My year in dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About last week … March 10-17

I STARTED this blog in January 2013, not long after retiring from a 25-year career at The Australian spent largely in the arts, writing, editing and reviewing. I’d been writing and reviewing for quite a while before that, and while the work wasn’t quite so intensive in the early days, I did see a lot of shows and developed an appetite that was never sated, not ever. And that’s still the case – I see more than 200 a year across all art forms. It’s a tough addiction to break.

When I was arts editor of The Australian I knew that most of our readers would never be able to see the shows written about. The writing had to be their window into the play, dance or opera. They would know something of what was happening in the cultural life of the country and, I hoped, get some sense of what it was like to be in the auditorium. The writing also added to the mosaic of information about Australian performing artists that helps create a history.

In a small way my blog continues that work. What it doesn’t do is offer a review of everything I see, for various reasons including time; a short run; a disinclination to write a great deal about a small-scale unsuccessful show that doesn’t deserve to get a walloping of the kind one metes out to major theatre companies or big-time commercial producers; a feeling that there’s not a lot more to add to the general discussion; and so on.

Nevertheless, I like to make notes about everything. They’re a necessity in my role as a member of the Sydney Theatre Awards judging panel, as national dance critic for The Australian, as Sydney correspondent for the London-based Opera magazine and, well, just because.

I’ve decided to write briefly about things I haven’t covered in detail in a column I’ll call About last week … I’m starting with March 10 because there are one or two things from the Adelaide and New Zealand festivals I’d like to praise. After this I’ll do a catch-up as regularly as there are interesting things to note.

I hope you find a nugget or two.

March 10-17, 2016

There’s nothing more invigorating at a festival than a three-show day. At Adelaide on March 10 I was able to see The Young King, by Adelaide’s Slingsby; Body of Work, a solo dance piece by 2014 Keir Choreographic Award winner Atlanta Eke; and Martin Crimp’s creepy psychological thriller The Country from Stone/Castro, a local company that works internationally. The Young King, which I saw with a schools audience, was the pick for me.

Tim Overton in The Young King. Photo: Andy Ellis

Tim Overton in The Young King. Photo: Andy Ellis

Slingsby retold the Oscar Wilde story with deceptively simple theatrics and warm, easy engagement with young viewers. I very much liked Crimp’s three-hander play The City when Sydney Theatre Company staged it in 2009, directed by Benedict Andrews with a stunning design by Ralph Myers. The Country, also a three-hander, is a similarly claustrophobic chamber piece in which the ground constantly shifts and people are not entirely what they seem. But perhaps because I’d seen The City, The Country didn’t resonate all that greatly. Not very nice people doing devious things in a coldly stylish manner: yeah, well. I was disappointed with Body of Work, in which Eke did various things – smeared her face, expelled blue liquid from her mouth, put on very high-heeled boots and then took them off – while her image was multiplied, distorted and seen on large screens. There was a cool atmosphere of disconnection and skewed reality that couldn’t sustain interest for the work’s 40-minute length.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch was, rightly, a huge Adelaide Festival drawcard with Nelken, which I wrote about recently, but even more enticing was the program the company offered at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington. Café Müller and The Rite of Spring (March 17). They are early works (1978, 1975) now usually seen together, which is wonderful, as they are two of the most loved and admired pieces in the Bausch repertoire. The company has made a handful of trips to Australia, including to Jim Sharman’s 1982  Adelaide Festival (the company performed three works, including another of the greats, Kontakthof). The program for that year’s event quoted Bausch thus: “I have only seen human relationships or I have tried to see them and talk about them. That’s what I am interested in. I don’t know anything more important.” And she said in relation in to Kontakthof (made in 1978) that it was about “all the things we do to make people like us”.

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

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

There’s a strong element of that very human – heartbreakingly human – impulse in Café Müller too as six souls flail around seeking connection in a near-empty restaurant. The evocation of loneliness is profound, as is the imperative to go on. It’s an emotionally wrenching piece – tender, hungry, forlorn and mysterious all at once. Rite, like its music, has a savage and implacable beauty. On a floor covered with peat, 14 women in white shifts and 15 bare-chested men in black trousers enact the cathartic process of choosing one to be sacrificed. There is one splash of colour – the red garment that will be worn by the Chosen One as she approaches her death. It is impossible to look away from the ferocious, gut-wrenching, wheeling and tumbling action, so viscerally thrilling but terrifying in its import. The men and women are by turns alien to each other and joined in the desperate collective need for release through the death of one of their number. As the dance progresses the earth attaches itself to the women’s shifts and men’s glistening chests as if claiming them.

Bausch died in 2009 but the company continues to perform her works magnificently. Long may that continue, although inevitably there will be a time when there are no dancers left who worked directly with her. How Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch manages that transition will affect the fate of an extraordinary body of work. That is a huge issue in contemporary dance, being faced in very different ways by those handling the legacies of late 20th century greats including Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Tricia Brown. At 85, Paul Taylor has generously augmented his Paul Taylor Dance Company with Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance so he can present other choreographers – incidentally including, last year, the Shen Wei Dance Arts version of Rite of Spring, a very different reading from that of Bausch, performed to the terrific four-hand piano version recorded by Fazil Say. It’s durable, too. Shen Wei choreographed it in 2003, it was performed at the Sydney Festival in 2005 and is still a part of the company’s touring repertory.

But I digress. It’s still early(ish) in the year but I suspect that when I look back over 2016, Café Müller and The Rite of Spring will be the works I most cherish. Bless New Zealand Festival.

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