Waangenga Blanco in 'Miyagan' from OUR land people stories. Photo: Edward Mulvihill

‘OUR land people stories’. Bangarra Dance Theatre

28 July 2016, Canberra Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre has had what artistic director Stephen Page calls a ‘bitter sweet’ year so far. On the one hand the company has had to face the death in April 2016 of David Page, much loved and admired composer, Bangarra’s music director, and brother of Stephen. On the other there have been successes in so many areas. Most recently, Bangarra—the company, its dancers and its productions—has been short-listed in six categories for the 2016 Australian Dance Awards.

Bangarra’s major production for 2016, a triple bill with the title OUR land people stories, has to be counted as a sweet moment. Although it is dedicated to David Page and it is impossible not to be moved hearing his music, which features in the program, OUR land people stories moves forward proudly and is sweet as much as anything because it showcases the work of three emerging choreographers from within the company ranks.

First up on the program was Macq, choreographed by Jasmin Sheppard to a score by David Page. Macq takes as its starting point a confrontation in 1816 between white settlers in the Appin region, south of Campbelltown, New South Wales, and Aboriginal inhabitants of the region, the D’harawal people. As the confrontation over territory escalated and tensions mounted, Colonial forces, under instructions from Governor Macquarie, began what has come to be known as the 1816 Appin massacre. Sheppard researched Macquarie’s diaries and consulted with descendants of the D’harawal and portrays Macquarie as a conflicted man who, on the one hand appeared to have good intentions towards First Nation peoples, but on the other who went to extreme lengths to maintain territorial control of areas under his jurisdiction.

One especially challenging sequence occurs between Macquarie, danced powerfully by Daniel Riley, and Beau Dean Riley Smith, also outstanding in his role as one of the D’harawal men killed in the massacre. As they dispute territorial boundaries, they interact on, under, and around a long table. The movement is fast, dramatic, determined and confronting and makes astonishing use of the table. Another compelling scene shows Riley acting out Macquarie’s conflicted state of mind as he frantically scribbles down his diaries. It is a courageous statement by Sheppard.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in a scene from 'Macq'. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in a scene from Macq. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016

But what I found especially powerful about Macq was the way Sheppard had structured the work so as different moments in time were visible even as the main story was unfolding before us. As the work began, for example, in a kind of half light we could see the aftermath of the massacre as D’harawal people mourned the death of their kin. In fact the work moved backwards and forwards in time in a well developed and emotionally satisfying way.

The second work on the program, Miyagan (meaning ‘our family’ in the language of the Wiradjuri Nation) was choreographed by cousins Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith. It was structurally complex with sections referring to the matrilineal nature of Wiradjuri system, and to moiety, clan and family, although the the work also referred to life in the early 1900s on the Talbragar Reserve in Dubbo, where Riley and Smith had a common ancestor in Jack Riley. Choreographically the work was vibrant and moved along smoothly to a soundscape by Paul Mac. The intricate web of kinship relationships and responsibilities was highlighted by Jacob Nash’s spectacular hanging sculpture which served as the set for Miyangan.

Myagan

Jacob Nash’s set for Miyagan, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016. Photo: Michelle Potter

Page said, in a pre-show forum at the Canberra Theatre, that his aim in curating OUR land people stories was to give an opportunity to Sheppard, Riley and Smith to create main stage works for Bangarra—to nurture emerging choreographers from within the company. He added, however, that he thought perhaps he should also do a work! The result was the closing piece, Nyapanyapa, a work inspired by the art of Yolngu woman, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. At the heart of the work is the story of Nyapanyapa’s encounter with a water buffalo, which left her badly injured. But we are given insight into many other aspects of her life, and see reproductions of her work as background. Elma Kris is at her charismatic best as Nyapanyapa and the Bangarra dancers show off dancerly skills that range from full-on rock ‘n’ roll to sublimely meditative moves.

Luke Currie-Richardson and Beau Dean Riley Smith in 'Nyapanyapa' from 'OUR land people stories'. Photo: Edward Mulvihill

Luke Currie-Richardson and Beau Dean Riley Smith in ‘Nyapanyapa’ from OUR land people stories. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

OUR land people stories once again shows Bangarra as a company where dance meets theatre, meets art, meets music. After its Australian season of this program, Bangarra moves on to New York for the Fall for Dance season and then goes on to Paris to perform in the splendid, ethnographically-oriented venue, Musée du Quai Branly.

Michelle Potter, 5 August 2016

Featured image: Waangenga Blanco in ‘Miyagan’ from OUR land people stories (detail). Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

Robyn Hendricks in 'After The Rain'. Photo: Daniel Boud 2016

Dance diary. June 2016

  • Robyn Hendricks

South African-born Robyn Hendricks is the newest principal dancer with the Australian Ballet, having been promoted to the position earlier this month. My most pleasant memory of Hendricks’ dancing is in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, in Canberra in 2013 partnered by Rudy Hawkes, and in Sydney this year partnered by Damian Smith.

Robyn Hendricks and Damian Smith in 'After the Rain', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

Robyn Hendricks and Damian Smith in After the Rain, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

  • Stephen Page

Congratulations to Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, who has been honoured with the JC Williamson Award by Live Performance Australia. The award is in recognition of ‘individuals who have made a truly outstanding contribution to the enrichment of the Australian live entertainment and performing arts culture and shaped the future of the industry for the better.’ It would be hard to find anyone in the Australian dance community who is more deserving of this award than Stephen Page. For over 25 years he has worked tirelessly to create a body of work that highlights Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and he has consistently encouraged many of his indigenous colleagues to do the same.

The JC Williamson Award was first presented in 1998 and since then only two others from the dance community have been honoured: Graeme Murphy in 2002 and Margaret Scott in 2007.

Bangarra%2c Belong rehearsal 2010%2c photo by Jess Bialek-2

Stephen Page in rehearsal for Belong. Photo: © Jess Bialek

  • Tutus, Hannah O’Neill and the Paris Opera Ballet

The Paris Opera Ballet newsletter for July (in English) contains an article about the making of tutus for the company’s recent production of Giselle. It is of particular interest for its inclusion of an image of Hannah O’Neill in the role of Myrtha. If the number of times the tag Hannah O’Neill is accessed on this website is anything to go by, O’Neill continues to attract significant interest in Australia and New Zealand. Here is the link. There are a number of other interesting links within this article.

  • The Australian Ballet’s film partnership with CinemaLive

The Australian Ballet has plans over the course of coming years to screen, in partnership with CinemaLive, some of its recent productions. The first program of three works, to screen in 2016–2017, is The Fairy Tale Series, comprising The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella (Ratmansky) and Coppélia. No specific dates or venues are available at this stage, although a recent media release mentions that the productions will be screened in ‘over 600 cinemas worldwide, in territories including North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Central and South America.’

Similar initiatives have made it possible for audiences worldwide to see performances from such companies as the Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet. It’s good to see the Australian Ballet following suit.

  • Benjamin Shine

It was good to see a mention in The Canberra Times of the success of a brief video posted by The Huffington Post about the work of Canberra-based artist Benjamin Shine. I mentioned Shine’s beautiful installation in the Canberra Centre in my Dance diary for April 2015. Recent Canberra Times story and video at this link.

  • Mr Gaga

During June I was able to get to see the documentary Mr Gaga as part of the HotDocs Festival. The title refers to Ohad Naharin’s Gaga movement vocabulary, a kind of improvisatory, cathartic vocabulary that Naharin created and has developed as a teaching tool, which is shown during the documentary. The film offered an interesting insight into Naharin’s career, including into his early life, and contained plenty of examples of his remarkable choreography, danced exceptionally by his Batsheva Dance Company. It aroused a whole variety of emotions in me including, I have to say, anger at what I thought was an extremely dangerous action on Naharin’s part while he was coaching one of his dancers as she tried to perfect a falling motion! But there were some very moving moments, some funny ones and a host of others. Well worth a look I think.

  • Press for June 2016

‘Study for RED.’ Article on the work of dancer and choreographer Liz Lea. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 18 June 2016, pp. 8–9. Online version.

‘Small company has big aspirations.’ Preview of Melbourne Ballet Company’s Divenire program. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 25 June 2016, p. 12. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2016

Featured image: Robyn Hendricks in After the Rain (detail), 2016. 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.

Dance diary. January 2016

  • Indigenous dance programs in Canberra

The National Film and Sound Archive’s first Black Chat program for 2016 will take place at the Archive on 12 February at 6 pm and will feature dancer Tammi Gissell talking with curator Brenda Gifford on the topic ‘Indigenous identity through dance’. Gissell made a terrific impact in Canberra during the city’s centennial year, 2013, and her presence at Black Chat is enough to make the program more than worthwhile. But, in addition, the Archive is screening three films from its Film Australia Collection, Aeroplane Dance, 7 Colours, and Aboriginal Dances (five from Cape York and three performed by David Gulpilil).

Tammi Gissell 2012. Dance diary August. Photo Lorna Sim

Tammi Gissell rehearsing Seeking Biloela, Canberra c. 2013. Photo: © Lorna Sim

All three have features that I am sure will make interesting viewing but I was fascinated to read about Aeroplane Dance, both in a book (Savage Wilderness by Barry Ralph) giving a totally white perspective on the crash of an American bomber that generated the creation of the dance by a local Yanyuwa man, Frank Karrijiji, and in an online article with a wider, more balanced account. Read about the Black Chat session at this link.

Then in March the National Film and Sound Archive will host a season of Stephen Page’s Spear. This film, which had a world premiere in Canada at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2015, and an Australian premiere in Adelaide the following month, marks Page’s debut as director of a feature film. The Canberra season begins on 10 March and an 8 pm session on 12 March will include a Q & A session with Page and other members of the cast and crew. More later.

Filming 'Spear', 2015. Photo: Jacob Nash

Filming Spear, 2015. Photo: © Jacob Nash

  • Miscellaneous activities

The sole dance performance I saw during January was the Australian Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty for children—review below. My four grandchildren (aged from 8 to 5) all went (one went twice) and all loved it, even one 8 year old grandson who later confided to me that he really didn’t want to go but had, to his surprise, really liked it. So congratulations to the Australian Ballet for nurturing future audiences with this delightful pantomime-style show.

On another performance front, I made an abortive attempt to get to Sydney to see Marrugeku’s latest show Cut the Sky, but my plane from Canberra was involved in a bird strike and, sadly, I had no option but to cancel.

Other January activities hold future promise. I interviewed choreographer Alexander Ekman, who was in Sydney rehearsing Cacti with Sydney Dance Company for their CounterMove season beginning at the end of February. Our conversation will feed into a future feature for The Canberra Times.

Sydney Dance Company presents Alexander Ekman's Cacti. web Photo by Peter Greig

Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in Alexander Ekman’s Cacti. Photo: © Peter Greig

And I also spent several days in Melbourne with two archivists from the National Library sorting and boxing Dame Margaret Scott’s extensive collection of photographs, board papers, correspondence and other paper-based items for eventual transfer to Canberra.

  • Site news

Follow this link for a fascinating series of comments on an early post on James Upshaw and Lydia Kuprina.

  • Press for January

‘Delightful Tchaikovsky for children.’ Review of the Australian Ballet’s Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. The Canberra Times, 22 January 2016, ‘Times 2’, ARTS p. 6. Online version.

Dance diary. December 2015

  • ‘Creative minds’: Stephen Page

I was, earlier today, doing a bit of ‘last day of the year’ exercise on the treadmill at the gym when I accidentally turned on a television channel I didn’t mean to select. It was a fortuitous accident as it happened. The program that came on turned out to be an interview with Stephen Page conducted by Robin Hughes in her series called ‘Creative Minds’. Somewhere along the line I managed to miss it when it was originally screened some three years ago, but I have since put in an order to add it to my collection.

So much stood out in the interview, which included some great archival material from the earliest days of Bangarra. In particular, footage of Russell Page, who was seen in a range of situations across several years, showed what an exceptional mover he was. In addition, the recording showed so beautifully what makes Stephen Page the outstanding director that he is as he answered the often quite probing questions put to him. I was also completely charmed, as ever, by Page’s great sense of humour, humility and passion for his heritage.

I can’t wait to watch it in more comfortable conditions. But I did stay on the treadmill for longer than usual so I could see the whole program!

  • Papers of Dame Margaret Scott

I am pleased to be able to report that Dame Margaret Scott has agreed that her collection of dance material be housed in the National Library of Australia, where it will join the collections of so many dance artists she has taught, performed with, commissioned, and mentored. In the early days of January I will be working to organise the material for its move to Canberra.

Maggie Scott, South Africa 1930s

 Maggie Scott, South Africa 1930s. Collection of Dame Margaret Scott

  • Best of 2015

My 2015 ‘best of’ selections will appear in the February/March issue of Dance Australia. I also have had things to say about 2015 in Canberra and that article appears below in ‘Press for December’. What I didn’t mention in either situation was the show that really stood out for me in 2015—Quidam from the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil. I did review it, however, for The Canberra Times and that review appears below, also in ‘Press for December’. Although not dance in the strictest sense, but circus, a cousin of dance as it were, Quidam was especially impressive for being a production in which every single moment in the show had been thought through with care and theatrical intelligence. A rare experience.

  • Press for December

‘An exhilarating experience.’ Review of Quidam from Cirque du Soleil, The Canberra Times, 12 December 2015, ARTS p. 19. Online version.

‘Dance highlights and hankerings.’ Overview of dance in Canberra in 2015. The Canberra Times, 28 December 2015, Times 2 pp. 6–7. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2015

image

With thanks to all who have visited my website in 2015, especially those whose astute comments have added so much to the posts.

A happy, dance-filled 2016!

‘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.

Dance diary. July 2015

  • 2015 Helpmann Awards

Media commentary following the announcement of the winners of the 2015 Helpmann Awards has mostly focused on the fact that Les Miserables ‘scooped the pool’ with five awards. Well many congratulations to those involved, but where is the equivalent media commentary for Sydney Dance Company? Sydney Dance could also be said to have ‘scooped the pool’ after receiving all four awards in the dance section.

  • Best Ballet or Dance Work: Sydney Dance Company’s Frame of Mind
  • Best Choreography in a Dance or Physical Theatre Work: Rafael Bonachela, Frame of Mind
  • Best Male Dancer in a Dance or Physical Theatre Work: Cass Mortimer Eipper, Quintett
  • Best Female Dancer in a Dance or Physical Theatre Work: Chloe Leong, Quintett

Sydney Dance Company's Frame of Mind featuring Cass Mortimer Eipper, 2015. Photo: © Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company’s Frame of Mind featuring Cass Mortimer Eipper, 2015. Photo: © Peter Greig

What a shame that there has been so little publicity by mainstream media for this exceptional feat by Sydney Dance Company.

  • Stephen Page at Parliament House

Early in July I had the pleasure of facilitating a conversation with Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, as part of a program organised by Parliament House in conjunction with the Canberra Theatre Centre. The conversation took place in the Parliament House Theatre, which I did’t know existed until I was invited to be part of this session. The conversation preceded the arrival of Bangarra in Canberra with its latest show, lore. Page gave a highly entertaining talk about the origins of Bangarra, his nurturing of artists in the company, and some background on the works in lore. The talk was recorded and I understood that it was to be posted on the PH website. So far this has not happened but when/if it does I intend to post a link on this site.

  • David Sumray

I was contacted in July by a journalist from the Camden New Journal, who asked me about David Sumray. She told me that she had heard that an ‘avid ballet historian’ of that name had died suddenly and she wanted to write something about him. I have not been able to confirm this news so I hesitate to mention it here. However, since my attempts to contact David have been unsuccessful (and the journalist has not contacted me again despite a request), I will mention my admiration and respect for him anyway.

David has been a constant visitor to this website and has made many comments on articles and reviews posted here, which have always been illuminating. In addition, he was extraordinarily helpful and generous while I was writing Dame Maggie Scott. He volunteered to check a few facts for me, mostly relating to the life of Maggie’s father, John Scott, and his war record. In so doing he uncovered other interesting facts including material relating to John Scott’s schooling in England. I remember too, as we were discussing John Scott’s engagement to Maggie’s mother, Marjorie, in Birmingham in 1918, he sent me an Edwardian postcard image of the shop where the ring was bought. I have so enjoyed his interest in such details.

H. Greaves Ltd - Postcard of Corporation St.

H. Greaves Ltd, Birmingham

  • Press for July

‘Traditions explored through dance.’ Preview of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s lore. ‘Panorama’, The Canberra Times, 4 July 2015, pp. 6–7. Online version.

‘Gala celebrates troupe’s 50 years.’ Preview of Mirramu Dance Comany’s L. ‘Times 2’, The Canberra Times, 9 July 2015, pp. 6–7. Online version.

‘Some strong performances in a well staged show.’ Review of Circus under my bed, Flying Fruit Fly Circus. The Canberra Times, 18 July 2015, ARTS p. 18. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2015

'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

Dance diary. September 2012

  • The Canberra Times

In September The Canberra Times published my preview articles on Intensely Soul, a program by Odissi dancers Nirmal Jena and Pratibha Jena Singh, and on Swan Lake, the Australian Ballet’s new production with choreography by Stephen Baynes and design by Hugh Colman. The Intensely Soul preview was also syndicated into The Sydney Morning Herald under the heading ‘Siblings dance father’s philosophy into being’.

  • Sydney Long: spirit of the land

On 6 September I gave a lunchtime talk in conjunction with the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition Sydney Long: spirit of the land. The text and PowerPoint images for the talk are available at this link. As a follow up, I appeared with the curator of the exhibition, Anne Grey, on Radio National’s program Books and Arts Daily hosted by Michael Cathcart.

  • The Australian Ballet in 2013

The Australian Ballet launched its program for 2013 this month. I mentioned Garry Stewart’s commission to create a new work, Monument, in a previous post. Of the other offerings for 2013 I am looking forward in particular to seeing what Alexei Ratmansky creates for his Cinderella, which will premiere in Melbourne in September. I have very divided thoughts at the moment on Ratmansky’s choreography but am hoping his Cinderella will be as thrilling, choreographically speaking, as his Seven Sonatas.

I am also looking forward to the triple bill program Vanguard opening in Sydney in April most especially to see Jiri Kylian’s luscious Bella Figura again. George Balanchine’s Four Temperaments and Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, first seen in Australia in 2009, will provide startling contrasts to Bella and the program promises to be a challenging and exhilarating one for dancers and audiences alike. Full details of the 2013 season are at this link.

Felicia Palanca & Sarah Peace in 'Bella Figura'. Photo Jeff BusbyFelicia Palanca and Sarah Peace in Bella Figura. The Australian Ballet. Photo: © Jeff Busby

  • Helpmann awards

The 2012 Helpmann Award winners were announced at the end of September. Open this link to see all the awardees who in the dance category included Stephen Page, Paul White and DV8 Physical Theatre’s production, Can we talk about this?

I was especially pleased to see that Sydney Dance Company’s Charmene Yap was the winner of the best female dancer in a dance or physical theatre work for her performance in Rafael Bonachela’s 2 one another. Her performances have been consistently thrilling since she joined Sydney Dance Company. Here is Yap in an ‘artist snapshot’ in which she talks about auditioning for Sydney Dance Company, creating her solo Bonachela’s 6 Breaths and her duet in Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models.

Dance also featured in the category best original score (David Page and Steve Francis for Bangarra’s Belong program) and best costume design (Toni Maticevski and Richard Nylon for BalletLab’s Aviary: A Suite for the Bird).

  • Tag cloud: popular tags

The ten most popular tags for September were: Graeme Murphy, Hannah O’Neill, The Australian Ballet, Benedicte Bemet, Dance diary, Madeleine Eastoe, Ty King-Wall, Ballets Russes, Canberra dance and Adam Bull. Some could probably have been predicted in advance, others perhaps not.

Hannah O'Neill, Paris May 2012Hannah O’Neill, Paris, May 2012

Michelle Potter, 29 September 2012

‘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.