The power of the preview and the shrinkage of the review

When I began to write about dance, in 1990, press reviews were the first and best way to discover the content and style of new works. A good critic could draw a picture in less than a thousand words.

But as the 1990s continued, the preview article became ubiquitous. These filled media space but they also sliced space in the arts pages from reviews.

Reviews went from 800 to 1000 words down to 350 to 400 words.

Then came social media, where dance companies and bloggers (myself included) posted on works still in embryonic stages and immediately after the premiere. Twitter became the source of the instant “review” or reporter’s thought, along the lines of “dance is so difficult to write about”.

All this means that you can absorb much about a production before seeing it, but there is nothing like an astute and experienced critic to paint the picture (including the narrative strength or lack of it, and the vocabulary of the choreographer) in a way that allows the reader to feel he or she is sitting in the auditorium.

That’s a very difficult thing to do and increasingly difficult now that print media reviews are so short.

I’d be surprised if there are many reviews of the new Romeo & Juliet by Graeme Murphy that are longer than 650 words, so increasingly, potential audience members will “see” the ballet through the previews.

So far, the previews of this ballet, and the Australian Ballet blog and website do tell us quite a lot:

1. A character called Death appears throughout the ballet. Apart from the Nurse, and Montagues and Capulets, other characters are called Darkness and Peace. The character of Friar Laurence is known as the Holy Man.

2. The settings include Verona, an Ice Palace (perhaps Antarctica), an Indian market and a temple.

3.The Capulets, represent ice and wear icy blue and charcoal, and an embroidered thorn motif. The Montagues represent fire and wear a gun motif.

4.The set includes an upstage revolving unit – nicknamed “the Swiss Army knife”.

5. Body parts feature on stage, including skulls (see earlier dancelines’ post).

6. There’s a Bollywood-like dance sequence with Indian dress colours including gold, fuschia and turquoise.

7. The calla lily is used as a motif throughout.

8. There’s a rowboat and a barrow that Murphy calls “Death’s grim chariot”.

The Australian Ballet’s blog, Behind Ballet, has rehearsal shots and a video that shows something of the choreographic style.

In late July, I interviewed Murphy (see below) and it was clear that for him, as well as most choreographers, all the preview interviews he was obliged to do cut into valuable time he had in the studio.

But there’s no escaping the now ritualised way in which performing arts companies and the media interact. All arts reporters know, for example, that September is the month for articles that outline the next year’s seasons of drama, opera and dance companies.

When major new works are in rehearsal, arts companies pitch ideas to specific journalists – ‘here’s an angle you might like’. Picture desks often send photographers to dress rehearsals and if it’s a good pic, it ends up on page 3.

Every editor I’ve ever worked with wants his or her reporters to write stories that are not pitched, but tell the readers something new, not something manufacturered.

But in the arts, this seldom happens as the rituals are so endemic and because there is often a warm friendship between the journalists and the artists they write about.

I’m not sure where the arts pages go from here and I don’t envy arts editors today. Their lot is a reduction of space, a reduction of writers, and a constant juggle between acknowledging the efforts of arts companies, fairly reviewing the results, and pleasing the news editor with servings of “up front” arts news stories.

By the way, all the previews and the attraction of the words Murphy, Romeo and Juliet, are working well.

In Melbourne this month, six performances are sold out and nine have limited availability, while in Sydney in December, 12 performances are sold out and there are 10 with limited availability.

The interview below, was first published on on July 31.

“I don’t want people dozing in the comfortable world of Verona and in the autumnal qualities of something that is familiar”, says Graeme Murphy.

“I don’t want this to be Cranko or MacMillan revisited”.

While the departure point for his Romeo & Juliet will be Verona – “because it gives people that moment of comfort” – from there on, the production will lift off on a round the world journey encompassing the 19th century, aspects of 20th century Europe, and the present day, and will range in its settings as far afield as Japan and India.

“It’s loose and as far as one can go. You don’t need a road map”, said Murphy. “I’m creating a timeless, placeless work by taking it through a vast array of places and emotions”.

For this production, commissioned by the Australian Ballet, Murphy has recruited Akira Isogawa (costumes) and Gerard Manion (sets) to depict a sphere that expresses the emotions of the lovers as they leave the sanctuary of the bedroom and enter the discord of a warring world. (Both Isogawa and Manion collaborated with Murphy when he was artistic director of Sydney Dance Company.

There’s a lot riding on this production – the most most important for the Australian Ballet this year – as it represents the third in a trilogy of full evening works by Murphy for the company.

His Nutcracker and Swan Lake, created in collaboration with Kristian Fredrikson, the designer who died in 2005, were great successes, with the latter having its New York premiere next year.

Murphy has had plenty of time to work on the R&J concept as it’s been on the drawing boards since 2008.

The ballet has also been brewing in the mind of Isogawa, one of Australia’s leading fashion designers who created the soft, flowing and delicate costumes for Murphy’s works, Salome, Ellipse, Grand, and Air and Other Invisible Forces, all for the Sydney Dance Company.

The Kyoto-born Isogawa prefers pale, natural fabrics like silk and cottons so we can expect soft white and ivory costumes, at least for the lovers, rather than the burgundy and deep green velvets of the traditional Romeo and Juliets.

Opening in Melbourne on September 13, just two days after the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, the bitter feud between the Capulets and Montagues will seem like a powerful metaphor for global factionalism that never ends.

Murphy has explained that “the main premise is that war kills our youth and just like in the Shakespeare tale, old men start conflicts which our young are responsible for fighting.

“Wherever there are wars, there are lovers whose lives are wrecked”.

An online video of a rehearsal for the production shows that a character representing death seems to stalk through the action.

A design motif throughout is the calla lily, a flower symbolic of marriage and purity but one that is also used in flower arrangements at funerals and planted in cemeteries. The motif would underscore the placement in Prokofiev’s score of “The Dance of the Young Girls with the Lilies”.

In planning the production, “there’s always an elephant in the room and it was the ghost of R & Js gone by”, said Murphy,

“I had to get my head around what the expectations [of audiences] are, and what the reference point is and in Australia it’s really the Cranko, [1962] the sole diet of the Australian Ballet [as far as R&J is concerned] and even visiting companies. That or the MacMillan [1965].

“My big thing was, how do I freshen it up without shattering the expectations of those people who are coming because they’ve loved what they’ve seen before?”

Then Murphy returns to the themes of universality and timelessness:

“Why does it have to be set in a period? Why do people keep going back to this world? Simply because it’s not locked in place, it’s universal. What makes us think that the Romeo and Juliet story is in the world of Italy? It’s such a tale that is now and then, and that’s why everyone’s put it in different places, like New York [with West Side Story]”.

As for the score, “it cleverly and wonderfully tells you what’s happened but it doesn’t tell you where you’re at. It’s not Italianesque that score; it has a global and timeless feel. That’s my cue.

“I’ve taken the music and used it as I want to, the full score, although I couldn’t get my hands on the happy ending” – the one that Prokofiev planned for the ballet before Stalin banned it.

Asked how he visualised that most dramatic moment, the Dance of the Knights, Murphy said “it’s a war dance. It’s hideous people whose hatred has no bounds. It’s not a polite dance where knights kneel.

“It’s possibly set in Antarctica, the most dangerous, cold place on the planet. It’s conceptually within that realm”.

But that’s it for now.

“I need to leave a few secrets”, said Murphy. “I have to get back into rehearsal”.

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Madeleine Eastoe, Romeo & Julliet, photo © Georges Antoni

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson, Romeo & Juliet, photo © Georges Antoni

Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe, Romeo & Juliet, Photo © Lynette Wills

Natalie Fincher and Kismet Bourne, Romeo and Juliet, photo © Aaron Francis