Alison Plevey’s Australian Dance Party has a commission from the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to create a work in conjunction with the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of British street portraits from the early 19th century, drawn by John Dempsey. The portraits are beautiful miniatures of working class people in a variety of situations. Plevey’s work, called weave, hustle and halt, is on show at the National Portrait Gallery on Saturdays 2 & 9 September at various times and will reflect the activity, characters and rhythms of the modern-day streetscape. The short work will have a sound score and ‘live busking’ by two musicians from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Tim Wickham and Alex Voorhoeve. I look forward to seeing how Plevey can capture the inherent, down-to-earth beauty of these portraits.
Bathing Lady by John Dempsey
Oral history updates
Most of the interviews I have conducted recently for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program have been with people working in various areas of the visual arts. This month, however, I had the pleasure of recording interviews with Mary Li from Queensland Ballet, and of course an outstanding dancer and coach in many situations prior to Queensland Ballet, and with Shaun Parker, director of Shaun Parker & Company. Records should appear shortly on the NLA catalogue.
Press for August
‘A leap of faith.’ Preview story for Blue Love, Shaun Parker & Company. The Canberra Times, 5 August 2017, p. 11. Online version. See also this link.
‘Torment laid bare in gripping work.’ Review of Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre. The Canberra Times, 7 August 2017, p. 18. Online version.
In the dire funding situation affecting dance artists across the country, it was a thrill to hear from Liz Lea that her third science show for schools, Reef UP!, has been funded by the Queensland Government under their Engaging Science Grant Program.
Lea, ever resourceful when it comes to collaborating and seeking funding, has previously presented science-oriented shows called Flying Facts and Star Struck in collaboration with the Queensland Music Festival. She received an ACT seed grant last year to begin research on Reef UP! Discussing Lea’s plans for her children’s shows I wrote last year:
Flying Facts began from a seeding grant Lea received to develop a show, eventually named InFlight, which examined Australian aviation history using materials in the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive. During the research period, Questacon [the National Science and Technology Centre] asked Lea if a science component could be incorporated. InFlight went ahead as planned but a children’s show looking at how planes and birds fly, Flying Facts, also emerged and scored considerable success. The other children’s show, Star Struck, grew from work Lea did with astronomers and scientists from Mount Stromlo Observatory. It explores the astronomy of the northern and southern constellations and now Lea is exploring the possibility of a new collaboration with Mount Stromlo incorporating dancers from Australia and Singapore. And, fascinated by David Attenborough’s work on the fate of the Great Barrier Reef, Lea is working on a new educational show with characters called Manta, Ray, Slinky the Shark and the like. She has a small grant to undertake further research for this show in Queensland.*
Reef UP! will have an opening season in October in Canberra before touring into regional schools across Queensland and will feature, in addition to Lea, Liesl Zink and Michael Smith.
In addition to Lea’s funding success, Alison Plevey and Australian Dance Party have received an ACT seed grant to work on a proposed show, Mine!, to premiere (further funding permitting) in August.
Zahira Madeleine Bullock (1927–2017)
I was saddened to hear of the death at the age of 90 of Zahira Madeleine Bullock, one of the standout figures in Canberra’s GOLD group. Her appearance in shows by the GOLDs will certainly be missed. I always enjoyed the way her dancing was incorporated into GOLD productions, and how she was assisted along the way by others in the group. She was also founder of Dances of Universal Peace in Australia.
The video clip at below shows some moments from her dancing career with the GOLDs. Her opening remark on the clip— ‘I think it’s rubbish that dance is only for the young’—will live on forever.
Fans of Hannah O’Neill may be interested in watching the following short film, Ascension made by by Jacob Sutton in 2015, showing O’Neill and Germain Louvet dancing inside and outside the Palais Garnier. [Update: Link no longer available]
The venues used by Sutton in his film can be seen as well in the film Relève (Reset), which documents the first months of Benjamin Millepied’s directorship of Paris Opera Ballet. In particular, there are scenes in Relève that have been shot on the roof of the Palais Garnier, where O’Neill and Louvet execute that very beautiful (but somewhat terrifying) lift with O’Neill being carried along the edge of the roof in a grand jeté pose.
Canberra’s Australian Dance Party has announced some upcoming events/performances for 2017.
Shake it will take place on 18 March in the courtyard of the National Film and Sound Archive as part of the Art Not Apart Festival. It will feature, in addition to Party dancers, a mixologist and a DJ. Autonomous will be played out in a carpark in Canberra’s CBD as part of the You Are Here Festival and will investigate ‘laziness, disposability and pollution of our cities’. Mine! scheduled for August (depending on funding). A site-specific work set in a Canberra warehouse with a great line-up of dancers. Richard Cilli, Olivia Fyfe and Jack Riley will join Alison Plevey for this show.
Check out ADP’s promo with a message from Alison Plevey and brief scenes from Strings Attached at this vimeo link.
Plans for the BOLD Festival, which I mentioned in the January diary, are moving ahead speedily. I will be giving a talk on the Saturday (11 March) entitled ‘The Search for Identity. Australian Dance in the 1950s’. I have especially enjoyed where my research has taken me on this one.
I discovered a little more about the composer Camille Gheysens, who wrote music for several of Gertrud Bodenwieser’s works, including Central Australian Suite and Aboriginal Spear Dance, footage of which, danced by Keith Bain, will be shown during my talk. Investigating material relating to Gheysens led me to artist Byram Mansell who designed a record cover (amongst many other items) for some of Gheysens’ compositions. I am still trying to unravel various threads relating to Aboriginal Spear Dance, but in many respects my talk is a forerunner to another session on 11 March, which will feature a 1951 documentary about Rex Reid’s Corroboree and Ella, a film about Ella Havelka.
I will also be discussing briefly Wakooka, a ballet choreographed by Valrene Tweedie for the Elizabethan Opera Ballet Company in 1957. This section of the talk will include an audio extract from an oral history interview recorded with Tweedie in 2004. In the extract she explains how, with the help of John Antill who wrote the score, she came to call the ballet Wakooka. In looking for a portrait of Tweedie from around the time she made Wakooka to include in my presentation, I came across one I had not encountered before, which she has dated on the back of the print as ‘1952-ish’. She was 28 or 29.
Recently, arts writers and critics for The Canberra Times were asked to choose their top five shows for 2016 for publication immediately before and after Christmas. We wrote and filed our stories in mid-December and, for various reasons I chose only four productions.
But mid-December was before the names of successful applicants for artsACT project funding were made public. The announcement made it very clear that a massive cutback had been made to project funding (more than 60% less money was made available for arts projects than in the previous round). Just one dance project was funded: James Batchelor received $30,000 to develop ‘a large-scale new dance performance’ at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. Had I written the story a little later I would have changed one part of my article. Rather than saying, as I did, But locally made dance has been particularly strong this year and may that continue as well, and be recognised by local and national funding bodies, I would have written ‘But locally made dance has been particularly strong this year, and it is a sad indictment of the current ACT government that it has not chosen to recognise the vibrancy of dance being produced in Canberra by locally-based artists, artists who have worked tirelessly to show that Canberra is a place where dance can flourish throughout the year.’
Perhaps I would also have changed my final sentence as well, but that would have assumed that locally-based artists might have given up. But dancers don’t give up. They find ways to keep moving right along.
Here is my Canberra Times story as published this morning, although slightly altered to include what was cut and, for variety, with a slightly different selection of images. The story is also available online at this link.
Much of the dance that audiences have seen in Canberra in 2016 has been refreshingly ‘underground’ in that it has been a little non-conformist in terms of where it has been performed and who has performed it. Our national cultural institutions have, for example, been active in hosting small dance performances, sometimes, as with the National Portrait Gallery, as an adjunct to their various exhibitions or acquisitions. We have, of course, seen Bangarra Dance Theatre and Sydney Dance Company, who, to our ongoing pleasure and gratitude, continue to visit Canberra and bring with them their outstanding, more mainstream work. Let’s hope that such visits continue as they have done over the past several decades. But locally made dance has been particularly strong this year and may that continue as well, and be recognised by local and national funding bodies.
Without a doubt the dance highlight for me was Great Sport! a site-specific production that took place in various parts of the National Museum of Australia, including outdoors in the Garden of Australian Dreams. The brainchild of Liz Lea, the production was a celebration of movement and sporting history. It continued the focus Lea has had since arriving in Canberra in 2009 on working in unusual spaces and, in particular, on using the Canberra environment and its cultural institutions as a venue, and as a backdrop to her work.
The show had its first performance on World Health Day and, given that the program featured Canberra’s mature age group, the GOLDS, as well as two Dance for Parkinson’s groups, Great Sport! was also a program that focused on healthy living through movement. Great Sport! showcased the work of several professional choreographers, some from Canberra, others from interstate, all commissioned by Lea to make different sections of the work. One of the most interesting aspects of Great Sport! was, in fact, the way in which the choreographers, all very different in their approaches and choreographic style, were able to maintain and make visible those inherent stylistic differences, while working with community groups in which movement skills were, understandably, quite varied.
What we saw was innately theatrical: outrageous at times, more thoughtful and serious at others and bouquets are due to Lea for her persistent focus on Canberra as a place where dance happens. Great Sport! was an exceptional piece of collaboration and a spectacularly good event.
Then, in a major development for dance in Canberra, Alison Plevey launched a new contemporary company, Australian Dance Party. Plevey has been active as an independent artist for some time now but has often spoken of the need for a professional dance company in Canberra. In 2016 she made this vision a reality and her new contemporary dance company has already given two performances to date: Strings Attached, the opening production staged in collaboration with several musicians from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra in a pop-up theatre space in the Nishi building, and Nervous, a work staged in a burnt-out telescope dome at Mt Stromlo. Again, Plevey is committed to making dance in Canberra and has been persistent in her drive and determination to make this happen.
Beyond locally created dance, and of the more mainstream live ventures to come to Canberra, Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker was a pre-Christmas treat. This Nutcracker was danced to perfection by Queensland Ballet now directed by the highly-motivated Li Cunxin, who has moved the company from a not-so-interesting regional organisation to one that has everything to offer the most demanding dance-goer. Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker was a heart-warming performance of a much-loved ballet and it was thrilling to see Queensland Ballet as a major force in the world of Australian ballet. May the company return many times to Canberra.
Beyond the live stage, Canberra dance audiences had the opportunity to see Spear, a film from Bangarra Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Stephen Page. Following showings at film festivals in Australia and elsewhere, Spear had a season at the National Film and Sound Archive early in 2016. It was a challenging and confronting film that used dance and movement as a medium to explore the conflicting worlds of urban Aboriginal people: it touched on several serious issues including suicide, alcoholism, substance abuse and racism. Cinematically it was breathtaking, especially in its use of landscape and cityscape as a background to the movement. It was tough, fearless, uncompromising and yet quietly beautiful.
Art attracts art. Dance attracts dance. The dance scene in Canberra is looking more exciting than it has for many years.
The Canberra Critics’ Circle, a group of Canberra-based, practising critics from across art forms, presented its annual awards in November. Two awards were given in the dance area.
Liz Lea: For her innovative promotion of dance in the ACT exemplified by her co-ordination and presentation of “Great Sport!” at the National Museum of Australia, which spectacularly showcased the work of The Gold Company, Dance for Parkinson’s, Canberra Dance Theatre, and of a number of local and interstate choreographers, in a memorable and remarkable presentation.
Alison Plevey: For her tireless and consistent efforts as a dancer, choreographer and facilitator towards advancing professional contemporary dance in the A.C.T through her performances, collaborations, and programs, culminating in the establishment of her dance company, Australian Dance Party.
As indicated in the citations, both Plevey and Lea have contributed to the growth of a renewed interest in dance in Canberra. A preview of Plevey’s forthcoming show, Nervous, is below under ‘Press for November 2016’. My review of Great Sport!, facilitated, directed, and partly choreographed by Lea is at this link.
The Nutcracker: Queensland Ballet
A second viewing of Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker, with a change of cast, had some new highlights. Neneka Yoshida was a gorgeous Clara. She was beautifully animated and involved throughout and there were some charming asides from her with other characters during those moments when she wasn’t the centre of attention. Mia Heathcote took on the role of Grandmother, a role that couldn’t be further from her opening night role as Clara. But she created a very believable character and, as we have come to expect, never wavered from her characterisation. Tim Neff was a totally outrageous Mother Ginger and Lina Kim and Rian Thompson gave us a thrilling performance as the leading couple in the Waltz of the Flowers.
Another exceptional performance from Queensland Ballet.
Ella. A film by Douglas Watkins
Ella, which premiered earlier in 2016 at the Melbourne International Film Festival, traces the journey of Ella Havelka from a childhood spent dancing in Dubbo, New South Wales, to her current position as a corps be ballet member of the Australian Ballet. My strongest recollection of Havelka with the Australian Ballet is her dancing with Rohan Furnell as the leading Hungarian couple in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake when I called their performance ‘very feisty’.
I found the film largely unchallenging, however, and footage of Havelka dancing with Bangarra Dance Theatre was far more exciting to watch than that showing her with the Australian Ballet. Not only that, the commentary from Stephen Page on the nature of Bangarra, and Havelka’s role as an Indigenous Australian in that company, was far more pertinent and gutsy than the rather non-committal remarks from interviewees from the Australian Ballet. An opportunity missed from several points of view?
Royal New Zealand Ballet
Royal New Zealand Ballet is seeking a new artistic director to replace Francesco Ventriglia who will leave his position in mid-2017. Ventriglia will depart ‘to pursue international opportunities.’ Before he departs New Zealand he will take on the new role of guest choreographer to stage his own production of Romeo and Juliet in August. His planned repertoire for 2017 includes works by Roland Petit and Alexander Ekman.
Late news: Ruth Osborne
Ruth Osborne, artistic director of QL2 Dance in Canberra, has been awarded a Churchill Fellowship to pursue her interest in developing dance projects for young people. More in a future post.
Press for November 2016
‘Wonderful version of Christmas classic.’ Review of The Nutcracker from Queensland Ballet. The Canberra Times, 25 November 2016, p. 37. Online version.
‘Under the microscope.’ Preview of Nervous from Australian Dance Party. The Canberra Times —Panorama, 26 November 2016, p. 15. Online version.
29 September 2016, Ralph Wilson Theatre, Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra
Wiggle Room? The name arouses curiosity. But on arriving at the Ralph Wilson my heart sank. ‘This is a standing show,’ we were told. I rather like sitting down to see a show. But, as it happened, the show was a stunner and, for ageing bodies like mine, there were stools for sitting on, when that was possible given the nature of the show.
Wiggle Room was part of a new program in the ACT, Ralph Indie, named for Ralph Wilson, who died in 1994 and who was both a former principal of Canberra High School and a producer of unconventional and thought-provoking theatre shows in Canberra. Wiggle Room was performed by dancer Alison Plevey, singer Ruth O’Brien, and Cher Albrect and Deb Cleland, two artists from the Canberra-based women’s aerial dance and circus arts group, Solco Acro. Like Wilson’s shows, Wiggle Room was also unconventional and thought-provoking.
The work was inspired by and named after an essay by Sara Ahmed and examined the politics of space. Who can occupy a certain space? Who must move aside to let another take up the space? And this explains the need for it to be a ‘standing show’. The entire space of Ralph Wilson Theatre was used by the performers and for those of us sitting on stools, and indeed those standing around the edges of the space, there was the need on occasions to move so that the performers could occupy the space we were inhabiting. No such thing as a designated aisle and seat number.
Some of the movement happened on swinging hoops, or with the performers twisting themselves around lengths of red cloth hanging from the ceiling. Some took place against the walls with the performers attached to a kind of harness. There were moments when bikes were driven at break-neck speed around the space. Even the usual seating in the Ralph Wilson Theatre had been folded back and this fold-back space used by the performers.
The work was, however, more than simply about space. The notion of the politics of space came over loud and clear, on the one hand through spoken word and song, and on the other by the interpretations of the words by the performers. There were feminist references, references to workplace issues, and issues about personal space, for example.
But what made Wiggle Room a work to be reckoned with was the way in which these issues surrounding the politics of space were addressed in such an engaging and often hilarious way. It was so easy to recognise the situations presented to us, it was so easy and pleasurable to laugh at what was happening. And yet there was always the lingering knowledge of a political message.
Perhaps my favourite moment came when the three performers found themselves together in the confined space of a slip-off mattress cover made from flimsy material—shades of Martha Graham’s Lamentation, without the 1930s seriousness. I have to admit to thinking ‘Eat your heart out, Martha.’ This was so much more enjoyable.
All in all a funny, strangely serious, and rather remarkable evening.
Strings Attached, the debut show from Canberra’s new contemporary dance company, Australian Dance Party, is a knockout. The concept behind the show, devised by the ‘Party Leader’, dancer Alison Plevey, sounds simplistic: an investigation of the relationship between music and dance in a collaboration between four dancers and six musicians from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. But as developed in performance it was totally engaging, illuminating and just plain exciting to watch.
The show began with the sounds of breathing, gentle at first but gathering volume as dancers and musicians met in the performing space before taking their positions to begin the show proper. ‘Before people spoke, we moved,’ the program states. ‘We moved to the innate rhythm of our hearts, our breath and the patterns of our lives.’ And so the dance and its musical accompaniment began, starting with some improvised movement and accompanying sound, moving on to a gentle piece with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully and a kind of slow and refined dance for all four dancers. The show continued its pathway through different musical and dancerly episodes—a lament, a tango, on to Jimi Hendrix with the dancers hooked up to iPods, and, finally, to an ‘Electronic Piece’ that became a riotous party/disco dance in which the audience was encouraged, and sometimes specifically invited to participate.
What was especially noticeable throughout was the absolute commitment of dancers and musicians. They were totally engaged with each other and with the sound and movement they were producing. Alison Plevey and Janine Proost both showed exceptionally fluid, high energy movement, Liz Lea was somewhat more restrained but added a way of engaging socially with the musicians that the others didn’t quite have—Lea always uses strong facial expression as a way of engaging. As for Gabriel Comerford, whose dancing I had never seen before, he knocked me for six with his movement that was on the one hand highly disciplined but on the other totally free.
The venue, a pop-up space in Canberra’s trendy Nishi building, was set up a little like a theatre restaurant with tables and chairs placed around a central performing area. Around the edge of the performance space the musicians sheltered under two white canopies of string sculpture crocheted by installation artist Victoria Lees.
Some particular highlights, personal favourites perhaps:
Alison Plevey and harpist Meriel Owen improvising in the early stages of the show. Amazing, especially in the second part where Owen had to follow Plevey’s rising and falling movements, which she did as if it were second nature.
Gabriel Comerford in ‘March’ (‘Command and Conquer Red Alert Theme—Soviet March’), in which he got totally lost, trance-like, dancing to a stirring, politicised composition by James Hannigan. His long, black hair came loose from its topknot, and his movement was at times absolutely precise and powerful, but at others wildly erratic. Thrilling to watch.
A ‘conversation’ between dancer Liz Lea and trumpeter Miroslav Bukovsky.
The musicians who played more than one instrument throughout, swapping seamlessly between them. And fascinating to look at (as well as to listen to) was Tim Wickham’s white ‘skeleton’ electric violin.
But in many respects it is unfair to single out individuals because everyone in this show gave so much of themselves to make this a standout evening of live music and dance.
I guess my one hope for this brave new venture is that the format of the debut show will not always be the format in the future. Plevey has a rare intelligence as a director and I hope she will find ways of occasionally presenting her work in different spaces, including in more mainstream performing arenas. The party line (as in its celebratory rather than political meaning) is fine for a start but I am hoping for something different as well.
Canberra has been without a professional dance company since Sue Healey left town in the 1990s. If Strings Attached is anything to go by we now have much to anticipate.
A one-off show, India Meets, is scheduled to take place at Belconnen Arts Centre on 20 August. It will feature Seeta Patel and Liz Lea along with other local dancers trained in a variety of Indian dance styles. Patel is in Australia with British Council support and, in addition to working on India Meets with Lea, has a number of other engagements, which I hope to feature in a future post.
In other Canberra news, a new dance company, Australian Dance Party, is about to be launched. It is led by Alison Plevey, a 2009 graduate of WAAPA who has been teaching and performing in Canberra since her graduation. ‘Out of the political capital comes Australian Dance Party: Canberra’s newest dance and performance company,’ she says. For its debut production, ADP dancers will collaborate with six artists from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra on Strings Attached at the Nishi Playhouse (a pop-up theatre), New Acton, on 25–27 August.
Dancer to watch: Seu Kim
Seu Kim graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2015. A colleague sent me some online footage of him performing at Varna recently, where he was placed second. Watch it at this link. I love what shines through—honesty and passion in particular. And I love the lengthening of the neck and the emotion that radiates from that beautiful lift of the chest. Gorgeous.
Kim identifies as Korean, although his family has lived in Japan for many years. He will join Royal Swedish Ballet as an apprentice dancer in August.
Oral history update
I had the pleasure in July or recording an oral history interview with Dr Elizabeth Dalman, founding director of Australian Dance Theatre and currently director of Mirramu Creative Arts Centre and Mirramu Dance Company. I first interviewed Dr Dalman for the National Library’s oral history program in 1994 so an update was definitely in order. Catalogue record at this link.
The Australian Ballet and CinemaLive
Dates are now available for the first three CinemaLive presentations of the Australian Ballet’s Fairytale Series, as mentioned in last month’s Dance diary. The Sleeping Beauty will screen on 8–9 October 2016, Cinderella on 12–13 November 2016, and Coppélia on 29–30 April 2017. Find a cinema near you at this link.
Press for July 2016
‘Triple treat shows off Bangarra’s finest.’ Preview of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s OUR land people stories. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 23 July 2016, pp. 10–11. Online version.
Michelle Potter, 31 July 2016
Featured image: Seeta Patel and Liz Lea, detail from the poster for India Meets