Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Stephen Baynes' 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Verve (2019). The Australian Ballet

13 April 2019 (matinee) Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I saw this program, a contemporary triple bill with works by Stephen Baynes, Alice Topp and Tim Harbour, last year, 2018, in Melbourne. My review is at this link. This time my thoughts remain basically the same. I liked or disliked each of the works for the same reasons as before, although in most cases the casting was different and Aurum probably didn’t have the power I felt it had at the performance I saw in 2018.

With regard to casting, I saw Ako Kondo and Andrew Killian in the leading roles in Baynes’ Constant Variants both times, and both times they handled themselves with the aplomb and expertise we have come to expect from these two principal dancers. But on this second viewing I especially enjoyed Yuumi Yamada with her beautiful smile and joyous execution of the steps, and an equally inspiring Lucien Xu.

Yuumi Yamada and Lucien Xu in Stephen Baynes' 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: Daniel Boud

Yuumi Yamada and Lucien Xu in Stephen Baynes’ Constant Variants. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

I was also transfixed by the dancing of Joseph Romancewicz, as I was when I noticed him in small parts in The Merry Widow and Spartacus. On this occasion Romancewicz had a role in Topp’s Aurum and, with fewer people on the stage this time compared with those previous occasions, it was easier to see some of what I admire. Mostly it is that power to engage with those around him—this time with his partner in a group section of about eight dancers (if I remember rightly). Not once did he move without thinking and showing that he was dancing with someone. But I also noticed more clearly this time that he moves with beautiful fluidity throughout his whole body.

It was also a pleasure to see Dimity Azoury in the final movement of Aurum, which she danced with Andrew Killian.

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Alice Topp's 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury_in Alice Topp’s Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The standout dancer for me in Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow was Marcus Morelli. I always enjoy the enthusiasm with which he takes on every role and the way he injects such a strong personal note into those roles.

Marcus Morelli and Brett Chynoweth in Tim Harbour's 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Stephen Baynes' 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Marcus Morelli and Brett Chynoweth (airborne) in Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But I guess what interested me particularly this time was the shape of movement throughout. Baynes’ use of classical movement showed how expansive and diverse the classical vocabulary is. It allows all the spectacular qualities that we see in contemporary vocabulary but as well brings to the surface a fluidity, a smoothness, and something that is filled with curving, as well as straight lines. The body is the medium.

Topp and Harbour seemed to want more than anything to make shapes, new shapes that we haven’t seen anywhere else before. Often they were spectacular shapes, particularly hard-edged in Harbour’s case. But while some were interesting, others seemed as though the choreographer was trying too hard to be different, and even at times trying to put a step to every note of music. The body is not so much the medium but the show place for shapes.

Constant Variants remains the work I want to come back to again and again. Verve is, nevertheless, a wonderful program that gives us much to think about.

Michelle Potter, 14 April 2019

Featured image: Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Stephen Baynes’ Constant Variants. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Holly Doyle, Charmene Yap, Chloe Leong, Davide Di Giovanni. and Riley Fitzgeralnd in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco'. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro

Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane. Sydney Dance Company

27 March 2019. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay (Sydney)

It is 50 years since Sydney Dance Company (under a different name or two in its early years) gave its first performance. The time had come to commemorate the company’s remarkable longevity, and its absolute commitment to contemporary dance. Rafael Bonachela’s first season for this anniversary year celebrated with a triple bill consisting of a brand new work from Bonachela himself, and works from two female choreographers, Gabrielle Nankivell and Melanie Lane.

The program opened with Nankivell’s Neon Aether, which to me was not the strongest work of the evening, although it was the loudest and the one that included the most confronting elements. It was difficult to fathom exactly what was going on onstage, what the work was ‘about’. The choreographer’s statement that it was ‘an ode to the burning intangibles that fuel our imagination’ didn’t help, and the most confronting bit was that often there was a sudden, long-ish blackout and a recorded announcement (part of the score by Luke Smiles) could be heard during the blackout. The announcement had something to do with a voyage in space. The blackout bit seemed to me to be a somewhat outmoded way of presenting an idea. This aspect of Neon Aether reminded me of William Forsythe’s Artifact, which goes way back to 1984, when dropping the house curtain at various stages throughout the work, and thus obscuring our view of the dancing, seemed an outrageous step forward that made us question many things. Not any more. I found the blackouts in Neon Aether an annoyance. While the dancing was spectacularly good, as we have come to expect from Sydney Dance Company, the work just left me a little cold.

Scene from Gabrielle Nankivell’s Neon Aether. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Bonachela’s Cinco followed. Made on just five dancers to five movements of a string quartet by Alberto Ginastera, the number five is of course a reference to five decades of dance from Sydney Dance Company. But, like most of Bonachela’s works, it was inspired not by any narrative idea but by the changing patterns and rhythms of the music. Its combination of solos and unison pieces was often filled with the unexpected, but was always a visual delight. And the silken costumes by Bianca Spender were also visually fascinating, flying around the dancers’ bodies with every move those dancers made.

Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco', 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

The absolute highlight of the evening for me was Lane’s somewhat eccentric work WOOF. It began with the twelve dancers who made up the cast grouping themselves and holding the pose for a short time, giving us the opportunity to take in the complexity of those group shapes. What was going on between them? Some of the groupings even seemed ferocious with a large group of dancers growling at a much smaller group.

Scene from Melanie Lane’s WOOF. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo:
© Pedro Greig

As movement took over from stationary groups, I admired Lane’s awareness of the space of the stage and how to fill it, or leave it empty, for maximum effect, not to mention her juxtaposition of movement and stillness. And her movement vocabulary with its tiny runs on half pointe with bent knees, or its group marching, or its eccentric details of head and arms, was fascinating to the point of being exciting. With its emphasis on groups and their interrelationships, along with the often relentless quality of the work, aided by a commissioned score from composer Clark (who does not use a first name on the program), it reminded me of a contemporary version of Rite of Spring. It was an outstanding work that generated an exceptional audience response.

The diversity of material that the dancers were asked to perform in this triple bill was remarkable and, in their usual fashion, they rose to the occasion and looked stupendous throughout.

Michelle Potter, 6 April 2019

Featured image: Holly Doyle, Charmene Yap, Chloe Leong, Davide Di Giovanni, and Riley Fitzgerald in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro

Holly Doyle, Charmene Yap, Chloe Leong, Davide Di Giovanni. and Riley Fitzgeralnd in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco'. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro

A gamelan concert

22 March 2019. Victoria University of Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

A gamelan concert at The Hub, the central arena of Victoria University campus, had long been planned for the evening of Friday 22 March. A combination of two gamelan—Javanese, Gamelan Padhang Moncar, and the Balinese, Gamelan Taniwha Jaya, would play. A dance troupe from Surabaya in Java would join as special guests to the program, and the local Indonesian community choir would also participate. Late in the planning, funding to bring the full dance troupe from Indonesia was not forthcoming so the leader, Sri Mulyani, director of Mulyo Joyo group, travelled to perform as a solo dancer.

One week to the day before the concert, all hell broke loose in New Zealand. Fifty Muslims attending Friday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch were killed by a rabid white supremacist, 50 more were injured. The country came to its knees and the world looked on in disbelief. Jacinda Ardern has been widely praised and thanked for her instinctive and tireless leadership in stepping up to lift the nation out of the mire. Sadly that’s going to be a slow process as we are still stunned by the surreality of it all.  Tens of thousands of New Zealanders have been searching for ways to say how saddened we are.

Many speeches have been delivered, opinion pieces written, uncountable numbers of flowers and messages placed in tribute, human chains formed around mosques, beacons lit and songs sung, haka performed, messages chalked onto footpaths and walls and windows the length and breadth of the country. Black Power and Mongrel Mob gang members have stepped forward and spoken their thoughts to unify the thinking of hitherto disparate groups. Their public and spontaneous haka, and their offers to stand guard outside a mosque while Muslims pray inside, are not expressions I had expected to see or hear. I feel changed by them.

Should Friday’s concert proceed? Yes it should. Gamelan has a 45 year presence at VUW and will not be easily silenced. More than ever before it seems that listening to and looking at and learning about ‘other’ music and dance is one pathway to understand and appreciate ‘other’ cultures. But what is this ‘other’? The gamelan over these decades is self-evidently a mix of Indonesian, other Asian, Pakeha, Maori and Pasifika players. 

New Zealand does not, as many countries do, require proof of percentages and proportions in its official count of ethnicities, but instead invites citizens to register their ethnicity of choice, and apparently we have 200 of those. Intermarriage doesn’t weaken anybody, it strengthens bodies. We are different, we are the same, we are many, we are one might sound like a mantra but it does cover the realities, or at least the possibilities, or it should. (mantra: originally in Hinduism and Buddhisma word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation). It’s the balance, the mix, the layering of what is distinctive about us and what is the same, what can be shared and what can be exchanged, that we could source. We might start with the facts: gravity exists and, mostly speaking, the human body locomotes on two legs, in the vertical. That much is universal.

How we dance, and how we appreciate a dance, is part of who we are. There is work to be done. Dedication to high and lively standards in music and dance is one path to walk. Interpretation and commentary in program notes from performer to audience are welcome challenges, and these were well met on Friday. (No one questions a Chinese professor playing a fabulously furious piano concerto by English composer Benjamin Britten, or the tender breathing of German composer Robert Schumann’s Kinderscenen. OK those composers are European, but the pianist is Chinese, remember. Just let it be good).

No one questions who should play gamelan. How it’s played is the measure, just let it be good. Sharp and on the beat, or upbeat or offbeat, quiet or strident, let the cues be clean, the timing tight and the rhythms secure. Let its ornaments escape and float above the keys of a gatra.

To an audience possibly double the size that might have been originally expected, the program opened with a Muslim greeting followed by a minute’s silence in memoriam. Introductions by Dr Megan Collins, manager of the gamelan, and Professor Sally Jane Norman, Director of NZ School Music, Te Koki, set a dignified yet welcoming tone. The Indonesian Ambassador was absent, attending the 7th day memorial gathering in Christchurch (one of those killed and several of those injured were Indonesians) so the Embassy’s cultural attaché spoke in his place.

The Javanese gamelan’s name, Padhang Moncar, can be interpreted in several ways. Padhang is brightness or daylight. Moncar means growing or developing vigorously. Padhang Moncar can refer to the sunrise (the growing light), and the fact that in Aotearoa we are the first gamelan in the world to see the new day. The Balinese gamelan’s name combines the Maori word Taniwha, a mythical water monster, with the Balinese word Jaya, meaning glorious or victorious, to symbolise the mix of New Zealand and Balinese cultures. Both names seemed freshly relevant on Friday evening.

The opening item was a ritual-like dance in which Sri Mulyani carried a large flickering lamp on her head and danced it onto the floor—’to rid the performance space of evil’. Budi Putra, director of Padhang Moncar, who had lost a close friend in the Christchurch attack, had arranged the item to the poem Tembang Macapat Sinom Gedong Kuning, in the particularly striking poetic form of macapat.

A gamelan colleague in Dunedin, Dr Joko Susilo, a 7th generation traditional dhalang/puppeteer from Java, has made a doctoral study of the song poetry macapat, used as a form of exorcism. ‘Martial art’ is too amorphous a term to catch the qualities of strength, clarity and authority in the dancer’s arm gestures and facial expressions that are employed to command and cleanse a space of illness, evil and wrong.

A Balinese gamelan item followed, with the theme referencing the handsome King Arsa Wijaya. It was masterfully led by Rupert Snook as the distinctive sounds of this glistening ensemble were released to fly around in the open acoustic. The intricate rhythmic patterns and connections seemed galvanising. Items from the Indonesian Chorus included themes of the sound of the flute, and other relaxation pleasures, in several songs and dances.

Mulyani’s dance is a Surabaya style fused with the hallmark angularities of Balinese—and elbow, knee and ankle alignments, and mercurial movements of head and neck, hands and fingers, darting eye glances and spontaneous changes of direction—measures to ward off the evil spirits that travel in straight lines. A further item was in striking contrast to her opening macapat, a shimmering affair this, with the solo dancer simultaneously depicting a pair of courting Birds of Paradise. Now that takes skill and we should pay attention to how a dancer can depict two creatures at once, and birds at that.

Dancer Sri Mulyani. Photo: © Jacques Sirot

[Many forms of  indigenous dance traditions absorb a people’s long-standing observation of native birds and the detail of their appearance, their nesting and courting behaviour into stylised choreography. Mythological reference to birds, their song-making and ability to fly to distant realms are found in many performance contexts. Most notably in Melanesia the fabled Birds of Paradise are absorbed into ritual and choreographed display as a people locate themselves within the flora and fauna of their surroundings.

Birds of Paradise, after their deaths, had their legs and sometimes wings removed, in mythological re-definition of them as birds that had not needed to land on Earth, nor needed flapping wings to fly, but were simply able to glide and swoop on draughts of air, while visiting their homes in Paradise then returning to the skies above Earth. Their feathers worn in dancers’ body decoration connected humans with the avian and celestial realms.

Banabans dance as the frigate bird flies. Their connection to their former Central Pacific homeland, long destroyed by mining for phosphate, is evoked through talisman dance forms that incorporate frigate feathers into their costume and ornaments. That’s about as close to home as Banabans are able to reach. 

Margaret Orbell in her beautiful book, Birds of Aotearoa, documents how Maori incorporated birds into their lives and lore. It’s a book for every library in the country. Her evocations of the ancient Dawn Chorus include description of the little piopio, now extinct, that used to continue singing solo for one hour after all the other birds had ceased. We might have a birdsong broadcast each morning on Radio New Zealand but for a minute not an hour, and never the piopio].

Swathes of silk attached to the dancer’s fans are thrust and tossed, reminders of other incorporation of textiles into Asian— Chinese silk sleeves, ribbons and banners, of Indian and Japanese elaborate costumes. These are not just arbitrary dress-ups, but are images and characters from stories, and we will always need stories if we are to make sense of our lives and ourselves.

A Javanese gamelan item then referenced a character from the Mahabharata, the evil King Rahwana a multi-headed demon-king who wrought wholesale carnage. A resonant theme indeed this evening, but it also evoked for me the monstrous Puputan events in Bali, 1906 and 1908, when armed Dutch invaders headed into the crowds of Balinese priests and performers who had donned ceremonial garb and processed their way into mass suicide, over 1000 of them it is said, since they had no other weapons to use. It’s not a good story but it’s not an ancient one, dramatised into epic literature either. It’s only just over a century old. The themes of The Mahabharata involving huge and violent clashes and ongoing battles between forces of Good and of Evil, were never more apparent than at this concert.

A few days ago we were hearing, amid anguished tears from those who were there, reports of the river of blood that flowed out the doors and down the steps in front of the Christchurch mosques. Police, ambulance staff and medical colleagues had to work to identify 50 bodies within that scene of carnage, a challenge that required five days and nights of dedication to unimaginable tasks. After that the mosques had to be cleaned in readiness for the return to prayer.

Themacapat in Wellington will have helped spiritually albeit from a distance. King Rawhana stepped from the pages of The Mahabharata, came to Christchurch uninvited and wrought unspeakable carnage. He has since been banished by the stronger forces of courage, compassion and care, by police, emergency staff, medical personnel, leaders and citizens, media, and by musicians and dancers.

If this review reads as ‘over the top’, that is precisely as intended.

Jennifer Shennan, 23 March 2019

Featured image: Gamelan Wellington with dancer Sri Mulyani and community choir. Photo: © Jacques Sirot

©

Laura Hidalgo and Alexander Idaszak in Liam Scarlett’s ‘Dangerous Liaisons.’ Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo David Kelly

Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet

22 March 2019. The Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

It was a brave move by choreographer Liam Scarlett even to think of making a ballet out of the 18th century French novel Les liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The storyline is complicated to say the least. It follows the tale of a wealthy widow, the Marquise de Merteuil, and her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont, and their vindictive exploits centring on other, innocent players in their circle. It is filled with the less than honest means used by Valmont and Merteuil to move their tawdry plans forward. It takes a real expert to get across, via the wordless art form of dance, a narrative with so many characters involved in so many clandestine activities.

So how did Scarlett do it, and do it so sensationally?

Firstly, Scarlett has a knack for compressing detail without losing the basic elements of the narrative. So, while I am sure that second and third viewings would make the relations between characters clearer for the viewer, there was no difficulty following who was exploiting whom and in what way. The image below shows Cécile Volanges (Janela Piñera), a young virgin engaged to be married to the Comte de Gercourt (Jack Lister), being seduced by the Vicomte de Valmont (Alexander Idaszak). Valmont’s prize for carrying out the seduction (one of the more insidious acts dreamt up by Merteuil and Valmont) will be a one night stand with Merteuil (Laura Hidalgo).


Janela Piñera as Cécile and Alexander Idaszak as Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Secondly, Scarlett is truly a master choreographer who can, seemingly with ease, capture mood and character through movement. In the final scene, where Merteuil and Valmont engage in sexual activities, the partnering is spectacular, almost frightening, for the variety of positions in which the Marquise finds herself as she is thrown, swung and tossed through the air. It is vicious sex and leaves little to the imagination.

Laura Hidalgo and Alexander Idaszak in Liam Scarlett's 'Dangerous Liaisons'. Quensland Ballet, 2019. Photo David Kelly

Laura Hidalgo and Alexander Idaszak in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

This is in stark contrast to the joyous waltzing in the scene where Cécile celebrates her social debut, or in the tender love scene between Cécile and her music teacher, Le Chevalier Raphael de Danceny (Rian Thompson), where the choreography, with its fluid, calm partnering, looked as innocent as the emerging love between Cécile and Danceny.

There were moments too when Scarlett’s wonderful ability to make abstract patterns with groups of dancers was very clear. They included a section early in the work when six dancers, servants in Merteuil household (?), had a few moments just to dance, threading their way between each other like a moving tapestry.

But, of all the dancers onstage on opening night, it was Kohei Iwamoto who stood out for me. He was Azolan, valet to Valmont, and his dancing was light, fluid, and technically exact. Iwamoto made every nuance of Scarlett’s choreography clearly visible, from small twirls of the wrist to larger beats and turns. And Scarlett had given him choreography that showed off his lightness, his elevation and his pleasure in dancing. It fitted well with his role as he rushed off with his bag of letters to deliver news of the next outrageous exploit of Valmont and Merteuil.

Kohei Iwamoto as Azolan in Liam Scarlett’s ‘Dangerous Liaisons‘. Queensland Ballet 2019. Photo David Kelly

Kohei Iwamoto as Azolan in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Thirdly, Scarlett, with I’m sure the assistance of a company’s coaching staff, makes sure that every dancer performs with an understanding of his or her role. I particularly liked Laura Hidalgo as the Marquise de Merteuil. Apart from those incredible feats in her duets with Valmont, which she handled so beautifully, I loved the personality she projected with every move and every step—she was imperious, superior and beyond reproach (at least in her eyes).

And finally, Scarlett’s collaborators work beautifully with him to advance the narrative. Costumes by Tracy Grant Lord were sumptuous and elegant, befitting the aristocratic strata of French society to which the characters belonged. With sexual activities a persistent feature throughout, we often saw decorative and revealing undergarments with colour indicating character, virginal white for Cécile, red and black for Merteuil. The set design, again by Tracy Grant Lord, was for the most part a simple arrangement of panels that moved, sometimes revolving, to create new spaces. Lighting by Kendall Smith gave colour to the panels as well as setting a mood.

But it was the music that added an exceptional collaborative element to Dangerous Liaisons. Scarlett had worked extensively with arranger Martin Yates and together they had gathered together (Yates refers to their actions as ‘plundering’) a variety of music by Camille Saint-Saens to create a new score. Each character had his or her own musical theme, which perhaps is another reason why the ballet held together so well. And, with a piano teacher as one of the main characters, it was no surprise that piano music featured strongly. The music was played live by Queensland’s Camerata Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nigel Gaynor with piano soloist Roger Longjie Cui.

The dancers of Queensland Ballet looked absolutely stunning throughout Dangerous Liaisons. The performance indicated quite clearly that the company is so much more than a State ballet company. QB is a national treasure.

Michelle Potter, 24 March 2019

Featured image: Laura Hidalgo and Alexander Idaszak in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

Laura Hidalgo and Alexander Idaszak in Liam Scarlett’s ‘Dangerous Liaisons.’ Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo David Kelly


In the night. New York City Ballet, 2019 Sara Mearns and Jared Angle. Photo: © Erin Baiano

All Robbins. New York City Ballet

3 March 2019. David H Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York

It was Joan Acocella who wrote of Jerome Robbins in The New Yorker in 2001 that ‘…onstage his dancers act young, have young emotions, passing infatuations, passing sorrows. The picture is never adult, never this-is-what-life-is.’ Two works on the All Robbins program, Interplay and N.Y Export: Opus Jazz, fitted this categorisation. They were fun to watch and were very nicely danced. They were colourful in design and the music—Morton Gould for Interplay and Robert Prince for N.Y Export—made for interesting listening. Of the two perhaps N.Y Export was the more entertaining, with vibrant, jazz-infused movement that reminded me a little of West Side Story. But neither had much intellectual depth.

In fact, the highlight of this triple bill was the middle work, In the Night. Consisting of three pas de deux, each quite different in terms of the interrelationship between the dancers, In the Night did enter into an adult world of emotions. The first, danced by Lauren Lovette and Joseph Gordon, gave us lyricism and a soft, romantic quality. The second, with Maria Kowrowski and Russell Janzen, was more formal and even stately as it unfolded. The third, performed by Sara Mearns and Jared Angle, was the most dramatic. Mearns threw herself at Angle, angry and petulant and then pulled back, repeating this kind of action over and over. A highlight throughout was the exceptional way Robbins took the dancers off stage at the end of each pas de deux. He choreographed those exits, usually as lifts, to match the mood he established in of each pas de deux. Every exit was stunning. Then, in a coda, the six dancers reappeared, met, mixed, performed briefly with different partners, and then finally left the stage after a gentle waltz with their original partners.

In terms of dancing, there was little to fault in this program, which augurs well as the company begins a new era with recently appointed leaders Stafford and Wendy Whelan, who were appointed Artistic Director and Associate Artistic Director respectively. But, personally, in this particular program I would have preferred just one work that was characterised by an interest in youth, and two that had more adult aspects to them.

Michelle Potter, 5 March 2019

Featured image: Sara Mearns and Jared Angle in In the night. New York City Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Erin Baiano

In the night. New York City Ballet, 2019 Sara Mearns and Jared Angle. Photo: © Erin Baiano

DIA Beacon Events (2008). Merce Cunningham Dance Company. DIA Art Foundation, Beacon, New York. Riggio Galleries, 5 December 2008. Photo: © Stephanie Berger

A Feast of Cunningham

2 March 2019. 92Y, New York (Harkness Dance Festival 2019)

In 2019 the dance world is celebrating the centenary of the birth of Merce Cunningham with events across the globe. Most, not surprisingly, are being held throughout the United States. In Australia we had just one event, and I found it highly disappointing. So, it was a thrill to be in New York on a brief visit at a time when the 92nd St Y was holding a program (part of the 2019 Harkness Dance Festival) called A Feast of Cunningham. It was led by Sydney-born Melissa Toogood, a former dancer with Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a distinguished coach and teacher of Cunningham technique.

The program consisted of solos from Doubles (1984) and Loose Time (2002); Septet (1953); an excerpt from Scenario (1997); Cross Currents (1964); excerpts from Landrover (1972) and Trails (1982); and a Minevent. While all had their specific interest, for me it was Septet that gave the greatest pleasure. One of the very early works from Merce Cunningham Dance Company, which I had never seen before, it was fascinating to see choreography that had such an obvious link to the vocabulary and structure of ballet. The dancers used the upper body differently (with a bit more fluidity perhaps), and arms were more curved than is apparent in later works, with beautifully rounded fourth positions apparent at various times. I was also surprised to see one of the male dancers execute (very nicely I might add) a manѐge of turns and jumps. Quite balletic really.

While many of the dancers could be singled out for the particular qualities they exhibited, I found Melissa Toogood’s dancing exceptional. She appeared in several of the works and showed a great command of those features that characterise Cunningham technique, in particular a wonderful awareness of the space the body occupies when it moves (or takes a pose). When she faces front everything faces front, exactly. When she tilts her head to the side it goes exactly to the side, and so on. This exactness was missing from the young dancers from the New World School of the Arts who performed the Minevent that closed the program. While the enthusiasm was all there, in the end, without the exactness we saw from Toogood (and the other older, more experienced dancers), the Minevent looked a little messy to me. More rehearsal/class time needed?

***********************************M

DIA Beacon Events (2009). Brandon Collwes of Merce Cunningham Dance Company. DIA Art Foundation, Beacon, New York. Dan Flavin Gallery, 20 February December 2009. Photo: © Stephanie Berger

Also on show at the 92Y was an exhibition of photographs, Merce Cunningham: Passing Time 1967-2011, Photos by James Klosty and Stephanie Berger. Klosty’s images date to the 1960s and 1970s and have long been seen as the standard go-to shots for that early era of Cunningham’s work. The exhibition included many of his classic shots, including portraits of Cunningham’s collaborators of the time such as, John Cage, David Tudor, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns and others. Stephanie Berger’s images are quite different and their great strength is that they show clearly the nature of Cunningham vocabulary: the tilt of bodies, the strong sense of direction and spatial awareness, the extended limbs, the typical leaps and poses, and much more. Next to Berger’s shots, Klosty’s images have a kind of mystery and an emotive quality. Berger, on the other hand, gives us a fresh and exciting look at Cunningham’s work, and her images have their own emotional appeal. The work of both photographers benefits from this joint display.

Both images used in this post are from Merce Cunningham: Passing Time 1967-2011, Photos by James Klosty and Stephanie Berger and are used with the kind permission of the photographer.

Michelle Potter, 5 March 2019

Featured image: DIA Beacon Events (2008). Merce Cunningham Dance Company. DIA Art Foundation, Beacon, New York. Riggio Galleries, 5 December 2008. Photo: © Stephanie Berger

DIA Beacon Events (2008). Merce Cunningham Dance Company. DIA Art Foundation, Beacon, New York. Riggio Galleries, 5 December 2008. Photo: © Stephanie Berger
Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in 'Thursday'. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble

3 March 2019. Wellington Railway Station Foyer

Choreography: Lucy Marinkovich/Borderline Arts Ensemble 
Performers: Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud
Music: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto No.2 (Adagio)

after 1945 David Lean /Noel Coward film classic, Brief Encounter. 

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan.

You’ve reached the Wellington Railway Station. In 15 mins your train is due to leave for Waikanae, so there’s time, no great hurry. It’s a fine day, just a bit draughty across the foyer, probably as well to keep your coat on. You stroll around a little and admire the warm pinkish-brown of carrara marble walls, the high vaulted ceiling panels painted in bright lightness. It’s all quite beautiful, must be the finest railway station in the world. The speakers are piping familiar Rachmaninoff, which is somehow comforting in such a transitory space.

Damn, something is caught in your eye and it stings, A man passing tries to help you. Whoa! Who is this? All the longing you’ve always kept inside but never voiced out loud, your secret that you could love someone till the end of time, even if there is no such actual person, or, if there is, you’ll never meet, it’s just a longing that you’ve always lived—perhaps others have it too?—but how would you know because this is not anything you can talk about. That would be unlucky and you might be overheard by strangers. There is no such person, too true to be real, too beautiful to last, to have a name, and she may not even notice you, and you’d risk losing her when you’d only just met. No, he’s just a kind man passing by, trying to help you sort your eye problem. Or let’s say it is just the thing called hope, the thing with feathers, that you nurture in the breast while reading Emily Dickinson’s poems on train journeys.

It’s not that you’re at all the type to fall carelessly and deeply in love with a stranger in a public place—for example, the man sitting in the third row of the No.14 bus that time you went to town … that was a breath-holding ride, you thought you could be together forever … but he knew nothing about you, did not even notice you, so the affair was safely over by the time you alighted at the third-section bus-stop. There was no dance, it was all in your mind, your soft head. So how come this day is different? This man does notice you, more than that—he pauses, he stops, he turns, he offers to help, he wants to meet you, he feels the same as you do. This is a film script, surely? You’re actually in this film, yet you never auditioned, and there was never any rehearsal. Who’s the choreographer here? Swan Lake is the story of a man and a woman who meet, they dance and love, but she is due to fly out that evening and he will lose her forever. This is different, it’s just a train station, remember.

Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in Lucy
Marinkovich’s Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

A number of other travellers  stop to watch the couple—and are fixed by the beautiful figures-of-eight they see traced, like infinity signs lying sideways. Small fires flicker inside those who are watching too. No one is voicing a commentary, there are no subtitles, no flyers to hand out, no powerpoint. The dance is the point of power. This is not pornography, it’s not erotic (though nearly it is…), it’s just a 13 minute love dance on the marble floor of a railway station, by a man and a woman who keep their coats on while they fall into the depths of each other’s eyes and drown there, just managing to save each other by doing beautiful things, whatever their bodies will allow— like waves and billows, like leaning and longings, with arms, and hands, with legs, feet, faces, eyes, the backs of their heads too—they don’t always need to be watching to know what the other is doing, they can just tell. He knows they will never have to argue or disagree, they will love and hold and be held forever. This is better than all the lyrics of all the love songs on all the shelves of all the music shops of the world. These are minutes of assurance that you can love someone you don’t even know by name, and still catch your train. But, hold the Rachmaninoff … the voice-over announces that the Waikanae train will be leaving in two minutes time. You both pause, you raise hands in the gesture of a farewell wave—oh no—but yes—but no, let it go without you. You walk back towards each other, hold still, hold tight. She has let the train go without her.

All the dance moves up till this point were just rehearsal, so now it’s time to do them all again, only more fully, and slower, deeper to lunge, higher to lift, wider to arc, stronger to clasp. The watching travellers are all choosing to miss their trains too. They can’t walk away from lovemaking. At the start there was a posterboard on the edge of the space that read ‘New World, special coffee & muffin offer free. Today only’ but the message has been changed while no-one was looking and now reads ‘Innocence is contagious, if you like’ which everyone knows is true, and better value than coffee and a muffin, even when that’s free.

They continue dancing and it is the loveliest thing you ever saw in a Railway Station. Then the voice-over for the next train to Waikanae, and oh, she must leave now, and so she does. He turns and walks to the street, it’s his eyes that are stinging now, holding the memory of all that just happened. Probably. Today only. In 13 minutes. And will last forever. Surely.

————-

Lucy and partner/colleague, Lucien Johnson, will take up the year-long Harriet Friedlander Residency in New York. May they keep their coats on. while at the subway station.

Jennifer Shennan, 3 March 2019

Featured image: Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in Lucy
Marinkovich’s Thursday. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: © Philip Merry

Hannah Tasker-Poland and Emmanuel Reynaud in 'Thursday'. Borderline Arts Ensemble, 2019. Photo: Philip Merry

Royal New Zealand Ballet Choreographic Series

1-2 March 2019, Opera House Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This program to open 2019 has four new and contrasting works that will appeal to audiences in different ways. The dancers, as always, give their all, but the production needs to settle down yet, and the lighting effects be reduced by perhaps 50%, if it is to source the power of theatre.

Hine the first work, by Moss Paterson, opens with a strongly rendered haka fronted by males, but the following sequence for females, with the unexpected choices of pointe shoes and scantily clad dancers, is a challenge to reconcile with the evocation of a whare whakairo. The first woman in Maori mythology, Hine ahu one, has been a number of times choreographed—(I think of Louise Potiki Bryant, of Kelly Nash, and of Merenia Gray’s works, and believe they could all be considered for future possible restagings). I found the back projections for this Hine often distracting, and the aural overload a challenge. I am no fan of strobe light in the theatre at the best of times, believing it belongs to the rock concert stage or the disco bar, and often weakens the development of form in a choreography. So Hine was for me, with its various quotes from other dances we have seen recently, a work in progress.

Y(It is decades since this company performed it, but no-one forgets how Gray Veredon harnessed the ihi, wehi and wana of haka into his classic cameo work, Tell Me A Tale. Anyone wishing to choreograph Te Ao Maori onto a ballet stage needs to study that work, and Veredon, a pioneering member of this Company, would be willing to help—right now though he is impressively occupied with staging a new full-length commission at Polish National Ballet. One could also consider bringing back to their home company some of our other ex-pat choreographers and teachers who have made strong careers abroad—Cameron McMillan, Mark Baldwin, Andrew Simmons, Martin James and Patricia Rianne come to mind).

The second work is by James O’Hara, The Sky Is Not So Different From Us, Perhaps… with musician Anita Clark on stage. The work has a layered movement texture I found cumulatively mesmerising. Ceaseless pulses and undulations hint at the physics inside a human body—the rhythms of breathing and of blood circulating, as measures of life, except for one sad Pierrot figure standing in catatonic contrast until the violin vibrations thaw her out. The ever-repeating tape-loop of violin and vocals adds to the work’s atmosphere and mystery. Multi-layered costumes echo the choreographic theme, though for some of them, less would be more (and why a very tall man would wear a constricting mid-calf pink skirt I found impossible to fathom). The best of this work is very good indeed.

(left) Mayu Tanigaito in The ground beneath our feet; (right) Abigail Boyle in Artemis rising, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. All photos: © Stephen A’Court

Shaun James Kelly’s work, The Ground Beneath our Feet, is a winner. He summons the airborne energy and élan we have always welcomed from the dancers in our Company, whatever the chosen choreographic style or aesthetic. I personally prefer to hear Bach in the scores as left to us, so the doctored treatment of the Violin Concerto, while you can do it, did not seem to me to add anything new. A galvanising pleasure though to see the commitment between partners within each dancing couple. The total frisson of the evening for me was Mayu Tanigaito. The prodigious technique of this dancer allows her to transform to a hummingbird, a diving swallow, a fairy tern. That she can do it all and more, and flash a smile the while, puts her in a class of her own. (Many of us have long wished that the superb full-length work Madame Butterfly, by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, and stunning design by Peter Farmer, could be re-staged from our Company’s strong and richly defined repertoire, and the title role offered to this dancer as a vehicle for her talent).

This season marks the retirement, after 13 stalwart years dancing, of Abigail Boyle, a much loved and highly versatile performer with classical, dramatic and comic abilities in spades. The work Artemis Rising, choreographed for her by Sarah Foster-Sproull, was effectively a solo, with other dancers as a shadow chorus. It leaves some striking images for us to savour, and acts as tribute to Abigail’s performing, and a blessing on her future career transition (she plans to develop a teaching and coaching career).

The purest combination of technique, phrasing and line was to be seen whenever watching Abigail in class in the studio—an experience I will treasure to the end of my days. Many know and love this dancer, and wish her the very best for the coming years. (Readers may care to read the fine interview with Bess Manson published in The Dominion Post, 2 March 2019, and available online at www.stuff.co.nz—Dancer Abigail Boyle, Breaking through the fourth wall).She has been given a spirited and fitting farewell.

A recent Company newsletter advised that they are also currently considering how to honour the significant contribution to ballet and theatre in New Zealand of Sir Jon Trimmer who gave his retirement performance late last year. If that turns out to be an 80th Birthday Benefit Gala in September, say, one can imagine the Opera House dome needing to be opened to let out the tsunami of excitement and gratitude that New Zealanders would want to show him by way of salute and thanks for the legendary 60+ years career with this Company. Kia ora rawa atu, he totara nui o te ao kanikani o Aotearoa. I nga ra o mua, i nga ra inaianeihe wiri mo he takahia taonga enei. Tena koe, e hoa.

Jennifer Shennan, 2 March 2019

Featured image:Caroline Wiley in The sky is not so different from us … perhaps. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

STORYTIME BALLET COPPELIA The Australian Ballet. Photo Jeff Busby

Storytime Ballet—Coppélia. The Australian Ballet

17 January 2019. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre.

Here is a slightly expanded version of my review of Coppélia in its storytime form. The review has already appeared in The Canberra Times online but is yet to appear in print.*

This Coppélia is the third production in the popular Storytime Ballet series produced for young people by the Australian Ballet. It follows storytime productions of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. These productions are advertised as being for children aged 3 and up but I was curious to know how ‘up’ things could be. So I took along two grandchildren (both boys) aged nine and eleven.

Coppélia, with its blend of humour, magic, easy to follow mime, and joyous activity, lends itself well to being rethought as an experience for the young. Its story is simple and it contains some fascinating characters. Apart from the main couple, Swanilda and Franz, who eventually resolve their problems, there is the eccentric Dr Coppélius, a toy maker who dabbles in his own brand of magic and, of course, Coppélia, the life-sized doll Dr Coppélius has created and hopes to bring to life. It is this doll we see sitting in the window of Dr Coppélius’ house and who is the cause of issues between Franz and Swanilda.

Dr Coppélius can be a formidable character but, in this production, anything alarming about him is reduced by the fact that he takes on the role of narrator. On stage narration has become a feature of the Australian Ballet’s storytime ballets and it is beautifully done on this occasion by Sean McGrath, whose acting and strong, clear voice were commented on by my young companions. The basics of his role in the full-length ballet were there. He loses his key when being jostled by the village folk thus allowing the village girls to enter his house, he reads from his book of spells to attempt to bring Coppélia to life, and so forth. But his character doesn’t really develop fully, which, although understandable, is a shame.

Sean McGrath and Dayna Booth in the Australian Ballet’s storytime Coppélia. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As far as the dancing goes, and after all it is still a ballet we are watching, the small company of just 12 artists (largely of graduates of the Australian Ballet School) does an excellent job. The main roles of Franz and Swanilda are rotated amongt company members. We saw Benjamin Obst as Franz and Jasmin Forner as Swanilda and both showed outstanding technical abilities. My companions were especially impressed with Obst’s tours en l’air and his grand pirouettes to which he added a showy jump every so often. I was impressed with Forner. Readers of The Canberra Times’ arts pages may remember a story about Forner published last year, which told of her recovery in Canberra Hospital from serious injuries sustained in a car accident. We saw her in Canberra last year as part of the Australian Ballet School’s graduation season, but she has developed more strength since then and danced beautifully. Watching her now, her recovery and return to ballet seem quite miraculous.

The ending of this Coppélia was without a wedding and its pas de deux, and we saw only the Dawn solo and not Prayer. So again there was something missing from the storyline and for me it all fell a bit flat. But nevertheless the ending was presented as celebratory occasion and the young people in the audience left feeling happy.

The full-length Coppélia is a three-act ballet with changes of set for each act. Designer Hugh Colman skilfully designed a single set for the storytime production, which with just a few moveable facades, and some fine lighting by Jon Buswell, could easily transform itself from village square to Dr Coppelius’ workshop and back to the square within the 50 minutes of this production, which had no interval at all.

The Canberra Theatre Centre’s Playhouse is a perfect venue for these storytime productions. It has a delightful intimacy that encourages participation from the very young, who made the most of the opportunity to assist Dr Coppélius with his magic, some using magic wands, others their magic fingers. My nine year old didn’t want to be part of the magic bits, although the eleven year old had no problem joining in and wiggling his fingers. I suspect, however, that for those young people who are slightly older, it was the strength of the dancing, from dancers not much older than they are, that attracted them. But there was definitely something for young people across quite a reasonable age range.

Michelle Potter, 19 January 2019

* UPDATE: Date of publication in print was 21 January 2019.

Featured image: The Australian Ballet’s storytime Coppélia. Phopto: © Jeff Busby

STORYTIME BALLET COPPELIA The Australian Ballet. Photo Jeff Busby

Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from Corroboree of 2001. Dubboo 2018. Photo Daniel Boud

Dubboo. Life of a songman. Bangarra Dance Theatre and guests

7 December 2018. Carriageworks, Sydney

Dubboo. Life of a songman was a tribute to David Page, master musician and esteemed elder of the extended Page family, who died in 2016. Dubboo was his nickname (or one of them) and the theatrical tribute showed us much about the diversity of his life and the process by which his music came into being. It was an emotional evening of music, dance, reminiscences. projected imagery and film clips. Having said that, sadly I have to admit that unexpected circumstances meant that I was only able to stay for Act I, Dubboo: Songman. I missed Act 2: Dubboo: Showman. Looking at the Act 2 media images, clearly I missed the tribute to the extravagant side of David Page’s life—his life as an actor, as a female impersonator and a ‘drag persona’ as Alana Valentine puts it in her program tribute.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in part 2 of Dubboo

Bangarra Dance Theatre in Act 2 of Dubboo. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Nevertheless, there was so much to admire in Act 1. It was wonderful to see dance excerpts from some of the many works for which Page created the music. It was wonderful, too, to hear his music adapted for string quartet, and to hear spoken and sung excerpts, tributes and stories from people like Archie Roach, Djakapurra Munyarryun, Ursula Yovich and Hunter Page-Lochard, not to mention seeing film clips of Page himself explaining some of the processes he engaged in while composing.

Djakapurra Munyarryun and Ursula Yovich. Duboo, 2018. Photo Daniel Boud

(l-r) Archie Roach (seated), Djakapurra Munyarryun and Ursula Yovich, with string quartet in the background. Dubboo, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

From a dance perspective, I was moved especially by ‘Lust’ from Brolga of 2001. Its sexy choreography was stunningly danced by Waangenga Blanco and Tara Robertson, who wrapped themselves around each other with an intensity that made two bodies appear as one. A second standout was ‘Brother’ from Skin/Spear of 2000 acted and danced by the remarkable Beau Dean Riley Smith. And then there was the lightness and lyricism of Tara Gower in ‘Feather’ from Bush of 2003. But every danced excerpt was performed with power, grace and dedication.

Tara Gower in 'Feather' from 'Bush' 2003. Dubboo 2018. Photo Jhuny-Boy Borja

Tara Gower in ‘Feather’ from Bush 2003. Dubboo 2018. Photo: © Jhuny-Boy Borja

Bangarra Dance Theatre and its guests in this tribute did David Page proud and I was honoured to be there, even if only for part of it all.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2018

Featured image: Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from Corroboree of 2001. Dubboo 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Bangarra Dance Theatre in a scene from Corroboree of 2001. Dubboo 2018. Photo Daniel Boud