3 March 2019. David H Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York
It was Joan Acocella who wrote of Jerome Robbins in The New Yorker in 2001 that ‘…onstage his dancers act young, have young emotions, passing infatuations, passing sorrows. The picture is never adult, never this-is-what-life-is.’ Two works on the All Robbins program, Interplay and N.Y Export: Opus Jazz, fitted this categorisation. They were fun to watch and were very nicely danced. They were colourful in design and the music—Morton Gould for Interplay and Robert Prince for N.Y Export—made for interesting listening. Of the two perhaps N.Y Export was the more entertaining, with vibrant, jazz-infused movement that reminded me a little of West Side Story. But neither had much intellectual depth.
In fact, the highlight of this triple bill was the middle work, In the Night. Consisting of three pas de deux, each quite different in terms of the interrelationship between the dancers, In the Night did enter into an adult world of emotions. The first, danced by Lauren Lovette and Joseph Gordon, gave us lyricism and a soft, romantic quality. The second, with Maria Kowrowski and Russell Janzen, was more formal and even stately as it unfolded. The third, performed by Sara Mearns and Jared Angle, was the most dramatic. Mearns threw herself at Angle, angry and petulant and then pulled back, repeating this kind of action over and over. A highlight throughout was the exceptional way Robbins took the dancers off stage at the end of each pas de deux. He choreographed those exits, usually as lifts, to match the mood he established in of each pas de deux. Every exit was stunning. Then, in a coda, the six dancers reappeared, met, mixed, performed briefly with different partners, and then finally left the stage after a gentle waltz with their original partners.
In terms of dancing, there was little to fault in this program, which augurs well as the company begins a new era with recently appointed leaders Stafford and Wendy Whelan, who were appointed Artistic Director and Associate Artistic Director respectively. But, personally, in this particular program I would have preferred just one work that was characterised by an interest in youth, and two that had more adult aspects to them.
2 March 2019. 92Y, New York (Harkness Dance Festival 2019)
In 2019 the dance world is celebrating the centenary of the birth of Merce Cunningham with events across the globe. Most, not surprisingly, are being held throughout the United States. In Australia we had just one event, and I found it highly disappointing. So, it was a thrill to be in New York on a brief visit at a time when the 92nd St Y was holding a program (part of the 2019 Harkness Dance Festival) called A Feast of Cunningham. It was led by Sydney-born Melissa Toogood, a former dancer with Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a distinguished coach and teacher of Cunningham technique.
The program consisted of solos from Doubles (1984) and Loose Time (2002); Septet (1953); an excerpt from Scenario (1997); Cross Currents (1964); excerpts from Landrover (1972) and Trails (1982); and a Minevent. While all had their specific interest, for me it was Septet that gave the greatest pleasure. One of the very early works from Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which I had never seen before, it was fascinating to see choreography that had such an obvious link to the vocabulary and structure of ballet. The dancers used the upper body differently (with a bit more fluidity perhaps), and arms were more curved than is apparent in later works, with beautifully rounded fourth positions apparent at various times. I was also surprised to see one of the male dancers execute (very nicely I might add) a manѐge of turns and jumps. Quite balletic really.
While many of the dancers could be singled out for the particular qualities they exhibited, I found Melissa Toogood’s dancing exceptional. She appeared in several of the works and showed a great command of those features that characterise Cunningham technique, in particular a wonderful awareness of the space the body occupies when it moves (or takes a pose). When she faces front everything faces front, exactly. When she tilts her head to the side it goes exactly to the side, and so on. This exactness was missing from the young dancers from the New World School of the Arts who performed the Minevent that closed the program. While the enthusiasm was all there, in the end, without the exactness we saw from Toogood (and the other older, more experienced dancers), the Minevent looked a little messy to me. More rehearsal/class time needed?
Also on show at the 92Y was an exhibition of photographs, Merce Cunningham: Passing Time 1967-2011, Photos by James Klosty and Stephanie Berger. Klosty’s images date to the 1960s and 1970s and have long been seen as the standard go-to shots for that early era of Cunningham’s work. The exhibition included many of his classic shots, including portraits of Cunningham’s collaborators of the time such as, John Cage, David Tudor, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and others. Stephanie Berger’s images are quite different and their great strength is that they show clearly the nature of Cunningham vocabulary: the tilt of bodies, the strong sense of direction and spatial awareness, the extended limbs, the typical leaps and poses, and much more. Next to Berger’s shots, Klosty’s images have a kind of mystery and an emotive quality. Berger, on the other hand, gives us a fresh and exciting look at Cunningham’s work, and her images have their own emotional appeal. The work of both photographers benefits from this joint display.
Both images used in this post are from Merce Cunningham: Passing Time 1967-2011, Photos by James Klosty and Stephanie Berger and are used with the kind permission of the photographer.
You’ve reached the Wellington Railway Station. In 15 mins your train is due to leave for Waikanae, so there’s time, no great hurry. It’s a fine day, just a bit draughty across the foyer, probably as well to keep your coat on. You stroll around a little and admire the warm pinkish-brown of carrara marble walls, the high vaulted ceiling panels painted in bright lightness. It’s all quite beautiful, must be the finest railway station in the world. The speakers are piping familiar Rachmaninoff, which is somehow comforting in such a transitory space.
Damn, something is caught in your eye and it stings, A man passing tries to help you. Whoa! Who is this? All the longing you’ve always kept inside but never voiced out loud, your secret that you could love someone till the end of time, even if there is no such actual person, or, if there is, you’ll never meet, it’s just a longing that you’ve always lived—perhaps others have it too?—but how would you know because this is not anything you can talk about. That would be unlucky and you might be overheard by strangers. There is no such person, too true to be real, too beautiful to last, to have a name, and she may not even notice you, and you’d risk losing her when you’d only just met. No, he’s just a kind man passing by, trying to help you sort your eye problem. Or let’s say it is just the thing called hope, the thing with feathers, that you nurture in the breast while reading Emily Dickinson’s poems on train journeys.
It’s not that you’re at all the type to fall carelessly and deeply in love with a stranger in a public place—for example, the man sitting in the third row of the No.14 bus that time you went to town … that was a breath-holding ride, you thought you could be together forever … but he knew nothing about you, did not even notice you, so the affair was safely over by the time you alighted at the third-section bus-stop. There was no dance, it was all in your mind, your soft head. So how come this day is different? This man does notice you, more than that—he pauses, he stops, he turns, he offers to help, he wants to meet you, he feels the same as you do. This is a film script, surely? You’re actually in this film, yet you never auditioned, and there was never any rehearsal. Who’s the choreographer here? Swan Lake is the story of a man and a woman who meet, they dance and love, but she is due to fly out that evening and he will lose her forever. This is different, it’s just a train station, remember.
A number of other travellers stop to watch the couple—and are fixed by the beautiful figures-of-eight they see traced, like infinity signs lying sideways. Small fires flicker inside those who are watching too. No one is voicing a commentary, there are no subtitles, no flyers to hand out, no powerpoint. The dance is the point of power. This is not pornography, it’s not erotic (though nearly it is…), it’s just a 13 minute love dance on the marble floor of a railway station, by a man and a woman who keep their coats on while they fall into the depths of each other’s eyes and drown there, just managing to save each other by doing beautiful things, whatever their bodies will allow— like waves and billows, like leaning and longings, with arms, and hands, with legs, feet, faces, eyes, the backs of their heads too—they don’t always need to be watching to know what the other is doing, they can just tell. He knows they will never have to argue or disagree, they will love and hold and be held forever. This is better than all the lyrics of all the love songs on all the shelves of all the music shops of the world. These are minutes of assurance that you can love someone you don’t even know by name, and still catch your train. But, hold the Rachmaninoff … the voice-over announces that the Waikanae train will be leaving in two minutes time. You both pause, you raise hands in the gesture of a farewell wave—oh no—but yes—but no, let it go without you. You walk back towards each other, hold still, hold tight. She has let the train go without her.
All the dance moves up till this point were just rehearsal, so now it’s time to do them all again, only more fully, and slower, deeper to lunge, higher to lift, wider to arc, stronger to clasp. The watching travellers are all choosing to miss their trains too. They can’t walk away from lovemaking. At the start there was a posterboard on the edge of the space that read ‘New World, special coffee & muffin offer free. Today only’ but the message has been changed while no-one was looking and now reads ‘Innocence is contagious, if you like’ which everyone knows is true, and better value than coffee and a muffin, even when that’s free.
They continue dancing and it is the
loveliest thing you ever saw in a Railway Station. Then the voice-over for the
next train to Waikanae, and oh, she must leave now, and so she does. He turns
and walks to the street, it’s his eyes that are stinging now, holding the
memory of all that just happened. Probably. Today only. In 13 minutes. And will
last forever. Surely.
Lucy and partner/colleague, Lucien Johnson, will take up the year-long Harriet Friedlander Residency in New York. May they keep their coats on. while at the subway station.
This program to open 2019 has four new and contrasting works that will appeal to audiences in different ways. The dancers, as always, give their all, but the production needs to settle down yet, and the lighting effects be reduced by perhaps 50%, if it is to source the power of theatre.
Hine the first work, by Moss Paterson, opens with a strongly rendered haka fronted by males, but the following sequence for females, with the unexpected choices of pointe shoes and scantily clad dancers, is a challenge to reconcile with the evocation of a whare whakairo. The first woman in Maori mythology, Hine ahu one, has been a number of times choreographed—(I think of Louise Potiki Bryant, of Kelly Nash, and of Merenia Gray’s works, and believe they could all be considered for future possible restagings). I found the back projections for this Hine often distracting, and the aural overload a challenge. I am no fan of strobe light in the theatre at the best of times, believing it belongs to the rock concert stage or the disco bar, and often weakens the development of form in a choreography. So Hine was for me, with its various quotes from other dances we have seen recently, a work in progress.
Y(It is decades since this company performed it, but no-one forgets how Gray Veredon harnessed the ihi, wehi and wana of haka into his classic cameo work, Tell Me A Tale. Anyone wishing to choreograph Te Ao Maori onto a ballet stage needs to study that work, and Veredon, a pioneering member of this Company, would be willing to help—right now though he is impressively occupied with staging a new full-length commission at Polish National Ballet. One could also consider bringing back to their home company some of our other ex-pat choreographers and teachers who have made strong careers abroad—Cameron McMillan, Mark Baldwin, Andrew Simmons, Martin James and Patricia Rianne come to mind).
The second work is by James O’Hara, The Sky Is Not So Different From Us, Perhaps… with musician Anita Clark on stage. The work has a layered movement texture I found cumulatively mesmerising. Ceaseless pulses and undulations hint at the physics inside a human body—the rhythms of breathing and of blood circulating, as measures of life, except for one sad Pierrot figure standing in catatonic contrast until the violin vibrations thaw her out. The ever-repeating tape-loop of violin and vocals adds to the work’s atmosphere and mystery. Multi-layered costumes echo the choreographic theme, though for some of them, less would be more (and why a very tall man would wear a constricting mid-calf pink skirt I found impossible to fathom). The best of this work is very good indeed.
Shaun James Kelly’s work, The Ground Beneath our Feet, is a winner. He summons the airborne energy and élan we have always welcomed from the dancers in our Company, whatever the chosen choreographic style or aesthetic. I personally prefer to hear Bach in the scores as left to us, so the doctored treatment of the Violin Concerto, while you can do it, did not seem to me to add anything new. A galvanising pleasure though to see the commitment between partners within each dancing couple. The total frisson of the evening for me was Mayu Tanigaito. The prodigious technique of this dancer allows her to transform to a hummingbird, a diving swallow, a fairy tern. That she can do it all and more, and flash a smile the while, puts her in a class of her own. (Many of us have long wished that the superb full-length work Madame Butterfly, by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, and stunning design by Peter Farmer, could be re-staged from our Company’s strong and richly defined repertoire, and the title role offered to this dancer as a vehicle for her talent).
This season marks the retirement, after 13 stalwart years dancing, of Abigail Boyle, a much loved and highly versatile performer with classical, dramatic and comic abilities in spades. The work Artemis Rising, choreographed for her by Sarah Foster-Sproull, was effectively a solo, with other dancers as a shadow chorus. It leaves some striking images for us to savour, and acts as tribute to Abigail’s performing, and a blessing on her future career transition (she plans to develop a teaching and coaching career).
The purest combination of technique, phrasing and line was to be seen whenever watching Abigail in class in the studio—an experience I will treasure to the end of my days. Many know and love this dancer, and wish her the very best for the coming years. (Readers may care to read the fine interview with Bess Manson published in The Dominion Post, 2 March 2019, and available online at www.stuff.co.nz—DancerAbigail Boyle, Breaking through the fourth wall).She has been given a spirited and fitting farewell.
A recent Company newsletter advised that they are also currently considering how to honour the significant contribution to ballet and theatre in New Zealand of Sir Jon Trimmer who gave his retirement performance late last year. If that turns out to be an 80th Birthday Benefit Gala in September, say, one can imagine the Opera House dome needing to be opened to let out the tsunami of excitement and gratitude that New Zealanders would want to show him by way of salute and thanks for the legendary 60+ years career with this Company. Kia ora rawa atu, he totara nui o te ao kanikani o Aotearoa. I nga ra o mua, i nga ra inaianei—he wiri mo he takahia —taonga enei. Tena koe, e hoa.
17 January 2019. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre.
Here is a slightly expanded version of my review of Coppélia in its storytime form. The review has already appeared in The Canberra Times online but is yet to appear in print.*
This Coppélia is the third production in the popular Storytime Ballet series produced for young people by the Australian Ballet. It follows storytime productions of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. These productions are advertised as being for children aged 3 and up but I was curious to know how ‘up’ things could be. So I took along two grandchildren (both boys) aged nine and eleven.
Coppélia, with its blend of humour, magic, easy to follow mime, and joyous activity, lends itself well to being rethought as an experience for the young. Its story is simple and it contains some fascinating characters. Apart from the main couple, Swanilda and Franz, who eventually resolve their problems, there is the eccentric Dr Coppélius, a toy maker who dabbles in his own brand of magic and, of course, Coppélia, the life-sized doll Dr Coppélius has created and hopes to bring to life. It is this doll we see sitting in the window of Dr Coppélius’ house and who is the cause of issues between Franz and Swanilda.
Dr Coppélius can be a formidable character but, in this production, anything alarming about him is reduced by the fact that he takes on the role of narrator. On stage narration has become a feature of the Australian Ballet’s storytime ballets and it is beautifully done on this occasion by Sean McGrath, whose acting and strong, clear voice were commented on by my young companions. The basics of his role in the full-length ballet were there. He loses his key when being jostled by the village folk thus allowing the village girls to enter his house, he reads from his book of spells to attempt to bring Coppélia to life, and so forth. But his character doesn’t really develop fully, which, although understandable, is a shame.
As far as the dancing goes, and after all it is still a ballet we are watching, the small company of just 12 artists (largely of graduates of the Australian Ballet School) does an excellent job. The main roles of Franz and Swanilda are rotated amongt company members. We saw Benjamin Obst as Franz and Jasmin Forner as Swanilda and both showed outstanding technical abilities. My companions were especially impressed with Obst’s tours en l’air and his grand pirouettes to which he added a showy jump every so often. I was impressed with Forner. Readers of The Canberra Times’ arts pages may remember a story about Forner published last year, which told of her recovery in Canberra Hospital from serious injuries sustained in a car accident. We saw her in Canberra last year as part of the Australian Ballet School’s graduation season, but she has developed more strength since then and danced beautifully. Watching her now, her recovery and return to ballet seem quite miraculous.
The ending of this Coppélia was without a wedding and its pas de deux, and we saw only the Dawn solo and not Prayer. So again there was something missing from the storyline and for me it all fell a bit flat. But nevertheless the ending was presented as celebratory occasion and the young people in the audience left feeling happy.
The full-length Coppélia is a three-act ballet with changes of set for each act. Designer Hugh Colman skilfully designed a single set for the storytime production, which with just a few moveable facades, and some fine lighting by Jon Buswell, could easily transform itself from village square to Dr Coppelius’ workshop and back to the square within the 50 minutes of this production, which had no interval at all.
The Canberra Theatre Centre’s Playhouse is a perfect venue for these storytime productions. It has a delightful intimacy that encourages participation from the very young, who made the most of the opportunity to assist Dr Coppélius with his magic, some using magic wands, others their magic fingers. My nine year old didn’t want to be part of the magic bits, although the eleven year old had no problem joining in and wiggling his fingers. I suspect, however, that for those young people who are slightly older, it was the strength of the dancing, from dancers not much older than they are, that attracted them. But there was definitely something for young people across quite a reasonable age range.
Michelle Potter, 19 January 2019
* UPDATE: Date of publication in print was 21 January 2019.
Dubboo. Life of a songman was a tribute to David Page, master musician and esteemed elder of the extended Page family, who died in 2016. Dubboo was his nickname (or one of them) and the theatrical tribute showed us much about the diversity of his life and the process by which his music came into being. It was an emotional evening of music, dance, reminiscences. projected imagery and film clips. Having said that, sadly I have to admit that unexpected circumstances meant that I was only able to stay for Act I, Dubboo: Songman. I missed Act 2: Dubboo: Showman. Looking at the Act 2 media images, clearly I missed the tribute to the extravagant side of David Page’s life—his life as an actor, as a female impersonator and a ‘drag persona’ as Alana Valentine puts it in her program tribute.
Nevertheless, there was so much to admire in Act 1. It was wonderful to see dance excerpts from some of the many works for which Page created the music. It was wonderful, too, to hear his music adapted for string quartet, and to hear spoken and sung excerpts, tributes and stories from people like Archie Roach, Djakapurra Munyarryun, Ursula Yovich and Hunter Page-Lochard, not to mention seeing film clips of Page himself explaining some of the processes he engaged in while composing.
From a dance perspective, I was moved especially by ‘Lust’ from Brolga of 2001. Its sexy choreography was stunningly danced by Waangenga Blanco and Tara Robertson, who wrapped themselves around each other with an intensity that made two bodies appear as one. A second standout was ‘Brother’ from Skin/Spear of 2000 acted and danced by the remarkable Beau Dean Riley Smith. And then there was the lightness and lyricism of Tara Gower in ‘Feather’ from Bush of 2003. But every danced excerpt was performed with power, grace and dedication.
This Graduation season offers two programs, Tradition (Ballet) and Innovation (Contemporary Dance), on alternate nights. Does this suggest that new choreography is expected only in the latter but not in the former? If anything, the opposite swing of the pendulum is needed, with a balance of heritage and newly minted work, across both streams. Students of ballet should be just as actively encouraged to explore choreography as their ‘siblings’ are, and by the same token, classics of New Zealand contemporary work need to be staged more often. There are plenty of choreographers whose works would be eminently suitable—Douglas Wright, Michael Parmenter, Raewyn Hill, Daniel Belton, Mary-Jane O’Reilly, Taiaroa Royal would be among the first to consider.
It is in fact globally recognised that ballet and contemporary dance today exist in a symbiotic relationship, and that a hard-out ballet class (minus the pointe shoes perhaps) is a daily fix for dancers of all textures. The old binary does not hold, and today’s dancers have to be able to do whatever choreographers ask for. Having said that, the Innovation program showed strong, committed performers willing to share a passion that depends less on physique than personality, more on commitment than technique.
E Tolu, the opening trio, had its premiere in Mangere in South Auckland in June, and will have been just as welcome there as it was here. Starting with the summons of putatara, there followed a range of patterns and moods from contemplative to forceful to humorous, suggesting haka, siva, fautapati with a nod to Bob Marley and Nina Simone. It brought centre stage the quick and ready wit of Maori/Pasifika dancing men in a great program opener.
Wicked Fish, by Huang Yi of Cloudgate Dance II, Taiwan, was an astonishing achievement. A relentless surging of bodies in both vertical and horizontal, linear in both directions, in mysterious shadowed light of silver, grey and white, it was completely mesmerising. Cloudgate is one of the most interesting dance companies in the world today and it can only do good for young students, and all of us, to be made aware of them and their repertoire. Music by Xenakis was the water they danced in.
Huri Koaro (Inside out), by Gabrielle Thomas, assisted by Megan Adams, is a work from Atamira dance collective’s repertoire. It brought a welcome and convincing Maori female presence to the stage, with patterns suggesting taniko and kowhaiwhai, then moves to a driving pate rhythm. There was an unusual and welcome stillness and silence for some of the groupings, then poi swinging across the stage brought contrast to the solo central dancer.
It’s Written in the Walls by Adam Barruch had an atmosphere of trouble in an unidentified situation…a refugee camp perhaps, or some confined place? The dancers’ focus remained internalised, and a sense of urgency or risk was caught in the striking linear groupings of the performers.
Static by Lauren Langlois set itself a hard task in portraying the neurotic and obsessive behaviour of two dancers as the starting point, which, true to its title, seemed also to be its endpoint.
Les Méduses, a work by Damien Jalet, involved a large group of dancers in striking formations and curiously stylised costumes which occasionally suggested the weaving of spider webs. By contrast, a sound score of relentless chisel-like strikes evoked the notion of arduous work in progress of carving or sculpting from a large mass of stone or marble. It brought high energy to the closing work on the program.
All told, a spirited evening. Wicked Fish will stay long in the memory for the images and atmosphere it evoked, of dangerous and mysterious forces, of relentless drive and unstoppable momentum. It uncannily evoked history, presaged the future, and kept reminding me of the three books I am reading – Vincent O’Malley’s New Zealand Wars, Stephen Fry’s Mythos, and Douglas Wright’s Terra Incognito. That’s a big ask of a short dance, but just occasionally that’s what choreographic masterpieces can deliver.
New Zealand School of Dance is one school with two discrete streams, Classical Ballet and Contemporary Dance. Their Graduation season is always an uplifting affair as the fledgling dancers leave the nest where they have spent the past three years in intensive training. We can guess they’ll each be wishing for just one thing—life as a dancer. I can see no reason why they shouldn’t all get what they wish for, though over time that will, for some of them at least, stretch to include ‘teacher’ and ‘choreographer’ as well.
There are students from New Zealand, including Maori and Pasifika, and several countries beyond, Australia and Asia. The seeds of teacher training included in the curriculum here would help them find work for life back home if not here. We won’t be done with our life on Earth until everyone, in every country, has had a chance to dance, if only as a way to enhance recognition of choreographic masterpieces when they see them. There was such a masterpiece on each of the two programs and I’m shivering to tell you about them, as well as share a few thoughts about possible future directions.
The Ballet program, Tradition, opened with an excerpt of La Sylphide, from Bournonville heritage. Nadine Tyson (alumna of the School and a long-term dancer with RNZB), staged the work which was danced with care and love. The fact that Henning Albrechtsen, the world’s finest free-lance Bournonville teacher, had a residency at the School just last year, will have paid off in the students’ understanding of this demanding and darling style, renowned for its contained vigour and life-affirming ebullient spirit within ballet heritage. (A pity no program note could remind us that Poul Gnatt was for years the most renowned interpreter in the world of the leading role of James. His oral history includes a fabulous story about that, and relates to New Zealand).
It was Gnatt who first raised the voice to form a School to serve the needs of the Company he had already established in 1953. It would be 1967 before the National School of Ballet opened its doors. A paragraph to that effect could be included within the printed program, with further reference to its 50 year history recently written by Turid Revfeim (alumna of the School and long-term dancer with RNZB). History will not go away just by our staying quiet, and a background program essay is needed to pick up and weave back together the threads between School and Company that have recently, by neglect, been torn asunder.
It is deeply satisfying to sight a young dancer in the back row of the corps of La Sylphide who, as have others, used her time at the School to develop the technique and to hone the style that she simply did not have three years ago, but that she will now carry back to her Asian homeland and thus spread good in the world. She may not know that this sentence is about her, but I do. Well done all.
The following Tarantella, by Balanchine, 1964, a romp to Gottschalk music, gave a superb chance to a pair of young students to strut some marvellous stuff. There’s also a link across to Bournonville via the tambourine, but these days dancers with tambourines are so polite. If you’re going to dance with one, don’t you need to thrash hell out of it and rattle the discs to let everyone know that dancing with one is different from dancing without one?
Sfumato by Betsy Erikson (we need program notes to identify the choreographers) was an extended work, from 1986, to Boccherini, but that does not carry the vitality of the Baroque repertoire that preceded his era. The work is staged by Christine Gunn, long-term teacher at the School, and by Nadine Tyson. The dancers all do well, but the challenges of choreographic structure on this music remain. In past years there has been one work on the program done to live piano accompaniment (after all, the two best ballet pianists in town—Phillip O’Malley and Craig Newsome—are on the staff here) but this line-up did not offer that opportunity.
Then followed After the Rain, a pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon, and the theatre fell silent. A man and a woman, dancing to Arvo Pärt’s music, Spiegel im Spiegel, for piano and violin (offering resonance back some years to alumna Raewyn Hill’s memorable choreography, Angels with Dirty Feet, to the same music). Every moment, every gesture, every position held and line followed, every lifting, sliding and lowering, shows choreographic mastery. They are not having sex, they are making love, in any generous understanding of those words you care to bring to reading them. It’s a triumph for a School anywhere to include Wheeldon’s work in its Graduation program. It was rehearsed by Qi Huan, premier dancer for years at RNZB, and the calibre of his work shines through the students’ performance.
Emerge, a solo for a male, by Australian choreographer Louise Deleur, was a world premiere. Also rehearsed by Qi Huan, it received a focused performance.
Christopher Hampson’s Saltarello, choreographed for RNZB in 2001, is a smart and sultry number and a fitting finale to this satisfyingly varied program. Here staged by Turid Revfeim, again a School alumna as well as long-term Company stalwart dancer, teacher, choreographer and administrator there, and now teacher at the School, it gives scope to a large cast who find the style and pizzaz to mix humour into its moves.
2018 marks 20 years since Garry Trinder became Director of the School and there can be no doubting his commitment to the wellbeing and developing careers of the students. Chair of the Board, Russell Bollard, spoke in tribute. The small print in the program reminds us that dancer and staff reps are included on the Board. Any decent workplace these days knows to represent the spectrum of its people among its governance. It’s a mark of confidence, high morale, respect, common sense and fair play. Top marks to this institution for that
17 September 2018 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
The high point in this new production of Spartacus is the set design by French artist Jérôme Kaplan. The costumes are, for the most part, beautifully designed too, but the sets are exceptional. In all three acts the overriding approach is a minimalist one, both in structure and colour. The design never overpowers the dancing, although it towers above it and has a real presence of its own. In the first act we are faced with a huge, dominant hand with one finger raised, positioned at the top of a very ceremonial-looking staircase. (The hand is modelled on the remains of a statue of the Roman Emperor Constantine who ruled early in the fourth century AD). Act II is distinguished by an elegant arched colonnade, and the closing act is just as powerful visually as, one by one, the bloodied slaves, who have been overcome by the Roman forces, stand on top of a diagonal row of huge rectangular blocks of faux concrete.
Emperor Constantine, fragments of a sculpture. Photo: Allan T. Kohl (Rights: Creative Commons, used with attribution)
There are quite powerful references, too, to some current ideologies, which choreographer Lucas Jervies clearly sees as resonating with the power and dominance that characterised ancient Rome. As the work opens, for example, we see a street parade with rows of dancers clad in short, white, sporty outfits moving in unison and waving red flags. This Spartacus is for today, although it follows in basic terms the story of the rebel slave Spartacus and his wife Flavia.
I wish, however, I could be more positive about the choreography. Jervies engaged fight director and weapon and movement specialist Nigel Poulton to choreograph the fight scenes, which are pretty much a constant feature of this Spartacus. And Poulton clearly did a great job. No swords here. It was all punching, slapping, hands-on fighting, and quite violent for the most part. But beyond the fighting, I felt that Jervies did not have a strong feel for spatial patterns or for how to make the most of the space of the stage in general. Much of the choreography seemed very earthbound with, to my mind, an over-emphasis on angular arm movements. Then at other times it seemed too classical for words as in the dance for the slaves in Act II.
I had the good fortune, however, as often happens with a matinee towards the end of a season, of seeing main roles being taken by artists who are moving up the ranks. On this occasion Spartacus was danced by Cristiano Martino, a company soloist, and Flavia by Benedicte Bemet, also a soloist. They acquitted themselves well and Martino in particular, with his strong, muscular body, really suited the role. But for me, although they looked longingly at each other at times, their performance lacked passion, which may well have been a result of passionless choreography. Still, it was a real pleasure to see them perform as they did in such demanding roles.
Once again, however, my eye was drawn to Joseph Romancewicz in the corps (as it was earlier this year in The Merry Widow). New to the company this year, Romancewicz has such a strong stage presence and an innate ability to interact with his fellow dancers. Not only that, he is also able to draw the audience into the action. Wonderful!
Lucas Jervies’ Spartacus was interesting theatre but I kept thinking it would be better with spoken text than with dancing.
7 November 2018. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
I thought I was reasonably familiar with the Nureyev production of Don Quixote, having seen the Australian Ballet’s production multiple times. But no! What La Scala Ballet gave us on its first-ever tour to Australia seemed like a completely different ballet. It was a very European production, in part due to the set design by Raffaele Del Savio with its combination of architectural ruins and European-style architecture in the village square, not to mention its tavern scene at the beginning of Act III, and the quite beautiful, almost ruined wooden windmill in the Gypsy Encampment scene at the beginning of Act II.
Don Quixote arrives in the village square. La Scala Ballet. Photo Marco Brescia & Rudi Amisano. Courtesy Teatro alla Scala
But it also had a lot to do with the approach of the dancers and their astonishing ability to engage with each other and with the audience throughout the ballet. This Don Quixote may have been about an eccentric gentleman and his adventures, but it was also about love and life and was filled with fun, happiness and interaction between people. We felt it all. We saw it all. And it seemed like we were part of it all.
There was also some spectacularly good dancing. The corps de ballet was brilliant in every scene whether dancing Spanish flavoured sections, as gypsies, or in classical formation. Their attention to detail and their unison dancing were truly impressive. But also especially impressive was the manner in which the dancers used the upper body—beautifully erect, elegant and centred in classical sections, but filled with passion and strength of characterisation at other times. And they looked out at us and invited us into their world.
Dulcinea and the Dryads in Don Quixote. La Scala Ballet. Photo: Marco Brescia & Rudi Amisano. Courtesy Teatra alla Scala
Most of the soloists gave stunning performances. Maria Celeste Losa as the Queen of the Dryads attacked those fouettés relevés into attitude in her solo with strength and glamour (and she followed up as the Bridesmaid in Act III showing off some wonderful grands jetés). Mattia Semperboni gave a powerful performance as the leading gypsy in Act II, and Marco Agostino was a fiery Espada. I also enjoyed the way Gamache was played by Riccardo Massimi. He was foppish without being pathetically so.
Leonid Sarafanov as Basilio. Don Quixote Act III, La Scala Ballet. Photo: Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano. Courtesy Teatro alla Scala
Of the principal roles both Nicoletta Manni as Kitri and Leonid Sarafanov as Basilio, the two young lovers, danced superbly and acted their parts beautifully, even sexily at times. Manni has an astonishing ability to balance in arabesque and to turn and jump in a spectacular manner. Sarafanov has a very finely sculpted body and his landings from jumps were the quietest I have encountered for some time. The role of Don Quixote was danced by Giuseppe Conte and I think it was perhaps his performance that really made me feel I was watching a whole new ballet. He played the role as a slightly distant eccentric rather than with the Helpmann-esque demand that we take notice of him and no one else. Conte was truly quixotic.
This was a spectacularly good production from an outstanding company of artists.
Michelle Potter, 9 November 2018
Featured image: Nicoletta Manni as Kitri in Don Quixote Act I, La Scala Ballet. Photo: Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano. Courtesy Teatro alla Scala