Daniel Riley. Australian Dance Theatre’s incoming artistic director

The dance world is agog with the news that Daniel Riley is to take over the directorship of Australia’s longest standing contemporary dance company, Australian Dance Theatre, when Garry Stewart retires from the role at the end of 2021. Riley traces his bloodline to the Wiradjuri clan of Western New South Wales, particularly around Wellington and Dubbo. As such he is the first Indigenous director of Australian Dance Theatre (ADT).

But, as Riley told a Dubbo-based journalist in 2014, he did not grow up ‘on country’ but in Canberra. He went to Telopea Park High School and Canberra College and he began dance classes with Jacqui Hallahan at the then Canberra Dance Development Centre.

A fact barely mentioned in the stories that have so far surrounded Riley’s appointment is that he is in fact an alumnus of QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth dance organisation—a place were the nurturing of future dance artists is of prime importance. One of QL2’s current patrons is the artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, Rafael Bonachela, and he recognised QL2’s impact on dance in Australia when, following his acceptance of the role of patron, he said:

I have worked with many artists that have passed through [QL2’s] doors and commend them all on their professionalism, technique and creativity. The training and performance platform that QL2 offer[s] to youth dancers and emerging artists in Australia is of the highest standard.

Riley joined QL2 in 1999. It happened as the result of a suggestion from Elizabeth Dalman, artistic director of ADT from 1965-1975, and her colleague Vivienne Rogis, both of whom had worked on a project with Riley’s father in the 1990s. In 1999 QL2 had just started up and Riley performed in the very early productions, Rough Cuts and On the Shoulders of Giants. He then danced in every QL2 project from 1999 to 2003 before taking up a degree course at QUT in 2004. While undertaking his degree he returned whenever possible to Canberra and worked as a choreographer for various QL2 projects, which he has continued to do throughout his professional career to date.

Daniel Riley rehearsing QL2 dancers for the Hit the Floor Together program, 2013.

His commissioned work Where we gather, made in 2013 for the QL2 program Hit the Floor Together, explored the idea of young people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds working together. In performance it showed Riley’s exceptional use of organic and rhythmic movement patterns, and his remarkable feel for shape, line, and the space of the stage. It was remounted in 2018 as part of QL2’s 20th anniversary, Two Zero.

Most recently Riley was back at QL2 in January 2021 on a residency where he continued work on an independent project still in the planning stage.

Daniel Riley during a QL2 residency, Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra, 2021. Photo: © Lorna Sim

But of course his work as a professional dancer and choreographer with Bangarra Dance Theatre, which he joined 2007 after graduating from QUT, as well as his his work with Leigh Warren and Dancers, Sydney Dance Company, Chunky Move, and companies overseas, including Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Fabulous Beast (now Teac Damsa), have opened up new horizons.

I have strong memories of the first work he choreographed for Bangarra in 2010. Called Riley, it was a celebration of the photography of a cousin, Michael Riley. What was especially impressive was the way in which Riley’s choreography looked quite abstract and yet also managed to link back to the photographs, which were projected during the work. Then, I cannot forget the strength of his performance as Governor Macquarie in Jasmin Sheppard’s Macq, and also his role as Governor Philip in Stephen Page’s Bennelong, both productions for Bangarra.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in a scene from 'Macq'. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016
Daniel Riley (on the table) as Governor Macquarie with Beau Dean Riley Smith in Macq. Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2016. Photo: © Greg Barrett

I also was interested in Reign, a work he made for Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed season in 2015.

The four New Breed 2015 choreographers . Photo: Peter Greig
Daniel Riley (front right) with Fiona Jopp, Kristina Chan, and Bernhard Knauer in a media image for Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed, 2015. Photo: © Peter Greig

Reign examined the idea of women in power and the forces that often end their reign. Choreographically it seemed to have strong Indigenous overtones. It began with Janessa Dufty covering her limbs with sand from a pile in a downstage corner of the performing space. It recalled an early section of Bangarra’s production of Ochres when a dancer uses yellow ochre in a similar fashion. Much of the movement, which was organic in look and usually quite grounded, also seemed Bangarra-inspired. And yet the theme seemed quite Western to me and I struggled to reconcile the movement with the theme. Later I began to wonder whether it mattered what vocabulary was used for what theme and was impressed and moved by the strength and very clear structure of the work.

So what will Riley bring to Australian Dance Theatre? Looking at the way he has worked over the years with QL2, he will bring I am sure the same integrity and respect for his colleagues that has brought him back over and over again to the organisation that developed his skills, gave him an understanding of a collaborative manner of working, and that realised that a future in dance lay before him. Thinking of the way he dances, always inhabiting a role with strength and understanding, I suspect he will be an excellent coach for the dancers in the company. And considering, on the one hand, the themes he has chosen for his choreographed works, which so often examine the diverse social and cultural roles of the people around him, and, on the other hand, the way his choreographed works have all been so clearly and strongly structured, I feel he will bring a huge strength of purpose to ADT.

But no one could put it better than Elizabeth Dalman, founding artistic director of ADT. She has said:

He is a wonderful performer, a talented choreographer and already has a great vision for the company. ADT has a long tradition as a revolutionary company pushing boundaries and presenting innovative and exciting works. Daniel plans to champion diversity and develop the company’s cross- and inter-cultural potentials. From the very beginning we set out to be a company exploring our Australian identity, our Australian artistic expression and cultural diversity, so I feel this is a strong continuation of the original aims of the company.

Michelle Potter, 10 June 2021

Featured image: Promotional image for Australian Dance Theatre’s appointment of Daniel Riley as artistic director.

REBEL. Then. Now. When? Quantum Leap Ensemble

20 May 2021. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

The latest offering from the Quantum Leap Ensemble, an intrinsic part of the structure of Canberra’s QL2 Dance, has the title REBEL (short version). For a while I thought of this as a noun—who has not been a rebel at some stage in one’s life? But, as the work unfolded, it was clear that the title was more properly seen as a verb—it is the action that is at the heart of the work, although of course those who carry out the action are nevertheless the rebels.

As the full title suggests, REBEL was in three parts. It began with Then, a look back at the rebellious period of the 1960s and its moving into the 70s. Hippydom was before our eyes in the outrageous fashion, the hugely expressive dance moves, and the pleasure of being oneself.

This section, choreographed by Ruth Osborne and Steve Gow, had the audience clapping and cheering the dancers along, and no doubt dancing along themselves—in spirit.

But there was more to the Hippy era than this freedom to love, dance, and dress as one pleased. Vietnam was a focus of demonstrations, the feminist movement was strong, and it was a period of rebellion in many areas. This aspect was made clear by background footage, often archival and drawn from the era, assembled and projected by Wild Bear Digital.

What followed was mostly angry and confrontational. The second section, Now, was subtitled ‘Problem child’ and was choreographed by Jack Ziesing. It began with a spoken tirade from one of the performers, Toby McKnight, speaking with full-on anger at what was seen as the unacceptable social conditions of the present time.

Ziesing’s choreography worked to explain those conditions. It began with highly organised and geometrically structured movement and groupings but slowly broke into more dramatic scenes that sometimes looked like street dancing and other times as an effort to break free from conventions, or to be included as part of a wider community.

Mark Dyson’s lighting added particular strength to this section, which at times was lit red and, as a result, added a sense of anger to the action. The commissioned score from Adam Ventoura also added to the theme of anger. It was relentless, loud and percussive and brilliantly suited to the action, and vice versa.

As this section concluded, the angry young man reappeared and finished off his tirade of anger. Now slowly morphed into When?, choreographed by Jodie Farrugia. The dancers continued their anger but I missed the point of the women balancing books on their head. It reminded me of the June Dally Watkins 1950s manner of teaching young people good posture and deportment. Was it meant to suggest perhaps that books and greater knowledge hold the key to overcoming problematic issues?

But the continuing anger towards perceived unacceptable conditions was very clear towards the end as protest placards were held up and the performers crowded the stage and glared accusingly out at the audience. Somehow, however, this demanding ending left me cold. Is the future really so hopeless? And the brief return to the joy of life after the curtain calls did little to appease.

For me the opening section was the most successful of the three. It was clearly structured, true to the period, and engaging as well thought provoking. But what struck me about this show in particular (although it probably is a feature of every QL2 show), was the commitment, intensity and strength of contemporary technique these young dancers show as they perform. I loved too the strong production values (again an ongoing feature of QL2 productions).

But surely the world is not all gloom and doom?

Michelle Potter, 22 May 2021

All photos © Lorna Sim. And what a fabulous collaboration there is between Sim and QL2!

Featured image: Final scene from ‘When?’ in REBEL. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dancers of the Ballet du grand Théâtre de Genève in Francesco Ventriglia's Transit Umbra, 2010. Photo: © Vincent Lepresle

Dance diary. February 2021

  • Sydney Choreographic Centre

To establish a new choreographic venture, the Sydney Choreographic Centre, Francesco Ventriglia, formerly artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, has returned to the southern hemisphere after leaving New Zealand ‘to pursue opportunities overseas’. The Centre, co-founded by Neil Christopher as its general manager, is located in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria and will open in March with an intensive program for emerging choreographers and the opportunity to take class with the resident dancers of the Centre: Ariella Casu, Victor Zarallo, Holly Doyle, Brittany-jayde Duwner and Alex Borg.

The Centre’s first production, Grimm, with choreography by Ventriglia, will open in April at the Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres Parramatta. ‘Expect the unexpected in this very modern version of old stories,’ we are told.

For more on the Centre and its programs, and on the new ballet Grimm, visit the Centre’s website.

In 2014 I had the pleasure of interviewing Ventriglia in Wellington for Dance Tabs. Follow this link to retrieve the DanceTabs article.

  • Oral history news

After an hiatus of very close to 12 months, I was finally able to get back to recording oral history interviews. Given the problems associated with dance in the media, oral history is one very significant way in which careers of those in the dance world can be documented for posterity. Early in February I interviewed Ruth Osborne, artistic director of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2. The interview focused largely on Ruth’s connections with the choreography of Gertrud Bodenwieser and those who carried on her legacy in Australia, in particular Margaret Chapple and Keith Bain. The interview is yet to be fully processed but when that process is completed it will be available online through the National Library’s catalogue.

Ruth Osborne, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Ruth Osborne, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

A little later in the month I recorded Part 1 of what is potentially a two part interview with fashion designer Linda Jackson. Her colleague, the remarkable Jenny Kee, is lined up for April.

  • Tanya Pearson, OAM (1937-2021)

The much admired Sydney-based teacher Tanya Pearson died in February. See an obituary for her in Dance Australia at this link, and watch a lovely 30 minute tribute, filmed in 2012.

  • Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments

Another review, this time from Lee Christofis, appeared in the March issue of Limelight Magazine. It is a rather special review as Christofis knows something of the backstory behind the National Library’s Papers of Kristian Fredrikson, as his opening paragraph reveals. The online version is locked to non-subscribers but see this link for a taster. The full review is also available in the print edition for March.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2021

Featured image: Dancers of the Ballet du grand Théâtre de Genève in Francesco Ventriglia’s Transit Umbra, 2010. Photo: © Vincent Lepresle

My place. QL2 Dance

QL2 Dance has, over the years, produced a number of memorable productions associated with exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery. Most recently Ruth Osborne, in association with Olivia Fyfe, presented My place inspired by the exhibition, This is my place. This particular exhibition sets out to present what the NPG calls an ‘intimate focus to the places that define who we are—our spiritual homes, habitats and workspaces.’ The exhibition contains a varied collection of art works across a number of formats. It shows, within those formats, visual artists, sports people, writers, politicians, Indigenous leaders, even a phrenologist and mesmerist from 1870. No dancers though!

Osborne and Fyfe worked with seven recent tertiary dance graduates to develop this work, which was in four parts. The first took place in the space outside the entrance to the NPG. It was, I think, an improvised part of the whole, although this was not clearly explained. Then followed three separate sections performed in Gordon Darling Hall, the grand entrance to the Gallery. I would have liked to have known how the work was divided between Osborne and Fyfe, but this aspect of the production was not clearly explained either.

All four sections of dance suggested various themes of the portrait exhibition. But basically the dance work juxtaposed, I think, the notion of public lives versus private spaces. The opening improvisation suggested creativity to me, and most of those represented in the portrait exhibition were engaged in some kind of creativity. The first indoor section focused in a choreographic sense on group structures—bodies building upon bodies. I thought of collaborative endeavours. Following on was a fast-paced section in which the seven dancers donned coats and caps and proceeded to dance across the performing space as if out in the world, walking the streets. The final section, which I enjoyed most of all, was filled with slow movements that unfolded lyrically on individual dancers. This was private, individual enterprise to me.

As is ever the case with QL2 Dance productions, the performance was strongly danced by all seven dancers. I enjoyed immensely, again as ever, the way the choreography filled the available space. But who did what choreographically? I really love making up my own narrative when I watch dance that is not telling us a given story, but I also like to know a little more than we were given on this occasion, including what was the music used, for example? A single sheet of paper with a bit of information please. Even something online?

Michelle Potter, 26 January 2021

Featured image: Scene from My place. QL2 Dance, 2021. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Danny Riley in Similar, Same but Different. Hot to Trot, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Hot to Trot (2020). QL2 Dance

Hot to Trot is an annual dance event in Canberra and is designed to give senior Quantum Leap dancers (who are mostly in their teens!) the opportunity to create their own choreography. Despite the issues that have plagued the arts community over the past several months, Hot to Trot 2020 went ahead in QL2’s black box space in Gorman Arts Centre, complete I should add with emphasis on the physical distancing of audience members. Two short films and eight live productions were presented.

What especially attracted me in this year’s program was the ability of the choreographers to use the performing space to advantage. They understood how to arrange their dancers, and any props they used, within the space, sometimes filling it, sometimes using corners, diagonals, upstage and downstage areas, and so forth. It reflects well on the QL2 Dance program where, from the beginning, young, prospective artists are taught stage techniques as well as dance technique.

But one work stood out for me—Danny Riley’s Similar, Same but Different. It was essentially a reflective work that examined the connections Riley sees as existing between him and his older brother, Jack, who is now a professional dancer and choreographer. In essence it was a replay of a work made by Jack Riley, which we saw on a film in the background. Danny Riley danced the same choreography for the most part and began by wearing a white jacket that his brother had worn—it was rather too long for him, which in itself spoke to us about those family connections. As the work progressed Danny Riley removed the white tuxedo and replaced it with a short, black jacket of his own—it fitted nicely! But, finally, that too was discarded and we understood that Danny Riley was his own man but with influences from family connections. It was a moving work that unfolded logically and clearly but that was complex in the ideas that it generated in our minds.

I loved that Riley didn’t see the need to use text as an essential addition to his work. Which brings me to the criticisms I have of this Hot to Trot program, and other such programs at QL2. I really wish that there could be a stronger realisation by these young choreographers that dance has the capacity to engage and comment within itself. It doesn’t need to have a text to which dancers react and which is meant (I think) to help the audience understand what is going on in the work. Speaking onstage during a performance is a particular skill and requires training. So often with QL2 productions, in which the spoken word is used, it is not easy to hear or understand what is being said. Not only does this reflect a lack of voice training, but also that the spoken text is often not well integrated with the score, which means that the words are drowned out by the score. And pretty much always, in my opinion, the spoken text seriously detracts from the dance aspects of the work.

The other issue that bothers me concerns the subjects young choreographers often choose as inspiration—subject matter that is quite abstract, or philosophical. Wayne McGregor or William Forsythe might be (and are) good at using conceptual issues as the basis for a dance work, and Tim Harbour at the Australian Ballet is also moving in this direction with particular skill, but they are experienced, professional artists who understand what dance can do best. It communicates through movement.

But to return to the Hot to Trot program itself, the other work I especially enjoyed was the short film by Natsuko Yonezawa, which opened the program. Called Flowering, it was filmed during rehearsals for the recent Leap into Chaos project by QL2 and focused on group movement. The raw footage was assembled and edited so we saw a kaleidoscope of images that recalled flowers growing in ever-changing, ever-expanding patterns. To me the film often looked like origami, being made or being made to move. It was quite beautiful and a great introduction to the program.

Screenshot from Natsuko Yonezawa’s Flowering. Hot to Trot, 2020

Other works on the program were created by Magnus Meagher, Alyse and Mia Canton, Courtney Tha, Lillian Cook, Pippi Keogh, Hollie Knowles, Rory Warne, and Sarah Long.

Michelle Potter, 25 November 2020

Featured image: Danny Riley in Similar, Same but Different. Hot to Trot, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Leap into Chaos. QL2 Dance

15 October 2020, Canberra College Theatre

As a result of the COVID 19 situation, two of the annual initiatives of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2 Dance—the Quantum Leap program for senior performers and the Chaos Project for younger dancers— were combined this year, hence the over-arching name Leap into Chaos. The performance also took place in a different, but well resourced venue, and with a much smaller than usual number of people seated for each performance (with physical distancing in place).

The younger dancers gave us a multi-faceted work called Touch. In seven parts, with choreography by Ruth Osborne, Steve Gow, Alison Plevey, Olivia Fyfe and Ryan Stone, Touch showed a range of different reactions to the coronavirus pandemic. There were masks, worn and then taken off with a shout of pleasure; references to hand washing; social interaction; acts of kindness; finding one’s place in the world; and a closing section filled with the joy of being able to perform live again.

Scene from Touch, QL2 Dance, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

While I wish one or two sections had been a little shorter, as ever I was impressed with the ability of the Chaos dancers to enter and exit the stage so smoothly and to use the space of the stage so effectively. Apart from the development of creativity during the choreographic phase when the dancers have the opportunity to contribute ideas, the value of the Chaos Project has always been the development of an understanding of stagecraft. The young dancers always do themselves proud in this respect.

********************************

The second half of the program was an outstanding work, Sympathetic Monsters, choreographed by QL2 alumnus Jack Ziesing to a soundscape by Adam Ventoura. Ziesing is currently working freelance as a dancer and choreographer and, in creating Sympathetic Monsters, was inspired by a book by Shaun Tan called The Arrival. The impact of Sympathetic Monsters sent me in search of some information about The Arrival, which it turns out is a wordless book, a migrant story told using a series of images only. Tan himself says it concerns in part ‘the “problem” of belonging’, which ‘especially rises to the surface when things go wrong with our usual lives.’

I loved looking at Ziesing’s work without knowing anything about Tan’s book. His choreography alternated between group movement, exceptionally well performed by the dancers, and solos in which dancers pushed their bodies into fantastically twisted shapes. In its structure the work was endlessly fascinating. The dancers mostly entered one by one to perform a solo. After finishing, they moved upstage and stood in a line across the back of the stage space until they engaged in a group section. At the very end, the group, acting as involved onlookers, encircled two performers who moved together in a kind of complex duet. The work was lit by Craig Dear of Sidestage and his pronounced use of shadowy effects added to the drama of the movement and the power and mystery of the work.

Scene from Jack Ziesing’s Sympathetic Monsters, QL2 Dance, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

But reading about The Arrival further opened up the work, if in retrospect. There it all was in movement—the isolation; the belonging or not belonging; the group versus the individual; the sympathy juxtaposed with its opposite. Many thoughts came crowding in and even the title made some sense. I am looking forward to seeing the work again when QL2 Dance offers it as part of a streamed event later in October. Sympathetic Monsters was an exceptional work.

Michelle Potter, 17 October 2020

Featured image: Scene from Jack Ziesing’s Sympathetic Monsters, QL2 Dance, 2020. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Michelle Ryan in 'Rasa'. Photo: © Régis Lansac

Dance diary. March 2020

  • Award for Michelle Ryan

It was a thrill to hear that Michelle Ryan, currently director of Restless Dance Theatre in Adelaide, has received the Australia Council’s 2020 Award for Dance. The award, whose previous recipients have included Vicki van Hout, Phillip Adams, Stephen Page, Lucy Guerin and Garry Stewart, is to acknowledge an artist ‘who has made an outstanding and sustained contribution to Australian dance’.

Ryan will be especially well known to Canberra and Adelaide audiences for her performances with Meryl Tankard Company in Canberra and with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Ryan for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection. That interview, recorded in Adelaide in 2014, is now available as an online audio file at this link. It also has a summary and a transcript (uncorrected).

  • Art, not Apart, 2020

One of the last public dance performances in Canberra before such things were no longer permitted (for the moment we hope) was a joint production between Australian Dance Party and QL2 Dance. It was an outdoor event held on the grassy slope in front of the National Film and Sound Archive.

QL2 Dance and Australian Dance Party in 'Art, not Apart', Canberra 2020. Photo: Neville Potter
Scenes from Art, not Apart. QL2 Dance and Australian Dance Party, Canberra 2020

Called YGen to IGen it explored through cross-generational performance ‘the fears, hopes and imaginings of possible futures’. It was a beautiful Canberra afternoon but in retrospect the topic was more apposite than anyone might have imagined.

  • National Photographic Prize

After a portrait of Elizabeth Dalman won the inaugural Darling Portrait Prize, another dancer featured in the 2020 National Photographic Portrait Prize announced shortly after the Darling award. The portrait of Eileen Kramer by Hugh Stewart was Highly Commended. Read more about Eileen Kramer at this link.

  • David Hallberg

One of the events I had booked to see in London in mid-March, which, like the Scarlett Swan Lake, I didn’t manage to get to (and it was cancelled anyway) was Insights: In Conversation with David Hallberg. But here is the image I was given to use in my discussion of the event.

I am curious about Hallberg’s forthcoming new role as artistic director of the Australian Ballet of course. Here is what he said in a recent article in Dance Magazine:

The dancing is already at a very high standard, the repertoire is solid and the audience base is dedicated. But I want to add certain things to the repertoire that haven’t yet been seen in Australia. I’ve seen such a variety of work in New York—and not just at Lincoln Center—and in Russia and Europe. I have a really broad palette. It’s just a matter of tailoring it to the interests of the dancers and the tastes of audiences in Australia.

I also want to bring the company around the world. I have these amazing contacts I’ve made throughout my career that I want The Australian Ballet to benefit from.

And I want to dive into the company’s responsibility to the greater Australian community. A lot of that has to do with education and really getting into isolated communities in Australia, communities that don’t necessarily make it to the Opera House in Sydney or the State Theatre in Melbourne. I think every cultural organization in this era needs to question what their responsibility is to the greater community, and not just put on a beautiful ballets in a beautiful opera house.

Of course, living in Canberra as I do and knowing the lack of interest the Australian Ballet has in visiting Canberra, I wonder whether the national capital is an ‘isolated community’. Fingers crossed! Here is a link to the Dance Magazine article and a link to writing about Hallberg on this site.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2020

Featured image: Michelle Ryan in Rasa, Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre, Adelaide 1996. Photo: © Régis Lansac

Michelle Ryan in 'Rasa'. Photo: © Régis Lansac
Marcel Cole in 'Free as a Bird'. On course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

On Course. QL2 Dance

15 December 2019. QL2 Theatre, Canberra

On course, a program providing opportunities for emerging choreographers currently studying at tertiary institutions, is now in its thirteenth year. The 2019 program consisted of eight live choreographic productions and two short films. Most of the creators and performers had previously danced with QL2 Dance, Canberra’s youth dance organisation, and on this occasion creators came from the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Western Australian Academy for the Performing Arts (WAAPA) and the New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD).

The absolute stand out work to my mind was Free as a bird, choreographed and danced as a solo by Marcel Cole, former student of Kim Harvey in Canberra and now a contemporary major at NZSD. Cole walked into the performing space and announced ‘This is not a comment on ballet.’ He then proceeded to dance an excerpt from Solor’s variation in La Bayadère. While somewhat constricted by the small space of the QL2 blackbox theatre, and perhaps by a little lack of attention to some details, we could not help but be swept away by his elevation, those fabulous cabrioles, and a manège of jetés.

But what made Free as a bird an exceptional piece was what came after. Cole is looking towards contemporary dance these days and, after the Bayadère solo, he began to question the direction of his life. He went to an imaginary barre, did a couple of pliés, left the barre, then came back, and left again before suggesting that while studying ballet he had been walking in a straight line—with clear direction—but that now he was moving along a different path. I could have done without the verbal explanation at the end because it was perfectly obvious from the movement, and from Cole’s strong presence, what was happening. The work finished with Cole turning in a small circle with his arms tracing a meandering pattern in the air. The concept behind the work quite clear. No words were necessary.

This brings me to another point. Almost without exception the choreographers chose to use the spoken word in their creations. I’m not sure why this was thought to be necessary. In my experience the most powerful choreography expresses the creator’s ideas through movement, without a verbal explanation. There are some things that dance can’t say well of course, but let’s not dance what we have to say. It was interesting too that the one creator who used quite minimal verbal intervention was Mia Tuco who is currently enrolled at the VCA in a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting! Her work, I was the angel in the poem you wrote, was clearly and strongly constructed and again needed no words.

Another strong work on the program was Caspar Ilshner’s Eye to Eye. Its strength lay in the work’s coherence in which the music (composed by Ilshner himself, another NZSD student); the choreographic structure; and the costumes had all been thought through clearly and all contributed well to the whole. I especially admired the way in which Ilshner manipulated groups of dancers to show us various aspects of human interaction.

Scene from Eye to Eye in On Course, QL2 Dance 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Having taken my stand re words and dance, I have to say I enjoyed Ruby Ballantyne’s My roommate is a very heavy sleeper. The often amusing story was narrated as a voice-over, and the choreography really only played a secondary role as far as I am concerned. But then that’s something different from choreography that has to explain itself in words. Ballantyne is studying at WAAPA.

I also especially enjoyed Jason Pearce’s Kafka, which was the first of the two short films presented at the beginning of the evening. Pearce has just recently graduated from the VCA and his film focused largely on a close up of a particular part of the body in movement. We mostly saw the back of the torso and it was mesmerising for the glimpse it gave us of spinal movement.

On Course is a wonderful initiative. I had particular favourites but I was pleased to see such a range of ways in which choreography can be approached and in which ideas can be presented.

Michelle Potter, 17 December 2019

Featured image: Marcel Cole in Free as a Bird from On Course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Marcel Cole in 'Free as a Bird'. On course, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.

Scene from 'Power'. QL2, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Power. QL2 Dance

18 October 2019. Theatre 3, Canberra. The Chaos Project

The Chaos Project has long been a feature of the Canberra dance scene. Designed for the young and less experienced of the dancers who are part of the QL2 Dance community, each year it has a different theme. This theme is examined through a series of short works, which are combined seamlessly into one, hour-long production. Each section is choreographed by a professional choreographer and a few older dancers from the broader QL2 Dance community join with the younger ones to help the overall work move along effectively.

In 2019 the Chaos Project had the theme of power—in a variety of manifestations. The youngest performers danced out ideas of physical power, to choreography from Olivia Fyfe. The intermediate group (intermediate in age and experience) examined, through the choreography of Alana Stenning, the idea of ‘superheros’ and asked the question ‘who is the real superhero’? The older dancers performed choreography by Steve Gow and their theme centred on who abuses power and who uses it wisely. An introduction and conclusion were choreographed by Ruth Osborne and two other works completed the program, one an all-girl piece with choreography by Fyfe and Stenning, and one for boys only with choreography by Gow.

Scene from Alana Stenning’s ‘And I’m…’ from Power. QL2 Dance, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Choreographically, Power was well-constructed throughout and what always surprises me (although by now it probably shouldn’t) is how the technical limitations one might expect to see in young dancers are in fact never obvious. If they are asked to move in unison, they do. If a solo is required it always looks strong. And the sheer dedication and involvement of every dancer shows clearly. Credit here to the choreographers!

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Power was the all-girl section, ‘I Rule’, from Fyfe and Stenning. As it began the voice of a narrator could be heard telling the story of a princess in a far away land and her impending relationship with a suitor. My heart sank momentarily. But, as the dancers began to act out and dance this story, their attitude began to change. Towards the end they rejected the story and the role the princess was expected to play and by the very end their outraged voices drowned out the narrator. Feminist power at work!

Scene from ‘I rule’ from Power. QL2 Dance, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

The Chaos Project is a great initiative from QL2 Dance. It gives young dancers opportunities they rarely get elsewhere. Those opportunities include in particular the power to make a creative input to dance, since the dancers contribute ideas on how the work will unfold, both conceptually and technically. But it also gives them the opportunity to see how a professional choreographer works; how to use the space of the stage effectively; and more.

The Chaos Project is just one of the ways that QL2 develops and nurtures potential artists and audiences and gives work to professionals working across the arts.

Michelle Potter, 21 October 2019

Featured image: Scene from the closing moments of Power. QL2 Dance, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Scene from 'Power'. QL2, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim
Scene from ‘Power’. QL2, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Filling the Space. Quantum Leap/QL2 Dance

8 August 2019. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

As the curtain went up on QL2’s 2019 Quantum Leap production, Filling the Space, I sat up with a jolt. There were a couple of ballet barres onstage and dancers standing in ballet positions, even doing the occasional demi-plié. Not only were we faced with the barres and the pliés but the entire space of the Playhouse stage was stripped of its usual accoutrements—no legs or borders to mask the wing space or to hide the lighting or flies. Everything that is usually hidden from the audience was on show. What was this? Well, it was the beginning of James Batchelor’s Proscenium and Batchelor, now with a good number of works behind him, has never left us in any doubt that what he creates will be unusual in approach and leave us to ponder on what his works are about.

But what made Filling the Space, the overall production, so fascinating was that it showed off the diversity of the choreographic voice. We saw the work of three choreographers, Batchelor, Ruth Osborne and Eliza Sanders, and it would be hard to find three works so different in conception and vocabulary.

Batchelor’s Proscenium examines the space of the stage both within and beyond the structure that frames that space—the proscenium. It was rewarding to consider the particular use of the space he identified in the context of dance and architecture, which was the overarching theme of Filling the Space. But for me Batchelor’s use of the architecture of the stage space was not the most interesting feature of his work. His choice of movement vocabulary was the highlight. It ranged from extremely slow and intensely detailed, even introspective, movement to faster unison work with some partnering that relied on balance and support. As well there was extensive manipulation of those barres and other metal frames, some that dropped from the flies, others that looked like clothing or costume racks. At one point we watched a circus-like stunt with one dancer balancing on a narrow support joining the end parts of one of those racks while another dancer spun the whole structure with ever increasing speed in a giant circle. At another point, rows of chairs were brought onstage and dancers entered, sat down, moved some parts of the body, then rose and, with arms still in the pose they had taken while seated, made their exit. Batchelor was examining how stage space can be filled and emptied in various ways, but it was the way in which that examination occurred that was more interesting than the fact that it occurred.

A moment from Proscenium. Quantum Leap, 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Ruth Osborne’s Naturally Man-Made was danced against a background of footage shot on and around the grand staircase of Canberra’s Nishi building, a staircase made of recycled timber and a spectacular part of the building. Sometimes we saw the staircase as an installation devoid of people, at other times the footage included dancers performing on the staircase. In front of this footage dancers performed what might be called Osborne’s signature style—mass groupings of dancers with occasional break away moments. It fulfilled nicely, if in an obvious manner, the concept of dance and architecture.

Dancers of QL2 in Ruth Osborne’s Naturally Man-Made, Quantum Leap 2019. Photo:
© Lorna Sim

Eliza Sanders had a totally different take on what constitutes architecture. Her work, The Shape of Empty Space, looked at emotional responses to different spatial environments. In this work her movement vocabulary was almost like mime. It focused on two main emotions, a feeling of being wild and free in some environments, with an accompanying flinging of arms, legs, and indeed the whole body in an unrestrained way; and a feeling of being crowded into a tight space, with an accompanying restraint in movement and groupings of dancers. The work was stunningly lit by Mark Dyson with well lit spaces alternating with hidden spaces set up by black curtains hanging at intervals in the performing space. It was architecture built by light and darkness through which we watched dancers appear and disappear. The work had a sculptural ending as dancers built an architecture of their own.

Dancers of QL2 in Eliza Sanders‘ The Shape of Empty Space, Quantum Leap 2019. Photo:
© Lorna Sim

Both Batchelor and Sanders are QL2 alumni who are now working professionally as independent dancers and choreographers. Osborne is an early mentor to them. How lucky are the current dancers of QL2 that they get to work with choreographers whose creativity is so different, whose vocabulary is so individualistic, and whose work is so fascinating to watch, and so interesting to think about.

Michelle Potter, 10 August 2019

Featured image: Dancers of QL2 in James Batchelor’s Proscenium. Quantum Leap 2019. Photo: © Lorna Sim