Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: Art Atelier Photography

2018—Australian Dance Year in Retrospect

In Canberra

Below is a slightly expanded version of my year-ender for The Canberra Times published as ‘State of dance impressive and varied’ on 24 December 2018. I should add that The Canberra Times‘ arts writers/reviewers are asked to choose five productions only for their year-ender story.

Looking back at 2018 I find, thankfully, that I don’t have to complain too much about the state of dance in the ACT. In 2018, in addition to work from a variety of local companies and project-based groups, dance audiences in Canberra were treated to visits from the Australian Ballet, the Australian Ballet School, Australian Dance Theatre, Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Farm and Sydney Dance Company. Most performances were in traditional venues, but one or two were site specific (notably Australian Dance Party’s production of Energeia performed at the Mount Majura Solar Farm) and, in addition, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia offered their venues for dance performances. Beyond performance, it was exceptional news that Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, had agreed to become a patron of QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth organisation. In a casual conversation with me he mentioned that he had always been impressed with those ex-QL2 dancers who had gone on to perform with Sydney Dance Company and also that he regretted that he had not had a strong mentor himself during his early training. Both thoughts fed into his decision to take on the role of patron.

I have arranged my top five events chronologically according to the month in which they were performed.

RED. Liz Lea Productions

In March Liz Lea presented RED, a work that won her a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award later in the year. It was a powerful, courageous, autobiographical work that touched on Lea’s struggle throughout her career with endometriosis. But beyond that it was distinguished by outstanding choreography from four creators, all of whom highlighted Lea’s particular strengths as a dancer. In addition to Lea herself, choreographic input came from Vicki van Hout, Virginia Ferris and Martin del Amo. There was also stunning lighting by Karen Norris; a range of film clips that added context throughout; and strong dramaturgy by Brian Lucas, which gave coherence and clarity to the overall concept. It was a highly theatrical show, which also presented a very human, very moving message.

The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre

In June Australian Dance Theatre returned to the national capital after an absence of more than a decade. The Beginning of Nature, choreographed by artistic director Garry Stewart, focused on the varied rhythms of nature. It was compelling and engrossing to watch. The dancers seemed to defy gravity at times and their extreme physicality was breathtaking. But the work was also an outstanding example of collaboration between Stewart, his dancers, an indigenous consultant familiar with the almost-extinct Kaurna language of the Adelaide Hills, and composer Brendan Woithe, who created a remarkable score played live onstage by a string quartet.

Cockfight. The Farm

The Farm, featuring performers Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson, arrived In September with Cockfight. Set in an office situation, and dealing with interpersonal relations within that environment, Cockfight was an exceptional example of physical theatre. Both Webber and Thomson gave riveting performances and the work presented a wide range of ideas and concepts, some filled with psychological drama, others overflowing with humour. It was totally absorbing from beginning to end.

Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in Cockfight. Photo:

Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in Cockfight. Photo: © Darcy Grant

World Superstars of Ballet Gala. Bravissimo Productions

This Canberra-only event early in October showcased a range of outstanding dancers from across the world in a program of solos and duets, mostly from well-known works from the international ballet repertoire. It belongs in the list of my dance picks for 2018 on the one hand because the artists showed us some spectacular dancing. But it also belongs here because Bravissimo Productions (a newly established Canberra-based production company) had the courage to take on the task of defying convention and certain ingrained ideas about Canberra, including the perceived notion that Canberra equals Parliament and the Public Service and little else, and the constant complaints about performing spaces in the city. Bravissimo brought superstars of the ballet world not to Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane, but to Canberra. The international stars that came were not the worn-out, about-to-retire dancers we so often see here from Russian ballet companies, but stars of today. I hope Bravissimo Productions can keep it up. Canberra is waiting.

MIST. Anca Frankenhaeuser and Kailin Yong

MIST was the standout performance of the year for me. It was one item in Canberra Dance Theatre’s 40th anniversary production Happiness is…, which took the stage in mid October. As a whole, Happiness is… was somewhat uneven in the quality of its choreography and performance, but MIST, listed as a duet in the form of a pas de deux between a dancer and a musician, was simply sensational. And it really was a pas de deux with violinist Kailin Yong moving around the stage, and even lying down at times as he played and improvised, and with dancer Anca Frankenhaeuser involving herself with his playing in a way that I have never seen anywhere before. With choreography by Stephanie Burridge, an ex-Canberran now living in Singapore, it also carried an underlying theme about relationships between people. It was an exceptional concept from Burridge, beautifully realised by Frankenhaeuser and Yong.

I hope we can keep moving forward in Canberra in 2019 with dance that is inclusive and collaborative, and also theatrically and intellectually satisfying. A varied program of dance in 2018 showed us the possibilities.

Beyond Canberra

I had the good fortune to see quite a lot of dance outside of Canberra including in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane as well as outside of Australia in London and, briefly, in Wellington, New Zealand. Leaving London and Wellington aside since I am focusing on dance seen in Australia, the standout show for me was the La Scala production of Don Quixote, staged in Brisbane as part of Queensland’s outstanding initiative, its International Series. Apart from some seriously beautiful dancing, especially from the corps de ballet who seemed to understand perfectly how to move in unison (even in counterpoint) and how to be aware of fellow dancers, I loved that extreme pantomime was left out. As I wrote in my review it was a treat to see a Don Quixote who actually presented himself as a quixotic person rather than a panto character.

I was also intrigued by Greg Horsman’s new take on La Bayadère for Queensland Ballet. Horsman set his version in India during the British occupation. The story was cleverly reimagined and beautifully redesigned by Gary Harris, yet it managed to retain the essence of the narrative and, in fact, the story was quite gripping as it sped along.

But for me the standout production/performance from outside Canberra was Alice Topp’s Aurum for the Australian Ballet and performed in their Verve season in Melbourne. It was filled with emotion from beginning to end, sometimes overwhelmingly so. In one section it had the audience so involved that all we could do was shout and cheer with excitement. Choreographically it was quite startling, moving as it did from surging, swooping movement to a final peaceful, but stunningly realised resolution. A real show-stopper.

May we have more great dance in 2019!

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2018

Featured image: Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography

Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: Art Atelier Photography

Anca Frankenhaueser & Kailin Yong in MIST, 2018. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography

MIST. Anca Frankenhaeuser & Kailin Yong

12 October 2018. The Street Theatre, Canberra. Canberra Dance Theatre

Stephanie Burridge first choreographed MIST in Singapore (where she lives and works) in 2016. She came to Canberra to oversee its staging as part of the 40th anniversary celebration for Canberra Dance Theatre, where Burridge was artistic director from 1978 to 2001. Its original cast was Kailin Yong, violinist and composer, and Yarra Ileto, dancer. Yarra Ileto was unable to come to Canberra and Anca Frankenhaeuser, who had danced in many CDT productions during the years of Burridge’s directorship, took on the dancer’s role.

The program notes stated that MIST is ‘A duet for two performers in the tradition of a dance pas de deux—but one is a dancer and the other a musician.’ What to expect? Well it was the most moving and stunningly beautiful work I have seen for years. This was in part due to Kailin Yong, who played his violin while sitting, standing, walking and even lying down (and part of the thrill was that it appeared as though he was playing live); and to Frankenhaeuser, who danced and acted out her role from deep within her body and heart. But in part it was also Burridge’s exceptional concept and the way in which she brought it to the stage.

As the work began Kailin Yong was lying on the ground, violin poised. Frankenhaeuser entered from an upstage wing making her way towards him. She was blindfolded and tentatively worked her way across the stage, gesturing in ways that suggesting listening, querying, wondering. On reaching him she moved around and over him and at one stage lay down beside him and placed her head on his chest. Did she know him? Was she listening to his heartbeat?

Anca Frankenhaueser & Kailin Yong in MIST, 2018. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography

Later Frankenhaeuser removed the blindfold and her thoughts about her partner became stronger or more obvious. All was shown through her body whether through her often powerful, or sometimes timid movements; or through her facial expression and her gestures. Kailin Yong stood apart at times and played his music at her. She danced at him at times, throwing a leg high in the air towards him. But at other times they were close together, more intimately involved.

Anca Frankenhaueser & Kailin Yong in MIST, 2018. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography
Anca Frankenhaueser & Kailin Yong in MIST, 2018. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography

In a third manifestation of her character, Frankenhaeuser took a piece of white tulle. She used it to divide the space between her and her partner. She used it as a decorative item as she seemed to conduct a conversation with herself and with us, becoming more irrational and excited as time passed. She danced with the tulle tossing it, throwing it. And then she sank to the ground and was covered by it as her partner slowly came to her side.

Anca Frankenhaueser & Kailin Yong in MIST, 2018. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography

Anca Frankenhaueser in MIST, 2018. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography

Anca Frankenhaueser & Kailin Yong in MIST, 2018. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography

What a dancer! What a musician! What a pas de deux! A life before us!

Michelle Potter, 13 October 2018

All photos, including featured image: Anca Frankenhaeuser & Kailin Yong in MIST, 2018.  © Art Atelier Photography

Anca Frankenhaueser & Kailin Yong in MIST, 2018. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography

Scene from 'Great Sport!' Canberra 2016. Photo © Lorna Sim

Australian Dance Awards 2017

24 September 2017. The Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The winners of the 2017 Australian Dance Awards were announced in a ceremony in Melbourne on 24 September. The Playhouse at the Victorian Arts Centre was packed for what turned out to be an occasion with strong emotional and political overtones. The evening was hosted by cabaret star Sarah Ward and dancer Benjamin Hancock, both of whom brought a somewhat outrageous element to the evening. (To be absolutely honest, I can never understand why hosts of such events have to behave as if the show belongs to them). The politics came in the form of references by several of the presenters to the current same-sex marriage campaign.

The first half of the program suffered from what I can only describe as ‘technical issues’ in which the digital display of images and credit lines for nominees, and the eventual winner in each category (not to mention the life dates and images in the ‘In Memoriam’ section), didn’t fit properly on the screen. This was not a good look at all and resulted in confusion in some cases when the winner’s name was not given correctly by the presenter. I had to wonder whether there had been a tech rehearsal or not! Fortunately, the problem was fixed during the interval but it didn’t make up for the poor standard of production in the first half. The printed program was, however, beautifully designed and produced.

Nevertheless, for dance in the ACT, the outstanding news was that Liz Lea took out the award for Outstanding Achievement in Community Dance. She received the award for Great Sport!, a site specific work that Lea directed in collaboration with Canberra Dance Theatre, the National Museum of Australia, Dance for Parkinson’s ACT, and seven different choreographers—Lea herself, Martin del Amo, Kate Denborough, Tammi Gissell, Jane Ingall, Philip Piggin and Gerard van Dyck. This was a richly deserved award that recognised Lea’s significant effort to collaborate across the community spectrum, to seek out skilled choreographers from within the ACT and elsewhere, and to make dance that is inclusive. As it happens, however, Lea was one who suffered as a result of the ‘technical issues’. Her name was not called out as the recipient of the award!

Here is a link to my review of Great Sport! following its opening performance in celebration of World Health Day 2016.

Congratulations to Lea and all those who received an award. Here is the complete list of awardees.

  • Lifetime Achievement: Helen Herbertson
  • Services to Dance: Jennifer Irwin
  • Services to Dance Education: Kim Walker
  • Outstanding Achievement in Community Dance: Liz Lea and collaborators for Great Sport!
  • Outstanding Achievement in Youth Dance: Catapult Dance (The Flipside Project) for In Search of the Lost Things
  • Outstanding Achievement in Choreography: Lucy Guerin for The Dark Chorus
  • Outstanding Performance by a Company: Bangarra Dance Theatre for OUR Land People Stories
  • Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer: Ako Kondo (Australian Ballet) for Coppélia
  • Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer: Benjamin Hancock (Lucy Guerin Inc) for The Dark Chorus
  • Outstanding Performance in Commercial Dance or Musical Theatre: Jack Chambers (Stage Entertainment & Chichester Festival) for Singin’ in the Rain
  • Outstanding Achievement in Dance on Film or New Media: Tara and Pippa Samaya (The Samaya Wives) for The Knowledge Between Us.

In addition, Noel Tovey was inducted into the Hall of Fame and, in an emotion-filled acceptance speech, acknowledged those who had influenced his career, going right back to Jean Alexander and Xenia Borovansky. The Ausdance Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship, an award worth $10,000, went to Kristina Chan.

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Apart from Liz Lea’s award, and its significance for the growth of dance in the ACT, from a very personal perspective, I was thrilled with the following:

    • Australian Ballet principal dancer Ako Kondo took out the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer for her performance as Swanilda in Coppélia. While an ADA in this category refers in particular to a performance in a particular year, not for a body of work, I have watched Kondo perform in many productions over the past few years and I could not help but think back to those many and varied times when I have had the pleasure of watching her onstage. Her technique is spectacular and in certain roles, including that of Swanilda, she just sparkles.See my previous comments at this tag.

Ako Kondoin 'Coppelia' Act II, 2016. Photo: Kate LongleyAko Kondo in Coppélia Act II, the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Kate Longley

    • Jennifer Irwin walked away with the award for Services to Dance. Irwin has been designing costumes for major dance companies since she began working with Sydney Dance Company in the 1980s. Apart from Sydney Dance Company under Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, Irwin has had significant commissions from Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet. In her acceptance speech, Irwin acknowledged Graeme Murphy and Stephen Page for the influence they have had on her career. In addition, Irwin designed costumes for Dirty Dancing, the musical that had its first performances in 2004 in Australia. It featured well-known Australian dancer Joseph Brown, and the show went on to have popular seasons around the world. Irwin also designed parts of the 2000 Sydney Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. See this tag for further comments on various of Irwin’s designs.

Wearing costumes designed by Jennifer Irwin: (left) Amy Harris and Lana Jones in The narrative of nothing. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Jeff Busby; (right) Kaine Sultan Babij in a study for Sheoak. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

  • Bangarra Dance Theatre received the coveted award of Outstanding Performance by a Company for OUR land people stories. This triple bill was a truly stunning example of the way in which Bangarra produces work in which dance meets theatre, meets art, meets music. It showcased the choreography of three dancers from within the ranks of the company—Jasmin Sheppard, Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith—with the addition of a work from artistic director Stephen Page. It demonstrated Bangarra’s interest in bringing a wide range of Indigenous issues to the stage. Politics, kinship, and art all played a major role in the production and, as always, the show was splendidly staged and thrilling to watch.Daniel Riley accepted the award on behalf of Bangarra and acknowledged David Page, who died in 2016 and to whom the production of OUR land people stories was dedicated.Here is a link to my review of OUR land people stories.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Nyapanyapa' from 'OUR land people stories,' 2016. Photo by Jhuny Boy BorjaBangarra Dance Theatre in ‘Nyapanyapa’ from OUR land people stories, 2016. Photo: © Jhuny Boy Borja

And finally, the performances that accompanied the announcements were extraordinarily varied. I have to say I enjoyed most of all the lively Hopak Kalyna by the Lehenda Ukrainian Dance Company. The dancers smiled at us! It was a shame, though, that the Australian Ballet’s contribution, the pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty danced by Amber Scott and Ty King-Wall, somehow looked out of place amid all the cabaret, hip hop, sexually-oriented material, angst and other dance elements. It made me wonder why I love ballet as much as I do. Perhaps there needs to be a change somewhere along the line. Perhaps a more contemporary piece from the Australian Ballet, or a bit more ballet in the program?

Michelle Potter, 24 September 2017

Featured image: Scene from ‘Annette’ in Great Sport! featuring dancers from the GOLDS, Canberra’s company of senior dancers. Photo © Lorna Sim, 2016

Scene from 'Great Sport!' Canberra 2016. Photo © Lorna Sim