‘Coppélia’. Australian Conservatoire of Ballet

18 December 2015 (evening), Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

What a wonderful surprise this performance was! The venue was interesting—Hamer Hall is basically a venue for concerts and so the performance space is without a proscenium arch. But the unusual space was used thoughtfully and little of the theatricality that is achieved with a proscenium-style theatre was lost.

This Coppélia was staged by Maina Gielgud especially for the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, a training establishment led by former Australian Ballet dancers Christine Walsh and Ricardo Ella. Gielgud had added some choreography and had made some changes in order to accommodate her cast, including giving Swanilda (Swanhilda in this production) a little sister called Elysia, adding two extra friends for Swanilda and, with fewer male dancers than might be available in a company, rearranging some dances slightly. Gielgud also re-imagined somewhat the character of Dr Coppélius having him make two swans, a spider, a caterpillar and other creatures, which we saw in his workshop in Act II,  in addition to his ultimate creation, the doll Coppélia. Otherwise the ballet ran as we have come to expect.

Coppelia's friends in rehearsal, Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, 2015

Coppélia’s friends in rehearsal, Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, 2015

But this was no ordinary school production. The dancers had been beautifully trained, thoroughly rehearsed and looked like professionals. It was a thrill to see such a sense of engagement among the cast throughout the show, which of course transfers across into the auditorium and gives the audience a sense of engagement as well. And this theatricality began early with a wonderful performance of the Act I Mazurka. This was not one of those staid renditions that we often see. This was real character dancing with bodies bending, faces beaming with pleasure, and steps being performed strongly. And the same can be said of the Czardas that followed later in the act

Two guest artists from Tokyo Ballet, Maria Kawantani and Arata Miyagawa, took the leading roles. Both were beautiful dancers but, in particular, Miyagawa as Franz was technically superb. Everything was so cleanly executed. His double tours were done with such perfection in the body and feet (and amazing landings in a perfectly placed demi-plié), but they also soared upwards in a way that made me gasp. Then there were the manèges of various steps, the pirouettes, his partnering—he was just brilliant. But more than that, he too had that sense of engagement with everything and everyone on stage. I just loved the way he blew kisses across the stage to Swanilda as she was about to start a variation in Act III.

Another standout performer was the young girl, Hana Glasgow-Palmer, who played Swanilda’s little sister. Too young yet to be part of the Conservatoire’s professional training program, she nevertheless gave the role real character. Her outstanding stage presence and, again, that ability to engage, augurs well for her future. I also especially enjoyed Prayer, danced calmly and serenely by Victoria Norris. But every dancer contributed beautifully to this performance and, quite honestly, in a number of ways it outshone many a professional show I have seen.

The music was played by the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet Orchestra, with some musicians seated on a dais upstage, others above the stage space. The orchestra was led by conductor Peter Tandy and there were times when the music gave me goose bumps, again something I don’t normally feel when listening to orchestral accompaniments at the ballet.

This Coppélia was a significant achievement for all concerned.

Christine Walsh, Maria Kawayani, Maina Gielgud

Christine Walsh, Maria Kawatani, Maina Gielgud

Michelle Potter, 22 December 2015

 

 

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

‘Giselle’. The Australian Ballet (2015)

My review of Giselle with the Australian Ballet is now available on DanceTabs at this link.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Giselle'. Photo: Jeff Busby, 2015

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Jeff Busby, 2015

I am disappointed that I was not able to be more positive in this review. But the experience did set me thinking about the importance of every character in a narrative ballet having a strong vision of where their character fits within the overall story. When it happens audiences are the beneficiaries, but the experience also reflects back really well on the dancers and the company. In the performance of Giselle I saw there were occasions when there seemed to be a lack of understanding of why certain things were happening, and a consequent lack of reaction between characters. Ballet companies are time-poor these days, I know, and it struck me that perhaps a dramaturg is needed occasionally?

I look forward to seeing other casts in Sydney and Canberra.

Michelle Potter, 16 March 2015

Update (7 April 2015): My review of another Giselle cast, featuring Juliet Burnett and Jared Wright, is at this link.

Dimity Azoury receives 2014 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Photo: Jess Bialek

Dimity Azoury. 2014 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award

Dimity Azoury, currently a coryphée with the Australian Ballet, remembers her grandmother with great fondness. She was a ballet student in Wellington, New Zealand, and even went on as an extra when the Ballets Russes companies visited New Zealand in the late 1930s. But, Azoury tells me, her grandmother’s parents thought that ballet was not an appropriate career for a young lady, which was not an uncommon attitude at the time. So her grandmother gave up her ambitions, married and moved to Australia.

‘I often used to look at a photo of her wearing a long, Romantic tutu,’ Azoury recalls, ‘and I think it was from her that my love of ballet came.’

Azoury’s career as a ballet dancer, a career now (happily) considered a worthy course to take in life, moved another step forward just recently when he received the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award, worth the substantial amount of $20,000. Her win was announced on stage at the Sydney Opera House at the final rehearsal for Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker.

‘I was in a state of shock when my name was called,’ Azoury says. ‘I was shaking and found it really hard to hold on to the flowers I was given. Then, when the curtain came down, all the dancers hugged me and were so supportive. This is one of the lovely things about working in the Australian Ballet. Everyone is so generous.’

Azoury was trained first in Queanbeyan and then in Canberra at the Kim Harvey School of Dance. She was twice rejected for the Australian Ballet School but, encouraged by her parents and by Harvey, she auditioned again and was accepted in the 2005 intake. She spent three years at the school and was taken into the Australian Ballet in 2008.

‘My aspirations are all with the Australian Ballet. I love the company and feel totally involved. And now I feel I am getting opportunities.’

She is looking forward to the company’s production of Maina Gielgud’s Giselle, a highlight of the 2015 season, and has enjoyed rehearsing under Gielgud’s direction. Gielgud, Azoury says, knows exactly what she wants and so it is easy to find a clear focus in rehearsals. It has also been especially exciting for her to have the opportunity to try the role of Myrthe, Queen of the Wilis. There are also rumours that her much-loved deerhound, Gunther, may have a walk-on part in Act I. ‘I guess he’ll have to audition,’ she muses.

In addition to regular company repertoire, since joining the company Azoury has also performed in every one of the annual Bodytorque programs, in which her fellow dancers try their hand at choreography.

‘Bodytorque feels like a collaboration. There is no pressure on the dancers and I love being able to help my friends bring their vision to the stage.’

Dimity Azoury in Vivienne Wong's 'Touch Transfer', Bodytorque Muses, 2011. Photo: Jess Bialek

Dimity Azoury in Vivienne Wong’s Touch Transfer, Bodytorque Muses, 2011. Photo: Jess Bialek

The year long journey as a Telstra nominee has proven to be an exciting one for Azoury. She looks back with particular pleasure on making the video each of the six nominees created as part of the year’s work.

‘We were given a lot of freedom. We were each given a colour and an element to work with —my colour was blue and my element paint. While the camera angles were set, at one stage I was given the opportunity to show how many ways I could make the paint move. It was a wonderful experience for me and a way of celebrating the Telstra sponsorship of the Australian Ballet.’

Azoury recently married Australian Ballet senior artist Rudy Hawkes. Her no-strings-attached Telstra award will most likely be spent on renovations to their house in North Melbourne.

Michelle Potter, 6 December 2014

Featured image: Dimity Azoury (centre) receives the 2014 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Photo: Jess Bialek

 

 

‘Giselle’ in the news

It seems that the Australian Ballet will be bringing back Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle in 2015. Gielgud’s web page indicates that she will be in Australia from late 2014, firstly teaching in Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne and then working on staging Giselle for the Australian Ballet.

This news sent me looking at some of my favourite, easily available online images from Giselle. I didn’t have the opportunity to see Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the Ballet Victoria production of 1975. But some of my favourite Giselle photos come from that production, an amazing event when one considers that Makarova defected in 1970 and Baryshnikov did so in 1974 and here they were in Australia in 1975 so early in their careers in the West. Walter Stringer’s photos are often slightly blurry but I think he has captured something of the quality of the performance.

Mikhail Baryshnikov as Albrecht in 'Giselle', Ballet Victoria 1975. Photo: Walter Stringer

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova in Giselle, Ballet Victoria  1975. Photos: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

In the meantime, Graeme Murphy has been in South Korea workshopping a new version of Giselle. It seems that we won’t see this production in Australia, at least not in the short term. The idea of a Murphy reworking is tantalising and I can’t help wondering why a ballet company in South Korea had the prescience to commission it rather than the Australian Ballet.

I love to see a high quality ‘traditional’ version and still sigh over the Paris Opera Ballet’s production we saw in Australia in 2012. But the most moving production I have ever seen was created by Sylvie Guillem in 1998 for the Finnish National Ballet, which I saw in 2001. On the surface it certainly wasn’t a traditional Giselle, as the photo below indicates, although anyone familiar in the slightest degree with the ballet will recognise the dance sequence from Act I shown here. Below the surface though, I found that not only did it pull at the heart strings but it was deeply and intellectually satisfying as well.

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in Giselle, 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

I wrote about the Guillem Giselle in 2001 for Brolga, then an old-fashioned print journal. I declined to give permission for it to be digitised by Ausdance when they began digitising back issues, but here is a section from it.

Guillem as producer and choreographer (after Coralli-Perrot-Petipa according to the program), reconceived the ballet according to her wish for it to be a work that would evoke both the past and the present, and that would be meaningful to contemporary audiences. In program notes she stated:

‘Giselle’s story is a timeless one. To die of love, not so much for a man as for loss of love. Naturally the texts by Théophile Gautier and Heinrich Heine clearly laid down the basic intentions. Over the years, these intentions have been buried beneath set choreographic habits, mainly with regard to gesture, thereby becoming a sort of incoherent language expected to “speak” the story … I wanted to rediscover Giselle and make the blood flow again in the veins of the various protagonists’.*

And elsewhere she is quoted as saying: ‘Even if Giselle hadn’t had a heart attack, the ballet was dying by itself. It was becoming more and more stupid, without any sense’.**

Strong words from Guillem. We know the Gielgud production. As for the Murphy version … we will have to wait.

Michelle Potter, 15 June 2014

NOTES:

* Sylvie Guillem, ‘Waiting for curtain-up’. Program for Giselle, Théâtre du Chatelet, Paris 2000–2001, p. 12.

**Debra Crane, ‘Made for fame’. Dance Now, vol. 9 (No. 4, Winter 2000–2001), p. 16.

I am working on making available in full my article from Brolga and will include it in my dance diary for June.

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

Tankard bannerHOW TO ORDER

Rachel Cameron Parker (1924-2011)

Rachel Cameron Parker, dancer and dance teacher who has died in London just a few weeks short of her 87th birthday, worked all her life to maintain the classical basis of ballet.

rachel-cameron1Rachel Cameron adjusting her ballet shoe, 1940s. Geoffrey Ingram Archive of Australian Ballet. With permission of the National Library of Australia. Photo by S. Alston Pearl [?]

On a trip to Australia in 1976 Cameron told oral historian Hazel de Berg:

‘I want the pure classical basis of the ballet to continue. I want it to continue in England, the whole of Europe, America, and Australia, so that we can extend and continue to build on this basis. I feel that out of 200 pupils maybe only one will grasp the real significance of this basic work. But out of 200 or 300, one person is enough for it to be handed down to future generations. I don’t want it to be lost.’

Cameron was born in Brisbane but spent her early childhood in Townsville in northern Queensland before moving to Sydney aged about 5 or 6. In Sydney she began dancing lessons with Muriel Sievers who had studied in London with Phyllis Bedells and who taught the syllabus of the Royal Academy of Dancing, as it was then called. It was with Sievers that Cameron first began teaching as Sievers quickly had her helping teach the youngest classes on Saturday morning. Sievers also insisted that Cameron take piano lessons and also lent her Tamara Karsavina’s book Theatre Street.

In the early 1940s Cameron danced with the Borovansky Australian Ballet Company, which later became the professional Borovansky Ballet and then with the Kirsova Ballet in Sydney, a company led by former star of the Monte Carlo Russian Ballet, Hélène Kirsova. There were also opportunities for Cameron to develop her teaching skills in Kirsova’s school, which was firmly grounded in what Kirsova referred to as the ‘Russian method’.

Cameron was given major roles in a number of Kirsova’s works including Revolution of the Umbrellas, Faust, A Dream…and a Fairy Tale, Harlequin, and Hansel and Gretel. She has recalled that her happiest days as a dancer were with Kirsova:

‘She was a woman who tried to mould her company in the Diaghilev tradition where music, the scenery, the dancers became part of one whole, and there it was I think that the true beginnings of Australian ballet lie’.

Moving to England with her husband Keith Parker, Cameron danced in Song of Norway and in a company directed by Molly Lake. She also studied in Paris with former stars of the Russian Imperial Ballet, Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobrajenska, and with many notable English teachers including Anna Northcote.

By her own admission one of the most exciting periods of her life came when she was asked to demonstrate for two great teachers and former ballerinas—Lydia Sokolova and Tamara Karsavina. With Karsavina she also developed a teaching syllabus for the Royal Academy of Dance.

‘Sokolova was absolutely marvellous,’ Cameron once recalled. ‘She was not content with near being good enough, it had to be exact or else’.

Of Karasavina, she has recalled: ‘I found for the first time that what I had always dreamed of was true, and that’s why, now, I am such a stickler for perfection of technique’.

Cameron was guest teacher for many companies around the world including the Australian Ballet. In December 2010 she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Award for a lifetime of services to dance. Rachel Cameron is survived by her brother Alister and nieces Alison, Fiona and Christine.

Rachel Cameron Parker: born 27 March 1924, died 6 March 2011

Michelle Potter, 13 April 2011

Postscript: One of the images of Cameron that has fascinated me, as much for its 1940s glamour as anything else, is that of her with her colleagues from the Kirsova Ballet, Peggy Sager and Strelsa Heckelman, posing outdoors at Taylor’s Bay close to Kirsova’s home on the northern shores of Sydney Harbour.

sager-heckelman-cameron

Clockwise from top: Peggy Sager, Strelsa Heckelman, Rachel Cameron, Taylor’s Bay, Sydney, 1943. With permission of the National Library of Australia.

Added 28 April 2011: Maina Gielgud studied with Rachel Cameron at various points in her life and they remained close friends until the end of Rachel’s life. Maina  shared this recollection:

Memories of Rachel from when she gave me private lessons when I was nine years old:   Passionate, outspoken, knowledgeable. I believe she was an excellent dancer with lots of personality and mammoth technique.

I always remember her coming to see me in Newcastle (UK) performing Swan Lake with Festival Ballet. I thought I was dancing quite well (for once!)—she said nothing, but wrote me a long letter which quite disillusioned me, but certainly made me rethink what I was up to and how I went about my work and my dancing…

She knew I knew that she only bothered because she thought I was worth it…