Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in 'The Beginning of Nature', 2018. Photo: Chris Herzfield

The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre

14 June 2018, Canberra Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre

Below is a slightly expanded version (with different images) of my review of Australian Dance Theatre’s The Beginning of Nature. The Canberra Times review is available online at this link. In addition, I was lucky enough to be contacted by the composer, Brendan Woithe, after my review appeared. In the ensuing correspondence he explained in some depth how the score could often sound as if it were a powerful electronic soundscape when on stage there were just four string players performing on two violins, a viola and a cello, along with two singers.

It appears, if I understand Woithe correctly, that the sound produced by the string players is manipulated in real time by a computer system, built and pre-programmed by Woithe so that no human intervention is required. The sound produced in this way is combined with the vocals and a small amount of pre-recorded backing at times to produce what we hear during the performance.

As I suggested in my review, the remarkable sound that emerged from this process varied in what it suggested and, as such, made an inestimable, collaborative contribution to the overall work.

The Beginning of Nature. Australian Dance Theatre. Choreographer: Garry Stewart. Composer: Brendan Woithe. Lighting: Damien Cooper. Costumes: Davis Browne. Indigenous consultant: Jack Buckskin. The Canberra Theatre. June 14 and 15

Garry Stewart has been artistic director of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre for almost two decades now. During that time, he has built up a reputation for choreography that pushes the human body in directions that at times look almost impossible. He often also works with ideas that stretch the imagination to its limits. The Beginning of Nature, his latest work, is no different.

Thematically the work examines rhythms in nature. Sometimes this happens in a gentle way. Stewart’s nine dancers create undulating patterns with their arms, or swirling movements with their hands, or they use their bodies in mesmerising swaying movements. At other times those rhythms are more violent and the dancers throw themselves into moves that are wild and free. Sometimes animal or bird actions are evoked as bodies swarm as one, or tidal patterns emerge as the dancers course across the stage together. There are connections of all kinds, including a moment where two dancers are locked together at the mouth. Some spectacular moves are performed with a dancer balancing on a single part of the body—the head or the hand for example. Other movements find the dancers springing suddenly from a prone position on the floor into the air. There they seem to pause momentarily, execute a cabriole while parallel to the floor, and then return to a prone position. It’s like a sudden explosion from a volcano.

Chris Mills, Harrison Elliot, Zoe Dunwoodie. Kimball Wong, Matte Roffe, David James McCarthy in 'The Beginning of Nature', 2018. Photo: ©

(from front) Chris Mills, Harrison Elliot, Zoe Dunwoodie. Kimball Wong, Matte Roffe in The Beginning of Nature, 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Thomas Fonua in 'The Beginning of Nature', Australian Dance Theatre 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Thomas Fonua in The Beginning of Nature, Australian Dance Theatre, 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy

I also felt there was an atavistic element to the work. The dancers wear their hair in somewhat unkempt styles and, where the hair (or wig) is long, they fling it from side to side as they move. They are also completely involved facially and bodily in expressing the rudimentary forces that are at the heart of the work.

Musically the work is transfixing. A score by Brendan Woithe evokes the sounds of a huge range of natural forces from rain and wind to more gentle aspects of the world and its seasons. It is played onstage by string players from the Zephyr Quartet, with two other actors speaking and singing in the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Hills. A consultant, Jack Buckskin, and his team are responsible for the powerful Indigenous aspect of the work, which highlights a language that had all but disappeared until work began to restore it from a kind of phonetic dictionary assembled by German missionaries. Costumes by Davis Browne are a greenish blue, although the colour changes with the lighting. They are quite simple in design and cut, and can be added to (and subtracted from). Sometimes the dancers appear to be wearing a toga-style dress, while at other times costume is reduced to just a pair of trunks. Lighting by Damien Cooper, with its occasional hazy effects contrasting with patches of brightness and an emphasis on green highlights, is another spectacular feature of a work that is, all in all, a remarkable collaborative endeavour.

Many adjectives come to mind to describe the overall effect of The Beginning of Nature. It is poetic, elemental, ritualistic, and even operatic in the intense theatricality that pervades it. But more than anything The Beginning of Nature is absolutely compelling and engrossing to watch. It simply takes over and sweeps us along. And how beautiful it looks on the stage of the Canberra Theatre with its wide proscenium, giving what Stewart himself referred to as a ‘panoramic feel.’ The panorama of nature is before us.

Michelle Potter, 17 June 2018

Featured image: Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in The Beginning of Nature, 2018. Photo: © David James McCarthy

Dancers of Australian Dance Theatre in 'The Beginning of Nature', 2018. Photo: Chris Herzfield

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Globalisation or culturalism. Is ballet at the crossroads?

In December 2002 I wrote an article, at the request of Bruce Marriott, for ballet.co magazine (now no longer available) to coincide, if I remember correctly, with a conference of artistic directors held in the United Kingdom somewhere (perhaps London?) I think the commission came because David McAllister, then quite new in the role of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, was attending. As with many of my other articles and reviews for ballet.co, I thought it had disappeared from my computer files and I had not made a print out. But just recently it appeared when I was searching with the term ‘Nutcracker’ for another thought-to-be lost file. So I am posting it here and welcome comments from a 2018 perspective.

As artistic directors of some of the world’s best-known ballet companies meet to discuss the issue of globalisation, I am reminded of a now well-known debate that emerged in Australia in the 1960s and the 1970s. It concerned the nature of the country’s cultural development. Two camps sprang up: one centred on the idea of the tyranny of distance, the other on the notion that from the deserts the prophets come. Those who spoke for the tyranny of distance believed that Australia was a cultural desert isolated from the great centres of civilisation, especially from the so-called mother country of Great Britain. Those on the other side believed that Australians did not need to rely on their colonists for what they required to nourish their souls—in the midst of their isolation they could have their own uniquely beautiful culture that could define them, equally uniquely, as Australian. This group took as a catch cry some lines from a poem written by renowned Australian poet A. D. Hope in 1960:

Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come
Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste.

The debate is historically interesting, and the discussion generated two of the best-known period books on Australian culture and identity: Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance and Geoffrey Serle’s From the Deserts the Prophets Come (later, in an attempt to popularise, or globalise perhaps, the Serle book was renamed The Creative Spirit in Australia).

Advances in technology of various kinds have, of course, made the idea of the tyranny of distance pretty much an obsolete concept. Globalisation, however, is clearly with us: it is  part of the fabric of our contemporary existence. It has permeated every aspect of the way we live and operate in the twenty-first century. And while many of the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere may still think of Australia as out of scope, few Australians (thankfully) now believe that distance hampers their ability to interact with the rest of the world. So where does this leave the individualism that we rightly prize so highly? What do we do with the savage and scarlet that has so flamboyantly grown? Or even with the green hills if we are on the other side of the world? Do we sit back and allow globalisation to turn what is unique about our individual dance cultures into something bland and universal? Or do we embrace culturalism, accepting that, while communications may have changed the way we operate in the world, our individual cultures cannot develop in a similar way? Do we sit in our theatres from London to Sydney, from New York to Melbourne, all seeing the same works: a Giselle respectfully produced, Manon, a couple of items from Balanchine, The Merry Widow and so on.  Or do we each go for something culturally specific (a Murphy Nutcracker, an Ashton work from the early repertoire), and for individualistic reworkings of the tried and true (a Guillem Giselle, a Murphy Swan Lake)? Is one way the only way? The right way? The wrong way?

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake'. Photo Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Neither bowing to globalisation nor strictly adhering to culturalism is the answer. Culturalism smacks of attitudes of superiority and cultural elitism—my culture is better than yours. It closes the mind to innovation and change. It indulges in smugness and name calling (the vile expression ‘Eurotrash’, beloved by one particular British critic, springs immediately to mind). It is a stultifying attitude. On the other hand, globalisation removes what we value about ourselves as individuals in unique cultures, what our specific histories have created and asked us to cherish. But defiantly, ballet is perfectly able to accommodate itself within a global society without losing anything. Ballet isn’t dying. It isn’t even at the crossroads as it encounters globalisation. Ballet is like a sponge. It can soak up change: it has been doing so for centuries. It can absorb new vocabulary. It can keep renewing itself from what it absorbs. It has to be able to operate in this way because it is a living, breathing art form. Even the most superficial glance at photographs of acclaimed dancers in the same role taken over several decades, in Giselle for example, makes it very clear that while we may want Giselle to stay the same—the past is very comforting—it can’t and hasn’t and won’t. In fifty years time dancers won’t want to dance Giselle like Alina Cojocaru (hard as that idea may be to comprehend at the moment).

In the twenty-first century the ballet-going public is entitled to green hills sprinkled liberally with some savage and scarlet (and I mean this more widely, more figuratively, than simply British works sprinkled with Australian ones). Dancers are, for their growth as artists, entitled to experience the work of choreographers outside their immediate, culturally-specific environment. Choreographers are entitled to wonder (and experience) how their works might look when danced by dancers trained outside the choreographer’s home country: the great ones do (and have) and are open and generous about the experience, as any dancer from the Australian Ballet who has worked with Jiří Kylián on any work from the Australian Ballet’s Kylián repertoire will tell you. Critics need to open-minded enough to embrace change and innovation while caring about the past. And artistic directors need to understand it all! The artistic director of a truly great company needs courage, intelligence and drive. Courage not to be swayed from his or her vision. Intelligence to have a vision that looks both forward and in a lateral direction and, going hand-in-hand, intelligence to understand that looking in this manner and direction is not a denial of the past. Drive to put the vision into practice.

Globalisation is a much-maligned concept. It doesn’t have to exclude anything really. But to react to globalisation uncritically, and to allow it to dictate to us is the problem. To do this is to lack courage, intelligence and drive. That we can see new works and restagings of old ones from London to Sydney, New York to Melbourne is a gift of globalisation. If we wish to deny that gift by insisting on culturalism it is a measure of an inability to exist in a global culture, in today’s culture, and a pitifully conservative attitude. But one thing is certain, whatever the response of individual people ballet will keep moving forward. It will never fall victim to a narrow culturalism. Only people will do that. Let’s hope that the new breed of artistic directors understands.

Michelle Potter, December 2002, reposted 14 June 2018

Featured image: Artists of Finnish National Ballet in Sylvie Guillem’s Giselle, 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Snow White. Ballet Preljocaj. Photo: Jean-Claude Carbonne

Snow White. Ballet Preljocaj

9 June 2018, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

A death scene begins and ends Ballet Prelocaj’s Snow White. As the ballet opens, we see Snow White being born and gathered up by her father as her mother writhes on the floor and dies. As the ballet ends the stepmother (the Queen) is forced to dance in burning shoes until she dies. Both moments are compelling and there is nothing sweet and charming (or Disney-like) in this version of the story. Choreographer Angelin Preljocaj has gone back to the original story by the Brothers Grimm, and grim it indeed it is. Having said that there is one truly delightful moment at the beginning when, while holding his new-born child in his arms, the father (the King) passes behind an upstage screen and emerges on the other side with a beautiful little child holding his hand. This theatrical moment showed the passing of time but was enhanced by the absolute delight of the little girl at being on stage.

Choreographically Snow White had one truly astonishing sequence. After having the poisoned apple shoved (and I mean shoved with absolutely vile intent) down her throat by the Queen, Snow White’s apparently lifeless body is discovered by the Prince. He and she have met before and have already established a relationship so he is bereft to find her in this state. A pas de deux begins and what makes it remarkable is that there is exciting partner work here as the Prince lifts and flings Snow White’s apparently lifeless body around him until the apple is dislodged. They then continue the pas de deux with delicious softness and romanticism.

Snow White is forced to eat the poisoned apple in Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White. Photo: © Jean-Claude Carbonne

I also enjoyed the moments when we met the seven miners who discover Snow White asleep in the forest that is their workplace. They were not little people in this Snow White but their occupation was clear as we watched them moving up and down a sheer rock face (sets by Thierry Leproust) using ropes to aid the process. Discovering Snow White lying exhausted on the forest floor they were curious about her. The dance they performed together (in between getting on with their climbing activities) demonstrated their close-knit ties to each other and their curiosity about Snow White. I have to admit I was reminded of Meryl Tankard’s works at this point, partly as a result of the use of ropes as part of the choreography. But there were moments of choreography that looked quite linear or geometric and my mind went back to the Hungarian dancers in Tankard’s Wild Swans.

Other parts of the choreography were not quite so engrossing. The early scene, when Snow White and her father sat on their elevated thrones and watched their subjects dancing, contained some interesting moves that seemed to me to look back to court dancing. But this sequence was far too long and in the end seemed like a fill-in rather than part of the story. Despite this, for the most part you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium throughout this show. It was gripping theatre and included some remarkable costumes, although perhaps not always to my liking, by Jean Paul Gaultier.

Michelle Potter, 11 June 2018

Featured image: Snow White is discovered by the seven workmen in Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White. Photo: © Jean-Claude Carbonne

Snow White. Ballet Preljocaj. Photo: Jean Paul Carbonne

A gripe: I was shocked by the format of the acknowledgment of the traditional custodians of the land on which the Sydney Opera House stands. It was so badly amplified that it was all but impossible to make out what was being said. Western civilisation gone mad!

A second gripe: It is always frustrating when roles are shared by two or more dancers but there is no indication of which of the dancers is appearing at a specific performance. Even a stand with cast list in the lobby of the theatre, or near the doors to the auditorium, or anywhere, would be good. Photographs in a program are not always helpful given that make up and costume (including wigs) often change appearances quite markedly.

Lana Jones and artists of the Australian Ballet in ''The Merry Widow', 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. May 2018

  • The Australian Ballet in Canberra

The Australian Ballet made a trip to Canberra in May, after an absence of three years, bringing with it an audience favourite, Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. The local press made much of the fact that several Canberra trained dancers would be performing and indeed on opening night Lana Jones led the company as Hanna Glawari, the very widow of the work’s title.

Audiences in Canberra are starved for professional standard performances of ballet and many travel interstate to get their ballet hit.  So it was no wonder that The Merry Widow was greeted with huge enthusiasm in Canberra. Those in the audience laughed, clapped, they hummed along with the well-known tunes, and cheered and whistled.

The Canberra dance scene has plenty for audiences to enjoy in the area of community dance, and professional contemporary dance also has strong presence thanks to Liz Lea and to Alison Plevey and her Australian Dance Party. And of course QL2 makes its mark with its excellent work in youth dance. In addition, some of the country’s best contemporary companies make annual visits to Canberra and have been doing so for decades—Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre for example. So the city can claim to have access to excellent dance throughout the year. But adult audiences need a bit of ballet and wish it would happen more than once every three years.

Maybe a petition to have the national ballet company visit the national capital as part of its regular touring schedule?

Lana Jones as Hanna Glawari, the Widow, in 'The Merry Widow'. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: Daniel Boud

Lana Jones as Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: Daniel Boud

  • Thomas E. S. Kelly

In May, dancer and actor Thomas E. S. Kelly was awarded the Australia Council’s 2018 Dreaming Award at the National Indigenous Arts Awards. The Dreaming Award celebrates an inspirational young artist (18–26 years old) and gives him or her the opportunity to create a major body of work through mentoring and partnerships, nationally or internationally.

I interviewed Kelly in 2013, shortly after his graduation from NAISDA College, for the Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project. The project recorded filmed interviews with emerging artists who were recommended by their training institution as potential leaders in the arts. So it is pleasing to see Kelly fulfilling the promise that his teachers identified.

The project covered various art forms but, as a matter of interest, the other graduate from NAISDA College who was also part of the project was Beau Dean Riley Smith. He too has proved himself to be a future leader. From the Australian Ballet School the two dancers selected were Hannah O’Neill and Joe Chapman. All the interviews are now part of the National Film and Sound Archive’s collection.

Here is the link to the record of Kelly’s interview.

  • Press for May 2018

’Long-running ballet a firm favourite.’ Review of the Australian Ballet’s The Merry WidowThe Canberra Times, 29 May 2018, p. 35. Online version

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2018

Featured image: Lana Jones and artists of the Australian Ballet in The Merry Widow, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Lana Jones and artists of the Australian Ballet in ''The Merry Widow', 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in The Merry Widow, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet (2018)

12 May 2018, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

If you enjoy sitting in the theatre and being swept away by waltzes and ladies being lifted high in the air by their male partners, along with elaborately decorated costumes and sets and nothing too challenging in the way of storyline, then the Australian Ballet’s Merry Widow is for you. This production was last seen in 2011 but dates back to 1975 when it was commissioned by Robert Helpmann as the first full-length ballet to be made on the Australian Ballet. Choreographed by Ronald Hynd, designed by Desmond Heeley, with music by Franz Lehar arranged by John Lanchbery, and a scenario by Helpmann, it was in the early days closely associated with Margot Fonteyn. She performed the role of the Widow, Hanna Glawari, in Australia as well as elsewhere during guest seasons with the Australian Ballet.

Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in 'The Merry Widow', 1977. Photo Walter Stringer

Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in The Merry Widow, 1977. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

But Australian Ballet principals of the day, including Marilyn Rowe, Marilyn Jones, Lucette Aldous, John Meehan and Kelvin Coe, and others throughout the years, also made it their own. Rowe was repetiteur for this 2018 production.

In the cast I saw Amy Harris and Brett Simon danced the leading roles of Hanna Glawari and Count Danilo Danilowitsch, former childhood sweethearts whose attraction to each other is eventually renewed. While they both danced strongly, for me their involvement in the unfolding story was not the highlight of the show. On the other hand, I admired Sharni Spencer and Joe Chapman as the secondary leads of Valencienne and Camille, the Count of Rosillon. They invested more into the realisation of their characters and, as a result, were much more captivating to watch. And their pas deux in Act II, was really the choreographic highlight amongst all the waltzes and other predictable steps.

There was some strong character work from the male corps de ballet of Pontevedrian dancers in Act II and my attention was especially drawn to a gentleman, who I think was Joseph Romancewicz. He not only danced well but maintained his character when not dancing. It doesn’t always happen and when it does it is very noticeable.

Audiences love this ballet and it is clearly a money-spinner for the Australian Ballet, but after more than forty years I think it needs a redesign. Heeley’s costumes are individually glamorous and suitably of the Belle Epoque period, if sometimes rather too strongly coloured. But when seen en masse against his over lavish sets, and when lit with strong theatrical lighting, the overall design is unsubtle and inelegant to the point of seeming tasteless.

Michelle Potter, 13 May 2018

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet as Can Can ladies in The Merry Widow, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Manon, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Tate squash

Dance diary. April 2018

  • The Squash at the Tate Britain

While visiting the Tate Britain with the express purpose of examining the Tate’s excellent collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings (Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake was inspired by The Lady of Shallot), I stumbled on a piece of performance art, The Squash. The work of British sculptor and performance artist Anthea Hamilton, it involved a single performer (a different dancer each day apparently), dressed in a squash-like costume (chosen each day from a collection of costumes), moving around a white tiled area.

The program evolved from Hamilton’s research into performance art in the 1960s and 1970s and in particular from a photograph she found of a person dressed as a squash lying among vines. How does a squash move? Without much variety I think. But still it was a diversion.

  • A dancer in wartime: Gillian Lynne

Some dance fans in Australia may remember Gillian Lynne from her work in 1975–1976 on the production of Fool on the Hill, a work for the Australian Ballet especially commissioned for television. More recently, I was impressed by her work in the revival of Helpmann’s early work Miracle in the Gorbals for Birmingham Royal Ballet, which I was lucky enough to see in London in 2014. And of course she has had a stellar career in musical theatre.

Promotional shot by John McKinnon of cast members in Fool on the Hill. Robert Helpmann as Sergeant Pepper is foregound left, John Meehan is centre as the Puma Tamer. National Library of Australia.

I was not aware until very recently of A dancer in wartime, an autobiographical account of Lynne’s early career as a student and then dancer with Sadler’s Wells.

Published in 2011, it is a highly personal and moving work finishing with preparations for and the opening of the production of The Sleeping Beauty of 1946, the first production to open in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, after World War II. Definitely worth a read. Unfortunately, it leaves a few threads in the air. What, for example, happened to Geoffrey, a serviceman who seemed smitten with Lynne, who also seemed smitten with him. I have yet to discover the next part of the story!

  • Gray Veredon in France

I had the pleasure very recently of visiting choreographer and director Gray Veredon at his home, La Mirande, in the Ardèche region of southern France. Veredon choreographed a number of ballets with designs by Kristian Fredrikson for Royal New Zealand Ballet and choreographed and directed two operas for Wellington City Opera, also with designs by Fredrikson.

A cosy corner at La Mirande

Veredon was generous in sharing his thoughts about working with Fredrikson, who admired him greatly. Fredrikson wrote, ‘I have over 30 years found only two [choreographers] who were intuitively visual and determined to incorporate the design into choreography and dramatic visual statements.’ They were  Veredon and Graeme Murphy.

Veredon’s thoughts on his work with Fredrikson, and on his own choreographic concepts, will feed into my biography of Fredrikson, which is nearing completion.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2018

Featured image: Moment from The Squash, Tate Britain, April 2018. Phoro: Neville Potter

Tate squash

Francesca Hayward as Manon and Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux. The Royal Ballet © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

Manon. The Royal Ballet

19 April 2018 (matinee), Royal Opera House, London

The first thing that struck me as the curtain went up on the Royal Ballet’s Manon, and as the action began, was how full of life the crowd scenes were. No matter which character one watched there was always strong acting. And having been brought up, as it were, on the Australian Ballet’s production of Manon, which has designs by Peter Farmer, it was a delightful change to see Nicholas Georgiadis’ work. His set is so functional and yet so evocative and his range of costumes for the variety of folk who inhabit the opening scene is eye-catching to say the least.

As the action proceeded, however, there were ups and downs. Bennet Gartside as Monsieur G.M, and Nehemiah Kish as Des Grieux were both strong performers, technically and as actors, and their strengths continued beyond Act I. I didn’t get quite the same feeling, however, from Melissa Hamilton as Manon. I couldn’t quite figure out whether she was stringing Des Grieux along. Had she really fallen for him as he had for her? I wanted to feel a few goose bumps in their various pas de deux but didn’t. Hamilton was better at being distant with Monsieur G.M than intimate with Des Grieux.

There were times, however, when I admired Hamilton’s beautifully fluid arms, especially in her Act II solo and dance with the men at the party given by Monsieur G. M. Then she brought an attractive Eastern look and feel to her dancing. It was also in Act II that Georgidas’ costumes really shone with their range of russet colours set off by black highlights. Valentino Zucchetti as Lescaut, Manon’s brother, also stood out across the acts in which he was involved. His drunken solo and dance with his friends deserved applause. Act III continued the strength of the first two acts in terms of acting with Gary Avis a cold and nasty gaoler.

I left the theatre after this performance having been swept along by the clarity of the storyline. I wish, however, that Manon had made it a little easier for me to have been swept along by her plight. It would have made the show much more powerful.

Michelle Potter, 22 April 2018

Featured image: Francesca Hayward as Manon and Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux. The Royal Ballet © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

Francesca Hayward as Manon and Federico Bonelli as Des Grieux. The Royal Ballet © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

Note: There are no media images available of the cast I saw.

Kenneth MacMillan: Steps back in time. Viviana Durante Company


20 April 2018. The Pit,  Barbican Centre, London

Viviana Durante has just directed a short program of early works by Kenneth MacMillan, namely excerpts from House of Birds and Danses concertantes and the full Laiderette. Her dancers on this occasion came from several companies including the Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Ballet Black. I wanted more than anything to see Laiderette. Apart from anything else, the title had been a source of fascination for ages. What did it mean? Eventually I discovered that it is a contraction of ‘laideronette’, and means ‘little ugly one’.

But it was its Australian connections that interested me in particular. Originally performed at a Sadler’s Wells choreographic workshop in 1954, it was designed by Australian artist Kenneth Rowell. It was his first commission from MacMillan (he later designed MacMillan’s Le baiser de la fée), and one of his earliest works after arriving in England on a British Council scholarship. In the Durante revival the printed program did not acknowledge Rowell (although he is acknowledged elsewhere) but gave the names of two costume designers covering the evening’s works: Rossella D’Agostino and Tjasha Stroud. How closely (if at all) they had investigated Rowell’s original designs is, unfortunately, not at all clear.

Laiderette was acquired by Marie Rambert for her company in 1955 and was in the Rambert repertoire until the late 1960s. The other interesting Australian connection, resulting from the Rambert acquisition, is that well-known Melbourne-based ballet teacher, academic, and former dancer with a range of companies in England and Australia, Maggie Lorraine, danced the leading role of Laiderette when the work was filmed in 1966.

As the story goes, the leading lady, Laiderette, is a member of an itinerant group of circus performers and is left by her colleagues outside a house where a masked ball is taking place. While she is sleeping a mask-seller puts a mask on her face. She is eventually discovered by guests at the ball. The Host is called and dances with her until, when masks are removed, her wig comes off at the same time. She is discovered to be bald and is rejected by all at the masked ball, notably the Host who has shown particular interest in her.

In the performance I saw the role of Laiderette was danced by Francesca Hayward and the host by Thiago Soares, both principals with the Royal Ballet. I could not have hoped for a better pair of dancers to bring MacMillan’s story to life, and in particular to advance the somewhat dark subtext of alienation, exclusion and rejection. It was a fascinating early insight into MacMillan’s interest in examining through dance certain psychological states of mind.

Of the other two works shown, the excerpt from Danses concertantes, a duet, was over almost before it had started, so short was it, and the costumes were breathtakingly awful, especially the black, tight-fitting wigs/skull caps each surmounted by a golden ornament of dubious meaning. Choreographically it seemed quite stilted, even somewhat awkward to me, although I took this to mean that MacMillan was making an effort to reflect the sharpness of Stravinsky’s music to which it was danced, and/or it was an indication of MacMillan’s counter intuitive approach to making dance. At the performance I saw, Australian dancer Benjamin Ella, now a soloist with the Royal Ballet, partnered Akane Takada, although the shortness of the excerpt gave little opportunity to make any sensible comment on their performance.

House of Birds opened the program and perhaps the best performance in the cast I saw came from the Bird Woman, danced by Sayaka Ichikawa from Ballet Black, whose pecking head was mesmerising. Based on a tale by the Brothers Grimm, also dark in its subtext, it follows the consequences that emerge when a Boy (Thiago Soares) and a Girl (Meaghan Grace Hinkis) are captured by a Bird Woman.

Bouquets to Durante for having the courage to restage these three works, thus providing an opportunity to consider how MacMillan’s later work developed from them. A video of the program in its entirety is available (with in some places a different cast from the one that I saw) at this link.

Michelle Potter, 22 April 2018

Featured image: Scene from Laiderette, Viviana Durante Company, 2018

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Obsidian Tear, Marguerite and Armand, Elite Syncopations. The Royal Ballet

18 April, 2018, Royal Opera House, London

It would be hard to think of a more diverse triple bill than the most recent from the Royal Ballet: Wayne McGregor’s intellectually clinical Obsidian Tear, Frederick Ashton’s emotionally captivating Marguerite and Armand, and Kenneth MacMillan’s joyously entertaining Elite Syncopations. There is, as ever, little to fault technically with the dancing by this incredible company so my thoughts are largely guided by other matters.

The absolute standout work of the evening was Marguerite and Armand, which occupied the middle position on the program. Yes, it is so closely associated with Fonteyn and Nureyev, and perhaps Sylvie Guillem and various partners, but Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli gave an absolutely stunning performance that brought out every bit of Ashton’s wildly free and exciting, and beautifully musical choreography. And what a grand performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, to which the work is set, we heard from the accomplished pianist Robert Clark.

In my mind I continue to have a vision of Bonelli standing upstage about to rush forward to sweep Marguerite up in his arms and begin the main pas de deux. He took an arabesque on half pointe, arms flung upwards and outwards. And there he stood, balancing perfectly, body filled with passion and daring. Brilliant, as was the pas de deux itself with Ferri being flung from pose to pose and both artists projecting the ravishing excitement of what their love could be. And so it continued with the narrative flowing so clearly to the very end. I’m not sure how long this ballet is—twenty five minutes maybe—but it was over in a flash so captivating was it.

The opening work, McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, left me a little cold and its choreography seemed stark and emotionless—but then I guess obsidian is a hard substance. Everything seemed to happen suddenly. Lighting cut out rather than faded and movement, while it showed McGregor’s interest in pushing limits, had little that was lyrical.

The most interesting aspect for me was the set, designed by McGregor. It resembled a black box theatre space but looking closely it reminded me of an Ad Reinhardt painting. At first Reinhardt’s paintings look monochromatic, as did McGregor’s set, but a closer look reveals small, intimate details, as also happened with the set for Obsidian Tear. Of the dancers, I especially enjoyed the dancing of Benjamin Ella and Marcelino Sambé. But Obsidian Tear did not engage me the way so many others of McGregor’s works have.

Royal Ballet artists in 'Obsidian Tear'. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper

Royal Ballet artists in Obsidian Tear. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper

The final work on the program was Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, danced to a selection of music by Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers, and played by an onstage band. Beautifully set on a stripped-back stage space with the dancers and band members in spectacular costumes by Ian Spurling, it was a buoyant, joyous, even reckless show.

Without wishing to detract from any of the twelves dancers who gave us such pleasure, stars were Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano. Hirano in particular knocked me for six. I have always seen him in more classical or dramatic roles (and have enjoyed his work in such ballets) but in Elite Syncopations he showed another side of his skills. He was smooth, persuasive, suave, flirtatious and a great partner. And he never stepped out of character.

Sarah Lamb in 'Elite Syncopations'. The Royal Ballet. Photo: © ROH/Johan Persson
Ryoichi Hirano and Yasmine Naghdi in 'Elite Syncopations'. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Bill Cooper

(left) Sarah Lamb in Elite Syncopations. Photo: © ROH/Johan Persson; (right) Ryoichi Hirano and Yasmine Naghdi with onstage band in Elite Syncopations. © ROH 2017. Photo: Bill Cooper

As a conclusion to a decidedly mixed triple bill, Elite Syncopations sent us home smiling.

Michelle Potter, 19 April 2018 

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in 'Sheherazade'. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Murphy. The Australian Ballet … second viewing

14 April 2018 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I had the pleasure of seeing Murphy for a second time, this time in Sydney at a mid-season matinee and in a top-notch seat (as a result of many years of subscribing and slowly moving forward into a great position).

Much, if not all, that I wrote after the Melbourne opening still stands. One or two performers, however, stood out for me on this second occasion. In Grand,  ‘Alligator Crawl’ by Fats Waller was wonderfully danced by George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu. Xu in particular made the most of the opportunity and looked smart and sassy, as was appropriate in the jazz situation that the music demanded. Then, Yuumi Yamada and Andrew Killian danced beautifully in the duet to the Beethoven ‘Lento e mesto’ from his Piano Sonata in D major. There was a certain vulnerability in the way Yamada moved and yet technically her dancing was strong. Killian was a perfect partner in this situation.

I also omitted to mention the work of filmmaker Philippe Charluet in my previous post. His Reflections, the opening  filmed monologue from Murphy, and his introduction to Grand, which showed the incredible Wakako Asano from the Sydney Dance Company production of 2005, were fine examples of Charluet’ work and nostalgic reminders of how exceptional Sydney Dance Company was under Murphy and Vernon.

Shéhérazade, however, remained a disappointment without its silk tent. It might be one thing to perform an excerpt without the full set, which if I recall correctly was the case in Body of Work (2002) when just the opening pas de deux was performed. But the Murphy program presented the full work and it truly lost its mysterious and erotic quality without the original set.

Here is part of what Kristian Fredrikson wrote about the set: ‘Blue silk tent with applied gold patterns, a silk sling, a rope, 4 watchers on illuminated perspex—glittering gauze.’ And here is his description of one highlight where the silk plays a significant role in the choreography: ‘A girl arises from her silk trapeze and dances a yearning solo … at two points of the solo the girl is mirror-imaged by the first girl who slips in and out of the gauze.’ It would have been respectful, as well as giving audiences a true picture of what Shéhérazade was really like, had there been some effort to reproduce the original set.

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2018

Featured image: Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in 'Sheherazade'. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Note: The National Library of Australia holds some colour photographs from the first performances (1979) of Shéhérazade taken by Don McMurdo, which show the blue tent with its gold designs. I have made concerted and repeated efforts to get permission to use them but I have had no response from the copyright owner. The National Library holds them in trust only and Don McMurdo’s permission is not sufficient. I still hold out hope that one day the Sydney Opera House’s legal team will respond.