A performance highlight for August was undoubtedly Natalia Osipova’s Pure Dance, a program of six short works curated by Osipova and featuring Osipova and David Hallberg, along with two guest artists Jonathan Goddard and Jason Kittelberger. A link to my review of the show, written for Limelight Magazine, appears below.
Of course Pure Dance reminded me a little of a similar show Sylvie Guillem put together four or so years ago called Life in Progress. Osipova and Guillem, fabulous classical technicians, both have an abiding interest in contemporary choreography and it is an exceptional experience to see how their skills translate into dance works beyond classical ballet.
Youth Dance Festival, Canberra
Canberra has long been a centre for youth and community dance and September sees the 35th season of the city’s Youth Dance Festival, or Youth Fest as it is more commonly known. An inclusive, non-competitive dance festival, it brings together dancers from schools across Canberra and surrounding districts for performances staged by Ausdance ACT at the Canberra Theatre Centre. The 2019 program, called Generation Next, is made up of 61 different dance works created by 40 high schools and colleges from the region!
Jamie Winbank, creative director of the show, tells me that 45,000 young dancers have participated since the festival began in 1985, an astonishing number really. Winbank sees Dance Fest as ‘a platform for young people to express their ideas and opinions, and have their voices heard through dance.’ Generation Next runs from 7-13 September and bookings can be made through the Canberra Theatre Centre website.
New Breed from Sydney Dance Company
Sydney Dance Company recently announced the four emerging choreographers who have been commissioned to make a work for the 2019 New Breed season. They are Josh Mu and Lauren Langlois, both from Melbourne, and Ariella Casu and Davide Di Giovanni both from Sydney. This will be the sixth New Breed season and takes place at Carriageworks in Sydney from 28 November to 7 December. Book via sydneydancecompany.com
Demise of Ausdance National
The most distressing dance news for August was the announcement that Ausdance National, the national advocacy body for dance in Australia over the past 42 years, has been forced to close. Ausdance National was responsible for organising the Australian Dance Awards, but its work extended to industry development, conferences, publications, and a host of other initiatives. Decreasing government funding has had a weakening effect over several years and, while state-based offices of Ausdance will continue to operate (at least for the moment), the national body no longer exists to bring broad, national issues to the fore. A huge loss.
Oral history: Lloyd Newson
I had the privilege of recording an oral history interview in August with Lloyd Newson, Australian-born choreographer and founder of the London-based company DV8. It will join the National Library’s ever expanding collection of dance-related interviews. As you read this, Newson will be in Europe working towards the opening of Enter Achilles, reworked for Rambert Dance Company. We will see Enter Achilles in Australia next year. Stay tuned for details of when and where.
Press for August 2019
Review of Pure Dance. Limelight Magazine(online), 28 August 2019.
6 November 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Two new works and one revival made up the Royal Ballet’s most recent triple bill. The opener, Twyla Tharp’s The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ should perhaps be described as new-ish rather than new, since it also drew on material Tharp had made way back in 1973 in a work called As time goes by. Tharp’s work was by far the most attractive item, in a choreographic sense, on the program.
Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae made spectacular, separate entrances, covering the stage with expansive grands jetés and bringing their trademark joyous approach to their dancing. Such a pleasure to see them. They then proceeded to dance the first two parts of Joseph Haydn’s 45th (so-called ‘Farewell’) symphony, scarcely stopping throughout the two movements to catch their breath. They were perfectly matched as partners, executing Tharp’s twisting, turning, demanding movements and making the most of her playful approach at times. A swirl of ballroom steps and even a high-five appeared amongst the more classical moves. It was a virtuoso performance.
Lamb and McRae were a hard act to follow but Mayara Magri held the stage In a solo before the music for the third movement began. Hers was a remarkable display of dancing that showed off both Tharp’s expansive yet intricate choreography and Magri’s strong technical skills. Then, as the music began, Magri was joined by a corps of dancers, who seemed to appear from nowhere. Both this third movement and the fourth were filled with intricate groupings of dancers sometimes dancing in unison but mostly working separately from each other so the overall patterning looked scattered.
The work finished beautifully with Lamb and McRae appearing unexpectedly upstage on a raised black platform against a black background. They kneeled in a kind of homage and then disappeared into the black, while below Joseph Sissens, in white trunks and long-sleeved white shirt, melted to the ground in a poignant farewell.
Arthur Pita’s work The Wind, danced to a commissioned score by Frank Moon, followed as the middle piece. Based on a story by Dorothy Scarborough written in 1925, which was subsequently made into a silent movie, the ballet follows events in the life of a young woman from Virginia, Letty Mason, who arrives in Texas in the 1880s and is tormented in mind, body and soul by the wind and the bleakness of the landscape. The story is complex and includes, on an obvious narrative level, marriage, rape, and eventual revenge by Mason. But The Wind suffers from Pita’s condensing of the story and his efforts to include a dimension beyond the obvious. To achieve this latter he introduces two characters, Cynthia (Wild Woman) danced by Elizabeth McGorian, and Mawarra (the Lost) danced by Edward Watson, who appear to represent Mason’s mental state.
In all this Pita leaves little time for including much dancing. In the role of Letty Mason, Natalia Osipova makes a sterling attempt to develop the role but she is given far too little dancing in which to do it. And so it is with the other leading characters—Thiago Soares as the cowpuncher Lige Hightower, who marries Mason; and Thomas Whitehead as Wirt Roddy, a cattle buyer who rapes her.
Then there were those three large wind machines that took up a lot of the performance space and blew air across the stage throughout the ballet. I thought they were obtrusive and promoted the idea of the relentless quality of the wind rather too pointedly. Nor am I sure that we needed to see so much wind being generated by the machines. Having Osipova struggling at one stage to keep her wedding veil from either escaping or engulfing her was a little too much.
There was, however, something fascinating about The Wind. Despite the lack of dancing given to some of the Royal Ballet’s strongest artists, there was something powerful about the way Pita had distilled the story. There was a starkness to the work, although perhaps this came more from Jeremy Herbert’s minimal set (apart from the overpowering presence of the wind machines), and a strong lighting design by Adam Silverman, as much as anything else. It reminded me a little of Agnes de Mille’s work, especially her Fall River Legend, and I suspect that The Wind could be revised to have a similar impact as Fall River Legend.
The evening closed with Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable, a work concerning ‘moving with the herd’ first seen in 2015. There was a lot of militaristic moving around in groups with the occasional breakout by a few dancers to form separate groups. Occasionally I had the feeling that the movement was referencing a folk idiom. The best part was probably the atmospheric lighting by Lee Curran.
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).
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.
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.