Dancers of the Australian Ballet in The Merry Widow, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet (2018)

12 May 2018, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

If you enjoy sitting in the theatre and being swept away by waltzes and ladies being lifted high in the air by their male partners, along with elaborately decorated costumes and sets and nothing too challenging in the way of storyline, then the Australian Ballet’s Merry Widow is for you. This production was last seen in 2011 but dates back to 1975 when it was commissioned by Robert Helpmann as the first full-length ballet to be made on the Australian Ballet. Choreographed by Ronald Hynd, designed by Desmond Heeley, with music by Franz Lehar arranged by John Lanchbery, and a scenario by Helpmann, it was in the early days closely associated with Margot Fonteyn. She performed the role of the Widow, Hanna Glawari, in Australia as well as elsewhere during guest seasons with the Australian Ballet.

Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in 'The Merry Widow', 1977. Photo Walter Stringer

Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in The Merry Widow, 1977. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

But Australian Ballet principals of the day, including Marilyn Rowe, Marilyn Jones, Lucette Aldous, John Meehan and Kelvin Coe, and others throughout the years, also made it their own. Rowe was repetiteur for this 2018 production.

In the cast I saw Amy Harris and Brett Simon danced the leading roles of Hanna Glawari and Count Danilo Danilowitsch, former childhood sweethearts whose attraction to each other is eventually renewed. While they both danced strongly, for me their involvement in the unfolding story was not the highlight of the show. On the other hand, I admired Sharni Spencer and Joe Chapman as the secondary leads of Valencienne and Camille, the Count of Rosillon. They invested more into the realisation of their characters and, as a result, were much more captivating to watch. And their pas deux in Act II, was really the choreographic highlight amongst all the waltzes and other predictable steps.

There was some strong character work from the male corps de ballet of Pontevedrian dancers in Act II and my attention was especially drawn to a gentleman, who I think was Joseph Romancewicz. He not only danced well but maintained his character when not dancing. It doesn’t always happen and when it does it is very noticeable.

Audiences love this ballet and it is clearly a money-spinner for the Australian Ballet, but after more than forty years I think it needs a redesign. Heeley’s costumes are individually glamorous and suitably of the Belle Epoque period, if sometimes rather too strongly coloured. But when seen en masse against his over lavish sets, and when lit with strong theatrical lighting, the overall design is unsubtle and inelegant to the point of seeming tasteless.

Michelle Potter, 13 May 2018

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet as Can Can ladies in The Merry Widow, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Manon, Act III, 2018. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in 'Sheherazade'. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Murphy. The Australian Ballet … second viewing

14 April 2018 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I had the pleasure of seeing Murphy for a second time, this time in Sydney at a mid-season matinee and in a top-notch seat (as a result of many years of subscribing and slowly moving forward into a great position).

Much, if not all, that I wrote after the Melbourne opening still stands. One or two performers, however, stood out for me on this second occasion. In Grand,  ‘Alligator Crawl’ by Fats Waller was wonderfully danced by George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu. Xu in particular made the most of the opportunity and looked smart and sassy, as was appropriate in the jazz situation that the music demanded. Then, Yuumi Yamada and Andrew Killian danced beautifully in the duet to the Beethoven ‘Lento e mesto’ from his Piano Sonata in D major. There was a certain vulnerability in the way Yamada moved and yet technically her dancing was strong. Killian was a perfect partner in this situation.

I also omitted to mention the work of filmmaker Philippe Charluet in my previous post. His Reflections, the opening  filmed monologue from Murphy, and his introduction to Grand, which showed the incredible Wakako Asano from the Sydney Dance Company production of 2005, were fine examples of Charluet’ work and nostalgic reminders of how exceptional Sydney Dance Company was under Murphy and Vernon.

Shéhérazade, however, remained a disappointment without its silk tent. It might be one thing to perform an excerpt without the full set, which if I recall correctly was the case in Body of Work (2002) when just the opening pas de deux was performed. But the Murphy program presented the full work and it truly lost its mysterious and erotic quality without the original set.

Here is part of what Kristian Fredrikson wrote about the set: ‘Blue silk tent with applied gold patterns, a silk sling, a rope, 4 watchers on illuminated perspex—glittering gauze.’ And here is his description of one highlight where the silk plays a significant role in the choreography: ‘A girl arises from her silk trapeze and dances a yearning solo … at two points of the solo the girl is mirror-imaged by the first girl who slips in and out of the gauze.’ It would have been respectful, as well as giving audiences a true picture of what Shéhérazade was really like, had there been some effort to reproduce the original set.

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2018

Featured image: Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in 'Sheherazade'. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Note: The National Library of Australia holds some colour photographs from the first performances (1979) of Shéhérazade taken by Don McMurdo, which show the blue tent with its gold designs. I have made concerted and repeated efforts to get permission to use them but I have had no response from the copyright owner. The National Library holds them in trust only and Don McMurdo’s permission is not sufficient. I still hold out hope that one day the Sydney Opera House’s legal team will respond.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Murphy. The Australian Ballet

16 March 2018. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

This program was a retrospective of works by Graeme Murphy and was in celebration of his long association with the Australian Ballet. The evening began with a brief film clip of Murphy talking about those moments for a choreographer, and by extension for a dancer and for the audience, when a transformation occurs, when a choreographer is able to draw out from a dancer a quality that is artistry at the highest level. The brief interview (a monologue really) was a deeply personal reflection from Murphy and showed his humanity, his humility, his own artistry, and his respect for dance and those who engage with it.

The program that followed was a fine opportunity to ponder on what is distinctive about Murphy’s choreography. It consisted of excerpts from several of Murphy’s works, largely made originally for Sydney Dance Company, and a performance of Murphy’s Firebird, made for the Australian Ballet in 2009. Although Firebird has never been a favourite of mine—somehow it reminds me of a weird cult activity—it was distinguished on this occasion by an exceptional performance from Lana Jones in the title role. Her immersion in the role was complete and her first entrance was stunningly controlled, and believe me the choreographic requirements of that entrance are demanding.

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in ‘Firebird.’ The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Firebird. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

But what emerged as the evening progressed was the diversity of Murphy’s output. His works have humour, but are also often clearly serious in emotional impact; they occasionally cross cultural boundaries; they are always closely connected to music, and his musical choices are themselves diverse; they can be classical in their dance vocabulary, or not so classical as the work demands; they are sometimes narrative-based, at other times quite abstract. Never a dull moment!

What was also fascinating was being able to see some of Murphy’s signature choreographic phrases and groupings across the course of the evening. What stood out for me was the way he uses small groups of dancers, often four, and has them work together as one. Bodies are thrown, swirled, turned upside down, but always engage in a smooth and lyrical manner.

In terms of the works presented, the highlight for me was Grand, the work he made in 2005 in honour of his mother, a pianist. A grand piano onstage was played by Scott Davie (as it was in 2005) and we were treated to several excerpts from this wonderful, funny, emotional work that was strongly musically oriented in so many ways—’sweeping in conception, intimate in detail and constantly surprising in choreographic invention’ I wrote in 2005. It made me long to see the full work again, but it was a treat to see as many sections as we did. They included the delightfully funny Chopsticks section and the Gershwin number, one of those remarkable uses of four dancers who seem to dance as one whatever impossible moves they are asked to make.

Valerie Tereshchenko and artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Valerie Tereshchenko and artists of the Australian Ballet in Grand, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The big disappointment of the evening was Shéhérazade, that exquisite short work for two men and two women made by Murphy in 1979. It was performed without the luscious, blue silk tent/canopy with its gold decorative elements, which was such an intrinsic part of Kristian Fredrikson’s designs for the work. Without it most of the mysterious and erotic quality of earlier performances was lost, as was the allusion to the art of Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, and the over-ridingly blue and gold colour scheme that Fredrikson imagined (and achieved). Those hanging strips of what looked like tinsel at times were quite out of place. Just before the work’s opening in 1979 Murphy told a journalist: ‘One of the fascinating aspects of this work will be the design inserted into the dancing. In a sense the dancers will be wearing the set.’ Not this time!

Having said that, however, the standout performance of the entire evening came from Lana Jones as the second of the female dancers in Shéhérazade. Jones’ technique was impeccable. But it was her beautiful attention to choreographic detail that grabbed my attention. Those moments when she moved her wrists in little twisting circles, while holding her hands and arms close to her slightly curved body were breathtaking, as was the way she moved her neck and chest at times. And how spectacular she looked in those iconic poses for all four dancers, which mark certain stages of the work.

The evening belonged to Graeme Murphy and I salute him for all those works that have thrilled us over the years. But bouquets to Lana Jones for two standout performances during the evening. She had it all, and I thought she was dancing not just choreography but Murphy’s choreography.

Michelle Potter, 18 March 2018

Featured image: artists of the Australian Ballet in Grand, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in ‘Grand’, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo as Alice in ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Australian Ballet

5 December 2017, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

My spirits soared as the curtain went up on the opening act of Christopher Weeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at its Sydney opening night. There before us a picnic was taking place in an English architectural setting, which I believe represented the Deanery at Christ Church, Oxford, home of Alice Liddell who inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. We met Alice’s family and friends, who would later take on other guises when Alice went down the rabbit hole. And the work of Nicholas Wright, who wrote the scenario and added a love interest to the story—between Alice and Jack (in later acts the Knave of Hearts)—seemed to be setting us up for an interesting evening of ballet.

But after Alice disappeared down the rabbit hole the prospect of an evening of ballet disappeared with her. The most obvious feature of the work was not the dancing but the visual design and effects. True the visual features were spectacular and technically astonishing at times. I loved the tiny door that scuttled across the stage at times (see the featured image). Indeed it said more about the story than a lot of the other parts of the design—an example of ‘less is more’ perhaps? I also liked the Victorian scrapbook-style imagery that accompanied the flower waltz in Act II, except that there was too much else happening design-wise for it to be appreciated. Visual overload throughout I thought. When I go to the ballet, I prefer to see dancing rather than umpteen technical tricks and constantly changing visual ideas, as amazing as they may be.

But then the choreography, when it was given some prominence, wasn’t all that interesting. I guess I have never really been a fan of Wheeldon’s work, but this time I wondered how he envisages movement in relation to the human body. With a few exceptions, notably the very slinky caterpillar, I thought Wheeldon ignored the fact that the limbs are attached to the body. Spiky leg movements seemed to predominate and when the upper body did move it seemed expression-less. Choreographically the work felt very flat, innocuous and unexceptional.

All in all, however, the dancers performed nicely. With her charm and gorgeous ability to draw the audience into her world, Ako Kondo was well suited to the role of Alice. With some spectacular dancing, Ty King-Wall as Jack/the Knave of Hearts, was a joy to watch, and I enjoyed Adam Bull as Lewis Carroll/the White Rabbit, especially for the quirky, anxious character he gave to the White Rabbit. Bouquets too to Kevin Jackson as the tap dancing Mad Hatter and Steven Heathcote for a strong portrayal of Alice’s father/the King of Hearts.

Ty King-Wall as the Knave of Hearts in 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Ty King-Wall as the Knave of Hearts in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But I really disliked the odd changes that had been made to the character of the Queen of Hearts (Alice’s mother in Act I). All was fine when she was looking to chop heads off left, right and centre, which we know is her wont according to Lewis Carroll. But she was also written into the story as some kind of crazy ballerina who wanted to dance the Rose Adagio but couldn’t. To me the pathetically horrible take on the Rose Adagio showed a major lack of taste on the part of the creative team. Leave that kind of mucking around to the Trocks, when it is funny. I really don’t want to see it on the Australian Ballet, and I especially don’t want to see Amy Harris, who played the Queen of Hearts, lying on her stomach, head pointing upstage, legs spread-eagled to the side, and bottom lifted off the ground and pointed directly at the audience. All we needed was the noise. Hideous!

I am sure Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is already a terrific money-spinner for the Australian Ballet, and probably many (most) people thoroughly enjoyed themselves. But watching it made me wonder where ballet is heading. Give me something that is less vaudeville/burlesque/circus-like from our national ballet company.

Michelle Potter, 7 December 2017

Featured image: Ako Kondo as Alice in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo as Alice in ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’. The Australian Ballet, 2017. Photo: Daniel Boud

Xenia Borovansky & Tamara Tchinarova Finch

My recent tribute to Tamara Tchinarova Finch brought to light a letter Tchinarova wrote to Xenia Borovansky in 1980 in which she discussed, amongst other things, her thoughts on Xenia Borovansky’s contribution to the growth of ballet in Australia. With permission from the various stakeholders, I am publishing the letter in this post.

Tamara Tchinarova in costume for the Mazurka in Coppelia with Xenia Borovansky before curtain up, Borovansky Ballet, ca. 1946. Photo Jean StewartXenia Borovansky and Tamara Tchinarova on stage before a performance of Coppélia by the Borovansky Ballet, ca. 1946. National Library of Australia, Papers of Tamara Tchinarova Finch, MS 9733. Photo: Jean Stewart

It is an interesting letter from many points of view and was written just before the tribute to Borovansky, which I am assuming means the program that Marilyn Jones devised during her brief term as artistic director of the Australian Ballet in 1980. It was a triple bill and consisted of Pineapple Poll, Schéhérazade and Graduation Ball, with Les Sylphides being substituted in place of Graduation Ball in Adelaide and Perth.*

Gary Norman and Sheree da Costa in Scheherazade. The Australian Ballet 1980. Photo Walter Stringer
Gary Norman and Sheree da Costa in Schéhérazade. The Australian Ballet, 1980. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

It also mentions the lecture tour by Tchinarova and Irina Baronova, which apparently had been discussed (but initially dismissed) long before it actually occurred in 1994.

*Details of the program are on AusStage at this link.

Michelle Potter, 29 September 2017

Bryan Lawrence (1936–2017)

Bryan Lawrence, who has died in his 81st year, was born Brian Lawrence Palethorpe in Birmingham, England. He began his dance training at an early age in regional schools in England and then trained, on scholarship, at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School (later the Royal Ballet School) from the age of thirteen. After moving into the senior school he began performing in walk-on parts with the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet. He never legally changed his name but used ‘Bryan Lawrence’ throughout his professional career.

Lawrence joined Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet in 1954 and was promoted to soloist in 1955. His first professional dancing part, undertaken while still a student at the Sadler’s Wells School, was in the corps de ballet of The Firebird, as staged by Lubov Tchernicheva and Sergei Grigoriev for Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1954. Lawrence joined the company a little later and toured with them to regional venues in England until 1957.

Following a period of national service with the RAF he joined the Royal Ballet in 1959 and became a soloist in 1961. In 1964 he moved to Australia at the invitation of Peggy van Praagh and joined the Australian Ballet as a principal dancer.

BryanLawrence in 'Le Conservatoire'. The Australian Ballet, 1965. Photo: Ken Byron, Australian News and Information Bureau

Bryan Lawrence in Le Conservatoire. The Australian Ballet, 1965. Photo: Ken Byron, Australian News and Information Bureau

While with the Australian Ballet, Lawrence partnered all the leading dancers in the company, including Elaine Fifield, Marilyn Jones and Kathleen Gorham. He toured with the company on their early overseas engagements, including to the Commonwealth Arts Festival and various cities in Europe, 1965–1966, and on a major tour to Montreal, Canada, for Expo ’67 with subsequent engagements in South America and elsewhere. In an article for The Canberra Times in 1968 he recalled some of the memorable off-stage experiences during the early part of the 1965 tour:

I recall riding a camel across the desert at 4 am to see the Pyramids after a long overnight flight from Perth to Cairo, and doing a class in the temple ruins at Baalbeck at seven o’clock in the morning when the sun became so hot we were unable to continue.

In his career with the Australian Ballet he is especially remembered for his role in The Display, in which he played the role of the Leader. Of his work on that ballet with its choreographer Robert Helpmann he remarked, in an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia in 1986:

It was interesting working with Bobby. I did, I think, most of the choreography for my bits myself. Bobby was inclined to do that. He worked out, obviously, the general thing, the story, but I can remember him saying before lunch one day, ‘Well, you know, think about something to do there.’ And I just worked something out myself and it was accepted.

(left) Bryan Lawrence and Kathleen Gorham in The Display. The Australian Ballet, 1964; (right) Bryan Lawrence and Elaine Fifield in Les Sylphides. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photos: Walter Stringer. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

Lawrence resigned from the Australian Ballet at the end of 1967 and in 1968, along with fellow Australian Ballet principal, Janet Karin, founded the Bryan Lawrence School of Ballet in Canberra. Together, Lawrence and Karin trained many fine artists, including Ross Stretton, Joanne Michel and Adam Marchant, all of whom rose through the ranks of the Australian Ballet to dance principal roles before going on to expand their careers in other significant directions.

The school’s performance group, the Bryan Lawrence Performing Group, presented its first classical production, excerpts from Coppélia, to Canberra audiences in 1970, and its first full-length ballet, Giselle, in 1974. Lawrence appeared in the school’s productions on occasions and was especially admired for his performances as Captain Belaye in Pineapple Poll, Albrecht in Giselle, and Dr Coppélius in Coppélia. He also occasionally choreographed short works for the school’s annual performances.

Lawrence left Canberra for Sydney in 1986. In Sydney he undertook a variety of jobs including a brief period of work as a teacher at the McDonald College. Lawrence remarried in Sydney and lived towards the end of his life in Victoria Falls in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. He was an accomplished pianist and in his retirement enjoyed composing original, short works for piano.

After he left Canberra, the Bryan Lawrence School of Ballet was renamed the National Capital Ballet School in 1987 and the associated performing company became the National Capital Dancers.

Bryan Lawrence is survived by his first wife, Janet Karin, with whom he had two children, a son Nicholas and a daughter Isobel (deceased). He spent many happy years with his second wife, Lyn Palethorpe.

Brian Lawrence Palethorpe: born 4 September 1936, Birmingham, England; died Katoomba, New South Wales, 8 July 2017.

Michelle Potter, 9 July 2017

Featured image: Bryan Lawrence in Les Sylphides. The Australian Ballet, 1964. Photo: Walter Stringer

 

Dancers of the Australian Ballet as cut-out dolls in Meryl Tankard's 'Wild Swans'. Photo: © Régis Lansac

Meryl Tankard’s ‘Wild Swans’

Just recently a colleague in France suggested I might enjoy a BBC radio program she had just heard in a series called Sound of Dance. The particular program, ‘The Contemporary Ballet Composer’, was hosted by Katie Derham and concerned music specially commissioned for dance. It included, as it happened, excerpts from two works we are shortly to see in Australia—’In the garden’ by Max Richter from the score for Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, and ‘Mad Hatter’s tea party’ and ‘Cheshire cat’ by Joby Talbot from the score for Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.* The program also contained excerpts from an interview with composer Sally Beamish, currently working on a score for David Nixon’s The Little Mermaid for Northern Ballet, on how she approached composing for dance.

But ‘The Contemporary Ballet Composer’ finished with a brief excerpt from Elena Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans (which is largely why my colleague suggested I listen—the rare mention of an Australian on the BBC!). What I found somewhat alarming though was that, while choreographers’ names were mentioned for every other piece of music played, Meryl Tankard didn’t get a mention as choreographer of Wild Swans, a ballet based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name. It sent me back to sections from my biography of Tankard, and to the various articles and reviews I had written in 2003–2004 about Wild Swans**:

  • ‘Wild and woolly. Meryl Tankard knits a new ballet’ The Australian Ballet News, Issue 31, 2003, pp. 6–8
  • ‘Dance a wild and wonderful tribute.’ The Canberra Times: Panorama, 10 May 2003, pp. 4–5
  • ‘Wild Swans and the art of collaboration.’ Brolga, June 2003, pp. 26–31
  • ‘Wild Swans and peevish reviewers.’ Australian Art Review, November 2003–February 2004, pp. 41–42
  • Meryl Tankard. An original voice (Canberra: Dance writing and research, 2012)

As I wrote in the Tankard biography, Elena Kats-Chernin’s music for Wild Swans was

… a luscious and evocative ninety minute score for small orchestra and soprano voice, which has had an ongoing life. A concert suite from Wild Swans is commercially available on compact disc and extracts from it, especially ‘Eliza’s Aria’, receive regular airplay. ‘Eliza’s Aria’ was also used in the United Kingdom in a series of six television and cinema advertisements in 2007 for the financial institution Lloyds TSB thus bringing the musical composition to a much wider (and enthusiastic) audience.

The ballet itself, with its extraordinary and beautifully fluid projections by Régis Lansac and arresting costumes by Angus Strathie, its references to Hans Christian Andersen’s fascination with paper cut-outs, and some spectacular choreographic segments, was a joint commission from the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Opera House in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Opera House. It premiered in Sydney in April 2003.

Felicia Palanca as Eliza in Meryl Tankard's 'Wild Swans'. The Australian Ballet, 2003. Photo © Regis Lansac

Felicia Palanca as Eliza in Meryl Tankard’s Wild Swans. The Australian Ballet, 2003. Photo: © Régis Lansac. National Library of Australia

Sadly, Wild Swans, the ballet, has never been revived and, not only that, it seems Tankard’s name is often disregarded when the music is played, even though she was the choreographer whose work allowed the score to be created. That this happens, and it happens to other choreographers in addition to Tankard, highlights the problems faced by contemporary choreographers in gaining long-term acceptance and understanding of their work and their processes.

Wild Swans was filmed by ABC Television in 2003 and a documentary, ‘Wild Swans’: behind the scenes, was also made in the same year. Unfortunately, neither is readily available commercially. But looking at the documentary again, and rereading what I wrote about the work and the process, it is clear that Wild Swans was an exceptional collaboration. In terms of the score, Tankard and Kats-Chernin worked closely together over an extended period. Kats-Chernin came to early rehearsals with some preliminary musical sketches but admits that she used very little of this material. Giving further insight into the collaborative process relating to Wild Swans, in which on this occasion, given that there was a narrative structure to the piece, Tankard worked in a relatively logical order, Kats-Chernin has written:

We met regularly around my piano, about twice a week and went through everything scene by scene. Meryl would work out the structure and describe the images in her head, and I would improvise all kinds of different versions, and at some point Meryl would say—“yes, that’s it”—and then I would write everything down. In a couple of days she would visit again and we would check the past material as well as try and work on the next scenes. It was good to work in the “running order”, as this way we kept the rhythm of the whole piece in “real time”. We were also lucky that the Australian Ballet arranged for a draft recording of the whole ballet with the Orchestra of Victoria. That way Meryl had a chance to hear all the orchestral colours that I had imagined and which were sometimes very hard to describe in words. Meryl and the dancers then rehearsed with the recording and in the last week of that phase I joined in and we found ourselves working out the final order of which pieces worked and where.(Boosey & Hawkes website)

Meryl Tankard, Elena Kats-Chernin at the piano, and dancers of the Australian Ballet discuss the creation of 'Wild Swans', 2003. Photo: © Regis Lansac

Meryl Tankard, Elena Kats-Chernin at the piano, and dancers of the Australian Ballet discuss the creation of Wild Swans, 2003. Photo: © Régis Lansac. National Library of Australia

Occasionally during the process, Kats-Chernin’s contributions were edited out. She has spoken in a quite matter of fact tone about this process:

I’m not precious about discarding material. Composition of this kind is a very practical activity. The audience isn’t coming to hear a concert but to see action and be stimulated by the music. The music is to remind people of the drama and it can’t always be the centre of attention. (‘Wild and Woolly’, p. 7)

The dancers, too, sometimes had their contributions discarded and, reflecting on the dancers’ reaction to the process of creating Wild Swans, Tim Harbour, who played one of Eliza’s eleven brothers, has said:

The work had a very slow evolution. It was quite exhausting really. There was a constant review and editing process. Every day things changed. Sometimes there was a lot of frustration, even indignation amongst the dancers because we’d spend so much time creating steps, the mood, and the emotion and then Meryl would edit it out.

[But], I would have regretted not being part of it. The more you put in in the early stages, the more you get out in the end. And in the end I think the dancers felt an incredible sense of pride in what we as a team achieved. There has never been anything like it in the Australian Ballet. Until now people had to leave the Australian Ballet to get his kind of creative experience. (Meryl Tankard. An original voice, p. 110)

Looking back at my Wild Swans material, and without being at all critical that the score still (deservedly) enjoys popularity, it continues to bother me that the ballet has never been revived. As a work of extraordinary, and absolutely hands-on collaboration it deserves to be seen again.

Michelle Potter, 23 June 2017

The program is available until c. 16 July 2017 at this link. Podcasts of this series, apparently, are available only in the UK.
** None of these items is available online.

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet as cut-out dolls in Meryl Tankard’s Wild Swans, 2003. Photo: © Régis Lansac. National Library of Australia

Dancers of the Australian Ballet as cut-out dolls in Meryl Tankard's 'Wild Swans'. Photo: © Régis Lansac

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo Jeff Busby

Nutcracker. The Story of Clara. The Australian Ballet

10 June 2017 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

A lot has been written over the years about Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker—how it is an Australianised version of a well-loved classic, how it looks back to momentous events in Australian dance history, and so on. I am one of those lucky people who has seen every one of the seasons of Murphy’s Nutcracker since its premiere in 1992 and now I prefer to write personal thoughts rather than explanatory notes.

Murphy’s Nutcracker never loses its magic, its beauty, its theatricality, and in fact each season shows something more, something I haven’t noticed before, something surprising and unexpected. But most of all, it continues to tell me that this is a triumph for Murphy and his collaborators.

What came across really strongly for me this time was the theatricality with which the links across generations were made. I have always loved that moment, very close to the beginning, when Clara the Child picks up the package Clara the Elder has dropped as she makes her way to her home. They look at each other intently and in a brief instant we realise that they have recognised each other in some way. The child is looking at herself as an older woman, the older woman sees herself as a child. The moment was beautifully handled by Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder and Hannah Sergi as Clara the Child.

Keramidas was, in fact, a surprise as Clara the Elder. She is still very much the dancer, with her long, slim limbs, beautifully poised head, and pure line through her whole body. She danced with scarcely a hint, in a movement sense that is, that her character was that of an ageing former ballerina. What was surprising was that her exceptional grace of movement distinguished her from her elderly friends in a way that I haven’t seen before. She was truly the ballerina rather than the soloist or corps de ballet dancer, and her collapse as she watched and remembered her career with her friends was all the more poignant.

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: ©Jeff Busby

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: ©Jeff Busby

I have always been fascinated, too, by the very moving moment in Act II when Clara the Ballerina (danced on this occasion by Dimity Azoury) watches as her lover is killed during a revolutionary battle in Russia. As she takes in the enormity of the situation, a series of scrims lift and we see Clara the Elder in her white nightgown clutching a photograph of her lover, the lover we have just seen shot. The two Claras are one and dance together sharing their pain and loss. With Keramidas and Sergi having established such a strong bond in that fleeting early moment, the emotive power of the cross generational links, which are at the heart of this ballet, came once more to the fore (this time between Keramidas and Azoury). The impact of this scene was heightened, too, by John Drummond Montgomery’s lighting for this moment—hazy down lights against a dark background of emptiness—and perhaps also because I was sitting further back than usual and could focus on an overall picture.

This time I also noticed more clearly the choreographic beauty of the snowflake scene. As snowflakes fall gently to the ground, disintegrating on the way down, so too did Murphy have his snowflakes drop to the floor moving first through a clearly articulated bend to the supporting leg so the landing from there was like a crumbling of the movement rather than a deliberate fall. Against this were sharp, icy stabs of movement as the dancers lifted a leg into the air and, at one point, a myriad of hands and arms moving up and down recalling a flurry of snow. At least that’s how I saw it: an enchanting display of snowy qualities!

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I also admired (more so than usual) Philippe Charluet’s film collage, especially those sections relating to the Russian Revolution. It has always been a treat to see how the film collage plays across the stage to add such a masterful context to this ballet, but this time the collage seemed even more pertinent to me, reading as I am at the moment a book that delves into the early life in Russia of George Balanchine.* And indeed Murphy’s inclusion of the two peasants in the picnic excursion that Clara and her friends enjoy before the Revolution begins in earnest had the same effect. The juxtaposition of wealth and privilege and lack of means to live comfortably was made clear with this small touch.

Azoury and Jarryd Madden danced strongly in the leading roles of Clara the Ballerina and the Beloved Officer, as did Andrew Wright as the Nutcracker Prince. Azoury has all the technique ready and waiting but just needs a little more feeling of freedom to make those curving, swirling lifts of the various pas de deux look as spectacular as they are. A little more time? Oh, and thank you to the new (to me) ‘older dancers’, friends of Clara the Elder. Graeme Hudson brought a certain gravitas and was it Terese Power who kept eating those chocolates and creating such a distinctive character?

Michelle Potter, 11 June 2017

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in the Imperial Ball scene from Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo Jeff Busby

* Elizabeth Kendall, Balanchine and the lost Muse. Revolution and the making of a choreographer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

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