Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

‘The Sleeping Beauty’. The Australian Ballet

15 September 2015, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne

On a day when Australia got a new Prime Minister, dance-goers also got a new production of The Sleeping Beauty from David McAllister and the Australian Ballet, with McAllister being credited with ‘Production and additional choreography’. I don’t know how our new PM will fare but, as for Beauty, there was good and not so good.

The good things first. The narrative flows clearly and smoothly. Bringing in Lucas Jervies as dramaturg clearly paid dividends, especially as this Beauty is a little different from what many of us have become used to watching. Act II, for example, is somewhat changed from other productions, of which more later. And Carabosse is ‘the ancient fairy of Wisdom’ according to program notes, so she doesn’t display as much evil intent as we have seen in previous productions, although of course she is furious at being left off the invitation list to Aurora’s christening party.

Which brings me to the second good thing. Lynette Wills as Carabosse is outstanding, just as she was as the Godmother in Cinderella.

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Wills is powerful yet restrained. Nothing is overplayed and yet we sense her presence and her impact on the unfolding story. And all this despite having a very strangely dressed entourage of rats who wear giant puppet-like heads and sport collars and black bow ties.

After that there isn’t much else that I found exhilarating. Benedicte Bemet as the Fairy of Musicality gave a distinctive interpretation to this role and brought a gorgeously lively quality to her exceptional technical capacity. Kevin Jackson as Prince Desiré made every effort to appear human. His two solos in Act II were mostly well performed, and there were moments when, as he looked at the spirit of Aurora, which the Lilac Fairy has conjured up in this Act, he sent shivers down my spine, such was his look of longing.

As for the Bluebird and Princess Florine, Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo could scarcely be faulted technically. Guo’s beats and turns are astonishing, as I have said many times before. But how I missed the fluttering hands that are so often part of the choreography for Princess Florine. She is meant to be listening to the Bluebird who is teaching her how to fly, and the listening bit was all there. But in other versions, beautiful fluttering movements of the hands show her attempts to fly, to put into practice what she is hearing. This fluttering has been part of the Australian heritage of Beauty for decades. Let’s be proud of our heritage. Why leave it out now even if it is (maybe) an addition from the era of Soviet realism?

Which brings up the question of the other fairy tale characters who usually appear at the wedding of Aurora and her Prince. It was a lovely touch to include various fairy tale characters, properly disguised but recognisable, in Act II, which in McAllister’s production is a kind of picnic rather than a straight out hunting party, with the Prince joining in the excursion carrying his book of fairy tales. But what happened to the variations of Puss in Boots and the White Cat and Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Act III? If these characters appear, somewhat in disguise, in Act II why do they have such a tiny role in Act III (and yet turn up in the final mazurka as if they had danced major parts)? It doesn’t make sense to me to leave out their pas de deux and variations. Where was the dramaturg at this point? Apart from anything else they are also part of our Sleeping Beauty heritage and I missed them.

Lana Jones as Aurora missed the youthfulness that I think gives the early part of Act I so much of its charm. She looked beautifully elegant and performed everything with aplomb, but she wasn’t a sixteen year old princess. The grand pas de deux, despite being soundly performed, lacked the excitement that this part of Act III should bring.

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Other choreographic features, especially in Act II, seemed to me to be a little too close to parts of Swan Lake and Nutcracker. The woodland nymphs, who inhabit the overgrown forest in Act II, often split into small groups, link hands à la Four Little Swans, and perform various piqué-style movements. And there is a scene, also in Act II, where Carabosse’s rats fight with the Prince in an attempt to extract from him the key that will open the glass-domed casket in which Aurora has slept for 100 years. Shades of a certain part of Nutcracker?

Gabriela Tylesova’s designs for costumes and set are extraordinarily lavish and, for me, they are the most curious mixture of Baroque extravagance and Rococo excess, with a Louis XIV party thrown in at the end, which occasionally looked like Carnevale in Venice, complete with a Tiepolo-style ceiling as an added attraction. And why did those three massive chandeliers start on the floor and majestically rise to the ceiling at the beginning of Act III? The audience greeted this strange chandelier behaviour with applause, although I’m not sure why. And what was the most disappointing feature of all this excess across the prologue and three acts? The dancing became secondary to the visual appearance.

Tylesova’s choice of colours for her costumes was also unattractive to my eyes. It shouted excess once again. As for those large wings worn by the fairies, they just got in the way of the dancers’ line, which is such an important part of the ballet technique we associate with Petipa and classicism.

In a feature published in the September 2015 issue of Vogue Australia, McAllister is quoted as saying: ‘With big classics like Sleeping Beauty, I really believe it’s around the staging, the look of it.’ Well, yes, he is right that the staging is important in a narrative ballet. But when the staging is such that it overwhelms the dancing it simply doesn’t work.

The audience was wildly enthusiastic as the curtain went down amid much gold, including shimmering gold leaf floating in the air, and a huge gold sun that descended over the Tiepolo ceiling. I went home dejected that such a beautiful ballet could be turned into an event like some kind of football grand final. The dancing was lost in a world of visual excess and technical invention.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty', 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Michelle Potter, 17 September 2015

Featured image: Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

’20:21′. The Australian Ballet

29 August 2015 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

What does twenty-first-century ballet encompass? What does it look like? And does it differ from ballet of the twentieth century? In many respects the Australian Ballet’s latest mixed bill program, 20:21, suggests an answer in Tim Harbour’s latest work, Filigree and Shadow, the centre work in the 20:21 program. The work is strongly danced. Its powerful, dramatic choreography is coupled with Benjamin Cisterne’s equally dramatic lighting, and with an exceptional, minimalist stage setting by Kelvin Ho that combines curved and flat walls. Its commissioned score from the German duo, 48nord, binds the work together.

Unfortunately for Harbour, however, his work in the triple bill program is preceded and followed by works from two of the twentieth-century’s most admired choreographers—George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Master choreographers. And not only does it have to contend with that kind of program placement, Filigree and Shadow doesn’t seem to take us anywhere. It is, we are told in Australian Ballet marketing and in program notes, about Harbour’s feelings of aggression. I found it hard to identify with those personal feelings (of anger?) that Harbour seemed to want to show.

Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, which opened the program, might be thought of (wrongly I suggest) as lightweight by comparison. It’s pretty to look at and high-spirited emotionally. But it asks us to look at complexity of structure (in the choreographic patterns that it puts before us) and musicality (in its reflections of and relationships to Stravinsky’s symphonic score). Balanchine was never one to make his ballets overly personal. We can bring our own ideas to the work and that is, I believe, how to engage an audience. Harbour’s very personal approach doesn’t do this and, as a result, the Balanchine work has so much more to offer.

The six principals in Symphony in Three Movements in the performance I saw, Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Ty King-Wall, and Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes, all brought their individual qualities to the performance. Kondo and Guo were thrilling technically but also brought pleasure and excitement to their dancing, and Jones was playful and nicely partnered by King-Wall. The central pas de deux from Scott and Hawkes gave clarity to the unusual choreography with its turned up feet and hands bent at the wrists.

The closing work, Tharp’s In the Upper Room, was an acquisition for the Australian Ballet during Ross Stretton’s artistic directorship. Those who were lucky enough to be at the opening night in 1997 are unlikely to forget the occasion. Since then I have seen Upper Room performed by other companies in the United States but have always been a little disappointed. Beyond the Australian Ballet, no one else seems to have the energy, the staying power, and, behind the marathon of dancing, the reckless insouciance to carry it off.

The performance I saw this season wasn’t an opening night, and nor did it have quite the same thrill as that very first viewing—it wasn’t as well danced for a start. But this time I admired hugely the four ladies on pointe, in particular Robyn Hendricks and Amanda McGuigan, whose beautifully proportioned bodies and stellar techniques made the most of Tharp’s uniquely beautiful take on classical moves. I love this work, even when it doesn’t reach the heights of that first, great performance of 1997. It is a thrill to have it back in Australia, and also a thrill to see Ross Stretton acknowledged on the cast sheet.

Michelle Potter, 30 August 2015

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Filigree and Shadow, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Note: My review of the first Australian Ballet performance of In the Upper Room was published in Dance Australia in June/July 1997 (can it really be almost 20 years ago?). My posts about Upper Room in the U.S. are at various links including Pacific Northwest Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

 

‘Giselle’. The Australian Ballet (2015 third viewing)

21 May 2015, Canberra Theatre Centre

This is an expanded version of a review published by Fairfax Media online on 22 May and which will appear shortly in print in The Canberra Times [published 25 May].

Giselle is one of the great works of the balletic repertoire. Its story of love, betrayal and forgiveness needs powerful acting as well as exceptional dancing, and its Romantic heritage (it was first performed in Paris in 1841) requires that its two acts be very different from each other. The first act, showing village life at harvest time, is grounded in reality; the second, set in a ghostly forest clearing at midnight, is just the opposite. The opening night of the Australian Ballet’s Canberra season of Giselle, the Maina Gielgud production, ticked all the boxes and was nothing short of stunning.

In the leading roles of the peasant girl Giselle, and Albrecht, the man Giselle loves, Lana Jones and Adam Bull danced exceptionally well, both together and in their respective solos. I have never seen Jones dance with such lightness and elevation and her held arabesques lingered beautifully every time. The relationship between Jones and Bull unfolded carefully throughout Act I as a result of their expressive faces and their constant eye contact. Then, when Albrecht’s true identity was revealed—he is not the peasant he seems to be but a Count in disguise—Jones brought compelling dramatic force to her mental collapse. Bull played Albrecht as a man genuinely in love and, although he could not deny his aristocratic lineage when confronted with it, we felt his anguish as he faced Giselle’s onstage death.

By Act II Giselle, as prefigured in Act I, has become a Wili and rises from the grave to join others like her who have been betrayed in love. They prey upon men who enter their domain at night and, at the command of Myrtha, their Queen, condemn them to dance until they die. Jones and Bull again showed their exceptional technical skills but also consistently stayed in character. Their first encounter, after Albrecht had entered the forest to mourn at Giselle’s grave, was a moving one. Jones drifted past Bull as an apparition whom he could not catch. As the act progressed we felt Bull’s desperation as he obeyed the command to keep dancing, and we felt Jones’ all-consuming love as she pleaded that he be saved. None of this was at the expense of their dancing in a technical sense, but neither did they allow their dancing to intrude on the development of the story.

As Myrtha, Ako Kondo was superb. She was, as ever, technically assured. But she also brought just the right imperious quality to her performance. No one could escape her cold-heartedness.

Ako Kondo as Myrtha in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo as Myrtha in Giselle. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Hilarion, the rough and untutored gamekeeper also in love with Giselle, was strongly danced by Andrew Killian. His role in unmasking Albrecht in Act I is crucial and Killian made his every move and thought unmistakably clear. As Wilfred, Albrecht’s right hand man, Andrew Wright also gave a strong performance. He was forever anxious as he tried again and again to persuade Albrecht not to pursue his deception of Giselle, and then was in the right place at the right time to usher him out of the village following Giselle’s death.

The peasant pas de deux, a highlight of Act I, was danced by Miwako Kubota and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson. They made a charming couple, both in their dancing and in the way they engaged with each other, and with us in the auditorium. What I especially admired was that they maintained their roles as two people from the village community. While technically they certainly matched others I have seen perform this pas de deux, they were the first who didn’t look as though they belonged elsewhere.

Natasha Kusen and Robyn Hendricks also caught my eye for their lyrical performance as the leading Wilis in Act II. Kusen in particular had a wonderfully fluid upper body and arms and continues to stand out as a dancer to watch.

Although the size of the Canberra stage caused one or two difficult moments, the dancers of the Australian Ballet performed as the true professionals they are. It was a wonderful Giselle, beautifully danced, thoroughly engaging, and dramatically convincing throughout.

Michelle Potter, 23 May 2015

 

Postscript

On the question of the size of the Canberra Theatre and its relation to the Australian Ballet’s abilities to stage its current repertoire in the present theatre, at the post-performance event, John Hindmarsh, current chair of the ACT Cultural Facilities Corporation announced that he had had some success in his ongoing initiative to develop a new Canberra Theatre. While there is, apparently, still much to achieve Hindmarsh was in a relatively buoyant mood about possibilities.

I am also curious that the name Loys, the pseudonym that used to be given to Albrecht while he assumes a village identity, seems to be disappearing. It didn’t appear in this production. And is he a Count as the Australian Ballet program says, or is he the Duke of Silesia as others note? Pedantic points perhaps, but interesting nevertheless.

And one disappointment, no media images were available of Jones and Bull, which seems a missed opportunity to me.

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in 'Monotones II'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Daniel Boud

‘The Dream’. A second look

16 May 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

After feeling less than satisfied with my earlier viewing of the Australian Ballet’s triple bill of Ashton works—Monotones II, Symphonic Variations and The Dream—it was such a pleasure to have a second look and come away feeling much more fulfilled.

Monotones II was danced by the same cast that I saw on opening night, Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright, but all my feeling that the work was outdated disappeared. Gone too were those hideous shadows that marred my first viewing, although they linger a little on the photograph below. This time, the visually pristine quality of the work was all there. I had a much better seat, but was that the only reason? I suspect not.

There was a real serenity to the performance. All three dancers were attuned to each other’s movements. There were gorgeous moments of symmetry that gently broke into asymmetry. Bodies twisted and threaded through arched shapes. Winding and unwinding. It was a truly beautiful, calm, technically satisfying performance.

Symphonic Variations too was danced in a far superior fashion to what I saw on opening night. The three women, Lana Jones, Amanda McGuigan and Ingrid Gow were well cast together. They are of similar height and body shape and it made a huge difference. The men, Andrew Killian, Ty King-Wall and Andrew Wright, were experienced enough to manage the difficult partnering without looking as though they were fumbling around. They also handled better the experience of being on stage for the entire ballet.

Technically, all six dancers showed every beautiful and often intricate detail of Ashton’s choreography—the elongated fingers, the hands turned up from the wrists, the lines made between dancers, for example. The spacing and patterning of the work was also clear, and the movements flowed smoothly. A delight to watch. I loved that moment for the women when they turned chaînés around their partner, starting one after the other and with one arm spiralling upwards as if propelled by the twirling of the feet. And I gasped as the men, in a line upstage, all turned a double pirouette ending in attitude and finished perfectly, in the same line, in time, and with their attitudes at the same height. Just beautiful and surely how Ashton imagined this work would be danced.

Still something missing there though—that incredible feeling that I got from the Royal that this was an awakening from the darkness. And it was only after reading (much later) the Royal’s program notes that I realised the circumstances behind Ashton’s creation of the work. So I didn’t set out with a preconceived idea. But thank you to the six Australian Ballet dancers I saw on this occasion. It was a lovely, serene performance, despite the medical emergency that was going on in the auditorium at the time.

The Dream looked mostly as beautiful as it did on opening night, this time with Miwako Kubota and Jared Wright taking the leading roles of Titania and Oberon. Wright stood out in his solo variation in the final pas de deux. His movements were beautifully shaped and coordinated. Andrew Wright and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson gave excellent performances as Demetrius and Lysander. Wright in particular was able to demonstrate how skilled Ashton is at incorporating humour into his works. Marcus Morelli, with his exceptional elevation, made Puck look as if he belonged in the air.

Overall, what a difference!

Michelle Potter, 17 May 2015

Featured image: Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in Monotones II. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in 'Monotones II'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Daniel Boud

My initial review is at this link.

‘La Bayadère’. The Australian Ballet

29 August (evening) and 30 August (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Stanton Welch made his new version of La Bayadère for Houston Ballet, of which he has been artistic director for ten years. Its premiere was in 2010. He has now restaged it for the Australian Ballet, where he still holds the position of resident choreographer.

It was always going to be a problematic ballet: an updated version of a work that is entrenched in nineteenth-century cultural values where countries beyond Europe were regarded as little more than examples of exotica, and were represented as such in the theatre. Choreographically, Welch’s Bayadère makes passing references to traditional Indian greetings and hand movements from forms of Indian dance. There are also plenty of attitudes (the ballet step) with angular elbows and hands bent at the wrist, palms facing upwards. They remind us of a dancing Shiva. But there is also a lot of waltzing at certain points and the mixture doesn’t ring true today. So much of what we can accept from a production that claims to look back to the original (Makarova’s production for example), we can’t accept from a new production made in the twenty-first century. It all becomes a frustrating jumble.

So too with the costuming. There are no tutus (thankfully) until the Kingdom of the Shades scene, although there is a confusion of costuming, especially with Solor who is dressed like a balletic prince in tights and jacket while everyone else has a costume that approximates an Indian-style outfit.

Amber Scott and artists of the Australian Ballet in 'La Bayadère'. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Amber Scott and artists of the Australian Ballet in Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo: © Jeff Busby

My enjoyment of the work depended very much on the casting. The first show I saw, with Lana Jones as Nikiya and Adam Bull as Solor, was a lack-lustre performance, which only highlighted the feeling that the work was a cultural and choreographic jumble. While Jones’ first solo was beautifully danced—she has such a fluid upper body—she and Bull were not connecting and it seemed like a very sullen pairing. Robyn Hendricks as Gamzatti, whose villainous nature Welch has strengthened nicely, overplayed the role somewhat and didn’t look good in that harem costume, which reveals the rib cage rather dramatically.

In that first viewing, I loved the two children who accompanied Solor’s mother wherever she appeared. They were an absolute delight and took an active interest in everything happening on stage. And Vivenne Wong executed the first solo in the Shades scene with precision and attack—those relevés on pointe down the diagonal were spectacular.

In a second viewing I had the pleasure of seeing Amber Scott as Nikiya and Ty King-Wall as Solor. My interest in the work soared.

Ty King-Wall and Amber Scott in 'La Bayadère', the Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ty King-Wall and Amber Scott in Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère, 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

King-Wall and Scott danced beautifully together and their various pas de deux were silky smooth and imbued with tenderness. This was the first time I have seen King-Wall in a principal role since he was promoted and he certainly lived up to that promotion, both technically and in terms of successfully entering a role and developing a partnership. Ako Kondo as Gamzatti once again danced with superb technical skill. Perhaps she was a little too nice for the role in its new guise, but she engaged well with Laura Tong as Ajah, her servant, and it is impossible not to be swept away by her superb dancing.

The issue of Indian references aside, Welch’s choreography is always interesting to watch. I have written elsewhere that I think his best works are abstract rather than story ballets and I enjoyed watching how he structured scenes for larger numbers of people in Bayadère. His choreography for the Rajah’s four guards was simply constructed but often surprising in the way each came forward for a mini solo. And later, during the wedding celebrations for Solor and Gamzatti, Welch handled a bevy of guards and guests easily and maintained interest, despite the waltzing, in each of the different groups throughout that sequence of dancing.

Design-wise, Peter Farmer’s chaise-longue, on which Solor reclined to smoke his opium before the shades of Nikiya began their procession down the ramp, was gorgeous. Its luscious curves gave it an art nouveau feel and its back reminded me of the underside of a mushroom, magic mushrooms no doubt.

This production of La Bayadère is full of melodrama, a ‘cat fight’ between Nikiya, Gamzatti and Ajah; people being killed left right and centre; appearances by men in gold paint; and temples tumbling into ruins. But Petipa’s choreography has been maintained in certain places and, with a good cast, the story speeds along and much can be forgiven.

Michelle Potter, 2 September 2014

Featured image: Ako Kondo as Gamzatti in Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère. The Australian Ballet, 2014. 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

‘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.

‘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

Season’s greetings & the ‘best of’ 2012

Season's greetings 2012 bannerThank you to those who have logged on to my website over the past year, especially those who  have kept the site alive with their comments. I wish you the compliments of the season and look forward to hearing from you in 2013.

The best of 2012

Lists of the ‘best of’ will always be very personal and will depend on what any individual has been able to see. However, here are my thoughts in a number of categories with links back to my posts on the productions. I welcome, of course, comments and lists from others, which are sure to be different from mine.

Most outstanding new choreography: Graeme Murphy’s The narrative of nothing (despite its title), full of vintage Murphy moves but full of the new as well.

Most outstanding production: Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Terrain with choreography by Frances Rings and outstanding collaborative input from the creative team of Jennifer Irwin, Jacob Nash, Karen Norris and David Page.

Most outstanding performance by a dancer, or dancers: Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky pas de deux as part of the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary gala.

Most disappointing production: The Australian Ballet’s revival of Robert Helpmann’s Display. I’m not sure that anyone in the production/performance really ‘got it’ and it became simply a reminder that dance doesn’t always translate well from generation to generation, era to era.

Surprise of the year: Finucane and Smith’s Glory Box. While some may question whether this show was dance or not, Moira Finucane’s performance in Miss Finucane’s Collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria (Get Wet for Art) was a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek comment on the angst-ridden works of Pina Bausch, and as such on Meryl Tankard’s more larrikin approach to serious issues.

Dancer to watch: Tammi Gissell. I was sorry to miss the Perth-based Ochre Contemporary Dance Company’s inaugural production, Diaphanous, in which Gissell featured, but I was impressed by her work with Liz Lea in Canberra as part of Science Week 2012 at CSIRO and look forward to the development of that show later in Canberra in 2013.

Beyond Australia: Wayne McGregor’s FAR, in which the choreography generated so much to think about, to talk over and to ponder upon.

Most frustrating dance occurrence: The demise of Australia Dancing and the futile efforts to explain that moving it to Trove was a positive step.

Michelle Potter, 16 December 2012

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