Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake', ca. 2003

Graeme Murphy’s ‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet (2013)

22 June 2013 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The first thing to say about this performance of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake is that Leanne Stojmenov as Odette was absolutely stunning. It all began with that Act I wedding waltz. Partnered by Andrew Killian as Siegfried, Stojmenov not only danced with delicious fluidity in the upper body, she was also so attuned to the music and was so much the happy young bride. And how often does that beautiful white gown with its long, long train impede parts of the movement? Not this time. The gown was manipulated pretty much perfectly so that, as intended, it was an intrinsic part of the choreography. It was a beautiful and absolutely captivating moment so early into the show and it was followed by some charming encounters between Stojmenov and the guests, especially with the children.

From there Stojmenov delivered some technically sumptuous dancing and swept us through a whole range of emotions until her final disappearance into the depths of the dark waters of the lake. As Odette at the lakeside in Act II her solo, with its remarkable ending—a backwards slide along the floor, was magnificent, as was the pas de deux with Killian, again with its breathtaking ending that moves from Siegfried holding Odette as a limp, bent-over body, which is then stretched out fully but is held parallel to the floor, to a fish dive, and finally to another slide to the floor. And perhaps nothing was more moving in a dramatic sense than Stojmenov’s encounters with Killian in the final moments of Act III. They were danced with all the abandon of a woman in the full knowledge that these moments were to be her last with the man she loves. A series of very fast, perfectly executed turns down the diagonal towards Siegfried, arms flailing up and down, summed it all up.

Leanne Stojmenov in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake'. Photo: Jeff Busby, 2013.

Leanne Stojmenov in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Jeff Busby, 2013

The second thing to say is that Murphy’s choreography in this work is nothing short of remarkable. Perhaps it is seeing this Swan Lake so soon after Stephen Baynes’ more traditional version that highlights what an expressive choreographer Murphy is. Not many choreographers are able to use the classical medium as an expressive, narrative tool, to move the story along through movement.  Murphy does. Take, for example, Siegfried’s solo in Act I as he is torn between his new bride and his old love. He bends into himself, opens his palms wide and places them on his face, and at times moves with little jerky or contorted steps. It all speaks of indecision, inner turmoil, unspoken guilt even.  Or take Odette’s meeting with Siegfried in the asylum. Here Murphy gives us all the twitching movements we might associate with Odette’s state of mind and yet there is something about her arm movements that recall those of a more traditional Odette, which not only links us with other stagings of Swan Lake, but also presages Odette’s lakeside dream, which is soon to come.

There are some magnificent images that surface throughout the work. In Act III, as the guests leave the party following the little tantrum by the Baroness, unevenly played on this occasion by Amy Harris, we see Siegfried and his friends against a backcloth that is a representation of M. C. Escher’s linocut, Rippled Surface. They are frantically looking for Odette who has left the party and a very new vision of Siegfried, Benno and friends on their swan hunt (seen in very old productions!) comes straight to mind. And shortly afterwards, when Siegfried arrives suddenly at the lakeside, alone this time, the beautiful choreographic patterns being made by those black swans are just as suddenly scattered into a flurry of different poses and different arm movements.  We are left with a fleeting image of a flight of birds disturbed from their ordered existence as if a shot had been fired into their formation.

And I can’t forget Harry Haythorne in Act I as the Marquis (the photographer). While he commands centre stage at times, he also spends a lot of time up in the back OP corner with his camera and his little hanky, a wave of which indicates that a shot has been completed. Taking my eye off the central action for a moment I noticed him arranging a group of children in a special pose, and also photographing a kite that one child was flying. Never one to stand still and just watch the action!

And the third thing to say is that all the drama that was missing from the recent Baynes production was there for all to see in this Murphy production. Murphy’s knack of moving seamlessly from one situation to another and back was evident in Act II as we saw the lakeside dream begin with Siegfried and the Baroness meet outside the asylum window, and saw the dream end with a return to that same meeting. But more than anything the drama was gripping as Odette teetered from one emotion to another.

I do have a couple of gripes. It is annoying that so few of the cast were mentioned by name on the cast sheet. I didn’t have the best seat in the house. It was a way back and a little too much on the side so it was quite hard to identify who was dancing in smaller roles. Who danced the two leading Hungarians in Act I, for example? I thought they did a splendid job, especially the female dancer. [It was Dana Stephensen—see comment from Anna below]. And who danced the little swans and the two leading swans? It is extremely frustrating to have some of the minor characters in Act I named, characters who really have very little to do and certainly no dancing to speak of, when dancers who have relatively substantial dancing roles are not named. And I will never understand why the magic of those last moments has to be spoilt as the black cloth disappears from that circular piece of wood that is the lake leaving us to see a bit of cut chipboard. Come on!

Gripes aside, I was immensely moved by this performance. It was one of those rare performances, I think, where so much pours out, so much underlying logic becomes apparent, so much of the detail of the choreography is made clear, and so much is impossible to record! A huge bouquet to Stojmenov for carrying the dramatic line so well and dancing so sublimely. Performances like this are why I keep going back for more.

Michelle Potter, 23 June 2013

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, ca. 2003

IMAGES: I have no images of this current production as yet and in any case, with Stojmenov giving the performance she did I really am not inclined to post an image of another Odette.  The image at the top of this review is one supplied by the Australian Ballet some years ago, probably around 2002 or 2003. No photographer’s name is mentioned but I would be more than happy to correct that if someone can supply the name. Looking closely you might notice some dancers who are now principals!

UPDATE (later, 23 June 2013): The second image on this post is indeed of Stojmenov in Murphy’s Swan Lake kindly supplied by the Australian Ballet and by one of my favourite and most generous photographers, Jeff Busby.

A review of the 2015 staging is a this link.

‘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.

‘The Nutcracker’: the Australian Ballet

There was a time when Christmas in Sydney without a production of The Nutcracker was unimaginable. The ballet attracts a festive audience, there is no doubt about it. So it is hardly a surprise that the Australian Ballet’s staging of Peter Wright’s Nutcracker as its final offering for the 2010 Sydney season was a total sell-out.

This Nutcracker does not strive too hard for psychological explanations or modernisations and the production has a clear and very welcome logic to it. Nothing happens in the transformation scene, when the Christmas tree grows, mice (rats I think in this production?) emerge and engage in a fight in which they are ultimately the losers, and Clara’s Christmas gift of a nutcracker doll turns into a handsome prince, which is not prefigured in some way in the party scene. The second act too has more logic than usual. Clara’s involvement with the dances is a welcome addition, as is her transformation—she is an aspiring dancer in this production—into the Sugar Plum Fairy. While the ballet still of course requires suspension of belief, there is a coherence that is unusual in a staging that does not diverge markedly from the traditional storyline.

The production was also pleasing from a technical point of view. And by this I mean that for once there were no loud bangs and crashes from backstage as scenery was moved in and out. I have winced more than once throughout the 2010 season at noises off stage that were never meant to be heard in the auditorium.

There was also some great dancing, and what a treat that is! A total standout was Madeleine Eastoe as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She was technically assured, her feet sparkled and there was such a delicious flow of movement in her torso as her spine stretched upwards through to her beautifully poised head. She gave such light and shade to the choreography with some unexpected changes of pace in her movements. She was every inch the ballerina—commanding but never overbearingly so. And what a magnificent, beautifully placed and perfectly executed diagonal of fouettés at the beginning of the coda!

As for her partner, Yosvani Ramos, he was sadly encumbered by a jacket in a startling shade of lolly pink—very unbecoming I thought. And to make matters worse the neckline seemed quite stiff and much too high for him. It made him look as though he had an incredibly short neck—not good when he is not the tallest of dancers in the first place. It quite detracted from some really nice dancing on his part.

Reiko Hombo danced the role of Clara and acquitted herself well showing absolute engagement with the role. Leanne Stojmenov as the Rose Fairy could scarcely put a foot wrong. The choreography here demands a dancer with a strong sense of classical order and in such situations Stojmenov always displays a natural ability and an exceptional level of expertise. Daniel Gaudiello had a small role in the first act as Drosselmeyer’s assistant. With his ability to realise a character, his powerful presence on stage and his technical prowess, especially when it comes to beaten steps and steps of elevation, Gaudiello turned this role into something exceptional and quite idiosyncratic. There were also fine performances from Andrew Killian as Drosselmeyer and Tzu-Chao Chou as the Jack-in-the-Box

There were moments when I found the costume and set design by John F. Macfarlane overbearing and fussy. Apart from wishing that the Prince’s pink jacket was not quite so inelegant, I also craved a little more subtlety in the set for Act II, which suffered in my opinion from a surfeit of colourful motifs including two different kinds of very large flowers, a stylised (anthropomorphised) sun and a bunch of swirly ribbons. But this Nutcracker is a Christmas treat to delight young and old alike and closed the Australian Ballet’s 2010 season on a high note.

Michelle Potter, 12 December 2010

‘Edge of Night’. The Australian Ballet

This last triple bill of the Australian Ballet’s 2010 season was an opportunity to revisit two ballets created by resident choreographer Stephen Baynes and to ponder on the emergence of a new force in Australian choreography, Tim Harbour.

Edge of Night, which gave the program its name, was first seen in 1997. What especially stood out for me from this 2010 viewing was the visual strength of the work. Michael Pearce’s set and costumes and Stephen Wickham’s lighting evoked just the right atmosphere of nostalgia, longing and sad (and perhaps not so sad) memories. A real sense of collaboration was evident and Pearce in particular deserves many accolades for bringing a quality of surrealism to the design, which suggested the role of the subconscious in our most nostalgic encounters. Pianist Stuart Macklin added to the mood with his expressive playing of the seven Rachmaninov Preludes to which Edge of Night is set.

Kirsty Martin was elegant in the leading female role and the partnership with Robert Curran as the man in her past was as smooth as silk. But Martin played the part a little coldly for my liking missing the opportunity to develop an emotional connection with the audience. The stand-out performer was Laura Tong as the girl on the swing. She did connect with us and the youthfulness and the ‘breath of spring’ quality to her dancing was a joy.

Harbour’s new work, Halcyon, had a strong narrative line and suffered from being pretty much incomprehensible unless one knew intimately the Greek myth concerning the wind goddess Halcyon’s doomed love affair, and its consequences, with the mortal Ceyx. The ballet needed surtitles! However, if one ignored the narrative and watched from a purely visual and theatrical point of view—and I’m ignoring for the moment the implications of that idea—there was much to admire. Harbour’s choreography was brimming with ideas and I was especially taken by the fact that he had managed to imbue the choreography with the look of ancient Greek sculpture while also giving it a real contemporary edge. Stage concept and lighting was by the Melbourne-based lighting and design company, Bluebottle, and their designers made effective use of backlighting to create two worlds of action by at times turning what initially looked like a backcloth into a scrim. The work looked fabulous and the dancers looked beautifully rehearsed and absorbed in executing the choreography for maximum effect. But oh … that need for surtitles!

The closing work on the program, Baynes’ Molto Vivace, is a crowd pleaser, and to my mind an exercise in silliness, danced to a compilation of works by Handel. It was first seen in 2003. Dourly I have to say that I have never been a fan of this work but I laughed my way through it unable to do anything else when the woman behind me was almost hysterical with laughter from opening to closing moment. Laughter breeds laughter.

Leanne Stojmenov danced the leading role of the Lady but again like Martin in Edge of Night I found her performance beautifully rendered but a little cold. In the glorious central pas de deux with its exquisite lifts and soft, sighing movements, which for me is the raison d’être of this work, she looked perfect in an Alice in Wonderland kind of way. But thoughts of Simone Goldsmith, who created the role in 2003 and whose extreme vulnerability gave to the pas de deux a deep humanity, were hard to erase from my mind.

Michelle Potter, 28 November 2010

Newcomers to Graeme Murphy’s ‘Nutcracker’

Nutcracker: The Australian Ballet, Sydney and Melbourne, 2009

The 2009 season of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: the story of Clara has all but convinced me that this work is the closest thing we have in Australia to a dance masterpiece. It is, like all great works of art, a very giving work. It continues to reveal new layers of meaning with each viewing, and it continues to reveal those layers at every level—dramaturgically and choreographically as well as in terms of its visual impact and historical underpinnings. Now we are also in the fortunate position of having had this ballet staged by the Australian Ballet in four separate seasons over seventeen years. Its inaugural season in 1992 was followed by restagings in 1994 and 2000. So, in 2009 there is an opportunity to reflect on how this ballet has grown and been interpreted over those seasons.

Two newcomers to the ballet stood out in this 2009 season.

At the centre of the work is the character of Clara the Elder, a now-retired elderly woman who is still in her heart a dancer. It is her story we watch unfolding before us, her destiny and ultimately her death. In the 2009 season Marilyn Jones and Ai-Gul Gaisina, both now in their late sixties, were cast to alternate in this important role. For those of us who had watched the two original Elder Claras—Dame Margaret Scott and Valrene Tweedie—it was hard to imagine that anyone could bring such depth of characterisation to the role as these two did. But Gaisina, Russian-born and Russian-trained, seemed as though she was born to dance the role. She had all the elegance of a ballerina, which indeed she was when at the height of her career. There was also a certain flamboyance in the flick of a wrist or a tilt of the head that gave her dancing a particularly Russian flavour. This, combined with a special way of interacting with her fellow cast members so that eyes met eyes and looking meant seeing, made her performance a moving and utterly believable one. She also imbued the role with an edge of humour. It was quite understated and perhaps it was more a taking of pleasure in the role than anything else. But it was clearly there and very noticeable in Act I as she entertained her Russian émigré friends. It allowed us to sense that we were watching a real life story unfold before us.

Ai-Gul Gaisina, 'Nutcracker' Act 1. Photo: Branco Gaica, 2009
Ai-Gul Gaisina, Nutcracker Act 1. Photo:  Branco Gaica, 2009

The other outstanding performance in the casts I saw came from Leanne Stojmenov as Clara the Ballerina. Stojmenov is now fulfilling the promise that marked her performances with West Australian Ballet as a new and very young member of the company in 1999 and 2000. She has such a strong and sure technique and handled the intricacies of Murphy’s choreography with aplomb and apparent ease. Her grand pas de deux with Marc Cassidy was thrilling and in the pas de deux between Clara and her Beloved Officer, although partnered very shakily by Yosvani Ramos, Stojmenov showed her growing ability to create dramatic tension through the use of the whole body. It augurs well for her future.

It is incredibly satisfying to have Murphy’s Nutcracker return to the stage. It is one of the great treasures of the Australian Ballet’s repertoire and a work that allows us the rare pleasure of being able to look back at an Australian work and compare and contrast.

Michelle Potter, 9 June 2009  

Image of Ai-Gul Gaisina courtesy of the Australian Ballet