This week, Deborah Jones explores Australian Dance Theatre’s digital program ADAPT, and is impressed by the terrific job they have done in adapting to the COVID-19 challenge. She also discovers the many tensions that went into the creation of the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The Piano – the ballet, based on Jane Campion’s film, not least the challenge in portraying the Māori themes and characters. And she recommends Christopher Wheeldon’s version of The Winter’s Tale, choreographed for The Royal Ballet.

Australian Dance Theatre: ADAPT
Australian Dance Theatre's Be Your Self. Photograph © Chris Herzfeld

Australian Dance Theatre has risen handsomely to the COVID-19 challenge, offering an online season of seven shows under the umbrella title ADAPT. It started at the beginning of this month and a new performance is made available fortnightly until July 21. If there is any silver lining to be found in the company’s inability to stage new work for a live audience it’s this: ADAPT presents a clutch of celebrated works many of you won’t have had the chance to see in the theatre – or if you have, would very likely want to see again. I know that’s the case for me. ADT Artistic Director Garry Stewart makes dance theatre of extraordinary intensity and big ideas and the work is performed by powerhouse dancers who seem to know no fear.

ADAPT sets itself apart from most online offerings at the moment by asking you to go to its website to sign up for the season. You will then be sent an email with a video link each fortnight (each show stays up for 48 hours). Easy. And it’s free.

This weekend’s work is Be Your Self, made in 2010 and seen in a performance filmed in Sydney in 2012. The question at the heart of Be Your Self is profound. What is this thing called “I”? What is it made of? How does it work? What animates it? What makes it me? On one level Be Your Self is a fascinating scientific inquiry into the nature, abilities and functions of the body. On another it seeks to understand, or at least explore, what makes us human. Which is a whole other thing.

ADT’s Be Your Self. Photograph © Chris Herzfeld

Stewart’s movement language is super-strong and forceful, fortified with elements from street dance and gymnastics. There’s no room for shrinking violets here and it’s madly enjoyable to see the women and men on such a level playing field. They are all jaw-droppingly good as they display the body as mechanism, as sexual being, as collection of impulses, as vehicle for emotional states, as antagonistic animal, as living entity seeking to discover how to negotiate a world overflowing with stimuli.

Stewart and his dancers are very much alive to the strangeness of our organism as well as its beauty. The elegant set design by New York architectural firm Diller, Scofidio & Renfro – essentially a white box but also much more than that – lets us see the body deconstructed in various discombobulating ways. Towards the end bits and pieces become separated from one another and force us to look at them differently, as if they are not human at all. But out of this disconnectedness emerges a lovely coming together – perhaps the quintessence of humanity, or at least what we most wish it to be.  

The ADAPT season closes in late July with Birdbrain from 2000. It was the first full-length work made for ADT by Stewart, then just starting his tenure as artistic director. Birdbrain ripped Swan Lake apart and threw it around the room, partly as a critique and partly in homage. I can safely say it is one of the most memorable, fascinating pieces of contemporary dance I’ve seen. Also in ADAPT is G – a kind of companion piece to Birdbrain, being Stewart’s take on Giselle – along with Devolution, Held and The Age of Unbeauty.

Royal New Zealand Ballet: The Piano – the ballet documentary
A scene from the documentary The Heart Dances – The Journey of The Piano: the ballet

We always expect a behind-the-scenes dance documentary to reveal a few tensions and anxieties and the one being streamed this weekend by Royal New Zealand Ballet certainly does that. RNZB’s 2018 season opened with The Piano – the ballet, based on Jane Campion’s superb 1993 film, and as RNZB’s website explained in detail before the premiere, the company worked closely with Moss Te Ururangi Patterson “to deepen the RNZB dancers’ understanding of the story’s Māori themes and characters, and to provide advice and guidance to the dancers on the distinct movements in dance, musical and soundscape elements as well as costume and prop designs”.

Well yes, but the really heavy lifting needed to be done with Czech choreographer Jiří Bubeniček and his twin brother Otto, who was responsible for designs and music arrangement and composition. The two had previously made a one-act version of The Piano for Ballett Dortmund without any NZ input and were, it seems, entirely unaware of possible cultural sensitivities. At one point there’s even a suggestion that non-Māori dancers could wear make-up to represent Māori characters. Whoa!

It becomes clear the Bubeničeks saw The Piano simply as a fraught love story they could tell in their own way. They didn’t understand the deeper implications about colonisation and, I think it’s fair to say, didn’t think of Māori characters, music and art as anything other than local colour. It’s also fair to say that Jiří, while struggling at times to reconcile Patterson’s viewpoint and his own, is a thoughtful man. “We’ve got to get it right, especially in this place,” he tells the dancers. He also says that had he understood things earlier, he would have approached the work differently. Otto is more reluctant.

A scene from The Heart Dances – The Journey of The Piano: the ballet

Most classical ballet companies are still overwhelmingly white and there are still problematic depictions of people of colour in key works, although change is coming. Slowly. Rebecca Tansley’s RNZB documentary The Heart Dances – The Journey of The Piano: the ballet (alas a most unwieldy title) has no narration and lets the issue speak for itself. And it’s not an easy one. Patterson has to decide whether to withdraw from the project and therefore lose any influence he has, or to compromise and make the best of it. He pragmatically does the latter. The company doesn’t hire Māori dancers to be Māori dancers but he manages to head off the worst of it and keep the conversation going. When he asks the question, “where are the Māori ballerinas – they aren’t here” he could be speaking about ballet all over the world and its appeal, or lack thereof, outside a broadly white base.

The Heart Dances – The Journey of The Piano: the ballet can be seen on RNZB’s Facebook page via Facebook Premiere at one of three times: Friday May 15 at 5.30pm (AEST), Saturday May 16 at 11.30am (AEST) and Sunday May 17 at 8.30am (AEST).

The Royal Ballet: The Winter's Tale
Steven McRae and Francesca Hayward in Christopher Wheeldon's The Winter's Tale

Finally, Christopher Wheeldon’s wonderful version of The Winter’s Tale, danced by The Royal Ballet, is available on YouTube until June 1. For maximum enjoyment you may wish to refresh your memory by reading Shakespeare first, given that The Winter’s Tale isn’t one of his most frequently performed works, but Wheeldon does an excellent job of distilling a complex plot. There are brilliant designs by Bob Crowley and a new score from Joby Talbot. It delighted audiences who saw it in Brisbane when The Royal Ballet performed it at QPAC in 2017. One not to be missed by the devoted ballet-lover.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institure for Journalism and Ideas.