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FED:Newcastle dancer thrills at Sydney Festival

By Paul Ellercamp
23 Jan 2009 3:48 PM
Subject: FED:Newcastle dancer thrills at Sydney Festival FED:Newcastle dancer thrills at Sydney Festival

SYDNEY, Jan 23 AAP - It could be a scene from Billy Elliott: The Musical - artist comes on stage to rapturous applause from one section of the audience in particular, upstairs in the corner.

The applause was for Damian Smith, a dancer from Newcastle - in NSW - who now performs as a principal artist with the San Francisco Ballet.

But it was Smith's debut on the Australian stage on Thursday night for the transatlantic contemporary ballet company, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Co, that drew the reaction from the audience.

When artistic director Christopher Wheeldon previewed Smith's performance during a pre-show on-stage monologue, the crowd upstairs went a little crazy.

"And clearly he has plenty of family here," retorted Wheeldon, clearly relishing the interaction.

Smith's Australian debut was in Slingerland Pas de Deux, the second of four ballets in the program, which Smith danced with New Yorker Aesha Ash.

The ballet, part of the Sydney Festival, was choreographed by another American, William Forsyth, who works nowadays from Germany. Forsyth also did the costumes and the lighting.

A self-described "hard nose", according to his website, Forsyth has done considerable work in Australia, everything it seems from NRL grand finals to Kylie Minogue, and now the television show, So You Think You Can Dance Australia.

Slingerland is more subtle, elegant than you'll get at Stadium Australia, however. You can do different things in the intimacy of a small theatre than you can on the turf.

Whatever an artist means with their art, it might mean something completely different to members of the audience.

On a simple set, just bare with three lights, two of them strong, Slingerland was boy-courts-girl: the simple yet intricate by-play between a pair of lovers who meet under a street light, as it were; "an abstraction", according to Wheeldon in his monologue.

Costumes were light, patterned gauze, a bit like body suits; what the ladies might call spencers.

This spartan setting focussed attention on the dancers: there were no distractions.

The lovers tangled with each other, perhaps as they waited for a late night bus home. They were close, generous with each other, intimate yet teasing.

They touched and pulled back, their arms and legs intertwined, but they were playing a game.

Ash was lovely, delicate yet certain. Smith was poised and balletic, which is not easy for a regular bloke, although his smoothness seemed a little wanting when he lifted Ash.

The Smith family from Newcastle didn't seem to mind.

It seems bizarre that a dancer of Smith's record and history, who has been dancing professionally since the mid-1990s, should have left it this long before he premiered, as Wheeldon put it, "in his home town".

Not quite, although from the perspective of New York, there isn't much difference between the two ends of the Sydney-Newcastle expressway.

The wonderful thing about dance is the clever things that dancers can do with their bodies, the way they move, the suppleness, the smoothness, the athleticism, yet at the same time the elegance and the subtlety.

A great example was Australian Ballet principal Lucinda Dunn, who makes her return from maternity leave in Morphoses.

Dunn gave birth in August. She danced beautifully, giving little sign of being such a new mother. She was welcomed back enthusiastically.

Christopher Wheeldon is a bit of a boy genius, apparently. Baby-faced at 35, and retired as a dancer since 28, Wheeldon set up Morphoses/Wheeldon in 2007.

It borrows artists from all around. The Sydney Festival company, for example, includes dancers from the Australian Ballet - such as Dunn and fellow principal Robert Curran - and Silja Schandorff from the Royal Danish Ballet.

Schandorff, Wheeldon told us from the stage, retires later this year. There are other Australians and Americans, too.

One of the tyrannies of Australia is that we're a long way from anywhere, and whilst we are blessed with some magnificent dancers, it's terrific to get the odd visitor, be they dancer or choreographer, to infuse us with new ideas.

That's the beauty of the Sydney Festival.

AAP pe/jjs =0A

FED:Newcastle dancer thrills at Sydney Festival