30 years of sixty five thousand. Bangarra Dance Theatre

13 June 2019. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Bangarra Dance Theatre is 30 years old this year and its latest program, 30 years of sixty five thousand, celebrates that anniversary. It also acknowledges the extent of the heritage on which the company is built, and to which it looks for inspiration.

First up on the program was a revival of Unaipon, Frances Rings’ 2004 portrait of Aboriginal inventor, philosopher, writer and storyteller David Unaipon, whose portrait now appears on the Australian $50 note. Unaipon opens with a sequence in which a figure, representing Unaipon himself, dances behind a scrim in a mystical evocation of man’s existence. It then focuses on aspects of Unaipon’s early background as a Ngarrindjeri man, and subsequently follows some of his thoughts and ideas in areas of science and religion.

Every scene in Unaipon had its unique choreographic qualities. On the one hand, for example, there was Bangarra’s distinctive take on traditional movement in Sister baskets, a section about the intricate style of weaving that is distinctive to Ngarrindjeri culture. On the other, and in contrast, one of Unaipon’s particular scientific interests was the concept of motion and this concept was explored with choreography in which walking across the stage dominated. I don’t usually enjoy those moments that find their way into a lot of choreography where walking and running around the stage go on forever, or so it seems. But in the case of Unaipon, the movement was diverse as dancers dodged each other, passed each other, and gently bumped each other, all the time reflecting Unaipon’s interest in bodies in space.

The absolute stand-out performer in Unaipon was Tyrel Dulvarie, who danced the role of David Unaipon. In the opening sequence, gliding across the stage (on some hidden device?) and using exquisitely lyrical arm movements, he transported us into a world of dreams and ideas. Then in the section called Four Winds, which dealt with man’s need for knowledge about the seasons, he danced as Tolkami (the West Wind) wearing an astonishing grass costume by Jennifer Irwin. Dulvarie’s presence was commanding and his dancing transfixing in this solo. In the final section, which focused on Unaipon’s interest in religion, Dulvarie showed his ability to isolate individual movements (even toes played a role) and, again, his powerful stage presence was clear and imposing

Scene from 'Unaipon'. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Tyrel Dulvarie as Tolkami (the West Wind) in Unaipon. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The middle work on the program was Jiří Kylián’s Stamping Ground created in 1983 after a momentous visit made by Kylián to Groote Eylandt in 1980. In the Bangarra program, Stamping Ground was preceded by a brief video clip in which Kylián explained the origins of the work; his emotional response to his experiences on Groote Eylandt; and that the work was created not with the aim of copying Indigenous movement but as an homage to Indigenous culture. The dance itself was performed by six dancers, three male, three female. It was a revelation as it had all the characteristics of Kylián’s later choreography, including the manner in which he uses a backcloth as part of a work; the little snatches of humour; the beautiful, bird-like use of extended arms; the incredible lifts; and so on. Staged for Bangarra by Roslyn Anderson, Stamping Ground was stunningly danced by Tara Gower, Baden Hitchcock, Rika Hamaguchi, Ella Havelka, Tyrel Dulvarie, and Ryan Pearson. Their performance indicated the growing technical strengths of Bangarra dancers, who can now hold their own across a range of choreographic styles.

Rika Hamaguchi and Ryan Pearson in Stamping Ground. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Bangarra means ‘to make fire’ in the Wiradjuri language and, for the closing section of Bangarra’s anniversary program, artistic director Stephen Page brought together a selection of moments from previous Bangarra productions and curated them under the name To make fire. The selections showed different aspects of Bangarra’s output, including biographical productions with selections from Mathinna; stories from the Torres Strait Islands with selections from About; and, in the final section given the over-arching name Clan, excerpts from Belong and Walkabout. This final section suggests a vision for a future in which identity can be reclaimed and reconciled with contemporary society.

A trio from Mathinna was a highlight for me. It suggested, through its varied movement and differing connections between the dancers, the potential nature of relationships between Mathinna, a young Tasmanian woman of Lowreenne heritage, and the colonial couple who adopted but then rejected her. Another highlight came in Clan when a short section called Wiradjuri was danced strongly by Beau Dean Riley Smith (a Wiradjuri man as it happens). Its music by David Page was mesmerising with a whispering voice-over murmuring the single word ‘Wiradjuri’ over and over.

Trio from 'Mathinna'.Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019.. Photo: Daniel Boud
Lillian Banks as Mathinna, Rikki Mason as John Franklin and Tara Gower as Jane Franklin from Mathinna. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

In program notes for 30 years of sixty five thousand, Stephen Page suggests that Bangarra’s greatest achievement is that it has survived for those 30 years. But Bangarra has done more than survive. It has flourished. It can now claim an extensive repertoire of music and dance, which it can and does draw upon; it has a spirited associate artistic director in Frances Rings, who supports the dynamic director Stephen Page; and its dancers are polished performers whose movement vocabulary has gone from strength to strength over those 30 years. And if you are lucky enough to be at an opening night in Sydney, the company’s home base, it becomes very clear that the company has an appreciative audience unafraid to express its pride in and appreciation for Bangarra.

Michelle Potter, 15 June 2019

Featured image: Scene from To make fire. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Lisa Tomasetti

West Side Story. Opera Australia

7 June 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

                                          The same only different.

c. 1590—Shakespeare sets Romeo & Juliet in c.1390 Verona (and the town is happy to remember that still). Poetry tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Montague and Capulet, loyalties demanded, much street fighting, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Sword fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

1957—Jerome Robbins, director/choreographer, Leonard Bernstein, composer, Stephen Sondheim, lyricist, and Arthur Laurents, book, set West Side Story in upper west Manhattan (though the area has since been somewhat gentrified). Dance tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Jets and Sharks, loyalties demanded, much street dancing, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Fist and knife fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

2019—Australian production opens in Wellington. Seasoned musical director/conductor, Donald Chan, holds brilliantly taut reins on a spirited performance from  the Australian cast and local Orchestra Wellington musicians.

Complex stage sets of towering buildings and balconies are moved seamlessly throughout the performance, so there is a further team out the back performing a dance we don’t see.

There is little spoken dialogue in the show but in a short sequence, two junior members of the Jets confess their fear of the imminent arrival of cops to investigate murder. The pathos struck in their brief confession of individual human emotion makes striking contrast with the kind of confident bravura so readily summoned for group display in the gangs’ dances and songs throughout the show. Of those the romping standouts are I like to be in America and Gee, Officer Krupke. 

The ballet sequence near the end, to Somewhere (perhaps too well-lit for the dream scenario it implies?) sits in marked contrast to the rest of the dancing, and we only hear but do not see the vocalist for that number.  (I would have welcomed the singer to stand in a royal corner box and thus to seem to sing on the audience’s behalf).

West Side Story rocketed to fame on Broadway as a big, big musical, and was soon  translated to a movie that became known worldwide. (Do you know anyone who didn’t see it?) Steven Spielberg is preparing a new movie version, this one to be set in Harlem, so that’s moving to 131st Street, filming to start about now.

Rita Moreno, unforgettable as Anita, the leading lady of the Sharks, won an Oscar for her performance in the original movie. She will play in the Spielberg film, a re-worked version of the character Doc, the shop-owner where Tony (aka Romeo) works.

In the cast we saw here, Doc, the only voice of reason, though no-one would listen until too late, was impeccably played by Ritchie Singer. In the sizzling role of Anita, Chloe Zuel was the knockout member of a large cast where everyone acquitted themselves with verve and commitment. Not a beat was missed throughout. Donald Chan saw to that.

(Makes you want to watch the movie again. Maybe after that I’ll listen to Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet score?)

New Zealand apparently holds the dubious title of the per capita world record for the number of gangs and patched members. Territories are guarded, loyalties demanded, external authority rejected. From the occasional reports of events and encounters between them, one might imagine they also know personal storylines not too removed from the above. How we are is who we are.

West Side Story comes from classic stock. Dance followers may be interested, and perhaps surprised, to learn that Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, hitherto renowned for avant garde dance theatre, is also at work on a Broadway revival of West Side Story with entirely new choreography, production date 2020. Clearly it’s a work for our time, and for many times. 

Jennifer Shennan, 8 June 2019

All photos: © Jeff Busby

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský's 'Black Swan, White Swan', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet

31 May ̶ 2 June 2019, Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Black Swan, White Swan is a two-act ballet by Mário Radačovský performed to a recorded abridged version of Tchaikovsky’s score. It borrows some themes from the classic Swan Lake but introduces new features and motifs in a re-working of the story that has Siegfried at its centre. The choreography plays out less as dramatic theatre working towards a denouement, or as a poem about love and grief, and instead presents a psychological profile of a man undergoing painful and confusing experiences in his life. In the opening performance in Wellington, the role of Siegfried, on stage throughout, with naturalistic movement, stillness and passages of dancing combined, was performed by Paul Mathews. His presence and thoughtful expression has an actor’s depth, while his intuitively musical dancing and strengths as a partner put him in a class of his own.

Paul Mathews in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

It may be worth reproducing here “The Story” from the printed program.
Act 1:  On his birthday Siegfried receives devastating news. In his anguish, he sees a mysterious stranger, Von Rothbart. Siegfried’s wife has arranged a surprise birthday party, but he is not in the mood to celebrate. He collapses, and Von Rothbart returns. Von Rothbart begins to manipulate Siegfried’s emotions, including his feelings towards his wife, and he becomes confused, no longer able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Siegfried tries to resist Von Rothbart and looks to his doctor for support. She becomes his White Swan and he becomes obsessed with her as the saviour who can bring him back to health and sanity. But Von Rothbart is not defeated.

Act 2:  Siegfried struggles to regain his identity, but Von Rothbart has the upper hand. To further confuse him, Von Rothbart brings out Siegfried’s wife, transformed into the Black Swan, and no longer the woman that Siegfried knows and loves. The Black Swan toys with him and once again Siegfried has to fight to keep his grip on reality. As Siegfried fights harder and harder he finally begins to weaken Von Rothbart’s control, only to collapse once again. As Siegfried awakes, back at his birthday party, he has no idea what is real and what is not. But Von Rothbart is still there…

This conveys the situational rather than narrative or dramatic aspect chosen for choreographic treatment, with life for Siegfried much the same at the end as at the beginning. A clue in the program synopsis  “As Siegfried awakes…” (I had not picked up that he was asleep) perhaps suggests the whole thing was his nightmare?  There are effectively four soloists—Siegfried, von Rothbart (Kihiro Kusukami), White Swan (Sara Garbowski), Black Swan (Kirby Selchow). They all perform strongly but the three characters seem not required to interact with each other but only with Siegfried. Kusukami’s dancing is certainly striking and his evil force is sinister yet expressionless, giving him a two rather than three-dimensional impact, which reinforces his place within Siegfried’s psychological state. Kirby Selchow as Black Swan has a sparkling edge to her taunting of Siegfried. The dance highlight of the evening for me is the pas de deux between Siegfried and White Swan who has by now dropped her doctor’s coat and become his friend, enabling Garbowski and Mathews to dance with real rapport.

Kirby Selchow in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Sara Garbowski and Paul Mathews in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The large corps or chorus of dancers, some grinning, some blank-faced, a mix of party goers, nurses maybe, then swans, were given contemporary movement vocabulary, which reflected against the backdrop of shiny metal curtain strips used for entrances and exits. Twists and flexes of foot, turn-in, hooked hands at the end of raised arms to portray swan beaks, paddling legs to suggest swimming were gestures and motifs repeated to good effect. It seemed less convincing, however, when the Cygnets and Lead Swans danced.

My perception was that much of their dancing was shaded behind the beat, which is not musically what one expects with a Tchaikovsky score. (A similar tardiness among the corps was noted in the recent production of The Nutcracker). Musicality in a dancer involves anticipation of the beat and the note, much as a conductor does, so their movement can speak through the music. That work takes place in the studio on a daily basis, the light and lifeblood of ballet. Sometimes choreography allows dancers to create the illusion that their movement produces the music, dancing with rather than to it. To see that art and alchemy at work, watch a dancer like Paul Mathews.

The performance is peppered throughout with applause and calls that do nothing to sustain dramatic conviction, but it is not so long ago that the audience was invited ‘if you see us do something you specially like then clap, call out, stamp and let us know you liked it’. Audiences, mostly, do what you tell them so interruptions become part of the experience. Opera goers always applaud an aria, even if the singer’s character has just died, but this doesn’t happen in music concerts or at plays in the theatre, and it comes at a price, a bit like an ad break. Diaghilev and Stravinsky, Douglas Wright and Lin Hwai Min knew how to choreograph for the theatre without inviting, or even allowing, applause in fits and starts.

I was waiting and wondering how the themes might coalesce by the end, enjoying anticipation of that, but will confess I found the sudden dumping from a great height of a large bucket of water onto both Siegfried and von Rothbart, was a surprise ending more suggestive of The Wizard of Oz rather than the coup de theatre it might have been turned into. Further challenge to us to interpret the work as we will, which is no bad thing. 

It is true of many of our experiences that perception is the filter of facts—nothing altogether black and white but that saying makes it so. Radačovský has presented that trope in a choreography that sincerely recreates his personal experiences some decades ago of cancer and associated trauma. It is good to know from his artist’s profile that he has recovered from the illness, though he has deliberately chosen to end this ballet at an unresolved point in the story. 

Jennifer Shennan, 1 June 2019

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský’s Black Swan, White Swan, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský's 'Black Swan, White Swan', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Dance diary. May 2019

  • David McAllister to retire

The news for May is headlined by the announcement that David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet since 2002, will retire at the end of 2020. McAllister has always been generous in situations that are about dance but fall outside performances. He launched, for example, two of my books, A Collector’s Book of Australian Dance and Dame Maggie Scott. A Life in Dance. In this month’s featured image (above) he is seen in the Chunky Move studios in Melbourne launching A Collector’s Book. The banner on the left shows an image that appears in the book and that was taken by Greg Barrett.

I have also enjoyed seeing McAllister at various conferences, including the first BOLD Festival held in Canberra in 2017.

Who will be the next director? The names that have been mentioned in the press so far (I have arranged them alphabetically by family name) include Leanne Benjamin, David Hallberg, Li Cunxin, Graeme Murphy, and Stanton Welch. One or two of them have declared they are not interested (not sure if I necessarily believe that). I have one or two others in my mind but I won’t mention them here! I do hope, however, that whoever survives the selection process and becomes McAllister’s successor will be someone who will be audacious in repertoire choices.

  • Shaun Parker and Company

In September 2010, dancer (and singer in the counter tenor mode) Shaun Parker registered a name: Shaun Parker and Company. Next year the company that bears that name will celebrate its 10th anniversary with, I believe, a special program.

The company has just recently returned from the Middle East and Austria where Parker’s most recent production, KING, was performed. In the meantime, Parker is now working on a new show for young people, IN THE ZONE, which will premiere in Sydney this coming September. It will feature street dancer Libby Montilla and the technology of AirSticks.

Scene from KING, Shaun Parker and Company, 2019. Photo: © Prudence Upton
  • Archibald Prize 2019

Among the finalists for the 2019 Archibald Prize, Australia’s well-known portrait prize hosted by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, was a portrait entitled Mao’s Last Dancer by Chinese-born artist Jun Chen. Chen, who is currently based in Brisbane, was commissioned last year by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to paint a portrait of Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet. It was one of twenty portraits commissioned to celebrate the Gallery’s twentieth anniversary. Chen followed up with a second portrait of Li and entered it for the Archibald Prize. While it didn’t take first place it was good to see a portrait of a dancer among the 2019 finalists. See all the finalists here.

Mao’s Last Dancer: Jun Chen’s portrait of Li Cunxin
  • Following new posts

I have had a number of requests recently asking how to join up to receive notification of new posts. Here’s how to do it:

1, Make a comment by going to the ‘Leave a reply’ form, which you will find at the end of every post.
2. Before hitting the ‘Post comment’ field, check the box that says ‘Notify me of new posts by email’. (Make sure you have also filled out your name and email address. A website address is not necessary).
3. After you have submitted the comment you will receive a follow-up email asking you to confirm. It will say ‘Confirm follow’. Once you have clicked on this field you should begin to receive notifications of new posts.

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2019

Featured image: David McAllister launching A Collector’s Book of Australian Dance, Melbourne 2003. Photo: © Lynkushka

New Zealand School of Music + Dancers

24 May 2019. The Hub, Victoria University, Wellington    
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Talking about Music, Dancing about Architecture.

A striking performance by New Zealand School of Music last Friday brought instrumental music and dance into unusual proximity. Those who, like myself, believe in the vibrancy of live music and dance interactions are drawn to the alchemy that can result from interwoven performing of both arts.

The Hub is at the centre of students’ common space at Victoria University. It is occasionally used for performance though remains accessible at the edges to students’ coming and going. This creates an atmosphere of openness and something less than the formality of a recital in a dedicated concert space.

Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones with musicians. The Hub, New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs

Hamish Robb and Beth Chen on piano as Duo Ombré opened with Debussy’s Petite Suite with its resonances of dance rhythm bedded in to the score. These were given welcome comment in Hamish Robb’s spoken introduction.

‘Talking about music is like dancing about architecture’ is a saying attributed to many, and points to the primacy of an original work, and the sometimes superfluous attempts to translate that into verbal form. Robb however has a natural gift of talking about features in the score, and can highlight moments in playing them without sounding in the least arcane. This commentary is both refreshing and helpful to our listening.

Mozart’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands was of course quivering with dance life. It’s on record somewhere that Mozart declared he’d rather have been a dancer than a musician, and you can hear what he means. Rachmaninoff’s Six Morceaux was then played and we were invited to ‘listen orchestrally’ to suggestions of colours in the keyboard rendition.  

The New Zealand String Quartet, also based at NZSM, performed the second half of the concert. They played renditions of two dances by Erwin Schulhoff: Alla Czecha and Alla Tango Milonga. Schulhoff’s career was cut tragically short in war time yet what he did compose is full of interest. The big one though, most enthusiastically introduced by cellist Rolf Gjelsten, and also alive with dance rhythms, was Bartok’s String Quartet No.5

Loughlan Prior (centre) and musicians. New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs

Two dancers—Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones performed to several movements within these works. Their clean and attractive movement was expertly and intimately positioned in and around the musicians, even at times playfully daring to act as conductor to their performing. There were lines and angles suggesting architecture, light images, costume as shared skin, pauses and speeds that emphasised the dance-like qualities of movement of the musicians in performance… and the dancers’ movement seemed to produce an empathy of  visual music.

This is close to the way that Tokelau people behave—different music, different dance, but the same marriage between both.

Jennifer Shennan, 28 May 2019

Featured image: Loughlan Prior and Laura Saxon Jones performing with artists from the New Zealand School of Music, 2019. Photo: Stephen Gibbs