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

‘L’. Mirramu Dance Company

15 July 2015, Q Theatre, Queanbeyan

Elizabeth Dalman’s L begins with a solo dance, ‘The firebird’, performed by Miranda Wheen. Wheen wears a red tutu that Dalman herself wore as a young ballet student in Adelaide and, as Wheen finishes her solo and makes her exit, a red feather drops from her costume. It is picked up by Dalman who enters as Wheen exits. The feather, Dalman exclaims, holds the story of ‘a vibrant life’. What follows is indeed the story of Dalman’s life in dance, largely the 50 years since Dalman established Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide in June 1965. L has in fact been made in celebration of that 50th anniversary. The name of the work, L, is the Roman numeral for 50 and also the first letter of Liz, the name by which Dalman was known when she directed ADT between 1965 and 1975.

Miranda Wheen as the Firebird in 'L'. Photo: © Barbie Robinson
Miranda Wheen as the Firebird in L. Photo: © Barbie Robinson

is a reworking of an earlier evening-length piece, Sapling to Silver, which Dalman made in 2011. Although Sapling to Silver also celebrated Dalman’s career in dance, L has an even stronger focus on Dalman and has clearly benefited from the input of a dramaturg. It is tightly constructed and follows a logical, easily understood pathway.

Some of the dance segments are drawn from the early ADT repertoire. They feature choreography in the style of those who influenced Dalman at the time—Eleo Pomare, Martha Graham and others of that era—and music and songs by the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Yoko Ono and other artists of the 1960s and 1970s. Other segments are newer and have been made during the time Dalman has spent at her Mirramu Creative Arts Centre on the shores of Lake George at Bungendore just north of Canberra.

The separate elements of L are drawn together by the story, narrated by Dalman over the course of the various sections, of a eucalyptus tree that grows and flourishes before dying—a metaphor for life. The narrated storyline is accompanied at times by danced segments, including ‘Sapling’ to music by Colin Offord. ‘Sapling’ is strongly danced by Vivienne Rogis and Rogis’ constant and commanding presence throughout L highlights another strand of Dalman’s career. In 2000, Rogis was co-founder with Dalman of Mirramu Dance Company.

One of the most moving segments in the work is ‘Tree spirit’, danced by Dalman and, as the spirit of the tree, the newest member of Mirramu Dance Company, Hans David Ahwang. Ahwang seems possessed by that tree spirit as he dances around Dalman, crouching, hovering, leaping. His body quivers at every move and his eyes dart and then focus strongly. The choreographic detail he displays is spellbinding.

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Elizabeth Dalman and Hans David Ahwang in ‘Tree Spirit’, Mirramu Dance Company, 2015. Photo: © Barbie Robinson

As this section finishes Dalman holds up a stone she has gathered from the spot on which her tree used to stand. It has, she says, the face of a young woman written on it and, as Dalman leaves, Miranda Wheen begins a solo, ‘Young Woman’, in which she flies through the air, turning and twisting with all the vigour of youth. These two sections work beautifully together as a juxtaposition of dancing generations.

L then takes on a more sombre tone as Dalman dances ‘Old Woman’ with choreography by Adriaan Kans, followed by ‘Dyin’ Time’ to music by the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary and danced by the whole Mirramu company. I wondered about these last sections. At 81 Dalman, to her credit, never tried in L to pretend she was still a young dancer. But ‘Old Woman’, which Dalman performed with remarkable power and strength, was perhaps a little too long, and maybe  ‘Dyin’ Time’ was unnecessary, even though the words expressed what Dalman hopes to achieve—that is to pass on her heritage to her company of dancers? But the celebratory tone of the finale, into which Dalman had choreographed the curtain calls, removed the darker notes of the previous two segments. On balance, L is indeed a celebration of Dalman’s truly vibrant life.

The Queanbeyan performance was a precursor to a gala event in Adelaide to be held on 18 July. Dalman was not impressed that public funding for an ADT gala in Adelaide was pulled. So, determined that ADT’s 50th anniversary should not go unnoticed, she self-funded L to be performed at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre where the program will include an excpert from Garry Stewart’s Be Your Self performed by the current ADT dancers.

Michelle Potter, 17 July 2015

‘InFight’: Liz Lea & Co

31 May 2013, National Library of Australia Theatre, Canberra

The National Library’s theatre is quite unsuited to dance. It is a lecture theatre really, although capable also of acting as a cinema. It has a small, oddly-shaped area at the front of an auditorium that holds about 300 people. The auditorium is raked but anything that is ‘grounded’ movement is difficult to see unless one is sitting in the first few rows. Liz Lea did her best to accommodate the space and its severe limitations. From a practical point of view, for example, a small dais allowed some movement to be seen to better advantage, and she had some lovely black and white screens at each side of the performing space that allowed the performers to change costumes at various points. But I think she did herself a disservice by performing InFlight in the National Library Theatre.

InFlight is in two parts. Part I, ‘Aviatrix’, is inspired by the exploits of Charles Kingsford Smith, Charles Ulm and female aviation pioneers, the British woman Amy Johnson and the American Amelia Earhart. In this section, four dancers play out a fantasy of becoming aviatrixes themselves.

The choreography was severely limited by the space available. I enjoyed the dance that opened the show, a 1920s–1930s style number with fabulous black and silver costumes and gorgeous red and black feather fans. But so often the dancers, Melanie and Marnie Polamares, seemed to be just moving on the spot. It did however serve its purpose well by setting the scene in the era of pioneer aviation activities.

The audio-visual material screened throughout Part I included the voices of Ulm and Kingsford Smith, footage of Johnson and others, still photographs of them all (interspersed with photos of the dancers dressed in aviation gear), and contemporary newspaper headlines. There was so much audio-visual material that the choreography became a side issue. This section seems to me to be more suited to being shown as something other than a dance performance. A history lesson about pioneering moments in aviation?

Part II, ‘Aviary’, leaves aviation history behind and the four dancers are transformed into birds, staking out a territory and building nests. Miranda Wheen’s solo was a highlight as she, wearing an elegant long white dress and manipulating two large white feather fans, sought a place to build her nest. Alison Plevey, dressed in red, also made a mark in another solo as a more aggressive bird. But again there was just no room for the dancers to move and no way for the audience to enjoy Lea’s usually expansive choreography. Naomi Ota’s feathery, trailing installation also got a little lost. It needed space to be seen at its best (some of it had to be hung along a side wall), and space for the dancers to manipulate it effectively. The ending was a bit of a mystery to me. Something was carried onstage in what seemed to be a piece of bark. This moment in the story was performed with great solemnity.

Lea has a great eye for the theatrical and a wonderful capacity to use all kinds of unexpected additions to her shows. But basically she is an artist working in the medium of dance. Dance doesn’t really exist without choreography and if the choreography is compromised in the way it was in InFlight, both by lack of space and by being overshadowed by audio-visual material, the show becomes something else. Perhaps it doesn’t matter? However, I think it does in this case because Lea’s choreography deserves to be seen in a situation that allows it proper range. Whatever were the political needs of performing it at the National Library, it is impossible for me to ignore the fact that Lea did herself, and her four very accomplished dancers, a disservice.

Michelle Potter, 3 June 2013

Postscript: The photocopied handout/program did little to make me feel better about the show. It contained many of the errors that creep in when one does a cut and paste to a document and then doesn’t check and recheck for extraneous words. It was an unprofessional publication.

For more about the background to the show see ‘Come fly with me’.

‘Morning Star’. Mirramu Dance Company

1 March 2013, James O Fairfax Theatre, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Morning Star is the result of two years of research and choreographic development between Elizabeth Dalman and her Mirramu Dance Company based in Bungendore, New South Wales, and communities in Arnhem Land. The work is based on a sacred songline of the Yolngu people that deals with birth, life, death and rebirth. The cast of Morning Star consisted of indigenous and non-indigenous artists and the production was assisted by several cultural consultants, including the custodian of the traditional Morning Star story, Banula Marika, and didgeridoo player, Nalkuma Burarrwanga.

What made the show especially memorable, and indeed to my mind quite remarkable, was the way in which dances associated with the traditional songline were juxtaposed with contemporary versions of the same aspect of the story. So we saw, amongst other similar components of the production, a traditional spirit dance celebrating the rising of the morning star followed immediately by a contemporary spirit dance enhanced by powerful Western-style theatrical lighting and choreographed using contemporary dance vocabulary.

'Morning Star'. Photo Barbie Robinson © 2013(l–r) Djakapurra Munyarryun, Albert David, Miranda Wheen and Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal in ‘Contemporary Spirit Dance’ from Morning Star. Photo: © 2013 Barbie Robinson

A particular highlight for me was a contemporary brolga dance, which in the spirit of the show followed ‘Mulung, Mulung’, a traditional brolga dance. Performed by Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal, a particularly powerful and captivating dancer, the undulating movement of the contemporary choreography expertly captured the notion of a dancing bird. The costume, designed and made by Peta Strachan, was exceptional: a long white, feathery gown with an extended ‘tail’, it was enhanced by a red flower placed on the breast area, which recalled the red plumage the brolga displays around its head.

But I also especially liked watching Albert David who danced strongly throughout and who had a duet with Miranda Wheen towards the end of the show that displayed both his and her technical strengths and strong stage presence. It was a delight too to see Janet and Djakapurra Munyarryun back onstage, in fact often commanding the stage.

I always feel slightly alarmed, however, at the prospect of non-indigenous dancers performing traditional indigenous movement and most of the traditionally-focused sections included non-indigenous dancers working alongside indigenous artists. But to their credit the non-indigenous dancers in Morning Star only occasionally looked out of place. I did find the section called ‘Kinship’ a little jarring though. In it each dancer came forward to explain his or her indigenous heritage or links, including those dancers without an indigenous background who had been adopted into a clan by an indigenous ‘brother’ or ‘mother’ and so on. I’m not sure it was necessary and program notes convey such matters much better I think. The commitment to the project shone through in movement and breaking that feeling with wordy explanations achieved little.

Morning Star was performed in the difficult space of the James O Fairfax Theatre. Its stage has little depth and little wing space and often requires dancers who perform there to radically transform their floor patterns to accommodate the space. But this show fitted beautifully and there were moments when the ambience, helped by a score from Airi Ingram that included the occasional crying child, transported the audience to an imaginary outdoor gathering place.

Morning Star is a beautifully honest show made with love and commitment.

Michelle Potter, 4 March 2013