Double Blind

Stephanie Lake Company, Carriageworks, January 19. Melbourne, February 15-20; Brisbane, February 22.

Stephanie Lake has danced with most of Australia’s best contemporary dance-makers and now, only five years or so into her choreographic career, she’s making a very strong bid to join them at the top table.

At its first performance, during the Sydney Festival, Double Blind was satisfyingly complete and mature. So often a new work has a few rough edges or infelicities. Double Blind already looks like an important piece that’s been in the repertoire for a little while, still fresh but sharply honed and brilliantly polished.

On a pristine white square, four dancers are placed under an unforgiving light (designed by Ben Shaw), watched and perhaps overseen or even directed by sound artist Robin Fox, who sits magisterially to one side on a raised platform and oversees a score with an array of electronic squeals, hisses, moans and thumps that is stimulating and deeply disturbing. But before the work even starts there’s something unsettling in the air.

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Stephanie Lake’s Double Blind. Photo: Prudence Upton

A double blind experiment seeks to eliminate distortion of results by hiding identities: people don’t know who is in the control group and who is not. Lake also had in mind the famous Milgram experiment that studied how authority can affect individuals’ behaviour towards others. How far would you go if forced, encouraged or just given the opportunity? There has been criticism of the Milgram methodology but more than 50 years later the experiment still excites interest and acts as a touchstone for discussions about atrocities that require the acquiescence at least and participation at worst of many people – people undoubtedly much like ourselves.

Lake starts with a display of childlike curiosity, if the children had access to electricity. Alisdair Macindoe and Alana Everett have a jerky dance of attraction and repulsion that gives every indication of not ending well, even if that tap on the nose could be read as playful. Then boom! There’s an aggressive action that throws Macindoe to the ground. Blackout. And the audience laughs. I guess it’s the surprise factor, but it’s always exceptionally disconcerting when people laugh at violence. Point made. And on it goes, with Amber Haines and Kyle Page joining the fray.

These performers, for whom no amount of praise could be too much, embody a rich, diverse dance language with virtuosity and keen intelligence. They are automatons, faceless followers, anarchists, lovers, prisoners and more, and at each point in Lake’s adroitly constructed chain of events – she is very good at knowing just how long or short to make a section – their clarity of expression is exceptional.

The four are dressed identically in steel-coloured trousers and tops with openings at the back that suggest hospital gowns (Harriet Oxley designed). Even so, they make you care about them as individual souls, even when they are at their most mechanistic. At one point Macindoe is forced to follow the beat of a metronome, an impossibility when it gets to a certain speed. The movement breaks down and what looked pleasing starts to appear manic, even non-human.

At every moment there is something new to see in the movement and Lake’s command of structure and detail is impressive. The exquisite interplay of arms and delicate fingers, for instance, draws intense focus in the manner of a film close-up while powerfully athletic partnering makes the viewer pull back. The ground is constantly shifting.

Double Blind doesn’t turn these ideas into a narrative, nor for the most part does it take a particular position. It simply shows what electricity might do to a body, what a group under control looks like, how the desperate need for another body feels, and how curiosity, betrayal, complicity, torture, surrender and devastation might be represented.

There’s much more, but if there is one large idea underpinning Double Blind it’s that the stripping away of humanity is a cruel business. And it’s not that hard to do.

As for obedience to authority, it was interesting to see how quickly many in the audience started clapping when the dancers did, and how quickly they fell into the regular rhythm the dancers soon dictated. Fascinating.

Michelle’s Story, a film by Meryl Tankard

In 2011 the Brisbane Festival program included the celebrated Belgian company Les Ballets C de la B with Out of Context – for Pina, a tribute to the towering choreographer who died in 2009. Australian dancer Michelle Ryan was invited by artistic director Alain Platel to appear as a guest artist and although she had formerly had an important career with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre, Ryan was surprised to be asked.

She was also tentative about accepting. Ryan had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000 and her mobility was affected. She told Platel she was afraid she might fall. He suggested that if that were to happen, she should just get up again. It was the perfect answer; she did the show. Despite her restrictions and her fears, Ryan was still a dancer.

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Michelle Ryan with Vincent Crowley in Michelle’s Story

Ryan recalls the conversation she had with Platel in a half-hour documentary, Michelle’s Story, which was directed by Tankard and shown this week in competition at the 25th Flickerfest International Short Film Festival (Michelle’s Story was also shown at last year’s Adelaide Film Festival where it was judged the most popular short.) The Platel anecdote is a brief one but particularly telling. Ryan speaks in a conversational tone but a tough subtext is there: the anxiety that accompanies a serious illness, the grief that comes with the loss of physical prowess and the level of determination required to keep going.

Despite setbacks that would challenge anyone, Ryan, in her mid-40s, has not retreated. She is now artistic director at Adelaide’s Restless Dance Theatre, a company that includes dancers with varied physical and intellectual abilities.

Ryan was only 30 when she received her diagnosis – a terrible blow for any young woman but particularly cruel for a dancer. Her personal life suffered too. We see footage of Ryan carefully making her way towards her husband-to-be and their wedding celebrant, she looking radiant despite her physical insecurity. The marriage, to fellow ADT member Gavin Webber, didn’t survive and it is a measure of Tankard’s sympathetic understanding that he was prepared to appear on camera.

The blunt facts – exceptionally beautiful and talented young dancer loses the use of her legs and also loses her husband – are handled with great tact. While Ryan’s illness is the event around which Michelle’s Story revolves, Tankard has made from it a beautifully restrained and understated film about resilience.

Michelle’s Story will be shown during Flickerfest’s national tour (until May) and screens on ABC TV in early March.

The Sound of Music

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 17.

A new production of Fiddler on the Roof has just opened in New York, directed by Broadway revival rainmaker Bartlett Sher. The musical, created in 1964, tells of the existential threat faced by a community of Jews in Imperial Russia, whom we see living their lives much as their ancestors did – Tradition! – while having to face the realities of contemporary society and politics. At the end we see them forced to leave their home of Anatevka to go – where?

Sher gave Fiddler a silent frame that, very briefly, brings the mass exoduses of today to mind. He hasn’t changed the work but has given it a context. What happened to Tevye’s community isn’t locked away safely in the past. “We have to ask questions about where we are now,” Sher told The New York Times. Sher’s touch has also been applied to revered Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals including South Pacific and The King and I, both of which have dark themes embedded within. Sher is able to stage a traditional version while reminding audiences that these shows aren’t entirely about washing a man right out of your hair and whistling a happy tune, no matter how tenaciously the glow of nostalgia hangs around them.

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Amy Lehpamer, left, with the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

In The Sound of Music there are raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and Nazis at the door. In other words, there is, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last work a dark counterpoint that gives weight, texture and dramatic consequence to songs of unmatched sweetness.

It is wondrous just how lacking in cynicism, irony and guile the show’s most beloved songs are, but The Sound of Music is not all Do-Re-Mi, or shouldn’t be. It doesn’t seem enough in 2015 to give the impression the Nazis were a bunch of cartoonish heavies. One of the greatest evils of the 20th or any century is trivialised and the courage of the von Trapp family rendered far less affecting than it should be. The production now showing in Sydney, directed by Jeremy Sams, could have been teleported from 1959, when The Sound of Music conquered its first generation of admirers.

It’s true that Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book is perilously thin at times, in this respect and others, but in this production the flaws are magnified rather than resolved. It also doesn’t help that the sets, based on those for the 2006 London revival, have a strong whiff of having been reduced for ease of touring. When the Austrian alps are represented by an odd sloping disc, low-lying bumps and a lurid sunset you’re not exactly feeling the grandeur.

The old-school complacency is all the more frustrating because the show is blessed with some blazing performances. The enchanting Maria of Amy Lehpamer, Jacqueline Dark’s bounteous Mother Abbess and the eye-wateringly talented bunch of children raise the roof and save the day.

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Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

In Lehpamer’s hands the novice nun who brings music and love to an unhappy family is shiningly good without being a goody-goody. Forthright and sensible but with girlhood not long behind her, Maria is bursting with untapped promise. Lehpamer sings with delectable warmth, ease and clarity, makes the familiar sound fresh and gives backbone to songs that need a firm hand if they are not to descend into whimsy.

On opening night there was entrance applause for Cameron Daddo, who plays the widowed Captain von Trapp; Marina Prior, who is the Captain’s intended, Baroness Schraeder; and veteran Lorraine Bayly (Frau Schmidt). None greeted Lehpamer, who is well known to music-theatre aficionados but – obviously – not so much to a wider public. She has it in her to be Australia’s next big music-theatre star and this role should do the trick.

Most usually seen on the opera stage, where she is a great favourite, Dark plays the Abbess with a twinkly eye and enormous generosity of spirit and voice. What luxury casting. One could have predicted she’d hit Climb Ev’ry Mountain out of the park and so she does, not as a barnstorming anthem but a passionate invocation.

As for the children, the opening night girls and boys were all adorable (two more groups alternate in these roles) but if one must play favourites, Nakita Clarke as the baby of the family, Gretl, would take the prize. The others – Jude Padden-Row as Friedrich, Savannah Clarke (Nakita’s sister) as Louise, Louis Fontaine as Kurt, Madison Russo as Brigitta and Erica Giles as Marta – are also blissfully at ease on stage and there are some impressive voices among them. As the “sixteen going on seventeen” oldest sister Leisel, Stefanie Jones is pleasingly unaffected and has a fine, true soprano.

Prior makes the pragmatic Baroness Schraeder nuanced and interesting but Daddo isn’t up to the task of papering over some very dodgy transitions in the book. Because he doesn’t convey megawatts of authority, several underwritten turning points in the musical are put under a very revealing light. The Captain’s turnaround from distant martinet to caring father is achieved with a handful of harsh words from Maria and his declaration of love for the novice nun happens moments after Baroness Schraeder gives him back his ring. Daddo looks amazingly handsome but there is, sadly, little sizzle between him and Lepahmer of the kind that might have prepared us for this outcome.

The audience has to join the dots and take that relationship on trust because it’s not really there on stage. The political backdrop is similarly soft-edged and experienced at a safe distance despite the display of swastikas and men in uniform. I couldn’t help but compare this blandness with the shiver of horror John Bell evoked in his direction of Tosca for Opera Australia in 2013, which was set during the Nazi occupation of Rome. It’s all in the detail. It’s about making every new audience, every new generation, understand and believe in every aspect of a work, not just the raindrops on roses.

The Sound of Music runs in Sydney until February 28. Brisbane from March 11, Melbourne from May 13, Adelaide from August 9.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on December 21.

Zest and immediacy

deborah jones: FollowSpot

Bell Shakespeare, Canberra Theatre Centre, June 15.

IN an air raid shelter during the Blitz in London, some young people delve into bookshelves and pull out Shakespeare. Their stage is a room with a blackboard and some rackety shelves, their costumes nothing more than what they can put over their school uniforms. As sirens blare and bombs fall, they put on a play about war.

Michael Sheasby and Darcy Brown in Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop. Michael Sheasby and Darcy Brown in Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop.

There could be few productions of Henry V scrappier, less heroic or more affecting than this. Essentially a bunch of kids in a confined space put on accents and lark about, yet the simplicity and intimacy pierce the heart as surely as King Henry’s archers at Agincourt routed the French. Director Damien Ryan sees nothing worth exalting in Henry’s pursuit of conquest. He sees the damage and the never-ending trail of misery.

These things…

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Love, death, politics …

Kryptonite, Sydney Theatre Company, September 16; Unholy Ghosts, Griffin Theatre Company, September 17; LoveBites, White Horse Productions with Hayes Theatre Co, September 18.

ON the face of it Kryptonite, Unholy Ghosts and LoveBites have nothing in common except taking place in a theatre, but seeing the three on consecutive evenings made me think of them as a group; as independent but connected pieces illuminating fundamental aspects of life’s journey. Love, death, politics …

Sue Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. That combo would sap anyone of their strength. Lian (Ursula Mills) and Dylan (Tim Walter) meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to keep herself. He’s a laidback Australian with a passion for surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. The massacre at Tiananmen Square is one of them; the rise of Australian business connections with China is another.

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s fertile ground for drama and highly pertinent as, in scenes played out of chronological order, we see how events in the wider world – the Asian world – affect Lian and Dylan personally and politically.

I found the role of Dylan a little underwritten, although perhaps I should see Kryptonite again to see if that’s fair – on opening night I was so swept away by the writing for Lian and Mills’s performance that it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Even at her shyest and most vulnerable Lian is strong, witty and very, very smart. No wonder she becomes a tough and successful operator, although with divided loyalties. Smith has written a mesmerising part and Mills is extraordinary. Geordie Brookman directed.

Unholy Ghosts isn’t so much a play as a group therapy session. I don’t mean this unkindly. I was absorbed by Campion Decent’s story, based on his own experience, but its power is that of personal, intimate revelation. I too have lost my parents, as people of a certain age do. It was only when my father died last year, eight years after the death of my mother, that I realised it was possible for a mature adult to feel orphaned. Decent’s story has the added pressure of parents dying within a short space of time, of them having been acrimoniously divorced, and the hovering presence of a long-dead sister. James Lugton, playing the Son, talks about his dying parents and talks to them, although some of the dialogue sounds suspiciously like people telling people they are close to things they should already know. Father (Robert Alexander) apparently terrified Son when he was a child but we must take that on faith, as the old man we meet is certainly irascible but rather a sweetie. Mother (Anna Volska) is a former actress and loads of fun.

The technical shortcomings include a rather awkward ending, but it was impossible not to be moved by the deeply felt discussion of death: how to face it, how to cope with it.

I saw LoveBites when it premiered at Sydney’s Seymour Centre in 2008. I reviewed it for The Australian and I started my piece this way:

“James Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.”

Obviously Millar is a few years older now, but I’m happy with the rest of the sentence and with the conclusion. It’s great to see a revival at the Hayes Theatre, very well cast with Kirby Burgess, Tyran Parke, Adele Parkinson and Shaun Rennie. Troy Alexander directed, there’s smart choreography by Ellen Simpson and designer Lauren Peters uses the small Hayes Theatre Co space astutely by using two revolves. Becky-Dee Trevenen does a pretty good job with the costumes, which the four performers have to change at speed to accommodate their very different characters. The band, under the musical direction of Steven Kreamer, is fine as far as it goes but the sound balance is out of whack and does a disservice to the singers.

But you know what? I’m just going to haul out my 2008 review. Change the names and the design concept and we’re all good.

From The Australian, June 23, 2008

JAMES Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.

Earlier this year Millar and Rutherford premiered The Hatpin, a large-scale historical musical based on a fascinating, and true, Australian story. We didn’t have to wait long for their next venture, the song cycle LoveBites. On the surface it may look like a far less ambitious project but this allusive, sophisticated and compressed art brings its own challenges.

Millar tells the story of six unrelated couples who are captured at the moment of falling in love. In the second half we see how it all turned out. There’s no scene-setting, apart from a series of beautifully chosen projections designed by Martin Kinnane, and no expository dialogue. Everything must be conveyed through song in the space of five or six minutes.

Within that tight timeframe Millar has created a set of persuasive individuals whose fate you want to know: Daniel and James from the poorly attended reading group; Madeleine and Poppy, whose courtship starts with the buying of a single flower; Annie and Kevin, whom disaster strikes in the form of a non-working loo.

At almost every point the detail feels vivid and truthful. It’s fun that Georgine has to pretend she’s an ace rock-climber when Peter first asks her out and that the heavenly Kevin works with deaf children. Obviously taken from life is the tryst between a famous film star and a flight attendant in an aircraft toilet, and yes, Ralph Fiennes is name-checked. Rutherford turns this into a breathy, torchy number, called The Captain’s Turned Off the Seatbelt Sign.

The composer gracefully lets the lyrics take centre stage but is sensitive to the needs and moods of each character. There’s wistful delicacy for Poppy in Give It to the Breeze and a buoyant, confident anthem for James and Daniel, Setting the Date. I was less convinced by the poo song that ends the show. It has an impeccable message but feels a bit try-hard compared with the rest of LoveBites.

On piano, Rutherford accompanies a hard-working cast of four, including Millar. The odd little Downstairs Theatre at the Seymour Centre has a hard, dead acoustic and even though they are miked there are times when Octavia Barron-Martin and Sarah Croser in particular sound under-powered. Millar and Tyler Burness fare much better but I hesitate to be definitive about the vocal qualities of any of them in these conditions. They play the show very well under Kim Hardwick’s nicely unobtrusive direction.

Sound quibbles aside, LoveBites is a very significant achievement. Music theatre aficionados take note: a team that can write Bob and Louise is one to treasure. The song captures a lifetime of longing, pain and quiet, ordinary desperation in just a few minutes, and I wasn’t the only one crying by the end.

Kryptonite, Wharf 1, ends October 18; Unholy Ghosts, The Stables, Sydney, ends September 20; LoveBites, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, ends October 5.

Complexities of human existence

Ken Unsworth Studio, Alexandria, Sydney, July 16

THE accepted wisdom is that dance careers are brutally short and in many – probably most – cases they are. The performers who break that barrier should be cherished. They may not have the effortless flexibility and super-human extensions they once had, but since when did elasticity equal artistry? Indeed, there is much discussion in classical circles these days about the great danger of tricks – endless turns, legs behind ears, gymnastics in the air – trumping emotional engagement, expressiveness, imagination and the use of the body as an infinitely varied instrument of meaning.

In Australia there are few opportunities for older dance artists; certainly no regular ones I can bring to mind, except for the collaborations between sculptor Ken Unsworth and Australian Dance Artists. Performances have taken place at the Art Gallery of NSW and Cockatoo Island, but latterly they have been at Unsworth’s Sydney studio, in which he manages a quite remarkable array of effects. The invited audience sits on hard pews, the stage machinery shudders and groans a bit and there isn’t the seamless transition from scene to scene one sees in the subsidised and commercial sectors, and yet there is an inordinate amount of magic. Imagination, emotional engagement – that’s what you get.

Australian Dance Artists was founded by Norman Hall, who collaborates on choreography with the four current ADA dancers – former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. Their collective experience is immense, but would be of academic interest if they were not, all of them, still exceptionally potent performers.

Unsworth may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest

For The Arrangement Unsworth – he finances these productions entirely – really pushed the boat out, commissioning music from Jonathan Cooper and engaging The Song Company to sing texts by A.E. Houseman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke. The Song Company’s long-serving artistic director, Roland Peelman, was at the helm (and the piano).

Unsworth may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest for the complexities of human existence, often casting an absurdist eye on events. He made a cameo appearance at the beginning to usher in a series of stage pictures connected not by any narrative but by themes of love, longing, the passage of time and the cycle of life. Unsworth paid no attention to the potential limitations of his studio, making alterations and engaging a production team that enabled a woman (soprano Susannah Lawergren) to rise and descend through floor and ceiling; to allow Frankenhaeuser appear to levitate in ghostly fashion; and to have The Song Company singers revolve as they stood like mannequins while Philip assembled a real – i.e., not living – mannequin into a decidedly non-traditional form.

One of the most memorable dance moments came when Harding-Irmer, balancing on a ball, absorbed energy from Frankenhaeuser, whose flickering hands were the very embodiment of electricity. Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser, partners in real life, appeared to be the more connected pair while Barling and Philip were tougher customers, but central to all the movement was a sense of personal history drawn upon. These people had pasts, stories and secrets.

Cooper’s vivid, theatrical music was in expert hands. The Song Company’s Lawergren, Clive Birch (bass), Richard Black (tenor), Mark Donnelly (baritone), Anna Fraser (soprano) and Hannah Fraser (alto) were not only singers of the highest order but game participants in much of the action. Also under Peelman’s direction were the fine musicians Ollie Miller (cello), Lamorna Nightingale (flute) and Jason Noble (clarinet).

Unsworth created a world that was sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish, always surprising. It was a privilege to be there.

The camp-o-meter turned up to 15

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, June 20.

RUTHLESS! The Musical could with much accuracy be called Shameless!

As it charts the incident-packed life of a stage-obsessed tyke and her perhaps not so ordinary Mom, Ruthless! cheerfully plunders Gypsy and All About Eve for characters and motivations and pays homage to any number of Broadway shows, including of course the most aspirational of them all, A Chorus Line.

The cast of Ruthless! Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

The cast of Ruthless! Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Which means, of course, if you don’t know your Broadway from your Brecht you may be rather at sea in a show that exists only to send up an unhealthy hunger for fame. I was going to say it satirises the pursuit of the spotlight, but that would be giving Ruthless!, written in 1992 by Joel Paley (book and lyrics) and Marvin Laird (music), a bit too much credit. It’s a fun, bubbly cartoon given a terrific production by a newish Sydney company called The Theatre Division and best enjoyed with a drink in your hand and a show tune in your heart.

Tina Denmark (on opening night Madison Russo, who shares the role with Jade Gillis) is an all-singing, all-dancing pint-sized bundle of ambition who is devastated when she fails to win the leading role in her school musical, Pippi in Tahiti. Look out Louise Lerman (Caitlin Berry), the less talented but much better connected student who gets the part.

Also in the mix are the mysterious Sylvia St Croix (Meredith O’Reilly), who is also desperate to see Tina get to the top; third-grade teacher Miss Block (Margi de Ferranti); the poisonous theatre critic and grandmother to Tina, Lita Encore (Geraldine Turner); and Tina’s mother Judy (Katrina Retallick), who undergoes a dazzling transformation during interval.

The camp-o-meter is turned up to 15 and the stage set for revelations that are flagged as obviously as a Panamanian ship of convenience. Obviously there’s only way to sell this material, and that’s to go big, or preferably bigger. Director Lisa Freshwater has assembled just the cast to do that, with Retallick proving yet again that she’s a sparkling comedienne. The Sydney Theatre Award she won this year for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (speaking of shameless, that was a plug for awards in which I am involved) was no fluke. Turner gives a star’s turn as the bitchy journalist and young Russo is ridiculously talented and apparently knows no fear. But everyone is terrific, as are Mason Browne’s amusing and cleverly conceived set and costume designs and Neil Grigg’s splendid hats.

The sound balance seemed a bit out of whack to start with on Friday night but either it or my ears settled down, enabling better appreciation of the small band under Brad Miller’s musical direction.

In truth Ruthless! runs out of steam towards the end of a not very long show, but the attractive exuberance of cast and production gets it across the line.

Ruthless! runs until July 5.