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

The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre

14 June 2018, Canberra Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2018

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

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

'The Beginning Of Nature.' Australian Dance Theatre. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

Dance diary. October 2017

  • Coming to Canberra in 2018

In October the Canberra Theatre Centre released its ‘Collected Works 2018’. Canberra dance audiences will have the pleasure of seeing Australian Dance Theatre’s The Beginning of Nature, which will open its Australian mainstage season in Canberra on 14 June 2018.

Canberra Theatre Centre’s program also includes a season of AB [Intra] from Sydney Dance Company and Dark Emu from Bangarra Dance Theatre and, as part of the Canberra Theatre’s Indie program, Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson will perform Cockfight. 

Bangarra Dance Theatre. Study for 'Dark Emu'. Photo: Daniel Boud

Bangarra Dance Theatre. Study for Dark Emu. Photo: © Daniel Boud

  • Eileen Kramer making a splash

The irrepressible Eileen Kramer was in Canberra recently. She made a fleeting visit to have a chat with Ken Wyatt, Minister for Aged Care, about funding for a project she is planning for her 103rd birthday in November. Kramer will perform A Buddha’s wife, a work inspired by her visit to India in the 1960s. It will be part of a project (The Now Project) featuring 10 dancers and co-produced by choreographer/film-maker Sue Healey. Read about the project and listen to Kramer and Healey speak briefly about it on the crowd funding page that has been set up to help realise the project.

  • Fellowships, funding news, and further accolades

It was a thrill to see that Australian Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Garry Stewart, is the recipient of a 2017 Churchill Fellowship. Stewart will investigate choreographic centres in various parts of the world including in India, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

Garry Stewart rehearsing 'Monument' 2013. Photo Lynette Wills

Garry Stewart in rehearsal. Photo: © Lynette Wills

Then, artsACT has announced its funding recipients for 2018 and, unlike last year’s very disappointing round, dance gets some strong recognition. Alison Plevey’s Australian Dance Party has been funded to produce a new work Energeia, Canberra Dance Theatre has received funding to create a new piece for its 40th anniversary, Liz Lea has funding also to create a new work, and Emma Strapps has been funded for creative development of a work called Flight/less.

Also in the ACT, Ruth Osborne has been short-listed as the potential ACT Australian of the Year for 2018. Osborne is artistic director of QL2 Dance and has made a major contribution to youth dance in the ACT. She was a 2016 recipient of a Churchill Fellowship and has recently returned from studying youth dance in various countries around the world.

Ruth Osborne, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Ruth Osborne prior to taking up her Churchill Fellowship. Photo: © 2017 Lorna Sim

Then, from Queensland Ballet comes news of some welcome promotions. Lucy Green and Camilo Ramos are now principal artists, and Mia Heathcote has been promoted to soloist.

  • Jean Stewart (1921–2017)

For a much fuller account of the life and work of Jean Stewart than I was able to give see Blazenka Brysha’s story at this link, as well as an interesting comment from her about one of Stewart’s photos of Martin Rubinstein.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2017

Featured image: The Beginning Of Nature, Australian Dance Theatre. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

'The Beginning Of Nature.' Australian Dance Theatre. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

Waangenga Blanco in 'Patyegarang', Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2014. Photo: Greg Barrett

Australian Dance Awards 2015

12 September 2015, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide

For the first time in its history, the Australian Dance Awards ceremony was held in Adelaide, a fitting location given that 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre. The recipients of awards this year represented a cross-section of Australian dance styles and performers, as did the program of entertainment that accompanied the awards.

The much-anticipated awards for Outstanding Achievement by a Female Dancer and Outstanding Achievement by a Male Dancer were won by Lucinda Dunn, just recently retired from the Australian Ballet, for her performance in Manon, and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Waangenga Blanco for his role in Stephen Page’s Patygerang.

Lucinda Dunn & Adam Bull in 'Manon', the Australian Ballet 2014.

Lucinda Dunn & Adam Bull in Manon, the Australian Ballet 2014.

Queensland Ballet walked away with outstanding performance by a company for its production of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.

Marilyn Jones and Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman were formally inducted into the Hall of Fame for their distinguished contributions to dance in Australia and internationally, and Marilyn Rowe was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. The Ausdance Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship, a bequest from the first director of the Australian Ballet, Dame Peggy van Praagh, was made to Lina Limosani.

From a very personal point of view I was thrilled to see photographer Jeff Busby take out the award for Services to Dance. I have used so many Jeff Busby photographs throughout my career as a dance writer for a wide variety of outlets in Australia and overseas, and he has always been incredibly generous with his permissions. A well-deserved award.

The full list of winners is available on the Australian Dance Awards website.

The awards night always includes a series of short performances and snatches of film. The 2015 ceremony was distinguished, I thought, by a brief excerpt from Garry Stewart’s Birdbrain, the first full-length work Stewart made as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre. While we are now somewhat used to the extreme physicality that characterises much contemporary dance in 2015, and Stewart’s vocabulary in particular, looking at the vocabulary of Birdbrain I was stunned that Stewart had made such a work 15 years ago. There is a whisper that it may be revived next year.

In something of a jaw-dropping juxtaposition, current ADT dancers Kimball Wong and Lonii Garnons-Williams performed ‘Moon Woman’ from Creation, Elizabeth Dalman’s 1970 work for ADT. What a difference 45 years of choreographic development makes, although Dalman’s slow, controlled movement language, redolent of American dance of the 1960s, was carefully realised by Wong and Garnons-Williams.

I also enjoyed the extract from Leigh Warren’s Mayakovsky performed by students of the BA dance program at the Adelaide College of the Arts. Danced to Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia of 1968, it was reflective and soul-searching dancing.

Nominations for next year’s awards can be made now. For information on the process see the Australian Dance Awards website.

ADA 2015 logo

Michelle Potter, 16 September 2015

Featured image: Waangenga Blanco in Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2014. Photo: © Greg Barrett

G. Australian Dance Theatre

13 June 2013, Canberra Theatre

Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in 'G'. Photo: Chris herzfeld, Camlight Productions
Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in G. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

Garry Stewart’s G had a short run in Canberra last week. Although it first had a showing in 2008, this was my first opportunity to see it and once again I was impressed by Stewart’s exceptional approach, which combines his unique intellect with his emphasis on the physical. Here is a link to my review published in The Canberra Times on 15 June. It also contains a gallery of photos by Rohan Thomson.

I had previously spoken briefly to Stewart about his interest in an article entitled ‘Giselle, madness and death’ published in the journal Medical Humanities in 2004, which has some bearing on the approach Stewart took. For anyone interested in this background here is a link to the article.

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2013