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.

It’s a wrap

Trisha Brown Dance Company

Trisha Brown Dance Company. From All Angles: Pure Movement Program 1, October 23; Early Works, October 26 (afternoon); Pure Movement Program 2, October 26 (evening)

Chunky Move, Complexity of Belonging, October 9

Heiner Goebbels, When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing, October 26 (afternoon)

The Trouble with Harry, October 23 (afternoon)

TRISHA Brown’s dance-making is deeply concerned with the physics and geometry of the body and its relation to the space in which it moves, is intellectually rigorous and highly technical. Her purpose is not to mimic or evoke emotional states. And yet there is one quality above all that animates the work: intense, soul-filling joy.

A selection of Early Works – mostly from the 1970s, most performed in silence – held an audience spellbound on a beautiful Melbourne afternoon as the Brown company did balancing things with lengths of wood (various Sticks pieces), used one another as counterweights (Leaning Duets), were arranged and rearranged around the space without missing a beat (Group Primary with Movers) and, with a complete lack of showiness, revealed the virtuosity in the apparently simple (Accumulation, Spanish Dance). The dancers, who wore plain white trousers and tops, were barefoot, warm, sweet, composed and serene. The program lasted only an hour but time seemed to be suspended. It was an unforgettable, radiant experience that took us to the bedrock of Brown’s art.

An archival image of Spanish Dance. Photo: Babette Mangolte

An archival image of Spanish Dance. Photo: Babette Mangolte

The two Pure Movement programs, staged in Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse, covered work from the 1970s to 2011. The wide range is deliberate, as TBDC is part way through an international celebration of Brown’s career and influence: the choreographer, who turns 78 shortly, announced her retirement about two years ago. While there are no narrative influences in the work, a key ingredient is the sensuality and sumptuousness of the body in motion and stasis, even in a work as muscular, angular, sculptural and stern as Newark (Niweweorce) (1987) – the only piece to appear on both programs. Presumably for practical reasons to do with international touring Donald Judd’s backdrops for Newark were not seen, although Robert Rauschenberg’s diaphanous set for Set and Reset came along for the ride (Brown really did mix it with the greats of contemporary art). When Newark was performed in New York early last year the drops were described in The New York Times as “rising and falling at different depths of the stage and so redefining the space, each in a single different primary color”. I was sorry not to experience this aspect of the piece.

I was more sorry, though, not to see Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981) twice or, indeed, on a continuous loop. It was on the first program and was a swirl of impulses and connections as four women and two men grouped, regrouped or went their own ways to music from Robert Ashley’s opera Atalanta. The complexities and incremental changes were mesmerising, as were repeated details such as Jamie Scott draping herself briefly across Olsi Gjeci’s back, or the two of them holding hands for just a moment. Scott, by the way, proved herself the heroine of the season by being quietly charismatic in everything she did: the solo If you couldn’t see me (1994) in which she never faces the audience; the glorious solo Accumulation (1971), in which gestures and movements build one upon the other until the body is fully and gorgeously engaged while the feet never leave the ground; as the instigator of Spanish Dance, a sexy quintet for women to the sound of Bob Dylan; and in just about everything else.

On a local note, it was splendid to see Rogues (2011), a duet made for and with Australian dancer and choreographer Lee Serle and TBDC dancer Neal Beasley, who was also outstanding in a variety of works. Brown was a Rolex mentor to Serle, who is now back home. He (tall) and Beasley (short) danced side by side, constantly in motion and constantly in sync with each other’s presence.

I had not seen Brown’s work in the flesh although have seen much that’s influenced by her, unfortunately often in a too-dry, overly introspective way. The juiciness of Brown’s dance and her dancers is a delight, as is the sense of connection with the audience, even in a conventional theatre setting. Brown’s retirement means her company is in the process of defining how her pioneering work will be preserved, a situation the companies of Merce Cunningham (seemingly successfully), Martha Graham (disastrously) and other ground-breakers have faced. This is a delicate matter for TBDC but it brought Melbourne Festival audiences a great boon.

The Brown retrospective ended the Melbourne Festival. First up in early October was Complexity of Belonging, a large-scale dance-theatre work from Chunky Move. It was fascinating and somewhat depresseing to see how Complexity of Belonging side-stepped the promise of its title to offer something rather shallow. Talk about first-world problems.

Chunky Move's Complexity of Belonging

Chunky Move’s Complexity of Belonging

The co-creators, Chunky Move artistic director Anouk Van Dijk and Falk Richter, director in residence at Berlin’s Schaubuhne, have worked together on four earlier projects, one of which was Trust, seen at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2011. It too was about a first-world problem, but one of great resonance. As I wrote at the time, “Made in 2009, Trust was born among the ruins of international finance and sees in that collapse a crisis at the individual level. The lack of honesty and transparency in big business is mirrored in personal relationships: mistrust is rife.” In this work movement emerged powerfully and persuasively as being as relevant to the thesis as the text. This was not the case with Complexity of Belonging, where it felt added on.

The wide Sumner stage at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre, home to Melbourne Theatre Company, was dominated by a huge cyclorama with a photographic image of open sky and low-lying land (Robert Cousins designed the set). The Australian Outback, one imagines, even though Complexity of Belonging was quickly established as being entirely urban in nature, dealing with a set of well-off, articulate city-dwellers.

The program noted only that the image, Big Sky, was by Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu, whose website describes him as a London-based “architect and motion designer”. Intriguingly, all the early online results that come up with his name relate to a project he carried out in Australia a few years ago called GravityONE: A choreography for militarised airspace. Lugojan-Ghenciu calls it an architectural work and an animation, and the description for it starts this way: “The remote territories of the Australian Never Never are anything but empty. The history of these landscapes is one of nuclear testing, rocket launches and black military technologies.”

Complexity of Belonging went nowhere near such dark thoughts. Here the big sky was just a big sky. It was instantly legible shorthand for the vast, empty Australian interior and stood as a metaphor for the feelings of separation, loneliness and otherness expressed by the decidedly metropolitan characters. Except that it felt like an Australia viewed through a decidedly European lens that sees this place and its people as exotic, in a superficial way. You know, “Australia, it’s so far away.” Well, not if you live here.

Van Dijk and Richter write of their collaborations that the concept begins “from the same central question: what do we currently observe happening in our own relationships and in the broader social context?” In Complexity of Belonging the social context wasn’t at all broad. There was some talk about gay marriage not being legal in Australia, some observations about race (relatively mild), an unpleasant reference to the recent Malaysian Airlines disaster (the one in our hemisphere), digs at our “no worries, howya goin’” discourse, and a sentimental co-option of Aboriginal thought regarding the nature of time.

At 90 minutes Complexity of Belonging was overlong, but more pertinently I found it tedious. The Brisbane Festival is a co-presenter, so I assume it will be restaged there and potentially elsewhere. Will there be some rethinking? I do hope so.

My other Melbourne Festival events (this year the tally was shamefully low, but you can’t do everything) were Heiner Goebbels’s When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing and the new Lachlan Philpott drama The Trouble with Harry.

When the Mountain is monumental music-theatre in construction and intent, but fell short for me in practice. The 39 girls and young women of Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica were wondrous performers, singing complex music from a wide range of traditions while enacting rituals of discovery and growth. The score included Schonberg, Brahms, classical Indian (extraordinary), contemporary and central European vocal music; the text was taken from writings of, among others, Marina Abramovic, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ian McEwan. It was certainly eclectic.

I admired the concept and the skill greatly. The young women’s poise and virtuosity were a delight. But admiration failed to blossom into whole-hearted immersion in the performance. While spoken texts were delivered in English, song texts were not made available – a great lack, given the centrality of the music. I felt there was a huge part of the performance denied me.

Lachlan Philpott’s The Trouble with Harry has been given a deeply absorbing premiere by MKA: Theatre of New Writing. It is a multilayered affair – a slice of Sydney history; a true-crime story; an elegy for an unconventional relationship hiding in plain sight within conventional society; and a pungent evocation of early 20th-century working-class life. Most of all it is a humane reclamation of Harry Crawford’s story. The closing images are heart-breaking.

Crawford (Maude Davey), born Eugenia Falleni, lived for many years as a married man and was convicted of the murder of his wife Annie (Caroline Lee). Naturally the trial was a sensation but Philpott’s interest lies far from there. He rescues Harry from the one-note notoriety and gives him a complex individuality. The robust poeticism of Philpott’s writing, matched by Alyson Campbell’s fluid direction, gives The Trouble with Harry a slightly hallucinatory quality, as does the decision to relay the sound to the audience via individual headsets. The effect is simultaneously highly personal and other-worldly.

The wonderful cast of six is completed by Elizabeth Nabben as Harry’s daughter Josephine; Daniel Last as Annie’s son, also named Harry; and Emma Palmer and Dion Mills as narrators and other characters. Very much recommended.

The Trouble with Harry continues at Northcote Town Hall until October 9.