New York Dialects. The Australian Ballet

17 April 2021 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The first thing to say about this first Sydney program for 2021 from the Australian Ballet is that the dancers look fabulous. They are in terrific form in a technical sense and seem absolutely to relish being back onstage after a grim 2020. Watching them perform was a real thrill.

The program was certainly an interesting one and at the end it became clear what the ‘dialect’ of the title was (or was not) all about. The language of each of the three works, Serenade and The Four Temperaments, both by George Balanchine, and Watermark by Pam Tanowitz, was very much about the vocabulary of ballet (contemporary and otherwise) and the way that vocabulary can be arranged onstage. I’m not sure, however, that this is specifically a New York dialect, except that the two choreographers are or were New Yorkers. If we think of dialect as being a form of language specific to a particular region, it seems to me that what we saw was a choreographic dialect from people who happen to be New Yorkers. I guess I didn’t much like the title of the program. But I did like the dancing and in some cases the choreography.

Serenade has always been a beautiful way to start a program. Although Balanchine liked to say his ballets didn’t usually have a story behind them, I love those moments when there is a backstory there. In Serenade there is the girl who arrives late, for example, and also the mystery ending when two dancers embrace and one is then lifted high and carried into the distance. What has happened? What will happen? Then there’s the opening scene. It always generates a frisson of delight, even though it is expected.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in the opening scene of Serenade, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Throughout the work, Balanchine’s masterful groupings and use of the stage space, and his particular take on the classical vocabulary, are clearly on view. A work to watch over and over.

Second on the program was a new work from Pam Tanowitz, Watermark. I have to ignore that title because it seemed meaningless in relation to the work. Tanowitz’s vocabulary was quirky in parts, with its beats done with feet as if in first position, its jerky arm and hand gestures and its frequent use of drooping bodies. Tanowitz counts former Cunningham dancer Viola Farber as one of her mentors and where the vocabulary was not so eccentric it reminded me a lot of the Cunningham style with its off centre movements and its jetés that never tried to look as though they were like splits in the air.

I also wondered why a line of dancers, midway through the piece, needed to come onstage from the auditorium? And I couldn’t enjoy the ending when the stage space was virtually empty and all the dancers were lined up along the wings. It just seemed like trying too hard to be different. This is the second work by Tanowitz that I have seen and I can’t say I have really enjoyed either of them.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in a scene from Watermark, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Four Temperaments was beautifully danced. Some of Balanchine’s vocabulary in this work might also be called quirky but its flow and role in the overall piece was arresting rather than seeming out of place. There is a coherence there.

The Sydney Opera House was making an exceptional effort with its COVID plan, even though the venue was pretty much at 100% capacity. But one aspect of it all was exceptionally annoying. Cast sheets were not available so it was not always possible to identify the performers with accuracy (and so I have not mentioned any names in this review). There was the option to scan a cast list onto one’s phone but how would that list look on a screen the size of a phone, apart from the fact that there is nothing more annoying than audience members looking at their phones during a performance. At least there could have been a cast sheet affixed to a board somewhere in the foyer. Next time I guess I need to print off a cast list from the Australian Ballet’s website and trust that it will be accurate on the day? Perhaps we could have been warned in advance? Or did I miss something along the line?

Michelle Potter, 20 April 2021

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in a moment from The Four Temperaments, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

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GRIMM. Sydney Choreographic Centre

16 April 2021. Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

GRIMM is the first work from the newly established Sydney Choreographic Centre and a world premiere from its director, Francesco Ventriglia. It takes an unusual look at some of the characters from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), examining the emotions of these fairytale characters and the passage they make from youth to maturity. We meet, for example, Snow White, the Frog Prince, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. We watch as they are pressured by a black clad figure, an evil character encompassing stepmother, witch and any other malevolent figure from a Grimm story. By the end every one of them had been transformed. Even the black clad Evil One (my name for this character) took on a new guise and appeared finally as a figure enveloped by golden clothes and shining lights. 

Ariella Casu (centre) with dancers of the Sydney Choreographic Centre in the final moments of GRIMM, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Asher Smith

Ventriglia’s choreography was fast-paced and filled with astonishing lifts with arms and legs constantly being thrown in all directions. It was quite angular most of the time. I waited for some moments of stillness, and the occasional feeling of roundness and softening of the limbs, but the angularity continued throughout. The duet between Snow White and her partner came closest to having a sense of calm and smoothness, but only occasionally. All the performers were, however, outstanding dancers and I especially admired the strength and emotional power of Ariella Casu, both as the Evil One and in the final moments when her black costume was stripped away to reveal a different side (perhaps?) of her character. 

Although I wished for more diversity in the choreography, at least in its immediate impact, I was stunned by the absolutely brilliant, very contemporary visual effects throughout. The lighting by Alex Berlage left a lot of the stage quite dark for much of the time but the strong side and down lights were exceptional in the way they highlighted the various characters. The projections by Marco Giani were quite minimal in most cases—just narrow rectangles of light filled with largely abstract designs, although they clearly represented forces of nature. But they too added to an understanding of who the characters were and never detracted from the movement. Costumes by James Acheson, especially for the main characters, were impressive and again a strong sense of the contemporary in design was clear.

On the night I attended the performance the audience reaction was astonishing—cheering, stamping on the floor and the like. It took me back to the days when audiences seemed to go wild with excitement at the ballet (as far back as Borovansky even). Let’s see what happens with the next show from this bold new venture.

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2021

Featured image: Holly Doyle as Red Riding Hood is carried off by wolves in GRIMM. Sydney Choreographic Centre, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Asher Smith

Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aotearoa with New Zealand Trio

8 & 9 April 2021. Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland
Auckland Arts Festival
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This long-awaited premiere season of a new contemporary ballet company, BalletCollective Aotearoa, was nothing short of a triumph. Come the curtain-call, many in the sizeable audience were on their feet to salute the choreographers and composers, the dancers, musicians and designers, the courage and commitment—the whole fresh resilient New Zealand-ness of it all. Many are in the team but artistic director and producer, Turid Revfeim, is responsible, and deserves acclaim.

Revfeim has led her stalwart little troupe of dancers in and out, around and back through the Covid-induced challenges and shadows of these past many months. They must have walked close to the edge more than once, as funding began then disappeared (the Minister of Arts might ask questions about that), lockdowns descended (‘Just do the right thing and stay home’), schedules postponed (‘Well, let’s just re-schedule then’), flights and accommodation booked then cancelled (‘OK, let’s just re-book then’), ‘Let’s just abandon the project since there’s no budget and it’s so hard to keep going?’ (‘Never, never, never. We will dance’). ‘Intrepid’ and ‘indomitable’ are the adjectives they have earned.

There were shades of 1953 and the pioneering endeavours of Edmund Hillary, or perhaps I mean Poul Gnatt, as the performance got under way. The intensely passionate and utterly stunning musicians of New Zealand Trio were right there, just off-centre, upstage left, for the whole performance. By that staging, the three separate choreographies on the program merged as a trefoil of faith, a shamrock of hope, a clover of charity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. J. S. Bach walked 400 miles to hear a concert. I only had to sit on a plane for one hour.

There is an impressive interview with Turid Revfeim on RNZ Nine to Noon, 9 April, (the podcast on RNZ website is well worth listening to), which sets the background and context of this courageous ballet initiative. If you think this is a rave review of the performance and of the entire enterprise, you are right.  

Scene from Sarah Knox’s Last Time We Spoke. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The opening work—Last Time We Spoke—by Sarah Knox, to composition by Rhian Sheehan, was an abstract yet poetic treatment of themes of how to be alone together. The cast of six dancers in fluid pairings across several sections of the work found connection in the lyrical music to make friends with consolation and memory. Tabitha Dombroski and William Fitzgerald were striking among the cast of six dancers.

Helix, the second work by Cameron Macmillan, one of New Zealand’s ex-pat choreographers whose work we all want to see more of, borrowed its title from the music, Helix, composed by John Psathas, leading New Zealand composer. It was preceded by an excerpt from Island Songs, a different composition by Psathas, a staggeringly virtuosic challenge to musicians who rose to every thrilling, throbbing quaver of its melodic percussion.

Scene from Cameron Macmillan’s Helix. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

In Helix, the drama continued as Macmillan traced a journey, not exactly narrative but with suggestions of story nonetheless—a woman, a man, and shades of relationships between them. Some woman. This was the phenomenal Abigail Boyle who is quite simply the leading ballet dancer in the country, no contest. Just standing still she is dancing, such is her sense of line and presence, but when she moves, o my. Her investment in the role as she journeyed round the corners of the stage carrying her chair, and through the centre of the stage as she contained emotion in her every movement, was a deeply anchored yet airborne performance. Boyle is a national treasure of dance in New Zealand and we are overjoyed to see her performing still at the peak of her powers. William Fitzgerald partnered her with a strong and sensitive quality that reminded us of his dancing which has also been much missed here of late. Tabitha Dombrowski and Medhi Angot were powerful among the committed cast of eight performers.

Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The third work, Subtle Dances, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, composed by Claire Cowan, takes its title from the music, which in turn becomes the title for the triple-bill as well. Prior and Cowan are a pairing of major talents. The work explores and explodes with themes of gender blurring—swirls of hot tango as the boys and girls and boys come out to play. It is saucy, spicy, dark and compelling. Complex courtships, allusion alternating with illusion, remind us of nature’s best dancers. It invites searing performances from all the cast, and confirms this BalletCollective Aotearea as a troupe of striking dance talent, in fabulous collaboration with the phenomenal musicians of the New Zealand Trio.

As soon as the box office opens for their next season we will be in the queue, however many hundred miles of travel that might mean. Here is a link to the RNZ podcast featuring Turid Revfeim.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 April 2021

Featured image: Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

Dance diary. March 2021

  • Promotions at Queensland Ballet

Neneka Yoshida and Patricio Revé were both promoted during the Queensland Ballet’s 60th Anniversary Gala held in March 2021, Yoshida to principal, Revé to senior soloist. Both have been dancing superbly over the past few years. Yoshida took my breath away as Kitri in the Don Quixote pas de deux at the Gala and Revé I remember in particular for his performance as Romeo in the 2019 production of Romeo and Juliet, although of course he also danced superbly during the Gala.

Neneka Yoshida as Kitri in Don Quixote pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Congratulations to them both and I look forward to watching them continue their careers with Queensland Ballet.

  • Fjord review, issue 3, 2020

Some years ago I wrote an article about Fjord Review, the first issue. At that stage it was based in Melbourne (or so I thought anyway), although now it comes from Canada. Its scope is international and its production values are quite beautiful. I was surprised to find (by accident) that its most recent print issue contained a review of my book Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. See further information about this unexpected find at the end of this post.

The print version of issue #3 also had some articles of interest about dance in Australia. ‘Dance break’ is a short conversation with Imogen Chapman, current soloist with the Australian Ballet; ‘Creative Research with Pam Tanowitz’ is a conversation with the New York-based choreographer whose latest work will premiere shortly in Sydney as part of David Hallberg’s season, New York Dialects; and ‘A.B.T. Rising’ discusses four recent dance films including David, ‘an ode to David Hallberg’.

As to the review of the first issue mentioned above, some of the comments received following that post are more than interesting!

  • Coming soon in Canberra. The Point

Liz Lea is about to premiere her new work, The Point, at Belco Arts Centre, Canberra. It will open on 29 April, International Dance Day.

Nicholas Jachno and Resika Sivakumaran in a study for The Point, 2021. Photo: © Lorna Sim

The Point. performed by a company of twelve dancers from across Australia and India, pursues Lea’s interest in connections across dance cultures, an appropriate theme for any International Dance Day event. It also looks at interconnections in design and music and takes inspiration from the designs of Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, designers of the city of Canberra. A further source of inspiration is the notion of Bindu—the point of creation in Hindu mythology.

  • David McAllister and the Finnish National Ballet

Early in 2021, the Finnish National Ballet was due to premiere a new production of Swan Lake by David McAllister with designs by Gabriela Tylesova. The premiere was postponed until a later date. Read about it at this DanceTabs link.

And on the subject of McAllister, the National Portrait Gallery has a new photograph of McAllister and his partner Wesley Enoch on display in its current exhibition, Australian Love Stories. Looks like McAllister has his foot in an Esky in this particular shot! I am curious.

Peter Brew-Bevan, Wesley Enoch and David McAllister 2020. Courtesy of the artist. © Peter Brew-Bevan
  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

Madelyn Coupe, ‘Light and dark of the human heart.’ Fjord Review, issue 3, 2020. pp. 43-45.
Unfortunately this review is not available online. Read it, however, via this link (without the final image, which is of Dame Joan Sutherland in Lucrezia Borgia).

I will be giving a talk on Fredrikson for the Johnston Collection in Melbourne in June. Details at this link.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2021

Featured image: Patricio Revé in Études. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Third Practice. Tero Saarinen Company with Helsinki Baroque Orchestra

Digital season, March–April 2021

When thinking about Tero Saarinen’s Third Practice, it helps to know (which I didn’t before reading up prior to watching) where the title comes from. Third Practice is performed to madrigals by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, played and sung by members of Helsinki’s Baroque Orchestra. Monteverdi’s musical style was referred to by his contemporaries as ‘second practice’ to distinguish his unprecedented compositional practice from that of his predecessors, who engaged in what was known as ‘first practice’. Monteverdi’s work sat at the point of transition between the Renaissance and the Baroque periods.

Saarinen set himself the task of examining, researching, and putting on stage a changing approach to creativity, a ‘third practice’ in dance and music and the collaborative arts, in order to add a new look and to give, to my mind anyway, an interesting new perspective on performance. He says, ‘ I’ve tried to preserve opportunities for “virtuoso freedom”. The third practice that we are talking about could mean a space for performers where their own skill and virtuoso flair facilitate risk-taking: discovering something new and unforeseen in your expressive idiom.’

Third Practice is a multi-camera, filmed version, with projection design by Thomas Freundlich, of a stage production that premiered in Cremona in 2019. With music direction and arrangement by Aapo Häkkinen, it is performed by six dancers and six musicians with two soloists, a tenor (appearing live) and a virtual soprano. The collaborative elements are crucial from the very beginning. The lighting, by Eero Auvinen, cannot be ignored. It has been compared to the use of light and dark in the paintings of Baroque artists, especially Caravaggio. The use of side lights and down lights, and contrasting strongly lit, shadowy and misty spaces delivers a diverse, constantly engaging, often tantalising environment in which the work unfolds.

Pekka Louhio, Annika Hyvärinen, Natasha Lommi, Eero Vesterinen, Jenna Broas in Third Practice, Tero Saarinen Company, 2021. Photo: © Kai Kuusisto

The costumes, designed by Erika Turunen, cross boundaries between the past and the present. The costume for the tenor soloist (Topi Lehtipuu) is masterful, although sometimes hard to see in media images. Its full sleeves and decorative finishing at the end of the sleeve recall Baroque-style shirts, but the materials are minimal and very contemporary in look. Similarly, the musicians wear Baroque-looking head gear, very appealing, but the rest of their costume again is mostly minimal.

Then there is the way in which the performing space is used. The virtual soprano, Núria Rial, appears in many parts of the space. We see her upstage and downstage; sometimes as a tiny figure in the background; hidden behind a floating piece of silk; reflected on the back of a dancer; and in other unexpected ways, including projected onto a silk hanging in the curtain calls. It is arresting staging and highlights the use of contemporary techniques to fill the space. The silks, while perhaps not an unusual item in contemporary dance and opera stagings, are nevertheless used in an exceptionally varied way. Sometimes they fall around the musicians lined up across the upstage area, or they engulf the dancers. At other times they are part of the choreography, occupying a space not usually filled with movement.

In terms of Tero Saarinen’s choreography, I was often transfixed by the expressive qualities of the movement. In the opening madrigal, the movement seemed jerky and somewhat puppet-like. I was reminded of figures from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Sometimes the movement seemed filled with a kind of extreme attention to detail both in the body movements and in facial expression. I was reminded of Baroque excess—the highly decorative aspects of Baroque church architecture and interiors, or Caravaggio’s fruit spilling out of the picture frame of his portraits. At other times, especially in a beautiful duet towards the end of the work, there was no excess, just calm, smoothly structured movement. Sadly, I am not familiar with the words of the madrigals and so was not able to determine whether the choreography was reflecting the meaning of the words, but it was a joy having the opportunity to create my own ideas anyway.

The standout performer in all of this was the tenor, Topi Lehtipuu. He sang live throughout whether he was standing, lying, crawling, kneeling or performing as one of the dancers. There was a moment when he was lying on the floor with dancers piled on top of him. He was still singing, this time in a duet with himself with the second voice a prerecorded one. Again it was an example of using technology to expand possibilities, but that Lehtipuu could sing so beautifully in such a compromised situation, compromised as far as his body was concerned, was astonishing.

Third Practice is an extraordinary work examining the endless possibilities of cross art form collaboration and the potential of dance to stand at the forefront of new explorations in the arts. It also made me reconsider the nature and potency of dance on film. Once again Tero Saarinen and his dancers and associates have given me an experience like no other. I love dance that expands the boundaries of my thinking. Third Practice does that and more.

Michelle Potter, 25 March 2021

Featured image: Topi Lehtipuu in a scene from Third Practice. Tero Saarinen Company, 2021. Photo: © Kai Kuusisto