Hot to Trot. QL2 Dance (2023)

26 November 2023. QL2 Theatre, Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra

Hot to Trot, the annual program for young choreographers from QL2 Dance, is always varied in what is presented to us, the audience. The 2023 season began with a film documenting the relationship (now twenty years old) between QL2 Dance in Canberra and Thailand’s Bangkok Dance Academy. We were introduced to the varied activities that have been part of that relationship from both a Thai and an Australian point of view.

The film was followed by six short works from choreographers Jahna Lugnan (Hazy Misconceptions), Julia Villaflor (Coloration), Emily Smith (You did this), Calypso Efkarpidis (Polarised Light), Arshiya Abhishree and Maya Wille Bellchambers in a joint production (Parasitic Waves), and Charlie Thomson (Humanchine). None of the choreographers had had extensive choreographic experience and for five it was their first effort. All the choreographers, in an introductory short statement about the work each was presenting, stressed the collaborative nature of the process and expressed the pride and pleasure they felt working closely with the dancers.

What was most striking for me was the way in which each of the choreographers managed the small black box space of the QL2 Theatre. There was no misunderstanding of the size and layout of the space in which they were working, and the movement spread beautifully up and down, across and around the space available. In addition I was impressed with many of the groupings that we saw, which were often a surprise and sometimes intertwined and layered in a quite special way (even if some reminded me of well-known images from past, well-documented productions).

Scene from Coloration in Hot to Trot, 2023. Photo: © O&J Wikner Photography

The final piece, Charlie Thomson’s Humanchine, was certainly the most entertaining to watch. It dealt with technology and its effect on human beings. ‘At what point are our thoughts our own and how much of it is informed by the machine,’ Thomson wrote in the printed program. The five dancers were dressed as individuals and showed themselves as having individual thoughts through facial and bodily expression. But they often performed together—often in a line, sometimes looking slightly mechanical. There was a point where the machine and the individual merged (if ever so slightly).

Scene from Humanchine in Hot to Trot, 2023. Photo: © O&J Wikner Photography

I also especially enjoyed Calypso Efkarpidis’ Polarised Light. Made on just three dancers it sought to explore the notion that some colours are visible to some creatures but not others, as discussed in a David Attenborough documentary called Life in Colour. The choreography was simple but strong and beautifully performed.

Scene from Polarised Light in Hot to Trot, 2023. Photo: © O&J Wikner Photography

Hot to Trot is a great initiative and the courage of those who take up the role of choreographer in the shows is remarkable. But the idea of expressing concepts that are often quite abstract has always bothered me when watching Hot to Trot shows. Even when explained in words, both verbally and in printed form, the ideas are not always visible as strongly as is needed. l often think that emerging choreographers need to consider in greater depth how the body can make concepts visible. I’m sure they do think along those lines but It isn’t an easy task to turn thoughts into movement. The works that always stand out most strongly in Hot to Trot are those where ideas and movement speak as one.

Nevertheless, the 2023 Hot to Trot was a remarkable event. Every work was outstanding in terms of the stagecraft and dancing that emerged.

Michelle Potter, 27 November 2023

Featured image: A moment from Emily Smith’s You did this in Hot to Trot, 2023. Photo: © O&J Wikner Photography

Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet (2023)

10 November 2023. Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North, Manawatū
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This return season of Hansel & Gretel, from choreographer Loughlan Prior and composer Claire Cowan, is a colourful riot of a pantomime romp that the dancers milk to the max. There are some very skilled comic performers among the soloists who use every moment and centimetre of opportunity to entertain us.

I have come to Palmerston North for the performance in Regent on Broadway, a venue that always offers a sense of occasion. The 1400 seat grand theatre, converted and beautifully restored from the original cinema house built in 1930, is a source of local pride and rightly so. The opening to this production of Hansel & Gretel, designed by Kate Hawley, is cleverly styled as a silent movie, so it’s an echo to the days of Busby Berkeley, Whoopee! and Flying High! I don’t suppose there’s anyone in the audience tonight who saw those movies here first time round, but hey, who’s to say there isn’t?

The folktale as we’ve known it from the Brothers Grimm is not the narrative adopted for this choreography. Instead the opening has fashionable well-to-do folk and their snobbish children striding about, flaunting their wealth and casting scorn on the poor little Hansel and Gretel who have nothing much except a toy rabbit to cling to. Their wicked Stepmother is instead recast here as simply the poor wife of the poor husband whose mischievous children are always hungry, so leave home in search of food. The danger of a cruel Stepmother within the family is thus replaced by two worlds of ‘those who have’ and ’those who have not’ as the scenario.

A moment from the opening scene in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

(I sensed here a poignant hint of Katherine Mansfield’s story, The Doll’s House—where the magnanimous Burnell children allow the working-class kids, the Kelveys, a brief visit to see their prized possession. There’s extra resonance in that, since Prior’s recent choreography, Woman of Words, was made as a tribute to the illustrious KM in her centenary year, though has seen only one performance in an arts festival town in the distant south. Many would love to see that work presented on a national scale, and it would further convert to a film of considerable international interest. Now there’s a gauntlet to the recently welcome new Artistic Director of the Company).  

Luke Cooper as the Transformed Witch in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

There are fetching scenes of Bird-children, Dew fairies and a Sandman who guide the siblings’ journey, and the gingerbread house of Act Two opens up to fill the stage with the aromas of candy floss, toffee apples and soft-serve ice cream, though with danger lurking in the spokes of a punk-steam bicycle. The role of Hansel was danced with great spirit and comic timing by Shaun James Kelly, and Gretel was fetchingly played by Ella Chambers. Sarah Garbowski dances with a lovely lyricism so the role of gentle Mother suited her well. Ana Gallardo Lobaina, a stunning performer with a magnetic quality that claims your eye whenever she is on stage, was an outrageous Ice Cream Witch, but Luke Cooper as The Transformed Witch probably shares the prize for his high camp and wickedly funny performance, OTT but never out of time.

Ella Chambers as Gretel in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court.

I like trying to imagine the reinstatement of Hansel and Gretel’s cruel stepmother into a ballet, since that is a trope society still has to deal with, and would bring stronger drama to the somewhat lengthy divertissements in several scenes. But having said that I can also admit to being swept along by a madcap ballet that throws comic opportunities at numerous dancers who relish moving to Claire Cowan’s terrific and lively score. The redoubtable Hamish McKeich conducts three different orchestras for the seasons in the main centres, but it is a recording of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra that we hear in this performance. It is inspired music that truly motivates the dancers, but has also achieved recognition in its own right.      

There’s a new and happy energy in the excellent printed program, with essays from all the main contributors in the team that created this production.

Jennifer Shennan, 15 November 2023

Featured image: Ana Gallardo Lobaina as the Ice Cream Witch in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Dream and Marguerite and Armand. The Australian Ballet

15 November 2023 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

This double bill of works by Frederick Ashton was an entertaining two hours of ballet. I enjoyed in particular the opening work, Marguerite and Armand, for its episodic structure that gave a strong focus to specific moments of love between Marguerite and Armand, and later the moment of Marguerite’s death from tuberculosis. I enjoyed too the minimal set and its semi-circular nature (design Cecil Beaton) that went well with the general structure of the work.

Valerie Tereschenko danced nicely as Marguerite and made her characterisation reasonably clear. But Maxim Zenin as Armand didn’t offer quite enough of Armand’s emotional state to make his character stand out. So the partnership was not as powerful as it needs to be in this work.

Unfortunately (or fortunately for me), I clearly remember Sylvie Guillem dancing the female lead in Marguerite and Armand in Sydney and Melbourne way back in 2002 when the Royal Ballet, then under the direction of Ross Stretton, visited from London.* More recently (2018) I also saw Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli give a stunning performance with the Royal Ballet in London. So I had high expectations, which I’m sad to say weren’t met. I get the feeling that the Australia Ballet currently concentrates more on technical action at the expense of the need for a powerful dramatic essence.

As for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bendicte Bemet as Titania and Joseph Caley as Oberon danced well but again I felt they lacked strength of characterisation. Were they King and Queen? Did they rule over the Fairies? Were they really arguing over the Changeling? And so on.

Of the other characters, Bottom (Luke Marchant) dancing on pointe is always a highlight in the Ashton production and Marchant looked very comfortable as he hopped and skipped around on pointe. But again he needed stronger characterisation, especially after he had returned to his role as a Rustic and tried to remember what had happened while under the spell cast on him by Puck.

Unfortunately (again) in terms of how I saw the Ashton production and the Australian Ballet’s performance of it, I had just seen Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by Queensland Ballet. Scarlett’s take on the story has so much more to offer than does the Ashton production. And in performing it the dancers of Queensland Ballet demonstrated not only their truly exceptional technical and production values but also the manner in which they have been coached to inhabit a role. It was completely engaging rather than simply entertaining.

While I can say the Australian Ballet’s season of the two Ashton works was entertaining, it did leave me a little cold. I hope there might be more focus soon on dramatic and emotional input. Please!

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2023.

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Dream, 2023. Photo © Daniel Boud


*The Australian Ballet’s website mentions that Marguerite and Armand is having its premiere season in Australia. It might be the premiere for the Australian Ballet, but it’s not the premiere for Australia, the country.

Ballet Noir. Mary-Jane O’Reilly and Company

28 October, 2023. Q Theatre, Auckland
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Choreography: Mary-Jane O’Reilly
Script, design & production: Mary-Jane O’Reilly & Phil O’Reilly

From the program note: ‘Ballet Noir is a meditation on Giselle Act II as viewed though a Film Noir lens.’ We all know Giselle of course—or do we? I certainly found new resonance in this innovative and stylish treatment of the Giselle story, which incorporates both old and new elements—bringing the timeless themes of broken trust and hearts, forgiveness and love, up against the forces of vengeance and cynicism. It’s a contemporary reading less concerned with narrative, more with psychology of personalities, and should move both diehard balletomanes as well as first timers in the audience.

That achievement grows from Mary-Jane O’Reilly’s respectful treatment of ballet, while simultaneously being a force for contemporary dance. She trained at National School of Ballet, now New Zealand School of Dance—also in London—and danced with New Zealand Ballet when Poul Gnatt directed. MJ has choreographed the major work, Jean (about Jean Batten) for RNZB, as well as directing, dancing and choreographing for Limbs Dance Company from late 1970s until 1986, with her colleague, the late Sue Paterson.

It is apparent to anyone who thinks about it that ballet/contemporary dance/dance theatre are no longer useful or discrete categories, and certainly not opposites. Leading American dance writers—Selma Jeanne Cohen, Jack Anderson and Joan Acocella—have discussed these topics for years and their writings help us recognise the ways in which dance styles and techniques evolve and reflect the cultural and social contexts of their respective countries and companies. That’s a much richer complex than the binary of ballet/non-ballet. The really interesting professional dance companies in the world require equal strength and versatility in classical and contemporary techniques and interpretation, with dancers ready for whatever a choreographer might require. Ballet Noir straddles this perceived divide with great aplomb. It’s very clever to stage highly trained classical dancers in a contemporary psychological setting, which in turn for me resonates with how Antony Tudor choreographed his masterpieces.

There’s an 8-member troupe of The Cynics, (The Wilis to you), who stride and mince, twist and pose in high style of fashionable black, wearing soft ballet flats but on such high demi-pointe as to stab you with their stiletto heels a mile high. Their temps levé and penchée motifs are timed to the familiar music by Adam, but there are also interpolated soundscapes that take us to new places. Despite their strut, The Cynics are actually in the grip of the devastating Ice Queen, phenomenally played by Shona Wilson, long-time Auckland dance figure from the days of Limbs. We’ve never seen Myrthe dance quite like this before, and there are intriguing flashbacks for us to piece together her own backstory to explain this relentless revenge she holds against men. Shiver me timbers, she gave me the goosebumps.

Shona Wilson as the Ice Queen in Ballet Noir, 2023. Photo: © Dave Simpson

Giselle is a naive and lovely girl, the young bride who never quite makes it to the altar. Her vulnerable character grows in strength as she finds how to stand up to the Ice Queen, and there are poignant sequences in a beautifully shaped role. I saw two performances with a change of cast of soloists—Amy Moxham and Lucy Lynch each giving Giselle a convincing presence.

Two young men stray onto the scene—a couple of spivs, let’s call them Hilarion and Albrecht, out for a night on the town. (There’s no Act I in this story). Their dual routines are comic and clever—Jacob Reynolds and Oli Matheison in one cast, Kit Reilly and Thomas Harris in the other—giving as good as they get. Then acid rain starts to fall and they are sucked in to a circle of vengeance not of their own making, as though a nasty scene developed somewhere in the town sometime in the night, and it’s possible they won’t get to see the dawn, though any police will have quite a hard time piecing together what actually happened. We witnessed it though, so we could be interviewed.

Lucy Lynch (Giselle), Shona Wilson (Ice Queen) and Jacob Reynolds (Albrecht) in Ballet Noir, 2023. Photo: © Dave Simpson

Throughout the work there’s a backscreen of film sequences that range from slow and oily raindrops to a slow-motion tear running down a cheek, an exquisite crescent moon and a stormy sky, marauding packs of wild dogs and a silly little skit of a dog in a neck ruff doing tricks at a party, wee toddlers playing, grown men sparring. This all may sound like a distraction but in fact was fully absorbed into the danced work throughout.

The ‘Killer Queen’ in Ballet Noir, 2021. Photo: © Kezia Barnett

The design of costumes, with several quick changes in the shadows sidestage—long tulle skirts flashing around like evil cloth, then as capes of birdwings. The Ice Queen first wears a long pointed (clear perspex) beak facemask, like some Scandinavian mid-winter ritual dress-up, but in one gesture lifts that high onto her head to become a queen’s crown, or is that a unicorn horn. You tell me. I appreciated the way that a number of motifs through the work were open for personal reading, and all of them will be right readings.

This is an impeccable production that deserves to be widely seen, and would do well in a number of arts festivals. It’s emotionally nuanced, tight and spare, savvy and sexy. Albrecht and Giselle dance their lyrical lovemaking and I get the goosebumps yet again.

Jennifer Shennan, 5 November 2023

Featured image: The Cynics with Ariana Hond and Hosanna Ball centre front, in Ballet Noir, 2023. Photo: © Dave Simpson


A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Queensland Ballet (2023). A second look

28 October 2023 (matinee). Canberra Theatre

I was lucky enough to have the chance to see Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream a second time in Canberra. I especially wanted to see the cast that was not dancing on opening night. Mia Heathcote and Alexander Idaszak took on the roles of Titania and Oberon at the second performance I saw, although I hesitate to call them the ‘second cast’ as they were simply a different cast from the opening night.

Everything I previously wrote about the production itself stands for this second review—fabulous set and costumes, gorgeous lighting, great dancing by the Rustics and Fairies. And the rest. But there were some highlights for me from this cast and these highlights are the focal point for this second post.

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Mia Heathcote and Alexander Idaszak as Titania and Oberon.

I admired immensely not just the dancing by Mia Heathcote as Titania and Alexander Idaszak as Oberon, as exceptional as it was throughout, but also the connection that was set up between them. It ranged from the competitiveness they created in the early stages of the work as they argued about who ‘owned’ the changeling child, to love and attraction for each other in the final moments of the work as the issues were resolved. There were of course many other emotions in between the two mentioned but the connections, whatever emotion was in play, were strongly established and always very clear.

The final pas de deux between them was quite astonishing technically, especially in the performance of Scarlett’s surprising and beautiful lifts in which Titania’s body swirled constantly around Oberon’s. I was especially moved too by Idaszak’s lyrical use of every part of his body to enhance the choreography. He was just just magnificent.

Vito Bernasconi as Bottom

Vito Bernasconi was a fascinating Bottom. He made the change from Rustic to Bottom and back again very clear in a physical way and we were in no doubt about his confusion as he tried to understand what had happened to him when, under the spell cast on him by Puck, he engaged with Titania.

Neneka Yoshida and Rian Thompson as Hermia and Lysander

Neneka Yoshida and Rian Thompson made a charming couple as Hermia and Lysander. I was especially taken by Yoshida’s beautiful performing presence and her very easy style of moving and execution of Scarlett’s choreography. And she had a very attentive partner in Thompson. They were such a pleasure to watch.

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Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a work that engages the audience from beginning to end. As happened on opening night, at the Saturday matinee there was not just applause but laughter and cheering at every opportunity.

Unfortunately there are no photos from the Canberra production that I can add to this post. The ones sent to media from the Canberra Theatre Centre were from a production in Cairns where the cast was not quite the same!

Michelle Potter, 30 October 2023

Featured image: Four of the eight Rustics in Queensland Ballet’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: © David Kelly

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Queensland Ballet (2023)

25 October 2023. Canberra Theatre

Unmissable!

After all the drama surrounding the life of choreographer Liam Scarlett, leading to his death by suicide in April 2021, what a thrill it was to see a restaging of his exceptional work, A Midsummer Night’s Dream—a joint production between Queensland Ballet and Royal New Zealand Ballet. It was first seen in New Zealand in 2015 and then in Brisbane in 2016. How lucky we are that Li Cunxin has seen fit to have it staged again by Queensland Ballet.

Scarlett’s work, somewhat rearranged from the play of the same name by William Shakespeare, juxtaposes two worlds—that of a fairy realm led by Oberon and Titania as King and Queen, who are squabbling over a changeling child; and a mortal world inhabited by rustics and a group of ‘explorers’ (so to speak) who enter a forest clearing inhabited by the fairies. The love lives of the ‘explorers’ become a little muddled when Oberon’s apprentice, Puck, receives instructions from Oberon to help with his squabble with Titania.

The forest setting is spectacularly designed by Tracy Lord Grant with strings of lights, stylised flora, a bridge among the tree tops, exotic tent-style dwellings for the fairy folk, and then some down-to-earth tents for the explorers. She is also responsible for the remarkable and beautifully coloured costumes. The work is lit with style by Kendall Smith.

Scarlett’s choreography is quite individualistic. It is beautifully musical with individual steps that are sometimes so small and fast that it is almost ‘blink and you miss them’. Then he invents lifts that are unlike anything we have seen before; he combines turns and jumps in unusual ways; he creates group movements that seem just perfect for the moment; and his choreography always matches the nature of the characters in the work. On this last mentioned issue, the group choreography for the rustics is a perfect example—it is, well, just rustically unsophisticated!

Victor Estévez as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

The dancers of Queensland Ballet danced brilliantly, as we have come to expect these days. Victor Estévez was a rather solemn Oberon but I loved seeing him lurking in the background (often on the treetop bridge) keeping an eye on what Puck was doing. Lucy Green handled the role of Titania with ease and the pas de deux between her and Estévez at the end of the work, when their differences had been resolved, was full of love and even a bit of sexiness. The four ‘explorers’, Mia Heathcote as Hermia, Alexander Idaszak as Lysander, Georgia Swan as Helena and Vito Bernasconi as Demetrius, engaged our attention throughout, while Rian Thompson as Bottom was memorable especially after the spell linking him and Titania had been broken and he struggled (choreographically) to understand what had happened.

While it is a hard task to single out individual performers in a show where the standard of performance is so high, Kohei Iwamato as Puck needs a special mention. Apart from the fact that he danced with spectacular leaps, great turns and detailed choreographic focus, the facial and physical expression that he used to give depth to his character was remarkable. I also found Georgia Swan truly engaging as the slightly crazy Helena. There was a lovely moment, after she and Demetrius had come together, when Demetrius took out a pair of glasses to show Helena that he too wore glasses.

This was my second look at Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream after seeing it in Brisbane in 2016. As often happens with dance productions, the second viewing brought out things that I hadn’t noticed to such an extent the first time. Apart from the comic angle which hadn’t seemed so obvious before, I was entranced by the way every single character had an individuality, even when dancing as a group. The fairies and the rustics brought this out really well.

A truly unmissable show and I look forward to another viewing.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues at the Canberra Theatre until Saturday 28 October. If you miss it in Canberra, it is part of Queensland Ballet’s 2024 season and plays at Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Playhouse from 12–27 April. See this link for more information about that 2024 season. It will also be restaged by Royal New Zealand Ballet 24 October–14 December beginning in Wellington. See this link.
Update: Here is a link to my second viewing in Canberra.

Michelle Potter, 26 October 2023

Postscript: At the post performance event following the opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Canberra both Alex Budd, director of the Canberra Theatre Centre, and Li Cunxin mentioned in their speeches the move currently underway to build a new and enlarged theatre space for the Canberra Theatre Centre. Both spoke of the size of the current main stage and the difficulties associated with staging some performances on it. The size of the Canberra stage has been an issue for some time now and a new stage is a terrific development. But I have to say that Li Cunxin managed to fit Midsummer onto the current stage just brilliantly even though he admitted there had to be some adjustments. He said when asked that he never says ‘No I can’t do it.’ He always finds a way. Well that’s Li. He succeeds where others can’t be bothered trying.

Li also seized the opportunity to speak about another important issue—government funding for Queensland Ballet, which he says is minimal compared to funding for other major dance companies in Australia. This is a situation that needs to be changed. Under Li Cunxin and Mary Li the company has grown in size; has become more adventurous than ever; has built new and hugely responsive audiences; has brought major sponsors on board, has built a new home for Queensland Ballet (including a theatre), and now the company has a standard of performance that is hard to beat anywhere. That it has been unable to garner funding that recognises its place as a world class company is outrageous. We need to lobby those who are in a position to bring about change.

Featured image: Queensland Ballet in a moment from Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2023. Photo: © Nathan Kelly

Chi Udaka. Lingalayam and TaikOz

19 October 2023. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Chi Udaka was an outstanding collaborative venture between Lingalayam, a company directed by Australian-Indian dancer Anandavalli, and TaikOz, an Australian music group co-founded by Ian Cleworth and Riley Lee and currently directed by Cleworth. The show focused on Anandavalli’s interest in the two Indian classical dance styles of Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, and the intrinsic interest of TaikOz on drumming but with that interest extending to other instruments, especially the shakuhachi and, on this occasion, to the sounds of the cello of John Napier. Chi Udaka is not a new production but this 2023 presentation was part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Sydney Opera House. And the show itself was beautifully celebratory in its inspiring combination of music and dance.

‘Chi’ means earth in Japanese and ‘Udaka’ means water in Sanskrit so the production juxtaposed these two ideas with the story taking place within one day from early morning to late evening, although the focus was not really on a strong narrative structure but rather, at least for me, on artistic collaboration. Nevertheless, it began with a kind of meditation in the early light of morning, with a rare and welcome appearance by Anandavalli who introduced a rhythmic element with chanting and the playing of small hand held instruments, and who eventually rang a bell to announce the beginning of the day. It concluded with Anandavalli closing the show with a gathering together of the cast in a kind of closing communion, accompanied by singing from vocalist Aruna Parthiban.

Between these opening and closing moments the dancing and music were exceptional. The dancers, stunningly dressed in saris designed by Anandavalli, moved with close attention to the detailed movements of bodies, hands and feet of the classical Indian styles, and with extraordinary lyricism between individual movements. A highlight was a duet between one dancer and Riley Lee on the shakuhachi, but every combination of dancer and musician, and there were many different combinations, was transforming to watch and hear.

And can drummers dance? They certainly can. They were completely involved both in the very physical way they engaged with their instruments, and in their awareness that they were part of an overall production. They were just brilliant. But then so was Riley Lee with his shakuhachi and other flute-like instruments, as was John Napier with his cello.

A scene from Chi Udaka. Photo from the TaikOz website. Photographer not identified.

The overall ambience of the work was quite evocative of time and place, changing as the work progressed with a particularly strong contribution from lighting designer Karen Norris. It was in all a show that brought huge pleasure and a renewed interest in what dance and music can achieve together.

The complete work (from a 2016 production) is available on Vimeo at this link.

Michelle Potter, 23 October 2023

Featured Image: Promotional image for Chi Udaka from the Sydney Opera House website. Photographer not identified.

Platinum. Royal New Zealand Ballet

13 October 2023. St. James Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Platinum is a dense, malleable, ductile, highly unreactive, precious, silverish-white transition metal. It has remarkable resistance to corrosion, even at high temperatures, and is therefore considered a noble metal. It is the traditional gift used to mark the 70 year anniversary of a relationship.

That makes Platinum a well-chosen title for this single performance in the Company’s home theatre of St. James, Wellington. The 70 year legacy of this intrepid little troupe of dancers reaches back to the legendary Poul Gnatt, and equally heroic Russell Kerr and Jon Trimmer, among many others. That mantle now falls on younger shoulders to maintain the morale, health and welfare of the dancers, as of us all, for the next 70 years.  

The program comprised four group works, six pas de deux and two solos, each of which will have been somebody’s favourite.

The opening work, Te Ao Mārama, by Moss Patterson, on his whakapapa (lineage), seen in the Company’s recent Lightscapes program, maintains its integrity in a strong haka taparahi performance by the all-male cast.  Later in the program an all-female cast performed Stand To Reason, Andrea Shermoly’s impressive tribute, as strong as any haka, to the Suffragette pioneers. Two male solos, Val Caniparoli’s Aria, a striking work to Handel, and Mark Baldwin’s Nobody Takes Me Seriously to the rhythmically lively song by Split Enz, were both stylishly performed.

There is real challenge for a pas de deux to capture the style and context of its full-length parent work, though the Don Quixote and Black Swan items did achieve this admirably. We saw Mayu Tanigaito in both, shining as a dancer of highest calibre, her fabulous technique always serving interpretation, never the other way around. 

Mayu Tanigaito and Laurynas Véjalis Black Swan. Platinum, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Sara Garbowski in the Act 2 excerpt from Giselle gave an exquisitely poetic performance with beautifully judged dynamics and phrasing of movement. This was from the celebrated production by Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg in 2012, followed by the outstanding feature film directed by Toa Fraser—the best film the Company has ever produced of its repertoire. It’s worth noting that the recording here was by Orchestra Wellington conducted by Michael Lloyd, so the music’s calibre for dancing was guaranteed.

I will confess my concern at the poor amplification of the music accompaniment for several of the other items, however. Does the St. James Theatre need to invest in installation of a better quality sound system?    

Unusually, none of the items carried a staging credit. The Bournonville works, Flower Festival in Genzano and La Sylphide, were challenged to capture the distinctive technique and vivacious style of the Danish heritage that this company inherited from Poul Gnatt all those decades ago.

The final work, for full company, was a premiere—Prismatic, choreographed by Shaun James Kelly, a tribute to the Company’s landmark work, Prismatic Variations, made by Russell Kerr and Poul Gnatt in 1959. There was an attractive energy, personality and enthusiasm from this cast, with a spirited final image of a dancer poised aloft high above all the group, suggesting airborne hope. It was in considerable contrast to the original choreography, five couples in a work of abstract, astringent and timeless classicism, echoing the geometric design of backcloth by Raymond Boyce.

The music—Brahm’s Variations on Haydn’s St Anthony Chorale—always seemed to flood the auditorium with joy and elation. Here in a recording by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, you would expect no less, but again the theatre’s amplification seemed unable to offer the exhilaration we remember as an intrinsic part of the choreography.   

It seemed a missed moment not to have brought on stage the incoming Artistic Director, Ty King-Wall, and the new Executive Director, Tobias Perkins, so we could welcome them—and also thank the outgoing Interim Artistic Director, David McAllister, for having stabilised the Company during its transition year.

Roses are the traditional flowers to mark 70 years and even one bouquet would have brought a sense of occasion and celebration to the stage full of talent. Instead, I came home and picked at midnight the single rose left in my windswept garden to place in a vase, as gratitude for seven decades of dancers who always gave and give their all.

Three talisman photos grace the printed program—Mayu Tanigaito and Laurynas Véjalis in Black Swan pas de deux; Patricia Rianne and Jon Trimmer in the 1978 production of The Sleeping Beauty; Russell Kerr and June Kerr in Prismatic Variations, 1960. Roses to them all.

Jennifer Shennan, 15 October 2023

Featured image: Scene from Shaun James Kelly’s Prismatic. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Stephen A’Court



Yummy. The Chaos Project, QL2 Dance

13 October 2023. Canberra College Theatre

This review is a slightly expanded version of one that appeared in CBR City News, digital edition, 14 October 2023. The review published there is at this link.

Change is in the air at QL2 Dance, Canberra’s esteemed youth dance organisation. This year’s Chaos Project, an annual event bringing together dancers of various levels of experience, was largely managed by Alice Lee Holland. Holland is currently Associate Artistic Director at QL2 Dance and will take over as Artistic Director in 2024 when longstanding Director Ruth Osborne retires from the role, a position she has held since 1999.

Chaos 2023, produced by Emma Batchelor, had the overarching title of Yummy. It looked at five tastes that we all, or most of us, have experienced in our lives: salt, umami, bitter, acetic and sweet, with each taste represented by a separate segment created by a different choreographer. On the surface it seemed a conceptually difficult topic for dance. How does one dance bitter? Or acetic?  But what seemed like a problem was nicely solved with a voice-over, spoken by Liz Lea, that introduced each taste.

Umami, choreographed by Holland, had an interesting spoken introduction that explained the origins of the term and its Japanese origins. But the most engrossing of these spoken sections was that for Acetic. It was highly technical in content and often scarcely understandable to a non-scientific ear. But, when the dancing began, the concept was clearly visible in the movement envisioned by choreographer Patricia Hayes Kavanagh, with the dancers giving their impressions of tasting an acidic item.

Scene from Acetic in Yummy. The Chaos Project QL2 Dance, 2023. Photo: © Lorna Sim

From the point of view of dance technique, the strongest section was Bitter choreographed by Ruth Osborne and performed by eight senior dancers. The use of the stage space was beautifully handled with at times small groups of dancers taking a prominent place, while at others all eight dancers spread across the space, dancing individually.

Scene from Bitter in Yummy. The Chaos Project QL2 Dance, 2023. Photo: © Lorna Sim

But every section had its high points from the very young dancers who made up most of the cast for A Pinch of Salt choreographed by Olivia Wikner, to the mixed-age group dressed variously in pinkish hues who occasionally drifted off to sleep from an overdose of sugar in Sweet choreographed by Jason Pearce. Sweet had a number of highlights including the sudden appearance of bright pink concentric circles of light that briefly transformed the stage floor (lighting design was by Alice Lee Holland and the choreographers). It also had engaging choreography that often highlighted younger dancers being lifted in various ways by older performers. With A Pinch of Salt I especially enjoyed those moments when a dancer stepped forward to tell us an important fact about salt!

Scene from Sweet in Yummy. The Chaos Project QL2 Dance, 2023. Photo: © Lorna Sim

But what of changes in the air? Musically Yummy sounded quite different from previous Chaos events. The diverse selection of music ranged from Vivaldi as recomposed by Max Richter to a selection from the avant-folk group, pigbaby. I also enjoyed the change from one segment to another, which was different on each occasion and included some unexpected moments when Acetic transitioned to Sweet. To my surprise, sugary dancers entered and physically removed acidy dancers from the stage. One such moment even drew a laugh (of surprise and pleasure) when a dancer ran quickly from one side of the stage towards the other and in a flash, almost as he reached the wings, picked up a young dancer, lifted him high into the air and carried him into the wings.

Aspects of the curtain calls were also somewhat new. For the closing moments, all the dancers were costumed alike rather than in the costumes worn for individual segments—costume coordination was by Natalie Wade. There was no issue at all when the dancers came forward in groups to take their bows— recognition of who had appeared in what was instantaneous. That must say something about the standard of the performance!

The Chaos Project has been a longstanding aspect of the QL2 Dance program. It looks set to continue as an event to enjoy as Alice Lee Holland begins her transition from Associate Artistic Director to the leader of QL2 Dance. 

Michelle Potter, 14 October 2023

Featured image: The start of the curtain calls for Yummy. Almost a chaos (a purposeful one). Photo: © Lorna Sim


Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2023)

Digital screening, September–October (filmed on 29 September 2023 during the Melbourne season of Swan Lake)

I am not a huge fan of this latest production of Swan Lake from the Australian Ballet—a version directed by artistic director David Hallberg but based on the 1970s production by Anne Woolliams with dramaturgy and a little extra choreography from Lucas Jervies.

On a positive note, the corps de ballet of 26 swans danced as a group with exceptional precision. Whether they were making and holding a line, a circle, a V-shape as in the opening to Act IV, or any other shape for that matter, their groupings were beautifully precise. And their dancing was in unison to the extent that, for example, they usually managed to lift their legs in arabesque to the same height as each other, and execute other steps with amazing togetherness. The four little swans—Evie Ferris, Jill Ogai, Aya Watanabe and Yuumi Yamada—stood out with regard to this unison and precision. It was pure perfection.

Then there were the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. They were exceptional in design, colour and cut. I especially admired the costumes for the character dances, and the very elegant black and white striped suit worn by von Rothbart in ACT III, befitting a Baron I thought.

But that’s about all the positivity I can muster.

I found the production quite lacking in emotional content. While in his between-acts spiel on this streaming platform Hallberg made much of the partnership between Benedicte Bemet as Odette/Odile and Joseph Caley as Prince Siegfried, and while technically they danced well both separately and together, I could not feel or see any passion, or even affection, between them. And there was certainly no changing emotion visible as the situation between them changed. Ballet is a wordless art but when there is a narrative, as there definitely is in Swan Lake, the story has to be clear and prominent enough in a physical sense for the audience to see and understand the narrative, even if, as in the case of Swan Lake, so many of us have seen it so many times that we have a clear idea already about the storyline. Clarity of narrative and the changing of emotions can be achieved by a simple movement of the head, a lift of the arm that is different from what went before, or something quite simple. But it has to be a physical change that we as the audience can notice and feel, not just a thought in the dancer’s head.

Then I was taken aback by the character dances in Act III. There were three (one each from Spain, Hungary and Italy) rather than the more usual four and they were danced largely without any of the passion that characterises national dancing. Everything seemed to be angled towards a perfect, balletic technique—mostly with the frame of the body held erect and little expression in a physical sense or even through facial expression. Character dances are full of physical expression and theatricality growing from a pride by the characters (as played by the dancers) in a particular heritage.

Perhaps my dislike of this Swan Lake reflects a remark made by Lucas Jervies when speaking to Hallberg and Livinia Nixon in the conversations between acts as part of the streaming. Jervies mentioned that Hallberg asked for the production to be ‘boiled down and refined’, and Hallberg confirmed that this was his aim. The ‘boiling down’ just took everything away. A strong (refined?) focus on technique and little else doesn’t make a theatrical production. At least not for me.

I have a subscription ticket to see this Swan Lake in Sydney towards the end of the season there. Perhaps I will feel differently then?

Michelle Potter, 2 October 2023

Featured image: A moment from Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Kate Longley