Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern premiered in London in 2017 and it was a revival from 2019 that was streamed for the Royal Ballet’s 2020 digital season. Danced to a movement from Henryk Górecki’s sombre Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it has a cast of 36 dancers and is ambitious in both scale and concept. It is also immensely moving and choreographically absorbing.
Flight Pattern draws on Pite’s thoughts about the plight of refugees, and the humanitarian crisis that their plight generates and that affects us all in one way or another. But its focus is strongly on the emotional plight of these people and it is Pite’s skill that we too are emotionally drawn into the work.
It begins in a darkened space with the dancers looking up, around, down, in all directions really. It is choreographed so that it is varied unison dancing we see. As one group looks one way, another may look in another direction. This varied unison continues throughout the piece and gives us the feeling that while these people are united in their plight they are also individuals. They bend their bodies up and down; they rush forward, lurch and stumble together. But at one stage we see a single dancer lying on the ground, alone, perhaps dead? And individuals start to become more apparent when we see, for example, a duet between two men.
Eventually the refugees reach a certain stage in their flight and remove their coats. They lie down as if to sleep, but it is fitful and interrupted. Their individuality then becomes clear again in a duet between Marcelino Sambé and Kristen McNally. It begins with McNally dancing with a folded coat in her arms, as if holding something precious, but the choreography quickly moves into a duet that is full of swirling lifts and stretched limbs. The duet comes at the moment where a soprano voice (that of Nigerian-American singer Francesca Chiejina) becomes part of the score and her beautiful voice adds another emotional element to the unfolding drama.
Group dynamics become stronger again and snow begins to fall. As the stage darkens and a black curtain begins to close off the space, McNally cannot face her situation any longer and stays sitting downstage, rocking and shaking. Sambé stays with her dancing out his feelings until the end. What is their fate?
Flight Pattern is a stunning, affecting work. For me its essence is contained in its title. ‘Flight’ draws us into the humanitarian crisis that is at its heart, but also makes sense of its choreographic focus on arm movements that recall flying. ‘Pattern’ reflects Pite’s exceptional manner of filling the space of the stage. But none of this matters really. What matters is the incredible way Pite is able to draw us into the work.
Watch below for Pite’s discussion of the making of Flight Pattern.
New York-based dance writer, Joan Acocella, whose critical writing I much admire, has spoken of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a gathering, along with Paul Taylor’s Esplanade and Mark Morris’ Gloria as ‘benchmark works of the sixties/seventies youth cult, with their gangs of fresh-faced young folk skipping and running and falling to the accompaniment of high-art music’ and as being ‘in exaltation of what is plain and openhearted and innocent as opposed to what is fancy and fake.’* The featured image above shows Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell in the Royal Ballet’s production of Dances at a gathering, and it seems to me indicative of the human qualities that Acocella describes. As the work progresses those qualities become more and more obvious.
Dances at a gathering opens and concludes quietly, introspectively perhaps? In the opening sequence, Alexander Campbell enters quietly from the downstage Prompt side and dances a solo in which swinging arm movements and expansive jumps across the stage predominate. He exits on the OP side, but before doing so makes a questioning gesture with one hand. Where is the gathering? At the very end the cast of ten, five women, five men, stand on stage, often in stillness, before they leave arm in arm. The gathering has concluded.
In between there is so much beautifully poetic choreography, sometimes with the flavour of character work, the mazurka in particular. This of course befits the Polish rhythms that permeate much of the selection of piano music by Frederick Chopin (spelled Fryderyk Chopin on Royal Ballet publicity) to which the work is performed. Often the movement seems simple, deceptively so I hasten to add. There are no noticeably ongoing, or clearly defined relationships between the dancers and Robbins is recorded as saying, ‘There are no stories to any of the dances in “DAAG” There are no plots and no roles. The dancers are themselves dancing with each other to that music in that space.’** But there is much scope for us to see personalities. We see it through movement and through facial expressions, and through the recognition the dancers show to their fellow performers throughout. It is indeed a gathering, and the individuality of each dancer is very clear.
If I had to choose a favourite section from the astonishingly good performance by the entire cast, I would go for a section led by Laura Morera. The section begins with a solo by an effervescent Morera. She is playful and sexy, and performs with beautifully timed highlights. The sequence has those overtones of character dancing but is equally strong in classical movement. Morera appears to be playing to an invisible partner. Towards the end of the section two prospective partners appear, but neither shows the interest she hoped to generate within them. With a shrug and a smile she leaves the stage. Transfixing I thought.
The duet between Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli, which led into the finale, was another highlight, full as it was with caring touches, longing glances, and clear admiration for each other. Yasmine Nagdhi also had some wonderful moments of fast and detailed movement. Then from Bonelli there were those fabulous double tours ending in a full plié in first position. What an elegant and exciting performance from the entire cast! They explain why in the video clip below.
Dances at a gathering was made by Jerome Robbins in 1969 for New York City Ballet and entered the repertoire of the Royal Ballet in 1970. The stream we were offered during the Royal’s 2020 digital season was recorded during a performance this year, 2020. It featured ten of the Royal Ballet’s star dancers, Marianela Nuñez, Francesca Hayward, Yasmine Naghdi, Laura Morera, Fumi Kaneko, Alexander Campbell, Federico Bonelli, William Bracewell, Luca Acri and Valentino Zucchetti. The varied selection of Chopin’s piano music was exquisitely played by by Robert Clark.
Dances at a gathering has never been part of the repertoire of the Australian Ballet and, as far as I am aware, has never been shown live in Australia. I paid £3 to have access to this stream, and it was worth every penny and more, especially given that viewing was possible a month (it is available until 25 October)! Perhaps in the future David Hallberg might consider adding it to the Australian Ballet’s repertoire? On the other hand, I can imagine it sitting very nicely on Queensland Ballet.
Michelle Potter, 8 October 2020
Featured image: Marianela Nuñez and Alexander Campbell in a screenshot from Dancers at a gathering. The Royal Ballet, 2020
* Joan Acocella, Mark Morris (New York: Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1993), p. 87. **Deborah Jowitt. Jerome Robins. His life, his theater, his dance (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2004), p. 387.
Jowitt, in the book mentioned above, gives an excellent account of the development of Dances at a gathering in chapter 16, pp. 381-388.
I have often wondered about Ninette de Valois’ 1946 staging of The Sleeping Beauty, which opened up Covent Garden after World War II. My interest was sparked after examining dance in wartime London while undertaking research for my 2014 biography of Dame Margaret Scott.* More recently I have been interested in Oliver Messel, who designed that 1946 production, given that Kristian Fredrikson, as an emerging designer in the 1960s, admired Messel’s work, and in fact some of his 1960s designs are indebted to Messel.** So, it was interesting to be able to watch a recent revival of the de Valois production, a revival staged by Monica Mason and repetiteur Christopher Newton, originally in 2006.
The streamed production was a performance from early 2020 and featured Fumi Kaneko as Aurora and Federico Bonelli as Prince Florimund. I had not seen Kaneko, a Royal Ballet First Soloist, dance before and for me the most startling feature of her dancing was her exceptional sense of balance. It showed itself throughout the performance and, in fact, was more startling outside the Rose Adagio than within it. I also admired her characterisation as the 16 year old Aurora In Act I. She was full of youthful joy and excitement, although I would have liked a little more contrast in her Aurora of the last act, which would have strengthened her overall performance. She was, however, absolutely enchanting in this last act in her solo variation from the grand pas de deux. Her beautifully expressive arms and hands, for example, told us of the process of her becoming an adult.
Bonelli is a dab hand at playing princely figures and did not disappoint. I especially admired the emotional quality he brought to Act II as a lonely prince looking for love. Then, as with Kaneko, his solo variation in Act III was beautifully danced with exceptional control of those assorted leaps and turns. In fact, the grand pas de deux was thrilling from start to finish. Of the other characters, Elizabeth McGorian was an outstanding Queen, full of love and then concern for her daughter, while Kristen McNally was an individualistic and highly theatrical and flamboyant Carabosse. Thomas Whitehead developed the character of Catalabutte well and Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball showed off their excellent techniques as Princess Florisse and the Bluebird. I especially enjoyed Naghdi’s understanding of what is behind that particular dance, that is she is listening to the Bluebird teaching her how to fly.
But how things have changed since 1946, at least from where I stand. This production had so much more mime than what I am used to seeing. Has it been lost in later productions? If so, why I wonder because in the Royal Ballet production it made the story much stronger, and there were no problems in understanding what was being ‘said’. And there were moments when certain aspects of the story were opened up. We know that the King banned all spindles from his kingdom after Carabosse declared that Aurora would die from pricking her finger on such an item. But I can’t remember seeing a production where three village women, trying to hide their spindles, were brought before the King who wanted to execute them. Such moments fill out the story and give back the narrative to what is essentially a narrative ballet. I loved it.
All in all, and as ever, the Royal Ballet gave us an exceptional performance from every point of view.
As for the Messel costumes, I thought many were just too much. Too much colour, too much decoration. I’m not sure why the Lilac Fairy had those bright pink layers of tulle to her tutu. It was only in the darkness of the forests of Act II that the glints of lilac could be seen peeking through the lolly pink. But it was interesting to see those characteristics of Messel tutus that Fredrikson picked up on in his early work—wide decorative shoulder straps, and an overlay of feathery (or leafy) patterns spilling down from the bodice onto the tulle skirt of the tutu, for example. This style was exemplified by the tutu for the Lilac Fairy (danced by Gina Storm-Jensen). Those few of Fredrikson‘s designs that are still readily available for Peggy van Praagh’s 1964 staging of Aurora’s Wedding, his first Australian Ballet production, show a similar approach. Fredrikson acknowledged his interest in Messel’s work when he said he admired Messel’s ‘extraordinary richness and imagination’.
Michelle Potter, 29 July 2020
Featured image: Fumi Kaneko in a still from Act I, The Sleeping Beauty. The Royal Ballet, 2020
I had the pleasure recently of watching, via its digital streaming season, a performance by the Royal Ballet of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée. It featured Marianela Nuñez as Lise and Carlos Acosta as Colas and dates back to 2005. The partnership between Nuñez and Acosta was technically outstanding and delightful from the point of view of the interactions between the two dancers. Ashton’s choreography, of course, was full of beautiful and often unexpected movements, including his constant use of epaulement; and scenes that I relished seeing again—the storm scene for example, with the cast rushing hither and thither was quite absorbing.
Below is a link to the Act I Pas de ruban.
But the production also brought back memories of some other productions I had seen, and some wider contextual issues that have arisen over the years.
Memories of Fille
Paris Opera Ballet
Perhaps the most memorable production I have seen was a performance by the Paris Opera Ballet in 2009. It happened on 14 July, the French national day, so there were one or two moments before and during that performance where that significance of that day was not forgotten. Here is a link to the review I wrote.
A thoughtful young man
On a contextual issue, I am curious about the image below from an Australian Ballet performance of Fille during the 1970s. Who is the young man standing there looking thoughtful? I have my suspicions! The image was taken by Walter Stringer and is part of his collection held in the National Library in Canberra. Sadly, the colour is fading, or changing, and I have had to put a filter on it so that the face of the dancer is a little clearer.
(Update on the photograph above: Confirming my suspicion, those who know suggest the thoughtful young man is Graeme Murphy).
And on another contextual issue, I recently made a timed summary of an oral history interview I did with Alan Alder back in 1999. The interview and its summary will shortly go online. In the meantime, below I have posted a short (1 min 12 secs) excerpt from the interview.
Alder was well-known for his portrayal of Alain, Lise’s rich but slightly unusual suitor in Fille, both during his time with the Royal Ballet and later with the Australian Ballet. The role was created by Ashton on Alexander Grant, and later the role was taken on by Donald Britton. But due to circumstances, which Alder explains in the interview, while with the Royal Ballet’s touring company Alder took over the role from Britton. On one occasion, when the touring company was in Edinburgh, Ashton decided to take a trip from London to see how Alder was handling the role. In the brief extract below Alder speak of Ashton’s reaction.
The production by the Royal also brought back memories of my late colleague David Vaughan, former archivist for the Merce Cunningham company and author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets. Cunningham and Ashton were the two choreographers Vaughan admired most of all (although some correspondence I had with him shortly before he died suggests that, had he lived on, he would have added Alexei Ratmansky to that list). But I often wondered what he considered were the characteristics of Cunningham and Ashton that drew him towards these two choreographers. Did he see similarities in their approaches to choreography? Sadly, I never asked and now I will never know.
Friday 20 March 2020 (the day I began writing this) was the date I was to be sitting in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, watching Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake. Instead, with the world closing down as a result of COVID-19, I am sitting at home in Canberra having just watched a DVD of a 2018 performance of that production. Luckily I bought the DVD last time I was in London. I hadn’t had the chance to watch it until now. Here, then, are my thoughts.
Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake is heart-stopping. I don’t think I can honestly say that of any other Swan Lakes I have watched over many decades of dance going. The main dancers—Marianela Nuñez as Odette/Odile, Vadim Muntagirov as Siegfried and Bennet Gartside as von Rothbart—not only dance with technical brilliance but project the underlying emotions of love, longing, loss, power and deception. Emotion pours out of every movement, every glance, every gesture. Powerfully.
Scarlett has made some choreographic changes, although they are not major. The production notes acknowledge Petipa, Ivanov, and Ashton as well as Scarlett. But some small non-choreographic changes that Scarlett has introduced make the storyline so much clearer. Many parts of the narrative we know just because we have read something, somewhere. But Scarlett explains things. He has an intellect and he transfers that intellect into the production, and hence to us. We are involved to a greater extent.
In Act I it is Prince Siegfried’s birthday and there is celebratory dancing. His mother the Queen (Elizabeth McGorian), acting a little sternly, suggests it is time for him to marry. But Siegfried decides to go out into the forest to shoot the swans he sees flying overhead. We know it all. We’ve seen it before. But are we ever really shown with clarity that it is Siegfried’s birthday? Or are we simply told that in the synopsis? In the Scarlett production, Siegfried’s friend Benno (Alexander Campbell) gives Siegfried a present, a golden goblet. And so begins the celebratory dancing, everyone with a goblet in hand for several moments. The Queen, when she arrives, also has a present for her son. It is a cross-bow, a family heirloom, and we know that Siegfried will use it in the next act.
It was also a change to see the introduction of an invitation, a paper prop clearly marked ‘Invitation’, to an event that would be held in the palace at which Siegfried would choose a marriage partner. It was shown to Siegfried by the Queen and his reaction paved the way for his anxiety, and ultimately to his going into the forest with his cross-bow.
But who was that mysterious rather supercilious man dressed in black who acted as some kind of adviser to the Queen? He seemed to be getting in the way a little and forbidding various things. Did he have the right? Well there was bit of dramatic irony introduced at this point. When, as Act I comes to a close, Siegfried goes against the wishes of the man in black and refuses to go inside, setting off instead with his cross-bow, the man in black drags himself upstage where he collapses as if shot. Is he von Rothbart in disguise? Has he been defeated in an attempt to keep Siegfried out of the forest where he might meet Odette? Or is this more a juxtaposition of innocence versus deviousness, good versus evil, with the Queen in the middle? Does it perhaps foretell von Rothbart’s end? It is simply exciting to ponder.
As the work transitions to Act II, the lakeside scenes (designs by John Macfarlane) are full of foreboding. A rocky outcrop and a bright moon dominate, although the lighting is quite dark. But then it is night time.
Throughout Act II there is the usual structure, perhaps with a little more mime than is apparent in many other productions. But what is transcendent is that Muntagirov shows us how he feels, anxious at times but full of longing for Odette. Nuñez shows her own anxiety, and perhaps fear. Should she engage with this man who appears to love her? Her technique, that beautiful line and her ability to unfold each movement slowly, is also a highlight.
We also meet von Rothbart as von Rothbart rather than the man in black of Act I. Macfarlane has given him a long feathery coat, reflecting the owl-like character of many productions, and has added a touch of red to part of his body costume: he is ‘red beard’ after all. Gartside gives a powerful performance with dominance as a major characteristic.
The work is set in Victorian times, clearly shown by the costume worn by the Queen in each of the acts in which she appears. But when Act III opens we see a kind of Baroque splendour. The sweeping staircase, extravagant floor lamps and the throne on which the Queen sits to watch proceedings all are reminiscent of European Baroque buildings.
Again Act III proceeds as one might expect, although the national dances have a real freshness to them and are beautifully (and I suspect expensively) costumed.
But once again Muntagirov stands out for the way in which he carries the story forward. From the longing and anxiety of Act II he is now thrilled at having found his lost love, or so he believes.
The coda from the Act III pas de deux is simply stunning. Marianela Nuñez’s fouettés, starting with a triple and sprinkled throughout with doubles and another triple, are remarkable, as are Muntagirov’s double tours finishing in arabesque. And there he is smiling all the while. Watch below.
In Act IV the lakeside scenic elements are clearer although the moon has disappeared somewhat. I guess dawn is approaching? The final pas de deux is heart-wrenching and I won’t introduce a spoiler and give away the deeply moving ending. Buy the DVD. It is worth every dollar and terrific watching, especially when everything live is currently cancelled.
As far as the DVD goes, it is interesting, too, to see Scarlett taking a curtain call with the company in this 2018 presentation. Everyone onstage looks and acts as though they have huge admiration for his work and for him. There is also an ‘extra’ on the DVD showing Scarlett and Macfarlane discussing their vision for the production. It is heart-breaking that Scarlett’s career, so remarkable to date, may be cut short by events currently being examined.
Here is a link to posts on this website about the works from Scarlett that Jennifer Shennan and I have seen and written about.
And as a final comment, of course I wish I had been able to see the work live. But …
4 May 2019 (matinee). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
It is always exceptional to see a work by a choreographer who is not the familiar one from one’s previous experiences of that work. Having seen John Cranko’s production of Romeo and Juliet countless times, as performed by the Australian Ballet, along with several versions by other choreographers, the Royal Ballet’s production of Kenneth MacMillan’s version of the Shakespearian tragedy was indeed an exceptional experience. I was lucky too, I think, to have seen Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov in the leading roles. While I thought Lamb’s interpretation was a little too child-like, I was fascinated by the changing emotions displayed by Muntagirov. In addition, the partnership between Lamb and Muntagirov was very secure technically and, as a result, MacMillan’s often swirling, curving, diving lifts were realised beautifully.
The MacMillan version of Romeo and Juliet received its premiere in 1965. It is a gutsy production from the beginning when the market place of the opening scene buzzes with activity and is filled with people who seem so real (and was that a side of a dead cow being carried through the crowd on the way to the market?). The sense of the real continues through to the middle scenes when Mercutio and then Tybalt die from sword wounds and do so in such a dramatically convincing fashion, and on to the end where Romeo’s and Juliet’s death scenes leave us emotionally exhausted.
Then, Nicholas Georgiadis’ sets have little of the romantic to them. The Capulets live in a fortress, as we see when the guests arrive for the Capulet ball. And, as Jann Parry tells us in her program notes, the inclusion of a fortress looks back to the Franco Zeffirelli theatre production, made for the Old Vic in 1960-61, when Zeffirelli had the Capulets live in such a structure as protection from enemies and in order to preserve their family treasures. Then the crypt in which the Capulets place the apparently dead Juliet is spectacular with its huge stone sculptures and its flights of dark stairs of stone. The production has a kind of rawness to it and just speeds along.
Muntagirov danced superbly showing off his spectacularly light and seemingly effortless jumps; his wonderfully controlled turns, including some in attitude devant as well as attitude derrière, along with some great manèges with various showy steps. But what I especially admired about his Romeo was the way he made his emotions so visible. A highlight was when he watched a wedding parade enter the market place (to the accompaniment of mandolins) in the early moments of Act II. As he stood downstage, almost motionless, we could read that he was thinking that he and Juliet could and should follow that very example. Another was his undisguised anger at what Tybalt had done to Mercutio, and his determination to avenge the death of his friend.
Sarah Lamb is not my favourite Juliet I’m afraid. I know Juliet is a mere 13 or 14 years old but, within the MacMillan structure, I would have preferred a more feisty Juliet. But with her beautifully proportioned limbs and sound technique she danced superbly and was a joy to watch from that point of view
I enjoyed Thomas Whitehead’s commanding presence as Tybalt, especially in the scenes in the market place where his dislike of Romeo was constantly visible, and in the ball scene where his carriage of the upper body marked him as being a proud and aristocratic Capulet. And incidentally, the corps danced beautifully in the ball scene as they tilted their bodies slightly back from the waist upwards in a show of historical deportment. Other dancers to admire especially were Marcelino Sambé as a vibrant Mercutio, Téo Dubreuil as a constantly concerned Benvolio, and Christina Arestis as a very haughty Lady Montague who clearly could not bear the Capulet family.
This production was highly engaging and I love to ponder its character beside the others that I have seen—those of Cranko, Graeme Murphy, John Neumeier, Stanton Welch, and the two versions that take particular liberties for one reason or another—those of Sasha Waltz and Natalie Weir. (I have no review on this site of the Cranko production. It has been a while since the Australian Ballet showed it).
19 April 2018 (matinee), Royal Opera House, London
The first thing that struck me as the curtain went up on the Royal Ballet’s Manon, and as the action began, was how full of life the crowd scenes were. No matter which character one watched there was always strong acting. And having been brought up, as it were, on the Australian Ballet’s production of Manon, which has designs by Peter Farmer, it was a delightful change to see Nicholas Georgiadis’ work. His set is so functional and yet so evocative and his range of costumes for the variety of folk who inhabit the opening scene is eye-catching to say the least.
As the action proceeded, however, there were ups and downs. Bennet Gartside as Monsieur G.M, and Nehemiah Kish as Des Grieux were both strong performers, technically and as actors, and their strengths continued beyond Act I. I didn’t get quite the same feeling, however, from Melissa Hamilton as Manon. I couldn’t quite figure out whether she was stringing Des Grieux along. Had she really fallen for him as he had for her? I wanted to feel a few goose bumps in their various pas de deux but didn’t. Hamilton was better at being distant with Monsieur G.M than intimate with Des Grieux.
There were times, however, when I admired Hamilton’s beautifully fluid arms, especially in her Act II solo and dance with the men at the party given by Monsieur G. M. Then she brought an attractive Eastern look and feel to her dancing. It was also in Act II that Georgidas’ costumes really shone with their range of russet colours set off by black highlights. Valentino Zucchetti as Lescaut, Manon’s brother, also stood out across the acts in which he was involved. His drunken solo and dance with his friends deserved applause. Act III continued the strength of the first two acts in terms of acting with Gary Avis a cold and nasty gaoler.
I left the theatre after this performance having been swept along by the clarity of the storyline. I wish, however, that Manon had made it a little easier for me to have been swept along by her plight. It would have made the show much more powerful.
It would be hard to think of a more diverse triple bill than the most recent from the Royal Ballet: Wayne McGregor’s intellectually clinical Obsidian Tear, Frederick Ashton’s emotionally captivating Marguerite and Armand, and Kenneth MacMillan’s joyously entertaining Elite Syncopations. There is, as ever, little to fault technically with the dancing by this incredible company so my thoughts are largely guided by other matters.
The absolute standout work of the evening was Marguerite and Armand, which occupied the middle position on the program. Yes, it is so closely associated with Fonteyn and Nureyev, and perhaps Sylvie Guillem and various partners, but Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli gave an absolutely stunning performance that brought out every bit of Ashton’s wildly free and exciting, and beautifully musical choreography. And what a grand performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, to which the work is set, we heard from the accomplished pianist Robert Clark.
In my mind I continue to have a vision of Bonelli standing upstage about to rush forward to sweep Marguerite up in his arms and begin the main pas de deux. He took an arabesque on half pointe, arms flung upwards and outwards. And there he stood, balancing perfectly, body filled with passion and daring. Brilliant, as was the pas de deux itself with Ferri being flung from pose to pose and both artists projecting the ravishing excitement of what their love could be. And so it continued with the narrative flowing so clearly to the very end. I’m not sure how long this ballet is—twenty five minutes maybe—but it was over in a flash so captivating was it.
The opening work, McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, left me a little cold and its choreography seemed stark and emotionless—but then I guess obsidian is a hard substance. Everything seemed to happen suddenly. Lighting cut out rather than faded and movement, while it showed McGregor’s interest in pushing limits, had little that was lyrical.
The most interesting aspect for me was the set, designed by McGregor. It resembled a black box theatre space but looking closely it reminded me of an Ad Reinhardt painting. At first Reinhardt’s paintings look monochromatic, as did McGregor’s set, but a closer look reveals small, intimate details, as also happened with the set for Obsidian Tear. Of the dancers, I especially enjoyed the dancing of Benjamin Ella and Marcelino Sambé. But Obsidian Tear did not engage me the way so many others of McGregor’s works have.
The final work on the program was Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, danced to a selection of music by Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers, and played by an onstage band. Beautifully set on a stripped-back stage space with the dancers and band members in spectacular costumes by Ian Spurling, it was a buoyant, joyous, even reckless show.
Without wishing to detract from any of the twelves dancers who gave us such pleasure, stars were Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano. Hirano in particular knocked me for six. I have always seen him in more classical or dramatic roles (and have enjoyed his work in such ballets) but in Elite Syncopations he showed another side of his skills. He was smooth, persuasive, suave, flirtatious and a great partner. And he never stepped out of character.
As a conclusion to a decidedly mixed triple bill, Elite Syncopations sent us home smiling.
At this time of the year ‘the best of…’ fills our newspapers and magazines. My top picks for what dance audiences were able to see in the ACT over the year were published in The Canberra Times on 27 December. A link is below in ‘Press for December 2017.’ Dance Australia will publish its annual critics’ survey in the February issue. In that survey I was able to look more widely at dance I had seen across Australia.
In addition, I was lucky enough to see some dance in London and Paris. Having spent a large chunk of research time (some years ago now) examining the Merce Cunningham repertoire, especially from the time when Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were designing for the company, for me it was a highlight of 2017 to see Cunningham’s Walkaround Time performed by the Paris Opera Ballet. And in London I had my first view of Wayne McGregor’s remarkable Woolf Works.
In Australia in 2017 the absolute standout for me was Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Bennelong and that particular work features, in one way or another, in both my Canberra Times and Dance Australia selections. Of visitors to Australia, nothing could come near the Royal Ballet in McGregor’s Woolf Works during the Royal’s visit to Brisbane. At the time I wrote a follow-up review.
Some statistics from this website for 2017
Here are the most-viewed posts for 2017, with a couple of surprises perhaps?
1. Thoughts on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring. This was an early post dating back to 2009, the year I started this website. I can only imagine that Rite of Spring has been set as course work at an educational institution somewhere and this has resulted in such interest after close to 9 years?
3. Ochres. Bangarra Dance Theatre. This review was posted in 2015 following the restaging of Stephen Page’s seminal work of 1994. It was powerful all those years ago and it is a thrill to see that audiences and readers still want to know about it.
5. RAW. A triple bill from Queensland Ballet. It is only recently that I have had many opportunities to see Queensland Ballet. The company goes from strength to strength and its repertoire is so refreshing. I’m happy to see the 2017 program RAW, which included Liam Scarlett’s moving No Man’s Land, on the top five list.
The top five countries, in order, whose inhabitants logged on during 2017 (with leading cities in those countries in brackets) were Australia (Sydney), the United States (Boston), the United Kingdom (London), New Zealand (Wellington), and France (Paris).
Some activities for early 2018
In January the Royal Academy of Dance is holding a major conference in Brisbane, Unravelling repertoire. Histories, pedagogies and practices. I will be giving the keynote address and there are many interesting papers being given over the three days of the event. Details at this link.
Then, in February I will be giving the inaugural Russell Kerr Foundation lecture in Wellington, New Zealand, and will speak about the career of New Zealand-born designer Kristian Fredrikson. The event will take place on 11 February at 3 pm in the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Music. The lecture will follow a performance (courtesy of Royal New Zealand Ballet) of Loughlan Prior’s LARK, created for Sir Jon Trimmer and William Fitzgerald in 2017.
6 November 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Two new works and one revival made up the Royal Ballet’s most recent triple bill. The opener, Twyla Tharp’s The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ should perhaps be described as new-ish rather than new, since it also drew on material Tharp had made way back in 1973 in a work called As time goes by. Tharp’s work was by far the most attractive item, in a choreographic sense, on the program.
Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae made spectacular, separate entrances, covering the stage with expansive grands jetés and bringing their trademark joyous approach to their dancing. Such a pleasure to see them. They then proceeded to dance the first two parts of Joseph Haydn’s 45th (so-called ‘Farewell’) symphony, scarcely stopping throughout the two movements to catch their breath. They were perfectly matched as partners, executing Tharp’s twisting, turning, demanding movements and making the most of her playful approach at times. A swirl of ballroom steps and even a high-five appeared amongst the more classical moves. It was a virtuoso performance.
Lamb and McRae were a hard act to follow but Mayara Magri held the stage In a solo before the music for the third movement began. Hers was a remarkable display of dancing that showed off both Tharp’s expansive yet intricate choreography and Magri’s strong technical skills. Then, as the music began, Magri was joined by a corps of dancers, who seemed to appear from nowhere. Both this third movement and the fourth were filled with intricate groupings of dancers sometimes dancing in unison but mostly working separately from each other so the overall patterning looked scattered.
The work finished beautifully with Lamb and McRae appearing unexpectedly upstage on a raised black platform against a black background. They kneeled in a kind of homage and then disappeared into the black, while below Joseph Sissens, in white trunks and long-sleeved white shirt, melted to the ground in a poignant farewell.
Arthur Pita’s work The Wind, danced to a commissioned score by Frank Moon, followed as the middle piece. Based on a story by Dorothy Scarborough written in 1925, which was subsequently made into a silent movie, the ballet follows events in the life of a young woman from Virginia, Letty Mason, who arrives in Texas in the 1880s and is tormented in mind, body and soul by the wind and the bleakness of the landscape. The story is complex and includes, on an obvious narrative level, marriage, rape, and eventual revenge by Mason. But The Wind suffers from Pita’s condensing of the story and his efforts to include a dimension beyond the obvious. To achieve this latter he introduces two characters, Cynthia (Wild Woman) danced by Elizabeth McGorian, and Mawarra (the Lost) danced by Edward Watson, who appear to represent Mason’s mental state.
In all this Pita leaves little time for including much dancing. In the role of Letty Mason, Natalia Osipova makes a sterling attempt to develop the role but she is given far too little dancing in which to do it. And so it is with the other leading characters—Thiago Soares as the cowpuncher Lige Hightower, who marries Mason; and Thomas Whitehead as Wirt Roddy, a cattle buyer who rapes her.
Then there were those three large wind machines that took up a lot of the performance space and blew air across the stage throughout the ballet. I thought they were obtrusive and promoted the idea of the relentless quality of the wind rather too pointedly. Nor am I sure that we needed to see so much wind being generated by the machines. Having Osipova struggling at one stage to keep her wedding veil from either escaping or engulfing her was a little too much.
There was, however, something fascinating about The Wind. Despite the lack of dancing given to some of the Royal Ballet’s strongest artists, there was something powerful about the way Pita had distilled the story. There was a starkness to the work, although perhaps this came more from Jeremy Herbert’s minimal set (apart from the overpowering presence of the wind machines), and a strong lighting design by Adam Silverman, as much as anything else. It reminded me a little of Agnes de Mille’s work, especially her Fall River Legend, and I suspect that The Wind could be revised to have a similar impact as Fall River Legend.
The evening closed with Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable, a work concerning ‘moving with the herd’ first seen in 2015. There was a lot of militaristic moving around in groups with the occasional breakout by a few dancers to form separate groups. Occasionally I had the feeling that the movement was referencing a folk idiom. The best part was probably the atmospheric lighting by Lee Curran.