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

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‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
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‘Icons’. A second look

17 November 2012 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

A second viewing of Icons, the Australian Ballet’s triple bill tribute to 50 years of choreographic exploration by the company, confirmed much of what I thought from my previous viewing.  In particular I think it was a mistake to revive The Display. Despite well danced performances by Rachel Rawlins as the Female, Brett Simon as the Leader and Ty King-Wall as the Outsider the work overall looks old-hat. The kind of behaviour on show in the ballet was perhaps an accurate view of male/female relations in Australia in 1964 but it doesn’t have the shock value it had 48 years ago—times change. And while Katharine Hepburn might have been turned on by lyrebirds, I’m not sure any of the Australian Ballet dancers are, or even pretended to be. What’s more much of Robert Helpmann’s choreography looks a little like that from a musical (and not such a good one at that), while Sidney Nolan’s set, so evocative in its day, lost much of its appeal on the tiny stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, especially from J row in the stalls. Memory is a funny thing of course but I also seem to remember the lighting and general visual ambience being softer, hazier and thus more affecting. But I may be living in my dreams! In any case the revival has been a huge disappointment.

Gemini on the other hand still looks fabulous and its choreography was given great treatment by Leanne Stojmenov, Juliet Burnett, Andrew Wright and Kevin Jackson. While I was attracted by the opening night cast in Melbourne by their cool, technical reading of the work, not to mention their spectacular energy, the cast I saw in Sydney brought a whole new element to it. Not to say that there was not also a strength of technique with this cast—there was—it was beautifully danced by all four. A duet between Stojmenov and Jackson (who seems to get better and better every time I see him) was remarkably powerful with its dramatic lines and enfolding of bodies one with the other; and Burnett has an unusual mixture of fragility and strength that brought a new quality to the work. But there was a hint of the sinister, or at least something disquieting or provocative, and more than a hint of emotion in the performance from this cast. For me this Gemini had a feeling of humanity about it, as well as being a ballet about contemporary technique.

As for Beyond Twelve, well my companion said as we stood up to leave: ‘Graeme Murphy makes ballet for adults!’ With all its slapstick humour, its phallic references, its comments on youthful immaturity, and its poking fun at Australian society it is still an immensely moving ballet. And the trio between the Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty remains one of Murphy’s most heart-warming choreographic accomplishments, as does the beautifully staged ending full of resignation, or is it wistfulness, or is it just time to move forward?

Scene from 'Beyond Twelve'. Photo: Jeff BusbyJack Hersee, Rudy Hawkes and Calvin Hannaford in Beyond Twelve. The Australian Ballet.  Photo: Jeff Busby

Michelle Potter, 20 November 2012

Here is the link to my earlier post.

Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson dance Balanchine

George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky pas de deux was the absolute highlight of the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary gala, at least as far as I saw on the televised version of the event. Tschaikovsky pas de deux, made in 1960 for Violette Verdy and Conrad Ludlow, has all the nuances of movement of which Balanchine was capable in his choreography and requires considerable technical expertise. Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson made it their own. Jackson is to be congratulated too for stepping into a role that was to be danced by one of the best male dancers around today, David Hallberg, who for some reason that I haven’t yet learnt did not appear.

In terms of the partnership, I loved the way Jones and Jackson interacted. Their initial meeting was gracious and they seemed to linger over each movement so as to enjoy the full pleasure of being in each other’s company. They developed the engagement with each other often in quite subtle ways—a gentle lean, a thrust of the hips or a bend from the waist, for example, or a hand held out to the other, and eye contact all along the way. Jones had such fluidity in the upper body and both were in such command of their movements that they often seemed to be dancing in slow motion. In the early part of the pas de deux Jones’ double swing of the leg going through a fifth position between swings was just gorgeous. Their musical phrasing was breathtaking.  And what a beautiful ending to the pas de deux—that slow, sustained unfolding from arabesque to fish dive. And how they shone in the coda when picking up that fish dive again but beginning it not from arabesque but with Jones flinging herself through the air into Jackson’s arms. Delicious.

Both executed their variations with great attack. Jones stepped into everything as if she had all the space in the world. Turns, beaten steps, that little gargouillade from Jones, Jackson’s grands pirouettes, they all were so pleasurable to watch. Jones often reminded me of that great Balanchine ballerina Merrill Ashley. While Ballo della regina is perhaps not Balanchine’s most thought provoking ballet, it was made on Ashley and Jones could look just as brilliant in it as Ashley did. Perhaps at another gala?

Jones and Jackson were rehearsed in this pas de deux by Eve Lawson. Lawson is now a ballet mistress and repetiteur with the Australian Ballet but comes from a strong Balanchine background. Amongst other things, she worked with Edward Villella at Miami City Ballet (a company with a strong Balanchine repertoire, thanks to Villella) and has worked as a repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust. While she had great material to coach in Jones and Jackson she appears to have brought out the very best in these two dancers and given them a real understanding of how to dance Balanchine. I can’t help wondering too whether her influence isn’t apparent elsewhere in the company? Unfortunately I didn’t see the gala onstage but the television screening gave me the impression that the Australian Ballet, especially the corps de ballet, is looking better than it has for years. Anyway it augurs well for next year’s Four Temperaments.

Bouquets all round!

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2012

Images? Unfortunately the Balanchine Trust did not give the Australian Ballet permission to photograph this part of the gala so I cannot include any images. Such a shame and incredibly annoying too.

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Icons. The Australian Ballet

30 August 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The Australian Ballet’s Icons program is a truly exciting triple bill. Every work has particular interest historically and, while one really doesn’t measure up, two of the three are thrilling to watch. The absolute standout in terms of dancing is the middle work on the program, Gemini, Glen Tetley’s work made on the Australian Ballet in 1973. It was danced on opening night by Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Rudy Hawkes, with Jones in particular performing as if there were no tomorrow.

Lana Jones, Rudy Hawkes, Adam Bull and Amber Scott in 'Gemini', 2012 Photo: Jeff BusbyLana Jones and Rudy Hawkes (rear) and Adam Bull and Amber Scott (foreground) in Gemini. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby

Against a modernist set of coloured horizontal slats by Nadine Baylis, Gemini unfolds as a series duets and solos embodying powerful, dynamic movement. Of the women, Jones is cool but bold, assertive, a powerhouse of energy. Her manège of grands jetés with arms stretched heavenwards in an open fifth position (à la Isadora in La Marseillaise) was breathtaking. Scott is more elusive, sinuous and deliciously sensuous. Of the men, Bull had that little extra movement in the chest and pelvis—in the torso I guess—that drew the eye towards him whenever the men were onstage. Hawkes’ performance lacked the same zing but was nevertheless a pleasure to watch. When Tetley was in Australia in 2003 to stage Voluntaries he told me that creating Gemini had made him love the energy of Australian dancers. I think he would have been thrilled with the electrifying way in which Jones, Scott, Bull and Hawkes performed.

Closing the evening was Graeme Murphy’s evocative Beyond Twelve, a work first shown in 1980 and a real bottler of an Australian ballet showing all Murphy’s theatricality, humour and unique choreographic hand. Beyond Twelve tells the story of a boy’s transition from football-playing youth to adolescent dancer and finally on to mature artist facing the uncertainties of life beyond dance. Brett Chynoweth, Calvin Hannaford and Andrew Killian took the three main male roles of Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty and their trio in which we see their lives intertwining was a real highlight. Showing the passage of time in a choreographic sense is one of Murphy’s great strengths and this trio is no exception. Brooke Lockett, a coryphée with the company, danced the role of First Love and played it with just the right feeling of delight in the pleasures of youth.

Beyond Twelve is an immensely moving work (as well as being full of wit and humour) and nothing captures that feeling more than when, as the ballet closes, we see the mature dancer joined momentarily by his first love. And just as it looks like they will remain together, a figure in evening dress appears in the background and the girl moves away to join the other man, her Escort. Murphy’s sense of theatricality is brilliant here, partly in his placement of the three characters on the stage, but also in the instant realisation the moment generates that life is full of changes.

Despite its historical interest, the big disappointment of the evening was The Display, Robert Helpmann’s 1964 production based on his and Katharine Hepburn’s sighting of the mating dance of the lyrebird. The Display opened the program and perhaps it was inevitable that a work so entrenched in Australian culture of the 1960s would never translate well into the twenty-first century. But I didn’t think it would be quite so problematic. Nothing to me looked like an Australian picnic in the bush. The girls, so pretty with their Renoir hairstyles and pink dresses, could have been peasants in Giselle—and incidentally, Sidney Nolan, whose designs were ‘refurbished’ for the occasion, wanted the girls’ dresses to be the colour of ‘dog biscuits’, which certainly wasn’t the case with this production. In addition, the boys looked like princes as they pointed their feet, stretched their legs, and stayed so thoroughly within their classical ballet heritage. I’m not sure that, when playing footy, drinking beer and punching people up, men look like that.

Kevin Jackson as the Outsider missed the point, I think, that this character was meant to be so culturally different from the rest of the men. A red shirt and blue trousers aren’t enough to show that he was meant to be an Italian in Australia in the 1960s, a time of significant European migration. Australians had scarcely heard of coffee then let alone of European attitudes to women. The role needs a different physicality as well as costume to get the point across and Jackson didn’t seem to me to be much different from the rest of the men. But then perhaps that was a result of the other men behaving as if they were dancing a nineteenth-century ballet.

The saving grace was Madeleine Eastoe as the Female. She made Helpmann’s choreography look quite respectable despite a series of fouettés that Helpmann suddenly dropped into it all for no apparent reason. And she managed to get across the sense of sexual arousal that needs to be apparent as, at the conclusion of the ballet, the Outsider leaves her after his attempted rape and the Male (the lyrebird) comes forward to cover her with his tail feathers.

It was interesting to see Barry Kitcher, Bryan Lawrence and Garth Welch from the 1964 cast of Display come onstage to take a bow during the curtain calls. They were joined by Julie da Costa who danced the Female in a later 1980s production. There was no note in the program to say that they had been involved in coaching the dancers. The Display certainly needed some good coaching to make it work.

Musically the program was extraordinarily diverse. Malcolm Williamson’s score for The Display remains as beautiful as ever with its quivering, bush sounds, and was perhaps the highlight of that ballet on this occasion; Tetley’s choice of Hans Werne Henze’s Symphony No. 3 for Gemini was inspired with music and choreography so well attuned; and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, whose movements had been reordered by Murphy to fit the storyline of Beyond Twelve, was played with customary elegance by Stuart Macklin.

Despite The Display having major problems, I thought this was a good triple bill. In my mind it sits within the spirit of the best of triple bills where there is a bit of everything, including the ‘serious’ work in the middle and the ‘feel good’ work to go home with.

Michelle Potter, 1 September 2012

Featured image: Lana Jones in Gemini. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Postscript: Looking back at a review of Beyond Twelve that I wrote for Dance Australia way back in 1994 (with David McAllister, Steven Woodgate, Greg Horsman and Vicki Attard in the leading roles), I mentioned that Horsman danced the role of Beyond Twenty-Five, rather than calling it Beyond Thirty. I’m not sure when the name change happened, but it is interesting to speculate that times have changed in (almost) twenty years and perhaps thirty is now the new twenty-five? Unless I got it wrong in 1994?

Update: Here are my comments after another look at the program in Sydney.

‘Romeo and Juliet.’ The Australian Ballet

This is an expanded version of my review first published in The Canberra Times, 17 September 2011, p. 30 under the title ‘Fluid postmodern take on a classic’.

13 September 2011, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

In an interview published in the September issue of the Qantas inflight magazine, choreographer Graeme Murphy said of his new production of Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet that we should ‘bring a lifeboat’. Well he had a point because this production, which had its world premiere in Melbourne on 13 September, is a very fluid one indeed. It opens in a town setting, which could be Verona at the time Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is set. But over the course of the evening the location and the era change wildly. We see the marriage of Romeo and Juliet in Japan, the killing of Tybalt and Mercutio in India and the mourning of Juliet in a harsh, blood red desert setting. The characters ride bikes in one scene. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio find themselves in a row boat in another. And more.

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet is quintessentially postmodern. It has moments of humour and irony. It is filled with allusions to all kinds of cultural objects and issues—devotees of the Hare Krishna movement even make an appearance. Murphy also references himself and his work through some choreographic moments that look back to the vintage days of Sydney Dance Company. The scene in which Juliet receives a potion to induce a death-like sleep, when six black clad figures support Juliet in expansive swooping and flying movements, is just one example of this glance back at previous choreography.

Murphy also incorporates fabric into the choreography and the production overall. And while on this occasion his costume designer, Akira Isogawa, may well have had a strong input into how fabric has been used, Murphy has been playing with lengths of cloth and curtains of fabric throughout his choreographic career. One of the most dramatic uses of fabric in Romeo and Juliet occurs when a bolt of scarlet silk, initially resting amongst other rolls of fabric on the side of the stage in the Indian market place, unwinds and streams across the stage as the Capulets and the Montagues engage in their bloody feud.

This Romeo and Juliet is a collage of ideas playfully deconstructed and the remarkable thing is that it works. Everyone knows the story and Murphy has assumed this familiarity with the plot and has pursued a vision for a work that is like no other that the Australian Ballet has ever presented.

On opening night Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson as Juliet and Romeo led us on this journey of love and death. Eastoe in particular danced with joy, passion, despair, every emotion that the story requires. Her opening dance, with its quick footwork and fluid upper body movement, filled us with pleasure and anticipation.

Daniel Gaudiello continued to impress as Mercutio and moved, as his name in this ballet implies, like quicksilver, darting here and there, unpredictable and always impassioned in defence of his friends. Juliet’s nurse, usually played as a somewhat plump and bumbling if kind-hearted older woman, was intelligently performed by Elizabeth Hill and became (thankfully) a much less pantomimic role. A character introduced by Murphy—Death, the Prince of Darkness—provided a through line for the meandering locations and times. Death picks up bodies, which he places in a wooden cart (rather like the carts that carried the French to the guillotine in 1789—another reference). Or sometimes he just hovers menacingly in the background. It’s not a big dancing role but one that requires a very strong presence. It was very ably performed on opening night by Adam Bull.

In addition to Akira Isogawa, the collaborative team on this production included Murphy’s creative associate, Janet Vernon, set designer Gerard Manion, and Damien Cooper who lit the show. From among literally hundreds of costumes created by Isogawa, I especially liked the beautifully cut, high-collared black coat for Death and the pale olive, very simple costume for Juliet’s nurse. I was amused by the costume for Paris, which seemed to have a kind of gold ‘breast-plate’ of muscles. Paris is rarely portrayed in a sympathetic way and this addition to his costume suggested an inherent vanity. Manion’s strongest contribution was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work.

This Romeo and Juliet may not appeal to everyone, especially those who like their ballet to be more in a modernist vein, that is somewhat coherent in form. Did I miss the John Cranko version of Romeo and Juliet, which has been in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire for decades? Yes, a little, but in the same way as I occasionally yearn to see a traditional Swan Lake, rather than Murphy’s newer production. It’s part of the balletic legacy and we need to be reminded occasionally that we have a heritage.

But Murphy’s approach in 2011 raises many issues that are discussed across other art forms and it is refreshing to see this occurring in ballet, an art form that is so often seen as a little dowdy. Of course such issues include the notion that postmodernism is dead so we have to wonder whether this Romeo and Juliet is already outdated? But whatever one might think, it is a production worth seeing.

Michelle Potter, 19 September 2011

Featured image: Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

UPDATE, 11 December 2011: Romeo and Juliet. A second look

Body Torque 2.2. The Australian Ballet

27-30 May 2009, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay

Two works saved the Australian Ballet’s 2009 Body Torque season from drifting totally out of the memory the minute the curtain came down. They were Reed Luplau’s Bleecker and Remi Wortmeyer’s Fade Not. Both Luplau and Wortmeyer made very different works in every sense imaginable, but both were able to grab the audience’s attention from the opening moment and hold it throughout. Wortmeyer’s Fade Out was very short—probably no longer than three minutes; Luplau’s was a little longer. But both choreographers stood apart from the others in that neither tried to say too much in the amount of time they had given themselves. Both had thought through a basic premise and moved forward with a strongly focused approach.

Bleecker, named after a well known street in Greenwich Village, New York, showed the influence of Luplau’s work with Sydney Dance Company in its recent post-Murphy iteration, especially in terms of vocabulary. The dancers moved in a physically extreme manner, well away from the balanced, centred, refined look we are accustomed to seeing at the Australian Ballet. And what a gutsy performance from Dana Stephensen, the one female in the cast of four. Luplau’s choreography poured out of her body, making dance look like the kinaesthetic art that it is. She was more than ably accompanied by Andrew Killian, Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Wright.

Luplau says in his choreographic statement that Bleecker is ‘a journey of self discovery’, and he reflects that there is ‘a certain captivating moment you experience as you explore one of the world’s greatest cities’. Well Bleecker was a captivating moment in Luplau’s journey as a choreographer. We can only hope that the journey will be an ongoing one.

Wortmeyer’s Fade Not began with the piercing and unexpected sound of a human voice and the piece was a courageous experiment at linking dancer and singer, movement and voice. Wortmeyer used a librettist, Malcolm Rock, whose written words telling of a dying mother’s wish to see her newborn child flourish in life were sung onstage by Naomi Johns. Wortmeyer choreographed Johns into the work without it seeming unnatural or contrived and, while his choreography for the leading (and only) dancer—an able Gina Brescianini—was classically based and without any real sense of invention, the work generated an innate sense of clarity and harmony.

Three other works completed the program: Damien Welch’s Chemical Trigger, notable for the fact that Welch composed the music as well as the choreography, Robert Curran’s Veiled in Flesh, and Kevin Jackson’s Enter Closer.

Body Torque has been a feature of the Australian Ballet’s annual season for a number of years now and is the most recent development in a long line of similar Australian Ballet workshop activities dating back to the earliest days of the company under Peggy van Praagh. Choreographic workshops need strong direction however and only Bleecker and Fade Out looked as though they had been subjected to any sort of rigorous discussion with peers and elders before being put on the stage.

Michelle Potter, 1 June 2009