My 2016 Artists of the Year …

Last year I decided to institute my personal Artist of the Year award. There’s no money attached, of course, and I think we’d have to say it confers only a modest amount of fame. I was rather thrilled , however, to see that my inaugural winner, the multi-faceted mezzo Jacqui Dark, was subsequently featured in her home town newspaper, the Courier in Ballarat, Victoria, so that was nice. I was a little dismayed that the Courier didn’t realise that I, too, am Ballarat-born – this played no part in the AOTY decision-making, I hasten to say – and my father was once editor of that newspaper. But it was a long time ago.

This year’s recipients – and yes, it’s a group I honour in 2016 – will be used to getting little or no money. They also mostly escape the glare of widespread publicity and can walk the streets unmolested by fans keen for a selfie. They are, however, heroes to me. They are the independent artists who simply will not go away and shut up, despite bearing the brunt of our Federal Government’s unforgiveable raid on the Australia Council in 2015. They put on new work, take creative risks, nurture talent, and their ticket prices are often astonishingly low. And they might be doing this in a profit-share arrangement.

It is not a good time for the arts in Australia. There were, of course, plenty of pieces of theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre I was very happy to see in 2016. A small number were exceptional, as were a good handful of performances. We can still manage that. What we don’t have is any true, deeply engrained reverence for culture as a necessity of life. That’s why some of our brightest and most interesting artists are working for tuppence ha’penny.

In this context I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Red Line Productions team who run Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre; to Sport for Jove, which consistently punches way above its weight; to Hayes Theatre Co for giving a dedicated home to musical theatre; and to the wonderful Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) group. WITS has been indefatigable in giving encouragement to and increasing visibility and opportunities for women in the arts.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1847

Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

So, best shows of the year?

Starting with the indies, Sport for Jove’s tremendously affecting Antigone; the absorbing revival of Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices from Don’t Look Away in association with Red Line Productions; and – this one surprised me – a deeply, deeply touching production of the 1928 R. C. Sheriff classic Journey’s End, from Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Norton Crumlin and Associates. I was very keen to see the play as it’s a name I keep coming across in reading about early 20th century drama, but I thought it might be drearily musty by now. Not in Samantha Young’s production, seen at Australian Theatre for Young People’s Walsh Bay base.

Also seen at ATYP was a marvellous production of the musical Spring Awakening, sensitively directed by Mitchell Butel. He might soon find he is in more demand as a director than he is as an actor, which would be a lot. The other huge musical theatre highlight was Little Shop of Horrors at Hayes Theatre Co. This was a mainstream production (Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co) that toured after its debut but it was born at the indie Hayes. Also on the music front, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a glorious trio of concerts, conducted by David Robertson, featuring Stravinsky dance scores The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. Absolute heaven for this balletomane.

Two of Sydney’s smaller mainstream theatre companies, the Ensemble and Darlinghurst Theatre Company, provided some of this year’s most memorable productions. At the Ensemble, Tara Morice led a terrific cast in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People; and I can’t tell you how riveting it was to see Patricia Cornelius’s gut-punching Savages at the Darlinghurst with a matinee audience comprised almost entirely of teenaged boys. I bet their post-show discussion was interesting – and one could feel just how forcefully this brilliant piece of writing about masculinity and pack behaviour struck them. Also at the Darlinghurst, Mary Anne Butler’s Broken was eloquently realised.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

The invaluable Griffin Theatre Company is unfortunately struggling with pressing funding issues but soldiers on stoutly to provide a platform for new Australian work. And who would have thunk it? After the, ahem, disappointment of his playwriting debut Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012), Benedict Andrews came up with a fascinating portrait of a woman’s disintegration in Gloria.

Mainstream theatre wasn’t overflowing with riches. However, at Sydney Theatre Company I did love Hay Fever, directed by Imara Savage, who has a great feel for comedy; and the devastating production of All My Sons, directed by Kip Williams.

I won’t write about dance again (my post yesterday gave a round-up in that area) but will mention a few dance performances in my baker’s dozen list of stand-outs – Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky in John Neumeier’s ballet of that name for The Australian Ballet, Elma Kris of Bangarra Dance Theatre in the title role in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa, and Kristina Chan in her own work A Faint Existence for Force Majeure (one of the small-to-medium companies that has to reinvent itself after funding cuts). In theatre and musical theatre, in no particular order I was entranced by Robyn Nevin (All My Sons), Anthony Warlow (Fiddler on the Roof), Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill (Little Shop of Horrors), Alex Jennings (My Fair Lady), Heather Mitchell (Hay Fever), Sam O’Sullivan (Journey’s End), Marta Dusseldorp (Gloria), and Andrea Demetriades and William Zappa (Antigone).

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Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Opera Australia’s revival in Melbourne of the Neil Armfield Ring Cycle was extraordinary, and splendidly cast from top to bottom. The themes of greed and lust for power resonated particularly strongly. Earlier in the year the rarely performed Verdi opera Luisa Miller was given a striking production and had a dream cast; and My Fair Lady was deservedly wildly successful. Also from OA, the al fresco version of The Eighth Wonder – we sat in front of the sublime building that is the subject of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’s opera – was a sensational idea, superbly executed. One couldn’t help but think of Joe Cahill when, as premier of NSW, he convened a conference in 1954 to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said then: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …”

We could probably do with a Joe Cahill or two right now.

About last week … March 26-April 1

A CLASH of ballet opening nights saw Queensland Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake go head to head – well, from my perspective. They were in different cities at the time. For reasons both artistic and logistical, I went to the first performance of Dream in Brisbane on April 1 and the second Swan Lake performance at the April 2 matinee. I reviewed both for The Australian and both will be up separately on the blog in the next few days.

The artistic reason for putting Dream first? It was the premiere in Australia of a Liam Scarlett work – a notable event in the ballet business – whereas Swan Lake, a traditional version choreographed by Stephen Baynes, is a revival. (I’ll have more to say about Swan Lake later after I get a few more performances under my belt.)

Queensland Ballets Midsummer Nights Dream -  Laura Hidalgo and Victor Estevez. Photo David Kelly HR

Victor Estevez, Laura Hidalgo and members of Queensland Ballet in Liam Scarlett’s new A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The Scarlett is a co-production between QB and Royal New Zealand Ballet, which premiered the work last year. I saw it in Auckland and loved its sensuousness. (Tracy Grant Lord’s designs are a wonderful part of the equation.) Scarlett came through the Royal Ballet School and danced with the Royal Ballet until his choreographic career really started taking off (he was identified and encouraged while still at the school). The post of artist in residence was created at the Royal for him although it doesn’t tie him exclusively to the company. (If you’re interested I wrote about him at length here.)

He’s acutely aware of his dance heritage, and that of course includes a thorough knowledge of Frederick Ashton, founder choreographer of the Royal. I’ve seen earlier Scarlett works – the narrative Sweet Violets with the RB in London and the abstract Acheron performed by New York City Ballet – and wasn’t entirely bowled over by either. With Dream, however, you can see the Ashtonian influence and also that Scarlett isn’t merely copying but has his own voice. The intricate, detailed upper-body work and sharp, fast footwork is incredibly complicated yet looks unrushed, harmonious and gorgeously musical. In Dream Scarlett keeps most of the dancing quite close to the ground, which allows the dancers the trick of appearing feather-light but also more natural and characterful.

QB is a company of about the same size as RNZB and has plenty of zesty dancers, some of whom are quite new. QB artistic director Li Cunxin has hired three dancers from National Ballet of Cuba – principals Yanela Piñera and Victor Estévez and soloist Camilo Ramos – and principal Laura Hidalgo, an Argentinian-born dancer who was lately with National Ballet of Flanders. All danced at the Dream opening performance. (At only 22 Estévez is young to be a principal artist but he has handsome stage presence.)

Interestingly, after the performance I was asked not once or twice but three times who I thought had danced Dream better: QB or RNZB. It’s a tough one. Both companies clearly relished the style, humour and emotion and transmitted it joyously. But QB had only a few days with Scarlett, who made it on the RNZB dancers over some weeks. And, I will note, I saw the RNZB performance a few shows in, after the short Wellington season had been completed. The connection was deep. An example is Tonia Looker’s rapturous Titania in the big Act II pas de deux – I can still see the luscious abandon of her curved back. Hidalgo is a poetic dancer who I am keen to see in more key roles but she wasn’t quite as inside the role as Looker.

I’m talking cigarette papers here, as in minute differences, but that’s how it goes in ballet. I wonder too if there’s something about the feel of a ranked company (QB) versus an unranked (RNZB). We’re talking something quite elusive here and possibly there’s not a lot in it. But the idea did pop into my head. I might come back to this later.

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Tevye (Anthony Warlow) and daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Jeff Busby

Earlier in the week (March 29) Fiddler on the Roof arrived in Sydney after its Melbourne opening season. Director Roger Hodgman plays a very straight bat with it but it’s a production that works where it matters. Which starts, not surprisingly, with Tevye, the impoverished milkman living in early 20th century Russia with three daughters who are starting to think for themselves. Anthony Warlow inhabits this funny, dogmatic, sometimes infuriating man with salt-of-the-earth ease. Whether Tevye is having one of his many man-to-man chats with God or roaring at his daughters, there’s a great, enveloping feeling of warmth. This is a Tevye you can admire even when you don’t agree with him and love for his steadfast commitment to beliefs and family. Warlow’s burnished baritone is still a glorious instrument (now in his mid-50s, Warlow is in the sweet spot for the role in terms of age) and it adds incomparable lustre to songs we know so well but rarely experience sung with such glow. To hear If I Were a Rich Man as if new is a true gift. And is there a musical that begins with a more thrilling, information-rich number than Tradition? (Well, some friends immediately cited The Lion King’s admittedly roof-raising opening, but I think they’re talking about staging.)

Warlow has a mostly strong cast around him: Tegan Wouters, Monica Swayne and Jessica Vickers as the loving, clever daughers; Mark Mitchell as rejected suitor Lazar Wolf; and Blake Bowden as the passionate student Perchik are all spot-on. Pop singer Lior, making his music-theatre debut as Motel, had a rocky start to Miracle of Miracles on opening night but rallied nicely to give a nuanced performance. Much has been said about Sigrid Thornton’s too-fragile voice for Tevye’s wife, Golde, and there is indeed a huge mismatch between her and Warlow; and Nicki Wendt’s turn as matchmaker Yente felt too hungry for laughs.

Dana Jolly’s reproduction of Jerome Robbins’s choreography is most welcome and musical director Kellie Dickerson is in charge of a small but very effective orchestra. I found Richard Roberts’s design somewhat uninspiring but the musical’s themes are undimmed and they resonate strongly under Hodgman’s expert direction. When, in 1964, Joseph Stein (book), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Jerry Bock (music) looked back to the early 20th century for a story about family disintegration, religious persecution and widespread displacement, they could well have been looking forward to today. Fiddler on the Roof is at the Capitol in Sydney until early May.

A quick word about the Le Corbusier tapestry Les Dés Sont Jetés (The Dice Are Cast) unveiled Tapestryat the Sydney Opera House on March 29 in the Western Foyers. It was commissioned by Jörn Utzon in 1958 when the Danish architect was already thinking about what might be possible in the interior of his magical building (he wanted vibrant colours inside), and delivered to him two years later. Then came his dismissal and the tapestry from the great Swiss-French architect took up residence in the Utzon home. A group of benefactors and SOH staff members helped fund its acquisition at auction last year, it has been restored, and now hangs in the Opera House as a tribute to Utzon – not to mention its value as a work from the imagination of one of the key architects of the 20th century. If you’re in Sydney don’t fail to pop down to the Western Foyers to take a look.