Verve. The Australian Ballet

29 June 2018, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The Australian Ballet’s latest triple bill, Verve, once again raises the fascinating question of what is contemporary ballet? And once again the three works on the program, one each from Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour, and Alice Topp are examples of how varied answers to that question can be.

Constant Variants from Baynes was first made in 2007 although this is the first time I have seen it. It opened the program. It is impeccably constructed and is so at one with the music, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, that it is like seeing as well as hearing the sound. It gives us lyrical movement and sculptural poses. There are moments of playfulness and moments of wonderful unison from the dancers—a male trio stands out in particular. Michael Pearce’s set of partial picture frames, variously coloured, glow beautifully under Jon Buswell’s lighting. Constant Variants is calming, beautiful and recognisably classical.

Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Brett Simon in 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Brett Simon in Constant Variants. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The evening closed with Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, first seen in 2015. I felt uneasy in 2015 and still do. Choreographically it is detailed in the extreme and the dancers capture that detail beautifully. But they constantly move sharply, cutting the air with their limbs, and I longed for a bit of curve to break up the razor-edged look. Aggression and anger predominate. But what makes me especially uneasy is that Filigree and Shadow doesn’t lead anywhere. I can’t see a structure, just a constant coming and going. For me that doesn’t work.

Scene from 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Scene from Filigree and Shadow. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Placed in the middle of the program was Topp’s latest creation, Aurum, danced to four separate works by Ludovico Einaudi. And it was astonishing. There is a choreographer’s explanation for the inspiration behind the work, which is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold or metallic lacquer. But to tell the truth Aurum exists without an intellectual explanation. It is completely visceral. It is about us and how we connect and we are just carried along by its emotional power.

Its surging choreography is compelling (althought there were a few moments when I felt I was watching a phrase or two from a work by Jiri Kylian). But I loved the gorgeous, swooping lifts, the stretched and elongated bodies, and the often precarious balances. A particularly moving pas de deux between Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson stood out.

Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo:Scene from 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson in Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

And of course there was that amazing group section, the third of the ‘movements’. It completely engulfed the audience as it pounded its way to a conclusion when the audience broke out into an uproar of pleasure and excitement (and it wasn’t even opening night). Then there was the final section, another pas de deux this time between Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov, which played with shadows and was thrillingly lit by Jon Buswell. It seemed to resolve all the emotional drama that had gone before it.

It is hard to remember another work that has had such an instant impact in Australia, except perhaps Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Let’s hope Aurum gets another showing soon.

Michelle Potter, 1 July 2018

Featured image: Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Aurum. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

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

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.

Dancing with Mozart. Royal New Zealand Ballet

31 May 2018, Opera House, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Ballet companies anticipate repertoire and book programs in long to mid-term time frames. Perhaps for that reason, the four works in Dancing with Mozart sit somewhat unevenly. The opening Balanchine Divertimento No. 15, and a newly commissioned work were the choices of the current artistic director, whereas the two Kylián works, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze were chosen by the previous artistic director some time ago.

My guess is that Mozart would have found the Divertimento No. 15 somewhat laboured, with its numerous unmotivated entrances and exits, delivering the patterns that are its only content. I am not against patterns per se, in truth I love them if they are danced with élan and clarity, when they can represent all manner of things. In this work, however, there is little hint of meaningful rapport between dancers, and no development of a relationship to the audience, so zero effect of theatre from this extended piece.

Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton in Divertimento No. 15. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The use of guest stars who are of varying aesthetic is hard to understand when the company has so many fine dancers, or until very recently did have, within its ranks. Mayu Tanigaito and Alexandre Ferreira save the day in their brief solos when with sparkling nonchalance they mask the effort involved in the demanding virtuosity.

This is the only work on the program played by Orchestra Wellington. Recorded music is used for the two Kylián works, evidently as required by the choreographic contract, but that is not made clear in the marketing of the season and has caused some upset reactions among those who booked to attend expecting live orchestra throughout.

The Corey Baker commission, The Last Dance, is a challenged work—no aspersion on the dancers who give it their best, but its ideas and images seem oddly static. All new choreographic challenge has to take risks and no one can guarantee the outcome, but whoever commissions and whoever choreographs needs to know a company’s strengths and production values as starting points.  A pick-up group of dancers may have been a better choice for this project. It gives me no pleasure to report that it is the least appropriate use of Mozart’s Requiem that I could imagine.

How grateful we are then for some real choreography that claims space and gives dancers the moves they need to show the complexity and ambiguity, the serious, the strong and the playful options available to those of us who want to recognise life celebrated in dance. Both Kylián works, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze, would have pleased Mozart no end, alive as they are with vitality and madcap, laced with wicked wit and the spin of genius. Every image and every move is deliciously carved and carried, suggestive and sensual, teeming with nuances from the choreographer’s rich train of thought.

Tristan Gross and Massimo Margaria in Sechs Tänze. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Phot:o:© Stephen A’‘Court

Both these dances, performed by Nederlands Dans Theater, are on YouTube, with Stephan Zeromsky, who has so ably staged the works here, in that cast. The fact that you can watch on Youtube is no reason to stay away from a live performance. But it does give you and me the real and rare chance to study the works in all the depth and detail that repeat viewings allow. Kylián’s personal website also offers much insight into his remarkable career, prolific choreography, and his haunting muse.

I also welcomed several memories that this season triggered—for starters, during Ashley Killar’s term here, probably the definitive Balanchine work ever seen in this country, Agon, exquisitely performed by Ou Lu and Amy Hollingsworth. Pure Balanchine at his best.  

Another treasured memory is Harry Haythorne’s beautiful staging of Balanchine’s Serenade on the New Zealand School of Dance in 1984.  (It is a little known but fascinating fact that Haythorne was the first person to script Serenade into Laban Notation. The original score held in the Dance Notation Bureau in New York carries his signature, H.H., in the bottom corner. Dance history is a mercurial creature).

None of us is likely to forget Kylián’s masterwork Soldatenmis/Soldiers’ Mass, to Martinu’s Mass of the Unknown Soldier, which has been twice so brilliantly staged by RNZB, during Matz Skoog’s and again during Francesco Ventriglia’s directorates. The work throbs with the urgency and pain and horror and courage required in battle. It demands extraordinary stamina. Every male dancer in the company is cast. If one injures there is no recourse but to bring in the strongest female dancer in the company to replace him. In the first season that was Pieter Symonds. I wrote at the time this was the night Joan of Arc came to town—and Pieter has used that epithet in her cv ever since. In the most recent season, another male dancer injured, and Laura Saxon-Jones was brought in to replace him. I wrote then that Joan of Arc had returned to town. Laura’s fine dancing, and her own spunky choreography that we have seen in two of the Harry Haythorne award seasons, are much missed from the company’s ranks.  

Back to 1991 and there was something!—the full-length Wolfgang Amadeus, the life and work of the composer, choreographed by Gray Veredon, combining story, drama, poetry, comedy and heartbreak. RNZB seasons were longer then, spanning two weeks, so we had more chance for repeat viewings. The entire celebratory work was accompanied by live orchestra, and the Requiem sung by live choir, with singers crowded into the boxes to the sides of the stalls and circle levels. Eric Languet danced Wolfgang. Jon Trimmer played his father, Leopold. Who could forget them? Dance history might be mercurial but it is also tidal, and never dies completely.

Jennifer Shennan, 4 June 2018

Featured image: Katherine Minor and Fabio Lo Giudice in Petite Mort. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’ ‘Court

 

 

 

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

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.

Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in 'The Piano. The Ballet'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

It never rains, it pours

afterthoughts to Festivals in Wellington, and Auckland…and RNZB The Piano:the ballet

by Jennifer Shennan

Recent worldwide weather events have seen unprecedented extremes in both directions. As we cool down into autumn in New Zealand, we could be mindful of the northern hemisphere’s rite of spring (loads of daffodils apparently, but still cold and wet). We might all be wondering about the proportion of human responsibility for climate change, and what we, each and together, can do about it. So what’s that got to do with dancing? Well, nothing and everything. It’s a global globe that’s turning and we’re all on it.

Recent remarks locally have stated that the New Zealand dance scene is so isolated from the rest of the world. Poppycock, I say, isolation is a state of mind and everywhere is isolated from somewhere. We are entitled to believe that the centre of the world is wherever we are on the day, and that size has nothing to do with it. But it is at the same time true that you sometimes want to see a dance that is not on in your town. What to do about that?

  • Read this website for a review of the recent retrospective of Graeme Murphy’s works by the Australian Ballet. Think about the issues involved in such retros, and follow the Comments with interest. This triggers memories of Murphy’s works for RNZBallet over the years (too few in my estimation). Thought-provoking.
  • Read Joan Acocella’s insightful writings on dance in the New Yorker. Her recent pieces on Arthur Mitchell, Twyla Tharp, Alex Ratmansky give rich commentary on dance in America at its best. Acocella is for me the most lucid dance writer in the English language and I hang on her words. You can catch four articles per month in the New Yorker online, or inherit copies from your kind subscribing friends.
  • Watch Sky Arts television channel’s current broadcast of the 90 minute programme of Patricia Brown’s work. I’d seen photos of her dancers for years but never watched them in motion. Now I have. Intriguing.
  • Be glad of Arts Festivals. Both Wellington and Auckland have just ended their seasons, plus Fringes, with a remarkable range of dance events on offer that have brought us great works, still warm and wet,  from far afield, as well as new local work with much cause to celebrate.  RNZBallet’s The Piano:the ballet  (see review below); English National Ballet’s Giselle (s.r.b.); Crystal Pite’s and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit (s.r.b.); Michael Parmenter’s Orpheus; Malia Johnston’s Rushes; and the all time standout for me in Michael Keegan Dolan’s Swan Lake Loch na hEala (already reviewed on this website at this link)

In recent years Auckland has staged a festival in the alternate years to Wellington’s longer-established biennial, and the airlines were happy as folk winged their way north or south. That worked fine. Now however Auckland has made theirs an annual festival, to run concurrently with Wellington’s, and that does not work fine. I was conscious of a number of friends who watched wistfully as I flew to Auckland for English National Ballet’s Giselle. A number of other friends did go north too but, in doing so, missed out on the remarkable Betroffenheit back here in Wellington. I fear that the two festivals going up against each other across the same three weeks (they claim to co-ordinate and share events, but they do not…) will cause over time a weakening of both programs, and confuse the punters. Australia staggers her cities’ festival seasons better than we do, which makes sense, and also keeps the airlines happy.

I had to fly back to Auckland within the same week for the legendary percussion ensemble, From Scratch, headed by Philip Dadson. (I had danced to their Drumwheel in performances at the National Art Gallery in 1979. Now the striking Carol Brown dances to the same work. Interesting contrasts). My daughter was also involved in a collaboration with From Scratch at the breathtaking Te Uru gallery complex in Titirangi, west Auckland, the great Manukau harbour sprawling below the rooftop venue, in the treetops, at sunset … the first site specific performance of the many I have attended that has ever really thrilled me.

Back in Wellington The Flamenco Project, by Isabel Rivera Cuenca from Barcelona, was the Fringe Festival’s triumph, a strong and spirited yet subtly playful offering of the best of southern Spain—with return visits to New Zealand on offer. The fabulous Cuba Dupa street festival, as fringe to the Fringe, just squeezed in before the end of a golden summer. Included was a riveting Javanese wayang kulit shadow puppet show by dhalang Joko Susilo, effortlessly accompanied by the local Gamelan Padhang Moncar. The astonishingly dance-like arm movements of the puppets was a revelation of this dhalang’s expertise.

Withdrawal from Festival mania? Nah, no time for the blues. Within a day a local cinema was screening Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale by Christopher Wheeldon in live telecast. A knockout. The Bernstein Project and Manon are coming hard on its heels. Isolated in New Zealand? If you say so, but I don’t.

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Abigail Boyle and Alexandre Ferreira in 'The Piano, the ballet'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo : ©Stephen A’Court

Abigail Boyle and Alexandre Ferreira in The Piano: the ballet. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has just completed the national tour of The Piano: the ballet, which saw seasons in both Wellington and Auckland festivals then to eight? cities nationwide. Following inspiration of Jane Campion’s celebrated film from 1980s, the ballet is choreographed by Jiri Bubenicek, in collaboration with his brother Otto on music and design.

The work was originally commissioned for RNZB by Francesco Ventriglia, and extended into two acts from its beginnings as a one-act for Dortmund Ballet in 2014.

(very interesting to read their online promo of that production. I guess isolation works in a variety of ways)…

Specifically for Ballet Dortmund he [Bubenicek] has arranged his newest creation, inspired by Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning film The Piano. He tells the story of a mute woman living in Australia in the 19th century, at the outpost of civilization. In the midst of brutal plantation owners and disenfranchised aborigines she can only express herself through the piano. Together with the film’s Australian director, Jiří and Otto Bubeníček sought the original setting of the film to find out what art can be for people who find themselves in extreme situations—everything.

RNZB’s was a major project that has attracted nationwide accolades for the production, and rightly praising outstanding performances by Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews, among others in alternate casts. The role of the child was a fabulous opportunity for a juvenile player, making far more dramatic demands than the usual cute child dancer cast in many a ballet you and I have seen. (see theatreview, for links to a number of reviews of the production).

Abigail Boyle and Hazel Couper in The Piano. The Ballet. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Abigail Boyle and Hazel Couper in The Piano: the ballet. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The mise en scene of New Zealand land and seascapes was impressive, monumental even, yet did not overpower the danced story. The music excerpts were sourced from numerous different works by numerous different composers, and some (well, me anyway) found that problematic, sensing an opportunity missed by the Company not to have commissioned a New Zealand composer to produce a through-composed score  (such as Gareth Farr? John Psathas? There are also other composers who could have managed it, and the cost would not be astronomical alongside the rights to composers, recording companies and performers that must have been required). If that were in place (and it still could be) the work could tour Europe and show the world we’re the best little ballet company on Earth. As it stands the music does not cumulatively and fully support the shift between the picaresque Act One and the emotional depths of Act Two. Some colleagues found a familiar music excerpt distracting when they heard it, wondering  (‘Oh, I know that piece so well … whatever is it?. Oh whoops, he’s fetched an axe … what’s he going to do with it now?’)

The ballet has raised other interesting issues along the way, prominently the depiction of  Maori in the choreography. Even though respected Maori choreographer, Moss Paterson, was brought in to oversee that dimension, a raft of patronising Pakeha nevertheless commented that the performance of haka should not be left to ‘European’ dancers, and that Maori dancers should themselves be included in the cast instead. One could reply that the challenge to professional dancers in the theatre is to portray ‘other’ in almost every role they take. They may not particularly identify with a repressed and violent husband, a reluctant or duplicit lover, or specially feel like a Cupid or Tinkerbell, a sylphide, or Te Rauparaha, but that’s their trade and the best of them do it with aplomb … witness Abigail Boyle, witness Paul Mathews (whose internalised haka of fury upon discovering he had been cuckolded crosses all ethnic divides) and  witness Luke Cooper, Maori dancer in RNZB.

Depiction  of Maori in RNZB repertoire over the years has not happened often. Ihi Frenzy, with Te Matarae I Orehu, back in Matz Skoog’s day as director, was one.

(The real strength of that project was to take company to the marae in Rotorua for an immersion orientation…then to tour both ensembles nationwide. By the end of that tour, RNZB dancers were indistinguishable from Maori at the haka finale). The indelible memory for me however is from Gray Veredon’s Tell me a Tale, (during Harry Haythorne’s directorate) when Warren Douglas played the Maori brother, who warned the Pakeha settler coming ashore that his sister would not be available as a girlfriend, and confirmed that in haka. End of story. We could well see that work again—Jon Trimmer, Kerry-Anne Gilberd and Kim Broad who played the lead roles are all still around and could help Gray Veredon with re-staging. Design by Kristian Fredrikson was one of his best, and the choreography suited our company extremely well.

The choreography of The Piano follows Campion’s film in great and faithful detail, including the spirited caricature of the preacher and local congregation of early settlers. I found it a good idea to watch the film again, in tandem with this ballet—and you couldn’t help but notice that the choreographed portrayal of Maori was immensely more successful than the film’s very peculiar treatment of ‘the natives’ who lay around mostly swathed in blankets and draped in mangrove trees.

Having said that, I also noted that I very much preferred the film’s shape-shifting epilogue to the ballet’s ambiguous ‘ending’. Plays in the theatre have endings. The ballet would be stronger for having one too. Then it could really take Europe by storm. There’s the wero to you.

Jennifer Shennan, 4 April 2018

Featured image: Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in The Piano: the ballet. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Abigail Boyle and Paul Mathews in 'The Piano. The Ballet'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court