‘Paquita’ & ‘La Sylphide’. A second look

16 November 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I was startled to see, when looking at the Australian Ballet’s website to check the casting for my Sydney subscription performance of Paquita and La Sylphide, that Paquita was advertised as a Romantic ballet—’the last flowering of the Romantic ballet’. Elsewhere on the website the program was described as ‘the first and last [of the] great Romantic ballets on one double bill’. The original, full-length Paris production of Paquita (1846) might have been in the Romantic tradition, although that is disputed by some, but what the Australian Ballet has been presenting is definitely not a Romantic work. Marius Petipa made additions to the original Paquita when he restaged his version in Russia in 1881 (1882 new style date). Those interpolations with music by Minkus are, I believe, what most companies now perform. The complete ballet was staged relatively recently (2001) by Pierre Lacotte for the Paris Opera Ballet, but not many other companies have a full-length production in their repertoire. Without the rest of the ballet, the Petipa arrangements can scarcely be called Romantic, although the Spanish overtones we see and hear in the Petipa excerpts do allude to the Spanish elements of the full-length ballet.

Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet in 'Paquita'
Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet in Pierre Lacotte’s production of Paquita

That aside, it was a thrill to see Daniel Gaudiello taking the male role in my Sydney viewing of the Australian Ballet’s excerpts from Paquita. What I love about Gaudiello’s dancing (apart from his technical abilities) is his wonderful approach to partnering. He is so attentive to and caring of his partner (Lucinda Dunn on this occasion) without being merely a ‘porteur’. When he stands back from her and lifts his arms to an open fifth position he is not only triumphantly showing her off as the ballerina, but also showing his own polish and charisma as a true ‘danseur noble’. He has great style.

Of the variations I especially enjoyed the second variation, subtly and gently danced by Jessica Fyfe, and the dancing of the two demi-soloists, Vivienne Wong and Benedicte Bemet, the latter certainly a rising personality.

I was pleased too that my previous disappointment with the staging of La Sylphide dissipated somewhat with a second look. This time I thought there was much more feeling for the Romantic style in the second act and a better contrast between the first and second acts.

La sylphide Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet in La sylphide. Photo: © Jeff Busby, 2013

Perhaps it was Reiko Hombo, who gave a strong, individualistic interpretation, beautifully danced, of the Sylph that made the difference. The lightness and height of her jump; her softly unfolding, beautifully controlled arabesques; her lovely rounded arms; and her supple upper body gave the right technical feel to the role. In addition, her interpretation was consistent and well thought through. There was a definite wickedness of intention there under all that charm as she made every effort to convince James of her wish that he join her in her forest realm. It brought home very nicely that ‘beautiful danger’ that respected Danish scholar Erik Aschengreen so perceptively wrote about many years ago as being a defining characteristic of the Romantic era. And Hombo carried this approach through into the second act.

Hombo was partnered by Chengwu Guo as James and he had, I thought, settled well into the role since my previous viewing. Perhaps again it was Hombo who made the difference. She gave him something to respond to, and as technical partners they work well together. Halaina Hills as Effie and Amy Harris as the lead Sylph in Act II also added a certain strength to the overall production. But I regret that the important role of Madge always seems to degenerate into something a little manic. It has been a long time since there has been a really powerful performance in Australia of that role. Without a strong and convincing Madge the ballet loses much of its intent.

Erik Bruhn as Madge in 'La sylphide', the Australian Ballet, 1985. Photo: Walter Stringer
Erik Bruhn as Madge in La Sylphide, the Australian Ballet, 1985. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

My earlier post on this program is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 17 November 2013

‘Don Quixote’. The Australian Ballet

13 April 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

My single viewing of the Australian Ballet’s current production of Don Quixote was entertaining, if not theatrically thrilling.

I enjoyed seeing Reiko Hombo and Yosvani Ramos in the leading roles of Kitri and Basilio. The male jota-style variation in Act I suited Ramos beautifully and showed off his neat footwork and the lightness of his jump. His portrayal of Basilio worked really well in Act III when his ‘death’ scene captured a certain craziness and was quite hilarious. But I missed a sense of passion in his encounters with Kitri.

Hombo performed nicely and her technical execution was precise and clear. But again I missed the fiery quality I associate with Kitri and I felt the consequent lack of a strong emotional connection or a sense of physical repartee with Basilio.

What I really liked about the production was the characterisation of the Don, played by Steven Heathcote; Sancho Panza, the Don’s squire played by Frank Leo; and the wealthy Gamache, played by Matthew Donnelly. At last here was an approach that didn’t seem to think that over-the-top behaviour was necessary in these kinds of roles. All were still strong individuals demanding of our attention and thoughts but without the ridiculous pantomime elements that for me went out of fashion years ago.

Amongst the corps and soloists I admired Brett Chynoweth as one of the leading townsfolk, Dana Stephensen as one of Kitri’s friends and Eloise Fryer as Amour. Both Stephensen and Fryer looked wonderful onstage. They were technically assured and dancing as if they loved it. No Don could have resisted Fryer’s arrows! Chynoweth was full on into the action at every moment.

It’s a hard act, still, to follow in the footsteps of Rudolf Nureyev and Lucette Aldous and the cast that made up the first Australian Ballet production way back in the 1970s. But some have followed on brilliantly since then, and maybe some casts that I didn’t see in this season did in fact inject some of the fiery and passionate give and take that makes this ballet a bit more than just interesting entertainment. The subscriber I sat next to yesterday was singing the praises of Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello.

And for those who weren’t even born in the 1970s that first Don Q is still available on DVD as a digitally remastered version of the original film.

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, 'Don Quixote'. Photo: Georges AntoniLana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in a publicity shot for Don Quixote, 2012. Photo: Georges Antoni. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Michelle Potter, 14 April 2013

‘Madame Butterfly’. The Australian Ballet

What impressed me most about this revival of Stanton Welch’s 1995 work Madame Butterfly was Welch’s ability to create a strong, dramatic effect by the simple, yet strategic placement of characters on the stage. It was especially, but not exclusively, noticeable towards the end of the work when Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki with is American wife Kate. It is then, with Sharpless, Suzuki, Butterfly and Sorrow also onstage, that the drama of what has occurred is fully realised. While various of the characters are the centre of attention at particular points during the unfolding of this part of the saga, the placement of the characters across the stage, and their attention—demanding stillness when the action is not especially focused on them—is powerfully moving. The girlish scenes between Butterfly and Suzuki are also memorable. Again it is often the placement of the two onstage in relation to the rest of the action that gives the scenes their strength, although the recurring motif of wiping away each other’s tears is also a strong device.

But despite the above, I find it hard to see a major artistic reason to justify the revival of Madame Butterfly. I can of course see that it attracts an audience and so can only imagine that the artistic team sees money as the main reason for staging a production. But no one looked comfortable in those shuffling ‘Japanese’ walking movements, heel leading in so obvious a manner. And how illogical it seems when shuffling and obsequious bowing are followed by full-on contemporary ballet, as in that long and demanding wedding night pas de deux for example. And how can one shuffle to the top of a flight of steps and then extend a beautifully arched foot, clad in a pointe shoe, and descend the stairs in balletic style. It looked just silly to me.

Madeleine Eastoe danced brilliantly as Butterfly. What a secure, fluid technique she has now. But she lacked the vulnerability needed for the role and quite honestly, with that soaringly beautiful technique, she is just not cut out to be a fifteen year old Japanese Geisha sublimating herself to a man the likes of Pinkerton. Juliet (about the same age) yes, but Butterfly—not in my opinion. But then again, maybe it’s the double-edged choreography that’s the problem?

The strongest performances to my mind came from Daniel Gaudiello as Sharpless and Reiko Hombo as Suzuki. Gaudiello had the advantage of playing a European character (the US Consul in Nagasaki) and so was not burdened by the fake Japanese movements. But that aside, his performance was impressive for the manner in which he created a distinctive character, often not so much through dancing but though small mannerisms such as the twist of a cuff or a slight movement of the head, all of which indicated a certain awkwardness at the situations in which he found himself.

Hombo as Suzuki was perfectly cast. She was ever attentive to Butterfly, sad when Butterfly was sad, happy and excited when Butterfly felt those emotions. Technically pretty much flawless too. A great job.

Sheree da Costa also gave a strong performance in the cameo role of Butterfly’s mother. But how I wish the Australian Ballet would delve into its extensive repertoire and give us some programming that is truly stimulating and forward looking. As the recent (traditional) production of Swan Lake by the English National Ballet showed, ballet isn’t dead. But sometimes it seems like it is.

Michelle Potter, 19 April 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