4 May 2019 (matinee). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
It is always exceptional to see a work by a choreographer who is not the familiar one from one’s previous experiences of that work. Having seen John Cranko’s production of Romeo and Juliet countless times, as performed by the Australian Ballet, along with several versions by other choreographers, the Royal Ballet’s production of Kenneth MacMillan’s version of the Shakespearian tragedy was indeed an exceptional experience. I was lucky too, I think, to have seen Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov in the leading roles. While I thought Lamb’s interpretation was a little too child-like, I was fascinated by the changing emotions displayed by Muntagirov. In addition, the partnership between Lamb and Muntagirov was very secure technically and, as a result, MacMillan’s often swirling, curving, diving lifts were realised beautifully.
The MacMillan version of Romeo and Juliet received its premiere in 1965. It is a gutsy production from the beginning when the market place of the opening scene buzzes with activity and is filled with people who seem so real (and was that a side of a dead cow being carried through the crowd on the way to the market?). The sense of the real continues through to the middle scenes when Mercutio and then Tybalt die from sword wounds and do so in such a dramatically convincing fashion, and on to the end where Romeo’s and Juliet’s death scenes leave us emotionally exhausted.
Then, Nicholas Georgiadis’ sets have little of the romantic to them. The Capulets live in a fortress, as we see when the guests arrive for the Capulet ball. And, as Jann Parry tells us in her program notes, the inclusion of a fortress looks back to the Franco Zeffirelli theatre production, made for the Old Vic in 1960-61, when Zeffirelli had the Capulets live in such a structure as protection from enemies and in order to preserve their family treasures. Then the crypt in which the Capulets place the apparently dead Juliet is spectacular with its huge stone sculptures and its flights of dark stairs of stone. The production has a kind of rawness to it and just speeds along.
Muntagirov danced superbly showing off his spectacularly light and seemingly effortless jumps; his wonderfully controlled turns, including some in attitude devant as well as attitude derrière, along with some great manèges with various showy steps. But what I especially admired about his Romeo was the way he made his emotions so visible. A highlight was when he watched a wedding parade enter the market place (to the accompaniment of mandolins) in the early moments of Act II. As he stood downstage, almost motionless, we could read that he was thinking that he and Juliet could and should follow that very example. Another was his undisguised anger at what Tybalt had done to Mercutio, and his determination to avenge the death of his friend.
Sarah Lamb is not my favourite Juliet I’m afraid. I know Juliet is a mere 13 or 14 years old but, within the MacMillan structure, I would have preferred a more feisty Juliet. But with her beautifully proportioned limbs and sound technique she danced superbly and was a joy to watch from that point of view
I enjoyed Thomas Whitehead’s commanding presence as Tybalt, especially in the scenes in the market place where his dislike of Romeo was constantly visible, and in the ball scene where his carriage of the upper body marked him as being a proud and aristocratic Capulet. And incidentally, the corps danced beautifully in the ball scene as they tilted their bodies slightly back from the waist upwards in a show of historical deportment. Other dancers to admire especially were Marcelino Sambé as a vibrant Mercutio, Téo Dubreuil as a constantly concerned Benvolio, and Christina Arestis as a very haughty Lady Montague who clearly could not bear the Capulet family.
This production was highly engaging and I love to ponder its character beside the others that I have seen—those of Cranko, Graeme Murphy, John Neumeier, Stanton Welch, and the two versions that take particular liberties for one reason or another—those of Sasha Waltz and Natalie Weir. (I have no review on this site of the Cranko production. It has been a while since the Australian Ballet showed it).
New Zealand Dance Company’s Kiss the Sky is a highly energised and energising program of three works that appealed to an enthusiastic audience. Production values are always strong with this company, and the six dancers are all smart, sharp, sophisticated and cleanly co-ordinated movers who share singular commitment. While the three separate works have visual and aesthetic contrasts, each uses a similar casting, shape of choreographic structure, percussive accompaniment, and movement vocabulary that, taken together, also resonate as a triptych.
The opening work, Sigan, by Korean choreographer, KIM Jae Duk, has a cast of four dancers—Chrissy Kokiri, Katie Rudd, Carl Tolentino and Xin Ji. The contrasting qualities of thrust and parry, speed and stillness, light and shade of several Asian martial arts are evoked. When all four dancers are moving together, even if in canon, we have the fascinating chance to see individual differences within ‘sameness’. It is Xin Ji’s combination of strength and softness, not sequentially but simultaneously in different parts of his body, a felt not a taught quality, that always steals my eye.
The Fibonacci, by Victoria Columbus, is a premiere work dedicated to the memory of Sue Paterson, who was New Zealand’s leading dance and arts manager for decades, and is still and always will be deeply missed by many. This choreography, based on patterns in the Fibonacci series of numbers, would have thrilled Sue by the translation of mathematics to the stage. It starts with a contemplative illumination but soon becomes a river of intriguing movement. Lighting ideas (Jo Kilgour) and costume design (Elizabeth Whiting) are intrinsic to the work and contribute beautifully to the choreographic vision.
Stephanie Lake, whose own dance company is based in Melbourne, was invited to set If Never was Now on NZDC. It is a high-octane work with a similar mix of solo, duo and group dances in some eye-catching episodes. ‘Snow’ falls, scatters and is scattered across the stage, adding to the enigma within the choreography.
In a contemporary dance program such as this, there is by choreographers’ choice no directly delivered reference to human experience or emotion, no conflict or drama to resolve, no consolation in lyricism, no primacy given to story, no levity in comedy (other than a brief duet of frenzied flirtation between two unidentified insect-like animals in the final work). Instead we see individuals’ staccato head movements, isolated gestures of limbs detached from lines or follow-through into the torso, a minimum of elevation, relatively little physical contact between dancers, an indirect relationship with the audience, a parallel rather than juxtaposed music accompaniment. All of this combines to suggest a grounded timelessness rather than the specifics of individual lives here and now. There is much high speed and there is sculptured stillness, but little of measured adagio in between. This creates effective references to a mix of robotic and mechanical moves in contrast with people’s states of being. It invites us to view our human condition and experiences against that perspective. Sequences of abstract movement vocabulary, danced at sometimes breathtaking speed, provide mesmerising visuals that we can take at face value of the physics and mathematics of life, or as metaphor if we choose.
Sitting in the so-called ‘first balcony’ of Teatro alla Scala in Milan gave me a view of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works that I have never had before. In I now, I then, the first act based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, I saw more clearly the structural elements of the set, the darkness behind those structures, and the way the elements of the set impacted on the storyline. In the second act, Becomings, based on Orlando, I had a view of Lucy Carter’s spectacular lighting design that was quite different from what I saw in earlier performances. In act three, Tuesday, based on The Waves, I was able to see McGregor’s choreographic patterns more clearly than before.
Of course I missed what I had seen on previous occasions, especially some of the finely detailed moments of choreography, and some details of personal connections between the dancers. But, like much in Milan, tickets to the ballet are expensive and, in any case, as I looked down from my central position so close to the ceiling (the ‘first balcony’ is the fifth of six semi-circular galleries that are part of the theatre), I wondered how well one could see from the orchestra stalls anyway. Down there the floor of the auditorium seemed very flat, although no doubt the stage was raked.
This post discusses the impact the new, on-high perspective had on my thoughts about Woolf Works. My previous reviews of Woolf Works are at the following links: London 2017, Brisbane 2017.
For me, I now, I then has always had the strongest narrative element of the three acts. It follows various threads of Clarissa Dalloway’s life and loves, but does so through Clarissa’s memories. Having the view from the ‘first balcony’ of the three large wooden structures (they are like enormous picture frames) that make up the set in this act, seeing them move position, come together and separate repeatedly, gave extra strength to the notion that the story was moving through Clarissa’s life. Those who touched her life disappeared behind the frames occasionally only to reappear later, and the frames themselves seemed larger than I had previously noticed—life itself exists on a grand scale—and the figures smaller—we are are born to die while life, a greater force, continues.
I have always loved the final moments of act one where the five people who have especially touched Clarissa’s life dance together, change partners, come back to each other, then one by one disappear into the void of the darkened stage leaving Clarissa alone to contemplate her memories. The whole notion of the changing relationships that mark our lives was made clearer to me as I looked down on the action and on the visual elements that marked out the stage space.
The cast was led by Alessandra Ferri as Clarissa; Federico Bonelli as Peter, Clarissa’s early love interest; Catherina Bianchi as the young Clarissa; Agnese di Clementi as Jenny, Clarissa’s female friend; and Mick Zeni as Richard, Clarissa’s husband.
A major characteristic of act two, Becomings, has always been Lucy Carter’s astonishing lighting design. Earlier I wrote that it ‘sometimes divides the stage space, other times it beams out into the space of the auditorium. It colours the space, and darkens it too, and laser beams occasionally shoot across the stage’. This time it seemed quite clear that many of the lighting effects indicated the multiple decades/years that are covered in Orlando. Throughout this act the dancers moved through some very clear geometrical patches of light as well as some cloudy, misty patches. And again the dancers seemed small, this time in relation to those clouds and shapes of light. Then as the act closes beams of light are projected into the auditorium. From a height they no longer blind the eyes but suggest clearly that we were now part of the ‘becoming’. Time has passed and reached ‘now’.
Act 3, Tuesday,
Act 3, Tuesday, begins with a voice-over reading Virginia Woolf’s suicide note to her husband before she drowns herself in the River Ouse, her pockets filled with stones. The letter is dated Tuesday.
I have to admit that previously the choreography in this act seemed to me to be a little messy, apart from the very moving pas de deux that follows immediately after the voice-over. But, looking down on the movement patterns McGregor had created on the dancers, his intention with the choreography seemed clearer. I saw the many different variations that one might encounter in water—swirls, rips, eddies, gentle waves, tumultuous breakers, everything was there. There was no mess, just a myriad of watery patterns danced nicely by the corps de ballet of Teatro alla Scala with the participation of students from La Scala Academy.
Not being familiar with the dancers of La Scala it is hard to make comments about specific dancers. But I recall Nicoletta Manni from her performances in Australia in 2018 and I enjoyed her dancing in act two. I was also impressed by Timofej Andrijashenko both in act one as Septimus, the World War I veteran who commits suicide, and in act 2 for some spectacular dancing. Ferri and Bonelli I have seen before in their roles as Clarissa and Peter and once again they gave exceptional performances.
In all, I loved seeing Woolf Works from a completely different position in the auditorium. It simply confirmed my opinion that Woolf Works is a ballet that I will never tire of seeing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Buddhism—a 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.
[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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.