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.
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!!
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 StraitIslands. 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 Lakeand 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!
Bangarra Dance Theatre has always made dance that links back to the heritage of two groups of indigenous Australians: the Aboriginal communities of mainland Australia and the communities of the Torres Strait Islands. Belong, the company’s latest work, is no exception. Each of the two works that comprise the program, About choreographed by Elma Kris, and ID choreographed by the company’s artistic director Stephen Page, represents one of those streams of indigenous heritage. And, while the overall focus of the program is on the question of indigenous identity, the two works couldn’t be more different.
About opens with Kris, shrouded in a cloud of white mist, taking the role of a storyteller. She appears at the beginning of each section of the work and introduces us in turn to the four winds of the Torres Strait on which the work centres. Through Kris’ flowing choreography we encounter ‘Zey’, the cool south wind, ‘Kuki’, the powerful northwest wind, ‘Naygay’, the calm and gentle north wind, and ‘Sager’ the gusty, dominant southeast wind. Each has its particular energy, which is conveyed choreographically, through changing emphasis on male or female dancers, and through the way in which each wind is envisaged through colour and costuming.
About is without political overtones. Even as the Sager wind spirits confront each other as powerful forces, the work remains concerned with moods and a changing sense of spirit and movement. ID on the other hand is an emotive and often confronting work. Examining what it means to be an indigenous person in the 21st century, Page has structured his work as a series of episodes each commenting on some aspect of urban Aboriginal life. An indigenous man being tortured by prison guards is tough viewing and David Page’s music, interwoven with text, is unrelenting and adds an extra layer to a harsh and uncompromising work. The work does, however, contain some less politically challenging sections to balance the harshness. One uses a collection of hollowed out objects like tree trunks, or even slit gongs, and evocative lighting by Matt Cox to set the scene for some dancing that conveys more a passion for life and one’s culture than issues of social injustice.
I have long been an admirer of the strong and distinctive visual ‘look’ of a Bangarra production, which was established early in Bangarra’s performance history by the design team of Peter England (sets) and Jennifer Irwin (costumes). It is being carried forward now by others including, for Belong, Jacob Nash (sets) and Emma Howell (costumes). Stylistically and in the way both costumes and set occupy space there is more than a passing nod to the England/Irwin collaboration. But I greatly admired Nash’s backcloth (or was it a projection?) in About for the sections ‘Nagay’ and ‘Sager’. Streamer-like, the black and white image wound and swirled its way upwards across the backcloth at times looking like snake skin, at times like ancient bark, and at times like a meticulously executed linocut. Like the wind, and with the help of Matt Cox’s lighting, it appeared to be a changeable and unpredictable entity.
But if the ‘look’ is same, same but different, Bangarra dancers have moved ahead in leaps and bounds. Now with older role models and mentors, and perhaps with improved or more access to training, the current company is dancing very well indeed. Stand out performances came from Daniel Riley McKinley as the Initiate in ID and Kris and Waagenga Blanco as the Wind Spirits in the Sager section of About. Kris and Blanco in particular had a powerful connection between them as they danced, which many classical dancers might (or should) envy, and Blanco’s ability to fill the space around him with movement was exceptional.