Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in 'The Beginning of Nature', 2018. Photo: Chris Herzfield

The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre

14 June 2018, Canberra Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre

Below is a slightly expanded version (with different images) of my review of Australian Dance Theatre’s The Beginning of Nature. The Canberra Times review is available online at this link. In addition, I was lucky enough to be contacted by the composer, Brendan Woithe, after my review appeared. In the ensuing correspondence he explained in some depth how the score could often sound as if it were a powerful electronic soundscape when on stage there were just four string players performing on two violins, a viola and a cello, along with two singers.

It appears, if I understand Woithe correctly, that the sound produced by the string players is manipulated in real time by a computer system, built and pre-programmed by Woithe so that no human intervention is required. The sound produced in this way is combined with the vocals and a small amount of pre-recorded backing at times to produce what we hear during the performance.

As I suggested in my review, the remarkable sound that emerged from this process varied in what it suggested and, as such, made an inestimable, collaborative contribution to the overall work.

The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre. Choreographer: Garry Stewart. Composer: Brendan Woithe. Lighting: Damien Cooper. Costumes: Davis Browne. Indigenous consultant: Jack Buckskin. The Canberra Theatre. June 14 and 15

Garry Stewart has been artistic director of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre for almost two decades now. During that time, he has built up a reputation for choreography that pushes the human body in directions that at times look almost impossible. He often also works with ideas that stretch the imagination to its limits. The Beginning of Nature, his latest work, is no different.

Thematically the work examines rhythms in nature. Sometimes this happens in a gentle way. Stewart’s nine dancers create undulating patterns with their arms, or swirling movements with their hands, or they use their bodies in mesmerising swaying movements. At other times those rhythms are more violent and the dancers throw themselves into moves that are wild and free. Sometimes animal or bird actions are evoked as bodies swarm as one, or tidal patterns emerge as the dancers course across the stage together. There are connections of all kinds, including a moment where two dancers are locked together at the mouth. Some spectacular moves are performed with a dancer balancing on a single part of the body—the head or the hand for example. Other movements find the dancers springing suddenly from a prone position on the floor into the air. There they seem to pause momentarily, execute a cabriole while parallel to the floor, and then return to a prone position. It’s like a sudden explosion from a volcano.

Chris Mills, Harrison Elliot, Zoe Dunwoodie. Kimball Wong, Matte Roffe, David James McCarthy in 'The Beginning of Nature', 2018. Photo: ©
(from front) Chris Mills, Harrison Elliot, Zoe Dunwoodie. Kimball Wong, Matte Roffe in The Beginning of Nature, 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy
Thomas Fonua in 'The Beginning of Nature', Australian Dance Theatre 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy
Thomas Fonua in The Beginning of Nature, Australian Dance Theatre, 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy

I also felt there was an atavistic element to the work. The dancers wear their hair in somewhat unkempt styles and, where the hair (or wig) is long, they fling it from side to side as they move. They are also completely involved facially and bodily in expressing the rudimentary forces that are at the heart of the work.

Musically the work is transfixing. A score by Brendan Woithe evokes the sounds of a huge range of natural forces from rain and wind to more gentle aspects of the world and its seasons. It is played onstage by string players from the Zephyr Quartet, with two other actors speaking and singing in the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Hills. A consultant, Jack Buckskin, and his team are responsible for the powerful Indigenous aspect of the work, which highlights a language that had all but disappeared until work began to restore it from a kind of phonetic dictionary assembled by German missionaries. Costumes by Davis Browne are a greenish blue, although the colour changes with the lighting. They are quite simple in design and cut, and can be added to (and subtracted from). Sometimes the dancers appear to be wearing a toga-style dress, while at other times costume is reduced to just a pair of trunks. Lighting by Damien Cooper, with its occasional hazy effects contrasting with patches of brightness and an emphasis on green highlights, is another spectacular feature of a work that is, all in all, a remarkable collaborative endeavour.

Many adjectives come to mind to describe the overall effect of The Beginning of Nature. It is poetic, elemental, ritualistic, and even operatic in the intense theatricality that pervades it. But more than anything The Beginning of Nature is absolutely compelling and engrossing to watch. It simply takes over and sweeps us along. And how beautiful it looks on the stage of the Canberra Theatre with its wide proscenium, giving what Stewart himself referred to as a ‘panoramic feel.’ The panorama of nature is before us.

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2018

Featured image: Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in The Beginning of Nature, 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in 'The Beginning of Nature', 2018. Photo: Chris Herzfield
'The Beginning Of Nature.' Australian Dance Theatre. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

Dance diary. October 2017

  • Coming to Canberra in 2018

In October the Canberra Theatre Centre released its ‘Collected Works 2018’. Canberra dance audiences will have the pleasure of seeing Australian Dance Theatre’s The Beginning of Nature, which will open its Australian mainstage season in Canberra on 14 June 2018.

Canberra Theatre Centre’s program also includes a season of AB [Intra] from Sydney Dance Company and Dark Emu from Bangarra Dance Theatre and, as part of the Canberra Theatre’s Indie program, Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson will perform Cockfight. 

Bangarra Dance Theatre. Study for 'Dark Emu'. Photo: Daniel Boud
Bangarra Dance Theatre. Study for Dark Emu. Photo: © Daniel Boud
  • Eileen Kramer making a splash

The irrepressible Eileen Kramer was in Canberra recently. She made a fleeting visit to have a chat with Ken Wyatt, Minister for Aged Care, about funding for a project she is planning for her 103rd birthday in November. Kramer will perform A Buddha’s wife, a work inspired by her visit to India in the 1960s. It will be part of a project (The Now Project) featuring 10 dancers and co-produced by choreographer/film-maker Sue Healey. Read about the project and listen to Kramer and Healey speak briefly about it on the crowd funding page that has been set up to help realise the project.

  • Fellowships, funding news, and further accolades

It was a thrill to see that Australian Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Garry Stewart, is the recipient of a 2017 Churchill Fellowship. Stewart will investigate choreographic centres in various parts of the world including in India, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

Garry Stewart rehearsing 'Monument' 2013. Photo Lynette Wills
Garry Stewart in rehearsal. Photo: © Lynette Wills

Then, artsACT has announced its funding recipients for 2018 and, unlike last year’s very disappointing round, dance gets some strong recognition. Alison Plevey’s Australian Dance Party has been funded to produce a new work Energeia, Canberra Dance Theatre has received funding to create a new piece for its 40th anniversary, Liz Lea has funding also to create a new work, and Emma Strapps has been funded for creative development of a work called Flight/less.

Also in the ACT, Ruth Osborne has been short-listed as the potential ACT Australian of the Year for 2018. Osborne is artistic director of QL2 Dance and has made a major contribution to youth dance in the ACT. She was a 2016 recipient of a Churchill Fellowship and has recently returned from studying youth dance in various countries around the world.

Ruth Osborne, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Ruth Osborne prior to taking up her Churchill Fellowship. Photo: © 2017 Lorna Sim

Then, from Queensland Ballet comes news of some welcome promotions. Lucy Green and Camilo Ramos are now principal artists, and Mia Heathcote has been promoted to soloist.

  • Jean Stewart (1921–2017)

For a much fuller account of the life and work of Jean Stewart than I was able to give, see Blazenka Brysha’s story at this link, as well as an interesting comment from her about one of Stewart’s photos of Martin Rubinstein.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2017

Featured image: The Beginning Of Nature, Australian Dance Theatre. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

'The Beginning Of Nature.' Australian Dance Theatre. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions
Waangenga Blanco in 'Patyegarang', Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2014. Photo: Greg Barrett

Australian Dance Awards 2015

12 September 2015, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide

For the first time in its history, the Australian Dance Awards ceremony was held in Adelaide, a fitting location given that 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre. The recipients of awards this year represented a cross-section of Australian dance styles and performers, as did the program of entertainment that accompanied the awards.

The much-anticipated awards for Outstanding Achievement by a Female Dancer and Outstanding Achievement by a Male Dancer were won by Lucinda Dunn, just recently retired from the Australian Ballet, for her performance in Manon, and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Waangenga Blanco for his role in Stephen Page’s Patygerang.

Lucinda Dunn & Adam Bull in 'Manon', the Australian Ballet 2014.
Lucinda Dunn & Adam Bull in Manon, the Australian Ballet 2014.

Queensland Ballet walked away with outstanding performance by a company for its production of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. 

Marilyn Jones and Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman were formally inducted into the Hall of Fame for their distinguished contributions to dance in Australia and internationally, and Marilyn Rowe was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. The Ausdance Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship, a bequest from the first director of the Australian Ballet, Dame Peggy van Praagh, was made to Lina Limosani.

From a very personal point of view I was thrilled to see photographer Jeff Busby take out the award for Services to Dance. I have used so many Jeff Busby photographs throughout my career as a dance writer for a wide variety of outlets in Australia and overseas, and he has always been incredibly generous with his permissions. A well-deserved award.

The full list of winners is available on the Australian Dance Awards website.

The awards night always includes a series of short performances and snatches of film. The 2015 ceremony was distinguished, I thought, by a brief excerpt from Garry Stewart’s Birdbrain, the first full-length work Stewart made as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre. While we are now somewhat used to the extreme physicality that characterises much contemporary dance in 2015, and Stewart’s vocabulary in particular, looking at the vocabulary of Birdbrain I was stunned that Stewart had made such a work 15 years ago. There is a whisper that it may be revived next year.

In something of a jaw-dropping juxtaposition, current ADT dancers Kimball Wong and Lonii Garnons-Williams performed ‘Moon Woman’ from Creation, Elizabeth Dalman’s 1970 work for ADT. What a difference 45 years of choreographic development makes, although Dalman’s slow, controlled movement language, redolent of American dance of the 1960s, was carefully realised by Wong and Garnons-Williams.

I also enjoyed the extract from Leigh Warren’s Mayakovsky performed by students of the BA dance program at the Adelaide College of the Arts. Danced to Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia of 1968, it was reflective and soul-searching dancing.

Michelle Potter, 16 September 2015

G. Australian Dance Theatre

13 June 2013, Canberra Theatre

Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in 'G'. Photo: Chris herzfeld, Camlight Productions
Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in G. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

Garry Stewart’s G had a short run in Canberra last week. Although it first had a showing in 2008, this was my first opportunity to see it and once again I was impressed by Stewart’s exceptional approach, which combines his unique intellect with his emphasis on the physical. My review was published in The Canberra Times on 15 June 2013 and is reproduced below.

G is Garry Stewart’s deconstruction of Giselle made for the company Stewart directs, the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre. But although G refers back to a ballet made in the 19th century, there are no happy, smiling peasants in pretty matching outfits celebrating harvest time, and no lines of ghostly Wilis dancing in the moonlight. Instead Stewart gives us a no-holds-barred examination of states of being that the traditional Giselle hints at but never blatantly puts before our eyes.

Stewart condenses the narrative and the story unfolds before us in words on an LED screen. Each of the main characters is known by the initial of his or her name. We read of the betrayal of G (Giselle) by A (Albrecht), a prince disguised as L (Loys) but who is really betrothed to a princess B (Bathilde, and the subsequent death of G and her entry into a spirit world of Wilis headed by M (Myrtha).

Props play a part in making the narrative clear. A sword, the weapon by which G dies, is used at various points, B and her party arrive wearing crowns to signify their royal status, and some dancers are carried, stiff and lifeless, across the stage wearing shrouds to represent the Wilis who have risen from their graves. Elements of the traditional Giselle are there.

But what really drives G is Stewart’s research into illness, hysteria, suicide and the inter-connectedness that was believed to exist between madness and sex at the time Giselle was created in 1841. It is largely a look at the state of mind of Giselle, the woman, rather than a story of love and betrayal. The dancers’ movements are often flagrantly sexual or irrationally repetitive. The work moves from left to right across the stage, unchanging and inexorable in direction but constantly changing in rhythm and intensity. Sometimes the dancers walk slowly and purposefully, sometimes they cross the stage with fast moving feet. Sometimes the movement looks quite classical but is soon followed by sequences where the dancers hurl themselves through the air in displays of extreme dancing.

There are, nevertheless, a number of references to traditional productions of Giselle, enough for audiences to make the link if they wish. Some such references are choreographic. Two dancers often partner each other with arms linked, imitating the steps Giselle and Albrecht perform in Act I of traditional versions, and dancers often walk across the stage with arms crossed over their chests, palms facing upwards in the pose that is characteristic of the Wilis in Act II. In addition, the electronic score by Luke Smiles includes a brief section taken from the 1841 score for Giselle by Adolphe Adam. And some more props remind us of the traditional Giselle, including a daisy held by one dancer as she crosses the stage towards the end of the work. It harks back to the ’he loves me, he loves me not’ game played by Albrecht and Giselle in Act I of traditional productions.

The physicality of the dancers of Australian Dance Theatre has become legendary and they certainly show their thrilling athleticism in G. But what is also admirable is the way in which they show the madness, the hysteria and the unstable, manic qualities that Stewart is seeking. Shaking hands, nodding heads, wildly flailing limbs, crazed eyes, they are all there and all electrifying to watch.

Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in G. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions

At its best, the traditional Giselle is a moving work leaving us to ponder, perhaps a little loftily, on many aspects of love, loss, betrayal and grief. Most of those who stage it look to the notions of Romanticism in the arts for their inspiration. Stewart’s G is clearly of today: there is nothing of the 19th-century Romanticism about it. But what makes it such a compelling work is that it makes new art from an old work without destroying the old and without compromising Stewart’s constant push towards the new.’

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2013

I had previously spoken briefly to Stewart about his interest in an article entitled ‘Giselle, madness and death’ published in the journal Medical Humanities in 2004, which has some bearing on the approach Stewart took. For anyone interested in this background here is a link to the article.

Let’s dance. Various Australian companies

16 June 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Let’s dance is the program that the Australian Ballet commissioned to cover the time while the main company was busy ‘taking Manhattan’. It is, on the surface, a commendable venture giving subscription audiences the opportunity to see the array of dance styles being created and performed across Australia—there’s more to dance than the Australian Ballet. But as a program I am not sure that it worked as well as we might have hoped. It turned out to be a bit of a mish-mash and there was also some choreography that I found lamentable. Perhaps the program needed some overarching curatorial plan to give it at least some thread of cohesion?

What follows is not so much a review as a series of thoughts on various aspects of the show.

  • Choreography

I really liked Natalie Weir’s choreography for Don’t made on Expressions Dance Company. Weir’s particular strength, I think, lies in her skills in working on partnerships, whether for two people or more. For Weir a body held upside down has as much value as one held the right way up and what results has always taken the eye, slowly and calmly, in new directions. It’s a shame, I think, that the Australian Ballet has never restaged Weir’s Dark Lullaby, which is definitely worth another look. Too close to Ross Stretton perhaps?

Tim Harbour’s choreography for Sweedeedee was another highlight, not because it was hugely innovative but because he found a way to make two older dancers (‘stars’ is a better word probably for Justine Summers and Steven Heathcote), and two emerging younger dancers (Mia Heathcote and Lennox Niven from the Australian Ballet School) appear together and look as though they all belonged in the work. It was simple, clear movement that told the homey, folksy story well.

Steven Heathcote and Justine Summers in Tim Harbour’s Sweedeedee, 2012. Photo: © Lynette Wills. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

I honestly could have done without Dance North’s Fugue, which was choreographed by Raewyn Hill and which I thought looked like nothing more than a clump of limping dancers engaged in the same moves over and over again. If you read the program notes there is a reason behind the choreography looking the way it did as the work reflects, apparently, a 16th century European ‘dancing plague’. But it was certainly not to my taste, neither aesthetically nor theatrically (despite the Sass & Bide costumes).

  • Dancers

I love watching Sydney Dance Company’s dancers, on this program dancing an excerpt from Rafael Bonachela’s recent work, 2 one another. His dancers have such clean lines in their movements. Nothing is murky or foggy, each tiny aspect of a movement is clear. Chen Wen particularly stood out for me in this program, although he often does. I love so many technical things about how he dances, especially the way his legs, so straight, stretch into infinity, and the way that, when he tilts the body forward, he maintains the strength of his back as he does so.

As for Mia Heathcote who played the Girl in Harbour’s Sweedeedee, if things go well for her as I hope they do, she has all the makings of a future star. It has been a long time since a dancer has given me goose bumps, but this member of the Heathcote family did before she had even danced a step. I look forward to following her career.

Mia Heathcote in Tim Harbour’s Sweedeedee, 2012. Photo: © Lynette Wills. Courtesy the Australian Ballet
  • Design

The designer whose work I most admired was Lexi George whose simple, white costumes, patterned with black designs, for Sweedeedee were so appropriate for the piece. Their simplicity belied their elegance. I also liked Bill Haycock’s black and white dresses for the women in Don’t with their variations in length, fitting and general style. Again Natalie Weir is moving in a well-considered direction with her ongoing commissioning of Haycock.

As for lighting I enjoyed Benjamin Cisterne’s designs for both 2 one another and Sweedeedee. Like much else that I liked about this show, his lighting designs were spare and clear. I especially admired the changing, neon-style, vertical columns of light that accompanied the Bonachela piece. Very smart and modernistic and in keeping with Bonachela’s choreography.

  • Appeal

Two works had appeal that invited little analysis: Ivan Cavallari’s Ombra leggera danced by two artists from West Australian Ballet, and Francois Klaus’ excerpt from Cloudland, danced by two artists from Queensland Ballet. Both were charming, if light pieces and were nicely executed.

  • What else?

Tasdance contributed a short film, Momentary, with choreography by Anna Smith, and Australian Dance Theatre was represented by an excerpt from Garry Stewart’s Be your self. Neither really fitted well into the program. Which goes back to my original comment: the program needed a curator. This is not to say that the works had no merit. Stewart, as ever, gave something that required intellectual as much as dancerly input and his dancers, like those of Sydney Dance Company, have extraordinary physical capacity. But Stewart, to his credit I have to say, is out on his own really and looks best by himself.

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2012