1 June 2022. Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres Parramatta
What a thrill it was to see Francesco Ventriglia’s exciting choreography for his latest work, Galileo. The performance was absolutely absorbing to watch from beginning to end.
Inspired by the amazing variety of ideas that Galileo Galilei studied in his life’s work as a scientist in late 16th to early 17th century Italy, Ventriglia has ensured that many of those ideas are expressed choreographically—velocity, speed, free fall, the nature of the planets including the principle that earth moves around the sun (for which he was castigated and had to renounce his ideas) all seem to be there. And the dancers performed with extraordinary strength and flair. One artist in particular stood out for me, Connor McMahon. It was his absolute commitment to engaging with the choreography, with the ideas behind the work, and with other dancers that was remarkable. He also had a solo towards the end of the work where the strength of his technique was also apparent.
Some sections had something of a narrative element attached to them. At one stage a small golden globe was brought on stage and, as one dancer held it up, a circle of dancers surrounded the object. It recalled that aspect of Galileo’s thoughts about the relationship between the movement of the earth and the sun. At other times, especially apparent towards the end of the work, dancers formed a group and shook their heads violently suggesting the behaviour of those who denied Galileo’s theories and forced him to renounce his ideas. One of the most beautiful sections happened when one dancer was supported by four men who carried her through swirling, twisting movement without her feet ever touching the ground. It generated many thoughts about the movement of celestial bodies. Other moments, especially at the beginning of the work, reminded me of movements of commedia dell’arte characters thus, in my mind, setting the scene for the era in which Galileo lived and worked.
My previous experience of Ventriglia’s choreography has always made me feel that there needed to be greater changes of pace throughout his works. Not this time. Along with Ventriglia’s characteristic style of partnering in which both male and female dancers move together in a breathtaking manner, there were moments of stillness, slow movement, exceptional use of grouping, and references to many dance styles. The work was danced to a selection of music from Italian composers from around the period in which Galileo was working—Vivaldi, Corelli, Monteverdi and others—and was complemented by evocative lighting from Roderick van Gelder and remarkable video projections, which constantly changed shape yet remained consistent in content, from Marco Giani.
Galileo cements Sydney Choreographic Ensemble as a company to watch and extends the strength of my impression of Ventriglia as a truly interesting choreographer. It would be great if the work were able to tour.
I did not have the opportunity to see live dance outside Australia in 2021 although I came very close to getting to New Zealand to see Loughlan Prior’s Firebird for Royal New Zealand Ballet (everything was booked but had to be cancelled at the last minute)! But I did see a variety of performances from overseas companies in online screenings, including Firebird. Most of what I saw in this way I did review for this website.
Choosing just five productions was not easy but I decided to stay with that limit, perhaps ‘in remembrance of times past’. Five was the limit in the days when The Canberra Times had a stronger arts coverage. And such a limit does demand a certain degree of focus and serious thought about defining principles in specific situations!
Below are my ‘top five’ productions for the year arranged chronologically according to the date of performance.
Third Practice. Tero Saarinen Company. Helsinki, February 2021. Online screening
I was first introduced to the work of the Finnish company led by Tero Saarinen in late 2020 when I was able to watch Borrowed Light, a collaboration by the company with the singers of Boston Camerata. Borrowed Light dated back to 2004 but was filmed in 2012 at Jacob’s Pillow and the film was screened online in 2021 as part of the Pillow’s response to lockdown. It was an exceptional collaboration and made me want to see more from this company, which I had not encountered before. The opportunity came in February 2021 when I was invited to watch and review the company’s online screening of Third Practice, performed to madrigals by Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi, and played and sung by members of Helsinki’s Baroque Orchestra.
Third Practice was another eye-opening production after Borrowed Light. In my review I wrote’, ‘Third Practice is an extraordinary work examining the endless possibilities of cross art form collaboration and the potential of dance to stand at the forefront of new explorations in the arts.’
I was initially intrigued by the title Third Practice. As I discovered when doing some preliminary research, it referred to comments about the nature of Monteverdi’s compositional style and Tero Saarinen’s own approach to choreography. You can read more in my review at this link.
GRIMM. Sydney Choreographic Centre. Sydney, April 2021. Live performance
Starting a new company, and indeed a whole new choreographic venture, is a courageous step to take. GRIMM was the first production from a new Sydney-based venture, the Sydney Choreographic Centre, the brainchild of director Francesco Ventriglia (also the choreographer of GRIMM) and managing director Neil Christopher. GRIMM is courageous too in that it takes a whole new look at characters from the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), and examines the emotions of those characters as they move from youth to maturity. It is a far cry from the way we usually meet characters like Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and others, in dance form.
But it was also a truly thrilling production in a collaborative sense. Lighting, projections, costumes were stunning in their contemporaneity. Absolutely stunning. It was a terrific start for this new venture and I look forward to seeing more. Read my review at this link.
The Point, Liz Lea Dance Company, Canberra, May 2021. Live performance
Liz Lea Dance Company won a Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Lea’s production of The Point. The citation read: ‘For The Point, a courageous exploration of connection and creativity across different dance styles and cultures through innovative choreography highlighted by outstanding use of music and a remarkable lighting design by Karen Norris.’
What intrigued me especially about this production was the mix of dance styles, which did not in my mind compromise any one style. My ballet teacher, many years ago now, was Valrene Tweedie, and I recall her saying ‘Ballet is like a sponge. It can absorb anything and everything.’ Well it is quite easy to substitute ‘dance’ for ‘ballet’ in that remark and Lea’s combining of contemporary, Western style movement with Indian styles, with which Lea is more than familiar, suggests strongly that no dance style is beyond being looked at creatively.
Of course, as the citation indicates, the collaboration across media was brilliant and the mix of ideas, which included homage to Marion Mahony Griffin and her contribution to the design of Canberra, was also brilliant. Read my review at this link.
Sandsong. Stories from the Great Sandy Desert. Bangarra Dance Theatre. Sydney, June 2021. Live performance
For me Sandsong captured what I have always loved about Bangarra—the company’s ability to present Indigenous cultural heritage and the political issues that have intruded on and damaged that heritage. I admire the way the ideas presented generate serious contemplation about the situation without necessarily demanding that we are filled with anger. Bangarra shows us what happened; we can draw our own conclusions. With Sandsong I also was moved by the way those cultural issues reflected gender divisions in traditional society, both choreographically and in a narrative sense.
In addition, what always stands out with Bangarra productions, and Sandsong was no exception, is the visual strength of the company’s shows. Jacob Nash creates exceptional sets, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes capture so much of the context of the work while giving freedom for the dancers to move, and on this occasion the lighting by Nick Schlieper added a stunning shimmer to Nash’s backcloth while Steve Francis’ score captured the multi-faceted nature of the work.
On view. Panoramic Suite. Sue Healey. Sydney, October 2021 . Online screening
Sue Healey has been working with the concept of On View for a number of years and I have strong memories of On View. Live Portraits, as well as a number of filmed portraits she has made of people she has named ‘icons’ of Australian dance. Panoramic Suite, however, takes her ideas to another level and includes material recorded outside of Australia, in particular in Hong Kong and Japan. Healey has combined this new material with that created in Australia and the result is indeed a panorama. This is not just because it traverses continents in its subject matter, but also because of the technical approach that gives the viewer many angles from which to view the footage—close-up shots, aerial views, multiple views of the same sections, and so many other concepts.
On View. Panoramic Suite is an exceptional endeavour and a huge credit to Healey and her team. Read my review at this link.
I guess what I really liked about all five of these productions was that in one way or another the choreographers, and the collaborative team, were pushing the boundaries of what dance is about, what it can do, how we can look at it. And the pushing of boundaries was happening in such a variety of ways. There was intelligence and creativity in approach and that was a real thrill in a year when we all wondered if the performing arts would survive when there were so many problems, especially for live performance. Let’s look ahead, with fingers crossed, to 2022.
Houston Ballet has, as a result of concerns and protests from various groups, removed its production of La Bayadère from its current season. The ballet looks back to the nineteenth century when ‘orientalism’ or interest in ‘exotic lands’ beyond Europe was a much-used theme in ballets and other theatrical productions. Recent media reports from Houston have suggested that the ballet contains ‘orientalist stereotypes, dehumanizing cultural portrayal and misrepresentation, offensive and degrading elements, needless cultural appropriation, essentialism, shallow exoticism, caricaturing’ and more.
In Australia, in addition to the middle act, ‘Kingdom of the Shades’, which has often been seen out of its context within the full-length ballet, we have seen three different productions of the full-length Bayadère. Two have been performed by the Australian Ballet—Natalia Makarova’s production staged by Makarova herself during the directorship of Ross Stretton and seen in 1998, and Stanton Welch’s production made originally for Houston Ballet, which is the one recently cancelled, staged on the Australian Ballet in 2014. As well, Greg Horsman produced a new version for Queensland Ballet in 2018.
I have no intention of commenting on the issues raised in Houston, although I am especially interested in ideas about cultural appropriation. But I will say that I thought Greg Horsman’s rethink of the work for Queensland Ballet was a winner from a number of points of view. Horsman has commented to me that he thought his restaging was not, in general, well received. Horsman’s version turned the story on its head somewhat and gave audiences much to ponder, so it is a shame that it hasn’t been shown and discussed more widely. Here is a link to my review of the Horsman production.
Philip Chatfield (1927–2021)
Philip Chatfield, who has died aged 93 on the Gold Coast just south of Brisbane, came to Australia in 1958 on the momentous tour by the Royal Ballet. He and his wife, Rowena Jackson, stand out in my memories of that tour, especially for the roles of Swanilda and Franz in Coppélia. Just a few months before they left London on that tour, Chatfield and Jackson married and at the end of the tour settled in New Zealand where Jackson was born. Chatfield became artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet (1975–1978) and they both taught at the National Ballet School, now New Zealand School of Dance. Chatfield and Jackson moved to the Gold Coast in 1993 in order to be closer to family members.
Jennifer Shennan’s obituary for Chatfield is not yet available, but a link will be added in due course. UPDATE: Follow this link to read the obituary.
For more on the Royal Ballet’s Australasian tour of 1958–1959 see this link. There is contentious material contained in that post and in the several comments it received (although not about Chatfield and Jackson).
Sydney Choreographic Centre
The recently established Sydney Choreographic Centre, a project headed by artistic director Francesco Ventriglia and managing director Neil Christopher, has moved into its new premises in Alexandria, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. It will be the home of the Sydney Choreographic Ensemble and will offer a range of courses and open classes. A launch has been postponed due to the Sydney lockdown.
For more information about the Centre, and the courses that will commence once covid restrictions have been lifted, see the Centre’s website at this link.
And we danced
The third episode of And We Danced, a three part documentary charting the growth of the Australian Ballet, has now been released and all three episodes are currently available (for a limited time) on ABCiview. The second episode remains in my mind the strongest and most interesting, but the third episode does contain some interesting material and again has a focus on social and political matters as they have affected the Australian Ballet. A longer post on the third session follows soon but at this stage I can’t help but mention how moving I found the archival footage of Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Goldsmith was the original Odette in this production and her immersion in the role was exceptional.
For just the second time in 60 or so years of watching dance (and even performing it), I walked out of a show. I found Joel Bray’s I liked it but …. unwatchable. I left because I really couldn’t accept the way that various dance styles were described. Perhaps it changed later after I had left, I don’t know, but basically I am opposed to dance, in whatever format, being put down, often in a way that seems ignorant of the true nature of that format.
News flash: The Sydney Choreographic Centre has just announced that Sylvie Guillem is to take on the role of international patron of the Sydney Choreographic Centre. Artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has said of the appointment:
I could not be more thrilled and honoured that Sylvie has agreed to become SCC’s International Patron. I want the Centre to be a place of inspiration and there is no one in the dance world more recognised or inspiring than Sylvie.
Well for those of us who have seen Guillem dance in various situations this appointment augurs well and I hope her input will be extensive, if from afar. I don’t think I have ever really recovered from Guillem’s production of Giselle for the Finnish National Ballet, which I had the good fortune to see twice way back in 2001. The intelligence behind what was a truly inspired production was remarkable. I hope that in some way Ventriglia and his team will be able to harness some of that passion and inspiration to add to what they already have.
16 April 2021. Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta
GRIMM is the first work from the newly established Sydney Choreographic Centre and a world premiere from its director, Francesco Ventriglia. It takes an unusual look at some of the characters from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm), examining the emotions of these fairytale characters and the passage they make from youth to maturity. We meet, for example, Snow White, the Frog Prince, Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. We watch as they are pressured by a black clad figure, an evil character encompassing stepmother, witch and any other malevolent figure from a Grimm story. By the end every one of them had been transformed. Even the black clad Evil One (my name for this character) took on a new guise and appeared finally as a figure enveloped by golden clothes and shining lights.
Ventriglia’s choreography was fast-paced and filled with astonishing lifts with arms and legs constantly being thrown in all directions. It was quite angular most of the time. I waited for some moments of stillness, and the occasional feeling of roundness and softening of the limbs, but the angularity continued throughout. The duet between Snow White and her partner came closest to having a sense of calm and smoothness, but only occasionally. All the performers were, however, outstanding dancers and I especially admired the strength and emotional power of Ariella Casu, both as the Evil One and in the final moments when her black costume was stripped away to reveal a different side (perhaps?) of her character.
Although I wished for more diversity in the choreography, at least in its immediate impact, I was stunned by the absolutely brilliant, very contemporary visual effects throughout. The lighting by Alex Berlage left a lot of the stage quite dark for much of the time but the strong side and down lights were exceptional in the way they highlighted the various characters. The projections by Marco Giani were quite minimal in most cases—just narrow rectangles of light filled with largely abstract designs, although they clearly represented forces of nature. But they too added to an understanding of who the characters were and never detracted from the movement. Costumes by James Acheson, especially for the main characters, were impressive and again a strong sense of the contemporary in design was clear.
On the night I attended the performance the audience reaction was astonishing—cheering, stamping on the floor and the like. It took me back to the days when audiences seemed to go wild with excitement at the ballet (as far back as Borovansky even). Let’s see what happens with the next show from this bold new venture.
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.
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.