Love, death, politics …

Kryptonite, Sydney Theatre Company, September 16; Unholy Ghosts, Griffin Theatre Company, September 17; LoveBites, White Horse Productions with Hayes Theatre Co, September 18.

ON the face of it Kryptonite, Unholy Ghosts and LoveBites have nothing in common except taking place in a theatre, but seeing the three on consecutive evenings made me think of them as a group; as independent but connected pieces illuminating fundamental aspects of life’s journey. Love, death, politics …

Sue Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. That combo would sap anyone of their strength. Lian (Ursula Mills) and Dylan (Tim Walter) meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to keep herself. He’s a laidback Australian with a passion for surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. The massacre at Tiananmen Square is one of them; the rise of Australian business connections with China is another.

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s fertile ground for drama and highly pertinent as, in scenes played out of chronological order, we see how events in the wider world – the Asian world – affect Lian and Dylan personally and politically.

I found the role of Dylan a little underwritten, although perhaps I should see Kryptonite again to see if that’s fair – on opening night I was so swept away by the writing for Lian and Mills’s performance that it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Even at her shyest and most vulnerable Lian is strong, witty and very, very smart. No wonder she becomes a tough and successful operator, although with divided loyalties. Smith has written a mesmerising part and Mills is extraordinary. Geordie Brookman directed.

Unholy Ghosts isn’t so much a play as a group therapy session. I don’t mean this unkindly. I was absorbed by Campion Decent’s story, based on his own experience, but its power is that of personal, intimate revelation. I too have lost my parents, as people of a certain age do. It was only when my father died last year, eight years after the death of my mother, that I realised it was possible for a mature adult to feel orphaned. Decent’s story has the added pressure of parents dying within a short space of time, of them having been acrimoniously divorced, and the hovering presence of a long-dead sister. James Lugton, playing the Son, talks about his dying parents and talks to them, although some of the dialogue sounds suspiciously like people telling people they are close to things they should already know. Father (Robert Alexander) apparently terrified Son when he was a child but we must take that on faith, as the old man we meet is certainly irascible but rather a sweetie. Mother (Anna Volska) is a former actress and loads of fun.

The technical shortcomings include a rather awkward ending, but it was impossible not to be moved by the deeply felt discussion of death: how to face it, how to cope with it.

I saw LoveBites when it premiered at Sydney’s Seymour Centre in 2008. I reviewed it for The Australian and I started my piece this way:

“James Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.”

Obviously Millar is a few years older now, but I’m happy with the rest of the sentence and with the conclusion. It’s great to see a revival at the Hayes Theatre, very well cast with Kirby Burgess, Tyran Parke, Adele Parkinson and Shaun Rennie. Troy Alexander directed, there’s smart choreography by Ellen Simpson and designer Lauren Peters uses the small Hayes Theatre Co space astutely by using two revolves. Becky-Dee Trevenen does a pretty good job with the costumes, which the four performers have to change at speed to accommodate their very different characters. The band, under the musical direction of Steven Kreamer, is fine as far as it goes but the sound balance is out of whack and does a disservice to the singers.

But you know what? I’m just going to haul out my 2008 review. Change the names and the design concept and we’re all good.

From The Australian, June 23, 2008

JAMES Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.

Earlier this year Millar and Rutherford premiered The Hatpin, a large-scale historical musical based on a fascinating, and true, Australian story. We didn’t have to wait long for their next venture, the song cycle LoveBites. On the surface it may look like a far less ambitious project but this allusive, sophisticated and compressed art brings its own challenges.

Millar tells the story of six unrelated couples who are captured at the moment of falling in love. In the second half we see how it all turned out. There’s no scene-setting, apart from a series of beautifully chosen projections designed by Martin Kinnane, and no expository dialogue. Everything must be conveyed through song in the space of five or six minutes.

Within that tight timeframe Millar has created a set of persuasive individuals whose fate you want to know: Daniel and James from the poorly attended reading group; Madeleine and Poppy, whose courtship starts with the buying of a single flower; Annie and Kevin, whom disaster strikes in the form of a non-working loo.

At almost every point the detail feels vivid and truthful. It’s fun that Georgine has to pretend she’s an ace rock-climber when Peter first asks her out and that the heavenly Kevin works with deaf children. Obviously taken from life is the tryst between a famous film star and a flight attendant in an aircraft toilet, and yes, Ralph Fiennes is name-checked. Rutherford turns this into a breathy, torchy number, called The Captain’s Turned Off the Seatbelt Sign.

The composer gracefully lets the lyrics take centre stage but is sensitive to the needs and moods of each character. There’s wistful delicacy for Poppy in Give It to the Breeze and a buoyant, confident anthem for James and Daniel, Setting the Date. I was less convinced by the poo song that ends the show. It has an impeccable message but feels a bit try-hard compared with the rest of LoveBites.

On piano, Rutherford accompanies a hard-working cast of four, including Millar. The odd little Downstairs Theatre at the Seymour Centre has a hard, dead acoustic and even though they are miked there are times when Octavia Barron-Martin and Sarah Croser in particular sound under-powered. Millar and Tyler Burness fare much better but I hesitate to be definitive about the vocal qualities of any of them in these conditions. They play the show very well under Kim Hardwick’s nicely unobtrusive direction.

Sound quibbles aside, LoveBites is a very significant achievement. Music theatre aficionados take note: a team that can write Bob and Louise is one to treasure. The song captures a lifetime of longing, pain and quiet, ordinary desperation in just a few minutes, and I wasn’t the only one crying by the end.

Kryptonite, Wharf 1, ends October 18; Unholy Ghosts, The Stables, Sydney, ends September 20; LoveBites, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, ends October 5.

Tharp, Ratmansky, Robbins

American Ballet Theatre, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, September 5 and 6.

TWYLA Tharp was never one to make things easy for dancers or viewers. It would take many more than the two shows I saw in Brisbane to absorb even a fraction of the beauties and complexities of Bach Partita, but it took only one performance to prove the work’s worth. It’s a knockout.

Bach Partita is grand in scale, full of delicious detail and made with superb craftsmanship. There may be a great deal going on but no sense that the structure will not hold. It is a worthy partner for its score, Bach’s glorious Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin, and was played wonderfully from the pit by Charles Yang, a true collaborator with the dancers.

Tharp’s use of three principal couples, seven soloist couples and a corps of 16 women acknowledges the conventional hierarchy of ballet although Bach Partita is essentially a neo-classical piece with modern dance accents and attitudes seamlessly absorbed. The stage vibrated with energy as leading couples, soloists, flocks of corps women and secondary couples constantly changed the movement dynamics, attentive to those of the music.

Stella Abrera, Calvin Royal III, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in Bach Partita. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Stella Abrera, Calvin Royal III, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

The first cast was led by Misty Copeland and James Whiteside, Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes and Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III, each with a different mood (sensual, vibrant, dramatic) but also able to come together for some moments before spinning off on their own tangents. I loved Tharp’s use of the secondary couples and the corps, whose comings and goings add texture and intrigue to the world of the main couples.

The great glamour and individuality of the first cast wasn’t entirely replicated by the second cast, featuring April Giangeruso and Eric Tamm, Paloma Herrera and Joseph Gorak, and Isabella Boylston with Craig Salstein, although each was equal to the very testing technical demands of the ballet. But it was clear from seeing the first performance that Bach Partita also demands the mysterious but ultra-potent quality of distinctive stage presence. Herrera has it, of course; the others less so. That said, soloist Gorak is a particularly special dancer who has much ahead of him.

Bach Partita premiered in December 1983 and was not revived until last year. It is a mystery why that should be so, but it’s back and it provided a rich, stimulating opener to this triple bill.

Three Masterpieces was a program designed to give a snapshot of American Ballet Theatre’s nearly 75-year history and included one much earlier work than Bach Partita and one much newer. Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas was made in 2009 to solo piano pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, exquisitely played on stage by Barbara Bilach. The luminous music was interpreted by three couples whose interactions were playful, eloquent, romantic and occasionally something a little darker. There may have been no narrative but there were many stories. Although Ratmansky very much has his own voice as a choreographer Seven Sonatas is somewhat reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, which is no bad thing.

Joseph Gorak in Seven Sonatas. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Joseph Gorak in Seven Sonatas. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

The first cast included Abrera and Royal paired again (they look so silken together), Gorak with fellow soloist Christine Shevchenko and Sarah Lane with the miraculous Herman Cornejo. The second cast gave an opportunity to see principal Hee Seo (with Alexandre Hammoudi) in a much more relaxed mood than she had been for the Swan Lake opening and to see lovely corps members Luciana Paris and Arron Scott together. Principal Veronika Part was partnered with corps member Blaine Hoven, who had been such a worried-looking Benno in the Swan Lake premiere. Here, in his poetic responses, it was possible to see what ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie sees in him.

The program came to a happy close with Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944), in which three sailors on shore leave come to a bar to let off steam and flirt with passing women. Its boisterous innocence, buoyed by Leonard Bernstein’s zippy score, was appealing and, in these most difficult times, touching. Casting was top of the line all the way, but it is impossible not to single out Gomes in the second cast. He was funny, charming and incredibly charismatic. I was disappointed not to see him in Swan Lake – he’s a stunning Von Rothbart on DVD – but Bach Partita and Fancy Free were pretty good consolations.

Cory Stearns, Isabella Boylston, Daniil Simkon, Luciana Paris and James Whiteside in Fancy Free. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Cory Stearns, Isabella Boylston, Daniil Simkin, Luciana Paris and James Whiteside in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

It was fascinating to see the number of corps members given serious duties in both Swan Lake and Three Masterpieces. Well, they were principal dancer duties. A key reason is that ABT has only three ranks – principal, soloist and corps – so the best of the lowly ranked dancers get great opportunities. On the other hand it does appear difficult for them to enter the soloist ranks. At present ABT has 14 principal artists, only nine soloists and a corps of 60. The competition down there must be ferocious.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 8.

Odette to the power of four

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane. August 28, September 3 (matinee), September 3 (evening), September 4.

THE first act of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake ends as evening falls. Prince Siegfried has hurried away from his birthday party with no ceremony, disquieted by the realisation his carefree days are numbered. Because he is about to become king – this is no ordinary birthday; this is his coming of age – his mother has said he must marry.

In McKenzie’s version of this endlessly fascinating ballet there are some aspects of the narrative that are drawn too sketchily and details to quibble over, but after seeing four performances I have been won over by the central idea. With Zack Brown’s storybook designs providing a sumptuous setting, McKenzie creates a fantasy world in which myth can thrive, in which a sorcerer could cast a spell that turns a princess into a swan by day, and in which he can himself shape-shift between monster and suave nobleman.

Act III of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Act III of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

The atmospherics are nowhere better captured than at the Act I finale, in which the peasants who have been enjoying Siegfried’s festivities are the last to leave. Without the aristocracy present and bathed in Duane Schuler’s lustrous lighting design, they start gamboling more freely as the light fades, picking up wine goblets to take with them as they depart. I was reminded of Matisse’s painting La Danse, which celebrates the primal joy of communal celebration, and it is an image I will carry with me for a long time.

All this can only work, of course, if the dancers persuade one to enter their imaginative realm.

There was much to interest balletomanes. Misty Copeland made her debut as Odette and Paloma Herrera gave what was possibly her final performance in the role – the decision will come when Swan Lake is staged in ABT’s next season, which will be Herrera’s last (she recently announced her impending retirement). Newly minted principal artist Isabella Boylston appeared (unfortunately I missed her and Daniil Simkin, but people raved; I also missed Veronika Part). Martine Van Hamel, former ABT great, played the Queen Mother at some performances and radiated command. Recently elevated soloist Joseph Gorak showed why he has been plucked from the corps and two men still in the corps, Arron Scott and Calvin Royal III caught the eye. Yet another corps member, Thomas Forster, made a saturnine, panther-like Von Rothbart in several casts.

Three conductors shared Swan Lake duty over the nine performances, two of them with Australian connections. Music director Ormsby Wilkins was born in Sydney and was The Australian Ballet’s resident conductor in 1982, thereafter being a frequent guest conductor while making his career in the northern hemisphere. ABT principal conductor Charles Barker was the AB’s music director from 1997 to 2001 and is married to former AB principal dancer Miranda Coney. Each directed the Queensland Symphony Orchestra quite differently, and each time the QSO acquitted itself handsomely.

The ABT season, the company’s first in Australia, unfortunately got off to a lacklustre start. There may have been extenuating factors. David Hallberg was to have partnered Hee Seo on the August 28 opening night but withdrew relatively late to have ankle surgery. Cory Stearns was moved in. Whether it was jetlag or just one of those unfathomable matters of chemistry who knows, but Seo and Stearns failed to catch fire. Seo has many beautiful qualities as a dancer but looked uninvolved, Stearns operated on one supercilious level and the relationship was unprofitable. Alexandre Hammoudi’s Act III Von Rothbart was therefore left to provide the fireworks, and if Von Rothbart is the highlight of the show there’s a problem. The corps was untidy too. Not a great night all round.

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

I returned a week later to see Copeland’s historic debut as Odette. Tucked away at a Wednesday Brisbane matinee she gave an impassioned performance that brought the house to its feet. Her Odette was intense, warm and dramatically alert; her Odile sparkled seductively. It was a wonderful first performance. Indeed, it was the only one to bring tears to my eyes, even though her Siegfried, Hammoudi (also making a debut) was off form technically. Still, he partnered beautifully, and that ultimately mattered most.

That evening (September 3) Gillian Murphy gave an entirely different performance, imbued with the deep, deep understanding she has absorbed over many years. She, more than any other I have seen, evoked the eternal nature of Odette’s predicament. She was captured aeons ago and there is nothing but sorrow in her future. All those years in Von Rothbart’s thrall have altered her irrevocably. Murphy’s Odile was equally distinctive – fascinatingly hard, cold and vindictive. James Whiteside’s all-American boy Siegfried (divinely danced, with a blinder of an Act I solo) didn’t stand a chance.

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

On September 4 Paloma Herrera was stupendous, filling the stage with old-world glamour of a kind exceptionally rare these days. She took much of Odette’s choreography incredibly slowly – David LaMarche conducted – and claimed rapt attention at every instant. She commanded the stage more as a distillation of Swan Lake’s themes than the embodiment of two opposing characters. She seemed somehow abstract, yet entirely mesmerising. Odile has a balance on pointe in arabesque that often lasts only a split second; Herrera held it for an age: poised, implacable, timeless. Herrera has been a principal with ABT for 20 years and looks as if she could dance another 20. If it turns out this was her swan song, if you will, it was a great one.

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake for ABT

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake for ABT

Herrera was partnered by Stearns, whose dancing was as handsome and velvety as it had been on opening night but this time he was engaged and vivid. He looked an entirely different man. I’m sometimes asked how I can go to the same show again and again. It’s because it’s never the same show, not ever.

You saw it here first

American Ballet Theatre, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, September 3

IT’S always a big deal when a dancer makes her debut as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake. It’s a bigger deal when that dancer is Misty Copeland, the first African-American in American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history to be cast as Odette. It shouldn’t be so, but it is.

Copeland, 31, has waited a long time for this. She has earned it, and yesterday afternoon claimed it.

Alexandre Hammoudi and Misty Copeland in Swan Lake, Act III. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Alexandre Hammoudi and Misty Copeland in Swan Lake, Act III. Photo: Darren Thomas

No matter what the role, deep within every dancer’s body are aspects of the story she is telling. They are an inextricable part of it. Copeland is tiny, but strong and womanly. She is not frail. Her Odette, then, instantly reminds one that swans are birds of considerable power as well as grace. Although she has been made a captive she is not a victim. We are reminded, too, that Odette is not just a swan. She is the Swan Queen.

Copeland’s opening scene (apart from the brief prologue showing how Von Rothbart tricked Odette and enslaved her) was therefore individual, although a little too largely played on this first outing. But in her magisterial arms and shoulders, so evocative of a magnificent creature’s wingspan, there is much promise. Already one could see Copeland has a clear and personal idea of Odette’s character.

The pas de deux that follows was ravishing. The first slow section was expressed as if one long tender sigh and the rapport between Copeland and her Prince Siegfried – Alexandre Hammoudi, a fellow soloist also making a role debut – was electrifying. The two looked wonderful together, with perhaps just one proviso: Hammoudi is tall and Copeland is not, so even when she is on pointe she has to tilt her head back to make the all-important eye contact, thus shortening the line of her neck and making it less lovely.

Hammoudi undoubtedly would have wanted to dance more cleanly than he did. Although his partnering and his connection with Copeland were tremendously satisfying and while he created a legible, appealing character, his finishes were often blurred and his line lacked drama.

Copeland, on the other hand, etched so many moments vividly and passionately, whether filling all the music with plush legato phrasing or commanding attention with sharp accents. At the end of the second act, for instance, Odette joins the flock of swan maidens and, standing centre stage, does a series of swift rising and subsiding steps, pushing away strongly from the ground and beating her feet in the air. She is a creature of both earth and sky. (When Odette meets Siegfried she may be in human form but of a most provisional kind.) Then Odette freezes for a moment on pointe, one leg pulled up at an angle with foot touching the knee. She may be still, but is highly alert. Copeland was arresting here: it was the kind of punctuation that made the audience hungry for what came next. There were many other such pleasures.

Given Copeland’s gifts, Odile would seem to hold no terrors for her. Indeed not. Her dominion was amply demonstrated in a technical sense, but it was the theatrical detail that was so enjoyable – the avian stretches of the neck, the seductive expression, the sparkling eyes and, to top it off, the brief but super-sexy stroking of Siegfried’s chest that clinched the deal between them.

A short time later Copeland reappeared as Odette, as in Kevin McKenzie’s production the action shifts immediately from Act III’s ballroom to the lakeside Act IV. At this season’s opening night Iast week I found the denouement far too rushed, but Copeland and Hammoudi seemed to stretch time and were profoundly moving as Siegfried desperately sought Odette’s forgiveness for his betrayal of her. The audience stood and cheered lustily, and rightly.

This was unfortunately Copeland’s only Odette in Brisbane but it was a piece of ballet history all the same, and enough to make the heart burst with joy.

This performance, it must be pointed out, happened on a weekday matinee in Brisbane. American Ballet Theatre history may have been in the making, but it was a long, long way from America. Tucked away, you might think. Certainly the audience seemed largely unaware of the occasion. And perhaps you could argue that ensured people were thrilled by the performance, not the symbolism – not such a bad thing.

Speaking to me the next day Copeland acknowledged it was easier to make such an important debut away from the eyes of the New York critics, as she did with Coppelia. Now she’s got a Swan Lake under the belt before she performs the role – which one hopes she does soon – before her home audience and her loved ones.

I would mention, too, that the sublime Alina Cojocaru also had an out-of-hemisphere debut as Odette, in Sydney when the Royal Ballet visited in 2002. It’s a performance I’ve never forgotten, as I won’t Copeland’s.

Copeland appears in the ABT’s second Brisbane program, Three Masterpieces, in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita. And before that, tonight in the past de trois in the final Swan Lake.

Heart untouched; soul unshaken

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, August 28.

KEVIN McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre is a medieval fairy tale of transformation. A woman is turned into a swan. An evil lake-dwelling sorcerer becomes a devastatingly attractive nobleman in the blink of an eye. Two lovers die by drowning but moments later, in an apotheosis, suffuse the air with their benevolence.

These things are important elements, but are a kind of outer skin. They tell us what is happening, but not why. What of the underlying purpose – the desperate love and profound act of forgiveness that bring Swan Lake into the human realm, give it immediacy and make it so moving? They are not to be encountered here, or at least not at ABT’s opening night performance, which was filled with admirable dancing but empty of emotional resonance.

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake

It is possible things may have been different if the originally announced opening night Prince Siegfried, David Hallberg, had not had to withdraw due to injury. Perhaps he draws more from the reticent Hee Seo than did his replacement, Cory Stearns, on the evening of ABT’s Australian premiere. Stearns is a fine classicist with aristocratic lineaments and the plushest of plies, but he and Seo lack chemistry. The approaches each took didn’t catch fire when put together.

Stearns conveyed ennui rather than melancholy and superciliousness rather than noblesse oblige, qualities that did not entirely recommend him, even though his handsome carriage, light landings and princely line made a strong impression. Seo’s theatrically muted Odette was beautifully shaped in the physical sense but there was little idea of what she wanted, or did not. After meeting Siegfried, of whom she seemed not terribly afraid, Seo rarely looked at him, rather gazing down demurely or looking up to the heavens piously. Her eyes and face were not expressive and with her feelings a closed book, the loveliness of her shapes and exquisite articulation went for far less than they might and a couple of fumbles acquired more prominence than they should have.

It was therefore not entirely surprising in the third act to find Odette’s doppelganger Odile short on charisma. Seo wore a black tutu and a wide smile but the spark stopped there. There were no fireworks to be had, just a dutiful set of unadorned fouettes.

McKenzie opens the ballet with a prologue showing Odette’s capture by Von Rothbart. In Zack Brown’s otherwise unimpeachable designs, the sorceror looks like the Incredible Hulk (poor Roman Zhurbin on opening night) but tricks Odette by assuming exceptionally alluring human form (in this guise he was played by lucky Alexandre Hammoudi). The latter’s appearance in Act III is thus signaled. He is the super-confident, ultra-seductive gatecrasher who will bring disaster in the form of Odile. It’s a gift of a part as Von Rothbart sexily reels in all the princesses who are being paraded for Siegfried’s approval and makes the Queen Mother not a little hot and bothered. It probably shouldn’t have been the highlight of the evening, but it was.

Hammoudi, a soloist, smouldered enjoyably although he doesn’t quite have the impact of principal Marcelo Gomes in the role (could anyone?). Gomes is in Brisbane but not cast in Swan Lake it would appear. Brisbane has been denied a great pleasure. (Gomes is scheduled to appear in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita on Friday and Saturday evenings in the Three Masterpieces triple bill and in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free at Saturday’s matinee.)

The third act of Swan Lake slides into a brutally truncated fourth act – a decision that unbalances the ballet badly, giving more weight to the first and third acts set at court than to the white second and fourth acts at the lake. We see something of the swans’ anguish at their queen’s betrayal but the promise of tragedy explored and amplified is only minimally delivered. Instead the action moves briskly to Odette’s death leap and then Siegfried’s (Stearns went for broke here), followed by dawn, Von Rothbart’s broken spell, and Odette and Siegfried as lovers forever in the afterlife. Curtain. Heart untouched; soul unshaken.

It was a treat to see ABT’s music director Ormsby Wilkins authoritatively at the helm of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in what was something of a homecoming for the Sydney-born conductor. He will lead other performances in this short season, in which I hope different partnerships I am to see – Misty Copeland with Hammoudi, Gillian Murphy with James Whiteside and Paloma Herrera with Stearns – offer greater passion and nourishment.

Swan Lake ends Thursday. Three Masterpieces, ballets by Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky and Jerome Robbins has four performances from Friday.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 1.

The persistence of memory

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 27

HOFESH Shechter’s Sun has toured extensively since its world premiere at the Melbourne Festival about 10 months ago. It’s now briefly in Sydney for five performances only. I had quite a few reservations on first seeing Sun – my initial review is below – and some remain, but I liked it significantly better last night than last year. The piece looks more coherent, seems less jokey and feels much angrier.

Sun cr Jess Bialek 14

Returning to a piece after a fair amount of time is always an interesting challenge. How accurate is one’s memory? How much has the choreographer put in or left out as the work has travelled and evolved? What difference in one’s perception is due to relatively small changes in attack, duration, emphasis? Does the omission of a couple of labored touches that last only a few moments (dummy hanging from a noose; a woman leaping up in the audience screaming) help more than you might think?

Sun is still remarkably plain about its politics and its indictment of colonialism and its fruits. The message is blunt and is done in a way that’s not so very new: assailing you, the audience member, for being in the comfortable position of being able to attend this performance. But it felt to me as if Shechter’s concerns were being expressed with a higher level of seriousness. Sun seemed a whole lot tougher, impassioned and therefore more affecting and effective.

Shechter’s choreography is rooted in muscular folk dance but there are fragments of many other movement languages woven into a rich tapestry by the company’s extraordinary dancers. They were mesmerising last October and remain so.

One more thing: there were no free earplugs in sight. Yes, the music is loud, but honestly, not that loud. Good to see the affectation – or was it nanny-state overkill? – dropped.

Sun ends Saturday.

And from last year:

SUN finds Hofesh Shechter in a jocund mood, or what passes for it. The title implies warmth and light. Facsimile sheep wander and gambol. Every now and again a woman leaps up from the front row of the auditorium to utter a brief, piercing scream and then sits right back down again. One of Irving Berlin’s most swoon-worthy songs keeps punctuating Shechter’s thumping score and I swear there is twerking too, for just a moment (although not to Berlin).

Of course where there is sun there is shadow. The announcement at Sun’s outset that “everything will be just fine” is contradicted at every turn and the apparently playful takes on a sinister light. The Berlin song is Let’s Face the Music and Dance; the sheep are occasionally joined by a wolf. There’s even a snippet of Wagner in the score, an acid touch from the Israeli-born choreographer. African colonialism gets a moment too, along with flashes of contemporary urban behaviour. If Sun has a theme it is this: lambs to the slaughter.

The imagery is obvious, heavy-handed and in the case of the sheep, tediously over-extended. Shechter’s surrealist collage pulls together an eclectic range of references to political and social oppression but there’s no real weight there. Ideas clearly important to Shechter have a trivial air. And if I could institute a ban on strenuous fake laughing in dance works it would take place from this instant.

It’s a different story with the dance itself, which forms a fast-flowing, often turbulent river on which this other material bobs about. As with his breakout hit Political Mother (2010), Shechter finds power and purpose in the group although it is rare to see any physical contact. He understands that togetherness and separateness co-exist inextricably and from this fact much of life’s tumult emerges.

Sun, which is having its world premiere at the Melbourne Festival, is performed almost entirely in unison, the movement often rooted to the spot or covering little ground. Gestures are forceful and highly eloquent and there is frequent repetition, within a section of dance and within the overall structure. All this is done to a loud, foursquare beat – the kind of firm, regular beat that speaks to the blood.

Ritual and history are embedded in Shechter’s choreography. Fragments of folk and social dance from all sorts of places flicker and are then integrated back into the whole, although sometimes, as near the end of Sun, they harden into something less benign. The dance and these superb dancers tell the story.

By the way, the offer of earplugs at Sun is unnecessary as the music really isn’t that loud. It could have been much more over-powering, something I very much wished for Sun as a whole.

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.