Nicoletta Manni as Kitri in Don Quixote. La Scala Ballet. Photo: Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano. Courtesy Teatro alla Scala

Don Quixote. La Scala Ballet

7 November 2018. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

I thought I was reasonably familiar with the Nureyev production of Don Quixote, having seen the Australian Ballet’s production multiple times. But no! What La Scala Ballet gave us on its first-ever tour to Australia seemed like a completely different ballet. It was a very European production, in part due to the set design by Raffaele Del Savio with its combination of architectural ruins and European-style architecture in the village square, not to mention its tavern scene at the beginning of Act III, and the quite beautiful, almost ruined wooden windmill in the Gypsy Encampment scene at the beginning of Act II.

Don Quixote arrives in the village square. La Scala Ballet. Photo Marcvo Brescia & Rudi Amisano. Courtesy Teatro alla Scala

Don Quixote arrives in the village square. La Scala Ballet. Photo Marco Brescia & Rudi Amisano. Courtesy Teatro alla Scala

But it also had a lot to do with the approach of the dancers and their astonishing ability to engage with each other and with the audience throughout the ballet. This Don Quixote may have been about an eccentric gentleman and his adventures, but it was also about love and life and was filled with fun, happiness and interaction between people. We felt it all. We saw it all. And it seemed like we were part of it all.

There was also some spectacularly good dancing. The corps de ballet was brilliant in every scene whether dancing Spanish flavoured sections, as gypsies, or in classical formation. Their attention to detail and their unison dancing were truly impressive. But also especially impressive was the manner in which the dancers used the upper body—beautifully erect, elegant and centred in classical sections, but filled with passion and strength of characterisation at other times. And they looked out at us and invited us into their world.

Dulcinea and the Dryads in Don Quixote. La Scala Ballet. Photo: Marco Brescia & Rudi Amisano. Courtesy Teatra alla Scala

Dulcinea and the Dryads in Don Quixote. La Scala Ballet. Photo: Marco Brescia & Rudi Amisano. Courtesy Teatra alla Scala

Most of the soloists gave stunning performances. Maria Celeste Losa as the Queen of the Dryads attacked those fouettés relevés into attitude in her solo with strength and glamour (and she followed up as the Bridesmaid in Act III showing off some wonderful grands jetés). Mattia Semperboni gave a powerful performance as the leading gypsy in Act II, and Marco Agostino was a fiery Espada. I also enjoyed the way Gamache was played by Riccardo Massimi. He was foppish without being pathetically so.

Leonid Sarafanov as Basilio. Don Quixote, La Scala Ballet. Photo: Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano. Courtesy Teatro alla Scala

Leonid Sarafanov as Basilio. Don Quixote Act III, La Scala Ballet. Photo: Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano. Courtesy Teatro alla Scala

Of the principal roles both Nicoletta Manni as Kitri and Leonid Sarafanov as Basilio, the two young lovers, danced superbly and acted their parts beautifully, even sexily at times. Manni has an astonishing ability to balance in arabesque and to turn and jump in a spectacular manner. Sarafanov has a very finely sculpted body and his landings from jumps were the quietest I have encountered for some time. The role of Don Quixote was danced by Giuseppe Conte and I think it was perhaps his performance that really made me feel I was watching a whole new ballet. He played the role as a slightly distant eccentric rather than with the Helpmann-esque demand that we take notice of him and no one else. Conte was truly quixotic.

This was a spectacularly good production from an outstanding company of artists.

Michelle Potter, 9 November 2018

Featured image: Nicoletta Manni as Kitri in Don Quixote Act I, La Scala Ballet. Photo: Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano. Courtesy Teatro alla Scala

Nicoletta Manni as Kitri in Don Quixote. La Scala Ballet. Photo: Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano. Courtesy Teatro alla Scala

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

World Superstars of Ballet Gala. Bravissimo Productions

2 October 2018. Canberra Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

Adiarys Almeida as Kitri in 'Don Quixote'

Adiarys Almeida as Kitri in Don Quixote. Photo supplied

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 3 October 2018

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Alegrias'. Photo Sergey Konstantinov

Showcase 2018. The Australian Ballet School

22 September 2018. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

The Australian Ballet School’s annual Showcase came to Canberra this year, and what a treat it was. It is, of course, what it says it is, a showcase of dancing by students of different levels studying at the Australian Ballet School. But it was such an interesting and pleasurable experience to see these students, emerging professional dancers, in a program of eight very different items from seven different choreographers.

Showcase 2018 opened with Alegrias, a feisty flamenco item choreographed by Areti Boyaci, teacher of Spanish dance to Australian Ballet School’s senior students. It was danced by the graduating class (Level 8) to a live accompaniment by guitarist Werner Neumann. Then followed  Mark Annear’s Waltz from Birthday Celebration, danced by youthful, tutu-clad dancers largely from Level 5; the Dryad scene from Don Quixote Act II; a charming new creation, Wolfgang Dance, from Simon Dow, again performed by Level 5 students; Paul Knobloch’s Valetta for the graduating class, which Knobloch choreographed in memory of his grandmother whose name was Valetta; another new creation, Ballo Barocco, from Stephen Baynes made on Level 7 dancers; Heart Strings, also new, from contemporary teacher Margaret Wilson for Level 6 students; and finally a tango-flavoured item from Simon Dow, Danza de la Vida, for the graduating class.

Two items stood out for me: Ballo Barocco and Heart Strings. Ballo Barocco, danced to four excerpts from different concerti by J. S. Bach, showed Baynes, currently resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet, at his musical best.  The cast of 16 moved smoothly and fluidly from one sculptural pose to another. In between these poses we saw movements in canon form, some spectacular dancing from the men, along with admirable partnering. I loved too the simple, elegant lines of the costumes by Maree Strachan that did not distract from the choreography but, rather, allowed it to shine.

Level 7 dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Stephen Baynes' 'Ballet Barocco'. Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergeyev Konstantinov

Level 7 dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Stephen Baynes’ Ballet Barocco. Showcase 2018. Photo: © Sergey Konstantinov

Margaret Wilson teaches contemporary dance at the Australian Ballet School and I was expecting something rather different from what was presented to us in Heart Strings. With the girls on pointe and clear references to ballet technique, to me the work was contemporary ballet. It was beautifully performed and seemed to focus on limbs—long and extended, lifted and stretched. But what really tore at the heart strings for me was the underlying narrative, which drew on aspects of adolescent life: arguments, bullying, young love and the like. These dancers, adolescents themselves, captured so clearly  the emotion behind these life-moments and just swept us along.

Other highlights? The male dancing in Valetta, which is made for 13 male dancers and just one female artist, was often quite spectacular with its strong patterns and fast pace. The principal male dancer, Thomas McClintock, danced exceptionally well, but in addition had extraordinary stage presence. Someone to watch as he embarks on his professional career. Then it was impossible not to be charmed by the cheekiness of Wolfgang Dance. Performed to the Allegro from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the youngest of the students who toured to Canberra drew us into their games onstage and peeped at us from the wings as they made their exits.

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Valetta', Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergey Konstantinov

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Valetta, Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergey Konstantinov

The one item that left me a little cold was the Dryad scene from Don Quixote.  It was not the dancing that worried me and I especially enjoyed the performance by Ella Chambers as Cupid. But Barry Kay’s costumes are so over decorated, especially those headdresses. I feel it is time to retire them.

Despite the overdressed Dryads, Showcase 2018 gave us a glimpse of a promising future for ballet in Australia.

Michelle Potter, 24 September 2018

Featured image: Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Alegrias. Photo: © Sergey Konstantinov

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Alegrias'. Photo Sergey Konstantinov

New Zealand School of Dance 50th anniversary celebration—with Royal New Zealand Ballet

24, 25 November 2017, St James Theatre, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This program was a dazzling line-up of works that showcased and celebrated the strengths and talent of young dancers and graduands of New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD). The moment when fledglings leave the nest is always poignant. Some of these young dancers have taken instant wing and are moving straight into positions with prestigious companies—Queensland Ballet, West Australian Ballet for example. Godspeed to them. Most curiously, not one is joining Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB).

With numerous dancers departing from RNZB this week, that raises a number of questions, which this review is not placed to answer, but should none-the-less be somewhere, somehow addressed.  Eva Radich in her Radio New Zealand Concert Upbeat program recently asked the question in interview with the company’s artistic director—’Royal New Zealand Ballet. What’s the New Zealand moniker mean?’ We all need to think about the answer. A major part of New Zealand’s dance identity is at stake. That belongs within, not apart from, international dance identity.

In years back, NZSD graduation was always staged in the Opera House, a similar proscenium theatre to the St.James. Some years ago the School moved into newly refurbished premises, Te Whaea, which includes an in-house theatre, which naturally became the venue for dance performances. While that suited some of the contemporary repertoire and choreographic experimentation programs, it is a truth that ballet repertoire had to become differently scaled and proportioned to fit the much smaller venue. Here, back in a proscenium arch theatre with scope and size on their side, all the students were launched into orbit and became dancers. They’ll have now become infected with what Lincoln Kirstein called ‘the red and gold disease’.

It is pleasing to note that of the 11 works on the program, 5 are choreographed by NZSD alumni.

The opening, Beginners, Please! offers a glimpse of two small children at the barre, in a simple sequence of plié to rond-de-jambe; then light moved to another young pair; then to two current NZSD students. Staged by Sue Nicholls, this was a beguiling cameo that evoked the celebrated ballet Etudes, by Harald Lander, 1948. It is poignant to think that Poul Gnatt would have danced in that work in Royal Danish Ballet, and Anne Rowse, director emeritus of NZSD, sitting to my left, danced it many times in Festival Ballet, as also did Russell Kerr. Martin James, single most illustrious graduate in NZSD’s history, no contest, is sitting to my right. He trained at the School, danced most wonderfully in RNZB, then performed in English National Ballet and elsewhere in Europe, eventually to Royal Danish Ballet where he became leading solo dancer, was knighted for his services to ballet, and eventually became the company’s ballet master. These are the seeding sources that cast prismatic variations across professional dance in New Zealand that students need to know about. We can give more than lip service to that. Given the Danish heritage of RNZB, Etudes is a work many of us have waited years to see here, and why wouldn’t Martin James stage it? This echoes the Maori whakatauki proverb, ‘walking backwards into the future’. We can only see what has already happened. Look at that as you go.  All these thoughts were caught in the little opening miniature. Well done, Sue.

Tempo di Valse, arranged by Nadine Tyson, to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, was ‘an exuberant work for a large ensemble, festive in mood’. Program notes are not always accurate but this one certainly was.

Aria, solo for a masked male, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, to Handel/Rinaldo overture and aria, is a remarkable dance, performed to breathtaking perfection by Mali Comlekci. Small wonder he flies straight into a contract at Queensland Ballet where an outstanding career awaits him. What a shame we won’t be able to see that develop, but we wish him airborne joy.

Mali Comlecki in 'Aria'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Mali Comlekci in Aria. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Curious Alchemy by Loughlan Prior, to Beethoven and Saint-Saens, is a fresh lively lovely dance in which youth is celebrated, and hints of the ties of friendship and the possibilities of relationship are subtly subtexted to the movement which suits the young dancers extremely well. The cast—Clementine Benson, Saul Newport, Jaidyn Cumming and Song Teng —are thrilled to be dancing, and that excitement shines through. Loughlan, himself a spirited dancer with RNZB, and a former graduate of NZSD, is loaded with choreographic energy and ideas, so that is fortunately one continuing career we will be able to follow.

Forgotten Things, by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a very special choreography, initially developed on students at NZSD in 2015, and here brought to a stunning re-staging with a cast of 23 contemporary dance students. The music composed by Andrew Foster, begins full of life-affirming rhythms that evoke the best Renaissance dance music, then moves to percussive richness that support this mysterious procession—Sarah’s best work to date in my opinion. It is a stunning achievement to use parts of the dancers’ bodies, beautifully lit, as nano units of life force, and then thread these as metaphor into life at the level of society and community. This is a work that could be performed by any school or company, classical or contemporary dancers. Now there’s something for every choreographer to aspire to, since that’s nearer the reality of the dance profession today.

The wedding pas de deux from Don Quixote was danced, by Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton, as a gift from RNZB—and what a gift. That pas de deux would have been danced in New Zealand several hundred times over the decades, but never has it steamed and sizzled like this. Skelton dances with calm control of his prodigious technique and has a most interesting career we are always keen to follow. The transition from class-in-the-studio to role-on-stage that Tanigaito always brings to her performances is rare, and something to study, if only you can. She reveals the nature of dance.

Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto pas de deux, dates from 1966 but carries its vintage timelessly. With two grand pianos soixante-neuf on stage, the Shostakovich beautifully played by the School’s pianists, Craig Newsome and Phillip O’Malley, the stage was set for Olivia Moore and Calum Gray to give the performance of their young lives to date.

Olivia Moore and Calum Gray in ‘Concerto’. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

S.U.B. (Salubrious Unified Brotherhood) was a duo by Victoria Columbus working with performers Connor Masseurs and Toa Paranihi. The ‘Nesian identity with rap and break dance, its isolations, its nonchalance, its cut & thrust, its mock battling, was brilliantly timed and caught in this sassy little number.

Toa Paranihi and Connore Masseurs in 'S.U.B.'. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Toa Paranihi and Connor Masseurs in S.U.B. New Zealand School of Dance, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Allegro Brillante, by George Balanchine, dates from 1956 and is more of a period piece. It was performed with great verve and aplomb by the cast of eight dancers.

The Bach, by Michael Parmenter, to a Bach cantata, Erfreut euch, had a cast of 15 dancers who revelled in the exuberant dance sequences and sets of striking ensemble patterns. These were interspersed with walking sequences that stood rhythmically quite apart from the baroque energy and motivation of the danced sections.

The final work, William Forsythe’s In the middle somewhat elevated, was first performed in this theatre by Frankfurt Ballet during the international arts festival 1990. The choreography is as challenging and confrontational now as it was then, as is also the score by Thom Willems. The intensely asymmetrical and aggressive aesthetic comes across as thrilling, or scary, depending on the viewer. I am in the former camp, but can hear what others say—it is either loved or hated. Passionate opinions about dance in a theatre in New Zealand are no bad thing, but it’s for sure that the asymmetries that pull within the classical technique represent a post-modern departure from the canon that Forsythe represents. It’s a pity that the two gilded cherries hanging from on high, giving title to the choreography, are set so high they are noticed by no-one.

The RNZB dancers in the cast who stood out most memorably include Abigail Boyle, Tonia Looker, Alayna Ng,  Shaun James Kelly, Kirby Selchow, Mayu Tanigaito, Kohei Iwamoto, Paul Mathews, Felipe Domingos. We wish all the Company dancers and all the School’s students well.

Jennifer Shennan, 27 November 2017

Featured image: Jill Goh (centre) with dancers from the New Zealand School of Dance in Forgotten Things, 2017. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

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 Antoni

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

Michelle Potter, 14 April 2013