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

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