Kristina Chan in 'Champions'. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

‘Champions.’ FORM Dance Projects/Martin del Amo

22 January 2017 (matinee), Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney). Sydney Festival 2017

The walk down the corridor to enter Bay 17 of Carriageworks for Champions was accompanied by the recorded sound of crowds cheering and referees’ whistles blowing. We entered the space through an arch of balloons and before us, on a green grass-like floorcloth, was a dancing mascot. The scene was set for Martin del Amo’s Champions, a dance work commissioned by FORM Dance Projects and presented as a sporting event, a football match to be more precise. Del Amo’s program notes stated, ‘It is a commonly held belief that sport and the arts do not go together.’ Champions was del Amo’s comment on that pervasive attitude. It also had political overtones about women in sport, especially in those sports that are more often than not regarded as ‘men’s work’.

The first thing to say is that the mascot—a swan dressed in a tutu—was an entrancing part of the show. Inside the costume, Julie-Anne Long kept us entertained before the show proper began and then mid-piece in the half-time section. She crossed her wrists demurely in front of her à la Swan Lake, executed little piqué style steps, and waved her arms up and down like a dying swan. Smart choreography from del Amo and amusing execution by Long, despite the difficulties her orange webbed feet must have caused her.

The rest of the dancers/football players, all women, included some of the best contemporary dancers working around Sydney today. One by one, as they warmed up for the dance/match, they were introduced by a commentator (real-life sporting commentator Mel McLaughlin), who appeared on video on a series of upstage screens. Then the main section of the work began with a series of group exercises and, a little later, with comments, again via the video screens, about salaries for men and women in sport, in particular salaries received by the Australian men’s soccer team in comparison with the women’s.

Scene from 'Champions', 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Scene from Champions, 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

In preparation for Champions, the dancers had worked with the Sydney-based soccer team, the Western Sydney Wanderers, so there was a certain authenticity to their sporting moves. But from a dance perspective, the most interesting section came when the dancers lined up downstage and began to wave gold pom-poms, as we are used to seeing from cheer squads. Throwing away the pom-poms (thankfully) they began to take a series of poses that seemed to teeter between football moves and contemporary dance poses. At first the moves seemed unconnected but slowly it became clear that in fact there was a set number of moves and the dancers had an individual sequence they were required to follow. At the end of this section the entire row began working as one with every dancer taking on the same pose. I enjoyed the choreographic surprises that characterised this section.

Again interesting from a dance perspective were those moments towards the end of the piece, when individual dancers were lifted high above the heads of the group. Celebratory moments perhaps?

Sara Black in 'Champions', 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Sara Black and dancers in a scene from Champions, 2017. © Heidrun Lohr

Champions was a clever work. It was fun to laugh at the swan mascot and the references being made to certain works from the ballet repertoire. It was interesting, too, to reflect on the sporting commentary and interviews recorded with the dancers and screened for viewing by the audience. Those comments and replies often reflected common thoughts about contemporary dance. A question from the commentator, for example, about what was happening onstage had the reply, ‘A lot of people are baffled by contemporary dance.’

My regret is that the work really didn’t give us much of a chance to see the exceptional abilities of people like Kristina Chan, Miranda Wheen, the Pomare sisters, in fact all  eleven women. Champions was enjoyable but, despite its apparent intentions to make a social and political comment, to me it was a slight work.

Michelle Potter, 25 January 2017

Featured image: Kristina Chan in Champions, 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Kristina Chan in 'Champions'. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

‘Great Sport!’. Liz Lea and collaborators

7 April 2016 (World Health Day), National Museum of Australia, Canberra

Canberra’s GOLDS (joined briefly on this occasion by two Dance for Parkinsons groups) have once again surprised me. Great Sport! was a site specific production that took place in various parts of the National Museum of Australia, including outdoors in the Garden of Australian Dreams. The production was a celebration of movement and sporting history but, given that the show had its first performance on World Health Day, and given that the program also included a segment by the two Dance for Parkinsons groups, Great Sport! was also a program that focused on healthy living through movement.

The production began with ‘Annette’, a celebration of Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman. Choreographed by Liz Lea, joint artistic director of the GOLDS, it was full of glitz and glamour, as was befitting of the subject given that Kellerman was not just a swimmer but an advocate for female issues and a star of Hollywood in the early twentieth century. We saw spangly costumes, 1900/1920s-style cozzies, lots of feathers, fans and froth, and some gorgeous, fun-filled choreography that suited these dancers so well.

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Great Sport! Scene from ‘Annette’. Photo: Michelle Potter, 2016.

‘Annette’, which was accompanied in part by an original musical composition/poem by Chrissie Shaw, made wonderful use of the Museum’s surrounding spaces—a pool; swirling, curving pathways; an ancient tree trunk; and soaring architecture.

A piece by Gerard van Dyck called  ‘First and Last’ also looked good outdoors, especially against a huge, curved metal wall covered in shadows. ‘First and Last’ used the men of the GOLDS and focused on the practising of sporting activities in a non-competitive environment. The theme suited the company beautifully and the men performed with their usual commitment. There is nothing to prove. Just dance!

Great Sport! Scene from 'First and Last' , Photo: Michelle Potter, 2016

Great Sport! Scene from ‘First and Last’. Photo: Michelle Potter, 2016

We the audience moved from indoors to outdoors, from outdoors to indoors, taking our lead from Lea as compere for the event. One indoor piece, ‘I used to run marathons’, was particularly moving. Choreographed by Philip Piggin and Jane Ingall (also co-directors of the GOLDS) using people living with Parkinson’s Disease, it was performed to the well-known theme from Chariots of Fire. It took place on a circle of chairs and within the space formed by those chairs, and the circular theme was picked up by the choreography and reflected the Olympic symbol of five connecting rings. While the music had something to do with the feeling of transcendence I got, that each of the dancers had such a different capacity for movement, but that each was completely immersed, was also part of that feeling.

Another indoor section, Grand Finale, was choreographed by Martin del Amo. It was gorgeously costumed (based on a concept by del Amo) with the women garbed in long evening dresses, all different. Program notes stated that these women were ‘engaged in a mysterious game, collectively celebrating diverse individuality, on their own terms.’ And it was certainly mysterious as the ten or so women moved amongst each other, forming and reforming various patterns. As seems typical (to me anyway) of del Amo’s work, Grand Finale operates at a level that is somewhat obscure or arcane and, while I often find this aspect of del Amo’s work frustrating, that Grand Finale was meant to be mysterious, or obscure, or arcane, was made absolutely clear by the dancers. They moved through the choreography with distant looks on their faces and with no acknowledgement of each other.

But the pièce de resistance was Kate Denborough’s ‘None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives’ (a quote from Jane Austen). It was a spectacular and unexpected end to the program and showed the exceptional theatricality that is at the heart of Denborough’s work.

This final piece began with the women of the GOLDS dressed in scarlet dressing gowns and sporting bright red wigs. They began the piece in what initially appeared to be a narrow and quite dark cul-de-sac off the main outdoor area of the Museum. But at the end of this space was a set of double doors and, after performing together for a few moments, the dancers moved towards this door, opened it, and let in a flood of light and a water view (Lake Burley Griffin). They proceeded to open red umbrellas, and then to my surprise undid the dressing gowns to reveal a red swimming costume underneath. They then tripped the light fantastic to the water’s edge, sat down and dabbled their toes in the water, and we watched as a woman with red wig and red gown, paddled a red canoe past them. The play of light and shadow, water and land, and so many other things was breathtakingly beautiful. The canoe became a journey of life. Amazing.

Great Sport! Scene from 'None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives'. Photo: Michelle Potter

Great Sport! Scene from ‘None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives’. Photo: Michelle Potter, 2016

Great Sport!, with its beautiful opening ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ choreographed by Tammi Gissell, was a remarkable event and continues the focus of Liz Lea on working in unusual spaces and, in particular, on using the Canberra environment and its cultural institutions as a venue, and as a backdrop to her work. But apart from the bouquets that are due to Lea for her persistent focus on Canberra as a place where dance happens, one of the most interesting aspects of Great Sport! was the way in which the choreographers, all very different in their approaches and choreographic style, were able to maintain and make visible those differences while working with a community group in which movement skills are understandably quite varied. In addition, the GOLDS get better and better in their very individual manner and responded with gusto on this occasion to the work of choreographers with the professionalism to be able to draw out the very best from a community group. The courage and commitment of the GOLDS knows no bounds, and nor does the power and understanding of the choreographers involved.

Michelle Potter, 10 August 2016

Martin del Amo in 'On View. LIve Portraits', 2015. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

‘On View. Live Portraits’. Sue Healey

22 July 2015, Performance Space, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

The printed program for Sue Healey’s latest work, On View. Live Portraits, contains a short essay by Christopher Chapman, senior curator at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. Writing of screen-based digital portraits, or video portraits, he says: like any portrait, the genre should succeed when it communicates a compelling sense of person-hood, or identity, or individual being. This is exactly what Healey’s work does, even though it is so much more than an exercise in digital or video portraiture. It communicates a strong sense that we are watching the very separate identities of five extraordinary individuals—Martin del Amo, Shona Erskine, Benjamin Hancock, Raghav Handa and Nalina Wait.

Dancers in Sue Healey's 'In View. Live Portraits', 2015. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

Dancers in Sue Healey’s On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

On entering the darkened Bay 20 of Carriageworks, the venue for On View, it took several seconds for our eyes to adjust. But when they did we were confronted by those five individuals scattered, seemingly randomly, in one half of the cavernous space. The performers were all moving, if sometimes just slightly, and were involved in some way with a moving image as background or projection. But in essence they represented an image that, although clearly live, we could interpret as a portrait in a relatively traditional sense.

The movements were interesting enough, but it was only later that their significance emerged. In this opening segment, Shona Erskine, for example, sat quietly in a corner twitching slightly on occasions and adjusting a red item of clothing that partly covered the upper section of her body. A fox fur, complete with head, tail, and feet, was spread on the floor beside her and, with the moody lighting in which she was shrouded, the image had the quality of a Baroque portrait. Later, Erskine danced a solo with the fox fur, wrapping it around her, wearing its head on her head, and otherwise utilising it as an addition to her solo. That initial portrait had come to life and the slight twitches we noticed earlier had turned into more obvious fox-like movements.

After a few minutes spent absorbing this introduction, we were ushered to the other end of the bay and invited to sit down. Five screens confronted us now and each had three digital portraits of the five dancers, with one screen for each performer. Slowly the portraits began to move and it was quite a remarkable experience to watch how costume affected the dancerly image. Raghav Handa, for example, wore three different costumes in his three portraits—white, loose, Indian-style trousers (no top) in one, a casually elegant shirt and trousers in another, and a suit in the last. He executed the same, quite simple bending movement in each of his three on screen portraits, but it looked quite different in each case. I found myself unable to do anything but favour the movement when Handa was wearing his Indian outfit. It was his dance costume, which I knew, and the power of that knowledge coloured my perception.

As the piece progressed the dancers appeared live, dancing around the screens as well as appearing on them. The interaction between film footage and live performance grew stronger.

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Shona Erskine (centre), Nalina Wait (centre screen) Benjamin Hancock (background left), Martin del Amo (background right). On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Particularly affecting were a series of solos where the dancers seemed to take on the attributes of a creature from the natural world. Handa was seen on screen handling a horse as if breaking it in, while at the same time he performed live with the fluid quality that marks his dancing, and with something of the freedom and wild abandon of the horse. An extraordinary performance by Benjamin Hancock was the highlight of this section. His acrobatic style of movement, punctured by a vocabulary that often looked quite balletic, along with the film footage on the screens of a praying mantis, was mesmerising.

Benjamin Hancock and praying mantis, On View 2015. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

Benjamin Hancock and praying mantis, On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Later, Martin del Amo was seen in a cemetery moving solemnly. A stone bird perched on one of the headstones seemed to loom over him.

There were segments when the dancers performed together, or when they came forward and stared at the audience. The gaze of Nalina Wait was especially powerful and, in one filmed section, her expressions told an entire story. Her dancing was incredibly lyrical and an absolute joy to watch, especially her solo where she appropriated the fluidity of a fish, which we saw on screen as Wait performed on stage. And there were  some exceptional moments when she danced with Handa and del Amo, who adjusted her long hair and circular skirt, manipulating the image we received.

Nalina Wait, Martin del Amo and Raghav Handa in 'On View. Live Portraits', 2015. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

Nalina Wait, Martin del Amo and Raghav Handa in On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

On View. Live Portraits had so many layers of meaning at every turn. It was absolutely exhilarating to watch and is a major work that deserves wide exposure. While Healey as choreographer and film maker, and her director of photography, Judd Overton, have worked strongly together before, with On View they have taken their collaboration to new heights. The links between live performance and the high quality moving image material, rather than being frustrating as they sometimes are when dance and film aim to coexist, were absolutely fluid and illuminating of each other. The show was enhanced by lighting from Karen Norris and an original sound score from Darrin Verhagen and Justin Ashworth. Definitely a five star experience, which can be savoured post show by some wonderful photographic images by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Michelle Potter, 23 July 2015

Featured image: Martin del Amo in On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Martin del Amo in 'On View. LIve Portraits', 2015. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

‘Anatomy of an Afternoon’: Martin del Amo

14 January 2012, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Sydney Festival 2012

The one certainty that emerges from Martin del Amo’s latest work, Anatomy of an Afternoon, is that Paul White, the solo performer in the piece, is a very versatile dancer. Some aspects of his dancing remain constant no matter what the choreography―his muscular strength, his control over every small or large movement and the seamless fluidity with which he links steps, for example. They were clearly on show in this Sydney Festival production.

Anatomy of an Afternoon, however, required that White behave like an animal, or various animals to be exact, and to achieve the best outcome he apparently spent some time at the zoo observing animal behaviour. Well a variety of animal characteristics were certainly in evidence. From the point of view of White’s movement capabilities, mesmerising were those sections when his movements resembled those of a monkey. At one stage, with his back to the audience, his body over folded over, his head twisted to look out at the audience and the palms of his hands on the floor he appeared to be jointless as he loped from side to side in this seemingly impossible position on all fours.

But to tell the truth if I want to see a monkey I’d rather go to the zoo. And I certainly could have done without the moment when White exposed his buttocks to the audience, spread the cheeks apart and put one hand into the crevice that was thus revealed, drew the hand out and moved it towards his nose. Again, if I have burning desire to see such actions, the zoo is a better proposition. White is capable of more than this and deserves, in my opinion, superior choreography (even though he is jointly credited with the choreography on this occasion).

Anatomy of an Afternoon is explained in program notes as an investigation of ‘how the practical exploration of an extant choreography would affect [del Amo] as a choreographer creating original work’. Del Amo chose Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 creation Afternoon of a Faun as his ‘extant choreography’. However, attempts to draw parallels between the two works are futile I think. In fact all that Anatomy of an Afternoon does, to its own detriment, is show just what a coherent work Afternoon of a Faun was. The outrage of Parisian audiences and critics when Faun made its first appearance in Paris and when, in the closing moments, its interpreter, Nijinsky, sank onto a scarf in a moment of erotic pleasure, was I think more to do with the morals of the time than anything else. But despite the outrage and shock, Nijinsky’s erotic act was actually the culmination of the Faun’s previous flirtatious activities with the seven nymphs who completed the cast of characters in Faun. The Faun had taken the scarf from the nymph to whom he was most attracted. The erotic culmination to the work was not a gratuitous action.

Unlike the audiences of Paris in the 1920s, today’s audiences are pretty much unshockable and a different set of freedoms is in play. But I believe that today’s most watchable dance works have a certain coherence which, in its randomness of action and its various gratuitous events, Anatomy of an Afternoon lacked. I did, however, enjoy the original score by Mark Bradshaw. It had the languid quality of a summer’s day.

Michelle Potter, 15 January 2012