Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘Coppélia’. The Australian Ballet (2016)

10 December 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

On 10 December 2016, I saw the 258th performance by the Australian Ballet of Peggy van Praagh’s production of Coppélia. A few aspects of the van Praagh production seem to have changed over the years since it received its premiere in 1979, perhaps not always for the best, but it remains a strong production and a delightful excursion into the world of 19th century ballet—the original production premiered in Paris in 1870.

At the 258th performance I had the good fortune to see Leanne Stojmenov as Swanilda. Her characterisation was engaging and beautifully maintained from beginning to end, including at those times when she was not the centre of attention but mingling with others on the side of the stage. She smiled, she frowned, she pouted, she stamped her foot, she was playful—her every thought was so clear. Her dancing was calm and assured but still technically exciting. It was a truly charming performance. She was partnered by Ty King-Wall as an attentive Franz who persisted in his pursuit of her, despite her various mini tantrums over his behaviour, and despite that ear of corn that refused to make the appropriate noise for them. Together they were the epitome of a village couple, as indeed they are meant to be.

As Dr Coppélius, Ben Davis gave a competent performance and it is always a pleasure to see Dr Coppélius minus the over the top pantomime-style characterisation that is often the way this character is portrayed. But, by the same token, Dr Coppélius does need to have a strength of character and Davis didn’t quite manage to convey anything that might give us a clue to this character’s personality. He was just a nice old toy-maker/magician. I also missed Dr Coppélius’ appearance in Act III, when he demands and receives compensation for the destruction Swanilda and Franz have caused to his workshop in Act II. Maybe I am imagining that this scene was once part of van Praagh’s production? But it is a part of many other productions and it rounds off that section of the story very nicely.

It was a good day for the male corps de ballet—Franz’s friends danced exceptionally well, especially in Act I. Ella Havelka and Jake Mangakahia led the Act I character dances with good style. And I always enjoy seeing Amanda McGuigan and Ingrid Gow onstage and they stood out among Swanilda’s friends, especially in the dance of the wedding couples in Act III.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', Act III, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Coppélia, Act III (Wedding couples), 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Natasha Kusen danced a lovely Prayer. She brought a peaceful quality to the role and technically scarcely faltered.

Kristian Fredrikson’s designs still look beautiful, although I had forgotten how large (and often overpowering) some of his headdresses are. I had also forgotten how beautiful his all-white costume for Prayer is—so much nicer, and still appropriate, than the very drab, usually grey-ish Prayer outfits seen in some other productions.

Coppélia, and this performance in particular, was an absolutely delightful way to end the Australian Ballet’s 2016 season. It no doubt benefited from input from dramaturg George Ogilvie, who worked with van Praagh and Fredrikson in 1979 on the creation of van Praagh’s production, and who returned to advise on the show this year.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2016

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Coppélia, Act III (Hours of the Night) 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

’20:21′. The Australian Ballet

29 August 2015 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

What does twenty-first-century ballet encompass? What does it look like? And does it differ from ballet of the twentieth century? In many respects the Australian Ballet’s latest mixed bill program, 20:21, suggests an answer in Tim Harbour’s latest work, Filigree and Shadow, the centre work in the 20:21 program. The work is strongly danced. Its powerful, dramatic choreography is coupled with Benjamin Cisterne’s equally dramatic lighting, and with an exceptional, minimalist stage setting by Kelvin Ho that combines curved and flat walls. Its commissioned score from the German duo, 48nord, binds the work together.

Unfortunately for Harbour, however, his work in the triple bill program is preceded and followed by works from two of the twentieth-century’s most admired choreographers—George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Master choreographers. And not only does it have to contend with that kind of program placement, Filigree and Shadow doesn’t seem to take us anywhere. It is, we are told in Australian Ballet marketing and in program notes, about Harbour’s feelings of aggression. I found it hard to identify with those personal feelings (of anger?) that Harbour seemed to want to show.

Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, which opened the program, might be thought of (wrongly I suggest) as lightweight by comparison. It’s pretty to look at and high-spirited emotionally. But it asks us to look at complexity of structure (in the choreographic patterns that it puts before us) and musicality (in its reflections of and relationships to Stravinsky’s symphonic score). Balanchine was never one to make his ballets overly personal. We can bring our own ideas to the work and that is, I believe, how to engage an audience. Harbour’s very personal approach doesn’t do this and, as a result, the Balanchine work has so much more to offer.

The six principals in Symphony in Three Movements in the performance I saw, Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Ty King-Wall, and Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes, all brought their individual qualities to the performance. Kondo and Guo were thrilling technically but also brought pleasure and excitement to their dancing, and Jones was playful and nicely partnered by King-Wall. The central pas de deux from Scott and Hawkes gave clarity to the unusual choreography with its turned up feet and hands bent at the wrists.

The closing work, Tharp’s In the Upper Room, was an acquisition for the Australian Ballet during Ross Stretton’s artistic directorship. Those who were lucky enough to be at the opening night in 1997 are unlikely to forget the occasion. Since then I have seen Upper Room performed by other companies in the United States but have always been a little disappointed. Beyond the Australian Ballet, no one else seems to have the energy, the staying power, and, behind the marathon of dancing, the reckless insouciance to carry it off.

The performance I saw this season wasn’t an opening night, and nor did it have quite the same thrill as that very first viewing—it wasn’t as well danced for a start. But this time I admired hugely the four ladies on pointe, in particular Robyn Hendricks and Amanda McGuigan, whose beautifully proportioned bodies and stellar techniques made the most of Tharp’s uniquely beautiful take on classical moves. I love this work, even when it doesn’t reach the heights of that first, great performance of 1997. It is a thrill to have it back in Australia, and also a thrill to see Ross Stretton acknowledged on the cast sheet.

Michelle Potter, 30 August 2015

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Filigree and Shadow, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Note: My review of the first Australian Ballet performance of In the Upper Room was published in Dance Australia in June/July 1997 (can it really be almost 20 years ago?). My posts about Upper Room in the U.S. are at various links including Pacific Northwest Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

 

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in 'Monotones II'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Daniel Boud

‘The Dream’. A second look

16 May 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

After feeling less than satisfied with my earlier viewing of the Australian Ballet’s triple bill of Ashton works—Monotones II, Symphonic Variations and The Dream—it was such a pleasure to have a second look and come away feeling much more fulfilled.

Monotones II was danced by the same cast that I saw on opening night, Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright, but all my feeling that the work was outdated disappeared. Gone too were those hideous shadows that marred my first viewing, although they linger a little on the photograph below. This time, the visually pristine quality of the work was all there. I had a much better seat, but was that the only reason? I suspect not.

There was a real serenity to the performance. All three dancers were attuned to each other’s movements. There were gorgeous moments of symmetry that gently broke into asymmetry. Bodies twisted and threaded through arched shapes. Winding and unwinding. It was a truly beautiful, calm, technically satisfying performance.

Symphonic Variations too was danced in a far superior fashion to what I saw on opening night. The three women, Lana Jones, Amanda McGuigan and Ingrid Gow were well cast together. They are of similar height and body shape and it made a huge difference. The men, Andrew Killian, Ty King-Wall and Andrew Wright, were experienced enough to manage the difficult partnering without looking as though they were fumbling around. They also handled better the experience of being on stage for the entire ballet.

Technically, all six dancers showed every beautiful and often intricate detail of Ashton’s choreography—the elongated fingers, the hands turned up from the wrists, the lines made between dancers, for example. The spacing and patterning of the work was also clear, and the movements flowed smoothly. A delight to watch. I loved that moment for the women when they turned chaînés around their partner, starting one after the other and with one arm spiralling upwards as if propelled by the twirling of the feet. And I gasped as the men, in a line upstage, all turned a double pirouette ending in attitude and finished perfectly, in the same line, in time, and with their attitudes at the same height. Just beautiful and surely how Ashton imagined this work would be danced.

Still something missing there though—that incredible feeling that I got from the Royal that this was an awakening from the darkness. And it was only after reading (much later) the Royal’s program notes that I realised the circumstances behind Ashton’s creation of the work. So I didn’t set out with a preconceived idea. But thank you to the six Australian Ballet dancers I saw on this occasion. It was a lovely, serene performance, despite the medical emergency that was going on in the auditorium at the time.

The Dream looked mostly as beautiful as it did on opening night, this time with Miwako Kubota and Jared Wright taking the leading roles of Titania and Oberon. Wright stood out in his solo variation in the final pas de deux. His movements were beautifully shaped and coordinated. Andrew Wright and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson gave excellent performances as Demetrius and Lysander. Wright in particular was able to demonstrate how skilled Ashton is at incorporating humour into his works. Marcus Morelli, with his exceptional elevation, made Puck look as if he belonged in the air.

Overall, what a difference!

Michelle Potter, 17 May 2015

Featured image: Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in Monotones II. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in 'Monotones II'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Daniel Boud

My initial review is at this link.

‘Giselle’. A second look

4 April 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Seeing an artist make his or her debut in a principal role is always an exciting prospect, especially when it is in one of the important classics of the ballet repertoire. It was a double thrill for the audience at the Sydney Opera House on 4 April when two Australian Ballet dancers, senior artist Juliet Burnett and coryphée Jared Wright, appeared for the first time in the leading roles of Giselle and Albrecht in Maina Gielgud’s Giselle.

In rehearsal for Giselle.  (l-r)  Juliet Burnett and Jared Wright; Jared Wright; Juliet Burnett and Robyn Hendricks. All photos © Lynette Wills, 2015

Perhaps what stood out more than anything for me was the way in which both Burnett and Wright looked unhurried. There was time to savour each moment of their dancing and their interpretation of the roles. They were strongest in Act II. Burnett was as light as a feather, a frail wisp, as she moved across the stage. Wright was filled with the right amount of sorrow and desperation to atone for his betrayal of Giselle. Their first encounter was sweepingly poetic. Then Burnett pleaded for mercy from Myrtha and did her best to protect her love. Wright pleaded too and did his best to keep dancing. While each danced well technically, to the credit of these two dancers I wasn’t looking so much at execution of steps, I was swept up in the mood.

In Act I Wright struggled a little I thought with the duality of Albrecht and I was never quite sure how he saw himself at any one time, peasant or royalty? There are moments of each for Albrecht in Act I and it is not easy to work between the two. Burnett was quite frightening in the mad scene as her limbs shook and her blank expression removed her from the real world. It lacked a certain theatricality, however, which would have lifted the scene to another level. Sometimes too real isn’t quite enough.

Of the minor principals, Olga Tamara gave an interesting interpretation of Berthe, Giselle’s mother. She set herself apart as a matter-of-fact lady, and her apprehension that the Wilis were present in the village and waiting for her daughter was conveyed strongly. Amanda McGuigan made a commanding Myrtha, cold and haughty.

I hope it is not as long between Australian Ballet seasons of Giselle as it has been recently. Both Burnett and Wright showed great promise of things to come and they deserve the opportunity to hone their interpretations, to polish their technique and to grow as artists. There are few ballets that offer such a great opportunity to reach new heights in one’s career as Giselle gives to those who are entrusted to carry on its beauty, its demands and its legacy.

Michelle Potter, 5 April 2015

My review of another performance of Giselle with Natasha Kusch and Chengwu Guo is at this link.