Daniel Riley. Australian Dance Theatre’s incoming artistic director

The dance world is agog with the news that Daniel Riley is to take over the directorship of Australia’s longest standing contemporary dance company, Australian Dance Theatre, when Garry Stewart retires from the role at the end of 2021. Riley traces his bloodline to the Wiradjuri clan of Western New South Wales, particularly around Wellington and Dubbo. As such he is the first Indigenous director of Australian Dance Theatre (ADT).

But, as Riley told a Dubbo-based journalist in 2014, he did not grow up ‘on country’ but in Canberra. He went to Telopea Park High School and Canberra College and he began dance classes with Jacqui Hallahan at the then Canberra Dance Development Centre.

A fact barely mentioned in the stories that have so far surrounded Riley’s appointment is that he is in fact an alumnus of QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth dance organisation—a place were the nurturing of future dance artists is of prime importance. One of QL2’s current patrons is the artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, Rafael Bonachela, and he recognised QL2’s impact on dance in Australia when, following his acceptance of the role of patron, he said:

I have worked with many artists that have passed through [QL2’s] doors and commend them all on their professionalism, technique and creativity. The training and performance platform that QL2 offer[s] to youth dancers and emerging artists in Australia is of the highest standard.

Riley joined QL2 in 1999. It happened as the result of a suggestion from Elizabeth Dalman, artistic director of ADT from 1965-1975, and her colleague Vivienne Rogis, both of whom had worked on a project with Riley’s father in the 1990s. In 1999 QL2 had just started up and Riley performed in the very early productions, Rough Cuts and On the Shoulders of Giants. He then danced in every QL2 project from 1999 to 2003 before taking up a degree course at QUT in 2004. While undertaking his degree he returned whenever possible to Canberra and worked as a choreographer for various QL2 projects, which he has continued to do throughout his professional career to date.

Daniel Riley rehearsing QL2 dancers for the Hit the Floor Together program, 2013.

His commissioned work Where we gather, made in 2013 for the QL2 program Hit the Floor Together, explored the idea of young people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds working together. In performance it showed Riley’s exceptional use of organic and rhythmic movement patterns, and his remarkable feel for shape, line, and the space of the stage. It was remounted in 2018 as part of QL2’s 20th anniversary, Two Zero.

Most recently Riley was back at QL2 in January 2021 on a residency where he continued work on an independent project still in the planning stage.

Daniel Riley during a QL2 residency, Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra, 2021. Photo: © Lorna Sim

But of course his work as a professional dancer and choreographer with Bangarra Dance Theatre, which he joined 2007 after graduating from QUT, as well as his his work with Leigh Warren and Dancers, Sydney Dance Company, Chunky Move, and companies overseas, including Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Fabulous Beast (now Teac Damsa), have opened up new horizons.

I have strong memories of the first work he choreographed for Bangarra in 2010. Called Riley, it was a celebration of the photography of a cousin, Michael Riley. What was especially impressive was the way in which Riley’s choreography looked quite abstract and yet also managed to link back to the photographs, which were projected during the work. Then, I cannot forget the strength of his performance as Governor Macquarie in Jasmin Sheppard’s Macq, and also his role as Governor Philip in Stephen Page’s Bennelong, both productions for Bangarra.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in a scene from 'Macq'. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016
Daniel Riley (on the table) as Governor Macquarie with Beau Dean Riley Smith in Macq. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016. Photo: © Greg Barrett

I also was interested in Reign, a work he made for Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed season in 2015.

The four New Breed 2015 choreographers . Photo: Peter Greig
Daniel Riley (front right) with Fiona Jopp, Kristina Chan, and Bernhard Knauer in a media image for Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed, 2015. Photo: © Peter Greig

Reign examined the idea of women in power and the forces that often end their reign. Choreographically it seemed to have strong Indigenous overtones. It began with Janessa Dufty covering her limbs with sand from a pile in a downstage corner of the performing space. It recalled an early section of Bangarra’s production of Ochres when a dancer uses yellow ochre in a similar fashion. Much of the movement, which was organic in look and usually quite grounded, also seemed Bangarra-inspired. And yet the theme seemed quite Western to me and I struggled to reconcile the movement with the theme. Later I began to wonder whether it mattered what vocabulary was used for what theme and was impressed and moved by the strength and very clear structure of the work.

So what will Riley bring to Australian Dance Theatre? Looking at the way he has worked over the years with QL2, he will bring I am sure the same integrity and respect for his colleagues that has brought him back over and over again to the organisation that developed his skills, gave him an understanding of a collaborative manner of working, and that realised that a future in dance lay before him. Thinking of the way he dances, always inhabiting a role with strength and understanding, I suspect he will be an excellent coach for the dancers in the company. And considering, on the one hand, the themes he has chosen for his choreographed works, which so often examine the diverse social and cultural roles of the people around him, and, on the other hand, the way his choreographed works have all been so clearly and strongly structured, I feel he will bring a huge strength of purpose to ADT.

But no one could put it better than Elizabeth Dalman, founding artistic director of ADT. She has said:

He is a wonderful performer, a talented choreographer and already has a great vision for the company. ADT has a long tradition as a revolutionary company pushing boundaries and presenting innovative and exciting works. Daniel plans to champion diversity and develop the company’s cross- and inter-cultural potentials. From the very beginning we set out to be a company exploring our Australian identity, our Australian artistic expression and cultural diversity, so I feel this is a strong continuation of the original aims of the company.

Michelle Potter, 10 June 2021

Featured image: Promotional image for Australian Dance Theatre’s appointment of Daniel Riley as artistic director.

Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in 'Spear'. Photo Tiffany Parker

Dance diary. November 2018

  • The changing face of Bangarra Dance Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre has just announced that the company is saying farewell at the end of the year to six of its dancers: Waangenga Blanco, Daniel Riley, Tara Robertson, Kaine Sultan-Babij, Luke Currie-Richardson and Yolanda Lowatta. Each has made an amazing contribution to Bangarra over recent years. Who can forget Daniel Riley’s remarkable performances in the film Spear, and his equally powerful dancing and acting as Governor Macquarie in Jasmine Sheppard’s Macq? Then it’s hard to forget, again in Spear, Kaine Sultan Babij as ‘Androgynous Man’ stalking through long grass and between trees? And there is a myriad of performances from Waangenga Blanco that stand out. As well as his role in Patyegarang, there is the ‘Angel’ duet, danced with Leonard Mickelo, in Riley, and his powerful performance in Frances Rings’ Terrain. So much more …

I wish them all well for wherever their dancing takes them and look forward to seeing them before they leave in Dubboo, opening shortly in Sydney. And of course there is the thrill of seeing new dancers in 2019.

Waangenga Blanco in 'Patyegarang', Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2014. Photo: Greg Barrett
Waangenga Blanco in Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2014. Photo: © Greg Barrett
  • Robert Helpmann. The many faces of a theatrical dynamo

A new book of essays on Robert Helpmann has recently been published. It contains essays from a range of scholars and performers and is supplemented by a DVD of archival footage, including a documentary on the revival of Miracle in the Gorbals in 2014 by Birmingham Royal Ballet

My chapter, ‘Elektra. Helpmann uninhibited’ considers the origins of Helpmann’s ballet Elektra, Helpmann’s choreographic approach, and the differences, particularly in relation to Arthur Boyd’s designs, between the English production of Elektra in 1963 and that presented by the Australian Ballet at the Adelaide Festival in 1966.

Robert Helpmann book cover

Edited by Richard Cave and Anna Meadmore. Published in the United Kingdom by Dance Books in October 2018.
ISBN 9781852731793

Available from Dance Books Ltd and other retailers.

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards, 2018 (Dance)

Canberra Critics’ Circle, now almost 30 years old, held its annual awards in November. This years dance awards went to:

Liz Lea: For the multi-media production RED, which drew together the work of four choreographers, including Lea, in a moving, courageous and dramatically coherent exploration of the medical condition of endometriosis.
My review of RED is at this link.

Alison Plevey and the Australian Dance Party: For Seamless, an innovative, well-considered and theatrically staged comment on the fashion industry, performed with wit and skill at the 2017 Floriade Fringe.
My review of Seamless is at this link.

Seamless, Floriade Fringe 2017. Australian Dance Party. Photo: Lorna Sim
Scene from Seamless, Floriade Fringe 2017. Australian Dance Party. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Emma Nikolic and Karen Brock: For their innovative choreography for the Canberra Philharmonic Society’s production of Strictly Ballroom. Their inventive interpretations of a number of traditional ballroom dance styles allowed the large ensemble of dancers to convince as champion ballroom dance contestants.

Michelle Heine: For her choreography for Free Rain Theatre Company’s production of 42nd Street. Her choreography for the spectacular production numbers successfully captured the authentic Broadway feel of the musical and was exceptionally well danced by the ensemble.

  • James Batchelor

Canberra dance goers will be interested to learn that James Batchelor will be back working in Canberra in 2019. He will be showing his latest work, Hyperspace, at a time and a Canberra venue to be announced. Hyperspace was made in 2018 during residencies in Nottingham, England, and Bassano del Grappa, Italy, and was recently performed in the B.motion festival in Bassano and at La Briqueterie Paris. It will also be part of the Dance Massive 2019 line up in Melbourne.

Batchelor is also looking forward to creating a new full-length work for Quantum Leap. It will premiere as QL2’s major work for the full ensemble at the Playhouse in August.

  • NGA Play. Sally Smart

The National Gallery of Australia has just installed a new children’s play area that highlights aspects of the Gallery’s extensive collection of costumes from the era of the Ballet Russes. It is designed by Melbourne-based artist Sally Smart, one of whose interests is in the juxtaposition of the art of the Ballets Russes with contemporary ideas of assemblage, cut-out items and patchwork-style lengths of fabric.

Dance features in a series of projections of dancer Brooke Stamp improvising in homage to and inspired by the dances of the Ballets Russes era (with a nod to Javanese dance). Stamp performed live (a one-off performance) at the opening of the play area early in November.

Brooke Stamp improvises for 'NGA Play. Sally Smart', 2018
Brooke Stamp improvising at the opening of the National Gallery of Australia’s children’s installation. Photo: Michelle Potter
  • Press for November 2018

’Rudolf Nureyev.’ Program article for La Scala Ballet’s Australian season, 2018. This article contains two very interesting, casual photos of Nureyev (one with Fonteyn), which I have not come across before.

‘Movement and message fail to link.’ Review of Australian Dance party’s Energeia. The Canberra Times, 22 November 2018, p. 20. Online version

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2018

Featured image: Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in Spear. Photo: © Tiffany Parker

Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in 'Spear'. Photo Tiffany Parker
Scene from 'Where we gather' from Two Zero, Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Two Zero. Quantum Leap

For reasons that escape me, my Canberra Times review of Quantum Leap’s Two Zero, filed first thing Friday morning (the morning after!), has not yet appeared online, as is the usual practice. The review may appear in the print edition of The Canberra Times on Monday 13 August. In the meantime, here is an expanded version of that review.

9 August 2018, The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

Two Zero celebrates twenty years of dance by Quantum Leap, Canberra’s youth dance ensemble and the performing arm of QL2 Dance. The program was set up as a continuous performance in eight sections, three of which were restagings of works from previous seasons with the other five being works newly created for this particular occasion.

In the terms of choreography, the standout work was Daniel Riley’s Where we gather. It was first seen in 2013 as part of Hit the Floor Together and was remounted for this 2018 season by Dean Cross with final rehearsals overseen by Riley. Where we gather explored the idea of young people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds working together. It showed Riley’s exceptional use of organic and rhythmic movement patterns, and his remarkable feel for shape, line, and the space of the stage. It had been so well rehearsed and was so beautifully danced that it was hard to accept that the dancers were part of a youth ensemble. The film that preceded it (also from 2013) was a fascinating piece of footage showing, with close-ups and long shots, dancers performing outdoors in a landscape that epitomises the ‘wide brown land’ of Australia. The seamless transition from film to live performance was engaging to say the least as a scrim that had been the screen slowly lifted to reveal the dancers onstage in more or less the same position as the final screen image. And the dancing began. Where we gather with its accompanying film opened the show and set the scene for an evening of which QL2 Dance can only be extraordinarily proud.

'Where we gather' from 'Two Zero'. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim
From film to performance of Where we gather from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Jodie Farrugia’s This land is calling from the project Identify of 2011 was remounted for this season by Alison Plevey and was perhaps the most moving work on the program. Its focus on aspects of migration to Australia from the arrival of convicts to the present waves of refugee migration was powerfully yet simply presented. Suitcases were used as props by some, others had nothing, a convict was chained round the wrists. Groupings were sometimes confronting, sometimes comforting. It was a thoughtful and forceful piece of choreography enhanced by lighting and projections that opened our eyes to the extent and diversity of migration to this country.

Scene from 'This land is calling' in 'Two Zero'. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Scene from This land is calling from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

I was intrigued by Eliza Sanders’ section called Bigger. It was a new work for ten female dancers, which examined the impact of shared female experiences and their outcomes. Sanders choreographs in a way that seems quite different from her colleagues. Her movement style is mostly without the extreme physicality of other Quantum Leap alumni and yet is fascinating in its fluidity and emphasis on varied groupings of dancers. I was not all that impressed, however, with its opening where all ten dancers were huddled (or muddled) together each holding some kind of reflecting object. It turned out to be a sort of perspex magnifying glass that indicated (we slowly discovered) the growth of experience. I could have done with less emphasis on the magnifications. The moments without them were full of joyous movement.

Scene from 'Bigger' in 'Two Zero'. Quantum Leap 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Scene from Bigger from Two Zero. Quantum Leap 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Other works were by Sara Black, Fiona Malone, Steve Gow and Ruth Osborne. All added an individualistic perspective to the evening.

One aspect of the show bothered me. Black and white striped, calf-length pants were a feature of the costume design for several sections and were worn under differently coloured T-shirts. They worked in some but not all sections. In Ruth Osborne’s Me/Us, a new work in which the dancers spoke of their thoughts about themselves and where they saw their place in society, they were at their best. Similarly they worked well in Steve Gow’s strongly choreographed Empower. But I thought they looked ugly underneath the white floating garments used in Bigger.

Scene from 'Me/Us' in Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Scene from Me/Us from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Nevertheless, Two Zero was a thrill to watch and its finale Celebrate! showed us a mini retrospective of what had happened before. The achievements of Quantum Leap, its collaborators across art forms, and the remarkable list of alumni who have emerged from it over twenty years, are spectacular. May the work continue for at least another twenty years.

Finale to ‘Two Zero’. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim
Finale to Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Two Zero: Choreography: Sara Black, Dean Cross, Jodie Farrugia, Steve Gow, Fiona Malone, Ruth Osborne, Alison Plevey, Daniel Riley, Eliza Sanders. Music: Adam Ventoura, Warwick Lynch. Film: Wildbear Entertainment. Lighting: Mark Dyson. Costumes: Cate Clelland.

Michelle Potter, 11 August 2018

UPDATE (13/08/2018): see the shorter review online in The Canberra Times at this link.

Featured image: Scene from Where we gather from Two Zero. Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Scene from 'Where we gather' from Two Zero, Quantum Leap, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dance diary. July 2018

  • New patron for Canberra’s QL2 Dance

It has just been announced that Canberra’s youth dance organisation QL2 Dance has a new patron, Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela. He joins Shirley McKechnie, AO, as co-patron following the retirement of Sir William Deane, AC, KBE, QC and Lady Deane who had been much respected patrons for fourteen years.

Bonachela has worked with many former QL2 dancers some of whom have joined Sydney Dance Company to pursue their professional careers, including Sam Young Wright now dancing in Germany with Jacopo Godani’s Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company. Other alumni include Daniel Riley now dancing with and choreographing for Bangarra Dance Theatre, Jack Ziesing formerly with Expressions Dance Company, now with Dancenorth, and James Batchelor, independent artist. Bonachela has recognised the qualities of alumni of QL2 saying:

It is an honour and a privilege to be the QL2 Dance Patron for 2018. QL2 Dance truly sets the example for quality dance in Canberra and nationwide. Over my choreographic career I have worked with many artists that have passed through their doors and commend them all on their professionalism, technique and creativity. The training and performance platform that QL2 offer to youth dancers and emerging artists in Australia is of the highest standard; an invaluable asset to the local community. I look forward to joining and supporting QL2 on their journey into the future.

Quantum Leap, the QL2 performing arm, will celebrate its twentieth anniversary from 9–11 August at the Canberra Theatre Centre with a production called Two Zero. Choreography will be by Eliza Sanders, Stephen Gow, Sara Black, Ruth Osborne, Alison Plevey, Dean Cross and Daniel Riley, with the Quantum Leap Ensemble.

Sam Young-Wright and Chloe Leong in ‘Variation 10’ from Triptych, Sydney Dance Company, 2015. Photo: © Peter Grieg

  • Dame Gillian Lynne (1926–2018)

I was sorry to hear of the death of Gillian Lynne early in July, although I had heard when last in London that she was not at all well. In my April Dance Diary I recalled briefly her work for Robert Helpmann in Australia and more recently for Birmingham Royal Ballet, and also commented on how much I enjoyed reading her autobiography A dancer in wartime. Here is a link to an obituary published in London by The Guardian.

Some time ago now (in 2011 to be exact) when I was working on an article for Dance Research about the Dandré-Levitoff tours, I posted an article on Alexander Levitoff. Very recently a comment on that article was made and in it was included an extremely interesting catalogue of photographs, including some of Levitoff. But there are many others that I have not seen elsewhere.  Here is the link to the 2011 post. Scroll down for the comments and the link.

  • Press for July 2108

‘Dark Emu lacking in structure.’ Review of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Dark Emu. The Canberra Times, 30 July 2018, p. 20. Online version at this link.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2018

Featured image: Portrait of Rafael Bonachela (detail), 2013. Photo: © Ben Symons

Scene from 'Great Sport!' Canberra 2016. Photo © Lorna Sim

Australian Dance Awards 2017

24 September 2017. The Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The winners of the 2017 Australian Dance Awards were announced in a ceremony in Melbourne on 24 September. The Playhouse at the Victorian Arts Centre was packed for what turned out to be an occasion with strong emotional and political overtones. The evening was hosted by cabaret star Sarah Ward and dancer Benjamin Hancock, both of whom brought a somewhat outrageous element to the evening. (To be absolutely honest, I can never understand why hosts of such events have to behave as if the show belongs to them). The politics came in the form of references by several of the presenters to the current same-sex marriage campaign.

The first half of the program suffered from what I can only describe as ‘technical issues’ in which the digital display of images and credit lines for nominees, and the eventual winner in each category (not to mention the life dates and images in the ‘In Memoriam’ section), didn’t fit properly on the screen. This was not a good look at all and resulted in confusion in some cases when the winner’s name was not given correctly by the presenter. I had to wonder whether there had been a tech rehearsal or not! Fortunately, the problem was fixed during the interval but it didn’t make up for the poor standard of production in the first half. The printed program was, however, beautifully designed and produced.

Nevertheless, for dance in the ACT, the outstanding news was that Liz Lea took out the award for Outstanding Achievement in Community Dance. She received the award for Great Sport!, a site specific work that Lea directed in collaboration with Canberra Dance Theatre, the National Museum of Australia, Dance for Parkinson’s ACT, and seven different choreographers—Lea herself, Martin del Amo, Kate Denborough, Tammi Gissell, Jane Ingall, Philip Piggin and Gerard van Dyck. This was a richly deserved award that recognised Lea’s significant effort to collaborate across the community spectrum, to seek out skilled choreographers from within the ACT and elsewhere, and to make dance that is inclusive. As it happens, however, Lea was one who suffered as a result of the ‘technical issues’. Her name was not called out as the recipient of the award!

Here is a link to my review of Great Sport! following its opening performance in celebration of World Health Day 2016.

Congratulations to Lea and all those who received an award. Here is the complete list of awardees.

  • Lifetime Achievement: Helen Herbertson
  • Services to Dance: Jennifer Irwin
  • Services to Dance Education: Kim Walker
  • Outstanding Achievement in Community Dance: Liz Lea and collaborators for Great Sport!
  • Outstanding Achievement in Youth Dance: Catapult Dance (The Flipside Project) for In Search of the Lost Things
  • Outstanding Achievement in Choreography: Lucy Guerin for The Dark Chorus
  • Outstanding Performance by a Company: Bangarra Dance Theatre for OUR Land People Stories
  • Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer: Ako Kondo (Australian Ballet) for Coppélia
  • Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer: Benjamin Hancock (Lucy Guerin Inc) for The Dark Chorus
  • Outstanding Performance in Commercial Dance or Musical Theatre: Jack Chambers (Stage Entertainment & Chichester Festival) for Singin’ in the Rain
  • Outstanding Achievement in Dance on Film or New Media: Tara and Pippa Samaya (The Samaya Wives) for The Knowledge Between Us.

In addition, Noel Tovey was inducted into the Hall of Fame and, in an emotion-filled acceptance speech, acknowledged those who had influenced his career, going right back to Jean Alexander and Xenia Borovansky. The Ausdance Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship, an award worth $10,000, went to Kristina Chan.

*****************

Apart from Liz Lea’s award, and its significance for the growth of dance in the ACT, from a very personal perspective, I was thrilled with the following:

  • Australian Ballet principal dancer Ako Kondo took out the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer for her performance as Swanilda in Coppélia. While an ADA in this category refers in particular to a performance in a particular year, not for a body of work, I have watched Kondo perform in many productions over the past few years and I could not help but think back to those many and varied times when I have had the pleasure of watching her onstage. Her technique is spectacular and in certain roles, including that of Swanilda, she just sparkles. See my previous comments at this tag.
Ako Kondo in Coppélia Act II. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Kate Longley
  • Jennifer Irwin walked away with the award for Services to Dance. Irwin has been designing costumes for major dance companies since she began working with Sydney Dance Company in the 1980s. Apart from Sydney Dance Company under Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, Irwin has had significant commissions from Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet. In her acceptance speech, Irwin acknowledged Graeme Murphy and Stephen Page for the influence they have had on her career. In addition, Irwin designed costumes for Dirty Dancing, the musical that had its first performances in 2004 in Australia. It featured well-known Australian dancer Joseph Brown, and the show went on to have popular seasons around the world. Irwin also designed parts of the 2000 Sydney Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. See this tag for further comments on various of Irwin’s designs.
  • Bangarra Dance Theatre received the coveted award of Outstanding Performance by a Company for OUR land people stories. This triple bill was a truly stunning example of the way in which Bangarra produces work in which dance meets theatre, meets art, meets music. It showcased the choreography of three dancers from within the ranks of the company—Jasmin Sheppard, Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith—with the addition of a work from artistic director Stephen Page. It demonstrated Bangarra’s interest in bringing a wide range of Indigenous issues to the stage. Politics, kinship, and art all played a major role in the production and, as always, the show was splendidly staged and thrilling to watch.Daniel Riley accepted the award on behalf of Bangarra and acknowledged David Page, who died in 2016 and to whom the production of OUR land people stories was dedicated.Here is a link to my review of OUR land people stories.
Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Nyapanyapa' from 'OUR land people stories,' 2016. Photo by Jhuny Boy Borja
Bangarra Dance Theatre in ‘Nyapanyapa’ from OUR land people stories, 2016. Photo: © Jhuny Boy Borja

And finally, the performances that accompanied the announcements were extraordinarily varied. I have to say I enjoyed most of all the lively Hopak Kalyna by the Lehenda Ukrainian Dance Company. The dancers smiled at us! It was a shame, though, that the Australian Ballet’s contribution, the pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty danced by Amber Scott and Ty King-Wall, somehow looked out of place amid all the cabaret, hip hop, sexually-oriented material, angst and other dance elements. It made me wonder why I love ballet as much as I do. Perhaps there needs to be a change somewhere along the line. Perhaps a more contemporary piece from the Australian Ballet, or a bit more ballet in the program?

Michelle Potter, 24 September 2017

Featured image: Scene from ‘Annette’ in Great Sport! featuring dancers from the GOLDS, Canberra’s company of senior dancers. Photo © Lorna Sim, 2016

Scene from 'Great Sport!' Canberra 2016. Photo © Lorna Sim
Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.' Bnagarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud

Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre

29 June 2017. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s most recent work, may well be the company’s most ambitious production to date. Yet in saying that, I can’t help feeling that it may also be its most powerful, its most emotive, and its most compelling show ever.

Stephen Page, as choreographer and creative storyteller, has taken the life of Wongal man, Woollarawarre Bennelong, as a starting point: Bennelong the man feted in many ways in early colonial society, and yet denigrated in so many other ways by that same society. Page presents a series of episodes in Bennelong’s life from birth to death. In those episodes we experience a range of emotions from horror in ‘Onslaught’ as large sections of the indigenous population are wiped out by an epidemic of smallpox, to a weird kind of fascination in ‘Crown’ when we watch Bennelong interacting with British high society after he arrives in London.

There is a strength too in how Page has ordered (or selected) the events. ‘Onslaught’ for example, follows ‘Responding’ in which the indigenous population is ‘assimilated’ by wearing Western clothing. We can’t help but make the connection between the arrival of the colonials and the outbreak of a Western disease. And following ‘Crown’ comes ‘Repatriation’ when we watch another emotionally difficult scene referring to ongoing efforts to repatriate bones and spirits of those who died in London (or perhaps even those whose bones and spirits were taken to London as ‘specimens’). It is tough but compelling watching.

The score for Bennelong was largely composed and performed by Steve Francis, but it also makes many references to the Bennelong story with snippets of music and song from elsewhere—the strains of Rule Britannia at one stage, a rousing sailor song as Bennelong is transported to London by ship, and some Haydn as Bennelong attends a ball with British society. The dancers and others, including dramaturg Alana Valentine and composer Matthew Doyle, have also been recorded speaking and singing and these recordings have been integrated into the score. It is absolutely spellbinding sound.

As is usual in a Bangarra production the visual elements were outstanding. I especially enjoyed Jennifer Irwins’s costumes, which were suggestive of various eras in indigenous and colonial society, from pre-colonial times to the present, without always being exact replicas.

The entire company was in exceptional form, with Elma Kris in a variety of roles as a keeper of indigenous knowledge, and Daniel Riley as Governor Phillip, giving particularly strong performances. But it was Beau Dean Riley Smith as Bennelong who was the powerful presence throughout. In addition to his solo work, it was impossible not to notice and be impressed by him in group sections and in his various encounters with others throughout the piece.

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in 'Bennelong.' Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey
Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017 © Vishal Pandey

But it was in the final section, ‘1813/People of the Land’, that he totally captured the essence of what was at the heart Page’s conception of the character of Bennelong, a man trapped between two worlds and seeming to belong fully to neither. As he struggled physically and verbally to understand his position, and as he found himself slowly being encased in a prison (or mausoleum—Bennelong  died in 1813), Smith was a forlorn and tortured figure. It was thrilling theatre. And that concrete-looking structure that was slowly built around him, and that eventually blocked him out from audience view entirely, was another powerful visual element. As the curtain fell, the prison structure carried a projection of a well-known colonial portrait of Bennelong and it seemed to represent the disappearance of indigenous culture at the hands of the colonial faction.

Bennelong was a truly dramatic and compelling piece of dance theatre. It deserved every moment of the huge ovation it received as it concluded. We all stood.

Michelle Potter, 1 July 2017

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

Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.' Bnagarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud
Waangenga Blanco in 'Miyagan' from OUR land people stories. Photo: Edward Mulvihill

OUR land people stories. Bangarra Dance Theatre

28 July 2016, Canberra Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre has had what artistic director Stephen Page calls a ‘bitter sweet’ year so far. On the one hand the company has had to face the death in April 2016 of David Page, much loved and admired composer, Bangarra’s music director, and brother of Stephen. On the other there have been successes in so many areas. Most recently, Bangarra—the company, its dancers and its productions—has been short-listed in six categories for the 2016 Australian Dance Awards.

Bangarra’s major production for 2016, a triple bill with the title OUR land people stories, has to be counted as a sweet moment. Although it is dedicated to David Page and it is impossible not to be moved hearing his music, which features in the program, OUR land people stories moves forward proudly and is sweet as much as anything because it showcases the work of three emerging choreographers from within the company ranks.

First up on the program was Macq, choreographed by Jasmin Sheppard to a score by David Page. Macq takes as its starting point a confrontation in 1816 between white settlers in the Appin region, south of Campbelltown, New South Wales, and Aboriginal inhabitants of the region, the D’harawal people. As the confrontation over territory escalated and tensions mounted, Colonial forces, under instructions from Governor Macquarie, began what has come to be known as the 1816 Appin massacre. Sheppard researched Macquarie’s diaries and consulted with descendants of the D’harawal and portrays Macquarie as a conflicted man who, on the one hand appeared to have good intentions towards First Nation peoples, but on the other who went to extreme lengths to maintain territorial control of areas under his jurisdiction.

One especially challenging sequence occurs between Macquarie, danced powerfully by Daniel Riley, and Beau Dean Riley Smith, also outstanding in his role as one of the D’harawal men killed in the massacre. As they dispute territorial boundaries, they interact on, under, and around a long table. The movement is fast, dramatic, determined and confronting and makes astonishing use of the table. Another compelling scene shows Riley acting out Macquarie’s conflicted state of mind as he frantically scribbles down his diaries. It is a courageous statement by Sheppard.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in a scene from 'Macq'. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016
Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in a scene from Macq. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016

But what I found especially powerful about Macq was the way Sheppard had structured the work so as different moments in time were visible even as the main story was unfolding before us. As the work began, for example, in a kind of half light we could see the aftermath of the massacre as D’harawal people mourned the death of their kin. In fact the work moved backwards and forwards in time in a well developed and emotionally satisfying way.

The second work on the program, Miyagan (meaning ‘our family’ in the language of the Wiradjuri Nation) was choreographed by cousins Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley Smith. It was structurally complex with sections referring to the matrilineal nature of Wiradjuri system, and to moiety, clan and family, although the the work also referred to life in the early 1900s on the Talbragar Reserve in Dubbo, where Riley and Smith had a common ancestor in Jack Riley. Choreographically the work was vibrant and moved along smoothly to a soundscape by Paul Mac. The intricate web of kinship relationships and responsibilities was highlighted by Jacob Nash’s spectacular hanging sculpture which served as the set for Miyangan.

Myagan
Jacob Nash’s set for Miyagan, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016. Photo: Michelle Potter

Page said, in a pre-show forum at the Canberra Theatre, that his aim in curating OUR land people stories was to give an opportunity to Sheppard, Riley and Smith to create main stage works for Bangarra—to nurture emerging choreographers from within the company. He added, however, that he thought perhaps he should also do a work! The result was the closing piece, Nyapanyapa, a work inspired by the art of Yolngu woman, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. At the heart of the work is the story of Nyapanyapa’s encounter with a water buffalo, which left her badly injured. But we are given insight into many other aspects of her life, and see reproductions of her work as background. Elma Kris is at her charismatic best as Nyapanyapa and the Bangarra dancers show off dancerly skills that range from full-on rock ‘n’ roll to sublimely meditative moves.

Luke Currie-Richardson and Beau Dean Riley Smith in 'Nyapanyapa' from 'OUR land people stories'. Photo: Edward Mulvihill
Luke Currie-Richardson and Beau Dean Riley Smith in ‘Nyapanyapa’ from OUR land people stories. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

OUR land people stories once again shows Bangarra as a company where dance meets theatre, meets art, meets music. After its Australian season of this program, Bangarra moves on to New York for the Fall for Dance season and then goes on to Paris to perform in the splendid, ethnographically-oriented venue, Musée du Quai Branly.

Michelle Potter, 5 August 2016

Featured image: Waangenga Blanco in ‘Miyagan’ from OUR land people stories (detail). Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

Waangenga Blanco in 'Miyagan' from OUR land people stories. Photo: Edward Mulvihill
Yolande Brown as Earth Spirit in Spear. Photo Jacob Nash

Spear. A Stephen Page film

17 February 2016, preview screening, Arc Cinema, National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra

No doubt about it, Stephen Page’s Spear is a confronting film, and one in which the director’s approach is absolutely uncompromising. But it is also an incredibly beautiful film from so many points of view.

Spear centres on the spiritual journey of a young man, Djali, played by Hunter Page-Lochard, who seeks to understand what it is to be an Indigenous man suspended between two, often conflicting worlds. As he moves between those two worlds we encounter with him the pressures and problems that surround him, including substance abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and racism.

Hunter Page-Lochard with artists of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'spear'. Photo Edward Mulvihill
Hunter Page-Lochard with artists of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

Some moments are (deliberately) quite crass—a dance to the 1960s song ‘My Boomerang Won’t Come Back’, for example. Others are immensely powerful—such as a scene where Daniel Riley as ‘Prison Man’ engages with Elma Kris as ‘Old Woman’ who brings the cleansing power of a smoking ceremony into the prison mess hall. And others are breathtaking in their use of landscape as backdrop—the view of Kaine Sultan Babij as ‘Androgynous Man’ stalking through long grass and between trees is striking, as are the scenes in which Yolande Brown as ‘Earth Spirit’ walks along a red dust road.

Elma Kris and Daniel Riley in 'Spear'. Photo Tiffany Parker
Elma Kris as ‘Old Woman’ and Daniel Riley as ‘Prison Man’ in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Tiffany Parker

Choreographically Page has delivered some of his best movement, whether in solo work for the main members of the cast, or in group scenes. And so powerful are the performances by the cast that there is absolutely no doubt about the message being put forward. Sound is everywhere too. An original score by David Page is complemented by songs from Djakapurra Munyarryun, although spoken text in English is minimal and is mostly delivered by actor Aaron Pedersen who plays the part of ‘Suicide Man’. And there is a suicide scene, which is very deftly handled. Ochre is everywhere as well, in all its four colours. It seems to permeate the production whether as paint on bodies or dust in the air.

What makes this tough, fearless, uncompromising film so quietly beautiful? Visually it is stunning. Director of photography Bonnie Elliott has delivered some amazing shots of an incredible landscape from outback to rugged coastline, and some of the camera angles and close-up shots are just breathtaking. Even her takes on run-down interiors, under-ground spaces and alley ways are moving. And Jacob Nash’s work as production designer gives the film a particular strength. As in his sets for Bangarra’s live shows, Nash has brought to the film an understanding of the power of minimalism in design. But perhaps more than anything it is Stephen Page’s ability to deliver the ultimate message of hope that stands out. The closing scene is a ‘punch the sky’ moment. Simple, direct and moving.

Spear is Stephen Page’s debut as director of a feature-length film. It is a remarkable film. Go see it.

Yolande Brown as Earth Spirit in Spear. Photo Jacob Nash
Yolande Brown as ‘Earth Spirit’ in Spear, 2015. Photo: © Jacob Nash
Detail of the costume for Earth Spirit in 'Spear'.
A close-up view of the ‘Earth Spirit’ costume, the work of Jennifer Irwin.

 Michelle Potter, 19 February 2016

Janessa Dufty in Daniel Riley's 'Reign', Sydney Dance Company 2015. Photo: Peter Greig

New Breed (2015). Sydney Dance Company

8 December 2015, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

My review of New Breed, a program of new works from Kristina Chan, Fiona Jopp, Bernhard Knauer, and Daniel Riley, is now available on DanceTabs. I continue to ponder Riley’s work, Reign, as there is no reason why an Indigenous-style vocabulary shouldn’t be used for any theme. Perhaps, too, I am wrong to assume the theme is strongly Western. But, I still wonder…

Follow this link to the DanceTabs review.

Featured image: Janessa Dufty in Daniel Riley’s Reign. Sydney Dance Company 2015. Photo: © Peter Greig

Janessa Dufty in Daniel Riley's 'Reign', Sydney Dance Company 2015. Photo: Peter Greig

Michelle Potter, 13 December 2015

Ochres. Bangarra Dance Theatre

4  December 2015, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

Seeing Ochres in 2015 after 21 years was a remarkable experience. More than anything it marked the astonishing achievement of Stephen Page and his team of artists. Through the creativity that has characterised Bangarra’s journey, Page has given Australian Indigenous culture a powerful voice. Ochres was an eye opener in 1994. Now it is a powerful evocation of all that Bangarra stands for.

Djakapurra Munyarryun and Bangarra dancers in 'Black' from Ochres, 2015. Photo:-Jhuny-Boy Borja
Djakapurra Munyarryun and Bangarra dancers in ‘Black’ from Ochres, 2015. Photo: © Jhuny-Boy Borja

This 2015 Ochres is not an exact rendition of the original. It is promoted as a ‘reimagining’ of that early show but is definitely close enough for those who saw it in the 1990s to feel they are seeing the work again.

As it did in 1994, the 2015 Ochres begins with a scene featuring cultural consultant Djakapurra Munyarryun, not this time painting up with yellow ochre, but singing a song, Ngurrtja—Land Cleansing Song–composed especially (I believe) for this 2015 production. He has, as ever, huge power and presence. He stood perfectly still for several seconds before beginning his song and the effect was mesmerising.

Torres Starait Islander Elma Kris, another of Bangarra’s consultants, follows with a section called The Light in which she, like Djakapurra Munyarryun had done previously, smeared her limbs and face with yellow ochre.

These opening scenes are followed by the four ‘ochre sections’—’Yellow’  inspired by female energy, ‘Black’ representing male energy, ‘Red’ showing male and female relations, and ‘White’ inspired by history and its influence on the future.

In ‘Yellow’, choreographed by Bernadette Walong-Sene, the women dance low to the ground. Their movements are most often flowing and they have an organic look to them. Deborah Brown shows her remarkable skills throughout this section. How  beautiful to see a relatively classical move, a turn in a low arabesque with one hand on the shoulder for example, followed by sudden movements of the head as if she is curious about, and watchful for what is happening around her. Brown always looks good no matter what style her movements represent.

‘Black’, with contemporary choreography from Stephen Page and traditional choreography from Djakapurra Munyarryun, shows power and masculinity—hunters crouching behind bushes, warriors with their weapons sparring with each other. This section is also characterised by some nicely performed unison work.

‘Red’ has the strongest narrative element of the four sections. It focuses on four different expressions of male/female relationships moving from youthful dalliance featuring Beau Dean Riley Smith, Nicola Sabatino and Yolanda Lowatta to the final section ‘Pain’ in which Elma Kris cares for an ailing man, danced by Daniel Riley. But in between we can imagine other relationships. Domestic violence and addiction perhaps?

‘White’ concludes the program. The two cultural consultants, Elma Kris and Djakapurra Munyarryun, lead this final section and, with all the dancers covered with white ochre, a spiritual quality emerges from sections representing a range of concepts from kinship to totemic ideas. The choreography is credited to Stephen Page, Bernadette Walong-Sene, and Djakapurra Munyarryun.

Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are cleanly cut and simply coloured. Jacob Nash’s set, looking like long shards of bark, hangs in the centre of the space above a sandy mound. It is lit in changing colours by Joseph Mercurio. A score by David Page is evocative of the 1990s but retains enough power and emotion to feel relevant still.

The kind of fusion of contemporary and traditional movements we have come to expect from Bangarra’s dancers is all there and reflects the fact that Bangarra is an urban Aboriginal initiative with strong links back to its cultural heritage. And, while the dancers of 1994 were extraordinary (a list of the 1994 team appears in the program), the manner in which Bangarra has grown technically is also clear. Its dancers are spectacularly good and their commitment shines through.

Michelle Potter, 9 December 2015

Featured image: Leonard Mickelo in a study for Ochres, 2015. Photo: © Edward Mulvihill

Ochres-landscape-wesbite

For more about Djakapurra Munyarryun follow this link.