Dance diary. February 2013

  • Hannah O’Neill

Admirers of Hannah O’Neill, and there are many if my web statistics are anything to go by, may be interested to read the following post on Laura Capelle’s website Bella Figura. In addition to what is written on the site, there is a link to an article written by Capelle for the American dance magazine Pointe. The article was published in the February/March issue of Pointe and Capelle has done a great job in getting O’Neill to open up about her experiences, including some of the difficulties she has faced in Paris.

  • Bodenwieser update

A news story on the Bodenwieser project being led by Jochen Roller, which I mentioned in last month’s dance diary, was screened on SBS TV a few days ago. The SBS story is available via this YouTube link.

Below I have reproduced a photo of Marie Cuckson, who with Emmy Taussig assembled the Bodenwieser archival material and kept it in good order until she donated it to the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive in 1998. The acquisition was part of the Keep Dancing! project, which was the forerunner to Australia Dancing. Marie Cuckson is seen in her home in Sydney in August 1998 with the material packaged and ready to be transported to Canberra.

Marie Cuckson, 1998Marie Cuckson with the Bodenwieser Archives, 1998

  • Oral history collections

As a result of the Athol Willoughby interview conducted recently I retrieved the listing of dance-related oral histories in the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive that used to be part of Australia Dancing. I have updated that list (an old version is on the PANDORA Archive). Here is the link to the updated version. It is a remarkable list of resources going back to the 1960s with early recordings by pioneer oral historian Hazel de Berg and, in the case of the NFSA, to the 1950s with some radio interviews from that period. It includes, for example, interviews with every artistic director of the Australian Ballet—Peggy van Praagh, Robert Helpmann, Anne Woolliams, Marilyn Jones, Maina Gielgud, Ross Stretton and David McAllister—and with three of the company’s administrators/general managers—Geoffrey Ingram, Noël Pelly and Ian McRae. But it is not limited by any means to ballet and in fact covers most genres of dance and the ancillary arts as well.

That material held by the National Film and Sound Archive is included reflects the origins of the list, which was begun in the early days of the Australia Dancing project when the NFSA was a partner in the project (and in fact the major collecting partner in its initial stages). I have also posted the list on the Resources page of this website and will update it periodically as information about new interviews comes to light. It deserves to be more obvious than it is now—that is hidden in PANDORA in an outdated version—especially as it is not a static resource.

  • Site news

February saw a huge jump in visits from France due largely to the post on the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Giselle, which was the most accessed post during February by a runaway margin. Critics in France were curious about the reaction of Australian audiences and critics. As a result I have added ‘Danses avec la plume’ (the title refers a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche) from journalist Amélie Bertrand to my list of Resources under ‘Other sites’.

Coming in at fourth spot was a much older post on the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Jiri Kylian’s Kaguyahime, which was having a return season in Paris in February. Interest in these two posts saw Paris become the fourth most active city after Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

The second most accessed post in February was an even older one, my review of Meryl Tankard’s Oracle, originally posted in 2009. Tankard is currently touring this work in the United States. At third spot was a post on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring perhaps reflecting the wide interest in 2013 in the many dance activities associated with the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the Stravinsky/Roerich/Nijinsky Rite of Spring, of which the Tankard tour is one.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2013

Tankard banner HOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is also available through the National Library of Australia’s bookshop and to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

‘Giselle’. Paris Opera Ballet (2013)

29 January 2013, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

The Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Giselle is breathtaking, poetic and immensely moving. It is steeped in the two nineteenth century traditions from which it emerged: ballet-pantomime and romanticism. And it is danced by artists whose technical expertise is a benchmark for today.

The production is so clear in its story-telling. The dancers appear to live rather than act out their parts and the evening just sweeps along. Giselle, danced by Dorothée Gilbert, draws us into her peasant world and shares her inconsolable sorrow at being betrayed in Act I, and in Act II she almost seems to melt away at times so fragile and vaporous is her reading of her role as a Wili. Her mimed tears as she tells us how much she had loved Albrecht simply melt the heart.

But, while it is clear, the production is also subtle, beautifully so. Nothing screams out, everything is harmonious as the story moves to an inevitable conclusion.

As for the dancing, well there’s just nothing like the Paris Opera Ballet. The corps de ballet is so beautifully rehearsed and they danced to perfection in both acts; Mathieu Ganio as Albrecht performed the most exquisite series of entrechats in Act II; Marie-Agnès Gillot was a commanding Myrthe and the Act I Peasant pas de deux, danced by Mélanie Hurel and Emmanuel Thibault, was joyously captivating.

But although there were some (or many) outstanding moments of performance, the evening was about the entire company. What makes this company so outstanding is the way in which the dancers perform in the classical mode. Every movement is a complete one. The dancers are able to take a bend of the body, a circular movement, a lift of the arms, anything really, and one can see where the movements starts, how it moves along its trajectory and how it finishes and moves into the next movement. This kind of dancing, so smooth and fluid, so sweeping, having such clarity, is rare and it is such a huge pleasure to see.

The Sydney Lyric Orchestra, consisting of musicians drawn together from a variety of organisations and directed by concertmaster Adrian Keating, was conducted by Belgian, Koen Kessels. The music never intrudes but is always clearly and strongly present, moving the story along. Perfect. It also presents a new perspective on Adolphe Adam’s music, reinstating some of the passages that have long been removed from the score as a result of the ballet having been whittled away over the decades from its original ballet-pantomime intentions. And the cello solo in Act II was as moving as the dance it accompanied.

Much has been made of this production being the ‘most authentic’ production of Giselle, and I began this review by mentioning the two traditions from which the first Giselle emerged. It is true that the ballet-pantomime tradition has been given a focus to a certain extent with the mime scenes, such as Giselle’s mother Berthe, danced by Amélie Lamoureux, telling in an extended way the story of the Wilis and prophesying the death of Giselle; the insertion of the men playing dice in the forest as Act II begins; and so on. The romanticism is well and truly there in the qualities the Paris Opera Ballet brings to Act II—that feeling, explored through technical means as much as anything else, of the Wilis drifting in and out of a real world and a world beyond the real.

But I have seen both these traditions explored in several other productions of Giselle—that of Sylvie Guillem for the Finnish National Ballet, the Royal Ballet’s production where the Act I mime is extensive, and even parts of Peggy van Praagh’s production for the Australian Ballet. So for me it is not so much a ‘return to authenticity’ that marks this production as remarkable, as interesting as this is. It is the skill and beauty of the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, who are transcendent artists, and the direction of the company that understands that the classical technique can accomplish so much when exploited to its limits and used as an expressive vocabulary.

As a side issue, I admired the program cover for Giselle, reproduced below.

POB program coverIt captures so much of the essence of Act II, the fragility of the world of the Wili and the overwhelming presence of the forces of nature and the night. And, best of all, it isn’t a fashion shot that has nothing to do with what happens in the ballet. The cover photo is by © Jacques Moatti.

Michelle Potter, 30 January 2013

Update (3 February 2013): I have it on reliable authority that the sublime cello solo was, on opening night, played by Peter Morrison.

Tankard bannerHOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is available to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

Some thoughts on ‘Giselle’ and the Paris Opera Ballet

Interesting news from Paris is that Benjamin Millepied will take up the position of Director of Dance at the Paris Opera Ballet following the retirement of Brigitte Lefèvre in 2014. Millepied, dancer and choreographer whose performing career has included a significant stretch of time with New York City Ballet where he rose from corps dancer to principal, is perhaps best known to a wider public for his work with Natalie Portman on the movie Black Swan. Millepied’s stage choreography was most recently seen in the southern hemisphere in 2012 in the Royal New Zealand Ballet season of NYC. RNZB staged Millepied’s 2005 work 28 variations on a theme by Paganini.  

Meanwhile, the Paris Opera Ballet, a company with a long and illustrious heritage, opens its Sydney season of Giselle at the Capitol Theatre tomorrow. It has been a while since a full production of Giselle has been danced in Australia, and this is a perfect opportunity to see it performed by the company whose forebears danced it at its world premiere.

Gisellefirst took to the stage in Paris in 1841 at the theatre of the Paris Opera. The ballet was developed by a first-rate team of European creatives. Its libretto was written by poet and critic Théophile Gautier and dramatist Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and was based on a story by the German writer Heinrich Heine. Its music was composed by Adolphe Adam and its choreography created by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. On opening night the role of Giselle was danced by Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi and her performance that night established her as a major star.

Since that opening performance Gisellehas hardly been out of the ballet repertoire making it one of the most enduring of all the classics. It has undergone various changes over time, as happens with all works in the performing arts, but essentially it remains the story of a young peasant girl, Giselle, who falls for Albrecht, a nobleman in disguise. She has her heart broken and dies when it becomes clear that Albrecht is engaged to a noblewoman, Bathilde. Giselle returns in spirit form—as a Wili, that is a spirit of a betrothed girl who has died before her wedding night. Led by their queen, Myrthe, the Wilis are intent on pursuing to their death all men who enter the forest at night. It falls to Giselle to save a grieving Albrecht from this fate.

But like all works of art that have endured over centuries, Giselletakes place in a complex world. We encounter many differences of life-style—peasants appear alongside noblemen; and different realms of nature—a fertile countryside where a bountiful grape harvest is celebrated in Act I contrasts with a forest graveyard and the chill of night in Act II. In the Paris Opera Ballet production flower symbolism also plays a significant role. White flowers appear in both acts. They are daisies and field flowers in Act I. Giselle’s peasant admirer, the gamekeeper Hilarion, leaves a bouquet of white daisies outside Giselle’s cottage rather than the dead rabbit or bird he leaves in productions by many other companies. A single daisy also hints that all is not well when Giselle and Albrecht engage in the ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ game with daisy petals.

In Act II Hilarion returns with daisies for Giselle’s grave but the flowers of Act II include lilies, white roses and flowering myrtle, powerful symbols of love, immortality, purity, and in the case of myrtle used for centuries in bridal bouquets. The Queen of the Wilis, Myrthe, carries a branch of flowering myrtle as her sceptre; Albrecht enters with an armful of lilies for Giselle’s grave; Giselle pleads with Myrthe to spare Albrecht and a handful of white roses tumble from her arms and fall at Myrthe’s feet. The forces of nature are powerful throughout.

Gisellealso presents us with a number of conundrums. Where or who is Giselle’s father for example? We only meet her mother, Berthe, who in Act I superstitiously tells the story of the Wilis and provides a foretaste of what will occur in Act II. Could the father be the Duke of Courland, who in Act I arrives with his hunting party and is served with refreshments by Berthe? In the Paris Opera Ballet production (at least on its current video manifestation) he takes a particular interest in Giselle, cupping her chin in his hands and looking into her eyes. He seems quite familiar with Berthe as well. And why did Giselle die? Was it of a broken heart? Was it from all the dancing in which we see her engage in Act I, just as Berthe prophesied? Or did she inherit a weak constitution? And how does she die? Does she stab herself with Albrecht’s sword, which Hilarion uses to expose Albrecht’s real identity? And what of Albrecht? Does he really love Giselle? Or is he living a lie and wreaking havoc on the life of a young peasant girl as he plays at being a peasant himself? Marie-Antoinette and her fake rustic village at Versailles come to mind.

The dancing itself in this Paris Opera Ballet production is almost flawless in a technical sense. In addition, the dancers, male and female, have an elegance and a perfection in the way they carry themselves that not only reflects their impeccable training but somehow also seems to reflect their royal heritage. The Paris Opera Ballet can trace its lineage back to 1661, when the French monarch Louis XIV, the Sun King, established the Académie royale de danse. Louis XIV was an enthusiastic and accomplished dancer himself. His familiar name, the Sun King, is reputed to date from his appearance as Apollo, god of the sun, in one of the sequences in Les Ballets de la nuit in 1653. He was just 14 at the time and was dressed in a costume replete with golden rays that fanned out around him as we imagine the rays of the sun radiate from a golden orb. Legend also has it that he had such slim and elegant ankles that he loved to pose with his heel pushed forward to show the royal ankles in all their glory. Ballet technique, the story goes, has been characterised by a ‘turn out’ of the feet and legs ever since.

There is so much to ponder on as the story of Giselle unfolds. I am filled with anticipation!

Giselle, Paris Opera Ballet, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, January 29–February 9

© Michelle Potter, 28 January 2013

Postscript (29 January 2013): Shame about the misspelling of Laurent Hilaire’s name in The Sydney Morning Herald‘s article (p. 7) this morning. Not a good advertisement  for Australian media on the morning of the Paris Opera Ballet’s opening. And, although the same article also notes that Millepied has no official ties with the Paris company, Millepied has made a work for the company, his Amoveo (2006). Excerpts from this work and others by Millepied made recently are on his website.

Tankard bannerHOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is available to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

Dance diary. December 2012

  • Hannah O’Neill: news from Paris

Hannah O’Neill is now half way through her second year with the Paris Opera Ballet, having successfully negotiated another temporary contract at the annual examinations the company conducts each year.

In her second year with the company O’Neill has taken particular delight in performing in George Balanchine’s Serenade, part of a program of three Balanchine ballets that began the 2012‒2013 season. Sadly for her Australian admirers however, she is not coming to Sydney for the Paris Opera Ballet’s season of Giselle to be staged in January‒February. She says that, as she is still on a temporary contract, she wasn’t expecting to tour but that the bonus is that she will be performing in Paris in February in Jiri Kylian’s Kaguyahime. With a company of over 150 dancers, the Paris Opera Ballet has the luxury of being able to tour while maintaining a regular program in Paris at the same time. Kaguyahime, a spectacular piece of theatre, will be O’Neill’s first experience dancing a contemporary work since she has been in Paris.

  • Michelle Ryan: new artistic director at Restless Dance Theatre

Early in December Michelle Ryan was appointed artistic director of Restless Dance Theatre in Adelaide. Many will remember Ryan I am sure from her performance days with Meryl Tankard. She joined the Meryl Tankard Company in Canberra in 1992 and then moved to Adelaide in 1993 remaining with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre until it disbanded. More recently Ryan has been working as rehearsal director with Dance North.

For more about the history of Restless Dance, a contemporary company working with people with and without a disability, the National Library holds an extensive interview with Kat Worth, artistic director of Restless Dance 2001–2006.

  • Meryl Tankard: an original voice

Here are some shout-lines from some who have read Meryl Tankard: an original voice: ‘It has a sense of drama but also balance, and it brings Meryl and her work to life’; and ‘The best and most comprehensive study of Tankard I have read’. Order a copy and see for yourself.

  • Site news

I am always interested to see which tags are being accessed most frequently by visitors to this site. It usually changes slightly from month to month depending on what has been posted in any particular month. But it is perhaps more telling to look at which tags have been accessed over a full year. In 2012 the Australian Ballet topped the list. Here are the top ten:

  • The Australian Ballet
  • Hannah O’Neill
  • Ty King-Wall
  • Ballets Russes
  • Graeme Murphy
  • Meryl Tankard
  • Madeleine Eastoe
  • Olga Spessivtseva
  • Juliet Burnett
  • Lana Jones

Michelle Potter, 28 December 2012

Happy New Year banner

‘Roméo et Juliette’. Paris Opera Ballet

20 May 2012, Opera Bastille, Paris

Sasha Waltz’s production of Roméo et Juliette, originally made for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2007, is about as far from other danced interpretations of those ‘star-cross’d lovers’ that I can imagine. In program notes for the 2012 staging Waltz herself said that the only production with which she was familiar was that of Maurice Béjart but that she never thinks about other productions when making a work. She simply draws on herself for inspiration. Whether this is possible or not is a matter of contention but, from the point of view of an audience member, it is close to impossible not to situate a work with the title Romeo and Juliet within the context of one’s previous experiences in the theatre.

In her production, Waltz reduced the named characters to three: Romeo, Juliet and Friar Laurence. She then focused on the links between love and death and the redemptive power of the death of Romeo and Juliet for their feuding families. She maintains that her work is not a narrative work but an emotional one. Yet the chorus sings a narrative. Not only that, it is more than tempting to interpret the roles taken by some of the dancers—those without specified roles—as other characters in the story (and the ballets) we all know. And there is very clearly a ballroom scene (more a party in this case) that is quite literal with dancers (women in tutus, men in shiny suits) miming eating, drinking and other party-going activities. So, for me, the question of is there or isn’t there a narrative was never really resolved.

That said, Waltz’s Roméo et Juliette was a breathtaking, highly theatrical production in many ways. Set to the Symphonie dramatique of Hector Berlioz, it employed three soloists and the chorus of the opera company―mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac was outstanding―as well as twenty-two dancers from the ballet company, including on the night I went two étoiles, Aurélie Dupont as Juliet and Hervé Moreau as Romeo. It was the Paris Opera machine at its best, utilising its stars from both the opera and ballet companies to produce a collaborative work of magnificent proportions.

The work was quite spare visually, and effectively so, with the set attributed to Pia Maier Schriever, Thomas Schenk and Sasha Waltz. It appeared to be two large white quadrilateral-shaped platforms, one placed on top of the other but with the top one overlapping the bottom one in some sections. But as the work progressed the top platform was pulled upwards and it was eventually apparent that the two platforms were hinged and they opened into a single, huge quadrilateral platform. The dance action largely took place on these platforms in their various stages of unfolding. Occasionally the singers appeared there too, but mostly they performed at the side of the set. Costumes, by Bernd Skodzig, for singers and dancers were for the most part black or white and emphasised Waltz’s focus on a duality between life and death.

But in many other ways the work was a huge disappointment. While there were some beautifully fluid groupings of dancers, and times when the wide sweep of the body through space was exciting to watch, I found Waltz’s choreography repetitive and often unbecoming with its frequent karate-style movements and its angularity. The pas de deux between Dupont and Moreau was perhaps a highlight. But to tell the truth, while it was flawlessly executed by two exceptional dancers, the choreography seemed cold to me and only rarely allowed Dupont and Moreau to show their humanity and their vulnerability.

Scenically and musically this Roméo et Juliette was spectacular. As ever the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet were also a joy to watch. But so much of the way the show was conceived and choreographed did not support the exceptional qualities of the dancers and singers and production personnel. In the end it seemed like an evening of missed opportunities and mixed messages.

Michelle Potter, 22 May 2012

‘Rain’ (Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker). Paris Opera Ballet

Most publicity related to the recent Paris Opera Ballet season of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rain comments that the Belgian choreographer thought long and hard about having her work enter the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet. Would she or would she not agree to Brigitte Lefèvre’s request? Her vocabulary is just so different from that at the heart of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Reading these comments I thought about Merce Cunningham’s exquisite Summerspace entering the repertoire of New York City Ballet in 1966 and recalled that some Cunningham dancers say they sat in the theatre on opening night and cried as they watched it. I have never seen de Keersmaeker’s own company dancers perform Rain so I have no idea whether what I saw by the astonishing dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet would have induced tears in others. However, I know what reactions it elicited in me. Probably for the first time in my dance going career I felt that there was a real and palpable cross fertilisation between music and dance and that the design also contributed in its own way, all components advancing for me the simple idea of there being detail in detail.

Rain is danced to a score by Steve Reich, Music for eighteen musicians, pour ensemble avec voix, written in 1976, and the activity in the pit (and I had a seat close enough to have an excellent view of the musicians) was almost as good as what was happening on stage. The musicians of Ensemble Ictus and Synergy Vocals worked relentlessly to produce the sound just as the dancers worked relentlessly to put the choreography before us. Some, like the violinist, played pretty much constantly for the entire 70 minute piece, others occasionally changed positions in the pit or moved to play a different instrument. It looked as choreographed as the dance it accompanied.

From a dance point of view the work was full of the runs and falls, the off-centre leaning, the kicks of the legs, the pivots that we might expect of de Keersmaeker’s brand of dance. But the whole was beautifully arranged. Take the off-centre leans. They featured early in the piece but were picked up again towards the end of the work and repeated with arms lifted high rather than by the side. Devices of this kind featured throughout and gave the work a strong and logically organised internal structure within a seemingly random array of  individualistic dance moves. The ten dancers, three men and seven women, demonstrated the innate ability that the Paris Opera Ballet dancers have to articulate movement in different parts of the body. Just as every note of music and every small change could be heard clearly, every minute change of movement had the essential clarity needed to make de Keersmaeker’s choreography detailed rather than seemingly repetitive

Danced within a large semi-circle of suspended ropes designed and lit by Jan Versweyveld, the work began and finished theatrically with the dancers appearing first and last to us as shadows behind the rope circle. At times throughout the piece they moved to the front of the stage and smiled out to us, inviting us to share what seemed to be a joyous experience.

Costumes by Dries van Noten were made of light fabric initially in honey shades. They moved freely and consisted of simple skirts and tops or shift-style dresses for the women and pants and shirts for then men. Like the music and the choreography they too underwent small changes. A light honey brown skirt was changed to a rose one; a pale T shirt became a fuschia coloured one; a light dress became magenta; until at the end all changes had changed again back to the honey shades of the beginning.

It was done without fuss and without excess. And it was simply beautiful.

Michelle Potter, 11 June 2011

‘Entity’. Random Dance

28 January 2011, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay. Sydney Festival, 2011

Wayne McGregor’s Entity, performed by his company Random Dance as part of the 2011 Sydney Festival, begins and ends with black and white footage of a greyhound in motion. It may be or be based on the work of the nineteenth-century, British-American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneer of the physics of animal locution. It certainly recalls the work of Muybridge. To me this visual clue is of far greater import and carries much more interest for the viewer than any amount of philosophical discussion of McGregor’s research project ‘Choreography and cognition’ and his work with neuroscientists, as fascinating as those and other aspects of McGregor’s career are.

Entity shows the remarkable ability of the human body to move, bend, twist, flex, soar and travel. Like the greyhound the dancers are sleek. Their limbs extend and reach outwards. Their bodies are stretched long and lean. They use their muscles efficiently. They move with intention. In their black briefs and white T-tops, dispensed with towards the end to reveal black bra tops on the women and for the men a bare upper body, they hover on the edge of classical movement before morphing into strange new shapes. They twist and contort their bodies with one recurring motif being an arched spine with backside pushed out, the antithesis of the classically stretched spine with the head balanced perfectly at the top. Bodies are in constant dialogue with each other and the movement screams out its edginess.

Danced to a score by Joby Talbot followed by another from Jon Hopkins, the work is set in an enclosed space consisting of three light coloured, translucent screens, one at each side and one at the back of the stage area. Designed by Patrick Burnier they can be manipulated by a (viewable) mechanical system and lit when required. When lit (design by Lucy Carter) their internal structure is further revealed. During the second part of the work the screens rise above the dancers and are enhanced by video projections. From my position towards the back of the circle of the Sydney Theatre it was not entirely clear what the projections were other than they seemed to be various formulae. Part of the choreographer’s fascination with mathematical and engineering principles?

But in the end Entity is about McGregor’s choreography and about his attitude to how the body can move in this present day and age. It makes me long to see more of McGregor’s work, especially when danced by intensively trained ballet dancers. There are some great scenes of McGregor rehearsing Genus, his work for the Paris Opera Ballet, along with brief excerpts from the work in performance in the recent film La danse. While Random Dance performed superbly in Sydney, there is something additional in the way the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet perform. There is a certain security in the way they move, an inherent understanding of the body, something deeply intuitive about movement, that allows McGregor’s classical references to be offset in a particular way. The mix of the classical and the restive tension of today becomes heightened and makes us see both and all more clearly.

Although this is a little simplistic, McGregor reminds me of Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine and William Forsythe rolled into one. He’s a formalist. He dispenses with fussy costumes and decorative sets. And he has a remarkable intellectual curiosity. It makes for unusual and ultimately satisfying dance, which in its essence is purely McGregor.

Michelle Potter, 31 January 2011

‘Kaguyahime’. Paris Opera Ballet

11 June 2010, Opéra Bastille, Paris

Kaguyahime is Jiri Kylian’s poetic, choreographic reflection on an ancient Japanese prose text, The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter. This story tells of Kaguyahime, the moon princess who comes to earth—she is discovered inside a stalk of bamboo—and astounds everyone with her radiant beauty. Many vie for her attention but she eventually and reluctantly takes leave of her adoptive parents and returns to the moon.

The work is divided into scenes that reflect the story: the descent of Kaguyahime from the moon, the dance by the village men who compete for her attention, the celebration of her coming of age, a violent combat and eventual war between the villagers and rival aristocrats who have heard of the beauty of Kaguyahime, the Emperor’s interest in her, and her final return to the moon.

But, rather than attempt to follow the story literally and make a quasi-oriental work, within the structure he set up Kylian chose to focus on what he understood as the universal themes emerging from the story—envy, rivalry, the desire to possess, and war set alongside more humanistic ideals such as love and peace. The result is something truly remarkable, which is neither but both oriental and occidental and in which the visual and aural accompaniment to the choreography sets up a surreal (or magical) environment in which our deepest sensibilities are awakened.

On opening night, the role of Kaguyahime was danced by Marie-Agnès Gillot and her execution of Kylian’s choreography for this role was beautifully controlled, reserved and tremulous as she moved around the stage during her descent and final ascent, yet seductive in its curving movements of the torso and limbs. A highlight was the duet between Gillot and Mathias Heymann as one of the men of the village who sought her love. It was a duet in which they seemed rarely to touch each other yet with every movement there was implied and imagined contact.

Other scenes, the celebration of Kaguyahime’s coming of age, the combat and the war for example, were filled with explosive movement, fast turns and strong jumps, which the dancers executed with breathtaking skill.

Kaguyahime was danced to music by Maki Ishii performed by seven artists of the Kodo Ensemble playing Japanese drums, the Gagaku Ensemble, a trio of musicians playing ancient Japanese wind instruments, and a group of seven French musicians playing an assortment of percussion instruments. The shimmering music that accompanied Kaguyahime’s descent from the moon was in stark contrast to the fire cracker sounds of the music for the combat between the villagers and the aristocrats and the insistent and dramatic rhythms of the onstage drums during the war scene.

Sets, costumes and lighting were simple and powerful. Use was made of expanses of silken cloth—grey at the end of the war scene when a complete curtain fell leaving a solitary figure, Kaguyahime, in front of it as it rippled through the air; gold during the scenes with the Emperor. Other devices, such as mirrors and shadowy projections continued the surrealistic mood opening up the work to subconscious thoughts and feelings.

If anything illustrates the notion put forward by Merce Cunningham that speaking (or writing) about dance is ‘like nailing Jell-O to the wall’ Kaguyahime is it. But I can think of few other works that have encapsulated so much, so brilliantly, so simply and honestly, in such a moving manner. A true masterpiece in my opinion.

Michelle Potter, 13 June 2010 

Postscript: Kaguyahime was originally created on Nederlands Dans Theater in 1988, when Kylian was the company’s director. My one huge regret is that I had the opportunity to see this remarkable work, and an equally remarkable performance of it, once only. It would make sensational addition to any of the many Australian arts festivals.

‘Jewels’. New York City Ballet

27 February 2010, David H. Koch Theater, New York

What a pleasure and a luxury it is to those whose home is not New York to see the full length Jewels. Made by Balanchine in 1967, each of its three distinct sections—’Emeralds’, ‘Rubies’ and ‘Diamonds’—is set to music by three different composers, Fauré for ‘Emeralds’, Stravinsky for ‘Rubies’ and Tschaikovsky for ‘Diamonds’. Many have suggested that Jewels is also in homage to three different countries—’Emeralds’ to France, ‘Rubies’ to Balanchine’s adopted homeland, America, and ‘Diamonds’ to Russia. But in the end, Jewels is an evening of delicious and diverse dancing.

‘Emeralds’ is at once moody and mysterious, romantic and sombre, and sometimes like a whisper in a forest glade. ‘Rubies’ is all sass and neon. Diamonds is pure and clean, a dance in an arctic cave filled with cool yet intricate ice carvings.

The structure of ‘Emeralds’ calls for two leading couples. On this occasion Abi Stafford and Jared Angle were a gracious couple, transcendent in their pas de deux, while Sara Mearns and Jonathan Stafford showed breathtaking expressiveness and expansiveness of movement. Robert Fairchild was impressive as the male member of the pas de trois of soloists, showing his courteous partnering without losing his own strong presence.

‘Rubies’ showcased a pert and prancey Janie Taylor and a boisterous Benjamin Millepied. They were more than ably supported by Savannah Lowrey and a strong corps de ballet whipping off the clean, fast footwork, flicking wrists and eye catching head movements of this section.

The big disappointment, however, came with ‘Diamonds’. There were some uplifting moments—a polonaise for the corps de ballet that was just joyous Balanchine, for example. But Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal lacked attack in their pas de deux and so the brilliance and strength that should characterise this act was lost. And Whelan seemed hugely uncomfortable in her 1960s style ‘powder puff’ tutu.

New York City Ballet’s Jewels could well do with a redesign in my opinion. While choreographically it remains as modern as today, as the French ballerina Aurélie Dupont has remarked, both Karinska’s costumes and Peter Harvey’s scenery for New York City Ballet are fussy and look outmoded. Christian Lacroix and Brigitte Lefèvre have made the Paris Opera Ballet’s staging of Jewels a cut above that of New York City Ballet. Lacroix’s scenery verges on the minimalist and his costumes, while they recall those of Karinska, have a more contemporary feel (especially the tutus for ‘Diamonds’), which to my mind allows the choreography to maximise its ‘as modern as today’ image.

Michelle Potter, 13 March 2010

‘La Fille mal gardée’. Paris Opera Ballet

La Fille mal gardée

Paris Opera Ballet, Palais Garnier, Paris, 14 July 2009

It was le quatorze juillet. The orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris began the evening with a remarkably stirring rendition of La Marseillaise. The audience applauded loudly and shouted Vive la France! It set the scene for an equally stirring performance of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée.

Although Ashton’s version of Fille entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet only in 2007, the ballet has strong French roots that can be traced back to 1789 when a work called Le Ballet de la paille took the stage of the Grand-Théâtre of Bordeaux. Subsequently, a number of choreographers created their own versions before Ashton choreographed his production in 1960 for the Royal Ballet.

Ashton’s choreography gave the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet every opportunity to show their technical capacity for fast and precise footwork and their glorious adherence to the classical way of moving. On show too was their ability to give an individualistic interpretation of a role. The Widow Simone who, in what no doubt was a one-off patriotic moment on the French National Day, waved a tiny French flag as she made her first appearance was a case in point. Stephane Phavorin was to a certain extent the flustered pantomime dame but absent (thankfully) was the high camp interpretation that one often sees. Similarly, Simon Valastro as Alain gave a thoughtful portrayal in which he managed to convince us that he was not so much an imbecile as simply someone incompetent of functioning in the society in which he found himself. The difference is perhaps subtle but this Alain was not entirely brainless.

As Lise, Dorothée Gilbert displayed the brilliant technical capacity and the clarity and expansiveness of movement that one has come to expect from étoiles with this remarkable company. Coupled with her beautifully expressive upper body and her sheer delight in dancing, she was everything one could hope for as Lise. Her mime scene in Act II where she imagines herself married to Colas was tenderly moving and the pas de deux in this act was danced with just the right dreamy quality to display Ashton’s choreography to perfection.

Gilbert was partnered by Mathias Heymann as Colas who like his colleagues showed himself every bit an étoile. This is a company of outstanding artists.

Michelle Potter, 16 July 2009