Badu Gili (Water Light), sydney Opera House, 2017. Photo: Michelle Potter

Dance diary. July 2017

  • Badu Gili (Water Light)

As part of NAIDOC Week 2017, and launched the night before the world premiere of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s latest production Bennelong, the eastern side of the ‘Bennelong Sail’ of the Sydney Opera House was lit at specified times during the evening by a series of stunning projections of indigenous design. Curated by Rhoda Roberts and featuring the work of several indigenous artists, Badu Gili celebrates ancient stories with a loop of constantly changing visual imagery. It was a fitting prelude to Bangarra’s spectacular Bennelong program and in many respects was ‘dancing art’. It will be shown each evening for the  next year.

  • Made on the body. Choreography from the Royal Ballet

As an extra event during the Royal Ballet’s recent program in Brisbane, an exhibition of photographs, video clips and historical information was on show in the Tony Gould Gallery at QPAC. Six photographs by Rick Guest occupied the space just outside the main gallery space.

Photographs by Rick Guest, Made on the Body, QPAC 2017

Photographs by Rick Guest, Made on the Body, QPAC 2017

Inside, the gallery had several large screens (or scrims really) on which footage was projected. The show was lit theatrically so that it occasionally seemed that visitors were onstage themselves.

Made on the body screens, QPAC 2017

Made on the body, QPAC 2017

Other footage, some from archival sources, could be viewed on smaller screens situated on long tables elsewhere in the space. In addition to this footage, several areas in the exhibition space were devoted to the history of British choreography as made for the Royal Ballet, including a special focus on Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon, whose work we saw in Brisbane. My favourite quotes from Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon were:

I am designing an EXPERIENCE for the viewer that may stimulate their visual sense, their acoustic sense, their kinaesthetic senses, individually or all at the same time; it may move them emotionally or challenge them intellectually, and all of these are valuable and legitimate layers of meaning, or making sense. (Wayne McGregor)

Often in my own choreographies I have actively conspired to disrupt the space in which the body performs. Each intervention, usually some kind of addition, is an attempt to see the context of the body in a new or alien way. (Christopher Wheeldon)

  • At the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Currently on display, but hidden in a small room at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, is a 9 minute video portrait of actor Cate Blanchett, made in 2008 by David Rosetzky. I had not come across it before but it was quite a beautiful shoot with choreography by Lucy Guerin and music by David Franzke.

Guerin’s choreography was quite simple for the feet and legs, but more complex for the hands and arms, which folded themselves into intricate positions. It was very nicely performed by Blanchett who changed clothes often and spoke throughout, largely pondering on who she was, how she thought she connected with people, and so forth. Worth seeing if it comes your way. And here is a link to a video from the National Portrait Gallery featuring Rosetzky discussing the making of this portrait.

  • Press for July 2016

‘Dance work with a timely message.’ Preview of This Poisoned Sea, Quantum Leap. The Canberra Times, 5 July 2017, p. 18. Online version.

‘Canberrans shortlisted for awards.’ Story on Canberran dance ventures shortlisted for the 2017 Australian Dance Awards, The Canberra Times, 13 July 2017, p. 19. Online version.

A moment from 'Annette' in Great Sport!, the GOLD company, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

A moment from ‘Annette’ in Great Sport!, 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim.

Great Sport! was devised and directed by Liz Lea, who is one on the ACT-based artists nominated for a 2017 Australian Dance Award. See this link for my 2016 review.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2017

Featured image: Sydney Opera House during Badu Gili, 2017. Photo: Michelle Potter

Badu Gili (Water Light), sydney Opera House, 2017. Photo: Michelle Potter

‘The Winter’s Tale.’ The Royal Ballet in Australia

6 July 2017 (matinee and evening), Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

There is much to admire about The Winter’s Tale, Christopher Wheeldon’s balletic translation of William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. For a start, the mood is often absolutely gripping—often in an ‘edge of the seat’ manner. It is also just brilliantly performed by artists of the Royal Ballet in both a technical sense, and in terms of the emotional involvement of everyone on stage. In addition, the visual effects, especially the use of designer Basil Twist’s painted silks that dropped down to indicate the sea or to allow for a change of place, were captivating, as was the use of film footage throughout.

It is a complex story about the relations between the Kings of Sicilia and Bohemia, the breakdown of their friendship and the final reconciliation, along with all the intrigue and jealousy, the sea journeys, and the chance occurrences that attend the breakdown. But the clarity with which the story unfolded was outstanding. That the story was so easily understood was partly as a result of the choreography and partly as a result of how Wheeldon had selected events from the play and added links between them. It was exhilarating to see, for example, how Wheeldon handled the passage of time before the events he had chosen to focus on had taken place. In the opening prologue we watched as two young princes, initially playing together, were replaced by two grown men. It was a simple ploy but so effective in showing, in addition to the passage of time, that the friendship between the two kings had developed since childhood, which is why we encounter them together in Act I in the palace of Leontes, King of Sicilia, initially enjoying each other’s company.

Act I was the strongest of the three acts and a clear highlight was the choreography for Leontes (Bennet Gartside, matinee and evening). When he began to suspect that the baby being carried by his pregnant wife, Hermione (Marianela Nuñez, matinee and evening), was not his but that of Polixenes, his friend and King of Bohemia, his rage and jealousy were expressed through angular movements, clenched hands, slinking movements, and depraved twists of the body.

Laura Morera (evening) gave a strong performance as Paulina, head of Hermione’s household, especially in her attack on Leontes as he banished Hermione, and when he could not bear to look at the newly born child, Perdita. Nuñez as Hermione danced with refinement and accepted her banishment with the grace and strength of a queen. I admired, too, the motherly affection she showed to her son Mamillius in the early stages of Act I.

But for me the standout performance in Act I came from Ryoichi Hirano (evening) as Polixenes. He held my attention from the moment he came on stage and I loved the way he executed the choreography, highlighting as he did the rather more eccentric choreography he was given as the King of Bohemia. In fact, his emphasis on those choreographic elements that seemed more folkloric than those given to the residents of Sicilia foreshadowed what was to take place in Act II, which was set in Bohemia. In addition, his duet with Hermione, as Leontes lurked in the background or peered from behind statues, was passionately danced and had sexual overtones to the extent that it made Leontes’ jealousy seem to have some basis in truth. Such movement by Hirano highlighted Gartside’s unsavoury loiterings and suggested what was going through Leontes’ mind.

In Act II the dancing didn’t falter. Beatriz Stix-Brunell (evening) as Perdita and Vadim Muntagirov (evening) as Florizel danced sumptuously, with Muntagirov soaring across the stage and sweeping Stix-Brunell off her feet (literally as well as figuratively). But again my attention was drawn to Hirano who made me smile as he attempted to disguise himself in shepherd’s clothing to spy on his son Florizel who was courting Perdita. That hat didn’t seem to fit his kingly head and he seemed a little bamboozled by it all.

Wheeldon’s choreography for the groups of shepherds and shepherdesses in this act was pleasant enough and certainly was in folkloric mode. But after such a powerful Act I, it seemed all too much like a traditional three-act ballet where at some stage everyone has to have a jolly good time.

Back in Sicilia in Act III, conflicts and concerns are resolved and there is eventually a marriage (I think—everyone was dressed in white) between Perdita and Florizel. But the most interesting part of this act concerned the return of Hermione, disguised at first as a statue. It made for an engaging re-connection between Hermione and Leontes, gently manouevered by Paulina. In fact there was a curious connection between Paulina and Leontes who seemed to lean on her (in fact choreographically he did lean on her) for support at the beginning of the act. But his contrition was made clear and he danced with Hermione in a final pas de deux.

Marianela Nuñez as Hermione and Bennet Gartside as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, Act III. The Royal Ballet. Photo: © ROH/Tristram Kenton

As in Act II, the dancing in Act III was pretty much faultless and a pleasure to watch. But again it was Hirado as Polixenes who attracted my attention. I admired the way he stormed in looking for Florizel in order to drag him back to Bohemia and declined at first Leontes’ attempts at reconciliation, but then mellowed when he realised that Perdita had royal blood. It was a powerful performance from him from start to finish.

The Royal Ballet’s touring program presented audiences with an interesting juxtaposition of ballets. Both Woolf Works and The Winter’s Tale are contemporary (that is of today) productions but The Winter’s Tale remains within a certain traditional mode—a three-act narrative, moving along logically, and having some balletic predictability about its structure. On the other hand Woolf Works pushes boundaries and makes demands of us. We have to suspend many preconceived ideas about how to see and think about ballet. Both modes of presentation have a place but, while I sat transfixed by The Winter’s Tale, twice, what Wayne McGregor presented in Woolf Works is how I want dance to move ahead.

Michelle Potter, 9 July 2017

Featured image: Set for Act II, The Winter’s Tale. The Royal Ballet. Photo: © ROH/Johan Persson

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

Christopher Wheeldon triple bill. The Royal Ballet

10 March 2016, Main Stage, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

In this triple bill of works by Christopher Wheeldon from the Royal Ballet, it was especially pleasing to see the full version of After the rain. Its visually arresting choreography for three couples in the first part, performed to Tabula rasa by Arvo Pärt, shows Wheeldon as his sculptural best as arms and legs swing from pose to pose and dancers move in unison and counterpoint. Dressed in grey practice clothes the six dancers perform in front of a geometric lighting design (59 Productions) consisting of of two squares of light. A central one, blue-ish white in colour, sits inside a larger one of grey-ish blue. Simple but effective, these two squares echo the colours of the costumes and also the formally structured choreography.

The pas de deux that follows, often danced without the opening movement, was a disappointment for me. Perhaps I needed to be sitting closer as I missed the quiet emotion that I have seen in performances by other companies? But then a seat in the theatre shouldn’t affect such things if the work is well performed. Perhaps too the physiques of Zenaida Yanowsky and Reece Clarke, who danced the pas de deux, were not far enough apart from each other to highlight what I think are the qualities of this section, danced again to Pärt, this time to the gently reflective Spiegel im Spiegel? The work was made originally for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto of New York City Ballet and together, with their very different body shapes, they suggested an entrancing strength and frailty that was not apparent, and that I missed, with Yanowsky and Clarke. In fact I’m not sure what their performance suggested beyond a dance for two.

Wheeldon’s newest work, Strapless, a one act narrative ballet centring on the scandal surrounding the showing of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mme Gautreau in Paris at the Salon of 1884, was a mixed blessing. When the curtain went up on an empty picture frame attached to a grey-coloured screen I was consumed by curiosity. How would this work unfold? And the opening moments, as Mme Gautreau took her time choosing her wardrobe for the unveiling of Sargent’s portrait while her husband fussed at her slowness, was very nicely choreographed with movement that defined the two characters. Strapless returned in its closing scene to that opening picture frame, which this time was not empty but contained the finished portrait, although now Mme Gautreau was broken in spirit by the scandal that emerged when the portrait showed that one strap of her black gown had slipped off her shoulder. Without the trappings of her former life, and dressed only in a skin-coloured, body-hugging costume, we watched as she sought to make sense of her situation.

In between the opening and closing scenes, the work felt like a cross between a Broadway musical, with a ‘chorus’ of dancers representing Parisian society performing choreography that seemed like it had come from a Busby Berkeley show; and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend when that same chorus started to look like tight-lipped parishioners. The score from Mark-Anthony Turnage didn’t help either as it hardly sounded like the era of La belle époque.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Mme Gautreau was not having one of her best nights, unfortunately, and was a little unsteady on occasions. And with so many changes of scene in a one act ballet—the work began in 1884, slipped back to 1881, came forward to 1883 and ended where it began in 1884—there was a need for moveable scenery (screens, door frames and the like), Unfortunately again, the scenery was trundled on and off very noisily and so many people (characters and scene changers) constantly slipping on and off stage was decidedly disruptive to the smooth unfolding of the storyline. I also found it hard to follow who was who among the male principals. The printed program, like all Royal Ballet programs I have encountered, was excellent, full of explanatory notes and articles, but any work for the stage needs to be easily understood, I believe, without having to resort to reading a convoluted story in a program.

Circumstances were such that I was unable to stay for the final Wheeldon work, Within the golden hour. But perhaps it was just as well. I am able to retain, as a result, an image of a work I enjoyed immensely on a previous occasion in San Francisco.

Michelle Potter, 12 March 2016

John Singer Sargent, Study of Mme Gautreau c. 1884 detail

John Singer Sargent, Study of Mme Gautreau c. 1884 (detail)

The image above is a detail of an unfinished version of the Sargent portrait, which I saw in the Tate Britain and which has no strap at all on Mme Gautreau’s right shoulder. In the version that was shown in the Salon of 1884, and which caused the scandal, the right shoulder strap was painted as having fallen off the shoulder. The final version, in which Sargent repainted the fallen strap into its regular position, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Artist of the Australian Ballet in costume for 'Coppelia'. Photo: Justin Ridler

The Australian Ballet in 2016

Benedicte Bemet (left), Cristiano Martino (centre), and Jade Wood (right), 2015. Photos: © Justin Ridler

Mixed in with old faithfuls like Swan Lake and Coppélia, the Australian Ballet’s program for 2016 contains one or two works that we can anticipate with a bit of excitement. One of them is John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which will be seen in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, although we will have to wait until the last few months of the year.

Nijinsky was created in 2000 for Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet and was seen recently in Australia when Hamburg Ballet performed it in Brisbane in 2012. On that occasion it received a standing ovation on its opening night—and I mean a real standing ovation where the theatre rose as one. No stragglers, no people leaving to catch the subway before the rush, no one standing up because they couldn’t see what was happening because the person in the row in front was blocking their view. A proper standing ovation. Neumeier calls Nijinsky ‘a biography of the soul, of feelings, emotions, and of states of mind’. It needs wonderful dancing, and fabulous acting. My fingers are crossed. Here is what I wrote about it from Brisbane.

Another program that fills me with anticipation is a triple bill called Vitesse presenting works by Christopher Wheeldon (DGV: Danse à grande vitesse), Jiri Kylian (Forgotten Land) and William Forsythe (In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated). It is scheduled for the early part of the year and will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney.

Forgotten Land and In the Middle are not new to the Australian Ballet repertoire having been introduced during Maina Gielgud’s artistic directorship. I remember watching people leave the auditorium after the opening sounds of Thom Willems score for In the Middle (it was 20 years ago), but it showed off certain dancers of that era absolutely brilliantly. But the Wheeldon is new to Australia. It is a work for 26 dancers with four pairs of dancers at the heart of the work. It shows in particular Wheeldon’s skill at creating pas de deux. In the Royal Ballet program notes from its showing in 2011, Roslyn Sulcas writes of Wheeldon that ‘[He]—like his ballets—is both traditional and innovative, able to inhabit an older world while moving firmly forward towards the new.’ Here is what I wrote after seeing it, on a very different mixed bill program, in London in 2011.

Then I await Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet, exclusive to Melbourne in June and July, with anticipation mixed with trepidation. I was not a fan of his Bayadère, although I have loved some of his shorter works. But the word is that his R & J is ‘quite good’. Fingers crossed again.

Dancers of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch's 'Romeo and Juliet'. Photo Amitava Sarkar

Dancers of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

As for the rest of the year, Brisbane will get Ratmansky’s Cinderella in February; Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake returns with seasons in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne; a program called Symphony in C will run concurrently in Sydney with the Vitesse program, although it is not exactly clear as yet of what the Symphony in C program will consist; and Coppélia will be in Sydney and Melbourne towards the end of the year. I think this is the Peggy van Praagh/George Ogilvie production from 1979, but the media release is a little confusing. ‘Having first revisited Coppélia in 1979, the great choreographer re-invigorated it thirty years later with this joyful and sumptuous production.’ Who is that great choreographer? Not PVP who was not really the choreographer and who died anyway in 1990.

And for my Canberra readers, we won’t be seeing the Australian Ballet in 2016 in the national capital where we too pay taxes.

Michelle Potter, 23 September 2015 

Featured image: Dancer of the Australian Ballet in costume for Coppélia, 2015 (detail). Photo: © Justin Ridler

Artist of the Australian Ballet in costume for 'Coppelia'. Photo: Justin Ridler

  • Full details of the 2016 season are on the Australian Ballet’s website.

‘Scotch Symphony’, ‘Within the Golden Hour’, ‘From Foreign Lands’. San Francisco Ballet

09 March 2013 (matinee), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

What a glorious program Helgi Tomasson put together as Program 3 in San Francisco Ballet’s current repertory season. With works by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, to me it said the 20th century had a great choreographer in Balanchine but look where the 21st century is heading with Wheeldon and Ratmansky.

This triple bill program opened with Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, a work dating back to 1952. It was more than ably led on this occasion by principals Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan, she in particular combining a crisp technique with an elusive element to her dancing and thus perfectly fitting the role. Scotch Symphony shows the delight Balanchine took in making references to other dance styles and techniques and blending them with the technical strengths of his classically trained dancers and with his own characteristic choreographic patterns. In this case the precise footwork of Highland dancing sat side by side with the floating, beyond-this-world feeling of the Romantic movement in ballet. But always obvious were those unexpected Balanchine groupings and his use of the shapes and spaces thus made to develop new groupings.

The corps de ballet shone throughout, especially the men and especially Diego Cruz and Lonnie Weeks in their leading roles in the corps. They gave their roles real personality and one of them knocked me for six with a fabulous saut de basque with arms in 5th in which the lift to 5th was at least as exciting as the saut de basque. The one jarring area to my mind was the backcloth, a dark grey shadow of a castle structure by Broadway designer Arnold Abramson. To me it captured little of an elusive and blended world that the ballet itself presents.

In the middle of the program was Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, made for San Francisco Ballet in 2008. It is a series of interludes, seemingly unrelated, beginning and ending with sequences for the full cast. In between the beginning and the ending we see a quirky waltz for for a couple, which is picked up almost as it ends by several other couples; a fast and technically demanding duet for two men filled with turns and beats; a pas de deux that scarcely moves through space, a quartet of ladies performing at first as shadows; and a second pas deux that does move around the stage a little more.

Wheeldon’s choreography in Within the Golden Hour mixes ballet technique with all kinds of other styles from ballroom to his own take on contemporary dance. This work was by far the most popular with the audience, who gave it a standing ovation at the matinee I attended. I enjoyed its changing momentum and its quirkiness, but it isn’t a great work.

From Foreign Lands was specially commissioned by San Francisco Ballet from Alexei Ratmansky and had its world premiere on 1 March 2013. The performance I saw was just the ninth show and there were still a few moments when the dancers looked a little unsteady. But what a lovely work it is, exciting to watch, often surprising, often funny, and even redolent at times of those ubiquitous visits we used to have decades ago from groups performing ethnic dances from their homeland. Those tours showed us dancers happily competing with each other to jump higher, turn faster, execute the most difficult steps, and ultimately to win their lady-love.

Made up of six parts, ‘Russian’, ‘Italian’, ‘German’, Spanish’, ‘Polish’ and ‘Hungarian’, From Foreign Lands is performed to an 1884 score by German composer and pianist Morris Moszkowski. The ballet, however, begins in silence with a brief introductory section for the full ensemble of twelve dancers. It suggests to us that dancing is to be the order if the day. But apart from that it is an opportunity to see the charming, tiered, older style tutus (finishing just above the knee) designed by Colleen Atwood. Then follow the six sections, which choreographically are largely quartets, or a variation on the quartet.

San Francisco Ballet in 'From Foreign Lands'San Francisco Ballet in ‘German’  from Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Ratmansky’s choreography in this work contains some quite unexpected movement. He drops a supported cartwheel into ‘Spanish’, for example; elsewhere two men perform a simple jump on sequential beats so that they look like pistons going up and down; and occasionally the dancers face each other and dance mirror images. And all this alongside some glorious, ‘straightforward’ classical technique. I found ‘German’ one of the most interesting of the six sections, despite the fact that program notes suggest that it is ‘over-the-top romanticism’. As a quartet for three men and one woman it had a different feel from other combinations and I loved its lushness and the smooth and flowing dancing of Jennifer Stahl.

All in all a wonderfully uplifting program!

Michelle Potter, 10 March 2013

Featured image: San Francisco Ballet in ‘German’ from Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Within the Golden Hour

‘Ballo della regina’, ‘Live fire exercise’, ‘DGV’. The Royal Ballet

Every time I visit London and am lucky enough to see a performance by the Royal Ballet I am bowled over. The recent mixed bill of Balanchine’s Ballo della regina, Wayne McGregor’s brand-new Live fire exercise and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV (Danse à grande vitesse) simply reinforced my view that the Royal is at a high point in its career—so many dancers of star quality or star potential, a coaching team that appears to work on developing a clear understanding of what lies behind each work and great programming.

Balanchine’s Ballo della regina opened this program. On the night I went, leading roles were danced by Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin. It was especially rewarding to see Cuthbertson take command of a role so closely associated with that great American ballerina Merrill Ashley, who created the leading female role in 1978. On stage Ashley always looked as American as apple pie, you might say, with her glowingly healthy face, her forthright (and fabulous) technique, and a kind of no holds barred, no nonsense approach. Cuthbertson, however, had a different approach. Ashley showed the steps, and how she showed them. Cuthbertson, with a lighter frame than Ashley, seemed to emphasis not so much individual moments but an overall fluidity. This is not to say that her dancing lacked highlights. Her ability alter direction suddenly and to move with unexpected changes of speed was a real delight. And there was not a moment when she faltered. It was a great performance.

As for Polunin he had nothing to live up to as Robert Weiss, who partnered Ashley in 1978, never in my opinion really made the role his own. Polunin knocked me for six with his ability to cover space—the extension of the front leg in movements like grands jetés en avant was like an arrow speeding forward on a perfect course. And then there was the clarity of his beats and the perfection of his turns.

Four soloists—Melissa Hamilton stood out in particular—and a beautifully rehearsed corps de ballet made this Ballo a special treat.

Wayne McGregor’s Live fire exercise, made in collaboration with artist John Gerrard, on the surface could hardly have been more different. The starting point was a US army exercise in the Djibouti desert, a detonation designed to prepare troops for the physical effects of the mortar rounds or road side bombings they may encounter. A screen occupied a large part of the upstage area. On it was a projection of a desert scene and over time we saw the arrival of trucks and other machinery, a blast and the subsequent plume of fire and its smoky aftermath. In front of this video installation three men and three women performed McGregor’s demanding, highly physical choreography. In the background Michael Tippet’s Fantasia concertante on a theme of Corelli provided, almost as a juxtaposition, a kind of pastoral accompaniment.

McGregor’s choreography in Live fire exercise, showed his signature extensions with the dancers’ legs pushed high into positions that destroy the usual line of classical ballet, along with his approach to partnering with its emphasis on curved, twisted and folded bodies, and with his use of extreme falls. At one point Sarah Lamb performed a promenade in attitude on a bent supporting leg. She was supported in this by Eric Underwood who, once the circle of the promenade had been completed, swiftly lifted her and with a swirl threw her through the air. She travelled through the air, looking light as a feather with a perfectly held body, into the arms of another dancer. For me this moment put McGregor in a new light and his ability to use the classical vocabulary, and then to manipulate it became clear.

Overall, and almost unbelievably, the choreography seemed quite calm and considered. Throughout the piece single dancers occasionally stood quietly beside the video installation. They were lit so as to appear shadowy, isolated human beings figures against the plume of fire or smoke. They drew our attention from the choreography back to the footage and also served to remind us of the content of this footage and its underlying political message. Live fire exercise is the most personal of the works of McGregor that I have seen to date

In addition to Lamb and Underwood the cast comprised Cuthbertson, Polunin, Akane Takada, Federico Bonelli and Ricardo Cervera.

Closing the evening, Wheeldon’s DGV was something of a letdown. DGV is set to a score by Michael Nyman, MGV (Musique à grande vitesse), and draws inspiration from the idea of a journey with the French very fast train (TGV) the source of both Nyman’s and Wheeldon’s title. The work is essentially a series of four pas de deux with a corps to ballet of another eighteen dancers who often also work in pairs. It shows Wheeldon’s exceptional ability to create mesmerisng duets and his capacity to move large groups of people around the stage to create strong visual imagery. It was beautifully danced, especially by the corps and without a perfect corps the patterns falls apart, which they certainly didn’t on this occasion.

But I found the work a little repetitive and somewhat soporific. Maybe it was simply that it came after the McGregor with its underlying message of the politics of war? McGregor pushes his audience, Wheeldon doesn’t, or didn’t with DGV. Nevertheless DGV completed a wonderfully diverse and fabulously performed evening of dance.

Michelle Potter, 27 May 2011

‘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

‘Kings of the Dance.’ City Center, New York

19 February 2010, City Center, New York

Christopher Wheeldon’s comment was thought-provoking. In the film sequence that opened ‘Kings of the Dance’, Wheeldon remarked that the biggest challenge for choreographers working with the eight exceptional artists performing in this show was managing the different styles in which those dancers had been trained. Of the eight, Jose Manuel Carreño was trained in Cuba, Guilllaume Côté in Canada, David Hallberg and Desmond Richardson in the United States, Marcelo Gomes in South America, Joaquin de Luz in Spain, and Denis Matvienko and Nikolay Tsiskaridze in Russia. Wheeldon continued that it was a particular challenge when the dancers had to dance together in a single work, but noted that it had eventually worked well. In fact, it only worked sometimes.

The highlight of the show for me, as far as works involving more than one dancer were concerned, was Nacho Duato’s Remanso, which comprised Act III of the program. Remanso, a work made for three men in 1997, was performed by Hallberg, Côté, and Gomes on the evening I attended. Duato’s choreography is always distinctive and transcends particular methods of classical training. It allows an individual voice to emerge from the choreography rather than being pasted upon it or sublimated to it. Hallberg, Côté and Gomes responded brilliantly. They brought their undoubted talents to bear to present a thrilling performance that was both amusing and technically absorbing.

This kind of transcendence didn’t happen in Wheeldon’s own work, For 4, that followed the opening film. It was danced by Matvienko, Carreño, de Luz and Côté and, while each danced well, it was not the stylistically coherent piece that Wheeldon was obviously seeking. There were also eight distinct styles on show in the Finale when eight excellent dancers showed off their best tricks—a manège of turns or leaps or a series of grand pirouettes—although coherence was obviously not an aim here.

The middle act consisted of seven solos and one duet. They ranged from the quite cliched work by Igal Perry, Ave Maria, danced by Carreño, to the Mr Universe style of Dwight Roden’s Lament danced by Richardson.

Amongst these solos, however, was the sublimely beautiful short piece made by Frederick Ashton for Anthony Dowell in 1978—Dance of the Blessed Spirits. It began with the dancer, David Hallberg on this occasion, standing on the top of a small platform with a few steps leading down to the stage floor. Hallberg’s body was lit to resemble a piece of sculpture in a gallery and his pose initially clearly recalled Michelangelo’s David. As Hallberg descended the steps and began to dance rather than to pose, the lighting came up to reveal choreography that was simple and yet in no way simplistic. It was an understated display of what constitutes the classical body, how that body moves and how with subtle twists of the arms and turns of the head it can become an innovation. Hallberg danced with classical perfection.

In the end, in a show of this nature it is the choreography that counts. On this occasion it was Ashton and Duato who gave this show its flair.

Michelle Potter, 24 February 2010