60th Anniversary Gala. Queensland Ballet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 6 March 2021

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

Firestarter. The story of Bangarra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 2 March 2021

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

Impermanence. Sydney Dance Company

17 February 2021. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 22 February 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 11 February 2021

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

My place. QL2 Dance

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 26 January 2021

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

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

BalletX Beyond. Four new dance films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2020

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

Not a dance as such …

Daily Deaths
5 December 2020, Futuna Chapel, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The practice of dance notation has always intrigued me. The notion of recording in symbols a choreography, of studying a dance form, style or technique, of documenting a dance tradition or of analysing human movement for medical and therapeutic purpose, seems intrinsically interesting. Using a camera to video a dance does not begin to capture or analyse the depth, detail and intricacy of movement as a notation can. Different systems of dance notation exist, and it is interesting to compare the analytic concepts on which they are based. The foresight of Doris Humphrey and Jose Limon in commissioning notations of their entire choreographic repertoires into kinetography Laban (Laban notation) ensures that their numerous classic works can continue to be performed long after their lifetime. 

The very earliest examples of notated dances in European history, date from 14th century France, Spain and Italy. They are the mediaeval basses danses, scribed into exquisite miniature calligraphy, jewel-like in silver and gold on a black background. The music tenor, the guidelines to the composition and the initials of the names of the steps are all notated. Musicians today can play from these notes ( they are breves on a stave, without bar lines ), dancers can learn the style and memorise the steps—thus an eight hundred year old dance can be breathed back into life. I always say to students that doing a basse danse is a bit like dancing the rosary—a string of steps with variations, in a sequence that creates a meditative quality of abstract thought. That is not a bad description of a music performance I just witnessed in Wellington last weekend—so, not a dance as such, but a meditative witnessing of tragic statistics of Covid mortalities. You could have set a basse danse to the music.     

Performance of Daily Deaths, 5 December 2020. Photo: © Russ Beban

Futuna Chapel in Karori proved an ideal venue for this highly unusual event. John Scott’s architecture is itself a work of art, and the stained-glass panels by sculptor Jim Allen threw a wash of colour, backlit by sunshine, into the space. Those attending might have felt they were at a vigil for a global phenomenon in history, rather than merely an audience at a conventional concert. There were no doubt challenges for some who are new to this world of alternative music-making, but the strong and sustained final applause signalled that many had had a uniquely memorable experience.

Composer Daniel Beban made an hour long work from the sobering statistics of 8 different countries’ Covid mortality rates these past months, layering and morphing these into graphic scores for 18 musicians in a range of paired wind and string instruments.

Long slow breaths from each performer in the opening section developed into breathings through the instruments without yet sounding tones. Then notes were blown for the length of a sustained slow breath, or bowed for the duration of a slow single stroke. Some instruments merged into each other’s sounds, some became more dominant, evoking images of individuals struggling to breathe, to survive, against whatever odds. It seemed like an abstracted report on experience from the front line, at times dreamlike, though sometimes involving nightmares.

The composition played out as a serious witnessing of untold numbers who have suffered, survived, or not survived this vicious pandemic. I felt grateful to be able to contemplate that sad wider picture without the cacophony of reports of a few braying politicians in denial of science, recipients of hugely expensive treatments for their own care yet with no sense of community or empathy—contrasting with the reality of pleas for help from the front-line, and epidemiologists who need us to listen and to act responsibly and humanely.    

The fact that the composer is my son-in-law and one of the musicians my daughter is what some might perceive as a conflict of interest within this review, but for me that only reinforced the truth that for every name on the lists of the dead, there’s a family left to hold on to memory. This work seemed like a basse danse, a rosary of consolation for them.  

Jennifer Shennan, 9 December 2020

Featured image: Page from the manuscript Basse danses de Marguerite d’Autriche, XV century, Flemish School. Bibliothèque royale de Belgique. Brussels.

Two recent books

  • David McAllister (with Amanda Dunn), Soar. A life freed by dance (Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 2020)
  • Mary Li, Mary’s last dance (Penguin Australia, 2020)

When faced with two dance books recently published in Australia, one by David McAllister and one by Mary Li, my first reaction was, are they memoirs or autobiographies and what is the difference? I didn’t really know the difference until a bit of online searching suggested that a memoir is generally focused on a particular aspect of the author’s life, whereas an autobiography covers an entire life: ‘Although it’s subjective, [an autobiography] primarily focuses on facts – the who-what-when-where-why-how of [an author’s] entire timeline.’ Both books, I concluded are memoirs. Soar focuses on McAllister’s sexuality, Mary’s last dance on Li’s first daughter, Sophie, and how Li managed Sophie’s profound deafness. Both of course, also give us other information about the life and career of two significant figures in the Australian dance world, but a particular focus is definitely there.

The writing in Mary’s last dance is forthright. We are left in no doubt about Li’s stand on pretty much everything she writes about. The early part, in which we learn of her family background as Mary McKendry, is both entertaining and informative, as are the stories about her professional career, her meeting with her husband Li Cunxin, and their subsequent life together. But it is the focus on managing Sophie’s deafness that is compelling, giving an insight into the concerns that plagued Li as she and her husband sought to make life for Sophie a comfortable and fruitful one. How the situation developed as Sophie took control of her own life is great reading. This book speeds along and constantly touches the heart.

Soar has a quite different quality. There are some lovely anecdotes and some interesting comments by McAllister about his various engagements around the world. The Prologue, ‘Ballet boy lost’, comes with a jolt and sets the scene for McAllister’s search to understand his sexual identity and find peace with himself, which he says in the final chapter he thinks he has achieved. And the image of McAllister on the back cover by Lisa Tomasetti is brilliant. But the tone of the book is somewhat shy and retiring and there seems to be an overriding concern to speak kindly of those who have crossed his path. McAllister has been a popular artistic director, as much as anything for his kind and generous nature.

Two memoirs. Both easy reads. Two very different personalities revealed.

Michelle Potter, 26 November 2020

Here is where I enjoyed a discussion of memoir versus autobiography.

Danny Riley in Similar, Same but Different. Hot to Trot, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Hot to Trot (2020). QL2 Dance

Hot to Trot is an annual dance event in Canberra and is designed to give senior Quantum Leap dancers (who are mostly in their teens!) the opportunity to create their own choreography. Despite the issues that have plagued the arts community over the past several months, Hot to Trot 2020 went ahead in QL2’s black box space in Gorman Arts Centre, complete I should add with emphasis on the physical distancing of audience members. Two short films and eight live productions were presented.

What especially attracted me in this year’s program was the ability of the choreographers to use the performing space to advantage. They understood how to arrange their dancers, and any props they used, within the space, sometimes filling it, sometimes using corners, diagonals, upstage and downstage areas, and so forth. It reflects well on the QL2 Dance program where, from the beginning, young, prospective artists are taught stage techniques as well as dance technique.

But one work stood out for me—Danny Riley’s Similar, Same but Different. It was essentially a reflective work that examined the connections Riley sees as existing between him and his older brother, Jack, who is now a professional dancer and choreographer. In essence it was a replay of a work made by Jack Riley, which we saw on a film in the background. Danny Riley danced the same choreography for the most part and began by wearing a white jacket that his brother had worn—it was rather too long for him, which in itself spoke to us about those family connections. As the work progressed Danny Riley removed the white tuxedo and replaced it with a short, black jacket of his own—it fitted nicely! But, finally, that too was discarded and we understood that Danny Riley was his own man but with influences from family connections. It was a moving work that unfolded logically and clearly but that was complex in the ideas that it generated in our minds.

I loved that Riley didn’t see the need to use text as an essential addition to his work. Which brings me to the criticisms I have of this Hot to Trot program, and other such programs at QL2. I really wish that there could be a stronger realisation by these young choreographers that dance has the capacity to engage and comment within itself. It doesn’t need to have a text to which dancers react and which is meant (I think) to help the audience understand what is going on in the work. Speaking onstage during a performance is a particular skill and requires training. So often with QL2 productions, in which the spoken word is used, it is not easy to hear or understand what is being said. Not only does this reflect a lack of voice training, but also that the spoken text is often not well integrated with the score, which means that the words are drowned out by the score. And pretty much always, in my opinion, the spoken text seriously detracts from the dance aspects of the work.

The other issue that bothers me concerns the subjects young choreographers often choose as inspiration—subject matter that is quite abstract, or philosophical. Wayne McGregor or William Forsythe might be (and are) good at using conceptual issues as the basis for a dance work, and Tim Harbour at the Australian Ballet is also moving in this direction with particular skill, but they are experienced, professional artists who understand what dance can do best. It communicates through movement.

But to return to the Hot to Trot program itself, the other work I especially enjoyed was the short film by Natsuko Yonezawa, which opened the program. Called Flowering, it was filmed during rehearsals for the recent Leap into Chaos project by QL2 and focused on group movement. The raw footage was assembled and edited so we saw a kaleidoscope of images that recalled flowers growing in ever-changing, ever-expanding patterns. To me the film often looked like origami, being made or being made to move. It was quite beautiful and a great introduction to the program.

Screenshot from Natsuko Yonezawa’s Flowering. Hot to Trot, 2020

Other works on the program were created by Magnus Meagher, Alyse and Mia Canton, Courtney Tha, Lillian Cook, Pippi Keogh, Hollie Knowles, Rory Warne, and Sarah Long.

Michelle Potter, 25 November 2020

Featured image: Danny Riley in Similar, Same but Different. Hot to Trot, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern. © ROH 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Flight Pattern. The Royal Ballet Digital Season 2020

Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern premiered in London in 2017 and it was a revival from 2019 that was streamed for the Royal Ballet’s 2020 digital season. Danced to a movement from Henryk Górecki’s sombre Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it has a cast of 36 dancers and is ambitious in both scale and concept. It is also immensely moving and choreographically absorbing.

Flight Pattern draws on Pite’s thoughts about the plight of refugees, and the humanitarian crisis that their plight generates and that affects us all in one way or another. But its focus is strongly on the emotional plight of these people and it is Pite’s skill that we too are emotionally drawn into the work.

It begins in a darkened space with the dancers looking up, around, down, in all directions really. It is choreographed so that it is varied unison dancing we see. As one group looks one way, another may look in another direction. This varied unison continues throughout the piece and gives us the feeling that while these people are united in their plight they are also individuals. They bend their bodies up and down; they rush forward, lurch and stumble together. But at one stage we see a single dancer lying on the ground, alone, perhaps dead? And individuals start to become more apparent when we see, for example, a duet between two men.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern. © ROH 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Eventually the refugees reach a certain stage in their flight and remove their coats. They lie down as if to sleep, but it is fitful and interrupted. Their individuality then becomes clear again in a duet between Marcelino Sambé and Kristen McNally. It begins with McNally dancing with a folded coat in her arms, as if holding something precious, but the choreography quickly moves into a duet that is full of swirling lifts and stretched limbs. The duet comes at the moment where a soprano voice (that of Nigerian-American singer Francesca Chiejina) becomes part of the score and her beautiful voice adds another emotional element to the unfolding drama.

Marcelino Sambé and Kristen McNally in Flight Pattern. © ROH 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Group dynamics become stronger again and snow begins to fall. As the stage darkens and a black curtain begins to close off the space, McNally cannot face her situation any longer and stays sitting downstage, rocking and shaking. Sambé stays with her dancing out his feelings until the end. What is their fate?

Flight Pattern is a stunning, affecting work. For me its essence is contained in its title. ‘Flight’ draws us into the humanitarian crisis that is at its heart, but also makes sense of its choreographic focus on arm movements that recall flying. ‘Pattern’ reflects Pite’s exceptional manner of filling the space of the stage. But none of this matters really. What matters is the incredible way Pite is able to draw us into the work.

Watch below for Pite’s discussion of the making of Flight Pattern.

Michelle Potter, 11 November 2020

Featured image: Artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern. © ROH 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Flight Pattern. © ROH 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton