Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘Coppélia’. The Australian Ballet (2016)

10 December 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

On 10 December 2016, I saw the 258th performance by the Australian Ballet of Peggy van Praagh’s production of Coppélia. A few aspects of the van Praagh production seem to have changed over the years since it received its premiere in 1979, perhaps not always for the best, but it remains a strong production and a delightful excursion into the world of 19th century ballet—the original production premiered in Paris in 1870.

At the 258th performance I had the good fortune to see Leanne Stojmenov as Swanilda. Her characterisation was engaging and beautifully maintained from beginning to end, including at those times when she was not the centre of attention but mingling with others on the side of the stage. She smiled, she frowned, she pouted, she stamped her foot, she was playful—her every thought was so clear. Her dancing was calm and assured but still technically exciting. It was a truly charming performance. She was partnered by Ty King-Wall as an attentive Franz who persisted in his pursuit of her, despite her various mini tantrums over his behaviour, and despite that ear of corn that refused to make the appropriate noise for them. Together they were the epitome of a village couple, as indeed they are meant to be.

As Dr Coppélius, Ben Davis gave a competent performance and it is always a pleasure to see Dr Coppélius minus the over the top pantomime-style characterisation that is often the way this character is portrayed. But, by the same token, Dr Coppélius does need to have a strength of character and Davis didn’t quite manage to convey anything that might give us a clue to this character’s personality. He was just a nice old toy-maker/magician. I also missed Dr Coppélius’ appearance in Act III, when he demands and receives compensation for the destruction Swanilda and Franz have caused to his workshop in Act II. Maybe I am imagining that this scene was once part of van Praagh’s production? But it is a part of many other productions and it rounds off that section of the story very nicely.

It was a good day for the male corps de ballet—Franz’s friends danced exceptionally well, especially in Act I. Ella Havelka and Jake Mangakahia led the Act I character dances with good style. And I always enjoy seeing Amanda McGuigan and Ingrid Gow onstage and they stood out among Swanilda’s friends, especially in the dance of the wedding couples in Act III.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', Act III, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Coppélia, Act III (Wedding couples), 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Natasha Kusen danced a lovely Prayer. She brought a peaceful quality to the role and technically scarcely faltered.

Kristian Fredrikson’s designs still look beautiful, although I had forgotten how large (and often overpowering) some of his headdresses are. I had also forgotten how beautiful his all-white costume for Prayer is—so much nicer, and still appropriate, than the very drab, usually grey-ish Prayer outfits seen in some other productions.

Coppélia, and this performance in particular, was an absolutely delightful way to end the Australian Ballet’s 2016 season. It no doubt benefited from input from dramaturg George Ogilvie, who worked with van Praagh and Fredrikson in 1979 on the creation of van Praagh’s production, and who returned to advise on the show this year.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2016

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Coppélia, Act III (Hours of the Night) 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Coppélia', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘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.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in 'The Dream'. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘The Dream’. The Australian Ballet

29 April 2015, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

There were peaks and troughs in the Australian Ballet’s second program for 2015, a triple bill of works by Frederick Ashton. There were also a few surprises.

The undoubted highlight was The Dream, which was also used as the overarching title for the program. We have been told over and over that Ashton was a genius, and many aspects of his work that support that idea were apparent onstage in The Dream, Ashton’s take on Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most obvious is the incredible way in which Ashton is able to make a story so clear through movement and mime. No need to know the story beforehand. Everything is comprehensible and coherent. The entire cast of The Dream is to be congratulated for the way they handled Ashton’s approach, and bouquets to the two gentlemen who staged the work—Anthony Dowell and Christopher Carr.

Then there is Ashton’s complex choreography with all its tricky steps, swirling arms, fluid upper body, unexpected combinations, and so forth. Madeleine Eastoe as Titania was superbly in control and made even the trickiest of movements look easy. Her solo with its many hops, turns, swoons and swirls was captivating. And the final pas de deux between a reconciled Titania and Oberon (danced by Kevin Jackson) was  a delight. Their partnership has grown into one from which we now expect, and receive, nothing but the best.

Chengwu Guo as Puck and Kevin Jackson as Oberon in Frederick Ashton's 'The Dream', the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Daniel Boud

Chengwu Guo as Puck and Kevin Jackson as Oberon in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Chengwu Guo was a standout as Puck. I continue to gasp at his beautifully controlled multiple turns, his leaps, his beats. But best of all those amazing technical skills were, on this occasion, put to such good use. They combined perfectly with his particular brand of physicality, and with his personality, to advance the story. Guo was as puckish as they come.

Joseph Chapman delighted the audience as Bottom, the crazy mechanical who wears the head of an ass, courtesy of Puck, and who dances on pointe. His characterisation was strong and maintained consistently and, unbelieveably, he was believable. He was the one everyone was talking about as they left the auditorium.

Madeline Eastoe as Titania and Joseph Chapman as Bottom in Frederick Ashton's 'The Dream', the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Daniel Boud

Madeline Eastoe as Titania and Joseph Chapman as Bottom in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, the Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The corps de ballet had been beautifully rehearsed and nothing was forgotten of the Ashton style—head and arm movements especially. And take a bow Benedicte Bemet as Moth. To me she looked like a born Ashton dancer. But then I think she is just a born dancer.

That’s where the peaks ended I’m afraid!

The first half of the program consisted of Monotones II and Symphonic VariationsMonotones II, danced by Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright, has not really stood the test of time for me. It looked quite outdated and very static. As for Symphonic Variations, could it really be the same ballet I was lucky enough to see in London last year danced by the Royal Ballet? As the curtain went up I got a thrill to see Robyn Hendricks and Cristiano Martino looking stunning as the lead couple—elegant with proud bearing promising much. But where was the ‘sensational twenty minutes of unstoppable beauty’ that I saw in London that set my heart singing? The dancing was all over the place, technically beyond the experience of one or two of the dancers, and with little feeling for the spacing and floor plan of the work. A huge disappointment as far as I am concerned.

As for the surprises, well one was pleasant, one wasn’t. Why on earth did the cast sheet say that the performance of Symphonic Variations was ‘The world-premiere performance’? The ballet was made in 1946. But a pleasant surprise came at the end of The Dream as the entire cast was taking its final curtain. The Australian Ballet’s ingrained manner of acknowledging the orchestra during the final curtain call by coming forward and leaning into the orchestra pit and clapping for an inordinate amount of time was gone, thankfully. Instead, the company moved forward, stood in poses that maintained the mood of the work they had just danced and, with an elegant sweep of one arm to the side, acknowledged the orchestra. The integrity of the dance was maintained and the company looked stylish and dignified. Thank you to whomever decided to dispense with what we have been watching over several years now, which I find crass. May this new-found elegance in curtain calls continue.

Michelle Potter, 30 April 2015

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

A second look at this program is at this link.