Force Majeure: You Animal, You

Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, January 6

Heather Mitchell is one of the great treasures of the Australian stage and any chance to see her must be grabbed eagerly, as proved to be the case even in a work as unsteady as Force Majeure’s You Animal, You. Under its founder and former artistic director Kate Champion, Force Majeure created a body of dance-theatre work that combined movement with text and often included actors alongside dancers. Mitchell has collaborated with Force Majeure before and is a riveting presence in You Animal, You, directed by Champion’s successor Danielle Micich (and including text written by Mitchell).

Heather Mitchell Solo Confetti - credit Brett Boardman

Heather Mitchell in You Animal, You. Photo: Brett Boardman

You Animal, You looked marvellous and was performed with passionate intensity. Its effects, though, came from a scatter of individual moments. A coherent whole failed to emerge.

The work, choreographed by Micich and the performers, put forward the not entirely novel proposition that we hide the primal urges that drive our true selves. Strip away the shield and we will be revealed and possibly freed. To that end Mitchell commanded a rag-tag band of two women and two men who seemed to be her slaves, up to a point. Dressed in a long sequined gown that had seen better days she shouted directives through a megaphone, sometimes sitting in judgment from a vertiginously high seat that could be wheeled about the space.

The audience was seated arena-style in two rows of seats ranged around a long, wide oval. Bay 20 at Carriageworks is large and the spare design made it seem even more so. The top-tier team of Michael Hankin (set and costumes), Damien Cooper (lights) and Kelly Ryall (score) created a chilly dystopian environment that nevertheless had a certain elegance and grandeur.

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela - credit Brett Boardman

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela. Photo: Brett Boardman

Mitchell was perhaps a distant cousin of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s Aunty Entity, her glamour somewhat faded but her resolve firm. When she told two people to get into the centre ring and fight they did it without hesitation. When she barked the order “let’s dance”, everyone complied. But to what end? The stage picture was always vibrant and visually appealing but its meaning elusive, other than the symbolism of the amphitheatre as a place of conflict and the huge plastic bag used early and late in the piece as an obvious stand-in for the womb.

The vague unanimity of the first part of the piece fractured into fragments of memory and individual dances but nothing really stuck. There were solos for each of the four dancers in the cast – Harrison Elliott, Ghenoa Gela, Raghav Handa and Lauren Langlois – and sections in which language predominated. Langlois had a stream-of-consciousness monologue that drew on synaesthesia; Mitchell told a fable about the food chain and spoke movingly about the intimacy and pain of motherhood; Elliott relived the moment of birth; Handa spoke about breath; Gela sought refuge among audience members and then very sweetly thanked them.

Each performer had distinctive personal and movement qualities that made them eloquently individual and therefore worthy of close attention. You wanted to know more about Gela, who greeted people warmly as they filed into the space, and Elliott, who slowed time with a naked dance of evolution from flailing baby to dignified adult. Touchingly, you could see that Mitchell was a non-dancer among dancers (you could also see her knee and ankle braces; dance is a tough master). She moved expressively though, losing herself in that special place that civilians have when dancing.

You Animal, You had a very brief premiere season at the Sydney Festival and there are no further dates listed for performance at this stage. Despite being devised with the assistance of a dramaturg, director Sarah Goodes, You Animal, You doesn’t feel fully developed, which is possibly why it ran only about 55 minutes rather than the advertised and presumably planned 75 minutes.

Li and QB: my artists of the year

My first Artist of the Year, in 2015, was operatic mezzo, cabaret sensation, music-theatre star and all-round fine human being Jacqueline Dark. Last year I went for a large, disparate group of people and companies – the independent theatre artists who do tremendous work at low prices, making their art accessible to all often at great personal cost.

This year my choice is a company and an individual – Queensland Ballet and its artistic director Li Cunxin.

Jess and Kirby headshots

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin takes his curtain call after appearing in a special performance of The Nutcracker. Photo: David Kelly

Li became QB’s artistic director in the second half of 2012 and late last year signed on until 2020. In five years he has utterly transformed Queensland Ballet, turning a frankly provincial company into one of substance and ambition. QB can now perform to capacity houses in Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s largest theatre, the 2000-seat Lyric, for some of its productions. Support has been given for the expansion and renovation of QB’s Thomas Dixon Centre headquarters and a $10 million expansion of Queensland Ballet Academy at Kelvin Grove State College is being funded by the State Government. “This state deserves it and the country deserves it,” says Li.

Brisbane adores Li, as his one-time-only return to the stage on December 10 proved. The special matinee sold out within the hour, raising funds for the company’s work and attracting the kind of publicity for ballet most companies can only dream of. (A Museum of Brisbane exhibition titled Mao’s Last Dancer the Exhibition: A Portrait of Li Cunxin, running until April, refers to “the dramatic influence he has had on the state’s arts scene”.)

Actor David Wenham introduced the performance and presided over a Q&A session afterwards with Li and his wife, Mary, in which Li described himself as an optimistic man. Indeed so. He hopes QB’s success in Queensland will spread interstate and internationally and as part of that goal QB will perform in Melbourne next year, presenting Liam Scarlett’s enchanting A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the 2015 ballet is a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet) at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Jess and Kirby headshots

Lucy Green and Camilo Ramos, both recently appointed principal artists, in QB’s The Nutcracker. Photo: David Kelly

QB’s annual Nutcracker gave Li the perfect role in which to return to the stage after an absence of 18 years, although he went way, way beyond the call of duty.

Li is 56 and could have gone the safe, expected, route of performing the part of Drosselmeyer in Ben Stevenson’s production as written. The mysterious magician bursts dramatically on to the scene, sweeps around the stage, twirls his cape, does a few tricks, hands out gifts to the children, flirts with their mothers and departs with a flourish.

Stage presence is the key requirement, something Li could have offered without breaking a sweat. But he figured his audience would be keen for a bit more than dashing cape-work so after he did the glad-handing and flirting he danced. He really danced.

Stevenson gave his permission for Li to insert himself into the big fight scene between marauding rats and the Nutcracker doll’s soldiers. Li’s opening gambit was a snappy diagonal of chainés. He threw in a couple of air turns and a big circle of jetés but wasn’t finished yet. A series of showy grand pirouettes earned mighty cheers from the capacity house.

The performance is unlikely to lead to a late-flowering revival of Li’s dance career but it served its purpose of highlighting a young dancer competition for regional and rural Queensland called Wish Upon a Ballet Star. This year’s winner, Imogen Hess, was one of the child guests during the Act I Christmas party and took a solo bow at the end. The occasion also drew attention to the gleaming quality of Li’s company, which looks better with each passing year. In 2018 QB increases its number of dancers from 33 to 37. There will also be a bumper crop of 12 Young Artists and two dancers in the new rank of Apprentice.

Speaks for itself really.

RNZB and the numbers game

What possessed the Board of Royal New Zealand Ballet to assert in its statement of December 15 that 42% of the dancers are either New Zealanders or trained in New Zealand and that next year the goal is to have an even higher percentage?

The main thrust of the statement is fine – the Board has commissioned an independent review of its processes – but it then travels into an area it obviously thinks is firm ground at the centre of things but is in fact is a boggy path off to one side. Numbers. Percentages. Statistics. Where’s the vision in that?

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

Hayley Donnison in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had its Royal New Zealand Ballet premiere in 2015. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The recent conversation about RNZB has been partly about the level of turnover in a six-year period in which the company has had three artistic directors, partly about which dancers haven’t had their contracts renewed for 2018 and partly about the number of New Zealanders at RNZB. Each is a separate issue; for now let’s look at the Kiwi factor, defined as the number of New Zealand-born dancers in the company plus those who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance.

A scan of the make-up of RNZB during the past six years shows the proportion of dancers born in New Zealand or non-New Zealanders who trained at NZSD (mainly Australians) has usually been about a third or a bit more. Maybe as high as 40% in some years.

The Board’s claim of 42% is therefore close to the usual mark, although is self-serving at best and misleading at worst. Its 42% is based on the 31 dancers whose faces you can see right now on the RNZB website. Until recently ago there were 36 dancers pictured, even as the company asserted half a dozen dancers had made the decision to leave before new artistic director Patricia Barker arrived in June.

I noted the oddity in a post on December 9 and the next time I looked at the site it had been amended. Thus, when it came to the Board totting up the number of dancers with strong NZ connections it was able to base its calculation on 31 dancers rather than 36. The dancers who left after Romeo and Juliet ended in September were all non-New Zealanders.

Based on the 36 dancers who started the year with RNZB, the Board’s Kiwi number would have been 36%, not 42%. Am I splitting hairs? You could argue that, but the Board should understand not only that it shouldn’t be selective, but also what its assertions mean. It’s trying to make itself look good on the basis of a dodgy figure and, moreover, apparently trying to make policy on the back of it.

To make things even sillier, the touted 42% contains 10 dancers who will not be with RNZB next year. Quite a few of them – uh-oh – have the New Zealand connection of which the Board boasts.

In just three weeks the 2018 crop of RNZB dancers starts. On today’s reckoning there should be at least 15 new faces, unless 2018 starts with a smaller RNZB than usual. That wouldn’t be helpful in the current situation, would it? Not with four dancers having been told they are no longer required, three of whom have given many years of fine service. I look forward to seeing where the new dancers with NZ connections come from so the Board’s 42%-plus ratio is maintained. Not long to wait now.

You might think this forensic dissection of percentages and numbers is not terribly helpful and I would agree, with one caveat. Because RNZB is a national company, heavily funded by the New Zealand public, there is rightly an expectation that New Zealand talent will find a regular home there, either in management, administration, behind the scenes creative roles or in the ranks of the dancers.

That’s about as specific as it needs to be. Talent isn’t something you can put precise quotas on.

In some years national dance schools produce more fine graduates than there are available places in the national company; other years the quality is less good. Sometimes excellent dancers will be lured elsewhere to fulfil their aspirations, just as seasoned artists may be drawn back to their homeland after a long absence. There are dancers who come to a new country – let’s call it New Zealand – and make it their home for many years.

So we come back to the central question: what defines the nature and character of New Zealand’s national ballet company? That’s not for me to say, except to suggest that it’s not worked out on a calculator. The answer needs to come from within and be the result of knowledgeable, confident, secure, passionate, inspired leadership. Looking at the instability of the past six years at RNZB I couldn’t conclude that its Board, in its various iterations, has covered itself in glory.

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, also the country’s arts minister, has called for a report on RNZB. One assumes the quality of the Board’s custodianship will feature strongly.

Independent review of RNZB

Royal New Zealand Ballet today announced it has commissioned an independent review of its employment processes. This follows two weeks of intense scrutiny about dancer turnover, opportunities for New Zealand dancers and working conditions and practices.

A welcome move is the undertaking to give company artists a say in decision-making. At the moment there is no dancer representative on the board.

The review is expected to be finished by February or March next year and make recommendations to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, from which RNZB receives about $NZ5 million in funding.

 STATEMENT FROM THE BOARD OF THE ROYAL NEW ZEALAND BALLET

15 December 2017

Recent speculation about the culture and employment practices of the RNZB are troubling and unfair.

The RNZB has worked hard over a number of years to ensure it is a good employer and that all its staff have a safe and supportive work environment. The welfare of the company’s artistic and administrative staff is of paramount importance to the Board.

However, in recent days, there has been on-going speculation about historic workplace bullying and other allegations about workplace practices including that the RNZB favours overseas artists over New Zealand dancers.

The Board is deeply concerned at these claims.

In relation to the alleged bullying, it is confident that where any complaint has been made about a company member immediate and proper steps have been taken to investigate and respond to the complaint. The Board has no tolerance for bullying or any other unsafe behaviour in the workplace.

In relation to the Board’s support for New Zealand dancers, 42% of the dancers are either New Zealanders or New Zealand trained. Both management and the Board would like this percentage to be higher and since her arrival in June new Artistic Director Patricia Barker has been in discussions with New Zealand dancers working overseas to encourage them to further their careers at home.

Ballet is a global business and the Board recognizes that many young dancers choose to launch their careers by attending overseas dance schools or joining overseas ballet companies. The RNZB is working hard to keep young dancers in New Zealand, or to entice them back.

What this week has shown, though, is that we must work harder.

The Board has today asked former Deputy State Services Commissioner Doug Craig to conduct an independent review of the RNZB’s employment processes, in particular its processes for responding to and managing complaints by employees. The Board wants to assure itself that the processes at the company are robust and meet the standards of best practice. The review will look at how previous complaints were handled, identify what, if any, further steps could have been taken and recommend what, if any, improvements can be made to ensure that employees can have confidence in the RNZB.

The review is expected to be completed in February-March 2018. The final report and recommendations will be provided to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

Secondly, the Board is undertaking to look at new ways for artists in the company to have a say in the strategic decisions involving the RNZB. The Board will be seeking the views of dancers and others in the sector about the best way to achieve this. The way we deliver this is still very much open for discussion, but the commitment to give dancers an on-going opportunity to be heard is serious and will happen.

The Board acknowledges the hard work and dedication of all its dancers, technicians and administrators.

Earlier this week we announced that we intend to host a forum in the New Year, bringing together a range of interested parties to talk about the future of ballet in New Zealand. There is much to discuss. The Board looks forward to hearing a wide range of views about how to further grow and develop ballet in this country.

RNZB Board responds – finally

On Monday Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Board of Trustees chair Steven Fyfe put out a statement addressing concerns raised over the past two weeks about the company. In a lengthy official response (see below), the Board backs new artistic director Patricia Barker, stresses the company’s support for New Zealand talent and says it will seek input from supporters and stakeholders via a forum to be held early next year.

It’s a welcome but somewhat belated response to the serious issues raised about dancer turnover, the number of New Zealanders to be engaged and Barker’s intentions for the company. The delay in detailed public comment from Mr Fyfe allowed many allegations to bloom.

As late as Sunday you could read in Fairfax’s Sunday Star-Times that “up to 20 of the Company’s 36 dancers” would not be returning in 2018. That number seems to be slightly exaggerated but not by much, and by very little if you count murmurs of a couple of contracts that will last only a few months into 2018.  Mr Fyfe’s statement specifically refers to the company’s longest-serving dancer, Abigail Boyle, following Sunday’s Star-Times report of “fears” she is to leave the company after its first production in 2018.

I’ve taken a close look at RNZB programs from the past five years and know there’s been a huge amount of churn for at least five years around a core group of stayers. I can identify only 12 dancers currently on the books – one of them is Boyle, who joined RNZB in 2005 – who were with the company in late 2012.

For that reason I don’t think the crisis is entirely about what’s happening right now but one thing is sure. The RNZB board has plenty of work to do to restore confidence.

STATEMENT FROM RNZB BOARD CHAIR STEVEN FYFE

Dear Everyone

I wanted to take this opportunity to write to you following recent media articles and statements.

As you may be aware we have a new Artistic Director with proven experience as a prima ballerina and as an Artistic Director.  As the Artistic Director of Grand Rapids Ballet, Patricia Barker strengthened both the artistic output of the company and established the ballet school and apprentice programme.  This enabled Grand Rapids Ballet to nurture and develop talented artists.

It is these strengths which came through when we met Patricia; a balance of artistic excellence, commercial acumen and a focus on developing and nurturing talent. One of Patricia’s first recommendations was that the Royal New Zealand Ballet could do more to create pathways and opportunities to bring New Zealand talent into the Company.

In addition to her artistic abilities and vision, Patricia brings a strong commitment to the RNZB, our national ballet company.

Your ballet company has always been committed to:

  • Bringing world-class ballet performances to audiences throughout New Zealand
  • Providing opportunities for New Zealand dancers and creative artists and nurturing their talent
  • Bringing dance and dance education to communities beyond ballet audiences

We want to hear from you

We recognise that some of our supporters have raised concerns about aspects of the RNZB’s direction. We have also received many messages of support.

We do welcome the feedback.

The RNZB holds fast to our three core purposes and we are committed to improving ways to engage with our community.  As part of this we will be calling for input from our supporters and stakeholders, and we will convene a forum early in 2018 where the Board and the Company will meet with groups from amongst that diverse range of supporters and stakeholders to share ideas. We will provide details shortly.

We are committed to nurturing New Zealand talent

Doubt has been expressed by some about our commitment to providing opportunities for New Zealanders. The RNZB has always been a blend of ballet talent from New Zealand and the rest of the world. This is the model evident throughout all ballet companies.  We are as committed as ever to nurturing New Zealand’s creative talent.

Our 2018 programmes features works by three young New Zealand choreographers. This investment in New Zealand talent has been curated and overseen by Patricia Barker, and is a core focus of her artistic vision for the company. This story in yesterday’s Herald on Sunday tells you more about just one of these exciting works.

Since Patricia Barker joined us as Artistic Director, ten dancers will leave the RNZB. Three are retiring, three are joining Queensland Ballet and four contracts were not renewed.  We are delighted that the dancers joining Queensland Ballet will have the opportunity to share their artistry with a new and wider audience, and we wish all of our departing dancers the very best in the future.  Equally, Patricia is committed to seeking New Zealand talent to join the RNZB.

Abigail Boyle and Sir Jon Trimmer will be with the RNZB in 2018, and we look forward to sharing stories with you about the roles that they will take on in the new year.

The Company offered three 2018 contracts to students from the New Zealand School of Dance (two from 2017 and one from 2016). While two went onto join overseas companies, we are delighted that Luke Cooper will be joining RNZB as the 2018 Todd Scholar.

We are ending 2017 in good heart, looking back on a year in which we have achieved notable artistic milestones, having delivered world-class performances, nurtured New Zealand creative talent and continued to build the strength of our dancers and our artistic team. Participation in the arts changes lives and so we are equally proud of the many ‘firsts’ we have delivered through  our community and education programme, including removing barriers to participation for children in low decile schools and our work at Arohata Women’s Prison.

We are preparing well to meet the challenges of relocation during the St James strengthening project.  And we are looking forward to reaching even more New Zealanders with our exciting, innovative and celebratory artistic programme, which includes six world premieres, an iconic New Zealand story, a ballet classic, new works by New Zealanders and the expanded delivery of our community and education programme. We have an exceptional family of sponsors and supporters and are proud and grateful to be associated with you all.

We thank you for your support. I welcome your feedback and comments.

With warmest good wishes for Christmas and the New Year,

Steven Fyfe
Chair, Royal New Zealand Ballet Board of Trustees

Quakes and tremors at RNZB

The party to mark Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 60th anniversary was in full swing at Wellington’s St James Theatre when the earthquake struck. The special matinee performance of Swan Lake on July 21, 2013, had been attended by many former dancers, staff and friends and now it was time to raise a glass and reminisce. At 5.09pm the building started to shake. To the sound of scores of wine glasses rattling mightily, everyone dropped to the floor. After what seemed like an age but was only 20 seconds, the movement stopped. It had been a big quake, no doubt about it, but no one in the room was injured. People stood and the party continued.

Lucy Green as Odette credit Evan Li

Lucy Green, now with Queensland Ballet, as Odette for RNZB in 2013. Photo: Evan Li

RNZB’s artistic director at the time was Ethan Stiefel, the starry former American Ballet Theatre principal artist whose appointment was seen as a great coup for the company. He took up the role in 2011 on a three-year contract. It was hoped he would stay for at least five years but one never got the impression that he felt entirely comfortable. He left in September 2014 to return to the US.

Stiefel was replaced by the Italian choreographer and former La Scala dancer Francesco Ventriglia, previously director of MaggioDanza in Florence. He started in November 2014 but just two years later, amid reports of some staff and dancer dissatisfaction, RNZB announced Ventriglia had decided to end his contract with them and would finish in mid 2017, some months short of his first three-year term. Ventriglia was recently announced as adjunct artistic director of Ballet Nacional Sodre in Montevideo, Uruguay.

On June 7 this year, the former Pacific Northwest Ballet prima ballerina Patricia Barker was anointed RNZB’s 12th artistic director. Signalling that the Board realised there needed to be rather more stability, Barker was asked to sign for five years, not three. By December there were new reports of dancer unrest and predictions that, for various reasons, perhaps half the company’s complement of 36 dancers would not be returning in 2018. That’s quite an upheaval.

Is RNZB experiencing an earthquake that will leave it seriously damaged? Or is it simply subject to all-too-familiar tremors that rattle the nerves, but only temporarily? The next month or so will give a strong indication of which way things go.

Right now, some dancers – perhaps four, the number is unclear – are reportedly unhappy that their annual contracts haven’t been renewed and have made grievance claims against RNZB. That’s a process to keep an eye on. The new New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is also Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage and has said she’s concerned about RNZB’s situation. She’s asked the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to do a report for her. That should be interesting.

Adding to the impression of tumoil, half a dozen dancers, mainly Italian, left around the time Ventriglia departed in August. (After Barker’s arrival he stayed on as guest choreographer to stage a sumptuous new version of Romeo and Juliet.) Three other dancers are off to Queensland Ballet and its magnetic artistic director Li Cunxin, yet others are retiring, some possibly reluctantly. Can all these departures be sheeted home to Barker? It doesn’t matter really. It’s happened under her watch. She gets to wear it.

One might suggest it would have been a reasonable, politically astute and – let’s put it out there, humane – move to give 2018 contracts to all current dancers who wanted them. It would give everyone a chance to get to know one another properly and acknowledge the upheaval visited upon the dancers over the past six years. Three artistic directors in that time. It’s brutal.

RNZB dancers begin the 2018 year on January 8. The company will announce their names on that day, a list that will be closely scrutinised. How many New Zealanders? How many people who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance, which is RNZB’s official school? How many names of long-serving company members are missing? How many dancers will come from Grand Rapids Ballet, the US company of which Barker is still artistic director, concurrently with RNZB, as Grand Rapids seeks her successor?

It won’t be unusual, of course, if Barker brings in some Americans. Stiefel hired dancers associated with his former employer, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; Ventriglia brought in a group of Italians. Many left when or shortly after their AD left, again not unusual. But Barker is reaping that particular whirlwind and it’s been mighty breezy out there. I can identify close to 70 names of people who have danced with RNZB in the past five years and January will bring more. The level of churn is high.

Behind all these questions and anxieties is the one big question: what is the nature and purpose of a national ballet company? There are fundamental concerns, such as how the company’s identity is described and forged; how the relationship with its home audience is cemented; and the degree of responsibility in nurturing, developing, employing and celebrating home-grown artists. New Zealand isn’t short of tremendous talent.

These concerns, by the way, really should be greatly exercising the minds of Board members. Perhaps this is happening as we speak but there’s no way of telling. The current chair, Steven Fyfe, has made no comment so far, not even a word of support for the artistic director so recently appointed.

As I’ve mentioned before, RNZB’s current Strategic Plan ends this year. I assume the Board has a new one ready to go (one more thing to watch out for). Its current Mission, by the way, is: “To become a compelling expression of New Zealand’s creative spirit”. You can read the whole Strategic Plan here.

Meanwhile, the show will go on. It always does. RNZB turns 65 this year, starting the celebrations with a ballet version of the Jane Campion film The Piano (commissioned by Ventriglia). Barker plans to mark the milestone with a series of new commissions from female choreographers that will do double duty as a tribute to the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.

The Wellington season of Strength and Grace: Women will be seen not at the company’s usual home, the St James Theatre, but at the Opera House, as will the earlier program Dancing with Mozart. That’s due to strengthening work to be undertaken at the St James, due to start around the middle of 2018. The upgrade will make the theatre less vulnerable to the quakes and tremors so prevalent in this part of the world. If only RNZB itself could be assured of such security.

Sydney Dance Company: New Breed

Carriageworks, Sydney, November 30.

What a great night of dance – all of it brand spanking new, performed by some of the best movers on the planet and offered to the public at $35 a ticket. Even when the quality is uneven New Breed, now in its fourth iteration, offers a lot of bang for your buck. This year’s quartet of works is exhilarating.

Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela curates New Breed cannily. He gives choreographic opportunities to some of his own dancers and includes interesting independent Australian choreographers who can benefit from the resources and exposure SDC offers.

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Melanie Lane’s WOOF for New Breed. Photo: Pedro Greig

Take Melanie Lane. Her WOOF – the night’s highlight – uses 12 dancers (it was to be 13 but one was injured several weeks ago). She is a highly experienced choreographer who works internationally but rarely with a group of that size.

I have no idea what her title means but never mind. The piece itself is quite clear. The work begins in silence and with an evocation of the past. The company composes itself into tableaus that mimic the formality of Renaissance paintings on classical subjects but not their extravagance. The dancers are dressed simply in flesh tones, leaching the picture of all colour except for one intriguing touch. Their hands are sooty.

The dancers lean against one another or recline gracefully for a few moments and then reform. The entrance of music (the original score is by Clark) encourages a fracturing of the whole into sub-sets, whose dance-floor moves bring them into today’s world. Towards the end of the piece, which runs only 20 tightly packed minutes, an alien, futuristic quality emerges, mashed up with the irresistible image of a messed-up corps de ballet at work.

As Lane’s concern is with the way societies organise themselves there’s little in the way of emotional intimacy. There is, nevertheless, a welcome touch of human messiness as those sooty hands lay themselves on initially pristine costumes and her final image is one of transcendence.

NewBreed_ArtOfLettingGo_171130_344_hires_byPedroGreig

Petros Treklis’s The Art of Letting Go. Photo: Pedro Greig

SDC dancer Petros Treklis’s The Art of Letting Go comes a close second to WOOF for beauty of composition and he adds a jolt to the heart. Seven dancers are seen as aspects of one mind as Treklis repeats touching motifs of falling, rising, spinning and reaching to the music of Rachmaninov. The movement is often very fast but always splendidly structured and never less than lyrical and deeply felt. A huge success.

Cass Mortimer Eipper and Nelson Earl, also SDC members, collaborated on the fierce duo Bell Jar (which they perform) that has the theme of dancing with one’s demons. To thundery music by Marc Cher-Gibard they fight, grapple and butt heads, both looking sensational.

Tyrone Earl Lraé Robinson’s [bio]Curious is a surreal, sensual and witty ode to the environment, here seen as a viable sexual partner. This is nature seen in several ways and quite a different light. The piece is the program’s wild card and a beguiling one. You want intimacy? Here it is in full bloom.

NewBreed_BellJar_171130_163_hires_byPedroGreig

Nelson Earl and Cass Mortimer Eipper in Bell Jar. Photo: Pedro Greig

It is a little invidious to single out some dancers because everyone looked wonderful on opening, but the hyper-elastic, hyper-kinetic Nelson Earl was, in very different ways, like a man possessed in Bell Jar and [bio]Curious. He holds nothing back. Holly Doyle lit up WOOF, Todd Sutherland was outstanding in The Art of Letting Go, Davide di Giovanni was a commanding presence in [bio]Curious and Chloe Leong was delicious as the embodiment of nature in Robinson’s work, super-seductive and holding the attention even when reclining in sultry fashion among the foliage in a hot house at the back of the stage.

The other choreographers contented themselves with lighting to support their work. Verity Hampton expertly did the honours for all.

Ends December 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on December 4.