Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: Art Atelier Photography

2018—Australian Dance Year in Retrospect

In Canberra

Below is a slightly expanded version of my year-ender for The Canberra Times published as ‘State of dance impressive and varied’ on 24 December 2018. I should add that The Canberra Times‘ arts writers/reviewers are asked to choose five productions only for their year-ender story.

Looking back at 2018 I find, thankfully, that I don’t have to complain too much about the state of dance in the ACT. In 2018, in addition to work from a variety of local companies and project-based groups, dance audiences in Canberra were treated to visits from the Australian Ballet, the Australian Ballet School, Australian Dance Theatre, Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Farm and Sydney Dance Company. Most performances were in traditional venues, but one or two were site specific (notably Australian Dance Party’s production of Energeia performed at the Mount Majura Solar Farm) and, in addition, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia offered their venues for dance performances. Beyond performance, it was exceptional news that Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, had agreed to become a patron of QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth organisation. In a casual conversation with me he mentioned that he had always been impressed with those ex-QL2 dancers who had gone on to perform with Sydney Dance Company and also that he regretted that he had not had a strong mentor himself during his early training. Both thoughts fed into his decision to take on the role of patron.

I have arranged my top five events chronologically according to the month in which they were performed.

RED. Liz Lea Productions

In March Liz Lea presented RED, a work that won her a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award later in the year. It was a powerful, courageous, autobiographical work that touched on Lea’s struggle throughout her career with endometriosis. But beyond that it was distinguished by outstanding choreography from four creators, all of whom highlighted Lea’s particular strengths as a dancer. In addition to Lea herself, choreographic input came from Vicki van Hout, Virginia Ferris and Martin del Amo. There was also stunning lighting by Karen Norris; a range of film clips that added context throughout; and strong dramaturgy by Brian Lucas, which gave coherence and clarity to the overall concept. It was a highly theatrical show, which also presented a very human, very moving message.

The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre

In June Australian Dance Theatre returned to the national capital after an absence of more than a decade. The Beginning of Nature, choreographed by artistic director Garry Stewart, focused on the varied rhythms of nature. It was compelling and engrossing to watch. The dancers seemed to defy gravity at times and their extreme physicality was breathtaking. But the work was also an outstanding example of collaboration between Stewart, his dancers, an indigenous consultant familiar with the almost-extinct Kaurna language of the Adelaide Hills, and composer Brendan Woithe, who created a remarkable score played live onstage by a string quartet.

Cockfight. The Farm

The Farm, featuring performers Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson, arrived In September with Cockfight. Set in an office situation, and dealing with interpersonal relations within that environment, Cockfight was an exceptional example of physical theatre. Both Webber and Thomson gave riveting performances and the work presented a wide range of ideas and concepts, some filled with psychological drama, others overflowing with humour. It was totally absorbing from beginning to end.

Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in Cockfight. Photo:

Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in Cockfight. Photo: © Darcy Grant

World Superstars of Ballet Gala. Bravissimo Productions

This Canberra-only event early in October showcased a range of outstanding dancers from across the world in a program of solos and duets, mostly from well-known works from the international ballet repertoire. It belongs in the list of my dance picks for 2018 on the one hand because the artists showed us some spectacular dancing. But it also belongs here because Bravissimo Productions (a newly established Canberra-based production company) had the courage to take on the task of defying convention and certain ingrained ideas about Canberra, including the perceived notion that Canberra equals Parliament and the Public Service and little else, and the constant complaints about performing spaces in the city. Bravissimo brought superstars of the ballet world not to Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane, but to Canberra. The international stars that came were not the worn-out, about-to-retire dancers we so often see here from Russian ballet companies, but stars of today. I hope Bravissimo Productions can keep it up. Canberra is waiting.

MIST. Anca Frankenhaeuser and Kailin Yong

MIST was the standout performance of the year for me. It was one item in Canberra Dance Theatre’s 40th anniversary production Happiness is…, which took the stage in mid October. As a whole, Happiness is… was somewhat uneven in the quality of its choreography and performance, but MIST, listed as a duet in the form of a pas de deux between a dancer and a musician, was simply sensational. And it really was a pas de deux with violinist Kailin Yong moving around the stage, and even lying down at times as he played and improvised, and with dancer Anca Frankenhaeuser involving herself with his playing in a way that I have never seen anywhere before. With choreography by Stephanie Burridge, an ex-Canberran now living in Singapore, it also carried an underlying theme about relationships between people. It was an exceptional concept from Burridge, beautifully realised by Frankenhaeuser and Yong.

I hope we can keep moving forward in Canberra in 2019 with dance that is inclusive and collaborative, and also theatrically and intellectually satisfying. A varied program of dance in 2018 showed us the possibilities.

Beyond Canberra

I had the good fortune to see quite a lot of dance outside of Canberra including in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane as well as outside of Australia in London and, briefly, in Wellington, New Zealand. Leaving London and Wellington aside since I am focusing on dance seen in Australia, the standout show for me was the La Scala production of Don Quixote, staged in Brisbane as part of Queensland’s outstanding initiative, its International Series. Apart from some seriously beautiful dancing, especially from the corps de ballet who seemed to understand perfectly how to move in unison (even in counterpoint) and how to be aware of fellow dancers, I loved that extreme pantomime was left out. As I wrote in my review it was a treat to see a Don Quixote who actually presented himself as a quixotic person rather than a panto character.

I was also intrigued by Greg Horsman’s new take on La Bayadère for Queensland Ballet. Horsman set his version in India during the British occupation. The story was cleverly reimagined and beautifully redesigned by Gary Harris, yet it managed to retain the essence of the narrative and, in fact, the story was quite gripping as it sped along.

But for me the standout production/performance from outside Canberra was Alice Topp’s Aurum for the Australian Ballet and performed in their Verve season in Melbourne. It was filled with emotion from beginning to end, sometimes overwhelmingly so. In one section it had the audience so involved that all we could do was shout and cheer with excitement. Choreographically it was quite startling, moving as it did from surging, swooping movement to a final peaceful, but stunningly realised resolution. A real show-stopper.

May we have more great dance in 2019!

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2018

Featured image: Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: © Art Atelier Photography

Kailin Yong and Anca Frankenhaeuser in MIST. Photo: Art Atelier Photography

La Bayadère. Queensland Ballet

31 March 2018 (matinee), Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Queensland Ballet’s La Bayadère is not the Bayadère you may have seen before. Choreographer Greg Horsman has reimagined the old story and created a new narrative set in India at the time of the British raj. The change is clear immediately one enters the theatre where a striking front cloth from designer Gary Harris is in place. It features a head and shoulders portrait of a young Queen Victoria, set against a background of two opposing armies and a sketchy map of parts of India.

The love triangle between Solor, Nikiya the temple dancer, and Gamzatti, which we know from the Makarova version, remains. But Gamzatti is now Edith, daughter of the Governor General of India in the British era. Edith kills Nikiya, danced by Lina Kim at this performance, in a fit of jealous rage. But she does it with a dagger rather than a snake concealed in a basket. The opium dream—the Kingdom of the Shades—also remains but is better contextualised. The last act is suitably dramatic, but without the almighty crash of the temple. Instead Solor, in a drunken state after a boisterous wedding celebration, strangles Edith on their marriage bed and is then shot by Edith’s military supporters. The love of Solor and Nikiya continues in an apotheosis.

The story is told well, in fact it is quite gripping, edge-of-the-seat material most of the time. It makes so much more sense to a contemporary audience, despite the odd occasion where I had to wonder whether there was a slight (unnecessary) pantomime element to the portrayal of the British raj. I also wondered about the Indian references in the choreography but I was assured Horsman had consulted and researched.

Artists of Queensland Ballet in 'La Bayadere', 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Bayadère, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

One of the best scenes to my mind was that in the opium den, which immediately preceded the drug-induced dream Solor has of the spirit(s) of Nikiya, which we know as the Kingdom of the Shades scene. The den was filled with an assortment of drug dealers and half-drugged customers, including Solor. It set the scene so well for what followed. We returned to the den as the dream of Solor faded and we watched as he was hunted down, found in the den (after efforts by the dealers to hide him failed) and brought back to the reality of his impending marriage to Edith. The golden full moon and star cloth of Harris’ set was instantly arresting and his tutus for the Shades—a half tutu with a choli-style top—made brilliant sense.

Neneka Yoshida in 'La Bayadere', Queensland Ballet, 2018. . Photo: © David Kelly

Neneka Yoshida in La Bayadère, Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

The very best dancing on this occasion came from one of the newest members of Queensland Ballet, Suguru Otsuka, as the leading temple dancer in the final act. Choreographically his solo demanded some spectacular turns and leaps and was set so that the dancer appeared to be an Indian statue (of perhaps a Shiva figure) come to life. Otsuka gave a courageous, breathtaking performance and is definitely a dancer to watch.

I missed some of the dancing in the wedding scene because my attention was drawn frequently to the increasing drunkenness of Solor, who was danced by Kohei Iwamoto. While he danced and partnered well throughout the ballet, my eyes were so often on his acting at this stage as he dismissed advances by Edith and was consumed with his own issues.

This Bayadère was inspirational especially in the way the story was cleverly reimagined and so beautifully redesigned, but yet retained the essence of the storyline. I was at a performance where live music was not available but nevertheless, from the recording made by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, it was clear that musical director Nigel Gaynor had done a great job with the score, adding Indian overtones by changing a major key to a minor one and by including some non-Western instruments.

The performance I attended also marked the last performance in a major role by company soloist Teri Crilly who is retiring from dancing and taking an administrative position with Queensland Ballet. She danced Edith at this performance and at the end of the show was farewelled onstage by Li Cunxin and the cast, and was given an exceptional ovation by the audience.

Michelle Potter, 2 April 2018

Featured image: Artists of Queensland Ballet in La Bayadère, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

NOTE: Below is an image of Gary Harris’ frontcloth, taken from the program (and cropped slightly). This is not an official media image but the cloth was too striking to leave out.

Front cloth for La Bayadere, Queensland Ballet 2018. Design Gary Harris

The three 'Ghost Figures' from 'Ghost Dances'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

RAW. A triple bill from Queensland Ballet

17 March 2017, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

One of the most refreshing aspects of Queensland Ballet’s current vision is contained in its repertoire. If Li Cunxin can’t always give us a live musical accompaniment, as was the case with the RAW program, he will always present us, especially in a triple bill, with a program that is provocative or filled with choreography that demands attention in some way.

RAW began with Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land, a work made in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of World War I. It was created on English National Ballet and my review of ENB’s production is at this link. The work was very nicely staged on Queensland Ballet by Yohei Sasaki, ENB’s repetiteur. It is a beautifully conceived, designed, lit, and choreographed work, and all the best qualities I recall from my previous experience had transferred well to Queensland Ballet.

This time, with the benefit of having seen the work already, I particularly noticed the group sections from both men and women. I was especially admiring of the swirling, breathtaking lifts, often with airborne elements, during a pas de six between three of the women and their partners; the subsequent pas de deux each of the pairs then executed; and the subtle and moving way the women parted from their men at the end of each pas de deux.

Victor Estevez and Mia Heathcote in 'No Man's Land'. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Victor Estevez and Mia Heathcote in a pas de deux from No Man’s Land. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

There was also more emotion than I remembered from the previous occasion in the way the women sat, at times, on the raised area of the set as the men engaged in war activities on the lower space. It was the remarkable Mia Heathcote who drew my attention to this quietly dramatic aspect of the work. There she sat, scrunched over, feeling the pain throughout her body, and making me feel the pain as well.

If No Man’s Land opened the program with a flourish, Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances closed it with equal strength. It probably has extra resonance for those of a certain age who recall the once ubiquitous sound of the haunting music of the Andes, and Chile in particular, played by Inti-Illimani. Ghost Dances, made by Bruce originally in 1981, is set to this music. But this is not to detract from the work’s inherent political message concerning the effects of political coups on the population of the country involved, specifically in this case the 1973 coup d’état in which Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile.

Sophie Zoricic and Liam Geck in Ghost Dances. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Bruce’s choreography is somewhat eccentric, although it fits the music beautifully. And, to their credit, the dancers of Queensland Ballet managed with aplomb the tilts and bends of the body and sometimes the head and neck, the upturned feet, and the ever-flowing movement. The three ghost figures wove their way, insidiously, into the popular dancing. Their presence was powerful and meaningful and the exit of the ‘common folk’ at the end, leaving the ghost figures alone on stage, was stark but expected.

In between these two moving and powerful works was Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto, which Horsman has been working on in stages over a number of years. There were some outstanding technical fireworks, especially in the third movement with very fast chaîné turns from all involved, and some spectacular jumps as well. But the opening movement reminded me rather too much of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room as the dancers disappeared into upstage fog, and I longed for more fluidity in the choreography.

Yanela Pinera in 'Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: David Kelly

Yanela Piñera in Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2017. Photo: © David Kelly

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2017

Featured image: The three ‘Ghost Figures’ from Ghost Dances, Queensland Ballet. Photo: © David Kelly

Dance diary. April 2016

  • 10,000 Miles: Quantum Leap and YDance

17 April 2016, the Q, Performing Arts Centre, Queanbeyan

In April Canberra’s youth dance company, Quantum Leap, and YDance, the National Youth Dance Company of Scotland based in Glasgow, joined forces for a once-only performance of a triple bill, 10,000 Miles. The performance was part of a wider program, ‘meetup’, involving youth dance companies from Melbourne and various parts of New South Wales, as well as Quantum Leap and YDance. For 10,000 Miles the three works on show were Act of Contact by Sara Black showcasing the Canberra dancers; Maelstrom by Anna Kenrick, artistic director of the Scottish company, which was performed by the Scottish dancers; and Landing Patterns, a piece choreographed jointly by Kenrick and Ruth Osborne, artistic director of Quantum Leap, featuring dancers from both companies.

Act of Contact, QL2, 2016 Photo: Lorna Sim

Sara Black’s Act of Contact. Quantum Leap, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Anna Kenrick's 'Maelstrom'. NYDCS, 2016. Photo: Lorna Sim

Anna Kenrick’s Maelstrom. YDance, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

It was an impressive show and a terrific piece of cultural contact. Apart from the strong dancing from both companies, I admired the lighting of Maelstrom, a very effective design of geometric patterns from Simon Gane.

  • Greg Horsman

In April I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Horsman, ballet master and director of artistic operations at Queensland Ballet, for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. The interview is open to all and has been catalogued as TRC 6774. Ongoing Federal Government cutbacks make it unlikely, however, that it will go online for a little while yet. But it can be accessed by contacting the oral history and folklore section of NLA. The NLA also holds a small but excellent collection of photographs of Horsman during his time with the Australian Ballet, taken by Don McMurdo.

  • Robert Helpmann: forthcoming talk

Dance Week 2016 will be in full swing when this post goes live. I will be giving a talk at the National Film and Sound Archive as part of the ACT festivities. Called ‘Helpmann uncovered’ it will look at the research I have been doing over the past year or so on certain little known aspects of Helpmann’s activities. Further details at this link.

Robert Helpmann,1965. Photo: Walter Stringer

Robert Helpmann, 1965. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

  • William Yang

During April I went to see William Yang’s Blood Links, a solo show in which Yang, well-known photographer, delivered a monologue, accompanied by projections showing his extended family, in a moving search to understand his Chinese-Australian identity. While his dance photographs did not appear in this show (understandably), I was reminded of the work he did with Jim Sharman for the Adelaide Festival in 1982 when he photographed Pina Bausch. I recall with pleasure the small exhibition of this work that was displayed as part of Sydney’s now defunct festival, Spring Dance, in 2011. I also found a YouTube link in which Yang discusses his work with Bausch and that beautiful exhibition.

  • Press for April

‘Dance work challenges the senses.’ Review of FACES by James Batchelor and collaborators. The Canberra Times, 9 April 2016, p. ARTS 17. Online version.

‘Prickly attitude.’Preview of Sydney Dance Company’s CounterMove season. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 30 April 2016, pp. 8–9. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2016

Featured image: Greg Horsman, Ballet Master and Director of Artistic Operations Queensland Ballet

The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet

24 October 2015 (matinee), Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

After my Australian Ballet brush with Beauty I was longing to see another production and so took a flying visit to Brisbane to see what Greg Horsman had done with this classic of the ballet repertoire. Horsman’s Sleeping Beauty was originally made for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011 and is being performed for the first time in Australia by Queensland Ballet. I did not see the international stars who have been engaged as special guests for the season, which did not bother me as it was the production that particularly interested me.

The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet's 'Sleeping Beauty', 2015

The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty, 2015

Horsman has made some small changes to the story, some of which may well be as a result of working with a medium-sized company in both New Zealand and Queensland. Perhaps the most startling change is that Catalabutte, assistant to the King, and Catalabutte’s wife, Lady Florine, are cats. This at first is a shock. But they are so beautifully, and at times humorously, worked into the story—their dance together in the last act takes the place of Puss and Boots and the White Cat—that suspending disbelief is easy. Jack Lister as Catalabutte made a strong impression throughout, but especially as he pursued the Bluebird in the wedding scene.

There is also quite a lot of mime as explanation of the story. This is not an innovation, of course, but unless well done mime passages tend to get lost in translation as it were. The dancers of Queensland Ballet have, however, been well coached in this aspect of the ballet and they have an expansive quality to their gestures. Everything is perfectly clear. Nothing drags along.

The dancing itself had some ups and downs. The corps de ballet worked nicely together for the most part and Teri Crilly and Camilo Ramos stood out as the lead couple in what is usually the Garland Dance (although in this production there were no garlands). Ramos, who has a wonderful stage presence as well as a stellar technique, also danced strongly as one of the Prince’s friends in Act II. The fairies, too, danced nicely throughout, although my eyes kept turning to the Orange Fairy of Grace danced by Lisa Edwards. I loved the charm with which she performed and the delicious fluidity of her movement. She shone.

I found Yalenda Piñera, Queensland Ballet’s 2015 guest principal artist, very engaging as Aurora. Piñera handled the rose adagio and the final grand pas de deux with strength and attack, but what really stood out was her joyful presence throughout. She involved herself in everything, and with everyone. She smiled, made eye contact, and used her head and arms beautifully. It was a real pleasure watching her.

Hao Bin as the Prince did not, however, always live up to my expectations. I enjoyed his acting at the start of Act II where he kept himself apart from his friends in the forest as he pondered the lack of love in his life. But once he started dancing I found him a little wooden. I wished he would move his upper body with more fluidity and use his feet more strongly.

Gary Harris’ sets are gorgeous. His interiors recall Gothic architecture with its emphasis on soaring space; his exteriors are airy, beautiful places in which the story can unfold; and the final scene with its starry background provides an especially elegant setting for the wedding of Aurora and the Prince. His work was evocatively lit by Jon Buswell.

The jarring elements for me in Harris’ design input were the costumes for the two Bluebirds, although perhaps it was the very heavy eye make-up they wore that made the costumes seem over the top compard with the general elegance of the last scene. Teri Crilly was a lovely female bluebird. Whether listening, fluttering her hands, or simply executing a step, everything was performed cleanly and with great style. Her partner, Zhi Fang, seemed very nervous and so did not really show himself to advantage.

Nigel Gaynor conducted a vibrant Queensland Symphony Orchestra where tempi, volume and orchestral colour contributed to the unfolding of the story and to the development of the characters in the ballet. The orchestra added an extra emotional layer to the performance and it was such a pleasure to be hearing this kind of collaboration between music and dance. From 2016 Gaynor will take up the position of principal conductor and music director of Queensland Ballet.

I came away from this Queensland Ballet performance loving the passion that the dancers put into their performance, despite the odd stumble or other mishap. But most of all I came away thrilled that the collaborative elements of music and design were working to enhance the dance, rather than ignoring it or trying to outdo it.

Michelle Potter, 25 October 2015