19 October 2023. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Chi Udaka was an outstanding collaborative venture between Lingalayam, a company directed by Australian-Indian dancer Anandavalli, and TaikOz, an Australian music group co-founded by Ian Cleworth and Riley Lee and currently directed by Cleworth. The show focused on Anandavalli’s interest in the two Indian classical dance styles of Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, and the intrinsic interest of TaikOz on drumming but with that interest extending to other instruments, especially the shakuhachi and, on this occasion, to the sounds of the cello of John Napier. Chi Udaka is not a new production but this 2023 presentation was part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Sydney Opera House. And the show itself was beautifully celebratory in its inspiring combination of music and dance.
‘Chi’ means earth in Japanese and ‘Udaka’ means water in Sanskrit so the production juxtaposed these two ideas with the story taking place within one day from early morning to late evening, although the focus was not really on a strong narrative structure but rather, at least for me, on artistic collaboration. Nevertheless, it began with a kind of meditation in the early light of morning, with a rare and welcome appearance by Anandavalli who introduced a rhythmic element with chanting and the playing of small hand held instruments, and who eventually rang a bell to announce the beginning of the day. It concluded with Anandavalli closing the show with a gathering together of the cast in a kind of closing communion, accompanied by singing from vocalist Aruna Parthiban.
Between these opening and closing moments the dancing and music were exceptional. The dancers, stunningly dressed in saris designed by Anandavalli, moved with close attention to the detailed movements of bodies, hands and feet of the classical Indian styles, and with extraordinary lyricism between individual movements. A highlight was a duet between one dancer and Riley Lee on the shakuhachi, but every combination of dancer and musician, and there were many different combinations, was transforming to watch and hear.
And can drummers dance? They certainly can. They were completely involved both in the very physical way they engaged with their instruments, and in their awareness that they were part of an overall production. They were just brilliant. But then so was Riley Lee with his shakuhachi and other flute-like instruments, as was John Napier with his cello.
The overall ambience of the work was quite evocative of time and place, changing as the work progressed with a particularly strong contribution from lighting designer Karen Norris. It was in all a show that brought huge pleasure and a renewed interest in what dance and music can achieve together.
The complete work (from a 2016 production) is available on Vimeo at this link.
Michelle Potter, 23 October 2023
Featured Image: Promotional image for Chi Udaka from the Sydney Opera House website. Photographer not identified.
20 July 2023. Canberra Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre
With Yuldea, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s first production under the artistic directorship of Frances Rings, the company continues to present work that examines the experiences that Australia’s First Nations people have lived through. As Rings has written in the ‘Welcome’ section of the Yuldea program, ‘Yuldea reflects the truth-telling of the Indigenous experience in Australia and reminds us that there are two stories to the making of this country.’ The ‘two stories’ angle has been an outstanding feature of Bangarra productions since its inception and has contributed to the admiration audiences have had for the company over the years.
Yuldea is in four parts, ‘Supernova’, ‘Kapi (Water)’, ‘Empire’ and ‘Ooldea Spirit’. It tells the story of the Aṉangu people of the Great Victorian Desert and the Nunga of the Far West Region of South Australia. It focuses especially on the traditional cultural activities of the people of the regions, on the effects of colonisation including the building of the Trans-Australian Railway, and on the ability of traditional culture to survive. The title of the work, Yuldea, refers to a ‘soak’ or waterhole seen as an ‘epicentre of traditional life’.
Choreographically, Yuldea presented the Bangarra style that has become familiar over the course of the company’s existence—the grounded movement, the turned up feet with legs bent sharply from the knee, tightly structured and strongly held group poses, bodies held upside down or at unusual angles in partnering moves, and so forth. But there were times in Yuldea when I was struck by the existence of moments that seemed based on ballet, both in some less grounded movement and recognisable balletic steps, and in the way the movement was structured in groupings that were less random in appearance and often performed in unison. It seemed a little like another version of the ‘two story’ angle.
Yuldea was beautifully danced by the whole company with a standout performance from Lillian Banks and Kallum Goolagong in an early duet.
Yuldea continued the collaborative style of production that has characterised Bangarra presentations for decades. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes were as stunning as ever. Her use of fabric and layering of material, and the cut of her costumes that allows the costume to move freely (as if performing its own dance) were there in spades, as was her admirable addition of decorative items, including feathers, to various parts of the costume.
In terms of set design, Elizabeth Gadsby gave us something different from what we have seen from former resident designer Jacob Nash, who has now moved on to other activities. For me, Gadsby’s set was akin to a kind of architectural minimalism. It consisted of a semi-circular arrangement of ‘ceiling’ to floor strips of material (not sure what they were actually made from) through which the dancers made entrances and exits, and a semi-circular white item that hung in the air in front of the strips of material. The semi-circular shape of both items perhaps represented the shape of a waterhole? I’m not sure. Perhaps the white structure was the serpent, the ‘Steel Snake’ of the railway? The set, especially the strips of material, might have played a functional role but for me the set as a whole lacked a certain artistic vision and the thrill that such vision gives to audiences.
Music came from Leon Rodgers, the recipient of the 2021 David Page Fellowship, and Electric Fields. Lighting was by Karen Norris and there was in-depth cultural consultation with a range of people and groups.
Like most productions from Bangarra, especially those made over the last decade or so, Yuldea is a complex work and asks us to continue to think about many aspects of Australian life. Bangarra will, I feel sure, continue to be one of Australia’s foremost dance companies as it moves ahead with Frances Rings as its artistic director.
Bangarra’s 2023 season will see the revival of the Dance Clan series for the first time in ten years. The series began in 1998 and fostered new work by choreographers, dancers and designers, most of whom were emerging artists in those fields. Artists whose careers were advanced by appearances in Dance Clan performances have included Deborah Brown, Tara Gower, Yolande Brown and Frances Rings, who will shortly take on the artistic directorship of Bangarra. In 2023 Beau Dean Riley Smith, Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Ryan Pearson and Sani Townson will create new works focusing on their own storytelling. Costume designs will be by Clair Parker, mentored by Jennifer Irwin, lighting by Maddison Craven mentored by Karen Norris, and set design by Shana O’Brien under the guidance of Jacob Nash. Separate scores for each work are being composed by Brendon Boney, Amy Flannery and Leon Rodgers.
The major production for 2023 by the main company will be Yuldea being created by Frances Rings in collaboration with Jennifer Irwin (costumes), Jacob Nash (set), Karen Norris (lighting) and Leon Rodgers (score). The show will premiere at the Sydney Opera House on 14 June as part of the 50th anniversary season before touring across Australia including to Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Bendigo. The work is inspired by the story of the Anangu people of the Great Victorian Desert. Rings says:
Within my family lineage lie the stories of forefathers and mothers who lived a dynamic, sophisticated desert life, leaving their imprint scattered throughout Country like memories suspended in time. Their lives were forever changed by the impact of colonial progress.
Further details on the Bangarra website.
A new work by Meryl Tankard
Given that Meryl Tankard’s Wild Swans* has long stayed in my mind as an exceptional collaborative work between Tankard as choreographer, composer Elena Kats Chernin and visual artist Régis Lansac, it was more than exciting to hear that this trio will be presenting their latest collaboration, Kairos, as part of the 2023 Sydney Festival. Commissioned and produced by FORM Dance Projects, Kairos will open at Carriageworks on 19 January and will feature dancers Lillian Fearn, Cloé Fournier, Taiga Kita-Leong, Jasmin Luna, Julie Ann Minaai and Thuba Ndibali.
‘Kairos’ in ancient Greek means ‘the right or opportune moment for doing, a moment that cannot be scheduled’. Publicity for the show suggests that the work responds to the current ‘uncertain and challenging times’ in which we currently find ourselves.
News from Houston Ballet
News recently announced in Houston, Texas, is that Julie Kent, currently artistic director of Washington Ballet and former principal artist with American Ballet Theatre, will leave Washington Ballet at the end of the 2022-2023 season. She will join Stanton Welch as co-director of Houston Ballet with Welch keen to be able to devote more time to choreography.
In October I had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview with Barbara Cuckson, owner and director of Rozelle School of Visual Arts, whose dance training was largely with Gertrud Bodenwieser. The interview, which will eventually be available online from the National Library of Australia, is not only an exceptional insight into the Bodenwieser heritage and Cuckson’s training within and beyond that heritage, but it also contains a wealth of information about Cuckson’s parents, Eric and Marie Cuckson, and their outstanding contribution to the growth of the arts in Australia.
Michelle Potter, 31 October 2022
* There is no review of Wild Swans on this website as it was produced and performed in 2003, that is before I began …on dancing. But here is a link to a post in which I mention it as a result of a BBC program I heard.
9 September 2022. QL2 Theatre, Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra
The title of this work may give the impression that is about violence, abusive content, or any other of the somewhat damaging notions that are contained in the more common, singular phrase ’explicit content’. This was not the case with Explicit Contents, the dance work, as I understood it, although a certain sensuality was made clear at various times. Made on two dancers, Ivey Wawn and David Huggins, by the Sydney-based choreographer Rhiannon Newton, the work for me was calming, contemplative and mesmerising, at least for most of the time and in certain respects.
The work had begun as we entered the performing space with Wawn and Huggins moving to and fro with Newton’s quite simple but nicely performed choreography—introductory moments. The main body of the work began shortly afterwards when the space was plunged into darkness and we watched the dancers moving, occasionally and subtly, while stretched out on the floor, upstage. There were quite long periods of stillness and the darkness made it hard to make out what was happening. In some respects though it reminded me of the Merce Cunningham concept of ‘body time’ as without any obvious score at this stage (the noise we heard was from cars driving up and down the road outside the Arts Centre), the two dancers were aware of each other and seemed mostly to be working in unison with slight, individual variations.
As this dark and slowly moving section continued, it began to be interrupted by drops of water falling on the floor (lit so they were visible as they landed). From there the work unfolded in a number of episodes, to a sound score by Peter Lenaerts and in which the two dancers engaged in a series of activities. They sat on the ground in front of us and ate a piece of fruit, Wawn had a passionfruit, Huggins a mango. They picked up a glass bowl half filled with water and manipulated the water level before balancing it on their bodies. In an unexpected moment they tipped the water on the floor and sat down and swirled around in that seated position. Another earlier episode had the dancers taking geometrical-style poses, sometimes mirroring each other, at other times taking separate stances
Choreographically, however, the work was not really outstanding. While Wawn and Huggins reacted beautifully to Newton’s style, they hadn’t really been given hugely challenging movement. It was more about a concept on which Newton had based the work, ‘how bodies are are not separate from but inextricably connected to their environments’. Although I found the work calming and mesmerising, I think this feeling came from non-choreographic aspects of the work, aspects that were visually interesting rather than choreographically challenging—water dripping to the floor, eating fruit, balancing bowls of water on the body, and the incredible lighting from Karen Norris, especially those moments when her lighting allowed the dancers bodies to be reflected mirror-like onto the floor.
I recall a colleague saying once ‘Dance is a visual art form’, to which another colleague replied, ‘No it’s not, it’s much more than that.’ This is the first work from Newton that I have seen. I look forward to seeing more and will be curious to see how/if she balances the various aspects that make a work a dance one. The balance was not convincing in Explicit Contents.
I did not have the opportunity to see live dance outside Australia in 2021 although I came very close to getting to New Zealand to see Loughlan Prior’s Firebird for Royal New Zealand Ballet (everything was booked but had to be cancelled at the last minute)! But I did see a variety of performances from overseas companies in online screenings, including Firebird. Most of what I saw in this way I did review for this website.
Choosing just five productions was not easy but I decided to stay with that limit, perhaps ‘in remembrance of times past’. Five was the limit in the days when The Canberra Times had a stronger arts coverage. And such a limit does demand a certain degree of focus and serious thought about defining principles in specific situations!
Below are my ‘top five’ productions for the year arranged chronologically according to the date of performance.
Third Practice. Tero Saarinen Company. Helsinki, February 2021. Online screening
I was first introduced to the work of the Finnish company led by Tero Saarinen in late 2020 when I was able to watch Borrowed Light, a collaboration by the company with the singers of Boston Camerata. Borrowed Light dated back to 2004 but was filmed in 2012 at Jacob’s Pillow and the film was screened online in 2021 as part of the Pillow’s response to lockdown. It was an exceptional collaboration and made me want to see more from this company, which I had not encountered before. The opportunity came in February 2021 when I was invited to watch and review the company’s online screening of Third Practice, performed to madrigals by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, and played and sung by members of Helsinki’s Baroque Orchestra.
Third Practice was another eye-opening production after Borrowed Light. In my review I wrote’, ‘Third Practice is an extraordinary work examining the endless possibilities of cross art form collaboration and the potential of dance to stand at the forefront of new explorations in the arts.’
I was initially intrigued by the title Third Practice. As I discovered when doing some preliminary research, it referred to comments about the nature of Monteverdi’s compositional style and Tero Saarinen’s own approach to choreography. You can read more in my review at this link.
GRIMM. Sydney Choreographic Centre. Sydney, April 2021. Live performance
Starting a new company, and indeed a whole new choreographic venture, is a courageous step to take. GRIMM was the first production from a new Sydney-based venture, the Sydney Choreographic Centre, the brainchild of director Francesco Ventriglia (also the choreographer of GRIMM) and managing director Neil Christopher. GRIMM is courageous too in that it takes a whole new look at characters from the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), and examines the emotions of those characters as they move from youth to maturity. It is a far cry from the way we usually meet characters like Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and others, in dance form.
But it was also a truly thrilling production in a collaborative sense. Lighting, projections, costumes were stunning in their contemporaneity. Absolutely stunning. It was a terrific start for this new venture and I look forward to seeing more. Read my review at this link.
The Point, Liz Lea Dance Company, Canberra, May 2021. Live performance
Liz Lea Dance Company won a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Lea’s production of The Point. The citation read: ‘For The Point, a courageous exploration of connection and creativity across different dance styles and cultures through innovative choreography highlighted by outstanding use of music and a remarkable lighting design by Karen Norris.’
What intrigued me especially about this production was the mix of dance styles, which did not in my mind compromise any one style. My ballet teacher, many years ago now, was Valrene Tweedie, and I recall her saying ‘Ballet is like a sponge. It can absorb anything and everything.’ Well it is quite easy to substitute ‘dance’ for ‘ballet’ in that remark and Lea’s combining of contemporary, Western style movement with Indian styles, with which Lea is more than familiar, suggests strongly that no dance style is beyond being looked at creatively.
Of course, as the citation indicates, the collaboration across media was brilliant and the mix of ideas, which included homage to Marion Mahony Griffin and her contribution to the design of Canberra, was also brilliant. Read my review at this link.
Sandsong. Stories from the Great Sandy Desert. Bangarra Dance Theatre. Sydney, June 2021. Live performance
For me Sandsong captured what I have always loved about Bangarra—the company’s ability to present Indigenous cultural heritage and the political issues that have intruded on and damaged that heritage. I admire the way the ideas presented generate serious contemplation about the situation without necessarily demanding that we are filled with anger. Bangarra shows us what happened; we can draw our own conclusions. With Sandsong I also was moved by the way those cultural issues reflected gender divisions in traditional society, both choreographically and in a narrative sense.
In addition, what always stands out with Bangarra productions, and Sandsong was no exception, is the visual strength of the company’s shows. Jacob Nash creates exceptional sets, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes capture so much of the context of the work while giving freedom for the dancers to move, and on this occasion the lighting by Nick Schlieper added a stunning shimmer to Nash’s backcloth while Steve Francis’ score captured the multi-faceted nature of the work.
On view. Panoramic Suite. Sue Healey. Sydney, October 2021 . Online screening
Sue Healey has been working with the concept of On View for a number of years and I have strong memories of On View. Live Portraits, as well as a number of filmed portraits she has made of people she has named ‘icons’ of Australian dance. Panoramic Suite, however, takes her ideas to another level and includes material recorded outside of Australia, in particular in Hong Kong and Japan. Healey has combined this new material with that created in Australia and the result is indeed a panorama. This is not just because it traverses continents in its subject matter, but also because of the technical approach that gives the viewer many angles from which to view the footage—close-up shots, aerial views, multiple views of the same sections, and so many other concepts.
On View. Panoramic Suite is an exceptional endeavour and a huge credit to Healey and her team. Read my review at this link.
I guess what I really liked about all five of these productions was that in one way or another the choreographers, and the collaborative team, were pushing the boundaries of what dance is about, what it can do, how we can look at it. And the pushing of boundaries was happening in such a variety of ways. There was intelligence and creativity in approach and that was a real thrill in a year when we all wondered if the performing arts would survive when there were so many problems, especially for live performance. Let’s look ahead, with fingers crossed, to 2022.
The 2021 Canberra Critics’ Circle awards ceremony took place on 30 November at the Canberra Museum and Gallery. The awards were presented to recipients by Patrick McIntyre, newly appointed CEO of the National Film and Sound Archive and, as is the custom, were presented across all major art forms including performing, visual and literary genres.
Given the difficult circumstances artists across all performing genres have recently experienced, the Circle’s Dance Panel was pleasantly surprised to have such an exceptional range of dance events to consider when discussing the awards. Below is the list, with citations, of the recipients of dance awards.
LIZ LEA DANCE COMPANY For The Point, a courageous exploration of connection and creativity across different dance styles and cultures through innovative choreography highlighted by outstanding use of music and a remarkable lighting design by Karen Norris.
OLIVIA FYFE and ALEX VOORHOEVE For a collaborative blend of live music and movement that highlighted expressive connections between dancer and musician while dramatising certain effects of climate change in nature in Australian Dance Party’s Symbiosis, during an exploration of the Australian National Botanic Gardens as part of Enlighten 2021.
BONNIE NEATE and SUZY PIANI For their remarkable re-imagining of Giselle, entitled Unveiled, which they produced, directed and choreographed embracing elements of classical ballet, contemporary and commercial dance to create a thrilling evening of impeccably prepared, presented and performed dance to showcase the talents of twenty pre-professional dancers chosen at open audition.
QL2 DANCE For a beautifully structured work, Sympathetic Monsters, that examined concepts of isolation and belonging in a production that juxtaposed the group and the individual through choreography by Jack Ziesing, original music by Adam Ventoura, and a committed performance by the large ensemble.
MICHELLE HEINE For her imaginative, exuberant and brilliantly crafted choreography for Free Rain Theatre’s production of Mamma Mia.
The Dancer. A biography for Philippa Cullen
A new book from Giramondo Publishing was recently brought to my attention. Written by Evelyn Juers, it is a biography of Philippa Cullen or, as the author puts it, ‘for’ Philippa Cullen. On one occasion Cullen said to Juers that if she (Cullen) were to die early, she would like Juers to write about her. Cullen, an Australian dancer with a remarkable approach to dance making, died in India at the very young age of 25. The dancer fulfills Cullen’s wish and becomes a biography for her. I am looking forward to reading it!
Sue Healey has been working on her On View series for several years now. I recall with much pleasure seeing (live—it was pre-Covid!) her very arresting program On View. Live Portraits in 2015, and I also recall, again with pleasure, a number of the portraits of Australian dance ‘icons’ she has made over the years. But Healey has worked on a number of occasions in Japan, Hong Kong and other Asian countries and much her work in the On View series has been collated and edited into an hour-long masterly production called On View: Panoramic Suite, which was recently shown as part of Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art.
This digital presentation began in something of a philosophical way with three performers explaining how they perceived the notion of dance portraiture, which was, at least in part, the focus of the production. ‘The dancer as an expert in being seen,’ said Martin del Amo; ‘How do you see a thought in a gesture?’ asked Nalina Wait; and ‘How are we perceived by others in a changing world?’ mused Shona Erskine.
From there the performance crossed every kind of boundary we might have imagined was possible for a dance on film production. It was panoramic not only in the way the footage was collated from so many different places across three distinct areas—Australia, Hong Kong and Japan—but also because it featured 27 different dancers whose ages ranged from 28 to 106; because the footage was presented from so many different angles, including close-up shots, aerial views and everything in between; and because it was presented with such a variety of screen views including multiple views at any one time.
Several sections stood out for me. I found quite fascinating a section that began with percussionist Laurence Pike playing while seated in a square of light. As he played dancers appeared to be falling from a sheet of white material that gradually transformed into a sheet of blue sky. At one stage Pike disappeared from the screen and his place was taken by shadows of performers whose individual shapes kept changing.
A section filmed on Lake George just north of Canberra, which featured dancer James Batchelor, was also particularly eye-catching. We saw Batchelor from an aerial perspective as a solitary figure in a wide, flat, uninhabited landscape, then on multiple screens sometimes with a screen of footage placed next to a screen that was simply a black space. Occasionally, there were close-up shots showing his hands, or his feet engaging with the dirt of the lake floor. It was an interesting reflection and comment on dance and the environment, a concept that was also mentioned by Shona Erskine in the narration at the beginning of the production. This Lake George section also sat in opposition to the section that preceded it when five dancers performed in a tight environment that consisted of nothing more than a small square of light. Not one dancer moved out of the square as they negotiated each other within that confined space.
Still from On View: Panoramic Suite, 2021. Courtesy of Sue Healey
Of the dancers, I found Japanese Butoh artist Nobuyoshi Asai extraordinarily moving. Covered completely in white make-up and wearing only a minimal jock strap-style costume he moved at times as if in a trance, at others like an animal, while at times we saw fury and anger. His performance was intense, potent and physically arresting.
I also enjoyed some moments when Torres Strait Islander dancer, Elma Kris, performed first in a forest of tall, thin tree trunks, and then by the edge of the sea before dancing in the shallows. Again it was partly a reflection of a specific environment.
I have also to acknowledge the entire production/collaborative team for some extraordinary contributions, including Darrin Verhagen for his score and Karen Norris for her lighting. The production was dedicated to the memory of ballerina and esteemed teacher Lucette Aldous who died in June 2021 and who was one of Healey’s Australian dance icons.
Michelle Potter, 30 October 2021
Featured image: Still from On View: Panoramic Suite, 2021. Courtesy of Sue Healey
My review of The Point was published by Limelight on 30 April 2021. As it is now only available with a subscription, I am posting the full review below minus the images used but followed by a small gallery of images that show some of the costumes and lighting, as well as the projections of Griffin designs, which I have mentioned briefly in the review. Should you have a subscription to Limelight, here is the link to follow.
Liz Lea’s new work The Point begins with a solo from Jareen Wee, an independent contemporary dancer trained in New Zealand and currently working in Australia. The solo is fast paced and, along with its dramatic spotlighting, exciting to watch. Its choreography insists that the body twist itself into a myriad shapes and stretch out into the space that surrounds it. Yet there is something about the occasional turned up feet and the gestures, especially the shapes made by the fingers, that suggests a style that is not entirely within the usual Western contemporary dance mode. And this solo sets the scene for what follows.
Seven of the 12 dancers who make up the cast are essentially exponents of various styles of classical Indian dance, while the other five are Western trained. The title of the work,The Point, refers to the concept of Bindu, the point of creation in Hindu mythology. In essence the work explores connections between Indian dance styles and Western contemporary dance, along with connections between people and place.
Wee’s opening solo is followed by a dance for 11 of the 12 dancers. They are dressed in black costumes of varying design, with subtle use of both plain and decorative fabric. The costume concept is by Lea in consultation with designer Cate Clelland. The dancers’ movements continue the double references seen in the opening solo and what follows over the next 60 minutes, sometimes clearly, sometimes elusively, is a creative blending of movement across dance forms. Towards the end, a separation of styles becomes clearer as the exponents of Indian styles dress in traditional costume and engage more closely with the dance styles in which they were trained. But in the final moments the dancers join together crossing the stage as one but, nevertheless, as two forces connecting together.
At times there is an obvious sense of focus between the dancers, thus setting up the notion of connection that Lea aimed to create. They look into each other’s eyes, they engage in movement that demands physical connection, including complex lifts and the use of grounded, twisting choreography. But connection comes in other ways as well. Lea’s inspiration for ThePoint clearly came from her own diverse training in both Western contemporary dance and in Bharata Natyam, which she studied in India. Now Canberra-based, Lea was also inspired by the work of architects and artists Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin, whose own lives had connections both to Canberra and to India. At various points throughout the work, projections are displayed on the back wall of the new black box theatre space at Belco Arts Centre. They are designs by the Griffins and are beautifully presented and animated by projection designer James Josephides.
The connection to Marion Mahony Griffin was, to my mind, also referenced by the 12th dancer, Ira Patkar, an exponent of the Kathak style of Indian dance. Patkar danced beautifully but remained somewhat apart from the others throughout the work. She appeared essentially as a solo dancer, although, at the end, joined the final moments of connection. But rarely was she required to make contact with the others. She seemed to represent the lack of recognition that has characterised the role and work of Marion Mahony Griffin for so long.
Part of the strength of The Point came not only from the choreography and the concept of connection, but also from a truly remarkable lighting design from Karen Norris. As we entered the black box space a single spotlight shone from above onto the darkened performing space: it clearly represented the title, The Point. Throughout the work Norris lit the space from various positions. Sometimes many spots highlighted the dancing, at others a few judiciously placed spots placed the dancers in semi-darkness. At times the lighting was brightly coloured and at one stage a row of floor level lights positioned close to the back wall shone towards the audience so we saw the dancers from a whole different perspective. We were connected at those moments.
The Point was danced to a collage of music from both Western and Indian composers: Liberty Kerr, dj BC, TaikOz, Malhar Jam, and Harish Sivaramakrishna. It was an audacious soundscape that, like every part of the production, referenced connection and creativity.
Liz Lea has never shied away from using dance to make strong statements. The Point is an extraordinarily courageous work that suggests that no dance style is beyond being looked at creatively.
As I mentioned in my review, I was especially taken by the lighting used to illuminate the action from a different perspective, which you can see in the image immediately above. Without wishing to detract from Karen Norris’ lighting for The Pointe, which was spectacular, with this particular change of perspective I was reminded of a similar use of lighting in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara. As we watch the final sections of the Murphy production we feel as though we are onstage with Clara as she dances her final performance. Similarly in The Point, with this lighting change we, the audience, became part of the performance.
The Point continues to resonate in the minds (and voices) of those who saw it. There have been calls for it to travel!
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.
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
MISTwas 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.
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 Bayadèrefor 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.
8 March 2018, QL2 Theatre, Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra
What follows is a slightly expanded version of my review for The Canberra Times of Liz Lea’s RED. A link to the online version of The Canberra Times‘ review is at the end of this post.
The pre-show media for Liz Lea’s new work RED prepared us to expect something a little extraordinary, something a bit bawdy, something with adult themes, something fierce and fractious, perhaps something that was even a bit funny, but definitely something confronting. And yes, it was all of those things. But nothing, nothing at all, prepared us for the emotional power that coursed through RED, and for the brilliantly coherent manner in which the show drew its diverse sections together. And nothing prepared us for the courage and dignity with which Lea put her life before us, her life as a dancer who has battled endometriosis throughout her career.
RED was a multi-media experience. It began with a film clip of a young girl crossing a white bridge; the sound of a counter tenor singing that exquisitely melancholic aria ‘What is life to me without thee’ from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice; and a voice over that began with the words ‘She thought she could have it all.’ That voice returned throughout the work. It was a doctor explaining the nature of the illness from which Lea suffered, and the procedures that she had to endure. I am told that the voice of the doctor was that of Brian Lucas, the dramaturg and Lea’s mentor for the production. Film clips from cinematographer Nino Tamburri also returned from time to time, and Lea talked about her career. Her conversation focused largely on how she managed her condition, but also went right back to her experiences as a thirteen year old dancer. Of course she also danced throughout the hour-long show.
The dancing segments were fast and forceful at times, full of theatrical extravaganza at others. It was easy to see in the choreography, from three choreographers (Vicki van Hout, Virginia Ferris and Martin del Amo) in addition to Lea, the styles with which Lea is most familiar—hints of Indian dance moves, suggestions of martial arts, and a fabulous, stunningly lit showgirl routine, choreographed by Ferris and lit by Karen Norris, with feathers (red of course), fans and sequins. Then there was a ‘codeine nightmare’ when Lea was joined by several older dancers dressed in black (the women mostly with added sparkles to their dresses) who danced with and for her and helped her live out the experience of having to manage excessive pain.
But it was the ending that reduced me to tears. That incredible Gluck aria returned and Lea, now dressed in a tight, short, black number with high-heeled black patent leather shoes (with red soles), hair pulled back, and looking superbly elegant and glamorous, stood before us. She scarcely moved at first, but slowly her arms began a dance that gathered momentum and seemed to promise a future full of hope. Her limbs stretched this way and that, lyrical, questioning, wondering, and in the very last moment a shower of shiny, red “snowflakes” fell from above. The choreography for this last section was by Martin del Amo. Its simplicity was striking but it was also a breathtaking finale for all that it looked back on, and all that it promised.
RED was a truly remarkable piece of dance theatre with the coherence that only exceptional dramaturgy can achieve. Every aspect of the production was astonishing, but standing out was the power of dance, and the wider multi-media context in which it can and did fit, to transmit a diverse and very human message, and to do so with such emotion and such clarity. As for Lea, how courageous, how remarkable can one artist be? Brava!
Here is the link to the online article in The Canberra Times.
RED: the prequel
RED was launched prior to its opening night performance in one of the courtyards of Gorman Arts Centre. It was a beautiful, clear, not-too-cold night and Gorman was alive. The show was launched by the ACT Minister for the Arts, Gordon Ramsay, and his launch speech was preceded by comments from artistic director of QL2, Ruth Osborne, and Gai Brodtmann, Member for Canberra in the Federal House of Representatives.
We were also treated to a performance by the ‘wuthering’ ladies and gentlemen of Canberra who danced to Kate Bush’s 1970s song Wuthering Heights.
Also on display in one of the studios of Gorman was a collection of costumes from Liz Lea’s collection covering her productions over the past 20 years, including the costume for her solo work Bluebird. Since its premiere in London in 2005, Lea’s Bluebird has been performed across the world, with its first Australian showing taking place at the Choreographic Centre, Canberra, in 2006.