Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia', Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

‘Anastasia’. The Royal Ballet

12 November 2016 (matinee), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Having recently reread Different Drummer, Jann Parry’s biography of Kenneth MacMillan, I was full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing MacMillan’s Anastasia, a work that traces the story of Anna Anderson, who believed (wrongly it eventually turned out) that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia who had survived the murderous attack on her parents and siblings, the Imperial Russian family, by Russian revolutionaries in 1918. Parry’s account of the various problems that surrounded the creation and casting of MacMillan’s ballet, which began as a one act work for Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin in 1967, was absorbing reading.

I guess more than anything else, I came away from the performance with renewed admiration for MacMillan’s classical choreography, clearly on view in the first two acts, which were added when MacMillan transformed his one act work into a full-length one in 1971. I loved the way he handled groups, as in the ball scene in Act II where a large corps of swirling dancers wove their way across and around the stage in ever fascinating curving, threading, and criss-crossing patterns. I was also impressed with his use of a kind of canon-style of movement throughout, but especially in Act I where his approach to the choreography for Anastasia’s three sisters stood out.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia' Act I. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia Act I. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

And I admired his pas de deux in Act II which, although it seemed somewhat as though it had been inserted in order to have a grand pas de deux in the ballet, was beautifully lyrical and smoothly integrated within itself—there was no stopping and restarting to separate pas de deux from variations from coda, for example. It also had some breathtaking moments, including that astonishing tilt of the full body by the ballerina as the pas de deux began.

I also admired Bob Crowley’s designs, which in terms of costumes ranged from opulence in the ball scene to stripped back simplicity in Act III, the scene in the hospital/asylum where Anna/Anastasia relives her life. His set designs were also worthy of admiration, with the inherent drama of Anna Anderson’s mental state being foreshadowed with the tilted shapes of the ship on which Act I takes place, and the chandeliers of the palace in Act II, captured forever in mid-swing.

As for the dancing, I saw Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna/Anastasia partnered by Thomas Whitehead as the officer to whom she was attracted in Act II and as her husband in Act III. Cuthbertson was charmingly youthful in Act I and handled Act II nicely as she welcomed and interacted with guests at her coming of age ball.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anastasia and Reece Clarke as Officer in 'Anastasia', Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anastasia and Reece Clarke as Officer in Anastasia, Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But she and Whitehead didn’t really suit each other as partners, largely because their physical attributes are quite different: Cuthbertson is taller and finer in build and more classically proportioned than Whitehead. As a result, the emotional connection that was needed between them was not as powerful as I would have hoped.

Sarah Lamb dancing with Federico Bonelli, as Mathilde Kschessinska and her partner (not given a name in the story’s cast of characters), sailed through the difficult choreography of the pas de deux in Act II making it all look easy. Great to watch. Another Act II highlight was the quartet between Kschessinska and her partner and Tsar Nicholas II, played by Gary Avis, and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, danced by Itziar Mendizabal, in which personal relationships within the royal court were brought into question. Anastasia hovered in the background, wondering.

Sarah Lamb as Mathilde Kschessinska and Steven McRae as her partner in 'Anastasia' Act II. -© ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Sarah Lamb as Mathilde Kschessinska and Steven McRae as her partner in Anastasia Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

As Rasputin, Eric Underwood was moodily present throughout, taking part in the dancing at times, hovering darkly at others. Rory Thomas as the Tsarevitch Alexey, the sickly child and brother to Anastasia and her sisters, handled his role with aplomb.

The production itself, however, which was realised by Deborah MacMillan and staged by Gary Harris, wasn’t entirely satisfying. The third act looks back to the first two acts as Anna relives scenes, largely horror scenes from her life as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and as we see characters from this earlier life move across the stage in front of her eyes.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna Anderson and artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia' Act III. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna Anderson and artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia Act III. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But, as there is a such a clear and strong disconnect stylistically between the first two acts and the third when MacMillan draws so strongly on a contemporary, expressionist mode of dancing, albeit with Anna in pointe shoes, it is hard to reconcile the notion that the last act is part of the same ballet as the first two acts. Design-wise the third act is superb with its stark grey walls and its single iron bed, and choreographically it is mostly quite gripping. But as I left the theatre, having felt the power of the work at many points, I nevertheless wondered whether it would not have been better to have left Anastasia as a one-act production.

Michelle Potter, 14 November 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia, Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia', Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Another note for my Australian readers: As the image of the pas de deux in this post indicates, Sarah Lamb usually dances as Kschessinska with Steven McRae as her partner. McRae was replaced at the last moment by Bonelli.

Gary Harris. Man of the theatre

On my recent visit to Brisbane to catch a performance of Greg Horsman’s Sleeping Beauty by Queensland Ballet, I was especially taken by the designs of Gary Harris. In particular, I loved his sets with their sweeping sense of space, which is clearly evident in the image below from the Queensland Ballet season.

Yanela Pinere as Aurora 'The Sleeping Beauty', Queensland ballet, 2015. Photo: David Kelly

 Yanela Piñera as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Queensland Ballet, 2015. Photo: © David Kelly

I recall talking to Harris, over ten years ago now, while he was artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet and I recently came across the text of the article based on that interview. I wrote it for ballet.co in the UK, where it was published online in May 2003. As my ballet.co articles are not presently available online due to a server change, and also because I only recently found the text of the ballet.co article, which I thought was lost, I am re-publishing it below.

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‘Oh he’s wearing a shirt with Mambo written all over it today,’ the theatre usher tells me as I wait in the foyer of the Princess Theatre in Launceston, Tasmania. Gary Harris, artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, is running late (or has forgotten our appointment?). He arrives, Mambo clothes and all, full of apologies. It’s the final day of performances for the sixteen dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet who are on tour to Tasmania for the biennial festival, Ten Days on the Island. It’s just a short season, four performances in three days—3–5 April 2003. The rest of the company, another sixteen dancers, is touring back home in New Zealand. We find time for our interview over a meal between the late afternoon matinee and the evening show.

London-born Harris, a warm and engaging man, first visited New Zealand in 1996 as guest teacher for Royal New Zealand Ballet and kept returning over the next few years. In 2001 he was appointed artistic director of  the company and is full of enthusiasm for his job and his dancers.

‘I loved the honesty I found amongst the New Zealand dancers,’ he explains. ‘They are so versatile too. They work beautifully with what they’ve got and respond to the space they’re in. I want the company to keep that honesty and to have a real understanding of the rules of classical ballet and of correctness of presentation.’

Watching his dancers in the repertoire they have brought to Tasmania—a mixed bill comprising four works—there is certainly a distinctive quality to the way they move. Dancing on the tiny stage of the Princess Theatre is not an enviable task. There’s not much space to fling oneself around and Harris’ staging of Paquita Variations, the opening work on the program, perhaps suffers most. The formal quality of its choreography, which Harris based on that of Petipa for the original Paquita of 1846, really needs a bigger stage to do it justice. But the delicious freedom that the dancers have in the upper body makes up for the feeling that things are a bit cramped. The sense of the body moving through rather than in space is also quite noticeable, as is the turn-out of the feet and legs. There is real teaching going on behind the scenes of this company.

‘I really like teaching,’ Harris says. ‘And I love getting together with the dancers for the process of rehearsing. The New Zealand dancers here are very responsive and I love getting an energetic atmosphere going.’

In addition to showing the classical strengths of the Royal New Zealand dancers, Paquita Variations shows up Harris’s talents as a designer. The costumes are his design, with the women’s tutus inspired, he says, by a Degas sculpture of which he is very fond. The softness of the skirts is beguiling. A blouse-like top and a corset-like bodice, which fits closely from the top of the rib cage to the hips, completes what is a beautifully old-fashioned costume. Harris says he loved to draw as a child and also mentions that his father made him a play theatre, complete with working lights. So his wide-ranging involvement in all aspects of getting a show on stage is something he accepts as a perfectly normal part of an artistic director’s life.

Harris’s international connections are clearly evident in the company’s repertoire, although he is quick to mention that nurturing New Zealand artists is part of his plan. Nevertheless in Launceston, along with Paquita Variations, the company danced two works by Mark Baldwin, Melting Moments and FrENZy, and one by Javier de Frutos, Milagros.

The de Frutos piece, a commissioned work and de Frutos’ first for Royal New Zealand Ballet is the surprise package. Milagros takes its name from the Spanish word used to describe both miracles and votive offerings, and the work is danced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring recorded on a piano roll. Played on a pianola the music sounds distorted and lacks the orchestral colour that the ear expects. But the drama is still there, the rhythms are still frenetic and the new and unexpected sound sets the scene for a work that is far from ordinary. Both the men and women wear long white skirts that swirl and swing with the motion of the dancers. On top both sexes wear flimsy, white, straight-cut shirts with long, loose sleeves. On the back of each shirt, quite hard to see but definitely there, is a number. The costumes, designed by de Frutos, give a clue to the piece. There is uniformity yet diversity. There is calmness and purity yet an eddy within.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand ballet in 'Milagros'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Milagros. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Choreographically de Frutos juxtaposes highly sculpted sequences—long lines of dancers, clear circular formations for example—with phrases that appear to be wildly individualistic. This dualism is accompanied by other sets of opposites. Some movements flow expressively, others look quite stilted. At times the dancers react with restraint to their colleagues; at other times they appear to be absolutely fired with passion. The light changes back and forth from a stark white to a soft gold. The work also has a few unusual phrases of movement that keep occurring and remain in the memory afterwards. There is a limping step. There is another where the dancers thrust the chest out, fling the head and one arm back and move purposefully forward by transferring the weight on and off one heel. And another where a woman in a deep plié in second position with hands on hips propels herself in a circle, again using the heels to give the momentum. Sometimes dancers make their exit by walking on their knees as if doing penance. It’s absolutely mesmersing choreography.

Milagros on the one hand discomposes the viewer. It never answers the questions that it seems to present. It suggests both vodoo activities as well as organised religion. But it is also an incredibly satisfying piece that speaks to the viewer on an intuitive level. There is something inevitable about the way it unfolds and something fulfilling about its unexpectedness.

The two Baldwin pieces look a little tame by comparison. While Melting Moments is a lyrical and seamless duet, a serious piece, first made for New Zealand’s Limbs Dance Company in 1980, its vocabulary seems dated, almost contrived, by comparison with the de Frutos work. FrENZy on the other hand is great fun. Danced to a selection of top of the pops songs from the band Split Enz, it was first performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2001. It has a contemporary edge that recalls, without appropriating, the vocabulary of William Forsythe. There’s lots of movement that’s upside down, off centre, racy. There’s lots of glamour, lots that’s out there and in your face. It’s a real crowd pleaser. How often does a contemporary ballet have an audience whistling and shouting with enjoyment at the end? Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room has that effect and so does Baldwin’s FrENZy.

Royal New Zealand Ballet has lots to offer, not the least of which is its own, unique repertoire. Its dancers are unpretentious, technically capable and move with a real freedom. It’s history is fascinating too. The company is fifty years old this year having been founded in 1953 by Poul Gnatt who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and was a principal with the Royal Danish Ballet. Gnatt is also fondly remembered in Australia as a principal with the Borovansky Ballet and as a teacher in the 1960s at the Australian Ballet School.

Christopher Hampson’s Romeo and Juliet is Royal New Zealand Ballet’s next work. It opens in Wellington on 6 June 2003. And the company has been invited to appear at Sadler’s Wells next year. Plans for a five week tour include visits to Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Next year Adrian Burnett, a New Zealander by birth who is currently a senior artist with the Australian Ballet, will be making a work for the company. And Harris mutters about wanting a Nutcracker in there somewhere. He wants a repertoire that is solid but that also challenges and educates and he’s well on the way to having it.

Michelle Potter, 4 November 2015
(originally published in the May 2003 edition of ballet.co magazine)

‘The Sleeping Beauty’. Queensland Ballet

24 October 2015 (matinee), Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

After my Australian Ballet brush with Beauty I was longing to see another production and so took a flying visit to Brisbane to see what Greg Horsman had done with this classic of the ballet repertoire. Horsman’s Sleeping Beauty was originally made for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011 and is being performed for the first time in Australia by Queensland Ballet. I did not see the international stars who have been engaged as special guests for the season, which did not bother me as it was the production that particularly interested me.

The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet's 'Sleeping Beauty', 2015

The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty, 2015

Horsman has made some small changes to the story, some of which may well be as a result of working with a medium-sized company in both New Zealand and Queensland. Perhaps the most startling change is that Catalabutte, assistant to the King, and Catalabutte’s wife, Lady Florine, are cats. This at first is a shock. But they are so beautifully, and at times humorously, worked into the story—their dance together in the last act takes the place of Puss and Boots and the White Cat—that suspending disbelief is easy. Jack Lister as Catalabutte made a strong impression throughout, but especially as he pursued the Bluebird in the wedding scene.

There is also quite a lot of mime as explanation of the story. This is not an innovation, of course, but unless well done mime passages tend to get lost in translation as it were. The dancers of Queensland Ballet have, however, been well coached in this aspect of the ballet and they have an expansive quality to their gestures. Everything is perfectly clear. Nothing drags along.

The dancing itself had some ups and downs. The corps de ballet worked nicely together for the most part and Teri Crilly and Camilo Ramos stood out as the lead couple in what is usually the Garland Dance (although in this production there were no garlands). Ramos, who has a wonderful stage presence as well as a stellar technique, also danced strongly as one of the Prince’s friends in Act II. The fairies, too, danced nicely throughout, although my eyes kept turning to the Orange Fairy of Grace danced by Lisa Edwards. I loved the charm with which she performed and the delicious fluidity of her movement. She shone.

I found Yalenda Piñera, Queensland Ballet’s 2015 guest principal artist, very engaging as Aurora. Piñera handled the rose adagio and the final grand pas de deux with strength and attack, but what really stood out was her joyful presence throughout. She involved herself in everything, and with everyone. She smiled, made eye contact, and used her head and arms beautifully. It was a real pleasure watching her.

Hao Bin as the Prince did not, however, always live up to my expectations. I enjoyed his acting at the start of Act II where he kept himself apart from his friends in the forest as he pondered the lack of love in his life. But once he started dancing I found him a little wooden. I wished he would move his upper body with more fluidity and use his feet more strongly.

Gary Harris’ sets are gorgeous. His interiors recall Gothic architecture with its emphasis on soaring space; his exteriors are airy, beautiful places in which the story can unfold; and the final scene with its starry background provides an especially elegant setting for the wedding of Aurora and the Prince. His work was evocatively lit by Jon Buswell.

The jarring elements for me in Harris’ design input were the costumes for the two Bluebirds, although perhaps it was the very heavy eye make-up they wore that made the costumes seem over the top compard with the general elegance of the last scene. Teri Crilly was a lovely female bluebird. Whether listening, fluttering her hands, or simply executing a step, everything was performed cleanly and with great style. Her partner, Zhi Fang, seemed very nervous and so did not really show himself to advantage.

Nigel Gaynor conducted a vibrant Queensland Symphony Orchestra where tempi, volume and orchestral colour contributed to the unfolding of the story and to the development of the characters in the ballet. The orchestra added an extra emotional layer to the performance and it was such a pleasure to be hearing this kind of collaboration between music and dance. From 2016 Gaynor will take up the position of principal conductor and music director of Queensland Ballet.

I came away from this Queensland Ballet performance loving the passion that the dancers put into their performance, despite the odd stumble or other mishap. But most of all I came away thrilled that the collaborative elements of music and design were working to enhance the dance, rather than ignoring it or trying to outdo it.

Michelle Potter, 25 October 2015