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.

The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, November 30.

The Australian Ballet doesn’t have an annual tradition of presenting The Nutcracker, although on present indications it could. The ballet doesn’t have as tight a grip on the public (or companies’ bottom lines) as it does in the United States but this year’s Nutcracker was pretty much sold out before it opened while other popular entertainments in Sydney are struggling.

TAB has two versions of Nutcracker in its repertoire. Graeme Murphy’s 1992 Nutcracker – The Story of Clara is a wonderful memory piece set during a hot Melbourne Christmas. For a more conventional take, TAB turned to Peter Wright’s 1990 Birmingham Royal Ballet version, giving the Australian premiere in 2007. Audiences loved it from the start, and it’s the Wright production currently packing out the Sydney Opera House.

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Benedicte Bemet as Clara in The Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

John F. McFarlane’s designs are delectable and are a huge part of the production’s enduring success. There’s inevitably a round of applause when a giant flying goose carries Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets and all the costumes, from Clara’s floaty white party frock to her mother’s spectacular red gown and the intense pinks and purples of the Flowers’ gorgeous tutus, greatly please the eye.

Wright plays a straight bat with the story. It’s Christmas Eve, the Stahlbaums give a party at which the magician Drosselmeyer entertains the guests with mechanical dancing dolls and a couple of tricks. Clara is given the gift of a Nutcracker doll, she falls asleep at midnight and the magic begins.

At 15 – the age is specified – Wright’s Clara is a little older than some. She’s by no means fully mature but has spark and a lively mind, brought to vivid life by newly minted principal artist Benedicte Bemet on opening night. A pivotal moment comes when the Nutcracker is transformed into the Prince at the end of the skirmish between giant rats and toy soldiers. He greets Clara with great courtesy; she views him with the wonder of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. One could say the Prince does very little here, except that he is opening the door to a world of life-changing growth and imagination. Senior artist Jarryd Madden was the epitome of grace and chivalry. He was less imposing in his grand pas with Amber Scott’s Sugar Plum Fairy, both dancing more correctly than radiantly. But ah, that earlier moment …

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Jarryd Madden in The Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

Other delights came with soloist Sharni Spencer’s all-conquering Snow Fairy and the appearance of TAB founding member Colin Peasley. He retired, sort of, when the company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012. Now 85, he played Clara’s Grandfather and looks to be on his way towards matching the late Frederic Franklin’s feat of taking small parts into his 90s.

One has to be happy that the Chinese Dance has been somewhat modified to remove the hideous finger-pointing and head-waggling that made it so distasteful but it really needs a complete overhaul. While it’s no longer insupportable, it is dull. Very, very dull. The slinky Arabian Dance, which presumably is supposed to conjure the sensual perfume of the mysterious Middle East or some such thing, could also do with a rethink.

There will be no Nutcracker next year, which is artistic director David McAllister’s last (an announcement on his successor is expected by April). Interestingly, he ends his reign with something of a gamble, a new production of The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. It opens in Brisbane in early 2020, will be seen in Melbourne in August and September and closes out the year, and McAllister’s tenure, in Sydney in November and December.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Choreographer Graeme Murphy was scheduled to deliver The Happy Prince this year but illness prevented him from completing the work and a quick shuffle ensued. Perhaps it was the universe speaking. A new Murphy ballet to end McAllister’s two decades at the helm of TAB completes a circle: the first ballet McAllister commissioned was Murphy’s Swan Lake, a huge success that was performed nationally and internationally almost every year for more than a decade.

The Nutcracker ends in Sydney on December 18.

Expressions Dance Company becomes Australian Dance Collective

Brisbane’s Expressions Dance Company has a new name to go with its new leadership. Amy Hollingsworth, who became artistic director of EDC at the beginning of 2019, announced at her 2020 season launch that the 35-year-old contemporary company will be known as Australian Dance Collective.

Hollingsworth is the third artistic director in the company’s history, following Natalie Weir and Maggi Sietsma. The former leaders supported yesterday’s move, with Sietsma saying the company she founded with Abel Valls had “always been a collaborative venture”.  Australian Dance Collective chair Marian Gibney called the change a “natural evolution” for the company. “Amy is a passionate curator, with a clear vision around harnessing shared energies and imaginations to produce thrilling dance works and to nurturing a love of dance in our community.”

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Amy Hollingsworth, artistic director of Australian Dance Collective. Photo: David Kelly

The Expressions board raised the possibility of changing the company’s name when she started, Hollingsworth says. “We knew we wanted a name that was descriptive, not evocative. I feel very strongly that the way we can connect to society and capture the imaginations of many people is to have a really inclusive hive of diverse artistic voices. I believe the strongest kind of leadership is listening to the people you work with and including them in the decision-making.”

At the launch Hollingsworth in Brisbane said Australian Dance Collective was committed to being “collectively extraordinary”. “Working collectively gives us like-minded individuals and visionaries to debate with, ensuring our ideas are robust and that our collaborations crackle with artistic energy. I dream of creating an environment that generates exhilarating dance to capture the imaginations of many.”

“Contemporary dance has to evolve, it has to change and that’s a really, really healthy thing,” Weir says. “I think the new name Australian Dance Collective is beautiful and the idea of being ‘collectively extraordinary’ is a fantastic vision for the future of the company.”

Hollingsworth’s 2020 program starts with a triple bill that will be a permanent part of future programming, except in years when international touring may take precedence. “I have some big things in the pipeline,” she says. The triple bill will feature a local or younger artist, an established Australian dancemaker and an international work.

Next year’s choreographers are Jack Lister, Melanie Lane and Hofesh Shechter. Lister has made extremely well-received works for Queensland Ballet, where he was also a dancer. His departure from QB was announced recently. Lister’s A Brief Nostalgia, commissioned by Birmingham Royal Ballet, was staged in Birmingham in September and at London’s Sadlers Wells in October. From next year Lister will also dance with Australian Dance Collective. Lane scored a big success with WOOF earlier this year for Sydney Dance Company and will make a new work for Brisbane. Shechter is one of the biggest names in international contemporary dance; his early work Cult – a piece Hollingsworth has danced in – will receive its Australian premiere.

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A promotional image for Australian Dance Collective. Photo: Justin Ridler

Hollingsworth continues the Chinese Australian Dance Exchange Project established by Weir with, Hollingsworth points out, connections made by Sietsma. Next year Australian Dance Collective will work with Shenzhen-based Round House Dance Company. Shenzhen has been a sister city of Brisbane since 1992. Hollingsworth is also deeply committed to the company’s Youth Ensemble, a group of 30 people aged 15 to 18. It will have a work created for it and perform a piece with the main company.

Half of Hollingsworth’s complement of six dancers will be new next year. Jake McLarnon, Bernhard Knauer and Josephine Wiese remain and will be joined by Lister, Marlo Benjamin and former Australian Dance Theatre member Lonii Garnons-Williams.

“I love gathering around me like-minded people with whom I can have robust conversations about the work we’re going to do,” Hollingsworth says. “I want a home of true collaboration that’s vibrant, welcoming, and dedicated to shaping and nourishing the craft. I want us to energise each other.”

Australian Dance Collective’s 2020 season opens with the triple bill Three on April 1 at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre.

ALICE (in wonderland), West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, November 21.

Septime Webre’s ALICE (in wonderland) was made in 2012 for Washington Ballet, where he was artistic director from 1999 to 2016, and shortly after was snapped up by a host of regional American ballet companies. Hong Kong Ballet, which Webre now leads, staged ALICE last year. Now West Australian Ballet has dived down the rabbit hole.

WAB likes to end the year with a ballet suitable for young audiences but has resisted an annual Nutcracker, opting to stage it every second year. ALICE hits the spot as an family-friendly alternative, and how. It’s a visual extravaganza in all departments – Liz Vandal’s witty, sumptuous costumes are a knockout – and Webre pours out endless streams of lively, inventive choreography dispatched with easy charm by WAB.

Jesse Homes and Matthew Edwardson as Tweedledee and Tweedledum in ALICE (in wonderland). Photo by Sergey Pevnev (2)

Jesse Homes and Matthew Edwardson as Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

 

Webre enjoyably throws just about everything at the wall and just about everything sticks. Tweedledum and Tweedledee float through the air on their bicycle built for two, the Caterpillar turns into a gorgeous butterfly and Alice grows so tall she nearly disappears beyond the audience’s view. Dodo and Eaglet entertain with an abbreviated, wacky version of a big classical ballet. The Cheshire Cat not only gets close and smoochy with Alice but proves a dab hand at complicated partnering. The Mad Hatter is a turbo-charged explosion in a paint factory and the White Rabbit twinkly-eyed and twitchy as he dashes in and out of the mayhem.

Crucially, it doesn’t matter if there’s close familiarity with the source material or not. It’s enough to know that a bookish young girl has entered a world of wild imagination in which anything may happen, and does at dizzying speed. Those who do know a little something, however, will find extra enjoyment. There’s a brief scene, for instance, in which Alice and Lewis Carroll take a little boat ride – a reference to the day in July 1862 when Charles Dodgson (Carroll’s real name) invented surreal adventures to entertain Alice Liddell and her sisters as they went rowing on the Isis near Oxford.

Children will delight in the technical wizardry and super-saturated colour palette but Webre also smartly gives a nod and wink to the adult audience. Let’s put it this way: the Queen of Hearts is probably up to no good with her bare-chested retinue of young men and the Cheshire Cat is a rather sexy beast. His growling, purring music is huge fun.

Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Matthew Lehmann as the Cheshire Cat in ALICE (in wonderland). Photo by Sergey Pevnev (3)

Chihiro Nomura as Alice and Matthew Lehmann as the Cheshire Cat. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Pierce first wrote his specially commissioned score for strings and percussion only, given the small forces at his disposal. The music was later fully orchestrated for Oregon State Ballet and has been further revised for WAB. Jessica Gethin and the West Australian Philharmonic Orchestra gave it a cracking performance on opening night.

Not surprisingly, the full-orchestra version is Webre’s preferred option (although it’s one not available to many small US companies). Interesting percussion accents and colours are still an arresting feature of the score but it also now has the shine and weight of brass and the gorgeous sonorities of wind instruments. It’s invigorating writing that illuminates the storytelling at every moment.

But no matter how lovely the music, or how spectacular the effect of Vandal’s costumes, James Kronzer’s sets, Clifton Taylor’s lighting and Eric Van Wyk’s puppetry, there is no show without Alice. She is onstage a lot and is the connecting tissue in a piece that darts from one thing to the next like a humming bird. WAB principal artist Chihiro Nomura was a sparky, animated opening-night Alice, her face beautifully expressive. It was good to see her in a new light; Nomura can seem a little too restrained at times. Much is asked of Alice and Nomura delivered with effervescent acting and seamless integration of Webre’s classical/contemporary movement mix. And she has to fly. Hats off.

Juan Carlos Osma as The Mad Hatter in ALICE (in wonderland). Photo by Sergey Pevnev (3)

Juan Carlos Osma as The Mad Hatter. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

WAB is a medium-sized company of 35 dancers (including six young artists) but looks big and bold here. There are splendid parts for a great many dancers, all of whom made opening night go off like a rocket. Juan Carlos Osma’s jaunty Mad Hatter, Julio Blanes’s bouncy White Rabbit and Matthew Lehmann’s insinuating Cheshire Cat were all strongly individual while Alexa Tuzil negotiated the Caterpillar’s seriously twisty choreography with calm poise.

Webre’s mini ballet in the middle of the first act is a touch too long but gives the hard-working Alice some off-stage time and the audience a taste of strong classical technique. And it is undeniably fun in its allusions to the second act of Swan Lake, with flamingos standing in for swans. There’s even a quartet, with Pierce briefly but unmistakably quoting Tchaikovsky’s cygnets music. Oscar Valdés (Dodo) and Dayana Hardy Acuña (Eaglet) were the stars of this show within a show and they were on fire. Valdés also had to back up in the second act as the virtuosic Joker (as in the pack of cards), dancing up a storm and looking most rakish with his soul patch.

As for the well-schooled, shiny-eyed children playing flamingo chicks, tiny playing cards, piglets, baby hedgehogs, and more, bravi. Bravissimi. Adorable.

Ends December 15.

Bespoke, Queensland Ballet

Brisbane Powerhouse, November 9.

This year’s Bespoke triple bill could hardly be more diverse. It starts with neo-classicism and finishes with emotions, memories and personalities to the fore. In between the two is a work that insists dancers and audiences go well beyond their comfort zone and deliberately defies easy analysis.

That work in the centre of the program, Lucy Guerin’s pointNONpoint, could also perhaps be described as being central to Bespoke’s mission. Each year (this is the third iteration of Bespoke) Queensland Ballet leaves Queensland Performing Arts Centre and heads to Brisbane’s home of contemporary culture, the Powerhouse.

There’s a clue right there about the intent. We are not in tutu-land any more. Boundaries will be stretched. Maybe. This year only Guerin’s piece really extends performers and observers. It’s also the most interesting by far.

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Queensland Ballet in Loughlan Prior’s The Appearance of Colour. Photo: David Kelly

Loughlan Prior’s opener, The Appearance of Colour (it takes its name from its music of the same name by John Metcalfe), is a smart-looking work impelled by the forces of changing colours and patterns in light. Prior was inspired by the change from black and white to colour of television transmissions and the idea is translated elegantly into animations projected on to the floor. Prior also has the cast of 12 make patterns in the air with small cubes glowing with colour, which is fun, and the group of mostly Young Artists looks polished, if rather anonymous.

I do however wish that choreographers would leave off having people run around the space for no apparent reason (Prior is far from being alone in this). Ultimately The Appearance of Colour is super sleek but fails to quicken the pulse.

Amy Hollingsworth, formerly with QB but now artistic director of Expressions Dance Company, clearly has huge affection for the dancers she once worked with so closely. From Within celebrates what Hollingsworth calls “gloriously messy human selves”. In truth the structure is a bit messy itself as duos, small groups and the full complement of 12 interacts energetically in a variety of moods. It’s all thoroughly engaging though, with a wonderful section featuring company artist Vanessa Morelli, whose glamour is matched by her apparent bonelessness; a bracing duo for Jack Lister and Rian Thompson; and the always eye-catching Lucy Green in everything she did.

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Jack Lister and Rian Thompson in Amy Hollingsworth’s From Within. Photo: David Kelly

The music includes bits of Lennon and McCartney’s Blackbird, Joby Talbot’s String Quartetand Björk’s It’s Oh So Quiet, all great choices individually but the mix contributed to the slight bagginess of the piece.

Guerin’s pointNONpoint challenges the usual idea of focus, in which an audience expects the eye to be directed in certain ways and for recognisable patterns to emerge. She starts with a solo performer, Sophie Zoricic, and builds to a group of 23, all dressed alike in short translucent tops. Some have bare feet while others wear pointe shoes, including a few of the men. There are occasional visual references to ballet vocabulary but no hierarchy and those pointe shoes are wielded more like hammers than aids to transcendence.

Dancers sometimes echo one another or move in unison but in the main follow their own interior paths to the electronic sounds of Scanner and dense, mysterious, numinous textures of Gyorgy Ligeti. Sections of his Requiem and Lux Aeterna, the latter used in the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey, greatly add to the otherworldliness of pointNONpoint. There is the suggestion of a blasted, apocalyptic environment as dancers sometimes lie and crawl, huddle together and then splinter, or are every now and again almost obliterated by a challenging red light darkening the stage. Not to mention the reddened fingers. There are touches of humanity – held hands here, a waltz step there – but Guerin’s work is not a pretty one. It does, however, have its own challenging beauty.

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Isabella Swietlicki (centre) in Lucy Guerin’s pointNONpoint. Photo: David Kelly

The dancers test the space, their capabilities and each other with intense concentration, although with a shortage of the weightiness and strongly individual, personal allure contemporary dancers would fruitfully bring to the piece. It was, nevertheless, utterly absorbing to see them in such a knotty, strange, memorable work. Morelli and Green were the standouts, as they also were in the vastly different From Within after the second interval.

Ends November 16.

Matrix, Expressions Dance Company and Beijing Dance/LTDX

Works by Stephanie Lake and Ma Bo. Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, NSW, November 7.

New works by Australia’s Stephanie Lake and China’s Ma Bo make up a double bill where similarities are much more obvious than differences. It’s not that the pieces look particularly alike (apart from an aspect of their endings) or have a common theme. Far from it. The sense of unity comes from the wonderfully vivid dancers of Expressions Dance Company and Beijing Dance/LTDX brought together for this project.

There are 20 in all, a truly luxurious number in contemporary dance, and all of them dance in both pieces. EDC’s close connection with the Chinese contemporary dance world, developed over the past four years, is one of its strong suits.

Jumping pic from Stephanie Lake's work Auto Cannibal in Matrix Pic Credit WANG Xiao-jing

Stephanie Lake’s Auto Cannibal. Photo: Wang Xiao-jing

Lake happily acknowledges that Auto Cannibal, which opens the program, bears the strong imprint of her earlier works (hence the title). It certainly has Lake’s invigorating attack and her powerful mix of minute detail and bodies pushed to extremes, and is danced to an electronic score by Robin Fox as is customary in Lake’s work.

Dressed similarly in black shorts with white tops (costumes are by Xing Yameng), the dancers crackle with energy. They are like electric charges combining, repulsing and recombining to make something fascinatingly new. Lake brilliantly corrals this large group into a beautifully structured dance that leaves you wanting more.

Ma’s Encircling Voyage is a quieter, more interior drama built around cycles of life, danced to music by David Darling that is essentially western in structure but with some eastern touches. Expressions of sorrow, grief and sometimes anger are more evident than those of fulfilment, although there is communal strength. In this work the dancers are also dressed alike (by Wang Yan), this time in loose-fitting patterned smocks. The active, sporty atmosphere of Auto Cannibal gives way to one of ritual.

Mirror pic from MA Bo's work Encircling Voyage in Matrix PIC CREDIT WANG Xiao-jing

Ma Bo’s Encircling Voyage. Photo: Wang Xiao-jing

Dancers form a tight group, walking with a hand on the shoulder of the one in front as if unable to see the way ahead by themselves; benches are placed on their ends to resemble tall tombstones; a woman enters reading a book and appears totally unaware of her surroundings; two people sitting on a bench are joined by a third who has been moving frenetically but is now calm, included and soothed by their touch.

The Beijing dancers significantly outnumber those from Expressions, which has a complement of just six. No matter. The group coheres as if it has been together for five years rather than the five weeks it took to create the works. On a local note, it’s terrific to see Sydney Dance Company alumni Richard Cilli, Bernhard Knauer and Josie Weise back on stage as members of Expressions. (Artistic director of Expressions, Amy Hollingsworth, was formerly SDC’s dance director.)

There is one small niggle, encapsulated by the closing imagery in both works that visually ties them together, intentionally or not. Encircling Voyage ends with a solemn evocation of death and rebirth accompanied by clouds of white dust. Auto Cannibal also finishes in a shower of white, this time of feathers floating down to envelop a tightly packed group of men and women moving joyously. The order of performance could do with a rethink.

Now at Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre until November 16.

Sylvia, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, November 8

The dash for bathrooms and bars was substantially less frantic than usual after the close of Act I of Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Heads everywhere bowed over their synopsis sheets. What in the name of all the gods in Ancient Greece was going on? How does one show via ballet that Artemis and Apollo – twin gods – “slay Queen Niobe’s army in revenge for a slight to their mother, Leto”? Or why Artemis turns Callisto into a bear? These gods and goddesses really do take a grudge to extremes and their actions are not always easily explained.

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The Australian Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Photo: Jeff Busby

Never mind. Once the head-spinning early part of the first act is out of the way Sylvia is an enjoyable romp. Even better, it gives Australian Ballet audiences their first chance to hear the enchanting Delibes score in full, sounding luscious in Sydney in the hands of Nicolette Fraillon and the Opera Australia Orchestra. (Read more about Delibes, the music and the history of Sylvia in my article for Limelight magazine in August.)

There was also a great deal of pleasure in the sparkling performances given on Sydney’s opening night of this co-pro with Houston Ballet. As a kind of corrective to the male-dominated Spartacus seen last year, Sylvia has plenty of strong roles for the women of the company. As in the original libretto, the nymph Sylvia, a huntress in Artemis’s army, falls in love with a lowly shepherd. Welch ups the ante by adding a second match-up between gods and mortals when Eros is smitten with Psyche and plucks Artemis from the periphery to give the ballet a third heroine.

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Benedicte Bemet as Psyche in Sylvia. Photo: Daniel Boud

Complications ensue, obviously, or there would be no story, but ultimately everything turns out well. On the way to that happy ending Welch floods the stage with Artemis’s band of women warriors; Eros’s retinue of cheeky, hyper-active fauns; various gods and goddesses, by turns stately and vengeful; and on a less elevated level, Psyche’s mum, dad and sisters.

Being from the realm of the gods, Sylvia stays youthful while her husband, known only as The Shepherd, suffers the fate of all mortals and ages, a situation that gives rise to one of the ballet’s most delightful passages. The Shepherd (Kevin Jackson on opening night) is given an older substitute (TAB artistic director David McAllister enjoying himself greatly) as successive generations of offspring are seen growing up. The Shepherd is then magically de-aged by Eros, whose lovely Psyche has also been given demi-god status and thus will not die. (Too much detail?)

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Ako Kondo as Sylvia and Kevin Jackson as The Shepherd. Photo: Jeff Busby

There are rich pickings for the dancers, and not only for principal artists Ako Kondo (Sylvia on opening night) and Robyn Hendricks (Artemis) and senior artist Benedicte Bemet (Psyche). Smaller roles were taken with much brio by Dimity Azoury, Dana Stephensen, Jade Wood, Imogen Chapman and Natasha Kusen, among others.

Jackson was a sweet presence and sterling partner to Kondo in Welch’s dramatic pas de deux and Marcus Morelli made a splash as Eros, spinning, jumping and flying his way through the action. His swift rise through the ranks (he joined the company in 2013) has been well earned.

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Benedicte Bemet as Psyche and Marcus Morelli as Eros. Photo: Daniel Boud

Kondo’s warmth and strength made Sylvia as multi-faceted a character as possible within the rom-com scenario and Bemet’s Psyche was adorably funny. Hendricks was meltingly beautiful as Artemis, a goddess indeed. How many other conventional ballets can one think of where there are three such diverse and rewarding leading roles for women?

We must hope Jérôme Kaplan’s set designs looked better in Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre, where Sylvia had its Australian premiere in September, than they did in the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. In the first act they looked too dark and solid, although later the stage picture was enlivened by Wendell K. Harrington’s projections, which enabled instantaneous scene changes. Kaplan’s costumes were, happily, just delectable.

Sylvia ends in Sydney on November 23.