Natalie Weir on R & J

When I recorded my first ‘On dancing’ segment for ArtSound FM I was not aware that Natalie Weir’s much lauded work R & J, made for her Brisbane-based Expressions Dance Company, was on a whirlwind tour of the eastern states. The tour includes a performance, one only, at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre and, had I known, I would have mentioned it as something for dance lovers in Canberra and surrounding regions to anticipate during May. So, as an update to that program I spoke to Weir about R & J and the rigours of one night stands, and about company she now leads.

David Williams and Elise May in 'R & J', Photo: Chris Herzfeld
David Williams and Elise May in R & J Act III, Expressions Dance Company. Photo: © Chris Herzfeld/Camlight Productions, 2012

R & J is Weir’s take on the well-known story of Romeo and Juliet. But rather than following one story over an evening-length work, Weir tells three separate love stories each of which takes place in a different era. It begins with a story set in the present day; it flashes back to the 1800s for the second; and the final story comes back to the 1950s. With a cast of just six dancers, a production crew of four and an indispensable truck driver there is not much room for manoeuvring. And yes, Weir agrees that it is a rigorous schedule for all. But, says Weir, when she made the work in 2011 she knew she wanted a work that could be shown at major venues and that could also tour regionally. It is designed so that it can be bumped in and out in a day. And this is mostly what happens on the current seven week regional tour, which takes in eighteen different cities from Hobart in the south to Rockhampton in the north.

Weir was appointed artistic director of Expressions in 2009 and is slowly beginning to realise her unique vision for this small contemporary company. She says the first part of her vision was to build a small ensemble of dancers with whom she could work well and who understood her approach.  ‘I have employed dancers straight from tertiary training, dancers who are in their thirties and beyond and dancers in between those age groups’, she says. ‘I wanted a range of ages and maturities in the company. That was an essential’.

The second part of her vision, which she says grew from some of the frustrations she encountered while working as an independent artist, was to have the capacity to commission music specifically for her works. R & J has a score by John Babbage, saxophonist with the Brisbane group Toplogy. Although the R & J regional tour uses recorded music, when the work premiered in Brisbane in 2011 Topology played onstage and having live musicians working in this way is part of Weir’s vision too. Her next work, When time stops, will premiere in Brisbane in September and has a commissioned score from Iain Grandage, which will be played live on stage by members of the chamber orchestra, Camerata of St John’s.

After a long career as an independent choreographer, which has been distinguished by commissions from most Australian ballet and contemporary companies, as well as from international companies including American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet and Hong Kong Ballet, Weir has come into her own as director of Expressions.

Michelle Potter, 7 May 2013

R & J is at the Queanbeyan performing Arts Centre on 14 May.
Follow the link for dates in other regional centres.

Update 18 May 2013: See my review of the show at this link.

Let’s dance. Various Australian companies

16 June 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Let’s dance is the program that the Australian Ballet commissioned to cover the time while the main company was busy ‘taking Manhattan’. It is, on the surface, a commendable venture giving subscription audiences the opportunity to see the array of dance styles being created and performed across Australia—there’s more to dance than the Australian Ballet. But as a program I am not sure that it worked as well as we might have hoped. It turned out to be a bit of a mish-mash and there was also some choreography that I found lamentable. Perhaps the program needed some overarching curatorial plan to give it at least some thread of cohesion?

What follows is not so much a review as a series of thoughts on various aspects of the show.

  • Choreography

I really liked Natalie Weir’s choreography for Don’t made on Expressions Dance Company. Weir’s particular strength, I think, lies in her skills in working on partnerships, whether for two people or more. For Weir a body held upside down has as much value as one held the right way up and what results has always taken the eye, slowly and calmly, in new directions. It’s a shame, I think, that the Australian Ballet has never restaged Weir’s Dark Lullaby, which is definitely worth another look. Too close to Ross Stretton perhaps?

Tim Harbour’s choreography for Sweedeedee was another highlight, not because it was hugely innovative but because he found a way to make two older dancers (‘stars’ is a better word probably for Justine Summers and Steven Heathcote), and two emerging younger dancers (Mia Heathcote and Lennox Niven from the Australian Ballet School) appear together and look as though they all belonged in the work. It was simple, clear movement that told the homey, folksy story well.

Steven Heathcote and Justine Summers in 'Sweedeedee'. Photo Lynette Wills
Steven Heathcote and Justine Summers in Tim Harbour’s Sweedeedee, 2012. Photo: © Lynette Wills. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

I honestly could have done without Dance North’s Fugue, which was choreographed by Raewyn Hill and which I thought looked like nothing more than a clump of limping dancers engaged in the same moves over and over again. If you read the program notes there is a reason behind the choreography looking the way it did as the work reflects, apparently, a 16th century European ‘dancing plague’. But it was certainly not to my taste, neither aesthetically nor theatrically (despite the Sass & Bide costumes).

  • Dancers

I love watching Sydney Dance Company’s dancers, on this program dancing an excerpt from Rafael Bonachela’s recent work, 2 one another. His dancers have such clean lines in their movements. Nothing is murky or foggy, each tiny aspect of a movement is clear. Chen Wen particularly stood out for me in this program, although he often does. I love so many technical things about how he dances, especially the way his legs, so straight, stretch into infinity, and the way that, when he tilts the body forward, he maintains the strength of his back as he does so.

As for Mia Heathcote who played the Girl in Harbour’s Sweedeedee, if things go well for her as I hope they do, she has all the makings of a future star. It has been a long time since a dancer has given me goose bumps, but this member of the Heathcote family did before she had even danced a step. I look forward to following her career.

Mia Heathcote in 'Sweedeedee'. Photo Lynette Wills
Mia Heathcote in Tim Harbour’s Sweedeedee, 2012. Photo: © Lynette Wills. Courtesy the Australian Ballet
  • Design

The designer whose work I most admired was Lexi George whose simple, white costumes, patterned with black designs, for Sweedeedee were so appropriate for the piece. Their simplicity belied their elegance. I also liked Bill Haycock’s black and white dresses for the women in Don’t with their variations in length, fitting and general style. Again Natalie Weir is moving in a well-considered direction with her ongoing commissioning of Haycock.

As for lighting I enjoyed Benjamin Cisterne’s designs for both 2 one another and Sweedeedee. Like much else that I liked about this show, his lighting designs were spare and clear. I especially admired the changing, neon-style, vertical columns of light that accompanied the Bonachela piece. Very smart and modernistic and in keeping with Bonachela’s choreography.

  • Appeal

Two works had appeal that invited little analysis: Ivan Cavallari’s Ombra leggera danced by two artists from West Australian Ballet, and Francois Klaus’ excerpt from Cloudland, danced by two artists from Queensland Ballet. Both were charming, if light pieces and were nicely executed.

  • What else?

Tasdance contributed a short film, Momentary, with choreography by Anna Smith, and Australian Dance Theatre was represented by an excerpt from Garry Stewart’s Be your self. Neither really fitted well into the program. Which goes back to my original comment: the program needed a curator. This is not to say that the works had no merit. Stewart, as ever, gave something that required intellectual as much as dancerly input and his dancers, like those of Sydney Dance Company, have extraordinary physical capacity. But Stewart, to his credit I have to say, is out on his own really and looks best by himself.

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2012