‘British Liaisons.’ The Australian Ballet

14 May 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

This triple bill program, designed to highlight the strong links between British ballet and the growth of ballet in Australia, produced some moments that were absolute show stoppers.

None of those show stopping moments came, however, in Checkmate. Choreographed in 1937 by Dame Ninette de Valois as a battle between love and death played out on a chessboard, it opened the program. While for the most part it was adequately danced, it lacked any sustained suspense, which pretty much made a mockery of the whole thing. There is no doubt that Checkmate is an old fashioned work, highly stylised in its narrative and choreography. But some stronger characterisation, especially from Lucinda Dunn as the Black Queen, the seductress who ultimately brings about the downfall of the Red King, would have helped to make the work more enticing and anchored it in some kind of reality. Only Amy Harris as the Red Queen made anything of her role, a relatively minor one too, as she ushered in the Red King with kindness and concern. But without any strength of purpose from the other characters, Colin Peasley as the Red King had an uphill battle to make anything of his very important part.

But Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, programmed as the middle piece, made up for the disappointments of Checkmate. The first section was strongly danced by Lana Jones, Amy Harris and Miwako Kubota partnered by Adam Bull, Andrew Killian and Brett Simon respectively. But it was the second section, the seductively beautiful pas de deux danced by Jones and Bull, that was the show stopper. Jones in particular captured the inner calm of this duet— ‘at the still point, there the dance is’ wrote T. S Eliot. Not only was Jones able capture the elusive quality of stillness and repose even as she moved or was moved by her partner, but with each lift one could only gasp at the curving line of her body as it cut through space until it reached the high point of the movement . There  it settled into its final, classically perfect shape. Bull partnered her with care and the tenderness that befits the emotional underpinning of the duet, but nothing could match the star quality of Jones.

Jones appeared again as the leading dancer in the first movement of Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, which closed the program. Here she showed another side of her technique, her clear, precise footwork and her ability to turn—especially her ability to turn as she executed a faultless series of chaîné turns across the stage from one downstage corner to the other. She also imbued her dancing in this movement with a beautifully pert quality bringing the audience into her ambit with smiling eyes and a sparkle to her every move. It made me long to see her dance the lead in Balanchine’s Rubies.

Concerto needed, however, a little more precision of technique from the corps de ballet to do justice to MacMillan’s spatial arrangements, which any straggly lines instantly destroy. And they were destroyed on more than one occasion. Juliet Burnett, however, made a strong impression with a beautifully controlled performance in the pas de deux that comprises the second movement. She was partnered by Andrew Killian who almost stole the limelight from her with his deliciously unexpected changes of expression and mood.

Company pianist Stuart Macklin deserves accolades too for his solo piano performances, first in Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel to which the pas de deux in After the Rain is performed, and then as soloist in the Shostakovich second piano concerto to which Concerto is danced.

At last, a few moments of excitement from an Australian Ballet performance. Oh that there could be more!

Michelle Potter, 16 May 2011

‘The Nutcracker.’ The Australian Ballet

There was a time when Christmas in Sydney without a production of The Nutcracker was unimaginable. The ballet attracts a festive audience, there is no doubt about it. So it is hardly a surprise that the Australian Ballet’s staging of Peter Wright’s Nutcracker as its final offering for the 2010 Sydney season was a total sell-out.

This Nutcracker does not strive too hard for psychological explanations or modernisations and the production has a clear and very welcome logic to it. Nothing happens in the transformation scene, when the Christmas tree grows, mice (rats I think in this production?) emerge and engage in a fight in which they are ultimately the losers, and Clara’s Christmas gift of a nutcracker doll turns into a handsome prince, which is not prefigured in some way in the party scene. The second act too has more logic than usual. Clara’s involvement with the dances is a welcome addition, as is her transformation—she is an aspiring dancer in this production—into the Sugar Plum Fairy. While the ballet still of course requires suspension of belief, there is a coherence that is unusual in a staging that does not diverge markedly from the traditional storyline.

The production was also pleasing from a technical point of view. And by this I mean that for once there were no loud bangs and crashes from backstage as scenery was moved in and out. I have winced more than once throughout the 2010 season at noises off stage that were never meant to be heard in the auditorium.

There was also some great dancing, and what a treat that is! A total standout was Madeleine Eastoe as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She was technically assured, her feet sparkled and there was such a delicious flow of movement in her torso as her spine stretched upwards through to her beautifully poised head. She gave such light and shade to the choreography with some unexpected changes of pace in her movements. She was every inch the ballerina—commanding but never overbearingly so. And what a magnificent, beautifully placed and perfectly executed diagonal of fouettés at the beginning of the coda!

As for her partner, Yosvani Ramos, he was sadly encumbered by a jacket in a startling shade of lolly pink—very unbecoming I thought. And to make matters worse the neckline seemed quite stiff and much too high for him. It made him look as though he had an incredibly short neck—not good when he is not the tallest of dancers in the first place. It quite detracted from some really nice dancing on his part.

Reiko Hombo danced the role of Clara and acquitted herself well showing absolute engagement with the role. Leanne Stojmenov as the Rose Fairy could scarcely put a foot wrong. The choreography here demands a dancer with a strong sense of classical order and in such situations Stojmenov always displays a natural ability and an exceptional level of expertise. Daniel Gaudiello had a small role in the first act as Drosselmeyer’s assistant. With his ability to realise a character, his powerful presence on stage and his technical prowess, especially when it comes to beaten steps and steps of elevation, Gaudiello turned this role into something exceptional and quite idiosyncratic. There were also fine performances from Andrew Killian as Drosselmeyer and Tzu-Chao Chou as the Jack-in-the-Box

There were moments when I found the costume and set design by John F. Macfarlane overbearing and fussy. Apart from wishing that the Prince’s pink jacket was not quite so inelegant, I also craved a little more subtlety in the set for Act II, which suffered in my opinion from a surfeit of colourful motifs including two different kinds of very large flowers, a stylised (anthropomorphised) sun and a bunch of swirly ribbons. But this Nutcracker is a Christmas treat to delight young and old alike and closed the Australian Ballet’s 2010 season on a high note.

Michelle Potter, 12 December 2010

Body Torque 2.2. The Australian Ballet

27-30 May 2009, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay

Two works saved the Australian Ballet’s 2009 Body Torque season from drifting totally out of the memory the minute the curtain came down. They were Reed Luplau’s Bleecker and Remi Wortmeyer’s Fade Not. Both Luplau and Wortmeyer made very different works in every sense imaginable, but both were able to grab the audience’s attention from the opening moment and hold it throughout. Wortmeyer’s Fade Out was very short—probably no longer than three minutes; Luplau’s was a little longer. But both choreographers stood apart from the others in that neither tried to say too much in the amount of time they had given themselves. Both had thought through a basic premise and moved forward with a strongly focused approach.

Bleecker, named after a well known street in Greenwich Village, New York, showed the influence of Luplau’s work with Sydney Dance Company in its recent post-Murphy iteration, especially in terms of vocabulary. The dancers moved in a physically extreme manner, well away from the balanced, centred, refined look we are accustomed to seeing at the Australian Ballet. And what a gutsy performance from Dana Stephensen, the one female in the cast of four. Luplau’s choreography poured out of her body, making dance look like the kinaesthetic art that it is. She was more than ably accompanied by Andrew Killian, Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Wright.

Luplau says in his choreographic statement that Bleecker is ‘a journey of self discovery’, and he reflects that there is ‘a certain captivating moment you experience as you explore one of the world’s greatest cities’. Well Bleecker was a captivating moment in Luplau’s journey as a choreographer. We can only hope that the journey will be an ongoing one.

Wortmeyer’s Fade Not began with the piercing and unexpected sound of a human voice and the piece was a courageous experiment at linking dancer and singer, movement and voice. Wortmeyer used a librettist, Malcolm Rock, whose written words telling of a dying mother’s wish to see her newborn child flourish in life were sung onstage by Naomi Johns. Wortmeyer choreographed Johns into the work without it seeming unnatural or contrived and, while his choreography for the leading (and only) dancer—an able Gina Brescianini—was classically based and without any real sense of invention, the work generated an innate sense of clarity and harmony.

Three other works completed the program: Damien Welch’s Chemical Trigger, notable for the fact that Welch composed the music as well as the choreography, Robert Curran’s Veiled in Flesh, and Kevin Jackson’s Enter Closer.

Body Torque has been a feature of the Australian Ballet’s annual season for a number of years now and is the most recent development in a long line of similar Australian Ballet workshop activities dating back to the earliest days of the company under Peggy van Praagh. Choreographic workshops need strong direction however and only Bleecker and Fade Out looked as though they had been subjected to any sort of rigorous discussion with peers and elders before being put on the stage.

Michelle Potter, 1 June 2009