Raw, Queensland Ballet

Works by Liam Scarlett, Greg Horsman and Christopher Bruce. Queensland Ballet, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, March 17.

Death comes to us all eventually but does it have to come so cruelly and so soon to so many? Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances was made in 1981 in response to human rights abuses in Pinochet’s Chile but its relevance is, sadly, universal and continuing. It’s an important addition to Queensland Ballet’s repertoire and the key work in the Raw triple bill.

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Teri Crilly and Jack Lister in Ghost Dances. Photo: David Kelly

Ghost Dances is simplicity itself. In a place somewhere between the real world and the darkness beyond, young people dance with joy and spontaneity to the intoxicating music of their homeland as three masked and painted malevolent spirits watch.

The hard, muscular vigour of the masked ones is in stark contrast to the fleet, gorgeously fluid folk-inflected dances that speak of community and continuity. Bodies tilt and sway, feet flex, hands and arms link, legs kick up playfully and heads bob to the sound of breathy panpipes, warm guitars and drums (all the pieces are by Chilean group Inti-Illimani).

But there are intimations of anguish too and no escape from death’s clutches. At the end those who had been so vibrant are drained of vitality. Not so the masked men. They wait for their next victims.

Ghost Dances needs to be at once poetic and rough-hewn. This deeply affecting piece got those qualities from all 11 dancers in the first cast, who cast off the formalities of classical technique to dig deep into movement that takes its impulses from the earth rather than reaching for the sky. My eye was consistently drawn to Vanessa Morelli for the way she lived every moment with every fibre of her being.

An unintended consequence of staging Ghost Dances is that it made Raw’s opening work, Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land (from 2014), seem too glossy and calculating in its effects. Scarlett didn’t shy away either from some well-worn effects. Take, for instance, the deep second position as a way of visually describing misery. We saw it in Ghost Dances, with the legs in parallel, and we saw it in No Man’s Land in turnout. Scarlett also unfortunately added a silent scream.

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Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett was recently announced as QB’s first artistic associate and the company will stage one of his works each year for at least an initial four years. I gather new works will alternate with existing pieces and it was inevitable that for 2017 a revival would be on the program. No Man’s Land was made for English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget program, presented in 2014. That year was, of course the centenary of the beginning of World War I and would have had much resonance in London at that time.

QB programmed its own Lest We Forget commemorative evening last year, featuring a welcome performance of Paul Taylor’s Company B and new works by Brisbane-based choreographer Natalie Weir and Tulsa Ballet’s resident choreographer Ma Cong. Ma Cong’s In the Best Moments was negligible; Weir’s We Who are Left was affecting but perhaps a pièce d’occasion. Which is also the category into which No Man’s Land fits.

Shorn of its commemorative context, No Man’s Land looked stranded. It has an impressive set (John Bausor) and lighting (Paul Keogan) that summon the inferno of a munitions factory during the Great War. Women have joined the assembly line in the absence of their men, whose images and fates they conjure and mourn to heavily orchestrated Liszt piano pieces, apart from the final section for piano only.

The bombastic arrangements of selections from Liszt’s Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses (1847) had the effect of overwhelming the emotional connections between Scarlett’s seven couples. Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez were lovely in their pas de deux although one was aware more of the shapes than the reason for being. Even with the music heard as written for the big pas de deux at the end of the ballet, that section felt like a superbly crafted depiction of what pain might look like while, at least for this viewer, failing to pierce the heart. Ultimately No Man’s Land beautifies loss and sacrifice.

Laura Hidalgo and Rian Thompson danced the final pas de deux heroically and it is undeniable that Scarlett creates movement that feels musical and organic even when most difficult. His weakness is in storytelling. As many before me have said, he needs help in this area. Only then will his abundant gifts be in the service of truly original and lasting work.

Perhaps his tenure in Brisbane will help. Scarlett, who is still only 30, will be out of the international spotlight where he habitually works. It will be fascinating to see what emerges.

Sitting in the middle of the Raw triple-header, Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto tested the mettle, stamina, precision and speed of three couples as they were swept along by the mesmerising rhythms of Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto. After an early reminder of – homage to? – Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, also to the music of Glass, Horsman gets into his own stride. Glass Concerto doesn’t break any new ground but it’s entertaining and lively, and it sure sets the dancers a raft of technical challenges, met better at the opening performance by the women than the men.

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Yanela Piñera in Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto. Photo: David Kelly

The lovely second movement, in which calm, slow violin phrases sing above an undulating, fast-moving current in the orchestra, puts the spotlight on the lead woman. In the first cast principal artist Yanela Piñera’s calm authority and awe-inspiring strength – the woman is ripped – burned themselves into the retina. I liked that when the three men lifted her it felt in homage to her awesomeness rather than the usual balletic flinging about of a smaller person by a stronger bigger person.

Alexander Idaszak partnered Piñera well and looked rather more at home with the quieter demands of the choreography than the allegro eruptions that Horsman has much fun with. Camilo Ramos and Rian Thompson also didn’t look quite as sharp as required when things moved into top gear although to be fair to Thompson, he’d put a lot into the preceding No Man’s Land.

The secondary women, Lina Kim and Tamara Hanton whizzed around like tops and looked terrific in George Wu’s black-with-sparkles costumes. As Glass Concerto continued the dancers shed a skirt here and a sleeve there. The effect was elegant and witty.

It’s a pity QB doesn’t currently have the resources for live music at all performances. It was recordings all the way in this program, although as QB is in line for a boost in funding from the Australia Council perhaps there is hope in sight.

Raw ends March 25.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 20.

Melbourne Ballet Company

Concourse Theatre, Sydney, March 12

Melbourne Ballet Company’s new triple bill Being & Time has lofty aspirations. It takes its title from Martin Heidegger and its themes from existentialism, or at least that is what one gathers from the program notes, which baffle more than they enlighten. In the case of MBC resident director Simon Hoy’s Dasein there is talk of “authentic being” explored though the analysis of random movement and gesture; Lucas Jervies wants his Four Ballet to show conflicting relationships “between the body and/or inanimate objects”.

In the event, Dasein is a gaudy, relentlessly on-the-beat dance that revealed nothing about its performers, who were in any case locked in mortal combat for attention with the dominating projections behind them. Four Ballet is sleek in a twisty, juddery style incorporating classical shapes and gives little away. Its quartet of dancers looked cool and composed, with Kristy Lee Denovan standing out. Jervies is a very experienced hand who knows how to keep interest going by alternating solo spots with duos or groups but I was rather dismayed to see the one male (Alexander Baden Bryce) in the quartet asked to fling the women from him and, at one point, place his foot on a woman’s back. What this was meant to reveal remained hidden.

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Lucas Jervies’s Four Four Ballet. Photo: Ron Fung

Both pieces were performed to electronic music (respectively Ben Prunty and Ólafur Arnalds; Adam Ster) that increased a sense of emotional distance. Both were danced in soft shoes, as was Tim Podesta’s Architecture of Loss, by far the pick of this short program, which runs to less than an hour of dance in total.

Architecture of Loss, for five dancers, was billed as a world premiere. It seems to have had its genesis last year as a solo for Mara Galeazzi, the former Royal Ballet principal artist who, despite being based in Oman with her family, collaborates closely with Podesta, who is based in Wodonga, on the Victorian-NSW border. They work around the world on dance projects as M&T In Motion and Galeazzi came to Sydney to appear in Architecture of Loss. She will also dance at the next port of call, Wodonga, and give master classes there at Podesta’s Regional Academy of Performing Arts.

Galeazzi still appears a guest artist with the Royal from time to time and will dance in Woolf Works when the RB visits Brisbane in June and July.

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Mara Galeazzi in an earlier incarnation of Architecture of Loss. Photo: Slava Samodurov

Architecture of Loss, performed to music by Valgeir Sigurdsson, is an affecting piece in which individuals seek connection and solace while couples love and battle and is built around Galeazzi’s dramatic gifts. Her opening solo fully and forcefully embodied the idea of painful isolation and longing. Denovan, a former member of The Australian Ballet (she was then Kristy Corea) was deeply evocative in her introspective duo with Robbie Moorcroft and Chloe Henderson added a touch of fire in a combative interaction with Luke Mangraviti.

As seen in Sydney, Architecture of Loss sagged structurally, undoubtedly as a result of last-minute adjustments having to be made when American guest artist Joseph Phillips became injured late last week. Mangriviti was hastily brought in and made a strong impression in what was clearly a truncated part.

Phillips has had an interesting career, dancing with a clutch of important US companies including American Ballet Theatre before joining the State Primorsky Theatre of Opera and Ballet (as it was then known) in Vladivostok, Russia, where he is a principal artist. That company is now connected with St Petersburg’s Mariinsky and was last year renamed the Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre.

I am told Phillips, a former colleague of Hoy’s from many years back, will be able to appear when Architecture of Loss is presented at Hawthorn Art Centre at the end of the month, although Galeazzi will not perform there. Her role at the three performances will be taken by MBC dancers.

Footnote: Queensland Ballet this week announced that principal artist Clare Morehen will leave the company after its upcoming contemporary bill, Raw, which opens on March 17 with works by Christopher Bruce, Greg Horsman and QB’s new artistic associate, Liam Scarlett. She has been with QB for 13 years. Morehen, who trained at the Victorian College of the Arts and the Royal Ballet School, will now concentrate on contemporary ballet and contemporary dance. Her first post-QB assignment is with Podesta and Galeazzi’s M&T In Motion and The Covent Garden Dance Company on a work to premiere in London mid-year. Small world, ballet.

There are further performances of Being & Time in Wodonga (March 17 and 18) and Hawthorn (March 29-31).

Calamity Jane reclaimed

One Eyed Man Productions in association with Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, March 10.

The high-falutin’ way to describe director Richard Carroll’s Calamity Jane is to say its abundant meta-theatrics put a contemporary, ironic frame around an old-fashioned musical, revealing fresh insights. If that sounds deadly, fear not. The low-falutin’ truth is that along with being outstandingly clever, Calamity Jane is gut-bustingly funny and has an extraordinarily generous heart. Crucially, it is blessed with a central performance by Virginia Gay as fine as any seen on our musical stages since, I don’t know, forever.

Calamity Jane was presented last year as a staged reading in the Hayes’s Neglected Musicals series and turned out to be quite the surprise package for a piece that offers embarrassments on several fronts, including but not limited to race and gender.

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Virginia Gay as Calamity Jane. Photo: John Mcrae

Take a look at Doris Day’s perky simplicity in the 1953 film that spawned the 1961 stage musical. Seen through the filter of the half-century since then, Calamity comes across as the town pet, patronised, indulged and patted on the head. If only she’d wash her face and put on a pretty frock: why, then she would be lovely and some man might condescend to marry her.

Gay’s Neglected Musicals turn, achieved with nothing more than a day’s rehearsal and book in hand, showed there could be a much more nuanced 21st-century take on a mushy mid-20th-century interpretation of an unconventional 19th-century woman. Calamity Jane had intriguing possibilities and a full production was put in the works. One likes to think the original Jane, real-life frontierswoman Martha Jane Cannary, would heartily approve.

Gay’s Calamity, or Calam as the good folk of Deadwood City call her, would smack you hard in the puss if you called her perky. She’s a roiling mass of powerful contradictions and ambiguities. Calam is physically strong and emotionally insecure; she can ride and shoot with the best of them but off a horse is a klutz; she’s blustery and bashful; resourceful and inept.

Only Calam would dash off to Chicago to bring back a superstar of the variety stage to save the bacon of old-duffer Golden Garter Saloon proprietor Henry Miller (Tony Taylor), who has stuffed up his entertainments program. Only Calam would bring back the wrong gal, ambitious but sweet Katie Brown (Laura Bunting). And only Calam, who has a heart the size of South Dakota, could make things right when Katie’s Golden Garter debut is a disaster.

She finds it much harder to sort out her love life, which is non-existent but so deeply wanted. Calam is desperate to be desired and perhaps it doesn’t really matter by whom. Whether Gay is assiduously tending to the wounds of her first choice, dashing Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Matthew Pearce), or getting hilariously and Sapphically domestic with Katie, or discovering (spoiler alert!) that her old sparring mate Wild Bill Hickok (Anthony Gooley) feels something for her, her eagerness makes Calam achingly vulnerable.

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Tony Taylor, Virginia Gay and Anthony Gooley. Photo: John Mcrae

The great beauty of Carroll’s production is how easily this emotional truth sits alongside the rollicking self-referential comedy, with its show-within-a-show-within-a-show jokes (“Now I’m going to sing Ev’ryone Complains about the Weather from Calamity Jane”), contemporary gags and happily blurred lines between actors and audience. The casting of Gooley as Hickok is particularly successful. He makes the legendary gunman a more observant and warmer figure than might be expected and he sings the wistful Higher than a Hawk with quiet grace.

The director makes having a tiny budget look like a brilliant artistic choice. The bijou cast size means Sheridan Harbridge and Rob Johnson have to take on several roles; both seize every chance to turn the multi-tasking into comedy gold of the highest grade. With music director Nigel Ubrihien at the upright piano there’s a band of precisely one, augmented by cast members on guitar, ukulele, trombone, accordion and tuba. And as there are only seven performers to represent rather more than seven characters, Ubrihien has to double as an actor too, which he does with aplomb.

Designer Lauren Peters’s bare-bones Wild West saloon, beautifully lit by Trent Suidgeest, works a treat and Cameron Mitchell’s choreography is a hoot. Adding to the general delight is the truly gorgeous score by Sammy Fain (music) and Paul Francis Webster (lyrics), blissfully heard unamplified. Every song is a winner but first among equals are The Black Hills of Dakota, sung a cappella by the ensemble, and Gay’s thrilling My Secret Love.

I confidently predict Calamity Jane will get a standing ovation from the entire house at every show. I have more reasons than the ones just enumerated here but try to see for yourself, if you can get in. The run has been extended but seats are scarce.

Calamity Jane runs until April 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 13.

Adelaide Festival opening weekend

Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, who have signed on as joint artistic directors for three Adelaide festivals (this year, 2018 and 2019), set the bar high on their first opening weekend and floated over it with ease. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it looked easy. It can’t be underestimated how much work went into securing the Glyndebourne Saul, directed by Barrie Kosky, for an exclusive Adelaide season and to restage it with mostly new singers and musicians, so all hail to Armfield and Healy. And, of course, they had to pay for it. It’s a mammoth show.

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Barrie Kosky’s production of Saul at the Adelaide Festival

Saul was, of course, always going to be a hot ticket. The prospect of seeing Kosky’s vastly admired production of Handel’s oratorio saw opera-lovers poised over their keyboards months ago to pounce on tickets as soon as they were released. Those secured, one then had to be quick to get into Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit. There were only two performances of a dance work that has shaken audience members to their core wherever it has been seen and seats quickly went.

Also on this first weekend, the Schaubühne Berlin Richard III had a particular pull for those who had seen its star, Lars Eidinger, as an unpredictable and entertaining Hamlet at the 2010 Sydney Festival, although the fame of the company was recommendation enough. There was also the revival of Armfield’s production of The Secret River (which unfortunately I couldn’t see), taken out of a theatre building and staged in the Anstey Hill quarry, reportedly to great advantage. There was more, but these were the most prominent events.

Saul which premiered at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 2015, is everything one had been led to expect, only more so. More electrifyingly immediate in effect, more ravishing in design, more complex in its theatrical exploration of the text and more thrillingly performed. Saul is by turns celebratory, brutal, grotesque, tender and bleak. In Kosky’s hands it becomes an intensely human story of conflict and a proud leader brought low by jealousy.

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Christopher Purves (lying) as Saul, Christopher Lowery as David and Adrian Strooper as Jonathan in Saul at the Adelaide Festival

Baroque specialist Erin Helyard, artistic director of Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera, was in sparkling form as conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and managed to appear on stage as well as a striking chamber organ soloist (chorus master Brett Weymark, associate conductor for Saul, was on hand to pick up the baton when Helyard was otherwise engaged).

A much smaller work but no less affecting, Betroffenheit was created as a response to one man’s devastating loss, grief, guilt, despair and, ultimately, need to go on. Its first half is a wild, vivid and fantastical journey through anguish and addiction; the second a restrained, pure dance recapitulation of the material that brings a sense of resolution, or as much as might be possible.

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The cast of Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit. Photo: Shane Reid

Writer and actor Jonathan Young is the man whose pain lies at the heart of Betroffenheit. His young daughter and two of her cousins died in a fire, and while the work doesn’t go into great detail about the tragedy, Young’s appearance as the central character makes Betroffenheit intensely personal even as its concerns could be those of anyone who has suffered as he did.

Pite is a choreographer whose movement, no matter how apparently abstract, has emotional force. The dancers, in particular Jermaine Spivey as Young’s inner voice, were spectacularly good as the glitzy, hopped-up demons seducing and assailing this broken man.

It’s no surprise that Pite has of late become much sought after in the classical world as well as the contemporary sphere. She is a tremendous artist.

I was much less taken with Richard III than I had hoped but two out of three and all that … Many thanks, by the way, to Armfield and Healy for programming in a way that made it possible to see Betroffenheit (5pm) and Richard III (8pm) on the same day. Not every festival director does this but it made sense to think about the large contingent of interstate visitors who wanted to see both pieces on Saturday after the Saul opening on Friday.

Lars Eidinger’s bovver-boy Richard isn’t short of confidence, that’s for sure. He’s happy to strip off to show Lady Anne the goods on offer, he barks and croons into a microphone like a low-rent nightclub performer who is unaware he’s not as good as he thinks he is, and he takes a piss in public just because he can. He wears close-fitting headgear that suggests a readiness to use himself as a battering ram; or alternatively advises he’s a seriously unwell man who binds his forehead to keep his brains from falling out.

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Lars Eidinger (front) as Richard III. Photo: Tony Lewis

There’s not much charm, to put it mildly, nor an overwhelming sense of menace. The lack makes Richard’s success as an arch-manipulator unconvincing. The words are there (mostly in German with English surtitles, occasionally in English) but why they work as Richard intends is a mystery.

Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubühne Berlin production begins with a bang but as it unfolds, interval-less, for two and three-quarter hours the energy dissipates. On Saturday night Eidinger seemed to feel that he wasn’t winning the entire audience over as he would wish. Several times he ostentatiously looked across his shoulder at the surtitles as if to question why there wasn’t more of a reaction. (I have to assume he wasn’t checking that the surtitle operator was doing a good job of keeping up.) And when Eidinger urged the audience to shout demeaning phrases at Buckingham there was by no means a general rush to take up the offer.

Ostermeier’s ending was practical, in that it eliminated the battle at Bosworth Field and left us with a Richard so spooked by the ghosts of those he’d murdered that he went entirely mad, although such a result didn’t seem to follow necessarily from what had gone before. Nor did Richard’s final action, a re-run of the fate of Kevin Spacey’s Richard in the Old Vic version that toured widely. The impulse behind the image differed in the two productions, however, and I didn’t buy what Ostermeier was selling.

Saul and Richard III both end on March 9.

David Hallberg, The Sleeping Beauty

The Australian Ballet, Brisbane, February 25

When David Hallberg returned to the ballet stage in Sydney in November last year, in Coppélia with The Australian Ballet, he was coming out of a two-and-a-half year layoff due to injury, the last 12 months of which he spent in Melbourne working with TAB’s medical team. The choice of Franz as a comeback role was unplanned. Coppélia just happened to be what was in the schedule when Hallberg came to the understanding that his dancing career was not, in fact, over as he had feared. Nevertheless, the light-hearted part (a role debut) was just what the doctor ordered.

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David Hallberg. Photo: Renee Nowytarger for The Australian. Used with permission.

Hallberg is intensely grateful to the Australians who helped him through his dark hours and said he would be back regularly. He meant it. Last week it was announced Hallberg would be TAB’s first resident guest artist and it was in that capacity that he appeared as Prince Désiré in artistic director David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty in Brisbane on February 25 and 28. The agreement is that he will be in Australia twice a year, with his second 2017 visit coming at the end of the year in Sydney when The Sleeping Beauty has a return season there.

The 34-year-old American’s exceptional beauty of line and sophisticated bearing make him look born to this repertoire. He is a prince among men with his commanding yet seemingly effortless stage presence and he is the epitome of grace and courtliness. Hallberg gave Désiré (Florimund in other productions) a largeness of spirit not always found in a part that has little complexity of character. Désiré seeks love but needs the Lilac Fairy’s guidance to find it, he dances a little to express his yearning, is shown a vision of the lovely Princess Aurora, wakes the sleeping maiden with a kiss and marries her with much ceremony.

Who this man might be is glossed over, but Hallberg filled out the slender material with passion and tenderness. A clue might be found in something Hallberg said late last year. In a conversation with me about his recovery, he said he had come to Australia “so stripped of any sort of optimism”. In what he called his rebirth, he found perspective. “I feel now, as an artist proudly 34 years old, that I have such depth of resilience, and through that an artistic understanding that’s completely different from how it used to be. And it’s not driven by ego any more.”

His Prince Désiré embodied that selflessness and maturity and even though a handful of less than fully realised finishes were a reminder of his long absence from this cruelly exposed repertoire, the radiance of his performance was all-encompassing. His cabrioles, for example, in which he floated his outstretched legs in the air rather than beat them together as most men do, were not only individual but deeply poetic.

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Amber Scott as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Kate Longley

The quality of his partnering added further layers. Hallberg’s Aurora was TAB principal artist Amber Scott (his Swanilda in Coppélia) and the two look wonderful together, with Scott’s dark, delicate beauty even more lovely when set against the blond Hallberg’s tall, supremely elegant figure. The alchemy of stage rapport is a mystery, but suffice to say Scott seems more lustrous in Hallberg’s company and to project the spun-glass virtues of her dancing more eloquently. Hallberg’s connection with TAB will be wonderful for audiences and he will be a mentor and example for the men of the company, but perhaps his greatest gift is being the partner who brings out the best in Scott. She has often seemed too introverted but Hallberg makes her glow.

The Act III grand pas de deux was as grand as the situation demands yet suffused with intimacy. Individually Hallberg and Scott looked sublime and together they dazzled. I’ve never seen the famous trio of fish dives presented with such élan.

For the rest, with Nicolette Fraillon at the helm the Queensland Symphony Orchestra gave a full-blooded account of Tchaikovsky’s score, senior artist Brett Chynoweth was a buoyant Bluebird, Gillian Revie reprised her striking Carabosse and the fairies, looking a treat in Gabriela Tyselova’s luscious tutus, had more than their fair share of technical jitters. As the Lilac Fairy soloist Valerie Tereschenko showed her great promise and her relative inexperience. Her fragrant upper body and clearly articulated mime were lovely but she had a few too many slips. Another new soloist, Jade Wood, gave a good account of Princess Florine although her fixed expression betrayed tension. Still, the company (this year expanded to 77 in number) has plenty of up and coming talent – and needed it in Brisbane, as a fair handful of more senior dancers had niggles that kept them offstage.

McAllister has made some welcome tweaks to his 2015 production to clarify some of the early storytelling although, as with so many productions, the need to bring the show in at under three hours makes some aspects appear rushed. The excision of most of the Act III divertissements while still giving a flavour of them is astutely done but the account of the court in the Prologue is too abbreviated. That charge can’t be directed at Tylesova’s design, which on each viewing looks more opulent than ever.

Footnote: Hallberg’s Australian commitment is in addition to his other jobs as a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, although it’s not clear yet when he might be dancing again with the latter. For ABT he is first cast in Alexei Ratmansky’s new Whipped Cream, opening in Costa Mesa, California, on March 15 and he will then dance Onegin and possibly Albrecht in New York in ABT’s May-July season.

The Sleeping Beauty ends in Brisbane March 4. Then Melbourne, June 16-27 and Sydney, November 11-25.

Bespoke, Queensland Ballet

Brisbane Powerhouse, February 10.

Bespoke is a new-choreography program that shows Queensland Ballet moving up yet another gear and broadening its horizons. So far in Li Cunxin’s artistic directorship new contemporary work on the schedule has either fallen into the annual triple bill, of which there is always only one (although none in 2015), or else was part of Dance Dialogues, a small-scale, low-key studio event that encourages an insider atmosphere by being available only to subscribers and including a coaching session of upcoming repertoire.

The mainstage triple bill is generally stacked with extremely well-established names and may or may not include a work created specially for it. It would be unfair to say the programming is tame but it’s not going to frighten the horses too much. At the other end of the scale, Dance Dialogues is likely to include at least one QB dancer who is giving choreography a shot, possibly for the first time, and has to ransack the costume department to clothe the cast. The gulf is wide.

Bespoke fills that gap. It has the specific intention of bringing new voices into the mix and, by being staged at the Brisbane Powerhouse, signals that QB seeks to widen its appeal. (Sydney Dance Company does the same thing by presenting its highly successful New Breed program at Carriageworks, away from the formality of its usual home at the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay.) The best news is that Bespoke is intended to be an annual event. Dance Dialogues seems likely to continue but just once a year. There have mostly been two annual sessions; in 2017 there are performances in June only.

Jack Lister's Rational/Animal. Photo: David Kelly

Jack Lister’s Rational/Animal. Photo: David Kelly

While Dance Dialogues is, frankly, a bit naff, it does hold out the possibility of uncovering talent in the ranks. That happened last year when Jack Lister, a company dancer, made a piece called Fonder Heart to the music of Philip Glass. This year he was one of the Bespoke choreographers and absolutely earned his place on the bigger stage with Rational/Animal.

John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries (1988) is catnip to choreographers. Adams says, as its title suggests, the music is “almost maddeningly symmetrical. Four- and eight-bar phrases line up end to end, each articulated by blazingly obvious harmonic changes and an insistent chugging pulse.” He calls it his “travelling music”. New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins, The Royal Ballet’s Liam Scarlett (also, from this year, artistic associate at QB), Scottish Ballet’s Ashley Page (for the RB) and Dutch choreographer Nils Christe are among those who have fallen under the music’s propulsive spell and Lister is the latest, and possibly the youngest, person to tackle this often-used score. The 22-year-old has pulled off a beauty. Rational/Animal is a remarkably confident work from one so young and relatively inexperienced.

In the first nightmarish half, humankind is seen as faceless, frenetic and mechanistic. Lister responds to what Adams calls the “distinctly urban” feel of the music with lines of dancers striding purposefully across the space. Their clothes are the colour of dust and their faces are veiled. Sometimes their figures are echoed, many times life size, in projections on the back wall that emphasise their separateness. There are brief, muscular encounters between dancers and an occasional intimation of tenderness but the atmosphere of control is intense.

It’s fascinating to see how much full-bodied juice Lister injects into essentially robotic movement. It gives this first section unexpected poignancy, as we sense that desires and frustrations have been tightly reined in. Later the dancers strip right down for more intimate, emotionally free and erotically charged interactions.

Lister seems to have an innate grasp of balance and structure, mixing things up at precisely the right time, and it’s wonderful to see the many elements of surprise he brings to his movement vocabulary. At this stage it’s easy to discern the influences on his work but he has excellent taste and, best of all, creates resonant atmospheres.

Stephanie Lake's Chameleon. Photo: David Kelly

Stephanie Lake’s Chameleon. Photo: David Kelly

The decision to invite contemporary dancemaker Stephanie Lake and her frequent musical collaborator Robin Fox to work with QB looked terrific on paper and was even more terrific in reality. Chameleon is Lake’s first ballet commission and for many of the dancers their first exposure to colouring outside the strict lines of classical dance. The result was an exhilarating mash-up of styles wrapped around a big heart.

Lake was clearly enchanted by the formal beauty of classical shapes and the dancers’ technical gifts while casting an outsider’s coolly appraising eye over ballet’s conformist tendencies. Chameleon made much of the pull of the group versus the needs of the individual in ways that were witty, odd, mysterious and touching.

All power to Li for letting Lake use 24 dancers in Chameleon. So frequently ballet companies tacitly make it clear that new-choreography evenings are extra-curricular; a distraction from core programming. You can see limits imposed. The numbers mattered here, particularly in a potent section in which dancers closely followed one another, wheeling, separating and re-combining in groups large and small.

Lake started Chameleon with 11 dancers standing in a line in front of a red curtain, later lifted. They were a motley and rather anxious-looking lot as they twitched and jerked their way through basic classical positions. When they found their individual voices – along with a larger cohort of ragtag companions – they didn’t seem to quite know what to do with their new-found freedom, but what the heck. They had a lively go at letting go before being sucked back into line.

There were too many standout performers to mention them all but principal artist Laura Hidalgo was extraordinary in her deep understanding of both sides of the dance divide. The final image of Chameleon was deeply moving.

The evening opened with Glass Heart, by QB ballet mistress and artistic associate Amy Hollingsworth for the company’s 10 Jette Parker Young Artists (a number soon to grow to 12; impressive). In a further sign of the ambitions for Bespoke the score was composed by celestial-voiced singer-songwriter Katie Noonan and the young Brisbane music producer known as cln, both of whom performed it live.

With the choreography tending to generalised angst Glass Heart was busy but emotionally vacant, at least from a movement perspective. No matter what anyone did, whether in solos, duos or groups, the effect was the same. That left feeling to be generated by the fine musicians, who filled the gap admirably. And if Glass Heart was unremarkable as a dance work, it was undoubtedly a valuable experience for this lovely group of Young Artists.

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 and were previously evident at Sydney Dance Company and Expressions Dance Company. As curator of Bespoke Hollingsworth brought Lake in and, I am told, helped teach Chameleon to the dancers. She also helped guide Lister through the process of creating his ambitious piece.

QB’s lighting and technical manager Cameron Georg lit the whole program with dramatic flair and wardrobe production manager and resident designer Noelene Hill did a superb job of interpreting costumes conceived by each choreographer. It’s such a pity there were only five performances. Perhaps there will be more next year.

Footnote: Obviously you’d have to love Fearful Symmetries a lot, but wouldn’t it be fun if QB did a triple bill of ballets to this music? And it could do so with three works connected with the company. In 2010 QB performed the enormously entertaining Nils Christe version (made for Germany’s Ballet Mainz); new QB artistic associate Scarlett made his version only last year for San Francisco Ballet; and now there’s Lister’s take. Too much? Perhaps.

Sydney Festival dance 2017

A wrap of dance seen at the 2017 Sydney Festival …

Spectra, Dancenorth, Seymour Centre, Sydney, January 11

The flick of a long rope sends energy snaking through it. It passes a man standing uneasily in the centre of the stage and his head recoils in response. Later, all seven performers in Spectra link arms and undulate them as if possessed of a single but multi-parted body. In an earlier, entrancing encounter the group is tightly knit and close to the floor, pulsating as if impelled by a single set of lungs.

All this is exceptionally lovely, as are many of the solos, duos and trios that emerge, dissolve and are reabsorbed in this collaborative, introspective work from Townsville-based Dancenorth and Tokyo Butoh company Batik. The movement language mixes Western contemporary athleticism with intense, sculptural Butoh formality and at any given moment there is something to please the eye greatly as the dancers share the space with artist Matsuo Miyajima’s glowing light installation and Niklas Pajanti’s evocative lighting design.

The governing principle of Spectra is the understanding that everything is connected. Do one thing and something else will happen; decide on a course of action and there will be a consequence. Spectra examines this idea fully and clearly in a physical sense through the interaction of bodies, light, ropes and the live music of Jiri Matsumoto. It’s less successful in making a connection between the cerebral universal and the human particular. There is, for instance, a trio of some agitation for Misako Tanaka, Rie Makino and Amber Haines that probably should evoke compassion but stays resolutely distanced.

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Rie Makino and Dancenorth in Spectre. Photo: Prudence Upton

Makino is something of a focal figure and features in a late section that has the hallmarks of a satisfying ending as she reaches towards something unseen and unknown. There is the welcome possibility of empathy with her but attention then shifts to another scene, again very visually effective, in which the group coalesces and then dissolves. That could also be an ending, but it isn’t. There is a bit more to come. The ultimate impression is of an elegant set of variations on a theme in which individual parts don’t absolutely depend on one another. The structure somewhat undermines the “if this, then that” thesis.

Despite these reservations, it was a great pleasure to see Dancenorth in Sydney. The company is based in the Queensland city of Townsville, 1300km north of Brisbane, but the small, agile outfit doesn’t let distance fence it in. Under its young artistic director Kyle Page it is a whirlwind of new works, touring and research and it collaborates with some of the country’s best-known choreographers. Spectra premiered at Adelaide’s OzAsia festival about 15 months ago and has been seen in Japan. Even if it’s not as gripping as its potential suggests, it is a thoughtful and serious piece.

Page choreographed and directed Spectra with Haines, who is Dancenorth’s associate artistic director. The multitasking Page continues to dance and is charismatic in Spectra, as is Haines. Makino is a commanding presence and Jennie Large, Mason Kelly, Josh Mu and Tanaka make up the strong ensemble.

Humans, Circus City, Parramatta, January 14

Being human is undeniably a messy business. Less certain is how Circa’s messy new show illuminates our shared condition – what Circa describes as “what it means to be human and … how our bodies, our connections and our aspirations all form part of who we are”. It’s a broad subject that could really mean anything, or nothing.

Humans is one of the company’s stripped-back pieces. There’s limited use of apparatus and the concentration is on what 10 superbly honed athlete-artists can do with the body. It’s a lot.

Four women and six men throw themselves through the air in various ways, balance on each other’s shoulders, bend like molten steel and bounce back with the casual elasticity of toddlers. At one point a woman goes for a stroll across the heads of five standing men. It’s terrific.

There is energetic throwing and catching, impressive feats of strength and some counter-balancing that was a bit shaky on Saturday but nevertheless lovely. Towards the end of Humans there is an unusual trio on aerial straps, beautifully choreographed and performed. There is no safety net.

In all this we see the qualities essential for this kind of work: trust, strength, physical courage, burden-sharing, the power of the group. They are, however, a given in this kind of circus and without them there would be no show. More is needed if the civilian audience is to make the connection between an exciting display of superhuman skill and the mysteries of life.

Circa is deeply committed to the expressive power of circus, which is why it is so greatly admired here and abroad. Something, however, has gone awry in Humans. The tone is inconsistent and at several points disturbing and perplexing. What does Circa intend when a woman is swung around like a skipping rope or walked around the space like a zombie puppet before dropping to the floor as if dead? The audience at the performance I attended cheered the first action and tittered nervously at the second.

The ooh-ah exhibitions of prowess, a bit of portentous walking about and some jokey interplay between performers fail to prepare the ground adequately for this darker material.

A fun section has the women and men of the ensemble attempting to lick their elbows to the strains of The impossible Dream. It deftly puts performers and audience on the same level and the laughter of recognition on Saturday was hearty and genuine. Otherwise, Humans misses its mark almost entirely. The performers could not be less like us.

Inheritor Album, Company 605, Carriageworks, January 15

Company 605 is a Canadian collective dedicated to a shared creative process, shared language and what it calls “a relinquishing of control”. The group, it would seem, is always far more important than the individual. There is no one choreographer or director for Inheritor Album, which is credited to Company 605 and the dancers are dressed casually and similarly.

Presumably this democratic ethos is what impels Inheritor Album’s performers to move mostly in unison. There are several solos and a couple of moments when just two people are on stage but the group is what really matters. A united front is the default position and even when dancers touch one another, which isn’t all that often, it feels familial rather than sensual.

The fact that three men and three women perform Inheritor Album is neither here nor there. There’s nothing as obvious as pairing off according to conventional gender roles as the six throw themselves with equally impressive vigour into the punchy choreographic language of running, swirling, rolling, tumbling and the stop-start shapes of street dance.

Not that everyone is required to do exactly the same thing in precisely the same way. Timing is a bit loose, there are different body types on stage and personal style asserts itself naturally. Sometimes an individual will break away for a moment or two and occasionally there’s a whiff of competitiveness or combativeness.

Nevertheless, there is an inexorable return to the stability of the pack. The atmosphere is intense and a little bit mysterious. Only right at the end do the dancers give the impression of enjoying themselves; for the most part Inheritor Album wears a distancing cloak of great seriousness.

The Album part of the work’s title refers to the half dozen or so discrete sections in the dance, which are accompanied by Kristen Roos’s standard-fare industrial sound design, Miwa Matreyek’s elegant animated projections and the crepuscular lighting design by Jason Dubois.

The Inheritor part is less easily grasped. The program note speaks of transition and transformation but the constant reversion to unanimity works against that idea even as the restless energy of the choreography suggests a desire for something new.

Champions, FORM Dance Projects, Carriageworks, January 18

The Champions program quotes Dutch soccer great Johan Cruyff as saying “dancers are the cleverest with their feet, next are footballers” and in Cruyff’s obituary last year The Guardian wrote that he “treated football as, above all, an excuse for exercising creativity”.

It goes without saying the beautiful game translates easily into dance and Champions does it with much dexterity and a generous heart. It’s like a “friendly” between sides that share a common language but speak with a different accent.

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The cast of Champions. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Early in the piece images of graceful training routines and complex game formations dominate. In the second half the mood becomes more reflective. Emotional gestures of triumph, solidarity and anguish are seen in plush slow motion on designer Clare Britton’s field of vivid green and danced to Gail Priest’s music, a score in both senses of the word.

Sound serious? Champions is, up to a point. It has things to say, admittedly in the work’s least sparkling section, about the vast disparity in pay between male and female sportspeople in general and the Socceroos and the Matildas specifically. It celebrates with equal fervour the extraordinary physical and technical skill of top-notch dancers and footballers and I loved that simply by putting the dancers’ names on the back of their shirts in football style, Champions pays them an honour they don’t often get – that of recognition.

The performers (11 of them, obviously, plus a substitute) are some of the country’s most formidable contemporary artists and include Kristina Chan, Sara Black, Miranda Wheen and Kathryn Puie, all of them alas rather less well known than they should be in the wider world.

Director Martin del Amo came up with the concept and devised the text and choreography with the dancers. He describes himself as an avid sports fan but he’s also a witty man who could see the comic potential in blending the worlds of soccer and contemporary dance. You want statistics? Champions can tell you everything you wanted to know and much that you didn’t about these women. If you’re quick you might notice the “affairs with a fellow performer” stat.

TV commentator Mel McLaughlin has a key role, applying the conventions of sports media coverage to dance in a series of filmed interviews and assessments presented before, during and after the performance. Is it true that the Palomares sisters, Marnie and Melanie, have a strained relationship (allegedly)? Is Chan getting a bit too old for the game at 37?

And what about the tumbles a few of the women took in the first half? A bit of a shame, comments McLaughlin. Not exactly, Carlee Mellow explains. That was choreography. A lot of fun too.