Amy Hollingsworth at Expressions Dance Company: warrior for the human condition

Amy Hollingsworth can’t be too specific about the first season she is curating as artistic director of Brisbane-based Expressions Dance Company – details for 2020 will be announced later this year – but she can talk about the philosophy that secured her the job. EDC may have a core of only half a dozen dancers but it’s safe to say she’s not thinking small.

In December of last year Hollingsworth was named successor to long-serving AD Natalie Weir; by January she had her feet under the desk in a large, light-filled office in EDC’s headquarters in the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Fortitude Valley. This year’s program had already been set by Weir so Hollingsworth is shepherding that through as she develops the ideas that will put her own stamp on the organisation.

Amy Hollingsworth - Photo By David Kelly

Expressions Dance Company artistic director Amy Hollingsworth. Photo: David Kelly

 

By definition a contemporary company is “of the now”, says Hollingsworth so change is a given when a new artistic director is appointed. She has said on several occasions that two words central to her thinking are freedom and fire. They are concepts that may appear nebulous but a long conversation with Hollingsworth makes it clear they are shorthand for a wide range of concrete possibilities.

Inside the company she is passionately committed to giving artists a strong voice in the creative process and more autonomy than is usual in many dance ensembles. She values teamwork, risk-taking, imagination and individuality and wants those qualities to animate and invigorate work. She has choreographed herself but will lead EDC as a curatorial director: “I love gathering around me like-minded people with whom I can have robust conversations about the work we’re going to do. I want a home of true collaboration that’s vibrant, welcoming, and dedicated to shaping and nourishing the craft.”

Looking outwards, Hollingsworth says EDC must be reflective of the world in which it lives and to be a visible, active part of it. This means, among other things, having diversity onstage and in the audience and understanding the place of a live performing art in today’s highly digitised environment. It means connecting with as many people as possible – the company needs to be seen not only on conventional stages but on film or in site-specific pieces that can travel anywhere.

In addition, Hollingsworth wants to continue what she calls EDC’s “civic mission” of working with young people and in schools and would like to have a four-year plan for the EDC Youth Ensemble that was created only this year. She talks about interdisciplinary partnerships, engagement with technology and more. Much, much more.

Arts companies, she says, have public voices and should make themselves heard. In her marvellous phrase, they must be “warriors for the human condition”.

The EDC board didn’t have to go far to find Weir’s successor, and to find a spectacularly qualified one. Hollingsworth was working down the road at Queensland Ballet, where she had been ballet mistress and creative associate since 2016 after spending a year with Expressions as rehearsal director. She’d come to Brisbane from Sydney where she’d been a dancer and dance director for old friend Rafael Bonachela at Sydney Dance Company. And before that she had a brilliant international career as a dancer.

The choreographers she’s worked closely with are a who’s who of contemporary dance today: Wayne McGregor, Michael Clark, Javier de Frutos, Jiri Kylian, Hofesh Shechter and Mats Ek among them. She can count Akram Khan as a friend. “I’ve spent my whole dance life standing beside great choreographers,” she says.

Hollingsworth was a sporty child whose ability at swimming could have taken her in that direction. She liked it “an awful lot”. Dance, however, finally won. Hollingsworth loved it enough to work her way through a catastrophic injury suffered early in her professional career when she was with Royal New Zealand Ballet. She used the long rehabilitation time wisely. “I now would not take that experience back,” she says. “It highlighted how important dance was to me.” Hollingsworth learned the value of resilience, determination and perseverance and on her return to dance rose to the rank of principal artist at RNZB. The injury underscored the need for dancers to have a wide range of skills, something she will encourage at EDC. She sets an excellent example. Over the years Hollingsworth has studied science, arts management, Pilates and has her helicopter pilot’s licence.

Hollingsworth joined RNZB straight from The Australian Ballet School. She had always loved the classical story ballets and danced plenty of them but became deeply attracted to original work. An experience with choreographer Douglas Wright in New Zealand planted the seed. “I felt most invigorated when working on a new creation,” she says. A stint as a founding member of Peter Schaufuss Balletten in Denmark in 1997 took her to the northern hemisphere and then to Rambert Dance Company under the direction of Christopher Bruce.

Hollingsworth met Bonachela at Rambert and in their spare time the two would go into a studio “to play … in the studio we set each other off. A monster was born.” Not exactly a monster. Bonachela went on to found Bonachela Dance Company in 2006 and Hollingsworth went with him as a founding member. She became Bonachela’s assistant director and returned to Australia when he took over at SDC in 2009. She retired from performing in 2011 in a solo, Irony of Fate, which Bonachela made for her. She then concentrated on her work as SDC’s dance director until moving to Brisbane.

At QB her work included oversight of the company’s valuable contemporary Bespoke program, established in 2017. She choreographed a piece, Glass Heart, for that first Bespoke but at the time I wrote:

Hollingsworth’s greater achievement was as Bespoke’s prime mover. After finishing a celebrated performing career in both classical and contemporary dance she turned to coaching, direction, staging, education, mentoring and assisting choreographers in the creative process. These are no small talents …

EDC is now the beneficiary. Watch out for that 2020 season launch. Hollingsworth promises it will be a big one.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu

Perth International Arts Festival, February 25.

“In the beginning was the Word,” begins the Gospel according to St John, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” But whose god prevails, given that every major religion has its holy book and claims the primacy of its word over all others?

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Belgian-Moroccan contemporary choreographer born to a Catholic mother but raised a Muslim, has consistently grappled in his work with how language, culture and spiritual beliefs can divide or enrich us, or both. Apocrifu, made in 2009, could not be more relevant than it is today.

Apocrifu

Dimitri Jourde, Yasuyuki Shuto and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Apocrifu. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

Cherkaoui ardently embraces contradiction. He sees that difference is messy and beautiful all at once, which is why his pieces aren’t join-the-dots narratives but are driven by complex ideas and plumb deep wells of emotion. It is not polite dance. It is visceral, often sweaty and nakedly passionate. Not surprisingly, at 39 Cherkaoui isn’t as lithe as he was in his 20s but his intensity and charisma are undimmed and his curiosity apparently still boundless.

In working with artists as diverse as the Shaolin monks (Sutra), flamenco dancer Maria Pagés (Dunas), tango exponents (Milonga), Kathak star Akram Khan (Zero Degrees), the polyglot crew of Babel (Words) and, in Apocrifu, circus artist Dimitri Jourde, ballet-trained Yasuyuki Shuto and magnificent Corsican male choral group A Filetta, Cherkaoui ignores division and establishes connection, not just on a physical level but more fundamentally on a personal and spiritual plane. We’re all in this together, could be his mantra.

Apocrifu unfolded in a room strewn with books and a wide staircase that led to the unknown. The dancers, doing battle with everything the books represent, threw volumes around violently, used them as stepping stones, treated them with with caution, swapped them around (the music-hall routine was delightful) and brandished them as weapons.

Solo dances emphasised the singularity of each man’s movement but together, particularly in a long, riveting duo for Cherkaoui and Jourde, they were as one, irreducibly human. That point was given poignancy when a Bunraku puppet was introduced and had the oddly moving appearance of life, even as we could see it being manipulated. But when Cherkaoui took on marionette-like qualities the implications were profoundly troubling.

In its physical language Apocrifu – the title refers to writings not regarded as part of the biblical canon – was an almost constant struggle for balance between competing impulses but there was great balm too. The dance was bathed in the glow of glorious music from A Filetta, whose six members filled the air with polyphonic a cappella singing of heart-stopping radiance.

The singers quietly moved around the stage like guardian angels, the air vibrating with voices matched so closely the sound was a tender, enveloping veil. Their songs mixed liturgical, traditional and contemporary texts, mostly to the lustrous compositions of A Filetta member Jean Claude Acquaviva, and their ages-old vocal art brought to Apocrifu the sound of history and belief in the tenacity of culture.

There was at every moment a fierce commitment to our shared humanity despite all its contradictions. Cherkaoui’s ending could well be read as despairing but it was enigmatic too, with something magnificent, even uplifting, about it.

In a piece about the power of the written word it was a great pity there were no printed texts for A Filetta’s songs to pore over afterwards but Apocrifu was, nevertheless, a shining jewel in Wendy Martin’s first Perth International Arts Festival.

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company

Perth International Arts Festival, February 11.

Mostly when we see Kathak dance it is in the exhilarating contemporary form created by Akram Khan. Khan, who is of Bangladeshi heritage but born in the UK, has made a singular body of work – often with other high-profile artists – from the fusion of the ancient classical dance of his forebears and the Western dance he encountered as a teenager. Next-generation Kathak exponent Aakash Odedra was also born in the UK and is also a hybrid man as anyone who saw his solo show Rising in Perth or Brisbane last year can attest – his program included works by Khan, Russell Maliphant and Sidi Larbi Cherkoui.

Khan’s company tours indefatigably and most of his key works have been widely seen: Ma, Vertical Road, Sacred Monsters (in which he danced with Sylvie Guillem), in-i (with Juliette Binoche), iTMOi, Zero Degrees and Gnosis among them. Desh was a highlight of the 2014 Brisbane Festival; Zero Degrees, in which Khan collaborated with Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and sculptor Antony Gormley, remains one of my most highly prized dance-theatre experiences.

Khan’s dazzling skills have taught audiences around the world much about Kathak’s vivid beauties of whirlwind speed, tight spins, rhythmic complexity and intricate patterns made by stamping feet and agile hands. It’s not museum dance, though. He honours Kathak’s emphasis on storytelling, but presents his own, often deeply personal, stories.

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company Within Pic Toni Wilkinson

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company in Within. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

Nor is Aditi Mangaldas’s form of Kathak frozen in time, but with the slightly older star we see something different and fascinating; a presentation of Kathak that is responsive to the world as it is now but more intrinsically attached to its roots. One is tinglingly aware of the ties between form, content and culture, even if able to apprehend the riches only glancingly (we really do not see enough of the traditional classical dances of our near neighbours). Mangaldas, who is greatly admired by Khan, was born in India and her company appears there regularly as well as on international tours. She describes her works specifically, listing them separately: classical Kathak, contemporary Kathak, and a union of both. In the last category Mangaldas places Within, the work chosen by Wendy Martin to lead off the bounteous dance program in her first Perth International Arts Festival.

Mangaldas’s is a more pure form of Kathak than Khan’s, if you like, even though one imagines purists in her homeland might take issue with her introduction of highly political present-day concerns, filtered through time-honoured mythologies. Within starts in darkness and moves into the light in two linked but distinctively different works, the combination of which is greatly moving. The first, Knotted, is a howl of sorrow and rage; the second, Unwrapped, is devotional and ecstatic.

Knotted is impelled by the appalling fate of the young Indian woman so viciously raped in 2012 that she died of her injuries. There is no literal reference to it but the story of Nirbhaya (“Fearless”), as she was known to protect her identity, cannot fail to be uppermost in the mind. Nor can the crushing oppression of many Indian women, particularly the impoverished. Terror and anguish roil through Knotted, particularly in two urgent solos danced by Mangaldas. In the first she is the shivering embodiment of fear; in the second she is discovered spread close to the ground in a confining circle, almost non-human in her abjection. But defiance increasingly takes over and she comes to own and define the space, a burning physical force and a charismatic presence.

Knotted starts with men and women running across a dimly lit stage, their haste speaking of dread. Some drop to the ground for a moment to circle swiftly on their knees as if in supplication and are then off again. Dancers hit their hands together and heads recoil as if struck, or lean perilously backwards and swirl their backs. Sidelights illuminate fallen bodies lying on top of one another, a jumble of humanity where one person is indistinguishable from the next. In this 40-minute, episodic piece the imagery can at times seem somewhat generalised or obvious but Mangaldas’s passion, her eyes burning into the auditorium like searchlights, is thrilling.

In the second half Mangaldas and her lovely company bring balm in the form of Unwrapped’s gorgeous, uplifting classicism. The dancers are accompanied by onstage musicians and the tinkling of the bells wrapped around their ankles; the fitted trousers and dramatically flowing tunics in muted earthy colours seen in Knotted give way to delicately floating gold garments. In an atmosphere of calm and gentle introspection, dancers’ heads are wound about with cloth and then unveiled in a tranquil image of self-awareness and understanding. The finesse and individuality of Mangaldas’s dancers are displayed in formal groupings but the undeniable highlight is a lighting-fast, lustrous solo for the choreographer, who darts and flutters like a joyous hummingbird.

As with other events in the first days of the festival (Claire Cunningham’s Guide Gods, reviewed below; Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donohoe’s Every Brilliant Thing) there was a palpable connection between artists and audience. The feeling of something being generously shared, not just seen, was paramount and even in the most challenging of subjects there was the strongest affirmation of life.

Sylvie Guillem: Life in Progress

Sydney Opera House, August 19.

LET’S not talk in the past tense about Sylvie Guillem. She may be on her farewell tour but she is still one of the greatest of the greats. Until December, when she calls it quits, she is still a dancer and still a superstar.

At 50 she leaves the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that shows her as she is now, a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. That was then. It’s enough that she is known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art.

Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan's techne. Photo: Bill Cooper Choreographer; Akram Khan, Dancer; Sylvie Guillem, Compose;r Alies Sluiter published by Mushroom Music Publishing/BMG Chrysalis Lighting Designer; Lucy Carter, Costume Designer; Kimie Nakano, Dancer; Sylvie Guillem, Musician;s Prathap Ramachandra, Grace Savage, Alies Sluiter,

Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan’s techne. Photo: Bill Cooper

Not many dancers would announce their retirement by appearing in premieres but Guillem is exploring possibilities to the end. There are two new works and one favourite for her on the Life in Progress bill, which opens with the solo technê by Akram Khan. The title refers to skill or art and Guillem is seen in all her mysterious majesty, whether scuttling insect-like, pawing the ground with those magnificent legs and feet or circumnavigating a circle of light as her body twists around itself: wheels within wheels. There is thunder in the air, a gauzy tree in the centre to which she is inexorably drawn and a strong sense of the numinous. It’s a wonderful work, performed with the luxury of three musicians on stage with Guillem.

Russell Maliphant’s Here & After, also new, sees Guillem for the first time in a duo for two women. It presents Guillem’s qualities of thoroughbred line, whipping and slicing legs and elegant wit so no complaints, even if it’s one of Maliphant’s less substantial works. La Scala soloist Emanuela Montanari is Guillem’s partner, inevitably outshone.

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in Duo2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in William Forsythe’s Duo2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

William Forsythe’s Duo2015 (originally from 1996) gives Guillem a break while giving a nod to the choreographer’s place in her legend. In 1987 he made In the middle, somewhat elevated for Paris Opera Ballet and exploited Guillem’s explosive strength, awe-inspiring elasticity and supreme elegance. It made a sensation. Duo2015 is a riveting, sinewy pas de deux for two men (Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, both thrilling) who don’t touch but can’t seem to part. It has something of the eternal quality of Waiting for Godot. Nothing and everything happens.

Guillem returns to Mats Ek’s Bye (2011) as her finale (it was part of her 6000 Miles Away program, seen in Sydney in 2013). In this context Bye feels weightier than before as ordinary life, seen through a doorway, exerts its pull. Guillem is seen at her least glamorous and most vulnerable in this wry, unsentimental exit.

Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek's Bye. Photo: Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek’s Bye. Photo: Bill Cooper

But then Guillem has never done things like anyone else, including signing off. Life in Progress ends in Tokyo on December 20 but during that month Guillem also joins her beloved Tokyo Ballet for a touring program that includes Maurice Béjart’s popular Boléro. Guillem’s website lists Hiroshima on December 28 as her last performance but I am told – thank you Naomi from Tokyo! – that there will also be a performance on December 30 in Yokohama.

And a further update. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see Guillem in conversation today at the Sydney Opera House but I am reliably told she said she will exit with Boléro in Tokyo just before the stroke of midnight. That, I have to assume, will be on December 31, seconds before her final year in dance ends. Spectacular.

What a way to go, the dancer on a table – in the middle, somewhat elevated we might say – responding to Ravel’s increasingly ecstatic music as a circle of adoring men pays homage.

What a woman.

Life in Progress ends at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday. It then travels to Birmingham, Paris, Taipei, Beijing, Singapore, Shanghai, New York, St Pölten (Austria) and Tokyo.

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

Dance in 2013

THE Australian dance-lover had plenty to enjoy in 2013, as long as there was a decent travel budget to hand. Paris Opera Ballet returned to Sydney, the Bolshoi had a season in Brisbane, The Australian Ballet premiered a new version of Cinderella by Alexei Ratmansky (Melbourne and Sydney only, although Adelaide sees it in 2014), Queensland Ballet had extended sell-out seasons under new artistic director Li Cunxin, West Australian Ballet brought Onegin into its repertoire and Sydney Dance Company got even more glamorous.

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Those were the big events of 2013. Unfortunately there were fewer small-scale gems, or at least few I was able to see. In the wide, brown land it’s not always possible to find oneself in the right city at the right time to catch up with the leading contemporary companies and independent artists, particularly when seasons can be cruelly short.

There was also a lot of déjà vu when it came to international visitors. Of course one would never knock back the chance to see Sylvie Guillem, or Akram Khan’s work, or Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, but the names bob up again and again. I acknowledge, however, that I travel around the country to see dance more than most people do. Perhaps I just get out too much.

What follows, therefore, isn’t necessarily a reflection of what was best (although much was terrific), but what was memorable.

The dancers:

The AB nabbed Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev for performances of Don Quixote in Melbourne. Vasiliev roared on like a comet and didn’t let up from the get-go. He’s no text-book classicist, but gee he’s fun to watch. Dancing the lead gypsy, resident AB firecracker Chengwu Guo threw in a cheeky backwards somersault just to remind the audience there were other men on stage. Later in the year, after dancing Basilio with boyish charm, Guo was promoted to senior artist. By year’s end he was a principal artist, promoted onstage after a high-flying appearance as James in La Sylphide. A very wise call on the part of AB artistic director David McAllister.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Also at the AB, Daniel Gaudiello got more opening nights (Basilio, James, the Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella), and rightly so. QB’s Li Cunxin likes him too. Gaudiello was a guest artist in Brisbane for Giselle – making his role debut as Albrecht – and will appear in 2014’s Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio when QB stages the MacMillan production from late June.

Still with the AB, Leanne Stojmenov had the role of her career in Cinderella, and in The Four Temperaments and Dyad 1929 (part of the Vanguard program), evergreen principal Lucinda Dunn exuded wisdom and sensuousness in works that can look all too coolly intellectual. Also on that bill was Kylian’s Bella Figura, in which corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow had one of those break-out moments.

In Brisbane, it was adorable to see Alexander Idaszak, in his first year out of the Australian Ballet School, be given the chance to dance Albrecht and to do it with such composure (he’s already moving on, however, to Royal New Zealand Ballet, which also has a starry artistic director in Ethan Stiefel). Li showed faith in another newbie, Emilio Pavan, when he was cast as the Prince in The Nutcracker, an assignment he carried out with much promise. Li added Natasha Kusch to his already lustrous group of female principal artists, and she was astutely paired with former AB dancer and now Dutch National Ballet principal Remi Wortmeyer in Nutcracker. It was a sparkling partnership.

In Perth, new artistic director Aurelien Scannella has restructured the company, creating principal artist, soloist, demi-soloist and corps de ballet ranks. On the opening night of Onegin – secured for WAB by former artistic director Ivan Cavallari – WAB showed off its new principal, Jiri Jelinek, formerly with Stuttgart Ballet and National Ballet of Canada (he is now a guest principal with the latter). Senior women Jayne Smeulders and Fiona Evans, now principals, were completely different and very fine Tatianas, and Matthew Lehmann found himself promoted to the top rank after his Onegins.

POB’s Giselle performances gave us the luminous, diaphanous Dorothee Gilbert and the role debut of Myriam Ould-Braham, a dancer made for this role. Mathieu Ganio, aristocratic to the last molecule, partnered both but Ould-Braham’s sweet simplicity seemed to make him warmer and ever-so-slightly gentler. In the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream, a delight from beginning to end, Maria Alexandrova was exceptionally vibrant, witty and warm.

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The AB managed to insinuate itself into David Hallberg’s very full diary for three performances of Cinderella in Sydney. The refinement, grace and noble partnering of the American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal artist were a perfect fit for Ratmansky’s ballet, and Hallberg even managed to make something of the Prince’s travels, one of the slightly less successful parts of Cinderella. Hallberg’s Cinderella was Amber Scott, whose other-worldly delicacy made her a lovely match for this prince among princes.

A special mention goes to Sydney Dance Company as a whole. It’s a spectacularly good-looking ensemble.

The dances:

As you’ll see from the above, there wasn’t a lot of surprising work on offer. From the tourists, the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s down-and-dirty The Rite of Spring were outstanding. Locally, SDC’s Cacti, the exceptionally amusing work by Alexander Ekman, and the AB’s Surrealist Cinderella made most impact. Well, Cinders looked much better in Melbourne, but what can you do? I also was extremely taken by Dance Clan 3, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s studio showing of new work. This time four of the company’s women – Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, Tara Gower, Jasmin Sheppard – took up the challenge, and did so most movingly. One of those terrific evenings when you have no idea what’s ahead. I didn’t get a lot of that this year.

The ideas:

I’ve said this quite a lot elsewhere, but I love the way SDC’s Rafael Bonachela is engaged with other artists from other forms. Les Illuminations brought together SDC, string players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor Roland Peelman, singer Katie Noonan and fashion designer Toni Maticevski to celebrate the centenary of Benjamin Britten. It was a standout, and a pity there were so few performances.

In Brisbane Queensland Ballet has taken advantage of the state government’s new Superstar Fund to lock in big-name guest artists for its mid-year Romeo and Juliet. Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Sydney-born Royal Ballet luminary Steven McRae come to town. Gaudiello will be back too – it’s so good to see this wonderful dancer getting more recognition.

Another big idea for QB is the institution of The Nutcracker as an annual Christmas event. Time will tell whether it will catch on indefinitely, but this year’s season did boffo box-office.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season announcement showed a small but potentially important programming shift. Instead of the usual and unvarying number of performances given to each program, regardless of audience appeal, the AB will now give shorter seasons of the contemporary rep. This is most noticeable in Sydney, where there will be nine performances of  the Ballet Imperial/Suite en Blanc double bill (May 2-17) and 10 of the Chroma/Sechs Tanze/Petite Mort/ New Baynes work bill (April 29-May 17). Note the overlapping dates – yes, programs in repertory!

As mentioned, WAB has introduced the kind of ranking system most usually seen in larger companies. Aurelien Scannella has forcefully talked about having more dancers (predecessor Cavallari got WAB a huge boost during his time). Can Scannella manage a further upwards trajectory in a city that has a huge appetite for big stuff but not so much for throwing money at the arts? And at a difficult time for the state’s finances? Worth keeping an eye on. As is QB’s obvious ambition to provide not just an alternative, but a competitor, to the AB.

The dance that turned into a play but was still full of dance:

One of the sweetest pleasures of 2013 was Gideon Obarzanek‘s Dance Better at Parties for Sydney Theatre Company, a play based on his dance work for Chunky Move that had its genesis nearly a decade ago when Obarzanek interviewed men about movement. The play, a two-hander for Steve Rodgers and Elizabeth Nabben, was simplicity itself. A bereaved man comes to a dance studio to learn how to dance, which may help him fit in socially, but really he is in desperate need of contact. To be touched. And the audience was touched too, very deeply.

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

The disappointments:

The big, big loss this year was the cancellation of Spring Dance, the festival inaugurated by the Sydney Opera House and now pulled out of the calendar. Yes, it was costly, but gave contemporary dance a highly visible platform from which to entice audiences. Fragments of it remained – Les Illuminations (see above) and Akram Khan’s iTMOi – “In the Mind of Igor” – which did not entirely convince me.

Freeze Frame, the collaboration between the Brisbane Festival and Debbie Allen, was well-meaning but lacked coherence in just about every department. Allen wrote, choreographed and directed. And appeared in it. There’s a hint right there.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, is entirely inadequate for ballet of any scale. The sets for Onegin had to be cut back and squashed in and the sightlines are terrible from many seats. Tough cheese though. It’s unlikely there will be another new theatre in Perth for a decade or more – the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, home to Black Swan State Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, was opened in 2011. Poor old WAB is not well served at all.

What a shame that Australia’s smaller centres aren’t able to see the AB, QB and WAB regularly. Instead the gap is filled by touring Russian companies of extremely variable quality. This year I saw a Nutcracker from an outfit called Russian National Ballet Theatre, whose provenance is a little difficult to work out, although companies under that name have toured before. I paid nearly 100 bucks (no, let’s be fair, my sister paid) for no orchestra, a severely truncated story, classroom choreography and production values that were modest. I do understand that local companies wouldn’t be seen dead putting on productions of such a low standard and that it costs a great deal to do better, and that they already have full schedules. But if I had a magic wand …

The year’s most graceful tribute:

In July Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for The New York Times, set out to describe the attributes of an American ballerina, and was even prepared to say how many women in US companies currently deserve to bear the title of ballerina. The number is not great: “at least 10” is what Macaulay was prepared to say. In reply, in the December/January edition of Pointe magazine, Gillian Murphy – a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet – gave her perspective. Along the way she had this to say about RNZB’s Lucy Green, a young Australian being given important roles with the company: “I am excited to watch a young dancer with extraordinary promise grow into a star.” Murphy praises Green’s dance attributes, then continues: “However, for me, it is her work ethic, her imagination and her sensitivity to others that really classify her as a ballerina in the making.” Murphy admires dancers who “encourage greatness in everyone around them”. Beautiful.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

 The Trans-Tasman Prize for Sang-Froid:

I’m including RNZB here again because I can. The month is July, a performance of Swan Lake, featuring Lucy Green as Odette-Odile, has not long finished, and RNZB staff and dancers past and present have gathered for a late-afternoon party to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary. Wellington is shaken by an earthquake – a big one. Everyone dives to the floor, which is moving alarmingly. The tremors stop, we all get up and the party continues. Well, that’s one way to cut the speeches short.

Finally…

Many thanks to London-based writer and critic Ismene Brown, who gave unparalleled, necessary insight into the dance world’s biggest story in 2013, the Bolshoi crisis and its fallout. And moving right along, there’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze in St Petersburg. Follow her @ismeneb; ismeneb.com

Next up, what’s of interest in 2014?

Rising

Aakash Odedra Company, Brisbane Festival, September 27.

IN Rising, young British dancer Aakash Odedra presents four solos, one by himself (exquisite) and the others from Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. That towering trio of dance-makers says it all. The evening may be very brief – perhaps 45 minutes of dance in all – but the quality is exceptional and there was no feeling of being short-changed. Quite the reverse.

Aakash Odedra in Nritta. Photo: Nisha Kajal Patel

Aakash Odedra in Nritta. Photo: Nisha Kajal Patel

Odedra’s credentials are established in the opening piece Nritta, his own work. He is revealed as a man of light build dressed in the long, slender-fitting jacket and trousers that immediately evoke the subcontinent. While all the pieces use elements of the classical Indian dance in which Odedra was trained, Nritta stays closest to the source. Enveloped in murky, diffuse lighting Odedra is all light and blistering speed, like a gambolling, exceptionally elegant sprite. Little balletic little leaps punctuate rapid-fire spins that sometimes come to a sudden stop for a moment of repose then continue on their way, decorated with sensuous upper-body swirls. The mood is prayerful, in a pantheistic, pan-sexual kind of way.

Odedra’s astonishing plasticity is exploited in a very different way in Khan’s In the Shadow of Man. Stripped to the waist, he yelps and writhes like a wounded animal. The swift circling on his knees, wheeling arms, splayed fingers and liquid torso come from Indian classicism but are rendered anguished and ultra-contemporary by Khan. The crepuscular lighting is by Michael Hulls, who also lights Russell Maliphant’s CUT. This piece has many similarities with Maliphant’s Two, in which Sylvie Guillem has appeared in Australia. The dancer is mostly in semi-darkness as parts of the body flicker in and out of the light. In CUT Odedra’s fingers glow like coals, his arms pulsate convulsively and he spins like a dervish as Andy Cowton’s wall-of-sound music ramps up the vibrations.

After these excitements Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Constellations looks uncharacteristically soft-centred. Lights sway across the space and come on and off as Odedra moves amongst them. Again his plasticity is seen to advantage, but the piece itself isn’t really terribly interesting. Pretty, but a wee bit sentimental.

That didn’t stop last Friday’s Brisbane Festival audience from jumping to its feet instantly at the end, something I haven’t previously seen there.

Next stop, Sydney …

Rising, Parramatta Riverside Theatres, Sydney, October 5-6.