writers on dancing


Double Visitation

“The Age of Unbeauty”
Australian Dance Theatre
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
March 2-5 2005

Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre
Barbican Theatre, London
February 23 – March 5 2005

by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival

The Australian Dance Theatre, which is currently touring around Britain, was founded 1965 in Adelaide, capital of South Australia, and has survived many different manifestations. Its initiator, Elizabeth Dalman, Adelaide-born but having studied in Germany under Kurt Jooss and in America under Alwin Nikolais, aimed for a modern style through her own ballets and guest choreographers. Success at Adelaide Festivals led to enough support for overseas tours and to engage a co-director, Jaap Flier, who brought standards learned as a founder-member of the Dutch National Ballet and Netherlands Dance Theatre. But when Flier moved after two years to the Dance Company, New South Wales (subsequently Sydney Dance Company under Graeme Murphy), ADT lost some dancers and soon disbanded temporarily. In 1977 it was reformed, serving also the neighbouring state of Victoria, under former Ballet Rambert dancer-choreographer Jonathan Taylor, who brought in further Rambert influence with other dancers and choreography by Norman Morrice. I first saw the company in its home town in 1978, and again two years later on its first European tour, including Britain. Subsequent directors have been Leigh Warren, also ex-Rambert, and Meryl Tankard, ex-Pina Bausch.

The present director, Garry Stewart, trained at the Australian Ballet School, danced with various companies including ADT, and was a free-lance choreographer throughout the 1990s until taking over ADT in 1999, when his first production was given on the roof of Sydney 0pera House and televised to an estimated audience of two billion for the International Millenium Broadcast. His choreography requires the dancers to study both classical and contemporary dance, plus breakdance, gymnastics, martial arts, capoeira and yoga. In Birdbrain, which he brought to London in 1993, he used their skills for a remarkable commentary on "Swan Lake," with only brief touches of Tchaikovsky, a modern score by Luke Smiles, videos by Tim Gruchy, and costumes by Gaelle Mellis that put everyone in jeans and bare feet, with identifying messages on their tee-shirts such as Swan, Lover, Royal Disdain or Merry Peasantry. Almost everyone played different roles, and the whole thing was tremendous fun.

Its enthusiastic reception brought the invitation to return for a wide tour with that and its successor, "The Age of Unbeauty" (same composer and designer, but videos by David Evans). Garry Stewart credits his dancers as co-choreographers, but the shape and drive of the movement are so distinctive that his direction is manifest all through. He clearly likes speed and violent jumps, often landing flat on the floor, but there are slow promenades too, including a line-up when they all shuffle along with trousers draped round their ankles. There are a couple of bits of nudity but the brief garments they largely wear are actually sexier. What I’m not sure about is that this truly hangs together to convey the point Stewart says he wanted to make, capturing the pointlessness engendered by the media’s daily reworking of humanity’s crises, and placing it against images alluding to the possibility of hope and the need for human connexion. However, a strong sense of violence and contrasting tenderness does come over, and the London audience acclaimed the work vociferously. The presenters (Dance Touring Partnership, consisting of interested theatres nationwide) say they hope this marks the start of a long relationship, and I heartily agree.

Now, this is to warn you: Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s “Giselle” is one of the most awful, boring shows I have ever seen. My instinct would have been not to waste my time and yours reviewing it, but some of our idiot critics in London have praised it highly, and likewise in Dublin and New Haven, Connecticut, so I felt a contrary word was appropriate.

Michael Keegan-Dolan, who invented and directs it, is Irish, and has set his production in a fictitious Irish town. The story very roughly parallels the ballet of the same name, but with many changes. The heroine is a feeble wimp whose asthma seemingly makes her deaf and dumb. Her mum hanged herself; Hilarion is Giselle’s halfwitted and incestuous half-brother. Albrecht is an immigrant from Bratislava—of all places!—who teaches line dancing but is chiefly interested in seducing men; going after our heroine is only a diversion. Other leading characters are a nurse, a butcher’s son, and Giselle’s dad who sits up a telegraph pole commentating. What passes for a plot is conveyed mainly in speech, and my estimate is that every third word is “fuck”. Such action as there is consists primarily of miming sex or suicide by hanging. There’s a bit of singing too, not great. Music is by Philip Feeney, who has previously composed (none too memorably) for at least seven other ballet companies. No doubt there’s some reason for having men play all roles, male or female, except the title part, in which Daphne Strothmann suffers bravely.

So, if it comes your way, you’ll know what to do.

First and second, both of Australian Dance Theatre in "Age of Unreal Beauty." Photo: Heidrun Lohr
Third, Daphne Strohman; photo by T. Charles Erickson

Volume 3, No. 10
March 7, 2005

copyright ©2005 John Percival


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last updated on March 7, 2005