Stanton Welch. ‘An Aussie in Houston’

A recent visit to the United States saw me in Houston, Texas, where I was able to have a look at Houston Ballet’s new premises and enjoyed being shown around by Stanton Welch. And there is more than one Aussie at Houston Ballet these days.  Below is the text of a story published on 26 November 2011 in The Canberra Times under the heading ‘An Aussie in Houston’.

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Stanton Welch in rehearsal. Photo: © Bruce Bennetts. Courtesy of Houston Ballet

—Stanton Welch is in a buoyant mood as he shows me around Houston Ballet’s stunning new home in downtown Houston, Texas. Melbourne-born Welch has been artistic director of Houston Ballet, the fourth largest ballet company in the United States, for eight years. The company moved into its six-storey headquarters in February of this year and the new studios—nine of them—are huge with high ceilings and lots of windows letting in the beautiful Texan light. In some, children are taking a ballet class. In others, company members are rehearsing for the forthcoming production of the Christmas classic The Nutcracker and for the annual gala, Jubilee of Dance. The building hums with activity.

Welch, a young-looking 42 year old, is the elder son of Marilyn Jones and Garth Welch, former principal dancers with both the Borovansky and the Australian Ballets. Both also worked with Sydney Dance Company and both are teachers of renown. Their second son, Damien, retired quite recently from his position as a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. Together the four of them are familiarly called the “Royal Family of Australian Ballet” such is their collective status in the Australian dance world. Damien is also currently in Houston to stage his brother’s production of Cinderella for Houston Ballet next year. And indeed the month of November is something of a family time. Jones is also visiting. “Mum comes over a couple of times a year. I usually try to get her to do a bit of teaching while she’s here,” Welch says with a grin.

Welch was a late starter in the ballet world: he took his first lessons only when 16. But there was no looking back after that. He choreographed his first piece, Hades, during the first year of his dance training in 1986 and it won several eisteddfod prizes. By 1989 he had joined the Australian Ballet and in 1990 received his first choreographic commission, which resulted in A Time to Dance for the Dancers Company of the Australian Ballet. He went on to make his first major piece, Of Blessed Memory, for the main company in 1991. By 1995 he was a resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet and remains so, from a distance, to this day. The extent of his choreographic output by now is remarkable and includes works for major companies around the world. He was appointed artistic director of Houston Ballet in 2003 and for the moment he seems firmly entrenched in Houston, largest city in the state of Texas.

“What I love about working here”, he says “is that the dancers are so energised. There is absolutely no complacency. We are so lucky with audiences too. They are very adventurous and brave when it comes to new work, which is great for a choreographer. Our subscriptions continued to grow even during the recession.”

But as I look into the studios from the viewing windows I am struck by the fact that there are Australians in a number of the studios. Ballet master Steven Woodgate is busy rehearsing a large number of dancers for a group scene in Nutcracker. A Churchill Fellowship awardee for 2000, Woodgate retired from the Australian Ballet, where he was senior artist for several years, and took up the position of ballet master at Houston in 2004, the year after Welch’s arrival.

In another studio Luke Ingham, who grew up on a farm in Mount Gambier, South Australia, is rehearsing for his first princely role, that of the Prince in Nutcracker. Ingham has been with the company since July 2011 and has just toured to New York with Houston Ballet where he also took the opportunity to catch up with four of his former Australian Ballet colleagues. They were in New York to dance and promote the Australian Ballet’s New York visit in 2012.

Ingham will be dancing in Houston’s Nutcracker with his partner in life Danielle Rowe, a former Australian Ballet principal who joined Houston Ballet early in 2011. He is looking forward to the occasion. “It’s great to work with someone you love,” he says. “I love being out there on stage with Dani.”

In her relatively short time in Houston to date Rowe has already made a name for herself. A dazzling dancer and winner of a 2010 Helpmann Award as best female dancer in a dance or physical theatre production, Rowe has so far danced leading roles in Houston productions of two major classics, Sleeping Beauty and Giselle. In Giselle, a production staged by yet another Australian artist, dancer and coach Ai-Gul Gaisina, critics spoke glowingly of Rowe’s performance as “gossamer-spirited.” and noted that she moved like “a tissue in a breeze.”

There have been Australians in the Houston company for a while. Mary McKendry, who was brought up and learnt to dance in Rockhampton, Queensland, was a principal dancer with Houston Ballet in the 1980s when a young man from Mao’s China defected while on an exchange visit to Houston Ballet. His name was Li Cunxin and McKendry eventually married him. They moved to Australia where Li would go on to have a stellar career with the Australian Ballet, write his best selling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer and eventually become a stockbroker in Melbourne. Li often returns to Houston and did so earlier this month to be honoured for his achievements by the Houston-based organisation Dance of Asian America.

What is it that draws Australian dancers to Houston Ballet? Welch believes that it is the varied repertoire that the company offers. His dancers get the opportunity to perform in works that he creates himself, works by acclaimed American and European choreographers and both old and new takes on the classics. Danielle Rowe suggests the same. Along with a positive work ethic, it was what she was looking forward to most of all when she left the Australian Ballet for a new career in Houston. Ingham couldn’t resist the thought though that, with his farming background, there might be the added attraction of the Texan cowboy culture! But whatever it is, the vibes are good at Houston Ballet. Welch strides through his new domain laughing and joking and generously accommodating my every request.—
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Danielle Rowe and Simon Ball in Ben Stevenson’s Sleeping Beauty, 2011. Photo: © Ron McKinney. Courtesy of Houston Ballet

And in addition to those Australians mentioned above, former Australian Ballet dancer Andrew Murphy is an instructor at Houston Ballet’s academy. Murphy is married to Sabrina Lenzi, ballet mistress of Houston Ballet II, a company similar in outlook and mission to the Australian Ballet’s Dancers Company.

Michelle Potter, 26 November 2011

Featured image: Stanton Welch in rehearsal (detail). Photo: © Bruce Bennetts. Courtesy of Houston Ballet

Vicki Attard. A new role

It was a real pleasure catching up, if only by email, with Vicki Attard, former and much admired principal of the Australian Ballet during the 1990s. Vicki was in Canberra over the past weekend to give master classes at the Canberra Dance Development Centre.
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Below is the text of a Canberra Times article I wrote, which was published on 9 November. It was accompanied by a great image, shot by Canberra-based photographer Ross Gould, of Vicki in what became a signature role, that of Cio Cio San in Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, which can be accessed on the National Library’s website.

Vicki Attard was one of Australia’s favourite ballerinas during the 1990s. As a principal artist with the Australia Ballet throughout that decade she danced leading roles in all the best known classics as well as creating roles in contemporary works. She travelled widely with the company and counts amongst the highlights of her performing career dancing the leading role of Kitri in Don Quixote on the opening night of an Australian Ballet season in Washington DC and the title role in Manon in Tokyo, also on opening night.

Fans of the film maker Paul Cox may remember her in Cox’s film The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. Attard was the girl returning from a ball who dances with the spirit of a rose in the short work entitled Le Spectre de la rose. Spectre was first performed in 1911 with Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the Rose. Attard, who was partnered by David McAllister in the film, cannot speak highly enough of Cox.’Paul Cox was so easy to work with’, she says. ‘He has an incredible respect for artists and he is a remarkable one himself.’

Attard also spent a year performing with Sydney Dance Company in 1989. Memorably she danced the role of Chloe in Graeme Muphy’s Daphnis and Chloe. She seemed especially suited to Murphy’s choreography and later, on rejoining the Australian Ballet, danced the leading role of Clara the Ballerina in Nutcracker, again partnered by McAllister, with whom she enjoyed an exceptional artistic partnership throughout her career.

But Attard may well be best known for her performances as Cio Cio San in Stanton Welch’s production of Madame Butterfly, a role she created with the Australian Ballet in 1995. The delicacy of her performance left a lasting impression on those who saw her in this role. Attard has since staged Butterfly around the world for Welch, including in Canada for the National Ballet of Canada, in Atlanta for Atlanta Ballet, in Boston for Boston Ballet and in even in Houston for Houston Ballet where Welch is currently artistic director. Most recently she assisted Welch in reviving the work for the Australian Ballet in 2010.

After she retired from performing Attard gained a graduate diploma in dance instruction and has been teaching in a freelance capacity since then. She now heads up a special program at Academy Ballet in Sydney for students aiming for a professional career.

‘It is s small group of just eight students’, she says. ‘It’s very personal and I love working in this way. The young dancers respond beautifully to this way of working.’

Attard will be in Canberra on November 13 to conduct master classes for the Canberra Dance Development Centre. It is the final session in the school’s master class series, a program master-minded by the school’s principal, Jackie Hallahan. Attard knows that it is not so easy for east coast students in centres outside Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to have access to the kinds of experiences available in larger centres.

‘I love the idea of sharing the knowledge that took me so many years to accumulate—the hard way’, she says. ‘I very much enjoy teaching in centres where students don’t have access to all that students in bigger cities might have. I grew up in a small town called Mackay in North Queensland, so I remember what it was like.’

Attard will bring her exceptional professional experience to Canberra for this workshop series. Not only does she have sound dance knowledge and her own incomparable artistry to share, she has recently launched a program called My Pointe. She realised that it was not always possible for dance teachers to spend as much time as was needed on the specialised teaching of pointe work for girls and so began to develop a series of tutorial exercises for this very purpose. After 10 years of fine tuning My Pointe was released on DVD with an introductory section by Attard and demonstrations of the exercises by two students.

Attard has two young sons, George aged eight and Nick almost six, who keep her busy.

‘I used to think that a dance life was hard,’ she says, ‘but motherhood, plus working almost full time, rivals it.’ But despite the claims of motherhood, Attard has carved a new niche for herself in the Australian dance world and she is more than delighted to be sharing her knowledge with the Canberra community.

Michelle Potter, 14 November 2011

Dance diary. October 2011

  • Texas Ballet Theater

It’s surprising whom one meets walking down a Dallas street on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Two somewhat frilly mice from Nutcracker for example—perhaps not dressed for combat despite the menacing gestures!
miceOr two young dancers dressed in tutus.
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Texas Ballet Theater, currently directed by Ben Stevenson, was promoting its forthcoming Nutcracker season. The appearance of dancers on this occasion was part of the last day of ‘Art in October’, a celebration of the Dallas arts district with its top class museums and theatres.

  • it’s all good

I was impressed by QL2’s annual performance for younger dancers, this year entitled it’s all good and being an examination through movement of the notions of language and truth. It was not so much the choreography that impressed me: it was fairly basic, perhaps a little of necessity, and somewhat unimaginative in my opinion. But I was impressed by the production values that were in play. The young cast (they ranged in age from 8 to 17) knew a fair bit about stage techniques and behaved largely in a very professional manner. For this their director, Ruth Osborne, deserves praise as does whoever designed the simple, easy to dance in costumes. One or two of the younger of the young performers looked as though they had the potential to go on to a professional career.
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  • Ballets Russes publication

A number of visitors to this site have asked me to post a review of the recent Ballets Russes publication. This review was published last month by The Canberra Times. Here is the link.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2011

‘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

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