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Flash Report, 11-18: Earthdancer
Oz Celebrates Russell Page

By Suzanne Davidson
Copyright 2003 Suzanne Davidson

SYDNEY -- Earthdancer was a specially produced event -- the first at the new Sydney Theatre -- held Friday to commemorate and celebrate the life of Russell Page, the Bangarra Dance Theatre member who committed suicide in July 2002.

The youngest of 12 brothers, with Stephen and David Page Russell comprised a sort of Australian dance royalty. Stephen was one of Sydney Dance Company's most popular dancers before founding Bangarra, and has choreographed some of Australia's most celebrated events, including for the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympics. Currently he is artistic director of the 2004 Adelaide Festival. David Page's compositions for Bangarra are an integral part of that company's development into one of Australia's leading artistic dance entities.

Russell, who as a young boy was a bit of a larrikin, full of enthusiasm and a total lack of fear, became one of the most charismatic dancers Australia has ever produced. The Page brothers were a unique trio: hugely talented, creative and proud of their Aboriginal heritage. The Australian dance world continues to mourn his passing, and on Friday the cream of the nation's dance companies paid tribute to his contribution, both artistic and personal.

Directed by Stephen Page, the program was presented in two parts. It opened with a moving tribute in song by Djakapurra Munyarryun. Then Robyn Nevin, artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, welcomed the audience, telling us that the theater was actually giving its first ever performance that evening, to the consternation of some of its technical staff, who felt not quite ready. But nothing went wrong that we in the audience could see.

Stephen Page introduced the first section of the program: excerpts from Random Play, the Sydney Dance Company's forthcoming evening of new creations choreographed by some of its dancers. We were shown previews of Gavin Mitford's "Emotor," Wakako Asano's "Know End," Simon Turner's "Urst" and Josef Brown's "Shifted."

Musically, each piece seemed set to similarly insistent rhythm. This floor-covering/Musak-type of sound must be today's 'in' version of a musical score. Personally, I wouldn't mind if I never heard a music collage again. These collages don't drive the choreography; they don't even have much relationship to it, and they certainly don't seem to assist the creative process. In fact, when one reaches the point of wishing that the choreographer had resisted the temptation of repeating his/her more successful moments (or even whole sections) of a work, one is left to simply recognize the section as having been already used, which just robs it of its original magic. Some musical solace would go a long way in helping one to continue to enjoy the work despite any creative limitations. Despite all of the above and bearing in mind that these were all "excerpts," I am still curious to see the completed works.

At Saturday's performance, Chylie Cooper had the whole audience in the palm of her hand in "Urst," as she moved seamlessly and elegantly in the most amazing red top, performing what can only be described as a tightly controlled meditation, totally focused, right up to the last note of music.

Although I was impressed by Andrea Briody and Katherine Arnold-Lindley in "Know End," none of the excerpts from Random Play (apart from "Urst") touched me emotionally, despite their faultless technical performance.

"Inside Out," One Extra Dance Company's contribution, followed. Christina Chan and Clare Holland moved in a way at times reminiscent of two rag dolls, or two puppets, and at times even of two contortionists. They moved in perfect unison. But why? It was quite interesting, but I didn't care a jot whether they went on or whether they stopped after the first few bars. It was like watching eurythmics.

Then David Page reminisced about his little brother, giving us intimate glimpses of the Page brothers as children. The love between these boys was tangible. Then he brought Russell's children on stage and introduced them to the audience. The girls each recited a poem about their beloved father, while their older brother was too shy to speak. It was one of the saddest moments I have ever had to witness in a theatre.

David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet, then introduced the next piece, "Totem," a solo choreographed by Stephen Page to music by David Page, featuring traditional songs performed by Djakapurra Munyarryun and Wilson Gunnamparr. The piece had been created for Steven Heathcote's 20th Anniversary with the Australian Ballet, and he performed it again here. This was artistry at its height -- a classical ballet dancer performing an indigenous/contemporary solo with such natural style that watching him, one couldn't imagine him moving in any other style. Heathcote is not an acknowledged international star for nothing. It was the perfect last piece before the interval.

After the Interval, Matthew Doyle spoke briefly, before Gideon Obarzanek reminisced about Russell. The he introduced the contribution by his company, Chunky Move: "Corrupted II." I am a fervent believer in Obarzanek's choreographic talent, but this work also left me uninvolved. It was performed faultlessly, but again I wondered: Why? Not why faultlessly, but why at all?

During this piece I am afraid my mind began to wander off in the general direction of choreography, contemporary choreography as opposed to the classics, and about what qualities in a choreographed work make for a satisfying experience for an audience, or for me, at any rate. I came to the conclusion that what is missing in most new work seen here is the capacity to involve one on some level. I am not necessarily looking for anything revolutionary. I am not even looking for anything technically spectacular. But I do want to be able to enjoy on some level,what's unfolding on the stage. I do want to care. I want to be left wanting more, rather than to having to watch an interesting piece of choreography or an unusual effect repeated over and over. Whilst I don't believe that you can make a choreographer, or that you can teach anyone to become one, I do believe that it should be possible to advise young choreographers.

Following "Corrupted II," Francis Rings, Russell Page's former dance partner, came on to talk about her unique artistic partnership with Russell, and we were privileged to watch some superb footage of them dancing together in "Brolga," before Rings introduced Simone Goldsmith and Robert Curran in a pas de deux from Stephen Baynes's latest ballet, "Molto Vivace."

Now this was a houseful of contemporary/modern dance aficionados through and through, definitely not an audience of classical ballet cognoscenti. So the reaction to this piece of faultless artistry was all the more unexpected. At the end of the pas de deux there was a second of dead silence and then the place erupted in a storm of applause, yells, stamps and whistles. Small wonder; this highly musical choreography had been danced to some beautiful music by Handel, by two artists with the sort of bodies which made their own music.

The evening ended with the Sydney Theatre Company's Jo Dyer introducing the last segment, a moving "In Memoriam" comprising excerpts from filmed interviews with Russell and his brothers Stephen and David. Then Bangarra Dance Theatre performed "Ceremony," an excerpt from the superbly evocative "Bush," choreographed by Frances Rings with Stephen Page.

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