Top 10 in dance for 2014

DANCE is my great passion but this year there wasn’t a huge amount to bowl me over.Certainly I saw plenty of fine dancing – when does one not? – but in classical ballet there were few new works of substance. Well, none actually. There were pleasing new versions of existing ballets, although they didn’t quite make it to the list. New versions of oft-told stories is business as usual for ballet.

In Sydney there were new contemporary works I failed to see because the seasons were so short – this city isn’t exactly dance central – but there were a couple of new (or newish) pieces that added some excitement. Happily I was able to travel a bit and that helped me see enough to constitute what I might consider a quorum for a list of notable productions. If I saw it in this country I’ve included it, which is why American Ballet Theatre and Trisha Brown Dance Company appear alongside the locals.

As in my earlier posts looking back on 2014, works are mentioned in the order in which I saw them. There is a supplementary international section at the end. I intend to do a separate post on the men and women of the year so if someone rather than something appears to be missing, they may well be mentioned tomorrow.

DANCE WORKS OF NOTE IN 2014

Am I, Shaun Parker & Company, Sydney Festival and Sydney Opera House (January): A strong addition to this meticulous choreographer’s body of work. It looked and sounded stunning. Nick Wales, who has worked many times with Parker, contributed a new score full of fascinating colours, rhythms and sonorities, played and sung by a group of seven musicians. Meticulous, elegant and sophisticated, Am I ambitiously took ideas from physics, astronomy, neurology, anthropology and other branches of science to chart the path of human development. We are the only creatures who can apprehend ourselves as conscious beings with a limited span. Having evolved to that point, our drive is to survive and replicate, to make love and war, and to think about things too much.

Gudirr Gudirr, Marrugeku, Sydney Festival (January): Dalisa Pigram is a passionate advocate for life in Australia’s north-west. She wove a memorable solo from themes relating to the area’s indigenous history, polyglot population, environmental beauties and present-day challenges. Simultaneously wiry and elastic, Pigram seamlessly incorporated shapes from indigenous dance, martial arts, animal imagery, gymnastics, the nightclub and the circus for a wholly individual effect. When she spoke in her traditional language, Yawuru, it became a liquid element in Sam Serruys’s score, which also included songs from Stephen Pigram.

Interplay, Sydney Dance Company (March): The triple bill of Rafael Bonachela’s 2 in D Minor, Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models and Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim! made a cracking evening. Bonachela’s take on Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor was an intellectually challenging engagement between movement and music; the second new piece, Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim!, had heart and joy; and the revival of Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models – well, that gave the libido a workout.

Chroma, The Australian Ballet (April): Wayne McGregor’s Chroma wasn’t as brilliantly danced as it can be when I saw it but it’s a tremendous work. In seven swiftly moving, grandly conceived scenes the choreographer captures on the dancer’s body some of the myriad neural impulses that make it move, think and feel. Undulation, distortion and hyper-extension are a big part of the movement language but we can also see fragments of the classical ideal shimmering through Chroma. The juxtapositions are absorbing: small and large, inner and outer, action and repose, contemporary and traditional, the body and the space it occupies. Also on this generous quadruple bill, Jiri Kylián’s Petite Mort. The AB always does Kylián well and in Petite Mort there is so much to love: men with fencing foils, intimations of darkness and some outstandingly sexy dancing with lots of little orgasmic shudders.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre (June): The story of Lieutenant William Dawes and young indigenous woman Patyegarang in colonial Sydney should be better known. In the tumultuous first years of white settlement, as the British colonisers imposed themselves and their culture on what is now the glittering city of Sydney but was then the Eora nation, Dawes studied and recorded the local language. Patyegarang appears to have been his most important teacher. Stephen Page turned this rare and precious relationship into an impressionistic, meditative work.

The Arrangement, Australian Dance Artists (July): This little jewel could be seen by invitation only, and I was one of the lucky ones. Prime mover was artist Ken Unsworth, who may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest for the complexities of human existence, often casting an absurdist eye on events. He made a cameo appearance at the beginning of The Arrangement to usher in a series of scenes connected not by any narrative but by themes of love, longing, the passage of time and the cycle of life. The mature ADA dancers were former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. The Song Company sang texts by A.E. Houseman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke to Jonathan Cooper’s commissioned music, and it was all very fine indeed. Unsworth finances ADA productions entirely – a great labour of love.

Keep Everything, choreographed by Antony Hamilton for Chunky Move (August): There wasn’t much that was more fun than this. A stage strewn with trash, three incredibly virtuosic and multi-skilled performers, a race through the human story from pre-history to the stars and back again and plenty of stimulating ideas along the way.

American Ballet Theatre, Brisbane (September): Forget Swan Lake; the Three Masterpieces program was the one to see. Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free was highly enjoyable, but the real treats were Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas. Glorious works both.

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Melbourne Festival (October): Trisha Brown was a leading figure in the post-modern dance movement in New York and her influence runs deep. The survey of her work at the Melbourne Festival showed exactly why, but it was far from a history lesson or an academic exercise. Brown’s intellectually rigorous and highly technical dance-making is deeply concerned with the physics and geometry of the body and its relation to the space in which it moves, and her purpose is not to mimic or evoke emotional states. Yet the varied program demonstrated one quality above all that animates the work: intense, soul-filling joy.

The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet (November): Peter Wright’s version of The Nutcracker is frequently said to be the most beautiful in existence, and there is a lot of competition. When I see Alexei Ratmansky’s newish production for American Ballet Theatre I’ll get back to you on who is the winner. But quibbles aside, this certainly is a sumptuous-looking production, even if it looks rather cramped on the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. Even better, it touches the heart.

INTERNATIONAL NOTES:

A highlight of my New York visit early this year was finally getting to see the Jerome Robbins masterpiece Dances at a Gathering, a suite of dances to Chopin piano pieces that has no narrative but is full of connections between the dancers. To see it performed by the company for which it was made in 1969 was a dream come true.

On an all-Balanchine bill at New York City Ballet, Concerto Barocco (1941), was a revelation. Made to the music of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, Concerto Barocco is said to mark the first appearance of Balanchine dancers in practice clothes, something that would become a feature of many works. Here the women are all in white, with a little skirt. Eight women who form a kind of chorus of handmaidens, two principal women and one man move in unison, canon, mirror one another, and enter and leave in response to the music. Poetry and harmony reign and the detail is delicious: at one point the solo man is gently entangled in a thicket of the supporting women; at another he turns a simple promenade of his partner into courtly admiration. Just lovely.

 Tomorrow: The people who mattered

Dance at the Sydney Festival

Am I, Shaun Parker & Company, January 9; Dido & Aeneas, Sasha Waltz & Guests, January 16; Gudirr Gudirr, Marrugeku, January 17; Forklift, KAGE, January 18

THE Sydney Festival’s dance program was relatively low-key but had an interesting range, from the large-scale centrepiece Dido & Aeneas from Sasha Waltz & Guests to the intimacy and refreshing directness of Gudirr Guddir, Dalisa Pigram’s one-woman performance. There were four premieres – Gudirr Gudirr, Shaun Parker & Company’s  Am I, KAGE’s Forklift and the collaboration between Lingalayam and Taikoz, Chi Udaka. I wasn’t able to see Chi Udaka, but the others formed a program of great diversity.

DIDO & Aeneas is a self-regarding production – a dated-looking one too – that rides rough-shod over Henry Purcell’s delicate opera. The water tank that featured in all the publicity shots says it all. It’s huge, heavy and ugly – just the thing to symbolise the pulverising of Purcell.

The smart term for what choreographer Sasha Waltz does is deconstruction, but that would imply the creation of parts worth examining closely for fresh insights. Purcell’s surviving hour of music (some was lost) became 100 exceedingly dull minutes as a prologue was added and new action inserted. Virtually none of the text, spoken or sung, was intelligible on opening night despite most of it being in English. There were barriers in terms of accents and vocal projection and there were no surtitles. If you were unaware of the arc of Purcell’s opera you would be entirely at sea.

Dido & Aeneas. Photo: Sebastian Bolesch

Dido & Aeneas. Photo: Sebastian Bolesch

Speaking of which, the opening presumably referenced the journey of Aeneas from Troy to the shores of Carthage and presages his departure. The tank was half filled with water in which dancers frolicked and did little point-and-flex steps. While it looked lovely for a few moments it was an extremely large effect for no real dramatic gain.

The dancers then mingled with singers, often confusingly. In the melee it was hard to discern any real connection between our hero, Aeneas, and the Queen of Carthage, who fall in love but are separated when fate and a touch of evil intervene. Aeneas abandons Dido, whose dying lament, When I am laid in earth, is one of opera’s most exquisite arias. Here it signalled only that the end of the production was in sight.

It’s understandable a choreographer would be attracted to Purcell’s score, which inserts dances at regular intervals. Mark Morris made a wonderful version in 1989, seen at the 1994 Adelaide Festival, in which singers stood in the pit with the orchestral musicians and the roles of Dido and the Sorceress were doubled to absorbing effect.

Waltz doesn’t make dances to go in the spaces indicated in the libretto or make a piece that works in tandem with the opera like two bodies pressed together. She imposed a messy set of impulses over the top of it. Clothes were flung in the air, dancers were attached to cords to fly around, there was a break for a little dancing lesson, a silent solo and much more. A great deal of the movement wasn’t interesting enough to hold the attention long.

If Purcell’s opera were illuminated, or if ideas worked in strenuous opposition to its depiction of a woman’s disintegration in the face of betrayal, or if the stage action conveyed something moving and surprising on the subject of overpowering passion, it would have been wonderful. Alas, Waltz’s imagery was largely uninspiring. Aurore Ugolin sang Dido’s lament through a long veil of hair, which she managed to carry off with some dignity and beauty of tone.

The ravishing Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin in the pit under the direction of Christopher Moulds and the members of Vocal Consort Berlin came out of the evening best. The latter, gamely joining forces with the dancers, managed to create a strongly unified sound. Unfortunately the solo singing was often disappointing pallid. The Lyric Theatre was too big for these voices, chosen to suit a piece that privileged inexpressive and often incoherent movement over Purcell’s imperishable music.

SHAUN Parker’s Am I is a strong addition to this meticulous choreographer’s body of work – it looked and sounded stunning. Nick Wales, who has worked many times with Parker, contributed a new score full of fascinating colours, rhythms and sonorities, played and sung by a group of seven musicians, including Wales, who could sometimes be spotted emerging from the shadows as they inhabited a platform behind and above the dance area.

It was undoubtedly a sensible decision to keep them in semi-darkness as the potential for them to draw focus was very high indeed. Gorgeous Asian and central European influences were strong but by no means the whole musical story. Wales has an impressive ability to create a beautiful and coherent whole from a wide range of sources and make it work well for dance.

Shaun Parker & Company's Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Shaun Parker & Company’s Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

There was also a big wow factor with Damien Cooper’s wall of ever-changing lights, which featured in an early coup de theatre and from there on acted as a kind of illustration of events. Very smart indeed.

Meticulous, elegant and sophisticated, Am I ambitiously takes ideas from physics, astronomy, neurology, anthropology and other branches of science to chart the path of human development.  We are the only creatures who can apprehend ourselves as conscious beings with a limited span. Having evolved to that point, our drive is to survive and replicate, to make love and war, and to think about things too much.

This doesn’t come as news, of course, but Am I covers the ground with immense grace and delicacy. To borrow the title of an earlier Parker piece, this show is about people, and we rarely fail to be delighted by seeing ourselves and our psyches onstage.

Parker chose to express a significant amount – too much really – via text, delivered with often amused poise by Shantala Shivalingappa. More fascinating, though, was the way movement so eloquently described processes, emotions and beliefs. Energy radiated out through fluttering fingers, hands enclosed space to shape it and feel its volume and bodies joined to suggest elements merging and changing. Metal rods, glinting in the light, were seen as weapons, enclosures and used to form patterns and symbols. A snapping fan suggested culture but aggression too.

Dancers Josh Mu, Sophia Ndaba, Jessie Oshodi, Marnie Palomares, Melanie Palomares and Julian Wong – dressed simply but effectively in black by Anna Tregloan, were credited as collaborators in the piece and did it proud. Repetition and small incremental changes are built into Am I, giving it a hypnotic feel. Parker isn’t much of a one for overtly virtuosic leaps and turns but the choreography is extremely intricate, exacting and while being abstract also conveys a strong sense of relationships and emotional states. I particularly liked the dance for five very near the end in which a very modern sense of relentless activity and anxiety started to enter the picture.

Shaun Parker & Company's Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Shaun Parker & Company’s Am I. Photograph: Prudence Upton

Coming as it did, however, after what felt like an ending but wasn’t, it lost something of its power. Am I explains itself just a little too much.

ABOUT an Hour is one of the glories of the Sydney Festival. It was the inspiration of former director Fergus Linehan (2006-2009) and while there have been a few tweaks along the way it survives in good shape. Nearly all the events take place over three or four days, making for a concentrated program. As the name suggests all the works are short, although there were many other events in the main Sydney Festival program that fell around the hour-long mark too, so in some ways the distinction is a little arbitrary.

The brief schedule means it’s hard to get the word out – in print at least – about shows of great merit, although it’s likely patrons just turn up and buy on spec as tickets are all $35 or less. I was able to see half the events, including dance works Gudirr Gudirr, from Western Australia’s Marrugeku company and KAGE’s Forklift, a new piece for women and heavy equipment.

Dalisa Pigram is an enchanting dancer and a passionate advocate for life in Australia’s north-west. Gudirr Gudirr is a memorable solo woven from themes relating to the area’s indigenous history, polyglot population, environmental beauties and present-day challenges. There are plenty of the latter.

The sound of a coastal bird from Pigram’s home country, the Kimberley, gave her work its name. At the start of the piece Pigram luxuriated in memories of gathering fish – but not too many! – and learning from her family. Simple pleasures gave way to a passionate recitation of former wrongs and current woes. There may be no more Aboriginal men with cruelly heavy chains around their necks or girls chosen for domestic work on the basis of skin tone, but new issues such as mining, violence and suicide take their toll. Gains have been made, Pigram said, but danger lies in being seduced by them.

Simutaneously wiry and elastic, Pigram seamlessly incorporated shapes from indigenous dance, martial arts, animal imagery, gymnastics, the nightclub and the circus for a wholly individual effect. When she spoke in her traditional language, Yawuru, it became a liquid element in Sam Serruys’s score, which also included songs from Stephen Pigram. When she railed against contemporary ills, the repeated use of the most common four-letter word turned into a kind of bird sound.

There was the occasional bumpy moment when Pigram rushed a text or a filmed element was difficult to identify, but Gudirr Gudirr rarely lost its grip. Particularly effective was how subtly Pigram altered her movement to morph from serene confidence to uncertainty and anguish. She also took to the air via a long ribbon of net that let her swing free or entangled her. The net was both tradition and snare.

Pigram, who is co-artistic director of Marrugeku, worked on Guddir Gudirr with Koen Augustijnen, formerly with celebrated Belgian company Les Ballets C de la B. He is credited as director and co-choreographer and together he and Pigram have made a 55-minute work overflowing with rich images and ideas.

KAGE’s Forklift would be a nifty concept for a 10-minute circus act. As an hour-long theatre work the conceit was stretched too far in several ways. Forklift puts women into an unusual industrial context as a kind of fantasy of female strength and empowerment, which is fine. Or would be, if it didn’t look somewhat like a male fantasy about hot women in the workplace.

In the first half there was an unfortunate suggestion of exotic dancers in a gentlemen’s club as three women performed extreme elongations and contortions in skin-tight, skin-coloured attire and did so with an unvaryingly languorous air to monotonous music. The early stacking of limp bodies into a container didn’t help the cause either.

Performers Henna Kaikula, Amy Macpherson and Nicci Wilks, each showing great skill and courage, shimmied into vivid costumes for the second half and standard industrial boxes were reversed to reveal crayon-bright colours, but what that may mean was elusive.

Using a moving forklift as a tiny performance arena is original and dangerous, no doubt about it. It just couldn’t bear a weightier goal than uncomplicated entertainment.

Am I will be staged at the Adelaide Festival from February 27-March 1.