Sheree da Costa in Us 50, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: ©Pedro Greig

Bonachela/Obarzanek. Sydney Dance Company

2 November 2019, Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney

Sydney Dance Company’s second program for 2019, the fiftieth year of existence, began with a short film. Excerpts from the SDC repertoire during the years it was led by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon reminded us of the versatility of the productions during those years when strong narrative works alternated with beautifully abstract productions. These film excerpts, put together by Philippe Charluet, were followed by clips, from the work of Pedro Greig, focusing on the ten years from 2009 during which the company has been led by Rafael Bonachela. Bonachela’s works have never been narrative in nature, but have focused largely on ideas that evoke emotional responses in the audience. But in both eras the choreography has been remarkable and the dancers have been exceptional. Those of us who have been privileged to have watched both eras have been unbelievably lucky.

The live part of the program opened with a revival of Bonachela’s 6 Breaths, first seen in 2010. This collaboration with Italian composer Ezio Bosso begins and ends with some breathtaking videography from Tim Richardson. In the beginning flecks of white swirl through the air before morphing into one and then two human figures, while at the end of the work the reverse happens—first breath and last breath. In between, a series of movements (six in all) introduce us to various human emotions. At times I felt my hands clenching, at other times I relaxed. A duet between two men had my emotions wavering, the moments of unison had me dancing along (in my mind that is). Such is Bonachela’s ability to use dance to evoke an emotional response. And of course I continue to be surprised at the extraordinary choreographic framework that he uses to create these feelings.

Riley Fitzgerald and Dimitri Kleioris in 6 Breaths. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Don Arnold
6 Breaths, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Don Arnold
6 Breaths, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Don Arnold

After interval came Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50. In this work, which involved SDC alumni from the Murphy/Vernon era and a number of audience members, Obarzanek examined concepts about dance creation, especially how movement is passed on from body to body. There was plenty of interaction between the three groups of performers and, remarkably, the audience members, who wore headphones and had no rehearsal prior to coming on stage from the auditorium, were directed from the wings by Charmene Yap as assistant choreographer.

Wakako Asano with Chloe Leong and Janessa Duffty in Us 50. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
SDC alumna Wakako Asano (centre) with Chloe Leong (right) and Janessa Dufty (left) in Us 50. Performers from the audience in the background. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
SDC alumni Kip Gamblin (centre) Wakako Asano (left) and Bradley Chatfield (right) with current SDC dancers in Us 50. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

By the end the three groups had become as one and, while the closing movements and groupings were of necessity quite simple, perhaps over-simplified, the point was made. Across 50 years of dance making, a strong legacy, a proud heritage, and the memories of audiences (represented by the audience members taking part in Us 50) are an essential part of the remarkable organisation that is Sydney Dance Company.

And, as before with the film footage, how privileged were we, who had watched the repertoire of the Murphy/Vernon period, to see the alumni from that time return to show us what amazing artists they still are. Sheree da Costa, glowing with beauty and still with that incredible ability to embrace any movement she is given, opened Us 50 with a short solo. As for other alumni, I wrote about Wakako Asano in 2005 after seeing Grand, ‘Wakako Asano is now such a mature artist gliding from movement to movement and opening and closing the work with mysterious grace.’ It’s still there that mysterious quality. Then, writing about New Blood in 1999, I said of Bradley Chatfield, ‘…his sense of presence on stage … rivals that of any dancer in Australia.’ That presence is also still there. And so with all the other alumni who appeared in Us 50—Kathryn Dunn, Linda Ridgeway, Lea Francis, Stefan Karlsson, Bill Pengelly, Nina Veretennikova, with Simon Turner as stage manager. What a treat.

Michelle Potter, 4 November 2019

Featured image: Sheree da Costa in Us 50, Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Sheree da Costa in Us 50, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig
Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2008. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Dance diary. October 2019

  • Ten years ago …

This website is now ten years old. While I initially went it alone, Jennifer Shennan from New Zealand joined me as contributor in 2014. Between us we have written 650 reviews, news items, and articles since the site went live in 2009.

My first post was really just a very small photo diary of an amazing few days I spent in 2008 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on a job for the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. It was the last job I did for the Division and was an initiative of one of the Division’s most generous donors, Anne H. Bass. In those few days in Phnom Penh I helped set up a project to interview dancers who had survived the Pol Pot regime and who had gone on to perform, teach and pass on the rich Cambodian dance heritage. I sat in as an observer for the first two interviews, one with Em Theay, the other with Soth Sam On.

The full project, the Khmer Dance Project, was completed a few years ago and several of the interviews are now available online (with English subtitles as the interviews were conducted in the Khmer language). Here is a link to the online version of the very first interview, that with Em Theay, which was conducted on the terrace in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

I kept a diary of daily events during the short time I was there, largely so I could report back to the donor in New York. Looking back over what I wrote, the diary entries focused mostly on technical issues and how to improve the methodology of the project. But I also discovered a non-technical (more or less) incident that I had forgotten. I wrote for day five:

The working part of the day began with a tuk tuk issue when my regular tuk tuk man was not at the entrance to the hotel. I eventually got to Bophana [an audio-visual centre in Phnom Penh] but had to ask Pen [Hun Pen, the interviewer for the project] to work out whether this other guy was prepared to stay with us for half a day. Yes and no. Eventually no. Pen found someone else. I went to the interview location [the home of Soth Sam On] in the car with the crew. Pen, Pen’s boyfriend and Suppya [Suppya Nut, member of the project team] took the tuk tuk. The car got lost and the driver (the translator) took great pleasure in pointing out to me a rat eating at the garbage in one of the streets we went down.

The whole experience, despite the odd rat, was an amazing one and I returned to Cambodia on a private visit several months later when I visited the temples in Siem Reap. The featured image on this post is from that visit.

  • Adelaide Festival 2020

Next year’s Adelaide Festival has some interesting dance events. I am especially looking forward to Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois grandes fugues, a triple bill from three choreographers whose contemporary dance works I have always enjoyed—Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and Maguy Marin.* All three have exceptionally individualistic choreographic styles and for this production have created separate works to the same musical composition—the 1825 Grosse Fugue by Beethoven. Judith Mackrell, writing in The Guardian in London, calls the show ‘one of the most exhilarating, uncompromising evenings of dance I’ve seen in ages.’

Scene from Lucinda Child’s work for Trois grandes fugues. Photo: © Bernard Stofleth

Then, having recently interviewed Lloyd Newson for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program, I am looking forward to his revival of Enter Achilles. In addition, Australian Dance Theatre will be performing in a production of Mozart’s Requiem as directed by Romeo Castellucci.

For more information on the Adelaide Festival 2020, follow this link to the Festival website. There you can read more about the items mentioned above, as well as other dance works being performed, and can download the full program.

  • Norton Owen and Jacob’s Pillow

I was delighted to discover recently that my friend and colleague in the United States, Norton Owen, was honoured with the award of the prestigious Louis Rachow Distinguished Service Award by the Theatre Library Association in the US. The image and biography below are from the Association’s website.

Norton Owen
Norton Owen, 2016. Photo: © Bill Wright

Norton Owen is a curator, writer, and archivist with more than 45 years of professional experience in dance. He has been associated with Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival since 1976 and has been Director of Preservation since 1990, overseeing the PillowTalks series as well as all activities involving documentation, exhibitions, audience engagement, and archival access. He is the curator of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive, an acclaimed online video resource, and host of a new podcast entitled PillowVoices. In 2000, Dance/USA selected him for its Ernie Award, honoring “unsung heroes who have led exemplary lives in dance.” He has also received awards from the Martha Hill Dance Fund, Dance Films Association, and the José Limón Dance Foundation, and he is a past chair of the Dance Heritage Coalition. In recognition of his 40th anniversary at Jacob’s Pillow, the Norton Owen Reading Room was dedicated in his honor.

See also Norton’s advice for visitors to the beautiful venue that is Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts, at this link. I hope to get back there in 2020.

  • In the wings …

As we head further into the eleventh year, watch this website for reviews and/or news of these upcoming November events:

  • Sydney Dance Company’s Bonachela/Obarzanek, which is season two in the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations;
  • Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella from Queensland Ballet on tour in Canberra;
  • Bespoke from Queensland Ballet in Brisbane with new choreography from Lucy Guerin, Amy Hollingsworth and Loughlan Prior;
  • Loughlan Prior’s Hansel and Gretel from Royal New Zealand Ballet;
  • Stanton Welch’s Sylvia during the Australian Ballet’s Sydney season; and
  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards for 2019.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2019

Featured image: Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo: © 2008 Michelle Potter

Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2008. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2019

*Links to my reviews of Dance by Childs and Rain by de Keersmaeker go back to 2014 and 2011 respectively. My access to and capacity to embed imagery has changed markedly since then!

Scene from 'Power'. QL2, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Power. QL2 Dance

18 October 2019. Theatre 3, Canberra. The Chaos Project

The Chaos Project has long been a feature of the Canberra dance scene. Designed for the young and less experienced of the dancers who are part of the QL2 Dance community, each year it has a different theme. This theme is examined through a series of short works, which are combined seamlessly into one, hour-long production. Each section is choreographed by a professional choreographer and a few older dancers from the broader QL2 Dance community join with the younger ones to help the overall work move along effectively.

In 2019 the Chaos Project had the theme of power—in a variety of manifestations. The youngest performers danced out ideas of physical power, to choreography from Olivia Fyfe. The intermediate group (intermediate in age and experience) examined, through the choreography of Alana Stenning, the idea of ‘superheros’ and asked the question ‘who is the real superhero’? The older dancers performed choreography by Steve Gow and their theme centred on who abuses power and who uses it wisely. An introduction and conclusion were choreographed by Ruth Osborne and two other works completed the program, one an all-girl piece with choreography by Fyfe and Stenning, and one for boys only with choreography by Gow.

Scene from Alana Stenning’s ‘And I’m…’ from Power. QL2 Dance, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Choreographically, Power was well-constructed throughout and what always surprises me (although by now it probably shouldn’t) is how the technical limitations one might expect to see in young dancers are in fact never obvious. If they are asked to move in unison, they do. If a solo is required it always looks strong. And the sheer dedication and involvement of every dancer shows clearly. Credit here to the choreographers!

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Power was the all-girl section, ‘I Rule’, from Fyfe and Stenning. As it began the voice of a narrator could be heard telling the story of a princess in a far away land and her impending relationship with a suitor. My heart sank momentarily. But, as the dancers began to act out and dance this story, their attitude began to change. Towards the end they rejected the story and the role the princess was expected to play and by the very end their outraged voices drowned out the narrator. Feminist power at work!

Scene from ‘I rule’ from Power. QL2 Dance, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

The Chaos Project is a great initiative from QL2 Dance. It gives young dancers opportunities they rarely get elsewhere. Those opportunities include in particular the power to make a creative input to dance, since the dancers contribute ideas on how the work will unfold, both conceptually and technically. But it also gives them the opportunity to see how a professional choreographer works; how to use the space of the stage effectively; and more.

The Chaos Project is just one of the ways that QL2 develops and nurtures potential artists and audiences and gives work to professionals working across the arts.

Michelle Potter, 21 October 2019

Featured image: Scene from the closing moments of Power. QL2 Dance, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Scene from 'Power'. QL2, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Scene from ‘Power’. QL2, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Puerto Rican ladies in 'West Side Story'. Opera Australia, 2019. Photo © Jeff Busby

West Side Story. Opera Australia (another review)

12 October 2019 (matinee preview), Canberra Theatre

Opera Australia’s production of the Broadway musical West Side Story was reviewed on this website by Jennifer Shennan—see this link—when it opened in Wellington ahead of its Australian performances. But of course I could not miss the show, especially when it has such a strong emotional appeal for me. When West Side Story opened in Sydney way back in the 1960s, one of the members of the Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang) was an African American named Ronne Arnold. Ronne taught classes in jazz at the dance school I attended and he ended up making his home in Australia and also making a major contribution to our dance culture. Although another visiting American modern dancer said to me around the same time ‘You’re very classical, darling’, I loved Ronne’s non-classical classes and continued to do them as often as I could. So West Side Story will always have a special place in my heart.

Looking at it onstage half a century (!!) later what is instantly striking is that it just doesn’t seem dated, although some may consider parts of the song Gee, Officer Krupe, which features towards the end of the show, not terribly ‘politically correct’ in 2019. But that aside, part of its attraction perhaps is that ethnic differences, which are represented by the two rival gangs—the Sharks and the Jets—and the social issues such differences so often raise, are still all around us. But there is so much else that marks West Side Story as one of the truly amazing collaborations in performing arts’ history. The book by Arthur Laurents, the music by Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the choreography by Jerome Robbins meld so beautifully with each other and give the whole a truly impressive coherence.

Robbins’ choreography is spectacular in its ability to tell us what is happening. Dance may be a wordless art but with Robbins so often no words are needed. Even the gestures he adds when the performers are singing rather than dancing give us clues to the unfolding of the story.

The standout artist in the cast I saw was undoubtedly Chloé Zuel as Anita, girlfriend of Bernardo leader of the Sharks. She was feisty and flamboyant and she used every moment to project that image of her character. Her dancing was exciting to watch and oh how she used that costume to add drama to every movement! She was nothing short of brilliant. But while Zuel stood out, every cast member gave his or her all. Group numbers were thrilling; individuals shone. Just look at the featured image, for example, to see how individualistic the Shark girls were.

The only somewhat jarring aspect for me was that some of the duets between the heroine Maria (Sophie Salvesani) and the hero Tony (Nigel Huckle) seemed, in the manner of their presentation, rather too operatic. I realise that the production is by Opera Australia but to me West Side Story is a dance musical. The staging that surrounded the duets (strong spotlighting with associated dimming of the background, and removal of all other characters) meant that the overall nature of the work was lost. Of course the duets were beautifully sung, and it may be somewhat of a niggle on my part, but I wanted the idea of a dance musical not to be lost.

While on on the subject of niggles, I was sorry that the complex set of balconies and fire escapes looked so overwhelming on the Canberra Theatre stage (when will the national capital get a new theatre complex?). But despite any niggles, I could see this show over and over. It was wonderful to have it back on stage in Australia.

Michelle Potter, 14 October 2019

Featured image: Shark girls in West Side Story. Opera Australia, 2019. Photo © Jeff Busby

Puerto Rican ladies in 'West Side Story'. Opera Australia, 2019. Photo © Jeff Busby

Shaun Parker. The epic journey continues

When I interviewed Shaun Parker in 2017 for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program, his concluding remark was that it had been such a pleasure to be able to talk about ‘the epic journey of past, present and future.’ It was a wonderful way to finish the interview and it gave me the opportunity to write a story, largely about the past and in particular about the origins of Parker’s iconic work Blue Love, for The Canberra Times. Follow this link to read that story.

But Parker has not stood still since that interview. He is currently in Taipei with dancer Libby Montilla. Montilla will be performing Parker’s 20 minute solo work, ReMOTE, at the Kuandu Arts Festival as part of a triple bill program called Vis a Vis. In addition to ReMOTE, the program will feature works by choreographers from Canada and Taiwan.

‘It is wonderful to be performing our work alongside such incredible international artists’, Parker says. ‘And it really helps develop our connections with audiences and festivals across Asia. While we are in Taipei, Libby and I will also be researching new ideas with a Taiwanese bubble artist for a new show. It is going to be a jam-packed time, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.’

Parker has spent a lot of his time outside of Australia touring the works he has made over the 9 years since he founded Shaun Parker & Company in 2010. The company has toured to 19 countries across four continents and shown its work to a quarter of a million people globally. And to help with the development of this global reach, Parker has just recently secured a generous three-year sponsorship from the New York-based Denise and Michael Kellen Foundation. The Foundation, Parker says, has become the company’s ‘Global Partner’ and the sponsorship will help facilitate many programs that Parker believes are anchored in education, social change, and community engagement through the arts. In particular the sponsorship will help Shaun Parker & Company enter the US market.

But in the meantime Parker is working towards a program to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Shaun Parker & Company in 2020. He is planning to return to the stage himself in a revival of Blue Love. After a break from performing he is relishing getting back into training.

‘As a dancer you will always have a desire to dance for an audience again,’ he says. ‘As a choreographer, it is also really important to keep in touch with your body, but also with the energetic relationship between performer and audience.’

In the revival of Blue Love Parker will be performing with his original co-creator and performer, Jo Stone. ‘Jo is an actress who can dance,’ Parker says. ‘And I am a dancer who can act. Sparks fly when we’re on stage together.’

It is a pleasure too to be able to report that Shaun Parker & Company has been nominated as a finalist in the Premier’s NSW Export Awards. The awards ceremony is in Sydney on 16 October.

Michelle Potter, 2 October 2019

Featured image: Portrait of Shaun Parker (supplied)

Read my review of Blue Love from its Canberra performance in 2017 at this link.