There was much that was abrupt in Tim Podesta’s Shadow Aspect, which featured guest artist Mara Galeazzi and dancers of the Welsh company, Ballet Cymru. The lighting came on and off abruptly, for example, and the music changed abruptly from loud and powerful to more gentle when the music was punctuated by a singing voice. Moreover, the choreography was not what one might called softly fluid—it too often had a sharp edge, an abruptness, and sometimes a static quality to it.
Having said that there was a lot to challenge the eye in Podesta’s choreography. I enjoyed the lifts where bodies were thrown across and around each other, the unusual gestures of the hands and arms, and the feeling that at times bodies were collapsing in on themselves. It reminded me a little of William Forsythe’s comments that he was interested in researching what the body can do, although the outcome in Podesta’s case was quite unlike Forsythe. Podesta rarely pushed the body off its central (classical) axis, as Forsythe was prone to do, hence the static feeling I got. Nevertheless, the dancers of Ballet Cymru executed Podesta’s challenging moves with strength and determination.
Podesta has explained in various places what was behind the work, and why it had the title Shadow Aspect. He quotes Carl Jung who said: ‘To know yourself, you must accept your dark side. To deal with others’ dark sides, you must also know your dark side.’
The shadow of the title is the dark side and elsewhere Podesta says that the work has a definite narrative and suggests that the narrative is quite clear, although open to interpretation. I didn’t have time to work out what the narrative was. The choreography was so busy being different that it was enough to take it in without worrying about a narrative. Less focus on being different would perhaps have made the narrative, whatever it was, clearer. Perhaps a dramaturg would be in order?
As for Mara Galeazzi, I have admired her dancing since I first saw her in Winter Dreams with the Royal Ballet in 2010, and I was highly impressed with her performance as Clarissa in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works in its 2017 staging. But, while she danced with her usual technical skill the choreography as set for her in Shadow Aspect, how I longed to see her in a work in which the choreography had more warmth to it.
18 October 2017 (matinee), State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne
Choreography: Wayne McGregor
Visual concept: Olafur Eliasson
Music: Jamie XX
Inspired by The Tree of Codes, a novel/artwork by Jonathan Safran Foer
It is absolutely undeniable that Tree of Codes, a dance highlight at the 2017 Melbourne Festival, is an astonishing act of collaboration. I sat through the entire 70 minutes of the show wondering about those scrims, mirrored screens, arches of light that seemed also to be caves, and the final huge metal structure with revolving cut-out circles of glass/perspex/something that reminded me (partially or at times anyway) of an art deco doorway and a Tiffany lamp all rolled into one. I have never really seen such theatrically in visual design. And the design included lighting that spread its way around the stage and the auditorium, in many shapes and colours and patterns and even made the stage appear to tilt forward and back at times (at least I think it happened via the lighting). Into all this, 14 dancers—two from the Paris Opera Ballet, 11 from Company Wayne McGregor, and guest artist Mara Galeazzi—wove their way through McGregor’s highly physical choreography to the very loud, sometimes melodic, sometimes driving score by Jamie XX.
In retrospect I can’t help wondering why I didn’t get visual and aural indigestion from what seemed to be a surfeit of elements. But I didn’t. The elements came together well, although in a way that was often puzzling. How did it happen, what were the technical aspects of it? It was so spectacular and unusual that it was impossible not to wonder and wonder.
Despite the colour and sound, the most interesting moments for me came from the dancers. I especially enjoyed the work of Lucie Fenwick from the Paris Opera Ballet and Daniela Neugebauer from Company Wayne McGregor. They were outstanding individually, especially Fenwick who danced on pointe but who made dancing on pointe so à la McGregor. But there was a magnificent section towards the end where they danced a dialogue with each other, interacting with such joyous momentum that they pretty much stole the show. Of the men I admired the extraordinarily fluid movement of Jacob O’Connell of Company Wayne McGregor. But my favourites should be seen as just that, my pick. Every dancer accomplished the tasks set with power and unbelievable energy.
Tree of Codes is perhaps not the masterpiece that the media releases would have us believe. In terms of McGregor’s work that I have seen to date Woolf Works continues to stand out, as do some of his shorter works made for the Royal Ballet and his FAR for Random Dance. But Tree of Codes was more than entertaining and has set the bar high as an extraordinary collaborative work.
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 andseeks 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frederick Ashton’s La Valse—what a swirlingly beautiful opening to the Royal Ballet’s recent mixed bill program. Ashton’s choreography seemed slightly idiosyncratic with its unexpected shifts in épaulement, swift lifts of the arms, quick bends of the body and a range of nuanced movement. Yet it was perfectly attuned to the changes of colour and rhythm in the Ravel score. In addition, the Royal Ballet dancers performed with such aplomb and brilliant attack not to mention a beautiful classical technique based, as it should be, on turned-out, centred movement.
The two works that followed were both exceptional distillations of involved narratives. Kim Brandstrup’s new work, Invitus, Invitam (Against his will, against her will) essentially compressed Racine’s play Bérénice into three pas de deux, while Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams distilled Chekov’s work The Three Sisters into one dramatic act.
In Racine’s version of part of Suetonius’ history of the Roman emperors, Titus is forced by the senate to send Bérénice, his mistress, away, against her will and against his will. In Brandstrup’s work we see three encounters between Titus and Bérénice: in the first Bérénice is aware that Titus has a concern that he is not speaking openly about; in the second Bérénice knows what is to happen and is devastated, as is Titus; and in the third they part in mutual sorrow. Leanne Benjamin is perfectly cast as Bérénice. All her maturity as an artist comes to the fore as the inevitable parting approaches. Edward Watson is her partner and he too captures the sense of impending drama.
Choreographically Brandstrup’s three pas de deux draw the two protagonists together and at the same time separate them from each other. Both Benjamin and Watson gave exceptional performances, strong yet tremulous with emotion. Benjamin’s dancing was faultless and her portrayal of the role was vulnerable in the extreme. Richard Hudson was responsible for the costumes and minimal setting, so in empathy with the distillation of the story. His screens and scrims and his use of computerised writing and sketches, which appeared sporadically on the screens, added just the right sense of location. The contemporary score by Thomas Adès was based on the work of Couperin and again was empathetic to Brandstrup’s overall conception. Invitus, Invitam was intensely moving and certainly deserves further performances.
Winter Dreams was led by Sarah Lamb as Masha and Thiago Soares as Vershinin with minor principal roles being taken by Mara Galeazzi as Olga and Roberta Marquez as Irina. Together they provided a strong performance of this bleak story.
The closing work on this generous program, the pièce de resistance in my mind, was Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. I was not at the opening night’s performance when, I am told, Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin took the leading roles and when Alicia Alonso, creator of the ballerina role for Ballet Theater in 1947, was in the audience. But I was more than happy to see a radiant Marianela Nuñez partnered by a dashing Nehemiah Kish dancing with all stops out in this ferociously demanding work. From the opening moments when the ballerina and her partner present themselves to us, to that wonderful moment as the work comes to a close when grands battements merge into high-kicks, this is a work to be savoured for the remarkable display of the classical technique that it is. And again the entire complement of dancers showed what an outstanding company the Royal is at the moment.
I could, however, have done without Peter Farmer’s set for Theme, which to my mind suffers from a surfeit of draperies. Simplicity is all that is needed as a foil to Balanchine’s intricate weaving of bodies across the stage. But what a pleasure it was to see such beautifully trained bodies dancing with such a secure sense of classicism.