Australian Dance Festival
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
May 3, 2019 – Australian Dance Theatre: The Beginning of Nature
May 11, 2019, afternoon – The Australian Ballet: Chairman Dances, Unspoken Dialogues, Aurum
During the first and second weeks in May, The Joyce Theater presented a sampling of dance companies from Australia under the umbrella title Australian Dance Festival. Three Australian dance companies were represented, with each company’s program given a limited run. I was unable to see the first of the three companies, Dancenorth, but I did see both Australian Dance Theater and The Australian Ballet.
I’ll consider the programs, and the pieces within them, in reverse performance order, beginning with the last piece on The Australian Ballet program.
Aurum, which closed that program, was to me the best of the bunch. Choreographed by one of the company’s Resident Choreographers, Alice Topp, the concept is original, the presentation was interesting, and the execution was first rate. But before I go further, a nod to Aurum’s program note.
I like program notes. Regardless of whether I see what the note states is the dance’s inspiration, or what the particular piece is supposed to be ”about,” if anything, I appreciate the effort – even when, as in many cases, it’s an ego-trip opportunity. But the program note for Aurum is in a different league. It is literature.
Written by the choreographer, the program note for Aurum is a brilliant little essay that examines the inspiration for the ballet: kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold or metallic lacquer, which melds the broken pieces back together. It is simply and beautifully composed, and by far the best written such program note that I’ve ever read. More importantly, it succeeds in conveying not just what the dance is “about,” but the emotional core behind the art, and the truth of it – as well as piquing one’s interest in the dance to come. And any program note that quotes both Ernest Hemingway (“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places”), and Leonard Cohen (“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”) has a leg up. If there was a Pulitzer Prize for program notes, I’d nominate this. Kudos to Topp for this gem.
And also kudos to Topp for Aurum, the dance.
Topp, whose previous work I am not familiar with, has here created a dance that’s a perfect balance between the abstract and the literal. The dance stands, or moves, on its own even without knowing its impetus. But seeing the stage floor covered by a dark background (black or dark blue) through which veins of jagged lines in gold (“aurum” is “gold” in Latin) seemingly unpredictably applied reminds the viewer that there’s far more to Aurum than abstract movement through space. The connection is cemented, so to speak, when the flooring is elevated mid-dance into an upstage scrim which serves as a background for the dancers.
Although it’s not initially clear, as the dance progresses it’s evident that the twelve dancers represent both the ceramic fragments as they’re reunited with a stronger bond after having been broken apart, as well as, metaphorically, humans torn apart and repaired after having been emotionally broken, and being stronger for the experience. It’s a gentle dance, with a feminine sensibility (not at all strident or dogmatic; just insightful), but also powerful in the sense of inner strength. And there’s a bonus – Aurum perfectly represents the importance of increasing the number of women choreographers.
Unspoken Dialogues, choreographed by Stephen Baynes (another of The Australian Ballet’s Resident Choreographers), is also powerful, but not at all insightful – and in temperament it couldn’t be more different from Aurum. It’s a well-crafted pas de deux that, were it not for some of the choreographic intricacies and the execution by Kevin Jackson and Jill Ogai, would be just another unpleasant (and maybe worse) dance about stormy relationships that go from romantic ecstasy to mental and physical cruelty and back again, with neither party interested in leaving the roller coaster. Stable instability created with style but without heart.
In the brief program note, Baynes states that the dance “is about all the things that people can’t say to each other, or say in the wrong way, or hear in the wrong way…about two people who struggle to live together, but can’t live apart.” That may be true with respect to certain real relationships, but its visualization here says nothing about what the couple can’t say to each other and a lot about domestic violence and submission to it, supposedly in the name of love. The dance is not easy to take. It’s not just the violence (though there’s not as much as there could have been, it’s still violence); it’s because Baynes seems to take it for what it is, with implicit approval.
To give Baynes credit, this piece was choreographed in 2004 (created for Steven Heathcote and Justine Summers), won the 2005 Helpmann Award for Best Choreography, and was performed in London as part of The Royal Ballet’s 75th Anniversary season. So although its theme may seem hackneyed and its approach non-judgmental where judgment would be expected, when it was created it apparently was considered inventive, and perhaps unusually perceptive. Now, however, it looks neither inventive nor perceptive; more like an expanded version of parts of Jerome Robbins’s In The Night, which premiered in 1970, without Robbins’s sense of humanity and respect for his human characters.
In a nutshell, initial connections between the two in which they seem to be emotional mirror images and during which their physical connection is both deep and apparent, devolve into his pulling and dragging her around, or rolling her pained (or submitted) body on the stage floor…with his feet, either in an attempt to rid himself of her or just to demean her. This cycle repeats and repeats again, in slightly different form, as the dance progresses. Each time, after being victimized, the woman keeps coming back to him, apparently content to have him treat her this way because in other respects the emotional and physical bond is so strong (there’s no hint here that this is behavior she enjoys or in any way encourages).
Jackson’s performance, aside from demonstrating technical prowess, was relatively flat throughout – which I think was Baynes’s intent. His character can’t explain what he does, even visually. The passion is there, but so is the stone. Ogai, a company soloist, imbues her character with a sense of near perpetual sadness, as well as palatable suffering in silence. For Unspoken Dialogues, there are no words.
The program’s opening piece, Chairman Dances, is a fine abstract creation that, while not being particularly memorable, isn’t a bad way to begin an evening. A world premiere choreographed by Tim Harbour (still another Resident Choreographer) to a portion of John Adams’s composition The Chairman Dances (“Foxtrot for Orchestra”), the dance, for eleven, is energetic and exuberant, and colorful in all senses of the word –from the brightly colored costumes, designed by Harbour, to the colorful movement variety and the colorfully dynamic staging.
This was The Australian Ballet’s first New York appearance since 2012. When the company next returns, a program that displays the company’s ballet repertory, for which it is well-respected, would be most welcome.
Australian Dance Theater’s program, which I saw on May 3, was more problematic. Devoting a program to one evening-length piece is, from my point of view, a commendable idea – when the piece is good. Through no fault of the company’s talented dancers, I found The Beginning of Nature to be perplexing at best.
Based on the program note from the company’s Artistic Director, Garry Stewart, who also conceived, directed, and choreographed it (with assistance from company dancers), The Beginning of Nature is based on nothing less than the “rhythms in nature [that] permeate all aspects of the material universe, including day and night, the seasons, the tides, as well as flocking and patterns of various species, the rhythmic patterns within the body, and the patterns that constitute bodily morphologies.” And if that wasn’t challenging enough, the piece “also situates humans as creatures.” So, in a nutshell, it’s supposed to be about everything under the sun that preceded civilization.
And this is to be accomplished in a dance that runs, to my recollection, maybe 90 minutes.
I suppose if the piece were good enough, something resembling Genesis with a tribal atmosphere might work, but The Beginning of Nature is far more limited than its cosmic intent. To me, it’s a dance rendering of primitive life (and maybe “life” is too strong a word) in a primeval rain forest (or, I suppose equally valid, some arid expanse of nothingness), already populated with creatures living together in relative disharmony. That could have been fine too, and some of the images created are interesting, even searing, but overall it’s needlessly confusing.
For example, following the standard operating sound of thunder at the dawn of creation (or at a Rainforest Café), a large halo of light appears over the stage. Symbolic of the separation of the air from the land? God’s blessing? The way lightning appears through the trees in an Australian rainforest or desert? A meaningless but neat way to light the stage? When the dancers appear (the first is hunched over, as if he’d just evolved from whatever it was that preceded him, or hadn’t quite evolved yet, they all (as much as I could see) have one green-gloved hand. If there was an explanation for that in the piece, I missed it. If there wasn’t, for something so apparently significant, there should have been. I suppose it might be representative of some connection with the earth (especially since vegetation plays a large part in the dance), but that’s a stretch. And the repeated (and as I recall concluding) image of a lone tree is representative of something (survival of the fittest tree?), and interesting, but, at best, strange – like something out of René Magritte. Indeed, a lot of the imagery in The Beginning of Nature is surreal.
After the obligatory primitive sense of arms moving ceremoniously, as if saluting the heavens (or looking for something there), strange things happen. Frequently, the dancers assume the appearance and/or demeanor of animals. I saw birds; land creatures (leaping antelopes, or leaping lizards; herds of bison-like animals – no kangaroos or koalas, though). Some of this imagery works choreographically – five or six dancers create an extraordinary “snake” image by their sequential arm and body movement; one dancer with spine-like protrusions looks fearsome (though not dangerous), particularly when these “spines” eventually are held up and spread apart by others, converting it into a sort of royal robe) – some don’t. But to the extent they work, they work as isolated visual moving images, not parts of a whole. And at times the dancers are represented as vegetative growth (or the need for it), like tree trunks that appear to grow (with the assistance of skillfully placed props), mini-trees carried reverentially (a reference to fertility?), or just flora swaying in the breeze. The movement is unpredictable, which might be appropriate under these circumstances, but that doesn’t mean it looks interesting – on the contrary, it just looks incoherent. But then, I suppose a dense rainforest (or even an arid desert) might be considered, in a sense, incoherent. Sometimes the movement looks frenzied; sometimes wary; sometimes like primitive wrestling; sometimes buffeted by apparent changes in wind velocity; sometimes as if propelled by some earthquake.
The human rainforest denizens are the least interesting in terms of movement and interaction. They live; they die, they have pseudo sex, they give birth; they follow each other through difficult terrain; they survive. Or they don’t. One early image appears to be of a dead man, with others seeming not to know quite what to do with it (would it make good fertilizer?); another image has a male and female standing and staring into each other’s eyes, coming as close as they physically can, their lips close to touching, but with no expression on their faces and appearing not to have a clue what to do next. I suppose the notion of love or attraction had to have started somewhere.
Nearly all of it is danced to an original score for strings (and thunder) by Brendan Woithe (KLANG), recorded by The Zephyr Quartet, which gets loud and quiet and has an overly “this is the way the world began” feel to it. And through much of that score, words of the rescued language (called Kaurna) of the indigenous people of the Adelaide Plains area (the company’s home is in Adelaide, in southern Australia) are sung or spoken or both. They’re not decipherable, but that’s not as important as the sound and the symbolism.
The company’s dancers (Jana Castillo, Zoe Dunwoodie, Harrison Elliott, Thomas Fonua, Christopher Mills, Gabrielle Nankivell, Matte Roffe, Rowan Rossi, and Kimball Wong), danced with purposeful intensity and commitment.
There’s a lot of power to this piece, and some nifty images. Ultimately, however, The Beginning of Nature is too primitive-looking to make a good dance – although still image recreations might make for fine panoramic exhibits at the Museum of Natural History. All the non-direction seems initially exciting, then grows increasingly tiresome, perhaps like being in a dense rainforest at the dawn of time.