic or videoed evidence of it, which some of us find sad, verging on very sad.

Leah McLean of Borderline Publicity is the best dance administrator I’ve encountered since the longest time. Lobsters really is a team effort and every one of them should take a bow, then pack their bags for the numerous festival invitations that are bound to come their way. Keep your eye on the hustings.

Jennifer Shennan, 5 November 2017

Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in 'Lobsters', 2017. Photo: Philip Merry

Featured image: Lucien Johnson, Carmel McGlone, Emmanuel Reynaud, Lucy Marinkovich. and Matthew Moore in Lobsters, 2017. Photo: © Philip Merry

Featured image: