Dancenorth’s Spectra

For the Sydney Festival, Seymour Centre, Sydney, January 11.

The flick of a long rope sends energy snaking through it. It passes a man standing uneasily in the centre of the stage and his head recoils in response. Later, all seven performers in Spectra link arms and undulate them as if possessed of a single but multi-parted body. In an earlier, entrancing encounter the group is tightly knit and close to the floor, pulsating as if impelled by a single set of lungs.

All this is exceptionally lovely, as are many of the solos, duos and trios that emerge, dissolve and are reabsorbed in this collaborative, introspective work from Townsville-based Dancenorth and Tokyo Butoh company Batik. The movement language mixes Western contemporary athleticism with intense, sculptural Butoh formality and at any given moment there is something to please the eye greatly as the dancers share the space with artist Matsuo Miyajima’s glowing light installation and Niklas Pajanti’s evocative lighting design.

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Rie Makino and Dancenorth dancers in Spectra. Photo: Prudence Upton

The governing principle of Spectra is the understanding that everything is connected. Do one thing and something else will happen; decide on a course of action and there will be a consequence. Spectra examines this idea fully and clearly in a physical sense through the interaction of bodies, light, ropes and the live music of Jiri Matsumoto. It’s less successful in making a connection between the cerebral universal and the human particular. There is, for instance, a trio of some agitation for Misako Tanaka, Rie Makino and Amber Haines that probably should evoke compassion but stays resolutely distanced.

Makino is something of a focal figure and features in a late section that has the hallmarks of a numinous ending as she reaches towards the unseen. There is the welcome possibility of empathy with her but attention then shifts to another scene, again very visually effective, in which the group coalesces and then dissolves. That could also be an ending, but it isn’t. There is a bit more to come. The ultimate impression is of an elegant set of variations on a theme in which individual parts don’t absolutely depend on one another. The structure somewhat undermines the “if this, then that” thesis.

Despite these reservations, it was a great pleasure to see Dancenorth in Sydney. The company is based in the Queensland city of Townsville, 1300km north of Brisbane, but the small, agile outfit doesn’t let distance fence it in. Under its young artistic director Kyle Page it is a whirlwind of new works, touring and research and it collaborates with some of the country’s best-known choreographers. Spectra premiered at Adelaide’s OzAsia festival about 15 months ago and has been seen in Japan. Even if it’s not quite as persuasive as its potential suggests, it is a thoughtful and serious piece and is danced superbly.

Page choreographed and directed Spectra with Haines, who is Dancenorth’s associate artistic director. The multitasking Page continues to dance and is charismatic in Spectra, as is Haines. Makino is a commanding presence and Jennie Large, Mason Kelly, Josh Mu and Tanaka complete the strong ensemble.

Spectra ends Sunday. The exhibition Tatsuo Miyajima: Connect with Everything can be seen at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the Sydney International Art Series.

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.

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid

Sydney Festival, January 8.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale on which Meow Meow has based her new show is typically gruesome: an innocent young creature gladly endures unspeakable agonies in order to be close to Prince Right, only to see him promptly marry someone else. In an interview in November 2011, with Steve Dow, she said that “The Little Mermaid is about sexual punishment, in many ways for love”. She has all her power taken away “in order to have love”.

Meow Meow, the famously passive-aggressive – and very powerful – kamikaze cabaret artist, might be expected to take this badly. Indeed, she recently told The Australian’s Matthew Westwood that the story “is very resonant for me as it’s a perceived fate or destiny — so often imposed on the tragic female diva — that I do not want.”

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Meow Meow in Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid. Photo: Prudence Upton

So what’s up when she tells her audience that Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid is a show about happiness? She means it, too, in a Meow Meow kind of way. This Little Mermaid takes a scalpel to the original, peels away the layers and peers into the dark. Obsession, self-abnegation and physical mutilation get their moment as Meow Meow prowls, twirls and hobbles her way through the minefield that is romantic love and sticky sex, hoping for a shot at fulfillment.

As always, Meow Meow may be observed on multiple levels simultaneously. The diva’s fabled ability to seduce an audience with fragile neediness and control it with an adamantine will is in full bloom and those expecting Meow Meow to co-opt audience members, crowd surf, bitch about the management and sing like a voluptuous fallen angel won’t be disappointed. On the surface there is much that’s familiar, even cosy. The real action is in the knotty mess of emotions, impulses and desires underneath, particularly in the songs, of which many are new. Listen carefully.

Meow Meow isn’t afraid to tread the primrose path, as in Megan Washington’s gorgeous Making Love: “I don’t mind strings, you can leave them attached.” The opening song, Black’s Wonderful Life, speaks of magic everywhere but loneliness too. Meow Meow’s off-sider in this show, Chris Ryan, gives a piercing account of Schubert’s Am Meer (By the Sea), in which tears of love prove fatal. As I say, listen carefully.

Meow Meow’s ending is a happy one because she chooses it to be so. She may be tossed and buffeted in the sea of love but by god she’s not going to drown. In a funny way Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid has a happy ending too. Our wishy-washy heroine, having displayed her shining goodness, is given a shot at immortality. If that counts as happiness.

Our Meow Meow is made of sterner and earthier stuff of course, but it was nevertheless possible to discern in her show the hint of a gentler, kinder Meow. Perhaps for now.

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, January 28-February 14; Perth International Arts Festival, February 24-28.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 11.

Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich

Sydney Opera House, January 9.

In 1999 Jack Anderson reviewed Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich for The New York Times, reporting that Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker had “recently announced her wish to retire it from her repertory”. Fortunately she changed her mind. Fase has not only continued to be seen, but seen with De Keersmaeker in it.

She made the work in the early 1980s, in collaboration with Michèle Anne De Mey and Jennifer Everhard, when she was little more than 20. It premiered in Brussels in March 1982 with De Keersmaeker and De Mey as the performers and almost instantly made De Keersmaeker’s name as an important, influential contemporary dance artist. In its first three years it was much revived and in recent years has been shown frequently: Los Angeles in November of last year, New York in July 2014 and London in July 2012, each time with Tale Dolven, the dancer seen with De Keersmaeker at the Sydney Festival. Dolven was born in 1981, the year Fase was nearing completion; De Keersmaeker is now 55.

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De Keersmaeker and De Mey in Piano Phase. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Fase is highly formal and abstract, requiring extraordinary levels of precision and stamina. It may at first blush look cool – chilly, even – and austere but its dizzying wealth of detail and the illumination of Steve Reich’s music make Fase an incredibly rich, even voluptuous experience. It’s a demanding work to be sure, giving the audience a substantial workout too. So often watching is a passive business. With Fase, alertness and concentration are required and the rewards are great.

The choreographic material appears to be simple and there is ample time during many, many repetitions and small variations to observe its qualities and relationship with the music. In the first section, Piano Phase, the emphasis is on progression in a straight line while pivoting, walking and raising and lowering the arms, which also loosely wrap around the body. In Come Out, performed seated, the head is touched with the arm at an angle, there are bends from the waist and an arm stretches out strongly. Violin Phase is a solo for De Keersmaeker in which circling is the predominant motif and in the short, snappy Clapping Music the duo repeatedly rises sharply en pointe in sneakers with knees bent.

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By themselves these things have no meaning, even though they may spark ideas and responses. They do, crucially, impel close listening to the music and its almost imperceptible changes. At many times the dancers are in unison; at others move in and out of phase with one another. They may stop abruptly then start again. There are tiny gestures set against large ones, and so on. You note how the apparently plain, unassertive dresses worn in the first and third movements have a swirling life of their own (and, in Violin Phase, how the dress allows De Keersmaeker to be very flirty and folky as she lifts its to reveal shiningly white knickers). You also note the small variations in reaction time of the dancers and their different movement quality. In her mid-30s, Dolmen is a strong, juicy presence; De Keersmaeker in her mid-50s is more wiry, more intense.

While there are new things to apprehend in each individual moment, it’s also necessary to pay attention to the overall arc of a piece in which music, movement and design work together in a highly sophisticated way.

In Piano Phase the dancers’ shadows merge and separate, multiplying the performers in ghostly fashion. In Come Out the menacing mood created by overhead lights (lighting by Mark Schwentner) is amplified by the workmanlike shirts and trousers the women wear, so different from the pale, feminine frocks of Piano Phase.

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De Keersmaeker (left) and Dolven in Come Out. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The movement here is no less repetitive or contained than in Piano Phase but somehow more sombre. Reich’s distortion of a man’s voice – it is a repetition of the words “come out” until they are no longer recognisable – is chilling and there is an intimation of forced labour and a desire for contact. The bend from the waist would seem to suggest anguish and the outstretched arm a yearning for touch that is never fulfilled. (Others may well take away a quite different impression.) Clapping Music, with lighting by Remon Fromont, uses the same trousers-and-shirt combo but in this context they take on a sporty air, even as one can see a connection with Come Out via the lighting.

And to think this was only De Keersmaeker’s second work. Astounding. It’s no surprise that Fase has become a modern classic: 34 years after its creation, it feels timeless. There are just three Sydney Festival performances, the last of them tonight (January 11).

De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, also performs a relatively new work at the festival, Vortex Temporum, made in 2013, in collaboration with the contemporary music group Ictus. It opens on January 15 at Carriageworks.

The festive season

THE last crumbs of Christmas cake have scarcely been brushed from the lips, the last Champagne bottles are not yet in the recycling bin and New Year’s resolutions are still full of shiny potential. ‘Tis the season for rest, recreation, family and friends. Or, for those of us whose calendars are ruled not by the earth’s rotation or religious observance but by cultural activity, it’s festival time.

And I don’t just mean in my hometown Sydney, where the annual festival – this year celebrating its 40th birthday – starts on January 7 and runs until Australia Day. The Perth International Arts Festival, with new artistic director Wendy Martin at the helm, starts on February 12 and goes into early March, overlapping with the Adelaide Festival, starting on February 26 and ending March 14.

I include the New Zealand Festival too – February 26-March 20 – because it’s about as easy for an east coast resident to get to Wellington as Perth (less flying time; more queuing for airport security).

That’s the first quarter of the year accounted for, right there.

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Paul White in Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken, to be performed at the Adelaide Festival. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

There is, of course, a great deal of non-festival activity in every big Australian city. In Sydney, for instance, Sydney Theatre Company ran King Lear through the Christmas period and it closes on January 9. Belvoir opened Jasper Jones today, January 6, Melbourne Theatre Company hosts the transfer of Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black from January 16 and so on. These companies provide year-round nourishment but the festival experience is something else: concentrated, distinctive and heightened.

Yes, there can be an element of déjà vu as old favourites return (I’m thinking Batsheva Dance Company, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and director Robert Wilson, for instance) but there are, almost by definition, performances and performers one would never otherwise see: The Giants in Perth last year and the Berliner Ensemble with The Threepenny Opera in 2013; Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 (2013) and the heart-stoppingly wonderful Trisha Brown retrospective (2014) in Melbourne; and Semele Walk (2013) and The Black Rider (2005) in Sydney to name very, very few.

Go further back and there’s Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota, which I saw in Perth but it also went to Adelaide, in 1998, and in the same year Belvoir’s theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Sydney and Perth). All these things are big and mostly far-from-mainstream events that wouldn’t be likely to happen outside a festival. In 2016 the equivalents are Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Woyzeck in Sydney (Robert Wilson is a co-creator), William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour in Perth and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and The James Plays Trilogy in Adelaide.

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Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, to be performed at the Sydney Festival. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The very small equally finds a festival footing. Leafing through some old programs I am reminded that in 2006 About an Hour, the powerfully affecting and effective (and very affordable) mini-festival within the Sydney Festival was deliciously devoted to contemporary dance from Australia and abroad, although there was one ring-in in the form of The Tiger Lillies, the anarchic British punk cabaret outfit who, as it happens, return to Sydney this year.

Events whack up against one another in fruitful or clashing combinations. There’s something about a festival that encourages viewers to take risks – risks our hometown arts organisations might perhaps eye a little enviously. But one has to remember that the festival material brought in from abroad comes to us well-honed, sometimes over years, and has survived the brutal winnowing process all new work goes through. So in some ways it’s not at all risky while having the potential to broaden the experience and perspective of viewers.

On a pragmatic level, this first-quarter cluster of festivals enables some sharing of events, although there are fewer double-ups than you might think. The cities are far-flung enough that only the truly dedicated audience member will travel to each, but are sufficiently in the same neck of the woods for an international artist wanting to maximise travel time. This year Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, The Tiger Lillies, theatre pieces The Object Lesson, The Events and Every Brilliant Thing, circus spectacular La Verità and new cabaret show Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid will be seen in more than one festival city. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! was seen in several (non-festival) Australian cities leading up to the Sydney appearances.

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The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Perth International Arts Festival. Photo: Martin Tulinius

A comparison of programs reveals some very tempting changes of repertoire in two cases. For instance, in Sydney The Tiger Lillies gives us The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies while Perth is treated to The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, a mind-boggling prospect. I don’t think I can get to it unfortunately, which is a huge, huge regret.

I will, though, move heaven, earth and frequent flyer points to get to Wellington for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch where, from March 17-20, the company performs a double bill of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring. Bausch’s Rite is considered one of the very best of the more than 100 (and counting) choreographies to one of the greatest of dance scores.

But before that, on March 9, the company performs the full-length Nelken (Carnations) in Adelaide. As a bonus, it offer the rare chance to see one of Australia’s most inspiring contemporary dancers, Paul White, who has been a member of the company since 2012. There are two other Australians with Pina Bausch – Julie Shanahan, a member since 1988, and Michael Carter, who joined last year.

An incomplete list of things I’d like to see, in no particular order:

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (Adelaide, Wellington)

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! (Sydney)

Alan Cumminh Sappy

Actor and singer Alan Cumming 

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sydney and Perth festivals; also Melbourne and Auckland)

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich and Vortex Temporum (Sydney)

Woyzeck (Sydney)

The Rabbits (Sydney; premiered in Perth in 2015)

The Tiger Lillies (Sydney, Perth)

The James Plays Trilogy (Adelaide)

Apocrifu, by Sidi Larbi Cherkoui

Every Brilliant Thing (Perth, Wellington)

Simon Stone and Belvoir’s The Wild Duck (Perth

Thrills and spills: the year in dance

We’ll get to the year’s most interesting work and dancers shortly but 2015 was also notable for offstage developments, particularly at Australia’s three leading classical companies, The Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet. So let’s begin there.

OFFSTAGE

The national company

At The Australian Ballet, David McAllister became the company’s longest-serving artistic director, surpassing Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign. McAllister took over in July 2001 after the relatively brief tenure of Ross Stretton, who cut his time at the AB short to go to the Royal Ballet in London. McAllister was named to the post while he was still dancing, although retirement followed swiftly. It was a huge leap of faith on the part of the AB board as he had had no leadership experience but it is now emphatically his company. Of the AB’s current roster of 68 dancers, only two were members of the company before 2001 and two joined in 2001.

In another big first, this year McAllister put himself forward to stage a new production of The Sleeping Beauty. He had previously staged only a handful of minor pieces. The production is thought to have cost about $2 million and in a dazzling feat of fundraising, about 70 per cent came from 2000 or so ballet-lovers giving sums ranging from $100 to $50,000 or more. Audiences flocked to it, several dancers in Sydney were given career-changing opportunities and despite reservations from some critics (including me) about some aspects of the production, it must be counted a significant success for McAllister and The Australian Ballet.

McAllister shows absolutely no sign of becoming jaded and it wouldn’t surprise one to see him celebrate his 20th anniversary in the job in 2021.

The state companies

Queensland Ballet was the real surprise package of the year from a backstage perspective, making the position of its high-profile CEO Anna Marsden redundant. The announcement was made on July 9 and was supposed to take effect from September 1 but Marsden was quickly out of the picture. On July 29 QB’s chair, Brett Clark, said in a statement the company would appoint an executive director, whose role would be to enable the vision of artistic director Li Cunxin and drive operations.  Dilshani Weerasinghe, previously the company’s development director, was announced as acting executive director but she was soon the board’s permanent choice.

I spoke at length to Clark in early December about the move, very shortly after the company’s announcement that the Queensland Government would give QB an extra $1.2 million annually (bringing its contribution to $2.7 million annually) to support an increase in dancer numbers (an additional eight by 2020), expansion of its headquarters, increased international touring and a greater number of performances. In 2016 QB will have 31 company members and seven young artists.

The announcement by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also contained news of a $5 million gift from the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End.

Clark said negotiations regarding both announcements had been “a long work in progress”. He said specific goals were for QB to be seen as a “powerhouse in the Asia-Pacific region” and to perform more frequently in regional Queensland. Touring to Sydney and Melbourne was not on the cards. “I think the AB services Sydney and Melbourne extremely well. They’re an amazing company.”

Clark declined to speak about the working relationship between Li and Marsden. He said, however, it had become “apparent that for us to get agreed goals and visions, it needed to be an artistic director-led strategy”. He said an executive director can have input into strategy and vision but the core role is to support the board and the company, “and in the case of Queensland Ballet, the artistic director on his or her vision for the company”. He also said that “Dilshani reports through Li to the board”.

Clark acknowledged Marsden’s role in QB’s rapid growth since Li became artistic director in 2011. He also said: “We needed Li’s vision and strategy leading the way forward.”

Clark would not discuss what went on behind the scenes but the implication is clear. Although Marsden was a key player in QB’s revival of fortunes following the departure of previous artistic director François Klaus, a structure in which both CEO and artistic director reported to the board created tension. The board chose Li.

I approached Marsden but she did not wish to comment.

West Australian Ballet will also be under new management next year following the announcement on December 14 that its CEO, Steven Roth, will be leaving in February to work with Scottish Ballet. Roth joined WAB in 2007 when the company had 19 very unhappy dancers who were agitating for the right to strike over their pay and conditions. (Their accommodation in His Majesty’s Theatre, where the company mainly performs, was limited to one studio and cramped production and administration space.) The dancers prevailed: the West Australian Government upped its funding and WAB now has 32 company members and eight young artists. One of the great achievements of Roth’s tenure can be seen in WAB’s gleaming State Ballet Centre in the Perth suburb of Maylands; another is the increase in the company’s operating revenue from $3.2 million in 2007 to $10 million in 2015.

Interestingly, Roth goes to Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet, the country’s national company, as executive director. That company already has a CEO – Christopher Hampson, who is also the company’s artistic director. He added CEO duties earlier this year after the sudden departure of chief executive Cindy Sughrue. In June Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported: “Scottish Ballet will now also begin a search for an executive director who will sit on the national company’s board and report to Hampson, with a remit for ‘clear focus on strategic vision and commercial success’.”

The Herald also reported Scottish Ballet’s chairman, Norman Murray, as saying “the board had undertaken a review of how the company was run, with aid from consultants, and believed it should be ‘artistically led’.”

ONSTAGE – CLASSICAL AND CONTEMPORARY

There are, I admit, a lot of gaps: no 2015 Melbourne Festival, no 2015 Adelaide Festival, no 2015 Dance Massive (Melbourne), although I had already seen one or two things on that program. I mention this because I travelled a fair bit in 2015 but not to everywhere or everything. My list doesn’t leave these things out because there was nothing of note, but because I wasn’t there. Adelaide would have been my big chance to see – at long last – Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet but that is now impossible. Cedar Lake’s financial backer closed the company not long after Adelaide. At Melbourne I could have caught up with the latest work from Batsheva, which I’ve seen regularly at Australian arts festivals, but no.

And a work that I reviewed reasonably strictly on first seeing it makes the list for its daring and its dancers. While I have issues with some of the dramaturgy in The Australian Ballet’s new Sleeping Beauty it is nevertheless a considerable achievement that provided three artists with role debuts that saw each immediately promoted to the next rank.

The productions are in the order in which I saw them and the performers in alphabetical order. The list is heavily skewed towards ballet because that’s the way the year panned out for me.

The best of the best? A Sleeping Beauty double: Alexei Ratmansky’s back-to-Petipa production for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala; and Benedicte Bemet’s dazzling debut as Aurora for The Australian Ballet.

PRODUCTIONS

Nothing to Lose, Force Majeure, Sydney Festival, January

Force Majeure founder Kate Champion has now moved on, leaving the company in new hands. Nothing to Lose, made with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, was a great farewell piece. It put the following propositions on stage: that fat people should not hide away, that they should be heard, that they are entitled to make choices, that they may actually like the way they are, and, by god, they can and will dance.

Puncture, Legs on the Wall, FORM Dance Projects, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Festival, January

Puncture started with “Hello” and ended with “I love you”. Is there anything more life-affirming? Six couples collided, grappled, touched, fought, flew, supported, changed partners, argued and loved. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evoked the formalities of Elizabethan court dance, the uniformity of line dancing, the romance of the waltz, the zing of the tango, the group spirit of folk and much more, but ultimately the dance was about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, Perth International Arts Festival, February

In this seemingly carefree work Morris offered principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women were equal, each was an individual, there was strength to be gained from one another and there was belief in the power of love and joy.

Quintett, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, March

The first cast was more balletic, the second more ferocious in this thrilling, heart-catching William Forsythe work. Not many companies are allowed to do it; Sydney Dance Company did it proud.

Sydney Dance Company's Quintett featuring Chloe Leong and David Mack 1. Photo by Peter Greig

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

The Sleeping Beauty, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Alexei Ratmansky’s production took us as nearly as possible back to what the original 1890 audience would have seen: super-lavish setting, strong mime and many intimate, modest details. The physicality looked startlingly different. Instead of height and bravura there was refinement and great charm. For both men and women there was a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkled. It was as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and much more intricate and sophisticated.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Auckland, September

What a gorgeous production! Designed by New Zealander Tracy Grant Lord and choreographed by hotter-than-hot Brit Liam Scarlett, this co-pro between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet was funny, sexy and ravishing to behold. Brisbane sees it in April.

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

Hayley Dennison in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The Sleeping Beauty, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne and Sydney, September and December

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drank deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, was almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revelled in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There were columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that threw out a huge challenge to David McAllister: match this if you can, buddy. Well, he asked for it. There have been a few rumblings about the design being oppressively opulent but this greatest of ballet scores can bear the weight. It invites and deserves a magnificent mise en scène. It also requires storytelling that can fill the space and amplify the music. It’s in the latter sphere that Beauty doesn’t fully succeed despite the involvement of Lucas Jervies, a choreographer and director working as McAllister’s sounding board and adviser. It was extremely cheering, though, to see many very fine performances through the ranks and exciting role debuts (see below).

Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, November

It was a joy to see Ochres revived at Carriageworks with a dynamic new generation of dancers. Not that it was exactly the work originally choreographed by Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene, nor should it be. Dance texts are particularly susceptible to change and Bangarra has developed greatly since the early 1990s. This revival was in the spirit of the original rather than a faithful dusting off of the old steps. The company called it a re-imagining and it looked wonderful. Bangarra has a unique aesthetic based on the connection with Indigenous ceremony and the land. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and invigorating.

Cinderella, choreographed by Jayne Smeulders, West Australian Ballet, Perth, December

How many full-length, mainstage classical ballets choreographed by women were there on Australian stages this year? Just the one I think, Jayne Smeulders’s Cinderella. She reworked her 2011 production to advantage and scored a huge hit with Perth audiences. See: it can be done.

Coppélia, choreographed by Maina Gielgud for Christine Walsh’s Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Melbourne, December

There was quite a lot of new choreography and loads of rearranging but basically Gielgud’s production was a staging rather than a new work. But what a beauty. It was hard to believe this was a student production, so high were its standards. The young dancers were not just technically assured, they gave terrifically engaged and engaging performances, working seamlessly with the delightful guest artists from Tokyo Ballet, Maria Kawatani and Arata Miyagawa. Christine Walsh designed the many costumes, all of them splendid.

PERFORMANCES

Stella Abrera, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Abrera’s warmth and simplicity informed every moment of her performance; there wasn’t a thing that didn’t feel genuine. The mad scene tore at the heart. As she loses her reason Giselle re-enacts the plucking of flower petals, which earlier had quieted her anxiety about Albrecht – he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. Now there was no anticipation or light. Abrera shook her head piteously. He doesn’t love me. (Abrera was at that time an ABT soloist; she was promoted to principal – very belatedly in the opinion of many – at the end of June.)

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Veronica Part, Stella Abrera and Vladimir Shklyarov in Giselle. Photo: MIRA

Benedicte Bemet, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December

Quite simply one of the most exciting nights in the theatre, ever. Bemet, just 21, had the dew and radiance of youth, purity and joy in her dancing and was beyond fearless. You know how you almost always get butterflies when Aurora nears those balances and promenades in the Rose Adagio? Not so here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were extraordinary, the crowd went wild, and Bemet just went from strength to strength. She went on as a coryphée and shortly afterwards was promoted to soloist. To be honest, it wouldn’t have surprised me if David McAllister had bounded on to the stage to make her a principal artist on the spot. But she has plenty of time for that.

Brett Chynoweth, Puck in The Dream, debut as Prince Désiré, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, May and December

Chynoweth is one of The Australian Ballet’s finest male technicians – he is fast, sleek, has fabulous feet and exciting elevation. This, however, is not what makes him so interesting. He is a passionate, poetic man who connects deeply with his roles and therefore with the audience. As Désiré his longing for love was palpable, and earlier in the year his Puck was a marvel of pyrotechnics and other-worldly humour. He is now, rightfully, a senior artist.

Chynoweth Boud

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Alina Cojocaru, Aurora, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, October

She radiated light and joy from a tiny body that gave the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing was brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything felt as if it were the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all was her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompassed the entire theatre.

Thaji Dias, Dancing for the Gods, Chitrasena Dance Company, Sydney Festival, January

I got my first, and so far only, view of Thaji Dias during this year’s Sydney Festival. She is a ravishing artist, dancing in the Kandyan style from Sri Lanka with megawatts of charisma. The dance was dramatic and seductive and Dias’s command of it exhilarating with her divinely articulated wrists, rippling shoulders, jaunty strides, the deepest and plushest plies and the liveliest eyes.

Sylvie Guillem, Life in Progress, Sydney, August

At 50 Guillem left the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that showed her as a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. She was known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art. But that was then. Her farewell program celebrated Guillem in the here and now, with new and recent work.

Robyn Hendricks, debut in Symphonic Variations, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April and December

Hendricks is something of a late bloomer but no less valuable for that. Her willowy body gives her a regal air and she also seems a little unknowable, qualities that of course make one intensely aware of her. She looked serenely beautiful in the first cast of Symphonic Variations; as Aurora she was a queen in the making: watchful, elegant, sophisticated and lusciously aware of her suitors. She was promoted to senior artist immediately after her debut.

The Dream - Symphonic Variations

Aka Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

Xavier Le Roy, Self Untitled, Carriageworks, Sydney, November

Xavier Le Roy’s 1998 solo Self Unfinished had particular resonance at the time of viewing, days after the terrorist attacks on Paris, summoning thoughts of the fragility of life, the resilience of the human spirit, the truth that we exist only at this moment, right now, and that we are all in it together. He didn’t make a big thing of it, but Le Roy’s piece had a strong sense of erasing the invisible barrier between audience and performer. He intrigued, delighted and provoked during a performance of quite intimacy.

Natalia Osipova/Steven McRae, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Osipova’s Giselle had London aflame last year and this year had the New York audience entranced and exhilarated. She tore through the ballet with a passion, leaping higher, turning more quickly and covering ground more voraciously than any other. Osipova is a risk-taking dancer. She fell heavily towards the end of her final solo and took several agonising seconds to recover enough to stand. She limped back to the centre and resumed dancing, finishing the ballet not only courageously but with melting beauty. The clarity and complexity of McRae’s acting was wonderful. He gave not just the broad picture but made every moment vivid, fresh, illuminating and dramatically coherent. His dancing, it goes without saying, was full of brilliance without being bombastic. But there was no more riveting moment than one of complete stillness, when Albrecht heard the distant horns of the Royal hunting party and understood the chaos to come.

CHOREOGRAPHY

Kristina Chan, Conform, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, December

“I am interested in what it means to be a man in this modern day,” Chan wrote in the program note to Conform, part of the annual New Breed program. She has a sombre view. When we first saw her men – there was an all-male cast of eight – they visibly buckled under the weight of expectation. They were either desperately alone with their thoughts or they fell in with the majority, losing individuality but absorbing the power of the pack. Conform was beautifully structured, vibrated with repressed emotion and had a very strong, pulsating and often ominous score by James Brown. It should be a keeper.

Justin Peck, Rōdē,ō, New York City Ballet, May

We haven’t seen a step of Peck’s in Australia as far as I know and it’s about time someone did something about it. His Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes, to the music of Aaron Copland, is wondrous. (Don’t ask me about the odd accents in the title; perhaps Peck wanted to differentiate it from Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo, to this music.) A piece for 15 men and one fabulous woman, it surprises, invigorates and enchants at every turn. Peck, still dancing as a soloist with New York City Ballet, has the magic touch. This apparently abstract ballet is packed with ideas, relationships and really zingy choreography. NYCB probably doesn’t want to let it go just yet because it premiered only in February this year, but can someone please beg?

In which I fail to stop my list at 10

THIS year I saw more than 200 performances and, over the past week or so, have written about the people, plays, operas, dance works and musicals that spoke to me most strongly. Now I cull the list to 14 – just because that’s how it turned out – and a supplementary, the last being something I haven’t previously mentioned.

There’s also the one that got away. And one that almost got away.

What struck me most about 2014 was how unlike 2013 it was. Last year there were plenty of kapow! events on stage – among them Opera Australia’s Ring cycle, Belvoir’s Angels in America, The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, Melbourne Festival’s Life and Times from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, the Berliner Ensemble at the Perth Festival with The Threepenny Opera, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle in Sydney – while this year the pleasures tended to be on a smaller scale.

But while there may have been a shortage of big-bang events there were movements afoot of great moment, chief among them more visibility for women playwrights and directors and more indigenous and queer stories taken out of little theatres and put into big ones. These movements didn’t magically appear this year but they did get traction and the texture of our theatre is more interesting and relevant because of them.

My earlier lists were presented in alphabetical order. Not here. I start at the top and work down, although I know that tomorrow I’d probably shuffle a few things around. The non-traditional number can be put down to the multi-art form nature of the list.

MY TOP 14 AND A FEW RING-INS

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Declan Greene, directed by Lee Lewis), Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

Madama Butterfly (Puccini, directed by Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus), Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck, directed by Lindy Hume), Pinchgut Opera

Trisha Brown: From All Angles (Trisha Brown), Melbourne Festival

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, directed by Tim Carroll), Shakespeare’s Globe, New York

Three Masterpieces (Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins), American Ballet Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, directed by John Tiffany, movement by Steven Hoggett), American Repertory Theater, New York

King Charles III (Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold), Almeida Theatre, London

Henry V (Shakespeare, directed by Damien Ryan), Bell Shakespeare Company, Canberra

Pete the Sheep (adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the book by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, directed by Jonathan Biggins, composer/lyricist Phil Scott), Monkey Baa Theatre

A Christmas Carol (adapted by Benedict Hardie & Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Sarks), Belvoir

The Drowsy Chaperone (music by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, lyrics by Bob Martin & Don McKellar, directed by Jay James-Moody), Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co

Switzerland (Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Sarah Goodes), Sydney Theatre Company

Keep Everything (Antony Hamilton), Chunky Move

The supplementary event:

Limbo (Strut & Fret, Underbelly Productions), Sydney Festival. This circus-cabaret didn’t fit into any of my categories so it bobs up from out of left field, which is entirely appropriate for such an outrageously sexy, something-for-everyone show. It was one of the most wildly enjoyable experiences of my quite lengthy viewing career so I went twice during the 2014 Sydney Festival and I’m going again – possibly twice – when Limbo returns to the festival next month.

The one that got away:

Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare, directed by Ivo van Hove) Adelaide Festival. Now this would have been the year’s biggie, had I been able to get to Adelaide. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon performance of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was by all reports life-changing. I believe it, and missing it will remain one of the great regrets of my theatre-going life.

The one that almost got away:

Skylight (David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry). My London trip ended a day before previews started for Skylight, Hare’s ravishing play in which the political becomes very personal indeed. It was written nearly 20 years ago and its arguments resound ever more loudly today. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were starring. Desolation. Until National Theatre Live came to the rescue in October. Bliss.

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.

Oedipus Schmoedipus

Belvoir, January 15

FOR each performance of the utterly baffling theatre work that is Oedipus Schmoedipus, two dozen volunteers are recruited to perform in the piece. As it turns out they are responsible for a good half of the action, so that was a pretty good wheeze on the part of creators Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and Natalie Rose, the trio that calls itself Post – or post, with a lower case p, for reasons unclear to me.

The heavy workload of the volunteers gives Coombs Marr and Grigor, who also appear, an early mark. They don’t even reappear for the curtain call, which one could charitably construe as honouring those who have done the heavy lifting, or uncharitably construe as letting others take the blame for this puerile piece of nonsense.

The show starts with Coombs Marr and Grigor enacting ever more gory deaths. Despite all the chatter about how gruesome the opening is, I thought it a tough, promising start to a show purporting to delve into the subject of death and theatre. But the promised examination of the nature of death, what we may think it is, how we deal with it, what theatre has say about it and anything else that may have been of value remain resolutely unexamined. Gotcha!

Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and volunteers in Oedipus Schmoedipus. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and volunteers in Oedipus Schmoedipus. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

The thing is that Oedipus Schmoedipus is essentially a memento mori, a reminder of the quality all living things share, their inevitable end. Here’s what I reckon. Would it not have been a lot less trouble to simply ask patrons to gather in the Belvoir bar and have the volunteers to walk around the foyer whispering “Remember you must die” to people? That would save an awful lot of rehearsal time and make something for Belvoir at the bar to boot. Obviously you’d have to charge much less for the tickets (the full price is $68) but then you’d save on the cost of opening the upstairs theatre.

You’d also save having to bring in three stage managers to spend between five and seven minutes of the 65-minutes of Oedipus Schmoedipus cleaning a lot of fake blood from the floor. Not the most valuable use of theatre time or patrons’ money I’ve seen, and just a wee bit cynical on the part of the creators.

After the break for cleaning, the piece descends into an extended and extremely superficial skit that glibly references the theatrical canon, indulges in laborious word play and requires the volunteers to expose themselves in silly costumes and silly dances. The Caspar the Friendly Ghost bedsheets with eye-holes thing near the end is truly, bottom-clenchingly dire.

These lovely, willing people manage to emerge with some dignity despite all and yes, it’s touching when volunteers volunteer that they are going to die. It’s just not news.

Oedipus Schmoedipus is hokum. It’s very, very hard to see how it won a prized place on the Belvoir Upstairs program, and as part of the Sydney Festival to boot.

Baffling.

Oedipus Schmoedipus ends February 2.