Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli in 'TUesday', 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

Woolf Works. Teatro alla Scala

20 April 2019. Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Sitting in the so-called ‘first balcony’ of Teatro alla Scala in Milan gave me a view of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works that I have never had before. In I now, I then, the first act based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, I saw more clearly the structural elements of the set, the darkness behind those structures, and the way the elements of the set impacted on the storyline. In the second act, Becomings, based on Orlando, I had a view of Lucy Carter’s spectacular lighting design that was quite different from what I saw in earlier performances. In act three, Tuesday, based on The Waves, I was able to see McGregor’s choreographic patterns more clearly than before.

Of course I missed what I had seen on previous occasions, especially some of the finely detailed moments of choreography, and some details of personal connections between the dancers. But, like much in Milan, tickets to the ballet are expensive and, in any case, as I looked down from my central position so close to the ceiling (the ‘first balcony’ is the fifth of six semi-circular galleries that are part of the theatre), I wondered how well one could see from the orchestra stalls anyway. Down there the floor of the auditorium seemed very flat, although no doubt the stage was raked.

This post discusses the impact the new, on-high perspective had on my thoughts about Woolf Works. My previous reviews of Woolf Works are at the following links: London 2017, Brisbane 2017.


Inside the Teatro all Scala

For me, I now, I then has always had the strongest narrative element of the three acts. It follows various threads of Clarissa Dalloway’s life and loves, but does so through Clarissa’s memories. Having the view from the ‘first balcony’ of the three large wooden structures (they are like enormous picture frames) that make up the set in this act, seeing them move position, come together and separate repeatedly, gave extra strength to the notion that the story was moving through Clarissa’s life. Those who touched her life disappeared behind the frames occasionally only to reappear later, and the frames themselves seemed larger than I had previously noticed—life itself exists on a grand scale—and the figures smaller—we are are born to die while life, a greater force, continues.

I have always loved the final moments of act one where the five people who have especially touched Clarissa’s life dance together, change partners, come back to each other, then one by one disappear into the void of the darkened stage leaving Clarissa alone to contemplate her memories. The whole notion of the changing relationships that mark our lives was made clearer to me as I looked down on the action and on the visual elements that marked out the stage space.

The cast was led by Alessandra Ferri as Clarissa; Federico Bonelli as Peter, Clarissa’s early love interest; Catherina Bianchi as the young Clarissa; Agnese di Clementi as Jenny, Clarissa’s female friend; and Mick Zeni as Richard, Clarissa’s husband.

Federico Bonelli, Caterina Bianchi, Alessandra Ferri, Mick Zeni Agnese and Di Clemente in Woolf Works Act I, 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

Federico Bonelli, Caterina Bianchi, Alessandra Ferri, Mick Zeni, and Agnese Di Clemente in Woolf Works Act I, 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala. This moment occurs towards the end of act one as Clariss (Alessandra Ferri) interacts with those who have shared her life.

A major characteristic of act two, Becomings, has always been Lucy Carter’s astonishing lighting design. Earlier I wrote that it ‘sometimes divides the stage space, other times it beams out into the space of the auditorium. It colours the space, and darkens it too, and laser beams occasionally shoot across the stage’. This time it seemed quite clear that many of the lighting effects indicated the multiple decades/years that are covered in Orlando. Throughout this act the dancers moved through some very clear geometrical patches of light as well as some cloudy, misty patches. And again the dancers seemed small, this time in relation to those clouds and shapes of light. Then as the act closes beams of light are projected into the auditorium. From a height they no longer blind the eyes but suggest clearly that we were now part of the ‘becoming’. Time has passed and reached ‘now’.

Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko in 'Becomings'. 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko in ‘Becomings’ from Woolf Works. 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala

Act 3, Tuesday,

Act 3, Tuesday, begins with a voice-over reading Virginia Woolf’s suicide note to her husband before she drowns herself in the River Ouse, her pockets filled with stones. The letter is dated Tuesday.

I have to admit that previously the choreography in this act seemed to me to be a little messy, apart from the very moving pas de deux that follows immediately after the voice-over. But, looking down on the movement patterns McGregor had created on the dancers, his intention with the choreography seemed clearer. I saw the many different variations that one might encounter in water—swirls, rips, eddies, gentle waves, tumultuous breakers, everything was there. There was no mess, just a myriad of watery patterns danced nicely by the corps de ballet of Teatro alla Scala with the participation of students from La Scala Academy.

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Not being familiar with the dancers of La Scala it is hard to make comments about specific dancers. But I recall Nicoletta Manni from her performances in Australia in 2018 and I enjoyed her dancing in act two. I was also impressed by Timofej Andrijashenko both in act one as Septimus, the World War I veteran who commits suicide, and in act 2 for some spectacular dancing. Ferri and Bonelli I have seen before in their roles as Clarissa and Peter and once again they gave exceptional performances.

In all, I loved seeing Woolf Works from a completely different position in the auditorium. It simply confirmed my opinion that Woolf Works is a ballet that I will never tire of seeing.

Michelle Potter, 23 April 2019

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli in Tuesday from Woolf Works, 2019. Photo: © Marco Brescia and Rudy Amisano, Teatro alla Scala. This image is from the very moving pas de deux that opens the dancing in Tuesday

Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'Woolf Works' Act I. The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet in Australia

30 June 2017, Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

What a pleasure it was to see Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works again, and to have one’s first impression strengthened. Woolf Works remains for me one of those exceptional works that reveals new insights with every new viewing. In Brisbane, as part of the program by the Royal Ballet on its visit to Australia, it was performed with all the panache and brilliance I have come to expect from this absolutely world class company.

Casting for the Brisbane opening was, with the major exception of Sarah Lamb who did not appear due to injury, largely the same as that which British audiences would know as ‘first cast’ with Alessandra Ferri in the lead as Clarissa Dalloway. Looking back at my review from earlier this year, at this link, I stand by what I wrote then. But below are some aspects of the work that I loved this time, which I didn’t notice to the same extent earlier.

Act I: ‘I now/I then’ (based on Mrs Dalloway)

  • Sitting much closer to the action on this occasion, I admired the complexity of Wayne McGregor’s choreography. There were fascinating small movements of the hands and fingers, for example, and the dancers showed every tiny movement with great clarity and with a real sense of pleasure in performing them.
  • Truly satisfying was the way in which the ending of this first act returned to, but reversed the sequence of and brought new understanding to the opening moments. As ‘I now/I then’ begins Clarissa Dalloway stands on stage, a solitary, reflective figure. She is then joined by the main characters we will see interacting with her throughout the act, in particular the young Clarissa (Beatriz Stix-Brunell) and a close friend (Francesca Hayward), and her two male love interests (Federico Bonelli and Gary Avis). They all dance with a carefree demeanour, and engage in a youthful manner with each other. But as we approach the end of this act, those characters return and dance together in a kind of pas de cinq, weaving in and out amongst each other, joining hands at times, seemingly more closely connected to each other than in the opening moments. Then, one by one they leave the stage and Clarissa is left alone, still reflective, still solitary. But we now understand her thoughts.

Act II: Becomings (based on Orlando)

  • While I was previously full of admiration for the dancing of Steven McRae, this time I was overwhelmed by his astounding abilities. Again there were some small choreographic complexities that I didn’t notice before, the suggestion of shaking legs was one, and McRae made those movements very clear. But this time I especially admired his spectacularly fluid upper body, his exceptionally flexible limbs, and the way he powered down the stage at one point to begin the next section. And his first pas de deux with Natalia Osipova was a sensational performance (from both of them).

Steven McRae in Woolf Works Act II. The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo Darren Thomas

Steven McRae in Woolf Works Act II (Becomings). The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

  • I was struck this time too by the way in which the passing of time—the novel Orlando moves across some five centuries—was handled in the ballet. Time moved along as a result of Lucy Carter’s spectacular lighting design, but also in part with costuming. When the curtain went up all characters were wearing Elizabethan costume, but as the act developed elements of the Elizabethan attire were progressively lost. Slowly a more contemporary look became obvious. But it was a beautifully slow and changing progression so that even at the end there were still small traces of earlier times—the hint of a ruff at the neckline for example. Some things never change.
  • In a similar vein, I was surprised by the way the gender changes that Orlando undergoes in the novel were addressed in the ballet. They were suggested again by costuming when small black tutu-like additions to plain contemporary costumes were worn by both male and female dancers, for example. But most startling for me was the fact that there were moments when Steven McRae seemed to take on a female role in a pas de deux. His partner was male but McRae was lifted as he had previously lifted Osipova. It was simply spectacular dancing from McRae, but my mind kept turning back to Osipova’s movements. It was a brilliant moment in the choreography.

ACT III: ‘Tuesday’ (based on The Waves)

  • Again with ‘Tuesday’ I saw much more in the choreography than I had previously. This time I especially loved the opening pas de deux between Ferri and Bonelli. I watched with pleasure as he held her in his outstretched arms, carried her on his back and supported her as she lay along  the side of his body. Then, in the same pas de deux, there were those captivating variations on what we have come to regard as the end pose of a regular fish dive. McGregor seems to have a mind that never sees a pose as final: there are always variations to be had.

Woolf Works is a breathtaking work of art, fabulously danced by a great company. I hope I get to see it again because I know I will continue to find  more and more to ponder over, wonder at, and be moved by.

Alessandra Ferri and artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Woolf Works' Act III. Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Alessandra Ferri and artists of the Royal Ballet in Woolf Works Act III (Tuesday). Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Michelle Potter, 2 July 2017

Featured image: Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in Woolf Works Act I (I now/I then). The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Beatriz Stix-Brunell, Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'Woolf Works' Act I. The Royal Ballet, Brisbane 2017. Photo: © Darren Thomas

Brett Chynoweth, Vivenne Wong and Kevin Jackson in 'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Faster. The Australian Ballet

10 April 2017, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The Australian Ballet’s latest program of three contemporary ballets is, artistically speaking, a very mixed bill. It certainly shows off the physical skills of company dancers, but choreographically it has its highs and lows.

The program opened with Faster, a work by British choreographer David Bintley, which he made initially for the London 2012 Olympic Games. It may have been an interesting work for that occasion, but I just can’t understand why it was thought worthy of reviving for repertoire. Although dancers have physical skills that are certainly athletic, in my book dancers are artists not athletes. There was nothing in the Bintley work that allowed the dancers to show their artistry. They seemed to run around the stage a lot, occasionally with a jump here, or a twist there. They pretended they were fencing, shooting a ball through a hoop, engaging in high jumps and other aerial sports, and so on. Sometimes they feigned injury, or despair, or something. But really I would rather watch professional athletes engaging in sporting activities rather than dancers pretending. Faster was a very lightweight work and not my idea of what I want to see from the Australian Ballet (or any ballet company for that matter).

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Faster, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The highlight of the evening was Tim Harbour’s fabulous new work, Squander and Glory. Choreographically it explores not so much how the body moves through space—although that happens—but how the body can fill the space around it. Sometimes there were some quite beautiful classical lines to observe, along with large groups of bodies gathered close together and moving across the stage. But at other times that classical look and ordered arrangement collapsed and we could see something more akin to a heap of bodies making shapes, lines and swirls of infinite and fascinating variety. (And I’m using ‘heap’ here in a positive sense rather than suggesting it was a mess).

But not only was Squander and Glory thrilling, and surprising, to watch from a choreographic point of view, it was also a wonderful example a how the collaborative elements can add so much to the overall feel and look of a work. I have long admired Benjamin Cisterne’s powerful and courageous vision for what lighting can contribute to a work, and that vision was absolutely evident in Squander and Glory. His use of a mirrored cloth in the work doubled our view of the number of dancers appearing on stage, and allowed us to see the choreography from two different angles. It brought an extra layer of excitement to the work, and I was amazed and delighted that those mirror images didn’t detract from the work, as so often happens when film clips or projections of some kind are introduced into a dance piece.

Then there was Kelvin Ho’s towering structure in the background, which reminded me of part of a Frank Gehry building, or a cone-like sculpture similar to those made by Australian sculptor Bert Flugelman. But it also had a kind of  mystery associated with it. Logically it had to be a projection but its presence was so powerful, without dominating the choreography or Cisterne’s design, that I had to wonder where it was physically located. It was a brilliant addition to a seamlessly beautiful collaboration, which to my mind was enhanced by the relentless sound of Michael Gordon’s score, Weather One.

'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Squander and Glory, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The program closed with Wayne McGregor’s 2008 work, Infra. I am a McGregor fan for sure, but I found Infra underwhelming after Squander and Glory. The work emerged from McGregor’s thoughts about human intimacy and its varied manifestations. But the expression of these ideas seemed dry and even sterile after the lusciousness and heart-stopping excitement of Squander and Glory. Set design by Julian Opie was a parade of faceless people, drawn as black outlines, hurrying across an LED screen above the stage. But it simply added to that feeling of sterility. Even Lucy Carter’s lighting, which has in the past been absolutely amazing (most recently in Woolf Works), didn’t excite.

Bouquets to the team who created Squander and Glory. It was a truly remarkable new work and certainly made my night at the ballet worthwhile. I look forward to a second viewing.

Michelle Potter,  14 April 2017

Featured image: Brett Chynoweth, Vivienne Wong and Kevin Jackson in Squander and Glory. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Brett Chynoweth, Vivenne Wong and Kevin Jackson in 'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet

11 February 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The printed program for Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works gives the piece a subtitle: A Triptych. It is a perfect subtitle since Woolf Works consists of three separate pieces but, like a religious triptych, each separate part tells us something about an overall subject. In the case of Woolf Works this overall subject concerns the innovative, poetic writing of the early twentieth century novelist Virginia Woolf. And the work begins with the voice of Virginia Woolf talking about language in a recording made for the BBC in 1937. Her talk was called ‘On craftsmanship’ and, as she speaks, writing (hers presumably) appears in white on a black front screen. As her voice continues, the writing transforms itself into various white shapes. The lighting changes and the screen lifts. The first section begins.

Although the informative program, innovative in concept and design, never seeks to say what Woolf Works is ‘about’, for me McGregor brilliantly distills each of the Woolf novels he has chosen to work with into certain intrinsic elements. The first movement, I now, I then, inspired by the novel Mrs Dalloway, shows us the changing nature of relationships across a lifetime, even though the novel takes place in just one day. The second section, based on Orlando and called Becomings, examines the trajectory of the universe across time, just as Orlando takes place over several centuries. It might be called a study in time travel and has something approaching science fiction as an intrinsic element. The third section, Tuesday, is inspired by The Waves and seeks to show us the concept of inevitability.

Of the three sections I now, I then seems to me to be the strongest. If you know the novel, you will recognise the main characters of Clarissa Dalloway; Jenny Seton, the close friend whom Clarissa famously kisses; Peter Walsh, the man Clarissa didn’t marry, perhaps to her ongoing regret; and Septimus Warren Smith, the shell-shocked former soldier who eventually commits suicide, never being able to overcome his thoughts about the death of a soldier friend in World War I. But such knowledge isn’t entirely necessary as I now, I then stands on its own as a work about relationships of many and varied kinds.

In I now, I then, Alessandra Ferri plays a meditative, slightly distant Clarissa, lost in her thoughts. It was a pleasure to see her back onstage. In another cast, however, I saw Mara Galeazzi in the role and I preferred her performance. She seemed more emotionally involved in the role and, without wishing to detract from Ferri’s strong technical performance, I admired the way Galeazzi was able to embody the choreography, giving it quite beautiful shape and fluidity. The various pas de deux between Clarissa and the two men in her life (played by Federico Bonelli and Gary Avis in one cast and Ryoichi Hirano and Tomas Mock in the other) were highlights in both casts.

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Clarissa as a younger woman and Jenny her friend, played by Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Francesca Hayward (and in the other cast Yasmine Naghdi and Mayara Magri), had some gorgeous choreography, sometimes performed in unison, often fast and joyous, and always full of the pleasures of youth and friendship. They engaged too with Peter, Clarissa’s early love interest, while the older Clarissa stood thoughtfully in the background. Again pleasure in relating to others was at the heart of the choreography.

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Another exceptionally powerful performance came from Edward Watson as Septimus, whose problematic mental state was made clear as he executed the writhing, twisted choreography.

Strong visual elements in the form of film footage (film designer Ravi Deepres) washed across the performing space and over the set, which consisted of the perimeters of three large, wooden, movable square structures. The footage showed London scenes from the 1920s and, sometimes, the garden of Virginia Woolf’s home and, with Max Richter’s score occasionally interrupted by the sound of Big Ben chiming, the setting was an evocative one.

Becomings was distinguished by some astonishing lighting effects from Lucy Carter. Although her work is an important and quite beautiful element in all three sections, in Becomings it is nothing short of sensational—as innovative as anything Woolf wrote. It sometimes divides the stage space, other times it beams out into the space of the auditorium. It colours the space, and darkens it too, and laser beams occasionally shoot across the stage.

Among this spectacular light (and darkness as the stage is often submerged in near blackness), dancers appear, clad in an assortment of black and gold costumes that range from Elizabethan garb—Eric Underwood at times wears an Elizabethan-style dress that would have delighted Queen Elizabeth I—to contemporary attire (costume design Moritz Junge). There is some spectacular dancing. Legs stretch and extend in seemingly impossible ways and partnering sometimes takes the breath away. Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae stand out, especially in an early pas de deux where the gender of Orlando is explored (perhaps?). Both also stand out elsewhere in this second section, as does Sarah Lamb who always looks good executing McGregor’s flashy, super-extended style. 

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in 'Becomings' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in Becomings from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Despite the dancing and the mesmerising lighting display, Becomings did not have the same attraction for me as I now, I then. It was harder to feel where Woolf fitted in for one thing, even given the emphasis at times on gender issues, which Woolf explores in Orlando. But then perhaps the link is that Woolf was always experimenting, exploring, finding innovative ways to use language, as McGregor and his collaborators are examining how collaboration across the arts can give new insights?

The third and final section, Tuesday, begins with half the stage space being taken up by film footage of very slowly breaking waves. A voice-over reads Woolf’s suicide note left for her husband before she stepped into the river Ouse, her pockets weighed down with stones. After the glitz and glamour of Becomings, Tuesday was quietly reflective and we felt the slow motion of the waves and the inevitability of time passing.

Clarissa appears alone on stage at the beginning of Tuesday. But her memories continue to fill her mind. Children appear from the darkness beneath the images of waves. They run to her. She is joined by Sarah Lamb (as her sister, Vanessa Bell?). Voices are heard over the music and the names of Vanessa’s children are mentioned—Quentin, Angelica, Julian. The corps de ballet dances in wave-like movements. Clarissa stands and watches. Bonelli joins her and they are left alone. Clarissa slips to the floor and the waves retreat.

Scene from 'Tuesday' in ''Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Scene from Tuesday in Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

I found Woolf Works a hugely moving work. I’m sure I missed many of the nuances. But I love that I could make up an interpretation (my own if not McGregor’s) that sent me out of the theatre fulfilled and wanting to see the work many more times. It is an exceptional collaboration with intelligent minds behind it, including that of a dramaturg (Uzma Hameed). This is how dance should be.

Woolf Works is directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor and first took the stage in 2015. Its revival in 2017 is part of the Royal Ballet’s celebration of McGregor’s ten years as the Royal’s resident choreographer and the work will be part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire on its tour to Australia in June/July 2017.

Michelle Potter, 13 February 2017

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

‘Chroma’, ‘Multiverse’, ‘Carbon Life’. The Royal Ballet

14 November 2016, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

This triple bill of works by Wayne McGregor, including Multiverse his newest commission, was presented in celebration of McGregor’s ten years as resident choreographer with the Royal Ballet. While all three works clearly had the ‘McGregor touch’ in terms of a choreographic interest in the extent to which the body can be pushed to extreme limits, each was also quite distinctive in its own right.

Chroma, the oldest of the three, was first made in 2006. It was the work that inspired Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet at the time, to offer McGregor the position of resident choreographer. Ten years on Chroma retains its minimalist beauty in its design with a set by John Pawson, costumes by Moritz Junge, lighting by Lucy Carter, and a score by Joby Talbot and Jack White III. It is still thrilling to watch choreographically with its extended limbs and emphasis on a fluid torso. But what made a difference in the current production was the presence in the cast of five dancers guesting from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Jeroboam Bozeman, Jacqueline Green, Yannick Lebrun, Rachael McLaren and Jamal Roberts.

It is tempting to say that these dancers brought a different aesthetic to the choreography, and perhaps they did. Certainly I sensed that they injected a more powerful human quality, something emotional into the steps. It is hard to articulate just why the way they danced was different but it seemed like they had a different kind of focus in their movement. A greater sense of physicality and a different muscularity maybe? Whatever it was, it added a different level of interest, which is not to denigrate in any way the five fabulous Royal Ballet dancers who completed the cast: Federico Bonelli, Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae, and Calvin Richardson. The 2016 production indicates that Chroma lives on and has the power to grow. (Thoughts on my first viewing of the Royal Ballet in Chroma in 2010 are at this link.)

Sarah Lamb in 'Chroma'. The Royal Ballet 2013. Photo: © Bill Cooper.

Sarah Lamb in Chroma. The Royal Ballet (2013). Photo: © Bill Cooper.

The closing item was Carbon Life, made in 2012. Again it had lighting by Lucy Carter, sometimes as in the opening moments eerily green, other times full on bright white. Design was by English fashion designer Gareth Pugh and music by pop/funk artists Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt.

Artists of the Royal Ballet production of 'Carbon Life', 2012. Photo: © Bill Cooper / Royal Opera House / ArenaPAL

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Carbon Life. Photo: © Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL

I especially enjoyed some of the earlier sections where unisex seemed to be the order of the day. Men and women wore similar costumes: short black trunks and, for the women, a skin-coloured midriff top that tightly enclosed the upper body and made them appear topless. Added to this costume both sexes had slicked-back hair (wigs?) that added to the similarity in the look of the sexes. Choreographically this section seemed at times like a ballet class engaged in a kind of temps lié exercise.

A later section was distinguished by some incredible costuming consisting of black, stiffened additions to the head, legs and other parts of the body. They were a little like a cross between KKK headgear and Cambodian dance costume attachments, or perhaps a bit like Ballet mécanique. Certainly the shapes were architectural and the body began to sprout structural additions. The singular attraction of Carbon Life, however, was the presence of live musicians onstage/upstage usually partially hidden by lighting or a screen of some sort. Their playing was loud and engaging and, when they appeared to take a curtain call, they too were dressed to kill. But in the end the choreography seemed like a minor player in all this and Carbon Life took on the guise of a fast-paced video clip rather than an exercise in choreography.

In between Chroma and Carbon Life came the newly commissioned Multiverse, which, incidentally, the Australian Ballet adds to its repertoire in February 2017. I thought it was the least interesting of the three works, although program notes were full of explanations and thoughts about McGregor’s intentions, which centred on the current refugee crisis and other such global perils. Musically (or sound-wise) it was diverse and consisted of two pieces by Steve Reich—a specially commissioned work Runner, and a 1965 piece It’s gonna rain, of which the second part is the voice of a Pentecostal preacher holding forth in Union Square in San Francisco on the biblical story of Noah and the flood. Perhaps because I found William Forsythe’s work, Quintett, so moving—it used Gavin Bryars recording of a homeless man singing over and over Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, which sat emotively beside the choreography—I found the use of the preacher’s words unaffecting. Unlike the Forsythe piece, in Multiverse choreography and recording didn’t seem to reflect each other in a thought-provoking manner. After all this, the second Reich piece, Runner, was simply soporific for me.

Nevertheless, Multiverse began strongly with a male duet—I saw Luca Acri and Marcelino Sambé—full of tension and drama. It was by far the most interesting part of the work choreographically. The section that followed referenced the plight of refugees. This idea came across most strongly via the set by Rashid Rana in which fragmented images appeared. Some were contemporary shots, others were from the well-known painting by Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa. But there were rather too many moments when the dancers simply stood still and, while this might be seen as giving way to the power of the images and what they represented, it was hardly compelling from a movement point of view.

Set from 'Multiverse'.© Rashid Rana. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Set from Multiverse. © Rashid Rana. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Perhaps Multiverse needs more than one viewing in order to appreciate its complexities? But then not everyone has such a luxury. The idea of making dance that reflects current society is indeed admirable (and I am a fan of McGregor’s Live fire exercise). But on this occasion it simply didn’t work for me and I began to wonder whether I should not have read the detailed program notes because what was written and what appeared onstage didn’t really match.

Audience reaction was a curious thing too. As the curtain went down, behind me an enthusiastic audience member was cheering long and loudly. Beside me another was boo-ing!

Michelle Potter, 19 November 2016

Featured image: Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

FAR. Random Dance

11 October 2012, Northern Stage, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Wayne McGregor’s works are always accompanied by intellectually demanding notes and explanations. FAR is no exception. Made originally in 2010, it is according to McGregor inspired by a study of the Enlightenment by English academic Roy Porter entitled Flesh in the Age of Reason (from which comes, as an acronym, the name of McGregor’s work).

However, I am a fan of the now probably outmoded concept of ‘intentional fallacy’ whereby the artist’s intention is not a standard for judging the success or failure of a work. While it is always interesting to read what the artist believes is the intention of, or forms the inspiration for a work, the work has to stand on its own and must be open to the necessarily varied interpretations of the audience.

FAR begins with a duet, which can only be described as a passionate, if somewhat acrobatic, exploration of the boundaries of what the body can do in dance. The couple, a man and a woman, are attended by four black-clad figures holding flaming torches. These figures vanish quietly and almost imperceptibly one by one throughout the duet. The dancers perform to an 18th century aria, Sposa son disprezzata (‘I am wife and I am scorned’) by Gemininao Giacomelli and sung by Cecilia Bartoli, and the whole is extraordinarily emotional.

But this lush opening gives way to the hard edge of the 21st century as a growling electronic score by Ben Frost takes over and the flicker of torches is replaced by LED lighting (design by Lucy Carter) in the form of five rows of tiny tubes projecting from a rectangular, white board, which occupies much of the back section of the stage. The choreography too seems to lose its fluidity and becomes more angular, and full of flicking hands and very busy bodies.

Occasionally one might read a narrative line into some sections. There are moments when the dancers seem to engage in an argument for example as they push each other around. Occasionally too the ensemble of ten dancers moves as one and this comes as something of a shock to the eye after the seemingly random structuring of bodies on stage. A duet for two men is a highlight, as is a brief moment when two dancers crouch low together on the stage holding a difficult pose on half pointe.

The work closes with another strong duet for a man and a woman in which the woman’s body in particular is often stretched taut, as if to balance the rippling bodies that we have seen in abundance throughout the work. In the final moments the man lowers the woman to the floor, leaves her lying there and walks off.

Some may have seen in this work a connection between body and soul, which was at the heart of Porter’s investigations into the 18th century mode of thinking and behaving. I didn’t think about it as I watched the show. More than anything, seeing McGregor’s tangled yet clearly articulated choreographic moves is a treat, especially when performed by the athletic dancers who make up Random Dance. It was a pleasure to see Anthony Whitely again too, now dancing with Random Dance after his stint with Sydney Dance Company.

FAR

The closing duet from FAR.

Michelle Potter, 14 October 2012

‘Entity.’ Random Dance

28 January 2011, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay. Sydney Festival, 2011

Wayne McGregor’s Entity, performed by his company Random Dance as part of the 2011 Sydney Festival, begins and ends with black and white footage of a greyhound in motion. It may be or be based on the work of the nineteenth-century, British-American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneer of the physics of animal locution. It certainly recalls the work of Muybridge. To me this visual clue is of far greater import and carries much more interest for the viewer than any amount of philosophical discussion of McGregor’s research project ‘Choreography and cognition’ and his work with neuroscientists, as fascinating as those and other aspects of McGregor’s career are.

Entity shows the remarkable ability of the human body to move, bend, twist, flex, soar and travel. Like the greyhound the dancers are sleek. Their limbs extend and reach outwards. Their bodies are stretched long and lean. They use their muscles efficiently. They move with intention. In their black briefs and white T-tops, dispensed with towards the end to reveal black bra tops on the women and for the men a bare upper body, they hover on the edge of classical movement before morphing into strange new shapes. They twist and contort their bodies with one recurring motif being an arched spine with backside pushed out, the antithesis of the classically stretched spine with the head balanced perfectly at the top. Bodies are in constant dialogue with each other and the movement screams out its edginess.

Danced to a score by Joby Talbot followed by another from Jon Hopkins, the work is set in an enclosed space consisting of three light coloured, translucent screens, one at each side and one at the back of the stage area. Designed by Patrick Burnier they can be manipulated by a (viewable) mechanical system and lit when required. When lit (design by Lucy Carter) their internal structure is further revealed. During the second part of the work the screens rise above the dancers and are enhanced by video projections. From my position towards the back of the circle of the Sydney Theatre it was not entirely clear what the projections were other than they seemed to be various formulae. Part of the choreographer’s fascination with mathematical and engineering principles?

But in the end Entity is about McGregor’s choreography and about his attitude to how the body can move in this present day and age. It makes me long to see more of McGregor’s work, especially when danced by intensively trained ballet dancers. There are some great scenes of McGregor rehearsing Genus, his work for the Paris Opera Ballet, along with brief excerpts from the work in performance in the recent film La danse. While Random Dance performed superbly in Sydney, there is something additional in the way the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet perform. There is a certain security in the way they move, an inherent understanding of the body, something deeply intuitive about movement, that allows McGregor’s classical references to be offset in a particular way. The mix of the classical and the restive tension of today becomes heightened and makes us see both and all more clearly.

Although this is a little simplistic, McGregor reminds me of Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine and William Forsythe rolled into one. He’s a formalist. He dispenses with fussy costumes and decorative sets. And he has a remarkable intellectual curiosity. It makes for unusual and ultimately satisfying dance, which in its essence is purely McGregor.

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2011

Chroma, Tryst, Symphony in C. The Royal Ballet

If the Royal Ballet’s recent triple bill of Chroma, Tryst and Symphony in C did anything, it showed quite clearly that ballet is not dead, dying or even momentarily dormant as has occasionally been debated on this site. It is in full swing, vibrant, growing gloriously and proudly relishing both its heritage and its future—at least in London.

Although I was looking forward most to Wayne McGregor’s Chroma after seeing his Dyad 1929 in Australia in 2009, it was George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which closed the Royal Ballet’s program, that was the standout work for me. The array of principals was simply dazzling and their dancing was equally dazzling.

Leanne Benjamin, partnered by Johan Kobborg, led the first movement. She was beautifully self assured, a ballerina always aware of her audience with a technique that shone from the moment she stepped onto the stage. Alina Cojocaru, partnered by Valeri Hristov, was grace and poetry epitomised in the second, andante movement. In particular, Cojocaru’s exquisite arabesques traced a long, expressive arc through space as the leg lifted and once the high point had been reached the line seemed to extend forever. Roberta Marquez and Steven McRae in the third section performed in almost perfect unison, fulfilling the challenging requirement of the choreography for this scherzo movement. It was a thrilling display with Marquez performing the almost unimaginable by not only keeping up with McRae’s stunning jumps and turns but doing it with an expression of joy coursing through her whole body. In the fourth movement, before all the principals joined them for the final section, Laura Morera and Richard Cervera made a strong impression.

In each movement, the corps de ballet and soloists provided a beautifully executed backdrop of dancing for the principals. Symphony in C was staged for the Royal by Patricia Neary and a huge bouquet must go to her for giving such clarity to a work that can too often have a look of sameness across its movements.

The program opened with Chroma, Wayne McGregor’s 2006 commission for the Royal. As in his Dyad 1929 McGregor explored the extreme possibilities of the human body in motion. However, with Chroma being performed without the women wearing pointe shoes, the choreography had a quite different feel, more fluid perhaps, or more complex in its exploration of how the torso and upper limbs can bend, fold and extend.

The outstanding feature of Chroma to my mind though was its collaborative aesthetic and what emerged as a result. The set by architect John Pawson was extreme in its minimalism and reflected Pawson’s interest in Cistercian architecture with its emphasis on simplicity and the stripping back of non-essential elements of colour and embellishment. At first the set seemed to consist of a large screen or wall stretching across the stage space. It was positioned about one third of the way down the stage and appeared to have a white rectangle set slightly above the stage floor at its centre. But as the set was lit (by Lucy Carter) in different shades of white, grey and black, it became clear that the rectangle was actually a void. In it we occasionally saw dancers appear and disappear and we watched as the rectangle/void advanced and receded with changes in lighting.

Against the simplicity of the set, with its clean shapes, limited colour palette and play with volume and void, McGregor’s choreography looked on the one hand even more complex and exploratory, yet on the other it was tempered by the lack of overt scenic embellishment. It was an intellectual exercise in contrast to the Balanchine ‘don’t think, just do’ principle.

The third work on the program, Christopher Wheeldon’s Tryst looked a little contrived eight years after its premiere, especially during the first movement when its upturned feet and awkward contractions of the arms from the elbow looked awkward and without purpose. The high point of this work has always been the central pas de deux and on this occasion Sarah Lamb, with her beautifully proportioned body, danced eloquently.

Symphony in C was danced to the Bizet work of the same name, Chroma was danced to an amalgam of music by Joby Talbot and Jack White III and Tryst was danced to an orchestral work by James MacMillan. Each was conducted by a different conductor with Tryst being conducted the composer.

Michelle Potter, 30 May 2010

Postscript: on a musical note it was refreshing to see that the dancers acknowledged the orchestral players with due deference by bowing when the conductor asked that the musicians be acknowledged. The Australian Ballet habit of having the dancers lean into the orchestra pit and clap for what seems like an inordinate amount of time seems to me undancerly and to be taking acknowledgment too far.

Concord. The Australian Ballet

Por vos muero, Scuola di ballo & Dyad 1929, 21 August to 1 September 2009, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, MelbourneJ

The Australian Ballet finally hit the jackpot! In the dying months of its four year long celebration of the Ballets Russes, Wayne McGregor arrived in Melbourne and created his Dyad 1929—a work that is truly in the adventurous spirit of the Diaghilev period.

Dyad 1929 is made for a cast of twelve dancers, six women and six men. It is danced against a white backcloth, patterned all over with regular rows of black dots, which extends to a floorcloth. A thin horizontal bar of acid yellow light is raised and lowered in the extreme downstage area during the piece. Occasionally yellow light floods onto the backcloth. This ‘stage concept’ is by McGregor and the work’s lighting designer Lucy Carter. The dancers are costumed by Moritz Junge in close-fitting leotards, or all-overs, or trunks and tops in various combinations and patterns of white, black and fawn. The overall design concept is startling and exhilarating, as is the music—Double Sextet by Steve Reich.

But it is the choreography that lifts Dyad 1929 beyond the startling to the brave and the challenging. There is a matter-of-factness in the way the dancers enter and leave the stage. A la William Forsythe they walk, simply but decisively, on and off. Once on, however, their bodies become an experimental field. They are pushed, pulled and stretched. They crumple, bend and fold. Sometimes the movements look hard-edged. At other times they look more curvaceous. And what seems quite extraordinary is that often movements that are commonplace in a particular situation are put into completely new context. A stretching exercise commonly done at the barre becomes part of a duet, for example. And again extraordinarily, McGregor occasionally follows a twisted movement with a classical, centred one so that the eye can better discern what is central to each.

Standout dancers in two viewings were Lana Jones, cool and poised in a duet with Tzu-Chao Chou, and Danielle Rowe, more softly sinuous in a duet with Adam Bull—Jones a diamond, Rowe a pearl, both using their prodigious technical capacity to dance this audacious and demanding choreography. They dance purposefully, but also with what borders on ecstasy so intently and intensely do they articulate the choreography. This is what dancers crave: to be challenged to use their bodies to do the seemingly impossible, and thus to understand more about their art form.

This triple bill with the overarching name of ‘Concord’ opened with Nacho Duato’s sublime Por vos muero. Por vos remains a compelling work swinging between a stripped back look at human relationships, which we see in the three duets that open the work, to highly theatrical moments as in the scene in which six men in brocade cloaks swirl across the stage swinging censers that fill the air with incense. Daniel Gaudiello gave a particularly strong performance. It highlighted all the remarkable nuances of Duato’s choreography.

The third work on the program, also part of the Ballets Russes project, was a new production of Léonide Massine’s 1933 work, Scuola di ballo, in this case  choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky adhered to the narrative and choreographic structure of Massine’s work but, in terms of movement, the work looked more like a homage to August Bournonville. Ratmansky emphasised beaten footwork for the men and his pas de deux contained very few lifts, especially big overhead lifts. In typical Bournonville style the man for the most part danced alongside his partner. This was especially noticeable in the pas de deux between the characters Rosina and Carlino, which was prettily danced by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in one cast and Danielle Rowe and Ty King-Wall in another.

Scuola‘s comic elements were a hit with the audience but I am not convinced that attempting to reproduce what was clearly not Massine’s best ballet was a worthwhile endeavour. What it did was remind me that not all ballets from the Ballets Russes era (whether from the Diaghilev period or from that of his followers) are worth recalling. Restaging or reproducing works as museum or celebratory pieces only works if the original was a piece of major importance in the first place. I don’t believe that Scuola di ballo was. Ballet has moved on. Thankfully.

And thankfully there are choreographers like Wayne McGregor to show that the way ahead can be as adventurous as it was under Diaghilev.

Michelle Potter, 23 August 2009

Featured  image: Tzu-Chao Chou & Lana Jones in Dyad 1929. Photo: © Jim McFarlane. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Footnote: Showing in Melbourne at the same time as ‘Concord’ is an exhibition documenting the career of Salvador Dali. Included in the show, which is at the National Gallery of Victoria, is film footage of Massine’s 1939 collaboration with Dali on the ballet Bacchanale for Sergei Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It makes an interesting comparison with Scuola di ballo and comments on Bacchanale and its reception by Frederic Franklin, one of the original cast, are  easily found via any search engine and are eminently readable.

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