In praise of Sydney’s Ensemble theatre

A History of Falling Things, July 13; Betrayal, July 22

Tucked away in Sydney’s Kirribilli, in a secluded – and highly enviable – spot right on Sydney Harbour, the Ensemble quietly goes about the business it’s been devoted to for nearly six decades. You won’t often read about it in the mainstream press and while many fine actors can be seen there, they are only occasionally boldface names such as those so frequently encountered at Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir. Never mind. The Ensemble has its own character. In its small auditorium, steeply raked and arranged in a semi-circle around a small acting area, it’s common to see front-row patrons having to pull their feet in swiftly to prevent actors from tripping. The space is intimate and welcoming and the atmosphere comfortable.

The Ensemble describes itself as the “longest continuously running professional theatre in Australia”, having staged its first performances in 1958 with founding director Hayes Gordon, who ran the company for 27 years. The Ensemble is surely also the country’s most stable outfit. Sandra Bates succeeded Gordon and was at the helm for 30 years, retiring fully in January this year after sharing the artistic directorship with Mark Kilmurry for five years. Kilmurry is now solely in charge of the Ensemble’s direction as the company heads towards its 60th anniversary in 2018. (By comparison, Sydney Theatre Company is a whipper-snapper that will turn 40 in 2018.)

Ursula Mills and Matt Zeremes in Betrayal, photo by Clare Hawley-86

Ursula Mills and Matthew Zeremes in Betrayal. Photo: Clare Hawley

Remarkably, the Ensemble has survived without the benefit of any ongoing government funding. The Balnaves Foundation is its major partner and there is a small group of businesses and foundations which are supporting and strategic partners. Individuals donate a small percentage of Ensemble income. But essentially the Ensemble has to put on plays people want to see (and at times that suit them – the Ensemble has exceptionally welcome 11am weekday matinees sprinkled through its seasons). The tagline underneath the theatre’s name on its programs is this: theatre for everyone.

You would not be wrong to think that suggests a reliance on conventional dramas and light comedies, and certainly seasons have had their share of new David Williamsons and old Neil Simons (coming up next month: Barefoot in the Park), but there are also works that have greater resonance. Jane Carafella’s e-baby, a two-hander that deals with surrogacy, will be directed by Nadia Tass, stars Angie Milliken and opens in October. In recent years the Ensemble has brought to Sydney audiences the wonderful Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (2012), David Auburn’s Proof and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (both 2014), David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People (April/May this year), Nina Raine’s Tribes (June this year) and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (playing now).

Betrayal starts at the end and works its way, backwards, to the beginning of an affair between Emma and Jerry. Emma is married to Robert; Jerry is Robert’s best friend. In the first scene, some years after the end of the affair, Emma meets Jerry for a drink to tell him her marriage is over and, inter alia, that she had to reveal the affair to Robert during an all-night argument. As we will discover, this is not exactly true. The Emma-Jerry affair is not the only act of betrayal in this enigmatic three-hander.

Mark Kilmurry’s production is perhaps best described as workmanlike. Pinter’s language in this play is characteristically unadorned; the complexities gather beneath the surface, or should. The intricacies of passion, friendship and gamesmanship are not fully mined here, although the surface is played entertainingly by Ursula Mills as Emma with Guy Edmonds as her husband and Matthew Zeremes as her lover. The real action, however, is in what Emma, Robert and Jerry – particularly Robert – think and know rather than say.

It was a little instructive in this respect to note that Betrayal is described on the Ensemble website as running for approximately 90 minutes without interval. At the performance I saw we were done and dusted within 75 minutes. Those famous Pinter pauses didn’t get a huge look-in.

In repertory with Betrayal is James Graham’s A History of Falling Things. It’s a slight, sweet rom-com with a twist: the two young people whose burgeoning romance we follow suffer from keraunothnetophobia, a particularly precise fear, that of falling man-made satellites. Naturally this makes it hard for them to leave the safety of their homes and the relationship is conducted chiefly via electronic means. But is that enough?

The Ensemble’s production is blessed with Sophie Hensser’s luminous performance as Jacqui and Eric Beecroft’s as the highly strung but likeable Robin (Nicole Buffoni is the sensitive director). Merridy Eastman, Brian Meeghan and Sam O’Sullivan give fine support. It’s a modest piece, to be sure, but heart-warming too as it gives a shot of normalcy to two characters who seem destined to live on the margins. There is a gentle message there.

Anna Gardiner designed the set for both History and Betrayal. In fact, given the interlocking schedules the set is essentially the same for both, with different moveable elements, and not entirely satisfactory for both. It’s a pity.

Still, I was glad to see both plays, and continue to be glad that the Ensemble exists. It has heart. Yes, in lieu of government subsidy it has to balance the books with a new Williamson or an Alan Ayckbourn (and absolutely nothing wrong with that – I’ll be there for Relatively Speaking in November). But often enough it gently challenges its loyal audience, and one suspects Kilmurry may have more up his sleeve in years to come. He launches his second season on August 8.

A History of Falling Things and Betrayal both end on August 20.

Mr Gaga: Ohad Naharin and his Batsheva Dance Company

Any Australian with more than a passing interest in contemporary dance must have seen Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company. It could have been at Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide Festival in 1996 – my first acquaintance with Batsheva – or David Sefton’s Adelaide Festival of 2014. Possibly Melbourne’s festival in 2000 or 2015, or Jonathan Holloway’s final Perth festival in 2014, Batsheva’s 50th anniversary year. Or you could have seen Naharin’s unique approach to dance at the Sydney Festival in 2007. Local festival directors can’t get enough of the man.

Dancers will be aware that STRUT Dance, the Perth-based national choreographic development centre, is towards the end of a three-year partnership with Naharin to present a series of workshops (one of which I was fortunate enough to see). They culminate in September with a performance of Naharin’s Decadance in the State Theatre Centre of WA’s Heath Ledger Theatre as part of the MOVEME Festival.

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Batsheva in Tabula Rasa (2012) by Ohad Naharin. Photo: Gadi Dagon

All of which suggests there should be a dedicated national audience for Mr Gaga, a very fine documentary that follows Naharin’s career in dance and the power of his movement language – his philosophy – Gaga. (The name is meaningless; the results are magnetic.) The documentary, directed by Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann, has already been seen at a number of Australian film festivals and at a handful of cinemas around the country with others to come. It’s worth seeking out.

Gaga is a deeply sensual form of dance, although not in the dreamily erotic way the word usually implies. It can look awkward or silly; it frequently has a brutal energy that’s as challenging as it is exhilarating; and it can be frankly, overtly sexual. Naharin wants dancers to be fully and intimately in touch with all their senses – to make, as he said in a 2013 interview for Adelaide’s The Advertiser, “a connection to the explosive power within”. He wants dancers not to tell their bodies what to do, but to listen to the body’s impulses and emotions and respond to them. The dancers look immensely individual, strong, free, powerful, juicy and fiercely alert and engaged.

It’s telling that when talking about his active youth, Naharin says he was “a lot more connected to the animal I am”.

When you understand that, you can see why Naharin bans mirrors. Watching oneself means an inevitable concentration on the outside – on form – and on making judgments that can distance the dancer from the dance. The training is exacting and can be confronting. Heymann dives right in, opening Mr Gaga with a snippet of rehearsal in which a woman falls to the floor again and again, but not truthfully enough for Naharin. He can see her “protecting her head”. “Are you stressed?” he asks the dancer. “No.” “So do it again.” It is an astute introduction to the man and the subject.

Ohad Naharin. Pic Gadi Dagon copy

Ohad Naharin. Photo: Gadi Dagon

Naharin started dance training at the very late age of 22 although early family film footage shows he was exceptionally active and a terrific mover. He lived in a kibbutz until the age of five, when he was “torn away”, as his father acknowledges, from a communal life he loved. As all young Israelis must do he completed several years of national service, during which he saw violence, experienced the deaths of young friends and, as a performer, sang “bad songs to traumatised soldiers”. These experiences inevitably colour his work, which is plentifully illustrated by Heymann with clips from pieces including Anaphase, Tabula Rasa, Decadance, Sadeh21, Mamootot, Mabul and Naharin’s most recent production, the mysteriously titled (and politically charged) Last Work, which premiered in June last year and was seen in October at Josephine Ridge’s final Melbourne Festival.

Naharin took classes with Batsheva Dance Company at the urging of his mother after leaving the army. Batsheva had been founded in 1964 by Baronnes Batsheva de Rothschild and American contemporary dance legend Martha Graham; when Graham returned to Tel Aviv to make a work she took a shine to Naharin and he quickly found himself in New York dancing with her company. Almost just as quickly he moved on, disappointed. He took classical classes, then danced for a time with Maurice Béjart’s company (“the worst year of my life”).

Eventually he wanted to go home. He was asked to take over the artistic directorship of Batsheva in 1990 and turned it into one of the most admired, influential and sought-after contemporary dance companies in the world.

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Batsheva in Last Work  (2015) by Ohad Naharin. Photo: Gadi Dagon

It took Heymann many years to persuade Naharin to participate in the film and it would appear funding wasn’t particularly easy to get as a Kickstarter fund was needed to get the project to completion. Perhaps the hunt for money is the reason Heymann had to include a brief interview with actress Natalie Portman, who was born in Israel. The little sprinkling of star-power feels like a sop to a funding body and is an out-of-kilter touch.

But that is a tiny irritant in an otherwise absorbing attempt to pin down an elusive man. The viewer gets only a partial understanding of the choreographer, although there are telling clues in snippets of personal footage and from Naharin’s fascinating admission about what initially seems a potent reason for his decision to become a dancer. The obviously crucial partnership with Naharin’s wife Mari Kajiwara is handled delicately, as is a later relationship.

Mr Gaga is a beautifully constructed film that wisely doesn’t feel it has to explain everything about its enigmatic subject but does reveal his creative, sometimes controversial, genius in absorbing detail.

Mr Gaga is screening daily at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova; at Adelaide’s Trak Cinema from July 28; and can be seen at a special screening at Sydney’s Roseville Cinemas on July 31, introduced by Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela.

Character building: dance isn’t only for the young

The received wisdom is that ballet is strictly a young person’s game. When a classical dancer gets near or just beyond 40 there is much marveling at their longevity and conjecture about what they will do when they retire. There are always exceptions, of course. Think of the wondrous Alessandra Ferri, who on June 23 danced Juliet for American Ballet Theatre at the age of 53 (in the MacMillan version). Leanne Benjamin, long-serving Australian-born principal at the Royal Ballet, retired at 48 still looking spectacular.

And there is another, much larger, cohort of mature dancers whose contribution is great but less remarked upon. They are kings and queens; mothers, fathers and grandparents; attendants at court, kindly godmothers, clog-dancing widows, bad fairies and more. They bring experience, authority, wisdom and texture to the stage – not to mention sparing the audience the unpleasing sight of vigorous 20-somethings giving us their old-person acting. The character dancer is an essential part of any company.

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Colin Peasley ready to take the stage in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

“Once a dancer, always a dancer,” says David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet, who has in front of him one of the great examples in the business. When the AB opens its London tour on July 13 with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the role of the Lord Admiral will be taken – as usual – by Colin Peasley. Peasley, a founding member of the AB in 1962, will be 82 before the year is out (he celebrated his 80th birthday in the US while on tour with the AB in 2014). His role is not extensive but you know what they say: there are no small parts, only small actors. McAllister was a principal artist with the AB before becoming artistic director and says: “I remember as a young performer learning so much from watching people like Colin.” Young performers also need to watch out: an expertly judged cameo can shine far more brightly than a larger routine performance.

Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet (and also a former AB principal) says story ballets need experienced older artists to add depth and weight to the production. “No matter how brilliant young dancers are, they haven’t lived the ups and downs, the heart-breaking moments. The way you walk, the way you look at a person, the subtlety, is very hard to teach. “Furthermore, to have those marvelous dancers is such a great inspiration for the younger members of the company. Dancers are such visual learners so to have someone like that in front of you – it makes a huge difference.” McAllister agrees. It is invaluable for “all the company to witness that theatrical craft at such close range”.

Li invited Steven Heathcote to dance Lord Capulet when QB staged the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet in 2014. Heathcote was the AB’s alpha male principal artist for many years and is now a ballet master and regional touring associate for the national company. He also performs character roles for the AB and was most recently seen on stage in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake, bringing his considerable charisma to the role of the Lord Chancellor.

Rachael Walsh unforgettably made Lady Capulet in the QB Romeo and Juliet her final role before retiring as a principal dancer and taking the position of corporate partnerships manager at the company. Heathcote and Walsh are “fabulous artists, truly rare”, says Li. Walsh is now listed as one of QB’s character artists, alongside veteran Paul Boyd, members of the ballet staff and others.

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Paul Boyd as Catalabutte in Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet

Other former AB principal artists seguing into character roles include Lisa Bolte (now working in philanthropy for the AB), who recently appeared as the Queen in the Baynes Swan Lake, and Lynette Wills. Wills created the role of the Godmother in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella in 2013 and Carabosse in McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty last year, these performances an adjunct to her frequent credits as a ballet photographer. In Sydney former Royal Ballet first soloist Gillian Revie was a memorable Carabosse in the McAllister production.

Bolte and Wills may be somewhat older than most of the dancers on stage but they are positively teenaged by comparison with some. “I think of Sir Robert Helpmann in Checkmate, Dame Margaret Scott in Nutcracker: The Story of Clara and pretty much every role that Colin Peasley does,” says McAllister. The Red King in Checkmate was Helpmann’s final role. He died in 1986 at the age of 77 only two months after he was last on stage. Scott was in her late 70s when she last danced in the Murphy Nutcracker – and dance she did, including a highly physical encounter with giant rats in a dream sequence.

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Lisa Bolte as the Queen in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake for The Australian Ballet

Peasley had more than 6000 performances under his belt when he formally retired in 2012 but in his farewell interviews flagged that he wouldn’t be averse to accepting further invitations to appear. I asked him then about the legendary Freddie Franklin, who died at 98 in 2013 and who had appeared as the Tutor in Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre when he was 94. Peasley seemed inclined to want to match or better that. You’d be mad to bet against it.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, July 6

I’m sure the good folk at Charlie Hebdo magazine won’t mind when I say, after seeing You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown at the Hayes last night, that je suis Charlie. I must also say that je suis Lucy, or at least the better bits of her (I hope). But really we all are Charlie, as cartoonist Charles M. Schultz understood. Somewhere still within us is the four-year-old that Charlie was when he first appeared, and the five, six, seven and eight-year-old he became. The klutzy kid’s hopes and fears earn our laughter because we know them intimately. We undoubtedly still feel those things, except now we know enough to hide them. We make ourselves opaque; Charlie innocently lays it all out there. As a friend said last night, the emotion is unedited.

The musical – well, more a collection of gags and aphorisms, some of which are put to music – started life Off-Broadway in 1967 (with Clark Gesner’s book, music and lyrics), and was a big success. On Broadway it wasn’t. This is a delicate comedy not suited to the Great White Way’s need for red meat.

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Sheridan Harbridge and Mike Whalley. Photo: Noni Carroll

Shaun Rennie’s production, delivered by the excellent Georgia Hopkins (set and costumes), Hugh Hamilton (lights), Tim Hope (AV design) and Jed Silver (sound design), beautifully preserves the essential fragility of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. There is no set to speak of, just a set of side drops on which colours wash. Snoopy gets his red dog house, Lucy her doctor’s stall. Schroeder his piano and Linus his blanket (how not?) but otherwise everything is kept nice and simple as befits a show in which the big production numbers are about Linus’s security blanket and Schroeder’s passion for Beethoven. Michael Tyack’s musical direction could not be more sympathetic to this jaunty, uplifting music.

Rennie’s cast is sweet, funny and heart-meltingly vulnerable – yes, even Sheridan Harbridge’s Lucy as she carries out a survey to ascertain her level of crabbiness while hoping to get a tick for her ability to “sparkle in company”. Nat Jobe’s Schroeder, Ben Gerrard’s Linus and Laura Murphy’s Sally each has a welcome turn in the spotlight and all praise to choreographer Andy Dexterity, not only for his splendid dances but for stepping late into the role of Snoopy and making him quite the sophisticate. Snoopy’s Red Baron number gives Dexterity a chance to channel Bob Fosse very amusingly so it feels a bit curmudgeonly (Lucy-like?) to say it’s the show’s most dispensable song. Despite the many joys of this production You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown is just a bit too long for its material and could very usefully be a slightly slimmer one-act piece.

Don’t let that caveat put you off though because then you’d miss Mike Whalley’s Charlie – the gorgeous beating heart of the piece. Whalley somehow manages to turn his tall, grown-up self into the very essence of a lovely little boy who knows there are lots of things he’s not good at but keeps on trying anyway. In his own way he is as indomitable as Lucy – more self-aware, certainly – and the pluckiest of troupers. It would be a very hard heart that did not love him, and this production, to bits.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, runs until July 30.

Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

State Theatre, Melbourne, June 30

Stanton Welch looked thrilled after the premiere of his Romeo and Juliet in Melbourne, as he should have. The former Australian Ballet dancer and current AB resident choreographer had brought his own company, Houston Ballet, home. In the audience – along with supporters from Houston – was a galaxy of AB principal artists former and present. I saw Amber Scott, Ty King-Wall, Madeleine Eastoe, Rachel Rawlins, Olivia Bell (she is on the AB board) and, of course Stanton’s brother Damien and his wife Kirsty Martin. Ballet royalty Marilyn Jones, the Welch brothers’ mother, was there too. It was quite a night. (Also watching: American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist David Hallberg, who has been kept offstage for some time due to injury. His Kenneth MacMillan Romeo with Natalia Osipova as his Juliet, seen in New York with ABT in 2012, remains one of my greatest of great nights in the theatre.)

Perhaps it’s not surprising to see in Houston Ballet qualities similar to those of The Australian Ballet. This is in Welch’s blood. I suspect, too, that his Texan audience delights in the way the company dances spaciously, with natural ease and lack of pretension. These are exceptionally attractive traits. There’s no shortage of technical dash but character, presence and skin-bursting vitality are to the fore. Welch honours the traditional classical language but loosens it too so it doesn’t look or feel stagey. Well, mostly. The Friar Lawrence scenes were welcome for giving local audiences a chance to see former AB member Steven Woodgate again but looked rather old-fashioned.

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Karina Gonzalez as Juliet in Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Jeff Busby

The swift, headlong drama of Shakespeare’s play is given full value in Welch’s production and was buoyed on opening night by a full-blooded performance of the Prokofiev score by Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Houston Ballet’s music director Ermanno Florio. Welch is a choreographer for whom more is more and in Romeo and Juliet he uses that tendency to strong dramatic effect. The city of Verona is a robust, busy, lively society with strong, individual women and men always ready for a lark or a fight. The big picture was terrific and given handsome visual appeal by Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s Renaissance-flavoured sets and costumes.

Most productions of Romeo and Juliet shorten the list of dramatis personae for the sake of clarity. It’s easier for the audience to grasp who is who. Welch dives right in at the deep end. Shakespeare wrote about “two households, both alike in dignity” – the Montagues and the Capulets. Welch makes more prominent the third house in the drama, that of the ruler Prince Escalus, which includes Romeo’s wild friend Mercutio and Juliet’s intended husband Count Paris. Welch gives Mercutio’s brother Valentine a part and enjoyably includes another of Romeo’s friends, Balthasar. Friar John, bearing the letter to the banished Romeo that goes astray, is also seen in an effective vignette. It takes a little while to sort out who is who but adds greatly to the texture of the story and the stage picture.

Welch took out a bit of insurance for Thursday’s opening by fielding all his principal artists bar one (Yuriko Kajiya is Rosaline at some performances). Sara Webb, for instance, took the relatively small role of Romeo’s former love Rosaline and also dances Juliet in this season, as does Melody Mennite, who on opening night was a tavern owner’s daughter. Ian Casady, who is Mennite’s Romeo, was Count Paris on opening night. The lusty, magnetic first-cast Mercutio, former American Ballet Theatre soloist Jared Matthews, also dances Romeo (partnering Webb). Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, who was promoted to principal only three weeks ago after debuting as Albrecht (he is still listed as a first soloist in the program; that’s how new his promotion is), took the minor role of Gregory, member of the house of Capulet.

That said, Welch’s production demands that everyone, from top to bottom, be individual and engaged. The company looked splendid.

First-cast leads Katrina González and Connor Walsh were a fresh, glowing pair of lovers most credibly besotted with each other. The balcony pas de deux was rapturous, studded with exciting lifts and catches that Walsh made look instinctive. And why not, with a Juliet as entrancing as González? Her smile almost made Lisa J. Pinkham’s excellent lighting redundant and she has eyes eloquent and beautiful enough to make angels weep.

Welch’s desire to keep the action flowing and swelling sometimes leads to an over-reliance on certain surefire steps – the men certainly do many double tours (and do them well) – but the fire and passion make it a very seductive evening.

Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet ends in Melbourne July 9.

About last week … June 20-26

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co was the venue for another in the invaluable Neglected Musicals series (June 21). Rehearsal is minimal (a day only), there may be a sketchy set and a few props, and the actors – always very, very good – have books in hand. By some strange alchemy it always feels like a proper show. I’ve seen some beauties. Unfortunately Baby the Musical (1983) can’t be counted among them. We were told it was nominated for seven Tony awards but had the misfortune to be up against Sunday in the Park with George and La Cage aux Folles. Yes, well. I think it was kind of making up the category, as its competition included The Tap Dance Kid (I admit that’s a title entirely new to me) and Kander and Ebb’s The Rink, which did not meet with much critical favour and didn’t last a year (nor did Baby). Baby is little more than an extended skit really about three couples expecting a baby or hoping to. That’s it. Music is by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr and the book by Sybille Pearson. They’re not particularly scintillating except for the big women’s number I Want it All. That still works. The generous actors giving their all at the Hayes included Katrina Retallick, David Whitney (both fabulous) and the incredibly plucky Kate Maree Hoolihan who powered through a respiratory illness to keep the curtain up.

Next in Neglected Musicals (from August 3 for six performances) is Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s Calamity Jane, starring Virginia Gay. I’m absolutely up for that one.

Nederlands Dans Theater had one thing people could agree on during its brief Melbourne visit: the magnetism, authority and power of its dancers. Responses to the program (June 22) were more mixed. The evening opened and closed with works choreographed by NDT artistic director Paul Lightfoot and his associate Sol León that were long on visual glamour but rather shorter on emotional and visceral satisfaction.

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Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Sehnsucht (2009) was simultaneously overwrought and underdone. A man and a women played out a domestic drama in a small rotating box slightly elevated and set back – a kind of square tumble-drier with fixed table and chair and a window for escaping through. In front of them a solitary man emoted to Beethoven piano sonatas. In the second half a large ensemble was borne along by the majesty of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, although the connection between dance and music was tenuous. I couldn’t tell why this work in particular and not another one. One couldn’t deny, however, that Beethoven provided a thrillingly strong, familiar beat. The dancers looked marvelous, of course, although I did feel for Prince Credell, the solo man, who was forced to crouch at the front of the stage when Sehnsucht – the word suggests intense yearning – ended. The auditorium lights came up, he stayed, the audience stood about a bit and then he slowly unfurled himself.

Lightfoot/León’s Stop-Motion (2014), to music by Max Richter, had a similarly glossy air without convincing one that it meant anything other than generalised anguish. Too often the dancers stopped and posed either in arabesque or with legs held high to the side, either straight or with a bent knee. One admired the control, but admiring technical skill, particularly when invited to do so again and again, can get rather tiresome. Sehnsucht would have given the program a more striking ending but as Stop-Motion ends with quantities of flour being thrown about the stage, logistics demanded it closed the evening.

Thanks goodness for the central work (in all senses), Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. There was a backdrop of falling snow, Brahms piano and cello sonatas, and an aching sense of need and loss. In the crepuscular light dancers swirled, slid and connected as if their lives depended on it. Breathtaking is an overused and frequently meaningless word of praise. Here it was entirely apposite. I wasn’t aware of myself, those around me, or of the need to breathe. Those dancers, that dance, that music, that experience filled every moment.

I won’t say too much about West Australian Ballet’s Genesis program (seen June 23) because I serve as a member of the company’s artistic review panel. The program gives WAB dancers a chance to develop their choreographic skills and is a vital part of the operation, as it is with Queensland Ballet’s Dance Dialogues. The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque program seems to have disappeared, although this year two alumni, Alice Topp and Richard House, had work programmed as part of the AB’s mainstage season. At WAB just-retired principal artist Jayne Smeulders and soloist Andre Santos have made it to the mainstage via earlier workshops.

You will note I name two women, which is cause for rejoicing. One of the hot topics of conversation in classical dance is the scarcity – it’s close to complete absence – of female choreographers, although Crystal Pite is breaking through, as she deserves to. At WAB this year a gratifying number of women were represented: Polly Hilton, Florence Leroux-Coléno and Melissa Boniface stepped up to the plate alongside Santos, Christopher Hill, Adam Alzaim and Alessio Scognamiglio.

At the end of this year WAB stages a new Nutcracker co-choreographed by Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélien Scannella and ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle.

 

Bangarra: OUR land people stories

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 16

Bangarra offers balm in a fractured, fractious world. As always the work is radiantly lovely, but more important are underlying principles that have propelled Bangarra for more than a quarter of a century: connection with the land, learning from the past, the glue of community and the enduring power of storytelling.

Bangarra takes the long view. Place, family and culture are seen on a continuum that reaches from almost unfathomable antiquity into the now and beyond.

Each of the three works in OUR land people stories enlarges our understanding of these big themes as, sadly, does the program’s dedication to the company’s late music director, David Page. Page, who died in April, composed the heart-stopping score for Jasmin Shepphard’s Macq and was a pivotal figure in the creation of Bangarra’s unique aesthetic. In no other company’s work are past and present so potently, inextricably intertwined.

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Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco in Nyapanyapa. Photo: Jhuny Boy-Borja

In a series of short, surreal and highly evocative scenes Macq relives a massacre of Indigenous Australians in NSW, ordered by Governor Lachlan Macquarie 200 years ago this year. We see grieving women, a parody of colonial society, an Indigenous leader refusing to give in to the might of his oppressor and a scene of hanging men in which dancers embody both the trees from which the men dangle and the loving arms that cut them down.

In an act of extraordinary generosity Sheppard lets us see Macquarie tormented by his action, even though his words speak of the need for retribution and chastisement. Daniel Riley’s anguished solo sees Macquarie in profound conflict with himself. In this and everywhere else Sheppard has a wonderful eye. A woman tries desperately to restore a dead man to life; the depiction of red-coated soldiers as a swarm of crawling commandos also brings to mind a mob of goannas; the group of perfectly still women to one side of the stage as their men hang, slowly raised and lowered while bathed in Matt Cox’s golden light, is a stage picture of perplexing beauty.

David Page’s score resounds with the echoing voices of the bereaved, the sound of the elements and the persistent buzz of the landscape. When the Indigenous men die Page weaves in allusions to medieval sacred music, European tradition mingling with an even older one. I can’t recall his having written a more affecting score and it is devastating that it was his last.

Macq has been somewhat reworked since its 2013 premiere in a more intimate studio setting and it fully earns this main stage exposure.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley – they are related, although didn’t meet until they joined Bangarra – created Miyagan together to Paul Mac’s pungent score. It shows a kinship system reclaiming young people who are at first disconnected from it and while some details are elusive, the morphing from contemporary life into a mysterious world of spirits is subtle and beautiful.

There are brief flashes of what one might call normal life. Men strut, an old couple totters, a young couple flirts. Soon more enigmatic figures arrive as the stage is filled with a proliferation of great feathery branches, lit ravishingly by Cox (lighting designer for the whole evening). Hugely talented Jacob Nash designed all three works in OUR land people stories and each is spare, monumental and sculptural. Longtime Bangarra collaborator Jennifer Irwin provided the wonderful costumes. Nash, by the way, is one of the few designers who has the measure of the difficult letter-box dimensions of the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. His work always looks wonderful there.

This rich evening ends with Nyapanyapa, Stephen Page’s wondrously multi-layered homage to Arnhem Land artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. The depiction of a key event in Yunupingu’s life – she was severely injured by a buffalo – has mythic resonance while a later community gathering at which Yunupingu, danced devotedly by national treasure Elma Kris, isn’t quite at ease is instantly recognisable, funny and poignant all at once. At the end there is peace, harmony and grace.

Yunupingu’s paintings are recreated in dance and inspire Nash’s setting in a remarkably harmonius fusion of arts. Steve Francis’s score is in the spirit of David Page, mingling spoken language and natural sounds seamlessly with more contemporary sounds.

The 17-strong company is entrancing, revelling in fluid, juicy, full-bodied movement and animating every moment with shining sincerity. All are a joy. It’s particularly noticeable how democratic Bangarra’s dance is. Men and women frequently do the same movements and it’s refreshing to in Nyapanyapa, see three couples, all male, in a strong sextet.

The Bangarra dancers have a distinctive way of taking a curtain call. They aren’t necessarily all in line. Some may be laughing with the pleasure of having performed and they like to applaud each other and the audience. There’s a lot of joy and a complete lack of pretension and artifice. It’s incredibly endearing, but there’s something more too: a feeling of humility and deep service to the work.

Ends in Sydney July 9. Perth, July 20-23; Canberra, July 28-30; Brisbane, August 12-20; Melbourne, September 1-10.