Sunday, May 28, 2017

ORB - Sydney Dance Company

Canberra Theatre May 25th – 27th 2017
Reviewed by Bill Stephens

For this program, Artistic Director, Raphael Bonachela has divided the Sydney Dance Company into two separate groups of eight dancers. Bonachela has worked with one group to create a work entitled “Ocho”, and invited Taiwanese choreographer, Cheng Tsung-Lung, has worked with the other group to create a work called “Full Moon”. Together these two works, under the umbrella title of “Orb”, provide an evening of stunning contemporary dance which absorbing, sexy and exciting.

Sydney Dance Company in "Full Moon" 

For his first work on the Sydney Dance Company, Cheng Tsung-Lung has employed an Asian fusion dance style and a celestial theme to create “Full Moon”. His dancers, representing various oriental deities, were costumed individually, in a variety of elegant flowing costumes, mixed with exotic sculptural shapes. They moved in and out of the shadowy, atmospheric lighting executing seemingly endless complex and graceful combinations to create a meditative, Zen-like mood, enhanced by an atmospheric score, by Lim Giong, which interweaves the sounds of traditional Taiwanese instruments with sophisticated electronica.

Sydney Dance Company in "Full Moon" 

As the work progressed, a black curtain rose at the back of the stage to reveal a huge gold frame against an elegant, superbly lit backdrop, gracefully confirming the celestial theme of the work.
In complete contrast, both in mood and style, Raphael Bonachela’s work “Ocho”, a Spanish word for eight, commenced mysteriously with dramatic lighting stabbing through blackness. Eventually several figures are revealed, enclosed in a small glass fronted room, which later turns out to be part of a much larger space. The dancer’s costumes, grunge variations of active-wear, suggest that this may be a gymnasium. The mood is sensuous and erotic, as the dancers mill restlessly around the small room.

Sydney Dance Company in "OCHO"

Then one dancer, Nelson Earl, escapes and performs an extraordinary solo. The mood suddenly becomes explosive and dynamic, accentuated by a driving soundscape from Nick Wales, which incorporates lightning strikes which herald a succession of aggressive solos and combinations. Eventually the work dissolves into an affecting unison section, performed to the sounds of Yolngu songman, Rrawun Maymuru, performing a songline referring to the passage between the Earth and the Milky Way, neatly referencing the theme of the first work “Full Moon”.

Sydney Dance Company in 'OCHO"

In his program notes, Bonachela indicates that the impetus for his work was to explore the virtuosity of his eight dancers, and “Ocho” certainly succeeds in this. Cheng Tsung-Lung has been equally successful showcasing each of his eight dancers in “Full Moon”.

In this way  “Orb” is  not only a  celebration  of the sixteen remarkable dancers who make up the current  Sydney Dance Company, as well as the extraordinary designers, composers and technical staff who surround them, but is also  a celebration of  the special skills and foresight of the remarkable director who leads them.

This review first published in the digital edition of "CITY NEWS" on 26.05.17 

Icons passing and passing through…

Last week saw the beginning of the end for Teatro Vivaldi, with a sharp little Noel Coward double bill directed by Tony Turner (who used to head Drama at ANU) as a not quite final nod to the years of good food and shows this little corner of the ANU Arts Centre has hosted. (Not the greatest stuff that Coward ever wrote but the evening was funny and two of his short plays, Mild Oats and Weatherwise, supported delicious performances from the likes of Elaine Noone, Duncan Driver, Alessa Kron and Henry Strand)

Not quite final because there’ll be a couple of appearances by George Huitker and his band Junk Sculpture and Shortis and Simpson, along with Peter Casey, will do the final few shows.

The Arts Centre itself of course is going. And what a pity. Since the 1970s when it started out as an empty brick shell with the world’s worst acoustics it’s been added to and augmented, sometimes for the better.

 It’s been host to dozens of productions, local, touring, musical, dance, operatic, dramatic. It was a home for ANU Drama when that had the necessary active, practical form that should be associated with tertiary drama studies. Halls of residence and student groups put on shows there. Local productions of musicals and plays turned up there. The National Playwrights Conference used it annually for a number of years. 

When Di Riddell and Val McKelvey worked at properly equipping it and looked after it it became a place you could go to for all kinds of theatrical technical and design assistance. At one stage I think I knew every inch of those catwalks in the main theatre and almost every piece of lighting equipment.
It and the smaller studio space had the virtues of roughness and adaptability and atmosphere to burn.

Meanwhile over at the Canberra Theatre another icon was passing through in the form of Petula Clark. The woman next to me was amazed to discover that she’d had a career before the 1960s. I was amazed in the second half to be reminded of a stage career that included Blood Brothers and Sunset Boulevard and pounded off after the show to renew acquaintance, not with the 1960s songs but with Goodbye Mr Chips, in which she was improbably (but charmingly) paired with Peter O’Toole in a musical update of this story. Finian’s Rainbow is next on the research list.

(I was also hoping to hear from an older film of hers about greyhound racing called The Gay Dog but no such luck.)

Sometimes such visitations are a bit like a visit to a ruined castle and there were dodgy moments but never in Clark’s earthily fey persona, which sustained a full programme with no supporting act. In the second half, when the stories started to blossom and she gave us a glimpse of her steely Norma Desmond, you could see the power that’s sustained a 70 year career.


Alanna Maclean

Friday, May 26, 2017

I Am Heath Ledger

Review by © Jane Freebury

Who was Heath Ledger? His take on the Joker, Batman’s nemesis in The Dark Knight, was transfixing, with a vicious malevolence that seemed to spill from the screen. Jack Nicholson’s famous take on the character in 1989 was only cartoon caricature, after all.

Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain was also memorable, riveting even, in entirely different ways. The director Ang Lee says it is the thing he remembers most about his extraordinary film. As cowboy Ennis Del Mar, Ledger’s character was imprisoned by suppressed desire and an inability to say much, an impression carried despite him having most of the lines in the film. 

What we learn or confirm in this documentary on the short life of the actor is that Ledger was much more than a tousle-haired surfer boy from Perth who liked hanging out with his mates. There were many sides to him. It was a surprise to learn that as an 11-year-old schoolboy, he was a junior state chess champion. This was around the time that his parents separated and subsequently re-married.

Ledger opened himself up in front of the camera and he was generous with people he cared about. He had a grand piano delivered to the home of a musician friend. It was a gift. Fellow Aussies stayed at his home in LA anytime they needed to, even while he was away working in Europe. He was a natural dancer, a talented photographer, and was about to direct his own film when he died of cardiac arrest connected with the overuse of prescription medicine, at 28 years of age. 

As interviews begin in front of a stark studio backdrop, I am Heath Ledger becomes a moving experience, particularly when we hear from the actor Ben Mendelsohn, friends N’Fa Forster-Jones and Trevor DiCarlo, and filmmaker Matt Amato reflecting on Ledger’s talent. Besides the numerous interviews, many with family and former lovers too, the film is rich with archival footage, often shot by Ledger himself who seemed to always have a camera to hand. 

The doco is replete with revelations about the depths of Ledger’s talent, but by skirting the no-go areas of the inner self it unfortunately loses impact. 

Michelle Williams, his partner of three years and mother of his only child, could have shed some light on this. Why wasn’t she included? Did she decline an offer, did she wish to protect her young daughter? While the determination to celebrate Ledger’s life, his personal qualities and artistic legacy, is fine—rather than focus on his demise, as some celebrity documentaries do—this a significant omission.

I am Heath Ledger, directed by Derik Murray and Adrian Buitenhuis, is endorsed by Ledger’s family. With this assertive title, the doco offers a definitive, once-and-for-all assessment, but its refusal to explore what drove Ledger to use prescription medicine in the first place, has closed the door on exploring what drove his talent too.

Understanding the depths of his talent is revelatory and rewarding, but it didn’t need preclude our understanding of why he died so young.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog 

Saturday, May 20, 2017



Weatherwise and Mild Oats by Noel Coward.

Directed by Tony Turner. Teatro Vivaldi. Australian National University. May 18-19 2017.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Director Tony Turner has unearthed two rarely performed short plays by The Master, Noel Coward, at a farewell tribute to the remarkable Teatro Vivaldi, Canberra’s own enchanting, atmospheric and  iconic theatre restaurant, soon to be tragically demolished as part of extensions at the ANU and academic expansion. More on that later.
The choice of these slight, fluffy and funny pieces is also a tribute to Teatro Vivaldi owners Mark Santos and Anthony Hill, who ran a similar venture at the Noel Coward Hotel in New York for many years. The final Gala Farewell, featuring John Shortis and Moya Simpson with Peter J Casey will be performed on June 8 - 10  as the final event at Canberra’s only existing, soon to be demolished, theatre restaurant.
Henry STrand and Alessa Kron in Mild Oats.
Photo by Tony Turner
It would be easy to dismiss the short flipperies as dated and oh so terribly British, but as between courses entertainment they fulfil Coward’s  acclaimed “talent to amuse.”  Mild Oats tells the story of two twenty-one year olds who meet up during a night on the town, and return to the apartment, that He is minding for a friend. She happily accompanies him, only to realize that she has set up expectations quite contrary to her real sweet self. Both He (Henry Strand) and She (Alessa Kron) are terribly naïve, deliciously young and frightfully inept in the true ways of the heart, not to mention the artful practice of intimacy. Strand and Kron are well cast by director Turner and in the intimate setting of Teatro Vivaldi with its small and compact stage they play out their preciousness with innocent charm.
Duncan Driver, Elaine Noon and Patricia Manly in Weatherwise
Photo by Tony Turner
Weatherwise is a longer piece in two scenes. I suspect that it might have been a trial dabble by Coward before his highly popular and clever comedy, Blithe Spirit. Coward facetiously and cheekily exposes the ridiculous notion of the existence of psychics who can conjure the dead and enter the spirit world.
Lady Warple (Elaine Noon) becomes possessed by the spirit of a dog. Queen Victoria appears on a Ouija Board to reveal that the mention of the weather and the words Bow Wow will cause the appearance of a dog. It’s a totally silly conceit pooh-poohed by the son (Duncan Driver) whom  might have been a precursor to Charles in Blithe Spirit. Other members of the family, played with upper middle class propriety and correctness  by  daughters, Alessa Kron, Emily Ridge, and Patricia Manly,   and the Reverend, George Pulley. Coward continues his cynical swipe at pompous professionals with the appearance of the psychiatrist (Colin Milner), whose vain authority leads him to an unfortunate end.
Both pieces are deftly and properly directed by Turner with a careful eye for the essential comedy of eccentric English manners. His cast, many of whom have come from Turner’s recent Rep production of Trelawny of the Wells, capture the spirit of the Upper Middle Class in accent and gesture, assisted by Nineteen Twenties costuming by Anna Senior. All in all, the pieces offered a pleasant and amusing entertainment between courses. I can’t imagine these pieces gaining a popular airing in the future. They are soft-edged satire of a period largely lost in time and unlikely to survive as well as Coward’s more notable plays such as Private Lives, Blithe Spirit or Hayfever, which enjoy regular amateur and professional production.
But on this occasion, they were an excellent choice to farewell a Canberra Cultural institution that embodied in so many ways the charm and refreshing spirit of Coward and his era. Both pieces were well directed and properly performed by a talented group of local performers. Teatro Vivaldi and Mark and Anthony could have not wished for a more apt and heartfelt theatrical tribute and acknowledgement of the magnificent service that they have provided the Canberra community over so many years. That this should be  abolished is another travesty by the Australian National University and the powers that be to erode the role of culture and the arts in its mission as a noble institution of learning and Renaissance philosophy.
We are much indebted to Mark and Anthony for all that they have done for the university, the arts community , visiting professionals and the Canberra community. May they weather this storm and sew their mild oats and rich harvest in the future.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Things to Come

Review by © Jane Freebury

The future? Impossible to predict, we know that at least. There’s no way to escape it. And now something they call disruption is taking place at every level. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? No way. It’s the more things change, they don’t remain the same. 

What’s to be done? Whatever the answers are, French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve shows that she is an old and wise head on young shoulders, unusually good at exploring the complexities and nuances of intimate relationships. Her second feature film, Father of My Children, told of a family tragedy in a bracing and unsentimental style and it still packed a wallop. Incisiveness is a distinctive trait of this filmmaker, and in Things to Come it is enhanced by the powerful presence of Isabelle Huppert.

Huppert has been indomitable lately, maybe for as long as we can remember. Her character in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle was a no-nonsense businesswoman who determined that a violent rape by a stalker would not knock her off course.  In White Material, in which her character represented some of the last vestiges of French colonialism in Africa, she gave director Claire Denis her complex, understated best. Here in Things to Come, Nathalie (Huppert) is facing the future at a difficult time. After suddenly discovering that her husband, a fellow philosopher, is leaving her, she carries on as usual, dealing with the decline of her demented mother and the demands of her job as a high school teacher.

As in Elle, the response of Huppert’s character is brisk and decisive. The sound mix ensures that we don’t miss Nathalie’s brisk, clipped walk in her apartment as she consigns her husband’s conciliatory bouquet of flowers to the bin or prepares Christmas dinner for her remaining family. The sound of Nathalie’s heels hitting the floor is an intentional, or unintentional, motif which is, somehow, amusing. Hansen-Løve and Huppert work perfectly in sync.

Nathalie once participated in the massive student demos of ’68 and was for three years a communist, like most of the French intellectuals at the time. But where does she stand now? Inter-generational philosophical exchanges in Things to Come give the film scope to comment more broadly on the state of French politics and society. Fascinating, and very much du jour. Both parents of the filmmaker are philosophy professors, and her mother contributed directly to some of the dialogue. 

Events develop in surprising and satisfying ways, a tribute to the thoughtful and intelligent writing that underpins it, and the deft and fluid direction. An opportunity develops for Nathalie to explore her friendship with Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a former student of hers. A little frisson of recognition there for French audiences, one supposes? The friendship leads to time spent in a remote corner of the beautiful French countryside, open spaces where anything is possible, but Nathalie’s journey is neither radicalised nor is the outcome quite as we might expect it. Only it’s better.

The trailer may have encouraged us to anticipate a certain kind of film, but Hansen-Løve has presented us with something else. It is a special experience, and there’s no also reason why this voyage of re-discovery to the inner self can’t appeal to everyone who has lived a little.

4.5 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog