Amy Harris and Adam Bull in 'The Merry Widow'. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridle

Dance diary. September 2017

  • The Australian Ballet in 2018

Details of the Australian Ballet’s 2018 season were revealed in September and this year Canberra audiences can anticipate a program from the national company. The Merry Widow, which David McAllister has called ‘a fantastically well-constructed soufflé’, was created for the Australian Ballet in 1975 as the first full-length production commissioned by the company. It will open at the Canberra Theatre Centre on 25 May and run until 30 May. Based on the operetta of the same name, it has choreography by Ronald Hynd, a scenario by Robert Helpmann (in 1975 artistic director of the Australian Ballet), and music by Franz Lehar. It will also have seasons in Sydney and Melbourne.

But beyond soufflés, and for those who like their ballet to have more intellectual input, an interesting program is scheduled for Melbourne and Sydney. Called Murphy, it honours the contribution Graeme Murphy has made to the Australian Ballet, which he joined from the Australian Ballet School in 1968. Programming is not yet complete, apparently, but we know that the main item on the program will be the return of Murphy’s Firebird, which he created for the Australian Ballet in 2009.

Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy's 'Firebird'. The Australian Ballet, 2009. Photo: © Alex MakeyevLana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. The Australian Ballet, 2009. Photo: © Alex Makeyev

Here is a quote from Murphy from a story I wrote for The Weekend Australian in February 2009:

I want to give the audience the magic that they believe Firebird is. It will be a rich and opulent experience for them. Besides, the score is completely dictative of the narrative, which makes it hard to stray from the story. Firebird is imbued with Diaghilev’s thumbprint.
I am keeping all the elements of the work, the symbols of good and evil for example, but I will be focusing in a slightly different way. It will be a little like the world of winter opening up to let in the spring.

As for the rest of the season: Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle will return for a season in Melbourne, while Sydney will have a return season of Alexei Ratmansky’s wonderful Cinderella; there is a new production of Spartacus in the pipeline, which will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney; Melbourne will have an exclusive season of a triple bill called Verve with works by Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour and Alice Topp; and Adelaide will see The Sleeping Beauty.

For dates and further information see the Australian Ballet’s website at this link.

  • Jennifer Irwin. Frocks, Tales and Tea

Jennifer Irwin, costume designer par excellence and recipient of the 2017 Australian Dance Award for Services to Dance, will be the special guest at an event hosted by ‘UsefulBox’ on 14 October at the Boronia tea rooms in the Sydney suburb of Mosman. Irwin will talk about her creative process and what inspired her as an artist. Further information at this link.

  • Andrée Grau (1954–2017)

The death has occurred, unexpectedly in France, of Andrée Grau, well-known dance anthropologist, and long-standing staff member of the University of Roehampton. Grau’s achievements, which include work in Australia, appear on the Roehampton website at this link.

  • Press for September 2017

‘Great flair shown in austere setting.’ Review of Circa’s Landscape with monsters. The Canberra Times, 8 September 2017, p. 31. Online version.

Seppe Van Looveren and Timothy Fyffe in 'Landscape With Monsters', 2017. Photo: © Vishal PandeySeppe Van Looveren and Timothy Fyffe in Landscape With Monsters, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

‘Untangling the truth.’ Preview of Gudirr, Gudirr, Dalisa Pigram and Marrugeku. The Canberra Times, 16 September 2017, Panorama p. 16. Online version.

Dalisa Pigram in 'Gudirr, Gudirr'. Photo Simon SchluterDalisa Pigram in Gudirr, Gudirr. Photo: © Simon Schluter

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2017

Featured image: Amy Harris and Adam Bull in The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridler.

Amy Harris and Adam Bull in 'The Merry Widow'. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridle

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.

*****************

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

 

Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.' Bnagarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘Bennelong.’ Bangarra Dance Theatre

29 June 2017. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s most recent work, may well be the company’s most ambitious production to date. Yet in saying that, I can’t help feeling that it may also be its most powerful, its most emotive, and its most compelling show ever.

Stephen Page, as choreographer and creative storyteller, has taken the life of Wongal man, Woollarawarre Bennelong, as a starting point: Bennelong the man feted in many ways in early colonial society, and yet denigrated in so many other ways by that same society. Page presents a series of episodes in Bennelong’s life from birth to death. In those episodes we experience a range of emotions from horror in ‘Onslaught’ as large sections of the indigenous population are wiped out by an epidemic of smallpox, to a weird kind of fascination in ‘Crown’ when we watch Bennelong interacting with British high society after he arrives in London.

There is a strength too in how Page has ordered (or selected) the events. ‘Onslaught’ for example, follows ‘Responding’ in which the indigenous population is ‘assimilated’ by wearing Western clothing. We can’t help but make the connection between the arrival of the colonials and the outbreak of a Western disease. And following ‘Crown’ comes ‘Repatriation’ when we watch another emotionally difficult scene referring to ongoing efforts to repatriate bones and spirits of those who died in London (or perhaps even those whose bones and spirits were taken to London as ‘specimens’). It is tough but compelling watching.

The score for Bennelong was largely composed and performed by Steve Francis, but it also makes many references to the Bennelong story with snippets of music and song from elsewhere—the strains of Rule Britannia at one stage, a rousing sailor song as Bennelong is transported to London by ship, and some Haydn as Bennelong attends a ball with British society. The dancers and others, including dramaturg Alana Valentine and composer Matthew Doyle, have also been recorded speaking and singing and these recordings have been integrated into the score. It is absolutely spellbinding sound.

As is usual in a Bangarra production the visual elements were outstanding. I especially enjoyed Jennifer Irwins’s costumes, which were suggestive of various eras in indigenous and colonial society, from pre-colonial times to the present, without always being exact replicas.

The entire company was in exceptional form, with Elma Kris in a variety of roles as a keeper of indigenous knowledge, and Daniel Riley as Governor Phillip, giving particularly strong performances. But it was Beau Dean Riley Smith as Bennelong who was the powerful presence throughout. In addition to his solo work, it was impossible not to notice and be impressed by him in group sections and in his various encounters with others throughout the piece.

 Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in 'Bennelong.' Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey

But it was in the final section, ‘1813/People of the Land’, that he totally captured the essence of what was at the heart Page’s conception of the character of Bennelong, a man trapped between two worlds and seeming to belong fully to neither. As he struggled physically and verbally to understand his position, and as he found himself slowly being encased in a prison (or mausoleum—Bennelong  died in 1813), Smith was a forlorn and tortured figure. It was thrilling theatre. And that concrete-looking structure that was slowly built around him, and that eventually blocked him out from audience view entirely, was another powerful visual element. As the curtain fell, the prison structure carried a projection of a well-known colonial portrait of Bennelong and it seemed to represent the disappearance of indigenous culture at the hands of the colonial faction.

Bennelong was a truly dramatic and compelling piece of dance theatre. It deserved every moment of the huge ovation it received as it concluded. We all stood.

Michelle Potter, 1 July 2017

Featured image: Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.' Bnagarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud

Yolande Brown as Earth Spirit in Spear. Photo Jacob Nash

‘Spear’. A Stephen Page film

17 February 2016, preview screening, Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra

No doubt about it, Stephen Page’s Spear is a confronting film, and one in which the director’s approach is absolutely uncompromising. But it is also an incredibly beautiful film from so many points of view.

Spear centres on the spiritual journey of a young man, Djali, played by Hunter Page-Lochard, who seeks to understand what it is to be an Indigenous man suspended between two, often conflicting worlds. As he moves between those two worlds we encounter with him the pressures and problems that surround him, including substance abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and racism.

Hunter Page-Lochard with artists of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'spear'. Photo Edward Mulvihill

Hunter Page-Lochard with artists of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

Some moments are (deliberately) quite crass—a dance to the 1960s song ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come Back’, for example. Others are immensely powerful—such as a scene where Daniel Riley as ‘Prison Man’ engages with Elma Kris as ‘Old Woman’ who brings the cleansing power of a smoking ceremony into the prison mess hall. And others are breathtaking in their use of landscape as backdrop—the view of Kaine Sultan Babij as ‘Androgynous Man’ stalking through long grass and between trees is striking, as are the scenes in which Yolande Brown as ‘Earth Spirit’ walks along a red dust road.

Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in 'Spear'. Photo Tiffany Parker

Elma Kris as ‘Old Woman’ and Daniel Riley as ‘Prison Man’ in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Tiffany Parker

Choreographically Page has delivered some of his best movement, whether in solo work for the main members of the cast, or in group scenes. And so powerful are the performances by the cast that there is absolutely no doubt about the message being put forward. Sound is everywhere too. An original score by David Page is complemented by songs from Djakapurra Munyarryun, although spoken text in English is minimal and is mostly delivered by actor Aaron Pedersen who plays the part of ‘Suicide Man’. And there is a suicide scene, which is very deftly handled. Ochre is everywhere as well, in all its four colours. It seems to permeate the production whether as paint on bodies or dust in the air.

What makes this tough, fearless, uncompromising film so quietly beautiful? Visually it is stunning. Director of photography Bonnie Elliott has delivered some amazing shots of an incredible landscape from outback to rugged coastline, and some of the camera angles and close-up shots are just breathtaking. Even her takes on run-down interiors, under-ground spaces and alley ways are moving. And Jacob Nash’s work as production designer gives the film a particular strength. As in his sets for Bangarra’s live shows, Nash has brought to the film an understanding of the power of minimalism in design. But perhaps more than anything it is Stephen Page’s ability to deliver the ultimate message of hope that stands out. The closing scene is a ‘punch the sky’ moment. Simple, direct and moving.

Spear is Stephen Page’s debut as director of a feature-length film. It is a remarkable film. Go see it.

Yolande Brown as Earth Spirit in Spear. Photo Jacob Nash

Yolande Brown as ‘Earth Spirit’ in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Jacob Nash

Detail of the costume for Earth Spirit in 'Spear'.

A close-up view of the ‘Earth Spirit’ costume, the work of Jennifer Irwin.

 Michelle Potter, 19 February 2016

Follow this link for details of and bookings for the Canberra season of Spear at the Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive. It will also be screened at the Arc Cinema as a special fund raiser for Canberra Dance Theatre on 7 March.

‘Ochres’. Bangarra Dance Theatre

4  December 2015, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

Seeing Ochres in 2015 after 21 years was a remarkable experience. More than anything it marked the astonishing achievement of Stephen Page and his team of artists. Through the creativity that has characterised Bangarra’s journey, Page has given Australian Indigenous culture a powerful voice. Ochres was an eye opener in 1994. Now it is a powerful evocation of all that Bangarra stands for.

Djakapurra Munyarryun and Bangarra dancers in 'Black' from Ochres, 2015. Photo:-Jhuny-Boy Borja

Djakapurra Munyarryun and Bangarra dancers in ‘Black’ from Ochres, 2015. Photo: © Jhuny-Boy Borja

This 2015 Ochres is not an exact rendition of the original. It is promoted as a ‘reimagining’ of that early show but is definitely close enough for those who saw it in the 1990s to feel they are seeing the work again.

As it did in 1994, the 2015 Ochres begins with a scene featuring cultural consultant Djakapurra Munyarryun, not this time painting up with yellow ochre, but singing a song, Ngurrtja—Land Cleansing Song–composed especially (I believe) for this 2015 production. He has, as ever, huge power and presence. He stood perfectly still for several seconds before beginning his song and the effect was mesmerising.

Torres Starait Islander Elma Kris, another of Bangarra’s consultants, follows with a section called The Light in which she, like Djakapurra Munyarryun had done previously, smeared her limbs and face with yellow ochre.

These opening scenes are followed by the four ‘ochre sections’—’Yellow’  inspired by female energy, ‘Black’ representing male energy, ‘Red’ showing male and female relations, and ‘White’ inspired by history and its influence on the future.

In ‘Yellow’, choreographed by Bernadette Walong-Sene, the women dance low to the ground. Their movements are most often flowing and they have an organic look to them. Deborah Brown shows her remarkable skills throughout this section. How  beautiful to see a relatively classical move, a turn in a low arabesque with one hand on the shoulder for example, followed by sudden movements of the head as if she is curious about, and watchful for what is happening around her. Brown always looks good no matter what style her movements represent.

‘Black’, with contemporary choreography from Stephen Page and traditional choreography from Djakapurra Munyarryun, shows power and masculinity—hunters crouching behind bushes, warriors with their weapons sparring with each other. This section is also characterised by some nicely performed unison work.

‘Red’ has the strongest narrative element of the four sections. It focuses on four different expressions of male/female relationships moving from youthful dalliance featuring Beau Dean Riley Smith, Nicola Sabatino and Yolanda Lowatta to the final section ‘Pain’ in which Elma Kris cares for an ailing man, danced by Daniel Riley. But in between we can imagine other relationships. Domestic violence and addiction perhaps?

‘White’ concludes the program. The two cultural consultants, Elma Kris and Djakapurra Munyarryun, lead this final section and, with all the dancers covered with white ochre, a spiritual quality emerges from sections representing a range of concepts from kinship to totemic ideas. The choreography is credited to Stephen Page, Bernadette Walong-Sene, and Djakapurra Munyarryun.

Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are cleanly cut and simply coloured. Jacob Nash’s set, looking like long shards of bark, hangs in the centre of the space above a sandy mound. It is lit in changing colours by Joseph Mercurio. A score by David Page is evocative of the 1990s but retains enough power and emotion to feel relevant still.

The kind of fusion of contemporary and traditional movements we have come to expect from Bangarra’s dancers is all there and reflects the fact that Bangarra is an urban Aboriginal initiative with strong links back to its cultural heritage. And, while the dancers of 1994 were extraordinary (a list of the 1994 team appears in the program), the manner in which Bangarra has grown technically is also clear. Its dancers are spectacularly good and their commitment shines through.

Michelle Potter, 9 December 2015

Featured image: Leonard Mickelo in a study for Ochres, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

Ochres-landscape-wesbite

For more about Djakapurra Munyarryun follow this link.

'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

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

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is available to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

‘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. August 2011

  • The Dancers Company

During August The Canberra Times published my Canberra preview for Bangarra’s current production, Belong, and also my review of the Canberra season of the Dancers Company production of Don Quixote. The Dancers Company was a breath of fresh air for dance goers in the national capital, especially for those interested in ballet as a genre of dance.

I was especially impressed by Hannah O’Neill and Benedicte Bemet. It is well known now that Hannah O’Neill has a seasonal contract, beginning this month, for the Paris Opera Ballet, so it was good to see her in this early stage of her professional career. She was dancing beautifully as one of Kitri’s friends. She also took the role of the Queen of the Dryads in the dream sequence and it is not too much to say that her serenity in the Queen’s solo, in part deriving from her technical assurance, was thrilling to watch.

But it was Benedicte Bemet, also dancing as one of Kitri’s friends, and as Cupid in the dream scene, who really captured my attention. She too handled skillfully the quite different but equally demanding technical requirements of Cupid’s solo. But what really stood out was her engagement with the art form rather than with just the technique. Her dancing appears to come from deep within the soul. I hope she doesn’t lose such a rare and wholly engrossing quality as she moves into a professional company.

Benedicte Bemet in 'Paquita', 2011
Benedicte Bemet in ‘Paquita’, 2011

    Photo: Sergey Konstantinov.  Courtesy: The Australian Ballet School

  • Ted Shawn and Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild

Ted Shawn was the subject of an August post that drew some comments, including one regarding the sponsorship of the Shawn visit by Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild. While on the hunt for information about a production of The Little Mermaid, a work choreographed by Rex Reid and designed by Kristian Fredrikson for Martyn in 1967, I discovered that Shawn was a patron of Martyn’s company, which was variously called Ballet Guild, Victorian Ballet Company and Ballet Victoria depending on the date. Shawn’s name appears on programs as a patron of the company from at least 1958 through to at least 1968 (and perhaps before and after those dates? I have yet to examine earlier and later programs).

  • Paul De Masson

In last month’s dance diary I mentioned Paul De Masson and indicated that he was to perform in the Melbourne season of Checkmate in the Australian Ballet’s British Liaisons program. I have since discovered from Paul that this is no longer happening. It is unclear why, although it seems not to be his health!!

  • Jennifer Irwin

In August I also had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection with costume designer Jennifer Irwin. Long standing followers of Sydney Dance Company will remember her many costume designs for Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, while those who have followed Bangarra will recall that she and Peter England produced costumes and sets for some of Bangarra’s most celebrated productions across the two decades of its history to date.

Irwin’s other design credits include the ‘Awakening’ section of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Opening Ceremony, much of the Closing Ceremony and the musical Dirty Dancing. In October audiences will see her designs for Stephen Page’s production of Bloodland for Sydney Theatre Company, and in 2012 her commissions include two new works for the Australian Ballet.

  • Land, sea and sky: contemporary art of the Torres Strait Islands

While in Brisbane for the Queensland Ballet Gala, I took the opportunity to visit an exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art called Land, sea and sky: contemporary art of the Torres Strait Islands. The exhibition included a variety of dance materials. Particularly interesting were several ‘dance machines’, hand held objects manipulated by dancers to give extra strength to the narrative line of the dance. I loved the one made by Patrick Thaiday and commissioned especially for the exhibition. It comprised 20 ‘machines’ each constucted as a stylised, blue cumulus cloud, made of wood and painted with white stars. From each cloud radiated a series of small, movable, dark red poles each with a white star at its top point. It was easy to imagine a dance representing the movement of the stars across the sky using these devices as a major inclusion.

Footage of Dennis Newie teaching dances on the beach to Islanders of various ages was another important feature of the show.

  • The Australian Ballet’s 2012 season

Late in August the Australian Ballet announced its season for 2012, its 50th anniversary year. What a great program it looks like too. In May I posted on the English National Ballet’s Swan Lake and remarked how satisfying it was to see a traditional version of this ballet, as much as I love Graeme Murphy’s new take on it. So I am especially looking forward to seeing Stephen Baynes’ new but old version, which will be seen first in Melbourne in September before moving on to Sydney in November.

The year will open with a triple bill of  new works by Australian choreographers: Graeme Murphy, Stephen Page and Gideon Obarzanek. Something to anticipate!

  • Statistics

In August the Australian Ballet’s Concord season of 2009 finally lost its top place as most accessed post of the month. My dance diary for July and my post on the Queensland Ballet gala shared top spot with Concord coming in in third place.

Michelle Potter, 30 August 2011