Everything old is new again

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, February 20 and February 24.

GRAEME Murphy’s Swan Lake has been a touchstone production – and a fortunate one – not only for The Australian Ballet as a whole but for many dancers. At its premiere in Melbourne on September 17, 2002, Simone Goldsmith started the evening as a senior artist and ended it as a principal. Steven Heathcote was Prince Siegfried, as he would be so frequently until his retirement in 2007 and Margaret Illman was an unforgettable Baroness von Rothbart, the third party in the tangled triangle at the heart of the ballet.

By the time the production opened in Sydney on November 28, 2002, senior artist Lynette Wills had assumed the role of the Baroness and she, like Goldsmith, found herself promoted to the company’s highest rank at the after-show festivities. She had waited a long time, and this role gave her the breakthrough.

Over the years young dancers who started out as wedding guests or swans in 2002 graduated to larger roles: the corps de ballet list in September 2002 includes Adam Bull, Andrew Killian, Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Leanne Stojmenov and Danielle Rowe, all of whom would become principal artists and dance Odette, Siegfried or the Baroness. All are still with the company with the exception of Rowe, now with Netherlands Dance Theatre.

In the case of Madeleine Eastoe, then a soloist and now a long-serving principal artist, the path to Odette was swift. I first saw her in December of 2002 and most recently five days ago when Swan Lake opened in Sydney. She was lovely then and is extraordinary now.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

From the start audiences loved the interpretation created by Murphy, his creative associate Janet Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson. It looked absolutely luscious and its story, while being set in an Edwardian world, was clearly influenced by the troubled marriage of Prince Charles and Diana. It was, and is, a wildly glamorous and highly emotional piece of theatre. The AB didn’t hold back. The Murphy Swan Lake has been staged almost every year since 2002, although not always in Australia. It is the work invariably chosen to take on tour and has been seen in Paris, Tokyo, London, New York, Los Angeles and other cities. Later this year it will tour to Beijing.

For this Sydney season Swan Lake continues its role as a trailblazer. It’s not being seen at the AB’s usual home of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House but is at the Capitol, a venue devoted almost exclusively to large-scale musical theatre. Amusingly, this is because the Wicked juggernaut is tying up Queensland Performing Art Centre’s largest theatre, which is where one would expect the AB to be at this time of year – and the Capitol is the very theatre vacated only last month by Wicked before it headed north.

There is obvious potential to broaden the company’s reach beyond the rusted-on ballet crowd by coming to this venue and the undeniable truth is that Swan Lake looks much better on the Capitol stage than at the Opera House (Opera Australia is ensconced there as usual in February so the Joan Sutherland Theatre was unavailable anyway).

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Friday’s opening night was strong, which didn’t surprise given that the company knows the work inside out (this was the 185th performance). What lifted Swan Lake into another realm was the riveting connection between Eastoe and her Siegfried Kevin Jackson. This is truly one of the exceptional partnerships of Australian ballet.

She was all air, light as a feather blown across water; he was all earthy desire and anguish, a flawed and complicated man. As a partner Jackson is not quite in the league (who is?) of Heathcote and Robert Curran – they both danced with Eastoe many times in this ballet – but his immersion in the role and his interpretation of it were electrifying. He wasn’t afraid to look brutal in his treatment of Odette as she unravels on her wedding day, having seen the extent to which Siegfried is in thrall to the Baroness. But he seemed more desperately unhappy and frustrated than a hardened brute, and his Act II lakeside pas de deux was filled with tenderness.

Eastoe has not changed her approach to Odette; she just seems more and more luminous every time. Of the eight Murphy Odettes I’ve seen she is the most heart-rending. Each has had a strongly individual character – a hallmark of this production is that markedly different interpretations are equally valid – but with Eastoe you see innocence slaughtered. It is devastating.

Ako Kondo has exceptional allure but on Friday I thought her vampy Baroness was still a work in progress. In Tuesday’s cast Kondo’s fellow senior artist, Miwako Kubota, was more multi-layered and sympathetic. Kubota made you see the Baroness’s pain as well as her desire. (By the way, Kubota was also in the corps in 2002 when Swan Lake premiered.)

Senior artist Juliet Burnett finally got her chance to dance Odette, and did so partnered by fellow senior artist Rudy Hawkes. It was a persuasive match. Hawkes was an entirely different Siegfried from Jackson. Here was a prince entirely out of his emotional depth, fulfilling his duty as expected and finding things falling apart disastrously and unmanageably on his wedding day. Burnett’s Act I Odette was somewhat spiky in temperament and unstable. This bride, who appears compliant and unsure of herself, is not entirely subservient.

Burnett hasn’t entirely worked these contradictions into a seamless whole. It interests me that Burnett is a very fine writer about dance and thinks deeply about her work; on Tuesday, particularly in Act I, she telegraphed some of that thinking a little too forcefully. When her strong, clear ideas were transformed into action and into feeling they had powerful dramatic authority.

In pure dance terms Burnett and Hawkes had a few moments on Tuesday night that didn’t go entirely to plan – and they were just a few – but they also put their own stamp on the choreography, making many key images entirely fresh with different accents or textures. This is why balletomanes go to a particular ballet repeatedly: not to see it again, but to see it made anew.

Other thoughts:

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bernet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin must now be the Cygnets of choice. They are adorable.

No one does a dash across the stage and hair-raising body-slam as vividly as Reiko Hombo (Young Duchess-to-be).

Sometimes it’s just impossible to erase memories of past exponents of certain roles. Take the Guardian Swans, for example. I can still see Danielle Rowe and Lana Jones. Perfection.

Colin Peasley – what can you say? He’s 80 and still getting out there on stage as the Lord Admiral, as ramrod straight as ever.

 Swan Lake ends on Saturday February 28.

Unfinished business

Belvoir, February 18

KILL the Messenger is as simple as theatre gets. There’s a bare space – designer Ralph Myers in particularly pared-back mode – and some projected photographs, five actors, a couple of props, 75 minutes and we’re done.

The rigour, almost at the level of ruthlessness, is thrilling. Playwright Nakkiah Lui requires your attention and she gets it not with tricks and trimmings but with theatre’s most basic tools: a story and actors to tell it in a way that excites the emotions and demands immersion in its ideas. There’s a touch of the slide-show theatre so eloquently developed by William Yang and elements of documentary theatre intertwined with fictionalised narrative, all handled with a tremendously sure touch.

Nakkiah Lui and her gran, Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nakkiah Lui and her gran, Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Lui’s searing first play, This Heaven, was seen at Belvoir two years ago in the small Downstairs theatre and it was clear there was an important new theatrical voice in town. Kill the Messenger is in the bigger Upstairs space and it deserves the room.

An aside: Ralph Myers’s artistic directorship has been notable for the openings he has given to Indigenous theatre artists and to women. Obviously Lui ticks both those boxes at the same time, which is pleasing. Naturally the nay-sayers will want to call this political correctness. It’s not – it’s correcting the bias of god knows how many decades and it is good. And good not just because it’s righting a wrong, but because it’s producing great work. But back to the work at hand …

Kill the Messenger slips easily back and forth in time and between real life and imagined encounters as Lui examines how easily people – her people, Aboriginal people – can essentially be invisible in a white world. The politics are strong and well argued but there’s a deep pool of personal grief too. Lui’s grandmother, Joan, died after an ages-old bureaucratic arrangement meant no one took any responsibility for her rotting home. No care, either.

There is a heart-rending photograph of Joan after she fell through the floor of her termite-infested home. We’ve already seen her looking suitably grandmotherly, with soft white hair and dark specs. Now the skin around her eyes is angrily puffed and red. The glasses are gone, obviously, because who needs them in a hospital bed, and anyway, they would be too painful to wear. Lui rightly lets the image pretty much speak for itself.

It’s par for the course for young Indigenous playwrights to be called “angry” and ”raw”. They are clichés really, just like older Aboriginal men and women are always, but always, described as “dignified” in a way older white people rarely are. These things are intended as compliments, of course, but I’m not sure that the thinking behind them is particularly deep. Lui touches on this early in Kill the Messenger when she says: “You want this to feel raw and honest, like a real snippet of an experience; an Aboriginal experience … Here is my tale of black oppression”.

She is being truthful but ironic too. The audience, which generally speaking is overwhelmingly white, wants a story. Lui wants to engage in something truthful, which is why she says her play doesn’t have an ending. Which it obviously does have, at the 75-minute mark when we leave the theatre, and doesn’t have in the sense that the issues are in any way resolved. It’s an unfinished play because it’s unfinished business. There are lots of layers – Lui doesn’t have a law degree for nothing.

Kill the Messenger was created from the knowledge that Indigenous Australians suffer injustices and slights that others do not and they can have dire consequences, so in that sense there is anger. But there is also great sadness and frustration, and in this play a challenge to audience members to examine their own actions and perceptions. Kill the Messenger is far from a one-note outburst.

The play’s second strand involves a young man, Paul (Lasarus Ratuere), whose drug addiction made him unwelcome when he sought medical care. Because she never met him Lui dramatises his plight and creates an incredibly sympathetic portrait of a charming, vivid, damaged soul. His sister Harley (Katie Beckett) comes alive explosively as she struggles with her wayward sibling’s failings and also tries to get answers from Alex (Matthew Backer), an emergency department nurse whose situation is not as black and white as it may seem.

Sam O’Sullivan as Lui’s boyfriend Peter completes the fine cast – almost.

Lui’s boldest stroke is to put herself in the play, right at its centre. Sometimes she’s acting herself (she’s very good), often she talks directly to the audience and near the end she touchingly places herself in conversation with Paul, who we know from the play’s first moments is going to kill himself. Lui has great stage presence – she’s warm, direct, unaffected and game. As she comments after getting close and personal with O’Sullivan, she thought when she wrote Kill the Messenger that elfin Miranda Tapsell would be playing her. Very cute.

Lui is sharp, funny, passionate and compassionate. She knows how to shape a debate, when to get mad and when to stay calm, and not necessarily in the places you might expect. Kill the Messenger simultaneously draws you in and keeps you on your toes, which makes for stimulating and entertaining theatre. The writing and construction show no signs of strain, for which praise must go also to director Anthea Williams and dramaturg Jada Alberts.

And I love that Lui will get out there every night to tell and retell what happened to Joan and Paul. It’s as if she doesn’t quite trust us; that we might otherwise be able to tuck this away as fiction if she’s not there to bear witness.

Joan. Her name was Joan.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 20.

Ends March 8.

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 10.

WILLY Russell isn’t a great lyricist and not much more than a journeyman composer but he’s no slouch with a heart-tugging story as his life-affirming plays Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine prove. The 1983 musical Blood Brothers also mines gritty British working-class life, although with a darker purpose.

There are twin boys furtively separated at birth, one taken by a childless, well-to-do family and the other raised by his natural mother, a woman with too many offspring and not enough money. The crucial moment of decision – the eeny-meeny-miny-mo moment that determines which baby stays and which one goes – will influence the course of their lives. And their deaths, which are shown in the first minutes. All the rest is flashback, or to put it another way, fate.

Blake Bowden and Bobby Fox in Blood Brothers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bobby Fox and Blake Bowden in Blood Brothers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It’s winning the postcode lottery that sorts the cream from the crap in this tough northern England town. Blood Brothers is a Greek tragedy about the British class system; an uneven, passionate piece told with bold, broad, obvious strokes and a tuneful, repetitive score. A couple of the tunes are like buses to Bondi, coming along every 10 minutes or so, the Marilyn Monroe motif is worked way beyond its capacities and there’s a lumpy structure that oversells things that could be dealt with quickly and races through more important matters. But who cares? Certainly not the show’s multitudinous devotees.

Any flaws one can discern in Blood Brothers, and there are plenty, haven’t hurt the musical one bit. Far from it. Only Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera have had more music-theatre performances on the West End, and both have the advantage of being built along monumental lines. Blood Brothers is a much more modest operation. But something about its stern absolutes got under the skin. Blood Brothers is a product of the Thatcher era and Russell’s very real understanding of a divided Britain.

The 1988 revival ran for nearly 25 years and it’s commonplace to hear about people reduced to sobs at its ending, even though they know exactly what is to happen. For all its faults Blood Brothers spoke to its people and its heart-on-sleeve politics are still relevant. The divide between rich and poor continues to widen and privilege continues to bring unearned abundance.

The new, small-scale production at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co goes at it with touching fervour. Scrappy Mickey Johnstone (Bobby Fox) and posh Edward Lyons (Blake Bowden) come across each other as seven-year-olds (“nearly eight”) and discover they share a birthday although they are unaware of their true connection. Their ease with one another – their essential alikeness – is in contrast to the gulf between stitched-up Mrs Lyons (Bronwyn Mulcahy) and fecund Mrs Johnstone (Helen Dallimore).

The action takes place over several decades on Anna Gardiner’s deliciously economic fold-out set, one that alas doesn’t have room to show the economical but driving four-piece band led by Michael Tyack. The musicians are banished to backstage, robbing the production of some rawness it could use with much profit.

The lengthy scenes with the boys as children show Fox and Bowden surprisingly convincing as kids in short pants, and then songs that hurtle the story forward as the deadly outcome shown at the start by the Narrator (Michael Cormick) comes closer. Cormick sings up a storm but in such a small space the inherent portentousness of the Narrator is magnified.

Andrew Pole directs with a lively, assured touch but backs away from the howling anger that is the raison d’etre of Blood Brothers. There is much to enjoy as the Narrator lugubriously invokes Fate, the impoverished Johnstone family bristles with rude energy and Mrs Lyons is a Valium crumb away from emotional collapse, but the Lyons family is overly caricatured and Dallimore’s fresh-faced, fresh-voiced Mrs Johnstone, appealing though she is, doesn’t look or feel like a woman who has had nine children and the toughest of lives. I didn’t emerge tear-stained.

Perhaps a more dangerous show will develop. Perhaps even has since opening night. Meanwhile, Blood Brothers is worth seeing for its brave heart and the lovely triangular dance of life between Mickey, Edward and Linda, the girl they both love. Christy Sullivan is a luminous Linda and Fox’s yearning Mickey and Bowden’s sweetly honourable Edward are just wonderful.

A version of this review ran in The Australian on February 12.

Blood Brothers ends March 15.

The giants inside

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby. Royal Court Theatre and Lisa Dwan, State Theatre Centre of WA, February 14.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, His Majesty’s Theatre, February 13.

THERE were giants inside as well as outside during Perth’s first festival weekend. While Mark Morris and Mozart ruled with joie de vivre at His Majesty’s, Lisa Dwan and Beckett shook the soul at the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground in three short works of obsidian darkness.

Lisa Dwan in Footfalls. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

Lisa Dwan in Footfalls. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

It takes less than an hour to experience Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby but their essence is timeless and, for the duration of the performance, time is suspended. All extraneous light is rigorously excluded from the Studio Underground and Dwan is seen but dimly through James Farncombe’s hazy but finely focused lighting. The audience, rendered almost unnaturally still and quiet in the blackness, is however on high alert internally as Dwan embodies terrifying visions of disintegration, loneliness and death.

Not I is a tumbling stream of words from which key phrases emerge and are then dragged back into the jumble. Sharp little barks, cackles, growls and gasps punctuate the flow of an old woman’s fractured recollections that keep circling back to something that apparently happened on an April morning to “she”, the younger self. Only the actress’s mouth is visible as the woman remembers many harsh things but finds her voice, in that beautiful use of the word. It means finding the true self.

In Footfalls the finding of the voice has been more difficult for a woman attending a dying mother. A rectangle of light imprisons her as she paces up and down – there is room for nine steps only – but at least she can hear her steps on a floor from which she has removed the covering. They confirm her existence. Dwan, her voice low and melodious, also speaks the words of the unseen mother, a woman who seems to have sucked the life from her daughter.

Rockaby also heads inexorably towards the void as a woman sits in a rocking chair with only her face and hands visible as she sways in and out of the light. The sense of desolation is immense as the woman describes looking through the window to other windows, always alone despite searching for others like her. Towards the end of the piece one can see only half Dwan’s face, a nightmarish effect.

Dwan is directed flawlessly by Walter Asmus, a longtime friend of Beckett. This trio of works and collaborators is a rare gift.

The season ends on Friday.

MOZART Dances reveals Mark Morris as the great magician of contemporary dance and its foremost optimist. In this seemingly carefree work Morris offers principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women are equal, each is an individual, there is strength to be gained from one another and there is belief in the power of love and joy.

From Double, the middle work in Mozart Dances

From Double, the middle work in Mozart Dances. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

The work is abstract but packed with relationships, the foremost of which is with the score. Morris choreographs to three substantial Mozart piano works, each with three movements – about 90 minutes of music for orchestra and two solo pianists. It’s a huge canvas, yet Mozart Dances feels deliciously intimate as Morris sends 16 dancers whirling across the stage in a constant and felicitous flow in answer to the spring and essence of the music. They cover ground as bountifully as gazelles.

First up is Eleven, choreographed to Mozart’s relatively little known Piano Concerto No.11, in which Morris concentrates on the women, led by elfin Lauren Grant. There is a short introduction to the men of the company, bare-chested and wearing breeches that hint at the 18th century. After some lively unison dancing they stride off and the women take over, introducing motifs that will recur throughout the work.

Eleven is followed by Double for the men to the Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, the composer’s only work in that form. Echoing the structure of Eleven in reverse, Morris brings the women of the company on in the third movement. They are now wearing long floating skirts, reminiscent of those worn in Balanchine’s Serenade (just as Grant’s sudden fall to the ground in Eleven recalls a similar moment in that ballet). There’s a visual link to the diaphanous black the women wear in Eleven, but the atmospherics are completely different. The first costume is bold, the second is romantic.

Double, from Mark Morris's Mozart Dances

Double, from Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

Aaron Loux was the charming and fleet soloist in Double, wearing a frock coat that also nods to the 18th century. It moves beautifully and brings a whiff of gallantry to proceeedings. Again one notices the jaunty comings and goings, the powerful unison work and Morris’s unerring eye for pacing and timing but, above all, the emotional value of a movement and moment.

Finally, all 16 dancers, now dressed in white although not identically, come together for the 27th piano concerto (Mozart’s last) to mix, mingle, separate and connect in ways that delight the spirit.

While the mood of each dance is distinct, Morris propels each with nimble legs and feet, open-hearted upper bodies and multitudinous cheeky exits and entrances. With dancers as warmly engaged and witty as Morris’s there is every reason to believe that offstage life is just as interesting to them as what awaits onstage. These are not performers who disappear when you can’t see them.

Morris seamlessly interweaves steps and shapes from folk, the court, ballet and ordinary life while building a series of motifs that are sprinkled throughout, often with a new or unexpected touch. In Eleven the women at one point gather In a group and look upwards as if there is something mesmerising out of our sight, but not theirs. The men will later have their version of it. The same happens with fingers that are pointed as if to say, “you need to pay extra attention right now”. Often dancers will throw themselves into a generous, wide-armed whirl that feels less like a choreographed move than a spontaneous outburst of ecstasy.

The much-repeated action of falling has different qualities but always ends in recovery and re-entry into the group, nowhere more potently expressed than in the glorious slow movement of Double. It is central to Mozart Dances in position (it is the fifth of the nine movements played) and content and has the most sombre tones. Even so, there are gleams of light as the fallen and isolated are gathered up. Darkness is then quickly banished in the final dance, Twenty-Seven, and Mozart Dances ends on a highly playful note with all the men and women, dressed in fresh, non-identical white, getting on like a house on fire.

For its brief Perth engagement Mark Morris Dance Group was vividly accompanied by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne pianist Amir Farid, conducted by MMDG music director Colin Fowler. Fowler joined Farid for the sonata, a tremendous musical highlight.

I am sorry Mozart Dances won’t be on the program when MMDG comes to Sydney in June as it can be seen again and again with pleasure. But an orchestra has to be available, and a second pianist, which is undoubtedly the barrier. So Sydney will get a smaller-scale program of four works – A Wooden Tree, Festival Dance, Pacific and Whelm – accompanied by the MMDG Music Ensemble.

‘My work’s about love, basically’

One of the key works of the 2015 Perth International Arts Festival is Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances from 2006. There will be four performances only, on February 13, 14 and 15.

PIAF artistic director Jonathan Holloway calls Morris “one of the greatest choreographers alive today and he is the great American choreographer. He’s never been to Western Australia. From day one I wanted to start my first festival with Lucinda Childs, who is another of my favourite choreographers, and finish with Mark Morris.” (Childs’s shimmering 1979 work Dance was seen exclusively in Perth in 2012.)

Morris has made more than 140 works for Mark Morris Dance Group, which this year celebrates its 35th anniversary, and is also feted for his work with classical companies. Since 1996 MMDG has undertaken no international tour without live music, which for the three-part Mozart Dances in its entirety means the availability of a symphony orchestra – the West Australian Symphony Orchestra will play for PIAF – and two solo pianists.

This is an expanded version of my interview with Morris written for The Weekend Australian’s Culture 2015 magazine, published on November 15-16, 2014.

EVERYTHING about Mark Morris is big: his exuberant laugh, his passion for music, the uncensored chat and bawdy talk, his endlessly inquiring nature. He’s a stayer, too. The American choreographer started making dances when he was 13 (although says he didn’t make his first good one until he was 15) and founded his own company at 24. He’s now 58 and Mark Morris Dance Group has not only survived, but is one of the world’s finest contemporary companies.

Morris has choreographed more than 150 works, mostly for his group but also for leading ballet companies, and works extensively as an opera director, conductor and music teacher. An indication of his tendency to over-achievement is found in his list of honours: among the many fellowships and awards are 11 honorary doctorates, membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the 2010 Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society (hotshot conductor Gustavo Dudamel won it last year).

Eleven, from Mozart Dances. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Eleven, from Mozart Dances. Photo: Stephanie Berger

So when Morris says of his Perth International Arts Festival-bound Mozart Dances that it is performed to “more piano than anyone would ever do in an evening of Mozart”, what he means is anyone except himself. And this being Morris, live music is a non-negotiable part of the deal. When we spoke the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was on board and Morris was listening to recordings by Australian pianists to choose a soloist. Amir Farid, the Melbourne-based pianist and member of the Benaud Trio, was selected. MMDG music director Colin Fowler will be the other soloist.

“I will not work with taped music,” Morris says emphatically. “I absolutely will not. If you want my dance company you have live music. People see it as crazy diva, but it’s also my work, and so here’s how it’ll be done. If people don’t want that, that’s ok,” he says comfortably, speaking from his headquarters in Brooklyn.

Not surprisingly, most people find Morris’s terms entirely acceptable because they have resulted in a singular body of work that includes the adored and frequently revived L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), to the music of Handel; his famed production of the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas (1989); and Mozart Dances (2006).

Mozart Dances is a triptych for 16 dancers comprising Eleven, Double and Twenty-Seven, named after their music – Mozart’s 11th and 27th piano concertos flank the composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major. Eleven foregrounds the women of the company, Double features the men and in Twenty-Seven “everyone is happily reunited”. After the New York premiere of Mozart Dances in August 2006, John Rockwell of The New York Times wrote he felt “safe in pronouncing it a masterpiece”. Morris had made “something as serious and profound as dance gets”.

While some audience members may be familiar with Piano Concerto No.27, the 11th is likely to surprise. “Eleven is a rare one. It’s a fabulous, very, very delicate, turbulent piece. It’s very emotionally complicated,’’ says Morris, who describes the evening with some understatement as “a good big show” of a scale appropriate for MMDG’s Perth debut. (The company visited Adelaide in 1994 and Sydney in 2003.)

The 11th concerto appealed for another reason. Mozart arranged a chamber version of it, meaning that if there is no symphony orchestra available, Morris can present just the first two sections of Mozart Dances with a smaller number of live musicians and perform something else in place of Twenty-Seven, which needs a full orchestra. Morris may not make any concessions on the subject of live music but he is pragmatic, and Mozart Dances can be adjusted according to circumstances.

“If we’ve just got chamber music then I do another piece in place of Twenty-Seven. Twenty-Seven can’t be done without an orchestra but the others can, which is why I chose them,” he says.

Holloway had considered asking Morris for L’Allegro but Perth has no theatre big enough for it. “It’s enormous. Mozart Dances is only huge. It’s just a full company of dancers, a full orchestra, piano soloists, and two hours of some of the most joyous dancing you’ll ever see in your life.“

Morris’s large, generous spirit is the bedrock of all his dance. “I’m a horrible monster from time to time but my work is all kind,” he says. “My work’s about love, basically, so when you get over the fact that I talk dirty and I’m very loud, I’m also really, really nice.”

He’s also wonderfully frank about the state of dance. “My work isn’t overtly political but of course I have feelings about things and one thing is the infantilisation of dancers in general, and generally the low-level misogyny and racism that’s inherent everywhere I look in the dance world,” he says.

“I have no problem being a middle-aged, white, male – that’s what I am. But I wonder where all the female choreographers are. Everyone who wants to make up a dance should [do so]. I’m not damning, it’s not a competition thing at all, but a lot of it seems if you’re in the corps de ballet of any ballet company and you’re a boy, suddenly you’re a choreographer. I don’t really understand that. You’ve been looking at the back of everyone for your whole career. [Big laugh.] It’s like wait, how do you … oh, fine. It’s crazy. And I wish ‘em all luck. I’m all for dancing. It’s just that I don’t see a lot that I like that much.”

What he does like is sharing his dance with other cultures and learning from theirs. “I go to Asia a lot. People want to see what you do and you get to see what they do. I love that. It’s not like becoming fake Cambodian when I go to their country, but to notice and respect and to adore what they do. I love to see traditional dance and music and whatever crazy new thing they’re doing. I’m not a big tourist; I’m more of a cultural vampire.”

Morris is travelling to Perth with his company. “I know I’m eager to go, and I’m not going to talk about how far away it is, because if you live in Perth it’s everything else that’s far away,” he says with undeniable logic. “You’re right where you belong if you’re in Perth.”

Nothing to Lose

Force Majeure, Carriageworks, January 22.

IN her 10 years at Force Majeure, the company she founded and which she now leaves, Kate Champion’s material has included the ageing process, near-death experiences, the pitfalls of child-raising and obsessive behaviour, tantalising subjects one and all. Her brand of dance-theatre has always been stimulating but with Nothing to Lose Champion raises the bar and then some.

Her new work, made with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, puts on stage the following propositions: 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.

Given Western society’s almost pathological fear of fat, Nothing to Lose is an extraordinarily potent provocation. It was one of the most highly anticipated pieces in the 2015 Sydney Festival and can be seen in March at Melbourne’s Malthouse.

From an aesthetic point of view Champion had long felt larger people could be very pleasing movers, and certainly Nothing to Lose supports that. In Champion’s key cast of seven, Latai Taumoepeau and LaLa Gabor were gorgeously fluid, Claire “Scarlett” Burrows had a frighteningly intense and dangerous solo and Anastasia Zaravinos could have been a fertility goddess.

The framework, however, is highly political. In an early scene the dancers are treated as museum exhibits and audience members invited to feel and knead their flesh, guided suavely by Julian Crotti. The display reminded me, as it was surely meant to, of the Hottentot Venus, a South African woman displayed as a human curiosity – freak, if you like – in 19th century Europe. Later Ally Garrett (beautiful dancer and stage presence) and Michael Cutrupi (ditto) came into the audience to share the kind of advice and support larger people are so helpfully offered for free and often with breath-taking cruelty. There’s no guilt trip. They’re just saying.

Nothing, though, was more pertinent than the scene in which two women wound fabric around their bodies, criss-crossing it over their abdomens until their flesh bulged through the gaps to form generous folds. It was a reminder that our bodies are the one costume we can never shed and the one on which we will always be most pitilessly judged, particularly if one is female.

In this context it was amusing, and in its own way touching, to see how little the gorgeous Taumoepeau was used. She is the smallest of the women and did not get much of the attention. It was the reverse of the largest kid in the dance class being put up the back.

I would not normally comment on what an audience does, but I was fascinated by reactions at last Thursday’s opening performance and reactions that were relayed to me from Friday’s performance.

On Thursday, during Zaravinos’s full-bodied – in several senses – assault on traditional thinking about dance bodies, there was a substantial amount of whooping and hollering, sounds of a kind one never, ever hears during a concert dance performance by someone with the usual dancer’s body. The response said a number of things to me.

It said that some members of the audience were incredibly over-anxious to show they were onside with the work and that they got it; to show that they weren’t confronted or embarrassed. No, they were so with it they couldn’t contain their exuberance.

Or were they really so onside with the thrust of Nothing to Lose? I heard the sound of the vaudeville tent rather than the serious dance theatre. I heard the very response, in fact, that Nothing to Lose was created to counter. I didn’t hear the sound of respect for a fine artist. I heard the unease with which many people regard the bountiful body.

I expect the people making that noise would say I couldn’t be more wrong. But whoever is right, Nothing to Lose has punched well above its weight.

Nothing to Lose, Malthouse, Melbourne, March 11-21.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 26.

Three companies, one great show

Sydney Festival Parramatta Program, January 23

PUNCTURE starts with “Hello” and ends with “I love you”. Has there been anything more life-affirming than this at the 2015 Sydney Festival? I doubt it.

As I write, the 2pm show has recently finished at the Riverside Theatre at Parramatta and there will be just two more: tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 2pm. With Wednesday’s preview there will have been seven performances in all. Is there a chance of more? One can only hope so.

Puncture puts both performers and audience on the stage of the biggest theatre at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, screened from the auditorium by the fire curtain. The audience is very close to the performers and despite the ample size of the space there is an atmosphere of urgent intimacy. As the young dancers enact age-old rituals of meeting, attraction, flirtation, confusion and passion one can hear the breath, see the sweat, feel the impact as they hit the floor and share in the adrenalin rush as they arc through the air on ropes.

A dancer flies in Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

A dancer flies in Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

That would be sensory ravishment enough, but there’s more. In one of the loveliest ideas I have encountered in dance for many years Stefan Gregory’s score for Puncture is sung live by VOX, a 30-member vocal ensemble drawn from members of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, who move in and out of the dance and allow us to see them as smiling, engaged individuals – participants in the fullest sense.

Puncture is concerned with the human need for connection, as that sung “Hello” makes radiantly clear. One could call that the statement of intent. After that comes the physical manifestation as six couples collide, grapple, touch, fight, fly, support, change partners, argue and love. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evokes 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 is about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Gregory’s music is similarly eclectic and always strikingly beautiful. He arranges Madonna’s Steingberg/Kelly song Like a Virgin to great effect and it supports one of Puncture’s most cherishable moments. It’s possible someone reading this today might feel impelled to head to Parramatta tomorrow (tonight, even!) to see the piece – that would be wonderful; I wish I could see it again myself – so I won’t reveal what happens here. I’ll just say that VOX soprano Charlotte Campbell is a real surprise package.

Mic Gruchy’s video design sends evocative flickering figures along the walls of the space and Mel Page designed the show, which includes some divinely pretty skirts and dresses for the female dancers. The names keep on coming – this project really has gathered the best of the best. Damien Cooper did the lighting, and Bree Van Reyk (percussion) and Luke Byrne (piano) support the singers, whose music director is Elizabeth Scott.

And – this is the crowning touch – heading the beautiful ensemble of dancers are Kristina Chan and Joshua Thomson, two of the country’s finest contemporary dance artists.

Patrick Nolan, whose concept it is, directs this greatly complex piece in such a way that it feels quite simple and natural and incredibly satisfying. The flow of human history continues.