Dance diary. May 2016

  • von Rothbart

Since seeing Stephen Baynes’ production of Swan Lake, first in 2012 and more recently in its revival of 2016, I have been thinking frequently about the nature of the character of von Rothbart, ‘an evil geni’, according to the cast lists of the earliest Russian productions. After reading on the Australian Ballet’s website that, in the Baynes Swan Lake, Rothbart is a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’ my interest quickened.

Brett Simon and artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo Jeff Busby

Brett Simon as von Rothbart with artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Hugh Colman has dressed Baynes’ Rothbart in a red wig when he appears in the palace ballroom in Act III. I was startled the first time I saw it to tell the truth, so carrot-coloured was it. It is not new knowledge, of course, that Rothbart means ‘red beard’ in German and many designers have referred to that meaning. Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for Rothbart in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake for Houston Ballet, for example, has straggling red ‘hair’ emerging from it and a pair of glassy red eyes on the sides (as seen in the featured image above). I was interested too to discover that, in Cyril Beaumont’s in-depth analysis of the ballet in his book The ballet called Swan Lake, there is a very detailed account of how Rothbart was meant to look in the Petipa-Ivanov version of the story—even down to the angle of the eyebrows and the shape of the beard.

But perhaps most interesting of all about Beaumont’s analysis is that he suggests that a character like Rothbart (one who is able to take on a variety of forms as he does in most traditional productions of Swan Lake) is often encountered in medieval romances and other early forms of literature—he gives an example of Archimago in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, who also has the power to assume diverse forms. In the story as adapted by Petipa for the production of Swan Lake on which most traditional productions centre, the swans are the victims of a character who has bewitched them, and who assumes the form of an owl to watch over them. The owl at times takes on a human form and in Act II appears in various places around the lake as an evil sorcerer. He listens to the conversation between Odette and Siegfried before disappearing. It then makes sense that he assumes another form in Act III, when he brings Odile to the palace, since he knows of Siegfried’s plan to marry Odette, which would outsmart him and remove his power.

I have no issues whatsoever in rethinking the story or the characters—Rothbart can even be a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’. But can he just turn up in Act III without there having some kind of manifestation of what he represents in the previous act? It makes a mockery of the story if some kind of force, call it evil, sorcery, seductive dandyism, or a combination of features, has not had an impact previously.

In the Baynes production, I kept wanting the projections that appear in the sky in Act II to be some manifestation of Rothbart. But I am reliably assured by a well-known dance writer/critic who spoke to an equally well-known member of the ballet staff at the Australian Ballet that those projections are swans and only swans. So for the moment I’ll just keep thinking that the Baynes Swan Lake is dramatically unsatisfying because I can find nothing that strongly prefigures Rothbart’s appearance in Act III.

  • Benois de la danse

Recipients of the 2016 Benois de la danse awards were announced in mid-May. It was a pleasure to read that Hannah O’Neill was the joint recipient of the award for Best Female Dancer for her performance in the title role in Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Paquita. She shared the award with Alicia Amartriain of Stuttgart Ballet.

But I was also delighted to see that John Neumeier had received a Lifetime Achievement Award. I still get shivers down my spine thinking of his exceptional Romeo and Juliet, which I saw recently in Copenhagen. And we have the pleasure of seeing his Nijinsky later this year in Australia.

I am also a fan of the choreography of Yuri Possokhov, who received the award for Best Choreographer (also shared). I haven’t seen the work for which he was awarded, the Bolshoi Ballet’s Hero of our time, but I have great memories of his version of Rite of Spring made for San Francisco Ballet.

The full list of awardees is at this link from Pointe Magazine. There is also the official site of the awards which gives a much longer account of the event, and includes a list of the nominees from whom the winners were selected.

  • Robert Helpmann

While searching for audio excerpts to use in my recent 2016 Dance Week talk, I came across some interesting snippets in an oral history interview I recorded with Bill Akers in 2002. Akers, who held several positions with the Borovansky Ballet and the Australian Ballet, worked closely with Helpmann on many occasions and, in particular, lit Helpmann’s Australian-produced ballets. I found his comments on the relationship between The Display and Yugen especially insightful. Although it is well-known that The Display was, in part, based on an incident that occurred early in Helpmann’s life, before he went to London in the 1930s, that Yugen was in some ways the antithesis of The Display is perhaps not so well-known. In the first audio excerpt, Akers talks about the early incident that clearly stayed in Helpmann’s mind throughout his life. In the second Akers reminds us of that incident, and then mentions how Yugen relates to it.

Akers on Display

Akers on Yugen

The full interview with Akers is available online via the National Library’s oral history site.

  • Press for April

My article ‘Robert Helpmann: Behind the Scenes with the Australian Ballet, 1963-1965’ has been published in Dance Research, 34: 1 (Summer 2016), pp. 47-62. It fleshes out some of the ideas I have considered on this website relating to Helpmann’s two early ballets for the Australian Ballet, The Display and Yugen. The cover image on this issue of Dance Research is by Walter Stringer from the collection of the National Library of Australia. It shows Gail Ferguson as a Woman of the Village, in Yugen, mostly likely taken during a 1970s revival.

Dance Research 34:1 2016 Cover

Dance Research is published by Edinburgh University Press. Further details at this link.

 

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2016

Featured image: Detail of Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for von Rothbart in Houston Ballet’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Michelle Potter, 2011

Stephen Baynes’ ‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet (2016)

9 April 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake premiered in 2012 as a ‘traditional’ Australian Ballet production to stand alongside Graeme Murphy’s rather more radical version. After almost four years it is certainly an interesting experience to see the Baynes production again, but looking back at what I wrote in 2012 I find myself wanting to say much the same.

On the positive side, Hugh Colman’s costumes are still a highlight. They are so elegantly designed, especially those in Act I, where the women’s dresses not only look so stylish but move beautifully during the danced sequences. They also set the story so well in the nineteenth century, the era of Tchaikovsky. Then I was still thrilled to see such lovely, swirling choreography in so many places. I was especially taken this time with the patterns given to the swans, both when moving and when standing motionless.  I was also lucky to see a lovely performance from Miwako Kubota as Odette/Odile. She danced both roles with style and technical assurance and gave each role a distinctive characterisation.

Baynes and Colman have approached the story as a kind of psycho-drama and, in bringing out this aspect of the production, Andrew Killian as Siegfried gave a strong performance. He gave the role a brooding quality in Act I that at first made him appear not to be participating—and of course we are used to seeing Siegfried enjoying himself at his birthday celebrations before heading off to shoot swans with his mates. But slowly Killian brought us to the realisation that Siegfried was deeply unhappy with his life and at the end of Act I, as he stood before the gates that led to the lake, I couldn’t help feeling that he was thinking of drowning himself in it (which is eventually what happens).

On the not so positive side, I think this Swan Lake still badly needs the services of a dramaturg to bring out the narrative (or Baynes’ version of the story) more clearly. The psycho-drama seems to fall apart somewhat after Act I when the ballet reverts to the original storyline without enough emphasis on anything that might be called evil. Rothbart, who personifies evil in traditional productions, still remains an enigma in the Baynes version. Is he the personification of the blackness that consumes Siegfried? He seems just to hover in the background, except in Act III when he rudely sits beside the Queen, who on this occasion, surprisingly, took very little notice of him. And then Rothbart plays the violin for the the dance of the Russian Princess (beautifully performed by Rina Nemoto), which makes him a kind of Paganini figure, the Devil’s minion.  It is very difficult to reconcile exactly what role he is meant to be playing and, as a result, the production becomes unsatisfying.

Despite some very nice choreographic moments, and some strong dancing, I have to come to the conclusion that I prefer other productions of Swan Lake. I don’t want to go back to a Borovansky-style 1950s production (although it was really quite a good, straightforward one), and all credit to David McAllister for wanting to add a traditional Swan Lake to the Australian Ballet repertoire. But for preference I’d go to the Murphy production any day. It has a coherence that I think is lacking in the Baynes production.

Michelle Potter, 11 April 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake (2012 production). Photo: © Jeff Busby

‘Imperial Suite’. The Australian Ballet

10 May 2104 (evening), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

It is a long time since I have had a seat in the circle for a ballet performance (in any theatre come to think of it), but that’s where I was seated at the Sydney Opera House for Imperial Suite, the Australian Ballet’s mixed bill of Ballet Imperial and Suite en blanc. It was certainly exciting to see Ballet Imperial from that vantage point. Looking down on a George Balanchine work gives a stunning view of the patterns of his choreography—the circles, squares, diamonds, straight lines, and flowing waves of dancers threading their way through the arched arms of other dancers—provided of course that the work on view is well danced and well staged. Which it certainly was at this performance. The ballet was beautifully led by Lana Jones and Adam Bull, with Jones the shining ballerina and Bull the gallant Balanchinian partner.

Adam Bull and Lana Jones in 'Ballet Imperial', 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Adam Bull and Lana Jones in Ballet Imperial, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

There were some particularly lovely moments in the pas de deux in the first movement. I loved the backwards hops on pointe with the leg in arabesque after Jones rose from a swoon-like fall with her arms around Bull’s neck, and also a little later her lift of the leg to second position followed by a slow pull in to retiré, followed by the same sequence of movement on the other side but at double speed. Both were exciting to watch and Balanchine is so good at showing these things more than once so we don’t miss them! And of course Bull was there supporting all these technical feats. Both dancers allowed us to see Balanchine’s exquisite musicality.

Hugh Colman’s new tutus are just gorgeous. Regal in blue and black and one or two complementary shades for the soloists, they are made with sharp lines to the skirt so they seem to represent the cut of a diamond or other precious stones, and they are decorated with a silver sash-like decoration at the back. Very imperial!

What a joy the performance was and it inspires me to say ‘thank you, thank you’. And with Eve Lawson on board as a repetiteur with the Australian Ballet—and what an asset she is—I am looking forward to (or perhaps ‘hoping for’ are better words) a revival of Theme and Variations soon.

Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc closed the evening. It is certainly a classically-based work and has many interesting features. Its opening scene as the curtain rises, with dancers arranged on several levels on the stage and clad in various white costumes with a very slight touch of contrasting black, usually generates a round of applause, as it did on this occasion. But Lifar’s limitations as a choreographer are, perhaps unfortunately, highlighted by placing Suite en blanc on the same program as Ballet Imperial. Suite en blanc looks very static in comparison and movement is in no way a static event.

Nevertheless, there were some outstanding performances from some cast members and it is always special to see good dancing. Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes performed stylishly in the pas de deux and Scott was a stand-out in the ‘Variation de la flûte’. But I especially admired Ako Kondo for her technical accomplishments in the ‘Pas de cinq’ and Laura Tong for a beautifully languid and delicious ‘Variation de la cigarette’.

Ako Kondo in 'Suite en blanc', the Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Ako Kondo in Suite en blanc. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Michelle Potter, 11 May 2014

 

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in a study for Petite Mort. The Australian Ballet 2014. Photo Paul Scala

‘Chroma’, ‘Art to Sky’, ‘Petite Mort’ & ‘Sechs Tänze’. The Australian Ballet

10 May 2014 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

What an inspiring performance the Australian Ballet gave of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Not an easy ballet to bring off, but all the diverse features that make McGregor’s choreography so eminently watchable were there. Limbs extending through space, off-centre partnering, moves that were in turn twisted, contorted, angular and sometimes smooth and undulating. And all were all set cleanly and articulately against John Pawson’s stripped back, white box space with its rectangular ‘window’ of changing colours. McGregor is a master at exploiting the balletic body to produce astonishingly shaped movements—movements of the twenty-first century perhaps? What I especially like is that his choreography make us see how perfectly amazing the balletic vocabulary can be.

I particularly admired Vivienne Wong’s performance throughout the work and also a powerful trio from Brett Chynoweth, Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Killian—fast, assertive dancing from them all. But it was a duet from Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello that stole the show for me. McGregor’s choreography suits Jones with her strong, unassailable technique and Gaudiello has such a way of adding his own signature to everything he does while still remaining true to the intentions of the choreographer.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Chroma', 2014. courtesy the Australian Ballet

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Stephen Baynes’ new work, Art to Sky, began with some lovely, lingering choreography, beautifully performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Gaudiello again. It was romantic, softly falling from step to step. The corps de ballet also had some memorable choreography in the opening sections, surprising at times and always pure and fresh. But after that there were a few too many somersaults, cartwheels and legs in the air, not to mention twee sections of humour that didn’t quite work. It is a little problematic too that one of George Balanchine’s most exquisite ballets (in my mind anyway) is Mozartiana danced to the same music, Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana, that Baynes chose for Art to Sky. Balanchine has a habit of lingering in the mind, making it hard to accept anything else to the music he uses.

Hugh Colman’s shadowy, upstage portal that comprised the set, lit by Rachel Burke to give a hint of the mysterious, were strong additions to the look of Art to Sky. Colman, Burke and Baynes work well together as collaborators and bring a sense of visual cohesion to each other’s work.

The program concluded with Jiri Kylian’s companion pieces, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze and it was a treat to see some more Kylian back onstage with the Australian Ballet. It was interesting to have Kylian on the same program as McGregor, as also happened last year with Bella Figura and Dyad. Kylian, too, pushes the dance vocabulary and gives us a surprising array of movement, but he adds a degree of humanity and humour to his works that McGregor passes over (at least in Chroma, although perhaps not to the same extent in others of his works).

This mixed bill was a relief from the full-length ballets that we are told draw the best houses. To me the house looked pretty much full  for what was a diverse and well danced program. I’d like more in this vein.

Michelle Potter, 11 May 2014

Featured image: Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in a study for Petite Mort. The Australian Ballet 2014. Photo: © Paul Scala

‘Swan Lake’. A second look

8 December 2012 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I finally got a chance to take a second look at the Australian Ballet’s new production of Swan Lake. With Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in the lead there was much to enjoy. It was a pleasure to see Gaudiello back onstage and I admired his clear reading of the role. He was especially impressive in Act II. His meeting with Odette was full of excitement, tenderness, pleasure and love, expressed not just in the face but in his movement and partnering as well. It contrasted nicely with his moody behaviour in Act I. Stojmenov responded to his attention and together they made this meeting something that almost had me on the edge of my seat with anticipation of what was to come.

Stephen Baynes’ choreography remains impressive on a second viewing. I noticed in particular this time the elegant waltz of the princesses in Act III with its lovely swirling, bending bodies. And there are moments of exquisite beauty in Act IV where circles of movement predominate. This time I did notice what happened to Siegfried. He left the stage amid a bevy of swans just in time to get ready to be fished out of the lake as Rothbart sailed by. Nothing dramatic in his exit, but then Odette’s exit didn’t have much drama to it either. I admired Juliet Burnett’s pouting princess. Being used to princesses who all act the same and smile through everything, it was a pleasure to see her bringing real character to a role.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake, 2012. Photo: Jeff BusbyArtists of the Australian Ballet in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake, 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby. Courtesy: The Australian Ballet

The work still remains a disappointment, however. As I did during and after the first viewing, I wished that a dramaturg had been brought in. The story doesn’t quite hang together for me without the ongoing and menacing presence of von Rothbart, or at least of some kind constant figure or presence of evil throughout the acts (it doesn’t have to be an owl running around the stage with a cloak flying behind it). Although we are given flashes of lightning at various points, and projections of large flapping wings attached to a weird body and head at others, this is not the same as a continuing presence of evil. Without some kind of ongoing menace, the whole black/white, good/evil theme loses its strength. And without it, it makes nonsense of that moment at the end of Act II when Odette has to leave Siegfried, drawn away by a force more powerful than he is. What is drawing her back, automaton-like, in the Baynes production?

There was also a major problem in Act III with the set and the stage space it occupies in Sydney. Gaudiello in particular was denied the opportunity to execute his solo and his part in the coda to the fullest extent of his ability. It was cramped more than I have ever seen it on that stage with this production and Gaudiello’s dancing suffered badly through no fault of his own. I can’t see that that stage is going to get any bigger any time soon—it’s been like it is for forty years. So it seems to me that the Australian Ballet needs to commission sets that are capable of being used in Sydney without compromising any dancer’s performances.

This Swan Lake is, however, a visual treat. The corps de ballet continues to look beautifully rehearsed and their work has such clarity these days. Hugh Colman’s costumes are gorgeous. But I wish the dramatic line had more coherence.

Michelle Potter, 8 December 2012

The original Swan Lake post is at this link.

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‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet

18 September 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Stephen Baynes wanted his new Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet to reflect, as he put it in his notes, the ‘deeply Romantic aesthetic’ of Tchaikovsky’s score. A singularly musical choreographer, Baynes has succeeded in creating some absorbing, and often romantic in the wider sense of that word, choreographic moments. They come in particular in Act I with Baynes’ overall treatment of this act; in his newly conceived opening section of Act II when Siegfried first encounters Odette; and in an inserted pas de deux for Odette and Siegfried in Act IV.

In Act I Baynes’ choreography is beautifully paced. It fills out every note of the music, brings a real freshness to the dances and makes this opening act full of human interest. Ty King-Wall, Lana Jones and Dana Stephensen as Benno, the Countess and the Duchess respectively danced a thrilling pas de trois (or was it a pas de cinq since two other men joined King-Wall at one stage?). The meeting between Siegfried and Odette was a meeting between two human beings rather than a prince and a frightened swan protecting her brood and the choreography sank and rose in sighing movements. The inserted pas de deux too was Baynes at his best and is just what the last act needs, a final intimate encounter between Odette and Siegfried.

There was a new energy in the corps de ballet too. Perhaps it is a new production that has generated a precision in the work of the corps that I haven’t seen recently? Perhaps it is that the company has a new ballet mistress and repetiteur in Eve Lawson? Whatever the reason, it is a treat to see the dancers moving together so well.

(l-r) Reiko Hombo, Jessica Fyfe, Eloise Fryer and Jade Wood in 'Swan Lake', 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby(l–r) Reiko Hombo, Jessica Fyfe, Eloise Fryer and Jade Wood in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby

Most of Act II, however, is classical (in the Ivanov manner) as Baynes has kept a lot of the choreography from older productions so as to keep this famous white act recognisably traditional. Amber Scott as Odette seems on the surface to be perfectly suited to the role. Her body is proportioned in true classical ballerina style and her technique is clean and centred. But Act II seemed to me to exude a particular coldness. I’m not sure whether the lack of passion was a result of Baynes and Ivanov (or ‘after’ Ivanov) being mixed together, or whether Scott and her Siegfried, Adam Bull, just weren’t reacting to each other in an emotional sense. There was just one moment in the pas de deux when Scott moved from supported arabesque to attitude and her foot seemed to caress Bull’s back as the leg bent into attitude and wrapped around Bull. But it was gone in a flash and it was the only time I thought there was an emotional connection between them. There were, however, lovely performances from the four little swans and from the leading swans, danced by Juliet Burnett and Amy Harris.

Act III had a little more emotional power and Bull finally seemed to overcome his depression, which admittedly was what we were intended to see as his mood, as he declared his love for Odile. Rothbart, played by Brett Simon sporting carrot-coloured hair, was a surprise arriving as he did with a retinue of Spanish dancers, and a Russian dancer and four Cossacks. His personality was further established as he sat on the throne next to the Queen (Lisa Bolte), engaging her in conversation. But again the recognisable pas de deux and variations from what we know as the traditional version seemed to me to intrude.

There is much else to say about this new production—the development of the role of Benno and others in Act I; the importance of Siegfried; the designs; the projections of a swan/menacing figure (Rothbart?); the funeral with which the work begins and much more, which I hope to consider in future posts. I wondered whether the work would have benefitted from having a dramaturge work with Baynes and designer Hugh Colman as there were times when I wondered who was who and what was happening—Rothbart’s lifting of a limp Siegfried from the lake as, in the final moments, Rothbart sailed by standing resplendent in a mechanical swan was a surprise as there was no previous indication that I saw that Siegfried had thrown himself in the lake. But it needs more than one viewing to be able to give an informed account and in depth critical analysis. At the moment I feel that leaving some traditional choreography was a mistake and that this Swan Lake would have worked better for me had it all been Baynes.

Michelle Potter, 20 September 2012

UPDATE: Swan Lake: a second look is at this link.

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