BM: This just came in from Valerie - all you need to know about dance 'down under' at the moment! Guillem seems to be having a restful time while wowing the audience....
by Valerie Lawson
Outside the Sydney Opera House, Andrea Bocelli posed for the worlds cameras, holding aloft the the Olympic torch, soon to light up the cauldron for the Sydney Olympic Games. Among the audience crowding into every vantage point of the beautiful harbourside theatre was Sylvie Guillem, sitting in specially reserved seating for the gala audience. The time was twilight, the date September 14, eve of the 27th Olympiad. At this Torch Eve Gala, Bocelli was soon to appear in the concert hall of the Opera House and Guillem, with the Australian Ballet, in the adjacent Opera Theatre.
Watching Bocelli turn this way and that for the cameras, (he had asked Olympics organisers if he could be part of the show), Guillem seemed relaxed enough before a performance. Why wouldnt she be? After all, her chosen vehicle for the gala was the far from demanding Bolero, the 39 year old work of Maurice Bejart. No pointes. No partner. 17 minutes maximum. Shes danced it often enough before, frequently with the Tokyo Ballet.
Guillem had received stupendous advance publicity for her performances - coverage which had primed the audience to expect nothing short of brilliance. Before the gala, during a short season of Bolero in a triple bill which opened on September 8, she descended from the orange trestle table on which she dances the vampy solo to receive a standing ovation from a full house. Backed by a chorus line, sorry corps, of 37 men of the Australian Ballet and Australian Ballet School, Guillem impressed audiences with her charismatic presence, strong jump, mahogany hair (which danced as much as her limbs), and her extreme flexibility. Only the critics asked later why we had to see Guillem in Bolero rather than something much more demanding, expressive, and choreographically interesting. Of course we knew she had to appear in a solo role (another option had been Mats Eks Wet Woman) because she would not dance with just any partner the Australian Ballet cared to field, as strong as the men are in this national company. Nor, it seemed, could she afford the time to rehearse an ensemble piece such as In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, which the Australian Ballet is performing this week as part of an Olympics Arts Festival triple bill.
Guillem, though, enchanted Sydney en masse for almost two weeks while at the same time, she enjoyed the balmy, spring weather, relaxed way of life, and great cuisine. Before rehearsals in Melbourne, she holidayed in Queensland then took off for a long weekend in the tranquil Blue Mountains before the Sydney season. Guillem came armed with a notebook of the best restaurants of Melbourne and Sydney. And she planned to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. All in all, a pleasant break in routine.
One of the more intriguing aspects of her tour was the kerfuffle over publicity arrangements. Before the season began, the Australian Ballets public relations consultant said the company planned three one-on-one interviews. But after her arrival, for undisclosed reasons, that changed to a news conference for all comers. The press was told: NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED! while TV cameras were permitted. Very puzzling. The day before the scheduled conference, a Melbourne newspaper photographer snapped Guillem in the car park of the Australian Ballet Centre in heavy disguise - puffy jacket, hat, sunglasses - resembling a cross between a terrorist and football fan on the way to the game.
The day of the Guillem conference, the AB announced its new artistic director to succeed Ross Stretton (who is off to the the Royal Ballet next year.) Suddenly, the only conference that day was for the director-designate, David McAllister, the 36 year old principal dancer with the AB who had won the directorship in a five way contest to become the seventh director of the 38 year old AB, suceeding Stretton and Maina Gielgud, the latter to join Boston Ballet. Was there really ever going to be a Guillem conference or was it just a ploy to make sure camera crews and journalists knew something was going on at the AB that day? We dont know.
When Guillem finally arrived in Sydney, a press conference was held at the heavily guarded Sydney Media Centre, a so-called locked down venue for the games where security is ultra tight. Again, no press cameras allowed but TV crews were there. Guillem could not really explain to this reporter why TV could shoot her but not stills photographers. The press used artwork and cartoons instead.
She charmed the media, of course, but photo editors were furious about the censorship and most refused to abide by her conditions that she must vet any photo of her taken at the dress rehearsal the following night. No photographer planned to attend. In the event, she cancelled that arrangement too, or the Australian Ballet did. Only two official photographers were at the dress rehearsal, one working for the Australian Ballet and the other a freelance, hired by the Olympic Arts Festival. Most editors planned to boycott those photos and in any case, of all the rolls of film taken by the two official photographers, I was told only one frame was approved by her. That was used by The Australian newspaper but I did not see it published elsewhere.
This extraordinary control made it all the more puzzling that before the gala, while watching Bocelli with the torch, Guillem agreed to a photograph taken by the society reporter of a suburban paper who simply went up to her and asked permission. To the reporters astonishment, she agreed readily then Guillems boyfriend, Gilles Tapie, asked the reporter if she wanted her picture taken with Guillem! She did. By the end of Guillems visit, editors were less than impressed by the control and conditions, and it was impossible to convince them that Guillem can be like this in London, too.
During September, the Australian Ballet has been a focus of the strong dance element of the Olympic Arts Festival with Guillem, in Bolero, preceded by Jiri Kylians Bella Figura and a new work by resident choreographer, Stephen Baynes, called Personal Best. Hans Knill rehearsed the AB in a beautiful performance of Bella Figura with Kylian himself arriving for the final few days before its first outing in Melbourne during August. This is the first time Kylian has allowed Bella Figura to be performed by any company other than NDT.
The Torch Eve Gala included a work new to the Australian Ballet, Forsythes The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, sharply danced by five members of the company in Stephen Galloways witty lime green and dusty pink costumes. The performance was a triumph for Kathryn Bennetts, who had rehearsed the work for the company in Melbourne. When it first appeared there last month, the work seemed faster, the technique sounder, and impact stronger on a bigger stage. A surprise last minute addition to the gala was Superboy, choreographed by Walter Bourke for the current AB ballet master, Danny Radojevic, in the 1970s. The solo was danced by Marc Cassidy, a major talent, diminutive and sharp in the Baryshnikov manner, and groomed for stardom by Ross Stretton.
Once the Olympic Games got underway, last Saturday, the AB alternated the 25-year-old The Merry Widow with a new triple bill, comprising In the Middle, Por vos muero (Duato) and In the Upper Room (Tharp.) Rumour had it that a conservative work such as Widow was demanded by SOCOG, the Sydney Organising Committee of the Olympic Games. A report today (September 18), said the opening matinee house for Widow was about 25 per cent full.
Sydneys successful 1994 bid for the Olympic Games was partly based on its strong commitment to a cultural festival held over four years, 1997-2000, but the initial budget for this arts fest was subsequently reduced, then reduced again, to less than $A21 million. Nevertheless, Olympic Arts Festival director for 2000, Leo Schofield, has programmed an exciting six weeks program on such a small budget, especially strong on dance.
It began last month with DV8s The Cost of Living, originally called Funnyland when it was to be performed in the harbourside fun fair venue, Luna Park. Heritage issues meant it had to move to the dreadful 1970s theatre, the Seymour Centre. Merely to enter this building is to be depressed. However the brick walls, dim lighting, and deadening lobbies were oddly appropriate for DV8s brand of political correctness which received mixed reviews but a favourable reception from most audiences. The Cost of Living followed the Pina Bausch/Lloyd Newson formula in stressing all body types are acceptable and should be equally loved, and that dancers should engage with the audience in confrontational monologues. The Cost of Living is a bleak piece, with a nihilistic mood and a black ending (a gun to the head.) The legless David Toole, an astonishing mover and charismatic presence, confronts his audience with intimate questions: are they thinking about the appearance of his torso, do they wonder if he has an arse (yes, he says, he does) and whether we were wondering what it would be like to have sex with him. Newsons 17 performers workshopped for months, perhaps too many months, yet the piece did not look finished.
Lin Hwai-mins Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan made a strong impression with Nine Songs and Moon Water, the latter earning great praise from critics for its mesmeric, tai chi-influenced movement. Stark in appearance, meditative in mood, Moon Water was danced to selections from Bachs Six Suites for Solo Cello. A big hit for the modest Lin. The brief season of the company was preceded by some delicate political dancing too, with SOCOG and politicians tapping around some sensitive issues: Taiwan is not recognised by the United Nations, and did not field a team in the Olympic Games (a team called Chinese Taipei marched at the opening ceremony.) No mention of Taiwan could be seen in Cloud Gates program.
The companys season at Her Majestys was followed by You Walk? performed by the troupe of Bill T. Jones. Audiences were baffled and bored by Jones minimalist and repetitive choreography, influenced by Merce Cunningham and African dance. The ensemble included some strong dancers, including a chubby girl - again, a Newson-like statement about perfect dance bodies. Jones grand plan was to show how indigenous Americans were colonised by the Spanish, a tough concept and not truly relevant to the festival or to Australia, although the nation is another new old world, brutally colonised. The dancers seemed entirely self absorbed. One was said to be injured half way through the brief season, causing a change of program and the appearance, (not widely reviewed or commented upon) of Jones himself in his new work, The Breathing Show. By then, no one cared. You Walk? was a critical flop.
Playing for one week in the Capitol Theatre was Sydney Dance Companys Mythologia, a commissioned work, based on Pindars odes, and an homage to the original Olympic Games. The companys artistic director, Graeme Murphy, showed in this piece his capacity for grand spectacle and gee whizz visual effects - billowing, sheer curtains, tightrope walkers, Greek columns on wheels, spurting with flame. But the concept was extremely camp, with one boy in pointe shoes, feathered wings and a G string. A hit with the gay audience, Mythologia featured 60 members of the Gay and Lesbian Choir of Sydney, a town which turns out in force for its annual mardi gras parade.
Next into the Capitol was Pina Bauschs Tanztheater Wuppertal with the two year old, lighthearted piece, first shown in Lisbon, Masurca Fogo. Audience reception on opening night was warm and encouraging, but old fogeys and fogeyettes (including some critics) remembered Bauschs work here in 1982 and wondered why Masurca Fogo was so long, repetitive and light. Why couldnt they do Cafe Muller, etc, etc, etc. One member of the audience, a member the Australian Theatre for Young People, wrote an extremely silly column, published (inexplicably) in The Sydney Morning Herald, calling Pina the Goddess Wuppertal, and stating categorically that her dance was deadly and completely without meaning. As far as could be determined, none of these writers had seen Bauschs work live since 1982, when, incidentally, most of her audience here would have been at primary school. Bausch herself did not come to Sydney, fearing the plane travel, (she cant smoke on most airlines) and feeling too tired after her last season in Germany.
Dance was a major element of the Olympic Games opening ceremony last Friday, with a one hour cultural segment featuring the work of Meryl Tankard, Stephen Page, Doug Jack, Jason Coleman and Dein Perry. The most satisfying dance sequence was the melding of Tankards Deep Sea Dreaming into Pages Awakening, the two segments representing water/air, then earth. The floaty, feminine Deep Sea Dreaming featured fantastic sea creatures with large, floating scales, gills and frills, and eyes which glittered in the dark as they lit up from within. Strung on wires which flew them high above the Olympic Stadium, the fish and dancers representing human swimmers made a marvellous ballet en lair, all of which marked a triumphant return to Australia of Tankard, a former disciple of Bauschs who has been in exile in Europe following troubles here with her directorship of the Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide.
Pages Awakening made a strong political statement about Aboriginal Australians whose ancient homeland was appropriated by whites in 1788. Stephen Page is director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander company which is to tour the US next year and which appeared with the Australian Ballet in New York last October. Bangarras spiritual soul is the dancer Djakapurra Munyarryun who looks timeless but is, in fact, 27. People often refer to him as the old man dancer, perhaps because he seems to carry wisdom and heaviness in his muscles and bones.
The cultural element of the opening ceremony closed with a dance segment called Eternity in which Dein Perry (Tap Dogs founder and director), choreographed an exhilarating, massively-scaled noise fest for thousands of tappers who represented the industrial, strength of the nation.
Still to come in the Olympic Arts Festival is a Bangarra season in a new work, Skin, and the Australian Ballet triple bill which concludes with the Boston Marathon-inspired In the Upper Room, opening Thursday. Like the dancers who often hit the wall with exhaustion in Upper Room, by October we will all be ready for a good long sleep in.