Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid

Sydney Festival, January 8.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale on which Meow Meow has based her new show is typically gruesome: an innocent young creature gladly endures unspeakable agonies in order to be close to Prince Right, only to see him promptly marry someone else. In an interview in November 2011, with Steve Dow, she said that “The Little Mermaid is about sexual punishment, in many ways for love”. She has all her power taken away “in order to have love”.

Meow Meow, the famously passive-aggressive – and very powerful – kamikaze cabaret artist, might be expected to take this badly. Indeed, she recently told The Australian’s Matthew Westwood that the story “is very resonant for me as it’s a perceived fate or destiny — so often imposed on the tragic female diva — that I do not want.”

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Meow Meow in Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid. Photo: Prudence Upton

So what’s up when she tells her audience that Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid is a show about happiness? She means it, too, in a Meow Meow kind of way. This Little Mermaid takes a scalpel to the original, peels away the layers and peers into the dark. Obsession, self-abnegation and physical mutilation get their moment as Meow Meow prowls, twirls and hobbles her way through the minefield that is romantic love and sticky sex, hoping for a shot at fulfillment.

As always, Meow Meow may be observed on multiple levels simultaneously. The diva’s fabled ability to seduce an audience with fragile neediness and control it with an adamantine will is in full bloom and those expecting Meow Meow to co-opt audience members, crowd surf, bitch about the management and sing like a voluptuous fallen angel won’t be disappointed. On the surface there is much that’s familiar, even cosy. The real action is in the knotty mess of emotions, impulses and desires underneath, particularly in the songs, of which many are new. Listen carefully.

Meow Meow isn’t afraid to tread the primrose path, as in Megan Washington’s gorgeous Making Love: “I don’t mind strings, you can leave them attached.” The opening song, Black’s Wonderful Life, speaks of magic everywhere but loneliness too. Meow Meow’s off-sider in this show, Chris Ryan, gives a piercing account of Schubert’s Am Meer (By the Sea), in which tears of love prove fatal. As I say, listen carefully.

Meow Meow’s ending is a happy one because she chooses it to be so. She may be tossed and buffeted in the sea of love but by god she’s not going to drown. In a funny way Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid has a happy ending too. Our wishy-washy heroine, having displayed her shining goodness, is given a shot at immortality. If that counts as happiness.

Our Meow Meow is made of sterner and earthier stuff of course, but it was nevertheless possible to discern in her show the hint of a gentler, kinder Meow. Perhaps for now.

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, January 28-February 14; Perth International Arts Festival, February 24-28.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 11.

Sydney Theatre Awards 2015

AT the Sydney Theatre Awards no one need ever fear a journalist asking them “who are you wearing” or indeed have any need of a stylist. There is no red carpet at the Paddington RSL, there are no TV cameras. The proceedings could be described as low-key, or even a little bit daggy if you wish, but it is always such a happy night. Yes, theatre practitioners are in competition with one another for our awards – I’m one of the Sydney critics whose votes determine the winners – but there is great warmth and good will in the room. As Belvoir’s new artistic director Eamon Flack said on Monday night when the awards for 2015 were announced, this is the one occasion when the industry gets together.

It’s also an occasion on which the tables are turned, slightly, on the critics, as we troop onstage to introduce presenters, ask those present to remember colleagues who have died in the past year, announce special awards and pay tribute to all the theatre workers who never get awards but whose backroom toil is essential. We’re always frightfully nervous about getting up in front of a room of theatre professionals but they are very kind.

This year’s highlights included passionate state-of-the-arts speeches from Flack and from Griffin’s artistic director Lee Lewis; a fantastically funny version of My Favourite Things specially written for the occasion by Dash Kruck and performed by him; a gorgeously heartfelt acceptance speech from James Millar when he won best supporting actor in a musical for his Miss Trunchbull in Matilda; Esther Hannaford’s performance of I’ll Hold On from the Nick Enright-Max Lambert musical Miracle City that got the audience to its feet (Lambert was on piano); and the bright presence of the four little girls – Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgie Taplin and Bella Thomas – who shared the role of Matilda and received our Special Achievement Award.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was accepted by Christine Dunstan, a woman steeped in many aspects of theatre for more than 50 years since starting her working life as an assistant stage manager. She founded her production company CDP in 1993 and it has been particularly active in making high-quality theatre for children. (CDP won the 2015 Sydney Theatre Award for best production for children for The 52-Storey Treehouse.) CDP also takes productions to many regional Australian centres and tours productions internationally.

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Belvoir’s Ivanov: Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell

2015 SYDNEY THEATRE AWARD WINNERS

BEST MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Ivanov (Belvoir)

BEST INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Of Mice and Men (Sport for Jove and Seymour Centre)

BEST DIRECTION OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Eamon Flack (Ivanov)

BEST DIRECTION OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Iain Sinclair (Of Mice and Men)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Eryn Jean Norvill (Suddenly Last Summer)

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Hugo Weaving (Endgame)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Kate Cole (Grounded)

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Thomas Campbell (Misterman)

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Blazey Best (Ivanov)

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

John Howard (Ivanov)

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Taylor Ferguson (Good Works)

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

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James Bell, centre. Photo: Rupert Reid

James Bell (The Aliens)

BEST STAGE DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Nick Schlieper (Endgame)

BEST STAGE DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Michael Hankin (Of Mice and Men)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Alice Babidge (Suddenly Last Summer)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Angela White (Heathers)

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Paul Jackson (Love and Information)

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Hartley TA Kemp (Misterman)

BEST SCORE OR SOUND DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

The Sweats (Love and Information)

BEST SCORE OR SOUND DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Nate Edmondson (Misterman)

BEST NEW AUSTRALIAN WORK

The Bleeding Tree (Angus Cerini)

BEST NEWCOMER

Lauren McKenna (Heathers)

BEST ENSEMBLE CAST

After Dinner (Sydney Theatre Company)

BEST PRODUCTION OF A MAINSTREAM MUSICAL

Matilda (The Royal Shakespeare Company, Louise Withers, Michael Coppel and Michael Watt)

BEST PRODUCTION OF AN INDEPENDENT MUSICAL

Violet (Blue Saint Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co)

BEST DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL

Mitchell Butel (Violet)

JUDITH JOHNSON AWARD FOR BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

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Amy Lepahmer. Photo: James Morgan

Amy Lehpamer (The Sound of Music)

JUDITH JOHNSON AWARD FOR BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

Hayden Tee (Les Miserables)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL

Elise McCann (Matilda)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL

James Millar (Matilda)

BEST MUSICAL DIRECTION

Lucy Bermingham (Violet)

BEST CABARET PRODUCTION

Josie Lane (Asian Provocateur)

BEST PRODUCTION FOR CHILDREN

The 52-Storey Treehouse (CDP)

BEST PRODUCTION FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

War Crimes (ATYP)

SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin, Bella Thomas (Matilda)

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Molly Barwick with Elise McCann in Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Christine Dunstan

Michelle’s Story, a film by Meryl Tankard

In 2011 the Brisbane Festival program included the celebrated Belgian company Les Ballets C de la B with Out of Context – for Pina, a tribute to the towering choreographer who died in 2009. Australian dancer Michelle Ryan was invited by artistic director Alain Platel to appear as a guest artist and although she had formerly had an important career with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre, Ryan was surprised to be asked.

She was also tentative about accepting. Ryan had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000 and her mobility was affected. She told Platel she was afraid she might fall. He suggested that if that were to happen, she should just get up again. It was the perfect answer; she did the show. Despite her restrictions and her fears, Ryan was still a dancer.

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Michelle Ryan with Vincent Crowley in Michelle’s Story

Ryan recalls the conversation she had with Platel in a half-hour documentary, Michelle’s Story, which was directed by Tankard and shown this week in competition at the 25th Flickerfest International Short Film Festival (Michelle’s Story was also shown at last year’s Adelaide Film Festival where it was judged the most popular short.) The Platel anecdote is a brief one but particularly telling. Ryan speaks in a conversational tone but a tough subtext is there: the anxiety that accompanies a serious illness, the grief that comes with the loss of physical prowess and the level of determination required to keep going.

Despite setbacks that would challenge anyone, Ryan, in her mid-40s, has not retreated. She is now artistic director at Adelaide’s Restless Dance Theatre, a company that includes dancers with varied physical and intellectual abilities.

Ryan was only 30 when she received her diagnosis – a terrible blow for any young woman but particularly cruel for a dancer. Her personal life suffered too. We see footage of Ryan carefully making her way towards her husband-to-be and their wedding celebrant, she looking radiant despite her physical insecurity. The marriage, to fellow ADT member Gavin Webber, didn’t survive and it is a measure of Tankard’s sympathetic understanding that he was prepared to appear on camera.

The blunt facts – exceptionally beautiful and talented young dancer loses the use of her legs and also loses her husband – are handled with great tact. While Ryan’s illness is the event around which Michelle’s Story revolves, Tankard has made from it a beautifully restrained and understated film about resilience.

Michelle’s Story will be shown during Flickerfest’s national tour (until May) and screens on ABC TV in early March.

Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich

Sydney Opera House, January 9.

In 1999 Jack Anderson reviewed Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich for The New York Times, reporting that Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker had “recently announced her wish to retire it from her repertory”. Fortunately she changed her mind. Fase has not only continued to be seen, but seen with De Keersmaeker in it.

She made the work in the early 1980s, in collaboration with Michèle Anne De Mey and Jennifer Everhard, when she was little more than 20. It premiered in Brussels in March 1982 with De Keersmaeker and De Mey as the performers and almost instantly made De Keersmaeker’s name as an important, influential contemporary dance artist. In its first three years it was much revived and in recent years has been shown frequently: Los Angeles in November of last year, New York in July 2014 and London in July 2012, each time with Tale Dolven, the dancer seen with De Keersmaeker at the Sydney Festival. Dolven was born in 1981, the year Fase was nearing completion; De Keersmaeker is now 55.

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De Keersmaeker and De Mey in Piano Phase. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Fase is highly formal and abstract, requiring extraordinary levels of precision and stamina. It may at first blush look cool – chilly, even – and austere but its dizzying wealth of detail and the illumination of Steve Reich’s music make Fase an incredibly rich, even voluptuous experience. It’s a demanding work to be sure, giving the audience a substantial workout too. So often watching is a passive business. With Fase, alertness and concentration are required and the rewards are great.

The choreographic material appears to be simple and there is ample time during many, many repetitions and small variations to observe its qualities and relationship with the music. In the first section, Piano Phase, the emphasis is on progression in a straight line while pivoting, walking and raising and lowering the arms, which also loosely wrap around the body. In Come Out, performed seated, the head is touched with the arm at an angle, there are bends from the waist and an arm stretches out strongly. Violin Phase is a solo for De Keersmaeker in which circling is the predominant motif and in the short, snappy Clapping Music the duo repeatedly rises sharply en pointe in sneakers with knees bent.

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By themselves these things have no meaning, even though they may spark ideas and responses. They do, crucially, impel close listening to the music and its almost imperceptible changes. At many times the dancers are in unison; at others move in and out of phase with one another. They may stop abruptly then start again. There are tiny gestures set against large ones, and so on. You note how the apparently plain, unassertive dresses worn in the first and third movements have a swirling life of their own (and, in Violin Phase, how the dress allows De Keersmaeker to be very flirty and folky as she lifts its to reveal shiningly white knickers). You also note the small variations in reaction time of the dancers and their different movement quality. In her mid-30s, Dolmen is a strong, juicy presence; De Keersmaeker in her mid-50s is more wiry, more intense.

While there are new things to apprehend in each individual moment, it’s also necessary to pay attention to the overall arc of a piece in which music, movement and design work together in a highly sophisticated way.

In Piano Phase the dancers’ shadows merge and separate, multiplying the performers in ghostly fashion. In Come Out the menacing mood created by overhead lights (lighting by Mark Schwentner) is amplified by the workmanlike shirts and trousers the women wear, so different from the pale, feminine frocks of Piano Phase.

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De Keersmaeker (left) and Dolven in Come Out. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The movement here is no less repetitive or contained than in Piano Phase but somehow more sombre. Reich’s distortion of a man’s voice – it is a repetition of the words “come out” until they are no longer recognisable – is chilling and there is an intimation of forced labour and a desire for contact. The bend from the waist would seem to suggest anguish and the outstretched arm a yearning for touch that is never fulfilled. (Others may well take away a quite different impression.) Clapping Music, with lighting by Remon Fromont, uses the same trousers-and-shirt combo but in this context they take on a sporty air, even as one can see a connection with Come Out via the lighting.

And to think this was only De Keersmaeker’s second work. Astounding. It’s no surprise that Fase has become a modern classic: 34 years after its creation, it feels timeless. There are just three Sydney Festival performances, the last of them tonight (January 11).

De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, also performs a relatively new work at the festival, Vortex Temporum, made in 2013, in collaboration with the contemporary music group Ictus. It opens on January 15 at Carriageworks.

The festive season

THE last crumbs of Christmas cake have scarcely been brushed from the lips, the last Champagne bottles are not yet in the recycling bin and New Year’s resolutions are still full of shiny potential. ‘Tis the season for rest, recreation, family and friends. Or, for those of us whose calendars are ruled not by the earth’s rotation or religious observance but by cultural activity, it’s festival time.

And I don’t just mean in my hometown Sydney, where the annual festival – this year celebrating its 40th birthday – starts on January 7 and runs until Australia Day. The Perth International Arts Festival, with new artistic director Wendy Martin at the helm, starts on February 12 and goes into early March, overlapping with the Adelaide Festival, starting on February 26 and ending March 14.

I include the New Zealand Festival too – February 26-March 20 – because it’s about as easy for an east coast resident to get to Wellington as Perth (less flying time; more queuing for airport security).

That’s the first quarter of the year accounted for, right there.

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Paul White in Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken, to be performed at the Adelaide Festival. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

There is, of course, a great deal of non-festival activity in every big Australian city. In Sydney, for instance, Sydney Theatre Company ran King Lear through the Christmas period and it closes on January 9. Belvoir opened Jasper Jones today, January 6, Melbourne Theatre Company hosts the transfer of Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black from January 16 and so on. These companies provide year-round nourishment but the festival experience is something else: concentrated, distinctive and heightened.

Yes, there can be an element of déjà vu as old favourites return (I’m thinking Batsheva Dance Company, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and director Robert Wilson, for instance) but there are, almost by definition, performances and performers one would never otherwise see: The Giants in Perth last year and the Berliner Ensemble with The Threepenny Opera in 2013; Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 (2013) and the heart-stoppingly wonderful Trisha Brown retrospective (2014) in Melbourne; and Semele Walk (2013) and The Black Rider (2005) in Sydney to name very, very few.

Go further back and there’s Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota, which I saw in Perth but it also went to Adelaide, in 1998, and in the same year Belvoir’s theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Sydney and Perth). All these things are big and mostly far-from-mainstream events that wouldn’t be likely to happen outside a festival. In 2016 the equivalents are Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Woyzeck in Sydney (Robert Wilson is a co-creator), William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour in Perth and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and The James Plays Trilogy in Adelaide.

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Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, to be performed at the Sydney Festival. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The very small equally finds a festival footing. Leafing through some old programs I am reminded that in 2006 About an Hour, the powerfully affecting and effective (and very affordable) mini-festival within the Sydney Festival was deliciously devoted to contemporary dance from Australia and abroad, although there was one ring-in in the form of The Tiger Lillies, the anarchic British punk cabaret outfit who, as it happens, return to Sydney this year.

Events whack up against one another in fruitful or clashing combinations. There’s something about a festival that encourages viewers to take risks – risks our hometown arts organisations might perhaps eye a little enviously. But one has to remember that the festival material brought in from abroad comes to us well-honed, sometimes over years, and has survived the brutal winnowing process all new work goes through. So in some ways it’s not at all risky while having the potential to broaden the experience and perspective of viewers.

On a pragmatic level, this first-quarter cluster of festivals enables some sharing of events, although there are fewer double-ups than you might think. The cities are far-flung enough that only the truly dedicated audience member will travel to each, but are sufficiently in the same neck of the woods for an international artist wanting to maximise travel time. This year Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, The Tiger Lillies, theatre pieces The Object Lesson, The Events and Every Brilliant Thing, circus spectacular La Verità and new cabaret show Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid will be seen in more than one festival city. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! was seen in several (non-festival) Australian cities leading up to the Sydney appearances.

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The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Perth International Arts Festival. Photo: Martin Tulinius

A comparison of programs reveals some very tempting changes of repertoire in two cases. For instance, in Sydney The Tiger Lillies gives us The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies while Perth is treated to The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, a mind-boggling prospect. I don’t think I can get to it unfortunately, which is a huge, huge regret.

I will, though, move heaven, earth and frequent flyer points to get to Wellington for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch where, from March 17-20, the company performs a double bill of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring. Bausch’s Rite is considered one of the very best of the more than 100 (and counting) choreographies to one of the greatest of dance scores.

But before that, on March 9, the company performs the full-length Nelken (Carnations) in Adelaide. As a bonus, it offer the rare chance to see one of Australia’s most inspiring contemporary dancers, Paul White, who has been a member of the company since 2012. There are two other Australians with Pina Bausch – Julie Shanahan, a member since 1988, and Michael Carter, who joined last year.

An incomplete list of things I’d like to see, in no particular order:

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (Adelaide, Wellington)

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! (Sydney)

Alan Cumminh Sappy

Actor and singer Alan Cumming 

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sydney and Perth festivals; also Melbourne and Auckland)

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich and Vortex Temporum (Sydney)

Woyzeck (Sydney)

The Rabbits (Sydney; premiered in Perth in 2015)

The Tiger Lillies (Sydney, Perth)

The James Plays Trilogy (Adelaide)

Apocrifu, by Sidi Larbi Cherkoui

Every Brilliant Thing (Perth, Wellington)

Simon Stone and Belvoir’s The Wild Duck (Perth

Theatre artists of the year (and my inaugural Artist of the Year)

One person’s best is another person’s “I can’t believe we saw the same show”. Which if course we never do or can. We each bring to the theatre our history, our personality, our experiences, our experience, our tastes and our bête noirs.

So why these lists at year’s end? Well, they serve as reminders of ephemeral arts, they pay tribute to artists and they bring together things we saw through the year as individual events. Their power accumulates when seen collectively. They are proof of the richness of our cultural life.

Unlike my 2015 year in dance, which I posted on Tuesday, most of the theatre I saw this year – including musical theatre of all kinds – was in Sydney. There were also a couple of forays to New York, where much enjoyment was had.

Therefore, like my dance list, the following things are simply those productions and people I was really, really glad I saw.

By the way, for the first time ever I have decided to nominate an Artist of the Year. Scroll down to the bottom if you’d like to know right now.

2015 AT HOME

This year in Sydney the independent sector kept bobbing up with little gems. How producers and performers keep doing it with such limited resources is one of the great mysteries of life. Bless them one and all for their commitment. I hesitate to say poverty appears to be good for them but they are super-resourceful and awe-inspiringly creative. It was an honour to have seen Sport for Jove’s Of Mice and Men, Siren Theatre Co’s Misterman, Outhouse Theatre Company and Red Line Productions’ The Aliens, Oriel Group with Red Line Productions’ I Am My Own Wife, and Apocalyse Theatre Company’s The Dapto Chaser, seen at Griffin.

It was, you may have noticed, a pretty blokey time in the indie world (although Kate Gaul directed the wonderful Misterman). This became a subject of much discussion in 2015 and there are serious, sensible, inclusive plans to increase diversity right across the board in the live performance and screen arts.

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Thomas Campbell in Misterman, directed by Kate Gaul

That said, I was incredibly heartened to see standout contributions from some the small number of women writers and directors in this year’s theatre. Kate Gaul, as mentioned; Mary Rachel Brown, who wrote one of my year’s great favourites, The Dapto Chaser; Imara Savage at the helm of Sydney Theatre Company’s gloriously funny-sad After Dinner, by Andrew Bovell; playwright Lally Katz’s The Cat, half of the silly and sweet Belvoir Downstairs double bill The Dog/The Cat (Brendan Cowell wrote The Dog); and the miraculous American playwright Annie Baker (The Aliens).

I saw more than 200 shows this year in dance, theatre, musical theatre, opera, cabaret and circus and as I pondered the non-dance list it became clear that for me, it was the Year of the Woman as far as performance was concerned. Yes, I loved Ewen Leslie in Belvoir’s all-round engrossing Ivanov; Josh McConville in After Dinner – god that man is good; American tenor and rapidly rising superstar Michael Fabiano in Faust for Opera Australia; Simon Gleeson in Les Misérables; James Millar as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda; and, without exception, all the men in the indie shows I listed above (they had very, very strong casts).

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Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie in Ivanov. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nevertheless, my memories glow just that bit more brightly when I think about the following …

I had just the best time at Matilda. Four times, in fact, as I went to see each of the girls in the title role. My admiration for Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin and Bella Thomas knows no bounds. Each carries the show on very young shoulders. I had tears in my eyes at the end each time of this life-affirming show and may well pop down to Melbourne to do it all over again. Matilda starts there in March at the lovely Princess, which will suit it very well indeed. And there will be four new Matildas. A duty to go, really.

Also in Matilda, the heart-rendingly beautiful Elise McCann as Miss Honey.

And what about Amy Lehpamer? She’s unimprovable in The Sound of Music as she was earlier in the year for a much smaller audience as Tracy Lord in High Society at the Hayes in Sydney. Speaking of High Society, I was bowled over by Virginia Gay as Liz. She gave one of the most accomplished, nuanced and touching performances of the year and gave a master class in how to sing Cole Porter. Also at the Hayes, actor Mitchell Butel’s impressive debut directorial outing – the musical Violet – was crowned by Samantha Dodemaide’s blazingly passionate performance in the title role.

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Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

It’s not an easy business getting a new musical off the ground but Queensland Theatre Company did it with Ladies in Black, with music and lyrics by Tim Finn and a book by Carolyn Burns. Based on Madeleine St John’s novel The Women in Black, it is packed with deliciously memorable songs and is unstoppably optimistic as it follows the dreams and aspirations of a young woman coming of age at the turn of the 1960s. It’s set in a women’s department store among the frocks, and thus is dominated by a big (and top-notch) female cast, headed as we speak for a season at Melbourne Theatre Company from January 16. Sarah Morrison plays young heroine Lisa Miles with a lovely mixture of determination and vulnerability.

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Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda in Ladies in Black

I pity anyone who missed Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura’s return visit to Opera Australia with Madama Butterfly (Sydney and Melbourne, after last year’s mind-blowing performance in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Butterfly and an earlier visit to Sydney). Australian soprano Nicole Car is getting a fantastic – richly deserved – reception at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for her Tatiana in Eugene Onegin; luckily we saw her in Onegin and Faust this year and she will appear in OA’s Luisa Miller in Sydney very soon. It’s likely overseas houses will start snapping her up regularly. In the contemporary opera sphere, Jane Sheldon was unforgettable in Sydney Chamber Opera’s searing An Index of Metals.

NOTES FROM ABROAD:

I saw Annie Baker’s The Flick in New York with the original cast (Melbourne was fortunate enough to see a production directed in 2014 by Nadia Tass for Red Stitch and revived this year). It is the play – indeed the production among all art forms – I keep coming back to. The three-hander is set in a down-at-heel cinema where hope flickers as forlornly as the out-of-date film equipment the unseen owner insists on keeping. For close to three hours two men and a woman engage in desultory conversation while sweeping up popcorn, changing reels and jockeying for position. Brilliant.

I also had a fun experience with Theatre for One, which is exactly what it says. You pop into a booth and an actor performs a short play just for you. Sitting practically knee-to-knee, you have nowhere to look but into each other’s eyes. Interesting. I saw two works and wish I’d been able to stay to complete the set of six.

On the musicals front Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography of An American in Paris were blissful and what a treat to be able to see the pint-sized powerhouse Kristin Chenoweth in Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s rarely seen On the Twentieth Century.

A detour into celebrity casting:

Call me shallow but I love it. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight; Helen Mirren in The Audience; Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch; New York City Ballet star Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris. Criss, best known for the TV series Glee, was the surprise package: a knockout.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia's Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Aida. Photo Hamilton Lund

Jacqueline Dark in the eye of the storm as Amneris in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Okay folks, I’m calling it. My Artist of the Year is Jacqueline Dark, thrilling and versatile mezzo frequently seen with Opera Australia; kick-arse cabaret artist who can write her own material, as we saw in Strange Bedfellows, her cheerfully outrageous show with partner in crime Kanen Breen; and now music-theatre sensation with her Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Obviously she can get to the summit and back with ease in Climb Ev’ry Mountain, but she gets the acting part of it so right too. That said, Dark could have won this title just on the basis of her courageous performances as Amneris in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida early this year. Apart from the challenge of having to sing from on high – you can just see Dark in Nefertiti’s eye – the weather was appalling, costumes became waterlogged and thus as heavy as a hod of bricks, and yet the show had to go on. Dark sounded fabulous, of course. She is a trouper of the highest order.

Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen. Pic- Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

 

Thrills and spills: the year in dance

We’ll get to the year’s most interesting work and dancers shortly but 2015 was also notable for offstage developments, particularly at Australia’s three leading classical companies, The Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet. So let’s begin there.

OFFSTAGE

The national company

At The Australian Ballet, David McAllister became the company’s longest-serving artistic director, surpassing Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign. McAllister took over in July 2001 after the relatively brief tenure of Ross Stretton, who cut his time at the AB short to go to the Royal Ballet in London. McAllister was named to the post while he was still dancing, although retirement followed swiftly. It was a huge leap of faith on the part of the AB board as he had had no leadership experience but it is now emphatically his company. Of the AB’s current roster of 68 dancers, only two were members of the company before 2001 and two joined in 2001.

In another big first, this year McAllister put himself forward to stage a new production of The Sleeping Beauty. He had previously staged only a handful of minor pieces. The production is thought to have cost about $2 million and in a dazzling feat of fundraising, about 70 per cent came from 2000 or so ballet-lovers giving sums ranging from $100 to $50,000 or more. Audiences flocked to it, several dancers in Sydney were given career-changing opportunities and despite reservations from some critics (including me) about some aspects of the production, it must be counted a significant success for McAllister and The Australian Ballet.

McAllister shows absolutely no sign of becoming jaded and it wouldn’t surprise one to see him celebrate his 20th anniversary in the job in 2021.

The state companies

Queensland Ballet was the real surprise package of the year from a backstage perspective, making the position of its high-profile CEO Anna Marsden redundant. The announcement was made on July 9 and was supposed to take effect from September 1 but Marsden was quickly out of the picture. On July 29 QB’s chair, Brett Clark, said in a statement the company would appoint an executive director, whose role would be to enable the vision of artistic director Li Cunxin and drive operations.  Dilshani Weerasinghe, previously the company’s development director, was announced as acting executive director but she was soon the board’s permanent choice.

I spoke at length to Clark in early December about the move, very shortly after the company’s announcement that the Queensland Government would give QB an extra $1.2 million annually (bringing its contribution to $2.7 million annually) to support an increase in dancer numbers (an additional eight by 2020), expansion of its headquarters, increased international touring and a greater number of performances. In 2016 QB will have 31 company members and seven young artists.

The announcement by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also contained news of a $5 million gift from the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End.

Clark said negotiations regarding both announcements had been “a long work in progress”. He said specific goals were for QB to be seen as a “powerhouse in the Asia-Pacific region” and to perform more frequently in regional Queensland. Touring to Sydney and Melbourne was not on the cards. “I think the AB services Sydney and Melbourne extremely well. They’re an amazing company.”

Clark declined to speak about the working relationship between Li and Marsden. He said, however, it had become “apparent that for us to get agreed goals and visions, it needed to be an artistic director-led strategy”. He said an executive director can have input into strategy and vision but the core role is to support the board and the company, “and in the case of Queensland Ballet, the artistic director on his or her vision for the company”. He also said that “Dilshani reports through Li to the board”.

Clark acknowledged Marsden’s role in QB’s rapid growth since Li became artistic director in 2011. He also said: “We needed Li’s vision and strategy leading the way forward.”

Clark would not discuss what went on behind the scenes but the implication is clear. Although Marsden was a key player in QB’s revival of fortunes following the departure of previous artistic director François Klaus, a structure in which both CEO and artistic director reported to the board created tension. The board chose Li.

I approached Marsden but she did not wish to comment.

West Australian Ballet will also be under new management next year following the announcement on December 14 that its CEO, Steven Roth, will be leaving in February to work with Scottish Ballet. Roth joined WAB in 2007 when the company had 19 very unhappy dancers who were agitating for the right to strike over their pay and conditions. (Their accommodation in His Majesty’s Theatre, where the company mainly performs, was limited to one studio and cramped production and administration space.) The dancers prevailed: the West Australian Government upped its funding and WAB now has 32 company members and eight young artists. One of the great achievements of Roth’s tenure can be seen in WAB’s gleaming State Ballet Centre in the Perth suburb of Maylands; another is the increase in the company’s operating revenue from $3.2 million in 2007 to $10 million in 2015.

Interestingly, Roth goes to Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet, the country’s national company, as executive director. That company already has a CEO – Christopher Hampson, who is also the company’s artistic director. He added CEO duties earlier this year after the sudden departure of chief executive Cindy Sughrue. In June Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported: “Scottish Ballet will now also begin a search for an executive director who will sit on the national company’s board and report to Hampson, with a remit for ‘clear focus on strategic vision and commercial success’.”

The Herald also reported Scottish Ballet’s chairman, Norman Murray, as saying “the board had undertaken a review of how the company was run, with aid from consultants, and believed it should be ‘artistically led’.”

ONSTAGE – CLASSICAL AND CONTEMPORARY

There are, I admit, a lot of gaps: no 2015 Melbourne Festival, no 2015 Adelaide Festival, no 2015 Dance Massive (Melbourne), although I had already seen one or two things on that program. I mention this because I travelled a fair bit in 2015 but not to everywhere or everything. My list doesn’t leave these things out because there was nothing of note, but because I wasn’t there. Adelaide would have been my big chance to see – at long last – Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet but that is now impossible. Cedar Lake’s financial backer closed the company not long after Adelaide. At Melbourne I could have caught up with the latest work from Batsheva, which I’ve seen regularly at Australian arts festivals, but no.

And a work that I reviewed reasonably strictly on first seeing it makes the list for its daring and its dancers. While I have issues with some of the dramaturgy in The Australian Ballet’s new Sleeping Beauty it is nevertheless a considerable achievement that provided three artists with role debuts that saw each immediately promoted to the next rank.

The productions are in the order in which I saw them and the performers in alphabetical order. The list is heavily skewed towards ballet because that’s the way the year panned out for me.

The best of the best? A Sleeping Beauty double: Alexei Ratmansky’s back-to-Petipa production for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala; and Benedicte Bemet’s dazzling debut as Aurora for The Australian Ballet.

PRODUCTIONS

Nothing to Lose, Force Majeure, Sydney Festival, January

Force Majeure founder Kate Champion has now moved on, leaving the company in new hands. Nothing to Lose, made with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, was a great farewell piece. It put the following propositions on stage: that fat people should not hide away, that they should be heard, that they are entitled to make choices, that they may actually like the way they are, and, by god, they can and will dance.

Puncture, Legs on the Wall, FORM Dance Projects, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Festival, January

Puncture started with “Hello” and ended with “I love you”. Is there anything more life-affirming? Six couples collided, grappled, touched, fought, flew, supported, changed partners, argued and loved. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evoked the formalities of Elizabethan court dance, the uniformity of line dancing, the romance of the waltz, the zing of the tango, the group spirit of folk and much more, but ultimately the dance was about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, Perth International Arts Festival, February

In this seemingly carefree work Morris offered principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women were equal, each was an individual, there was strength to be gained from one another and there was belief in the power of love and joy.

Quintett, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, March

The first cast was more balletic, the second more ferocious in this thrilling, heart-catching William Forsythe work. Not many companies are allowed to do it; Sydney Dance Company did it proud.

Sydney Dance Company's Quintett featuring Chloe Leong and David Mack 1. Photo by Peter Greig

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

The Sleeping Beauty, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Alexei Ratmansky’s production took us as nearly as possible back to what the original 1890 audience would have seen: super-lavish setting, strong mime and many intimate, modest details. The physicality looked startlingly different. Instead of height and bravura there was refinement and great charm. For both men and women there was a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkled. It was as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and much more intricate and sophisticated.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Auckland, September

What a gorgeous production! Designed by New Zealander Tracy Grant Lord and choreographed by hotter-than-hot Brit Liam Scarlett, this co-pro between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet was funny, sexy and ravishing to behold. Brisbane sees it in April.

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

Hayley Dennison in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The Sleeping Beauty, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne and Sydney, September and December

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drank deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, was almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revelled in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There were columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that threw out a huge challenge to David McAllister: match this if you can, buddy. Well, he asked for it. There have been a few rumblings about the design being oppressively opulent but this greatest of ballet scores can bear the weight. It invites and deserves a magnificent mise en scène. It also requires storytelling that can fill the space and amplify the music. It’s in the latter sphere that Beauty doesn’t fully succeed despite the involvement of Lucas Jervies, a choreographer and director working as McAllister’s sounding board and adviser. It was extremely cheering, though, to see many very fine performances through the ranks and exciting role debuts (see below).

Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, November

It was a joy to see Ochres revived at Carriageworks with a dynamic new generation of dancers. Not that it was exactly the work originally choreographed by Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene, nor should it be. Dance texts are particularly susceptible to change and Bangarra has developed greatly since the early 1990s. This revival was in the spirit of the original rather than a faithful dusting off of the old steps. The company called it a re-imagining and it looked wonderful. Bangarra has a unique aesthetic based on the connection with Indigenous ceremony and the land. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and invigorating.

Cinderella, choreographed by Jayne Smeulders, West Australian Ballet, Perth, December

How many full-length, mainstage classical ballets choreographed by women were there on Australian stages this year? Just the one I think, Jayne Smeulders’s Cinderella. She reworked her 2011 production to advantage and scored a huge hit with Perth audiences. See: it can be done.

Coppélia, choreographed by Maina Gielgud for Christine Walsh’s Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Melbourne, December

There was quite a lot of new choreography and loads of rearranging but basically Gielgud’s production was a staging rather than a new work. But what a beauty. It was hard to believe this was a student production, so high were its standards. The young dancers were not just technically assured, they gave terrifically engaged and engaging performances, working seamlessly with the delightful guest artists from Tokyo Ballet, Maria Kawatani and Arata Miyagawa. Christine Walsh designed the many costumes, all of them splendid.

PERFORMANCES

Stella Abrera, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Abrera’s warmth and simplicity informed every moment of her performance; there wasn’t a thing that didn’t feel genuine. The mad scene tore at the heart. As she loses her reason Giselle re-enacts the plucking of flower petals, which earlier had quieted her anxiety about Albrecht – he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. Now there was no anticipation or light. Abrera shook her head piteously. He doesn’t love me. (Abrera was at that time an ABT soloist; she was promoted to principal – very belatedly in the opinion of many – at the end of June.)

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Veronica Part, Stella Abrera and Vladimir Shklyarov in Giselle. Photo: MIRA

Benedicte Bemet, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December

Quite simply one of the most exciting nights in the theatre, ever. Bemet, just 21, had the dew and radiance of youth, purity and joy in her dancing and was beyond fearless. You know how you almost always get butterflies when Aurora nears those balances and promenades in the Rose Adagio? Not so here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were extraordinary, the crowd went wild, and Bemet just went from strength to strength. She went on as a coryphée and shortly afterwards was promoted to soloist. To be honest, it wouldn’t have surprised me if David McAllister had bounded on to the stage to make her a principal artist on the spot. But she has plenty of time for that.

Brett Chynoweth, Puck in The Dream, debut as Prince Désiré, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, May and December

Chynoweth is one of The Australian Ballet’s finest male technicians – he is fast, sleek, has fabulous feet and exciting elevation. This, however, is not what makes him so interesting. He is a passionate, poetic man who connects deeply with his roles and therefore with the audience. As Désiré his longing for love was palpable, and earlier in the year his Puck was a marvel of pyrotechnics and other-worldly humour. He is now, rightfully, a senior artist.

Chynoweth Boud

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Alina Cojocaru, Aurora, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, October

She radiated light and joy from a tiny body that gave the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing was brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything felt as if it were the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all was her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompassed the entire theatre.

Thaji Dias, Dancing for the Gods, Chitrasena Dance Company, Sydney Festival, January

I got my first, and so far only, view of Thaji Dias during this year’s Sydney Festival. She is a ravishing artist, dancing in the Kandyan style from Sri Lanka with megawatts of charisma. The dance was dramatic and seductive and Dias’s command of it exhilarating with her divinely articulated wrists, rippling shoulders, jaunty strides, the deepest and plushest plies and the liveliest eyes.

Sylvie Guillem, Life in Progress, Sydney, August

At 50 Guillem left the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that showed her as a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. She was known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art. But that was then. Her farewell program celebrated Guillem in the here and now, with new and recent work.

Robyn Hendricks, debut in Symphonic Variations, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April and December

Hendricks is something of a late bloomer but no less valuable for that. Her willowy body gives her a regal air and she also seems a little unknowable, qualities that of course make one intensely aware of her. She looked serenely beautiful in the first cast of Symphonic Variations; as Aurora she was a queen in the making: watchful, elegant, sophisticated and lusciously aware of her suitors. She was promoted to senior artist immediately after her debut.

The Dream - Symphonic Variations

Aka Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

Xavier Le Roy, Self Untitled, Carriageworks, Sydney, November

Xavier Le Roy’s 1998 solo Self Unfinished had particular resonance at the time of viewing, days after the terrorist attacks on Paris, summoning thoughts of the fragility of life, the resilience of the human spirit, the truth that we exist only at this moment, right now, and that we are all in it together. He didn’t make a big thing of it, but Le Roy’s piece had a strong sense of erasing the invisible barrier between audience and performer. He intrigued, delighted and provoked during a performance of quite intimacy.

Natalia Osipova/Steven McRae, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Osipova’s Giselle had London aflame last year and this year had the New York audience entranced and exhilarated. She tore through the ballet with a passion, leaping higher, turning more quickly and covering ground more voraciously than any other. Osipova is a risk-taking dancer. She fell heavily towards the end of her final solo and took several agonising seconds to recover enough to stand. She limped back to the centre and resumed dancing, finishing the ballet not only courageously but with melting beauty. The clarity and complexity of McRae’s acting was wonderful. He gave not just the broad picture but made every moment vivid, fresh, illuminating and dramatically coherent. His dancing, it goes without saying, was full of brilliance without being bombastic. But there was no more riveting moment than one of complete stillness, when Albrecht heard the distant horns of the Royal hunting party and understood the chaos to come.

CHOREOGRAPHY

Kristina Chan, Conform, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, December

“I am interested in what it means to be a man in this modern day,” Chan wrote in the program note to Conform, part of the annual New Breed program. She has a sombre view. When we first saw her men – there was an all-male cast of eight – they visibly buckled under the weight of expectation. They were either desperately alone with their thoughts or they fell in with the majority, losing individuality but absorbing the power of the pack. Conform was beautifully structured, vibrated with repressed emotion and had a very strong, pulsating and often ominous score by James Brown. It should be a keeper.

Justin Peck, Rōdē,ō, New York City Ballet, May

We haven’t seen a step of Peck’s in Australia as far as I know and it’s about time someone did something about it. His Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes, to the music of Aaron Copland, is wondrous. (Don’t ask me about the odd accents in the title; perhaps Peck wanted to differentiate it from Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo, to this music.) A piece for 15 men and one fabulous woman, it surprises, invigorates and enchants at every turn. Peck, still dancing as a soloist with New York City Ballet, has the magic touch. This apparently abstract ballet is packed with ideas, relationships and really zingy choreography. NYCB probably doesn’t want to let it go just yet because it premiered only in February this year, but can someone please beg?