Paris Opera Ballet’s 2021 opening gala began with Le grand défilé, a defining item for the Paris company in which simply attired dancers from across the ranks of the ballet company, along with students from the Paris Opera Ballet School, proudly present the company and school to an audience. I have discussed the origins of the grand défilé in an earlier post (see this link). But on this occasion all the dancers wore masks; the beautiful Palais Garnier was completely empty of an audience; and the dancers made their reverences without applause of any kind. It was a shock to begin with, but ultimately it was such an incredible statement on how events have shaped our lives over the past year. I am sure the footage of this unusual and remarkable défilé will speak forcefully to future generations.
The défilé was followed by Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas classique danced by étoiles Valentine Colasante and Hugo Marchand, both wearing elegant, sparkling, deep blue costumes designed by La Maison Chanel. This grand pas followed the Petipa structure of pas de deux, variations and coda, which we know so well. But it was especially interesting to see it because Gsovsky’s choreography was uniquely his own with beautiful balances in a range of positions for Colasante and magnificent combinations of beats for Marchand. There was also a strong emotional connection between Colasante and Marchand, even when they took their applause-less curtain calls.
Following the Grand Pas classique there was an inspired performance of Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, with its three pas de deux exploring three different kinds of male/female relationships. In the first, danced by Ludmila Pagliero and Mathieu Ganio, we saw a couple in the early stages of a relationship. So much of their young love was expressed with Robbins’ choreography for the arms. They touched, reached, enveloped, moved in unison, always lyrical. But there were of course some gorgeous lifts and individual moments of expressive dancing.
The second section of In the Night, with Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvel, showed a couple secure in their love for each other, confident in how they acted together, proud even of their relationship. Baulac was especially impressive with her poised upper body and beautifully placed arms. Anthony Dowell’s brown/gold costumes added a special glow to this section.
Alice Renavand and Stéphane Bullion danced the third section, in which the movement was less lyrical and more strident. Here was a couple about to break up, although did they end up separating? More than once they parted, then returned to be together onstage. Arguments and reconciliations? Their relationship was tempestuous and that feature was shown well in the choreography and in the performance of it.
We met them all again in the finale when they acknowledged each other, sometimes performed the same steps, but eventually left separately. But for me the mystery of the third couple remained. Great work from Renavand and Bullion to maintain the mystery of this relationship.
Completing the program was William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude danced by three étoiles, Amandine Albison, Ludmila Pagliero, and Paul Marque, and two premiers danseurs, Hannah O’Neill and Pablo Legasa. It was just plain exciting to see this work again with its fast-paced choreography that focuses on bringing every part of the body into play, and with its fascinating, ever-changing groupings of just five dancers. And what a thrill it was to see O’Neill so at home in the company and dancing so incredibly well.
I loved the selection of short works that followed Le grand Défilé. It showed such a beautiful range of balletic choreography, from the classicism of Gsovky’s work, to the lyricism and emotional underpinnings of Robbins’ approach, and on to the contemporary exploration of classicism by Forsythe. Congratulations to POB’s director, Aurélie Dupont, for her foresight and of course congratulations to the stunning POB dancers who presented the program so magnificently and to the orchestra, especially the solo pianists for In the Night, for their musical support.
Bold Moves is a ‘something for everyone’ mixed bill of four works that include
old, older, new and not so new, with the dancers proving more than equal to the
demands of stylistic versatility for each of the contrasting choreographies.
The program requires a majority of female dancers across all the pieces, and
among them are three standout performers.
Serenade (to Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings), was choreographed
85 years ago by George Balanchine for students at his company’s ballet school.
Among the prolific choreographer’s scores of works, it sits lyrically apart, an
abstract style of classical movement with tweaks here and whimsy there, as he
built little mistakes made in rehearsal into the choreography, reflecting his
sense of fun when working with young dancers. The work was first staged here by
Una Kai, renowned former dancer with New York City Ballet, and our company’s
artistic director in 1970s. Harry Haythorne, subsequent director, staged it on
New Zealand School of Dance in 1980s and found there the perfect setting for it
with a student cast.
This line-up of 17 females in ‘moonlight blue’ danced the long first section with line and ensemble aspects finely wrought, but I missed the lightness of subtleties remembered (and a number of dancers from those earlier productions who were in the audience later agreed). Some performers had ethereal and distant facial expressions, while others grinned cheerfully at the audience—somewhat distracting since it’s not just the movement we are watching, but also the dancers’ thoughts we are following. What are they thinking? The second section with fewer dancers has a range of sculptured arm shapes and attractive groupings that are satisfying to follow. The woman beside me swooned and gasped with pleasure throughout as she sipped her wine. It’s always good to witness people enjoying themselves, but to my taste this was an oaked chardonnay.
The pas de deux that followed, Russian style
from 1932 but fashioned as though much earlier, Flames of Paris, is a sizzler for ballet competitions and the
virtuoso display of gala nights, so no great poetry here. Wrong. It’s all in
the how, not the what—and the quality of dancing by Mayu Tanigaito is a
revelation, as always. Her technique is so fabulously assured she can afford to
toss it to one side and simply offer us her pure pleasure at delivering a clean
line, an effortless turn, a nonchalant pose, all effort masked, a laughing toss
of the head, a loving smile, a way to live. She is the company’s longstanding
leading dancer in all these respects. Her partner was Laurynas Vejalis, also a
dancer of great technical ability, but he did not seem to be offering that as a
gift to her, so she instead offered hers to us. Lucky us. This was top-shelf
Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer, Andrea Schermoly, commissioned by RNZB in 2018, marks 125 years since the beginnings of universal suffrage. Danced by eight women who gave it a wonderfully strong and motivated reading, it encourages everyone to believe in democracy in a wider society, and in all the institutions within it. There are numerous back projections of text from suffragettes’ writings, which were not legible however from many areas of the auditorium, and it could seem wise to reduce this distraction since the text is already reproduced in the printed program, and its message built in to the choreography. Kirby Selchow and Madeleine Graham were truly standout performers among the totally focused cast. Brandy for courage, methinks.
William Forsythe’s Artifact II, 1984, perhaps with Orwell in mind, was brought here by his Ballett Frankfurt to an International Arts Festival season in 1994. It employs his hallmark extremism of anatomy +, with over-extensions of limbs creating shapes and thrusts that soon amount to shouting rather than speaking. (‘It’s hard to lip-read a shouting man’—Leonardo da Vinci warned us in the 15th century, and that is still the case). Two couples embark on simultaneous pas de deux, which is like four people speaking at once, impossible to watch or ‘hear’ them all. My eye gratefully went to Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria who danced with a totally immersed care and attention to each other, making quite the quality highlight of the piece. I know there exist interviews galore with Forsythe that explain the aesthetic and the choreographic intention of this work, but the reality is what comes to us across the footlights.
The Bach Chaconne used here means what we hear is the opposite of what we see. A chaconne is a baroque dance & music form that moves ever forward over a ground bass, without the theme & variations/verse & chorus structure of other baroque dances, and thus represents a through-composed journey. Douglas Lilburn caught well the notion of journeying in his solo piano composition by that title (worth choreographing some time?), but Bach’s chaconne is so wedded now to the talisman choreography by Jose Limon (given stellar performances by Baryshnikov in this same venue back in 1990s) with the solo musician alongside him on the stage. The dance, staged by Louis Solino, was also a number of times nobly performed here by Paul Jenden with Richard Mapp playing the Busoni piano transcription. Those achingly beautiful memories create a challenge to reconcile the use of the same music with a ballet like Artifact.
The curtain is
rung down numerous times while the work continues onstage (except in this
production we had the impression the dancing stopped then started again each
time the curtain rose). It has a point the first time, perhaps, but the
numerous repeats of the curtain crashing down become increasingly tiresome. I
still find this as cynical and fragmented a work as I did on earlier viewing,
and one cannot help but wonder what price the dancers pay for such extreme
physical demands made on them in its delivery. We have seen Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated in
several seasons by RNZB, also an extreme work, though the aesthetic there draws
on its thunderbolt percussive accompaniment. Excitement always won the day when
our former company dancers performed that work (most memorably Abigail Boyle,
Kohei Iwamotu, Laura Saxon Jones, Jacob Chown) who made it strikingly their
own. Artifact though is a cocktail of
For years our
company has had an equal weighting of female and male dancers, without a star
ranking system but with recognition of the strengths in individual dancers—as
classicists and actors, with character or humour—and with seasons extended over
ten days to offer opportunities for us to savour alternate casts in lead roles.
There was also a number of stellar visiting ballet masters, among the world’s
best, who brought refreshing stimulation to the dancers. The company now has a
new line-up and a new look—a system of star ranking introduced, seasons reduced
to only a few days, no visiting ballet masters, an increased number of dancers,
many more females than males, with a number of young performers and apprentices
it is too soon to identify individually, some trained locally but still
including many more imported to swell the ranks. That recruiting is difficult
to accept, given how many fine young dancers are in training throughout this
country, and how many other New Zealand dancers continue to search for work
abroad. (Wouldn’t a young dancer/graduate ensemble here offer them and the
country something to fill that gap?) And the company without Sir Jon Trimmer
retained to assist in the styling and staging of works, and as a quietly
masterful mentor to younger dancers, is not the one we have known for decades,
and a decision that remains indeed difficult to fathom.
Ballet companies, like families, grow from
their whakapapa. Every generation is itself, has parents and grandparents,
children and grandchildren. Our company’s early repertoire includes classics of New Zealand
vintage that could well be re-staged, (consider if you will—Tell me a Tale, Ragtime Dance Company, A Servant of Two Masters,
Bliss, No Exit, Dark Waves, The Decay of Lying, rose and fell, halo, Napoli.
Broadcast News, Sweet Sorrow, Mantodea, Charade, Prismatic Variations… none of which is older than Serenade) and many of our
choreographers and ballet masters with the required experience are
free-lancing here and abroad. If we don’t stage these works, no-one will. Kia mau te wehi, kia kaha. Ka tu ka ora, ka
noho ka mate.
Mauri, mauri, kam na mauri. Tekeraoi.(Bold Moves. Take courage. Standing up,
all is well, lying down, all is not well. Spirit, courage, blessings).
This program was a dazzling line-up of works that showcased and celebrated the strengths and talent of young dancers and graduands of New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD). The moment when fledglings leave the nest is always poignant. Some of these young dancers have taken instant wing and are moving straight into positions with prestigious companies—Queensland Ballet, West Australian Ballet for example. Godspeed to them. Most curiously, not one is joining Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB).
With numerous dancers departing from RNZB this week, that raises a number of questions, which this review is not placed to answer, but should none-the-less be somewhere, somehow addressed. Eva Radich in her Radio New Zealand Concert Upbeat program recently asked the question in interview with the company’s artistic director—’Royal New Zealand Ballet. What’s the New Zealand moniker mean?’ We all need to think about the answer. A major part of New Zealand’s dance identity is at stake. That belongs within, not apart from, international dance identity.
In years back, NZSD graduation was always staged in the Opera House, a similar proscenium theatre to the St.James. Some years ago the School moved into newly refurbished premises, Te Whaea, which includes an in-house theatre, which naturally became the venue for dance performances. While that suited some of the contemporary repertoire and choreographic experimentation programs, it is a truth that ballet repertoire had to become differently scaled and proportioned to fit the much smaller venue. Here, back in a proscenium arch theatre with scope and size on their side, all the students were launched into orbit and became dancers. They’ll have now become infected with what Lincoln Kirstein called ‘the red and gold disease’.
It is pleasing to note that of the 11 works on the program, 5 are choreographed by NZSD alumni.
The opening, Beginners, Please! offers a glimpse of two small children at the barre, in a simple sequence of plié to rond-de-jambe; then light moved to another young pair; then to two current NZSD students. Staged by Sue Nicholls, this was a beguiling cameo that evoked the celebrated ballet Etudes, by Harald Lander, 1948. It is poignant to think that Poul Gnatt would have danced in that work in Royal Danish Ballet, and Anne Rowse, director emeritus of NZSD, sitting to my left, danced it many times in Festival Ballet, as also did Russell Kerr. Martin James, single most illustrious graduate in NZSD’s history, no contest, is sitting to my right. He trained at the School, danced most wonderfully in RNZB, then performed in English National Ballet and elsewhere in Europe, eventually to Royal Danish Ballet where he became leading solo dancer, was knighted for his services to ballet, and eventually became the company’s ballet master. These are the seeding sources that cast prismatic variations across professional dance in New Zealand that students need to know about. We can give more than lip service to that. Given the Danish heritage of RNZB, Etudes is a work many of us have waited years to see here, and why wouldn’t Martin James stage it? This echoes the Maori whakatauki proverb, ‘walking backwards into the future’. We can only see what has already happened. Look at that as you go. All these thoughts were caught in the little opening miniature. Well done, Sue.
Tempo di Valse, arranged by Nadine Tyson, to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, was ‘an exuberant work for a large ensemble, festive in mood’. Program notes are not always accurate but this one certainly was.
Aria, solo for a masked male, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, to Handel/Rinaldo overture and aria, is a remarkable dance, performed to breathtaking perfection by Mali Comlekci. Small wonder he flies straight into a contract at Queensland Ballet where an outstanding career awaits him. What a shame we won’t be able to see that develop, but we wish him airborne joy.
Curious Alchemy by Loughlan Prior, to Beethoven and Saint-Saens, is a fresh lively lovely dance in which youth is celebrated, and hints of the ties of friendship and the possibilities of relationship are subtly subtexted to the movement which suits the young dancers extremely well. The cast—Clementine Benson, Saul Newport, Jaidyn Cumming and Song Teng —are thrilled to be dancing, and that excitement shines through. Loughlan, himself a spirited dancer with RNZB, and a former graduate of NZSD, is loaded with choreographic energy and ideas, so that is fortunately one continuing career we will be able to follow.
Forgotten Things, by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a very special choreography, initially developed on students at NZSD in 2015, and here brought to a stunning re-staging with a cast of 23 contemporary dance students. The music composed by Andrew Foster, begins full of life-affirming rhythms that evoke the best Renaissance dance music, then moves to percussive richness that support this mysterious procession—Sarah’s best work to date in my opinion. It is a stunning achievement to use parts of the dancers’ bodies, beautifully lit, as nano units of life force, and then thread these as metaphor into life at the level of society and community. This is a work that could be performed by any school or company, classical or contemporary dancers. Now there’s something for every choreographer to aspire to, since that’s nearer the reality of the dance profession today.
The wedding pas de deux from Don Quixote was danced, by Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton, as a gift from RNZB—and what a gift. That pas de deux would have been danced in New Zealand several hundred times over the decades, but never has it steamed and sizzled like this. Skelton dances with calm control of his prodigious technique and has a most interesting career we are always keen to follow. The transition from class-in-the-studio to role-on-stage that Tanigaito always brings to her performances is rare, and something to study, if only you can. She reveals the nature of dance.
Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto pas de deux, dates from 1966 but carries its vintage timelessly. With two grand pianos soixante-neuf on stage, the Shostakovich beautifully played by the School’s pianists, Craig Newsome and Phillip O’Malley, the stage was set for Olivia Moore and Calum Gray to give the performance of their young lives to date.
S.U.B. (Salubrious Unified Brotherhood) was a duo by Victoria Columbus working with performers Connor Masseurs and Toa Paranihi. The ‘Nesian identity with rap and break dance, its isolations, its nonchalance, its cut & thrust, its mock battling, was brilliantly timed and caught in this sassy little number.
Allegro Brillante, by George Balanchine, dates from 1956 and is more of a period piece. It was performed with great verve and aplomb by the cast of eight dancers.
The Bach, by Michael Parmenter, to a Bach cantata, Erfreut euch, had a cast of 15 dancers who revelled in the exuberant dance sequences and sets of striking ensemble patterns. These were interspersed with walking sequences that stood rhythmically quite apart from the baroque energy and motivation of the danced sections.
The final work, William Forsythe’s In the middle somewhat elevated, was first performed in this theatre by Frankfurt Ballet during the international arts festival 1990. The choreography is as challenging and confrontational now as it was then, as is also the score by Thom Willems. The intensely asymmetrical and aggressive aesthetic comes across as thrilling, or scary, depending on the viewer. I am in the former camp, but can hear what others say—it is either loved or hated. Passionate opinions about dance in a theatre in New Zealand are no bad thing, but it’s for sure that the asymmetries that pull within the classical technique represent a post-modern departure from the canon that Forsythe represents. It’s a pity that the two gilded cherries hanging from on high, giving title to the choreography, are set so high they are noticed by no-one.
The RNZB dancers in the cast who stood out most memorably include Abigail Boyle, Tonia Looker, Alayna Ng, Shaun James Kelly, Kirby Selchow, Mayu Tanigaito, Kohei Iwamoto, Paul Mathews, Felipe Domingos. We wish all the Company dancers and all the School’s students well.
Recently The Times (London) carried a short article entitled ‘Learn language while you wait for web page to load’. It concerned newly developed apps that ‘test you on vocabulary in idle moments, such as when you are connecting to a network or waiting for an instant message.’* The timing of the article was serendipitous. It came to my attention as I was about to see Paris Opera Ballet’s triple bill, Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe. It seemed like it was an update to what Merce Cunningham was interested to explore with his Walkaround Time (1968),the first work on the POB program. I set off for the theatre with even more anticipation than usual. Cunningham truly was ahead of his time I mused.
The title Walkaround Time, according to Cunningham, comes from computer language. ‘You feed the computer information then you have to wait while it digests.’** Cunningham mentions, however, that it isn’t clear whether it is the computer or the user who is doing the walking around, although for him it is clearly the people!
The dancers of POB handled the Cunningham choreography beautifully—staging was by ex-Cunningham dancers Jennifer Goggans and Meg Harper. I admired especially the dancer who took the role originally danced by Carolyn Brown. Many of the artists appearing in this program (at least at the performance I saw) were not high enough up in the POB hierarchy to warrant a photo in the printed program, so I don’t know who she was. In any case, she was exceptional in her ability to display the balance and stillness this role requires at times, but also showed a beautiful fullness to her dancing when moving was part of the choreography. But all the dancers I saw, with their finely honed bodies and inbuilt understanding of shape and space, brought a wonderful quality to the work, showing as they did the clarity of Cunningham’s deceptively simple choreography.
Jasper Johns’ set, which referred to Marcel Duchamp’s dada-ist Large Glass, and David Behrman’s score …for nearly an hour…, set the work firmly within the Cunningham collaborative tradition, highlighting the independence of the collaborative elements. Watching Walkaround Time was a truly evocative and quite exciting experience.
The first of the two works by William Forsythe that made up the rest of the program was Trio. Ithad some conceptual similarities to the Cunningham piece, even though Forsythe, unlike Cunningham, works within the vocabulary of classical ballet. Trio was a kind of slapstick piece, reminding me a little of something from Cirque du soleil. The dancers came forward pointing out different parts of their body in between dancing and engaging in a kind of rough and tumble physical contact. But, with its stop-start musical accompaniment (a Quartet by Beethoven), and with several sections of dancing being executed in silence, the link back to Cunningham was uncanny.
Herman Schmerman, consists of two parts (made at different times in the 1990s)—a pas de cinq followed by a pas de deux. It probably was the work that showed the dancers of Paris Opera Ballet at their balletic best. The pas de cinq, fast-paced and showy, gave them the opportunity to display speed, intricate beaten work and extended limbs. I especially enjoyed the dancing of Chun Wing Lam. He moved brilliantly, using every part of his body. He twisted, turned, bent all ways, moved so smoothly and fluidly, and looked as though he was having the best time. Wonderful to watch.
The pas de deux, danced by Aurélia Bellett and Aurélien Houette, was a little unusual. In its vocabulary, it had Forsythe’s signature elements of extended limbs, off-centre poses, startling lifts, and the like, scattered throughout the piece. But the communication between the two dancers was not what one might have expected. They were sometimes off-hand with each other, and sometimes they seemed to be in teasing mode. They were a little cheeky and often amusing in the way they related to each other. A bit like life really.
Both the pas de cinq and pas de deux had delightful and surprising endings. As the pas de cinq came to an end, all five dancers disappeared behind a low barrier that stretched across the back of the stage. The accompanying lighting, by Tanji Rühl and Forsythe, was gorgeous and was enhanced by the appearance of two large orange/yellow circles of light on the backcloth as the dancers popped their heads up over the barrier. In a similarly surprising and delightful way, towards the end of the pas de deux both the woman and the man added short, yellow, pleated skirts over their black, close-fitting costumes (costume design by Gianni Versace and Forsythe) and continued the dance with skirts swinging jauntily.
Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe was an inspired program. It was through the vision of Benjamin Millepied, now no longer dance director of POB, that these three works entered the repertoire. Together they made up a program that clearly showed what dance can accomplish in the hands of two exceptional intellects and two inquiring choreographic minds.
7 May 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
The Australian Ballet’s triple bill, Vitesse, was not so much about vitesse (FR: speed) as about the look of ballet over the past thirty years or so. It began with Jiri Kylian’s Forgotten Land, moving, dramatic and emotion filled, continued with William Forsythe’s fiercely uncompromising In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and closed with Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV (Danse à grande vitesse), an attempt to capture the essence of speed and referring to France’s TGV (Train à grande vitesse) and Michael Nyman’s score MGV (Musique à grande vitesse).
Forgotten Land, a Kylian work from 1981, is in essence a series of duets expressing a yearning for past memories and events. I particularly enjoyed the dancing of first couple, Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian, who brought a delicious lyrical quality to their pas de deux and who brought out so well Kylian’s choreographic focus on bending bodies and swirling, extended arms. I also admired the performance by Rina Nemoto and Joseph Chapman as the last couple. Their delicacy and gentleness stood in contrast to some of the more fast-paced duets. The work is such a joy to watch and has a particularly emotive ending as the female dancers, backs to the audience, stretch their arms upwards, heavenwards, as if pining for what has been forgotten.
In the Middle left something to be desired, at least for those who remember it from 1996 when it first entered the Australian Ballet’s repertoire. It made a huge impression then with its high-energy choreography, its extraordinary off-centre poses, and its stunning performances in which the dancers missed no opportunity to draw the audience into the work. Not so much this time when it seemed a little tame. Although the dancers (again) executed the steps admirably enough, I missed (again) the physicality and the passion that needs to be added to the steps, to be the essence of movement, to make any ballet, but especially this one, have one on the edge of one’s seat with excitement. Surprisingly too, I also missed the Sylvie Guillem-style wig that was worn by Nicole Rhodes (as the leading female dancer) in the 1996 production. Not only did that wig have its own movement, it also set the work, which was made on Guillem and the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987, in a particular context. It had a definite role.
The leading trio of artists, Amy Harris, Nicola Curry and Ty King-Wall, danced admirably enough. But for me, the most interesting performance came from Chengwu Guo, who at the last minute replaced Jarryd Madden. I am used to seeing Guo throw himself around the stage, executing spectacular beats, turns and jumps (sometimes inappropriately as happened in Giselle). So it was a pleasure to see him dancing differently. I wondered whether he felt held back by the Forsythian choreography, which is spectacular in its own way of course, but which does not ask for excess in the old Russian manner? Without losing any of his technical skills, there was a certain austerity to his approach on this occasion and I enjoyed his performance immensely.
Wheeldon’s DGV is an interesting work but never seems to have the excitement that its name suggests. It’s interesting too that Australian Ballet publicity says that ‘Wheeldon hurtles his dancers through a high-speed journey’. What drew my attention, on the other hand, was the extent to which Wheeldon seemed to create static poses, especially in the several pas de deux that are sprinkled throughout the work. I started to look on DGV as a kind of series of travel posters rather than a comment on a fast train and speed. It is not my favourite Wheeldon work and a review of another performance is at this link.
Despite my various reservations, it was an experience to have the work of Kylian, Forsythe and Wheeldon on the one program. Kylian rarely fails to move, Forsythe sees the body in movement differently from most, and Wheeldon … well I’m still making up my mind.
News from a colleague in Amsterdam is that Remi Wortmeyer, formerly with the Australian Ballet and now a principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet, is making a mark in that company’s Hans van Manen program. For more news about Wortmeyer’s activities here is a link to his website.
New Helpmann book
A new book about Robert Helpmann is currently in preparation in London and will be published in 2016 by Dance Books. With the title The Many Faces of Robert Helpmann, it is edited by Richard Cave and Anna Meadmore. The book is being published as a companion volume to Ninette de Valois: Adventurous Traditionalist (Dance Books, 2012) and will include, in addition to a series of essays on various aspects of Helpmann’s career, a DVD of filmed material. I am working on a chapter on Elektra, Helpmann’s ballet that premiered at Covent Garden in 1963 and that was restaged by the Australian Ballet in 1966.
William Forsythe and Dance Australia
I was delighted, on opening the October/November issue of Dance Australia, to see an article I wrote for the issue of February/March 1994 republished (with some new photographs) as part of an ‘Anniversary Collection’ celebrating 35 years of Dance Australia. That article, which was based on an interview I conducted with William Forsythe in Frankfurt while on a holiday in Europe in late 1993, was one of the earliest pieces I wrote for Dance Australia.
The experience of interviewing on that occasion is, however, still etched on my mind. It was funny—I had trouble getting past the very determined doorman at the stage door until I produced a letter and said in my very best school German Ich habe eine Brief (sic—I got the gender wrong); informative—Forsythe has an incredible intellect; and moving—Forsythe is also very personable and was so willing to engage with me, even at midnight when the interview took place. Before the interview, I was lucky enough to see the show that was playing that night, which was Forsythe’s Artefact.
But congratulations to Dance Australia for having survived for 35 years and having produced so many great stories, reviews and other dance-related pieces. May it continue.
Press for September
‘GOLDs head overseas.’ Preview of tour to the United Kingdom and Europe by Canberra’s GOLD company. The Canberra Times, 12 September 2015, ARTS p. 22. Online version.
‘Plenty to enjoy in diverse mix.’ Review of Circus Oz in ‘But wait…there’s more.’ The Canberra Times, 25 September 2015, p. ARTS 7. Online version.
Sylvie Guillem is an extraordinary dancer, no doubt about it, and her farewell show of four very different works demonstrated her astonishing capacity as a performer. But what emerged most clearly for me was that Guillem is first and foremost a ballet dancer. Her body, with its flexibility, slender frame, beautifully arched feet, impeccable ‘turn-out’, and limbs that extend seemingly forever, is so perfectly suited to the vocabulary of ballet that, whatever other dance style she is performing, she makes me long to see her dancing in a ballet again. Guillem has, for the last ten years or so, focused on contemporary dance and, while I have every respect for her desire to work that way, it is a little sad that not all of the movement we see in her farewell show does justice to her qualities as a dancer.
The program opened with technê choreographed by Akram Khan. Its setting was instantly attractive—a silver mesh tree positioned centre stage and surrounded by a circle of light. Across the upstage area sat a dimly-lit orchestra of three, composer Alies Sluiter (voice, laptop and violin), Prathap Ramachandra (percussion), and Grace Savage (beatbox). And the live soundscape they produced was thrilling.
But, watching Guillem emerge from the darkness in the opening moments—our first sight of her—only to scuttle around the circle of light on all fours like an insect was not thrilling. Sure she scuttles brilliantly and every inch of her body scuttled. But for me it was an uninspired opening moment and it was hard to maintain interest in the movement of technê from then on.
Then followed William Forsythe’s DUO2015, remade from his 1996 DUO and danced by two men, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, to a very sparse score by Thom Willems. They danced together and apart, at times with panache and bravura, and sometimes with a kind of throwaway attitude. It was a communication between friends. They sometimes mirrored each other in their movements, and at other times they maintained their differences—a diverse dancing communication, and a wonderful one.
The last piece before intermission was another duet, Here & After, this time danced by two women, Guillem and Emanuela Montanari. Choreographed by Russell Maliphant to music by Andy Cowton, it was pleasant dancing, often sculptural and having a light touch towards the end when the Cowton score included the sounds of a yodelling voice. It was enhanced by a strong lighting design from Michael Hulls, a constantly changing chessboard of squares of light. It added a hard-edged quality that sat well against the softness of the choreography.
By far the most satisfying piece, however, was the closing item, Bye, with choreography by Mats Ek and danced to Beethoven’s Arietta from his Piano Sonata Opus 111. The choice of music was an inspired one given its position in Beethoven’s oeuvre, Opus 111 being his last piano sonata, and given the inventive nature of the Arietta within it.
In Bye we first see Guillem peering through a keyhole of a door positioned upstage, which eventually becomes a screen for the projection of filmed images of people and animals. As Guillem emerges from behind this door/screen and begins to dance, Ek’s choreographic style is instantly recognisable. Guillem crosses the stage with long, loping walks, shoulders slightly hunched and head pushed forward. From then on she engages in a variety of moves that often seem to be an examination of the world, including one quiet moment when she stands on the side of the stage and surveys the space. At one point she stands on her head, legs spread in a kind of upside down 2nd position plié. Finally, she joins a growing crowd of men, women, children and dogs who appear in film on the door/screen. In the closing moments she joins them and walks into the distance.
Life in Progress was an interesting experience, and it certainly made me more than aware of Guillem’s astonishing abilities. But I would rather watch beetles scuttle and a clown stand on his (or her) head and watch Guillem dancing a ballet. I feel very lucky to have seen her during her ballet days and, in particular, will always carry with me treasured memories of the most moving Giselle I have ever seen—Guillem’s own production (with Guillem in the lead) for Finnish National Ballet in Paris in 2001.
My review of Sydney Dance Company’s new program, Frame of Mind, encompassing William Forsythe’s Quintett and Rafael Bonachela’s Frame of Mind, is now available on DanceTabs at this link. This program was ecstatically received on opening night, 9 March 2015 at Sydney Theatre, and deservedly so. It tours to Canberra in April–May and Melbourne in May.
The Forsythe piece, danced to Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, reminded me of an event that occurred several years ago now, at a time when people used to go into shops to buy their music. My husband went into a then very well-known music store in Canberra (since closed down) to try to buy a copy of the Gavin Bryars’ work. ‘Oh,’ said the gentleman behind the counter, ‘we have been trying to move this CD for some time. Here, have this copy with our compliments.’
Well, Forsythe’s use of the homeless man’s chant in Quintett was absolutely fascinating. The diversity of the emotions expressed in the choreography was a perfect foil for the repetition of the words and by the end, as the score grew louder and the music became a dominant feature, the optimism of the homeless man soared. It was quite stunning.
Scottish Ballet’s triple bill of works by Martin Lawrance, William Forsythe and Hans van Manen was designed, according to artistic director Christopher Hampson, to show choreography across three generations. To my mind, however, the evening showed more that choreography sometimes looks dated and that for it to have a powerful effect it needs something more than extreme physicality.
The evening opened with Lawrance’s Run for it, performed to John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony. It was made originally for Dance GB, a program associated with the London Olympics, although I’m not sure whether Olympic references in Run for it were specific or merely general (as a result of the athletic performances by the dancers). This was my first encounter with the choreography of Lawrance and, while his ability to create energetic, highly physical movement was absolutely evident, I’m not sure he has yet established an individual choreographic voice that makes his brand of movement vocabulary distinctive. To me it seemed like a series of random movements lacking focus.
In many respects the Olympic references came through more clearly in the design. The set by recent Turner Prize winner Martin Boyce recalled ancient Greece, home of the Olympics. A Grecian-style, fluted column set slightly off centre-stage was topped by a conglomeration of geometric shapes spreading across the upper space a little like a cloud. Yumiko Takeshima’s close fitting costumes, looking like an outfit one might wear to the gym, emphasised the sleek and athletic bodies of the dancers.
Closing the program was Hans van Manen’s 1970s piece 5 tangos to music by Astor Piazzolla. This mixture of ballet and tango moves was well performed by the dancers of Scottish Ballet, who wore their red and black costumes with panache. The men in particular moved as an ensemble with admirable ease. Sadly, I don’t think the choreography gave the dancers the opportunity to move with the passion I associate with the tango, although they made the best of what they were given to dance. For me the piece showed how choreography has changed over the past 30 or so years. The carefully arranged moves and patterns of 5 tangos seemed overly structured and, with an emphasis on canon forms, repeats and so forth, the whole seemed too obvious and almost predictable.
The pièce de résistance was the middle work on the program, William Forsythe’s Workwithinwork set to Luciano Berio’s Duetti per due violini. While the off-kilter moves, extended limbs thrashing through the air, and the highly physical partnering we associate with Forsythe were all there, this work began with the dancers looking as though they were in comic mode. Repeatedly they looked almost as if they were poking fun at classical poses and in general fooling around. But by the close of the work, largely a series of duets and trios, all seemed to come together in a cohesive whole and, as the curtain came down, we were left with wisps of movement being traced in the air by the dancers to remind us of what had gone before. It was a mesmerising work with many levels of meaning. One viewing simply made me long to see it again.
This program was my first encounter with the work of Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet. Not knowing any of the dancers, I am sorry not to be able to comment on individual performances. Christopher Hampson has been artistic director of Scottish Ballet for a very short time, since August 2012. His personable nature was evident in his onstage introduction to this program, which must have been that of previous director, Ashley Page. It will be interesting to see how Scottish Ballet develops under Hampson’s leadership. He has some excellent dancers to work with.