Daniel Gaudiello as James in 'La Sylphide', Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Paquita & La Sylphide. The Australian Ballet. 2020 Digital Season

I saw this program twice in 2013 and have to admit that, apart from outstanding performances by one or two dancers in each of the casts I saw, I was somewhat underwhelmed. But this screening by the Australian Ballet as part of its 2020 digital season left me absolutely thrilled.

The Paquita we see is really an excerpt from a full-length ballet of the same name that is rarely seen these days. Its choreography is by Marius Petipa and what we see in this excerpt is Petipa’s classicism. We see it in spades, especially in the way the dancers hold their bodies, erect and proud, with a straight spine as the central axis, and in the kinds of steps the dancers perform. In his introductory remarks to the streamed production, David McAllister calls it a ‘ballet ballet’. And so it is.

The cast is led by Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson. They show off their classical technique brilliantly. Jones. for example, has a series of fouetté turns in one solo and she launched straight into eight (or it could even have been nine) double turns in succession. Spectacular. The four soloists, Amy Harris, Juliet Burnett, Ako Kondo and Miwako Kubota, all danced with extraordinary skill. Standing out for me were Amy Harris with her perfectly controlled fouetté relevés, and Ako Kondo who made a thrilling entrance with a series of grands jetés and then proceeded to dazzle us with some exceptional turning steps, including some pretty much perfect double turns in attitude. Then I can’t forget the corps de ballet (which in fact included some of today’s principal artists such as Benedicte Bemet and Dimity Azoury). The corps danced with great style and each one of them looked as though she loved performing.

Ako Kondo in 'Paquita', The Australian Ballet. Photo © Jeff Busby, 2013
Ako Kondo in Paquita. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo © Jeff Busby

Then came La Sylphide with Leanne Stojmenov as the Sylph and Daniel Gaudiello as James, with choreography by Erik Bruhn after August Bournonville. Act I raced along and I enjoyed Gaudiello’s acting from the opening moments when, asleep in his armchair, a little dream-like smile kept hovering across his face as the Sylph danced around him. Stojmenov was a truly beautiful Sylph with an understanding of the needs of the Romantic style of movement. She seemed so light, so supernatural, so at home with the gentle tilt of the head and the forward-leaning style of movement we expect in the Romantic style. She has a beautifully coordinated body and it is quite fascinating to watch the relationship between legs, arms, upper body and head, each seeming to be separate actions yet at the same time part of an alluring whole.

Of course both Gaudiello and Stojmenov came into their own in Act II. Gaudiello’s beats were breathtaking as was his ability to perform with the ballon and apparent ease that characterises the Bournonville style. And Stojmenov continued with her Romantic and supernatural manner. Apart from the technical aspects of their performance, Stojmenov and Gaudiello also interacted so well that the story simply sped along, taking us with it. It was a perfect pairing for this ballet. The issues I felt when I saw the program live were mostly still there, but seemed no longer to matter, thanks to Stojmenov and Gaudiello. Bouquets to them both.

Colin Peasley as Madge and Andrew Wright as Gurn also gave strong performances and I enjoyed as well being backstage at the Sydney Opera House while the overture to La Sylphide was playing. I can’t wait to look again.

My reviews of previous performances are at these links: Melbourne; Sydney. I was also lucky enough to see the full-length Paquita as restaged by Pierre Lacotte for the Paris Opera Ballet but it was before I started this website and, unfortunately, I have no written record of the performance.

Michelle Potter 30 May 2020

Featured image: Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide, Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as James in 'La Sylphide', Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Amber Scott and Adam Bull in 'Dyad 1929'. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Branco Gaica

Dyad 1929. The Australian Ballet. 2020 Digital Season

It is an ongoing fascination being able to watch streaming sessions of works I have seen live (often more than once). The Australian Ballet’s triple bill of Graeme Murphy’s The Narrative of Nothing, Stephen Page’s Warumuk—in the dark night, and Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 has been no exception. From this program, Dyad 1929 stood out for the new insights into the work that it gave me.

Dyad 1929 was first seen in Australia in 2009 as part of a program called Concord. It was, in fact, made on the Australian Ballet as part of its Ballets Russes project. We saw it again in 2013 also as part of a mixed bill, this time called Vanguard. Then this year it had just a few performances in March in Melbourne, as part of a program called Volt, before the COVID-19 pandemic closed everything down. The Volt season was cancelled.

What I especially enjoyed when watching Dyad 1929 on screen was a duet danced by Amber Scott and Adam Bull. As they came onstage for this duet there was an unexpected mood change, choreographically, visually and musically (Dyad 1929 is danced to Steve Reich’s Double Sextet). From the fast-paced first sections with their rush of extreme movement under Lucy Carter’s bright white lighting, the setting darkened as a horizontal bar of fluorescent yellow lights began to descend from the flies. A yellow circle of light appeared on the stage floor and the music, unexpectedly, became moody and slightly mysterious.

Choreographically, movements seemed less sharp. They were still extreme and filled with eccentricities—Scott executed a series of cabriole-style beats while being held by Bull in a kind of fish dive pose—but there was often a more gentle feel to much of the dancing. Having said that, occasionally a beautiful slow unfolding of the leg was followed quickly by a sudden movement, although this kind of juxtaposition is not unusual for McGregor. Then there was the moment—gone in a flash—when Scott made a small circle with thumb and index finger and held it up to her eye like a monocle. It echoed the large black circle on her costume and also the rows of black dots we see on the back- and floorcloth.

The duet was eventually interrupted by the appearance of other dancers and the work continued. But I loved seeing Scott and Bull together and I loved having the luxury of noticing tiny aspects of the choreography that I missed on previous, live viewings.

Because the streaming of Dyad 1929 finishes on 28 May 2020, below is a video of Scott and Bull rehearsing the duet I enjoyed so much. While the rehearsal in the studio lacks something of the punch that the duet had in performance, it is nevertheless a record of the choreography. It was interesting too to see Antoine Vereecken, who staged the work in 2013, giving comments at the end of the rehearsal.

Looking back at Wayne McGregor’s program note from both 2009 and 2013, I noticed he had dedicated Dyad 1929 to Merce Cunningham, who died in 2009 the year of the premiere of Dyad 1929. McGregor wrote of Cunningham that he was ‘a choreographer whose curiosity, sense of adventure and seamless collaboration knew no bounds.’ I can often see similar characteristics in McGregor’s works. Read more about my thoughts on his works at this tag.

Michelle Potter, 21 May 2020

Featured image: Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Dyad 1929. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Branco Gaica

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in 'Dyad 1929'. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Branco Gaica
Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Moon Water. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan

Choreography Lin Hwai-min to Bach solo cello suites, cellist Mischa Maisky. Video screening by Sadler’s Wells, via YouTube until 22 May 2020

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Moon Water, choreographed by Lin Hwai-min, to Bach’s six solo cello suites, is performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, one of the world’s most accomplished and respected dance ensembles. In lieu of Cloud Gate’s planned season at Sadler’s Well’s, this free screening is being made available on YouTube throughout the week, until Friday 22 May.  Lin speaks in the introduction: ‘In these times of uncertainty, I hope this lyrical dance will bring you joy and peace.’  He’s right about ‘the times’ and his hope is realised in a sublime work of light shining out of shadow, and of the dancers’ calm and supple strength that accepts and yet conquers the force of gravity. As inspiration for the making of Moon Water, Lin quotes the mantra for Tai Chi practitioners: ‘Energy flows as water, water’s spirit shines as the moon’, as well as the associated Chinese proverb: ‘Flowers in the mirror and moon on the water are both illusions.’ These are all the program notes we need. 

I first saw Moon Water performed at the cultural festival which acted as prelude to the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

[The hugely impressive dance program within that festival also included Masurco Fogo, Pina Bausch’s choreography by Wuppertal Dance Theatre, The Cost of Living, Lloyd Newson’s choreography by DV8, as well as seasons by Sydney Dance Company in Graeme Murphy’s work on the Olympics in Ancient Greece, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and The Australian Ballet].

As the world’s media turns to the Olympic Games every four years, with typically spectacular Opening and Closing Ceremonies framing the sports contests, it has always seemed a pity that the associated arts festivals that act as precursor to the Games receive next-to-no international media promotion or coverage. Lucky I was to get to Sydney for so many memorable performances in 2000. I’ve been in love with Cloud Gate ever since.

The company was formed in 1973 by Lin Hwai-min and has remained under his consistent and visionary leadership for decades. Performing exclusively his choreography, the company’s extensive international touring has made it one of the world’s leading and most respected dance enterprises. The extensive repertoire grows from Lin’s deep searches into the philosophy, lifeways and art forms of Chinese history and traditions. Each work is a model of meditative calm and clarity as a single concept is explored—yet there’s an undertow of complexity and passion there for those who would see it. If you want novelty, fashion, sensation and display of virtuosity for its own sake, yawn yawn, you should probably look elsewhere.

Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Cloud Gate’s movement vocabulary and aesthetic grows from the suppleness, strength and flow of Tai Chi meditative and martial art, intertwined with contemporary dance, somewhat after Martha Graham technique. The play of vertical and horizontal is not in contrast but in segue, and there is astonishing control as a dancer moves from standing then into a deep plié, then onto the floor, then back to standing as though this is just one sequence of movement, and it fair slows your breathing. A line becomes a curve becomes a circle becomes a wheel becomes a windmill. A standing figure of eight has become a reclining infinity sign. In Moon Water there are solos, duos and a chorus grouping that take us through a night where the moves of dancers clad in white silk clad are bathed in light that reflects on backdrop, overhead, and finally beneath them, in the water which slowly washes across the stage.  Mostly adagio, with the occasional subito, there are images that evoke a large bird standing (crane or heron, kotuku) or flying (gannet, albatross, toroa). The presence and power in their contained energy somehow also includes the qualities of tenderness towards a newborn, a trusting child, a calm adult, a weak but hopeful elder, all slowly moving towards a life-affirming first white light before dawn.

I visited Taiwan in 2017 and had the loveliest of times with Cloud Gate. I could write about them forever but reading that would be a waste of your time when you could be watching Moon Water.  

And a tribute to all that a second company, Cloud Gate 2, was formed to create opportunities for dancers to choreograph new repertoire.Upon Lin Hwai-min’s retirement last year, the leader of that ensemble , Cheng Tsung-lung, was appointed as the new artistic director of the main company. How affirming to see the wisdom and generosity of spirit involved in managing this company’s heritage—a rare achievement among the competitive politics of many a professional dance company you and I could think of.  

Jennifer Shennan, 17 May 2020

Featured image: Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang

Moon Water performed by Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Photo: © Liu Chen-Hsiang
Featured image: Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz in the opening movement of Concerto DSCH. New York City Ballet. Photo: © Paul Kolnik, from the New York City Ballet official website.

Concerto DSCH. New York City Ballet

10 May 2020. Digital Spring Season

Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH premiered in 2008 and was the second ballet Ratmansky made for New York City Ballet. In the introduction to this digital stream (which is of a production filmed in 2018), Ratmansky talks briefly about the music, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F; the origins of that music; the double reference arising from the use of DSCH in the title of the work;* and a little about working with the dancers. All that he says is interesting, but nothing compares with the movement itself.

Concerto DSCH follows the three movements of the concerto and is danced by five soloists and a corps de ballet of fourteen dancers. The soloists comprise a trio of a woman and two men (Ashley Bouder, Joaquin De Luz and Gonzalo Garcia), and a duo of a woman and a man (Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle). The trio dominates the first movement. De Luz and Garcia show us expansive jumps and stretched legs, and virtuosic turns both on the ground and in the air. Bouder also stands out for her fast and perfect turning steps, and for a personality that shines throughout. As a group the three have a definite relationship but it is not exactly clear what that relationship is, other than it is a changing one. The corps de ballet often seems to be commenting on the actions of the trio but their dancing also demonstrates Ratmansky’s constant and always fascinating use of the stage space to arrange and rearrange groups of dancers.

The second movement is for the most part a pas de deux. Although Mearns and Angle appear in the first movement, the second is theirs even though the corps de ballet is also involved to a certain extent. Sometimes the corps mirrors what is happening in the pas de deux, at one stage they enclose Mearns and Angle in a circle, and sometimes they simply sit and watch what is happening.

The pas de deux vocabulary is liquid and filled with draped poses and sliding movements, with of course some thrilling lifts. Again there is a relationship, a definite emotional connection, between the two dancers, and at the end of the movement they part, each leaving via a different side of the stage, and each with a backward glance towards the other. Do we attribute this to a breakdown in a relationship? They often reach out to each other during the pas de deux, but scarcely touch on those occasions. But then in his introductory remarks to the streaming Ratmansky says he tells the dancers he is working with in this section to imagine they are young students out walking in a Russian city during the Winter Nights. So it is not really clear just what the connection between the two actually is.

The third movement speeds along in the manner of the first with an opening in which the five soloists engage with each other before the corps comes back in various combinations. The whole becomes like a choreographic coda.

Concerto DSCH is an astonishing work. It has virtuosity in spades, a sprinkle of humour, and those interpersonal connections—this latter a little surprising, and certainly cause for speculation. On the one hand the work is largely an abstract one, yet there is that definite emotional connection between the dancers. It might not be specific but it is there and indicates Ratmansky’s apparent interest in layering meaning and abstraction.

Ratmansky’s choreography never ceases to amaze, thrill and regularly surprise. I wondered, however, about the impact on his choreography of his interest, which I just recently read about, in Petipa and the Stepanov notation of Petipa’s works. In a review of Nadine Meisner’s relatively recent book on Petipa (Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master), the reviewer (Simon Morrison) writes:

The resident choreographer of American Ballet Theatre, Alexei Ratmansky, has studied the Stepanov notation of Petipa’s ballets. ‘You can’t remove a step without destroying the whole structure,’ he has said. But ‘so much small footwork’ has been lost; the hop between fouetté and the arabesque in Paquita for example. **

Ratamnsky’s choreography is filled with small ‘between’ steps and, while it is his own remarkable work, I can’t help wondering about his use of what he has noticed has been lost over the years from Petipa’s choreography. But then those ‘between’ steps also indicate the musicality that imbues Ratmansky’s work. Let’s hope we see more of his choreography in Australia in due course.

Michelle Potter, 11 May 2020

*DSCH forms and abbreviation of Shostakovitch’s name when written in German. It also refers to a musical motif.

* *Simon Morrison, ‘The bedroom of a sorcerer.’ London Review of Books, 2 April 2020. Review of Nadine Meisner, Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master (Oxford, July 2019).

Featured image: Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz in the opening movement of Concerto DSCH. New York City Ballet. Photo: © Paul Kolnik, from the New York City Ballet official website.

Featured image: Ashley Bouder and Joaquin De Luz in the opening movement of Concerto DSCH. New York City Ballet. Photo: © Paul Kolnik, from the New York City Ballet official website.

Ballo della Regina and pas de deux from After the Rain. New York City Ballet

4 May 2020. Digital Spring Season

For me the two works on this New York City Ballet digital program are worlds apart. I have loved Ballo della Regina, choreographed by George Balanchine especially for Merrill Ashley in 1978, since I first saw it years ago now. On the other hand, After the Rain, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto in 2005, has never been a favourite for me, especially when only the pas de deux is shown rather than the whole work.

The production of Ballo della Regina that was streamed on this occasion was filmed in 2016 and featured NYCB principals Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley in the leading roles. I was interested to hear, in the introduction to the program, that Merrill Ashley handed down the ballet to Fairchild for her graduation performance from School of American Ballet in 2002. A graduation performance! And from the astonishing performer Merrill Ashley! Well the film was made around 14 years or so after that graduation and Fairchild has more than lived up to Ashley’s belief in her.

Ballo della Regina is probably not the most intellectually demanding ballet in any repertoire but it must surely be on of the most technically demanding. The female lead needs such fast and precise footwork, incredible musicality to keep the footwork in time with the music, and extraordinary energy. And the steps themselves are beyond the ordinary with unexpected changes of pace and direction and extraordinary use of the pointes. The male lead is also pushed technically, again with unexpected additions to standard movements. Both Fairchild and Huxley rose to the occasion and gave a performance that equalled any I have seen before and surpassed most.

Like most streaming programs Ballo is only available for a short time, but here is a short excerpt from the ballet with commentary by Fairchild, which should be available for longer.

The ballet is such a wonderful example of Balanchine’s choreography. We expect to a certain extent the fast footwork (although perhaps not always as demanding as we see in Ballo della Regina) but in Ballo we also see his particular use of arms and upper body (unusual inclines of the body and again those unexpected combinations). Then, when the whole cast is on stage, we notice so clearly his particular use of space along with the way he places the dancers in that space. Ballo was a great addition to the many available lockdown programs.

As for After the Rain, I have never liked what to me are awkward poses—upturned feet, parallel positions, crouching and collapsing bodies, back views of the dancers and manipulation of bodies using the feet, for example. They sit uncomfortably alongside those parts of the pas de deux that are anything but awkward. Still it was interesting to see Wendy Whelan in the role that was made on her. She was partnered by Craig Hall and the performance was filmed in 2012.

Michelle Potter, 4 May 2020

Featured image: Promotional image for Ballo della Regina and After the Rain pas de deux. New York City Ballet, 2020

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

Anzac Day 2020. Aotearoa New Zealand

by Jennifer Shennan

This year, for the first time in over 100 years, all public gatherings to mark Anzac Day were cancelled, due to the lockdown imposed as part of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic: an enemy if ever there was one, not war between nations this time but a hope that all countries might join a common fight.

Traditionally Anzac Day commemorations shape up as a kind of countrywide choreography, starting with a Dawn Parade in every city, town, village or marae—a bugle, a salute, a karakia, a march, a haka, a hymn, a prayer, a poem—‘They shall grow not old’—a minute’s silence and The Last Post

There are church services, radio and television broadcasts, concerts, gatherings and wakes throughout the day to remember sacrifice—the war dead and wounded, refugees and fugitives, and the whole sad sorry waste of it all. It is a statutory public holiday, restaurants, shops, schools and theatres are closed, normal life is on hold for a day, then it’s back to busy business. But ‘normal life’ has been on hold these many weeks now. So how was this Anzac Day different from other years?

Some today stood alone at the roadside in front of their home, before dawn at 6am, holding a candle perhaps, and a transistor radio to hear the national broadcast, or watched television coverage of the Prime Minister standing at her gate. Many families had made sculptures or graphics of poppies to display in their gardens. Some of the 1000s of teddy bears in house windows to cheer passersby these past weeks were today wearing poppies too. Many of us will have been mindful of the shocking statistic that in two months of the 1918 influenza pandemic more New Zealanders died than had been killed during the whole of World War I.

We’ve grown so accustomed to the commercialisation of Christmas and to a degree Easter, surrounded as we are by tsunamis of merchandise ‘to show we care’. Today was differently focused. Some folk had developed their own ideas and found resources to express an experience, share a thought, address a concern, tell a story, to give a voice to hope. Isn’t that what art does? Mere entertainment has to me never seemed sufficient, either in peace or wartime.

Numerous dance companies worldwide, stymied by the current pandemic and obliged to cancel many performances and productions, have in past weeks moved to make selected works from their repertoire available online. The Royal New Zealand Ballet have already screened video of Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel, Liam Scarlett’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella. For today their program from 2015, Salute, was aired, comprising  two works—Andrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele. My review of the Company’s season in 2015 is at this link.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Dear Horizon', 2015. Photo: Ellie Richards
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Dear Horizon, 2015. Photo: © Ellie Richards

What a pity this broadcast could not have included Jiri Kylian’s masterwork, Soldatenmis/Soldiers’ Mass, to Martinu, from the same program—(prohibitive fees or copyright issues perhaps?) since it was a work that suited the Company’s dancers of that time to the drumbeat of their hearts and ours. Laura Saxon Jones, sole female performing alongside all the male dancers of the Company, will never be forgotten.    

Other outstanding choreographies  with a war, or anti-war theme, include Jose Limon’s noble Missa Brevis, dedicated to the spirit of Polish resistance; Young Men, Ivan Perez’ choreography startlingly performed by Ballet Boyz; and of course the legendary work Der grüne Tisch/The Green Table, by Kurt Jooss, a work I used to dream might one day be performed by RNZB, so well it would have suited them until just a few years ago. I remain grateful to have seen the Joffrey Ballet’s  authoritative performances however, and another unforgettable production in which the late Pina Bausch played The Old Woman—a performance of such chiselled beauty stays with one for life, as though she had stepped from a painting by Modigliani, or Munch, or a figure from the mediaeval Danse Macabre of Lübeck Cathedral.   

(I’m often reminded of the very fine study by William McNeill, Harvard historian, who in his book Keeping Together in Time, considers how coordinated rhythmic movement, and the shared feelings it evokes, has been a powerful force in holding human groups together—how armies of the world, train and march and move—be that in quick, slow, double or dead march, the goose step, the North Koreans’ grand battement smash, or the soldiers’ antics at the Pakistan-Indian border).

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Both RNZB works, Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Ieremia’s Passchendaele, retain all the impact and power of their first staging, with the New Zealand Army Band playing to precise perfection, for the former the music of Gareth Farr, for the latter the composition by Dwayne Bloomfield. The contained emotion of the music, particularly in cello and brass solos, stops time.   

Ieremia’s early career, as for so many of the dancers who worked with Douglas Wright, absorbed much influence from the driven and airborne choreography  of that master dance-maker. An indelible image that remains with me is from Wright’s The Kiss Inside—a scene in which a gorilla-suited figure passes a tray of cut oranges around a group of boys (a team of rugby players, refreshments at half time?). Soon, just a little older, the same young men are in a faraway other place, a different game, writhing on the ground, in an agony of wounds, bleating like sheep. The gorilla passes a microphone among them to record their messages for relaying home. The bleating becomes recognisable as a cry of pathos, ‘Mummy, Mummy’ from one dying soldier after another. Says it all really.  

Jennifer Shennan, 25 April 2020

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Passchendaele, 2015. Photo: © Evan Li

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Passchendaele', 2015. Photo: Evan Li

Jack Lister in 'We who are left'. Queensland ballet, 2016. Photo: David Kelly

Anzac Day 2020 in Australia. Who’s dancing?

Today, 25 April 2020, I watched Royal New Zealand Ballet’s streaming of Andrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele, two works that reflected on the Anzac spirit. In these days of ‘digital stages’, ‘digital seasons’ and the like, I wondered why nothing similar had happened in Australia. Or did something escape my attention?

I have to admit to wondering what could have been streamed in Australia. For a start, in 2016 Queensland Ballet programmed an exceptional triple bill of three works under the title Lest we forget. Two were by non Australian choreographers and neither of them was exactly right for the occasion. But one was Natalie Weir’s We who are left. It would have been perfect. As my review of We who are left was published on the London-based site, Dancetabs, I am reproducing the text here for those who may not have seen the Dancetabs review.

Natalie Weir’s Lest we forget. Queensland Ballet, July 2016 (review first published on Dancetabs, 31 July 2016)

It was, I believe, Agnes de Mille who exhorted choreographers to aim to make an impact in the first 30 seconds of their works if they wanted to harness the interest of an audience. Choreographer Natalie Weir did exactly that in Queensland Ballet’s triple bill program, Lest We Forget, a program honouring the ANZAC soldiers of World War I. Weir’s work, We who are left, begins in darkness. One by one five male dancers are revealed, standing in individual pools of light. As we watch each man is joined by a woman and we can almost hear the women shouting ‘Don’t leave me’, ‘Stay’, ‘I love you’ as they throw themselves into the arms of their partners, cling to them, and reluctantly tear themselves away as their partners ready themselves to leave for the war zone. Instant emotional involvement is the only possible reaction. The five couples then lead us on a journey of parting, fighting, death, survival, longing, and memories of what was and what might have been.

Choreographically the work is outstanding throughout. After the strongly emotional opening scene, the men engage in their war activities. At first their movements have a quality of military precision to them. But as this section proceeds they throw themselves around the performing space in athletic leaps as they become more and more bound up in the process of war. Then, dramatically, an upstage screen lifts and four of the five men walk slowly backwards into the grey recesses that are revealed. The screen descends and just a single soldier, ‘The man who lived’ danced by Jack Lister, remains onstage. A lyrical pas de deux between Lina Kim and Camilo Ramos follows. It is a duet recalling memories of past times and is filled with Weir’s signature pas de deux style in which bodies tip, dive, twist and wrap around each other.

Perhaps the choreographic highlight, however, comes at the moment when Clare Morehen, ‘She who was left’, stands onstage with a pair of soldier’s boots in front of her. She dances around them, sometimes with sharp pique-style movements that suggest agony, sometimes with extended legs and stretched arms that suggest a range of other emotions. Then, surprisingly, she is joined by her man, Shane Wuerthner. They dance together but separately. Morehen stretches out to him but they never touch. They kiss but their lips never meet. He lies on the floor and she steps over him crisscrossing her way along the body. They are astonishing moments and present a totally different take on memory from what we saw from Kim and Ramos. Later, the other four women enter with pairs of boots and poignantly place them on the floor. But nothing can equal the dream-like moments we spend with Morehen and Wuerthner.

Clare Morehen in Natalie Weir's We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly
Clare Morehen in Natalie Weir’s We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

The work is danced to selections from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem Opus 66 and Weir has chosen largely from those sections of the score that include the spoken word in the form of poetry by Wilfred Owen. The score pounds relentlessly and adds a separate level of drama to the overall work. David Walters lighting design is spectacular throughout beginning with that striking downlighting in the opening moments, through to brooding lighting washing across the stage as the men find themselves in the act of war, and on to further pools of light highlighting the women as they survey the empty boots of those who did not return. Costumes by Noelene Hill are perfectly of the period and neutral in their colours.

We who are left has an innate simplicity—five couples, five sets of boots, basically a grey colour scheme. That’s about it on an obvious level. Yet it is masterful in its ability to communicate general thoughts about the effects of war, while at the same time conveying a sense of individuality. It is like a dagger in the heart with its theatricality, its choreographic sensibility, and its dramatic power. It is nothing less than a knockout.

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Then there’s Stephen Baynes’ 1914 made for the Australian Ballet way back in 1998. One of my ongoing gripes is that 1914 has never been revived. I am told by some that it ‘had problems’, but I thought it was an exceptional work. In 1998 I was writing for Dance Australia and my review appeared there. Here is what I wrote of this work.

Stephen Baynes’ 1914. The Australian Ballet, April 1998 (review first published in Dance Australia, June/July 1998)

Stephen Baynes’ new work, 1914, opened with many expectations riding on it. It was Baynes’ first evening-length work, his first narrative ballet and the first time he had taken a novel, David Malouf’s Fly away Peter, as specific inspiration. But most of all, it was a major Australian work: the Australian Ballet’s first ever full-length work with choreography, score and design all commissioned from Australian artists.

As a collaboration, 1914 achieves much. On the most obvious level, the ballet (and the book) follows a simple narrative centring on the lives of three Australians, Jim Saddler, Imogen Harcourt and Ashley Crowther. Jim and Ashley enlist and go to France to fight in the Great War and the lives of the three are torn apart and changed forever. But the collaborative team of Baynes, Graeme Koehne (composer), Andrew Carter (set and lighting designer) and Anna French (costume designer), have added to the simple story something of the poetic and impressionistic qualities of Fly away Peter. Through the contributions of this creative team the story becomes a journey from light to dark and, finally, back to light again with Imogen, who is left alone in the final moments of the ballet to resolve her—and our—feelings of loss and grief.

In his choreographic definition of the characters, Baynes’ greatest success is with Jim, whose movements are both unaffected and expansive. Especially in the first solo, with its emphasis on clean lines and movements that highlight an open chest and outstretched arms, Jim emerges as laconic but free-spirited. On opening night Steven Heathcote interpreted this choreography with a total lack of pretension. Damien Welch and Joshua Consandine performed the role of Jim later in the season but, while they both danced with style, neither had the combination of maturity and un-selfconsciousness that made Heathcote’s interpretation so satisfying.

Imogen is probably the most difficult role in the ballet. She must be the down-to-earth photographer whose relationship with Jim is based purely on a shared interest in birds; the dream figure who appears to Jim in France; and the solitary woman whose emotions must carry the ballet to a close. Her final solo requires a strong sense of balance and is full of steps that seem to twist and turn in on themselves, as she works to come to grips with Jim’s death. On opening night Lisa Bolte was clearly in control technically and brought a deep honesty to the role. In other casts Miranda Coney and Vick Attard both contributed individualistic interpretations and Attard, especially, was emotionally convincing in the final solo. But both Attard and Coney sometimes seemed to move with a kind of lightness and affectation that is at odds with the character of Imogen.

Study for 1914. Lisa Bolte as Imogen.

The English-educated Ashley is defined largely through other people—his cultivated friends who visit Jim who works for him and the soldiers he commands. Neither Adrian Burnett, Matthew Trent nor David McAllister seemed able to transform him into anything other than a distant and insubstantial figure. Marc Cassidy, on the other hand, brought life to one of the Australian soldiers in France brilliantly—a larrikin gambler and smoker who was clearly based on Malouf’s character, Clancy.

As an Australian work, 1914 is profoundly moving. Without being facile, there is a simplicity in the choreography that reflects the qualities of openness and directness, perhaps even naivety. There are times too when the sense of Australian sound, light and colour is overwhelmingly beautiful. Carter is the star of the creative team here—his abstractions of the landscape into a few trees, a couple of sand dunes and a patch of sky is awesome.

As a theatrical work, 1914 makes demands on a ballet audience. Probably the most affecting moment in the work has no dancing. When the scene changes from France to Australia following Jim’s death for the resolution of the ballet, all the audience has, for what seems like quite a long time, are changes of lighting, visual imagery and musical theme. But those moments are intensely enriching. Baynes and his team have made a quietly impressive work that asks the audience to see that emotions can be evoked through stillness, sound and visual imagery as well as movement.

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What will we see on Anzac Day 2021?

Michelle Potter, 25 April 2020

Featured image: Jack Lister in We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

Jack Lister in 'We who are left'. Queensland ballet, 2016. Photo: David Kelly
Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Cinderella' 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

Cinderella. The Australian Ballet. 2020 Digital Season

Like most arts companies around the world, the Australian Ballet is offering audiences a streaming service during the COVID-19 lockdown. Each performance is available for a short time only, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, first seen in Australia in 2013, is the second offering on the program. The cast is led by Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in a partnership that is both moving and elegant. The performance was filmed in Brisbane in 2016.*

This Cinderella is not the usual take on the old fairy tale, although the characters from that fairy tale are present, albeit often in something of a new guise. For the most part the story also follows the narrative of a young girl being brought up in less than agreeable circumstances who finds love after attending a ball, and who then goes through the process of waiting for her Prince to find her after she leaves the ball in a hurry.

The unusual characteristics of Ratmansky’s version were made all the more powerful given that I had, the day before, watched Royal New Zealand Ballet’s streaming of Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella created originally for the New Zealand company in 2007. Hampson’s production had some lovely moments—a moving prologue, for example, in which we witnessed a young Cinderella at her mother’s funeral. It set a context for the rest of the story. There were some exceptional performances too including Jon Trimmer’s brilliant portrayal of the Royal Shoemaker who attempts to discover the inherent qualities of the shoe left behind at the ball by Cinderella.

But choreographically Hampson’s work was not especially inventive and fell within a very traditional balletic mode. Ratmansky’s choreography was still classically based but there was a distinctive touch to it. For a start, there were fewer easily recognisable classroom-style steps, and a much freer use of the arms and upper body.

In addition to this distinctive choreographic vocabulary, I was struck in particular by Ratmansky’s approach to the relationship between his vocabulary and Prokofiev’s score. Watching his choreography made the score sound quite different from what I had heard while watching the Hampson production. Ratmansky appeared to be strongly motivated by the music, more so than Hampson it seemed to me, and created steps specifically to match passages, even notes, in the score. This is not to say that Hampson’s choreography was unmusical, just that for Ratmansky music seemed to be the major force in the development of his movement.

I have reviewed the Ratmansky Cinderella elsewhere on this website so don’t intend to go further into the production. Here is a link to my original review. There is a place for both a traditional production, such as Hampson gives us, and a production that moves in a different direction. The same holds for Nutcracker, Swan Lake and others of the classics. But I loved being able to see the Hampson and the Ratmansky Cinderella side by side. It opened my eyes to an aspect of Ratmansky’s work that I hadn’t noticed in such depth before.

Michelle Potter, 23 April 2020

*For copyright reasons the Australian Ballet’s streamed performances are available to viewers in Australia only.

Featured image: Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters prepare for the ball in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. The Australia Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Cinderella' 2013. Photo: Jeff Busby

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet—another look

Royal New Zealand Ballet is making available a range of videos of productions from the repertoire for free home viewing for a brief period during the covid-19 lockdown. The dress rehearsal of their 2015 production of  A Midsummer Night’s Dream screened last week.

Comment by Jennifer Shennan

This ballet was originally commissioned by director Ethan Stiefel in a promising initiative for Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet to share resources, production and performance rights. The project could have grown to include other productions, teacher and dancer exchanges and residencies, and the concept of trans-Tasman co-productions was heartening. The premiere season of MND was staged here during the term of the next director Francesco Ventriglia.

The shimmering overture of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream evokes a humming faerie world. The dark blue-black midnight stage flickers alight with fireflies and glow worms. This is a visit to Waitomo Caves, after-dark Zealandia, Otari Bush or Botanical Gardens, the remembered hush of night in those places. You don’t need a grandchild holding your hand, though it helps, to know the feeling that magic could be out there, or look there, or quick another one over there. This entire production delivers on the promise caught in those quivering opening moments—with choreography, design and music inseparably part of what is arguably one of the best works in the company’s repertoire.

Liam Scarlett’s exquisite choreography drew galvanised performances from each of the dancers who were members of RNZB back in 2015. This viewing is a welcome reminder of their verve and style, the stage positively buzzing with the wit of a team of dancers who knew each other well and could together rise to a performance of such assured calibre. It is poignant in the extreme that we have loved and then lost so many of these artists in the swift turnover of dancers during the months that followed. There’s always a mobility of dancers amongst ballet companies but the scale and timing of that particular exodus wrought a major shift in the RNZB’s artistic identity.

Nigel Gaynor, music director back in the day, made an inspired full-length score by extending Mendelssohn’s original incidental music with seamlessly interpolated excerpts from others of his compositions. Gaynor conducted the NZ Symphony Orchestra and the result was a transport of delight.

Tracy Grant Lord produced fabulous designs for a number of major RNZB productions—for Christopher Hampsons’s Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet, as well as this Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lighting design by Kendall Smith positively sparkles with the wit of illuminating fairies and caverns themselves, rather than simply throwing light at them.

My review in 2015 was based on the performance by Lucy Green as Titania, Qi Huan as Oberon, both splendidly cast. This video has Tonia Looker and Maclean Hopper as leads and they do an equally fine job. Harry Skinner plays Bottom with a grounded quality that delights without overplaying the role, revealing an actor’s sensibility. Kohei Iwamoto is the quintessential Puck that Shakespeare must have had in mind when he wrote the character—daredevil, wicked, witty, mercurial rascal. Whatever the role, Kohei has always absorbed his virtuosic technique into characterisation and never used it for display. Even to watch him in a studio class was to see how his strength, precision and swiftness could grow into grace and the sprezzatura that Shakespeare knew all about ‘…that you would e’er do nothing but that.’

You could be moved by every moment of this ballet, beginning with a vulnerable young child caught in the crossfire of his quarrelling parents and their eventual hard-earned reconciliation, but one hilarious mid-moment breaks in to the action narrative as all of the cast dash en diagonale across the stage in pursuit of each other for the wrong and/or the right reasons—it’s a like a side-stage glimpse of the backstage life of all these characters—a cheeky wave and a wink to savour forever.

The fairies are a shimmering line-up—Lucy Green and Mayu Tanigaito among them—and Scarlett’s sense of comic timing draws a host of terrific performances—from Abigail Boyle, Paul Mathews, Laura Saxon Jones, Joseph Skelton, William Fitzgerald, Loughlan Prior, Jacob Chown. These assured performers really did work as a magic team, lucky we were. ‘Hence away. Now all is well. One alone stand sentinel …’

A recent saga has seen Liam Scarlett’s career with the Royal Ballet and elsewhere collapse into apparent ruin. The media fair bristled with leaked early reports (oh how salaciousness boosts ratings) but now the investigation seems to be over and the word is mum with the Royal Ballet declaring  ‘There were no matters to pursue…’ So through that vagueness all we know is the heartbreak of Scarlett’s gifts destroyed, his career for now anyway at a standstill. Let’s meantime be grateful for the wondrous talents and team that made this ballet in the first place, and hope there can be some eventual resolution to the current impasse. Good on RNZB for screening his choreographic masterwork. 

Jennifer Shennan, 20 April 2020

Featured image: Tonia Looker as Titania and Harry Skinner as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Rain. Rosas

12 April 2020. Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage

I first saw Rain back in June 2011, almost 9 years ago now. Then it was danced by the Paris Opera Ballet. I was full of admiration for the work then, and for the way the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet performed, but I wondered what it would be like when danced by de Keersmaeker’s own company, Rosas. Rain, as danced by Rosas, was due to be shown at Sadler’s Wells in April 2020 although the theatre closed down due to COVID-19. But, for a short period of time, Sadler’s Wells has made a 2016 filming of it available online, which is where I watched it.

The excitement generated by de Keersmaeker’s choreography was still there—unpredictability combined with a certain logic, random movement combined with repetition, the off-centre leaning of bodies, and the general feeling of pleasure listening to the Steve Reich score (Music for 18 Musicians played live by Ensemble Ictus) while watching how de Keersmaeker’s movement related to it.

But I did feel a different kind of emotion watching Rosas perform Rain. Ballet dancers hold their bodies differently from other dancers. They have a different feeling of where the centre of movement lies and they have a different feeling of how the body reacts to the space around it. I got the feeling that the Rosas performance was being danced by people who were simply walking down the street at times, and then bursting, sometimes unexpectedly, into dance. It was not unpleasurable, just different.

Two dancers stood out for me. Léa Dubois had a real feel for pushing every movement to its fullest extent. Her arms arms and legs extended beautifully, she used her upper body strongly, she made contact with the audience, and she had excellent elevation, which she used effectively. My eyes kept turning towards her. Frank Gizycki also had a strong stage presence and there was both pride and pleasure in the way he moved.

One section I especially enjoyed was a trio quite early in the work by the three men of the cast. De Keersmaeker’s choreography had the three sometimes dancing together in unison. But mostly she featured a two to one arrangement swapping the dancers, however, so that combinations were never predictable. Nor was the focus predictable. Sometimes one dancer led the way, sometimes two, sometimes all three.

In all it was an interesting experience seeing the work on the company it was made for, but I guess the experience of seeing a work live will always outclass a digital stage presentation. All credit, however, to Sadler’s Wells for looking after its committed audiences so well. I look forward to the next presentation at a time when ‘live’ is pretty much impossible.

Michelle Potter, 12 April 2020

Both images from the Sadler’s Wells website.