Thrills and spills: the year in dance

We’ll get to the year’s most interesting work and dancers shortly but 2015 was also notable for offstage developments, particularly at Australia’s three leading classical companies, The Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet. So let’s begin there.

OFFSTAGE

The national company

At The Australian Ballet, David McAllister became the company’s longest-serving artistic director, surpassing Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign. McAllister took over in July 2001 after the relatively brief tenure of Ross Stretton, who cut his time at the AB short to go to the Royal Ballet in London. McAllister was named to the post while he was still dancing, although retirement followed swiftly. It was a huge leap of faith on the part of the AB board as he had had no leadership experience but it is now emphatically his company. Of the AB’s current roster of 68 dancers, only two were members of the company before 2001 and two joined in 2001.

In another big first, this year McAllister put himself forward to stage a new production of The Sleeping Beauty. He had previously staged only a handful of minor pieces. The production is thought to have cost about $2 million and in a dazzling feat of fundraising, about 70 per cent came from 2000 or so ballet-lovers giving sums ranging from $100 to $50,000 or more. Audiences flocked to it, several dancers in Sydney were given career-changing opportunities and despite reservations from some critics (including me) about some aspects of the production, it must be counted a significant success for McAllister and The Australian Ballet.

McAllister shows absolutely no sign of becoming jaded and it wouldn’t surprise one to see him celebrate his 20th anniversary in the job in 2021.

The state companies

Queensland Ballet was the real surprise package of the year from a backstage perspective, making the position of its high-profile CEO Anna Marsden redundant. The announcement was made on July 9 and was supposed to take effect from September 1 but Marsden was quickly out of the picture. On July 29 QB’s chair, Brett Clark, said in a statement the company would appoint an executive director, whose role would be to enable the vision of artistic director Li Cunxin and drive operations.  Dilshani Weerasinghe, previously the company’s development director, was announced as acting executive director but she was soon the board’s permanent choice.

I spoke at length to Clark in early December about the move, very shortly after the company’s announcement that the Queensland Government would give QB an extra $1.2 million annually (bringing its contribution to $2.7 million annually) to support an increase in dancer numbers (an additional eight by 2020), expansion of its headquarters, increased international touring and a greater number of performances. In 2016 QB will have 31 company members and seven young artists.

The announcement by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also contained news of a $5 million gift from the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End.

Clark said negotiations regarding both announcements had been “a long work in progress”. He said specific goals were for QB to be seen as a “powerhouse in the Asia-Pacific region” and to perform more frequently in regional Queensland. Touring to Sydney and Melbourne was not on the cards. “I think the AB services Sydney and Melbourne extremely well. They’re an amazing company.”

Clark declined to speak about the working relationship between Li and Marsden. He said, however, it had become “apparent that for us to get agreed goals and visions, it needed to be an artistic director-led strategy”. He said an executive director can have input into strategy and vision but the core role is to support the board and the company, “and in the case of Queensland Ballet, the artistic director on his or her vision for the company”. He also said that “Dilshani reports through Li to the board”.

Clark acknowledged Marsden’s role in QB’s rapid growth since Li became artistic director in 2011. He also said: “We needed Li’s vision and strategy leading the way forward.”

Clark would not discuss what went on behind the scenes but the implication is clear. Although Marsden was a key player in QB’s revival of fortunes following the departure of previous artistic director François Klaus, a structure in which both CEO and artistic director reported to the board created tension. The board chose Li.

I approached Marsden but she did not wish to comment.

West Australian Ballet will also be under new management next year following the announcement on December 14 that its CEO, Steven Roth, will be leaving in February to work with Scottish Ballet. Roth joined WAB in 2007 when the company had 19 very unhappy dancers who were agitating for the right to strike over their pay and conditions. (Their accommodation in His Majesty’s Theatre, where the company mainly performs, was limited to one studio and cramped production and administration space.) The dancers prevailed: the West Australian Government upped its funding and WAB now has 32 company members and eight young artists. One of the great achievements of Roth’s tenure can be seen in WAB’s gleaming State Ballet Centre in the Perth suburb of Maylands; another is the increase in the company’s operating revenue from $3.2 million in 2007 to $10 million in 2015.

Interestingly, Roth goes to Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet, the country’s national company, as executive director. That company already has a CEO – Christopher Hampson, who is also the company’s artistic director. He added CEO duties earlier this year after the sudden departure of chief executive Cindy Sughrue. In June Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported: “Scottish Ballet will now also begin a search for an executive director who will sit on the national company’s board and report to Hampson, with a remit for ‘clear focus on strategic vision and commercial success’.”

The Herald also reported Scottish Ballet’s chairman, Norman Murray, as saying “the board had undertaken a review of how the company was run, with aid from consultants, and believed it should be ‘artistically led’.”

ONSTAGE – CLASSICAL AND CONTEMPORARY

There are, I admit, a lot of gaps: no 2015 Melbourne Festival, no 2015 Adelaide Festival, no 2015 Dance Massive (Melbourne), although I had already seen one or two things on that program. I mention this because I travelled a fair bit in 2015 but not to everywhere or everything. My list doesn’t leave these things out because there was nothing of note, but because I wasn’t there. Adelaide would have been my big chance to see – at long last – Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet but that is now impossible. Cedar Lake’s financial backer closed the company not long after Adelaide. At Melbourne I could have caught up with the latest work from Batsheva, which I’ve seen regularly at Australian arts festivals, but no.

And a work that I reviewed reasonably strictly on first seeing it makes the list for its daring and its dancers. While I have issues with some of the dramaturgy in The Australian Ballet’s new Sleeping Beauty it is nevertheless a considerable achievement that provided three artists with role debuts that saw each immediately promoted to the next rank.

The productions are in the order in which I saw them and the performers in alphabetical order. The list is heavily skewed towards ballet because that’s the way the year panned out for me.

The best of the best? A Sleeping Beauty double: Alexei Ratmansky’s back-to-Petipa production for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala; and Benedicte Bemet’s dazzling debut as Aurora for The Australian Ballet.

PRODUCTIONS

Nothing to Lose, Force Majeure, Sydney Festival, January

Force Majeure founder Kate Champion has now moved on, leaving the company in new hands. Nothing to Lose, made with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, was a great farewell piece. It put the following propositions on stage: that fat people should not hide away, that they should be heard, that they are entitled to make choices, that they may actually like the way they are, and, by god, they can and will dance.

Puncture, Legs on the Wall, FORM Dance Projects, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Festival, January

Puncture started with “Hello” and ended with “I love you”. Is there anything more life-affirming? Six couples collided, grappled, touched, fought, flew, supported, changed partners, argued and loved. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evoked the formalities of Elizabethan court dance, the uniformity of line dancing, the romance of the waltz, the zing of the tango, the group spirit of folk and much more, but ultimately the dance was about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, Perth International Arts Festival, February

In this seemingly carefree work Morris offered principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women were equal, each was an individual, there was strength to be gained from one another and there was belief in the power of love and joy.

Quintett, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, March

The first cast was more balletic, the second more ferocious in this thrilling, heart-catching William Forsythe work. Not many companies are allowed to do it; Sydney Dance Company did it proud.

Sydney Dance Company's Quintett featuring Chloe Leong and David Mack 1. Photo by Peter Greig

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

The Sleeping Beauty, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Alexei Ratmansky’s production took us as nearly as possible back to what the original 1890 audience would have seen: super-lavish setting, strong mime and many intimate, modest details. The physicality looked startlingly different. Instead of height and bravura there was refinement and great charm. For both men and women there was a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkled. It was as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and much more intricate and sophisticated.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Auckland, September

What a gorgeous production! Designed by New Zealander Tracy Grant Lord and choreographed by hotter-than-hot Brit Liam Scarlett, this co-pro between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet was funny, sexy and ravishing to behold. Brisbane sees it in April.

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

Hayley Dennison in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The Sleeping Beauty, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne and Sydney, September and December

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drank deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, was almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revelled in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There were columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that threw out a huge challenge to David McAllister: match this if you can, buddy. Well, he asked for it. There have been a few rumblings about the design being oppressively opulent but this greatest of ballet scores can bear the weight. It invites and deserves a magnificent mise en scène. It also requires storytelling that can fill the space and amplify the music. It’s in the latter sphere that Beauty doesn’t fully succeed despite the involvement of Lucas Jervies, a choreographer and director working as McAllister’s sounding board and adviser. It was extremely cheering, though, to see many very fine performances through the ranks and exciting role debuts (see below).

Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, November

It was a joy to see Ochres revived at Carriageworks with a dynamic new generation of dancers. Not that it was exactly the work originally choreographed by Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene, nor should it be. Dance texts are particularly susceptible to change and Bangarra has developed greatly since the early 1990s. This revival was in the spirit of the original rather than a faithful dusting off of the old steps. The company called it a re-imagining and it looked wonderful. Bangarra has a unique aesthetic based on the connection with Indigenous ceremony and the land. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and invigorating.

Cinderella, choreographed by Jayne Smeulders, West Australian Ballet, Perth, December

How many full-length, mainstage classical ballets choreographed by women were there on Australian stages this year? Just the one I think, Jayne Smeulders’s Cinderella. She reworked her 2011 production to advantage and scored a huge hit with Perth audiences. See: it can be done.

Coppélia, choreographed by Maina Gielgud for Christine Walsh’s Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Melbourne, December

There was quite a lot of new choreography and loads of rearranging but basically Gielgud’s production was a staging rather than a new work. But what a beauty. It was hard to believe this was a student production, so high were its standards. The young dancers were not just technically assured, they gave terrifically engaged and engaging performances, working seamlessly with the delightful guest artists from Tokyo Ballet, Maria Kawatani and Arata Miyagawa. Christine Walsh designed the many costumes, all of them splendid.

PERFORMANCES

Stella Abrera, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Abrera’s warmth and simplicity informed every moment of her performance; there wasn’t a thing that didn’t feel genuine. The mad scene tore at the heart. As she loses her reason Giselle re-enacts the plucking of flower petals, which earlier had quieted her anxiety about Albrecht – he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. Now there was no anticipation or light. Abrera shook her head piteously. He doesn’t love me. (Abrera was at that time an ABT soloist; she was promoted to principal – very belatedly in the opinion of many – at the end of June.)

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Veronica Part, Stella Abrera and Vladimir Shklyarov in Giselle. Photo: MIRA

Benedicte Bemet, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December

Quite simply one of the most exciting nights in the theatre, ever. Bemet, just 21, had the dew and radiance of youth, purity and joy in her dancing and was beyond fearless. You know how you almost always get butterflies when Aurora nears those balances and promenades in the Rose Adagio? Not so here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were extraordinary, the crowd went wild, and Bemet just went from strength to strength. She went on as a coryphée and shortly afterwards was promoted to soloist. To be honest, it wouldn’t have surprised me if David McAllister had bounded on to the stage to make her a principal artist on the spot. But she has plenty of time for that.

Brett Chynoweth, Puck in The Dream, debut as Prince Désiré, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, May and December

Chynoweth is one of The Australian Ballet’s finest male technicians – he is fast, sleek, has fabulous feet and exciting elevation. This, however, is not what makes him so interesting. He is a passionate, poetic man who connects deeply with his roles and therefore with the audience. As Désiré his longing for love was palpable, and earlier in the year his Puck was a marvel of pyrotechnics and other-worldly humour. He is now, rightfully, a senior artist.

Chynoweth Boud

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Alina Cojocaru, Aurora, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, October

She radiated light and joy from a tiny body that gave the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing was brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything felt as if it were the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all was her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompassed the entire theatre.

Thaji Dias, Dancing for the Gods, Chitrasena Dance Company, Sydney Festival, January

I got my first, and so far only, view of Thaji Dias during this year’s Sydney Festival. She is a ravishing artist, dancing in the Kandyan style from Sri Lanka with megawatts of charisma. The dance was dramatic and seductive and Dias’s command of it exhilarating with her divinely articulated wrists, rippling shoulders, jaunty strides, the deepest and plushest plies and the liveliest eyes.

Sylvie Guillem, Life in Progress, Sydney, August

At 50 Guillem left the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that showed her as a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. She was known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art. But that was then. Her farewell program celebrated Guillem in the here and now, with new and recent work.

Robyn Hendricks, debut in Symphonic Variations, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April and December

Hendricks is something of a late bloomer but no less valuable for that. Her willowy body gives her a regal air and she also seems a little unknowable, qualities that of course make one intensely aware of her. She looked serenely beautiful in the first cast of Symphonic Variations; as Aurora she was a queen in the making: watchful, elegant, sophisticated and lusciously aware of her suitors. She was promoted to senior artist immediately after her debut.

The Dream - Symphonic Variations

Aka Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

Xavier Le Roy, Self Untitled, Carriageworks, Sydney, November

Xavier Le Roy’s 1998 solo Self Unfinished had particular resonance at the time of viewing, days after the terrorist attacks on Paris, summoning thoughts of the fragility of life, the resilience of the human spirit, the truth that we exist only at this moment, right now, and that we are all in it together. He didn’t make a big thing of it, but Le Roy’s piece had a strong sense of erasing the invisible barrier between audience and performer. He intrigued, delighted and provoked during a performance of quite intimacy.

Natalia Osipova/Steven McRae, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Osipova’s Giselle had London aflame last year and this year had the New York audience entranced and exhilarated. She tore through the ballet with a passion, leaping higher, turning more quickly and covering ground more voraciously than any other. Osipova is a risk-taking dancer. She fell heavily towards the end of her final solo and took several agonising seconds to recover enough to stand. She limped back to the centre and resumed dancing, finishing the ballet not only courageously but with melting beauty. The clarity and complexity of McRae’s acting was wonderful. He gave not just the broad picture but made every moment vivid, fresh, illuminating and dramatically coherent. His dancing, it goes without saying, was full of brilliance without being bombastic. But there was no more riveting moment than one of complete stillness, when Albrecht heard the distant horns of the Royal hunting party and understood the chaos to come.

CHOREOGRAPHY

Kristina Chan, Conform, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, December

“I am interested in what it means to be a man in this modern day,” Chan wrote in the program note to Conform, part of the annual New Breed program. She has a sombre view. When we first saw her men – there was an all-male cast of eight – they visibly buckled under the weight of expectation. They were either desperately alone with their thoughts or they fell in with the majority, losing individuality but absorbing the power of the pack. Conform was beautifully structured, vibrated with repressed emotion and had a very strong, pulsating and often ominous score by James Brown. It should be a keeper.

Justin Peck, Rōdē,ō, New York City Ballet, May

We haven’t seen a step of Peck’s in Australia as far as I know and it’s about time someone did something about it. His Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes, to the music of Aaron Copland, is wondrous. (Don’t ask me about the odd accents in the title; perhaps Peck wanted to differentiate it from Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo, to this music.) A piece for 15 men and one fabulous woman, it surprises, invigorates and enchants at every turn. Peck, still dancing as a soloist with New York City Ballet, has the magic touch. This apparently abstract ballet is packed with ideas, relationships and really zingy choreography. NYCB probably doesn’t want to let it go just yet because it premiered only in February this year, but can someone please beg?

The giants inside

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby. Royal Court Theatre and Lisa Dwan, State Theatre Centre of WA, February 14.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, His Majesty’s Theatre, February 13.

THERE were giants inside as well as outside during Perth’s first festival weekend. While Mark Morris and Mozart ruled with joie de vivre at His Majesty’s, Lisa Dwan and Beckett shook the soul at the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground in three short works of obsidian darkness.

Lisa Dwan in Footfalls. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

Lisa Dwan in Footfalls. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

It takes less than an hour to experience Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby but their essence is timeless and, for the duration of the performance, time is suspended. All extraneous light is rigorously excluded from the Studio Underground and Dwan is seen but dimly through James Farncombe’s hazy but finely focused lighting. The audience, rendered almost unnaturally still and quiet in the blackness, is however on high alert internally as Dwan embodies terrifying visions of disintegration, loneliness and death.

Not I is a tumbling stream of words from which key phrases emerge and are then dragged back into the jumble. Sharp little barks, cackles, growls and gasps punctuate the flow of an old woman’s fractured recollections that keep circling back to something that apparently happened on an April morning to “she”, the younger self. Only the actress’s mouth is visible as the woman remembers many harsh things but finds her voice, in that beautiful use of the word. It means finding the true self.

In Footfalls the finding of the voice has been more difficult for a woman attending a dying mother. A rectangle of light imprisons her as she paces up and down – there is room for nine steps only – but at least she can hear her steps on a floor from which she has removed the covering. They confirm her existence. Dwan, her voice low and melodious, also speaks the words of the unseen mother, a woman who seems to have sucked the life from her daughter.

Rockaby also heads inexorably towards the void as a woman sits in a rocking chair with only her face and hands visible as she sways in and out of the light. The sense of desolation is immense as the woman describes looking through the window to other windows, always alone despite searching for others like her. Towards the end of the piece one can see only half Dwan’s face, a nightmarish effect.

Dwan is directed flawlessly by Walter Asmus, a longtime friend of Beckett. This trio of works and collaborators is a rare gift.

The season ends on Friday.

MOZART Dances reveals Mark Morris as the great magician of contemporary dance and its foremost optimist. In this seemingly carefree work Morris offers principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women are equal, each is an individual, there is strength to be gained from one another and there is belief in the power of love and joy.

From Double, the middle work in Mozart Dances

From Double, the middle work in Mozart Dances. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

The work is abstract but packed with relationships, the foremost of which is with the score. Morris choreographs to three substantial Mozart piano works, each with three movements – about 90 minutes of music for orchestra and two solo pianists. It’s a huge canvas, yet Mozart Dances feels deliciously intimate as Morris sends 16 dancers whirling across the stage in a constant and felicitous flow in answer to the spring and essence of the music. They cover ground as bountifully as gazelles.

First up is Eleven, choreographed to Mozart’s relatively little known Piano Concerto No.11, in which Morris concentrates on the women, led by elfin Lauren Grant. There is a short introduction to the men of the company, bare-chested and wearing breeches that hint at the 18th century. After some lively unison dancing they stride off and the women take over, introducing motifs that will recur throughout the work.

Eleven is followed by Double for the men to the Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, the composer’s only work in that form. Echoing the structure of Eleven in reverse, Morris brings the women of the company on in the third movement. They are now wearing long floating skirts, reminiscent of those worn in Balanchine’s Serenade (just as Grant’s sudden fall to the ground in Eleven recalls a similar moment in that ballet). There’s a visual link to the diaphanous black the women wear in Eleven, but the atmospherics are completely different. The first costume is bold, the second is romantic.

Double, from Mark Morris's Mozart Dances

Double, from Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

Aaron Loux was the charming and fleet soloist in Double, wearing a frock coat that also nods to the 18th century. It moves beautifully and brings a whiff of gallantry to proceeedings. Again one notices the jaunty comings and goings, the powerful unison work and Morris’s unerring eye for pacing and timing but, above all, the emotional value of a movement and moment.

Finally, all 16 dancers, now dressed in white although not identically, come together for the 27th piano concerto (Mozart’s last) to mix, mingle, separate and connect in ways that delight the spirit.

While the mood of each dance is distinct, Morris propels each with nimble legs and feet, open-hearted upper bodies and multitudinous cheeky exits and entrances. With dancers as warmly engaged and witty as Morris’s there is every reason to believe that offstage life is just as interesting to them as what awaits onstage. These are not performers who disappear when you can’t see them.

Morris seamlessly interweaves steps and shapes from folk, the court, ballet and ordinary life while building a series of motifs that are sprinkled throughout, often with a new or unexpected touch. In Eleven the women at one point gather In a group and look upwards as if there is something mesmerising out of our sight, but not theirs. The men will later have their version of it. The same happens with fingers that are pointed as if to say, “you need to pay extra attention right now”. Often dancers will throw themselves into a generous, wide-armed whirl that feels less like a choreographed move than a spontaneous outburst of ecstasy.

The much-repeated action of falling has different qualities but always ends in recovery and re-entry into the group, nowhere more potently expressed than in the glorious slow movement of Double. It is central to Mozart Dances in position (it is the fifth of the nine movements played) and content and has the most sombre tones. Even so, there are gleams of light as the fallen and isolated are gathered up. Darkness is then quickly banished in the final dance, Twenty-Seven, and Mozart Dances ends on a highly playful note with all the men and women, dressed in fresh, non-identical white, getting on like a house on fire.

For its brief Perth engagement Mark Morris Dance Group was vividly accompanied by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne pianist Amir Farid, conducted by MMDG music director Colin Fowler. Fowler joined Farid for the sonata, a tremendous musical highlight.

I am sorry Mozart Dances won’t be on the program when MMDG comes to Sydney in June as it can be seen again and again with pleasure. But an orchestra has to be available, and a second pianist, which is undoubtedly the barrier. So Sydney will get a smaller-scale program of four works – A Wooden Tree, Festival Dance, Pacific and Whelm – accompanied by the MMDG Music Ensemble.

‘My work’s about love, basically’

One of the key works of the 2015 Perth International Arts Festival is Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances from 2006. There will be four performances only, on February 13, 14 and 15.

PIAF artistic director Jonathan Holloway calls Morris “one of the greatest choreographers alive today and he is the great American choreographer. He’s never been to Western Australia. From day one I wanted to start my first festival with Lucinda Childs, who is another of my favourite choreographers, and finish with Mark Morris.” (Childs’s shimmering 1979 work Dance was seen exclusively in Perth in 2012.)

Morris has made more than 140 works for Mark Morris Dance Group, which this year celebrates its 35th anniversary, and is also feted for his work with classical companies. Since 1996 MMDG has undertaken no international tour without live music, which for the three-part Mozart Dances in its entirety means the availability of a symphony orchestra – the West Australian Symphony Orchestra will play for PIAF – and two solo pianists.

This is an expanded version of my interview with Morris written for The Weekend Australian’s Culture 2015 magazine, published on November 15-16, 2014.

EVERYTHING about Mark Morris is big: his exuberant laugh, his passion for music, the uncensored chat and bawdy talk, his endlessly inquiring nature. He’s a stayer, too. The American choreographer started making dances when he was 13 (although says he didn’t make his first good one until he was 15) and founded his own company at 24. He’s now 58 and Mark Morris Dance Group has not only survived, but is one of the world’s finest contemporary companies.

Morris has choreographed more than 150 works, mostly for his group but also for leading ballet companies, and works extensively as an opera director, conductor and music teacher. An indication of his tendency to over-achievement is found in his list of honours: among the many fellowships and awards are 11 honorary doctorates, membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the 2010 Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society (hotshot conductor Gustavo Dudamel won it last year).

Eleven, from Mozart Dances. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Eleven, from Mozart Dances. Photo: Stephanie Berger

So when Morris says of his Perth International Arts Festival-bound Mozart Dances that it is performed to “more piano than anyone would ever do in an evening of Mozart”, what he means is anyone except himself. And this being Morris, live music is a non-negotiable part of the deal. When we spoke the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was on board and Morris was listening to recordings by Australian pianists to choose a soloist. Amir Farid, the Melbourne-based pianist and member of the Benaud Trio, was selected. MMDG music director Colin Fowler will be the other soloist.

“I will not work with taped music,” Morris says emphatically. “I absolutely will not. If you want my dance company you have live music. People see it as crazy diva, but it’s also my work, and so here’s how it’ll be done. If people don’t want that, that’s ok,” he says comfortably, speaking from his headquarters in Brooklyn.

Not surprisingly, most people find Morris’s terms entirely acceptable because they have resulted in a singular body of work that includes the adored and frequently revived L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), to the music of Handel; his famed production of the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas (1989); and Mozart Dances (2006).

Mozart Dances is a triptych for 16 dancers comprising Eleven, Double and Twenty-Seven, named after their music – Mozart’s 11th and 27th piano concertos flank the composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major. Eleven foregrounds the women of the company, Double features the men and in Twenty-Seven “everyone is happily reunited”. After the New York premiere of Mozart Dances in August 2006, John Rockwell of The New York Times wrote he felt “safe in pronouncing it a masterpiece”. Morris had made “something as serious and profound as dance gets”.

While some audience members may be familiar with Piano Concerto No.27, the 11th is likely to surprise. “Eleven is a rare one. It’s a fabulous, very, very delicate, turbulent piece. It’s very emotionally complicated,’’ says Morris, who describes the evening with some understatement as “a good big show” of a scale appropriate for MMDG’s Perth debut. (The company visited Adelaide in 1994 and Sydney in 2003.)

The 11th concerto appealed for another reason. Mozart arranged a chamber version of it, meaning that if there is no symphony orchestra available, Morris can present just the first two sections of Mozart Dances with a smaller number of live musicians and perform something else in place of Twenty-Seven, which needs a full orchestra. Morris may not make any concessions on the subject of live music but he is pragmatic, and Mozart Dances can be adjusted according to circumstances.

“If we’ve just got chamber music then I do another piece in place of Twenty-Seven. Twenty-Seven can’t be done without an orchestra but the others can, which is why I chose them,” he says.

Holloway had considered asking Morris for L’Allegro but Perth has no theatre big enough for it. “It’s enormous. Mozart Dances is only huge. It’s just a full company of dancers, a full orchestra, piano soloists, and two hours of some of the most joyous dancing you’ll ever see in your life.“

Morris’s large, generous spirit is the bedrock of all his dance. “I’m a horrible monster from time to time but my work is all kind,” he says. “My work’s about love, basically, so when you get over the fact that I talk dirty and I’m very loud, I’m also really, really nice.”

He’s also wonderfully frank about the state of dance. “My work isn’t overtly political but of course I have feelings about things and one thing is the infantilisation of dancers in general, and generally the low-level misogyny and racism that’s inherent everywhere I look in the dance world,” he says.

“I have no problem being a middle-aged, white, male – that’s what I am. But I wonder where all the female choreographers are. Everyone who wants to make up a dance should [do so]. I’m not damning, it’s not a competition thing at all, but a lot of it seems if you’re in the corps de ballet of any ballet company and you’re a boy, suddenly you’re a choreographer. I don’t really understand that. You’ve been looking at the back of everyone for your whole career. [Big laugh.] It’s like wait, how do you … oh, fine. It’s crazy. And I wish ‘em all luck. I’m all for dancing. It’s just that I don’t see a lot that I like that much.”

What he does like is sharing his dance with other cultures and learning from theirs. “I go to Asia a lot. People want to see what you do and you get to see what they do. I love that. It’s not like becoming fake Cambodian when I go to their country, but to notice and respect and to adore what they do. I love to see traditional dance and music and whatever crazy new thing they’re doing. I’m not a big tourist; I’m more of a cultural vampire.”

Morris is travelling to Perth with his company. “I know I’m eager to go, and I’m not going to talk about how far away it is, because if you live in Perth it’s everything else that’s far away,” he says with undeniable logic. “You’re right where you belong if you’re in Perth.”