Off the Record: Force Majeure with Dance Integrated Australia

Carriageworks, Sydney, August 17.

Marnie Palomares has Alex Jones pinned against a wall and is trying to put words into his mouth. Literally. This would be a resonant image under any circumstances but as Jones is deaf it seems an even more intrusive and futile act than usual. Except it’s a moment that also feels achingly intimate.

Off the Record is full of pungent provocations like this as it investigates how information is transferred from one person to another and what is revealed – or hidden or misunderstood – in the process.

Force Majeure IMAGE GREGORY LORENZUTTI

Marnie Palomares and Jana Castillo in Off the Record. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

The stakes are upped by the knowledge that the performers’ real-life experiences were used as raw material, so one must assume that Jana Castillo did indeed incite a friend to sully her pristine Barbie collection by ripping dolls from their boxes and using them to demonstrate sex moves.

How much has been fictionalised (Zoe Coombs Marr was the text dramaturg) is impossible to tell. It adds an intriguing layer of perception in a piece that is already multi-layered and conducted in three languages: spoken text, movement, and the beautiful fusion of silent communication and movement that is Auslan. Occasional additions of audio-description and captioning bob up too. There’s a lot going on – so much so in this wide, relatively shallow space that occasionally there’s a sense of being at a tennis match, except one where the ball is in play at both ends.

The conjunction of arts and methods sets up a rich visual and imaginative world. Castillo’s extraordinary plasticity is used to convey her frustration about how bodies aren’t always obedient (“I don’t tic when I’m on stage,” she says). Auslan interpreter Neil Phipps has a great double act with Jones, with the two offering one of the funniest, most telling scenes in the piece as they vie for attention. They also share an exquisitely tender moment of connection, beautifully framed in Benjamin Cisterne’s austere set and lighting.

Gerard O’Dwyer’s sweet, serious presence adds a quieter and more mysterious thread to the complex business of how we explain ourselves to the world. He is a good person who just wants to be liked but it’s not necessarily easy.

O’Dwyer often speaks as if to himself. Palomares, on the other hand, is all super-confidence as she lays bare language’s potential for extraordinary unreliability. Interpreting for Jones at one point with utmost fluency, she is brightly engaged and totally clueless.

Danielle Micich (artistic director of Force Majeure) and Philip Channells (of Dance Integrated Australia) co-directed for Carriageworks as part of its valuable New Normal program. This is designed to bring artists from various disciplines and backgrounds together and to give greater mainstream prominence to work that is so frequently – and undeservedly – under the radar. In Off the Record Micich and Channells fluently cut across classifications and barriers as dancers speak, actors dance and the lines between them are blurred. The audience’s world is enlarged.

Off the Record takes a little time to get into its stride but by the end I wanted to know much more about these people – imperfect as we all are but significantly more honest about it. The show had a very short season in Sydney but one assumes there are hopes for more exposure. Off the Record is worth it.

It was impossible to see Off the Record without thinking of the company’s recent whack to the head by the Federal Government. Force Majeure recently lost four-year funding from the Australia Council after the debacle of former federal arts minister George Brandis’s money shuffle, taking from the Australia Council to set up his ominously named National Program for Excellence in the Arts. (Whose definition of excellence, pray tell?) After Brandis was replaced by Mitch Fifield some money – but not all – was restored to the Australia Council and Fifield turned the NPEA into a program called Catalyst – Australian Arts and Culture Fund.

The Catalyst website says the fund has $12 million annually to invest: “Catalyst will assist organisations to forge new creative and financial partnerships and stimulate innovative ways to build participation by Australians in our cultural life. It will enable access to high quality arts experiences in regional communities and international activities that achieve cultural diplomacy objectives,” it says.

Projects by small to medium-sized organisations are given priority.

The key word is “projects”. The Australia Council funding allowed companies to have certainty for four years; project funding is finite. Force Majeure also has triennial NSW Government funding and is a resident company at Carriageworks. So it’s not going out of business, as far as we can tell, but will undoubtedly have to do less business. As will so many other small-to-medium companies, as they were the ones hit by the Australia Council cuts.

This is the area where most experimentation takes place, it’s where artists find their voices and hone their skills. It’s where some of the most surprising, exhilarating and challenging work can be found. It’s where audiences can find a lot of bang for not many bucks. If the Federal Government were serious about wanting high quality arts and culture to be available to all, this is the last place it should be reducing funding. The amount of money involved is already in rounding-error territory when you look at the Federal Budget as a whole. It really is a disgrace.

Thrills and spills: the year in dance

We’ll get to the year’s most interesting work and dancers shortly but 2015 was also notable for offstage developments, particularly at Australia’s three leading classical companies, The Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet. So let’s begin there.

OFFSTAGE

The national company

At The Australian Ballet, David McAllister became the company’s longest-serving artistic director, surpassing Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign. McAllister took over in July 2001 after the relatively brief tenure of Ross Stretton, who cut his time at the AB short to go to the Royal Ballet in London. McAllister was named to the post while he was still dancing, although retirement followed swiftly. It was a huge leap of faith on the part of the AB board as he had had no leadership experience but it is now emphatically his company. Of the AB’s current roster of 68 dancers, only two were members of the company before 2001 and two joined in 2001.

In another big first, this year McAllister put himself forward to stage a new production of The Sleeping Beauty. He had previously staged only a handful of minor pieces. The production is thought to have cost about $2 million and in a dazzling feat of fundraising, about 70 per cent came from 2000 or so ballet-lovers giving sums ranging from $100 to $50,000 or more. Audiences flocked to it, several dancers in Sydney were given career-changing opportunities and despite reservations from some critics (including me) about some aspects of the production, it must be counted a significant success for McAllister and The Australian Ballet.

McAllister shows absolutely no sign of becoming jaded and it wouldn’t surprise one to see him celebrate his 20th anniversary in the job in 2021.

The state companies

Queensland Ballet was the real surprise package of the year from a backstage perspective, making the position of its high-profile CEO Anna Marsden redundant. The announcement was made on July 9 and was supposed to take effect from September 1 but Marsden was quickly out of the picture. On July 29 QB’s chair, Brett Clark, said in a statement the company would appoint an executive director, whose role would be to enable the vision of artistic director Li Cunxin and drive operations.  Dilshani Weerasinghe, previously the company’s development director, was announced as acting executive director but she was soon the board’s permanent choice.

I spoke at length to Clark in early December about the move, very shortly after the company’s announcement that the Queensland Government would give QB an extra $1.2 million annually (bringing its contribution to $2.7 million annually) to support an increase in dancer numbers (an additional eight by 2020), expansion of its headquarters, increased international touring and a greater number of performances. In 2016 QB will have 31 company members and seven young artists.

The announcement by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also contained news of a $5 million gift from the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End.

Clark said negotiations regarding both announcements had been “a long work in progress”. He said specific goals were for QB to be seen as a “powerhouse in the Asia-Pacific region” and to perform more frequently in regional Queensland. Touring to Sydney and Melbourne was not on the cards. “I think the AB services Sydney and Melbourne extremely well. They’re an amazing company.”

Clark declined to speak about the working relationship between Li and Marsden. He said, however, it had become “apparent that for us to get agreed goals and visions, it needed to be an artistic director-led strategy”. He said an executive director can have input into strategy and vision but the core role is to support the board and the company, “and in the case of Queensland Ballet, the artistic director on his or her vision for the company”. He also said that “Dilshani reports through Li to the board”.

Clark acknowledged Marsden’s role in QB’s rapid growth since Li became artistic director in 2011. He also said: “We needed Li’s vision and strategy leading the way forward.”

Clark would not discuss what went on behind the scenes but the implication is clear. Although Marsden was a key player in QB’s revival of fortunes following the departure of previous artistic director François Klaus, a structure in which both CEO and artistic director reported to the board created tension. The board chose Li.

I approached Marsden but she did not wish to comment.

West Australian Ballet will also be under new management next year following the announcement on December 14 that its CEO, Steven Roth, will be leaving in February to work with Scottish Ballet. Roth joined WAB in 2007 when the company had 19 very unhappy dancers who were agitating for the right to strike over their pay and conditions. (Their accommodation in His Majesty’s Theatre, where the company mainly performs, was limited to one studio and cramped production and administration space.) The dancers prevailed: the West Australian Government upped its funding and WAB now has 32 company members and eight young artists. One of the great achievements of Roth’s tenure can be seen in WAB’s gleaming State Ballet Centre in the Perth suburb of Maylands; another is the increase in the company’s operating revenue from $3.2 million in 2007 to $10 million in 2015.

Interestingly, Roth goes to Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet, the country’s national company, as executive director. That company already has a CEO – Christopher Hampson, who is also the company’s artistic director. He added CEO duties earlier this year after the sudden departure of chief executive Cindy Sughrue. In June Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported: “Scottish Ballet will now also begin a search for an executive director who will sit on the national company’s board and report to Hampson, with a remit for ‘clear focus on strategic vision and commercial success’.”

The Herald also reported Scottish Ballet’s chairman, Norman Murray, as saying “the board had undertaken a review of how the company was run, with aid from consultants, and believed it should be ‘artistically led’.”

ONSTAGE – CLASSICAL AND CONTEMPORARY

There are, I admit, a lot of gaps: no 2015 Melbourne Festival, no 2015 Adelaide Festival, no 2015 Dance Massive (Melbourne), although I had already seen one or two things on that program. I mention this because I travelled a fair bit in 2015 but not to everywhere or everything. My list doesn’t leave these things out because there was nothing of note, but because I wasn’t there. Adelaide would have been my big chance to see – at long last – Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet but that is now impossible. Cedar Lake’s financial backer closed the company not long after Adelaide. At Melbourne I could have caught up with the latest work from Batsheva, which I’ve seen regularly at Australian arts festivals, but no.

And a work that I reviewed reasonably strictly on first seeing it makes the list for its daring and its dancers. While I have issues with some of the dramaturgy in The Australian Ballet’s new Sleeping Beauty it is nevertheless a considerable achievement that provided three artists with role debuts that saw each immediately promoted to the next rank.

The productions are in the order in which I saw them and the performers in alphabetical order. The list is heavily skewed towards ballet because that’s the way the year panned out for me.

The best of the best? A Sleeping Beauty double: Alexei Ratmansky’s back-to-Petipa production for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala; and Benedicte Bemet’s dazzling debut as Aurora for The Australian Ballet.

PRODUCTIONS

Nothing to Lose, Force Majeure, Sydney Festival, January

Force Majeure founder Kate Champion has now moved on, leaving the company in new hands. Nothing to Lose, made with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, was a great farewell piece. It put the following propositions on stage: that fat people should not hide away, that they should be heard, that they are entitled to make choices, that they may actually like the way they are, and, by god, they can and will dance.

Puncture, Legs on the Wall, FORM Dance Projects, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Festival, January

Puncture started with “Hello” and ended with “I love you”. Is there anything more life-affirming? Six couples collided, grappled, touched, fought, flew, supported, changed partners, argued and loved. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evoked 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 was about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, Perth International Arts Festival, February

In this seemingly carefree work Morris offered principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women were equal, each was an individual, there was strength to be gained from one another and there was belief in the power of love and joy.

Quintett, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, March

The first cast was more balletic, the second more ferocious in this thrilling, heart-catching William Forsythe work. Not many companies are allowed to do it; Sydney Dance Company did it proud.

Sydney Dance Company's Quintett featuring Chloe Leong and David Mack 1. Photo by Peter Greig

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

The Sleeping Beauty, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Alexei Ratmansky’s production took us as nearly as possible back to what the original 1890 audience would have seen: super-lavish setting, strong mime and many intimate, modest details. The physicality looked startlingly different. Instead of height and bravura there was refinement and great charm. For both men and women there was a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkled. It was as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and much more intricate and sophisticated.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Auckland, September

What a gorgeous production! Designed by New Zealander Tracy Grant Lord and choreographed by hotter-than-hot Brit Liam Scarlett, this co-pro between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet was funny, sexy and ravishing to behold. Brisbane sees it in April.

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

Hayley Dennison in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The Sleeping Beauty, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne and Sydney, September and December

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drank deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, was almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revelled in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There were columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that threw out a huge challenge to David McAllister: match this if you can, buddy. Well, he asked for it. There have been a few rumblings about the design being oppressively opulent but this greatest of ballet scores can bear the weight. It invites and deserves a magnificent mise en scène. It also requires storytelling that can fill the space and amplify the music. It’s in the latter sphere that Beauty doesn’t fully succeed despite the involvement of Lucas Jervies, a choreographer and director working as McAllister’s sounding board and adviser. It was extremely cheering, though, to see many very fine performances through the ranks and exciting role debuts (see below).

Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, November

It was a joy to see Ochres revived at Carriageworks with a dynamic new generation of dancers. Not that it was exactly the work originally choreographed by Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene, nor should it be. Dance texts are particularly susceptible to change and Bangarra has developed greatly since the early 1990s. This revival was in the spirit of the original rather than a faithful dusting off of the old steps. The company called it a re-imagining and it looked wonderful. Bangarra has a unique aesthetic based on the connection with Indigenous ceremony and the land. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and invigorating.

Cinderella, choreographed by Jayne Smeulders, West Australian Ballet, Perth, December

How many full-length, mainstage classical ballets choreographed by women were there on Australian stages this year? Just the one I think, Jayne Smeulders’s Cinderella. She reworked her 2011 production to advantage and scored a huge hit with Perth audiences. See: it can be done.

Coppélia, choreographed by Maina Gielgud for Christine Walsh’s Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Melbourne, December

There was quite a lot of new choreography and loads of rearranging but basically Gielgud’s production was a staging rather than a new work. But what a beauty. It was hard to believe this was a student production, so high were its standards. The young dancers were not just technically assured, they gave terrifically engaged and engaging performances, working seamlessly with the delightful guest artists from Tokyo Ballet, Maria Kawatani and Arata Miyagawa. Christine Walsh designed the many costumes, all of them splendid.

PERFORMANCES

Stella Abrera, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Abrera’s warmth and simplicity informed every moment of her performance; there wasn’t a thing that didn’t feel genuine. The mad scene tore at the heart. As she loses her reason Giselle re-enacts the plucking of flower petals, which earlier had quieted her anxiety about Albrecht – he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. Now there was no anticipation or light. Abrera shook her head piteously. He doesn’t love me. (Abrera was at that time an ABT soloist; she was promoted to principal – very belatedly in the opinion of many – at the end of June.)

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Veronica Part, Stella Abrera and Vladimir Shklyarov in Giselle. Photo: MIRA

Benedicte Bemet, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December

Quite simply one of the most exciting nights in the theatre, ever. Bemet, just 21, had the dew and radiance of youth, purity and joy in her dancing and was beyond fearless. You know how you almost always get butterflies when Aurora nears those balances and promenades in the Rose Adagio? Not so here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were extraordinary, the crowd went wild, and Bemet just went from strength to strength. She went on as a coryphée and shortly afterwards was promoted to soloist. To be honest, it wouldn’t have surprised me if David McAllister had bounded on to the stage to make her a principal artist on the spot. But she has plenty of time for that.

Brett Chynoweth, Puck in The Dream, debut as Prince Désiré, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, May and December

Chynoweth is one of The Australian Ballet’s finest male technicians – he is fast, sleek, has fabulous feet and exciting elevation. This, however, is not what makes him so interesting. He is a passionate, poetic man who connects deeply with his roles and therefore with the audience. As Désiré his longing for love was palpable, and earlier in the year his Puck was a marvel of pyrotechnics and other-worldly humour. He is now, rightfully, a senior artist.

Chynoweth Boud

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Alina Cojocaru, Aurora, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, October

She radiated light and joy from a tiny body that gave the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing was brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything felt as if it were the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all was her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompassed the entire theatre.

Thaji Dias, Dancing for the Gods, Chitrasena Dance Company, Sydney Festival, January

I got my first, and so far only, view of Thaji Dias during this year’s Sydney Festival. She is a ravishing artist, dancing in the Kandyan style from Sri Lanka with megawatts of charisma. The dance was dramatic and seductive and Dias’s command of it exhilarating with her divinely articulated wrists, rippling shoulders, jaunty strides, the deepest and plushest plies and the liveliest eyes.

Sylvie Guillem, Life in Progress, Sydney, August

At 50 Guillem left the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that showed her as a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. She was known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art. But that was then. Her farewell program celebrated Guillem in the here and now, with new and recent work.

Robyn Hendricks, debut in Symphonic Variations, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April and December

Hendricks is something of a late bloomer but no less valuable for that. Her willowy body gives her a regal air and she also seems a little unknowable, qualities that of course make one intensely aware of her. She looked serenely beautiful in the first cast of Symphonic Variations; as Aurora she was a queen in the making: watchful, elegant, sophisticated and lusciously aware of her suitors. She was promoted to senior artist immediately after her debut.

The Dream - Symphonic Variations

Aka Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

Xavier Le Roy, Self Untitled, Carriageworks, Sydney, November

Xavier Le Roy’s 1998 solo Self Unfinished had particular resonance at the time of viewing, days after the terrorist attacks on Paris, summoning thoughts of the fragility of life, the resilience of the human spirit, the truth that we exist only at this moment, right now, and that we are all in it together. He didn’t make a big thing of it, but Le Roy’s piece had a strong sense of erasing the invisible barrier between audience and performer. He intrigued, delighted and provoked during a performance of quite intimacy.

Natalia Osipova/Steven McRae, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Osipova’s Giselle had London aflame last year and this year had the New York audience entranced and exhilarated. She tore through the ballet with a passion, leaping higher, turning more quickly and covering ground more voraciously than any other. Osipova is a risk-taking dancer. She fell heavily towards the end of her final solo and took several agonising seconds to recover enough to stand. She limped back to the centre and resumed dancing, finishing the ballet not only courageously but with melting beauty. The clarity and complexity of McRae’s acting was wonderful. He gave not just the broad picture but made every moment vivid, fresh, illuminating and dramatically coherent. His dancing, it goes without saying, was full of brilliance without being bombastic. But there was no more riveting moment than one of complete stillness, when Albrecht heard the distant horns of the Royal hunting party and understood the chaos to come.

CHOREOGRAPHY

Kristina Chan, Conform, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, December

“I am interested in what it means to be a man in this modern day,” Chan wrote in the program note to Conform, part of the annual New Breed program. She has a sombre view. When we first saw her men – there was an all-male cast of eight – they visibly buckled under the weight of expectation. They were either desperately alone with their thoughts or they fell in with the majority, losing individuality but absorbing the power of the pack. Conform was beautifully structured, vibrated with repressed emotion and had a very strong, pulsating and often ominous score by James Brown. It should be a keeper.

Justin Peck, Rōdē,ō, New York City Ballet, May

We haven’t seen a step of Peck’s in Australia as far as I know and it’s about time someone did something about it. His Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes, to the music of Aaron Copland, is wondrous. (Don’t ask me about the odd accents in the title; perhaps Peck wanted to differentiate it from Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo, to this music.) A piece for 15 men and one fabulous woman, it surprises, invigorates and enchants at every turn. Peck, still dancing as a soloist with New York City Ballet, has the magic touch. This apparently abstract ballet is packed with ideas, relationships and really zingy choreography. NYCB probably doesn’t want to let it go just yet because it premiered only in February this year, but can someone please beg?

Nothing to Lose

Force Majeure, Carriageworks, January 22.

IN her 10 years at Force Majeure, the company she founded and which she now leaves, Kate Champion’s material has included the ageing process, near-death experiences, the pitfalls of child-raising and obsessive behaviour, tantalising subjects one and all. Her brand of dance-theatre has always been stimulating but with Nothing to Lose Champion raises the bar and then some.

Her new work, made with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, puts on stage the following propositions: that fat people should not hide away, that they should be heard, that they are entitled to make choices, that they may actually like the way they are, and, by god, they can and will dance.

Given Western society’s almost pathological fear of fat, Nothing to Lose is an extraordinarily potent provocation. It was one of the most highly anticipated pieces in the 2015 Sydney Festival and can be seen in March at Melbourne’s Malthouse.

From an aesthetic point of view Champion had long felt larger people could be very pleasing movers, and certainly Nothing to Lose supports that. In Champion’s key cast of seven, Latai Taumoepeau and LaLa Gabor were gorgeously fluid, Claire “Scarlett” Burrows had a frighteningly intense and dangerous solo and Anastasia Zaravinos could have been a fertility goddess.

The framework, however, is highly political. In an early scene the dancers are treated as museum exhibits and audience members invited to feel and knead their flesh, guided suavely by Julian Crotti. The display reminded me, as it was surely meant to, of the Hottentot Venus, a South African woman displayed as a human curiosity – freak, if you like – in 19th century Europe. Later Ally Garrett (beautiful dancer and stage presence) and Michael Cutrupi (ditto) came into the audience to share the kind of advice and support larger people are so helpfully offered for free and often with breath-taking cruelty. There’s no guilt trip. They’re just saying.

Nothing, though, was more pertinent than the scene in which two women wound fabric around their bodies, criss-crossing it over their abdomens until their flesh bulged through the gaps to form generous folds. It was a reminder that our bodies are the one costume we can never shed and the one on which we will always be most pitilessly judged, particularly if one is female.

In this context it was amusing, and in its own way touching, to see how little the gorgeous Taumoepeau was used. She is the smallest of the women and did not get much of the attention. It was the reverse of the largest kid in the dance class being put up the back.

I would not normally comment on what an audience does, but I was fascinated by reactions at last Thursday’s opening performance and reactions that were relayed to me from Friday’s performance.

On Thursday, during Zaravinos’s full-bodied – in several senses – assault on traditional thinking about dance bodies, there was a substantial amount of whooping and hollering, sounds of a kind one never, ever hears during a concert dance performance by someone with the usual dancer’s body. The response said a number of things to me.

It said that some members of the audience were incredibly over-anxious to show they were onside with the work and that they got it; to show that they weren’t confronted or embarrassed. No, they were so with it they couldn’t contain their exuberance.

Or were they really so onside with the thrust of Nothing to Lose? I heard the sound of the vaudeville tent rather than the serious dance theatre. I heard the very response, in fact, that Nothing to Lose was created to counter. I didn’t hear the sound of respect for a fine artist. I heard the unease with which many people regard the bountiful body.

I expect the people making that noise would say I couldn’t be more wrong. But whoever is right, Nothing to Lose has punched well above its weight.

Nothing to Lose, Malthouse, Melbourne, March 11-21.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 26.

Dance Better at Parties

Sydney Theatre Company, April 9

DAVE would appear to have come to the wrong place. The ugly suburban dance school with its poo-brown floor and unforgiving fluoros offers private lessons in the rumba, tango, paso doble and other glittering ballroom arts. You buy a block of 10, sign here for direct debit, initial the injury waiver please, and at the end of the course you might be eligible for your bronze and be invited to move up to the next level. (Not much chance of anyone failing, you would think.)

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

But Dave’s ambitions aren’t as lofty as that. He just wants to be less awkward when he goes out, or so he says. What can stumbling through the paso doble do for a bloke who is, quite frankly, a pretty ordinary example of physique and co-ordination?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

Gideon Obarzanek’s deceptively simple, deeply compassionate two-hander Dance Better at Parties is his first production as an associate at Sydney Theatre Company but it’s been brewing for a decade. In 2004 Obarzanek had an idea for a documentary about men and movement that turned into a dance work for his company Chunky Move, I Want to Dance Better at Parties. For some reason Obarzanek leaves that step out of his director’s note for Dance Better at Parties, moving straight on from research for the documentary to his current play.

The dance piece was important, however, in that it was clear which story – there were five – audiences responded to most. One man’s reason for seeking out dance lessons gave Obarzanek his title. “I want to dance better at parties,” the man told the choreographer, but Obarzanek realised  this was code for something much more fundamental: the need for contact, the need to be touched. That one story is the inspiration for Dance Better at Parties.

If you want to say the unsayable, then dance is the way to do it. Dance Better at Parties shows how perilous it can be – where a hand goes, how bodies fit together and how closely – but how potentially exhilarating and liberating. So when Dave (Steve Rodgers) turns up for his lessons with lithe, lovely Rachel (Elizabeth Nabben) there’s a minefield of emotional tumult and sexual tension roiling under the surface conversation about what foot goes where and how to achieve a satisfactorily rolling infinity figure with the hips.

“Take off the shirt, take off the shirt,” Rachel cries enthusiastically, as a way of describing a sweeping arm movement across the chest. Yes, you can see how there might be an undercurrent or two.

Rodgers, who is arguably the country’s most simpatico actor, is funny, heart-breaking and dignified as Dave persists against the odds. Rodgers isn’t a natural mover, bless him, which is as it should be. But when Dave cuts loose and surrenders to the music, he is magnificent. Relative newcomer Nabben delicately handles the difficult nuances of Rachel’s relationship with her clients and delivers Jessica Prince’s choreography as if born to it. (She seems not to have been; her biography doesn’t list any dance training.)

Obarzanek steers the story with immense restraint and knows when to let the dance do the talking. He lets a great deal hang in the air, leaving much up to intuition. For that reason some in the audience on opening night found Dance Better at Parties a little thin and unresolved. I loved its refusal to spell everything out.

There are one or two clunky moments (Dave’s personal revelations don’t fit entirely neatly into Obarzanek’s structure), but never a false or exploitative one. I was quite teary at the end. I blame Steve Rodgers.

***

STC is billing Dance Better at Parties as Obarzanek’s ‘’first foray into text-based theatre”, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Best known as the founder and artistic director of Melbourne-based Chunky Move – a post he left last year – Obarzanek has often used text in his work. Often his work could be put as easily in the box marked Theatre as the one marked Dance.

Take his 2010 solo Faker, the one that brought Obarzanek back to performing after a long absence from the stage. He had a lot to say, literally, in that one. Or Two-Faced Bastard (2008), made with Lucy Guerin, also a choreographer who uses text liberally. Or I Want to Dance Better at Parties.

Contemporary choreographers have for decades used text as one of their tools. Theatre has been a little slower in getting what dance and heightened movement can add to the mix and it can be something of an acquired taste for audiences whose experience is mostly confined to theatre.

Guerin’s Human Interest Story, for instance, was a co-commission from Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre and Perth International Arts Festival (2010) and was then part of the 2011 Belvoir season in Sydney.

An aussietheatre website review of a Belvoir performance noted this:

Obviously contemporary dance isn’t for everyone, I asked a fellow theatregoer on the way out what she thought and she briskly replied, “Well, it’s an early night.”

The night I attended Human Interest Story the audience by and large seemed interested in and intrigued by it. There was a sense of close attention being paid; the atmosphere felt keener than usual. I attributed this to the audience’s unfamiliarity with dance.

Human Interest Story is closer to the dance end of the spectrum than the theatre end; the opposite is true in the work of UK company Frantic Assembly, whose hyper-active boxing-world drama Beautiful Burnout (Frantic Assembly with National Theatre of Scotland) was part of the Sydney and Perth festivals in the early months of 2012.

In the falling-somewhere-in-the-middle category is a work such as Trust, seen in 2011 at the Perth International Arts Festival. It was co-created for Berlin’s Schaubuhne by German playwright Falk Richter and Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk – now artistic director of Chunky Move following Obarzanek’s desire to move on after 16 years.

The same names do keep coming up.

In the past couple of years Australian theatre has been opening up to dance than – or perhaps it might be more exact to say that the work of Obarzanek, Guerin and Kate Champion, previously put into the Dance basket, is now being seen in a broader light.

This is partly due to new leadership at some important companies. At Belvoir, for instance, when designer Ralph Myers took over as the company’s artistic director at the beginning of 2011 he came with a CV that included the design of Obarzanek and Guerin’s Two-Faced Bastard. In 2012 he programmed works that had a strong movement element – Roslyn Oades’s exceptional verbatim theatre piece about boxing, I’m Your Man; Food, a lovely play written by Steve Rodgers and directed by Rodgers with Champion (and now up for a NSW Premier’s Literary Award) – and Guerin’s Conversation Piece.

As the title suggests, Conversation Piece is strong on talk, and it wasn’t simply programmed by Belvoir; it was co-produced with Belvoir and later seen at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival. Human Interest Story was a co-commission from Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre and Perth International Arts Festival (2010) and was then part of the 2011 Belvoir season. STC commissioned Never Did Me any Harm from Champion’s Force Majeure company and it was part of the Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne festivals of 2012.

You can see from this list, then, that there’s a rather small pool of talent swirling about. But at least it is moving.

Dance Better at Parties continues until May 11. Sydney Theatre Company’s website advises there is a limited number of tickets remaining. Some are released on the day of performance.

Food can be seen at La Boite, Brisbane, April 17-27.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on April 11.