Inaccessible glamour

Choreographed by Narelle Benjamin. Performance Space, Sydney, August 22.

HIDING in Plain Sight is like a remote beauty, a super-something with abundant personal assets who glides through the world as if not quite of it – cool, guarded, cocooned, separate. Lesser mortals may look but not touch. They may admire, but not presume to approach.

Kristina Chan in Hiding in Plain Sight

Kristina Chan in Hiding in Plain Sight

On a rectangular performance area, watched over by a divided audience on opposing banks of seats, two dancers engage in intensely private solos. At first they are seen facing one another and moving in similar fashion although the physical closeness offers no sense of intimacy, even when heads touch shoulders as they do at the start.

Each woman is in her own half of the space, delineated by Karen Norris’s ultra-sophisticated lighting design. Soon the two go their own ways, staying deeply within themselves as Huey Benjamin’s electronic score continues on an unvaryingly introspective path. Hiding in Plain Sight is well named.

I admire Narelle Benjamin’s rigorous austerity and she has worked with two exquisite dancers in Kristina Chan and Sara Black, but Hiding in Plain Sight is a distancing piece. It was inspired by art and ideas on the subject of loss and displacement but at the end of what felt a longish 50 minutes seemed to have little to reveal about that disorienting, troubling state. Instead it evoked a kind of inaccessible glamour, lacking the complex emotional engagement one would have hoped for from Benjamin’s intent.

Carriageworks, Sydney. Ends August 30.

‘She makes you laugh then makes you cry’

Hayes Theatre Co, August 20

IT’S little wonder so many former child stars go off piste spectacularly, particularly those who started very young. Right from the get-go they learned that to be a success they would have to know how to please. To please Mommy, who took her to all those dance lessons. To please Daddy, if he was around, who paid for those lessons. To please the judges of the talent shows, and the advertising people picking out the prettiest, most compliant kids to be in the commercial. To work really, really hard because they were very likely the family breadwinner, and not to screw that up by not pleasing.

If you’re a pleaser, perhaps you get taken advantage of. It’s hard to lose the habit of being the one who is the approval-seeker. It’s sad. Even if you have a bulging bank account to ease the pain.

Christie Whelan Browne

Christie Whelan Browne

In the case of Britney Jean Spears, for quite a while she didn’t even have control of the bank account. Her father did that when she was judged unfit to manage her affairs and to take care of her children. She’d pulled quite a few stunts, true, but perhaps they too were another aspect – a more adult one – of trying to please. The paparazzi sure liked what she did, and she obliged big time.

Out of Spears’s very public woes writer/director Dean Bryant and the glorious Christie Whelan Browne have fashioned a new (relatively; Britney Spears the Cabaret first saw the light in 2009) take on a very old tale: fame as nightmare. It’s the “be careful what you wish for” story.

Whelan Browne delivers her performance with laser precision, switching in a nano-second from dumb broad to sweet innocent without you seeing it coming. She makes you laugh at Britney’s naivety and then makes you cry. Well, I got a bit teary. People can be so very cruel, particularly when they wield the power. And the fans do. They get to decide who is in and who out; who is not longer adored; who is to be chased and who ignored.

Obviously there are worse things in the world than being an over-impulsive, undoubtedly under-educated, far too rich and silly young woman (or young man, guess who?), but they’re with us, and they say something about us as well as themselves.

Assisted superbly by music director Matthew Frank at the piano, Whelan Browne interprets Spears’s songs with ferocious energy (she’s a great singer – no Auto-Tune required here!) and point. Circus, Piece of Me, … Baby One More Time, I’m a Slave 4 U, Womanizer, Oops! … I Did It Again, Toxic … well, you can see how songs with such titles might fit into the depiction of a troubled life. Frank’s arrangements do the rest by ripping them out of the pop realm and making them sound very unsettling indeed. Brilliant.

Britney Spears the Cabaret ends September 7.

‘I cannot wait to see what we create together’

THEY work quickly at Louisville Ballet. In April Robert Curran applied for the role of artistic director, he was interviewed twice in June and by early July he learned he was the successful candidate. His appointment was announced in Louisville yesterday and he starts in Kentucky possibly as early as next week once his visa has been finalised. He was selected from more than 80 applicants.

Curran, 38, couldn’t be happier. “I am thrilled to be leading a company that has such a rich history and that is so excited and enthusiastic about the future,” he said in Sydney earlier this week, during a whistle-stop trip home.

Louisville Ballet board chairman Joel Stone said via email: “We needed someone who could move the organisation forward over the next 10 years. So much has changed with our patron base and how they interact with dance and art. Robert’s vision for the company meshed perfectly with where we need to go.”

Curran, formerly one of the most loved principal artists at The Australian Ballet and noted as an exceptional partner, has been preparing for this moment since retiring at the top of his game at the end of 2011. He has an Advanced Diploma of Dance from The Australian Ballet School, a Bachelor of Business from Monash University and is undertaking a Master of Applied Theatre Studies from the University of New England. After he left the AB he took a year off to travel and observe the work of other ballet companies and directors.

Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran in The Nutcracker. Photo: Jim McFarlane

Robert Curran with Lucinda Dunn in The Nutcracker for the AB. Photo: Jim McFarlane

The Louisville board wasn’t deterred by the fact Curran had not previously run a company; in fact they liked it.

“They wanted somebody who was going to bring a level of freshness and innovation. They weren’t afraid of what that might look like,” Curran says. “The company has a really sound structure – sufficiently established so the organisation can run really efficiently but not so rigid that it’s not open for a bit of interpretation and adaptation as each of our initiatives start to take hold.”

The board sought someone who would continue retiring artistic director Bruce Simpson’s commitment to the classical tradition but also “someone who was interested in exploring where that [tradition] might go”. Louisville Ballet’s repertoire includes work by Ashton, Balanchine, Tudor, Cranko, Tharp, Fokine and Bournonville, and its next production is next month’s Giselle, which Curran will stage.

While it may seem a significant alteration in direction to appoint an Australian to the position, the move from Simpson to Curran is perhaps more like a baton change. Simpson’s taste in repertoire is similar to that of The Australian Ballet, says Curran, and indeed “Bruce has an enormous respect for the AB; enormous respect both for the company and the Australian Ballet School”. Ballet can be a very small world. (Australian Stanton Welch, is artistic director of Houston Ballet, a position he has held for 10 years.)

After spending 12 years at the helm Simpson will stay in Louisville, says Curran, who expresses great affection for him. “He has been incredibly respectful of what I need and want. He’s a really great man.”

Louisville Ballet was founded in 1952 as a project-based operation, bringing in artistic directors and dancers. It became a fully professional company in 1975 with eight dancers on contract. Today there are 24 dancers and 15 trainees, making it somewhat similar in size to Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet, albeit with much shorter seasons. The dancers are on 30-weeks contracts and the number of performances for each program is short – only three for Giselle, for example, with 11 for the seasonal favourite The Nutcracker.

Louisville has a population of about three-quarters of a million people and is the oldest city in Kentucky. It has a strong arts culture, being home to Kentucky Opera, Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Louisville Orchestra as well as the ballet company. Financial difficulties in the past have curtailed the use of live music but Louisville Orchestra is expected to play for Nutcracker. Curran hopes there will be opportunities for a closer relationship under Louisville Orchestra’s new young music director Teddy Abrams, who is just 27.

“The relationship has ebbed and flowed over the years. One of the things that is definitely in the future for Louisville Ballet is a stronger relationship with the orchestra. There was no discord in the past, just a financial thing. The orchestra has its costs that it needs to meet. The ballet has its budget that it needs to maintain. Hopefully there will be more flexibility and more of a combined fund-raising focus. At least they are interested in exploring that,” says Curran.

He will also be artistic director of Louisville Ballet School. “There is a school director who takes on the majority of the work, but there is definitely a level of commitment that is expected of me,” he says. “And I am very much looking forward to delivering on that expectation. The Vocational Graduate Certificate in Elite Dance Instruction that I studied through the ABS has given me plenty of ideas, and fortuitously, both schools teach the Vaganova training program.”

In a long conversation with me published on this site last year, Curran talked frankly about his ambition to lead a company, one from which he has not wavered since he stopped performing. He said he would go anywhere in the world, and it was not surprising to hear he had found an opportunity in the US, home to so many classical companies.

“I know that working with Louisville Ballet will be a joy and I cannot wait to see what we create together,” he told me. His first ideas will be seen In April when he stages his Director’s Choice program.

Incredibly virtuosic, highly expressive

Director and choreographer Antony Hamilton. The Performance Space, Carriageworks, Sydney, August 13.

WITH a bit of Einstein on the Beach over here, a spot of 2001: A Space Odyssey over there, a suggestion of wonky 1950s sci-fi film, images of sleek robotics and a sliver or two of domestic life, Keep Everything is both an eclectic treasure trove of references and utterly and beguilingly itself.

With only three performers and a set consisting of bits and bobs of rubbish there’s a hand-made quality to Keep Everything entirely in keeping with the original impulse of choreographer Antony Hamilton: to take dance ideas he’d previously discarded and see where they went. Where they went was somewhere much more intriguing than you might expect from airing a few ideas that didn’t made the cut.

Lauren Langlois in Antony Hamilton's Keep Everything

Lauren Langlois and BenjaminHancock in Antony Hamilton’s Keep Everything

Keep Everything is nothing less than a breathless (literally at many points) race through human history from the primordial swamp to a mechanistic future and back again. It may have a deceptively grungy air but is, in fact, incredibly virtuosic, highly expressive and tightly organised.

Often working with complex rhythms or durations that must be calibrated precisely to the micro-second the dancers – Benjamin Hancock, Lauren Langlois and Alisdair Macindoe – seamlessly evolve sounds and movements from primitive to futuristic via the quotidian stuff of everyday life: getting the dog to come in, having sex, giving birth, that sort of thing. The phrase “keep everything” takes on a multiplicity of meanings: Hamilton’s use of material; the junk strewn around that speaks of our over-stuffed material society; the need to hang on to other people; the desire to gather experiences and sensations; the need to keep making a noise, whether grunting, conversing, screaming or spewing strings of numbers. (The last sees Langlois and Macindoe in tremendous form – the Einstein moment.)

All this – and there’s a lot packed into a fast-flowing hour – happens to a whiz-bang sound design from Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes (The Presets), Benjamin Cisterne’s exceptional lighting design and Robin Fox’s AV design. There’s a lot of serious talent on board.

Best of all, Keep Everything is effortlessly witty. Not always something you can count on in contemporary dance. I’m sure I heard Langlois whisper “this isn’t working” at one point, and I hope I did. It was funny because obviously everything was going like a rocket, and funny because it was like a little ghost bobbing up from a time when Hamilton was choreographing and decided not to use this scrap of an idea.

The moment passed quickly and I accept I may have been mistaken. I may have misheard. But I’ll take Hamilton’s advice and, you know, keep everything.

Keep Everything was Chunky Move’s 2013 Next Move commission. You can’t fault their taste.

Keep Everything finishes at Carriageworks on Saturday. Melbourne, August 20-24.

Daring smoke-and-mirrors act

Queensland Ballet, Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane, August 1.

ONE masterwork, a party piece and two relatively new dances that look far better than they are provide an entertaining but creatively uneven program at Queensland Ballet. Very much on the plus side is that the company looks energised despite the rigours of the Romeo and Juliet season that ended only four weeks ago. Very much on the down side is that Flourish, as this quadruple bill is titled, is performed without live music. Everyone is ill-served: Tchaikovsky, Cesare Pugni, Philip Glass, Ravel, the audience and particularly the dancers.

Katherine Rooke (top), Emilio Pavan and Meng Ningning in Serenade. Photo: David Kelly

Katherine Rooke (top), Emilio Pavan and Meng Ningning in Serenade. Photo: David Kelly

It’s not that QB is penny-pinching in this regard. It’s that the company has ambitions it can’t entirely afford at the moment. Mind you, it’s not clear who could play for QB at this time of the year. On the last night of Flourish (August 9), Queensland Symphony Orchestra is in the Concert Hall at QPAC playing Berlioz, Sibelius and a world premiere of a commissioned score, Gordon Hamilton’s Ghosts in the Orchestra. QB has also worked several times with the chamber orchestra Camerata of St John’s, which at present is in Townsville for that city’s annual chamber music festival.

Nevertheless, QB is charging forward in a way one has to admire even while wincing at George Balanchine’s Serenade – the masterwork of the evening – being performed to a recording. It didn’t help that the sound system emitted a nasty burst of static at one point. Rather ironically, on August 1, while QB was dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, up in Townsville the Camerata was also playing Serenade for Strings, although this one by Dvorak. The Tchaikovsky would have been too, too cruel.

Serenade (1934) is the first Balanchine to be acquired by QB and the company acquitted itself well. On opening night Meng Ningning, whose triumph as Juliet seems to have released her, was a romantic, eloquent Waltz Girl and Lina Kim’s Russian Girl was poised and distinguished by pillowy elevation. Katherine Rooke started a little nervously as the Dark Angel but there is promise in those sometimes unruly, coltish limbs. The large ensemble of women, filled out with Young Artists and Pre-Professional Program dancers, was not entirely as one stylistically (Balanchine mastery is not achieved in a moment) but their commitment was total. Matthew Lawrence and Emilio Pavan were strong and sensitive in support.

After Serenade came Flourish’s party piece, the grand pas de deux from La Esmeralda (to Pugni’s music), choreographed by Ben Stevenson after Petipa. It gave long-serving QB dancer Teri Crilly a much-deserved chance to shine alongside diminutive but powerful guest artist Dmitry Zagrebin from Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet. The two were a lovely match – sunny, flirty and carrying off the technical fireworks with self-possession without being self-regarding. Utterly charming.

Nils Christe’s Short Dialogues (created for QB in 2011 to the music of Glass) and Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero (2008), to the famous Ravel score, are negligible works in the glossy, sexy, crowd-pleasing vein. The choreographers are both big names in the field but both have better works in their portfolio. I would have been very pleased, for instance, to see again Christe’s Fearful Symmetries, staged at QB in 2010.

Short Dialogues has three couples entering and leaving the stage through gloom and haze – the process is reminiscent of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room – in a manner that appears meaningful about relationships but has little to say. Clare Morehen with Keian Langdon, Lina Kim with Matthew Lawrence and Meng Ningning with Alexander Idaszak looked wonderful but the work failed to register with me. (Kim, incidentally, impresses more and more with each outing.)

Bolero is surprisingly blank despite the propulsive music and, again, splendid dancing. Clare Morehen (in both works) and Natasha Kusch (Bolero) were magnetic and it was a treat to see former QB principal artist Langdon return as a guest for Short Dialogues.

Indeed, guests were absolutely necessary on the night, an indication of QB artistic director Li Cunxin’s daring smoke-and-mirrors act. He wants to present work that needs many more dancers than QB has at the moment. The MacMillan Romeo and Juliet showed that in the most emphatic way, but Flourish also sends the message, albeit a little more quietly. Li wants to show what is possible and he is pushing very hard to make the case.

Serenade needs 20 women. With the retirement of principal Rachael Walsh at the end of the Romeo and Juliet season there are only 25 full company members and eight Young Artists, of whom 18 are women. Hence the use of Pre-Professional Program dancers – that is, students – in Serenade. (Incidentallly, Walsh was repetiteur on Short Dialogues, so she has already started the next phase of her career.)

In addition, there is a shortage of senior men, which is why there were no fewer than three male guest artists at the Flourish opening – Zagrebin, Langdon and Idaszak, back after a short stint with Royal New Zealand Ballet, and working as a guest with QB, his former company. QB’s international guest principal Huang Junshuang is not in the country at the moment and principal Hao Bin is injured. That leaves Matthew Lawrence to fly the flag for the company’s principal men.

The margin of error is tiny. Lawrence will need to keep very fit.

Flourish ends August 9.

Three for the road

The King and I, Princess Theatre, July 22; Into the Woods, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, July 22; Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s, Melbourne

COME October next year Les Miserables will have been running for 30 years in London, longer than any other musical. Well, I suppose it’s possible Cameron Mackintosh will close the show before then, just as it is possible I will win a large amount of money in the lottery, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Thirty years! Who would have thought it? Certainly not the critics who failed to see its merits when it opened at the Barbican in a Royal Shakespeare Company production staged by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. It was described by Michael Ratcliffe in The Observer as “a witless and synthetic entertainment” and by Francis King in The Sunday Telegraph as “a lurid Victorian melodrama produced with Victorian lavishness”.

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

As Lyn Gardner – who was one of the nay-sayers in 1985 – suggested in The Guardian in 2010 on the occasion of the show’s 25th anniversary, Les Mis succeeds precisely because it is a Victorian melodrama, a story that deals in big emotions and wears its heart on its sleeve. There is no ambiguity in this version of Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel. Against a roiling background of social injustice, a good man is hounded by a self-righteous one. The nobility of self-sacrifice, the pain of unrequited love, the pathos of early death, the rapacity of opportunists, the gallantry of young idealists – these qualities are deliberately drawn in bold strokes.

So no, this isn’t subtle theatre nor is it intellectual theatre. It is the theatre of the direct hit to the heart. If this is synthetic entertainment, so be it. The more than 65 million people who have seen it love it to bits and its creators are crying all the way to the bank.

The staging that opened in Melbourne this month hasn’t supplanted the original version – Mackintosh claims the West End production may have another decade of life in it – but is in the interesting position of being a revival of something that never went away. Thirty years is a long time in theatre technology and this version takes advantage of them. The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.

At the matinee I saw Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) were riveting antagonists and both in superb voice. Gleeson sang Bring Him Home with touching grace and crowned it with streams of pure gold in falsetto; Tee was equally persuasive in creating character through timbre and phrasing, dark and aggressive. As Fantine Patrice Tipoki brought fresh insights to I Dreamed a Dream, starting simply and almost conversationally, while Kerrie Anne Greenland, making her professional music theatre debut as Eponine, is a huge find. The vile but perversely life-affirming Thenadiers were in the effortlessly scene-stealing hands of Trevor Ashley and Octavia Barron Martin, the latter substituting brilliantly for injured Lara Mulcahy. Light-voiced Euan Doidge (Marius) was a little under-powered in this company but gave a sensitive reading of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.

Is Les Miserables a better musical than Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods? No, it’s not. There can be no argument that the Les Mis music, while exceptionally tuneful and stirring, can draw too often on bombast for effect and some of the lyrics land with a thud. Sondheim is, as we all know, a genius. But there was no doubt that Les Mis offered much more pleasure than did Victorian Opera’s production of Into the Woods. And yes, I’m taking into account the great differential in budget between the two. Obviously one has to cut one’s cloth according to one’s purse, but I have seen many cash-strapped theatre productions that have found better solutions to staging issues than did VO for Into the Woods. The main set element, cut-outs of trees that slid back and forth, failed rather dismally in its task of creating a sense of place and atmosphere.

Queenie van de Zandt was in killer voice as the Witch, Lucy Maunder was a lovely Cinderella, Rowan Witt was an appealing Jack and in the pivotal roles of Baker and Baker’s Wife David Harris and Christina O’Neill each had fine moments. Overall, though, there was a decided air of the production having been put on too quickly and without the best solutions found to stretching finite funds. (Not that the tickets were cheap – mine was $100 and that wasn’t top price.) The people involved were all highly experienced and Orchestra Victoria sounded just fine in the pit, but I couldn’t help but think a concert version may have been the way to go.

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

I took advantage of being in Melbourne to see Lou Diamond Phillips in the Opera Australia/John Frost production of The King and I. When the show opened in Brisbane Teddy Tahu Rhodes played the King and will do so again in Sydney. (He is currently appearing for OA in the title role in Don Giovanni.)

Phillips appeared in this production of The King and I when it went to Broadway in 1996 after premiering in Adelaide in 1991. He was nominated for a Tony award so he has good form in the role, and, as he is partly Filipino in heritage, has the advantage of looking a credible King of Siam. He’s a charismatic, forceful one too and has excellent chemistry with Lisa McCune’s pitch-perfect Anna. I enjoyed his performance greatly.

So, three musicals in the space of 36 hours and I had not exhausted Melbourne’s music-theatre possibilities. See what can happen if you don’t pull down all your theatres?

Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. Then Perth in January and Sydney in March 2015. The King and I, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, until August 17. Sydney, September 7-November 1.

Complexities of human existence

Ken Unsworth Studio, Alexandria, Sydney, July 16

THE accepted wisdom is that dance careers are brutally short and in many – probably most – cases they are. The performers who break that barrier should be cherished. They may not have the effortless flexibility and super-human extensions they once had, but since when did elasticity equal artistry? Indeed, there is much discussion in classical circles these days about the great danger of tricks – endless turns, legs behind ears, gymnastics in the air – trumping emotional engagement, expressiveness, imagination and the use of the body as an infinitely varied instrument of meaning.

In Australia there are few opportunities for older dance artists; certainly no regular ones I can bring to mind, except for the collaborations between sculptor Ken Unsworth and Australian Dance Artists. Performances have taken place at the Art Gallery of NSW and Cockatoo Island, but latterly they have been at Unsworth’s Sydney studio, in which he manages a quite remarkable array of effects. The invited audience sits on hard pews, the stage machinery shudders and groans a bit and there isn’t the seamless transition from scene to scene one sees in the subsidised and commercial sectors, and yet there is an inordinate amount of magic. Imagination, emotional engagement – that’s what you get.

Australian Dance Artists was founded by Norman Hall, who collaborates on choreography with the four current ADA dancers – former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. Their collective experience is immense, but would be of academic interest if they were not, all of them, still exceptionally potent performers.

Unsworth may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest

For The Arrangement Unsworth – he finances these productions entirely – really pushed the boat out, commissioning music from Jonathan Cooper and engaging The Song Company to sing texts by A.E. Houseman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke. The Song Company’s long-serving artistic director, Roland Peelman, was at the helm (and the piano).

Unsworth may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest for the complexities of human existence, often casting an absurdist eye on events. He made a cameo appearance at the beginning to usher in a series of stage pictures connected not by any narrative but by themes of love, longing, the passage of time and the cycle of life. Unsworth paid no attention to the potential limitations of his studio, making alterations and engaging a production team that enabled a woman (soprano Susannah Lawergren) to rise and descend through floor and ceiling; to allow Frankenhaeuser appear to levitate in ghostly fashion; and to have The Song Company singers revolve as they stood like mannequins while Philip assembled a real – i.e., not living – mannequin into a decidedly non-traditional form.

One of the most memorable dance moments came when Harding-Irmer, balancing on a ball, absorbed energy from Frankenhaeuser, whose flickering hands were the very embodiment of electricity. Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser, partners in real life, appeared to be the more connected pair while Barling and Philip were tougher customers, but central to all the movement was a sense of personal history drawn upon. These people had pasts, stories and secrets.

Cooper’s vivid, theatrical music was in expert hands. The Song Company’s Lawergren, Clive Birch (bass), Richard Black (tenor), Mark Donnelly (baritone), Anna Fraser (soprano) and Hannah Fraser (alto) were not only singers of the highest order but game participants in much of the action. Also under Peelman’s direction were the fine musicians Ollie Miller (cello), Lamorna Nightingale (flute) and Jason Noble (clarinet).

Unsworth created a world that was sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish, always surprising. It was a privilege to be there.