Lest We Forget, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, July 29.

The Andrews Sisters style is all honey, sunshine and an irresistible life force, even when there’s a touch of wistfulness in the lyrics. No wonder the trio was so popular with US troops during World War II. The silken close harmonies, bouncy syncopations and light-on-the-feet melodies were made to please. They are optimism in a three-minute package.

Paul Taylor’s Company B uses nine of the sisters’ hits that show that in spades. The genius of Company B, though, is in the shadows the choreographer casts. While Brylcreemed young blades and flirty-skirted women whoop it up with infectious vitality there are men who fall, or are seen silhouetted on the periphery in martial poses. These ones melt in and out of the dance like ghosts while around them couples dance as if there were no tomorrow, full of juice and hope and infectious high spirits. I have no idea whether Taylor, now the grand old man of American modern dance, was thinking about contemporary conflicts when he made Company B in 1991, but its premiere at Houston Ballet came shortly after the first Gulf War.

Expressions Dance Company

Laura Hidalgo in Paul Taylor’s Company B. Photo: David Kelly

A song such as There Will Never Be Another You takes on quite a different complexion in Taylor’s context and when at the end of the bravura Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B) the soloist collapses to the floor, we think not only of goofily exaggerated exhaustion. This happens again and again, joy undercut by sorrow, until we are back at the beginning with a reprise of Bei Mir Bist du Schön. War never stops, nor do its consequences.

Company B closes Queensland Ballet’s commemorative Lest We Forget program on a strong note, even though the exhilarating mix of contemporary and social dance is delivered a little too carefully overall. Not everyone fully captures the scintillating swing of hips, jaunty shoulders and the effervescence that comes from within. On opening night principal Laura Hidalgo in Rum and Coca-Cola and soloist Camilo Ramos in Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh! show how it should be done and two less senior dancers – Vanessa Morelli in There Will Never Be Another You and Lima Kim always – were marvelously alert to the music.

Expressions Dance Company

Queensland Ballet in Natalie Weir’s We Who are Left. Photo: David Kelly

The other two works in the triple bill are new company commissions. Natalie Weir’s We Who are Left is perhaps a piece d’occasion rather than a stayer but her aim is true. The melancholy of young men at war and the women who grieve for them is affectingly expressed. The extensive filleting of Benjamin Britten’s 85-minute War Requiem to find not quite 30 minutes of music gives pause for thought but Weir is sensitive to its purpose. The gestures of love, loss and pain feel authentic and the five couples in the first cast did Weir proud, dancing with eloquent simplicity in David Walters’s gorgeous lighting. Principals Clare Morehen and Shane Weurthner were particularly fine in Weir’s delicate, bodies-not-quite-touching duet She Who Was Left.

Ma Cong’s In the Best Moments, which opens the evening, is dominated by a series of pas de deux that manage to be bland and overwrought all at once, with men lifting women in big, tricky manoeuvres that look effortful. The connection with its music, sections from Philip Glass’s score for the film The Hours, is primarily one of busyness. There are lots of notes, lots of steps.

Lest We Forget ends on August 6.

Macbeth and Cock in Brisbane

Macbeth, Queensland Theatre Company, The Playhouse, Brisbane, April 9. Cock, Melbourne Theatre Company and La Boite, The Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane, April 9.

QUEENSLAND Theatre Company’s Macbeth isn’t set in a boardroom, or in Nazi Germany, or in the fiefdom of the Klingons. The unchanging set (Simone Romaniuk, who also designed the costumes) is a thicket of gnarled trees, Birnham Wood having already come to Dunsinane as Macbeth plays out his doomed tilt at a glory he hubristically hopes will last for generations. The men are dressed in simple battle attire, are always dirty and often bloodied. The witches are wild-haired, mud-caked creatures who slither out of the mire. Composer and sound designer Phil Slade’s opening volley of doom-laden thunder and David Walters’s shots of lightning support the louring stage picture. This is a dark and forbidding place for dark deeds.

Jason Klarwein and Veronica Neave in Macbeth. Photo: Rob Maccoll

Jason Klarwein and Veronica Neave in Macbeth. Photo: Rob Maccoll

QTC engaged Michael Attenborough, former artistic director of London’s Almeida Theatre, to direct the Scottish play and he does so with a very straight bat indeed. His Macbeth is reverent, respectful and ultra clear in the delivery of its language. No one could leave the theatre thinking Shakespeare is hard work. These are not qualities to be derided, to be sure, but they do render this Macbeth too tame and earnest. The whiff of a production suitable for high school students hangs over it.

Attenborough has a long pedigree when it comes to Shakespeare, having, among his many other eminent positions, been principal associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1990 to 2002. His Brisbane cast doesn’t lack Shakespeare credentials, but perhaps Attenborough felt those credentials were insufficiently deep. Whatever the reason, the excitement engendered by the sound and light show that introduces the play is swiftly damped down as soon as the actors begin to speak. Attenborough has them deliver the text deliberately and carefully, almost as if they were still in the rehearsal phase, teasing out exactly what each phrase means.

This makes for the utmost legibility, but at the expense of dramatic tension, individual character and intensity of feeling. What is really driving each character, how they feel, what is at stake emotionally and politically, is apprehended intellectually rather than viscerally. The savagery of this society, riven by civil war and prey to the influence of spirits and auguries, is made really quite polite. This is so even in the case of the semi-clad witches, who hiss and writhe theatrically but are over-choreographed (by Nerida Matthaei). They mostly look contrived, although it’s a nice touch to have them as hooded attendants at Macbeth’s feast where they accompany Banquo’s ghost.

In such an environment Jason Klarwein’s Macbeth has many separate moments of value but they don’t add up to a tightly woven portrait of raging, flailing ambition fatally undermined by a susceptibility to portents. Veronica Neave’s Lady Macbeth is perhaps more of a piece but is too coolly efficient – a terrifically organised headmistress type who isn’t about to reveal much about herself. Thus there is little sexual spark in the Macbeth ménage and her breakdown has a guarded quality. One was a little surprised that she would kill herself.

The highly experienced Eugene Gilfedder seemed the most at ease at the matinee performance I saw. Playing a trio of small roles – Duncan, Old Man, the Doctor – he effortlessly differentiated between them and his delivery of the text was the most naturally achieved.

Macbeth was a venture between QTC and Brisbane company Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe, which enabled it to put a larger than usual cast on stage, and the state government’s Super Star Fund supported Attenborough’s involvement. The result is a strong, clean, handsome production that has attracted big audiences and given them a very nice night’s entertainment.

NO one comes out of Cock particularly well. John (Tom Conroy) is a character described as giving the impression of being drawn with a pencil and is as wishy-washy as that suggests. M (Eamon Flack in the Brisbane season of this MTC/La Boite co-production; Angus Grant played the role in Melbourne) is the teensiest bit over-bearing and controlling. W (Sophie Ross) is the same, only more manipulative. M’s father, F (Tony Rickards), a late entrant into the action, rounds out an unlikely dinner party and uses the occasion to deliver a homily on sexual preference.

Those who come out of it least well, however, are director Leticia Caceres and designer Marg Horwell. Horwell’s soft-furnishings set made entirely of white cushions gives a clue: Cock is ultimately flaccid, or at least it is in this production.

Mike Bartlett’s compact play, written in 2009, is composed of a series of scenes in which John is deciding whether he wants to be with M, with whom he has lived for seven years, or W, who inducts him into heterosexual pleasures after John makes his first go at breaking away from M.

M treats John as a child, but W adores him and offers the prospect of children. What to do? John is a great vacillator and liar, but no matter. What he thinks – well, he doesn’t know what he thinks. Others are more than happy to do the thinking and acting for him. In this scenario F may be seen as a kind of referee, albeit one who loads the dice in favour of M. But he’s there to outline the rules as he sees them pertaining in this day and age.

M and F are acting out a battle of the sexes with a twist and John is the weapon that keeps changing hands. The exercise of power is M and F’s sport, and they are prepared to play very dirty. John’s situation is more fluid. He is in one sense putty in the hands of both M and F, twisting and turning between them. But he’s also the prize, and in that respect is the combatants’ Achilles heel.

The man with the pencil-drawn outline – no heavier than 2B one would suggest – is only a fragment of a character, as are the others. We hear of M’s career as a broker, W’s as a childcare assistant and F’s loneliness following the death of his wife, but these are little more than are labels enabling a couple of good quips or, in the case of F, a detail that obliquely bolsters his line of argument. We can’t see the information as part of the fabric of a complex character. Caceres seems to want more, however. You can feel the pull towards humanising the players – F’s slightly sad old-guy tracksuit, all the tumbling around on pillows, M’s air of domesticity – but it only dilutes the impact of the play.

Cock is, or can be, an act of provocation – cold, hard-edged, laugh-aloud funny and irritating. John is the empty vessel into which are poured ideas about sex, love, ownership, power and desire; M, W and F pour away. The irritant factor is important, and an unusual one in the theatre. The depiction of the feminine in the shape of W is intensely vexing. The out-of-left-field sermonising of F is awkward and frankly unbelievable in any realistic context. M is something of a cliche – the well-off guy who likes everything just so – and John is Mr Cellophane. But as the punches keep on coming and the ducking and weaving goes on, the ground shifts and the raygun of one’s irritation is continually redirected.

I freely admit to having been influenced in this view by seeing, in New York, James Macdonald’s sparer than spare, gladiatorial production. It was cold as ice and a bracingly savage dissection of sexual power play.

Macbeth ends April 13; Cock ends April 12.

When Time Stops

Expressions Dance Company
Brisbane, September 10

IN Greek mythology the river Styx marks the point of no return. On one side is life, and on the other death; the ferryman Charon is the intermediary, transporting souls to the afterlife. Natalie Weir has taken this enduring story as the wellspring of When Time Stops, a new work for Expressions Dance Company that has just premiered at the Brisbane Festival. The central character is a woman who, In Weir’s words, “could be anyone, in her last moment of life’’. That moment is extended and suspended as experiences are relived, in flashes, by the Woman or replayed by others.

When we first see the Woman (Riannon McLean) she is at the point of joining the Ferryman (Thomas Gundry Greenfield) for her final journey. He is seated in a small white boat, back rippling as his arms press and circle in huge, powerful strokes that have a mesmerising but implacable rhythm. Never, one imagines, has the afterlife looked quite so enticing. McLean, so poised and centred, reaches towards him but is interrupted. The stage fills with musicians and other dancers. A life’s flashback begins.

This is a striking and eloquent beginning, much enhanced by Bill Haycock’s cool, elegant design and David Walters’s sympathetic lighting. And how marvellously and unselfconsciously the members of Camerata of St John’s move in and out of the dance, playing Iain Grandage’s new score from memory and doing it very, very proud. Weir’s direction of this aspect of the production is exceptional.

The dancers give every sinew of their being to the work and are captivating. McLean draws the eye even when still and in the background, such is her charisma; there can never be too many opportunities to see Daryl Brandwood; and Gundry Greenfield, whether entering the dance or continuing his endless ferryman labour, is as imposing a presence on stage as I have seen in quite a while.

When it comes to the choreography itself, however, I have significant reservations. Weir relies too much on several relatively obvious ideas – running backwards, slow-motion moves, rolling, leaping – in a way that does little to differentiate stages in the woman’s journey (there are 12 sections). There are several intimations of tenderness but mostly I felt as if I were seeing 17 kinds of sorrow on a loop.

Most troubling for me is a hardness in much of the partnering that borders on violence. There is one section clearly depicting some kind of accident or harm where the use – abuse? – of male strength is dramatically justified. But there were so many times when young women hurled themselves at the men, when they were slung over shoulders and when they were hurled around. The partnering looked very unequal in power and authority. I was also dismayed when women upended themselves on the floor, their floaty skirts naturally dropping down over their heads and shoulders as they extended their legs. I don’t mean to suggest Weir had the intention of making her female dancers look manipulated and anonymous; far from it. But, to me, apart from McLean they looked just that and I found it hard to watch.

That said, When Time Stops has many individual moments of great beauty. Apart from the opening the most satisfying image is of Gundry Greenfield morphing into a man who, in earlier times, rescued the Woman (danced at this point by Elise May) from drowning. The section is overlong, but has clarity of purpose not always so evident elsewhere.(It’s astonishing to learn that Gundry Greenfield did not start formal dance training until he was 21, although his background does include Australian Rules football, so that sort of counts.)

When Time Stops could do with some focusing and tightening. So many new works fail to get the second look they deserve because of time or money constraints, but I hope Weir does have a chance to reconsider some things about When Time Stops because it’s certainly worth it. Undoubtedly a major problem about restaging would be the participation of the number of musicians Grandage requires for his score, and the dance would be immeasurably diminished by the use of recorded music.

Grandage, whose score for Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River was greatly admired, describes his music for When Time Stops as having, among other things, elements of minimalism, surrealism and polytonality. That may sound rather dry. In practice there is a great wealth of colour and texture as the orchestration – for strings alone – moves from the group to individual instruments, from the lower strings to the higher, from quite romantic plushness to thrilling astringency. The music appealed greatly on this one hearing and the Camerata of St John’s and their music director, Brendan Joyce, put in a blinder.

When Time Stops continues at the Playhouse, QPAC, until September 14.