Les Illuminations


Les Illuminations

Maestro Series 5: Katie Noonan and Sydney Dance Company

Queensland Symphony Orchestra

QPAC Concert Hall

Saturday June 14 2014


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward




Conductor Johannes Fritzsch
Soprano Katie Noonan
Choreographer Rafael Bonachela for Sydney Dance Company
Costume Designer Toni Maticevski

Stravinsky Song of the Nightingale
Britten Simple Symphony
Britten Les Illuminations
Ravel La Valse


“I alone hold the key to the savage parade” Rimbaud


A clever collaboration between Sydney Dance Company, Katie Noonan and Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO), Les Illuminations is pretty astonishing. This production was originally presented in 2013 for the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, returning recently to QPAC and to the Sydney Opera House for sold-out seasons. Les Illuminations is so much more about the dance than the other elements though; the sublime voice of Katie Noonan and the rich tones of the symphony orchestra seem almost secondary, which is not always ideal. This is not Katie’s first collaboration but it’s attracted a lot more attention than Love-Song-Circus (if you missed the show buy the album; it’s truly stunning work). Being a big fan of Katie I wanted to hear more from her, but the requirement of the vocalist in Britten’s piece, in terms of stage time, is minimal. The degree of difficulty, however, begs appreciation for what we see is a short and tricky, bittersweet performance about love, in all its forms. I appreciate it. But that doesn’t mean I won’t mention it again.


Before we even get a glimpse of Katie, dressed in a structural black Toni Maticevski with her crimson hair elegantly coiffed, we enjoy Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale and Britten’s Simple Symphony. The dance is light, fun and playful, and the strings of the first piece are absolutely breathtaking, with not one but two harps contributing to a magical sound that I just don’t hear unless I’m in Mum’s car, which is tuned to ABC Classic FM. I wish I’d brought eight year old Poppy to this show. She gets to go to so much though and it’s a school night. She’s attended QSO events before. This time the sensible parenting decision prevailed. Poppy is always the youngest audience member at the classical concerts and we both get mixed looks from (much) older enthusiasts. We certainly prefer hearing, “Oh look, isn’t she gorgeous?” to “Oh look, as if you would bring a child to the orchestra!” THAT’S RIGHT. WE CAN HEAR YOU. Insert bemused emoticon here.


Why take kids to the orchestra? Well, for all the same reasons grown-ups enjoy live classical music, kids love it! It’s actually an amazing, exciting experience to see and hear the orchestra live. Also, they get to dress up and go out, learn concert etiquette, and have wonderful conversations with us about the city, their dreams and their friends and all sorts of other things like pre-show sushi v tapas and the different sounds of the grown ups’ shoes on the floor of the Concert Hall. There are so many reasons to share the experience with your child! Sometimes even the fact that it’s a school night is not reason enough to keep a child AWAY from a live show.


I came away from this concert wanting to hear more from Katie, but in appreciating the difficulty of the vocal work, and the nature of this unique performance, I enjoyed hearing from her in Les Illuminations, a much darker piece than the previous, allowing us an extended moment to enjoy Katie’s flawless performance. She has such an extraordinary range and ethereal sound. This production seemed to steer our attention time and time again to the dancers on the floor out front while Katie was placed towards the back of the orchestra – in that spectacular frock, which in itself is criminal! Somebody more willing to share the love with their singer would have placed her out front with the dancers, rather than have her hidden behind them at the back of the band! This is the sort of directorial decision that I’d question Sam about – and be growled at for pointing out before being told, “Oh yes, I can see why you said that. Much better.”*


*in an imaginary ideal collaborative creative married world


Les Illuminations. Image by Steven Siewert.


The dancers, also clad in Maticevski, though in far less of it (what I like to call designer remnants), are absolutely superb; there is no question of their technical skill, style or strength. And the passion, in all senses of the word, and intimacy between them is palpable. In fact, Bonachela’s choreography, paired with Britten’s and Ravel’s compositions, creates an entire ocean of feelings, which we can’t help but be caught up in and swept away with, just like the complex relationships represented in the dance. It’s so incredibly intimate that it becomes painful sometimes – at other times delightful, amusing – because we recognise the cycle of love-hate-love (life-death-life) and we’re familiar with the gut-wrenching feelings that come with each part of a relationship, and which drive each movement. And a side note about taking kids to dance: even when the content or the theme is intense, children get what they get from it (think about the origins of every Disney story; the original fairytales, before the Brothers Grimm made them even slightly palatable. Pretty gruesome, really).


On one level, this choreography is driven by themes of suspicion and violence but on another, it’s quite simply beautifully executed contemporary dance. Had Poppy seen it, we would have talked about the misery people feel when they fight. Assuming that we know vaguely what we want, how can we communicate more clearly, and earlier, without hurting ourselves and the people we love? How can we begin to recognise and accept the good-bad-good cycle of relationships, and live (work) through the ups and downs instead of giving up on them, as so many do? This heart-thinking can be applied to every relationship (it’s been very useful to take this approach with Poppy recently, when talking about friends at school!), and not just to the lovers in this piece. If we don’t expose kids to art of all sorts, including live performances, we limit the opportunities to have conversations with our kids on this level.


“Sometimes the one who is running from the Life/Death/Life nature insists on thinking of love as a boon only. Yet love in its fullest form is a series of deaths and rebirths. We let go of one phase, one aspect of love, and enter another. Passion dies and is brought back. Pain is chased away and surfaces another time. To love means to embrace and at the same time to withstand many endings, and many many beginnings- all in the same relationship.”

Clarissa Pinkola EstésWomen Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype


The elements are well matched, with the exception, as I’ve noted, of the singer. Perhaps this is bound to happen in a production that must favour one discipline over all others. Perhaps the perceived major stakeholder or presumed most popular aspect gets the spotlight and unlike the musical theatre context the balance is thrown. (And then there are those who would argue a hierarchy also exists in a traditional musical theatre production). If I had the resources to bring back Les Illuminations for a return run, I guess I would consider staging this eclectic production in a larger space. Despite the obvious intimacy (Bonachela’s intent was to have a “contained space in an intimate room”), paired with the acoustic advantages of the Concert Hall, it would be wonderful to see the dancers in a more generous space all of their own, with the orchestra set above them and Katie taking her place centre stage. We’ve seen her do so in the QSO’s studio, bringing greater reverence to Britten’s music and greater respect to the vocalist. If it does return to a venue near you, and I feel sure it will, book early for Les Illuminations. It will give you plenty to talk about.


Les Illuminations 30sec TV spot from Peter Greig on Vimeo.



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