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

An Australasian affair …

There was one empty seat in the front row at the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s inaugural Harry Haythorne choreographic awards last weekend…odd since a good view in a studio setting is always at a premium and the house was otherwise full to overflowing. Perhaps Harry was playing ‘the angel at the table’—occupying that seat to keep a keen eye on proceedings, pleased to see that his encouragement of emerging choreographers is being remembered, and that today’s young dancers who never met him can nevertheless tell what kind of initiative he brought to his term as artistic director here, 1981–1992. Let’s cheat Death awhile.

Harry Haythorne

A small group of Harry’s colleagues and friends had met to plan these awards, the idea and koha for which grew from the spirited party held in his memory back in January, in tandem with the festive gathering in Melbourne. It’s interesting to ponder on the New Zealand and Australian inter-twinings in our company over decades. Harry for starters, himself Australian through and through, yet we think of him as a New Zealander emeritus. Australian Mark Keyworth as company manager, navigated with him.

Promising young choreographer Loughlan Prior won both the panel’s and the people’s award, with the striking imagery of his work, Eve, set to song and spoken poetry. Loughlan was born in Melbourne though did later training in New Zealand.

'Eve' by Louhglan Prior

William Fitzgerald and Laura Saxon Jones in Eve by Loughlan Prior, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

On present membership, over one third of the RNZB dancers are from Australia, and/or trained there, so more threads are in the weave. Cast a thought back to the middle decades of the 20th century, when the Borovansky Ballet’s regular tours were so welcome here. It was their 1952 tour that brought dancer Poul Gnatt, who looked around, hunched that New Zealand might like a ballet company, returned to found one the following year—and the rest is history.

Peggy van Praagh was involved in staging several productions for New Zealand Ballet in early years here, not least Tudor’s Judgment of Paris. She and Russell Kerr arranged for dancer exchanges between Australian and New Zealand companies, and also masterminded two landmark fortnight-long residential courses of dance appreciation at University of Armidale in NSW. Both schemes should have continued ever since. I still treasure my notebooks from things we saw and heard there in 1967 and 1969—from van Praagh, Algeranoff, Beth Dean, Marilyn Jones, Garth Welch, Karl Welander, Keith Bain, Eric Westbrook—films of Martha Graham and of Jose Limon—good things that last, seeding an awareness of dance for a lifetime.

Many here have wished that we might have seen more of Graeme Murphy’s choreography in New Zealand over the years. There was his searingly memorable Orpheus, commissioned by Harry for the Stravinsky Celebration season in 1982. Sydney Dance Company brought the greatly admired Some Rooms to the first Arts Festival here, and Shining followed soon after that. Then Matz Skoog in 1997 brought Murphy’s quietly powerful The Protecting Veil, a work that suited our company particularly well…but we could have done and seen so much more of his remarkable oeuvre. Harry brought Jonathan Taylor’s impressive Hamlet, and ‘Tis Goodly Sport—suiting our company so well. Kristian Fredrikson, local boy made good, began his training here in Wellington, and continued to design and dress so many memorable productions on both sides of the Tasman, adding to the ties that bind. RNZB have also toured a number of seasons in Australia over the years.

But with the brand new ballet from Liam Scarlett, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, pioneering as a co-production with Queensland Ballet, there’s an inspired possibility of further exchanges within the choreographic repertoire, with rich benefits for those two companies and their audiences on both sides of the Tasman. Directors Li Cunxin in Queensland and Francesco Ventriglia in Wellington will no doubt be already thinking ahead. They could be onto a winner here. I’m just going to see one more performance of this scintillating faerie ballet shortly, and will then write about it. It’s quite on the cards that many who were so enchanted by the premiere season here will want to travel to Queensland next year to catch it on the rebound. Nothing wrong with falling in love again. I’m sure Harry would agree.

 Jennifer Shennan, 15 September 2015

Featured image: Harry Haythorne as Father Winter in Cinderella. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 1991. Photographer not known

The Australian Ballet’s first New Zealand tour, 1963

I was surprised, when the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary book Luminous was published, to discover that the company’s first overseas tour was listed as that of 1965‒1966. That tour lasted five months and was a massive and hugely important undertaking for a company that was not quite three years old when it set out from Australia in August 1965. The tour was ostensibly to appear in the Commonwealth Arts Festival in the United Kingdom but it took in many other cities across the globe, including Paris where Peggy van Praagh’s production of Giselle received the Grand Prix of the City of Paris. But what happened to the 1963 tour to New Zealand I wondered? It was small by comparison. It lasted just six weeks and was just across the Tasman. But it happened.

An explanation of sorts was provided by Colin Peasley in an oral history interview he recorded in 2000. In the early days of the Australian Ballet’s history the business side of the company was handled by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT), which received government funding on behalf of the company, in partnership with the J. C. Williamson organisation (JCW), which owned theatres across Australia and New Zealand and also sets and costumes used in many early Australian Ballet productions. Peasley suggested that the first New Zealand tour had never been regarded by the company as its first overseas tour, which was perhaps related to the fact that at that stage company contracts were issued by JCW. The contracts were similar to those issued by JCW for its musical comedy shows and for the Borovansky Ballet. That is, the contracts were Australasian ones. It is a plausible rationale for regarding the tour as an internal one, but not an excuse.

While primary source material relating to the tour is scattered somewhat haphazardly amongst various archival collections, it seems that seasons were initially planned between June and August 1963 for Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North and Wellington on the North Island and at least Christchurch on the South Island. The repertoire included the full-length Swan Lake, along with Les Sylphides, Just for fun, Lady and the Fool, One in Five, Melbourne Cup and some divertissements including the pas de deux from Don Quixote and Sylvia and Robert Pomie’s Pas classique. With artistic director Peggy van Praagh at the helm, the company was led by international guest stars Sonia Arova and Caj Selling, the Australian Ballet’s Kathleen Gorham and Karl Welander and New Zealander Jon Trimmer.

Sonia Arova & Caj Selling in 'Sylvia' pas de deuxSonia Arova and Caj Selling in the pas de deux from Sylvia, 1963. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

The tour was a partnership with the New Zealand Ballet Trust and the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. Negotiations for the season were in place as early as 12 January 1963 when a letter from Louis van Eyssen, then general manager of the fledgling Australian Ballet, noted that the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation was prepared ‘to make [its] second orchestra of 25 available to complement our Ballet Company on our proposed tour of New Zealand’. The company left for New Zealand on 15 June 1963.

Although press reports and reviews were positive, it was a difficult tour in which the company lost fairly hefty amounts of money and which ended ahead of its proposed schedule: the season in Wellington was cut short and the company did not visit the South Island at all. The AETT had decided to go ahead on the basis of the orchestral assistance offered by New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation and by advantageous terms regarding theatre rentals offered by JCW, although it was concerned about the tour quite early in the negotiation period. Box office losses for Australian Ballet seasons in Australian capital cities in the early part of 1963 had been a cause for concern and at one stage Stefan Haag, executive director of the AETT, attempted to convince the New Zealand Ballet Trust to increase its participation on a profit and loss basis from 10% to 50%. The Executive Council of the New Zealand Ballet Trust declined, eventually making it clear that 10% on a profit or loss basis was to be qualified by a loss limit of £1,500. Haag also made overtures to secure a grant from the New Zealand Arts Council, but this too came to nothing.

Specific problems arose in Auckland, the first stop. The company was competing with two popular shows, the Cherry Blossom Show and the Black and White Minstrel Show. As the season in Auckland commenced van Eyssen wrote to Haag saying:

… Harry Wren’s Cherry Blossom show is splashed across a full page of the daily papers and so far he has sold the first two weeks completely out. Similarly with the Black and White Minstrel Show which is offering very strong competition as well in both newspaper advertising and also bookings.

Peasley noted that some performances were packed, some half full, and some practically empty.

It appears there were orchestral problems as well. During the Wellington season, which opened on 18 July, van Praagh wrote to Haag saying that the orchestra had ‘been nothing but a problem ever since we started’. There was, allegedly, strife within the ranks and van Praagh claimed that at one matinee neither the first trumpet nor the first clarinet had turned up to play. There were explanations and denials in the press of course. All in all it seems to have been a colourful tour from a backstage perspective.

There were also reports in the New Zealand and Australian press suggesting that the tour had been shortened because the company feared that its subsidy would be cut because of the poor box office takings. This, of course, was vehemently denied, although in May a memorandum to Haag from an unidentified writer suggested that the losses on the seasons in Australia prior to the New Zealand tour were so serious that they called for radical revision of plans and, in fact, an abandonment of the idea of a permanent Australian company. The writer went on to say that there was not a sufficient public for ballet to support annual seasons either in Australia or in New Zealand.

In the end the company continued as we all know, despite returning from New Zealand earlier than expected. However, the first New Zealand tour, which was also the company’s first overseas tour no matter what the dancers’ contracts stated, deserves further consideration and acceptance for its role in the growth of the company.

© Michelle Potter, 10 September 2012

‘Peggy!’ The Australian Ballet

The first part of Peggy!, the Australian Ballet’s tribute to the company’s founding director Dame Peggy van Praagh, may well have delighted her. Mark Annear’s Birthday Celebration, a work made originally to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Australian Ballet School in 2004, was a joyous offering. Dame Peggy, who cared deeply about teaching and the training of dancers, would I think have been delighted to see that the Australian Ballet School, whose founding she fostered, is alive and well under its present director, Marilyn Rowe. The work showcased students of the school, including some very young children. Almost without exception their dancing was filled with the joy of movement—so refreshing.

The rest was not so exciting. A series of short excerpts from various ballets — van Praagh’s Garland Dance from the 1973 production of The Sleeping Beauty; an Act I pas de deux from Giselle, inserted into the ‘standard’ production by van Praagh in 1973; and extracts from Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella — suffered from lack of context and from ordinary dancing. The Giselle pas de deux, for example, is a beautiful addition to a great Romantic classic. As I mentioned in a much earlier post, dramatically it serves to establish early on, and in more depth than is usual in other productions, the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht. To perform it in isolation requires much more than Kirsty Martin and Ty King-Wall were able to give. Their interpretation was bland in my opinion. I also missed the choreographic delights I recall from the performance of this pas de deux in the Australian Ballet’s 2001 production — its Cecchetti-inspired use of epaulement and its light as a feather jumps for example. They just weren’t there.

The final work on the program, Antony Tudor’s Gala Performance, in which van Praagh herself once played the leading role of the Russian Ballerina, lacked the satirical subtlety that I was hoping to see. Like most of the ‘comedy’ staged recently by the Australian Ballet the roles were exaggerated making them a travesty of what was originally intended. However, if we are talking about roles suiting particular dancers, as we were in the comments on Coppélia recently, I have to say that Reiko Hombo was well suited to the role of the French dancer. She was properly bubbly and flighty.

In many respects in this program I preferred the ancillary material to the dancing. The archival film footage and interviews with those who had been close to Dame Peggy, which preceded each major segment on the program, gave interesting insights into the way Dame Peggy worked. And the small exhibition of photos and other items, which was set up in the foyer of Melbourne’s State Theatre, captured some key moments in Dame Peggy’s life. It’s a shame it wasn’t given a better space but it attracted a lot of interest both before and after the show.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2010

‘Peggy!’ The Australian Ballet in 2010

When the Australian Ballet announced its 2010 season in September 2009, one of the most appealing aspects of the year long program was the prospect of a tribute season called Peggy! The ‘Peggy’ of the title is of course the Australian Ballet’s inaugural artistic director, Dame Peggy van Praagh. The program features works with which she is closely associated in some way and is also a centenary celebration of her birth in 1910. Peggy! will be seen only in Melbourne in eleven performances between 25 June and 5 July 2010.

Perhaps the most interesting of the works on the program is a pas de deux choreographed by Dame Peggy in 1973, which she made to be inserted into Act I of her 1965 production of Giselle. The pas de deux is not well known. Recent Australian Ballet audiences are probably more familiar with Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle, which she first staged for the Australian Ballet in 1986. Van Praagh’s  pas de deux does not appear in this production. The Gielgud production remained a mainstay of company repertoire throughout Gielgud’s reign as artistic director and beyond. After leaving the company at the end of 1996, Gielgud returned ten years later in 2006 to stage it once more for the Australian Ballet. The van Praagh production of Giselle, with its distinctive pas de deux, was revived briefly by Ross Stretton for the Australian Ballet in 2001, but has not been staged since.

In a program note for the 1973 season, the company’s then musical director, John Lanchbery, wrote: ‘As a novelty there is a new pas de deux for Giselle and Albrecht in Act I which I have orchestrated and adapted from Soviet sources’. The pas de deux is rather more than the ‘novelty’ of Lanchbery’s note, unless one considers that Lanchbery was using the term in its less popular sense of ‘something new’. It is certainly not a ‘decorative trinket’, to use the word in its more popular sense. Choreographically, its Cecchetti-inspired use of epaulement and its light as a feather jumps are a delight, as is its denouement into its final, charming pose. Dramatically, it serves to establish early on, and in more depth than is usual in other productions, the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht. It also anticipates their Act II pas de deux and, as a result, the dramatic tension of the work is heightened when the Act II pas de deux is performed.

 

copy_of_marilyn_jones_and_johnathon_kelly_the_australian_ballet_giselle__photo_unknown_197311Marilyn Jones and Johnathon Kelly in the van Praagh pas de deux from Giselle. The Australian Ballet, 1973. Photograph reproduced by courtesy of  the Australian Ballet

Van Praagh’s biographer notes that, while she could probably not be considered a choreographer in her own right, she was adept at ‘imitating a choreographic style in the mode of either Petipa, Bournonville or Cecchetti’. This is probably true, but it is sad in many ways to be seeing the van Praagh Giselle pas de deux out of context. Its charm, however, makes it worth seeing, even as a kind of divertissement.

The Peggy! program also includes a staging of Antony Tudor’s 1938 ballet Gala Performance, in which Van Praagh created the role of the Russian ballerina. She also staged the work on various companies and her choreographic notes from her staging for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1957 exist in her collection of papers at the National Library of Australia. They can be seen online at this link.

Peggy! also includes the Garland Dance from van Praagh’s 1973 production of The Sleeping Beauty, made in conjunction with Robert Helpmann, the pas de deux from Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella and Mark Annear’s work from 2004, Birthday Celebration.

© Michelle Potter, 29 September 2009

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  • Christopher Sexton, Peggy van Praagh: a life of dance (Melbourne: Macmillan, 1985)