Raw, Queensland Ballet

Works by Liam Scarlett, Greg Horsman and Christopher Bruce. Queensland Ballet, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, March 17.

Death comes to us all eventually but does it have to come so cruelly and so soon to so many? Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances was made in 1981 in response to human rights abuses in Pinochet’s Chile but its relevance is, sadly, universal and continuing. It’s an important addition to Queensland Ballet’s repertoire and the key work in the Raw triple bill.

55 Carmody Rd St.Lucia

Teri Crilly and Jack Lister in Ghost Dances. Photo: David Kelly

Ghost Dances is simplicity itself. In a place somewhere between the real world and the darkness beyond, young people dance with joy and spontaneity to the intoxicating music of their homeland as three masked and painted malevolent spirits watch.

The hard, muscular vigour of the masked ones is in stark contrast to the fleet, gorgeously fluid folk-inflected dances that speak of community and continuity. Bodies tilt and sway, feet flex, hands and arms link, legs kick up playfully and heads bob to the sound of breathy panpipes, warm guitars and drums (all the pieces are by Chilean group Inti-Illimani).

But there are intimations of anguish too and no escape from death’s clutches. At the end those who had been so vibrant are drained of vitality. Not so the masked men. They wait for their next victims.

Ghost Dances needs to be at once poetic and rough-hewn. This deeply affecting piece got those qualities from all 11 dancers in the first cast, who cast off the formalities of classical technique to dig deep into movement that takes its impulses from the earth rather than reaching for the sky. My eye was consistently drawn to Vanessa Morelli for the way she lived every moment with every fibre of her being.

An unintended consequence of staging Ghost Dances is that it made Raw’s opening work, Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land (from 2014), seem too glossy and calculating in its effects. Scarlett didn’t shy away either from some well-worn effects. Take, for instance, the deep second position as a way of visually describing misery. We saw it in Ghost Dances, with the legs in parallel, and we saw it in No Man’s Land in turnout. Scarlett also unfortunately added a silent scream.

55 Carmody Rd St.Lucia

Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett was recently announced as QB’s first artistic associate and the company will stage one of his works each year for at least an initial four years. I gather new works will alternate with existing pieces and it was inevitable that for 2017 a revival would be on the program. No Man’s Land was made for English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget program, presented in 2014. That year was, of course the centenary of the beginning of World War I and would have had much resonance in London at that time.

QB programmed its own Lest We Forget commemorative evening last year, featuring a welcome performance of Paul Taylor’s Company B and new works by Brisbane-based choreographer Natalie Weir and Tulsa Ballet’s resident choreographer Ma Cong. Ma Cong’s In the Best Moments was negligible; Weir’s We Who are Left was affecting but perhaps a pièce d’occasion. Which is also the category into which No Man’s Land fits.

Shorn of its commemorative context, No Man’s Land looked stranded. It has an impressive set (John Bausor) and lighting (Paul Keogan) that summon the inferno of a munitions factory during the Great War. Women have joined the assembly line in the absence of their men, whose images and fates they conjure and mourn to heavily orchestrated Liszt piano pieces, apart from the final section for piano only.

The bombastic arrangements of selections from Liszt’s Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses (1847) had the effect of overwhelming the emotional connections between Scarlett’s seven couples. Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez were lovely in their pas de deux although one was aware more of the shapes than the reason for being. Even with the music heard as written for the big pas de deux at the end of the ballet, that section felt like a superbly crafted depiction of what pain might look like while, at least for this viewer, failing to pierce the heart. Ultimately No Man’s Land beautifies loss and sacrifice.

Laura Hidalgo and Rian Thompson danced the final pas de deux heroically and it is undeniable that Scarlett creates movement that feels musical and organic even when most difficult. His weakness is in storytelling. As many before me have said, he needs help in this area. Only then will his abundant gifts be in the service of truly original and lasting work.

Perhaps his tenure in Brisbane will help. Scarlett, who is still only 30, will be out of the international spotlight where he habitually works. It will be fascinating to see what emerges.

Sitting in the middle of the Raw triple-header, Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto tested the mettle, stamina, precision and speed of three couples as they were swept along by the mesmerising rhythms of Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto. After an early reminder of – homage to? – Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, also to the music of Glass, Horsman gets into his own stride. Glass Concerto doesn’t break any new ground but it’s entertaining and lively, and it sure sets the dancers a raft of technical challenges, met better at the opening performance by the women than the men.

55 Carmody Rd St.Lucia

Yanela Piñera in Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto. Photo: David Kelly

The lovely second movement, in which calm, slow violin phrases sing above an undulating, fast-moving current in the orchestra, puts the spotlight on the lead woman. In the first cast principal artist Yanela Piñera’s calm authority and awe-inspiring strength – the woman is ripped – burned themselves into the retina. I liked that when the three men lifted her it felt in homage to her awesomeness rather than the usual balletic flinging about of a smaller person by a stronger bigger person.

Alexander Idaszak partnered Piñera well and looked rather more at home with the quieter demands of the choreography than the allegro eruptions that Horsman has much fun with. Camilo Ramos and Rian Thompson also didn’t look quite as sharp as required when things moved into top gear although to be fair to Thompson, he’d put a lot into the preceding No Man’s Land.

The secondary women, Lina Kim and Tamara Hanton whizzed around like tops and looked terrific in George Wu’s black-with-sparkles costumes. As Glass Concerto continued the dancers shed a skirt here and a sleeve there. The effect was elegant and witty.

It’s a pity QB doesn’t currently have the resources for live music at all performances. It was recordings all the way in this program, although as QB is in line for a boost in funding from the Australia Council perhaps there is hope in sight.

Raw ends March 25.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 20.

New work at Queensland Ballet

Dance Dialogues, Brisbane, February 20.

Classical ballet is the oddest thing. It has a tiny core repertoire – fewer than 20 works; perhaps less than 15 if you’re being very strict – that define it to the world at large. These are the full-length story ballets that audiences will reliably attend year after year and provide the images that immediately register as ballet: tutus and toe shoes; princely men looking ardent as they support their lady.

Ballet companies revisit these works again and again, with small tweaks or wholesale revisions, new sets and costumes and, crucially, new generations of dancers to make the classics their own.

That can make ballet seem stuck in a loop but there’s an upside too. With the list of popular ballets so brief, companies constantly need contemporary repertoire to balance their annual programs. Why there are so few new story ballets claiming a lasting place alongside Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, The Nutcracker and a handful of other ballets is a perennial, fascinating question -Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, made in 2014 for The Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Canada looks very like a ballet other companies will want to get their hands on but there aren’t too many others. Meanwhile, the creation of one-act contemporary works proceeds apace and there is a substantial 20th and 21st century repertoire to call upon.

The one-act ballet is also a good place for young choreographers to start, and most companies have a program to encourage their dancers to try their hand. The Australian Ballet’s longstanding Bodytorque series has withered somewhat, being reduced last year to a few performances of a work following a mainstage production (Bodytorque Up Late), but West Australian Ballet’s Genesis and Queensland Ballet’s Dance Dialogues are still cemented into their seasons.

Queensland Ballet's Alex Idaszak and Georgia Swan in Jack Lister's Fonder Heart. Photo David Kelly 2016

Georgia Swan, Alexander Idaszak in Jack Lister’s Fonder Heart. Photo: David Kelly

I wrote recently about WAB’s Ballet at the Quarry, in which a work by company soloist Andre Santos, In Black, first seen at Genesis in 2014, was expanded for the Quarry, deservedly giving it a substantial audience.

A few days ago I went to Brisbane for Dance Dialogues to see a new work, Fonder Heart, by company dancer Jack Lister, a 22-year-old who has made a few small pieces as well as one for last year’s Dance Dialogues, Memory House, which I now wish I had been able to see. He is a remarkably confident dance-maker, even if at this point he hasn’t developed a strongly individual voice. The spirit and choreographic language of Jiří Kylián are very evident and Lister is not backward in acknowledging the Czech master as an influence. He certainly isn’t alone there.

Lister’s achievement was nevertheless satisfying and heartening. It is no small thing to make a work of about 16 minutes that one wishes would last longer. He made decisions that in a relative beginner are evidence of clear thinking, starting with his choice of music – the second movement of Philip Glass’s Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2000). A small string orchestra establishes a sweet, slightly melancholy melody, soon picked up by the piano and given an individual voice as the soloist at first picks out the tune gently, then embroiders with changing patterns and dynamic shifts. The atmosphere is dreamy and the music very Glass-y: strongly rhythmic and unfailingly melodic. (It’s why choreographers are attracted to his work, and indeed two of my favourite 20th century dances are to Glass scores – Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room and Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces. The momentum is irresistible.)

Lister heard in this music the sound of couples joining, parting and perhaps reconnecting – or not – and created a work for three couples. There’s no budget to speak of for these ventures, of course, but Lister managed to persuade QB to let him have a long table that becomes a seventh actor in the piece as it was moved to and fro, providing a place to sit, to walk on, to be lifted from or supported by. Fonder Heart is abstract but works well with the music to evoke states of mind. It is sleek, sophisticated and intriguing.

Queensland Ballet's Vito Bernasconi and Eleanor Freeman in Jack Lister's Fonder Heart 2016. David Kelly 5

Eleanor Freeman and Vito Bernasconi in Fonder Heart. Photo: David Kelly

Lister understands the power of stillness and separation and has a good grasp of structure. Three couples were woven in and out of the dance with assurance and the viewer’s eye was unerringly focused where it should be. The dance itself was strong, fluid and assertive with formidable partnering and a particularly vivid role for Eleanor Freeman, who was a dramatic presence. At the performance I saw Freeman danced with Vito Bernasconi, Lina Kim with Joel Woellner and Georgia Swan and Alexander Idaszak, and all looked passionately engaged with the work.

So, good news at both QB and WAB, with promising emerging choreographers on their books. As always, however, there seem to be fewer young women putting up their hands to have a go at making new work, although it’s pleasing to see that WAB has works from principal artist Jayne Smeulders in the repertoire and the Quarry season had a group work made mainly by women. It’s a start.

The Australian Ballet’s 20:21

Sydney Opera House, November 5

After a year dominated by Giselle, Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, the lavish new Sleeping Beauty and Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the dancers of The Australian Ballet were undoubtedly delighted to dive into the pared-back costumes and sharp-edged choreography of 20:21 (the title refers to the 20th and 21st centuries). They certainly looked as if they’d been let off the leash.

The three works on the bill were well chosen – very different in choreographic style but sharing a clean, uncluttered aesthetic and each driven by a score to get the blood pumping. The oldest ballet, Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, was made in 1972 to music by Stravinsky (written in 1942-45); Tharp’s In the Upper Room premiered in 1986, powered by Philip Glass; and Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow is new, having made its debut in Melbourne in late August accompanied by a muscular commissioned electronic score from German duo 48nord.

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Tim Harbour's Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Symphony in Three Movements is strongly hierarchical and fascinatingly structured. There is a corps of 16 women clad in white leotards and a group of five women in black leotards, the latter supported by partners in black tights and close-fitting white T-shirts. These two sets of dancers frame three principal couples, one of which is at the centre of the work, dancing the deeply sensuous pas de deux that comprises the second movement. (Amusingly, this lovely music was originally intended to form part of the soundtrack to the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette – a biography of the young woman who saw visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes and was later canonised; Stravinsky didn’t complete the project.)

On opening night the women in white were rather less crisp than one would wish, nor did all of them convey the assurance and chic required to carry off the martial gestures, pony-step prancing, showgirl high kicks, jogging and more, but the three first-cast leading couples (Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Andrew Killian, Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes) exuded command and sophistication. Scott and Hawkes danced the pas de deux with a sweet element of wistfulness as well as the lusciousness seen in swimming arms and entwining necks and the whimsicality of turned-in knees and hands. Scott, who is growing in stature with every season, was a glowing presence and also carried one of the ballet’s most enchanting moments as she whirled around the stage twice in a great circle of piqué turns as the corps jogged about insouciantly.

Hawkes (a senior artist) and Killian (principal artist) danced in all three works on opening night. It was an impressive feat given the demands of each. Filigree and Shadow is a non-stop display of angst and athleticism. It looks and sounds thrilling and the opening night audience gave it a huge cheer in Sydney, as I gather they did in Melbourne at the premiere, so it seems a bit churlish to point out that it doesn’t really say much about its theme of “catharsis for aggression”. Still, the cast of 12 was as sleek as seals in form-fitting grey, super-energised by the propulsive music and performed with the cocky insolence of those who know they are, essentially, as gods compared with the rest of us. Brett Chynoweth, Simon Plant and Marcus Morelli were particularly fine in their trio and Vivienne Wong and Dimity Azoury gave no quarter in their encounters with Killian and Hawkes. The elegant contributions of Kelvin Ho (set) and Benjamin Cisterne (lighting) added greatly to the sense of occasion.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Wong and Azoury then turned up as “stompers” in In the Upper Room, the ones who wear sneakers and do a lot of running in a work that joins the languages of sport and training with that of dance. Here – and this is very rare in ballet – effort is made explicit. This is a ballet of sweat and exhaustion as well as grace and artistry. The magic comes from seeing the reach for transcendence as Glass’s music pulsates inexorably and builds towards its ecstatic final movement. In a fine first cast, principals Daniel Gaudiello and Chengwu Guo were exceptional.

A program such as this also gives opportunities for dancers from the lowest ranks to have a moment in the spotlight. From the Filigree and Shadow first cast Plant is in the corps de ballet and Morelli a coryphée, and coryphée Christopher Rodgers-Wilson drew the eye in In the Upper Room.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra had an early night, playing only Symphony in Three Movements (the other two scores are recorded). With AB music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm the AOBO gave a strong account of this vibrant, rhythmically bracing score.

Ends in Sydney on November 21.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera

Carriageworks, Sydney, August 5

THE tyros at Sydney Chamber Opera nimbly and thrillingly tread where larger organisations fear to go, or at least traverse sparingly. Owen Wingrave is perfect SCO territory: it is 20th century repertoire, it’s an Australian stage premiere and it suits presentation by a small, tightly focused group of musicians. Another attraction, very much for audiences as well as SCO, is that Owen Wingrave is far from being over-familiar, yet in Benjamin Britten’s centenary year it has an undeniable claim on selection. Lots of ticks there.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The company, founded in 2010, has an astute understanding of what is right for it and what it can do well. Its gripping Australian premiere last year of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony, in celebration of Glass’s 75th birthday, is another case in point, and it is no wonder SCO asked In the Penal Colony’s gifted young director, Imara Savage, to return for Owen Wingrave.

Written in 1971 as a commission for television (those were the days), Owen Wingrave was Britten’s penultimate opera and is an extended cry for peace. Owen, a young man from a family with a deep-rooted military tradition, “heir to the Wingrave flag of glory”, turns his face against war. His apostasy shocks his friends and relations. His willingness to fight and almost certainly to die is the only thing expected of him. He is not to think, to question or to have ideas. When he does, the icy rectitude of his hidebound, unimaginative family cracks.

It’s harrowing material that comes with a twist, a supernatural element present in the Henry James story on which the opera is based. Librettist Myfanwy Piper’s introduction of this spectral material is less elegant than one might wish, but Savage, designer Katren Wood and movement director Johanna Puglisi quietly make it part of the fabric from the start, which is a real achievement.

The setting is a cheerless space enclosed by a three-sided wire fence, giving intimations of prisons or encampments real and imagined. I was taken by the way that within this, Savage uses only a small number of big, uncluttered images. A huge stag laid out on the dining table silently attests to a tradition of killing and entitlement, a suddenly unfurled portrait becomes a constant reminder of the weight of heritage and a blood-stained boy mutely represents a family tragedy. I do wish directors would find a way other than opening black umbrellas to indicate a trip to the cemetery, but it’s a small point.

The simplicity of means lets Britten’s highly coloured score do its passionate work. The small orchestra plays David Matthews’s well-regarded reduction and features a bracing concentration of brass, woodwinds and percussion alongside the strings. There’s an enormous sense of urgency as the music groans, clashes and cries out, then subsides into quite lovely introspection or unsettling premonition. The mix of influences, particularly from eastern music, can make for unexpected, even unruly, passages but conductor Jack Symonds and the 15 players make an extremely persuasive case for music that’s rarely heard in any big opera houses.

Morgan Pearse in Owen Wingrave

Morgan Pearse in Owen Wingrave

Against these riches the vocal lines are solid and unadorned, mostly serving the text well. There are no reservations about the cast, all admirably suited to their roles. Morgan Pearse is a revelation in the title role, engaging sympathy with a glowing, firm, rich baritone and nuanced acting. Owen’s fiancée Kate is an unlikeable woman, yet Emily Edmonds finds a way to make her understandable and does so with a beautifully produced mezzo that is penetrating without losing its smooth texture. Tenor Pascal Herington also makes a strong impression as Owen’s friend Lechmere and as the ballad-singing Narrator who tells how the Wingrave family came to be haunted. I also very much liked Georgia Bassingthwaighte’s sensible, caring Mrs Coyle, but there was no weak link anywhere.

Owen Wingrave finishes on Saturday.

This review first appeared in The Australian on August 7.

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Nederlands Dans Theater

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, June 13; Nederlands Dans Theater, Sydney, June 12.

TO its eternal credit Bangarra Dance Theatre has never shied away from difficult material. Yes, it wants the riches of Aboriginal culture to be widely seen and appreciated, but it also tackles the seemingly intractable issues facing many indigenous Australians: the grog, violence, suicide, hopelessness, oppression, dispossession. I’ve been watching the company for more than two decades and each time I am touched by the presence of grace where there could so easily be despair. Even when the subject matter is as wrenching as the story of a young Aboriginal girl taken up and then abandoned by the governor’s family in colonial Tasmania (Mathinna, 2008) or the atomic tests at Maralinga in the 1950s (X300, 2007), the way in which it is presented is unfailingly generous and optimistic. To know and to think is to begin to understand. Not to mention that Bangarra productions always look so inspiringly beautiful.

Bangarra Dance Theatre's Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

Bangarra is in the middle of touring its newest work, a triptych called Blak. It opened in Melbourne in May and is now in Sydney, where it has had to extend its season by a week. Canberra and Brisbane follow.

In many ways Blak is a follow-up to Bangarra’s Sydney Olympics Festival work, the two-part Skin, comprising Spear for the men and Shelter for the women. Blak has a similar structure and many of the same concerns, although comes with an extra section. It opens with Daniel Riley McKinley’s terrific all-male Scar, continues with Stephen Page’s Yearning for the company’s women, and then the two choreographers join to provide the whole company with a celebratory coda, Keepers.

Riley McKinley’s first work, Riley (2010), celebrated the art of his kinsman, Michael Riley, and was an unusually poised beginning. In Scar Riley McKinley doesn’t disappoint on his second outing, showing a genuine gift for structure, the telling stage picture and dramatic clarity. The piece starts with a compelling circle dance, viewed through a powerful, unsettling red haze (Matt Cox’s lighting). Seven men stamp, whirl and tumble in a way that speaks of ritual and the search for it. There are quick vignettes of menace and harm but also of the way contemporary life can learn from the ways of the past, if there is someone to teach them. Waangenga Blanco powerfully takes a central role here.

Yearning is a more diffuse piece with elements of varying strength. But as with 2000’s Skin – it had images that have stayed with me to this day – Page has created some indelible moments. The group opening is fairly anodyne but there are grittier sections that economically show how grim urban life can be: a top pinned to a line is an image of a life lost; women are hunted down by an unsparing spotlight; we hear traditional language emerge from a dropped telephone handset, calling to someone who doesn’t connect with it any more.

Keepers harks back to tradition in a way that’s been more memorably evoked in other works, although it brings the evening to a serene close with another of those knockout Bangarra visuals that are a hallmark this company  (Jacob Nash designed the unfailingly effective sets).

David Page and Paul Mac are the composers, always keeping the regular beat that brings to mind the pulse of the didgeridoo and mixing urban sounds with the lovely melody of traditional language – I say melody, because for us, and for so many indigenous Australians, its meaning is sadly locked away from us.

Bangarra, Sydney Opera House until June 29; then Canberra, July 11-13; Brisbane, July 18-27.

Nederlands Dans Theater

THERE are few companies as glamorous as Nederlands Dans Theater, hence the giddy excitement with which it is greeted by audiences. The dancers are sensual, sophisticated, muscular and theatrically and emotionally alert. In their bodies the elegant rigour of classicism meets and melts into contemporary movement of a particularly assertive kind. Add the attendant celebrity of NDT’s most powerful – we may even say overpowering – influence, choreographer Jiri Kylian, and you have an explosive mix.

It was recently revealed, by the way, that Kylian will withhold his works from NDT for three years from late next year. Not to punish but to challenge, as current NDT artistic director and resident choreographer Paul Lightfoot puts it. On the evidence of last week’s Sydney program – half Kylian, half Lightfoot and his co-choreographer Sol Leon – the hole left will be great and the challenge will be to see what NDT is without Kylian. Tough love indeed.

Two of Kylian’s famous black and white dances, both made in 1990, opened the program. In Sweet Dreams (1990) squares and rectangles of light fade in and out to reveal mysterious actions and interactions. To Anton Webern’s clamorous and astringent Sechs Stucke fur orchester – a bracing, stimulating score women sit on men’s backs, heads, feet; arms are widely spread and angled as if for flight; a couple is spied on high in the distance; apples are walked on, chased or stop up gaping mouths. What it means is up to you and your subconscious.

NDT in Sarabande. Photo: Prudence Upton

NDT in Sarabande. Photo: Prudence Upton

Sarabande followed without pause. It’s an aggressive, mostly unison piece for six men who groan, shout, slap and generally flaunt their masculinity although at times they are hobbled or challenged by it. Only when Bach’s music – the Sarabande from his second Partita – enters in extended form (it is heard at the beginning and then in snippets during most of the piece) is there a sense of calm. Otherwise, despite the references to Japanese ritual, the atmosphere is one of unrest and unease, cemented by the unison howls of laughter at the end. The NDT men looked spectacular: if you wanted you could see this as a piece about the burden of male beauty.

After Kylian the Lightfoot-Leon pieces looked lightweight and, in the case of SH-BOOM! (a 2000 revision of an earlier, shorter piece), tiresome. I found the caperings as amusing as a self-appendectomy except for a sweet nude dance from Cesar Faria Fernandes lit only by flashlight. It ends with a cheeky, boyish pull of the penis, which perhaps doesn’t sound like the greatest of moments but in this context it counts as genius; a human touch among the laboured schtick.

Shoot the Moon (2006) is an attractively staged little psycho-drama much enhanced by Philip Glass’s lovely Tirol Concerto for piano and orchestra. Revolving walls reveal two couples in various states of anguish and a solo man, also anguished. It says nothing more than that people have emotional issues, but does it stylishly. The plush, committed dancing was a treat, with the opening night cast including former Australian Ballet principal artist Danielle Rowe, who looked divine.

The NDT review first appeared in a slightly different form in The Australian on June 14.