On View: Panoramic Suite. Sue Healey

Sue Healey has been working on her On View series for several years now. I recall with much pleasure seeing (live—it was pre-Covid!) her very arresting program On View. Live Portraits in 2015, and I also recall, again with pleasure, a number of the portraits of Australian dance ‘icons’ she has made over the years. But Healey has worked on a number of occasions in Japan, Hong Kong and other Asian countries and much her work in the On View series has been collated and edited into an hour-long masterly production called On View: Panoramic Suite, which was recently shown as part of Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art.

This digital presentation began in something of a philosophical way with three performers explaining how they perceived the notion of dance portraiture, which was, at least in part, the focus of the production. ‘The dancer as an expert in being seen,’ said Martin del Amo; ‘How do you see a thought in a gesture?’ asked Nalina Wait; and ‘How are we perceived by others in a changing world?’ mused Shona Erskine.

From there the performance crossed every kind of boundary we might have imagined was possible for a dance on film production. It was panoramic not only in the way the footage was collated from so many different places across three distinct areas—Australia, Hong Kong and Japan—but also because it featured 27 different dancers whose ages ranged from 28 to 106; because the footage was presented from so many different angles, including close-up shots, aerial views and everything in between; and because it was presented with such a variety of screen views including multiple views at any one time.

Several sections stood out for me. I found quite fascinating a section that began with percussionist Laurence Pike playing while seated in a square of light. As he played dancers appeared to be falling from a sheet of white material that gradually transformed into a sheet of blue sky. At one stage Pike disappeared from the screen and his place was taken by shadows of performers whose individual shapes kept changing.

A section filmed on Lake George just north of Canberra, which featured dancer James Batchelor, was also particularly eye-catching. We saw Batchelor from an aerial perspective as a solitary figure in a wide, flat, uninhabited landscape, then on multiple screens sometimes with a screen of footage placed next to a screen that was simply a black space. Occasionally, there were close-up shots showing his hands, or his feet engaging with the dirt of the lake floor. It was an interesting reflection and comment on dance and the environment, a concept that was also mentioned by Shona Erskine in the narration at the beginning of the production. This Lake George section also sat in opposition to the section that preceded it when five dancers performed in a tight environment that consisted of nothing more than a small square of light. Not one dancer moved out of the square as they negotiated each other within that confined space.

Still from On View: Panoramic Suite, 2021. Courtesy of Sue Healey

Of the dancers, I found Japanese Butoh artist Nobuyoshi Asai extraordinarily moving. Covered completely in white make-up and wearing only a minimal jock strap-style costume he moved at times as if in a trance, at others like an animal, while at times we saw fury and anger. His performance was intense, potent and physically arresting.


I also enjoyed some moments when Torres Strait Islander dancer, Elma Kris, performed first in a forest of tall, thin tree trunks, and then by the edge of the sea before dancing in the shallows. Again it was partly a reflection of a specific environment.

I have also to acknowledge the entire production/collaborative team for some extraordinary contributions, including Darrin Verhagen for his score and Karen Norris for her lighting. The production was dedicated to the memory of ballerina and esteemed teacher Lucette Aldous who died in June 2021 and who was one of Healey’s Australian dance icons.

Michelle Potter, 30 October 2021

Featured image: Still from On View: Panoramic Suite, 2021. Courtesy of Sue Healey

Whispers down the lane. Chloe Moir

Whispers down the lane is part of Dance.Focus, a film commission project from DanceHub SA in partnership with Ausdance ACT and supported by Ausdance SA and Torbreck Vintners. The project has an aim of challenging, resonating and engaging with screen dance. Not a bad idea given that dance on screen has been so prominent in our minds, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, for well over a year now.

Four choreographers were commissioned to create for the project, two from South Australia and two from the ACT. A finished product from the two ACT choreographers has been delayed as a result of the lockdown situation in Canberra, but the South Australian films, Whispers down the lane from Chloe Moir and (T)here from Cinzia Schincariol are available to watch on the Ausdance ACT website at this link.

While I enjoyed in particular the beautiful landscapes in which (T)here was filmed, it was Whispers down the lane that was, to my mind, the outstanding contribution from a dance point of view. Made on six dancers, it took as a starting point the childhood game of passing on a whisper with the aim of the message remaining unchanged as it passed from one person to the next.

The message or ‘whisper’ in this case is a dance solo lasting about 90 seconds performed by Moir, a dance graduate from the University of South Australia. Although quite short at 90 seconds, Moir’s whisper is relatively complex. It has, for example, changing levels, including some fast turning movements on the floor, and some detailed finger work.

After Moir has delivered her whisper, each dancer enters the performing space (one by one) and re-enacts that whisper. Towards the end we see a film compilation of the six versions of the whisper, and that compilation also includes Moir dancing the original solo. At various stages, each of the six dancers comments on the project, at first how they think it will evolve, and later how they managed the situation.

What was the conclusion? Written on the screen towards the end were the words:

Each repetition inspired new thought, feeling and understanding of the phrase … teaching us that our perspectives and experiences make us different from one another, leaving us to tell a different story.

But it was more than that. What attracted me was the insight it gave to that essential feature of dance—it is made on the human body. While individuality is there always, as the closing words say, does that also mean we can never really replicate what a choreographer sets, especially when restaging a work, and especially if the work is from the past? Whispers down the lane is a beautiful and inspiring film (production Lewis Grant Kennedy) with so many layers to it. An excellent outcome from Dance.Focus.

All photos: Screenshots from the film Whispers Down The Lane by Chloe Moir, a DANCE.FOCUS 2021 commission. Courtesy of Ausdance ACT

Michelle Potter, 5 October 2021

Featured image: Chloe Moir and film title.

Dance diary. September 2021

  • San Francisco Dance Film Festival

In September I had the pleasure of acting as moderator for an online discussion of Firestarter. The story of Bangarra. Firestarter will be shown at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival in October. Details at this link. Guests for the session were Frances Rings, associate artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, and the co-directors of the film, Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin.

Scene from Firestarter. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Festival program includes some interesting dance material in addition to Firestarter. The full program will be available via Marquee TV, which has just updated its streaming program to Australia (but unfortunately not to New Zealand, due to circumstances beyond the control of SFDFF). Follow this link to see the full San Francisco Dance Film Festival program.

  • Natalia. Force of Nature

I have had the good fortune to see Natalia Osipova on stage on a number of occasions. Pure Dance, a program of six short works shown in Sydney in 2019, and Woolf Works, which I saw in both London and Brisbane, especially stand out. So I was curious to see the DVD, Natalia. Force of Nature, subtitled ‘Portrait of a dance superstar.’ It was released a couple of years ago now, and contains some interesting rehearsal footage and examines Osipova’s interest in, and performance of contemporary dance as well as traditional classical ballet.

Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg in The Leaves are Fading. Pure Dance, Sydney, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But what was most fascinating to me was the footage we saw of Osipova as a student in Russia. From those early shots of Osipova in class, aged about nine, and through some very early performances as a student, it was very clear that she has what to me is the almost perfect body for classical ballet. The limbs are beautifully long and so well proportioned in relation to the rest of the body; both turnout and flexibility are completely natural; and the spine is so straight, especially through the neck and into the skull. These physical features are so very clear in scenes of a young Osipova in class and I can’t remember ever seeing a body so perfectly attuned to the physical qualities that are intrinsic to the classical mode. When I reviewed her performance in the Tudor pas de deux from The Leaves are Fading (the opening presentation from Pure Dance), I wrote, ‘From Osipova we saw incredibly liquid arm movements, beautiful use of the upper body, and an ability to make every movement look so easy.’ That ease is in large part a result of a body so perfectly suited to classical ballet.

Of course when watching her in performance one is overwhelmed by so many other aspects of her dancing—her emotional input, her dramatic abilities, the way she connects with her partner to bring fluidity to the performance and strength to interpretation, for example. She really is a superstar. But how thrilling it was to see that close to perfect body in class.

  • Mary’s last dance

It was lovely to see that Mary’s Last Dance: The untold story of the wife of Mao’s Last Dancer by Mary Li (Penguin Random House, 2020) has been awarded The Courier-Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year Award for 2021. The award is given to a Queensland-based author from books entered in the fiction and non-fiction categories and is determined by public vote. Only rarely do books about the arts, dance in particular, make book award lists, let alone turn out as winners. So, congratulations to Mary Li and to the Queensland public for their votes!

  • Betty Pounder
Portrait of Betty Pounder, 1940s (?). National Library of Australia, J. C. Williamson Collection. Photographer not identified
Portrait of Betty Pounder, 1940s (?). National Library of Australia, J. C. Williamson Collection.

Betty Pounder, dancer and choreographer for musical theatre, the Australian Ballet and other outlets, was born just over 100 years ago in August 1921. Designer Kevin Coxhead is planning a book celebrating Pounder’s life (she died in 1990) and career, and the first part of the book has just appeared in the most recent newsletter of Theatre Heritage Australia. The opening image of the chorus line-up from No No Nanette is quite special! Pounder looks outstanding even just standing there. Read the first part at this link. There is at present no indication of when the full book will appear.

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2021

Joy Womack: The White Swan

A film by Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov. Release date (digital format): 19 July 2021 by 101 Films (London).
(Available on various digital platforms soon. See this link)

Canberra dance audiences may well remember Joy Womack, who performed briefly in Canberra in 2018 for Bravissimo Productions. That one-off program featured dancers from across the globe—Womack was one of them. She was enticed to Canberra by the directors of the National Capital Ballet School and for Bravissimo Productions she danced Vasily Vainonen’s Moskovsky Waltz, partnered by Italian artist Francesco Daniele Costa. It was a simply stunning performance.

At the time of her Canberra appearance, Womack was a principal dancer with Universal Ballet in Korea, but prior to her Korean career she studied and performed in Russia, initially with the Bolshoi Ballet and then with Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Her Russian career is featured in a new documentary: Joy Womack: The White Swan.

Womack was born in California and brought up in California and Texas and the film begins with family snapshots of the Womack family. But it quickly progresses to Moscow where Womack was accepted as a student at the ballet school attached to the Bolshoi Ballet and then, after graduation, into the Bolshoi Ballet. Womack’s overwhelming desire to dance with the Bolshoi is explored and in many respects the film is a psychological portrait of a determined dancer. Womack talks openly about her thoughts, her dreams, and the mental challenges she constantly faced.

But perhaps the most confronting aspect of the film is the way it explores the many difficulties Womack faced as she negotiated living in Russia. Many of those difficulties are strongly dance-related and concern, for example, the shape of the body that the Russian teachers and directors believed was necessary for progress through the school and company; the apparent hierarchical system within ballet companies; and the management of a dancer’s injuries. There were many moments when I was shocked to tell the truth, perhaps none more than when I watched as Womack stood in a canteen and asked for ‘a salmon sandwich without the bread’ and proceeded to eat from a plate on which was spread just a few slices of smoked salmon.

Other issues were more overtly political and included attitudes to women, and the perception of an American way of life as made manifest in day to day living and in attitudes to performance. Particularly compelling remarks were made by Nikita, the Russian dancer Womack married in Moscow and by his mother, an incredibly glamorous, impeccably dressed and adorned lady. But especially powerful was Womack’s resignation from the Bolshoi Ballet and the reasons for it. (No spoiler given on this matter!).

After leaving the Bolshoi, Womack worked for several years with Kremlin Ballet Theatre and, while the Bolshoi experience was her ‘dream of a lifetime’ experience, her time with Kremlin seems to have been much more rewarding. She was strongly supported by her teacher/coach/mentor, Janna, and admired by the company’s director.

Joy Womack with coach Janna. Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

It was in the Kremlin company that Womack was given what she had longed for at the Bolshoi—principal roles in the classics, Nutcracker, Giselle and Swan Lake. Womack regarded the leading role in Swan Lake as the ultimate experience for a ballet dancer and, when she eventually got to perform it, her rendition of the White Swan in Act II moved the director of the company to congratulate her, saying she was the best White Swan he had seen. Towards the end of the film we see brief footage of Womack dancing in these principal roles, including (too briefly) as the White Swan.

Joy Womack as the White Swan, Swan Lake Act II. Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

Joy Womack: The White Swan is a film that is both confronting and challenging but also deeply moving at times. There are some beautiful shots of Moscow scattered throughout and I loved the backstage scenes especially those featuring those lovely Russian ladies working in the costume department.

Ladies of the wardrobe. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

The film ends with the Kremlin period. But after that Womack went on to take up a contract with Universal Ballet in Seoul. She then danced briefly with Boston Ballet. She divorced her first husband and is at the time of writing engaged to an American man. I also read that she is seeking joint Russian/American citizenship and currently works with Astrakhan Opera and Ballet Theatre in southwestern Russia. I will long remember her Canberra performance so it was a real pleasure to watch this documentary!

Michelle Potter, 17 July 2021

Featured image: Joy Womack in Moscow. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan.

Dance diary. June 2021

  • Queensland Ballet’s Joel Woellner promoted to principal

It was a thrill to hear that Queensland Ballet’s Joel Woellner has been promoted to principal artist. I have long admired Woellner’s dancing and especially remember his performance as the Widow Simone in Queensland Ballet’s production of Marc Ribaud’s La Fille mal gardée. After watching that show in 2017, I wrote:

Joel Woellner as the Widow was totally outrageous. He was the slapstick hero(ine) and milked the audience at every opportunity. And of course the audience loved it and responded with laughter and cheers.

I look forward to seeing him in other leading roles at some stage soon (perhaps princely roles as I didn’t see him as the Prince in the recent Sleeping Beauty). In the meantime, in the image below he is on the left as Paris in Romeo and Juliet in 2019.

Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in 'Romeo and Juliet'. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly
Steven Heathcote (centre) as Lord Capulet with Joel Woellner (left) as Paris and Vito Bernasconi (right) as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. Queensland Ballet, 2019. Photo: © David Kelly

  • Adroit. Clever or skilful in using the hands. Houston Ballet

Stanton Welch continues to make work that keeps in mind that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. That work includes short films and, in an interview with Houstonia Magazine earlier this month, Welch remarked:

Film is a unique experience. It’s also extraordinarily disjointed. Usually, you run something for an hour, half an hour. This you run something for 12 seconds, 35 seconds. And then you shut down the entire shoot, you move, and relight. And you add Covid problems to all of that.

I especially admired a recent short film shot in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston called Adroit. Clever or skilful in using the hands. The dancers were indeed adroit and their Mozartian costumes were quite beautiful. But what was particularly pleasing was the way Welch used the space of the Gallery. His dancers did not just dance in the space but through it and it was constantly surprising to be confronted by new art as the dancers moved through doorways and around corners. Adroit made me want to visit Houston.

Adroit also reminded me of Life is a work of art, Liz Lea’s production for Canberra’s GOLD company and performed in the National Gallery of Australia. It was never filmed (as far as I know) but some scenes used the space of the Gallery as beautifully as did Welch and his team in Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. In particular with Life is a work of art, I recall a section called ‘A gentle spirit’, which was somewhat different from Adroit in that we, the audience, moved through the space rather than watch the dancer do so. But the emotional attractiveness was similar.

  • Patrick McIntyre, the National Film and Sound Archive’s new chief executive officer.

The National Film and Sound Archive has announced the appointment of a new chief executive officer, Patrick McIntyre. Although McIntyre is moving on from Sydney Theatre Company, where he was executive director for 11 years, I remember him in particular for his role with the Australian Ballet where he was associate executive director (perhaps associate general manager in those days?) for several years. That was a time when I had quite strong connections with the Australian Ballet (thank you Maina Gielgud and Ian McRae) and so also spoke to McIntyre at various times.

Patrick McIntyre. Photo: Sydney Theatre Company and Nic Walker

Given his connections with dance in Australia (he also worked for a while with Sydney Dance Company), perhaps we can hope that he will take a particular interest in the exceptional dance material that is housed in the NFSA? That material includes footage from productions by the Bodenwieser Ballet; Ballet Rambert; the Australian Ballet; Sydney Dance Company (under Graeme Murphy); Australian Dance Theatre (especially under Jonathan Taylor and Leigh Warren); Danceworks (under Nanette Hassall); Queensland Ballet (especially works from the time of directors Charles Lisner and Harry Haythorne); extraordinary Ballet Russes material filmed by Dr Joseph Ringland Anderson and Dr Ewan Murray-Will; dance documentaries including examples of the work of outstanding film directors Don Featherstone and Michelle Mahrer, and even three documentaries that I had a hand in putting together in association with Sally Jackson; filmed interviews with choreographers, dancers and directors; filmed news items; and much more. There is unlimited scope for a research project to produce an exhaustive list of the Archive’s dance material for potential use by future researchers.

In the meantime the appointment of McIntyre, whose experience with cultural organisations is wide, seems an excellent one.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2021

Featured image: Portrait of Joel Woellner, Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

New York City Ballet 2021 Spring Gala. On film

New York City Ballet’s most recent offering in its series ‘From our home to yours’ was a film directed by Sofia Coppola based on a concept by Coppola and Justin Peck. It consisted of excerpts from two works by George Balanchine, Duo Concertant and Liebeslieder Walzer; an excerpt from Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering; a new work, Solo, choreographed by Peck; and the finale from Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15. What stood out for me in this beautifully danced production, however, was the structure of the film.

The first four excerpts were filmed in black and white, which at first seemed somewhat strange. Why dispense with colour when presenting an art form where costuming, and the colours used throughout, often matter? Only the final section, the Balanchine Divertimento, was filmed in colour.

Then there were the locations to consider. The first excerpt, that from Dances at a Gathering, was performed by Gonzalo Garcia and took place in a studio space. The second, a duet from Duo Concertant performed by Ashley Bouder and Russell Janzen, was set in a backstage area in the David H. Koch Theater, home of New York City Ballet. The third, a pas de deux from Liebeslieder Walzer danced by Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour, was danced in a public space, the theatre’s Grand Promenade where audiences often gather and socialise prior to performances. The fourth, the world premiere of Peck’s Solo performed by Antony Huxley, took place onstage. Finally, colour arrived and a performance of the finale from Divertimento No. 15 took place onstage with dancers in costume. It was performed as a full production (or part thereof since it was the finale only).

In effect, the film’s structure took us from studio to stage, via the various locations in which a performance is developed and takes place. It was a slow and considered progression and represented the solitude, the lack of social interaction, and the problems of various kinds affecting dancers as they slowly worked, throughout the many months of the coronavirus pandemic, towards an eventual return to full performance.

The development was heightened by the black and white footage for the earlier sequences, with the lack of a certain vibrancy that colour brings, which finally gave way to the colour that we know is a feature of a full production. Moreover, the selection of works also was a progression. The solo from Dances at a Gathering is the opening section of that ballet when it is performed in full, while the work that ended the film was the final section of the full Divertimento No. 15.

In many respects, too, there was a degree of introspection or reflection in the earlier works, which stood in opposition to the joyous movement that characterised Divertimento No. 15. Moving from beginning to end in so many ways, it was a beautifully realised and brilliant concept from Coppola and Peck.

Of course there was some spectacular dancing. I admired in particular the performance by Gonzalo Garcia in the Robbins work. His ability to show the classicism as well as references to character steps, which are a highlight of Robbins’ choreography in this case, was exciting to watch. And Maria Kowroski has always been a dancer I have loved to watch and the engagement between her and la Cour was tender, filled with emotion and very moving.

But what a film!

Michelle Potter, 28 May 2021

Featured image: A coloured image of Maria Kowrowski and Ask la Cour in Liebeslieder Waltzen.

Third Practice. Tero Saarinen Company with Helsinki Baroque Orchestra

Digital season, March–April 2021

When thinking about Tero Saarinen’s Third Practice, it helps to know (which I didn’t before reading up prior to watching) where the title comes from. Third Practice is performed to madrigals by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, played and sung by members of Helsinki’s Baroque Orchestra. Monteverdi’s musical style was referred to by his contemporaries as ‘second practice’ to distinguish his unprecedented compositional practice from that of his predecessors, who engaged in what was known as ‘first practice’. Monteverdi’s work sat at the point of transition between the Renaissance and the Baroque periods.

Saarinen set himself the task of examining, researching, and putting on stage a changing approach to creativity, a ‘third practice’ in dance and music and the collaborative arts, in order to add a new look and to give, to my mind anyway, an interesting new perspective on performance. He says, ‘ I’ve tried to preserve opportunities for “virtuoso freedom”. The third practice that we are talking about could mean a space for performers where their own skill and virtuoso flair facilitate risk-taking: discovering something new and unforeseen in your expressive idiom.’

Third Practice is a multi-camera, filmed version, with projection design by Thomas Freundlich, of a stage production that premiered in Cremona in 2019. With music direction and arrangement by Aapo Häkkinen, it is performed by six dancers and six musicians with two soloists, a tenor (appearing live) and a virtual soprano. The collaborative elements are crucial from the very beginning. The lighting, by Eero Auvinen, cannot be ignored. It has been compared to the use of light and dark in the paintings of Baroque artists, especially Caravaggio. The use of side lights and down lights, and contrasting strongly lit, shadowy and misty spaces delivers a diverse, constantly engaging, often tantalising environment in which the work unfolds.

Pekka Louhio, Annika Hyvärinen, Natasha Lommi, Eero Vesterinen, Jenna Broas in Third Practice, Tero Saarinen Company, 2021. Photo: © Kai Kuusisto

The costumes, designed by Erika Turunen, cross boundaries between the past and the present. The costume for the tenor soloist (Topi Lehtipuu) is masterful, although sometimes hard to see in media images. Its full sleeves and decorative finishing at the end of the sleeve recall Baroque-style shirts, but the materials are minimal and very contemporary in look. Similarly, the musicians wear Baroque-looking head gear, very appealing, but the rest of their costume again is mostly minimal.

Then there is the way in which the performing space is used. The virtual soprano, Núria Rial, appears in many parts of the space. We see her upstage and downstage; sometimes as a tiny figure in the background; hidden behind a floating piece of silk; reflected on the back of a dancer; and in other unexpected ways, including projected onto a silk hanging in the curtain calls. It is arresting staging and highlights the use of contemporary techniques to fill the space. The silks, while perhaps not an unusual item in contemporary dance and opera stagings, are nevertheless used in an exceptionally varied way. Sometimes they fall around the musicians lined up across the upstage area, or they engulf the dancers. At other times they are part of the choreography, occupying a space not usually filled with movement.

In terms of Tero Saarinen’s choreography, I was often transfixed by the expressive qualities of the movement. In the opening madrigal, the movement seemed jerky and somewhat puppet-like. I was reminded of figures from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Sometimes the movement seemed filled with a kind of extreme attention to detail both in the body movements and in facial expression. I was reminded of Baroque excess—the highly decorative aspects of Baroque church architecture and interiors, or Caravaggio’s fruit spilling out of the picture frame of his portraits. At other times, especially in a beautiful duet towards the end of the work, there was no excess, just calm, smoothly structured movement. Sadly, I am not familiar with the words of the madrigals and so was not able to determine whether the choreography was reflecting the meaning of the words, but it was a joy having the opportunity to create my own ideas anyway.

The standout performer in all of this was the tenor, Topi Lehtipuu. He sang live throughout whether he was standing, lying, crawling, kneeling or performing as one of the dancers. There was a moment when he was lying on the floor with dancers piled on top of him. He was still singing, this time in a duet with himself with the second voice a prerecorded one. Again it was an example of using technology to expand possibilities, but that Lehtipuu could sing so beautifully in such a compromised situation, compromised as far as his body was concerned, was astonishing.

Third Practice is an extraordinary work examining the endless possibilities of cross art form collaboration and the potential of dance to stand at the forefront of new explorations in the arts. It also made me reconsider the nature and potency of dance on film. Once again Tero Saarinen and his dancers and associates have given me an experience like no other. I love dance that expands the boundaries of my thinking. Third Practice does that and more.

Michelle Potter, 25 March 2021

Featured image: Topi Lehtipuu in a scene from Third Practice. Tero Saarinen Company, 2021. Photo: © Kai Kuusisto

Firestarter. The story of Bangarra

Firestarter, documenting the origins and rise of Bangarra Dance Theatre, is filled with emotion—from joy to sadness and everything in between. But leaving the emotions to one side for the moment, I was utterly transfixed by two political moments that were part of the unfolding story. The first was footage of former Prime Minister Paul Keating giving his famous ‘Redfern Speech’ in 1992. In that speech Keating gave his assessment of Aboriginal history as it unfolded following the arrival in Australia of the British in the 18th century. ‘We committed the murders,’ he said. ‘We took the lands.’ ‘We brought the diseases.’ ‘We took the children.’ The second was by another former Prime Minister, John Howard, explaining in 1998 why, in his opinion, there was no need to issue an apology to the Indigenous population of Australia for wrongs committed to those people. Such disparate points of view. How sad is that and how can that be?

As mind-blowing as it was seeing those two political moments unfold, however, Firestarter was certainly more than politics. It traced the story of three brothers, Stephen, David and Russell Page from their childhood in Brisbane to their training at what became the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association, NAISDA; their roles in the establishment and ongoing development of Bangarra; and the frightening end to the lives of David and Russell. Along the way we met others involved in the complex story—Carole Johnson, founder of NAISDA and Bangarra; Frances Rings, currently associate artistic director of Bangarra; cultural consultants Djakapurra Munyarryun and Elma Kris; several current and past dancers of Bangarra; Wesley Enoch, artistic director across a range of theatrical organisations; Hetti Perkins, daughter of Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins; Hunter Page Lochard, son of Stephen Page; Rhimi Page, son of Russell Page; and others. All had unique stories and points of view.

There was of course some great dancing from Bangarra performances over the 30+ years of its existence, and there was some gorgeous footage of a young David (as Little Davey Page) singing on early television shows such as Countdown and the Paul Hogan Show, along with scenes from his theatre shows. Then there was compelling footage from the Indigenous component of the opening ceremony for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. But perhaps most moving of all were scenes from Bennelong, Bangarra’s ground breaking work from 2017, which was described in the film as Stephen Page’s most successful work to date, and which he made as he worked at recovering from the death of his brother David in 2016.

Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.' Bnagarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud
Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance. Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Also associated with the death of David Page was footage from the presentation to Stephen of the prestigious J. C. Williamson Award at the Helpmann Awards event in 2016. The acceptance speech Stephen made (supported by his son Hunter standing beside him) so soon after the death of David was gut wrenching to watch and hear.

But on a more joyous note, perhaps my favourite part of the whole film was watching Stephen, the proud grandfather, holding his baby granddaughter, daughter of Hunter and his wife. Life continues. Life triumphs. Bangarra, such an exceptional company, moves forward.

This beautiful and challenging film was directed by Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin and produced by Ivan O’Mahoney.

Michelle Potter, 2 March 2021

Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior's 'Scribble'. Ballet X Beyond, 2020. Photo: © Daniel Madoff

BalletX Beyond. Four new dance films

In a move to keep working during the COVID-19 pandemic, BalletX, a contemporary company based in Philadelphia, PA, recently presented a virtual season of four dance films from four choreographers—Rena Butler, Loughlan Prior, Caili Quan and Penny Saunders. Each choreographer took quite a different approach to the commission and watching such a diverse program was certainly an interesting experience.

Loughlan Prior is well-known to Australian and New Zealand dance audiences. Australian-born and educated in Melbourne at the Victorian College of the Arts, he is currently resident choreographer with Royal New Zealand Ballet. He has made work for a range of companies in addition to RNZB, including Queensland Ballet, and his schedule for 2021 includes new works for RNZB, Singapore Dance Theatre, Ballet Collective Aotearoa and Chamber Music New Zealand.

Scribble was his work for BalletX Beyond, as the newly established virtual program is called. It was made on three dancers and filmed in black and white. For me it was the most interesting film of the four, particularly because of its choreographic approach, which blended the vocabulary of ballet (the female dancer, Andrea Yorita, danced on pointe) and contemporary movement. The two male dancers performed strongly with Zachary Kapeluck partnering Yorita throughout, and with Stanley Glover showing his fabulous, long-limbed flexibility and highly expressive hands and fingers.

Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior’s Scribble. Ballet X Beyond, 2020. Screenshot by Daniel Madoff

The ‘scribble’ of the title was created by Glynn Urquhart and consisted of white lines of animation that sometimes seemed to be generated by the dancers’ movements, at other times by the music, and at others simply out of nowhere. Occasionally the animation morphed into figures of the dancers, or vice versa. Danced to a score by Melbourne-based composer Gareth Wiecko and filmed by Daniel Madoff, Scribble was quite mesmerising.

Scribble was the only one of the four films that was not recorded at a site specific venue. The others were filmed across a range of venues in Greater Philadelphia including Natural Lands’ Stoneleigh and Idlewild, el Centro de Oro, Sea Isle City, St Malachi Church, Belmont Stables, and the Navy Yard.

Of the three other works, I found Caili Quan’s Love Letter particularly moving. Quan’s home country is Guam and the music, which was a mixed bag of items, reflected the islands, especially the islands of the Pacific (although a Harry Belafonte song was included). It was something of a meditation on whom and/or what the choreographer loved, and perhaps missed, at particular stages in her life.

The film began on a beach with a beautiful solo from Francesca Forcella who seemed to be searching her mind for remembered moments. The conclusion began with Richard Villaverde dancing on a rooftop overlooking a cityscape. He was eventually joined by Forcella and we could speculate on what their relationship was as they moved towards and away from each other. But in between this beginning and end, the film moved from venue to venue and the whole was structured so we were taken suddenly from place to place, person to person, just as the mind jumps from thought to thought. It was totally engrossing.

Richard Villaverde and Francesca Forcella in Caili Quan’s ‘Love Letter’. BalletX, 2020. Screenshot by Elliot deBruyn

Ricochet, choreographed by Penny Saunders on the subject of the American cowboy, left me a little cold, largely because the choreography was not all that inspiring. There are only so many times when poses that mimic the position taken when riding a horse can generate interest. Similarly with lines of dancers walking through grassland. But the setting, especially the beautiful rural landscape, was a joy to look at, as was the filming so that the whole work looked as though it was showing on an old-fashioned television screen.

The Under Way (working title) is by Rena Butler and it too was choreographically uninspiring. It relied for impact more on camera angles, mime, colour changes and other cinematic techniques. I also found it hard to understand exactly what Butler was trying to say. There were references to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Somewhere over the Rainbow from the film version of The Wizard of Oz, statues of prominent people (now considered racist?), racism itself, and other issues. One thing that made sense was the comment of the dancer who closed the work when he spoke about the things he could do. His skin was white and he finished with the sentence ‘I can breathe.’ But it was not clear to me how the rest related to that pertinent, contemporary comment. The Under Way needs a lot of work I think.

This is the first time I have had the pleasure of seeing anything by BalletX. It is a strong company and every one of the dancers has something special to offer. Stanley Glover is spectacular and I especially admired the work of Andrea Yorita for the expressiveness that she offered in every role, and for the way her movement fills the space around her body.

Andrea Yorita in a study for Scribble. BalletX Beyond, 2020. Photo: Tara Keating

Access to the works of BalletX Beyond is via a subscription-based streaming platform, which is located at https://www.balletx.org/.

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2020

Featured image: Stanley Glover in Loughlan Prior’s Scribble. BalletX Beyond, 2020. Screenshot by Daniel Madoff

Danny Riley in Similar, Same but Different. Hot to Trot, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Hot to Trot (2020). QL2 Dance

Hot to Trot is an annual dance event in Canberra and is designed to give senior Quantum Leap dancers (who are mostly in their teens!) the opportunity to create their own choreography. Despite the issues that have plagued the arts community over the past several months, Hot to Trot 2020 went ahead in QL2’s black box space in Gorman Arts Centre, complete I should add with emphasis on the physical distancing of audience members. Two short films and eight live productions were presented.

What especially attracted me in this year’s program was the ability of the choreographers to use the performing space to advantage. They understood how to arrange their dancers, and any props they used, within the space, sometimes filling it, sometimes using corners, diagonals, upstage and downstage areas, and so forth. It reflects well on the QL2 Dance program where, from the beginning, young, prospective artists are taught stage techniques as well as dance technique.

But one work stood out for me—Danny Riley’s Similar, Same but Different. It was essentially a reflective work that examined the connections Riley sees as existing between him and his older brother, Jack, who is now a professional dancer and choreographer. In essence it was a replay of a work made by Jack Riley, which we saw on a film in the background. Danny Riley danced the same choreography for the most part and began by wearing a white jacket that his brother had worn—it was rather too long for him, which in itself spoke to us about those family connections. As the work progressed Danny Riley removed the white tuxedo and replaced it with a short, black jacket of his own—it fitted nicely! But, finally, that too was discarded and we understood that Danny Riley was his own man but with influences from family connections. It was a moving work that unfolded logically and clearly but that was complex in the ideas that it generated in our minds.

I loved that Riley didn’t see the need to use text as an essential addition to his work. Which brings me to the criticisms I have of this Hot to Trot program, and other such programs at QL2. I really wish that there could be a stronger realisation by these young choreographers that dance has the capacity to engage and comment within itself. It doesn’t need to have a text to which dancers react and which is meant (I think) to help the audience understand what is going on in the work. Speaking onstage during a performance is a particular skill and requires training. So often with QL2 productions, in which the spoken word is used, it is not easy to hear or understand what is being said. Not only does this reflect a lack of voice training, but also that the spoken text is often not well integrated with the score, which means that the words are drowned out by the score. And pretty much always, in my opinion, the spoken text seriously detracts from the dance aspects of the work.

The other issue that bothers me concerns the subjects young choreographers often choose as inspiration—subject matter that is quite abstract, or philosophical. Wayne McGregor or William Forsythe might be (and are) good at using conceptual issues as the basis for a dance work, and Tim Harbour at the Australian Ballet is also moving in this direction with particular skill, but they are experienced, professional artists who understand what dance can do best. It communicates through movement.

But to return to the Hot to Trot program itself, the other work I especially enjoyed was the short film by Natsuko Yonezawa, which opened the program. Called Flowering, it was filmed during rehearsals for the recent Leap into Chaos project by QL2 and focused on group movement. The raw footage was assembled and edited so we saw a kaleidoscope of images that recalled flowers growing in ever-changing, ever-expanding patterns. To me the film often looked like origami, being made or being made to move. It was quite beautiful and a great introduction to the program.

Screenshot from Natsuko Yonezawa’s Flowering. Hot to Trot, 2020

Other works on the program were created by Magnus Meagher, Alyse and Mia Canton, Courtney Tha, Lillian Cook, Pippi Keogh, Hollie Knowles, Rory Warne, and Sarah Long.

Michelle Potter, 25 November 2020

Featured image: Danny Riley in Similar, Same but Different. Hot to Trot, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim