Amy Hollingsworth at Expressions Dance Company: warrior for the human condition

Amy Hollingsworth can’t be too specific about the first season she is curating as artistic director of Brisbane-based Expressions Dance Company – details for 2020 will be announced later this year – but she can talk about the philosophy that secured her the job. EDC may have a core of only half a dozen dancers but it’s safe to say she’s not thinking small.

In December of last year Hollingsworth was named successor to long-serving AD Natalie Weir; by January she had her feet under the desk in a large, light-filled office in EDC’s headquarters in the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Fortitude Valley. This year’s program had already been set by Weir so Hollingsworth is shepherding that through as she develops the ideas that will put her own stamp on the organisation.

Amy Hollingsworth - Photo By David Kelly

Expressions Dance Company artistic director Amy Hollingsworth. Photo: David Kelly

 

By definition a contemporary company is “of the now”, says Hollingsworth so change is a given when a new artistic director is appointed. She has said on several occasions that two words central to her thinking are freedom and fire. They are concepts that may appear nebulous but a long conversation with Hollingsworth makes it clear they are shorthand for a wide range of concrete possibilities.

Inside the company she is passionately committed to giving artists a strong voice in the creative process and more autonomy than is usual in many dance ensembles. She values teamwork, risk-taking, imagination and individuality and wants those qualities to animate and invigorate work. She has choreographed herself but will lead EDC as a curatorial director: “I love gathering around me like-minded people with whom I can have robust conversations about the work we’re going to do. I want a home of true collaboration that’s vibrant, welcoming, and dedicated to shaping and nourishing the craft.”

Looking outwards, Hollingsworth says EDC must be reflective of the world in which it lives and to be a visible, active part of it. This means, among other things, having diversity onstage and in the audience and understanding the place of a live performing art in today’s highly digitised environment. It means connecting with as many people as possible – the company needs to be seen not only on conventional stages but on film or in site-specific pieces that can travel anywhere.

In addition, Hollingsworth wants to continue what she calls EDC’s “civic mission” of working with young people and in schools and would like to have a four-year plan for the EDC Youth Ensemble that was created only this year. She talks about interdisciplinary partnerships, engagement with technology and more. Much, much more.

Arts companies, she says, have public voices and should make themselves heard. In her marvellous phrase, they must be “warriors for the human condition”.

The EDC board didn’t have to go far to find Weir’s successor, and to find a spectacularly qualified one. Hollingsworth was working down the road at Queensland Ballet, where she had been ballet mistress and creative associate since 2016 after spending a year with Expressions as rehearsal director. She’d come to Brisbane from Sydney where she’d been a dancer and dance director for old friend Rafael Bonachela at Sydney Dance Company. And before that she had a brilliant international career as a dancer.

The choreographers she’s worked closely with are a who’s who of contemporary dance today: Wayne McGregor, Michael Clark, Javier de Frutos, Jiri Kylian, Hofesh Shechter and Mats Ek among them. She can count Akram Khan as a friend. “I’ve spent my whole dance life standing beside great choreographers,” she says.

Hollingsworth was a sporty child whose ability at swimming could have taken her in that direction. She liked it “an awful lot”. Dance, however, finally won. Hollingsworth loved it enough to work her way through a catastrophic injury suffered early in her professional career when she was with Royal New Zealand Ballet. She used the long rehabilitation time wisely. “I now would not take that experience back,” she says. “It highlighted how important dance was to me.” Hollingsworth learned the value of resilience, determination and perseverance and on her return to dance rose to the rank of principal artist at RNZB. The injury underscored the need for dancers to have a wide range of skills, something she will encourage at EDC. She sets an excellent example. Over the years Hollingsworth has studied science, arts management, Pilates and has her helicopter pilot’s licence.

Hollingsworth joined RNZB straight from The Australian Ballet School. She had always loved the classical story ballets and danced plenty of them but became deeply attracted to original work. An experience with choreographer Douglas Wright in New Zealand planted the seed. “I felt most invigorated when working on a new creation,” she says. A stint as a founding member of Peter Schaufuss Balletten in Denmark in 1997 took her to the northern hemisphere and then to Rambert Dance Company under the direction of Christopher Bruce.

Hollingsworth met Bonachela at Rambert and in their spare time the two would go into a studio “to play … in the studio we set each other off. A monster was born.” Not exactly a monster. Bonachela went on to found Bonachela Dance Company in 2006 and Hollingsworth went with him as a founding member. She became Bonachela’s assistant director and returned to Australia when he took over at SDC in 2009. She retired from performing in 2011 in a solo, Irony of Fate, which Bonachela made for her. She then concentrated on her work as SDC’s dance director until moving to Brisbane.

At QB her work included oversight of the company’s valuable contemporary Bespoke program, established in 2017. She choreographed a piece, Glass Heart, for that first Bespoke but at the time I wrote:

Hollingsworth’s greater achievement was as Bespoke’s prime mover. After finishing a celebrated performing career in both classical and contemporary dance she turned to coaching, direction, staging, education, mentoring and assisting choreographers in the creative process. These are no small talents …

EDC is now the beneficiary. Watch out for that 2020 season launch. Hollingsworth promises it will be a big one.

Muriel’s Wedding returns to Sydney

Based on the film by P.J. Hogan. Book by P.J. Hogan, music and lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures. Lyric Theatre, Sydney, July 4

Muriel Heslop is a bogan, a ratbag, a complete dag. She’s cunning but not terribly bright. The hideous frock she lifts from Target to wear to a wedding speaks volumes about her taste, as does her attendance at that wedding, which joins arch-bitch Tania Delgano and thick pantsman Chook in holy matrimony. Muriel lies, she cheats, she covets fame and when it comes her way she unthinkingly discards the few people who care about her. And, bless her, we absolutely adore her. She’s the underdog of underdogs and must be barracked for. It’s the Australian way. Plus the fact that P.J. Hogan’s 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding is practically a sacred text.

Hogan insisted on writing the book for this musical version himself despite not being an experienced theatre hand and it paid off. He understood that updating the piece gave him access to pure gold; that social media’s ability to create a star who was famous for being famous was pure Muriel. She could be an influencer! Actually, if I’m not mistaken, a brief influencer reference is new to the production, which has been slightly retooled – the show premiered way back in late 2017 and has had a bit of catching up to do with digital trends. It was also substantially recast for its Melbourne season earlier this year and is now back in Sydney.

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Natalie Abbott, centre, as Muriel Heslop. Photo: Jeff Busby

The nips, tucks and additions are beneficial and include a useful rethinking of Progress, the paean to unbridled property development, and an expanded role for the Swedish fab four ABBA, whose music is Muriel’s guide to life. What good luck that ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson held out on the matter of rights to their songs until Mamma Mia! ran out of steam. Muriel’s Wedding would be unthinkable without them and in the meantime (various people have wanted to do a Muriel musical for more than a decade) social media became all-pervasive. In a brilliant upping-the-ante move, for instance, Muriel’s wedding of convenience to visa-needing star swimmer Alex Shkuratov is live-streamed.

Muriel’s journey starts in her coastal home town of Porpoise Spit, crucible of her formation as a thoroughly flawed human being. It’s here we meet her vile, hair-tossing “friends”, layabout siblings, bullying father and neglected mother, all subject to the most unsparing treatment. Well, all except Muriel’s mother Betty. “I hope this story has a happy ending,” sings Betty poignantly about the potboiler romance she’s reading. We know how it ends for her.

So this is a comedy? Yes and no and finally yes, in that it does end happily for Muriel, her true friend Rhonda, and Brice, the first man to show Muriel true affection. Not all viewers are happy that Muriel gets to go off with a bloke at the end, which didn’t happen in the film, but he’s an underdog too, so yay!. Brice’s Act II self-deprecating song, Never Stick Your Neck Out, sets out his father’s advice for a happy life. Don’t aim high and you’ll never be disappointed. Only an Australian musical would have such a jaunty ode to under-achievement.

Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall’s music and lyrics are endlessly enjoyable and repay repeated listening (the original cast recording is available and excellent). There are big, singable, super-tuneful numbers in The BouquetAmazing, Here Comes the Bride, Why Can’t That be Me and True Friend and then there are the fabulously wicked satires on Heslop family life (Meet the Heslops) and the Porpoise Spit airheads Muriel so wants to be like (Can’t Hang and Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked – both just brilliant). As for My Mother (Eulogy), you have no heart if the tears don’t start pricking the backs of your eyes. Muriel comes to wisdom the hard way.

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Stefanie Jones and Natalie Abbott in Muriel’s Wedding. Photo: Jeff Busby

Every song hits its mark and, just as wondrously, sits entirely comfortably alongside ABBA. The small band under music director Daniel Puckey performs wonders.

Just one quibble: in Sydney, a rollicking celebration of the city’s elastic approach to moral and social standards, one lyric has it that you’re accepted whether “black or yellow or beige or brown”. This isn’t the songwriters’ fault, but the song would have more authority if there were more people of colour on stage singing it.

Under Simon Phillips’s buoyant direction Muriel’s Wedding expertly negotiates the mix of satire and pathos. Even at its most gaudy the show never lets you forget it has a heart, even if on opening night in Sydney the heart was a little obscured as some in the cast worked just that bit too hard. The margin of error in a piece such as this is minute.

The title role’s originator in Sydney was newcomer Maggie McKenna and her successor Natalie Abbott made her professional debut as Muriel in Melbourne. Abbott, like McKenna, is a delightful presence on stage and sings wonderfully. There is more for her to find in Muriel but her journey from insecurity to acceptance was touching. Stefanie Jones settled into a very fine, tough-outside-sensitive-inside performance as Rhonda while Pippa Grandison’s reading of Betty deepened as the show progressed. The highly experienced David James was note-perfect from the start as Bill Heslop and another newcomer, Jarrod Griffiths, a suitably sweet and nerdy Brice.

Muriel’s Wedding has a limited run in Sydney before transferring to Brisbane in September.

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David James, centre, as Bill Heslop. Photo: Jeff Busby

My review of the Muriel’s Wedding premiere in Sydney appeared in The Australian on November 20, 2017

Who doesn’t have a little of Muriel Heslop in them: the self-doubt, the hurt, the longing to be noticed and admired, the few extra kilos, the regrettable tendency to lie and steal? Well, perhaps that last quality isn’t universal but Muriel’s many flaws are what made her so relatable and so lovable when PJ Hogan brought her to the screen in 1994. Je suis Muriel.

The passing years haven’t dulled Muriel’s impact one little bit. On the contrary, the misfit from Porpoise Spit shines ever more brightly, and how. Under the ebullient guidance of director Simon Phillips, Muriel’s Wedding arrives on the musical stage with raucous, ribald, uninhibited energy and an unshakeable belief in the concept that more is more, particularly in the show’s manic first half.

The phrase “too much” has no absolutely meaning here. Gabriela Tylesova’s designs flood the stage and the eye with colours seen nowhere in nature, Andrew Hallsworth’s scintillating choreography is rarely out of sixth gear and Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall’s new songs – every one a keeper; extraordinary – just don’t stop coming. Neither do the fellatio jokes. Just so you know.

Hogan had dibs on writing the musical’s book and has delivered a faithful but updated version of his film. Muriel (Maggie McKenna) has no job, no friends, a dysfunctional family and a rich fantasy life fuelled by the songs of ABBA. Borne on the breeze of her mother’s misappropriated credit card, 21st-century Muriel – or Mariel, as she restyles herself – heads for Sydney and radical reinvention.

Her goal is marriage and famous-for-being-famous Kardashian-like celebrity. She wants to be a hashtag and in the show’s darker second half she gets her wish. And then she gets wisdom.

Making her professional stage debut, McKenna doesn’t quite access the deep well of sadness at Muriel’s core but her goofy eagerness is endearing and she is entrancing when it comes to the wonderful songs that illuminate Muriel’s inner life (young music director Isaac Hayward did the splendid orchestrations and arrangements).

Why Can’t That Be Me and My Mother are wrenching. Amazing and A True Friend, sung with the superlative Rhonda of Madeleine Jones, bring tears to the eyes just thinking about them. The celebration of female friendship is intoxicating.

Phillips deftly negotiates the big shifts from Aussie kitsch on steroids to genuine emotion, aided by an exceptionally well-chosen cast. The broad humour doesn’t hit its mark in every instance and there are a couple of scenes that are too long but there is no denying the skill with which each laugh is pursued.

Christie Whelan Browne, playing the ghastly – but married! – Tania gives a masterclass in physical comedy and timing. Tania’s girl-group song with her bitchy acolytes, Can’t Hang, is pure delight. Helen Dallimore is a hoot as Deidre Chambers, the woman unaccountably attracted to Muriel’s father Bill (blustery Gary Sweet). Ben Bennett is sweetness itself as Muriel’s would-be boyfriend while Stephen Madsen oozes sex appeal as the man she marries.

The outlier and linchpin of the piece is Muriel’s neglected mother Betty, given heartbreakingly quiet dignity by Justine Clarke. There are no jokes for her, just a beautifully written scene that edges into the magical and the surreal with a little help from ABBA.

Muriel’s Wedding, if you’ll forgive me, deserved its ecstatic reception.

Spartacus and Jewels, Bolshoi Ballet

QPAC International Series, Brisbane, June 27 and June 29

The Bolshoi’s pairing of Yuri Grigorovich’s Spartacus and George Balanchine’s Jewels could not be more fascinating. They were made only a year apart, in 1968 and 1967 respectively, and come from the hands of men with a common lineage but different destinies. Their shared birthplace tells the story. Grigorovich was born in 1927 in Leningrad, 23 years after Balanchine was born in St Petersburg. Same city, another name. Grigorovich’s career was made and prospered in Soviet Russia. Balanchine left the country in 1924 to rattle around Western Europe and ultimately settle in the US, where he had a profound influence on the direction of classical dance.

If you want to see how things turned out, Spartacus and Jewels couldn’t be better guides.

Igor Tsvirko Spartacus

Igor Tsvirko as Spartacus. Photo: Darren Thomas

Even now, nearly 30 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Bolshoi clings to the idea of Spartacus as its standard-bearer. The narrative of a decadent ruling class putting its foot on the neck of the people fits snugly into the Soviet drambalet mould and is deeply old-fashioned. It’s not entirely a case of nostalgia, though. The Bolshoi has built its brand around dancing on an heroic scale and Spartacus certainly offers plenty of that.

The beefy crowd-pleaser wears its heart entirely on its sleeve. The slave rebellion led by Spartacus against the vicious, rapacious Imperial Romans is delivered in broad, sweeping strokes and performed the same way, propelled by Aram Khachaturian’s enjoyably bombastic score. Every action is delivered as if in capital letters. Good. Bad. Love. Hate. Leap. Turn. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. (Grigorovich takes an emphatic approach. A series of stag leaps, for instance, is seen executed directly to the audience, from one side of the stage to the other and in diagonals.)

On the evil side of the ledger the spotlight is on military leader Crassus (Alexander Volchkov at the gala opening performance on June 27) and his wily concubine, Aegina (Olga Smirnova). Spartacus (Igor Tsvirko) and his “sweetheart” Phrygia (Margarita Shrayner) represent all that is noble. Swirling around them are soldiers, insurgents and members of Crassus’s household, mostly dancing in unison and operating as a kind of moving wallpaper against which the back-and-forth power struggle between Crassus and Spartacus plays out, with an assist from the resourceful Aegina. Smirnova danced the courtesan with glittering intelligence and hauteur, even in Aegina’s supposedly erotic dance with a pole that somehow distracts wavering rebels so they can be captured. It’s perhaps not the ballet’s finest moment but at least the woman has a bit of self-determination.

Poor Phrygia is just the anguished lover, tossed about by fate and her man, who expresses his love in their great love duet by draping her around his shoulders like a sack of grain and holding her upside down on his back. The gorgeously pliant Shrayner was unshakeable in her commitment to the part, even though required to throw her arms wide in supplication far too often.

Alexander Volchkov

Alexander Volchkov as Crassus. Photo: Darren Thomas

Grigorovich’s choreography is often highly eccentric and twee or simply baffling. Soldiers alternate between goose-steps and capering, for instance, and the bacchanal scene could not be less sexy. It’s fair to say, though, that the ballet has its passionate admirers and its two leading men are given every opportunity to get the house pumping. On opening night Tsvirko was nothing short of sensational, with thrilling pyrotechnics and dynamic stage presence. Volchkov struck the right note as the decadent Crassus, even if it was just one note.

The ballet opens with a display of power by Crassus and his men, full of those endless stag leaps for Crassus and some regrettable prancing for the soldiers. A “monologue” for the captured Spartacus follows, one of nine solos that separate the action scenes. They are designed to give insights into the key characters’ emotional states although one-size-fits-all emoting would be a more accurate term for the generic angst of Grigorovich’s choreography, long on beseeching arms, splayed fingers and clutched bodies.

The wondrous Tsvirko somehow made something touching of his moments of limited introspection and in the bigger moments his attack was bold and precise and his elevation high and pillowy. He seemed to have all the time in the world for sublime double air turns and high-flying back arches during which head and feet were thrown back to meet. His ferocious movement transcended gymnastics, something not always achieved elsewhere.

Pavel Sorokin conducted with a deep understanding of the muscular score. Queensland Symphony Orchestra sounded terrific, especially the hard-working brass section. At the opening of Jewels the QSO was equally impressive in the Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky music that so vividly establishes the very different qualities of each section of Balanchine’s abstract triptych.

Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko

Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko in Rubies. Photo: Darren Thomas

Jewelsis the last word in glamour, a quality the Bolshoi dancers have in abundance. Expressive physicality is built into the Bolshoi DNA and in the first section, Emeralds, it translated into appealing sensuality and full-hearted immersion in the delectable Fauré – selections from Pélleas et Mélisandeand Shylock. Emeralds glowed.

Rubies was made to Stravinsky’s irresistibly propulsive, restless Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. There were moments when a little more Broadway-style fizz and snap would have been welcome from the corps. There was more than enough compensation, though, from Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko in their dramatically large-scaled pas de deux and Ovcharenko’s quiet wit as the men delightfully jogged as if on a run in New York’s Central Park.

Diamonds, to the music of Tchaikovsky (Symphony No.3 in D major, minus the first movement), celebrates Imperial Russian classicism. At the first performance it was also a celebration of a gleaming young talent. Alyona Kovalyova is only 20 but has the sophistication, refinement, self-possession and star quality of a much more experienced artist. The central pas de deux, in which Kovalyova was partnered gracefully by Jacopo Tissi, made time stand still.

Spartacus ends July 7; Jewels ends July 3. Spartacus will be broadcast to regional Queensland centres on July 6.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on July 1.

Synergy, Queensland Ballet

Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brisbane, June 28

Synergy is a small, unpretentious program that’s partly a place where emerging choreographers can test their capabilities and partly where Queensland Ballet’s Young Artists and members of its Pre-Professional year can get some stage time. Both these things are important aspects of QB’s remit but, at least in this year’s iteration, the focus is unclear.

Synergy 2019 puts new work by three highly experienced dance-makers alongside that of two neophytes and casts dancers from QB’s main company as the featured performers in three of the five works. That doesn’t exactly translate to boundless opportunity for the up-and-comers.

Queeensland Ballet

Camilo Ramos and Neneka Yoshida in Never, Stop Falling in Love. Photo: David Kelly

QB’s chief ballet master Greg Horsman is a man with extensive choreographic credits and his Never, Stop Falling in Love could easily pop up on a mainstage triple bill. It’s certainly more engaging than Trey McIntyre’s new The Shadows Behind Us that premiered recently in QB’s Masters Series. The works have some similarities, being danced to popular music interpreted by intriguing artists: jazz singer Jimmy Scott in the McIntyre; genre-hopping “little orchestra” Pink Martini for Horsman.

In Never, Stop Falling in Love three QB couples dance sultry duos while Young Artists weave in and out, promenading or dancing together as if it were a late summer’s evening on the boardwalk. Horsman’s theme of love – no more, no less – may not be earth-shattering but Never, Stop Falling in Love has plenty of charm and leaves a warm glow as it brings the evening to a close.

Queeensland Ballet

QB Young Artists in Magnetic Fields. Photo: David Kelly

Paul Knobloch’s Magnetic Fields, to the music of the seemingly ubiquitous Ludovico Einaudi, is a strong opener. Knobloch is a former dancer with The Australian Ballet, currently a ballet master with that company and has been making dances for more than a decade. Magnetic Fields is danced wonderfully by the 12 Young Artists who later backed up in Never, Stop Falling in Love but here they are the main game. Wearing close-fitting metallic bodysuits, they attract and repel one another, forming and reforming into ever-shifting huddles and lines. The work is entirely abstract but in several solos there’s a suggestion of the individual standing apart from the group, sometimes tentatively, sometimes forcefully.

Queeensland Ballet

Camilo Ramos and Lina Kim in The Cloud of Unknowing. Photo:David Kelly

The third professional choreographer is former Expressions Dance Company artistic director and former Australian Ballet resident choreographer Natalie Weir. Her pas de deux The Cloud of Unknowing, to music of the same name by Gerard Brophy, is another meditation on love, this time involving conflict. QB dancers Lina Kim and Camilo Ramos gave it their considerable all but it’s a forgettable piece with no compelling reason for being on the program.

Company dancer Lou Spichtig sparked the interest with a short narrative work performed by QB dancers Chiara Gonzalez, D’Arcy Brazier and Liam Geck. Spichtig based Demain dès L’Aube on a Victor Hugo poem she learned as a child so it has a lot of personal meaning for her, even if the work feels a little old-fashioned coming from the hands of such a young woman.

Hugo’s daughter made a marriage of which he didn’t approve, causing a deep rift between father and child. She died by drowning, something Hugo only learned about by reading a newspaper report. Spichtig lays out the story clearly, gracefully and with a good grasp of dramatic tension and structure. Her choice of music by Schnittke, Chopin and others is apt and her work quite unlike any others on the program. Spichtig is definitely worth encouraging.

Queeensland Ballet

Liam Geck, Chiara Gonzalez and D’Arcy Brazier in Demain dès L’Aube. Photo: David Kelly

Interestingly, the work that resonates most strongly happens to be by an emerging choreographer, QB dancer Pol Andrés Thió, and a 14-strong cast entirely drawn from the Pre-Professional Program. Thió describes Always in Flight as being “about how we experience art when we find meaning in it”. That concept isn’t easily discerned in the work, but never mind. It looks terrific and has a distinctive voice.

Always in Flight opens with two women in the most basic, unassertive costume imaginable: flesh-coloured leotards and tights that make the dancers look both innocent and vulnerable. Their interactions are physically simple but emotionally complicated – wary, perhaps, but supportive too as one lifts the other.

One woman seems cast as the outsider as men dressed in black flood the stage and other women join the group, they in loose trousers, their long hair flowing. Later everyone wears a long skirt and the lone woman is persuaded, briefly, to don one too. There is an enigmatic interlude in which we hear only the woman’s harsh breathing as she hunches her shoulders as if in distress, an image returned to at the end.

Queeensland Ballet

QB Pre-Professional Program dancers in Always in Flight. Photo: David Kelly

Thió’s handling of this large group is impressive. He has a good sense of ebb, flow and dynamics and the music by Moses Sumney, Hiatus Kayote and Aram Khachaturian is used effectively – not always the case when such different musicians are put alongside one another.

Synergy is performed without sets but with highly expert contributions from costume designers Noelene Hill and Fiona Holley and lighting  designers Cameron Goerg and Scott Chiverton.

Synergy ends July 6.

Bangarra Dance Theatre: 30 years of sixty five thousand

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 14

What a marvellous idea to include Jiří Kylián’s Stamping Ground in this celebration of Bangarra’s three decades of dance. It’s a terrifically exciting piece and its presence could be justified simply on artistic grounds. But why now, particularly as Bangarra has never before performed the work of a non-Indigenous choreographer? It’s a wonderful story.

The Czech master made Stamping Ground in 1983 for Nederlands Dans Theater, three years after attending a vast gathering of Australian First Nations communities on Groote Eylandt. He hadn’t simply been invited: Kylián had been a prime mover of the event. He had learned about and been deeply moved by the centrality of dance in Indigenous Australian life – the necessity, really. Dance contained history and stories, expressed spirituality and was the common language for people who spoke in many different tongues.

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Rika Hamaguchi and Ryan Pearson in Stamping Ground. Photo: Daniel Boud

Well-chosen extracts from a documentary made about the Groote Eyelandt festival precede Bangarra’s performance of Stamping Ground and make abundantly clear just how profound the experience was for Kylián, an experience that “influenced each and every work he has created since then”, says Roslyn Anderson, Kylián’s Australian-born assistant choreographer. It’s hard to overestimate this tremendous gift to contemporary dance. (Anderson staged Stamping Ground for Bangarra.)

Bangarra artistic director Stephen Page had an embarrassment of riches to choose from for this program, much of it his own work, so the recognition of Kylián is graceful and timely.

So is the decision to open 30 years with Frances Rings’s Unaipon from 2004. Rings, formerly a dancer with Bangarra before turning to choreography, was recently named Bangarra’s associate artistic director; this was her first big work for the company. It explores the culture and ideas of Ngarrindjeri man David Unaipon in seven sections that allude to his work as a preacher, inventor and philosopher (he died in 1967).

There is a trance-like quality to much of the dance language as Rings places Unaipon’s thinking in a universal context. There is nothing more lovely than its night-sky opening, in which we hear Unaipon’s suggestion that the source of life is to be found “in another world – yet we are here”. Otherworldliness permeates Uniapon. A section based on string games is grounded in the reality of traditional Ngarrindjeri life but abstracted into something grand and mysterious, as is Rings’s depiction of the four winds, representing knowledge of the land. Swirling bodies evoke Unaipon’s interest in the laws of motion and rapt calmness his Christian faith.

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Tyrel Dulvarie as Tolkami (West Wind) in Unaipon. Photo: Daniel Boud

The music, lush with language and song, comes chiefly from the hand of David Page. He died in 2016 but his wonderful score lives on. The costumes by Jennifer Irwin, a long-time Bangarra collaborator, are a joy to revisit, as is Peter England’s set and Nick Schlieper’s lighting.

Stamping Ground opens the second half of the program and is pure joy. Each of the six dancers is introduced with a silent solo and then the piece heads into exhilarating, hard and fast duos and trios to a percussion work by Carlos Chávez. It’s forceful, witty and 100 per cent Kylián but with touches of the inspiration – not imitation, he stresses – the choreographer is indebted to. The alert use of head, eyes and neck are particularly notable, as are the wonderfully springy, agile knees. The Bangarra cast dances Stamping Ground with splendidly earthy vigour  and makes it their own.

The program ends satisfyingly with To Make Fire, a blending of sections from earlier Bangarra works. The short excerpt from Stephen Page’s Mathinna refers to colonisation and exploitation. It is followed by dances from Elma Kris’s lovely About, which springs from Torres Strait Island culture. The third element, Clan, draws from several works, ending with a ravishingly beautiful section called Hope from 2002.

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The Bangarra ensemble in To Make Fire. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s a big night for the full ensemble of 16 and not all can be mentioned, but there were standout performances from Baden Hitchcock and Ryan Pearson (Stamping Ground) and Tyrel Dulvarie (Stamping Ground and Unaipon). Tara Gower, Rika Hamaguchi and Ella Havelka completed the Stamping Ground cast with distinction.

30 years is also a tribute to many outstanding contributors to Bangarra’s look and sound, including the distinguished designer Jacob Nash and composer Steve Francis. It’s a special evening.

Ends in Sydney July 13. Then Canberra, July 18-20; Perth, July 31-August 3; Darwin, August 17; Brisbane, August 23-31; Melbourne, September 5-14; Adelaide, September 19-21; Hobart October 3-5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 17.

The Masters Series, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, May 17 and 18 (matinee)

Old politicians are never the ones who die in battle, are they? Jiří Kylián’s Soldier’s Mass (1980) isn’t the only ballet to illustrate that poignant truth but it is one of the most affecting.

With Bohuslav Martinů’s anguished Field Mass (1939) ringing in their ears, 12 young men face war and their fears. They are seen at first swaying from side to side in front of a blue sky with a curved red horizon line (Kylián designed set and costumes). Here they stand, buffeted by fate and heading for a conclusion that is never in doubt.

QB Soldiers Mass. Photo Darren Thomas

Queensland Ballet in Soldier’s Mass. Photo: Darren Thomas

The distinction between the soldiers they are forced to be and the community they once were is constantly blurred as formal battle formations give way to group folk dances and gestures of tender support.

As the dance goes on the sky gradually, inevitably darkens. To the sound of martial trumpets, drums that crack like bullets and a stirring male choir, the men advance and retreat, gather and disperse. They fall then rise and fall again as death repeatedly takes its toll. Individuals emerge momentarily from the pack but are inexorably subsumed back into it. They can’t escape their destiny and you would need a heart of stone to remain unmoved.

Martinů, who was born in Czechoslovakia as was Kylián, wrote this music in 1939 after the Nazis invaded his homeland as an act of support for the Resistance. As Soldier’s Mass comes to its end, red light stains the men’s light-coloured shirts. They take their shirts off and throw them to the ground. They won’t be needing them anymore.

On opening night and at the next day’s matinee the Queensland Ballet men looked spent at the end of this wrenching half-hour, as well they may. They danced Soldier’s Mass with affecting seriousness and purpose, even if the commanding, weighty groundedness of Kylián’s style wasn’t entirely captured by everyone.

QB Serenade. Principal Artist Lucy Green (2)Photo Darren Thomas

Principal artist Lucy Green in Serenade. Photo: Darren Thomas

Soldier’s Mass closes QB’s triple bill. The women of the company (and a few men) open it with George Balanchine’s glorious Serenade, a love letter to the language and history of classical dance. Serenade (1935) is a balletomane’s dream with its references to Giselle, hints of Swan Lake and homage to Balanchine’s own Apollo, made in 1928. And has any other choreographer made fifth position of arms and feet look more radiant? (It’s a rhetorical question.)

Serenade was the first ballet Balanchine made in the US and is famous for its incorporation of errors made by his student cast – a late arrival, a fall. It was reworked several times to reach its current sublime form and is now unthinkable without the floaty, romantic Karinska costumes designed in 1952.

The QB women – 20 of them – were lustrous at both performances I saw, particularly Lucy Green as the Russian Girl in the first cast. The downside on opening night (fixed for the Saturday matinee) was a persistent buzz in the sound system that did no favours to the recording of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. There was, unfortunately, no live music for this program.

Serenade and Soldier’s Mass bookended American choreographer Trey McIntyre’s new The Shadows Behind Us, a minor work in which six glamorous couples enact romantic entanglements.

McIntyre’s busy vignettes mix ballet and ballroom and have lots of quirky moves and complicated, often awkward-looking partnering that may have looked more persuasive had there been a better fit between dance and music. It was a treat, though, to be introduced to American jazz singer Jimmy Scott (he died in 2014).

The Shadows Behind Us is set to half a dozen popular songs, given slow, torchy treatment by Scott, who had a condition that delayed his development, leaving him with a voice akin to that of a female alto. The selections include Unchained Melody, Our Day Will Come and, disconcertingly, Exodus, a song written for the film of that name about the founding of Israel.

QB Shadows Behind Us. David Power and Darcy Brazier. Photo Darren Thomas

David Power and D’Arcy Brazier in The Shadows Behind Us. Photo: Darren Thomas

A disconnect between song and dance can be artistically fruitful (as with Merce Cunningham and John Cage) but here the juxtaposition felt inert and immaterial. It made sense to read in the program that McIntyre “doesn’t really listen to the lyrics in pop songs”. The Shadows Behind Us may have been rather more memorable if he had a different view.

The best duo by far is that for two men to Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child, danced with a satisfying combination of power and grace by David Power and D’Arcy Brazier (at the first performance) and Pol Andrés Thió and Suguru Otsuka (at the matinee).

The work looks attractive, with its women in knee-length party frocks with voluminous underskirts and men in suits minus shirts.

The Masters Series ends May 25. This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on May 20.

Benedicte Bemet’s Giselle

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, May 8

For many ballet-lovers the second act of Giselle is what brings them back repeatedly and Maina Gielgud’s much-revived production for The Australian Ballet doesn’t let them down. She created it in 1986, which means that more than a few generations of TAB dancers have been schooled in its mysteries. Gielgud’s dedication to and understanding of the soft, ethereal Romantic style is complete and the Sydney season now coming to an end shows that even though Gielgud wasn’t able to oversee these performances – Giselle was a late addition to the program – the women currently in the company (and therefore the audience) have been well served by the ballet staff.

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Benedicte Bemet as Giselle for The Australian Ballet. Photo: Kate Longley

It’s the first act, though, where a dancer creates the role, not so much through her dancing but her acting: the arranging of her skirt on the bench so Albrecht initially has no room to sit; the “he loves me, he loves me not” plucking of petals; how she tells Hilarion she does not, in fact, return his affection; the way in which her weak heart makes her falter; her reaction to the nobles, and in particular Bathilde, who interrupt the villagers’ harvest celebrations; her reception of Bathilde’s gift of a pendant; the losing of her reason; and much more.

All these moments between the dancing coalesce, or should do, into a whole and believable character, every idea of a piece with the next. (That doesn’t mean Giselle can’t do contradictory things but if she does, they must be understood as part of that young woman’s make-up rather than notions the dancer rather fancies and didn’t want to leave out.)

Principal artist Kondo was TAB’s glorious opening night Giselle in Sydney, reviewed here. A week later I returned to see senior artist Benedicte Bemet in the role.

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Benedicte Bemet in Act I of Giselle. Photo: Kate Longley

Bemet’s Giselle was in some ways quite conventional. It is far from unusual to see the village girl played as very, very young, sweet, pure and innocent. Bemet’s gift is in the detail and her ability to be entirely in the moment. Not to see her thinking, but to see her being. I know this production well and yet in Bemet’s performance the arrival of the Peasant pas couple came as a surprise, as if Giselle had just that instant thought of asking them to dance. This immediacy was evident in her triumphant first Aurora too.

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Bemet with Cristiano Martino as Albrecht. Photo: Kate Longley

Bemet’s Albrecht was fellow senior artist Cristiano Martino (both were promoted recently), who proved an excellent match. He was an openhearted man clearly intoxicated with Giselle and too young to think about the consequences. The relationship was utterly clear and yes, simple, but not simplistic.

It felt absolutely right. As did, to give one example, a partnering choice in the second act that replaced a difficult lift with one less treacherous. Giselle didn’t float above Albrecht’s head as if about to fly into the aether, a heart-stopping move when achieved flawlessly (bravi Kondo and her Albrecht Chengwu Guo) but disconcerting when not. Here, Martino held Bemet’s waist, raised her vertically, and she softly curved her upper body over his. I have no way of knowing whether this was an artistic decision or a practical one but it felt intimate and loving. Just right for this Giselle and this Albrecht.