Playhouse, QPAC (Sydney Dance Company)


Choreographer and artistic director: Graeme Murphy

Creative Associate: Janet Vernon

Professional production

Beautiful sordid Berlin, debauched, degraded and destroyed, home of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, bombed into nothingness but always rising again, phoenix-like, from its ashes.

Graeme Murphy’s balletic interpretation of the city, Berlin, was first performed in 1995, and has been chosen by Murphy as the showcase for his and partner Janet Vernon’s farewell tour. It’s in no way a metaphor for the journey of the Sydney Dance Company itself, but its theme of constant rebirth and dynamic defiance of adversity is as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1987, German film director Wim Wenders made a seminal film about Berlin with the English title Wings of Desire, in which actor Bruno Ganz plays a sad shabby angel, come to earth to assemble, testify and preserve reality. Whether this film had any influence on Murphy’s ballet, made seven years later, I don’t know, but the angel figure in this production has the same brooding presence, watching over rather than intruding into human life in this devastated city. Today he is played by rock singer iOTA rather than by Iva Davies, the show’s co-composer who performed in the 1995 production, but the effect of iOTA’s huge presence and electrifying singing is spine-chilling.

The show is a collage rather than a narrative, stretching across the three pre- and post-war decades that saw the Nazi rise to power, its ugly repression of what it considered decadent alternative lifestyles as well as thousands of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, and the devastating aftermath of the Allied bombing that ended the European war. This gives enormous scope to a choreographer, and we find a magnificent mixture of sinuous gender-blurred cabaret performers, Nazi storm-troopers, and sad circus performers, who get to perform brilliant set-pieces which include gymnastics, cat-dancing and even some moments of lyrical ballet.

Berlin may be 12 years old, but this production proves that it has staying power, and whether you’ve seen it before or if it’s new to you, it remains as a shining example of the timelessness and universality of Murphy’s artistic vision.

It’s a triumphant farewell from perhaps Australia’s greatest choreographer, but leaving aside the nostalgia of goodbye, it’s as exciting a night in the theatre as you could wish for.

Go well, Graeme and Janet, and I’m sure all your fans hope it’s au revoir rather than a last goodbye.

Musical direction and composition: Iva Davies and Max Lambert

Set designer: Gerard Manion

Costumes: Jennifer Irwin

Sound: Adam Iuston

Lighting: Adrian Sterritt

Live vocals: iOTA

Playing 29 November to 8 December – 29 – Wednesday – Saturday 7.30pm, Saturday matinee 4pm, Tuesday 6.30pm

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 28th November 2007)