Adelaide Festival: Split and Memorial

Split, Lucy Guerin Inc. AC Main Arts Theatre, Adelaide. March 3.

Memorial, Brink Productions, Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, March 3.

The opening weekend of this year’s Adelaide Festival, the second under the co-artistic directorship of Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, had brilliance and breadth in equal measure.

The marquee work was Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet, which premiered at Glyndebourne last year to much acclaim. It wasn’t exactly a surprise when Hamlet was announced for Adelaide given that Armfield is its director, but wonderful to see it on home soil and with many roles taken by Australian singers. Cheryl Barker scored a considerable success as Gertrude and Lorina Gore was a tremendously affecting Ophelia alongside the original, extraordinary Hamlet of British tenor Allan Clayton.

Hamlet cast a long shadow but all hail to the works of smaller scale that followed and made their own mark.

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Lilian Steiner (top) and Melanie Lane in Split. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

Lucy Guerin Inc’s Split was a big hit at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival last year, deservedly so. Its theme is nothing less than the forces of time and space as they impinge on the individual.

Guerin’s work is supremely elegant in construction. In a softly lit square marked out with white tape, two women – Melanie Lane and Lilian Steiner, both breathtaking, danced in unison.

Their movements were dazzlingly intricate as they covered the space, driven by the beats of British composer Scanner’s pulsating electronic score. Big, tough slicing sweeps of the arms contrasted with warm curves for hips, torsos and shoulders. They moved neatly around the square, diagonally and in straight lines, their degree of synchronisation both a technical wonder and a suggestion that the women were two sides of the one coin.

That idea was given extra momentum by the work’s alternating moods and the decision to have one woman (Lane) clothed and the other (Steiner) unclothed. Nakedness on stage almost always brings with it a sense of vulnerability but Steiner’s composure banished any notion of fragility. She was all strength and essence, gleaming in Paul Lim’s beautiful lighting design like a goddess.

Split is divided into eight sections, each lasting half the time of the preceding one and performed in a space half the size. The mesmerising togetherness of the first section and its choreographic material are repeated in the third, fifth and seventh sections. In the other sections, order is disrupted. There is no attempt at unity and antagonism erupts. On one level we might have been watching two different individuals competing for resources – room to move being the obvious but not the only one – but there was also the sense of internal conflicts made visible.

Right at the end there was only space enough for both women to stand, upright and close together, perhaps in harmony, perhaps forced into uneasy proximity. The wealth of ideas in this brief work, lasting only 40 minutes, was immense.

British poet Alice Oswald’s version of The Iliad, Memorial, is subtitled “an excavation”. In Oswald’s telling, the men identified in her text – 215 of them – are not the familiar heroes of Trojan War legend; they are individuals with families and occupations who lived, as we do, with hopes and dreams, and then died violently.

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Helen Morse in Memorial. Photo: Shane Reid

Adelaide’s Brink Productions has carved an almost unbearably moving piece of theatre from this threnody, one in which poetry, music and movement seamlessly join hands, as do Australian and British artists in the making of it. British composer Jocelyn Pook wrote the ravishing score, drenched in the vibrant colours of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and it was played and sung by a lustrous group of musicians led by UK countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny.

The singers and instrumentalists were arrayed on high at the back of the stage while beneath them a “soldier chorus” of more than 200 people represented Oswald’s 215 named characters. Among them were members of several choirs whose voices, raised en masse at the end, brought Memorial to a conclusion both exalting and emotionally devastating.

At the centre of everything was Helen Morse, who carried the weight of Oswald’s lengthy text on her slight shoulders. Directed by Brink’s Chris Drummond, she was a self-effacing presence as she stood quietly or wended her unassuming way through the army of everyday men, women and children who thronged the stage, sometimes walking in seemingly endless lines, sometimes circling, sometimes standing mute, and at one lovely moment, dancing gently in couples.

As humanity swirled around her, Morse, clad in a red dress of rough cut, told the many stories of lives lost – and the manner in which they were lost – with deep compassion and a voice of infinitely sad beauty.

Drummond’s partner in creating the concept for Memorial, Yaron Lifschitz from famed Brisbane circus company Circa, devised the movement – a monumental task. There were several short sections for three dancers (Tobiah Booth-Remmers, Lina Limosani and Larissa McGowan) but otherwise Lifschitz required nothing remotely virtuosic from the chorus in the way they used their bodies. His direction of the group as a whole, however, was a marvel of complexity as this mass of ordinary folk stood in for those long dead and reminded us of those still to die in countless wars across the globe.

Among Memorial’s co-commissioners is 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts program for the centenary of World War I, and the piece will be staged at the Barbican in London in September this year.

Untamed: Sydney Dance Company

Wildebeest and Anima. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, Sydney, October 20.

In the double bill Untamed, Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeest and Rafael Bonachela’s Anima come at the same question – what is our true, essential nature? – from quite different perspectives.

Nankivell sets humankind’s most primal impulses against the slick, guarded sophistications of modern life. The dancers are at one moment instinctive pack animals huddling together for safety or fighting ferociously for dominance; the next they are cool, automaton-like figures who could be composed of binary code.

At the centre of Bonachela’s work is a long, slow, intimate duo for two men, framed by a frenzy of activity. Imagine, if you will, the stage as a kind of Large Hadron Collider, charged with dancers rather than particles. They whizz about at jaw-dropping speed, occasionally smash into someone and then dash off, only to return with another burst of superhuman stamina.

Broadly speaking you could say that Nankivell is fascinated by the strangeness of the human animal and the way it arranges itself into societies while Bonachela wants to give physical expression to unseeable private thoughts and emotions – to make them literally take flight.

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Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeest. Photo: Pedro Greig

It’s a strong program, aptly named and thrillingly danced by Bonachela’s exceptional ensemble. As the dancers lined up to take their bow after Anima (it came second), they looked exhausted but exhilarated. The opening night audience responded with a huge ovation, sending waves of energy back to the performers, who took call after call. Some of them have been with Bonachela since he took over the artistic directorship of SDC in late 2008 and others joined only this year, but every last one of them dives into the work with equal passion and daring. It’s wonderful to see how physically diverse the group is and how united in intensity.

Wildebeest premiered in SDC’s new choreography program, New Breed, in 2014. It was by far the most accomplished work on the bill and it’s heartening to see it given greater exposure. Nankivell sees beauty and wonder in the primitive, animalistic self. In the opening solo Bernhard Knauer (on opening night; Juliette Barton shares the role) luxuriates in the discovery of the body’s potential as the dancer evolves from wobbly-limbed newborn to hyper-alert individual.

Impelled by Luke Smiles’s thundery, shivery soundscape, groups form, attack and scatter. Suddenly the mood changes dramatically and mechanistic formality takes over. Warm-bloodedness and wild individuality are replaced by a faceless mass, led by the brilliantly chilly Holly Doyle and Todd Sutherland. Their flashing arms bring to mind a futuristic version of an Indian god whose original purpose has been long forgotten, and the brief outbreak of night-clubby group gyrations has a similar feel of blankly repeated ritual.

Ending back where it began, Wildebeest closes with a brief solo, memorably performed by Janessa Dufty, which suggests a continuous loop of existence, possibly even parallel universes. If one has an optimistic cast of mind it also suggests that no matter how thick the accretions of time and experience, at bottom we are sensual, aware, vulnerable, imaginative and inquisitive beings.

Bonachela made Anima to dance-ready music by Bulgarian-British composer Dobrinka Tabakova, prefacing her Concerto for cello and strings (2008) with the short Insight for string trio (2002). Tabakova’s restless, densely packed rhythms propel and buoy the swiftest movements persuasively. Soloists, duos, quartets and larger groups take the stage in turns, briefly, powerfully and anonymously. They are a muscular choir of angels whose expansiveness and high-flying freedom is in stark contrast to the groundedness of the men at the heart of the work.

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Rafael Bonachela’s Anima. Photo: Pedro Greig

The cello concerto’s middle movement, which Tabakova titles Longing, has a long-breathed, sweet melody that sits above a cloud of strings before darker intimations set in. It invites, and is given, a heartfelt pas de deux that on opening night Cass Mortimer Eipper and Petros Treklis invested with tenderness and something like emotional caution or unease. There isn’t enough, however, to sustain the nearly nine minutes of music, so the dominant impression of Anima is its pedal-to-the-metal physical exuberance rather than the desired interplay of interior spirit and its exterior manifestation.

The blurry suggestions of dancers’ bodies, designed by Clemens Habicht and projected on to a screen at the back of the stage, are an intriguing, albeit a little too self-effacing, part of the concept. Far less intriguing are Aleisha Jelbart’s costumes for Anima, which essentially make it look as if these spectacular, heroic dancers were sent out in their underwear. Bonachela likes the dancers’ bodies to be attired relatively simply, it would seem, a state Fiona Holley achieved successfully with her earth-toned tops and shorts for Wildebeest.

Longtime Bonachela collaborator Benjamin Cisterne lit both works, rather overdoing the colour washes in Anima. With the arrival of each new shade in the central pas de deux one rather wondered what it meant. In Wildebeest, on the other hand, the connection with movement and score was precise.

SDC has released its program for 2017 and Wildebeest will not be a one-season wonder. In February and March it is danced on a US tour as part of a triple bill (the other works are Bonachela’s Frame of Mind and Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models) and is performed around Australia with Frame of Mind in June, July and August.

Good old New Breed, one must say. Except there is no New Breed scheduled for 2017. It was always clear that generous philanthropy organisation The Balnaves Foundation was supporting New Breed for three years only, and next month’s event is the third (Carriageworks, November 29-December 10). Presumably no new financial backer has been found at this stage to continue the program.

Over the years SDC has found various ways to bring new and under-appreciated choreographers into the fold. The late, lamented Spring Dance festival at the Sydney Opera House, for instance, brought Larissa McGowan’s Fanatic to the attention of a most appreciative public in Sydney in 2012 and Bonachela gave it a mainstage season in 2013.

Let’s hope someone from the 2016 New Breed – participants are SDC dancers Richard Cilli and Jesse Scales, plus Shian Law and Rachel Arianne Ogle – comes up trumps. But of course you can’t guarantee that. It’s why you have to keep on looking out for and giving chances to those who show a spark. Which costs money, and brings us back to arts funding. Don’t get me started.

Untamed ends in Sydney on October 29.

Women to the fore

New Breed, Sydney Dance Company, Carriageworks, Sydney, November 4

AN enduring issue in dance is the predominance of male choreographers. This is overwhelmingly evident in ballet; less so in contemporary dance. Nevertheless, if you look at Sydney Dance Company’s programs over the past few years, the choreographers invited to join artistic director Rafael Bonachela on the mainstage have mostly been men, many highly established around the world. It can appear a very closed circle. Access begets success begets solid reputation begets work.

Juliette Barton in her solo Scrutineer. Photo: Jack Saltmoras

Juliette Barton in her solo Scrutineer. Photo: Jack Saltmoras

Bonachela, to his great credit, is chipping away at the problem. At the late lamented Spring Dance festival he fielded an all-woman program of new work in 2012 and got a beauty out of it, Larissa McGowan’s Fanatic, which has since been seen playing with the big boys. This year’s New Breed showcase of new work included three women. True, two of them, company dancers and first-time choreographers Juliette Barton and Charmene Yap, made small, short works, but they were both terrific. The third woman, Gabrielle Nankivell, made the undisputed hit of the night.

Nankivell’s Wildebeest unflinchingly shows humankind as pack animal, one-on-one antagonist and vulnerable individual, the balance constantly and unsettlingly shifting. Nankivell has an exceptionally sure feel for mood and structure as bodies came together in strongly formal groups or scattered in eruptions of wild physicality, impelled by insistent cues in Luke Smiles’s shivery, thundery soundscape. Often they mysteriously disappeared into the gloom of Matthew Marshall’s brilliant lighting design, which precisely evoked the way dust is suspended in the air after a herd has raced through desolate land.

Wildebeest is an ambitious 25-minute work for 13 dancers and there is much more one could say about it. I hope to have that opportunity on a mainstage SDC program in the near future.

The brevity of pieces made by Barton (Scrutineer) and Yap (Do We) makes it impossible to tell whether they have a full-scale work in them, but Barton’s piercingly personal solo for herself was riveting and Yap’s playful duo for Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer revealed considerable wit and poise. (It was interesting to note the use animal imagery in four of the five pieces – wildebeest in Nankivell’s, an elephant in Lee Serle’s work and dogs in Cass Mortimer Eipper’s, while Yap brought a touch of higher primate behaviour into the picture. At the beginning of Do We, Doyle and Knauer approached each other with some caution, then had a good old sniff to establish whether they were friend or foe before ripping into their high-energy mating game. What does all this mean? Couldn’t say.)

Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer in Do We. Photo: Peter Greig

Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer in Do We. Photo: Peter Greig

Serle’s White Elephant was an enigmatic piece in which dancers rarely connected emotionally but movement rippled through them to be taken up by others. There was indeed an elephant in the room, involved as a mysterious anchor point for Barton and Fiona Jopp as they stretched and unfurled as if extensions of the beast. As they did this others whispered through paper trumpets, calling on Celeste for help if my ears didn’t deceive me – which if you know your children’s books, was a reference to Babar the elephant.

White Elephant may sound unfathomable but I found its surreal mystery intriguing and its 17-minute timespan raced by. It felt a little sketchy, though, which is not unreasonable in the context of New Breed. The fifth work on the program, Mortimer Eipper’s Dogs and Baristas, unfortunately left me entirely unmoved with its unremarkable observations on human interaction presented with a goofy circus vibe.

Obviously all the works benefited from being able to harness the considerable skills of the SDC dancers. I would say, however, that at the moment the women of the company are looking more individual and interesting than the men. Barton in her own work and in White Elephant, Doyle in Do We, Jopp in White Elephant, Janessa Dufty in Wildebeest and Jesse Scales in Dogs and Baristas gave performances that wormed their way into the memory and hold on with some tenacity.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on November 7.

De Novo

Sydney Dance Company. Choreography by Rafael Bonachela, Alexander Ekman and Larissa McGowan.

IF Alexander Ekman is true to his program note he won’t read this review, or any other. It’s a shame, because I’d like to let him know how much I enjoyed Cacti. Perhaps someone at Sydney Dance Company will pass the word on, but then perhaps he doesn’t care. Cacti is, after all, a dance work sending up critics and what Ekman sees as judgmental intellectualising and pretentious dribbling on about meaning. In his half-hour romp Ekman puts a cactus up the critical fundament in quite an extensive fashion – which may mean he really does care, in which case I might point out that cacti thrive in arid climes, and that Ekman did tell The Australian recently he thinks there’s a lot of contemporary dance that’s too self-absorbed.

Thomas Bradley in Larissa McGowan's Fanatic. Photograph: Jessica Bialek

Thomas Bradley in Larissa McGowan’s Fanatic. Photograph: Jessica Bialek

But enough of this theorising. Ekman has pulled off one of the most difficult challenges in dance, which is to be genuinely funny. Cacti is a delight: witty, effervescent, playful, surreal and joyously physical. The dancers, identically dressed in roomy dark trousers over flesh-coloured bodysuits and wearing hair-covering caps, at first kneel on low platforms and whack the platforms and themselves in an exhilarating display of energy, rhythm and co-ordination. Later they will strip down to basics and pose with cacti as if it were the most glamorous thing in the world to do. There’s lots more besides, but this is a piece to see rather than read about. The 16 dancers are adorable, there’s a glamorous string quartet that plays some of the score live and there’s a dead cat.

Larissa McGowan showed last year in Sydney’s Spring Dance festival (curated by Rafael Bonachela) that she, too, can cause mayhem in the theatre and it was a great delight to see her short work Fanatic given a larger forum. It’s a riotous homage to and send-up of the Alien and Predator films and fans of the genre. Natalie Allen, Thomas Bradley and Chris Aubrey deliver their roles with gusto (there is also a second cast).

De Novo opens with Bonachela’s Emergence, a work in which equal power lies with the music of Sarah Blasko and Nick Wales, the terrific costumes from Dion Lee in his first dance outing, Benjamin Cisterne’s super-sleek stage and lighting design and Bonachela’s dancers. You’ll note I say the dancers rather than the dance itself. The movement language fits these gorgeous people like a glove but for frequent Bonachela-watchers Emergence has no surprises. Bonachela has, however, an inexhaustible gift and appetite for collaboration with intriguing artists from other disciplines. This may be his strongest suit.

De Novo ends on March 23.

This review first appeared in The Australian on March 4.