Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

‘Woolf Works.’ The Royal Ballet

11 February 2017, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The printed program for Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works gives the piece a subtitle: A Triptych. It is a perfect subtitle since Woolf Works consists of three separate pieces but, like a religious triptych, each separate part tells us something about an overall subject. In the case of Woolf Works this overall subject concerns the innovative, poetic writing of the early twentieth century novelist Virginia Woolf. And the work begins with the voice of Virginia Woolf talking about language in a recording made for the BBC in 1937. Her talk was called ‘On craftsmanship’ and, as she speaks, writing (hers presumably) appears in white on a black front screen. As her voice continues, the writing transforms itself into various white shapes. The lighting changes and the screen lifts. The first section begins.

Although the informative program, innovative in concept and design, never seeks to say what Woolf Works is ‘about’, for me McGregor brilliantly distills each of the Woolf novels he has chosen to work with into certain intrinsic elements. The first movement, I now, I then, inspired by the novel Mrs Dalloway, shows us the changing nature of relationships across a lifetime, even though the novel takes place in just one day. The second section, based on Orlando and called Becomings, examines the trajectory of the universe across time, just as Orlando takes place over several centuries. It might be called a study in time travel and has something approaching science fiction as an intrinsic element. The third section, Tuesday, is inspired by The Waves and seeks to show us the concept of inevitability.

Of the three sections I now, I then seems to me to be the strongest. If you know the novel, you will recognise the main characters of Clarissa Dalloway; Jenny Seton, the close friend whom Clarissa famously kisses; Peter Walsh, the man Clarissa didn’t marry, perhaps to her ongoing regret; and Septimus Warren Smith, the shell-shocked former soldier who eventually commits suicide, never being able to overcome his thoughts about the death of a soldier friend in World War I. But such knowledge isn’t entirely necessary as I now, I then stands on its own as a work about relationships of many and varied kinds.

In I now, I then, Alessandra Ferri plays a meditative, slightly distant Clarissa, lost in her thoughts. It was a pleasure to see her back onstage. In another cast, however, I saw Mara Galeazzi in the role and I preferred her performance. She seemed more emotionally involved in the role and, without wishing to detract from Ferri’s strong technical performance, I admired the way Galeazzi was able to embody the choreography, giving it quite beautiful shape and fluidity. The various pas de deux between Clarissa and the two men in her life (played by Federico Bonelli and Gary Avis in one cast and Ryoichi Hirano and Tomas Mock in the other) were highlights in both casts.

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Gary Avis in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Clarissa as a younger woman and Jenny her friend, played by Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Francesca Hayward (and in the other cast Yasmine Naghdi and Mayara Magri), had some gorgeous choreography, sometimes performed in unison, often fast and joyous, and always full of the pleasures of youth and friendship. They engaged too with Peter, Clarissa’s early love interest, while the older Clarissa stood thoughtfully in the background. Again pleasure in relating to others was at the heart of the choreography.

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in 'I am, I was' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Federico Bonelli and Beatriz Stix-Brunell in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristram Kenton

Another exceptionally powerful performance came from Edward Watson as Septimus, whose problematic mental state was made clear as he executed the writhing, twisted choreography.

Strong visual elements in the form of film footage (film designer Ravi Deepres) washed across the performing space and over the set, which consisted of the perimeters of three large, wooden, movable square structures. The footage showed London scenes from the 1920s and, sometimes, the garden of Virginia Woolf’s home and, with Max Richter’s score occasionally interrupted by the sound of Big Ben chiming, the setting was an evocative one.

Becomings was distinguished by some astonishing lighting effects from Lucy Carter. Although her work is an important and quite beautiful element in all three sections, in Becomings it is nothing short of sensational—as innovative as anything Woolf wrote. It sometimes divides the stage space, other times it beams out into the space of the auditorium. It colours the space, and darkens it too, and laser beams occasionally shoot across the stage.

Among this spectacular light (and darkness as the stage is often submerged in near blackness), dancers appear, clad in an assortment of black and gold costumes that range from Elizabethan garb—Eric Underwood at times wears an Elizabethan-style dress that would have delighted Queen Elizabeth I—to contemporary attire (costume design Moritz Junge). There is some spectacular dancing. Legs stretch and extend in seemingly impossible ways and partnering sometimes takes the breath away. Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae stand out, especially in an early pas de deux where the gender of Orlando is explored (perhaps?). Both also stand out elsewhere in this second section, as does Sarah Lamb who always looks good executing McGregor’s flashy, super-extended style. 

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in 'Becomings' from 'Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in Becomings from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Despite the dancing and the mesmerising lighting display, Becomings did not have the same attraction for me as I now, I then. It was harder to feel where Woolf fitted in for one thing, even given the emphasis at times on gender issues, which Woolf explores in Orlando. But then perhaps the link is that Woolf was always experimenting, exploring, finding innovative ways to use language, as McGregor and his collaborators are examining how collaboration across the arts can give new insights?

The third and final section, Tuesday, begins with half the stage space being taken up by film footage of very slowly breaking waves. A voice-over reads Woolf’s suicide note left for her husband before she stepped into the river Ouse, her pockets weighed down with stones. After the glitz and glamour of Becomings, Tuesday was quietly reflective and we felt the slow motion of the waves and the inevitability of time passing.

Clarissa appears alone on stage at the beginning of Tuesday. But her memories continue to fill her mind. Children appear from the darkness beneath the images of waves. They run to her. She is joined by Sarah Lamb (as her sister, Vanessa Bell?). Voices are heard over the music and the names of Vanessa’s children are mentioned—Quentin, Angelica, Julian. The corps de ballet dances in wave-like movements. Clarissa stands and watches. Bonelli joins her and they are left alone. Clarissa slips to the floor and the waves retreat.

Scene from 'Tuesday' in ''Woolf Works'. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Scene from Tuesday in Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

I found Woolf Works a hugely moving work. I’m sure I missed many of the nuances. But I love that I could make up an interpretation (my own if not McGregor’s) that sent me out of the theatre fulfilled and wanting to see the work many more times. It is an exceptional collaboration with intelligent minds behind it, including that of a dramaturg (Uzma Hameed). This is how dance should be.

Woolf Works is directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor and first took the stage in 2015. Its revival in 2017 is part of the Royal Ballet’s celebration of McGregor’s ten years as the Royal’s resident choreographer and the work will be part of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire on its tour to Australia in June/July 2017.

Michelle Potter, 13 February 2017

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in I now, I then from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Francesca Hayward in 'I am, I was' from Woolf Works. The Royal Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Tristam Kenton

Lynn Seymour. The Royal Ballet tour of Australasia, 1958–1959

Following on from my earlier post, and the comments it attracted, about Lynn Seymour in Swan Lake in Melbourne in 1958, I am posting a copy of the signed photograph of Seymour taken by Walter Stringer. This is the photograph I mentioned in reply to a comment on that earlier post.

This photograph was clearly taken from a downstage wing, OP side, and is perhaps not the best angle from which to highlight Seymour. In addition, the resolution is not as clear as I would have liked, largely because of the difficulty I had converting the image from the share link I was sent. The signature is, however, clearly visible, if still a little faint, and is obviously Seymour’s writing if compared with the autograph I obtained from her in Sydney in 1958. The page from my autograph book is also posted below.

Lynn Seymour as Odette in 'Swan Lake'. The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer

Lynn Seymour as Odette in Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photo:Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia.

Lynn Seymour. Autograph and program image. The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958

Michelle Potter, 10 February 2017

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

Walter Stringer’s dance photography

In February 2000 I wrote an article for National Library of Australia News on the dance photography of Walter Stringer, who before he died donated his very extensive collection of images to the National Library of Australia in Canberra. In the light of the recent discussion about the dancer portrayed in photos of Swan Lake in my recent post about the 1958 Royal Ballet tour to Australia and New Zealand, I thought it might be worth making the Stringer article more readily available, and adding a little about some of the Royal Ballet images included in the Stringer collection.

Follow this link to the National Library of Australia News article. Please note there is an error in the caption for the Swan Lake image used in the article. It is not, of course, Anne Woolliams and corps de ballet in the image but corps de ballet in the Anne Woolliams production! This was an editorial mishap.

Unfortunately the Royal Ballet material is not fully digitised so most of it can only be viewed on site at the National Library. This non-digitised component includes an album of 43 photos relating to the 1958 tour. The album came with a list created by the photographer. What follows is a slightly expanded version of the list, although no changes have been made to Stringer’s identification of dancers or ballets.

Accession No. Captions
994/1 Les Patineurs, 1958, Susan Alexander and unidentified
994/2 Swan Lake, Act I, 1958, Elizabeth ?, Michael Boulton, Audrey Farris
994/3 Swan Lake, Act II, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odette)
994/4 Swan Lake, Act II, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odette)
994/5 Swan Lake, Act II, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odette), David Blair (Siegfried)
994/6 Swan Lake, Act II, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odette), David Blair (Siegfried)
994/7 Swan Lake, Act II, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odette), David Blair (Siegfried)
994/8 Swan Lake, Act III, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odile)
994/9 Swan Lake, Act III, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odile), David Blair (Siegfried)
994/10 Swan Lake, Act III, 1958, Lynn Seymour (Odile), David Blair (Siegfried)
994/11 Les Sylphides, 1958, Valerie Taylor
994/12 Les Sylphides, 1958, Anne Heaton
994/13 Les Sylphides, 1958, Valerie Taylor
994/14 Les Sylphides, 1958, Anne Heaton
994/15 Les Sylphides, 1958, Anne Heaton
994/16 Coppélia, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Dr Coppélius), Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/17 Coppélia, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Dr Coppélius), Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/18 Coppélia, 1958, Valerie Taylor (Prayer)
994/19 Coppélia, 1958, Rowena Jackson (Swanilda), Philip Chatfield (?) (Franz)
994/20 Coppélia, 1958, Dance of the Hours
994/21 Coppélia, 1958 Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/22 Coppélia, 1958 Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/23 Hamlet, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Hamlet)
994/24 Hamlet, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Hamlet)
994/25 Hamlet, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Hamlet)
994/26 Hamlet, 1958
994/27 Hamlet, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Hamlet)
994/28 Pineapple Poll, 1958, Patricia Cox (Poll)
994/29 Pineapple Poll, 1958
994/30 Pineapple Poll, 1958, Patricia Cox (Poll)
994/31 Coppélia, 1958, Alan Alder
994/32 Coppélia, 1958
994/33 Coppélia, 1958, Philip Chatfield (Franz)
994/34 Coppélia, 1958, Susan Alexander (Swanilda)
994/35 Coppélia, 1958, Susan Alexander (Swanilda)
994/36 Coppélia, 1958, Susan Alexander (Swanilda)
994/37 Coppélia, 1958, Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/38 Coppélia, 1958, Rowena Jackson (Swanilda), Philip Chatfield (Franz)
994/39 Coppélia, 1958, Robert Helpmann (Dr Coppélius), Rowena Jackson (Swanilda)
994/40 Coppélia, 1958, Rowena Jackson (Swanilda), Philip Chatfield (Franz)
994/41 Coppélia, 1958, Rowena Jackson (Swanilda), Philip Chatfield (Franz)
994/42 Unknown, Rowena Jackson, 1958
994/43 The Rake’s Progress, 1958, Anne Heaton


Michelle Potter, 15 January 2017

Featured image: Margot Fonteyn with Kelvin Coe and John Meehan in The Merry Widow. The Australian Ballet, 1977. As featured in my article ‘Walter Stringer’s dance photography’. National Library of Australia

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

The Royal Ballet. Tour of Australia and New Zealand 1958–1959

With the Royal Ballet preparing for a tour to Brisbane later in 2017, I have been delving into various research materials available in Canberra and Sydney to put together some thoughts about the first tour by the Royal Ballet to Australia and New Zealand, which began in 1958.

The Royal Ballet made its first tour to Australasia in 1958−1959 performing in Australia in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane and in New Zealand in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. The promoters were J. C. Williamson Theatres Ltd, who claimed in their introductory notes to programs for the tour that the visit represented ‘the crowning achievement in The Firm’s distinguished contribution to the presentation of Dance in this country.’ Records of the Williamson organisation indicate that there was some initial discussion about the dates and cities to be visited (and in what order), but the eventual schedule was:

11 September−8 November 1958:
10 November 1958−3 January 1959:
7 January−31 January 1959:
3 February−25 February 1959:
4 March−7 March 1959:
9 March−21 March 1959:
23 March−4 April 1959:
6 April−18 April 1959:
Sydney, Empire Theatre
Melbourne, Her Majesty’s Theatre
Adelaide, Theatre Royal
Brisbane, Her Majesty’s Theatre
Dunedin, His Majesty’s
Christchurch, Theatre Royal
Wellington, Grand Opera House
Auckland, His Majesty’s Theatre

 
The company was essentially the touring arm of the Royal Ballet, augmented at various stages by dancers from the main company, including Rowena Jackson, Svetlana Beriosova and Anya Linden; Philip Chatfield, Bryan Ashbridge and David Blair; and Robert Helpmann, who danced some featured roles, including in The Rake’s Progress, Hamlet, Façade and Coppélia. Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes joined the company in New Zealand.

Bryan Ashbridge, Royal Ballet postcard, 1958
Svetlana Beriosova, Royal Ballet postcard, 1958

Royal Ballet postcards, 1958–1959 Australasian tour: Bryan Ashbridge & Svetlana Beriosova

The company was led initially by Ninette de Valois. She arrived in Sydney on 22 August, ahead of the main contingent of dancers, who arrived on 1 September after what Lynn Seymour describes in her autobiography, Lynn, as a trip that took ‘three flying days, with desperate relief stops in Frankfurt, Rome, Cairo, Karachi, Calcutta, Bangkok and Singapore.’1 De Valois was accommodated in style at the Hotel Australia in Sydney—’should be booked into a nice room at the Australia with bath’ ordered the Williamson organisation.

In addition to de Valois, other administrative and artistic personnel included John Field, listed on the Australian programs as assistant director; and musical director John Lanchbery, who arrived on 30 August on board the P & O liner Stratheden, and who conducted local orchestras in each city. Ballet staff included Henry Legerton as ballet master, and Lorna Mossford as ballet mistress.

While much could be written about the tour, which, with some important exceptions, is most often given just one or two lines in books written and published in Britain, three aspects of the tour stood out as I was looking into the material available here: Lynn Seymour’s debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake; the writing of the Sydney-based critic and poet, Roland Robinson; and some black and white film footage shot in Melbourne in 1958.

Lynn Seymour in Swan Lake

Although Seymour says in her autobiography (and the story is repeated in Meredith Daneman’s biography of Margot Fonteyn), that her debut performance as Odette/Odile coincided with her 19th birthday, this can’t be so. Seymour gave her first performance in the full-length Swan Lake in Melbourne on 12 November 1958, but her birth-date is 9 March 1939. The debut was at a Wednesday matinee performance and Seymour was partnered by David Blair for this and for her second performance on 15 November, after which Seymour danced with Donald MacLeary.

De Valois, whose idea it was to have Seymour dance the full-length Swan Lake in Australia, left for home before the debut performance, leaving John Field in charge. Seymour’s biographer, Richard Austin, notes that Field took most of the rehearsals and that Seymour had some coaching from Rowena Jackson. As recorded in her autobiography, Seymour was also given encouragement at times by Helpmann and then in New Zealand by Fonteyn. In Lynn, Seymour also discusses some of the difficulties she faced in the first few performances, including managing the 32 fouettés in Act III, and Austin elaborates on the story. But by the time the company reached New Zealand reviews of Seymour and MacLeary were definitely positive. The reviewer for The Press (Christchurch), for example, was moved to write: ‘Lynn Seymour’s technique is remarkable for its gracefulness; and her poise enabled her to secure some wonderfully statuesque effects. In Donald MacLeary she had a wonderfully accomplished partner, whose every movement revealed his sense of style.’

The images below were taken in Melbourne in 1958. That Seymour is partnered by Blair in this collection of photos indicates that they must have been taken during Seymour’s first or second performance. They must surely be the earliest photos of Seymour in the full-length Swan Lake?

lynn-seymour-and-david-blair-swan-lake-act-ii-1
Lynn Seymour as Odile. The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photo: Walter Stringer

 (left) Lynn Seymour and David Blair in Swan Lake Act II (detail);
(right) Lynn Seymour in Swan Lake Act III (detail).
The Royal Ballet, Melbourne 1958. Photos: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia (PIC Albums: 994)

Roland Robinson’s dance reviews

Roland Robinson (1912–1992) wrote dance reviews for The Sydney Morning Herald for ten years during the 1940s and 1950s, always signing his reviews with just his initials, R.R. He was a poet of distinction and also wrote extensively about Aboriginal myths and legends. In the 1940s he took ballet classes in Sydney with Hélène Kirsova, whom he called his ‘teacher and heroine’, and appeared in a number of productions by the Kirsova Ballet over a three year period. His reviews thus combine a deep knowledge and strong understanding of dance (and not just its technical features but its essential qualities as an art form) with an elegant use of language. His language embodied ‘the lyrical traditions of his native Ireland’ (he was born in County Clare), as one author wrote in an obituary for Robinson.

  • He was not impressed by Les Sylphides, and he would have known this ballet well from the Kirsova Ballet: ‘The presentation of “Les Sylphides” by the Royal Ballet … contained all the components of this ballet save the basic understanding and expression of this marriage of music, dancing, painting an poetry.’
  • He greatly admired Svetlana Beriosova and said of her first performance in Sydney in Swan Lake: ‘Never have I seen anything so beautiful as Svetlana Beriosova, as Odette-Odile, in Le Lac des Cygnes by the Royal Ballet at the Empire Theatre on Saturday night … Australia is honoured by such a ballerina. For the first time we saw the tragic beauty of the full story … Such was the unrivalled classical quality of this ballerina’s performance that one must, in all due homage, say of Beriosova “Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart”.’
  • He was at two minds about Helpmann in The Rake’s Progress: ‘Robert Helpmann is a master of mime and detailed gesture from the broad theatrical flourish to a stage dominating minute flick of the finger. He is not physically up to form in “The Rake,” but his inborn insight into the mental processes of character, and his faultless make-up compel one to sit up and take notice.’
  • He maintains that, at a reception, he had a discussion with de Valois about technique and expression and, in reviewing the opening performance of Swan Lake in Sydney, he expressed what must have been the essence of that discussion: ‘It is an indication of the native character of the English Royal Ballet that it should begin its first season in Australia with the prescribed, traditional form of the classical ballet “Swan Lake”. Each nation has its own particular character and temperament. If the characters of the Russian and French ballets are of nobility, elegance, and command, coupled with a daring virility and imagination, the American one of athletic daring and revolutionary character, then the character of the English ballet impresses as cold, conservative and unimaginative. The nature of this character was painfully evident throughout the Royal Ballet’s presentation of “Swan Lake” at the Empire Theatre last night. It must be stressed, however, that the dancers of this company have attained a mastery of technique which may not always be found in either the Russian or American schools. Artistically, of course, technique is only justified as a means to the expression of the imagination. The main criticism of the Royal Ballet is that it is disappointingly lacking in this essential imaginative creativeness.’

Robinson wrote what he thought, and there is much more to read from him in back copies of The Sydney Morning Herald. His writing on dance is as fascinating today as it must have been irritating to many in 1958.

Film footage of the Royal Ballet tour

Lasting around 25 minutes, a somewhat grainy, black and white film recording the visit by the Royal Ballet to Melbourne was shot in December 1958. It opens with a segment showing Anya Linden and David Blair sauntering through the gardens in Spring Street, not far from Her Majesty’s Theatre where the company was performing. There they weigh themselves (amid some mirth) on a large, coin-operated public weighing machine. They are then approached by a white-haired gentleman who shows them a book (Arnold Haskell’s In his true centre), which they examine. Then follow extracts from the company repertoire as performed in Melbourne, including excerpts from Swan Lake, Giselle, Veneziana, Pineapple Poll, Don Quixote (pas de deux), A Blue Rose, Façade, Les Patineurs and Coppélia. These dancing segments include a tantalising glimpse of Helpmann tottering across the stage in heeled shoes as Dr Coppélius, a wonderful hornpipe from Blair as Captain Belaye in Pineapple Poll, and an all too brief look at Seymour as Aurora in Coppélia, performing with beautiful fluidity in the arms, neck and upper body.

It is unclear who shot the film, but I wonder if it is perhaps Dr Joseph Ringland Anderson, Melbourne ophthalmologist whose films of the Ballets Russes visits to Australia, 1936−1940, are such a valuable addition to our knowledge of those companies? The Royal Ballet film has a number of backstage scenes, especially moments captured just before curtain up, which are similar to moments that appear frequently on the Ringland Anderson Ballets Russes films. And, as also occurred with the Ballet Russes films, much of the action is filmed from the wings. I wonder too if the white-haired gentleman in the Spring Street gardens with the copy of In his true centre is perhaps Dr Ringland Anderson, who would have been 64 at the time? Time may tell.

Michelle Potter, 4 January 2017

Featured image: Ninette de Valois, autograph and program image, Sydney 1958

de-valois-autograph-6

NOTE

  1. There is a discrepancy with the arrival date in some published sources. I have used the one given in the J.C. Williamson material held in the National Library (MS 5783), which states that 58 company members departed London on ’29 August from London Airport North on flight EM 552 arriving on 1 September by air.’ The date is supported in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald for 2 September 1958: ‘Fifty-eight members of the Royal Ballet arrived in Sydney by Qantas from London last night [1 September] to begin an eight month’s tour of Australia and New Zealand.’

The Royal Ballet will play Brisbane (as the only Australian venue) from 28 June to 9 July 2017 as part of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series. The repertoire consists of Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works and Christopher Wheeldon’s A Winter’s Tale. Details at qpac.

Update: the signed photograph of Seymour referred to in the discussion below has been posted at this link.

Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

‘Chroma’, ‘Multiverse’, ‘Carbon Life’. The Royal Ballet

14 November 2016, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

This triple bill of works by Wayne McGregor, including Multiverse his newest commission, was presented in celebration of McGregor’s ten years as resident choreographer with the Royal Ballet. While all three works clearly had the ‘McGregor touch’ in terms of a choreographic interest in the extent to which the body can be pushed to extreme limits, each was also quite distinctive in its own right.

Chroma, the oldest of the three, was first made in 2006. It was the work that inspired Monica Mason, director of the Royal Ballet at the time, to offer McGregor the position of resident choreographer. Ten years on Chroma retains its minimalist beauty in its design with a set by John Pawson, costumes by Moritz Junge, lighting by Lucy Carter, and a score by Joby Talbot and Jack White III. It is still thrilling to watch choreographically with its extended limbs and emphasis on a fluid torso. But what made a difference in the current production was the presence in the cast of five dancers guesting from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater: Jeroboam Bozeman, Jacqueline Green, Yannick Lebrun, Rachael McLaren and Jamal Roberts.

It is tempting to say that these dancers brought a different aesthetic to the choreography, and perhaps they did. Certainly I sensed that they injected a more powerful human quality, something emotional into the steps. It is hard to articulate just why the way they danced was different but it seemed like they had a different kind of focus in their movement. A greater sense of physicality and a different muscularity maybe? Whatever it was, it added a different level of interest, which is not to denigrate in any way the five fabulous Royal Ballet dancers who completed the cast: Federico Bonelli, Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, Steven McRae, and Calvin Richardson. The 2016 production indicates that Chroma lives on and has the power to grow. (Thoughts on my first viewing of the Royal Ballet in Chroma in 2010 are at this link.)

Sarah Lamb in 'Chroma'. The Royal Ballet 2013. Photo: © Bill Cooper.

Sarah Lamb in Chroma. The Royal Ballet (2013). Photo: © Bill Cooper.

The closing item was Carbon Life, made in 2012. Again it had lighting by Lucy Carter, sometimes as in the opening moments eerily green, other times full on bright white. Design was by English fashion designer Gareth Pugh and music by pop/funk artists Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt.

Artists of the Royal Ballet production of 'Carbon Life', 2012. Photo: © Bill Cooper / Royal Opera House / ArenaPAL

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Carbon Life. Photo: © Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL

I especially enjoyed some of the earlier sections where unisex seemed to be the order of the day. Men and women wore similar costumes: short black trunks and, for the women, a skin-coloured midriff top that tightly enclosed the upper body and made them appear topless. Added to this costume both sexes had slicked-back hair (wigs?) that added to the similarity in the look of the sexes. Choreographically this section seemed at times like a ballet class engaged in a kind of temps lié exercise.

A later section was distinguished by some incredible costuming consisting of black, stiffened additions to the head, legs and other parts of the body. They were a little like a cross between KKK headgear and Cambodian dance costume attachments, or perhaps a bit like Ballet mécanique. Certainly the shapes were architectural and the body began to sprout structural additions. The singular attraction of Carbon Life, however, was the presence of live musicians onstage/upstage usually partially hidden by lighting or a screen of some sort. Their playing was loud and engaging and, when they appeared to take a curtain call, they too were dressed to kill. But in the end the choreography seemed like a minor player in all this and Carbon Life took on the guise of a fast-paced video clip rather than an exercise in choreography.

In between Chroma and Carbon Life came the newly commissioned Multiverse, which, incidentally, the Australian Ballet adds to its repertoire in February 2017. I thought it was the least interesting of the three works, although program notes were full of explanations and thoughts about McGregor’s intentions, which centred on the current refugee crisis and other such global perils. Musically (or sound-wise) it was diverse and consisted of two pieces by Steve Reich—a specially commissioned work Runner, and a 1965 piece It’s gonna rain, of which the second part is the voice of a Pentecostal preacher holding forth in Union Square in San Francisco on the biblical story of Noah and the flood. Perhaps because I found William Forsythe’s work, Quintett, so moving—it used Gavin Bryars recording of a homeless man singing over and over Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, which sat emotively beside the choreography—I found the use of the preacher’s words unaffecting. Unlike the Forsythe piece, in Multiverse choreography and recording didn’t seem to reflect each other in a thought-provoking manner. After all this, the second Reich piece, Runner, was simply soporific for me.

Nevertheless, Multiverse began strongly with a male duet—I saw Luca Acri and Marcelino Sambé—full of tension and drama. It was by far the most interesting part of the work choreographically. The section that followed referenced the plight of refugees. This idea came across most strongly via the set by Rashid Rana in which fragmented images appeared. Some were contemporary shots, others were from the well-known painting by Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa. But there were rather too many moments when the dancers simply stood still and, while this might be seen as giving way to the power of the images and what they represented, it was hardly compelling from a movement point of view.

Set from 'Multiverse'.© Rashid Rana. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Set from Multiverse. © Rashid Rana. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Perhaps Multiverse needs more than one viewing in order to appreciate its complexities? But then not everyone has such a luxury. The idea of making dance that reflects current society is indeed admirable (and I am a fan of McGregor’s Live fire exercise). But on this occasion it simply didn’t work for me and I began to wonder whether I should not have read the detailed program notes because what was written and what appeared onstage didn’t really match.

Audience reaction was a curious thing too. As the curtain went down, behind me an enthusiastic audience member was cheering long and loudly. Beside me another was boo-ing!

Michelle Potter, 19 November 2016

Featured image: Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

Wayne McGregor. Photo: © Nick Mead

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia', Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

‘Anastasia’. The Royal Ballet

12 November 2016 (matinee), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Having recently reread Different Drummer, Jann Parry’s biography of Kenneth MacMillan, I was full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing MacMillan’s Anastasia, a work that traces the story of Anna Anderson, who believed (wrongly it eventually turned out) that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia who had survived the murderous attack on her parents and siblings, the Imperial Russian family, by Russian revolutionaries in 1918. Parry’s account of the various problems that surrounded the creation and casting of MacMillan’s ballet, which began as a one act work for Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin in 1967, was absorbing reading.

I guess more than anything else, I came away from the performance with renewed admiration for MacMillan’s classical choreography, clearly on view in the first two acts, which were added when MacMillan transformed his one act work into a full-length one in 1971. I loved the way he handled groups, as in the ball scene in Act II where a large corps of swirling dancers wove their way across and around the stage in ever fascinating curving, threading, and criss-crossing patterns. I was also impressed with his use of a kind of canon-style of movement throughout, but especially in Act I where his approach to the choreography for Anastasia’s three sisters stood out.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia' Act I. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia Act I. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

And I admired his pas de deux in Act II which, although it seemed somewhat as though it had been inserted in order to have a grand pas de deux in the ballet, was beautifully lyrical and smoothly integrated within itself—there was no stopping and restarting to separate pas de deux from variations from coda, for example. It also had some breathtaking moments, including that astonishing tilt of the full body by the ballerina as the pas de deux began.

I also admired Bob Crowley’s designs, which in terms of costumes ranged from opulence in the ball scene to stripped back simplicity in Act III, the scene in the hospital/asylum where Anna/Anastasia relives her life. His set designs were also worthy of admiration, with the inherent drama of Anna Anderson’s mental state being foreshadowed with the tilted shapes of the ship on which Act I takes place, and the chandeliers of the palace in Act II, captured forever in mid-swing.

As for the dancing, I saw Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna/Anastasia partnered by Thomas Whitehead as the officer to whom she was attracted in Act II and as her husband in Act III. Cuthbertson was charmingly youthful in Act I and handled Act II nicely as she welcomed and interacted with guests at her coming of age ball.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anastasia and Reece Clarke as Officer in 'Anastasia', Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anastasia and Reece Clarke as Officer in Anastasia, Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But she and Whitehead didn’t really suit each other as partners, largely because their physical attributes are quite different: Cuthbertson is taller and finer in build and more classically proportioned than Whitehead. As a result, the emotional connection that was needed between them was not as powerful as I would have hoped.

Sarah Lamb dancing with Federico Bonelli, as Mathilde Kschessinska and her partner (not given a name in the story’s cast of characters), sailed through the difficult choreography of the pas de deux in Act II making it all look easy. Great to watch. Another Act II highlight was the quartet between Kschessinska and her partner and Tsar Nicholas II, played by Gary Avis, and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, danced by Itziar Mendizabal, in which personal relationships within the royal court were brought into question. Anastasia hovered in the background, wondering.

Sarah Lamb as Mathilde Kschessinska and Steven McRae as her partner in 'Anastasia' Act II. -© ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Sarah Lamb as Mathilde Kschessinska and Steven McRae as her partner in Anastasia Act II. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

As Rasputin, Eric Underwood was moodily present throughout, taking part in the dancing at times, hovering darkly at others. Rory Thomas as the Tsarevitch Alexey, the sickly child and brother to Anastasia and her sisters, handled his role with aplomb.

The production itself, however, which was realised by Deborah MacMillan and staged by Gary Harris, wasn’t entirely satisfying. The third act looks back to the first two acts as Anna relives scenes, largely horror scenes from her life as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and as we see characters from this earlier life move across the stage in front of her eyes.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna Anderson and artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia' Act III. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna Anderson and artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia Act III. © ROH 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But, as there is a such a clear and strong disconnect stylistically between the first two acts and the third when MacMillan draws so strongly on a contemporary, expressionist mode of dancing, albeit with Anna in pointe shoes, it is hard to reconcile the notion that the last act is part of the same ballet as the first two acts. Design-wise the third act is superb with its stark grey walls and its single iron bed, and choreographically it is mostly quite gripping. But as I left the theatre, having felt the power of the work at many points, I nevertheless wondered whether it would not have been better to have left Anastasia as a one-act production.

Michelle Potter, 14 November 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Royal Ballet in Anastasia, Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Artists of the Royal Ballet in 'Anastasia', Act I. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Another note for my Australian readers: As the image of the pas de deux in this post indicates, Sarah Lamb usually dances as Kschessinska with Steven McRae as her partner. McRae was replaced at the last moment by Bonelli.

Scene from QL2's 'EAT', 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dance diary. October 2016

  • EAT

Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2 Dance, runs an annual project for younger dancers in Canberra and beyond. This year, with a program called EAT, the theme was food, including marketing issues associated with what we eat.

For various reasons, I looked with different eyes this year and was impressed with how the choreographers, all professionals working with contemporary dance, handled the situation. With technical capacity varying so much between the dancers (they ranged in age from 8 to 18), it was illuminating to see the theatrical concepts that were being taught to these young people—how to make entrances and exits, how to occupy the performing space, how to be in line and so on. In fact, young people in Canberra are lucky to have the opportunities that QL2 offers. May it continue.

  • The Royal Ballet’s Australian tour, 2017

The Royal Ballet will tour to Australia (Brisbane only as part of QPAC’s International Series) in June and July 2017 with a contemporary repertoire of Woolf Works from Wayne McGregor and The Winter’s Tale from Christopher Wheeldon. Further details are on QPAC’s website.

The Royal last visited Australia in June 2002 when Ross Stretton was the company’s artistic director. They brought Swan Lake, Giselle, and a mixed bill comprising Tryst, Marguerite and Armand and The Leaves are Fading. For that tour I wrote a piece for DanceTabs (sadly a link is no longer available) subtitled ‘Some personal reflections on the recent Royal Ballet tour to Sydney…’.  Here is what I wrote as a conclusion:

The highlights

To die for: Alina Cojocaru’s double attitude turns in Giselle. So turned out, so light, so controlled. Divine.

Partnership of the season: Alina Cojacaru and Johan Kobborg in Giselle and Leaves. This partnership looks good physically and Cojocaru draws out a tenderness in Kobborg that adds an emotional dimension to the technical strength of the partnership.

Favourite moment: Belinda Hatley giving an audible whoop of excitement before launching into a joyous, absolutely irresistible Neapolitan dance in Swan Lake.

Australian moment: Leanne Benjamin’s deliciously playful but very mature interpretation of the central pas de deux in Leaves.

Non-dancing moment: The backcloth/lighting in Tryst, which had the dramatic and expressive qualities of a Mark Rothko painting.

Most annoying comment: ‘Darcey Bussell fell over in the fouettes in Swan Lake on opening night.’  (What happened was that she turned 27 or 28, went for a big finish, did a triple pirouette, had too much momentum but couldn’t go for four, finished slightly off balance and ended the sequence with a bit of a hop as she put her back foot down). But what attack! She was ferocious.

Favourite comment: ‘I had the two best cries I’ve had for years.’ (On the Cojacaru/Kobborg Giselle).

Disappointment: Neither Jonathan Cope nor Massimo Murru as Armand could match Sylvie Guillem’s Marguerite.

Dancer to watch: Corps de ballet dance Lauren Cuthbertson who made her presence felt in a soloist role in Tryst.

What an astonishing season that was! But recent viewings of the Royal in London suggest we can expect something spectacular this time too. In the meantime, I found the two images below from Les Patineurs. They are from a much earlier visit from a touring arm of the company, when the company was, in fact, in a state of flux (which I won’t go into now)!

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stringer-les-patinweurs-1958-2

Royal Ballet tour, Melbourne 1958, Les patineurs. Photos: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2016

Featured image: Scene from EAT, QL2 Dance. Photo: © Lorna Sim

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‘Giselle’. The Royal Ballet

28 March 2016, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

I have been a fan of Peter Wright’s production of Giselle, which dates back to 1985, ever since I saw it in Australia in 2002 during the Royal Ballet’s tour that year. I like that Wright’s research into the historical background of the ballet has informed the work, especially in relation to character development. The current season by the Royal Ballet confirms my conviction that Wright’s production is an exceptional one.

Sarah Lamb as Giselle and Ryoichi Hirano as Albrecht perhaps don’t reach the emotional heights of others I have seen in these roles, but technically they danced beautifully: their Act II pas de deux in particular was quite breathtaking. Hirano’s partnering skills were remarkable and he made those beautiful high lifts looked effortless—Giselle became the weightless sylph she is meant to be. And the pair’s final parting in Act II, as Giselle disappeared into her grave, was as moving as one could hope for.

In addition, and thankfully, there was no emphasis on the execution of steps for the sake of steps in the course of Albrecht having to dance on and on. The choreography was used to convey the dramatic line, although of course the steps were beautifully performed. In fact I found it mightily impressive that the whole of Albrecht’s ‘dance until you drop’ section flowed on so smoothly and logically from the earlier sequence when Hilarion was sentenced to die, something that I can’t remember ever seeing so clearly before.

Being used to seeing a peasant pas de deux in other productions, the pas de six in Act I was something of a curiosity for me, which I can’t remember from 2002. But it was nicely danced and I especially admired a gentleman with dark curly hair who seemed to be someone other than those mentioned on the cast sheet. Whoever he was, he performed with wonderful attack.

The Royal Ballet’s corps danced strongly throughout. As peasants in Act I they were boisterously beautiful, as Wilis in Act II they were both mysteriously supernatural in their movements and heartlessly cold in their damnation of Hilarion and Albrecht.

John Macfarlane’s design does not pretend to be prettily peasant. The cottages in Act I are rough, the forest in Act II is wild, and it makes for just the right visual effect. And to my surprise and pleasure (I had forgotten it from previous viewings), the village folk in Act I didn’t all wear exactly the same costume.

The one thing that bothered me was that the long Act I mime scene from Berthe (Elizabeth McGorian) focused on explaining the legend of the Wilis without, to my mind, relating it enough to Giselle in particular. Berthe seemed to be talking to everyone except Giselle. On the other hand, it was interesting to see how class distinctions between the village folk and the Duke and his entourage were developed. I have never seen such a Bathilde as that of Sian Murphy who seemed positively dismissive of the peasants. And, as ever, the printed program was full of extra information including an excellent interview with Peter Wright and an explanation of the mime scene mentioned above.

All in all a very satisfying production with so much of interest that I could see it again and again.

Michelle Potter, 29 March 2016

Also as ever, this review is not accompanied by images as no one at the Royal Ballet seems inclined even to acknowledge my requests over the years for images, let alone agree to supply any.

Christopher Wheeldon triple bill. The Royal Ballet

10 March 2016, Main Stage, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

In this triple bill of works by Christopher Wheeldon from the Royal Ballet, it was especially pleasing to see the full version of After the rain. Its visually arresting choreography for three couples in the first part, performed to Tabula rasa by Arvo Pärt, shows Wheeldon as his sculptural best as arms and legs swing from pose to pose and dancers move in unison and counterpoint. Dressed in grey practice clothes the six dancers perform in front of a geometric lighting design (59 Productions) consisting of of two squares of light. A central one, blue-ish white in colour, sits inside a larger one of grey-ish blue. Simple but effective, these two squares echo the colours of the costumes and also the formally structured choreography.

The pas de deux that follows, often danced without the opening movement, was a disappointment for me. Perhaps I needed to be sitting closer as I missed the quiet emotion that I have seen in performances by other companies? But then a seat in the theatre shouldn’t affect such things if the work is well performed. Perhaps too the physiques of Zenaida Yanowsky and Reece Clarke, who danced the pas de deux, were not far enough apart from each other to highlight what I think are the qualities of this section, danced again to Pärt, this time to the gently reflective Spiegel im Spiegel? The work was made originally for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto of New York City Ballet and together, with their very different body shapes, they suggested an entrancing strength and frailty that was not apparent, and that I missed, with Yanowsky and Clarke. In fact I’m not sure what their performance suggested beyond a dance for two.

Wheeldon’s newest work, Strapless, a one act narrative ballet centring on the scandal surrounding the showing of John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mme Gautreau in Paris at the Salon of 1884, was a mixed blessing. When the curtain went up on an empty picture frame attached to a grey-coloured screen I was consumed by curiosity. How would this work unfold? And the opening moments, as Mme Gautreau took her time choosing her wardrobe for the unveiling of Sargent’s portrait while her husband fussed at her slowness, was very nicely choreographed with movement that defined the two characters. Strapless returned in its closing scene to that opening picture frame, which this time was not empty but contained the finished portrait, although now Mme Gautreau was broken in spirit by the scandal that emerged when the portrait showed that one strap of her black gown had slipped off her shoulder. Without the trappings of her former life, and dressed only in a skin-coloured, body-hugging costume, we watched as she sought to make sense of her situation.

In between the opening and closing scenes, the work felt like a cross between a Broadway musical, with a ‘chorus’ of dancers representing Parisian society performing choreography that seemed like it had come from a Busby Berkeley show; and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend when that same chorus started to look like tight-lipped parishioners. The score from Mark-Anthony Turnage didn’t help either as it hardly sounded like the era of La belle époque.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Mme Gautreau was not having one of her best nights, unfortunately, and was a little unsteady on occasions. And with so many changes of scene in a one act ballet—the work began in 1884, slipped back to 1881, came forward to 1883 and ended where it began in 1884—there was a need for moveable scenery (screens, door frames and the like), Unfortunately again, the scenery was trundled on and off very noisily and so many people (characters and scene changers) constantly slipping on and off stage was decidedly disruptive to the smooth unfolding of the storyline. I also found it hard to follow who was who among the male principals. The printed program, like all Royal Ballet programs I have encountered, was excellent, full of explanatory notes and articles, but any work for the stage needs to be easily understood, I believe, without having to resort to reading a convoluted story in a program.

Circumstances were such that I was unable to stay for the final Wheeldon work, Within the golden hour. But perhaps it was just as well. I am able to retain, as a result, an image of a work I enjoyed immensely on a previous occasion in San Francisco.

Michelle Potter, 12 March 2016

John Singer Sargent, Study of Mme Gautreau c. 1884 detail

John Singer Sargent, Study of Mme Gautreau c. 1884 (detail)

The image above is a detail of an unfinished version of the Sargent portrait, which I saw in the Tate Britain and which has no strap at all on Mme Gautreau’s right shoulder. In the version that was shown in the Salon of 1884, and which caused the scandal, the right shoulder strap was painted as having fallen off the shoulder. The final version, in which Sargent repainted the fallen strap into its regular position, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Ashton mixed bill. The Royal Ballet

18 October 2014 (evening), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The prospect of four works by Frederick Ashton on the one program is something that fills those not brought up in an Ashton environment with anticipation. Of the four works on the Royal Ballet’s recent program, Scènes de Ballet, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Symphonic Variations and A Month in the Country, I had never seen Five Brahms Waltzes and had seen the others on only one previous occasion each.

Symphonic Variations, led by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov supported by Yasmine Naghdi and James Hay and Yuhui Choe and Tristan Dyer, perhaps moved me most. What clarity and fluidity those six dancers brought to the work. It was a breathtaking performance where everyone was a star, although perhaps it was Muntagirov, with his elegant bearing and his exceptional technical accomplishments, who attracted my attention most. But the ballet as a whole was beautifully danced to an elegant rendition by pianist Paul Stobart of Cesar Franck’s Symphonic Variations. And I had forgotten how fresh and entrancing Sophie Fedorovitch’s decor is—a spring green, box-like space with fine black lines weaving a flowing pattern across the backdrop and flats. It was a sensational twenty minutes of unstoppable beauty of movement. No in depth analysis can ever do it justice.

Five Brahms Waltzes was danced by Helen Crawford, replacing an injured Lauren Cuthbertson. The sense of gravity and weight in her dancing in the first and second waltzes contrasted nicely with her performance of the third waltz in which she manipulated a soaring rectangle of silk. Equally impressive was the contrast between a somewhat fierce fourth waltz and the gentle fifth with its rose petals falling liberally from her arms. I loved too the contrast between those light skips à la Isadora and the lower, almost crouching poses with fists clenched that appeared every so often. It was a finely thought through performance.

Scènes de ballet, which opened the program, was distinguished by the presence of Sarah Lamb as the ballerina. The quality of her dancing was especially noticeable in her main solo with its loosely swinging wrists and arms and lyrical movement of the whole body. But this ballet really needs to have every performer dancing with exactness. I missed straight lines, equal spacing and sameness in height of legs. The geometry of the work falls apart without such precision. And it was a disappointment to see Steven McRae, who partnered Lamb, begin with such promise—those sharp turns of the head and the pride with which he held his upper body were mesmerising—only to falter often as the work progressed.

The program closed with A Month in the Country and I found myself swept along by a strong performance from Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and by Ashton’s ability to define characters through movement. The young, the old, different levels of society, everything was there in the choreography.

It was a real pleasure to see four quite different Ashton works brought together in one program but it was curious to see how those little runs on pointe kept appearing over and over. I was almost waiting for the next one by the time we reached A Month in the Country.

Michelle Potter, 22 October 2014