Review: The Dream (The Australian Ballet)

ausballetVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Apr 29 – May 16, 2015
Choreographer: Frederick Ashton (reproduced by Francis Croese)
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Frederick Ashton’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream distils all the magic and fantasy of Titania and Oberon’s Fairyland, and uses the ethereal qualities of ballet to provide lyrical expression. Familiar characters are vividly brought to life in dance form, with performers from The Australian Ballet investing in their roles surprising colour and fitting charm. Particularly engaging is Chengwu Guo as Puck, whose powerful and nuanced work is an effervescent highlight of the production.

Retaining original visual design elements for the programme is perhaps unexpectedly effective, especially for Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, which is presented as a prelude to The Dream. Sophie Fedorovitch’s delightful set and costumes for the 1946 piece looks as modern today as it must have seven decades ago, with a stunning backdrop reflective of the early emergence of post modern design at the end of the second World War and in the wake of the Art Deco movement. Ashton’s work features six dancers, all of whom remain on stage for its entire duration, and although adventurous and dynamic by nature, its presentation on this occasion seems too aloof, and energy levels too consistent, to portray the multi-dimensional qualities of its choreography.

The first (of three) Ashton works in the schedule is Monotones II, created in the mid 1960’s to the music of Erik Satie. With just three dancers and a disarming starkness to its visual language, the piece is absolutely unforgiving, and requires of its performers, the utmost in precision, focus and cohesion. When moments coalesce, we obtain the kind of sublime beauty that we seek of the art form, and as inevitable imperfections reveal themselves, one is reminded of the “wabi-sabi” philosophy from Japanese aesthetic principles. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it also gives greater meaning to the rest that are present. Perhaps more than any other discipline, ballet’s incessant pursuit of perfection is fundamental to its very meaning and existence. For those of us who deny the possibility of perfection (and hence probably not possess the traits required of professional dancers), it is that very act of pursuance that appeals. The spirit is always willing and pure in our best performers, so even if the body can never live up to our abstract fabrications, what we witness in good theatre is always that passionate belief in something greater, something borne of the brave hearts of our most courageous idealists.

Review: Swan Lake (The Australian Ballet)

Venue: Capitol Theatre (Sydney NSW), Feb 20 – 28, 2015
Choreographer: Graeme Murphy
Images by Branco Gaica and Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review

Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake is deeply romantic, with a narrative involving a love triangle, savage betrayals, and a descent into madness. It depicts emotions that many are familiar with, only with an intensity that few can bear to experience. Having established a framework with Tchaikovsky’s music from 1876, Murphy’s creation is a fantastical universe based on the old tale of a young maiden’s heartbreak, drawing on its supernatural elements and the woeful tragedy that befalls her. First performed in 2002, this recent incarnation of Swan Lake is faithful to classical styles, but also modern in its sensibilities. Murphy’s characteristic use of fabrics is incorporated into his choreography on several occasions, the physical expression of insanity is refreshingly unconventional, and the removal of sorcerers and curses from its story to provide a contemporised context of mental illness, all contribute to a production that is of and for our times.

The work is operatic and epic in tone, and its duration is certainly not brief. The three-act saga can feel self-indulgent in the later portions of the piece, but execution on all fronts is consistently of a high standard. Kristian Fredrikson’s sets and costumes, and Damien Cooper’s lights in the century old Capitol Theatre is a dream materialised before our eyes. As a thing of beauty, Swan Lake is intricately constructed to deliver a luxuriant feast for the senses, appealing especially to our need for traditional aesthetics that offer comfort, as well as offering a sublime sensuality that is best represented by those who know their bodies best.

Dancers of The Australian Ballet are vibrant and enthusiastic, almost rhapsodic in their connection with their assignment. Their enthusiasm is a source of infectious joy, and there are few pleasures in life sweeter than witnessing accomplished dancers caught in a moment of euphoria. Madeleine Eastoe as the forlorn Odette, proves herself to be a formidable talent with physical abilities that enthral, an impressive capacity to convey emotion, and most of all, an innate understanding of grace that brings a sense of the sublime to her performance. Eastoe has a quietly magnetic presence, but she delivers all the dynamic range required of the choreography, often surprising us by the power that radiates from her slight being.

Odette’s retreat into a secure space of her imagination is symbolic of the increasingly insular ways we live our lives. With the evolution of technology, and the increase in wealth in many cities, we are more than ever before, disconnected from one another. The ballet is a social institution, an enjoyment of which cannot be replaced by any screen of any size. Life can seem too daunting and reality can sometimes be too painful, but artists do what they do, so that we can enter into their world momentarily to find an instance of contact. It is magic to see world class talent in action on a grand old stage, and it is also magic to sit in the dark with many hundreds of others who are for a few minutes, looking at and hoping for the same things.

Review: PUNCTURE (Legs On The Wall / Form Dance Projects / Vox – Sydney Philharmonia Choirs)

Venue: Riverside Theatre (Parramatta NSW), Jan 21 – 25, 2015
Director: Patrick Nolan
Choreographer: Kathryn Puie
Composer: Stefan Gregory
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Dancers are at the forefront in the exploration of theatrical space. Without the burden of words and narratives, they open up senses to what the physical presence of things and bodies can do on a stage, and how we communicate between persons, to create meaning where little or none had existed before. Puncture features a great number of people, some are dancers, and the others singers, introduced as though emerging from the audience, and we are encouraged to identify with them, and to read their performance as though what they present have come from us, even if we feel secure in our seats with temporary passivity. The mix of characters features a beautifully diverse range of ages and ethnicities that reflect the breadth of human experience, and of Australian life. The vocalists in particular, are almost a visual copy of the viewing crowd, and efforts at incorporating them into the dance, provide some of the more emotional moments of the piece.

Patrick Nolan and Kathryn Puie have created in Puncture, something that is a little less self-conscious, and a little more accessible than what we have come to expect of modern dance. They investigate the notion of inclusiveness to address the art of performance, as well as the consumption side of show business. It is a noble ambition to blur the lines of where the show starts and where it ends, but redefining audienceship is a difficult exercise. While not always successful, the ideology of breaking barriers provides strong impetus that shapes the show into something that feels adventurous and earnest. We are at our most engaged when the cast tackles the unconventional. The incorporation of rigging (executed behind the scenes by Jon Blake and Felix Kerdijk) to lift bodies 4 metres away from the ground, the soprano on an aerial hoop, and the tender interchanges between choristers and dancers; we are kept fascinated and entertained.

The 22-strong choir is led by Music Director Elizabeth Scott and Composer Stefan Gregory, with accompaniment on piano by Luke Byrne and on percussion by Bree Van Reyk. The marriage between what we hear and see is wonderfully cohesive, with the music at its most successful when it ventures into the avant garde. Even at its most daring, all the sounds are elegantly resolved, except when words like “hello” and “love” are used, disrupting the abstract beauty that wishes to be experienced in personal ways. It is noteworthy that there are many intriguing personalities in the choir, who could have been featured more heavily in the work’s choreography. Trained dancers tend to lose their individualities in the very discipline they invest in, and the juxtaposition provided on this occasion with non-dancers on the same stage is a main feature. Getting the singers to do more with their bodies is probably challenging, but it is precisely the idea of redefinition that would be elevated further, and the meanings that one draws from Puncture can therefore be more powerful.

Many in the show are dedicated and accomplished dancers, but this is not a piece about athleticism or superhuman faculties. It is an expression of how we live, feel and breathe as individuals and as collectives. Its themes are not always clear, but it articulates its concerns with sensitivity and focus. These artists intend to show us something important in their inimitable ways, and if we think that everything important can be put into words, then they have proven us wrong. / /

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.