Rachel Rawlins retires

The Canberra Times this morning published an abbreviated version of a story I wrote on the retirement of Rachel Rawlins. Here is a link to the online version. However, as the article was shortened I am posting the full story below, in particular because it contains a further comment from Dell Brady, one of Rawlins’ early teachers, and more from Ty King-Wall, and indeed from Rawlins herself.

Rachel Rawlins, 2007. Photo: Justin SmithRachel Rawlins in Sir Peter Wright’s production of  Nutcracker, 2007. Photo: Justin Smith. Courtesy: The Australian Ballet

Rachel Rawlins, principal artist with the Australian Ballet, has announced that she will retire at the end of this year. She will give her final performance in Sydney in December in the dual role of Odette/Odile in Stephen Baynes’ newly choreographed version of Swan Lake. ‘I’ve never danced the lead in a complete, traditional production of Swan Lake so I am looking forward to leaving on a high note by fulfilling that ambition’, Rawlins says.

Rawlins can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to dance. ‘My desire to dance’, she says, ‘happened really before I can recall. It was something I felt passionately about before I realised what dance was. When I look at the children of some of my friends I recognise that same desire today in some of them. They just love moving to music’.

Rawlins took her first ballet classes in Canberra, largely at the Dell Brady School of Ballet. She remembers those early years fondly and recalls that Brady was strict but in a way that made her pupils understand that it was important to dance properly. She passed on to her students her own passion for dance.

Brady for her part recalls that it was absolutely clear from the beginning that Rawlins was talented: ‘Even now when I look back on the photos of the first show she did with me when she was a ‘rose fairy’—a role she shared with Pia Miranda, now a successful film actor—her lovely long slender legs and beautifully pointed feet signalled what was to come. She was also very determined—in a quiet way—and when she was given a challenging role, as she was in subsequent shows at the ballet school, she would always push herself to achieve her best’.

From Canberra Rawlins went on to further study in Melbourne eventually at the Australian Ballet School. She counts getting a contract with the Australian Ballet at the end of her training as the first major highlight of her dancing life. It was the beginning of a stellar career, which subsequently included two years in London with the Royal Ballet in addition to her eighteen years with the Australian Ballet where she has been a principal since 2004.

She still has strong memories of preparing for her first principal role with the Australian Ballet, that of the Sylph in the iconic Romantic ballet, La Sylphide. ‘I worked intensively with Maina Gielgud, then artistic director of the company, on that role. Maina made sure that I was thoroughly prepared so that when I went on in that role I felt really confident and could enjoy being onstage’.

Other highlights for her have included dancing in the several ballets by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian that the Australian Ballet has in its repertoire, Bella Figura, Sinfonietta, Forgotten Land, Petite Mort, for example. She admires Kylian’s musical choices and his ability to make choreography that is so in tune with that music. But also she notes that as a principal dancer it is lovely to work sometimes as part of a group. Kylian makes works that are somewhat democratic in nature compared with more traditional ballets where there are obvious principal roles. Rawlins explains that it is a special experience to feel the freedom of movement that comes with being part of a group and being able to bond with other dancers onstage.

But of course she has consistently danced leading roles in more traditionally structured ballets and has been acclaimed for her performances in classical works and dramatic ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Manon, Onegin, Madame Butterfly, Romeo and Juliet  and a host of others.

Rachel Rawlins, 2011. Photo: Jeff BusbyRachel Rawlins in Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, 2011. Photo: Jeff Busby. Courtesy: The Australian Ballet.

A frequent partner in recent years has been Ty King-Wall, currently a senior artist with the Australian Ballet. He recalls in particular dancing the pas de deux from Giselle with her, both in Canberra earlier this year and then in New York on the company’s recent overseas tour.

‘I have loved partnering Rachel’, he says. ‘She has such a natural sense of movement, such a rare quality I think. Dancing Giselle with her was a real highlight for me. The role suits her so well and the experience of dancing with her in the pas de deux has given me a taste for it. Now I’d love to do the complete ballet. I love watching her in rehearsals too. She has such humility and is unassuming about her talent’.

Rawlins says that she will go to Melbourne for a family Christmas and then maybe spend time at the beach. She has nothing planned yet in terms of the future direction her life will take but acknowledges that the Australian Ballet has a number of strategies in place for retraining dancers. She will look into possibilities a little later.

‘As a dancer I have aimed to bring my own experiences to my work and to give performances that reflect who I am’, she says. ‘Now I want to be realistic that that part of my life is coming to an end. I have been incredibly lucky in my career and done everything I have wanted to do with ballet. But it’s a hard, physical life, a travelling life. I’m sure I will miss being onstage but not so much the hard work that it takes to get onstage’.

King-Wall sees her retirement as one of those bitter-sweet moments. ‘We will miss her of course, but she is going while at her peak, which is something we all hope to do’.

Brady, her former Canberra teacher, says: ‘As I have continued to watch Rachel in nearly all her major roles over the years, it has been truly satisfying and often very moving to recognise the development of Rachel as an artist; an all too rare spectacle on the ballet stage today. I will miss seeing her taking up the challenge, as she always has, and I will miss the depth and intensity of interpretation she brought to all her performances’.

Michelle Potter, 23 November 2012

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‘Onegin’: the Australian Ballet

12 May 2012, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

John Cranko, choreographer of Onegin, had the ability—a rare one—to distill a complex story so that it could be told in dance without losing its inherent dramatic logic. The current production by the Australian Ballet, a revival of a work that was first danced by the company in 1976, simply speeds along and it is all but impossible not to be caught up in the unfolding drama. 

At the performance I saw, the stand-out dancers by a long way were Lana Jones as Olga, sister of Tatiana, and Ty King-Wall, friend of Onegin and fiancé of Olga. Apart from their ability to bring their characters to life, they danced so well together that it was possible to see really clearly why Cranko was such an outstanding choreographer. Every nuance of movement was defined—the sweep and curve of each lift through the air, for example, or the surprising and quite exquisite way in which Cranko occasionally sets a playful contrast of direction into a sequence that we expect will go another way. I found it quite thrilling to see classical choreography being so beautifully exposed for everything that makes ballet such a breathtaking art form.

In the leading roles of Tatiana and Onegin, Rachel Rawlins and Rudy Hawkes couldn’t quite match the strength and panache of Jones and King-Wall. Rawlins has all the technique and all the maturity to make the role of Tatiana her own, and to follow in the footsteps of some of the Australian Ballet’s stellar interpreters of this role (and there have been several over the years). But on this occasion she seemed not to make a strong enough contrast between the young Tatiana, scorned by Onegin for her naiveté, and the mature and elegant princess she has become as the ballet draws to a close. As a result Onegin’s feeling that he made a mistake in initially scorning her is not able to be fully explored and a good deal of the dramatic intent of their last meeting is lost. 

The corps de ballet was a delight throughout, dancing with the grace and charm that befitted the roles they had guests at balls and parties. I wished however, that the older guests at Tatiana’s birthday celebration had not gone so over the top with being elderly. I have never been a fan of the pantomime-style of dancing that is so often given to characters that are supposed to be of a certain age. It never seems to serve a useful purpose, especially in a ballet like Onegin. It simply becomes an unnecessary parody of one class of people. It does, however, seem to be required in ballet, although I’m not sure why.

This revival of a twentieth-century classic, with its refurbished costumes and its sets borrowed from Sweden and Denmark (design by Jurgen Rose) is a welcome addition to the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary program.

Michelle Potter, 14 May 2012

Telstra Ballet in the Park. The Australian Ballet in Canberra

This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times

Autumn in Canberra is usually the best of seasons. March 2012 has, however, been marked by excessive rain and a performance was touch and go on 16 March when the Australian Ballet arrived bringing its Telstra Ballet in the Park Gala to the city. But the company had not performed in Canberra for several years so people came in droves to Commonwealth Park for the performance, which was scheduled as part of the annual Canberra Festival. Dressed in rainwear, they sat under their umbrellas, picnicking regardless, and waiting. About five minutes before the show was due to start, the rain stopped, the umbrellas went down and the very large audience was treated to a series of ballet bonbons showcasing some of the company’s top dancers.

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, dashingly costumed in red, black and gold, opened the evening with Petal Miller-Ashmole’s pas de deux, La Favorita. Both Jones and Gaudiello have strong, sure techniques―those double fouettés from Jones were stunning―and cover the stage majestically with their movements. It was a joy to watch them dance together. They also both have great onstage personalities and what made this item the stand-out of the evening for me was their ability to project those personalities off the stage and into the audience. We weren’t seated in a space enclosed by walls and a roof and the extent of the ‘auditorium’ was vast, so being able to project in such a situation was some feat and not achieved to the same extent by others during the evening.

Another highlight was Rachel Rawlins and Ty King-Wall dancing the pas de deux from Giselle Act II. Rawlins is such a mature artist and captured beautifully the ethereal qualities of Giselle, as she danced to keep her one true love alive until dawn. Rawlins looks as though the balletic vocabulary is such a part of her very being that it is completely effortless, even during those demanding moments in Giselle’s variation where she travels backwards, upstage, executing a series of fast beats and relevés. King-Wall partnered her elegantly and his variation showed off his own fine beaten steps and elevation.

I was also impressed by Juliet Burnett and Andrew Killian who danced the pas de deux from Nutcracker. Burnett was poised and controlled in one of the most classical of pas de deux. Her adagio movements unfolded with an elegance and calm sense of control and she allowed us to see the structure of every développé, every arabesque. Killian was a suitably caring cavalier and danced his solos with great style.

We also saw the rising star of the company, Chengwu Guo, in two items, the pas de deux from Don Quixote and Le Corsaire. While Chengwu’s turns and jumps were spectacular, I missed the sexuality that more mature performers are able to bring to these works. There were strong flourishes every so often from Chengwu but there was a kind of restraint in the upper body rather than what I think the roles demand, the appearance of throwing caution to the wind in a display of unbridled passion. Chengwu partnered Reiko Hombo in Don Quixote and Miwako Kubota in Corsaire.

Also on the program was the Act III pas de trois from Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake with Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Amy Harris. It was especially interesting to see Murphy’s contemporary choreography on a program that consisted of works in an older classical style. The Murphy style stood up beautifully although this pas de trois generally suffered from being seen out of the context of the complete ballet and without the set, which on reflection adds a brooding quality to the unfolding drama of this particular moment in the work.

Completing the program were the pas de deux from Stephen Baynes’ Molto Vivace, smoothly danced by Amber Scott and Adam Bull, and excerpts from La Baydère where Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello returned as Nikiya and Solor and in which the three variations were danced by Hombo, Harris and Dimity Azoury.
Artists of the Australian Ballet. Telstra Ballet in the Park

Artists of the Australian Ballet in an excerpt from ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ from La Bayadère, 2012. Photo: William Hall. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Canberra region audiences used to see the Australian Ballet once a year but a decision, an unpopular one in the eyes of audiences, was made some years ago now to remove Canberra from the touring schedule. The size of the audience for the Telstra event, which took place in less than ideal weather conditions, seems to me to be a clear signal to the Australian Ballet that it is time to return to the national capital on a more regular basis. The announcement that Garry Stewart and an unnamed collaborative team will make a new work for Canberra’s centenary in 2013 is a start.

Michelle Potter, 20 March 2012