Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Photo Jeff Busby

World Superstars of Ballet Gala. Bravissimo Productions

2 October 2018. Canberra Theatre

The last ‘superstar’ ballet gala I saw was in New York in 2010. It featured eight male dancers and was called Kings of the dance. Such seasons are not common in Australia, but a new Canberra-based organisation, Bravissimo Productions, has made a commitment to remedying this situation. They have staged a two night, Canberra-only season showcasing ten dancers from Australia, Cuba, Italy and the United States in a program of solos and pas de deux. The ‘superstars’ were joined by senior vocational students from various training establishments in an effort by Bravissimo to allow such students to share the stage with professional dancers.

The evening was in three sections and the most exciting part was the middle one. It began with Moskovsky Waltz danced by American-born, Bolshoi-trained Joy Womack, currently principal dancer with Universal Ballet in Korea, and Italian artist Francesco Daniele Costa. Those of us who remember the first performance in Australia of Spring Waters (choreography Asaf Messerer) when the Bolshoi Ballet visited Australia in the 1960s (or maybe it was even the late 1950s) were transported back to our teenage years. Moskovsky Waltz, with choreography by Vasily Vainonen, had a similar feel. Its fluidity, its freedom, its gorgeous lifts, were beautifully performed by Womak and Costa. It was just stunning.

The middle section concluded with Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo from the Australian Ballet dancing the pas de deux and variations from Le Corsaire. Guo’s interpretation of his role in the pas de deux did not initially have the swashbuckling glamour one often sees. His eyes were often cast down as if acknowledging his love in a demure and quite moving manner. But by the time we got to the variations Guo was at his startling and incredible best as he threw himself into the spectacular jumps and turns that characterise the variations and coda. Breathtaking really. As for Kondo, she scarcely faltered and her technical accomplishments were outstanding. But what really made it such a show-stopper—the audience cheered and shouted throughout— was not only the technical prowess we saw from each dancer, but the relationship between the two of them. They danced together, for each other and with each other.

In between these opening and closing items of the middle section was a great solo from the versatile Costa—Le Bourgeois, danced to a song by Jacques Brel. It was amusing, clever, partly interpretive of the words of the song, and wonderfully performed in a contemporary manner. We also saw another pas de deux from Le Corsaire, the Pas d’esclave danced by Joseph Gatti of United Ballet Theatre in Orlando, Florida, and Cuban-born Venus Villa. This time, coming as it did from a different part of the full-length Corsaire, we did encounter a swashbuckling pirate in Gatti and an up-front slave girl in Villa. The middle section also included a solo by Avery Gay and a group item by senior students from an unidentified establishment (National College of Dance, Newcastle, NSW, I think).

Other items from the first and third sections of the program included Kondo and Guo dancing the Act II pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty—and how beautiful it was to see it without the over decorated set that accompanies it in the recent Australian Ballet production. It was danced against a plain backcloth, lit pale pink, and it was a treat to be able to focus on the choreography, and in particular on the slowly unfolding beauty of Kondo’s movements, which so often seem to be in slow motion. There were also two pas de deux performed by Taras Domitro and Adiarys Almeida, the pas de deux from La Bayadère Act II and the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote; a contemporary pas de deux from Avery Gay and Tristan Ianiero; the pas de deux from Act II of Swan Lake danced by Gatti and Villa; the balcony pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet danced by Costa and Womack; and another amusing solo from Costa entitled Moscate. There was also some student work including a lovely opening sequence, a short Etudes-style work, choreographed by Daniel Convery.

Adiarys Almeida as Kitri in 'Don Quixote'

Adiarys Almeida as Kitri in Don Quixote. Photo supplied

This gala was an exceptional initiative by Bravissimo Productions and we can only hope that there will be more. But there were one or two issues that shouldn’t go unmentioned. The stage lighting left something to be desired—there were occasions when the dancers were almost dancing in darkness. There were also a few rather long pauses between items and I thought the music (which was recorded) needed adjusting on some occasions. In particular, the music for the Swan Lake pas de deux was way too loud to the extent that it sounded screechingly awful. It quite took away from the calm serenity that I think should be the overarching mood of the pas de deux. The printed program also needed proof reading to remove the occasional spelling error and inconsistency. And it would be good to have acknowledged specifically where the student dancers came from.

Then, while I admired Convery’s opening item, which was nicely suited to the different ages and expertise of the performers, we could have gone straight into it rather than have several young dancers come out first (in front of the curtain) and do a bit of stretching and limbering. Apart from the fact that they had no space, they had trouble finding their way back behind the front curtain, which didn’t open until they had all left, and it seemed like we were going to be subjected to something quite amateur (which we weren’t). I would also loved to have had some more appropriate images to use. Neither of the images used in this post are specifically from the gala.

One final comment: Bravissimo Productions secured generous sponsorship for the gala from Lennock Škoda, who treated us all to free chocolate coated ice cream bars during the intermission!!

Michelle Potter, 3 October 2018

Featured image: Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo © Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Photo Jeff Busby

Dance diary. September 2018

  • What’s coming in 2019

Both the Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet have announced their 2019 season programs and details can be found on their respective websites: The Australian Ballet; Queensland Ballet. Both companies have an exciting range of works to tempt us in 2019. I am especially looking forward to Dangerous Liaisons, a new work by Liam Scarlett for Queensland Ballet based on a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and to The Happy Prince, a new work by Graeme Murphy for the Australian Ballet.—two exceptional choreographers who take us to places we are least expecting.

  • And on the subject of …

…Liam Scarlett, Queensland Ballet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Queensland Ballet production of Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream opens in Melbourne shortly. If you live in Melbourne don’t miss it. It’s spectacularly good.

Yanela Pinera as Titania, Queensland Ballet 2016

Yanela Piñera as Titania in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Queensland Ballet 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

Here are two reviews, one from New Zealand and one from Australia (It’s a co-production). From New Zealand check this link. From Australia check this link.

  • From New Zealand: a new book

Sir Jon Trimmer, the extraordinary New Zealand dancer, now approaching 80 and still performing, is the subject of a new book. The book was reviewed by Jennifer Shennan for DANZ. Here is a link to that review.

Why Dance? is available to purchase online at this link. RRP: NZD34

 
 
Royal New Zealand Ballet has also announced its 2019 program and appears to have an interesting year ahead. Loughlan Prior’s Hansel and Gretel is something to look forward to I suspect. Details at this link.

  • The Stars of World Ballet Gala

I have to admit that my heart sank, momentarily, when I heard that Canberra was to get a gala of world stars of ballet. Recent and ongoing visits by Russian ballet companies, with star dancers advertised, have left me unamused to say the least as the standard of dancing has been really poor, in my opinion. But a Canberra-only gala set for 2 & 3 October appears to be something quite different. A preview story I wrote for The Canberra Times is not due for print publication until 1 October, so doesn’t appear in the ‘Press’ section at the end of this September post. But the article has already appeared online at this link. The story was to have the image of Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, which appears below, but The Canberra Times had an unfortunate technical issue with reproducing it and was forced to choose another from its archive. Such a shame as the one finally used does no justice to Kondo and Guo. Nevertheless, it will be a treat to see the pair perform in this gala along with dancers from America, Cuba, and Italy. My review of the show will appear in a few days.

Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Photo Jeff Busby

Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: © Jeff Busby

  • Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive

It has been a while since I have mentioned Jacob’s Pillow in a post, but those who have been following my writing for a while will know that the Pillow holds a special place in my heart. I have just received a  link to a collection of filmed excerpts from the Jacob’s Pillow archive, which I would like to share. There is something for everyone to be found. Here is the link.

And I continue to be amazed at what one sees if one looks up in the reading room at Jacob’s Pillow, and by the beauty of the site in Becket, Massachusetts.

 

  • Jonathan Taylor: an oral history

In September I had the pleasure of talking to Jonathan Taylor, dancer, choreographer and director, and former artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre, for the National Library of Australia’s oral history project. Taylor was interviewed for the Library back in 1991 by Shirley McKechnie. It was time to do an update, which added a little more about Taylor’s work with ADT and continued with stories from his post-ADT life. More details when the interview appears on the Library catalogue.

  • Press for September 2018

‘Ballet school showcases rising stars.’ Preview of Showcase 2018 from the Australian Ballet School. The Canberra Times, 18 September 2018, p. 19. Online version 

‘Demanding double-act.’ Review of Cockfight (Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson). The Canberra Times, 28 September 2018, p. 34. Online version

Gavin Webber and Joshua Thomson in 'Cockfight'

Gavin Webber (foreground) and Joshua Thomson in Cockfight. Photo: © Darcy Grant

Michelle Potter, 30 September 2019

Featured image: Hero image for Queensland Ballet’s 2019 season.

Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in 'Forgotten Land'. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

Vitesse. The Australian Ballet

7 May 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The Australian Ballet’s triple bill, Vitesse, was not so much about vitesse (FR: speed) as about the look of ballet over the past thirty years or so. It began with Jiri Kylian’s Forgotten Land, moving, dramatic and emotion filled, continued with William Forsythe’s fiercely uncompromising In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and closed with Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV (Danse à grande vitesse), an attempt to capture the essence of speed and referring to France’s TGV (Train à grande vitesse) and Michael Nyman’s score MGV (Musique à grande vitesse).

Forgotten Land, a Kylian work from 1981, is in essence a series of duets expressing a yearning for past memories and events. I particularly enjoyed the dancing of first couple, Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian, who brought a delicious lyrical quality to their pas de deux and who brought out so well Kylian’s choreographic focus on bending bodies and swirling, extended arms. I also admired the performance by Rina Nemoto and Joseph Chapman as the last couple. Their delicacy and gentleness stood in contrast to some of the more fast-paced duets. The work is such a joy to watch and has a particularly emotive ending as the female dancers, backs to the audience, stretch their arms upwards, heavenwards, as if pining for what has been forgotten.

In the Middle left something to be desired, at least for those who remember it from 1996 when it first entered the Australian Ballet’s repertoire. It made a huge impression then with its high-energy choreography, its extraordinary off-centre poses, and its stunning performances in which the dancers missed no opportunity to draw the audience into the work. Not so much this time when it seemed a little tame. Although the dancers (again) executed the steps admirably enough, I missed (again) the physicality and the passion that needs to be added to the steps, to be the essence of movement, to make any ballet, but especially this one, have one on the edge of one’s seat with excitement. Surprisingly too, I also missed the Sylvie Guillem-style wig that was worn by Nicole Rhodes (as the leading female dancer) in the 1996 production. Not only did that wig have its own movement, it also set the work, which was made on Guillem and the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987, in a particular context. It had a definite role.

Amy Harris in 'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

Amy Harris in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The leading trio of artists, Amy Harris, Nicola Curry and Ty King-Wall, danced admirably enough. But for me, the most interesting performance came from Chengwu Guo, who at the last minute replaced Jarryd Madden. I am used to seeing Guo throw himself around the stage, executing spectacular beats, turns and jumps (sometimes inappropriately as happened in Giselle). So it was a pleasure to see him dancing differently. I wondered whether he felt held back by the Forsythian choreography, which is spectacular in its own way of course, but which does not ask for excess in the old Russian manner? Without losing any of his technical skills, there was a certain austerity to his approach on this occasion and I enjoyed his performance immensely.

Wheeldon’s DGV is an interesting work but never seems to have the excitement that its name suggests. It’s interesting too that Australian Ballet publicity says that ‘Wheeldon hurtles his dancers through a high-speed journey’. What drew my attention, on the other hand, was the extent to which Wheeldon seemed to create static poses, especially in the several pas de deux that are sprinkled throughout the work. I started to look on DGV as a kind of series of travel posters rather than a comment on a fast train and speed. It is not my favourite Wheeldon work and a review of another performance is at this link.

Despite my various reservations, it was an experience to have the work of Kylian, Forsythe and Wheeldon on the one program. Kylian rarely fails to move, Forsythe sees the body in movement differently from most, and Wheeldon … well I’m still making up my mind.

Michelle Potter, 9 May 2016

Featured image: Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in Forgotten Land. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Symphony in C. The Australian Ballet

29 April 2016, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Artists of the Australian ballet in 'Symphony in C', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

Artists of the Australian Ballet in George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

My review of the Australian Ballet’s Symphony in C program has now been published on DanceTabs. The program consisted of

  • George Balanchine’s Symphony in C
  • Victor Gsovsky’s Grand pas classique
  • Agrippina Vaganova’s Diana and Acteon pas de deux
  • Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux
  • Richard House’s Scent of Love
  • Alice Topp’s Little Atlas

My DanceTabs review is available at this link.

Extra thoughts

In Jane Albert’s interview with Alice Topp and Richard House in the printed program, Topp speaks of her hopes for the future. She says: ‘…my ultimate dream would be to become [the first female] resident choreographer of The Australian Ballet.’ It isn’t clear who actually said or inserted the bit in square brackets but it’s not correct. The honour of being the first female resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet is already taken. It belongs to Natalie Weir who was resident choreographer during the directorship of Ross Stretton.

Looking back to 2010, when I last saw Balanchine’s Symphony in C, I can’t believe I was so lucky to see the cast I did. My review of that performance is at this link.

Looking back even earlier, I was also lucky way to see the Diana and Acteon pas de deux when it was first performed by the Australian Ballet in 1964. It featured Rudolf Nureyev and Lupe Serrano! The photographer Walter Stringer captured a few images of Nureyev and Serrano from the wings.

Rudolf Nureyev and Lupe Serrano, 'Diana and Acteon' pas de deux. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer

Rudolf Nureyev and Lupe Serrano, Diana and Acteon pas de deux. The Australian Ballet 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia

Michelle Potter, 2 May 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

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.

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet

15 September 2015, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne

On a day when Australia got a new Prime Minister, dance-goers also got a new production of The Sleeping Beauty from David McAllister and the Australian Ballet, with McAllister being credited with ‘Production and additional choreography’. I don’t know how our new PM will fare but, as for Beauty, there was good and not so good.

The good things first. The narrative flows clearly and smoothly. Bringing in Lucas Jervies as dramaturg clearly paid dividends, especially as this Beauty is a little different from what many of us have become used to watching. Act II, for example, is somewhat changed from other productions, of which more later. And Carabosse is ‘the ancient fairy of Wisdom’ according to program notes, so she doesn’t display as much evil intent as we have seen in previous productions, although of course she is furious at being left off the invitation list to Aurora’s christening party.

Which brings me to the second good thing. Lynette Wills as Carabosse is outstanding, just as she was as the Godmother in Cinderella.

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Wills is powerful yet restrained. Nothing is overplayed and yet we sense her presence and her impact on the unfolding story. And all this despite having a very strangely dressed entourage of rats who wear giant puppet-like heads and sport collars and black bow ties.

After that there isn’t much else that I found exhilarating. Benedicte Bemet as the Fairy of Musicality gave a distinctive interpretation to this role and brought a gorgeously lively quality to her exceptional technical capacity. Kevin Jackson as Prince Desiré made every effort to appear human. His two solos in Act II were mostly well performed, and there were moments when, as he looked at the spirit of Aurora, which the Lilac Fairy has conjured up in this Act, he sent shivers down my spine, such was his look of longing.

As for the Bluebird and Princess Florine, Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo could scarcely be faulted technically. Guo’s beats and turns are astonishing, as I have said many times before. But how I missed the fluttering hands that are so often part of the choreography for Princess Florine. She is meant to be listening to the Bluebird who is teaching her how to fly, and the listening bit was all there. But in other versions, beautiful fluttering movements of the hands show her attempts to fly, to put into practice what she is hearing. This fluttering has been part of the Australian heritage of Beauty for decades. Let’s be proud of our heritage. Why leave it out now even if it is (maybe) an addition from the era of Soviet realism?

Which brings up the question of the other fairy tale characters who usually appear at the wedding of Aurora and her Prince. It was a lovely touch to include various fairy tale characters, properly disguised but recognisable, in Act II, which in McAllister’s production is a kind of picnic rather than a straight out hunting party, with the Prince joining in the excursion carrying his book of fairy tales. But what happened to the variations of Puss in Boots and the White Cat and Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Act III? If these characters appear, somewhat in disguise, in Act II why do they have such a tiny role in Act III (and yet turn up in the final mazurka as if they had danced major parts)? It doesn’t make sense to me to leave out their pas de deux and variations. Where was the dramaturg at this point? Apart from anything else they are also part of our Sleeping Beauty heritage and I missed them.

Lana Jones as Aurora missed the youthfulness that I think gives the early part of Act I so much of its charm. She looked beautifully elegant and performed everything with aplomb, but she wasn’t a sixteen year old princess. The grand pas de deux, despite being soundly performed, lacked the excitement that this part of Act III should bring.

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Other choreographic features, especially in Act II, seemed to me to be a little too close to parts of Swan Lake and Nutcracker. The woodland nymphs, who inhabit the overgrown forest in Act II, often split into small groups, link hands à la Four Little Swans, and perform various piqué-style movements. And there is a scene, also in Act II, where Carabosse’s rats fight with the Prince in an attempt to extract from him the key that will open the glass-domed casket in which Aurora has slept for 100 years. Shades of a certain part of Nutcracker?

Gabriela Tylesova’s designs for costumes and set are extraordinarily lavish and, for me, they are the most curious mixture of Baroque extravagance and Rococo excess, with a Louis XIV party thrown in at the end, which occasionally looked like Carnevale in Venice, complete with a Tiepolo-style ceiling as an added attraction. And why did those three massive chandeliers start on the floor and majestically rise to the ceiling at the beginning of Act III? The audience greeted this strange chandelier behaviour with applause, although I’m not sure why. And what was the most disappointing feature of all this excess across the prologue and three acts? The dancing became secondary to the visual appearance.

Tylesova’s choice of colours for her costumes was also unattractive to my eyes. It shouted excess once again. As for those large wings worn by the fairies, they just got in the way of the dancers’ line, which is such an important part of the ballet technique we associate with Petipa and classicism.

In a feature published in the September 2015 issue of Vogue Australia, McAllister is quoted as saying: ‘With big classics like Sleeping Beauty, I really believe it’s around the staging, the look of it.’ Well, yes, he is right that the staging is important in a narrative ballet. But when the staging is such that it overwhelms the dancing it simply doesn’t work.

The audience was wildly enthusiastic as the curtain went down amid much gold, including shimmering gold leaf floating in the air, and a huge gold sun that descended over the Tiepolo ceiling. I went home dejected that such a beautiful ballet could be turned into an event like some kind of football grand final. The dancing was lost in a world of visual excess and technical invention.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty', 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Michelle Potter, 17 September 2015

Featured image: Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

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.

 

Artists of The Australian Ballet in 'The Dream'. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Dream. The Australian Ballet

29 April 2015, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

There were peaks and troughs in the Australian Ballet’s second program for 2015, a triple bill of works by Frederick Ashton. There were also a few surprises.

The undoubted highlight was The Dream, which was also used as the overarching title for the program. We have been told over and over that Ashton was a genius, and many aspects of his work that support that idea were apparent onstage in The Dream, Ashton’s take on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most obvious is the incredible way in which Ashton is able to make a story so clear through movement and mime. No need to know the story beforehand. Everything is comprehensible and coherent. The entire cast of The Dream is to be congratulated for the way they handled Ashton’s approach, and bouquets to the two gentlemen who staged the work—Anthony Dowell and Christopher Carr.

Then there is Ashton’s complex choreography with all its tricky steps, swirling arms, fluid upper body, unexpected combinations, and so forth. Madeleine Eastoe as Titania was superbly in control and made even the trickiest of movements look easy. Her solo with its many hops, turns, swoons and swirls was captivating. And the final pas de deux between a reconciled Titania and Oberon (danced by Kevin Jackson) was  a delight. Their partnership has grown into one from which we now expect, and receive, nothing but the best.

Chengwu Guo as Puck and Kevin Jackson as Oberon in Frederick Ashton's 'The Dream', the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Daniel Boud

Chengwu Guo as Puck and Kevin Jackson as Oberon in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Chengwu Guo was a standout as Puck. I continue to gasp at his beautifully controlled multiple turns, his leaps, his beats. But best of all those amazing technical skills were, on this occasion, put to such good use. They combined perfectly with his particular brand of physicality, and with his personality, to advance the story. Guo was as puckish as they come.

Joseph Chapman delighted the audience as Bottom, the crazy mechanical who wears the head of an ass, courtesy of Puck, and who dances on pointe. His characterisation was strong and maintained consistently and, unbelieveably, he was believable. He was the one everyone was talking about as they left the auditorium.

Madeline Eastoe as Titania and Joseph Chapman as Bottom in Frederick Ashton's 'The Dream', the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Daniel Boud

Madeline Eastoe as Titania and Joseph Chapman as Bottom in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The corps de ballet had been beautifully rehearsed and nothing was forgotten of the Ashton style—head and arm movements especially. And take a bow Benedicte Bemet as Moth. To me she looked like a born Ashton dancer. But then I think she is just a born dancer.

That’s where the peaks ended I’m afraid!

The first half of the program consisted of Monotones II and Symphonic VariationsMonotones II, danced by Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright, has not really stood the test of time for me. It looked quite outdated and very static. As for Symphonic Variations, could it really be the same ballet I was lucky enough to see in London last year danced by the Royal Ballet? As the curtain went up I got a thrill to see Robyn Hendricks and Cristiano Martino looking stunning as the lead couple—elegant with proud bearing promising much. But where was the ‘sensational twenty minutes of unstoppable beauty’ that I saw in London that set my heart singing? The dancing was all over the place, technically beyond the experience of one or two of the dancers, and with little feeling for the spacing and floor plan of the work. A huge disappointment as far as I am concerned.

As for the surprises, well one was pleasant, one wasn’t. Why on earth did the cast sheet say that the performance of Symphonic Variations was ‘The world-premiere performance’? The ballet was made in 1946. But a pleasant surprise came at the end of The Dream as the entire cast was taking its final curtain. The Australian Ballet’s ingrained manner of acknowledging the orchestra during the final curtain call by coming forward and leaning into the orchestra pit and clapping for an inordinate amount of time was gone, thankfully. Instead, the company moved forward, stood in poses that maintained the mood of the work they had just danced and, with an elegant sweep of one arm to the side, acknowledged the orchestra. The integrity of the dance was maintained and the company looked stylish and dignified. Thank you to whomever decided to dispense with what we have been watching over several years now, which I find crass. May this new-found elegance in curtain calls continue.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2015

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

A second look at this program 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.

Paquita & La Sylphide. A second look

16 November 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I was startled to see, when looking at the Australian Ballet’s website to check the casting for my Sydney subscription performance of Paquita and La Sylphide, that Paquita was advertised as a Romantic ballet—’the last flowering of the Romantic ballet’. Elsewhere on the website the program was described as ‘the first and last [of the] great Romantic ballets on one double bill’. The original, full-length Paris production of Paquita (1846) might have been in the Romantic tradition, although that is disputed by some, but what the Australian Ballet has been presenting is definitely not a Romantic work. Marius Petipa made additions to the original Paquita when he restaged his version in Russia in 1881 (1882 new style date). Those interpolations with music by Minkus are, I believe, what most companies now perform. The complete ballet was staged relatively recently (2001) by Pierre Lacotte for the Paris Opera Ballet, but not many other companies have a full-length production in their repertoire. Without the rest of the ballet, the Petipa arrangements can scarcely be called Romantic, although the Spanish overtones we see and hear in the Petipa excerpts do allude to the Spanish elements of the full-length ballet.

Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet in 'Paquita'
Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet in Pierre Lacotte’s production of Paquita

That aside, it was a thrill to see Daniel Gaudiello taking the male role in my Sydney viewing of the Australian Ballet’s excerpts from Paquita. What I love about Gaudiello’s dancing (apart from his technical abilities) is his wonderful approach to partnering. He is so attentive to and caring of his partner (Lucinda Dunn on this occasion) without being merely a ‘porteur’. When he stands back from her and lifts his arms to an open fifth position he is not only triumphantly showing her off as the ballerina, but also showing his own polish and charisma as a true ‘danseur noble’. He has great style.

Of the variations I especially enjoyed the second variation, subtly and gently danced by Jessica Fyfe, and the dancing of the two demi-soloists, Vivienne Wong and Benedicte Bemet, the latter certainly a rising personality.

I was pleased too that my previous disappointment with the staging of La Sylphide dissipated somewhat with a second look. This time I thought there was much more feeling for the Romantic style in the second act and a better contrast between the first and second acts.

La sylphide Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet in La sylphide. Photo: © Jeff Busby, 2013

Perhaps it was Reiko Hombo, who gave a strong, individualistic interpretation, beautifully danced, of the Sylph that made the difference. The lightness and height of her jump; her softly unfolding, beautifully controlled arabesques; her lovely rounded arms; and her supple upper body gave the right technical feel to the role. In addition, her interpretation was consistent and well thought through. There was a definite wickedness of intention there under all that charm as she made every effort to convince James of her wish that he join her in her forest realm. It brought home very nicely that ‘beautiful danger’ that respected Danish scholar Erik Aschengreen so perceptively wrote about many years ago as being a defining characteristic of the Romantic era. And Hombo carried this approach through into the second act.

Hombo was partnered by Chengwu Guo as James and he had, I thought, settled well into the role since my previous viewing. Perhaps again it was Hombo who made the difference. She gave him something to respond to, and as technical partners they work well together. Halaina Hills as Effie and Amy Harris as the lead Sylph in Act II also added a certain strength to the overall production. But I regret that the important role of Madge always seems to degenerate into something a little manic. It has been a long time since there has been a really powerful performance in Australia of that role. Without a strong and convincing Madge the ballet loses much of its intent.

Erik Bruhn as Madge in 'La sylphide', the Australian Ballet, 1985. Photo: Walter Stringer
Erik Bruhn as Madge in La Sylphide, the Australian Ballet, 1985. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

My earlier post on this program is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 17 November 2013