Review: Your Skin My Skin (NAISDA Dance College)

naisdaVenue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Dec 10 – 13, 2014
Director: Frances Rings
Image from Twitter @theNCIE

Theatre review
Identity is a subject that features in any art education, but for students at NAISDA Dance College, Aboriginality is a central tenet that guides their learning experience in dance and performance. Also known as the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Association (40 years old this year), NAISDA’s end of year showcase for 2014 is entitled Your Skin My Skin. The program represents a gamut of dance styles, but the topic of race is never far behind. A series of sensitively curated items are linked by cultural dance and music under the leadership of tutors Heather Mitijangba and Tony Mudalyun, and musicians Shane Dhawa and Timothy Djirrmurmur. Regardless of how individual dance pieces come about, we are reminded that heritage is part of their creation, and the land that our feet rest upon is crucial to the expressions on stage.

The event commences with Rika’s Story, choreographed by the nine performers of the piece with Shaun Parker at the helm. The piece provides the perfect introduction to the college and the evening, with graduating student Rika Hamaguchi’s confident verbal narration giving insight into the group’s thoughts about study experiences and her feelings at this significant time as she embarks on a new chapter in life. Through Hamaguchi’s words, we gain an understanding of the meaning and origins of the movements being displayed, as well as the psychology behind them. Also graduating are Hans Ahwang, Czack Ses Bero, Casey Natty, Kyle Shilling and Philip Walford, who have all completed NAISDA’s four-year Diploma of Professional Dance Performance.

Shilling presents the only solo piece of the schedule. Justice? is a meditation on Aboriginal deaths in custody, with impressive choreography and music created by the student. His work is intensely emotional and energetic, and he demonstrates surprising maturity and gravity. Also memorable is Natty, who shows excellent focus and a solid presence in his various appearances. The athletic dancer executes choreography with precision and flair, and like all of the graduating class, rich with potential and promise. The young men’s performance in Grinding Stone by Frances Rings (an excerpt from Bangarra Dance Theatre’s artefact) is a highlight, bringing poignancy and depth to their mysterious dance.

Aside from the passionate achievements of NAISDA’s students, Your Skin My Skin is successful also for its excellent aesthetic values and accomplished technical capacities. The show runs smoothly with beautiful transitions, and atmosphere is always gauged just right. Music and sound might be second fiddle, but they are as delightful as the dance imagery occupying centre stage. NAISDA’s night of nights is a celebration of the year’s work by its fabulous staff and students, and an annual performance with heart and soul that dance enthusiasts will certainly enjoy.

Review: Stones In Her Mouth (Mau)

stonesinhermouthVenue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), May 28 – 31, 2014
Choreography: Lemi Ponifasio
Director: Lemi Ponifasio

Theatre review
There are many juxtapositions in Lemi Ponifasio’s Stones In Her Mouth. The company’s ten performers are all women, interpreting a male director’s vision. The setting is ultra-modern, but much of the content feels firmly rooted in tradition. The women sing songs that seem to be from a folk practice, but their recorded accompaniment is evocative of a futuristic space age soundscape. Imagery is expressed almost entirely in black and white. The deep contrasts are in a constant state of negotiation, searching for harmony and moments of lucidity. The show is often about struggle, but the quality of performance is never in strife. The Mau company is flawless, and the proficiency at which their art is practiced, is staggering.

It is not an exaggeration to say that watching these women in action is awe-inspiring. There is a sense of shamanistic ecstasy to this work. Their voices and physicality are thoroughly honed, to a degree that would be astonishing for any audience. The cohesion and consonance in the ensemble, along with the level of focus they achieve as individuals, play almost like a miracle, unfathomable yet irrefutably real. Their connection with us is a spiritual one, because their language is ritualistic, and their states of trance move us and envelope us so that we too feel a part of the divine.

Stones In Her Mouth is also political. The show begins with the cast in darkness. We hear them but we cannot see them. A bright white light shines instead at us, transfixed in our seats, so that we become the object of fetish, and they in turn dictate the terms at which they are to be viewed. The work makes few explicit statements, but it is impossible to doubt the social significance of gender, ethnicity and colonial imperialism, implicative in each gesture and utterance. Our position as viewer shifts between the arraigned, the aggressor, and ally. The women portray complexity, but they are invariably powerful and dignified.

Ponifasio’s creation is breathtaking and transcendental. His art moves us by virtue of its very presence, and it is in the unique shaping of that presence with his masterful manipulation of time and space, that Ponifasio presents his exceptional artistry. |

Review: Chroma (The Australian Ballet)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Apr 30 – May 17, 2014
Choreographers: Wayne McGregor (CHROMA), Stephen Baynes (ART TO SKY), Jiří Kylián (PETITE MORT and SECH TÄNZE)
Image by Jess Bialek

Theatre review
The programme begins with Wayne McGregor’s 2006 work, Chroma. Set against the powerful and aggressive music of Joby Talbot and Jack White III, this very modern ballet is instantaneously captivating. Its exquisite set is designed by John Pawson, evoking sensibilities proffered by the minimalist art movement. Covered in white and with its corners rounded off, the stage glows with a warm and quiet spirituality that finds a strange harmony with the vigorous soundscape conducted by Nicolette Fraillon. The dance creates a new grammar based on the balletic form. It is characterised by a dynamic desire for freedom, and it seeks in movement, the expression of all that is beautiful, emotive, and sublime. Inspired by a concept of nothingness, what transpires is a process of distillation with an outcome that displays honesty and necessity. The dance is fresh and new, but it is at no point hollow. There is an originality in its shapes and tempo that seems completely natural, even though it intends to break new aesthetic ground. McGregor’s earth shattering creation is a true work of art, but more than that, its deeply transcendent quality affects us as though it is by nature, sacred.

Stephen Baynes’ new piece Art To Sky is considerably more traditional. It is impressively technical, and the dancers’ athleticism is wonderfully pronounced here. The most well rehearsed and precisely performed work of the night, it showcases the company in glorious light. Chengwu Guo’s solo sequence is remarkably powerful, executed with great flair and exactness. An exceptionally tender pas de deux featuring Madeleine Eastoe and Andrew Killian is touching in its passionate fluidity, and sensitively embellished by the talents of lighting designer Rachel Burke.

Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián is featured twice. His Petite Mort (1991) is as sensual as the title suggests, but also unpredictable. Surprising movements, coupled with unconventional combinations of the dancers’ bodies make for startling and breathtaking beauty. There is however, a lack of depth with its realisation on this stage. The performers require a more thorough engagement with the work to muster a greater range of subtleties to exalt more life. Kylián’s Sechs Tänze (1986) is a delightful and theatrical creation that is equal parts camp humour and extraordinary choreographic innovation. It is engaging, provocative and endlessly fascinating, and the dancing seems to be particularly enthusiastic for this section. This morsel of genius is undeniably the perfect choice for closing the show on a high note.

Review: Manon (The Australian Ballet)

ausballetVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Apr 3 – 23, 2014
Choreographer: Sir Kenneth MacMillan
Dancers: Madeleine Eastoe, Wim Vanlessen, Matthew Donnelly, Brett, Chynoweth, Dana Stephensen

Theatre review
With its extravagant production of Manon, The Australian Ballet once again brings ethereal beauty to life. Originally a novel from the 18th century, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s work from 1974 is revived for contemporary audiences with generous measures of drama and humour that ensure broad appeal. The story interweaves romance with deception, murder and debauchery, resulting in a show that is full of entertainment, while providing extraordinary aesthetic pleasure.

Madeleine Eastoe is a delicate Manon. She anchors the show with a charming confidence, and her energetic execution of choreography delivers a characterisation that is endearing and precise. Eastoe’s captivating depiction of Manon’s journey is crystal clear, and her final moments are moving in their palpability.

Dana Stephensen is memorable as Lescaut’s mistress, with a striking vivacity that connects well with the audience. She plays up the comical elements of her role with subtlety, and attacks her dance with an alluring dynamism that is often breathtaking. Brett Chynoweth as Lescaut impresses and steals the show in Act 2 with sequences portraying his drunkenness. Chynoweth’s performance of the stunning choreography is highly amusing, but also technically powerful.

Manon‘s design elements are magnificent. Peter Farmer’s costume and set design are lavish and imaginative. It is an immense treat to have a fantasy world materialise before one’s eyes. Farmer’s six different sets are not just heavenly backdrops, and his costumes are not merely pretty adornment. We marvel at his genius, and lose ourselves in the sublime world he has created.

On display in Manon are artists of supreme talent and ability, almost not of this world. Their work lifts us out of our mundane realities, and takes us to a place far, far away.

Review: The Embroidery Girl (China Wuxi Performing Arts Group)

embroiderygirl2Venue: State Theatre (Sydney NSW), Feb 18 – 19, 2014
Choreographer: Zhang Jiwen
Music: Zou Hang
Dancers: Zhang Yashu, Tang Chenglong, Liu Xin, Mi Xia

Theatre review
The Embroidery Girl is a balletic work that encompasses traditional Chinese forms of performance, along with a narrative based on a fable set at the end of the Qing dynasty in the 1910s. While its basic premise is a tragic love story, there is a pervasive and fundamental theme of freedom that provides a solemn resonance that grounds the production. The work does not consciously present itself as a Westernised theatrical form. Instead, we see a show that is thoroughly Chinese, but with a sense of evolution that is shaded by international influences. The work reflects the opening up of societies in China to external cultures, but without an urgency to lose their own.

The company’s style is operatic. The performers on stage do not sing, but there is a strong emphasis on portraying emotional intensity, not just with physicality but also with their faces. To Australian eyes, these are highly exaggerated expressions and do take a little getting used to. The production features four principal dancers, all of whom are charismatic and technically proficient. Leading lady Zhang Yashu is heart and soul of the show, and plays the tortured Xiu Niang whose predicaments are illustrated with rich and dynamic choreography over the 90 minute program. Zhang’s work is precise and powerful, with a luminescence that not only lights up the majestic State Theatre, but also supremely commanding. The ensemble is relegated to playing slightly more than scenery when supporting Zhang. The images she creates with her body and spirit, are sublimely beautiful.

Visual design is accomplished. Lighting is especially thoughtful, giving the show mood, romance and emotion, as well as efficiently and cleverly depicting time and spacial transitions. Costumes are not always elegant but they are effective at providing context and assist greatly with characterisations. Music is expertly created and performed but sadly, not live. Choreography is particularly strong in partner work where lyricism is blended with sharp, abrupt movement for a modern twist. Sections tend to be short, which makes the show feel energetic and exciting.

The Embroidery Girl is grand and fascinating. For Western audiences, its cultural difference possesses an exoticism that reads as colourful and distinctive. Beyond the allure of the unfamiliar, we relate to the universal themes of romantic love, and the pursuit of personal emancipation. Aristotle wrote that the purpose of tragedy is to evoke a wonder born of pity and fear, the result of which is cathartic. Xiu Niang receives very little of what she desires, but Zhang Yashu’s dance for us is inspiring and uplifting.

Review: Short+Sweet Dance 2014 (Short+Sweet)

shortsweetdance1Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jan 21 – Feb 2, 2014
Festival Directors: Joshua Lowe & Adam Wheeler
Photography by Pia

Theatre review
Short+Sweet Dance is a platform for emerging and professional choreographers from a wide range of genres to develop and showcase their work. It is also an opportunity for the Aystralian dance community to share and exchange ideas. This review is based on the Gala performance, which presented best pieces from this year’s festival, where more than 45 works from all over Australia featured over two weeks. It is noteworthy that a vast majority of performers are very young, but their abilities range widely. One of the strengths of this collection of works is the way in which each dancer’s capacity is taken into account, and no one is required to stretch too far beyond their faculties. The program is also memorable for its diversity, with artists from different backgrounds working across a good range of genres.

We commence with Familiar Strangers by Joseph Simons, who bases his abstraction on celebrity culture, and expresses a point of view that is characteristic of queer young men. Kirsty Fromholtz’s And Then Patterns (pictured above) features four dancers, each with a unique way of moving, is tender and probably the most emotionally engaging piece in the show.

Burlesque styles are explored in Natalie Pelarek’s Sink Or Swim, and Eva Crainean’s Girl Getting Bitter, both with a strong female presence, dealing with themes of gender difference. Sink Or Swim in particular, handles the subject matter very well, with extremely effective use of humour and sees Renelle Loretta Jones’ outrageous comic chops stealing the show.

Other stand outs include Jay Bailey’s Jaybird, which features a completely live soundtrack by the incredibly impressive beatboxer L.C.Beats. Also from the world of hip hop is Amber McCartney, whose interpretation of “popping and locking” in Hard-Boiled Wonderland, which utilises precise physical articulation brings to the program a sense of wonder and intrigue. No Fungus, No Tree by Sean Marcs and Anna Healey is an unusual work that features two very focussed and captivating performers. Their segment using Yazoo’s 1982 recording “Only You” is beautifully minimal and highlights the fantastic chemistry between the two. Nyunga by Thomas E.S. Kelly delivers an indigenous perspective and stars dancing sisters, Taree and Caleena Sansbury, who are truly delightful and graceful in their quiet confidence.

Our young dancers need to be congratulated for the training they put into their vocations. The amount of dedication in their art is evident in their skill and on their flesh. Their exploration into human physicality and visual mediums provides us with new and enlightening ways of looking at our own bodies and relationships with this vast universe in which we dwell. List of prize winners below.

Outstanding Choreography (joint winners):

  • Sean Marcs and Anna Healey for creating and performing No Fungus, No Tree – exploring the world of the symbiotic; and
  • Brianna Kell and Alexandra Andrews for creating and performing Salt – an inspired investigation

The People’s Choice (audience voted):

  • Swing Dancin’ – Natasha Crane’s infectious and quirky mix of styes performed by 25 artists

Award for Audacious Work:

  • Eva Crainean for Girl Getting Bitter – a comical, sexy and vengeful piece commenting on serious social issues and the femme fatale stereotype.

Outstanding Female Dancer (shared):

  • Amber McCartney for Hard-Boiled Wonderland – a movement study inspired by the work of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami; and
  • Rosslyn Wythes for /Lu:p-/   – inspired by entrances, exits and the cyclical process where, within each loop, different information is revealed.

Outstanding Male Dancer: 

  • Harrison Hall for his solo work Melekh – “casting a shadow of light from within the darkness”.

Review: Chi Udaka (TaikOz / Lingalayam)

chiudakaVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Jan 16 – 18, 2013
Directors: Anandavalli & Ian Cleworth
Choreographer: Anandavalli
Music: Ian Cleworth, Riley Lee, Aruna Parthiban, John Napier

Theatre review
Chi Udaka sees a collaboration between two Australian companies from disparate backgrounds. TaikOz’s performance is based on Japanese percussion and wind instruments, and Lingalayam explores traditional Indian dance and music. Both companies work with specific disciplines and cultural influences, but come together to seek out a mode of expression that combines their respective talents. Whether discovering similarities or using disparities, Chi Udaka features a showcase with flashes of symbiosis, discordance and parallels.

Directors Anandavalli and Ian Clenworth do not seem to work with an ideal outcome in mind, but focus instead on a sense of exploration and surprise. What results is a production that is unpredictable and intriguing. One unifying component is a mesmerising quality that both cultures possess within their own forms, and their show together is definitely an enthralling experience. There is a spiritual element that is undeniable in the work, and in spite of the diversity in modern religious lives, it appeals to the sacred in each person, and aims for an uplifted audience.

An unfortunate flaw in the production is lighting design. Largely due to the restrictions of the York Theatre, which does not have conventional wings to allow for floods of light to illuminate the performers bodies effectively, the production has a muted look that prevents a greater, more direct connection with the audience. Relying on lamps from fly bars and footlights work well in the more subdued sections, but they detract from the efforts on stage in the more rousing moments of the piece.

Chi Udaka is a modern Australian marriage, imagined and realised by adventurous and brave people in the arts. It is a new dawn in our continuing re-definition of the Australian identity in our artistic and social landscapes, and while things may not always be smooth and easy going, this is a show that demonstrates a desire for purity and a respect for pluralism. It is a joyful moment when we are able to cherish all our different histories, and converge with trust and peace to create a new voice, one that embraces all that is good about the land on which we live and breathe.

Review: Am I (Shaun Parker & Company)

rsz_r1222886_16043263Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jan 9 – 12, 2014
Director & Choreographer: Shaun Parker
Music: Nick Wales
Dramaturge: Veronica Neave
Dancers: Josh Mu, Sophia Ndaba, Jessie Oshodi, Marnie Palomares, Melanie Palomares, Shantala Shivalingappa, Julian Wong

Theatre review
With Am I, Shaun Parker & Company continues to redefine Australian dance and identity. This work relies heavily on traditional Indian forms of performance and Chinese martial arts, to create a new contemporary dance that is not only about Australia but also an international landscape. As societies come to terms with technological advancements and multiplicity in their cultural compositions, art begins to conflate and we seem to be arriving at a time when a universality, in creativity and practice, usurps geographical differences. Shaun Parker’s work is international not only because of its high standards, but also because of its global language.

Shantala Shivalingappa brings an Indian influence that gives the production a sense of dreamlike storytelling. She is an omnipresent narrator, with a magnetism that can only be described as enigmatic. Slight in stature and mild in temperament, it is a wonder that the audience’s attention is completely lost in Shivalingappa’s minimal performance style whenever she takes centre stage. Julian Wong’s talents as a martial artist are utilised to perfection. The way his disciplines are reinterpreted to create a new art form, is probably the greatest achievement of this work. The opening up of something that is seemingly rigid and old fashioned, in order to create a brand new redefining vocabulary in movement is an incredible feat, which the company should be extremely proud of. A particularly memorable moment sees the combination of Wong performing a “qigong” style routine along with Josh Mu’s responses using “popping” from the breakdance lexicon. The meeting of the two is breathtaking, and clearly (as words will no doubt fail), has to be seen to be believed.

Music is performed entirely live with a band and singers that have achieved a magnificent level of symbiosis with the dancers. Lighting design is creative and ground-breaking, with a “wall of light” that provides illumination in all senses of the word. The level of sensitivity at which both these elements are designed and directed is masterful. They are not often in the foreground of proceedings, but are absolutely crucial to the success of the show.

Am I is Shaun Parker’s meditation on spirituality. It inspires ideas on God, creation, and inevitably, the meaning of life. It is Parker using the performance space to ask the biggest questions, and what results is something transcendental and divine. This is a company determined to communicate, and the show speaks to audiences of all kinds. Its concepts are grand but universal; its tone sophisticated but never hoity-toity. It speaks to all, but seeks to appeal to the most sacred that is in us all.

Our Home ‘Ngalpun Mudth’ (NAISDA Dance College)

naisdaVenue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Dec 11 – 14, 2013
Creative Director: Raymond D. Blanco

Theatre review
NAISDA Dance College on the NSW Central Coast offers a four-year diploma course to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and Our Home ‘Ngalpun Mudth’ is their 2013 end of year performance showcase at Carriageworks in Sydney. The event celebrates the graduation of 5 students, with over two hours of dance, featuring ten choreographers including Frances Rings an Artist in Residence at Bangarra Dance Theatre and Australian dance legend Graeme Murphy.

The program is structured around contemporary Australian Indigenous dance forms, but influences from Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa are infused, reflecting the multiculturalism of modern Australian life. Kristina Chan’s work Two Players Games is a highlight. Set to the mid-20th century American music of Santo & Johnny, the piece utilises the talents of dancing sisters Taree and Caleena Sansbury to great effect and shows a very thorough and interesting study of their collective physical language. Graeme Murphy’s The Protecting Veil brings an air of sophistication to the evening, and challenges the students with a more technically demanding piece.

Comedy elements were found in Shouse, a devised work under the guidance of Aku Kadogo and Vicki Van Hout’s Colonial Idiot, which uses sound bites from Ross Noble’s stand up performances. Both are intelligently constructed, and allow the young talents to shine with their exuberance and enthusiasm. Frances Rings takes a more serious perspective of her student subjects in Dismorph, and we see a successful exploration into the lives and emotional landscapes of young Indigenous people.

The evening ends with the entire ensemble flooding the performance space for a Moa Island Cultural Dance. Created alongside live musicians, and their cultural tutors, this finale is grand, magnificent, and euphoric. This is where the students are in their element. They lose their youthful inhibitions and perform with extraordinary passion and a level of assuredness rarely seen on any stage. The audience granted a standing ovation on opening night, heralding an auspicious start to the careers of NAISDA’s newest group of talents. May they flourish swiftly, and welcome every success that arrives with open arms.

La Sylphide (The Australian Ballet)

lasylphideVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 7 – 25, 2013
Choreographers: Marius Petipa (Paquita), Erik Bruhn after August Bournonville (La Sylphide)
Image by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
The Australian Ballet’s latest classical offering is a double bill with works from the Romantic era, La Sylphide from 1836 and Paquita,1847. The “grand pas de deux” from Paquita opens the program with electric vibrancy. It is an exciting extract from the original full length work, with principal dancers Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson showcasing their extraordinary technical abilities. Jackson has a dynamic hold of the stage, with magnetic presence and a strapping physique that is undeniably exquisite. Jones’ confidence is spellbinding, and puts on a riveting performance that thrills with its sheer beauty.

In La Sylphide, the story of a Scottish farmer who falls in love with a forest spirit is brought to life with some of the most stunning set and lighting design on the Australian stage. The sense of ethereality they produce is seductive, and the fantasy the audience craves is magically rendered so that we are transported through time and space. Vivienne Wong is memorable as the farmer’s fiancee, impressing with her dancing as well as acting abilities. Madeleine Eastoe is the Sylph, creating lines and movement that are delightful and almost supernatural in their delicacy and lightness, but the slightness of her frame does mean that she can at times, be obscured by the vastness of the production. Daniel Gaudiello as the farmer James is handsome and strong (physically and technically), and every bit the leading man of fairy tales but requires a small dose of artistic hubris to be even more compelling.

Modern lives are increasingly mundane. Technology encourages us to retreat and evolve into beings more and more insular and impassive. Witnessing the dancers of our national ballet company is a reminder of the human capacities at achieving unfathomable heights of beauty and athleticism. Like all great artists, they bring to us the great gift of inspiration that uplifts us from our daily lives; as we stop to smell the roses at the theatre, and realise the potential each ordinary day may hold.