Friday, December 23, 2011


Music: Sergei Prokofief
Choreography: Graeme Murphy
Costume design: Akira Isogawa
Set Design: Gerard Manion
Lighting Design: Damien Cooper
Projections design: Jason Lam

The Australian Ballet - Sydney Opera House, Wednesday matinee, 14th December 2011.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

There is always a frisson of excitement in the theatre before the curtain rises on a new Graeme Murphy ballet. Audiences know that while his re-imaginings of the classics are unlikely to please everyone, they can depend that they will be wonderfully theatrical, intriguing, and perhaps even challenging. “Romeo and Juliet” was no exception.

Those who had read the reviews of the Melbourne season of “Romeo and Juliet” had a fair expectation that this production was certainly not going to be traditional. But then who expects a Murphy ballet to be traditional ? 

There were also other reasons for the excitement at this performance. A quick glance at the program revealed that this performance would be the first in the lead roles for Juliet Burnett and Rudy Hawkes, and that Josef Brown, last seen playing Johnny Castle in “Dirty Dancing”, was appearing as Lord Capulet.

Houselights down and the curtain rises on a beautiful scene of the two lovers encased in a giant shell, which splits apart, separating them in a lovely image which neatly encapsulates the essence of the ballet.

The action quickly moves to a teeming town-square during the Italian Renaissance. Two families with their respective entourages in  tow, all wearing spectacular costumes, sweep around the square making threatening gestures towards the other. Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time sparking off an energetic sword fight.
So far, lots of spectacular movement but not a lot of real dancing.

This comes in the next scene, when Romeo arrives over the wall of the Capulet’s moon-lit garden and attracts Juliet out on to the balcony. This is a lovely setting for a tender, rapturously executed pas de deux. Juliet Burnett and Rudy Hawkes were superb as the lovers, perfectly capturing the essence of youthful innocence and awakening passion as they revel in the danger of their first forbidden meeting . They could not keep their eyes, or their hands, off each other, all the while dancing with confidence and abandon. That they were able to maintain this feeling of ecstatic love throughout the ballet, while executing demanding, often seemingly dangerous choreography, made their debut performance in these roles particularly memorable.

Following this encounter Romeo meets up with his friends under a fog-bound bridge where they swim and cavort in the water, before walking over it (?) and even more strangely, meeting a group of cyclists and some Hari Krishna.

During the interval the audience has time to ponder over the significance of these latter developments.

The Act 11 curtain rises on a gorgeous Indian market scene and after an initial “What the…?” and a check of the music to ensure that this is not “Lakme – The Ballet of the Opera”, the realisation occurs that it is probably best to abandon all logic and simply enjoy the rather Cirque du Soliel spectacle.

This exoctic setting certainly offers the opportunity for some spectacular set-pieces, although the group dances would have benefited from some tightening up on the detailing, particularly the Indian hand movements for the men, which were disturbingly erratic. .

Later scenes occur in a brown African desert, a cave with a bed made of human skulls, and of course, Juliet’s bedroom, but curiously, by the end, when the curtain inevitably comes down on the dead bodies of Romeo and Juliet, instead of being irritated by the anachronisms throughout the production, I felt both moved and exhilarated.

So why Graeme Murphy's interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet” work so well for me? In his program notes Murphy writes “Love transforms and transcends, opening a door to reveal a different world, where time bends and stretches and landscapes appear both familiar and foreign”.  Got it !

Previously, during some versions of this ballet, I’ve often found myself bored watching choreographers struggle with literal interpretations of the events in the Shakespeare play about a young double-murderer who has sex with an underage girl. Why does it seem to take forever to get to the big pas de deux?

However in this version, by removing the realities, Murphy has focussed attention on the power of love, especially youthful love, and makes the journey as interesting as the destination .. that big pas de deux.

Therefore instead of worrying about what the cyclists, the Hari Krishna’s or indeed even the Indian Bazaar had to do with Shakespeare; Murphy's version of the ballet seems to be saying that Romeo and Juliet are so in love, and in a space where it doesn’t matter to them what’s going on around them, or where they are. Only their love matters to them, and if that can't exist, neither can they.  I'll buy that !

If you haven’t already done so, try and see this production for yourself. There is so much to enjoy including Akira Isogawa's lovely costumes, Gerard Manions clever set designs, the inventive lighting by Damien Cooper and the imaginative projections of Jason Lam. You'll also find lots to argue about with your companions after the performance.

By the way, in case you're wondering, Josef Brown makes a fine Lord Capulet. Hope we get to see more of him in future Australian Ballet productions.

The photos accompanying this review are of Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe and artists of The Australian Ballet.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


QL2 Dance

Gorman House Arts Centre

17th December

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

                        Photo: "Reports Are Unconfirmed" by Ashleigh Musk and Courtney Scheu
                       Dancers L- R Courtney Schou. Lauren Grow, Ashleigh Musk, Emma Barnet
                                                       Photo by Lorna Sim

Now in its fourth year, “On Course” was QL2’s final program for 2011. It brought together current dance students from tertiary institutions around Australia to choreograph and perform a program of short works. The participants included many veteran Quantum Leapers, as well as other tertiary dance students from Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and Deakin University, as well as some current Quantum Leapers, involved as dancers, working alongside the tertiary students.

This year “On Course” was presented for two nights in the QL2 Studios in Gorman house. It consisted of 15 works, each around 8 minutes in length. As many of the works on show were by choreographers who had previously been through the Quantum Leap experience, and who were now furthering their studies around Australia, the program provided an excellent opportunity to gain an overview as to how these young choreographers had responded to wider influences and experiences, as well as to see the work of other choreographers who had not previously participated in Quantum Leap programs.

Given the limited rehearsal period, and the fact that in many cases the choreographers were working with dancers new to them, the results achieved were, in some cases, quite remarkable.

As has become the norm with QL2 presentations, careful attention had been paid to the selection of appropriate music for each piece, and despite the length of the program, all the items were staged with the minimum of fuss, enhanced by attractive lighting, and smooth efficient scene changes, providing the choreographers with the best possible environment for their works.

Rebecca Lee’s stylish and confident “Ego-Pro” satirised the world of fashion modelling, utilising six dancers sporting heavy black eyebrows and outfitted in identical elegant, off-white costumes. Jessica Pearce chose to costume her four dancers in attractive plum-coloured costumes to engage in an up-beat exploration of physical and emotional attraction in her well-staged work “Energy Attraction”.

Mackenzie Burn drew on her experiences with a young autistic boy to create “Jack”, an engaging and accessible work danced by five dancers to the music of Xavier Rudd.

Bhenjamin Radburn also used original music by Leigh Hannah, and six dancers, for his piece, “Wild Like Kylie”, which despite featuring a pop princess and some interesting ideas, did not really convey its intention very clearly. Interesting ideas, not particularly well realised, also characterised Chloe Chignell’s more abstract “The Wild and the Perfect”. A piece for four dancers which contained some well devised unison movement.

Sean Gearon left no doubt as to his intentions with “Living with Lucy”, an amusing exploration of the frustrations of living with another person. Clear, economic movement and clever floor work were features of this engaging piece for two dancers.

Lovely floor work was also a feature of Mercie Taylor’s languid, beautifully danced “Breeze” in which she attempted to evoke a plastic bag blowing in the breeze. Jamie Winbank also chose to dance his own deeply personal solo work, “Stood Before You”, employing spoken word, carefully chosen contemporary songs, and a pair of red socks, for a work which was in turns poignant, funny and revealling.

Superb use of props, this time newspapers, made “Reports are unconfirmed“ by Ashleigh Musk and Courtney Scheu, a particularly memorable work. To the accompaniment of lush background music, the four dancers cleverly manipulated multiple pages of newspapers to create a flowing dreamscape in which they walked over, tossed about, and earnestly read, the newspapers, all the while creating beautiful images.

Photo "to hinder the passage, progress,etc., of.." by Lauren Grow
Dancer: Ashleigh Musk
Photo: Lorna Sim

Imaginative props were also central to Lauren Grow’s extraordinary piece, “To Hinder the passage, progress, etc., of “, which set out to explore the effects that foreign objects may or may not have on movement. One dancer (pictured) was wrapped in fairy lights, another covered in stick-on strips, and yet another danced among photo frames to create a series of unexpected, mesmerising stage pictures.

Ashlee Barton used tea candles and projected silhouettes to create a contemplative mood for her work entitled “Stripped Bare Until Empty”, and Ashlee Bye utilised chairs and four dancers to explore concepts of ‘originality’ in her work, which bore the rather unhelpful title of “After deciding not to go left I chose the path I did not think was right”.

No confusion about either the title or the content of Joel Fenton’s delightful, tongue-in-cheek, insightful creation, “ What is Contemporary Dance?” in which his five dancers skilfully demonstrated many of the clichéd moves associated with the genre, quite a few of which had already been utilised in the preceding pieces. This work was as funny as it was refreshing.

Funny, but in a completely different way, was Paul Jackson’s puzzling piece, “The Sky Might Fall” which had five dancers vocalising and trilling like birds, while performing what appeared to be warm-up excercises to music by Bjork. It was an intriguing finish for a fascinating and satisfying program.

Unfortunately, partly because of the large first night crowd, but mainly because not having consulted my program before I sat down, and therefore not realising that it was part of the program, I saw very little of the first item, “….in wonderland”, a dance film installation by James and Emma Batchelor. This work was presented at one end of the foyer, before the audience moved into the auditorium.

The performance ended with well-staged bows in which the dancers of each work regrouped, and were joined by the various choreographers for their bows, effectively highlighting how many dancers and choreographers had been involved, all of whom stayed onstage for a brief Q & A session, led by Ruth Osborne and Adelina Larsson, during which both audience and participants reflected on what they had just seen.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Music from a Century of Leadership 1911 to 2011 - Band of the Royal Military College Duntroon

CD Review - by Clinton White

We in Canberra have become quite accustomed to expecting nothing but the best when it comes to the Duntroon Band; the best in music, presentation, quality – everything really.  And it seems unlikely that we have ever been disappointed in the Band’s delivery on that expectation.  Certainly in my 40+ years living in Canberra I have never been disappointed.

The Band’s centenary CD collection is no exception.  It’s a superbly presented 2CD set of 44 tracks of great music-making.

It’s a veritable variety show of music covering everything from military precision (like “Colonel Bogey”) through music hall madness (like “What a Nice Soft Job”) to music theatre delights (like “Over the Rainbow” or “You’ll Never Walk Alone”), 60s rock ‘n’ roll (like “Shout!” or “Hey Jude”) and jazz improvisations (like “In the Mood”).  If there was anything missing from the program, it might be a couple of classical tracks, because the Band is as capable in that genre as any other.

In a continuing theme of excellence, the quality of the sound is superb, too.  Even to the point of creating masterful authenticity with songs like “Our Don Bradman”.  Vocalists are well-matched to the songs, too. 

The extensive liner notes inform the reader of the genesis of the album, give interesting titbits about many of the tunes and exhibit some fascinating, if uncaptioned, historic pictures.

Putting together a variety program like we have on this album is a tough job, and the Band’s music director, Major Geoff Grey, certainly was up to the task.  He has designed a program that flows effortlessly and seamlessly through the various music styles and periods with great sensitivity for the music, creating a real sense of “concert”.

Historically, this album is important.  Musically, it’s a must for any CD collection.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen

Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen Michael Simic and Band at The Street Theatre, Canberra, December 8 and 9, 8pm; Sunday December 11, 6pm, following a Special Tribute to David Branson from 12.30pm.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Life is never predictable, as Mikelangelo himself might sing. Unforeseen circumstances beyond my control meant I had to leave at interval, but the first hour was already showing signs of predictability on the part of the Black Sea Gentlemen.

The disappointment for me was that Michael Simic’s style and songs had seemed so much better when I saw him as the Master of Ceremonies of La Clique in the Famous Spiegeltent at the Sydney Festival 2007. I wrote then of ‘his particular style of jaunty, naughty, funny songs of sex and violence’. This show is a retrospective of, as one song puts it, Ten years in the saddle, waiting for death to come, so it was not surprising that I should see reprises of material I might have seen before.

The difference was that La Clique was a cabaret-circus full of varied, surprising, intrinsically funny and often startling acts, counterpointed by the Mikelangelo droll gruesome humour. Simic’s critical evaluation of life had a special place thematically and dramatically, hanging the total show together on threads of spurious homily.

In this show, the songs, though macabrely clever and twisting conventions, felt repetitive in theme and style – even musically. This effect was surprising when, in later analysis, I could recall Hungarian, Jewish, Russian, Spanish and even some modern ‘classical’ atonal elements in different songs. Yet, listening, it seemed I was hearing one song with some variations rather than discreet and markedly different works. In La Clique the other acts broke the spell of Mikelangelo, but tonight transitional invasions of the audience’s privacy were not enough to carry the show forward, and even by interval were beginning to feel rather tedious.

It would not be fair of me to say more without having seen the second half, especially when there were joyous responses from many in the audience at the deliciously gruesome images, and in recognition of many favourite songs. The success of Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen internationally as well as in Australia over the last ten years must counter my thoughts tonight, but I wonder if it’s possible to maintain a cult style for just a bit too long.

An important aspect of their visit to Canberra is to celebrate the memory of David Branson, the original Black Sea violinist Senor Handsome, with Rufino the Catalan Casanova on violin, The Great Muldavio on clarinet, Guido Libido on piano accordion, Little Ivan on double bass and Mikelangelo himself as lead singer and guitarist. Tragically killed in a car accident on December 11, 2001, David was the heart of iconoclastic theatre and music at the time of the Black Sea Gentlemen’s arising from the deep. If you would like to offer something musical or dramatic on Sunday afternoon that has particular relevance to David's life, please contact to discuss.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Waxing Lyrical - Shortis & Simpson at The Q

Waxing Lyrical written by John Shortis (with segments by Peter J Casey). Directed by Carissa Campbell. Performed by John Shortis, Moya Simpson, Peter J Casey, Ian Blake, Jon Jones and Dave O'Neill at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre Friday 2 December 2011 - 8.00pm, Saturday 3 December 2011 - 8.00pm, Sunday 4 December 2011 - 5.00pm.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Shortis & Simpson are purveyors of a certain kind of Canberra culture: unpretentious, whimsical, research-based mains with critical political commentary on the side. Even though Queanbeyan is a country town in New South Wales, it’s obvious from last night’s audience response that our culture flows over the border like a sweet rasberry coulis. Very tasty, nouveau cuisine, rim-of-fire Canberra kind of cooking.

This show is about writing lyrics – good lyrics, bad lyrics, hilarious history of lyrics, including one-time Prime Minister John Howard’s comment that he liked Bob Dylan's songs but couldn't understand Bob Dylan’s lyrics, and even songs without lyrics.

On the research side I was fascinated to learn about song-writers and how words and music somehow end up suitably in tune with each other, as well as hearing so many songs by famous writers of musicals, popular songs, jazz, blues and blue-grass. Rather than try to enumerate the songs, I just want to praise the range and quality of Moya Simpson’s voice across extraordinary styles from a Paul Robeson Old Man River to Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights.

Peter J Casey’s satirical take on the song with the worst lyrics is quite extraordinary, the band is up to playing in a dozen different styles without hesitation, and John Shortis’ traditional diffidence has blossomed into a new strength of confidence – and quality of singing voice.

It’s now fifteen years since I first reviewed Shortis & Simpson, and the quality of their performances just keeps getting better. It’s such a short run: you only have this weekend to get to The Q, but I would certainly like to see this show go further afield.

Maybe we can think of Queanbeyan as off-Broadway, or like the English provinces. Let’s see Waxing Lyrical in whatever we can call Broadway or the West End.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Book by Doug Wright – Music by Scott Frankel – Lyrics by Michael Korie
Australian Premiere Season presented by The Production Company,
The Playhouse – The Arts Centre – Melbourne
24th November – 4th December

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Nancye Hayes and Pamela Rabe as Edith Bouvier Beale and 'Little" Edie Beale

The real life story of two elderly recluses, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, ‘Little’ Edie Beale, the cousins of Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy-Onassis, who were discovered living alone in squalor in a rundown, sprawling mansion known as “Grey Gardens” in East Hampton, Long Island, New York, may seem an unlikely choice of subject for a musical, but the writers and composer of “Grey Gardens” have used this event and its outcome as a premise to create an extraordinarily compelling musical, which is currently being given its Australian premiere by The Production Company, for a short season in Melbourne.

The musical commences with a prologue, set in 1973, during which we meet the two Edie’s as they were when discovered living in the derelict “Grey Gardens”. Nancye Hayes, dressed in one-piece bathers and a housecoat, plays the older of the two women, while Pamela Rabe, as the young Edie, models an ensemble which appears to be fashioned from old cardigans and skirts. Their situation and tenuous grip on reality is deftly established with the song “The Girl Who Has Everything”.

The prologue dissolves into 1941 when “Grey Gardens” is in its prime, and we again meet mother and daughter, this time, preparing for a party to announce the engagement of ‘Little’ Edie to Joseph Kennedy Jnr. Interestingly, in this act, Pamela Rabe plays the older Edie, Edith Bouvier Beale, while the young ‘Little’ Edie is played by Liz Styles.

As preparations for the party continue, we learn that Edith Bouvier Beale has a passion for singing at her own parties, and that she also involves her daughter ‘Little’ Edie in these entertainments. However at tonight’s party ‘Little’ Edie is reluctant to have her mother sing, so as not to deflect the spotlight from her on this special day.

During the preparations we meet George Gould Strong (James Millar) , a live-in musician apparently maintained by the older Edie, as a permanent accompanist, ‘Little’ Edie’s fiancée, Joseph Kennedy Jnr (Alex Rathgeber) and Edith Bouvier Beale’s irascible father Major Bouvier (John O’May). We also meet ‘little’ Edie’s two cousins, Jacqueline Bouvier (Ariel Kaplan) and Lee Bouvier (Lucy-Rose Coyne) and the butler, Brooks Snr,(Bert LaBonte).

By the end of the first act, following a series of spiteful exchanges between mother and daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale is being divorced by her husband, and her daughter ‘Little’ Edie has run off to New York after discovering that her mother has manipulated an end to her hopes of becoming the wife of Joe Kennedy, leaving Edith Bouvier Beale alone to entertain the guests at what should have been her daughter’s engagement party.

In the first act, Pamela Rabe as Edith Bouvier Beale, wears a series of lovely costumes, and exudes an air of confident elegance, to convincingly convey the desperation of a woman aware that her world is disintegrating around her, but willing to risk everything, including her daughter’s happiness, to preserve the status quo.

The second act is set in 1973, and by now Grey Gardens is derelict and being lived in by Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter ‘Little’ Edie, who, at her mother’s insistence, has returned from New York. They now live a reclusive existence, surrounded by feral cats and garbage. Their only visitors are a young man who delivers their weekly groceries; the son of their butler, Brooks Jnr; and occasional council officials trying to evict them.

For this act, Nancye Hayes resumes the role of the elderly Edith Bouvier Beale, first seen in the prologue, and in a remarkably brave performance, draws on her considerable talents as a dramatic actress to produce a performance that will long live in my memory for the truth, honesty and accuracy of her portrayal.

Pamela Rabe returns to playing the pathetic, now much older, ‘Little’ Edie Beale, caring for her manipulative old mother. Ignoring the filth around her, she wraps herself in a series of bizarre outfits in an attempt to maintain some sort of dream world. This role switch is astonishingly effective.

Avoiding any temptation to play these characters for laughs, although there are plenty of laughs to be had, both Pamela Rabe and Nancye Hayes give riveting, perfectly pitched performances, which invest their characters with a complexity and dignity that reveals them as poignant, believable and thoroughly memorable human beings.

Not many musicals come to mind which offer such strong dramatic central roles, and it was exciting to see artists of the calibre of Rabe and Hayes bringing their considerable talents to bear in interpreting these roles. bHowever director Roger Hodgman has left nothing to chance and has drawn together an outstanding ensemble of experienced music theatre performers to compliment the central performances.

James Millar brings dignity and gravitas to his role as the enigmatic pianist George Gould Strong. Alex Rathgeber plays two characters, and impresses with his ability to bring interesting nuances to both Joseph Kennedy in the first act, and the opportunist delivery boy, Jerry, in the second.

John O’May, also portraying different characters in each act, brings a great deal of natural charm to his portrayal of the curmudgeonly ‘Major” Bouvier.

In a stylish interpretation of the young ‘little’ Edie Beale in the first act, Liz Stiles sings with appealing vivacity and warmth, while both Ariel Kaplin and Lucy-Rose Coyne are delightfully natural as the Bouvier sisters, Jacqueline and Lee.

The quality of the singing throughout was another of the many pleasures of this production.

The Production Company famously produce their shows within a very short rehearsal period. Director, Roger Hodgman, has risen to the challenge of this restriction by applying his considerable expertise to devising a polished, uncluttered production which includes many delightful touches, including one sequence in which the ensemble become remarkably believable cats.

The attractive setting, designed by Richard Roberts, provides an uncluttered environment for the action, allowing ample room for Dana Jolly’s well- crafted dances, and providing for quick, smartly accomplished scene changes.

Kellie Dickerson’s excellent, and surprisingly unobtrusive, orchestra is placed onstage in full view of the audience, flanked on one side by a doorway, and on the other by a staircase. A few essential pieces of furniture, some excellent visuals projected onto a scrim, and a sensitive lighting plot by Matt Scott, where all that were necessary to insure that the audience focus was exactly where Roger Hodgman meant it to be...on his talented cast.

However, despite the fascination of the characters, and the excellence of the production, there could be no happy ending for this show, and the production did seem to drag a little as it moved towards its inevitable conclusion. This however was more a problem in the writing rather than either the direction or the acting.

The Production Company is to be congratulated for its initiative in providing Australian audiences with the opportunity to experience this challenging, and extraordinarily moving piece of contemporary musical theatre.