A dance–a-thon with some X factor moments

Jirí Kylián founded Nederlands Dans Theatre III in 1991 for dancers aged 40 and over.

It no longer exists, more’s the pity.

So few professional dancers, anywhere in the world, are able to continue their careers into their 40s and beyond unless of course they are stars such as Sylvie Guillem and Mikhail Barysnhikov.

The standard retirement path leads straight to the teaching spot in the dance or Pilates studio.

It’s refreshing to see older character dancers, at, for example at the Royal Ballet or in Australian works such as Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

Of course they can’t jump as high as before, or extend their legs like a 20 year old, but it’s a waste of talent, artistry and knowledge if they all vanish from the stage.

What a pleasure, then, to see Steven Heathcote and Justine Summers back on stage in Tim Harbour’s new piece, Sweedeedee, all the more so as Heathcote’s daughter, Mia, was sharing the stage with her father, along with another student dancer, Lennox Niven. Both are very talented dancers in their mid teens.

Sweedeedee, which is the final work in the Australian Ballet’s dance smorgasbord, Let’s Dance, was commissioned by the company’s artistic director, David McAllister, who wanted a new piece based on the idea of the Australian dance family.

It was clear from the start that both Heathcote and Summers have still got the X factor. They can certainly still dance – and you still want to watch them – but most of all, their warm personalities and charismatic presence reach out to the audience and not only because we know them from the past.

The title, Sweedeedee, does not exactly spring from the tongue. It’s a song by the American singer and guitarist, Michael Hurley, and one seven songs that Harbour chose for his folksy piece, one that looks as Australian as a ute with a dog in the back, but has an American ambience due to the songs by Woody Guthrie, Chick Corea, and Leonard Cohen’s simple lyrics in Tonight Will Be Fine.

The most eloquent sequence in the work is danced to St James Infirmary, the old blues song interpreted by so many great artists:

I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a long white table,
So cold, so sweet, so fair

All the song choices, Harbour has said, reflect yearning or lust or regret, but the unifying thread between them is not always clear unless you studied the lyrics before seeing the show – and that’s unlikely.

Sweedeedee is danced within a minimalist outdoor setting strung with clothes lines on which flowing white sheets become a screen for projections and a focal point for section changes, emphasised by pegging and re-pegging the sheets.

The background lighting changes from the opening hot pink to the closing melon colour. Night to day? Day to night? Hard to tell.

Sweedeedee appears to be a very personal statement from Harbour about families, growing up, love, separation, and reunion. It has a sweet ambience, but it fades away like a dream and ends the Let’s Dance program on a modest and melancholy note rather than being a celebratory finale for an evening marking the 50th anniversary of the Australian Ballet and showcasing the works of seven other Australian dance companies.

Let’s Dance began with the witty Ombra Leggera, choreographed by the West Australian Ballet’s artistic director, Ivan Cavalleri, and danced to the aria by the same name, sung to a recording by Maria Callas.

The two dancers, Daryl Brandwood and Andre Santos, expressed the music as if they were two naughty notes, bounding and rebounding, and rippling the muscles of their back as they expressed, in Cavalleri’s words, “a dialogue with a shadow”.

From there, though, Let’s Dance grew darker (the gloomy lighting didn’t help anyone), and more obscure with the downbeat Don’t, choreographed by Natalie Weir for six dancers from her Expressions Dance Company. Designed to express “the words that come between us, and words we wish we had never said” (according to Weir), the piece was overly prescriptive, with the dancers looping cut out letters of DON’T and STAY onto their arms.

Gloomier still was Tasdance’s film Momentary.

Just why Tasdance could not appear in a live performance of any one of their works is not clear, but this film was hardly a calling card for the company. Blurry, jumpy, with close ups of the faces of older men and women, the 2005 work was choreographed by Anna Smith whose inspiration was a poem by Judith Wright, called Gum Trees Stripping and whose work, she has said, refers to the wisdom of age.

If we could have seen this work in some kind of three-dimensional context it might have made more of an impression. Unfortunately it was followed by an excerpt from Australian Dance Theatre’s Be Your Self, which, in shortened form, was somewhat opaque (unlike the full evening work by Garry Stewart about the human body’s inner and outer workings, performed a few weeks ago at the Sydney Theatre).

Be Your Self at least can be interpreted by an audience in various ways, and appreciated at different levels. I don’t believe the same can be said of Dance North’s Fugue, choreographed by Raewyn Hill, and performed by eight dancers who moved in unison to depict the essence of the so called “dancing plague” of 1518 in Strasbourg when men and women danced endlessly, in some cases to their death. A kind of earlier example of marathon ballroom dancing as in They Shoot Horses Don’t They.

It was danced to Ravel’s Bolero, a work so well known that it’s impossible to erase such images as Sylvie Guillem’s sinuous arms as she danced on a table top surrounded by bare chested men, or Bo Derrick in her epic encounter in bed with Dudley Moore in the movie 10. Anyone who choses to choreograph to Bolero is very brave, to put it mildly.

Four of Sydney Dance Company’s best dancers – Natalie Allen, Richard Cilli, Chen Wen and Charmane Yap – performed excerpts from Rafael Bonachela’s 2 One Another. At times, they seemed to be in competition with Tony Assness’s staging and Benjamin Cisterne’s showbiz lighting effects that threaten to upstage the choreography.

Francois Klaus’s choreography for Cloudland, a tribute to the Brisbane ballroom of the 1940s to early 1980s, might not be particularly innovative, but the warmth with which Rachael Walsh and Keian Langdon danced to such old standards as Almost Like Being in Love, and No Moon at All, was delovely and delightful and made for a welcome change of pace and mood from the darkness that had gone before.

Reminiscent of Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs, Cloudland fitted the occasion like a close embrace on a tango floor.

Let’s Dance needed some nifty production supervision to lift it beyond the level of a concert performance with various groups doing their number. Production constraints, lack of a big budget and the fact that the Australian Ballet company itself was heading for New York to perform three days after the opening performance may have been the detracting elements.

As they say, timing is everything and the timing of Let’s Dance did not help it shine in the brightest light.

The season ends at the State Theatre, Melbourne, on 16 June.

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Rachael Walsh and Keian Langdon in Cloudland, photo © Ken Sparrow

Mia Heatchote in Sweedeedee, photo © Lynette Wills

Justine Summers and Steven Heathcote in Sweedeedee photo © Lynette Wills

Steven Heathcote and Justine Summers in Sweedeedee, photo © Lynette Wills