Orb, Sydney Dance Company

Full Moon, choreographed by Cheng Tsung-lung, Ocho, choreographed by Rafael Bonachela. Sydney Dance Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, May 1.

At first glance the two works in Sydney Dance Company’s Orb look quite different but they are close kin under the skin and together make an exceptionally absorbing double bill.

Cheng Tsung-lung, who choreographed the opening Full Moon, is artistic director of Taipei’s Cloud Gate 2 and steeped in the aesthetic of that company’s senior arm, Lin Hwai-min’s incomparable Cloud Gate Theatre. The dance is contemporary but holds hands with age-old traditions. When you recognise shapes from martial arts or the influence of meditative practices, you are taken into a world where great antiquity co-exists with the here and now and gives it texture and meaning.

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Cheng Tsung-lung’s Full Moon for Sydney Dance Company. Photo: Pedro Greig

SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela is a lively exponent of movement, music and design as their own reward. So often in his work there is no past and no future. It’s a world of sensation rather than explanation – although not in every single case, as his recent Lux Tenebris (2016) and Frame of Mind (2015) show.

Indeed, Bonachela does of late seem to be edging towards a greater degree of character exposition and hints of personal narrative. In short, his work just seems to be more human, and that’s certainly the case with Ocho. It’s delightful to see Bonachela and Cheng connect on this fundamental level.

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Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s Ocho. Photo: Pedro Greig

As if to emphasis the complementary nature of the evening, the 16-member company is divided straight down the middle so there are eight dancers in each work with strictly no overlap. It’s a lovely round number and therefore eminently suitable for Full Moon, which employs five women and three men while Ocho uses the reverse combination. (And don’t forget: Ocho is Spanish for eight.)

In the numinous Full Moon, made doubly so by Damien Cooper’s exquisite lighting, there is a profound sense of eternal motion, and not only because Cheng’s piece has thrilling eruptions of speed and full-bodied swirls. He also finds vivid life in what appears to be complete stillness, arrestingly seen as Sam Young-Wright stands in the half-light with Jesse Scales astride a shoulder, both of them alert and energised, and Bernhard Knauer sits serenely on the floor for many minutes, his demeanour a mixture of relaxed poise and deep contemplation before rising to dance with glowing Janessa Dufty.

They embody the constants of existence: breath in and out, the circular flow of blood and the creation and release of energy. From time to time dancers are spotted standing apart or lying in the shadows but they never seem subservient to the action around them. No dancer ever leaves the stage and one is always aware of where each is.

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Holly Doyle in Full Moon. Photo: Pedro Greig

Cheng’s richly detailed and often surprising choreography frequently works at varying speeds simultaneously, propelled by Lim Giong’s gleaming commissioned score. It’s almost as if alternate universes have met and melded: Full Moon requires intense concentration. At one moment the eye is caught by the serene companionship of Chloe Leong and Todd Sutherland, then attention is demanded by Latisha Sparks’s acrobatic leaps and surges, given extra fullness by her wild red dress (Fan Huai-chih’s costumes are just gorgeous).

Most striking of all is Holly Doyle in her long striped gown, often covering her face with her hair, extending a dagger-like leg high or turning inexorably like a whirling dervish. Cheng isn’t afraid of emotional extremes. Perhaps you can blame the full moon.

Ocho, like Full Moon, uses the power of stillness but here it’s not a form of inner radiance. It is menacing and painful, a prelude to attack or an expression of neediness. Ocho, if you will, is the dark side of the moon.

Despite the bleak intimations of this brutal, post-apocalyptic image of life, each woman and man in Ocho is an individual with clearly expressed wants and each is riveting. First seen as disconnected figures in a coldly lit glass enclosure, Bonachela’s five men and three women emerge singly to mark their territory. The atmosphere is incredibly threatening, aided and abetted by Nick Wales’s new score that blends brass, flute and electronica in a most unsettling way.

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Davide Di Giovanni, front, in Ocho. Photo: Pedro Greig

When all but one have ventured into the open the competitiveness is ferocious. The one who stays behind, Charmene Yap, is tentative and vulnerable, although all are needy. At some point they all scatter to go who knows where but return to the known quantity of their sordid fish bowl (terrific set and costumes by David Fleischer, lights by Cooper). When they touch, they cling to one another with what looks like desperation.

Finally some measure of calm – optimism even – is achieved and Ocho ends in peaceful unison as Wales introduces a Yolgnu song invoking the protection of the Spirit Lady. Alongside Yap, Juliette Barton, Izzac Carroll, Davide Di Giovanni, Nelson Earl, Cass Mortimer Eipper, Petros Treklis and Josephine Wiese reach out their arms and circle slowly.

Actually, in its final moments Ocho recalled nothing more than the ending of Full Moon. Full circle.

Orb ends in Sydney on May 13. Then Melbourne, May 17-20 and Canberra, May 25-27.

About last week … April 30-May 6

A week of contrasts started on Tuesday at the Sydney Opera House with the marvellous Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue, her follow-up to Songs for Nobodies. Both were written by Joanna Murray-Smith to give a narrative framework for Robinson’s rare talent and if Songs for Nobodies strikes one as the much better work, Pennsylvania Avenue still offers many pleasures. Robinson has an extraordinary ability to summon the voices and spirit of famous singers and is a fine actor as well. Her art is much more than mimicry. Pennsylvania Avenue is flashback theatre set in the White House as a woman, Harper Clements, recalls her life of service to a string of presidents, starting with JFK. The conceit is that she works with the entertainments wing and thus comes into contact with many famous singers over a 40 year-span. The single set rather traps Robinson into walking around, picking up and putting down a box of belongings as she prepares to leave her position (Simon Phillips directed), and the troubles in Clements’s life aren’t as fascinating as the evocation of events such as Sarah Vaughn’s performance at the White House. Nevertheless, the wide range of songs and Robinson’s skill keep you with her, even if at 90 minutes the show feels a tad long. Robinson does a killer Tammy Wynette (Stand By Your Man – associated, naturally, with the Clinton era), her Eartha Kitt (If You Go Away, the English version of Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas) is spine-tingling and her Bob Dylan (The Eve of Destruction) is pitch-perfect, if such a term can be applied to the Dylan vocal style. An excellent band, too, tucked away behind the curtain.

Bernadette Robinson

Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue

On Wednesday morning it was off to Wellington and Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The Wizard of Oz, which I have reviewed at length in the post below. A lovely work, albeit one that can grow as it gets more performances. As always, dramaturgical input is something very much needed in the making of story ballets and it is often put too far down the list of priorities. I’ve very much enjoyed reading British critics talking about the need for dramaturgical and directorial input into Liam Scarlett’s new three-act ballet for the Royal, Frankenstein. I’ve been banging on about this for decades. But back to RNZB, where choreographer and artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has a very strong base from which to work. And we’re not talking huge changes.

Thursday night brought the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You, which I missed when it was staged in Australia in 2003. My review is in The Australian today (May 9) and I’ll put it up on the blog later in the week. Suffice to say that as someone who was young in the 1970s I had a very good time indeed.

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Casey Donovan as the Killer Queen in We Will Rock You. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thank goodness for Australian Theatre for Young People’s Friday matinee of Spring Awakening, a production I would otherwise not have been able to fit into the schedule. And I would have missed a beauty. It’s salutary to note that Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play was banned in England until 1963, a clear affirmation of its revolutionary nature. Well, and of British idiocy in respect to censorship. Wedekind’s theme of burgeoning teenage sexuality and adult fear and hypocrisy was incendiary then, and now. Despite children having almost unfettered access to sexual material, there are powerful people who still refuse to allow those children to have straightforward, realistic, all-embracing information and discussion.

The 2006 musical by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) is set in the time of Wedekind’s play yet feels utterly contemporary, and not only because of the indie-rock score. The young ATYP actors are shiningly unselfconscious and thoroughly absorbed and absorbing. Jessica Rookeward’s Wendla glows in spirit and voice and the two leading men, James Raggett (Melchior) and Josh McElroy (Moritz) could not be bettered, so passionate and so different. Mitchell Butel, on only his second directorial outing, proves that should acting jobs dry up – unlikely; Butel is one of the busiest and most versatile men on the Australian stage – he can segue effortlessly to the other side. He gets superb performances of detail, clarity and conviction from relatively inexperienced performers and creates an utterly believable world. The design from Simon Greer (set), Damien Cooper and Ross Graham (lights) and David Bergman (sound) is simplicity itself and all the better for it. Amy Campbell’s choreography is brilliant, as is Lucy Bermingham’s musical direction. Bravi.

It appears there may still be some seats for the Spring Awakening matinees of May 11 and 13. I’d advise jumping on them immediately.

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

On Friday it was off to Carriageworks and a showing of the four finalists in the Keir Choreographic Award, a generous biennial prize (yay!). I’ll write more about it later but wasn’t surprised that Ghenoa Gela carried off both the main award of $30,000 and the people’s vote, which added $10,000 to Gela’s prize. Put simply, Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea was much more emotionally engaging than the other works; it was warmer, more human, more interesting, more inviting. Gela’s dancers were, despite the shielding of their faces, women of flesh and blood and their movement connected one with resonant questions about meaning inherent in or imposed on indigenous dance.

Pennsylvania Avenue, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until May 22.

Spring Awakening, ATYP Studio 1, Wharf 4, Sydney, until May 14.

The Wizard of Oz, various cities in New Zealand until June 12.

We Will Rock You, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, until June 26 and then touring Australia into 2017.

Three companies, one great show

Sydney Festival Parramatta Program, January 23

PUNCTURE starts with “Hello” and ends with “I love you”. Has there been anything more life-affirming than this at the 2015 Sydney Festival? I doubt it.

As I write, the 2pm show has recently finished at the Riverside Theatre at Parramatta and there will be just two more: tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 2pm. With Wednesday’s preview there will have been seven performances in all. Is there a chance of more? One can only hope so.

Puncture puts both performers and audience on the stage of the biggest theatre at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, screened from the auditorium by the fire curtain. The audience is very close to the performers and despite the ample size of the space there is an atmosphere of urgent intimacy. As the young dancers enact age-old rituals of meeting, attraction, flirtation, confusion and passion one can hear the breath, see the sweat, feel the impact as they hit the floor and share in the adrenalin rush as they arc through the air on ropes.

A dancer flies in Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

A dancer flies in Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

That would be sensory ravishment enough, but there’s more. In one of the loveliest ideas I have encountered in dance for many years Stefan Gregory’s score for Puncture is sung live by VOX, a 30-member vocal ensemble drawn from members of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, who move in and out of the dance and allow us to see them as smiling, engaged individuals – participants in the fullest sense.

Puncture is concerned with the human need for connection, as that sung “Hello” makes radiantly clear. One could call that the statement of intent. After that comes the physical manifestation as six couples collide, grapple, touch, fight, fly, support, change partners, argue and love. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evokes the formalities of Elizabethan court dance, the uniformity of line dancing, the romance of the waltz, the zing of the tango, the group spirit of folk and much more, but ultimately the dance is about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Gregory’s music is similarly eclectic and always strikingly beautiful. He arranges Madonna’s Steingberg/Kelly song Like a Virgin to great effect and it supports one of Puncture’s most cherishable moments. It’s possible someone reading this today might feel impelled to head to Parramatta tomorrow (tonight, even!) to see the piece – that would be wonderful; I wish I could see it again myself – so I won’t reveal what happens here. I’ll just say that VOX soprano Charlotte Campbell is a real surprise package.

Mic Gruchy’s video design sends evocative flickering figures along the walls of the space and Mel Page designed the show, which includes some divinely pretty skirts and dresses for the female dancers. The names keep on coming – this project really has gathered the best of the best. Damien Cooper did the lighting, and Bree Van Reyk (percussion) and Luke Byrne (piano) support the singers, whose music director is Elizabeth Scott.

And – this is the crowning touch – heading the beautiful ensemble of dancers are Kristina Chan and Joshua Thomson, two of the country’s finest contemporary dance artists.

Patrick Nolan, whose concept it is, directs this greatly complex piece in such a way that it feels quite simple and natural and incredibly satisfying. The flow of human history continues.

Dance at the Sydney Festival

Am I, Shaun Parker & Company, January 9; Dido & Aeneas, Sasha Waltz & Guests, January 16; Gudirr Gudirr, Marrugeku, January 17; Forklift, KAGE, January 18

THE Sydney Festival’s dance program was relatively low-key but had an interesting range, from the large-scale centrepiece Dido & Aeneas from Sasha Waltz & Guests to the intimacy and refreshing directness of Gudirr Guddir, Dalisa Pigram’s one-woman performance. There were four premieres – Gudirr Gudirr, Shaun Parker & Company’s  Am I, KAGE’s Forklift and the collaboration between Lingalayam and Taikoz, Chi Udaka. I wasn’t able to see Chi Udaka, but the others formed a program of great diversity.

DIDO & Aeneas is a self-regarding production – a dated-looking one too – that rides rough-shod over Henry Purcell’s delicate opera. The water tank that featured in all the publicity shots says it all. It’s huge, heavy and ugly – just the thing to symbolise the pulverising of Purcell.

The smart term for what choreographer Sasha Waltz does is deconstruction, but that would imply the creation of parts worth examining closely for fresh insights. Purcell’s surviving hour of music (some was lost) became 100 exceedingly dull minutes as a prologue was added and new action inserted. Virtually none of the text, spoken or sung, was intelligible on opening night despite most of it being in English. There were barriers in terms of accents and vocal projection and there were no surtitles. If you were unaware of the arc of Purcell’s opera you would be entirely at sea.

Dido & Aeneas. Photo: Sebastian Bolesch

Dido & Aeneas. Photo: Sebastian Bolesch

Speaking of which, the opening presumably referenced the journey of Aeneas from Troy to the shores of Carthage and presages his departure. The tank was half filled with water in which dancers frolicked and did little point-and-flex steps. While it looked lovely for a few moments it was an extremely large effect for no real dramatic gain.

The dancers then mingled with singers, often confusingly. In the melee it was hard to discern any real connection between our hero, Aeneas, and the Queen of Carthage, who fall in love but are separated when fate and a touch of evil intervene. Aeneas abandons Dido, whose dying lament, When I am laid in earth, is one of opera’s most exquisite arias. Here it signalled only that the end of the production was in sight.

It’s understandable a choreographer would be attracted to Purcell’s score, which inserts dances at regular intervals. Mark Morris made a wonderful version in 1989, seen at the 1994 Adelaide Festival, in which singers stood in the pit with the orchestral musicians and the roles of Dido and the Sorceress were doubled to absorbing effect.

Waltz doesn’t make dances to go in the spaces indicated in the libretto or make a piece that works in tandem with the opera like two bodies pressed together. She imposed a messy set of impulses over the top of it. Clothes were flung in the air, dancers were attached to cords to fly around, there was a break for a little dancing lesson, a silent solo and much more. A great deal of the movement wasn’t interesting enough to hold the attention long.

If Purcell’s opera were illuminated, or if ideas worked in strenuous opposition to its depiction of a woman’s disintegration in the face of betrayal, or if the stage action conveyed something moving and surprising on the subject of overpowering passion, it would have been wonderful. Alas, Waltz’s imagery was largely uninspiring. Aurore Ugolin sang Dido’s lament through a long veil of hair, which she managed to carry off with some dignity and beauty of tone.

The ravishing Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin in the pit under the direction of Christopher Moulds and the members of Vocal Consort Berlin came out of the evening best. The latter, gamely joining forces with the dancers, managed to create a strongly unified sound. Unfortunately the solo singing was often disappointing pallid. The Lyric Theatre was too big for these voices, chosen to suit a piece that privileged inexpressive and often incoherent movement over Purcell’s imperishable music.

SHAUN Parker’s Am I is a strong addition to this meticulous choreographer’s body of work – it looked and sounded stunning. Nick Wales, who has worked many times with Parker, contributed a new score full of fascinating colours, rhythms and sonorities, played and sung by a group of seven musicians, including Wales, who could sometimes be spotted emerging from the shadows as they inhabited a platform behind and above the dance area.

It was undoubtedly a sensible decision to keep them in semi-darkness as the potential for them to draw focus was very high indeed. Gorgeous Asian and central European influences were strong but by no means the whole musical story. Wales has an impressive ability to create a beautiful and coherent whole from a wide range of sources and make it work well for dance.

Shaun Parker & Company's Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Shaun Parker & Company’s Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

There was also a big wow factor with Damien Cooper’s wall of ever-changing lights, which featured in an early coup de theatre and from there on acted as a kind of illustration of events. Very smart indeed.

Meticulous, elegant and sophisticated, Am I ambitiously takes ideas from physics, astronomy, neurology, anthropology and other branches of science to chart the path of human development.  We are the only creatures who can apprehend ourselves as conscious beings with a limited span. Having evolved to that point, our drive is to survive and replicate, to make love and war, and to think about things too much.

This doesn’t come as news, of course, but Am I covers the ground with immense grace and delicacy. To borrow the title of an earlier Parker piece, this show is about people, and we rarely fail to be delighted by seeing ourselves and our psyches onstage.

Parker chose to express a significant amount – too much really – via text, delivered with often amused poise by Shantala Shivalingappa. More fascinating, though, was the way movement so eloquently described processes, emotions and beliefs. Energy radiated out through fluttering fingers, hands enclosed space to shape it and feel its volume and bodies joined to suggest elements merging and changing. Metal rods, glinting in the light, were seen as weapons, enclosures and used to form patterns and symbols. A snapping fan suggested culture but aggression too.

Dancers Josh Mu, Sophia Ndaba, Jessie Oshodi, Marnie Palomares, Melanie Palomares and Julian Wong – dressed simply but effectively in black by Anna Tregloan, were credited as collaborators in the piece and did it proud. Repetition and small incremental changes are built into Am I, giving it a hypnotic feel. Parker isn’t much of a one for overtly virtuosic leaps and turns but the choreography is extremely intricate, exacting and while being abstract also conveys a strong sense of relationships and emotional states. I particularly liked the dance for five very near the end in which a very modern sense of relentless activity and anxiety started to enter the picture.

Shaun Parker & Company's Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Shaun Parker & Company’s Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Coming as it did, however, after what felt like an ending but wasn’t, it lost something of its power. Am I explains itself just a little too much.

ABOUT an Hour is one of the glories of the Sydney Festival. It was the inspiration of former director Fergus Linehan (2006-2009) and while there have been a few tweaks along the way it survives in good shape. Nearly all the events take place over three or four days, making for a concentrated program. As the name suggests all the works are short, although there were many other events in the main Sydney Festival program that fell around the hour-long mark too, so in some ways the distinction is a little arbitrary.

The brief schedule means it’s hard to get the word out – in print at least – about shows of great merit, although it’s likely patrons just turn up and buy on spec as tickets are all $35 or less. I was able to see half the events, including dance works Gudirr Gudirr, from Western Australia’s Marrugeku company and KAGE’s Forklift, a new piece for women and heavy equipment.

Dalisa Pigram is an enchanting dancer and a passionate advocate for life in Australia’s north-west. Gudirr Gudirr is a memorable solo woven from themes relating to the area’s indigenous history, polyglot population, environmental beauties and present-day challenges. There are plenty of the latter.

The sound of a coastal bird from Pigram’s home country, the Kimberley, gave her work its name. At the start of the piece Pigram luxuriated in memories of gathering fish – but not too many! – and learning from her family. Simple pleasures gave way to a passionate recitation of former wrongs and current woes. There may be no more Aboriginal men with cruelly heavy chains around their necks or girls chosen for domestic work on the basis of skin tone, but new issues such as mining, violence and suicide take their toll. Gains have been made, Pigram said, but danger lies in being seduced by them.

Simutaneously wiry and elastic, Pigram seamlessly incorporated shapes from indigenous dance, martial arts, animal imagery, gymnastics, the nightclub and the circus for a wholly individual effect. When she spoke in her traditional language, Yawuru, it became a liquid element in Sam Serruys’s score, which also included songs from Stephen Pigram. When she railed against contemporary ills, the repeated use of the most common four-letter word turned into a kind of bird sound.

There was the occasional bumpy moment when Pigram rushed a text or a filmed element was difficult to identify, but Gudirr Gudirr rarely lost its grip. Particularly effective was how subtly Pigram altered her movement to morph from serene confidence to uncertainty and anguish. She also took to the air via a long ribbon of net that let her swing free or entangled her. The net was both tradition and snare.

Pigram, who is co-artistic director of Marrugeku, worked on Guddir Gudirr with Koen Augustijnen, formerly with celebrated Belgian company Les Ballets C de la B. He is credited as director and co-choreographer and together he and Pigram have made a 55-minute work overflowing with rich images and ideas.

KAGE’s Forklift would be a nifty concept for a 10-minute circus act. As an hour-long theatre work the conceit was stretched too far in several ways. Forklift puts women into an unusual industrial context as a kind of fantasy of female strength and empowerment, which is fine. Or would be, if it didn’t look somewhat like a male fantasy about hot women in the workplace.

In the first half there was an unfortunate suggestion of exotic dancers in a gentlemen’s club as three women performed extreme elongations and contortions in skin-tight, skin-coloured attire and did so with an unvaryingly languorous air to monotonous music. The early stacking of limp bodies into a container didn’t help the cause either.

Performers Henna Kaikula, Amy Macpherson and Nicci Wilks, each showing great skill and courage, shimmied into vivid costumes for the second half and standard industrial boxes were reversed to reveal crayon-bright colours, but what that may mean was elusive.

Using a moving forklift as a tiny performance arena is original and dangerous, no doubt about it. It just couldn’t bear a weightier goal than uncomplicated entertainment.

Am I will be staged at the Adelaide Festival from February 27-March 1.