OUR land people stories

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 16

Bangara Dance Theatre Our Land People Stories

Bangarra ensemble in Macq. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new triple bill OUR land people stories takes you to dark places but it is also a moving celebration of the resilience of the human spirit and the healing power of art.

Together the three works – each featuring a simple but striking set by Jacob Nash, beautiful costumes by Jennifer Irwin and moody lighting by Matt Cox – create an over-arching Indigenous narrative from colonial massacre, to the survival of identity through the strength of kinship and connection to country, to artistic success and expression today.

While Nayapanyapa marks Stephen Page’s 25th year as artistic director of the company, the other two works are by emerging choreographers drawn from the ranks of Bangarra dancers. The fact that together they make for such a satisfying program is an encouraging sign for the future.

The program begins with Macq by Bangarra dancer Jasmin Sheppard, which premiered in 2013 as part of Dance Clan 3 but which has since been further developed. Opening with mourning women gathered around a body, it is set in 1816 when Governor Lachlan Macquarie, believing that his well-intentioned social policies for “the natives” weren’t working, sanctioned the massacre of D’harawal people near Appin as punishment for attacks by “hostile tribes”.

Staging much of it on and around an extremely long table with a warped chandelier and tea set and the ensemble in costumes that parody colonial society, Sheppard has created some wonderfully inventive choreography. She has a very keen visual sense and several resonant images etch themselves deeply in the heart and mind. The haunting way she evokes hanging men – held up from behind by other dancers who represent both the trees they hang from and the fellow tribesmen who cut them down – is shocking yet tender. Red-coated soldiers with rifles crawling on their bellies are like a cross between contemporary commandos and lizards.

Daniel Riley is superb as the conflicted Macquarie in a tortured solo and a fierce, combative duet with Beau Dean Riley Smith as a D’harawal man, while Nicola Sabatino is moving as a mourning woman.

Macq features a stunningly evocative score by David Page, the company’s ground-breaking music director who died suddenly in April. The Sydney season and national tour of OUR land people stories is dedicated to his memory.

The pioneering way David (brother of Stephen Page) combined traditional and contemporary music with spoken language (both Indigenous and English) and song has become a distinctive Bangarra feature and his influence can be felt in the scores for the other two pieces in the program: Miyagan with music by Paul Mac and Nyapanyapa with music by Steve Francis.

Bangara Dance Theatre Our Land People Stories

Bangarra dancers in Miyagan. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Miyagan is about the kinship system of the Wiradjuri Nation in NSW to which its co-creators, dancers Riley and Riley Smith, both belong. Set at the Talbragar mission in Dubbo in the early 1900s, where their great-great-grandfather lived, they use the entire company of 17 to evoke the complex web of family ties as part of which each person has their role and responsibility.

Nash’s overhanging branches with feathered leaves are visually arresting and there is some wonderful costuming by Irwin. The choreography has a springiness to it that feels a little different from much of the very grounded Bangarra style and there is some ebullient unison group work. Not all the story-telling is as clear as it might be (are the hairy-headed figures guiding spirits?) but there is much to enjoy.

In Nyapanyapa, Stephen Page celebrates the life of acclaimed visual artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, a Yolngu woman from North East Arnhem Land. Nash’s staging evokes several of her paintings, including one telling of her traumatic goring by a buffalo as a young girl. Through various short scenes including a joyous community dance where Nyapanyapa struggles to join in we watch her find herself through her art.

Bangarra Ensemble - Nyapanyapa, OUR land people stories - Photo by Jhuny Boy-Borja

Bangarra ensemble with Waangenga Blanco as the buffalo in Nyapanyapa. Photo: Jhuny Boy-Borja

The dancing is powerful across the board but the radiant Elma Kris brings enormous heart to the title role in a gorgeous work with lovely touches of humour.

To watch Nyapanyapa Yunupingu herself take slowly to the stage on Page’s arm for the opening night curtain call was a moving end to an inspiring night.

OUR land people stories plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until July 9. Bookings: 02 9250 7777 or www.sydneyoperahouse.com. It then tours to Perth, July 20 – 23; Canberra, July 28 – 30; Brisbane, August 12 – 20; Melbourne, September 1 – 10. Details: www.bangarra.com.au

 A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 19

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Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 1

Swan Lake - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Amber Scott and Adam Bull. Photo: Daniel Boud

Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake ranges from the ordinary to the sublime, but with Amber Scott giving a divine performance as Odette/Odile, sensitively partnered by Adam Bull as Prince Siegfried, this Australian Ballet revival is ultimately a very satisfying experience.

Baynes was commissioned to create a new Swan Lake for the company’s 50th anniversary in 2012. Artistic director David McAllister wanted a traditional production to stand alongside Graeme Murphy’s stunning modern version, created in 2002 for the company’s 40th anniversary, which drew so cleverly on the love triangle between Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles.

 Baynes has retained most of the Act II choreography for the swans from the 1895 Kirov version – and why wouldn’t you; it’s gorgeous and much-loved – as well as the Black Swan pas de deux in Act III. The rest is his.

He has topped and tailed the ballet with an image of Baron von Rothbart on a funeral boat. In the prelude, a melancholy Prince Siegfried, struggling with the responsibilities of his role as his coming-of-age party approaches, recalls his grief as a young boy at his father’s funeral. A boat glides across the back of the stage carrying his father’s body. Baron von Rothbart appears from behind it and fixes his gaze on the Prince.

At the end of the ballet, Rothbart fishes Prince Siegfried’s body from the lake and lifts it onto the boat. The suggestion that Rothbart holds some kind of sway over the royal family, and the Prince in particular, isn’t developed any further though. Baynes does have Rothbart lounge casually in one of the royal thrones during the Act III divertissements but that comes across as pretty unlikely. And it feels strange that we don’t see Rothbart controlling the swans.

The production gets off to a slow start with a rather ordinary Act I. The court is busy preparing for Prince Siegfried’s birthday. Ambassadors present foreign princesses to him in the hope that he will choose one of them to be his wife, while The Duchess and The Countess vie for the Prince’s attention. However, Siegfried can summon little enthusiasm for anything around him and as the act ends, he is drawn to the solitude of the lake. Thus he meets Odette as a result of his melancholy, rather than being in the forest hunting with friends, which is an interesting psychological reading.

Without a great deal of story-telling or dynamic choreography to enliven it, Act I feels rather long and uninspiring. The ballet takes off in Act II with the swans. The corps de ballet were in great form on opening night (less so, at the matinee the following day) and the beautiful, familiar choreography with the dancers in their white and silvery tutus, moving together in perfect synchronicity to create beautiful formations of swans, is as spellbinding as ever.

Swan Lake Baynes 2016_Photo Kate Longley-0G4A25402016204

Members of the Australian Ballet. Photo: Kate Longley

Most thrilling, however, is Baynes’ own choreography for the swans in Act IV. The way he has them flurry and swirl around the stage, moving apart and then flocking back together as the Prince tries to find Odette among them is absolutely beautiful. Their use of fluttering hands, arms and feet captures the sense of women trapped in swan’s bodies, and Odette’s grief at Siegfried’s betrayal, which has her body just about giving out beneath her, is heart-rending.

It’s a shame that the ending is a bit of an anti-climax with the Prince just running off stage, before being fished out of the water by Rothbart, while Odette is represented by the image of a flying on screen. The fact that she has been freed from Rothbart’s power by the Prince’s sacrifice doesn’t really come across and we feel robbed of that final cathartic, emotional moment.

Designer Hugh Colman has chosen the Edwardian era for the court scenes, with a lovely use of colour in Act III – greens, aquamarines, pinks and purples for the ladies and some vibrant designs for the Spanish dancers and Cossacks, which give the ballet a boost of exuberant energy. The lake meanwhile glitters darkly, moodily lit by Rachel Burke.

On opening night, Amber Scott was everything you want in an Odette/Odile. Her Odette was exquisitely fragile and ethereal. She danced as if there was a little less gravity in the air around her and conveyed emotion with every fibre of her being. The gracefulness of her arms, the undulating flexibility in her back and neck, the delicate, nervous flutter of her feet was utterly captivating.

Her Odile had a similar beauty but bolder strength and the calculated expression on her face conveyed the knowing way she used her charm to trick the Prince. As for her 32 fouettes, she nailed them with a precision that had the audience cheering.

Swan Lake - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Amber Scott and Adam Bull. Photo: Daniel Boud

Adam Bull was a sensitive Prince Siegfried, partnering her beautifully, his towering height compared to hers working to emphasise how much he wanted to protect her. With his long limbs, the small stage doesn’t give him the space to really let fly with his Act III set pieces but he still generated excitement and his performance convinced dramatically.

Benedicte Bemet as the pushy Duchess and Miwako Kubota as The Countess both danced beautifully and created strong characters, as did Rudy Hawkes as the Prince’s friend Benno. Veteran dancers, Gillian Revie as the Queen, Olga Tamara as Siegfried’s nurse and Stephen Heathcote as The Lord Chancellor each created a strong dramatic presence.

Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous score is, of course, a perennial pleasure and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra performed it superbly under guest conductor Andrew Mogrelia.

I was lucky enough to see Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo make their debuts as Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile at the matinee the next day. While not yet as heart-breakingly fragile as the experienced Scott, Kondo danced beautifully, capturing Odette’s feeling of entrapment and sorrow, while her Odile exuded confidence without being wildly different to her Odette. Guo conveyed the Prince’s melancholy convincingly and his set pieces in Act III had the dazzling energy and élan that makes him such an exciting dancer. Their emotional connection to the roles will naturally develop, but it was an impressive debut by both.

Swan Lake plays at the Sydney Opera House until April 20. Bookings http://www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

HUANG YI & KUKA

Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, March 16

HuangKuka

Huang Yi and a robotic KUKA in New York in 2015. Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff

As a child, Huang Yi longed for a robotic companion. In his 2013 work, HUANG YI & KUKA he dances with one.

The Taiwanese dancer/choreographer was born into a wealthy family. But, as he explains in the show’s program, when he was 10, investment losses led to his parents going bankrupt, forcing them to move from a luxurious home to a small room.

Witnessing his parents’ distress, Yi felt that he needed to be the perfect child and became emotionally detached. His favourite cartoon was the Japanese manga series Doraemon, which featured a robotic cat that solved all its owner’s problems.

Says Yi: “For me, HUANG YI & KUKA is a process of beautifying the sorrow and sadness when I grew up. It is the expression of loneliness, self-doubt, self-realization, and self-comfort. I was trying to make a beautiful illusion just to assure others that everything was fine. I wanted to remind us of our simplest hope from the very beginning, that we are all just grown up kids, but still kids.”

KUKA (named after the German robotics company that manufactures it) is very obviously a machine – a big, orange, robotic, mechanical arm designed for factory work that sits on a solid black base. This particular robot is apparently a KR16-2 model and was provided by KUKA Australia. But its long spine is very flexible – it can spin around and undulate – and as Yi interacts with it, the results are surprisingly touching.

The piece opens with Yi sitting up slowly in a square of light (a lovely image), while KUKA creates its own field of light with a torch it holds. The work unfolds in semi-darkness with Yi and the robot illuminated by spotlights. Sometimes KUKA uses its torch and sometimes a green or red laser.

In the first three sections, Yi – who is a lovely dancer – interacts with the robot. He reaches towards it and dances in and around it; at other times he sits a little way off on a chair.

Their movement frequently mirrors each other with a surprising similarity: the ripple of a spine, the spin of an arm, a gentle touch of the hand. Increasingly, the robot feels like a curious, sensate being, even though we are always aware of the clank, buzz and hiss as it moves. At times it resembles a giant bird.

These sections have a bittersweet air of melancholia. The music by Arvo Pärt and Mozart among others (it’s a shame the program didn’t list the music used) contributes to the emotion in no small measure.

HuangKuka2

Lin Jou-Wen and Hu Chien. Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff

In the final section, two other dancers – Hu Chien and Lin Jou-Wen – sit on two chairs facing each other in front of the robot. Their jerky movement suggests mechanical humans being manipulated by KUKA and its laser. The inference is that there is a fine line between us controlling technology and technology increasingly controlling us.

Given that it apparently takes around 10 hours to program one minute of robotic movement, HUANG YI & KUKA is an amazing achievement and clearly an act of love on Yi’s part though the work does feel over-extended, particularly a section with a metronome.

The Everest Theatre is not an ideal venue. The work cries out for a more intimate setting and because it’s performed in half-light some had trouble seeing. Sitting near the back of the theatre, my plus one struggled to make out parts of it and found the experience frustrating.

On the other hand, I was charmed by so many little moments – the way the robot delicately tips a chair towards Yi, for example – and found much of it beguilingly beautiful.

HUANG YI & KUKA plays at the Seymour Centre until March 19. Bookings: www.seymour.com or 02 9351 7940

CounterMove

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, February 29

Cacti

Sydney Dance Company in Cacti. Photo: Peter Greig

“This is a bit weird isn’t it,” mutters one of the dancers in Cacti to a huge laugh from the audience.

Created by Swedish choreographer Alexander Eckman in 2010, Cacti is a rare thing: a genuinely funny contemporary dance work. Sydney Dance Company first performed it in 2013 and is now reviving it alongside a new work by Rafael Bonachela as part of a double bill called CounterMove.

Poking fun at alienating, self-absorbed contemporary dance and at critics who indulge in a pretentious search for meaning, Cacti features 16 dancers, each with their own square, wooden platform (and later a cactus), a string quartet, an orchestral soundtrack and a wanky, jargon-laden voice-over analysing the work.

Cacti begins with the dancers in flesh coloured tops, black baggy pants and skullcaps kneeling on their separate wooden tiles. Seemingly trapped, they beat out rhythms, sprint on the spot in perfect unison, writhe, leap, fall and strike poses in a joyous display of exuberant physicality before larking around with their upended rostra and creating a large sculpture.

In a very funny duet performed by Charmene Yap and Bernhard Knauer, their humdrum thoughts are revealed via a voice-over as they dance. (“Look out for my head” and such like).

It’s lovely to actually laugh out-loud at contemporary dance and to see the dancers matching their glorious physicality with such animated facial expressions. Using wit to make a spiky point, Cacti is a breath of fresh air. Oh, and there’s a dead cat.

LuxTenebris

Nelson Earl, Holly Doyle, Fiona Jopp and David Mack in Lux Tenebris. Photo: Peter Greig

Bonachela’s Lux Tenebris, meaning light and darkness, was choreographed to a visceral electronic score commissioned from Nick Wales that buzzes, throbs, pulses and thumps, sending vibrations through the body.

Performed in shadows, we glimpse the dancers through the glowering half-light of copper-coloured light bulbs and shards of wan illumination (design by Benjamin Cisterne). Often, the effect is similar to a roving spotlight picking out people in the middle of already unfolding situations.

Clad in casual streetwear, the dancers hurl themselves into a frenzy of highly physical movement, kicking, whirling and whipping their way through solos, duets and various groupings.

Two beautiful, sexy duets between Charmene Yap and Todd Sutherland to more gentle music are like lulls in a storm. Acrobatic yet poetic, they resonate with the human yearning for connection before the work powers back into top gear.

Lux Tenebris has a slightly uneasy, disquieting air of mystery. Eventually the pounding score and ferocious physicality starts to feel relentless but the kick-ass choreography is incredibly exciting and the dancing is extraordinary.

CounterMove plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, Sydney until March 12, Canberra Theatre Centre, May 19 – 21, and Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, May 25 – June 4

 It then goes on a regional tour:

 NSW: Wollongong, June 17 – 18, Orange, June 22, Newcastle, June 25, Port Macquarie, June 29

QLD: Rockhampton, July 2, Gladstone, July 6, Cairns, July 9 – 10, Gold Coast, July 15 – 16

NT: Darwin, July 29

WA: Geraldton, August 3, Mandurah, August 6, Albany, August 9, Bunbury, August 13

NSW: Bathurst, August 20, Griffith, August 24, Dubbo, August 27

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 6

2015: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over the 167 productions (theatre, musicals, dance, opera and cabaret) I saw in 2015, there was some terrific mainstage theatre but it was in the independent sector this year that many of my real highlights occurred. There were some outstanding performances across both, including a number of unforgettable solo turns.

As for musicals, the commercial scene was generally much more impressive than last year, thanks to a couple of exceptional productions, while independent musical theatre continued to thrive led by the invaluable Hayes Theatre Co. Not only did the Hayes shine a light on many little known shows and talented, emerging performers but it also provided the opportunity for several impressive directorial debuts.

So, here goes with my personal highlights for the year.

MUSICALS

Matilda the Musical

Swings

“When I Grow Up” in Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

 Tim Minchin and writer Dennis Kelly took the irreverent genius of Roald Dahl and made it sing on stage in Matilda The Musical, one of the most original and exciting new musicals in ages. The Royal Shakespeare Company production is an inspired piece of theatre and the Australian cast did it proud, thrilling adults and “maggots” alike. James Millar was a hoot as the monstrous Miss Trunchbull and Elise McCann was a quietly radiant Miss Honey, while the four young girls who played Matilda – Molly Barwick, Bella Thomas, Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin – did a fine job, as did all the children in the cast.

Les Misérables

Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th anniversary production arrived in Sydney after its Melbourne season and stormed the barricades once more. Stellar turns by Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert gave the production a profound emotional power and Kerrie Anne Greenland made a powerhouse professional debut as Eponine.

The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews’ portrayal of Maria in the film of The Sound of Music is indelibly imprinted in most people’s mind. But Amy Lehpamer made the role her own with a sensational performance that confirms she is, without question, one of the stars of Australian musical theatre.

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and child cast in The Sound of Music (c) James Morgan

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and the child cast in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

Lehpamer has been riding a wave for a while now, and showing what an incredibly versatile performer she is. This year alone she has played Janet in The Rocky Horror Show (one of the few good things in a horribly glib production, with Craig McLachlan giving a shamelessly indulgent performance as the hammiest, least sexy Frank N Furter I’ve ever seen), followed by the glamorous Tracy Lord in High Society and now Maria in The Sound of Music. Coming after lovely performances as Christine Colgate in the musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the sassy, fiddle-playing Reza in Once, Lehpamer shows she has got the lot.

This revival of The Sound of Music is a scaled-back version of one first seen at London’s Palladium in 2006 and while some of the sets look less than lavish – the hills are hardly rolling in the opening scene – it’s still a lovely production. Jacqui Dark’s humane portrayal of the Mother Abbess and soaring rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain is another highlight.

INDEPENDENT MUSICALS

Once again, some fabulous indie musicals emanated from the Hayes. Leader of the pack for me, by a whisker, was Violet, closely followed by Heathers, Dogfight and High Society, while Man of La Mancha was a high in a patchy year for Squabbalogic.

Violet

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Mitchell Butel made a brilliant directorial debut at the helm of Violet. He displayed a sure, sensitive touch, keeping the action flowing, the different time frames clear, and the focus where it needed to be.

He also drew truthful, beautifully delineated performances from a well-chosen cast led by Samantha Dodemaide, who glowed as Violet, a young woman who crosses the US by bus hoping that a televangelist will heal a disfiguring scar on her face. Everything about the production was spot-on ensuring that the sweet, gently charming musical knocked you for six emotionally without ever becoming corny.

Heathers the Musical

 Trevor Ashley also directed his first musical this year at the Hayes, and showed that he too has got what it takes. His high-energy production of Heathers the Musical leapt off the stage at you and he pitched the dark, camp comedy just right. Jaz Flowers brought a surprising depth to Veronica while belting the hell out of her songs, Lucy Maunder was very funny as queen bitch Heather Chandler and there were impressive debuts from Stephen Madsen as the psychopathic, James Dean-like J.D. and Lauren McKenna as the bullied Martha and loopy, New Age teacher Ms Fleming.

Dogfight

 Like Violet, Dogfight is a sweet, tender little musical though it spins around a vile prank, causing some to find the show misogynistic. Director Neil Gooding handled this sensitively, clearly showing why the young marines are so full of pumped-up machismo. Hilary Cole as the gauche young waitress Rose and Luigi Lucente as Eddie, the marine who tricks her then falls for her, moved me to tears.

High Society

High Society got a mixed response but I very much liked Helen Dallimore’s production ingeniously staged by Lauren Peters in the tiny Hayes. Daryl Wallis’s jazz quartet arrangements worked a treat, Amy Lehpamer shone as Tracy, while Virginia Gay gave one of the musical theatre performances of the year as Liz, the newspaper photographer quietly in love with her colleague Mike (Bobby Fox). Her performance was full of lovely, surprising little details, her comic timing was immaculate and she knew exactly how to deliver Cole Porter’s songs.

Gay

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox in High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Man of La Mancha

Jay James-Moody’s inventive, low-tech staging of Man of La Mancha was a highlight of Squabbalogic’s 2015 season. Set entirely in a prison dungeon (set by Simon Greer, costumes by Brendan Hay), the gritting reimagining brought new life and emotion to the somewhat hoary old musical. Having the cast play various musical instruments also worked well. At the heart of the production, Tony Sheldon’s Cervantes was dignified, frail and very moving.

MUSICAL ON THE HIGH SEAS

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

 The Norwegian Epic, a cruise liner sailing around the Mediterranean, is known for its entertainment and is currently staging terrific productions of Priscilla and Burn the Floor in its 750-seat theatre. Priscilla stars several Australians among its international cast. Rohan Seinor is sublime as Bernadette bringing enormous warmth, humanity and wit to the role, while Joe Dinn anchors the show as an endearing Tick. I must declare that I went to see my son Tom Sharah, who is a very sassy Miss Understanding. Staged by Australians (director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, costume designer Tim Chappel) it’s a sparkling production – Priscilla, Queen of the Ocean!

MAINSTAGE THEATRE

After Dinner

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Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh in After Dinner. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sydney Theatre Company began the year with a pitch-perfect production of Andrew Bovell’s excruciatingly funny yet tender comedy After Dinner, set in a 1980s pub bistro. Alicia Clements’ set was spot-on down to the icky carpet and yellowing tiles on the wall, while her costumes were 1980s fashion at its hilarious worst. Imara Savage directed a superb cast who had you laughing uproariously yet feeling for the sad, loner characters.

The Present

2015 was Andrew Upton’s last year as artistic director of STC (though he has programmed the 2016 season, which incoming artistic director Jonathan Church will caretake). The Present was a wonderful parting gift. Adapted by Upton from Chekhov’s early, sprawling play Platonov but set in the mid-1990s with the main protagonists now in their mid-40s rather than their 20s, the blistering production was awash with yearning, regret and frustration – as well as plenty of gun shots. Helmed by Irish director John Crowley, there were superb performances all round from the top-notch ensemble cast, which included Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh giving the performance of his career.

Endgame

 Upton also directed an engrossing production of Beckett’s bleak but surprisingly funny absurdist play Endgame for STC. Staged on an imposing, monumental set by Nick Schlieper that reeked of foreboding (beautifully lit by Schlieper too), Hugo Weaving gave a masterful performance as Hamm, mesmerising with the dynamic range of his voice. Dark and difficult but thrilling stuff.

Suddenly Last Summer

Also at STC, Kip Williams directed a highly inventive production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, which synthesised live performance and video more completely than we have seen previously on the Sydney stage. Not everyone was convinced but after a slow start, I found the production worked its magic to deliver an intense telling of the surreal, dreamlike play. Among a strong cast, Eryn Jean Norvill was exquisite as Catharine who is administered the “truth drug” to reveal the details of her cousin’s terrible death.

Ivanov

Belvoir’s new artistic director Eamon Flack got the balance between comedy and despair just right when he directed his own adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov, set in contemporary Russia. Ewen Leslie was compelling as the self-loathing Ivanov but all the cast gave a very human account of people struggling to get by in a society obsessed with self and money. They sang with great vitality too in a production full of music.

My Zinc Bed

Mark Kilmurry, the Ensemble’s incoming artistic director, helmed an elegant production of David Hare’s My Zinc Bed, an intriguing play of ideas centring on addiction and driven by Hare’s heightened use of language. Sean Taylor was magnificent as the suave, Mephistophelian Victor, hinting at the emptiness within.

The Tempest

For his final production as artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago, John Bell directed a lyrical production of The Tempest, staging the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and deft lightness. Matthew Backer was spellbinding as the spirit Ariel, his singing evoking the magic in the isle.

INDEPENDENT THEATRE

Of Mice and Men

OfMice

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

 Iain Sinclair directed a beautiful, understated production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for Sport for Jove that felt utterly truthful. Andrew Henry as the simple-minded Lennie, a gentle giant unaware of his own strength, and Anthony Gooley as his loyal friend George broke your heart. The off-stage shooting of the dog reduced some to tears too.

The Aliens

In Annie Baker’s The Aliens, about a couple of slackers in their 30s who take a younger man under their wing, not much seems to happen but plenty bubbles away beneath the surface. Craig Baldwin’s direction, Hugh O’Connor’s design and the performances by Ben Wood, Jeremy Waters and James Bell made for a deeply affecting piece of theatre.

The Aliens was just one of several memorable productions staged at the Old Fitz. It was great to see the tiny pub theatre in Woolloomooloo flying high again under Red Line Productions. There was a focus on male issues and casts in their 2015 program, which they have acknowledged and plan to address in 2016, as has Darlinghurst Theatre Company in the wake of debate about the gender imbalance in Australian theatre.

Cock

Red Line Productions presented a taut production of Mike Bartlett’s provocatively named play Cock about a love triangle between two men and a woman. Shane Bosher’s production, staged on a gleaming white stage, crackled with tension, with Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway turning in particularly fine performances.

The Dapto Chaser

Mary Rachel Brown’s keenly observed play The Dapto Chaser, presented as part of Griffin Independent, is an unflinching, extremely funny yet poignant look at the world of greyhound racing through the story of one struggling family. Glynn Nicholas’s production felt utterly authentic and the way the family’s dog Boy Named Sue was evoked through mime and panting noises was just brilliant.

SOLO SHOWS

2015 was notable for several excellent solo theatre shows.

Thomas Campbell gave a tour de force performance as the disturbed evangelistic Thomas Magill in Enda Walsh’s demanding play Misterman in a superb production directed by Kate Gaul at the Old Fitz.

Kate Cole was remarkable in the Red Stitch Actors Theatre production of Grounded by George Brant, playing a ‘top gun’ fighter pilot who finds herself flying drones after she has a child and struggling to deal with the schism between operating in a war zone one moment then driving home to family life. Extraordinary theatre.

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison (c) Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin turned in a riveting performance as Stella Goldschlag, a blonde Jewish woman living in Berlin during World War II who worked for the Gestapo, in Gail Louw’s unsettling, provocative play Blonde Poison directed by Jennifer Hagan at the Old Fitz.

Amanda Muggleton charmed audiences at the Ensemble with an exuberant, generous, comic performance in Roger Hall’s highly entertaining play The Book Club about a bored housewife looking to spice up her life. Muggleton was in her element as she conjured all the women in the book group as well as other characters.

Ben Gerrard also slipped effortlessly between a number of characters and accents as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a Berlin transvestite who survived the Nazis, giving a lovely subtle performance in Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife directed by Shaun Rennie at the Old Fitz.

Jeanette Cronin gave a very lively impression of Bette Davis in Queen Bette, which she devised with director/producer Peter Mountford, capturing her clipped way of speaking and fierce presence while taking us through her life at the Old 505 Theatre.

Irish actor Olwen Fouréré gave an astonishingly expressive performance, physically and vocally, in Riverrun, her adaptation of James Joyce’s fiendishly difficult Finnegan’s Wake with its own language, at Sydney Theatre Company.

CABARET

My pick of the cabaret shows I saw this year are:

Josie Lane’s Asian Provocateur

JosieLane

Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

An outrageously funny, sweet, ballsy and, yes, provocative, piece by a little dynamo-of-a-performer who is, as she puts it, of an “Asian persuasion”. Taking us through her life and career, Lane was hysterically funny but had serious points to make about prejudice and narrow-minded casting.

Phil Scott’s Reviewing the Situation

A cleverly written and structured piece (co-written by Scott and director Terence O’Connell) taking us through the rags-to-riches-and-back-again story of British composer Lionel Bart. Scott embodied the Cockney Bart brilliantly and gee did his fingers fly across the piano keys.

Tim Freedman’s Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout Me

Looking suitably shambolic, Freedman took us into the mind and musical world of the enigmatic, self-destructive Harry Nilsson. Co-written by Freedman and David Mitchell, the show felt convincingly conversational in tone, while Freedman deployed his own innate charm in a winning bio-cabaret.

OPERA

 Faust

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Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Faust. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

 Sir David McVicar’s production is impressive in its own right but it was the central performances by Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes that made the Opera Australia production so exciting.

Car – a young Australian soprano who made such an impression with her radiant performance as Tatyana in last year’s Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin for OA – confirmed her extraordinary talent. In her role debut as Marguerite, her singing had a sweet, luscious beauty and was full of emotion. She is also a strong actor, her early innocence every bit as convincing as her later anguish. Towards the end of 2015, Car made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as Micaela in Carmen, followed by a return to Tatyana, receiving rave reviews. A rising star indeed.

Other memorable productions in OA’s 2015 season included the revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s Don Carlos with Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II, Latonia Moore, Diego Torre and Jose Carbo; and McVicar’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro with Taryn Fiebig as Susanna and Nicole Car as the Countess.

DANCE

Frame of Mind

Only six companies in the world have been allowed to perform William Forsythe’s sublime contemporary dance classic Quintett – and Sydney Dance Company showed why they are one of the chosen few. Paired with a moving new work by Rafael Bonachela called Frame of Mind, this thrilling double bill was contemporary dance at its most exhilarating.

The Sleeping Beauty

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. 2015. photo Jeff Busby_0

Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

 Lavishly designed by Gabriela Tylesova, The Australian Ballet’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty is breathtakingly beautiful.

Created by artistic director David McAllister, it’s a very traditional production with McAllister retaining key passages of Marius Petipa’s original choreography and devised linking material in a similar classical style.

The storytelling is crystal clear, with elements incorporated from other versions, but the production feels a bit safe at times with room for more dramatic tension between the forces of good and evil. Visually though, it’s a triumph. Tylesova’s sumptuous sets feature baroque and rococo elements, while her costumes use an intoxicating range of colour and feature some of the prettiest tutus imaginable. Lana Jones as Aurora, Kevin Jackson as the Prince and Amber Scott as the Lilac Fairy all shone at the Sydney opening, while Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo lit up the stage as the Bluebird and Princess Florine.

 Conform

 At Sydney Dance Company’s showcase of emerging choreographers New Breed, Kristina Chan’s Conform was an exciting highlight. A punchy piece about masculinity, it has its own distinctive choreographic voice and plenty to say. Chan is already a thrilling dancer. I can’t wait to see her next choreographic venture.

Departures

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Susan Barling, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Ross Philip and Ken Unsworth. Photo: Regis Lansac

Australian Dance Artists (Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Norman Hall) collaborated again with eminent sculptor and artist Ken Unsworth on a new production called Departures. Part-performance, part-installation, with live music, it was a fascinating ride into a strange world full of stunning visual imagery and evocative choreography. Magical.

RISING STARS

Amy Lehpamer (see The Sound of Music), Nicole Car (see Faust) and Kristina Chan (see above) are all rising stars with talent to burn. Add to that list Australian Ballet dancer Benedicte Bemet. Few were surprised when Bemet won the 2015 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Still only 21 and a coryphée, she is already dancing lead roles for the Australian Ballet like Clara in The Nutcracker. She made her debut recently as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and apparently the audience went wild, giving her a standing ovation after the Rose Adagio and at the final curtain. I predict a big future.

That’s it folks! There are so many other things I enjoyed during 2015 – too many to include here. Wishing you all a Happy New Year and lots of happy theatre-going in 2016.

 

Departures

Ken Unsworth Studio, Alexandria, October 4

Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Susan Barling. Photo: Regis Lansac

Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Susan Barling. Photo: Regis Lansac

Since 2000, eminent sculptor and artist Ken Unsworth has collaborated with Australian Dance Artists (ADA) on a series of productions, which have now become a highly anticipated annual event for the lucky invited audience.

Part-performance and part-installation, frequently with live music, their work is unlike anything else we are seeing on Sydney’s dance scene.

ADA is made up of four senior/veteran dance artists who have had long, prestigious careers in contemporary dance: Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer who performed with London Contemporary Dance Theatre, and Susan Barling and Ross Philip, who performed with Sydney Dance Company. Norman Hall, who was ADA’s Founding Director, continues to work with them as a choreographic collaborator.

Susan Barling and Ross Philip. Photo: Regis Lansac

Susan Barling and Ross Philip. Photo: Regis Lansac

Their latest production, Departures, is currently weaving its inspired, crazy magic at Unsworth’s studio in Alexandria where he has built a stage and a small auditorium with three rows of church pews for around 50 people.

Unsworth, who basically finances the productions personally, has commissioned a new score from Jonathan Cooper for Departures, and it’s a beauty. It is performed live by members of the Australian Piano Quartet, Rebecca Chan, Glenn Christensen, James Wannan and Thomas Rann, augmented by Benjamin Kopp on piano, Genevieve Lang on harp and Katherine Lukey on violin.

As always, the production is full of extraordinary, surreal imagery with the choreography created in response to the music and the strange and wonderful sculptural creations that Unsworth has built.

The production begins with a huge ball, mirrored by a smaller one, swinging back and forth in hypnotic fashion, while a glowing orb rises and sets like the sun.

Susan Barling, Ross Philip, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer. Photo: Regis Lansac

Susan Barling, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Ross Philip with Ken Unsworth. Photo: Regis Lansac

Appearing in a top hat with candles, shirt, pants and jauntily mis-matched, colourful socks, Unsworth begins painting figures on paper panels only to be manhandled and summarily dismissed as the dancers make their dramatic appearance.

From there, the production unfolds through a series of powerful images that explore themes of art, love, life and death.

Unsworth has built several large sculptural pieces: a steep slope which Frankenhaeuser traverses with exquisite, elegant poise while interacting with the heads that appear, almost Beckett-like, through trapdoors; a large, square metal frame with hidden secrets behind doors in various compartments; and a spinning double helix spiral staircase which disappears into the roof, which the dancers ascend and descend simultaneously.

There are also two walls – one which has an anguished Barling appearing and disappearing on a spinning shelf, and another with a door to which singer Clive Birch is strapped while singing upright and then upside down.

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser. Photo: Regis Lansac

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser Ross Philip and Susan Barling. Photo: Regis Lansac

As well as commissioning the score, Unsworth has written the lyrics to a song, Never Ever, performed by Birch and young soprano Rioghnach Wegrecka who walks across the back of the stage from one brightly coloured chair to another.

There’s also a very beautiful, moving duet by Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer, which subverts and distorts the movement to match the music, as well as numerous other striking images including Harding-Irmer in suit jacket and high heel shoes. As always, the movement is underpinned by a depth of emotion from the mature but still toned and eloquent dancers.

Duet between Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser. Photo: Regis Lansac

Duet between Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser. Photo: Regis Lansac

With lighting by Roderick van Gelder, costumes by Pamela McGraw and soundscapes by Nate Edmondson, Departures is another feather (candle) in the cap for a unique and inspiring company. Their work really should be more widely seen.

Ken Unsworth makes an appearance in one of his extraordinary sculptures. Photo: Regis Lansac

Ken Unsworth makes an appearance in one of his extraordinary sculptures. Photo: Regis Lansac

Clive Birch and Rioghnach Wegrecka. Photo: Regis Lansac

Singers Clive Birch and Rioghnach Wegrecka. Photo: Regis Lansac

Giselle

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 2

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

The ideal way to retire, they say, is to leave the audience wanting more – and Madeleine Eastoe will certainly do that when she hangs up her ballet shoes after her final performance as Giselle in Adelaide in July.

It feels like a fitting choice of ballet with which to say farewell. Eastoe was promoted to principal artist in 2006 after her debut in the role, and she is utterly exquisite in it. In fact, her performance at the opening of the Australian Ballet’s 2015 season was so heartrendingly beautiful it’s hard to believe that the time has really come for her to end her dancing career.

Giselle is one of the great, classical story ballets: a tragic tale of love, betrayal, madness, death and salvation from the Romantic era of ballet.

The Australian Ballet is again performing Maina Gielgud’s traditional but lovely 1986 production, using the 19th century choreography of Marius Petipa, Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. Gielgud herself has been in Australia to revive the production, which has set and costumes by Peter Farmer, beautifully lit by Francis Croese (based on William Akers’ original design).

Though she is now 36, Eastoe looks convincingly young as Giselle, the innocent peasant girl who falls giddily in love with a dashing suitor. Flying around the stage she radiates a joy, which she is shy to admit but that cannot be contained. When she discovers that he is a nobleman (Count Albrecht) disguised as a peasant, and already betrothed to a Duke’s daughter, her weak heart breaks, sending her mad and then to her grave.

In the ethereal second act, a distraught Albrecht goes to Giselle’s grave in the forest where he encounters the Wilis, spirits of jilted women who dance men to their death. Still in love with him, Giselle pleads for Albrecht to be spared and manages to keep him alive through the night so that as day dawns he is saved.

Members of the Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Members of the Australian Ballet as the spirit Wilis. Photo: Jeff Busby

Eastoe is such an expressive dancer that she conveys every emotion along the way, while seeming to float across the stage, whether in joy, grief or transcendent love. There’s something about the incredible lightness with which she moves that suggests the air around her is more rarified, with less gravity, than anywhere else on stage. It’s a divine performance: unforgettable, in fact.

Hugely popular with audiences, the Sydney opening crowd went wild. The emotion of her final performance in Adelaide promises to be off the Richter scale.

Kevin Jackson gets better and better. Always a strong dancer, he now has the emotional expressiveness to match the physicality. He is in commanding form as Albrecht. His jumps are exciting, his partnering is sensitive and his performance has a depth of emotion. Despite Albrecht’s duplicity, Jackson convinces us of his love for Giselle in the first act so that he doesn’t appear quite as callous as he sometimes does. And his remorse in Act II is very moving.

Their pas de deux are lovely, developing from shy, joyfulness in Act I to something far more mature and deeply felt in Act II.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Jeff Busby

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo are a delight in the exuberant peasant pas de deux. (They will dance together as Giselle and Albrecht at some performances). Dimity Azoury is a strong, steely presence as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, Andrew Killian gives a sympathetic portrayal of Hilarion, the gamekeeper in love with Giselle, and Olga Tamara exudes great warmth as Giselle’s mother.

The corps de ballet is in fine form and the scenes featuring the Wilis are intoxicating, while the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, gives a lyrical performance of Adolphe Adam’s music.

This Giselle is a beautiful and beautifully performed production, at the heart of which is Eastoe’s blissful performance. She is going to be greatly missed.

Giselle runs at the Sydney Opera House until April 22; Canberra Theatre Centre, May 21 – 26; Adelaide Festival Centre, July 2 – 6.