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

Kaguyahime. Paris Opera Ballet

11 June 2010, Opéra Bastille, Paris

Kaguyahime is Jiri Kylian’s poetic, choreographic reflection on an ancient Japanese prose text, The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter. This story tells of Kaguyahime, the moon princess who comes to earth—she is discovered inside a stalk of bamboo—and astounds everyone with her radiant beauty. Many vie for her attention but she eventually and reluctantly takes leave of her adoptive parents and returns to the moon.

The work is divided into scenes that reflect the story: the descent of Kaguyahime from the moon, the dance by the village men who compete for her attention, the celebration of her coming of age, a violent combat and eventual war between the villagers and rival aristocrats who have heard of the beauty of Kaguyahime, the Emperor’s interest in her, and her final return to the moon.

But, rather than attempt to follow the story literally and make a quasi-oriental work, within the structure he set up Kylian chose to focus on what he understood as the universal themes emerging from the story—envy, rivalry, the desire to possess, and war set alongside more humanistic ideals such as love and peace. The result is something truly remarkable, which is neither but both oriental and occidental and in which the visual and aural accompaniment to the choreography sets up a surreal (or magical) environment in which our deepest sensibilities are awakened.

On opening night, the role of Kaguyahime was danced by Marie-Agnès Gillot and her execution of Kylian’s choreography for this role was beautifully controlled, reserved and tremulous as she moved around the stage during her descent and final ascent, yet seductive in its curving movements of the torso and limbs. A highlight was the duet between Gillot and Mathias Heymann as one of the men of the village who sought her love. It was a duet in which they seemed rarely to touch each other yet with every movement there was implied and imagined contact.

Other scenes, the celebration of Kaguyahime’s coming of age, the combat and the war for example, were filled with explosive movement, fast turns and strong jumps, which the dancers executed with breathtaking skill.

Kaguyahime was danced to music by Maki Ishii performed by seven artists of the Kodo Ensemble playing Japanese drums, the Gagaku Ensemble, a trio of musicians playing ancient Japanese wind instruments, and a group of seven French musicians playing an assortment of percussion instruments. The shimmering music that accompanied Kaguyahime’s descent from the moon was in stark contrast to the fire cracker sounds of the music for the combat between the villagers and the aristocrats and the insistent and dramatic rhythms of the onstage drums during the war scene.

Sets, costumes and lighting were simple and powerful. Use was made of expanses of silken cloth—grey at the end of the war scene when a complete curtain fell leaving a solitary figure, Kaguyahime, in front of it as it rippled through the air; gold during the scenes with the Emperor. Other devices, such as mirrors and shadowy projections continued the surrealistic mood opening up the work to subconscious thoughts and feelings.

If anything illustrates the notion put forward by Merce Cunningham that speaking (or writing) about dance is ‘like nailing Jell-O to the wall’ Kaguyahime is it. But I can think of few other works that have encapsulated so much, so brilliantly, so simply and honestly, in such a moving manner. A true masterpiece in my opinion.

Michelle Potter, 13 June 2010 

Postscript: Kaguyahime was originally created on Nederlands Dans Theater in 1988, when Kylian was the company’s director. My one huge regret is that I had the opportunity to see this remarkable work, and an equally remarkable performance of it, once only. It would make sensational addition to any of the many Australian arts festivals.

Jewels. New York City Ballet

27 February 2010, David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York

What a pleasure and a luxury it is to those whose home is not New York to see the full length Jewels. Made by Balanchine in 1967, each of its three distinct sections—’Emeralds’, ‘Rubies’ and ‘Diamonds’—is set to music by three different composers, Fauré for ‘Emeralds’, Stravinsky for ‘Rubies’ and Tschaikovsky for ‘Diamonds’. Many have suggested that Jewels is also in homage to three different countries—’Emeralds’ to France, ‘Rubies’ to Balanchine’s adopted homeland, America, and ‘Diamonds’ to Russia. But in the end, Jewels is an evening of delicious and diverse dancing.

‘Emeralds’ is at once moody and mysterious, romantic and sombre, and sometimes like a whisper in a forest glade. ‘Rubies’ is all sass and neon. Diamonds is pure and clean, a dance in an arctic cave filled with cool yet intricate ice carvings.

The structure of ‘Emeralds’ calls for two leading couples. On this occasion Abi Stafford and Jared Angle were a gracious couple, transcendent in their pas de deux, while Sara Mearns and Jonathan Stafford showed breathtaking expressiveness and expansiveness of movement. Robert Fairchild was impressive as the male member of the pas de trois of soloists, showing his courteous partnering without losing his own strong presence.

‘Rubies’ showcased a pert and prancey Janie Taylor and a boisterous Benjamin Millepied. They were more than ably supported by Savannah Lowrey and a strong corps de ballet whipping off the clean, fast footwork, flicking wrists and eye catching head movements of this section.

The big disappointment, however, came with ‘Diamonds’. There were some uplifting moments—a polonaise for the corps de ballet that was just joyous Balanchine, for example. But Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal lacked attack in their pas de deux and so the brilliance and strength that should characterise this act was lost. And Whelan seemed hugely uncomfortable in her 1960s style ‘powder puff’ tutu.

New York City Ballet’s Jewels could well do with a redesign in my opinion. While choreographically it remains as modern as today, as the French ballerina Aurélie Dupont has remarked, both Karinska’s costumes and Peter Harvey’s scenery for New York City Ballet are fussy and look outmoded. Christian Lacroix and Brigitte Lefèvre have made the Paris Opera Ballet’s staging of Jewels a cut above that of New York City Ballet. Lacroix’s scenery verges on the minimalist and his costumes, while they recall those of Karinska, have a more contemporary feel (especially the tutus for ‘Diamonds’), which to my mind allows the choreography to maximise its ‘as modern as today’ image.

Michelle Potter, 13 March 2010

La Fille mal gardée. Paris Opera Ballet

14 July 2009. Palais Garnier, Paris

It was le quatorze juillet. The orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris began the evening with a remarkably stirring rendition of La Marseillaise. The audience applauded loudly and shouted Vive la France! It set the scene for an equally stirring performance of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée.

Although Ashton’s version of Fille entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet only in 2007, the ballet has strong French roots that can be traced back to 1789 when a work called Le Ballet de la paille took the stage of the Grand-Théâtre of Bordeaux. Subsequently, a number of choreographers created their own versions before Ashton choreographed his production in 1960 for the Royal Ballet.

Ashton’s choreography gave the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet every opportunity to show their technical capacity for fast and precise footwork and their glorious adherence to the classical way of moving. On show too was their ability to give an individualistic interpretation of a role. The Widow Simone who, in what no doubt was a one-off patriotic moment on the French National Day, waved a tiny French flag as she made her first appearance was a case in point. Stephane Phavorin was to a certain extent the flustered pantomime dame but absent (thankfully) was the high camp interpretation that one often sees. Similarly, Simon Valastro as Alain gave a thoughtful portrayal in which he managed to convince us that he was not so much an imbecile as simply someone incompetent of functioning in the society in which he found himself. The difference is perhaps subtle but this Alain was not entirely brainless.

As Lise, Dorothée Gilbert displayed the brilliant technical capacity and the clarity and expansiveness of movement that one has come to expect from étoiles with this remarkable company. Coupled with her beautifully expressive upper body and her sheer delight in dancing, she was everything one could hope for as Lise. Her mime scene in Act II where she imagines herself married to Colas was tenderly moving and the pas de deux in this act was danced with just the right dreamy quality to display Ashton’s choreography to perfection.

Gilbert was partnered by Mathias Heymann as Colas who like his colleagues showed himself every bit an étoile. This is a company of outstanding artists.

Michelle Potter, 16 July 2009