Lucien Johnson as The Musician with Katie Rudd as a Choreomanic Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry

Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble

12 & 13 March 2020. Circa Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Choreographer/dancer Lucy Marinkovich and composer/saxophonist Lucien Johnson combined to produce Strasbourg 1518, a fusion of dance, music and story into theatre. Their take on that specific historic outbreak of dancing mania is given psychological and political context using tropes of religion, rationality, visual art and literature. The work does not stay quaintly back in earlier centuries however, but alludes to 20th and 21st century dance marathons, protests and populist movements, epidemics and pandemics. Art as protest, as revolution, is their call.

Whoa! Isn’t that a heady mix with too much libretto already? (We’ve all seen from time to time a choreography top-heavy with content, though in my experience we are far more often shown dance that has no tangible content whatsoever … as in program notes that claim, for example ‘My choreography is about the turbulent uncertainties of the human experience’ or ‘I’m a female choreographer and this prop is a metaphor of my gendered existence but audiences are welcome to interpret it in any way they like’ or ‘Look at what I can do with my body if I just keep trying harder to point my foot like a raven’s claw’ etc. etc. etc.). Strasbourg 1518 is a danse macabre that remains accessible through a string of riveting scenarios of times and places beyond the reference of its title. It’s as chilling and wild, and as beautiful, as you want dance in the theatre to be.

A show like this will have taken between two and five years to prepare, shape and produce. It is about choreomania, a series of dance epidemics in Europe recurring through different periods of 14th through 16th centuries, as well as closer to our time. Some of the best dance literature is written around the topic of dance and emotion co-existing—by Backman, Meerloo, Bourguignon, de Zoete, Lange, Schiefflin—but this work does not simply reproduce known material. As we arrive at the theatre, couples are already quietly mooning in close dancing, slow motion, in the foyer. In the auditorium we find the stage filled with more couples, in a nod to the exhausting dance marathons of 1920s and 30s. A special couple emerges from among—Michael Parmenter and Lucy Marinkovich, a.k.a. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a.k.a. Death and the Maiden.  

Michael Parmenter as Death and Lucy Marinkovich as The Maiden in Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry

Johnson is a central presence onstage throughout, playing saxophone brilliantly (so what if the instrument was invented in mid-19th century?) and driving all the music that shapes the show. Marinkovich is luminous as The Maiden, veteran dancer Parmenter plays Death with an assuring calm and alluring equanimity. There’s a cast of six wild Choreomaniacs (Jana Castillo, Sean MacDonald, Xin Ji, Katie Rudd, Emanuelle Reynaud and Hannah Tasker-Poland) who dance their pants off, more or less literally, and their relentless moving demands a stamina that itself verges on the insane. France Hervé is stunning as The Rational Man narrating the commentary, but by the end has mystically transformed into a kind and loving Woman.

Lucien Johnson as The Musician with Hannah Tasker-Poland (centre back) and Xin Ji (right) as Choreomaniacs in Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry

All the performers are stellar and deliver way beyond the call of duty, though the character edge is held by Castillo as Frau Troffea who led the mania, by MacDonald as The Bishop, and by Tasker-Poland as a reluctant lunatic. Politicians cried out ‘Stop dancing, it is forbidden’, Rich Men cried out ‘Keep dancing so we can tax you and fine you’, Doctors cried out ‘Only increased physical activity will cure this illness of the boiling blood, so dance more and dance faster’. Small wonder people went mad.

Slogans on banners shout out the pain and confusion of those who protest, who suffer, who do not understand, or who understand all too well—’Feral pigs steal food’; ‘Collection of firewood is illegal’; ‘We deeply distrust landlords’; ‘All my friends are sick. Is it infectious?’; ‘We all have syphilis’; ‘We are burdened with taxes’; “Je danse donc je suis’.  

We feel a frisson of recognition whenever images of European paintings are evoked—Breugel and Bosch are there, the blind leading the blind, Dürer and Rembrandt are there, the body beautiful and the body ill. Are we in El Prado? or a novel by Saramago? A shaft of respite eventually enters when Death and the Maiden bring a trolley of gifts to ease the pain and despair—a pair of red shoes for each dancer. O dear, we know the dancing will not stop after this chord, this cord, connects a motif from old folktale to modern film…condemned to dance until dead.

Scene from Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry

But it’s become a different dancing now—not old so much as timeless. Now come movements borrowed from the linked lines of farandole archways, the beat of estampie, a swaying branle, a folding reprise and conversion from basse danse, a cheerful path of tordion, an uplifting saltarello. These are dances for life not for death, for a community of friends on Earth, not for those out of control on a slippery path to a fake Heaven or a real Hell.

No-one in the team could have anticipated how the premiere season here would play out. Lucky me, I saw the first two performances but also planned to see the remaining two since there’s a lot in such a show to think and write about. Unfortunately the third and fourth performances were cancelled minutes before curtain-up, and confusion around how that was communicated by management could have come straight from the choreographic libretto itself. Eventually it transpired it was a covid-19 health-related issue though no one in authority would say so when it mattered, as the audience continued to assemble in the foyer. That weekend was also the first anniversary of the brutal mass attack on Christchurch mosques, 15 March 2019, so although citizens went about their weekend calmly here, there was always an eye being kept on the rear-vision mirror wherever you were. 

Lucy, devastated by the course of events that sabotaged their season, begged me to write about the work and not the cancellations. Sorry Lucy, they belong together, and your show is the stronger for that. Life will move on, some things will change but some will not. I imagine you and Lucien will use your filming of the work to create a prelude to the prologue and a postlude to the epilogue. There will be a return season, and your work will come to earn the recognition it deserves. It evokes for me Martha Clarke’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, and that’s high praise.

Jennifer Shennan, 17 March 2020

Featured image: Lucien Johnson as The Musician with Katie Rudd as a Choreomaniac in Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry

Lucien Johnson as The Musician with Katie Rudd as a Choreomanic Strasbourg 1518. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2020. Photo: © Philip Merry
Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's work for 'Trois Grandes Fugues'. Photo © Michel Cavalca

Trois Grandes Fugues. Lyon Opera Ballet

11 March 2020. Opera House Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois Grandes Fugues is a program of three separate works each set to Beethoven’s Die Grosse Fuge, opus 133. Any dance can offer access into its music. Might three distinct choreographies set to the same music enhance that experience threefold?

Originally composed for string quartet this is dense and passionate music. Here, to different recordings, are set the works of choreographers Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Maguy Marin. Would Beethoven have accepted them all? withheld copyright? encouraged the endeavour? been flattered? had preferences, maybe even a favourite? How about you? Is there any purpose to rhetorical questions? (Of course there is. I ask them all the time and like the fact that they invite but don’t insist on answers).

Childs’ dance was calm, analytical (she had opted for an orchestral version with its larger merged sound, very different from the distinct instrumental voices in the quartet used by the other two choreographers). Here the music score moved the dancers, six couples, through many combinations and permutations, torsos and limbs, verticals and diagonals, within the theme and variations, but chose not to transition the performers into a human, social, dramatic or poetic space. They danced to us.

Scene from Lucinda Childs’ Grande Fugue in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo © Stofleth

(It made me long to see a revival of the similarly abstract yet highly resonant Prismatic Variations, choreographed by Poul Gnatt and Russell Kerr, from our own national ballet company repertoire).  

In real contrast, De Keersmaeker’s choreography was energized by its dancers, six men and two women, excited and committed performers, occasionally stepping back for a breather or to adjust their clothing—then up and at it again, full tilt, every move delivered with clarity and light. They danced for us.

Marin’s piece opened to music only, in the dark. What a powerful reminder of her extraordinary MayB, brought to an earlier festival here. That work distilled her encounters with Samuel Beckett and all the characters in all his plays—opening with a long strain of Schubert played in the pitch dark. (‘I’ve forgotten half my life, but I still remember this’—that’s Leonard Cohen in posthumous song lyrics). Then came the dancers, a quartet of women in dark red dresses, one dancer per instrument, absorbed into Beethoven’s emotion. They were occasionally airborne in galvanised elevation but only as attempt to escape, not to celebrate. At one point they moved forward and sat at the front of the stage, as if to explain something. They danced inside us. 

Scene from Maguy Marin’s Grosse Fuge in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo: © Jaime Roque de la Cruz

The clean, the engaged, the deep? the morning, the evening, the night? air, water, earth? cerebral, social, wild? skin, flesh and blood? reveal, illuminate, absorb? Which would you remember the longest? Which would you prefer? You can of course say yes to everything if you don’t want to judge or to choose.

For this Festival season the artistic director invited three artists to take a week each in a lightly defined curatorial role, to guide us in anticipating and accessing their take on the forthcoming program highlights.

I accepted this as a personal invitation to curate my own Festival (which we all do to some degree anyway, depending on family responsibilities and other constraints)—so my curated version of Trois Grandes Fugues opens with New Zealand String Quartet sitting centre-stage playing the Beethoven through, first as music alone. (It’s in their repertoire, actually now in their dna, and they performed it here in recital only a few weeks ago. The players are second to none in the world so how ironic to have been sitting beside them in the audience). After all, musicians in a string quartet move in a kind of miniature ballet all their own—sustaining urgent eye contact, exchanging taut gestural signals and cues among themselves, not sending communication just one way towards a conductor who is controlling an orchestral ensemble. I’d have asked them to play it again for each of the three choreographies. Then as a sublime and anchoring epilogue, we’d have sat, audience and musicians, in total pitch darkness, while they played it all again a fifth and final time. That way we’d have come to know the music in live renditions (I don’t believe audiences listen with care to recordings …) and the middle slow movement, searching among sadness for some hope, might have become ours to have and to hold forever

Jennifer Shennan, 15 March 2020

Featured image: Scene from Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Die Grosse Fuge in Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet. Photo © Michel Cavalca

Scene from Mám, Teaċ Daṁsa, Wellington 2020. Photo: © Ros Kavanagh

Mám. Teaċ Daṁsa

5–8 March 2020, TSB Arena, Wellington

reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

When you circle the date in your diary for a show choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan and his company Teaċ Daṁsa (House of Dance), you expect a wild ride with infusions of Gaelic spirit, memory and vocabulary. There will be stunning movers, musicians onstage, a choreographed mosaic of themes that may be light on narrative yet teeming with ideas, atmospheric lighting design and a visual epilogue of staggering proportions. So how does Mám deliver?

The New Zealand Festival of Arts invited a Wellington residency a year ago for Keegan-Dolan and Teaċ Daṁsa to kickstart the making of Mám, subsequently developed in tandem with Dublin Theatre Festival and Sadler’s Wells London. (At least one of the local dancers involved made it through to the final cast. The printed program gives space to ads for other Festival shows in town, for non-Festival shows and for a restaurant, yet, disappointingly, no profiles of tonight’s performers, so no highlighting is made of that local involvement. One of my absolutely favourite dancers in the world was in the workshop but isn’t in this cast. Where is he, I wonder?)

For Mám we are in the TSB Arena, a vast dark cavern of a venue, possibly the ugliest in Wellington, named for a bank. You’ve been to shows here before—David Byrne, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota, once to WOW (World of Wearable Art), and some years to the Indian Festival of Light, Diwali. All of which has nothing to do with Mám, or perhaps something, or perhaps everything, if you believe in the resonant memories of place, which I do.

Keegan-Dolan’s first Wellington season in the 2008 festival, with his then Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, was a visionary, heartbreaking Giselle, in the adjacent venue, Shed 6. Based on that season, some of us went to Melbourne in 2013 to see his riveting takes on Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring. He returned to Wellington for the 2014 festival to stage a throbbing Rian, and for 2018 his breathtaking masterpiece, Swan Lake Loch na h’Eala, both of those at St.James Theatre. Each of his works has invoked memories of the others. The Bull we only know by reputation here, but some claim it was his finest.

The word Mám is Gaelic for mountain pass, yoke, threshold, handful. The work is all of these, and is less and more than these. The opening image is of a giant-headed ram sitting centre stage, vaping smoke and playing concertina. Is he the Devil of Old Ireland, or God’s Jester? Will he be shorn for wool to knit a giant-sized Aran sweater to clothe the world? Is the choreography all just a knitting pattern for that cosmic garment? He removes his mask so these questions now become rhetorical. Downstage of the musician is a young girl wearing a white (Communion?) dress and lying on a table, her feet towards the audience.

The dancers in Teaċ Daṁsa present as a community, not a tiered hierarchy but a large group of people moving in sync, though, refreshingly, not in unison. Individuals alternate in a series of striking cameo solos. When one of them staggers to fall, a swift response from others catches him just in time. When one urgently seeks comfort, embraces are offered to her. The young girl is peripatetic among them though often seems isolated, and a number of her encounters with adults have an ambiguous aspect. The dancers fill the space with a myriad of moves at high speed yet no crashes ensue. There is much wild whirling and there’s watchful standing still. There’s opportunity on the dance floor for a couple of couples to waltz closely but only briefly, so don’t blink. There are chairs used as supports, for sitting, for planking, as dervish sleeves, or as shields and weapons of war. You might interpret these motifs and messages as literal or metaphorical, political or personal, or all of these, but there’s no doubt about the skill with which they are executed.

Scene from Mám, Teaċ Daṁsa, Wellington 2020. Photo: © Ros Kavanagh

There are no star performers but the planet among them is concertina virtuoso, Cormac Bagley, who coaxes the history of the world out of his trio of pitched instruments. Stargaze, an unconventional ensemble of remarkable musicians, arrives in the second half.

There is a token sharing of food and drink—not breaking bread, nor any elegant afternoon tea, just a few small packets of crisps (made from potatoes of course) and a can of beer or fizzy drink, today’s Last Supper? An item of clothing is removed, a jacket say, or shoes, then replaced. It’s not organized into ritual, yet some of the repeated moves suggest gestures with early religious connotation, such as hands in prayer, a sign of the cross, a genuflection, on your knees. Some of the footwork might later grow into a jig or a reel but Riverdance would be unlikely to recognise that.

Vast curtains—black, then white, then blue—are rent asunder as though an era has passed, a layer peeled away, a temple destroyed. Is this a take on history, or are we being drawn towards some inner space or sanctum, a denouement, apotheosis, apparition, prayer, hope—all, or none, of the above?

The rhythms shaping all these moves are as clear and precise as life at the level of physics. At a social level, the numerous encounters between performers might seem random yet are in fact all tightly choreographed. It makes for an unpredictable 90mins of riveting performance which ricochets around the audience leaving some thrilled, some confronted, some admiring, some bemused, some on their feet, some unengaged, some planning to come back for another viewing.

A million moves are matched to as many notes in the music. My abiding memory of the evening will be those occasional moments where percussive, precise, swift, strong movements of pulsing and heartbeating are slowed to half tempo, and a sinewy adagio of limb, head or torso is allowed to move at its own safe pace, of breathing and savouring, which is to say a language of love and compassion. Such transitions slay me, every time, even if the overall choreographic development does not transport me as totally as the poetry and pathos within other works by Keegan-Dolan have.

In various public venues in Wellington, even in churches before funerals, a show these days starts with the announcement, a legal requirement from OSH—(Occupational Safety & Health) of an earthquake warning to drop, cover and hold. Sometimes this is delivered with a coy humour that rarks an audience up so as to then deflate nervousness. Other times, as here, it was ignored—and fair enough because the show itself is earthquake enough in its implications and suggestions. A quiet walk home afterwards, along Wellington’s waterfront, city lights reflecting in the harbour, calm now though the air is still freezing from the earlier southerly, a gibbous moon in a clear sky, the same moon that shines on us and on Ireland. Ngā hau e whā.

Jennifer Shennan, 6 March 2020

Featured image: Scene from Mám, Teaċ Daṁsa, Wellington 2020. Photo: © Ros Kavanagh

Scene from Mám, Teaċ Daṁsa, Wellington 2020. Photo: © Ros Kavanagh
Marcus Morelli as the Swallow in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet

25 February 2020. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Graeme Murphy has said that his latest creation, The Happy Prince, is basically for children. He wants, he says, ‘to cater for the tiny imagination bud inside children’s heads, which needs just the tiniest bit of imagination, of fertilisation, to burst into a million thoughts.’* I am looking forward to taking my grandchildren to see it. But, from the moment the work opens with an explosive sound and much white smoke—’the war is over’ says the program note—to the closing moments set on a sunny Australian beach, you don’t have to be a child for hundreds of thoughts to rush into your mind.

The narrative line is based on the Oscar Wilde story reimagined slightly by Murphy and Kim Carpenter. (Wilde’s version is readily available to read online.) In the ballet the Prince (Adam Bull) has been brought up to know only happiness. But, when a statue in his honour is erected in his home town, he comes to realise that not everyone lives in a world of happiness, and that there is much disparity between the rich and the poor. He engages with the Little Swallow (Marcus Morelli), who has not kept up with his migrating swallow family, and together they strip the statue of its rich decorations, which they give to the poor. The story ends sadly for both the Prince and the Swallow. But, as the ballet concludes, they are united in a different, heavenly world.

Adam Bull in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Adam Bull as the Prince in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Instantly striking in the ballet are the visual aspects of the production. Sets and costumes by Carpenter, expressive lighting by Damien Cooper, and some fascinating projections by Fabian Astore created all kinds of resonances for me. Even though the production was meant to be set in post-war London, the township that was revealed as the smoke dissipated in the opening scene reminded me immediately of the architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser and his eccentric apartment buildings in Vienna and elsewhere with their assortment of shapes and colours. By the time we got to the end of the show, the sunny Australian beach scene recalled Charles Meere’s iconic painting Australian Beach Pattern, with the addition of a dominating reference in the background to Hokusai’s famous woodblock The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In between, how enchanting was the drop cloth in the scene where the Prince explained to the Little Swallow that happiness had pervaded his childhood. The cloth looked as if it had been borrowed from a kindergarten or a child care centre and was perfectly in tune with the box labelled ‘Toys’ in the downstage corner, from which emerged an assortment of toys who danced their way across the stage. Which brings up the question of the choreography.

Murphy has always been at home moving groups of dancers around the stage and this ability was an outstanding aspect of his Happy Prince choreography. The way he filled the stage with townspeople in the village in the opening scene, and the groupings he set up n the final beach scene were strong examples. Then there were the references to other theatrical genres. The characters of the Lord Mayor (Luke Marchant) and the Lady Mayoress (Jarryd Madden) came straight out of the pantomime tradition with the Lady Mayoress being the traditional Dame (always played by a man). Their extravagant costuming and outrageous movement also recalled this tradition.

Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden as the Mayor and the Lady Mayoress in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden as the Mayor and the Lady Mayoress in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Touches of vaudeville appeared in the scene where the Little Swallow engages with Rita Reed (Serena Graham) and her companion Reedettes. The choreography for this scene was appropriately in the Tivoli line-up mode.

Artists of the Australian Ballet as Reedettes in The Happy Prince, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Much of the production was filled with emotive and heartwarming moments. The characters who benefitted from the Prince’s generosity were finely drawn characters and beautifully portrayed: Corey Herbert as the Seamstress, Nathan Brook as the Artist and Benedicte Bemet as the Little Match Girl. They engaged our hearts and minds as their poverty was revealed prior to being helped by the Prince and the Swallow. And in true Murphy fashion, the Swallow was not always bird-like (although he did have moments of flying) but a teen guy with jeans ripped at the knees and occasionally a skateboard as a means of getting around.

A commissioned score from Christopher Gordon added to what was an exceptional collaboration.

I must admit, however, that I did find it hard to be convinced that the final beach scenes related to the migration to Australia of the so-called ‘£10 Poms’ (as I learnt later from the program notes). To me it was just Murphy in the same kind of mode as I thought was clear in his Romeo and Juliet where the story moved from place to place, era to era. I remember calling his R & J postmodern (to the annoyance of some) because it made reference to many aspects of many things. The Happy Prince was a bit the same.

I look forward to seeing this production again when I am sure I will notice other things, more of the choreography perhaps, and probably change my mind on some issues. But my first impressions are that The Happy Prince is exciting, surprising and heart warming theatre in which the whole is so much more than the sum of its enticing parts.

Michelle Potter, 27 February 2020

Featured image: Marcus Morelli as the Little Swallow in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Marcus Morelli as the Swallow in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

* Graeme Murphy quoted in ‘Darling Buds’ in program notes for The Happy Prince.

Marcel Cole in 'Free as a Bird'. On course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

On Course. QL2 Dance

15 December 2019. QL2 Theatre, Canberra

On course, a program providing opportunities for emerging choreographers currently studying at tertiary institutions, is now in its thirteenth year. The 2019 program consisted of eight live choreographic productions and two short films. Most of the creators and performers had previously danced with QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth dance organisation, and on this occasion creators came from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Western Australian Academy for the Performing Arts (WAAPA) and the New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD).

The absolute stand out work to my mind was Free as a bird, choreographed and danced as a solo by Marcel Cole, former student of Kim Harvey in Canberra and now a contemporary major at NZSD. Cole walked into the performing space and announced ‘This is not a comment on ballet.’ He then proceeded to dance an excerpt from Solor’s variation in La Bayadère. While somewhat constricted by the small space of the QL2 blackbox theatre, and perhaps by a little lack of attention to some details, we could not help but be swept away by his elevation, those fabulous cabrioles, and a manège of jetés.

But what made Free as a bird an exceptional piece was what came after. Cole is looking towards contemporary dance these days and, after the Bayadère solo, he began to question the direction of his life. He went to an imaginary barre, did a couple of pliés, left the barre, then came back, and left again before suggesting that while studying ballet he had been walking in a straight line—with clear direction—but that now he was moving along a different path. I could have done without the verbal explanation at the end because it was perfectly obvious from the movement, and from Cole’s strong presence, what was happening. The work finished with Cole turning in a small circle with his arms tracing a meandering pattern in the air. The concept behind the work quite clear. No words were necessary.

This brings me to another point. Almost without exception the choreographers chose to use the spoken word in their creations. I’m not sure why this was thought to be necessary. In my experience the most powerful choreography expresses the creator’s ideas through movement, without a verbal explanation. There are some things that dance can’t say well of course, but let’s not dance what we have to say. It was interesting too that the one creator who used quite minimal verbal intervention was Mia Tuco who is currently enrolled at the VCA in a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting! Her work, I was the angel in the poem you wrote, was clearly and strongly constructed and again needed no words.

Another strong work on the program was Caspar Ilshner’s Eye to Eye. Its strength lay in the work’s coherence in which the music (composed by Ilshner himself, another NZSD student); the choreographic structure; and the costumes had all been thought through clearly and all contributed well to the whole. I especially admired the way in which Ilshner manipulated groups of dancers to show us various aspects of human interaction.

Scene from Eye to Eye in On Course, QL2 Dance 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Having taken my stand re words and dance, I have to say I enjoyed Ruby Ballantyne’s My roommate is a very heavy sleeper. The often amusing story was narrated as a voice-over, and the choreography really only played a secondary role as far as I am concerned. But then that’s something different from choreography that has to explain itself in words. Ballantyne is studying at WAAPA.

I also especially enjoyed Jason Pearce’s Kafka, which was the first of the two short films presented at the beginning of the evening. Pearce has just recently graduated from the VCA and his film focused largely on a close up of a particular part of the body in movement. We mostly saw the back of the torso and it was mesmerising for the glimpse it gave us of spinal movement.

On Course is a wonderful initiative. I had particular favourites but I was pleased to see such a range of ways in which choreography can be approached and in which ideas can be presented.

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2019

Featured image: Marcel Cole in Free as a Bird from On Course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Marcel Cole in 'Free as a Bird'. On course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet (2019)

14 December 2019 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

This staging of Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker was a beautiful and magical end to the Australian Ballet’s 2019 season. I have written before about Sir Peter’s take on this much-loved Christmas ballet, in both its onstage and film productions, and the features I enjoyed on those other occasions—such as its moments of stage magic, and the inherent logic within the narrative structure—were apparent again. The experience was especially enjoyable on this occasion as I had the good fortune to see an outstanding cast of lead characters.

As Clara, Yuumi Yamada just took my breath away. From her very first entrance her delightful and youthful personality, so perfect for this role, were apparent. She acted and danced her way through the show in spectacular fashion— and there were few moments when she wasn’t onstage. Particular dancing highlights were her pas de deux with Marcus Morelli in the Christmas party scenes and another pas de deux with the Nutcracker-turned-Prince (François-Eloi Lavignac) just before the snow scene began.

Yuumi Yamada as Clara in The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

It was particularly pleasing too to see Chengwu Guo back on stage after an absence due to injury. The Act II pas de deux between Guo as the Nutcracker Prince and Ako Kondo as the Sugar Plum Fairy demonstrated what we, the audience, had been missing. His elevation; his soft, controlled landings; his multiple pirouettes (including those grands pirouettes à la seconde; and his spectacular entrechats were nothing short of thrillling. And I am always impressed by the way in which, as an intrinsic part of his performance, he treats his partner with such respect. All I can say is welcome back! Kondo performed beautifully too. I admired her absolute control, to the extent that we could see every movement unfold. It was as if she were dancing in slow motion.

The very young boy, Gabriel Bennett, who danced as Fritz also deserves a mention. His presence onstage and his acting made his performance a winning one. In fact all the young student extras, male and female, who danced as friends of Clara held their own throughout the opening party scene.

Andrew Killian as Drosselmeyer made an important contribution to the success of the performance, and the soloists and corps de ballet danced well throughout. I especially enjoyed the dancing of the four men who danced as the Winds in the snow scene, and who returned again (with one replacement) as Consorts to the Rose Fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers section.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Nutcracker, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

I am not a huge fan of John McFarlane’s designs for this Nutcracker. They often seem ‘loud’ to me and they simply don’t fit well on the Sydney Opera House stage. Nor does that frustratingly small stage lend itself well to the Christmas party that opens this Nutcracker. Too many people have to crowd onto it, which rather ruins the party. It’s an ongoing saga.

But nothing can really take away from the magical and enchanting performance that we were offered and accepted with loud applause.

Michelle Potter, 16 December 2019

Featured image: Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.

New Breed (2019). Sydney Dance Company

7 December 2019. Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

If there’s one thing that the 2019 New Breed program does, it is to expose the difficulties that go with creating a choreographic work. For me a choreographic work has to have some cohesion as it moves from beginning to end, and it needs to give us, the audience, something to ponder on, dream about, be moved by, or at least have something that is understandable for us in some way. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean to us what the choreographer says it is about, but it has to have something we can latch on to. The 2019 New Breed was a little uneven in achieving the above but there certainly were some outstanding aspects to the program. Choreographers, emerging in some cases, who created works for this program were Davide di Giovanni with In walked Bud, Arise from Ariella Casu, Creeper by Lauren Langlois, and Zero choreographed by Josh Mu.

  • Outstanding dancer

As we have come to expect from the artists of Sydney Dance Company, every dancer who performed in New Breed gave an amazing performance. But it was Chloe Leong who stood out. From the moment she stepped onstage in In walked Bud, the opening work, her precision of movement and her commanding presence in the performing space brought an instant smile to my face and made me look forward to the rest of the program. Leong also danced in Creeper and Zero and was equally as exciting to watch in these pieces.

Chloe Leong in a moment from In walked Bud. New Breed 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
  • Best choreography

Josh Mu created the most interesting choreography of the program with his work, Zero. It had that ongoing cohesion as one movement or group of movements led beautifully to the next. For me, the idea of our connectivity with other human beings kept springing to mind. Whether this related to ‘hypotheses of dystopian futures’, which was mentioned in the program notes, was immaterial and I felt a certain satisfaction as the work progressed. I loved the role the women’s hair played as they swished and tossed their heads around as part of the choreography. Why not? Dance is made on the body and hair belongs to the body!

Scene from Zero. New Breed 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
  • Best musical score

Zero was accompanied by a pounding, relentless score from Huey Benjamin, which was very nicely attuned to the movement.

  • Best costume design

On the whole the costumes were quite drab and uninviting to look at, except for Guy Hastie’s outfits for the two female dancers (Chloe Leong and Holly Doyle) in In walked Bud. They were sophisticated, beautifully cut to reveal shoulders, upper arms and back, and had a wonderful touch of orange colour that, in the way a small piece of orange fabric was cut and inserted, added a softness to the overall costume. They were elegant and suited so well the jazz theme (and music by Theolonius Monk). It’s a shame the costume for the sole male in the piece, Luke Hayward, was so ordinary (white sleeveless T-shirt and black tights/pants). But then perhaps he was the Bud of the title who walked in on the jazz concert? In one version of the occasion that inspired Monk’s music, Bud was a little disorderly.

Chloe Leong and Holly Doyle in In walked Bud. New Breed 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Michelle Potter, 9 December 2019

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Featured image: Scene from In walked Bud. New Breed 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
Rench Soriano in 'Five Variations on a Theme'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A'Court

New Zealand School of Dance Graduation Season, 2019

20-30 November 2019. Te Whaea Theatre, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

NZSD’s Graduation season always displays the talent and enthusiasm of graduating dancers who, after three years’ training, are poised to venture forth and seek ways to make a professional career. Commitment and courage are needed in equal measure. Selected first and second year students are included in the casting, which is credit to them and their tutors since no dancer is less than fully prepared and present.

This year’s season combines classical ballet and contemporary dance works, eight in all, on the same program. (Last year’s had alternate nights for classical and contemporary works). Either formula offers the chance for us to consider how the two dance lineages as taught in the School, contrast with, or relate to, each other in the professional dance world—in technique, movement vocabulary, choreographic themes, aesthetic choices, relationship to music.

While many aspects of each are distinct, dances labelled ‘classical’ or ‘contemporary’ are not the opposites of each other. My take is that it’s the individual choreographer who places a work where it lies on the spectrum. If it’s good, then dance is the winner on the night. Memories of a masterpiece by Jiří Kylián in a  recent Grad. program combined performers from both streams of training and demonstrated that truth (as also did a recent film viewing of Douglas Wright’s masterpiece from Royal New Zealand Ballet repertoire, rose and fell—truly superb contemporary choreography being performed by ballet dancers. QED.)

O body swayed to music, o brightening glance,
how can we know the dancer from the dance?    
William Butler Yeats

The performance opens with Concerto Barocco by George Balanchine, to the Double Violin concerto by Bach. The clarity of music is matched in dance line, alignment and groupings. It is luminous, timeless, time less, time more.

My verses cannot comment
on your immortal moment or tell you what you mean;
only Balanchine
has the razor edge and knows that art of language         
Robert Lowell

Velociraptor, by Scott Ewen, to music by Kangding Ray, is a premiere. The opening section is swift and driven. Among the cast of nine, we notice a wrist bandage on one dancer. Have the rehearsals come at a cost? We notice another. Soon the bandages unravel and become strings that tie and bind, forming mesmerizing tensions between groupings, and becoming cats’ cradles for bodies lifted horizontally.

Mind is music…
Invisible dancer who dances quicksilver vision
 
James Schevill

Courtney Lim and Tessa Redman in Velociraptor. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Not Odd Human, by Sam Coren, to music by Richard Lester, recently premiered at Tempo Dance Festival. It’s a manic mediaeval mayhem, its sardonic humour propelling characters from long ago and faraway into our midst. Mad Joan and Dull Grethe are there, Joan of Arc, Lady Godiva perhaps? You could credit Breugel with its design. 

Such rollicking measures, prance as they dance
In Breugel’s great picture, the Kermess.
William Carlos Williams

Five Variations on a Theme, by David Fernandez, to a Bach Violin Concerto, is a solo danced by Rench Soriano. Everything about this phenomenally gifted dancer, a second year student, combines precision with poetry, and is a joy to witness. His dancing is redolent of his tutor Qi Huan, who has rehearsed him in this work. For many years Huan was the leading dancer in Royal New Zealand Ballet, where his peerless command of technique gave him the expressive freedom that dance at its soaring best can offer. Before him, Ou Lu, before him Martin James, before him Jon Trimmer, before him Poul Gnatt. Soriano is clearly profiting from his teacher and this pedigree heritage, and will make a fine career for himself.

The dancer dances. The dance does not dance…
The saved world dances, and the dance dances.     
Jacques Audiberti

 Re:Structure, by Ross McCormack, to music by Jason Wright, was another premiere work. A 5 metre long pole is the central prop around which the cast of 8 dancers  manipulate and explore its positioning. One dancer vertically atop the pole makes a striking image to which you could supply your own narrative, but there is deliberately no denouement to the work overall.

Your props had always been important:…
Things without a name you fell upon

Or through …
Richard Howard

Round of Angels, by Gerald Arpino, from 1983, to music of Mahler, has a cast of six males, then joined by a single female. As a couple, Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Jordan Lennon dance with secure command and lyrical expression, becoming the central tender core  of the work.

I said that she had danced heart’s truth 
W.B Yeats

Brittany-Jayde Duwner and Jordan Lennon in Round of Angels. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Handel—A Celebration by Helgi Tomasson, to excerpts by Handel, has a large cast of spirited movers who rise to the spirit of the celebratory music. Rehearsed by Christine Gunn and Nadine Tyson, the staging had enthusiasm and style in equal and full measure.               

Dancer: O you translation
Of all transiency into action, how you made it clear!
And the whirl of the finish, that tree of motion,
Didn’t it wholly take in the hard-won year
Rainer Maria Rilke

Carnival.4, by Raewyn Hill, was anything but carnivalesque in its mood. Its effect was percussive, tight, driven, insistent, urgent, pulsing. It evoked youth in support of each other, demanding to be listened to.

What is the hardest task of Art?
To clear the ground and make a start …
To tell the tale…
That when the millions want the few
Those can make Heaven here and do.
John Masefield

New Zealand School of Dance Contemporary Students in Carnivale.4, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Nothing about dancing is easy—it’s just meant to look that way, and the quality of sprezzatura, nonchalance, while delivering virtuosic choreography is the one you’d aspire to. The most outstanding dancer of the evening is for me the personification of that gift of grace, and will surely make the world a better place wherever he dances. We all need to consider and study that quality, and pray for a bit of it in our lives, dancing and all the rest.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
 Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
Come to the edge.
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
Christopher Logue

Jennifer Shennan, 22 November 2019

Featured image: Rench Soriano in Five Variations on a Theme. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A’Court

Rench Soriano in 'Five Variations on a Theme'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2019. Photo © Stephen A'Court
Scene from Stanton Welch's 'Sylvia'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Sylvia. The Australian Ballet

16 November 2019 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

There is one facet of Stanton Welch’s choreography that I always find admirable and exciting to watch. It is his ability to handle different groups of dancers on stage. He is able to give each group different steps to do and arrange them in different formations, while also achieving an overall cohesion. This ability to create choreography that is beautifully blended and yet has individuality within it was again on show in Sylvia, his new work for 2019. Unfortunately, none of the images to which I have access really shows that facet of his choreography but it was clearest in the penultimate scene from Act III when the life of Sylvia (Robyn Hendricks) with her beloved Shepherd (Callum Linnane) unfolded.

This second last scene was also the most enjoyable from the point of view of the narrative. The surprise of the children and grandchildren of Sylvia and the Shepherd appearing suddenly was a beautifully human touch, and again I was impressed by the dancing and stage presence of Yuumi Yamada as the couple’s Daughter. In this scene too David McAllister made a guest appearance as the Older Shepherd and reminded us of his qualities as a performer.

Robyn Hendricks as Sylvia and Callum Linnane as the Shepherd in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But the ease with which we could understand the narrative in this scene stood in stark contrast to much of the rest of the ballet. The story was a very complex one and difficult to follow, especially in Act I when the scene was being set for what was to follow. Maybe it’s just one of those ballets that one has to see many times before any strength it has can be understood?

Both Hendricks and Linnane danced well especially in the various pas de deux that unfolded between them. Dana Stephensen as Artemis was also a strong performer and her partnership with Brodie James as Orion was also nicely executed. The final scene in which the two are united in the starry, heavenly environment was staged with evocative lighting by Lisa J Pinkham.

Dana Stepehensen and Brodie James as Artemis and Orion in 'Sylvia'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo Daniel Boud
Dana Stepehensen and Brodie James as Artemis and Orion in Sylvia. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But I came away feeling frustrated. While Welch is a choreographer whose work I admire, dance doesn’t lend itself to the kind of complexities of storyline that Sylvia contains. I was reminded of a recent interview I did with contemporary choreographer Lloyd Newson in which he talked about why he introduced speech into his works. There are some things that dance can’t do, he believes, and he’s right. Even though he wasn’t talking about ballet his ideas are relevant, nevertheless, to all forms of dance.

Michelle Potter, 20 November 2019

Featured image: Scene from Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Scene from Stanton Welch's 'Sylvia'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet & Orchestra Wellington

6 November 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Hansel & Gretel is choreographer Loughlan Prior’s first full-length ballet, though he has a number of accomplished short works (including a memorable Lark, for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald), as well as choreographed films (including Memory House, for Trimmer) already to his credit. Since this premiere, another of his works, The Appearance of Colourwas recently performed as part of Queensland Ballet’s Bespoke program.

The energised success of Hansel & Gretel reveals the close rapport developed between Prior and composer Claire Cowan, who has produced a colourful and affecting score. Right from the first sounds (‘applause’ from orchestral percussion to walk the conductor to his podium), it is clear that the choreographer and composer share a sense of humour and fun. Conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington miss not a beat or a feat throughout.

Design by Kate Hawley, together with Jon Buswell’s lighting, delivers some striking effects. The opening visual, projected onto a gauze front curtain, is the number countdown of a film reel (the grandchildren whisper to ask , ‘Is this a ballet pretending to be a movie?’). A number of references to black and white silent movies of the 1920s are cleverly choreographed into the first scenes, making fitting resonance from the accompanying orchestra in the pit. A prologue of wealthy characters strutting in the street contrast with the poverty of the family of Hansel, Gretel and parents, with the father unable to sell his street brooms to anyone. There is a poignant scene of the hungry family around the table in their cabin, though the following long love duet between the parents seems to stall the choreographic pace somewhat.

Later, black and white scenes turn into the garish colours of cancan Candyland, aided and abetted by the Ice Cream Witch whose hurdy-gurdy bicycle is a creation Heath Robinson would have been proud of. A large cast of Dew Fairies, a Sandman, numerous confectionery and gingerbread assistants, and spooky creatures of the forest all offer a number of divertissements of entertainment and humour. There are echoes of the 1930s now, of Busby Berkeley film scenarios, with deliberate extravagances that send it in the direction of pantomime, leading, by their own admission, to sensory overload of props and costumes.

Scene from Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: ©Stephen A’Court

Spectacle is preferenced over sustaining the narrative with its dark themes of the original version of the Grimm brothers’ tale. In that regard, Prior has chosen to follow casting of Humperdinck’s opera of the late 19th century, as well as the recent choreographies by Liam Scarlett for the Royal Ballet and by Christopher Hampson for Scottish Ballet. In those versions, the familiarity of the children’s father bullied by a scheming cruel stepmother is converted to their simply being poor but loving parents. This results in a weakening of the dramatic bite and thematic link of evil between both Stepmother and Witch (read in some interpretations as alter-egos of each other).

Different birds are dramatically involved in the original tale—sitting on the roof of the family cottage, stealing the trail of breadcrumbs, leading the children to the Witch’s lair, and finally back home. In this production the only birds are portrayed in a brief scene by child extras, very fetchingly costumed in raincoats with beak-shaped hoods, and carrying brooms to sweep up crumbs. Perhaps more could have been made of the avian potential in the story since birds are often convincingly stylised into ballet.

Highlight memories are of Hansel and Gretel—or should that be Gretel and Hansel since it’s the girl who always takes the initiative and makes sure little brother is in tow —with Shaun James Kelly as a naïve and playful boy, Kirby Selchow as the feisty older sister. The dazzling Mayu Tanigaito as Queen of the Dew Fairies, delivers radiantly, but also easily shifts into the syncopations of the jazz references that Prior and Cowan have skillfully introduced as cameo sequences.

Paul Mathews as the Witch and Shaun James Kelly as Hansel in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Ice Cream Witch is played by Katharine Precourt who, with mobile expressive face, clearly relishes the role. The Transformed Witch, played by Paul Mathews, is in full pantomime mode and takes hilarious advantage of the satirical strokes the choreography offers (including the tossing of a pair of pointe shoes into the cauldron, together with a large manny rat that proves inedible but will doubtless flavour/poison the stew). Mathews always inhabits rather than just portrays his roles and here he exaggerates wonderfully without ever wasting a gesture. 

Kirby Selchow as Gretel closes the cauldron in Hansel & Gretel. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Thank goodness for curtain calls in character. The dancers have clearly had a rollicking good time in this production which will certainly entertain audiences in the forthcoming national tour.

Jennifer Shennan, 12 November 2019

Featured image: Kirby Selchow as Gretel in Hansel & Gretel, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Kirby Selchow as Gretel in 'Hansel and Gretel', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court