Bespoke, Queensland Ballet

Brisbane Powerhouse, February 10.

Bespoke is a new-choreography program that shows Queensland Ballet moving up yet another gear and broadening its horizons. So far in Li Cunxin’s artistic directorship new contemporary work on the schedule has either fallen into the annual triple bill, of which there is always only one (although none in 2015), or else was part of Dance Dialogues, a small-scale, low-key studio event that encourages an insider atmosphere by being available only to subscribers and including a coaching session of upcoming repertoire.

The mainstage triple bill is generally stacked with extremely well-established names and may or may not include a work created specially for it. It would be unfair to say the programming is tame but it’s not going to frighten the horses too much. At the other end of the scale, Dance Dialogues is likely to include at least one QB dancer who is giving choreography a shot, possibly for the first time, and has to ransack the costume department to clothe the cast. The gulf is wide.

Bespoke fills that gap. It has the specific intention of bringing new voices into the mix and, by being staged at the Brisbane Powerhouse, signals that QB seeks to widen its appeal. (Sydney Dance Company does the same thing by presenting its highly successful New Breed program at Carriageworks, away from the formality of its usual home at the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay.) The best news is that Bespoke is intended to be an annual event. Dance Dialogues seems likely to continue but just once a year. There have mostly been two annual sessions; in 2017 there are performances in June only.

Jack Lister's Rational/Animal. Photo: David Kelly

Jack Lister’s Rational/Animal. Photo: David Kelly

While Dance Dialogues is, frankly, a bit naff, it does hold out the possibility of uncovering talent in the ranks. That happened last year when Jack Lister, a company dancer, made a piece called Fonder Heart to the music of Philip Glass. This year he was one of the Bespoke choreographers and absolutely earned his place on the bigger stage with Rational/Animal.

John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries (1988) is catnip to choreographers. Adams says, as its title suggests, the music is “almost maddeningly symmetrical. Four- and eight-bar phrases line up end to end, each articulated by blazingly obvious harmonic changes and an insistent chugging pulse.” He calls it his “travelling music”. New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins, The Royal Ballet’s Liam Scarlett (also, from this year, artistic associate at QB), Scottish Ballet’s Ashley Page (for the RB) and Dutch choreographer Nils Christe are among those who have fallen under the music’s propulsive spell and Lister is the latest, and possibly the youngest, person to tackle this often-used score. The 22-year-old has pulled off a beauty. Rational/Animal is a remarkably confident work from one so young and relatively inexperienced.

In the first nightmarish half, humankind is seen as faceless, frenetic and mechanistic. Lister responds to what Adams calls the “distinctly urban” feel of the music with lines of dancers striding purposefully across the space. Their clothes are the colour of dust and their faces are veiled. Sometimes their figures are echoed, many times life size, in projections on the back wall that emphasise their separateness. There are brief, muscular encounters between dancers and an occasional intimation of tenderness but the atmosphere of control is intense.

It’s fascinating to see how much full-bodied juice Lister injects into essentially robotic movement. It gives this first section unexpected poignancy, as we sense that desires and frustrations have been tightly reined in. Later the dancers strip right down for more intimate, emotionally free and erotically charged interactions.

Lister seems to have an innate grasp of balance and structure, mixing things up at precisely the right time, and it’s wonderful to see the many elements of surprise he brings to his movement vocabulary. At this stage it’s easy to discern the influences on his work but he has excellent taste and, best of all, creates resonant atmospheres.

Stephanie Lake's Chameleon. Photo: David Kelly

Stephanie Lake’s Chameleon. Photo: David Kelly

The decision to invite contemporary dancemaker Stephanie Lake and her frequent musical collaborator Robin Fox to work with QB looked terrific on paper and was even more terrific in reality. Chameleon is Lake’s first ballet commission and for many of the dancers their first exposure to colouring outside the strict lines of classical dance. The result was an exhilarating mash-up of styles wrapped around a big heart.

Lake was clearly enchanted by the formal beauty of classical shapes and the dancers’ technical gifts while casting an outsider’s coolly appraising eye over ballet’s conformist tendencies. Chameleon made much of the pull of the group versus the needs of the individual in ways that were witty, odd, mysterious and touching.

All power to Li for letting Lake use 24 dancers in Chameleon. So frequently ballet companies tacitly make it clear that new-choreography evenings are extra-curricular; a distraction from core programming. You can see limits imposed. The numbers mattered here, particularly in a potent section in which dancers closely followed one another, wheeling, separating and re-combining in groups large and small.

Lake started Chameleon with 11 dancers standing in a line in front of a red curtain, later lifted. They were a motley and rather anxious-looking lot as they twitched and jerked their way through basic classical positions. When they found their individual voices – along with a larger cohort of ragtag companions – they didn’t seem to quite know what to do with their new-found freedom, but what the heck. They had a lively go at letting go before being sucked back into line.

There were too many standout performers to mention them all but principal artist Laura Hidalgo was extraordinary in her deep understanding of both sides of the dance divide. The final image of Chameleon was deeply moving.

The evening opened with Glass Heart, by QB ballet mistress and artistic associate Amy Hollingsworth for the company’s 10 Jette Parker Young Artists (a number soon to grow to 12; impressive). In a further sign of the ambitions for Bespoke the score was composed by celestial-voiced singer-songwriter Katie Noonan and the young Brisbane music producer known as cln, both of whom performed it live.

With the choreography tending to generalised angst Glass Heart was busy but emotionally vacant, at least from a movement perspective. No matter what anyone did, whether in solos, duos or groups, the effect was the same. That left feeling to be generated by the fine musicians, who filled the gap admirably. And if Glass Heart was unremarkable as a dance work, it was undoubtedly a valuable experience for this lovely group of Young Artists.

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 and were previously evident at Sydney Dance Company and Expressions Dance Company. As curator of Bespoke Hollingsworth brought Lake in and, I am told, helped teach Chameleon to the dancers. She also helped guide Lister through the process of creating his ambitious piece.

QB’s lighting and technical manager Cameron Georg lit the whole program with dramatic flair and wardrobe production manager and resident designer Noelene Hill did a superb job of interpreting costumes conceived by each choreographer. It’s such a pity there were only five performances. Perhaps there will be more next year.

Footnote: Obviously you’d have to love Fearful Symmetries a lot, but wouldn’t it be fun if QB did a triple bill of ballets to this music? And it could do so with three works connected with the company. In 2010 QB performed the enormously entertaining Nils Christe version (made for Germany’s Ballet Mainz); new QB artistic associate Scarlett made his version only last year for San Francisco Ballet; and now there’s Lister’s take. Too much? Perhaps.

Rules of the Game: Jonah Bokaer at the Brisbane Festival

Brisbane Powerhouse, September 14.

Labels are always tricky. Jonah Bokaer is essentially a dance-maker but his deep immersion in the visual arts pushes his work towards performance art. But let’s not worry about what to call it. In the trio of works he brought to the Brisbane Festival – his first visit to Australia – Bokaer revealed himself to be an elegant, serious thinker.

As a bonus Brisbane also got to see him dance. Bokaer’s extensive CV may suggest a man of mature years but the American is still only 34 and a mesmerising figure onstage.

His 2010 solo RECESS started the evening, although with a new introduction of sorts. The audience arrived to see seven men and women arranged like statues. They would (with an eighth dancer) later perform the work that gave the whole program its title. The message was clear: the evening, gorgeously lit by Aaron Copp, was one event, not three.

The game was, of course, life, which these pieces presented as a constant battle against disorder and decay of all kinds. In RECESS Bokaer unfurled, folded, crumpled and tore a huge roll of paper until it wittily took on a life of its own. In the middle work, Why Patterns (2011), no matter how assiduously they tried to clear a space for themselves and create intimate connections, unpredictable cascades of ping pong balls kept assailing a quartet of dancers.

Rules of the Game, Brisbane Festival 2016

Why Patterns, choreography by Jonah Bokaer.

There was an appealing contrast between cool science – the exploration of space and the behaviour of objects within it – and alert bodies.

RECESS is a solo in much the same way Russell Maliphant’s Two, for a dancer and a light source, is a solo. White paper has rarely appeared so fascinating. Bokaer moved sensually, making beautiful curves with his neck and arms, rolling on the floor as if dreaming between the sheets and wrapping pieces of paper around him as if he were a living sculpture, or perhaps a gift. There was also an endearing whiff of the science nerd about Bokaer as he carefully arranged his material just so.

RECESS was followed immediately by Why Patterns, named after and responding closely to Morton Feldman’s music of that name. Here the materials couldn’t be arranged just so. The near weightlessness of the ping pong balls – 5000 of them, they say – made a mockery of control. The dancers managed to take charge when the balls were contained in long, clear tubes but not when they arrived variously and amusingly in singles, handfuls and at one point a torrent from above. They were like molecules or vibrations, impossible to pin down and disrupting whatever calm and certainty may have been achieved.

Bokaer’s movement language is concentrated and for the most part restrained in these works. His diamond-edged clarity is visually and intellectually appealing but there are also luscious departures from austerity and precision that give the works texture. Bokaer has a strong affinity with the work of Merce Cunningham, with whose company he danced, and theatre director Robert Wilson, with whom he has often worked. It’s also possible to feel the spirit of the great postmodernist choreographers of the 1960s, who revered collaboration between artists of all kinds and introduced task-based movement.

The satisfying impression was of a choreographer who knows his dance history well while still being very much his own man.

RECESS and Why Patterns are terrific. Thematically the new work Rules of the Game fitted right in while being less convincing overall.

Rules of the Game, Brisbane Festival 2016

Rules of the Game, choreography by Jonah Bokaer

If you were to make a Venn diagram of the key Rules of the Game creatives, Bokaer would be in one circle, pop/hip-hop luminary Pharrell Williams would be in another circle and artist Daniel Arsham would be where they overlap. This is the first joint project for Bokaer and Williams; Arsham has worked separately with both (he designed the scenography for all three works in this program).

Williams is something of a polymath, being a songwriter, performer and mega-star producer, but hadn’t previously written anything for a dance work. His celebrity has not unnaturally brought extra attention to the piece, which was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for its Soluna International Music and Arts Festival and was first performed in May. (David Campbell arranged Williams’s music for orchestral forces and conducted an ensemble drawn from the Dallas Symphony for the premiere. That performance was recorded for use in later presentations of Rules of the Game.)

Rules of the Game was devised on a considerably larger scale than RECESS and Why Patterns but the result was rather less powerful at this early point in its career – Brisbane was only the second port of call.

Arsham’s giant video images of collapse, disintegration and reintegration were initially lovely to watch but repetitiveness reduced rather than intensified their impact. Williams’s music bounced along agreeably and melodically with lush strings, smooth brass, insistently regular percussive beats and plenty of climaxes. The sound was bright and often sunny, irresistibly suggesting a 1950s romantic film caper in which a glamorous couple is seen driving gaily along the Corniche in an open sports car.

That’s not necessarily a problem for Bokaer of course. His Cunningham experience means he is no stranger to the idea that dance and music can exist independently. Nevertheless, the music had a self-regarding sheen at odds with the tremendously involving dance, performed by four women and four men with powerful gravitas and authority.

A square within the performance space – a stage within a stage – added layer upon layer of perception; the loose-fitting salmon-coloured costumes that made no distinction between the sexes played the layer game too. As Rules of the Game progressed dancers shed jackets and shirts, and a riveting clash between two men was performed with them stripped to the waist.

Occasionally Rules of the Game felt a little unfocused but for the most part its imagery was precise and evocative without being prescriptive. Bokaer draws from Greek antiquity and modern game-playing literally and metaphorically with a language that contrasts sculptural stillness with intense solos, sometimes desperate duos and striking group encounters. Here, in the imagery of observers and the observed, was a sense of the influence – “more a point of departure than a literal usage”, says Bokaer – of Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello.

Just as pertinent, however, was the classical Greek agon, or contest. And in this contest between music, visuals and dance, Bokaer came out a clear winner.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 16.

Casus, Brisbane Festival

Knee Deep, Brisbane Powerhouse, September 24.

THE four members of Casus, a small Brisbane contemporary circus troupe formed in 2011, have a slightly perverse way of claiming attention. They are, of course, ferociously talented. But so are very many others in this art form, which takes circus tricks and dresses them up with elements from music, theatre, comedy and dance. Unlike others, the Casus performers have what seems to be genuinely unaffected personal modesty. Their acts may be as gasp-inducing as the next circus virtuoso’s but there’s no pretention or triumphalism in the way they are presented. Casus’s Knee Deep is a sweet, affecting show.

The members of Casus

The members of Brisbane-based contemporary circus troupe Casus

Knee Deep opens with Emma Serjeant walking on eggs, a feat shown in close-up on a screen used occasionally and not entirely successfully during the 60-minute piece. We get the idea, though. Life is fragile, a notion Serjeant, Jesse Scott, Lachlan McAulay and Natano Fa’anana proceed to demonstate via some exceptionally spiffy, mostly dangerous acts. Want to see a supine man flipped 180 degrees via his head? It’s here, along with the expected routines – ropes, pedestals, balance, strength, tumbling, people twirled and thrown as if pieces of pizza dough, that sort of thing.

Casus also has a few unexpected tricks. Scott gives a luminous example of hoop work: he uses just one hoop, not 15 whizzing around every part of the body, and it’s a delight. In a cone of light, Fa’anana presents an intricate Samoan slapping and stamping dance; McAuley walks across the shoulders and entwined arms of his colleagues; Serjeant pokes a slender rod right up her nose and then expels it (okay, that bit I didn’t like so much, but at least she doesn’t make a huge deal of it).

Knee Deep would feel tighter with a better integrated score. You can’t fault Casus for using Gil Scott-Heron’s super strong New York is Killing Me for Fa’anana’s magisterial aerial turn on the silk ropes, but then a crooning French ballad?

But this is a small point in light of Knee Deep’s finale, in which all four work a single trapeze in many daring and beautiful combinations. It illustrates comprehensively the way much contemporary circus aspires to be an aesthetic experience rather than a purely physical one.