7 May 2022 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
David Hallberg has given his directorship of the Australian Ballet a name, a conceptual idea, for us to ponder—’A New Era’. The company’s latest production, Kunstkamer, brings reality to Hallberg’s concept. Kunstkamer is a complete change for the Australian Ballet. It is a magnificent, brilliantly conceived, exceptionally performed work giving audiences (and perhaps even the dancers) a whole new look at what dance can achieve, and maybe even what we can expect for the next several years under Hallberg?.
Inspired by an eighteenth-century publication Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, and first performed by Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) in its 2019-2020 season, Kunstkamer (literally art room in Dutch) is the work of four choreographers, Sol León, Paul Lightfoot, Crystal Pite and Marco Goecke. Cabinets of curiosities date back several centuries and were collections of paintings and other items—curiosities—from around the world and were precursors to what we think of today as museums. Kunstkamer is a dance work in 18 separate sections and, to my mind, fits beautifully within the notion of a collection of unusual, beautiful, incredible items, and even within the idea of a room or several rooms containing such items.
Take the set by León and Lightfoot and the lighting (Tom Bevoort, Ubo Haberland and Tom Visser) for example. The set was architecturally inspired and as each dance section began the screens that made up the set slid into a new formation, or lighting changed our perspective of the ‘room’. It was as if we had moved from one room of a museum to another. Of course there are other ways of looking at how the set was used. Dancers entered and left through a series of doors built into one part of the set, often slamming them noisily. Coming and going. Changing styles. Any number of thoughts come to mind.
Then there were the various sections that made up the dance component. Each section was unique and all carried allusions of various kinds—to the work of other choreographers for example and William Forsythe and Jiří Kylián spring straight to mind. The opening scene for Part II, seen in the image below, was motionless but somehow incredibly moving and, as the dancer sat there, a front curtain descended and rose again reminding us of Forsythe’s Artifact. Then there were references to various trends in the visual arts, especially those of the late 19th, early 20th century; and even allusions to other theatrical styles, Butoh for example when dancers appeared white-faced and open-mouthed.
As for the choreography, it was contemporary movement—angular poses, stretched limbs, movement that often seemed quite raw rather than controlled, but often an emphasis on group shapes and unison movement.
The standout dancer at the performance I saw was Benedicte Bemet, who seemed totally transformed. I have always admired her dancing but this time gone was the ‘ballerina look’ (as beautiful as that can be) and there onstage was an artist able to move into a new world when required. She was magnificent. I also particularly enjoyed the performances by Callum Linnane and Adam Bull and the very strong introductory moments from guest dancer Jorge Nozal, who appeared with NDT in the same role (described in the printed program as ‘the enigmatic ghost character’). But every dancer rose to the occasion brilliantly. I got the feeling that they just loved dancing Kunstkamer with all its weird and wonderful aspects, including the speech, often incomprehensible chatter, and the singing by the dancers that was included. The music itself was as as varied as the choreography and ranged from Beethoven to Janis Joplin and included at one stage a pianist playing onstage.
What an unbelievably incredible show this was from beginning to end! I understand it is being streamed on 10 June. If you can’t get to see it live, check out the streaming details.
Dance for Ukraine, a humanitarian appeal to raise money for Ukraine and its people, was put together and directed by Alina Cojocaru (Romania) and Ivan Putrov (Ukraine). It was staged on 19 March 2022 at the London Coliseum and was streamed on Marquee TV making it accessible for those of us who live outside London. It was a great opportunity to see a range of artists dancing a range of choreography, some of it familiar, some not, some filled with sadness and mourning, some filled with joy and hope. It was also a great opportunity to donate via the (minimal) cost to stream, with the possibility of making a further donation as well.
The gala opened with a dramatic and moving rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem. This powerful and emotion-filled singing by a small choir of voices led by Ksenia Nikolaieva was followed by short, spoken introductions by Cojocaru and Putrov, who trained together as children in Kyiv. Then the dancing began.
It was a initial shock that the first dance was a pas de deux from Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. I am lucky enough to have seen this work twice, once with English National Ballet, who commissioned the work in 2014, and once with Queensland Ballet, who staged it in 2017. It is an extraordinary work and my initial shock was nothing to do with its appropriateness for the gala. It was appropriate as this pas deux concerns a woman’s reaction to her realisation that the man in her life was not returning from war. My feeling of shock was that we were seeing a work by Scarlett, one which I thought I would never see again. It was, however, an exceptional experience to see once more the sense of loss conveyed by Scarlett’s choreography and, of course, death is now part of the Scarlett story so a certain degree of symbolism could easily be felt. The Act II pas de deux from Scarlett’s version of Swan Lake was also featured later in the program.
Looking at the program as a whole, the standout dancer for me was Francesco Gabriele Frola partnering Mayara Magri in the Ali and Medora pas de deux from Le Corsaire. Frola is now a principal with English National Ballet and his technique and stage presence are spectacular. He is one of those dancers who gives one goose bumps from the minute he steps onstage, not to mention the gasps that can’t be held back when watching his manèges, his beats, his turns and his beautiful attention to his partner.
Also highly interesting were two male solos—The Dying Swan danced by Cuban born Javier Torres with choreography from Michel Descombey and Lacrymosa danced by Royal Ballet first soloist Luca Acri with choreography by Edward Stierle. This Dying Swan was a far cry from the Anna Pavlova version with which many are more than familiar. It had a very human element to the choreography as we watched a man, whose life seemed to be crumbling under physical pressures, hover closer and closer to death, although fluttering hands and arms paid service to the original solo. Luca Acri danced his solo, Lacrymosa, to a section of Mozart’s Requiem and showed off a stunning technique full of control, fluidity and power.
There were some items that were not so steeped in sorrow. I enjoyed a beautiful performance of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux danced by the magnificent Marianela Nuñez partnered by Reece Clarke and also a work I had never seen before, one of Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes danced by Junor Souza and Emma Hawes. The Stevenson work, danced around and on a portable barre, was quite simple but beautiful in the way it showed an arrangement of shapes that can be put together by two dancers working with a strictly classical vocabulary. Then there was a performance of the grand pas de deux from Carlos Accosta’s production of Don Quixote performed with panache by Miki Muzitani and Mathias Dingman.
Other works included a section from FAR by Wayne McGregor, an extract from John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias with Alina Cojocaru and Mathieu Ganio, a section from Bournonville’s La Sylphide, a work called Ashes choreographed by Jason Kittelberger and danced by Natalia Osipova, and a section from Kenneth MacMillan’s Requiem.
Cojocaru and Putrov have said ‘We are united in our belief that art can and must stand up for humanity. So many of our fellow artists believe the same and have joined us to show their support for the people of Ukraine in this moment of need.’
Michelle Potter, 26 April 2022.
With thanks to Elliott Franks for permission to use his images. The streaming of Dance for Ukraine on Marquee TV ended on 24 April.
2 April 2022. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre
The work of Jake Silvestro defies categorisation. He is at once a dancer, a circus performer, a physical theatre artist, and a visual artist. All these qualities appear quite clearly in his solo show, December.
As we enter the theatre for December, our eyes are drawn to a dimly-lit stage covered by detritus that looks initially like rocks but turns out to be large sheets of crumpled paper. A fireplace without a surrounding wall sits in one downstage corner. We can hear the sound of birds chirping in the background and, as the show proper begins, the lighting changes to a reddish glow. Silvestro walks into this setting and rustles around in the scrunched paper. He uncovers some items including a small box, which we later discover is filled with pieces of chalk and other materials used for drawing; and a curved piece of wood of some sort, which later turns out to be part of a Cyr wheel. December is Silvestro’s personal reflections on the disastrous fires that consumed parts of the Australian bush in December 2019 and into 2020. That reddish lighting of course suggests those fires! And the set suggests a burnt out residence.
Throughout the piece, Silvestro moves around the set sometimes in a slow, thoughtful walk, but most times with spectacular leaps, runs, tumbles and jumps. He sometimes uses the props on the set as aids or additions to his movement. A dance with two chairs, one untouched by the fire, the other damaged, which he uncovers from amongst the crumpled detritus, shows us his skills in incorporating objects into his choreography. His interest in the visual arts takes over on a number of occasions and he manipulates large pieces of cloth so they become a background for his drawing and painting. He takes out some chalk from the box he found and draws geometric patterns on the stage floor. I wonder what he is doing but decide he must be drawing the floor plan of the burnt out residence. Or perhaps how the house will look when he rebuilds.
At one stage Silvestro picks up some pieces of fabric that he fashions into items that represent people. One represents a baby. He cradles it in his arms. Another is a head (of a woman, a partner perhaps). He touches it lovingly and then dances with it. A storyline is in there somewhere but it’s up to us to make it up.
Two particular moments stand out for me. In one Silvestro picks up the piece of curved wood he has rescued from the crumpled mess on the floor and joins it to another larger piece of circular material so that a Cyr wheel is created. He is a fabulous performer on this item of circus paraphernalia and his whirling and spinning while inside the wheel are breathtaking. In another he adds a brightly coloured shirt to his rather workman-like costume (that of someone who has been fighting the fire perhaps), picks up some brightly coloured hoops and proceeds to engage us with a brilliant display as he manipulates the hoops, letting them play up and down and across his body. It is a particularly joyous moment compared with most of the rest of the work and suggests perhaps that there is hope for the future.
December was an engaging show filled with many emotions and some great movement. I wish, however, that there had been some sort of handout, or information board in the foyer, that at least gave credits. I have no idea who did the lighting, who designed the soundscape, who was responsible for the setting and so on. Some of us like to know, especially if we are writing up the show. Perhaps next time?
Australian Dance Party (ADP) calls itself a site-specific company these days, and its most recent work, LESS, is an exceptional example of how this approach to the company’s productions plays out. Created and performed as part of Canberra’s annual Enlighten Festival and the 2022 BOLD Festival, LESS took place in and around a sculpture created by a Chilean-based architectural practice, Pezo von Ellrichshausen. The sculpture, named LESS, graces a space in the Dairy Road Precinct, an area devoted to mixed and emerging businesses. It is is a structure of 36 towering concrete columns and a circular ramp leading to a viewing platform. In front of it is a water feature, which consists of large rectangular ponds of shallow water.
While official descriptions of the sculpture say it is ‘intentionally monotonous’, it might also be seen as looking back to the brutalist architecture that characterises many of Canberra’s best known public buildings. ADP’s use of the site for LESS, the dance work, was something of a remarkable adventure for the audience. Some were seated on the ramp, others dangled their feet in the water while sitting on chairs positioned in one of the watery rectangles.
LESS the dance work begins just as the light of the day is beginning to fade. The movement starts in the watery ponds in front the the sculpture, and the dancers, joined by a saxophonist (John Mackey) and a vocalist (Liam Budge), make their way towards the sculpture. Their movement is slow and deliberate and focuses on making right angled turns to change direction. It seems to reflect the upright qualities and lack of any sense of curved lines in the 36 columns. Once they reach the water directly in front of the sculpture, however, their imagination lets fly. They twist, bend, stretch and interact with each other, often splashing water in various directions, before making their way onto the sculpture itself. As the natural light fades away completely, the truly remarkable lighting design by Ove Mcleod takes over.
As the dancers transition from the water onto the sculpture their movement often becomes quite structured. Sometimes it reflects the upright nature of the columns. Sometimes it uses the columns as complete or partial hiding places. Sometimes it ignores that structural quality and becomes quite free and adventurous. And, in a remarkable manner, Mcleod’s lighting design allows what is happening on the floor of the sculpture to be reflected in the water giving a strange sensation of no beginning or no end to the dance.
The performers wore costumes by Aislinn King in colours of white and grey, although this colour scheme, like that of the concrete pillars, changed under the effects of the lighting design. Sound design was by Alex Voorhoeve and, in addition to the sounds of the saxophone, Liam Budge’s vocals, created through a hand-held microphone, were an interesting blend of grunts, moans, shouts, whispers and other assorted sounds that often seemed to reflect the dancers’ movements.
It is a joy to see ADP back in performance mode. The company, directed by Alison Plevey, may have a different approach to dance from many other companies, but LESS was a triumph of collaboration. Every aspect of the production contributed in a theatrical way to give a show that resonates still in my mind. I love being able to think up new ideas about dance and how it relates to us, society, and other art forms. LESS gave me that opportunity.
Ever since I began watching productions by Bangarra Dance Theatre (around three decades ago), the aspect of their shows that I have most admired has always been the way in which a story is told through movement. Of course I have loved the fabulous visual and musical aspects of the productions as well—costumes, sets, lighting and score have all contributed beautifully. But dance prevailed as the strongest force.
With this latest production, made jointly with Sydney Theatre Company, somehow dance didn’t prevail any longer. There was some terrific dancing for sure. It was constantly energetic and came from committed dancers. Two performers stood out in particular: the seemingly ageless Elma Kris as Wudjang (‘mother’ in Yugambeh language but with a wider meaning as spirit of Country in this case), and the relatively new artist Lillian Banks as her contemporary manifestation, Gurai. They built up a powerful relationship over the course of the show. But the strongest element in the show to my mind was the spoken and sung word, at times in English and at others in Yugambeh—the latter being the language spoken in the area that Stephen Page, choreographer of the work, recognises as the Country of his ancestry.
Wudjang—not the past was Page’s last production as artistic director of Bangarra. It began with the discovery, by workmen engaged in excavation for the construction of a dam, of ancestral bones, those of Wudjang. It then followed a journey to honour Wudjang with burial in a traditional resting place. Along the way there were scenes where the past was recollected and the present generation was encouraged to move forward with pride and resilience.
Some scenes were confronting, such as that in which one of the characters, Maren, tells of rape and her determination to make those who rape pay for their violence towards Indigenous women. Other characters expressed anger at the raising of a flag claiming territory for ‘the Royal pigsty’. Others showed Indigenous people as curious about the sheep that were being raised by the colonists.
But words and song dominated and it wasn’t always easy to hear and understand what was happening. The music by Steve Francis was played live on stage with musicians occasionally becoming a close part of the action, especially but not always violinist Veronique Serret. Befitting the confronting elements of the storyline, the music frequently sounded strident, but to my mind unnecessarily loud. Often it drowned out the words so it was not always easy to follow the story, especially when the English was highly idiomatic and the Yugambeh language was not understood by me (and I imagine most of the audience). If words are to prevail they have to be heard, and as far as the sections in Yugambeh language were concerned perhaps surtitles in translation would have helped. The major exception was provided by the singing of Elaine Crombie as Maren. She sang (in English) about resilience and survival after rape and she was just brilliant. Every word was clear and the delivery was powerful and defiant.
As ever, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes were also just brilliant and hugely diverse. They ranged from the beautiful tie-dyed dress worn by Crombie in certain sections, to the intricate clothing worn by Banks and Kris.
Wudjang —not the past ended with hope in the future as the bones discovered in the opening scene were buried in a traditional manner. But ultimately I was disappointed that the work moved between so many theatrical genres. At times it seemed operatic. At others a bit like musical theatre. I longed for dance to be more powerful, or less dominated by words that were not always comprehensible. Translation was available in the printed program but who can read a program in the dark, not to mention in attempting to do so having to miss what was happening onstage.
What is it about Swan Lake? Looking back I have seen productions of this ballet across Australia and around the world. The Australian Ballet has had four different productions in its repertoire for a start—all quite different. Then I can’t leave out the production by the Borovansky Ballet in the 1950s and the two created in New Zealand that I came across while researching my recent book, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. And I have seen European and English productions as well as some from the United States. Perhaps I’ve seen somewhere between 10 and 15 different productions. Then, just recently I watched A Swan Lake, choreographed by Alexander Ekman. It is 90 or so minutes long. Around the same time I watched Swan Lake Bath Ballet by Corey Baker, which is just over 3 minutes in length. These last two productions are quite unusual takes on the ballet we know as Swan Lake.
Back in 2016 I interviewed Ekman in Sydney for a story about his production of Cacti, which was being brought to Canberra by Sydney Dance Company. I recall the interview, and the rehearsal that I was privileged to watch, very clearly. Ekman was a charming interviewee, willing to open up about his work and full of laughter and jokes. I remember he said:
My work is entertainment. I take my interpretations from life, from the weirdness of what we do. I’m not just a step maker. I think I’m good at making situations.
Well A Swan Lake is certainly full of situations (some quite weird) and is also certainly entertaining in a kind of a way. Made in 2014 for Norwegian National Ballet and filmed that same year, it is in 3 acts, although Act III is VERY short. A Swan Lake is danced to a score by Swedish composer Mikael Karlsson, which in the first act features some occasional musical references to the Tchaikovsky score. In addition to the Norwegian National Ballet dancers, the cast includes children from the Norwegian National Ballet School, some actors and an opera singer.
Act I purports to consider the origins of the apparently ill-fated first production of the ballet in Moscow in 1877, which had choreography by Julius Reisinger. There were, also apparently, difficulties associated with other aspects of the production, including which ballerina would dance the leading role. The craziness that pervades Act I of A Swan Lake suggests the fiasco that many believe characterised the 1877 production. It features, for example, an assortment of people, extraordinarily dressed by Danish fashion designer Henrik Vibskov, constantly coming and going in and out of doors that comprise the set.
Perhaps the most interesting section in Act I, however, takes place between two actors with one (representing Reisinger?) trying to think up a story (eventually coming up with swans) and what steps would suit his choices. His attempts were constantly rejected by a man behind a desk.
I also wondered for a while about the opera singer who kept appearing in Act I and, after reading a little about the people involved in putting the 1877 show together, I discovered that, at the time, the Intendant (Administrator) of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow where the first performance was held was married to an opera singer. A situation from history not excluded by Ekman?
Act II (137 years later than Act I we are told) was set in a very watery environment. The stage of the theatre was flooded with water and, as if to show the passing of time, the choreography initially was slow motion as the water continued to fall. As time wore on the dancing made use of the watery environment and was very physical and of today (more or less). There were moments when a flood of rubber duckies fell onto the stage and other moments when Swan Boats transported people across the water, reminding me of the Swan Boats that carry pleasure seekers on a lake in the Public Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (I was amazed to find that these pleasure boats, which I have to admit to having ridden, date back to 1877).
But the highlight of this act for me was the meeting in the middle of the watery stage of a black swan and a white swan. They wore a tutu skirt, a close fitting helmet-style headdress and a remarkable, almost architecturally designed bodice with an enlarged ‘hump’ at the back. The black swan was engaged at one stage in slapping the white swan hard across the face, while the white swan accepted her fate and simply placed her hands gently on the black swan’s face. Was this Ekman bringing in the theme of good versus evil that is part of the regular Swan Lake. Or did it relate to the apparent problems between ballerinas in relation to the 1877 production?
Act III lasted for about a minute. We were transported forward about 200 years and were treated to a brief dance by a robot with swan wings. Will someone still be making new versions of Swan Lake two centuries hence?
There is no doubt that Ekman’s Swan Lake generates a range of thoughts and ideas. Sometimes it is hilarious, sometimes it is hugely inventive, sometimes it causes many thoughts about history, choreography and repertoire. And it is entertaining in a Ekman kind of way.
But after this experience, as exhilarating (and exhausting) as it was, all I can say is that Swan Lake Ballet Bath was a relaxing, and quite beautiful experience. Created by New Zealander Corey Baker on 27 dancers from companies across the world, it was filmed entirely remotely during lockdown by dancers performing in their home bathtubs and filmed by them using mobile phones. And how impressive is the post production!
A Swan Lake is available (with subscription) on Marquee TV. Swan Lake Bath Ballet is part of the Sydney Opera House’s UK/AU Digital Stream and was created as part of BBC Arts Culture in Quarantine.
Michelle Potter, 31 January 2022
Featured image: Swan Boats from Act II, A Swan Lake. Photo: Erik Berg
All photos from A Swan Lake by Erik Berg (permission requested and pending)
I did not have the opportunity to see live dance outside Australia in 2021 although I came very close to getting to New Zealand to see Loughlan Prior’s Firebird for Royal New Zealand Ballet (everything was booked but had to be cancelled at the last minute)! But I did see a variety of performances from overseas companies in online screenings, including Firebird. Most of what I saw in this way I did review for this website.
Choosing just five productions was not easy but I decided to stay with that limit, perhaps ‘in remembrance of times past’. Five was the limit in the days when The Canberra Times had a stronger arts coverage. And such a limit does demand a certain degree of focus and serious thought about defining principles in specific situations!
Below are my ‘top five’ productions for the year arranged chronologically according to the date of performance.
Third Practice. Tero Saarinen Company. Helsinki, February 2021. Online screening
I was first introduced to the work of the Finnish company led by Tero Saarinen in late 2020 when I was able to watch Borrowed Light, a collaboration by the company with the singers of Boston Camerata. Borrowed Light dated back to 2004 but was filmed in 2012 at Jacob’s Pillow and the film was screened online in 2021 as part of the Pillow’s response to lockdown. It was an exceptional collaboration and made me want to see more from this company, which I had not encountered before. The opportunity came in February 2021 when I was invited to watch and review the company’s online screening of Third Practice, performed to madrigals by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, and played and sung by members of Helsinki’s Baroque Orchestra.
Third Practice was another eye-opening production after Borrowed Light. In my review I wrote’, ‘Third Practice is an extraordinary work examining the endless possibilities of cross art form collaboration and the potential of dance to stand at the forefront of new explorations in the arts.’
I was initially intrigued by the title Third Practice. As I discovered when doing some preliminary research, it referred to comments about the nature of Monteverdi’s compositional style and Tero Saarinen’s own approach to choreography. You can read more in my review at this link.
GRIMM. Sydney Choreographic Centre. Sydney, April 2021. Live performance
Starting a new company, and indeed a whole new choreographic venture, is a courageous step to take. GRIMM was the first production from a new Sydney-based venture, the Sydney Choreographic Centre, the brainchild of director Francesco Ventriglia (also the choreographer of GRIMM) and managing director Neil Christopher. GRIMM is courageous too in that it takes a whole new look at characters from the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), and examines the emotions of those characters as they move from youth to maturity. It is a far cry from the way we usually meet characters like Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and others, in dance form.
But it was also a truly thrilling production in a collaborative sense. Lighting, projections, costumes were stunning in their contemporaneity. Absolutely stunning. It was a terrific start for this new venture and I look forward to seeing more. Read my review at this link.
The Point, Liz Lea Dance Company, Canberra, May 2021. Live performance
Liz Lea Dance Company won a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Lea’s production of The Point. The citation read: ‘For The Point, a courageous exploration of connection and creativity across different dance styles and cultures through innovative choreography highlighted by outstanding use of music and a remarkable lighting design by Karen Norris.’
What intrigued me especially about this production was the mix of dance styles, which did not in my mind compromise any one style. My ballet teacher, many years ago now, was Valrene Tweedie, and I recall her saying ‘Ballet is like a sponge. It can absorb anything and everything.’ Well it is quite easy to substitute ‘dance’ for ‘ballet’ in that remark and Lea’s combining of contemporary, Western style movement with Indian styles, with which Lea is more than familiar, suggests strongly that no dance style is beyond being looked at creatively.
Of course, as the citation indicates, the collaboration across media was brilliant and the mix of ideas, which included homage to Marion Mahony Griffin and her contribution to the design of Canberra, was also brilliant. Read my review at this link.
Sandsong. Stories from the Great Sandy Desert. Bangarra Dance Theatre. Sydney, June 2021. Live performance
For me Sandsong captured what I have always loved about Bangarra—the company’s ability to present Indigenous cultural heritage and the political issues that have intruded on and damaged that heritage. I admire the way the ideas presented generate serious contemplation about the situation without necessarily demanding that we are filled with anger. Bangarra shows us what happened; we can draw our own conclusions. With Sandsong I also was moved by the way those cultural issues reflected gender divisions in traditional society, both choreographically and in a narrative sense.
In addition, what always stands out with Bangarra productions, and Sandsong was no exception, is the visual strength of the company’s shows. Jacob Nash creates exceptional sets, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes capture so much of the context of the work while giving freedom for the dancers to move, and on this occasion the lighting by Nick Schlieper added a stunning shimmer to Nash’s backcloth while Steve Francis’ score captured the multi-faceted nature of the work.
On view. Panoramic Suite. Sue Healey. Sydney, October 2021 . Online screening
Sue Healey has been working with the concept of On View for a number of years and I have strong memories of On View. Live Portraits, as well as a number of filmed portraits she has made of people she has named ‘icons’ of Australian dance. Panoramic Suite, however, takes her ideas to another level and includes material recorded outside of Australia, in particular in Hong Kong and Japan. Healey has combined this new material with that created in Australia and the result is indeed a panorama. This is not just because it traverses continents in its subject matter, but also because of the technical approach that gives the viewer many angles from which to view the footage—close-up shots, aerial views, multiple views of the same sections, and so many other concepts.
On View. Panoramic Suite is an exceptional endeavour and a huge credit to Healey and her team. Read my review at this link.
I guess what I really liked about all five of these productions was that in one way or another the choreographers, and the collaborative team, were pushing the boundaries of what dance is about, what it can do, how we can look at it. And the pushing of boundaries was happening in such a variety of ways. There was intelligence and creativity in approach and that was a real thrill in a year when we all wondered if the performing arts would survive when there were so many problems, especially for live performance. Let’s look ahead, with fingers crossed, to 2022.
Evelyn Juers, The Dancer. A biography for Philippa Cullen. (Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2021)
ISBN: 9781925818727; 592 pp
This book by Evelyn Juers is spectacularly different from any biography I have read before, especially from any dance biography I have yet encountered. It is in essence the story of Philippa Ann Cullen (born Melbourne, Australia 1950; died Kodaikanal, India, 1975), a dancer who performed across the world and whose creative process involved experiments with theremins and movement-sensitive floors. Her work produced movement unlike that of most of her contemporaries, and she was at the forefront of using electronic music as an accompaniment to her work. The book is distinguished by the breadth of its author’s research and her sensitivity to the socio-political background in which Cullen worked. But it is different in two major ways from most biographies with which I am familiar: by the manner in which the author inserts her own voice into the story, and by the author’s writing style.
Before entering into the story of Cullen’s life and career, Juers investigates Cullen’s family history on both her mother’s and father’s side. This is an in depth examination drawing on as many sources as Juers was able to discover. It has its ups and downs as those who have been involved in family history no doubt have discovered. Some material is always elusive, although Juers is able to set up a clear lineage for Cullen.
Once this history has been established, Cullen’s own life takes the stage. Juers gives an insight into Cullen’s education; her dance training in Sydney at the Bodenwieser Dance Studio; her early public performances, including those with the choreographic enterprise Ballet Australia; the beginnings of her own choreography; her developing interest in the theremin and electronic music, and their uses in her creative process; and her studies at Sydney University.
Towards the end of 1972, Cullen, with the aid of a an Australia Council grant, travelled overseas to examine the role and potential of electronics in dance. She visited a host of countries in Europe, including Britain, the Netherlands and Germany as well as Africa and India; and she met and worked with a range of contemporary artists who opened up a variety of new possibilities for her. Cullen returned briefly to Australia in early 1974 and became involved in a series of seminars, workshops, demonstrations and performances before returning to India just a few months later.
But in this book there is a lot more to the Cullen story than her life in dance. Cullen’s emotional life plays a strong role throughout. There are extensive quotes from letters written to and by Cullen. There are extracts from Cullen’s diaries, which she seems to have kept religiously throughout life, and in which she appears to have recorded her dreams. Juers consistently reports on the dreams as the story progresses. Cullen’s personal notes also refer often to her love life and her concerns about pregnancies. She had many lovers and a long affair with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whom she met in Australia in 1970.
With regard to the constant appearance of the author’s voice as added commentary, Juers was a friend of Cullen and, in the book’s prologue, she explains how they met and how she continued the friendship after that first meeting. Her comments throughout the book expand and add an extra, personal element to the story. When both she and Cullen were in London at the same time, for example, they used to go on walks together:
That day she was wearing her thick woollen socks with sandals and we talked about wool, a predilection we shared. My mother was a knitter: on round needles she made wide swinging skirts with scalloped hems, she sculpted beanies around ponytails or plaits, topped off with colourful pompoms; when I had whooping cough she knitted me a daffodil yellow cardigan and I got better. Unselfconsciously I’d spent much of my early childhood dressed in wool. In London, as a kind of anchor, I immediately bought myself a second-hand loom and—alongside Herculean university reading lists and writing assignments—spent hours each day weaving. They say wool has memory. Philippa’s grandmother had taught her to darn, and her oldest woollen jumpers made her feel just right.
And there are many similar examples throughout the book. As a result, we meet Cullen not simply as a dancer absorbed in specific areas that were of particular interest to her, but as a forthright, funny, curious person, and ultimately as a human being who lived with an intensity that can only be described as incredibly moving—a life that was both heart-rending in its sorrowful moments but full of joy at other times.
Often, too, the author’s voice questions events or asks that events affecting Cullen’s life be seen within the wider context of the time. This is especially true of the closing section of the book dealing with the medical diagnosis that was offered as an explanation of Cullen’s death. On occasions, Juers also adds comments about her own writing process in relation to the Cullen story. She records at one stage:
I wrote to Jill Purce [one of Stockhausen’s later girlfriends] to ask if she knew Philippa Cullen, explaining that I was writing a book about her, and that I was trying to be as precise as possible about the chronology and circumstances of her association with Stockhausen.
Then follow several paragraphs regarding Purce’s response. Such sections blur the received boundaries of biography/memoir/autobiography.
As for the writing style, it is unique to Juers and at times contains sentences of a single word, or just a few words, or sentences that would in other situations be considered a clause rather than a sentence. Often the style is challenging, but then for many so was Cullen’s approach to dance. ‘I haven’t met anybody who accepts what I do without question,’ Cullen once said.
In her writing Juers also makes references to the ideas and writings of major figures from the literary world, such as James Joyce, Samuel Johnson, the Bronte sisters, and others, which open up further understanding of (or questions about) Cullen’s life and creative approach; and also tell us much about Juers’ own background as an author and reader. More challenges arise for the reader when direct quotes from original source materials are italicised within the text so the published pages regularly skip from Roman fonts to italics and back again, and from ‘I’ to ‘she’ and back again.
I found the book hard going at times, especially in the early family history sections when I wondered, despite my admiration for the depth of Juers’ research, whether the extent of detail that Juers included was absolutely necessary. But I was constantly smitten by various sections as I traversed the story. They included a section on Cullen’s return to Australia from overseas, briefly in the 1970s, when the world that unfolded on the pages of the book was strongly evocative of a dance counter-culture that existed in Sydney (and elsewhere in Australia) at the time. Then there was the dramatic and very moving story of Cullen’s last days in a remote town in India in 1975, when the author’s voice queried the nature of the physical condition that led to Cullen’s death, and when those who had helped her through her last days added their thoughts to the epilogue.
After finishing the book I felt the need to go back and start reading it again when those parts of the book that I initially found not so relevant to the essential story would probably make more sense. In fact I wonder whether I will regret some of this review when I do reread!
My closing thoughts, however, are that The Dancer is extraordinarily dense with information, ideas and challenges but is a remarkable, beautifully researched, forthright book. A bit like the best dance really.
The Graduation season of NZSD is always a spirited one and, despite numerous disruptions to the year, this 2021 program of nine short works is an outstanding testament to resilience and determination, qualities that dancers are noted for. Such things can be infectious, all to the good since the world needs more of both. It’s the elevation—the leaping, the jumping, the flying, the jeté, the sauté, the entrechat, the gravity-defying stuff that I’m talking about (—the things dancers in retirement tell you they miss the most. It’s metaphor. Normal humans don’t jump, they just walk and maybe run, as common sense dictates they should, so younger dancers are needed to keep the elevation going. If you agree, read on. If you don’t, I’m not sure I can help].
The opening piece, a perfect curtain-raiser, is the Waltz from Act I of Swan Lake, from Russell Kerr’s renowned production for RNZB some decades back, remembered for the integrity of its staging. Swan Lake is not just about the dancing, it’s a story-ballet about love and loss, and the price to be paid for a mistake. Fundamentally it’s a ballet about grief. Kerr has always known how to fully harness the dramatic power of full-length ballets in the theatre, something many attempt but few achieve. He is the consummate force, call that kaumatua, of ballet in New Zealand, and is only aged 91 so there’s time for us to appreciate him yet. RNZB will next year bring back his production of Swan Lake. I remember the closing cameo of its final scene, the cumulative effect of all four preceding acts, a product of Kerr’s humanity and humility, and I have lived by it ever since. This excerpt was staged by Turid Revfeim, a legendary alumna of NZSD, who brought her typical sensibility and acumen to create the enthusiasm and atmosphere of a 21 year old’s birthday party for us all to share. There’s a lot can go wrong at a 21st birthday of course (and the full-length ballet follows through with that) but here it’s a huge bouquet of fragrant roses as a gift for a birthday celebration. Who’s going to say No Thanks to that on the night? Salute to Tchaikovsky, Russell Kerr and Turid Revfeim, to every dancer, and to everyone in the audience since we’ve all been invited to the party, so to speak.
Reset Run, by Tabitha Dombrowksi, lists music by Bach, by Kit Reilly, and by Ravel. I am familiar with Dombrowski as a fine and focussed dancer (earlier in the year she was in the cast of Ballet Collective Aotearoa’s memorable season, and also in Loughlan Prior’s stunning Transfigured Night) but I have not hitherto seen her choreography. It proves a revelation. My anticipation is usually on reserve when several musics for a single choreography are involved, since that might mean fragmentation instead of the coherence that a single composition can support. I need not have worried. Lines, patterns, the front view or the back of each dancer, are thoughtfully modulated to balance light and dark. The cast of eight dancers are in black gear, a white stripe down each arm, and a large oval cut out from the back, allowing light from the shadows to shine on skin. The true choreographic strength, maintained throughout, makes each move consequent from the one before it and gives rise to the one that follows. An initial line-up of couples then become a single couple, then become a group. That beautifully built transition transports me back not 24 hours when I’d watched the magnificent and beautiful lunar eclipse in the night sky. No mean feat to evoke that choreography.
The following work could not have made greater contrast. Dust Bunny, a ziggy number choreographed by Matt Roffe, is an excerpt from his full-length work Cotton Tail. In cabaret mode, it urges all rabbits to run from the farmer’s gun. Some escape, but of course some do not. The animal rights issue here is poignant and well played but I did wonder if some kind of mask or head covering would help the animal representation.
Lucy Marinkovich always develops her work from researched and specific themes. Lost + Found offers a meditation on time, and the ephemeral life of a dance. The opening section, effective in silence, captures both linear and circular time. Further sections layer unison and canon in movement, to the piano music of Jonathan Crayford with atmospheric overtones designed by Lucien Johnson. The climax is a wild and wonderful whirling blur after the manner of dervishes, in the timeless invoking for grace to descend from on high. Where does a dance go when it is no longer being performed? That question is echoed in St.Augustine’s words—’What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I do not know.’ A pointed theme for dance… the most ephemeral of performance arts.
Loughlan Prior, an experienced choreographer with a continually expanding career, made Time Weaver, to music by Philip Glass. A couple dances patterns and lines, holding positions with striking shapes of two bodies, rather than communicating an emotionally engaging pas de deux of the conventional order. The dance comes to seem like the slow-motion capture of an exquisite flower opening—lotus, passionfruit, desert cactus, water lily perhaps—such as David Attenborough would be pleased to have commissioned.
Somewhat Physical by Jeremy Beck rocks with comic satire, but has a serious underpinning. A rambunctious rendering of Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie is resisted by the large group of eleven dancers who stand folded over with arms hanging down. Imperceptibly slowly they unfold to an upstanding position. End of music, bows and applause, thanks for nothing. Chairs are brought in and the dancers set themselves up as an audience. What does that make us? Further sections contain music (Vivaldi, Purcell, Mozart) and movement jokes that question the conventional relationships between what’s seen and what’s heard. The last section seems like a scene from the classic film Allegro Ma non Troppo, with dancers assembled as an orchestra of musicians, flinging their arms off, dancing their hearts out, striking their strings and pounding their percussion. Rossini, Vivaldi, Purcell and Mozart would have loved it—well, it’s for sure at least Mozart would have.
The Bach by Michael Parmenter, to the opening chorus of Bach’s Easter Cantata, is here in an excerpt (from the original made for Unitec season in 2002, and also performed by NZSD in 2006—apart from Swan Lake it’s the only work not a premiere on this programme.) Its presence here answers that question about where a dance goes when it’s not being performed. In this case it resides, it hides, within the music, poised and ready to explode as soon as the music begins—’to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection.’ Fifteen dancers fill the stage with that joy, spiritual and/or religious, and deliver all the moves of a masterwork. You’d want to study this dance for the art and craft of choreography at its best.
In complete contrast follows So You’ll Never Have to Wear a Concrete Dressing Gown, by Eliza Sanders. An experimental piece, constructed in motifs from images in poems penned by the participating dancers. There is further self-referencing in that each dancer wears a shirt imprinted with the face of a class-mate, in a potentially interesting theme. The faces are distorted when the hands of the dancers are placed on the shirts which I find a little disconcerting—and I wait for the wearer and the face to connect during the dance, though that does not happen. This is an enigmatic work not wanting to follow obvious conventions.
Nexus, by Shaun James Kelly, to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, depicts dancers learning and assembling sequences from classical vocabulary, with frequent motifs of sliding and gliding footwork delivered at speed. I see echoes of Lander’s Etudes, which suits the theme of dancers presenting the movement elements of their art form. In that sense it makes a suitable finale to a Graduation program, though it is the vibes of Parmenter’s work that are still hanging in the air as we dash through the rain to the car park. It’s raining—who cares? We’re dancing.
Last time I wrote a book review for this site I was puzzled by the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. Well there is no struggle this time. Leanne Benjamin’s Built for Ballet is clearly an autobiography of a woman who has had an absolutely stellar career as a dancer across continents. It focuses not on one aspect of her life but, going back to where earlier I went searching for definitions, it ‘primarily focuses on facts—the who-what-when-where-why-how of [an author’s] entire timeline.’ We are privy to Benjamin’s dance-focused life from the time she took her first dance lessons, aged three, in Rockhampton, to 2020 when the book was completed. And it is a fascinating account of that life, written in a very conversational tone. It is hard to put the book down once one starts.
I am, however, curious about that conversational tone. While it is lovely to be carried along with the story, I couldn’t help wondering how it was written. Was it partly constructed as a result of oral interviews, with Benjamin’s words translated straight to written form? This would perhaps account for certain grammatical issues that I found a little grating. Speaking isn’t always grammatically correct, especially when agreements between verb and subject, and the use of ‘me’ and ‘I’ as subject or object are concerned. I am perhaps a pedant but I do find certain things annoying and wish that strict copy editing could remain an essential part of book production so that the written word retains its grammatical structure.
Moving on, however, Benjamin is thoroughly honest about her relationships with coaches, directors, other dancers and the like and it is great to read of her approaches to rehearsals, classes, being coached, partners, and performing. Then, one can vicariously feel the exhaustion of the extensive travel that Benjamin undertook both with the companies with which she was involved and as a guest artist around the world. The way Benjamin addresses the various injuries all dancers sustain over the course of a career also arouses a feeling of empathy for the pain and the loss of performances that have to be endured.
I especially enjoyed Benjamin’s discussion of her work with some of the most outstanding choreographers of her time. Her work with Kenneth MacMillan, and later with Wayne McGregor, stand out. What did she gain from being coached by them? And how was she able to pass on what she had gained to younger dancers when she became a coach herself? It’s all there. And yes, her thoughts on Ross Stretton and his time both with the Australian Ballet and the Royal Ballet are featured at one stage.
Benjamin does not gloss over her personal life either. We learn of her various love interests, her marriage and the birth of her son, and the fate of her extended family including her mother-in-law and father-in-law, both of whom had major dance or dance-related careers.
Perhaps one section that I found fascinating, largely because of where I live, concerned the photo that appears on the back cover of the book (although all the photos in the book are interesting and often quite personal). The back cover has a photograph taken in 2006 by Jason Bell at a location outside Alice Springs. It is a spectacular image. A print is in the collection of the National Library of Australia in Canberra and is often used as a publicity shot for anything to do with dance and the National Library. It is etched in my mind as a result. Benjamin discusses the circumstances surrounding the photo shoot.