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.

Emily Seymour, Jacopo Grabar, and Rhys Kosakowski in 'Impermanence'. Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Impermanence. Sydney Dance Company

17 February 2021. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay

A year ago Sydney Dance Company was just days away from its first program for 2020, which was to include a new work, Impermanence, by Rafael Bonachela as part of a mixed bill program. But the pandemic struck and the program was cancelled. Impermanence was being created to a score co-commissioned by Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet from Bryce Dessner, an American composer based in Paris. The work was initially inspired by the fire that almost destroyed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019, and by the Australian bush fires that began in late 2019. After the program was cancelled Bonachela and Dessner decided to continue their collaboration and develop the work into a full length one. This is the show that opened on 17 February 2021.

Dancers of Sydney Dance company with the Australian String Quartet in 'Impermanence', 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig
Dancers of Sydney Dance Company with the Australian String Quartet in Impermanence, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Publicity tells us that the work is about transience and fragility, but Dessner’s powerful, driving score, played onstage by the Australian String Quartet seated in an upstage corner, felt to me more like determination to overcome. Similarly, for the most part Bonachela’s choreography was fast-paced, dramatic and powerful and with Damien Cooper’s moody lighting design, with constantly changing colour effects strongly apparent, I found it hard to see the impermanence of it all.

But this is not to say that the work was not engaging. It was. I love watching Bonachela’s amazing ability to show us the unexpected in movement. I love those moments when he has the whole company onstage when we can see unison. Sometimes he has the entire company dancing as one, at other times two groups show us two separate, but still compelling instances of choreographic unison. And having live music played onstage is always something to look forward to, and something on which Bonachela seems to thrive.

As ever, all the dancers performed with their usual and incredible technical skills. But two stood out for me. I couldn’t stop looking at Emily Seymour whose strong balletic background was so clear. Her turns were spectacular and were, although in contemporary mode, perfectly placed and finished. Her truly beautiful rounded arms and smooth line through the body were just breathtaking. Then Jesse Scales looked as though they were so thrilled to be back on stage. Even when standing at the side of stage waiting for their next move their body glowed with pleasure. And Scales used every part of their body to give shape and meaning to the choreography.

Jesse Scales (above), Luke Hayward and Liam Green in Impermanence. Sydney Dance Company, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

The Roslyn Packer Theatre had its COVID plan in place for Impermanence. We checked in with our phones and QR code, there was no mingling in the foyer, we were distanced (slightly) from other audience members, and we were masked-up for the entire show. But what a thrill it was to be back in a live environment watching the kind of spectacular performance we have come to expect from Sydney Dance Company. Jesse Scales said it all with their exceptionally detailed movement and their obvious pleasure in performing for an audience again.

Michelle Potter, 22 February 2021

Featured image: Emily Seymour, Jacopo Grabar, and Rhys Kosakowski in Impermanence. Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Emily Seymour, Jacopo Grabar, and Rhys Kosakowski in 'Impermanence'. Sydney Dance Company and the Australian String Quartet, 2021. Photo: © Pedro Greig

NOTE: The personal pronouns used in this review are those given for use by Sydney Dance Company.

Charmene Yap in a still from Cuatro 1. Sydney Dance Company, 2020

Cuatro. Sydney Dance Company Digital Season 2020

Rafael Bonachela is fond of giving his works Spanish names (he is after all a Spaniard by birth). Cuatro is Spanish for ‘four’ and Bonachela’s work entitled Cuatro consisted of four short solos for four artists of Sydney Dance Company. Each separate dance was accompanied by music played by a solo musician from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Much of the creative development was conducted online with the final four outcomes filmed in isolation at the Sydney Dance Company studios in Ultimo.

Each dance was performed in a different space, beautifully designed and lit by Pedro Greig. Greig was also the film-maker. Each dancer wore a variation on a soft, flowing costume designed by Bianca Spender. The fabric colours ranged from very light grey through soft blue to golden yellow and each had some variation on a rolled and twisted design element, usually a part of the costume that crossed the shoulder.

Cuatro 1 was danced by Charmene Yap to an oboe accompaniment played by Diana Doherty. It took place in a confined space of three white walls.

Cuatro 2 featured Davide Di Giovanni performing to a violin accompaniment played by Andrew Haveron. The background this time was less confined with a draped back wall giving a softer look.

Cuatro 3 showed us Juliette Barton dancing to an accompaniment from Umberto Clerici on cello. Barton and Clerici performed in a black performing space that had three panels, made of what looked like small tiles, on each side of the space. The panels were lit with an exquisite golden glow, and often we saw dancer and cellist in shadow.

Juliette Barton in a still from Cuatro 3. Sydney Dance Company, 2020

Cuatro 4 was performed by Chloe Leong with Emma Sholl playing flute. By the time we reached this fourth dance all walls had disappeared and Leong danced in a fine white mist that spread itself widely.

Choreography for all four solos was by Bonachela and each dancer showed his or her astonishing command of Bonachela’s movement style. This time I felt his choreography was slower and more liquid than usual and its qualities of introspection were deeply moving.

I began thinking of, and watching this series of solos as individual works. Each was released separately with a week between each. Eventually, I stopped watching this way and decided to wait until all four had been screened so I could watch the four in one viewing. I’m glad I did this because I’m not sure I would have had the same reaction had I just watched each a week apart.

I did have a favourite solo—that of Barton accompanied by Clerici. The filming was exceptional with its shadows and close-up shots. Barton was technically brilliant and I loved the way Clerici played his cello with his whole body and seemed completely lost in the sound. But what was wonderful about watching the four dances as if they were one work was that, for me anyway, an emotional underpinning emerged. The work began in that enclosed space with Yap sometimes touching the walls as if to highlight an inability to extract herself from the space. It moved to the possibility of emerging with the softer backcloth against which Di Giovanni performed. By Cuatro 3 the blackness of despair was there but the glorious lighting promised hope. By Cuatro 4 we had reached freedom.

Bonachela has always said his works can mean whatever we want them to mean. I love that. Beautiful work from the whole team

Michelle Potter, 20 August 2020

Featured image: Charmene Yap in a still from Cuatro 1. Sydney Dance Company, 2020

Charmene Yap in a still from ‘Cuatro’ no. 1

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. January 2020

Alice Topp’s Aurum

Aurum, choreographed by Alice Topp, a resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet, was first seen in Melbourne in 2018. It was followed by a 2019 season in Sydney, a scene from which is the featured image for this post. Also in 2019 it had a showing in New York at the Joyce Theater. In fact the Joyce was in part responsible for the creation of Aurum. Aurum was enabled with the support of a Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Dance, awarded by the Joyce. Major funding came from the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation. Aurum went on to win a Helpmann Award in 2019.

Now Topp will stage her work for Royal New Zealand Ballet as part of that company’s Venus Rising program opening in May 2020. She has recently been rehearsing the work in RNZB studios in Wellington.

Madeleine Graham and Allister Madin in rehearsal for Alice Topp's 'Aurum'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeremy Brick
Madeleine Graham and Allister Madin in rehearsal for Alice Topp’s Aurum. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

I can still feel the excitement of seeing Aurum for the first time in 2018 when it was part of the Australian Ballet’s Verve program. My review from that season is at this link.

Dance Australia critics’ survey

Below are my choices in the annual Dance Australia critics’ survey. See the February/March 2020 issue of Dance Australia for the choices made by other critics across Australia. The survey is always interesting reading.

  • Highlight of the year
    West Side Story’s return to Australian stages looking as fabulous as it did back in the 1960s. A true dance musical in which choreographer Jerome Robbins tells the story brilliantly through dance and gesture.
  • Most significant dance event
    Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary. Those who have led, and are leading the company—Suzanne Musitz, Jaap Flier, Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, and currently Rafael Bonachela—have given Australian audiences a varied contemporary repertoire with exposure to the work of some remarkable Australian choreographers and composers, as well as the work of some of the best contemporary artists from overseas.
  • Most interesting Australian independent group or artist
    Canberra’s Australian Dance Party, which has started to develop a strong presence and unique style and has given Canberra a much needed local, professional company. The 2019 production From the vault showed the company’s strong collaborative aesthetic with an exceptional live soundscape and lighting to add to the work’s appeal.
  • Most interesting Australian group or artist
    Bangarra Dance Theatre. Over thirty years the company has gone from strength to strength and can only be admired for the way in which Stephen Page and his associates tell Indigenous stories with such pride and passion.
Beau Dean Riley Smith (centre) as Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre 2017. Photo: Vishal Pandey
Beau Dean Riley Smith (centre) as Bennelong in Bennelong, Bangarra Dance Theatre, 2017. Photo: © Vishal Pandey
  • Most outstanding choreography
    Melanie Lane’s thrilling but somewhat eccentric WOOF as restaged by Sydney Dance Company. It was relentless in its exploration of group behaviour and reminded me a little of a modern day Rite of Spring
Scene from Melanie Lane's 'WOOF'. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
Scene from Melanie Lane’s WOOF. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
  • Best new work
    Dangerous Liaisons by Liam Scarlett for Queensland Ballet. Scarlett has an innate ability to compress detail without losing the basic elements of the narrative and to capture mood and character through movement. It was beautifully performed by Queensland Ballet and demonstrated excellence in its collaborative elements.
  • Most outstanding dancer(s)
    Kohei Iwamato from Queensland Ballet especially for his dancing in Dangerous Liaisons as Azolan, valet to the Vicomte de Valmont. His dancing was light, fluid, and technically exact and he made every nuance of Scarlett’s choreography clearly visible

    Tyrel Dulvarie in Bangarra’s revival of Unaipon in which he danced the role of David Unaipon. His presence on stage was imposing throughout and his technical ability shone, especially in the section where he danced as Tolkami (the West Wind).
  • Dancer(s) to watch
    Ryan Stone, dancer with Alison Plevey’s Canberra-based Australian Dance Party (ADP). His performance in ADP’s From the vault was exceptional for its fluidity and use of space and gained him a Dance Award from the Canberra Critics’ Circle.

    Yuumi Yamada of the Australian Ballet whose dancing in Stephen Baynes Constant Variants and as the Daughter in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia showed her as an enticing dancer with much to offer as she develops further.
  • Boos!
    The Australian Government’s apparent disinterest in the arts and in the country’s collecting institutions. The removal of funding for Ausdance National, for example, resulted in the cancellation of the Australian Dance Awards, while the efficiency dividend placed on collecting institutions, which has been in place for years now, means that items that tell of our dance history lie unprocessed and uncatalogued, and hence are unusable by the public for years.
  • Standing ovation
    I’m standing up and cheering for the incredible variety of dance that goes on beyond our major ballet and contemporary companies. Youth dance, community dance, dance for well-being, dance for older people, and more. It is indicative of the power that dance has to develop creativity, health and welfare, and a whole range of social issues.
Scene from Eye to Eye in On course. QL2 Dance, 2019. Photo: © Andrew Sikorski/Art Atelier

New oral history recordings

In January I had the pleasure of recording two new oral history interviews for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. The first was with Chrissa Keramidas, former dancer with the Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Sydney Dance Company. Keramidas recently returned as a guest artist in the Australian Ballet’s recent revival of Nutcracker. The story of Clara. The second was with Emeritus Professor Susan Street, AO, dance educator over many years including with Queensland University of Technology and the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

News from James Batchelor

James Batchelor’s Redshift, originally commissioned by Chunky Move in 2017, will have another showing in Paris in February as part of the Artdanthé Festival. Redshift is another work emerging from Batchelor’s research following his taking part in an expedition to Heard and McDonald Islands in the sub-Antarctic in 2016. Artdanthé takes place at the Théâtre de Vanves and Batchelor’s works have been shown there on previous occasions.

Study for Redshift. Photo: © Morgan Hickinbotham

Batchelor is also about to start work on a new piece, Cosmic Ballroom, which will premiere in December 2020 at another international festival, December Dance, in Bruges, Belgium. Below are some of Batchelor’s thoughts about this new work.

Set in a 19th Century Ballroom in Belgium, Cosmic Ballroom will playfully reimagine social dances and the aesthetic relationship they have to the space and time they exist within. We will work with movement as a plastic and expressive language that is formed through social encounters: the passing of thoughts, feelings and uncertainties from body to body. It will ponder the public and private and the personal and interpersonal as tonal zones that radiate and contaminate. How might movement be like a virus in this context? How might space-times be playfully spilling across and infecting one another from the baroque ballroom to the post-industrial club space?

Batchelor will collaborate with an team of Australian, Italian and UK artists on this work.

Liam Scarlett

Not such good news

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2020

Featured image: Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

New Breed (2019). Sydney Dance Company

7 December 2019. Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

If there’s one thing that the 2019 New Breed program does, it is to expose the difficulties that go with creating a choreographic work. For me a choreographic work has to have some cohesion as it moves from beginning to end, and it needs to give us, the audience, something to ponder on, dream about, be moved by, or at least have something that is understandable for us in some way. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean to us what the choreographer says it is about, but it has to have something we can latch on to. The 2019 New Breed was a little uneven in achieving the above but there certainly were some outstanding aspects to the program. Choreographers, emerging in some cases, who created works for this program were Davide di Giovanni with In walked Bud, Arise from Ariella Casu, Creeper by Lauren Langlois, and Zero choreographed by Josh Mu.

  • Outstanding dancer

As we have come to expect from the artists of Sydney Dance Company, every dancer who performed in New Breed gave an amazing performance. But it was Chloe Leong who stood out. From the moment she stepped onstage in In walked Bud, the opening work, her precision of movement and her commanding presence in the performing space brought an instant smile to my face and made me look forward to the rest of the program. Leong also danced in Creeper and Zero and was equally as exciting to watch in these pieces.

Chloe Leong in a moment from In walked Bud. New Breed 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
  • Best choreography

Josh Mu created the most interesting choreography of the program with his work, Zero. It had that ongoing cohesion as one movement or group of movements led beautifully to the next. For me, the idea of our connectivity with other human beings kept springing to mind. Whether this related to ‘hypotheses of dystopian futures’, which was mentioned in the program notes, was immaterial and I felt a certain satisfaction as the work progressed. I loved the role the women’s hair played as they swished and tossed their heads around as part of the choreography. Why not? Dance is made on the body and hair belongs to the body!

Scene from Zero. New Breed 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
  • Best musical score

Zero was accompanied by a pounding, relentless score from Huey Benjamin, which was very nicely attuned to the movement.

  • Best costume design

On the whole the costumes were quite drab and uninviting to look at, except for Guy Hastie’s outfits for the two female dancers (Chloe Leong and Holly Doyle) in In walked Bud. They were sophisticated, beautifully cut to reveal shoulders, upper arms and back, and had a wonderful touch of orange colour that, in the way a small piece of orange fabric was cut and inserted, added a softness to the overall costume. They were elegant and suited so well the jazz theme (and music by Theolonius Monk). It’s a shame the costume for the sole male in the piece, Luke Hayward, was so ordinary (white sleeveless T-shirt and black tights/pants). But then perhaps he was the Bud of the title who walked in on the jazz concert? In one version of the occasion that inspired Monk’s music, Bud was a little disorderly.

Chloe Leong and Holly Doyle in In walked Bud. New Breed 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Michelle Potter, 9 December 2019

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.

Featured image: Scene from In walked Bud. New Breed 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
Sheree da Costa in Us 50, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: ©Pedro Greig

Bonachela/Obarzanek. Sydney Dance Company

2 November 2019, Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney

Sydney Dance Company’s second program for 2019, the fiftieth year of existence, began with a short film. Excerpts from the SDC repertoire during the years it was led by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon reminded us of the versatility of the productions during those years when strong narrative works alternated with beautifully abstract productions. These film excerpts, put together by Philippe Charluet, were followed by clips, from the work of Pedro Greig, focusing on the ten years from 2009 during which the company has been led by Rafael Bonachela. Bonachela’s works have never been narrative in nature, but have focused largely on ideas that evoke emotional responses in the audience. But in both eras the choreography has been remarkable and the dancers have been exceptional. Those of us who have been privileged to have watched both eras have been unbelievably lucky.

The live part of the program opened with a revival of Bonachela’s 6 Breaths, first seen in 2010. This collaboration with Italian composer Ezio Bosso begins and ends with some breathtaking videography from Tim Richardson. In the beginning flecks of white swirl through the air before morphing into one and then two human figures, while at the end of the work the reverse happens—first breath and last breath. In between, a series of movements (six in all) introduce us to various human emotions. At times I felt my hands clenching, at other times I relaxed. A duet between two men had my emotions wavering, the moments of unison had me dancing along (in my mind that is). Such is Bonachela’s ability to use dance to evoke an emotional response. And of course I continue to be surprised at the extraordinary choreographic framework that he uses to create these feelings.

Riley Fitzgerald and Dimitri Kleioris in 6 Breaths. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Don Arnold
6 Breaths, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Don Arnold
6 Breaths, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Don Arnold

After interval came Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50. In this work, which involved SDC alumni from the Murphy/Vernon era and a number of audience members, Obarzanek examined concepts about dance creation, especially how movement is passed on from body to body. There was plenty of interaction between the three groups of performers and, remarkably, the audience members, who wore headphones and had no rehearsal prior to coming on stage from the auditorium, were directed from the wings by Charmene Yap as assistant choreographer.

Wakako Asano with Chloe Leong and Janessa Duffty in Us 50. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
SDC alumna Wakako Asano (centre) with Chloe Leong (right) and Janessa Dufty (left) in Us 50. Performers from the audience in the background. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
SDC alumni Kip Gamblin (centre) Wakako Asano (left) and Bradley Chatfield (right) with current SDC dancers in Us 50. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

By the end the three groups had become as one and, while the closing movements and groupings were of necessity quite simple, perhaps over-simplified, the point was made. Across 50 years of dance making, a strong legacy, a proud heritage, and the memories of audiences (represented by the audience members taking part in Us 50) are an essential part of the remarkable organisation that is Sydney Dance Company.

And, as before with the film footage, how privileged were we, who had watched the repertoire of the Murphy/Vernon period, to see the alumni from that time return to show us what amazing artists they still are. Sheree da Costa, glowing with beauty and still with that incredible ability to embrace any movement she is given, opened Us 50 with a short solo. As for other alumni, I wrote about Wakako Asano in 2005 after seeing Grand, ‘Wakako Asano is now such a mature artist gliding from movement to movement and opening and closing the work with mysterious grace.’ It’s still there that mysterious quality. Then, writing about New Blood in 1999, I said of Bradley Chatfield, ‘…his sense of presence on stage … rivals that of any dancer in Australia.’ That presence is also still there. And so with all the other alumni who appeared in Us 50—Kathryn Dunn, Linda Ridgeway, Lea Francis, Stefan Karlsson, Bill Pengelly, Nina Veretennikova, with Simon Turner as stage manager. What a treat.

Michelle Potter, 4 November 2019

Featured image: Sheree da Costa in Us 50, Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Sheree da Costa in Us 50, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig
Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittelberger in 'Six Years Later'. 'Pure Dance, Sydney Opera House, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. August 2019

  • Pure Dance

A performance highlight for August was undoubtedly Natalia Osipova’s Pure Dance, a program of six short works curated by Osipova and featuring Osipova and David Hallberg, along with two guest artists Jonathan Goddard and Jason Kittelberger. A link to my review of the show, written for Limelight Magazine, appears below.

Of course Pure Dance reminded me a little of a similar show Sylvie Guillem put together four or so years ago called Life in Progress. Osipova and Guillem, fabulous classical technicians, both have an abiding interest in contemporary choreography and it is an exceptional experience to see how their skills translate into dance works beyond classical ballet.

  • Youth Dance Festival, Canberra

Canberra has long been a centre for youth and community dance and September sees the 35th season of the city’s Youth Dance Festival, or Youth Fest as it is more commonly known. An inclusive, non-competitive dance festival, it brings together dancers from schools across Canberra and surrounding districts for performances staged by Ausdance ACT at the Canberra Theatre Centre. The 2019 program, called Generation Next, is made up of 61 different dance works created by 40 high schools and colleges from the region!

Jamie Winbank, creative director of the show, tells me that 45,000 young dancers have participated since the festival began in 1985, an astonishing number really. Winbank sees Dance Fest as ‘a platform for young people to express their ideas and opinions, and have their voices heard through dance.’ Generation Next runs from 7-13 September and bookings can be made through the Canberra Theatre Centre website.

  • New Breed from Sydney Dance Company

Sydney Dance Company recently announced the four emerging choreographers who have been commissioned to make a work for the 2019 New Breed season. They are Josh Mu and Lauren Langlois, both from Melbourne, and Ariella Casu and Davide Di Giovanni both from Sydney. This will be the sixth New Breed season and takes place at Carriageworks in Sydney from 28 November to 7 December. Book via sydneydancecompany.com

Davide Di Giovanni in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro
  • Demise of Ausdance National

The most distressing dance news for August was the announcement that Ausdance National, the national advocacy body for dance in Australia over the past 42 years, has been forced to close. Ausdance National was responsible for organising the Australian Dance Awards, but its work extended to industry development, conferences, publications, and a host of other initiatives. Decreasing government funding has had a weakening effect over several years and, while state-based offices of Ausdance will continue to operate (at least for the moment), the national body no longer exists to bring broad, national issues to the fore. A huge loss.

  • Oral history: Lloyd Newson

I had the privilege of recording an oral history interview in August with Lloyd Newson, Australian-born choreographer and founder of the London-based company DV8. It will join the National Library’s ever expanding collection of dance-related interviews. As you read this, Newson will be in Europe working towards the opening of Enter Achilles, reworked for Rambert Dance Company. We will see Enter Achilles in Australia next year. Stay tuned for details of when and where.

  • Press for August 2019

Review of Pure Dance. Limelight Magazine (online), 28 August 2019.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2019

Featured image: Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittelberger in ‘Six Years Later’. Pure Dance, Sydney Opera House, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittelberger in 'Six Years Later'. 'Pure Dance, Sydney Opera House, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco', 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig

Sydney Dance Company turns 50

Below is the text of an article I was commissioned to write about the Canberra season of Sydney Dance Company’s first program for 2019, Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane. It was meant also to include a note on the company’s 50 year history. Sadly and disappointingly, a truncated version, with no images, appeared in The Canberra Times. It was not what I was led to believe would happen.

Several people in the dance community were generous in their support of what I was writing, so I am posting the story as it was meant to be, and I’m including some images: an article on dance without images hardly makes sense.

Sydney Dance Company turns 50 in 2019 and it’s time to commemorate the exceptional endurance of one of the country’s favourite contemporary dance companies. It’s time, too, to celebrate Sydney Dance Company’s bold commitment to the new in the performing arts. The company’s current artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, calls that commitment ‘the continued investment the company has made in new Australian work over its 50-year history’. 

Shane Carroll, former dancer with the company during the years it was led by Graeme Murphy, has been engaged in digging deep into the history of the company. She has come up with some astonishing figures. In addition to the creation of 250 new works, over 50 years Sydney Dance Company has commissioned new scores from 38 composers—the very first going to Peter Sculthorpe in 1971. It has also commissioned 124 different designers, employed more than 260 dancers, and has shown the work of about 90 different national and international choreographers.

‘It’s an amazing contribution,’ Carroll says. ‘The company has been a leader in developing a broad view of contemporary dance in Australia and the longevity of the company is incredible. It has also often been a rollicking ride. There have been no safe productions and funding has often been shaky. But the company has just persisted and has continued to push boundaries.’

Sydney Dance Company began quite modestly in 1969 as Ballet in a Nutshell. It was the idea of the then artistic director of the Australian Ballet, Peggy van Praagh, and was led by a foundation member of that company, Suzanne Musitz. Her small team consisted of some dancers from the Australian Ballet School and one pianist. It was essentially a dance in education company taking dance into schools, initially secondary schools in Sydney. A little later, to attract more boys to its sessions, the name was changed to Athletes and Dancers. 

The group grew into a fully-fledged dance company named the Dance Company (NSW). After being led by Musitz for another few years and then, briefly, by Dutch choreographer Jaap Flier, Graeme Murphy was appointed artistic director at the end of 1976. With his artistic associate (now wife) Janet Vernon, Murphy led the company for 30 years. The name change to Sydney Dance Company came in 1979.

The contribution made by Murphy and Vernon over that period raised the profile of the company to that of an internationally respected one whose repertoire was hugely diverse. In the early years of his directorship, Murphy’s choreography included the first evening length work by an Australian contemporary dance company with Poppy (1978), which looked, inventively, at the life of Jean Cocteau; Glimpses (1976), a work based on the art and writing of Norman Lindsay using a score by Margaret Sutherland; and a very daring Daphnis and Chloe (1980) with designs by Kristian Fredrikson to music by Ravel. Murphy’s commitment to new work, often with an Australian theme, and to collaborating with Australian composers and designers, continued until 2007 when he and Vernon resigned.

Rafael Bonachela joined the company as artistic director in 2009. His first program in Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary year consists of a new work of his own, Cinco; another brand-new work, Neon Aether, from Gabrielle Nankivell; and WOOF from Melanie Lane, which was first seen in 2017 as part of Sydney Dance Company’s experimental choreographic season, New Breed. Canberra audiences will see this program in May.

Cinco, which means five in Spanish, has been created on just five dancers. It is danced to five movements of a string quartet by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, which ‘by chance’ says Bonachela, was written in the 1950s.  Bonachela admits that there is something about numbers that fascinates him. He loves the idea that, in this case, the emphasis on the number five is unusually significant. Fashion design Bianca Spender has created the costumes for Cinco. Bonachela says he has admired her work for some time, especially the way her clothes are both structured and fluid. Spender’s Cinco costumes move beautifully with the body, and play with colour and shape.

Holly Doyle, Chloe Leong and Charmene Yap in Cinco, Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo:
© Wendell Teodoro

In 2014 Gabrielle Nankivell made a powerful, idiosyncratic statement with Wildebeest for Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed season. Now she is back with Neon Aether, which was inspired by aspects of the solar system and science fiction. Nankivell’s partner in life, Luke Smiles, has created an electronic score, which is punctured by voices announcing instructions relating to a journey in space. Those instructions coincide with dramatic blackouts from lighting designer Damien Cooper.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in 'Neon Aether'. 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig
Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Neon Aether. 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Melanie Lane had a smash hit with WOOF in the New Breed season of 2017, so much so that Bonachela has included it in this 50th anniversary program. It too has a commissioned score, this time by Clark, who is Lane’s partner in life and who prefers to be known, theatrically at least, by just one name. Bonachela describes WOOF as ‘brilliant, powerful and about community and belonging, with a touch of vulnerability.’ Watching it on opening night in Sydney in March it reminded me a little of an absorbing, modern-day Rite of Spring.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in WOOF, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

There are several Canberra connections to celebrate in this current season. Bonachela is now a patron of Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2. He accepted the invitation last year, mentioning that he wanted to mentor young dancers and adding how impressed he had been with dancers who had come through the various QL2 programs and then joined Sydney Dance Company.

Then there is Melanie Lane. Now with an international reputation, Lane grew up in Canberra and trained at the National Capital Ballet School when it was directed by Janet Karin. Lane recalls Karin’s ongoing interest in new choreography and was inspired to make her own dances as a result. Karin says she felt sure that Lane would go on to choreograph and adds that as a dancer Lane was ‘fluid, sensuous, strong and feminine all in one.’ On opening night of this anniversary program, WOOF was greeted with huge applause and even had Bonachela himself standing, shouting and whistling. Composer of WOOF, Luke Smiles, has a strong connection with Canberra too. He performed as a dancer with Sue Healey’s Vis-à-vis Dance Canberra back in the 1990s.

In addition, Sydney Dance Company, under its various different names, has been touring to Canberra for almost the entire 50 years of its existence. In fact, the company’s first season under the name Dance Company (NSW) was in 1971 in Canberra, when Love 201 with that commissioned score from Peter Sculthorpe was presented.

The program Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane is Bonachela’s tribute to Sydney Dance Company’s commitment to the new in dance. But Sydney Dance Company’s commitment to Canberra is definitely something that also deserves to be celebrated by local audiences. Don’t miss it.

Michelle Potter, 20 April 2019

Featured image: Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco', 2019. Photo: Pedro Greig
Holly Doyle, Charmene Yap, Chloe Leong, Davide Di Giovanni. and Riley Fitzgeralnd in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco'. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro

Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane. Sydney Dance Company

27 March 2019. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay (Sydney)

It is 50 years since Sydney Dance Company (under a different name or two in its early years) gave its first performance. The time had come to commemorate the company’s remarkable longevity, and its absolute commitment to contemporary dance. Rafael Bonachela’s first season for this anniversary year celebrated with a triple bill consisting of a brand new work from Bonachela himself, and works from two female choreographers, Gabrielle Nankivell and Melanie Lane.

The program opened with Nankivell’s Neon Aether, which to me was not the strongest work of the evening, although it was the loudest and the one that included the most confronting elements. It was difficult to fathom exactly what was going on onstage, what the work was ‘about’. The choreographer’s statement that it was ‘an ode to the burning intangibles that fuel our imagination’ didn’t help, and the most confronting bit was that often there was a sudden, long-ish blackout and a recorded announcement (part of the score by Luke Smiles) could be heard during the blackout. The announcement had something to do with a voyage in space. The blackout bit seemed to me to be a somewhat outmoded way of presenting an idea. This aspect of Neon Aether reminded me of William Forsythe’s Artifact, which goes way back to 1984, when dropping the house curtain at various stages throughout the work, and thus obscuring our view of the dancing, seemed an outrageous step forward that made us question many things. Not any more. I found the blackouts in Neon Aether an annoyance. While the dancing was spectacularly good, as we have come to expect from Sydney Dance Company, the work just left me a little cold.

Scene from Gabrielle Nankivell’s Neon Aether. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Bonachela’s Cinco followed. Made on just five dancers to five movements of a string quartet by Alberto Ginastera, the number five is of course a reference to five decades of dance from Sydney Dance Company. But, like most of Bonachela’s works, it was inspired not by any narrative idea but by the changing patterns and rhythms of the music. Its combination of solos and unison pieces was often filled with the unexpected, but was always a visual delight. And the silken costumes by Bianca Spender were also visually fascinating, flying around the dancers’ bodies with every move those dancers made.

Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco', 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig
Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco, 2019. Photo: © Pedro Greig

The absolute highlight of the evening for me was Lane’s somewhat eccentric work WOOF. It began with the twelve dancers who made up the cast grouping themselves and holding the pose for a short time, giving us the opportunity to take in the complexity of those group shapes. What was going on between them? Some of the groupings even seemed ferocious with a large group of dancers growling at a much smaller group.

Scene from Melanie Lane’s WOOF. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo:
© Pedro Greig

As movement took over from stationary groups, I admired Lane’s awareness of the space of the stage and how to fill it, or leave it empty, for maximum effect, not to mention her juxtaposition of movement and stillness. And her movement vocabulary with its tiny runs on half pointe with bent knees, or its group marching, or its eccentric details of head and arms, was fascinating to the point of being exciting. With its emphasis on groups and their interrelationships, along with the often relentless quality of the work, aided by a commissioned score from composer Clark (who does not use a first name on the program), it reminded me of a contemporary version of Rite of Spring. It was an outstanding work that generated an exceptional audience response.

The diversity of material that the dancers were asked to perform in this triple bill was remarkable and, in their usual fashion, they rose to the occasion and looked stupendous throughout.

Michelle Potter, 6 April 2019

Featured image: Holly Doyle, Charmene Yap, Chloe Leong, Davide Di Giovanni, and Riley Fitzgerald in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro

Holly Doyle, Charmene Yap, Chloe Leong, Davide Di Giovanni. and Riley Fitzgeralnd in Rafael Bonachela's 'Cinco'. Sydney Dance Company 2019. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro
2019 Dance Division staff

Dance diary. March 2019

  • Jerome Robbins Dance Division

In March I had the pleasure of being in New York for the first of a number of events to celebrate 75 years since the foundation of what is now the Jerome Robbins Dance Division. In the featured image, curators seated (left to right) are Madeleine Nichols, Michelle Potter, Jan Schmidt and current curator Linda Murray. Current staff are standing. Founding curator Genevieve Oswald was unable to attend and, sadly, died two weeks later in her home in California aged 97.

The event began with a tribute to Gegi Oswald with a screening of various images relating to her work, and with an interview with her by Walter Terry, which she gave at one stage during her more than 40 years as curator. Then we curators were asked to give our responses to several questions posed to us about our time with the Division. It was a nostalgic evening and wonderful to catch up with friends and colleagues to celebrate the work and vision of the Division.

Mind you it was freezing in New York. This is what it looked like in Central Park on 2 March!

Central Park under snow, March 2019
  • BOLD II 2019, Canberra

Circumstances of various kinds meant that I was unable to attend many of this year’s BOLD events. But of the events I did attend I was especially interested in Paige Gordon’s talk ‘Who’s Counting?’ in which she discussed her present work in Perth and related it back to her earlier experiences in Canberra.

It was also a treat to be at Sue Healey’s showing of several of her current initiatives with dance on film. In particular I admired her short film Weerewa. Portrait of a landscape shot in the area of Lake George just north of Canberra and recently shown at Le FiFA festival in Canada.

Still from Weerewa. Portrait of a Landscape

  • A body of work. Dancing to the edge and back a book by David Hallberg

In March I came across David Hallberg’s autobiographical book, which I had not known of previously even though it was first published in 2017. It was of course of particular interest because of Hallberg’s connections with Australia, and in particular with his rehabilitation by the team at the Australian Ballet, Paul Baird Colt, Megan Connelly and Sue Mayes, which he discusses at towards the end of the book.

Hallberg also mentions arriving in Australia for the first time and being taken aback by the beauty of Sydney Harbour from the sky: ‘The Sydney Opera House and its surroundings, first viewed from fifteen thousand feet in the air, trumped all photos I had ever seen. Here was Australia!’ It reminded me of the photo of Hallberg taking a pose on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House, and of seeing him dance in Cinderella in 2013.

David Hallberg in costume for the Prince in 'Cinderella'. Photo: Wendell Teodoro, 2013
David Hallberg in costume for the Prince in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro, 2013

His book is also fascinating for its insights into the exhausting schedule of those like Hallberg who travel constantly between engagements.

  • Bonchela/Nankivell/Lane

My review of Sydney Dance Company’s latest show, Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane is in the pipeline (and late due to other commitments including a preview piece on the show for The Canberra Times). It’s coming soon but I can say now that I was stunned by Melanie Lane’s thrilling WOOF.

Artists of Sydney Dance Company in Melanie Lane’s WOOF, 2019. Photo:
© Pedro Greig
  • Press for March 2019

‘Indigenous fusion fizzles with styles.’ Preview of Djuki mala. The Canberra Times, 27 March 2019, p. 26. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2019