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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
New York City Ballet’s recent digital offering was a remarkable collection of five short films by five different choreographers, filmed mostly around the Lincoln Center area. The films brought to the fore some fascinating issues about dance, about dance for film, and, during the discussion that followed each of the works, about how dancers are managing the pandemic facing us all. They also contained some personal reminders of that area and I could almost see, on one occasion, the apartment block where I lived on West 62nd Street while working at Lincoln Center. But, to the dance!
The reflecting pool that sits centre stage in the Plaza was used in a major way by two of the choreographers. Water Rite, a solo dance, was choreographed by Jamar Roberts from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre where he is a dancer and resident choreographer, and was performed by NYCB corps de ballet dancer, Victor Abreu. It was interesting to watch how the Henry Moore sculpture, an essential component of the pool, was deployed as part of the choreography. At times it formed a kind of frame for Abreu’s dancing, on other occasions it was a backdrop, and occasionally it was like a stationary prop. Choreographically the dance was full of energy with a lot of turning, which of course threw up the water.
But the big surprise came at the very end. As Abreu slowed down and it seemed like the end had arrived, suddenly we saw a long shot of the pool with Abreu and the sculpture in the centre and with six musicians and their instruments —two violins, a viola, a cello, a double bass and a flute—spread out in the pool. Yes, the sextet of musicians who had accompanied the dancer with Inflatedbyspinning by composer Ambrose Akinmusire, were standing in the pool too. A great ending.
The other work that used the pool in a major way was new song choreographed by Andrea Miller, founder of the Brooklyn-based company Gallim. It was performed by four dancers to Manifiesto by Chilean composer Victor Jara. The very dance-able folkloric feel to the music was taken up beautifully by Miller and especially well danced by all four dancers, but especially by Unity Phelan. She opened the dancing with a solo around a sculpture by Alexander Calder, which is situated just at the entrance to the Library for the Performing Arts. As with Water Rite, the sculpture became an integral element in the opening part of the dance. Phelan was soon joined by three other dancers and eventually they transitioned into the pool to dance with the Henry Moore sculpture where their glorious freedom of movement continued.
New song was my favourite of the five works and I loved the discussion afterwards in which Phelan talked about letting the water inform the movement.
Justin Peck’s work Thank you, New York, involved four dancers who appeared in four separate locations around New York—a deserted street, a terminal building, a rooftop and a park overlooking the river. Its focus moved back and forth between venues and its choreography was exceptionally varied with lots of turning steps, which featured strongly in the closing moments of the piece.
The most interesting aspect of Sidra Bell’s work Pixelation in a wave (within wires) was the comment about the inspiration behind the work: ‘The exquisitely tenuous correspondence between structural and human forms.’ It too took place around the Lincoln Center Plaza but choreographically it did not have the excitement of the works by Peck, Miller and Roberts. As for Pam Tanowitz’s Solo for Russell, for my liking it was too static and involved a lot of posing rather than moving.
Below is an image of the pool and the sculpture in Lincoln Center Plaza taken on a very wet, cold day in March 2011. How beautiful it was to see the site being brought to life by dance in 2020.
Michelle Potter, 8 November 2020
Featured image: Victor Abreu in a moment from Jamar Roberts’ Water Rite. Screenshot, New York City Ballet, 2020
This is a long-awaited season since the Company’s program, Venus Rising, had to be cancelled due to the Covid situation earlier this year. That had offered an interesting quartet of works, which we could hope to still see at some future date.
The Sleeping Beauty is a major undertaking for any ballet company, demanding high technical skills from a large cast of soloists. Those we saw perform on opening night were all equal to the challenges and danced with much aplomb, carried by the quality of the Tchaikovsky composition, a masterpiece of instrumental wonder, with Hamish McKeich conducting Orchestra Wellington. My seat allowed a view into the orchestra pit which was an extra thrill since there’s a whole other ‘ballet’ of tension, movement, drama and passion going on there.
2018 was the bicentenary of the birth of Marius Petipa, choreographer of this and other iconic ballets from 19th century Russia. That has occasioned new biographies as well as re-worked productions of his ballets, with the recent version by Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre winning widespread acclaim for its historical aesthetic coupled with contemporary sensibility. (It is worth looking into The New Yorkers of 1 & 8 June 2016 for Joan Acocella’s brilliant appraisal of the Ratmansky production and style, illustrating how a ballet classic can combine the best of old, though that takes both research and vision). Disney’s Maleficent from 2014 offers another take on who is in charge of evil in the world, updating his 1959 animation classic.
It is always the choices of style and setting, design and drama that, dancing aside, carries a production’s conviction in the passage of time from a christening to a 16th birthday to a sleeping spell of 100 years, to a dénouement and a wedding. This production, originally planned by Danielle Rowe, was instead here staged by Artistic Director Patricia Barker, with Clytie Campbell, Laura McQueen Schultz and Nicholas Schultz, and Michael Auer as dramaturg. With five different credits for various aspects of design, they took a generalised fairystory line, concentrating on light and bright pastel colours for the good, to contrast with the dark and shadowy world of evil.
It was a nice touch to have a poetic verse of the storyline projected onto the screen at the beginning of each ‘chapter’ but the design of set and costumes for the Court of the Rose seemed lightweight rather than royal. The courtiers were reserved in personality and confidence, yet overdressed in costume detail, rather than majestic as befits the mighty orchestral score. Only Loughlan Prior as the addled nervous M.C., (whose initial mistake was to leave Carabosse off the guest list, thus causing all the mayhem) brought caricature and comedy to the play, though the courtiers seemed unwilling to respond in character.
The already-long ballet incorporated several groups of small children—page boys and court attendants. Charming as they were, they seemed more reminiscent of The Nutcracker than this classic which has an important story with a moral thrust in the forces of good versus evil. The King and Queen stood stiff and passionless with gestures portraying this or that but little in the way of emotion at their impending tragedy—and the seating of them and their baby directly upstage of all the court action effectively disappeared them from the scene as they sat behind all the dancing that followed.
Each of the good fairies performed their brief variations with technical flair and aplomb—Generosity by Ana Gallardo Lobaina, Honesty by Lara Flannery, Serenity by Caroline Wiley, Joy by Cadence Barrack, Curiosity by Madeleine Graham and Clarity by Katherine Skelton. (It is impressive to note that four different castings of Aurora are planned over the season. Skelton will be one of them and her delicate precision should carry the role well). Sara Garbowski as the Lilac Fairy offered particular warmth in the portrayal of her promise to save the day. My young companions were impressed at the Aurora Borealis lighting effects—‘Hey, that’s where the baby’s name comes from.’ they whispered in delighted recognition.
Kate Kadow as Princess Aurora danced radiantly and with an assured technique. Kirby Selchow as Carabosse took her role with relish, conveying macabre delight in wreaking havoc and trouble. Disguising her sidekick Morfran, Paul Mathews, to attend as one of the four suitors to the Princess Aurora on her 16th birthday was a clever ruse to introduce the dreaded spindle disguised as a black rose.
[Intermission. Some day a production might use the auditorium and foyer to help convey the passage of 100 years? That always seems too long a time for a production to ignore].
In Chapter Three, ‘The Hunt Picnic’ brought a group from a faraway court in Lithuania with a lonely Prince ready for a challenge, so the Lilac Fairy showed him the way to wake the sleeping kingdom. The Prince’s name is Laurynas Vėjalis—whoops, that’s the dancer’s name but I’ll use it for the character too since he was immediately apparent as one and the same. From his first entrance, there was the lyricism, strength, nobility and grace one always hopes for in a Principal dancer. Even while standing still, he conveyed those—then his dancing combined agility and strength with musical cadencing that flooded me with joy. This ability to merge the preparation for, together with delivery of, bravura steps into nonchalant movement, is the true heritage of baroque noble dancing, whence the original fairytale hails.
Vėjalis’ strength and speed of allegro movements of his legs and feet, with a simultaneous bone-creaming adagio quality of arm, head and épaulement movements, all without the slightest suggestion of effort or concentration, is a rare natural talent, in the line of Poul Gnatt, Jon Trimmer, Martin James, Ou Lu, Qi Huan, Kohei Iwamoto, Abigail Boyle, proud legacy of this company. It is good, as always, to see the printed program full of content (the work of Susannah Lees-Jeffries) acknowledging the Company’s previous productions.
In the variations from the guests at the wedding—The White Cat by Leonora Voigtlander, and Puss in Boots by Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson were suitably coquettish, the Bluebirds by Katherine Minor and Kihiro Kusukami in striking flight, Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf by Georgia Baxter and Jack Lennon bringing character to the scene.
So, all told, a big ballet to big music—though with design of both set and costume in the first two acts less authoritative than might have been. The dancing was stronger and more accomplished than the sense of theatre throughout, where the timing of action needed attention—until along came a Prince who changed all that. I’ll aim to catch the last performance of the tour and see if the production has travelled well, which I’m sure it will.
As a result of the COVID 19 situation, two of the annual initiatives of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2 Dance—the Quantum Leap program for senior performers and the Chaos Project for younger dancers— were combined this year, hence the over-arching name Leap into Chaos. The performance also took place in a different, but well resourced venue, and with a much smaller than usual number of people seated for each performance (with physical distancing in place).
The younger dancers gave us a multi-faceted work called Touch. In seven parts, with choreography by Ruth Osborne, Steve Gow, Alison Plevey, Olivia Fyfe and Ryan Stone, Touch showed a range of different reactions to the coronavirus pandemic. There were masks, worn and then taken off with a shout of pleasure; references to hand washing; social interaction; acts of kindness; finding one’s place in the world; and a closing section filled with the joy of being able to perform live again.
While I wish one or two sections had been a little shorter, as ever I was impressed with the ability of the Chaos dancers to enter and exit the stage so smoothly and to use the space of the stage so effectively. Apart from the development of creativity during the choreographic phase when the dancers have the opportunity to contribute ideas, the value of the Chaos Project has always been the development of an understanding of stagecraft. The young dancers always do themselves proud in this respect.
The second half of the program was an outstanding work, Sympathetic Monsters, choreographed by QL2 alumnus Jack Ziesing to a soundscape by Adam Ventoura. Ziesing is currently working freelance as a dancer and choreographer and, in creating Sympathetic Monsters, was inspired by a book by Shaun Tan called The Arrival. The impact of Sympathetic Monsters sent me in search of some information about The Arrival, which it turns out is a wordless book, a migrant story told using a series of images only. Tan himself says it concerns in part ‘the “problem” of belonging’, which ‘especially rises to the surface when things go wrong with our usual lives.’
I loved looking at Ziesing’s work without knowing anything about Tan’s book. His choreography alternated between group movement, exceptionally well performed by the dancers, and solos in which dancers pushed their bodies into fantastically twisted shapes. In its structure the work was endlessly fascinating. The dancers mostly entered one by one to perform a solo. After finishing, they moved upstage and stood in a line across the back of the stage space until they engaged in a group section. At the very end, the group, acting as involved onlookers, encircled two performers who moved together in a kind of complex duet. The work was lit by Craig Dear of Sidestage and his pronounced use of shadowy effects added to the drama of the movement and the power and mystery of the work.
But reading about The Arrival further opened up the work, if in retrospect. There it all was in movement—the isolation; the belonging or not belonging; the group versus the individual; the sympathy juxtaposed with its opposite. Many thoughts came crowding in and even the title made some sense. I am looking forward to seeing the work again when QL2 Dance offers it as part of a streamed event later in October. Sympathetic Monsters was an exceptional work.
New York-based dance writer, Joan Acocella, whose critical writing I much admire, has spoken of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a gathering, along with Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and Mark Morris’ Gloria as ‘benchmark works of the sixties/seventies youth cult, with their gangs of fresh-faced young folk skipping and running and falling to the accompaniment of high-art music’ and as being ‘in exaltation of what is plain and openhearted and innocent as opposed to what is fancy and fake.’* The featured image above shows Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell in the Royal Ballet’s production of Dances at a gathering, and it seems to me indicative of the human qualities that Acocella describes. As the work progresses those qualities become more and more obvious.
Dances at a gathering opens and concludes quietly, introspectively perhaps? In the opening sequence, Alexander Campbell enters quietly from the downstage Prompt side and dances a solo in which swinging arm movements and expansive jumps across the stage predominate. He exits on the OP side, but before doing so makes a questioning gesture with one hand. Where is the gathering? At the very end the cast of ten, five women, five men, stand on stage, often in stillness, before they leave arm in arm. The gathering has concluded.
In between there is so much beautifully poetic choreography, sometimes with the flavour of character work, the mazurka in particular. This of course befits the Polish rhythms that permeate much of the selection of piano music by Frederick Chopin (spelled Fryderyk Chopin on Royal Ballet publicity) to which the work is performed. Often the movement seems simple, deceptively so I hasten to add. There are no noticeably ongoing, or clearly defined relationships between the dancers and Robbins is recorded as saying, ‘There are no stories to any of the dances in “DAAG” There are no plots and no roles. The dancers are themselves dancing with each other to that music in that space.’** But there is much scope for us to see personalities. We see it through movement and through facial expressions, and through the recognition the dancers show to their fellow performers throughout. It is indeed a gathering, and the individuality of each dancer is very clear.
If I had to choose a favourite section from the astonishingly good performance by the entire cast, I would go for a section led by Laura Morera. The section begins with a solo by an effervescent Morera. She is playful and sexy, and performs with beautifully timed highlights. The sequence has those overtones of character dancing but is equally strong in classical movement. Morera appears to be playing to an invisible partner. Towards the end of the section two prospective partners appear, but neither shows the interest she hoped to generate within them. With a shrug and a smile she leaves the stage. Transfixing I thought.
The duet between Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli, which led into the finale, was another highlight, full as it was with caring touches, longing glances, and clear admiration for each other. Yasmine Nagdhi also had some wonderful moments of fast and detailed movement. Then from Bonelli there were those fabulous double tours ending in a full plié in first position. What an elegant and exciting performance from the entire cast! They explain why in the video clip below.
Dances at a gathering was made by Jerome Robbins in 1969 for New York City Ballet and entered the repertoire of the Royal Ballet in 1970. The stream we were offered during the Royal’s 2020 digital season was recorded during a performance this year, 2020. It featured ten of the Royal Ballet’s star dancers, Marianela Nuñez, Francesca Hayward, Yasmine Naghdi, Laura Morera, Fumi Kaneko, Alexander Campbell, Federico Bonelli, William Bracewell, Luca Acri and Valentino Zucchetti. The varied selection of Chopin’s piano music was exquisitely played by by Robert Clark.
Dances at a gathering has never been part of the repertoire of the Australian Ballet and, as far as I am aware, has never been shown live in Australia. I paid £3 to have access to this stream, and it was worth every penny and more, especially given that viewing was possible a month (it is available until 25 October)! Perhaps in the future David Hallberg might consider adding it to the Australian Ballet’s repertoire? On the other hand, I can imagine it sitting very nicely on Queensland Ballet.
Michelle Potter, 8 October 2020
Featured image: Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell in a screenshot from Dancers at a gathering. The Royal Ballet, 2020
* Joan Acocella, Mark Morris (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1993), p. 87. **Deborah Jowitt. Jerome Robins. His life, his theater, his dance (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2004), p. 387.
Jowitt, in the book mentioned above, gives an excellent account of the development of Dances at a gathering in chapter 16, pp. 381-388.
The power and excitement of Len Lye’s kinetic sculpture is clearly etched in the memory from visits I have made to the Govett-Brewster Gallery in Taranaki New Plymouth over the years. (Len Lye, a New Zealander, b.1901, began his arts experiments here but his subsequent career, based in New York through many decades, earned him a huge international reputation. His monumental sculptures with kinetic, aural and cinematic dimensions have been much discussed in publications by Wystan Curnow and by Roger Horrocks, and in a particularly fine documentary, Flip & Two Twisters, directed by Shirley Horrocks).
The Govett-Brewster gallery building is an inspired architectural presence in its own right. In tandem with the Len Lye Foundation, a major collection of Lye’s work is housed there and shown in sequential displays throughout the year. One of my visits I remember particularly well, since my companion and I lingered long in the gallery and then spent the rest of the afternoon in the cafe discussing Lye’s work, as well as the gallery’s achievement which originated with the vision of arts philanthropist Monica Brewster, who established it back in 1960s, independently of local council and other institutional governance.
That in turn led to my comparative thoughts about dance and the structure of performing arts companies versus independent artists—about who ‘owns’, who directs, who funds, who governs, who controls, who survives, who thrives—about how heritage repertoire is guarded, how programming is selected, how the welfare of the artists in companies is maintained, and how free-lance artists develop their work, who of them survive, who thrives, who is the dramaturg?—in a word, how dancers work, how dance works. All of these aspects are apparent to audiences, even if only subliminally, since they are reflected in the morale and calibre of each dancer we see in any given performance. It is said we get the politicians we deserve. Do we get the dances we deserve? Do the dancers get the recognition they deserve? As usual the answer is Yes & No.
Cameron McMillan, New Zealand born and raised, is a thriving surviving dance-maker. His current website is zinging testament to that. Born and raised in New Plymouth, he later trained at the Australian Ballet School and then joined RNZBallet in 1997, under Artistic Director, Matz Skoog. It was in 2000 that Cameron was noticed and singled out in glowing words in a review by Joan Acocella who saw him in Mark Morris’ Drink to me only with thine eyes—with the music most memorably played by pianist David Guerin onstage.(We had brought Acocella from New York to an Arts Festival here, under a Fulbright project on arts writing. The British Council had brought Michael Billington, drama critic, as part of the same program).
Acocella wrote that McMillan’s talent was striking already but that his potential was huge and that he could expect a major international career. She has proved not wrong. He choreographed Unsuspecting View for the Tutus on Tour of 2001, left RNZB not long after and has developed a stellar international career abroad, unfortunately little reported on back here, among several of our ex-pat choreographers whose work should be shared here but never is. Turid Revfeim’s Ballet Collective enterprise is soon to help redress that regrettable situation.
In 2015, I saw and reviewed a performance of Cameron’s work at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts where Ou Lu had appointed him choreographer-in-residence. It’s a poignant work, with a large cast of dancers, string quartet playing on stage. The theme concerns a corps-de-ballet dancer’s experience—a glimpse into something we all see but rarely discuss. The work would thrill audiences here, if only they had the chance to see it.
During the extraordinary times of Covid 2020, dancers and dance companies worldwide have been both staunch and flexible in streaming videoed responses to the wild changes in their lives and work. In some cases that has brought publicity and exposure they could never have dreamed of, and we have been offered access to extraordinary choreographic riches—Saarinen’s Borrowed Light, Lin Hwai Min’s Moonwater, Marston’s The Cellist would be some of the finest examples—though we have probably all seen enough of the dances videoed on a mat in the living room or on the patio—as a message of dancers’ resilience they’re fine, but as choreography they were mostly short of the mark.
Cameron McMillan, in collaboration with the Govett-Brewster Gallery, has made a work in response to Len Lye’s Sky Snakes, which had its premiere exhibition in February 2020. Beneath Sky Snakes is an absorbing choreographic response to a sculpture that was moving already. The dance has a man on the ground, beneath a sky with huge forces of stalactite proportions. Tempo Dance Festival, an annual Auckland season, enterprisingly made the video available during this year’s digital season since the live program was cancelled. The choreography is yet in early stages of the film treatment it deserves but the dance shows a performer still moving with the mesmerising fluidity that Acocella described back in 2000. Perhaps a Govett-Brewster commission to Cameron could see a series of dances relating to other of Len Lye’s works. We all benefit from writing, talking, thinking about and remembering good dancing. Malo and Manuia
Jennifer Shennan, 11 September 2020
Featured image: Cameron McMillan inBeneath Sky Snakes, 2020. Screenshot
Borrowed Light is a collaborative endeavour between the dancers of Finland’s Tero Saarinen Company and the singers of Boston Camerata. Inspired by the Shaker movement as it was made manifest in the United States largely during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it premiered in France in 2004, came to Jacob’s Pillow in 2006, and then again in 2012. A film of that 2012 production was recently screened as part of the Pillow’s Virtual Festival for 2020. With choreography by Saarinen, accompanied by traditional Shaker songs sung by Boston Camerata, and with some stunning contributions from others in the creative team, Borrowed Light is a truly exceptional collaboration.
Borrowed Light begins in silence and semi-darkness. A single female dancer moves in a shaft of light. Slowly the stage space lightens a little and, dimly in the background, we can make out seven other dancers and eight singers. The solo dancer’s expansive arm movements seem to be calling the others into the performance. She begins to clap, her movement gets faster, and she adds some stamping movements. Slowly she is joined by the other dancers and singers and the performance moves forward.
Looking back after the performance has finished, it seems clear that this opening section sets the scene for the rest of the performance. Light and dark change places frequently, slow and fast movements alternate, clapping and stamping feature at various times, and choreographically the work focuses on very loose swinging arms; fluid upper bodies; and wide, strong steps. Dancers and singers come and go as the centre of attention but are equal partners in the work.
Two sections stood out for me: a solo danced to a rendition of that well-known Shaker song Simple gifts, and a much wilder section danced by three couples to The great wheel is turning round. The solo to Simple gifts, began and finished in silence and throughout the solo the dancer scarcely moved within the stage space. But the expressive power of her movement, especially the detailed placing of the hands and fingers in the air and on the body, was exceptional. As for The great wheel, it began quite calmly with a spread-out circle of dancers. A smaller circle of singers positioned inside the large circle turned slowly as the singing progressed. But gradually the movement gathered momentum and the circle of dancers became tighter and closed in on itself. A sense of euphoria developed in the choreography and ultimately trance-like behaviour became apparent as some dancers fell to the ground. It was heart-stopping dancing and singing!
But of course there were many other sections that generated different emotions—the ecstasy of the dancers performing to Virgins clothed in a fresh white garment, or the seriousness of movement and song in I will comfort them that mourn, for example. In fact every moment of Borrowed Light was astonishing in its own way.
Costumes by Erika Turunen were mostly black but had exquisite detail and a touch of blue-grey colour, differently embedded into the costumes according to gender and role. They were masterly too in the way they played with texture and different fabrics and, in the case of the dancers, in the way they moved so beautifully.
The set by Mikki Kunttu (who also designed the lighting) used the barn structure of the Ted Shawn Theatre in which the show was performed as a backdrop. Onstage there was a series of black risers. They functioned both as a platform for performance on various occasions and also as a resting place for performers when not singing or dancing. What was also quite distinctive about Borrowed Light was the way in which the artists interacted. There was no real separation between singers and dancers, an aspect of the work that set out to highlight the Shaker attitude to community.
Borrowed Light was a truly masterful show. Each individual part was moving, or exciting, or dramatic, or religiously fanatical even. But the whole was coherent and so beautifully and unusually structured. I watched it twice but wish I could have watched it many more times, except that it was only available for a short period!
Rafael Bonachela is fond of giving his works Spanish names (he is after all a Spaniard by birth). Cuatro is Spanish for ‘four’ and Bonachela’s work entitled Cuatro consisted of four short solos for four artists of Sydney Dance Company. Each separate dance was accompanied by music played by a solo musician from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Much of the creative development was conducted online with the final four outcomes filmed in isolation at the Sydney Dance Company studios in Ultimo.
Each dance was performed in a different space, beautifully designed and lit by Pedro Greig. Greig was also the film-maker. Each dancer wore a variation on a soft, flowing costume designed by Bianca Spender. The fabric colours ranged from very light grey through soft blue to golden yellow and each had some variation on a rolled and twisted design element, usually a part of the costume that crossed the shoulder.
Cuatro 1 was danced by Charmene Yap to an oboe accompaniment played by Diana Doherty. It took place in a confined space of three white walls.
Cuatro 2 featured Davide Di Giovanni performing to a violin accompaniment played by Andrew Haveron. The background this time was less confined with a draped back wall giving a softer look.
Cuatro 3 showed us Juliette Barton dancing to an accompaniment from Umberto Clerici on cello. Barton and Clerici performed in a black performing space that had three panels, made of what looked like small tiles, on each side of the space. The panels were lit with an exquisite golden glow, and often we saw dancer and cellist in shadow.
Cuatro 4 was performed by Chloe Leong with Emma Sholl playing flute. By the time we reached this fourth dance all walls had disappeared and Leong danced in a fine white mist that spread itself widely.
Choreography for all four solos was by Bonachela and each dancer showed his or her astonishing command of Bonachela’s movement style. This time I felt his choreography was slower and more liquid than usual and its qualities of introspection were deeply moving.
I began thinking of, and watching this series of solos as individual works. Each was released separately with a week between each. Eventually, I stopped watching this way and decided to wait until all four had been screened so I could watch the four in one viewing. I’m glad I did this because I’m not sure I would have had the same reaction had I just watched each a week apart.
I did have a favourite solo—that of Barton accompanied by Clerici. The filming was exceptional with its shadows and close-up shots. Barton was technically brilliant and I loved the way Clerici played his cello with his whole body and seemed completely lost in the sound. But what was wonderful about watching the four dances as if they were one work was that, for me anyway, an emotional underpinning emerged. The work began in that enclosed space with Yap sometimes touching the walls as if to highlight an inability to extract herself from the space. It moved to the possibility of emerging with the softer backcloth against which Di Giovanni performed. By Cuatro 3 the blackness of despair was there but the glorious lighting promised hope. By Cuatro 4 we had reached freedom.
Bonachela has always said his works can mean whatever we want them to mean. I love that. Beautiful work from the whole team
Michelle Potter, 20 August 2020
Featured image: Charmene Yap in a still from Cuatro 1. Sydney Dance Company, 2020