Bespoke, Queensland Ballet

Brisbane Powerhouse, February 10.

Bespoke is a new-choreography program that shows Queensland Ballet moving up yet another gear and broadening its horizons. So far in Li Cunxin’s artistic directorship new contemporary work on the schedule has either fallen into the annual triple bill, of which there is always only one (although none in 2015), or else was part of Dance Dialogues, a small-scale, low-key studio event that encourages an insider atmosphere by being available only to subscribers and including a coaching session of upcoming repertoire.

The mainstage triple bill is generally stacked with extremely well-established names and may or may not include a work created specially for it. It would be unfair to say the programming is tame but it’s not going to frighten the horses too much. At the other end of the scale, Dance Dialogues is likely to include at least one QB dancer who is giving choreography a shot, possibly for the first time, and has to ransack the costume department to clothe the cast. The gulf is wide.

Bespoke fills that gap. It has the specific intention of bringing new voices into the mix and, by being staged at the Brisbane Powerhouse, signals that QB seeks to widen its appeal. (Sydney Dance Company does the same thing by presenting its highly successful New Breed program at Carriageworks, away from the formality of its usual home at the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay.) The best news is that Bespoke is intended to be an annual event. Dance Dialogues seems likely to continue but just once a year. There have mostly been two annual sessions; in 2017 there are performances in June only.

Jack Lister's Rational/Animal. Photo: David Kelly

Jack Lister’s Rational/Animal. Photo: David Kelly

While Dance Dialogues is, frankly, a bit naff, it does hold out the possibility of uncovering talent in the ranks. That happened last year when Jack Lister, a company dancer, made a piece called Fonder Heart to the music of Philip Glass. This year he was one of the Bespoke choreographers and absolutely earned his place on the bigger stage with Rational/Animal.

John Adams’s Fearful Symmetries (1988) is catnip to choreographers. Adams says, as its title suggests, the music is “almost maddeningly symmetrical. Four- and eight-bar phrases line up end to end, each articulated by blazingly obvious harmonic changes and an insistent chugging pulse.” He calls it his “travelling music”. New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins, The Royal Ballet’s Liam Scarlett (also, from this year, artistic associate at QB), Scottish Ballet’s Ashley Page (for the RB) and Dutch choreographer Nils Christe are among those who have fallen under the music’s propulsive spell and Lister is the latest, and possibly the youngest, person to tackle this often-used score. The 22-year-old has pulled off a beauty. Rational/Animal is a remarkably confident work from one so young and relatively inexperienced.

In the first nightmarish half, humankind is seen as faceless, frenetic and mechanistic. Lister responds to what Adams calls the “distinctly urban” feel of the music with lines of dancers striding purposefully across the space. Their clothes are the colour of dust and their faces are veiled. Sometimes their figures are echoed, many times life size, in projections on the back wall that emphasise their separateness. There are brief, muscular encounters between dancers and an occasional intimation of tenderness but the atmosphere of control is intense.

It’s fascinating to see how much full-bodied juice Lister injects into essentially robotic movement. It gives this first section unexpected poignancy, as we sense that desires and frustrations have been tightly reined in. Later the dancers strip right down for more intimate, emotionally free and erotically charged interactions.

Lister seems to have an innate grasp of balance and structure, mixing things up at precisely the right time, and it’s wonderful to see the many elements of surprise he brings to his movement vocabulary. At this stage it’s easy to discern the influences on his work but he has excellent taste and, best of all, creates resonant atmospheres.

Stephanie Lake's Chameleon. Photo: David Kelly

Stephanie Lake’s Chameleon. Photo: David Kelly

The decision to invite contemporary dancemaker Stephanie Lake and her frequent musical collaborator Robin Fox to work with QB looked terrific on paper and was even more terrific in reality. Chameleon is Lake’s first ballet commission and for many of the dancers their first exposure to colouring outside the strict lines of classical dance. The result was an exhilarating mash-up of styles wrapped around a big heart.

Lake was clearly enchanted by the formal beauty of classical shapes and the dancers’ technical gifts while casting an outsider’s coolly appraising eye over ballet’s conformist tendencies. Chameleon made much of the pull of the group versus the needs of the individual in ways that were witty, odd, mysterious and touching.

All power to Li for letting Lake use 24 dancers in Chameleon. So frequently ballet companies tacitly make it clear that new-choreography evenings are extra-curricular; a distraction from core programming. You can see limits imposed. The numbers mattered here, particularly in a potent section in which dancers closely followed one another, wheeling, separating and re-combining in groups large and small.

Lake started Chameleon with 11 dancers standing in a line in front of a red curtain, later lifted. They were a motley and rather anxious-looking lot as they twitched and jerked their way through basic classical positions. When they found their individual voices – along with a larger cohort of ragtag companions – they didn’t seem to quite know what to do with their new-found freedom, but what the heck. They had a lively go at letting go before being sucked back into line.

There were too many standout performers to mention them all but principal artist Laura Hidalgo was extraordinary in her deep understanding of both sides of the dance divide. The final image of Chameleon was deeply moving.

The evening opened with Glass Heart, by QB ballet mistress and artistic associate Amy Hollingsworth for the company’s 10 Jette Parker Young Artists (a number soon to grow to 12; impressive). In a further sign of the ambitions for Bespoke the score was composed by celestial-voiced singer-songwriter Katie Noonan and the young Brisbane music producer known as cln, both of whom performed it live.

With the choreography tending to generalised angst Glass Heart was busy but emotionally vacant, at least from a movement perspective. No matter what anyone did, whether in solos, duos or groups, the effect was the same. That left feeling to be generated by the fine musicians, who filled the gap admirably. And if Glass Heart was unremarkable as a dance work, it was undoubtedly a valuable experience for this lovely group of Young Artists.

Hollingsworth’s greater achievement was as Bespoke’s prime mover. After finishing a celebrated performing career in both classical and contemporary dance she turned to coaching, direction, staging, education, mentoring and assisting choreographers in the creative process. These are no small talents and were previously evident at Sydney Dance Company and Expressions Dance Company. As curator of Bespoke Hollingsworth brought Lake in and, I am told, helped teach Chameleon to the dancers. She also helped guide Lister through the process of creating his ambitious piece.

QB’s lighting and technical manager Cameron Georg lit the whole program with dramatic flair and wardrobe production manager and resident designer Noelene Hill did a superb job of interpreting costumes conceived by each choreographer. It’s such a pity there were only five performances. Perhaps there will be more next year.

Footnote: Obviously you’d have to love Fearful Symmetries a lot, but wouldn’t it be fun if QB did a triple bill of ballets to this music? And it could do so with three works connected with the company. In 2010 QB performed the enormously entertaining Nils Christe version (made for Germany’s Ballet Mainz); new QB artistic associate Scarlett made his version only last year for San Francisco Ballet; and now there’s Lister’s take. Too much? Perhaps.

Triptych

Sydney Dance Company with ACO2 and Katie Noonan. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, Sydney, September 29.

BENJAMIN Britten was in his 20s when he wrote the three works to which Rafael Bonachela responds so ardently in Triptych. Innocence, desire, joy, playfulness and sensuality all have their role in the music and the evocation of the bloom and juice of youth is captivating.

Bonachela has revived two dances from 2013 and newly created a third for an evening in which movement and music have a lively – and, it’s wonderful to say, live – conversation. Even better, the 16 string players from ACO2 are not confined to a pit but sit on a platform at the rear of the stage, generating warmth and visceral connection, advantages we humans still have over machines in an age where much – most – contemporary dance is performed to recorded music. Well, there is one drawback: sometimes the eye is drawn inexorably over the heads of dancers to a musician making a particularly arresting contribution. Thomas Gould, directing from the violin, has form with Britten and he has the group – the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s youth ensemble – playing superbly.

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer In Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer In Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

The dancers responded eagerly, as has Bonachela. In his hands Sydney Dance Company never looks less than elegant, sleek, powerful, sophisticated, glamorous and any other adjective you might think of in this neck of the woods. Those qualities make the company always highly watchable but the effect can be emotionally cool, a situation amplified, if you will forgive the little wordplay, when the music is coming from speakers. One understands why the reliance on recording – it’s the economy, stupid. So we must be very grateful for the times when finances allow a program such as Triptych.

Simple Symphony and Les Illuminations (performed together as Les Illuminations) were a big success when first seen at the Sydney Opera House two years ago. They were supposed to have been part of the Opera House’s Spring Dance festival, of which Bonachela was artistic director, but the Opera House pulled the plug on the four-year-old event “for financial reasons”. It seemed there wasn’t enough audience appetite for a dance festival of this kind in Sydney.

Les Illuminations survived to be seen for handful of performances in the Studio at the Opera House and was also performed in Brisbane last year, but that was for one night only. You couldn’t say Les illuminations has been over-exposed. Now, in company with Variation 10, also to music by Britten, the dances will be seen much more widely.

The four light-hearted movements of Simple Symphony (1933-34) propel a series of duos and a quarter that suggest the larks of lovers tumbling about on a summer’s afternoon. The mood is light, bright and optimistic. Janessa Dufty with Bernhard Knauer and Fiona Jopp with Todd Sutherland caught the sunny nature of the music and were sweetly uncomplicated in their relationships, twirling each other about with sparkling eyes, fleet feet and much give and take. Jopp supported Sutherland as he extended his leg high to the side while on demi-pointe, a gorgeous, generous unfolding of the body; Dufty used Knauer’s horizontal body as a steadying point for a cheerful cartwheel; every now and again a dancer would lightly touch their partner’s face. Just lovely.

Simple Symphony was followed immediately, as in 2013, with the darker intimations of the song cycle Les Illuminations (1939). Once again soprano Katie Noonan was the divinely silky, agile interpreter of texts by bad-boy French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud as two rather more dangerous couples took the field. Cass Mortimer Eipper and Charmene Yap with Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli were the opening-night protagonists, dressed in slinky black garments that had a touch of kink about them. Eroticism rather than flirtation is the game. Barton in particular was dramatic and dangerous but all four had quite an edge as they prowled and entwined. There’s was real frisson when they swapped partners, ending up with their own sex. The women were spiky and tough while the men were more tender, a salute to the orientation of poet and composer.

Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Greig

Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Greig

Bonachela’s new full-company piece, Variation 10, takes its cue from qualities Britten saw in his composition teacher Frank Bridge or felt for him, including charm, humour, vitality, sympathy and reverence. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) is an open-hearted tribute to the man who, as author and conductor Paul Kildea writes, taught Britten “how to live and think as an artist”. Bonachela takes a fairly literal approach. Knees are lifted comically high in Aria Italiana (humour) and Chant (reverence) is a mournful solo given gravitas on opening night by Cilli. Funeral March (sympathy) not surprisingly has a sombre feel but was energised with fierce physicality.

Jesse Scales and David Mack were outstanding in Funeral March, answering the throbbing beats from the plucked double bass with passionate intensity. But everywhere you looked there were dancers giving individual shading and detail to Bonachela’s high-octane choreography. Bonachela has a way with partnering that gives women equal strength and authority with men, a desirable state not always seen in dance and a great credit to him.

It’s a shame Toni Maticevski’s costumes for Variation 10 don’t flatter the men but you can’t have everything. His earlier work for Simple Symphony and Les illuminations is just right.

Triptych ends in Sydney on October 10. It will be seen in Germany at Theatre im Pfalzbau, Festpiele Ludwigshafen, on November 28 and 29, featuring the German State Philharmonic of Rhineland-Palatinate.

In Melbourne on October 25 Les Illuminations, featuring Taryn Fiebig, will be performed with Variation 10 and Project Rameau, accompanied by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for a program titled Illuminated. Illuminated will then be performed in Hong Kong on November 13 and 14.

Variation 10 will be performed with 2 One Another at Stadtheater Fürth, Germany, November 18-22.

iTMOi, Les Illuminations

Akram Khan Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 28. Les Illuminations, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Dance Company and Katie Noonan, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, August 28

AKRAM Khan is a choreographer with a hugely inquiring and generous mind. The list of his collaborators is long, stellar and diverse. He’s not a man content to do the same thing over and over with small variations. To celebrate the centenary of The Rite of Spring, Khan didn’t want to add yet another dance work to the extensive list of those who have used Stravinsky’s epoch-altering score. Instead he wanted to “enter Igor’s own thought process and follow its complex and disruptive path”. Thus  iTMOi, a particularly ugly and tricksy title that stands for “in the mind of Igor”.

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

But not only does that phrase give a slightly impertinent suggestion of intimacy with the composer, it is misleading in terms of what iTMOi achieves. The piece is broadly another version of The Rite of Spring with different music (three composers plus a tiny snippet of Stravinsky), twice as long and with an altered ending. Ritual and sacrifice are its themes but there is little of the disruption Khan hopes to evoke. He would have to be far more transgressive than he is here to come anywhere near emulating, let alone surpassing, the effect of the bomb Stravinsky threw on that May day in 1913.

There is nothing better in iTMOi than its beginning, in which a preacher figure shouts a text about Abraham and Isaac against a dramatic, roiling soundscape. Bells toll and drums beat while dancers shudder, groan, hiss, whisper and chant in a primal and thrilling display of ecstatic possession. The feel is that of a particularly intense meeting of religious fanatics. Dancers wheel about in stuttering, speedy circles; there are springy elevations from deep plies in second.

The piece then becomes a series of scenes, somewhat unfocused in structure, that alternate between unrestrained physicality and slow-moving tableaux. A woman in a huge white crinoline commands attention; a younger woman, also in white, is covered in ash; a man tries to challenge the unity of the group but fails; another man stands on his head; yet another, semi-naked, prowls the stage, sporting long thin horns. Meaning is elusive, although there is a general sense of pagan wildness. Igor’s mind was clearly a pretty vibey place.

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

Akram Khan Company in iTMOi. Photo: Prudence Upton

The muscular stamping and circling motifs are reminders of the folk elements in Stravinsky’s score; the slower sections offer arresting imagery but feel over-indulgent and not always full of the resonances Khan appears to be seeking. The work is only 65 minutes in length but is stretched beyond its natural span and ideal shape. It also seems to end twice before it really does, which is rarely effective. I was surprised to see that a dramaturge is among those credited.

The 11 dancers are superb, it goes without saying, and an Akram Khan work is always worth a visit. This one looks spectacular and is performed with brilliance. It’s just not his most coherent.

iTMOi was preceded by a wonderful collaboration between Sydney Dance Company, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and singer Katie Noonan. Why such riches all on one evening? Because the two works are all that is left of the Sydney Opera House’s Spring Dance festival, canned earlier this year for cost reasons. SDC’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, curated last year’s event and was to have done the same this year. It is a huge loss for the city.

Fortunately Les Illuminations survived the cull. At only 45 minutes it is a lovely jewel that deserves more than the handful of performances it’s being given. For those whose knowledge of Benjamin Britten is confined almost entirely to his operas (that would be me), the two works chosen by Bonachela for this project surprise and delight, as does the dance inspired by them.

The first half is playful and sexy, set to the four-movement Simple Symphony (1933-1934). Dancing on a catwalk set in the centre of the Sydney Opera House’s Studio, Janessa Dufty, Andrew Crawford, Fiona Jopp and Bernard Knauer flirt, tease, sparkle and seduce. Despite the restricted space there is room for a few playful tosses, much intertwining of limbs and lovely partnering in which the women are as supportive as the men. The expressive eye contact and the women’s gorgeous smiles lights up the intimate space.

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer in Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer in Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

In the second half, Les Illuminations (1939), Noonan sings texts by Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet who was a byword for dissipation and excess. The costumes, by fashion designer Toni Maticevski, are black rather than the cream confections he created for Simple Symphony, and the atmosphere is much darker and erotically charged. The movement is edgier as dancers prowl and slither around one another or enter same-sex pas de deux. Juliette Barton looks coolly dangerous as she holds Charmene Yap in a tight grip; Thomas Bradley and Cass Mortimer Eipper are equally sensuous in their highly charged meeting.

Juliette Barton and Thomas Bradley in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Grieg

Juliette Barton and Thomas Bradley in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Grieg

Noonan had a slightly tentative start at Wednesday’s opening but quickly showed her silvery, agile soprano to be an excellent match for Britten’s songs. Seventeen string players from the SSO were conducted by Roland Peelman in an absolutely luscious performance.

Les Illuminations has its final performances on August 31. iTMOi finishes September 1.