“Broken necks, splattered patellas, severed arteries: These are the things from which dreams are made of”, according to former professional wrestler, Road Warrior Hawk (ring name of Michael Hegstrand, 1957–2003). Said fellow former professional wrestler Cactus Jack (ring name of Mick Foley, 1965–), “if the Gods could build me a ladder to the heavens, I'd climb up the ladder and drop a big elbow on the world”. They might have been talking about old school wrestling, but on Tuesday night, their words could easily be re-moulded around the hulking form of Lucas Jervies’ world premiere of Spartacus created on The Australian Ballet in 2018.
At the 8th performance of Spartacus parallels to wrestling were shaped in place of Kirk Douglas brandishing a sword in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960s film of the same name. Spartacus was upfront, hand-to-hand, body-to-body combat, which, under the fight direction of Nigel Poulton, left no room to hide. But the fighting throughout was not there solely to entertain the makeshift arena of Melbourne’s State Theatre. Less, blood as spectacle, more, honesty in the face of omnipresent power. When not marvelling at the choreographed battles between gladiators, and, in particular, Ty King-Wall’s Crassus and poster boy, in and out of the theatre, Kevin Jackson as an exceedingly ripped Spartacus, it was the Meditations or spiritual reflections of Roman emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (AD 121–180), who wrote, “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”, which etched the muscle.
The very choreography within Spartacus appeared shaped around the curve of a muscle, with arms arcing the line of a bulging bicep or sharp like the cut of a deltoid. Visual references to the movement of wrestling allowed a new lexicon into the arena, with Jackson’s Spartacus anchored to and of the earth. Every palm that hammered the stage, every fist planted into the sand, every movement stretched like an arrow in a bow being drawn within the body’s casing forged a reconnection to purpose. Jackson’s Spartacus was the body as a weapon, but it was deeper than that. Jackson embodied an earthly gladiator of great moral sinew, his weighted stoicism in stark relief to a golden-fronted, power-soaked King-Wall, whose movements were of the air, upward and with self-appointed, god-like mis-leanings.
Light and dark, day and night, youth and maturity, a flirtation and redemption, naturalistic and ethereal: Giselle spins a conjuror’s trick all the wilier for its very familiarity, its everlasting allurement.
An autumnal village presented in Act I flips to reveal the ballet blanc of Act II: two halves of a whole. We know this, we anticipate this, we lap it up. Fermented in honey before interval, raising a flagon of mead to love, and even love’s folly, and unpinned madness, we heed the warnings spun to the villagers. The flipside to a light-hearted Peasant pas de deux is heartache and mourning. We are cognisant of the fact that when we return to our seats in the theatre, the scene will have changed. Light for dark. Day for night. Of the earth for beyond this realm. A village for the darkest forest floor of folkloric apparitions who demand you dance to your death. Raise your flagon of mead for raise your ghostly spirits, cloaked in a shawl spun by otherworldly spiders.
True to a magic trick, in the Australian Ballet’s 259th performance of Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle: how is it that I had not really noticed Hilarion, a forester (gamekeeper) before? Giselle and Count Albrecht make a ballet classic, but Giselle and Hilarion could have made for a happier life. Against the backdrop of opposites, there appears a triangle. In magic, ballet, life, it appears. Unrequited love and anguish wears a beard in the form of Jarryd Madden, and his performance portends great things to come in Lucas Jervies’ Spartacus, to conclude the 2018 Melbourne season. On Tuesday night, Madden’s Hilarion is more than a narrative ploy to reveal Albrecht’s deception through identity as the finder-of-cloak-and-sword; he is more than a game-offering, unnoticed suitor in the woods; more than a warning that Myrtha and her glow of Willis mean business: you will dance to your death.
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— Fjord Review
Our seams and cracks, be they through physical injury or knocks to and aches of the heart, are markers of our lived experience, and through acceptance we can come to find meaning in them and appreciation: I am here, imperfect and all the stronger for it. As Christopher Rodgers-Wilson replaced metal ligatures for golden joinery on the stage, he was proof that “injury and rehabilitation can be enlightening in unlocking a new path forward and arming you with a stronger resolve and new found sense of appreciation for your dancing”. Mending is an art, and the essence of resilience.
In other moments, the “crack in everything” could be read in the lines separating two dancers from each other. Between Coco Mathieson and Callum Linnane, their ever-unfixed negative space created an even river line from head to toe. It appeared as if they were the one worn form in the landscape, cleaved in two by the passage of water and/or time: when one part of Mathieson was convex, Linnane’s neighbouring body was concave. Framed in white costumes, designed by Topp, with the dark stage behind them, it was the negative space they created which caught my eye, the background illuminating the foreground. Together, they made the space that let the light in, and it was breathtaking.
Elsewhere, this sensation was evoked in the space one dancer tried to fill when entwined with another. With a head tilted to one side and the opposite arm extended, a lovely long 'u' shape was drawn with the body, a lovely long 'u' shape for another to fill with their head lowered, their ear to the other’s shoulder. A shoulder for a pillow, an arm for support, an ear pressed close so as to hear, a meld of two as one, a perfect fit; the joint-call technique of kintsugi, where a similar shaped piece is used to replace the broken one. Each movement flowed into another, but always either filling the outline made by the other, or following the river bend of the other, but never crossing it, instead, shining a light through it. At times, Amanda McGuigan, Karen Nanasca, and Sharni Spencer rippled and sparkled like light as it sought to emblazon the darkness. Gold and darkness made splendid by staging and lighting design by Jon Buswell.
Recently landed: A Giddy Delight, Gracia's written response to The Australian Ballet's The Merry Widow, for Fjord Review
At the Paris Universal Exhibition at the turn of the twentieth century, where it was said Debussy first heard Javanese gamelan music, near everything newly-discovered or newly-made could be found. The Eiffel Tower, now synonymous with Paris, for one; the world-encompassing scale of the Galerie des machines where visitors could delight in discovering atmospheric hammers, cigarette makers, phonographs, and telephones, another. Add to this a colonial exhibition of the ‘other’ from across land and sea masses; the Imperial, the largest diamond in the world; and a giant wooden and stucco elephant, which was later purchased and placed alongside an infamous red windmill, the Moulin Rouge, to render complete the Jardin de Paris Elephant. For a franc, a gentleman could enter the elephant’s body, by way of a staircase twisting up one of its legs, and find themselves in an opium den and a froth of belly dancers.
Paris: the city of entertainment. “Paris was where the twentieth century was…. Paris was the place to be,” said Gertrude Stein of that beautiful era, la Belle Époque. Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, and Degas. Bonnard, Cézanne, and Monet. Well may I cry, pour me another cocktail of Post-Impressionism, Les Nabis, and ornamental Art Nouveau, but what of all this and a widow, merry or otherwise? This doorway to the past was, for me, what coloured and illuminated The Merry Widow. It was the backdrop to the foreground and the foreground to the backdrop, the very balance of the composition, the lightness of step, its undeterred waltzing heart. The elephant in the garden: frivolity and amusement.
From the palette of the Fauvist “wild beasts”, Matisse et al., to that found inside the belly of the beast, colour radiated mood, and it needn’t be true to the natural world. The emotional state was the heat rubbed into the canvas, into life, and on the stage in Robert Helpmann’s The Merry Widow, originally created for The Australian Ballet in 1975, and felt last night at the State Theatre from a seat in the stalls. Colour as a vehicle for describing the lustre and space of the city of light, itself. Colour to describe high and low art brushing shoulders.
I raise my hand up above my head. I let it fall down. Connected to my body, my arm remains secure in its socket of the shoulder blade. My arm does not fall to the ground. My body is connected, "dem bones, dem bones, dem dancing bones." My body has my back, secure “doin’ the skeleton dance ….The backbone’s connected to the neck bone. Doin’ the skeleton dance.” And it was in this manner that I read Alice Topp’s new choreographic work, Little Atlas. There may have been three dancers on the stage, Leanne Stojmenov, Kevin Jackson, and Andrew Killian, but there was one body. One body caught up in the push and pull of memory.
When Stojmenov moved she was more than in tune with the movements of Jackson and Killian, they became one and the same. "The thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone" and Stojmenov was connected to Jackson, as she fell she was safe in the knowledge that she wouldn’t hit the floor. “The hip bone’s connected to the backbone” and Killian was a continuation of Stojmenov, a different facet of a whole. To me, I interpreted the movements as the struggle within the one body, as memories are reordered and erased by time, and the fluidity of joints begins to stiffen. The thigh bone is connected to the hip bone, but as we all know the body can’t dance forever, not quite. Best to shake it, morph it, steel fuse it like Patti Smith. Or Shakira. "My hips don’t lie [as Topp explains]…. I’ve only got a few more years of dancing left in this old bod so I would absolutely love to have a future in choreography.” And from Little Atlas a future in choreography is undoubtedly what she has.
At the coordinates 78°29’121 N 014°17’986 E, composer Ludovico Einaudi (for and with Greenpeace) performed 'legy for the Arctic', a call from the icebergs, a response on the keys, off the coast of Svalbard, Norway. And at latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates for Melbourne’s State Theatre, in similar vein tap, Einaudi’s 'Fly' and 'Experience' enabled the heart to soar. As revealed in Topp’s choreographic note, by way of two greats, Joan Didion and Patti Smith, this was about our own stored memories and “our attachment to the way these things made us feel” Fleeting time, we feel it in our bones. Transformation, while inevitable, is loss. But as Patti Smith (in her 2015 kaleidoscopic memory dance, M Train) best describes: “the transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.”
The original Alice was Alice Liddel. She was ten at the time Lewis Carroll amused her with a tale of adventures underground. In history’s collective memory, she is the assured girl staring at the photographer (Carroll) in role of Beggar Girl (then aged 7). A muse in the form of a girl who requested Carroll pen the adventures he had regaled her with. And write them down he did, adding the famous grinning Cheshire Cat and a tea party with a Mad Hatter, March Hare, and sleepy Dormouse for good measure, and thus plumping, amending, growing an absurd amusement into what would become a classic. A classic where those who best adapt are those who accept new laws of logic. Live Flamingos are croquet bats. And those aforementioned Hedgehogs are balls (performed by young children in soft-spiked backpacks, and all adorable). Babies are piglets; mind the mincer. Roses can be (should be, declared the Queen of Hearts) painted red. Violets need not be violet. But, of violet as a hue, let’s dress the other original Alice, Lauren Cuthbertson of the Royal Ballet. A special guest performing two nights during the Melbourne season, Cuthbertson has performed the role of Alice since 2011. She was Christopher Wheeldon’s original Alice, like Liddel was to Carroll, and she was responsible for creating the part. To see her in this role on Wednesday night is an indescribable joy. She inhabits every inch of the role, from extended fingertips to light pointe play. And amid all of the wordplay transformed into theatrical might, she is utterly hypnotic, with Christopher Rodgers-Wilson’s Knave of Hearts beautifully smitten.
With her brown hair bobbed, like Alice Liddel, Cuthbertson has returned Alice to (perhaps) her truest form. She no longer recalls John Tenniel’s original illustrations of a long-haired Alice with an overlarge head. And she has nothing to do with the Disney musical of 1951, blonde and in blue. Cuthbertson’s Alice knows the rules on the other side of the looking glass. The rules one might adhere to ‘aboveground’ do not apply here: take the mushroom. Whether nonsensical or otherwise, she deciphers the rules and applies them, growing accordingly. When you take away the preconceptions of how things should operate, every tick-tock of Alice’s extended leg backwards and forwards is a philosophers’ dream. Cuthbertson’s Alice embraces new reality on its own terms in a playful, off-kilter world, and jumps on a sponge cake (with an inbuilt trampoline). She throws herself with abandon, safe in the knowledge she’ll be caught, and her legs make perfect right angles, mid-air. Rules to live by, above- or underground.
Murphy’s Nutcracker loops freely from summertime in late 1950s Australia back to snow-cloaked Imperial Russia before launching towards the 1917 Russian Revolution, in the way that memory does, and the musical score, in turn, can be read. Clara’s memory maps her life as a star of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before touring with Colonel de Basil to the homelands of previous divertissements: Spain, Egypt, China, and, naturally, the addition of Melbourne. Clara’s final performance is also the birth of a company, the newly formed Borovansky Ballet. To sweep such rich terrain in an evening, Clara’s story is told through three different performers, from Child Clara (Jessica Stratton-Smith) to Young Clara, performed by Leanne Stojmenov (on opening night) and Dimity Azoury (on Tuesday night), and Ai-Gul Gaisina and Chrissa Keramidas (on opening and Tuesday nights respectively) as Clara the Elder. Stojmenov not only taps into but epitomises fluid-shifting remembrance and loss, and ultimately resilience with such tactile conviction, rendering her spine elastic yet unbreakable in every intimate lift with Kevin Jackson as her Soldier/Lover. Great love never dims, it merely changes shape, and their connection and faith in each other feels all the deeper for beginning at the end.
From Hills Hoist to the Argus newspaper calls, the Australian gumtree angle works because it is presented as a truth. It is not (self-) consciously laid on thick; it is merely there. A mirror. This is us. A part of our dance history. These are scenes we recognise. Clara the Elder’s apartment is one we’ve all sat in, either in real life, or in a story where perhaps we wished we had a relative who had spent their formative years on the stage. As Clara the Elder, both Gaisina and Keramidas appeared to shine from inside out. To paraphrase Murphy, just as you hear Tchaikovsky poured his heart into the score, the same can be said of the light-footed recollections of Gaisina and Keramidas as Ballet Russes émigrés. Where past is in contrast to present, and Russian society is shown in contrast to a life of exile in Australia, the time spent in Act I with Clara and her émigré friends (Frank Leo, Colin Peasley OAM, Terese Power et al.) is what enables Nutcracker to hit you in the guts when the curtain closes. The body as it gets older cannot do what it might earlier have done with ease. This is the cruelty of age. And this is strength, beauty, and the importance of connections forged with others. If ever there was a call to follow your dreams, this celebration of a lived experience being that which makes us richer is it. It is precisely the amount of time spent in her apartment that is why, I believe, we feel a lump in our throat or a tear on our cheek when Clara dies. We cannot know what has been lost without knowing what is. Nostalgia colours the past, but it also informs the present and alters the future. "Time does not help us make sense of our otherwise jumbled lives; our jumbled lives help us make sense of time."
See below the line. Look beyond the surface. Delve beneath the city. Peer underneath the skin. Vide infra. What makes us tick, and ultimately what holds us together, piece by splintered piece.
Drawing its name from the Latin word for ‘below,’ Infra (2008) surveys the internal. This work is a part of the body, within the body; this work is the human condition. Infrarenal. Wayne McGregor invites us to look at the “interior emotional landscape” by observing and drawing inferences from the data on the stage, in turn calling upon our own emotions. The choreographic language is both felt and distinctly human. Beneath the surface of both city and skin, the binding agent is similar.
Segmented by an LED screen that runs the length of the stage, two letterboxed worlds are presented. Above the line, visual artist Julian Opie’s flow of uniform pedestrians are an unwavering rhythm. From the left and right they flow in a mesmerising pattern that is both soothing and indifferent. If you stumble, assistance is unlikely; you’ll merely disturb the pattern. Simplified to the core — a circle for a head, a block for a torso, a rectangle for a briefcase — they are in stark contrast to the activity below the line. The twelve dancers from the Australian Ballet, beneath the ‘unreal city,’ reveal deep inward feelings. Below the line, within the body, visceral and real, and with a capacity to feel, ache, and sometimes break. The binding agent is fragile.
I grew up watching Lucky and Penny spin about the dance floor. I knew their every line, and, more importantly, their every move, and their every move’s lines. Studied on a Beta video and later a VHS, their moving forms were so familiar to me. And perhaps through my repeated viewings I’d hoped for some sort of talent transference through the screen to me lying in Cobra on the floor, my chin resting in my hands. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as John ‘Lucky’ Garnett and Penelope ‘Penny’ Carrol, in George Stevens’ Swing Time (1936), were my idols in Primary School. They were natural and joyous to watch when they danced, and it was for the dance that I watched Swing Time.
They knew how to move and glide, and were utterly in tune with the other. Their mutual delight drew me in. They danced for the audience, and for each other, and at the end of each number they appeared to share a look of mutual respect that was outside of their characters, a sort of private yet public ‘thank-you for the dance; you were great.’ Thanks to Astaire’s insistence that all dance pieces should be filmed in as close to a single take as possible, with the whole of the figure visible, the effect now, as was then, is just like watching a live performance. The figure uninterrupted is free to tell its truth. Jean-Luc Godard would later echo this unbroken line sentiment in his films: “the cinema is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie.”
Watching Swing Time, or indeed any Fred and Ginger film, it feels entirely plausible that dance numbers should spontaneously spark into being. That’s how people communicate. It all makes sense. All you need is a body, and we’ve all one of those. Though some, why, some can move with grace and rhythm as they speak their truth. As Martha Graham advised (and we’d all do well to adhere to): “there is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action [when you dance/make/do], and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
And so, as I sit now before the keyboard looking back over what I have seen this year, the pieces I recall are those that conveyed honesty and “an energy.” Unfeigned, full-hearted, call it what you will. With my eye, Godard’s camera, my life coach, Graham, and the effortless hover and charm of Lucky and Penny only in dream, let’s look back at 2016.