‘Faster’. The Australian Ballet … again

15 April 2017, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

It was a treat to see Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory for a second time. This time I had the pleasure of seeing Vivienne Wong and Kevin Jackson dancing major parts, along with Jill Ogai and Jake Mangakahia, all of whom used their technical expertise to enhance Harbour’s choreography.

I was once again transfixed by the seamless quality of the collaboration and I enjoyed in particular watching the changing coloured light that played over Kelvin Ho’s design—it gently moved from russet-orange to silver to blue—which I hadn’t noticed to the same extent on my first viewing.

This time I was also fascinated by the tiny choreographic details that Harbour used throughout—the changing relationship between the wrist and hand, for example. The wrist demanded that the hand sometimes stretch, sometimes drop, sometimes lift. Every part of the body had a defined role to play in Squander and Glory. What can the body do? Every part of the body is significant.

I hope Squander and Glory remains in the repertoire. It is a work that will continue to reveal, I feel sure, more moments to delight the eye with every new viewing.

Looking at Wayne McGregor’s Infra for the second time I admired the dancing of Cristiano Martino, especially in a solo section where his very fluid body was quite mesmerising, and Dimity Azoury’s work in the final pas de deux (and apologies to her equally admirable partner as I am not sure who he was).

Michelle Potter, 19 April, 2017

Featured image: Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Squander and Glory. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Brett Chynoweth, Vivenne Wong and Kevin Jackson in 'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

‘Faster’. The Australian Ballet

10 April 2017, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The Australian Ballet’s latest program of three contemporary ballets is, artistically speaking, a very mixed bill. It certainly shows off the physical skills of company dancers, but choreographically it has its highs and lows.

The program opened with Faster, a work by British choreographer David Bintley, which he made initially for the London 2012 Olympic Games. It may have been an interesting work for that occasion, but I just can’t understand why it was thought worthy of reviving for repertoire. Although dancers have physical skills that are certainly athletic, in my book dancers are artists not athletes. There was nothing in the Bintley work that allowed the dancers to show their artistry. They seemed to run around the stage a lot, occasionally with a jump here, or a twist there. They pretended they were fencing, shooting a ball through a hoop, engaging in high jumps and other aerial sports, and so on. Sometimes they feigned injury, or despair, or something. But really I would rather watch professional athletes engaging in sporting activities rather than dancers pretending. Faster was a very lightweight work and not my idea of what I want to see from the Australian Ballet (or any ballet company for that matter).

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Faster, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The highlight of the evening was Tim Harbour’s fabulous new work, Squander and Glory. Choreographically it explores not so much how the body moves through space—although that happens—but how the body can fill the space around it. Sometimes there were some quite beautiful classical lines to observe, along with large groups of bodies gathered close together and moving across the stage. But at other times that classical look and ordered arrangement collapsed and we could see something more akin to a heap of bodies making shapes, lines and swirls of infinite and fascinating variety. (And I’m using ‘heap’ here in a positive sense rather than suggesting it was a mess).

But not only was Squander and Glory thrilling, and surprising, to watch from a choreographic point of view, it was also a wonderful example a how the collaborative elements can add so much to the overall feel and look of a work. I have long admired Benjamin Cisterne’s powerful and courageous vision for what lighting can contribute to a work, and that vision was absolutely evident in Squander and Glory. His use of a mirrored cloth in the work doubled our view of the number of dancers appearing on stage, and allowed us to see the choreography from two different angles. It brought an extra layer of excitement to the work, and I was amazed and delighted that those mirror images didn’t detract from the work, as so often happens when film clips or projections of some kind are introduced into a dance piece.

Then there was Kelvin Ho’s towering structure in the background, which reminded me of part of a Frank Gehry building, or a cone-like sculpture similar to those made by Australian sculptor Bert Flugelman. But it also had a kind of  mystery associated with it. Logically it had to be a projection but its presence was so powerful, without dominating the choreography or Cisterne’s design, that I had to wonder where it was physically located. It was a brilliant addition to a seamlessly beautiful collaboration, which to my mind was enhanced by the relentless sound of Michael Gordon’s score, Weather One.

'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Squander and Glory, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The program closed with Wayne McGregor’s 2008 work, Infra. I am a McGregor fan for sure, but I found Infra underwhelming after Squander and Glory. The work emerged from McGregor’s thoughts about human intimacy and its varied manifestations. But the expression of these ideas seemed dry and even sterile after the lusciousness and heart-stopping excitement of Squander and Glory. Set design by Julian Opie was a parade of faceless people, drawn as black outlines, hurrying across an LED screen above the stage. But it simply added to that feeling of sterility. Even Lucy Carter’s lighting, which has in the past been absolutely amazing (most recently in Woolf Works), didn’t excite.

Bouquets to the team who created Squander and Glory. It was a truly remarkable new work and certainly made my night at the ballet worthwhile. I look forward to a second viewing.

Michelle Potter,  14 April 2017

Featured image: Brett Chynoweth, Vivienne Wong and Kevin Jackson in Squander and Glory. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Brett Chynoweth, Vivenne Wong and Kevin Jackson in 'Squander and Glory'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

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

Happy returns

On Dancing’s reviews of John Neumeier’s extraordinary choreography, Nijinsky—both the recent Australian Ballet production, which I have not seen, and the link to that of 2012 for the Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane,* are welcome reminders of the Hamburg company’s stellar achievements.

Telling reference is made to the circular shapes incorporated into the set design, echoing paintings by Nijinsky—and lucky we are that one of his paintings is held in a private collection in Wellington, a tiny telescoping of ballet history.

Dimity Azoury. Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Dimity Azoury. Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I keep indelible memories of two trips to Hamburg, 2005 and 2015, where I saw in total ten of Neumeier’s full-length works. What astonishing programming in two short weeks, demonstrating the enduring worth of keeping repertoire extant, instead of allowing Rip Van Winkle to steal away with choreographed treasure never more to be seen in a lifetime, as happens in too many places.

Hamburg Ballet’s detailed website is further evidence of this artistic confidence, paying much respect to the casts listed at its premiere and in subsequent seasons, to the audiences’ interest in such things, and in the company’s future programming, which gives us the wherewithal to make fruitful travel plans.

Jiri Bubenicek created the lead role in the 2000 premiere cast of Nijinsky in Hamburg, and his twin brother Otto Bubenicek danced the Golden Slave and the Faun in that same season. After many years with Hamburg Ballet, the brothers, now collaborating and working on an international circuit, Jiri in choreography and Otto in design, will this month prepare a work on New Zealand School of Dance students for their graduation show in November. I look forward to viewing and reviewing it.

Australia’s Daniel Gaudiello proved a most gracious and convincing Albrecht in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s recent Giselle—and soon our Joseph Skelton crosses the Tasman in the other direction to guest as Albrecht in the Australian Ballet’s production.

RNZB will soon offer a studio season of new work by dancers aspiring to choreograph. Again this will be named for memory of dear Harry Haythorne.

Thus the ballet world continues to turn with little more than demi-plié degrees of separation between practitioners and their ephemeral heritage.  Words on dance websites help hold the gossamer together between seasons.

Jennifer Shennan, Wellington 12 October 2016

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*which I did get lucky to see, in their wonderful double billing with A Midsummer Night’s Dream—which in turn makes interesting contrast now with Liam Scarlett’s choreography in the co-production between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet.  RNZB are performing it this week in Hong Kong at the Shakespeare festival there—then home for a brief Wellington season).

Featured image: Photo: Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in Nijinsky, the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov, Alexandre Riabko, Ako Kondo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in 'Nijinsky', the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo Jeff Busby

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

‘Nijinsky’. The Australian Ballet

7 September 2016, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Alexandre Riabko, guesting with the Australian Ballet in the lead role on the opening night performance of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, has been dancing that role since at least 2003 when Hamburg Ballet guested in Paris. He may well have danced it even earlier. At the work’s world premiere in Hamburg in 2000 he took the role of the dancer Nijinsky as Harlequin in Le Carnaval and the Spirit of the Rose in Le Spectre de la rose. Thus the ballet Nijinsky, and the role of Vaslav Nijinsky, have been part of his dancing life for more than fifteen years. And so it was not surprising, but nevertheless thrilling, that his performance throughout the ballet was exceptional. It was exceptional from his first commanding entrance and walk down the steps leading to the space where he was to dance, through to his dramatic finale, performed in the same space, albeit now an arena that contained signs of destruction, as indeed did Nijinsky’s state of mind. Riabko held the work together. It was a tour de force by a dancer who communicated with every inch of his body.

Those with whom Riabko shared the stage—characters representing Nijinsky’s family, especially his wife Romola; characters that Nijinsky danced during his career; dancers from Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, including Tamara Karsavina and Leonide Massine; Diaghilev himself; soldiers and others representing war, against which Nijinsky was so opposed—had mixed success.

Leanne Stojmenov was a standout as Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava Nijinska, especially in the Rite of Spring scene (of which sadly there seem to be no media images available, but see below for Stojmenov as the Young Woman in Jeux).

Leanne Stojmenov and Alexandre Riabko in 'Nijinsky', the Australian Ballet 2016. Photo Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

In the Rite of Spring scene, where Stojmenov played the Chosen Virgin, she danced as if there was no tomorrow, tossing her body into Neumeier’s demanding positions, flinging herself from side to side, hair in disarray. In fact this scene, with Riabko/Nijinsky standing on a chair shouting out instructions to the performers, is one of the most exciting of the evening. (To the Australian Ballet: oh please get access to the Pina Bausch Rite of Spring and put Stojmenov in the lead. She would be stunning).

I also thought that François-Eloi Lavignac was outstanding as Stanislav, Nijinsky’s brother. His small, compact but very flexible body perfectly suited Neumeier’s writhing movements. Stanislav’s death was a compelling scene.

Along with Lavignac and Stojmenov, I was also impressed by Cristano Martino as the dancer Nijinsky as the Faun in L’après-midi d’un faune, and the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade. His Golden Slave was slinky and strongly sexual. His Faun was beautifully controlled and conveyed an innate power.

Cristiano Martino as the Faun on 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Cristiano Martino as the Faun in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As ever, however, I longed for so many of the others in the cast to have more artistry in their performance and, for the first time in my various encounters with this ballet, I felt as though Neumeier’s Nijinsky was too long and too slow in parts. I still get the feeling that the dancers of the Australian Ballet focus on steps, and Neumeier’s Nijinsky is not about steps. I was disappointed, for example, with Adam Bull’s portrayal of Diaghilev. Bull is an excellent dancer but I think of Diaghilev as an eccentric character and there was nothing eccentric about Bull’s interpretation. For me he was a ballet dancer pretending to be Diaghilev. Similarly with Amy Harris as Romola. I got no feeling for what kind of person she might have been.

I did enjoy the sets and costumes (concept by Neumeier) more in this viewing than previously, when I guess I was more focused on what was happening and who was who. Neumeier’s use of ‘attributes’ rather than detailed costuming to distinguish characters was aesthetically pleasing and the circles of light that occasionally appeared as part of a particular setting recalled Nijinsky’s fascinating circular drawings, some of which are part of Neumeier’s personal collection of Nijinsky memorabilia.

Alexandre Riabko in 'Nijinsky'. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Nijinsky is a thrilling work and I bow to Neumeier’s concept. But I hope that throughout the Australian Ballet season, as it continues in Melbourne, and then goes to Adelaide and Sydney, that stronger characterisations might emerge from more of the dancers.

Michelle Potter, 9 September 2016

Featured image: Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Alexandre Riabko in Nijinsky, 2016. Photo: Jeff Busby

My review of Nijinsky with Hamburg Ballet in Brisbane in 2012 is at this link.

Dance diary. July 2016

  • Focus on Canberra

A one-off show, India Meets, is scheduled to take place at Belconnen Arts Centre on 20 August. It will feature Seeta Patel and Liz Lea along with other local dancers trained in a variety of Indian dance styles. Patel is in Australia with British Council support and, in addition to working on India Meets with Lea, has a number of other engagements, which I hope to feature in a future post.

In other Canberra news, a new dance company, Australian Dance Party, is about to be launched. It is led by Alison Plevey, a 2009 graduate of WAAPA who has been teaching and performing in Canberra since her graduation. ‘Out of the political capital comes Australian Dance Party: Canberra’s newest dance and performance company,’ she says. For its debut production, ADP dancers will collaborate with six artists from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra on Strings Attached at the Nishi Playhouse (a pop-up theatre), New Acton, on 25–27 August.

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  • Dancer to watch: Seu Kim

Seu Kim graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2015. A colleague sent me some online footage of him performing at Varna recently, where he was placed second. Watch it at this link. I love what shines through—honesty and passion in particular. And I love the lengthening of the neck and the emotion that radiates from that beautiful lift of the chest. Gorgeous.

Seu Kim at Varna, 2016

Kim identifies as Korean, although his family has lived in Japan for many years. He will join Royal Swedish Ballet as an apprentice dancer in August.

  • Oral history update

I had the pleasure in July or recording an oral history interview with Dr Elizabeth Dalman, founding director of Australian Dance Theatre and currently director of Mirramu Creative Arts Centre and Mirramu Dance Company. I first interviewed Dr Dalman for the National Library’s oral history program in 1994 so an update was definitely in order. Catalogue record at this link.

  • The Australian Ballet and CinemaLive

Dates are now available for the first three CinemaLive presentations of the Australian Ballet’s Fairytale Series, as mentioned in last month’s Dance diary. The Sleeping Beauty will screen on 8–9 October 2016, Cinderella on 12–13 November 2016, and Coppélia on 29–30 April 2017. Find a cinema near you at this link.

  • Press for July 2016

‘Triple treat shows off Bangarra’s finest.’ Preview of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s OUR land people storiesThe Canberra Times—Panorama, 23 July 2016, pp. 10–11. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2016

Featured image: Seeta Patel and Liz Lea, detail from the poster for India Meets

Robyn Hendricks in 'After The Rain'. Photo: Daniel Boud 2016

Dance diary. June 2016

  • Robyn Hendricks

South African-born Robyn Hendricks is the newest principal dancer with the Australian Ballet, having been promoted to the position earlier this month. My most pleasant memory of Hendricks’ dancing is in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, in Canberra in 2013 partnered by Rudy Hawkes, and in Sydney this year partnered by Damian Smith.

Robyn Hendricks and Damian Smith in 'After the Rain', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

Robyn Hendricks and Damian Smith in After the Rain, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

  • Stephen Page

Congratulations to Stephen Page, artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, who has been honoured with the JC Williamson Award by Live Performance Australia. The award is in recognition of ‘individuals who have made a truly outstanding contribution to the enrichment of the Australian live entertainment and performing arts culture and shaped the future of the industry for the better.’ It would be hard to find anyone in the Australian dance community who is more deserving of this award than Stephen Page. For over 25 years he has worked tirelessly to create a body of work that highlights Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and he has consistently encouraged many of his indigenous colleagues to do the same.

The JC Williamson Award was first presented in 1998 and since then only two others from the dance community have been honoured: Graeme Murphy in 2002 and Margaret Scott in 2007.

Bangarra%2c Belong rehearsal 2010%2c photo by Jess Bialek-2

Stephen Page in rehearsal for Belong. Photo: © Jess Bialek

  • Tutus, Hannah O’Neill and the Paris Opera Ballet

The Paris Opera Ballet newsletter for July (in English) contains an article about the making of tutus for the company’s recent production of Giselle. It is of particular interest for its inclusion of an image of Hannah O’Neill in the role of Myrtha. If the number of times the tag Hannah O’Neill is accessed on this website is anything to go by, O’Neill continues to attract significant interest in Australia and New Zealand. Here is the link. There are a number of other interesting links within this article.

  • The Australian Ballet’s film partnership with CinemaLive

The Australian Ballet has plans over the course of coming years to screen, in partnership with CinemaLive, some of its recent productions. The first program of three works, to screen in 2016–2017, is The Fairy Tale Series, comprising The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella (Ratmansky) and Coppélia. No specific dates or venues are available at this stage, although a recent media release mentions that the productions will be screened in ‘over 600 cinemas worldwide, in territories including North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Central and South America.’

Similar initiatives have made it possible for audiences worldwide to see performances from such companies as the Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet. It’s good to see the Australian Ballet following suit.

  • Benjamin Shine

It was good to see a mention in The Canberra Times of the success of a brief video posted by The Huffington Post about the work of Canberra-based artist Benjamin Shine. I mentioned Shine’s beautiful installation in the Canberra Centre in my Dance diary for April 2015. Recent Canberra Times story and video at this link.

  • Mr Gaga

During June I was able to get to see the documentary Mr Gaga as part of the HotDocs Festival. The title refers to Ohad Naharin’s Gaga movement vocabulary, a kind of improvisatory, cathartic vocabulary that Naharin created and has developed as a teaching tool, which is shown during the documentary. The film offered an interesting insight into Naharin’s career, including into his early life, and contained plenty of examples of his remarkable choreography, danced exceptionally by his Batsheva Dance Company. It aroused a whole variety of emotions in me including, I have to say, anger at what I thought was an extremely dangerous action on Naharin’s part while he was coaching one of his dancers as she tried to perfect a falling motion! But there were some very moving moments, some funny ones and a host of others. Well worth a look I think.

  • Press for June 2016

‘Study for RED.’ Article on the work of dancer and choreographer Liz Lea. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 18 June 2016, pp. 8–9. Online version.

‘Small company has big aspirations.’ Preview of Melbourne Ballet Company’s Divenire program. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 25 June 2016, p. 12. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2016

Featured image: Robyn Hendricks in After the Rain (detail), 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. May 2016

  • von Rothbart

Since seeing Stephen Baynes’ production of Swan Lake, first in 2012 and more recently in its revival of 2016, I have been thinking frequently about the nature of the character of von Rothbart, ‘an evil geni’, according to the cast lists of the earliest Russian productions. After reading on the Australian Ballet’s website that, in the Baynes Swan Lake, Rothbart is a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’ my interest quickened.

Brett Simon and artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo Jeff Busby

Brett Simon as von Rothbart with artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Hugh Colman has dressed Baynes’ Rothbart in a red wig when he appears in the palace ballroom in Act III. I was startled the first time I saw it to tell the truth, so carrot-coloured was it. It is not new knowledge, of course, that Rothbart means ‘red beard’ in German and many designers have referred to that meaning. Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for Rothbart in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake for Houston Ballet, for example, has straggling red ‘hair’ emerging from it and a pair of glassy red eyes on the sides (as seen in the featured image above). I was interested too to discover that, in Cyril Beaumont’s in-depth analysis of the ballet in his book The ballet called Swan Lake, there is a very detailed account of how Rothbart was meant to look in the Petipa-Ivanov version of the story—even down to the angle of the eyebrows and the shape of the beard.

But perhaps most interesting of all about Beaumont’s analysis is that he suggests that a character like Rothbart (one who is able to take on a variety of forms as he does in most traditional productions of Swan Lake) is often encountered in medieval romances and other early forms of literature—he gives an example of Archimago in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, who also has the power to assume diverse forms. In the story as adapted by Petipa for the production of Swan Lake on which most traditional productions centre, the swans are the victims of a character who has bewitched them, and who assumes the form of an owl to watch over them. The owl at times takes on a human form and in Act II appears in various places around the lake as an evil sorcerer. He listens to the conversation between Odette and Siegfried before disappearing. It then makes sense that he assumes another form in Act III, when he brings Odile to the palace, since he knows of Siegfried’s plan to marry Odette, which would outsmart him and remove his power.

I have no issues whatsoever in rethinking the story or the characters—Rothbart can even be a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’. But can he just turn up in Act III without there having some kind of manifestation of what he represents in the previous act? It makes a mockery of the story if some kind of force, call it evil, sorcery, seductive dandyism, or a combination of features, has not had an impact previously.

In the Baynes production, I kept wanting the projections that appear in the sky in Act II to be some manifestation of Rothbart. But I am reliably assured by a well-known dance writer/critic who spoke to an equally well-known member of the ballet staff at the Australian Ballet that those projections are swans and only swans. So for the moment I’ll just keep thinking that the Baynes Swan Lake is dramatically unsatisfying because I can find nothing that strongly prefigures Rothbart’s appearance in Act III.

  • Benois de la danse

Recipients of the 2016 Benois de la danse awards were announced in mid-May. It was a pleasure to read that Hannah O’Neill was the joint recipient of the award for Best Female Dancer for her performance in the title role in Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Paquita. She shared the award with Alicia Amartriain of Stuttgart Ballet.

But I was also delighted to see that John Neumeier had received a Lifetime Achievement Award. I still get shivers down my spine thinking of his exceptional Romeo and Juliet, which I saw recently in Copenhagen. And we have the pleasure of seeing his Nijinsky later this year in Australia.

I am also a fan of the choreography of Yuri Possokhov, who received the award for Best Choreographer (also shared). I haven’t seen the work for which he was awarded, the Bolshoi Ballet’s Hero of our time, but I have great memories of his version of Rite of Spring made for San Francisco Ballet.

The full list of awardees is at this link from Pointe Magazine. There is also the official site of the awards which gives a much longer account of the event, and includes a list of the nominees from whom the winners were selected.

  • Robert Helpmann

While searching for audio excerpts to use in my recent 2016 Dance Week talk, I came across some interesting snippets in an oral history interview I recorded with Bill Akers in 2002. Akers, who held several positions with the Borovansky Ballet and the Australian Ballet, worked closely with Helpmann on many occasions and, in particular, lit Helpmann’s Australian-produced ballets. I found his comments on the relationship between The Display and Yugen especially insightful. Although it is well-known that The Display was, in part, based on an incident that occurred early in Helpmann’s life, before he went to London in the 1930s, that Yugen was in some ways the antithesis of The Display is perhaps not so well-known. In the first audio excerpt, Akers talks about the early incident that clearly stayed in Helpmann’s mind throughout his life. In the second Akers reminds us of that incident, and then mentions how Yugen relates to it.

Akers on Display

Akers on Yugen

The full interview with Akers is available online via the National Library’s oral history site.

  • Press for April

My article ‘Robert Helpmann: Behind the Scenes with the Australian Ballet, 1963-1965’ has been published in Dance Research, 34: 1 (Summer 2016), pp. 47-62. It fleshes out some of the ideas I have considered on this website relating to Helpmann’s two early ballets for the Australian Ballet, The Display and Yugen. The cover image on this issue of Dance Research is by Walter Stringer from the collection of the National Library of Australia. It shows Gail Ferguson as a Woman of the Village, in Yugen, mostly likely taken during a 1970s revival.

Dance Research 34:1 2016 Cover

Dance Research is published by Edinburgh University Press. Further details at this link.

 

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2016

Featured image: Detail of Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for von Rothbart in Houston Ballet’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Michelle Potter, 2011

Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in 'Forgotten Land'. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

‘Vitesse’. The Australian Ballet

7 May 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The Australian Ballet’s triple bill, Vitesse, was not so much about vitesse (FR: speed) as about the look of ballet over the past thirty years or so. It began with Jiri Kylian’s Forgotten Land, moving, dramatic and emotion filled, continued with William Forsythe’s fiercely uncompromising In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and closed with Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV (Danse à grande vitesse), an attempt to capture the essence of speed and referring to France’s TGV (Train à grande vitesse) and Michael Nyman’s score MGV (Musique à grande vitesse).

Forgotten Land, a Kylian work from 1981, is in essence a series of duets expressing a yearning for past memories and events. I particularly enjoyed the dancing of first couple, Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian, who brought a delicious lyrical quality to their pas de deux and who brought out so well Kylian’s choreographic focus on bending bodies and swirling, extended arms. I also admired the performance by Rina Nemoto and Joseph Chapman as the last couple. Their delicacy and gentleness stood in contrast to some of the more fast-paced duets. The work is such a joy to watch and has a particularly emotive ending as the female dancers, backs to the audience, stretch their arms upwards, heavenwards, as if pining for what has been forgotten.

In the Middle left something to be desired, at least for those who remember it from 1996 when it first entered the Australian Ballet’s repertoire. It made a huge impression then with its high-energy choreography, its extraordinary off-centre poses, and its stunning performances in which the dancers missed no opportunity to draw the audience into the work. Not so much this time when it seemed a little tame. Although the dancers (again) executed the steps admirably enough, I missed (again) the physicality and the passion that needs to be added to the steps, to be the essence of movement, to make any ballet, but especially this one, have one on the edge of one’s seat with excitement. Surprisingly too, I also missed the Sylvie Guillem-style wig that was worn by Nicole Rhodes (as the leading female dancer) in the 1996 production. Not only did that wig have its own movement, it also set the work, which was made on Guillem and the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987, in a particular context. It had a definite role.

Amy Harris in 'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

Amy Harris in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The leading trio of artists, Amy Harris, Nicola Curry and Ty King-Wall, danced admirably enough. But for me, the most interesting performance came from Chengwu Guo, who at the last minute replaced Jarryd Madden. I am used to seeing Guo throw himself around the stage, executing spectacular beats, turns and jumps (sometimes inappropriately as happened in Giselle). So it was a pleasure to see him dancing differently. I wondered whether he felt held back by the Forsythian choreography, which is spectacular in its own way of course, but which does not ask for excess in the old Russian manner? Without losing any of his technical skills, there was a certain austerity to his approach on this occasion and I enjoyed his performance immensely.

Wheeldon’s DGV is an interesting work but never seems to have the excitement that its name suggests. It’s interesting too that Australian Ballet publicity says that ‘Wheeldon hurtles his dancers through a high-speed journey’. What drew my attention, on the other hand, was the extent to which Wheeldon seemed to create static poses, especially in the several pas de deux that are sprinkled throughout the work. I started to look on DGV as a kind of series of travel posters rather than a comment on a fast train and speed. It is not my favourite Wheeldon work and a review of another performance is at this link.

Despite my various reservations, it was an experience to have the work of Kylian, Forsythe and Wheeldon on the one program. Kylian rarely fails to move, Forsythe sees the body in movement differently from most, and Wheeldon … well I’m still making up my mind.

Michelle Potter, 9 May 2016

Featured image: Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in Forgotten Land. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

‘Symphony in C’. The Australian Ballet

29 April 2016, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Artists of the Australian ballet in 'Symphony in C', 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

Artists of the Australian Ballet in George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

My review of the Australian Ballet’s Symphony in C program has now been published on DanceTabs. The program consisted of

  • George Balanchine’s Symphony in C
  • Victor Gsovsky’s Grand pas classique
  • Agrippina Vaganova’s Diana and Acteon pas de deux
  • Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux
  • Richard House’s Scent of Love
  • Alice Topp’s Little Atlas

My DanceTabs review is available at this link.

Extra thoughts

In Jane Albert’s interview with Alice Topp and Richard House in the printed program, Topp speaks of her hopes for the future. She says: ‘…my ultimate dream would be to become [the first female] resident choreographer of The Australian Ballet.’ It isn’t clear who actually said or inserted the bit in square brackets but it’s not correct. The honour of being the first female resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet is already taken. It belongs to Natalie Weir who was resident choreographer during the directorship of Ross Stretton.

Looking back to 2010, when I last saw Balanchine’s Symphony in C, I can’t believe I was so lucky to see the cast I did. My review of that performance is at this link.

Looking back even earlier, I was also lucky way to see the Diana and Acteon pas de deux when it was first performed by the Australian Ballet in 1964. It featured Rudolf Nureyev and Lupe Serrano! The photographer Walter Stringer captured a few images of Nureyev and Serrano from the wings.

Rudolf Nureyev and Lupe Serrano, 'Diana and Acteon' pas de deux. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer

Rudolf Nureyev and Lupe Serrano, Diana and Acteon pas de deux. The Australian Ballet 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia

Michelle Potter, 2 May 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud