Season's greetings 2013

Season’s greetings 2013

Compliments of the season to all those who have accessed my website, and especially to those who have added so much with their comments. I look forward to your continued patronage in the coming year.

It has been a terrific year so far in Canberra as the city has celebrated its centenary, and I have also been fortunate to have seen some wonderful dance elsewhere in Australia and around the world. But I have no hesitation in naming my two favourite shows for 2013 as Yuri Possokhov’s Rite of Spring for San Francisco Ballet, and what a wonderful company SFB is; and Garry Stewart’s Monument for the Australian Ballet as a Canberra Centenary event. And as for the latter, what a shame it is that other States will not see it in 2014. I fear it will just slip into oblivion, which seems like a shocking waste to me.

As for dancers, I have loved watching the Australian Ballet’s Eloise Fryer in various roles throughout the year, especially as Dumpy in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. And I never tire of watching Sydney Dance Company’s Chen Wen seen below in Rafael Bonachela’s 2 one another.

Chen Wen in '2 One Another. Photo': Wendell Teodoro
Chen Wen in Rafael Bonachela’s 2 one another, Sydney Dance Company. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro

I have a number of dance activities coming up in 2014, news of which I will keep until my December dance diary. In the meantime may the coming festive season be filled with happiness.

Michelle Potter, 22 December 2013

Scene from 'Project Rameau'. Photo: Justine Walpole

Project Rameau. Sydney Dance Company & Australian Chamber Orchestra

12 September 2013, Canberra Theatre

As the curtain went up on Project Rameau in Canberra, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra seated on a platform at the back of the stage space and the dancers of Sydney Dance Company lined up in front of the platform, I wondered whether this collaboration would in fact work. One or two companies have been critical of the Canberra Theatre space because of its relatively small performing area (compared with some stages in Sydney and Melbourne), and there before my eyes were two companies sharing the stage. Well I need not have worried. Project Rameau was one of those made-in-heaven collaborations and the size of the stage seemed of little consequence and, after all, exceptional artists are always adaptable.

Musically Project Rameau consisted of nineteen selections of music by Jean-Philippe Rameau, two by Antonio Vivaldi and a single piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. Sydney Dance Company’s director, Rafael Bonachela, responded choreographically to this musical selection with a varied series of dances ranging from duets and trios to pieces for larger groups, at times for his entire ensemble of dancers. Occasionally within these group pieces, we saw short, mesmerising solos.

Scene from 'Project Rameau'. Photo: Justine Walpole
Charmene Yap and Bernhard Knauer in a duet from Project Rameau. Sydney Dance Company, 2013. Photo: © Justine Walpole

Several pieces stood out. I especially admired the dance made to the presto movement from ‘Summer’’ in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. This trio for one female and two male dancers overflowed with energy as Janessa Dufty was tossed through the air between her two partners. In contrast was a slow, intimate duet for two men danced to a section from Rameau’s Castor and Pollux.

But the true colours of Sydney Dance Company shone in the dances made for the full company. Here Bonachela created a sense of hierarchy and formality looking back to the courtly nature of Baroque dance, with the odd wiggle of the backside thrown in. And the precision of those dancers as they moved together was absolutely stunning. Dance director Amy Hollingsworth take a bow for magnificent skills in the rehearsal room. Moving in unison creates perfection in patterns and that was what we got.

I never tire of watching Chen Wen. I admire the sense of shape and space in his every movement, not to mention his athleticism and his beautifully stretched extensions. The other individual dancer who stood out for me in Project Rameau was Andrew Crawford, dancing with exceptional fluidity. He makes a great partner too for Juliette Barton. But it is with reservation that I single out any one dancer. They are such a wonderful ensemble of movers and it is an absolute joy to watch them.

Ben Cisterne’s lighting added a very contemporary element to the show but also realised ingeniously that sense of perspective that marked Baroque stages.

Project Rameau was nothing short of an enthralling collaboration with a thrilling final sequence to a contra danse from Rameau’s Les Boréades that turned into a choreographed curtain call.

Michelle Potter, 14 September 2013

Read my preview story on Project Rameau published in The Canberra Times, 31 August 2013, at this link. (UPDATE 12/11/2019 link no longer available)

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 'Sweedeedee'. Photo Lynette Wills
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 'Sweedeedee'. Photo Lynette Wills
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

Shared Frequencies. Sydney Dance Company

This latest program from Sydney Dance Company featured two works: Raw models by Italian-born choreographer Jacopo Godani and LANDforms by Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela.

Andrew Crawford & Charmene Yap in 'Raw models'. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company
Andrew Crawford & Charmene Yap in ‘Raw models’. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company

Raw models opened the program and I have to admit that I read the choreographer’s note before the curtain went up. Bad move probably because it was a decidedly alienating note and smacked to me of meaningless, intellectual jargon. The dancing, however, was not alienating, although it would have to be described as intense or perhaps severe.

The stage was set as a black box: two black side screens and a black backdrop/screen. The dancers were dressed minimally in black lycra-style short shorts and transparent tops. They wore what I think were skin-tight, soft leather ankle boots. This footwear was interesting because the lighting (by Godani) was such that most of the time it was hard to tell until curtain call time whether the black shadows at foot/ankle level were just shadows on bare feet and legs or whether the dancers were wearing some kind of footwear. Sometimes, as a result of the lighting, the dancers looked as though they had no feet, or that their legs ended in some kind of malformation. This reminded me of  a Francis Bacon painting where bodies are distorted and contorted, not completely beyond recognition but enough to make one wonder.

In terms of choreography, Godani had the dancers moving as if they were jointless. Their arms in particular rippled and undulated, but at such a speed that at times they became blurred. Bacon and his distorted bodies again slipped into my mind. Most of the movement was performed with the dancers bunched tightly together so not only did the bodies look distorted they seemed not able to separate themselves from each other. But the work was very slick, very shiny, although despite the coupling of bodies throughout to me it looked a-sexual.

Production photographs from Raw models are interesting. They show off the dancers and the costumes beautifully but give no idea really of what the piece looked like as a moving canvas of bodies. While this is the case most of the time with dance, it seems even more of an issue with Raw models given the effects on the eye that Godani’s work has. Nothing like being there in the end.

Raw models was performed to a commissioned electronic score by Ulrich Mueller and Siegfried Roessert of the German experimental group 48nord, which added to the bleakness of the work (and again to my feeling that Bacon was overseeing its unfolding).

After all the gloom and blackness, Bonachela’s LANDforms seemed like it came from another planet. It opened with a solo by Juliette Barton whose dancing and understanding of Bonachela’s movement style just gets better and better. Bathed in a warm golden light (lighting by Mark Dyson) she moved through Bonachela’s flowing, intricate choreographic phrases as if she were born to do so.

Bonachela has spoken elsewhere about the development of this work with composer Ezio Bosso, and about its genesis in ideas about the weather and the landscape. But what struck me more than anything was the manner in which Bonachela had structured this work. I loved the variety and dynamics of the patterns he developed throughoout. There were times when the pace was serene, others when it was more frenetic. And in the most frenetic section of all bodies hurtled across the stage space from all directions. Here the athletic Chen Wen was a standout as he threw himself into one leap and turn after another. The second section, composed entirely of duets, was also particularly impressive. Here we saw some duets for two men, some for two women and some for a man and woman. Each had a different expressive quality and gained yet another texture if it were the only duet on stage or if it were just one among several happening at the same time.

Bosso’s luscious score for piano, violin, cello and voice was played live in the pit with Bosso directing from the piano. Towards the end Katie Noonan slipped in to add her distinctive voice to the piano trio.

Sydney Dance Company is looking brilliant and its repertoire, whether bleak or passionate, is receiving great audience response. Cheering, whistling, stamping, and the drumming of heels greet the fall of the curtain.

Michelle Potter, 10 April 2011

Featured image: Juliette Barton, Chen Wen and Richard Cilli in LANDforms. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company

Rafael Bonachela’s dancers

Last week a group of dancers from Sydney Dance Company (SDC) made a brief guest appearance on So you think you can dance Australia. They performed a short excerpt from 6 Breaths, the most recent work created on them by their artistic director Rafael Bonachela. Without wishing to detract from the six dancers who had reached one of the last stages of the So you think you can dance competition, the SDC dancers were absolutely mesmerising. With their streamlined bodies, clearly defined musculature and eloquent limbs it was clear that they were reaping the benefits of strong leadership and vision and, as well, of a particular kind of dance teaching.

6 Breaths, Sydney Dance Company
Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in 6 Breaths. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of Sydney Dance Company

I was lucky that I had an interview set up with Bonachela the following weekend for an article to be published elsewhere, so I couldn’t wait to ask what was happening in the SDC studios. What was producing dancers with such an exceptional capacity to articulate movement and with such a clear sense of focus? I guess I should have seen the writing on the wall (or on the dancers’ bodies) and twigged that Merce Cunningham was in there somewhere.

Bonachela told me that his dancers take both classical ballet and Cunningham technique classes in fairly equal proportions. Cunningham technique, he said, gives the torso extra strength and flexibility. Springing to his feet he demonstrated a classical attitude (think of the familiar statue of Mercury), and then the way the same pose can be used by Cunningham where the spine, still elongated, can be pitched forward in a totally different, contemporary alignment (think of Cunningham’s Beach Birds or Beach Birds for Camera).

Watching 6 Breaths in full shortly afterwards, I looked on with this new knowledge and, while Bonachela is absolutely right about the torso, his dancers also show that every part of the body is an articulate component of the choreography. In addition, they have that rare ability to highlight the space in and through which the body moves and which surrounds each part of the body. Their movements have ‘weight’—and I don’t mean here that they are heavy! Both the notion that every part of the body can be articulate, and that the body moves in space, are deeply embedded in Cunningham’s work.

And lest this should sound as though 6 Breaths is choreographically dry and abstracted, I have to record what is perhaps my favourite moment in the work. Chen Wen enters quietly from a downstage wing. Coming to a halt, still on the side of the stage space, he places two hands on his right hip and slowly lifts his right leg to arabesque, foot flexed at the end of the arabesque line. The ‘hands on the hip’ move is a very deliberate one, as if to show that when the leg lifts to arabesque the pelvis must tilt forward. But as this kind of analytical testing comes to an end when the arabesque reaches full height, Chen Wen’s torso stretches upwards and the breath that gives birth to this expressive and lyrical stretch continues through the neck as the head tilts slightly backwards. From there the movement swirls smoothly into the next phrase. It’s over quite quickly but it is just breathtaking in the way it generates so many thoughts about so many aspects of dance.

6 Breaths is an exquisite work even without any kind of technical analysis. Apart from the choreography and the performance of it, in terms of music and design it looks forward to a new and exciting collaborative aesthetic from Sydney Dance Company. But as I left the theatre I could not help but hope that Bonachela will be that rare kind of artistic director who will always be searching for an understanding of the innate qualities of movement, for whom physicality (not just physical tricks) is what makes dance dance—whatever kind of dance we might be talking about—and who wants his dancers to know these things too and be able to translate that knowledge into movement. Now that would make Sydney Dance a quite remarkable company. It would also make Bonachela one of the very few truly outstanding dance leaders.

Film clip from Stella Motion Pictures, with thanks.

© Michelle Potter, 12 April 2010