Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo Jeff Busby

‘Nutcracker. The Story of Clara.’ The Australian Ballet

10 June 2017 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

A lot has been written over the years about Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker—how it is an Australianised version of a well-loved classic, how it looks back to momentous events in Australian dance history, and so on. I am one of those lucky people who has seen every one of the seasons of Murphy’s Nutcracker since its premiere in 1992 and now I prefer to write personal thoughts rather than explanatory notes.

Murphy’s Nutcracker never loses its magic, its beauty, its theatricality, and in fact each season shows something more, something I haven’t noticed before, something surprising and unexpected. But most of all, it continues to tell me that this is a triumph for Murphy and his collaborators.

What came across really strongly for me this time was the theatricality with which the links across generations were made. I have always loved that moment, very close to the beginning, when Clara the Child picks up the package Clara the Elder has dropped as she makes her way to her home. They look at each other intently and in a brief instant we realise that they have recognised each other in some way. The child is looking at herself as an older woman, the older woman sees herself as a child. The moment was beautifully handled by Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder and Hannah Sergi as Clara the Child.

Keramidas was, in fact, a surprise as Clara the Elder. She is still very much the dancer, with her long, slim limbs, beautifully poised head, and pure line through her whole body. She danced with scarcely a hint, in a movement sense that is, that her character was that of an ageing former ballerina. What was surprising was that her exceptional grace of movement distinguished her from her elderly friends in a way that I haven’t seen before. She was truly the ballerina rather than the soloist or corps de ballet dancer, and her collapse as she watched and remembered her career with her friends was all the more poignant.

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: ©Jeff Busby

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: ©Jeff Busby

I have always been fascinated, too, by the very moving moment in Act II when Clara the Ballerina (danced on this occasion by Dimity Azoury) watches as her lover is killed during a revolutionary battle in Russia. As she takes in the enormity of the situation, a series of scrims lift and we see Clara the Elder in her white nightgown clutching a photograph of her lover, the lover we have just seen shot. The two Claras are one and dance together sharing their pain and loss. With Keramidas and Sergi having established such a strong bond in that fleeting early moment, the emotive power of the cross generational links, which are at the heart of this ballet, came once more to the fore (this time between Keramidas and Azoury). The impact of this scene was heightened, too, by John Drummond Montgomery’s lighting for this moment—hazy down lights against a dark background of emptiness—and perhaps also because I was sitting further back than usual and could focus on an overall picture.

This time I also noticed more clearly the choreographic beauty of the snowflake scene. As snowflakes fall gently to the ground, disintegrating on the way down, so too did Murphy have his snowflakes drop to the floor moving first through a clearly articulated bend to the supporting leg so the landing from there was like a crumbling of the movement rather than a deliberate fall. Against this were sharp, icy stabs of movement as the dancers lifted a leg into the air and, at one point, a myriad of hands and arms moving up and down recalling a flurry of snow. At least that’s how I saw it: an enchanting display of snowy qualities!

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I also admired (more so than usual) Philippe Charluet’s film collage, especially those sections relating to the Russian Revolution. It has always been a treat to see how the film collage plays across the stage to add such a masterful context to this ballet, but this time the collage seemed even more pertinent to me, reading as I am at the moment a book that delves into the early life in Russia of George Balanchine.* And indeed Murphy’s inclusion of the two peasants in the picnic excursion that Clara and her friends enjoy before the Revolution begins in earnest had the same effect. The juxtaposition of wealth and privilege and lack of means to live comfortably was made clear with this small touch.

Azoury and Jarryd Madden danced strongly in the leading roles of Clara the Ballerina and the Beloved Officer, as did Andrew Wright as the Nutcracker Prince. Azoury has all the technique ready and waiting but just needs a little more feeling of freedom to make those curving, swirling lifts of the various pas de deux look as spectacular as they are. A little more time? Oh, and thank you to the new (to me) ‘older dancers’, friends of Clara the Elder. Graeme Hudson brought a certain gravitas and was it Terese Power who kept eating those chocolates and creating such a distinctive character?

Michelle Potter, 11 June 2017

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in the Imperial Ball scene from Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo Jeff Busby

* Elizabeth Kendall, Balanchine and the lost Muse. Revolution and the making of a choreographer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

’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.

Graeme Murphy’s ‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet (2015)

21 February 2015 (matinee), Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake'. Photo Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake is currently making a return to the stage for a brief season at the wonderfully ornate Capitol Theatre in Sydney’s Haymarket district. I was lucky enough to have a ticket for a performance with Juliet Burnett as Odette, Rudy Hawkes as Siegfried and Miwako Kubota as the Baroness von Rothbart. And what an interesting and transfixing performance it was.

I never tire of the brief prologue to this Swan Lake where we encounter the three main characters. We understand the apprehension of Odette, the bride to be, shown especially in a Murphy-esque motif of fluttering hands that are like palpitations of the heart, and that also prefigure Odette’s fantasy dream of swans by the lake. The mental fragility of Odette is set against the lust of her groom, Siegfried, as he takes the alluring Baroness to bed on the night before his wedding.

But as the first act, the wedding, began I was shaken a little. Both Odette and Siegfried seemed to be two-dimensional characters with little interest in interacting strongly with their guests. Only the sexed-up Baroness seemed to be in character as she flounced her way around the stage. There were a few standouts amongst the other characters—the very feisty leading Hungarian couple of Ella Havelka and Rohan Furnell, a delicious Brooke Lockett as the Young Duchess-to-be, and an elegant Amanda McGuigan as the Princess Royal. But I found the first act mostly underwhelming.

As the second act opened, however, Burnett was into her stride, and very convincing as she descended further into a state of mental torment. She twitched and shook as she was bathed by two nuns and collapsed into another world of anguish as Siegfried came to visit her, and when she noticed the Baroness outside the asylum impatiently waiting for Siegfried. And by the time she had moved into the icy world of swan maidens, Burnett had the audience in the palm of her hand. Now there was a calmness to her movements, in beautiful contrast to the twitchy anguish of the asylum.

Burnett and Hawkes make fine partners. They move together smoothly and sympathetically, as one really. As a result I wasn’t watching technique, although I did love those expansive sissones from Burnett in Odette’s solo and the very airy grands jetés from Ako Kondo and Dimity Azoury as the two Guardian Swans. But I was following the story, which was developing with immense clarity. And I got the feeling that the rest of the audience was as absorbed in the unfolding narrative as I was. A really unusual and very beautiful, almost palpable silence filled the auditorium.

As Act III began the atmosphere oozed glamour and perhaps superficiality, or so it seemed after the moving qualities that emerged from Act II. Kubota’s presence was strong as she took on the role of party hostess. Odette was radiant as she arrived at the party. The central pas de trois, however, between Odette, the Baroness and Siegfried, in which Siegfried’s struggle with himself over what has happened to his love-life comes to the fore, seemed somewhat weak. But with the return to the icy lake, now populated by black rather than white swans, the dancing qualities that marked the partnership between Burnett and Hawkes reappeared. Once again the story took over. It was deeply moving.

The trio of Burnett, Hawkes and Kubota has a way to go yet to reach the potential that seems inherent in it. But I was lucky I think to have been at this performance, which got the loud ovation it deserved as the curtain came down. I can’t remember this combination of dancers in these roles previously and it may well have been their first show together.

And on another line of thought, what I noticed more than I have on previous viewings of the Murphy Swan Lake was the choreography for the swan maidens’ arms. They are rarely lifted into a ‘regular’ fifth position, not always even a ‘regular’ fifth position with palms turned outwards. His swans have long, slender arms that intertwine, criss-cross, turn their palms in unusual directions, and otherwise form intricate patterns. They reminded me a little of the long necks of the real birds that seem to dip and curve and stretch in infinite ways. I love this aspect of Murphy’s work. There is always something new, something personal, to discover no matter how many times one sees the same show. I have noticed these intertwining arms before, but in this performance, perhaps because it was so beautifully focused on the story and had such a powerful inner strength to it, the choreographic imagery became more noticeable and more expressive.

Michelle Potter, 22 February 2015

A review from 2013 of the Murphy Swan Lake with Stojmenov, Killian and Harris is at this link

Dimity Azoury receives 2014 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Photo: Jess Bialek

Dimity Azoury. 2014 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award

Dimity Azoury, currently a coryphée with the Australian Ballet, remembers her grandmother with great fondness. She was a ballet student in Wellington, New Zealand, and even went on as an extra when the Ballets Russes companies visited New Zealand in the late 1930s. But, Azoury tells me, her grandmother’s parents thought that ballet was not an appropriate career for a young lady, which was not an uncommon attitude at the time. So her grandmother gave up her ambitions, married and moved to Australia.

‘I often used to look at a photo of her wearing a long, Romantic tutu,’ Azoury recalls, ‘and I think it was from her that my love of ballet came.’

Azoury’s career as a ballet dancer, a career now (happily) considered a worthy course to take in life, moved another step forward just recently when he received the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award, worth the substantial amount of $20,000. Her win was announced on stage at the Sydney Opera House at the final rehearsal for Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker.

‘I was in a state of shock when my name was called,’ Azoury says. ‘I was shaking and found it really hard to hold on to the flowers I was given. Then, when the curtain came down, all the dancers hugged me and were so supportive. This is one of the lovely things about working in the Australian Ballet. Everyone is so generous.’

Azoury was trained first in Queanbeyan and then in Canberra at the Kim Harvey School of Dance. She was twice rejected for the Australian Ballet School but, encouraged by her parents and by Harvey, she auditioned again and was accepted in the 2005 intake. She spent three years at the school and was taken into the Australian Ballet in 2008.

‘My aspirations are all with the Australian Ballet. I love the company and feel totally involved. And now I feel I am getting opportunities.’

She is looking forward to the company’s production of Maina Gielgud’s Giselle, a highlight of the 2015 season, and has enjoyed rehearsing under Gielgud’s direction. Gielgud, Azoury says, knows exactly what she wants and so it is easy to find a clear focus in rehearsals. It has also been especially exciting for her to have the opportunity to try the role of Myrthe, Queen of the Wilis. There are also rumours that her much-loved deerhound, Gunther, may have a walk-on part in Act I. ‘I guess he’ll have to audition,’ she muses.

In addition to regular company repertoire, since joining the company Azoury has also performed in every one of the annual Bodytorque programs, in which her fellow dancers try their hand at choreography.

‘Bodytorque feels like a collaboration. There is no pressure on the dancers and I love being able to help my friends bring their vision to the stage.’

Dimity Azoury in Vivienne Wong's 'Touch Transfer', Bodytorque Muses, 2011. Photo: Jess Bialek

Dimity Azoury in Vivienne Wong’s Touch Transfer, Bodytorque Muses, 2011. Photo: Jess Bialek

The year long journey as a Telstra nominee has proven to be an exciting one for Azoury. She looks back with particular pleasure on making the video each of the six nominees created as part of the year’s work.

‘We were given a lot of freedom. We were each given a colour and an element to work with —my colour was blue and my element paint. While the camera angles were set, at one stage I was given the opportunity to show how many ways I could make the paint move. It was a wonderful experience for me and a way of celebrating the Telstra sponsorship of the Australian Ballet.’

Azoury recently married Australian Ballet senior artist Rudy Hawkes. Her no-strings-attached Telstra award will most likely be spent on renovations to their house in North Melbourne.

Michelle Potter, 6 December 2014

Featured image: Dimity Azoury (centre) receives the 2014 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Photo: Jess Bialek

 

 

Dance diary. November 2014

  • Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards: Dance 2014

It was a slow year for local, professional dance in the ACT, especially after the very full dance calendar the city had during its centenary year, 2013. The dance panel of the Canberra Critics’ Circle offered only one dance award for 2014. It went to James Batchelor for his performance installation Island.

James Batchelor

Portrait of James Batchelor, c. 2013

During the Circle’s plenary session, at which nominations in individual categories are put forward to the whole group for discussion, a member of the circle questioned me about whether James should or should not be considered a Canberra artist given his strong links with the Melbourne dance scene. It was a good question and one I had discussed with Batchelor earlier in 2014. His reply was:

I left Canberra to go to university in Melbourne, but I don’t see that that makes me any less of a Canberran. I am in just my second year out from university and, as I establish my practice, I live a transient lifestyle. Recently I have worked all around Australia and in France, Thailand and the United Kingdom. But I am involved in a number of projects in Canberra this year and I definitely intend to employ my practice here in Canberra.

Independent artists working in dance are, as a matter of necessity, almost always peripatetic.

Read more about Batchelor’s work in Canberra at this tag, in my Canberra Times story at this link, and in my review of QL2’s Boundless program at this link.

  • Dimity Azoury: Telstra Ballet Dancer Award, 2014

It was a pleasure to learn that Dimity Azoury, former pupil of Canberra dance teacher Kim Harvey, received the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award for 2014. A profile of Azoury, currently a coryphée with the Australian Ballet, will be coming to this website shortly.

Dimity Azoury in 'Paquita', the Australian Ballet 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby

Dimity Azoury in Paquita, the Australian Ballet 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby

  • Robert Ray’s Nutcracker

Teacher and choreographer Robert Ray tells me he has headed to New York to stage his Nutcracker for students from the Joffrey Ballet School with guest artists from the Joffrey Concert Group. His production of Nutcracker attracted my attention while I was writing Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance. To quote from the book:

In 1985 Maggie had commissioned Ray to create a new version of the ever popular Christmas classic, The Nutcracker. It was a milestone in the School’s history being the first full-length ballet made especially for the School and was designed especially for students to perform and their end of year graduation. It was also a move to have a cost efficient work for the School, one that could be repeated over the years with roles that would suit students from across all levels of training.

‘It was a wonderful training ballet because the first year students could take roles like the mice and the soldiers, the second year students could dance the individual solo roles and the third years could aspire to the pas de deux and the principal roles’, Maggie suggests. ‘And Robert’s choreography was demanding. The students would compete for roles in it. We performed it for five consecutive years.

So now Joffrey Ballet School has taken advantage of this work and Ray believes it is likely to become a permanent fixture on the Joffrey Christmas calendar.

  • Hot to Trot: Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap in Canberra has just shown its sixteenth production of Hot to Trot, a program in which young dancers try their hand at choreography, and occasionally dance on film. Probably the most intriguing piece on the program of eight short dances and one film (also short) was Inside Out by Aden Hamilton. Hamilton is in Year Five at Telopea Park Primary School and, for someone so young, his duet, which he performed with Caroline de Wan, was astonishingly mature and complete in its structure. Someone to watch.

  • Press for November

‘Bold effort but unwoven threads.’ Review of Kathrada 50/25, Liz Lea. The Canberra Times, 4 November 2014, p. 6.  Online.

‘Local links in national awards.’ Report on the Australian Dance Awards 2014. The Canberra Times, 10 November 2014, pp. 10–11. Online.

Michelle Potter, 30 November 2014

Telstra Ballet in the Park. The Australian Ballet in Canberra

This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times

Autumn in Canberra is usually the best of seasons. March 2012 has, however, been marked by excessive rain and a performance was touch and go on 16 March when the Australian Ballet arrived bringing its Telstra Ballet in the Park Gala to the city. But the company had not performed in Canberra for several years so people came in droves to Commonwealth Park for the performance, which was scheduled as part of the annual Canberra Festival. Dressed in rainwear, they sat under their umbrellas, picnicking regardless, and waiting. About five minutes before the show was due to start, the rain stopped, the umbrellas went down and the very large audience was treated to a series of ballet bonbons showcasing some of the company’s top dancers.

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, dashingly costumed in red, black and gold, opened the evening with Petal Miller-Ashmole’s pas de deux, La Favorita. Both Jones and Gaudiello have strong, sure techniques―those double fouettés from Jones were stunning―and cover the stage majestically with their movements. It was a joy to watch them dance together. They also both have great onstage personalities and what made this item the stand-out of the evening for me was their ability to project those personalities off the stage and into the audience. We weren’t seated in a space enclosed by walls and a roof and the extent of the ‘auditorium’ was vast, so being able to project in such a situation was some feat and not achieved to the same extent by others during the evening.

Another highlight was Rachel Rawlins and Ty King-Wall dancing the pas de deux from Giselle Act II. Rawlins is such a mature artist and captured beautifully the ethereal qualities of Giselle, as she danced to keep her one true love alive until dawn. Rawlins looks as though the balletic vocabulary is such a part of her very being that it is completely effortless, even during those demanding moments in Giselle’s variation where she travels backwards, upstage, executing a series of fast beats and relevés. King-Wall partnered her elegantly and his variation showed off his own fine beaten steps and elevation.

I was also impressed by Juliet Burnett and Andrew Killian who danced the pas de deux from Nutcracker. Burnett was poised and controlled in one of the most classical of pas de deux. Her adagio movements unfolded with an elegance and calm sense of control and she allowed us to see the structure of every développé, every arabesque. Killian was a suitably caring cavalier and danced his solos with great style.

We also saw the rising star of the company, Chengwu Guo, in two items, the pas de deux from Don Quixote and Le Corsaire. While Chengwu’s turns and jumps were spectacular, I missed the sexuality that more mature performers are able to bring to these works. There were strong flourishes every so often from Chengwu but there was a kind of restraint in the upper body rather than what I think the roles demand, the appearance of throwing caution to the wind in a display of unbridled passion. Chengwu partnered Reiko Hombo in Don Quixote and Miwako Kubota in Corsaire.

Also on the program was the Act III pas de trois from Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake with Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Amy Harris. It was especially interesting to see Murphy’s contemporary choreography on a program that consisted of works in an older classical style. The Murphy style stood up beautifully although this pas de trois generally suffered from being seen out of the context of the complete ballet and without the set, which on reflection adds a brooding quality to the unfolding drama of this particular moment in the work.

Completing the program were the pas de deux from Stephen Baynes’ Molto Vivace, smoothly danced by Amber Scott and Adam Bull, and excerpts from La Baydère where Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello returned as Nikiya and Solor and in which the three variations were danced by Hombo, Harris and Dimity Azoury.
Artists of the Australian Ballet. Telstra Ballet in the Park

Artists of the Australian Ballet in an excerpt from ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ from La Bayadère, 2012. Photo: William Hall. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Canberra region audiences used to see the Australian Ballet once a year but a decision, an unpopular one in the eyes of audiences, was made some years ago now to remove Canberra from the touring schedule. The size of the audience for the Telstra event, which took place in less than ideal weather conditions, seems to me to be a clear signal to the Australian Ballet that it is time to return to the national capital on a more regular basis. The announcement that Garry Stewart and an unnamed collaborative team will make a new work for Canberra’s centenary in 2013 is a start.

Michelle Potter, 20 March 2012