The Frock. MADE

I didn’t see Graeme Murphy’s 2017 work, The Frock, as a live production. It was fashioned by Murphy and his creative associate Janet Vernon on the Tasmanian group of ‘senior’ dancers, Mature Artists Dance Experience (MADE), a company I have never had the luck to see live either. But some research I have been doing recently aroused my interest and I found a way to see The Frock on film. And what an adventure it was!

The Frock follows the life experiences of a woman who sits at the side of the stage on what looks like the verandah of a house in a rural area of Australia. She watches as her life unfolds before her, although leaves the comfort of her verandah to participate in many of the experiences that play out on stage. She is nameless and is something of an ‘everywoman’ living across several decades, beginning perhaps in the 1950s.

But before those decades begin to unfold choreographically, in the opening section the woman explains the moments that define her situation, especially the dress made by her mother, the frock of the title; and her sexual experience as a teenager (wearing the frock), which resulted in an out-of-marriage pregnancy. Throughout the work the frock appears on a wire mannequin designed by Gerard Manion. The mannequin is a mobilised device (robotics by Paul Fenech) with a voice (that of Murphy) that comments verbally, not always kindly, on what is happening.

The first moment of remarkable dancing comes when the frock is tried on for the first time. We watch as the woman (in real life and in the story in her sixties perhaps) dances a duet with another performer representing the woman as a young girl wearing that frock. Murphy’s choreography is lyrical and emotion-filled movement; not a collection of difficult steps but swinging, swaying movement easily fitting the bodies of those older dancers. It is also the first time we see the backcloth (design by Gerard Manion) that stayed in place for most of the show—a beautiful collection of draped fabrics, lit throughout by Damien Cooper.

From there the decades unfold before us: the ‘swinging sixties’ and seventies, along with the smoking of drugs and the hallucinations that resulted; the rise of feminism; midlife; and the gradual move through the following decades to old age, the ‘Age of Invisibility’. Choreographic highlights included, for me, the rock ‘n roll scenes; the section when the woman contemplates her childless life; the beautiful reunion scene in which the woman and friends from her past come together dancing to Moon River, that evocative song from Breakfast at Tiffany’s; a trio as mid-life approaches danced with the aid of lengths of diaphanous cloth; and the extraordinary solo by the woman performed to a poem (written by Murphy) entitled ‘But still I fly’. The poem is heard in the clip below, along with excerpts from various parts of the work.

It was fascinating to see Murphy using some of the techniques that have appeared in so many of his works, including the use of flowing cloth as a device. But also noticeable was the use of linked arms and hands making linear patterns, something that I recall from many of Murphy’s works with Sydney Dance Company. Then there were references (that perhaps I imagined) to Botticelli’s ‘Three Graces’ in his well-known painting Primavera, and even, briefly, to Nijinsky’s choreography for Afternoon of a Faun. (Murphy does this so many times—brings up a mixed bag of ideas, imagined or not).

The sound design by Christopher Gordon with Christo Curtis was brilliantly put together to evoke every moment in every decade. Apart from Moon River, standouts for me were the Sunday School activities of the early moments when the hymn being sung was that well-known Sunday School song, Jesus Loves Me; the Indian inspired music that accompanied the drug and hallucination scenes; and some hugely moving operatic excerpts.

Jennifer Irwin’s costume were also so evocative of the decades being represented as the story proceeded. Especially outstanding from this point of view were those in the scene taking place in the 1960s filled, as it was, with mini-skirted dresses in brightly coloured, floral fabric, sometimes matched with knee high boots in bright colours. How it takes those of a certain age back to their own teenage years.

The Frock might be counted as one of Murphy’s most theatrical productions with so many exceptional collaborative elements, including its hugely diverse selection of musical interludes; its poem ‘But still I fly’; and its robot carrying the storyline line along. But perhaps more than anything it arouses such a range of emotions in the viewer. That to me is theatricality at its best. Sometimes The Frock is quite simply confronting. At other times it is just hilarious. But more than anything it is deeply moving as a comment on life’s many changing situations. I have to admit I started to cry at the end as the woman, and the daughter she had never met, intuitively knew who the other was when they came together unexpectedly in an op shop where both admired that frock hanging on a rack of clothing on sale. But the weeping quickly turned to laughter as the dress was shoplifted out! Magnificent Murphy.

Michelle Potter, 22 August 2021

Featured image: Scene from The Frock. MADE 2017. Photo: © Sandi Sissell


Postscript: I should add that a complete version of The Frock is not publicly available at this stage, although a promo is available on Vimeo, beautifully put together by Philippe Charluet of Stella Motion Pitures.

The poster image below announces the premiere of the work in Japan in 2018.

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre

11 June 2021, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

SandSong. Stories from the Great Sandy Desert begins with some black and white footage that is instantly confrontational. Moving sharply from one event to another, and accompanied by an exceptionally loud sound score, it shows some of the atrocities endured by the Indigenous inhabitants of the Kimberley region over an extended period of time. In fact, the work as a whole focuses on the Kimberley area of Western Australia. Program notes tell us that SandSong is ‘a journey into ancient story systems framed against the backdrop of ever-changing government policy and of the survival of people determined to hold strong to their Culture.’

The opening footage sets the scene for what unfolds over the course of the performance and a timeline in the printed program expands on what the footage illustrates.

But SandSong had quite a different feel from most of the recent Bangarra productions I have seen. There were strong anthropological references in the early sections. In Act I, the Cold Dry Season, gender divisions in traditional society were made clear in a range of ways. We saw women’s business and activities in the form of specific dances, such as a bush onion dance showing the gathering and preparation of this food. We also watched preparations for a totem ceremony in which the men only were involved. As such the choreography was gender specific with the women performing quite simplistic movements at times, as opposed to the men for whom the choreography had more variety, more energy. Often the choreography for the men seemed to border on anger or to look inflammatory, while that for the women seem reserved and calm.

This gender division continued in Act 2, the Hot Dry Season, but changed somewhat as the story continued through the four sections. Particularly dramatic was Act 3 when the community entered a phase of working outside their traditional culture. The opening section, ‘Auction’ was especially powerful. Were the Kimberley people really being auctioned off for jobs on cattle stations and the like? A feeling of devastation crossed the footlights. Act 4 saw a kind of resolution, however, as healing and resilience began to emerge and by the end, as Rika Hamaguchi made her way around the stage, the anger and humiliation subsided as the dancers expressed their ties to kin and community.

Rika Hamaguchi in the final scene from SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Of the dancers, Beau Dean Riley Smith stood out throughout the show, as he has done for the past several years. While he did not play a specific character as he did, for example, in Macq and Bennelong, his ‘maleness’ in the early sections was brilliant. It was clear in every movement and every part of his body, including neck and head as well as limbs. I also admired the work of Baden Hitchcock with his fluid and very expressive movement, and of Rika Hamaguchi who had a beautiful serenity at times. But Bangarra is full of new faces. We have much to anticipate I think.

Baden Hitchcock in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Once again Jennifer Irwin’s costumes were simply outstanding, especially in the feathery detail that seemed an essential part of many items, but also in the contemporary feel that her costumes developed towards the end.

Bangarra Dance Theatre in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Jacob Nash’s backcloth was quite simple and shimmered under the lighting of Nick Schlieper. Steve Francis concocted the score from a range of sources including voice and words along with recordings from previous Bangarra shows.

I came away from SandSong with mixed reactions. It is perhaps a show that needs more than a single viewing for the complexities, not so much of the story, but of the choreographic expression of those stories to become clearer.

Michelle Potter, 14 June 2021

Featured image: Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi and Lillian Banks in SandSong. Bangarra_Dance Theatre 2021. Photo © Daniel Boud
Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in ‘Bennelong’. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

Dance diary. April 2020

  • Digital streaming

There has been much to watch via digital streaming over the past few weeks. The Australian Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet of New Zealand, and others have all provided some excellent footage of works from their repertoire. Some of the works I have seen via digital streaming I have already mentioned on this site, but there are two impressive productions I have just watched that I have not yet written about (except in relation to previous live productions).

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s filmed version of Bennelong is outstanding. I have been impressed with the work on the occasions when I have seen it live—my review is at this link. But it was exciting to see it on film as well. What I liked especially was being able to see Jennifer Irwin’s costumes close up. Her leafy outfits for the dancers in the opening movements were just beautiful, and it was fascinating to see close up the textures of the fabrics used for the women in Bennelong’s life, who appear towards the end of the work. I also loved being able to see Beau Dean Riley Smith’s facial expressions throughout. He was such an impressive performer in this role. The film was (and still is at the time of writing) available via the Sydney Opera House website.

The second film that I really enjoyed was New York City Ballet’s production of Balanchine’s Apollo. It has been a while since I have seen Apollo live and I was staggered by the performance and interpretation of the title role given by Taylor Stanley, NYCB principal. He danced with such athleticism and displayed precision and strength throughout. He saw himself as a god and was determined to act accordingly. It was an eye-opener. This film was available on nycballet.com but finishes on 1 May. But … next up from NYCB is Ballo della Regina. I’m sure it will be worth watching.

  • International Dance Day

Wednesday 29 April 2020 was International Dance Day. But much (if not all) that had been planned was not able to come to fruition. Some of the Canberra dance community did, however, put together a short video, Message in Motion. It centres on a speech by South African dancer and choreographer Gregory Vuyani Maqoma and is spoken by Liz Lea. The opening movement sequences are from James Batchelor, who is currently confined in Paris where he has a residency.

  • George Ogilvie ((1931-2020)

I was sorry to hear that George Ogilvie, theatre director, had died in Braidwood, New South Wales, on 5 April 2020. I especially regret that he did not live to see the Kristian Fredrikson book published, although he knew that it was on its way. Ogilvie was one of the executors of the Estate of Kristian Fredrikson, and so I had some dealings with him as a result of his holding that position. He and Fredrikson enjoyed a productive and close collaborative connection beginning in the 1960s when Ogilvie was working as artistic director of Melbourne Theatre Company. They then went on to work together in productions by various theatrical companies including the Australian Ballet and the Australian Opera (as it was then called).

Ogilvie also taught mime for the Australian Ballet School in its early years and in his autobiography, Simple Gifts, he recalls his time there, mentioning in particular his recollections of Graeme Murphy.

Vale George Ogilvie.

  • Chrissa Keramidas

In a previous post I mentioned an oral history I had recorded with Chrissa Keramidas for the National Library’s oral history program. That interview now has a timed summary, which is online together with the audio, at this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2020

Featured image: Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

Elma Kris and Beau Dean Riley Smith in ‘Bennelong’. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

30 years of sixty five thousand. Bangarra Dance Theatre

13 June 2019. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Bangarra Dance Theatre is 30 years old this year and its latest program, 30 years of sixty five thousand, celebrates that anniversary. It also acknowledges the extent of the heritage on which the company is built, and to which it looks for inspiration.

First up on the program was a revival of Unaipon, Frances Rings’ 2004 portrait of Aboriginal inventor, philosopher, writer and storyteller David Unaipon, whose portrait now appears on the Australian $50 note. Unaipon opens with a sequence in which a figure, representing Unaipon himself, dances behind a scrim in a mystical evocation of man’s existence. It then focuses on aspects of Unaipon’s early background as a Ngarrindjeri man, and subsequently follows some of his thoughts and ideas in areas of science and religion.

Every scene in Unaipon had its unique choreographic qualities. On the one hand, for example, there was Bangarra’s distinctive take on traditional movement in Sister baskets, a section about the intricate style of weaving that is distinctive to Ngarrindjeri culture. On the other, and in contrast, one of Unaipon’s particular scientific interests was the concept of motion and this concept was explored with choreography in which walking across the stage dominated. I don’t usually enjoy those moments that find their way into a lot of choreography where walking and running around the stage go on forever, or so it seems. But in the case of Unaipon, the movement was diverse as dancers dodged each other, passed each other, and gently bumped each other, all the time reflecting Unaipon’s interest in bodies in space.

The absolute stand-out performer in Unaipon was Tyrel Dulvarie, who danced the role of David Unaipon. In the opening sequence, gliding across the stage (on some hidden device?) and using exquisitely lyrical arm movements, he transported us into a world of dreams and ideas. Then in the section called Four Winds, which dealt with man’s need for knowledge about the seasons, he danced as Tolkami (the West Wind) wearing an astonishing grass costume by Jennifer Irwin. Dulvarie’s presence was commanding and his dancing transfixing in this solo. In the final section, which focused on Unaipon’s interest in religion, Dulvarie showed his ability to isolate individual movements (even toes played a role) and, again, his powerful stage presence was clear and imposing

Scene from 'Unaipon'. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Tyrel Dulvarie as Tolkami (the West Wind) in Unaipon. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The middle work on the program was Jiří Kylián’s Stamping Ground created in 1983 after a momentous visit made by Kylián to Groote Eylandt in 1980. In the Bangarra program, Stamping Ground was preceded by a brief video clip in which Kylián explained the origins of the work; his emotional response to his experiences on Groote Eylandt; and that the work was created not with the aim of copying Indigenous movement but as an homage to Indigenous culture. The dance itself was performed by six dancers, three male, three female. It was a revelation as it had all the characteristics of Kylián’s later choreography, including the manner in which he uses a backcloth as part of a work; the little snatches of humour; the beautiful, bird-like use of extended arms; the incredible lifts; and so on. Staged for Bangarra by Roslyn Anderson, Stamping Ground was stunningly danced by Tara Gower, Baden Hitchcock, Rika Hamaguchi, Ella Havelka, Tyrel Dulvarie, and Ryan Pearson. Their performance indicated the growing technical strengths of Bangarra dancers, who can now hold their own across a range of choreographic styles.

Rika Hamaguchi and Ryan Pearson in Stamping Ground. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Bangarra means ‘to make fire’ in the Wiradjuri language and, for the closing section of Bangarra’s anniversary program, artistic director Stephen Page brought together a selection of moments from previous Bangarra productions and curated them under the name To make fire. The selections showed different aspects of Bangarra’s output, including biographical productions with selections from Mathinna; stories from the Torres Strait Islands with selections from About; and, in the final section given the over-arching name Clan, excerpts from Belong and Walkabout. This final section suggests a vision for a future in which identity can be reclaimed and reconciled with contemporary society.

A trio from Mathinna was a highlight for me. It suggested, through its varied movement and differing connections between the dancers, the potential nature of relationships between Mathinna, a young Tasmanian woman of Lowreenne heritage, and the colonial couple who adopted but then rejected her. Another highlight came in Clan when a short section called Wiradjuri was danced strongly by Beau Dean Riley Smith (a Wiradjuri man as it happens). Its music by David Page was mesmerising with a whispering voice-over murmuring the single word ‘Wiradjuri’ over and over.

Trio from 'Mathinna'.Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019.. Photo: Daniel Boud
Lillian Banks as Mathinna, Rikki Mason as John Franklin and Tara Gower as Jane Franklin from Mathinna. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

In program notes for 30 years of sixty five thousand, Stephen Page suggests that Bangarra’s greatest achievement is that it has survived for those 30 years. But Bangarra has done more than survive. It has flourished. It can now claim an extensive repertoire of music and dance, which it can and does draw upon; it has a spirited associate artistic director in Frances Rings, who supports the dynamic director Stephen Page; and its dancers are polished performers whose movement vocabulary has gone from strength to strength over those 30 years. And if you are lucky enough to be at an opening night in Sydney, the company’s home base, it becomes very clear that the company has an appreciative audience unafraid to express its pride in and appreciation for Bangarra.

Michelle Potter, 15 June 2019

Featured image: Scene from To make fire. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2019. Photo: © Lisa Tomasetti

Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Dark Emu', 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dark Emu. Bangarra Dance Theatre

Below is a slightly expanded version of my review of Dark Emu. The online Canberra Times review was posted earlier at this link.

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26 July 2018, Canberra Theatre

Dark Emu, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s newest production, is inspired by a book of the same name by Bruce Pascoe. In the book Pascoe examines aspects of Aboriginal life prior to the arrival of British settlers. In particular he shows quite convincingly that Aboriginal people were not simply hunters and gathers living in a kind of rudimentary lean-to structure. On the contrary, they cultivated the land, build sturdy and lasting housing for themselves, built dams and used irrigation techniques for their crops, stored food, governed themselves and so on. The history that in general has been passed down to white people simply doesn’t tell us such things. But reading the book in the week before the show, I wondered how Pascoe’s story would translate into dance.

I don’t think it translated very well to tell the truth and I wish I hadn’t read the book in advance. There was a strong historical argument in Pascoe’s book, but in setting out that argument he used very specific examples. In one section of the book, for example, Pascoe talks about the Indigenous use of fire for back burning. A section of the dance clearly was about fire—if nothing else the lighting told us so. But the choreography didn’t really give us the significance of the use of fire, nor that its use was seen very differently by white settlers. The later sections, however, were more obvious when there was some conflict between groups and when Indigenous culture stood tall and proud at the end. I guess the show was meant to portray the spirit of the book and convey an emotional message. But it was somewhat frustrating trying to understand where the work was going.

But putting that aspect of the show aside, there was some excellent dancing and every dancer deserves praise for the poise and commitment they demonstrated throughout the work. I enjoyed the rhythmic movement patterning of sections such as Kangaroo Grass. I also especially liked a trio, Grain Dust, performed by Kaine Sultan-Babij, Beau Dean Riley Smith and Yolande Lowatta. It had some beautifully organic moves and Smith in particular stood out for the way in which he used every part of his body so expressively. In fact, whenever he was on stage, even when wearing that red wig, it was hard to look at anyone else.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Dark Emu', 2018. Photo: Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in 'Dark Emu', 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Beau Dean Riley Smith and dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

I also admired Jacob Nash’s backcloth. Structurally, it reminded me of a kind of Blue Poles set in the bush. In many respects, with its complex lines and swirls and gentle colours, it carried the strongest message of the inventiveness of Aboriginal activity prior to British settlement. But I was surprised when I saw Jennifer Irwin’s costumes close up in media images. From where I was sitting, or  perhaps with the kind of lighting being used, I didn’t notice the extent of the detail that she used (as she usually does) in her choice of fabric. I was not a huge fan of the music (by Steve Francis). Most previous Bangarra productions have always seemed to have had a stronger Indigenous resonance in their scores.


Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Last year’s Bennelong was always going to be a hard act to follow. It managed narrative and emotion and gave us both in spades. Dark Emu was emotive but seemed not to have a strong enough structure to make it as powerful as I had hoped, even with input, apparently, from dramaturg Alana Valentine.

Michelle Potter, 27 July 2018

Featured image: Dancers of Bangarra Dance Theatre in Dark Emu, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Amy Harris and Adam Bull in 'The Merry Widow'. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridle

Dance diary. September 2017

  • The Australian Ballet in 2018

Details of the Australian Ballet’s 2018 season were revealed in September and this year Canberra audiences can anticipate a program from the national company. The Merry Widow, which David McAllister has called ‘a fantastically well-constructed soufflé’, was created for the Australian Ballet in 1975 as the first full-length production commissioned by the company. It will open at the Canberra Theatre Centre on 25 May and run until 30 May. Based on the operetta of the same name, it has choreography by Ronald Hynd, a scenario by Robert Helpmann (in 1975 artistic director of the Australian Ballet), and music by Franz Lehar. It will also have seasons in Sydney and Melbourne.

But beyond soufflés, and for those who like their ballet to have more intellectual input, an interesting program is scheduled for Melbourne and Sydney. Called Murphy, it honours the contribution Graeme Murphy has made to the Australian Ballet, which he joined from the Australian Ballet School in 1968. Programming is not yet complete, apparently, but we know that the main item on the program will be the return of Murphy’s Firebird, which he created for the Australian Ballet in 2009.

Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy's 'Firebird'. The Australian Ballet, 2009. Photo: © Alex Makeyev
Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. The Australian Ballet, 2009. Photo: © Alex Makeyev

Here is a quote from Murphy from a story I wrote for The Weekend Australian in February 2009:

I want to give the audience the magic that they believe Firebird is. It will be a rich and opulent experience for them. Besides, the score is completely dictative of the narrative, which makes it hard to stray from the story. Firebird is imbued with Diaghilev’s thumbprint.
I am keeping all the elements of the work, the symbols of good and evil for example, but I will be focusing in a slightly different way. It will be a little like the world of winter opening up to let in the spring.

As for the rest of the season: Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle will return for a season in Melbourne, while Sydney will have a return season of Alexei Ratmansky’s wonderful Cinderella; there is a new production of Spartacus in the pipeline, which will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney; Melbourne will have an exclusive season of a triple bill called Verve with works by Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour and Alice Topp; and Adelaide will see The Sleeping Beauty.

  • Jennifer Irwin. Frocks, Tales and Tea

Jennifer Irwin, costume designer par excellence and recipient of the 2017 Australian Dance Award for Services to Dance, will be the special guest at an event hosted by ‘UsefulBox’ on 14 October at the Boronia tea rooms in the Sydney suburb of Mosman. Irwin will talk about her creative process and what inspired her as an artist. Further information at this link.

  • Andrée Grau (1954–2017)

The death has occurred, unexpectedly in France, of Andrée Grau, well-known dance anthropologist, and long-standing staff member of the University of Roehampton. Grau’s achievements, which include work in Australia, appear on the Roehampton website at this link.

  • Press for September 2017

‘Great flair shown in austere setting.’ Review of Circa’s Landscape with monsters. The Canberra Times, 8 September 2017, p. 31. Online version.

Seppe Van Looveren and Timothy Fyffe in 'Landscape With Monsters', 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey
Seppe Van Looveren and Timothy Fyffe in Landscape With Monsters, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey

‘Untangling the truth.’ Preview of Gudirr, Gudirr, Dalisa Pigram and Marrugeku. The Canberra Times, 16 September 2017, Panorama p. 16. Online version.

Dalisa Pigram in 'Gudirr, Gudirr'. Photo Simon Schluter
Dalisa Pigram in Gudirr, Gudirr. Photo: © Simon Schluter

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2017

Featured image: Amy Harris and Adam Bull in The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridler.

Amy Harris and Adam Bull in 'The Merry Widow'. The Australian Ballet 2018 season. Photo: © Justin Ridle
Scene from 'Great Sport!' Canberra 2016. Photo © Lorna Sim

Australian Dance Awards 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 24 September 2017

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

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

Bennelong. Bangarra Dance Theatre

29 June 2017. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 1 July 2017

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

Beau Dean Riley Smith in Bennelong.' Bnagarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud
Djakapurra Munyarryun Ochres 2015 Photo by Jhuny-Boy Borja

Djakapurra Munyarryun. Bangarra Dance Theatre

In late September and early October Bangarra Dance Theatre will be performing in New York and Paris. In New York the company will be part of Fall for Dance, a wonderful initiative that has been held in October, when the leaves of the city’s deciduous trees are falling to the ground, for about 10 years now. All seats are just $15 and the program features dancers and dance companies from America and around the world. Bangarra will present Spirit, a selection from some of the company’s best-known works. That selection will include Djakapurra Munyarryun’s Ngurrtja—land cleansing song, which opened the 2015 reworking of the 1995 production, Ochres.

In Paris Bangarra will give five performances of the new Ochres at the Musée du quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, a museum devoted to ethnographic material from around the world. The company has a one week residency at the museum and the residency will include, in addition to Ochres, workshops, public talks and screenings of Stephen Page’s film Spear.

The role that Djakapurra Munyarryun will play in Ochres on this tour is not quite the same as his role in the original production, when in the opening moments he was seen smearing his body with yellow ochre. It was an unforgettable theatrical moment.

Djakapurra Munyarryun in Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre 1995. Photo Tim Webster
Djakapurra Munyarryun in Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre 1995. Photo: © Tim Webster
National Library of Australia

The recollection of that opening sent me hunting for a Canberra Times article I wrote in 1998 as a preview to Bangarra’s season of Fish. As the story was published in print form only, that is some years before The Canberra Times was available online, I am republishing it here (in a slightly refined form) for the background it gives to the work of Djakapurra Munyarryun.

‘Cultural designer steeped in tradition.’
Michelle Potter

When Bangarra Dance Theatre’s production of Fish opens next week at the brand new Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, one performer is sure to stand out: Djakapurra Munyarryun. He has that elusive quality—stage presence. So strong is the sense of wisdom and authority that pervades his activities onstage it’s hard to believe he’s only 23. Artistic director of Bangarra and choreographer of Fish, Stephen Page, says, “It’s not surprising really. He’s part of the Dreaming.”

Munyarryun, steeped in the traditional dances and ceremonies of the Yirrkala community in north-eastern Arnhem Land, is Bangarra’s cultural consultant. For Fish he has also been designated “cultural designer” and takes his place alongside the other members of the creative team. Munyarryun’s contribution to the work of Bangarra is critical. It helps it achieve what is most distinctive about it: the fusion of traditional stories and music with the experiences of urban Aboriginal and Islander people.

“When he works with the company there is a constant sharing of ideas,” Page says. He is inspirational. Djakapurra helps build layers of Aboriginality in the company.”

Such layers are apparent in the thematic material in Fish. The works takes us on a journey to three watery worlds and celebrates the wealth of life and mystery they contain. Swamps is redolent of the sacredness and spirituality of traditional lifestyles; Traps juxtaposes contemporary Western and old Aboriginal ways; Reef, full of colour and light, is celebratory and refers especially to the dance styles of Torres Strait Islander communities.

For two, at least, of the Page brothers—choreographer/director Stephen, and musician David, who composed the score for Fish—the relationship with Munyarryun continues beyond the dance studio. The three enjoy a special relationship that allows them to explore the links between traditional and urban ways in a diversity of situations. Not only have they been adopted into each other’s families, but they also spend time in Yirrkala together often going out to catch stingrays. Stephen Page says:

“Of course the urban situation, where many of our stories were forbidden, was frustrating for Djakapurra at first. He had to learn a hard lesson about urban Aboriginal history. But he was always interested in the crossover of traditional and contemporary styles in both music and dance, and just kept returning to storytelling to rekindle the spirit. Now he is comfortable in both traditional and urban situations. This is the kind of fusion that is built into the infrastructure of Bangarra.”

Munyarryun has been with Bangarra since 1991, featuring in all its major productions including Praying Mantis Dreaming, Ninni, Ochres and, most recently Rites, the popular collaboration between Bangarra and the Australian Ballet staged for the Melbourne Festival last year.

As well as being a dynamic dancer, Munyarryun is a virtuoso didgeridoo player and in Fish, as well as dancing, he features as a musician on the soundtrack playing bilma and yirrdaki (clap sticks and didgeridoo). His versatility as a performer has also brought him roles in films, including Black River and Breaking Through, as well as work with the band Yothu Yindi.

Fish, now touring Australia as part of the 1998 Made to Move season, premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival last year before returning for a Sydney season in the Festival of the Dreaming, the first of the cultural festivals leading to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

As well as highlighting the Bangarra approach to fusion, Fish has an extraordinary visual impact. Its evocative set is by Peter England; costumes are by Jennifer Irwin, who explores the qualities of texture and sheen; and lighting is by Mark Howett.

Djakapurra Munyarryun is the tall dancer, with presence and authority, who will probably come out after the show in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap.

First published in The Canberra Times—Panorama, 18 April 1998, p. 16.

Michelle Potter, 26 August 2016

Featured image: Djakapurra Munyarryun in a scene from Ochres, 2015. Photo: ©  Jhuny-Boy Borja

Djakapurra Munyarryun Ochres 2015 Photo by Jhuny-Boy Borja
Yolande Brown as Earth Spirit in Spear. Photo Jacob Nash

Spear. A Stephen Page film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Michelle Potter, 19 February 2016