Before we begin, I must apologise for what will be a lengthy review. The performance really got my creative juices flowing and I feel that the keyboard is in for a hard time.
This work is a co-production between the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Dance Company, and is inspired by a neglected period of Australian theatre history, the national circuit of Tivoli theatres. Most of the states' capital cities had a Tivoli theatre; acts would tour from theatre to theatre, bringing glamour and excitement to the dull city life. The chain played from 1893, and the final theatre closed on 2nd April 1966.
The entertainment provided by the 'Tiv' as it was known, was lavish twice-daily reviews, featuring comedians, singers, jugglers, magicians and of course the famous dancers; more about these later. The local greats such as Roy Rene "Mo", George Wallace and Jim Gerald all played the 'Tiv'. International acts of the calibre of W.C. Fields (a great and skillful juggler before he was lured to the silver screen) and Harry Houdini were a regular feature.
In the run-up to the final curtain, many acts later famous on television all started their careers at the Tiv. Names such as Bobby Limb, Dawn Lake, Kamahl, Toni Lammond, Reg Livermore and Barry Crocker were (and some still are) successful on television. International acts from this era included Max Bygraves, Winifred Atwell, Shirley Bassey and Tommy Steele.
Of course, the advent of television caused the death of the famous Tiv. Television started in Australia in 1959 (I believe). By 1966 TV was well entrenched and the Tiv was dead. Jimmy Edwards featured on the final bill; before the final curtain he told the audience "There's very little music hall left. Now I've come all this blasted way and this one's closed, there's nowhere to go. It's a big moment in my life as well as yours." Yes TV killed the Tiv; audiences could see the big stars on the box for free. The top stars were reluctant to undertake long seasons in Australia, when they could make more money appearing on television in London or New York. Ironically, the final show was broadcast live on the tele.
My family came to Oz in 1962; I remember the adverts in the papers for the Tiv. Families used to attend the matinees on weekends. Sadly my folks were not theatre goers, so I have no experience of the shows.
The famous Tivoli dancers where in three class; the superbly trained Tivoli Ballet, who could tap, two-step or tango as choreographers demanded. The routines were complicated, dazzling and inventive according to contemporary reviews. Next were the showgirls, who were tall, statuesque and superbly groomed. "They were especially adept at elegantly descending grand staircases in the highest of heels and the most extravagant of headdresses." Finally, there were the nudes, bare-breasted the 'Nudie-Cuties' were forbidden to move on stage. They created living tableaux depicting works of art (living paintings).
It was this era that choreographer Graeme Murphy wished to bring to the stage. To create a ballet evoking that great spectacle was a tall order but with such a solid foundation of material, surely he could not fail? With music by Graeme Koehne (well known locally), a winner was assured. I very much looked forward to seeing this work. The flyer featuring the three gorgeous showgirls further enhanced my anticipation. I think I have correctly identified the ladies as Madeline Eastoe, Katherine Arnold-Lindley and Felicia Palanca.
I had pretty well decided that I liked the piece even before I saw it. All the advance publicity was so positive. The only negative I saw was in the local rag, which said "Graeme Murphy's Tivoli is either a highly camp homage or a snide lampoon of Australian vaudeville. Either way, this joint production of the SDC and the AB simply doesn't work." I didn't care; we locals all know The Advertiser is rubbish!
So with much anticipation I waited for curtain up, thumbing through my program. Two acts with 16 scenes in the first and 13 in the second. Boy I thought, this is going to be hard to follow. I also thought it is either going to be very long or the scenes very short.
The story is simple. Jack is a little boy, enchanted by the magic of the stage. He grows up (SDC's Carl Plaisted) to become a Tivoli stagehand, then a star dancer and finally its entrepreneur. He is dogged by guilt however for intervening in a brawl that gets his sweetheart (AB's Madeline Eastoe) killed. She pops up often as the Spirit of the Tivoli.
As the audience enters the auditorium, the word 'Tivoli' sits centre stage in 2 metre high letters. These are white, but illuminated in red. The small orchestra (11) is just visible in front it this, in a D shaped pit. Clearly there is going to be some action very close to the audience.
The orchestra starts to play and the letters move around the stage, changing colour to blue before wandering off into the wings. A puppet appears (the young Jack) as he walks across the stage, a pair of tap shoes follow, then some disembodied hands, a piano keyboard, a headdress and finally a bodice. This visual effect under the UV although obvious, works very well. The parts form a showgirl playing the piano, before this Spirit of the Tiv zooms off in all directions. A cutout of a pair of enormous legs wearing fishnet stockings slides in and the young Jack climbs them giggling gleefully. Trog wonders if this is ballet or the Rocky Horror Show, but is prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.
The curtain falls and an MC appears, welcoming us to the Tivoli theatre, and announces the Tiv dances will be opening the show. Ballet with speech? Well it has been done before. I then remembered some of the tag lines from the press ads "It kicks", "It has legs" and the most relevant "A Dance Musical". Uh-Oh!
The dancers come on in best chorus line tradition. The routine was lots of marching steps (well this is supposed to be 1914) and the girls are dressed in frilly red, white and blue dresses, with Union Jack bodices. Enter Andrea Briody (SDC) dressed as a man (the noble suitor) to woo Miss Evelyn Rose (Madeleine Eastoe) seated on a swing. Haven't I seen this scene in the ads for the new film Moulin Rouge? The suitor mimes to a tenors' voice. The curtain falls and canned applause is piped into the auditorium, to accompany the real, live applause. Personally I quite liked what I saw (and so did the rest of the audience), so the canned applause was unnecessary.
Scene four and we are back stage. This is a very effective set, with giant keyholes stage front and dressing room mirrors behind. We can see the artists getting ready for the show in their dressing rooms. Jack woos Miss Evelyn with a bunch of flowers and they perform a very slow dance with some ballroom origin (maybe a two-step). Trog liked the scenery but wanted something more lively in the dance department.
The next two scenes provided this; we are in The Frisco Bar next door to the Tiv. Here Kitty the singing bartender (the wonderfully voiced Linda Nagle) will listen to your problems and ply you with comfort (at a price). Linda Nagle is very well known to Australian audiences, having appeared in numerous musicals. Anyway Harry, artist at the Tiv has been given the shove and is drowning his sorrows. He says he can still hold his own against the youngsters and to prove it, does a fabulous tap-dance on roller skates. He also skips rope. I should point out that Harry is played by Harry Haythorne, who is a veteran of the stage and a sprightly 74. One suspects that this scene was especially included to exploit an existing skill.
What happens in a bar? A fight of course. The apache dance, complete with the traditional accoutrements of blue striped shirt for the man and split red skirt for the lady, is dynamically danced by Camilla Vergotis and Adrian Burnett. This piece oozes sex. SDC artists thinks Trog; nup AB. Ballet was never as sexy as this! I have always liked the apache dance; I think I watch far too many old films or Bugs Bunny cartoons! The audience almost gave this bit a standing ovation. At the end of this, Miss Evelyn is shot.
We are back at the Tiv, with the obligatory ventriloquist. Tim Tyler (known from variety shows) looks wonderful in his handlebar mowser and Tracey Carrodus (SDC) is very cute as the loud-mouthed Baby Doll, even being carried on by Tommy in the suitcase. Of course, I am far to refined to put in a joke here about where Tommy had his hand. Instead I will quote the Baby: "Why did Johann Sebastian Bach have 20 children? Because his organ had no stops!"
Three princes enter giving me the impression that the Rose Adagio was about to commence (Trog ever the optimist hopes to see some real ballet). Actually I knew what this was going to be; the three chaps were about to toss Tracey Carrodus around. She is thrown in quite spectacular fashion, sometimes like a roll of carpet, sometimes like a rag doll. She does the lot; splits while being held only be her feet, fish dive catches and the ilk. They have obviously rehearsed this long and hard and the audience loved it. In the circus world this art form is known as "casting". Trog for his sins has done some circus training and wonders who taught this to the SDC artists?
This carries over into the next scene with a genuinely funny joke. The princes stagger and/or limp on. "If she puts on any more weight, we will have to ask for danger money." Enter Miss Carrodus smoking a fag and admonishing her crew for not putting enough oomph into it. It doesn't tell well, but it got a big laugh from the audience.
By now we are up to scene 12 and we get to see the showgirls in the typical outfit of a tiny bikini with sparkly bits and sun shaped headdresses (the red outfit on the flyer). This is actually worn over a flesh coloured leotard to preserve the modesty of the dancers. The dance is in best London Palladium tradition with high kicks, etc to the song "I Lov It"; the title being a nice touch. Comic relief is provided by Tommy, who kept rushing on in the middle of the girls' routine, trying to attack the trombone player. You see, he had been sleeping with the dummy!
We are again back-stage as Jack remembers Miss Evelyn, performing a slow soft-shoe shuffle in topper and tails, while he fingers a red opera glove. The dance itself was uninspiring. There was a very large wind prop, a multi-coloured tube that blew across the stage as Jack danced around it. Liked the prop, hated the dance. Next we get Linda Nagle performing a straight song "Deep In a Daydream". A pair of giant leg puppets feature in this; clearly these are dancers' legs. While a very clever prop (they move very realistically), they do nothing for the scene. Miss Nagle has enough stage presence to fly solo. I think this is a reference to the next scene, in which Jack encounters the Spirit of the Tivoli. Miss Evelyn dressed in a grey tutu. Naturally they dance; a fairly ordinary pdd, relying on lifts rather than movement to keep us interested. Perhaps Miss Evelyn should have worn pointe shoes instead of demi-pointe ones?
The next scene starts badly but proves to be a highlight. Enter the Salvation Army, singing the perpetual "Onward Christian Soldiers". On stage are several black bags, containing people. Some are hanging from ropes, some are standing limply at the back. The people are invisible, the bags just forming dark shapes. "Let's cheer up these sad sacks," says Sister Mabel; "Oh dear!" thinks Trog. Brother Albert starts to whistle, and lips (puppets) appear from the bags. Next the bags open to reveal the dancers of the AB in glittery outfits. Think Black and White Minstrel Show without the makeup. The tap routine is a joy to watch. I feel tap is overdone these days but this routine had an old feel to it and left me looking forward to part two.
Part two opens with a fashion parade, the haute couture costumes being representations of the floral emblems for each state. These were very colourful and looked good. Pity the models only walked by. This is staged to a cheery song "Beautiful Aussie Girls". Each state is announced in turn and South Australia naturally got a huge cheer. One can speculate on audience reaction to this scene in the other states. There is a lovely joke here; the states are announced - Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Northern Territory and Western Australia. As this happens, a cutout of each state is carried onto the stage to obviously join together to make a map of Australia. Of course, this happens. The song is drawing to a close and on storms a very indignant Tasmania; this is always the forgotten state. The flower runs on and almost falls over. The map is completed. Extra joke; Tasmania is a roughly triangular shaped island. I will leave it to the readers' imagination to deduce where the model carried the cutout.
Scene two is called "Tango del Fuego", and features Felicia Palanca and Adrian Burnett of the AB, dancing errr a tango. Now ballroom is not my cup of tea, but I quite liked what I saw. It wasn't OTT and they did not look like the demented chickens one so associates with tango dancers. This sequence is extended by 10 male dancers, wearing the tails and trousers on the right side of their bodies, and a copy of the lady's gown on the left side. They paired in various combinations, thus we could see both sides of the tango at once. At the end, they try to form up into an obvious fan shape, but we just see a tangle of arms and legs. While this was clever, it did not come across very well. It may have been better to have used 10 female dancers; they make much more convincing men than men make women. Still it did get a laugh from the audience.
By now I could tell that the story was over and we were just going to see a parade of Tivoli acts. The next one I liked. This was Tim Tyler as Professor Winston P Smythe juggling ping-pong balls with his mouth. He presented himself as a slightly bumbling figure, which was well suited to the role. As to the juggling? The audience was very impressed when he got to three. So was Trog, because I know how difficult this is. You see I have tried it, and although I can juggle four balls with my hands, I can't manage one by mouth. Having said that I do personally know a chap who does seven by mouth or hand.
The next scene brings back Jack and the ghost of Miss Evelyn who perform a slow duet to a piano score. This degenerates into a strange mishmash. We see Tim Tyler unicycle across the stage, a magician pulls a 3 metre pole from a top hat, some girls walk across the stage with chickens on their feet, head and hands, a giant chicken sits on a chair. Clearly we are back stage but from what I could see this scene was solely there for the letters TV, which were standing at the back of the stage, to fall over.
Back to the stage and the Zoubriski Twins, grace and beauty in contortion (AB's Rachael Read and SDC's Andrea Briody). Can dancers make effective contortionists? Well while not up to the standard that one sees in a circus, some of the moves were good and the audience was appreciative. Perhaps ballet audiences don't get to the circus much. I did like the fake cracks during this bit. The poor chap sitting next to me was wincing!
Next came the Colossal Spartacus Brothers, admirably portrayed by SDC's Josef Brown and Bradley Chatfield. This is an acrobalance act, dressed in leather and looking very macho. They started with some simple balances, what they lacked in technique they made up for with flexibility. One secretly dons a harness; most of the audience didn't notice at first. One stands on the others shoulders (the audience is impressed), he then does a handstand on the bases' head (the audience is very impressed), a one handed handstand and finally a finger to finger balance. Well you can do the impossible with just a little rigging. This was a lot of fun to watch; I have often felt that acrobalancers take themselves a bit too seriously.
Another song follows, "Brown Slouch Hat". This is a WWII flag waver written by George Wallace; it is the Australian equivalent of "White Cliffs of Dover", but it has a lot more oomph. Once again the fabulous Linda Nagle is in fine voice. She is dressed in an officers' uniform. The girls are dressed in stylised soldiers' uniforms, with the aforementioned hats. They dance a typical chorus line routine. At stage left we can see three of the genuine unmoving 'Nudie Cuties', standing atop bombs stuck in the ground, with flags behind them and flags draped over their lower bodies. They are genuinely topless too.
A stylised battle starts in the background. Soldiers are marching, some climb the cargo net stretched across the back. There is smoke, gunfire, bodies falling and flying in. The 'Nudies Cuties' don gas masks and then slowly die as we fade to black. The audience takes a long time to applaud.
Scene nine and we are back in the bar. Jack again performs an uninspiring soft-shoe shuffle. Lots of the big fishnet cutouts drift across the stage. The scenery starts to distract you from Jack's dancing (not a good sign in my book). As predicted Miss Evelyn appears and we get a pdd that reminded me of Romeo and Juliet's (or maybe I was being hopeful). Miss Evelyn is still in demi-pointe shoes. This pdd is actually quite attractive and would stand alone. The swing reappears and Miss Evelyn and Jack perform the remainder of their dance as they swing diagonally across the stage. And so they all lived happily ever after, thinks Trog. He also starts to think about how to end this review.
Wait, there is more! A set of lindy-hoppers in stylised mop caps arrive. Their skirts are suitably flowing and colourful. The music contains samples of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and other WWII songs. 10 Yankie sailors come and dance with the 10 girls, in a scene straight out of any of the Andrew's Sisters films. This was quite jolly to watch and was performed in front of the V from Tivoli. Damn versatile that sign!
On the backdrop one starts to make out a mushroom cloud. Ah yes, Hiroshima. The actual explosion depicted was one of the British tests at Maralinga, here in South Australia. I recognised it from the tracer rockets in the picture. (As an aside, what does it say about a person who can recognise individual atomic explosions?) Lights flash, smoke billows and the lindy-hoppers are suddenly not there. This is a powerful if misplaced piece of theatre. Through the silhouette of the mushroom cloud, steps a Japanese lady and man (SDC's Wakako Asano and Xue-Jun Wang), dressed in kimonos. They describe the effect of the blast, she in Japanese and he in English. One line especially sticks in my mind. "The sun came; the sun brings life. This sun brought death and destruction." The two people kneel at the front of the stage. Very moving and very powerful.
A couple wander onto stage, she is wearing a polka dot circle skirt and he a cowboy shirt. Linda Nagle sings a song "Polka Dot and Moonbeams", as the couple dance a slow country-style barn waltz as the mushroom cloud sinks slowly behind. This is getting very surreal. The Japanese couple strip off their kimonos to reveal similar outfits to the other couple. They join in the dance. Trog at this point throws his hands over his face. The plot is out the window. The piece should have ended where I thought it was going to.
The curtain falls and Jack appears, now sporting grey hair and a grey mowser. He says that there have been complaints about the French artistes who are appearing at the Tiv. He has the church come and tell us it's OK. On comes the reverend and he says something about we all have bodies, we are all created in gods' image and we all come into the world naked. The human body is a wonderful thing. Jack announces the next act is "Swan Silver".
The music to the second act pdd of Swan Lake is heard. The curtain rises and we see Odette as you have never seen her before. Her tutu only has a back and she is wearing pasties! To quote from one review (The Australian) "Tchaikovsky's music gets chopped up, chorus lines go at breakneck speed and Kate Ripley, all smiles, ##### and feathers, sits smugly atop a bunch of boys." That pretty much describes it, except it was Rachael Read (AB) when I saw it. The Advertiser was less kind "a burlesque interpretation of Swan Lake, complete with bare-breasted swans whose nipple-covering pasties glow in the dark and simpering princes in silver lame tights. Tchaikovsky would be turning in his grave."
In fact two Odettes appear, Katherine Arnold-Lindley (SDC) being the other. Parts of the choreography are what we normally see, other parts new. Odette 2 and one prince (Josef Brown), dance a pdd that actually has the audacity to feature pointe shoes. On the whole it was quite good, and could be extracted from the work as a divertissement. The lack of costumes was not an issue with me. Hey I have seen Shakti perform Swan Lake! (She does not wear very much when she dances; in fact you see a LOT when she performs.)
The 32 fouette music starts and Odette 1 is carried across the stage. This is a bit ho-hum. It gets worse as the Swans can-can across the back of the stage. Next a giant silver spiral ramp appears. This is straight Busby Berkley. It revolves and the swans walk up, with Odette rampant at the top. Some of the other acts (Harry, Tommy, etc) are interspersed with the girls. Miss Evelyn descends and runs to Jack, who has collapsed in a heap. I know exactly how he feels!
A giant TV screen descends, and to stage left we see a TV camera. Jack is addressing the camera and tells of the history of the Tiv. This is the last performance. It's 1966 and the piece has finished. The cast re-enter for a final chorus of "Brown Slouch Hat", take their bows and the orchestra play on as we leave the auditorium.
Trog feels that ballet should wash over you, and in doing so it affects you, generating some sort of emotional response. If a ballet is good I feel that the earth moves for me. On rare occasions the earth has moved in other dance works; Tango Pasion and The Lion King being two examples. Well the earth in no way moved for me during Tivoli. The end was too disjointed. There were a few bits that could be extracted an put into a 1/2 hour cabaret or as part of a double bill, but overall I felt the piece lacking. Glitzy and slick but not filling.