Feasting for influence

The Dinner Party (Expressions Dance Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

May 10 – 18

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Premiering to rave reviews in 2015, “The Dinner Party” (former title “The Host”) is a gripping contemporary dance work from Queensland’s award-winning Expressions Dance Company. And in its 2019 reincarnation, the work, which is choreographed by internationally renowned choreographer and former Artistic Director Natalie Weir, has audience members once again absorbed, from the very first frame of its visual aesthetic.

There is an art deco-ish feel to its immediate appeal, with a group of elegantly-dressed guests seated around a table against a sparkling backdrop… like a scene from “The Great Gatsby”, besides the bare feet. It’s just the kind of formality expected for the start of a sophisticated dinner party. Things soon relax as the night progresses, however, even though the power play between the guests is just starting.

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Influential young host (Jake McLarnon) is the proceeding’s initial puppet-master, evident from his initial pose upon the table to control seated guests with little but an authoritative click of his fingers. They, however, are having none of it, each set upon enacting their own agendas. And there are agendas aplenty thanks to a younger woman, The Lover (Isabella Hood), having an affair with the host, a socially ambitious but insecure Party Girl (Josephine Weise), The Wannabe (Jag Popham) trying it on with the ladies, the ambitious but charming Rival (Bernhard Knauer) for The Host’s position and the seductive but solitudinous Hostess (Lizzie Vilmanis).

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From amidst this complicated relationship web, the reoccurring motifs of jealousy, ambition and attempted control continue through manipulation of movement, including within the Host’s relationship with the Hostess, with the pair joining together as a couple in breaks but at other times conveying the fractured nature of their relationship. And there is some satisfaction to seeing how things transform between then over the show’s hour long experience.

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As The Host, Jake McLarnon performs in duet with each of the party’s guests, and is excellent in every instance, despite their different nuances and tones. Guest artist Lizzie Vilmanis is captivating as The Hostess, her ballet-based, old-world deportment deflating as her brave-face fades, while, in contrast The Party Girl becomes empowered by her manipulation. It is Jag Popham, however, as The Wannabe, who provides audiences with the show’s most memorable moments when, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, he is folded and flung sharply about the stage in the ultimate act of manipulated manoeuvring, resulting in spontaneous end-of-scene applause.

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“The Dinner Party” is contemporary dance at its most dramatic, often hypnotic in the excellence of its execution of its lifts and leaps, whether in solo, duet or otherwise examination of individual character personalities and interlaced relationships. Embedded with some recognisable canonical classic call-backs, its score of recorded music by Southern Cross Soloists also contributes significantly to the spectacle, taking the mood from exuberance to playfulness and through romanticism, defeat and hollow victory.

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Musical motifs assist in characterisation too, staccatoed detachment for the confident and calculating host and regal pomp for the well-to-do Hostess, working with Ben Hughes’ evocative lighting design to underscore tonal changes. And acclaimed Australian fashion designer Gail Sorranda’s costumes are pretty much perfect in their conveyance of character and their changing inter-personal intertwinings. Staging is also simple yet effective; the table that begins centre-stage is moved about the place and into various positions, even facilitating a duet with dancers hanging off its up-ended side.

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While Natalie Weir may have moved on from her role as the dance company’s Artistic Director, it is fitting that her legacy be paid tribute in this first mainstage season of 2019 and the artistic feast that is “The Dinner Party”. While it may not have the narrative clarity of last year’s profoundly moving “Everyday Requiem”, this ambiguity and its catalyst for post-show conversations about the illusion of control is all just part of its appeal.

Photos c/o – David Kelly

Everyday Expressions

Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 12 -20

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I’m not necessarily a dance person and I’m not particularly emotional, so to be moved to tears by Expression Dance Company’s “Everyday Requiem” was a surprisingly profound experience. It is not because of its beauty, although it does include a number of exquisite moments, but rather due to the relationships and emotions evoked by its dancers.

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The World Premiere and very special lyrical contemporary work from the critically acclaimed Queensland company serves as Artistic Director Natalie Weir’s swan song after a decade at the helm. And what a show with which to exit…. unanimously appreciated by an enduring standing ovation form an emotional opening night crowd in acknowledgement of its original choreography, integral all-vocal score and all-round beautiful story performed by stunning dancers and singers.

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Its breathtaking experience begins with a group mournfully gathered around tables in the centre of a fairy-lit Cremorne theatre. The space is obviously more intimate that the expansive Playhouse stage of the company’s most recent 4Seasons and, as it unfolds, this turns out to be entirely appropriate for a show telling such a personal, but also universal, human story.

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The touching tale is of a man’s life revisited by his aged self, guest artist, veteran Brisbane performer Brian Lucas, an early-days EDC dancer and, for seven years, the Company’s Assistant Artistic Director. Against the backdrop of Australian History from the 1950s until today, the man is played by four men, each responsible for a particular generation of his life; the Old Man guides his younger self back to revisit memories and moments, sometimes forcing emotional connections of his younger self in order to heal unresolved disharmony. Thus, the show takes the audience through The Man’s infancy, childhood and adolescence towards maturity.

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The accompanying relationships are told in sequence, beginning with the wondered play of carefree childhood, school days and sibling tussles (Jag Popham as The Man’s Infancy and Childhood). After The Man’s (Jake McClaron as The Adolescent and Young Man) infatuation with Young Love (Isabella Hood), including a love triangle also involving his brother (Scott Ewen), he meets The Wife (Lizzie Vilmanis) and heads to the conflict in Vietnam, where as The Mature Man (Richard Causer), he can only read in a letter of his child’s birth.

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Immersed in the performance, The Australian Voices choir provide textured and expressive acapella accompaniment in delivery of Artistic Director Gordon Hamilton’s sublime original music, as we witness the boy become a man who lives a life. The soundtrack is physicalised by powerful, skilled dancers who clearly convey the narrative and also the emotional sensibilities of its experience, whether it be the slow burn sensuality of a new couple’s lives entwining, the more masculine competing physicality of in-conflict brothers or the tumble of male dancers in representation of their turbulent time at war. And the four male dancers are excellent in each credibly inhabiting what the others have and will create as the same character.

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Guest artist Lizzie Vilmanis is particularly memorable, especially as the wife left-behind. Her accomplished range is evident in way she takes the audience along from the painful yearn of these fluid movements to playful interaction with The Daughter (Alana Sargent) in juxtaposition to the child’s resentment and rejection of her returning father. Another particular highlight is the impressive partner work, especially when, post-war, the couple expressively rejoice in the glory of over a decade of their love for each other, connecting together fluidly in vulnerable but united movement. Then he is alone, conflicted in witness of his daughter’s grief. It’s an incredibly powerful scene full of the contradiction of fragmented frenzy and at the same time, profound emotion, thanks to Weir’s choreography of the entire body. (Even a short mid-show evacuation opening night interruption could not impact upon its resonance).

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So many transformative moments occur during the 75-minute work, just as they do in a life. And its celebrations, conflicts, reconciliations and tragedies of everyday experience certainly offer reflective fodder for audience members who may be wondering how its life summation might be applied to their experience.

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The simplicity of its beauty emerges from its relatable everydayness which also comes courtesy of lyric lists of school supplies, groceries and alike. At one stage the Australian Voices members (Sophie Banister, Samuel Boyd, Isabella Gerometta, Rebecca Hocking, Jamie Moffatt and Daid Upcher) even sing while gargling and bushing their teeth, all-the-time never being of anything but outstanding voice as they accompany and also sometimes cleverly interact with the action on stage, like a Greek chorus. Holistically, it’s a large vision that works well to bring big-scale reward.

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There is a deliberateness to every aspect of the experience’s examination of life’s relationships. David Walters’ lighting design adds to the aesthetic representation of each juncture in the journey from infancy to mature man. Similarly, small details in costumes and lyrics provide contextual clues, symbolise transitions and work with repeated movements to signpost ongoing motifs. All of this combines to make the narrative at-once easy-to-follow and engaging, especially as special guest dancers from WaW Dance join on-stage towards the work’s satisfying conclusion.

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My choreographic illiteracy means that usually watching dance leads to a wandering mind, but this is far from the case this time, such is audience investment and anticipation of how we will get to the story’s end. Indeed, “Everyday Requiem” is a very clever, layered work that will resonate both in the moment and long after in cathartic release of the range of emotions evoked in its experience. Even if you only have a passing interest in dance, this is a show you must see, as testament not only to the talents of two Brisbane-based companies, but the power of an art form to speak to our collective human experience of the ups and downs of family and life and realisation of the things that are truly important.

Photos c/o – David Kelly

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4Seasons (Expressions Dance Company, City Contemporary Dance Company Hong Kong and QPAC)

QPAC, The Playhouse

June 14 – 22

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“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like,” the old saying goes. With some tweaking, this pretty much describes my approach to Dance… “I don’t necessarily know what exactly they are always doing, but I do know what I find interesting”. And fortunately, there is a lot of interesting things happening in the tapestry that is Expressions Dance Company’s triple act collaboration with Hong Kong’s City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), “4Seasons”’

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It starts from audience entry into the Playhouse Theatre space, which is bathed in the blare of ‘Summer’. Under a stark sun-like light, 13 performers in muted costumes, move against an increasingly menacing musical score as the ‘sun’ fades. After an early technical fault is fixed, we see order emerge from that chaos as subtle, but uniform transitions signpost to a motif of heads turned to the top in recognition of the sun’s subjugation.

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A feeling of oppression features throughout the piece, created by Kristina Chan by CCDC, in its foreboding for a global warming future, not just through the routines themselves, but also lighting and staging, which sees fabric dramatically canopied from the ceiling (the cause of opening night’s false start) not only increasingly rippling, but slowly unfurling as burden upon the dancers. This is a dystopian future and in its extreme atmospheric conditions, suffering bodies cluster together and connect through the swell of canon moves, including on the ground, as they move languidly, as if in slow motion.

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In contrast, the night’s second piece, Dominic Wong’s ‘Day After Day’, sees side-of-stage lighting replaced by panels, in transform of the aesthetic. Dancers erupt in a frenzy of acrobatic energy and strength, which sees, for example, see a dancer impressively walking over the top of others and then down another’s chest.

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With a fast-paced soundtrack and modern, translucent white costumes, the feel is a lot cooler, especially when Bruce Wong, breathes his way around the set in the slowest of motions, walking to eventually embrace a block of ice before the piece concludes with the sound of falling rain.

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Although, like the first work, it drags on a little too long to maintain absolute audience engagement, its repeated movements, intertwined asymmetrical clustering and then explosions punctuate its course with some memorable moments.

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Comparatively, Natalie Weir’s ‘4Seasons’ (danced to Max Richter’s recomposed version of Vivaldi’s best known composition) appears to begin traditionally, with dancers appearing hued together (thanks to beautiful, coloured costumes) on stage like something from the Barn Raising Scene of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. What follows is a lot more sophisticated than the Pontipee brothers’ attempt to woo women with their newfound manners, but no less athletic in its physicality. Indeed, its blend of the classic and contemporary creates an exciting aesthetic, especially as movement waves across the ensemble with a progressive series of lifts, jumps and kicks in canon.

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Inspired by the seasons of life, it stunningly shows fours couples at different stages of their lives, love and relationships. It could be one couple or different pairings, but the distinction does not matter. What is significant is the humanity of the emotions of the experience being shared. It begins with the pure blush and intimacy of a new relationship between Alana Sargent and Ivan Chan. Things become more urgent then as they move from the eternal youth of spring to the energy and storm clouds of summer. Richard Causer and Bobo Lai convey a torn reluctance as he focuses intensely and possessively on her. With Elise May and Yve Yu, love becomes more consuming in the crimson shades of autumn as impressive lifts give way to domination. Finally, there is the mutual love of Jake McLarnon and Qiao Yang moving together in unison, but not losing their individuality.

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Amid these, there are bursts of performers running across the stage, grabbing others as they go and it is nice to see male duos and masculine energy being showcased during this, from a cast of men and women. Along with its crescendoed urgency in its conclusion, this display represents a real highlight, that leaves you lamenting that Act Two feels like it is over far too soon.

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As a celebration of the power and splendour of all things contemporary dance, “4Seasons” represents a wonderful experience for dance knowers and lay-audience members alike. And as if the beauty and grace on stage is not enough, Max Richter vibrant melodies liberate Vivaldi’s signature work from elevator musicality to a bold and virtuosic aural experience.

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Impressive attention to detail features across all pieces. Indeed, there is a connectedness both within and through all three works, which are also remarkably distinct. Sightline issues are always disappointing, but these are compensated by the fascinating fluidity of the contemporary dance on show, especially in its titular piece. With such a big aesthetic on display there is much to take from the show’s experience, which should be celebrated for its bring of the best of international dance to Brisbane.

Heralding the Helpmanns

Helpmann Awards Nominations Announcement

The Playhouse, QPAC

July 14

Independent theatre and Indigenous stories have important roles to play in Australian theatre. This was one of the messages to be taken from this year’s Helpmann Awards nominations announcement.

Since their establishment in 2001, The Helpmann Awards, named in honour of Australian dancer, actor, director and choreographer Sir Robert Helpmann, have aimed to recognise, celebrate and promote Australia’s live performance industry, similar to the Tony Awards on Broadway and the Olivier Awards in London.

Nominations for the awards in the fields of theatre, musical theatre, opera, music and dance were announced at simultaneous events in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Perth. The Brisbane nomination event was hosted by internationally acclaimed, Queensland Ballet’s Artist Director, Li Cunxin, with local theatre figures Nellie Lee (shake & stir theatre company), Kris Stewart (Brisbane Powerhouse), Russell Mitchell (Opera Queensland) and Erica Hart (Queensland Music Festival) assisting in announcing the nominations within the 41 award categories.

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With such a plentiful and diverse theatrical landscape from which to garnish nominations, it is of little surprise, perhaps, that the final nominee lists came from more than 700 nominees. And while the final list was predominantly in favour of New South Wales based shows (Opera Australia and Sydney Theatre Company dominate in the opera and play categories), there were opportunities for cheerful celebration of Queensland’s representation among the accolades.

Expressions Dance Company’s beautiful and poetic work, “When Time Stops”, whose world premiere featured as part of 2013’s Brisbane Festival, featured in two categories, Best Choreography in a Dance or Physical Theatre Production for Natalie Weir and Best Original Score for Iain Grandage.

The local accolades also include nomination of Ursula Yovich as Best Female Actor in a Play for her role as the titular character in 2013’s Queensland Theatre Company production of “Mother Courage”, which continued the political commentary theme of Brecht’s original text by examining the moral ambiguity around mining.

There were also nods given to shows seen on or forthcoming to Brisbane’s stages. Among the 11 Indigenous nominations across nine categories is the Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival Production “Black Diggers”, which explores the untold and exceptional stories of Indigenous Australian soldiers who fought for the British Commonwealth. The Best New Australian Work nominee is set to not only feature as one of this year’s Brisbane Festival highlights, but will be broadcast live to nine major regional centres across Queensland in a state-wide first.

Malthouse Theatre’s “The Shadow King”, which will also feature at this year’s Brisbane Festival, is also represented, with nominations in four categories, Best Play, Best New Australian Work, Best Director of a Play (Michael Kantor) and Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Play (Jimi Bani). The epic play, which reworks Shakespeare’s tragedy, King, Lear, in an Indigenous setting, incorporating a number of Indigenous languages is set to be an unmissable theatrical event.

Also featuring at the 2014 Brisbane Festival will be Best Cabaret Performer nominee Sarah Ward (for Between The Cracks) as her fabulous character creation Yana Alana. Last seen early this year at WTF’s “지하 Underground” Up Late, this much loved cabaret provocateur will feature in the intimate “Tears Before Bedtime”, in the September festival.

The star of the night, however, had to be Hayes Theatre’s first production, the musical “Sweet Charity”, which scored a total of eight nominations, one more than its high profile Sydney counterpart, “Strictly Ballroom the Musical”. This is particularly significant given that the new, intimate not-for-profit Potts Point Theatre (named after Australian musical theatre legend, Nancye Hayes) has at its focus, the provision of a permanent home for small-scale, independent musical theatre and cabaret.  

For a nation with a relatively young theatre history, our artistic achievements fare well across the many genres of our vibrant and dynamic performing arts industry. However, we cannot afford to take this for granted or slip into complacency. And as long as we have new work and independent shows of the calibre of those nominated at the 2014 Helpmann Awards, then the future is looking exciting indeed.

After five years at the Sydney Opera House, this year’s Helpmann Awards will be staged at the Capitol Theatre on August 18, where they will be hosted by Jonathan Biggins (author of this year’s QTC opening work, Australia Day). The ceremony will take place on the set of “The Lion King” and will feature musical performances from “The Lion King”, “Les Misérables”, “Strictly Ballroom” and “Djuki Mala” (Chooky Dancers). As in previous years, Foxtel’s Arena channel will officially broadcast the Awards night in August.

*A reflection of this event also appears on the XS Entertainment website.

A tranquil exploration of turbulent emotions

R&J (Expressions Dance Company)

Judith Wright Centre, Expressions Dance Company’s Home Studio

February 20 – 21

Why does the story of two doomed lovers resonate so strongly across four hundred years? Because some things are universal; themes of love and fate resonate across generations and cultures, as is confirmed than in Expressions Dance Company’s “R&J”.

Natalie Weir’s work presents three poignant love stories inspired by Shakespeare’s classic story of star-crossed lovers. The versions are set across different eras, yet despite their contrasting moods, they are all nuanced examinations that generate poignancy through the aesthetically beautiful performances that they showcase.

Act One, “Passion”, is set in a pulsing modern day Fortitude Valley dance club where Romeo and Juliet (Jack Ziesing and Claudia Elder) find each other across a dance floor. Things are sultry as fate intervenes… literally. Weir introduces fate as a character (David Williams), resulting in an captivating fight sequence between the trio that is a highlight of the show.

Act Two, “Romance” is staged in an evocatively blue-hued graveyard, where the lovers (Benjamin Chapman and Rebecca Hall) are secretly wed before being fatefully parted. It is a beautiful and poetic piece, featuring some stunning poses and is most in keeping with Shakespeare’s original fateful tale – mournful, touching and full of longing, without being overly angsty.

The final story “Devotion” takes place in 1950s suburbia, where a comfortably blissful couple play out their daily routine. Bathed in nostalgic, beiged lighting they proceed upon playful tickles on a couch  before fate intervenes. This mature take on the timeless tale, is not only refreshing but masterful, with dancers David Williams and Elise May presenting a stunning display of strength and honest emotion.

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The beauty and power of the dancers are to be commended. Not only do the primary performers shine in their spotlights, but the community engagement sections in the first two acts, allow for the talents of 20 up-and-coming dancers to be showcased. And they do an admirable job.

This successful and popular show (Natalie Weir was Winner of Outstanding Achievement in Choreography at the 2012 Australian Dance Awards and it has toured extensively in regionally Australia since it was first developed in partnership with QPAC in 2011) is well suited to the intimacy of the mini-theatre at Expressions’ Home Studio, at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts.  The set design is a simple gathering of sloped opaque boxes, yet it is evocative and appropriately moody in its creation of place, with pieces serving as headstones, a tomb and a coffin, and adding depth by transparently showing performances from within. It is a simple versatility that is enhanced by John Babbage’s (of Brisbane’s Topology) stunning commissioned score.

“R&J” is a tranquil exploration of turbulent emotions. Indeed, it is very much a show of Natalie Weir’s signature aesthetic, and, as such, it represents an emotionally honest dance event that will leave you thankful for its experience.

A melodic meditation on mortality

When Time Stops (Expressions Dance Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

September 6 – 14

From award-winning Australian choreographer Natalie Weir and Expressions Dance Company, comes the highly anticipated “When Time Stops”, an original dance work exploring the simplicity of life-changing moments of love, loss and longing.

Contemporary dance is an acquired taste. It is, after all, perhaps the closest performing art to poetry. This is a statement beautifully realised in this journey into some of the most painful parts of the human psyche. The performance explores the cacophony of emotions associated with the moments that determine who we are and what we truly love, as it takes audience members on a voyage of a woman’s last moments of life. It is about the moments of single decisions, simply conveyed in a piece of holistic beauty as (in Terrence Malick style) Natalie Weir captures fleeting images of joy and misery organic to an exploration of humanity.

By design, this is an ambitious work. In many scenes, the stage is a busy space, as the possibilities of a larger ensemble (in addition to twelve musicians) are explored. It is an ambition richly realised. Indeed, the stage and lighting design is enchanting, making use of mirrored surfaces, shades of blues and hues, and alluring shadows; it is a rewarding aesthetic experience. This ethereal imagery is complemented by the original score by Helpmann Award winner Iain Grandage, played live on stage by members of Queensland’s chamber orchestra, Camerata of St John’s.

The combination of these aspects, makes for a melodic meditation on mortality. This is enhanced by performances that are strong, yet fluid, and powerful, yet vulnerable, in accordance with its deeply moving subject matter. “When Time Stops” is not only a show, but an experience of visually stunning moments, that communicates with the audience like poetry.

*A review of this show also appears on the XS Entertainment website.

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