Kristina Chan in 'Champions'. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Champions. FORM Dance Projects/Martin del Amo

22 January 2017 (matinee), Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney). Sydney Festival 2017

The walk down the corridor to enter Bay 17 of Carriageworks for Champions was accompanied by the recorded sound of crowds cheering and referees’ whistles blowing. We entered the space through an arch of balloons and before us, on a green grass-like floorcloth, was a dancing mascot. The scene was set for Martin del Amo’s Champions, a dance work commissioned by FORM Dance Projects and presented as a sporting event, a football match to be more precise. Del Amo’s program notes stated, ‘It is a commonly held belief that sport and the arts do not go together.’ Champions was del Amo’s comment on that pervasive attitude. It also had political overtones about women in sport, especially in those sports that are more often than not regarded as ‘men’s work’.

The first thing to say is that the mascot—a swan dressed in a tutu—was an entrancing part of the show. Inside the costume, Julie-Anne Long kept us entertained before the show proper began and then mid-piece in the half-time section. She crossed her wrists demurely in front of her à la Swan Lake, executed little piqué style steps, and waved her arms up and down like a dying swan. Smart choreography from del Amo and amusing execution by Long, despite the difficulties her orange webbed feet must have caused her.

The rest of the dancers/football players, all women, included some of the best contemporary dancers working around Sydney today. One by one, as they warmed up for the dance/match, they were introduced by a commentator (real-life sporting commentator Mel McLaughlin), who appeared on video on a series of upstage screens. Then the main section of the work began with a series of group exercises and, a little later, with comments, again via the video screens, about salaries for men and women in sport, in particular salaries received by the Australian men’s soccer team in comparison with the women’s.

Scene from 'Champions', 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr
Scene from Champions, 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

In preparation for Champions, the dancers had worked with the Sydney-based soccer team, the Western Sydney Wanderers, so there was a certain authenticity to their sporting moves. But from a dance perspective, the most interesting section came when the dancers lined up downstage and began to wave gold pom-poms, as we are used to seeing from cheer squads. Throwing away the pom-poms (thankfully) they began to take a series of poses that seemed to teeter between football moves and contemporary dance poses. At first the moves seemed unconnected but slowly it became clear that in fact there was a set number of moves and the dancers had an individual sequence they were required to follow. At the end of this section the entire row began working as one with every dancer taking on the same pose. I enjoyed the choreographic surprises that characterised this section.

Again interesting from a dance perspective were those moments towards the end of the piece, when individual dancers were lifted high above the heads of the group. Celebratory moments perhaps?

Sara Black in 'Champions', 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr
Sara Black and dancers in a scene from Champions, 2017. © Heidrun Lohr

Champions was a clever work. It was fun to laugh at the swan mascot and the references being made to certain works from the ballet repertoire. It was interesting, too, to reflect on the sporting commentary and interviews recorded with the dancers and screened for viewing by the audience. Those comments and replies often reflected common thoughts about contemporary dance. A question from the commentator, for example, about what was happening onstage had the reply, ‘A lot of people are baffled by contemporary dance.’

My regret is that the work really didn’t give us much of a chance to see the exceptional abilities of people like Kristina Chan, Miranda Wheen, the Pomare sisters, in fact all  eleven women. Champions was enjoyable but, despite its apparent intentions to make a social and political comment, to me it was a slight work.

Michelle Potter, 25 January 2017

Featured image: Kristina Chan in Champions, 2017. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr

Kristina Chan in 'Champions'. Photo: © Heidrun Lohr
Tatsuo Miyajima in 'Spectra'. Dancenorth 2017. Photo: © Prudence Upton

Spectra. Dancenorth

15 January 2017 (matinee), Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney). Sydney Festival 2017

What a delight it was to see Dancenorth, whose home is in Townsville, North Queensland, and who are not all that often seen in southern parts. It was even more of a delight to see them (joined by some artists from the Japanese company, Batik) in a very theatrical production, Spectra. Choreographed by the Dancenorth team of Amber Haines and Kyle Page, the show featured just seven dancers. But they held the audience’s attention from beginning to end with their fluid movement, their astonishing moments of stillness and their absolute immersion in the inherent nature of the choreography.

Program notes indicated that the idea behind the work was an exploration of ‘the Buddhist philosophy of  “dependent origination” which states that the secret of the universe lies in the nature of causality—the way one thing leads to another.’ But even without this note, it was very clear that the dancers were working with the idea of causation, whether in a group when a touch would cause the one touched to move in a particular way, or whether in the movement of an individual whose sense of lyricism and fluidity had a similar effect.

Tatsuo Miyajima and artists in 'Spectra'. Dancenorth 2017. Photo: © Prudence Upton
Tatsuo Miyajima and artists in Spectra. Dancenorth 2017. Photo: © Prudence Upton

But while the dancers were outstanding, the lighting, by Niklas Pajanti, was absolutely brilliant and was what made the performance so theatrical. The work was lit with downlights, sidelights, tiny star-like lights hanging from the flies, rows of lights, flashes of lights, lines of light. It twinkled, shone, glowed, and enveloped the space. Just spectacular. Music was by Jairo Matsumoto and played live onstage by the composer. It added to the sense that this was an act of collaboration of the best kind.


Michelle Potter, 20 January 2017

Featured image: Tatsuo Miyajima in Spectra. Dancenorth 2017. Photo: © Prudence Upton

Tatsuo Miyajima in 'Spectra'. Dancenorth 2017. Photo: © Prudence Upton
Scene from 'Cry Jailolo'

Cry Jailolo & Balabala. Ekosdance Company, Indonesia

8 January 2017, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney). Sydney Festival 2017

Cry Jailolo and Balabala, both choreographed by Eko Supriyanto, were both danced by men and women from Jailolo, a remote town on the western side of the island of Halmahera in the Maluku Islands (formerly known as the Moluccas).

Cry Jailolo, made for seven men, was perhaps the more theatrical of the two works. Not being familiar with the traditional dances of this part of Indonesia I have no idea if the work reflects those traditions, although publicity material states that Cry Jailolo is based on a local dance called ‘Legu Salai’. But whatever its origins the work is a mesmerising 50 minutes or so of changing rhythms, patterns and spatial concerns. It begins with one dancer, barefooted as are all the men, stamping out a rhythm with the sole of one foot and the heel of another. It continues for what seems like a long time but it establishes the overall repetition that characterises the work.

This single dancer is then joined by the rest of the men, who move in a close-knit group around the performing space changing direction every so often when one of the group claps his hands and takes over the leadership. In this section the dancers resemble a school of fish travelling through the water—and indeed Jailolo is a coastal town well-known as a diving centre and for its spectacular sea life.

But soon the story seems to shift to the land and a cyclone appears to hit the town. The men dance individually and in a frenzied manner, twirling and twisting as they manage the conditions. One dancer in particular (the shortest of the dancers seen in the back row of the featured image) was so involved with the wild choreography that he seemed to be in a trance. It was absorbing dancing from an audience point of view too, and it was impossible not to admire the powerful focus the dancers had and the choreographer’s exceptional ability to create patterns and relationships between the dancers.

Cry Jailolo ended as it had begun with a single dancer left on the stage to dance until the lights had completely faded.

Balabala was made on five women, also from Jailolo. It too is said to be grounded in the performing traditions of the region—this time in two dances usually performed by men. But with the choreographer trained in both the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat and classical Javanese dance, references to both were clear. The dancers arm movements and powerful thrusts of the body referenced (for me anyway) Pencak Silat. On the other hand, one dancer in particular often stepped forward in Javanese/Balinese fashion with heel first and toes turned up, and yet another, with her arms moving as if holding a fan and body slightly bent to one side, reminded me of moments in the Balinese Legong.

But Balabala was about giving a voice to women and it was powerfully performed and, again, with a strong sense of focus.

Indonesia is an archipelago of great cultural and ethnic diversity. It is most common for Westerners to see dance from the western islands, especially Java and Bali and, to a lesser extent, Sumatra. It was an exceptional pleasure to see material, albeit created in a contemporary vocabulary, from an area further to the east, and also to be made aware of the different ethnicity of people from that region.

Michelle Potter, 12 January 2017

Featured image: Scene from Cry Jailolo, Ekos Dance Company Indonesia

Scene from 'Cry Jailolo'
'Inside There Falls', Sydney Festival. Photo: Michelle Potter, 2015

Inside There Falls. Mira Calix and Sydney Dance Company

17 January 2015, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney). Sydney Festival 2015

My review of the Sydney Festival production of Inside There Falls, a collaboration between London-based artist and musician, Mira Calix, and Sydney Dance Company, has been posted on DanceTabs at this link.

In addition to the photographs published with the article, most of which were kindly supplied by the Sydney Festival, below are some I took during my visit to the installation — and yes, for once photography was allowed! They show the two dancers I saw, Sam Young-Wright and Laura Wood.

Michelle Potter, 19 January 2015

Featured image: Scene from Inside there falls, Sydney Festival 2015. Photo: Michelle Potter

'Inside There Falls', Sydney Festival. Photo: Michelle Potter, 2015
Promotional shot for 'Forklift', Kage

Forklift. Kage

18 January 2014 (matinee), Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney). Sydney Festival 2014

‘More than dance’ the advertising says. And it is indeed difficult to categorise Forklift by Melbourne-based company Kage with anything more specific than that. A work for three performers and a forklift vehicle, it highlights in many respects the tension between the fragility and delicacy of the human body and the solidity and strength of a robust piece of machinery.

'Forklift' rehearsal
Rehearsal for Forklift

But then does it? The performers, Henna Kaikul, Amy Macpherson and Nicci Wilks, are extraordinary. They had me with my heart in my mouth as two of them moved from one impossible pose to another, balancing, dangling and wrapping themselves around the forklift, changing places every so often with the third performer who drove the vehicle. The skills they exhibited (apart from being able to drive a forklift) ranged from straight circus stunts to acrobatic tricks and occasionally what might be called powerful, perhaps outrageous contemporary dance movement. Each performer often seemed as robust as the machine and it was only that we knew they were human beings that the tension gathered strength and settled inside us as audience members. That kind of emotional tension, rather than the more obvious man versus machine element, was perhaps the strength of Forklift.

I liked the tongue in cheek moments sprinkled throughout the show. Occasionally, whichever performer was driving the forklift would sit back in the cabin with one foot resting on the dashboard, pick up a magazine and nonchalantly start reading as she transported the other two performers, who were on the roof, or the forks, on wooden pallets being lifted upwards, or some other impossible place on the forklift, round the space of Bay 17 at Carriageworks. Then I liked the surreptitious stealing of potato crisps that went on shortly after the opening as two performers, who seemed like anonymous bodies at that stage, crept up behind a startled forklift driver and slowly dipped a hand into her just-bought snack. These moments added a light-hearted element to the piece.

There were one or two aspects of the show that I thought didn’t work so well. I’m not sure there was any sense of coherence pulling together the diverse elements of the piece. The slight narrative line centring on the experiences of a forklift driver as she goes about her business didn’t gel all that well with the more abstract elements of bodies versus machine, or with the straight circus tricks that popped up now and then. Having said that Nicci Wilks’ act with a huge and very heavy hula hoop was spectacular as a demonstration of technique.

Forklift was directed by Kate Denborough whose audacity when it comes to making ‘more than dance’ is becoming clearer with each work she creates. It had a commissioned score by Jethro Woodward, which to my ear sounded suitably industrial and yet at times was slightly mysterious as if we were looking into a world beyond the usual.

Michelle Potter, 19 January 2014

Featured image: Promotional shot for Forklift

Promotional shot for 'Forklift', Kage

Sacre—The Rite of Spring. Raimund Hoghe

5 January 2013, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney), Sydney Festival 2013

The year 2013 is the centenary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and which received a riotous reception on its opening night. The story of that night has passed into legend and, as Raimund Hoghe’s Sacre began, a voice-over recounted that tale. We were not told whose words they were but I have assumed they were those of Stravinsky recalling the evening.

But Hoghe’s production is about as far removed from what we have come to know as Sacre as you could imagine, and since 1913 countless choreographers have tried their hand at making their own version. First, the music for Hoghe’s production was a two piano score, played live. While this was pleasurable to listen to, it was an odd experience because orchestral colour is a large part of what makes those other danced versions of Sacre that audiences have seen over the years so powerful, so full of tension, so theatrical, so dramatic—the Joffrey reconstruction, the Pina Bausch version, Maurice Béjart’s production as danced by Tokyo Ballet, Stephen Page’s Rites and Meryl Tankard’s Oracle are the ones I have seen onstage.

Secondly, the work was choreographically extremely limited. Danced by Hoghe, who is small, middle-aged and has a deformed spine, and the much younger, athletic Lorenzo De Brabandere, it consisted of the two dancers balancing against each other, running (De Brabandere sometimes full pelt, Hoghe usually with jerky, stilted movements reflecting his disability), facing each other and looking hard into each other’s eyes, and performing similarly uncomplicated, often repeated movements. No drama or tension there either.

Strelsa Heckelman in the peasant pas de deux from Giselle. National Theatre Ballet, 1952. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

Perhaps the clue to this work comes in the final moment when the voice-over returns (and this time we were told the words are those of Stravinsky). Stravinsky recalls that when writing the work he was not constrained by any theory and he further recalls that a neighbour remembered that while he, Stravinsky, was writing a young boy used to stand outside, listening. The boy kept saying ‘That’s wrong’. Stravinsky’s answer was ‘Wrong for him’.

It is Hoghe’s right to produce a Sacre that has nothing of what we have come to expect. No-one expected Nijinsky’s choreography either. But what I found most interesting as I sat watching this show was Hoghe’s body in performance. It was intriguing to see how his disability affected his centre of balance, or how he compensated physically for the lack of a centred spine as he performed the moves he did. But this is not why I go to the theatre. I longed for a moment of drama, a bit of tension, even some choreography, no matter how simple, that reflected something of the rhythms of the music, which were of course still obvious in the two piano score. There was one moment that jolted me out of a soporific state and that was when, after leaning over a dish of water, De  Brabandere suddenly splashed water into Hoghe’s face. But one splash wasn’t enough to compensate.

Michelle Potter, 6 January 2013

Anatomy of an Afternoon. Martin del Amo

14 January 2012, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Sydney Festival 2012

The one certainty that emerges from Martin del Amo’s latest work, Anatomy of an Afternoon, is that Paul White, the solo performer in the piece, is a very versatile dancer. Some aspects of his dancing remain constant no matter what the choreography―his muscular strength, his control over every small or large movement and the seamless fluidity with which he links steps, for example. They were clearly on show in this Sydney Festival production.

Anatomy of an Afternoon, however, required that White behave like an animal, or various animals to be exact, and to achieve the best outcome he apparently spent some time at the zoo observing animal behaviour. Well a variety of animal characteristics were certainly in evidence. From the point of view of White’s movement capabilities, mesmerising were those sections when his movements resembled those of a monkey. At one stage, with his back to the audience, his body over folded over, his head twisted to look out at the audience and the palms of his hands on the floor he appeared to be jointless as he loped from side to side in this seemingly impossible position on all fours.

But to tell the truth if I want to see a monkey I’d rather go to the zoo. And I certainly could have done without the moment when White exposed his buttocks to the audience, spread the cheeks apart and put one hand into the crevice that was thus revealed, drew the hand out and moved it towards his nose. Again, if I have burning desire to see such actions, the zoo is a better proposition. White is capable of more than this and deserves, in my opinion, superior choreography (even though he is jointly credited with the choreography on this occasion).

Anatomy of an Afternoon is explained in program notes as an investigation of ‘how the practical exploration of an extant choreography would affect [del Amo] as a choreographer creating original work’. Del Amo chose Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 creation Afternoon of a Faun as his ‘extant choreography’. However, attempts to draw parallels between the two works are futile I think. In fact all that Anatomy of an Afternoon does, to its own detriment, is show just what a coherent work Afternoon of a Faun was. The outrage of Parisian audiences and critics when Faun made its first appearance in Paris and when, in the closing moments, its interpreter, Nijinsky, sank onto a scarf in a moment of erotic pleasure, was I think more to do with the morals of the time than anything else. But despite the outrage and shock, Nijinsky’s erotic act was actually the culmination of the Faun’s previous flirtatious activities with the seven nymphs who completed the cast of characters in Faun. The Faun had taken the scarf from the nymph to whom he was most attracted. The erotic culmination to the work was not a gratuitous action.

Unlike the audiences of Paris in the 1920s, today’s audiences are pretty much unshockable and a different set of freedoms is in play. But I believe that today’s most watchable dance works have a certain coherence which, in its randomness of action and its various gratuitous events, Anatomy of an Afternoon lacked. I did, however, enjoy the original score by Mark Bradshaw. It had the languid quality of a summer’s day.

Michelle Potter, 15 January 2012

Food Chain. Gavin Webber and Grayson Millwood (Animal Farm Collective)

Seymour Centre, Sydney Festival 2011

I didn’t see roadkill or lawn, the previous works by Gavin Webber and Grayson Millwood shown in Australia in recent years. So I have no way of knowing how Food Chain, presented at the Sydney Festival 2011, fits in with their developing (or developed?) aesthetic. I have to say that if those previous works were like Food Chain I find it difficult to understand their apparent success.

Food Chain was episodic—not surprising given the experience of Webber and Millwood, which includes working with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre and in various situations in Germany. Billed as ‘a David Attenborough documentary in reverse’, it purported to examine the idea of animals experimenting on humans and on how much ‘animal’ was apparent in human beings. Men in bear suits changing into business suits. A woman wearing a bear head backwards or on the end of her leg. A conversation with a line-up of stuffed animals. A game of shadow play of a fairly simplistic nature that morphed into shadowy allusions to bestiality. Crude references to sexual smell. For me Food Chain just lacked any kind of sophistication of thought. Even those polar bear advertisements for Bundaberg rum we used to see on commercial television with some frequency had more to offer in my opinion.

For me Food Chain also lacked any kind of sophisticated movement. With no-one identified as choreographer perhaps this is not surprising. Take the closing scene when the cast spent some time slowly descending a large tree trunk that made up the major part of the set. Each performer would make it, eventually, to the floor and disappear only to return at the top of the trunk and make another descent. It seemed to last an age. The work was also punctuated with the spoken word. Some lines were just inaudible. Not all dancers have the ability or training to speak on stage. Very frustrating.

In the end it was difficult to understand exactly what Webber and Millwood were trying to say other than something on the most superficial of levels. I thought Food Chain was way down the chain of where dance is in the twenty-first century. At least the tickets were only $30.

Michelle Potter, 2 February 2011

Entity. Random Dance

28 January 2011, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay. Sydney Festival, 2011

Wayne McGregor’s Entity, performed by his company Random Dance as part of the 2011 Sydney Festival, begins and ends with black and white footage of a greyhound in motion. It may be or be based on the work of the nineteenth-century, British-American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneer of the physics of animal locution. It certainly recalls the work of Muybridge. To me this visual clue is of far greater import and carries much more interest for the viewer than any amount of philosophical discussion of McGregor’s research project ‘Choreography and cognition’ and his work with neuroscientists, as fascinating as those and other aspects of McGregor’s career are.

Entity shows the remarkable ability of the human body to move, bend, twist, flex, soar and travel. Like the greyhound the dancers are sleek. Their limbs extend and reach outwards. Their bodies are stretched long and lean. They use their muscles efficiently. They move with intention. In their black briefs and white T-tops, dispensed with towards the end to reveal black bra tops on the women and for the men a bare upper body, they hover on the edge of classical movement before morphing into strange new shapes. They twist and contort their bodies with one recurring motif being an arched spine with backside pushed out, the antithesis of the classically stretched spine with the head balanced perfectly at the top. Bodies are in constant dialogue with each other and the movement screams out its edginess.

Danced to a score by Joby Talbot followed by another from Jon Hopkins, the work is set in an enclosed space consisting of three light coloured, translucent screens, one at each side and one at the back of the stage area. Designed by Patrick Burnier they can be manipulated by a (viewable) mechanical system and lit when required. When lit (design by Lucy Carter) their internal structure is further revealed. During the second part of the work the screens rise above the dancers and are enhanced by video projections. From my position towards the back of the circle of the Sydney Theatre it was not entirely clear what the projections were other than they seemed to be various formulae. Part of the choreographer’s fascination with mathematical and engineering principles?

But in the end Entity is about McGregor’s choreography and about his attitude to how the body can move in this present day and age. It makes me long to see more of McGregor’s work, especially when danced by intensively trained ballet dancers. There are some great scenes of McGregor rehearsing Genus, his work for the Paris Opera Ballet, along with brief excerpts from the work in performance in the recent film La danse. While Random Dance performed superbly in Sydney, there is something additional in the way the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet perform. There is a certain security in the way they move, an inherent understanding of the body, something deeply intuitive about movement, that allows McGregor’s classical references to be offset in a particular way. The mix of the classical and the restive tension of today becomes heightened and makes us see both and all more clearly.

Although this is a little simplistic, McGregor reminds me of Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine and William Forsythe rolled into one. He’s a formalist. He dispenses with fussy costumes and decorative sets. And he has a remarkable intellectual curiosity. It makes for unusual and ultimately satisfying dance, which in its essence is purely McGregor.

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2011