Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: Art Atelier Photography

2018—Australian Dance Year in Retrospect

In Canberra

Below is a slightly expanded version of my year-ender for The Canberra Times published as ‘State of dance impressive and varied’ on 24 December 2018. I should add that The Canberra Times‘ arts writers/reviewers are asked to choose five productions only for their year-ender story.

Looking back at 2018 I find, thankfully, that I don’t have to complain too much about the state of dance in the ACT. In 2018, in addition to work from a variety of local companies and project-based groups, dance audiences in Canberra were treated to visits from the Australian Ballet, the Australian Ballet School, Australian Dance Theatre, Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Farm and Sydney Dance Company. Most performances were in traditional venues, but one or two were site specific (notably Australian Dance Party’s production of Energeia performed at the Mount Majura Solar Farm) and, in addition, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia offered their venues for dance performances. Beyond performance, it was exceptional news that Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, had agreed to become a patron of QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth organisation. In a casual conversation with me he mentioned that he had always been impressed with those ex-QL2 dancers who had gone on to perform with Sydney Dance Company and also that he regretted that he had not had a strong mentor himself during his early training. Both thoughts fed into his decision to take on the role of patron.

I have arranged my top five events chronologically according to the month in which they were performed.

RED. Liz Lea Productions

In March Liz Lea presented RED, a work that won her a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award later in the year. It was a powerful, courageous, autobiographical work that touched on Lea’s struggle throughout her career with endometriosis. But beyond that it was distinguished by outstanding choreography from four creators, all of whom highlighted Lea’s particular strengths as a dancer. In addition to Lea herself, choreographic input came from Vicki van Hout, Virginia Ferris and Martin del Amo. There was also stunning lighting by Karen Norris; a range of film clips that added context throughout; and strong dramaturgy by Brian Lucas, which gave coherence and clarity to the overall concept. It was a highly theatrical show, which also presented a very human, very moving message.

The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre

In June Australian Dance Theatre returned to the national capital after an absence of more than a decade. The Beginning of Nature, choreographed by artistic director Garry Stewart, focused on the varied rhythms of nature. It was compelling and engrossing to watch. The dancers seemed to defy gravity at times and their extreme physicality was breathtaking. But the work was also an outstanding example of collaboration between Stewart, his dancers, an indigenous consultant familiar with the almost-extinct Kaurna language of the Adelaide Hills, and composer Brendan Woithe, who created a remarkable score played live onstage by a string quartet.

Cockfight. The Farm

The Farm, featuring performers Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson, arrived In September with Cockfight. Set in an office situation, and dealing with interpersonal relations within that environment, Cockfight was an exceptional example of physical theatre. Both Webber and Thomson gave riveting performances and the work presented a wide range of ideas and concepts, some filled with psychological drama, others overflowing with humour. It was totally absorbing from beginning to end.

Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in Cockfight. Photo:

Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in Cockfight. Photo: © Darcy Grant

World Superstars of Ballet Gala. Bravissimo Productions

This Canberra-only event early in October showcased a range of outstanding dancers from across the world in a program of solos and duets, mostly from well-known works from the international ballet repertoire. It belongs in the list of my dance picks for 2018 on the one hand because the artists showed us some spectacular dancing. But it also belongs here because Bravissimo Productions (a newly established Canberra-based production company) had the courage to take on the task of defying convention and certain ingrained ideas about Canberra, including the perceived notion that Canberra equals Parliament and the Public Service and little else, and the constant complaints about performing spaces in the city. Bravissimo brought superstars of the ballet world not to Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane, but to Canberra. The international stars that came were not the worn-out, about-to-retire dancers we so often see here from Russian ballet companies, but stars of today. I hope Bravissimo Productions can keep it up. Canberra is waiting.

MIST. Anca Frankenhaeuser and Kailin Yong

MIST was the standout performance of the year for me. It was one item in Canberra Dance Theatre’s 40th anniversary production Happiness is…, which took the stage in mid October. As a whole, Happiness is… was somewhat uneven in the quality of its choreography and performance, but MIST, listed as a duet in the form of a pas de deux between a dancer and a musician, was simply sensational. And it really was a pas de deux with violinist Kailin Yong moving around the stage, and even lying down at times as he played and improvised, and with dancer Anca Frankenhaeuser involving herself with his playing in a way that I have never seen anywhere before. With choreography by Stephanie Burridge, an ex-Canberran now living in Singapore, it also carried an underlying theme about relationships between people. It was an exceptional concept from Burridge, beautifully realised by Frankenhaeuser and Yong.

I hope we can keep moving forward in Canberra in 2019 with dance that is inclusive and collaborative, and also theatrically and intellectually satisfying. A varied program of dance in 2018 showed us the possibilities.

Beyond Canberra

I had the good fortune to see quite a lot of dance outside of Canberra including in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane as well as outside of Australia in London and, briefly, in Wellington, New Zealand. Leaving London and Wellington aside since I am focusing on dance seen in Australia, the standout show for me was the La Scala production of Don Quixote, staged in Brisbane as part of Queensland’s outstanding initiative, its International Series. Apart from some seriously beautiful dancing, especially from the corps de ballet who seemed to understand perfectly how to move in unison (even in counterpoint) and how to be aware of fellow dancers, I loved that extreme pantomime was left out. As I wrote in my review it was a treat to see a Don Quixote who actually presented himself as a quixotic person rather than a panto character.

I was also intrigued by Greg Horsman’s new take on La Bayadère for Queensland Ballet. Horsman set his version in India during the British occupation. The story was cleverly reimagined and beautifully redesigned by Gary Harris, yet it managed to retain the essence of the narrative and, in fact, the story was quite gripping as it sped along.

But for me the standout production/performance from outside Canberra was Alice Topp’s Aurum for the Australian Ballet and performed in their Verve season in Melbourne. It was filled with emotion from beginning to end, sometimes overwhelmingly so. In one section it had the audience so involved that all we could do was shout and cheer with excitement. Choreographically it was quite startling, moving as it did from surging, swooping movement to a final peaceful, but stunningly realised resolution. A real show-stopper.

May we have more great dance in 2019!

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2018

Featured image: Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography

Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: Art Atelier Photography

Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Photo Jeff Busby

World Superstars of Ballet Gala. Bravissimo Productions

2 October 2018. Canberra Theatre

The last ‘superstar’ ballet gala I saw was in New York in 2010. It featured eight male dancers and was called Kings of the dance. Such seasons are not common in Australia, but a new Canberra-based organisation, Bravissimo Productions, has made a commitment to remedying this situation. They have staged a two night, Canberra-only season showcasing ten dancers from Australia, Cuba, Italy and the United States in a program of solos and pas de deux. The ‘superstars’ were joined by senior vocational students from various training establishments in an effort by Bravissimo to allow such students to share the stage with professional dancers.

The evening was in three sections and the most exciting part was the middle one. It began with Moskovsky Waltz danced by American-born, Bolshoi-trained Joy Womack, currently principal dancer with Universal Ballet in Korea, and Italian artist Francesco Daniele Costa. Those of us who remember the first performance in Australia of Spring Waters (choreography Asaf Messerer) when the Bolshoi Ballet visited Australia in the 1960s (or maybe it was even the late 1950s) were transported back to our teenage years. Moskovsky Waltz, with choreography by Vasily Vainonen, had a similar feel. Its fluidity, its freedom, its gorgeous lifts, were beautifully performed by Womak and Costa. It was just stunning.

The middle section concluded with Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo from the Australian Ballet dancing the pas de deux and variations from Le Corsaire. Guo’s interpretation of his role in the pas de deux did not initially have the swashbuckling glamour one often sees. His eyes were often cast down as if acknowledging his love in a demure and quite moving manner. But by the time we got to the variations Guo was at his startling and incredible best as he threw himself into the spectacular jumps and turns that characterise the variations and coda. Breathtaking really. As for Kondo, she scarcely faltered and her technical accomplishments were outstanding. But what really made it such a show-stopper—the audience cheered and shouted throughout— was not only the technical prowess we saw from each dancer, but the relationship between the two of them. They danced together, for each other and with each other.

In between these opening and closing items of the middle section was a great solo from the versatile Costa—Le Bourgeois, danced to a song by Jacques Brel. It was amusing, clever, partly interpretive of the words of the song, and wonderfully performed in a contemporary manner. We also saw another pas de deux from Le Corsaire, the Pas d’esclave danced by Joseph Gatti of United Ballet Theatre in Orlando, Florida, and Cuban-born Venus Villa. This time, coming as it did from a different part of the full-length Corsaire, we did encounter a swashbuckling pirate in Gatti and an up-front slave girl in Villa. The middle section also included a solo by Avery Gay and a group item by senior students from an unidentified establishment (National College of Dance, Newcastle, NSW, I think).

Other items from the first and third sections of the program included Kondo and Guo dancing the Act II pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty—and how beautiful it was to see it without the over decorated set that accompanies it in the recent Australian Ballet production. It was danced against a plain backcloth, lit pale pink, and it was a treat to be able to focus on the choreography, and in particular on the slowly unfolding beauty of Kondo’s movements, which so often seem to be in slow motion. There were also two pas de deux performed by Taras Domitro and Adiarys Almeida, the pas de deux from La Bayadère Act II and the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote; a contemporary pas de deux from Avery Gay and Tristan Ianiero; the pas de deux from Act II of Swan Lake danced by Gatti and Villa; the balcony pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet danced by Costa and Womack; and another amusing solo from Costa entitled Moscate. There was also some student work including a lovely opening sequence, a short Etudes-style work, choreographed by Daniel Convery.

Adiarys Almeida as Kitri in 'Don Quixote'

Adiarys Almeida as Kitri in Don Quixote. Photo supplied

This gala was an exceptional initiative by Bravissimo Productions and we can only hope that there will be more. But there were one or two issues that shouldn’t go unmentioned. The stage lighting left something to be desired—there were occasions when the dancers were almost dancing in darkness. There were also a few rather long pauses between items and I thought the music (which was recorded) needed adjusting on some occasions. In particular, the music for the Swan Lake pas de deux was way too loud to the extent that it sounded screechingly awful. It quite took away from the calm serenity that I think should be the overarching mood of the pas de deux. The printed program also needed proof reading to remove the occasional spelling error and inconsistency. And it would be good to have acknowledged specifically where the student dancers came from.

Then, while I admired Convery’s opening item, which was nicely suited to the different ages and expertise of the performers, we could have gone straight into it rather than have several young dancers come out first (in front of the curtain) and do a bit of stretching and limbering. Apart from the fact that they had no space, they had trouble finding their way back behind the front curtain, which didn’t open until they had all left, and it seemed like we were going to be subjected to something quite amateur (which we weren’t). I would also loved to have had some more appropriate images to use. Neither of the images used in this post are specifically from the gala.

One final comment: Bravissimo Productions secured generous sponsorship for the gala from Lennock Škoda, who treated us all to free chocolate coated ice cream bars during the intermission!!

Michelle Potter, 3 October 2018

Featured image: Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo © Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Photo Jeff Busby