’20:21′. The Australian Ballet

29 August 2015 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

What does twenty-first-century ballet encompass? What does it look like? And does it differ from ballet of the twentieth century? In many respects the Australian Ballet’s latest mixed bill program, 20:21, suggests an answer in Tim Harbour’s latest work, Filigree and Shadow, the centre work in the 20:21 program. The work is strongly danced. Its powerful, dramatic choreography is coupled with Benjamin Cisterne’s equally dramatic lighting, and with an exceptional, minimalist stage setting by Kelvin Ho that combines curved and flat walls. Its commissioned score from the German duo, 48nord, binds the work together.

Unfortunately for Harbour, however, his work in the triple bill program is preceded and followed by works from two of the twentieth-century’s most admired choreographers—George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Master choreographers. And not only does it have to contend with that kind of program placement, Filigree and Shadow doesn’t seem to take us anywhere. It is, we are told in Australian Ballet marketing and in program notes, about Harbour’s feelings of aggression. I found it hard to identify with those personal feelings (of anger?) that Harbour seemed to want to show.

Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, which opened the program, might be thought of (wrongly I suggest) as lightweight by comparison. It’s pretty to look at and high-spirited emotionally. But it asks us to look at complexity of structure (in the choreographic patterns that it puts before us) and musicality (in its reflections of and relationships to Stravinsky’s symphonic score). Balanchine was never one to make his ballets overly personal. We can bring our own ideas to the work and that is, I believe, how to engage an audience. Harbour’s very personal approach doesn’t do this and, as a result, the Balanchine work has so much more to offer.

The six principals in Symphony in Three Movements in the performance I saw, Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Ty King-Wall, and Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes, all brought their individual qualities to the performance. Kondo and Guo were thrilling technically but also brought pleasure and excitement to their dancing, and Jones was playful and nicely partnered by King-Wall. The central pas de deux from Scott and Hawkes gave clarity to the unusual choreography with its turned up feet and hands bent at the wrists.

The closing work, Tharp’s In the Upper Room, was an acquisition for the Australian Ballet during Ross Stretton’s artistic directorship. Those who were lucky enough to be at the opening night in 1997 are unlikely to forget the occasion. Since then I have seen Upper Room performed by other companies in the United States but have always been a little disappointed. Beyond the Australian Ballet, no one else seems to have the energy, the staying power, and, behind the marathon of dancing, the reckless insouciance to carry it off.

The performance I saw this season wasn’t an opening night, and nor did it have quite the same thrill as that very first viewing—it wasn’t as well danced for a start. But this time I admired hugely the four ladies on pointe, in particular Robyn Hendricks and Amanda McGuigan, whose beautifully proportioned bodies and stellar techniques made the most of Tharp’s uniquely beautiful take on classical moves. I love this work, even when it doesn’t reach the heights of that first, great performance of 1997. It is a thrill to have it back in Australia, and also a thrill to see Ross Stretton acknowledged on the cast sheet.

Michelle Potter, 30 August 2015

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Filigree and Shadow, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Note: My review of the first Australian Ballet performance of In the Upper Room was published in Dance Australia in June/July 1997 (can it really be almost 20 years ago?). My posts about Upper Room in the U.S. are at various links including Pacific Northwest Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

 

Graeme Murphy’s ‘Swan Lake’. The Australian Ballet (2015)

21 February 2015 (matinee), Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake'. Photo Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake is currently making a return to the stage for a brief season at the wonderfully ornate Capitol Theatre in Sydney’s Haymarket district. I was lucky enough to have a ticket for a performance with Juliet Burnett as Odette, Rudy Hawkes as Siegfried and Miwako Kubota as the Baroness von Rothbart. And what an interesting and transfixing performance it was.

I never tire of the brief prologue to this Swan Lake where we encounter the three main characters. We understand the apprehension of Odette, the bride to be, shown especially in a Murphy-esque motif of fluttering hands that are like palpitations of the heart, and that also prefigure Odette’s fantasy dream of swans by the lake. The mental fragility of Odette is set against the lust of her groom, Siegfried, as he takes the alluring Baroness to bed on the night before his wedding.

But as the first act, the wedding, began I was shaken a little. Both Odette and Siegfried seemed to be two-dimensional characters with little interest in interacting strongly with their guests. Only the sexed-up Baroness seemed to be in character as she flounced her way around the stage. There were a few standouts amongst the other characters—the very feisty leading Hungarian couple of Ella Havelka and Rohan Furnell, a delicious Brooke Lockett as the Young Duchess-to-be, and an elegant Amanda McGuigan as the Princess Royal. But I found the first act mostly underwhelming.

As the second act opened, however, Burnett was into her stride, and very convincing as she descended further into a state of mental torment. She twitched and shook as she was bathed by two nuns and collapsed into another world of anguish as Siegfried came to visit her, and when she noticed the Baroness outside the asylum impatiently waiting for Siegfried. And by the time she had moved into the icy world of swan maidens, Burnett had the audience in the palm of her hand. Now there was a calmness to her movements, in beautiful contrast to the twitchy anguish of the asylum.

Burnett and Hawkes make fine partners. They move together smoothly and sympathetically, as one really. As a result I wasn’t watching technique, although I did love those expansive sissones from Burnett in Odette’s solo and the very airy grands jetés from Ako Kondo and Dimity Azoury as the two Guardian Swans. But I was following the story, which was developing with immense clarity. And I got the feeling that the rest of the audience was as absorbed in the unfolding narrative as I was. A really unusual and very beautiful, almost palpable silence filled the auditorium.

As Act III began the atmosphere oozed glamour and perhaps superficiality, or so it seemed after the moving qualities that emerged from Act II. Kubota’s presence was strong as she took on the role of party hostess. Odette was radiant as she arrived at the party. The central pas de trois, however, between Odette, the Baroness and Siegfried, in which Siegfried’s struggle with himself over what has happened to his love-life comes to the fore, seemed somewhat weak. But with the return to the icy lake, now populated by black rather than white swans, the dancing qualities that marked the partnership between Burnett and Hawkes reappeared. Once again the story took over. It was deeply moving.

The trio of Burnett, Hawkes and Kubota has a way to go yet to reach the potential that seems inherent in it. But I was lucky I think to have been at this performance, which got the loud ovation it deserved as the curtain came down. I can’t remember this combination of dancers in these roles previously and it may well have been their first show together.

And on another line of thought, what I noticed more than I have on previous viewings of the Murphy Swan Lake was the choreography for the swan maidens’ arms. They are rarely lifted into a ‘regular’ fifth position, not always even a ‘regular’ fifth position with palms turned outwards. His swans have long, slender arms that intertwine, criss-cross, turn their palms in unusual directions, and otherwise form intricate patterns. They reminded me a little of the long necks of the real birds that seem to dip and curve and stretch in infinite ways. I love this aspect of Murphy’s work. There is always something new, something personal, to discover no matter how many times one sees the same show. I have noticed these intertwining arms before, but in this performance, perhaps because it was so beautifully focused on the story and had such a powerful inner strength to it, the choreographic imagery became more noticeable and more expressive.

Michelle Potter, 22 February 2015

A review from 2013 of the Murphy Swan Lake with Stojmenov, Killian and Harris is at this link

‘The Nutcracker’: The Australian Ballet

6 December 2014 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

There is a lot to like in Peter Wright’s version of The Nutcracker, the Australian Ballet’s final show for 2015. But once again the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre showed its inadequacies as an opera/ballet venue. What a squash it was at times!

I admired in particular the logic that Wright has introduced into the story, including the expanded role played by Drosselmeyer, admirably performed by Rudy Hawkes whose sense of drama and onstage presence in Act I was exceptional. I also admired that elements in the mysterious happenings after midnight in Act I (scene ii, although not referred to as such in the synopsis) are prefigured earlier in the unfolding of the story. And I enjoyed too that Clara takes on an active part in Act II.

Most of John F Macfarlane’s costumes are a delight to the eye, especially that red dress worn by Clara’s mother, and the Jack-in-the-box costume with pants that look like they are made from expandable metal or wire. I’m not sure though about that musk-stick-pink doublet worn by the Prince in the Act II pas de deux—it did nothing to add a princely look, although I guess it was appropriately lolly-like. Macfarlane’s sets for Act I are also attractive, but those over-decorative elements in the Act II set, including a large bright sun and those huge, red flowers do not sit well with the pink marble columns, although the columns themselves are lovely. Perhaps the Act II set looks better on a bigger stage?

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'The Nutcracker', 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Nutcracker, 2014. Photo: Jeff Busby

In the performance I saw, Karen Nanasca danced Clara and was impressive from the first moment she appeared. Her charm and sense of wonder at what was happening as the ballet progressed were appropriately youthful and quite beautiful. She has such lovely arms and a technique that just needs a little more strength to carry her through some of the more difficult movements. The other standout was Thomas Palmer, a young Sydney-based dance student who played the part of Fritz, Clara’s little brother. Apart from the fact that he danced well, his acting and his ability to engage with the audience were superb. In the cameo roles of the Grandmother and Grandfather, Kathleen Geldard and Colin Peasley were a delight and all in all the dancing throughout Act I was first-rate. Benedicte Bemet and Christiano Martino made a wonderful Columbine and Harlequin, while Simon Plant and Marcus Morelli danced with panache as the Jack-in-the-box and Drosselmeyer’s assistant respectively.

Act II, however, was a different matter. Sadly, what should be the highlight—the grand pas de deux—was a bit of a let down. I felt there was no emotion between Kevin Jackson as the Prince and Miwako Kubota as the Sugar Plum Fairy, although Jackson was trying to make something happen. But there was no sense of excitement, no sense of the thrill and the splendour of the choreography. Very frustrating. There were also some unsettling moments, especially in the Russian and the Arabian Dances when the gentlemen seemed to stumble around a few too many times. And there is no excuse for ribbons on pointe shoes to come untucked as they did, very obviously, on the shoes of one dancer.

Despite these grumbles a traditional-style Nutcracker is always a treat at Christmas time. At least in the first act I was transported. It was lovely too to see a lot of children in the audience, including one behind me who whispered loudly to her parents when the toy nutcracker’s head was ripped off and the doll was lying on the floor in two pieces,  ‘Oh, I hope he will be all right’.

Michelle Potter, 7 November 2014

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in a study for Petite Mort. The Australian Ballet 2014. Photo Paul Scala

‘Chroma’, ‘Art to Sky’, ‘Petite Mort’ & ‘Sechs Tänze’. The Australian Ballet

10 May 2014 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

What an inspiring performance the Australian Ballet gave of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Not an easy ballet to bring off, but all the diverse features that make McGregor’s choreography so eminently watchable were there. Limbs extending through space, off-centre partnering, moves that were in turn twisted, contorted, angular and sometimes smooth and undulating. And all were all set cleanly and articulately against John Pawson’s stripped back, white box space with its rectangular ‘window’ of changing colours. McGregor is a master at exploiting the balletic body to produce astonishingly shaped movements—movements of the twenty-first century perhaps? What I especially like is that his choreography make us see how perfectly amazing the balletic vocabulary can be.

I particularly admired Vivienne Wong’s performance throughout the work and also a powerful trio from Brett Chynoweth, Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Killian—fast, assertive dancing from them all. But it was a duet from Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello that stole the show for me. McGregor’s choreography suits Jones with her strong, unassailable technique and Gaudiello has such a way of adding his own signature to everything he does while still remaining true to the intentions of the choreographer.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Chroma', 2014. courtesy the Australian Ballet

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Stephen Baynes’ new work, Art to Sky, began with some lovely, lingering choreography, beautifully performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Gaudiello again. It was romantic, softly falling from step to step. The corps de ballet also had some memorable choreography in the opening sections, surprising at times and always pure and fresh. But after that there were a few too many somersaults, cartwheels and legs in the air, not to mention twee sections of humour that didn’t quite work. It is a little problematic too that one of George Balanchine’s most exquisite ballets (in my mind anyway) is Mozartiana danced to the same music, Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana, that Baynes chose for Art to Sky. Balanchine has a habit of lingering in the mind, making it hard to accept anything else to the music he uses.

Hugh Colman’s shadowy, upstage portal that comprised the set, lit by Rachel Burke to give a hint of the mysterious, were strong additions to the look of Art to Sky. Colman, Burke and Baynes work well together as collaborators and bring a sense of visual cohesion to each other’s work.

The program concluded with Jiri Kylian’s companion pieces, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze and it was a treat to see some more Kylian back onstage with the Australian Ballet. It was interesting to have Kylian on the same program as McGregor, as also happened last year with Bella Figura and Dyad. Kylian, too, pushes the dance vocabulary and gives us a surprising array of movement, but he adds a degree of humanity and humour to his works that McGregor passes over (at least in Chroma, although perhaps not to the same extent in others of his works).

This mixed bill was a relief from the full-length ballets that we are told draw the best houses. To me the house looked pretty much full  for what was a diverse and well danced program. I’d like more in this vein.

Michelle Potter, 11 May 2014

Featured image: Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in a study for Petite Mort. The Australian Ballet 2014. Photo: © Paul Scala

‘Romeo and Juliet’. A second look

10 December 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet for the Australian Ballet continues to generate discussion and mixed reviews, and I recently took a second look at it at a Sydney mid-season matinee performance. It is impossible to ignore the dominance of the scenic elements and the challenges of the constantly changing times and locations, and why should we ignore them anyway as they are an intrinsic part of the collaboration and choreographic plan. So I still like to see this Romeo and Juliet as a postmodern work, despite all the problematic issues that the term ‘postmodern’ generates. Postmodernism, at least in areas of the visual arts, allows a collage of non-sequiturs and apparently frivolous allusions, which gives a pastiche we can either love or hate, but not ignore.

On this viewing, the sometimes overbearing scenic elements, and the episodic nature of the changes of time and location, did not startle to the same extent as they did that first time. On any second or subsequent viewing, whatever the work, one naturally notices different things. During the opening scene, set in what my ever-entertaining companion at these matiness thought looked like a scene from Dungeons and Dragons, it was Murphy’s attention to detail in his handling of the minor characters that attracted my attention. At the side of the main action and above it on the ‘bridge’, groups of bedraggled-looking townsfolk engaged in their own comments on the feuding being carried out centre stage. Murphy has always been a dab hand at this kind of background action—no standing round twiddling thumbs and admiring dresses. His works are choreographed down to the last detail.

The ball scene contains one of the best-known sections of the Prokofiev score, a section I will never be able to call anything other than ‘the cushion dance’. My approach to this scene will forever be coloured by my very first viewing of a ballet with the name Romeo and Juliet when, as a child, I saw a film of the Bolshoi Ballet with Galina Ulanova as Juliet. Well there were no cushions for the male guests to toss onto the floor in Murphy’s version of the magnificent ‘cushion dance’, but there was some startling and bold choreography. I especially admired the dramatic swirl of movement as the male guests held their partners, who leant back precariously as they were turned in a tight circle and who, with knees bent and feet together, jabbed the floor aggressively with their pointe shoes.

Akira Isogawa’s wedding dress for Juliet in the Japanese-inspired scene also caught my eye. Although it is pretty much impossible to learn much about the construction and detail of individual costumes from a seat in the auditorium, this dress seemed to be beautifully made from delicately patterned silk, or synthetic silken-look fabric. But it was the shoulder feature that surprised me. The straps that held the dress together over the shoulders were wide and crossed over just as they joined the bodice rather than in the middle of the of the upper back. It was a simple and almost unnoticeable touch, and perhaps not of major significance in the overall scheme of the ballet, but so elegant.

I was lucky enough to see Juliet Burnett in the leading role on this second viewing. She handled Murphy’s ever-changing and ever-challenging choreography as if she were born to dance his steps. She was bubbling with youth as she ran across the stage on pointe in the opening sequence. She soared through lifts in Murphy’s pas de deux and in those scenes in which the black-garbed holy men transported her across the stage. Her expressive arms gave a joyous quality to those moments where her young love for Romeo needed to be shown. But those arms also conjured up something entirely different, something leaden and full of fear when, for example, she reached out in an attempt to pick up the bottle of poison from her bed. It was this quality of being able to express emotion so well through the body, and not just through facial expression, that made her performance so exhilarating. But perhaps most of all it was a thrill to watch her portray the character of Juliet and to maintain that characterisation across the entire ballet, despite the changes of time and location. A stellar performance from Burnett who was partnered by Rudy Hawkes as Romeo.

Of the other cast members, Josef Brown made a welcome return to the ballet stage as Lord Capulet with Ingrid Gow as his Lady Capulet. Brown played Lord Capulet with a calm yet imposing presence. His handling of Juliet in the scenes with Paris rarely showed anger but rather some kind of fatherly determination. It allowed Murphy’s choreography, which in these scenes contains conflict within it, to shine through.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2011

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Here is the link to the original post and comments on this production of Romeo and Juliet.

UPDATE, 12 December 2011: I have just reread more carefully the original post written after opening night in Melbourne in September. In it I wrote: ‘Manion’s strongest contribution [Gerard Manion was the set designer for this work] was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work’. Well this was not part of the Sydney production! Why not? I have no idea, but it was a sad omission in my opinion.

Body Torque 2.2. The Australian Ballet

27-30 May 2009, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay

Two works saved the Australian Ballet’s 2009 Body Torque season from drifting totally out of the memory the minute the curtain came down. They were Reed Luplau’s Bleecker and Remi Wortmeyer’s Fade Not. Both Luplau and Wortmeyer made very different works in every sense imaginable, but both were able to grab the audience’s attention from the opening moment and hold it throughout. Wortmeyer’s Fade Out was very short—probably no longer than three minutes; Luplau’s was a little longer. But both choreographers stood apart from the others in that neither tried to say too much in the amount of time they had given themselves. Both had thought through a basic premise and moved forward with a strongly focused approach.

Bleecker, named after a well known street in Greenwich Village, New York, showed the influence of Luplau’s work with Sydney Dance Company in its recent post-Murphy iteration, especially in terms of vocabulary. The dancers moved in a physically extreme manner, well away from the balanced, centred, refined look we are accustomed to seeing at the Australian Ballet. And what a gutsy performance from Dana Stephensen, the one female in the cast of four. Luplau’s choreography poured out of her body, making dance look like the kinaesthetic art that it is. She was more than ably accompanied by Andrew Killian, Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Wright.

Luplau says in his choreographic statement that Bleecker is ‘a journey of self discovery’, and he reflects that there is ‘a certain captivating moment you experience as you explore one of the world’s greatest cities’. Well Bleecker was a captivating moment in Luplau’s journey as a choreographer. We can only hope that the journey will be an ongoing one.

Wortmeyer’s Fade Not began with the piercing and unexpected sound of a human voice and the piece was a courageous experiment at linking dancer and singer, movement and voice. Wortmeyer used a librettist, Malcolm Rock, whose written words telling of a dying mother’s wish to see her newborn child flourish in life were sung onstage by Naomi Johns. Wortmeyer choreographed Johns into the work without it seeming unnatural or contrived and, while his choreography for the leading (and only) dancer—an able Gina Brescianini—was classically based and without any real sense of invention, the work generated an innate sense of clarity and harmony.

Three other works completed the program: Damien Welch’s Chemical Trigger, notable for the fact that Welch composed the music as well as the choreography, Robert Curran’s Veiled in Flesh, and Kevin Jackson’s Enter Closer.

Body Torque has been a feature of the Australian Ballet’s annual season for a number of years now and is the most recent development in a long line of similar Australian Ballet workshop activities dating back to the earliest days of the company under Peggy van Praagh. Choreographic workshops need strong direction however and only Bleecker and Fade Out looked as though they had been subjected to any sort of rigorous discussion with peers and elders before being put on the stage.

Michelle Potter, 1 June 2009