Sunday, April 24, 2011

Letter: Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille

This is for all the performers out there. A bit of nostalgia and inspiration, if you will.

Martha Graham is widely considered as the Picasso of modern dance. She was the first dancer ever to perform at The White House, the first international cultural ambassador for dance in the U.S, and the first dancer to join a long list of 'movers and shakers' such as Mother Theresa and Stephen Hawking as a recipient of the Medal of Freedom.

Growing up in a family who didn't want her to pursue a career in the performing arts, Martha Graham was a dancer until the day she passed at 96 in 1991. The Martha Graham Dance Company is the oldest dance company in America.

Agnes de Mille was a lifelong friend of Martha Graham. She wanted to be an actress but was told she wasn't pretty enough, so she pursued dance. Her parents also disproved of dance as a career path so Agnes de Mille taught herself from watching movie stars on Hollywood sets where her father worked as a director.

De Mille went on to choreograph the dream ballet sequence in one of the first Broadway musicals, Oklahoma!, in 1943. She revolutionised musical theatre by combining her love of acting with choreography in a way that conveyed the emotional dimensions of the characters instead of only focusing on a dancer's physical technique.

Both were inspirational women who embraced their individuality and pursued their passions.

Yet, like everyone, there were times when they lacked self-belief and needed encouraging words to spur them on in their journey.

On one occasion while at dinner with Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille expressed her confusion over why she found success in Oklahoma! (which she felt was only "fairly good") after years of neglect for work she thought was much better.

She told Graham (documented in book Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham):
I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. ... I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.
Graham responded, very quietly:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.
These words have had a deep resonance with performers around the world for decades. They speak to the artist who knows they have a spark within them but need the courage to let it shine and keep it burning.

May Martha Graham's advice to Agnes de Mille half a century ago provide consolation to the artist who is on a lifelong mission to achieve fulfillment through their craft.

...and Happy Easter to you all!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Review: Doctor Zhivago musical, Sydney

Photo credits: Kurt Sneddon

Doctor Zhivago, 1 April 2011, Lyric Theatre, Sydney

Australia is so fortunate to have Lucy Simon and her team pick Sydney to premiere her breathtaking musical.

The production was of an international standard- from the casting, to the set and lighting design, costumes, direction, libretto, and, of course, the sweeping musical score. There was little to fault in this show.

What was particularly surprising was how well the musical (based on Boris Pasternak's novel of the same name) documented Russian history through the tumultuous time of World War I, the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian civil war and the people's plight under the Tsar, Lenin and then Stalin.

Anthony Warlow's (Zhivago) voice is heaven, and Lucy Maunder's (Lara) soprano is clear and beautiful. The ensemble did a fantastic job, and scenes with the whole company packed a punch- especially the opening song "Two Worlds" which set a dramatic and yet informed tone.

The production was a visual feast; Teresa Negroponte's costumes during the aristocratic high-time were intricate and elegant, and the bitter Marxist uniforms post-revolution gave insight into the culture and politics of that historic moment.

Michael Scott Mitchell's set design was clever and versatile. From dramatic, lavish pillars of a ballroom transformed into brick walls falling apart during the second act; just like the old saying goes- a picture tells a thousand words.

Lighting design by Damien Cooper added that extra layer of perfection. The Red Army marching forward with only the lights on their guns illuminating the theatre was powerful, as were the misty scenes on the battlefield.

Composer Lucy Simon and lyricist pair Amy Powers and Michael Korie know how to write a good song- or twenty. The show is long but there is not a dud tune from start to it's three-hour-long finish. "Now" is a stand out, as is "It Comes as No Surprise" and "Love Finds You".

The orchestra was another slice of heaven under the musical direction of Kellie Dickerson. With the cast in full voice and the orchestra rising above it still, the sound was so full and flawless it paid testament to why there is nothing quite like live theatre.

Also, full credits to sound designer Michael Waters for reminding us of the unmistakable warmth of having live music coming at you from all angles. It's hard to imagine that in pre-production the stage was completely bare- floor to grid- without a piece of sound equipment in sight. The levels of the orchestra and cast were so well balanced my mind didn't stray to thinking about sound levels throughout the entire show- which is a good thing.

The musical flows seamlessly with high energy from scene to scene, and with history moving so fast- particularly in the first twenty minutes- director Des McAnuff does a superb job of continually driving the action forward.

My only critique would be a few moments of over-acting, but as the actors relaxed into the show and the emotional-intensity became a mainstay, I was quickly completely engrossed in the fantasy world of early-20th Century Russia. Some lines were a little melodramatic, too, but completely forgivable.

My only disappointment is that I didn't see it sooner and have a chance to take my family to see what I will always remember as a special little bit of Australian musical theatre history.

I have every expectation that the show will be a success overseas, and I wish the creative team every blessing that it will touch the hearts of those around the world.

I feel lucky that Sydney was picked to premiere this beautiful musical, and if you get a chance to see Doctor Zhivago in either Melbourne or Brisbane on its Australian tour, I would highly recommend sharing the joy by taking your friends and family- and some tissues.