I didn’t post a review of the Australian Ballet’s Sydney season of George Balanchine’s Jewels. Somehow I just wasn’t inspired to do so. The way Balanchine groups corps de ballet dancers in many of his works, and has them join hands and weave in and out of linear patterns, is starting to look a little out of date to me.
During May I read Francis Mason’s book I Remember Balanchine, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for a very long time. It was first published in 1991 (I bought it in 1995) and has the subtitle ‘Recollections of the Ballet Master by Those Who Knew Him’. Contributors include dancers, choreographers, administrative personnel, doctors and others who worked with Balanchine in New York during the 1940s and onwards. For me the most interesting comment about Jewels in this book came from Barbara Horgan, who worked as Balanchine’s personal assistant for over 20 years. She wrote that it was ‘A whole evening of New York classic ballet under one title, a gimmick but a fascinating, genius gimmick.’ Was it the book that made me feel uninspired? I’m not sure. But perhaps it was partly the ‘gimmick’ angle that made me feel the way I did this time, although I read Horgan’s comment after seeing the Australian Ballet production. I should add, however, that I have seen Jewelsperformed elsewhere and enjoyed it (mostly).
But at the performance I saw in Sydney (matinee 13 May) I did admire immensely Sharni Spencer and Callum Linanne who danced the lead couple in the final section, ‘Diamonds’. Technically they both shone, but they also had great rapport, which crossed into the audience. Watching them was a moving experience. A rehearsal of the pas de deux from ‘Diamonds’ by Spencer and Linnane is below, although it being a rehearsal the rapport I felt in the performance is not so obvious.
Grand Kyiv Ballet of Ukraine
It was interesting to see that the Canberra season of the Grand Kyiv Ballet of Ukraine made the front page of the 22 May print edition of The Canberra Times, and in a spectacular way with an incredible night-time image taken by freelance photographer Gary Ramage. It shows principal dancer Mie Nagasawa, dressed as Kitri in Don Quixote, posed on (and I mean on) Lake Burley Griffin with Black Mountain in the background. Dance doesn’t make it into newspapers very often these days, and it is certainly very rare that anything dance-related appears on a front page.
I saw the company’s opening Australian performance in Port Macquarie. My review is at this link. The review also appeared, in a slightly different version, in Dance Australia.
Shaun Parker & Company
Shaun Parker & Company is gearing up for a European tour of Parker’s recent production of KING. The company will perform in Cologne, Germany June 16-17; Luxembourg, June 20-21; Wiesbaden, Germany June 27; and Bolzano, Italy July 14. More details here. My review of KING is at this link.
An interview by Steve Dow with Frances Rings, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, is available in the June 2023 issue of Limelight Magazine (if you are a subscriber!). One section stood out for me. Rings was discussing an incident faced recently by one of her sons, which (rightly) upset him. Her response to her son was, in part, ‘It’s all right to be angry, but then you have to push that aside and get on with it, because if you carry that energy, you carry that negativity, it’s just going to manifest and will become toxic…’ .
I have admired Bangarra’s approach to their productions for years now. They have always put their stories before us and have done so powerfully, brilliantly and honestly—think Bennelong, or Macq, or Mathinna, and more. The stories have often been confronting but the presentation has never seemed to me to project the toxicity that Rings mentions may accompany anger. I feel sure that under the directorship of Rings I will continue to admire Bangarra’s strength of purpose as I did when Bangarra was directed by Stephen Page.
Danielle Rowe: News from the United States
Danielle Rowe, former principal dancer with the Australian Baller, and with an exceptional career across the world since leaving Australia, has been appointed artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre. Here is the link to the media release from Oregon Ballet Theatre. And read more at this link.
I had been wondering when the Sydney Choreographic Centre would be presenting its next show as I had enjoyed the Centre’s previous two productions—GRIMMin 2021 and Galileo in 2022. But when I tried to access the Centre’s website I discovered that the site no longer exists, which led me to search for news about its artistic director, Francesco Ventriglia. It seems that Ventriglia has returned to Italy. He was interviewed about his plans on giornaledelladanza.com by Sara Zuccari. For those who read Italian here is the link.
I interviewed Ventriglia in 2016 (when he was artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet) for the now-defunct site DanceTabs. There is a link to that interview here.
In 2022 I managed to see more live performances than I did in 2021. I was even able to get to New Zealand to see Loughlan Prior’s Cinderella. There were still a number of online offerings to add to the year’s viewing of course, and online watching has become part of my life I think.
As I did in 2021, I have chosen just five performances as my highlights for 2022, and the pluses and minuses experienced in 2021 were pretty much the same in 2022: difficulties resulting from choosing such a small number, but the advantage of having to focus strongly on what defines for me an outstanding work.
Below are my ‘top five’ productions for 2022, arranged chronologically according to the date of performance. I have included a link to my review in each case and have simply included in this post the main reason why I chose each work. All posts refer to live performances.
LESS (Canberra. Australian Dance Party, March)
LESS was a brilliant collaborative endeavour, and an outstanding site-specific work, the ongoing focus of Australian Dance Party. Here is the link to the review.
(As a Canberra-based writer I also chose LESS as my highlight for 2022 for Dance Australia and my comments should appear in that magazine soon).
Kunstkamer (Sydney. The Australian Ballet, May)
Kunstkamer was an outstanding work that showed the Australian Ballet and its dancers in a totally new light. Here is the link to the review.
Li’s Choice (Brisbane. Queensland Ballet, June)
Li’s choice showed the exceptional diversity of Queensland Ballet’s dancers and the equally exceptional directorship of Li Cunxin and his support staff. Here is the link to the review.
Galileo (Parramatta. Sydney Choreographic Ensemble, June)
Francesco Ventriglia skilfully demonstrated how choreography can convey a huge range of ideas and while doing so make a totally absorbing and focused work. Here is the link to the review.
Cinderella (Auckland. Royal New Zealand Ballet, August)
Loughlan Prior gave his Cinderella a setting and storyline that was a courageous and totally unexpected look at a well-worn story, Here is the link to the review, and another link to an interview with Loughlan Prior in which he talks about Cinderella.
1 June 2022. Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres Parramatta
What a thrill it was to see Francesco Ventriglia’s exciting choreography for his latest work, Galileo. The performance was absolutely absorbing to watch from beginning to end.
Inspired by the amazing variety of ideas that Galileo Galilei studied in his life’s work as a scientist in late 16th to early 17th century Italy, Ventriglia has ensured that many of those ideas are expressed choreographically—velocity, speed, free fall, the nature of the planets including the principle that earth moves around the sun (for which he was castigated and had to renounce his ideas) all seem to be there. And the dancers performed with extraordinary strength and flair. One artist in particular stood out for me, Connor McMahon. It was his absolute commitment to engaging with the choreography, with the ideas behind the work, and with other dancers that was remarkable. He also had a solo towards the end of the work where the strength of his technique was also apparent.
Some sections had something of a narrative element attached to them. At one stage a small golden globe was brought on stage and, as one dancer held it up, a circle of dancers surrounded the object. It recalled that aspect of Galileo’s thoughts about the relationship between the movement of the earth and the sun. At other times, especially apparent towards the end of the work, dancers formed a group and shook their heads violently suggesting the behaviour of those who denied Galileo’s theories and forced him to renounce his ideas. One of the most beautiful sections happened when one dancer was supported by four men who carried her through swirling, twisting movement without her feet ever touching the ground. It generated many thoughts about the movement of celestial bodies. Other moments, especially at the beginning of the work, reminded me of movements of commedia dell’arte characters thus, in my mind, setting the scene for the era in which Galileo lived and worked.
My previous experience of Ventriglia’s choreography has always made me feel that there needed to be greater changes of pace throughout his works. Not this time. Along with Ventriglia’s characteristic style of partnering in which both male and female dancers move together in a breathtaking manner, there were moments of stillness, slow movement, exceptional use of grouping, and references to many dance styles. The work was danced to a selection of music from Italian composers from around the period in which Galileo was working—Vivaldi, Corelli, Monteverdi and others—and was complemented by evocative lighting from Roderick van Gelder and remarkable video projections, which constantly changed shape yet remained consistent in content, from Marco Giani.
Galileo cements Sydney Choreographic Ensemble as a company to watch and extends the strength of my impression of Ventriglia as a truly interesting choreographer. It would be great if the work were able to tour.
I did not have the opportunity to see live dance outside Australia in 2021 although I came very close to getting to New Zealand to see Loughlan Prior’s Firebird for Royal New Zealand Ballet (everything was booked but had to be cancelled at the last minute)! But I did see a variety of performances from overseas companies in online screenings, including Firebird. Most of what I saw in this way I did review for this website.
Choosing just five productions was not easy but I decided to stay with that limit, perhaps ‘in remembrance of times past’. Five was the limit in the days when The Canberra Times had a stronger arts coverage. And such a limit does demand a certain degree of focus and serious thought about defining principles in specific situations!
Below are my ‘top five’ productions for the year arranged chronologically according to the date of performance.
Third Practice. Tero Saarinen Company. Helsinki, February 2021. Online screening
I was first introduced to the work of the Finnish company led by Tero Saarinen in late 2020 when I was able to watch Borrowed Light, a collaboration by the company with the singers of Boston Camerata. Borrowed Light dated back to 2004 but was filmed in 2012 at Jacob’s Pillow and the film was screened online in 2021 as part of the Pillow’s response to lockdown. It was an exceptional collaboration and made me want to see more from this company, which I had not encountered before. The opportunity came in February 2021 when I was invited to watch and review the company’s online screening of Third Practice, performed to madrigals by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, and played and sung by members of Helsinki’s Baroque Orchestra.
Third Practice was another eye-opening production after Borrowed Light. In my review I wrote’, ‘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.’
I was initially intrigued by the title Third Practice. As I discovered when doing some preliminary research, it referred to comments about the nature of Monteverdi’s compositional style and Tero Saarinen’s own approach to choreography. You can read more in my review at this link.
GRIMM. Sydney Choreographic Centre. Sydney, April 2021. Live performance
Starting a new company, and indeed a whole new choreographic venture, is a courageous step to take. GRIMM was the first production from a new Sydney-based venture, the Sydney Choreographic Centre, the brainchild of director Francesco Ventriglia (also the choreographer of GRIMM) and managing director Neil Christopher. GRIMM is courageous too in that it takes a whole new look at characters from the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), and examines the emotions of those characters as they move from youth to maturity. It is a far cry from the way we usually meet characters like Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and others, in dance form.
But it was also a truly thrilling production in a collaborative sense. Lighting, projections, costumes were stunning in their contemporaneity. Absolutely stunning. It was a terrific start for this new venture and I look forward to seeing more. Read my review at this link.
The Point, Liz Lea Dance Company, Canberra, May 2021. Live performance
Liz Lea Dance Company won a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Lea’s production of The Point. The citation read: ‘For The Point, a courageous exploration of connection and creativity across different dance styles and cultures through innovative choreography highlighted by outstanding use of music and a remarkable lighting design by Karen Norris.’
What intrigued me especially about this production was the mix of dance styles, which did not in my mind compromise any one style. My ballet teacher, many years ago now, was Valrene Tweedie, and I recall her saying ‘Ballet is like a sponge. It can absorb anything and everything.’ Well it is quite easy to substitute ‘dance’ for ‘ballet’ in that remark and Lea’s combining of contemporary, Western style movement with Indian styles, with which Lea is more than familiar, suggests strongly that no dance style is beyond being looked at creatively.
Of course, as the citation indicates, the collaboration across media was brilliant and the mix of ideas, which included homage to Marion Mahony Griffin and her contribution to the design of Canberra, was also brilliant. Read my review at this link.
Sandsong. Stories from the Great Sandy Desert. Bangarra Dance Theatre. Sydney, June 2021. Live performance
For me Sandsong captured what I have always loved about Bangarra—the company’s ability to present Indigenous cultural heritage and the political issues that have intruded on and damaged that heritage. I admire the way the ideas presented generate serious contemplation about the situation without necessarily demanding that we are filled with anger. Bangarra shows us what happened; we can draw our own conclusions. With Sandsong I also was moved by the way those cultural issues reflected gender divisions in traditional society, both choreographically and in a narrative sense.
In addition, what always stands out with Bangarra productions, and Sandsong was no exception, is the visual strength of the company’s shows. Jacob Nash creates exceptional sets, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes capture so much of the context of the work while giving freedom for the dancers to move, and on this occasion the lighting by Nick Schlieper added a stunning shimmer to Nash’s backcloth while Steve Francis’ score captured the multi-faceted nature of the work.
On view. Panoramic Suite. Sue Healey. Sydney, October 2021 . Online screening
Sue Healey has been working with the concept of On View for a number of years and I have strong memories of On View. Live Portraits, as well as a number of filmed portraits she has made of people she has named ‘icons’ of Australian dance. Panoramic Suite, however, takes her ideas to another level and includes material recorded outside of Australia, in particular in Hong Kong and Japan. Healey has combined this new material with that created in Australia and the result is indeed a panorama. This is not just because it traverses continents in its subject matter, but also because of the technical approach that gives the viewer many angles from which to view the footage—close-up shots, aerial views, multiple views of the same sections, and so many other concepts.
On View. Panoramic Suite is an exceptional endeavour and a huge credit to Healey and her team. Read my review at this link.
I guess what I really liked about all five of these productions was that in one way or another the choreographers, and the collaborative team, were pushing the boundaries of what dance is about, what it can do, how we can look at it. And the pushing of boundaries was happening in such a variety of ways. There was intelligence and creativity in approach and that was a real thrill in a year when we all wondered if the performing arts would survive when there were so many problems, especially for live performance. Let’s look ahead, with fingers crossed, to 2022.
News flash: The Sydney Choreographic Centre has just announced that Sylvie Guillem is to take on the role of international patron of the Sydney Choreographic Centre. Artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has said of the appointment:
I could not be more thrilled and honoured that Sylvie has agreed to become SCC’s International Patron. I want the Centre to be a place of inspiration and there is no one in the dance world more recognised or inspiring than Sylvie.
Well for those of us who have seen Guillem dance in various situations this appointment augurs well and I hope her input will be extensive, if from afar. I don’t think I have ever really recovered from Guillem’s production of Giselle for the Finnish National Ballet, which I had the good fortune to see twice way back in 2001. The intelligence behind what was a truly inspired production was remarkable. I hope that in some way Ventriglia and his team will be able to harness some of that passion and inspiration to add to what they already have.
16 April 2021. Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta
GRIMM is the first work from the newly established Sydney Choreographic Centre and a world premiere from its director, Francesco Ventriglia. It takes an unusual look at some of the characters from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), examining the emotions of these fairytale characters and the passage they make from youth to maturity. We meet, for example, Snow White, the Frog Prince, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. We watch as they are pressured by a black clad figure, an evil character encompassing stepmother, witch and any other malevolent figure from a Grimm story. By the end every one of them had been transformed. Even the black clad Evil One (my name for this character) took on a new guise and appeared finally as a figure enveloped by golden clothes and shining lights.
Ventriglia’s choreography was fast-paced and filled with astonishing lifts with arms and legs constantly being thrown in all directions. It was quite angular most of the time. I waited for some moments of stillness, and the occasional feeling of roundness and softening of the limbs, but the angularity continued throughout. The duet between Snow White and her partner came closest to having a sense of calm and smoothness, but only occasionally. All the performers were, however, outstanding dancers and I especially admired the strength and emotional power of Ariella Casu, both as the Evil One and in the final moments when her black costume was stripped away to reveal a different side (perhaps?) of her character.
Although I wished for more diversity in the choreography, at least in its immediate impact, I was stunned by the absolutely brilliant, very contemporary visual effects throughout. The lighting by Alex Berlage left a lot of the stage quite dark for much of the time but the strong side and down lights were exceptional in the way they highlighted the various characters. The projections by Marco Giani were quite minimal in most cases—just narrow rectangles of light filled with largely abstract designs, although they clearly represented forces of nature. But they too added to an understanding of who the characters were and never detracted from the movement. Costumes by James Acheson, especially for the main characters, were impressive and again a strong sense of the contemporary in design was clear.
On the night I attended the performance the audience reaction was astonishing—cheering, stamping on the floor and the like. It took me back to the days when audiences seemed to go wild with excitement at the ballet (as far back as Borovansky even). Let’s see what happens with the next show from this bold new venture.
To establish a new choreographic venture, the Sydney Choreographic Centre, Francesco Ventriglia, formerly artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, has returned to the southern hemisphere after leaving New Zealand ‘to pursue opportunities overseas’. The Centre, co-founded by Neil Christopher as its general manager, is located in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria and will open in March with an intensive program for emerging choreographers and the opportunity to take class with the resident dancers of the Centre: Ariella Casu, Victor Zarallo, Holly Doyle, Brittany-jayde Duwner and Alex Borg.
The Centre’s first production, Grimm, with choreography by Ventriglia, will open in April at the Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres Parramatta. ‘Expect the unexpected in this very modern version of old stories,’ we are told.
For more on the Centre and its programs, and on the new ballet Grimm, visit the Centre’s website.
In 2014 I had the pleasure of interviewing Ventriglia in Wellington for Dance Tabs. Follow this link to retrieve the DanceTabs article.
Oral history news
After an hiatus of very close to 12 months, I was finally able to get back to recording oral history interviews. Given the problems associated with dance in the media, oral history is one very significant way in which careers of those in the dance world can be documented for posterity. Early in February I interviewed Ruth Osborne, artistic director of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2. The interview focused largely on Ruth’s connections with the choreography of Gertrud Bodenwieser and those who carried on her legacy in Australia, in particular Margaret Chapple and Keith Bain. The interview is yet to be fully processed but when that process is completed it will be available online through the National Library’s catalogue.
A little later in the month I recorded Part 1 of what is potentially a two part interview with fashion designer Linda Jackson. Her colleague, the remarkable Jenny Kee, is lined up for April.
Tanya Pearson, OAM (1937-2021)
The much admired Sydney-based teacher Tanya Pearson died in February. See an obituary for her in Dance Australia at this link, and watch a lovely 30 minute tribute, filmed in 2012.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments
Another review, this time from Lee Christofis, appeared in the March issue of Limelight Magazine. It is a rather special review as Christofis knows something of the backstory behind the National Library’s Papers of Kristian Fredrikson, as his opening paragraph reveals. The online version is locked to non-subscribers but see this link for a taster. The full review is also available in the print edition for March.
Royal New Zealand Ballet is making available a range of videos of productions from the repertoire for free home viewing for a brief period during the covid-19 lockdown. The dress rehearsal of their 2015 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream screened last week.
This ballet was originally commissioned by director Ethan Stiefel in a promising initiative for Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet to share resources, production and performance rights. The project could have grown to include other productions, teacher and dancer exchanges and residencies, and the concept of trans-Tasman co-productions was heartening. The premiere season of MND was staged here during the term of the next director Francesco Ventriglia.
The shimmering overture of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream evokes a humming faerie world. The dark blue-black midnight stage flickers alight with fireflies and glow worms. This is a visit to Waitomo Caves, after-dark Zealandia, Otari Bush or Botanical Gardens, the remembered hush of night in those places. You don’t need a grandchild holding your hand, though it helps, to know the feeling that magic could be out there, or look there, or quick another one over there. This entire production delivers on the promise caught in those quivering opening moments—with choreography, design and music inseparably part of what is arguably one of the best works in the company’s repertoire.
Liam Scarlett’s exquisite choreography drew galvanised performances from each of the dancers who were members of RNZB back in 2015. This viewing is a welcome reminder of their verve and style, the stage positively buzzing with the wit of a team of dancers who knew each other well and could together rise to a performance of such assured calibre. It is poignant in the extreme that we have loved and then lost so many of these artists in the swift turnover of dancers during the months that followed. There’s always a mobility of dancers amongst ballet companies but the scale and timing of that particular exodus wrought a major shift in the RNZB’s artistic identity.
Nigel Gaynor, music director back in the day, made an inspired full-length score by extending Mendelssohn’s original incidental music with seamlessly interpolated excerpts from others of his compositions. Gaynor conducted the NZ Symphony Orchestra and the result was a transport of delight.
Tracy Grant Lord produced fabulous designs for a number of major RNZB productions—for Christopher Hampsons’s Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet, as well as this Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lighting design by Kendall Smith positively sparkles with the wit of illuminating fairies and caverns themselves, rather than simply throwing light at them.
My review in 2015 was based on the performance by Lucy Green as Titania, Qi Huan as Oberon, both splendidly cast. This video has Tonia Looker and Maclean Hopper as leads and they do an equally fine job. Harry Skinner plays Bottom with a grounded quality that delights without overplaying the role, revealing an actor’s sensibility. Kohei Iwamoto is the quintessential Puck that Shakespeare must have had in mind when he wrote the character—daredevil, wicked, witty, mercurial rascal. Whatever the role, Kohei has always absorbed his virtuosic technique into characterisation and never used it for display. Even to watch him in a studio class was to see how his strength, precision and swiftness could grow into grace and the sprezzatura that Shakespeare knew all about ‘…that you would e’er do nothing but that.’
You could be moved by every moment of this ballet, beginning with a vulnerable young child caught in the crossfire of his quarrelling parents and their eventual hard-earned reconciliation, but one hilarious mid-moment breaks in to the action narrative as all of the cast dash en diagonale across the stage in pursuit of each other for the wrong and/or the right reasons—it’s a like a side-stage glimpse of the backstage life of all these characters—a cheeky wave and a wink to savour forever.
The fairies are a shimmering line-up—Lucy Green and Mayu Tanigaito among them—and Scarlett’s sense of comic timing draws a host of terrific performances—from Abigail Boyle, Paul Mathews, Laura Saxon Jones, Joseph Skelton, William Fitzgerald, Loughlan Prior, Jacob Chown. These assured performers really did work as a magic team, lucky we were. ‘Hence away. Now all is well. One alone stand sentinel …’
A recent saga has seen Liam Scarlett’s career with the Royal Ballet and elsewhere collapse into apparent ruin. The media fair bristled with leaked early reports (oh how salaciousness boosts ratings) but now the investigation seems to be over and the word is mum with the Royal Ballet declaring ‘There were no matters to pursue…’ So through that vagueness all we know is the heartbreak of Scarlett’s gifts destroyed, his career for now anyway at a standstill. Let’s meantime be grateful for the wondrous talents and team that made this ballet in the first place, and hope there can be some eventual resolution to the current impasse. Good on RNZB for screening his choreographic masterwork.
Ballet companies anticipate repertoire and book programs in long to mid-term time frames. Perhaps for that reason, the four works in Dancing with Mozart sit somewhat unevenly. The opening Balanchine Divertimento No. 15, and a newly commissioned work were the choices of the current artistic director, whereas the two Kylián works, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze were chosen by the previous artistic director some time ago.
My guess is that Mozart would have found the Divertimento No. 15 somewhat laboured, with its numerous unmotivated entrances and exits, delivering the patterns that are its only content. I am not against patterns per se, in truth I love them if they are danced with élan and clarity, when they can represent all manner of things. In this work, however, there is little hint of meaningful rapport between dancers, and no development of a relationship to the audience, so zero effect of theatre from this extended piece.
The use of guest stars who are of varying aesthetic is hard to understand when the company has so many fine dancers, or until very recently did have, within its ranks. Mayu Tanigaito and Alexandre Ferreira save the day in their brief solos when with sparkling nonchalance they mask the effort involved in the demanding virtuosity.
This is the only work on the program played by Orchestra Wellington. Recorded music is used for the two Kylián works, evidently as required by the choreographic contract, but that is not made clear in the marketing of the season and has caused some upset reactions among those who booked to attend expecting live orchestra throughout.
The Corey Baker commission, The Last Dance, is a challenged work—no aspersion on the dancers who give it their best, but its ideas and images seem oddly static. All new choreographic challenge has to take risks and no one can guarantee the outcome, but whoever commissions and whoever choreographs needs to know a company’s strengths and production values as starting points. A pick-up group of dancers may have been a better choice for this project. It gives me no pleasure to report that it is the least appropriate use of Mozart’s Requiem that I could imagine.
How grateful we are then for some real choreography that claims space and gives dancers the moves they need to show the complexity and ambiguity, the serious, the strong and the playful options available to those of us who want to recognise life celebrated in dance. Both Kylián works, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze, would have pleased Mozart no end, alive as they are with vitality and madcap, laced with wicked wit and the spin of genius. Every image and every move is deliciously carved and carried, suggestive and sensual, teeming with nuances from the choreographer’s rich train of thought.
Both these dances, performed by Nederlands Dans Theater, are on YouTube, with Stephan Zeromsky, who has so ably staged the works here, in that cast. The fact that you can watch on Youtube is no reason to stay away from a live performance. But it does give you and me the real and rare chance to study the works in all the depth and detail that repeat viewings allow. Kylián’s personal website also offers much insight into his remarkable career, prolific choreography, and his haunting muse.
I also welcomed several memories that this season triggered—for starters, during Ashley Killar’s term here, probably the definitive Balanchine work ever seen in this country, Agon, exquisitely performed by Ou Lu and Amy Hollingsworth. Pure Balanchine at his best.
Another treasured memory is Harry Haythorne’s beautiful staging of Balanchine’s Serenade on the New Zealand School of Dance in 1984. (It is a little known but fascinating fact that Haythorne was the first person to script Serenade into Laban Notation. The original score held in the Dance Notation Bureau in New York carries his signature, H.H., in the bottom corner. Dance history is a mercurial creature).
None of us is likely to forget Kylián’s masterwork Soldatenmis/Soldiers’ Mass, to Martinu’s Mass of the Unknown Soldier, which has been twice so brilliantly staged by RNZB, during Matz Skoog’s and again during Francesco Ventriglia’s directorates. The work throbs with the urgency and pain and horror and courage required in battle. It demands extraordinary stamina. Every male dancer in the company is cast. If one injures there is no recourse but to bring in the strongest female dancer in the company to replace him. In the first season that was Pieter Symonds. I wrote at the time this was the night Joan of Arc came to town—andPieter has used that epithet in her cv ever since. In the most recent season, another male dancer injured, and Laura Saxon-Jones was brought in to replace him. I wrote then that Joan of Arc had returned to town. Laura’s fine dancing, and her own spunky choreography that we have seen in two of the Harry Haythorne award seasons, are much missed from the company’s ranks.
Back to 1991 and there was something!—the full-length Wolfgang Amadeus, the life and work of the composer, choreographed by Gray Veredon, combining story, drama, poetry, comedy and heartbreak. RNZB seasons were longer then, spanning two weeks, so we had more chance for repeat viewings. The entire celebratory work was accompanied by live orchestra, and the Requiem sung by live choir, with singers crowded into the boxes to the sides of the stalls and circle levels. Eric Languet danced Wolfgang. Jon Trimmer played his father, Leopold. Who could forget them? Dance history might be mercurial but it is also tidal, and never dies completely.
Recent worldwide weather events have seen unprecedented extremes in both directions. As we cool down into autumn in New Zealand, we could be mindful of the northern hemisphere’s rite of spring (loads of daffodils apparently, but still cold and wet). We might all be wondering about the proportion of human responsibility for climate change, and what we, each and together, can do about it. So what’s that got to do with dancing? Well, nothing and everything. It’s a global globe that’s turning and we’re all on it.
Recent remarks locally have stated that the New Zealand dance scene is so isolated from the rest of the world. Poppycock, I say, isolation is a state of mind and everywhere is isolated from somewhere. We are entitled to believe that the centre of the world is wherever we are on the day, and that size has nothing to do with it. But it is at the same time true that you sometimes want to see a dance that is not on in your town. What to do about that?
Read this website for a review of the recent retrospective of Graeme Murphy’s works by the Australian Ballet. Think about the issues involved in such retros, and follow the Comments with interest. This triggers memories of Murphy’s works for RNZBallet over the years (too few in my estimation). Thought-provoking.
Read Joan Acocella’s insightful writings on dance in the New Yorker. Her recent pieces on Arthur Mitchell, Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky give rich commentary on dance in America at its best. Acocella is for me the most lucid dance writer in the English language and I hang on her words. You can catch four articles per month in the New Yorker online, or inherit copies from your kind subscribing friends.
Watch Sky Arts television channel’s current broadcast of the 90 minute programme of Patricia Brown’s work. I’d seen photos of her dancers for years but never watched them in motion. Now I have. Intriguing.
Be glad of Arts Festivals. Both Wellington and Auckland have just ended their seasons, plus Fringes, with a remarkable range of dance events on offer that have brought us great works, still warm and wet, from far afield, as well as new local work with much cause to celebrate. RNZBallet’s The Piano:the ballet (see review below); English National Ballet’s Giselle (s.r.b.); Crystal Pite’s and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit (s.r.b.); Michael Parmenter’s Orpheus; Malia Johnston’s Rushes; and the all time standout for me in Michael Keegan Dolan’s Swan Lake Loch na hEala (already reviewed on this website at this link)
In recent years Auckland has staged a festival in the alternate years to Wellington’s longer-established biennial, and the airlines were happy as folk winged their way north or south. That worked fine. Now however Auckland has made theirs an annual festival, to run concurrently with Wellington’s, and that does not work fine. I was conscious of a number of friends who watched wistfully as I flew to Auckland for English National Ballet’s Giselle. A number of other friends did go north too but, in doing so, missed out on the remarkable Betroffenheit back here in Wellington. I fear that the two festivals going up against each other across the same three weeks (they claim to co-ordinate and share events, but they do not…) will cause over time a weakening of both programs, and confuse the punters. Australia staggers her cities’ festival seasons better than we do, which makes sense, and also keeps the airlines happy.
I had to fly back to Auckland within the same week for the legendary percussion ensemble, From Scratch, headed by Philip Dadson. (I had danced to their Drumwheel in performances at the National Art Gallery in 1979. Now the striking Carol Brown dances to the same work. Interesting contrasts). My daughter was also involved in a collaboration with From Scratch at the breathtaking Te Uru gallery complex in Titirangi, west Auckland, the great Manukau harbour sprawling below the rooftop venue, in the treetops, at sunset … the first site specific performance of the many I have attended that has ever really thrilled me.
Back in Wellington The Flamenco Project, by Isabel Rivera Cuenca from Barcelona, was the Fringe Festival’s triumph, a strong and spirited yet subtly playful offering of the best of southern Spain—with return visits to New Zealand on offer. The fabulous Cuba Dupa street festival, as fringe to the Fringe, just squeezed in before the end of a golden summer. Included was a riveting Javanese wayang kulit shadow puppet show by dhalang Joko Susilo, effortlessly accompanied by the local Gamelan Padhang Moncar. The astonishingly dance-like arm movements of the puppets was a revelation of this dhalang’s expertise.
Withdrawal from Festival mania? Nah, no time for the blues. Within a day a local cinema was screening Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale by Christopher Wheeldon in live telecast. A knockout. The Bernstein Project and Manon are coming hard on its heels. Isolated in New Zealand? If you say so, but I don’t.
The Royal New Zealand Ballet has just completed the national tour of The Piano: the ballet, which saw seasons in both Wellington and Auckland festivals then to eight? cities nationwide. Following inspiration of Jane Campion’s celebrated film from 1980s, the ballet is choreographed by Jiri Bubenicek, in collaboration with his brother Otto on music and design.
The work was originally commissioned for RNZB by Francesco Ventriglia, and extended into two acts from its beginnings as a one-act for Dortmund Ballet in 2014.
(very interesting to read their online promo of that production. I guess isolation works in a variety of ways)…
Specifically for Ballet Dortmund he [Bubenicek] has arranged his newest creation, inspired by Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film The Piano. He tells the story of a mute woman living in Australia in the 19th century, at the outpost of civilization. In the midst of brutal plantation owners and disenfranchised aborigines she can only express herself through the piano. Together with the film’s Australian director, Jiří and Otto Bubeníček sought the original setting of the film to find out what art can be for people who find themselves in extreme situations—everything.
RNZB’s was a major project that has attracted nationwide accolades for the production, and rightly praising outstanding performances by Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews, among others in alternate casts. The role of the child was a fabulous opportunity for a juvenile player, making far more dramatic demands than the usual cute child dancer cast in many a ballet you and I have seen. (see theatreview, for links to a number of reviews of the production).
The mise en scene of New Zealand land and seascapes was impressive, monumental even, yet did not overpower the danced story. The music excerpts were sourced from numerous different works by numerous different composers, and some (well, me anyway) found that problematic, sensing an opportunity missed by the Company not to have commissioned a New Zealand composer to produce a through-composed score (such as Gareth Farr? John Psathas? There are also other composers who could have managed it, and the cost would not be astronomical alongside the rights to composers, recording companies and performers that must have been required). If that were in place (and it still could be) the work could tour Europe and show the world we’re the best little ballet company on Earth. As it stands the music does not cumulatively and fully support the shift between the picaresque Act One and the emotional depths of Act Two. Some colleagues found a familiar music excerpt distracting when they heard it, wondering (‘Oh, I know that piece so well … whatever is it?. Oh whoops, he’s fetched an axe … what’s he going to do with it now?’)
The ballet has raised other interesting issues along the way, prominently the depiction of Maori in the choreography. Even though respected Maori choreographer, Moss Paterson, was brought in to oversee that dimension, a raft of patronising Pakeha nevertheless commented that the performance of haka should not be left to ‘European’ dancers, and that Maori dancers should themselves be included in the cast instead. One could reply that the challenge to professional dancers in the theatre is to portray ‘other’ in almost every role they take. They may not particularly identify with a repressed and violent husband, a reluctant or duplicit lover, or specially feel like a Cupid or Tinkerbell, a sylphide, or Te Rauparaha, but that’s their trade and the best of them do it with aplomb … witness Abigail Boyle, witness Paul Mathews (whose internalised haka of fury upon discovering he had been cuckolded crosses all ethnic divides) and witness Luke Cooper, Maori dancer in RNZB.
Depiction of Maori in RNZB repertoire over the years has not happened often. Ihi Frenzy, with Te Matarae I Orehu, back in Matz Skoog’s day as director, was one.
(The real strength of that project was to take company to the marae in Rotorua for an immersion orientation…then to tour both ensembles nationwide. By the end of that tour, RNZB dancers were indistinguishable from Maori at the haka finale). The indelible memory for me however is from Gray Veredon’s Tell me a Tale, (during Harry Haythorne’s directorate) when Warren Douglas played the Maori brother, who warned the Pakeha settler coming ashore that his sister would not be available as a girlfriend, and confirmed that in haka. End of story. We could well see that work again—Jon Trimmer, Kerry-Anne Gilberd and Kim Broad who played the lead roles are all still around and could help Gray Veredon with re-staging. Design by Kristian Fredrikson was one of his best, and the choreography suited our company extremely well.
The choreography of The Piano follows Campion’s film in great and faithful detail, including the spirited caricature of the preacher and local congregation of early settlers. I found it a good idea to watch the film again, in tandem with this ballet—and you couldn’t help but notice that the choreographed portrayal of Maori was immensely more successful than the film’s very peculiar treatment of ‘the natives’ who lay around mostly swathed in blankets and draped in mangrove trees.
Having said that, I also noted that I very much preferred the film’s shape-shifting epilogue to the ballet’s ambiguous ‘ending’. Plays in the theatre have endings. The ballet would be stronger for having one too. Then it could really take Europe by storm. There’s the wero to you.