Brett Chynoweth, Vivenne Wong and Kevin Jackson in 'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

‘Faster’. The Australian Ballet

10 April 2017, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The Australian Ballet’s latest program of three contemporary ballets is, artistically speaking, a very mixed bill. It certainly shows off the physical skills of company dancers, but choreographically it has its highs and lows.

The program opened with Faster, a work by British choreographer David Bintley, which he made initially for the London 2012 Olympic Games. It may have been an interesting work for that occasion, but I just can’t understand why it was thought worthy of reviving for repertoire. Although dancers have physical skills that are certainly athletic, in my book dancers are artists not athletes. There was nothing in the Bintley work that allowed the dancers to show their artistry. They seemed to run around the stage a lot, occasionally with a jump here, or a twist there. They pretended they were fencing, shooting a ball through a hoop, engaging in high jumps and other aerial sports, and so on. Sometimes they feigned injury, or despair, or something. But really I would rather watch professional athletes engaging in sporting activities rather than dancers pretending. Faster was a very lightweight work and not my idea of what I want to see from the Australian Ballet (or any ballet company for that matter).

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Faster, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The highlight of the evening was Tim Harbour’s fabulous new work, Squander and Glory. Choreographically it explores not so much how the body moves through space—although that happens—but how the body can fill the space around it. Sometimes there were some quite beautiful classical lines to observe, along with large groups of bodies gathered close together and moving across the stage. But at other times that classical look and ordered arrangement collapsed and we could see something more akin to a heap of bodies making shapes, lines and swirls of infinite and fascinating variety. (And I’m using ‘heap’ here in a positive sense rather than suggesting it was a mess).

But not only was Squander and Glory thrilling, and surprising, to watch from a choreographic point of view, it was also a wonderful example a how the collaborative elements can add so much to the overall feel and look of a work. I have long admired Benjamin Cisterne’s powerful and courageous vision for what lighting can contribute to a work, and that vision was absolutely evident in Squander and Glory. His use of a mirrored cloth in the work doubled our view of the number of dancers appearing on stage, and allowed us to see the choreography from two different angles. It brought an extra layer of excitement to the work, and I was amazed and delighted that those mirror images didn’t detract from the work, as so often happens when film clips or projections of some kind are introduced into a dance piece.

Then there was Kelvin Ho’s towering structure in the background, which reminded me of part of a Frank Gehry building, or a cone-like sculpture similar to those made by Australian sculptor Bert Flugelman. But it also had a kind of  mystery associated with it. Logically it had to be a projection but its presence was so powerful, without dominating the choreography or Cisterne’s design, that I had to wonder where it was physically located. It was a brilliant addition to a seamlessly beautiful collaboration, which to my mind was enhanced by the relentless sound of Michael Gordon’s score, Weather One.

'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Squander and Glory, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The program closed with Wayne McGregor’s 2008 work, Infra. I am a McGregor fan for sure, but I found Infra underwhelming after Squander and Glory. The work emerged from McGregor’s thoughts about human intimacy and its varied manifestations. But the expression of these ideas seemed dry and even sterile after the lusciousness and heart-stopping excitement of Squander and Glory. Set design by Julian Opie was a parade of faceless people, drawn as black outlines, hurrying across an LED screen above the stage. But it simply added to that feeling of sterility. Even Lucy Carter’s lighting, which has in the past been absolutely amazing (most recently in Woolf Works), didn’t excite.

Bouquets to the team who created Squander and Glory. It was a truly remarkable new work and certainly made my night at the ballet worthwhile. I look forward to a second viewing.

Michelle Potter,  14 April 2017

Featured image: Brett Chynoweth, Vivienne Wong and Kevin Jackson in Squander and Glory. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Brett Chynoweth, Vivenne Wong and Kevin Jackson in 'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

‘Shadows of War’. Birmingham Royal Ballet

18 October 2014 (matinee), Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

None of the works on Birmingham Royal Ballet’s triple bill program, Shadows of War, focuses on war itself. Rather the focus is on the effects of war on humanity. Of the three works, I have to admit that I was especially interested in Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals, first performed in London in 1944. Archival photos from the National Library of Australia’s various collections relating to Helpmann have always aroused my interest. It was a ballet with a name that I really didn’t understand. Well Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production turned out to be a fascinating restaging of the original, with choreography by Gillian Lynne, ‘after Helpmann’. Lynne appeared in the original production and remained a close friend of Helpmann throughout his life.

Robert Helpmann as the Stranger in 'Miracle in the Gorbals', Sadler's Wells Ballet, 1944

Robert Helpmann as the Stranger in Miracle in the Gorbals, Sadler’s Wells Ballet, 1944. National Library of Australia

There are aspects of this restaging that look dated, which is hardly surprising given that the work is 70 years old. The obvious themes of the evils of prostitution and power of Christianity (or religion), the latter shown via the return to earth of a Christ figure (the Stranger, played originally by Helpmann), seem a somewhat melodramatic way of developing the universal themes of love, betrayal, forgiveness and so forth.

But the strength of the production lies in the strength of the collaborative elements of the original. Edward Burra’s front cloth is a powerful opening image. A huge ship’s prow appears to jut out into the auditorium. It represents the shipyards along the river Clyde in Glasgow where the story is set in slum tenements, the Gorbals. The image is instantly arresting, as is the commissioned score by Arthur Bliss, which reflects so clearly the changing moods and events of the story.

To write down, or explain the narrative is complex but, in fact, the story, in which a mysterious stranger brings a woman back from the dead and reforms a prostitute but is eventually killed by the town’s jealous minister, is instantly understandable as we watch events unfold on stage. And here the collaborative nature of the original comes to the fore again. The libretto was written by Michael Benthall and focuses strongly on developing characters without going into extraneous detail. When Arnold Haskell saw Miracle in 1944 he wrote: ‘With rare skill [Benthall] avoided the pitfalls of novelising his story. Everything that he put down could be made clear in balletic action and was discussed in detail with Helpmann.’ And so it was with the Lynne restaging.

The balletic action is very much in the mode of dance-drama rather than ballet per se. In fact the action was sometimes quite static, often relying on group poses or dramatic stillness. Every dancer gave a powerful performance. Apart from the leading players, Elisha Willis as the Prostitute, César Morales as the Stranger, Iain Mackay as the Minister, and Delia Mathews as the Suicide, standouts for me were Michael O’Hare as the Beggar and three Old Women played by Ruth Brill, Jade Heusen and Marion Tait.

Delia Mathews as the Suicide and Iain Mackay as the Minister, Birmingham Royal Ballet, 2014. Photo: Bill Cooper

Delia Mathews as the Suicide and Iain Mackay as the Minister, Birmingham Royal Ballet, 2014. Photo: Bill Cooper

Kenneth MacMillan’s La fin du jour opened the program. This work, which dates to 1979, is danced to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, and examines the lifestyle of a certain class of people in the inter-war years. It left me a little cold, although I enjoyed the second act, the adagio. Here MacMillan’s skill at using stillness as a choreographic tool was clearly evident as we watched the dancing of two women, each partnered by five men in different combinations with none leaving the stage throughout the scene.

The triple bill closed with David Bintley’s Flowers of the forest. It was joyous series of dances in the Scottish mode. Bouquets to the gentleman who executed double tours en l’air ending in a full plié in 5th position. Wonderful.

Michelle Potter, 19 October 2014

Dance diary. March 2014

  • Prince of the Pagodas

As a much younger person I remember being fascinated by Svetlana Beriosova. I guess she was the dancer I admired most when I was a ballet student, although I’m not sure why as I had never seen her dance. But she looked so coolly elegant from photographs, and I particularly remember images of her in what sounded from 1950s Sydney, thousands of miles away from London, like a very exotic ballet, Prince of the Pagodas. Beriosova did come to Australia with the Royal Ballet, which visited Sydney in 1958. I was there, autograph book in hand, as these stars from afar came out of the stage door of the old Empire Theatre at Railway Square. That season I finally saw Beriosova dance—as Swanilda in Coppélia.

Svetlana Beriosova in 'The Prince of the Pagodas'
Svetlana Beriosova signature

Prince of the Pagodas, however, remained a mystery. The first production, choreographed by John Cranko in 1957 to a commissioned score by Benjamin Britten, was short-lived. Kenneth MacMillan produced another version in 1989, which was recently restaged by the Royal Ballet. I didn’t have an opportunity to see either the Cranko or the MacMillan version, but I did catch a third version created by David Bintley in 2011. Bintley made his production for the National Ballet of Japan and it has just finished a season in London danced by Bintley’s Birmingham Royal Ballet. Sadly for my childhood dreams, it was one of the most disappointing shows (and it was a show in the more popular meaning of that word) I have seen recently.

Bintley rewrote the narrative and set it in Japan but the story remains as crazy as ever, requiring a suspension of belief beyond belief. There are various reviews available online, along with accounts of the storyline and discussions of the history of the work, but I won’t post the links—they are easy to find. Suffice it to say that in 2014 I find it a little offensive to have characters called ‘Balinese Ladies’ who engage in choreography that vaguely references but basically, in my opinion, denigrates Balinese dancing; or rows of ladies dressed in long, pink gowns twirling pink parasols as if they are performing something called The Cherry Blossom Show. And I am mentioning just two of the more irritating (to me) elements of the production.

Britten’s score might continue to deserve a place in the concert repertoire, especially as an example of the ubiquitous influence of the Balinese gamelan on Western composers of Britten’s generation, largely under the influence of the eminent Canadian ethnomusicologist, Colin McPhee. But as a ballet, Prince of the Pagodas should probably just disappear into the mists of time. I doubt if any amount of tinkering can save it.

Beriosova’s image as a great dancer, however, remains intact for me.

  • More on Simple Symphony

Just a few days ago I had the huge pleasure of encountering first hand the unpublished dance writing of Lionel Bradley, whom I now like to think of as a blogger before the internet, and the word ‘blog’, was invented. Bradley was a librarian at the London Library in the 1940s and a great lover of ballet and dance of all kinds (and of other forms of performance). His handwritten dance texts, Ballet Bulletins 1941–1947 and Ballevaria Miscellanea 1937–1947, which he liked to circulate as he comleted each entry to a small group of friends, are housed in the Department of Theatre and Performance of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Although I was not there specifically to research Simple Symphony, as I had previously posted some thoughts about it it was a bonus to find that in his Bulletins Bradley had spent some time discussing early performances of this ballet by Walter Gore, which was a staple item in the repertoire brought to Australia on the Ballet Rambert tour of 1947–1949. Bradley was enthralled by the ballet. It was ‘a gorgeous success’ he wrote when he saw it for the first time in Torquay in December 1944 during one of Ballet Rambert’s regional tours.

His discussion of the backcloth and costumes by Ronald Wilson is especially interesting as I have never seen colour photographs or colour footage of the work, or even a photograph showing the backcloth. ‘The backcloth for Simple Symphony‘, Bradley wrote, ‘depicts a seashore, somewhat after the manner of Christopher Wood. There are two piles of greenish stones, one tall and narrow, one somewhat shorter, and a suggestion of fish nets. There are two wings [flats] on either side, the one nearer the backcloth being light and blue with some nautical decoration, while the front ones are dark brown and reddish brown. Near the front is a low border showing 2 angels & fish nets’.

Bradley goes on to describe the costumes and to discuss the structure of each of the four sections that make up the work. What wonderful resources Bradley’s writings turned out to be.

My previous post on Simple Symphony is a this link.

  • Jane Pritchard

I was delighted too to learn that Jane Pritchard, curator of dance at the V & A, had received an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list. This is belated news, with which I have only just caught up, but congratulations to Jane. How rare it is for someone working in an archival area to be recognised in such a way.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2014

‘Swan Lake’. The Royal Ballet

17 October 2012, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The Royal Ballet’s current production of Swan Lake is that of Anthony Dowell. It first went on show in 1987 after Dowell had engaged in a period of extensive research into the Petipa/Ivanov version of 1895. Australian audiences saw it in 2002 when the Royal Ballet, then under the direction of Ross Stretton, toured to various Australian cities. In 2002 I admired it. I thought it was danced beautifully (Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope were in the lead), and I loved the way the characters had been developed so each had a real presence in the production. Now I’m not so sure. Two Australian productions since then, one by Graeme Murphy and the most recent by Stephen Baynes, have had an effect.

This Royal Ballet production is set in fin-de-siècle Russia and so much about the production now seems overwrought, from the gilded excesses of Yolanda Sonnabend’s sets to the drunken excesses of Siegfried’s entourage. Act I seems to go on and on with much merrymaking and ‘let’s dance’ gestures.  Act II begins with more drunken activities before the swans appear and this act is also distinguished by the addition of several young student dancers from the Royal Ballet School, who are part of Odette’s entourage. This addition apparently harks back to the 1895 version, although I don’t remember that they made it to Australia in 2002! Anyway, they looked beautifully schooled and did their job more than nicely but I’m not sure they added anything of significance to the ballet. Act III has that lovely Tarantella choreographed by Frederick Ashton—certainly an interpolation to the 1895 version (as was David Bintley’s Act I Waltz). Von Rothbart’s two attendant dwarfs also made their presence felt in Act III.

Apart from the mime in which Odette dramatically tells Siegfried that she is about to die because he has betrayed her, Act IV was comfortingly familiar—if slightly kitsch—as Odette and then Siegfried threw themselves into the lake and reappeared sailing heavenwards in a ‘swan vehicle’. But despite what Dowell may have discovered about the 1895 choreography for Act IV, to me those arrangements of swans standing more like wilis or sylphs around Odette and Siegfried, and the emphasis on storytelling through mime, made me long for our own Australian versions where in Act IV the literal storyline gives way to a more abstracted and choreographically-inspired scene.

The big attraction for me, however, was the prospect of seeing Steven McRae dance the role of Siegfried. Technically he could scarcely be faulted. His tours en l’air for example began and finished in a beautifully tight fifth and a lovely deep demi-plié—such soft and pliant landings. His bearing from his first entrance onwards was regal and set him apart from the rest of the characters. His reading of the role was intelligent. At pretty much every point in his dealings with Odette, the Princess (his mother), his friends, von Rothbart and so on his approach was clearly expressed. Nothing was indistinct. Yet I wished that he had been a little more adventurous, and had thrown himself into the steps with greater gusto even if it meant his execution was a little less perfect. It was all too careful.

McRae partnered Roberta Marquez as Odette/Odile. I’m not sure that Marquez is well suited to the role of Odette as her dancing in Acts II and  IV had very little of the softness of arms and body that I associate with those acts. Odile suited her better although she struggled somewhat with some of the technical demands. Oh how I’d love to see someone handle with brilliance those double attitude turns at the beginning of Odile’s variation. Marquez simply went for a single.

I was impressed with the performance of Genesia Rosato as the Princess, Siegfried’s mother. She was a strong lady and demanding of her son. Her presence on stage was indeed commanding, even as she collapsed in a faint at the end of Act III. She had to make us look at her (and I did) and not the billowing red and white smoke that filled the stage as Odile and company departed in triumph. Others whose dancing stood out for me were Tara Bhavnani and Nathalie Harrison as the two leading swans. Both are tall, statuesque women with fluid backs and arms, which they used to the fullest advantage.

This production was not my ideal Swan Lake.  It is always interesting to speculate on what the ‘real’ Swan Lake was like but quite honestly I don’t think anyone will ever know and dance is an art form that is constantly being reinvented. The performance made me look forward more than ever to another look at the Baynes/Colman Swan Lake.

Michelle Potter, 20 October 2012