Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aotearoa with New Zealand Trio

8 April 2021. Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The Auckland Arts Festival presentation of the premiere season of a new contemporary ballet company, BalletCollective Aotearoa, at the Bruce Mason Theatre in Takapuna, 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.  

Artistic director and company leader, Turid Revfeim, has led her stalwart little troupe of  dancers in and out, around and back to find a way 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 (questions should be asked about that), lockdowns descended (‘Just do the right thing and stay home’), schedules postponed (‘Well, let’s just re-schedule’), flights and accommodation booked then cancelled (‘OK, let’s just re-book’), ‘Let’s just abandon the project since there’s no budget to keep going,’ (‘Never, never. Let’s do it anyway’).  

It was an Edmund Hillary sort of moment as out into the light they danced, with the intensely passionate musicians of New Zealand Trio right there, just off-centre, upstage left, throughout the whole performance. Three separate choreographies came to seem like a trefoil of faith, a shamrock of hope, a clover of charity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Bach walked 400 miles to hear a concert. I only had to sit on a plane for an 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

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

Transfigured Night. Ballet Collective Aotearoa & Chamber Music New Zealand

15 March 2021, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This was an evening of triumph on several levels. Transfigured Night is the first of six concerts in Chamber Music New Zealand’s nationally touring programme for 2021. Audiences in ten cities will have the chance to witness a performance of light and colour, wit and freedom, deep beauty and poignant poetry, of music and dance making love. We don’t often get to watch that, and we won’t forget it. 

The New Zealand String Quartet have earlier worked with choreographer Loughlan Prior in various projects, and their mutual trust and shared excitement is apparent in every quaver and quiver. That is what will have given lift-off to this project. 

The Ides of March was the day Team Emirates New Zealand won two spectacular races in the America’s Cup series, in boats that fly above the water and turn slow pirouettes in high attitude—even those who know nothing about yachting can see that. The Fowler Centre is not a proscenium theatre space and it’s a challenge to stage dance there (it’s where in 1988 Nureyev performed, which proved a mistake). Here though a great triangular sail, white silk with patterns of colour, designed by dancer William Fitzgerald, is back lit and suspended high above the stage—an inspiration to preface the performance and shape the space.

The opening work was the premiere of a composition, I Danced, Unseen, by Tabea Squire. Laura Saxon Jones enters first, to silence—a curious creature, a lithe and hungry fox perhaps, who sniffs out and inspects the music stands and scores, what is all this about? what are these music scores? can you eat them? Hilarious. The whimsy and teasing continue as the musicians enter, wearing similar costumes as the three dancers, all of them echoing the patterns on the sailcloth overhead. There are naughty interferences from the dancers to the players and their instruments, but these musos are staunch, could play blind, and it would take a lot more than choreographed mosquitoes to throw them. It’s a darling and fun-filled opener.

The Dvorak String Sextet in A major, op.48, was superbly played, and the dancers continued in similar vein to find places in the music where they could actively, passively, openly or surreptitiously involve themselves. The three dancers had a million moves, yet the choreographic vocabulary and style were refreshingly free from clichés of ballet so often seen displayed elsewhere ‘just because we can’. They danced as individuals with personality and spirit, and the freedom that conveyed to the audience seemed liberating.  Hardened chamber music followers with little prior exposure to dance may possibly have found it distracting from the music they have long known and loved well, but not those around me who giggled and applauded and loved it, as indeed did I.  It was a commedia dell’arte romp, full of cheer and light, with inspired little fragments of Hungarian folk dance, dumka and czardas, caught in the many nimble rhythm and tempo changes. Two of those repeated movement motifs carried me back decades to pas and port de bras of the little Russian dance in RAD’s Grade 5 ballet syllabus I have loved ever since 1957, happy and grateful for the reminder. 

(l-R) Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald and Tabitha Dombrowski in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

But peel back now for the major work of the second half, Transfigured Night, early Schoenberg. It proved a choreographic masterwork, and will position Loughlan Prior firmly on the international choreographic scene. It’s a safe bet that there will be future seasons of this work, both here and, when it becomes possible, abroad as well. There wouldn’t be another choreographed work anywhere that so centrally positions the intercourse between music and dance. In that sense it harks back to the masques of 17th century Europe, with costumed musicians traversing the stage, playing from memory, mingling with dancers and actors. At the same time Prior is in full control of a contemporary ballet vocabulary that moves like a fresh nor-easterly wind across our harbour. This skipper knows the local conditions.

The skilful absorption of two massive silk cloths, one red and one white, mirrored the theme of human physical interactions, a couple, a trio, a new couple, moving through their dreams and hopes and fears, their longing and love and loss. It moved the audience, aficionados or not, to responses—‘stunning … sublime … superb … breathtaking. When can we see it again?’  The central role played by Laura Saxon Jones was calm yet nuanced, poetic and powerful. It is good to see her dancing here again after several years absence.

Laura Saxon Jones with musicians of New Zealand String Quartet in rehearsal for Transfigured Night, 2021. Photo: © Sarah Davies

The choreographer and the three dancers are all graduates of New Zealand School of Dance, credit to all concerned, and are now members of Ballet Collective Aotearoa. This new and courageous initiative, directed by Turid Revfeim, is a free-lance ensemble, to date only minimally funded [how courageous is that?], yet poised to offer the country a new and fresh approach to streamlined, clean, clear ballet for our time. The premiere season of BCA, in the Auckland Arts Festival [postponed a fortnight ago due to Covid lockdown] will now instead take place on 8 and 9 April, then in Dunedin Arts Festival on 16 April. We are holding our breath and we won’t be disappointed. The calibre of choreography, dance and music is already assured, with Poul Gnatt’s pioneering spirit in spades. Split Enz have a song—History never repeats. I wager they are wrong.           

Hamish Robb’s superb program notes on music and dance interactions will help keep alive the memory   

Composition: Tabea Squire, Antonin Dvorak, Arnold Schoenberg
Musicians: New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues
Choreography: Loughlan Prior
Dancers: Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald, Tabitha Dombrowski of Ballet Collective Aotearoa
Presenters: Chamber Music New Zealand

Jennifer Shennan, 16 March 2021

Featured image: Scene from Transfigured Night, Ballet Collective
Aoteraoa and New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues, 2021. Photo: © Jack Hobbs

Olivia Fyfe in 'Symbiosis' (4) Australian Dance Party 2021. Photo Michelle Potter

Symbiosis. Australian Dance Party

10 March 2021, Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra

Symbiosis was Australian Dance Party’s contribution to Canberra’s Enlighten Festival for 2021. Made in true ADP style as a site-specific work, it took place in various parts of the Australian National Botanic Gardens. It was in fact a guided tour through the Gardens with snippets of dance, music and poetry, and even instruction about various plants, inserted at various points. Again in true ADP style, the work had political overtones, on this occasion issues associated with the environment. True to its title, it explored both conflict and interference, as well as fusion between species (including the human species) in the world in which we live, the natural world that is.

We set off with a guide (Liz Lea dressed as a kind of outback botanist) and began our journey with a walk through the lush rainforest area. There we encountered, at first individually, members of the Canberra-based group Somebody’s Aunt. As we made our way through the gully, we could hear them breathing and see them gently moving as we passed by. Eventually we reached a higher point and could look down at them as they came together to embrace each other, and perhaps the environment (?).

Dancers from Somebody's Aunt in 'Symbiosis'. Australian Dance Party 2021. Photo Michelle Potter
Dancers from Somebody’s Aunt in Symbiosis. Australian Dance Party, 2021. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Further along the rainforest gully we were asked to pause and looked up to see Ryan Stone moving across a ridge of trees and plants to sounds of a human voice created by Stone and poet Melinda Smith. And so we continued with the botanist-figure naming various plant species and explaining various matters about other species and their place in nature. We encountered Levi Szabo engaging acrobatically with a tree and its spreading branches, and with the benches that were on the ground close to it. At various points we also noticed Alison Plevey as a kind of lizard/dragon lurking in the bushes and on the paths.

The standout item for me was a section featuring Olivia Fyfe performing to a soundscape by Alex Voorhoeve on electric cello. Fyfe dramatised thoughts about the fate of a tree, with those thoughts ranging from the idea of protection to horror at what was the eventual fate of the tree. Voorhoeve made those changing thoughts audible in stunning fashion. It was an extraordinarily moving section, made especially so by the collaborative blend of movement and music.

The most obviously political section came towards the end when Alison Plevey played the part of some kind of leader attempting to convince her audience (of plants) that ‘the bigger picture’ was being considered, while the ‘green’ organisation she represented moved along (or didn’t) with its environmental plans (or lack thereof).

Alison Plevey in 'Symbiosis'. Australian Dance Party 2021. Photo Michelle Potter
Alison Plevey in Symbiosis Australian Dance Party, 2021. Photo: © Michelle Potter

In addition to the moving performance from Voorhoeve and Fyfe as they contemplated the destruction of a tree, an exceptional performance came from the Gardener, danced and acted by Elizabeth Dalman. So immersed was she in her character and so beautifully disguised in her costume, especially that soft-brimmed hat, that it took me a while to realise that it was in fact Dalman. She appeared and re-appeared several times as a kind of ‘extra’ until the very end when she led the concluding dance. She began by setting up the shape of a star, made from bark pieces, on the ground at the final venue. Accompanied by the words of Melinda Smith, which were often difficult to make out in the very open space of the Gardens, one by one the performers we had watched came together. Maintaining her distance from the others, Dalman soothed and comforted, calmed and regenerated. She showed her true colours as an extraordinary artist throughout.

Elizabeth Dalman in 'Symbiosis'. Australian Dance Party 2021. Photo Michelle Potter
Elizabeth Dalman in Symbiosis. Australian Dance Party, 2021. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Symbiosis lasted for 90 minutes, which was, at least for me, about 30 minutes too long given the small amount of performance we saw. Did we really need all that botanical information? A little was fine but announcing all those Latin names of various plant species was pretty much unnecessary. We can go on a special Botanic Gardens tour if we need to get to know that kind of information.

Symbiosis was in essence an after-dark show, although I ended up seeing it in the early evening, which gave me lots of pleasure. Looking at published images taken during evening shows, I am glad I had the opportunity to see it in an ‘enlightened’ situation where the performance skills of the artists involved were clearer. The pleasures of carrying lanterns during the late evening shows, as I believe was the case, and the fairy lights that decorated the pathways, may have been fun but I prefer to have a clear view of how the artists are performing.

Perhaps the final note is to say that the event was constantly permeated by the sound of the wind in the trees and the birds calling each other. Even a hungry magpie hopped across the grass looking for scraps for its dinner as Fyfe and Voorhoeve were at work. From the point of view of the ambient sound, and the slow change of light as dusk began to fall, the show was very special.

Michelle Potter, 13 March 2021

Featured image: Olivia Fyfe in Symbiosis. Australian Dance Party, 2021. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Olivia Fyfe in 'Symbiosis' (4) Australian Dance Party 2021. Photo Michelle Potter

60th Anniversary Gala. Queensland Ballet

5 March 2021. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

The opening night of Queensland Ballet’s 60th Anniversary Gala began with film footage examining, briefly, aspects of the contributions made to the company by the five artistic directors who have led the company to date: Charles Lisner, founding director (1959-1974); Harry Haythorne (1975-1978); Harold Collins (1978-1997); François Klaus (1998-2012); and current director Li Cunxin (2013-present).

The brief film was followed by a grand défilé choreographed by Paul Boyd and featuring dancers of Queensland Ballet and its associated school, Queensland Ballet Academy. Boyd’s choreography showcased the dancers skilfully and beautifully and the défilé began with a truly charming introduction. While carrying out small, on the spot promenade movements, two pairs of very young dancers, one pair positioned at each side of the downstage area, introduced the first of the older dancers. Each of those four young people showed remarkable stage presence and suggested that Queensland Ballet Academy has its focus not just on technique but on how to maximise one’s presence onstage.

Closing moments of the grand défilé. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The following program was a varied one and to my eyes, while all seven works had a reason for being part of the celebration, some stood out a little more than others.

Charles Lisner’s charming Chopin pas de deux, which opened the main section of the Gala, was well performed by Yanela Piñera and Joe Chapman. Piñera danced with her usual style and panache and the two dancers were able to connect with each other beautifully. Chapman carried off the quite difficult lifts with strength and aplomb. It was great to see him back in Australia after his stint dancing in Canada, although there were times when his ‘in between’ movements were less smooth than I would have wished. One step needs to lead to another without it being noticeably ‘in between’, and this didn’t always happen with Chapman.

Yanela Pieñra-and-Joe Chapman- n Chopin pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo:© David-Kelly
Yanela Piñera and Joe Chapman in Chopin pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez gave a dramatic rendition of François Klaus’ Cloudland pas de deux. Heathcote continues to impress as a dramatic dancer. Jacqui Carroll’s Tavern Scene from her 1982 work Carmina Burana was also filled with drama and passion. The three solos, danced by Vito Bernasconi, Liam Geck, and Rian Thompson, were spectacular in the power and passion that emanated from the dancing. My particular bouquet went to Bernasconi—he attacked the choreography like a man possessed.

The absolute standout item was the Don Quixote pas de deux danced brilliantly by Neneka Yoshida and Camilo Ramos. These two dancers are so suited to each other in height and in their similar, outstanding technical abilities. Yoshida’s technique was faultless and, in particular, her balances throughout and her fouettés in the coda were astonishing. Similarly Ramos stunned with his turns and his elevation and jumps. But there was something else happening. I have never seen Kitri and Basilio engage with each other the way Yoshida and Ramos did. The way they looked at each other, Yoshida’s glances to Ramos in particular, seemed to indicate a burgeoning relationship, a knowingness. It was very exciting to watch.

Neneka Yoshida and Camilo Ramos in Don Quixote pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Other items on the program were a pas de deux from Harold Collins’ Lady of the Camellias, the finale to Act II of Klaus’ The Little Mermaid, and the full-length (and it was SO long) Études by Harald Lander. With the exception of Carmina Burana, which not surprisingly was danced to recorded music, the dancers performed to music played by Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra, Camerata, with Nigel Gaynor conducting. I continue to admire the way Gaynor conducts for dance. The music is always a part of the whole, never seeking to dominate.

The strength of the program not only revolved around some great dancing in particular works, but also on the words of Li Cunxin in an opening speech from the stage and in the section of the opening footage in which he appeared. Li was himself a brilliant dancer (I can still see him in certain roles), but he is also an unsurpassed speaker. He is committed, he is persuasive, he is caring about the art form of dance, his thanks to those involved have an honesty to them, and he is determined to keep moving ahead. Li builds on what has gone before but in his hands Queensland Ballet has moved ahead in leaps and bounds.

Michelle Potter, 6 March 2021

Featured image: Neneka Yoshida and Camilo Ramos in Don Quixote pas de deux. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Firestarter. The story of Bangarra

Firestarter, documenting the origins and rise of Bangarra Dance Theatre, is filled with emotion—from joy to sadness and everything in between. But leaving the emotions to one side for the moment, I was utterly transfixed by two political moments that were part of the unfolding story. The first was footage of former Prime Minister Paul Keating giving his famous ‘Redfern Speech’ in 1992. In that speech Keating gave his assessment of Aboriginal history as it unfolded following the arrival in Australia of the British in the 18th century. ‘We committed the murders,’ he said. ‘We took the lands.’ ‘We brought the diseases.’ ‘We took the children.’ The second was by another former Prime Minister, John Howard, explaining in 1998 why, in his opinion, there was no need to issue an apology to the Indigenous population of Australia for wrongs committed to those people. Such disparate points of view. How sad is that and how can that be?

As mind-blowing as it was seeing those two political moments unfold, however, Firestarter was certainly more than politics. It traced the story of three brothers, Stephen, David and Russell Page from their childhood in Brisbane to their training at what became the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association, NAISDA; their roles in the establishment and ongoing development of Bangarra; and the frightening end to the lives of David and Russell. Along the way we met others involved in the complex story—Carole Johnson, founder of NAISDA and Bangarra; Frances Rings, currently associate artistic director of Bangarra; cultural consultants Djakapurra Munyarryun and Elma Kris; several current and past dancers of Bangarra; Wesley Enoch, artistic director across a range of theatrical organisations; Hetti Perkins, daughter of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins; Hunter Page Lochard, son of Stephen Page; Rhimi Page, son of Russell Page; and others. All had unique stories and points of view.

There was of course some great dancing from Bangarra performances over the 30+ years of its existence, and there was some gorgeous footage of a young David (as Little Davey Page) singing on early television shows such as Countdown and the Paul Hogan Show, along with scenes from his theatre shows. Then there was compelling footage from the Indigenous component of the opening ceremony for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. But perhaps most moving of all were scenes from Bennelong, Bangarra’s ground breaking work from 2017, which was described in the film as Stephen Page’s most successful work to date, and which he made as he worked at recovering from the death of his brother David in 2016.

Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.' Bnagarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud
Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance. Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Also associated with the death of David Page was footage from the presentation to Stephen of the prestigious J. C. Williamson Award at the Helpmann Awards event in 2016. The acceptance speech Stephen made (supported by his son Hunter standing beside him) so soon after the death of David was gut wrenching to watch and hear.

But on a more joyous note, perhaps my favourite part of the whole film was watching Stephen, the proud grandfather, holding his baby granddaughter, daughter of Hunter and his wife. Life continues. Life triumphs. Bangarra, such an exceptional company, moves forward.

This beautiful and challenging film was directed by Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin and produced by Ivan O’Mahoney.

Michelle Potter, 2 March 2021

Emily Seymour, Jacopo Grabar, and Rhys Kosakowski in 'Impermanence'. Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Impermanence. Sydney Dance Company

17 February 2021. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay

A year ago Sydney Dance Company was just days away from its first program for 2020, which was to include a new work, Impermanence, by Rafael Bonachela as part of a mixed bill program. But the pandemic struck and the program was cancelled. Impermanence was being created to a score co-commissioned by Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet from Bryce Dessner, an American composer based in Paris. The work was initially inspired by the fire that almost destroyed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019, and by the Australian bush fires that began in late 2019. After the program was cancelled Bonachela and Dessner decided to continue their collaboration and develop the work into a full length one. This is the show that opened on 17 February 2021.

Dancers of Sydney Dance company with the Australian String Quartet in 'Impermanence', 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig
Dancers of Sydney Dance Company with the Australian String Quartet in Impermanence, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Publicity tells us that the work is about transience and fragility, but Dessner’s powerful, driving score, played onstage by the Australian String Quartet seated in an upstage corner, felt to me more like determination to overcome. Similarly, for the most part Bonachela’s choreography was fast-paced, dramatic and powerful and with Damien Cooper’s moody lighting design, with constantly changing colour effects strongly apparent, I found it hard to see the impermanence of it all.

But this is not to say that the work was not engaging. It was. I love watching Bonachela’s amazing ability to show us the unexpected in movement. I love those moments when he has the whole company onstage when we can see unison. Sometimes he has the entire company dancing as one, at other times two groups show us two separate, but still compelling instances of choreographic unison. And having live music played onstage is always something to look forward to, and something on which Bonachela seems to thrive.

As ever, all the dancers performed with their usual and incredible technical skills. But two stood out for me. I couldn’t stop looking at Emily Seymour whose strong balletic background was so clear. Her turns were spectacular and were, although in contemporary mode, perfectly placed and finished. Her truly beautiful rounded arms and smooth line through the body were just breathtaking. Then Jesse Scales looked as though they were so thrilled to be back on stage. Even when standing at the side of stage waiting for their next move their body glowed with pleasure. And Scales used every part of their body to give shape and meaning to the choreography.

Jesse Scales (above), Luke Hayward and Liam Green in Impermanence. Sydney Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

The Roslyn Packer Theatre had its COVID plan in place for Impermanence. We checked in with our phones and QR code, there was no mingling in the foyer, we were distanced (slightly) from other audience members, and we were masked-up for the entire show. But what a thrill it was to be back in a live environment watching the kind of spectacular performance we have come to expect from Sydney Dance Company. Jesse Scales said it all with their exceptionally detailed movement and their obvious pleasure in performing for an audience again.

Michelle Potter, 22 February 2021

Featured image: Emily Seymour, Jacopo Grabar, and Rhys Kosakowski in Impermanence. Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Emily Seymour, Jacopo Grabar, and Rhys Kosakowski in 'Impermanence'. Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

NOTE: The personal pronouns used in this review are those given for use by Sydney Dance Company.

Gala d’ouverture. Paris Opera Ballet. Digital Season 2021

Paris Opera Ballet’s 2021 opening gala began with Le grand défilé, a defining item for the Paris company in which simply attired dancers from across the ranks of the ballet company, along with students from the Paris Opera Ballet School, proudly present the company and school to an audience. I have discussed the origins of the grand défilé in an earlier post (see this link). But on this occasion all the dancers wore masks; the beautiful Palais Garnier was completely empty of an audience; and the dancers made their reverences without applause of any kind. It was a shock to begin with, but ultimately it was such an incredible statement on how events have shaped our lives over the past year. I am sure the footage of this unusual and remarkable défilé will speak forcefully to future generations.

The défilé was followed by Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas classique danced by étoiles Valentine Colasante and Hugo Marchand, both wearing elegant, sparkling, deep blue costumes designed by La Maison Chanel. This grand pas followed the Petipa structure of pas de deux, variations and coda, which we know so well. But it was especially interesting to see it because Gsovsky’s choreography was uniquely his own with beautiful balances in a range of positions for Colasante and magnificent combinations of beats for Marchand. There was also a strong emotional connection between Colasante and Marchand, even when they took their applause-less curtain calls.

Following the Grand Pas classique there was an inspired performance of Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, with its three pas de deux exploring three different kinds of male/female relationships. In the first, danced by Ludmila Pagliero and Mathieu Ganio, we saw a couple in the early stages of a relationship. So much of their young love was expressed with Robbins’ choreography for the arms. They touched, reached, enveloped, moved in unison, always lyrical. But there were of course some gorgeous lifts and individual moments of expressive dancing.

The second section of In the Night, with Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvel, showed a couple secure in their love for each other, confident in how they acted together, proud even of their relationship. Baulac was especially impressive with her poised upper body and beautifully placed arms. Anthony Dowell’s brown/gold costumes added a special glow to this section.

Alice Renavand and Stéphane Bullion danced the third section, in which the movement was less lyrical and more strident. Here was a couple about to break up, although did they end up separating? More than once they parted, then returned to be together onstage. Arguments and reconciliations? Their relationship was tempestuous and that feature was shown well in the choreography and in the performance of it.

We met them all again in the finale when they acknowledged each other, sometimes performed the same steps, but eventually left separately. But for me the mystery of the third couple remained. Great work from Renavand and Bullion to maintain the mystery of this relationship.

Hannah O’Neill in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Paris Opera Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Julien Benhamou/OnP

Completing the program was William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude danced by three étoiles, Amandine Albison, Ludmila Pagliero, and Marque, and two premiers danseurs, Hannah O’Neill and Pablo Legasa. It was just plain exciting to see this work again with its fast-paced choreography that focuses on bringing every part of the body into play, and with its fascinating, ever-changing groupings of just five dancers. And what a thrill it was to see O’Neill so at home in the company and dancing so incredibly well.

I loved the selection of short works that followed Le grand Défilé. It showed such a beautiful range of balletic choreography, from the classicism of Gsovky’s work, to the lyricism and emotional underpinnings of Robbins’ approach, and on to the contemporary exploration of classicism by Forsythe. Congratulations to POB’s director, Aurélie Dupont, for her foresight and of course congratulations to the stunning POB dancers who presented the program so magnificently and to the orchestra, especially the solo pianists for In the Night, for their musical support.

Michelle Potter, 11 February 2021

Featured image: Valentine Colasante and Hugo Marchand in Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas classique. Paris Opera Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Julien Benhamou/OnP

My place. QL2 Dance

QL2 Dance has, over the years, produced a number of memorable productions associated with exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery. Most recently Ruth Osborne, in association with Olivia Fyfe, presented My place inspired by the exhibition, This is my place. This particular exhibition sets out to present what the NPG calls an ‘intimate focus to the places that define who we are—our spiritual homes, habitats and workspaces.’ The exhibition contains a varied collection of art works across a number of formats. It shows, within those formats, visual artists, sports people, writers, politicians, Indigenous leaders, even a phrenologist and mesmerist from 1870. No dancers though!

Osborne and Fyfe worked with seven recent tertiary dance graduates to develop this work, which was in four parts. The first took place in the space outside the entrance to the NPG. It was, I think, an improvised part of the whole, although this was not clearly explained. Then followed three separate sections performed in Gordon Darling Hall, the grand entrance to the Gallery. I would have liked to have known how the work was divided between Osborne and Fyfe, but this aspect of the production was not clearly explained either.

All four sections of dance suggested various themes of the portrait exhibition. But basically the dance work juxtaposed, I think, the notion of public lives versus private spaces. The opening improvisation suggested creativity to me, and most of those represented in the portrait exhibition were engaged in some kind of creativity. The first indoor section focused in a choreographic sense on group structures—bodies building upon bodies. I thought of collaborative endeavours. Following on was a fast-paced section in which the seven dancers donned coats and caps and proceeded to dance across the performing space as if out in the world, walking the streets. The final section, which I enjoyed most of all, was filled with slow movements that unfolded lyrically on individual dancers. This was private, individual enterprise to me.

As is ever the case with QL2 Dance productions, the performance was strongly danced by all seven dancers. I enjoyed immensely, again as ever, the way the choreography filled the available space. But who did what choreographically? I really love making up my own narrative when I watch dance that is not telling us a given story, but I also like to know a little more than we were given on this occasion, including what was the music used, for example? A single sheet of paper with a bit of information please. Even something online?

Michelle Potter, 26 January 2021

Featured image: Scene from My place. QL2 Dance, 2021. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior's 'Scribble'. Ballet X Beyond, 2020. Photo: © Daniel Madoff

BalletX Beyond. Four new dance films

In a move to keep working during the COVID-19 pandemic, BalletX, a contemporary company based in Philadelphia, PA, recently presented a virtual season of four dance films from four choreographers—Rena Butler, Loughlan Prior, Caili Quan and Penny Saunders. Each choreographer took quite a different approach to the commission and watching such a diverse program was certainly an interesting experience.

Loughlan Prior is well-known to Australian and New Zealand dance audiences. Australian-born and educated in Melbourne at the Victorian College of the Arts, he is currently resident choreographer with Royal New Zealand Ballet. He has made work for a range of companies in addition to RNZB, including Queensland Ballet, and his schedule for 2021 includes new works for RNZB, Singapore Dance Theatre, Ballet Collective Aotearoa and Chamber Music New Zealand.

Scribble was his work for BalletX Beyond, as the newly established virtual program is called. It was made on three dancers and filmed in black and white. For me it was the most interesting film of the four, particularly because of its choreographic approach, which blended the vocabulary of ballet (the female dancer, Andrea Yorita, danced on pointe) and contemporary movement. The two male dancers performed strongly with Zachary Kapeluck partnering Yorita throughout, and with Stanley Glover showing his fabulous, long-limbed flexibility and highly expressive hands and fingers.

Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior’s Scribble. Ballet X Beyond, 2020. Screenshot by Daniel Madoff

The ‘scribble’ of the title was created by Glynn Urquhart and consisted of white lines of animation that sometimes seemed to be generated by the dancers’ movements, at other times by the music, and at others simply out of nowhere. Occasionally the animation morphed into figures of the dancers, or vice versa. Danced to a score by Melbourne-based composer Gareth Wiecko and filmed by Daniel Madoff, Scribble was quite mesmerising.

Scribble was the only one of the four films that was not recorded at a site specific venue. The others were filmed across a range of venues in Greater Philadelphia including Natural Lands’ Stoneleigh and Idlewild, el Centro de Oro, Sea Isle City, St Malachi Church, Belmont Stables, and the Navy Yard.

Of the three other works, I found Caili Quan’s Love Letter particularly moving. Quan’s home country is Guam and the music, which was a mixed bag of items, reflected the islands, especially the islands of the Pacific (although a Harry Belafonte song was included). It was something of a meditation on whom and/or what the choreographer loved, and perhaps missed, at particular stages in her life.

The film began on a beach with a beautiful solo from Francesca Forcella who seemed to be searching her mind for remembered moments. The conclusion began with Richard Villaverde dancing on a rooftop overlooking a cityscape. He was eventually joined by Forcella and we could speculate on what their relationship was as they moved towards and away from each other. But in between this beginning and end, the film moved from venue to venue and the whole was structured so we were taken suddenly from place to place, person to person, just as the mind jumps from thought to thought. It was totally engrossing.

Richard Villaverde and Francesca Forcella in Caili Quan’s ‘Love Letter’. BalletX, 2020. Screenshot by Elliot deBruyn

Ricochet, choreographed by Penny Saunders on the subject of the American cowboy, left me a little cold, largely because the choreography was not all that inspiring. There are only so many times when poses that mimic the position taken when riding a horse can generate interest. Similarly with lines of dancers walking through grassland. But the setting, especially the beautiful rural landscape, was a joy to look at, as was the filming so that the whole work looked as though it was showing on an old-fashioned television screen.

The Under Way (working title) is by Rena Butler and it too was choreographically uninspiring. It relied for impact more on camera angles, mime, colour changes and other cinematic techniques. I also found it hard to understand exactly what Butler was trying to say. There were references to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Somewhere over the Rainbow from the film version of The Wizard of Oz, statues of prominent people (now considered racist?), racism itself, and other issues. One thing that made sense was the comment of the dancer who closed the work when he spoke about the things he could do. His skin was white and he finished with the sentence ‘I can breathe.’ But it was not clear to me how the rest related to that pertinent, contemporary comment. The Under Way needs a lot of work I think.

This is the first time I have had the pleasure of seeing anything by BalletX. It is a strong company and every one of the dancers has something special to offer. Stanley Glover is spectacular and I especially admired the work of Andrea Yorita for the expressiveness that she offered in every role, and for the way her movement fills the space around her body.

Andrea Yorita in a study for Scribble. BalletX Beyond, 2020. Photo: Tara Keating

Access to the works of BalletX Beyond is via a subscription-based streaming platform, which is located at https://www.balletx.org/.

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2020

Featured image: Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior’s Scribble. BalletX Beyond, 2020. Screenshot by Daniel Madoff