’20:21′. Another look

14 November 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

What a pleasure it was to see the Australian Ballet’s triple bill program, 20:21, for a second time, in a different theatre, and with a different cast. Clearly the dancers have become more familiar with the works over the series of performances that have been staged since I saw it in Melbourne. I suspect it also looks better on the smaller stage of the Sydney Opera House (for once). In addition, I have inched myself forward over many years of subscribing to a Sydney matinee series so that I have an almost perfect seat in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. It all adds up.

This time In the Upper Room had a simply fabulous cast. Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch were stunning throughout, as were Ako Kondo, Miwako Kubota, Ingrid Gow (great to see her in a featured role again), Chengwu Guo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in Twyla Tharp's 'In the Upper Room'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

These seven dancers worked together in different combinations in the more balletic of the various sections of Upper Room. Not only did they show off their superb technical skills, they brought their individual personalities to these sectionsa perfect approach for Tharp’s choreography. Gaudiello finished off his phrases of movement with his remarkable sense of theatricality; Guo finished his with a kind of nonchalance, which was equally as satisfying. But it was Kusch who stole the show with her joyous manner and her ability to make even the most difficult move, the most outrageous lift, look so easy.

It is such a thrill to see this work performed by the Australian Ballet’s dancers and it was not just the seven I have mentioned who danced wonderfully. I could feel the excitement building from the moment the curtain rose on Dimity Azoury and Vivenne Wong in their sneakers and stripey costumes. As I have said before, for me the Australian Ballet’s dancers have the staying power, the determination to succeed,and just the right personalities to make Tharp’s Upper Room look fabulous. This time they nailed it and for once I didn’t keep thinking of previous casts I saw umpteen years ago!

Kusch was also the star attraction for me in the Balanchine piece, Symphony in Three Movements. She had the central, andante movement, which she danced with Adam Bull. Technically she was quite outstanding. Her extensions took the breath away, and her turns were spectacular. But it was her musicality that stood out. She brought out the changing rhythms and the jazzy overtones of Stravinsky’s score not just in her way of moving but also in her facial expression. She was a delight to watch. Bull was a strong partner but perhaps a little too tall for Kusch?

Gaudiello also had a leading role in Symphony in Three Movements, mostly partnering Dimity Azoury, and I never tire of watching his approach to partnering. He is so attentive to his ballerina in a way that is rarely achieved by others, but he manages at the same time to perform as an outstanding artist himself. Miwako Kubota and Brett Simon danced the third of the leading couples and the corps, wonderfully rehearsed as ever by Eve Lawson, showed off Balanchine’s choreographic patterns to advantage.

Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow was again strongly danced but, as before, I saw little in it that was substantial enough to excite the mind or eye. It is admirable that the Australian Ballet is exploring new choreographic ideas of course, and large sections of the audience were thrilled with what they saw, but I am still not sure where Harbour was trying to take us.

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2015

My review of 20:21 in Melbourne is at this link.

Twyla Tharp

A new interview with Twyla Tharp, by New York-based dance writer Gia Kourlas, is now available online on the website of Dance Magazine.  It’s well worth a read. Here is the link.

Reading the article so soon after seeing In the Upper Room in Melbourne, I was inspired to search through my bookshelf for Tharp’s autobiography, Push comes to shove, published in 1992. There I read a little about the genesis of and inspiration for In the Upper Room. In particular, I was fascinated by Tharp’s account of the role of the two women who open and close the work. Tharp writes:

In picturing the great ferocious and brave porcelain dragon dogs that guard Zen temples, I was also seeing a family of small black-and-white china bulldogs that were kept in the front parlor of my Gram Bertha’s farmhouse. These had been passed down from Sarah Margaret Cherry Confer, my small Quaker great-grandmother who held the world together through all adversity. As I cast Shelley [Washington] and Chris [Uchida] in this role, to guard and organize the stage, I realized we had been building the strength for them to take on this work for more than a decade. These two women had become the ultimate in what I think of as my power women.*

She then goes on to talk, in a wonderfully analytical manner, about the structure of the work and where and how these two women (whom she called the Bomb Squad) fit into the whole. Now I look forward even more to seeing In the Upper Room again when the Australian Ballet’s 20:21 program goes to Sydney.

Michelle Potter, 2 September 2015

* Twyla Tharp, Push comes to shove: an autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), pp. 305–306.

’20:21′. The Australian Ballet

29 August 2015 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

What does twenty-first-century ballet encompass? What does it look like? And does it differ from ballet of the twentieth century? In many respects the Australian Ballet’s latest mixed bill program, 20:21, suggests an answer in Tim Harbour’s latest work, Filigree and Shadow, the centre work in the 20:21 program. The work is strongly danced. Its powerful, dramatic choreography is coupled with Benjamin Cisterne’s equally dramatic lighting, and with an exceptional, minimalist stage setting by Kelvin Ho that combines curved and flat walls. Its commissioned score from the German duo, 48nord, binds the work together.

Unfortunately for Harbour, however, his work in the triple bill program is preceded and followed by works from two of the twentieth-century’s most admired choreographers—George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Master choreographers. And not only does it have to contend with that kind of program placement, Filigree and Shadow doesn’t seem to take us anywhere. It is, we are told in Australian Ballet marketing and in program notes, about Harbour’s feelings of aggression. I found it hard to identify with those personal feelings (of anger?) that Harbour seemed to want to show.

Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, which opened the program, might be thought of (wrongly I suggest) as lightweight by comparison. It’s pretty to look at and high-spirited emotionally. But it asks us to look at complexity of structure (in the choreographic patterns that it puts before us) and musicality (in its reflections of and relationships to Stravinsky’s symphonic score). Balanchine was never one to make his ballets overly personal. We can bring our own ideas to the work and that is, I believe, how to engage an audience. Harbour’s very personal approach doesn’t do this and, as a result, the Balanchine work has so much more to offer.

The six principals in Symphony in Three Movements in the performance I saw, Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Ty King-Wall, and Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes, all brought their individual qualities to the performance. Kondo and Guo were thrilling technically but also brought pleasure and excitement to their dancing, and Jones was playful and nicely partnered by King-Wall. The central pas de deux from Scott and Hawkes gave clarity to the unusual choreography with its turned up feet and hands bent at the wrists.

The closing work, Tharp’s In the Upper Room, was an acquisition for the Australian Ballet during Ross Stretton’s artistic directorship. Those who were lucky enough to be at the opening night in 1997 are unlikely to forget the occasion. Since then I have seen Upper Room performed by other companies in the United States but have always been a little disappointed. Beyond the Australian Ballet, no one else seems to have the energy, the staying power, and, behind the marathon of dancing, the reckless insouciance to carry it off.

The performance I saw this season wasn’t an opening night, and nor did it have quite the same thrill as that very first viewing—it wasn’t as well danced for a start. But this time I admired hugely the four ladies on pointe, in particular Robyn Hendricks and Amanda McGuigan, whose beautifully proportioned bodies and stellar techniques made the most of Tharp’s uniquely beautiful take on classical moves. I love this work, even when it doesn’t reach the heights of that first, great performance of 1997. It is a thrill to have it back in Australia, and also a thrill to see Ross Stretton acknowledged on the cast sheet.

Michelle Potter, 30 August 2015

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Filigree and Shadow, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Note: My review of the first Australian Ballet performance of In the Upper Room was published in Dance Australia in June/July 1997 (can it really be almost 20 years ago?). My posts about Upper Room in the U.S. are at various links including Pacific Northwest Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

 

Dance diary. December 2014

  • The best of …

My ‘best of …’ for 2014 will appear with the ‘best of …’ comments by others in the February/March edition of Dance Australia. But looking ahead to the coming year, perhaps the show I am most looking forward to (of those that have been announced so far of course) is the triple bill by the Australian Ballet that will feature Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room.

Looking back through my archive of reviews, here’s what I wrote in Dance Australia in 1997 when the work premiered in Australia during the first year of Ross Stretton’s directorship.

… [In the] Upper Room has relentless drive and a choreographic eclecticism that balances the old and the new, the classic and the contemporary. It frequently insists on a cross-over between styles and the rubbery, sleight-of-hand-looking movements that we associate with Tharp often suddenly slow down and take on a kind of genteel quality. Other times the refinement of the classical vocabulary is made to look less rarefied as it collapses into more loose-limbed movements or is performed in counter balance with more contemporary-style steps. And in all this, Tharp’s work never looks stylistically judgemental. Dance is dance.

Since then I have seen Upper Room performed by both Pacific Northwest Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and, quite honestly, despite the galaxy of stars in each of those companies, neither company has given me the thrill that I got from the Australian Ballet’s performances of 1997. They were addictive experiences. I kept going back. Let’s hope the Australian Ballet rises to the occasion in 2015! In the Upper Room opens in Melbourne in August in a triple bill entitled 20:21

I don’t have access to Australian Ballet photos of this work. The image below is from the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s website.

Dorcas Walters, Mikaela Polley, Grace Maduell and partners in 'In the Upper Room', Birmingham Royal Ballet. Photo Bill Cooper (choreography Twyla Tharp; © 1992 Twyla Tharp)

Dorcas Walters, Mikaela Polley, Grace Maduell and partners in In the Upper Room, Birmingham Royal Ballet. Photo Bill Cooper (choreography Twyla Tharp; © 1992 Twyla Tharp)

  • Oral history

In December, I received an interesting comment, which is available at this link, on an oral history interview I recorded with Edna Busse in August. The comment generates many issues associated with oral history as a research tool, most of which have been debated in conferences and the like dealing with the role and uses of oral history.

I drew on material from twenty-five National Library oral history interviews, and two radio recordings from an Adelaide program called ‘Theatreland Spotlight’ (preserved in the National Film and Sound Archive), in my recent biography of Dame Margaret Scott. I think the book would have lost a lot had I not had access to that material. Some of those whose interviews I used are now dead—Charles Boyd, Sally Gilmour, Paul Hammond, Geoffrey Ingram, Bruce Morrow, Noël Pelly, James Penberthy, Marie Rambert, Ray Powell, Kenneth Rowell, Peggy Sager, and Gailene Stock are among them—and their thoughts and recollections for the most part are not available in other formats.

None of this, however, takes away from the fact that interviewees may embroider upon their experiences, or misremember events (sometimes quite badly), which is the thrust of the comment. Using oral history as source material is beset by problems and is at its best when used judiciously and when the information is cross checked with other sources (if possible). Any source material is only as good as the historian who uses it.

I value immensely the comment on the Edna Busse interview as it comes from someone who was closely involved with the Borovansky Ballet and who has given me a contact to enable me to pursue the issue further. But it doesn’t take away from the value of the interview, just makes me ponder further on the care with which this very personal form of source material needs to be approached.

  • Press for December

‘Professional productions too few. Michelle Potter’s top picks for 2014’. The Canberra Times, 23 December 2014, ARTS p. 6. Online version.

Happy New Year 2015

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2014

American Ballet Theatre in Brisbane

My coverage of American Ballet Theatre’s first Australian visit as part of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series has just been posted on DanceTabs. Making the most of an expensive trip to Brisbane, I saw two performances on consecutive nights, the last night of Swan Lake and the first night of Three Masterpieces. I would have really liked to have seen Three Masterpieces again, especially Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which, given its complexity, was difficult to take in on one viewing.

Twyla Tharp's 'Bach Partita', opening scene, American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Glen Schiavone

Opening scene from Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone

In addition to what I wrote about Bach Partita in the DanceTabs post, I especially enjoyed a solo by Marcelo Gomes, who is seen below with Gillian Murphy. It is quite clear from this image that Gomes has a powerful presence and his solo was strong and controlled and lost nothing of that presence.

Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes in Twyla Tharp's 'Bach Partita', American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Glen Schiavone

Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone

The DanceTabs post is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 7 September 2014