Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dance and Circus in the 2012 Melbourne Fringe Festival

Aah...the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Each year it comes around so fast. I used to sit on the festival's dance judging panel which involved seeing everything that fell under the "dance"category and  choosing the most promising new work to reward. Depending on the year, that was anything from four to fifteen shows. These days I don't have the time or stamina to see it all, but I try to check out a few choice offerings.
Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal in Opal Vapour.

Opal Vapour was great - a high cut above average Fringe fare, probably because it was supported by the Malthouse Theatre and included in their Helium season. It's a very developed work. Dancer Jade Dewi Tyas Tunggal and singer/musician Ria Soemardjo collaborated on a thoughtful, well-constructed piece - carefully modulated and broad in influences.

Click here to read my review of Opal Vapour in the Herald Sun on 28 September 2012.

The Faders by Rochelle Carmichael is a really ambitious piece - eight dancers, HUGE, cavernous space at The Substation in Newport. This is Carmichael's most complex work to date. It plays with ideas about desire for fame, celebrity and ideals about the future. There's a fair bit of talking involved - which is usually a dicey proposition in contemporary dance, but here Carmichael manages to find a good balance of text and physical expression. Her dancers (mostly recent VCA dance graduates) are strong technicians and what some lack in vocal delivery they make up for in physical prowess.

The partnering and the choreographic formations shine. Carmichael is really good at curvacous, fluid, sometimes slightly aggressive groupings. (I think this comes from her time with Meryl Tankard...) A strong, earthy physicality permeates the whole piece. Also a highlight is Carmichael's use of the ridiculously deep space - diagonals, lines, clusters, upstage, downstage - she finds a way to use it all.

Gareth Hart in Ellipsis.
Ellipsis also works with a very defined space, much smaller though. An open cube, of sorts, whose sides are lined with strips of red string(desribed as "filament" in the program.) Solo dancer Gareth Hart, using tightly phrased  improvised scores, creates a very internal experience that still translates across to the audience. With his mohawk haircut and his bird-like mannerisms (head forward, thoracic stooped, neck flicks) he reminds me of a disoriented, caged peacock (I don't mean that in any rude way - there are clearly animal influences here...) Ellipsis is one of those pieces that you just watch and let wash over you without worrying about what is actually going on in the dancer's head. The music (attributed to Edward Willoughby, Warwick Lynch and Anne van Schothorst,) along with Hart's amplified breathing and travel sounds comes through individual headphones for a more immersive experience.

Media image for One
One intrigued me because one of the two choreographers, Gilbert Douglas, is Zimbabwean born and I wanted to see what sort of perspective that would bring. Together with choreographer Susan Doel, they direct five very differently-skilled dancers who don't have a natural ease with other. It is billed as a series of solos, but really is more an extended ensemble piece containing solos.The dancers are of varying technical ability and somehow the piece, while very energetic and peppered with some interesting sections of choreography, didn't ultimately gel into cohesive experience. The movement didn't always seem to fit the dancers all that well. Overall, a bit of a mish-mash, with some good ideas struggling to get out of a bloated whole.

Now I haven't seen a lot this year, so unfair to make any sweeping statements or "picks of the fest," but I can say that I LOVED Pants Down Circus. I see a lot of circus throughout the year and most of it is pretty high-quality, skill wise, but it doesn't always engage dynamically or dramatically. This quartet of NICA grads ticks all the boxes for a great show that's kinda cheeky but still friendly enough for the family.

Click here to read my review of Pants Down Circus in the Herald Sun on 08 October 2012.

Melbourne Fringe Festival
Various Venues
28 September - 13 October

Opal Vapour, 21 September - 06 October, Tower Theatre, Malthouse
The Faders, 05 - 07 October, The Substation
Ellipsis, 06 - 13 October, Meeting Room, North Melbourne Town Hall
One, 28 September - 05 October, Meat Market, Arts House
Pants Down Circus, 06 - 13 October, Meat Market, Arts House

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Even though I am primarily a dance and circus critic, I occasionally get to cover children's shows. This production from Windmill Theatre and the South Australian Theatre Company is a highly elaborate, sophisticatedly designed affair. It's probably geared more for older kids than younger ones, but having said that, my four-year old son sat quietly transfixed through the whole production (over two hours!) I do think most of it went over his head, but that didn't seem to matter. I had shown him clips of Disney's Pinocchio movie beforehand, but visually there weren't many similarities between the two productions for him to take in.

Pinocchio has lots going for it - it's slicky executed and filled with popular culture references as well as a couple of good songs. Unfortunately, it suffers from being just too long and having too many different story lines. With another draft and an outside dramaturg to tighten it right up, it would be better bang for buck.

Still, it has excellent performances all around and creates that magical feeling of being transported to a totally different and exciting place.

Click here for my review of Pinocchio in the Herald Sun on 11 September 2012.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Keep Everything

Choreographer Antony Hamilton is in the throes of a prolific period with more to come. In the past year  we have seen Drift in Dance Massive that had audiences riding in a car to a deserted area of the Docklands and watching the performance from inside the vehicle. This year Arts House presented Clouds Above Berlin which featured his duet Black Project 1 (read more from me about that here) and now Chunky Move has produced his new full length work Keep Everything. On top of this he has just received an impressive Australia Council Fellowship. Go Antony!

Hamilton has a distinct style, but his works feel vastly different from each other. There's a consistent  aesthetic but not necessarily a single formula to the pieces. His interests are wide reaching - visual arts, including graffiti culture, theatre processes that rely on slowing evolving patterns or dynamics and  movement that doesn't travel much through space and often has rhythmic and visual elements of popping and locking.

Action shot from Keep Everything.
Photo by Jeff Busby. 

Keep Everything is a series of random and bizarre scenarios merged together (described in the program as derived from stream of conscious activity.) The choreography is not so much "dance"  as movement and posturing that evokes oddity and grotesqueries. Robotic is a word that keeps springing to mind, not because the physicality itself is particularly angular or geometric, but because it feels depersonalised and aloof.  The most impressive thing about it is the dancers' - Benjamin Hancock, Lauren Langlois and Alisdair Macindoe - abilities to fully inhabit and commit to it. The challenge is not in performing steps (in fact the small sequences that are "pure movement" are the least interesting.)  It is in the postural, vocal, physical transformations of the bodies that intrigue.
Lauren Langlois, Benjamin Hancock and Alisdair Macindoe in
Keep Everything. Photo by Jeff Busby. 

Where all this goes...I'm really not sure. Keep Everything ties together through its use of props (a stage strewn with colourful felt and foam scraps) and lighting design from Ben Cisterne that situates the action in a deep, wide cube punctuated with heavy smoke effects - kinda sci-fi, kinda clubby. In the program Hamilton talks about humans' desire to organize and contextualise everything. That's his impetus for the show's actions.

Personally, I can find elements that entertain or strike a chord and I can see the deliberation and pathways at play. I can contextualize it within Hamilton's work or within the Melbourne contemporary dance scene, but as a whole work in and of itself, it's not easy to wrap up in any sort of package (and maybe it doesn't need to be.) It is more a case of individual inspired and bizarre moments that entertain executed by consistently committed dancers. For some audiences, that will be a complete journey in and of itself. For others (and I admit I fall into this category), it may feel like a bunch of interesting detours that never finds its final destination.

Click here for my review of Keep Everything in the Herald Sun on 19 June 2012.

Keep Everything
Chunky Move Studios
14 - 23 June 2012

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Burn the Floor

Janette Manara and Robbie Kmetoni in Burn the Floor
I remember the first version of Burn the Floor which premiered in Melbourne in 2000. At the time Jason Gilkison, who now creatively heads the whole operation, was a dancer in it. Champion ballroom dance couples had been brought together from around the world to make an arena spectacular. It bombed spectacularly. Way too gaudy, not enough good dancing, a cast that had no cohesion and a venue that was so hugely distant. Underneath its garish costumes and rock concert lighting, it had no soul.

When Gilkison took the reigns and "reinvented" it a couple of years later, it became a very different beast. Rebranded and turned into a more intimate show that was high on both sex factor and technical skill, Burn the Floor started to have some real legs (pardon the pun.) It re-launched at Her Majesty's Theatre (a much better choice of location) and aimed for a more sophisticated image. It was hyped as ballroom without the fake tans and diamantes. It didn't totally shake the ballroom aesthetic, but what it did do was ramp it up sexually and start to expand it artistically. What really made BTF show promise was Gilkison's breaking away from the heavily codified box of competition ballroom with non-traditional choreography. By contemporary dance standards, his rebel choreography didn't seem particularly novel, but in the context of a ballroom world, it was groundbreaking.

As we have watched Gilkison's choreography develop even more through his work on both Australian and American seasons of So You Think You Can Dance, he continues to prove himself as an innovator of the form. Ballroom purists might have issues with his unorthodox tendencies, but his fan base is so wide - from dancers to audiences, that he's clearly doing something right!

BTF has toured extensively, including a run on Broadway. It's managed to return to Melbourne several times - always nice to play to a home crowd! It's had hundreds of dancers in its folds and it's been a showcase for both ballroom superstars and reality television discoveries.

The version currently playing at The Palms at Crown is not that different from what we saw in 2008 and 2010 (also at The Palms) and has many elements from the original launch at Her Majesty's. What seems to have changed most is the cast, which now features dancers pulled from SYTYCD who don't have formal background in ballroom dancing. Most notably 20 year old Robbie Kmetoni, whose background is jazz and contemporary. He doesn't dance in the most ballroom technical numbers, but gets to play to his strengths as a great jumper, turner and he stands out as a personality. Having these different dancers extends BTF just that bit more out of the ballroom zone.

This 20-strong cast has a huge Australian contingent, including local Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School alumni Kieran McMahon. Stand outs are American Giselle Peacock and Australian Jemma Armstrong and as a solost, South African Keoikantse Motsepe

It's no easy endeavour to create a snappy two hour show of pure dancing that appeals to wide global audiences. BTF's strengths are also, in some ways, its weaknesses. It is "on" full voltage all the time. It has to be, really, if it's going to create the buzz that it does.  Even with quieter duets, the overall feeling is big and overwhelming. At times, gargantuan. Sections fly by in one big blur and can read as crazy assaults of samba shakes, intricate lifts and limbs flying akimbo. BTF barely catches its breath (thank goodness for interval!) It hits so hard, it's understandable that it leaves some audiences cold and its sensuality can be interpreted as more raunchy than sexy. 

Personally, I love the energy of it all and the choreographic detail that resides within all the rushes of movement. And I love watching great dancers with lifetimes of training in their bodies getting to do what they do best - just dance. 

Click here for my review of Burn The Floor in the Herald Sun on 15 June 2012.

Burn the Floor
The Palms at Crown
14 - 30 June 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Let's Dance

Let's Dance is not a typical Australian Ballet season. Part of the company's fiftieth birthday celebrations, it is a gala featuring Australian dance companies from every state. The Australian Ballet, itself, doesn't perform in it. At first thought, that seems a bit strange, but it actually doesn't take away from the impact and importance of the affair. It's not that the company is not missed on stage, but there is so much other top-notch and diverse work that the evening feels satisfyingly complete.

Probably most significant about Let's Dance is the opportunity it has created for companies like the West Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and Dance North to be seen by Victorian audiences. Due to cost and distance, dance touring is not easy in this country and even a cultural hub like Melbourne doesn't get visits from many interstate companies. (Bangarra visits yearly and Sydney Dance Company comes most years, but even Australian Dance Theatre - ADT -  has only been to Melbourne once in the past decade.)

It takes a mothership like The Australian Ballet to orchestrate such a large event. And luckily, the effort is worth it! Mainly because the works are all well-matched to the event. Firstly, with the exception of Tasdance's contribution of a dance film, they are all choreographed by the artistic directors of the respective companies. Secondly, they are all good representations of where each company is at right now. Thirdly, they are all strong dances in and of themselves.

Keian Langdon and Rachael Walsh in Cloudland.
Photo by Ken Sparrow.
West Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet both present duets, which makes the most sense, given logistics. Ombra Leggera by Ivan Cavallari and danced by Andre Santos and Daryl Brandwood, has choreography that ripples and pops - it's all about sensuous lines of the bare male torsos and the pull of the music (by Giacomom Meyerbeer and performed by Maria Callas.) It's a tight opening to the whole evening. Queensland Ballet's excerpts from Cloudland by Francois Klaus is closer to a traditional pas de deux - man (Keian Langdon) and woman (Rachael Walsh), but the style is more soft jazz than classical ballet. With music sung by Nana Mouskouri, it's light and breezy.

Don't by Natalie Weir for Expressions Dance Company mixes clean, crisp neo-classical and contemporary movement that shifts between couplings, a six-strong ensemble and solo within a black and white aesthetic. The sextet of dancers are well-matched in terms of their technical and emotional delivery which builds convincing flow and cohesion to the piece. This is the first that Melbourne has seen of Expressions since Weir took the artistic directorship reigns and if this is an indication of the quality of the work that they are producing, they are in good hands.

Sydney Dance Company's 2 One Another will tour to Melbourne later in the year, so the quartet offered feels more like a teaser of what's to come. Against a starry projected backdrop, it's a feast of sensuously flowing limbs and generally gorgeous spiraling shapes that unwind into incredibly long extensions. Dancers Natalie Allen, Richard Cilli, Chen Wen and Charmene Yap are exceptional in capturing the ebb and flow in and out of curvaceousness that choreographer Rafael Bonachela is after.
You can check out the whole piece online on ABCIView where it was recently filmed for ABC2.

Dance North's Fugue by Raewyn Hill is really ambitious - eight dancers in unison to Ravel's Bolero. And while it doesn't come off completely in terms of unison, it does build an intensity as the large group glides across the space and continues to swell and contract together, all the while changing levels and shapes and responding to the dynamic shifts in the music.

Australian Dance Theatre in Be Your Self.
The longest excerpt is ADT's Be Your Self by Garry Stewart, a work that has extensively toured (but not yet to Melbourne.) It stands out in the program as the most "out there" in its extreme take on the body and will undoubtedly be the wildcard for traditional audiences. Uncompromising in its dissection of the human body - from spoken detail about the precise physiology and anatomy of flexing an ankle, to uncomfortable sounds of whacks, splats and rotations that accompany the ridiculously difficult, acrobatically-modified choreography. Makes me want to see the entire piece!

TasDance's presence is on-screen. Momentary, choreographed by Anna Smith features both company dancers and elders. While this isn't the ideal way to represent the small but prolific company (who, due to touring commitments can't participate live) the inclusion is significant as TasDance is the state's main professional company and their commitment to education and regional touring has influenced the Australian dance ecology for many years.

Even though the AB wasn't on stage, there was a direct connection to the company via a new commission from Tim Harbour. Harbour retired from the AB in 2007 and has since been developing a substantial choreographic career. Here in Sweedeedee he works with ex-principals Steven Heathcote and Justine Summers (whose names alone would still pack out the State Theatre) and two young dancers from the AB School - Mia Heathcote (Steven's daughter) and Lennox Niven. Harbour uses a suburban backyard setting - washing lines and sheets - and the context of a typical nuclear family to play with ideas of love and loss and tragedy.
Justine Summers and Steven Heathcote in Sweedeedee.
Photo by Lynette Wills.

Unusually for a ballet commission, the music is a mix of sparse rock/folk music sung live by Suzannah Espe. Choreographically, Harbour opts for gestural and upper body work over complex balletic steps At times, it's almost too simplistic and one-dimensional, especially for Summers, but the strength of both Summers and Heathcote as emotionally nuanced dancers, the generational significance of the casting, the lighting design (by Ben Cisterne) and the musical collection all bring it together. It's a fitting finale to a showcase displaying so many different strands of this country's dance lineage.

Click here for my review of Let's Dance in the Herald Sun on 11 June 2012.

Let's Dance 
State Theatre, Art Centre Melbourne
07 - 16 June 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Finucane & Smith's Glory Box

From Left, clockwise. Cast of Glory Box - Holly Durant, Anna Lumb
Moira Finucane and Maude Davey.

Theatre making duo Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith developed The Burlesque Hour years ago and now it's almost a yearly event in Melbourne with month long seasons at fortyfivedownstairs. Recently it's been touring regionally in the form of the Caravan Burlesque.

Finucane has performed her unique brand of gothic/gender-bending/sexy/food-infused acts for well over a decade, way before the burlesque resurgence that has gripped Melbourne of late. She's more trend-setter than trendy and has a wide and varied fan base (especially here in her hometown.) It's not surprising that The Burlesque Hour, even with two shows a night, packs out it houses. 

Burlesque, as a genre, is so pervasive now that it can really mean anything and the market, so to speak, is flooded with mediocre and not particularly smart work. Finucane & Smith, with the help of their collaborating artists, transcend the average by far. They create performances that have all the sexiness and verve of high-quality burlesque and then take them to the next level theatrically. 

They're successful for many reasons including their maturity and experience as practitioners, their inclusion of intriguing and multi-dimensional artists into their fold and the trained directorial eye of SmithFinucane often works with text or collaborates with writers (in this current show Christos Tsiolkas) and is interested in fully integrated dramatic pieces, which will not always totally successful, are appealing for their high camp costuming, eerie physicality and wacky twists. 

This new Burlesque Hour incarnation is called Glory Box, which is described as Burlesque Hour meets Pandora's Box, opening the way to play with ideas of original sin, temptation, human vulnerability and desire. The themes thread the new acts and give cohesion to the whole show. 

Finucane opens with Apple. She wears a white PVC bikini with sparkly green leaves over her female bits and thrashes manically while displaying a crisp green apple. The music stops every so often so she can tell us why she should eat the apple rather than share it with the audience and at each interlude she chomps and desicates the fruit further until it's just a bit of spit-out pulp on the floor. In the context of the show, it's a fitting opening - temptation, lust, greed....and it was an apple after all that set Adam and Eve on their journey out of innocence. 

Not all the acts work so closely with the theme, but of the ones that do, the most powerful is Maude Dauvey's rendition of the PortisHead song Glory Box in which she's nude but for antler ears, her skin painted a dusty white. She's vulnerable, yet sexy, soft but fighting. Davey's is a normal female body - not young, not old, not surgically enhanced. It is what it is and its out there in all its beauty and flaws. 

The most ambitious act is written by Tsiolkas and involves all five of the regular artists, which makes a good visual break from the  solo format. In long black dresses with plunging neck lines, holding apples in black-gloved hands, it starts as a rendition of Madonna's Like a Prayer and turns into an erotic dialogue between Finucane and Davey while the other three keep time as swaying back up singers. It's experimenting with a lot ideas at once and being text heavy, hard to absorb in one go.  

Ursula Martinez in Hanky Panky. Photo by
Prudence Upton. 
For me, the highlight acts came from Ursula Martinez and Anna Lumb. Martinez has performed in Melbourne before. I first saw her in the inaugural Melbourne season of La Clique doing one of the same acts, Hanky Panky, that she does here and it still feels totally fresh and surprising.  She's one of those flawless performers, so good at what she does - everything is tight and clean without a wasted or over-done moment. I won't say more as that would ruin the fun.

Anna " Pocket Rocket" Lumb is a NICA grad who has built a stellar career in a short time. She's made two full length shows for herself and seems to be performing everywhere. Both her acts are spot on. A hula-hooping routine, set to the Beach Boy's I Get Around cleverly slows down and speeds up in both music and hooping tempo. Fantastic! Her blue-suited trapeze act to David Bowie's Rock 'n' Roll Suicide works on a conceptual level while still being a sharp aerial display (in stilettos in a tight space, very close to audience heads, none the less...)

Holly Durant in Salome. Photo by Paul Dunn.
Harriet Ritchie and Holly Durant are both VCA School of Dance graduates. Ritchie is an in-demand contemporary dancer who works frequently with Lucy Guerin and Chunky Move, among others. As a duo act they have been with the Finucane & Smith brigade for a while, developing funky, poppy dance routines. Here they venture into solos. Durant's veiled Salome routine to Donna Summer's I Feel Love has developed from last year. Just like the music, it builds and sustains a heightened sensuality. Visually, Durant's slow body undulations and gradual journey down the catwalk match the extensive green billows of sheer fabric that envelope her. Ritchie's new routine, Wolf, to Jimi Hendrix's Foxy Lady is performed in a back-exposing fur outfit. It's all thrashy head and body rolls and quick darts through the space. It needs a bit of tweaking dynamically to balance the thrash with some other textures. 

Along with Martinez, global cabaret diva Meow Meow is the other guest artist. She channels German cabaret with a twist, abusive to her audience and self-deluded about her own beauty. She's such a good performer, with such a great voice (accompanied by John Thorn on piano), that, like Martinez, she can pull anything off. Again, don't want to spoil, but she has a great take on the Glory Box theme. 

The overall mix here is stronger than what we have seen in recent years. The whole thing feels fresh and dynamic. Each act is distinct, while still managing to thematically cohese as a show and the addition of some older, tried and true acts works a treat. 

As usual, not for the faint-hearted or those who aren't into confronting female nudity. But if you like burlesque out of the box, get ye to the fantastic Glory Box.

Click here for my review of Glory Box in the Herald Sun on 11 June 2012. 

Finucane & Smith's Glory Box
09 June - 01 July 2012

Monday, June 4, 2012

Rock the Ballet and CIRCA

When I first saw Rasta Thomas's Rock the Ballet in June 2010 I was sorely disappointed. I went in this time with low expectations. Not unsurprisingly, I enjoyed it much more. It still has all the same issues (it is the same show after all) as first time around - dodgy gender politics, choreography that wouldn't stand up in most amateur shows and an incessant reliance on the easy grabs (unrelentless video projections, an "I'm too sexy" finale) and a show that is way too egotistically focused on Thomas himself. 

Because I knew all this going in, I wasn't nearly as bothered by at all as I was two years ago. I just focused on the actual physicality of the dancing, which technically, is pretty darn fine. Thomas and his "bad boys of dance" are really, really well trained dancers. They are powerful movers - they carve space well, they hit their turns, they extend their lines. They make banal movement look like a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. Watching them does remind me why I love dance. 

And the show does have a pop soundtrack - U2, Prince, Michael Jackson. Totally prescriptive and overwhelming, but totally fun. 

So while I still can't go all the way with generous star-age (just too problematic and weak thematically,) I will admit that I had a great time watching the show. 

Click here for my review of Rock the Ballet in the Herald Sun on 01 June 2012. 

CIRCA. Performer Emma McGovern. Photo by Justin Nicholas. 

After the lack of creativity in Rock the Ballet, CIRCA was a breath of fresh air. I've watched Brisbane-based Circa ensemble over the years and their circus/theatre fusions have been a bit hit or miss. I remember one show where a single guy juggled to esoteric jazz music for an entire hour. About as stimulating as it sounds! There's been good stuff as well, though, and what's never been missing from Circa is a desire to see where circus can go. 

There's lots of practitioners of contemporary circus and Australia doesn't lag in that department. I've seen a wide range of stuff over my years reviewing. Most of what I have seen has involved taking a collection of individual acts and harnessing them together with some sort of theatrical premise, usually text-based. Most of it has felt more circus/theatre than circus/dance. 

Which is why I was so intrigued by CIRCA. Essentially it is like one long dance piece made by a choreographer not a theatre director. That's how it came across anyway. (Director Yaron Lifschitz, who made the work in collaboration with the performers, is actually trained in theatre direction.)  It moves in and out of solos, duets, group sections often on an empty stage. When there is a circus apparatus - a static trapeze, a set of blue hula hoops, Chinese straps -  the apparatus is alone on stage and the choreography on it is closer to the texture and syncopations of a dance piece than an acrobatic act. The physical material is subtle, with more dramatic tension and suspension than whizz-bang trickery. This isn't to say that the acrobatic level isn't strong - it is very, very high, but there isn't reliance on it like there is in so much other circus. 

Like many a dance piece, CIRCA needs some editing. Its 75 minutes non-stop movement would probably be more powerful in 55. Despite that, it remains quite powerful. Lots of different basic human emotions are evoked and it engages without being too esoteric or too dumbed down. There's a really cool bit towards the end where the guys do a Chinese hoops act without the actual hoops. They simulate the hoops with their arms and they do a lot of the classic jumps and maneuvers characteristic of the traditional act. Without the actual equipment there, the effect is more of a fluid acrobatic ballet than a stop-start-reset-do-a-big-jump routine. It turns a familiar circus routine into something same, same, but different. Excellent!

CIRCA runs until 10 June, so there's still time to check it out. 

Click here for my review of CIRCA in the Herald Sun on 04 June 2012. 

Rasta Thomas's Rock the Ballet
State Theatre, Arts Centre
30 May to 03 June

Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse
30 May to 10 June

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Green Room Awards Winners

The Green Room Awards were announced today in a ceremony at the Playhouse. The dance category's winners are posted below. (Excuse the font - I pasted from the Green Room Awards website.)

It's nice to see Gideon Obarzanek's Assembly pick up accolades, as it was the last piece Obarzanek made for Chunky Move before finishing up his post as artistic director (and founder) of the company. With a cast of over 50 performers, including singers from the Victorian Opera choir, it's one of those pieces that transforms pedestrian movements into an extraordinary whole. The power of numbers - so many bodies organised together and working as a large group - has a mesmerising pull and this was well-exploited in the work.

I was really happy to see that Becky, Jodi, John won the Concept and Realisation award. This little gem made by John Jasperse (American), Melbourne girl Rebecca Hilton and Jodi Melnik (American) was my absolute highlight of the Dance Massive season (and probably the whole year.) A post-modern take on how post-modern dancers think about getting older, it's full of humour and wit and brings relevance to dance vocabulary that has the potential to be alienating and academic. Totally fantastic!

Congratulations to all the well-deserving nominees and winners. Keep up the great work!

Betty Pounder Award for Choreography: Gideon Obarzanek, Assembly (Chunky Move / Victorian Opera, presented by Melbourne Festival in association with Sydney Festival & Brisbane Festival)
Design: Toni Maticevski (Costumes), Richard Nylon (Millinery), Matthew Bird (Nest Design & Backdrop), Gavin Brown (Curtain Design) & Benjamin Cisterne (Lighting), Aviary (Phillip Adams BalletLab in association with Melbourne Festival)
Sound and Music Composition and/or Performance: TIE BETWEEN:
Cast of Assembly (Live Performance), Assembly (Chunky Move / Victorian Opera presented by Melbourne Festival in association with Sydney Festival & Brisbane Festival)
Soloists and Victorian Opera Chorus & Orchestra Victoria (Live Performance), Requiem (The Australian Ballet)
Male Dancer: Luke George, Body of Work (Luke George / Jo Lloyd / Phillip Adams BalletLab in association with Melbourne Festival)
Female Dancer: Kirsty Martin, The Merry Widow (The Australian Ballet)
Ensemble: Concerto (The Australian Ballet)
Concept & Realisation: Becky, Jodi & John (Becky Hilton, Jodi Melnick & John Jesperse / John Jesperse Company and Dancehouse)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Peony Pavilion

Ensemble scene from The Peony Pavilion. 

The National Ballet of China last visited Melbourne in 2006 with the epic narrative ballet Raise the Red Lantern. (Click here for a review from Jill Sykes in SMH.) The company is over 50 years old and is China's only national ballet company. Under the artistic directorship of Feng Ying, it's a company exploring contemporary means of expression while also making works directly influenced by traditional arts and stories.

The Peony Pavilion juggles that balance. Its story derives from a 16th century Kun opera, but its choreographer, the thirty-something (I'm guessing) Fei Bo, comes from a modern dance background. The music (played live by the National Ballet of China Symphony Orchestra) composed by Guo Wenjing draws liberally from Western canon (Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev.) An opera singer plays a character role and frequently bursts into traditional singing. A German designer named Michael Simon has designed a geometric, minimal set.

There's a lot going on here and it's unlikely that foreign audiences (and probably a lot of Chinese audiences too) can understand or appreciate the subtleties and influences at play in the production. (Grace Edwards' review below does a good job in explaining the different elements.)

Act One of The Peony Pavilion. The white platform raises
and tilts off the ground. Set by Michael Simon. 

Not versed in Chinese opera, I can really only look at the work as a dance piece - a modern ballet. As such, it works in parts and gains strength as it progresses. The central character, Du Liniang, is played by three woman. There's the actual Du Linaing, in the flesh, plus two sides of her conscious. This is difficult to express in dance, but once that is established, The Peony Pavilion is a lot easier to take on board.

Narratively, it's uneven. It's hard to distinguish the three different scenes of the first Act and there is little sense of progression or theatrical pacing. A trained singer (Zhang Yuanyuan) plays the "moral restraint" of Du Liniang and sings traditional opera in several scenes. This breaks the flow of physical movement and doesn't build the work dramatically.

The second act is much more cohesive. For a start, there's less singing and more sense of story telling as each scene has both a distinct setting and choreographic style. There's a hell scene with all the sinners wearing black (of course) and the Infernal judge in a long red beard and eye patch. The choreography, although not particularly unique, has a sense of urgency and swell in its floor bound ensemble sections.

Like most ballets in the Western canon, there's a wedding in The Peony Pavilion. It's a union of mortal and ghost. With the whole company of dancers on deck and clad in red, running in thick circles, crotching low and then extending up in climactic waves, it's the strongest physicality of the evening. The program describes it as an "unconventional" wedding ceremony (which made me feel better since I didn't even recognise a wedding scenario while I was watching it.)

Unconventional is a good description of The Peony Pavilion as a whole. While Fei Bo does rely on extremely familiar choreographic conventions to articulate narrative points (even dropping into downright cliche frequently), so many other elements (set, music, opera) unite in unexpected ways as to fashion a rather unconventional work. Somehow, by the end, it all comes together, albeit oddly, and I found an appreciation for the ballet that I did not have at interval.

Throughout it all, the dancers, from corps de ballet through to principals,  shift seamlessly between restrain and melodrama and are equally adroit with contemporary dance vocabulary and technical pointe work.

 Click here to read my review of The Peony Pavilion in the Herald Sun, 17 March, 2012.

Here are some links to other reviews of The Peony Pavilion from the Melbourne Season.

Grace Edwards in Dance Informa  

Chloe Smethurst in The Age

Jordan Beth Vincent in Talking Pointes

The Peony Pavilion
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
15 - 18 March 2012

Friday, March 9, 2012

Clouds Above Berlin

Melanie Lane and Antony Hamilton in Black Project 1.
Photo by Ponch Hawkes.
The local arts community talks a lot about  Melbourne contemporary dance being highly "conceptual." A trite description, perhaps, and hard to actually define, but one that we tend to slap onto any complex or highly intellectualized dance piece. Conceptual in the sense that its motivation or inspiration comes from questions or concepts beyond dance and the piece, as a whole, may have little to do with the physical language of dance. Conceptual in the way that most contemporary arts are conceptual - hybrids of ideas, sources, media aiming to create a synthesized whole.

Local audiences watch a lot of dance works with little actual dancing in them and many works feel more academic and formal than visceral. Recently two different factions of the Green Room Awards - the dance panel (of which I am a member) and the "hybrid" panel - passionately debated which panel should give excellence awards to a substantial number of "dance" works presented in Melbourne in the past year  (BalletLab's Aviary and Chunky Move's Connected - to name a few), highlighting the difficulty in defining where a dance work stops and a "hybrid," (whatever that is) takes over.

I'm glad we have smart, thinking dance makers - dance makers that are excited about exploring ideas and detailed interplays of art forms and willing to take risks with challenging and abstract subjects. (These dance makers, are, of course, not limited to Melbourne nor is the broad "conceptual" label.)

When I have the rare pleasure of experiencing a work where concept and kinaesthesia unite in rare and meaningful harmony, I am ecstatic. It lingers in my mind's eye for days. That experience doesn't happen that frequently - often I see a lot of interesting ideas that don't make for engaging performance, dance or otherwise. Many would say that is the way with all contemporary art and we persevere anyway for that amazing 10% that hits all the right buttons.

These thoughts were in my mind after CloudsAbove Berlin, a double bill of  Antony Hamilton's Black Project 1 and Melanie Lane's Tilted Fawn. They are both works slavishly devoted to abstract concepts that involve carving space. Neither one has all that much "dancing" to speak of and they both are relentless in their slowly unfolding methods. This is not to say that they are unappealing works, on the contrary, Black Project 1 is quite brilliant.

 Hamilton's interest and talent with graffiti and visual design is an ongoing inspiration. We saw it in Blazeblue Oneline (also at Arts House) and he's been building on it throughout subsequent works.
With Black Project 1, Hamiliton sucessfully creates a kinetic performance of the creation of an abstract artwork - and that's as hard to do as it sounds! With its intense blackness and slow build, I can't say that I could sit through it a second time, as it might blow my concentration-meter, but I appreciate its conceptual intent AND follow-thru. Starting from complete stillness and blackness everywhere (and I DO mean blackness - see photo above,) it builds, 45 minutes later, to an environment littered with two and three-dimensional geometric designs.

There's a black floor and big black wall and two dancers (Hamilton and Lane) painted in head to toe black and very dark lighting. It opens (not surprisingly in blackness) with the duo laying together in an off-kilter heap like two fallen soldiers. But by work's end, the space is filled with white circles inside circles on the ground, puffs of aerosal paint cascading along the wall, a mess of white, various-sized balls spilling on the floor and zig-zags of tape strips of intricate patterns. Hamilton and Lane, in some sort of gradually intensifying trance, create the geometries.  They start with micro fits and jerks and miniscule surges of energy through limbs - little electric shocks -  and build momentum through straight, circling propeller arms and bent-knee shunts that travel infintesimally through space. There are extended periods of stillness and bursts of hip-hop-inspired, slow-motion riffs.

Antony Hamilton and Melanie Lane in Black Project 1.
Photo by Ponch Hawkes. 

 Other than blasts of strobe light and the strips of slowly-revealing white tape, Black Project 1  is a visually dark piece with a droning, industrial soundtrack (by Robert Henke, Vainio and Fennesz.) It's definitely not a walk in the park for viewers, but there is reward at the end in the sense of journey, albeit (intentionally) slowly, somewhere. The end is different to the beginning (the dancers have travelled from stage left to right by the finish) and the links from A to B are clear.

 Tilted Fawn doesn't have a similar trajectory. Lane's solo (which opens the program) is also relentless. It's also dark (although not quite so literally black) in colour and tone, but it's missing that satisfaction of trajectory and journey. It so soloptic and dry in its 40 minute long exploration of sounds and spatial architecture that it loses connection to audience.

Lane collaborates with a sound artist named Chris Clark who has assembled different compositions inside cardboard bricks. As Lane arranges the rectangles around the minimalist space into shapes and sculptures (at one time a boat, another a neatly staked rectangle), various sound collages are created. The activity is mono-dynamic and doesn't sustain interest for its lengthy duration. Lane walks around stage, moves boxes, thoughtfully stares at said boxes and occassionally breaks into pedestrian stride to strike a dancerly poses. On a pure "conceptual" level, it's well-trodden territory and the physical activity is too subdued to make an impact.
Melanie Lane stacking bricks in Tilted Fawn.
Photo by Ponch Hawkes.

 I have to admit, by 15 minutes in, I was struggling to connect to the activity in front of me. But then... I returned from a heavy blink and Lane was in the centre of the space in only a nude bodystocking and some rickety platform shoes (covered by the body stocking) contorting into the most amazingly awkward curves, throwing her weight onto the sides of her feet, whacking her ankles and wrists in uncomfortable flexions and supinations. It was awesome - amazing. I was gobsmacked. Where did this grotesque and intriguing body come from? Was this the same women who was building bricks?

After this breakout (maybe 5 minutes or so), Lane went back to brick-stacking with the same pedestrian intention and low-energy dynamic as before. And she kept doing this for what seemed like a very long time. Then there was a black out and it ended.

In theory, "concepts" are cool- but watching amazingly articulate bodies do things beyond ordinary is, for me, anyway, so much cooler. When concepts and bodies converge - well, that's rare and total coolness.

Clouds Above Berlin
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
7 - 11 March, 2012

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Warumuk - In The Dark Night by Stephen Page in Infinity. Photo by AFP
The Australian Ballet started its 50th year in celebration mode with Infinity. Triple bills are always risky endeavours, as modern works are a harder sell than classics to ballet audiences. Infinity has a lot going for it. It's big names all around - Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page - three of Australia's most famous choreographers, all of whom have histories with the company. Three specially commissioned musical scores accompany the pieces. While the works are not all perfect hits in and of themselves, each has plenty to like. Overall, it's an entertaining and substantial evening with plenty of appeal for a broad spectrum of dance lovers.

For me, Obarzanek's There's Definitely a Prince Involved was the highlight. A tongue in cheek deconstruction of something dear to the heart of of balletomines - Swan Lake, the work involves dancers breaking out of corps roles to ruminate on love and longing while pondering the plot and characters of the traditional ballet. It won't be everyone's cup of tea and audiences are divided on this one for sure. Chunky Move fans will be used to Obarzanek's post-modern take, but those who like to enjoy classical ballet straight may not be amused.

Click here for my review of Infinity in the Herald Sun, 27 Feburary 2012.

24 February - 06 March 2012
State Theatre, Art Centre Melbourne

05 -25 April 2012
Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House