Rules of the Game: Jonah Bokaer at the Brisbane Festival

Brisbane Powerhouse, September 14.

Labels are always tricky. Jonah Bokaer is essentially a dance-maker but his deep immersion in the visual arts pushes his work towards performance art. But let’s not worry about what to call it. In the trio of works he brought to the Brisbane Festival – his first visit to Australia – Bokaer revealed himself to be an elegant, serious thinker.

As a bonus Brisbane also got to see him dance. Bokaer’s extensive CV may suggest a man of mature years but the American is still only 34 and a mesmerising figure onstage.

His 2010 solo RECESS started the evening, although with a new introduction of sorts. The audience arrived to see seven men and women arranged like statues. They would (with an eighth dancer) later perform the work that gave the whole program its title. The message was clear: the evening, gorgeously lit by Aaron Copp, was one event, not three.

The game was, of course, life, which these pieces presented as a constant battle against disorder and decay of all kinds. In RECESS Bokaer unfurled, folded, crumpled and tore a huge roll of paper until it wittily took on a life of its own. In the middle work, Why Patterns (2011), no matter how assiduously they tried to clear a space for themselves and create intimate connections, unpredictable cascades of ping pong balls kept assailing a quartet of dancers.

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Why Patterns, choreography by Jonah Bokaer.

There was an appealing contrast between cool science – the exploration of space and the behaviour of objects within it – and alert bodies.

RECESS is a solo in much the same way Russell Maliphant’s Two, for a dancer and a light source, is a solo. White paper has rarely appeared so fascinating. Bokaer moved sensually, making beautiful curves with his neck and arms, rolling on the floor as if dreaming between the sheets and wrapping pieces of paper around him as if he were a living sculpture, or perhaps a gift. There was also an endearing whiff of the science nerd about Bokaer as he carefully arranged his material just so.

RECESS was followed immediately by Why Patterns, named after and responding closely to Morton Feldman’s music of that name. Here the materials couldn’t be arranged just so. The near weightlessness of the ping pong balls – 5000 of them, they say – made a mockery of control. The dancers managed to take charge when the balls were contained in long, clear tubes but not when they arrived variously and amusingly in singles, handfuls and at one point a torrent from above. They were like molecules or vibrations, impossible to pin down and disrupting whatever calm and certainty may have been achieved.

Bokaer’s movement language is concentrated and for the most part restrained in these works. His diamond-edged clarity is visually and intellectually appealing but there are also luscious departures from austerity and precision that give the works texture. Bokaer has a strong affinity with the work of Merce Cunningham, with whose company he danced, and theatre director Robert Wilson, with whom he has often worked. It’s also possible to feel the spirit of the great postmodernist choreographers of the 1960s, who revered collaboration between artists of all kinds and introduced task-based movement.

The satisfying impression was of a choreographer who knows his dance history well while still being very much his own man.

RECESS and Why Patterns are terrific. Thematically the new work Rules of the Game fitted right in while being less convincing overall.

Rules of the Game, Brisbane Festival 2016

Rules of the Game, choreography by Jonah Bokaer

If you were to make a Venn diagram of the key Rules of the Game creatives, Bokaer would be in one circle, pop/hip-hop luminary Pharrell Williams would be in another circle and artist Daniel Arsham would be where they overlap. This is the first joint project for Bokaer and Williams; Arsham has worked separately with both (he designed the scenography for all three works in this program).

Williams is something of a polymath, being a songwriter, performer and mega-star producer, but hadn’t previously written anything for a dance work. His celebrity has not unnaturally brought extra attention to the piece, which was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for its Soluna International Music and Arts Festival and was first performed in May. (David Campbell arranged Williams’s music for orchestral forces and conducted an ensemble drawn from the Dallas Symphony for the premiere. That performance was recorded for use in later presentations of Rules of the Game.)

Rules of the Game was devised on a considerably larger scale than RECESS and Why Patterns but the result was rather less powerful at this early point in its career – Brisbane was only the second port of call.

Arsham’s giant video images of collapse, disintegration and reintegration were initially lovely to watch but repetitiveness reduced rather than intensified their impact. Williams’s music bounced along agreeably and melodically with lush strings, smooth brass, insistently regular percussive beats and plenty of climaxes. The sound was bright and often sunny, irresistibly suggesting a 1950s romantic film caper in which a glamorous couple is seen driving gaily along the Corniche in an open sports car.

That’s not necessarily a problem for Bokaer of course. His Cunningham experience means he is no stranger to the idea that dance and music can exist independently. Nevertheless, the music had a self-regarding sheen at odds with the tremendously involving dance, performed by four women and four men with powerful gravitas and authority.

A square within the performance space – a stage within a stage – added layer upon layer of perception; the loose-fitting salmon-coloured costumes that made no distinction between the sexes played the layer game too. As Rules of the Game progressed dancers shed jackets and shirts, and a riveting clash between two men was performed with them stripped to the waist.

Occasionally Rules of the Game felt a little unfocused but for the most part its imagery was precise and evocative without being prescriptive. Bokaer draws from Greek antiquity and modern game-playing literally and metaphorically with a language that contrasts sculptural stillness with intense solos, sometimes desperate duos and striking group encounters. Here, in the imagery of observers and the observed, was a sense of the influence – “more a point of departure than a literal usage”, says Bokaer – of Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello.

Just as pertinent, however, was the classical Greek agon, or contest. And in this contest between music, visuals and dance, Bokaer came out a clear winner.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 16.

The Australian Ballet performs John Neumeier’s Nijinsky

Because The Australian Ballet’s Nijinsky opened in Melbourne I didn’t review it for The Australian – my colleague Eamonn Kelly did the honours. I did, however, travel from Sydney to be the opening – how not? – and wrote about it for arts magazine Limelight. You can read that review here. And below are a few more images from this beautiful production – designed by choreographer John Neumeier – which I will see again in Sydney with different casts and without doubt write about again.

The expectation had been that AB principal Kevin Jackson, who featured strongly in all the publicity, would head the opening night cast. In the event Neumeier, artistic director of Hamburg Ballet, gave that honour to a longtime member of his company and a man much experienced in the role, Alexandre Riabko. Jackson danced the role of Vaslav at the second performance.

It’s always fascinating to see a company through new eyes. The really intriguing casting is that of Jake Mangakahia, who dances in the third cast as Vaslav. In fact, he should be just about taking the curtain calls after his debut performance as I write this on Saturday afternoon. Mangakahia is still in the corps de ballet and recently took two years off to undertake missionary work. He rejoined the company this year and has obviously lost none of the promise he had shown before taking his sabbatical. To be given this hugely demanding role in a ballet so close to Neumeier’s heart says much about his talent.

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Cristiano Martino as the Faun in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, right, with Alexandre Riabko, Leanne Stojmenov and Ako Kondo in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Dimity Azoury, Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

 

Snow White: Ballet Preljocaj at the Brisbane Festival

Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, September 2.

Angelin Preljocaj’s Snow White oozes sex, glamour and fantasy in a visually ravishing production that juxtaposes a monumental, golden-hued court with the mysterious vibrations of the deep forest.

It’s an extravagant world of abseiling dwarfs, luscious nymphs, huntsmen who look like tough mercenary soldiers, a dead mother who flies – literally – to her stricken daughter’s side and an unearthly sacrificial stag.

The familiar narrative is essentially intact but given an erotic charge. It’s clearly a version for grown-ups when costuming duties are taken by Jean Paul Gaultier, whose designs are witty and revealing in more ways than one. The Queen, enraged by her stepdaughter’s maturation into a desirable woman, has the kinky attire of a classy dominatrix (although ends as a Bob Mackie-era Cher lookalike); Snow White is dressed in blinding, virginal white but her gown is exceptionally revealing of hip and thigh. She looks fetchingly juicy. Her Prince comes out of proceedings less well, being asked to sport tight matador-like trousers in an unbecoming shade of apricot, but otherwise everyone looks fabulous.

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Emilie Lalande in Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White

As an image-maker Preljocaj is a winner. The Queen’s cramming of the poisoned apple into Snow White’s mouth is vicious and horrifying – a violent counterpoint to the Prince’s earlier gift to Snow White of a feather-light red scarf that at one point gently covers her face. The deaths that open and close the piece are strikingly staged and it was an inspiration to recast the dwarfs as floating, tumbling miners.

Choreographically and structurally things are much more mixed. Certainly the passionate pas de deux for Snow White and the Prince hit the mark, although the awakening scene will rather remind balletomanes of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. But a long court dance early in the piece exhausts its charms far more quickly than it ends, a fate that affects almost every part of the piece. Each is simply too long for the material – ballet and folk-flavoured contemporary dance – Preljocaj has devised for it. As well as oozing sex Snow White oozes sluggishness.

The Grimm brothers’ story is short and sharp. Preljocaj should have heeded their gift for compression or, in a piece that lasts nearly two hours, taken the opportunity to colour in the relationship between the King and the Queen.

And disappointingly, Snow White hammers home the tired trope of female vanity in the face of ageing but doesn’t have anything to say about society’s brutal rules about how one should look.

On opening night Emilie Lalande was a gorgeous Snow White, fresh, sensuous and strong. Redi Shtylla had some remarkably ugly choreography as the Prince but partnered Lalande heroically. Cecilia Torres Morillo had little more to do than stalk about and posture as the Queen but did so ferociously.

The music – slabs of Mahler with added electronic atmospherics from 79 D – often didn’t suit the choreography but was satisfyingly played by Queensland Symphony Orchestra with Johannes Fritzsch conducting.

Snow White ends on September 11. The performance on Thursday September 8 will be live-streamed by Queensland Performing Arts Centre.

Brisbane Festival: En avant, marche!

NTGent and Les Ballets C de la B. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, September 3.

It was a stroke of genius to build this knotty, sometimes exasperating, always fascinating piece about mortality around the playing of a brass band. Breath. That’s the fundamental thing – breathe in, breathe out. If that is happening, we are still alive.

Wim Opbrouck shambles into a room being set up for a band rehearsal and readies himself to make music. The man used to be a trombonist; now he is too sick for the kind of effort required (“death put a flower in my mouth”, he says; that would be cancer) but he can still make a noise. Cymbals, singing, humming, gargling, talking and the panting that comes from having danced: these are still at his disposal as he chooses not to go gentle into that good night.

It’s the oldest story in the world really, the one about dying, but En avant, marche!, from festival regulars Les Ballets C de la B and theatre company NTGent, is also a heart-swelling hymn to courage and resilience. To marching on.

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Wim Opbrouck, centre, with members of Brisbane Excelsior Band and, at rear left and right, En avant, marche! cast members Chris Thys and Griet Debacker. Photo: Phile Deprez

In each place En avant, marche! is performed, the production augments its stunning core of musician-singers and actors with a local band – here the wonderful Brisbane Excelsior Band – and the sense of community already embedded in the piece is brilliantly amplified. The room gleams with the shine of trumpets, saxophones, tubas, horns, euphoniums and trombones and is given gravitas by the wearing of formal uniforms.

At one point a few members are asked by Opbrouck to say what they do for a living. In the Brisbane Excelsior Band there are, not surprisingly, some music teachers. There are a couple of engineers. And surely it wasn’t fiction when on opening night one player said he was a funeral director. I do hope not. The rightness of it is absolute.

En avant, marche! throws comedy, dance, music and philosophy together in an anarchic mix that is occasionally baffling and, it must be said, sometimes alienating as a selection of European languages gets an outing. The temperature dips from time to time and the focus can be unclear, but hey, that’s life.

Always there is the music to hold on to, weaving in and out of the action under the serene direction of Steven Prengels. It is, for the most part, comfortingly familiar, consoling and uplifting. Included are selections from opera (Aida; the Miserere from Il trovatore; the luminous quartet from Fidelio, which is gently hummed). There is the nobility of Elgar’s Nimrod and Schubert’s exquisite love letter to music, An die Musik.

Most ravishing is Jupiter’s hymn from Holst’s The Planets. It ends En avant, marche! on a transcendent note. You might think of Holst’s title for the suite from which this comes, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, or else the English hymn written to Holst’s melody, I Vow to Thee My Country. Or both really: in En avant marche! laughter and death collide and the impermanence of life holds hands with the imperishability of great music. En avant.

En avant, marche! ends on September 7.

Horses in the Sky: Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company

Sydney Opera House, August 31.

Israeli choreographer Rami Be’er wears his heart on his sleeve in Horses in the Sky. The name comes from a doleful song by Canadian band Silver Mt. Zion but inevitably summons thoughts of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the end of days, which are faced with defiance, fear, small moments of tenderness and breakouts of manic energy.

Above all there is the necessity for people to be together.

Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company began and remains based in a kibbutz in northern Israel, and long-time artistic director Be’er learned dance as a child from KCDC’s founder, Holocaust survivor Yehudit Arnon. The history helps explain why such a powerful group dynamic underpins Horses in the Sky. While each dancer is utterly distinctive and there are key moments for individuals and couples, attention is always drawn back to the ensemble.

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Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. Photo: Prudence Upton

Be’er isn’t afraid to hammer home an image or to use the undeniable impact of unison movement. One repeated motif of fluttering hands is particularly potent. Sometimes it’s seen with the group hunched over as if keening, the shapes simultaneously tough and helpless. At other times everyone holds their arms up high, perhaps in surrender, perhaps playfully, with energy shooting from the feet through the body to the fingertips.

A wild, sweaty section for the men is danced dangerously, all decorum gone. There’s no propriety either when the whole company works itself into a frenzy that, despite the superficial humour, has a desperate edge. The rough vitality is invigorating and it’s interesting that the company’s 16 women and men, all impressively muscular, let you see how hard they are working. It humanises them.

The costuming – which along with stage design, lighting and sound editing is credited to Be’er – reinforces a pervading sense of vulnerability. White undies and shirts, some tied loosely at the back, hint at a hospital, asylum or prison camp. It’s not a new idea by any means but there’s something very touching in the way the dancers commit to it so intensely.

They are greatly appealing performers and it was a pleasure to see them on this first (albeit very brief) visit to Sydney. The work itself, danced to a collage of contemporary music with a mournful and often aggressive cast, was a touch over-extended despite being only an hour long. You think you’ve seen everything Be’er wants to say, and then he says it again.

Giselle: Royal New Zealand Ballet

Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, August 23

Every traditional Giselle is drawn in the same broad strokes; it’s the myriad finer details that distinguish one production from another, making yet another Giselle not just another Giselle, but a vivid and immediate experience.

At the end of the first act, for instance, Giselle lies dead, literally heartbroken by Albrecht’s betrayal. She is usually seen in her mother Berthe’s arms, although a director might let Albrecht cradle the girl. In anguish and with various degrees of violence, Albrecht and Hilarion, Giselle’s discarded rustic lover, accuse each other of causing Giselle’s death. Albrecht is customarily pulled away from the scene by his attendant Wilfred and may rush off in a panic, or may keep trying to return to Giselle’s body and has to be restrained.

In Maina Gielgud’s greatly admired staging, revived last year by The Australian Ballet, the very last seconds of the first act etch themselves on the memory. Berthe’s attention is not fully on her daughter but drawn somewhere into the beyond. She looks around in terror: the Wilis are coming. The connection has been made back to Berthe’s earlier description of this encroaching supernatural world and a bridge has explicitly been built to the world of the second act.

In Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg’s 2012 production for Royal New Zealand Ballet, the connection made is that of love. The Giselle who saves Albrecht from the wrath of the Wilis is the girl who dies with Albrecht’s kiss on her lips, an intimate touch I don’t recall seeing in other stagings.

Lucy Green as Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper

Lucy Green as Giselle. Photo: Bill Cooper

At every point in every production choices are made – choices that one hopes accumulate into a coherent, satisfying whole.

The Stiefel-Kobborg staging is astutely tailored for RNZB’s medium-sized forces (there are 34 unranked company members). Act II is essentially as danced by most companies, albeit with a reduced number of Wilis, but Act I is substantially and persuasively altered. We see more clearly how Hilarion fits in to this little community. He isn’t an outsider who skulks in and out and who is unregarded. He is present much of the time, watching from the edges as his love gives all her attention to another man. Giselle’s isn’t the only heart that’s broken.

Stiefel and Kobborg fruitfully abbreviate Bathilde’s visit to this neck of the woods, having the upper-crust party stop only briefly for a drink before going back to their outdoor pleasures. The salient point is made. Bathilde is engaged to be married, as she lets Giselle know; Giselle admits to being in love. We know they are both referring to Albrecht. Then Bathilde is gone. It’s a good call – one always wonders why she would stay inside Giselle’s little cottage as long as she does in most productions. With the haughty Bathilde not settling in, there’s no need to entertain her. The usual peasant pas becomes a dance for a Wedding Couple, their celebrations entered into by Albrecht, Giselle and Hilarion at various points. Hilarion, who usually doesn’t dance in the first act, is given his moment to shine as he tries to win Giselle’s attention. That Giselle caught the wedding bouquet makes him an even more poignant figure.

A downside is that Bathilde no longer gives Giselle the gift of her necklace, thus robbing us of the powerful moment when Albrecht sees it around Giselle’s neck and knows well ahead of time that his game is up. But there are other pleasures. Giselle’s admiration of Bathilde’s gorgeous gown – the style is Victorian – is enriched by our knowledge that she knows a thing or two about dressmaking: the wedding gown worn by the bride has been made in Giselle’s home. The more fluid approach to the peasant pas section (it rarely feels well-enough integrated dramatically) spills over into the group dance conventionally performed by the women. The Wedding Couple dances here too, as do Albrecht and Giselle.

I saw Giselle in Christchurch with the first cast, Lucy Green and Qi Huan. This production suits Green exceptionally well. She has the gift of appearing fresh and natural in a staging that puts a premium on storytelling. Whether it was an astonishingly swift set of backward bourrées in the second act, a beautifully simple floating half-turn in the first, or anything in between, every step added to one’s store of knowledge about Giselle. Qi is an elegant man of deep experience whose retirement from the stage in 2014 – he teaches at the New Zealand School of Dance – has happily proved to be negotiable. (There is Australian interest in this production too, with former Australian Ballet principal Daniel Gaudiello guesting as Albrecht at some performances with Mayu Tanigaito as his Giselle.)

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Qi Huan and Lucy Green in Giselle. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The experience of visiting Christchurch, the largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, was somewhat more sobering than I had expected on this first visit. The city centre is a forlorn place, with many buildings still needing restoration or complete rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake in which more than 100 people died. Recovery is a long process.

The city, however, was determined to save the Isaac Theatre Royal. Designed by Australian brothers Sydney and AE Luttrell, it opened in 1908 and had the not-uncommon history of being adapted for use as a cinema in the late 1920s and being in danger of demolition in the 1970s. Apparently this fate was fended off with only 48 hours to spare.

Then came the February 2011 quake and significant aftershocks in which the theatre was drastically damaged. The pragmatic – cheaper – choice would have been to build a modern replacement. It has instead been exquisitely restored (and strengthened), retaining its opulently decorated dome, marble staircase and ornate plasterwork. (You can read here about the extraordinary amount of work it took.) Not surprisingly, Giselle looked perfect there.

It was heartening to know that when it was devastated, the city understood the need to revive this beautiful place of art and community.

Giselle continues its national tour in Auckland, August 31-September 3; Rotorua, September 6; and Palmerston North, September 9.

Off the Record: Force Majeure with Dance Integrated Australia

Carriageworks, Sydney, August 17.

Marnie Palomares has Alex Jones pinned against a wall and is trying to put words into his mouth. Literally. This would be a resonant image under any circumstances but as Jones is deaf it seems an even more intrusive and futile act than usual. Except it’s a moment that also feels achingly intimate.

Off the Record is full of pungent provocations like this as it investigates how information is transferred from one person to another and what is revealed – or hidden or misunderstood – in the process.

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Marine Palomares and Jana Castillo in Off the Record. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

The stakes are upped by the knowledge that the performers’ real-life experiences were used as raw material, so one must assume that Jana Castillo did indeed incite a friend to sully her pristine Barbie collection by ripping dolls from their boxes and using them to demonstrate sex moves.

How much has been fictionalised (Zoe Coombs Marr was the text dramaturg) is impossible to tell. It adds an intriguing layer of perception in a piece that is already multi-layered and conducted in three languages: spoken text, movement, and the beautiful fusion of silent communication and movement that is Auslan. Occasional additions of audio-description and captioning bob up too. There’s a lot going on – so much so in this wide, relatively shallow space that occasionally there’s a sense of being at a tennis match, except one where the ball is in play at both ends.

The conjunction of arts and methods sets up a rich visual and imaginative world. Castillo’s extraordinary plasticity is used to convey her frustration about how bodies aren’t always obedient (“I don’t tic when I’m on stage,” she says). Auslan interpreter Neil Phipps has a great double act with Jones, with the two offering one of the funniest, most telling scenes in the piece as they vie for attention. They also share an exquisitely tender moment of connection, beautifully framed in Benjamin Cisterne’s austere set and lighting.

Gerard O’Dwyer’s sweet, serious presence adds a quieter and more mysterious thread to the complex business of how we explain ourselves to the world. He is a good person who just wants to be liked but it’s not necessarily easy.

O’Dwyer often speaks as if to himself. Palomares, on the other hand, is all super-confidence as she lays bare language’s potential for extraordinary unreliability. Interpreting for Jones at one point with utmost fluency, she is brightly engaged and totally clueless.

Danielle Micich (artistic director of Force Majeure) and Philip Channells (of Dance Integrated Australia) co-directed for Carriageworks as part of its valuable New Normal program. This is designed to bring artists from various disciplines and backgrounds together and to give greater mainstream prominence to work that is so frequently – and undeservedly – under the radar. In Off the Record Micich and Channells fluently cut across classifications and barriers as dancers speak, actors dance and the lines between them are blurred. The audience’s world is enlarged.

Off the Record takes a little time to get into its stride but by the end I wanted to know much more about these people – imperfect as we all are but significantly more honest about it. The show had a very short season in Sydney but one assumes there are hopes for more exposure. Off the Record is worth it.

It was impossible to see Off the Record without thinking of the company’s recent whack to the head by the Federal Government. Force Majeure recently lost four-year funding from the Australia Council after the debacle of former federal arts minister George Brandis’s money shuffle, taking from the Australia Council to set up his ominously named National Program for Excellence in the Arts. (Whose definition of excellence, pray tell?) After Brandis was replaced by Mitch Fifield some money – but not all – was restored to the Australia Council and Fifield turned the NPEA into a program called Catalyst – Australian Arts and Culture Fund.

The Catalyst website says the fund has $12 million annually to invest: “Catalyst will assist organisations to forge new creative and financial partnerships and stimulate innovative ways to build participation by Australians in our cultural life. It will enable access to high quality arts experiences in regional communities and international activities that achieve cultural diplomacy objectives,” it says.

Projects by small to medium-sized organisations are given priority.

The key word is “projects”. The Australia Council funding allowed companies to have certainty for four years; project funding is finite. Force Majeure also has triennial NSW Government funding and is a resident company at Carriageworks. So it’s not going out of business, as far as we can tell, but will undoubtedly have to do less business. As will so many other small-to-medium companies, as they were the ones hit by the Australia Council cuts.

This is the area where most experimentation takes place, it’s where artists find their voices and hone their skills. It’s where some of the most surprising, exhilarating and challenging work can be found. It’s where audiences can find a lot of bang for not many bucks. If the Federal Government were serious about wanting high quality arts and culture to be available to all, this is the last place it should be reducing funding. The amount of money involved is already in rounding-error territory when you look at the Federal Budget as a whole. It really is a disgrace.