Rench Soriano in 'Five Variations on a Theme'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A'Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2019

20-30 November 2019. Te Whaea Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

NZSD’s Graduation season always displays the talent and enthusiasm of graduating dancers who, after three years’ training, are poised to venture forth and seek ways to make a professional career. Commitment and courage are needed in equal measure. Selected first and second year students are included in the casting, which is credit to them and their tutors since no dancer is less than fully prepared and present.

This year’s season combines classical ballet and contemporary dance works, eight in all, on the same program. (Last year’s had alternate nights for classical and contemporary works). Either formula offers the chance for us to consider how the two dance lineages as taught in the School, contrast with, or relate to, each other in the professional dance world—in technique, movement vocabulary, choreographic themes, aesthetic choices, relationship to music.

While many aspects of each are distinct, dances labelled ‘classical’ or ‘contemporary’ are not the opposites of each other. My take is that it’s the individual choreographer who places a work where it lies on the spectrum. If it’s good, then dance is the winner on the night. Memories of a masterpiece by Jiří Kylián in a  recent Grad. program combined performers from both streams of training and demonstrated that truth (as also did a recent film viewing of Douglas Wright’s masterpiece from Royal New Zealand Ballet repertoire, rose and fell—truly superb contemporary choreography being performed by ballet dancers. QED.)

O body swayed to music, o brightening glance,
how can we know the dancer from the dance?    
William Butler Yeats

The performance opens with Concerto Barocco by George Balanchine, to the Double Violin concerto by Bach. The clarity of music is matched in dance line, alignment and groupings. It is luminous, timeless, time less, time more.

My verses cannot comment
on your immortal moment or tell you what you mean;
only Balanchine
has the razor edge and knows that art of language         
Robert Lowell

Velociraptor, by Scott Ewen, to music by Kangding Ray, is a premiere. The opening section is swift and driven. Among the cast of nine, we notice a wrist bandage on one dancer. Have the rehearsals come at a cost? We notice another. Soon the bandages unravel and become strings that tie and bind, forming mesmerizing tensions between groupings, and becoming cats’ cradles for bodies lifted horizontally.

Mind is music…
Invisible dancer who dances quicksilver vision
 
James Schevill

Courtney Lim and Tessa Redman in Velociraptor. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Not Odd Human, by Sam Coren, to music by Richard Lester, recently premiered at Tempo Dance Festival. It’s a manic mediaeval mayhem, its sardonic humour propelling characters from long ago and faraway into our midst. Mad Joan and Dull Grethe are there, Joan of Arc, Lady Godiva perhaps? You could credit Breugel with its design. 

Such rollicking measures, prance as they dance
In Breugel’s great picture, the Kermess.
William Carlos Williams

Five Variations on a Theme, by David Fernandez, to a Bach Violin Concerto, is a solo danced by Rench Soriano. Everything about this phenomenally gifted dancer, a second year student, combines precision with poetry, and is a joy to witness. His dancing is redolent of his tutor Qi Huan, who has rehearsed him in this work. For many years Huan was the leading dancer in Royal New Zealand Ballet, where his peerless command of technique gave him the expressive freedom that dance at its soaring best can offer. Before him, Ou Lu, before him Martin James, before him Jon Trimmer, before him Poul Gnatt. Soriano is clearly profiting from his teacher and this pedigree heritage, and will make a fine career for himself.

The dancer dances. The dance does not dance…
The saved world dances, and the dance dances.     
Jacques Audiberti

 Re:Structure, by Ross McCormack, to music by Jason Wright, was another premiere work. A 5 metre long pole is the central prop around which the cast of 8 dancers  manipulate and explore its positioning. One dancer vertically atop the pole makes a striking image to which you could supply your own narrative, but there is deliberately no denouement to the work overall.

Your props had always been important:…
Things without a name you fell upon

Or through …
Richard Howard

Round of Angels, by Gerald Arpino, from 1983, to music of Mahler, has a cast of six males, then joined by a single female. As a couple, Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Jordan Lennon dance with secure command and lyrical expression, becoming the central tender core  of the work.

I said that she had danced heart’s truth 
W.B Yeats

Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Jordan Lennon in Round of Angels. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Handel—A Celebration by Helgi Tomasson, to excerpts by Handel, has a large cast of spirited movers who rise to the spirit of the celebratory music. Rehearsed by Christine Gunn and Nadine Tyson, the staging had enthusiasm and style in equal and full measure.               

Dancer: O you translation
Of all transiency into action, how you made it clear!
And the whirl of the finish, that tree of motion,
Didn’t it wholly take in the hard-won year
Rainer Maria Rilke

Carnival.4, by Raewyn Hill, was anything but carnivalesque in its mood. Its effect was percussive, tight, driven, insistent, urgent, pulsing. It evoked youth in support of each other, demanding to be listened to.

What is the hardest task of Art?
To clear the ground and make a start …
To tell the tale…
That when the millions want the few
Those can make Heaven here and do.
John Masefield

New Zealand School of Dance Contemporary Students in Carnivale.4, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Nothing about dancing is easy—it’s just meant to look that way, and the quality of sprezzatura, nonchalance, while delivering virtuosic choreography is the one you’d aspire to. The most outstanding dancer of the evening is for me the personification of that gift of grace, and will surely make the world a better place wherever he dances. We all need to consider and study that quality, and pray for a bit of it in our lives, dancing and all the rest.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
 Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
Come to the edge.
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
Christopher Logue

Jennifer Shennan, 22 November 2019

Featured image: Rench Soriano in Five Variations on a Theme. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Rench Soriano in 'Five Variations on a Theme'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A'Court
Scene from Stanton Welch's 'Sylvia'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Sylvia. The Australian Ballet

16 November 2019 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

There is one facet of Stanton Welch’s choreography that I always find admirable and exciting to watch. It is his ability to handle different groups of dancers on stage. He is able to give each group different steps to do and arrange them in different formations, while also achieving an overall cohesion. This ability to create choreography that is beautifully blended and yet has individuality within it was again on show in Sylvia, his new work for 2019. Unfortunately, none of the images to which I have access really shows that facet of his choreography but it was clearest in the penultimate scene from Act III when the life of Sylvia (Robyn Hendricks) with her beloved Shepherd (Callum Linnane) unfolded.

This second last scene was also the most enjoyable from the point of view of the narrative. The surprise of the children and grandchildren of Sylvia and the Shepherd appearing suddenly was a beautifully human touch, and again I was impressed by the dancing and stage presence of Yuumi Yamada as the couple’s Daughter. In this scene too David McAllister made a guest appearance as the Older Shepherd and reminded us of his qualities as a performer.

Robyn Hendricks as Sylvia and Callum Linnane as the Shepherd in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But the ease with which we could understand the narrative in this scene stood in stark contrast to much of the rest of the ballet. The story was a very complex one and difficult to follow, especially in Act I when the scene was being set for what was to follow. Maybe it’s just one of those ballets that one has to see many times before any strength it has can be understood?

Both Hendricks and Linnane danced well especially in the various pas de deux that unfolded between them. Dana Stephensen as Artemis was also a strong performer and her partnership with Brodie James as Orion was also nicely executed. The final scene in which the two are united in the starry, heavenly environment was staged with evocative lighting by Lisa J Pinkham.

Dana Stepehensen and Brodie James as Artemis and Orion in 'Sylvia'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo Daniel Boud
Dana Stepehensen and Brodie James as Artemis and Orion in Sylvia. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But I came away feeling frustrated. While Welch is a choreographer whose work I admire, dance doesn’t lend itself to the kind of complexities of storyline that Sylvia contains. I was reminded of a recent interview I did with contemporary choreographer Lloyd Newson in which he talked about why he introduced speech into his works. There are some things that dance can’t do, he believes, and he’s right. Even though he wasn’t talking about ballet his ideas are relevant, nevertheless, to all forms of dance.

Michelle Potter, 20 November 2019

Featured image: Scene from Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Scene from Stanton Welch's 'Sylvia'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet & Orchestra Wellington

6 November 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Hansel & Gretel is choreographer Loughlan Prior’s first full-length ballet, though he has a number of accomplished short works (including a memorable Lark, for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald), as well as choreographed films (including Memory House, for Trimmer) already to his credit. Since this premiere, another of his works, The Appearance of Colourwas recently performed as part of Queensland Ballet’s Bespoke program.

The energised success of Hansel & Gretel reveals the close rapport developed between Prior and composer Claire Cowan, who has produced a colourful and affecting score. Right from the first sounds (‘applause’ from orchestral percussion to walk the conductor to his podium), it is clear that the choreographer and composer share a sense of humour and fun. Conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington miss not a beat or a feat throughout.

Design by Kate Hawley, together with Jon Buswell’s lighting, delivers some striking effects. The opening visual, projected onto a gauze front curtain, is the number countdown of a film reel (the grandchildren whisper to ask , ‘Is this a ballet pretending to be a movie?’). A number of references to black and white silent movies of the 1920s are cleverly choreographed into the first scenes, making fitting resonance from the accompanying orchestra in the pit. A prologue of wealthy characters strutting in the street contrast with the poverty of the family of Hansel, Gretel and parents, with the father unable to sell his street brooms to anyone. There is a poignant scene of the hungry family around the table in their cabin, though the following long love duet between the parents seems to stall the choreographic pace somewhat.

Later, black and white scenes turn into the garish colours of cancan Candyland, aided and abetted by the Ice Cream Witch whose hurdy-gurdy bicycle is a creation Heath Robinson would have been proud of. A large cast of Dew Fairies, a Sandman, numerous confectionery and gingerbread assistants, and spooky creatures of the forest all offer a number of divertissements of entertainment and humour. There are echoes of the 1930s now, of Busby Berkeley film scenarios, with deliberate extravagances that send it in the direction of pantomime, leading, by their own admission, to sensory overload of props and costumes.

Scene from Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: ©Stephen A’Court

Spectacle is preferenced over sustaining the narrative with its dark themes of the original version of the Grimm brothers’ tale. In that regard, Prior has chosen to follow casting of Humperdinck’s opera of the late 19th century, as well as the recent choreographies by Liam Scarlett for the Royal Ballet and by Christopher Hampson for Scottish Ballet. In those versions, the familiarity of the children’s father bullied by a scheming cruel stepmother is converted to their simply being poor but loving parents. This results in a weakening of the dramatic bite and thematic link of evil between both Stepmother and Witch (read in some interpretations as alter-egos of each other).

Different birds are dramatically involved in the original tale—sitting on the roof of the family cottage, stealing the trail of breadcrumbs, leading the children to the Witch’s lair, and finally back home. In this production the only birds are portrayed in a brief scene by child extras, very fetchingly costumed in raincoats with beak-shaped hoods, and carrying brooms to sweep up crumbs. Perhaps more could have been made of the avian potential in the story since birds are often convincingly stylised into ballet.

Highlight memories are of Hansel and Gretel—or should that be Gretel and Hansel since it’s the girl who always takes the initiative and makes sure little brother is in tow —with Shaun James Kelly as a naïve and playful boy, Kirby Selchow as the feisty older sister. The dazzling Mayu Tanigaito as Queen of the Dew Fairies, delivers radiantly, but also easily shifts into the syncopations of the jazz references that Prior and Cowan have skillfully introduced as cameo sequences.

Paul Mathews as the Witch and Shaun James Kelly as Hansel in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Ice Cream Witch is played by Katharine Precourt who, with mobile expressive face, clearly relishes the role. The Transformed Witch, played by Paul Mathews, is in full pantomime mode and takes hilarious advantage of the satirical strokes the choreography offers (including the tossing of a pair of pointe shoes into the cauldron, together with a large manny rat that proves inedible but will doubtless flavour/poison the stew). Mathews always inhabits rather than just portrays his roles and here he exaggerates wonderfully without ever wasting a gesture. 

Kirby Selchow as Gretel closes the cauldron in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Thank goodness for curtain calls in character. The dancers have clearly had a rollicking good time in this production which will certainly entertain audiences in the forthcoming national tour.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 November 2019

Featured image: Kirby Selchow as Gretel in Hansel & Gretel, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Scene from Loughlan Prior's 'The appearance of colour.' Bespoke, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Bespoke 2019. Queensland Ballet

9 November 2019. Brisbane Powerhouse

Bespoke is the generic name given to an initiative started by Queensland Ballet a few years ago to encourage new choreography. This year, which is the first year I have managed to catch the show, the selected choreographers were Lucy Guerin, Amy Hollingsworth and Loughlan Prior. Briefly, Guerin is a well-established artist working out of Melbourne, Hollingsworth has recently been appointed artistic director of Brisbane’s Expressions Dance company, taking over from Natalie Weir, and Prior is an Australian-born dancer/choreographer currently working with Royal New Zealand Ballet as that company’s resident choreographer. Dancers in the Bespoke program were from Queensland Ballet’s main company along with the company’s Jette Parker Young Artists.

Prior’s work, The appearance of colour, opened the program. It began with the dancers, dressed in skin-coloured, body-hugging costumes by William Fitzgerald, grouped tightly together in a circle of light that grew in size over the first few minutes. The choreography was fast and full of sharp movements. At first there was little use of the stage beyond the circle but gradually a wider area of the stage was used and the dancers began to manipulate small square blocks of white, and later coloured, light, which they occasionally used to form geometric patterns in the darkness that surrounded them.

The second section, the most exciting choreographically, began with a duet between a man and a woman and was distinguished by slow motion lifts and movements where bodies drifted across and around each other. The two dancers were later joined by a third, another man, giving more capacity for bodies to be transferred across, around and over each other. As the section came to an end, the woman was left alone on the stage and we witnessed quite suddenly the arrival of coloured light washing across the stage floor.

In the third section the space was filled with colour in clear contrast to the first two sections where black and white light predominated. The choreography once again returned to faster movement, and we again saw a larger cast of dancers.

The arrival of colour was an interesting idea that Prior says was inspired by thoughts of ‘human responses to colour emerging from darkness’. The lighting, designed by Cameron Goerg, was quite mesmerising and for me overpowered the dancing much the way the use of film footage so often does when used as part of a dance work. Prior’s choreography for the duet/trio in the second section gave most insight into his choreographic talents, but I hope he can avoid having certain features of a work overpowering the choreography.

Guerin’s pointNONpoint occupied the middle part of the program. Whatever Guerin might have written about it, I could only think, throughout the entire piece, of the subtitle of Peter Oswald’s biography of Vaslav Nijinsky—A leap into madness.

pointNONpoint began with a single female dancer wearing a simple translucent grey dress/overshirt and moving her fingers. Progressively she was joined by more and more dancers, some on pointe (including some of the male dancers), others barefoot. Their movements were usually highly eccentric, and often included odd hand and finger movements. Some dancers had red-coloured fingers. But the choreography was also often predictably balletic—échappés to second position, simple retirés, arabesques and other easily recognised on pointe ballet vocabulary. To say it was a mish-mash of movement is something of an understatement.

John Paul Lowe in Lucy Guerin’s pointNONpoint from Bespoke, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

The costumes, designed by Andrew Treloar, got more complicated as each group of dancers joined in. Various kinds of trailing items were attached to the back of the overshirts, while collars, some stiffened and heightened so they almost obscured the dancer’s face, were added. On one or two occasions the stage and dancers were suddenly engulfed by red light, and just as suddenly the red light was removed. To me this work was about accumulation and the progressive arrival of dancers into the group, and the build up of items to the costumes both developed this idea. But there were may facets of pointNONpoint that seemed not to add to anything other than eccentricity.

Hollingsworth’s contribution, From within, occupied the closing section of the program. After struggling with the vagaries of pointNONpoint it was a relief to see something that was a little easier to watch. It was meant to be an immersive experience and the unoccupied white chair, complete with its own spotlight, situated in an upstage corner was (I assume) meant to be for us, the audience. From within also contained the best performance of the entire program, a beautiful solo from Vanessa Morelli. It was danced almost on the spot but Morelli’s exceptionally smooth, flowing dancing was an absolute joy to watch as it coursed through her body.

Choreographically, however, I have to say From within reminded me a lot of what we see from Sydney Dance Company, where movement is meant to evoke emotion. Hollingsworth worked with Sydney Dance under Rafael Bonachela for a number of years as a dancer and then as Dance Director. But despite what seemed like a strong choreographic connection with Bonachela’s style, Hollingsworth’s directing experience is perhaps why From within looked so focused, so beautifully rehearsed and so easy to watch, with its lovely bursts of humour as Siri, everyone’s assistant, was called upon at various times.

Dancers in Amy Hollingsworth’s From Within. Bespoke 2019. Photo © David Kelly

Bespoke 2019 was not the most exciting dance event I have been to this year (or any year). But it’s a great initiative and deserves applause for what it might achieve—if not this time.

Michelle Potter, 12 November 2019

Featured image: Scene from Loughlan Prior’s The appearance of colour. Bespoke, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Scene from Loughlan Prior's 'The appearance of colour.' Bespoke, Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Meeting Karpovsky. Willow Productions

6–16 November 2019, Circa Theatre, Wellington

Meeting Karpovsky was created by Helen Moulder, Sue Rider and Sir Jon Trimmer, and was performed by Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Now here’s something different—a play about the ballet. Sylvia, an older woman living alone, is hanging onto the memories of the 127 times in her life she has seen the celebrated ballet dancer, Alexander Karpovsky, in performance. She uses those memories, and the sorting of her daughter Anna’s possessions that are cluttered in the attic, to keep the surface of each day moving along, and to fill her slow quiet nights.

Apart from the many boxes of Anna’s possessions, the set features posters of Karpovsky in his roles as Petrouchka, Albrecht, Widow Simone and Drosselmeyer. Sylvia converses with each character in turn, venting her woes and frustrations, but hastening to assure herself and us that she is in control, of course she is in control, why would she not be in control, the painful ankle is better some days than others, and she thinks the frozen shoulder is coming right, there’s food in the sparse pantry, she’ll probably settle for a baked potato with a sprinkle of cheese and chives for her supper tonight, or two baked potatoes perhaps, and it’s true cream cheese is very nice with baked potatoes but she thinks she might be out of cream cheese so never mind, just the cheddar and chives will do nicely.

Helen Moulder (Sylvia) and Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) take tea together. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

In haunting evocations of the personality that each ballet character represents in the original choreographies, Sylvia wants to understand what happened to them, why, what it meant, what happened next?  She searches for what she and the characters might have in common experience—’Petrouchka, you’re a puppet, but who is pulling your strings? Albrecht, how could you have let Giselle die and then became a wili? Widow Simone, I’ll bet you regret leaving your daughter so badly guarded. Drosselmeyer, what’s the use of your feeble magic wand if you can’t use it to put right the bad things that happen to people?’

Karpovsky’s spectre visits Sylvia in a series of vignettes, but it transpires he’s more guardian angel than ghost. These are not nostalgic remnants of performance memories fluttering about, but more like threads from a string of prayer flags loosed into the wind. Should Sylvia catch them or let them go? Both or neither? Collect them and weave them back together again, into a tablecloth for an afternoon tea-party, say?

Helen Moulder and Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) dance together. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

No one else I know bothers to think about the libretti and narrative thrust of ballets in this way. Rider, Moulder, Trimmer, Sylvia and Karpovsky do, and invite us to follow their lead and do likewise. The effect is astonishing—strange yet familiar, secret yet shared, a duty of care, a literature of narratives salvaged from the archive of performances forgotten, choreographies abandoned, hopes postponed, dreams denied. How many of the ballets you have ever danced in, or seen performed, have anything to do with the life you or your family have lived?

The poignancy of these questions, to which there are no ready responses, is beyond words by the following day, so we’ll just have to accept that as the ephemeral nature of an enduring art, as food for thought, and swiftly book to go back for another performance.

Besides, there are too many spoiler alerts needed. A knife, a yelp of pain from an audience member taken totally unawares, a distant siren in the following silence—police? ambulance? (now, that can’t have been a planned sound effect of the play. It must be a sign from the dark night outside that what’s going on inside the theatre is another but related reality). 

This production won the Listener Best Play of the Year at its premiere season, and the lambent Helen Moulder, an exquisitely musical performer, won the Chapmann Trip Best Actress of the Year award. It’s easy to see why. 

That Jon Trimmer has just celebrated his 80th birthday only adds to the wonder of his totally focused performance. He is required to speak just one word the whole evening, but for the rest he moves with the mana, memory, muscles, and mercurial mind of a genius of dance and theatre. He mimes, demonstrates and teaches Sylvia little fragments from the ballets—’step and point, incline, epaulement … gallop and turn … scuff and shuffle’—that she might do the clog dance from La Fille Mal Gardée, or step through the throbbing of Giselle’s pain and of the sorrowing wilis, or pay attention to the conjuring tricks of Drosslemeyer. But it’s Trimmer’s recreation of the Booth and Cell scenes from Petrouchka that will ache you, break you and mend you again. You’d better remember it because you won’t ever see the like again.

Helen Moulder (Sylvia) and Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) recreate a moment from Petrouchka. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

From the opening sounds of a train hurtling by at speed (where might that railway journey be headed?) to the softest strains of Sylvia’s remembered lullaby, ‘Shine little glowworm, glimmer’,there are hints of the several griefs that are layered into her life, and we are carried by a spellbinding 90 minutes of faultless performances by Helen Moulder and Jon Trimmer, both of them impeccably timed and modulated. It  cadences in a never-to-be forgotten scene of redemption. I feel sorry for people who don’t live in Wellington and can’t get to one of the remaining performances this week.

Jennifer Shennan, 11 November 2019

Featured image: Helen Moulder (Sylvia) watches as Sir Jon Trimmer (Karpovsky) performs as Drosselmeyer. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Auto Cannibal 茁长的掠食Photo: ©️ WANG Xiao-jing

Matrix. Expressions Dance Company & Beijing Dance/LDTX

7 November 2019. The Q, Queanbeyan

Matrix comprised two works, Auto Cannibal by Stephanie Lake, and Encircling Voyage by MA Bo. The program was created in Beijing over a five week period when twenty dancers, six from the Brisbane-based Expressions Dance Company and fourteen from the Beijing-based Beijing Dance/LDTX came together to work and collaborate. The Queanbeyan performance was just the second Australian show with the program having had its Australian premiere in a single performance in Cairns earlier in November. It continues on to Brisbane and then to Hong Kong.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that the twenty dancers, from two vastly different cultures, blended together beautifully. There was no attempt to separate the Australian performers from their Chinese colleagues and all twenty absorbed two quite different choreographic approaches with apparent ease. No one was singled out by name on the printed program (in fact the dancers names were never given). It nevertheless was a surprising and enriching evening.

Lake’s Auto Cannibal opened the program and first up I wondered what on earth ‘auto cannibal’ meant. Well, in program notes Lake wrote, ‘When creating new work I’m conscious of the regurgitation of past choreographic ideas. I’m sometimes afraid that I’m repeating myself or cannibalising my own work.’ So the title is very much a personal notion and had little effect on how I saw the work. Perhaps it was even an unnecessary distraction?

That aside, I was moved by Auto Cannibal, mostly as a fascinating piece of abstract choreography. It was at times quite regimented. There were, for example, moments of marching-style movement as dancers crossed the stage, as well as powerful moments of unison movement. At times, however, some dancers broke away from the group and set up mini groups of their own giving a satisfying change of pace. Some solos and duets looked spectacular as a result of the way Lake wraps bodies around each or brings them together in groups that arouse curiosity.

Scene from Auto Cannibal 茁长的掠食Photo: ©️ YIN Peng

This was a sophisticated choreographic work and costumes by XING Yameng, lighting by Joy CHEN and a sound score by Robin Fox all added to its success.

MA Bo’s Encircling voyage, which completed the program, had a clear, if general rather than specific focus. Through her choreography MA examined the young and the old in society and the processes they go through during the cycle of life. A distinctive feature of MA’s work was her use of several long, low benches with a surface that at times became mirror-like under the lighting, again by Joy CHEN. Sometimes these benches were used for seating, at other times they were turned on their side and acted as pillar-like objects, while towards the end of the work they were pushed together to form a table on which a death seemed to take place (at least that’s how I read it). Ash filled the air at the end of the work.

Scene from Encircling Voyage 归来的承诺 Photo: ©️ WANG Xiao-jing

MA’s choreography contained a variety of moves from startling and complex solos and duets in which arms and legs were pushed into extreme positions, to shuffling, bent-over movements that appeared to signal the aged community. We even saw a bit of crawling that took us back to babyhood. Similarly the soundscape, which contained music by David Darling and sound effects by MAO Liang, ranged from baby cries to what might be considered more musical sounds.

Apart from the costume nudity towards the end of the death scene, all the dancers wore the same long dress designed by WANG Yan. While it was quite pleasing to the eye when the dancers were upright, and looked especially good when the dancers grouped together and shuffled across the stage. But it was not nearly so attractive when the dancers were throwing themselves into extreme positions when it never seemed to come back to rest and tended to show off the dancers’ underwear for rather too long a time.

This was an engaging evening of contemporary dance. Perhaps its most arresting feature was the nature of the collaboration in which two cultures blended so well together. Bouquets to the dancers for achieving such immersion.

Michelle Potter, 9 November 2019

Featured image: Stephanie Lake’s Auto Cannibal 茁长的掠食 from Matrix, 2019. Photo: ©️ WANG Xiao-jing

Auto Cannibal 茁长的掠食Photo: ©️ WANG Xiao-jing

Cinderella. Queensland Ballet

5 November 2019, Canberra Theatre

Below is a expanded version of my review for The Canberra Times of Queensland Ballet’s Cinderella. The online version of that review is at this link.

  • Cinderella. Queensland Ballet. Choreographer: Ben Stevenson. Composer: Sergei Prokofiev. Designers: Thomas Boyd (sets), Tracy Grant Lord (costumes), David Walters (lighting). Canberra Theatre, until November 10.

Queensland Ballet’s Cinderella tells the familiar story of the young girl whose step-mother and step-sisters have reduced her existence to that of their servant, but whose life is transformed by a fairy godmother and a prince whom she meets at a royal ball. Choreographed by English-born, American resident Ben Stevenson, currently director of Texas Ballet Theater, this version of Cinderella is great family fun. Its old-style pantomime scenes have the audience laughing out loud throughout the entire course of the production, while its fairy-like moments and glittering ballroom scenes evoke palpable pleasure.

The panto elements are largely the realm of the two step-sisters played by Camilo Ramos as Ugly Sister Short and Alexander Idaszak as Ugly Sister Tall. Dressed outrageously, most memorably in extravagant pink outfits for the ball, they trip, totter and tumble their way through the story, pushing and shoving the long-suffering Cinderella (Laura Hidalgo) until in the end they are forced to curtsey to her as she becomes a princess. Ramos and Idaszak are joined in their treatment of Cinderella by Janette Mulligan as the Step Mother who is not at all innocent in her treatment of Cinderella. In fact she is decidedly nasty at times and occasionally turns her back on Cinderella and gives a sneering laugh.

Camilo Ramos as Ugly Sister Short in Ben Stevenson's 'Cinderella'. Queensland Ballet. Photo: © David Kelly
Camilo Ramos as Ugly Sister Short in Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

But if Stevenson has drawn the step-family as lacking in a certain degree of humanity, he presents Cinderella as a young girl filled with love and compassion. She supports her Father (Ari Thompson) when he is set upon by his wife and step-children, and she welcomes a mysterious, black-clad stranger into the family home, and sits her by the fire and offers her food, when Cinderella’s step-family wants nothing to do with her (shades of a scene from Act I of La Sylphide?). This stranger is in fact the Fairy Godmother (Yanela Piñera) in disguise and her true identity is revealed when the black cloak drops away to reveal the purity of a Fairy Godmother dressed in white and wearing a sparkling tiara. Cinderella undergoes a transformation at the hands of the Godmother and goes to the royal ball where she meets her Prince (Victor Estévez). And so the familiar story continues until the happy pair is united. And of course the ballet includes the scene where the step-sisters try to squash their feet into the shoe that Cinderella leaves behind at the ball when the clock strikes midnight. More slapstick humour!

As we have come to expect from Queensland Ballet the dancing was exceptional. A standout performer was Kohei Iwamoto as the Jester at the ball. His leaps in the air with legs extended in splits to the side drew applause and his presence was consistently strong as he moved among the guests. The four fairies, Spring (Lou Spichtig), Summer (Mia Heathcote), Autumn (Neneka Yoshida), and Winter (Georgia Swan), who help Cinderella make her transformation into her costume for the ball, also danced their variations with panache and admirable technique.

Neneka Yoshida as the Autumn Fairy in Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

Cinderella’s solo the morning after the ball was full of joy, despite having to use a broom rather than a prince as her partner! But perhaps the choreographic highlight was the pas de deux between the Prince and Cinderella after the Prince had discovered that Cinderella was the owner of the shoe left behind at the ball. Beautifully lit by David Walters to bring out the romance of the situation, this pas de deux was filled with lyricism and swirling lifts.

Stevenson’s Cinderella is very much in an old-style format, which may not appeal to some. But the pleasure it brings to so many others, young and old, makes it an evergreen show. Queensland Ballet always gives us outstanding dancing and strong production values, and I loved the way many of the dancers maintained their characterisations during the curtain calls.

  • Disclaimer: I had a family member in the children’s cast for this production of Cinderella.

Michelle Potter, 6 November 2019

Featured image: Laura Hidalgo as Cinderella. Queensland Ballet 2019. Photo supplied

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
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