Infinity. The Australian Ballet

This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times.

24 February 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Infinity, the Australian Ballet’s first program in its 50th anniversary year, is a diverse and sometimes challenging evening of dance. But most of all it is thrilling experience to see the Australian Ballet putting itself out on a limb with three brand new works from three Australian choreographers: Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. All three works are danced to new scores by Australian composers and all three have new Australian designs. Definitely something to celebrate.

The show opens with the new work from Murphy, The narrative of nothing.  To tell the truth, while there is a perfectly good explanation from Murphy for why this title was chosen—there’s no obvious narrative but the work may still be telling the audience something, I’d much rather dispense with titles that sound smart (with all due respects to Murphy). Untitled works just as well for me!

Murphy’s choreography often had a primeval feel as bodies twisted and curled around others. There were powerful performances from Lana Jones and Adam Bull, and I especially admired the sequence where Jones was partnered by several men who alternated between holding her aloft and letting her fall from side to side. Vintage Murphy really but Jones’ ability to hold her body in a perfect curve as she fell was breathtaking.

Lana Jones and Amy Harris The narrative of nothing PhotoJeff Busby
Lana Jones (right) and Amy Harris, The narrative of nothing, 2012. Photo Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The supporting dancers deserve praise for their technical strength as they attacked the demanding choreography. Murphy has moved a step beyond his usual (always interesting) vocabulary and made a work that, in somewhat of a contradiction, asks the dancers to move with a kind of aggressive lyricism.

I didn’t read the program notes prior to watching this work so wasn’t aware in advance that the commissioned score, Fire Music by Brett Dean, was in response to the Victorian ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires of 2009. With the knowledge of what was behind Dean’s score, fire in some respects becomes the non-narrative. But the works stands without this knowledge and in fact I was pleased that I didn’t know in advance. The score sounded quite elemental—the thunder sheets certainly helped there—and, with some instruments positioned outside the pit, the sound was enveloping.

Jennifer Irwin’s body hugging costumes were decorated individually with black patterns, often swirling organically, and with what looked like silver studs or tiny mirrors. Depending on the lighting (by Damien Cooper) they changed from looking a little punk, to glowing in the dark, to looking slinky, and much more. Cooper’s design was uncompromising—a solo by Adam Bull performed pretty much on the spot in a strong downlight was another highlight. The design also included an onstage use of lighting rigs not normally on view to the audience, another technique that has often featured in works by Murphy. With the inclusion of a minimalist black space as a setting The narrative of nothing became an example of the very best of contemporary collaborative enterprises. It also looks back to some of Murphy’s strongest abstract works made for Sydney Dance Company—Piano sonata comes straight to mind.

Obarzanek’s piece also had a strange, or at least not very catchy title, There’s definitely a prince involved.  It referred to his process of generating ideas and vocabulary for the work by asking a range of people about what they thought constitutes a ballet, and his subsequent deconstruction of the ballet Swan Lake. The work can be read on a number of levels. On the most simplistic it tells the story of Swan Lake, using the dancers as narrators, and focuses on the illogicality of the story. It relies on the dancers’ deadpan delivery of the text to raise laughter from the audience, and the various dancers who take on the role of narrator throughout the piece are more than adept. Unfortunately, even though they used a microphone, their voices were often inaudible above the crashing sounds of the orchestra playing Stefan Gregory’s fragmentation of Tchaikovsky’s familiar Swan Lake music.

On another level the work rips apart the traditional choreography of Swan Lake, and amusingly so, especially in the section based on the dance of the four little swans. It helps but is not essential if the audience is familiar with the traditional steps.

On yet another level the work can be seen as a comment on art asking the question of whether Swan Lake is indeed a work of art. Obarzanek has an acutely inquiring mind and his ability to force us to reconsider what we as a ballet audience might take for granted is powerful and actually quite respectful.

There’s definitely a prince involved uses dancers of the Australian Ballet augmented by dancers from Obarzanek’s company, Chunky Move. Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe showed her versatility as a performer and slotted beautifully into the varying demands associated with the role of a deconstructed Odette, the female lead. The few moments of classical movement—a fabulous grand jeté across the stage, and her ‘dying swan’ poses—did however make me yearn to see her dance a ‘real’ Swan Lake. Deconstruction is fine, entertaining and thought provoking, but the classic version transcends it all and it is that strength really that allows Obarzanek’s deconstruction to work so well.

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette and Artists of the Australian Ballet, There's definitely a prince involved, 2012 Photo Jeff Busby Courtesy the Australian Ballet
Madeleine Eastoe as Odette with artists of the Australian Ballet and Chunky Move, There’s definitely a prince involved, 2012. Photo Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The program closes with Page’s Warumuk—in the dark light with Bangarra Dance Theatre joining forces with the Australian Ballet. With its new score from David Page it presents an exploration of the myths associated with the night sky.

The Bangarra dancers performed with their usual, beautifully rehearsed ensemble work with particularly striking performances from Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco representing Full Moon. Vivienne Wong, stunningly dressed by Jennifer Irwin in a lacy black outfit cut with a long ‘tail’ at the back, stood out as the Evening Star. For me Wong was the sole Australian Ballet dancer who was able to transcend her balletic training and blend into the Bangarra way of moving. This was a real feat as Bangarra has now consolidated its own very distinctive style and company dancers are performing with added assurance and expertise.

The one disappointment for me was Jacob Nash’s set design. To me it looked a little too much like a previous Bangarra commission, his set designs for ‘About’, part of the Belong program of 2011.

This program is the Australian Ballet in an extreme mood. I have nothing but praise for the courage of the company in taking on, and succeeding in a program that far surpasses anything they have done in recent years. It makes the company look at last as though it is a company with a desire to move ballet into the future.

Michelle Potter, 27 February 2012

Postscript: The Canberra Times review appeared on 17 March 2012. It is no longer available online.

Belong. Bangarra Dance Theatre

Bangarra Dance Theatre has always made dance that links back to the heritage of two groups of indigenous Australians: the Aboriginal communities of mainland Australia and the communities of the Torres Strait Islands. Belong, the company’s latest work, is no exception. Each of the two works that comprise the program, About choreographed by Elma Kris, and ID choreographed by the company’s artistic director Stephen Page, represents one of those streams of indigenous heritage. And, while the overall focus of the program is on the question of indigenous identity, the two works couldn’t be more different.

About opens with Kris, shrouded in a cloud of white mist, taking the role of a storyteller. She appears at the beginning of each section of the work and introduces us in turn to the four winds of the Torres Strait on which the work centres. Through Kris’ flowing choreography we encounter ‘Zey’, the cool south wind, ‘Kuki’, the powerful northwest wind, ‘Naygay’, the calm and gentle north wind, and ‘Sager’ the gusty, dominant southeast wind. Each has its particular energy, which is conveyed choreographically, through changing emphasis on male or female dancers, and through the way in which each wind is envisaged through colour and costuming.

About is without political overtones. Even as the Sager wind spirits confront each other as powerful forces, the work remains concerned with moods and a changing sense of spirit and movement. ID on the other hand is an emotive and often confronting work. Examining what it means to be an indigenous person in the 21st century, Page has structured his work as a series of episodes each commenting on some aspect of urban Aboriginal life. An indigenous man being tortured by prison guards is tough viewing and David Page’s music, interwoven with text, is unrelenting and adds an extra layer to a harsh and uncompromising work. The work does, however, contain some less politically challenging sections to balance the harshness. One uses a collection of hollowed out objects like tree trunks, or even slit gongs, and evocative lighting by Matt Cox to set the scene for some dancing that conveys more a passion for life and one’s culture than issues of social injustice.

I have long been an admirer of the strong and distinctive visual ‘look’ of a Bangarra production, which was established early in Bangarra’s performance history by the design team of Peter England (sets) and Jennifer Irwin (costumes). It is being carried forward now by others including, for Belong, Jacob Nash (sets) and Emma Howell (costumes). Stylistically and in the way both costumes and set occupy space there is more than a passing nod to the England/Irwin collaboration. But I greatly admired Nash’s backcloth (or was it a projection?) in About for the sections ‘Nagay’ and ‘Sager’. Streamer-like, the black and white image wound and swirled its way upwards across the backcloth at times looking like snake skin, at times like ancient bark, and at times like a meticulously executed linocut. Like the wind, and with the help of Matt Cox’s lighting, it appeared to be a changeable and unpredictable entity.

But if the ‘look’ is same, same but different, Bangarra dancers have moved ahead in leaps and bounds. Now with older role models and mentors, and perhaps with improved or more access to training, the current company is dancing very well indeed. Stand out performances came from Daniel Riley McKinley as the Initiate in ID and Kris and Waagenga Blanco as the Wind Spirits in the Sager section of About. Kris and Blanco in particular had a powerful connection between them as they danced, which many classical dancers might (or should) envy, and Blanco’s ability to fill the space around him with movement was exceptional.

Michelle Potter, 13 August 2011

Of earth and sky. Bangarra Dance Theatre

23 July–28 August, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Bangarra Dance Theatre, which was founded by Carole Johnson in 1989, has entered its twenty-first year with a program of two works under the generic title Of earth and sky. Riley, a work by emerging choreographer Daniel Riley McKinley, represents the sky of the title, while Artefact choreographed by well established dancer and choreographer Frances Rings represents the earth. The program as a whole suggests a potential new direction for Bangarra.

The inspiration for Riley came from the work of the late indigenous photographer and film maker Michael Riley, in particular from his series of photographic prints in which an object is digitally manipulated to float against a background of a soft blue sky dotted with clouds. They are single objects, a feather, a locust, a bible, a boomerang, a broken wing, an angel, and they reflect McKinley’s own indigenous background in rural New South Wales and, at times, the conflict between Aboriginal and Christian spirituality.

Riley’s cloud photographs are projected in turn onto a screen and McKinley’s choreography grows from and is shaped by his reflections on the objects. The choreography for the boomerang image, for example, swirls and turns, while that for the locust gathers strength of movement so that it buzzes and swarms as David Page’s electronic music develops an insistent power. The highlight is a duet, Angel, danced by Waangenga Blanco and Leonard Mickelo. They carry each other shoulder high, proudly and powerfully, as a stone angel hovers as the background image.

Riley is an impressive, if occasionally unsophisticated, choreographic beginning for McKinley. With its abstraction from any form of narrative it is quite different from much of the material we have seen from Bangarra over the previous two decades.

Artefact is the latest in a string of works made for Bangarra by Rings, who has recently been appointed resident choreographer for the company. It looks at objects of the earth such as string bags, grinding stones, bodies, weaving and coolamun (an aboriginal carrying vessel) for its inspiration. The opening sequence, called Museum, sets the scene for what follows. In it Daniel Riley McKinley and Travis de Vries, the latter a dancer on secondment to Bangarra, alternately wrap, hide and present themselves in an enormous possum skin cloak, a museum artefact that resonates nevertheless with the spirituality with which it was originally imbued. Rings appears also to be moving more towards abstraction and her choreography unfolds smoothly and organically, even lyrically at times, with some arresting movement for groups of dancers.

Bangarra has always been known for the strength of its visual aesthetic and Of earth and sky is no exception. In particular its lighting by the team of Damien Cooper and Matt Cox is subtle and evocative. But perhaps what emerges most strongly from this production is the potential movement towards abstraction, or away from strongly narrative works, by its choreographers. It could be an interesting new decade.

Michelle Potter, 5 August 2010