Dance diary. June 2012

  • Lucy and the lost boy: NICA

In mid-June I attended a performance by graduating students of the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) in Melbourne. Their show, Lucy and the lost boy, was devised and directed by Sally Richardson and I was pleased to see the two NICA students I had interviewed for the Heath Ledger Project, Josie Wardrope and Simon Reynolds, taking major roles in the show. In fact the ‘Lucy’ of the show’s title was Josie Wardrope. Wardrope’s performance on flying trapeze in the closing scene was thrilling, while the variety of skills at which Simon Reynolds excels is remarkable.

It was, in addition, a pleasure to see other talented students from the graduating year in the show. I especially enjoyed the performance of Skip Walker-Milne, who took the role of the Lost Boy. He was a strong performer and I hope to follow his career in the future. But from a dance perspective I got particular pleasure from a vignette by three clowns, Jamie Bretman, Jack Coleman and Simon Wright, who were named in the show as  ‘The Clown Kings’.  While they had a role throughout the show, including amusing the people standing in the queue to get into the auditorium, I especially loved a sequence in which they performed to the ‘Little Swans’ music from Swan Lake.

Clown Kings, NICA. Photo David Wyatt  ‘The Clown Kings’ from Lucy and the lost boy, 2012. Photo David Wyatt. Courtesy NICA

Meredith Kitchen was named as choreographer for the show, so I assume their performance was her doing. I have long been fascinated by the place the ‘Little Swans’ dance has beyond the strict confines of a classical production of Swan Lake. These Clown Kings, with their roller bins, their deliciously clumsy coupé steps, and their innocent expressions, gave me huge pleasure.

  • Reviews from The Canberra Times

In June my reviews of The Nutcracker on Ice: the Imperial Ice Stars and Sydney Dance Company’s The Land of Yes & The Land of No were published by The Canberra Times.

I continue to be impressed by Rafael Bonachela’s choreography and the remarkable performances the dancers of Sydney Dance Company give.

  • Oral history: James Mollison, AO

Also in June I also had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview with James Mollison, whose many achievements include his role as inaugural director of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Mollison was also responsible for acquiring the major portion of the Diaghilev costume collection, of which the Gallery is the envied owner. ‘Why does Canberra have those costumes?’ I have often been asked by people in the northern hemisphere. My reply has always been, ‘It’s because Canberra had a forward-thinking inaugural director of the National Gallery’. The collection has formed the basis of three exhibitions by the National Gallery of Australia, most recently in 2010-2011.

  • The Australian Ballet in New York

The question of the New York reviews for the Australian Ballet’s recent visit to Manhattan has been discussed briefly amid comments on the Romeo and Juliet post on this site. Another review that I found especially interesting came from Ryan Wenzel on his website ‘Bodies never lie’. Wenzel appears to have reviewed only the mixed bill, at least at this stage, but his comments on repertoire are worth considering. He writes, for example: ‘The choreography too rarely stretched the mind, entertained, or provided innovative commentary on ballet as an art form’.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2012

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

Dance diary: February 2012

  • Spring Dance

It was good to read that Rafael Bonachela will take on the directorship of Sydney’s Spring Dance program for the next three years.  I am sure Bonachela will bring huge enthusiasm not to mention knowledge and understanding of the contemporary dance scene to the job.

Some of my most unusual and rewarding dance experiences in recent years have been at Spring Dance. Philippe Priasso‘s amazing interlude with an earth mover was one. Meryl Tankard’s Oracle another. Here is a link to the Spring Dance tag.

And on the subject of Tankard I have just received publicity for the restaging by Lyon Opera Ballet of Bolero. I wrote about Bolero in an earlier post and also noted then that the Lyon restaging would be part of a triple bill program that also includes works by Kylian and Forsythe. Do we have to go to Lyon these days to see such a program? Perhaps the company from Lyon is worth considering for Spring Dance? Or another Australian dance festival?

Lyon Opera Ballet poster

  • SAR Fellowship

My Fellowship at the National Film and Sound Archive to investigate the film and television commissions of Kristian Fredrikson officially came to a conclusion at the end of February. I gave my staff presentation, ‘Kristian Fredrikson: on screen’, towards the end of February, appeared on 666 ABC Canberra to talk to presenter of Saturday Breakfast, Greg Bayliss, about the Archive and my research, and I will be presenting in Melbourne in April as part of the Arts Centre’s Spotlight series.

A number of surprises emerged from being located at the Archive. On the one hand I had liberal access to the collection held there, which consists not only of film and video material but all kinds of other documentation and, on the other, I had access to the expertise and network of connections of the Archive’s curators. I discovered a design commission that had not been mentioned in any of the sources I had investigated so far: Fredrikson designed the operatic backgrounds for a children’s television series screened by SBS in 1985 called The Maestro’s Company. And I was also put in touch with the director of The Magic Telescope, an unrealised film for which Fredrikson created some designs that are totally unlike anything else I have seen from him to date. In addition I watched all the better known productions on which he worked including the delicious Undercover, which led to a number of other discoveries regarding the origins of the dance scenes that make up the finale to that movie. Through another Archive connection I discovered more about The Lovers of Verona, featuring Kathy Gorham and Garth Welch and produced by the ABC in 1965.

I was also able to relive through film and video some of the best known early Sydney Dance Company works. I was reminded time and time again as I watched productions like Poppy, King Roger, Daphnis and Chloe, After Venice and others what an amazing and versatile performer Janet Vernon was. I watched too a performance of Old Friends, New Friends (1984), the precursor to Nearly Beloved. It wasn’t designed by Fredrikson but happened to be on the same tape as After Venice. What a joy it was to see Vernon in that work and to watch as she worked her way through a whole range of different emotions.

  • Canberra news: Dimity Azoury and Jasmin Durham

Demographically Canberra is small in comparison to Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and other major Australian cities. So it is a pleasure to hear that two Canberra-trained dancers, Dimity Azoury and Jasmin Durham, have made a mark just recently.

Azoury, a former pupil of Kim Harvey, has been nominated for the Australian Ballet’s 2012 Telstra Awards. The major award is worth $20,000 and having sat on the judging panel on one occasion (the year Lana Jones was the recipient of the $20,000), I know that the year-long assessment process is gruelling, but nevertheless I believe a formative experience for those involved, including the judges. For more on the Telstra Awards, which include a People’s Choice Award worth $5,000, see the Australian Ballet’s website. [Update April 2019: page no longer available].

Dimity Azoury Photo by James Braund

Dimity Azoury. Photo by James Braund. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Jasmin Durham, who trained in Canberra with Lisa Clark, has been accepted into the Australian Ballet, and began her professional career in January. I recall watching her several years ago now in a student performance, and a scholarship competition and her talent was absolutely clear. She joins a number of other Canberra-trained dancers in the company including principals Lana Jones and Rachel Rawlins and her corps de ballet companion Dimity Azoury.

Jasmin Durham Photo by James Braund
Jasmin Durham. Photo by James Braund. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Michelle Potter, 29 February 2012

Shared Frequencies. Sydney Dance Company

This latest program from Sydney Dance Company featured two works: Raw models by Italian-born choreographer Jacopo Godani and LANDforms by Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela.

Andrew Crawford & Charmene Yap in 'Raw models'. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company
Andrew Crawford & Charmene Yap in ‘Raw models’. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company

Raw models opened the program and I have to admit that I read the choreographer’s note before the curtain went up. Bad move probably because it was a decidedly alienating note and smacked to me of meaningless, intellectual jargon. The dancing, however, was not alienating, although it would have to be described as intense or perhaps severe.

The stage was set as a black box: two black side screens and a black backdrop/screen. The dancers were dressed minimally in black lycra-style short shorts and transparent tops. They wore what I think were skin-tight, soft leather ankle boots. This footwear was interesting because the lighting (by Godani) was such that most of the time it was hard to tell until curtain call time whether the black shadows at foot/ankle level were just shadows on bare feet and legs or whether the dancers were wearing some kind of footwear. Sometimes, as a result of the lighting, the dancers looked as though they had no feet, or that their legs ended in some kind of malformation. This reminded me of  a Francis Bacon painting where bodies are distorted and contorted, not completely beyond recognition but enough to make one wonder.

In terms of choreography, Godani had the dancers moving as if they were jointless. Their arms in particular rippled and undulated, but at such a speed that at times they became blurred. Bacon and his distorted bodies again slipped into my mind. Most of the movement was performed with the dancers bunched tightly together so not only did the bodies look distorted they seemed not able to separate themselves from each other. But the work was very slick, very shiny, although despite the coupling of bodies throughout to me it looked a-sexual.

Production photographs from Raw models are interesting. They show off the dancers and the costumes beautifully but give no idea really of what the piece looked like as a moving canvas of bodies. While this is the case most of the time with dance, it seems even more of an issue with Raw models given the effects on the eye that Godani’s work has. Nothing like being there in the end.

Raw models was performed to a commissioned electronic score by Ulrich Mueller and Siegfried Roessert of the German experimental group 48nord, which added to the bleakness of the work (and again to my feeling that Bacon was overseeing its unfolding).

After all the gloom and blackness, Bonachela’s LANDforms seemed like it came from another planet. It opened with a solo by Juliette Barton whose dancing and understanding of Bonachela’s movement style just gets better and better. Bathed in a warm golden light (lighting by Mark Dyson) she moved through Bonachela’s flowing, intricate choreographic phrases as if she were born to do so.

Bonachela has spoken elsewhere about the development of this work with composer Ezio Bosso, and about its genesis in ideas about the weather and the landscape. But what struck me more than anything was the manner in which Bonachela had structured this work. I loved the variety and dynamics of the patterns he developed throughoout. There were times when the pace was serene, others when it was more frenetic. And in the most frenetic section of all bodies hurtled across the stage space from all directions. Here the athletic Chen Wen was a standout as he threw himself into one leap and turn after another. The second section, composed entirely of duets, was also particularly impressive. Here we saw some duets for two men, some for two women and some for a man and woman. Each had a different expressive quality and gained yet another texture if it were the only duet on stage or if it were just one among several happening at the same time.

Bosso’s luscious score for piano, violin, cello and voice was played live in the pit with Bosso directing from the piano. Towards the end Katie Noonan slipped in to add her distinctive voice to the piano trio.

Sydney Dance Company is looking brilliant and its repertoire, whether bleak or passionate, is receiving great audience response. Cheering, whistling, stamping, and the drumming of heels greet the fall of the curtain.

Michelle Potter, 10 April 2011

Featured image: Juliette Barton, Chen Wen and Richard Cilli in LANDforms. Courtesy Sydney Dance Company

‘Darcey and Rafael in conversation’

The ticket said ‘Darcey and Rafael in conversation’. The menu cover said ‘Dance—collaboration, creativity and choreography’. A tall order? This luncheon event associated with the National Gallery of Australia’s current exhibition Ballets Russes: the art of costume featured former Royal Ballet star Darcey Bussell, now living with her family in Sydney, and Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of the revamped Sydney Dance Company. So what happened?

Well, about 200 people gathered in Gandel Hall, the Gallery’s new-ish public event space. Seated at round tables accommodating nine or ten people per table, we started with a main course, a most acceptable meal given that it clearly needed to be prepared in advance. Then, as dessert was brought in, Darcey and Rafael, made their way to the stage and, seated in armchairs, began to talk about dance. So far fairly predictable. Things began to get interesting as dance became the focus.

Some footage was shown. We saw the amazing Ms Bussell, with those incredibly articulate arms and legs not to mention face and entire body, in excerpts from Christopher Wheeldon’s Tryst, which Australian audiences were lucky enough to see when Ross Stretton brought the Royal Ballet to Australia in 2001, then in parts of the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake Act III, and finally in the last pas de deux from Manon. Footage of Bonachela’s recent works followed, including segments from We Unfold and 6 Breaths. The conversation centred for a while on the similarities between classical and contemporary dance in terms of the athleticism required by dancers whatever style they are performing, and on the nature of collaboration. Bonachela stressed his aesthetic of commissioning artistic collaborators to produce new work and outlined the importance of moving the art form forward through the creation of new work. Bussell introduced a certain degree of humour as she recounted the trials of rehearsal and the pitfalls (and pleasures) of performance. They both showed a beautifully human side of themselves.

But perhaps the most interesting moments came when the floor was opened up to questions. For me there were three particularly provocative questions. The first concerned narrative in contemporary dance. Did it exist? And was its lack (or apparent lack outside of ballet) what differentiated contemporary dance from ballet? Bonachela’s answer was beautifully phrased. ‘I believe’, he said ‘that the body has a narrative and I am interested in finding it through my choreography. I want to engage with the audience in an emotional way. I am interested in ideas and think the body is a strong communicative tool’. He did add however, tongue in cheek, that perhaps he would wake up tomorrow and want to make a narrative work!

The second question of particular interest to me concerned the Australian Ballet and its now apparently entrenched decision not to perform in Canberra. How, asked the audience member posing the question, do we continue to engage with ballet when the flagship company denies Canberra audiences the opportunity to see Australian Ballet performances other than by spending large amounts of money to travel out of Canberra? Bussell rightly outlined the various problems associated with touring especially by major companies. But because she may not be aware of the situation, she didn’t mention the Australian Ballet’s apparent problems with the size and nature of the Canberra Theatre’s stage, nor its perceived issues with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. But she did say that in the end it is up to us, the people of Canberra, to make it known that we do constitute an audience for ballet and that we want to see performances by the main company, not only those of the Dancers Company or specially contrived one-off events. Well, I’m not sure that any movement from the people would have the slightest effect.

And the third question of particular interest to me concerned the difference in physicality between the dancers of the Ballets Russes era and those of today. It is clear from watching old footage from the 1930s that the dancers who came to Australia between 1936 and 1940 were different in musculature, in technique and in the performance values they brought to the stage. But probably the luncheon conversation was not the forum in which to elaborate on the various changes we see in the way dancers look and perform today. The responses petered out a little. Another occasion perhaps?

The National Gallery of Australia has provided some inspiring events associated with its Ballet Russes exhibition. This was one of them. May there be more events where an audience feels free to ask and comment in the way it did at this event.

Michelle Potter, 10 March 2011

Rafael Bonachela’s dancers

Last week a group of dancers from Sydney Dance Company (SDC) made a brief guest appearance on So you think you can dance Australia. They performed a short excerpt from 6 Breaths, the most recent work created on them by their artistic director Rafael Bonachela. Without wishing to detract from the six dancers who had reached one of the last stages of the So you think you can dance competition, the SDC dancers were absolutely mesmerising. With their streamlined bodies, clearly defined musculature and eloquent limbs it was clear that they were reaping the benefits of strong leadership and vision and, as well, of a particular kind of dance teaching.

6 Breaths, Sydney Dance Company

Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in 6 Breaths. Photo Jeff Busby. Courtesy of Sydney Dance Company

I was lucky that I had an interview set up with Bonachela the following weekend for an article to be published elsewhere, so I couldn’t wait to ask what was happening in the SDC studios. What was producing dancers with such an exceptional capacity to articulate movement and with such a clear sense of focus? I guess I should have seen the writing on the wall (or on the dancers’ bodies) and twigged that Merce Cunningham was in there somewhere.

Bonachela told me that his dancers take both classical ballet and Cunningham technique classes in fairly equal proportions. Cunningham technique, he said, gives the torso extra strength and flexibility. Springing to his feet he demonstrated a classical attitude (think of the familiar statue of Mercury), and then the way the same pose can be used by Cunningham where the spine, still elongated, can be pitched forward in a totally different, contemporary alignment (think of Cunningham’s Beach Birds or Beach Birds for Camera).

Watching 6 Breaths in full shortly afterwards, I looked on with this new knowledge and, while Bonachela is absolutely right about the torso, his dancers also show that every part of the body is an articulate component of the choreography. In addition, they have that rare ability to highlight the space in and through which the body moves and which surrounds each part of the body. Their movements have ‘weight’ — and I don’t mean here that they are heavy! Both the notion that every part of the body can be articulate, and that the body moves in space, are deeply embedded in Cunningham’s work.

And lest this should sound as though 6 Breaths is choreographically dry and abstracted, I have to record what is perhaps my favourite moment in the work. Chen Wen enters quietly from a downstage wing. Coming to a halt, still on the side of the stage space, he places two hands on his right hip and slowly lifts his right leg to arabesque, foot flexed at the end of the arabesque line. The ‘hands on the hip’ move is a very deliberate one, as if to show that when the leg lifts to arabesque the pelvis must tilt forward. But as this kind of analytical testing comes to an end when the arabesque reaches full height, Chen Wen’s torso stretches upwards and the breath that gives birth to this expressive and lyrical stretch continues through the neck as the head tilts slightly backwards. From there the movement swirls smoothly into the next phrase. It’s over quite quickly but it is just breathtaking in the way it generates so many thoughts about so many aspects of dance.

6 Breaths is an exquisite work even without any kind of technical analysis. Apart from the choreography and the performance of it, in terms of music and design it looks forward to a new and exciting collaborative aesthetic from Sydney Dance Company. But as I left the theatre I could not help but hope that Bonachela will be that rare kind of artistic director who will always be searching for an understanding of the innate qualities of movement, for whom physicality (not just physical tricks) is what makes dance dance — whatever kind of dance we might be talking about — and who wants his dancers to know these things too and be able to translate that knowledge into movement. Now that would make Sydney Dance a quite remarkable company. It would also make Bonachela one of the very few truly outstanding dance leaders.

Film clip from Stella Motion Pictures, with thanks.

© Michelle Potter, 12 April 2010