THREE, Australasian Dance Collective, Brisbane

Playhouse Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 26

Amy Hollingsworth’s relief was palpable and profound. THREE had finally arrived. It was 14 months late, but it was here. The triple bill of two new works and an important Australian premiere was to have introduced Hollingsworth’s Australasian Dance Collective to the Brisbane public last year on April 1 (yes, April 1). It had to be pulled only two weeks before opening as COVID-19 forced the closure of theatres around Australia. The blow was felt keenly by all performing arts companies but was particularly tough on ADC, just about to launch itself on the world. 

ADC isn’t precisely a new company but it is a changed one. In late 2018 Hollingsworth was appointed artistic director of the long-established Expressions Dance Company and started work in January 2019. As is the way of things, the 2019 season was chiefly the work of Hollingsworth’s predecessor, Natalie Weir. Hollingsworth’s stamp would be imprinted on the 2020 program, and it would be an emphatic one. In November 2019 it was announced that EDC would become Australian Dance Collective, a name later quietly tweaked to Australasian Dance Collective. 

That’s the history. Now for the present and the future. When Hollingsworth first announced THREE she said it would be a template for annual mixed bills that would bring together a local or younger artist, an established Australian dancemaker and an international work. This first iteration features the fast-rising Brisbane choreographer Jack Lister, who is also an ADC dancer (and associate choreographer at his former company, Queensland Ballet); the thrilling and in-demand Melbourne-based artist Melanie Lane; and superstar Hofesh Shechter, with whom Hollingsworth danced many years ago. It’s a formidable group and an exciting program.

Australasian Dance Collective in Melanie Lane’s Alterum. Photo: David Kelly

Lane’s Alterum, which opens THREE, begins with a struggle. A woman (Chase Clegg-Robinson) is alone, in silence. She crawls and writhes in the misty light, seeming to want to stand but being unable to do so. Or perhaps this is what she prefers, for now. Her body is alert – you can almost see the atoms vibrate – and elastic, although it’s not a loose kind of elasticity. The level of control is ferocious. Lane is fascinated by the superhuman capabilities of the body but what makes her work affecting rather than merely impressive is that she is also supremely sensitive to how society – life, really – affects that body and that mind. While her work may look very strange at first, its power lies in the reach towards something more than the ordinary.  

Clegg-Robinson is soon joined by others, at first seen bathed in red light as if the zombie apocalypse has arrived. Clark’s intensely layered electronic score starts up and we’re off. Six bodies huddle, shudder and shuffle. They are often jittery with bobbing heads and tiny little robotic steps. Sometimes they form a militaristic-looking pack and then lean back as if recoiling from what they are about to see or do, or have done to them. They arrange themselves into couples and trios and fracture again. There are touches of unison, some images of tender support and others of attack. It is exhilarating.

Alterum is a Latin word meaning “other”, and it’s a perfect word for Lane’s ability to conjure the mysteriousness of being and the desire – don’t we all have it from time to time? – to be something else, whether alone or with others. 

Australasian Dance Collective inHhofesh Shechter’s Cult. Photo: David Kelly

THREE ends with Shechter’s short, sharp Cult. It was made in 2004, a couple of years before Shechter formed his eponymous company, and was his first group piece. Cult, also for six performers, has many of the markers of Shechter’s later work: provocative text delivered in voiceover, reminders of our mortality, intimations of folk dance in the movement, a strong sense of life as communal rather than individual, and tightly wound bodies and minds.

Here Shechter’s interest is in group dynamics and pressures. How, for instance, should you read the brief moment when one of the men throws his arms around the shoulders of the other two and walks away with them, his grasp tight? Are they friends from way back, or is this coercion? There is, however, no ambiguity about the final minutes, in which Lister separates from the group but ultimately has to return to it, somewhat cowed. There are many such moments in just 15 minutes of stage time. Cult is utterly absorbing and, alas, over in a flash.

Lister’s Still Life is the quiet, introspective buffer between the more muscular Lane and Shechter. While Still Life is nothing like Cult, there are some links. Like Shechter, Lister has death on his mind but in a less visceral way. For Shechter death, possibly sooner rather than later, is a brutal given. Lister takes a more philosophical view, going to art history for inspiration and taking the long view.

Tyrel Dulvarie and Lonii Garnons-Williams in Jack Lister’s Still Life. Photo: David Kelly

Like Shechter, Lister’s dancers (he is also in the cast) are presented as everyday people in everyday clothes – in Cult the men wear suits and the women simple dresses, all identical as you might expect from the work’s name; in Still Life each person is an individual. Still Life has a vestigial set, a square panel with a smaller square cut-out at its centre by which Lister evokes an art gallery and its associations. Love and human existence may be fleeting but great works of art can last for centuries, an idea Lister links to art that takes as its theme the transience of human existence.

Lister has selected music by Mozart, Bellini and Chopin to accompany a series of vignettes touching on longing and loss. They are understandable choices but there are times when the music, so familiar and lovely, overshadows the dance. Making a work about the evanescence of life and yes, dance itself, is a tricky business and Lister doesn’t manage to make everything in this half-hour piece feel necessary to his overarching idea. The performances are involving, though, and there is a gorgeous duo for Lonii Garnons-Williams and Tyrel Dulvarie in which they barely touch but move and breathe together in glorious harmony.

ADC is a small company with only six dancers, all of whom appeared in each work. It’s an heroic achievement from a splendid group of artists whose collective experience is worth noting. Josephine Weise was previously with Sydney Dance Company where she worked with a wide array of top-flight choreographers, Jack Lister brings his Australian Ballet School and Queensland Ballet experience to the mix and Jag Popham trained in New Zealand and last year worked with Lloyd Newson on the thrilling revival of Enter Achilles. Chase Clegg-Robinson is a young Brisbane dancer at the start of her career. She was an ADC apprentice last year and took part in Stephanie Lake’s Colossus in early 2020. Lonii Garnons-Williams has vast experience as a freelance artist with many leading Australian companies and was for a time a member of Australian Dance Theatre. And the newest ADC member is the charismatic Tyrel Dulvarie. He was formerly with Bangarra Dance Theatre where he shone, and he shines here. 

Brisbane is very lucky to have them. 

THREE ends on May 29.

Expressions Dance Company becomes Australian Dance Collective

Brisbane’s Expressions Dance Company has a new name to go with its new leadership. Amy Hollingsworth, who became artistic director of EDC at the beginning of 2019, announced at her 2020 season launch that the 35-year-old contemporary company will be known as Australian Dance Collective.

Hollingsworth is the third artistic director in the company’s history, following Natalie Weir and Maggi Sietsma. The former leaders supported yesterday’s move, with Sietsma saying the company she founded with Abel Valls had “always been a collaborative venture”.  Australian Dance Collective chair Marian Gibney called the change a “natural evolution” for the company. “Amy is a passionate curator, with a clear vision around harnessing shared energies and imaginations to produce thrilling dance works and to nurturing a love of dance in our community.”

Amy Hollingsworth - Photo by David Kelly 6 (1)

Amy Hollingsworth, artistic director of Australian Dance Collective. Photo: David Kelly

The Expressions board raised the possibility of changing the company’s name when she started, Hollingsworth says. “We knew we wanted a name that was descriptive, not evocative. I feel very strongly that the way we can connect to society and capture the imaginations of many people is to have a really inclusive hive of diverse artistic voices. I believe the strongest kind of leadership is listening to the people you work with and including them in the decision-making.”

At the launch Hollingsworth in Brisbane said Australian Dance Collective was committed to being “collectively extraordinary”. “Working collectively gives us like-minded individuals and visionaries to debate with, ensuring our ideas are robust and that our collaborations crackle with artistic energy. I dream of creating an environment that generates exhilarating dance to capture the imaginations of many.”

“Contemporary dance has to evolve, it has to change and that’s a really, really healthy thing,” Weir says. “I think the new name Australian Dance Collective is beautiful and the idea of being ‘collectively extraordinary’ is a fantastic vision for the future of the company.”

Hollingsworth’s 2020 program starts with a triple bill that will be a permanent part of future programming, except in years when international touring may take precedence. “I have some big things in the pipeline,” she says. The triple bill will feature a local or younger artist, an established Australian dancemaker and an international work.

Next year’s choreographers are Jack Lister, Melanie Lane and Hofesh Shechter. Lister has made extremely well-received works for Queensland Ballet, where he was also a dancer. His departure from QB was announced recently. Lister’s A Brief Nostalgia, commissioned by Birmingham Royal Ballet, was staged in Birmingham in September and at London’s Sadlers Wells in October. From next year Lister will also dance with Australian Dance Collective. Lane scored a big success with WOOF earlier this year for Sydney Dance Company and will make a new work for Brisbane. Shechter is one of the biggest names in international contemporary dance; his early work Cult – a piece Hollingsworth has danced in – will receive its Australian premiere.

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A promotional image for Australian Dance Collective. Photo: Justin Ridler

Hollingsworth continues the Chinese Australian Dance Exchange Project established by Weir with, Hollingsworth points out, connections made by Sietsma. Next year Australian Dance Collective will work with Shenzhen-based Round House Dance Company. Shenzhen has been a sister city of Brisbane since 1992. Hollingsworth is also deeply committed to the company’s Youth Ensemble, a group of 30 people aged 15 to 18. It will have a work created for it and perform a piece with the main company.

Half of Hollingsworth’s complement of six dancers will be new next year. Jake McLarnon, Bernhard Knauer and Josephine Wiese remain and will be joined by Lister, Marlo Benjamin and former Australian Dance Theatre member Lonii Garnons-Williams.

“I love gathering around me like-minded people with whom I can have robust conversations about the work we’re going to do,” Hollingsworth says. “I want a home of true collaboration that’s vibrant, welcoming, and dedicated to shaping and nourishing the craft. I want us to energise each other.”

Australian Dance Collective’s 2020 season opens with the triple bill Three on April 1 at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre.

Matrix, Expressions Dance Company and Beijing Dance/LTDX

Works by Stephanie Lake and Ma Bo. Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, NSW, November 7.

New works by Australia’s Stephanie Lake and China’s Ma Bo make up a double bill where similarities are much more obvious than differences. It’s not that the pieces look particularly alike (apart from an aspect of their endings) or have a common theme. Far from it. The sense of unity comes from the wonderfully vivid dancers of Expressions Dance Company and Beijing Dance/LTDX brought together for this project.

There are 20 in all, a truly luxurious number in contemporary dance, and all of them dance in both pieces. EDC’s close connection with the Chinese contemporary dance world, developed over the past four years, is one of its strong suits.

Jumping pic from Stephanie Lake's work Auto Cannibal in Matrix Pic Credit WANG Xiao-jing

Stephanie Lake’s Auto Cannibal. Photo: Wang Xiao-jing

Lake happily acknowledges that Auto Cannibal, which opens the program, bears the strong imprint of her earlier works (hence the title). It certainly has Lake’s invigorating attack and her powerful mix of minute detail and bodies pushed to extremes, and is danced to an electronic score by Robin Fox as is customary in Lake’s work.

Dressed similarly in black shorts with white tops (costumes are by Xing Yameng), the dancers crackle with energy. They are like electric charges combining, repulsing and recombining to make something fascinatingly new. Lake brilliantly corrals this large group into a beautifully structured dance that leaves you wanting more.

Ma’s Encircling Voyage is a quieter, more interior drama built around cycles of life, danced to music by David Darling that is essentially western in structure but with some eastern touches. Expressions of sorrow, grief and sometimes anger are more evident than those of fulfilment, although there is communal strength. In this work the dancers are also dressed alike (by Wang Yan), this time in loose-fitting patterned smocks. The active, sporty atmosphere of Auto Cannibal gives way to one of ritual.

Mirror pic from MA Bo's work Encircling Voyage in Matrix PIC CREDIT WANG Xiao-jing

Ma Bo’s Encircling Voyage. Photo: Wang Xiao-jing

Dancers form a tight group, walking with a hand on the shoulder of the one in front as if unable to see the way ahead by themselves; benches are placed on their ends to resemble tall tombstones; a woman enters reading a book and appears totally unaware of her surroundings; two people sitting on a bench are joined by a third who has been moving frenetically but is now calm, included and soothed by their touch.

The Beijing dancers significantly outnumber those from Expressions, which has a complement of just six. No matter. The group coheres as if it has been together for five years rather than the five weeks it took to create the works. On a local note, it’s terrific to see Sydney Dance Company alumni Richard Cilli, Bernhard Knauer and Josie Weise back on stage as members of Expressions. (Artistic director of Expressions, Amy Hollingsworth, was formerly SDC’s dance director.)

There is one small niggle, encapsulated by the closing imagery in both works that visually ties them together, intentionally or not. Encircling Voyage ends with a solemn evocation of death and rebirth accompanied by clouds of white dust. Auto Cannibal also finishes in a shower of white, this time of feathers floating down to envelop a tightly packed group of men and women moving joyously. The order of performance could do with a rethink.

Now at Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre until November 16.

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.