My year in dance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pina Bausch made my year. For his final Sydney Festival in January, artistic director Lieven Bertels programmed two bracing De Keersmaeker works, Fase and Vortex Temporum, and the huge thrill was seeing the choreographer herself in Fase (my review is here). Living dance history. Festival clout and money also made the Bausch experience possible. At the Adelaide Festival in March Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performed Nelken, which was obviously a necessity to see, but just a week later Wellington’s New Zealand International Arts Festival trumped Adelaide. In the repertoire carve-up the Wellington-based festival got the double bill of Café Muller and Rite of Spring. I had always longed to see both live. And now I have.

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Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: Matt Grace

The Perth International Arts Festival (February) and the Brisbane Festival (September) – there’s a theme here – also provided performances that made it into my best-of list. It was absolutely worth going to Perth for just one night from Sydney (flying time: five hours) to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu, which was outstandingly beautiful, in a rough, sweaty kind of way, and accompanied by celestial a capella singing from the all-male group A Filetta. It was a much easier business to pop up to Brisbane for Jonah Bokaer’s Rules of the Game – not really for the much-hyped title work (its score was by Pharrell Williams) but for the chance to see earlier Bokaer pieces and the choreographer himself onstage.

More festival highlights, these from local choreographers: Stephanie Lake’s super-intelligent Double Blind at the Sydney Festival, Kristina Chan’s ravishing A Faint Existence at Performance Space’s Liveworks festival in October and Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer, also at Liveworks.

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Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

The rest of the key works in 2016 come from major companies. The Australian Ballet, which has been looking very, very conventional of late, stretched dancers and audiences with John Neumeier’s Nijinsky (which I reviewed for Limelight magazine); Bangarra Dance Theatre’s triple bill OUR land people stories was a luminous program; and Sydney Dance Company’s double bills Untamed (October) and CounterMove (February) yet again demonstrated the thoroughbred power and impressive individuality of Rafael Bonachela’s dancers.

In the year I saw dance in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington, but yet again I mourn the fact that I just wasn’t able to visit Melbourne more often to sample its contemporary dance riches. As so often, Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

On the people front the biggest news of the year was the re-emergence of David Hallberg after a two-and-a-half year absence from the stage. The American superstar, a principal artist at both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, spent a year at The Australian Ballet’s headquarters in Melbourne undergoing extensive rehabilitation after having surgery for an ankle problem. His return to the stage was, fittingly, with the AB, and as it happened, the scheduled ballet gave Hallberg a role debut. He danced four performances as Franz in Coppélia. (You can read about the rehabilitation process here and the Coppélia performance here.)

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David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Queensland Ballet made a splash when it announced the appointment, from 2017, of Liam Scarlett as artistic associate. Scarlett retains his artist in residence role at the Royal Ballet. At the same time QB announced artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for four more years. The board must be happy about that.

Less happily, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced that its relatively new artistic director, Francesco Ventriglia, would be relinquishing that role in mid-2017. He will stay on to choreograph the announced new Romeo and Juliet, but then he’s off. What happened? I’ll let you know when I find out, although previously he had spoken to me enthusiastically about being in New Zealand. The RNZ website (Radio New Zealand) wrote in early December that as many as a dozen dancers and staff had left RNZB because of conflicts with Ventriglia, quoting a representative of the union that represents dancers.

I stress I have no information that suggests these departures are connected with Ventriglia’s, but leading Australian-born RNZB dancer Lucy Green has accepted a position with Queensland Ballet for 2017 and RNZB’s former music director Nigel Gaynor, who was hired by Ventriglia’s predecessor Ethan Stiefel, is now QB’s music director. These gains by QB could easily be explained by Li Cunxin’s voracious eye for talent – as in the Liam Scarlett coup (QB and RNZB share Scarlett’s lovely Midsummer Night’s Dream so there’s a close connection).

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The biggest disappointment of the year is the AB’s lack of commitment to developing new choreographers. It’s true that Bodytorque, which started in 2004, needed a fresh look, but it’s become the incredible shrinking show, offering less and less each year. The name is no longer used at all and the amount of new work from developing choreographers is minuscule.

Bodytorque was last seen in its familiar form in 2013 – six new or relatively inexperienced choreographers made works that were seen in a short special season at what is now the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney. In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne and featured five works, including a piece by newly minted resident choreographer Tim Harbour. The other four dance-makers included Alice Topp (her fourth year at Bodytorque) and Richard House (with his second piece).

In 2015 the name still lingered but the program had dwindled to the creation of just one work, House’s From Something, to Nothing, shown once in Sydney and once in Melbourne as a “pop-up” event called Bodytorque Up Late. This took place after performances of mainstage repertoire, once in Sydney and once in Melbourne. The audience could stay to watch for free if it wished. Or not.

In 2016 it was clear favour had fallen on Topp and House, which is fair enough. Both, but particularly Topp, are worth persevering with. This time their new works, each of about 10 minutes in length, were programmed as part of a group of divertissements that acted as a curtain-raiser to Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which gave the whole evening its name.

And for 2017? Those two pieces will be seen again, this time in Melbourne when that city gets Symphony in C. So – let’s add up the minutes. In the three years from 2015-2017, there will have been a bit under 40 minutes in total of new choreography from developing choreographers.

It’s possible AB artistic director David McAllister has big plans for Topp, or House, or both. After all, Harbour was developed via a series of Bodytorque commissions. But Harbour emerged from a quite a large pack. The window of opportunity has now narrowed excessively – and depressingly.

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Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, Adelaide Festival, March 9.

Peter Pabst’s set for Nelken is one of the most beautiful created for any theatrical event. A dense field of thousands of silk carnations in several shades of pink covers the stage, ravishing in its simplicity and effect. It is absolutely lovely, but disconcerting too. A dance work usually requires the sets to stand back and huddle around the perimeter so there’s no impediment to movement. In Nelken (the word means carnations) the dancers must work with what they have. If that means finding a path through or trampling on blooms, so be it. Life isn’t perfect.

Nelken was made in 1982 as Pina Bausch was nearing the end of her first decade in Wuppertal, the industrial German city she made her creative home (she died in 2009). It’s a big piece that borders on the unwieldy, although messiness is part of Nelken’s meaning as well as its structure. In a series of encounters, both large and small, the human impulse to control the actions of others is repeated in sometimes brutal, demeaning form. And then something funny or stupid or surreal or uplifting happens and we can relax.

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Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken. Photo: Jochen Viehoff

An action repeated several times is a stern man’s command that someone produce their passport. I was fascinated to note that for many in the audience at Nelken’s first performance this was vastly amusing. This may also be so for many other audiences in many other cities; I don’t know. If so, they are among the very fortunate for whom a demand to produce papers is entirely unknown. This act, which can have such devastating consequences, is entirely outside their range of experience.

I don’t mean to criticise those audience members. Such responses point to the many ambiguities in life that Bausch’s work lights upon. She doesn’t preach or explain. She just puts it out there, as with the German Shepherds seen briefly crossing the back of the stage with their handlers.

Nelken starts with a bucolic air. Beautifully dressed men and women bring chairs into the field of flowers and sit for a moment. A sign language translation of Ira and George Gershwin’s The Man I Love, much later repeated brings joy (and much applause). Soon the atmosphere becomes antic and childlike. Dancers – men and women alike – wear short dresses that, without being antique, bring to mind frolicking youths in a mythological painting. The déshabillé effect of garments not quite done up at the back and falling off shoulders is innocent and charming.

Elsewhere the women wear sleek gowns of much elegance (by Marion Cito), which swirl wildly in Nelken’s most extended dance section – to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden – in which the performers sway dramatically back and forth in chairs as to either side of the stage menacing towers provide a launching pad for a dramatic coup involving the four stuntmen who are also part of the performance.

In amongst the dance there is much talking, shouting and sometimes screaming, not all of it entirely comprehensible. I speak here of the articulation of words and the carrying quality of voices rather than meaning, which is generally quite clear. It can be frustrating when dancers are not quite up to the task of using their voices. But a few irritations and longueurs are a small price to pay. Indeed, moments of audience confusion and impatience are not necessarily outside of Bausch’s game plan.

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Paul White in Nelken. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

And the final scenes are radiant enough to melt any heart. Everyone in the audience is asked to stand for a brief lesson in how to embrace; there is a stately, transfixing evocation in dance of the passing of the seasons; and the last image is one of sharing, acceptance and grace.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch currently includes three Australians, Julie Shanahan, Paul White and Michael Carter and it was a huge pleasure to see them in this splendid, unique company.

Nelken ends on March 12 in Adelaide, after which the company goes to Wellington for the New Zealand Arts Festival. There the dancers perform Bausch’s celebrated Rite of Spring on a double bill with Café Muller.