Quality Down Under
Right around the world, all the way from the furthest end of Australia, to give just two performances at the Brighton Festival on Britain’s south coast—that’s what the members of the Sydney Dance Company did with their fine production by Stephen Petronio. So brief a visit seems absurd, especially when much inferior overseas troupes and shows are toured all over Britain. Still, we must be grateful that the Australian government has set up Undergrowth, an organisation to bring many of the country’s contemporary companies and artists here during this year and next. Among them will be the Australian Ballet dancing Graeme Murphy’s reinterpretation of “Swan Lake” in Cardiff and London. Murphy, you may know, has directed Sydney Dance for 29 years now, although he is not yet 55 years old; his predecessors were Suzanne Musitz (remembered as a dancer with Western Theatre Ballet in Britain) and Jaap Flier (a founder member of Netherlands Dance Theatre), but the present company is essentially his creation with his associate Janet Vernon. He has choreographed almost half of the 140+ new works mounted by SDC since 1976 (besides making many ballets elsewhere, often on a big scale), and what I have seen of his creations makes me eager for more, but this time it was one of his guest choreographers on display.
Stephen Petronio, credited with both choreography and concept of “Underland”, writes in a programme note that when invited to choose what he wanted to create for SDC he replied without hesitation “anything with Nick Cave”. The latter, in case you don’t know (I didn’t) is a composer, lyricist and performer—playwright and novelist too—Australian by birth and upbringing, but fortuitously now living in the City of Brighton and Hove. Petronio says that “the dark emotional beauty of his work speaks directly to my artistic motor” and that he set out to conceive a world shaped by a group of Cave’s songs that he loved and knew would create the atmosphere he wanted. He adds that “this is not story ballet. It’s surreal and expressionistic. I don’t do narrative dance.” But the result, although plotless, has a lot of emotion as well as movement more vivid than I have seen before from this choreographer. Thank the music for that, but also the 16 thrilling dancers.
Petronio wanted a continuous score with no silence between the numbers; Cave granted this by allowing his frequent producer Tony Cohen (aided by Paul Healy) to put together a sound track using not only recordings by Cave and his band the Bad Seed but also, as musical landscape or bridging material, the raw tracks used in compiling them. This way Petronio managed to obtain both continuity and variety within a ballet lasting just over an hour with no interval. Add to these Australian musical sources the work of video artist Mike Daly from Sydney and, from America, Petronio’s regular collaborator Ken Tabachnick for visual design and lighting, plus fashion designer Tara Subkoff for the costumes. Most of the dancers, incidentally, are Australian, and even some who come from London, Yorkshire, Thailand and Tokyo trained in Australia, so their marvellously high standard is a great tribute to the quality of teaching there. They are clearly chosen for their individuality of both appearance and personality, yet they achieve a marked cohesion. Even Bradley Chatfield, conspicuously shorter and more broadly built than the others (he must surely have changed since whenever it was that he danced “Spectre de la rose” in Hong Kong), fits into the ensembles very smoothly. He is one of the most prominent soloists, together with the taller Shane Placentino, Katie Ripley with her long blonde locks, and dark haired Chylie Cooper. Duets are strongly featured and, interestingly, quite often trios too. I can’t identify the woman who was raised in a little framework on cords and hung for a long time just under the flies, but didn’t she look insouciant about it—and weren’t her feet perfectly pointed? Even when some of the women changed their black or white casual gear temporarily for tiny mini-tutus worn with a garter and coloured bra, the more jokey manner never really clashed with the ballet’s underlying dark passion. And towards the later sections, red became important both in the background and in overgarments. Speed and height of jumps (strong rather than light) were often called for, but there were passages too where quiet walking came in. Among the songs chosen for “Underland” are Wild World, Mercy Seat, The Weeping Song and Death is Not the End—the titles alone must give some idea of their range, and at all points the stage action lives up to the music that inspired it.
Dance in Brighton used to be regularly covered by the London press (it’s only an hour away by frequent trains), but times and reviewers have obviously changed and I spotted only one critic there from a national paper. She enjoyed the show as much as I did, so where were the others? I hope this ludicrous neglect will not stop managers from inviting Sydney Dance Company back, and soon; it’s a great company with a distinctive repertoire, and far superior to quite a few productions that get shown and praised.