Navarasa. Mudra Dance Company

2 – 4 July 2021, Little Theatre, Lower Hutt
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

For over 30 years Shri Vivek Kinra has been teaching Bharata Natyam in Wellington, at Mudra Dance Academy. There have been hundreds of pupils over the decades, many reaching advanced level and performing the arangetram, two-hour solo recital, that marks their professional debut. Others have arrived more recently in New Zealand and are of Indian, Sri Lankan or Fijian origin. One is of Anglo-Irish descent, proving anyone could be in if prepared to do the work.

Kinra draws on this pool of talent to form Mudra Dance Company, presenting traditional and new works in seasons that have become a shining beacon in the city’s annual dance program. The technique and expression from each performer is always delivered with the assured musicality that is built in to Bharata Natyam from young pupils’ first class (5 year olds have been known to weep at the door of the Academy since pupils are not accepted until the age of six).

Kinra choreographs and directs these seasons but announced his own retirement from performing in 2015. Fortunately for us he continues to perform mimed cameos of each choreography, by way of narrated introduction to the themes and moods to expect. These little jewels are like dances you can hold in your hand, and are alone worth the time and ticket price. His own training was at Kalakshetra, in Chennai, where he still maintains strong connections, and works with colleagues, Gayatri Lakshmanan chief among them, and the musicians who play the compositions recorded on Kinra’s annual visits to India.

Of the eight items on the program, six are choreographed by Kinra. The main one, Navarasa, which translates as Nine Emotions, lends its name to the whole program. 

It is a stunning depiction of the gamut of valour, love, wonder, amusement, disgust, anger, fear, compassion and benevolence as experienced by the Mother Goddess Meenakshi in various encounters with gods, demons, humans and animals both tame and wild. In Tamil sung poetry, it is, as I was expecting, a miniature masterpiece.

(l-r) Emotions of anger, wonder and valour. Mudra Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Gerry Keating

In its mimed prologue, there was a sudden dying of the light. Kinra continued in the dark but knew it would be better if we could see him. A voice cried out for the gods to send light, which will have shaken awake the lighting technician to do as bid, and all was well. Was this part of the choreography all along? A nod to the Covid year that has darkened so many dance stages around the world? Could have been, should have been. You just have to turn the light back on and carry on as before. Vaccines and danced prayers will see us through.

Another item, this time in Sanskrit, is the Shlokas from Shri Krishna Karnamritam. The intoxicating beauty of this god is depicted through musk paste on his forehead, a jewel on his chest, a pearl at the tip of his nose, bracelets, sandalwood paste and a pearl necklace. But wait, there’s more. A herd of cows, a flock of peacocks, dark clouds and strikes of lightning. The piece ends in a dance about dancing—high sophistication this. The Ras Leela is a renowned depiction of ecstasy, usually performed with sticks that percussively mark the beat and interweaving positions of the dancers. Here subtle handclaps were substituted for sticks and it was poignant to hear a swelling response that had a number of the audience gently joining in that handclapping.  

I first saw a Ras Leela danced by a large group from the Indian community at the first Pacific Arts Festival in Suva in 1972 (when Kinra was a babe in arms). Performed by 100 dancers out of doors, it was staged by the artists based at the Indian Cultural Centre in Fiji, five musicians and dancers resident in a full-time program for two years at a time, funded by ICCR from India. A short while later Professor Jenny McLeod brought those artists to Victoria University for a memorable intensive workshop at the School of Music. Political events in Fiji followed, the Centre was closed, and the next time I visited Suva it was a sorry sight to see the once vibrant place now empty and derelict with doors and windows creaking on their hinges and banging open in the wind. Life goes on but it’s hard to claim that all of history is progress. 

There is a long and interesting history of Indian dance in New Zealand—beginning with Sivaram’s and Louise Lightfoot’s visit in 1950s, Liong Xi in 1960s, Amala Devi in 1970, the Balachandrans, Chandrabhanu, Kanan Deobhakta, two astonishing visits by Kathakali dance theatre, and there are others. Fortunately for audiences who wish to deepen their appreciation of the art, there is a vast literature on the subject. Two leading scholars of the field, Dr Kapila Vatsyayan and Dr Sunhil Kothari, have died recently, but were both aware of Kinra’s work here in New Zealand, in the world map of dance.

There was an exuberant cadence to the performance in the final Thillana, choreographed by the late Rukmini Devi, founder of Kalakshetra. (She too once visited New Zealand, as guest of the Theosophical Society). Mudra’s line-up of radiantly costumed and bejewelled dancers was a joy to the capacity audience. It is not to demote any of their previous memorable seasons to mark Navarasa as their strongest choreography yet.

Jennifer Shennan, 03 July 2021

Featured image: Senior dancers of the Mudra Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Gerry Keating

Balanchine and Robbins. The Royal Ballet Live, 2021


A recent streamed production by the Royal Ballet paid homage to George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, two American choreographers whose work over the course of the twentieth century was undeniably momentous. The stream began with George Balanchine’s Apollo, Balanchine’s first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky, which had its premiere in 1928.

This production of Apollo opened with the birth of the god Apollo, a section of the work not often presented, although it has been part of the structure of the work from its beginnings. Apollo’s mother, Leto, danced on this occasion by Annette Buvoli, is seen in labour and when we get our first glimpse of Apollo he is standing centre stage wrapped tightly in swaddling clothes. Two hand maidens begin to unwind the swaddling cloth until Apollo takes over and swirls out of the cloth. He is given a lute and the handmaidens help him pluck the strings, which at this stage of his life are unfamiliar to him. It has been a while since I saw this ‘birth and growth’ section and it is fascinating to see these stages in the life of Apollo condensed into a minute or so.

From these opening moments the ballet takes the form that is more familiar. Encounters begin between Apollo and the three muses, Polyhymnia (Mime), Calliope (Poetry) and Terpsichore (Music and Dance) who dance for and with Apollo until he eventually ascends Mt Olympus, called home by his father Zeus.

Fumi Kaneko (Polyhymnia), Claire Calvert (Calliope), Melissa Hamilton (Terpsichore) and Matthew Ball in Apollo. The Royal Ballet, 2021. Photo: © Rachel Hollings

This Royal Ballet performance, however, was perhaps not the best Apollo I have seen. Somehow it lacked excitement especially from Matthew Ball as Apollo. I have always thought of Apollo as a somewhat flamboyant and influential character and Ball seemed to me to be rather too retiring (perhaps nervous?), despite his excellent technical accomplishments. For me, the most engaging performance came from Fumi Kaneko as Polyhymnia. She entered fully and easily into the dramatic nature of the character, and her role in the unfolding story was easy to follow.

But Balanchine’s choreography for Apollo is always a joy to watch with its beautiful groupings and poses and its use of rounded and enfolding arms that prefigure the fluidity of Balanchine’s later choreography for his corps de ballet in various of his works. Other sections, including those movements from the Muses where they turn on pointe but with bent knees, always make me think of how challenging Apollo must have been for audiences (and dancers?) in 1928.

The absolute highlight for me on this program, however, was the second item, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux, danced by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov. It was ballet at its finest in terms of crowd appeal and Nuñez and Muntagirov have the strength of technique to make those show-stopping movements look easy. It was also totally transfixing to watch the joy they exhibited as they moved, and the way they engaged with each other throughout (even in the curtain calls). They were just brilliant.

The program ended with Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a gathering. I watched the Royal Ballet’s production of this work in October 2020 and reviewed it then so won’t review again other than to mention the beautiful performance by Fumi Kaneko as the Green Girl. Kaneko, who was promoted to Royal Ballet principal last month, danced with such joy and such apparent ease that it was impossible not to be moved and thrilled, as I have been every time I have seen her dance.

Michelle Potter, 03 July 2021

Featured image (shown below in full): Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez in Tchaikovsky pas de deux. The Royal Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Rachel Hollings

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre

11 June 2021, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

SandSong. Stories from the Great Sandy Desert begins with some black and white footage that is instantly confrontational. Moving sharply from one event to another, and accompanied by an exceptionally loud sound score, it shows some of the atrocities endured by the Indigenous inhabitants of the Kimberley region over an extended period of time. In fact, the work as a whole focuses on the Kimberley area of Western Australia. Program notes tell us that SandSong is ‘a journey into ancient story systems framed against the backdrop of ever-changing government policy and of the survival of people determined to hold strong to their Culture.’

The opening footage sets the scene for what unfolds over the course of the performance and a timeline in the printed program expands on what the footage illustrates.

But SandSong had quite a different feel from most of the recent Bangarra productions I have seen. There were strong anthropological references in the early sections. In Act I, the Cold Dry Season, gender divisions in traditional society were made clear in a range of ways. We saw women’s business and activities in the form of specific dances, such as a bush onion dance showing the gathering and preparation of this food. We also watched preparations for a totem ceremony in which the men only were involved. As such the choreography was gender specific with the women performing quite simplistic movements at times, as opposed to the men for whom the choreography had more variety, more energy. Often the choreography for the men seemed to border on anger or to look inflammatory, while that for the women seem reserved and calm.

This gender division continued in Act 2, the Hot Dry Season, but changed somewhat as the story continued through the four sections. Particularly dramatic was Act 3 when the community entered a phase of working outside their traditional culture. The opening section, ‘Auction’ was especially powerful. Were the Kimberley people really being auctioned off for jobs on cattle stations and the like? A feeling of devastation crossed the footlights. Act 4 saw a kind of resolution, however, as healing and resilience began to emerge and by the end, as Rika Hamaguchi made her way around the stage, the anger and humiliation subsided as the dancers expressed their ties to kin and community.

Rika Hamaguchi in the final scene from SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Of the dancers, Beau Dean Riley Smith stood out throughout the show, as he has done for the past several years. While he did not play a specific character as he did, for example, in Macq and Bennelong, his ‘maleness’ in the early sections was brilliant. It was clear in every movement and every part of his body, including neck and head as well as limbs. I also admired the work of Baden Hitchcock with his fluid and very expressive movement, and of Rika Hamaguchi who had a beautiful serenity at times. But Bangarra is full of new faces. We have much to anticipate I think.

Baden Hitchcock in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Once again Jennifer Irwin’s costumes were simply outstanding, especially in the feathery detail that seemed an essential part of many items, but also in the contemporary feel that her costumes developed towards the end.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Jacob Nash’s backcloth was quite simple and shimmered under the lighting of Nick Schlieper. Steve Francis concocted the score from a range of sources including voice and words along with recordings from previous Bangarra shows.

I came away from SandSong with mixed reactions. It is perhaps a show that needs more than a single viewing for the complexities, not so much of the story, but of the choreographic expression of those stories to become clearer.

Michelle Potter, 14 June 2021

Featured image: Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet (2021)

4 June 2021. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

I last saw Greg Horsman’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet) back in 2015. Then I made a flying, unanticipated trip to Brisbane because I needed to see a different version from the one created by David McAllister for the Australian Ballet. I disliked the McAllister production, which was not about Aurora to my eyes, and in which everything was overpowered by the design elements. I came away from that initial Brisbane experience much more satisfied that Aurora had a role in the ballet, and that the collaborative elements worked with each other to create a whole without one element dominating all.

Having all that out of my system, this time I was able to concentrate on other aspects of the production. Horsman has reimagined certain parts of the storyline and, while this is now a relatively commonplace procedure, it has to be done really well and with a sound reason for changing things. The main issue for me was making Carabosse too much like the other fairies. She wore the same style tutu as the others (except it was black and had transparent sleeves). But sometimes she danced together with the other fairies and somehow, despite representing the spirit of evil, she seemed to recede into the background as a major player in the narrative. The role was performed quite nicely, technically speaking, by Georgia Swan but I wanted a Carabosse who stood apart, strongly, from the others. It just didn’t happen.

Carabosse (centre) and the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The leading roles of Aurora and the Prince were danced by Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez. Yoshida danced pretty much faultlessly but didn’t seem to be as involved in her role as I have seen from her on previous occasions. On the other hand, Estévez was not only a strong performer in a technical sense (his entrance at the beginning of the second act—the Prince’s hunting party—was spectacular and drew applause), but he had the carriage and demeanour of a prince at every moment.

Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato were the Bluebirds for this performance. While Green and Iwamoto performed beautifully in terms of technique—and all those beats, including the series of brisés volés, need strong techniques—I was disappointed (and I often am). The story behind the Bluebird section is that he is teaching her how to fly and that she is listening to him. This backstory rarely comes across and it didn’t on this opening night. It was a shame about Iwamato’s costume, too. It had a very high neckline that practically removed his neck from sight.

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato as the Bluebirds in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The highlight of the evening for me was the Prince’s hunting party scene. Estévez I have mentioned. His friends, danced by David Power and Joel Woellner, and Gallifron the Prince’s tutor, a role taken by Vito Bernasconi, brought light and shade, some amusement, and good dancing and acting to the scene.

Choreographically Horsman has kept much of what we think of as the original movements, especially in the various pas de deux and solos. But where he has made choreographic changes there is little excitement. Much is predictable. Lots of arabesques. Lots of retiré relevé type movements.

So, all in all I found the production and the performance somewhat disappointing. In fact I began to wonder about remakes of well-known classics. While there will always be changes of one sort or another to any ballet, it takes an exceptional choreographer to do a remake. Those who succeed usually bring a completely new work to the stage. Liam Scarlett did it with his Midsummer Night’s Dream. Graeme Murphy has done it on several occasions. I thought Horsman did it (almost) with his Bayadère, despite the fact that there were certain issues associated in some minds with current thoughts re political correctness.

But this Sleeping Beauty was not a remake, just the same story with a few elements added, a few removed, and some changes to the way the story unfolded. It made me long for someone to do something completely new, or to revive an old fashioned production! Seeing it in 2015 was just a relief after the McAllister production. In 2021 perhaps my reservations were a result of having watched the Royal Ballet’s recent streaming of its hugely engaging presentation of the Ninette de Valois Beauty of 1946?

Michelle Potter, 7 June 2021

Featured image: Serena Green, Laura Tosar, Chiara Gonzalez and Mia Heathcote as the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Te Mauri o Pōhutu. Kia Mau Festival

Fridays through June, 2021. Toi Poneke Arts Centre Gallery, Wellington
…from Jennifer Shennan

At Toi Poneke Gallery last Friday evening, we watched Te Mauri o Pōhutu (The Life-Force of Pōhutu) , a lyrical duo performed by Bianca Hyslop and Paige Shand, with vocals by Tūī Matira Ranapiri Ransfield, with Rowan Pierce as sound and spatial designer. The event, with an extended karanga of welcome and challenge, opened the month-long Kia Mau Festival in Wellington.

This is a dance of flow and surge and curve and turn and return, of arc and arch and sweep and pull and tilt—not a straight limb nor an angled joint in sight, no pointed hook for a dancer’s foot, no self-conscious strut or mannered striving of torso and limbs, just two beautifully-tuned bodies, dressed in the sacred red of blood and of mana, moving with grace and nature, dancing a twenty-minute lullaby and homage to an old woman’s life, to family, to village, to history and to the present, to gravity, to the air around and above, with their bare feet on the same ground we all stand on. The dance is an embrace, a mapping, a marking. Bianca has said elsewhere … ‘I’m not interested in making works of protest, rather to create living works of beauty that serve as reminders…’ and in her program note here …’Te Mauri o Pōhutu is a sensual offering that addresses the fragility of memory, connection to whenua and reclamation of culture from within foreign frameworks.’  Amen and Kia Mau to that.

After a koru of curving swirling hands, growing into arms then swelling into torso spirals, we are reminded of the kowhaiwhai shapes of painted ceiling panels in nga whare whakairo, meetings houses, and of the tossing flights of poi in Maori dance. An intriguing section follows with the two dancers picking up marker pens to draw the outline of a village on an adjacent boardfirst the landline, then the road, the houses, a church, a bridge, a river – a story without words.

Movement in the following section suggests stronger claim to emotions of closeness, strife, then a mood of acceptance as the two dancers move behind a screen to make shadows of their thoughts. It’s a poignant image of mind and body taking their leave of each other…followed by video of Te Pōhutu in close-up. The potency of the geyser’s force is clear, but the dance has found a space to co-exist in its shadow. We all know how unpredictable geysers and volcanoes can be, witness the horrors of the Whakaari Island recent eruption, with devastating injuries and loss of life. At the entrance to the gallery, we have passed a plinth on which sits a tiny ‘sculpture’, a cone of sand, a miniature mountain. A reminder. 

Toi Pōneke, Rotorua’s famous cone geyser, Pōhutu, has been mecca for decades of tourists watching and wondering at its power. For centuries before that it has been a central landmark in Ohinemutu village for Te Arawa people, whose home is Rotorua and surrounding areas. We all as children watched Pōhutu, and marvelled at its mighty forces escaping from under the ground, wondering if it would blow all the way up to the sky and take us with it. The geyser blows on average every twenty minutes—the same duration of this dance which has borrowed its name. The geyser will have blown several times as I have been writing this appreciation, and probably at least once while you have been reading it.

All photos: © Roc Torio

Jennifer Shennan, 6 June 2021

New York City Ballet 2021 Spring Gala. On film

New York City Ballet’s most recent offering in its series ‘From our home to yours’ was a film directed by Sofia Coppola based on a concept by Coppola and Justin Peck. It consisted of excerpts from two works by George Balanchine, Duo Concertant and Liebeslieder Walzer; an excerpt from Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering; a new work, Solo, choreographed by Peck; and the finale from Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15. What stood out for me in this beautifully danced production, however, was the structure of the film.

The first four excerpts were filmed in black and white, which at first seemed somewhat strange. Why dispense with colour when presenting an art form where costuming, and the colours used throughout, often matter? Only the final section, the Balanchine Divertimento, was filmed in colour.

Then there were the locations to consider. The first excerpt, that from Dances at a Gathering, was performed by Gonzalo Garcia and took place in a studio space. The second, a duet from Duo Concertant performed by Ashley Bouder and Russell Janzen, was set in a backstage area in the David H. Koch Theater, home of New York City Ballet. The third, a pas de deux from Liebeslieder Walzer danced by Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour, was danced in a public space, the theatre’s Grand Promenade where audiences often gather and socialise prior to performances. The fourth, the world premiere of Peck’s Solo performed by Antony Huxley, took place onstage. Finally, colour arrived and a performance of the finale from Divertimento No. 15 took place onstage with dancers in costume. It was performed as a full production (or part thereof since it was the finale only).

In effect, the film’s structure took us from studio to stage, via the various locations in which a performance is developed and takes place. It was a slow and considered progression and represented the solitude, the lack of social interaction, and the problems of various kinds affecting dancers as they slowly worked, throughout the many months of the coronavirus pandemic, towards an eventual return to full performance.

The development was heightened by the black and white footage for the earlier sequences, with the lack of a certain vibrancy that colour brings, which finally gave way to the colour that we know is a feature of a full production. Moreover, the selection of works also was a progression. The solo from Dances at a Gathering is the opening section of that ballet when it is performed in full, while the work that ended the film was the final section of the full Divertimento No. 15.

In many respects, too, there was a degree of introspection or reflection in the earlier works, which stood in opposition to the joyous movement that characterised Divertimento No. 15. Moving from beginning to end in so many ways, it was a beautifully realised and brilliant concept from Coppola and Peck.

Of course there was some spectacular dancing. I admired in particular the performance by Gonzalo Garcia in the Robbins work. His ability to show the classicism as well as references to character steps, which are a highlight of Robbins’ choreography in this case, was exciting to watch. And Maria Kowroski has always been a dancer I have loved to watch and the engagement between her and la Cour was tender, filled with emotion and very moving.

But what a film!

Michelle Potter, 28 May 2021

Featured image: A coloured image of Maria Kowrowski and Ask la Cour in Liebeslieder Waltzen.

REBEL. Then. Now. When? Quantum Leap Ensemble

20 May 2021. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

The latest offering from the Quantum Leap Ensemble, an intrinsic part of the structure of Canberra’s QL2 Dance, has the title REBEL (short version). For a while I thought of this as a noun—who has not been a rebel at some stage in one’s life? But, as the work unfolded, it was clear that the title was more properly seen as a verb—it is the action that is at the heart of the work, although of course those who carry out the action are nevertheless the rebels.

As the full title suggests, REBEL was in three parts. It began with Then, a look back at the rebellious period of the 1960s and its moving into the 70s. Hippydom was before our eyes in the outrageous fashion, the hugely expressive dance moves, and the pleasure of being oneself.

This section, choreographed by Ruth Osborne and Steve Gow, had the audience clapping and cheering the dancers along, and no doubt dancing along themselves—in spirit.

But there was more to the Hippy era than this freedom to love, dance, and dress as one pleased. Vietnam was a focus of demonstrations, the feminist movement was strong, and it was a period of rebellion in many areas. This aspect was made clear by background footage, often archival and drawn from the era, assembled and projected by Wild Bear Digital.

What followed was mostly angry and confrontational. The second section, Now, was subtitled ‘Problem child’ and was choreographed by Jack Ziesing. It began with a spoken tirade from one of the performers, Toby McKnight, speaking with full-on anger at what was seen as the unacceptable social conditions of the present time.

Ziesing’s choreography worked to explain those conditions. It began with highly organised and geometrically structured movement and groupings but slowly broke into more dramatic scenes that sometimes looked like street dancing and other times as an effort to break free from conventions, or to be included as part of a wider community.

Mark Dyson’s lighting added particular strength to this section, which at times was lit red and, as a result, added a sense of anger to the action. The commissioned score from Adam Ventoura also added to the theme of anger. It was relentless, loud and percussive and brilliantly suited to the action, and vice versa.

As this section concluded, the angry young man reappeared and finished off his tirade of anger. Now slowly morphed into When?, choreographed by Jodie Farrugia. The dancers continued their anger but I missed the point of the women balancing books on their head. It reminded me of the June Dally Watkins 1950s manner of teaching young people good posture and deportment. Was it meant to suggest perhaps that books and greater knowledge hold the key to overcoming problematic issues?

But the continuing anger towards perceived unacceptable conditions was very clear towards the end as protest placards were held up and the performers crowded the stage and glared accusingly out at the audience. Somehow, however, this demanding ending left me cold. Is the future really so hopeless? And the brief return to the joy of life after the curtain calls did little to appease.

For me the opening section was the most successful of the three. It was clearly structured, true to the period, and engaging as well thought provoking. But what struck me about this show in particular (although it probably is a feature of every QL2 show), was the commitment, intensity and strength of contemporary technique these young dancers show as they perform. I loved too the strong production values (again an ongoing feature of QL2 productions).

But surely the world is not all gloom and doom?

Michelle Potter, 22 May 2021

All photos © Lorna Sim. And what a fabulous collaboration there is between Sim and QL2!

Featured image: Final scene from ‘When?’ in REBEL. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Rainbow Serpent. Canberra International Music Festival 2021

9 May 2021, James O. Fairfax Theatre, National Gallery of Australia

Rainbow Serpent was the overarching title given to the penultimate program of the 2021 Canberra International Music Festival. It featured four distinctive works of music and dance. Two focused on the myth of the Rainbow Serpent as understood, on the one hand, by the Murrawarri people whose land straddles the border between New South Wales and Queensland, and, on the other, the people of the Melville and Bathurst Islands north of Darwin.

The most significant of the dance offerings was Mundaguddah, a solo choreographed and danced by Tammi Gissell, a proud Murrawarri woman, to a 1982 score by Brian Howard. Howard’s composition was dedicated to dancer/choreographer/artistic director Barry Moreland and in 1982 was given a performance choreographed by Moreland and danced by prominent ballet dancer Kelvin Coe.* For this 2021 production, the composition was played onstage by Ensemble Offspring, a chamber ensemble of violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trombone and percussion.

Gissell’s appearance as the Rainbow Serpent was sudden and unexpected. She was dressed in white tights and top with a short skirt, which was partially covered by a black coat. From a downstage corner, she slid and writhed onto the narrow stage space of the James O. Fairfax Theatre and, performing in an even narrower space than usual given that the musicians occupied a significant area, her lithe and liquid body twisted and contorted itself to the other side of the stage. Occasionally she would rise up and with shimmering hands draw attention to her upper body.

Tammi Gissell in Rainbow Serpent, 2021. Photo Peter Hislop
Tammi Gissell in Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

Reaching the other corner, she picked up props representing branches and, wrapping herself in a long piece of cloth lit with various colours, she began what was the most exciting section of the dance. She seemed no longer to be representing the snake but, from a standing position, to be showing us a human reaction to the myth. Removing the black coat (shedding skin?), she stretched her body in all directions and eventually picked up a long stick, which she swirled and wrapped around her before balancing it across her shoulders as the dance concluded.

Removing the black coat/shedding skin in Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

Gissell has always provided a fascinating view of the subject of her works. Program notes tell us that the word Mundaguddah refers to the spirit of the Rainbow Serpent and Gissell showed us various aspects of that spirit from its serpent-like characteristics to the ways in which that spirit engages the community that honours it.

Tammi Gissell in Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

The production and performance of Tammi Gissell’s Rainbow Serpent was commissioned and supported by Ausdance ACT and the Canberra International Music Festival.

The other work with a dance component was Ngarukuruwala, a selection of action songs featuring the group Tiwi Strong Women, accompanied by a male performer who played clapsticks and also sang and danced. It was a quite different approach from what we saw from Gissell. Ngarukuruwala was basically a rendition of traditional songs associated with the Rainbow Serpent myth. Accompanied by simple stamping movements and lifted arms, it was also quite different in terms of movement. It was much enjoyed by the audience and by the performers themselves, who seemed delighted to be presenting their heritage in Canberra.

Three Tiwi Strong Women in Ngarukuruwala, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

Publicity for Ngarukuruwala suggested that during this performance we would see screened footage from the National Film and Sound Archive of Tiwi ancestors performing traditional songs and dances. Well this didn’t happen, at least not at the performance I attended. We did see screened, however, some art representing the Rainbow Serpent, in particular a painting by Maggie Timapaetua. Shame about the lack of archival footage, but Ngarukuruwala finished with a healing song in response to the pandemic that has touched us all.

Two other items comprised the full program: Three Songs from Joe Geia and the ANU Jazz Collective (including an interesting version of Advance Australia Fair), and Rain falls and after for two guitars by Christopher Sainsbury, played engagingly by Andrew Blanch and Vladimir Gorbach.

Michelle Potter 10 May 2021

*This seems to be what happened although I was interested to find an article by James Murdoch in Theatre Australia for May 1982 in which he stated that the work was to be performed by Kelvin Coe and dancers of Sydney Dance Company. Moreland was choreographing for Sydney Dance Company at the time and Coe was dancing with the company. But the reference to other dancers may well have been an unrealised intention. That the work was dedicated to Moreland can be found on the Australian Music Centre site.

Featured image: Tammi Gissell in a Mundaguddah, 2021. Photo: © Peter Hislop

The Point. Liz Lea Dance Company

29 April 2021, Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra

My review of The Point was published by Limelight on 30 April 2021. As it is now only available with a subscription, I am posting the full review below minus the images used but followed by a small gallery of images that show some of the costumes and lighting, as well as the projections of Griffin designs, which I have mentioned briefly in the review. Should you have a subscription to Limelight, here is the link to follow.

Liz Lea’s new work The Point begins with a solo from Jareen Wee, an independent contemporary dancer trained in New Zealand and currently working in Australia. The solo is fast paced and, along with its dramatic spotlighting, exciting to watch. Its choreography insists that the body twist itself into a myriad shapes and stretch out into the space that surrounds it. Yet there is something about the occasional turned up feet and the gestures, especially the shapes made by the fingers, that suggests a style that is not entirely within the usual Western contemporary dance mode. And this solo sets the scene for what follows.

Seven of the 12 dancers who make up the cast are essentially exponents of various styles of classical Indian dance, while the other five are Western trained. The title of the work,The Point, refers to the concept of Bindu, the point of creation in Hindu mythology. In essence the work explores connections between Indian dance styles and Western contemporary dance, along with connections between people and place.

Wee’s opening solo is followed by a dance for 11 of the 12 dancers. They are dressed in black costumes of varying design, with subtle use of both plain and decorative fabric. The costume concept is by Lea in consultation with designer Cate Clelland. The dancers’ movements continue the double references seen in the opening solo and what follows over the next 60 minutes, sometimes clearly, sometimes elusively, is a creative blending of movement across dance forms. Towards the end, a separation of styles becomes clearer as the exponents of Indian styles dress in traditional costume and engage more closely with the dance styles in which they were trained. But in the final moments the dancers join together crossing the stage as one but, nevertheless, as two forces connecting together.

At times there is an obvious sense of focus between the dancers, thus setting up the notion of connection that Lea aimed to create. They look into each other’s eyes, they engage in movement that demands physical connection, including complex lifts and the use of grounded, twisting choreography. But connection comes in other ways as well. Lea’s inspiration for The Point clearly came from her own diverse training in both Western contemporary dance and in Bharata Natyam, which she studied in India. Now Canberra-based, Lea was also inspired by the work of architects and artists Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin, whose own lives had connections both to Canberra and to India. At various points throughout the work, projections are displayed on the back wall of the new black box theatre space at Belco Arts Centre. They are designs by the Griffins and are beautifully presented and animated by projection designer James Josephides.

The connection to Marion Mahony Griffin was, to my mind, also referenced by the 12th dancer, Ira Patkar, an exponent of the Kathak style of Indian dance. Patkar danced beautifully but remained somewhat apart from the others throughout the work. She appeared essentially as a solo dancer, although, at the end, joined the final moments of connection. But rarely was she required to make contact with the others. She seemed to represent the lack of recognition that has characterised the role and work of Marion Mahony Griffin for so long.

Part of the strength of The Point came not only from the choreography and the concept of connection, but also from a truly remarkable lighting design from Karen Norris. As we entered the black box space a single spotlight shone from above onto the darkened performing space: it clearly represented the title, The Point. Throughout the work Norris lit the space from various positions. Sometimes many spots highlighted the dancing, at others a few judiciously placed spots placed the dancers in semi-darkness. At times the lighting was brightly coloured and at one stage a row of floor level lights positioned close to the back wall shone towards the audience so we saw the dancers from a whole different perspective. We were connected at those moments.

The Point was danced to a collage of music from both Western and Indian composers: Liberty Kerr, dj BC, Taikoz, Malhar Jam, and Harish Sivaramakrishna. It was an audacious soundscape that, like every part of the production, referenced connection and creativity.

Liz Lea has never shied away from using dance to make strong statements. The Point is an extraordinarily courageous work that suggests that no dance style is beyond being looked at creatively.

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!

Michelle Potter, 3 May 2021

All images © Andrew Sikorski

New York Dialects. The Australian Ballet

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.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in the opening scene of Serenade, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

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.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in a scene from Watermark, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

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?

Michelle Potter, 20 April 2021

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in a moment from The Four Temperaments, 2021. Photo: © Daniel Boud

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