Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake', ca. 2003

Graeme Murphy’s ‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet (2013)

22 June 2013 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The first thing to say about this performance of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake is that Leanne Stojmenov as Odette was absolutely stunning. It all began with that Act I wedding waltz. Partnered by Andrew Killian as Siegfried, Stojmenov not only danced with delicious fluidity in the upper body, she was also so attuned to the music and was so much the happy young bride. And how often does that beautiful white gown with its long, long train impede parts of the movement? Not this time. The gown was manipulated pretty much perfectly so that, as intended, it was an intrinsic part of the choreography. It was a beautiful and absolutely captivating moment so early into the show and it was followed by some charming encounters between Stojmenov and the guests, especially with the children.

From there Stojmenov delivered some technically sumptuous dancing and swept us through a whole range of emotions until her final disappearance into the depths of the dark waters of the lake. As Odette at the lakeside in Act II her solo, with its remarkable ending—a backwards slide along the floor, was magnificent, as was the pas de deux with Killian, again with its breathtaking ending that moves from Siegfried holding Odette as a limp, bent-over body, which is then stretched out fully but is held parallel to the floor, to a fish dive, and finally to another slide to the floor. And perhaps nothing was more moving in a dramatic sense than Stojmenov’s encounters with Killian in the final moments of Act III. They were danced with all the abandon of a woman in the full knowledge that these moments were to be her last with the man she loves. A series of very fast, perfectly executed turns down the diagonal towards Siegfried, arms flailing up and down, summed it all up.

Leanne Stojmenov in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake'. Photo: Jeff Busby, 2013.

Leanne Stojmenov in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Jeff Busby, 2013

The second thing to say is that Murphy’s choreography in this work is nothing short of remarkable. Perhaps it is seeing this Swan Lake so soon after Stephen Baynes’ more traditional version that highlights what an expressive choreographer Murphy is. Not many choreographers are able to use the classical medium as an expressive, narrative tool, to move the story along through movement.  Murphy does. Take, for example, Siegfried’s solo in Act I as he is torn between his new bride and his old love. He bends into himself, opens his palms wide and places them on his face, and at times moves with little jerky or contorted steps. It all speaks of indecision, inner turmoil, unspoken guilt even.  Or take Odette’s meeting with Siegfried in the asylum. Here Murphy gives us all the twitching movements we might associate with Odette’s state of mind and yet there is something about her arm movements that recall those of a more traditional Odette, which not only links us with other stagings of Swan Lake, but also presages Odette’s lakeside dream, which is soon to come.

There are some magnificent images that surface throughout the work. In Act III, as the guests leave the party following the little tantrum by the Baroness, unevenly played on this occasion by Amy Harris, we see Siegfried and his friends against a backcloth that is a representation of M. C. Escher’s linocut, Rippled Surface. They are frantically looking for Odette who has left the party and a very new vision of Siegfried, Benno and friends on their swan hunt (seen in very old productions!) comes straight to mind. And shortly afterwards, when Siegfried arrives suddenly at the lakeside, alone this time, the beautiful choreographic patterns being made by those black swans are just as suddenly scattered into a flurry of different poses and different arm movements.  We are left with a fleeting image of a flight of birds disturbed from their ordered existence as if a shot had been fired into their formation.

And I can’t forget Harry Haythorne in Act I as the Marquis (the photographer). While he commands centre stage at times, he also spends a lot of time up in the back OP corner with his camera and his little hanky, a wave of which indicates that a shot has been completed. Taking my eye off the central action for a moment I noticed him arranging a group of children in a special pose, and also photographing a kite that one child was flying. Never one to stand still and just watch the action!

And the third thing to say is that all the drama that was missing from the recent Baynes production was there for all to see in this Murphy production. Murphy’s knack of moving seamlessly from one situation to another and back was evident in Act II as we saw the lakeside dream begin with Siegfried and the Baroness meet outside the asylum window, and saw the dream end with a return to that same meeting. But more than anything the drama was gripping as Odette teetered from one emotion to another.

I do have a couple of gripes. It is annoying that so few of the cast were mentioned by name on the cast sheet. I didn’t have the best seat in the house. It was a way back and a little too much on the side so it was quite hard to identify who was dancing in smaller roles. Who danced the two leading Hungarians in Act I, for example? I thought they did a splendid job, especially the female dancer. [It was Dana Stephensen—see comment from Anna below]. And who danced the little swans and the two leading swans? It is extremely frustrating to have some of the minor characters in Act I named, characters who really have very little to do and certainly no dancing to speak of, when dancers who have relatively substantial dancing roles are not named. And I will never understand why the magic of those last moments has to be spoilt as the black cloth disappears from that circular piece of wood that is the lake leaving us to see a bit of cut chipboard. Come on!

Gripes aside, I was immensely moved by this performance. It was one of those rare performances, I think, where so much pours out, so much underlying logic becomes apparent, so much of the detail of the choreography is made clear, and so much is impossible to record! A huge bouquet to Stojmenov for carrying the dramatic line so well and dancing so sublimely. Performances like this are why I keep going back for more.

Michelle Potter, 23 June 2013

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, ca. 2003

IMAGES: I have no images of this current production as yet and in any case, with Stojmenov giving the performance she did I really am not inclined to post an image of another Odette.  The image at the top of this review is one supplied by the Australian Ballet some years ago, probably around 2002 or 2003. No photographer’s name is mentioned but I would be more than happy to correct that if someone can supply the name. Looking closely you might notice some dancers who are now principals!

UPDATE (later, 23 June 2013): The second image on this post is indeed of Stojmenov in Murphy’s Swan Lake kindly supplied by the Australian Ballet and by one of my favourite and most generous photographers, Jeff Busby.

A review of the 2015 staging is a this link.

‘Vanguard’. The Australian Ballet

11 May 2013 (matinee & evening), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House (The Four Temperaments, Bella Figura, Dyad 1929)

If this triple bill program from the Australian Ballet did one thing it was to show how far ahead of his time George Balanchine was in 1946 when he made The Four Temperaments.

Although the title, The Four Temperaments, suggests a link to the ancient practice of assigning behavioural characteristics to humans based on the extent to which certain fluids are present in the body, I think this is essentially an abstract ballet. It deconstructs classical ballet vocabulary before the idea of deconstruction in arts practice became a trendy phenomenon. So many of the movements—Balanchine’s different examples of supported pirouettes for example—show by the very act of deconstruction how the vocabulary of ballet is constructed. In addition, Balanchine’s use of turned in feet and legs, forward-thrusting pelvic movements, stabbing movements by the women on pointe, angular shapes made with the arms and palms of the hand, are all beyond what the eye is accustomed to think of as pure, classical movement. But seen within the context of the entire ‘Vanguard’ program, it is clear that similar movements surface in the work of choreographers coming after Balanchine. Such an attitude to the balletic vocabulary is especially noticeable in the choreography for Dyad 1929 made by Wayne McGregor in 2009.

Balanchine made his move in 1946 (at least) and I think the different look Dyad 1929 and others of McGregor’s works have, which is certainly a look more in keeping with the twenty first century, is as much a reflection of technical developments and changes in body shape since 1946 as anything else. The Four Temperaments is really a remarkable work.

The Australian Ballet has been beautifully coached and rehearsed for The Four Temperaments. There was a simple elegance and a clarity of technique in their dancing and they made the choreographic design very clear. At times, however, I wished some parts had been slightly more exaggerated—the movement in the pelvis for example. Balanchine was a showy choreographer at times and I think a little of the showiness that American companies seem to add to The Four Temperaments was missing.

Of the two casts I saw I most admired Daniel Gaudiello in the ‘Melancholic’ variation. I loved his unexpected falls, the theatrical way he threw his arms around his body, his very fluid movement, and his wonderful bend back from the waist as he made his (backwards) exit. I also enjoyed the pert and precise quality Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo brought to ‘Theme II’ and Juliet Burnett’s languorous and smooth flowing work in ‘Theme III’. Of the corps Dana Stephensen and Brooke Lockett (in different casts) stood out for me in supporting roles in ‘Melancholic’.

Then came Jiri Kylian’s emotive work Bella Figura with its mysterious lighting and half-revealed spaces.
Felicia Palanca & Sarah Peace in 'Bella Figura'. Photo: Jeff Busby

Felicia Palanca and Sarah Peace in Bella Figura, ca. 2000. Photo: Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Bella was first performed by the Australian Ballet in 2000 when it had a more than memorable cast, and it has been restaged in the intervening period, again with strong casts. So it is a pleasure to record that one cast I saw on this occasion did not make me think back to other performances. It even opened up for me a new view of the piece. The closing duet, danced in silence by Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, in moody lighting with two braziers burning brightly in the background, was moving, intimate and deeply satisfying. What wonderful rapport these two dancers have and how affecting is their ability to project that rapport so strongly. Jones and Gaudiello were also outstanding in another duet earlier on in the work. I don’t remember such a comic element in that particular duet on previous occasions; this time it bordered on the slapstick. But it was brilliantly done as Jones and Gaudiello managed to retain ‘la bella figura’ in its best sense, while also making us laugh.

After these two works Dyad 1929 looked very thin to me. I have admired recent works by Wayne McGregor including his Chroma, FAR and Live fire exercise, and I was also impressed by Dyad 1929 when it was first shown in Australia in 2009. This time I didn’t get the feeling that the dancers saw any diversity within the work. They all performed the steps very nicely but brought little else. After The Four Temperaments and Bella Figura it was a disappointment, not so much choreographically as in terms of performance.

Michelle Potter, 13 May 2013

‘Don Quixote’. The Australian Ballet

13 April 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

My single viewing of the Australian Ballet’s current production of Don Quixote was entertaining, if not theatrically thrilling.

I enjoyed seeing Reiko Hombo and Yosvani Ramos in the leading roles of Kitri and Basilio. The male jota-style variation in Act I suited Ramos beautifully and showed off his neat footwork and the lightness of his jump. His portrayal of Basilio worked really well in Act III when his ‘death’ scene captured a certain craziness and was quite hilarious. But I missed a sense of passion in his encounters with Kitri.

Hombo performed nicely and her technical execution was precise and clear. But again I missed the fiery quality I associate with Kitri and I felt the consequent lack of a strong emotional connection or a sense of physical repartee with Basilio.

What I really liked about the production was the characterisation of the Don, played by Steven Heathcote; Sancho Panza, the Don’s squire played by Frank Leo; and the wealthy Gamache, played by Matthew Donnelly. At last here was an approach that didn’t seem to think that over-the-top behaviour was necessary in these kinds of roles. All were still strong individuals demanding of our attention and thoughts but without the ridiculous pantomime elements that for me went out of fashion years ago.

Amongst the corps and soloists I admired Brett Chynoweth as one of the leading townsfolk, Dana Stephensen as one of Kitri’s friends and Eloise Fryer as Amour. Both Stephensen and Fryer looked wonderful onstage. They were technically assured and dancing as if they loved it. No Don could have resisted Fryer’s arrows! Chynoweth was full on into the action at every moment.

It’s a hard act, still, to follow in the footsteps of Rudolf Nureyev and Lucette Aldous and the cast that made up the first Australian Ballet production way back in the 1970s. But some have followed on brilliantly since then, and maybe some casts that I didn’t see in this season did in fact inject some of the fiery and passionate give and take that makes this ballet a bit more than just interesting entertainment. The subscriber I sat next to yesterday was singing the praises of Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello.

And for those who weren’t even born in the 1970s that first Don Q is still available on DVD as a digitally remastered version of the original film.

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, 'Don Quixote'. Photo: Georges AntoniLana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in a publicity shot for Don Quixote, 2012. Photo: Georges Antoni. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Michelle Potter, 14 April 2013

‘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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Body Torque 2.2. The Australian Ballet

27-30 May 2009, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 1 June 2009