My year in dance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pina Bausch made my year. For his final Sydney Festival in January, artistic director Lieven Bertels programmed two bracing De Keersmaeker works, Fase and Vortex Temporum, and the huge thrill was seeing the choreographer herself in Fase (my review is here). Living dance history. Festival clout and money also made the Bausch experience possible. At the Adelaide Festival in March Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performed Nelken, which was obviously a necessity to see, but just a week later Wellington’s New Zealand International Arts Festival trumped Adelaide. In the repertoire carve-up the Wellington-based festival got the double bill of Café Muller and Rite of Spring. I had always longed to see both live. And now I have.

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Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: Matt Grace

The Perth International Arts Festival (February) and the Brisbane Festival (September) – there’s a theme here – also provided performances that made it into my best-of list. It was absolutely worth going to Perth for just one night from Sydney (flying time: five hours) to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu, which was outstandingly beautiful, in a rough, sweaty kind of way, and accompanied by celestial a capella singing from the all-male group A Filetta. It was a much easier business to pop up to Brisbane for Jonah Bokaer’s Rules of the Game – not really for the much-hyped title work (its score was by Pharrell Williams) but for the chance to see earlier Bokaer pieces and the choreographer himself onstage.

More festival highlights, these from local choreographers: Stephanie Lake’s super-intelligent Double Blind at the Sydney Festival, Kristina Chan’s ravishing A Faint Existence at Performance Space’s Liveworks festival in October and Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer, also at Liveworks.

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Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

The rest of the key works in 2016 come from major companies. The Australian Ballet, which has been looking very, very conventional of late, stretched dancers and audiences with John Neumeier’s Nijinsky (which I reviewed for Limelight magazine); Bangarra Dance Theatre’s triple bill OUR land people stories was a luminous program; and Sydney Dance Company’s double bills Untamed (October) and CounterMove (February) yet again demonstrated the thoroughbred power and impressive individuality of Rafael Bonachela’s dancers.

In the year I saw dance in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington, but yet again I mourn the fact that I just wasn’t able to visit Melbourne more often to sample its contemporary dance riches. As so often, Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

On the people front the biggest news of the year was the re-emergence of David Hallberg after a two-and-a-half year absence from the stage. The American superstar, a principal artist at both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, spent a year at The Australian Ballet’s headquarters in Melbourne undergoing extensive rehabilitation after having surgery for an ankle problem. His return to the stage was, fittingly, with the AB, and as it happened, the scheduled ballet gave Hallberg a role debut. He danced four performances as Franz in Coppélia. (You can read about the rehabilitation process here and the Coppélia performance here.)

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David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Queensland Ballet made a splash when it announced the appointment, from 2017, of Liam Scarlett as artistic associate. Scarlett retains his artist in residence role at the Royal Ballet. At the same time QB announced artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for four more years. The board must be happy about that.

Less happily, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced that its relatively new artistic director, Francesco Ventriglia, would be relinquishing that role in mid-2017. He will stay on to choreograph the announced new Romeo and Juliet, but then he’s off. What happened? I’ll let you know when I find out, although previously he had spoken to me enthusiastically about being in New Zealand. The RNZ website (Radio New Zealand) wrote in early December that as many as a dozen dancers and staff had left RNZB because of conflicts with Ventriglia, quoting a representative of the union that represents dancers.

I stress I have no information that suggests these departures are connected with Ventriglia’s, but leading Australian-born RNZB dancer Lucy Green has accepted a position with Queensland Ballet for 2017 and RNZB’s former music director Nigel Gaynor, who was hired by Ventriglia’s predecessor Ethan Stiefel, is now QB’s music director. These gains by QB could easily be explained by Li Cunxin’s voracious eye for talent – as in the Liam Scarlett coup (QB and RNZB share Scarlett’s lovely Midsummer Night’s Dream so there’s a close connection).

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The biggest disappointment of the year is the AB’s lack of commitment to developing new choreographers. It’s true that Bodytorque, which started in 2004, needed a fresh look, but it’s become the incredible shrinking show, offering less and less each year. The name is no longer used at all and the amount of new work from developing choreographers is minuscule.

Bodytorque was last seen in its familiar form in 2013 – six new or relatively inexperienced choreographers made works that were seen in a short special season at what is now the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney. In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne and featured five works, including a piece by newly minted resident choreographer Tim Harbour. The other four dance-makers included Alice Topp (her fourth year at Bodytorque) and Richard House (with his second piece).

In 2015 the name still lingered but the program had dwindled to the creation of just one work, House’s From Something, to Nothing, shown once in Sydney and once in Melbourne as a “pop-up” event called Bodytorque Up Late. This took place after performances of mainstage repertoire, once in Sydney and once in Melbourne. The audience could stay to watch for free if it wished. Or not.

In 2016 it was clear favour had fallen on Topp and House, which is fair enough. Both, but particularly Topp, are worth persevering with. This time their new works, each of about 10 minutes in length, were programmed as part of a group of divertissements that acted as a curtain-raiser to Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which gave the whole evening its name.

And for 2017? Those two pieces will be seen again, this time in Melbourne when that city gets Symphony in C. So – let’s add up the minutes. In the three years from 2015-2017, there will have been a bit under 40 minutes in total of new choreography from developing choreographers.

It’s possible AB artistic director David McAllister has big plans for Topp, or House, or both. After all, Harbour was developed via a series of Bodytorque commissions. But Harbour emerged from a quite a large pack. The window of opportunity has now narrowed excessively – and depressingly.

Rules of the Game: Jonah Bokaer at the Brisbane Festival

Brisbane Powerhouse, September 14.

Labels are always tricky. Jonah Bokaer is essentially a dance-maker but his deep immersion in the visual arts pushes his work towards performance art. But let’s not worry about what to call it. In the trio of works he brought to the Brisbane Festival – his first visit to Australia – Bokaer revealed himself to be an elegant, serious thinker.

As a bonus Brisbane also got to see him dance. Bokaer’s extensive CV may suggest a man of mature years but the American is still only 34 and a mesmerising figure onstage.

His 2010 solo RECESS started the evening, although with a new introduction of sorts. The audience arrived to see seven men and women arranged like statues. They would (with an eighth dancer) later perform the work that gave the whole program its title. The message was clear: the evening, gorgeously lit by Aaron Copp, was one event, not three.

The game was, of course, life, which these pieces presented as a constant battle against disorder and decay of all kinds. In RECESS Bokaer unfurled, folded, crumpled and tore a huge roll of paper until it wittily took on a life of its own. In the middle work, Why Patterns (2011), no matter how assiduously they tried to clear a space for themselves and create intimate connections, unpredictable cascades of ping pong balls kept assailing a quartet of dancers.

Rules of the Game, Brisbane Festival 2016

Why Patterns, choreography by Jonah Bokaer.

There was an appealing contrast between cool science – the exploration of space and the behaviour of objects within it – and alert bodies.

RECESS is a solo in much the same way Russell Maliphant’s Two, for a dancer and a light source, is a solo. White paper has rarely appeared so fascinating. Bokaer moved sensually, making beautiful curves with his neck and arms, rolling on the floor as if dreaming between the sheets and wrapping pieces of paper around him as if he were a living sculpture, or perhaps a gift. There was also an endearing whiff of the science nerd about Bokaer as he carefully arranged his material just so.

RECESS was followed immediately by Why Patterns, named after and responding closely to Morton Feldman’s music of that name. Here the materials couldn’t be arranged just so. The near weightlessness of the ping pong balls – 5000 of them, they say – made a mockery of control. The dancers managed to take charge when the balls were contained in long, clear tubes but not when they arrived variously and amusingly in singles, handfuls and at one point a torrent from above. They were like molecules or vibrations, impossible to pin down and disrupting whatever calm and certainty may have been achieved.

Bokaer’s movement language is concentrated and for the most part restrained in these works. His diamond-edged clarity is visually and intellectually appealing but there are also luscious departures from austerity and precision that give the works texture. Bokaer has a strong affinity with the work of Merce Cunningham, with whose company he danced, and theatre director Robert Wilson, with whom he has often worked. It’s also possible to feel the spirit of the great postmodernist choreographers of the 1960s, who revered collaboration between artists of all kinds and introduced task-based movement.

The satisfying impression was of a choreographer who knows his dance history well while still being very much his own man.

RECESS and Why Patterns are terrific. Thematically the new work Rules of the Game fitted right in while being less convincing overall.

Rules of the Game, Brisbane Festival 2016

Rules of the Game, choreography by Jonah Bokaer

If you were to make a Venn diagram of the key Rules of the Game creatives, Bokaer would be in one circle, pop/hip-hop luminary Pharrell Williams would be in another circle and artist Daniel Arsham would be where they overlap. This is the first joint project for Bokaer and Williams; Arsham has worked separately with both (he designed the scenography for all three works in this program).

Williams is something of a polymath, being a songwriter, performer and mega-star producer, but hadn’t previously written anything for a dance work. His celebrity has not unnaturally brought extra attention to the piece, which was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for its Soluna International Music and Arts Festival and was first performed in May. (David Campbell arranged Williams’s music for orchestral forces and conducted an ensemble drawn from the Dallas Symphony for the premiere. That performance was recorded for use in later presentations of Rules of the Game.)

Rules of the Game was devised on a considerably larger scale than RECESS and Why Patterns but the result was rather less powerful at this early point in its career – Brisbane was only the second port of call.

Arsham’s giant video images of collapse, disintegration and reintegration were initially lovely to watch but repetitiveness reduced rather than intensified their impact. Williams’s music bounced along agreeably and melodically with lush strings, smooth brass, insistently regular percussive beats and plenty of climaxes. The sound was bright and often sunny, irresistibly suggesting a 1950s romantic film caper in which a glamorous couple is seen driving gaily along the Corniche in an open sports car.

That’s not necessarily a problem for Bokaer of course. His Cunningham experience means he is no stranger to the idea that dance and music can exist independently. Nevertheless, the music had a self-regarding sheen at odds with the tremendously involving dance, performed by four women and four men with powerful gravitas and authority.

A square within the performance space – a stage within a stage – added layer upon layer of perception; the loose-fitting salmon-coloured costumes that made no distinction between the sexes played the layer game too. As Rules of the Game progressed dancers shed jackets and shirts, and a riveting clash between two men was performed with them stripped to the waist.

Occasionally Rules of the Game felt a little unfocused but for the most part its imagery was precise and evocative without being prescriptive. Bokaer draws from Greek antiquity and modern game-playing literally and metaphorically with a language that contrasts sculptural stillness with intense solos, sometimes desperate duos and striking group encounters. Here, in the imagery of observers and the observed, was a sense of the influence – “more a point of departure than a literal usage”, says Bokaer – of Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello.

Just as pertinent, however, was the classical Greek agon, or contest. And in this contest between music, visuals and dance, Bokaer came out a clear winner.

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