My review of The Point was published by Limelight on 30 April. See this link. Below is a small gallery of extra images that show more of the costumes and lighting, as well as the projections of Griffin designs, which I have mentioned briefly in the review.
As I mentioned in my review, I was especially taken by the lighting used to illuminate the action from a different perspective, which you can see in the image immediately above. Without wishing to detract from Karen Norris’ lighting for The Pointe, which was spectacular, with this particular change of perspective I was reminded of a similar use of lighting in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara. As we watch the final sections of the Murphy production we feel as though we are onstage with Clara as she dances her final performance. Similarly in The Point, with this lighting change we, the audience, became part of the performance.
The Point continues to resonate in the minds (and voices) of those who saw it. There have been calls for it to travel!
17 April 2021 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
The first thing to say about this first Sydney program for 2021 from the Australian Ballet is that the dancers look fabulous. They are in terrific form in a technical sense and seem absolutely to relish being back onstage after a grim 2020. Watching them perform was a real thrill.
The program was certainly an interesting one and at the end it became clear what the ‘dialect’ of the title was (or was not) all about. The language of each of the three works, Serenade and The Four Temperaments, both by George Balanchine, and Watermark by Pam Tanowitz, was very much about the vocabulary of ballet (contemporary and otherwise) and the way that vocabulary can be arranged onstage. I’m not sure, however, that this is specifically a New York dialect, except that the two choreographers are or were New Yorkers. If we think of dialect as being a form of language specific to a particular region, it seems to me that what we saw was a choreographic dialect from people who happen to be New Yorkers. I guess I didn’t much like the title of the program. But I did like the dancing and in some cases the choreography.
Serenade has always been a beautiful way to start a program. Although Balanchine liked to say his ballets didn’t usually have a story behind them, I love those moments when there is a backstory there. In Serenade there is the girl who arrives late, for example, and also the mystery ending when two dancers embrace and one is then lifted high and carried into the distance. What has happened? What will happen? Then there’s the opening scene. It always generates a frisson of delight, even though it is expected.
Throughout the work, Balanchine’s masterful groupings and use of the stage space, and his particular take on the classical vocabulary, are clearly on view. A work to watch over and over.
Second on the program was a new work from Pam Tanowitz, Watermark. I have to ignore that title because it seemed meaningless in relation to the work. Tanowitz’s vocabulary was quirky in parts, with its beats done with feet as if in first position, its jerky arm and hand gestures and its frequent use of drooping bodies. Tanowitz counts former Cunningham dancer Viola Farber as one of her mentors and where the vocabulary was not so eccentric it reminded me a lot of the Cunningham style with its off centre movements and its jetés that never tried to look as though they were like splits in the air.
I also wondered why a line of dancers, midway through the piece, needed to come onstage from the auditorium? And I couldn’t enjoy the ending when the stage space was virtually empty and all the dancers were lined up along the wings. It just seemed like trying too hard to be different. This is the second work by Tanowitz that I have seen and I can’t say I have really enjoyed either of them.
The Four Temperaments was beautifully danced. Some of Balanchine’s vocabulary in this work might also be called quirky but its flow and role in the overall piece was arresting rather than seeming out of place. There is a coherence there.
The Sydney Opera House was making an exceptional effort with its COVID plan, even though the venue was pretty much at 100% capacity. But one aspect of it all was exceptionally annoying. Cast sheets were not available so it was not always possible to identify the performers with accuracy (and so I have not mentioned any names in this review). There was the option to scan a cast list onto one’s phone but how would that list look on a screen the size of a phone, apart from the fact that there is nothing more annoying than audience members looking at their phones during a performance. At least there could have been a cast sheet affixed to a board somewhere in the foyer. Next time I guess I need to print off a cast list from the Australian Ballet’s website and trust that it will be accurate on the day? Perhaps we could have been warned in advance? Or did I miss something along the line?
16 April 2021. Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta
GRIMM is the first work from the newly established Sydney Choreographic Centre and a world premiere from its director, Francesco Ventriglia. It takes an unusual look at some of the characters from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), examining the emotions of these fairytale characters and the passage they make from youth to maturity. We meet, for example, Snow White, the Frog Prince, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. We watch as they are pressured by a black clad figure, an evil character encompassing stepmother, witch and any other malevolent figure from a Grimm story. By the end every one of them had been transformed. Even the black clad Evil One (my name for this character) took on a new guise and appeared finally as a figure enveloped by golden clothes and shining lights.
Ventriglia’s choreography was fast-paced and filled with astonishing lifts with arms and legs constantly being thrown in all directions. It was quite angular most of the time. I waited for some moments of stillness, and the occasional feeling of roundness and softening of the limbs, but the angularity continued throughout. The duet between Snow White and her partner came closest to having a sense of calm and smoothness, but only occasionally. All the performers were, however, outstanding dancers and I especially admired the strength and emotional power of Ariella Casu, both as the Evil One and in the final moments when her black costume was stripped away to reveal a different side (perhaps?) of her character.
Although I wished for more diversity in the choreography, at least in its immediate impact, I was stunned by the absolutely brilliant, very contemporary visual effects throughout. The lighting by Alex Berlage left a lot of the stage quite dark for much of the time but the strong side and down lights were exceptional in the way they highlighted the various characters. The projections by Marco Giani were quite minimal in most cases—just narrow rectangles of light filled with largely abstract designs, although they clearly represented forces of nature. But they too added to an understanding of who the characters were and never detracted from the movement. Costumes by James Acheson, especially for the main characters, were impressive and again a strong sense of the contemporary in design was clear.
On the night I attended the performance the audience reaction was astonishing—cheering, stamping on the floor and the like. It took me back to the days when audiences seemed to go wild with excitement at the ballet (as far back as Borovansky even). Let’s see what happens with the next show from this bold new venture.
8 & 9 April 2021. Bruce Mason Theatre, Takapuna, Auckland Auckland Arts Festival reviewed by Jennifer Shennan
This long-awaited premiere season of a new contemporary ballet company, BalletCollective Aotearoa, was nothing short of a triumph. Come the curtain-call, many in the sizeable audience were on their feet to salute the choreographers and composers, the dancers, musicians and designers, the courage and commitment—the whole fresh resilient New Zealand-ness of it all. Many are in the team but artistic director and producer, Turid Revfeim, is responsible, and deserves acclaim.
Revfeim has led her stalwart little troupe of dancers in and out, around and back through the Covid-induced challenges and shadows of these past many months. They must have walked close to the edge more than once, as funding began then disappeared (the Minister of Arts might ask questions about that), lockdowns descended (‘Just do the right thing and stay home’), schedules postponed (‘Well, let’s just re-schedule then’), flights and accommodation booked then cancelled (‘OK, let’s just re-book then’), ‘Let’s just abandon the project since there’s no budget and it’s so hard to keep going?’ (‘Never, never, never. We will dance’). ‘Intrepid’ and ‘indomitable’ are the adjectives they have earned.
There were shades of 1953 and the pioneering endeavours of Edmund Hillary, or perhaps I mean Poul Gnatt, as the performance got under way. The intensely passionate and utterly stunning musicians of New Zealand Trio were right there, just off-centre, upstage left, for the whole performance. By that staging, the three separate choreographies on the program merged as a trefoil of faith, a shamrock of hope, a clover of charity. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. J. S. Bach walked 400 miles to hear a concert. I only had to sit on a plane for one hour.
There is an impressive interview with Turid Revfeim on RNZ Nine to Noon, 9 April, (the podcast on RNZ website is well worth listening to), which sets the background and context of this courageous ballet initiative. If you think this is a rave review of the performance and of the entire enterprise, you are right.
The opening work—Last Time We Spoke—by Sarah Knox, to composition by Rhian Sheehan, was an abstract yet poetic treatment of themes of how to be alone together. The cast of six dancers in fluid pairings across several sections of the work found connection in the lyrical music to make friends with consolation and memory. Tabitha Dombroski and William Fitzgerald were striking among the cast of six dancers.
Helix, the second work by Cameron Macmillan, one of New Zealand’s ex-pat choreographers whose work we all want to see more of, borrowed its title from the music, Helix, composed by John Psathas, leading New Zealand composer. It was preceded by an excerpt from Island Songs, a different composition by Psathas, a staggeringly virtuosic challenge to musicians who rose to every thrilling, throbbing quaver of its melodic percussion.
In Helix, the drama continued as Macmillan traced a journey, not exactly narrative but with suggestions of story nonetheless—a woman, a man, and shades of relationships between them. Some woman. This was the phenomenal Abigail Boyle who is quite simply the leading ballet dancer in the country, no contest. Just standing still she is dancing, such is her sense of line and presence, but when she moves, o my. Her investment in the role as she journeyed round the corners of the stage carrying her chair, and through the centre of the stage as she contained emotion in her every movement, was a deeply anchored yet airborne performance. Boyle is a national treasure of dance in New Zealand and we are overjoyed to see her performing still at the peak of her powers. William Fitzgerald partnered her with a strong and sensitive quality that reminded us of his dancing which has also been much missed here of late. Tabitha Dombrowski and Medhi Angot were powerful among the committed cast of eight performers.
The third work, Subtle Dances, choreographed by Loughlan Prior, composed by Claire Cowan, takes its title from the music, which in turn becomes the title for the triple-bill as well. Prior and Cowan are a pairing of major talents. The work explores and explodes with themes of gender blurring—swirls of hot tango as the boys and girls and boys come out to play. It is saucy, spicy, dark and compelling. Complex courtships, allusion alternating with illusion, remind us of nature’s best dancers. It invites searing performances from all the cast, and confirms this BalletCollective Aotearea as a troupe of striking dance talent, in fabulous collaboration with the phenomenal musicians of the New Zealand Trio.
As soon as the box office opens for their next season we will be in the queue, however many hundred miles of travel that might mean. Here is a link to the RNZ podcast featuring Turid Revfeim.
When thinking about Tero Saarinen’s Third Practice, it helps to know (which I didn’t before reading up prior to watching) where the title comes from. Third Practice is performed to madrigals by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, played and sung by members of Helsinki’s Baroque Orchestra. Monteverdi’s musical style was referred to by his contemporaries as ‘second practice’ to distinguish his unprecedented compositional practice from that of his predecessors, who engaged in what was known as ‘first practice’. Monteverdi’s work sat at the point of transition between the Renaissance and the Baroque periods.
Saarinen set himself the task of examining, researching, and putting on stage a changing approach to creativity, a ‘third practice’ in dance and music and the collaborative arts, in order to add a new look and to give, to my mind anyway, an interesting new perspective on performance. He says, ‘ I’ve tried to preserve opportunities for “virtuoso freedom”. The third practice that we are talking about could mean a space for performers where their own skill and virtuoso flair facilitate risk-taking: discovering something new and unforeseen in your expressive idiom.’
Third Practice is a multi-camera, filmed version, with projection design by Thomas Freundlich, of a stage production that premiered in Cremona in 2019. With music direction and arrangement by Aapo Häkkinen, it is performed by six dancers and six musicians with two soloists, a tenor (appearing live) and a virtual soprano. The collaborative elements are crucial from the very beginning. The lighting, by Eero Auvinen, cannot be ignored. It has been compared to the use of light and dark in the paintings of Baroque artists, especially Caravaggio. The use of side lights and down lights, and contrasting strongly lit, shadowy and misty spaces delivers a diverse, constantly engaging, often tantalising environment in which the work unfolds.
The costumes, designed by Erika Turunen, cross boundaries between the past and the present. The costume for the tenor soloist (Topi Lehtipuu) is masterful, although sometimes hard to see in media images. Its full sleeves and decorative finishing at the end of the sleeve recall Baroque-style shirts, but the materials are minimal and very contemporary in look. Similarly, the musicians wear Baroque-looking head gear, very appealing, but the rest of their costume again is mostly minimal.
Then there is the way in which the performing space is used. The virtual soprano, Núria Rial, appears in many parts of the space. We see her upstage and downstage; sometimes as a tiny figure in the background; hidden behind a floating piece of silk; reflected on the back of a dancer; and in other unexpected ways, including projected onto a silk hanging in the curtain calls. It is arresting staging and highlights the use of contemporary techniques to fill the space. The silks, while perhaps not an unusual item in contemporary dance and opera stagings, are nevertheless used in an exceptionally varied way. Sometimes they fall around the musicians lined up across the upstage area, or they engulf the dancers. At other times they are part of the choreography, occupying a space not usually filled with movement.
In terms of Tero Saarinen’s choreography, I was often transfixed by the expressive qualities of the movement. In the opening madrigal, the movement seemed jerky and somewhat puppet-like. I was reminded of figures from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Sometimes the movement seemed filled with a kind of extreme attention to detail both in the body movements and in facial expression. I was reminded of Baroque excess—the highly decorative aspects of Baroque church architecture and interiors, or Caravaggio’s fruit spilling out of the picture frame of his portraits. At other times, especially in a beautiful duet towards the end of the work, there was no excess, just calm, smoothly structured movement. Sadly, I am not familiar with the words of the madrigals and so was not able to determine whether the choreography was reflecting the meaning of the words, but it was a joy having the opportunity to create my own ideas anyway.
The standout performer in all of this was the tenor, Topi Lehtipuu. He sang live throughout whether he was standing, lying, crawling, kneeling or performing as one of the dancers. There was a moment when he was lying on the floor with dancers piled on top of him. He was still singing, this time in a duet with himself with the second voice a prerecorded one. Again it was an example of using technology to expand possibilities, but that Lehtipuu could sing so beautifully in such a compromised situation, compromised as far as his body was concerned, was astonishing.
Third Practice is an extraordinary work examining the endless possibilities of cross art form collaboration and the potential of dance to stand at the forefront of new explorations in the arts. It also made me reconsider the nature and potency of dance on film. Once again Tero Saarinen and his dancers and associates have given me an experience like no other. I love dance that expands the boundaries of my thinking. Third Practice does that and more.
This was an evening of triumph on several levels. Transfigured Night is the first of six concerts in Chamber Music New Zealand’s nationally touring programme for 2021. Audiences in ten cities will have the chance to witness a performance of light and colour, wit and freedom, deep beauty and poignant poetry, of music and dance making love. We don’t often get to watch that, and we won’t forget it.
The New Zealand String Quartet have earlier worked with choreographer Loughlan Prior in various projects, and their mutual trust and shared excitement is apparent in every quaver and quiver. That is what will have given lift-off to this project.
The Ides of March was the day Team Emirates New Zealand won two spectacular races in the America’s Cup series, in boats that fly above the water and turn slow pirouettes in high attitude—even those who know nothing about yachting can see that. The Fowler Centre is not a proscenium theatre space and it’s a challenge to stage dance there (it’s where in 1988 Nureyev performed, which proved a mistake). Here though a great triangular sail, white silk with patterns of colour, designed by dancer William Fitzgerald, is back lit and suspended high above the stage—an inspiration to preface the performance and shape the space.
The opening work was the premiere of a composition, I Danced, Unseen, by Tabea Squire. Laura Saxon Jones enters first, to silence—a curious creature, a lithe and hungry fox perhaps, who sniffs out and inspects the music stands and scores, what is all this about? what are these music scores? can you eat them? Hilarious. The whimsy and teasing continue as the musicians enter, wearing similar costumes as the three dancers, all of them echoing the patterns on the sailcloth overhead. There are naughty interferences from the dancers to the players and their instruments, but these musos are staunch, could play blind, and it would take a lot more than choreographed mosquitoes to throw them. It’s a darling and fun-filled opener.
The Dvorak String Sextet in A major, op.48, was superbly played, and the dancers continued in similar vein to find places in the music where they could actively, passively, openly or surreptitiously involve themselves. The three dancers had a million moves, yet the choreographic vocabulary and style were refreshingly free from clichés of ballet so often seen displayed elsewhere ‘just because we can’. They danced as individuals with personality and spirit, and the freedom that conveyed to the audience seemed liberating. Hardened chamber music followers with little prior exposure to dance may possibly have found it distracting from the music they have long known and loved well, but not those around me who giggled and applauded and loved it, as indeed did I. It was a commedia dell’arte romp, full of cheer and light, with inspired little fragments of Hungarian folk dance, dumka and czardas, caught in the many nimble rhythm and tempo changes. Two of those repeated movement motifs carried me back decades to pas and port de bras of the little Russian dance in RAD’s Grade 5 ballet syllabus I have loved ever since 1957, happy and grateful for the reminder.
But peel back now for the major work of the second half, Transfigured Night, early Schoenberg. It proved a choreographic masterwork, and will position Loughlan Prior firmly on the international choreographic scene. It’s a safe bet that there will be future seasons of this work, both here and, when it becomes possible, abroad as well. There wouldn’t be another choreographed work anywhere that so centrally positions the intercourse between music and dance. In that sense it harks back to the masques of 17th century Europe, with costumed musicians traversing the stage, playing from memory, mingling with dancers and actors. At the same time Prior is in full control of a contemporary ballet vocabulary that moves like a fresh nor-easterly wind across our harbour. This skipper knows the local conditions.
The skilful absorption of two massive silk cloths, one red and one white, mirrored the theme of human physical interactions, a couple, a trio, a new couple, moving through their dreams and hopes and fears, their longing and love and loss. It moved the audience, aficionados or not, to responses—‘stunning … sublime … superb … breathtaking. When can we see it again?’ The central role played by Laura Saxon Jones was calm yet nuanced, poetic and powerful. It is good to see her dancing here again after several years absence.
The choreographer and the three dancers are all graduates of New Zealand School of Dance, credit to all concerned, and are now members of Ballet Collective Aotearoa. This new and courageous initiative, directed by Turid Revfeim, is a free-lance ensemble, to date only minimally funded [how courageous is that?], yet poised to offer the country a new and fresh approach to streamlined, clean, clear ballet for our time. The premiere season of BCA, in the Auckland Arts Festival [postponed a fortnight ago due to Covid lockdown] will now instead take place on 8 and 9 April, then in Dunedin Arts Festival on 16 April. We are holding our breath and we won’t be disappointed. The calibre of choreography, dance and music is already assured, with Poul Gnatt’s pioneering spirit in spades. Split Enz have a song—History never repeats. I wager they are wrong.
Hamish Robb’s superb program notes on music and dance interactions will help keep alive the memory
Composition: Tabea Squire, Antonin Dvorak, Arnold Schoenberg Musicians: New Zealand String Quartet and colleagues Choreography: Loughlan Prior Dancers: Laura Saxon Jones, William Fitzgerald, Tabitha Dombrowski of Ballet Collective Aotearoa Presenters: Chamber Music New Zealand
10 March 2021, Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra
Symbiosis was Australian Dance Party’s contribution to Canberra’s Enlighten Festival for 2021. Made in true ADP style as a site-specific work, it took place in various parts of the Australian National Botanic Gardens. It was in fact a guided tour through the Gardens with snippets of dance, music and poetry, and even instruction about various plants, inserted at various points. Again in true ADP style, the work had political overtones, on this occasion issues associated with the environment. True to its title, it explored both conflict and interference, as well as fusion between species (including the human species) in the world in which we live, the natural world that is.
We set off with a guide (Liz Lea dressed as a kind of outback botanist) and began our journey with a walk through the lush rainforest area. There we encountered, at first individually, members of the Canberra-based group Somebody’s Aunt. As we made our way through the gully, we could hear them breathing and see them gently moving as we passed by. Eventually we reached a higher point and could look down at them as they came together to embrace each other, and perhaps the environment (?).
Further along the rainforest gully we were asked to pause and looked up to see Ryan Stone moving across a ridge of trees and plants to sounds of a human voice created by Stone and poet Melinda Smith. And so we continued with the botanist-figure naming various plant species and explaining various matters about other species and their place in nature. We encountered Levi Szabo engaging acrobatically with a tree and its spreading branches, and with the benches that were on the ground close to it. At various points we also noticed Alison Plevey as a kind of lizard/dragon lurking in the bushes and on the paths.
The standout item for me was a section featuring Olivia Fyfe performing to a soundscape by Alex Voorhoeve on electric cello. Fyfe dramatised thoughts about the fate of a tree, with those thoughts ranging from the idea of protection to horror at what was the eventual fate of the tree. Voorhoeve made those changing thoughts audible in stunning fashion. It was an extraordinarily moving section, made especially so by the collaborative blend of movement and music.
The most obviously political section came towards the end when Alison Plevey played the part of some kind of leader attempting to convince her audience (of plants) that ‘the bigger picture’ was being considered, while the ‘green’ organisation she represented moved along (or didn’t) with its environmental plans (or lack thereof).
In addition to the moving performance from Voorhoeve and Fyfe as they contemplated the destruction of a tree, an exceptional performance came from the Gardener, danced and acted by Elizabeth Dalman. So immersed was she in her character and so beautifully disguised in her costume, especially that soft-brimmed hat, that it took me a while to realise that it was in fact Dalman. She appeared and re-appeared several times as a kind of ‘extra’ until the very end when she led the concluding dance. She began by setting up the shape of a star, made from bark pieces, on the ground at the final venue. Accompanied by the words of Melinda Smith, which were often difficult to make out in the very open space of the Gardens, one by one the performers we had watched came together. Maintaining her distance from the others, Dalman soothed and comforted, calmed and regenerated. She showed her true colours as an extraordinary artist throughout.
Symbiosis lasted for 90 minutes, which was, at least for me, about 30 minutes too long given the small amount of performance we saw. Did we really need all that botanical information? A little was fine but announcing all those Latin names of various plant species was pretty much unnecessary. We can go on a special Botanic Gardens tour if we need to get to know that kind of information.
Symbiosis was in essence an after-dark show, although I ended up seeing it in the early evening, which gave me lots of pleasure. Looking at published images taken during evening shows, I am glad I had the opportunity to see it in an ‘enlightened’ situation where the performance skills of the artists involved were clearer. The pleasures of carrying lanterns during the late evening shows, as I believe was the case, and the fairy lights that decorated the pathways, may have been fun but I prefer to have a clear view of how the artists are performing.
Perhaps the final note is to say that the event was constantly permeated by the sound of the wind in the trees and the birds calling each other. Even a hungry magpie hopped across the grass looking for scraps for its dinner as Fyfe and Voorhoeve were at work. From the point of view of the ambient sound, and the slow change of light as dusk began to fall, the show was very special.
5 March 2021. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
The opening night of Queensland Ballet’s 60th Anniversary Gala began with film footage examining, briefly, aspects of the contributions made to the company by the five artistic directors who have led the company to date: Charles Lisner, founding director (1959-1974); Harry Haythorne (1975-1978); Harold Collins (1978-1997); François Klaus (1998-2012); and current director Li Cunxin (2013-present).
The brief film was followed by a grand défilé choreographed by Paul Boyd and featuring dancers of Queensland Ballet and its associated school, Queensland Ballet Academy. Boyd’s choreography showcased the dancers skilfully and beautifully and the défilé began with a truly charming introduction. While carrying out small, on the spot promenade movements, two pairs of very young dancers, one pair positioned at each side of the downstage area, introduced the first of the older dancers. Each of those four young people showed remarkable stage presence and suggested that Queensland Ballet Academy has its focus not just on technique but on how to maximise one’s presence onstage.
The following program was a varied one and to my eyes, while all seven works had a reason for being part of the celebration, some stood out a little more than others.
Charles Lisner’s charming Chopin pas de deux, which opened the main section of the Gala, was well performed by Yanela Piñera and Joe Chapman. Piñera danced with her usual style and panache and the two dancers were able to connect with each other beautifully. Chapman carried off the quite difficult lifts with strength and aplomb. It was great to see him back in Australia after his stint dancing in Canada, although there were times when his ‘in between’ movements were less smooth than I would have wished. One step needs to lead to another without it being noticeably ‘in between’, and this didn’t always happen with Chapman.
Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez gave a dramatic rendition of François Klaus’ Cloudland pas de deux. Heathcote continues to impress as a dramatic dancer. Jacqui Carroll’s Tavern Scene from her 1982 work Carmina Burana was also filled with drama and passion. The three solos, danced by Vito Bernasconi, Liam Geck, and Rian Thompson, were spectacular in the power and passion that emanated from the dancing. My particular bouquet went to Bernasconi—he attacked the choreography like a man possessed.
The absolute standout item was the Don Quixote pas de deux danced brilliantly by Neneka Yoshida and Camilo Ramos. These two dancers are so suited to each other in height and in their similar, outstanding technical abilities. Yoshida’s technique was faultless and, in particular, her balances throughout and her fouettés in the coda were astonishing. Similarly Ramos stunned with his turns and his elevation and jumps. But there was something else happening. I have never seen Kitri and Basilio engage with each other the way Yoshida and Ramos did. The way they looked at each other, Yoshida’s glances to Ramos in particular, seemed to indicate a burgeoning relationship, a knowingness. It was very exciting to watch.
Other items on the program were a pas de deux from Harold Collins’ Lady of the Camellias, the finale to Act II of Klaus’ The Little Mermaid, and the full-length (and it was SO long) Études by Harald Lander. With the exception of CarminaBurana, which not surprisingly was danced to recorded music, the dancers performed to music played by Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra, Camerata, with Nigel Gaynor conducting. I continue to admire the way Gaynor conducts for dance. The music is always a part of the whole, never seeking to dominate.
The strength of the program not only revolved around some great dancing in particular works, but also on the words of Li Cunxin in an opening speech from the stage and in the section of the opening footage in which he appeared. Li was himself a brilliant dancer (I can still see him in certain roles), but he is also an unsurpassed speaker. He is committed, he is persuasive, he is caring about the art form of dance, his thanks to those involved have an honesty to them, and he is determined to keep moving ahead. Li builds on what has gone before but in his hands Queensland Ballet has moved ahead in leaps and bounds.
Firestarter, documenting the origins and rise of Bangarra Dance Theatre, is filled with emotion—from joy to sadness and everything in between. But leaving the emotions to one side for the moment, I was utterly transfixed by two political moments that were part of the unfolding story. The first was footage of former Prime Minister Paul Keating giving his famous ‘Redfern Speech’ in 1992. In that speech Keating gave his assessment of Aboriginal history as it unfolded following the arrival in Australia of the British in the 18th century. ‘We committed the murders,’ he said. ‘We took the lands.’ ‘We brought the diseases.’ ‘We took the children.’ The second was by another former Prime Minister, John Howard, explaining in 1998 why, in his opinion, there was no need to issue an apology to the Indigenous population of Australia for wrongs committed to those people. Such disparate points of view. How sad is that and how can that be?
As mind-blowing as it was seeing those two political moments unfold, however, Firestarter was certainly more than politics. It traced the story of three brothers, Stephen, David and Russell Page from their childhood in Brisbane to their training at what became the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association, NAISDA; their roles in the establishment and ongoing development of Bangarra; and the frightening end to the lives of David and Russell. Along the way we met others involved in the complex story—Carole Johnson, founder of NAISDA and Bangarra; Frances Rings, currently associate artistic director of Bangarra; cultural consultants Djakapurra Munyarryun and Elma Kris; several current and past dancers of Bangarra; Wesley Enoch, artistic director across a range of theatrical organisations; Hetti Perkins, daughter of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins; Hunter Page Lochard, son of Stephen Page; Rhimi Page, son of Russell Page; and others. All had unique stories and points of view.
There was of course some great dancing from Bangarra performances over the 30+ years of its existence, and there was some gorgeous footage of a young David (as Little Davey Page) singing on early television shows such as Countdown and the Paul Hogan Show, along with scenes from his theatre shows. Then there was compelling footage from the Indigenous component of the opening ceremony for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. But perhaps most moving of all were scenes from Bennelong, Bangarra’s ground breaking work from 2017, which was described in the film as Stephen Page’s most successful work to date, and which he made as he worked at recovering from the death of his brother David in 2016.
Also associated with the death of David Page was footage from the presentation to Stephen of the prestigious J. C. Williamson Award at the Helpmann Awards event in 2016. The acceptance speech Stephen made (supported by his son Hunter standing beside him) so soon after the death of David was gut wrenching to watch and hear.
But on a more joyous note, perhaps my favourite part of the whole film was watching Stephen, the proud grandfather, holding his baby granddaughter, daughter of Hunter and his wife. Life continues. Life triumphs. Bangarra, such an exceptional company, moves forward.
This beautiful and challenging film was directed by Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin and produced by Ivan O’Mahoney.
17 February 2021. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay
A year ago Sydney Dance Company was just days away from its first program for 2020, which was to include a new work, Impermanence, by Rafael Bonachela as part of a mixed bill program. But the pandemic struck and the program was cancelled. Impermanence was being created to a score co-commissioned by Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet from Bryce Dessner, an American composer based in Paris. The work was initially inspired by the fire that almost destroyed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019, and by the Australian bush fires that began in late 2019. After the program was cancelled Bonachela and Dessner decided to continue their collaboration and develop the work into a full length one. This is the show that opened on 17 February 2021.
Publicity tells us that the work is about transience and fragility, but Dessner’s powerful, driving score, played onstage by the Australian String Quartet seated in an upstage corner, felt to me more like determination to overcome. Similarly, for the most part Bonachela’s choreography was fast-paced, dramatic and powerful and with Damien Cooper’s moody lighting design, with constantly changing colour effects strongly apparent, I found it hard to see the impermanence of it all.
But this is not to say that the work was not engaging. It was. I love watching Bonachela’s amazing ability to show us the unexpected in movement. I love those moments when he has the whole company onstage when we can see unison. Sometimes he has the entire company dancing as one, at other times two groups show us two separate, but still compelling instances of choreographic unison. And having live music played onstage is always something to look forward to, and something on which Bonachela seems to thrive.
As ever, all the dancers performed with their usual and incredible technical skills. But two stood out for me. I couldn’t stop looking at Emily Seymour whose strong balletic background was so clear. Her turns were spectacular and were, although in contemporary mode, perfectly placed and finished. Her truly beautiful rounded arms and smooth line through the body were just breathtaking. Then Jesse Scales looked as though they were so thrilled to be back on stage. Even when standing at the side of stage waiting for their next move their body glowed with pleasure. And Scales used every part of their body to give shape and meaning to the choreography.
The Roslyn Packer Theatre had its COVID plan in place for Impermanence. We checked in with our phones and QR code, there was no mingling in the foyer, we were distanced (slightly) from other audience members, and we were masked-up for the entire show. But what a thrill it was to be back in a live environment watching the kind of spectacular performance we have come to expect from Sydney Dance Company. Jesse Scales said it all with their exceptionally detailed movement and their obvious pleasure in performing for an audience again.