Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in George Balanchine's 'Serenade', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Bold Moves. Royal New Zealand Ballet

16 August 2019, Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Bold Moves is a ‘something for everyone’ mixed bill of four works that include old, older, new and not so new, with the dancers proving more than equal to the demands of stylistic versatility for each of the contrasting choreographies. The program requires a majority of female dancers across all the pieces, and among them are three standout performers.

Serenade (to Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings), was choreographed 85 years ago by George Balanchine for students at his company’s ballet school. Among the prolific choreographer’s scores of works, it sits lyrically apart, an abstract style of classical movement with tweaks here and whimsy there, as he built little mistakes made in rehearsal into the choreography, reflecting his sense of fun when working with young dancers. The work was first staged here by Una Kai, renowned former dancer with New York City Ballet, and our company’s artistic director in 1970s. Harry Haythorne, subsequent director, staged it on New Zealand School of Dance in 1980s and found there the perfect setting for it with a student cast. 

This line-up of 17 females in ‘moonlight blue’ danced the long first section with line and ensemble aspects finely wrought, but I missed the lightness of subtleties remembered (and a number of dancers from those earlier productions who were in  the audience later agreed). Some performers had ethereal and distant facial expressions, while others grinned cheerfully at the audience—somewhat distracting since it’s not just the movement we are watching, but also the dancers’ thoughts we are following. What are they thinking? The second section with fewer dancers has a range of sculptured arm shapes and attractive groupings that are satisfying to follow. The woman beside me swooned and gasped with pleasure throughout as she sipped her wine. It’s always good to witness people enjoying themselves, but to my taste this was an oaked chardonnay.

Mayu Tanigaito and Laurynas Vejalis in 'Flames of Paris' pas de deux. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Mayu Tanigaito and Laurynas Vejalis in Flames of Paris pas de deux. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The pas de deux that followed, Russian style from 1932 but fashioned as though much earlier, Flames of Paris, is a sizzler for ballet competitions and the virtuoso display of gala nights, so no great poetry here. Wrong. It’s all in the how, not the what—and the quality of dancing by Mayu Tanigaito is a revelation, as always. Her technique is so fabulously assured she can afford to toss it to one side and simply offer us her pure pleasure at delivering a clean line, an effortless turn, a nonchalant pose, all effort masked, a laughing toss of the head, a loving smile, a way to live. She is the company’s longstanding leading dancer in all these respects. Her partner was Laurynas Vejalis, also a dancer of great technical ability, but he did not seem to be offering that as a gift to her, so she instead offered hers to us. Lucky us. This was top-shelf champagne.

Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer, Andrea Schermoly, commissioned by RNZB in 2018, marks 125 years since the beginnings of universal suffrage. Danced by eight women who gave it a wonderfully strong and motivated reading, it encourages everyone to believe in democracy in a wider society, and in all the institutions within it. There are numerous back projections of text from suffragettes’ writings, which were not legible however from many areas of the auditorium, and it could seem wise to reduce this distraction since the text is already reproduced in the printed program, and its message built in to the choreography. Kirby Selchow and Madeleine Graham were truly standout performers among the totally focused cast.  Brandy for courage, methinks.

Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria in William Forsythe's 'Artifact II'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria in William Forsythe’s Artifact II. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

William Forsythe’s Artifact II, 1984, perhaps with Orwell in mind, was brought here by his Ballett Frankfurt to an International Arts Festival season in 1994. It employs his hallmark extremism of anatomy +, with over-extensions of limbs creating shapes and thrusts that soon amount to shouting rather than speaking. (‘It’s hard to lip-read a shouting man’—Leonardo da Vinci warned us in the 15th century, and that is still the case). Two couples embark on simultaneous pas de deux, which is like four people speaking at once, impossible to watch or ‘hear’ them all. My eye gratefully went to Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria who danced with a totally immersed care and attention to each other, making quite the quality highlight of the piece. I know there exist interviews galore with Forsythe that explain the aesthetic and the choreographic intention of this work, but the reality is what comes to us across the footlights.

The Bach Chaconne used here means what we hear is the opposite of what we see. A chaconne is a baroque dance & music form that moves ever forward over a ground bass, without the theme & variations/verse & chorus structure of other baroque dances, and thus represents a through-composed journey. Douglas Lilburn caught well the notion of journeying in his solo piano composition by that title (worth choreographing some time?), but Bach’s chaconne is so wedded now to the talisman choreography by Jose Limon (given stellar performances by Baryshnikov in this same venue back in 1990s) with the solo musician alongside him on the stage. The dance, staged by Louis Solino, was also a number of times nobly performed here by Paul Jenden with Richard Mapp playing the Busoni piano transcription. Those achingly beautiful memories create a challenge to reconcile the use of the same music with a ballet like Artifact.

The curtain is rung down numerous times while the work continues onstage (except in this production we had the impression the dancing stopped then started again each time the curtain rose). It has a point the first time, perhaps, but the numerous repeats of the curtain crashing down become increasingly tiresome. I still find this as cynical and fragmented a work as I did on earlier viewing, and one cannot help but wonder what price the dancers pay for such extreme physical demands made on them in its delivery. We have seen Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated in several seasons by RNZB, also an extreme work, though the aesthetic there draws on its thunderbolt percussive accompaniment. Excitement always won the day when our former company dancers performed that work (most memorably Abigail Boyle, Kohei Iwamotu, Laura Saxon Jones, Jacob Chown) who made it strikingly their own. Artifact though is a cocktail of different ingredients. 

For years our company has had an equal weighting of female and male dancers, without a star ranking system but with recognition of the strengths in individual dancers—as classicists and actors, with character or humour—and with seasons extended over ten days to offer opportunities for us to savour alternate casts in lead roles. There was also a number of stellar visiting ballet masters, among the world’s best, who brought refreshing stimulation to the dancers. The company now has a new line-up and a new look—a system of star ranking introduced, seasons reduced to only a few days, no visiting ballet masters, an increased number of dancers, many more females than males, with a number of young performers and apprentices it is too soon to identify individually, some trained locally but still including many more imported to swell the ranks. That recruiting is difficult to accept, given how many fine young dancers are in training throughout this country, and how many other New Zealand dancers continue to search for work abroad. (Wouldn’t a young dancer/graduate ensemble here offer them and the country something to fill that gap?) And the company without Sir Jon Trimmer retained to assist in the styling and staging of works, and as a quietly masterful mentor to younger dancers, is not the one we have known for decades, and a decision that remains indeed difficult to fathom.

Ballet companies, like families, grow from their whakapapa. Every generation is itself, has parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren. Our company’s early repertoire includes classics of New Zealand vintage that could well be re-staged, (consider if you will—Tell me a Tale, Ragtime Dance Company, A Servant of Two Masters, Bliss, No Exit, Dark Waves, The Decay of Lying, rose and fell, halo, Napoli. Broadcast News, Sweet Sorrow, Mantodea, Charade, Prismatic Variations… none of which is older than Serenade) and many of our choreographers and ballet masters with the required experience are free-lancing here and abroad. If we don’t stage these works, no-one will. Kia mau te wehi, kia kaha. Ka tu ka ora, ka noho ka mate. Mauri, mauri, kam na mauri. Tekeraoi. (Bold Moves. Take courage. Standing up, all is well, lying down, all is not well. Spirit, courage, blessings).

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2019

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in George Balanchine’s Serenade, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in George Balanchine's 'Serenade', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Sue Healey with Sarah Jayne Howard during the filming of Virtuosi

Capturing the vanishing. A choreographer and film. Sue Healey

There is much that is interesting in Sue Healey’s Platform Paper published by Currency Press on 1 August 2019. What I found very readable was the information about Healey’s early career. There were her early dancing days in New Zealand, her father’s interest in making Super 8 movies, the nuns who taught her at school, her move to Australia, her student days at the Victorian College of the Arts, and her work with Nanette Hassall and DanceWorks. It was good too to read her discussion of the various processes she has gone through to develop her exceptional film making techniques, her thoughts on the various short films she made, and her remarks on her more recent move to making longer works. Some of her films have been reviewed on this website, most recently Eileen, and I have thoroughly enjoyed writing about them.

All this background leads in the Platform Paper to the three provocations Healey presents at the end of the paper. They basically relate to the role of independent dance and independent artists in society and culture. In a slightly abbreviated form the provocations are:

  • Independent dance artists deserve to be funded in a more realistic and sustainable manner.
  • Dance must extend its boundaries without losing sight of its own intrinsic qualities as a discipline.
  • We need an active debate about why dance continues to be relevant, who creates this relevance, and how to generate new opportunities for artists.

What bothers me, however, is the reliance throughout the paper on what I think has become a cliché: dance is ephemeral (with the often unspoken but usually implied notion that, as a result, dance has nothing much to offer conceptually, intellectually or any other ‘-ually’ word). I realise, of course, that Healey does not fall into the category of someone who thinks that dance has no lasting value because it is ephemeral, but many do think that way. Of course dance is ephemeral but so is anything we see (or hear) in the theatre. Is it the existence of words and a script connected with a play, or the existence of musical notation in a concert that causes many to think that these art forms are not so ephemeral and therefore more worthy in some way? As it happens there are dance works these days that use words in various circumstances and for various reasons. Lloyd Newson’s creations come to mind immediately. And, of course, Healey first ventured into film making to ‘make dance stay around for a bit longer’.

Despite the above, I really enjoyed Healey’s paper, and the Vimeo links to selections from her film works are a bonus. But I would have loved the paper to have had a fourth provocation that questions the notion of ephemerality in the arts and how people outside the immediate dance world can be persuaded that this does not make dance an inferior art form. We always seem to be justifying its presence.

Capturing the vanishing: a choreographer and film by Sue Healey. Platform Paper No. 60, August 2019. (Sydney: Currency House). More information at www.currencyhouse.org.au

For more about Sue Healey on this website follow this tag link.

Michelle Potter, 13 August 2019

Featured image: Sue Healey and Sarah Jayne Howard during the filming of Virtuosi, 2012. Courtesy of Sue Healey

Sue Healey with Sarah Jayne Howard  during the filming of Virtuosi

Filling the Space. Quantum Leap/QL2 Dance

8 August 2019. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

As the curtain went up on QL2’s 2019 Quantum Leap production, Filling the Space, I sat up with a jolt. There were a couple of ballet barres onstage and dancers standing in ballet positions, even doing the occasional demi-plié. Not only were we faced with the barres and the pliés but the entire space of the Playhouse stage was stripped of its usual accoutrements—no legs or borders to mask the wing space or to hide the lighting or flies. Everything that is usually hidden from the audience was on show. What was this? Well, it was the beginning of James Batchelor’s Proscenium and Batchelor, now with a good number of works behind him, has never left us in any doubt that what he creates will be unusual in approach and leave us to ponder on what his works are about.

But what made Filling the Space, the overall production, so fascinating was that it showed off the diversity of the choreographic voice. We saw the work of three choreographers, Batchelor, Ruth Osborne and Eliza Sanders, and it would be hard to find three works so different in conception and vocabulary.

Batchelor’s Proscenium examines the space of the stage both within and beyond the structure that frames that space—the proscenium. It was rewarding to consider the particular use of the space he identified in the context of dance and architecture, which was the overarching theme of Filling the Space. But for me Batchelor’s use of the architecture of the stage space was not the most interesting feature of his work. His choice of movement vocabulary was the highlight. It ranged from extremely slow and intensely detailed, even introspective, movement to faster unison work with some partnering that relied on balance and support. As well there was extensive manipulation of those barres and other metal frames, some that dropped from the flies, others that looked like clothing or costume racks. At one point we watched a circus-like stunt with one dancer balancing on a narrow support joining the end parts of one of those racks while another dancer spun the whole structure with ever increasing speed in a giant circle. At another point, rows of chairs were brought onstage and dancers entered, sat down, moved some parts of the body, then rose and, with arms still in the pose they had taken while seated, made their exit. Batchelor was examining how stage space can be filled and emptied in various ways, but it was the way in which that examination occurred that was more interesting than the fact that it occurred.

A moment from Proscenium. Quantum Leap, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Ruth Osborne’s Naturally Man-Made was danced against a background of footage shot on and around the grand staircase of Canberra’s Nishi building, a staircase made of recycled timber and a spectacular part of the building. Sometimes we saw the staircase as an installation devoid of people, at other times the footage included dancers performing on the staircase. In front of this footage dancers performed what might be called Osborne’s signature style—mass groupings of dancers with occasional break away moments. It fulfilled nicely, if in an obvious manner, the concept of dance and architecture.

Dancers of QL2 in Ruth Osborne’s Naturally Man-Made, Quantum Leap 2019. Photo:
© Lorna Sim

Eliza Sanders had a totally different take on what constitutes architecture. Her work, The Shape of Empty Space, looked at emotional responses to different spatial environments. In this work her movement vocabulary was almost like mime. It focused on two main emotions, a feeling of being wild and free in some environments, with an accompanying flinging of arms, legs, and indeed the whole body in an unrestrained way; and a feeling of being crowded into a tight space, with an accompanying restraint in movement and groupings of dancers. The work was stunningly lit by Mark Dyson with well lit spaces alternating with hidden spaces set up by black curtains hanging at intervals in the performing space. It was architecture built by light and darkness through which we watched dancers appear and disappear. The work had a sculptural ending as dancers built an architecture of their own.

Dancers of QL2 in Eliza Sanders‘ The Shape of Empty Space, Quantum Leap 2019. Photo:
© Lorna Sim

Both Batchelor and Sanders are QL2 alumni who are now working professionally as independent dancers and choreographers. Osborne is an early mentor to them. How lucky are the current dancers of QL2 that they get to work with choreographers whose creativity is so different, whose vocabulary is so individualistic, and whose work is so fascinating to watch, and so interesting to think about.

Michelle Potter, 10 August 2019

Featured image: Dancers of QL2 in James Batchelor’s Proscenium. Quantum Leap 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

The White Crow. A film from Ralph Fiennes

I remember how much I enjoyed reading Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Rudolf Nureyev—Nureyev. The Life published in 2007. It was so beautifully researched and very readable. So the recently released ‘biopic’ The White Crow, which was inspired by Kavanagh’s book, had something to live up to for me. Well, despite a swag of less that ecstatic reviews from film critics around the world, I loved this movie. Directed by Ralph Fiennes, it follows the early life of Rudolf Nureyev, from his birth until his defection to the West in 1961.

As this is a dance site I am assuming that readers are aware of the basic outline of Nureyev’s early life so I won’t recount the story. Instead I am selecting moments, some that brought me close to tears, some that made me smile, and some that, despite knowing what was going to happen, had me the edge of my seat. And others.

I was moved when Nureyev’s mother, Farida, was about to give birth on the train rattling its way through the Russian countryside. Her daughters stood in the corridor, shielded from the birth but hearing the groans and shrieks coming from their mother. The smallest of the daughters had tears in her eyes— such a beautiful moment from such a little girl. It brought me close to tears.

Another moment connected with Farida also moved me. Nureyev, sitting alone in the office of the French Police Department at Le Bourget Airport, had to decide which door to take to leave the office. Would he leave via the back door and choose freedom, or would he leave through the main door, back into the hands of the Soviet representatives? They had told him, amongst other things, that he would never see his mother again if he chose freedom. We knew, of course, which door he would choose, but nevertheless, the tension throughout the airport scenes was gripping. As we sat there waiting for him to make his decision, however, the filmed location changed. We were transported back to Ufa, where Nureyev grew up and where he took his first dance lessons. In this flashback the young Nureyev entered the Ufa studio and his teacher asked his mother to leave. The young Nureyev began to dance a folk dance—it was performed so well by a little boy playing Nureyev aged eight or so. But as Farida disappeared down the corridor we knew that the choice had been made way back there in Ufa.

The scene in the dance studio was not the only time the film flashed back to Nureyev’s earlier life. I found these flashbacks, which were in black and white rather than the colour of the main footage, quite mesmerising. They were evocative and developed the storyline in an inspired way.

In the movie I really enjoyed meeting Clara Saint played by Adèle Exarchopoulos. As the woman who befriended Nureyev and then was instrumental in facilitating his defection, she has always seemed a mysterious character. She was somewhat mysterious, or perhaps reserved in personality, in this movie too but it was interesting to have a three dimensional reading of her.

Fiennes, the director, played Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s main teacher at the Kirov school and the man who, with his wife, accommodated Nureyev in their St Petersburg apartment during a momentous time in his early dancing life in St Petersburg. Fiennes’ portrayal was restrained and it was hard to know what he really thought of any situation in which he found himself. I had to wonder why he didn’t react a little more strongly to his wife’s sexual relationship with Nureyev, which was made very clear to us. But then maybe the real Pushkin didn’t mind?

Oleg Ivenko, a dancer himself, played the grown up Nureyev and we saw some respectable dancing from him. I couldn’t help but think, however, that his dancing owed a lot to Nureyev whose approach, all those years ago now, to turns, jumps, manèges and the like changed the look of male dancing forever. Having said that, it was interesting to see Nureyev himself in the credits (in dancing footage that had been reduced to minuscule size) and to realise that his technique was really quite raw in many ways.

And the moment that made me smile? After negotiating his way through the crowd at Le Bourget, not to mention managing the ongoing harassment of the Soviet representatives, Nureyev finally reached the office of the Police Department. ‘Do you have a cognac?’, he asked. And of course, being French, they did.

A film well worth seeing!

Michelle Potter, 30 July 2019

My most recent writing on Nureyev was for the printed program for the 2018 visit to Brisbane by Teatro all Scala from Milan. Here is a link to that article.

Ivy Foster as the Child in 'Ochids'. Foster Dance Group, 2019. Photo: © Jocelen Janon

Orchids. Foster Dance Group

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
24 -27 July 2019. Circa Theatre, Wellington

Suppose somebody took a stem of orchids, choreographed them into women and tossed their experiences, emotions and memories deep into a seamlessly danced stream of consciousness that we might peer into and look for reflections from the depths. Somebody did.

Orchids, choreographed by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a continuously flowing hour-long dance performed by a cast of seven—six adult women (Katie Burton, Joanne Hobern, Tori Manley-Tapu, Rose Philpott, Marianne Schultz and Jahra Wasasala) of contrasting age and physique, representing us all in the complexity of light and shade in our experiences. In a choreographic masterstroke, a young girl (Ivy Foster, the choreographer’s daughter), serenely evoked our past as a child, and our hope for a future. 

The work, ‘an allegory for the dark and light masks of the female psyche’, presents emotions and states of being, rather than storylines with cadence. That openness of texture invites the audience to recognise, interpret, contemplate, empathise, sympathise with and wonder at the undercurrents of meaning in the imaginative movement imagery. 

Scene from Orchids. Foster Dance Group, 2019Photo: © Jocelen Janon
Scene from Orchids. Foster Dance Group, 2019. Photo: © Jocelen Janon

There’s a sculptural quality to the torsos, and much use is made of Sproull’s hallmark hand gestures that seem like a celestial signing of some unspoken speech, a pointing finger that suggests a location or an event, but also asks a question, leaving it unanswered. These motifs always remind me of the account I once read of a 116 year old Japanese woman lying in her bed, patiently awaiting her moment of departure, and performing for her family gathered around ‘her second-to-favourite hand dance.’ (One can only wonder how many hand dances she knew, and what she was saving her favourite one for…perhaps for the afterlife?)

The sequence in Orchids has episodes of solo, duo and larger groupings that suggest woman alone, mother and daughter, sister, friend, rival, confidant, devotee. Much of the movement reflects individuals’ personal experiences with strong emotional force and sometimes surprising dynamic attack, but there are also hints of wider cultural resonance in reference to various female deities or spiritual forces. I believe I recognised one of those to come from Indian Hindu mythology—with Shakti, the goddess of many aspects including the strength of a male capable of stamping out underfoot the demon devil of ignorance.

Music composed by Eden Mulholland had percussive clarity that helped shape the work, and was at one point used as accompaniment, a pluck and two strums, for what suggested a Portuguese fado song about to be danced, but then morphed into more sensuous strings for an all-female Zorba’s dance. A most striking image was the ray of the performers’ fingers shaped like a halo round the face of young Ivy Foster which resonated as the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, a beacon of hope so desperately believed in by millions of Mexican pilgrims.

The dance follows you home to study the orchids flowering in a pot on your window ledge, to read their folds of petals, their crevices of secrets, their shadows that hide hurt on the underside, beneath the hope that shines light on the upside.

Jennifer Shennan, 26 July 2019

Featured image: Ivy Foster as the Child in Orchids. Foster Dance Group, 2019. Photo: © Jocelen Janon

Ivy Foster as the Child in 'Ochids'. Foster Dance Grouyp, 2019. Photo: Jocelen Janon
Cello Embrace from 'Chocolate'. Java Dance Company, 201

Chocolate. Java Dance Company

11 July 2019. Te Auahi, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Chocolate completes the quartet of shows choreographed these past few years by Sacha Copland for her Java Dance Company. Labelled the Artisan series, ‘a culinary investigation into culture’, each work has been themed for one of the undeniable essentials of a good life—bread (Rise), wine (The Wine Project), cheese (The Creamery) and now chocolate (Chocolate).

(I’ll have a little of everything thanks. We won’t complain about the omission of coffee as that might sound greedy. I just need the one cup each day but it has to be good. Today’s cafes echo the coffee houses of earlier times and there are rich threads of social history one could add into the brew. But perhaps Sacha is a tea drinker? Not that I don’t love a good cup of tea, mind you, and history is full of that beverage too. Maybe Japan and India and China would score a scene each? Maybe there’s a second Artisan series still to come?)

A distinctive feature of this series has been the inclusion of musicians onstage and moving … Tristan Carter on violin, and sundry percussion, Charley Davenport on cello and sundry other percussion, with the three dancers, Emma Coppersmith, Lauren Carr and Ella Williams, smooth movers all. The performers mix and match and interchange, helping each other with an instrument here, a song there, a dance and some devilment. A mood of lightheartedness, gratitude for the goods, scenes of what happens when excesses take over, and the sweetness of getting life’s balance right have flavoured each of the earlier seasons.

Ella Williams (centre) with audience members and performers in Chocolate. Java Dance Company, 2019

The usual demarcation of Players and Audience is deliberately deconstructed. Described as ‘Immersion’ dance theatre, the term signals a more-than-token amount of audience interaction. The timing of that exchange still has to be earned however, if it’s to be effective, and kept in proportion to the more structured part of the performance. My impression this time was that the performers in Chocolate, right from the start, were in direct eye contact anticipating participation of the audience perhaps rather too soon and too eagerly? 

In earlier instalments the artisan skills and actual processes of making, proofing, testing, producing and consuming the goods were all acted out on stage. I learnt things I hadn’t known, and laughed to recognise how close to home our habits are. Certain scenes reminded me of paintings by Breugel, Vermeer, de Hooch, Lowry and Ben Nicholson. There seemed to be a framework for hints at story along the way—ambition and jealousy can be encountered in any kitchen or vineyard, discreet passions experienced in the dairy, arguments can break out in the cellar, peace-making attempted on the factory floor. With troubles resolved, the earlier dances have steered towards a finale of celebratory atmosphere and generous sharing of the goodies with audience members.

Chocolate seemed less researched and lighter throughout in content of allegory and substance than the other pieces had been. It needed a stronger story line—but a distinctly subdued atmosphere did build up for the enigmatic ending when many large bags full of cocoa nibs were slowly tipped all over the stage and onto the reclining body of one of the dancers till she lay almost buried beneath them. Maybe that was suggesting a careless use of produce, back-breaking labour for workers, exploitation of human resources, and a lament for lack of responsibility for the environmental after-effects of crop production? I may have imagined all that, but a paragraph or three in the program would have helped to anchor the thinking and choreographic intention of this unusual, inventive and enterprising work.

Pouring cacao in Chocolate, Java Dance Company, 2019

A note from the choreographer quotes Thomas Merton: ‘Here is an unspeakable secret: Paradise is all around us and we do not understand.’ I googled for the reference, and found there that Thomas was the son of New Zealand-born artist and musician, Owen Merton. So I did learn something I hadn’t known before. Thanks Sacha.

Jennifer Shennan, 14 July 2019

Featured image: Cello Embrace from Chocolate. Java Dance Company, 2019

Cello Embrace from 'Chocolate'. Java Dance Company, 201

Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. [Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]

Dancers of the Monte Carlo Ballet in 'LAC', 2019. Photo: © Alice Blangero

LAC. Les Ballets de Monte Carlo

29 June 2019. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre

This production was yet another re-imagining of Swan Lake. It centres, we are told, on the choice between good and evil and on connections to our childhood fears and nightmares, all against ‘a Machiavellian family backdrop’. It began with a short film clip in which the story we were to see on stage unfolded before us as moving image. Although I baulked slightly at the robotic depiction of the King and Queen, and at the von Rothbart/Black Swan/evil character with her black sunglasses, lovely to watch were the Prince as a little boy playing with his fair-haired companion dressed all in white (the future Odette/White Swan), and the dark haired child dressed in black (the future Odile/Black Swan) who tried to intervene.

The work closed dramatically and had me on the edge of my seat as a large dark cloth swirled across the stage engulfing the dead bodies that lay there.

In between the opening and closing scenes it was a different matter. The storyline was easy to follow, there was some good strong dancing, and one or two characters stood out for me. I especially admired the dancing and acting of Daniele Delvecchio as the Prince’s Confidant (Benno figure?). And I admired the stage presence and ‘architectural’ choreography of the Black Swan and the Archangels of Darkness who often accompanied her.

The Black Swan with the Archangels of Darkness in LAC. Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Photo: © Alice Blangero

But I truly disliked the way the Prince seemed so goofy, standing there with bent shoulders and head down. Yes, his father was trying to make a man of him, the notes tell us, but I wished he could have been a little more princely in bearing. On the whole I found the choreography quite bland and I also found the way Tchaikovsky score was chopped around a little hard to take.

Still it’s always interesting to see a new take on an old classic. Some are just better than others.

Michelle Potter, 4 July 2019

Featured image: Dancers of the Monte Carlo Ballet in LAC, 2019. Photo: © Alice Blangero

Dancers of the Monte Carlo Ballet in 'LAC', 2019. Photo: © Alice Blangero

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for my book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. Donations are tax deductible. [Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]

Jake McLarnon as the Host with Josephine Weirse, Jag Popham, Isabella Hood and Bernhard Knauer in 'The Dinner Party'. Expressions Dance Company 2019. Photo © Kelly

The Dinner Party. Expressions Dance Company

21 June 2019. The Q, Queanbeyan

The Dinner Party has had a couple of manifestations. Choreographed by Natalie Weir for Expressions Dance Company, it was shown in 2015 as The Host. I suspect, however, that the inspiration for it can be traced back much further to 1989 when Janet Karin commissioned Weir to make a short work for the National Capital Dancers, which was also called The Host. The current production, which opened in Brisbane in May and is now on a national/regional tour, is probably somewhat different in impact from the 2015 showing, given that Weir no longer directs Expressions. The company is now under the directorship of Amy Hollingsworth and her dancers are a quite different group, which definitely adds a new feel to the company.

I was a little taken aback by The Dinner Party. The storyline, or theme, explores the manipulative side of human beings. The character of the Host (Jake McLarnon) attempts to wield power over his four guests, although not all of them wish to be manipulated. The work thus lends itself to a choreographic display of power, and power is what we get. One of Weir’s strengths as a choreographer has always been an ability to combine movement in unexpected ways, especially in duets or with other small combinations of dancers. We saw those unexpected movement combinations in The Dinner Party, not only between dancers but also between dancers and the table and chairs that made up the set. There was a lot that was acrobatic, hugely energetic, and definitely powerful.

It was a thrill to see Bernhard Knauer, whose work with Sydney Dance Company I had admired over several years before he moved on. He played the role of the Rival and his solo on the table, and his duet with McLarnon towards the end of the work, were highlights.

Bernhard Knauer in The Dinner Party. Expressions Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

But overall I was taken aback because for me the exploration of the human psyche through choreographed interpersonal relations between the cast members seemed, in the end, to be the least important part of the work. There seemed just to be a lot of gymnastic-type dancing around or on a table, which didn’t advance the theme. I did, however, enjoy the costumes by Gail Sorronda, which captured the intrinsic qualities of each of the characters, and the lighting by Ben Hughes, which cast great light and shadow at appropriate times.

Michelle Potter, 22 June 2019

Afterthought: it would have been helpful had there been a cast list (at least) somewhere in the theatre foyer, if no handout was being offered. The program was available online (with a character listed who did not appear in Queanbeyan), which I looked up after the show. But not everyone goes to the company’s website prior to or after the show.

Featured image: Jake McLarnon as the Host with Josephine Weirse, Jag Popham, Isabella Hood and Bernhard Knauer in The Dinner Party. Expressions Dance Company 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

30 years of sixty five thousand. Bangarra Dance Theatre

13 June 2019. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Bangarra Dance Theatre is 30 years old this year and its latest program, 30 years of sixty five thousand, celebrates that anniversary. It also acknowledges the extent of the heritage on which the company is built, and to which it looks for inspiration.

First up on the program was a revival of Unaipon, Frances Rings’ 2004 portrait of Aboriginal inventor, philosopher, writer and storyteller David Unaipon, whose portrait now appears on the Australian $50 note. Unaipon opens with a sequence in which a figure, representing Unaipon himself, dances behind a scrim in a mystical evocation of man’s existence. It then focuses on aspects of Unaipon’s early background as a Ngarrindjeri man, and subsequently follows some of his thoughts and ideas in areas of science and religion.

Every scene in Unaipon had its unique choreographic qualities. On the one hand, for example, there was Bangarra’s distinctive take on traditional movement in Sister baskets, a section about the intricate style of weaving that is distinctive to Ngarrindjeri culture. On the other, and in contrast, one of Unaipon’s particular scientific interests was the concept of motion and this concept was explored with choreography in which walking across the stage dominated. I don’t usually enjoy those moments that find their way into a lot of choreography where walking and running around the stage go on forever, or so it seems. But in the case of Unaipon, the movement was diverse as dancers dodged each other, passed each other, and gently bumped each other, all the time reflecting Unaipon’s interest in bodies in space.

The absolute stand-out performer in Unaipon was Tyrel Dulvarie, who danced the role of David Unaipon. In the opening sequence, gliding across the stage (on some hidden device?) and using exquisitely lyrical arm movements, he transported us into a world of dreams and ideas. Then in the section called Four Winds, which dealt with man’s need for knowledge about the seasons, he danced as Tolkami (the West Wind) wearing an astonishing grass costume by Jennifer Irwin. Dulvarie’s presence was commanding and his dancing transfixing in this solo. In the final section, which focused on Unaipon’s interest in religion, Dulvarie showed his ability to isolate individual movements (even toes played a role) and, again, his powerful stage presence was clear and imposing

Scene from 'Unaipon'. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Tyrel Dulvarie as Tolkami (the West Wind) in Unaipon. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The middle work on the program was Jiří Kylián’s Stamping Ground created in 1983 after a momentous visit made by Kylián to Groote Eylandt in 1980. In the Bangarra program, Stamping Ground was preceded by a brief video clip in which Kylián explained the origins of the work; his emotional response to his experiences on Groote Eylandt; and that the work was created not with the aim of copying Indigenous movement but as an homage to Indigenous culture. The dance itself was performed by six dancers, three male, three female. It was a revelation as it had all the characteristics of Kylián’s later choreography, including the manner in which he uses a backcloth as part of a work; the little snatches of humour; the beautiful, bird-like use of extended arms; the incredible lifts; and so on. Staged for Bangarra by Roslyn Anderson, Stamping Ground was stunningly danced by Tara Gower, Baden Hitchcock, Rika Hamaguchi, Ella Havelka, Tyrel Dulvarie, and Ryan Pearson. Their performance indicated the growing technical strengths of Bangarra dancers, who can now hold their own across a range of choreographic styles.

Rika Hamaguchi and Ryan Pearson in Stamping Ground. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Bangarra means ‘to make fire’ in the Wiradjuri language and, for the closing section of Bangarra’s anniversary program, artistic director Stephen Page brought together a selection of moments from previous Bangarra productions and curated them under the name To make fire. The selections showed different aspects of Bangarra’s output, including biographical productions with selections from Mathinna; stories from the Torres Strait Islands with selections from About; and, in the final section given the over-arching name Clan, excerpts from Belong and Walkabout. This final section suggests a vision for a future in which identity can be reclaimed and reconciled with contemporary society.

A trio from Mathinna was a highlight for me. It suggested, through its varied movement and differing connections between the dancers, the potential nature of relationships between Mathinna, a young Tasmanian woman of Lowreenne heritage, and the colonial couple who adopted but then rejected her. Another highlight came in Clan when a short section called Wiradjuri was danced strongly by Beau Dean Riley Smith (a Wiradjuri man as it happens). Its music by David Page was mesmerising with a whispering voice-over murmuring the single word ‘Wiradjuri’ over and over.

Trio from 'Mathinna'.Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019.. Photo: Daniel Boud
Lillian Banks as Mathinna, Rikki Mason as John Franklin and Tara Gower as Jane Franklin from Mathinna. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

In program notes for 30 years of sixty five thousand, Stephen Page suggests that Bangarra’s greatest achievement is that it has survived for those 30 years. But Bangarra has done more than survive. It has flourished. It can now claim an extensive repertoire of music and dance, which it can and does draw upon; it has a spirited associate artistic director in Frances Rings, who supports the dynamic director Stephen Page; and its dancers are polished performers whose movement vocabulary has gone from strength to strength over those 30 years. And if you are lucky enough to be at an opening night in Sydney, the company’s home base, it becomes very clear that the company has an appreciative audience unafraid to express its pride in and appreciation for Bangarra.

Michelle Potter, 15 June 2019

Featured image: Scene from To make fire. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Lisa Tomasetti

West Side Story. Opera Australia

7 June 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

                                          The same only different.

c. 1590—Shakespeare sets Romeo & Juliet in c.1390 Verona (and the town is happy to remember that still). Poetry tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Montague and Capulet, loyalties demanded, much street fighting, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Sword fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

1957—Jerome Robbins, director/choreographer, Leonard Bernstein, composer, Stephen Sondheim, lyricist, and Arthur Laurents, book, set West Side Story in upper west Manhattan (though the area has since been somewhat gentrified). Dance tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Jets and Sharks, loyalties demanded, much street dancing, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Fist and knife fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

2019—Australian production opens in Wellington. Seasoned musical director/conductor, Donald Chan, holds brilliantly taut reins on a spirited performance from  the Australian cast and local Orchestra Wellington musicians.

Complex stage sets of towering buildings and balconies are moved seamlessly throughout the performance, so there is a further team out the back performing a dance we don’t see.

There is little spoken dialogue in the show but in a short sequence, two junior members of the Jets confess their fear of the imminent arrival of cops to investigate murder. The pathos struck in their brief confession of individual human emotion makes striking contrast with the kind of confident bravura so readily summoned for group display in the gangs’ dances and songs throughout the show. Of those the romping standouts are I like to be in America and Gee, Officer Krupke. 

The ballet sequence near the end, to Somewhere (perhaps too well-lit for the dream scenario it implies?) sits in marked contrast to the rest of the dancing, and we only hear but do not see the vocalist for that number.  (I would have welcomed the singer to stand in a royal corner box and thus to seem to sing on the audience’s behalf).

West Side Story rocketed to fame on Broadway as a big, big musical, and was soon  translated to a movie that became known worldwide. (Do you know anyone who didn’t see it?) Steven Spielberg is preparing a new movie version, this one to be set in Harlem, so that’s moving to 131st Street, filming to start about now.

Rita Moreno, unforgettable as Anita, the leading lady of the Sharks, won an Oscar for her performance in the original movie. She will play in the Spielberg film, a re-worked version of the character Doc, the shop-owner where Tony (aka Romeo) works.

In the cast we saw here, Doc, the only voice of reason, though no-one would listen until too late, was impeccably played by Ritchie Singer. In the sizzling role of Anita, Chloe Zuel was the knockout member of a large cast where everyone acquitted themselves with verve and commitment. Not a beat was missed throughout. Donald Chan saw to that.

(Makes you want to watch the movie again. Maybe after that I’ll listen to Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet score?)

New Zealand apparently holds the dubious title of the per capita world record for the number of gangs and patched members. Territories are guarded, loyalties demanded, external authority rejected. From the occasional reports of events and encounters between them, one might imagine they also know personal storylines not too removed from the above. How we are is who we are.

West Side Story comes from classic stock. Dance followers may be interested, and perhaps surprised, to learn that Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, hitherto renowned for avant garde dance theatre, is also at work on a Broadway revival of West Side Story with entirely new choreography, production date 2020. Clearly it’s a work for our time, and for many times. 

Jennifer Shennan, 8 June 2019

All photos: © Jeff Busby