’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)

My review of Giselle with the Australian Ballet is now available on DanceTabs at this link.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Giselle'. Photo: Jeff Busby, 2015

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Jeff Busby, 2015

I am disappointed that I was not able to be more positive in this review. But the experience did set me thinking about the importance of every character in a narrative ballet having a strong vision of where their character fits within the overall story. When it happens audiences are the beneficiaries, but the experience also reflects back really well on the dancers and the company. In the performance of Giselle I saw there were occasions when there seemed to be a lack of understanding of why certain things were happening, and a consequent lack of reaction between characters. Ballet companies are time-poor these days, I know, and it struck me that perhaps a dramaturg is needed occasionally?

I look forward to seeing other casts in Sydney and Canberra.

Michelle Potter, 16 March 2015

Update (7 April 2015): My review of another Giselle cast, featuring Juliet Burnett and Jared Wright, is at this link.

‘The Nutcracker’ on film. The Australian Ballet

It was a pleasure to be able to see Peter Wright’s Nutcracker once again, this time on film danced by the Australian Ballet and recorded in Melbourne on 17 September 2014. It was shown on ABC-TV on Christmas Eve and is due to be released on DVD by the ABC in early January.

The absolute star was Benedicte Bemet as Clara and I regret not having had the opportunity to see her on stage. She commanded the role from beginning to end, never losing strength or characterisation. She showed off a wonderfully fluid technique and I especially loved her use of épaulement, her gorgeous carriage of the head, those beautiful arabesques that seemed to soar upwards, and the way she always, but always, stepped forward onto a turned out foot. Those technical matters came as if they were second nature and she looked every inch the dancer from start to finish. And she showed her versatility as a performer in Act II as she joined in all the dances, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and so forth, according to Peter Wright’s vision for the role.

Bendicte Bemet and artists of the Australian Ballet in 'The Nutcracker', 2014. Photo Jeff Busby

Benedicte Bemet as Clara with artists of the Australian Ballet in The Nutcracker, 2014. Photo Jeff Busby

Ingrid Gow was also impressive as Clara’s mother where I could not help but notice how expressively she used her arms, especially in her dance with Clara’s father (Brett Simon). Andrew Killian made his presence felt as the occasionally frightening Drosselmeyer in Act I, an attitude he tempered beautifully with something more gentle in Act II as he involved Clara in the action.

But looking from a different perspective, one of the most interesting features of this recording was the way the lighting looked so different from what I remember from the Sydney performance I saw. Gone were the garish colours of that Act II set and what appears to have been a more subdued approach to the lighting design in fact made the set look quite beautiful at times. With what were always carefully selected close-up shots, it was possible to see elements of the set highlighted. Not having always to see the entire set gave a quite different impression. The downside, however, was that often the darker scenes, especially in Act I and in the final scene when Clara finds herself again by her family Christmas tree, were often scarcely visible.

The grand pas de deux was danced on this occasion by Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson and, unlike my previous experience, there was indeed a real connection between this Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. Jackson’s partnering was impeccable—those shoulder lifts, followed by a full circle swirl before Eastoe was lowered into a fish dive, were just wonderful. Eastoe’s command of the choreography was beyond question and her every movement was beautifully and clearly articulated. Together they danced as one.

But I was still a little disappointed. I wanted this pas de deux to look like more than just a lovely dance. It still seemed to lack excitement, daring and the power to thrill. I’m not sure what Peter Wright thinks the pas de deux should look like. I wondered whether in his version he just wanted it to be a lovely part of a lovely story? I wanted it also to be a show piece with the sense of grandeur that goes with the great classical tradition. I wanted it to be more than just a part of the storyline. It was an exquisite pas de deux but it wasn’t a ‘grand’ one for me.

Nevertheless this Nutcracker remains a joy to watch and the DVD (details at this link) will be a worthy addition to any ballet collection.

Michelle Potter, 29 December 2015

‘Icons’. A second look

17 November 2012 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

A second viewing of Icons, the Australian Ballet’s triple bill tribute to 50 years of choreographic exploration by the company, confirmed much of what I thought from my previous viewing.  In particular I think it was a mistake to revive The Display. Despite well danced performances by Rachel Rawlins as the Female, Brett Simon as the Leader and Ty King-Wall as the Outsider the work overall looks old-hat. The kind of behaviour on show in the ballet was perhaps an accurate view of male/female relations in Australia in 1964 but it doesn’t have the shock value it had 48 years ago—times change. And while Katharine Hepburn might have been turned on by lyrebirds, I’m not sure any of the Australian Ballet dancers are, or even pretended to be. What’s more much of Robert Helpmann’s choreography looks a little like that from a musical (and not such a good one at that), while Sidney Nolan’s set, so evocative in its day, lost much of its appeal on the tiny stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, especially from J row in the stalls. Memory is a funny thing of course but I also seem to remember the lighting and general visual ambience being softer, hazier and thus more affecting. But I may be living in my dreams! In any case the revival has been a huge disappointment.

Gemini on the other hand still looks fabulous and its choreography was given great treatment by Leanne Stojmenov, Juliet Burnett, Andrew Wright and Kevin Jackson. While I was attracted by the opening night cast in Melbourne by their cool, technical reading of the work, not to mention their spectacular energy, the cast I saw in Sydney brought a whole new element to it. Not to say that there was not also a strength of technique with this cast—there was—it was beautifully danced by all four. A duet between Stojmenov and Jackson (who seems to get better and better every time I see him) was remarkably powerful with its dramatic lines and enfolding of bodies one with the other; and Burnett has an unusual mixture of fragility and strength that brought a new quality to the work. But there was a hint of the sinister, or at least something disquieting or provocative, and more than a hint of emotion in the performance from this cast. For me this Gemini had a feeling of humanity about it, as well as being a ballet about contemporary technique.

As for Beyond Twelve, well my companion said as we stood up to leave: ‘Graeme Murphy makes ballet for adults!’ With all its slapstick humour, its phallic references, its comments on youthful immaturity, and its poking fun at Australian society it is still an immensely moving ballet. And the trio between the Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty remains one of Murphy’s most heart-warming choreographic accomplishments, as does the beautifully staged ending full of resignation, or is it wistfulness, or is it just time to move forward?

Scene from 'Beyond Twelve'. Photo: Jeff BusbyJack Hersee, Rudy Hawkes and Calvin Hannaford in Beyond Twelve. The Australian Ballet.  Photo: Jeff Busby

Michelle Potter, 20 November 2012

Here is the link to my earlier post.

‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet

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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‘The Merry Widow’. The Australian Ballet

19 November 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Ronald Hynd’s Merry Widow has never been my favourite ballet. I dislike its nature as balletic operetta, with emphasis on the ‘etta’, and its stock comic characters and its silly story line with people hiding in and escaping from pavilions and so forth. And as I took my seat at the Sydney Opera House my companion said, from the perspective of someone whose parents were brought up in 1920s and 1930s Vienna, that she wasn’t looking forward to ‘Viennese schmaltz’, referring in particular to the Franz Lehar music. So I was surprised and delighted to discover that I actually enjoyed the performance (and so did my companion).

Much credit for the way the production sped along goes to the corps de ballet, who were dancing beautifully, and as an ensemble, which doesn’t always happen these days. The Pontevedrian dancers in Act II, especially the men, were outstanding and it was an absolute delight to see everyone engaging with the action even when standing on the sidelines at balls, soirees, and other occasions.

Madeleine Eastoe was delicious as Valencienne. She danced pretty much faultlessly, and what an expressive back she has, which was very much on show in Desmond Heeley’s ball gowns with their deeply cut backs. She gave the role such warmth and charm as she flashed her eyes at a dashing Camille (Andrew Killian), or showed attentiveness to her aged husband Baron Zeta (Colin Peasley).

Colin Peasley’s performance as Baron Zeta had some truly poignant moments. In particular I was moved by his resignation at the close of the ballet to the fact that Valencienne is in love with Camille. It made me wish that he didn’t always have to dance the comic roles—those where his knees always give way when he tries to dance! He has a bit more to offer I think.

On a downside, however, I was disappointed by the performance of Jin Yao, guest artist from the Hong Kong Ballet, as Hanna Glawari. She has beautifully long limbs and carries herself with elegance and her final pas de deux with Count Danilo (Brett Simon) was charming and flowed smoothly. But in general I thought her portrayal of Hanna lacked any warmth. Just a glimmer of what might have been came at the end of the show as she took her curtain call. A little too late unfortunately! Nor was there much strength of characterisation in the scene where Hanna and Danilo realise they are sweethearts from some years earlier and that important scene (important to the storyline) fell a little flat.

I was also disappointed with Matthew Donnelly’s portrayal of Njegus. Donnelly doesn’t seem to have a stage presence that is strong enough to sustain such roles. Or perhaps he needs better coaching or a role model to learn from. His apparent grooming to take on cameo roles of this kind just isn’t working at the moment.

All in all, despite some reservations, which also included for me some jarring aspects in the design, especially in relation to choice of colours, this production of The Merry Widow was a pleasurable experience. Perhaps thanks are due to John Meehan who was guest repetiteur for this production?

Michelle Potter, 20 November 2011

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Merry Widow, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

‘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