On View: Live Portraits

Performance Space at Carriageworks, Sydney, July 17

HOW can we know the dancer from the dance, asked W.B. Yeats. It’s a question embedded in Sue Healey’s absorbing On View: Live Portraits, a piece that incorporates the moving image, live performance and, for 10 minutes at the beginning, the dancer as museum object.

When the doors to Bay 20 at Carriageworks are opened the audience, free to wander at will, discovers five dancers placed separately around the dimly lit space. They perform some dance actions but there’s a remote quality about the movement. It’s as if the performers need to wrap themselves in an invisible protective shield.

Raghav Handa, Martin del Amo, Nalina Wait, Benjamin Hancock and Shona Erskine

Raghav Handa, Martin del Amo, Nalina Wait, Benjamin Hancock and Shona Erskine

The audience is then seated for the main event, a 60-minute dance work that invites one to contemplate character, personality, differences between the mediums of film and live performance in creating portraiture and to assess the combination. Or, to be honest, you can skip the theorising and just luxuriate in the company of Martin del Amo, Shona Erskine, Benjamin Hancock, Raghav Handa and Nalina Wait, in the flesh and up on five large screens, your enjoyment doubled. (The piece has been seen in a different version, with these performers, in Melbourne at Dance Massive, as On View: Quintet.)

Healey knows how to pick a dancer. These are wonderfully mature, individual artists. As we see on screen and in life, Wait is a strong and voluptuous mover with a highly expressive face; Erskine is elegant and enigmatic; you will likely never really know what del Amo is thinking but whatever it is, he intrigues; Handa is sensuous and full of juice; and Hancock is fabulously other-worldly, exotic and surprising. Or are these performances not to be confused with intrinsic nature? The dance or the dancer?

The screen imagery is arresting and gorgeously captured – Judd Overton is director of photography – and may be seen at various art galleries around Australia later this year and next. There is, however, nothing to match the presence of the performers. Each makes an impression as an individual but Healey doesn’t leave it there. At the end the five come together, dressed alike and moving as one in a gently ecstatic whirl. The affirmation of community is extremely beautiful.

On View: Live Portraits would be welcome at any time but is particularly good programming at Carriageworks right now. It sits brilliantly alongside 24 Frames per Second, the wonderful large-scale exhibition devoted to dance and the moving image (which I wrote about here). But while 24 Frames per Second runs until early August, On View has a run of just a week. It deserves more.

Ends July 25.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on July 21.

On reading the draft guidelines for The National Program for Excellence in the Arts

I DO hope I’ve got this right. Senator George Brandis is appropriating about $100 million, give or take, from the Australia Council for the Arts so he can give it to applicants approved directly and personally by himself. It’s what the guidelines say, kind of. The language is not always as direct as one would wish, but the implications are there: “The final amount of any funding and length of funding term will be assessed by the Ministry for the Arts and independent assessors, subject to Program budgetary limits. Recommendations will then be made to the Minister for the Arts.”

The independent assessors will, of course, be selected by the Ministry for the Arts, which doesn’t sound incredibly independent, but perhaps that’s just me. The killer is that final sentence, classically expressed in the passive voice. After the assessments, who exactly makes the recommendations? Can’t tell, although presumably you’re supposed to take it on trust that it’s those members of Senator Brandis’s own ministry and the assessors chosen by that ministry. And then after those recommendations are received by the minister, who makes the final call? One must assume it’s the minister, even though a definite statement on that is delicately omitted.

It’s not a good look. What qualifications does Senator Brandis have, I might ask, to carry out such an important task? What are his arts credentials? What has he seen (when not carrying out his undoubtedly heavy duties as Commonwealth Attorney-General), where has he gone, what has he studied, what are his tastes? What, in short, does George Brandis find excellent? (Or, if he happened to get bored or promoted or rolled or whatever else can happen in politics, his successor?)

It’s possible to find some clues in what is an often vaguely expressed document. (“ … applicants should keep in mind that the program seeks to support projects that deliver national outcomes and deliver a diverse range of quality projects in each of the program streams.” Empty bureaucratic-speak at its finest.) It would appear the Senator thinks the Australia Council has been funding too much arty-farty navel-gazing stuff for his liking. One of the program’s objectives is to “strengthen Australia’s reputation as a sophisticated and artistic nation with a confident, outward-focused arts sector’’. It goes without saying the italics are mine.

Individuals need not apply. (Even if they are really excellent?) They are specifically excluded from the process, those mad experimental teat-sucking wierdos, and so, one assumes, must seek funds from the depleted Australia Council coffers, from whatever is left after all the major organisations have received their untouchable grants.

I particularly like the dot point in the Assessment Criteria under the Quality heading: Relevance and likely appeal to audiences and communities. Who the hell knows what will “likely appeal”? As William Goldman so famously and sagely wrote in his Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.” That was in 1983, and it remains true.

I give you The New York Times, May 26, 2015, in which Michael Paulson wrote that while sales and attendance records were set in a bumper season, the resulting bounty was by no means divided equally. Indeed, “about three-quarters of shows fail financially”, and that’s not just in the season just gone. That’s every year. Let’s just say that again. In the most audience-aware, audience-friendly market in the universe, 75 per cent of all shows lose their entire investment. Does an investor set out to lose all that dough? Not likely. No, it’s just that no one knows anything. A musical about Mormons going to spread the word in Africa? A play about an autistic boy? A musical about a lesbian whose father was secretly gay? Who knew that The Book of Mormon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Fun Home would be so excellent? (I can say this definitively because I have seen all three.)

I fear that this likely audience appeal – a criterion repeated under Access as “audience appeal and demand” – means that work that has already proved itself popular will be favoured. But surely something that already possesses audience appeal and demand isn’t so much in need of public funding? Just thinking out loud here.

And on we go. The guidelines make fascinating – if dolorous – reading from the heading onwards. What is this excellence? I go to the theatre constantly and have done so for more than three decades, and see good and often great work at all levels and in many different and often surprising places. Under Senator Brandis’s plan many of the companies responsible for this work will be forced to vie for funds from the reduced Australia Council budget or apply to the NPEA and put themselves at the mercy of one man. This, before any work has had a chance of proving itself in the one place it counts: before an audience.

Culture isn’t neat and tidy, nor should it be. Things will fail. Work will enrage. It will also teach, enlarge, embolden, inspire and alter thinking. It’s just that we can’t tell before the event which things will do what. We have to take the plunge.

In her recent Platform Paper The Arts and the Common Good, published in May, Katharine Brisbane wrote: “No amount of calculation or modelling can guarantee success and it is arrogant of us to claim it.” Senator Brandis proposes to take $100 million-plus of our money – not his money, our money – and dole it out at his sole discretion in the name of some untested vision of excellence, whatever that word means to the minister. Arrogant. Yes, that’s the appropriate word. Arrogant beyond belief.

Submissions to the Senate inquiry into the NPEA closed on Friday but feedback is invited by the Ministry for the Arts until 5pm (AEST) on July 31. You might want to let Senator Brandis know what you think.

nationalexcellenceprogram@arts.gov.au

The sweetest choice

CARRIAGEWORKS is Sydney’s other great secular cathedral. This vast late-19th century industrial space, originally built as railway workshops to make train carriages for the growing city, is less than a decade old as a centre for contemporary arts and doesn’t have the instant-recognition factor of the Sydney Opera House, but it, too, is awe-inspiring in concept, execution and purpose. Art of the newest kind finds a home within these history-laden walls.

Francois Chaignaud & Cesar Vayssie, The Sweetest Choice (still), 2015. Commissioned by Carriageworks for 24 Frames per Second. Courtesy the artists. Photo: Cesar Vassie

Francois Chaignaud & Cesar Vayssie, The Sweetest Choice (still), 2015. Commissioned by Carriageworks for 24 Frames per Second. Courtesy the artists. Photo: Cesar Vassie

With Carriageworks’ current major offering there is a particularly brilliant marriage of project and venue. Three years in the making and involving artists from here and abroad, 24 Frames per Second is an important exhibition that, in the words of its organisers, “works at the intersection of dance, film and visual arts”. It’s not, however, dance as many people might understand it. Co-curator Nina Miall acknowledges there was much discussion about how it might be defined: “It’s a broad understanding,” she says with some understatement. Not only does this understanding encompass the body in motion or even simply the presence of gesture – an exceptionally generous definition of dance – but also something more metaphorical, as in “the dance between analogue and digital”. One might even like to see the collaborations between artists who usually work in different fields from one another as a form of dance. (Adelaide filmmaker Sophie Hyde’s To Look Away lists 19 people in the credits.) It’s up to you really.

Saburo Teshigawara's Broken Lights, an immersive experience for the viewer

Saburo Teshigawara’s Broken Lights, an immersive experience for the viewer

As a result of this eclecticism the range is stimulating. Some of the artists are choreographers, including Japanese luminary Saburo Teshigawara, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Stephen Page and the celebrated UK dancemaker Siobhan Davies, and others not. Some hadn’t worked in film before. Some use three-dimensional means while fulfilling the moving-image brief. There are short pieces and long ones, some with several parts and others on one screen. There are non-dancers doing what I would certainly call dancing and dancers not exactly dancing. Whatever 24 Frames per Second is, it is most certainly not an exhibition of dance films but it is built around the eloquence of the moving body and is audacious, experimental, technologically sophisticated and full of surprises.

To see 24 Frames per Second clearly one must first surrender to the darkness. After walking through a kind of ante-chamber dominated by Khaled Sabsabi’s thrilling Organised Confusion, the viewer plunges into a cave of wonders in which the only light sources are the works of art themselves, placed within a vast hall (the area is about 6000 square metres; Carriageworks does big very well). Visibility is down to just a few metres. The senses are immediately heightened, and not only because dim light in an unfamiliar space brings its own particular frisson. There is a rumbling soundscape that turns out to be a mixed bag of the works’ individual soundtracks, each resolving itself more precisely on approach. Sound bleed may be the exhibition’s biggest technical challenge in an exceptionally technical show but the cacophony adds an enticing element of the unpredictable.

The setting for 24 Frames per Second at Carriageworks

The setting for 24 Frames per Second at Carriageworks

The curators have arranged the exhibits splendidly. Some works are immediately visible although they may be intriguingly far away, others are tucked away in alcoves or, in the case of Letai Taumoepeau and Elias Nohra’s Repatriate, viewed in a narrow hallway. In between two walled spaces housing longer works (there are couches provided) it’s possible to see from a distance Sriwhana Spong’s The Fourth Notebook, a solo for dancer and choreographer Benjamin Ord using as a score a “semi-sensical” letter written by Nijinsky. One of the first works to claim attention is Tony Albert and Stephen Page’s Moving Targets, installed in a strong position not far from the exhibition entrance. Moving Targets features screens inside the ruins of a stripped-back car – a work, incidentally, that will remind Bangarra patrons of dances by Page seen in the theatre. Walk to the end of the area and turn right, and two screens show Kate Murphy’s Lift and Push, austere, confronting and unsparing pieces on ageing embodied by enduring Australian dance eminences Robina Beard and Patrick Harding-Irmer.

There is the sense of stumbling upon new things as one negotiates the space, adjusting eyes to the gloom. It takes time to orient oneself. On a third visit – and this is an exhibition to visit many times – I realised I still didn’t know exactly where everything was, which meant that works seen in a certain order on one visit were seen in another on a subsequent viewing. Given the different durations of the pieces, that fact changes the experience substantially.

I do need to go again to immerse myself more fully in a few works I have really only glimpsed. Siobhan Davies and David Hinton’s The Running Tongue is one; Sophie Hyde’s gorgeous To Look Away, a quintet of video portraits featuring Restless Dance Theatre artists from Adelaide, is another.

Christian Thompson, Silence is Golden (still), 2015. Commissioned by Carriageworks for 24 Frames per Second. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne, and Michael Reid Gallery, Sydney and Berlin

Christian Thompson, Silence is Golden (still), 2015. Commissioned by Carriageworks for 24 Frames per Second. Courtesy the artist and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne, and Michael Reid Gallery, Sydney and Berlin

I also need to return to a handful of favourites. Christian Thompson’s Silence is Golden has a great backstory. Thompson is a South Australian Indigenous artist interested in identity, culture, memory and history who discovered, while undertaking a doctorate at Oxford University, that one of his great-great grandfathers was from the English town of Bamford, famous for its long Morris dancing tradition. Morris is seen performing in traditional Morris garb in Silence is Golden, although not in a Bamford dance. Thompson was denied access, says Nina Miall. His connection, it appears, was not strong enough for him to be inducted into that town’s mysteries so he was taught something else by an expert in London.

A work that drew me back again and again as I circled 24 Frames per Second is François Chaignaud and César Vayssié’s The Sweetest Choice, a cycle of five films lasting about eight or nine minutes each in which Chaignaud dances and sings. The setting is California’s Death Valley, the unaccompanied song is a baroque aria by Purcell O solitude, my sweetest choice! and the dance is described as “precarious”. The voice is fragile, the body is almost naked except for a shamanistic decoration of foliage and the choreography is elusive but the effect is mesmerising.

And finally there is the inescapable adrenalin rush of Khaled Sabsabi’s Organised Confusion. Huge facing screens are filled with a crowd of fans of the football club Western Sydney Wanderers as they support and exhort their team. It is an expression of collective faith, identification, will and power as the group chants and moves as one. Organised Confusion is a two-part piece, contrasting the ebullience of the football fans with a series of small screens showing a single figure in a trance state, but I must confess I found it hard to tear myself away from the footy fans, hundreds and hundreds of individuals moving as one in an ecstatic ritual.

Happily one can afford to go back multiple times to 24 Frames per Second, which is supported by the Australia Council. Admission is free.

24 Frames per Second, Carriageworks, Wilson Street, Eveleigh, until August 2.

Flying high

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, June 26.

TREY McIntyre is a prolific American choreographer who has made more than 100 works – he is only 45 – and is widely known and admired in the US. When he announced last year he was closing his Trey McIntyre Project as a fulltime ensemble to concentrate on a broader range of cultural projects it was big news in the dance world. The company, wrote Marina Harss in The New York Times a year ago, had become “something almost unheard-of in the often beleaguered cultural landscape: a small, independent dance troupe that was a familiar name both at home in Boise, Idaho, and nationwide”. It was a “darling of festivals” and an “uncommon success”.

It’s unusual that success drives someone to pull back from the very thing that made them a success, but McIntyre wants to spend more time on film, photography and writing. That said, there are companies still wishing to stage his works and that circumstance brought him to Brisbane to oversee final rehearsals for Peter Pan, the 2002 work that was his first full-length ballet. It was certainly a belated introduction to Australia but a welcome one. Peter Pan was a big success on its premiere at Houston Ballet, other companies have taken it into their repertoire and Houston revived it in 2013.

Peter Pan leads the Darling children to Neverland. Photo: David Kelly

Peter Pan leads the Darling children to Neverland. Photo: David Kelly

Houston Ballet of course is what connects QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and McIntyre. Li was a principal dancer there when McIntyre started choreographing as a 20-year-old during his first year with the company. In a program note McIntyre says Li and another Houston principal Mary McKendry – now Mary Li and a ballet mistress at QB – were “incredibly supportive and protective of me”. (Li doesn’t forget his old friends. Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker and Cinderella are from the hand of Ben Stevenson, who was Li’s artistic director and father figure in Houston.)

It’s no surprise that the current season was almost completely sold out before it opened because that’s been the happy state of affairs at QB since Li took over the artistic directorship three years ago. Ticket buyers may have known nothing about this ballet apart from its name but they were prepared to take it on trust. They were right to. It’s a child-friendly work for the school holidays that has enough sophistication for an adult audience without losing the essential element of wonder.

At the time of making Peter Pan McIntyre was in his early 30s but still, as he writes in his program note, “basically just a kid”. That sense of himself as both boy and adult is absolutely crucial to Peter Pan, a story steeped in dualities. Sunlight and shadow, romance and adventure, fantasy and reality, spectacle and intimacy all have their place. The boy who would not grow up is also the Lost Boy who can’t grow up, bitter-sweet knowledge that anchors the sometimes unruly narrative and makes the final encounter between Peter and Wendy exceptionally affecting. He is in the air, poised to return to Neverland, and she is back in her rightful home, unable to fly and needing to stay. They must part. On opening night a technical glitch interrupted this touching scene (there had also been a spot of bother earlier) and the curtain had to be lowered for several minutes, but the emotional weight of the scene was present. I was sorry not to see the full radiance of Peter’s flying.

The story’s broader strokes would be easily comprehended by young viewers. Tinkerbell and a surprisingly sexy band of fairies flutter around the Darling children, who then fly off with wild-haired Peter into an exciting world where lissome mermaids frolic, pirates attack enthusiastically, dastardly Captain Hook masterminds the mayhem and a large croc makes several show-stealing appearances. McIntyre’s movement flows with happy ease between classically based choreography and energetic group shenanigans and his “just a kid” imagination lights up every scene.

And how astute to use music by Edward Elgar – an exact contemporary of Peter Pan’s creator J.M. Barrie – for the ballet’s score. Expressive, melodic selections from the British composer’s oeuvre provide abundant colour for dance and action along with a finely calibrated atmosphere of becoming modesty. The Queensland Symphony under Andrew Mogrelia sounded wonderful.

The vivid children’s-book designs by Thomas Boyd (sets), Jeanne Button (costumes) and Christina R. Giannelli (lighting) are a treat but ultimately McIntyre’s shiny-eyed affection for all his characters is the key to the production’s success. That’s not to say it’s perfect. McIntyre’s overall telling of the narrative is strong and clear but his story-ballet inexperience at the time of creation is evident in occasionally confusing or obscure detail, particularly in the framing scenes at the Darling home. There is also action involving Hook’s son James that requires a dip into the program for clarification, although at every moment this is a wonderful role.

McIntyre, however, is far from being alone in falling short in the area of drum-tight dramatic structure. Many, many seasoned makers of story ballets have made greater errors. (As to why this should be – well, that’s a long discussion to do with choreographers frequently acting as maker of steps, writer or co-writer of libretto, director and dramaturge all in one.)

QB is taking on a strikingly international look in the higher ranks and the opening performance gave audiences the chance to see the company’s newest principal artist, Laura Hidalgo, as a luscious Tinkerbell and recent Cuban recruits Camilo Ramos (soloist) and Yanela Piñera (principal) as Peter and Wendy. But there are entertaining parts for everyone in this sweet, effervescent ballet and among those who made a fine impression were young artist Liam Geck as timid, put-upon James Hook who finally finds his rightful place; company dancer Lina Kim as the littlest Darling, Michael; and company dancer Vito Bernasconi as a robustly commanding Hook.

Ends July 11. Limited availability.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 29.

Heart and soul

Sydney Opera House, June 11

IN Frances Rings’s Sheoak, her new work for Bangarra Dance Theatre, there is a greatly touching section for two women, on the Sydney opening night danced by Elma Kris and Yolanda Lowatta. The duo is one of protection, nurturing and teaching, and was enriched immeasurably by Kris’s radiant maturity and Lowatta’s shiny youth. Kris, now 43, is one of the longest-serving members of the Bangarra company while Lowatta, 23, is still a trainee, although a future in dance looks very secure indeed. She was awarded the 2015 Russell Page Fellowship and catches the eye effortlessly on stage.

But Lowatta is right at the beginning of her journey. Kris has travelled a long way from her earliest days with Bangarra as a rather shy figure whose world seemed to hold secrets we’d never learn. She was always intriguing because of that but you had to seek her out on stage. Now she is in the full flowering of her artistry. She is still a very modest performer, never appearing to seek the spotlight, but transmits a dance’s purpose with the greatest clarity.

Elma Kris and company in Sheoak. Photo: Jhuny Boy Borja

Elma Kris and company in Sheoak. Photo: Jhuny Boy Borja

Kris has never been the most obviously polished dancer in Bangarra’s ranks but she has qualities that transcend technical finish. She has heart and soul. She can take you to the realm most important to Bangarra – an understanding of traditional Indigenous culture.

As well as anchoring the ancient mysteries of Sheoak, Kris had a central role in I.B.I.S., the here-and-now work that gets the lore double bill off to a rollicking start. Who would have thought that going down to the shop to stock up on food could be so much fun? I.B.I.S. is named after a Queensland Government statutory body – Islanders Board of Industry & Service – that operates stores in the Torres Strait. One of its responsibilities (I got this from a 2013 report) is to “provide healthy food choices at lowest possible prices”.

With the lightest of touches, co-choreographers Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco remind us that people (and not only Indigenous people) are increasingly removed from their own food gathering. Want some crayfish? It comes out of the freezer. (The freezer also provides some welcome cooling air for a group of exceptionally sinous shoppers.)

I.B.I.S. starts with a delightful gathering of friends amongst the shelves, the women in pretty flowery frocks (longtime Bangarra associate Jennifer Irwin created all the terrific costumes for this program) and the men full of high spirits. There’s singing, horsing about and some business with shopping baskets, and then things start getting surreal as turtles and crayfish come to life with sinuous grace and flickering legs. The fantastical then gives way to the traditional as the company performs vibrant stamping dances.

Wanneer Blanco, Yolanda Lowatta and Tara Gower in I.B.I.S. Photo: Jeff Tan

Waangenga Blanco, Yolanda Lowatta and Tara Gower in I.B.I.S. Photo: Jeff Tan

I.B.I.S. is a first work from Brown and Blanco and it’s a great success. The theme of change in practices and the environment is delivered with much humour and vitality. Bangarra doesn’t have a huge ensemble so Brown and Blanco didn’t get the night off work to enjoy I.B.I.S. from the auditorium. They both looked terrific, as did the whole company.

Sheoak is a serious, dramatically beautiful response to timeless imperatives. As the work starts a disintegrating mass of bodies shows the fracturing of an old way of life but essential parts remain through troubled times and in renewal. The tree is re-imagined as fragments in a series of vignettes touching on loss and recovery. The meaning is at times elusive but the atmospherics powerful. Jacob Nash designed both works with Karen Norris on lighting. As ever, it is hard to think of dance works that consistently look as ravishing as Bangarra’s. David Page composed for Sheoak and Steve Francis wrote the I.B.I.S. score, both of them using Indigenous language as an integral aspect of music and meaning.

Sydney until July 4. Canberra, July 9-11; Wollongong, July 23-25; Brisbane, August 7-15; Melbourne, August 28-September 5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 15.

Where there’s muck there’s brass

Belvoir, Sydney, June 10

MOTHER Courage is one of the little people, born somewhere undesirable at the wrong time. A war she didn’t have anything to do with starting grinds on, stops for a bit and then starts up again. What’s a woman to do? Mother Courage goes on to the front foot. As a Yorkshireman might say, “where’s there’s muck there’s brass”. That’s a 20th-century saying but apparently there was a 17th-century English proverb that covered pretty much the same ground. Wherever there’s unpleasant work there is money to be made. Certainly where there is destruction on a grand scale many people will lose everything. But some people make a lot. Consider, for instance, KBR Inc, a former subsidiary of the well-connected company Halliburton, which received US government contracts worth nearly $US40 billion for work relating to the Iraq war. Mother Courage works on a rather less elevated level, hanging around the fringes of conflict with her wagon, selling a bit of this and a bit of that. She makes a living. (That phrase takes on some piquancy when used in relation to a war zone.)

Robyn Nevin in Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin in Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Brecht set his play during the cataclysmic Thirty Years War that occupied a substantial part of the first half of 17th-century Europe but its story is imperishable. Kingdoms and principalities may come and go but war is a sure thing and so are the profits that go with it. Brecht’s war isn’t the clash of bodies and armaments and a little touch of Harry in the night; it’s the one that runs parallel with it, the one that feeds off the fighting while feeding those who fight, and possibly keeps it all going longer than it might otherwise. Who can possibly say?

As John Willett writes in Brecht in Context (Methuen, 1984), “Brecht does that seemingly simple thing which his often mystifying theory of alienation is intended to make possible. He takes a new look at a familiar area, and by so doing he suggests to others how they too can look at it afresh.” In other words, we need to be able to see things doubly – in the light of deeply ingrained beliefs but also with a mind open to new and perhaps strange ways of perceiving. Things are rarely as cut and dried as black hats versus white hats.

Mother Courage – the character – brilliantly embodies the kind of duality that’s constantly shifting. For every good quality she displays there is evidence of its opposite. She is funny and grim, brave and cowardly, generous and venal, protective of her children while failing to protect them, open to a spot of romance and hard as a nut, and on it goes. Is she really courageous or a vulture opportunistically picking at whatever bones come her way?

Under Eamon Flack’s direction for Belvoir, Robyn Nevin shows you all this in a riveting performance that feels perfectly true to the intentions of the work and the process of conveying it. I came across the following when reading Eric Bentley’s The Theory of the Modern Stage (Penguin, 1968) and it resounded greatly. This is Brecht on his wife Helene Weigel, saying that she had learned to let attention “move away from her, the actress, to the content: to what was enacted … never did she set out to show her own greatness, but always the greatness of those whom she portrayed.” (Translation by John Berger and Anna Bostock.) Weigel was the first Mother Courage.

Flack has also been very astute in the selection of supporting actors. It’s true that Belvoir has an increasingly good record of looking beyond performers who match the predominately white audience, but here the casting has particular bite. (Most people don’t notice absence. It’s why for aeons there were female directors were incredibly scarce: male artistic directors just didn’t notice they weren’t there. People get used to seeing people who are like them and assuming all is right with the world. It’s not a state particularly conducive to creative thinking.) In Mother Courage the diversity of the actors’ appearances forces you to attend just that little bit more actively. A Kattrin whose work we are already familiar and therefore comfortable with? A young woman who looks rather like a young Nevin? Too easy. Newcomer Emele Ugavule was an inspired choice and she is unforgettable as Mother Courage’s daughter, her muteness explained in one terrible throwaway line that efficiently covers the kinds of things that happen to young women during wartime and demonstrates Mother Courage’s practical acceptance of it.

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

The production is a bare-bones one, clearly in a theatrical setting although not one with lots of bells and whistles. It is modest in its means and that modesty becomes it. It is particularly endearing, for instance, that while the evidence suggests Nevin’s exceptional gifts do not extend to singing and dancing, she does these things nevertheless. This play – this production – can incorporate gear shifts such as this that make one smile. (Paula Arundell, on the other hand, lends considerable vocal skills, along with a sizzling, gleeful presence, to the role of Yvette, another woman who uses what she has to get by.)

The ideas come through loud and clear in Michael Gow’s strong, clear translation and in the hands of all the actors. But then what? Horace Walpole comes to the rescue (as do my long-ago drama studies at the University of Newcastle). Walpole wrote that the world was a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. Same thing, different outcomes. If you didn’t laugh you’d cry, and all that.

Mother Courage chooses to laugh, if you like. We can choose to cry, if we want. We can do both.

Mother Courage and Her Children has one of Western theatre’s indelible endings. There are no children left after a brief breakout of peace has been stamped out by a resumption of hostilities, but Mother Courage does not crack. She stands in front of her wagon, hoists up the shafts and starts pulling. In Nevin’s face I saw stoicism and determination mixed with dread, or at least that is what I believe I saw, which amounts to the same thing. The defiance is thrilling and terrifying. Who amongst us would have her guts in such circumstances?

Mother Courage and Her Children was written just before the start of World War II and first produced in 1941, in Zurich. Did Samuel Beckett, writing (in French) in 1948 learn something from this dogged expression of the will to endure? Certainly another of Western theatre’s indelible endings expresses a similar spirit.

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

Staying, going, surviving, whatever it takes. Would we do any better?

Everything old is new again

Metropolitan Opera House, New York, May 29 and May 30.

WHEN Serge Diaghilev decided to stage The Sleeping Beauty in London the monumental Russian Imperial-era ballet was not an obvious stablemate for the modernist dance works he had introduced with his Ballets Russes. But Diaghilev had his reasons. There was Tchaikovsky’s music, which he admired greatly and which was championed by Stravinsky (who reorchestrated part of the score for Diaghilev), and, more pragmatically, the cash-strapped Diaghilev was inspired by the success of the popular Oscar Asche musical comedy Chu Chin Chow. It ran for five years in London from 1916 and Diaghilev wanted, he said, to put on a show that would run “forever”. As Lynn Garofola writes in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, financial statements demonstrate “the precarious thread on which survival of the post-Armistice Ballets Russes hung”. As ever, being daring and experimental was not a guarantee of lasting security. The impresario badly needed money.

Titled The Sleeping Princess – apparently Diaghilev didn’t think all his Auroras were beautiful, hence the more prosaic wording – the production didn’t do badly by today’s standards, having a three-month run of more than 100 performances from November 1921 to February 1922. It didn’t, however, recoup its costs. Diaghilev left London quickly to give creditors the slip and Ballets Russes sets, scores, costumes, designs and other items were impounded. That they weren’t widely dispersed and lost is something of a miracle, but at various auctions in the 1960s and 1970s large tranches of the material were bought by cultural institutions, including what would later become the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Its rich Ballets Russes holdings, including some Léon Bakst costumes and sketches for The Sleeping Princess (the NGA has the Bluebird’s costume, a wonderful jewel), were shown in a fascinating 2011 exhibition Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume. When designer Richard Hudson used Bakst as inspiration for Alexei Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre, there was plenty of excellent research material available.

Léon Bakst Costume for the Bluebird c.1921 from the Ballets Russes' production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant] National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1980

Léon Bakst. Costume for the Bluebird c.1921 from the Ballets Russes’ production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant]. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

While Hudson’s opulent design references the 1921 production, Ratmansky’s choreography seeks to revive as nearly as possible that of Petipa’s 1890 St Petersburg original, a task made possible by study of the Stepanov notation of the ballet that was taken out of Russia after the 1917 revolution by St Petersburg ballet master Nikolai Sergeyev. Diaghilev also used this resource for his production.

An aside: Ratmansky’s Act III wedding celebration includes many storybook characters including Chinese Porcelain Princesses, who dance very little but walk with their hands raised and a finger pointed skywards – just as we can see in this sketch from the NGA’s collection. Dance critic Judith Mackrell wrote in The Guardian in March: “While the notation is very specific in certain respects, recording the height and positions of the legs, the direction of a phrase, the way the body is bent, it gives almost no information about the positions of the arms.” Direction would have to have come from elsewhere, and Ratmansky suggested that “Perhaps they just used the port de bras that were conventional – the ones everybody knew – or perhaps the principals were given the freedom to do what they wanted.”

Léon Bakst Costume design for the Chinese from The Sleeping Princess  1921 Souvenir programme for The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra Theatre Research Library, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Léon Bakst. Costume design for the Chinese from The Sleeping Princess 1921. Souvenir programme for The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra Theatre. Research Library, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The 1921 venture was by no means a dead end. The Sleeping Beauty had failed to get traction in revolutionary Russia but Diaghilev would change its fortunes. The Sleeping Princess may not have achieved its financial goal but it did have a lasting effect on British ballet and beyond. When Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now The Royal Ballet) went to New York in 1949 it opened with The Sleeping Beauty, with Margot Fonteyn in the title role, and made an enormous impact. The company’s director, Ninette de Valois, had appeared in the Diaghilev production, writes Mary Clarke in her 1955 Sadler’s Wells Ballet history, with Clarke commenting that the 1939 Sadler’s Wells production of Beauty, its first, “came far nearer the original” than the Diaghilev version, “many numbers being included which had not been seen since St Petersburg days”.

Sadler’s Wells marked important occasions with performances of The Sleeping Beauty and the work would become a touchstone work for The Royal Ballet. It would also become the benchmark classical work for any company. It’s the big one.

As with all the Petipa ballets, The Sleeping Beauty has been revised and reinterpreted many times. The Mariinsky staged a reconstruction of the original in 1999 that was not universally admired, not even by the Mariinsky itself it would appear, as the company has retreated from it. (It ran about four hours including intervals and allowed contemporary flourishes such as very high leg extensions for the women.) Now there is Ratmansky’s somewhat slimmer version to give audiences a window into the storied world of Russian Imperial ballet and to shine a light on Petipa’s choreographic style. ABT’s production lasts three hours including two intervals, although rather candidly the ABT program notes that the ballet was cut “somewhat to fit within the union defined time limitation”. Some mime and music had to go.

 

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.  Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Ratmansky’s Beauty is visually extravagant – mostly but not entirely successfully – but nevertheless a deeply impressive spectacle. The scale of the enterprise becomes apparent immediately as members of the court enter to celebrate the christening of Princess Aurora. The King and Queen preside over a large establishment of courtiers, cavaliers, attendants and pages, all gorgeously costumed. The Queen has a huge panniered gown with a lengthy train that requires the constant presence of small boys to carry, arrange and stumble over adorably. The fairies who have come to bestow gifts have their own brilliantly attired cavaliers and cushion-carrying children. The Lilac Fairy, being the highest ranked, has no fewer than eight men to accompany her. There are wigs for all and spectacular hats for many. The wicked fairy Carabosse arrives in a chariot and is supported by rats large and small, the little ones being particularly malevolent while also being on duty to prevent Carabosse from tripping over her extensive train. That is just the Prologue. In the Act I Garland Dance there are no fewer than 48 dancers: 32 adults and 16 students from ABT’s Jacqueline Onassis School. In Act III, Aurora and Prince Désiré enter the ballroom in wonderfully sumptuous white costumes entirely suitable for a royal wedding but not for dancing, so after a few minutes they slip away to change – returning in much simpler garments that from where I was sitting gave the impression that the couple was ready for bed once they’d completed their grand pas de deux.

(It is easy to see where the money – reportedly cost $US6 million – went. Not surprisingly Beauty is a co-production, with Teatro alla Scala presenting Beauty in Milan from September 26. Bolshoi principal and La Scala étoile Svetlana Zakharova is slated to dance three of the eight performances partnered by Bolshoi and ABT principal David Hallberg, who has been absent from the stage for many months while recovering from foot surgery.)

While the display is lavish, it frames a story told with strong, clear mime and many intimate, modest details. In this environment the music sounds immediate and fresh. Many familiar passages make a livelier impact because the more contained physicality means the music is not slowed for multiple fouettés (there are absolutely none here) or high-flying manéges of jetés with double sauts de basque thrown in. Leg extensions are relatively low and there are delightful pirouettes in which the retiré position – where one leg is pulled up and the foot placed against the supporting leg – is not much higher than the ankle. The effect is refined and charming, entirely suitable for a young woman at her birthday party. For both men and women there is a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkles. It is as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and more intricate and sophisticated.

Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone

It was pleasing to note alterations in choreography to suit the different gifts and temperaments of the lead dancers. For instance, Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo, a less grand couple than the first cast of Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes, didn’t do the famous series of fish dives in the Act III pas de deux, and they weren’t missed. In fact, I felt the spirit of romance was better sustained without them, because the fish dives sent the audience’s applause-o-meter off the scale and interrupted the mood – for me, anyway.

At both performances I saw those around me were tickled by the Canari qui chante (Canary) fairy variation in the Prologue, its speed and fluttery quality bringing to mind the hummingbird as never before (in the Diaghilev production she is described as the Fairy of the Hummingbird). There were countless felicitious moments, but I particularly relished the double air turn landed on one foot that Cornejo, in the second performance, made look so elegant, and the way he held Lane in a series of supported pirouettes, using just one hand to turn her while his other arm was out-stretched. Darting eyelines and changing head and torso positions added texture and animation to dances, with the Diamond Fairy’s Act III variation particularly notable in this regard.

It was fascinating to see the Sapphire Fairy’s vivacissimo variation included. It rarely is. In notes to the full version of the score recorded by Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic (Chandos), David Nice writes: “The Sapphire Fairy is given one of the most original miniatures in the ballet, a racy number in the unusual metre of 5/4 to illustrate Petipa’s specified ‘five-pointed’ quality. And devilishly difficult it is to dance to – hence its usual absence from productions.”

The Chandos disc runs to two hours and 35 minutes of music and in his introduction Nice writes: “Neither at [the 1890] premiere … nor in more than a handful of subsequent choreographies has every note of Tchaikovsky’s score been heard (substantial cuts in 1890 included the music for the ladies of the Prince’s retinue in Act II and for the Fairies of the precious stones in Act III).”

The music for the Sapphire Fairy’s variation lasts only about 40 seconds, so there wouldn’t have been much of a saving there. A bigger cut was made by eliminating entrancing music that follows the Panorama in which the Prince sets off to find his sleeping princess. There are two entr’actes, the first excluded entirely and the second truncated, I think. Fascinatingly, Nice remarks of the latter entr’acte: “Not previously noted, I think, is the fact that the note C is sustained by the strings, principally for violins, for exactly 100 bars. This is time suspended: the ‘sleep’ chords … and the themes of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse pass before us in shadow plan until the mists finally dissolve. Few if any productions observe the full symbolic duration of this hypnotic spell …”

The spell cast by Ratmansky is substantial, although not entirely complete. There are several puzzling dramaturgical decisions. For instance, Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy enter the wedding party together. There has been no repeat of the terrible mistake that saw Carabosse forgotten from the invitation list for the christening with such drastic consequences. All is forgiven and peace reigns. But if you’d blinked twice you would have missed this vital gesture of reconciliation as Carabosse whizzes across the back of the stage and is swallowed up by the throng. Another key moment, the kiss, is similarly underplayed. Aurora’s bed is to the audience’s right and would be difficult to see by those on that side of the theatre. I was seated quite centrally and only just had it fully in my line of vision. You really do want to see that kiss.

Léon Bakst Costume for a lady-in-waiting c.1921 from the Ballets Russes' production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant] National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1973

Léon Bakst. Costume for a lady-in-waiting c.1921 from the Ballets Russes’ production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant]
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.Purchased 1973

These are matters easily remedied. Something less easy to find is a sense of deep emotional engagement with the production. It is gracious, grand, meticulous, regal and restrained. It was fascinating to behold and I could easily have watched a third cast, and a fourth, and found more in it. It is a wonderful work of scholarship and I admired it greatly but there was a chill in the air.

American Ballet Theatre ends its Sleeping Beauty performances on June 13.