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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Ballet at the Quarry: Light and Shadow, West Australian Ballet

Quarry Amphitheatre, Perth, February 7

A woman climbs, higher and higher, on a path made by the bodies of other dancers. Later she will descend and fall, but her head will be caught by an enigmatic figure in black. Here, and at every point in Graeme Murphy’s deeply affecting Air and Other Invisible Forces, there are intimations of death, loss and grief but there’s transcendence too. Love blooms, life continues its inevitable cycle.

One of Murphy’s great attributes is that he never shies away from emotion. There are repeated motifs of cradled heads, arms encircling bodies, individuals enclosed protectively or physically supported by the group. A woman nuzzles a man’s back; he walks his fingers towards her. This is what being truly human looks like.

Chihiro Nomura and the dancers of West Australian Ballet in Air and Other Invisible Forces. Photo by Sergey Pevnev (3)

Chihiro Nomura and dancers of West Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Air and Other Invisible Forces. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Made in 1999 to Giya Kancheli’s moving lament Mourned by the Wind, Air and Other Invisible Forces still goes straight to the heart, even in the reduced form seen in West Australian Ballet’s 2020 Quarry season. There will be an extended staging (although not the complete work) in Perth mid-year, with the added bonus of Gerard Manion’s gorgeous designs that were no less than another dancer in the piece.

It will be a rare treat. I can’t think of another Australian company that has programmed dances Murphy made originally for SDC, apart from selections performed by The Australian Ballet in its 2018 Murphy tribute.

The Murphy extract opened the Quarry triple bill, followed by the world premiere of Dutch choreographer Wubkje Kuindersma’s Architecture of Hope. It’s a good-looking, well-constructed piece for four couples to the music of Ezio Bosso, although somewhat old-fashioned in its view of gender roles. I don’t really want to see women lie at men’s feet or flung over shoulders as if unconscious. But it’s still relatively early in Kuindersma’s career and she clearly has lots of good ideas to go with the more time-worn ones.  I particularly enjoyed the bounteous curtseys to the audience, the most obvious expression of Kuindersma’s thesis – that choreography “creates a space in which human connection is established – not only between the dancers themselves but also between the dancers and then audience”.

Matthew Lehmann and Dayana Hardy Acuna in In Light and Shadow. Photo by Sergey Pevnev (3)

Matthew Lehmann and Dayana Hardy Acuña in In Light and Shadow

Krzysztof Pastor’s In Light and Shadow is a rip-snorter to the music of Bach and an uplifting end to the evening. After a lovely pas de deux to the aria from the Goldberg Variations, 16 dancers whizz about joyously to the Orchestral Suite No 3, contemporary ballet and the baroque finding a whole lot in common and having the best time.

On opening night the WAB women shone brightest. Best of the best were Dayana Hardy Acuña, Candice Adea, Carina Roberts, the ever-striking Polly Hilton and Glenda Garcia Gomez superb in what will always be thought of as the Janet Vernon role in Air. Chihiro Nomura was divine in Murphy’s and Pastor’s works. Her artistry just grows and grows.

 Ballet at the Quarry ends on February 29

Grand Finale, Hofesh Shechter Company

Sydney Opera House, January 31.

Death is ever-present in Hofesh Shechter’s deeply moving Grand Finale, and so is an unquenchable lust for life. The two conditions are irrevocably twinned. We are born and we die, of that much we can be certain. As anyone who has seen earlier Shechter works will know, the Israeli-born choreographer is not one to take things with a shrug. Here he storms and rages against the dying of the light, to which designer Tom Visser gives such eloquent substance in Grand Finale. Shechter’s indomitable band of men and woman are as often as not seen as indistinct figures in a sulphurous vapour, frequently pulling a body to who knows where.

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Hofesh Shechter Company in Grand Finale. Photo: Prudence Upton

When they come together as a group they move with desperate energy and breath-taking ferocity. The language is that of folk dance, redolent of community, heritage and tradition, but in this context there’s also danger. Fists are shaken at the sky, arms and legs pump like pistons and breasts are beaten. From time to time the group freezes like a herd of gazelles scenting lions on the hunt, but you can feel in this stillness an air of exaltation too. Nothing is ever simple.

Grand Finale is suffused with loss and anguish, although this being Shechter there are flashes of mordant humour. Near the end of the first half the score – of Shechter’s own composition, and it’s thrilling  – comes up with a surprise in the form of Lehár’s Merry Widow Waltz. To this point there has been a potent mix of live playing from a roving five-member band of five and recorded sound, the former offering the consolations of melody and the latter drenched with foreboding. And then there’s that waltz, injecting a dose of sentimentality, or perhaps it could just be ordinariness, into this blasted place. It’s a very Beckettian touch. 

Grand Finale // Hofesh Shechter

Hofesh Shechter’s Grand Finale. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Grand Finale does have a few unexpected, most welcome, touches of tenderness and connection and there is even fun to be had when the dancers mill around the musicians as if at a party. Nothing can stop the fade to black but there can be moments of grace and acceptance. One mental picture keeps returning to me, that of two men bowing elaborately and then falling. It might be the end of days but at least you can go down with a flourish. Grand Finale’s darkness is almost absolute but salutary and Shechter’s company of dancers exhilarating. It is a soul-stirring experience.

Ends February 2.

Colossus, Stephanie Lake Company

Carriageworks, Sydney Festival, January 16

The short Sydney Festival season of Stephanie Lake’s Colossus has ended but the show is by no means over. Next month it will be seen at the Perth Festival and very likely beyond. Lake has said there are possible international engagements to come. Colossus premiered at the Melbourne Fringe in 2018 and last year featured in the Melbourne International Arts Festival program. This, obviously, is what gets known as a festival piece; something ambitious that needs the resources of a large organisation behind it. Colossus was choreographed for more than 40 dancers. No further explanation is needed. Well perhaps a little explanation. Colossus is usually described as having 50 dancers but it’s a handful fewer according to the cast sheet. 

Colossus. Credit Mark Gambino (1)

The Melbourne cast in Stephanie Lake’s Colossus. Photo by Mark Gambino

Whatever the number, it’s a lot. It’s rare to see an independent choreographer have the luxury of such forces at her disposal, although Lake has previously shown she can handle them. Her terrific piece for Queensland Ballet’s 2017 Bespoke program,  Chameleon, proved that. Not that she’s any slouch with small forces either, as Double Blind showed in 2016.

Colossus starts in stillness. As the audience enters the dancers are already present, lying motionless on their backs, arranged in a circle. There is a thunderous clap and scores of arms and heads are raised in unison. Energy transfers from Robin Fox’s heartbeat-like score to the bodies and from one body to the next. Everyone is part of the pack, a separate being and at the same time a collective entity, like a flock of birds in flight or a herd of zebra on the move, the one member of the group always knowing where the others are in relation to themselves and acting in concert.

Their black attire looks self-effacing against the bright white surrounds and even though each costume (designed by Harriet Oxley) is different – a dress here, shorts there, meshes, cutouts, straps and so on – the overwhelming sense is of anonymity. Yes, some figures are taller, shorter or more muscular than others but one will never really know these people, even when Lake pulls a single person or a couple from the mass. They emerge and are then subsumed. 

Colossus. Credit Mark Gambino (7)

The Melbourne cast of Colossus. Photo by Mark Gambino

Several times Lake’s formal organisation of dancers into circles and lines explodes into a kind of chaos one could perhaps designate as freedom, but it looks as chilling as Colossus’s highly structured mass movements of people obeying disembodied instructions, ferocious marching, a mob chasing one person. 

Lake does allow a few flashes of independence. In one brief section in the middle of this 50-minute work the dancers suddenly break ranks to mingle and chatter amongst themselves, as if taking a short breather. It’s a reminder that they are indeed human, doing what comes naturally, delightfully relaxed and cheerful. And as the piece nears its end, with the simplest of means Lake changes the atmosphere to one of understanding and acceptance within the group and, finally, individuality. 

Colossus. Credit Mark Gambino (4)

The Melbourne cast of Colossus. Photo by Mark Gambino

Integral to this optimistic conclusion are Fox’s sound design and Bosco Shaw’s eloquent lighting. Fox’s electronic scores are often uncompromisingly tough and spiky. Here there’s a more human quality, particularly in the incorporation of the dancers’ breathing and the percussive possibilities of their bodies. From Shaw there is a design that from time to time softens the harsh glare of black versus blinding white with illuminations that throw ghostly shadows. It’s a beautiful effect, but more than that. It speaks of the spirit within, no matter how oppressive, regimented or controlled life may seem.

Perth Festival, February 19-23

Hansel & Gretel, Royal New Zealand Ballet

Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Auckland, December 5.

It is no small thing to make a full-length narrative ballet that wins its place in a company’s repertoire. Many are attempted and many end up as red lines on a balance sheet unless sets and costumes can be sold or repurposed. Most happily, Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel for Royal New Zealand, his first full-length commission, looks like a keeper and justifies artistic director Patricia Barker’s appointment of him last year as RNZB Choreographer in Residence.

Southern hemisphere companies are certainly not averse to a season of Nutcracker at Christmas time but few – Queensland Ballet is an exception – want to fill a precious slot every year with a winter-wonderland ballet in summer. (QB’s artistic director, Li Cunxin, was at the opening night performance in Auckland so don’t be surprised if Hansel & Gretel turns up in Brisbane at some point.) It’s safe to say, though, that companies definitely want a family-friendly production leading into the festive season and Hansel & Gretel fits the bill. Purists may tut-tut that Prior excises the familiar, ultra-dark seam of cruelty embedded in later versions of the Brothers Grimm tale. The decision robs the narrative of the enlivening frisson of fear and there’s no denying it’s a loss. The upside? No nightmares for the little ones.

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Kirby Selchow as Gretel in Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Stephen A’Court

All would agree that Kate Hawley’s designs look a million dollars under Jon Buswell’s lighting. Life in town is seen in moody monochrome and the enchanted forest where Hansel and Gretel take their rest after running away from home glows gently in gauzy tones. After interval Hawley ups the ante, and how, as Gretel and Hansel (which is what the story really should be called) fall into the clutches of a Witch whose effervescence is boundless. All those luridly coloured cakes and sweets to blame, no doubt.

New Zealand composer Claire Cowan’s new score is scrumptious enough to eat too, with a big, swelling film-score quality that supports the framing of the ballet as a silent movie. Cowan’s writing is as colourful as Hawley’s designs. It features unusual combinations of instruments and flavours drawn from eclectic sources – tango, Weimar cabaret, jazz – and combines them to make music that’s occasionally too rich for the blood but has all the adventurousness, romance, vigour and humour the story demands. Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra sounded wonderful with Hamish McKeich at the helm.

Prior’s choreography is most conventional in the first section, in which the good fortune of elegant townsfolk is contrasted with the poverty of Gretel and Hansel’s family. The parents are deeply loving, as a long – too long – pas de deux shows. It’s attractive but doesn’t fully earn its keep. When the children find their way to the forest things get more interesting choreographically, even if again dramatic balance would be better served by shortening the Dew Fairies’ dances.

Hansel & Gretel

Hansel and Gretel, The Sandman and Dew Fairies. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Once in the Witch’s lair, however, Prior has a firm grip on what is arguably one of dance’s most difficult assignments: to make ballet genuinely funny. It’s beautifully controlled mayhem all the way with the limelight-hogging diva and her entourage of Pink-Iced Gingerbread Men, chorus-line witches and slinky Food People. There are even jazz hands. Bless.

The company looked in tip-top form at the Auckland opening. Mother and Father were in the expert hands of Nadia Yanowsky and Joseph Skelton, Kirby Selchow’s Gretel was an engagingly sparky girl and Shaun James Kelly’s Hansel an inquisitive lad who still needed the comfort of his toy bunny. Katherine Precourt hammed it up hilariously as The Ice Cream Witch (that’s how she gets lures kids)  and Paul Mathews as her gleefully black-hearted true self, The Transformed Witch, could have a glittering career in panto in the future should he wish. In a ballet that offers women the strongest roles, Mayu Tanigaito swept all before her as the virtuosic Queen of the Dew Fairies with Forsythesque attack, drama and danger while Allister Madin, on leave from Paris Opera Ballet this year, endowed King of the Dew Fairies with sleek POB elegance.

And speaking of sweeping, there was a delightful cameo for children as the birds who ruin Gretel’s marking of the way back home. Here the breadcrumbs weren’t eaten. They were cleared away with brooms wielded by youngsters with adorable beaked hoods.

Hansel & Gretel transfers to Bruce Mason Centre, Auckland, on December 13 for three performances, ending December 14.

New Breed, Sydney Dance Company

Carriageworks, Sydney, December 6

The mysteries of dance and dancemaking are great. What drives the need to watch this person closely and not that one? Why does a work speak to something deep within while another is superficially entertaining? How is it that one is engaged intellectually and emotionally with one piece of dance while finding another pleasing enough in the moment but forgotten shortly after?

It is, of course, the job of the critic to analyse these matters and build an argument. It’s important, too, to convey a sense of the occasion so the reader may come away thinking they’d rather like the piece the writer did not rate highly, or would rather remove their own appendix than endure the work so lavishly praised.

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Holly Doyle (foreground) in Creeper by Lauren Langlois. Photo: Pedro Greig

A program such as Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed (or Queensland Ballet’s Synergy, or The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque) bring these thoughts into even greater focus than usual. This is where new work is presented, sometimes by experienced choreographers and often by relative or total neophytes. It’s a given that all pieces are danced spectacularly well by company members. The works may not have much – or anything – in the way of sets but they will be professionally lit and costumed. Nothing will last more than about 25 minutes and some much less. There are always four or sometimes five works on the program, often coming from incredibly different directions. Variety is a given and because the viewer is unlikely to be deeply familiar with any choreographer’s work the element of surprise can be great. You’re not necessarily going to like everything but almost certain to come away satisfied that you got your money’s worth. Which, because New Breed tickets were $35, you most certainly did.

Repertoire building is not the primary goal of these programs – their focus is on giving choreographers an opportunity to develop their craft – but bringing more experienced independent choreographers to a wider audience can be beneficial to both sides. New Breed is where SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela found Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeestand Melanie Lane’s WOOF, which he then put into mainstage seasons. On the development front, Bodytorque is where TAB nurtured Alice Topp, now a resident choreographer, and before her Tim Harbour, ditto. Rising star Jack Lister got his start at QB in its studio presentations, he recently choreographed for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s main program which was seen in Birmingham and at Sadlers Wells, and is now transferring to Brisbane’s Australian Dance Collective (formerly Expressions Dance Company) where he will be both dancer and choreographer from next year.

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Chloe Leong in In Walked Bud by Davide Di Giovanni. Photo: Pedro Greig

So what of this year’s New Breed? There are four works, two by SDC company members Davide Di Giovanni and Ariella Casu and the others by Lauren Langlois and Josh Mu, both of whom are old hands in the independent contemporary dance scene.

Di Giovanni’s In Walked Bud, a dance for two women and a man to the music of Thelonius Monk, looked sophisticated and fun. Guy Hastie dressed Holly Doyle and Chloe Leong in to-die-for black unitards with cheeky pink fringing on one leg, Alexander Berlage lit the stage with expanding ovals of light, unlit it with a handful of blackouts and threw shadows with backlighting. Doyle, Leong and Luke Hayward were Hollywood glamorous and were almost enough compensation for a lumpy structure that had audiences at sea about whether the piece had ended or was continuing.

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Sydney Dance Company in Ariella Casu’s Arise for New Breed. Photo: Pedro Greig

Casu’s Arise was clearly heartfelt but its territory is well-worn. A group of nine dancers was at first aggressive, frantic, robotic and impassive in tight shiny hoodies (Aleisa Jelbart designed, as she did three of the four New Breed works). When they shed this dark upper garment it was if they were reborn into a state of innocence and unworldliness.

Josh Mu’s Zero, which ended the program, was danced to the energising beat of Huey Benjamin’s electronic score. While it perhaps didn’t fully convey Mu’s theme of humanity teetering on the edge of existence, the large group of 11 dancers made the piece zing from go to whoa and hyperactive Chloe Young, intriguingly hiding much of the time behind a long veil of hair, threw herself into the moment and consumed space and energy as if there were no tomorrow. Emily Seymour’s superbly controlled rotations while lying on the floor were less easy to fit into the picture but were quite magical.

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Sydney Dance Company in Josh Mu’s Zero. Photo: Pedro Greig

Which leaves Creeper, by Lauren Langlois. At 25 minutes her piece for four women was the longest (by a few minutes) of the evening’s works. It was also the only one that to me felt fully formed and realised. Only in Creeper did I feel any curiosity about who these people were and what they felt.

The immediate impression was of a strange, unsettling place and restless, unsettled people. Berlage’s lighting (he worked on all four pieces) at first gave the stage a light green tinge and later a purply wash; eerie or sickly, depending on your interpretation. Jason Wright’s sound design was equally elusive and disorienting. The women – Jesse Scales, Ariella Casu, Holly Doyle and Chloe Leong, all memorable – stood apart from one another although the focus was on Scales, moving slowly as the others moved even more slowly, each apparently with her own thoughts. Staggering steps brought them together, stuttering, ungainly, awkward, even ugly, but affecting. This is what the internal conflict and anguish we usually hide beneath a polite exterior look like.

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Jesse Scales (centre) with Ariella Casu (and Chloe Leong in Creeper. Photo: Pedro Greig

The woman needed one another even as they also took their own paths, looking for – who knows what? It could be consolation in difficult times, the strength of the group, or the basic drive to survive even though the world is a blasted desert. In some ways Creeper could be a companion piece to Antony Hamilton’s unforgettable Keep Everything (2014), in which Langlois performed, brilliantly. There’s the same fractured, extreme physicality and interest in how technology challenges the whole of humanity and our personal interactions with others. That said, Creeper is very much its own work, with much greater emphasis on the possibility of emotional engagement. I could see it again and again, for the way the women huddled together for comfort; that repeated gesture of raising a foot behind them and brushing it with a hand; the phenomenal Scales’s intense upwards gaze that searched the universe; and so much more.