Horizon. Bangarra Dance Theatre

13 June 2024. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Below is my slightly enlarged review of Horizon, originally published online by Dance Australia on 17 June 2024. A link to the Dance Australia version is at this link.

Horizon is a collaborative venture focusing on selected dance customs and activities in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. It is Bangarra Dance Theatre’s first mainstage, international collaborative initiative, a momentous and admirable undertaking. But the production was not without some issues. 

Horizon was officially described as a double bill but there were three works on the program. Two were linked by the overarching title, The Light Inside, with one by former Bangarra senior artist Deborah Brown, the other by Māori choreographer and director of Auckland’s New Zealand Dance Company, Moss Patterson. Despite the linking by title, each displayed a quite different approach, especially in a choreographic sense. I’m not really sure why the two weren’t thought of as separate works. The coupling seemed to me to be just a convenient and non-dance way of making an association between two works on the program.

Horizon opened with a short work, Kulka, by Sani Townson, former Bangarra dancer and now Youth Programs Coordinator with the company. His focus was on nighttime and the fact that his specific Torres Strait Island society abounds in traditional songs and dances about constellations. Those songs and dances are guides to the totems and clans that make up the culture of the society.

Nine dancers performed Kulka to a percussive score by Amy Flannery. A strong, dominant role was taken by dancer Kassidy Waters. The choreography for Kulka was, however, a little repetitive especially in the beginning when Waters was constantly held upside down and carried across the stage in this position. But Townson later developed some interesting groupings of dancers and introduced us to a feature of Horizon that was repeated throughout each of the works: the dancers were mirrored in a structure that acted as a kind of backcloth in the case of Kulka, or later in the show as reflections in a watery foreground.

Callum Goolang, Kassidy Waters and Daniel Mateo in Kulka from Horizon. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Deborah Brown’s contribution to The Light Inside was subtitled Salt Water. Opening with a magnificent solo from Daniel Mateo, Salt Water was performed to a score by Steve Francis and Brendon Boney. Brown’s choreography was beautifully fluid, mesmerising even, with all the dancers contributing to what was an outstanding performance. A particular highlight was a solo by Lillian Banks called Blue Star. This section told of a seasonal change when moisture in the air makes the stars twinkle and turn blue. This change becomes a guide for the daily work of the seafaring peoples of the Torres Strait Islands. Banks gave a clarity to every moment of the choreography.

Moss Patterson’s contribution, also performed to the score by Francis and Boney, had the subtitle Fresh Water reflecting Patterson’s background growing up in the area around Lake Taupo on the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand.

His choreography had overtones of the Māori haka and I couldn’t stop my mind moving out of the theatre to football matches between Australia and New Zealand, which inevitably contain a haka at the start of the match. But the work ended in a quieter fashion with the full ensemble dancing to suggest peace, with final moments proposing the meeting of salt and fresh water.

As is always the case with Bangarra productions, there were elements beyond the choreography that were standouts. In particular the costume designs by Clair Parker for Kulka and Jennifer Irwin for The Light Inside, were exceptional. At one stage Irwin’s costumes for Salt Water featured extended sleeves and similar additions to other parts of the costumes. These additions were manipulated by the dancers so that choreography and costume moved as extensions of each other.


Emily Flannery, Maddison Paluch and Courtney Redford in a scene from Salt Water in The Light Inside. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud


It is unfortunate, however, that the lighting design by Karen Norris was quite dark for much of the time, and the beautifully decorative elements of the costumes were only really clear via production images. Elizabeth Gadsby’s set design made quite clear the concept of the horizon around which the works were developed.

The evening was quite different from what we have been used to watching from Bangarra. ‘Quite different’ because the usual narrative-style approach we so often associate with works from Bangarra was missing, or at least the works were based on much more abstract ideas than has usually been the case. Hope and light across and within cultures, with water also a feature, were the themes I extracted from the production.

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2024

Featured Image: Daniel Mateo in Salt Water from The Light Inside. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Subject to Change. QL2 Dance

16 May 2024. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

Below is a slightly enlarged version of my review of Subject to Change, which was published on 17 May in Canberra CityNews.

Three separate works made up Subject to Change, the 2024 production by Quantum Leap, the pre-professional youth performance group at Canberra’s QL2 Dance. First up was Kaleidoscope choreographed by Gabrielle Nankivell, then came Alpha Beta from Alisdair Macindoe. Both Nankivell and Macindoe are professional choreographers with extensive experience across Australia and overseas with much to offer young dancers. Voyage was the third work on the program and the final work from current artistic director of QL2 Dance, Ruth Osborne, as she prepares to hand over the directorship to Alice Lee Holland. 

The overarching theme of the evening was the effects of a rapidly evolving world and the need to adapt to changing conditions. Not all works were easily or instantly understood within that theme, but the standard of dancing was exceptional, as was the overall theatricality of the production, especially in terms of the lighting design from Antony Hateley and the film input from Wildbear Digital.

Nankivell’s Kaleidoscope was structured in a series of short sections, each separated by a sudden blackout. It focused on negotiating change and contained what was probably the most complex choreography of the evening. The dancers had to move on and off stage with speed and the work contained a vast array of choreographic patterns, all filled with what was also a vast array of movement. One of the dancers I spoke to used the word ‘wild’ (without in any sense condemning the work) to describe the choreography. The movements were often quite intricate and sometimes unexpected and certainly required an ongoing and strong input from the dancers. It was performed to a score by Luke Smiles and, given the speed and complexity of both music and choreography, the ability of the dancers to give the lively performance that they did was outstanding.

Macindoe’s Alpha Beta, performed to a score by Macindoe himself, was second on the program and looked at concepts of individualism and collectivism. After the fast-moving Kaleidoscope, Alpha Beta seemed, at least initially, quite static with the dancers often standing still or engaging in sharp movements of the arms into positions that they held fixed for a few seconds. While it ended with the dancers engaging in a kind of rave, which was in opposition to the stillness that permeated the early sections, for me Alpha Beta wasn’t quite so engaging as the previous work.

Scene from Alpha Beta in the Quantum Leap program Subject to Change. QL2 Dance, 2024. Photo: © Olivia Wikner

The final work was Osborne’s Voyage, which in true Osborne fashion was clearly structured in terms of a strong and varied use of the stage space and a constantly changing arrangement of groupings of dancers. Performed to music by long-term collaborator with QL2, Adam Ventoura, Voyage examined the experience of change, often in an emotionally moving way. It was probably the most clearly understandable of the three works in terms of giving an insight into the overarching theme. This was most apparent when on a few occasions the dancers came together in a single line across the stage and appeared to be examining their individual responses to change.

Scene from Voyage in the Quantum Leap program Subject to Change. QL2 Dance, 2024. Photo: © Olivia Wikner

Voyage was enhanced by some exceptional film footage created by WildBear Entertainment and used as a kind of backcloth. What made it special was that it had been edited in an engaging manner to be seen not as a series of single frame shots, but sometimes as a collection of two or three different moments of footage placed side by side, or as a series of mirror images of one particular section of footage.

Costumes were by Cate Clelland. also a long-term collaborator with QL2 Dance. As with her previous costumes for Quantum Leap programs, they were simple but effective in design and in the use of colour.

Subject to Change was one of Quantum Leap’s strongest productions and a fitting farewell to Ruth Osborne who has been at the helm of QL2 Dance since the beginning of its existence some 25 years ago. The list of alumni that Osborne has taught and mentored and who have gone on to make a career in dance is quite simply incredible and some of those who danced in Subject to Change are very likely to join the list.

Michelle Potter, 18 May 2024

Featured image: Scene from Kaleidoscope in the Quantum Leap program Subject to Change. QL2 Dance, 2024. Photo: © Olivia Wikner

Études/Circle Electric. The Australian Ballet

15 May 2024 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Études and Circle Electric—it is hard to imagine two more different ballets (or perhaps dance works is a better expression than ballets). But they were the two works that shared the Australian Ballet’s Sydney program in May.

Danish-born Harald Lander choreographed Études in 1948 for the Royal Danish Ballet. It is essentially a non-narrative work (an unusual departure for the Danish company at that time) and is based on the structure of a ballet class. It begins with exercises at the barre and moves on to centre work building up to various, often complex, aspects of a class. There are many moments when we can see the relationship between class work and the art of ballet as it appears onstage. This happens as the choreography develops patterns and groupings of dancers, and also in references to other well-known productions, including the Danish classic, August Bournonville’s La Sylphide.

Circle Electric, on the other hand, is a newly commissioned work from recently appointed resident choreographer for the Australian Ballet, Stephanie Lake. The official synopsis says that the work ‘starts as a microscopic investigation of the intricate and the intimate, ultimately expanding to encompass a telescopic view of humanity.’

Circle Electric opened the program and for a moment it looked promising as two lines of dancers, positioned close together and wearing startling costumes (designer Paula Levis), held their arms to the front with fingers dramatically stretched out, then lifted the arms skywards, heads looking up expectantly.

A moment from the opening scene of Circle Electric. The Australian Ballet 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But suddenly the dancers leaned forwards/downwards and engaged in a weird set of shivers, shakes and odd poses. They reminded me of animals in a zoo to tell the truth. Then they stretched upwards again, and dropped down again. This would not have been so bad had there only been one or two iterations of the up/down construction. But it went on and on and on. It was, admittedly, broken up between repeats with duets from other dancers (costumed quite differently) coming out from the wings but then rushing back before the up/down bit began again. Why repeat so many times? It was just frustrating to see it over and over and over again.

The frustrations continued as the work progressed. The many sections that followed seemed not to relate to each other and, when we got past the ‘intricate and intimate’ bit, crowds of dancers came together as a group of some kind and shouted across the stage to each other. Then they turned on the audience and shouted at us. Why?

Scene from Stephanie Lake’s Circle Electric. The Australian Ballet 2024. Photo Daniel Boud
A moment from Circle Electric. The Australian Ballet 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Then there was the length of the piece. After a 1:30pm start, interval came at about 2:45pm. That’s 70+ minutes of what seemed like disconnected material. It was just too long and much repeated material could easily have been removed. A 30 minute piece perhaps?

The best part of Circle Electric was the outstanding dancing. The bodies of the highly trained dancers of the Australian Ballet can adapt pretty much to any style and they did adapt beautifully to Lake’s individualistic contemporary style.

After Circle Electric, Études was blessed relief. It has an engrossing beginning with its choreography reflecting exercises at the barre made to look so theatrically engaging with shaded lighting and moments when only feet, or some other sections of the body, are lit up. What follows is equally engrossing as it leads us through more examples of ballet technique put side by side with reflections on what makes it to the stage. It is a technically demanding work and there were times when a few wobbles occurred. But basically it was a thrill to watch. All I want to say is, ‘What a relief!’.

I find it hard to understand how David Hallberg would appoint a resident choreographer whose creative impulses can deliver something like Circle Electric, even more so when looking back at the choreographers who have held the position of resident choreographer over the past decades (going way back to Maina Gielgud’s tenure as director). Dance must move ahead for sure, but 70 minutes of dance that seems composed of sections and sections of movement that appear not to have any overall coherence just doesn’t cut it for me (especially when I paid $215 for my ticket).

Michelle Potter, 17 May 2024

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in an early moment from Etudes, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Swan Lake revisited. Royal New Zealand Ballet

Production by Russell Kerr, staged by Turid Revfeim—alternate casts in continuing Wellington season
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

I have been privileged to see the three casts of the Wellington season of Swan Lake, in Russell Kerr’s pedigree production (and note there is also a fourth cast, though not performing in the capital). It’s impressive that a relatively small ballet company can field that number of Principals since ours is half or a quarter the size of major world companies who would stage a Swan Lake.

We might also score as the world’s most widely nationally touring company. That dates back to 1950s when Poul Gnatt took ballet to 156 towns throughout the country each year. In part the geography of Aotearoa New Zealand allowed that, provided you could find the stamina, but it was also Gnatt’s intent to take ballet to the people, to the farming community, to schools, to local towns where billets were forthcoming and the provision of suppers became a thing of some local competition—in contrast with his own homeland where people had to travel to Copenhagen to see their national company. Gnatt’s vision seems to have worked since sell-out shows of Swan Lake around the country are still happening, and the zeitgeist of the Company today is causally connected to those beginnings.

I said in my review of this production’s opening night that the corps de ballet of swans are making a particularly beautiful line-up, and that is impressive since most of them would not have danced Swan Lake before. Also noteworthy is that none of the Odette/Odile-Siegfried casts has ever danced these full-length roles before either. And what’s more you can spy last night’s Swan Queen in the line-up of Princesses dancing at court tonight, and here amongst the corps de ballet tonight, as a fragile and beautiful but anonymous swan, is tomorrow’s Odette/Odile. Perhaps it is the freshness of so many premiere performances that is contributing to the rich and committed quality of this production. That, and the staging by Turid Revfeim.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Joshusa Guillemot-Rodgerson with corps de ballet and von Rothbart in Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Kate Kadow as the Swan Queen uses her statuesque physique to real effect and gives a striking performance particularly as Odile. Her Siegfried, Branden Rainers, is a strong and secure partner.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson make another fine pairing in the title roles, again spectacular in the Odile-Siegfried liaison. The solo of the melancholy prince alone on stage between acts is a poignant and beautiful performance I will long remember.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina as Odile and Joshusa Guillemot-Rodgerson as Siegfried in Swan Lake, Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

It is quite a moment when after the matinee performance Ty King-Wall, the Company’s artistic director, takes the stage to announce that both Ana Gallardo Lobaina and Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson are being promoted to the rank of Principal.

A ballet stage is usually full of beautiful things many, many times rehearsed and then impeccably delivered. Improvisation and spontaneity are not normally on offer, so it is quite wonderful to watch Gallardo Lobaina overwhelmed at the surprise announcement. ‘Is she laughing or crying’ is the 4 year old’s urgent whisper beside me in the dark. The answer is ‘yes’ since she is a quivering, laughing, crying dancer who hasn’t rehearsed this bit, but eventually, after several minutes, finds a fist punch to say ‘OK. Yes. I accept.’

The Jester in that cast, Dane Head, is a truly mischievous character with impeccable timing throughout (echoes of a Mercutio or a Harlequin in some other ballet). Von Rothbart, here played by Zacharie Dun, also has the week’s edge of that role in his scheming duplicity and evil intent (reminding me of the Devil in Denis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, that tour de force of the theatre). Paul Mathews, returning from retirement to play the somewhat bumbling old Tutor Wolfgang, of course wears the same costume by Kristian Fredrikson as did the late Jon Trimmer who created the role, and we welcome the reminder of that.

Russell Kerr’s catch-cry was always ‘There’s no such thing as a small part’ and that would explain why every performer in his productions makes the stage their own. The Spanish, Hungarian and Italian entertainers at court, in von Rothbart’s thrall, are delivered with exceptional panache. Catarina Estevez-Collins has a stand-out quality, but it’s always Kirby Selchow who steals my eye. She is the character who acts before she dances, whereas in ballet is mostly the other way round. Calum Gray continues to impress, and he will likely be a Siegfried in years to come.

Katherine Minor, the ‘fourth’ Odette/Odile (with Kihiro Kusukami as Siegfried) is the cast I didn’t see. Minor is in the corps of swans each night in Wellington, they are all immaculate and identical but there’s an aura of Olga Spessivtseva about Minor that uncannily marks her out from the rest (and what’s more she is a dead ringer lookalike of former Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer, Fiona Tonkin— now there’s New Zealand ballet history for you).

We have already seen Minor as Odile in a recent Tutus on Tour program so we know she can do it, but it’s always the matter of how evenly and convincingly Odette and Odile will play off the double sides of that single role that takes us back to the next performance. In this season and by my reading, it is Mayu Tanigaito who plays both aspects equally and deeply, right from the get-go—the subtle and anguished Odette, equally with the sparklingly duplicit Odile (possibly the somewhat ‘easier’ role to smash out? Who knows? Ask the dancers). Tanigaito appears as each of these persona before she even starts dancing. How that mystery, that alchemy works is another reason we go back to the ballet. So sadly, I’ll just have to imagine how Minor is playing out her double character in the role of a lifetime.

Of course, what Swan Lake is ‘really about’ is the emotional stamina required to continue living when your beloved partner has had to leave—in other words, it’s an essay on grief, how to live with the memory of someone after von Rothbart has stolen her away. That’s ‘really’ why we go to back to see Swan Lake, and why Russell Kerr’s quiet mastering of the layered and ambiguous ending is so very consoling, so very finely wrought.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 May 2024

Featured image: Kate Kadow as Odile with Branden Reiners as Siegfried in Swan Lake Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

60th Anniversary Showcase. The Australian Ballet School

12 May 2024. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opéra House

The Australian Ballet School’s 60th Anniversary Showcase began with a spectacular work, Grand Défilé, choreographed by Paul Knobloch to excerpts from Alexander Glazunov’s Scènes de ballet Opus 52. I was expecting an interesting display of dancers at various stages of their training moving on and off stage, culminating in a presentation of the senior, graduating students, similar to what we have become used to seeing from schools (and companies) across the world. But I was not prepared for the absolutely spectacular staging that came from the Australian Ballet School. Knobloch’s choreography was thrilling to watch—fast moving with a great use of space (even on the much maligned stage of the Sydney Opera House), and filled with movingly beautiful patterns and groupings of dancers. Besides that, the dancers did themselves and their teachers proud as they carried out the choreography with great skill and a passion that coursed, from beginning to end, through every inch of their bodies. The media image gives no idea of what the real life event was like. What an opening!

Grand Défilé was followed by the grand pas de deux from Le Corsaire performed by guest artists (and Australian Ballet School alumni) Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. Both Kondo and Guo performed pretty much faultlessly in a technical sense, with Guo carrying out his incredible jumps, turns and manèges and Kondo displaying her beautiful balance and fluid limbs and upper body. But they had a hard act to follow and somehow their performance lacked the strong characterisation that they usually display.

Then followed Camino Flamenco choreographed by Areti Boyaci, teacher of the Spanish dance program at the Australian Ballet School. It was danced by Level 8 dancers from the School to a score by flamenco guitarist Werner Neumann playing live onstage. They were joined at one point by guest artists (and alumni) Hugo Dumapit, Nathan Brook and Jake Mangakahia. Boyaci herself also made a brief appearance. The costumes, including the gorgeous scarves manipulated by the women, were an exceptional addition to this work but I would have loved a little more theatricality to have been visible in the dancing.

From the printed program: Rehearsal for Camino Flamenco. The Australian Ballet School, 2024. Photo: © Frederick Mutswagiwa


Closing the first half of the evening’s program was Paul Knobloch’s Degas Dances in which a young boy (Ruito Takabatake) finds inspiration in a Degas sculpture that comes to life. The work also includes roles for a cross section of students, including a bevy of children who are not always behaving as expected and whom an art teacher (India Shackel) tries to keep under control. It is astonishing too to see the stillness that the dancer (Lilly Keith), who plays the Degas sculpture, is able to maintain as she stands on her pedestal until she is brought to life. But the work is crowded with action and people and I would love to see it stripped back a little.

After interval, the program featured Four Seasons, a work commissioned by Lisa Pavane, outgoing director of the Australian Ballet School, in honour of the School’s 60 years of existence, and in celebration of its future. It was danced to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and each section was choreographed by a graduate of the School, with each having trained under one of the four (to date) directors. Spring was choreographed by Kevin Jackson, who trained under Gailene Stock; Summer by Lucas Jervies, who trained under Marilyn Rowe; Autumn by Serena Graham, who trained under Lisa Pavane; and Winter by Graeme Murphy, who trained under Dame Margaret Scott.

I especially enjoyed Autumn and Winter. Serena Graham’s choreography for Autumn reminded me at times of Balanchine and the way he connected people in a work. Graham had her dancers linking hands with others and then changing a pairing by unlinking and linking up with someone else. She used space carefully and thoughtfully and her groupings of dancers were sometimes unusually positioned in the space. 

But it was Winter that attracted my attention most strongly. It closed the program with an excitement that had characterised the opening, if in a quite different way. Here was Graeme Murphy making us wonder what would happen next. Seven dancers, clad in white and silver unitards, were often wrapped (or hidden) in white cloaks, which looked a bit like doonas. Were they spirits of coldness, or people keeping themselves warm? And who was that eighth figure, mysteriously cloaked and hooded in white? There were surprise moments, such as when one of the dancers became a skater in red boots, and it was then that the ‘doonas’ were discarded and the dancing warmed up. It was recognisably Murphy creating the choreography. His propensity to line bodies up in curving, undulating lines was there, as were his lifts that continued on as bodies were carried around the stage. But most of all it was the narrative of cold that we (or I) could imagine that characterised this Winter. Then at the last minute the mysterious, hooded figure revealed himself. It was esteemed ‘older artist’ Simon Dow who linked the Winter work to the ‘older’ period of the School. Many other thoughts emerged while watching Winter and that’s what I have always loved about Murphy’s work. It always opens our imagination.

There was some beautiful lighting at various stages during the evening especially from Damien Cooper throughout Four Seasons. There was also a large crowd of supporters who cheered, clapped and stamped their feet unreservedly. And rightly so. The evening was a triumph.

Michelle Potter, 13 May 2024

Featured image: Media image for Grand Défilé

Liminal. New Zealand School of Dance

3rd Year Contemporary Dance students choreographic season
10 May 2024. Te Whaea Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

We are seated in the round which proves the right choice for this attractive program, and effective use is made of the four aisles that serve as overflow performance space, or entrances and exits to and from the central area. There is stylish costuming in shades of white, designed in an impressive collaboration with student colleagues in the Design course at Te Whaea.

Liminal comprises eight works individually choreographed but linked into a continuous sequence that moves forward but also allows echoes back to images in earlier sections. This pleasing continuity is partly due to the same costumes being worn throughout—smart upstanding collars, a layer added here or removed there, masks worn (though a pity perhaps that the golden rule never to actually touch a mask while it’s being worn onstage, since that immediately destroys illusion, is not followed).

In the dances there are themes of friendship and camaraderie, with a good opener, In The Making, by Anna Hosking, followed by Please Let Me Remain with thoughts on sisterhood by Aylin Atalay (with music by Sibel Atalay, presumably a sibling?).

Natural? by Lila Brackley takes on themes of unease and uncertainty, with masks involved. Primo by Sophie Sheaf-Morrison invokes the atmosphere of an airport with people coming and going in chaotic haste.

Anya Down continues with an urgency of atmosphere in Hardly Working. A/Effect by Audrey Stuck leads into Accidental Renaissance by Aleeya McFadyen-Rew, with stronger bouts of competition growing out of play.

In the closing piece by Trinity Maydon, Worn Shoe, determined strides are taken by all the dancers in all directions, wave after wave of walking patterns that build to a committed cadence of the program.

These dancers are clean and clear movers, with open and varied facial expressions so we feel we meet them all in turn as they move through the light. Although there are no specific references to the time and places of life in Aotearoa New Zealand, the performance is impeccably prepared and each piece segues easily into the next. Overall the effect is gained of a group of friends, enjoying each others’ company, playing then competing, aware of possible danger but in the end uniting as a single supportive group. Holly Newsome as choreographic mentor has made a flowing and attractive sequence of the students’ work, with welcome collaboration with Design department.

One wonders if there could be further collaboration with the Classical Dance stream at the same school, since Ballet too needs to encourage new choreography. These emerging dance -makers are earning their school’s motto—Kia kōrero te katoa o te tinana. Make the whole body do the talking.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 May 2024

Featured image: Aleeya McFadyen-Rew and Sophie Sheaf-Morrison in In the Making. New Zealand School of Dance Choreographic Season, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Hillscape. The Film

Hillscape, a site-specific work with choreography by Ashlee Bye, was given just one live performance in April 2023 at Canberra’s National Arboretum as part of the Canberra International Music Festival. I reviewed it then—see this link—and largely thought that it was quite an exceptional work. I did have one issue, however, and that was that the venue, including where the audience was required to be positioned, didn’t allow us (or me anyway) to enjoy fully the choreography. We were watching it from something of a distance! But at some stage Hillscape was filmed for Ausdance ACT by Cowboy Hat Films and was shown just recently as part of Ausdance ACT’s Dance Week 2024 program.

The film allows the occasional close-up of the choreography and it was a particular pleasure to watch these close-up sections. I was especially taken by a trio where Bye explored the use of the arms in relation to the body. I was impressed too with a close up of a solo by Yolanda Lowatta where the hands featured. Also enjoyable were various views of the three dancers exploring the space of the hillside with all kinds of action, including various rolling movements across the grass. The film also gave stronger sound to Dan Walker’s commissioned score with its assortment of instruments and voices. It was absolutely absorbing.

One side issue:
Although I have no formal evidence for when Hillscape was filmed, it seems not to have been at the original performance. The grass was not nearly so green in the film as I remember from the live performance, and as appears in the still images I have used here, and in my original review. Not that it is a major issue! The venue is still stunning and in fact seems even more exceptional in the film, which looks at the work from several positions so we get a wider or more diverse view of the location than was possible when seated in just one position as was the case during the live show.

With thanks to Ausdance ACT for making the film available. I’m not sure when, or if, the film will be made publicly accessible but I hope it happens.

Michelle Potter, 6 May 2024

Featured image: (l-r) Yolanda Lowatta, Patricia Hayes-Kavanagh and Ashlee Bye in Hillscape, Australian Dance Party, 2023. Photo: © Olivia Wikner

Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet

1 May 2024 (and following national tour). St James Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This pedigree production of Swan Lake by Russell Kerr, the beloved father figure of ballet in New Zealand, was first staged on the company in 1996 and again in 2002, 2007 and 2013. Russell Kerr died in 2022 so this re-staging is the first not under his direction.

It proves a triumph on several levels, and is giving many a balletomane a sense of coming home. To some degree that involves the sumptuous sets and distinctive costumes by designer Kristian Fredrikson, which still carry as well as they did nigh on three decades ago. The cut and the cloth, the colours, weight and scale of all of Fredrikson’s work come from a singular vision.  

Mayu Tanigaito as Odette/Odile can trust her formidable technique to release an exquisite interpretation of the dual role. She conveys Odette’s yearning through superb control of port de bras, unfolding arabesques and in the beautifully held balances, which could have lasted even longer, holding her breath and ours. But after a hint of rubato with the masterful conductor Hamish McKeich holding the baton, you have to go where the stunningly beautiful violin solo, played by Donald Armstrong, is leading you. The pathos of doomed love and Odette’s courage to protect both the Prince, and her fellow victims, is rendered with a tenderness that was in splendid contrast with her sparkling duplicity as Odile. Pearl then diamond.

Mayu Tanigaito as Odette and Laurynas Vejalis as Siegfried in Swan Lake, Act II. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Laurynas Vejalis is a pensive Prince Siegfried, and I appreciate enormously the aesthetic restraint that he brings to his phenomenal technique. As a dancer he can do anything, as Siegfried he holds back, until he sights Odile that is. As the four-act ballet progresses this couple perform some of the finest pas de deux we have seen here in recent years.

The ensemble of swans is impressive, many of them younger dancers who will be performing in their first Swan Lake. They may have missed Russell Kerr but they could not have a better introduction than this beautifully realised production. Character dances in the ballroom scene are very stylishly delivered and help build a rich and royal courtly atmosphere, all the more devastating when it falls out of the vertical and collapses into chaos. Von Rothbart wears the most magnificent cloak in history but I felt the mysterious and evil intent of his complex role could have been more convincingly conveyed.

Catarina Estévez-Collins and Monet Galea-Hewitt, with corps de ballet, as Swans in Swan Lake Act II. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Kerr’s production lifts Tchaikovsky’s sublime composition off the page and onto the stage, and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra play superbly, with a number of fine players evident in the solos. The different sections of the orchestra are alive to the drama of lyrical and haunting or tempestuous and extrovert passages. Hamish McKeich holds it all together and the triumph belongs equally to him.

Much credit is due to the Company’s new artistic directorate for appointing Turid Revfeim as regisseur of Russell Kerr’s production. Revfeim is another of the country’s ballet legends—an accomplished dancer, teacher and artistic director of an independent ballet collective, a long-standing professional of great stamina and skilled diplomacy. Having worked with Kerr for years she is the perfect person for the job. The modesty apparent in her curtain-call speaks volumes, but as Edmund Hilary would say she ‘has an awful lot to be modest about’. Her program essay reminisces about Kerr’s inimitable way of working, and the high expectations he had of each dancer.

It is good too to be reminded of Shannon Dawson’s words about Kerr … ‘He is a parent of sorts, a father of dance, teaching the young, guiding the teenager and letting the adult go free, and the only thing expected in return is that you do your best.’

Kerr’s own insightful essay in the printed program proclaims ‘There are no swans in the ballet Swan Lake…’ explaining they are all women…’victims of an evil genius’. His reading offers an ambiguous ending to the ballet, suggesting that von Rothbart as the power of evil has been overcome, but perhaps only temporarily? Swan and Prince are together, but the misogynist magician will be back. He was conquered once, for now, but there may come a need to conquer him again. The resourceful lighting design by Jon Buswell contributes much here.

Branden Reiners as von Rothbart in Swan Lake. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Jennifer Shennan, 3 May 2024

Featured image: Mayu Tanigaito as Odile and Laurynas Vejalis as Siegfried in Swan Lake, Act III. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Co_Lab: 24. Australian Dance Party

29 April 2024. Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre

Canberra Theatre Centre’s Courtyard Studio is always an interesting venue to visit. One never knows what might happen as far as performance goes, and not even how the venue will be set up. And so it was with the premiere of Co_Lab: 24 —the opening event for Ausdance ACT’s 2024 Australian Dance Week activities.

Co_Lab: 24 was an experimental collaboration using improvisation as a technique. It was performed by Alison Plevey and Sara Black from Australian Dance Party, guest dancer Melanie Lane, musicians Alex Voorhoeve and Sia Ahmad, and visual artist/lighting designer Nicci Haynes.

Entering the Courtyard Studio we were greeted with an instruction, ‘Please don’t walk on the black area.’ That black area was a large piece of tarkett spread across the floor space—the dance floor. A single row of chairs pressed against the four walls of the space was the seating for the audience, and at four points on the edges of the tarkett we noticed the two musicians with their instruments, the lighting/visual arts performer with a range of electronic items ready for use, and the photographer for the night, Lorna Sim.

There was no narrative and the show was certainly improvisatory with dancers and musicians always watching each other and moving or playing instruments in a collaborative manner. But there was an inherent plan within which the artists worked, made clear by those moments when a pattern of movement emerged. But there were also many other moments when absolute individuality predominated and the movement belonged specifically to particular dancers, and further moments when the dancers worked together without obvious patterning. All three dancers performed with admirable intensity using all parts of the body, even small parts such as fingers.

A lot of the movement was quite grounded (in true contemporary fashion). But there were also moments when a box became a prop that allowed the movement to reach upwards, and others when Nicci Haynes’ contribution of coloured imagery projected onto a rectangle of light in the centre of the tarkett allowed coloured patterns to appear over the bodies of the dancers.

(left) Sara Black, (reaching upwards) Melanie Lane, (on the floor) Alison Plevey in Co_Lab: 24. Australian Dance Party and collaborators. Photo: © Lorna Sim, 2024
Alison Plevey in Co_Lab: 24. Australian Dance Party and collaborators. Photo: © Lorna Sim, 2024

Part of the soundscape consisted of whispers, vocal noises, and other somewhat unrecognisable sounds from the equipment being used by Sia Ahmad. It was an unusual combination of sounds and, unfortunately, from where I was sitting it was difficult to follow what exactly was happening and how the sound was being created.

The absolute highlight for me was the finale when Voorhoeve stood up and moved into the centre of the tarkett space carrying his cello (his ‘regular’ one rather than the electric version that he had been playing for most of the performance). There he and Plevey performed a duet that was quite absorbing in the clear and strong interaction that existed between them. As the work came to a close Plevey left the spotlight leaving Voorhoeve alone. He played solo for a short time and then finished the evening by collapsing his body forward over the cello. The show was over.

Alex Voorhoeve in Co_Lab: 24. Australian Dance Party and collaborators. Photo: © Lorna Sim, 2024

Michelle Potter, 1 May 2024

Featured image: (l–r) Melanie Lane, Alison Plevey and Sara Black (with Alex Voorhoeve a small figure in the background) in Co_Lab: 24. Australian Dance Party and collaborators. Photo: © Lorna Sim, 2024

Dona Nobis Pacem. The film

John Neumeier choreographer. Hamburg Ballet
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

John Neumeier has been the artistic director and choreographer of Hamburg Ballet since 1973. His prolific output of numerous full-length ballets over those decades is legendary, and what’s more, all the works have stayed current in the company’s repertoire and are given regular return seasons. That is a phenomenal achievement in world ballet terms.

I was more than fortunate, when on a Goethe Institut study tour to Germany in 2005, to see many of Neumeier’s full-length ballets staged in a breathtaking single week in Hamburg—Romeo & Juliet, Lady of the Camelias, Death in Venice, Midsummer Nights Dream, Odysseus, Mahler Third Symphony. I have simply never recovered from that week and indeed have no intention of ever recovering.

Hamburg Ballet later performed in Brisbane where I saw Nijinsky Gala. Neumeier has long and often cited Vaslav Nijinsky as the formative inspiration for his own life in balletOn a later visit to Copenhagen I was enormously impressed by the Royal Danish Ballet’s production of The Little Mermaid, which they had commissioned of Neumeier. I visited Hamburg again in 2015, to see his Bach St.Matthew Passion

I’d have to say deep and lasting gratitude was the word for all these choreographic riches, but you can’t have too much of a good thing so when recently I noticed Dona Nobis Pacem, to JS Bach’s B Minor Mass, was to be Neumeier’s prayer for peace in the world and his swan song choreography as he prepares to retire from Hamburg Ballet, I was tempted to treat myself to a final trip to Europe. Would I, wouldn’t I get there?

Measure my delight then to notice that the local Arts TV channel was about to screen film of Dona Nobis Pacem right here in my front room! So I didn’t have to fly to Europe after all but just to cancel all commitments for a day and a night and sit glued to the screen for two airings of the work that proves among the of most poignant, exquisite, sad and uplifting of ballets ever made.

Do check Youtube for a 5 minute excerpt of the work. There you will see the superb ensemble dancing of the blessed spirits, as well as of the shell-shocked soldier-victims of war. The lead performer, Spanish born dancer Aleix Martinez, brilliantly portrays the central role of—shall we call him the Unknown Soldier, or Everyman. He would and should outdance warmongers everywhere—but that’s not the way the world works of course.

One of several excerpts from Dona Nobis Pacem available on YouTube

A few days later the same Arts Channel broadcast the documentary—The Life and Work of John Neumeier. All manner of insights are offered, as to how the boy from Milwaukee ended up as arguably Europe’s finest ballet choreographer who rates the music he selects as highly as the dances he sets to them. You don’t work with French pianist David Fray unless you mean business. Clearly these films exist somewhere in the world. Please hunt them down and watch them, then tell your grandchildren what you saw. 

If we had to pick our three favourite choreographers in the whole world, and thank goodness we don’t, my votes would go to John Neumeier, and to New Zealand’s Gray Veredon (more on him later), and the remarkable Douglas Wright. Both Neumeier and Wright shared the magnetic inspiration of Nijinsky, of dancer and of choreographer in their own calling, and I was more than once made mindful of Wright by this choreography of Neumeier and by the performance of Martinez, which is about the finest compliment I can offer to them all.     

Jennifer Shennan, 29 April 2024

Featured image: DVD cover, Dona Nobis Pacem