Dance diary. May 2015

  • Oral history

I recently had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview for the National Library with Marilyn Jones. I first interviewed Jones in 1990 as part of the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Archive Project, so this 2015 interview was a follow-up after 25 years. The image below captures, I think, the essence of Les Sylphides and Jones’ ability to dance that elusiveness.

The interview requires written permission for use so will not be available online, but in many respects oral history is for the future. I certainly have become more and more aware of its intrinsic value as time passes. The full story of the Australian Ballet strike of 1981, for example, which took place during the artistic directorship of Jones, is yet to be told. Several interviews in the National Library’s collection give a variety of perspectives and await the historian.

Marilyn Jones and Jonathan Watts in 'Les Sylphides'. The Australian Ballet 1963. Photo Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia

Marilyn Jones and Jonathan Watts in Les Sylphides. The Australian Ballet, 1963. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia

Other dance interviews I have recorded in the past six months have been with Peter Bahen, Lisa Pavane and David Deverelle-Hill.

On the subject of the Esso Performing Arts material, there are 41 interviews, not all of which are dance-related, in that collection and a list can be accessed via the National Library catalogue. Many are available online.

  • Juliet Burnett

It came as something of a shock to learn that Juliet Burnett is leaving (has already left I think) the Australian Ballet. She has given me, and I’m sure many others, such a lot of pleasure over the past few years. Just recently, her performances in the leading roles in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake and Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle have suggested wonderful things to come. But let’s hope that wherever the future takes her she will find much happiness. My posts mentioning Burnett are at this link.

  • Press for May

‘Visiting dance troupe’s double bill a triumph.’ Review of Quintett and  Frame of Mind, Sydney Dance Company. The Canberra Times, 2 May 2015, p. 19. Online version.

‘Circus acts unmissable.’ Review of ‘Le Noir: the dark side of Circque.’ The Canberra Times, 8 May 2015, ARTS p. 6. Online version.

‘Magical production of a great Giselle.’ Review of the Australian Ballet’s Canberra season of Giselle, The Canberra Times, 25 May 2015, ARTS p. 6. Online version.

 

‘Giselle’. A second look

4 April 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Seeing an artist make his or her debut in a principal role is always an exciting prospect, especially when it is in one of the important classics of the ballet repertoire. It was a double thrill for the audience at the Sydney Opera House on 4 April when two Australian Ballet dancers, senior artist Juliet Burnett and coryphée Jared Wright, appeared for the first time in the leading roles of Giselle and Albrecht in Maina Gielgud’s Giselle.

In rehearsal for Giselle.  (l-r)  Juliet Burnett and Jared Wright; Jared Wright; Juliet Burnett and Robyn Hendricks. All photos © Lynette Wills, 2015

Perhaps what stood out more than anything for me was the way in which both Burnett and Wright looked unhurried. There was time to savour each moment of their dancing and their interpretation of the roles. They were strongest in Act II. Burnett was as light as a feather, a frail wisp, as she moved across the stage. Wright was filled with the right amount of sorrow and desperation to atone for his betrayal of Giselle. Their first encounter was sweepingly poetic. Then Burnett pleaded for mercy from Myrtha and did her best to protect her love. Wright pleaded too and did his best to keep dancing. While each danced well technically, to the credit of these two dancers I wasn’t looking so much at execution of steps, I was swept up in the mood.

In Act I Wright struggled a little I thought with the duality of Albrecht and I was never quite sure how he saw himself at any one time, peasant or royalty? There are moments of each for Albrecht in Act I and it is not easy to work between the two. Burnett was quite frightening in the mad scene as her limbs shook and her blank expression removed her from the real world. It lacked a certain theatricality, however, which would have lifted the scene to another level. Sometimes too real isn’t quite enough.

Of the minor principals, Olga Tamara gave an interesting interpretation of Berthe, Giselle’s mother. She set herself apart as a matter-of-fact lady, and her apprehension that the Wilis were present in the village and waiting for her daughter was conveyed strongly. Amanda McGuigan made a commanding Myrtha, cold and haughty.

I hope it is not as long between Australian Ballet seasons of Giselle as it has been recently. Both Burnett and Wright showed great promise of things to come and they deserve the opportunity to hone their interpretations, to polish their technique and to grow as artists. There are few ballets that offer such a great opportunity to reach new heights in one’s career as Giselle gives to those who are entrusted to carry on its beauty, its demands and its legacy.

Michelle Potter, 5 April 2015

My review of another performance of Giselle with Natasha Kusch and Chengwu Guo 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

‘Vanguard’. The Australian Ballet

11 May 2013 (matinee & evening), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House (The Four Temperaments, Bella Figura, Dyad 1929)

If this triple bill program from the Australian Ballet did one thing it was to show how far ahead of his time George Balanchine was in 1946 when he made The Four Temperaments.

Although the title, The Four Temperaments, suggests a link to the ancient practice of assigning behavioural characteristics to humans based on the extent to which certain fluids are present in the body, I think this is essentially an abstract ballet. It deconstructs classical ballet vocabulary before the idea of deconstruction in arts practice became a trendy phenomenon. So many of the movements—Balanchine’s different examples of supported pirouettes for example—show by the very act of deconstruction how the vocabulary of ballet is constructed. In addition, Balanchine’s use of turned in feet and legs, forward-thrusting pelvic movements, stabbing movements by the women on pointe, angular shapes made with the arms and palms of the hand, are all beyond what the eye is accustomed to think of as pure, classical movement. But seen within the context of the entire ‘Vanguard’ program, it is clear that similar movements surface in the work of choreographers coming after Balanchine. Such an attitude to the balletic vocabulary is especially noticeable in the choreography for Dyad 1929 made by Wayne McGregor in 2009.

Balanchine made his move in 1946 (at least) and I think the different look Dyad 1929 and others of McGregor’s works have, which is certainly a look more in keeping with the twenty first century, is as much a reflection of technical developments and changes in body shape since 1946 as anything else. The Four Temperaments is really a remarkable work.

The Australian Ballet has been beautifully coached and rehearsed for The Four Temperaments. There was a simple elegance and a clarity of technique in their dancing and they made the choreographic design very clear. At times, however, I wished some parts had been slightly more exaggerated—the movement in the pelvis for example. Balanchine was a showy choreographer at times and I think a little of the showiness that American companies seem to add to The Four Temperaments was missing.

Of the two casts I saw I most admired Daniel Gaudiello in the ‘Melancholic’ variation. I loved his unexpected falls, the theatrical way he threw his arms around his body, his very fluid movement, and his wonderful bend back from the waist as he made his (backwards) exit. I also enjoyed the pert and precise quality Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo brought to ‘Theme II’ and Juliet Burnett’s languorous and smooth flowing work in ‘Theme III’. Of the corps Dana Stephensen and Brooke Lockett (in different casts) stood out for me in supporting roles in ‘Melancholic’.

Then came Jiri Kylian’s emotive work Bella Figura with its mysterious lighting and half-revealed spaces.
Felicia Palanca & Sarah Peace in 'Bella Figura'. Photo: Jeff Busby

Felicia Palanca and Sarah Peace in Bella Figura, ca. 2000. Photo: Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Bella was first performed by the Australian Ballet in 2000 when it had a more than memorable cast, and it has been restaged in the intervening period, again with strong casts. So it is a pleasure to record that one cast I saw on this occasion did not make me think back to other performances. It even opened up for me a new view of the piece. The closing duet, danced in silence by Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, in moody lighting with two braziers burning brightly in the background, was moving, intimate and deeply satisfying. What wonderful rapport these two dancers have and how affecting is their ability to project that rapport so strongly. Jones and Gaudiello were also outstanding in another duet earlier on in the work. I don’t remember such a comic element in that particular duet on previous occasions; this time it bordered on the slapstick. But it was brilliantly done as Jones and Gaudiello managed to retain ‘la bella figura’ in its best sense, while also making us laugh.

After these two works Dyad 1929 looked very thin to me. I have admired recent works by Wayne McGregor including his Chroma, FAR and Live fire exercise, and I was also impressed by Dyad 1929 when it was first shown in Australia in 2009. This time I didn’t get the feeling that the dancers saw any diversity within the work. They all performed the steps very nicely but brought little else. After The Four Temperaments and Bella Figura it was a disappointment, not so much choreographically as in terms of performance.

Michelle Potter, 13 May 2013

‘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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‘Icons’. A second look

17 November 2012 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

A second viewing of Icons, the Australian Ballet’s triple bill tribute to 50 years of choreographic exploration by the company, confirmed much of what I thought from my previous viewing.  In particular I think it was a mistake to revive The Display. Despite well danced performances by Rachel Rawlins as the Female, Brett Simon as the Leader and Ty King-Wall as the Outsider the work overall looks old-hat. The kind of behaviour on show in the ballet was perhaps an accurate view of male/female relations in Australia in 1964 but it doesn’t have the shock value it had 48 years ago—times change. And while Katharine Hepburn might have been turned on by lyrebirds, I’m not sure any of the Australian Ballet dancers are, or even pretended to be. What’s more much of Robert Helpmann’s choreography looks a little like that from a musical (and not such a good one at that), while Sidney Nolan’s set, so evocative in its day, lost much of its appeal on the tiny stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre, especially from J row in the stalls. Memory is a funny thing of course but I also seem to remember the lighting and general visual ambience being softer, hazier and thus more affecting. But I may be living in my dreams! In any case the revival has been a huge disappointment.

Gemini on the other hand still looks fabulous and its choreography was given great treatment by Leanne Stojmenov, Juliet Burnett, Andrew Wright and Kevin Jackson. While I was attracted by the opening night cast in Melbourne by their cool, technical reading of the work, not to mention their spectacular energy, the cast I saw in Sydney brought a whole new element to it. Not to say that there was not also a strength of technique with this cast—there was—it was beautifully danced by all four. A duet between Stojmenov and Jackson (who seems to get better and better every time I see him) was remarkably powerful with its dramatic lines and enfolding of bodies one with the other; and Burnett has an unusual mixture of fragility and strength that brought a new quality to the work. But there was a hint of the sinister, or at least something disquieting or provocative, and more than a hint of emotion in the performance from this cast. For me this Gemini had a feeling of humanity about it, as well as being a ballet about contemporary technique.

As for Beyond Twelve, well my companion said as we stood up to leave: ‘Graeme Murphy makes ballet for adults!’ With all its slapstick humour, its phallic references, its comments on youthful immaturity, and its poking fun at Australian society it is still an immensely moving ballet. And the trio between the Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty remains one of Murphy’s most heart-warming choreographic accomplishments, as does the beautifully staged ending full of resignation, or is it wistfulness, or is it just time to move forward?

Scene from 'Beyond Twelve'. Photo: Jeff BusbyJack Hersee, Rudy Hawkes and Calvin Hannaford in Beyond Twelve. The Australian Ballet.  Photo: Jeff Busby

Michelle Potter, 20 November 2012

Here is the link to my earlier post.

‘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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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

‘Romeo and Juliet’. A second look

10 December 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet for the Australian Ballet continues to generate discussion and mixed reviews, and I recently took a second look at it at a Sydney mid-season matinee performance. It is impossible to ignore the dominance of the scenic elements and the challenges of the constantly changing times and locations, and why should we ignore them anyway as they are an intrinsic part of the collaboration and choreographic plan. So I still like to see this Romeo and Juliet as a postmodern work, despite all the problematic issues that the term ‘postmodern’ generates. Postmodernism, at least in areas of the visual arts, allows a collage of non-sequiturs and apparently frivolous allusions, which gives a pastiche we can either love or hate, but not ignore.

On this viewing, the sometimes overbearing scenic elements, and the episodic nature of the changes of time and location, did not startle to the same extent as they did that first time. On any second or subsequent viewing, whatever the work, one naturally notices different things. During the opening scene, set in what my ever-entertaining companion at these matiness thought looked like a scene from Dungeons and Dragons, it was Murphy’s attention to detail in his handling of the minor characters that attracted my attention. At the side of the main action and above it on the ‘bridge’, groups of bedraggled-looking townsfolk engaged in their own comments on the feuding being carried out centre stage. Murphy has always been a dab hand at this kind of background action—no standing round twiddling thumbs and admiring dresses. His works are choreographed down to the last detail.

The ball scene contains one of the best-known sections of the Prokofiev score, a section I will never be able to call anything other than ‘the cushion dance’. My approach to this scene will forever be coloured by my very first viewing of a ballet with the name Romeo and Juliet when, as a child, I saw a film of the Bolshoi Ballet with Galina Ulanova as Juliet. Well there were no cushions for the male guests to toss onto the floor in Murphy’s version of the magnificent ‘cushion dance’, but there was some startling and bold choreography. I especially admired the dramatic swirl of movement as the male guests held their partners, who leant back precariously as they were turned in a tight circle and who, with knees bent and feet together, jabbed the floor aggressively with their pointe shoes.

Akira Isogawa’s wedding dress for Juliet in the Japanese-inspired scene also caught my eye. Although it is pretty much impossible to learn much about the construction and detail of individual costumes from a seat in the auditorium, this dress seemed to be beautifully made from delicately patterned silk, or synthetic silken-look fabric. But it was the shoulder feature that surprised me. The straps that held the dress together over the shoulders were wide and crossed over just as they joined the bodice rather than in the middle of the of the upper back. It was a simple and almost unnoticeable touch, and perhaps not of major significance in the overall scheme of the ballet, but so elegant.

I was lucky enough to see Juliet Burnett in the leading role on this second viewing. She handled Murphy’s ever-changing and ever-challenging choreography as if she were born to dance his steps. She was bubbling with youth as she ran across the stage on pointe in the opening sequence. She soared through lifts in Murphy’s pas de deux and in those scenes in which the black-garbed holy men transported her across the stage. Her expressive arms gave a joyous quality to those moments where her young love for Romeo needed to be shown. But those arms also conjured up something entirely different, something leaden and full of fear when, for example, she reached out in an attempt to pick up the bottle of poison from her bed. It was this quality of being able to express emotion so well through the body, and not just through facial expression, that made her performance so exhilarating. But perhaps most of all it was a thrill to watch her portray the character of Juliet and to maintain that characterisation across the entire ballet, despite the changes of time and location. A stellar performance from Burnett who was partnered by Rudy Hawkes as Romeo.

Of the other cast members, Josef Brown made a welcome return to the ballet stage as Lord Capulet with Ingrid Gow as his Lady Capulet. Brown played Lord Capulet with a calm yet imposing presence. His handling of Juliet in the scenes with Paris rarely showed anger but rather some kind of fatherly determination. It allowed Murphy’s choreography, which in these scenes contains conflict within it, to shine through.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2011

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Here is the link to the original post and comments on this production of Romeo and Juliet.

UPDATE, 12 December 2011: I have just reread more carefully the original post written after opening night in Melbourne in September. In it I wrote: ‘Manion’s strongest contribution [Gerard Manion was the set designer for this work] was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work’. Well this was not part of the Sydney production! Why not? I have no idea, but it was a sad omission in my opinion.

‘British Liaisons.’ The Australian Ballet

14 May 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

This triple bill program, designed to highlight the strong links between British ballet and the growth of ballet in Australia, produced some moments that were absolute show stoppers.

None of those show stopping moments came, however, in Checkmate. Choreographed in 1937 by Dame Ninette de Valois as a battle between love and death played out on a chessboard, it opened the program. While for the most part it was adequately danced, it lacked any sustained suspense, which pretty much made a mockery of the whole thing. There is no doubt that Checkmate is an old fashioned work, highly stylised in its narrative and choreography. But some stronger characterisation, especially from Lucinda Dunn as the Black Queen, the seductress who ultimately brings about the downfall of the Red King, would have helped to make the work more enticing and anchored it in some kind of reality. Only Amy Harris as the Red Queen made anything of her role, a relatively minor one too, as she ushered in the Red King with kindness and concern. But without any strength of purpose from the other characters, Colin Peasley as the Red King had an uphill battle to make anything of his very important part.

But Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, programmed as the middle piece, made up for the disappointments of Checkmate. The first section was strongly danced by Lana Jones, Amy Harris and Miwako Kubota partnered by Adam Bull, Andrew Killian and Brett Simon respectively. But it was the second section, the seductively beautiful pas de deux danced by Jones and Bull, that was the show stopper. Jones in particular captured the inner calm of this duet— ‘at the still point, there the dance is’ wrote T. S Eliot. Not only was Jones able capture the elusive quality of stillness and repose even as she moved or was moved by her partner, but with each lift one could only gasp at the curving line of her body as it cut through space until it reached the high point of the movement . There  it settled into its final, classically perfect shape. Bull partnered her with care and the tenderness that befits the emotional underpinning of the duet, but nothing could match the star quality of Jones.

Jones appeared again as the leading dancer in the first movement of Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, which closed the program. Here she showed another side of her technique, her clear, precise footwork and her ability to turn—especially her ability to turn as she executed a faultless series of chaîné turns across the stage from one downstage corner to the other. She also imbued her dancing in this movement with a beautifully pert quality bringing the audience into her ambit with smiling eyes and a sparkle to her every move. It made me long to see her dance the lead in Balanchine’s Rubies.

Concerto needed, however, a little more precision of technique from the corps de ballet to do justice to MacMillan’s spatial arrangements, which any straggly lines instantly destroy. And they were destroyed on more than one occasion. Juliet Burnett, however, made a strong impression with a beautifully controlled performance in the pas de deux that comprises the second movement. She was partnered by Andrew Killian who almost stole the limelight from her with his deliciously unexpected changes of expression and mood.

Company pianist Stuart Macklin deserves accolades too for his solo piano performances, first in Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel to which the pas de deux in After the Rain is performed, and then as soloist in the Shostakovich second piano concerto to which Concerto is danced.

At last, a few moments of excitement from an Australian Ballet performance. Oh that there could be more!

Michelle Potter, 16 May 2011