Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre

11 June 2021, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

SandSong. Stories from the Great Sandy Desert begins with some black and white footage that is instantly confrontational. Moving sharply from one event to another, and accompanied by an exceptionally loud sound score, it shows some of the atrocities endured by the Indigenous inhabitants of the Kimberley region over an extended period of time. In fact, the work as a whole focuses on the Kimberley area of Western Australia. Program notes tell us that SandSong is ‘a journey into ancient story systems framed against the backdrop of ever-changing government policy and of the survival of people determined to hold strong to their Culture.’

The opening footage sets the scene for what unfolds over the course of the performance and a timeline in the printed program expands on what the footage illustrates.

But SandSong had quite a different feel from most of the recent Bangarra productions I have seen. There were strong anthropological references in the early sections. In Act I, the Cold Dry Season, gender divisions in traditional society were made clear in a range of ways. We saw women’s business and activities in the form of specific dances, such as a bush onion dance showing the gathering and preparation of this food. We also watched preparations for a totem ceremony in which the men only were involved. As such the choreography was gender specific with the women performing quite simplistic movements at times, as opposed to the men for whom the choreography had more variety, more energy. Often the choreography for the men seemed to border on anger or to look inflammatory, while that for the women seem reserved and calm.

This gender division continued in Act 2, the Hot Dry Season, but changed somewhat as the story continued through the four sections. Particularly dramatic was Act 3 when the community entered a phase of working outside their traditional culture. The opening section, ‘Auction’ was especially powerful. Were the Kimberley people really being auctioned off for jobs on cattle stations and the like? A feeling of devastation crossed the footlights. Act 4 saw a kind of resolution, however, as healing and resilience began to emerge and by the end, as Rika Hamaguchi made her way around the stage, the anger and humiliation subsided as the dancers expressed their ties to kin and community.

Rika Hamaguchi in the final scene from SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Of the dancers, Beau Dean Riley Smith stood out throughout the show, as he has done for the past several years. While he did not play a specific character as he did, for example, in Macq and Bennelong, his ‘maleness’ in the early sections was brilliant. It was clear in every movement and every part of his body, including neck and head as well as limbs. I also admired the work of Baden Hitchcock with his fluid and very expressive movement, and of Rika Hamaguchi who had a beautiful serenity at times. But Bangarra is full of new faces. We have much to anticipate I think.

Baden Hitchcock in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Once again Jennifer Irwin’s costumes were simply outstanding, especially in the feathery detail that seemed an essential part of many items, but also in the contemporary feel that her costumes developed towards the end.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Jacob Nash’s backcloth was quite simple and shimmered under the lighting of Nick Schlieper. Steve Francis concocted the score from a range of sources including voice and words along with recordings from previous Bangarra shows.

I came away from SandSong with mixed reactions. It is perhaps a show that needs more than a single viewing for the complexities, not so much of the story, but of the choreographic expression of those stories to become clearer.

Michelle Potter, 14 June 2021

Featured image: Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet (2021)

4 June 2021. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

I last saw Greg Horsman’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet) back in 2015. Then I made a flying, unanticipated trip to Brisbane because I needed to see a different version from the one created by David McAllister for the Australian Ballet. I disliked the McAllister production, which was not about Aurora to my eyes, and in which everything was overpowered by the design elements. I came away from that initial Brisbane experience much more satisfied that Aurora had a role in the ballet, and that the collaborative elements worked with each other to create a whole without one element dominating all.

Having all that out of my system, this time I was able to concentrate on other aspects of the production. Horsman has reimagined certain parts of the storyline and, while this is now a relatively commonplace procedure, it has to be done really well and with a sound reason for changing things. The main issue for me was making Carabosse too much like the other fairies. She wore the same style tutu as the others (except it was black and had transparent sleeves). But sometimes she danced together with the other fairies and somehow, despite representing the spirit of evil, she seemed to recede into the background as a major player in the narrative. The role was performed quite nicely, technically speaking, by Georgia Swan but I wanted a Carabosse who stood apart, strongly, from the others. It just didn’t happen.

Carabosse (centre) and the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The leading roles of Aurora and the Prince were danced by Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez. Yoshida danced pretty much faultlessly but didn’t seem to be as involved in her role as I have seen from her on previous occasions. On the other hand, Estévez was not only a strong performer in a technical sense (his entrance at the beginning of the second act—the Prince’s hunting party—was spectacular and drew applause), but he had the carriage and demeanour of a prince at every moment.

Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato were the Bluebirds for this performance. While Green and Iwamoto performed beautifully in terms of technique—and all those beats, including the series of brisés volés, need strong techniques—I was disappointed (and I often am). The story behind the Bluebird section is that he is teaching her how to fly and that she is listening to him. This backstory rarely comes across and it didn’t on this opening night. It was a shame about Iwamato’s costume, too. It had a very high neckline that practically removed his neck from sight.

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato as the Bluebirds in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The highlight of the evening for me was the Prince’s hunting party scene. Estévez I have mentioned. His friends, danced by David Power and Joel Woellner, and Gallifron the Prince’s tutor, a role taken by Vito Bernasconi, brought light and shade, some amusement, and good dancing and acting to the scene.

Choreographically Horsman has kept much of what we think of as the original movements, especially in the various pas de deux and solos. But where he has made choreographic changes there is little excitement. Much is predictable. Lots of arabesques. Lots of retiré relevé type movements.

So, all in all I found the production and the performance somewhat disappointing. In fact I began to wonder about remakes of well-known classics. While there will always be changes of one sort or another to any ballet, it takes an exceptional choreographer to do a remake. Those who succeed usually bring a completely new work to the stage. Liam Scarlett did it with his Midsummer Night’s Dream. Graeme Murphy has done it on several occasions. I thought Horsman did it (almost) with his Bayadère, despite the fact that there were certain issues associated in some minds with current thoughts re political correctness.

But this Sleeping Beauty was not a remake, just the same story with a few elements added, a few removed, and some changes to the way the story unfolded. It made me long for someone to do something completely new, or to revive an old fashioned production! Seeing it in 2015 was just a relief after the McAllister production. In 2021 perhaps my reservations were a result of having watched the Royal Ballet’s recent streaming of its hugely engaging presentation of the Ninette de Valois Beauty of 1946?

Michelle Potter, 7 June 2021

Featured image: Serena Green, Laura Tosar, Chiara Gonzalez and Mia Heathcote as the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Te Mauri o Pōhutu. Kia Mau Festival

Fridays through June, 2021. Toi Poneke Arts Centre Gallery, Wellington
…from Jennifer Shennan

At Toi Poneke Gallery last Friday evening, we watched Te Mauri o Pōhutu (The Life-Force of Pōhutu) , a lyrical duo performed by Bianca Hyslop and Paige Shand, with vocals by Tūī Matira Ranapiri Ransfield, with Rowan Pierce as sound and spatial designer. The event, with an extended karanga of welcome and challenge, opened the month-long Kia Mau Festival in Wellington.

This is a dance of flow and surge and curve and turn and return, of arc and arch and sweep and pull and tilt—not a straight limb nor an angled joint in sight, no pointed hook for a dancer’s foot, no self-conscious strut or mannered striving of torso and limbs, just two beautifully-tuned bodies, dressed in the sacred red of blood and of mana, moving with grace and nature, dancing a twenty-minute lullaby and homage to an old woman’s life, to family, to village, to history and to the present, to gravity, to the air around and above, with their bare feet on the same ground we all stand on. The dance is an embrace, a mapping, a marking. Bianca has said elsewhere … ‘I’m not interested in making works of protest, rather to create living works of beauty that serve as reminders…’ and in her program note here …’Te Mauri o Pōhutu is a sensual offering that addresses the fragility of memory, connection to whenua and reclamation of culture from within foreign frameworks.’  Amen and Kia Mau to that.

After a koru of curving swirling hands, growing into arms then swelling into torso spirals, we are reminded of the kowhaiwhai shapes of painted ceiling panels in nga whare whakairo, meetings houses, and of the tossing flights of poi in Maori dance. An intriguing section follows with the two dancers picking up marker pens to draw the outline of a village on an adjacent boardfirst the landline, then the road, the houses, a church, a bridge, a river – a story without words.

Movement in the following section suggests stronger claim to emotions of closeness, strife, then a mood of acceptance as the two dancers move behind a screen to make shadows of their thoughts. It’s a poignant image of mind and body taking their leave of each other…followed by video of Te Pōhutu in close-up. The potency of the geyser’s force is clear, but the dance has found a space to co-exist in its shadow. We all know how unpredictable geysers and volcanoes can be, witness the horrors of the Whakaari Island recent eruption, with devastating injuries and loss of life. At the entrance to the gallery, we have passed a plinth on which sits a tiny ‘sculpture’, a cone of sand, a miniature mountain. A reminder. 

Toi Pōneke, Rotorua’s famous cone geyser, Pōhutu, has been mecca for decades of tourists watching and wondering at its power. For centuries before that it has been a central landmark in Ohinemutu village for Te Arawa people, whose home is Rotorua and surrounding areas. We all as children watched Pōhutu, and marvelled at its mighty forces escaping from under the ground, wondering if it would blow all the way up to the sky and take us with it. The geyser blows on average every twenty minutes—the same duration of this dance which has borrowed its name. The geyser will have blown several times as I have been writing this appreciation, and probably at least once while you have been reading it.

All photos: © Roc Torio

Jennifer Shennan, 6 June 2021

New York City Ballet 2021 Spring Gala. On film

New York City Ballet’s most recent offering in its series ‘From our home to yours’ was a film directed by Sofia Coppola based on a concept by Coppola and Justin Peck. It consisted of excerpts from two works by George Balanchine, Duo Concertant and Liebeslieder Walzer; an excerpt from Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering; a new work, Solo, choreographed by Peck; and the finale from Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15. What stood out for me in this beautifully danced production, however, was the structure of the film.

The first four excerpts were filmed in black and white, which at first seemed somewhat strange. Why dispense with colour when presenting an art form where costuming, and the colours used throughout, often matter? Only the final section, the Balanchine Divertimento, was filmed in colour.

Then there were the locations to consider. The first excerpt, that from Dances at a Gathering, was performed by Gonzalo Garcia and took place in a studio space. The second, a duet from Duo Concertant performed by Ashley Bouder and Russell Janzen, was set in a backstage area in the David H. Koch Theater, home of New York City Ballet. The third, a pas de deux from Liebeslieder Walzer danced by Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour, was danced in a public space, the theatre’s Grand Promenade where audiences often gather and socialise prior to performances. The fourth, the world premiere of Peck’s Solo performed by Antony Huxley, took place onstage. Finally, colour arrived and a performance of the finale from Divertimento No. 15 took place onstage with dancers in costume. It was performed as a full production (or part thereof since it was the finale only).

In effect, the film’s structure took us from studio to stage, via the various locations in which a performance is developed and takes place. It was a slow and considered progression and represented the solitude, the lack of social interaction, and the problems of various kinds affecting dancers as they slowly worked, throughout the many months of the coronavirus pandemic, towards an eventual return to full performance.

The development was heightened by the black and white footage for the earlier sequences, with the lack of a certain vibrancy that colour brings, which finally gave way to the colour that we know is a feature of a full production. Moreover, the selection of works also was a progression. The solo from Dances at a Gathering is the opening section of that ballet when it is performed in full, while the work that ended the film was the final section of the full Divertimento No. 15.

In many respects, too, there was a degree of introspection or reflection in the earlier works, which stood in opposition to the joyous movement that characterised Divertimento No. 15. Moving from beginning to end in so many ways, it was a beautifully realised and brilliant concept from Coppola and Peck.

Of course there was some spectacular dancing. I admired in particular the performance by Gonzalo Garcia in the Robbins work. His ability to show the classicism as well as references to character steps, which are a highlight of Robbins’ choreography in this case, was exciting to watch. And Maria Kowroski has always been a dancer I have loved to watch and the engagement between her and la Cour was tender, filled with emotion and very moving.

But what a film!

Michelle Potter, 28 May 2021

Featured image: A coloured image of Maria Kowrowski and Ask la Cour in Liebeslieder Waltzen.

REBEL. Then. Now. When? Quantum Leap Ensemble

20 May 2021. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

The latest offering from the Quantum Leap Ensemble, an intrinsic part of the structure of Canberra’s QL2 Dance, has the title REBEL (short version). For a while I thought of this as a noun—who has not been a rebel at some stage in one’s life? But, as the work unfolded, it was clear that the title was more properly seen as a verb—it is the action that is at the heart of the work, although of course those who carry out the action are nevertheless the rebels.

As the full title suggests, REBEL was in three parts. It began with Then, a look back at the rebellious period of the 1960s and its moving into the 70s. Hippydom was before our eyes in the outrageous fashion, the hugely expressive dance moves, and the pleasure of being oneself.

This section, choreographed by Ruth Osborne and Steve Gow, had the audience clapping and cheering the dancers along, and no doubt dancing along themselves—in spirit.

But there was more to the Hippy era than this freedom to love, dance, and dress as one pleased. Vietnam was a focus of demonstrations, the feminist movement was strong, and it was a period of rebellion in many areas. This aspect was made clear by background footage, often archival and drawn from the era, assembled and projected by Wild Bear Digital.

What followed was mostly angry and confrontational. The second section, Now, was subtitled ‘Problem child’ and was choreographed by Jack Ziesing. It began with a spoken tirade from one of the performers, Toby McKnight, speaking with full-on anger at what was seen as the unacceptable social conditions of the present time.

Ziesing’s choreography worked to explain those conditions. It began with highly organised and geometrically structured movement and groupings but slowly broke into more dramatic scenes that sometimes looked like street dancing and other times as an effort to break free from conventions, or to be included as part of a wider community.

Mark Dyson’s lighting added particular strength to this section, which at times was lit red and, as a result, added a sense of anger to the action. The commissioned score from Adam Ventoura also added to the theme of anger. It was relentless, loud and percussive and brilliantly suited to the action, and vice versa.

As this section concluded, the angry young man reappeared and finished off his tirade of anger. Now slowly morphed into When?, choreographed by Jodie Farrugia. The dancers continued their anger but I missed the point of the women balancing books on their head. It reminded me of the June Dally Watkins 1950s manner of teaching young people good posture and deportment. Was it meant to suggest perhaps that books and greater knowledge hold the key to overcoming problematic issues?

But the continuing anger towards perceived unacceptable conditions was very clear towards the end as protest placards were held up and the performers crowded the stage and glared accusingly out at the audience. Somehow, however, this demanding ending left me cold. Is the future really so hopeless? And the brief return to the joy of life after the curtain calls did little to appease.

For me the opening section was the most successful of the three. It was clearly structured, true to the period, and engaging as well thought provoking. But what struck me about this show in particular (although it probably is a feature of every QL2 show), was the commitment, intensity and strength of contemporary technique these young dancers show as they perform. I loved too the strong production values (again an ongoing feature of QL2 productions).

But surely the world is not all gloom and doom?

Michelle Potter, 22 May 2021

All photos © Lorna Sim. And what a fabulous collaboration there is between Sim and QL2!

Featured image: Final scene from ‘When?’ in REBEL. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Rainbow Serpent. Canberra International Music Festival 2021

9 May 2021, James O. Fairfax Theatre, National Gallery of Australia

Rainbow Serpent was the overarching title given to the penultimate program of the 2021 Canberra International Music Festival. It featured four distinctive works of music and dance. Two focused on the myth of the Rainbow Serpent as understood, on the one hand, by the Murrawarri people whose land straddles the border between New South Wales and Queensland, and, on the other, the people of the Melville and Bathurst Islands north of Darwin.

The most significant of the dance offerings was Mundaguddah, a solo choreographed and danced by Tammi Gissell, a proud Murrawarri woman, to a 1982 score by Brian Howard. Howard’s composition was dedicated to dancer/choreographer/artistic director Barry Moreland and in 1982 was given a performance choreographed by Moreland and danced by prominent ballet dancer Kelvin Coe.* For this 2021 production, the composition was played onstage by Ensemble Offspring, a chamber ensemble of violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trombone and percussion.

Gissell’s appearance as the Rainbow Serpent was sudden and unexpected. She was dressed in white tights and top with a short skirt, which was partially covered by a black coat. From a downstage corner, she slid and writhed onto the narrow stage space of the James O. Fairfax Theatre and, performing in an even narrower space than usual given that the musicians occupied a significant area, her lithe and liquid body twisted and contorted itself to the other side of the stage. Occasionally she would rise up and with shimmering hands draw attention to her upper body.

Tammi Gissell in Rainbow Serpent, 2021. Photo Peter Hislop
Tammi Gissell in Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

Reaching the other corner, she picked up props representing branches and, wrapping herself in a long piece of cloth lit with various colours, she began what was the most exciting section of the dance. She seemed no longer to be representing the snake but, from a standing position, to be showing us a human reaction to the myth. Removing the black coat (shedding skin?), she stretched her body in all directions and eventually picked up a long stick, which she swirled and wrapped around her before balancing it across her shoulders as the dance concluded.

Removing the black coat/shedding skin in Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

Gissell has always provided a fascinating view of the subject of her works. Program notes tell us that the word Mundaguddah refers to the spirit of the Rainbow Serpent and Gissell showed us various aspects of that spirit from its serpent-like characteristics to the ways in which that spirit engages the community that honours it.

Tammi Gissell in Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

The production and performance of Tammi Gissell’s Rainbow Serpent was commissioned and supported by Ausdance ACT and the Canberra International Music Festival.

The other work with a dance component was Ngarukuruwala, a selection of action songs featuring the group Tiwi Strong Women, accompanied by a male performer who played clapsticks and also sang and danced. It was a quite different approach from what we saw from Gissell. Ngarukuruwala was basically a rendition of traditional songs associated with the Rainbow Serpent myth. Accompanied by simple stamping movements and lifted arms, it was also quite different in terms of movement. It was much enjoyed by the audience and by the performers themselves, who seemed delighted to be presenting their heritage in Canberra.

Three Tiwi Strong Women in Ngarukuruwala, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

Publicity for Ngarukuruwala suggested that during this performance we would see screened footage from the National Film and Sound Archive of Tiwi ancestors performing traditional songs and dances. Well this didn’t happen, at least not at the performance I attended. We did see screened, however, some art representing the Rainbow Serpent, in particular a painting by Maggie Timapaetua. Shame about the lack of archival footage, but Ngarukuruwala finished with a healing song in response to the pandemic that has touched us all.

Two other items comprised the full program: Three Songs from Joe Geia and the ANU Jazz Collective (including an interesting version of Advance Australia Fair), and Rain falls and after for two guitars by Christopher Sainsbury, played engagingly by Andrew Blanch and Vladimir Gorbach.

Michelle Potter 10 May 2021

*This seems to be what happened although I was interested to find an article by James Murdoch in Theatre Australia for May 1982 in which he stated that the work was to be performed by Kelvin Coe and dancers of Sydney Dance Company. Moreland was choreographing for Sydney Dance Company at the time and Coe was dancing with the company. But the reference to other dancers may well have been an unrealised intention. That the work was dedicated to Moreland can be found on the Australian Music Centre site.

Featured image: Tammi Gissell in a Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

The Point. Liz Lea Dance Company

29 April 2021, Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra

My review of The Point was published by Limelight on 30 April. See this link. Below is a small gallery of extra images that show more of the costumes and lighting, as well as the projections of Griffin designs, which I have mentioned briefly in the review.

As I mentioned in my review, I was especially taken by the lighting used to illuminate the action from a different perspective, which you can see in the image immediately above. Without wishing to detract from Karen Norris’ lighting for The Pointe, which was spectacular, with this particular change of perspective I was reminded of a similar use of lighting in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara. As we watch the final sections of the Murphy production we feel as though we are onstage with Clara as she dances her final performance. Similarly in The Point, with this lighting change we, the audience, became part of the performance.

The Point continues to resonate in the minds (and voices) of those who saw it. There have been calls for it to travel!

Michelle Potter, 3 May 2021

All images © Andrew Sikorski

New York Dialects. The Australian Ballet

17 April 2021 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The first thing to say about this first Sydney program for 2021 from the Australian Ballet is that the dancers look fabulous. They are in terrific form in a technical sense and seem absolutely to relish being back onstage after a grim 2020. Watching them perform was a real thrill.

The program was certainly an interesting one and at the end it became clear what the ‘dialect’ of the title was (or was not) all about. The language of each of the three works, Serenade and The Four Temperaments, both by George Balanchine, and Watermark by Pam Tanowitz, was very much about the vocabulary of ballet (contemporary and otherwise) and the way that vocabulary can be arranged onstage. I’m not sure, however, that this is specifically a New York dialect, except that the two choreographers are or were New Yorkers. If we think of dialect as being a form of language specific to a particular region, it seems to me that what we saw was a choreographic dialect from people who happen to be New Yorkers. I guess I didn’t much like the title of the program. But I did like the dancing and in some cases the choreography.

Serenade has always been a beautiful way to start a program. Although Balanchine liked to say his ballets didn’t usually have a story behind them, I love those moments when there is a backstory there. In Serenade there is the girl who arrives late, for example, and also the mystery ending when two dancers embrace and one is then lifted high and carried into the distance. What has happened? What will happen? Then there’s the opening scene. It always generates a frisson of delight, even though it is expected.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in the opening scene of Serenade, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Throughout the work, Balanchine’s masterful groupings and use of the stage space, and his particular take on the classical vocabulary, are clearly on view. A work to watch over and over.

Second on the program was a new work from Pam Tanowitz, Watermark. I have to ignore that title because it seemed meaningless in relation to the work. Tanowitz’s vocabulary was quirky in parts, with its beats done with feet as if in first position, its jerky arm and hand gestures and its frequent use of drooping bodies. Tanowitz counts former Cunningham dancer Viola Farber as one of her mentors and where the vocabulary was not so eccentric it reminded me a lot of the Cunningham style with its off centre movements and its jetés that never tried to look as though they were like splits in the air.

I also wondered why a line of dancers, midway through the piece, needed to come onstage from the auditorium? And I couldn’t enjoy the ending when the stage space was virtually empty and all the dancers were lined up along the wings. It just seemed like trying too hard to be different. This is the second work by Tanowitz that I have seen and I can’t say I have really enjoyed either of them.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in a scene from Watermark, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Four Temperaments was beautifully danced. Some of Balanchine’s vocabulary in this work might also be called quirky but its flow and role in the overall piece was arresting rather than seeming out of place. There is a coherence there.

The Sydney Opera House was making an exceptional effort with its COVID plan, even though the venue was pretty much at 100% capacity. But one aspect of it all was exceptionally annoying. Cast sheets were not available so it was not always possible to identify the performers with accuracy (and so I have not mentioned any names in this review). There was the option to scan a cast list onto one’s phone but how would that list look on a screen the size of a phone, apart from the fact that there is nothing more annoying than audience members looking at their phones during a performance. At least there could have been a cast sheet affixed to a board somewhere in the foyer. Next time I guess I need to print off a cast list from the Australian Ballet’s website and trust that it will be accurate on the day? Perhaps we could have been warned in advance? Or did I miss something along the line?

Michelle Potter, 20 April 2021

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in a moment from The Four Temperaments, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

.

GRIMM. Sydney Choreographic Centre

16 April 2021. Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

GRIMM is the first work from the newly established Sydney Choreographic Centre and a world premiere from its director, Francesco Ventriglia. It takes an unusual look at some of the characters from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), examining the emotions of these fairytale characters and the passage they make from youth to maturity. We meet, for example, Snow White, the Frog Prince, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. We watch as they are pressured by a black clad figure, an evil character encompassing stepmother, witch and any other malevolent figure from a Grimm story. By the end every one of them had been transformed. Even the black clad Evil One (my name for this character) took on a new guise and appeared finally as a figure enveloped by golden clothes and shining lights. 

Ariella Casu (centre) with dancers of the Sydney Choreographic Centre in the final moments of GRIMM, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Asher Smith

Ventriglia’s choreography was fast-paced and filled with astonishing lifts with arms and legs constantly being thrown in all directions. It was quite angular most of the time. I waited for some moments of stillness, and the occasional feeling of roundness and softening of the limbs, but the angularity continued throughout. The duet between Snow White and her partner came closest to having a sense of calm and smoothness, but only occasionally. All the performers were, however, outstanding dancers and I especially admired the strength and emotional power of Ariella Casu, both as the Evil One and in the final moments when her black costume was stripped away to reveal a different side (perhaps?) of her character. 

Although I wished for more diversity in the choreography, at least in its immediate impact, I was stunned by the absolutely brilliant, very contemporary visual effects throughout. The lighting by Alex Berlage left a lot of the stage quite dark for much of the time but the strong side and down lights were exceptional in the way they highlighted the various characters. The projections by Marco Giani were quite minimal in most cases—just narrow rectangles of light filled with largely abstract designs, although they clearly represented forces of nature. But they too added to an understanding of who the characters were and never detracted from the movement. Costumes by James Acheson, especially for the main characters, were impressive and again a strong sense of the contemporary in design was clear.

On the night I attended the performance the audience reaction was astonishing—cheering, stamping on the floor and the like. It took me back to the days when audiences seemed to go wild with excitement at the ballet (as far back as Borovansky even). Let’s see what happens with the next show from this bold new venture.

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2021

Featured image: Holly Doyle as Red Riding Hood is carried off by wolves in GRIMM. Sydney Choreographic Centre, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Asher Smith

Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aotearoa with New Zealand Trio

8 & 9 April 2021. Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland
Auckland Arts Festival
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This long-awaited premiere season of a new contemporary ballet company, BalletCollective Aotearoa, was nothing short of a triumph. Come the curtain-call, many in the sizeable audience were on their feet to salute the choreographers and composers, the dancers, musicians and designers, the courage and commitment—the whole fresh resilient New Zealand-ness of it all. Many are in the team but artistic director and producer, Turid Revfeim, is responsible, and deserves acclaim.

Revfeim has led her stalwart little troupe of dancers in and out, around and back through the Covid-induced challenges and shadows of these past many months. They must have walked close to the edge more than once, as funding began then disappeared (the Minister of Arts might ask questions about that), lockdowns descended (‘Just do the right thing and stay home’), schedules postponed (‘Well, let’s just re-schedule then’), flights and accommodation booked then cancelled (‘OK, let’s just re-book then’), ‘Let’s just abandon the project since there’s no budget and it’s so hard to keep going?’ (‘Never, never, never. We will dance’). ‘Intrepid’ and ‘indomitable’ are the adjectives they have earned.

There were shades of 1953 and the pioneering endeavours of Edmund Hillary, or perhaps I mean Poul Gnatt, as the performance got under way. The intensely passionate and utterly stunning musicians of New Zealand Trio were right there, just off-centre, upstage left, for the whole performance. By that staging, the three separate choreographies on the program merged as a trefoil of faith, a shamrock of hope, a clover of charity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. J. S. Bach walked 400 miles to hear a concert. I only had to sit on a plane for one hour.

There is an impressive interview with Turid Revfeim on RNZ Nine to Noon, 9 April, (the podcast on RNZ website is well worth listening to), which sets the background and context of this courageous ballet initiative. If you think this is a rave review of the performance and of the entire enterprise, you are right.  

Scene from Sarah Knox’s Last Time We Spoke. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The opening work—Last Time We Spoke—by Sarah Knox, to composition by Rhian Sheehan, was an abstract yet poetic treatment of themes of how to be alone together. The cast of six dancers in fluid pairings across several sections of the work found connection in the lyrical music to make friends with consolation and memory. Tabitha Dombroski and William Fitzgerald were striking among the cast of six dancers.

Helix, the second work by Cameron Macmillan, one of New Zealand’s ex-pat choreographers whose work we all want to see more of, borrowed its title from the music, Helix, composed by John Psathas, leading New Zealand composer. It was preceded by an excerpt from Island Songs, a different composition by Psathas, a staggeringly virtuosic challenge to musicians who rose to every thrilling, throbbing quaver of its melodic percussion.

Scene from Cameron Macmillan’s Helix. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

In Helix, the drama continued as Macmillan traced a journey, not exactly narrative but with suggestions of story nonetheless—a woman, a man, and shades of relationships between them. Some woman. This was the phenomenal Abigail Boyle who is quite simply the leading ballet dancer in the country, no contest. Just standing still she is dancing, such is her sense of line and presence, but when she moves, o my. Her investment in the role as she journeyed round the corners of the stage carrying her chair, and through the centre of the stage as she contained emotion in her every movement, was a deeply anchored yet airborne performance. Boyle is a national treasure of dance in New Zealand and we are overjoyed to see her performing still at the peak of her powers. William Fitzgerald partnered her with a strong and sensitive quality that reminded us of his dancing which has also been much missed here of late. Tabitha Dombrowski and Medhi Angot were powerful among the committed cast of eight performers.

Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott

The third work, Subtle Dances, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, composed by Claire Cowan, takes its title from the music, which in turn becomes the title for the triple-bill as well. Prior and Cowan are a pairing of major talents. The work explores and explodes with themes of gender blurring—swirls of hot tango as the boys and girls and boys come out to play. It is saucy, spicy, dark and compelling. Complex courtships, allusion alternating with illusion, remind us of nature’s best dancers. It invites searing performances from all the cast, and confirms this BalletCollective Aotearea as a troupe of striking dance talent, in fabulous collaboration with the phenomenal musicians of the New Zealand Trio.

As soon as the box office opens for their next season we will be in the queue, however many hundred miles of travel that might mean. Here is a link to the RNZ podcast featuring Turid Revfeim.

Jennifer Shennan, 10 April 2021

Featured image: Scene from Loughlan Prior’s Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aoteraoa, 2021. Photo: © John McDermott