Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Image supplied (no photographer named)

2018—New Zealand Dance Year in Retrospect

by Jennifer Shennan

As New Year approaches I like to think back over Old Year and, without consulting notes, check what dance highlights remember themselves.

During 2018 we have lost four treasured and hugely important people from our dance / arts community.

Nigel Boyes, dearest friend and colleague to so many dancers, particularly members of Royal New Zealand Ballet where he was office manager and archivist for many years, and was also a member of prominent Wellington choirs, died in July. (His obituary is on this website).

Sue Paterson, legendary force in the arts, held a sequence of important positions in dance management over decades—at Limbs Dance Company, at Creative New Zealand, at RNZB, as director of the International Arts Festival—and was a generous member of many governing boards. (Her obituary is online at stuff.co.nz).

June Greenhalgh, wife of Russell Kerr who was a stalwart pillar of ballet history in New Zealand, was a foundation member of England’s Festival Ballet. She performed here in the 1959 – 60 season of New Zealand Ballet, but her abiding contribution was as the lifetime companion to Russell. (Her obituary is on this website).

Douglas Wright, giant of New Zealand dance makers, hugely prolific choreographer and indelibly memorable dancer, was rehearsing his last choreography, M-Nod, from the hospice. He was an artist without peer in this country—working also in literature and in visual arts. (A review of M_Nod, and an obituary, are on this website).

To all four of these dear friends and colleagues – Valete. Requiescant in pace,

Haere, haere atu.

———-

In February we were delighted by the spirited response to the inaugural session in the series of the Russell Kerr Lecture in Ballet & Related Arts, held at Victoria University. The lecture, on Kristian Fredrikson’s life and work in theatre design, was delivered by Dr. Michelle Potter who has since continued work on her biography of Kristian which is now heading towards publication. The occasion also included the performance of Loughlan Prior’s choreography, Lark, with Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in the cast, and Hamish Robb accompanying on piano.

A trip to Auckland’s Arts Festival was warranted to see Akram Khan’s dramatic and atmospheric production Giselle performed by English National Ballet. Tamara Rojo, the young artistic director and manager of this company, is clearly a leader of intelligent and visionary force. It’s always edifying to check the New Zealand involvement in the history of any dance company and there are several prominent soloist careers to note of New Zealand dancers who performed with English National Ballet, formerly Festival Ballet—Russell Kerr, Anne Rowse, Loma Rogers, Donald McAlpine, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them.

In Wellington’s International Arts Festival, the hugely memorable Loch na hEala/Swan Lake by Michael Keegan-Dolan (of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre fame) had the stellar Alex Leonhartsberger in the lead male role. Alex has previously danced in Douglas Wright productions and it was a renewed thrill to see him in this season. Keegan-Dolan’s work has interested me intensely for some years and I rate him, with Lin Hwai Min and Douglas Wright, as the three choreographers who have kept my world turning for decades. An intriguing new project, under the auspices of this Festival, will next year have Keegan-Dolan in residence here, developing a new work and offering a public involvement for those interested to trace that process.

Betroffenheit, by luminary Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, in collaboration with Jonathan Young, was another highlight of this Festival season. Its theme explored the reactions and after-effects of an unspecified catastrophic event, and suited well the mood of disastrous developments we see in current world affairs, as well as referencing tragedy at a personal level. It proved a remarkable and mature work of theatre.

Closer to home we saw the remarkable season of Meremere by Rodney Bell. This has rightly proved an award winning choreography and performance, produced under the auspices of Malia Johnston’s MOTH (Movement of the Human). Rodney lives and works in a wheelchair, but his mana and charisma in both his life and his dance are the operatives. It takes about five minutes to forget the fact that he’s using a wheelchair. His stories are what matter. Sarah Foster Sproull also made Drift, for Rodney and a female dancer, resulting in a miraculous menuet for our time.

The second half of RNZB’s Dancing to Mozart—in two works by Jiri Kylian—revealed the calibre of both choreography and performance we have been accustomed to from our national ballet company. At New Zealand School of Dance graduation season, two works After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon, and Wicked Fish by Cloudgate choreographer, Huang Yi, proved outstanding. The time-honoured question from Irish poet W B Yeats, ‘O body swayed to music, o brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?’ always comes to mind when choreography and performance are equally inspirational. There’s a causal connection of course, but it’s a symbiotic and reflexive one between dancer and dance.

Tempo Dance Festival billed Between Two—with works by Kelly Nash and by Douglas Wright. That season, reviewed on this website, is remembered as a most poignantly crafted, perfectly balanced program with birth and death book-ending the life between. No more fitting tribute to Douglas Wright’s astonishing body of work could be imagined. I do not expect to see again anything like this multi-talented artist who was so resolute in communicating his vision. There was a heartfelt memorial service held in his favourite Cornwall Park in Auckland, and then gatherings at both Nga Taonga Film Archive and City Art Gallery in Wellington, to hear tributes and watch fine films of Wright’s work, including the stunning documentary, Haunting Douglas, made by Leanne Pooley.

Many were very sorry that Anton Carter’s contract as director of DANZ, the national networking agency, was ended, since he had been a stalwart and popular supporter of dance events and individuals across many different forms and communities. Although now working at Museums Wellington, he continues to attend performances and that is the kind of loyal support, outside the call of duty, that is so appreciated by dance practitioners.

The news is recently announced that Lucy Marinkovich, outstanding dancer/choreographer working independently on projects with her partner and colleague musician, Lucien Johnson, are the joint winners of the Harriet Friedlander award which gives them $100,000 to reside in New York. When asked ‘How long will you stay there?’ they answer ‘Till the money runs out’. I personally and rather selfishly hope they do not get offered something they can’t refuse since I want to continue seeing their fresh and invigorating dance work here. They have wit and style and ideas, together with all the skills needed to bring dance and music alongside each other where they belong. More of that is needed for all our sakes.

In the books department, Marianne Schultz’ history of Limbs Dance Company—Dance for the People— was welcome (see my review in New Zealand Books, December 2018), as also was the memoir of Sir Jon Trimmer—Why Dance ? by Jon with Roger Booth (my review of that is on DANZ website).

As I write this retrospective I am still happily high from last night’s astonishing Indian dance event—the arangetram, or graduation recital, of Leeshma Srirankanathan, student of Sri Vivek Kinra, of Mudra dance school and academy. This was a two hour wonder of solo performing by an extremely talented 18 year old dancer, and the 42nd arangetram directed by Kinra in his 30 years as a master teacher here in Wellington. Leeshma’s Hindu father and Catholic mother were each honoured in the opening prayers and puja of this event. A lesson of peace and tolerance to the world I reckon, if only the world would listen.

We are anticipating the second Russell Kerr lecture in Ballet & Related Arts which will be delivered on Sunday 10 February, on the topic of Russian Ballet companies that visited Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and 1939. It will be delivered at Victoria University of Wellington by Dr. Ian Lochhead, dance critic for The Press, Christchurch. All are welcome, rsvp for further details to jennifershennan@xtra.co.nz

Happy New Year to all readers, and my thanks to Michelle Potter for hosting this website so generously.

Jennifer Shennan, 30 December 2018

Featured image: Leeshma Srirankanathan during her arangetram, Wellington 2018. Photo: © Buskar

Gayatri Lakshmanan and Vivek Kinra, Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington

A little corner of India in Wellington

Ever since Vivek Kinra began teaching Bharata Natyam classical dance in Wellington in 1990, there has been a little corner here, an enclave of India, brought close. His commitment to highest standards and consistent discipline is familiar from all dance training, but the way Kinra has single-handedly built up his academy for the daughters of Indian families here to study to the same level and standard that would be available to them back in India, is remarkable.

Over the years, there have been 27 public seasons of original choreography performed by Mudra Dance Company, there have been 40 arengetram or solo graduation recitals each of several hours duration, and the number of pupils attending classes over the years would be close to 2250. At least as impressive as these numbers is the fact that Kinra can probably tell you the names of them all without having to look up any records. The incisive mind and indefatigable memory of an Indian dancer is a source of wonder, and it is heartening to know that Kinra’s work here has been recognised when he was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in the 2010 Queen’s Birthday honors for his ‘huge contribution to the New Zealand dance scene’. In February 2015 he received the Absolutely Positively Wellingtonian Award for his ‘outstanding contribution to Wellington through his work with Indian classical dance’.

Krishnaveni Lakshmanan was one of Kinra’s main teachers at the renowned Kalakshetra School in Chennai where he trained full-time from 1982 to 1987. Her daughter, Gayatri, and Vivek have been close colleagues since their student days, and she has visited New Zealand four times as a guest teacher at Mudra Dance Academy, and to act as artistic associate in the preparation of choreography and related arts for Mudra productions. Gayatri has performed in three productions in New Zealand with Kinra.

I watched Gayatri teach a number of classes at the junior and senior levels, and also spoke with her at length. (I am fortunate to be currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at VUW, profiling three dance communities in Wellington—free-lance ballet artists, the dancers at Mudra, and the Tokelau community dance group at Te Umiuminga in Naenae).

Gayatri instructed the pupils, ‘The little boy Krishna has long black curly hair—you show that by this gesture—not just wavy hair, but truly curly locks—lit from behind by a silver moon, a new moon, giving him a natural halo—quite different from a full bright moon that would be impossible to look at. He is an adorable little boy playing about. Of course you are going to fall in love with him, and it’s sure that we will too. You have to show us these things in the way you dance…’ I remark later that portraying the soft light of a crescent moon as opposed to a full moon is a sophisticated concept for young students to master. She replies, ‘Well, if dancing was so easy we would all be somewhere else.’ True.

Gayatri Lakshmanan teaching a junior class,. Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington 2018

Gayatri Lakshmanan teaching a junior class. Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington 2018

‘Actually I don’t separate myself as a dancer from the dance itself. I’m lucky—I believe in Krishna so I can easily dance about him. But for my young students (Gayatri runs her own school in Chennai, where she has 75 pupils)—and these young ones here, many of them do not go to the temple, they possibly they do not believe in Krishna. So I have to encourage them to look inside themselves, to think about what similar qualities they do believe in, to portray those instead.

I will tell you something. When I was 15 years old, I was with my Father—and he had an accident. It was just terrible. I stayed with him, but he died from that accident. After that, I hated the Gods, I did not want anything to do with them. I gave up dancing—left it altogether—for three and a half years, I did other studies. After that long time, I came back to dancing, and started preparing for a special performance where I was to portray a devotee of Krishna. I had to search for him, to make some sense of what I believed in, what those beliefs represented and how they related to my dancing. By degrees I found him. Now his spirit is in me, always close by.

My mother taught me “Do not look at the audience while performing, do not try to connect with them. You will distract yourself, and them as well. Concentrate on creating the character, the little child. You will disappear and the audience will see the child in your place”.’

To her students, ‘Now listen—Siva from many temples can be depicted in dancing in a number of different ways—this mudra, that pose, that movement—but if it is Siva as Nataraj from Chidambaram you are dancing about, there is only one way to show him. You must first depict the architecture of the temple, the circular points, your arms are there, your wrists are here, your fingers are thus. This is uniquely Siva as Nataraj, in Chidambaram.’

The temple at Chidambaram, a Hindu pilgrim centre in southern Tamil Nadu has all the original poses of classical dance depicted in sculpture. I was lucky to visit there in 1985, en route to Kerala for Kathakali studies, and can summon the impressions from that visit as though it was yesterday.

Kinra’s students are primary school pupils, or at college, or university … some work as school teachers, engineers, accountants, hospital theatre nurses. All are female, most are Indian, a few are pakeha. None of it is easy for anyone though they must strive to make it seem so. ‘My Mother says dancing is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration’, Gayatri reminds them. There is an electric atmosphere of concentration from every pupil in the studio.

I slip away after the class in awe of the 8 year old pupil I have just seen who is most exquisitely immersed in perfecting this demanding dancing. She hasn’t a clue how strikingly talented she is. She’s too busy portraying little Krishna stealing the butter without being caught. We will see more of this child, both of them.

Jennifer Shennan, June 2018, Wellington

Featured image: Gayatri Lakshmanan (right) and Vivek Kinra, Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington

Gayatari Lakshmanan and Vivek Kinra, Mudra Dance Academy, Wellington

 

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

Liz Lea in 'The Incense'. Photo: Lara Platman

‘India Meets.’ Various artists

20 August 2016, Belconnen Arts Centre, Canberra

India Meets received just one performance, which is a shame because it offered a truly fascinating and diverse experience of Indian and Indian-inspired dance. And it was a sold-out performance.

The evening was the brainchild of Liz Lea, who took the opportunity to put the show together to bring to a close a visit to Australia by British Indian dancer, Seeta Patel. Patel’s training is in the Bharata Natyam technique, a style which Lea has also studied and has performed throughout her career, so the focus of the evening was strongly on this style of movement. The live component of the show, for example, began with a solo, Ashtapadi No. 19, beautifully performed by Canberra-based exponent of Bharata Natyam, Jenni White, who danced to a mesmerising voice and percussion accompaniment by Mahesh Radhakrishnan.

For those in Canberra, however, who remember Kuchipudi dancer Padma Menon whose work was an integral part of the Canberra dance scene in the 1990s, it was a more than pleasurable experience to see Shivashtakam, performed by local Kuchipudi dancers Vanaja Dasika and Suhasini Sumithra. Their exuberant performance was a delight and offered insight into another South Indian technique.

Lea herself performed two pieces. The first, The Incense, was based on a 1906 work by American dancer Ruth St Denis whose interest in spirituality led her to look to India for inspiration to nurture her choreographic and performance career. In The Incense the dancer enacts an incense burning ritual and Lea’s reinterpretation was strongly performed. She held the attention with some fine lyrical movement and arresting poses. The second of Lea’s solos, When Tagore met Einstein, was based on a discussion that took place between poet Rabindranath Tagore and scientist Albert Einstein in 1930. This work perhaps needs to be seen more than once for its full value to be realised. It was hard to follow the extraordinary complexities of the conversation, which was used as a voice-over, and at the same time to focus on the choreography and its performance. Both pieces represented Lea’s interest in historical conjunctions between the cultures of East and West and also demonstrated, in particular with When Tagore met Einstein, her interest in using classical techniques in a contemporary manner.

Patel showed two solos. Patra Pravesham—Ananda Nartana Ganapatim, which concerned the elephant-headed god Ganesha, and which included a strong display of some of the technical aspects of Bharata Natyam; and Padam (Theruvil Vaaraano)—Raga Kamas, showing the expressionistic side of the style. Patel has a powerful sense of focus, meticulous attention to detail, and is an extraordinarily articulate dancer in the manner in which she moves through the choreography and the complex expressionistic language. Only the very best dancers, in whatever dance style they might espouse, have the ability to make their movement look as though it is completely at one with the body. Patel has it all and her performance was moving and utterly entrancing. She is an extraordinary dance artist.

Two short (very short) films were also part of the program. Both gave insight into Patel’s process and practice with one focusing on the work in which she has been engaged in Australia with contemporary choreographer Lina Limosani. For more on Patel’s Australian visit, including a link to the Limosani collaboration, see this link.

Michelle Potter, 22 August 2016

Featured image: Liz Lea in The Incense (detail), 2005. Photo: © Lara Platman

Liz Lea in 'The Incense'. Photo: Lara Platman

Seeta Patel in Australia

British Indian dancer, Seeta Patel, specialises in the Bharata Natyam style of classical Indian dance and she will be in Canberra in August to work on two projects. The first is a workshop with Canberra Dance Theatre’s GOLDS, the second a one-off performance at Belconnen Arts Centre. When I spoke to her, however, she was in Mt Gambier, South Australia, working with choreographer Lina Limosani on yet another project. Prior to that she spent time a week of intensive work in Sydney with Liz Lea.

Patel worked with Lea on refining her Bharata Natyam technique. Bharata Natyam was a major part of Lea’s practice for many years before she came to Australia but, since arriving in Canberra in 2009, Lea has had little opportunity to work on this aspect of her practice. She has instead concentrated on community dance, including the successful establishment of the GOLDS, and on other areas of her practice, including works made as a result of historical research, such as 120 Birds, which took the travels of Anna Pavlova as its starting point. Patel has re-energised her and brought her back to her Bharata Natyam practice.

‘With recent changes in my career,’ Lea says, ‘I have wanted to return to my own practice and to the Bharata Natyam style. The sessions with Seeta reawakened my deep love for the form, and my deep respect. It is so very difficult and challenging, mentally and physically. Working with Seeta was also quite an adventure. At the end of each day I could scarcely walk!’

Lea also acknowledges Patel’s strengths as a performer at the cutting edge of the growth and development of Bharata Natyam as a contemporary art form for today’s audiences. Patel has worked with several British contemporary dance companies, including DV8 and David Hughes Dance, which she says taught her to use her performance skills in a different way.

‘It is challenging to develop the ability to move across forms and to engage in cross-cultural work,’ Patel says. ‘It is a reminder not to reduce Bharata Natyam to something simplistic, but to find what is inherent in it.’

Patel’s work at Mt Gambier with choreographer Lina Limosani, who works in a contemporary style and who, in 2015, was awarded the Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship, highlights Patel’s interest in cross-cultural, cross-form work.  Her three week residency in Mt Gambier, supported by Country Arts South Australia, saw Patel not only conducting workshops but also working with Limosani and dramaturg Dagmara Gieysztor on a new contemporary work Not Today’s Yesterday.

Now Patel is working on ways to secure funding to bring Limosani and Gieysztor to England to complete the work they have started and have it tour globally.

For India Meets, the one-off performance at Belconnen Arts Centre on 20 August, Patel will perform a small solo drawing on elements of Bharata Natyam technique. It will be a ‘short work’, athough she suggests that her interest lies in the ‘long form with live music’. Her post-forum discussion may well draw out more on this topic. Lea will also perform, along with several other Canberra-based dance artists. Lea says her work will be informed by her intensive work with Patel but it will not be purely traditional Bharata Natyam.

‘I will be exploring,’ Lea says, ‘a conversation between Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore that took place in 1930. It relates to my ongoing exploration of previous relations between East and West, and my new enquiries into science and astronomy.’

For more information on India Meets follow this link. Tickets at eventbrite.

Michelle Potter, 10 August 2016

Dance diary. July 2016

  • Focus on Canberra

A one-off show, India Meets, is scheduled to take place at Belconnen Arts Centre on 20 August. It will feature Seeta Patel and Liz Lea along with other local dancers trained in a variety of Indian dance styles. Patel is in Australia with British Council support and, in addition to working on India Meets with Lea, has a number of other engagements, which I hope to feature in a future post.

In other Canberra news, a new dance company, Australian Dance Party, is about to be launched. It is led by Alison Plevey, a 2009 graduate of WAAPA who has been teaching and performing in Canberra since her graduation. ‘Out of the political capital comes Australian Dance Party: Canberra’s newest dance and performance company,’ she says. For its debut production, ADP dancers will collaborate with six artists from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra on Strings Attached at the Nishi Playhouse (a pop-up theatre), New Acton, on 25–27 August.

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  • Dancer to watch: Seu Kim

Seu Kim graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2015. A colleague sent me some online footage of him performing at Varna recently, where he was placed second. Watch it at this link. I love what shines through—honesty and passion in particular. And I love the lengthening of the neck and the emotion that radiates from that beautiful lift of the chest. Gorgeous.

Seu Kim at Varna, 2016

Kim identifies as Korean, although his family has lived in Japan for many years. He will join Royal Swedish Ballet as an apprentice dancer in August.

  • Oral history update

I had the pleasure in July or recording an oral history interview with Dr Elizabeth Dalman, founding director of Australian Dance Theatre and currently director of Mirramu Creative Arts Centre and Mirramu Dance Company. I first interviewed Dr Dalman for the National Library’s oral history program in 1994 so an update was definitely in order. Catalogue record at this link.

  • The Australian Ballet and CinemaLive

Dates are now available for the first three CinemaLive presentations of the Australian Ballet’s Fairytale Series, as mentioned in last month’s Dance diary. The Sleeping Beauty will screen on 8–9 October 2016, Cinderella on 12–13 November 2016, and Coppélia on 29–30 April 2017. Find a cinema near you at this link.

  • Press for July 2016

‘Triple treat shows off Bangarra’s finest.’ Preview of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s OUR land people storiesThe Canberra Times—Panorama, 23 July 2016, pp. 10–11. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2016

Featured image: Seeta Patel and Liz Lea, detail from the poster for India Meets

Raghav Handa in Tukre'. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

Raghav Handa’s Tukre’. Dance Bites 2015

1 May 2015 (matinee), Lennox Theatre Riverside, Parramatta

Tukre’ means ‘pieces’ in Hindi and Raghav Handa’s solo show was a series of moments from his life—memories, thoughts, recollections. These intimate pieces from his life as an Australian of Indian heritage were spread across about 50 minutes of dance, conversation and projections.

Raghav Handa in Tukre'. Photo © Gregory Lorenzutti

Raghav Handa in Tukre’. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Handa is a beautiful mover and his qualities as a dancer were obvious from the first moments of Tukre’. In semi-darkness Handa bent over a small candle and acted out the faceting techniques of his Indian forbears, who were jewellery makers. Every movement was precise and clearly articulated. And from then on, while the movements became more expansive, and changed in dynamics, there was always the same precision of movement. Throughout the performance his clearly defined musculature allowed us to see his exceptional capacity to isolate movement in individual parts of the body.

There were references in his choreography to his background in Kathak dance, especially when he changed into a long garment, with a full skirt and finely detailed top, and began to turn with the skirt swirling around his body. There were also Indian references in the electronic score from composer Lachlan Bostock, which maintained beautifully the Indian/Western links apparent throughout Tukre’.

At times Handa stopped dancing and picked up a microphone to talk to us about his life. He told us of how his Australian life interacted with his Indian heritage and we were privy to a conversation with his mother, via a film clip projected onto a scrim hanging in the performance space. At first this halt to the movement was a little jarring, but slowly it became clear that this was the structure of Tukre’. We were seeing Handa as a multi-faceted person and artist. There were some particularly affecting moments in his conversation with his mother as they discussed his sexual orientation and the passing on to him of a family heirloom. In addition there was footage of his mother meticulously folding a sari, which was also affecting as it reflected the precision that marked Handa’s choreography. As the work closed we saw Handa wearing the heirloom, an ornate, bejewelled necklace.

I found Tukre’ quite fascinating as a work that set out to cross boundaries between cultures. It didn’t always flow as smoothly as it might have, and I continued to feel a sense of annoyance whenever Handa picked up a microphone and changed the mood of the piece so abruptly. But I look forward to seeing more of Handa’s work, which seems to me to be quite unique on the current dance scene.

Michelle Potter, 3 May 2015

Featured image: Raghav Handa in Tukre’. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Raghav Handa in Tukre'. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

Chitrasena Dance Company

When the Chitrasena Dance Company first came to Australia it was 1963. I was still a student dancer and living in Sydney. The company performed at the Elizabethan Theatre, Newtown. It hadn’t yet burnt down (that happened in 1980), and in fact I remember the startling rake on that theatre’s stage. I had never performed on a raked stage when I danced there in some Ballet Australia performances. It was somewhat confronting stepping onto that stage for the first time, especially as no one had thought to tell me in advance.

The 1960s and 1970s were heady times in Sydney and elsewhere for visits from so-called ‘ethnic’ dance companies. Along with the Sri Lankans, the Georgians came, the Mexicans (I remember in particular the Yaqui Indian Deer Dance), the Spaniards (I saw a jota for the first time) and the Mekeo dancers from Papua New Guinea. Then some time later, when I started working in various capacities at the National Library in Canberra, I discovered the photographic collection of Walter Stringer. In fact I had the pleasure of helping the Library acquire that material. He, being a Melbourne resident, had photographed most of the folkloric companies I had seen in Sydney during their visits to his home city.

It has always been a pleasure to see those companies again when, or if, they have returned to Australia. So it was with the Chitrasena company when they made their 2015 visit. Below are two of Walter Stringer’s images from the 1963 visit.

Chitrasena musicians, 1963 Australian tour. Photo Walter Stringer
Chitrasena dancer, 1963 Australian tour. Photo Walter Stringer

Here is the link to my review of the company’s performance in Canberra in January, written for The Canberra Times.

Michelle Potter, 17 January 2015

Never stand still. Jacob’s Pillow

I finally got round to getting myself a copy of the DVD Never stand still: dancing at Jacob’s Pillow. And I’m so glad I did. What is particularly satisfying about this DVD documentary is that there is no promotion of a particular company or a person and no media hype. It’s simply about dance in its many and varied forms. ‘Dancing is direct and honest,’ says Mark Morris, one of the several illustrious interviewees appearing on Never stand still. And that’s what we get: direct, honest and simply beautiful dance.
'Never stand still'. DVD coverA few sections particularly stood out for me, although others will have their own favourites I am sure. I especially enjoyed segments featuring Mark Morris and his dancers, perhaps because those works of his I have seen recently have not impressed me to any great extent—Beaux danced by San Francisco Ballet and Pacific from Houston Ballet, both of which I saw earlier this year, left me feeling underwhelmed. Never stand still has some lovely footage from Morris’ Italian Concerto and Love Song Waltzes and a brief look at a work called Falling Down Stairs, which Morris made in conjunction with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom we also see on the DVD. The excerpts from these works show quite clearly what Morris is best known for, his astonishing musicality. And Morris is a forthright and articulate speaker in his interview segments.

I was also especially taken with Shantala Shivalingappa, a solo Kuchipudi dancer born in Madras and raised in Paris. What an amazingly expressive body she has and how she uses it to her advantage. Every movement fills the space and she seems to linger a little at the high point of each movement before seamlessly continuing to the next.

Shantala Shivalingappa 1
Shantala Shivalingappa 2

 

Segements featuring Suzanne Farrell speaking about her transition from Balanchine ballerina to company director make interesting viewing as do excerpts from Balanchine ballets she has set on her own company. Natalia Magnicaballi, a principal with Suzanne Farrell Ballet, is startlingly good in the lead in Tzigane.

Gideon Obarzanek makes an appearance and there are excerpts from his work I want to dance better at parties performed by Chunky Move. I also loved the all too brief footage from Bournonville’s Napoli courtesy of the Royal Danish Ballet, along with a brief discussion of the Danes making their first appearance in the United States at the Pillow at the invitation of Ted Shawn. Then there’s Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Judith Jamison, tap, vaudeville…so much more.

Interspersed throughout the contemporary footage is rare archival material showing some of the early performances at Jacob’s Pillow along with an underlying narrative about Shawn and the founding of the this renowned festival, an annual event held at Becket, Massachusetts, in the beautiful surroundings of the Berkshire Hills. If you’ve been there it will bring back wonderful memories not just of the variety of dancing on offer, but of that glorious outdoor stage, those barns and the spectacular surrounding countryside. If you have not had the good fortune to be there Never stand still will make you want to pack your bags for 2014.

Never stand still is so worth watching and is available online at the usual places for quite a small amount of money, even with our dollar falling against the greenback. Here is a link to  the official trailer.

Michelle Potter, 26 August 2013