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

Ako Kondo as Alice in ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Australian Ballet

5 December 2017, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

My spirits soared as the curtain went up on the opening act of Christopher Weeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at its Sydney opening night. There before us a picnic was taking place in an English architectural setting, which I believe represented the Deanery at Christ Church, Oxford, home of Alice Liddell who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. We met Alice’s family and friends, who would later take on other guises when Alice went down the rabbit hole. And the work of Nicholas Wright, who wrote the scenario and added a love interest to the story—between Alice and Jack (in later acts the Knave of Hearts)—seemed to be setting us up for an interesting evening of ballet.

But after Alice disappeared down the rabbit hole the prospect of an evening of ballet disappeared with her. The most obvious feature of the work was not the dancing but the visual design and effects. True the visual features were spectacular and technically astonishing at times. I loved the tiny door that scuttled across the stage at times (see the featured image). Indeed it said more about the story than a lot of the other parts of the design—an example of ‘less is more’ perhaps? I also liked the Victorian scrapbook-style imagery that accompanied the flower waltz in Act II, except that there was too much else happening design-wise for it to be appreciated. Visual overload throughout I thought. When I go to the ballet, I prefer to see dancing rather than umpteen technical tricks and constantly changing visual ideas, as amazing as they may be.

But then the choreography, when it was given some prominence, wasn’t all that interesting. I guess I have never really been a fan of Wheeldon’s work, but this time I wondered how he envisages movement in relation to the human body. With a few exceptions, notably the very slinky caterpillar, I thought Wheeldon ignored the fact that the limbs are attached to the body. Spiky leg movements seemed to predominate and when the upper body did move it seemed expression-less. Choreographically the work felt very flat, innocuous and unexceptional.

All in all, however, the dancers performed nicely. With her charm and gorgeous ability to draw the audience into her world, Ako Kondo was well suited to the role of Alice. With some spectacular dancing, Ty King-Wall as Jack/the Knave of Hearts, was a joy to watch, and I enjoyed Adam Bull as Lewis Carroll/the White Rabbit, especially for the quirky, anxious character he gave to the White Rabbit. Bouquets too to Kevin Jackson as the tap dancing Mad Hatter and Steven Heathcote for a strong portrayal of Alice’s father/the King of Hearts.

Ty King-Wall as the Knave of Hearts in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Ty King-Wall as the Knave of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But I really disliked the odd changes that had been made to the character of the Queen of Hearts (Alice’s mother in Act I). All was fine when she was looking to chop heads off left, right and centre, which we know is her wont according to Lewis Carroll. But she was also written into the story as some kind of crazy ballerina who wanted to dance the Rose Adagio but couldn’t. To me the pathetically horrible take on the Rose Adagio showed a major lack of taste on the part of the creative team. Leave that kind of mucking around to the Trocks, when it is funny. I really don’t want to see it on the Australian Ballet, and I especially don’t want to see Amy Harris, who played the Queen of Hearts, lying on her stomach, head pointing upstage, legs spread-eagled to the side, and bottom lifted off the ground and pointed directly at the audience. All we needed was the noise. Hideous!

I am sure Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is already a terrific money-spinner for the Australian Ballet, and probably many (most) people thoroughly enjoyed themselves. But watching it made me wonder where ballet is heading. Give me something that is less vaudeville/burlesque/circus-like from our national ballet company.

Michelle Potter, 7 December 2017

Featured image: Ako Kondo as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo as Alice in ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet

7 September 2016, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Alexandre Riabko, guesting with the Australian Ballet in the lead role on the opening night performance of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, has been dancing that role since at least 2003 when Hamburg Ballet guested in Paris. He may well have danced it even earlier. At the work’s world premiere in Hamburg in 2000 he took the role of the dancer Nijinsky as Harlequin in Le Carnaval and the Spirit of the Rose in Le Spectre de la rose. Thus the ballet Nijinsky, and the role of Vaslav Nijinsky, have been part of his dancing life for more than fifteen years. And so it was not surprising, but nevertheless thrilling, that his performance throughout the ballet was exceptional. It was exceptional from his first commanding entrance and walk down the steps leading to the space where he was to dance, through to his dramatic finale, performed in the same space, albeit now an arena that contained signs of destruction, as indeed did Nijinsky’s state of mind. Riabko held the work together. It was a tour de force by a dancer who communicated with every inch of his body.

Those with whom Riabko shared the stage—characters representing Nijinsky’s family, especially his wife Romola; characters that Nijinsky danced during his career; dancers from Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, including Tamara Karsavina and Leonide Massine; Diaghilev himself; soldiers and others representing war, against which Nijinsky was so opposed—had mixed success.

Leanne Stojmenov was a standout as Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava Nijinska, especially in the Rite of Spring scene (of which sadly there seem to be no media images available, but see below for Stojmenov as the Young Woman in Jeux).

Leanne Stojmenov and Alexandre Riabko in 'Nijinsky', the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

In the Rite of Spring scene, where Stojmenov played the Chosen Virgin, she danced as if there was no tomorrow, tossing her body into Neumeier’s demanding positions, flinging herself from side to side, hair in disarray. In fact this scene, with Riabko/Nijinsky standing on a chair shouting out instructions to the performers, is one of the most exciting of the evening. (To the Australian Ballet: oh please get access to the Pina Bausch Rite of Spring and put Stojmenov in the lead. She would be stunning).

I also thought that François-Eloi Lavignac was outstanding as Stanislav, Nijinsky’s brother. His small, compact but very flexible body perfectly suited Neumeier’s writhing movements. Stanislav’s death was a compelling scene.

Along with Lavignac and Stojmenov, I was also impressed by Cristano Martino as the dancer Nijinsky as the Faun in L’après-midi d’un faune, and the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade. His Golden Slave was slinky and strongly sexual. His Faun was beautifully controlled and conveyed an innate power.

Cristiano Martino as the Faun on 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Cristiano Martino as the Faun in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As ever, however, I longed for so many of the others in the cast to have more artistry in their performance and, for the first time in my various encounters with this ballet, I felt as though Neumeier’s Nijinsky was too long and too slow in parts. I still get the feeling that the dancers of the Australian Ballet focus on steps, and Neumeier’s Nijinsky is not about steps. I was disappointed, for example, with Adam Bull’s portrayal of Diaghilev. Bull is an excellent dancer but I think of Diaghilev as an eccentric character and there was nothing eccentric about Bull’s interpretation. For me he was a ballet dancer pretending to be Diaghilev. Similarly with Amy Harris as Romola. I got no feeling for what kind of person she might have been.

I did enjoy the sets and costumes (concept by Neumeier) more in this viewing than previously, when I guess I was more focused on what was happening and who was who. Neumeier’s use of ‘attributes’ rather than detailed costuming to distinguish characters was aesthetically pleasing and the circles of light that occasionally appeared as part of a particular setting recalled Nijinsky’s fascinating circular drawings, some of which are part of Neumeier’s personal collection of Nijinsky memorabilia.

Alexandre Riabko in 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Nijinsky is a thrilling work and I bow to Neumeier’s concept. But I hope that throughout the Australian Ballet season, as it continues in Melbourne, and then goes to Adelaide and Sydney, that stronger characterisations might emerge from more of the dancers.

Michelle Potter, 9 September 2016

Featured image: Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

My review of Nijinsky with Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane in 2012 is at this link.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in Twyla Tharp's 'In the Upper Room'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

20:21. Another look

14 November 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

What a pleasure it was to see the Australian Ballet’s triple bill program, 20:21, for a second time, in a different theatre, and with a different cast. Clearly the dancers have become more familiar with the works over the series of performances that have been staged since I saw it in Melbourne. I suspect it also looks better on the smaller stage of the Sydney Opera House (for once). In addition, I have inched myself forward over many years of subscribing to a Sydney matinee series so that I have an almost perfect seat in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. It all adds up.

This time In the Upper Room had a simply fabulous cast. Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch were stunning throughout, as were Ako Kondo, Miwako Kubota, Ingrid Gow (great to see her in a featured role again), Chengwu Guo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in Twyla Tharp's 'In the Upper Room'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

These seven dancers worked together in different combinations in the more balletic of the various sections of Upper Room. Not only did they show off their superb technical skills, they brought their individual personalities to these sectionsa perfect approach for Tharp’s choreography. Gaudiello finished off his phrases of movement with his remarkable sense of theatricality; Guo finished his with a kind of nonchalance, which was equally as satisfying. But it was Kusch who stole the show with her joyous manner and her ability to make even the most difficult move, the most outrageous lift, look so easy.

It is such a thrill to see this work performed by the Australian Ballet’s dancers and it was not just the seven I have mentioned who danced wonderfully. I could feel the excitement building from the moment the curtain rose on Dimity Azoury and Vivenne Wong in their sneakers and stripey costumes. As I have said before, for me the Australian Ballet’s dancers have the staying power, the determination to succeed,and just the right personalities to make Tharp’s Upper Room look fabulous. This time they nailed it and for once I didn’t keep thinking of previous casts I saw umpteen years ago!

Kusch was also the star attraction for me in the Balanchine piece, Symphony in Three Movements. She had the central, andante movement, which she danced with Adam Bull. Technically she was quite outstanding. Her extensions took the breath away, and her turns were spectacular. But it was her musicality that stood out. She brought out the changing rhythms and the jazzy overtones of Stravinsky’s score not just in her way of moving but also in her facial expression. She was a delight to watch. Bull was a strong partner but perhaps a little too tall for Kusch?

Gaudiello also had a leading role in Symphony in Three Movements, mostly partnering Dimity Azoury, and I never tire of watching his approach to partnering. He is so attentive to his ballerina in a way that is rarely achieved by others, but he manages at the same time to perform as an outstanding artist himself. Miwako Kubota and Brett Simon danced the third of the leading couples and the corps, wonderfully rehearsed as ever by Eve Lawson, showed off Balanchine’s choreographic patterns to advantage.

Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow was again strongly danced but, as before, I saw little in it that was substantial enough to excite the mind or eye. It is admirable that the Australian Ballet is exploring new choreographic ideas of course, and large sections of the audience were thrilled with what they saw, but I am still not sure where Harbour was trying to take us.

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2015

My review of 20:21 in Melbourne is at this link.

Giselle. The Australian Ballet (2015 third viewing)

21 May 2015, Canberra Theatre Centre

This is an expanded version of a review published by Fairfax Media online on 22 May and which will appear shortly in print in The Canberra Times [published 25 May].

Giselle is one of the great works of the balletic repertoire. Its story of love, betrayal and forgiveness needs powerful acting as well as exceptional dancing, and its Romantic heritage (it was first performed in Paris in 1841) requires that its two acts be very different from each other. The first act, showing village life at harvest time, is grounded in reality; the second, set in a ghostly forest clearing at midnight, is just the opposite. The opening night of the Australian Ballet’s Canberra season of Giselle, the Maina Gielgud production, ticked all the boxes and was nothing short of stunning.

In the leading roles of the peasant girl Giselle, and Albrecht, the man Giselle loves, Lana Jones and Adam Bull danced exceptionally well, both together and in their respective solos. I have never seen Jones dance with such lightness and elevation and her held arabesques lingered beautifully every time. The relationship between Jones and Bull unfolded carefully throughout Act I as a result of their expressive faces and their constant eye contact. Then, when Albrecht’s true identity was revealed—he is not the peasant he seems to be but a Count in disguise—Jones brought compelling dramatic force to her mental collapse. Bull played Albrecht as a man genuinely in love and, although he could not deny his aristocratic lineage when confronted with it, we felt his anguish as he faced Giselle’s onstage death.

By Act II Giselle, as prefigured in Act I, has become a Wili and rises from the grave to join others like her who have been betrayed in love. They prey upon men who enter their domain at night and, at the command of Myrtha, their Queen, condemn them to dance until they die. Jones and Bull again showed their exceptional technical skills but also consistently stayed in character. Their first encounter, after Albrecht had entered the forest to mourn at Giselle’s grave, was a moving one. Jones drifted past Bull as an apparition whom he could not catch. As the act progressed we felt Bull’s desperation as he obeyed the command to keep dancing, and we felt Jones’ all-consuming love as she pleaded that he be saved. None of this was at the expense of their dancing in a technical sense, but neither did they allow their dancing to intrude on the development of the story.

As Myrtha, Ako Kondo was superb. She was, as ever, technically assured. But she also brought just the right imperious quality to her performance. No one could escape her cold-heartedness.

Ako Kondo as Myrtha in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo as Myrtha in Giselle. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Hilarion, the rough and untutored gamekeeper also in love with Giselle, was strongly danced by Andrew Killian. His role in unmasking Albrecht in Act I is crucial and Killian made his every move and thought unmistakably clear. As Wilfred, Albrecht’s right hand man, Andrew Wright also gave a strong performance. He was forever anxious as he tried again and again to persuade Albrecht not to pursue his deception of Giselle, and then was in the right place at the right time to usher him out of the village following Giselle’s death.

The peasant pas de deux, a highlight of Act I, was danced by Miwako Kubota and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson. They made a charming couple, both in their dancing and in the way they engaged with each other, and with us in the auditorium. What I especially admired was that they maintained their roles as two people from the village community. While technically they certainly matched others I have seen perform this pas de deux, they were the first who didn’t look as though they belonged elsewhere.

Natasha Kusen and Robyn Hendricks also caught my eye for their lyrical performance as the leading Wilis in Act II. Kusen in particular had a wonderfully fluid upper body and arms and continues to stand out as a dancer to watch.

Although the size of the Canberra stage caused one or two difficult moments, the dancers of the Australian Ballet performed as the true professionals they are. It was a wonderful Giselle, beautifully danced, thoroughly engaging, and dramatically convincing throughout.

Michelle Potter, 23 May 2015

 

Postscript

On the question of the size of the Canberra Theatre and its relation to the Australian Ballet’s abilities to stage its current repertoire in the present theatre, at the post-performance event, John Hindmarsh, current chair of the ACT Cultural Facilities Corporation announced that he had had some success in his ongoing initiative to develop a new Canberra Theatre. While there is, apparently, still much to achieve Hindmarsh was in a relatively buoyant mood about possibilities.

I am also curious that the name Loys, the pseudonym that used to be given to Albrecht while he assumes a village identity, seems to be disappearing. It didn’t appear in this production. And is he a Count as the Australian Ballet program says, or is he the Duke of Silesia as others note? Pedantic points perhaps, but interesting nevertheless.

And one disappointment, no media images were available of Jones and Bull, which seems a missed opportunity to me.

La Bayadère. The Australian Ballet

29 August (evening) and 30 August (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Stanton Welch made his new version of La Bayadère for Houston Ballet, of which he has been artistic director for ten years. Its premiere was in 2010. He has now restaged it for the Australian Ballet, where he still holds the position of resident choreographer.

It was always going to be a problematic ballet: an updated version of a work that is entrenched in nineteenth-century cultural values where countries beyond Europe were regarded as little more than examples of exotica, and were represented as such in the theatre. Choreographically, Welch’s Bayadère makes passing references to traditional Indian greetings and hand movements from forms of Indian dance. There are also plenty of attitudes (the ballet step) with angular elbows and hands bent at the wrist, palms facing upwards. They remind us of a dancing Shiva. But there is also a lot of waltzing at certain points and the mixture doesn’t ring true today. So much of what we can accept from a production that claims to look back to the original (Makarova’s production for example), we can’t accept from a new production made in the twenty-first century. It all becomes a frustrating jumble.

So too with the costuming. There are no tutus (thankfully) until the Kingdom of the Shades scene, although there is a confusion of costuming, especially with Solor who is dressed like a balletic prince in tights and jacket while everyone else has a costume that approximates an Indian-style outfit.

Amber Scott and artists of the Australian Ballet in 'La Bayadère'. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Amber Scott and artists of the Australian Ballet in Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo: © Jeff Busby

My enjoyment of the work depended very much on the casting. The first show I saw, with Lana Jones as Nikiya and Adam Bull as Solor, was a lack-lustre performance, which only highlighted the feeling that the work was a cultural and choreographic jumble. While Jones’ first solo was beautifully danced—she has such a fluid upper body—she and Bull were not connecting and it seemed like a very sullen pairing. Robyn Hendricks as Gamzatti, whose villainous nature Welch has strengthened nicely, overplayed the role somewhat and didn’t look good in that harem costume, which reveals the rib cage rather dramatically.

In that first viewing, I loved the two children who accompanied Solor’s mother wherever she appeared. They were an absolute delight and took an active interest in everything happening on stage. And Vivenne Wong executed the first solo in the Shades scene with precision and attack—those relevés on pointe down the diagonal were spectacular.

In a second viewing I had the pleasure of seeing Amber Scott as Nikiya and Ty King-Wall as Solor. My interest in the work soared.

Ty King-Wall and Amber Scott in 'La Bayadère', the Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ty King-Wall and Amber Scott in Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère, 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

King-Wall and Scott danced beautifully together and their various pas de deux were silky smooth and imbued with tenderness. This was the first time I have seen King-Wall in a principal role since he was promoted and he certainly lived up to that promotion, both technically and in terms of successfully entering a role and developing a partnership. Ako Kondo as Gamzatti once again danced with superb technical skill. Perhaps she was a little too nice for the role in its new guise, but she engaged well with Laura Tong as Ajah, her servant, and it is impossible not to be swept away by her superb dancing.

The issue of Indian references aside, Welch’s choreography is always interesting to watch. I have written elsewhere that I think his best works are abstract rather than story ballets and I enjoyed watching how he structured scenes for larger numbers of people in Bayadère. His choreography for the Rajah’s four guards was simply constructed but often surprising in the way each came forward for a mini solo. And later, during the wedding celebrations for Solor and Gamzatti, Welch handled a bevy of guards and guests easily and maintained interest, despite the waltzing, in each of the different groups throughout that sequence of dancing.

Design-wise, Peter Farmer’s chaise-longue, on which Solor reclined to smoke his opium before the shades of Nikiya began their procession down the ramp, was gorgeous. Its luscious curves gave it an art nouveau feel and its back reminded me of the underside of a mushroom, magic mushrooms no doubt.

This production of La Bayadère is full of melodrama, a ‘cat fight’ between Nikiya, Gamzatti and Ajah; people being killed left right and centre; appearances by men in gold paint; and temples tumbling into ruins. But Petipa’s choreography has been maintained in certain places and, with a good cast, the story speeds along and much can be forgiven.

Michelle Potter, 2 September 2014

Featured image: Ako Kondo as Gamzatti in Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo: © Jeff Busby.

Imperial Suite. The Australian Ballet

10 May 2104 (evening), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

It is a long time since I have had a seat in the circle for a ballet performance (in any theatre come to think of it), but that’s where I was seated at the Sydney Opera House for Imperial Suite, the Australian Ballet’s mixed bill of Ballet Imperial and Suite en blanc. It was certainly exciting to see Ballet Imperial from that vantage point. Looking down on a George Balanchine work gives a stunning view of the patterns of his choreography—the circles, squares, diamonds, straight lines, and flowing waves of dancers threading their way through the arched arms of other dancers—provided of course that the work on view is well danced and well staged. Which it certainly was at this performance. The ballet was beautifully led by Lana Jones and Adam Bull, with Jones the shining ballerina and Bull the gallant Balanchinian partner.

Adam Bull and Lana Jones in 'Ballet Imperial', 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Adam Bull and Lana Jones in Ballet Imperial, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

There were some particularly lovely moments in the pas de deux in the first movement. I loved the backwards hops on pointe with the leg in arabesque after Jones rose from a swoon-like fall with her arms around Bull’s neck, and also a little later her lift of the leg to second position followed by a slow pull in to retiré, followed by the same sequence of movement on the other side but at double speed. Both were exciting to watch and Balanchine is so good at showing these things more than once so we don’t miss them! And of course Bull was there supporting all these technical feats. Both dancers allowed us to see Balanchine’s exquisite musicality.

Hugh Colman’s new tutus are just gorgeous. Regal in blue and black and one or two complementary shades for the soloists, they are made with sharp lines to the skirt so they seem to represent the cut of a diamond or other precious stones, and they are decorated with a silver sash-like decoration at the back. Very imperial!

What a joy the performance was and it inspires me to say ‘thank you, thank you’. And with Eve Lawson on board as a repetiteur with the Australian Ballet—and what an asset she is—I am looking forward to (or perhaps ‘hoping for’ are better words) a revival of Theme and Variations soon.

Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc closed the evening. It is certainly a classically-based work and has many interesting features. Its opening scene as the curtain rises, with dancers arranged on several levels on the stage and clad in various white costumes with a very slight touch of contrasting black, usually generates a round of applause, as it did on this occasion. But Lifar’s limitations as a choreographer are, perhaps unfortunately, highlighted by placing Suite en blanc on the same program as Ballet Imperial. Suite en blanc looks very static in comparison and movement is in no way a static event.

Nevertheless, there were some outstanding performances from some cast members and it is always special to see good dancing. Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes performed stylishly in the pas de deux and Scott was a stand-out in the ‘Variation de la flûte’. But I especially admired Ako Kondo for her technical accomplishments in the ‘Pas de cinq’ and Laura Tong for a beautifully languid and delicious ‘Variation de la cigarette’.

Ako Kondo in 'Suite en blanc', the Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Ako Kondo in Suite en blanc. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Michelle Potter, 11 May 2014

 

Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2012)

18 September 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Stephen Baynes wanted his new Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet to reflect, as he put it in his notes, the ‘deeply Romantic aesthetic’ of Tchaikovsky’s score. A singularly musical choreographer, Baynes has succeeded in creating some absorbing, and often romantic in the wider sense of that word, choreographic moments. They come in particular in Act I with Baynes’ overall treatment of this act; in his newly conceived opening section of Act II when Siegfried first encounters Odette; and in an inserted pas de deux for Odette and Siegfried in Act IV.

In Act I Baynes’ choreography is beautifully paced. It fills out every note of the music, brings a real freshness to the dances and makes this opening act full of human interest. Ty King-Wall, Lana Jones and Dana Stephensen as Benno, the Countess and the Duchess respectively danced a thrilling pas de trois (or was it a pas de cinq since two other men joined King-Wall at one stage?). The meeting between Siegfried and Odette was a meeting between two human beings rather than a prince and a frightened swan protecting her brood and the choreography sank and rose in sighing movements. The inserted pas de deux too was Baynes at his best and is just what the last act needs, a final intimate encounter between Odette and Siegfried.

There was a new energy in the corps de ballet too. Perhaps it is a new production that has generated a precision in the work of the corps that I haven’t seen recently? Perhaps it is that the company has a new ballet mistress and repetiteur in Eve Lawson? Whatever the reason, it is a treat to see the dancers moving together so well.

(l-r) Reiko Hombo, Jessica Fyfe, Eloise Fryer and Jade Wood in 'Swan Lake', 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby(l–r) Reiko Hombo, Jessica Fyfe, Eloise Fryer and Jade Wood in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby

Most of Act II, however, is classical (in the Ivanov manner) as Baynes has kept a lot of the choreography from older productions so as to keep this famous white act recognisably traditional. Amber Scott as Odette seems on the surface to be perfectly suited to the role. Her body is proportioned in true classical ballerina style and her technique is clean and centred. But Act II seemed to me to exude a particular coldness. I’m not sure whether the lack of passion was a result of Baynes and Ivanov (or ‘after’ Ivanov) being mixed together, or whether Scott and her Siegfried, Adam Bull, just weren’t reacting to each other in an emotional sense. There was just one moment in the pas de deux when Scott moved from supported arabesque to attitude and her foot seemed to caress Bull’s back as the leg bent into attitude and wrapped around Bull. But it was gone in a flash and it was the only time I thought there was an emotional connection between them. There were, however, lovely performances from the four little swans and from the leading swans, danced by Juliet Burnett and Amy Harris.

Act III had a little more emotional power and Bull finally seemed to overcome his depression, which admittedly was what we were intended to see as his mood, as he declared his love for Odile. Rothbart, played by Brett Simon sporting carrot-coloured hair, was a surprise arriving as he did with a retinue of Spanish dancers, and a Russian dancer and four Cossacks. His personality was further established as he sat on the throne next to the Queen (Lisa Bolte), engaging her in conversation. But again the recognisable pas de deux and variations from what we know as the traditional version seemed to me to intrude.

There is much else to say about this new production—the development of the role of Benno and others in Act I; the importance of Siegfried; the designs; the projections of a swan/menacing figure (Rothbart?); the funeral with which the work begins and much more, which I hope to consider in future posts. I wondered whether the work would have benefitted from having a dramaturge work with Baynes and designer Hugh Colman as there were times when I wondered who was who and what was happening—Rothbart’s lifting of a limp Siegfried from the lake as, in the final moments, Rothbart sailed by standing resplendent in a mechanical swan was a surprise as there was no previous indication that I saw that Siegfried had thrown himself in the lake. But it needs more than one viewing to be able to give an informed account and in depth critical analysis. At the moment I feel that leaving some traditional choreography was a mistake and that this Swan Lake would have worked better for me had it all been Baynes.

Michelle Potter, 20 September 2012

UPDATE: Swan Lake: a second look is at this link.

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Icons. The Australian Ballet

30 August 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The Australian Ballet’s Icons program is a truly exciting triple bill. Every work has particular interest historically and, while one really doesn’t measure up, two of the three are thrilling to watch. The absolute standout in terms of dancing is the middle work on the program, Gemini, Glen Tetley’s work made on the Australian Ballet in 1973. It was danced on opening night by Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Rudy Hawkes, with Jones in particular performing as if there were no tomorrow.

Lana Jones, Rudy Hawkes, Adam Bull and Amber Scott in 'Gemini', 2012 Photo: Jeff BusbyLana Jones and Rudy Hawkes (rear) and Adam Bull and Amber Scott (foreground) in Gemini. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby

Against a modernist set of coloured horizontal slats by Nadine Baylis, Gemini unfolds as a series duets and solos embodying powerful, dynamic movement. Of the women, Jones is cool but bold, assertive, a powerhouse of energy. Her manège of grands jetés with arms stretched heavenwards in an open fifth position (à la Isadora in La Marseillaise) was breathtaking. Scott is more elusive, sinuous and deliciously sensuous. Of the men, Bull had that little extra movement in the chest and pelvis—in the torso I guess—that drew the eye towards him whenever the men were onstage. Hawkes’ performance lacked the same zing but was nevertheless a pleasure to watch. When Tetley was in Australia in 2003 to stage Voluntaries he told me that creating Gemini had made him love the energy of Australian dancers. I think he would have been thrilled with the electrifying way in which Jones, Scott, Bull and Hawkes performed.

Closing the evening was Graeme Murphy’s evocative Beyond Twelve, a work first shown in 1980 and a real bottler of an Australian ballet showing all Murphy’s theatricality, humour and unique choreographic hand. Beyond Twelve tells the story of a boy’s transition from football-playing youth to adolescent dancer and finally on to mature artist facing the uncertainties of life beyond dance. Brett Chynoweth, Calvin Hannaford and Andrew Killian took the three main male roles of Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty and their trio in which we see their lives intertwining was a real highlight. Showing the passage of time in a choreographic sense is one of Murphy’s great strengths and this trio is no exception. Brooke Lockett, a coryphée with the company, danced the role of First Love and played it with just the right feeling of delight in the pleasures of youth.

Beyond Twelve is an immensely moving work (as well as being full of wit and humour) and nothing captures that feeling more than when, as the ballet closes, we see the mature dancer joined momentarily by his first love. And just as it looks like they will remain together, a figure in evening dress appears in the background and the girl moves away to join the other man, her Escort. Murphy’s sense of theatricality is brilliant here, partly in his placement of the three characters on the stage, but also in the instant realisation the moment generates that life is full of changes.

Despite its historical interest, the big disappointment of the evening was The Display, Robert Helpmann’s 1964 production based on his and Katharine Hepburn’s sighting of the mating dance of the lyrebird. The Display opened the program and perhaps it was inevitable that a work so entrenched in Australian culture of the 1960s would never translate well into the twenty-first century. But I didn’t think it would be quite so problematic. Nothing to me looked like an Australian picnic in the bush. The girls, so pretty with their Renoir hairstyles and pink dresses, could have been peasants in Giselle—and incidentally, Sidney Nolan, whose designs were ‘refurbished’ for the occasion, wanted the girls’ dresses to be the colour of ‘dog biscuits’, which certainly wasn’t the case with this production. In addition, the boys looked like princes as they pointed their feet, stretched their legs, and stayed so thoroughly within their classical ballet heritage. I’m not sure that, when playing footy, drinking beer and punching people up, men look like that.

Kevin Jackson as the Outsider missed the point, I think, that this character was meant to be so culturally different from the rest of the men. A red shirt and blue trousers aren’t enough to show that he was meant to be an Italian in Australia in the 1960s, a time of significant European migration. Australians had scarcely heard of coffee then let alone of European attitudes to women. The role needs a different physicality as well as costume to get the point across and Jackson didn’t seem to me to be much different from the rest of the men. But then perhaps that was a result of the other men behaving as if they were dancing a nineteenth-century ballet.

The saving grace was Madeleine Eastoe as the Female. She made Helpmann’s choreography look quite respectable despite a series of fouettés that Helpmann suddenly dropped into it all for no apparent reason. And she managed to get across the sense of sexual arousal that needs to be apparent as, at the conclusion of the ballet, the Outsider leaves her after his attempted rape and the Male (the lyrebird) comes forward to cover her with his tail feathers.

It was interesting to see Barry Kitcher, Bryan Lawrence and Garth Welch from the 1964 cast of Display come onstage to take a bow during the curtain calls. They were joined by Julie da Costa who danced the Female in a later 1980s production. There was no note in the program to say that they had been involved in coaching the dancers. The Display certainly needed some good coaching to make it work.

Musically the program was extraordinarily diverse. Malcolm Williamson’s score for The Display remains as beautiful as ever with its quivering, bush sounds, and was perhaps the highlight of that ballet on this occasion; Tetley’s choice of Hans Werne Henze’s Symphony No. 3 for Gemini was inspired with music and choreography so well attuned; and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, whose movements had been reordered by Murphy to fit the storyline of Beyond Twelve, was played with customary elegance by Stuart Macklin.

Despite The Display having major problems, I thought this was a good triple bill. In my mind it sits within the spirit of the best of triple bills where there is a bit of everything, including the ‘serious’ work in the middle and the ‘feel good’ work to go home with.

Michelle Potter, 1 September 2012

Featured image: Lana Jones in Gemini. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Postscript: Looking back at a review of Beyond Twelve that I wrote for Dance Australia way back in 1994 (with David McAllister, Steven Woodgate, Greg Horsman and Vicki Attard in the leading roles), I mentioned that Horsman danced the role of Beyond Twenty-Five, rather than calling it Beyond Thirty. I’m not sure when the name change happened, but it is interesting to speculate that times have changed in (almost) twenty years and perhaps thirty is now the new twenty-five? Unless I got it wrong in 1994?

Update: Here are my comments after another look at the program in Sydney.

‘Romeo and Juliet’ on screen

I finally managed to see the recording of Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet made by the SBS subscription channel Stvdio and recorded on 21 September 2011 at a live performance in Melbourne. Posts relating to this work continue to attract visitors to this site and it was interesting to notice that the number of visitors accessing the site from Adelaide rose dramatically when the work was shown there recently. Adelaide visits continue to remain high and the Romeo and Juliet posts continue to be the most accessed posts overall. Whatever opinions of the work might be out there, there is little doubt that it has inspired incredible interest amongst the dance community.

I was especially pleased to have the opportunity of watching the ballet close up through the Stvdio recording and also to have the opportunity to rewind certain sections that were especially powerful, or that attracted me for a particular reason.

It was rewarding, for example, to be able to watch several times Madeleine Eastoe’s stunning entrance into her bedroom early on in the work. There she is running on pointe so fast that her feet start to look blurred. And those lovely over-the-head claps as she jumps in the air, and those little piqué steps backwards, create such joyous, light as a feather dancing.

The recording made judicious use of a small number of close ups in this early section, which highlighted Elizabeth Hill’s beautiful portrayal of Juliet’s nurse. Hill watches her charge with such a caring look as Juliet tries her ball gown against her young and blossoming figure, and the rapport between them is clearly shown on their faces. Then eventually, off Juliet runs again, jumping on to a chair that happens to be in her way before she springs onto her bed. It’s wonderful choreography and wonderful acting and an absolute delight to watch again.

I also loved the serenity of the wedding scene and watching the Murphy touches unfold: the journey to the site of the wedding with Juliet walking across the shoulders of a group of black clad holy men; the duet with the monk that uses the feet as a point of contact between the two; and the playful role the train of Juliet’s wedding dress plays in her duet with Romeo during the ceremony. Murphy’s signature is there in full force!

In addition, I really took pleasure watching Adam Bull as Death and still think this role is one of the strong points of the production. Not only does the role act as a powerful through-line, it also acts as an element of dramatic irony. We know what is going to happen right from the beginning when Death picks up a bunch of lilies, a symbol of both purity and death and a recurring motif throughout the work, from the ground in the piazza as the piece opens.

But the scene I thought had the most dramatic power was Juliet’s visit the monk to seek a solution when it seemed that marriage to Paris was her ultimate fate. Murphy makes this a much more significant scene in the ballet than did Cranko in the version that we have been watching in Australia since the 1970s. In the Murphy production the story is told with choreographic and force and through powerful gestures, and we see Murphy using another of his signatures: Juliet is transported through to the country of the holy man held aloft by several black clad figures who carry her through the air in a display of expansive soaring movements.

The conclusion to this scene occurs when Death enters Juliet’s bedroom and stands behind her to slip on her nightdress, and also in the following, shuddering trio when Death places himself between Juliet and Romeo. Again we know there is no hope.

On a less positive note, the final desert scene is not my favourite part of the ballet and a close up look did nothing to make it look better. As one comment has indicated on the original post, Lady Capulet did look decidedly out of place in her high fashion gear, as beautiful as it was, stumbling around with high heels in hand.

In general, though, I thought this recording was beautifully and sensitively made. The more I look at this Romeo and Juliet the more interesting it becomes and the more I wonder about the difficulty we face with the ‘shock of the new’ when we watch a new dance production, in all its fleeting beauty, for the first time.

Michelle Potter, 24 June 2012

Here are links to the first post, and the second.