Adelaide Festival: Split and Memorial

Split, Lucy Guerin Inc. AC Main Arts Theatre, Adelaide. March 3.

Memorial, Brink Productions, Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, March 3.

The opening weekend of this year’s Adelaide Festival, the second under the co-artistic directorship of Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, had brilliance and breadth in equal measure.

The marquee work was Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet, which premiered at Glyndebourne last year to much acclaim. It wasn’t exactly a surprise when Hamlet was announced for Adelaide given that Armfield is its director, but wonderful to see it on home soil and with many roles taken by Australian singers. Cheryl Barker scored a considerable success as Gertrude and Lorina Gore was a tremendously affecting Ophelia alongside the original, extraordinary Hamlet of British tenor Allan Clayton.

Hamlet cast a long shadow but all hail to the works of smaller scale that followed and made their own mark.

20170316-GL-Split-0724 Gregory Lorenzutti

Lilian Steiner (top) and Melanie Lane in Split. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

Lucy Guerin Inc’s Split was a big hit at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival last year, deservedly so. Its theme is nothing less than the forces of time and space as they impinge on the individual.

Guerin’s work is supremely elegant in construction. In a softly lit square marked out with white tape, two women – Melanie Lane and Lilian Steiner, both breathtaking, danced in unison.

Their movements were dazzlingly intricate as they covered the space, driven by the beats of British composer Scanner’s pulsating electronic score. Big, tough slicing sweeps of the arms contrasted with warm curves for hips, torsos and shoulders. They moved neatly around the square, diagonally and in straight lines, their degree of synchronisation both a technical wonder and a suggestion that the women were two sides of the one coin.

That idea was given extra momentum by the work’s alternating moods and the decision to have one woman (Lane) clothed and the other (Steiner) unclothed. Nakedness on stage almost always brings with it a sense of vulnerability but Steiner’s composure banished any notion of fragility. She was all strength and essence, gleaming in Paul Lim’s beautiful lighting design like a goddess.

Split is divided into eight sections, each lasting half the time of the preceding one and performed in a space half the size. The mesmerising togetherness of the first section and its choreographic material are repeated in the third, fifth and seventh sections. In the other sections, order is disrupted. There is no attempt at unity and antagonism erupts. On one level we might have been watching two different individuals competing for resources – room to move being the obvious but not the only one – but there was also the sense of internal conflicts made visible.

Right at the end there was only space enough for both women to stand, upright and close together, perhaps in harmony, perhaps forced into uneasy proximity. The wealth of ideas in this brief work, lasting only 40 minutes, was immense.

British poet Alice Oswald’s version of The Iliad, Memorial, is subtitled “an excavation”. In Oswald’s telling, the men identified in her text – 215 of them – are not the familiar heroes of Trojan War legend; they are individuals with families and occupations who lived, as we do, with hopes and dreams, and then died violently.


Helen Morse in Memorial. Photo: Shane Reid

Adelaide’s Brink Productions has carved an almost unbearably moving piece of theatre from this threnody, one in which poetry, music and movement seamlessly join hands, as do Australian and British artists in the making of it. British composer Jocelyn Pook wrote the ravishing score, drenched in the vibrant colours of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and it was played and sung by a lustrous group of musicians led by UK countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny.

The singers and instrumentalists were arrayed on high at the back of the stage while beneath them a “soldier chorus” of more than 200 people represented Oswald’s 215 named characters. Among them were members of several choirs whose voices, raised en masse at the end, brought Memorial to a conclusion both exalting and emotionally devastating.

At the centre of everything was Helen Morse, who carried the weight of Oswald’s lengthy text on her slight shoulders. Directed by Brink’s Chris Drummond, she was a self-effacing presence as she stood quietly or wended her unassuming way through the army of everyday men, women and children who thronged the stage, sometimes walking in seemingly endless lines, sometimes circling, sometimes standing mute, and at one lovely moment, dancing gently in couples.

As humanity swirled around her, Morse, clad in a red dress of rough cut, told the many stories of lives lost – and the manner in which they were lost – with deep compassion and a voice of infinitely sad beauty.

Drummond’s partner in creating the concept for Memorial, Yaron Lifschitz from famed Brisbane circus company Circa, devised the movement – a monumental task. There were several short sections for three dancers (Tobiah Booth-Remmers, Lina Limosani and Larissa McGowan) but otherwise Lifschitz required nothing remotely virtuosic from the chorus in the way they used their bodies. His direction of the group as a whole, however, was a marvel of complexity as this mass of ordinary folk stood in for those long dead and reminded us of those still to die in countless wars across the globe.

Among Memorial’s co-commissioners is 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts program for the centenary of World War I, and the piece will be staged at the Barbican in London in September this year.

My year in dance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pina Bausch made my year. For his final Sydney Festival in January, artistic director Lieven Bertels programmed two bracing De Keersmaeker works, Fase and Vortex Temporum, and the huge thrill was seeing the choreographer herself in Fase (my review is here). Living dance history. Festival clout and money also made the Bausch experience possible. At the Adelaide Festival in March Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performed Nelken, which was obviously a necessity to see, but just a week later Wellington’s New Zealand International Arts Festival trumped Adelaide. In the repertoire carve-up the Wellington-based festival got the double bill of Café Muller and Rite of Spring. I had always longed to see both live. And now I have.

The Rite of Spring_NZ Festival 2016_Matt Grace

Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: Matt Grace

The Perth International Arts Festival (February) and the Brisbane Festival (September) – there’s a theme here – also provided performances that made it into my best-of list. It was absolutely worth going to Perth for just one night from Sydney (flying time: five hours) to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu, which was outstandingly beautiful, in a rough, sweaty kind of way, and accompanied by celestial a capella singing from the all-male group A Filetta. It was a much easier business to pop up to Brisbane for Jonah Bokaer’s Rules of the Game – not really for the much-hyped title work (its score was by Pharrell Williams) but for the chance to see earlier Bokaer pieces and the choreographer himself onstage.

More festival highlights, these from local choreographers: Stephanie Lake’s super-intelligent Double Blind at the Sydney Festival, Kristina Chan’s ravishing A Faint Existence at Performance Space’s Liveworks festival in October and Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer, also at Liveworks.


Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

The rest of the key works in 2016 come from major companies. The Australian Ballet, which has been looking very, very conventional of late, stretched dancers and audiences with John Neumeier’s Nijinsky (which I reviewed for Limelight magazine); Bangarra Dance Theatre’s triple bill OUR land people stories was a luminous program; and Sydney Dance Company’s double bills Untamed (October) and CounterMove (February) yet again demonstrated the thoroughbred power and impressive individuality of Rafael Bonachela’s dancers.

In the year I saw dance in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington, but yet again I mourn the fact that I just wasn’t able to visit Melbourne more often to sample its contemporary dance riches. As so often, Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

On the people front the biggest news of the year was the re-emergence of David Hallberg after a two-and-a-half year absence from the stage. The American superstar, a principal artist at both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, spent a year at The Australian Ballet’s headquarters in Melbourne undergoing extensive rehabilitation after having surgery for an ankle problem. His return to the stage was, fittingly, with the AB, and as it happened, the scheduled ballet gave Hallberg a role debut. He danced four performances as Franz in Coppélia. (You can read about the rehabilitation process here and the Coppélia performance here.)


David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Queensland Ballet made a splash when it announced the appointment, from 2017, of Liam Scarlett as artistic associate. Scarlett retains his artist in residence role at the Royal Ballet. At the same time QB announced artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for four more years. The board must be happy about that.

Less happily, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced that its relatively new artistic director, Francesco Ventriglia, would be relinquishing that role in mid-2017. He will stay on to choreograph the announced new Romeo and Juliet, but then he’s off. What happened? I’ll let you know when I find out, although previously he had spoken to me enthusiastically about being in New Zealand. The RNZ website (Radio New Zealand) wrote in early December that as many as a dozen dancers and staff had left RNZB because of conflicts with Ventriglia, quoting a representative of the union that represents dancers.

I stress I have no information that suggests these departures are connected with Ventriglia’s, but leading Australian-born RNZB dancer Lucy Green has accepted a position with Queensland Ballet for 2017 and RNZB’s former music director Nigel Gaynor, who was hired by Ventriglia’s predecessor Ethan Stiefel, is now QB’s music director. These gains by QB could easily be explained by Li Cunxin’s voracious eye for talent – as in the Liam Scarlett coup (QB and RNZB share Scarlett’s lovely Midsummer Night’s Dream so there’s a close connection).


Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The biggest disappointment of the year is the AB’s lack of commitment to developing new choreographers. It’s true that Bodytorque, which started in 2004, needed a fresh look, but it’s become the incredible shrinking show, offering less and less each year. The name is no longer used at all and the amount of new work from developing choreographers is minuscule.

Bodytorque was last seen in its familiar form in 2013 – six new or relatively inexperienced choreographers made works that were seen in a short special season at what is now the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney. In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne and featured five works, including a piece by newly minted resident choreographer Tim Harbour. The other four dance-makers included Alice Topp (her fourth year at Bodytorque) and Richard House (with his second piece).

In 2015 the name still lingered but the program had dwindled to the creation of just one work, House’s From Something, to Nothing, shown once in Sydney and once in Melbourne as a “pop-up” event called Bodytorque Up Late. This took place after performances of mainstage repertoire, once in Sydney and once in Melbourne. The audience could stay to watch for free if it wished. Or not.

In 2016 it was clear favour had fallen on Topp and House, which is fair enough. Both, but particularly Topp, are worth persevering with. This time their new works, each of about 10 minutes in length, were programmed as part of a group of divertissements that acted as a curtain-raiser to Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which gave the whole evening its name.

And for 2017? Those two pieces will be seen again, this time in Melbourne when that city gets Symphony in C. So – let’s add up the minutes. In the three years from 2015-2017, there will have been a bit under 40 minutes in total of new choreography from developing choreographers.

It’s possible AB artistic director David McAllister has big plans for Topp, or House, or both. After all, Harbour was developed via a series of Bodytorque commissions. But Harbour emerged from a quite a large pack. The window of opportunity has now narrowed excessively – and depressingly.


Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Adelaide Festival, March 9.

Peter Pabst’s set for Nelken is one of the most beautiful created for any theatrical event. A dense field of thousands of silk carnations in several shades of pink covers the stage, ravishing in its simplicity and effect. It is absolutely lovely, but disconcerting too. A dance work usually requires the sets to stand back and huddle around the perimeter so there’s no impediment to movement. In Nelken (the word means carnations) the dancers must work with what they have. If that means finding a path through or trampling on blooms, so be it. Life isn’t perfect.

Nelken was made in 1982 as Pina Bausch was nearing the end of her first decade in Wuppertal, the industrial German city she made her creative home (she died in 2009). It’s a big piece that borders on the unwieldy, although messiness is part of Nelken’s meaning as well as its structure. In a series of encounters, both large and small, the human impulse to control the actions of others is repeated in sometimes brutal, demeaning form. And then something funny or stupid or surreal or uplifting happens and we can relax.


Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken. Photo: Jochen Viehoff

An action repeated several times is a stern man’s command that someone produce their passport. I was fascinated to note that for many in the audience at Nelken’s first performance this was vastly amusing. This may also be so for many other audiences in many other cities; I don’t know. If so, they are among the very fortunate for whom a demand to produce papers is entirely unknown. This act, which can have such devastating consequences, is entirely outside their range of experience.

I don’t mean to criticise those audience members. Such responses point to the many ambiguities in life that Bausch’s work lights upon. She doesn’t preach or explain. She just puts it out there, as with the German Shepherds seen briefly crossing the back of the stage with their handlers.

Nelken starts with a bucolic air. Beautifully dressed men and women bring chairs into the field of flowers and sit for a moment. A sign language translation of Ira and George Gershwin’s The Man I Love, much later repeated brings joy (and much applause). Soon the atmosphere becomes antic and childlike. Dancers – men and women alike – wear short dresses that, without being antique, bring to mind frolicking youths in a mythological painting. The déshabillé effect of garments not quite done up at the back and falling off shoulders is innocent and charming.

Elsewhere the women wear sleek gowns of much elegance (by Marion Cito), which swirl wildly in Nelken’s most extended dance section – to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden – in which the performers sway dramatically back and forth in chairs as to either side of the stage menacing towers provide a launching pad for a dramatic coup involving the four stuntmen who are also part of the performance.

In amongst the dance there is much talking, shouting and sometimes screaming, not all of it entirely comprehensible. I speak here of the articulation of words and the carrying quality of voices rather than meaning, which is generally quite clear. It can be frustrating when dancers are not quite up to the task of using their voices. But a few irritations and longueurs are a small price to pay. Indeed, moments of audience confusion and impatience are not necessarily outside of Bausch’s game plan.


Paul White in Nelken. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

And the final scenes are radiant enough to melt any heart. Everyone in the audience is asked to stand for a brief lesson in how to embrace; there is a stately, transfixing evocation in dance of the passing of the seasons; and the last image is one of sharing, acceptance and grace.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch currently includes three Australians, Julie Shanahan, Paul White and Michael Carter and it was a huge pleasure to see them in this splendid, unique company.

Nelken ends on March 12 in Adelaide, after which the company goes to Wellington for the New Zealand Arts Festival. There the dancers perform Bausch’s celebrated Rite of Spring on a double bill with Café Muller.

The festive season

THE last crumbs of Christmas cake have scarcely been brushed from the lips, the last Champagne bottles are not yet in the recycling bin and New Year’s resolutions are still full of shiny potential. ‘Tis the season for rest, recreation, family and friends. Or, for those of us whose calendars are ruled not by the earth’s rotation or religious observance but by cultural activity, it’s festival time.

And I don’t just mean in my hometown Sydney, where the annual festival – this year celebrating its 40th birthday – starts on January 7 and runs until Australia Day. The Perth International Arts Festival, with new artistic director Wendy Martin at the helm, starts on February 12 and goes into early March, overlapping with the Adelaide Festival, starting on February 26 and ending March 14.

I include the New Zealand Festival too – February 26-March 20 – because it’s about as easy for an east coast resident to get to Wellington as Perth (less flying time; more queuing for airport security).

That’s the first quarter of the year accounted for, right there.


Paul White in Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken, to be performed at the Adelaide Festival. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

There is, of course, a great deal of non-festival activity in every big Australian city. In Sydney, for instance, Sydney Theatre Company ran King Lear through the Christmas period and it closes on January 9. Belvoir opened Jasper Jones today, January 6, Melbourne Theatre Company hosts the transfer of Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black from January 16 and so on. These companies provide year-round nourishment but the festival experience is something else: concentrated, distinctive and heightened.

Yes, there can be an element of déjà vu as old favourites return (I’m thinking Batsheva Dance Company, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and director Robert Wilson, for instance) but there are, almost by definition, performances and performers one would never otherwise see: The Giants in Perth last year and the Berliner Ensemble with The Threepenny Opera in 2013; Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 (2013) and the heart-stoppingly wonderful Trisha Brown retrospective (2014) in Melbourne; and Semele Walk (2013) and The Black Rider (2005) in Sydney to name very, very few.

Go further back and there’s Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota, which I saw in Perth but it also went to Adelaide, in 1998, and in the same year Belvoir’s theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Sydney and Perth). All these things are big and mostly far-from-mainstream events that wouldn’t be likely to happen outside a festival. In 2016 the equivalents are Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Woyzeck in Sydney (Robert Wilson is a co-creator), William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour in Perth and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and The James Plays Trilogy in Adelaide.


Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, to be performed at the Sydney Festival. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The very small equally finds a festival footing. Leafing through some old programs I am reminded that in 2006 About an Hour, the powerfully affecting and effective (and very affordable) mini-festival within the Sydney Festival was deliciously devoted to contemporary dance from Australia and abroad, although there was one ring-in in the form of The Tiger Lillies, the anarchic British punk cabaret outfit who, as it happens, return to Sydney this year.

Events whack up against one another in fruitful or clashing combinations. There’s something about a festival that encourages viewers to take risks – risks our hometown arts organisations might perhaps eye a little enviously. But one has to remember that the festival material brought in from abroad comes to us well-honed, sometimes over years, and has survived the brutal winnowing process all new work goes through. So in some ways it’s not at all risky while having the potential to broaden the experience and perspective of viewers.

On a pragmatic level, this first-quarter cluster of festivals enables some sharing of events, although there are fewer double-ups than you might think. The cities are far-flung enough that only the truly dedicated audience member will travel to each, but are sufficiently in the same neck of the woods for an international artist wanting to maximise travel time. This year Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, The Tiger Lillies, theatre pieces The Object Lesson, The Events and Every Brilliant Thing, circus spectacular La Verità and new cabaret show Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid will be seen in more than one festival city. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! was seen in several (non-festival) Australian cities leading up to the Sydney appearances.

The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet_cr. Martin Tulinius_07

The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Perth International Arts Festival. Photo: Martin Tulinius

A comparison of programs reveals some very tempting changes of repertoire in two cases. For instance, in Sydney The Tiger Lillies gives us The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies while Perth is treated to The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, a mind-boggling prospect. I don’t think I can get to it unfortunately, which is a huge, huge regret.

I will, though, move heaven, earth and frequent flyer points to get to Wellington for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch where, from March 17-20, the company performs a double bill of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring. Bausch’s Rite is considered one of the very best of the more than 100 (and counting) choreographies to one of the greatest of dance scores.

But before that, on March 9, the company performs the full-length Nelken (Carnations) in Adelaide. As a bonus, it offer the rare chance to see one of Australia’s most inspiring contemporary dancers, Paul White, who has been a member of the company since 2012. There are two other Australians with Pina Bausch – Julie Shanahan, a member since 1988, and Michael Carter, who joined last year.

An incomplete list of things I’d like to see, in no particular order:

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (Adelaide, Wellington)

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! (Sydney)

Alan Cumminh Sappy

Actor and singer Alan Cumming 

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sydney and Perth festivals; also Melbourne and Auckland)

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich and Vortex Temporum (Sydney)

Woyzeck (Sydney)

The Rabbits (Sydney; premiered in Perth in 2015)

The Tiger Lillies (Sydney, Perth)

The James Plays Trilogy (Adelaide)

Apocrifu, by Sidi Larbi Cherkoui

Every Brilliant Thing (Perth, Wellington)

Simon Stone and Belvoir’s The Wild Duck (Perth

In which I fail to stop my list at 10

THIS year I saw more than 200 performances and, over the past week or so, have written about the people, plays, operas, dance works and musicals that spoke to me most strongly. Now I cull the list to 14 – just because that’s how it turned out – and a supplementary, the last being something I haven’t previously mentioned.

There’s also the one that got away. And one that almost got away.

What struck me most about 2014 was how unlike 2013 it was. Last year there were plenty of kapow! events on stage – among them Opera Australia’s Ring cycle, Belvoir’s Angels in America, The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, Melbourne Festival’s Life and Times from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, the Berliner Ensemble at the Perth Festival with The Threepenny Opera, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle in Sydney – while this year the pleasures tended to be on a smaller scale.

But while there may have been a shortage of big-bang events there were movements afoot of great moment, chief among them more visibility for women playwrights and directors and more indigenous and queer stories taken out of little theatres and put into big ones. These movements didn’t magically appear this year but they did get traction and the texture of our theatre is more interesting and relevant because of them.

My earlier lists were presented in alphabetical order. Not here. I start at the top and work down, although I know that tomorrow I’d probably shuffle a few things around. The non-traditional number can be put down to the multi-art form nature of the list.


Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Declan Greene, directed by Lee Lewis), Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

Madama Butterfly (Puccini, directed by Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus), Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck, directed by Lindy Hume), Pinchgut Opera

Trisha Brown: From All Angles (Trisha Brown), Melbourne Festival

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, directed by Tim Carroll), Shakespeare’s Globe, New York

Three Masterpieces (Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins), American Ballet Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, directed by John Tiffany, movement by Steven Hoggett), American Repertory Theater, New York

King Charles III (Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold), Almeida Theatre, London

Henry V (Shakespeare, directed by Damien Ryan), Bell Shakespeare Company, Canberra

Pete the Sheep (adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the book by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, directed by Jonathan Biggins, composer/lyricist Phil Scott), Monkey Baa Theatre

A Christmas Carol (adapted by Benedict Hardie & Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Sarks), Belvoir

The Drowsy Chaperone (music by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, lyrics by Bob Martin & Don McKellar, directed by Jay James-Moody), Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co

Switzerland (Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Sarah Goodes), Sydney Theatre Company

Keep Everything (Antony Hamilton), Chunky Move

The supplementary event:

Limbo (Strut & Fret, Underbelly Productions), Sydney Festival. This circus-cabaret didn’t fit into any of my categories so it bobs up from out of left field, which is entirely appropriate for such an outrageously sexy, something-for-everyone show. It was one of the most wildly enjoyable experiences of my quite lengthy viewing career so I went twice during the 2014 Sydney Festival and I’m going again – possibly twice – when Limbo returns to the festival next month.

The one that got away:

Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare, directed by Ivo van Hove) Adelaide Festival. Now this would have been the year’s biggie, had I been able to get to Adelaide. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon performance of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was by all reports life-changing. I believe it, and missing it will remain one of the great regrets of my theatre-going life.

The one that almost got away:

Skylight (David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry). My London trip ended a day before previews started for Skylight, Hare’s ravishing play in which the political becomes very personal indeed. It was written nearly 20 years ago and its arguments resound ever more loudly today. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were starring. Desolation. Until National Theatre Live came to the rescue in October. Bliss.

Dance Better at Parties

Sydney Theatre Company, April 9

DAVE would appear to have come to the wrong place. The ugly suburban dance school with its poo-brown floor and unforgiving fluoros offers private lessons in the rumba, tango, paso doble and other glittering ballroom arts. You buy a block of 10, sign here for direct debit, initial the injury waiver please, and at the end of the course you might be eligible for your bronze and be invited to move up to the next level. (Not much chance of anyone failing, you would think.)

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

But Dave’s ambitions aren’t as lofty as that. He just wants to be less awkward when he goes out, or so he says. What can stumbling through the paso doble do for a bloke who is, quite frankly, a pretty ordinary example of physique and co-ordination?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

Gideon Obarzanek’s deceptively simple, deeply compassionate two-hander Dance Better at Parties is his first production as an associate at Sydney Theatre Company but it’s been brewing for a decade. In 2004 Obarzanek had an idea for a documentary about men and movement that turned into a dance work for his company Chunky Move, I Want to Dance Better at Parties. For some reason Obarzanek leaves that step out of his director’s note for Dance Better at Parties, moving straight on from research for the documentary to his current play.

The dance piece was important, however, in that it was clear which story – there were five – audiences responded to most. One man’s reason for seeking out dance lessons gave Obarzanek his title. “I want to dance better at parties,” the man told the choreographer, but Obarzanek realised  this was code for something much more fundamental: the need for contact, the need to be touched. That one story is the inspiration for Dance Better at Parties.

If you want to say the unsayable, then dance is the way to do it. Dance Better at Parties shows how perilous it can be – where a hand goes, how bodies fit together and how closely – but how potentially exhilarating and liberating. So when Dave (Steve Rodgers) turns up for his lessons with lithe, lovely Rachel (Elizabeth Nabben) there’s a minefield of emotional tumult and sexual tension roiling under the surface conversation about what foot goes where and how to achieve a satisfactorily rolling infinity figure with the hips.

“Take off the shirt, take off the shirt,” Rachel cries enthusiastically, as a way of describing a sweeping arm movement across the chest. Yes, you can see how there might be an undercurrent or two.

Rodgers, who is arguably the country’s most simpatico actor, is funny, heart-breaking and dignified as Dave persists against the odds. Rodgers isn’t a natural mover, bless him, which is as it should be. But when Dave cuts loose and surrenders to the music, he is magnificent. Relative newcomer Nabben delicately handles the difficult nuances of Rachel’s relationship with her clients and delivers Jessica Prince’s choreography as if born to it. (She seems not to have been; her biography doesn’t list any dance training.)

Obarzanek steers the story with immense restraint and knows when to let the dance do the talking. He lets a great deal hang in the air, leaving much up to intuition. For that reason some in the audience on opening night found Dance Better at Parties a little thin and unresolved. I loved its refusal to spell everything out.

There are one or two clunky moments (Dave’s personal revelations don’t fit entirely neatly into Obarzanek’s structure), but never a false or exploitative one. I was quite teary at the end. I blame Steve Rodgers.


STC is billing Dance Better at Parties as Obarzanek’s ‘’first foray into text-based theatre”, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Best known as the founder and artistic director of Melbourne-based Chunky Move – a post he left last year – Obarzanek has often used text in his work. Often his work could be put as easily in the box marked Theatre as the one marked Dance.

Take his 2010 solo Faker, the one that brought Obarzanek back to performing after a long absence from the stage. He had a lot to say, literally, in that one. Or Two-Faced Bastard (2008), made with Lucy Guerin, also a choreographer who uses text liberally. Or I Want to Dance Better at Parties.

Contemporary choreographers have for decades used text as one of their tools. Theatre has been a little slower in getting what dance and heightened movement can add to the mix and it can be something of an acquired taste for audiences whose experience is mostly confined to theatre.

Guerin’s Human Interest Story, for instance, was a co-commission from Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre and Perth International Arts Festival (2010) and was then part of the 2011 Belvoir season in Sydney.

An aussietheatre website review of a Belvoir performance noted this:

Obviously contemporary dance isn’t for everyone, I asked a fellow theatregoer on the way out what she thought and she briskly replied, “Well, it’s an early night.”

The night I attended Human Interest Story the audience by and large seemed interested in and intrigued by it. There was a sense of close attention being paid; the atmosphere felt keener than usual. I attributed this to the audience’s unfamiliarity with dance.

Human Interest Story is closer to the dance end of the spectrum than the theatre end; the opposite is true in the work of UK company Frantic Assembly, whose hyper-active boxing-world drama Beautiful Burnout (Frantic Assembly with National Theatre of Scotland) was part of the Sydney and Perth festivals in the early months of 2012.

In the falling-somewhere-in-the-middle category is a work such as Trust, seen in 2011 at the Perth International Arts Festival. It was co-created for Berlin’s Schaubuhne by German playwright Falk Richter and Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk – now artistic director of Chunky Move following Obarzanek’s desire to move on after 16 years.

The same names do keep coming up.

In the past couple of years Australian theatre has been opening up to dance than – or perhaps it might be more exact to say that the work of Obarzanek, Guerin and Kate Champion, previously put into the Dance basket, is now being seen in a broader light.

This is partly due to new leadership at some important companies. At Belvoir, for instance, when designer Ralph Myers took over as the company’s artistic director at the beginning of 2011 he came with a CV that included the design of Obarzanek and Guerin’s Two-Faced Bastard. In 2012 he programmed works that had a strong movement element – Roslyn Oades’s exceptional verbatim theatre piece about boxing, I’m Your Man; Food, a lovely play written by Steve Rodgers and directed by Rodgers with Champion (and now up for a NSW Premier’s Literary Award) – and Guerin’s Conversation Piece.

As the title suggests, Conversation Piece is strong on talk, and it wasn’t simply programmed by Belvoir; it was co-produced with Belvoir and later seen at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival. Human Interest Story was a co-commission from Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre and Perth International Arts Festival (2010) and was then part of the 2011 Belvoir season. STC commissioned Never Did Me any Harm from Champion’s Force Majeure company and it was part of the Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne festivals of 2012.

You can see from this list, then, that there’s a rather small pool of talent swirling about. But at least it is moving.

Dance Better at Parties continues until May 11. Sydney Theatre Company’s website advises there is a limited number of tickets remaining. Some are released on the day of performance.

Food can be seen at La Boite, Brisbane, April 17-27.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on April 11.