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.

Force Majeure IMAGE GREGORY LORENZUTTI

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.

Aladdin, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Disney Theatrical Productions, August 11.

“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess,” said Oscar Wilde, who obviously wasn’t in a position to advise Disney on Aladdin but would not have been able to fault its abundance. It confidently contrives a standing ovation before interval, secure in the knowledge there’ll be another one at the end.

Sure, there’s a wholesome story somewhere in there about being honest, generous and true to yourself, but essentially Aladdin is a super-charged salaam to fabulousness.

The beloved 1992 animated film for children has been thankfully shorn of the unpleasant racial stereotyping with which the movie opens and turned into a type of The Road to … comedy-fantasy-adventure yarn where the rules of Aristotelian unity don’t exactly apply. If Bing Crosby popped up in hologram form to croon a number or two you wouldn’t be surprised.

Aladdin and Lamp - Ainsley Melham_Photo By Deen van Meer

Ainsley Melham as Aladdin. Photo: Deen van Meer

In bringing the film to the stage Disney clearly realised its flaws. They didn’t manage to eliminate them all but took the diversionary path of giving a makeover that makes Priscilla Queen of the Desert look demure. Aladdin takes place in an alternate universe where too much is never enough. And to be fair, the gold-plated limos of Middle East epigones seen about London these days attest to a committed love affair with display in certain stratas of society.

There are, according to informed sources, half a million Swarovski crystals bedecking Gregg Barnes’s eye-popping costumes, which gives some idea of the intense devotion to bling. Even the Sultan could comfortably double as a disco mirror ball. It was lovely to see veteran New Zealand actor George Henare comporting himself with such dignity while decked out like Donna Summer. Then there’s the flying carpet, giving Aladdin its astonishing “how on earth do they do that?” moment. In a film such effects are business as usual; on stage they fill the audience with heart-swelling awe.

Aladdin is – not wrongly – billed as a family musical and youngsters will undoubtedly enjoy the spectacle (Bob Crowley’s saturated-colour sets are beautiful), but this ebullient, knowing, magpie of a piece has plenty of extras for grown-ups who know their showbiz.

Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw is as shameless in his borrowings as he is expert in their use. Panto, vaudeville, swashbuckling adventure, golden-era Hollywood, old-fashioned romance, newfangled technology, high camp and low humour mingle agreeably, as do a dazzlingly eclectic array of dance styles. And I rather enjoyed the way the baddies had their plotting scenes in front of a drop, so reminiscent of the technology-poor old days when set changes had to be covered by a dialogue scene.

Friend Like Me_Photo By Deen van Meer

Michael Scott James and Ainsley Melham in Aladdin. Photo: Deen van Meer

The undisputed ace in the hand, though, is the fourth-wall-breaking Genie. His big – no, huge – number Friend Like Me is a Busby Berkley extravaganza crammed into eight exhausting, enchanting minutes. American actor Michael James Scott is made to work hard for his Act I ovation and earned every second of it on opening night. He has a smile that lights up the room and a warm, cheerful demeanour that’s incredibly winning. He’s like the funny best pal you’d love to have.

The rest of the terrific cast manages to hold its own remarkably well against Scott’s formidable presence. Adam Murphy (Jafar) and Aljin Abella (Iago) are superbly hiss-worthy villains and Adam-Jon Fiorentino, Troy Sussman and Robert Tripolino are a hoot as Aladdin’s sidekicks. Ainsley Melham (Aladdin) and Arielle Jacobs (Princess Jasmine) have sweet, believable chemistry and sing charmingly. Nicholaw has them meet in a manner reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet at the ball – a big dancing scene in the market brings them face to face – and this brief moment resonates, as does Melham’s scene with James when Aladdin promises to free the Genie.

Such pleasures do a reasonable job of obscuring the weaknesses. Aladdin’s mates get loads of zappy stage time, while Jasmine’s besties are pretty much limited to “you go girl” background chatter. That’s a big irritant. Jacobs makes a strong fist of what she’s given, but Jasmine isn’t much more than a pretty cipher.

Chad Beguelin’s book is much stronger on bon mots than plot, dispensing groan-worthy puns and somewhat clunky exposition. The realisation that the Genie needed to be introduced to the audience early in the piece both gives and takes away. The character is a certified winner but when he has to tell the audience not to miss him too much after his comprehensive opening number Arabian Nights you know the balance isn’t going to be right in Act I. When Arabian Nights is over – in it the Genie tells you what you are about to see in rather a lot of detail and if you were pressed for time you could leave after that and know the whole story – you are impatient for his return. Which admittedly is worth the wait.

As for Alan Menken’s score (with lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin), I don’t think this one is going to trouble the Great American Songbook but by Genie it’s got earworms. End-to-end earworms. They are still cavorting happily in my head, and I expect that to continue for some time.

Lest We Forget, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, July 29.

The Andrews Sisters style is all honey, sunshine and an irresistible life force, even when there’s a touch of wistfulness in the lyrics. No wonder the trio was so popular with US troops during World War II. The silken close harmonies, bouncy syncopations and light-on-the-feet melodies were made to please. They are optimism in a three-minute package.

Paul Taylor’s Company B uses nine of the sisters’ hits that show that in spades. The genius of Company B, though, is in the shadows the choreographer casts. While Brylcreemed young blades and flirty-skirted women whoop it up with infectious vitality there are men who fall, or are seen silhouetted on the periphery in martial poses. These ones melt in and out of the dance like ghosts while around them couples dance as if there were no tomorrow, full of juice and hope and infectious high spirits. I have no idea whether Taylor, now the grand old man of American modern dance, was thinking about contemporary conflicts when he made Company B in 1991, but its premiere at Houston Ballet came shortly after the first Gulf War.

Expressions Dance Company

Laura Hidalgo in Paul Taylor’s Company B. Photo: David Kelly

A song such as There Will Never Be Another You takes on quite a different complexion in Taylor’s context and when at the end of the bravura Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B) the soloist collapses to the floor, we think not only of goofily exaggerated exhaustion. This happens again and again, joy undercut by sorrow, until we are back at the beginning with a reprise of Bei Mir Bist du Schön. War never stops, nor do its consequences.

Company B closes Queensland Ballet’s commemorative Lest We Forget program on a strong note, even though the exhilarating mix of contemporary and social dance is delivered a little too carefully overall. Not everyone fully captures the scintillating swing of hips, jaunty shoulders and the effervescence that comes from within. On opening night principal Laura Hidalgo in Rum and Coca-Cola and soloist Camilo Ramos in Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh! show how it should be done and two less senior dancers – Vanessa Morelli in There Will Never Be Another You and Lima Kim always – were marvelously alert to the music.

Expressions Dance Company

Queensland Ballet in Natalie Weir’s We Who are Left. Photo: David Kelly

The other two works in the triple bill are new company commissions. Natalie Weir’s We Who are Left is perhaps a piece d’occasion rather than a stayer but her aim is true. The melancholy of young men at war and the women who grieve for them is affectingly expressed. The extensive filleting of Benjamin Britten’s 85-minute War Requiem to find not quite 30 minutes of music gives pause for thought but Weir is sensitive to its purpose. The gestures of love, loss and pain feel authentic and the five couples in the first cast did Weir proud, dancing with eloquent simplicity in David Walters’s gorgeous lighting. Principals Clare Morehen and Shane Weurthner were particularly fine in Weir’s delicate, bodies-not-quite-touching duet She Who Was Left.

Ma Cong’s In the Best Moments, which opens the evening, is dominated by a series of pas de deux that manage to be bland and overwrought all at once, with men lifting women in big, tricky manoeuvres that look effortful. The connection with its music, sections from Philip Glass’s score for the film The Hours, is primarily one of busyness. There are lots of notes, lots of steps.

Lest We Forget ends on August 6.

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.

4. Hi Res Mr Gaga 14 photo by Gadi Dagon

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.

5. Hi Res Mr. gaga 8 photo by Gadi Dagon copy

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.

Colin Peasley in Swan Lake Paris 2008 Photo Lisa Tomasetti 006

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.

QB-Paul Boyd-Catalabutte

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.

AB-Lisa Bolte-Swan Lake

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.

You're a good man Charlie Brown_5-7-16_Noni Carroll

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.