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?

  • 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

Spring Dance 2011 (2). Monumental

Ros Warby’s Monumental has been around since 2006 but I had not seen it for one reason or another. So it was more than irritating to arrive at its showing during Spring Dance to be told that there was no program sheet. ‘Oh, it’s the last performance’, I was told. Well this is the digital age when it doesn’t take long to print off a few more copies. And there were only two performances and I was at the second, so it seems slack that such a small number of shows could not be catered for in the first place. Besides, it is offensive to the artists involved when the audience doesn’t have the opportunity of reading who did the lighting, who made the costumes, who composed the music and so forth.

But to the show! Monumental, a solo work, focused on two generic figures—a swan and a soldier. I’m not sure they had any relationship to each other but certainly as each took the stage we were reminded of the fragility and perhaps the futility of the human condition and experience. The swan, which may or may not have been Odette from Swan Lake or the dying swan of Anna Pavlova fame, twitched and fluttered nervously. Warby’s headdress of a white skull cap/swimming gear looked incongruous with her white tutu but went well with her bare feet. Then the swan began to share the stage with footage of birds and of Warby herself. A beautiful blend of the living and the mechanical began to emerge and more resonances began to surface in one’s mind.

The soldier, dressed in a black jumpsuit and a headdress that recalled that worn by the Siren in the Ballets Russes production of The Prodigal Son, was a little less successful, although Warby demonstrated her versatility as a dancer, changing from the twitching anxiety of the swan to a precise, neat way of covering space—dare I say a militaristic way of moving? The Lone Ranger allusion (‘Hi, yo silver. Away’) as the soldier became a horse was again a complex layering of meaning especially as the footage changed from marching feet in a harsh environment to balletic feet, and as the soldier/horse became a black swan.

Warby’s Monumental is a strong work but not easily ‘understood’. It is emotional to a certain extent and juxtaposes ideas as non sequiturs. So it fits in a way with the Spring Dance focus on the expressionist legacy of Pina Bausch. But Warby has quite a cerebral, even dry approach to her creative practice that seems to me to be the antithesis of the Bauschian approach. Nevertheless, Monumental is a work worth watching and pondering over.

However, I do wish that Warby would avoid including obvious balletic language as part of her choreography. No matter how much one’s early ballet training may be ‘imprinted’ on the body (it’s on mine too!) one reaches a stage where turning pirouettes in a circle no longer looks the way it should. Without daily and intensive ballet classes and ongoing use of the ballet technique in a professional way, no dancer can do justice to the intrinsic qualities of the balletic vocabulary. The body seems like a slightly out of tune musical instrument, the steps suffer and we are faced with an unintended (I think) denigration of the vocabulary.

After the show I was able to confirm that the footage and lighting were the work of Margie Medlin and the cello score was by Helen Mountfort. Medlin and Mountfort are Warby’s regular collaborators but not everyone in the audience would have known that without a program sheet.

Michelle Potter, 10 September 2011

Spring Dance 2011 (1). Pina: a celebration

Pina Bausch died quite suddenly in 2009. It was a shock to most in the dance world and was the occasion for an outpouring of recollections and writing of various kinds. Sydney’s Spring Dance program, now in its third year, made its contribution with almost its entire program devoted in some way or another to the legacy of Bausch. A major highlight was Pina: a celebration, two days of talks and films hosted by journalist and broadcaster Caroline Baum.

In terms of format, Pina: a celebration comprised three sessions, ‘Keys to your soul’, ‘Pina’s children’ and ‘Muscle memory’. Each was held in the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House and began with a conversation between Baum and her invited guests. On each occasion the conversation was followed by a film screening.

Although a major focus of the event was, to my mind anyway, on setting Bausch and her work within an Australian context, Bausch was absolutely central to the occasion and eclipsed most other aspects of the event. One of the unexpected highlights was a small snippet of footage shot in 1982 by Scott Hicks for a documentary on the 1982 Adelaide Festival at which Bausch and her company appeared. How warm and friendly Bausch seemed. And how cunningly she avoided the issue of how to describe her works by telling instead an amusing story about Alfred Hitchcock.

We saw Bausch again almost forty years later in  ‘Dancing Dreams’, a documentary made in 2010 by Anne Linsel and Rainer Hoffmann on the creation of a new version of Kontakthof, a work Bausch first made in 1978 and which was seen in Australia in Adelaide in 1982.  

In this new production Bausch used teenagers over the age of fourteen as her entire cast. Bausch watched rehearsals for this show we would occasionally see a smile break out on her now lined but always expressive face. There was again a sense of warmth and tenderness from the woman who was once accused of being a ‘theatre terrorist’ and making works that were the ‘raw pulp of abuse’.

The other two films were Pina Bausch made, again by Anne Linsel, in 2006, and Life in Movement made in 2010 by Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde on the work of Tanja Liedtke. While both offered much insight, and Life in Movement in particular is an important addition to our knowledge of Liedtke’s creativity, both were at times a little subjective making them seem a tad too long. Not so with Dancing Dreams where the spoken words were forthright and honest, where the cast was able to be self critical and the young people able to analyse the role they were playing in the creative process, not to mention the effect that process was having on them. It was very refreshing,

In the conversations with Baum, three of the five guests were Australians whose work had been influenced in one way or another by Bausch: Michael Whaites, Kate Champion and Shaun Parker. What instantly stood out was the sense of objectivity they were able to bring out in their comments and answers to Baum’s questions. After the reverential tone of Bausch’s dancers in the Linsel film Pina Bausch, it was invigorating to hear something a little more down to earth. Whaites in particular, the only one of the three who had worked in close proximity to Bausch, spoke of the need to maintain just a little distance in dealing with life in Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal. And on another Australian note, Dancing Dreams afforded us the pleasure of watching Jo Ann Endicott, an Australian dancer who has been with Bausch since 1973, in her role as co-rehearsal director (along with Bénédicte Billiet) for the new production of Kontakthof.

Alain Platel and Lutz Förster were Baum’s other guests. Both were in Sydney for performances of Platel’s Out of context: for Pina, which I wrote about last year and in which Förster was a performer.*

An unexpected (for me) addition to the program was a brief public conversation with photographer William Yang, whose images of two Bausch works, Kontakthof and 1980, taken at the 1982 Adelaide Festival were on view in the foyer. Yang, who admitted he was not really a great dance-goer, likened Bausch to Chekhov. ‘She understands the human condition’, he said.

Michelle Potter, 10 September 2011

*Platel was a guest on ‘Mornings with Margaret’ on 31 August 2011. His interview is available as a podcast. (update: Podcast no longer available)


Wrong Skin. Chooky Dancers. Spring Dance 2010 (3)

2-12 September 2010. Sydney Opera House, 

Wrong Skin, performed by the indigenous company Chooky Dancers, is really a play with dance sequences included. Its narrative line concerns traditional law, in particular as it relates to kinship and marriage in indigenous society, and the difficulties of adhering to tradition in the face of an encroaching Western world with quite different values. It might even be called a version of Romeo and Juliet, or an indigenous West Side Story.

The story is not spoken in English but in an Aboriginal language spoken by the Yolngu people of Elcho Island off north east Arnhem Land where the Chooky Dancers have their home. As the story begins the words of the protagonists are translated into English and the translation projected onto a screen. The audience learns that in Yolngu culture marriage between people of opposite moieties—the Yirridja and Dhuwa moieties—is forbidden as being between people of the ‘wrong skin’. And the inevitable has happened. Two young lovers find themselves in the category of ‘wrong skin’. After this initial explanation to English-only speakers, there is no more translation and it is a credit to the strength of the show and its direction that we don’t need further translations. The storyline is perfectly easy to follow and understand.

The dance sequences range from a reference to Zorba the Greek Yolngu style, a piece of choreography that became a worldwide hit via YouTube in 2007, to a take on that iconic Hollywood movie Singing in the Rain complete with clips from the movie and a traditional rain dance that merges into a dance sequence in contemporary mode complete with umbrellas. The dance is high energy, youthfully raw, and powerful in its capacity to carry a message. It is also sometimes funny, although not perfect in its attempts at comedy. At times I felt the humour was overdone when less might have been more.

The work is not without modern day political implications either. The footage that is projected as backcloth often shows appalling living conditions endured by some Elcho Island inhabitants. And on one occasion we are shown on one of the television monitors that dot the stage an excerpt from one of former prime minister John Howard’s less than acceptable speeches on indigenous issues. But again it is a credit to the direction of the show that there is a great balance between politics and the telling of the main story in words, music and dance.

I loved this show. At last a group of dancers has used a technique that the music world has been using for some time now. We had a mashup from a dance group and got a derivative new work, as we should from a mashup, which was also provocative and entertaining.

Open the link for an Opera House interview with the director of Wrong Skin, Nigel Jamieson. *(See note below)

Michelle Potter, 18 September 2010

* Postscript, May 2011: Sadly the interview mentioned above is no longer available online from the Sydney Opera House site and I have removed the broken link. The original version of Zorba by the Chooky Dancers is still going strong on YouTube.

In glass. Narelle Benjamin. Spring Dance 2010 (2).

7–12 September, 2010. Sydney Opera House, Spring Dance Season,

Narelle Benjamin says her latest work, In glass, was inspired by the partnership of the two dancers who perform the work, Paul White and Kristina Chan. The best parts of the work are indeed when White and Chan are dancing either separately but in unison, or when one is being partnered by the other (that is when there is physical contact between them). Their opening sequence was breathtaking—liquid, silky smooth, perfectly synchronised and stunningly executed.

While White and Chan have shared many experiences dancing together, and this in itself builds a partnership, what makes this pairing work so extraordinarily well is that White and Chan also share many physical similarities. They are similarly proportioned—length of limbs in relation to trunk for example—and probably most importantly they have similar muscle tone, even acknowledging the gender difference. Great partnerships grow from these kinds of physical similarities because dance is ultimately a physical art form.

I’m not sure, however, that the work as a whole was as successful as the White/Chan partnership. In glass tries, I think, to explore some intangible ideas that don’t necessarily translate well into dance. Benjamin’s program notes say that the work ‘hovers between planes at a liminal place of transition’. To tell the truth, I’m not sure what she means by this but I guess the idea was given shape at those moments when, looking into the mirror surfaces that made up the set, I wondered whether I was looking at reality in the shape of a dancer or some other idea made visible by film projection onto the surface. There was one quite surreal moment when an image of White’s body morphed into a tree, for example. There was also one unsettling, but also surreal occasion when White held two oval mirrors, one on either side of his head so that it seemed that he had sprouted two extra heads from the one neck. The footage and other visuals, the work of Samuel James, were at times entrancing, whether or not their interaction with the movement connected in my mind. Sequences showing Chan, softly focused and drifting through a hilly, forested landscape were especially engrossing.

Watching White and Chan is a huge joy. The opening sequence promised so much and many other moments of dancing built on that promise. But I would rather have watched White and Chan just dancing Benjamin’s challenging choreography without other philosophical distractions, especially when those distractions were not meant to be ignored but were less than obvious (to me anyway).

Michelle Potter, 13 September 2010

Spring Dance 2010 (1). Transports exceptionnels

Transports exceptionels. Spring Dance Season, Sydney Opera House, 9-12 September 2010

  • A perfect Sydney spring  day
  • A large, orange earthmover with driver
  • The remarkable voice of Maria Callas
  • A dancer, Philippe Priasso

Billed as a duet for dancer and earthmover, this free event on the Sydney Opera House Forecourt was a remarkably moving occasion as the dancer, Philippe Priasso, engaged fearlessly with a huge piece of machinery. He bowed before it, chased it (and it chased him), stood on top it, lay across it and otherwise moved with and on it. But despite the amazing sound of Callas filling the air, the sun glinting on the tiles of the Opera House sails and the daredevil activities of Priasso, the earthmover and its unnamed driver were the stars. This huge, clunky looking machine danced with such lyricism as its driver made it swing, swoop and swirl. Theatrical!

Listen to Philippe Priasso talking about performing this remarkable 20 minute dance (with excerpts from the dance itself). * (See note below)

Michelle Potter, 11 September 2010

*Postscript, May 2011:  Sadly the Sydney Opera House interview mentioned above is no longer available online and I have removed the broken link. I found a brief clip from a performance in the UK on You Tube. Nothing like the stunning Sydney venue, which also impressed Priasso as he discussed in the interview, but it does give a vague idea of what the work was like.

Photos: Michelle Potter

The Oracle. Meryl Tankard

19 september 2009, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Spring Dance

The Oracle, Meryl Tankard’s work set to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, is a triumph. A solo work for Paul White, who dances with astonishing physicality and intensity, it is an example of how affecting a work can be when the creative team has a strongly shared vision and works single-mindedly to bring that vision into being. The Oracle was visually and choreographically focused and articulate. It moved from section to section as relentlessly as the music until it reached its dramatic conclusion.

Paul White in The Oracle. Photo: © Régis Lansac, 2009

Tankard’s choreography, with shared credit to White on the program, moved between small and intricate movements of the hands and fingers and even of the tongue, which required sensitivity of the smallest body part, and movements that demanded that White fling himself through the air, while always maintaining absolute control of the whole body as it hurtled through space. Introverted movements, sometimes executed with the dancer’s back to the audience or with his head shrouded in a chocolate-coloured length of velvety cloth, contrasted with steps of exceptional virtuosity, exuberance and extroversion. Some sections were acrobatic — at one stage White walked on his hands — others had a strong classical feel. This choreography required an extraordinarily versatile performer and White’s performance was quite simply a tour de force.

Tankard assembled The Oracle following the structure of the Stravinsky score but, in her hallmark manner, it was built on multiple layers of meaning and allusion. There were emotive links to Nijinsky, who first gave choreographic expression to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913. They were noticeable in some of the choreographic phrases, which seemed to refer back to Nijinsky’s movement phrases created for his own Rite of Spring. They were also noticeable in those moments when White seemed to be lost in a surreal world, which recalled Nijinsky’s descent into mental illness in the later years of his life. There were allusions to Martha Graham’s well known work, Letter to the World, in which she used her long skirt to give extra shape and form to her choreography. White used that long, chocolate-coloured swathe of velvet not this time to cover his head but as a skirt tied to his waist. He made it swirl through the air as he cart-wheeled and jumped and manipulated it across the floor as he slithered and twisted. The work drew on other sources of inspiration from the work of Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum to Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman. But The Oracle is absolutely Tankard’s own. One of her great strengths as a choreographer is to make references while maintaining an individual integrity.

Regis Lansac, working again with Tankard as he has done over many years on set and video design, created an opening video sequence to a soundscape of whistling and other mechanical sounds and a recording of Magnificat by the Portuguese composer of the baroque period, João Rodrigues Esteves. This sequence picked up on aspects of the choreography and on images of White and manipulated both to explore a different view of the human body. It seemed also to set up a dance of its own that moved from the figurative to the abstract and back again melding and confusing the two ideas. At times throughout the piece Lansac’s projections and video sequences provided an evocative background. At other times they became essential to the unfolding of the dance, especially in those moments when White encountered his image on the backcloth and needed to contend with what he saw.

The Oracle was lit by Damien Cooper and Matt Cox. Highlights included the Rembrandt-esque lighting of White’s face, arms and legs in the opening moments; the expanding and contracting circle of light around whose circumference White made a slow and tentative progression; and the breathtaking closing moment as White, centre stage, jumped high into the air as a shaft of brilliant light closed down upon him.

Paul White in The Oracle. Photo: © Régis Lansac, 2009

The Oracle shows the collaborative work of Tankard and Lansac at its best. It is an awesome piece of dance and theatre and was received with well deserved shouts of bravo and a standing ovation at both performances I attended.

Michelle Potter, 21 September 2009