Harlequinade. The Australian Ballet

24 June 2022, online screening

Ahead of any further remarks, I have to make it quite clear that basically I am a fan of the work of Alexei Ratmansky. I have been writing about his productions on this website since 2009. Here is a link to the Ratmansky tag. His interest in creating new versions of well-known works has been fascinating to watch—Cinderella comes immediately to mind—and those of his newly created works that I have seen have mostly been absolutely beautiful and engaging—and here I am thinking in particular of Seven Sonatas and From Foreign Lands.

Harlequinade is slightly different. It is one of those works from the past that Ratmansky decided could and should be revived for today’s audiences (and there have been a few others he has worked on in the same manner). The original Harlequinade ballet was first performed in 1900. It had choreography by Marius Petipa and, according to George Balanchine, was performed in St Petersburg at the Hermitage Theatre. It followed the story of the love between Harlequin and Columbine; the role of Cassandre, Columbine’s father, in attempting to have Columbine marry Léandre, a rich man; and how this plan was thwarted with the help of Pierette and Pierrot (and a Good Fairy). The work’s links back to the stock commedia dell’arte characters, and to the pantomime tradition, were strong in the original and in the Ratmansky revival.

It is interesting to read Balanchine’s brief discussion of the original Harlequinade in his book Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet. Balanchine refers to the original work as Harlequin’s Millions and writes, in part:

I remember very well dancing in this production when I was a student at the Imperial Ballet School. What I liked about it was its wit and pace and its genius in telling a story with clarity and grace. It was a different kind of ballet from The Sleeping Beauty and showed the range of [Petipa’s] genius.

Balanchine as a choreographer looked back to the original Harlequinade on several occasions. In 1950 he created a pas de deux that referred to the 1900 production, in 1965 he created a two act ballet called Harlequinade, in which he used his own choreography, and in 1973 he revived that two act work adding new material.

That Ratmansky wanted to revive the original work is fine and his choice, but quite honestly I can’t understand why the Australian Ballet needed to present it to us in 2022. For me the pantomime element made it hard to watch. Some characters were totally over-the-top, especially the rich old man Léandre. Dance, including ballet, has moved on since 1900 and the ballets that have survived from around that time (Swan Lake for example) have been constantly updated in so many ways. Not only that, pantomime in Australia, which was once a hugely popular style of Christmas entertainment, began to die a slow death in the mid-20th century. So in my mind the Harlequinade we saw from the Australian Ballet might have looked acceptable 60 or so years ago when pantomime was a flourishing entertainment for the whole family, but I don’t think it has the same impact in 2022.

Benedicte Bemet as Columbine in Harlequinade. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Nevertheless, there was some excellent dancing to watch in this 2022 production. Benedicte Bemet was well suited to the role of Columbine and smiled her way through the evening while performing the Petipa/Ratmansky choreography with her usual technical skill. Her 32 fouettés that closed out the finale were just spectacular! She rarely moved off her centre stage spot as she turned, which is a rare occurrence and a thrill to see. And while the out-of-date nature of some of the characters was not to my liking, mostly those characters were played according to the tradition and with skill. Timothy Coleman as the foppish Léandre did a sterling job in this unforgiving (for me) role., and Steven Heathcote’s gestures in the mime scenes were clear and precise. As Harlequin Brett Chynoweth showed some great elevation and skilfully took on a range of traditional, Harlequin-style poses. The storyline was ably supported by Callum Linnane as Pierrot and Sharni Spencer as Pierette with Ingrid Gow as an elegant Good Fairy.

But I won’t be looking forward to a return season.

Michelle Potter, 28 June 2022

Featured image: Timothy Coleman as Léandre in Harlequinade. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Li’s Choice. Queensland Ballet

10 June 2022. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Li Cunxin has been at the helm of Queensland Ballet for close to ten years and the company’s latest production, an absolutely mind-blowing triple bill called Li’s Choice, is in celebration of those ten years of masterful leadership on Li’s part.

The program opened with Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto, a work for six dancers performed to a violin concerto by Philip Glass. I saw this work in 2017 and, while I loved parts of it, especially what I called the ‘technical fireworks’ of the choreography for the third movement, it left me uninspired in other parts. Not this time. The opening moments were danced by all six dancers and the choreography was filled with beautifully rehearsed classical partnering for the three couples. From there the choreography unfolded to show the dancers in different groupings with some solo sections before it reached the so-called (by me) fireworks. Mia Heathcote caught my eye, as she usually does, in this case for her exceptional ability to add that tiny extra bit of expression (both facial and in the body) that makes her work stand out. But every dancer showed an inspired approach to Horsman’s choreography. They just looked spectacular, all of them.

Patricio Revé in Glass Concerto. Queensland Ballet, 2022. Photo: © David Kelly

Costuming by Georg Wu was, on the surface, quite simple—a black leotard-style garment for men and women with a more masculine look to the lower section for the men. But the detailing was quite beautiful—a bit of sparkle here, a cut-out section there, and with opaque sections contrasting with more translucent areas. All together Glass Concerto was a terrific opener.

The middle work was Natalie Weir’s very moving We who are left, which I also saw earlier from Queensland Ballet.* I was just as moved this time by a work that I think is a masterpiece from Weir. On the surface, We who are left is a simple story about five men who leave for a war zone, their activities in the war zone, the fate of the women they leave behind, and the return of one of the five men. But the emotion that Weir injects into the choreography takes the work to a truly inspiring level. This time I was especially taken by the choreography for the men when at war. While this section began in somewhat of a militaristic style, as the war continued the choreography became more fractured, more twisted, more death-like.

But still the highlight for me was the section ‘She who was left’, danced on this occasion by Lucy Green. The woman is joined by the man (Patricio Revé) who left her to go to war. He was one of those killed and returns in spirit to the woman. The pas de deux between them is just a brilliant piece of choreography. They dance together but never touch, although the emotional connection, the memory, is there in full. And what a different feel this pas de deux has from another in the same work, ‘Memories of love’, when a physical connection between Lina Kim and Vito Bernasconi is at the heart of the pas de deux

Lucy Green and Patricio Revé in We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2022. Photo: © David Kelly

We who are left is complemented by a stunning lighting design by David Walters (revived by Cameron Georg), It delivers an emotional setting from beginning to end.

The closing work was Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, performed to music from Scott Joplin and other ragtime-style composers, with the chamber orchestra, Camerata, playing on stage. Nigel Gaynor conducted and was pianist for the orchestra.

Elite Syncopations is a series of routines featuring characters in a dance hall of some kind. There is not a storyline as such but the characters flirt amongst each other and vie for attention from others in the dance hall. Stand-out performances came from Neneka Yoshida, in a fabulous white costume with strategically placed red stars (costume design by Ian Spurling); Mali Comlecki as a suave character who seemed to want to put himself above everyone else; Luke Dimattina, who played a guy somewhat on the outskirts of the group but who wanted to be part of it; and Victor Estévez whose character seemed to be in competition somewhat with that of Comlecki.

Elite Syncopations gave everyone in the cast a chance to let their hair down and clown around a bit. The funny thing was that, having seen this work performed by the Royal Ballet, on whom it was originally made by MacMillan in 1974, I thought Queensland Ballet brought a new insight to the work. Somehow it seemed quite ‘Ocker’ in comparison the the Royal version! I loved it.

Apart from the breathtaking performances across the board, what really struck me was that this triple bill showed us what dance can transmit to an audience. We had a peek at the vocabulary of classical ballet and the beautiful athleticism and lyricism that dancers trained in the style can achieve, we saw how dance can transmit hugely emotional feelings about life and its many and varied aspects, and we were treated to the notion that dance is fun, joyous and often hilarious. While each of the three works was focused largely on one of these three ideas, there were traces of all in each.

The evening curtain call rightly included Li and the presentation to him of a huge bouquet of red roses. Justly deserved! Li’s Choice was an absolute cracker of a triple bill and shows Li as a great director. It also shows the Queensland Ballet staff as brilliant collaborators and teachers and the company itself as one of the best, perhaps even the best, we have in this country.

Michelle Potter, 11 June 2022

Featured image: Mali Comlekci and Neneka Yoshida in Elite Syncopations. Queensland Ballet, 2022. Photo: © David Kelly

  • My original review of We who are left appeared in 2016 on the UK site DanceTabs. DanceTabs no longer exists but the review I wrote then is available at this link now.

ab [intra]. Sydney Dance Company (2022 season)

2 June 2022. Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney

It has been Rafael Bonachela’s long-term ambition to have return seasons of his 2018 work ab [intra]. He achieved that ambition this year with a well-received season in France and, more recently, with a Sydney season that opened on 2 June at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. Return seasons for contemporary works are unusual, but then ab [intra] is an unusual work and definitely worthy of more than one season.

Seeing ab [intra] this time was a rather different experience from that of 2018. The cast was quite different for a start, and I was also sitting much closer to the stage, which gave me quite a new take on the work. Although the work is meant to be quite abstract in the sense that Bonachela says that the work is ‘a representation of energy’, sitting close to the stage gave me a strong feeling of there being an expressive, human element, one of personal feelings between people. This was probably most apparent in a duet between Chloe Leong and Davide Di Giovanni where an element of pleasure in the company of another seemed to pervade. This was made stronger by the music (Nick Wales), which seemed quite romantic at this point.

Chloe Leong and Davide Di Giovanni in ab [intra]. Sydney Dance Company, 2022. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Being closer also gave me a new feeling about the lighting (Damien Cooper). The darkness that enveloped those dancers who occasionally moved to the front of the stage and turned their backs to the audience achieved a strong contrast with dancers further upstage, a contrast that I didn’t notice to the same extent in 2018.

But as is characteristic of Bonachela’s work, the overriding element throughout the evening was the exceptional physicality of the dancers. They never cease to amaze with their ability to perform Bonachela’s demanding choreography with the utmost skill and dynamism. The first duet between Jacopo Grabar and Emily Seymour was virtuosic in the extreme and I was incredibly moved by Jesse Scales who performed (amongst other sections) the closing solo. And I always admire the way Bonachela uses groups, sometimes working in unison, sometimes breaking out from those moments only to return to a unified group again.

Jacopo Grabar and Emily Seymour in ab [intra]. Sydney Dance Company 2022. Photo: © Pedro Greig

It was a real pleasure to see ab [intra] again and to have the opportunity to see some sections and aspects of the production differently. In my review of the work in 2018 I remarked that I thought it was probably one of those ‘giving’ works. It clearly was so for me in 2022. The opening night performance was given a long and rowdy standing ovation.

Michelle Potter, 5 June 2022

Featured image: Jesse Scales in the closing section to ab [intra]. Sydney Dance Company, 2022. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Galileo. Sydney Choreographic Ensemble

1 June 2022. Lennox Theatre, Riverside Theatres Parramatta

What a thrill it was to see Francesco Ventriglia’s exciting choreography for his latest work, Galileo. The performance was absolutely absorbing to watch from beginning to end.

Inspired by the amazing variety of ideas that Galileo Galilei studied in his life’s work as a scientist in late 16th to early 17th century Italy, Ventriglia has ensured that many of those ideas are expressed choreographically—velocity, speed, free fall, the nature of the planets including the principle that earth moves around the sun (for which he was castigated and had to renounce his ideas) all seem to be there. And the dancers performed with extraordinary strength and flair. One artist in particular stood out for me, Connor McMahon. It was his absolute commitment to engaging with the choreography, with the ideas behind the work, and with other dancers that was remarkable. He also had a solo towards the end of the work where the strength of his technique was also apparent.

Hugo Poulet and Siobhan Lynch in Galileo, Sydney Choreographic Ensemble 2022. Photo: © Daniel Asher Smith

Some sections had something of a narrative element attached to them. At one stage a small golden globe was brought on stage and, as one dancer held it up, a circle of dancers surrounded the object. It recalled that aspect of Galileo’s thoughts about the relationship between the movement of the earth and the sun. At other times, especially apparent towards the end of the work, dancers formed a group and shook their heads violently suggesting the behaviour of those who denied Galileo’s theories and forced him to renounce his ideas. One of the most beautiful sections happened when one dancer was supported by four men who carried her through swirling, twisting movement without her feet ever touching the ground. It generated many thoughts about the movement of celestial bodies. Other moments, especially at the beginning of the work, reminded me of movements of commedia dell’arte characters thus, in my mind, setting the scene for the era in which Galileo lived and worked.

Veronika Maritati and dancers of Sydney Choreographic Ensemble in Galileo, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Asher Smith

My previous experience of Ventriglia’s choreography has always made me feel that there needed to be greater changes of pace throughout his works. Not this time. Along with Ventriglia’s characteristic style of partnering in which both male and female dancers move together in a breathtaking manner, there were moments of stillness, slow movement, exceptional use of grouping, and references to many dance styles. The work was danced to a selection of music from Italian composers from around the period in which Galileo was working—Vivaldi, Corelli, Monteverdi and others—and was complemented by evocative lighting from Roderick van Gelder and remarkable video projections, which constantly changed shape yet remained consistent in content, from Marco Giani.

Galileo cements Sydney Choreographic Ensemble as a company to watch and extends the strength of my impression of Ventriglia as a truly interesting choreographer. It would be great if the work were able to tour.

Michelle Potter, 4 June 2022

Featured image: Hero image for Galileo

Dance diary. May 2022

  • The Johnston Collection. On Kristian Fredrikson

My talk for Melbourne’s Johnston Collection, Kristian Fredrikson. Theatre Designer Extraordinaire, will finally take place on 22 June 2022 just one year later than scheduled. No need, I am sure, to give a reason for its earlier cancellation. I am very much looking forward to presenting this talk, which will include short extracts from some of the film productions for which Fredrikson created designs, including Undercover, which tells the story of the founding of the Berlei undergarment brand.

Further information about the talk is at this link: The Johnston Collection: What’s On.

  • Australian Ballet News

The Australian Ballet has announced a number of changes to its performing and administrative team. In May, at the end of the company’s Sydney season, ten dancers were promoted:

Jill Ogai from Soloist to Senior Artist
Nathan Brook from Soloist to Senior Artist
Imogen Chapman Soloist to Senior Artist
Rina Nemoto from Soloist to Senior Artist
Lucien Xu from Coryphée to Soloist
Mason Lovegrove from Coryphée to Soloist
Luke Marchant from Coryphée to Soloist
Katherine Sonnekus from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée
Aya Watanabe from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée
George-Murray Nightingale from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée

George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu in Graeme Murphy’s Grand. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Kate Longley

In administrative news, the chairman of the board of the Australian Ballet has announced that Libby Christie, the company’s Executive Director, will step down from the position at the end of 2022, after a tenure of close to ten years.

But the Australian Ballet will also face a difficult time in 2024 when the State Theatre at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, where the Australian Ballet performs over several months, and which it regards really as its home, will close for three years as part of the redevelopment of the arts precinct. Apparently David Hallberg is busy trying to find an alternative theatre in Melbourne. But then the company faced similar difficulties a few years ago in Sydney when the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House was unavailable as it too went through renovations. It was perhaps less than three years of closure in Sydney but the company survived then and I’m sure it will this time too.

  • And from Queensland Ballet

Queensland Ballet’s Jette Parker Young Artists, along with artistic director Li Cunxin, a group of dancers from the main company, and Christian Tátchev from Queensland Ballet Academy, will head to London any day now. The dancers will perform in the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House from 4-6 June as part of a cultural exchange between Australia and the United Kingdom. They will be taking an exciting program of three works under the title of Southern Lights. Those three works are Perfect Strangers by Jack Lister, associate choreographer with Queensland Ballet and a dancer with Australasian Dance Collective; Fallen by Natalie Weir, Queensland Ballet’s resident choreographer; and Appearance of Colour by Loughlan Prior, resident choreographer with Royal New Zealand Ballet.

In addition to the performances, Li will be joined by Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare and dancer Leanne Benjamin for an ‘In Conversation’ session, and Tátchev will conduct open classes for dancers from the Royal Ballet School

  • Not forgetting New Zealand

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has also announced a retirement. Katherine and Joseph Skelton will give their last performance with the company in June. It has been a while since I saw Royal New Zealand Ballet perform live but I have especially strong memories of Joseph Skelton dancing the peasant pas de deux with Bronte Kelly in Giselle in 2016. Both dancers are mentioned in various posts on this website. See Katherine Skelton and Joseph Skelton.

RNZB is filming the pair in the pas de deux from Giselle Act II and the film will be made available on RNZB’s Facebook page on 1 June.

  • Street names in Whitlam (a new-ish Canberra suburb)

There has been discussion at various times about naming streets in Canberra suburbs after people who are thought to be distinguished Australians. There was quite recently discussion about abandoning the process completely with complaints being made that the process was not an inclusive one, and that in particular men outnumbered women (along with several other issues). Well not so long ago I joined Julie Dyson and Lauren Honcope in helping the ACT Government select names of those connected with dance to be used as street names in the new-ish suburb of Whitlam. The suburb was named after former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the decision was to name the streets after figures who had been prominent in the arts (given Whitlam’s strong support of the arts). I looked back at what was eventually chosen (and it was for an initial stage of development of the suburb), and its seems to me that the argument that diversity was lacking is not correct (at least not in this case). The names selected for this stage included men, women, First Nations people, and people known to belong to the LGBTI… community. Some have a lovely ring to them too—Keith Bain Crest, Laurel Martyn View, Arkwookerum Street for example. I’m looking forward to what the next stage will bring.

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2022

Featured image: Still from Undercover, Palm Beach Pictures, 1982