‘A string of pearls’

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 12.

THE story of young indigenous woman Patyegarang and Lieutenant William Dawes of the First Fleet is rare and precious. In the tumultuous first years of white settlement, as the British colonisers imposed themselves and their culture on what is now the glittering city of Sydney but was then the Eora nation, Dawes studied and recorded the local language. Patyegarang appears to have been his most important teacher.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s long-serving artistic director Stephen Page has chosen to mark the company’s 25th anniversary with this touching connection between black and white – a meeting of minds that took place just a short stroll away from the theatre in which Patyegarang received its premiere.

Top, Jasmin Sheppard and Thomas Greenfield; above, the Bangarra ensemble. Photos: Jess Bialek

Top, Jasmin Sheppard as Patyegarang and Thomas Greenfield as William Dawes; above, the Bangarra Dance Theatre ensemble. Photos: Jess Bialek

And perhaps it was a meeting of bodies too. That is the strongest impression gained from Page’s rendering of Patyegarang’s relationship with Dawes, perhaps inevitably so. The wordless physical language of dance finds it easier to imply intimacy of the flesh than of the intellect.

Page takes a non-literal, dreamlike approach to this sliver of history. In 13 brief scenes he touches on life before dispossession, its rituals and its spiritual breadth. After colonisation comes conflict and resistance, although these elements share the misty quality that veils the piece as a whole. As one scene melts into another it become evident that narrative has a very small part to play. Patyegarang is a highly impressionistic, meditative work.

As always with Bangarra, the staging of Patyegarang is outstandingly beautiful, so much so that it may be enjoyed as a work of visual art (Jacob Nash, set; Nick Schlieper, lighting; Jennifer Irwin, costumes). The evocation of a pristine land and the play of light on rock are magical, adding to the atmosphere of otherworldliness.

All this means Patyegarang is stronger on mood than specifics. It’s like a string of pearls, perhaps too loosely strung. The soft lustre is appealing but greater tension and more varied emphases, particularly in composer David Page’s rhythmic structure, would make a more powerful impression.

There are no reservations about the performances, chief among them Jasmin Sheppard’s luminous, enigmatic Patyegarang. She is the glowing centre of the work. Much of the movement for Thomas Greenfield’s Dawes aligns him with the indigenous men and leaves him looking a little unrealised as someone from another world, but Greenfield is an imposing man who makes the most of what he has. The other standout is Elma Kris, Bangarra’s senior dancer and a performer of quiet but radiant charisma.

While Patyegarang as a whole is a touch diffuse there are many individual moments as striking as any in Bangarra’s formidable history. A section titled Night Sky takes place under a canopy of lights, alluding to Dawes’s knowledge of astronomy and perhaps to the Seven Sisters, a group of stars that features in Indigenous legend. And nothing is more affecting or effective than the image of a young woman mourning the departure of her friend, her head covered with his red coat as if prefiguring a Magritte painting.

In the last moments we hear the word Eora repeated and see a tableau that suggests permanance. There are only three people on stage and the language is soft to the point of fading, but they are there. Page calls this scene Resilience.

The meetings between Patyegarang and Dawes apparently lasted only a few months. Certainly Dawes was not long in the colony. He didn’t want to leave, by the way. He wanted to settle in Sydney but was denied permission and left in 1791. Just three years later he was commended by none other than anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce for his commitment to that cause. Of Patyegarang there seems to be no other trace.

Patyegarang runs in Sydney until July 5. Then Canberra, July 17-19; Perth, July 30-August 2; Brisbane, August 15-23; Melbourne, August 28-September 6.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 16.

Dance in 2013

THE Australian dance-lover had plenty to enjoy in 2013, as long as there was a decent travel budget to hand. Paris Opera Ballet returned to Sydney, the Bolshoi had a season in Brisbane, The Australian Ballet premiered a new version of Cinderella by Alexei Ratmansky (Melbourne and Sydney only, although Adelaide sees it in 2014), Queensland Ballet had extended sell-out seasons under new artistic director Li Cunxin, West Australian Ballet brought Onegin into its repertoire and Sydney Dance Company got even more glamorous.

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Those were the big events of 2013. Unfortunately there were fewer small-scale gems, or at least few I was able to see. In the wide, brown land it’s not always possible to find oneself in the right city at the right time to catch up with the leading contemporary companies and independent artists, particularly when seasons can be cruelly short.

There was also a lot of déjà vu when it came to international visitors. Of course one would never knock back the chance to see Sylvie Guillem, or Akram Khan’s work, or Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, but the names bob up again and again. I acknowledge, however, that I travel around the country to see dance more than most people do. Perhaps I just get out too much.

What follows, therefore, isn’t necessarily a reflection of what was best (although much was terrific), but what was memorable.

The dancers:

The AB nabbed Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev for performances of Don Quixote in Melbourne. Vasiliev roared on like a comet and didn’t let up from the get-go. He’s no text-book classicist, but gee he’s fun to watch. Dancing the lead gypsy, resident AB firecracker Chengwu Guo threw in a cheeky backwards somersault just to remind the audience there were other men on stage. Later in the year, after dancing Basilio with boyish charm, Guo was promoted to senior artist. By year’s end he was a principal artist, promoted onstage after a high-flying appearance as James in La Sylphide. A very wise call on the part of AB artistic director David McAllister.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Also at the AB, Daniel Gaudiello got more opening nights (Basilio, James, the Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella), and rightly so. QB’s Li Cunxin likes him too. Gaudiello was a guest artist in Brisbane for Giselle – making his role debut as Albrecht – and will appear in 2014’s Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio when QB stages the MacMillan production from late June.

Still with the AB, Leanne Stojmenov had the role of her career in Cinderella, and in The Four Temperaments and Dyad 1929 (part of the Vanguard program), evergreen principal Lucinda Dunn exuded wisdom and sensuousness in works that can look all too coolly intellectual. Also on that bill was Kylian’s Bella Figura, in which corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow had one of those break-out moments.

In Brisbane, it was adorable to see Alexander Idaszak, in his first year out of the Australian Ballet School, be given the chance to dance Albrecht and to do it with such composure (he’s already moving on, however, to Royal New Zealand Ballet, which also has a starry artistic director in Ethan Stiefel). Li showed faith in another newbie, Emilio Pavan, when he was cast as the Prince in The Nutcracker, an assignment he carried out with much promise. Li added Natasha Kusch to his already lustrous group of female principal artists, and she was astutely paired with former AB dancer and now Dutch National Ballet principal Remi Wortmeyer in Nutcracker. It was a sparkling partnership.

In Perth, new artistic director Aurelien Scannella has restructured the company, creating principal artist, soloist, demi-soloist and corps de ballet ranks. On the opening night of Onegin – secured for WAB by former artistic director Ivan Cavallari – WAB showed off its new principal, Jiri Jelinek, formerly with Stuttgart Ballet and National Ballet of Canada (he is now a guest principal with the latter). Senior women Jayne Smeulders and Fiona Evans, now principals, were completely different and very fine Tatianas, and Matthew Lehmann found himself promoted to the top rank after his Onegins.

POB’s Giselle performances gave us the luminous, diaphanous Dorothee Gilbert and the role debut of Myriam Ould-Braham, a dancer made for this role. Mathieu Ganio, aristocratic to the last molecule, partnered both but Ould-Braham’s sweet simplicity seemed to make him warmer and ever-so-slightly gentler. In the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream, a delight from beginning to end, Maria Alexandrova was exceptionally vibrant, witty and warm.

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The AB managed to insinuate itself into David Hallberg’s very full diary for three performances of Cinderella in Sydney. The refinement, grace and noble partnering of the American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal artist were a perfect fit for Ratmansky’s ballet, and Hallberg even managed to make something of the Prince’s travels, one of the slightly less successful parts of Cinderella. Hallberg’s Cinderella was Amber Scott, whose other-worldly delicacy made her a lovely match for this prince among princes.

A special mention goes to Sydney Dance Company as a whole. It’s a spectacularly good-looking ensemble.

The dances:

As you’ll see from the above, there wasn’t a lot of surprising work on offer. From the tourists, the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s down-and-dirty The Rite of Spring were outstanding. Locally, SDC’s Cacti, the exceptionally amusing work by Alexander Ekman, and the AB’s Surrealist Cinderella made most impact. Well, Cinders looked much better in Melbourne, but what can you do? I also was extremely taken by Dance Clan 3, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s studio showing of new work. This time four of the company’s women – Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, Tara Gower, Jasmin Sheppard – took up the challenge, and did so most movingly. One of those terrific evenings when you have no idea what’s ahead. I didn’t get a lot of that this year.

The ideas:

I’ve said this quite a lot elsewhere, but I love the way SDC’s Rafael Bonachela is engaged with other artists from other forms. Les Illuminations brought together SDC, string players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor Roland Peelman, singer Katie Noonan and fashion designer Toni Maticevski to celebrate the centenary of Benjamin Britten. It was a standout, and a pity there were so few performances.

In Brisbane Queensland Ballet has taken advantage of the state government’s new Superstar Fund to lock in big-name guest artists for its mid-year Romeo and Juliet. Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Sydney-born Royal Ballet luminary Steven McRae come to town. Gaudiello will be back too – it’s so good to see this wonderful dancer getting more recognition.

Another big idea for QB is the institution of The Nutcracker as an annual Christmas event. Time will tell whether it will catch on indefinitely, but this year’s season did boffo box-office.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season announcement showed a small but potentially important programming shift. Instead of the usual and unvarying number of performances given to each program, regardless of audience appeal, the AB will now give shorter seasons of the contemporary rep. This is most noticeable in Sydney, where there will be nine performances of  the Ballet Imperial/Suite en Blanc double bill (May 2-17) and 10 of the Chroma/Sechs Tanze/Petite Mort/ New Baynes work bill (April 29-May 17). Note the overlapping dates – yes, programs in repertory!

As mentioned, WAB has introduced the kind of ranking system most usually seen in larger companies. Aurelien Scannella has forcefully talked about having more dancers (predecessor Cavallari got WAB a huge boost during his time). Can Scannella manage a further upwards trajectory in a city that has a huge appetite for big stuff but not so much for throwing money at the arts? And at a difficult time for the state’s finances? Worth keeping an eye on. As is QB’s obvious ambition to provide not just an alternative, but a competitor, to the AB.

The dance that turned into a play but was still full of dance:

One of the sweetest pleasures of 2013 was Gideon Obarzanek‘s Dance Better at Parties for Sydney Theatre Company, a play based on his dance work for Chunky Move that had its genesis nearly a decade ago when Obarzanek interviewed men about movement. The play, a two-hander for Steve Rodgers and Elizabeth Nabben, was simplicity itself. A bereaved man comes to a dance studio to learn how to dance, which may help him fit in socially, but really he is in desperate need of contact. To be touched. And the audience was touched too, very deeply.

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

The disappointments:

The big, big loss this year was the cancellation of Spring Dance, the festival inaugurated by the Sydney Opera House and now pulled out of the calendar. Yes, it was costly, but gave contemporary dance a highly visible platform from which to entice audiences. Fragments of it remained – Les Illuminations (see above) and Akram Khan’s iTMOi – “In the Mind of Igor” – which did not entirely convince me.

Freeze Frame, the collaboration between the Brisbane Festival and Debbie Allen, was well-meaning but lacked coherence in just about every department. Allen wrote, choreographed and directed. And appeared in it. There’s a hint right there.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, is entirely inadequate for ballet of any scale. The sets for Onegin had to be cut back and squashed in and the sightlines are terrible from many seats. Tough cheese though. It’s unlikely there will be another new theatre in Perth for a decade or more – the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, home to Black Swan State Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, was opened in 2011. Poor old WAB is not well served at all.

What a shame that Australia’s smaller centres aren’t able to see the AB, QB and WAB regularly. Instead the gap is filled by touring Russian companies of extremely variable quality. This year I saw a Nutcracker from an outfit called Russian National Ballet Theatre, whose provenance is a little difficult to work out, although companies under that name have toured before. I paid nearly 100 bucks (no, let’s be fair, my sister paid) for no orchestra, a severely truncated story, classroom choreography and production values that were modest. I do understand that local companies wouldn’t be seen dead putting on productions of such a low standard and that it costs a great deal to do better, and that they already have full schedules. But if I had a magic wand …

The year’s most graceful tribute:

In July Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for The New York Times, set out to describe the attributes of an American ballerina, and was even prepared to say how many women in US companies currently deserve to bear the title of ballerina. The number is not great: “at least 10” is what Macaulay was prepared to say. In reply, in the December/January edition of Pointe magazine, Gillian Murphy – a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet – gave her perspective. Along the way she had this to say about RNZB’s Lucy Green, a young Australian being given important roles with the company: “I am excited to watch a young dancer with extraordinary promise grow into a star.” Murphy praises Green’s dance attributes, then continues: “However, for me, it is her work ethic, her imagination and her sensitivity to others that really classify her as a ballerina in the making.” Murphy admires dancers who “encourage greatness in everyone around them”. Beautiful.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

 The Trans-Tasman Prize for Sang-Froid:

I’m including RNZB here again because I can. The month is July, a performance of Swan Lake, featuring Lucy Green as Odette-Odile, has not long finished, and RNZB staff and dancers past and present have gathered for a late-afternoon party to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary. Wellington is shaken by an earthquake – a big one. Everyone dives to the floor, which is moving alarmingly. The tremors stop, we all get up and the party continues. Well, that’s one way to cut the speeches short.

Finally…

Many thanks to London-based writer and critic Ismene Brown, who gave unparalleled, necessary insight into the dance world’s biggest story in 2013, the Bolshoi crisis and its fallout. And moving right along, there’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze in St Petersburg. Follow her @ismeneb; ismeneb.com

Next up, what’s of interest in 2014?

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.