Homemade Jam. BalletCollective Aotearoa with Tawa College dance group

6 July 2024. Te Auaha Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This attractive program takes the unpretentious title Homemade Jam, as if to say, ‘We can’t afford to import posh marmalade from Harrods so we’ve made our own jam from the fruit in the orchard here.’ With a full house at both performances, and sold-out printed programs, BalletCollective Aotearoa (BCA) must be pleased to know there are clearly audiences keen to follow their work.

Earlier this year Turid Revfeim staged the triumphant production of the late Russell Kerr’s Swan Lake for RNZBallet, and 2024 will be long remembered for that tribute to the father of ballet in New Zealand. Without delay Turid turned her attentions to a BCA season at the Taranaki Arts Festival where it was very well received (involving NZTrio, a leading chamber music group, and a dance cast headed by Abigail Boyle, how could it not be?) 

And now, with a different cast, to this Wellington season as part of the Pōneke Festival of Contemporary Dance. The energy all this takes cannot be underestimated, and it’s the combined resilience of BCA, with the participants’ independence of thought (something not always possible for those in a company structure) that is noticeable. It’s impressive when any dancers’ careers flourish, though how this troupe does it, with high performance standards on a zero budget, is anyone’s guess.

The opening work, Last Time We Spoke, is by Sarah Knox, graduate of NZSchool of Dance and now a faculty member of University of Auckland Dance program. It echoes back to Covid-era experiences, and is a study of the sense of community that can prove so vulnerable to such circumstances. Set to music by Rhian Sheehan, it has a poignant atmosphere and is beautifully danced, opening with Callum Phipps who moves as liquid amber.

preference for reason is an impressive large group work by students from the Dance program at Tawa College, whose creative director is Brigitte Knight. The work takes a theme of isolation and connection in an era of digital communication, and is staged with clarity and focus by the group of 24 youngsters giving their all. One of the dancers knows how to let his face become absorbed as part of the overall dancing body, so ‘the whole body does the talking’. This is an innate ability, can barely be taught, is rare, and should therefore be recognised when it happens. He will go far, but all the students will have been thrilled to share the program with BCA.

The third and final work, Subtle Dances, by Loughlan Prior, is a smooth smart, sassy work inspired from tango but carrying further the emotions that that stylised dance form usually keeps internalised. Prior is a choreographer who has made a major contribution to dance in New Zealand (including BCA’s premiere work, Transfigured Night, to Schoenberg, under Chamber Music New Zealand’s auspices). He is a past master at setting groups that capture and build atmosphere, and this stylish piece is no exception.

Well done to BCA and to all involved for a heartening demonstration of the joy that dance can offer if we let it. The name of the venue, Te Auaha, means to leap, throb, thrill with passion…so go for it, I say.

Jennifer Shennan, 14 July 2024

Featured image: Scene from Subtle Dances. BalletCollective Aotearoa, 2024. Photo: © Lokyee Szeto

Vismaya—Amazement. Mudra Dance Company with visiting musicians

choreography Vivek Kinra
auspices of Chamber Music New Zealand
29 June 2024. Q Theatre, Auckland
30 June 2024. Meteor Theatre, Hamilton
2 July 2024. Little Theatre, Lower Hutt
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Vismaya is Sanskrit for Amazement and proved the perfect title for this highly enterprising project of Bharata Natyam, South Indian classical dance, in performances and workshops on a national tour to five centres—Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch. 

In an inspired move, Chamber Music New Zealand (CMNZ) invited four highly skilled Indian musicians to visit and team up with six dancers from the Wellington-based Mudra Dance Company. Vivek Kinra has directed his Bharata Natyam academy and company here since 1990, but the calibre of his work has always been international rather than merely local, so we expect to be thrilled, and we are, by this performance of enriched chamber music.

Musicians (l-r} Sri Adyar Gopinath (mridangam), Ranjani Ganesan Ramesh (vocals), Jaishri Suresh (Veena), and Tiruchy L. Saravanan (flute). Photo: © Gerry Keating

Vocalist and director of music, Ranjani Ganesan Ramesh, sings with full expressive effect, reining in the ensemble with layers of melody and arcs of harmony. Sri Adyar Gopinath is a consummate player of mridangam/drum, his hands declaiming authority then fluttering and diving like hummingbirds, in mesmerising rhythmic embellishments on the steady beat within the music. Both these artists have had long association with the renowned Kalakshetra school in Chennai where Vivek had trained for many years, so they each know the other’s art as their own, and the dancers are galvanised into brilliance as a result.

Tiruchy L. Saravanan plays flute with great skill, evoking songbirds on the wing, and his solo piece, Nagumomu, is a particular delight of flight. The deeper string tones of the veena, beautifully played by Jaishri Suresh, offer a balm and solace that seems to embrace the listener. This ensemble could have played until dawn and no-one from the audience would have left early.

As for the dancers, we saw something quite sublime. I have attended Mudra performances since 1990, including a number of arangetram, (the two-hour solo graduation recital of a pupil who has attained the required standard). Each of those seasons has carried its own high quality but never before have we witnessed such an explosion of joy and total commitment from the six dancers in this production.

All the choreography by Kinra is new, in a wonderful blend that honours tradition but weaves in many contemporary references. He stands on stage before each work to perform the gestures and motifs of the work we are about to see. These are luminous miniatures and reveal the exquisite qualities he has always brought to his stage presence. The opening Pushpanjali, offering of flowers, is followed by Shyamala Dandakam in which a mysterious Tantric goddess is portrayed, and complete rapport is established between musicians and dancers.      

(left) Shrinidhi Bharadwaj and Banu Siva, (right) Shrinidhi Bharadwaj—in the varnam, Navarasa: Nine Emotions. Photos: © Gerry Keating

The major work, a varnamNavarasa: Nine Emotions—is a tour-de-force. Each dancer has an assured technique with stunning geometric precision in arm and leg movements, intricately detailed mudra (hand gestures), beguiling facial expressions, powerful dramatic timing in sustained narratives, and the range of emotions from love and ecstasy, hope and curiosity, pride and envy, fear and loathing, to peace and serenity. Comedy is also there—for example when Siva disguises himself as an old man and makes approaches to the young devotee to test her love and loyalty. Her disgust is palpable and she passes the test.

Varshini Suresh in Navarasa. Photo: © Gerry Keating

There are solo passages, and other times where two dancers move at great speed but in perfect unison (harder to do than it sounds, but no effort is shown). Shrinidhi Bharadwaj, Banu Siva and Varshini Suresh are hugely effective in portraying the emotions of the drama.  

There is a distinctive quality to the dancers’ elevation as they anticipate on the upbeat, a leap that flies them free of gravity, to then land, of course, precisely on the beat. The effect on us is kinaesthetic—we feel we have been flying too.    

In the final Thillana there is much to celebrate—glorious arcs of dancers curving and intersecting in lines across the stage, in a particularly joyous denouement of a performance that nobody wanted to end. The dancers—Varshini Suresh, Banu Siva, Shrinidhi Bharadwaj, Esther McCreadie, Deepika Sundar and Rhea Homroy—will be long remembered.

Each of the performances I attended, in Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington, had appreciative audiences, but the Lower Hutt’s Little Theatre experience was a particular triumph with the audience on their feet acknowledging the performance of a lifetime.

There were workshops, open to all, offered the day before a performance, and these too were memorable and informative—for example: ‘What skin is the mridangam drumhead made of?’—’Oh, I had to replace the leather with a quality plastic for this tour because New Zealand biosecurity measures are very strict and we could not afford to have this drum impounded for a three-week fumigation. We’d have been back in India by the time it was released.’ Each musician spoke to their instrument but had to be paused after 15 minutes by Kinra, who knows that the sacred and Sanskrit history of this art has to be contained somehow, or we would all have missed the following night’s performance. It’s a considerable art in itself to compress so much into the time available, but we catch all of it. We go home through a wild Wellington storm that had hours earlier almost prevented our planes from the north from landing, but the elements, let’s call them the gods, were with us all the way.

The idea for this project was initially proposed by Rose Campbell, a former trustee of CMNZ, and has proved an exceptional achievement for everyone concerned. There have been some voices raised in complaint that CMNZ is departing from its original charter in including dance and ethnic arts in its programming. I’d have thought everything is ethnic therefore nothing is ethnic … that dance is not the opposite of music but that each art can mutually enhance and inspire the other, so entwined as to be one and the same art. Vismaya was chamber music of the highest calibre, expressed through dancing of mesmerising yet accessible quality.  

Heartfelt thanks are due to those whose vision brought us this truly amazing production, to all the performers, and to Vivek Kinra who at the end of the performance thanks us all for coming. That’s the only thing he got wrong all evening. It’s we who are to thank him. 

Jennifer Shennan, 4 July 2024

Featured image: Members of Mudra Dance Company (from left) Esther McCreadie, Banu Siva, Shrinidhi Bharadwaj, Varshini Suresh, Deepika Sundar. Photo: © Gerry Keating

The Dataset. Australian Dance Party

27 June 2024. The Vault, Dairy Road Precinct, Canberra

The Dataset took place in the Vault, an expansive, untheatrical space in the Dairy Road Precinct in Fyshwick, a largely industrial area in Canberra. The Vault has been used effectively before by Alison Plevey’s Australian Dance Party, in particular with From the Vault in 2019. But it needs an exceptional production to ensure that the characteristics of the space, especially its dark and unwelcoming environment, are used to advantage. The Dataset was unappealingly dark at the beginning, although it brightened up somewhat, at least in terms of lighting, as the work progressed.

Sara Black and Alison Plevey in an early moment from The Dataset. Australian Dance Party, 2024. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Indeed as the work progressed, the two dancers who formed the cast, Alison Plevey and Sara Black, who were wearing identical white outfits, were subjected to examination by a program in which every conceivable aspect of the dancers’ bodily and emotional characteristics were measured by what appeared to be an artificial intelligence program. We could see the program unfolding in words on the large back-screen in the performing space. Those words were also spoken aloud by an American voice. We watched as the dancers attempted to address the suggestions the AI program offered them.

Eventually, presumably because the AI program suggested that friendship was the next step, the dancers removed their short white jackets, under which they were wearing an individually distinct, decorative black and white top. They danced together with choreography that (perhaps unsurprisingly) was very much in the style we have come to expect from Australian Dance Party—lots of floor work, lifts with stretched limbs emerging out of the shapes formed, along with a variety of twisted poses.

Sara Black (at the back) and Alison Plevey (on the floor) in The Dataset. Australian Dance Party, 2024. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Slowly, however, the data on the screen began to fall apart, with words breaking up and lurching around. AI was no longer working well. In the end, darkness descended and the dancers made their way around the space using torches as they set up a kind of camp site to which they invited several audience members to join them. The work came to the end in this calm and very different environment.

Final moments in The Dataset. Australian Dance Party, 2024. Photo: © Lorna Sim

The Dataset falls within the Australian Dance Party’s focus on social and environmental aspects of the world in which we currently exist. Media material from the company explains that the work ‘imagines a world where we physicalise the data that forms us and interrogate its purpose and power. What happens when the system rules us? What happens when the system is broken? The Dataset highlights our adaptability as humans in the face of adversity.’ It is certainly an interesting concept to address and the collaborative elements were at times engrossing and entertaining, especially the ever-changing images that flashed across the back-screen as the dancers were developing their friendship.

But from the beginning of The Dataset my mind kept recalling Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (published 1932) and George Orwell’’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (published 1949). Both were dystopian novels that examined potential changes in society, and their effects on humanity, by developments in fields such as science, economics and the like. The Dataset had a similar narrative, although I wondered constantly whether dance could address such issues as effectively as the written word. In the case of The Dataset I think the answer is no. In this case the choreography, which is the heart of dance, seemed unnecessary as the work unfolded.

Michelle Potter, 29 June 2024

Featured image: Opening scene from The Dataset. Australian Dance Party, 2024. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Coppélia. Queensland Ballet

22 June 2024 (matinee). The Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

I didn’t see Greg Horsman’s version of Coppélia, a joint production between Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet, when it was first performed back in 2014. But, having admired his reimagining of La Bayadère (despite efforts by some to remove it, and other productions of Bayadère, from the world-wide repertoire), I was looking forward to Queensland Ballet’s presentation of Horsman’s Coppélia. I was not disappointed.

Horsman has kept enough of the original storyline of Coppélia so that the work is recognisable to those of us who have been brought up on the traditional version. Dr Coppélius is bent on bringing a doll to life while the people of the town try to discover what is happening inside his house. And there is the usual love interest wending its way through the story. But Horsman has set this Coppélia in South Australia, in the small town of Hahndorf, which was the home in the early 1800s of German settlers.

But before Act I begins, with its presentation of the activities of the Hahndorf townsfolk, we are given some background in an outstanding prelude. It introduces us to Dr Coppélius and his daughter Coppélia as they prepare to set out on a journey to settle in Australia. The prelude contains a brief moment on stage and then some film (stills and footage) as the boat traverses the oceans. As the voyage continues we see Coppélia’s death and her burial at sea.

The scene then moves to Hahndorf and follows the story largely as we know it, with some exceptions and additions. A notable addition is a brief, moving moment when we see Dr Coppélius (D’Arcy Brazier) making the decision to try to return Coppélia to life. Then there are changes to how the music is used choreographically. The Mazurka from Act I becomes a celebration of a recent win by Hahndorf’s football team. Later, parts of the music for the Czardas in Act I become an accompaniment to a German-style dance with lots of slapping of the knees.

Artists of Queensland Ballet in Act I of Coppélia. Queensland Ballet, 2024. Photo: © David Kelly .

Act II keeps closely to the traditional production as Swanilda (Laura Tosar) and her friends discover the studio of Dr Coppélius, and Franz (Edison Manuel) climbs through a window in Dr Coppélius’ house to make his own discoveries. Act II ends as we might expect with Swanilda and Franz escaping while Dr Coppélius is left holding the doll he was hoping would be his daughter brought to life.

Artists of Queensland Ballet in Act III of Coppélia. Queensland Ballet, 2024. Photo: © David Kelly .

Act III adds some developments to the original story, including the appearance of an angry Dr Coppélius, who usually does not appear in this last Act, carrying his lifeless doll. But after a scuffle or two peace is reached between him and the townsfolk. Swanilda and Franz make plans for the future and the work ends happily.

I was at the second last performance of this Coppélia and, as often happens in such situations. it is not always principal artists who take on leading roles. In particular, I enjoyed immensely seeing company artist Edison Manuel dance Franz. He was engaging in his characterisation and displayed a nicely placed and developed technique. He is someone to watch over the coming years.

There was so much to like in Horsman’s Coppélia. It was appealing in design with lighting by Jon Buswell, set design by Hugh Colman, and costumes by Noelene Hill. But what I especially loved was the way Dr Coppélius had been transformed. Gone was the bumbling, eccentric pantomime-style character that we so often see in traditional productions. Horsman’s Dr Coppélius was a man whose life had been rocked by the death of his daughter and we could see in his every move that he was not the eccentric person of the traditional ballet but someone whose emotions are like our own.

Some of the best choreographers in Australia and overseas have reimagined old stories and made them more relevant in some way. Greg Horsman has joined them and created a thoroughly enjoyable ballet with a coherent, Australianised storyline.

Michelle Potter, 26 June 2024

Featured image: Dr Coppélius and the doll he hoped he could bring to life. Queensland Ballet, 2024. Photo: © David Kelly

Momenta. Sydney Dance Company

21 June 2024. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

Below is a slightly enlarged version of my review of momenta, originally published online by Dance Australia on 24 June 2024. A link to the Dance Australia version is at this link.

The word momenta is the plural form of momentum, a word that means ‘the product of the mass and velocity of an object’. Momenta is also the title of the latest work from Rafael Bonachela, current artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, and there have been several explanations of why Bonachela titled the work as he did. Some are quite complex and don’t help much with understanding what Bonachela was considering as he created the work. But no matter how we might discuss the word, Bonachela’s work momenta was certainly filled with mass and velocity with the ‘objects’ being the extraordinary dancers who make up the current composition of Sydney Dance Company.

The work began with some remarkable unison dancing and this is an aspect of Bonachela’s choreography that I have admired over several decades. He has a gift for grouping dancers in constantly changing arrangements, and for giving those dancers such a varied selection of movement, poses and uses of space within a unison component. The opening section of momenta often had the dancers working on the floor and using their lifted legs as a focus, which initially seemed somewhat unusual as a component of Bonachela’s approach to unison work. But no matter how or where the dancers were positioned, they responded with an input that took the breath away.

Those opening moments set the scene for what followed and as momenta progressed the large groupings broke down into solos, duets, trios and other arrangements of performers until we reached the end sections when the unison work began again. Momenta was very much an abstract work for me, but it was compositionally varied within that overall abstraction and as such the choreography never lost its engrossing quality.

An absolute highlight was a duet between Naiara de Matos and Piran Scott, while the work of Emily Seymour also stood out. But it is quite astonishing to watch the flexibility, the fluidity, the energy and the absolute attention to the tiniest choreographic detail from every single dancer in the current company, many of whom are relatively new performers of Bonachela’s work.

Naiara de Matos and Piran Scott in a duet from momenta. Sydney Dance Company, 2024. Photo: © Pedro Greig

In terms of collaborative input, the highlight was the lighting from Damien Cooper. It was mostly relatively dark, although the colour of that darkness was not always the black we might have expected. As the work progressed, there were hints of dark green, sudden flashes of red, a burst of white cloud, at times a sudden brightness, and at others a mysterious hazy quality (especially, although not exclusively, when that white cloud began to dissipate). The lighting design was enhanced by the constant presence of a circular rig of 19 spotlights that moved up, down and around in the performing space and limited, at times, where the dancers could gather. The movement of the rig was beautifully controlled so that it appeared to be an essential part of the choreography.

The soundscape came from Nick Wales whose original, commissioned composition incorporated Distant Light by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks. Costumes and set were by Elizabeth Gadsby with assistance from Emma White. The costumes were varied (a little) in style and colour but there was a minimalist quality to them in keeping with the overall abstract quality of the work. Their simplicity gave the dancers every opportunity to show that the focus of momenta was the body in motion.

The cast of momenta. Sydney Dance Company, 2024. Photo: © Pedro Greig

The work closed with showers of small pieces of sparkling cellophane falling onto the stage and out into the auditorium. I’m not sure why this happened and it was perhaps the one aspect of momenta that seemed entirely unnecessary. But momenta was such an absorbing production that this odd addition could just be pushed aside and basically forgotten.

The work is a huge credit to the underlying approach to contemporary dance that we have come to expect from Bonachela in his leadership of Sydney Dance Company.

Michelle Potter, 25 June 2024

Featured image: A solo section from momenta. Sydney Dance Company, 2024. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Postscript: There were some great production shots from momenta but they were not captioned with the names of dancers. Why? As a result I have limited myself to just three shots, one of which I was able to caption (hopefully correctly).

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