Artists of Paris Opera Ballet in 'Herman Schmerman'. Photo: © Ann Ray/Opera national de Paris

‘Merce Cunningham. William Forsythe.’ Paris Opera Ballet

22 April, 2017, Palais Garnier, Paris

Recently The Times (London) carried a short article entitled ‘Learn language while you wait for web page to load’. It concerned newly developed apps that ‘test you on vocabulary in idle moments, such as when you are connecting to a network or waiting for an instant message.’*  The timing of the article was serendipitous. It came to my attention as I was about to see Paris Opera Ballet’s triple bill, Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe. It seemed like it was an update to what Merce Cunningham was interested to explore with his Walkaround Time (1968), the first work on the POB program. I set off for the theatre with even more anticipation than usual. Cunningham truly was ahead of his time I mused.

The title Walkaround Time, according to Cunningham, comes from computer language. ‘You feed the computer information then you have to wait while it digests.’** Cunningham mentions, however, that it isn’t clear whether it is the computer or the user who is doing the walking around, although for him it is clearly the people!

Artists of Paris Opera Ballet in Walkaroud Time, 2017. Photo: Ann Ray/Opéra national de Paris

The dancers of POB handled the Cunningham choreography beautifully—staging was by ex-Cunningham dancers Jennifer Goggans and Meg Harper. I admired especially the dancer who took the role originally danced by Carolyn Brown. Many of the artists appearing in this program (at least at the performance I saw) were not high enough up in the POB hierarchy to warrant a photo in the printed program, so I don’t know who she was. In any case, she was exceptional in her ability to display the balance and stillness this role requires at times, but also showed a beautiful fullness to her dancing when moving was part of the choreography. But all the dancers I saw, with their finely honed bodies and inbuilt understanding of shape and space, brought a wonderful quality to the work, showing as they did the clarity of Cunningham’s deceptively simple choreography.

Jasper Johns’ set, which referred to Marcel Duchamp’s dada-ist Large Glass, and David Behrman’s score …for nearly an hour…, set the work firmly within the Cunningham collaborative tradition, highlighting the independence of the collaborative elements. Watching Walkaround Time was a truly evocative and quite exciting experience.

The first of the two works by William Forsythe that made up the rest of the program was Trio. It had some conceptual similarities to the Cunningham piece, even though Forsythe, unlike Cunningham, works within the vocabulary of classical ballet. Trio was a kind of slapstick piece, reminding me a little of something from Cirque du soleil. The dancers came forward pointing out different parts of their body in between dancing and engaging in a kind of rough and tumble physical contact. But, with its stop-start musical accompaniment (a Quartet by Beethoven), and with several sections of dancing being executed in silence, the link back to Cunningham was uncanny.

Herman Schmerman, consists of two parts (made at different times in the 1990s)—a pas de cinq followed by a pas de deux. It probably was the work that showed the dancers of Paris Opera Ballet at their balletic best. The pas de cinq, fast-paced and showy, gave them the opportunity to display speed, intricate beaten work and extended limbs. I especially enjoyed the dancing of Chun Wing Lam. He moved brilliantly, using every part of his body. He twisted, turned, bent all ways, moved so smoothly and fluidly, and looked as though he was having the best time. Wonderful to watch.

The pas de deux, danced by Aurélia  Bellet and Aurélien Houette, was a little unusual. In its vocabulary, it had Forsythe’s signature elements of extended limbs, off-centre poses, startling lifts, and the like, scattered throughout the piece. But the communication between the two dancers was not what one might have expected. They were sometimes off-hand with each other, and sometimes they seemed to be in teasing mode. They were a little cheeky and often amusing in the way they related to each other. A bit like life really.

Both the pas de cinq and pas de deux had delightful and surprising endings. As the pas de cinq came to an end, all five dancers disappeared behind a low barrier that stretched across the back of the stage. The accompanying lighting, by Tanji Rühl and Forsythe, was gorgeous and was enhanced by the appearance of two large orange/yellow circles of light on the backcloth as the dancers popped their heads up over the barrier. In a similarly surprising and delightful way, towards the end of the pas de deux both the woman and the man added short, yellow, pleated skirts over their black, close-fitting costumes (costume design by Gianni Versace and Forsythe) and continued the dance with skirts swinging jauntily.

Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe was an inspired program. It was through the vision of Benjamin Millepied, now no longer dance director of POB, that these three works entered the repertoire. Together they made up a program that clearly showed what dance can accomplish in the hands of two exceptional intellects and two inquiring choreographic minds.

Michelle Potter, 24 April 2017

Featured image: Artists of Paris Opera Ballet in Herman Schmerman, 2017. Photo: © Ann Ray/Opéra national de Paris

* The Times (London), 22 April 2017, p. 5
** Quoted in the app Merce Cunningham 65 Years

Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in 'Forgotten Land'. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘Vitesse’. The Australian Ballet

7 May 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The Australian Ballet’s triple bill, Vitesse, was not so much about vitesse (FR: speed) as about the look of ballet over the past thirty years or so. It began with Jiri Kylian’s Forgotten Land, moving, dramatic and emotion filled, continued with William Forsythe’s fiercely uncompromising In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and closed with Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV (Danse à grande vitesse), an attempt to capture the essence of speed and referring to France’s TGV (Train à grande vitesse) and Michael Nyman’s score MGV (Musique à grande vitesse).

Forgotten Land, a Kylian work from 1981, is in essence a series of duets expressing a yearning for past memories and events. I particularly enjoyed the dancing of first couple, Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian, who brought a delicious lyrical quality to their pas de deux and who brought out so well Kylian’s choreographic focus on bending bodies and swirling, extended arms. I also admired the performance by Rina Nemoto and Joseph Chapman as the last couple. Their delicacy and gentleness stood in contrast to some of the more fast-paced duets. The work is such a joy to watch and has a particularly emotive ending as the female dancers, backs to the audience, stretch their arms upwards, heavenwards, as if pining for what has been forgotten.

In the Middle left something to be desired, at least for those who remember it from 1996 when it first entered the Australian Ballet’s repertoire. It made a huge impression then with its high-energy choreography, its extraordinary off-centre poses, and its stunning performances in which the dancers missed no opportunity to draw the audience into the work. Not so much this time when it seemed a little tame. Although the dancers (again) executed the steps admirably enough, I missed (again) the physicality and the passion that needs to be added to the steps, to be the essence of movement, to make any ballet, but especially this one, have one on the edge of one’s seat with excitement. Surprisingly too, I also missed the Sylvie Guillem-style wig that was worn by Nicole Rhodes (as the leading female dancer) in the 1996 production. Not only did that wig have its own movement, it also set the work, which was made on Guillem and the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987, in a particular context. It had a definite role.

Amy Harris in 'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

Amy Harris in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The leading trio of artists, Amy Harris, Nicola Curry and Ty King-Wall, danced admirably enough. But for me, the most interesting performance came from Chengwu Guo, who at the last minute replaced Jarryd Madden. I am used to seeing Guo throw himself around the stage, executing spectacular beats, turns and jumps (sometimes inappropriately as happened in Giselle). So it was a pleasure to see him dancing differently. I wondered whether he felt held back by the Forsythian choreography, which is spectacular in its own way of course, but which does not ask for excess in the old Russian manner? Without losing any of his technical skills, there was a certain austerity to his approach on this occasion and I enjoyed his performance immensely.

Wheeldon’s DGV is an interesting work but never seems to have the excitement that its name suggests. It’s interesting too that Australian Ballet publicity says that ‘Wheeldon hurtles his dancers through a high-speed journey’. What drew my attention, on the other hand, was the extent to which Wheeldon seemed to create static poses, especially in the several pas de deux that are sprinkled throughout the work. I started to look on DGV as a kind of series of travel posters rather than a comment on a fast train and speed. It is not my favourite Wheeldon work and a review of another performance is at this link.

Despite my various reservations, it was an experience to have the work of Kylian, Forsythe and Wheeldon on the one program. Kylian rarely fails to move, Forsythe sees the body in movement differently from most, and Wheeldon … well I’m still making up my mind.

Michelle Potter, 9 May 2016

Featured image: Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in Forgotten Land. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. September 2015

  • Remi Wortmeyer

News from a colleague in Amsterdam is that Remi Wortmeyer, formerly with the Australian Ballet and now a principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet, is making a mark in that company’s Hans van Manen program. For more news about Wortmeyer’s activities here is a link to his website.

Remi Wortmeyer in 'Joel', 2014. Photo © Jack Devant

Remi Wortmeyer in Joel, 2014. Photo: © Jack Devant

  • New Helpmann book

A new book about Robert Helpmann is currently in preparation in London and will be published in 2016 by Dance Books. With the title The Many Faces of Robert Helpmann, it is edited by Richard Cave and Anna Meadmore. The book is being published as a companion volume to Ninette de Valois: Adventurous Traditionalist (Dance Books, 2012) and will include, in addition to a series of essays on various aspects of Helpmann’s career, a DVD of filmed material. I am working on a chapter on Elektra, Helpmann’s ballet that premiered at Covent Garden in 1963 and that was restaged by the Australian Ballet in 1966.

Elektra, the Australian Ballet 1966. Photo Australian News and Information Bureau

Scene from Elektra, the Australian Ballet 1966. Kathleen Geldard as Elektra. Photo: Australian News and Information Bureau. National Archives of Australia

  • William Forsythe and Dance Australia

I was delighted, on opening the October/November issue of Dance Australia, to see an article I wrote for the issue of February/March 1994 republished (with some new photographs) as part of an ‘Anniversary Collection’ celebrating 35 years of Dance Australia. That article, which was based on an interview I conducted with William Forsythe in Frankfurt while on a holiday in Europe in late 1993, was one of the earliest pieces I wrote for Dance Australia.

The experience of interviewing on that occasion is, however, still etched on my mind. It was funny—I had trouble getting past the very determined doorman at the stage door until I produced a letter and said in my very best school German Ich habe eine Brief (sic—I got the gender wrong); informative—Forsythe has an incredible intellect; and moving—Forsythe is also very personable and was so willing to engage with me, even at midnight when the interview took place. Before the interview, I was lucky enough to see the show that was playing that night, which was Forsythe’s Artefact.

But congratulations to Dance Australia for having survived for 35 years and having produced so many great stories, reviews and other dance-related pieces. May it continue.

  • Press for September

‘GOLDs head overseas.’ Preview of tour to the United Kingdom and Europe by Canberra’s GOLD company. The Canberra Times, 12 September 2015, ARTS p. 22. Online version.

‘Plenty to enjoy in diverse mix.’ Review of Circus Oz in ‘But wait…there’s more.’ The Canberra Times, 25 September 2015, p. ARTS 7. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2015

techne. Sylvie Guillem. Photo by Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem. ‘Life in Progress’

19 August 2015, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Sylvie Guillem is an extraordinary dancer, no doubt about it, and her farewell show of four very different works demonstrated her astonishing capacity as a performer. But what emerged most clearly for me was that Guillem is first and foremost a ballet dancer. Her body, with its flexibility, slender frame, beautifully arched feet, impeccable ‘turn-out’, and limbs that extend seemingly forever, is so perfectly suited to the vocabulary of ballet that, whatever other dance style she is performing, she makes me long to see her dancing in a ballet again. Guillem has, for the last ten years or so, focused on contemporary dance and, while I have every respect for her desire to work that way, it is a little sad that not all of the movement we see in her farewell show does justice to her qualities as a dancer.

The program opened with technê choreographed by Akram Khan. Its setting was instantly attractive—a silver mesh tree positioned centre stage and surrounded by a circle of light. Across the upstage area sat a dimly-lit orchestra of three, composer Alies Sluiter (voice, laptop and violin), Prathap Ramachandra (percussion), and Grace Savage (beatbox). And the live soundscape they produced was thrilling.

But, watching Guillem emerge from the darkness in the opening moments—our first sight of her—only to scuttle around the circle of light on all fours like an insect was not thrilling. Sure she scuttles brilliantly and every inch of her body scuttled. But for me it was an uninspired opening moment and it was hard to maintain interest in the movement of technê from then on.

Then followed William Forsythe’s DUO2015, remade from his 1996 DUO and danced by two men, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, to a very sparse score by Thom Willems. They danced together and apart, at times with panache and bravura, and sometimes with a kind of throwaway attitude. It was a communication between friends. They sometimes mirrored each other in their movements, and at other times they maintained their differences—a diverse dancing communication, and a wonderful one.

DUO web. Dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts. Photo by Carl Fox

 Dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in DUO2015. Photo: © Carl Fox

The last piece before intermission was another duet, Here & After, this time danced by two women, Guillem and Emanuela Montanari. Choreographed by Russell Maliphant to music by Andy Cowton, it was pleasant dancing, often sculptural and having a light touch towards the end when the Cowton score included the sounds of a yodelling voice. It was enhanced by a strong lighting design from Michael Hulls, a constantly changing chessboard of squares of light. It added a hard-edged quality that sat well against the softness of the choreography.

By far the most satisfying piece, however, was the closing item, Bye, with choreography by Mats Ek and danced to Beethoven’s Arietta from his Piano Sonata Opus 111. The choice of music was an inspired one given its position in Beethoven’s oeuvre, Opus 111 being his last piano sonata, and given the inventive nature of the Arietta within it.

Sylvie Guillem in 'Bye'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in Bye. Photo: © Bill Cooper

In Bye we first see Guillem peering through a keyhole of a door positioned upstage, which eventually becomes a screen for the projection of filmed images of people and animals. As Guillem emerges from behind this door/screen and begins to dance, Ek’s choreographic style is instantly recognisable. Guillem crosses the stage with long, loping walks, shoulders slightly hunched and head pushed forward. From then on she engages in a variety of moves that often seem to be an examination of the world, including one quiet moment when she stands on the side of the stage and surveys the space. At one point she stands on her head, legs spread in a kind of upside down 2nd position plié. Finally, she joins a growing crowd of men, women, children and dogs who appear in film on the door/screen. In the closing moments she joins them and walks into the distance.

Life in Progress was an interesting experience, and it certainly made me more than aware of Guillem’s astonishing abilities. But I would rather watch beetles scuttle and a clown stand on his (or her) head and watch Guillem dancing a ballet. I feel very lucky to have seen her during her ballet days and, in particular, will always carry with me treasured memories of the most moving Giselle I have ever seen—Guillem’s own production (with Guillem in the lead) for Finnish National Ballet in Paris in 2001.

Bye. Or is it au revoir?

Michelle Potter, 22 August 2015

Featured image: Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan’s technê. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Sydney Dance Company's 'Frame of Mind' featuring Richard Cilli and Jesse Scales. Photo: Peter Greig

‘Frame of Mind’. Sydney Dance Company

My review of Sydney Dance Company’s new program, Frame of Mind, encompassing William Forsythe’s Quintett and Rafael Bonachela’s Frame of Mind, is now available on DanceTabs at this link. This program was ecstatically received on opening night, 9 March 2015 at Sydney Theatre, and deservedly so. It tours to Canberra in April–May and Melbourne in May.

Sydney Dance Company's 'Quintett' featuring Chloe Yeong and Sam Young-Wright. Photo: Peter Greig

Chloe Leong and Sam Young-Wright in William Forsythe’s Quintett, Sydney Dance Company.  Photo: © Peter Greig

The Forsythe piece, danced to Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, reminded me of an event that occurred several years ago now, at a time when people used to go into shops to buy their music. My husband went into a then very well-known music store in Canberra (since closed down) to try to buy a copy of the Gavin Bryars’ work. ‘Oh,’ said the gentleman behind the counter, ‘we have been trying to move this CD for some time. Here, have this copy with our compliments.’

Well, Forsythe’s use of the homeless man’s chant in Quintett was absolutely fascinating. The diversity of the emotions expressed in the choreography was a perfect foil for the repetition of the words and by the end, as the score grew louder and the music became a dominant feature, the optimism of the homeless man soared. It was quite stunning.

Michelle Potter, 11 March 2015

Featured image: Richard Cilli and Jesse Scales in Rafael Bonachela’s Frame of Mind, Sydney Dance Company. Photo: © Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company's 'Frame of Mind' featuring Richard Cilli and Jesse Scales. Photo: Peter Greig

‘The fabric of dance’. National Gallery of Victoria

Talk given at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, in conjunction with the exhibition Ballet and Fashion, 20 April 2013.

Opening slide 'The fabric of dance'

Modified text and PowerPoint slides at this link.

Video clips used in the live talk and referred to in the text:

Michelle Potter, 3 May 2013

‘Run for it’, ‘Workwithinwork’, ‘5 tangos’: Scottish Ballet

05 October 2012, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Scottish Ballet’s triple bill of works by Martin Lawrance, William Forsythe and Hans van Manen was designed, according to artistic director Christopher Hampson, to show choreography across three generations. To my mind, however, the evening showed more that choreography sometimes looks dated and that for it to have a powerful effect it needs something more than extreme physicality.

The evening opened with Lawrance’s Run for it, performed to John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony. It was made originally for Dance GB, a program associated with the London Olympics, although I’m not sure whether Olympic references in Run for it were specific or merely general (as a result of the athletic performances by the dancers). This was my first encounter with the choreography of Lawrance and, while his ability to create energetic, highly physical movement was absolutely evident, I’m not sure he has yet established an individual choreographic voice that makes his brand of movement vocabulary distinctive. To me it seemed like a series of random movements lacking focus.

In many respects the Olympic references came through more clearly in the design. The set by recent Turner Prize winner Martin Boyce recalled ancient Greece, home of the Olympics. A Grecian-style, fluted column set slightly off centre-stage was topped by a conglomeration of geometric shapes spreading across the upper space a little like a cloud. Yumiko Takeshima’s close fitting costumes, looking like an outfit one might wear to the gym, emphasised the sleek and athletic bodies of the dancers.

'Run for it'. Scottish Ballet, 2012. Photo: Andrew RossEve Mutso, Owen Thorpe and dancers in Martin Lawrance’s Run for it. Scottish Ballet, 2012. Photo: Andrew Ross

Closing the program was Hans van Manen’s 1970s piece 5 tangos to music by Astor Piazzolla. This mixture of ballet and tango moves was well performed by the dancers of Scottish Ballet, who wore their red and black costumes with panache. The men in particular moved as an ensemble with admirable ease. Sadly, I don’t think the choreography gave the dancers the opportunity to move with the passion I associate with the tango, although they made the best of what they were given to dance. For me the piece showed how choreography has changed over the past 30 or so years. The carefully arranged moves and patterns of 5 tangos seemed overly structured and, with an emphasis on canon forms, repeats and so forth, the whole seemed too obvious and almost predictable.

The pièce de résistance was the middle work on the program, William Forsythe’s Workwithinwork set to Luciano Berio’s Duetti per due violini. While the off-kilter moves, extended limbs thrashing through the air, and the highly physical partnering we associate with Forsythe were all there, this work began with the dancers looking as though they were in comic mode. Repeatedly they looked almost as if they were poking fun at classical poses and in general fooling around. But by the close of the work, largely a series of duets and trios, all seemed to come together in a cohesive whole and, as the curtain came down, we were left with wisps of movement being traced in the air by the dancers to remind us of what had gone before. It was a mesmerising work with many levels of meaning. One viewing simply made me long to see it again.

'Workwithinwork'. Scottish Ballet, 2012. Photo: Andrew RossDaniel Davidson and Luciana Ravizzi in William Forsythe’s Workwithinwork. Scottish Ballet, 2012. Photo: Andrew Ross

This program was my first encounter with the work of Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet. Not knowing any of the dancers, I am sorry not to be able to comment on individual performances. Christopher Hampson has been artistic director of Scottish Ballet for a very short time, since August 2012. His personable nature was evident in his onstage introduction to this program, which must have been that of previous director, Ashley Page.  It will be interesting to see how Scottish Ballet develops under Hampson’s leadership. He has some excellent dancers to work with.

Michelle Potter, 9 October 2012

‘Duato Forsythe Goecke’. Staatsballett Berlin

02 June 2012, Staatsoper im Schiller Theater, Berlin

This program, a triple bill by two choreographers with a strong body of work to their name, and one whose work I hadn’t previously seen, promised much but delivered little.

The evening opened with Nacho Duato’s Arcangelo, a meditation, the program told us, on heaven and hell. Made in 2000, Arcangelo is set to music by of the Baroque period by Arcangelo Corelli and Alessdandro Scarlatti. Choreographically and visually it had many of the touches that characterise others of Duato’s works—the turned up feet; the deep pliés in second position; the bird-like outstretched arms, often with palms facing down; the intricate partnering that produces unusual and striking shapes as bodies combine; and the mysterious appearance and disappearance of dancers through the black backcloth. And as with every Duato work, Arcangelo was beautifully and evocatively lit, this time by Brad Fields. Dancersof the Staatsballett in 'Arcangelo'. Photo Bettina Stöss

Dancers of the Staatsballett Berlin in Nacho Duato’s Arcangelo. Photo Bettina Stöss. Courtesy Staatsballett media site

But for Duato’s works to fully achieve the sublime qualities that make them the admirable works of art that they are, they need to be performed differently from what I saw. To tell the truth I didn’t feel an intense emotional connection between the dancers as they contemplated their state of being. And I thoroughly disliked the way the exits through those back curtains were so obvious—the opening tended to be flung apart and as a result the exit was not the seamless one I have come to expect. I had never seen Arcangelo before and wanted to like it but in the end I just felt flat, even after the conclusion when two dancers ascend to heaven pulled up by a length of black cloth.

In the middle of this triple bill was William Forsythe’s Hermann Schmerman, first performed in 1992 and set to music by Thom Willems. Again all the choreographic hallmarks of a Forsythe work were there—the outrageously difficult moves and combinations as Forsythe explores what the body can do within the classical medium. But it never seemed that the dancers had a strong enough classical technique—especially the right amount of ‘turn-out’—to make the choreography look like an experiment with movement vocabulary. Looking at still images of the dancers this doesn’t seem as if it should be the case, but onstage, where it matters, the look was wrong in my opinion. Perhaps it was the dancers’ apparent concentration on showy effects? The one dancer whose work I really enjoyed was Federico Spallitta who danced the pas de deux with Nadja Saidakova. His solo variation was sinuous and liquid and a delight to watch.

The final work, entitled And the sky on that cloudy old day, was by Marco Goecke currently resident choreographer with Stuttgart Ballet. Goecke says his inspiration was the music that accompanied the work—John Adams’ Guide to strange places, itself inspired by a book invoking the landscape of Provence in southern France. But the relationship between these thoughts by Goecke and the choreography remained unclear throughout the work.

Choreographically And the sky… appeared to deny the body as a total means of expression with pretty much all the movement concentrated in the arms and hands. The dancers were extraordinarily skillful in executing these movements, some of which were very fast to the extent that the arms and hands often became blurred. There was very little partnering although there was a good deal of placing the nine dancers (four women and five men) in patterns and groups. They used some interesting props, including fans made from feathers, which they occasionally used to hide their faces. But the point of it all was lost on me I’m afraid.

Dancers of the Staatsballett Berlin in 'And the sky on that cloudy day'. Photo Bettina Stöss

Dancers of the Staatsballett Berlin in Marco Goecke’s And the sky on that cloudy old day. Photo Bettina Stöss. Courtesy Staatsballett media site

The director (intendant) of this company is Vladimir Malakhov, whose dancing I have previously admired. In fact what I had seen of him before partly inspired me to book a ticket to see the show. He danced in both Arcangelo and And the sky… I prefer to remember him, however, as the stunning classical dancer I saw some years ago in New York.

Michelle Potter, 3 June 2012