’20:21′. Another look

14 November 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

What a pleasure it was to see the Australian Ballet’s triple bill program, 20:21, for a second time, in a different theatre, and with a different cast. Clearly the dancers have become more familiar with the works over the series of performances that have been staged since I saw it in Melbourne. I suspect it also looks better on the smaller stage of the Sydney Opera House (for once). In addition, I have inched myself forward over many years of subscribing to a Sydney matinee series so that I have an almost perfect seat in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. It all adds up.

This time In the Upper Room had a simply fabulous cast. Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch were stunning throughout, as were Ako Kondo, Miwako Kubota, Ingrid Gow (great to see her in a featured role again), Chengwu Guo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in Twyla Tharp's 'In the Upper Room'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

These seven dancers worked together in different combinations in the more balletic of the various sections of Upper Room. Not only did they show off their superb technical skills, they brought their individual personalities to these sectionsa perfect approach for Tharp’s choreography. Gaudiello finished off his phrases of movement with his remarkable sense of theatricality; Guo finished his with a kind of nonchalance, which was equally as satisfying. But it was Kusch who stole the show with her joyous manner and her ability to make even the most difficult move, the most outrageous lift, look so easy.

It is such a thrill to see this work performed by the Australian Ballet’s dancers and it was not just the seven I have mentioned who danced wonderfully. I could feel the excitement building from the moment the curtain rose on Dimity Azoury and Vivenne Wong in their sneakers and stripey costumes. As I have said before, for me the Australian Ballet’s dancers have the staying power, the determination to succeed,and just the right personalities to make Tharp’s Upper Room look fabulous. This time they nailed it and for once I didn’t keep thinking of previous casts I saw umpteen years ago!

Kusch was also the star attraction for me in the Balanchine piece, Symphony in Three Movements. She had the central, andante movement, which she danced with Adam Bull. Technically she was quite outstanding. Her extensions took the breath away, and her turns were spectacular. But it was her musicality that stood out. She brought out the changing rhythms and the jazzy overtones of Stravinsky’s score not just in her way of moving but also in her facial expression. She was a delight to watch. Bull was a strong partner but perhaps a little too tall for Kusch?

Gaudiello also had a leading role in Symphony in Three Movements, mostly partnering Dimity Azoury, and I never tire of watching his approach to partnering. He is so attentive to his ballerina in a way that is rarely achieved by others, but he manages at the same time to perform as an outstanding artist himself. Miwako Kubota and Brett Simon danced the third of the leading couples and the corps, wonderfully rehearsed as ever by Eve Lawson, showed off Balanchine’s choreographic patterns to advantage.

Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow was again strongly danced but, as before, I saw little in it that was substantial enough to excite the mind or eye. It is admirable that the Australian Ballet is exploring new choreographic ideas of course, and large sections of the audience were thrilled with what they saw, but I am still not sure where Harbour was trying to take us.

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2015

My review of 20:21 in Melbourne is at this link.

Twyla Tharp

A new interview with Twyla Tharp, by New York-based dance writer Gia Kourlas, is now available online on the website of Dance Magazine.  It’s well worth a read. Here is the link.

Reading the article so soon after seeing In the Upper Room in Melbourne, I was inspired to search through my bookshelf for Tharp’s autobiography, Push comes to shove, published in 1992. There I read a little about the genesis of and inspiration for In the Upper Room. In particular, I was fascinated by Tharp’s account of the role of the two women who open and close the work. Tharp writes:

In picturing the great ferocious and brave porcelain dragon dogs that guard Zen temples, I was also seeing a family of small black-and-white china bulldogs that were kept in the front parlor of my Gram Bertha’s farmhouse. These had been passed down from Sarah Margaret Cherry Confer, my small Quaker great-grandmother who held the world together through all adversity. As I cast Shelley [Washington] and Chris [Uchida] in this role, to guard and organize the stage, I realized we had been building the strength for them to take on this work for more than a decade. These two women had become the ultimate in what I think of as my power women.*

She then goes on to talk, in a wonderfully analytical manner, about the structure of the work and where and how these two women (whom she called the Bomb Squad) fit into the whole. Now I look forward even more to seeing In the Upper Room again when the Australian Ballet’s 20:21 program goes to Sydney.

Michelle Potter, 2 September 2015

* Twyla Tharp, Push comes to shove: an autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), pp. 305–306.

’20:21′. The Australian Ballet

29 August 2015 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

What does twenty-first-century ballet encompass? What does it look like? And does it differ from ballet of the twentieth century? In many respects the Australian Ballet’s latest mixed bill program, 20:21, suggests an answer in Tim Harbour’s latest work, Filigree and Shadow, the centre work in the 20:21 program. The work is strongly danced. Its powerful, dramatic choreography is coupled with Benjamin Cisterne’s equally dramatic lighting, and with an exceptional, minimalist stage setting by Kelvin Ho that combines curved and flat walls. Its commissioned score from the German duo, 48nord, binds the work together.

Unfortunately for Harbour, however, his work in the triple bill program is preceded and followed by works from two of the twentieth-century’s most admired choreographers—George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Master choreographers. And not only does it have to contend with that kind of program placement, Filigree and Shadow doesn’t seem to take us anywhere. It is, we are told in Australian Ballet marketing and in program notes, about Harbour’s feelings of aggression. I found it hard to identify with those personal feelings (of anger?) that Harbour seemed to want to show.

Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, which opened the program, might be thought of (wrongly I suggest) as lightweight by comparison. It’s pretty to look at and high-spirited emotionally. But it asks us to look at complexity of structure (in the choreographic patterns that it puts before us) and musicality (in its reflections of and relationships to Stravinsky’s symphonic score). Balanchine was never one to make his ballets overly personal. We can bring our own ideas to the work and that is, I believe, how to engage an audience. Harbour’s very personal approach doesn’t do this and, as a result, the Balanchine work has so much more to offer.

The six principals in Symphony in Three Movements in the performance I saw, Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Ty King-Wall, and Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes, all brought their individual qualities to the performance. Kondo and Guo were thrilling technically but also brought pleasure and excitement to their dancing, and Jones was playful and nicely partnered by King-Wall. The central pas de deux from Scott and Hawkes gave clarity to the unusual choreography with its turned up feet and hands bent at the wrists.

The closing work, Tharp’s In the Upper Room, was an acquisition for the Australian Ballet during Ross Stretton’s artistic directorship. Those who were lucky enough to be at the opening night in 1997 are unlikely to forget the occasion. Since then I have seen Upper Room performed by other companies in the United States but have always been a little disappointed. Beyond the Australian Ballet, no one else seems to have the energy, the staying power, and, behind the marathon of dancing, the reckless insouciance to carry it off.

The performance I saw this season wasn’t an opening night, and nor did it have quite the same thrill as that very first viewing—it wasn’t as well danced for a start. But this time I admired hugely the four ladies on pointe, in particular Robyn Hendricks and Amanda McGuigan, whose beautifully proportioned bodies and stellar techniques made the most of Tharp’s uniquely beautiful take on classical moves. I love this work, even when it doesn’t reach the heights of that first, great performance of 1997. It is a thrill to have it back in Australia, and also a thrill to see Ross Stretton acknowledged on the cast sheet.

Michelle Potter, 30 August 2015

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Filigree and Shadow, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Note: My review of the first Australian Ballet performance of In the Upper Room was published in Dance Australia in June/July 1997 (can it really be almost 20 years ago?). My posts about Upper Room in the U.S. are at various links including Pacific Northwest Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

 

Dance diary. December 2014

  • The best of …

My ‘best of …’ for 2014 will appear with the ‘best of …’ comments by others in the February/March edition of Dance Australia. But looking ahead to the coming year, perhaps the show I am most looking forward to (of those that have been announced so far of course) is the triple bill by the Australian Ballet that will feature Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room.

Looking back through my archive of reviews, here’s what I wrote in Dance Australia in 1997 when the work premiered in Australia during the first year of Ross Stretton’s directorship.

… [In the] Upper Room has relentless drive and a choreographic eclecticism that balances the old and the new, the classic and the contemporary. It frequently insists on a cross-over between styles and the rubbery, sleight-of-hand-looking movements that we associate with Tharp often suddenly slow down and take on a kind of genteel quality. Other times the refinement of the classical vocabulary is made to look less rarefied as it collapses into more loose-limbed movements or is performed in counter balance with more contemporary-style steps. And in all this, Tharp’s work never looks stylistically judgemental. Dance is dance.

Since then I have seen Upper Room performed by both Pacific Northwest Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and, quite honestly, despite the galaxy of stars in each of those companies, neither company has given me the thrill that I got from the Australian Ballet’s performances of 1997. They were addictive experiences. I kept going back. Let’s hope the Australian Ballet rises to the occasion in 2015! In the Upper Room opens in Melbourne in August in a triple bill entitled 20:21

I don’t have access to Australian Ballet photos of this work. The image below is from the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s website.

Dorcas Walters, Mikaela Polley, Grace Maduell and partners in 'In the Upper Room', Birmingham Royal Ballet. Photo Bill Cooper (choreography Twyla Tharp; © 1992 Twyla Tharp)

Dorcas Walters, Mikaela Polley, Grace Maduell and partners in In the Upper Room, Birmingham Royal Ballet. Photo Bill Cooper (choreography Twyla Tharp; © 1992 Twyla Tharp)

  • Oral history

In December, I received an interesting comment, which is available at this link, on an oral history interview I recorded with Edna Busse in August. The comment generates many issues associated with oral history as a research tool, most of which have been debated in conferences and the like dealing with the role and uses of oral history.

I drew on material from twenty-five National Library oral history interviews, and two radio recordings from an Adelaide program called ‘Theatreland Spotlight’ (preserved in the National Film and Sound Archive), in my recent biography of Dame Margaret Scott. I think the book would have lost a lot had I not had access to that material. Some of those whose interviews I used are now dead—Charles Boyd, Sally Gilmour, Paul Hammond, Geoffrey Ingram, Bruce Morrow, Noël Pelly, James Penberthy, Marie Rambert, Ray Powell, Kenneth Rowell, Peggy Sager, and Gailene Stock are among them—and their thoughts and recollections for the most part are not available in other formats.

None of this, however, takes away from the fact that interviewees may embroider upon their experiences, or misremember events (sometimes quite badly), which is the thrust of the comment. Using oral history as source material is beset by problems and is at its best when used judiciously and when the information is cross checked with other sources (if possible). Any source material is only as good as the historian who uses it.

I value immensely the comment on the Edna Busse interview as it comes from someone who was closely involved with the Borovansky Ballet and who has given me a contact to enable me to pursue the issue further. But it doesn’t take away from the value of the interview, just makes me ponder further on the care with which this very personal form of source material needs to be approached.

  • Press for December

‘Professional productions too few. Michelle Potter’s top picks for 2014’. The Canberra Times, 23 December 2014, ARTS p. 6. Online version.

Happy New Year 2015

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2014

The Stretton Legacy

As Canberra gets ready to host the 2013 Australian Dance Awards as part of the city’s centenary celebrations, it is inevitable and absolutely appropriate that thoughts are turning to those dancers, teachers, directors and others who have made a major contribution to dance in the city in some way. Canberra-born Ross Stretton comes instantly to mind.

When Stretton died in 2005, following a career as a dancer in Australia and the United States, as the sixth artistic director of the Australian Ballet, and briefly as director of London’s Royal Ballet, I gathered together a list of the repertoire Stretton chose for his four and a half years at the helm of the Australian Ballet. It was published in Brolga, No. 23 in December 2005. As this article is not available via the online issues of Brolga, I am posting it here ahead of the ADAs.

Stretton marked his directorship with a catch phrase, a slogan of sorts: ‘Creativity, Energy, Passion’. It was often thrown back at him, sometimes with a touch of sarcasm, and it became known as the ‘CEP factor’. But behind it was Stretton’s passionate belief that dance was not superficial; it was an art form that in its greatest moments engaged mind, body and soul. Looking back at the repertoire list, which includes an astonishing twelve new commissions in the space of just over four years, as well as new acquisitions for the company from the existing international repertoire, it is clear that the CEP factor was hard at work.

Looking again there are a few works that haven’t been seen since Stretton’s directorship that I would love to see back: 1914 (despite the fact that it was not in general well-reviewed), Dark Lullaby, In the Upper Room, Theme and Variations and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude are among them.

Below is a Jeff Busby shot of Elisha Willis in 2000 in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and below that is a link to the original Brolga article (with one or two corrections to the original). Other corrections if needed or comments are welcome.

Elisha Willis in 'The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude', 2000. Photo: Jeff Busby

‘The Stretton Legacy’. First published in  Brolga. An Australian Journal about Dance, December 2005, pp. 31–34.

Michelle Potter, 24 June 2013

‘[Modern] Masterpieces’. Pacific Northwest Ballet

21 March 2013, McCaw Hall, Seattle

This program was a particularly generous one from Peter Boal’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, consisting as it did of four works: George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces, Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. It was also a diverse program showcasing a range of American choreographers, past and present.

I have to admit to being an Upper Room fan and recall with much pleasure the performances given of it by the Australian Ballet now more than a decade ago. So I was surprised by the interpretation given to it by dancers of Pacific Northwest Ballet and it made me ponder on the notion of a vernacular in dance, and also on the role of a personal style in dance. The standout dancer for me was Kiyon Gaines who, especially in the men’s trio towards the end of the work, looked like he was in another space, in the upper room as it were, so engrossed was he in the performance. To me he was the only dancer who really got the ascendancy of emotion and physicality that drives the work to its conclusion. Others put in personal tweaks of expression or added small technical eccentricities but didn’t give the appearance of being in the same show as their colleagues. All in all a bit of a disappointment.

Balanchine’s exquisite Concerto Barocco opened the program. It was nicely danced by the company who have a youthfulness that suits many Balanchine works, including this one, and whose training and heritage give them a particular feeling for the style. I especially admired the two leading ladies, Maria Chapman and Lesley Rausch, both of whom are elegant, long-limbed dancers and who used these attributes to advantage.

Paul Gibson’s Mozart Pieces is a development of an earlier piece made for a Pacific Northwest Ballet School performance. It is a series of showy episodes performed by seven men and two women. Several of the sections are danced to Mozart minuets and there is a certain inevitability to the choreography. But Gibson has counteracted what could have become a predictable work with some unexpected changes of movement and lots of variety in the way the arms and head are used. I enjoyed watching the leading male dancer, Karel Cruz. His feet and ankles seemed amazingly articulate and I could see so clearly how they held together perfectly in fifth in his double tours. This is perhaps a bit of an esoteric comment to make, but the way he executed those tours remains clearly fixed in my mind.

Ulysses Dove’s Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven was made in response to Dove’s grief at the loss of friends and colleagues who died from complications associated with AIDS. Originally made on the Royal Swedish Ballet, it is set on three couples and is an unusual work in that it seems confrontingly static. Movements tend not to flow together or even be fluid within themselves. The six dancers periodically come together in a circle, which is also pretty much a static formation, before breaking apart. The whole might be seen as a fractured view of life and the relationships made within it. I found it hard to be emotionally involved so obvious was the movement metaphor.

This was my first viewing of a performance by Pacific Northwest Ballet since the company was in Australia in the 1990s for the Melbourne Festival. There were moments to be savoured but I would have loved to have been uplifted!

Michelle Potter, 24 March 2013

American Ballet Theatre. Fall season 2011

12–13 November 2011, City Center, New York

New York City’s newly refurbished City Center theatre was the venue for American Ballet Theatre’s Fall season, a program of nine, one-act works by contemporary choreographers presented over a short period of a few days. Just three of those works, Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, Demis Volpi’s Private Light and The Garden of Villandry choreographed by Martha Clarke, Robby Barnett and Felix Blaska, were accompanied by live music. This music was played on stage in each case: a grand piano for Seven Sonatas, four guitars played alternately by one musician for Private Light and a piano trio for The Garden of Villandry. The remaining works were performed to taped music.

The highlight for me was Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, about which I have written separately. But I was also pleased to see Merce Cunningham’s Duets, originally made in 1980. In this work for six couples Cunningham’s inventiveness was patently clear, especially in the complex partnering that was an essential feature of the work. But there were also moments when his choreography showed its modernist qualities, movement stripped back to essentials with an emphasis on clear shapes filling the space around the body, and with a strong sense of focus and line, albeit often set off centre. There were jarring moments, however, when the dancers seemed unable to detach themselves from a balletic need to project emotion through the face and via bodily embellishments to the choreography. Paloma Herrera, for example, dancing the second duet with Eric Tamm looked a little too much like a swan queen at one stage as she nestled into her partner’s shoulder and wrapped an arm around him at hip level. As beautiful as she looked, it was not quite Cunningham.

Paul Taylor had two works in the season, the classic Company B, always enjoyable, and a new work choreographed in 2011 called Black Tuesday. This latter work, danced to songs from the era of the Great Depression, provided a great showcase for some of the company’s soloists. Misty Copeland for example danced with verve and panache from beginning to end and especially in a solo, ‘The boulevard of broken dreams’, while Gemma Bond gave a gutsy, crowd-pleasing performance in her solo ‘I went hunting and the big bad wolf was dead’. Santo Loquasto dressed the dancers for Black Tuesday in brown, black and grey outfits in 1930s style with an eye catching assortment of fabrics and patterns and a range of accessories: hats, caps, stockings, gaiters, suspenders and the like. While perhaps not world-shattering choreographically with its mix of musical comedy routines and 1930s jitterbug-style movements, it was a fun work, well structured and full of interest from start to finish.

Twyla Tharp had three works on the program. Sadly I missed Sinatra Suite on this occasion but caught two performances of In the Upper Room and one of a duet entitled Known by Heart (‘Junk’) Duet. In the Upper Room was something of a disappointment. I have seen it danced better in Australia and it was unfortunate that the first cast I saw seemed not to be able to last the distance let alone look as though they were dancing together in the same ballet. In the end the remarkable Herman Cornejo looked quite idiosyncratic without a strong backup from his colleagues.

The second performance was, however, distinguished by a spectacular performance from Paloma Herrera as the main pointe girl. She had such assertiveness, such control of those slow turns, and such powerful technique as she handled slides into splits followed by a lift from the floor into a fish dive pose, or when hurling her body through space to be caught in some astonishing position. Misty Copeland danced strongly as the third sneaker girl (a role I can’t help but identify with the former Australian Ballet dancer Katie Ripley). Sascha Radetsky, Blaine Hoven and Patrick Ogle showed how they had lasted the distance when they came on for their curtain calls and each reprised a step from the work.

Known by Heart was new to me. Dating to 1998 and danced to selections from Donald Knaack’s Junk Music, it was performed by an ebullient Gillian Murphy partnered by Blaine Hoven. Basically the work is a variation on the traditional format of the pas de deux with duet, variations and coda, and the scene was set with an explosive opening as a diagonal shaft of light highlighted a generous grand jete from Murphy, who was supported by a finger tip hold from Hoven. There followed a battery of fast paced movements. Murphy at times even seemed to be tap dancing on pointe. Both Murphy and Hoven stylishly carried off the mixed nature of the choreography—a bit of ballroom, a bit of musical comedy, a bit of classical while all the time maintaining a somewhat cheeky partnership.

The Garden of Villandry, a work made in 1979 was very pretty but was without a huge amount of depth, although it was beautifully expressive of the Schubert Trio No 1 in B Flat, Opus 99 to which it was danced. I admired the lilting movements of bodies and the intertwining of arms throughout. As a kind of Edwardian love triangle it was understated and lingeringly melancholic as two men vied for the attentions of one woman. It was given a pleasant performance by a lovely Veronika Part partnered by Roddy Doble and Gennadi Saveliev.

I was least impressed by the Volpi work, Private Light, especially the sections where the choreography seemed to be more classically oriented. Then the dancers seemed almost to be engaging in centre practice and centre practice with little choreographic interest. And there was a lot of lining up and breaking out of line, huddling together and kissing in the dark. Volpi seemed too to be unable to choreograph for the arms, which were often left hanging unimaginatively at the dancer’s side. But one dancer, Simone Messmer, stood out for her beautifully articulated body and her ability to use her chest to project emotion. It was  a shame that the lighting was so dark that it was almost impossible to see her until the lights were raised for curtain calls. Perhaps the darkness was the source of the title?

It is always a pleasure to see a strong company performing a range of works that challenge the dancers stylistically. And is an equal pleasure to be challenged oneself by such a range of contemporary choreography as ABT presented in this short season.

Michelle Potter, 17 November 2011