Orb, Sydney Dance Company

Full Moon, choreographed by Cheng Tsung-lung, Ocho, choreographed by Rafael Bonachela. Sydney Dance Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, May 1.

At first glance the two works in Sydney Dance Company’s Orb look quite different but they are close kin under the skin and together make an exceptionally absorbing double bill.

Cheng Tsung-lung, who choreographed the opening Full Moon, is artistic director of Taipei’s Cloud Gate 2 and steeped in the aesthetic of that company’s senior arm, Lin Hwai-min’s incomparable Cloud Gate Theatre. The dance is contemporary but holds hands with age-old traditions. When you recognise shapes from martial arts or the influence of meditative practices, you are taken into a world where great antiquity co-exists with the here and now and gives it texture and meaning.

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Cheng Tsung-lung’s Full Moon for Sydney Dance Company. Photo: Pedro Greig

SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela is a lively exponent of movement, music and design as their own reward. So often in his work there is no past and no future. It’s a world of sensation rather than explanation – although not in every single case, as his recent Lux Tenebris (2016) and Frame of Mind (2015) show.

Indeed, Bonachela does of late seem to be edging towards a greater degree of character exposition and hints of personal narrative. In short, his work just seems to be more human, and that’s certainly the case with Ocho. It’s delightful to see Bonachela and Cheng connect on this fundamental level.

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Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s Ocho. Photo: Pedro Greig

As if to emphasis the complementary nature of the evening, the 16-member company is divided straight down the middle so there are eight dancers in each work with strictly no overlap. It’s a lovely round number and therefore eminently suitable for Full Moon, which employs five women and three men while Ocho uses the reverse combination. (And don’t forget: Ocho is Spanish for eight.)

In the numinous Full Moon, made doubly so by Damien Cooper’s exquisite lighting, there is a profound sense of eternal motion, and not only because Cheng’s piece has thrilling eruptions of speed and full-bodied swirls. He also finds vivid life in what appears to be complete stillness, arrestingly seen as Sam Young-Wright stands in the half-light with Jesse Scales astride a shoulder, both of them alert and energised, and Bernhard Knauer sits serenely on the floor for many minutes, his demeanour a mixture of relaxed poise and deep contemplation before rising to dance with glowing Janessa Dufty.

They embody the constants of existence: breath in and out, the circular flow of blood and the creation and release of energy. From time to time dancers are spotted standing apart or lying in the shadows but they never seem subservient to the action around them. No dancer ever leaves the stage and one is always aware of where each is.

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Holly Doyle in Full Moon. Photo: Pedro Greig

Cheng’s richly detailed and often surprising choreography frequently works at varying speeds simultaneously, propelled by Lim Giong’s gleaming commissioned score. It’s almost as if alternate universes have met and melded: Full Moon requires intense concentration. At one moment the eye is caught by the serene companionship of Chloe Leong and Todd Sutherland, then attention is demanded by Latisha Sparks’s acrobatic leaps and surges, given extra fullness by her wild red dress (Fan Huai-chih’s costumes are just gorgeous).

Most striking of all is Holly Doyle in her long striped gown, often covering her face with her hair, extending a dagger-like leg high or turning inexorably like a whirling dervish. Cheng isn’t afraid of emotional extremes. Perhaps you can blame the full moon.

Ocho, like Full Moon, uses the power of stillness but here it’s not a form of inner radiance. It is menacing and painful, a prelude to attack or an expression of neediness. Ocho, if you will, is the dark side of the moon.

Despite the bleak intimations of this brutal, post-apocalyptic image of life, each woman and man in Ocho is an individual with clearly expressed wants and each is riveting. First seen as disconnected figures in a coldly lit glass enclosure, Bonachela’s five men and three women emerge singly to mark their territory. The atmosphere is incredibly threatening, aided and abetted by Nick Wales’s new score that blends brass, flute and electronica in a most unsettling way.

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Davide Di Giovanni, front, in Ocho. Photo: Pedro Greig

When all but one have ventured into the open the competitiveness is ferocious. The one who stays behind, Charmene Yap, is tentative and vulnerable, although all are needy. At some point they all scatter to go who knows where but return to the known quantity of their sordid fish bowl (terrific set and costumes by David Fleischer, lights by Cooper). When they touch, they cling to one another with what looks like desperation.

Finally some measure of calm – optimism even – is achieved and Ocho ends in peaceful unison as Wales introduces a Yolgnu song invoking the protection of the Spirit Lady. Alongside Yap, Juliette Barton, Izzac Carroll, Davide Di Giovanni, Nelson Earl, Cass Mortimer Eipper, Petros Treklis and Josephine Wiese reach out their arms and circle slowly.

Actually, in its final moments Ocho recalled nothing more than the ending of Full Moon. Full circle.

Orb ends in Sydney on May 13. Then Melbourne, May 17-20 and Canberra, May 25-27.

Nude Live at the Sydney Festival

Sydney Dance Company in association with the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, January 7.

There are a few housekeeping rules to absorb before going downstairs to view the dance work Nude Live among the Picassos, Bacons, J.M.W. Turners and Cindy Shermans that are part of the Nude: Art from the Tate collection show at the Art Gallery of NSW.

There’s to be no photography, of course, which is standard for dance although not for exhibitions. Everyone knows the other important stricture, which is don’t touch the artworks. Not the paintings, not the sculptures, not the works on paper, and certainly not the dancers in this absorbing collaboration between Sydney Dance Company and the gallery for the Sydney Festival.

As the name Nude Live suggests, the dancers are physically present – this isn’t contemporary video art – and they are nude if you accept Kenneth Clark’s distinction between the nude and the naked (it has to do with transformation via art versus the absence of clothing). But as one ponders the social, political and theoretical issues involved, and there are many, the most mysterious aspect of Nude Live is that while the dancers are completely unclothed and within arm’s reach of (or even closer to) the audience, they are not stripped bare in any profound sense. They seem to wear a protective bubble – a suit of armour even – and the closer you get the more unknowable and awe-inspiring they appear.

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David Mack, Marlo Benjamin and Rodin’s The Kiss. Photo: Pedro Greig

It goes without saying they are remarkably beautiful in form and function, works of art in themselves. The most marvellous discovery, however, is that their presence illuminates the exhibition as no learned lecture could. Ideas are made flesh but one is also made aware of our mortality. Most of the works in the exhibition will outlive us all. (There is nothing more touching in the show than Rineke Dijkstra’s 1994 photographs of naked women and their new-born babies, one taken just one hour after the birth.)

One of the sweet ironies of Nude Live is that it’s impossible to see everything. Its three women and four men are found together only once in the hour-long piece choreographed by Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela. Otherwise the dancers have to be sought out in the exhibition’s various rooms, where they can be seen in solos, duos and trios or simply sitting or lying.

Once inside the space the audience members can move around at will, staying with dancers for as long or briefly as desired. Nude Live is therefore a totally individual experience shaped by the viewer.

The Tate show has eight overarching themes: historical, private, modern and erotic nudes; body politics; paint as flesh; real and surreal bodies; and the vulnerable body. Bonachela’s choreography responds mostly on this thematic level. He also arranges dancers in still poses that suggest images that may be seen on the walls or on plinths and creates several pas de deux that connect directly with individual works.

My first and best decision was to head for the most distant room, one of two spaces devoted to The Vulnerable Body. That’s where Ron Mueck’s larger-than-life sculpture Wild man is and where David Mack, discovered alone, echoes the tense unease of that piece to the music of Schubert. Later in that room Mack, Zachary Lopez and Oliver Savariego grapple and wrestle in an elaborate dance no individual seems able to dominate. A more restrained duo for Lopez and Savariego has geometric precision warmed by the glowing skin and lean muscularity of the two young men.

Central to Nude Live is the group dance to an aria from Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, Io son l’umile ancella (I am the humble servant of the creative spirit), performed before Francis Bacon’s Triptych 1974-77. Dancers gently guide some audience members to places where they sit or stand opposite the rest of us, the watchers watched. The following dance is luxuriant and fluid, an oasis of calm interaction in opposition to the anguish painted by Bacon.

Two dances that none should miss are the balletic pas de deux for Mack and Marlo Benjamin in the room containing only Rodin’s The kiss and the funny-sad duo for Olivia Kingston and Izzac Carroll in front of Stanley Spencer’s Double nude portrait: the artist and his second wife. Mack tenderly holds Benjamin, who at one point is seated gracefully on his shoulder. All is peace and beauty. Kingston and Carroll play out a riveting study in need and disconnection, set to the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony no. 5. Kingston arranges Carroll’s legs just so, folds his arms around her and places his hands on her breasts and buttocks, but he is in another world. Spencer’s painting posits the wife – the second wife – as the detached party but for both couples something has gone wrong.

As Nude Live progresses there is a clever shift from the cerebral and sculptural to a more sensual approach. Well, I can only say this is how I perceived it, given what I chose to watch. Others may have felt differently or have seen things I missed. There’s no confusion however about how the piece ends, which is boldly with a forceful unison dance from Kingston and Fiona Jopp to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. They are far from submissive maidens forced into sacrifice. They are fiercely themselves – loud, proud and yes, naked. Their call.

There are whispers that Nude Live may have another life. If that comes to pass, the obvious venue would be Auckland Art Gallery, where the Tate exhibition goes next. In New Zealand the show is called The Body Laid Bare – Masterpieces from Tate and it runs there from March 18 to July 16. Art and dance-lovers across the ditch should start agitating right now.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on January 9.

Nude Live ends January 23. At the 7.30pm performances on January 14 and 23 audience members must be naked.

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.

New Breed, Sydney Dance Company

Carriageworks, Sydney, November 29.

Who knew gloom could come in so many shades? This year’s New Breed program must have tested the ingenuity of Benjamin Cisterne, Sydney Dance Company’s go-to man for lighting design, but he came up trumps, magnificently meeting the challenge of finding four different ways of illuminating darkness.

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What You See, choreographed by Jesse Scales. Photo: Pedro Greig

The program is curated – by SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela – to present emerging choreographers or those who should be seen more widely. This year they are SDC dancers Jesse Scales and Richard Cilli and independent artists Rachel Arianne Ogle (from Perth) and Shian Law (from Melbourne), all of whom have made sombre works that don’t exactly add up to a night of contrasts.

Ogle’s Of Dust is made to a commissioned score by Ned Beckley that evokes cosmic storms in endless space. Order and disorder are expressed in counter-balance, movements in canon or succession, complex swirling circles and lines that sweep, falter, fragment and coalesce. It is mesmerising and lovely to watch but rather long for its one idea: that we are made of stardust and to dust we will return.

Law’s Epic Theatre starts in the foyer with two men grappling. Inside the auditorium we are initially kept from our seats by a long line of people with linked arms, although some of the more bolshie break through to sit down.

Law is interested in blurring the lines between audience and performer and, once we are seated, transfers that idea to the stage by mixing non-dancers and dancers. People fight, they recline like statues, they lift others as if they were mannequins and they walk. They walk a lot, to Marco Cher-Gibard’s trance-inducing new score (Cher-Gibard performed lived) and in Cisterne’s gauzy, hazy light.

There is, Law says at the end, “one irreducible fact” about theatre: one group of people is looking at another. This is true, but as with Ogle’s piece it would be good to have more than meets the eye. Both are sophisticated dance-makers who failed, at least with this viewer, to make an intellectual or emotional connection of any substance. Great-looking pieces though.

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Of Dust, choreographed by Rachel Arianne Ogle. Photo: Pedro Greig

Cilli’s Hinterland stitches together elements that unfortunately don’t add up to a coherent whole. The overlong beginning looks like something that should have stayed in the rehearsal room as dancers vocalise to the movements of others. Later, some chitchat about icebergs and the film Titanic is simplistic and too poorly projected to offer insights into Cilli’s idea of “the tension between outward appearance and the vast inner landscape”. The slow motion entwining of nine bodies into an undifferentiated mass at one point is, however, enticing.

Scales’s What You See is danced to Max Richter music, well chosen. The modestly scaled piece for two men and a woman, each in their own world of emotional anguish, is on a well-worn theme but Scales has an appealing delicacy of touch and feeling that suggests she could and should expand her horizons.

It goes without saying that the SDC dancers are tremendous, one and all, in each of the works.

The choreographers chosen for New Breed get top-of-the-line support. They make their work on a bunch of the finest dance bodies in the country, are seen at one of the country’s most prestigious performing arts addresses and are given a generous season of nine performances. That last point is important. There seems to be a good appetite for new work presented in the right place at the right price – the top Carriageworks ticket price is just $35. It’s also excellent to note that The Balnaves Foundation, a supporter of New Breed for the past three years, is coming back for a further three.

Ends December 10.

Untamed: Sydney Dance Company

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

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

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

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

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

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Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeest. Photo: Pedro Greig

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

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

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

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

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

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Rafael Bonachela’s Anima. Photo: Pedro Greig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untamed ends in Sydney on October 29.

Mr Gaga: Ohad Naharin and his Batsheva Dance Company

Any Australian with more than a passing interest in contemporary dance must have seen Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company. It could have been at Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide Festival in 1996 – my first acquaintance with Batsheva – or David Sefton’s Adelaide Festival of 2014. Possibly Melbourne’s festival in 2000 or 2015, or Jonathan Holloway’s final Perth festival in 2014, Batsheva’s 50th anniversary year. Or you could have seen Naharin’s unique approach to dance at the Sydney Festival in 2007. Local festival directors can’t get enough of the man.

Dancers will be aware that STRUT Dance, the Perth-based national choreographic development centre, is towards the end of a three-year partnership with Naharin to present a series of workshops (one of which I was fortunate enough to see). They culminate in September with a performance of Naharin’s Decadance in the State Theatre Centre of WA’s Heath Ledger Theatre as part of the MOVEME Festival.

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Batsheva in Tabula Rasa (2012) by Ohad Naharin. Photo: Gadi Dagon

All of which suggests there should be a dedicated national audience for Mr Gaga, a very fine documentary that follows Naharin’s career in dance and the power of his movement language – his philosophy – Gaga. (The name is meaningless; the results are magnetic.) The documentary, directed by Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann, has already been seen at a number of Australian film festivals and at a handful of cinemas around the country with others to come. It’s worth seeking out.

Gaga is a deeply sensual form of dance, although not in the dreamily erotic way the word usually implies. It can look awkward or silly; it frequently has a brutal energy that’s as challenging as it is exhilarating; and it can be frankly, overtly sexual. Naharin wants dancers to be fully and intimately in touch with all their senses – to make, as he said in a 2013 interview for Adelaide’s The Advertiser, “a connection to the explosive power within”. He wants dancers not to tell their bodies what to do, but to listen to the body’s impulses and emotions and respond to them. The dancers look immensely individual, strong, free, powerful, juicy and fiercely alert and engaged.

It’s telling that when talking about his active youth, Naharin says he was “a lot more connected to the animal I am”.

When you understand that, you can see why Naharin bans mirrors. Watching oneself means an inevitable concentration on the outside – on form – and on making judgments that can distance the dancer from the dance. The training is exacting and can be confronting. Heymann dives right in, opening Mr Gaga with a snippet of rehearsal in which a woman falls to the floor again and again, but not truthfully enough for Naharin. He can see her “protecting her head”. “Are you stressed?” he asks the dancer. “No.” “So do it again.” It is an astute introduction to the man and the subject.

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Ohad Naharin. Photo: Gadi Dagon

Naharin started dance training at the very late age of 22 although early family film footage shows he was exceptionally active and a terrific mover. He lived in a kibbutz until the age of five, when he was “torn away”, as his father acknowledges, from a communal life he loved. As all young Israelis must do he completed several years of national service, during which he saw violence, experienced the deaths of young friends and, as a performer, sang “bad songs to traumatised soldiers”. These experiences inevitably colour his work, which is plentifully illustrated by Heymann with clips from pieces including Anaphase, Tabula Rasa, Decadance, Sadeh21, Mamootot, Mabul and Naharin’s most recent production, the mysteriously titled (and politically charged) Last Work, which premiered in June last year and was seen in October at Josephine Ridge’s final Melbourne Festival.

Naharin took classes with Batsheva Dance Company at the urging of his mother after leaving the army. Batsheva had been founded in 1964 by Baronnes Batsheva de Rothschild and American contemporary dance legend Martha Graham; when Graham returned to Tel Aviv to make a work she took a shine to Naharin and he quickly found himself in New York dancing with her company. Almost just as quickly he moved on, disappointed. He took classical classes, then danced for a time with Maurice Béjart’s company (“the worst year of my life”).

Eventually he wanted to go home. He was asked to take over the artistic directorship of Batsheva in 1990 and turned it into one of the most admired, influential and sought-after contemporary dance companies in the world.

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Batsheva in Last Work  (2015) by Ohad Naharin. Photo: Gadi Dagon

It took Heymann many years to persuade Naharin to participate in the film and it would appear funding wasn’t particularly easy to get as a Kickstarter fund was needed to get the project to completion. Perhaps the hunt for money is the reason Heymann had to include a brief interview with actress Natalie Portman, who was born in Israel. The little sprinkling of star-power feels like a sop to a funding body and is an out-of-kilter touch.

But that is a tiny irritant in an otherwise absorbing attempt to pin down an elusive man. The viewer gets only a partial understanding of the choreographer, although there are telling clues in snippets of personal footage and from Naharin’s fascinating admission about what initially seems a potent reason for his decision to become a dancer. The obviously crucial partnership with Naharin’s wife Mari Kajiwara is handled delicately, as is a later relationship.

Mr Gaga is a beautifully constructed film that wisely doesn’t feel it has to explain everything about its enigmatic subject but does reveal his creative, sometimes controversial, genius in absorbing detail.

Mr Gaga is screening daily at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova; at Adelaide’s Trak Cinema from July 28; and can be seen at a special screening at Sydney’s Roseville Cinemas on July 31, introduced by Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela.

About last week … March 18-25

British director Matthew Warchus had two musicals open within about four months of one another. One was Matilda the Musical, the Royal Shakespeare Company production that premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2010 before opening in the West End in October the following year; and Ghost the Musical, based on the popular 1990 film, which started life in Manchester, England, in March 2011. Ah well. Not everything can be one for the ages.

Ghost hasn’t been a disaster, although it didn’t win over Broadway. It had a respectable West End run, been on tours of the US and UK and has been seen in a dozen countries. But unlike Matilda, it has no particular distinction. The music and lyrics by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics, although it’s not easy to tell) and Glen Ballard are efficient at best and some of the lyrics, to which book writer Bruce Joel Rubin also contributed, are best forgotten, or at least easily forgotten.

After opening in Adelaide in January, the Australian production is now in Sydney until mid-May, after which it heads to Perth. Well, I say Australian production. Most of the cast are locals; the production itself is a replica, as is the way of international musicals.

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Wendy Mae Brown and Rob Mills in Ghost the Musical

When I saw it on March 19 I thought it conventional entertainment with a decent heart, engaging performances (from Jemma Rix as Molly in particular), too much reliance on projections that looked oddly old-fashioned and really naff choreography. Full marks to the creative team for not overplaying that pottery scene, although one suspects many in the audience are there for exactly that moment. There are few truly first-rate stage musicals made from a non-musical film: Dirty Dancing, no. Doctor Zhivago, no, although Lucy Simon’s score is attractive. An Officer and a Gentleman, no, no, no. (Incidentally, that trio all started life in Sydney in out-of-hemisphere tryouts.) It’s hard to live up to the audience’s expectations when a film has been extraordinarily successful. Perhaps that why Little Shop of Horrors, based on a Roger Corman quickie filmed in just two days, is a winner. By the way, the brilliant new production of Little Shop that finished recently at Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney opens in Adelaide on April 20, Melbourne and Canberra next month, then to Brisbane in July and back to Sydney.

On March 22 I went to the Sydney Opera House to see choreographers Lloyd Newson (on hiatus from the company he founded, DV8 Physical Theatre), Kate Champion (founder of Force Majeure) and Rafael Bonachela (artistic director of Sydney Dance Company) take part in a Culture Club talk. The title was Everyone Can Dance but fortunately moderator Caroline Baum said she didn’t know where that was meant to go and neither did anyone else. So they spoke about a lot of other stuff. The conversation ranged widely over issues such as the employment of diverse kinds of bodies in dance (disabled, larger than the norm, from different cultures and traditions), recent conversations in the UK about the quality of contemporary dance training and opportunities for female choreographers, and how each of the three speakers approaches dance-making.

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Baum, Newton, Champion and Bonachela in conversation. Photo: Prudence Upton

Newson addressed a particularly thorny issue when he said that a dancer such as David Toole, who has no legs, made him question what it meant to be able-bodied. Nevertheless, Newson still needed any dancer with whom he worked to have a certain level of expertise. “Do you make concessions?” (He doesn’t want to.) Bonachela talked a little about the difficulty of coming into Sydney Dance Company after the death of artistic director-designate Tanja Liedtke. If he was going to put his stamp on the company there would have to be changes. He said of himself: “I am optimistic by choice.”

Champion spoke of the differences between actors and dancers. “Dancers are very willing. They will do anything, go anywhere. Actors are sometimes not so willing,” she said, although she added that sometimes she wished dancers “would express their feelings a bit more and actors a bit less”. Her most intriguing comments were on opera. Champion was associate director on Neil Armfield’s production of the Ring Cycle for Opera Australia in 2013 and is again listed as that on OA’s website for the revival late this year in Melbourne. Opera is “not my favourite thing”, she said. She’d been told everyone should do one Ring Cycle in their life but having done it she says “opera is not my natural fit”. But she wanted to be out of her comfort zone, and did it because of her respect for Armfield.

The week’s three theatre productions could not have been more different. Brisbane outfit Shake & Stir Theatre Co’s Wuthering Heights (Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 22) was disappointing – too reliant on a narrator to tell the story and acted in blustery fashion. I very much enjoyed British company 1927’s Golem (Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, March 23), a surreal cautionary tale about the surrender of free will. And later that day I saw Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a full house that enjoyed it immensely. Some of the mainstream reviews were very sniffy indeed about Peter Evans’s production, which goes to show that so often the reviews really don’t matter. The energy of the young men in particular was charming and invigorating. It may not be an interpretation for the ages but it speaks to an audience, that much is clear. Romeo and Juliet is in Canberra until Saturday and opens in Melbourne on April 14.

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Turandot – this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Photo: Prudence Upton

This year’s opening performance of Opera on Sydney Harbour – Turandot – was blessed with perfect weather (March 24). Same thing for each of the four previous openings. OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini must have special powers. My review in the London-based Opera magazine is yet to appear so I’ll confine myself to saying that the key singers in the first cast are first-rate – Dragana Radakovic (Turandot), Riccardo Massi (Calaf) and Hyeseoung Kwon (Liù) – and Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng gives the opera welcome ceremonial grandeur in place of ersatz exoticism. Dan Potra’s design is a beauty, dominated by a spiky tower and a fire-breathing dragon. The fireworks are placed rather strangely after Nessun dorma! but people cheered anyway. Turandot, which is double cast, runs until April 24 is a good’un.