BATS Theatre, The Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

17/08/2021 - 28/08/2021

Production Details

Gender isn’t real – but love is 

When ancient Greek enby cutie Iphis finds themself in love with the babe next door Ianthe, a family secret threatens their cottagecore romance. Luckily the Goddexxes are on their side. 

“A generous confection of unbridled joy” – Brett Adam, Theatreview [about The Slutcracker]

A new comic queer ballet based on the Ancient Greek myth of Iphis and Ianthe.

From the creators of The Slutcracker and Galathea: Into The Bush

BATS Theatre, The Dome 
17 – 28 August at 6:30pm
The Difference $40
Full Price $25
Group 6+ $22
Concession Price $20

Georgia Kellett (she/her) – Iphis
Bjorn Aslund (he/they) – Isis  
KJ Lucinsky (they/them) – Ianthe/Cupid
Rain Renor (they/them) – Ligdus/Artemis & Apollo
Jess Ducey - Telethusa/Aphrodite 

Directed by Ania Upstill 
Choreography by Brigid Costello 
Produced by Jean Sergent
Story by Jean and Ania

Lighting – Bekky Boyce
Set – Lucas Neal

Research support – Maddie Brooks Gillespie

Theatre , Dance-theatre ,

1 hr 15 min

Shining highlights; could be more subversive

Review by Brett Adam 18th Aug 2021

Last year’s The Slutcracker, created by Jean Sergent and Salesi Le’ota with choreography by Brigid Costello, was a brilliant queer retelling of an iconic piece of western art. Sapphic Lake (Sergent and Costeillo now joined by the talented Ania Upstill) follows in a similar vein. This time the creators focus on the lesser known tale of Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Lucas Neal’s promenade staging – with faux mosaics on the floor and defined at one end of the playing space by hanging white drapes, and a silvery, futuristic wall of metallic panels at the other – clearly symbolises the contrast between soft, free-form, organic on one hand and hard, rigid and constructed on the other, setting up the themes that one would expect from such a story.

The company’s intention according to the program is, in part, to “subvert and celebrate classical forms”. The Slutcracker did this in spades. As a result it is almost impossible not to compare the two works and hold the former as a benchmark by which to judge Sapphic Lake. Unfortunately this current work falls short on a number of levels. 

Most disappointing is that it does not really subvert the conventions of classical ballet, either its technique or its narrative style. Rather the piece feels like it is straight-jacketed (pun intended) by the traditional form. It takes itself too seriously, despite some attempts at humour, and is way too respectful and deferential to its performance source to really mark itself as subversive. 

Whilst there are some wonderful theatrical moments, including the birth of Iphis and the appearance of Isis, the details of the narrative are often unclear and are propelled by mostly unironic mime and gesture that are not really used in a way that is innovative or unconventional. Even professional ballet companies provide synopses of their ballets, no matter how well known. There are a few pivotal moments that make no sense to me until I am able to Google the story after the fact.

The cast ranges wildly in their balletic abilities and technical prowess. This could have been one of the major strengths of the piece. However rather than celebrating these individual qualities, the choreography usually seeks to erase these differences and pushes the performers towards a more traditional, bland, unified quality more suitable to a corp de ballet. Not all of them are capable of this and as a result some of the performers often look uncomfortable. This seems antithetical to the notion of Queerness that was such a dynamic driver in The Slutcracker.

Rather than celebrating and foregrounding authentic, individual, non-confomist identity and ability, the work does the exact opposite and tries to makes each dancer submit to and embody an externally imposed, idealised standard. To their credit though, there is not one performer who does not fully and totally commit to the choreography.

The title of the piece, Sapphic Lake, would lead you to expect – following on from the success of The Slutcraker – that this is going to be another queer reinvigoration of a canonical piece of western art. The piece does use music from Tchaikovsy’s famous Swan Lake but it is never clear why the choice was made to use this as accompany to Ovid’s unrelated tale. Tchaikovsy’s ballet is such a cornerstone of western ballet and classical music that it constantly imposes its own personality onto the piece and I find myself trying to see connections between the two works.

Really the only thing the two stories share is the idea of transformation. Much like the way that the use of classical ballet as a performance form oppresses and muffles the story and intentions, so too does the music.

Another issue that makes it difficult for the piece to achieve the heights attained by The Slutcracker is that this original story already contains issues of gender representation, so there is not a lot of wriggle room to reinterpret or ‘queer’ the source material. Even though the original ending is changed, overall the story is a little simplistic and representational in its presentation. 

Bjorn Aslund as Isis is the outstanding highlight of the show. Clearly a highly trained dancer he fully inhabits the campy stereotype of the male ballet dancer, enhanced by his uses of the ribbon, on point drag make-up, sequinned costume and killer stilettos. His performance perhaps comes closest to achieving the production’s stated intention to “subvert and celebrate classical forms”. In his work there is a technically crisp embodiment of the form as well as a joyful over-exaggeration. He brings a high energy presence to the stage with every entrance and is worth the ticket price alone.

Georgia Kellett also shines as Iphis. Her fully engaged expressive face and body come close to parodying the norms classical ballet without being disrespectful.

The rest of the cast are equally committed and focused and they bring a variety of energies to the piece but, as I pointed out before, they are not really allowed to be themselves to any great extent. As a result there is a potential here that is not fully realised.

To truly subvert a work, one needs to ‘queer’ not only the content but also, and perhaps more importantly, the form. Whist it is refreshing and affirming to see an ancient work that contains threads of queer and gender politics, sadly Sapphic Lake reimagining of Ovid’s tale falls slightly short of its target.

[Note: Iphis will be played by Tabitha Dombroski on the 24th and 28th August; Isis will be played by Felix Crossley-Pritchard on the 26th and 27th August.]


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