Bangarra: OUR land people stories

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 16

Bangarra offers balm in a fractured, fractious world. As always the work is radiantly lovely, but more important are underlying principles that have propelled Bangarra for more than a quarter of a century: connection with the land, learning from the past, the glue of community and the enduring power of storytelling.

Bangarra takes the long view. Place, family and culture are seen on a continuum that reaches from almost unfathomable antiquity into the now and beyond.

Each of the three works in OUR land people stories enlarges our understanding of these big themes as, sadly, does the program’s dedication to the company’s late music director, David Page. Page, who died in April, composed the heart-stopping score for Jasmin Shepphard’s Macq and was a pivotal figure in the creation of Bangarra’s unique aesthetic. In no other company’s work are past and present so potently, inextricably intertwined.

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Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco in Nyapanyapa. Photo: Jhuny Boy-Borja

In a series of short, surreal and highly evocative scenes Macq relives a massacre of Indigenous Australians in NSW, ordered by Governor Lachlan Macquarie 200 years ago this year. We see grieving women, a parody of colonial society, an Indigenous leader refusing to give in to the might of his oppressor and a scene of hanging men in which dancers embody both the trees from which the men dangle and the loving arms that cut them down.

In an act of extraordinary generosity Sheppard lets us see Macquarie tormented by his action, even though his words speak of the need for retribution and chastisement. Daniel Riley’s anguished solo sees Macquarie in profound conflict with himself. In this and everywhere else Sheppard has a wonderful eye. A woman tries desperately to restore a dead man to life; the depiction of red-coated soldiers as a swarm of crawling commandos also brings to mind a mob of goannas; the group of perfectly still women to one side of the stage as their men hang, slowly raised and lowered while bathed in Matt Cox’s golden light, is a stage picture of perplexing beauty.

David Page’s score resounds with the echoing voices of the bereaved, the sound of the elements and the persistent buzz of the landscape. When the Indigenous men die Page weaves in allusions to medieval sacred music, European tradition mingling with an even older one. I can’t recall his having written a more affecting score and it is devastating that it was his last.

Macq has been somewhat reworked since its 2013 premiere in a more intimate studio setting and it fully earns this main stage exposure.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley – they are related, although didn’t meet until they joined Bangarra – created Miyagan together to Paul Mac’s pungent score. It shows a kinship system reclaiming young people who are at first disconnected from it and while some details are elusive, the morphing from contemporary life into a mysterious world of spirits is subtle and beautiful.

There are brief flashes of what one might call normal life. Men strut, an old couple totters, a young couple flirts. Soon more enigmatic figures arrive as the stage is filled with a proliferation of great feathery branches, lit ravishingly by Cox (lighting designer for the whole evening). Hugely talented Jacob Nash designed all three works in OUR land people stories and each is spare, monumental and sculptural. Longtime Bangarra collaborator Jennifer Irwin provided the wonderful costumes. Nash, by the way, is one of the few designers who has the measure of the difficult letter-box dimensions of the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. His work always looks wonderful there.

This rich evening ends with Nyapanyapa, Stephen Page’s wondrously multi-layered homage to Arnhem Land artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. The depiction of a key event in Yunupingu’s life – she was severely injured by a buffalo – has mythic resonance while a later community gathering at which Yunupingu, danced devotedly by national treasure Elma Kris, isn’t quite at ease is instantly recognisable, funny and poignant all at once. At the end there is peace, harmony and grace.

Yunupingu’s paintings are recreated in dance and inspire Nash’s setting in a remarkably harmonius fusion of arts. Steve Francis’s score is in the spirit of David Page, mingling spoken language and natural sounds seamlessly with more contemporary sounds.

The 17-strong company is entrancing, revelling in fluid, juicy, full-bodied movement and animating every moment with shining sincerity. All are a joy. It’s particularly noticeable how democratic Bangarra’s dance is. Men and women frequently do the same movements and it’s refreshing to in Nyapanyapa, see three couples, all male, in a strong sextet.

The Bangarra dancers have a distinctive way of taking a curtain call. They aren’t necessarily all in line. Some may be laughing with the pleasure of having performed and they like to applaud each other and the audience. There’s a lot of joy and a complete lack of pretension and artifice. It’s incredibly endearing, but there’s something more too: a feeling of humility and deep service to the work.

Ends in Sydney July 9. Perth, July 20-23; Canberra, July 28-30; Brisbane, August 12-20; Melbourne, September 1-10.

New Breed, Sydney Dance Company

Carriageworks, Sydney, December 9.

SOMETIMES it’s about getting experience, sometimes it’s about getting the kind of exposure that can really pay dividends. Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed program introduces audiences to choreographers who are either completely new to the game or who still fly somewhat under the radar. Last year, for instance, New Breed included a work by Gabrielle Nankivell called Wildebeest that has been scheduled as part of SDC’s 2016 program. Nankivell was by no means untried as a choreographer but this got her wider, well-deserved recognition.

I hope I’m not jumping the gun here but this year’s equivalent is Kristina Chan. The much-admired independent dancer has a clutch of small-scale choreographies to her credit but with Conform takes a big step forward. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this work or a development of it turning up in a SDC program in the near future.

Sydney Dance Company New Breed, Conform. Choreography by Kristina Chan. Dancers Richard Cilli and Petros Treklis. Photo by Peter Greig

Richard Cilli and Petros Treklis in Conform. Photo: Peter Greig

“I am interested in what it means to be a man in this modern day,” writes Chan in the program note to Conform. She has a sombre view. When we first see her men – there is an all-male cast of eight – they visibly buckle under the weight of expectation. They are either desperately alone with their thoughts or they fall in with the majority, losing individuality but absorbing the power of the pack. It’s not particularly safe to be outside the group nor is there easy rapport with another individual.

Conform is beautifully structured, vibrates with repressed emotion and has a very strong, pulsating and often ominous score by James Brown. This one is a keeper.

Bernhard Knauer’s Derived also has a terrific score, written by his father, Jürgen. Knauer’s piece is only eight minutes in length but has a distinctive, elegant voice. The movement is thick, weighty and juicy all at once, answering the dark sonorities of the music. The dancers, two women and two men, are supremely confident individuals, whether alone or with the others. Derived is a highly polished miniature.

Sydney Dance Company New Breed, Derived. Choreography by Bernhard Knauer. Dancers Cass Mortimer Eipper and Holly Doyle. Photo by Peter Greig

Cass Mortimer Eipper and Holly Doyle in Derived. Photo: Peter Greig

Fiona Jopp’s So Much, Doesn’t Matter is her first work, a piece inspired by various iterations of the song Greensleeves and the implications of its lyrics. Jopp throws slapstick comedy, children’s games, medieval masque and more into the mix and it unfortunately makes little sense although Jopp’s verve and ambition are admirable.

Daniel Riley’s Reign puts a beleaguered queen at the mercy of a faceless pack of women determined to bring her down. The ferocious energy of the dancers makes Reign a perfectly agreeable quarter of an hour but it fades quickly from view.

Kusch joins the AB; Cubans come to Brisbane

AS I foreshadowed on December 15 on my Diary page, Queensland Ballet has lost one of its principal artists, Natasha Kusch, to The Australian Ballet. Kusch was with QB for less than 18 months after leaving the Vienna State Opera Ballet. She joins the AB as a senior artist. In a press statement released today the AB says Kusch will make her debut as Giselle when Maina Gielgud’s production opens in Melbourne in March.

Kusch is pictured here as Juliet with Australian superstar Steven McRae, who was a guest artist from the Royal Ballet when QB staged Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet last year.

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

There is significant movement at several of the country’s leading dance companies, but none more striking than at QB. It’s possible to interpret Kusch’s move as something that could create tension between QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and the AB’s David McAllister (the two, of course, danced together at the AB) but it also points to how greatly Li has increased QB’s strength and visibility.

And Li was able to bury news of Kusch’s departure in an early-December press release. The big announcement he had to trumpet was the hiring of two dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba – premier Yanela Piñera and principal Camilo Ramos (the top two ranks at NBC).

As I wrote on my Diary page at the time, the pair, partners in life, join at the end of this month. Piñera joined NBC in 2005 and was promoted to premier dancer in 2011. She would have gained some knowledge of Brisbane when NBC visited in 2010. Unfortunately she wasn’t in the opening night cast of Don Quixote so I haven’t seen her dance live but there are, naturally, many clips on YouTube. It will be fascinating to see how the Cubans fit into the QB repertoire for next year – La Sylphide, Coppelia, Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan and The Sleeping Beauty.

The QB press release said Piñera’s position would exist under Queensland Ballet’s International Guest Artist program, funded by the Jani Haenke Charitable Trust, but Li told me that Piñera will be a full-time principal – her position is not apparently like that of Huang Junshuang, who for two years was QB’s very welcome guest principal but not permanently with the company.

Further down the press release was news of comparable interest, the retirement of incredibly valuable principal Matthew Lawrence and long-serving soloist Nathan Scicluna. However, with the arrival of Piñera to join principals Hao Bin, Clare Morehen and Meng Ningning and with Ramos joining soloists Lisa Edwards and Shane Wuerthner (an American who joined QB last year), the senior ranks are close to full strength.

West Australian Ballet is seeking a new senior man after the announcement that soloist Daniel Roberts has joined Sydney Dance Company, where there have been extensive changes in the 16-member troupe. Chloe Leong, Josephine Weise and Sam Young-Wright have also joined and former member Richard Cilli has returned. Leaving are Chen Wen, Tom Bradley and Jessica Thompson, while Chris Aubrey is taken a year’s sabbatical. Company member Petros Treklis joined only last year.

Lee Johnston is SDC’s new rehearsal director.

Bangarra Dance Theatre also announced the return of two former dancers who left last year but are now back in the fold – and it’s very good news. Deborah Brown and Daniel Riley, both of whom also choreograph, are back with the company.

The AB also has three new junior dancers, coryphée Nicola Curry, who was formerly with American Ballet Theatre, and corps members Shaun Andrews and Callum Linnane, who are Australian Ballet School graduates.

West Australian Ballet opens its 2015 season with Zip Zap Zoom: Ballet at the Quarry, Perth, from February 6; The Australian Ballet’s 2015 season starts in Sydney with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake from February 20 and Giselle opens in Melbourne on March 13; Sydney Dance Company opens Frame of Mind in Sydney on March 6; Queensland Ballet’s La Sylphide opens in Brisbane on March 20; Bangarra’s Lore opens in Sydney on June 11 and before then the company works on a film of Spear, based onStephen Page’s wonderful 2000 work of that name, which will premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in October.

Dance Clan 3

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bangarra Studio Theatre, Sydney. November 19.

ONE of the hot topics of conversation in dance is the under-representation of women in choreography. The situation is much better in contemporary dance than in ballet, but there is still disparity. Bangarra’s Dance Clan 3 therefore had a great deal going for it before a step was taken. The program, part of the Corroboree Sydney festival, consists of new works by four women from the company.

There is one overwhelmingly positive impression in that each work is distinguished by the clarity and resonance of the image-making. This isn’t terribly surprising given Bangarra’s sumptuous visual appeal, but good to see the DNA being passed on.

To take the pieces in order of appearance, Tara Gower’s Nala opens with a delightful vignette of being at the outdoor cinema in Broome that turns into a kind of clog dance with jumbo-sized potato crisp packets as footwear (trust me, it works). In Jasmin Sheppard’s Macq there is a strikingly lovely image of hanging men, all the more unsettling for the beauty of its composition. In Deborah Brown’s excellent film Dive, bulbous diving helmets are the entrée into a world of underwater magic. And in Yolande Brown’s Imprint, a woman’s body is tenderly adorned with the colours of the earth and there is a final gesture of great simplicity and wealth of meaning.

A scene from Jasmin Sheppard's Macq

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in Macq. Photo: Greg Barrett

Also in the unsurprising category was the occasional over-reliance on familiar Bangarra shapes in Nala, Macq and Imprint. The choreographers are new to the game. But Bangarra’s style is deeply embedded in the bodies of its dancers and there’s no danger of mistaking this work for that of another company.  It would have been brilliant to see Gower, Sheppard and Deborah Brown rely more fully on their own interpretation of the house style, because their pieces were absolutely at their best when most individual.

To pick just a couple of moments, Macq powerfully and movingly sets colonial might against indigenous resistance and includes a potent, anguished solo for the oppressor. On opening night Daniel Riley was in astonishing form. In Imprint, which is inspired by the Batik project to support native title claim, cloth is used as tether, cocoon, personal covering and artwork. Senior dancer Elma Kris was, as she always is, a luminous presence.

For a studio season of short new works, Dance Clan 3 is remarkably rich.

Until December 1.

This review first appeared in The Australian on November 21.