SandSong, Bangarra Dance Theatre

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 11.

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains the name of someone who has passedThe family of Ningali Lawford-Wolf has given the media permission to use her name.

 Bangarra’s last new work before SandSong was performed in 2019 and celebrated Bangarra’s 30th anniversary. It was called 30 years of sixty five thousand, a reference to the almost unimaginably long connection Australia’s First Nations people have with this land. 

All Bangarra performances are about that connection and SandSong is no exception. It is, however, exceptional. SandSong is a profound experience, enlightening and moving as it encapsulates everything Bangarra has needed to say in the past three decades.

Baden Hitchcock in Bangarra Dance Theatre’s SandSong. Photo: Daniel Boud

There is the strange but wonderful sensation of being outside of time as SandSong ranges across those thousands of years, describing a vast arc of history that doesn’t stop with today. At the end it reaches into the future by circling back on itself. Sixty-five thousand years, and more, in 80 minutes.

SandSong is subtitled Stories from the Great Sandy Desert, a geographical and social anchoring that gives the work its intense focus. It was suggested to Bangarra by Ningali Lawford-Wolf, a company member before she became a celebrated actor. Lawford-Wolf didn’t live to see it come to the stage but she is woven into its fabric.

Lawford-Wolf’s red-dust country, in the Kimberley region of the Australian north-west, is mystically evoked in Jacob Nash’s set, lit by Nick Schlieper, with the dancers dressed, brilliantly as usual, by Jennifer Irwin. Lawford-Wolf’s family’s dances are represented; their lore, customs and experiences are shared. 

SandSong starts with filmed images (David Bergman designed the striking audio visuals) that include the shocking photographs of First Nations men in chains and refer to the concept of Terra Nullius – “land belonging to no one”– used by the British to justify the seizing and colonisation of the continent. 

Glory Tuohy-Daniell, Rika Hamaguchi ad Lillian Banks in SandSong. Photo by Daniel Boud

The dance that follows is at first embedded in this land, its seasons, its weather, its rituals. A men’s dance called Marjarrka, belonging to a number of families including Lawford’s, has mysteries only those families will understand but is visually entrancing. Other sections are more easily apprehended, such as the lovely women’s kinship ceremony and depictions of hunting and gathering.  

Darkness falls when contemporary life is evoked. There is a nightmarish atmosphere as men and women are ripped away from their land and customs and forced into hard labour. As time goes on they may bend but they refuse to break and SandSong ends with the nourishment of culture, tradition and family.  

In an act of love and homage, Lawford-Wolf’s voice is embedded in Steve Francis’s stupendous score, which mixes singing, speaking and language with sounds from nature and ancient and contemporary musical modes. It sweeps along like an ever-changing but eternal river.

Rika Hamaguchi in SandSong. Photo by Daniel Boud

The choreography also flows through time and space, eloquently showing the nourishing good and the shameful bad as part of the continuum. It’s an unusual but stirring collective effort by Stephen Page, Frances Rings and the 16 marvellous dancers. 

Baden Hitchcock and Rika Hamaguchi are outstanding but it’s a tribute to Page, Bangarra’s artistic director, that the many relatively new company members look so strong and authoritative, particularly the men. Bangarra emerges from its enforced COVID-19 break in magisterial form.

Ends July 10. Canberra, July 15-17; Bendigo, July 23-24; Brisbane, August 13-21; Melbourne, August 27-September 4.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on June 14.

The Sleeping Beauty, Queensland Ballet

QPAC, Brisbane, June 4.

When Queensland Ballet performed The Sleeping Beauty in 2015, artistic director Li Cunxin cast international superstar Alina Cojocaru as first-night Aurora. She was wonderful of course but it was a sign Li was still in development mode at the company he took over in 2013.

A glance at the 2015 program reveals that tucked away in the corps –  QB calls that cohort Company Artists – was Neneka Yoshida, who had joined QB the year before. She was promoted to the company’s top rank this year, becoming Li’s first entirely home-grown principal artist, and on the opening night of this revival of Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty, she made an exquisite debut as Aurora.

Even if international artists were able to get into Australia at the moment, the point is they are now not needed to bring lustre to opening night. QB is in sparkling form.

Horsman’s version stays close to the standard text of Marius Petipa’s 1888 ballet where it really matters but there’s a lot that’s original. Because it was made for the medium-sized Royal New Zealand Ballet, in 2011, Horsman dialled down this grandest of grand ballets, pulling back the number of characters and foregrounding storytelling – fairy storytelling – and humour rather than pomp and ceremony. Some too-clunky set moving aside, Gary Harris’s medieval-inspired designs work a treat in this context.

Characters are woven tightly into the action to pleasing effect. As the curtain rises we see that the King’s major domo Catalabutte is, in fact, a cat and so is his wife, Lady Florine (the excellent Rian Thompson and Sophie Zoricic in the first cast). Naturally they dance the variation for pusses in Act III, placed here just after the Blue Birds pas de deux. Catalabutte shows a great deal of interest in the birds, needless to say, to the delight of the audience.

There are four fairies, not five, who bestow their gifts on the infant Aurora in the Prologue (the “finger” variation is omitted). This reduction gives Horsman the opportunity to insert Carabosse into sections of the fairies’ dances and thus establish her as one of the gals, albeit one whose glamour, sophistication and temperament mark her as someone who would never belong to the same social group as these sweet young things in pastels. (Carabosse’s tutu is of similar design to the others but in dramatic black.) 

There is clever use of the good fairies when they turn up later as Aurora’s girlfriends at the Act I party thrown to introduce the princess to prospective bridegrooms. In Act III they dance to some of the music written for the Jewel fairies and so on. It’s a neat strategy, well executed. And what fun to see four princely little boys hauled along to Aurora’s christening in the Prologue and to realise they are already ear-marked as marriage prospects for her. 

Yoshida’s Aurora fitted in beautifully with this emphasis on domestic scale. Her acting is natural and subtle, she has the bloom of youth and the quiet glow of an intelligent, inquiring girl on the cusp of life’s discoveries. Yoshida was feather-light and poised at even the most treacherous moments and her sweet rapport with Victor Estévez’s deeply felt Prince Désiré was a thing of beauty. Estévez, by the way, was a guest artist from National Ballet of Cuba in 2015 and not long after joined QB. There were a few less-than-neat landings from Estévez but he danced nobly and partnered Yoshida impeccably in their charming wedding pas de deux.

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamoto were the fleet Blue Birds on opening night and Georgia Swan the vengeful Carabosse who rather over-reacts to being excluded from Aurora’s christening. She even indulges in a spot of baby-tossing. Very funny indeed. Yanela Piñera was the bountiful Lilac Fairy who makes everything right.

The first-cast fairies – Serena Green, Laura Toser, Mia Heathcote and Chiara Gonzalez – were first rate and included in their number two more Auroras to be seen during the season, Heathcote and Gonzalez (Lucy Green is another).

All were splendidly supported at the first performance by conductor Nigel Gaynor in charge of Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the important solos for violin, piccolo, flute and cello were gorgeously played. Tchaikovsky’s score isn’t heard in full of course – it would be a very long night in the theatre if so – but nevertheless gems are missing and missed. Of particular note is the fact there are only a few bars of Tchaikovsky’s “blaze of imperial grandeur” that would usually end this ballet (the description is David Nice’s in his notes for the complete Sleeping Beauty recorded by Bergan Philharmonic Orchestra and Neem Järvi). At QB we get more of the Lilac Fairy’s theme to draw things to a close. Again the emphasis is on intimacy and goodness rather than the power and authority of the court and its king but the lack of this ending reminds one there is more to The Sleeping Beauty than offered here.

The production is such a smartly thought-out response to a Beauty for relatively small forces that it’s perhaps a little churlish to point out that QB is a significantly bigger company than it was in 2015. Still, there’s no escaping the fact. Back then there were nearly 40 dancers to call on; now there are nearly 60. Six years ago there were only three ranks (plus eight Young Artists). Today QB has five ranks, augmented by 12 Young Artists.

Tchaikovsky’s score is one of ballet’s finest jewels and for all the virtues of Horsman’s Beauty, and they are many, the score is not fully realised. With the company’s increased size and stature come increased expectations. Next time?

Images from top to bottom: Neneka Yoshida; Laura Toser, Mia Heathcote, Georgia Swan, Serena Green and Chiara Gonzalez; Victor Estévez; Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamoto. Photos by David Kelly.

The Sleeping Beauty ends June 19.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on June 7.

THREE, Australasian Dance Collective, Brisbane

Playhouse Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 26

Amy Hollingsworth’s relief was palpable and profound. THREE had finally arrived. It was 14 months late, but it was here. The triple bill of two new works and an important Australian premiere was to have introduced Hollingsworth’s Australasian Dance Collective to the Brisbane public last year on April 1 (yes, April 1). It had to be pulled only two weeks before opening as COVID-19 forced the closure of theatres around Australia. The blow was felt keenly by all performing arts companies but was particularly tough on ADC, just about to launch itself on the world. 

ADC isn’t precisely a new company but it is a changed one. In late 2018 Hollingsworth was appointed artistic director of the long-established Expressions Dance Company and started work in January 2019. As is the way of things, the 2019 season was chiefly the work of Hollingsworth’s predecessor, Natalie Weir. Hollingsworth’s stamp would be imprinted on the 2020 program, and it would be an emphatic one. In November 2019 it was announced that EDC would become Australian Dance Collective, a name later quietly tweaked to Australasian Dance Collective. 

That’s the history. Now for the present and the future. When Hollingsworth first announced THREE she said it would be a template for annual mixed bills that would bring together a local or younger artist, an established Australian dancemaker and an international work. This first iteration features the fast-rising Brisbane choreographer Jack Lister, who is also an ADC dancer (and associate choreographer at his former company, Queensland Ballet); the thrilling and in-demand Melbourne-based artist Melanie Lane; and superstar Hofesh Shechter, with whom Hollingsworth danced many years ago. It’s a formidable group and an exciting program.

Australasian Dance Collective in Melanie Lane’s Alterum. Photo: David Kelly

Lane’s Alterum, which opens THREE, begins with a struggle. A woman (Chase Clegg-Robinson) is alone, in silence. She crawls and writhes in the misty light, seeming to want to stand but being unable to do so. Or perhaps this is what she prefers, for now. Her body is alert – you can almost see the atoms vibrate – and elastic, although it’s not a loose kind of elasticity. The level of control is ferocious. Lane is fascinated by the superhuman capabilities of the body but what makes her work affecting rather than merely impressive is that she is also supremely sensitive to how society – life, really – affects that body and that mind. While her work may look very strange at first, its power lies in the reach towards something more than the ordinary.  

Clegg-Robinson is soon joined by others, at first seen bathed in red light as if the zombie apocalypse has arrived. Clark’s intensely layered electronic score starts up and we’re off. Six bodies huddle, shudder and shuffle. They are often jittery with bobbing heads and tiny little robotic steps. Sometimes they form a militaristic-looking pack and then lean back as if recoiling from what they are about to see or do, or have done to them. They arrange themselves into couples and trios and fracture again. There are touches of unison, some images of tender support and others of attack. It is exhilarating.

Alterum is a Latin word meaning “other”, and it’s a perfect word for Lane’s ability to conjure the mysteriousness of being and the desire – don’t we all have it from time to time? – to be something else, whether alone or with others. 

Australasian Dance Collective inHhofesh Shechter’s Cult. Photo: David Kelly

THREE ends with Shechter’s short, sharp Cult. It was made in 2004, a couple of years before Shechter formed his eponymous company, and was his first group piece. Cult, also for six performers, has many of the markers of Shechter’s later work: provocative text delivered in voiceover, reminders of our mortality, intimations of folk dance in the movement, a strong sense of life as communal rather than individual, and tightly wound bodies and minds.

Here Shechter’s interest is in group dynamics and pressures. How, for instance, should you read the brief moment when one of the men throws his arms around the shoulders of the other two and walks away with them, his grasp tight? Are they friends from way back, or is this coercion? There is, however, no ambiguity about the final minutes, in which Lister separates from the group but ultimately has to return to it, somewhat cowed. There are many such moments in just 15 minutes of stage time. Cult is utterly absorbing and, alas, over in a flash.

Lister’s Still Life is the quiet, introspective buffer between the more muscular Lane and Shechter. While Still Life is nothing like Cult, there are some links. Like Shechter, Lister has death on his mind but in a less visceral way. For Shechter death, possibly sooner rather than later, is a brutal given. Lister takes a more philosophical view, going to art history for inspiration and taking the long view.

Tyrel Dulvarie and Lonii Garnons-Williams in Jack Lister’s Still Life. Photo: David Kelly

Like Shechter, Lister’s dancers (he is also in the cast) are presented as everyday people in everyday clothes – in Cult the men wear suits and the women simple dresses, all identical as you might expect from the work’s name; in Still Life each person is an individual. Still Life has a vestigial set, a square panel with a smaller square cut-out at its centre by which Lister evokes an art gallery and its associations. Love and human existence may be fleeting but great works of art can last for centuries, an idea Lister links to art that takes as its theme the transience of human existence.

Lister has selected music by Mozart, Bellini and Chopin to accompany a series of vignettes touching on longing and loss. They are understandable choices but there are times when the music, so familiar and lovely, overshadows the dance. Making a work about the evanescence of life and yes, dance itself, is a tricky business and Lister doesn’t manage to make everything in this half-hour piece feel necessary to his overarching idea. The performances are involving, though, and there is a gorgeous duo for Lonii Garnons-Williams and Tyrel Dulvarie in which they barely touch but move and breathe together in glorious harmony.

ADC is a small company with only six dancers, all of whom appeared in each work. It’s an heroic achievement from a splendid group of artists whose collective experience is worth noting. Josephine Weise was previously with Sydney Dance Company where she worked with a wide array of top-flight choreographers, Jack Lister brings his Australian Ballet School and Queensland Ballet experience to the mix and Jag Popham trained in New Zealand and last year worked with Lloyd Newson on the thrilling revival of Enter Achilles. Chase Clegg-Robinson is a young Brisbane dancer at the start of her career. She was an ADC apprentice last year and took part in Stephanie Lake’s Colossus in early 2020. Lonii Garnons-Williams has vast experience as a freelance artist with many leading Australian companies and was for a time a member of Australian Dance Theatre. And the newest ADC member is the charismatic Tyrel Dulvarie. He was formerly with Bangarra Dance Theatre where he shone, and he shines here. 

Brisbane is very lucky to have them. 

THREE ends on May 29.

Counterpointe, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 27.

Does Counterpointe shine an illuminating light on the journey of classical dance from the 19th century to the 20th or is it a mighty clash of opposing forces? The Australian Ballet’s new artistic director, David Hallberg, sees it as the former. The Australian Ballet’s social media ads, on the other hand, frame Counterpointe as a battle between foreign principalities: classical versus contemporary, tutus versus tights is how they alliteratively describe it. 

Both views make sense, as it happens. The gulf between Act III of Marius Petipa’s Raymonda (1898) and William Forsythe’s knock-your-socks-off Artifact Suite (2004) looks vast but without Petipa, there’s no Forsythe.

Amber Scott and Ty King-Wall in Raymonda Act III. Photo: Daniel Boud

Raymonda is 19th century classical dance as widely understood: formal, elegant, upright and emotionally contained. There are gorgeous tutus and a strict hierarchy. A starry ballerina and her cavalier, dressed differently from the rest, take precedence. A second, subsidiary ballerina is given a solo and there’s a kind of cascading effect in a pas de trois for women, a pas de quatre for men and a corps formed of eight couples.

What you see is what you get.

Hallberg, who has come out of the starting blocks at speed in his new role, staged Raymonda himself. This after overseeing a project that’s central to his vision of what a ballet company should be doing, Pam Tanowitz’s world premiere Watermark. It opened just a few weeks ago in the New York Dialects program (reviewed below).

Hallberg’s Raymonda was something of a watermark itself, identifying the maker of the piece while laying something over it.

Amber Scott in Raymonda Act III. Photo: Daniel Boud

Raymonda Act III is an abstraction. Its theme is classical ballet rather than that of Petipa’s Raymonda, in which the third act is a wedding celebration set in a Hungarian court at the time of the crusades. In a traditional full production – not so often done – the women of the corps in Act III would wear folk dress and dance in character shoes. Here Raymonda is timeless, danced under elegant swagged curtains and a chandelier with the dancers attired in Hugh Colman’s costumes originally made for a work by none other than George Balanchine: his Theme and Variations (1947). Colman’s costumes – dazzling white for Raymonda and her knight, gold and coffee for the rest – were designed in 1998. You could just call it being thrifty, but given that Hallberg also put Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux on the Counterpointe bill it’s also pleasing to consider this choice as another sign of connection and continuity. The dancers looked madly glamorous.

The Hungarian flavour is embedded in the choreography, with hands placed behind heads, the occasional flexed foot and, in Raymonda’s delicious variation, folk-inspired hand claps but there is not the slightest suggestion of narrative. It’s all dance and music, with the lovely Glazunov score sounding suitably lush in the hands of Nicolette Fraillon and the Opera Australia Orchestra.  

Amber Scott was the serene lodestar of Raymonda on opening night – delicate and sensuous all at once. Sharni Spencer, a senior artist one wants to see more and more, was the shining soloist. Partnering Scott gallantly, Ty King-Wall looked more assertive in his dance than he has often done in the past. Perhaps it’s the Hallberg factor. As for the rest, not everything was quite as polished as one would wish from those lower down the chain but last year’s hiatus meant there’s been a long, long break from this kind of highly exposed classicism. 

Nicola Curry and Jarryd Madden in Artifact Suite. Photo: Daniel Boud

Artifact Suite is danced in its first half to the consolations of familiar Bach, the Chaconne from Partita No.2, but looks at first to be an entirely different matter from Raymonda. It certainly doesn’t let its audience settle in for an enjoyable bout of the expected. The lines are much more off-centre, extreme and even dangerous. Two couples alternate in the spotlight but attention is constantly drawn to a mysterious woman who leads a large corps in what might be described as semaphore. Everyone is dressed alike in second-skin costumes that emphasise the dancers’ physiques.

In the first section the fire curtain crashes down four or five times, prompting the audience to applaud as if Pavlov’s dogs. The curtain rises again to show the dancers in other arrangements, as enigmatic as before.

What you don’t see is part of what you get.

This is not Raymonda, to be sure, yet classical principles absolutely drive the sleek modernity of Artifact Suite even as they stretch and expand them. You could even look at the semaphore as a squared-off form of ballet’s rounded ports de bras. The hand claps of Raymonda find an echo in Artifact Suite too, although the impression is of regimentation rather than folksy joy. 

Linking Raymonda and Artifact Suite is the brief and brilliant Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (Balanchine preferred this spelling of Tchaikovsky’s name). This neo-classical work, made in 1960 to music from Swan Lake, is swift, effervescent and floaty. On opening night Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo raced through it joyously. Kondo was spectacular, with a luxurious, satiny finish in the upper body and razor-sharp lower limbs. Guo’s cat-like landings were a dream and his very fast pirouettes in second delightful, even if he and the pit were not entirely in accord about the matter of timing. 

The floating ribbon quality Kondo brought to Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux was all the more impressive when compared with the diamond-edged flexibility she displayed in Artifact Suite. Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth were also standouts in Artifact Suite.

Ako Kondo In Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. Photo: Daniel Boud

It really was a thrilling evening. The only niggle is the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage. It’s is far too small for such large gifts. Counterpointe isn’t programmed for Melbourne, Adelaide or Brisbane this year but if it pops up in any of those places in 2021 it would be well worth Sydneysiders taking a trip.

Hallberg has now ushered three productions to the stage in 2020, including Summertime at the Ballet, the Melbourne-only gala that celebrated TAB’s return to the stage. Two of the three forthcoming ballets in the 2021 season were inherited, having been held over from last year (Anna Karenina, Harlequinade) and the third, Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, is a TAB staple.

The programs already staged are all Hallberg’s own work and show his intentions for the company. Watermark introduced a new style of movement and a choreographer previously unknown here. Artifact Suite was a company premiere of an important work from one of the great game-changers of the 20th century. And it’s clear Hallberg wants to see the company’s dancers take their ambition up a notch. To impose themselves a little more forcefully on the stage. They seem to be listening. 

Other things to note? Looking through the casting for Counterpointe is revealing. There are very junior dancers being given important assignments that will test their mettle. And Hallberg seems to like pairing husband-and-wife teams on stage, with principal artists Kondo and Guo, Scott and King-Wall and Amy Harris and her senior artist husband Jarryd Madden all down for Raymonda. Certain names from the corps and coryphée ranks are popping up regularly. Keep an eye out for Yuumi Yamada, Isobelle Dashwood and Coco Mathieson in particular. What fun.

Counterpointe ends May 15.

New York Dialects, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 6 and 21.

The Australian Ballet returned to the stage in February with Summertime at the Ballet – a Melbourne-only gala celebration after last year’s disappointments. New York Dialects was something else entirely; a manifesto really. This was new artistic director David Hallberg saying this is me and this is where I want to take you. 

So where were we going? To an unaccustomed level of brilliance right through the company’s ranks if the two Balanchines were any guide. On opening night (April 6) Serenadewas beyond luscious and The Four Temperaments – such a bracing work – was dispatched with cool sophistication. 

But first to Pam Tanowitz’s Watermark, which fittingly sat between the two Balanchines and not only because it’s central to Hallberg’s view of what ballet audiences need. On a deeper level Watermark knitted the program together. The three works vibrated as one with Watermark as the conduit.

Adam Elmes in Pam Tanowitz’s Watermark. Photo: Daniel Boud

It was something of a coup to have Tanowitz here as the American contemporary choreographer rockets up international ballet companies’ wish-lists, a situation made possible by the face she and Hallberg go back a long way. He commissioned her to make a work for American Ballet Theatre’s Incubator new choreography program when he was its director and she made a dance film with him last year that was one of his very last performances. They have been friends for more than a decade, which is how Hallberg was able to get into her calendar for his very first commission at TAB.

Watermark is named after its phenomenal score, written by lauded young American composer Caroline Shaw in 2019 and expanded for Tanowitz’s 30-minute ballet (let’s call it a ballet; it was made for a ballet company). Shaw’s music dances with Beethoven’s third piano concerto, sometimes quoting directly but excitingly taking its own path. This duality of a living composer communing with a giant of the past is a quality also embedded in Tanowitz’s dance, albeit more glancingly. (Watermark is such a beautiful and apt title, evoking the idea and the delicacy of something overlaid on something else but visible only when held to the light.)  

Watermark is conceived on a grand scale for 18 dancers, mostly men (and mostly from the coryphée and corps ranks). The gender ratio roughly reverses that in Serenade, with its indelible opening of 17 women standing with one arm upstretched to the heavens. Watermark alludes to that gesture of wonder and mystery, as it does to some shapes from The Four Temperaments and the wider ballet canon. 

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Watermark. Photo: Daniel Boud

Unusually, the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House was opened to the back. It created a deep space, gorgeously lit by Jon Buswell, where groups or individuals danced, stood, sat or reclined. To the front there were flurries of hopping, skittering, scattering activity, fast and precise or quietly contemplative. Clusters formed and dissolved, people came and went, simply dressed in white by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme.

This is a plotless work but questions arose nonetheless. Who are these people? What are they thinking? Where are they going? Can I join in, particularly in that brief circle dance up the back? Who is that divine young man given an achingly lovely solo? (That would be Adam Elmes, one of the most junior members of the company.)

It was a joy to see how Tanowitz’s contemporary sensibility meshed with the classical vocabulary, particularly in the razor-sharp footwork, buoyant vertical jumps and sideways jetés that suddenly morphed into something unexpected, eccentric even. Tanowitz’s impulses could be thought austere, given the pristine quality of each movement, but that movement looked rich and juicy on the dancers. A beautiful conundrum, as was the fact that a work this big felt so intimate. 

Dimity Azoury in Serenade. Photo: Daniel Boud

The gifts were not given up lightly and Watermark, with its huge amount of detail and multiple focus points, could be seen many times. Heard again too, because there was so much from Shaw to absorb, as there was in Tchaikovsky (Serenade) and Hindemith (The Four Temperaments). The Opera Australia Orchestra and Nicolette Fraillon had a great opening night as did solo pianists Stefan Cassomenos and Duncan Salton. Simon Thew conducted the performance I saw on April 21, with Cassomenos the soloist in both Watermark and The Four Temperaments.

One could have forgiven TAB for not looking entirely match fit given – the brief gala season apart – its long absence from the stage. No indulgence was needed. There were standout performances wherever one looked, none more gratifying than that of soloist Nathan Brook (a stunning Phlegmatic, The Four Temperaments, April 21). In an announcement made on opening night, Brook won both prizes in the 2020 Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards – the Rising Star and People’s Choice awards. The voters clearly got it right. 

The Sydney season of New York Dialects ends April 24. Melbourne, June 3-12.

Keir Choreographic Award finals, Sydney

Carriageworks, Sydney, March 13.

It’s often the case that alarm bells start ringing when an artist writes a highly detailed program note explaining precisely what their contemporary dance piece means. Frequently it’s just not possible to see in the work what the choreographer claims. There’s a big disconnect.

In the case of Angela Goh, though, the statement is an indispensable part of Sky Blue Mythic, a piece that deservedly won for her the $50,000 2020 Keir Choreographic Award. “Curtains open,” it starts. (There is no curtain.) “There is no dance being performed on the stage.” (This is true at the beginning.) “The dance that is not being performed is a ballet, Giselle.” (This is also true.) Magic.

Keir Choreographic Awards, Carriageworks, Image Zan Wimberley 2020 (8)

Angela Goh in Sky Blue Mythic. Photo: Zam Wimberley

At first there is a John Cage-like silence as the performer (Goh) places something that looks like a small sundial on the floor and retreats. Just as the audience starts to get a little restive Goh reappears, walks slowly across the complete bare stage, falls and spills a can of soft drink. This action is later repeated after some exquisitely slow searching by Goh, accompanied by a wonderfully strange score by Corin Ileto. And yes, there are fragmentary references in the choreography to Giselle.

It’s a work that would bear many more viewings and was a worthy winner of this significant prize.

The $10,000 Audience Choice Award went to Amrita Hepi for Rinse, a captivating, highly personal work that covered a lot of ground in 20 minutes – the required length for all participants. Speaking a text that became more absorbing as she continued, Hepi explored the effect of a dominant West on equally valid cultural aspiration. Like Goh she danced her own work superbly.

Keir Choreographic Awards, Carriageworks, Image Zan Wimberley 2020 (13)

Amrita Hepi in Rinse. Photo: Zan Wimberley

The Keir is an award for choreography, not the dancing of it, but it was hard not to be swept up by the performance of The Farm’s Hold Me Closer Tony Danza by Kate Harmon and Michael Smith. It starts with a mishearing of a Bernie Taupin lyric – and haven’t we all done something similar? – and develops into a sometimes tender, sometimes fierce depiction of togetherness and its opposite. It was the most accessible dance of the evening and nothing wrong with that.

The least appealing was Delimit by Alison Currie & David Cross, performed by Cazna Brass. It consisted of Brass putting up the set, a group of door-like rectangles with extrusions to which odd shapes were attached and inflated, and then taking stuff off and putting it away. The number of minutes for which this remained interesting was limited.

 

Trois Grandes Fugues, Lyon Opera Ballet

Festival Theatre, Adelaide, March 7.

The idea is transfixing. Three of the greatest 20th century contemporary choreographers come to grips with Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, a monumentally knotty piece of music first performed in 1876, the year before the composer died, and far from an obvious choice for a dancemaker.

This Lyon Opera Ballet program came together in 2016 when the company asked American legend Lucinda Childs to create her Grande Fugue to join others already in the company’s repertoire by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Maguy Marin. Stylistically the works are completely different from one another and make one hear the music anew each time, particularly as three different recordings are used.

LC-GrandesFugues14_copyright_Bertrand Stofleth

Lyon Opera Ballet in Grande Fugue by Lucinda Childs. Photo: Bertrand Stofleth

There are, not surprisingly, similarities in dynamics imposed by the score but they are achieved in strikingly individual ways. Equally striking is the way in which the program is structured, starting with a dozen dancers, then eight and then four. It beings with Childs’s serene classicism for 12 dancers in six male-female pairs. The look is austere as the couples establish themes, wind them in and out, reverse and expand on them. It is performed with a quiet, luminous kind of virtuosity that makes the dancers seem almost weightless as they skim across the stage. The delicate tracery of designer Dominique Drillot’s projections behind them adds a layer of visual complexity and an air of mystery.

Childs’s response to the music is coolly intellectual. Belgium’s De Keersmaeker, up next with Die Grosse Fuge from 1992 (it has been revised several times), raises the temperature with an attacking piece that gives two women and six men a stirringly athletic, sophisticated workout. They are dressed alike in black suits and white shirts, a sharp look that becomes increasingly dishevelled as the dance unfolds. If Childs was clarity itself regarding the structure of the fugue, De Keersmaeker is more about accents. The dancers run, roll, fall, leap into energetic jetes and throw in tough little jumps.

ATDK-GrandesFugues25_copyright_Bertrand Stofleth

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Die Grosse Fuge. Photo: Bertrand Stofleth

The contained atmosphere of the Childs work has given way to freedom and risk, further developed in the closing dance from French iconoclast Maguy Marin. (One could almost believe the three women made their pieces at the same time after detailed discussion with one another. They didn’t.) Marin brings the numbers down again. Made for four women in 2001, her Grosse Fuge is at once intimate and vast in scope. This is where emotion comes into play; here the music is a mighty storm that propels and buffets the women, all dressed in fierce red, as they gird their loins for life’s struggles.

The four skip and stagger and their outstretched feet have nothing of ballet’s arched precision. There’s nothing remotely pretty about their hunched backs, scrunched up shoulders, wildly kicking legs and punchy arms. There is, though, something greatly moving in their desperation and the defiance that makes them get back up again after they tumble. It’s an engrossing work.

MM-GrandesFugues58_copyright_Bertrand Stofleth

Maguy Marin’s Grosse Fuge. Photo: Bertrand Stofleth

Lyon Opera Ballet has been having its own struggles in the past few weeks following the dismissal of artistic director Yorgos Loukos over his treatment of a dancer returning from maternity leave. If the company is in tumult you wouldn’t know it, but the ferociously complicated music seems about right for the times.

After Adelaide Festival performances the company travelled to the New Zealand Festival of the Arts in Wellington, where the final performance of Trois Grandes Fugues takes place tonight.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s MÁM

Teac Damsa, Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth Festival, February 27

One definition of the West Kerry word mám is yoke and another is obligation or duty but that’s only the beginning of its possibilities. There are also implications of dealing with difficult physical terrain and having a handful of something. On the surface it’s a stern and forbidding word, laden with ideas of hard work and necessity yet it gives rise in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s new work to nothing less than transcendence. You can call Keegan-Dolan’s deep connection to place and tradition duty if you like, although it feels more like a sacred trust. MÁM is not far off being a religious experience.

Photo Ros Kavanagh

Cormac Begley and Ellie Poirier-Dolan in MÁM. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

The first, indelible, image is of a man wearing a ram’s head and a little girl in a white dress. The wild, elemental and sensual are juxtaposed with innocence and the future. And then we’re off. Virtuoso concertina player Cormac Begley starts playing and 12 black-clad men and women begin to dance. They have a freedom that seems to spring from the soul and, yes, the loins and whatever atavistic impulse that makes humans want to move to music.

It’s low-slung dance that cajoles and seduces with easy hips, flowing arms, fluid spines and mobile shoulders, driven by Begley’s irresistible rhythms. It’s fantastically complicated and looks so natural. It’s community-hall sweaty and out-of-body ecstasy all at once. Passions are close to the surface and there are fascinating micro-dramas wherever you look. Men and women love and leave one another, they move to their own inner beat or have solidarity with the group. Sometimes they take a breather, sitting at the back or side, tapping feet and nodding heads, involved and engaged. Whatever they do it’s impossible to look away. They are deeply fascinating individuals. Meanwhile the little girl – she is Ellie Poirier-Dolan, Keegan-Dolan’s daughter – keeps watch and the surprise introduction of a new musical language from the group s t a r g a z e changes the dynamics. The winds of change are afoot.

Photo Ros Kavanagh

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s MÁM. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

At first there’s a clash between Begley’s music, firmly rooted in his community and country, and s t a r g a z e’s glossier contemporary classical sound. But dissonance and discord slowly and beautifully give way to common cause. They can exist together.

MÁM fitted seamlessly into a festival program that celebrated Western Australia’s Noongar custodianship. There is a shared and profound respect for country; in the physical and spiritual landscape that has existed for millennia and will do so long after we are gone.

David Hallberg named next artistic director of The Australian Ballet

On December 4 last year David Hallberg tweeted that he’d loved revisiting The Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House but “there is a very good chance it was my last”. And so it probably was. Today the 37-year-old American superstar was announced as the next artistic director of The Australian Ballet – its eighth. He told The New York Times that while he will fulfil his current stage commitments this year and into 2021, “my shows are numbered”. He starts his new role at Australia’s national ballet company next year.

Today he wrote to his followers: “It has been a long and eventful (to say the least) career and I have always known that the time will come where I take all of my absorbed experience and become an Artistic Director. This is the time.”

AB-Coppelia 2016. Amber Scott, David Hallberg in performance1. Photo Kate Longley

David Hallberg in The Australian Ballet’s Coppélia. Photo: Kate Longley

Hallberg succeeds David McAllister, who will have been in the position for a record-breaking 20 years when he leaves. Perth-born McAllister was a principal artist with TAB when he was the surprise pick to follow Ross Stretton’s brief rein. The choice of Hallberg is far less of a surprise. The South Dakota native is practically an honorary Australian, having first appeared with TAB in 2010 (in the Peter Wright version of The Nutcracker) and returned regularly. Most pertinently, he spent more than a year in Melbourne in 2015-2016 undergoing rehabilitation with TAB’s crack medical team after a potentially career-ending ankle injury. He returned to the stage in late 2016 for Sydney performances as Franz in Coppélia. It was, fittingly, a role debut. Hallberg’s career had restarted and he has been unstinting in his praise for those who helped him heal.

Back on track, Hallberg then accepted the position of TAB resident guest artist. He is also currently a principal with American Ballet Theatre, which he joined in 2001, and principal guest artist with The Royal Ballet. In 2011 he made headlines when invited to join The Bolshoi Ballet as a principal artist, a position that lapsed after his injury and long recovery, although he has returned there as a guest artist.

Natalia Osipova’s Pure Dance

David Hallberg with Natalia Osipova in The Leaves Are Fading. Photo: Daniel Boud

Hallberg has long been considered one of the very finest male dancers of his generation and his globe-trotting career has taken him to the world’s leading companies. It has also included a special partnership with the incandescent and equally famous Natalia Osipova. But while still dancing at the top of his game, in interviews Hallberg was signalling his desire to have an artistic directorship in his future. McAllister’s announcement last year that he would leave TAB at the end of 2020 gave Hallberg and TAB’s board plenty of time for discussion.

There were, naturally, other candidates under consideration but it is hard to think of anyone else whose appointment would have been greeted with such approbation and such wide interest. Hallberg’s interests are eclectic and his connections deep and impeccable, desirable traits for his new job.

Craig Dunn, chair of the TAB board, said in a statement: “I am delighted to announce that The Australian Ballet’s search for an internationally recognised outstanding artistic talent with an exciting vision for The Australian Ballet has been successful and that the Board has appointed David Hallberg as our eighth Artistic Director. David’s highly successful international career as a classical ballet dancer and his leadership roles in the companies he has danced with regularly, mean David will bring a unique artistic lens and global view to his leadership at The Australian Ballet.”

The Happy Prince, The Australian Ballet

Choreographed by Graeme Murphy, adapted from Oscar Wilde by Murphy and Kim Carpenter. Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, February 25.

Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince was to have premiered last year but illness intervened and the choreographer wasn’t able to complete the ballet in time. The Australian Ballet quickly rescheduled it to open the 2020 season in Brisbane. The knock-on effect is that The Happy Prince will be seen in Melbourne from late August and wrap the year up in Sydney. That makes it look very much like a closing of the circle. Murphy’s wildly successful and much revived version of Swan Lake was the first ballet TAB artistic director David McAllister commissioned when very new in the job and The Happy Prince is his last new full-length ballet. McAllister announced his retirement last year and his two-decades reign will end in December this year.

It would be good to be able to say The Happy Prince is just the ballet with which to farewell McAllister; that it’s that marvellous beast, a ballet ostensibly for children that works for both young and old and will have a long life. It’s hard to see happening. The ballet is both too much and not enough.

TAB_Adam Bull and Marcus Morelli_THE HAPPY PRINCE photo Jeff Busby

Adam Bull and Marcus Morelli in The Happy Prince. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Oscar Wilde morality tale that inspired the piece is brief and to the point. The imposing golden statue of a once-happy, cossetted Prince sees that the world at large is full of misery and misfortune. With the help of a gadabout Swallow he strips himself of all finery, gives it to the poor and achieves a state of grace.

Having been delayed by an abortive love affair with a slender reed (cue for reed instruments to feature in Christopher Gordon’s new score), Swallow misses the opportunity to migrate south with his family – to Australia, of course. That’s how he comes to be fluttering around the bejewelled statue and to learn the lesson that it is much better to be kind and generous than to be rich.

TAB_Luke Marchant, Jarryd Madden,THE HAPPY PRINCE photo Jeff Busby

Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden as Mayor and Mayoress. Photo: Jeff Busby

The visual possibilities are obvious and co-adapter Kim Carpenter’s designs are richly expressive. A bleak, jumbled cityscape represents the Prince’s former domain, here represented in the immediate aftermath of war to explain, not terribly successfully or necessarily, why a statue to the Prince has been erected. Swallow’s world is saturated with colours never seen in nature and cheeky flora and fauna who would be at home on a burlesque stage. The Mayor and Mayoress, the latter danced by a man, are grotesques in exaggerated finery. There are delightful toys from the Prince’s childhood and heavies who create mischief in the town square.

Moment by moment it looked just fine but the need to fill 90 minutes of stage time turned out to be too much for this slender story to bear. Wilde ended his story with the Happy Prince and Swallow in Heaven; Murphy’s paradise is a surf beach with a fine break. All ended in a blaze of showbiz razzle-dazzle and sunny optimism, a crowd-pleasing ending that drove away any thoughts of sacrifices made.

Extra characters and new incidents, not all of them crystal clear, blunted the focus, although it’s possible to argue that had Murphy provided more extensive pure dance sequences the time would have gone by in a flash. Marcus Morelli as Swallow had fewer Bluebird-style moments than expected, for instance and there was an underuse of the expressive possibilities of classical technique. One couldn’t help feeling the company’s talents were being under-exploited.

TAB_Artists of The Australian Ballet_THE HAPPY PRINCE photo Jeff Busby

Artists of The Australian Ballet as Reedettes in The Happy Prince. Photo: Jeff Busby

Turning a group of reeds – the Reedettes – into a rather underpowered version of the Rockettes didn’t quite cut the mustard.  It also didn’t help that on opening night Murphy’s blend of classical and contemporary movement  didn’t sit entirely comfortably on the company and there was a distinct whiff of a too-brief rehearsal period.

The best moments in The Happy Prince were when things were dialled down; when there was dance to stir the soul. A section for a neglected artist – a substitution for Wilde’s starving playwright – was overwrought and unmoving but a glowing, late-breaking duet for Swallow and Match Girl – Morelli and Benedicte Bemet in the first cast – fell on grateful eyes, ears and heart. So did several searching moments for the Prince (Adam Bull), who wasn’t given not quite enough to do.

At these times it was possible to appreciate more deeply Christopher Gordon’s new, highly detailed score, rendered vividly by the Queensland Symphony with Nicolette Fraillon at the helm. Gordon’s music registered as a sophisticated stream of consciousness that underscored character, mood and place but on an initial hearing, wasn’t as effective as a clear-cut driver of movement or emotional intensity.

And isn’t that what we want from a story ballet? To feel?

Ends February 29. Melbourne, August 28-September 5; Sydney, November 27-December 16.