Women to the fore

New Breed, Sydney Dance Company, Carriageworks, Sydney, November 4

AN enduring issue in dance is the predominance of male choreographers. This is overwhelmingly evident in ballet; less so in contemporary dance. Nevertheless, if you look at Sydney Dance Company’s programs over the past few years, the choreographers invited to join artistic director Rafael Bonachela on the mainstage have mostly been men, many highly established around the world. It can appear a very closed circle. Access begets success begets solid reputation begets work.

Juliette Barton in her solo Scrutineer. Photo: Jack Saltmoras

Juliette Barton in her solo Scrutineer. Photo: Jack Saltmoras

Bonachela, to his great credit, is chipping away at the problem. At the late lamented Spring Dance festival he fielded an all-woman program of new work in 2012 and got a beauty out of it, Larissa McGowan’s Fanatic, which has since been seen playing with the big boys. This year’s New Breed showcase of new work included three women. True, two of them, company dancers and first-time choreographers Juliette Barton and Charmene Yap, made small, short works, but they were both terrific. The third woman, Gabrielle Nankivell, made the undisputed hit of the night.

Nankivell’s Wildebeest unflinchingly shows humankind as pack animal, one-on-one antagonist and vulnerable individual, the balance constantly and unsettlingly shifting. Nankivell has an exceptionally sure feel for mood and structure as bodies came together in strongly formal groups or scattered in eruptions of wild physicality, impelled by insistent cues in Luke Smiles’s shivery, thundery soundscape. Often they mysteriously disappeared into the gloom of Matthew Marshall’s brilliant lighting design, which precisely evoked the way dust is suspended in the air after a herd has raced through desolate land.

Wildebeest is an ambitious 25-minute work for 13 dancers and there is much more one could say about it. I hope to have that opportunity on a mainstage SDC program in the near future.

The brevity of pieces made by Barton (Scrutineer) and Yap (Do We) makes it impossible to tell whether they have a full-scale work in them, but Barton’s piercingly personal solo for herself was riveting and Yap’s playful duo for Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer revealed considerable wit and poise. (It was interesting to note the use animal imagery in four of the five pieces – wildebeest in Nankivell’s, an elephant in Lee Serle’s work and dogs in Cass Mortimer Eipper’s, while Yap brought a touch of higher primate behaviour into the picture. At the beginning of Do We, Doyle and Knauer approached each other with some caution, then had a good old sniff to establish whether they were friend or foe before ripping into their high-energy mating game. What does all this mean? Couldn’t say.)

Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer in Do We. Photo: Peter Greig

Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer in Do We. Photo: Peter Greig

Serle’s White Elephant was an enigmatic piece in which dancers rarely connected emotionally but movement rippled through them to be taken up by others. There was indeed an elephant in the room, involved as a mysterious anchor point for Barton and Fiona Jopp as they stretched and unfurled as if extensions of the beast. As they did this others whispered through paper trumpets, calling on Celeste for help if my ears didn’t deceive me – which if you know your children’s books, was a reference to Babar the elephant.

White Elephant may sound unfathomable but I found its surreal mystery intriguing and its 17-minute timespan raced by. It felt a little sketchy, though, which is not unreasonable in the context of New Breed. The fifth work on the program, Mortimer Eipper’s Dogs and Baristas, unfortunately left me entirely unmoved with its unremarkable observations on human interaction presented with a goofy circus vibe.

Obviously all the works benefited from being able to harness the considerable skills of the SDC dancers. I would say, however, that at the moment the women of the company are looking more individual and interesting than the men. Barton in her own work and in White Elephant, Doyle in Do We, Jopp in White Elephant, Janessa Dufty in Wildebeest and Jesse Scales in Dogs and Baristas gave performances that wormed their way into the memory and hold on with some tenacity.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on November 7.

Incredibly virtuosic, highly expressive

Director and choreographer Antony Hamilton. The Performance Space, Carriageworks, Sydney, August 13.

WITH a bit of Einstein on the Beach over here, a spot of 2001: A Space Odyssey over there, a suggestion of wonky 1950s sci-fi film, images of sleek robotics and a sliver or two of domestic life, Keep Everything is both an eclectic treasure trove of references and utterly and beguilingly itself.

With only three performers and a set consisting of bits and bobs of rubbish there’s a hand-made quality to Keep Everything entirely in keeping with the original impulse of choreographer Antony Hamilton: to take dance ideas he’d previously discarded and see where they went. Where they went was somewhere much more intriguing than you might expect from airing a few ideas that didn’t made the cut.

Lauren Langlois in Antony Hamilton's Keep Everything

Lauren Langlois and BenjaminHancock in Antony Hamilton’s Keep Everything

Keep Everything is nothing less than a breathless (literally at many points) race through human history from the primordial swamp to a mechanistic future and back again. It may have a deceptively grungy air but is, in fact, incredibly virtuosic, highly expressive and tightly organised.

Often working with complex rhythms or durations that must be calibrated precisely to the micro-second the dancers – Benjamin Hancock, Lauren Langlois and Alisdair Macindoe – seamlessly evolve sounds and movements from primitive to futuristic via the quotidian stuff of everyday life: getting the dog to come in, having sex, giving birth, that sort of thing. The phrase “keep everything” takes on a multiplicity of meanings: Hamilton’s use of material; the junk strewn around that speaks of our over-stuffed material society; the need to hang on to other people; the desire to gather experiences and sensations; the need to keep making a noise, whether grunting, conversing, screaming or spewing strings of numbers. (The last sees Langlois and Macindoe in tremendous form – the Einstein moment.)

All this – and there’s a lot packed into a fast-flowing hour – happens to a whiz-bang sound design from Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes (The Presets), Benjamin Cisterne’s exceptional lighting design and Robin Fox’s AV design. There’s a lot of serious talent on board.

Best of all, Keep Everything is effortlessly witty. Not always something you can count on in contemporary dance. I’m sure I heard Langlois whisper “this isn’t working” at one point, and I hope I did. It was funny because obviously everything was going like a rocket, and funny because it was like a little ghost bobbing up from a time when Hamilton was choreographing and decided not to use this scrap of an idea.

The moment passed quickly and I accept I may have been mistaken. I may have misheard. But I’ll take Hamilton’s advice and, you know, keep everything.

Keep Everything was Chunky Move’s 2012 Next Move commission. You can’t fault their taste.

Keep Everything finishes at Carriageworks on Saturday. Melbourne, August 20-24.

The urge to perform

I AM not a great fan of audience participation – certainly not for myself, and rarely when I see others roped in. Frequently it involves people making spectacles of themselves or being put in an awkward position they can’t wriggle out of. It almost invariably feels like a power trip on the part of the performers. Alternatively, getting up on stage can go to the non-professional’s head and embarrassment ensues. So no, not a great fan. In fact, I loathe it.

True, I managed to survive a spot of participatory action at The Rabble’s 2013 Melbourne Festival show, Room of Regret, but happily it was in an extremely benign form – the actor, me, and an otherwise empty space in which we gazed wordlessly at each other. I could manage that.

Full marks, then, to Sydney company My Darling Patricia and its latest theatre work, The Piper, which premiered at the Sydney Festival last week. The involvement of a section of the audience is a crucial part of the performance. In fact, The Piper couldn’t take place without these people, who play townsfolk and their children in a version of the Pied Piper story.

And get this. Not only does My Darling Patricia get a substantial workforce for free, the participating audience members pay just as much for their tickets as do those who sit back, relax and enjoy the performance. Respect.

I really do mean that. My Darling Patricia has found a way of involving even very young children in a non-threatening, creative way. The participants do nothing that would require expertise and are guided at all times via headsets. Their freshness and wonder are a delightful part of the experience for those who are only watching.

The Piper is a fun version of the old German legend, filtered through stories by poet Ted Hughes. There’s an over-developed city, countryside despoiled, a shonky mayor whose pronouncements could come straight from today’s media and, of course, a plague of rats that needs to be dealt with. Narration, puppetry, projection and live action combine to make a strong, clear, memorable story. I would have liked to take part and should have commandeered a child to make that possible.

A more recognisable take on audience participation was seen at Empire, the circus production that’s back in Sydney after a very successful outing at the beginning of last year. Empire positions itself at the raunchy end of the spectrum and to this end treats the audience a bit roughly, although why telling audience members to “sit the fuck down” might be considered witty escaped me.

But on to the participation bit. It’s common in shows such as Empire – the family includes La Clique, which morphed into La Soiree – for performers to interact with audience members in a way that might be considered, ahem, rather familiar. Drinks are stolen, laps sat on, heads fondled and so on. On the night I saw Empire a man was brought to the stage and touched up pretty comprehensively. True, he was laughing, as was everyone else (although not old sourpuss me). But what if he’d felt the performers were going beyond what he felt comfortable with? My first thought was that he had to be a plant for the performers to be sure the situation was containable and the act wouldn’t fall in a heap, but my date, highly experienced in this form of theatre, reckoned not.

Which brings us to control. Just as in stand-up comedy, the atmosphere in contemporary circus shows can be a little volatile. People are drinking and they are revved up. Shows such as Empire and La Soiree give people licence to drop their inhibitions; they encourage it. It’s a huge part of the allure. Most audience members know the game and how to play it. The boundaries may be a bit more flexible than those outside the tent, but people tend to be able to judge quite finely what level of abandon is acceptable.

But if they do overstep that invisible line the performers have to tidy things up, just as stand-up comedians have to deal with hecklers in a way that asserts their primacy over the heckler without losing the rest of the room. Indeed, in a way that wins over the room. It’s a quite delicate balance, even if it may not appear to be at the time. It requires a great deal of skill.

At Empire one of the comperes, Anne Goldmann, dealt abruptly with a young man who was making too insistent a noise and she came off as petulant and graceless. Those of us who were near him could see his companion trying to quieten him, and it looked very much as if he had some mild form of impairment. Goldmann, trying to perform, wouldn’t have been able to catch that, but when the two young men left and she shouted “Good riddance” at them, she was the one who came across badly. The put-down was schoolyard quality.

As I say, this is tricky territory. These shows invite raucous interaction with patrons and then have to deal with the consequences in a way that doesn’t rip the fabric of the show’s tone and fits in with the temperature and mood of the audience. Cabaret artist Meow Meow is extraordinarily adept at controlling her audience while acting in an extremely passive-aggressive manner, but then she is a goddess.

There is extensive audience participation in magic show The Illusionists 2.0, playing at the Sydney Opera House – all of it done extremely well and entered into most eagerly by patrons. I was impressed by the skilful handling of volunteers for the hypnotism section, a section of the show that is now, of course, absent due to the death on Saturday of hypnotist Scott Lewis.

I haven’t yet seen Oedipus Schmoedipus, the new show by small company Post in association with Belvoir and the Sydney Festival, but will mid-week and will be watching the non-professionals closely. Like The Piper, Oedipus is highly dependent on volunteers, a crew that changes with each performance. Unlike with The Piper, I gather the Oedipus volunteers don’t have to pay anything, but then they do have to turn up to a rehearsal. And there are 24 needed for each show. Phew!

Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio, part of the About an Hour mini-fest within the Sydney Festival, is another theatre work that enlists audience members during the course of the show, but it needs only a few. Given that he’s performed the piece several hundred times it’s reasonable to assume Crouch doesn’t have much trouble getting the help he needs. But then none of the shows seem to have the slightest problem getting people up on stage. Everyone may be critic. Just about everyone also seems to harbour a hankering to be a performer.

La Soiree, Sydney Opera House, January 15-March 16

The Illusionists 2.0, Sydney Opera House, ends January 16

I, Malvolio, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, January 16-19.

The Piper, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, ends January 19

Oedipus Schmoedipus, Belvoir St Theatre, ends February 2

Empire, the Showring, Entertainment Quarter, Sydney, ends February 16

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera

Carriageworks, Sydney, August 5

THE tyros at Sydney Chamber Opera nimbly and thrillingly tread where larger organisations fear to go, or at least traverse sparingly. Owen Wingrave is perfect SCO territory: it is 20th century repertoire, it’s an Australian stage premiere and it suits presentation by a small, tightly focused group of musicians. Another attraction, very much for audiences as well as SCO, is that Owen Wingrave is far from being over-familiar, yet in Benjamin Britten’s centenary year it has an undeniable claim on selection. Lots of ticks there.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The company, founded in 2010, has an astute understanding of what is right for it and what it can do well. Its gripping Australian premiere last year of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony, in celebration of Glass’s 75th birthday, is another case in point, and it is no wonder SCO asked In the Penal Colony’s gifted young director, Imara Savage, to return for Owen Wingrave.

Written in 1971 as a commission for television (those were the days), Owen Wingrave was Britten’s penultimate opera and is an extended cry for peace. Owen, a young man from a family with a deep-rooted military tradition, “heir to the Wingrave flag of glory”, turns his face against war. His apostasy shocks his friends and relations. His willingness to fight and almost certainly to die is the only thing expected of him. He is not to think, to question or to have ideas. When he does, the icy rectitude of his hidebound, unimaginative family cracks.

It’s harrowing material that comes with a twist, a supernatural element present in the Henry James story on which the opera is based. Librettist Myfanwy Piper’s introduction of this spectral material is less elegant than one might wish, but Savage, designer Katren Wood and movement director Johanna Puglisi quietly make it part of the fabric from the start, which is a real achievement.

The setting is a cheerless space enclosed by a three-sided wire fence, giving intimations of prisons or encampments real and imagined. I was taken by the way that within this, Savage uses only a small number of big, uncluttered images. A huge stag laid out on the dining table silently attests to a tradition of killing and entitlement, a suddenly unfurled portrait becomes a constant reminder of the weight of heritage and a blood-stained boy mutely represents a family tragedy. I do wish directors would find a way other than opening black umbrellas to indicate a trip to the cemetery, but it’s a small point.

The simplicity of means lets Britten’s highly coloured score do its passionate work. The small orchestra plays David Matthews’s well-regarded reduction and features a bracing concentration of brass, woodwinds and percussion alongside the strings. There’s an enormous sense of urgency as the music groans, clashes and cries out, then subsides into quite lovely introspection or unsettling premonition. The mix of influences, particularly from eastern music, can make for unexpected, even unruly, passages but conductor Jack Symonds and the 15 players make an extremely persuasive case for music that’s rarely heard in any big opera houses.

Morgan Pearse in Owen Wingrave

Morgan Pearse in Owen Wingrave

Against these riches the vocal lines are solid and unadorned, mostly serving the text well. There are no reservations about the cast, all admirably suited to their roles. Morgan Pearse is a revelation in the title role, engaging sympathy with a glowing, firm, rich baritone and nuanced acting. Owen’s fiancée Kate is an unlikeable woman, yet Emily Edmonds finds a way to make her understandable and does so with a beautifully produced mezzo that is penetrating without losing its smooth texture. Tenor Pascal Herington also makes a strong impression as Owen’s friend Lechmere and as the ballad-singing Narrator who tells how the Wingrave family came to be haunted. I also very much liked Georgia Bassingthwaighte’s sensible, caring Mrs Coyle, but there was no weak link anywhere.

Owen Wingrave finishes on Saturday.

This review first appeared in The Australian on August 7.

Symphony, It’s Dark Outside, Sydney Festival

Symphony, Legs on the Wall, CarriageWorks, January 13

It’s Dark Outside, Perth Theatre Company, CarriageWorks, January 13

WHAT do 30 large cardboard boxes have to do with Beethoven’s sublime 7th symphony? Unfortunately, as it turns out, very little. The intriguing starting point for Symphony is Stefan Gregory’s arrangement of Beethoven for one electric guitar. From that, Legs on the Wall director Patrick Nolan posits a theme of the group versus the individual, the many against the one. Not only is the idea sadly well trawled; its articulation brings no new insights.

Symphony, Legs on the Wall

Symphony, Legs on the Wall

Those 30 boxes are put into one formation, then knocked over. They are placed into a different pattern and then fall over. Then the performers move the boxes around once more. Andrew Wholley’s attractive video design finds a home on them, but there’s more tedious box work than during the late-night shift at Woollies.

The performers dash about, recount several dull stories and look at each other meaningfully. They work extremely hard but the movement language lies somewhere between dance and gymnastics and has the clarity of purpose of neither. Gregory creates a huge wall of sound that sometimes focuses tightly on Beethoven’s themes and at others makes them more diffuse, but is always of musical interest.

IT’S Dark Outside takes a difficult, bewildering subject and handles it with delicacy, tact and grace. An old man with dementia takes off into the night and is visited by his dreams, fears and memories as he tries to make sense of a retreating world. His mind is clouded – It’s Dark Outside makes that idea a beautiful and touching motif – but he gallantly tries to go on.

Tim Watts – he of the widely travelled, much acclaimed The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik – and collaborators Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs tread gently in an emotional minefield. Their theatre of puppetry and animation takes the edge off a very brutal business while Rachael Dease’s mellifluous score offers the audience a soft, protective cushion.

I suspect, however, that anyone who has seen dementia up close will see It’s Dark Outside through tear-filled eyes. I know I did.

Both works are part of the Sydney Festival’s invaluable About an Hour series, which has seen several incarnations since its inception by former director Fergus Linehan in 2006. Whichever way it goes, it’s a winner.

This review first appeared in The Australian on January 15

Sacre- the Rite of Spring, Sydney Festival

Sacre – The Rite of Spring

CarriageWorks, Sydney, January 5.

RAIMUND Hoghe’s intensely personal response to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps is almost too private to watch, demanding a depth of concentration from the viewer that comes close to voyeurism. On one level Sacre is a series of repeated movements of an everyday kind, plain and perhaps banal: walks, shuffles, supported balances while standing, arranged poses while lying, that sort of thing. Yet as performed by Hoghe and Lorenzo De Brabandere they take on a degree of meaning that is poignant, intimate, challenging and complicated.

Lorenzo De Brabandere and Raimund Hoghe. Photo: Rosa Frank

Lorenzo De Brabandere and Raimund Hoghe. Photo: Rosa Frank

The men’s double act of mirroring and copying is seen against the backdrop of Stravinsky’s score, which is played in the composer’s arrangement for two pianos. The instruments, bathed in soft light at the back of the otherwise empty space, are of course facing each other so the two players, Guy Vandromme and Alain Franco, can see one another. Symmetry is important here although it’s somewhat fractured, given the physical dissimilarity between Hoghe and De Brabandere.

Again and again they face one another, fingers entwined or palms pressed together as if one is the distorted mirror image of the other – De Brabandere the taller, younger, more agile, more straight-spined self. Who hasn’t looked in the mirror and wanted to see something different, one thinks? But Hoghe, who is by far the more potent presence on stage, doesn’t buy into that. He puts himself out there without apology, a man of short stature with a crooked back who claims for himself, and therefore for others, the right to be seen.

There is a suggestion of anger, or perhaps frustration, in Hoghe’s repeated windmilling arms that end with a thwack to the thighs and De Brabandere occasionally flaunts his physical superiority. Overwhelmingly, however, there is a powerful and calming sense of connectedness in the shared rituals.

Vandromme and Franco play Stravinsky with a degree of lyricism that makes the score – 100 years old in May – complicit in Sacre’s intent. It sounds fresh and strange – shocking even, which is a very pleasant thought given the work’s initial reception (although to be fair, Stravinsky has taken the rap for Nijinsky, whose choreography was really the casus belli).

The opening-night Sydney audience appeared underwhelmed but I think it’s all about context. Sacre isn’t a wham-bam party piece. It’s an act of reverence and contemplation.

Deborah Jones

Ends February 8.

This review first appeared in The Australian on February 7.