Sydney Dance Company: Ever After Ever
A year ago, today, Graeme Murphy and his artistic associate Janet Vernon announced their resignations from Sydney Dance Company with an almighty -- and most undignified -- dummy spit. There were all kinds of accusations that the federal government was funding the company to fail and had no great commitment to the arts, yada yada yada. It was made all the worse by Arts Minister Senator Helen Coonan who trumped their joint announcement by releasing a glowing testimonial and heart-felt tribute to Murphy and Vernon for their thirty year contribution to the performing arts in Australia. Her press release was in my in-tray at 5:27 pm... not just hours, but days before anything official arrived from Sydney Dance.
I've always had a grudging respect for Senator Coonan as a politician -- she's cool under pressure and argues with great clarity and force -- but, on this occasion, she quite literally ran rings around Murphy and Vernon. And threw in a few pirouettes for good measure. She looked magnanimous, Graeme and Janet just looked bloody churlish.
Their announcement was made while Sydney Dance was in Melbourne, performing The Director's Cut, one third of which is reviewed here. (I couldn't say anything kind about Murphy's contributions to the triple bill, Glimpses and Cut, so I didn't say anything at all.) (There's always a first time, I suppose!)
The Director's Cut was subtitled "Graeme Murphy 30 years". The current show, Ever After Ever, in Melbourne until tomorrow, is "Graeme and Janet's Farewell Tribute to Melbourne." It's an enjoyable if lightweight line-up which rather underestimates both Melbourne's sensibilities and Murphy's vastly impressive choreographic vitae.
The company with rehearsal director Brett Morgan
(2nd row far left) (photograph by Jeff Busby)
Yes, Melbourne scores the "world premiere" of a new work by Murphy -- it's infinitely more memorable than last year's mash-up of existing works, Cut, more like offcuts if you ask me -- and there is a delicious extract from Air and Other Invisible Forces to open the programme. But much of the rest is tinsel and tizz. Apart from a tiny section from Ellipse, the bulk of the programme is given over to extended selections from Berlin (first seen in Melbourne at the Comedy Theatre in 1996) and Tivoli, which Sydney Dance and the Australian Ballet premiered in this theatre in May 2001.
Intriguingly, Bradley Chatfield and Tracey Carrodus are used as "mini me" substitutes for Murphy and Vernon throughout the programme. Chatfield, one of the finest dancers you will see, blazed less brightly than usual. Perhaps he had too much to do. (He was on almost the entire night.) A notable absentee -- from the stage and the collective cast photo -- is Alexa Heckmann, though her photograph and profile are still on the company's web site. I also missed Katherine Arnold-Lindley, poster chick for Tivoli in 2001, who retired a few years ago.
Even without Arnold-Lindley and Heckmann and Katie Ripley, and without Chatfield firing on all cylinders, the company of 16 still looks extremely sharp. Connor Dowling is especially impressive, even stealing the odd scene from Reed Luplau. Chylie Cooper continues to grow in authority and maturity.
It's almost unfair to mention just a few names. Annabel Knight has a delicious turn in Berlin with little dancy riffs on smoking and bar-stool hopping. She shows off -- as she must -- without egotism or indulgence.
There's a terrific sense of ensemble in the ranks. Well, there are no ranks, strictly! Which is why ex-NDT starlet Rani Luther can glide in so easily. After too many years 'demoted' to the level of coryphee with the Australian Ballet -- despite having been in the NDT's principal company -- Luther is at home in this egalitarian company. One senses a real respect for ability in all its guises (and for Luther's hyperextended elbows!) within the company.
The new work, Short Stories, is calculated to highlight this. It's staged like a dance-off comp. The dancers -- singly or in pairs or larger combinations -- take turns to strut their stuff while the rest of the corps sit on the floor and watch. And it's a credit to the dancers -- and Murphy and Vernon of course -- that they pull it off so consummately.
This particular selection of pieces also highlights a sustaining theme in Murphy's choreography. It's more about gender blending than gender bending. There has always been a range of body and gender types in Murphy's company, from demure and feminine to muscular and macho.... in both the boys and the girls. It's not just Beauty and the Beast stuff, either... though Murphy does have a penchant for pairing off the biggest of hunks with the waifest of women. I loved the way Nina Veretennikova could alternate, for example, with some of the male dancers (in the late 1980s) without it having to mean anything necessarily.
Here, though, this aspect of Murphy's dance making is trivialised somehow. Berlin, especially, seems dated and twee in a way that Murphy's greatest works -- After Venice, Shining, VAST, ... there are so so many I hesitate to name them for fear of missing one of the best -- have not dated. Yet Berlin occupies fully a third of the performance. The Tivoli stuff offers still more slapstick and beefcake.
But the bookending works -- Air and Other Invisible Forces and Short Stories -- are strong. A good pairing. The thematic echoes and rhymes are strong enough to hold the show together.
The bell tolls? Sydney Dance performing Underland
But, now, there is a daunting transition to be made. Sydney Dance is about to lose not just its key choreographer and creative forces, and I include Janet Vernon here, it's about to lose one of this country's greatest dance directors. Murphy's ability to motivate his dancers will be sorely missed. He leaves a company that is well-drilled and technically strong, but I fear there is a limit to what the company is capable of doing. It took close to a month, for example, for the company to get Stephen Petronio's Underland right... and a company of this stature should get works right in the rehearsal room, not on the Opera House stage.