9 October 2015, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, Queanbeyan
‘Natalie Weir’s Carmen Sweet for Expressions Dance Company is simply sensational.’ So begins my review for The Canberra Times to be published shortly. The text and a link to the online review will appear in due course. [See this link]
In the meantime, I can only say that, after a Sleeping Beauty from the Australian Ballet that was so over-designed that the dancers seemed secondary, and after Lord of the Dance: Dangerous Games that used every technological trick in the book throughout the evening, Expressions Dance Company finally (and rightly) made dance look as though it was the centrepiece of the evening. Natalie Weir, her collaborators, and her tiny team of six dancers, deserve the utmost praise for their courage, their exceptional skills, their well-considered focus on what constitutes the danced performance, and their intelligent understanding of the art of collaboration.
Thank you. I am humbled before you. To be continued …
Natalie’s Weir’s Carmen Sweet already has an enviable performance history. It began as a commission from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra to provide a dance work to Rodion Shchedrin’s 1967 score, Carmen Suite, which was to be performed as part of the QSO’s 2012 season. Weir says she was especially interested in taking on the commission because she would have to consider making something to suit an audience that was not specifically a dance one.
‘Our audiences have been growing,’ Weir says, ‘but at Expressions we are still working hard to make our repertoire accessible and to grow an even stronger audience base.’
Carmen Sweet‘ssuccess with QSO audiences was such that Weir decided to develop her work a little further and to present it as a piece for her Expressions Dance Company.
Since then Carmen Sweet has toured to the Noosa Long Weekend Festival and Singapore Dance Theatre’s Ballet Under the Stars event in 2013, and has had seasons in Brisbane and across regional Queensland. Now Weir’s dancers are embarking on a ten week tour to seventeen different venues across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. And Canberra audiences just have to slip over the border to Queanbeyan to catch it.
‘I made it especially for touring,’ Weir says. ‘We had such success when we toured R & J. It was accessible in that it told a story and yet it was still a contemporary dance work. It provided audiences with a link between classical ballet and some of the more abstract contemporary works being seen in Australia at the moment. Carmen Sweet falls into a similar category.’
The work is made for six dancers. Although Weir essentially remains true to the Carmen story as we know it from the opera, in Carmen Sweet we see Carmen in three different guises, at three different eras in her life: the matriarchal, knowledgeable Carmen, danced by Elise May; the unattainable Carmen danced by Michelle Barnett; and the young, flirtatious Carmen from Rebecca Hall. Jack Ziesing dances the soldier, Don José, who falls in love with Carmen; Benjamin Chapman plays Escamillo, the matador who steals Carmen’s heart; and Daryl Brandwood is the Fortune Teller who warns Carmen of her death.
There is also what Weir refers to as ‘a community section’. Ten young dancers from each region will be selected to join the cast as the entourage of Escamillo. In a tongue-in-cheek reference to a popular television show each of these dancers will carry a single rose.
‘It’s a bit of a romp,’ says Weir, although others have described Carmen Sweet as a tale of love, lust and revenge. But we can be sure of exciting and dramatic choreography—Weir is renowned for it; an unusual and thought-provoking take on a well-known story—again a characteristic feature of Weir’s work; and some fabulous design from Bill Haycock, a long-time collaborator with Weir. It is the last chance, too, to see Daryl Brandwood, who will be retiring from Expressions at the end of this season.
21 August 2015, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Natalie Weir can always be relied upon to present works with highly physical choreography and with design that is usually minimal but always effective. Her most recent production for Expressions Dance Company, 7 Deadly Sins, is no exception. The choreography is powerful and sometimes turbulent, the lighting by David Walters is dramatic, and the design by Bill Haycock is in some cases lush and sumptuous, in others totally stripped back. A bold, commissioned score from Darrin Verhagen completes the collaboration.
Weir has set out to examine human nature through an exploration those ‘vices’ that, since early Christian times, have been classified as ‘deadly sins’—sloth, greed, gluttony, lust, envy, pride and wrath. Each sin makes an appearance by emerging from a box—each box is uniquely shaped and accommodates the dancer in a different position. Initially the sins wear a gorgeously designed costume created by Haycock from a range of fabrics, mostly gold and black in colour, with metallic and bejewelled highlights. These costumes look fabulously dramatic as the sins emerge from their boxes. But each sin quickly discards his or her luxurious outer garment in order to represent the sin in a physical manner. An eighth character, the Man, has a role that is a little unclear, although he interacts with the sins throughout and gives the piece, which really has no leading character, a kind of coherence.
The standout sins for me were Pride, danced with exceptional stage presence by Benjamin Chapman, and Wrath, strongly, even wrathfully, performed by Michelle Barnett. There was absolutely no doubt about which sin they represented. The body said it all. I also admired Daryl Brandwood as Greed, not only for his articulate dancing, but also because his vast performing experience made his interpretation a multi-faceted one. In fact, the choreographic highlight for me was a duet between Brandwood and Chapman in which their characters seemed to be competing for dominance. And remarkably this competitive sparring took place inside, on top of, and around one of the boxes. The duet was a powerful display and something of a tour de force with the tall, narrow box tilting alarmingly at times. It was, nevertheless, beautifully manipulated and managed by the dancers.
This is an interesting work from Weir who most often deals with storytelling in which people are at the centre of the work. With 7 Deadly Sins we are, on the other hand, looking at a collection of temperaments or intangible ideas. Perhaps the weakest aspect of the show was that not all the dancers were able to portray these non-human characters so easily. Or at least not able to make an instant impact. As a result, in some cases I found myself wondering for a few minutes which sin was being portrayed. I am often reminded of Agnes de Mille who maintained that a dancer had just 30 seconds after making an entrance to also make an impact in order to keep the audience’s attention.
This is a revised version of a review written for The Canberra Times. In the interests of bringing the outstanding qualities of R & J to the attention of the dance-going public as the show continues its regional tour, I am posting this expanded review now. Publication of the original, shorter review has for unexplained reasons been (apparently) delayed.
I don’t know where the expression ‘the best things come in small packages’ originates, but it is a perfect way of describing Natalie’s Weir’s R & J. Weir has worked with just six dancers (complemented in the opening scene only by a group of local dance students) to create three mini-stories inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Each story is short—the whole work lasts just 60 minutes with brief pauses in between each act—but each also delivers a powerful message.
Act I is called ‘Passion’ and is set in a disco environment in the present day, hence the need for a few extra dancers. ‘Passion’ is complicated by the presence of a third person, a rival to Romeo, setting up a triangle of love.
As the work begins we immediately encounter Bruce McKinven’s minimal set, which remains in place throughout the piece. It consists of a collection of white translucent boxes of different sizes: the boxes stand at angles to the floor and are spread across the stage space. The intricacies of their construction are only revealed as each story progresses—they become a table, a tomb, a television, whatever might be required as the stories unfold. McKinven’s simple costumes, always red for Juliet, are also masterly in conveying an era and a mood in a simple yet powerful manner.
Act II is ‘Romance’ and takes us back to the 1800s. ‘Romance’ comes closest to the traditional story and reminds us of the divided families, the balcony and bedroom scenes and the final setting beside the tomb, all of which are well-known from other dance productions. This Act showed David Walters’ lighting design at its best. Throughout, Walters lights the piece evocatively according to the progress of the story but in Act II he surprises us with his lighting of McKinven’s boxes. There are moments when he focuses his light on single boxes that enclose Juliet and separate her from Romeo and, as Act II comes to a conclusion, he lights up the inside of the box that acts as a final tomb.
Act III is ‘Devotion’ and is set in the 1950s. ‘Devotion’ is perhaps the cleverest of the three stories and shows us a routine of life and love that is interrupted by the inevitability of an end to every union. The dancers’ movements gather speed, without losing any choreographic detail, as the repetitive nature of life becomes apparent. In all three stories the lovers are parted in some way although the endings, I think, are open to interpretation. In Act III, for example, did this 1950s Romeo die? Or did he just leave his Juliet, tired of the never ending routine of work and more work? This open ended approach is part of R & J‘ssuccess as a production that involves us emotionally.
Weir’s choreography has always been distinguished by her ability to create strong duets and R & J is no exception. But just as affecting on this occasion are her trios and solos. I admired in particular the trio in ‘Passion’. It was often quite rough with contact between the participants in the love triangle sharply rather than lyrically defined. Her ability to make six people seem like many more in ‘Romance’ was also impressive. A dance in which Romeo, Juliet and four masked dancers changed partners in a tightly knit group set up an image of the ballroom scene from the well-known, full-length ballet.
Each of the six dancers, three men and three women, had their chance to be a Romeo or a Juliet, and each gave an outstanding, physically gutsy performance. But it was Elise May in ‘Devotion’ who really gave the performance of the night. For a good deal of her time on stage she danced with an arm chair, the chair on which her partner had sat before his exit from her life. Her movement was carefully nuanced and we rode her wave of emotions as she eventually resigned herself to loneliness.
The work was danced to an original, jazz-inspired score by John Babbage, in which the saxophone played a prominent part. When first performed in Brisbane (and also I believe in Adelaide in 2012), the music was played live by the group Topology, of which Babbage is a member. Sadly, this whistle stop regional tour was not able to offer a live performance by the musicians. However, with a dash of colour, a spot of light, a burst of sound and some telling gestures, Weir and her collaborators have created an exquisite and moving small package of love. R & J is a stand-out work that truly deserves the awards it has already won.
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.
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 2013.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.