Dance diary. March 2015

  • Hannah O’Neill

Although the Paris Opera Ballet’s website is still listing Australian Ballet School graduate Hannah O’Neill as a coryphée on its organisational chart, O’Neill is now a sujet with the company. Several French websites are carrying this news including Danser canal historique. O’Neill’s promotion took place as a result of a competitive examination, held at the end of 2014, for promotion within the company. O’Neill performed a set piece, Gamzatti’s variation from Act II of Rudolf Nureyev’s La Bayadère, and her chosen piece, a variation from George Balanchine’s Walpurgis Night.

Hannah O'Neill in William Forsythe's Pas./Parts. Photo (c) Sébastien Mathé

Hannah O’Neill in William Forsythe’s Pas./Parts. © Sébastien Mathé–Opéra National de Paris. Reproduced with permission

O’Neill will also make her debut as Odette/Odile in the Nureyev Swan Lake at the Opéra Bastille on 8 April, and the performance is sold out! Quite an astonishing rise for someone who joined the Paris Opera Ballet on a temporary, seasonal contract only in late 2011 (the same year she graduated from the Australian Ballet School). O’Neill was given a life-time contract in 2013, another astonishing feat for someone who is not French by birth; was promoted to coryphée at the end of 2013; and now is a sujet (closest Australian equivalent is probably soloist).

And what a beautiful photograph from Sébastien Mathé. That ‘Dutch tilt’ is so perfect for conveying the feeling of a Forsythe piece.

  • Madeleine Eastoe

The news that Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe will retire at the end of the current season of Giselle set my mind racing. How lucky I have been over the years. She has given me so many wonderful dancing moments to remember. Some were unexpected: a mid-season matinee in Sydney many years ago (probably during the Ross Stretton era come to think of it) when she made her debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet—the Cranko version. Some were thrilling: those fouettés in Stanton Welch’s Divergence! Some have rightly been universally acclaimed: her performances in works by Graeme Murphy, notably the leading roles in Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. One made history: her debut in Giselle in Sydney in 2006 after which she was promoted to principal. But, from my extensive personal store of memories, I loved her debut as the Sylph in La Sylphide in Melbourne in 2005. Looking back:

At the next day’s matinee, the leading roles of the Sylphide and James were danced by Madeleine Eastoe and Tim Harbour. Eastoe caught easily the feathery and insubstantial nature of the Sylphide but she also conveyed a bit of artifice in her dealings with James. She hovered. She darted. She was here. She was there. Her bourrees were as delicate as the wings of the butterfly she catches for James in Act II. But when she wept at the window in Act I, when she melted with grief as she rebuked James that he loved another, and when she capriciously snatched the ring meant for Effie from his hand, we knew that James was trapped not by love but by the trickery of a fey person. Here was the beautiful danger. This was Eastoe’s debut performance as the Sylphide and she showed all the technical and dramatic strengths that mark her as one of the Australian Ballet’s true stars. (Michelle Potter, ballet.co magazine, April 2005)

Madeleine Eastoe in a study for 'La Sylphide', 2005. Photo: Justin Smith

Madeleine Eastoe in a study for La Sylphide, 2005. Photo: Justin Smith

Again, a stunning image and one that has inspired my writing about the Romantic era. And may Eastoe lead a fulfilling life after Giselle.

  • The Goddess of Air at the Stray Dog Café

This blog article from the British Library is a lovely read and includes a gorgeous portrait of Tamara Karsavina by John Singer Sargent.

  • Press for March

‘Note [on Quintett].’ Program note for Sydney Dance Company’s Frame of Mind season.

‘Undercover Designs.’ Article on Kristian Fredrikson’s designs for the film Undercover (1983), The National Library of Australia Magazine, March 2015, pp. 20–23. Online version.

‘Classical ballet a dance to the death.’ Article on Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle, The Canberra Times (Panorama), 7 March 2015, p. 18. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2015

‘Paquita’ & ‘La Sylphide’. A second look

16 November 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I was startled to see, when looking at the Australian Ballet’s website to check the casting for my Sydney subscription performance of Paquita and La Sylphide, that Paquita was advertised as a Romantic ballet—’the last flowering of the Romantic ballet’. Elsewhere on the website the program was described as ‘the first and last [of the] great Romantic ballets on one double bill’. The original, full-length Paris production of Paquita (1846) might have been in the Romantic tradition, although that is disputed by some, but what the Australian Ballet has been presenting is definitely not a Romantic work. Marius Petipa made additions to the original Paquita when he restaged his version in Russia in 1881 (1882 new style date). Those interpolations with music by Minkus are, I believe, what most companies now perform. The complete ballet was staged relatively recently (2001) by Pierre Lacotte for the Paris Opera Ballet, but not many other companies have a full-length production in their repertoire. Without the rest of the ballet, the Petipa arrangements can scarcely be called Romantic, although the Spanish overtones we see and hear in the Petipa excerpts do allude to the Spanish elements of the full-length ballet.

Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet in 'Paquita'
Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet in Pierre Lacotte’s production of Paquita

That aside, it was a thrill to see Daniel Gaudiello taking the male role in my Sydney viewing of the Australian Ballet’s excerpts from Paquita. What I love about Gaudiello’s dancing (apart from his technical abilities) is his wonderful approach to partnering. He is so attentive to and caring of his partner (Lucinda Dunn on this occasion) without being merely a ‘porteur’. When he stands back from her and lifts his arms to an open fifth position he is not only triumphantly showing her off as the ballerina, but also showing his own polish and charisma as a true ‘danseur noble’. He has great style.

Of the variations I especially enjoyed the second variation, subtly and gently danced by Jessica Fyfe, and the dancing of the two demi-soloists, Vivienne Wong and Benedicte Bemet, the latter certainly a rising personality.

I was pleased too that my previous disappointment with the staging of La Sylphide dissipated somewhat with a second look. This time I thought there was much more feeling for the Romantic style in the second act and a better contrast between the first and second acts.

La sylphide Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet in La sylphide. Photo: © Jeff Busby, 2013

Perhaps it was Reiko Hombo, who gave a strong, individualistic interpretation, beautifully danced, of the Sylph that made the difference. The lightness and height of her jump; her softly unfolding, beautifully controlled arabesques; her lovely rounded arms; and her supple upper body gave the right technical feel to the role. In addition, her interpretation was consistent and well thought through. There was a definite wickedness of intention there under all that charm as she made every effort to convince James of her wish that he join her in her forest realm. It brought home very nicely that ‘beautiful danger’ that respected Danish scholar Erik Aschengreen so perceptively wrote about many years ago as being a defining characteristic of the Romantic era. And Hombo carried this approach through into the second act.

Hombo was partnered by Chengwu Guo as James and he had, I thought, settled well into the role since my previous viewing. Perhaps again it was Hombo who made the difference. She gave him something to respond to, and as technical partners they work well together. Halaina Hills as Effie and Amy Harris as the lead Sylph in Act II also added a certain strength to the overall production. But I regret that the important role of Madge always seems to degenerate into something a little manic. It has been a long time since there has been a really powerful performance in Australia of that role. Without a strong and convincing Madge the ballet loses much of its intent.

Erik Bruhn as Madge in 'La sylphide', the Australian Ballet, 1985. Photo: Walter Stringer
Erik Bruhn as Madge in La Sylphide, the Australian Ballet, 1985. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

My earlier post on this program is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 17 November 2013

‘Paquita’ & ‘La Sylphide’. The Australian Ballet

4 September 2013, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

This double bill opened with Paquita (or parts of it), a work in the classical tradition of Marius Petipa. It concluded with a Romantic work, La Sylphide, with the Erik Bruhn choreography after August Bournonville. Putting a work from the classical era with one from the Romantic age is probably a little risky. For such a program to be a success stylistically the company involved needs to have a good understanding of the differences between the styles and, more importantly, dancers who can demonstrate those differences. With the cast I saw, I’m not sure this happened.

Paquita was led strongly by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello and the corps de ballet worked beautifully together giving a performance that made me smile with pleasure at how exciting pure classical ballet can look. The brilliance, the formality, the elegance and decorum that characterise classicism in ballet were all there. Ako Kondo was the absolute star in this performance of Paquita. She had the third solo and her series of relevé turns in attitude and arabesque, and her diagonal of double pirouettes were spectacular. And how gorgeous to see her execute a grand jeté en tournant with the arms lifting and lifting into and through 5th position as if the arms were (as they should be) part of the movement and not just an add on. Wonderful. Other soloists performed well but could not come anywhere near Kondo for pushing the ballet technique to the limit.

Ako Kondo in 'Paquita', The Australian Ballet. Photo © Jeff Busby, 2013
Ako Kondo in Paquita. The Australian Ballet. Photo: © Jeff Busby, 2013

On the other hand, La Sylphide, led by Lana Jones as the Sylph and Chengwu Guo as James, was a little disappointing. I don’t believe Jones is suited to the Romantic style, or else she was not well coached in her preparation for this role. Although she is more than capable in a technical sense of executing all that is needed throughout the ballet, she looked more than a little coy and her movements seemed stiff, especially in the upper body. She certainly didn’t seem ethereal to me. Chengwu Guo has a a beautiful jump and technique in general. His entrechats and other beaten steps were outstanding, especially in his Act II solo. But it all looked so forced, as if he were trying too hard. And for me the beautiful ballon that so characterises Bournonville was missing. Bournonville doesn’t have to look spectacular, it has to look easy, which is different from hard-edged spectacular. In looking easy it gains its own very distinctive, remarkable appearance.

But what was really disappointing was that I thought the supernatural element was totally missing in Act II. Little of the mood had changed from Act I and, really, if the Australian Ballet is going to stage a work of the Romantic era it needs to work to make the dichotomy between the real and the surreal more clear, whatever cast we might be looking at. That dichotomy is at the heart of Romanticism in ballet.

Dimity Azoury, Amy Harris, and Natasha Kusen in 'La Sylphide'. Photo: © Jeff Busby, 2013
Dimity Azoury, Amy Harris, and Natasha Kusen in ‘La Sylphide’. Photo: © Jeff Busby, 2013

Michelle Potter, 5 September 2013

See this link for my comments on a second viewing of this program.

Rachel Rawlins retires

The Canberra Times this morning published an abbreviated version of a story I wrote on the retirement of Rachel Rawlins. Here is a link to the online version. However, as the article was shortened I am posting the full story below, in particular because it contains a further comment from Dell Brady, one of Rawlins’ early teachers, and more from Ty King-Wall, and indeed from Rawlins herself.

Rachel Rawlins, 2007. Photo: Justin SmithRachel Rawlins in Sir Peter Wright’s production of  Nutcracker, 2007. Photo: Justin Smith. Courtesy: The Australian Ballet

Rachel Rawlins, principal artist with the Australian Ballet, has announced that she will retire at the end of this year. She will give her final performance in Sydney in December in the dual role of Odette/Odile in Stephen Baynes’ newly choreographed version of Swan Lake. ‘I’ve never danced the lead in a complete, traditional production of Swan Lake so I am looking forward to leaving on a high note by fulfilling that ambition’, Rawlins says.

Rawlins can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to dance. ‘My desire to dance’, she says, ‘happened really before I can recall. It was something I felt passionately about before I realised what dance was. When I look at the children of some of my friends I recognise that same desire today in some of them. They just love moving to music’.

Rawlins took her first ballet classes in Canberra, largely at the Dell Brady School of Ballet. She remembers those early years fondly and recalls that Brady was strict but in a way that made her pupils understand that it was important to dance properly. She passed on to her students her own passion for dance.

Brady for her part recalls that it was absolutely clear from the beginning that Rawlins was talented: ‘Even now when I look back on the photos of the first show she did with me when she was a ‘rose fairy’—a role she shared with Pia Miranda, now a successful film actor—her lovely long slender legs and beautifully pointed feet signalled what was to come. She was also very determined—in a quiet way—and when she was given a challenging role, as she was in subsequent shows at the ballet school, she would always push herself to achieve her best’.

From Canberra Rawlins went on to further study in Melbourne eventually at the Australian Ballet School. She counts getting a contract with the Australian Ballet at the end of her training as the first major highlight of her dancing life. It was the beginning of a stellar career, which subsequently included two years in London with the Royal Ballet in addition to her eighteen years with the Australian Ballet where she has been a principal since 2004.

She still has strong memories of preparing for her first principal role with the Australian Ballet, that of the Sylph in the iconic Romantic ballet, La Sylphide. ‘I worked intensively with Maina Gielgud, then artistic director of the company, on that role. Maina made sure that I was thoroughly prepared so that when I went on in that role I felt really confident and could enjoy being onstage’.

Other highlights for her have included dancing in the several ballets by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian that the Australian Ballet has in its repertoire, Bella Figura, Sinfonietta, Forgotten Land, Petite Mort, for example. She admires Kylian’s musical choices and his ability to make choreography that is so in tune with that music. But also she notes that as a principal dancer it is lovely to work sometimes as part of a group. Kylian makes works that are somewhat democratic in nature compared with more traditional ballets where there are obvious principal roles. Rawlins explains that it is a special experience to feel the freedom of movement that comes with being part of a group and being able to bond with other dancers onstage.

But of course she has consistently danced leading roles in more traditionally structured ballets and has been acclaimed for her performances in classical works and dramatic ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Manon, Onegin, Madame Butterfly, Romeo and Juliet  and a host of others.

Rachel Rawlins, 2011. Photo: Jeff BusbyRachel Rawlins in Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, 2011. Photo: Jeff Busby. Courtesy: The Australian Ballet.

A frequent partner in recent years has been Ty King-Wall, currently a senior artist with the Australian Ballet. He recalls in particular dancing the pas de deux from Giselle with her, both in Canberra earlier this year and then in New York on the company’s recent overseas tour.

‘I have loved partnering Rachel’, he says. ‘She has such a natural sense of movement, such a rare quality I think. Dancing Giselle with her was a real highlight for me. The role suits her so well and the experience of dancing with her in the pas de deux has given me a taste for it. Now I’d love to do the complete ballet. I love watching her in rehearsals too. She has such humility and is unassuming about her talent’.

Rawlins says that she will go to Melbourne for a family Christmas and then maybe spend time at the beach. She has nothing planned yet in terms of the future direction her life will take but acknowledges that the Australian Ballet has a number of strategies in place for retraining dancers. She will look into possibilities a little later.

‘As a dancer I have aimed to bring my own experiences to my work and to give performances that reflect who I am’, she says. ‘Now I want to be realistic that that part of my life is coming to an end. I have been incredibly lucky in my career and done everything I have wanted to do with ballet. But it’s a hard, physical life, a travelling life. I’m sure I will miss being onstage but not so much the hard work that it takes to get onstage’.

King-Wall sees her retirement as one of those bitter-sweet moments. ‘We will miss her of course, but she is going while at her peak, which is something we all hope to do’.

Brady, her former Canberra teacher, says: ‘As I have continued to watch Rachel in nearly all her major roles over the years, it has been truly satisfying and often very moving to recognise the development of Rachel as an artist; an all too rare spectacle on the ballet stage today. I will miss seeing her taking up the challenge, as she always has, and I will miss the depth and intensity of interpretation she brought to all her performances’.

Michelle Potter, 23 November 2012

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