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

Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘Cinderella’. A second look

7 December 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Taking a second look at Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella was something of a swings and roundabouts experience. The gains were special, the losses of course a little disappointing.

Seeing Leanne Stojmenov as Cinderella and Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince after they had performed those roles over and over in Melbourne and again in the first few Sydney shows indicated how well they had grown into their parts. Their pas de deux in particular were seamless, expressive and beautifully executed with hardly a slip anywhere. Gaudiello once again showed what an exceptional artist he is as he fell head over heels for his Cinderella, and what a good technician he is as well.

Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. The Australian Ballet 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Stojmenov’s dancing showed how much she had absorbed the choreography into her very being. The beautiful way in which she conveyed the subtlety and nuances of Ratmansky’s vocabulary was an absolute delight. In particular she had captured the beauty and fluidty of Ratmansky’s arm movements with their distinctive swing and sway through space, and I also especially enjoyed her solo in the last act where she recalled the time she had with her Prince at the ball in the previous act.

I was also interested to hear David McAllister, in his public program conversation with David Hallberg after the show, that Ratmansky used the word ‘say’ rather than ‘do’ when setting his choreography on the dancers—‘you go over there and say such and such’. His emphasis on expression rather than simply execution is a sure reason why all the cast, but Stojmenov in particular, carry the storyline of Cinderella so well.

Another gain was seeing Eloise Fryer—there was an unexpected cast change announced just before the curtain went up—as the Dumpy Stepsister. She has a terrific sense of comedy and carried off the awkward and often hilarious choreography with great style. It was a huge romp and Ingrid Gow as the Skinny Stepsister really had to work hard to keep up with her.

The biggest loss was having to fit the show onto the stage of the Opera Theatre. I try not to make too many comments in this vein as it does nothing in the end. But in the case of Cinderella it resulted in a real loss I thought. The theatrical trick of a proscenium arch within a proscenium arch that was so clear in Melbourne was scarcely apparent in Sydney and the crammed-up feeling of the domestic scenes was unfortunate. And, while memory plays tricks I know, it seemed to me that Gaudiello’s choreography had been cut in the scenes where he travels the world searching for the owner of the slipper. Maybe I just missed some of those grands jetes in a circle and the spectacular finish where he jumped into the arms of his cortege of male friends. I’d be more than happy to be corrected!

I also missed Lynette Wills as the Fairy Godmother. While Jasmin Durham did a perfectly good job in the role, Wills brought a wide experience to her performance giving the role a strength of characterisation and sense of mystery that was missing in Sydney. I had also been looking forward to seeing once more those characters from the solar system who transport Cinderella to the ball but, while being closer had its advantages, the costumes are quite remarkable, being closer also made the sequence look a little too jumbled—too many characters that were too hard to identify individually.

But more than anything I thought the magical transformations that made the Melbourne opening so spectacular were lessened in Sydney. I was further back in the auditorium in Melbourne so maybe that had an effect but I suspect it was something else.

Nevertheless, Cinderella remains in my mind a very classy, strongly European-looking, beautifully-lit production that I look forward to seeing again and again.

Michelle Potter, 8 December 2013

My original post, and a heathy variety of comments from others, is at this link. See also my comments on David Hallberg’s performance as the Prince published by DanceTabs.

 

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in 'Cinderella'. Photo Jeff Busby

Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘Cinderella’. The Australian Ballet

19 September 2013, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre

What a magical, mesmerising and eccentrically beautiful Cinderella Alexei Ratmansky has created for the Australian Ballet. I have to admit to goose bumps on many occasions so thrilling was the storytelling, the choreography, the scenic design and the performance.

The story we know so well is intact in its outlines but Ratmansky has made the work his own, and boldly so. The clues we get to the era in which this ballet is set come largely from the set and costumes by Jérôme Kaplan and from the projection design by Wendall K. Harrington. With their references to surrealist artists such as Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico, and even perhaps to a Dada film, Fernand Leger’s Ballet mécanique, and the Bauhaus work by Oskar Schlemmer, Triadic Ballet, we can place this Cinderella in the 1920s or 1930s. But the universality and theatricality of the visual elements, including the Act I setting of a proscenium arch within the theatre’s own proscenium arch, put it into an era beyond eras.

Leanne Stojmenov in Cinderella, 2013. Photo Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov in Cinderella. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As Cinderella, Leanne Stojmenov brought a range of emotions to the role. She was lost in dreams as she danced alone while the Stepsisters readied themselves for the Prince’s ball; full of sadness when the Stepmother slashed the portrait of her now dead mother; caring as she welcomed the somewhat outlandish Fairy Godmother into her home; shy as she tried out dance steps at the ball; pensive as she wondered whether she would meet the Prince again; and ultimately joyous as she danced the final pas de deux with him. It was a finely sculpted performance.

As the Prince, Daniel Gaudiello also presented us with a well-defined character with a strong personality. Dressed stylishly in a white suit he was the man in charge as he interacted with his guests and as he travelled the world seeking the owner of the slipper left behind at the ball. On this world tour we saw some of Gaudiello’s best dancing. A series of grands pirouettes finishing with multiple turns was beautifully executed. And what a spectacular exit he made as he left the stage at the end of that scene. But with his Cinderella he was a different man, much less hard-edged. And the final pas de deux is such a glorious piece of choreography. Two two bodies move together as one, bending and twisting, making complementary lines with arms and legs, and finishing so softly and gently.

At times the choreography was surprising as is so often the case with Ratmansky. Feet, arms, upper bodies, everything really, moved in unexpected ways. A pirouette had the foot at the cou de pied position, a cabriole appeared from nowhere, bodies bent forward when one expected them to bend back. And Ratmansky is a master at telling the story, creating a character, and giving clues to and motifs for future moments in the story through choreographic and dramatic methods. I wondered why the Fairy Godmother, played with style by Lynette Wills wearing a kind of bowler hat, long dark clothing and black glasses, disappeared into the grandfather clock in Cinderella’s house. But it became clear later. And the beautiful swirl of black-caped figures, holding Roman numerals and circling the stage as the Fairy Godmother advised Cinderella to leave the ball at midnight, was also reprised in a surprising way later.

Leanne Stojmenov and Lynette Wills in 'Cinderella'. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby
Leanne Stojmenov and Lynette Wills in Cinderella. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

There were some wonderful performances from others in the cast. Ingrid Gow and Hailana Hills as the Skinny Stepsister and the Dumpy Stepsister respectively had some hilarious moments, as did Amy Harris as the rather vindictive Stepmother. I also admired the performances of the celestial bodies who transport Cinderella to the ball (no pumpkin coach in this production), although it was hard to identify the dancers from where I was sitting and another viewing is needed to match some of the various planets represented with their costumes.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Cinderella' 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Stepmother, the Skinny Stepsister and the Dumpy Stepsister have their hair done for the ball. Artists of the Australian Ballet in Cinderella 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As for the scenic transformations, they were astonishing, breathtaking. It was not only the surprise they generated when they happened, but also the way the lighting by Rachel Burke was used to enhance every transformation, as well as the spectacular use of fabric of various kinds to assist the transformations—in fact the use of diverse fabric textures throughout the ballet in costuming and elsewhere gave us yet another magnificent scenic element. And musically, I have never heard the Prokofiev score sound so clear and so distinctive. Without wanting to take away from the orchestral playing, Ratmansky’s choreography is so attuned to the music that it adds a visual element to the sounds that allows me at least to hear the music differently.

I look forward to seeing this remarkable work again during the Sydney season. Let’s hope it remains in the repertoire for a long time to come. It is sheer magic, brilliantly conceived, and a truly immersive experience. All hail Ratmansky and his team.

Michelle Potter, 21 September 2013

Featured image: Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

For my comments after a second viewing in Sydney follow this link. See also my comments on David Hallberg’s performance as the Prince published by DanceTabs.