Swan Lake/Loch na hEala

Teac Damsa, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 30.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake is unsparingly black in so many ways, starting with its indelible image of a near-naked, bleating man tethered to a block of concrete. The people in this midlands Irish community are damaged, the humour plentiful but grim and the prospects grimmer.

“Nature is stronger than will,” says the inappropriately named Holy Man (actor Mikel Murfi), describing the appalling event that led to the disappearance of four young women and their transformation into swans. Murfi, our narrator, will later also morph into a despotic county politician and the local law. There’s not much difference between them. They’re all called McLoughlin, petty tyrants each one.

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Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake/Loch naEala. Photo: Prudence Upton

The bare surroundings – some scaffolding, a few ladders – speak of the town’s poverty, not just in material things but in spirit. The ghastly birthday party (funny, though) sums things up. It’s thrown by Nancy for her son Jimmy so he might meet a local girl, shake off his depression and get married. Things don’t look promising.

In amongst the wreckage, though, there is great beauty and freedom. Keegan-Dolan’s depiction of abuse and debilitating grief doesn’t deny the harshness of life but he mitigates it with the consolation of optimism. The abiding memories of Loch na hEala are a love duet of exquisite tenderness and white feathers banishing the darkness as music plays and the ensemble dances joyously.

The story of a woman turned into a bird or sea creature is found in many mythologies, including Irish legend. Keegan-Dolan takes from that and is also strikingly faithful to the essentials of the familiar 19th-century ballet version while making them utterly contemporary.

His emotionally frozen anti-hero, Jimmy (Alexander Leonhartsberger), finds release when he meets swan-woman Fionnuala (Rachel Poirier) by the lake. His flinching tentativeness when he first sees Fionnuala is deeply touching and so right. Keegan-Dolan has a splendid eye for detail.

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Rachel Poirier and Alexander Leonhartsberger. Photo: Pridence Upton

Jimmy and Fionnuala can’t escape their fate but they are part of a much larger and longer history of endurance and resilience. Their sublime second pas de deux is an unforgettable paean to the power of love over malignity even as Keegan-Dolan doesn’t shy away from showing the pain that surrounds them.

Keegan-Dolan, who wrote the brilliant text as well as choreographed and directed, blends folk-inspired dance, spoken word and music into a seamless whole. The marvellous trio Slow Moving Clouds plays and sings Celtic and Nordic melodies live and the nine-member dance ensemble makes the heart sing. It’s a pity the season was so brief.

This review first appeared in The Australian on September 1.

2013: a retrospective

Here’s my take on the year’s high points. As many have noted before me, “best” is a useless word when applied to the cornucopia available in the arts. Here are the people and productions that most inspired me.

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia’s Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

“A SHORT show is a good show,” we all carol (me and my fellow critics) as we enter the auditorium for yet another 70- to 90-minute piece of theatre, but put a 10-hour marathon before us and we can’t get enough. So I have lists for big things, small things, individuals, a few words on musical theatre and a couple of miscellaneous thoughts.

It was a strong year, particularly in Sydney theatre, so it was hard to keep the lists tight. Please don’t take anything I say here as an indication of who has taken out honours in the Sydney Theatre Awards, of which I am but one judge on a panel of nine. Argument was fierce and the passions diverse, let me tell you! But here goes from me, in alphabetical order …

Big:

Angels in America, Parts One and Two, Belvoir, Sydney: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the best play to have been written in English in my lifetime. Belvoir’s production was very fine.

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The amazing Surrealist-inspired set looked waaaay better in Melbourne than in Sydney, but this version of the beloved fairytale to the bittersweet music of Prokofiev as choreographed by the world’s leading classicist is a keeper. (Also wonderful to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream with the Bolshoi in Brisbane mid-year – amazing how that company managed to block out the hideous backstage dramas that still dog it.)

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Melbourne Festival: The ums, ahs and pauses of an ordinary life rendered first as a dippy musical, then as a drawing-room mystery. You had to be there (for 10 hours indeed). Sublime, transcendent.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: Scintillating Stravinsky Firebird suite and glorious Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. Magic.

The Ring, Opera Australia, Melbourne: not a flawless production, but one that felt right for this place and this time. Director Neil Armfield’s strength is finding the humanity in situations where it may seem to be missing in action and he did it here. Under last-minute mini-maestro Pietari Inkinen (only 33!!) the Melbourne Ring Orchestra put in a blinder. Bravi.

The Threepenny Opera, Berliner Ensemble, Perth International Arts Festival: Not a huge company, but a Robert Wilson production simply cannot be put into any category other than outsized. Stupendously performed, gorgeous to the eye, a knockout band in the pit, witty, sardonic … you get the idea.

Small:

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney: A devastating production (Sam Strong directed) of John Romeril’s devastating play. I saw the last scene with tears pouring down my face. A rare occurrence.

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera: Apparently the most popular opera of 1649. Worked pretty damn well in 2013.

Independent theatre x 3: I have to mention this trio of splendid plays and productions thereof. I was thrilled to have been able to see Jez Butterworth’s brilliant Jerusalem in Sydney, and done so persuasively by the New Theatre. Workhorse Theatre Company’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat was hold-on-to-your-hats exhilarating, and is getting a re-run in 2014 at the new Eternity Playhouse. Hooray. And in Siren Theatre Company’s Penelope (by Enda Walsh), all sorts of trouble arises when Odysseus’s arrival back home is imminent. As with Workhorse, Siren did a superb job in the tiny confines of the theatre at TAP Gallery.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera: This young, tiny outfit did Benjamin Britten proud in his centenary year. Really memorable music-making.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane and Melbourne festivals: In the Rite of Spring centenary year, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s setting in a harsh, cold village was, not surprisingly, dark and threatening. His ending, however, stressed the renewal and healing that is to come. The score was played in Stravinsky’s four-hand version (on one piano); earlier in the year, in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (Raimund Hoghe for the Sydney Festival), we heard the score also played ravishingly by four hands, but on two pianos. Sacre was a difficult dance work for many; I admired it greatly.

School Dance, Windmill Theatre (seen at Sydney Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Festival): loved, loved, loved.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Super Discount, Back to Back Theatre: Deeply provocative on all sorts of levels. Can’t wait for Ganesh versus the Third Reich to come to Sydney – finally – next year.

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company: Luke Mullins, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were an immaculate quartet of players in one of the year’s most heart-piercing productions.

Individuals (performers):

David Hallberg (American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal): Luminous in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in Sydney. Prince of princes.

Peter Kowitz: Les in The Floating World (see above).

Ewen Leslie: A huge year on the Sydney stage as a desolate Brick in Belvoir’s contentious Australian-accented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Player in Sydney Theatre Company’s terrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and most powerfully – and impressively – as Hamlet for Belvoir, stepping in at short notice when original Dane Toby Schmitz was called overseas for filming duty. A rare change to compare and contrast in one of the roles by which men are judged. Closely.

Catherine McClements, Phedre, Bell Shakespeare: A scarifying performance in a production that was, in my opinion, sorely underrated. Not by me though.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Amber McMahon: Harper in Angels in America for Belvoir, various roles in School Dance for Windmill, special in everything.

Sharon Millerchip, Bombshells, Ensemble Theatre: Dazzling in Joanna Murray-Smith’s ode to the many faces of womanhood.

Tim Minchin: Lucky old us to see him not once but twice on stage, as a show-stealing Judas in the arena Jesus Christ Superstar and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Dead. Or is that Guildenstern? Don’t ask Claudius or Gertrude to help you out.

Luke Mullins: Prior Walter in Angels in America, the quiet centre of Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Fantastic in all of them. What a year!

Bojana Novakovic, The Blind Date Project, Sydney Festival: I adored this little improvised show. Wish I could have seen Novakovic with many more of her blind dates.

Myriam Ould-Braham, Paris Opera Ballet: Made her debut as Giselle in Sydney in February, making us here the envy of many a Paris balletomane. She was divine, as was fellow etoile Dorothee Gilbert. Both were partnered by the supremely elegant Mathieu Ganio. A joy to see the company here again.

Steve Rodgers: Rodgers has long been one of my favourite actors – so simpatico, even when taking on a difficult subject matter in Griffin’s Dreams in White. And especially in Gideon Obarzanek’s Dance Better at Parties for STC.

Individuals (behind the scenes):

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Bonachela sees everything and is bringing lots of strong artistic collaborations back for his astoundingly beautiful dancers.

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet: He’s taken the company back to the classics and people have voted with their wallets. All shows have been sold out and all shows have been extended. I think Brisbane likes him.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia: Got the Ring up. Respect.

Musical theatre:

It was an exceptionally patchy year for musical theatre in Sydney, although Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was really, really entertaining and super-well cast, and the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blast. The new consortium of music-theatre people, Independent Music Theatre, holds out promise for better things next year, and the feisty little Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre continues to impress.

Miscellaneous:

Best new (only new) theatre in Sydney in 2013: Best is a word that certainly applies here. All hail Sydney City Council for getting the Eternity Playhouse happening. It is a truly beautiful 200-seat house, and an adornment to the city.

Best seat in the house: A11 at Belvoir. The lucky incumbent – male or female, it didn’t matter- got a kiss from Toby Schmitz or Ewen Leslie during Hamlet. Alas I was not one of them.

Clearest indication that critics don’t matter much: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which got the kind of reviews cast members’ mothers would write, did poor business in Sydney. Those of us who wrote about it adored it. We had very little effect.

Doesn’t stop us though.

The Rite of Spring/Petrushka

Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane Festival, September 26.

MICHAEL Keegan-Dolan’s Rite of Spring does honour to the most unsettling dance score in history. The Fabulous Beast founder and choreographer doesn’t shrink from nature at its most primaI, red in tooth and claw, but understands that while a community can be full of darkness and harm, it has self-healing powers too. This is a wondrous work.

As snow falls on barren ground, roughly attired men and women sit primly and formally in a row. They are country folk, people of no special standing or distinction, clutching cardboard boxes – marked “fragile” – in the manner of refugees waiting obediently for their orders. Soon, under the controlling eye of a witchy long-haired woman (Bernadette Iglich), they will shed inhibitions and clothes and let repressed urges well up.

They drop their pants and hump the cold ground as if trying to fertilise it; they grab a woman from the group to harry, threaten and then dismiss; the group will also turn on an old man (Bill Lengfelder) who so far has been a passive observer. Frightening dogs-head masks with lolling tongues make a nod to ancient cultures and simultaneously evoke the harsh rural life Keegan-Dolan so acutely observes, showing men at their most menacing and animalistic. And of course the group dances, in fierce stamps, jumps and circles as sisters Lidija and Sanja Bizjak play ravishingly, on one piano, Stravinsky’s version of his score for four hands.

It’s 100 years since Nijinsky’s ballet to Stravinsky’s music made its noisy entrance into the world and during that century there have been more than 100 other dance versions. Few have the staying power of the score, and Keegan-Dolan’s version deserves to be one of the keepers. He has a great gift for creating an enclosed group with all its quirks, secrets, anxieties and connections. It is not surprising to see his Rite end in an unusual way that exalts the society he depicts and its ability to renew. The Chosen Maiden (Anna Kaszuba) is full of passion, strength and resolve, wearing her white undies as proudly as a priestess’s robes.

Petrushka, which follows, is a more abstract piece that touches on – if one has knowledge of them – key characters and moments in the original libretto. It’s possible to discern the anguished puppet, the empty-headed ballerina and the boastful moor, although the roles shift around. Again Iglich is a controlling figure, this time sitting very high up on a pedestal offering judgment on various relationships. Lengfelder again observes, taking part only right at the end, but he and Iglich are potent reminders of Keegan-Dolan’s embracing, practical idea of community, in which there are people of all ages, sizes, shapes and colours.

Petrushka takes place in a white box, the dancers wear all white and there are many sections danced in unison. Texture comes from the beautiful diversity and charisma of the company and the often ecstatic nature of the movement. Colour comes from the score, again played in a four-hand version by the Bizjak sisters, assisted by some clamorous drumming from two of the dancers. There is a disconnect between the evocation of the fairground in Stravinsky’s music and designer Rae Smith’s empty space, although I found it a stimulating one, needing to keep two lines of thought going at the same time.

There’s only one line of thought about the ending, however. It is dramatic, theatrical, inspiring and absolutely in tune with Petrushka’s fate.

Rite of Spring/Petrushka, Melbourne Festival, October 11-14.

Versions of this review appeared in The Australian online and in The Australian on September 30.

Rian, Sydney Festival

Rian

Fabulous Beast, Theatre Royal, January 17

IN Rian things start hotting up – a relative term – when the men take off their jackets and the women discard their little white socks and flat shoes, the company’s version of getting into ecstatic, Dionysiac mode. The modesty is thoroughly disarming.

Rian. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Rian. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

The eight dancers and five musicians are first seen sitting amongst their instruments on a curved platform at the back of the stage. The men wear suits, the women are in delightfully demure knee-length cotton print frocks. The setting could be a community hall or an ancient amphitheatre, but given the startling, super-saturated green light it’s a fair bet we’re in Ireland. The sense of being both in the present (or near enough to) and the mythical past permeates Rian, which combines something of a Saturday-night knees-up in an Irish country town with dance as deep-rooted, life-affirming, universal ritual.

Anyone looking for a stereotypical kind of Irishness – boisterous, garrulous – will have to look elsewhere. Rian is close to being prayful; it’s certainly playful at times but mysterious too. The idea of ritual, and not just Gaelic ritual, is absolutely central. While the musicians are all Irish, the dancers have been drawn from around the globe and the work gracefully incorporates intimations of other cultures. The movement itself has the air of folk dance, building its force through repetition, accumulation and the group in unison. This isn’t entirely easy going as one similar dance follows another, although the effect is undeniably hypnotic.

Rian is built around constant circling, in large formations and in the swaying, swirling and spiralling of each body. The footwork is mainly simple, of the skipping, stamping and jumping kind, but the upper body work involves intricate variations for arms, shoulders and torso that are mesmerising. So too is the small band under the music direction of Liam O Maonlai, which could be a show all in itself. The sounds of uilleann pipes, harp, concertina, tin whistle and much more are achingly lovely.

All this loveliness falls on the decorous side of things, which is a little surprising from Michael Keegan-Dolan, the man turned Giselle into a line-dancer. I longed for breakout moments of something wilder and more untamed, something that would reveal more of the performers’ individuality. No matter how fast they twirled and stamped, they seemed to me to be in an essentially private world. Thursday’s opening night audience seemed to have no such reservations, standing and cheering lustily and calling for more.

Ends January 23.

This review first appeared in The Australian on January 21