It has been Rafael Bonachela’s long-term ambition to have return seasons of his 2018 work ab [intra]. He achieved that ambition this year with a well-received season in France and, more recently, with a Sydney season that opened on 2 June at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. Return seasons for contemporary works are unusual, but then ab [intra] is an unusual work and definitely worthy of more than one season.
Seeing ab [intra] this time was a rather different experience from that of 2018. The cast was quite different for a start, and I was also sitting much closer to the stage, which gave me quite a new take on the work. Although the work is meant to be quite abstract in the sense that Bonachela says that the work is ‘a representation of energy’, sitting close to the stage gave me a strong feeling of there being an expressive, human element, one of personal feelings between people. This was probably most apparent in a duet between Chloe Leong and Davide Di Giovanni where an element of pleasure in the company of another seemed to pervade. This was made stronger by the music (Nick Wales), which seemed quite romantic at this point.
Being closer also gave me a new feeling about the lighting (Damien Cooper). The darkness that enveloped those dancers who occasionally moved to the front of the stage and turned their backs to the audience achieved a strong contrast with dancers further upstage, a contrast that I didn’t notice to the same extent in 2018.
But as is characteristic of Bonachela’s work, the overriding element throughout the evening was the exceptional physicality of the dancers. They never cease to amaze with their ability to perform Bonachela’s demanding choreography with the utmost skill and dynamism. The first duet between Jacopo Grabar and Emily Seymour was virtuosic in the extreme and I was incredibly moved by Jesse Scales who performed (amongst other sections) the closing solo. And I always admire the way Bonachela uses groups, sometimes working in unison, sometimes breaking out from those moments only to return to a unified group again.
It was a real pleasure to see ab [intra] again and to have the opportunity to see some sections and aspects of the production differently. In my review of the work in 2018 I remarked that I thought it was probably one of those ‘giving’ works. It clearly was so for me in 2022. The opening night performance was given a long and rowdy standing ovation.
I didn’t see Graeme Murphy’s 2017 work, The Frock, as a live production. It was fashioned by Murphy and his creative associate Janet Vernon on the Tasmanian group of ‘senior’ dancers, Mature Artists Dance Experience (MADE), a company I have never had the luck to see live either. But some research I have been doing recently aroused my interest and I found a way to see The Frock on film. And what an adventure it was!
The Frock follows the life experiences of a woman who sits at the side of the stage on what looks like the verandah of a house in a rural area of Australia. She watches as her life unfolds before her, although leaves the comfort of her verandah to participate in many of the experiences that play out on stage. She is nameless and is something of an ‘everywoman’ living across several decades, beginning perhaps in the 1950s.
But before those decades begin to unfold choreographically, in the opening section the woman explains the moments that define her situation, especially the dress made by her mother, the frock of the title; and her sexual experience as a teenager (wearing the frock), which resulted in an out-of-marriage pregnancy. Throughout the work the frock appears on a wire mannequin designed by Gerard Manion. The mannequin is a mobilised device (robotics by Paul Fenech) with a voice (that of Murphy) that comments verbally, not always kindly, on what is happening.
The first moment of remarkable dancing comes when the frock is tried on for the first time. We watch as the woman (in real life and in the story in her sixties perhaps) dances a duet with another performer representing the woman as a young girl wearing that frock. Murphy’s choreography is lyrical and emotion-filled movement; not a collection of difficult steps but swinging, swaying movement easily fitting the bodies of those older dancers. It is also the first time we see the backcloth (design by Gerard Manion) that stayed in place for most of the show—a beautiful collection of draped fabrics, lit throughout by Damien Cooper.
From there the decades unfold before us: the ‘swinging sixties’ and seventies, along with the smoking of drugs and the hallucinations that resulted; the rise of feminism; midlife; and the gradual move through the following decades to old age, the ‘Age of Invisibility’. Choreographic highlights included, for me, the rock ‘n roll scenes; the section when the woman contemplates her childless life; the beautiful reunion scene in which the woman and friends from her past come together dancing to Moon River, that evocative song from Breakfast at Tiffany’s; a trio as mid-life approaches danced with the aid of lengths of diaphanous cloth; and the extraordinary solo by the woman performed to a poem (written by Murphy) entitled ‘But still I fly’. The poem is heard in the clip below, along with excerpts from various parts of the work.
It was fascinating to see Murphy using some of the techniques that have appeared in so many of his works, including the use of flowing cloth as a device. But also noticeable was the use of linked arms and hands making linear patterns, something that I recall from many of Murphy’s works with Sydney Dance Company. Then there were references (that perhaps I imagined) to Botticelli’s ‘Three Graces’ in his well-known painting Primavera, and even, briefly, to Nijinsky’s choreography for Afternoon of a Faun. (Murphy does this so many times—brings up a mixed bag of ideas, imagined or not).
The sound design by Christopher Gordon with Christo Curtis was brilliantly put together to evoke every moment in every decade. Apart from Moon River, standouts for me were the Sunday School activities of the early moments when the hymn being sung was that well-known Sunday School song, Jesus Loves Me; the Indian inspired music that accompanied the drug and hallucination scenes; and some hugely moving operatic excerpts.
Jennifer Irwin’s costume were also so evocative of the decades being represented as the story proceeded. Especially outstanding from this point of view were those in the scene taking place in the 1960s filled, as it was, with mini-skirted dresses in brightly coloured, floral fabric, sometimes matched with knee high boots in bright colours. How it takes those of a certain age back to their own teenage years.
The Frock might be counted as one of Murphy’s most theatrical productions with so many exceptional collaborative elements, including its hugely diverse selection of musical interludes; its poem ‘But still I fly’; and its robot carrying the storyline line along. But perhaps more than anything it arouses such a range of emotions in the viewer. That to me is theatricality at its best. Sometimes The Frock is quite simply confronting. At other times it is just hilarious. But more than anything it is deeply moving as a comment on life’s many changing situations. I have to admit I started to cry at the end as the woman, and the daughter she had never met, intuitively knew who the other was when they came together unexpectedly in an op shop where both admired that frock hanging on a rack of clothing on sale. But the weeping quickly turned to laughter as the dress was shoplifted out! Magnificent Murphy.
Postscript: I should add that a complete version of The Frock is not publicly available at this stage, although a promo is available on Vimeo, beautifully put together by Philippe Charluet of Stella Motion Pitures.
The poster image below announces the premiere of the work in Japan in 2018.
25 February 2020. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Graeme Murphy has said that his latest creation, The Happy Prince, is basically for children. He wants, he says, ‘to cater for the tiny imagination bud inside children’s heads, which needs just the tiniest bit of imagination, of fertilisation, to burst into a million thoughts.’* I am looking forward to taking my grandchildren to see it. But, from the moment the work opens with an explosive sound and much white smoke—’the war is over’ says the program note—to the closing moments set on a sunny Australian beach, you don’t have to be a child for hundreds of thoughts to rush into your mind.
The narrative line is based on the Oscar Wilde story reimagined slightly by Murphy and Kim Carpenter. (Wilde’s version is readily available to read online.) In the ballet the Prince (Adam Bull) has been brought up to know only happiness. But, when a statue in his honour is erected in his home town, he comes to realise that not everyone lives in a world of happiness, and that there is much disparity between the rich and the poor. He engages with the Little Swallow (Marcus Morelli), who has not kept up with his migrating swallow family, and together they strip the statue of its rich decorations, which they give to the poor. The story ends sadly for both the Prince and the Swallow. But, as the ballet concludes, they are united in a different, heavenly world.
Instantly striking in the ballet are the visual aspects of the production. Sets and costumes by Carpenter, expressive lighting by Damien Cooper, and some fascinating projections by Fabian Astore created all kinds of resonances for me. Even though the production was meant to be set in post-war London, the township that was revealed as the smoke dissipated in the opening scene reminded me immediately of the architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser and his eccentric apartment buildings in Vienna and elsewhere with their assortment of shapes and colours. By the time we got to the end of the show, the sunny Australian beach scene recalled Charles Meere’s iconic painting Australian Beach Pattern, with the addition of a dominating reference in the background to Hokusai’s famous woodblock The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In between, how enchanting was the drop cloth in the scene where the Prince explained to the Little Swallow that happiness had pervaded his childhood. The cloth looked as if it had been borrowed from a kindergarten or a child care centre and was perfectly in tune with the box labelled ‘Toys’ in the downstage corner, from which emerged an assortment of toys who danced their way across the stage. Which brings up the question of the choreography.
Murphy has always been at home moving groups of dancers around the stage and this ability was an outstanding aspect of his Happy Prince choreography. The way he filled the stage with townspeople in the village in the opening scene, and the groupings he set up in the final beach scene were strong examples. Then there were the references to other theatrical genres. The characters of the Lord Mayor (Luke Marchant) and the Lady Mayoress (Jarryd Madden) came straight out of the pantomime tradition with the Lady Mayoress being the traditional Dame (always played by a man). Their extravagant costuming and outrageous movement also recalled this tradition.
Touches of vaudeville appeared in the scene where the Little Swallow engages with Rita Reed (Serena Graham) and her companion Reedettes. The choreography for this scene was appropriately in the Tivoli line-up mode.
Much of the production was filled with emotive and heartwarming moments. The characters who benefitted from the Prince’s generosity were finely drawn characters and beautifully portrayed: Corey Herbert as the Seamstress, Nathan Brook as the Artist and Benedicte Bemet as the Little Match Girl. They engaged our hearts and minds as their poverty was revealed prior to being helped by the Prince and the Swallow. And in true Murphy fashion, the Swallow was not always bird-like (although he did have moments of flying) but a teen guy with jeans ripped at the knees and occasionally a skateboard as a means of getting around.
A commissioned score from Christopher Gordon added to what was an exceptional collaboration.
I must admit, however, that I did find it hard to be convinced that the final beach scenes related to the migration to Australia of the so-called ‘£10 Poms’ (as I learnt later from the program notes). To me it was just Murphy in the same kind of mode as I thought was clear in his Romeo and Juliet where the story moved from place to place, era to era. I remember calling his R & J postmodern (to the annoyance of some) because it made reference to many aspects of many things. The Happy Prince was a bit the same.
I look forward to seeing this production again when I am sure I will notice other things, more of the choreography perhaps, and probably change my mind on some issues. But my first impressions are that The Happy Prince is exciting, surprising and heart warming theatre in which the whole is so much more than the sum of its enticing parts.
In his first full-length work for several years, Rafael Bonachela has made a startling, extraordinarily powerful dance piece to an original score by Nick Wales (extra music by Peteris Vasks), with lighting from the remarkable Damien Cooper and production design from David Fleischer. The title ab [intra] (Latin: from within) we are told refers to ‘the energy transfer between the internal and the external’. The external energy is absolutely clear from beginning to end in ab [intra]. The internal aspect giving rise to the external we can only ponder. But Bonachela likes us to ponder (I think).
Choreographically the piece has two main duets, several shorter duets and trios, a major solo, and several sections for the entire company. The standout section for me was the duet between Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni. The partnering was spectacular, as was the energy of the relationship between the two dancers. It was almost R & J à la Bonachela. I especially admired it for the clarity of movement it contained. The duet that preceded it, danced by Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll, also had some amazing partnering and it was impossible not to be stunned by the contortions of the body that it contained. How did those two dancers get into and then extract themselves from some of those moves? But quite honestly I preferred the cleaner, and yet still highly physical, look of the Yap/Di Giovanni duet.
Another choreographic highlight was a solo danced by Nelson Earl. Earl emerged to take centre stage from a line of dancers who walked solemnly onto the performance space to stand in a row around the back and sides of the stage. His solo was characterised by stretched lines of the body and was largely without the curving fluidity of much of the rest of the choreography. At times I even started to think of Charlie Chaplin’s rather eccentric style of moving! But Earl performed with great panache and the rather different look of the choreography was refreshing.
I continue to admire the way Rafael Bonachela handles large groups of dancers. In ab [intra] there were several occasions when the whole company (or sometimes almost the whole company) were onstage together. It is fascinating to see how at times Bonachela has his larger groups of dancers look like a collection of individuals in different poses, making different moves, only for the group suddenly to be moving in unison. It is also fascinating to look harder at what the dancers are doing because it often is that what looks different is actually the same move done with back to the audience, or facing another direction.
As far as staging went, ab [intra] was distinguished by a certain restrained power. The lighting was always quite startling and consisted variously of haze, brightness, strong downlights, and occasionally a bank of small, bright lights that moved up and down limiting and then expanding on the space the dancers occupied. Costuming was quite minimal in appearance. Everything added to the unfolding of the work.
In a brief conversation I had earlier with Bonachela about ab [intra] he mentioned that he hoped the work might continue to be part of the Sydney Dance Company repertoire. I think it is probably one of those ‘giving’ works in which audiences will see more on second and subsequent viewings. So I hope Bonachela’s wish for it to continue to be shown is realised. At times it seemed slightly too long (at 70 mins) but mostly the strong staging, the remarkable and constantly changing look of the choreography, and the exceptional physicality of the dancers made it one of Bonachela’s (and Sydney Dance Company’s) strongest works to date.
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 reviewis 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.
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.
An expanded version of my Canberra Times review of ORB is below. The shorter review is as yet unpublished. [Update: The review appeared in print on 2 June 2017. Here is a link to the online version]
Canberra Theatre, 25 May 2017
Full Moon, choreography Cheng Tsung-Lung, music Lim Giong, costume design Fan Huai-Chih, lighting design Damien Cooper. Ocho, choreography Rafael Bonachela, music Nick Wales featuring vocals by Rrawun Maymuru, costume and set design David Fleischer, lighting design Damien Cooper.
The dancers of Sydney Dance Company have once again stunned audiences with their extraordinary physical skills in a double bill program with the over-arching title of ORB. Explosive, athletic, swirling, superbly controlled, fast-paced, and many other expressions come to mind. Can their techniques get any better? I ask this question of myself every season and every season I ponder how they can continue to perform with such passion and power. ORB can give huge pleasure from thinking purely of the physical execution of the choreography.
But the program becomes totally fascinating if one delves a little further. Take Full Moon, which opens the program, for example. Each of the eight dancers in this work is dressed differently, and spectacularly so by Taiwanese fashion designer Fan Huai-Chih. And it turns out that each represents a different character associated in some way with the moon.
Latisha Sparks, dressed in a bright red, tiered and flounced dress (red being the colour of luck and happiness), represented a female warrior, with a nod to the Hindu deity Shiva who often is portrayed with a crescent moon on his forehead. Shiva is also said to have ‘matted hair’ and Sparks’ hair certainly looked rather tousled on the night I saw the show. Was she wearing a wig, I asked myself? Then, choreographically, Sparks’ continuous whirling arm and hand movements recalled the multiple arms of some representations of Shiva, and her writhing and rolling movements across the stage suggested engagement as a warrior in battle.
Jesse Scales was also fabulously dressed in a silvery-white dress of clean-cut but off-centre lines. She was the rabbit in the moon from Chinese mythology. Her movements were often tiny, darting and filled with small jumps.
There was very little contact between each of the characters and, as they performed their individual dances, there was often stillness or just a hint of slow, controlled movement from the other characters. Bernhard Knauer in fact spent much of the time frozen in a meditative position.
The whole work was ablaze with references to deities and mythological creatures, and was filled with juxtapositions of movement and stillness.
Ocho, on the other hand, did not focus on stillness, even though there were times when several of the dancers were enclosed inside David Fleischer’s industrial-looking concrete and glass box that comprised the set: they mostly watched other dancers performing outside the box. Bonachela made Ocho (eight in Spanish) in his eighth year as artistic director of Sydney Dance Company and has used eight dancers in the work. But, like most of Bonachela’s works, there is nothing particularly significant in a narrative sense about the title. Ocho, the work, is contemporary dance in which we are left to have an opinion of our own, which may or may not be the same as anyone else’s.
I found the work, with its grinding score by Nick Wales, and its often-gloomy lighting by Damien Cooper, unsettling and harsh. This feeling was perhaps accentuated because, while watching it, it was impossible not to be thinking of the capriciousness of Full Moon. As well, Ocho‘s down-to-earth costuming (by David Fleischer) couldn’t have been more different from that of Full Moon. But then Ocho was meant to have an industrial feel to it and it succeeded in doing just that.
What was interesting was the fact that Bonachela used his dancers in this work more as soloists than as members of an ensemble—Charmene Yap had the standout solo for me. Nevertheless, there were some sections in which unison movement shone and these sections seemed to fit the music better, or at least made it seem less harsh. Another notable feature, this time of the score, was Wales’ incorporation of vocals from indigenous singer Rrawun Maymuru. I was expecting the score to change pace somewhat at this stage, but the change was to my mind only minimal. The volume and pounding quality continued.
Sydney Dance Company continues to push the boundaries of contemporary dance and for that Bonachela deserves admiration. We, as audience members, need to be pushed into new dance experiences, and Sydney Dance Company certainly does that for us.
This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times.
24 February 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
Infinity, the Australian Ballet’s first program in its 50th anniversary year, is a diverse and sometimes challenging evening of dance. But most of all it is thrilling experience to see the Australian Ballet putting itself out on a limb with three brand new works from three Australian choreographers: Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. All three works are danced to new scores by Australian composers and all three have new Australian designs. Definitely something to celebrate.
The show opens with the new work from Murphy, The narrative of nothing. To tell the truth, while there is a perfectly good explanation from Murphy for why this title was chosen—there’s no obvious narrative but the work may still be telling the audience something, I’d much rather dispense with titles that sound smart (with all due respects to Murphy). Untitled works just as well for me!
Murphy’s choreography often had a primeval feel as bodies twisted and curled around others. There were powerful performances from Lana Jones and Adam Bull, and I especially admired the sequence where Jones was partnered by several men who alternated between holding her aloft and letting her fall from side to side. Vintage Murphy really but Jones’ ability to hold her body in a perfect curve as she fell was breathtaking.
The supporting dancers deserve praise for their technical strength as they attacked the demanding choreography. Murphy has moved a step beyond his usual (always interesting) vocabulary and made a work that, in somewhat of a contradiction, asks the dancers to move with a kind of aggressive lyricism.
I didn’t read the program notes prior to watching this work so wasn’t aware in advance that the commissioned score, Fire Music by Brett Dean, was in response to the Victorian ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires of 2009. With the knowledge of what was behind Dean’s score, fire in some respects becomes the non-narrative. But the works stands without this knowledge and in fact I was pleased that I didn’t know in advance. The score sounded quite elemental—the thunder sheets certainly helped there—and, with some instruments positioned outside the pit, the sound was enveloping.
Jennifer Irwin’s body hugging costumes were decorated individually with black patterns, often swirling organically, and with what looked like silver studs or tiny mirrors. Depending on the lighting (by Damien Cooper) they changed from looking a little punk, to glowing in the dark, to looking slinky, and much more. Cooper’s design was uncompromising—a solo by Adam Bull performed pretty much on the spot in a strong downlight was another highlight. The design also included an onstage use of lighting rigs not normally on view to the audience, another technique that has often featured in works by Murphy. With the inclusion of a minimalist black space as a setting The narrative of nothing became an example of the very best of contemporary collaborative enterprises. It also looks back to some of Murphy’s strongest abstract works made for Sydney Dance Company—Piano sonata comes straight to mind.
Obarzanek’s piece also had a strange, or at least not very catchy title, There’s definitely a prince involved. It referred to his process of generating ideas and vocabulary for the work by asking a range of people about what they thought constitutes a ballet, and his subsequent deconstruction of the ballet Swan Lake. The work can be read on a number of levels. On the most simplistic it tells the story of Swan Lake, using the dancers as narrators, and focuses on the illogicality of the story. It relies on the dancers’ deadpan delivery of the text to raise laughter from the audience, and the various dancers who take on the role of narrator throughout the piece are more than adept. Unfortunately, even though they used a microphone, their voices were often inaudible above the crashing sounds of the orchestra playing Stefan Gregory’s fragmentation of Tchaikovsky’s familiar Swan Lake music.
On another level the work rips apart the traditional choreography of Swan Lake, and amusingly so, especially in the section based on the dance of the four little swans. It helps but is not essential if the audience is familiar with the traditional steps.
On yet another level the work can be seen as a comment on art asking the question of whether Swan Lake is indeed a work of art. Obarzanek has an acutely inquiring mind and his ability to force us to reconsider what we as a ballet audience might take for granted is powerful and actually quite respectful.
There’s definitely a prince involved uses dancers of the Australian Ballet augmented by dancers from Obarzanek’s company, Chunky Move. Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe showed her versatility as a performer and slotted beautifully into the varying demands associated with the role of a deconstructed Odette, the female lead. The few moments of classical movement—a fabulous grand jeté across the stage, and her ‘dying swan’ poses—did however make me yearn to see her dance a ‘real’ Swan Lake. Deconstruction is fine, entertaining and thought provoking, but the classic version transcends it all and it is that strength really that allows Obarzanek’s deconstruction to work so well.
The program closes with Page’s Warumuk—in the dark light with Bangarra Dance Theatre joining forces with the Australian Ballet. With its new score from David Page it presents an exploration of the myths associated with the night sky.
The Bangarra dancers performed with their usual, beautifully rehearsed ensemble work with particularly striking performances from Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco representing Full Moon. Vivienne Wong, stunningly dressed by Jennifer Irwin in a lacy black outfit cut with a long ‘tail’ at the back, stood out as the Evening Star. For me Wong was the sole Australian Ballet dancer who was able to transcend her balletic training and blend into the Bangarra way of moving. This was a real feat as Bangarra has now consolidated its own very distinctive style and company dancers are performing with added assurance and expertise.
The one disappointment for me was Jacob Nash’s set design. To me it looked a little too much like a previous Bangarra commission, his set designs for ‘About’, part of the Belong program of 2011.
This program is the Australian Ballet in an extreme mood. I have nothing but praise for the courage of the company in taking on, and succeeding in a program that far surpasses anything they have done in recent years. It makes the company look at last as though it is a company with a desire to move ballet into the future.
Michelle Potter, 27 February 2012
Postscript:The Canberra Times review appeared on 17 March 2012. It is no longer available online.
This is an expanded version of my review first published in The Canberra Times, 17 September 2011, p. 30 under the title ‘Fluid postmodern take on a classic’.
13 September 2011, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
In an interview published in the September issue of the Qantas inflight magazine, choreographer Graeme Murphy said of his new production of Romeo and Juliet for the Australian Ballet that we should ‘bring a lifeboat’. Well he had a point because this production, which had its world premiere in Melbourne on 13 September, is a very fluid one indeed. It opens in a town setting, which could be Verona at the time Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is set. But over the course of the evening the location and the era change wildly. We see the marriage of Romeo and Juliet in Japan, the killing of Tybalt and Mercutio in India and the mourning of Juliet in a harsh, blood red desert setting. The characters ride bikes in one scene. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio find themselves in a row boat in another. And more.
Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet is quintessentially postmodern. It has moments of humour and irony. It is filled with allusions to all kinds of cultural objects and issues—devotees of the Hare Krishna movement even make an appearance. Murphy also references himself and his work through some choreographic moments that look back to the vintage days of Sydney Dance Company. The scene in which Juliet receives a potion to induce a death-like sleep, when six black clad figures support Juliet in expansive swooping and flying movements, is just one example of this glance back at previous choreography.
Murphy also incorporates fabric into the choreography and the production overall. And while on this occasion his costume designer, Akira Isogawa, may well have had a strong input into how fabric has been used, Murphy has been playing with lengths of cloth and curtains of fabric throughout his choreographic career. One of the most dramatic uses of fabric in Romeo and Juliet occurs when a bolt of scarlet silk, initially resting amongst other rolls of fabric on the side of the stage in the Indian market place, unwinds and streams across the stage as the Capulets and the Montagues engage in their bloody feud.
This Romeo and Juliet is a collage of ideas playfully deconstructed and the remarkable thing is that it works. Everyone knows the story and Murphy has assumed this familiarity with the plot and has pursued a vision for a work that is like no other that the Australian Ballet has ever presented.
On opening night Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson as Juliet and Romeo led us on this journey of love and death. Eastoe in particular danced with joy, passion, despair, every emotion that the story requires. Her opening dance, with its quick footwork and fluid upper body movement, filled us with pleasure and anticipation.
Daniel Gaudiello continued to impress as Mercutio and moved, as his name in this ballet implies, like quicksilver, darting here and there, unpredictable and always impassioned in defence of his friends. Juliet’s nurse, usually played as a somewhat plump and bumbling if kind-hearted older woman, was intelligently performed by Elizabeth Hill and became (thankfully) a much less pantomimic role. A character introduced by Murphy—Death, the Prince of Darkness—provided a through line for the meandering locations and times. Death picks up bodies, which he places in a wooden cart (rather like the carts that carried the French to the guillotine in 1789—another reference). Or sometimes he just hovers menacingly in the background. It’s not a big dancing role but one that requires a very strong presence. It was very ably performed on opening night by Adam Bull.
In addition to Akira Isogawa, the collaborative team on this production included Murphy’s creative associate, Janet Vernon, set designer Gerard Manion, and Damien Cooper who lit the show. From among literally hundreds of costumes created by Isogawa, I especially liked the beautifully cut, high-collared black coat for Death and the pale olive, very simple costume for Juliet’s nurse. I was amused by the costume for Paris, which seemed to have a kind of gold ‘breast-plate’ of muscles. Paris is rarely portrayed in a sympathetic way and this addition to his costume suggested an inherent vanity. Manion’s strongest contribution was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work.
This Romeo and Juliet may not appeal to everyone, especially those who like their ballet to be more in a modernist vein, that is somewhat coherent in form. Did I miss the John Cranko version of Romeo and Juliet, which has been in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire for decades? Yes, a little, but in the same way as I occasionally yearn to see a traditional Swan Lake, rather than Murphy’s newer production. It’s part of the balletic legacy and we need to be reminded occasionally that we have a heritage.
But Murphy’s approach in 2011 raises many issues that are discussed across other art forms and it is refreshing to see this occurring in ballet, an art form that is so often seen as a little dowdy. Of course such issues include the notion that postmodernism is dead so we have to wonder whether this Romeo and Juliet is already outdated? But whatever one might think, it is a production worth seeing.
23 July–28 August 2010, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Bangarra Dance Theatre, which was founded by Carole Johnson in 1989, has entered its twenty-first year with a program of two works under the generic title Of earth and sky. Riley, a work by emerging choreographer Daniel Riley McKinley, represents the sky of the title, while Artefact choreographed by well established dancer and choreographer Frances Rings represents the earth. The program as a whole suggests a potential new direction for Bangarra.
The inspiration for Riley came from the work of the late indigenous photographer and film maker Michael Riley, in particular from his series of photographic prints in which an object is digitally manipulated to float against a background of a soft blue sky dotted with clouds. They are single objects, a feather, a locust, a bible, a boomerang, a broken wing, an angel, and they reflect McKinley’s own indigenous background in rural New South Wales and, at times, the conflict between Aboriginal and Christian spirituality.
Riley’s cloud photographs are projected in turn onto a screen and McKinley’s choreography grows from and is shaped by his reflections on the objects. The choreography for the boomerang image, for example, swirls and turns, while that for the locust gathers strength of movement so that it buzzes and swarms as David Page’s electronic music develops an insistent power. The highlight is a duet, Angel, danced by Waangenga Blanco and Leonard Mickelo. They carry each other shoulder high, proudly and powerfully, as a stone angel hovers as the background image.
Riley is an impressive, if occasionally unsophisticated, choreographic beginning for McKinley. With its abstraction from any form of narrative it is quite different from much of the material we have seen from Bangarra over the previous two decades.
Artefact is the latest in a string of works made for Bangarra by Rings, who has recently been appointed resident choreographer for the company. It looks at objects of the earth such as string bags, grinding stones, bodies, weaving and coolamun (an aboriginal carrying vessel) for its inspiration. The opening sequence, called Museum, sets the scene for what follows. In it Daniel Riley McKinley and Travis de Vries, the latter a dancer on secondment to Bangarra, alternately wrap, hide and present themselves in an enormous possum skin cloak, a museum artefact that resonates nevertheless with the spirituality with which it was originally imbued. Rings appears also to be moving more towards abstraction and her choreography unfolds smoothly and organically, even lyrically at times, with some arresting movement for groups of dancers.
Bangarra has always been known for the strength of its visual aesthetic and Of earth and sky is no exception. In particular its lighting by the team of Damien Cooper and Matt Cox is subtle and evocative. But perhaps what emerges most strongly from this production is the potential movement towards abstraction, or away from strongly narrative works, by its choreographers. It could be an interesting new decade.
19 september 2009, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Spring Dance
The Oracle, Meryl Tankard’s work set to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, is a triumph. A solo work for Paul White, who dances with astonishing physicality and intensity, it is an example of how affecting a work can be when the creative team has a strongly shared vision and works single-mindedly to bring that vision into being. The Oracle was visually and choreographically focused and articulate. It moved from section to section as relentlessly as the music until it reached its dramatic conclusion.
Tankard’s choreography, with shared credit to White on the program, moved between small and intricate movements of the hands and fingers and even of the tongue, which required sensitivity of the smallest body part, and movements that demanded that White fling himself through the air, while always maintaining absolute control of the whole body as it hurtled through space. Introverted movements, sometimes executed with the dancer’s back to the audience or with his head shrouded in a chocolate-coloured length of velvety cloth, contrasted with steps of exceptional virtuosity, exuberance and extroversion. Some sections were acrobatic — at one stage White walked on his hands — others had a strong classical feel. This choreography required an extraordinarily versatile performer and White’s performance was quite simply a tour de force.
Tankard assembled The Oracle following the structure of the Stravinsky score but, in her hallmark manner, it was built on multiple layers of meaning and allusion. There were emotive links to Nijinsky, who first gave choreographic expression to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913. They were noticeable in some of the choreographic phrases, which seemed to refer back to Nijinsky’s movement phrases created for his own Rite of Spring. They were also noticeable in those moments when White seemed to be lost in a surreal world, which recalled Nijinsky’s descent into mental illness in the later years of his life. There were allusions to Martha Graham’s well known work, Letter to the World, in which she used her long skirt to give extra shape and form to her choreography. White used that long, chocolate-coloured swathe of velvet not this time to cover his head but as a skirt tied to his waist. He made it swirl through the air as he cart-wheeled and jumped and manipulated it across the floor as he slithered and twisted. The work drew on other sources of inspiration from the work of Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum to Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. But The Oracle is absolutely Tankard’s own. One of her great strengths as a choreographer is to make references while maintaining an individual integrity.
Regis Lansac, working again with Tankard as he has done over many years on set and video design, created an opening video sequence to a soundscape of whistling and other mechanical sounds and a recording of Magnificat by the Portuguese composer of the baroque period, João Rodrigues Esteves. This sequence picked up on aspects of the choreography and on images of White and manipulated both to explore a different view of the human body. It seemed also to set up a dance of its own that moved from the figurative to the abstract and back again melding and confusing the two ideas. At times throughout the piece Lansac’s projections and video sequences provided an evocative background. At other times they became essential to the unfolding of the dance, especially in those moments when White encountered his image on the backcloth and needed to contend with what he saw.
The Oracle was lit by Damien Cooper and Matt Cox. Highlights included the Rembrandt-esque lighting of White’s face, arms and legs in the opening moments; the expanding and contracting circle of light around whose circumference White made a slow and tentative progression; and the breathtaking closing moment as White, centre stage, jumped high into the air as a shaft of brilliant light closed down upon him.
The Oracle shows the collaborative work of Tankard and Lansac at its best. It is an awesome piece of dance and theatre and was received with well deserved shouts of bravo and a standing ovation at both performances I attended.