Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015

‘The Sleeping Beauty’. A second look

5 December 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

My second viewing of David McAllister’s Sleeping Beauty simply confirmed my opinion that this production is the most over-designed ballet I have ever seen since I saw my first professional ballet performance many years ago. Sold-out houses mean nothing artistically as far as I am concerned. At least this time, however, I knew what to expect and so made a concerted effort to block out the design and look at the dancing, as much as was possible.

This matinee performance belonged to Miwako Kubota and Daniel Gaudiello as Aurora and Prince Desiré respectively. As the sixteen year old Aurora, Kubota performed charmingly and was technically close to faultless. But it was in the wedding scene that she took my breath away. She was radiant. She brought so much light and shade to her dancing and, amazingly, the light and shade came mostly through her technical execution. She leant into movements, she used her head and shoulders beautifully, every movement had an expressive power. I especially loved that part in one of her variations in the pas de deux where her delicate wrist movements, enhanced by such a beautiful smile, such a fluid body, and such perfect feet, told the story of how she had grown from a child to a woman, reflecting back to her father’s similar mime sequence at her sixteenth birthday.

As her prince, Gaudiello once again showed what a wonderful dancer and partner he is. I love watching him take care of his ballerina and, as usual, his technical execution of the choreography was outstanding. I was especially taken by those moments in his variation in the coda of the grand pas de deux where his light and beautifully elevated cabrioles to the front (also beautifully beaten) were followed by a sweep of one leg, the foot passing through first position, into an attitude at the back. That foot caressed the floor making those small movements that join larger ones so clear.

The only other male dancer who has made me so aware of the beautiful tiny details that make up larger and more obvious movements is Ethan Stiefel, whom I was once lucky enough to see as Solor in Makarova’s Bayadère.

For the first time in a long time I felt that this grand pas de deux, with Kubota and Gaudiello performing as they did, was actually grand. Hurrah!

Sympathy to the gentleman in the Garland Dance in Act I who had a major wig malfunction, but bouquets to the other gentleman who, wig intact, managed to remove the fallen part from the floor. The dance went on, the gentleman left the stage and returned with wig fixed. But sadly that Garland Dance has, in this production, lost all its honourable simplicity and choreographic design as a result of those garlands that looked quite burdensome with far too many lolly-pink and ghastly-green flowers (matching the ladies’ dresses that are similarly coloured and burdened).

As I had previously, I enjoyed the newly-imagined role of Carabosse, which was carefully thought through by former Royal Ballet dancer Gillian Revie. Benedicte Bemet, fresh from the triumph of receiving the award of the 2015 Telstra Ballet Dance of the Year, was partnered by Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in the Bluebird pas de deux. Both danced nicely but did not have the attack of Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. They need a little more time to reach greater heights in roles such as the Bluebird pas de deux. I’m sure those greater heights are on their way.

Michelle Potter, 7 December 2015

Featured image: Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015

My earlier review of the Australian Ballet’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty is at this link.

‘The Sleeping Beauty’. Queensland Ballet

24 October 2015 (matinee), Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

After my Australian Ballet brush with Beauty I was longing to see another production and so took a flying visit to Brisbane to see what Greg Horsman had done with this classic of the ballet repertoire. Horsman’s Sleeping Beauty was originally made for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011 and is being performed for the first time in Australia by Queensland Ballet. I did not see the international stars who have been engaged as special guests for the season, which did not bother me as it was the production that particularly interested me.

The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet's 'Sleeping Beauty', 2015

The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty, 2015

Horsman has made some small changes to the story, some of which may well be as a result of working with a medium-sized company in both New Zealand and Queensland. Perhaps the most startling change is that Catalabutte, assistant to the King, and Catalabutte’s wife, Lady Florine, are cats. This at first is a shock. But they are so beautifully, and at times humorously, worked into the story—their dance together in the last act takes the place of Puss and Boots and the White Cat—that suspending disbelief is easy. Jack Lister as Catalabutte made a strong impression throughout, but especially as he pursued the Bluebird in the wedding scene.

There is also quite a lot of mime as explanation of the story. This is not an innovation, of course, but unless well done mime passages tend to get lost in translation as it were. The dancers of Queensland Ballet have, however, been well coached in this aspect of the ballet and they have an expansive quality to their gestures. Everything is perfectly clear. Nothing drags along.

The dancing itself had some ups and downs. The corps de ballet worked nicely together for the most part and Teri Crilly and Camilo Ramos stood out as the lead couple in what is usually the Garland Dance (although in this production there were no garlands). Ramos, who has a wonderful stage presence as well as a stellar technique, also danced strongly as one of the Prince’s friends in Act II. The fairies, too, danced nicely throughout, although my eyes kept turning to the Orange Fairy of Grace danced by Lisa Edwards. I loved the charm with which she performed and the delicious fluidity of her movement. She shone.

I found Yalenda Piñera, Queensland Ballet’s 2015 guest principal artist, very engaging as Aurora. Piñera handled the rose adagio and the final grand pas de deux with strength and attack, but what really stood out was her joyful presence throughout. She involved herself in everything, and with everyone. She smiled, made eye contact, and used her head and arms beautifully. It was a real pleasure watching her.

Hao Bin as the Prince did not, however, always live up to my expectations. I enjoyed his acting at the start of Act II where he kept himself apart from his friends in the forest as he pondered the lack of love in his life. But once he started dancing I found him a little wooden. I wished he would move his upper body with more fluidity and use his feet more strongly.

Gary Harris’ sets are gorgeous. His interiors recall Gothic architecture with its emphasis on soaring space; his exteriors are airy, beautiful places in which the story can unfold; and the final scene with its starry background provides an especially elegant setting for the wedding of Aurora and the Prince. His work was evocatively lit by Jon Buswell.

The jarring elements for me in Harris’ design input were the costumes for the two Bluebirds, although perhaps it was the very heavy eye make-up they wore that made the costumes seem over the top compard with the general elegance of the last scene. Teri Crilly was a lovely female bluebird. Whether listening, fluttering her hands, or simply executing a step, everything was performed cleanly and with great style. Her partner, Zhi Fang, seemed very nervous and so did not really show himself to advantage.

Nigel Gaynor conducted a vibrant Queensland Symphony Orchestra where tempi, volume and orchestral colour contributed to the unfolding of the story and to the development of the characters in the ballet. The orchestra added an extra emotional layer to the performance and it was such a pleasure to be hearing this kind of collaboration between music and dance. From 2016 Gaynor will take up the position of principal conductor and music director of Queensland Ballet.

I came away from this Queensland Ballet performance loving the passion that the dancers put into their performance, despite the odd stumble or other mishap. But most of all I came away thrilled that the collaborative elements of music and design were working to enhance the dance, rather than ignoring it or trying to outdo it.

Michelle Potter, 25 October 2015

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

‘The Sleeping Beauty’. The Australian Ballet

15 September 2015, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne

On a day when Australia got a new Prime Minister, dance-goers also got a new production of The Sleeping Beauty from David McAllister and the Australian Ballet, with McAllister being credited with ‘Production and additional choreography’. I don’t know how our new PM will fare but, as for Beauty, there was good and not so good.

The good things first. The narrative flows clearly and smoothly. Bringing in Lucas Jervies as dramaturg clearly paid dividends, especially as this Beauty is a little different from what many of us have become used to watching. Act II, for example, is somewhat changed from other productions, of which more later. And Carabosse is ‘the ancient fairy of Wisdom’ according to program notes, so she doesn’t display as much evil intent as we have seen in previous productions, although of course she is furious at being left off the invitation list to Aurora’s christening party.

Which brings me to the second good thing. Lynette Wills as Carabosse is outstanding, just as she was as the Godmother in Cinderella.

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Wills is powerful yet restrained. Nothing is overplayed and yet we sense her presence and her impact on the unfolding story. And all this despite having a very strangely dressed entourage of rats who wear giant puppet-like heads and sport collars and black bow ties.

After that there isn’t much else that I found exhilarating. Benedicte Bemet as the Fairy of Musicality gave a distinctive interpretation to this role and brought a gorgeously lively quality to her exceptional technical capacity. Kevin Jackson as Prince Desiré made every effort to appear human. His two solos in Act II were mostly well performed, and there were moments when, as he looked at the spirit of Aurora, which the Lilac Fairy has conjured up in this Act, he sent shivers down my spine, such was his look of longing.

As for the Bluebird and Princess Florine, Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo could scarcely be faulted technically. Guo’s beats and turns are astonishing, as I have said many times before. But how I missed the fluttering hands that are so often part of the choreography for Princess Florine. She is meant to be listening to the Bluebird who is teaching her how to fly, and the listening bit was all there. But in other versions, beautiful fluttering movements of the hands show her attempts to fly, to put into practice what she is hearing. This fluttering has been part of the Australian heritage of Beauty for decades. Let’s be proud of our heritage. Why leave it out now even if it is (maybe) an addition from the era of Soviet realism?

Which brings up the question of the other fairy tale characters who usually appear at the wedding of Aurora and her Prince. It was a lovely touch to include various fairy tale characters, properly disguised but recognisable, in Act II, which in McAllister’s production is a kind of picnic rather than a straight out hunting party, with the Prince joining in the excursion carrying his book of fairy tales. But what happened to the variations of Puss in Boots and the White Cat and Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Act III? If these characters appear, somewhat in disguise, in Act II why do they have such a tiny role in Act III (and yet turn up in the final mazurka as if they had danced major parts)? It doesn’t make sense to me to leave out their pas de deux and variations. Where was the dramaturg at this point? Apart from anything else they are also part of our Sleeping Beauty heritage and I missed them.

Lana Jones as Aurora missed the youthfulness that I think gives the early part of Act I so much of its charm. She looked beautifully elegant and performed everything with aplomb, but she wasn’t a sixteen year old princess. The grand pas de deux, despite being soundly performed, lacked the excitement that this part of Act III should bring.

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Other choreographic features, especially in Act II, seemed to me to be a little too close to parts of Swan Lake and Nutcracker. The woodland nymphs, who inhabit the overgrown forest in Act II, often split into small groups, link hands à la Four Little Swans, and perform various piqué-style movements. And there is a scene, also in Act II, where Carabosse’s rats fight with the Prince in an attempt to extract from him the key that will open the glass-domed casket in which Aurora has slept for 100 years. Shades of a certain part of Nutcracker?

Gabriela Tylesova’s designs for costumes and set are extraordinarily lavish and, for me, they are the most curious mixture of Baroque extravagance and Rococo excess, with a Louis XIV party thrown in at the end, which occasionally looked like Carnevale in Venice, complete with a Tiepolo-style ceiling as an added attraction. And why did those three massive chandeliers start on the floor and majestically rise to the ceiling at the beginning of Act III? The audience greeted this strange chandelier behaviour with applause, although I’m not sure why. And what was the most disappointing feature of all this excess across the prologue and three acts? The dancing became secondary to the visual appearance.

Tylesova’s choice of colours for her costumes was also unattractive to my eyes. It shouted excess once again. As for those large wings worn by the fairies, they just got in the way of the dancers’ line, which is such an important part of the ballet technique we associate with Petipa and classicism.

In a feature published in the September 2015 issue of Vogue Australia, McAllister is quoted as saying: ‘With big classics like Sleeping Beauty, I really believe it’s around the staging, the look of it.’ Well, yes, he is right that the staging is important in a narrative ballet. But when the staging is such that it overwhelms the dancing it simply doesn’t work.

The audience was wildly enthusiastic as the curtain went down amid much gold, including shimmering gold leaf floating in the air, and a huge gold sun that descended over the Tiepolo ceiling. I went home dejected that such a beautiful ballet could be turned into an event like some kind of football grand final. The dancing was lost in a world of visual excess and technical invention.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty', 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Michelle Potter, 17 September 2015

Featured image: Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Matthew Bourne’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’: the film

Matthew Bourne’s film of his re-imagined Sleeping Beauty, a work that premiered as a live show late in 2012, was recorded over a week during performances at the Bristol Hippodrome. It was filmed in HD, not 3D. Personally, I remain a sceptic of dance in 3D and Bourne’s film confirms for me that in this day and age a well thought through and edited film of a live performance can have all the visual impact and passion for dance that one might wish to see. As I have not seen the live show at this stage my comments on the film are also comments on Bourne’s version of what is generally regarded as an iconic work in the ballet repertoire. My preview story, published in The Canberra Times on 7 September 2013, is at this link. It gives something of the background to the work, which I won’t go over in this post.

The baby Aurora in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty'. Courtesy Sharmill Films

Count Lilac with the baby Aurora in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Annand. Courtesy Sharmill Films

What struck me instantly about the work itself was that Bourne is an amazing storyteller and has a great way with theatrical tricks. Nothing surprising there though. We have seen it before from Bourne. Nevertheless, I need to say it again. Moving the storyline from 1890 and the babyhood of Aurora, to 1911 and her coming of age and on to the present and her marriage—and the surprise of what comes right at the end, Bourne has indeed as he says ‘created a different look and set of manners, including theatrical manners, for each era’. I loved the dancing in the Edwardian scenes (Aurora’s coming of age) with great use made of Tchaikovsky’s well known waltz. But my favourite ‘set of manners’ came as the 100 years of sleep passed by and Aurora’s palace home became legendary and a spot for tourists to gather and take photos of themselves and the site with their mobile devices.

Perhaps the most difficult ‘era’ to reconcile (for those who have been brought up with Aurora’s Wedding as a staple in their dance-going experiences) is the present day nightclub scene when Aurora is sacrificed on the altar of Caradoc, son of Carabosse and the rival love interest. Aurora’s Wedding was never like this! But her rescue and the subsequent events washed away any feeling of being ill at ease.

I couldn’t help feeling at times that Bourne was making allusions to other ballets as the work proceeded. Those tennis players who appeared in the Edwardian scene were surely a reference to Nijinsky’s Jeux and as Aurora lay on the ground falling into her deep sleep with her mother leaning over her, grief-stricken, we seemed to be seeing an allusion to the end of Giselle Act I. And was that bespectacled man in the white suit and hat lurking in the background as the Edwardian scene came to an end a reference to Aschenbach in the Visconti film Death in Venice? I saw those allusions whether or not they were intended and I guess this is what made this Sleeping Beauty so rich and engrossing for me. There was never a moment when one tended to drift away. Too much happening, too much to think about.

Looking at the work as a film, I admired in particular the way close-ups were judiciously shot to advance our understanding of the characters. I am thinking in particular of the close-up shots of Caradoc. Dressed magnificently in red and black by Lez Brotherston, whose designs for the work are extraordinary, we got the picture pretty quickly—a scheming, brooding man. Takes after his mother no doubt!

Caradoc and the sleeping Aurora in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty.

Caradoc and the sleeping Aurora in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Annand. Courtesy Sharmill Films

Filmed live as it was, it was charming to have an audience reaction—both laughter and applause—that wasn’t canned. And the intertitles that told the story as the work moved along from scene to scene were set inside a border of roses that themselves told a story—a black rose, a white rose, a red rose. All had a special meaning within the work. The production sped along. I was immersed in it all and relished the performances, especially from Hannah Vassallo as Aurora. Even the credits were gorgeous with action shots of the main characters as their names flashed up.

This is one to see a few more times and, although Bourne says that it is good to know the traditional version as then it becomes more apparent how he has treated the storyline and developed the characters, I suspect this is a film that can also be enjoyed by those who aren’t so aware of the traditional version.

Michelle Potter, 8 September 2013

International Gala 2011. Queensland Ballet

Asaf Messerer’s brief pas de deux, Spring Waters, was first seen in Australia around five decades ago when the Bolshoi Ballet visited the country. Then it was the most technically exciting pas de deux most people had ever seen. Now those high lifts with the man using just one arm to hold his partner aloft, and the sight of a female dancer throwing herself through the air into the arms of her partner, are not so rare. But Spring Waters remains a delight and its inclusion on the Queensland Ballet’s 2011 International Gala was something of a treat. Despite having to perform it to what sounded like an ancient recording, two of the guests artists who joined the dancers of Queensland Ballet for the gala, Ambra Vallo and Tyrone Singleton from Birmingham Royal Ballet, danced it with just the right sense of youthfulness and joy.

Vallo and Singleton also danced the pas de deux from Frederick Ashton’s Two Pigeons. This charming yet elegant pas de deux was a reminder that choreographers whose voice is distinctive are rare and precious. It was a joy to watch Ashton’s placement of the two dancers in relation to each other, often in unexpected but always harmonious juxtapositions.

Other works on the program were not so well served by international performers, or by their choreographers. Two very youthful dancers from Singapore Dance Theatre made a brave effort with the final pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. Kenya Nakamura as the Prince was inflexible in the upper body and very nervous. It meant that his performance was stilted and wooden. His partner, Tomoko Takahashi, had a lovely smile and was technically capable of executing the steps, but her performance suffered from inadequate partnering.

Two dancers from Berlin’s Staatsballett, Krasina Pavlova and Rainer Krenstetter, each had a solo on the program, although Krenstetter’s solo, Barocco by Renato Zanella, was little more than a series of poses. They also danced together in Grand pas classique, choreographed by Victor Gsovsky. Their performance in this pas de deux with variations in the traditional manner needed much more vivacity than we were given. I think both dancers needed to be reminded that dance happens with the human body and thus is inherently sexy (if not necessarily overtly sexual), especially if it is a pas de deux. There was little engagement between Krenstretter and Pavlova in Grand pas classique, and little engagement with the audience other than an occasional, unwarranted look of triumph on completion of certain steps. A great disappointment.

Probably the most interesting, and certainly the most anticipated work on the program was Nils Christe’s Short Dialogues, a new work for three couples. Set to music by Philip Glass, Christe’s choreography is ‘of the moment’. Bodies wrap around bodies and stretch into seemingly impossible positions, Visually it is often hard to disentangle one body from another. The work was expertly performed by Clare Morehen and Keian Langdon, Meng Ningning and Hao Bin formerly of the National Ballet of China but now dancing with Queensland Ballet, and Rachael Walsh and Christian Tátchev. And while the choreography and its performance were impressive, what made this work really stand out for me was the lighting design by David Walters. It gave the work an almost liquid quality: Short Dialogues seemed to pass before our eyes like an unexpected breeze—here one minute, gone the next.

At this International Gala the strongest performers were rarely the international guests but rather the dancers of Queensland Ballet. Apart from the execution of Christe’s slick, contemporary choreography, they also showed their theatricality in François Klaus’ Overture and Finale. His choreography for the opening and closing sequences of the gala had overtones of a contemporary commedia dell’arte and the dancers responded in a manner that was beautifully playful and slightly humorous. Noelene Hill’s pert red and orange costumes, including the cheeky frill on the women’s costume and the equally cheeky short shorts that were part of the men’s outfit, were perfect in carrying through the style.

The dancers carried their ability to move between diverse choreographic styles into Rosetta Cook’s homage to the tango, Hall of Flame, a work dedicated to former artistic director of Queensland Ballet, Harold Collins, who died just a week before the gala. I especially admired Kathleen Doody in Hall of Flame. She gave a cool, sophisticated reading of her character in a slightly over-long work that required cameo performances from each dancer.

Galas are always touch and go events. Unless the performers and the choreography are exceptional, and this was not always the case with this gala, such occasions are inevitably beset with problems of uneven quality and interest, as was the case.

Michelle Potter, 8 August 2011

Amber Scott as Aurora

When Stanton Welch’s Sleeping Beauty premiered in 2005 Amber Scott was a relatively new member of the Australian Ballet, having joined in 2001. In 2009, as a senior artist with the company, she danced the leading role of Aurora in the Australian Ballet’s revival of Welch’s work. Her appearance in this demanding role was something to be celebrated.

While in my opinion the Welch Beauty is a flawed work, scenically in particular, it nevertheless requires, as does the original version choreographed by Marius Petipa, a dancer of exceptional classical technique to perform Aurora’s solos and the various pas de deux. Welch has in fact largely retained Petipa’s choreography for Aurora’s two key scenes, that in which she dances with four potential suitors at her sixteenth birthday celebration, and that in which she dances with her Prince as the ballet comes to an end.

Scott has a classically proportioned body. Her arms in particular are long and fluid and she has an eloquent neck, which she uses to maximum advantage, and beautifully arched feet. But she also understands the essential features of the classical technique. So, as Aurora, her execution of Petipa’s centred and pure movement was articulate and a joy to behold. Her Rose Adagio was outstanding and in fact at one stage she chose not to lower her hand to one of the cavaliers so secure was her balance. Radiant, she simply stood there in attitude as that particular cavalier retired, having been acknowledged but without having had the pleasure of Aurora’s hand on his! The audience began applauding well before the end and kept it up—something I haven’t seen for some time.

Equally, Scott’s execution of the variations in all scenes showed the same attention to cleanness of execution—such beautiful unfolding of the leg in développé or, in reverse, from à la seconde to retiré, delicate hops on pointe, gorgeous arabesque line, crisp turns. Just glorious really.

What is lacking now from Scott’s interpretation, at least of this role, is maturity. She is still in the last act very much the dewy and beautiful sixteen year old on the cusp of maturity. Her more experienced colleagues in companies around the world are able to differentiate between the beginning and the end of the ballet. But time is on her side and I look forward to seeing her grow into a luminous ballerina, which appears to be her destiny.

Daniel Gaudiello also continues to impress. His Bluebird was airborne and full of idiosyncratic flutters of the arms and hands (perhaps as befits the idiosyncratic costume, especially the racing helmet headdress?). Gaudiello is blessed with a powerful stage presence and an ability to make the most of whatever choreography comes his way. Duato or Petipa—and Welch also retained much of the earlier choreography for the Bluebird—Gaudiello immerses himself into it all in an individualistic manner, which makes engrossing watching for the audience.

Michelle Potter, 14 December 2009