Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's work for 'Trois Grandes Fugues'. Photo © Michel Cavalca

Trois Grandes Fugues. Lyon Opera Ballet

11 March 2020. Opera House Wellington
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Shennan, 15 March 2020

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

Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2008. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Dance diary. October 2019

  • Ten years ago …

This website is now ten years old. While I initially went it alone, Jennifer Shennan from New Zealand joined me as contributor in 2014. Between us we have written 650 reviews, news items, and articles since the site went live in 2009.

My first post was really just a very small photo diary of an amazing few days I spent in 2008 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on a job for the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. It was the last job I did for the Division and was an initiative of one of the Division’s most generous donors, Anne H. Bass. In those few days in Phnom Penh I helped set up a project to interview dancers who had survived the Pol Pot regime and who had gone on to perform, teach and pass on the rich Cambodian dance heritage. I sat in as an observer for the first two interviews, one with Em Theay, the other with Soth Sam On.

The full project, the Khmer Dance Project, was completed a few years ago and several of the interviews are now available online (with English subtitles as the interviews were conducted in the Khmer language). Here is a link to the online version of the very first interview, that with Em Theay, which was conducted on the terrace in front of the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

I kept a diary of daily events during the short time I was there, largely so I could report back to the donor in New York. Looking back over what I wrote, the diary entries focused mostly on technical issues and how to improve the methodology of the project. But I also discovered a non-technical (more or less) incident that I had forgotten. I wrote for day five:

The working part of the day began with a tuk tuk issue when my regular tuk tuk man was not at the entrance to the hotel. I eventually got to Bophana [an audio-visual centre in Phnom Penh] but had to ask Pen [Hun Pen, the interviewer for the project] to work out whether this other guy was prepared to stay with us for half a day. Yes and no. Eventually no. Pen found someone else. I went to the interview location [the home of Soth Sam On] in the car with the crew. Pen, Pen’s boyfriend and Suppya [Suppya Nut, member of the project team] took the tuk tuk. The car got lost and the driver (the translator) took great pleasure in pointing out to me a rat eating at the garbage in one of the streets we went down.

The whole experience, despite the odd rat, was an amazing one and I returned to Cambodia on a private visit several months later when I visited the temples in Siem Reap. The featured image on this post is from that visit.

  • Adelaide Festival 2020

Next year’s Adelaide Festival has some interesting dance events. I am especially looking forward to Lyon Opera Ballet’s Trois grandes fugues, a triple bill from three choreographers whose contemporary dance works I have always enjoyed—Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and Maguy Marin.* All three have exceptionally individualistic choreographic styles and for this production have created separate works to the same musical composition—the 1825 Grosse Fugue by Beethoven. Judith Mackrell, writing in The Guardian in London, calls the show ‘one of the most exhilarating, uncompromising evenings of dance I’ve seen in ages.’

Scene from Lucinda Child’s work for Trois grandes fugues. Photo: © Bernard Stofleth

Then, having recently interviewed Lloyd Newson for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program, I am looking forward to his revival of Enter Achilles. In addition, Australian Dance Theatre will be performing in a production of Mozart’s Requiem as directed by Romeo Castellucci.

For more information on the Adelaide Festival 2020, follow this link to the Festival website. There you can read more about the items mentioned above, as well as other dance works being performed, and can download the full program.

  • Norton Owen and Jacob’s Pillow

I was delighted to discover recently that my friend and colleague in the United States, Norton Owen, was honoured with the award of the prestigious Louis Rachow Distinguished Service Award by the Theatre Library Association in the US. The image and biography below are from the Association’s website.

Norton Owen
Norton Owen, 2016. Photo: © Bill Wright

Norton Owen is a curator, writer, and archivist with more than 45 years of professional experience in dance. He has been associated with Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival since 1976 and has been Director of Preservation since 1990, overseeing the PillowTalks series as well as all activities involving documentation, exhibitions, audience engagement, and archival access. He is the curator of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive, an acclaimed online video resource, and host of a new podcast entitled PillowVoices. In 2000, Dance/USA selected him for its Ernie Award, honoring “unsung heroes who have led exemplary lives in dance.” He has also received awards from the Martha Hill Dance Fund, Dance Films Association, and the José Limón Dance Foundation, and he is a past chair of the Dance Heritage Coalition. In recognition of his 40th anniversary at Jacob’s Pillow, the Norton Owen Reading Room was dedicated in his honor.

See also Norton’s advice for visitors to the beautiful venue that is Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts, at this link. I hope to get back there in 2020.

  • In the wings …

As we head further into the eleventh year, watch this website for reviews and/or news of these upcoming November events:

  • Sydney Dance Company’s Bonachela/Obarzanek, which is season two in the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations;
  • Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella from Queensland Ballet on tour in Canberra;
  • Bespoke from Queensland Ballet in Brisbane with new choreography from Lucy Guerin, Amy Hollingsworth and Loughlan Prior;
  • Loughlan Prior’s Hansel and Gretel from Royal New Zealand Ballet;
  • Stanton Welch’s Sylvia during the Australian Ballet’s Sydney season; and
  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards for 2019.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2019

Featured image: Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo: © 2008 Michelle Potter

Apsara relief, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2008. Photo: © Michelle Potter

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2019

*Links to my reviews of Dance by Childs and Rain by de Keersmaeker go back to 2014 and 2011 respectively. My access to and capacity to embed imagery has changed markedly since then!

West Side Story. Opera Australia

7 June 2019. Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

                                          The same only different.

c. 1590—Shakespeare sets Romeo & Juliet in c.1390 Verona (and the town is happy to remember that still). Poetry tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Montague and Capulet, loyalties demanded, much street fighting, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Sword fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

1957—Jerome Robbins, director/choreographer, Leonard Bernstein, composer, Stephen Sondheim, lyricist, and Arthur Laurents, book, set West Side Story in upper west Manhattan (though the area has since been somewhat gentrified). Dance tells the drama of youth, rivalry between the gangs Jets and Sharks, loyalties demanded, much street dancing, boy and girl in love affair doomed from the start. Fist and knife fights, authorities not coping, fatal mistakes in timing of survival strategies. Deaths, actors exit, curtain down.

2019—Australian production opens in Wellington. Seasoned musical director/conductor, Donald Chan, holds brilliantly taut reins on a spirited performance from  the Australian cast and local Orchestra Wellington musicians.

Complex stage sets of towering buildings and balconies are moved seamlessly throughout the performance, so there is a further team out the back performing a dance we don’t see.

There is little spoken dialogue in the show but in a short sequence, two junior members of the Jets confess their fear of the imminent arrival of cops to investigate murder. The pathos struck in their brief confession of individual human emotion makes striking contrast with the kind of confident bravura so readily summoned for group display in the gangs’ dances and songs throughout the show. Of those the romping standouts are I like to be in America and Gee, Officer Krupke. 

The ballet sequence near the end, to Somewhere (perhaps too well-lit for the dream scenario it implies?) sits in marked contrast to the rest of the dancing, and we only hear but do not see the vocalist for that number.  (I would have welcomed the singer to stand in a royal corner box and thus to seem to sing on the audience’s behalf).

West Side Story rocketed to fame on Broadway as a big, big musical, and was soon  translated to a movie that became known worldwide. (Do you know anyone who didn’t see it?) Steven Spielberg is preparing a new movie version, this one to be set in Harlem, so that’s moving to 131st Street, filming to start about now.

Rita Moreno, unforgettable as Anita, the leading lady of the Sharks, won an Oscar for her performance in the original movie. She will play in the Spielberg film, a re-worked version of the character Doc, the shop-owner where Tony (aka Romeo) works.

In the cast we saw here, Doc, the only voice of reason, though no-one would listen until too late, was impeccably played by Ritchie Singer. In the sizzling role of Anita, Chloe Zuel was the knockout member of a large cast where everyone acquitted themselves with verve and commitment. Not a beat was missed throughout. Donald Chan saw to that.

(Makes you want to watch the movie again. Maybe after that I’ll listen to Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet score?)

New Zealand apparently holds the dubious title of the per capita world record for the number of gangs and patched members. Territories are guarded, loyalties demanded, external authority rejected. From the occasional reports of events and encounters between them, one might imagine they also know personal storylines not too removed from the above. How we are is who we are.

West Side Story comes from classic stock. Dance followers may be interested, and perhaps surprised, to learn that Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, hitherto renowned for avant garde dance theatre, is also at work on a Broadway revival of West Side Story with entirely new choreography, production date 2020. Clearly it’s a work for our time, and for many times. 

Jennifer Shennan, 8 June 2019

All photos: © Jeff Busby

Rain (Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker). Paris Opera Ballet

Most publicity related to the recent Paris Opera Ballet season of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rain comments that the Belgian choreographer thought long and hard about having her work enter the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet. Would she or would she not agree to Brigitte Lefèvre’s request? Her vocabulary is just so different from that at the heart of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Reading these comments I thought about Merce Cunningham’s exquisite Summerspace entering the repertoire of New York City Ballet in 1966 and recalled that some Cunningham dancers say they sat in the theatre on opening night and cried as they watched it. I have never seen de Keersmaeker’s own company dancers perform Rain so I have no idea whether what I saw by the astonishing dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet would have induced tears in others. However, I know what reactions it elicited in me. Probably for the first time in my dance going career I felt that there was a real and palpable cross fertilisation between music and dance and that the design also contributed in its own way, all components advancing for me the simple idea of there being detail in detail.

Rain is danced to a score by Steve Reich, Music for eighteen musicians, pour ensemble avec voix, written in 1976, and the activity in the pit (and I had a seat close enough to have an excellent view of the musicians) was almost as good as what was happening on stage. The musicians of Ensemble Ictus and Synergy Vocals worked relentlessly to produce the sound just as the dancers worked relentlessly to put the choreography before us. Some, like the violinist, played pretty much constantly for the entire 70 minute piece, others occasionally changed positions in the pit or moved to play a different instrument. It looked as choreographed as the dance it accompanied.

From a dance point of view the work was full of the runs and falls, the off-centre leaning, the kicks of the legs, the pivots that we might expect of de Keersmaeker’s brand of dance. But the whole was beautifully arranged. Take the off-centre leans. They featured early in the piece but were picked up again towards the end of the work and repeated with arms lifted high rather than by the side. Devices of this kind featured throughout and gave the work a strong and logically organised internal structure within a seemingly random array of  individualistic dance moves. The ten dancers, three men and seven women, demonstrated the innate ability that the Paris Opera Ballet dancers have to articulate movement in different parts of the body. Just as every note of music and every small change could be heard clearly, every minute change of movement had the essential clarity needed to make de Keersmaeker’s choreography detailed rather than seemingly repetitive

Danced within a large semi-circle of suspended ropes designed and lit by Jan Versweyveld, the work began and finished theatrically with the dancers appearing first and last to us as shadows behind the rope circle. At times throughout the piece they moved to the front of the stage and smiled out to us, inviting us to share what seemed to be a joyous experience.

Costumes by Dries van Noten were made of light fabric initially in honey shades. They moved freely and consisted of simple skirts and tops or shift-style dresses for the women and pants and shirts for then men. Like the music and the choreography they too underwent small changes. A light honey brown skirt was changed to a rose one; a pale T shirt became a fuschia coloured one; a light dress became magenta; until at the end all changes had changed again back to the honey shades of the beginning.

It was done without fuss and without excess. And it was simply beautiful.

Michelle Potter, 11 June 2011