Sydney Dance Company’s second program for 2019, the fiftieth year of existence, began with a short film. Excerpts from the SDC repertoire during the years it was led by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon reminded us of the versatility of the productions during those years when strong narrative works alternated with beautifully abstract productions. These film excerpts, put together by Philippe Charluet, were followed by clips, from the work of Pedro Greig, focusing on the ten years from 2009 during which the company has been led by Rafael Bonachela. Bonachela’s works have never been narrative in nature, but have focused largely on ideas that evoke emotional responses in the audience. But in both eras the choreography has been remarkable and the dancers have been exceptional. Those of us who have been privileged to have watched both eras have been unbelievably lucky.
The live part of the program opened with a revival of Bonachela’s 6 Breaths, first seen in 2010. This collaboration with Italian composer Ezio Bosso begins and ends with some breathtaking videography from Tim Richardson. In the beginning flecks of white swirl through the air before morphing into one and then two human figures, while at the end of the work the reverse happens—first breath and last breath. In between, a series of movements (six in all) introduce us to various human emotions. At times I felt my hands clenching, at other times I relaxed. A duet between two men had my emotions wavering, the moments of unison had me dancing along (in my mind that is). Such is Bonachela’s ability to use dance to evoke an emotional response. And of course I continue to be surprised at the extraordinary choreographic framework that he uses to create these feelings.
After interval came Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50. In this work, which involved SDC alumni from the Murphy/Vernon era and a number of audience members, Obarzanek examined concepts about dance creation, especially how movement is passed on from body to body. There was plenty of interaction between the three groups of performers and, remarkably, the audience members, who wore headphones and had no rehearsal prior to coming on stage from the auditorium, were directed from the wings by Charmene Yap as assistant choreographer.
By the end the three groups had become as one and, while the closing movements and groupings were of necessity quite simple, perhaps over-simplified, the point was made. Across 50 years of dance making, a strong legacy, a proud heritage, and the memories of audiences (represented by the audience members taking part in Us 50) are an essential part of the remarkable organisation that is Sydney Dance Company.
And, as before with the film footage, how privileged were we, who had watched the repertoire of the Murphy/Vernon period, to see the alumni from that time return to show us what amazing artists they still are. Sheree da Costa, glowing with beauty and still with that incredible ability to embrace any movement she is given, opened Us 50 with a short solo. As for other alumni, I wrote about Wakako Asano in 2005 after seeing Grand, ‘Wakako Asano is now such a mature artist gliding from movement to movement and opening and closing the work with mysterious grace.’ It’s still there that mysterious quality. Then, writing about New Blood in 1999, I said of Bradley Chatfield, ‘…his sense of presence on stage … rivals that of any dancer in Australia.’ That presence is also still there. And so with all the other alumni who appeared in Us 50—Kathryn Dunn, Linda Ridgeway, Lea Francis, Stefan Karlsson, Bill Pengelly, Nina Veretennikova, with Simon Turner as stage manager. What a treat.
18 October 2019. Theatre 3, Canberra. The Chaos Project
The Chaos Project has long been a feature of the Canberra dance scene. Designed for the young and less experienced of the dancers who are part of the QL2 Dance community, each year it has a different theme. This theme is examined through a series of short works, which are combined seamlessly into one, hour-long production. Each section is choreographed by a professional choreographer and a few older dancers from the broader QL2 Dance community join with the younger ones to help the overall work move along effectively.
In 2019 the Chaos Project had the theme of power—in a variety of manifestations. The youngest performers danced out ideas of physical power, to choreography from Olivia Fyfe. The intermediate group (intermediate in age and experience) examined, through the choreography of Alana Stenning, the idea of ‘superheros’ and asked the question ‘who is the real superhero’? The older dancers performed choreography by Steve Gow and their theme centred on who abuses power and who uses it wisely. An introduction and conclusion were choreographed by Ruth Osborne and two other works completed the program, one an all-girl piece with choreography by Fyfe and Stenning, and one for boys only with choreography by Gow.
Choreographically, Power was well-constructed throughout and what always surprises me (although by now it probably shouldn’t) is how the technical limitations one might expect to see in young dancers are in fact never obvious. If they are asked to move in unison, they do. If a solo is required it always looks strong. And the sheer dedication and involvement of every dancer shows clearly. Credit here to the choreographers!
Perhaps the most fascinating part of Power was the all-girl section, ‘I Rule’, from Fyfe and Stenning. As it began the voice of a narrator could be heard telling the story of a princess in a far away land and her impending relationship with a suitor. My heart sank momentarily. But, as the dancers began to act out and dance this story, their attitude began to change. Towards the end they rejected the story and the role the princess was expected to play and by the very end their outraged voices drowned out the narrator. Feminist power at work!
The Chaos Project is a great initiative from QL2 Dance. It gives young dancers opportunities they rarely get elsewhere. Those opportunities include in particular the power to make a creative input to dance, since the dancers contribute ideas on how the work will unfold, both conceptually and technically. But it also gives them the opportunity to see how a professional choreographer works; how to use the space of the stage effectively; and more.
The Chaos Project is just one of the ways that QL2 develops and nurtures potential artists and audiences and gives work to professionals working across the arts.
12 October 2019 (matinee preview), Canberra Theatre
Opera Australia’s production of the Broadway musical West Side Story was reviewed on this website by Jennifer Shennan—see this link—when it opened in Wellington ahead of its Australian performances. But of course I could not miss the show, especially when it has such a strong emotional appeal for me. When West Side Story opened in Sydney way back in the 1960s, one of the members of the Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang) was an African American named Ronne Arnold. Ronne taught classes in jazz at the dance school I attended and he ended up making his home in Australia and also making a major contribution to our dance culture. Although another visiting American modern dancer said to me around the same time ‘You’re very classical, darling’, I loved Ronne’s non-classical classes and continued to do them as often as I could. So West Side Story will always have a special place in my heart.
Looking at it onstage half a century (!!) later what is instantly striking is that it just doesn’t seem dated, although some may consider parts of the song Gee, Officer Krupe, which features towards the end of the show, not terribly ‘politically correct’ in 2019. But that aside, part of its attraction perhaps is that ethnic differences, which are represented by the two rival gangs—the Sharks and the Jets—and the social issues such differences so often raise, are still all around us. But there is so much else that marks West Side Story as one of the truly amazing collaborations in performing arts’ history. The book by Arthur Laurents, the music by Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the choreography by Jerome Robbins meld so beautifully with each other and give the whole a truly impressive coherence.
Robbins’ choreography is spectacular in its ability to tell us what is happening. Dance may be a wordless art but with Robbins so often no words are needed. Even the gestures he adds when the performers are singing rather than dancing give us clues to the unfolding of the story.
The standout artist in the cast I saw was undoubtedly Chloé Zuel as Anita, girlfriend of Bernardo leader of the Sharks. She was feisty and flamboyant and she used every moment to project that image of her character. Her dancing was exciting to watch and oh how she used that costume to add drama to every movement! She was nothing short of brilliant. But while Zuel stood out, every cast member gave his or her all. Group numbers were thrilling; individuals shone. Just look at the featured image, for example, to see how individualistic the Shark girls were.
The only somewhat jarring aspect for me was that some of the duets between the heroine Maria (Sophie Salvesani) and the hero Tony (Nigel Huckle) seemed, in the manner of their presentation, rather too operatic. I realise that the production is by Opera Australia but to me West Side Story is a dance musical. The staging that surrounded the duets (strong spotlighting with associated dimming of the background, and removal of all other characters) meant that the overall nature of the work was lost. Of course the duets were beautifully sung, and it may be somewhat of a niggle on my part, but I wanted the idea of a dance musical not to be lost.
While on on the subject of niggles, I was sorry that the complex set of balconies and fire escapes looked so overwhelming on the Canberra Theatre stage (when will the national capital get a new theatre complex?). But despite any niggles, I could see this show over and over. It was wonderful to have it back on stage in Australia.
20 September 2019. A ‘secret vault’, Dairy Road Precinct, Canberra
Dairy Road Precinct, on the edge of Canberra’s industrial suburb of Fyshwick, may be the least likely venue imaginable for a dance performance. A largely uninviting area, it is filled with buildings in hard-edged contemporary architectural style; there is little adequate signposting; and the precinct is difficult to navigate and to find the building one wants, even in daylight let alone at night. It is home to various organisations and start-up companies and seems to be filled with warehouses and vehicle yards. But a large warehouse, once used as a storage bunker by the Australian Mint, was the somewhat surprising venue for From the Vault, the latest production staged by Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party.
From the Vault looked at personal values that the Party thought were significant in our current society. The ideals that topped the list during research for the work were Safety, Freedom, Wealth, Individuality, Truth and Connection. Each of these ideas was examined in a distinct section with one particular dancer leading each part. While the values being put forward were not instantly recognisable (I later read the program notes), From the Vault was clearly about people’s emotions, thoughts and personal ideals. It was a work with which we, the audience, could immediately identify and it really didn’t matter if one’s thoughts strayed from what was written in the program (especially if it wasn’t read prior to the performance). I saw the Wealth section, for example, as being about greed and even gambling, and of course related it instantly to the original function of the performance space, especially when coins rained from above and were exchanged and tossed between the dancers. But, with its emphasis on people and their values, however one perceived what those values were, From the Vault was by far the best work I have seen from the Australian Dance Party.
Of course to be the best work I had seen from Plevey and her Party, From the Vault also needed to be expertly staged and well danced, costumed and lit. The five dancers, Stephen Gow, Olivia Fyfe, Eliza Sanders, Alana Stenning and Ryan Stone, all performed with the power and commitment we have come to expect of them.
Stone was the standout performer. He led the section that represented Individuality (although to me it seemed more like gentle dominance). The section began with a kind of Mozartian flourish as dancers performed a dance built around a very eighteenth-century reverence. But then, accompanied by Alex Voorhoeve on his magical electric cello, and with a sound design from Andy McMillan, Stone began some of the most beautiful (and I should add individualistic) dancing I have seen for a long time. His limbs seemed to have no restrictions at all, such was the fluidity and freedom with which he moved. His speed and elevation were a joy to watch, and I loved the way he covered the space with his larger movements. I was also impressed with the way in which his body, and every part of his body, filled the immediate space around him. Nothing was a mindless gesture and he seemed totally absorbed in his execution of the choreography. He was a dancer possessed.
Mark Dyson’s lighting design added much to the atmosphere with a strong use of colour, down lighting and contrasts of light and darkness. There was mystery there, and the large space available in the ‘secret vault’ allowed dancers to appear and disappear throughout the performance. Costumes by Imogen Keen, with a mix of fabric from denim to patchwork splendour, were distinctive, attractive and quite chic.
Alison Plevey directed From the Vault and did not perform herself, as she usually does. With Karla Conway as dramaturg, focused direction from Plevey, and an exceptional creative input from the whole team, this work had power and coherence and was an immersive experience for the audience. Four and a half stars.
28 August 2019. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
With its production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet once again displayed its constantly growing position as one of Australia’s leading dance companies. This Romeo and Juliet, for which the premiere dates back over 50 years to 1965, was first performed by Queensland Ballet in 2014 when the cast included several international guest artists. In 2019 the cast was home grown. The night really belonged, however, to Mia Heathcote as Juliet and Patricio Revé as Romeo. Both were promoted onstage at the conclusion of the performance.
The Heathcote/Revé partnership was an engaging one throughout. They shone in the several pas de deux on which the MacMillan production centres, and both provided us with believable interpretations of the characters they represented. Mia Heathcote’s confidence onstage and her ability to maintain her characterisation (and technique) throughout what is a long ballet with many changes of location, not to mention changes of emotional mood, was admirable. Revé clearly has many talents, although I suspect he probably needs a little more time before he has the stage presence that will match his technique.
I loved the group scenes in this production, all of which were imbued with great energy and so much interaction between all those on stage. Particularly impressive was the Capulet Ball, led magnificently by Steven Heathcote, guesting on this occasion from the Australian Ballet. There was just a touch of pride in the way he held his chest and turned his head that told us he was in charge. He maintained that dominance, a calm but obvious dominance, throughout, whether he was dismissing Tybalt’s attempts to remove Romeo from the ballroom, or demanding later that Juliet marry Paris. The ball scene was also distinguished by MacMillan’s beautiful choreographic approach in which the guests all danced with a slight tilt to the body. So appropriate to the era in which the ballet takes place.
The several fight scenes, staged by Gary Harris, were dramatic and spirited and, in the earliest of those scenes, the whole stage was abuzz with fiery action. The death of Mercutio at the hands of Tybalt was equally as dramatic with Kohei Iwamoto performing strongly throughout as Mercutio.
I was entranced too by a dancer (unnamed) playing the part of a disabled old man in the market place. Mostly he was high up on a kind of balcony that surrounded the market square but he was so involved with what was happening below that it was often hard to take one’s eyes away from him to watch the main action.
What confused me slightly (and probably only because I had not so long ago seen London’s Royal Ballet perform the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet) were the designs used by Queensland Ballet. I was, I have to admit, expecting the Georgiadis designs, which I admired greatly) but it turned out that Queensland Ballet has what Li Cunxin calls the ‘touring’ designs, which were rented from a company in Uruguay and are by Paul Andrews. For me they couldn’t match those of Georgiadis, although I admired Juliet’s bedroom with its red/orange drapes and its religious icon/prayer point in one corner. The costumes for the musicians who accompany the wedding procession in the market place were also impressive. They spun out beautifully during turning movements.
All in all though, another wonderful show from Queensland Ballet.
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.
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
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.