27 May 2023. Hunters & Collectors Gallery, Wellington reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
Hunters & Collectors is a well-known vintage clothes shop in Wellington’s favourite inner city Cuba Street. Chrissie O, the proprietor, had the wit to instal a mezzanine gallery within the high stud of the heritage building so that small scale art exhibitions and related gatherings can take place there within the shop.
Chrissie was friend and flatmate of Douglas Wright, back in the 1980s when we were young—well, younger than we are now—so she jumped at the chance when her friend, photographer Tessa Ayling-Guhl, offered an exhibition of the photo-portraits she had made of Douglas in 2015, but had never before shown in public. Tessa selected six from her gallery of 75 images, to make a small and perfectly-formed exhibition, geist, which evoked the man and the dancer we knew and loved and miss. A video of Douglas’ poignant solo, Elegy, played silently and continuously in the space.
The opening of the exhibition attracted a buzz of people interested in the intersection of dance and visual arts. Several weeks later an invited audience came to the closing event of the exhibition. Björn Aslund, freelance dancer and member of Ballet Collective Aotearoa, choreographed geist dance, which he performed to Robert Oliver’s playing on bass viol of sarabandes by Marin Marais and Kellom Tomlinson.
Björn made a pavane-like entrance, then with a chair and a lily as props, paid respect to the now classic Elegy, but also featured in his own dance a wonderful theme and variations growing out of the music, with angles and snatches as though to grab at times past, then into curves and arcs and turns that became figures of eight and infinity signs, reaching to the ceiling, knocking on Heaven’s door …
In 1920s sculptor Richard Gross created a larger-than-life bronze statue of a male athlete at the entrance gates to the Auckland Domain. It has become a talisman image for Auckland, Douglas’ town, so it was a resonant moment when Björn standing on the chair moved into the same precarious arabesque the athlete holds, reaching out, almost losing his balance, as do we all sometime in life, but catching it again to the immense relief of every held breath in the room, his own included. This was heroic dance-making and Douglas would have been moved.
The address of Hunters & Collectors is Cuba Street, no. 134 … almost a sequence, but lacking the 2. E tū. In te reo Maori that means Stand up, Stand there, Stand your ground… so Björn and Robert did, as Douglas had done.
Communicate, the latest production from Canberra’s youth group, Quantum Leap, gave me something of a jolt. There were, for example, a few changes to the structure we usually see from the group. But more than that, this current group of dancers aged from 13 to 23, who were joined for this production by 8 dancers from Bangkok, gave a show that often had a strongly professional look about it, more so than usual. Quantum Leap’s production values have always been high and have come from choreographers, designers, composers, film makers, stage managers, and others who are professionals in their field. But with Communicate the company surpassed itself with a high standard of dancing along with the excellent input we have come to expect from the various collaborators. Occasionally I forgot entirely that the dancers were still developing the skills they need to move into a professional company.
The program, which examined various aspects of how we communicate and interact with each other, was made up of three sections. The first, Holding Space, came from choreographer Alice Lee Holland currently working in Townsville with Dance North. The second, Echo Chamber, was the work of Kyall Shanks, artistic director of the Tasmanian youth company Yellow Wheel. The third, Shared Language, began with a work, choreographed by Lordfai Navinda Pachimsawat creative director of Bangkok Dance Academy, and made in Bangkok on 8 Thai dancers. But this third section was extended once in Australia into two further developments in which Thai and Australian dancers engaged with each other in a variety of ways. These developments had choreography by Ruth Osborne assisted by Steve Gow. In all cases input from the dancers was acknowledged and this method of working is an essential component of any Quantum Leap program.
While each work had its own special aspects, there were some exceptional solo moments that were absolute highlights. It was a thrill to watch as tiny details of placement of various parts of the body were given a focus, and when an emotionally dramatic aspect of the work was physically highlighted. No one held back!
The contingent from Bangkok began their section in a very individual way—brightly and distinctively dressed and also more or less going their separate ways in a movement sense.
But those outer clothes were soon removed to reveal outfits that were more sombre and lacking that individuality. By removing those rather extravagant clothes, the dancers revealed themselves as beings with a shared humanity and they began working closely together in a movement sense. They formed various group patterns, often with arms joined, often moving in undulating patterns. In many respects, this aspect of the choreography reminded me of some of Graeme Murphy’s approaches, and even further back to the choreography of Bronislave Nijinska.
But this section eventually morphed into wider issues of sharing life and dance with others, and eventually we saw all 28 dancers working together.
Going back to the changes in structure mentioned earlier, the most obvious one was that in Communicate each section was separated from the following one by a blackout. In previous Quantum Leap programs the various sections, while still separate pieces, followed on from each other without a break but with a carefully choreographed end to one and beginning of the next. This arrangement was always a beautifully fluid transition and had become an expected part of Quantum Leap programs. So the change was a shock, although perhaps this change moves Quantum Leap into a more regular, or usual arrangement as followed by professional companies?
Overall, this program had been beautifully rehearsed and was mostly impeccably performed. The focus on communication was highlighted in a diverse manner across the production and Communicate was a delight to watch and a credit to all those involved.
Quantum Leap is a significant addition to the dance scene in Canberra and a list of ‘some alumni’ who have begun their careers as Quantum Leapers (listed in the printed program) is quite astonishing. They include (if I have to limit myself to just two} Daniel Riley now directing Australian Dance Theare, and James Batchelor with a major international career as a choreographer.
13 May 2023. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
‘Paragon’ is a noun that means ‘a model of perfection and excellence’. The Australian Ballet’s resident choreographer, Alice Topp, set out in her latest production, named Paragon, to demonstrate something of the excellence and perfection (or attempts at perfection perhaps since perfection is something that we can only hope to achieve), which has characterised the past 60+ years since the Australian Ballet gave its first performance in 1962.
Following the overture to Christopher Gordon’s very danceable score, Paragon began with three performers on stage, one holding a swathe of white translucent fabric onto which were projected images of dancers from earlier Australian Ballet days. Once the white cloth was removed, the use of images from earlier eras was projected largely onto vertical panels positioned upstage, and continued as a significant feature of the work. The outstanding audio-visual editing was by Ario Dean Cook.
But links to the past were also featured as several former Australian Ballet dancers worked among and with current dancers. David McAllister and Paul Knobloch appeared with current dancers in a powerful section called ‘Quake’, for example. Then some of the most moving scenes were ‘Saudade’ (meaning ‘Yearning’) with Fiona Tonkin and Adam Bull, ‘Home’ with Lucinda Dunn and Joseph Caley, and ‘Sehnsucht Couple’ with Madeleine Eastoe and Marcus Morelli (with Sehnsucht also meaning ‘Yearning’ or ‘Desire’). In each of these the choreography was filled with unusual lifts, extraordinary extensions of the legs, bounding jumps and jetes, and other twists and turns of the body, often in an uncompromisingly upside down position or across the floor. And every dancer, retired or not, performed with more than admirable strength and exactitude, perhaps even bordering on perfection.
A scene that I found fascinating was ‘Vogue’, which made reference to the Australian Ballet’s commissioning of designers. In the background we saw projected images of various designs on paper for past Australian Ballet productions, while onstage every dancer wore something contemporary and quite ‘vogue-ish’, often a jacket worn over a sparse costume, mostly of bikini-like proportions. Costumes for Paragon were by Aleisa Jelbart, with set and lighting by Jon Buswell.
Yes, there was a strong feeling of nostalgia as the work progressed, which perhaps came to a head in the final section when Kirsty Martin and Steven Heathcote led the finale. But Paragon also gave the audience a remarkable look at Topp as a choreographer. It showed her working with a vocabulary that is clearly one of contemporary ballet, pushing boundaries, and thinking outside the square when it comes to what ballet can present in a narrative sense. Within it all was a beautiful tribute to the history of the Australian Ballet.
Paragon was part of the Australian Ballet’s double bill called Identity. THE HUM by Daniel Riley was the other work on the program. See below for a list of those retired performers who contributed to Paragon.
Retired dancers appearing in Paragon: Simon Dow, Lucinda Dunn, Madeleine Eastoe, Steven Heathcote, Paul Knobloch, Sarah Lehmann (Peace), Kirsty Martin, David McAllister, Marilyn Rowe, Leanne Stojmenov, Jessica Thompson and Fiona Tonkin.
Following on from a season in New Zealand, the Grand Kyiv Ballet of Ukraine gave the first Australian performance of its double bill, Forest Song and Don Quixote, in the New South Wales coastal city of Port Macquarie. Both works were condensed versions of evening-length ballets and, while I had no advance problems of having an engagement with a condensed version of Don Quixote, having seen that ballet multiple times around Australia and elsewhere, I wondered how I would manage with Forest Song, promoted as a Ukrainian classic making its Australian premiere. Well, I had no need to worry. Both works were accompanied by spoken interludes that filled out the storyline—an essential accompaniment to Forest Song, at least for me.
Forest Song, the ballet, was adapted from the 1911 poetic play of the same name by Ukrainian writer Lesya Ukrainka and was first staged as a ballet in the 1940s. It tells the story of a clash between humans and the spirits of the forest as exemplified by the activities of a young musician, Lukash, and his relationship first with Mavka, spirit of the forest, and then with a scheming peasant woman, Kylyna, who is pushed along in her quest for Lukash by her conniving mother.
In many respects, much of the choreography is quite static. One pose follows another without much ‘joining’ movement, and I suspect this relates back to the fact that it was created 80 or so years ago. A showy end where fouettés, and grand allegro seem there for effect rather than for any other reason similarly appears to date back some years. But a highlight was the wedding scene between the hero, Lukash, and the peasant daughter, Kylyna. It was filled with folk dancing of the kind we used to see in Australia, back in the 1960s or so, from visiting companies from the Ukraine region. It contained much clapping from bystanders and solo acts from various male cast members.
But in this wedding scene the standout performers for me were Margaryta Kuznietsova as the Mother and Veronika Stepanenko as her daughter, Kylyna. Kuznietsova maintained her characterisation so strongly throughout the scene, as did Stepanenko. It was a thrill to see their emotions so plainly exhibited and to see the physicality that they used to maintain the characterisations.
Forest Song in this Grand Kyiv Ballet production is not like any other ballet I have seen. In many respects it reminded me of an old-fashioned pantomime where overacting was always evident and where the dance segments were popped in between text and acting. But I think it is important to see this work for what it is and not wish it looked more like what we know of ballet today. For me it was entertaining and made me look back on shows I have seen in the past (and even shows in which I performed as a very much younger person).
As far as entertainment is concerned, Don Quixote, which in this case consisted of parts of the Prologue, and parts of Acts I and III, was quite fascinating. In particular it was a surprise to see such a different Gamache In this production. We usually see him, Kitri’s rich suitor, as an overdressed dandy. But with the Grand Kyiv Ballet he was an ageing man without a fancy hat and with a wig that showed a balding head—no hat, no long, curly wig, just a man with limbs that weren’t working well. He was dressed in a decorative violet nd white suit but without the lace and frills we usually see. And his acting was well-tuned enough for us to see that he was interested in KItri. It was actually a welcome change from the overkill of the usual Gamache. As for Sancho Panza if you thought you had seen him thrown in the air by the people in the square in other productions, well think again and go and see the Grand Kyiv Ballet version of these moments. Sancho Panza is thrown so high he just about reaches the fly system.
But the absolute highlight of Don Quixote was the dancing and overall performance of Mie Nagasawa as KItri. She has such a presence onstage and she involved herself in every moment in a very personal way—never really losing the character she was portraying. And as for that moment in the Act I pas de deux where Basilio (Victor Tomashek) lifts Kitri up high and holds her there with one hand as the music pauses, I gasped because not only did he do that, he also walked backwards for several steps while holding her there.
Stepanenko as the Street Dancer and Kuznietsova as the leading Spanish dancer also impressed me (again) with their beautifully fluid upper body movements and their powerful presence.
I could probably be more critical about various technical matters, but there’s no point. I enjoyed these two works, for different reasons in each case. It was entertaining theatre such as you don’t often see and there are great reasons to go to the show, including that it supports the Ukraine community. It is an idea, however, to go without preconceived ideas of what you think ballet should be and do. Ballet can be many things. Here is the link to the dates and venues.
The evening ended with a request for the audience to stand for the singing of the Ukrainian National Anthem, an emotional ending to an unusual evening.
My visit to Port Macquarie was generously assisted by Concert Events Ltd and Lionel Midford Publicity and I was also privileged to be given a tour of the beautiful Glasshouse theatre, including its backstage area and the decorative elements that make the interior so appealing.
Michelle Potter, 12 May 2023
I have no full captions for the images, which I think come from a range of performances in different areas.
Shortcuts to Familiar Places began a few years ago as an investigation by James Batchelor into the transmission of dance from one generation to another. Dance is an art form that has no widely practiced method of reconstruction via a score or similar written derivative, and knowledge of a movement style or a particular choreographic work is most commonly regarded as being passed on from body to body—sometimes referred to as ‘embodied transmission’. Batchelor was especially interested in his own ‘body luggage’, transmitted to him by his early dance teacher Ruth Osborne whose background had links to the work of pioneering dancer and teacher Gertrud Bodenwieser, and who had mentored Batchelor at Canberra’s QL2. The work that emerged was the above-mentioned Shortcuts to Familiar Places and the result was somewhat unexpected with its beautifully conceived melding of film footage and onstage movement. A driving, original score from Morgan Hickinbotham was played live and a changing pattern of light and dark came from lighting designer Vinny Jones.
Shortcuts began with footage of Osborne giving us an insight into the swirling movements of the arms and upper body that she absorbed via her teacher, former Bodenwieser dancer, Margaret Chapple. As the footage came to an end, Batchelor appeared onstage and began a shadowy solo that began slowly but that gathered momentum as time passed. It was fascinating to watch the movement unfold and to feel a clear connection to Osborne’s demonstration, but also to see dancing that moved away from the initial style in a very geometrically structured manner.
Batchelor left the stage at the end of the solo and more footage appeared. This time we watched as Eileen Kramer, a surviving Bodenwieser dancer (now aged 107), recalled some of the choreography she had danced during the Bodenwieser era, in particular movements from the duet Waterlilies. This she was passing on to Batchelor and filmmaker Sue Healey (neither of whom we saw on the footage but whose presence was clear to us).
An onstage duet between Batchelor and another QL2 alumna, Chloe Chignell, followed and at times recalled, quite strongly for me, the intertwining of arms that characterised Waterlilies. But again, Batchelor’s choreography didn’t stay with Kramer’s recollections but moved on in a new direction using the Waterlilies movements as a starting point. That Batchelor named the duet Bodenwieser Remixed gives a clue to what was occurring and in fact probably encapsulates Batchelor’s whole process with Shortcuts. But that aside, the duet showed a truly exquisite dancerly connection between Batchelor and Chignell.
The final piece of footage was an exceptional mix of different snippets of film including some relating to Osborne; some to Carol Brown, former student of Bodenwieser dancer Shona Dunlop MacTavish; and, briefly in archival footage, some to MacTavish herself, with Batchelor and Chignell reacting to the footage. In one amazing moment, Osborne on film stretched her arm forward in a straight line towards Batchelor and Chignell on the stage as if reaching to them in a gesture of transmission, which they accepted with arms outstretched towards the footage. There it was, the lineage for us all to see.
The duet that Batchelor and Chignell continued as the last section of footage faded was linked choreographically with the previous one, at least at first in terms of the connection that was set up between the two dancers. But gradually Hickinbotham’s score got stronger and more urgent, and the gentleness of the choreography gathered strength and speed. There was, throughout this last duet, a link back to Bodenwieser, I believe, as much of the movement seemed to be moving in a figure-of-eight pattern, which Osborne had mentioned in her early demonstration of the Bodenwieser technique. But the duet moved faster and faster with little skips and jumps inserted. Then it came to a sudden end with a blackout. When the lights went up, we saw how Batchelor and Chignell had gone all out, dancing on and on until pretty much exhausted, to give us a modern perspective on the transmission they had been examining.
Shortcuts to Familiar Places, which includes dramaturgy by Bek Berger, was an intelligently thought through show and just brilliant to watch and consider.
27 and 28 April 2023. The Pump House, Christchurch A musical by Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
Peter Falkenberg’s name is synonymous with Free Theatre, an experimental and alternative theatre enterprise formed in Christchurch in the late 1970s and surviving/thriving these 44 years, earthquakes notwithstanding. That’s remarkable longevity.
Woyzeck, with composition by Tom Waits, lyrics by Kathleen Brennan and original direction by Robert Wilson, is here directed and adapted by Falkenberg. A program note on the venue: ‘Built in the 1870s to pump sewerage around the city of Christchurch, The Pump House is the perfect place for Free Theatre to deliver our latest project.’ That’s the dark echo to Tom Waits’ line ‘If there’s one thing you can say about mankind there’s nothing kind about man.’ So onto and into Woyzeck and its ‘dark carnival’ of the tale of a brutalised soldier turned murderer.
I’ve been hooked into Tom Waits since I first heard him sing Gavin Bryars’ Jesus Blood, so it was an easy decision to book a flight from Wellington to see this show. The Pump House is a remarkable brick space with a vast high stud so we’re sitting wrapped in our overcoats, in the round, expecting something less than conventional, or do I mean more?
There’s an echo to 1830s Berlin, to the original play by Georg Büchner (who wrote it aged 23 but died of typhoid before seeing a production). Berg, Herzog, Waits and Brennan and many others have had a go at it since, but there won’t be many productions to outshine this one. The cast brims with actors who can really sing, singers who can really dance, dancers who can really act, and none of them is clone to the others. (How refreshing. That doesn’t happen often in my town). The throbbing band onstage—sax, bass, guitar and drums ̶ provides the transport and are terrific. The audience come to feel in the cast.
The title role of the soldier is played by female, Hester Ullyart, who gives it a palpable androgynous presence. Hillary Moulder as Marie, his/her partner, is a tango tiger in many scenes, but their tender songs to the little cradled baby are almost unbearably poignant. Marie dances as though there’s no evil in the world. I am undone.
The Carnival Barker/Drum Major, played with much gusto by Aaron Boyce, keeps the show wheel turning and calls up the audience participation, ‘Row everybody row every, body row…‘ . Tom Trevella is Andres and you can only hope there’s a recording of his singing Diamond in Your Mind and It’s Just The Way We Are Boys to send to Tom Waits who I imagine would be very pleased to hear it. Chris Carrow is Monkey/Horse/Captain—the fool at loose in the crowd, and Greta Bond plays Margret with aplomb. The cynical role of the manic Doctor is given astonishing force by Marian McCurdy. The massive set, lighting and design by Stuart Lloyd-Harris, and meticulous costume and make-up by Jenny Ritchie, are pivotal to the whole phenomenon.
I’m still raw from Anzac Day earlier this week when I heard 99-year-old stories never told before, with children’s books about war newly brought to our attention, and children’s books about peace being taken to orphaned children in Ukraine. Christchurch is a city still mourning Andrew Bagshaw, pacifist and volunteer killed in Ukraine earlier this year. I’m going back to Woyzeck for a second draught tonight, keeping a Diamond in My Mind, and hoping that All the World Is Green while I search for the fragments of kindness among humankind.
On my second visit I found many fragments of kindness among the cast and crew who are as committed to the Free Theatre enterprise as folk were in the old-fashioned days of Theatre Action and Red Mole. Bring back the fashion I say, the country needs it. I’d have thought Auckland Arts Festival would snap up this Woyzeck—and The Pump House would be a perfect venue for a return season of the choreomaniacs in Lucy Marinkovich’s Strasbourg 1518.
(Highly recommended is the documentary̶ Free Theatre: The 37 Year Experiment made by Shirley Horrocks in 2017—available on YouTube).
Hillscape, choreographed by Ashlee Bye in association with Australian Dance Party, was performed in the Amphitheatre at Canberra’s National Arboretum. It is a stunning outdoor venue with one problem—from where we the audience were required to position ourselves (on the very edge of the huge circular space, mostly standing unless we had brought a folding chair or were prepared to sit on the grass), the dancers were tiny figures in a vast grassy area. Luckily the images below give a close-up look at the nature of the choreography, which was not so clear from the edges of the amphitheatre. Peter Hislop’s image, as the featured one on this post, also shows the three black devices that produced (beautifully) Dan Walker’s original score commissioned by A Major Lift.
Early in Hillscape, the dancers worked with long pieces of cloth in shades of light and dark pink, sometimes with each performer manipulating an individual piece, at other times working together with one piece of cloth. And this separation/togetherness was an ongoing featured of Hillscape. The three dancers constantly came together and separated.
But ultimately the frustrating view we got from afar had to be seen as a reflection of the focus of the work—the endless cycle of generation and regeneration taking place in a vast landscape, made more relevant given that the Arboretum was created on land that was burnt to cinders in the disastrous bushfires that hit Canberra twenty years ago in 2003. There were moments in the work when it seemed that there was a struggle to survive, but others when growth seemed assured, and indeed had happened. But, nevertheless, I wished I could have had a closer view of the choreography, especially the detailed movements but also of the lyrical, swirling sections danced with skill and style by the three dancers.
Hillscape, commissioned by Ausdance ACT as part of its Dance Week program, was a component of Seeds of Life, a session in the 2023 Canberra International Music Festival (CIMF). It was preceded by a performance from clarinettist Oliver Shermacher, which we saw and heard in the Margaret Whitlam Pavilion; and three other musical presentations that took place in various outdoor locations in the Gallery of Gardens. Shermacher’s performance was a brilliant display of a highly theatrical attitude to musical presentation as at one stage he involved the audience using their mobile phones to provide a background to his playing, and he sang, spoke, moved (danced?) and generally surprised throughout.
Despite my frustrations, I am pleased I was able to see Hillscape, which had just one performance as part of CIMF. It not only suggested that Ashlee Bye is a choreographer to watch, but continued Australian Dance Party’s image as a company presenting site-specific works with unusual vision and inventiveness.
14 April 2023. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Queensland Ballet’s current production of Giselle owes its staging to Ai-Gul Gaisina, Russian-trained dancer with a stellar career in Australia as a dancer, teacher, coach and, more recently, stager of ballets from the traditional repertoire. The first thing to say about this production, originally made for Houston Ballet in 2011, is that the narrative is strong and clear from beginning to end. This is not always the case with many productions of Giselle where emphasis is so often given to technique and its relationship to the Romantic style, rather than to making the storyline a feature. This is not to say that technique was forgotten in the Queensland Ballet production. In fact, the dancers, clearly well-rehearsed, performed beautifully in both acts. But it was a real treat to have a strong storyline in which to become immersed.
Mia Heathcote and Patricio Revé danced the leading roles of Giselle and Albrecht and presented us with some memorable moments of dancing, especially in Act II. Revé’s solos were stunning for the most part, including his 32 entrechats six as he danced to avoid death from the Wilis, while the various pas de deux between them were filled with gentle emotion.
Vito Bernasconi was a standout performer as Hilarion, the forester whose love for Giselle is not returned and who unmasks Albrecht as the royal prince that he is. Bernasconi’s suspicion and anger as Act I unfolded were palpable as was his dramatic dancing in Act II as he tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid death.
I was also surprised by parts of the Adolphe Adam score, played by Queensland’s chamber group, Camerata, conducted by Nigel Gaynor, which opened up new insights for me. In particular I was transfixed by the introduction to Act II in which that recurring musical motif for the Wilis was juxtaposed with the ominous sound of drums spelling impending disaster.
In a not so positive note, I would have liked the characterisation of Berthe, Giselle’s mother danced by Lucy Green, to have been stronger. In my mind Berthe has to be an older woman who is not only concerned about her daughter’s health, but is also somewhat superstitious. Green’s mime scenes stating that if Giselle keeps dancing she will die were very clear. But it is not just a medical matter. The recurring Wili musical motif keeps appearing in Act I but it is not often that anyone onstage recognises those motifs. Berthe and the rural village in which Act I of the ballet is set has to be superstitious. It’s the mid 19th century. So why is Berthe always just worried from a medical point of view? I want Berthe to be concerned about the Wilis as well as the heart issues. Anyway, that’s just a gripe of mine.
I also wanted Myrthe, Queen of the Wilis in Act II (danced by Yanela Piñera), to be a stronger character. To me, in this production she didn’t seem capable of being in control of her realm, which she needs to be. She isn’t meant to be a pleasant character. I also had problems with the lighting of Act I (lighting design by Ben Hughes), which at times seemed too bright, or too strong somehow, thus making the muscle structure of some the male dancers seem unattractive.
Despite my gripes and grumbles, this was probably the most interesting staging of Giselle I have seen since the exquisite production by the Paris Opera Ballet in Sydney in 2013, and the one I will never forget from Sylvie Guillem and the Finnish National Ballet way back in 1998. The problem arises, however, that when there are many outstanding aspects to a work, as there were in the Queensland Ballet 2023 production, those bits and pieces that are not quite brilliant tend to be magnified in a critic’s mind. Nevertheless, while I stand by my criticisms, I have to add that I loved seeing this production and have nothing but praise for those who made it happen.
Another personal note (gripe): One thing that I find particularly annoying is the way Queensland Ballet audiences applaud at what I think are inappropriate times. It means that it is sometimes impossible to hear the music that signals the next section of the dancing and sometimes that applause even comes mid-stream—that is before a specific and important section of the production is finished. It’s lovely to know that the audience appreciates the outstanding dancers of Queensland Ballet, but it seems to be getting out of control unfortunately. Please just hold back a little.
This post contains two reviews of the 2023 Don Quixote. The first and longer one is of the digital screening; the second, shorter one refers, with particular reference to one dancer, to a matinee performance I saw in Sydney towards the end of the season.
Digital screening, March 2023. (Filmed live on 24 March 2023, Arts Centre, Melbourne)
This production of Don Quixote is meant to pay homage to the 1973 Australian Ballet film of the work and, in fact, has been spoken of as being ‘transposed from screen to stage’, especially with regard to the set. The early film production was choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev and was directed by Nureyev in conjunction with Robert Helpmann. Helpmann played the role of the Don, Nureyev was Basilio and Lucette Aldous danced Kitri/Dulcinea. To tell the truth I’m not sure why the ‘screen to stage’ comment was necessary as the ballet stands by itself without any pretence that it is a transposition. The 1970s film is, however, worth watching, especially now that it has been restored and remastered in high definition. It contains some exceptional performances, especially from Lucette Aldous whose performance in my opinion outshines that of Nureyev.
But to the production of 2023. I found this staging beautifully paced and full of action from every performer. Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo as the leading characters were just brilliant, both technically and in terms of the emotional and dramatic relationship they built up between them. They also dance so well as partners with bodies and limbs moving smoothly together and with complementary line through the two bodies always obvious. Then there were those amazing moments when Guo lifted Kondo into the air and held her there with one hand (as seen in the featured image). The music paused momentarily for us to have a good look! Spectacular.
Adam Bull was an impressive Don Quixote. He had worked on a particular portrayal of the Don and maintained the behaviour of his character from beginning to end. He was eccentric but introspective and contemplative, and I got the feeling he was lost in another world, a world where windmills can be monsters and dreams can become reality in his mind. What I liked was that his character was strong but without any overplay.
Amy Harris as the Street Dancer performed nicely but I would have liked a little more colour in her characterisation. Sharni Spencer as the Queen of the Dryads managed her difficult variation skilfully and Yuumi Yamada was a charming Cupid. A highlight of the last act (apart from the grand pas de deux from Kondo and Guo) was an exciting Fandango danced by sixteen, magnificently dressed dancers led by Dana Stephensen and Nathan Brook.
Ludwig Minkus’ score was played by Orchestra Victoria conducted by Charles Barker, who was, I am assuming, visiting from New York. As with other conductors whom I admire, Barker ensured that the music and the dance worked beautifully as one. Then, as part of the curtain calls the dancers moved forward and, with a simple sweep of the arm, acknowledged the orchestra. It was a perfect, dancerly, elegant acknowledgement rather than the lengthy clapping by the dancers leaning towards, almost into, the pit that we have had to get used to over the past 20 years or so from the Australian Ballet.
The streaming also featured David Hallberg and Catherine Murphy discussing various aspects of the production with some segments featuring various artists associated with the production, including backstage staff.
Michelle Potter, 28 March 2023
22 April 2023 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Apart from the fact that there is ‘nothing like being there’ as the saying goes, most of my comments above from watching the streamed version of the Australian Ballet’s 2023 Don Quixote apply equally to the live performance I saw towards the end of the company’s Sydney season. The Australian Ballet is, in general, dancing beautifully, even stunningly at the moment. Apart from the technical standard being high, there seems to be an inherent joy emanating from the dancers. And what’s more I don’t feel the need to complain about the production looking squashed on the Sydney Opera House stage. For some reason (perhaps the joy mentioned above?), instead of looking squashed the production looked intimate. What a thrill!
But the highlight of the afternoon came from Yuumi Yamada dancing the leading female role of Kitri/Dulcinea. She isn’t a tall dancer, but then nor was Lucette Aldous in the Nureyev/Helpmann film made in 1972. As Kitri/Dulcinea Aldous gave Nureyev a run for his money. Yamada was, similarly, a deliciously feisty Kitri in Act I and was outstanding technically throughout. It was a performance that I feel privileged to have seen. Yamada was partnered by Brett Chynoweth as Basilio.
I also admired the dancing of Lilly Maskery as Cupid in Act II. She has a good presence onstage and gave the role a characterisation that attracted the eye, as well as dancing strongly. I look forward to seeing more of her work.
Unfortunately, I have no images of the cast from this matinee performance.
11 March 2023. Spiegeltent, Aotea Square, Te Ahurei Toi o Tāmaki/Auckland Arts Festival reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
This hour-long film screening had the creator and solo performer, Chisato Minamimura, present in the audience. It was followed by a discussion and q&a session with her, led by Shona McCullagh, artistic director of Auckland Arts Festival.
The film is poignant and moving in the extreme as it documents the experiences of deaf people who suffered yet somehow survived the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. You have to marvel at the message, be horrified at the scale of destruction, and wonder how you’ve never heard of ‘The Frank Report’ before. (That was a report submitted to the Truman government by a group of American scientists aghast at the planned bombing, and begging that the civilian population in Hiroshima be given advance warning to evacuate. Of course, the report was ignored and 140,000 people died. At Nagasaki, 70,000 died).
Minamimura, herself profoundly deaf, has an impressive record of dance training (Laban Trinity in London), and of creating and directing (she is a Work Place artist at The Place, London). The film uses signing, subtitles, Holo-Gauze (a projection material creating 3D holographic illusion), as well as sequences of Visual Vernacular, a more personalised mime-like dance-like form of expression. Post-war Japan included a program of compulsory sterilisation of deaf women in the attempt to eliminate ‘the deaf gene.’ Who knew?
The following discussion included an extremely competent signer and translator (from Platform Interpreting NZ) so the sizeable numbers of deaf community present in the audience could follow every syllable. In addition, from the program note: ‘At the heart of the show is cutting edge visual and vibration technology: Woojer straps worn by audience members offer a tactie vibrotactility of the haunting sound composition.’ Minamimura herself wears such a belt during the performance. How else would she know where she is up to in the music?
If the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not precisely in retaliation for Pearl Harbour, they were certainly part of the same hellbent war, and some say terrorism weighed in ahead of military strategy. Was Dresden bombed into annihilation in retaliation for the destruction of Warsaw where ‘not a brick must stay upon a brick?’ Nobody wins a war altogether, it’s just endless revenge that only stops when one side surrenders, or someone presses a button. Numerous countries now hold nuclear weapons. Think about that.
Scored in Silence was altogether an astonishing work, revealing what the deaf community have long told us—that 75% of human communication is non-verbal. Think about that.
This was another tight and terrific show in Te Ahurei Toi O Tāmaki/Auckland Arts Festival. We were invited afterwards to place a hand and goodwill on the mauri stone, specially carved for the Festival by Ngāti Whātua, placed on a plinth in the Spiegeltent. Think about that.