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 Lucy Green. It was danced almost on the spot but Green’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
Ryan Stone (centre) with Olivia Fyfe (left) and Alana Stenning in From the Vault, 2019. Photo: Lorna Sim

From the Vault. Australian Dance Party

20 September 2019. A ‘secret vault’, Dairy Road Precinct, Canberra

Dairy Road Precinct, on the edge of Canberra’s industrial suburb of Fyshwick, may be the least likely venue imaginable for a dance performance. A largely uninviting area, it is filled with buildings in hard-edged contemporary architectural style; there is little adequate signposting; and the precinct is difficult to navigate and to find the building one wants, even in daylight let alone at night. It is home to various organisations and start-up companies and seems to be filled with warehouses and vehicle yards. But a large warehouse, once used as a storage bunker by the Australian Mint, was the somewhat surprising venue for From the Vault, the latest production staged by Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party.

From the Vault looked at personal values that the Party thought were significant in our current society. The ideals that topped the list during research for the work were Safety, Freedom, Wealth, Individuality, Truth and Connection. Each of these ideas was examined in a distinct section with one particular dancer leading each part. While the values being put forward were not instantly recognisable (I later read the program notes), From the Vault was clearly about people’s emotions, thoughts and personal ideals. It was a work with which we, the audience, could immediately identify and it really didn’t matter if one’s thoughts strayed from what was written in the program (especially if it wasn’t read prior to the performance). I saw the Wealth section, for example, as being about greed and even gambling, and of course related it instantly to the original function of the performance space, especially when coins rained from above and were exchanged and tossed between the dancers. But, with its emphasis on people and their values, however one perceived what those values were, From the Vault was by far the best work I have seen from the Australian Dance Party.

Of course to be the best work I had seen from Plevey and her Party, From the Vault also needed to be expertly staged and well danced, costumed and lit. The five dancers, Stephen Gow, Olivia Fyfe, Eliza Sanders, Alana Stenning and Ryan Stone, all performed with the power and commitment we have come to expect of them.

Stephen Gow (centre) with dancers from the Australian Dance Party in From the Vault, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Stone was the standout performer. He led the section that represented Individuality (although to me it seemed more like gentle dominance). The section began with a kind of Mozartian flourish as dancers performed a dance built around a very eighteenth-century reverence. But then, accompanied by Alex Voorhoeve on his magical electric cello, and with a sound design from Andy McMillan, Stone began some of the most beautiful (and I should add individualistic) dancing I have seen for a long time. His limbs seemed to have no restrictions at all, such was the fluidity and freedom with which he moved. His speed and elevation were a joy to watch, and I loved the way he covered the space with his larger movements. I was also impressed with the way in which his body, and every part of his body, filled the immediate space around him. Nothing was a mindless gesture and he seemed totally absorbed in his execution of the choreography. He was a dancer possessed.

Mark Dyson’s lighting design added much to the atmosphere with a strong use of colour, down lighting and contrasts of light and darkness. There was mystery there, and the large space available in the ‘secret vault’ allowed dancers to appear and disappear throughout the performance. Costumes by Imogen Keen, with a mix of fabric from denim to patchwork splendour, were distinctive, attractive and quite chic.

Scene from From the Vault. Australian Dance Party, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Alison Plevey directed From the Vault and did not perform herself, as she usually does. With Karla Conway as dramaturg, focused direction from Plevey, and an exceptional creative input from the whole team, this work had power and coherence and was an immersive experience for the audience. Four and a half stars.

Michelle Potter, 22 September 2019

Featured image: Ryan Stone (centre) with Olivia Fyfe (left) and Alana Stenning in From the Vault. Australian Dance Party, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Ryan Stone (centre) with Olivia Fyfe (left) and Alana Stenning in From the Vault, 2019. Photo: Lorna Sim
Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé in Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: David Kelly

Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet

28 August 2019. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

With its production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet once again displayed its constantly growing position as one of Australia’s leading dance companies. This Romeo and Juliet, for which the premiere dates back over 50 years to 1965, was first performed by Queensland Ballet in 2014 when the cast included several international guest artists. In 2019 the cast was home grown. The night really belonged, however, to Mia Heathcote as Juliet and Patricio Revé as Romeo. Both were promoted onstage at the conclusion of the performance.

Mia Heathcote as Juliet and Patricio Revé as Romeo in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly
Mia Heathcote as Juliet and Patricio Revé as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

The Heathcote/Revé partnership was an engaging one throughout. They shone in the several pas de deux on which the MacMillan production centres, and both provided us with believable interpretations of the characters they represented. Mia Heathcote’s confidence onstage and her ability to maintain her characterisation (and technique) throughout what is a long ballet with many changes of location, not to mention changes of emotional mood, was admirable. Revé clearly has many talents, although I suspect he probably needs a little more time before he has the stage presence that will match his technique.

Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly
Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

I loved the group scenes in this production, all of which were imbued with great energy and so much interaction between all those on stage. Particularly impressive was the Capulet Ball, led magnificently by Steven Heathcote, guesting on this occasion from the Australian Ballet. There was just a touch of pride in the way he held his chest and turned his head that told us he was in charge. He maintained that dominance, a calm but obvious dominance, throughout, whether he was dismissing Tybalt’s attempts to remove Romeo from the ballroom, or demanding later that Juliet marry Paris. The ball scene was also distinguished by MacMillan’s beautiful choreographic approach in which the guests all danced with a slight tilt to the body. So appropriate to the era in which the ballet takes place.

The several fight scenes, staged by Gary Harris, were dramatic and spirited and, in the earliest of those scenes, the whole stage was abuzz with fiery action. The death of Mercutio at the hands of Tybalt was equally as dramatic with Kohei Iwamoto performing strongly throughout as Mercutio.

(right) Kohei Iwamoto as Mercutio with Vito Bernasconi as Tybalt in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly
(right) Kohei Iwamoto as Mercutio with Vito Bernasconi as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

I was entranced too by a dancer (unnamed) playing the part of a disabled old man in the market place. Mostly he was high up on a kind of balcony that surrounded the market square but he was so involved with what was happening below that it was often hard to take one’s eyes away from him to watch the main action.

What confused me slightly (and probably only because I had not so long ago seen London’s Royal Ballet perform the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet) were the designs used by Queensland Ballet. I was, I have to admit, expecting the Georgiadis designs, which I admired greatly) but it turned out that Queensland Ballet has what Li Cunxin calls the ‘touring’ designs, which were rented from a company in Uruguay and are by Paul Andrews. For me they couldn’t match those of Georgiadis, although I admired Juliet’s bedroom with its red/orange drapes and its religious icon/prayer point in one corner. The costumes for the musicians who accompany the wedding procession in the market place were also impressive. They spun out beautifully during turning movements.

All in all though, another wonderful show from Queensland Ballet.

Michelle Potter, 30 August 2019

Featured image: Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé in Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé in Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: David Kelly