Dance diary. July 2015

  • 2015 Helpmann Awards

Media commentary following the announcement of the winners of the 2015 Helpmann Awards has mostly focused on the fact that Les Miserables ‘scooped the pool’ with five awards. Well many congratulations to those involved, but where is the equivalent media commentary for Sydney Dance Company? Sydney Dance could also be said to have ‘scooped the pool’ after receiving all four awards in the dance section.

  • Best Ballet or Dance Work: Sydney Dance Company’s Frame of Mind
  • Best Choreography in a Dance or Physical Theatre Work: Rafael Bonachela, Frame of Mind
  • Best Male Dancer in a Dance or Physical Theatre Work: Cass Mortimer Eipper, Quintett
  • Best Female Dancer in a Dance or Physical Theatre Work: Chloe Leong, Quintett

Sydney Dance Company's Frame of Mind featuring Cass Mortimer Eipper, 2015. Photo: © Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company’s Frame of Mind featuring Cass Mortimer Eipper, 2015. Photo: © Peter Greig

What a shame that there has been so little publicity by mainstream media for this exceptional feat by Sydney Dance Company.

  • Stephen Page at Parliament House

Early in July I had the pleasure of facilitating a conversation with Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, as part of a program organised by Parliament House in conjunction with the Canberra Theatre Centre. The conversation took place in the Parliament House Theatre, which I did’t know existed until I was invited to be part of this session. The conversation preceded the arrival of Bangarra in Canberra with its latest show, lore. Page gave a highly entertaining talk about the origins of Bangarra, his nurturing of artists in the company, and some background on the works in lore. The talk was recorded and I understood that it was to be posted on the PH website. So far this has not happened but when/if it does I intend to post a link on this site.

  • David Sumray

I was contacted in July by a journalist from the Camden New Journal, who asked me about David Sumray. She told me that she had heard that an ‘avid ballet historian’ of that name had died suddenly and she wanted to write something about him. I have not been able to confirm this news so I hesitate to mention it here. However, since my attempts to contact David have been unsuccessful (and the journalist has not contacted me again despite a request), I will mention my admiration and respect for him anyway.

David has been a constant visitor to this website and has made many comments on articles and reviews posted here, which have always been illuminating. In addition, he was extraordinarily helpful and generous while I was writing Dame Maggie Scott. He volunteered to check a few facts for me, mostly relating to the life of Maggie’s father, John Scott, and his war record. In so doing he uncovered other interesting facts including material relating to John Scott’s schooling in England. I remember too, as we were discussing John Scott’s engagement to Maggie’s mother, Marjorie, in Birmingham in 1918, he sent me an Edwardian postcard image of the shop where the ring was bought. I have so enjoyed his interest in such details.

H. Greaves Ltd - Postcard of Corporation St.

H. Greaves Ltd, Birmingham

  • Press for July

‘Traditions explored through dance.’ Preview of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s lore. ‘Panorama’, The Canberra Times, 4 July 2015, pp. 6–7. Online version.

‘Gala celebrates troupe’s 50 years.’ Preview of Mirramu Dance Comany’s L. ‘Times 2’, The Canberra Times, 9 July 2015, pp. 6–7. Online version.

‘Some strong performances in a well staged show.’ Review of Circus under my bed, Flying Fruit Fly Circus. The Canberra Times, 18 July 2015, ARTS p. 18. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2015

'Sheoak', Luke Currie Richardson, Yolanda Lowatta and Beau Dean Riley Smith, Photo © Jacob Nash

‘Lore’. Bangarra Dance Theatre

9 July 2015, Canberra Theatre

It would be hard to find two such disparate works as the two that make up lore, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s latest program curated by the company’s artistic director, Stephen Page. I.B.I.S, the opener, is the debut choreographic work from two artists from the Torres Strait Islands, Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco, and it is filled with fun, laughter and joyous dancing. Sheoak is from established choreographer, Frances Rings, and has a more sombre tone. While this work ends on a note of hope, it deals with serious issues that have powerful political overtones. But both are thrilling to watch and give us, once more, an insight into the depth of talent in the Bangarra family, which includes not just the dancers and choreographers, but the whole creative team.

I.B.I.S begins in a supermarket belonging to the Island Board of Industry and Services (hence the name I.B.I.S) and its customers are there not just to shop, but to socialise as well. We know though that they also shop there. A cheery dance by the women, who manipulate metal shopping baskets, makes that quite clear.

'I.B.I.S', Deborah Brown & Waangenga Blanco, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Tan

I.B.I.S with Deborah Brown & Waangenga Blanco, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Tan

As the work progresses, however, we meet the fishermen who catch the sea creatures that fill the freezer cabinets. And we even meet the sea creatures themselves when they escape from the freezer at night.

But the essence of I.B.I.S is the community spirit that permeates Island life. There is a wonderful picnic-style section where the men dance for the women and then the women dance for the men, amid much shouting and many exclamations. And the highlight is the final section, which comes almost unexpectedly after it seems that the show is over. The full ensemble returns wearing traditional island skirts and headdresses and performs an absolutely exhilarating traditional dance, which clearly shows the many influences from Melanesia and Polynesia that characterise the culture of the Torres Strait Islands.

Sheoak focuses on environmental issues. The sheoak tree, the grandmother tree in indigenous lore, is endangered and, in the opening scene, we see pyramid of dancers gradually collapsing. The metaphor of the tree as Aboriginal society continues, and the keeper of the place in which the tree grows mourns its loss. Societal dysfunction results and the community faces the challenges of operating in a new environment. Choreographically, Rings has given the dancers stumbling movements that make them look disoriented. And a stunning duet between Elma Kris and Yolanda Yowatta is a highlight as an encounter between the old order and the new. Yowatta is currently a trainee with Bangarra and her beautifully fluid style of moving is an absolute delight.

Elma Kris made a major contribution to both works. In I.B.I.S she played the role of the  owner of the store and her opening dance with a mop was a delight. But it was in Sheoak as the keeper of the lore that her strength as a performer, her commanding presence, was so clear. Hope for the future shone through.

Elma Kris in 'Sheoak'. Banggara Dance Theatre, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

Elma Kris in Sheoak. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

As ever with Bangarra productions, lore was enhanced by a strong visual design. Karen Norris’ lighting for Sheoak was especially outstanding. It created a somewhat eerie atmosphere that set the work in an indefinable time. Jacob Nash continues to create minimal but very effective sets and Jennifer Irwin’s costumes again show her exceptional layering of textiles, notably in Sheoak. The evocative original scores were by David Page for Sheoak and Steve Francis for I.B.I.S.

If I have a grumble, it is that I would have liked to have seen better unison dancing (when unison was an intended part of the choreography). But it is hard to grumble when we are presented with the magnificent theatricality that characterised lore.

Michelle Potter, 15 July 2015

Featured image: Sheoak with Luke Currie Richardson, Yolanda Lowatta and Beau Dean Riley Smith. Photo: © Jacob Nash

Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from 'Patyegarang'. Photo: Jess Bialek

Dance diary. July 2014

  • Boundless: Quantum Leap

Last night (30 July) I went to the Canberra Playhouse to see, and review, the latest offering from Quantum Leap, Canberra’s youth dance ensemble. To my astonishment I received a phone call tonight (31 July) about my review, which had already appeared in The Age online before it had appeared either in print or electronic format in The Canberra Times. Here is the link. And because The Age version is text only, below is an image from the show.

Casper Ilschner from Quantum Leap & David Turbayne from GOLD in a scene from 'Samsara'. Photo: Lorna Sim

Casper Ilschner from Quantum Leap and David Turbayne from GOLD in a scene from Samsara. Photo: © Lorna Sim

  • Leap of Faith: Australian Story

I watched the recent Australian Story program, Leap of Faith, which followed the story of Li Cunxin’s acquisition of the Kenneth MacMillan production of Romeo and Juliet for Queensland Ballet. I would be interested to hear comments from others as I found the program more of a promo than an Australian story.

Here is the link to the online version and its transcript. I’m not sure for how long the ABC has the footage available online, although the the transcript of the show will remain for a little longer after the footage has been removed.

  • Dance and architecture

I have often been curious about the links that are often made between dance and architecture. They have always seemed to me to be very tenuous links. My most recent interview for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program, however, was with an architect, Enrico Taglietti, who made me think a little harder about those potential links.

Taglietti was born in Milan but came to Australia in the 1950s, initially at the invitation of Sir Charles Lloyd Jones to work on an exhibition of Italian design, ‘Italy at David Jones’. He and his wife came to Canberra after the exhibition had closed and fell in love with the city (such as it was in the 1950s). Taglietti has lived in Canberra ever since.

What fascinated me more than anything during our conversation was that he kept insisting that the exterior of a building was not architecture but urban design. Architecture, he maintained, consisted of the voids and volumes enclosed by a structure. Suddenly it struck me that perhaps there is a link between dance and architecture. Dance has much to do with filling voids and volume with movement, although only the best dancers (or those trained by Merce Cunningham) know how to use the space around the body to achieve maximum benefit.

  • Press for June

‘More decorative than communicative. Review of ‘Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Patyegarang. The Canberra Times, 21 July 2014, ARTS p. 6. Online.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2014

Featured image: Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from Patyegarang, 2014. Photo: © Jess Bialek

‘Ecocentrix. Indigenous Arts, Sustainable Acts’

5 November 2013, Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, South Bank, London

Bargehouse is a four-storey warehouse named as it is because, apparently, it used to store the royal barge of James 1. Now it is a an exhibition site and between 25 October and 10 November the home of Ecocentrix, an exhibition focusing on indigeneity in the present day. ‘Performance and provocation in our times’ is its subtitle. (Why the building also has signs identifying each of the muses on one of its exterior walls escapes me for the moment).
Terpsichore, the muse of dancing
I became aware of the exhibition because it was mentioned in Bangarra Dance Theatre’s newsletter for October, which noted that Jacob Nash, resident designer with Bangarra, had recently returned from London where he had an installation in place at the Bargehouse. And indeed Nash’s installation was the highlight of the show. Up on the fourth floor (no lift, narrow staircase) and in a darkened space, a triangular curtain of white feathers hung from the ceiling. The point of this feathered triangle brushed a kind of dance space, a circle outlined with sticks and feathers, on the floor below the hanging. Onto the hanging, film of a dancer performing Stephen Page’s 2011 work Brolga was being projected.

I am sorry that my point and click camera, not to mention my lack of expertise as a photographer in such conditions, was not able to achieve a record of this installation because it was elegant and quite magical with the image of the dancer blurring into the feathers. (See update below)

But Nash and Bangarra weren’t the only Australians represented in the exhibition. On display were several costumes from works by the Broome-based physical theatre company, Marrugeku, whose work often includes stilt-work and aerial choreography. Below are two sea eagle costumes designed by Alice Lau for Buru, Marrugeku’s 2011 work for children.
Marrugeku figure

To complete the Australian representation, a film by Fiona Foley was being screened in another room of the building. With the title Vexed it was made in 2013 and focused on the breakdown of traditional kinship structures as the result of what is referred to as the theft of Aboriginal women by white men at a certain stage in the history of Aboriginal/white relations in Australia. Unlike the Nash installation and the Marrugeku costumes, Foley’s film was strongly political and was accompanied by a text taken from Germaine Greer’s controversial essay On rage. In filmic terms Vexed was distinguished by a technique of overlaying footage upon footage to create trance-like sequences, which on the one hand were in contrast to the power of the message and on the other set up a surreal quality that strengthened the message.

What a pleasure it was to see Australian artists represented in such an influential way in this show.

Michelle Potter, 5 November 2013

Update 7 November 2013:
I was delighted to be contacted by a member of the Ecocentrix team with an image of the Jacob Nash installation. It is a more than difficult situation in which to photograph and the installation itself is a constantly changing one adding further difficulties, but the image below gives an idea of the mystery and magic of Nash’s work.
Jacob Nash installation, Ecocentrix 2013
With thanks to Helen Gilbert.

Canberra dance. Coming in 2014

Details of the dance productions Canberra audiences can expect in 2014 are slowly emerging. In announcing its ‘Collected Works, 2014′, the Canberra Theatre Centre revealed that both Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre will return to Canberra in 2014, thus maintaining the strong links those two companies have forged with the city over many years. For example, Sydney Dance Company’s first season in Canberra was in 1977.* Scarcely a year has been missed since then.

Sydney Dance will bring its triple bill Interplay, which will consist of new works by Rafael Bonachela and Gideon Obarzanek and a reprise of Raw models by Italian choreographer Jacopo Godani. Raw models was part of a Sydney Dance Company program in 2011 and my thoughts on the show then are at this link. Bangarra will bring a new work by Stephen Page called Patyegarang, which focuses on the friendship between a young indigenous woman, Patyegarang, and colonial identity Lieutenant William Dawes.

The Brisbane-based group Circa will also be in Canberra in 2014 with their new production S. My connections with the National Institute of Circus Arts through the Heath Ledger Project interviewing program have brought home to me the esteem with which this  company is held in the industry so I look forward to their 2014 show, which we are told explores a sinuous energy—appropriately, given the title S—and is a physical ode to the human body.

A surprise revelation at the launch of the 2014 season was that West Australian Ballet will visit in October with a production of La Fille mal gardée, but not in the version choreographed by Frederick Ashton that we are used to seeing in Australia. The version being brought by West Australian Ballet is choreographed by Marc Ribaud, currently director of the Royal Swedish Ballet, and is set in 1950s rural France. Costumes are by Lexi De Silva whose previous credits include designs for Tim Harbour’s Halcyon and Sweedeedee. De Silva also worked alongside Hugh Colman as he created the designs for Stephen Baynes’ recent Swan Lake. Sets are being created by Richard Roberts, lighting by John Buswell. Here is the Canberra Theatre’s preview video for the Fille program. It is a photo shoot in essence featuring the leading characters, Lise, Colas and Alain, but gives some idea of what the work might look like.

But before we even get to the new year, the Canberra Theatre has also just announced a Christmas treat for very young dance-goers (and their parents and grandparents) who will have the  pleasure of seeing Angelina and friends live onstage in Angelina Ballerina: the Mousical. It opens at the Canberra Theatre on 12 December 2013. What a treat!
Angelina Ballerina the mousical

Michelle Potter, 28 September 2013

* Although led  by Graeme Murphy the company was at that stage still called the Dance Company (NSW). 1977 was Murphy’s first full year as director of the company, which was renamed Sydney Dance Company in 1979.

Dance diary. July 2013

  • Australian Dance Awards 2013: Lifetime Achievement and Hall of Fame
Ronne Arnold and his Contemporary Dance Company of Australia in 'Spirituals', 1971. Photo Roderic Vickers
Ronne Arnold and his Contemporary Dance Company of Australia in ‘Spirituals’, 1971. Photo Roderic Vickers

The 2013 Australian Dance Awards will be presented in Canberra on 5 August. In advance of that date, recipients of the two major awards, Lifetime Achievement and Hall of Fame, have been announced. Ronne Arnold is the recipient of Lifetime Achievement and he is seen above with members of his company, the Contemporary Dance Company of Australia, in a finale to one of their shows.

I was a student with Joan and Monica Halliday when Ronne began to teach there in the 1960s and, while I was far from a jazz dancer, I took Ronne’s classes and also followed him one year to an Arts Council Summer School. He was (and no doubt still is) a wonderful teacher and I continue to treasure memories of those classes. My brief story about him for The Canberra Times is at this link.

An oral history interview with Ronne Arnold, recorded in 1997 and 1998, is  held by the National Library of Australia. Cataloguing details are at this link. (Note of caution: the transcript, although classed as ‘corrected’ in the catalogue, still needs a number of corrections here and there!)

The recipient of the Hall of Fame award is Alan Brissenden whose book Australia Dances. Creating Australian Dance 1945–1965 (co-authored with Keith Glennon), has been invaluable to me in many ways since it was published in 2010 by Wakefield Press. He too will receive his award on 5 August.

  • Heath Ledger Project

In mid-July I was lucky enough to record the first of the interviews with NAISDA graduates for the Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project. Beau Dean Riley Smith graduated from NAISDA in 2012 and is now dancing with Bangarra Dance Theatre. He gave a wonderfully frank interview, punctuated with much laughter, and it was a thrill to see him perform in Blak the next night at the opening of Bangarra’s Canberra season. I was impressed with the way he immersed himself totally in the production and admired his exceptional physicality.

Beau Smith interview. Heath Ledger Project, NFSA 2013. Photo: Brooke Shannon
Beau Smith interview. Heath Ledger Project, 2013. Photo: Brooke Shannon. Courtesy National Film and Sound Archive

The interview was conducted in a studio at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra surrounded by all kinds of sound equipment being used for restoration projects (which does not make an appearance in the recording!), as you can see in the image above. Another NAISDA graduate, independent artist Thomas Kelly, is to be interviewed for the project during August.

And as an update to the project in general it was a thrill to hear that Hannah O’Neill, who was interviewed for the project in May 2012, was placed first in the Paris Opera Ballet examinations this year and has been offered a permanent (that is lifetime) contract with the Paris Opera Ballet. A singular achievement and one that demonstrates not only O’Neill’s exceptional talents but her absolute determination to make it in the company she regards as the best ballet company in the world.

In addition, the other Australian Ballet School graduate interviewed for the project in 2012, Joseph Chapman, tells me that, although his first eighteen months with the company have been ‘challenging’, performing has been a real highlight for him.

  • Cecchetti Society Conference 2013, Melbourne

At the beginning of July I had the pleasure of chairing a session at the 2013 Cecchetti Society Conference in Melbourne. The session concerned the National Theatre Ballet, a company that gave its first performance as a fully-fledged company under the directorship of Joyce Graeme in 1949.

Former dancers of the National Theatre Ballet. Cecchetti Society Conference, Melbourne 2013. Photo: Wendy Cliff
Former dancers of the National Theatre Ballet. Cecchetti Society Conference, Melbourne 2013. Photo: Wendy Cliff

In the photo above I am standing behind the eight participants on the panel, all former dancers from the National Theatre Ballet: (seated left to right, Lorraine Blackbourne, Jennifer Stielow, Dame Margaret Scott, Athol Willoughby, Norma Hancock (Lowden). Phyllis Jeffrey (Miller) Maureen Trickett (Davies) and Ray Trickett. Each of the participants had wonderful stories to tell of their time with the company and the session could have gone on for many hours.

There is still much to be written about the impact of Ballet Rambert in Australia. Here, however, is an article, an overview of the Australian tour, which I wrote for National Library of Australia News in December 2002.

  • Press for July

‘Tragedy without end’. Review of Big hART’s Hipbone sticking out. The Canberra Times, 5 July 2013

‘New direction respects company’s past’. Review of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Blak. The Canberra Times, 13 July 2013

‘Moving body of work’. Article on Ronne Arnold as the recipient of the 2013 ADA Lifetime Achievement Award. The Canberra Times, 30 July 2013

In July The Canberra Times also published an article I wrote on Paul Knobloch although for reasons of copyright I am not providing a link.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2013

Season’s greetings & the ‘best of’ 2012

Season's greetings 2012 bannerThank you to those who have logged on to my website over the past year, especially those who  have kept the site alive with their comments. I wish you the compliments of the season and look forward to hearing from you in 2013.

The best of 2012

Lists of the ‘best of’ will always be very personal and will depend on what any individual has been able to see. However, here are my thoughts in a number of categories with links back to my posts on the productions. I welcome, of course, comments and lists from others, which are sure to be different from mine.

Most outstanding new choreography: Graeme Murphy’s The narrative of nothing (despite its title), full of vintage Murphy moves but full of the new as well.

Most outstanding production: Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Terrain with choreography by Frances Rings and outstanding collaborative input from the creative team of Jennifer Irwin, Jacob Nash, Karen Norris and David Page.

Most outstanding performance by a dancer, or dancers: Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky pas de deux as part of the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary gala.

Most disappointing production: The Australian Ballet’s revival of Robert Helpmann’s Display. I’m not sure that anyone in the production/performance really ‘got it’ and it became simply a reminder that dance doesn’t always translate well from generation to generation, era to era.

Surprise of the year: Finucane and Smith’s Glory Box. While some may question whether this show was dance or not, Moira Finucane’s performance in Miss Finucane’s Collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria (Get Wet for Art) was a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek comment on the angst-ridden works of Pina Bausch, and as such on Meryl Tankard’s more larrikin approach to serious issues.

Dancer to watch: Tammi Gissell. I was sorry to miss the Perth-based Ochre Contemporary Dance Company’s inaugural production, Diaphanous, in which Gissell featured, but I was impressed by her work with Liz Lea in Canberra as part of Science Week 2012 at CSIRO and look forward to the development of that show later in Canberra in 2013.

Beyond Australia: Wayne McGregor’s FAR, in which the choreography generated so much to think about, to talk over and to ponder upon.

Most frustrating dance occurrence: The demise of Australia Dancing and the futile efforts to explain that moving it to Trove was a positive step.

Michelle Potter, 16 December 2012

Tankard bannerHOW TO ORDER

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‘Terrain’. Bangarra Dance Theatre

13 September 2012, Canberra Theatre

This is an expanded version of my review of Terrain published in The Canberra Times, 15 September 2012, under the title ‘Dancing into luscious terrain’.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Terrain is a mesmerising work in nine short parts. Billed as a hymn to country, it evokes the changing landscape of Lake Eyre while at the same time reflecting on the relationship of indigenous Australians to their land. Its power emerges at every level—choreographically, visually and musically and through some exceptionally fine performances by the dancers as well.

Yolande Brown and Travis de Vries in 'Terrain'. Photo Greg BarrettYolande Brown and Travis de Vries in Terrain, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2012. Photo: © Greg Barrett

Terrain is the work of choreographer Frances Rings and her dance making has many touches that mark her choreography as unusual and distinctive. She groups people together tightly at times and then suddenly a single body is thrust upwards and extends out of the complexity of it all. She often works on bodies that are positioned upside down so the legs and feet are the main focus. Sometimes the choreography jerks and bobs as in the section called ‘Spinifex’; at other times it flows smoothly and this is the quality we see in the final section ‘Deluge’. Occasionally a political stance draws out movement of a more forceful kind as in ‘Shields’ in which issues of land rights and recognition of indigenous people determine the choreographic style. The work has the stamp of Bangarra in the grounded quality of its movement: bodies rarely attempt to defy gravity. But it has the stamp of Rings in its delicacy and intricacy of movement.

The standout section for me was ‘Reflect’ in which Rings brought to life the meeting of earth and sky at the horizon. With its muted colour scheme of earthy green and brown, and consisting simply of a solo for Deborah Brown followed by a duet between Brown and Leonard Mickelo, it had a simplicity and purity to it. It called up a mysterious place where two worlds converge. ‘Spinifex’ was also bewitching as an ensemble of female dancers pranced and twisted across the stage in choreography that was inspired by the trees around Lake Eyre. My eye was also often drawn to Waangenga Blanco in several sections. He dances with such a fluid upper body and his movement streams out to his fingertips. His dancing was especially strong in the finale, ‘Deluge’, when water and hence life began to flow into Lake Eyre.

The work of Bangarra has always been distinguished by a strong visual aesthetic. For Terrain set designer Jacob Nash began with a bright, white stage that was gradually filled with changing colours and light. His major contribution was a series of abstract back cloths and each was a distinctive work of art in its own right. They ranged from a strong red and black cloth with a central focus of a circular black and white motif for ‘Scar’, to the soft green and brown impressionistic cloth against which ‘Reflect’ was danced. All the cloths were enhanced by the lighting design of Karen Norris, and indeed her lighting was a major design element in the first three sections.

Jennifer Irwin’s costumes were quite stunning. Diverse in their cut and in their sculptural qualities, they were beautifully textured and designed so that light playing on them could change their appearance completely. The women’s skirts for ‘Spinifex’, for example, often looked like lace as bodies swirled into a patch of light. A feathered, tight fitting, short bolero style jacket was alluring in ‘Salt’ and the flowing, lightly patterned skirts for men and women in ‘Deluge’ captured beautifully the feel of water.

Terrain was danced to an original score by David Page. It was lush and romantic at times, sparse and even harsh at other times. It flowed along with the choreography and vice versa.

Terrain is a wonderfully integrated work in which people, politics and country are delicately balanced. The spirit of a constantly changing Lake Eyre courses through the entire piece and the work secures Bangarra’s position as a treasure on the Australian dance landscape.

Michelle Potter, 15 September 2012

Featured image: Tara Gower in ‘Scar’ from Terrain, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2012. Photo: © Greg Barrett

‘Infinity’. The Australian Ballet

This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times.

24 February 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Infinity, the Australian Ballet’s first program in its 50th anniversary year, is a diverse and sometimes challenging evening of dance. But most of all it is thrilling experience to see the Australian Ballet putting itself out on a limb with three brand new works from three Australian choreographers: Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. All three works are danced to new scores by Australian composers and all three have new Australian designs. Definitely something to celebrate.

The show opens with the new work from Murphy, The narrative of nothing.  To tell the truth, while there is a perfectly good explanation from Murphy for why this title was chosen—there’s no obvious narrative but the work may still be telling the audience something, I’d much rather dispense with titles that sound smart (with all due respects to Murphy). Untitled works just as well for me!

Murphy’s choreography often had a primeval feel as bodies twisted and curled around others. There were powerful performances from Lana Jones and Adam Bull, and I especially admired the sequence where Jones was partnered by several men who alternated between holding her aloft and letting her fall from side to side. Vintage Murphy really but Jones’ ability to hold her body in a perfect curve as she fell was breathtaking.

Lana Jones and Amy Harris The narrative of nothing PhotoJeff Busby

Lana Jones (right) and Amy Harris, The narrative of nothing, 2012. Photo Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The supporting dancers deserve praise for their technical strength as they attacked the demanding choreography. Murphy has moved a step beyond his usual (always interesting) vocabulary and made a work that, in somewhat of a contradiction, asks the dancers to move with a kind of aggressive lyricism.

I didn’t read the program notes prior to watching this work so wasn’t aware in advance that the commissioned score, Fire Music by Brett Dean, was in response to the Victorian ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires of 2009. With the knowledge of what was behind Dean’s score, fire in some respects becomes the non-narrative. But the works stands without this knowledge and in fact I was pleased that I didn’t know in advance. The score sounded quite elemental—the thunder sheets certainly helped there—and, with some instruments positioned outside the pit, the sound was enveloping.

Jennifer Irwin’s body hugging costumes were decorated individually with black patterns, often swirling organically, and with what looked like silver studs or tiny mirrors. Depending on the lighting (by Damien Cooper) they changed from looking a little punk, to glowing in the dark, to looking slinky, and much more. Cooper’s design was uncompromising—a solo by Adam Bull performed pretty much on the spot in a strong downlight was another highlight. The design also included an onstage use of lighting rigs not normally on view to the audience, another technique that has often featured in works by Murphy. With the inclusion of a minimalist black space as a setting The narrative of nothing became an example of the very best of contemporary collaborative enterprises. It also looks back to some of Murphy’s strongest abstract works made for Sydney Dance Company—Piano sonata comes straight to mind.

Obarzanek’s piece also had a strange, or at least not very catchy title, There’s definitely a prince involved.  It referred to his process of generating ideas and vocabulary for the work by asking a range of people about what they thought constitutes a ballet, and his subsequent deconstruction of the ballet Swan Lake. The work can be read on a number of levels. On the most simplistic it tells the story of Swan Lake, using the dancers as narrators, and focuses on the illogicality of the story. It relies on the dancers’ deadpan delivery of the text to raise laughter from the audience, and the various dancers who take on the role of narrator throughout the piece are more than adept. Unfortunately, even though they used a microphone, their voices were often inaudible above the crashing sounds of the orchestra playing Stefan Gregory’s fragmentation of Tchaikovsky’s familiar Swan Lake music.

On another level the work rips apart the traditional choreography of Swan Lake, and amusingly so, especially in the section based on the dance of the four little swans. It helps but is not essential if the audience is familiar with the traditional steps.

On yet another level the work can be seen as a comment on art asking the question of whether Swan Lake is indeed a work of art. Obarzanek has an acutely inquiring mind and his ability to force us to reconsider what we as a ballet audience might take for granted is powerful and actually quite respectful.

There’s definitely a prince involved uses dancers of the Australian Ballet augmented by dancers from Obarzanek’s company, Chunky Move. Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe showed her versatility as a performer and slotted beautifully into the varying demands associated with the role of a deconstructed Odette, the female lead. The few moments of classical movement—a fabulous grand jeté across the stage, and her ‘dying swan’ poses—did however make me yearn to see her dance a ‘real’ Swan Lake. Deconstruction is fine, entertaining and thought provoking, but the classic version transcends it all and it is that strength really that allows Obarzanek’s deconstruction to work so well.

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette and Artists of the Australian Ballet, There's definitely a prince involved, 2012 Photo Jeff Busby Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette with artists of the Australian Ballet and Chunky Move, There’s definitely a prince involved, 2012. Photo Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The program closes with Page’s Warumuk—in the dark light with Bangarra Dance Theatre joining forces with the Australian Ballet. With its new score from David Page it presents an exploration of the myths associated with the night sky.

The Bangarra dancers performed with their usual, beautifully rehearsed ensemble work with particularly striking performances from Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco representing Full Moon. Vivienne Wong, stunningly dressed by Jennifer Irwin in a lacy black outfit cut with a long ‘tail’ at the back, stood out as the Evening Star. For me Wong was the sole Australian Ballet dancer who was able to transcend her balletic training and blend into the Bangarra way of moving. This was a real feat as Bangarra has now consolidated its own very distinctive style and company dancers are performing with added assurance and expertise.

The one disappointment for me was Jacob Nash’s set design. To me it looked a little too much like a previous Bangarra commission, his set designs for ‘About’, part of the Belong program of 2011.

This program is the Australian Ballet in an extreme mood. I have nothing but praise for the courage of the company in taking on, and succeeding in a program that far surpasses anything they have done in recent years. It makes the company look at last as though it is a company with a desire to move ballet into the future.

Michelle Potter, 27 February 2012

Postscript: The Canberra Times review appeared on 17 March.

Dance diary. December 2011

  • Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet

During 2011 I have published many thoughts on a whole variety of dance subjects, but there is no doubt that most interest has been generated by posts and comments associated with the Australian Ballet’s production of Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet. Traffic across this website has risen by 50% since the opening of R & J in September. My two posts on this show were quickly picked up. The original post has been the top post in terms of visitor numbers since October and the ‘second’ look’ post quickly took up the second spot from November onwards.*

The main thrust of the comments on R & J has been, it seems to me, that the story lost its depth as a result of the wildly changing locations and eras in which this production of the ballet is set. In response to one such comment following the Sydney season I wrote: ‘ I keep wondering about our expectations of ballet, and this ballet in particular. Does the story lose its profundity if it covers different territory and does so in a way that is not expected?’ I think most people believe the story did lose rather than gain in this production, but I still wonder and look forward to further comments when the work goes to Brisbane early in 2012.

  • Infinity: the Australian Ballet’s 2012 triple bill

Graeme Murphy is in the throes of creating another work for the Australian Ballet. It will form part of a triple bill entitled Infinity, which will open in Melbourne in February and comprise works by Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. While I have no inkling as to what Murphy will give us this time, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s December newsletter gives us a hint of what we might expect from Page’s work, which will use dancers from both his own Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet — definitely something to look forward to.

  • Scholars and Artists in Residence (SAR) Fellowship

In December I began my research into designer Kristian Fredrikson’s film and television commissions at the National Film and Sound Archive under a SAR Fellowship and will resume work there after the holiday break. I was especially pleased finally to be able to see a film called Undercover, made in 1983 and produced by David Elfick with Kristian Fredrikson as costume designer and Anna French as his assistant designer. This film is set in the 1920s and charts the growth of the Berlei undergarment enterprise in Australia. Fredrikson’s designs, especially for the women and for the dance sequences (choreographed by former Australian Ballet dancer Leigh Chambers) towards the end of the film, are beautifully realised within the spirit of the fashions of the 1920s. I suspect Fredrikson reimagined some of his work for Undercover when he began work on Tivoli, which he designed in 2001 for Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Ballet. In any case, despite the reservations I had (before I had seen the film I have to admit) about the subject matter, Undercover is a fascinating film and I hope to arrange a screening of it at a later date.

As a result of a mention I made of the SAR Fellowship in my dance diary post for November I was surprised and delighted to be contacted by one of Fredrikson’s assistants who worked with him on a production of Oedipus Rex, produced in 1965 by Wal Cherry for his Emerald Hill Theatre in Melbourne. It was only recently that I discovered that Fredrikson had designed this show, one of his earliest Australian design commissions, and I hope to include reference to it in a Spotlight Talk I will be giving for the Performing Arts Centre, Melbourne, in April when I will also talk about Fredrikson’s other early designs in New Zealand and Australia.

  • Meryl Tankard

Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac returned to Sydney in December following the opening of Tankard’s latest work, Cinderella, for Leipzig Ballet in November. As well as passing on news about Cinderella, Tankard also told me of the success that The Oracle had when it was shown in Lyon in November. Tankard made The Oracle in 2009 as a solo work for dancer Paul White and one clipping from a Lyon newspaper that Tankard sent me referred to Paul White as ‘a revelation to the French public’ and ‘a god of the stage’ and suggested that his solo had instantly attracted a cult following. Here is a link to another review (in French or, if you prefer, in English translation) from the Lyon Capitale that lauds, once again, White’s remarkable physicality and virtuosity and Tankard’s and Lansac’s extraordinary work. The Oracle was the recipient of two Australian Dance Awards in 2010.

  • Paul Knobloch

Australian dancer Paul Knobloch was in Canberra over the holiday season visiting family and friends. Knobloch is excited at the new direction his career is about to take. He will take up a contract in February with Alonzo King LINES Ballet based in San Francisco. King recently made a work called Figures of thought for Béjart Ballet Lausanne, where Knobloch has been working for the past few years. King offered Knobloch a contract after working with him in Lausanne. Alonzo King

Alonzo King rehearsing Daria Ivanova and Paul Knobloch in Figures of thought, Lausanne, June 2011. Photo: Valerie Lacaze.

The BBL website has a photo gallery from this work. It contains several images of Knobloch in rehearsal.

      • Luminous: Celebrating 50 years of the Australian Ballet

In December The Canberra Times published my review of the Australian Ballet’s most recent publication, Luminous: Celebrating 50 years of the Australian Ballet. Here is a link to the article.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2011

*The third most popular post for both November and December was that relating to Stanton Welch and the other Australians working in Houston, Texas.