Dubboo. Life of a songman was a tribute to David Page, master musician and esteemed elder of the extended Page family, who died in 2016. Dubboo was his nickname (or one of them) and the theatrical tribute showed us much about the diversity of his life and the process by which his music came into being. It was an emotional evening of music, dance, reminiscences. projected imagery and film clips. Having said that, sadly I have to admit that unexpected circumstances meant that I was only able to stay for Act I, Dubboo: Songman. I missed Act 2: Dubboo: Showman. Looking at the Act 2 media images, clearly I missed the tribute to the extravagant side of David Page’s life—his life as an actor, as a female impersonator and a ‘drag persona’ as Alana Valentine puts it in her program tribute.
Nevertheless, there was so much to admire in Act 1. It was wonderful to see dance excerpts from some of the many works for which Page created the music. It was wonderful, too, to hear his music adapted for string quartet, and to hear spoken and sung excerpts, tributes and stories from people like Archie Roach, Djakapurra Munyarryun, Ursula Yovich and Hunter Page-Lochard, not to mention seeing film clips of Page himself explaining some of the processes he engaged in while composing.
From a dance perspective, I was moved especially by ‘Lust’ from Brolga of 2001. Its sexy choreography was stunningly danced by Waangenga Blanco and Tara Robertson, who wrapped themselves around each other with an intensity that made two bodies appear as one. A second standout was ‘Brother’ from Skin/Spear of 2000 acted and danced by the remarkable Beau Dean Riley Smith. And then there was the lightness and lyricism of Tara Gower in ‘Feather’ from Bush of 2003. But every danced excerpt was performed with power, grace and dedication.
Bangarra Dance Theatre has just announced that the company is saying farewell at the end of the year to six of its dancers: Waangenga Blanco, Daniel Riley, Tara Robertson, Kaine Sultan-Babij, Luke Currie-Richardson and Yolanda Lowatta. Each has made an amazing contribution to Bangarra over recent years. Who can forget Daniel Riley’s remarkable performances in the film Spear, and his equally powerful dancing and acting as Governor Macquarie in Jasmine Sheppard’s Macq? Then it’s hard to forget, again in Spear, Kaine Sultan Babij as ‘Androgynous Man’ stalking through long grass and between trees? And there is a myriad of performances from Waangenga Blanco that stand out. As well as his role in Patyegarang, there is the ‘Angel’ duet, danced with Leonard Mickelo, in Riley, and his powerful performance in Frances Rings’ Terrain. So much more …
I wish them all well for wherever their dancing takes them and look forward to seeing them before they leave in Dubboo, opening shortly in Sydney. And of course there is the thrill of seeing new dancers in 2019.
Robert Helpmann. The many faces of a theatrical dynamo
A new book of essays on Robert Helpmann has recently been published. It contains essays from a range of scholars and performers and is supplemented by a DVD of archival footage, including a documentary on the revival of Miracle in the Gorbals in 2014 by Birmingham Royal Ballet
My chapter, ‘Elektra. Helpmann uninhibited’ considers the origins of Helpmann’s ballet Elektra, Helpmann’s choreographic approach, and the differences, particularly in relation to Arthur Boyd’s designs, between the English production of Elektra in 1963 and that presented by the Australian Ballet at the Adelaide Festival in 1966.
Edited by Richard Cave and Anna Meadmore. Published in the United Kingdom by Dance Books in October 2018. ISBN 9781852731793
Canberra Critics’ Circle, now almost 30 years old, held its annual awards in November. This years dance awards went to:
Liz Lea: For the multi-media production RED, which drew together the work of four choreographers, including Lea, in a moving, courageous and dramatically coherent exploration of the medical condition of endometriosis. My review of RED is at this link.
Alison Plevey and the Australian Dance Party: For Seamless, an innovative, well-considered and theatrically staged comment on the fashion industry, performed with wit and skill at the 2017 Floriade Fringe. My review of Seamless is at this link.
Emma Nikolic and Karen Brock: For their innovative choreography for the Canberra Philharmonic Society’s production of Strictly Ballroom. Their inventive interpretations of a number of traditional ballroom dance styles allowed the large ensemble of dancers to convince as champion ballroom dance contestants.
Michelle Heine: For her choreography for Free Rain Theatre Company’s production of 42nd Street. Her choreography for the spectacular production numbers successfully captured the authentic Broadway feel of the musical and was exceptionally well danced by the ensemble.
Canberra dance goers will be interested to learn that James Batchelor will be back working in Canberra in 2019. He will be showing his latest work, Hyperspace, at a time and a Canberra venue to be announced. Hyperspace was made in 2018 during residencies in Nottingham, England, and Bassano del Grappa, Italy, and was recently performed in the B.motion festival in Bassano and at La Briqueterie Paris. It will also be part of the Dance Massive 2019 line up in Melbourne.
Batchelor is also looking forward to creating a new full-length work for Quantum Leap. It will premiere as QL2’s major work for the full ensemble at the Playhouse in August.
NGA Play. Sally Smart
The National Gallery of Australia has just installed a new children’s play area that highlights aspects of the Gallery’s extensive collection of costumes from the era of the Ballet Russes. It is designed by Melbourne-based artist Sally Smart, one of whose interests is in the juxtaposition of the art of the Ballets Russes with contemporary ideas of assemblage, cut-out items and patchwork-style lengths of fabric.
Dance features in a series of projections of dancer Brooke Stamp improvising in homage to and inspired by the dances of the Ballets Russes era (with a nod to Javanese dance). Stamp performed live (a one-off performance) at the opening of the play area early in November.
Press for November 2018
’Rudolf Nureyev.’ Program article for La Scala Ballet’s Australian season, 2018. This article contains two very interesting, casual photos of Nureyev (one with Fonteyn), which I have not come across before.
‘Movement and message fail to link.’ Review of Australian Dance party’s Energeia. The Canberra Times, 22 November 2018, p. 20. Online version
Dark Emu, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s newest production, is inspired by a book of the same name by Bruce Pascoe. In the book Pascoe examines aspects of Aboriginal life prior to the arrival of British settlers. In particular he shows quite convincingly that Aboriginal people were not simply hunters and gathers living in a kind of rudimentary lean-to structure. On the contrary, they cultivated the land, build sturdy and lasting housing for themselves, built dams and used irrigation techniques for their crops, stored food, governed themselves and so on. The history that in general has been passed down to white people simply doesn’t tell us such things. But reading the book in the week before the show, I wondered how Pascoe’s story would translate into dance.
I don’t think it translated very well to tell the truth and I wish I hadn’t read the book in advance. There was a strong historical argument in Pascoe’s book, but in setting out that argument he used very specific examples. In one section of the book, for example, Pascoe talks about the Indigenous use of fire for back burning. A section of the dance clearly was about fire—if nothing else the lighting told us so. But the choreography didn’t really give us the significance of the use of fire, nor that its use was seen very differently by white settlers. The later sections, however, were more obvious when there was some conflict between groups and when Indigenous culture stood tall and proud at the end. I guess the show was meant to portray the spirit of the book and convey an emotional message. But it was somewhat frustrating trying to understand where the work was going.
But putting that aspect of the show aside, there was some excellent dancing and every dancer deserves praise for the poise and commitment they demonstrated throughout the work. I enjoyed the rhythmic movement patterning of sections such as Kangaroo Grass. I also especially liked a trio, Grain Dust, performed by Kaine Sultan-Babij, Beau Dean Riley Smith and Yolande Lowatta. It had some beautifully organic moves and Smith in particular stood out for the way in which he used every part of his body so expressively. In fact, whenever he was on stage, even when wearing that red wig, it was hard to look at anyone else.
I also admired Jacob Nash’s backcloth. Structurally, it reminded me of a kind of Blue Poles set in the bush. In many respects, with its complex lines and swirls and gentle colours, it carried the strongest message of the inventiveness of Aboriginal activity prior to British settlement. But I was surprised when I saw Jennifer Irwin’s costumes close up in media images. From where I was sitting, or perhaps with the kind of lighting being used, I didn’t notice the extent of the detail that she used (as she usually does) in her choice of fabric. I was not a huge fan of the music (by Steve Francis). Most previous Bangarra productions have always seemed to have had a stronger Indigenous resonance in their scores.
Last year’s Bennelong was always going to be a hard act to follow. It managed narrative and emotion and gave us both in spades. Dark Emu was emotive but seemed not to have a strong enough structure to make it as powerful as I had hoped, even with input, apparently, from dramaturg Alana Valentine.
At this time of the year ‘the best of…’ fills our newspapers and magazines. My top picks for what dance audiences were able to see in the ACT over the year were published in The Canberra Times on 27 December. A link is below in ‘Press for December 2017.’ Dance Australia will publish its annual critics’ survey in the February issue. In that survey I was able to look more widely at dance I had seen across Australia.
In addition, I was lucky enough to see some dance in London and Paris. Having spent a large chunk of research time (some years ago now) examining the Merce Cunningham repertoire, especially from the time when Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were designing for the company, for me it was a highlight of 2017 to see Cunningham’s Walkaround Time performed by the Paris Opera Ballet. And in London I had my first view of Wayne McGregor’s remarkable Woolf Works.
In Australia in 2017 the absolute standout for me was Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong and that particular work features, in one way or another, in both my Canberra Times and Dance Australia selections. Of visitors to Australia, nothing could come near the Royal Ballet in McGregor’s Woolf Works during the Royal’s visit to Brisbane. At the time I wrote a follow-up review.
Some statistics from this website for 2017
Here are the most-viewed posts for 2017, with a couple of surprises perhaps?
1. Thoughts on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring. This was an early post dating back to 2009, the year I started this website. I can only imagine that Rite of Spring has been set as course work at an educational institution somewhere and this has resulted in such interest after close to 9 years?
3. Ochres. Bangarra Dance Theatre. This review was posted in 2015 following the restaging of Stephen Page’s seminal work of 1994. It was powerful all those years ago and it is a thrill to see that audiences and readers still want to know about it.
5. RAW. A triple bill from Queensland Ballet. It is only recently that I have had many opportunities to see Queensland Ballet. The company goes from strength to strength and its repertoire is so refreshing. I’m happy to see the 2017 program RAW, which included Liam Scarlett’s moving No Man’s Land, on the top five list.
The top five countries, in order, whose inhabitants logged on during 2017 (with leading cities in those countries in brackets) were Australia (Sydney), the United States (Boston), the United Kingdom (London), New Zealand (Wellington), and France (Paris).
Some activities for early 2018
In January the Royal Academy of Dance is holding a major conference in Brisbane, Unravelling repertoire. Histories, pedagogies and practices. I will be giving the keynote address and there are many interesting papers being given over the three days of the event.
Then, in February I will be giving the inaugural Russell Kerr Foundation lecture in Wellington, New Zealand, and will speak about the career of New Zealand-born designer Kristian Fredrikson. The event will take place on 11 February at 3 pm in the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Music. The lecture will follow a performance (courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet) of Loughlan Prior’s LARK, created for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 2017.
Press for December 2017
‘History’s drama illuminated by dance.’ Review of dance in the ACT during 2017. The Canberra Times, 27 December 2017, p. 22. Online version
And a very happy and successful 2018 to all. May it be filled with dancing.
24 September 2017. The Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
The winners of the 2017 Australian Dance Awards were announced in a ceremony in Melbourne on 24 September. The Playhouse at the Victorian Arts Centre was packed for what turned out to be an occasion with strong emotional and political overtones. The evening was hosted by cabaret star Sarah Ward and dancer Benjamin Hancock, both of whom brought a somewhat outrageous element to the evening. (To be absolutely honest, I can never understand why hosts of such events have to behave as if the show belongs to them). The politics came in the form of references by several of the presenters to the current same-sex marriage campaign.
The first half of the program suffered from what I can only describe as ‘technical issues’ in which the digital display of images and credit lines for nominees, and the eventual winner in each category (not to mention the life dates and images in the ‘In Memoriam’ section), didn’t fit properly on the screen. This was not a good look at all and resulted in confusion in some cases when the winner’s name was not given correctly by the presenter. I had to wonder whether there had been a tech rehearsal or not! Fortunately, the problem was fixed during the interval but it didn’t make up for the poor standard of production in the first half. The printed program was, however, beautifully designed and produced.
Nevertheless, for dance in the ACT, the outstanding news was that Liz Lea took out the award for Outstanding Achievement in Community Dance. She received the award for Great Sport!, a site specific work that Lea directed in collaboration with Canberra Dance Theatre, the National Museum of Australia, Dance for Parkinson’s ACT, and seven different choreographers—Lea herself, Martin del Amo, Kate Denborough, Tammi Gissell, Jane Ingall, Philip Piggin and Gerard van Dyck. This was a richly deserved award that recognised Lea’s significant effort to collaborate across the community spectrum, to seek out skilled choreographers from within the ACT and elsewhere, and to make dance that is inclusive. As it happens, however, Lea was one who suffered as a result of the ‘technical issues’. Her name was not called out as the recipient of the award!
Here is a link to my review of Great Sport! following its opening performance in celebration of World Health Day 2016.
Congratulations to Lea and all those who received an award. Here is the complete list of awardees.
Lifetime Achievement: Helen Herbertson
Services to Dance: Jennifer Irwin
Services to Dance Education: Kim Walker
Outstanding Achievement in Community Dance: Liz Lea and collaborators for Great Sport!
Outstanding Achievement in Youth Dance: Catapult Dance (The Flipside Project) for In Search of the Lost Things
Outstanding Achievement in Choreography: Lucy Guerin for The Dark Chorus
Outstanding Performance by a Company: Bangarra Dance Theatre for OUR Land People Stories
Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer: Ako Kondo (Australian Ballet) for Coppélia
Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer: Benjamin Hancock (Lucy Guerin Inc) for The Dark Chorus
Outstanding Performance in Commercial Dance or Musical Theatre: Jack Chambers (Stage Entertainment & Chichester Festival) for Singin’ in the Rain
Outstanding Achievement in Dance on Film or New Media: Tara and Pippa Samaya (The Samaya Wives) for The Knowledge Between Us.
In addition, Noel Tovey was inducted into the Hall of Fame and, in an emotion-filled acceptance speech, acknowledged those who had influenced his career, going right back to Jean Alexander and Xenia Borovansky. The Ausdance Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship, an award worth $10,000, went to Kristina Chan.
Apart from Liz Lea’s award, and its significance for the growth of dance in the ACT, from a very personal perspective, I was thrilled with the following:
Australian Ballet principal dancer Ako Kondo took out the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer for her performance as Swanilda in Coppélia. While an ADA in this category refers in particular to a performance in a particular year, not for a body of work, I have watched Kondo perform in many productions over the past few years and I could not help but think back to those many and varied times when I have had the pleasure of watching her onstage. Her technique is spectacular and in certain roles, including that of Swanilda, she just sparkles. See my previous comments at this tag.
Jennifer Irwin walked away with the award for Services to Dance. Irwin has been designing costumes for major dance companies since she began working with Sydney Dance Company in the 1980s. Apart from Sydney Dance Company under Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, Irwin has had significant commissions from Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet. In her acceptance speech, Irwin acknowledged Graeme Murphy and Stephen Page for the influence they have had on her career. In addition, Irwin designed costumes for Dirty Dancing, the musical that had its first performances in 2004 in Australia. It featured well-known Australian dancer Joseph Brown, and the show went on to have popular seasons around the world. Irwin also designed parts of the 2000 Sydney Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. See this tag for further comments on various of Irwin’s designs.
Bangarra Dance Theatre received the coveted award of Outstanding Performance by a Company for OUR land people stories. This triple bill was a truly stunning example of the way in which Bangarra produces work in which dance meets theatre, meets art, meets music. It showcased the choreography of three dancers from within the ranks of the company—Jasmin Sheppard, Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith—with the addition of a work from artistic director Stephen Page. It demonstrated Bangarra’s interest in bringing a wide range of Indigenous issues to the stage. Politics, kinship, and art all played a major role in the production and, as always, the show was splendidly staged and thrilling to watch.Daniel Riley accepted the award on behalf of Bangarra and acknowledged David Page, who died in 2016 and to whom the production of OUR land people stories was dedicated.Here is a link to my review of OUR land people stories.
And finally, the performances that accompanied the announcements were extraordinarily varied. I have to say I enjoyed most of all the lively Hopak Kalyna by the Lehenda Ukrainian Dance Company. The dancers smiled at us! It was a shame, though, that the Australian Ballet’s contribution, the pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty danced by Amber Scott and Ty King-Wall, somehow looked out of place amid all the cabaret, hip hop, sexually-oriented material, angst and other dance elements. It made me wonder why I love ballet as much as I do. Perhaps there needs to be a change somewhere along the line. Perhaps a more contemporary piece from the Australian Ballet, or a bit more ballet in the program?
Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s most recent work, may well be the company’s most ambitious production to date. Yet in saying that, I can’t help feeling that it may also be its most powerful, its most emotive, and its most compelling show ever.
Stephen Page, as choreographer and creative storyteller, has taken the life of Wongal man, Woollarawarre Bennelong, as a starting point: Bennelong the man feted in many ways in early colonial society, and yet denigrated in so many other ways by that same society. Page presents a series of episodes in Bennelong’s life from birth to death. In those episodes we experience a range of emotions from horror in ‘Onslaught’ as large sections of the indigenous population are wiped out by an epidemic of smallpox, to a weird kind of fascination in ‘Crown’ when we watch Bennelong interacting with British high society after he arrives in London.
There is a strength too in how Page has ordered (or selected) the events. ‘Onslaught’ for example, follows ‘Responding’ in which the indigenous population is ‘assimilated’ by wearing Western clothing. We can’t help but make the connection between the arrival of the colonials and the outbreak of a Western disease. And following ‘Crown’ comes ‘Repatriation’ when we watch another emotionally difficult scene referring to ongoing efforts to repatriate bones and spirits of those who died in London (or perhaps even those whose bones and spirits were taken to London as ‘specimens’). It is tough but compelling watching.
The score for Bennelong was largely composed and performed by Steve Francis, but it also makes many references to the Bennelong story with snippets of music and song from elsewhere—the strains of Rule Britannia at one stage, a rousing sailor song as Bennelong is transported to London by ship, and some Haydn as Bennelong attends a ball with British society. The dancers and others, including dramaturg Alana Valentine and composer Matthew Doyle, have also been recorded speaking and singing and these recordings have been integrated into the score. It is absolutely spellbinding sound.
As is usual in a Bangarra production the visual elements were outstanding. I especially enjoyed Jennifer Irwins’s costumes, which were suggestive of various eras in indigenous and colonial society, from pre-colonial times to the present, without always being exact replicas.
The entire company was in exceptional form, with Elma Kris in a variety of roles as a keeper of indigenous knowledge, and Daniel Riley as Governor Phillip, giving particularly strong performances. But it was Beau Dean Riley Smith as Bennelong who was the powerful presence throughout. In addition to his solo work, it was impossible not to notice and be impressed by him in group sections and in his various encounters with others throughout the piece.
But it was in the final section, ‘1813/People of the Land’, that he totally captured the essence of what was at the heart Page’s conception of the character of Bennelong, a man trapped between two worlds and seeming to belong fully to neither. As he struggled physically and verbally to understand his position, and as he found himself slowly being encased in a prison (or mausoleum—Bennelong died in 1813), Smith was a forlorn and tortured figure. It was thrilling theatre. And that concrete-looking structure that was slowly built around him, and that eventually blocked him out from audience view entirely, was another powerful visual element. As the curtain fell, the prison structure carried a projection of a well-known colonial portrait of Bennelong and it seemed to represent the disappearance of indigenous culture at the hands of the colonial faction.
Bennelong was a truly dramatic and compelling piece of dance theatre. It deserved every moment of the huge ovation it received as it concluded. We all stood.
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.
In late September and early October Bangarra Dance Theatre will be performing in New York and Paris. In New York the company will be part of Fall for Dance, a wonderful initiative that has been held in October, when the leaves of the city’s deciduous trees are falling to the ground, for about 10 years now. All seats are just $15 and the program features dancers and dance companies from America and around the world. Bangarra will present Spirit, a selection from some of the company’s best-known works. That selection will include Djakapurra Munyarryun’s Ngurrtja—land cleansing song, which opened the 2015 reworking of the 1995 production, Ochres.
In Paris Bangarra will give five performances of the new Ochres at the Musée du quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, a museum devoted to ethnographic material from around the world. The company has a one week residency at the museum and the residency will include, in addition to Ochres, workshops, public talks and screenings of Stephen Page’s film Spear.
The role that Djakapurra Munyarryun will play in Ochres on this tour is not quite the same as his role in the original production, when in the opening moments he was seen smearing his body with yellow ochre. It was an unforgettable theatrical moment.
The recollection of that opening sent me hunting for a Canberra Times article I wrote in 1998 as a preview to Bangarra’s season of Fish. As the story was published in print form only, that is some years before The Canberra Times was available online, I am republishing it here (in a slightly refined form) for the background it gives to the work of Djakapurra Munyarryun.
‘Cultural designer steeped in tradition.’ Michelle Potter
When Bangarra Dance Theatre’s production of Fish opens next week at the brand new Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, one performer is sure to stand out: Djakapurra Munyarryun. He has that elusive quality—stage presence. So strong is the sense of wisdom and authority that pervades his activities onstage it’s hard to believe he’s only 23. Artistic director of Bangarra and choreographer of Fish, Stephen Page, says, “It’s not surprising really. He’s part of the Dreaming.”
Munyarryun, steeped in the traditional dances and ceremonies of the Yirrkala community in north-eastern Arnhem Land, is Bangarra’s cultural consultant. For Fish he has also been designated “cultural designer” and takes his place alongside the other members of the creative team. Munyarryun’s contribution to the work of Bangarra is critical. It helps it achieve what is most distinctive about it: the fusion of traditional stories and music with the experiences of urban Aboriginal and Islander people.
“When he works with the company there is a constant sharing of ideas,” Page says. He is inspirational. Djakapurra helps build layers of Aboriginality in the company.”
Such layers are apparent in the thematic material in Fish. The works takes us on a journey to three watery worlds and celebrates the wealth of life and mystery they contain. Swamps is redolent of the sacredness and spirituality of traditional lifestyles; Traps juxtaposes contemporary Western and old Aboriginal ways; Reef, full of colour and light, is celebratory and refers especially to the dance styles of Torres Strait Islander communities.
For two, at least, of the Page brothers—choreographer/director Stephen, and musician David, who composed the score for Fish—the relationship with Munyarryun continues beyond the dance studio. The three enjoy a special relationship that allows them to explore the links between traditional and urban ways in a diversity of situations. Not only have they been adopted into each other’s families, but they also spend time in Yirrkala together often going out to catch stingrays. Stephen Page says:
“Of course the urban situation, where many of our stories were forbidden, was frustrating for Djakapurra at first. He had to learn a hard lesson about urban Aboriginal history. But he was always interested in the crossover of traditional and contemporary styles in both music and dance, and just kept returning to storytelling to rekindle the spirit. Now he is comfortable in both traditional and urban situations. This is the kind of fusion that is built into the infrastructure of Bangarra.”
Munyarryun has been with Bangarra since 1991, featuring in all its major productions including Praying Mantis Dreaming, Ninni, Ochres and, most recently Rites, the popular collaboration between Bangarra and the Australian Ballet staged for the Melbourne Festival last year.
As well as being a dynamic dancer, Munyarryun is a virtuoso didgeridoo player and in Fish, as well as dancing, he features as a musician on the soundtrack playing bilma and yirrdaki (clap sticks and didgeridoo). His versatility as a performer has also brought him roles in films, including Black River and Breaking Through, as well as work with the band Yothu Yindi.
Fish, now touring Australia as part of the 1998 Made to Move season, premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival last year before returning for a Sydney season in the Festival of the Dreaming, the first of the cultural festivals leading to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
As well as highlighting the Bangarra approach to fusion, Fish has an extraordinary visual impact. Its evocative set is by Peter England; costumes are by Jennifer Irwin, who explores the qualities of texture and sheen; and lighting is by Mark Howett.
Djakapurra Munyarryun is the tall dancer, with presence and authority, who will probably come out after the show in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap.
First published in The Canberra Times—Panorama, 18 April 1998, p. 16.
Bangarra Dance Theatre has had what artistic director Stephen Page calls a ‘bitter sweet’ year so far. On the one hand the company has had to face the death in April 2016 of David Page, much loved and admired composer, Bangarra’s music director, and brother of Stephen. On the other there have been successes in so many areas. Most recently, Bangarra—the company, its dancers and its productions—has been short-listed in six categories for the 2016 Australian Dance Awards.
Bangarra’s major production for 2016, a triple bill with the title OUR land people stories, has to be counted as a sweet moment. Although it is dedicated to David Page and it is impossible not to be moved hearing his music, which features in the program, OUR land people stories moves forward proudly and is sweet as much as anything because it showcases the work of three emerging choreographers from within the company ranks.
First up on the program was Macq, choreographed by Jasmin Sheppard to a score by David Page. Macq takes as its starting point a confrontation in 1816 between white settlers in the Appin region, south of Campbelltown, New South Wales, and Aboriginal inhabitants of the region, the D’harawal people. As the confrontation over territory escalated and tensions mounted, Colonial forces, under instructions from Governor Macquarie, began what has come to be known as the 1816 Appin massacre. Sheppard researched Macquarie’s diaries and consulted with descendants of the D’harawal and portrays Macquarie as a conflicted man who, on the one hand appeared to have good intentions towards First Nation peoples, but on the other who went to extreme lengths to maintain territorial control of areas under his jurisdiction.
One especially challenging sequence occurs between Macquarie, danced powerfully by Daniel Riley, and Beau Dean Riley Smith, also outstanding in his role as one of the D’harawal men killed in the massacre. As they dispute territorial boundaries, they interact on, under, and around a long table. The movement is fast, dramatic, determined and confronting and makes astonishing use of the table. Another compelling scene shows Riley acting out Macquarie’s conflicted state of mind as he frantically scribbles down his diaries. It is a courageous statement by Sheppard.
But what I found especially powerful about Macq was the way Sheppard had structured the work so as different moments in time were visible even as the main story was unfolding before us. As the work began, for example, in a kind of half light we could see the aftermath of the massacre as D’harawal people mourned the death of their kin. In fact the work moved backwards and forwards in time in a well developed and emotionally satisfying way.
The second work on the program, Miyagan (meaning ‘our family’ in the language of the Wiradjuri Nation) was choreographed by cousins Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith. It was structurally complex with sections referring to the matrilineal nature of Wiradjuri system, and to moiety, clan and family, although the the work also referred to life in the early 1900s on the Talbragar Reserve in Dubbo, where Riley and Smith had a common ancestor in Jack Riley. Choreographically the work was vibrant and moved along smoothly to a soundscape by Paul Mac. The intricate web of kinship relationships and responsibilities was highlighted by Jacob Nash’s spectacular hanging sculpture which served as the set for Miyangan.
Page said, in a pre-show forum at the Canberra Theatre, that his aim in curating OUR land people stories was to give an opportunity to Sheppard, Riley and Smith to create main stage works for Bangarra—to nurture emerging choreographers from within the company. He added, however, that he thought perhaps he should also do a work! The result was the closing piece, Nyapanyapa, a work inspired by the art of Yolngu woman, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. At the heart of the work is the story of Nyapanyapa’s encounter with a water buffalo, which left her badly injured. But we are given insight into many other aspects of her life, and see reproductions of her work as background. Elma Kris is at her charismatic best as Nyapanyapa and the Bangarra dancers show off dancerly skills that range from full-on rock ‘n’ roll to sublimely meditative moves.
OUR land people stories once again shows Bangarra as a company where dance meets theatre, meets art, meets music. After its Australian season of this program, Bangarra moves on to New York for the Fall for Dance season and then goes on to Paris to perform in the splendid, ethnographically-oriented venue, Musée du Quai Branly.