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

World Superstars of Ballet Gala. Bravissimo Productions

2 October 2018. Canberra Theatre

The last ‘superstar’ ballet gala I saw was in New York in 2010. It featured eight male dancers and was called Kings of the dance. Such seasons are not common in Australia, but a new Canberra-based organisation, Bravissimo Productions, has made a commitment to remedying this situation. They have staged a two night, Canberra-only season showcasing ten dancers from Australia, Cuba, Italy and the United States in a program of solos and pas de deux. The ‘superstars’ were joined by senior vocational students from various training establishments in an effort by Bravissimo to allow such students to share the stage with professional dancers.

The evening was in three sections and the most exciting part was the middle one. It began with Moskovsky Waltz danced by American-born, Bolshoi-trained Joy Womack, currently principal dancer with Universal Ballet in Korea, and Italian artist Francesco Daniele Costa. Those of us who remember the first performance in Australia of Spring Waters (choreography Asaf Messerer) when the Bolshoi Ballet visited Australia in the 1960s (or maybe it was even the late 1950s) were transported back to our teenage years. Moskovsky Waltz, with choreography by Vasily Vainonen, had a similar feel. Its fluidity, its freedom, its gorgeous lifts, were beautifully performed by Womak and Costa. It was just stunning.

The middle section concluded with Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo from the Australian Ballet dancing the pas de deux and variations from Le Corsaire. Guo’s interpretation of his role in the pas de deux did not initially have the swashbuckling glamour one often sees. His eyes were often cast down as if acknowledging his love in a demure and quite moving manner. But by the time we got to the variations Guo was at his startling and incredible best as he threw himself into the spectacular jumps and turns that characterise the variations and coda. Breathtaking really. As for Kondo, she scarcely faltered and her technical accomplishments were outstanding. But what really made it such a show-stopper—the audience cheered and shouted throughout— was not only the technical prowess we saw from each dancer, but the relationship between the two of them. They danced together, for each other and with each other.

In between these opening and closing items of the middle section was a great solo from the versatile Costa—Le Bourgeois, danced to a song by Jacques Brel. It was amusing, clever, partly interpretive of the words of the song, and wonderfully performed in a contemporary manner. We also saw another pas de deux from Le Corsaire, the Pas d’esclave danced by Joseph Gatti of United Ballet Theatre in Orlando, Florida, and Cuban-born Venus Villa. This time, coming as it did from a different part of the full-length Corsaire, we did encounter a swashbuckling pirate in Gatti and an up-front slave girl in Villa. The middle section also included a solo by Avery Gay and a group item by senior students from an unidentified establishment (National College of Dance, Newcastle, NSW, I think).

Other items from the first and third sections of the program included Kondo and Guo dancing the Act II pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty—and how beautiful it was to see it without the over decorated set that accompanies it in the recent Australian Ballet production. It was danced against a plain backcloth, lit pale pink, and it was a treat to be able to focus on the choreography, and in particular on the slowly unfolding beauty of Kondo’s movements, which so often seem to be in slow motion. There were also two pas de deux performed by Taras Domitro and Adiarys Almeida, the pas de deux from La Bayadère Act II and the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote; a contemporary pas de deux from Avery Gay and Tristan Ianiero; the pas de deux from Act II of Swan Lake danced by Gatti and Villa; the balcony pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet danced by Costa and Womack; and another amusing solo from Costa entitled Moscate. There was also some student work including a lovely opening sequence, a short Etudes-style work, choreographed by Daniel Convery.

Adiarys Almeida as Kitri in 'Don Quixote'

Adiarys Almeida as Kitri in Don Quixote. Photo supplied

This gala was an exceptional initiative by Bravissimo Productions and we can only hope that there will be more. But there were one or two issues that shouldn’t go unmentioned. The stage lighting left something to be desired—there were occasions when the dancers were almost dancing in darkness. There were also a few rather long pauses between items and I thought the music (which was recorded) needed adjusting on some occasions. In particular, the music for the Swan Lake pas de deux was way too loud to the extent that it sounded screechingly awful. It quite took away from the calm serenity that I think should be the overarching mood of the pas de deux. The printed program also needed proof reading to remove the occasional spelling error and inconsistency. And it would be good to have acknowledged specifically where the student dancers came from.

Then, while I admired Convery’s opening item, which was nicely suited to the different ages and expertise of the performers, we could have gone straight into it rather than have several young dancers come out first (in front of the curtain) and do a bit of stretching and limbering. Apart from the fact that they had no space, they had trouble finding their way back behind the front curtain, which didn’t open until they had all left, and it seemed like we were going to be subjected to something quite amateur (which we weren’t). I would also loved to have had some more appropriate images to use. Neither of the images used in this post are specifically from the gala.

One final comment: Bravissimo Productions secured generous sponsorship for the gala from Lennock Škoda, who treated us all to free chocolate coated ice cream bars during the intermission!!

Michelle Potter, 3 October 2018

Featured image: Australian Ballet dancers Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo © Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

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

'Strong and Brave'. QL2 Dance, 2018. Photo: ©Lorna Sim

Strong and Brave. QL2 Dance & National Portrait Gallery

22 & 23 September 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra has once again supported dance as an adjunct to its exhibition program. In conjunction with So Fine, an exhibition celebrating work made by contemporary women artists, Ruth Osborne has created four short dance pieces under the umbrella title Strong and Brave. The four works reflect selected works from So Fine and use dancers from QL2 Dance—Oongah Slater, Alana Stenning, Serene Lorimer, Akira Byrne and David Windeyer. It perhaps helps to see the exhibition before watching the dance. My observations about the relationships between the art and the dance may not coincide with those of others.

The opening item was, I decided, a reflection on the art of Valerie Kirk who expressed, in captions accompanying the exhibition, her interest in ‘textile tradition and culture’. It was a lovely bit of choreography for three women who often worked together but often also separated from each other and became absorbed in the full skirts of the costume they were wearing.  It was eminently watchable dancing, and in the end it didn’t matter so much about the reference.

'Strong and brave'. QL2 Dance, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim
Art by Valerie Kirk. So Fine, National Portrait Gallery, 2018

(left) Strong and Brave, QL2 Dance 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim; (right) Art by Valerie Kirk. So fine, National Portrait Gallery, 2018

The most moving dance item for me was the second piece, which clearly related to images by Fiona McMonagle referencing Britain’s child migration scheme by which thousands of children were sent to Australia for ‘a better life’. Two young dancers interacted with pleasure and excitement, two grown ups offered comfort on the one hand, but demanded conformity and obedience on the other. Bouquets in particular to the two young dancers who met, interacted and stood together through it all.

Strong and Brave, QL2 Dance, 2018. Photo: Lorna SimStrong and Brave. QL2 Dance 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

The third work on the program was also moving, although in a somewhat different way. It was largely a solo and seemed quite introspective. It appeared to reflect the art work of Leah King-Smith whose portraits of her Aboriginal mother are presented in the exhibition as layered works using photographs taken by her father, The original photographs have been subjected to a range of contemporary techniques and the finished works have achieved a softly distorted appearance. King-Smith calls her work ‘photography dreaming’. Osborne has used a piece of white, gauzy material to achieve a similar look and the work is dreamlike and emotionally affecting.

Strong and Brave. QL2 Dance 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

The final work was the least successful, largely because it lacked the subtlety of the previous three works. It reflected the art work of Linde Ivimey who accompanied a friend on a voyage to the Antarctic and made a series of small sculptures based on that journey.

Strong and Brave, QL2 Dance, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

(left) Strong and Brave, QL2 Dance 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim; (right) Art by Linde Ivimey. So fine, National Portrait Gallery, 2018

It is a privilege to have seen several of the collaborations that have developed between the National Portrait Gallery and Canberra’s dance organisations. The Gallery now has a new director and will also be closing for several months in 2019 for renovations to the building. I hope in these renewed circumstances dance/art collaborations will continue. It gives us an opportunity to ponder about art in both its visual and performing genres. That can only be a good thing.

Michelle Potter, 26 September 2018

Featured image: Two young migrant children in the second movement of Strong and Brave, 2018. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Strong and Brave. QL2 Dance, 2018. Photo: Lorna Sim

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Alegrias'. Photo Sergey Konstantinov

Showcase 2018. The Australian Ballet School

22 September 2018. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

The Australian Ballet School’s annual Showcase came to Canberra this year, and what a treat it was. It is, of course, what it says it is, a showcase of dancing by students of different levels studying at the Australian Ballet School. But it was such an interesting and pleasurable experience to see these students, emerging professional dancers, in a program of eight very different items from seven different choreographers.

Showcase 2018 opened with Alegrias, a feisty flamenco item choreographed by Areti Boyaci, teacher of Spanish dance to Australian Ballet School’s senior students. It was danced by the graduating class (Level 8) to a live accompaniment by guitarist Werner Neumann. Then followed  Mark Annear’s Waltz from Birthday Celebration, danced by youthful, tutu-clad dancers largely from Level 5; the Dryad scene from Don Quixote Act II; a charming new creation, Wolfgang Dance, from Simon Dow, again performed by Level 5 students; Paul Knobloch’s Valetta for the graduating class, which Knobloch choreographed in memory of his grandmother whose name was Valetta; another new creation, Ballo Barocco, from Stephen Baynes made on Level 7 dancers; Heart Strings, also new, from contemporary teacher Margaret Wilson for Level 6 students; and finally a tango-flavoured item from Simon Dow, Danza de la Vida, for the graduating class.

Two items stood out for me: Ballo Barocco and Heart Strings. Ballo Barocco, danced to four excerpts from different concerti by J. S. Bach, showed Baynes, currently resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet, at his musical best.  The cast of 16 moved smoothly and fluidly from one sculptural pose to another. In between these poses we saw movements in canon form, some spectacular dancing from the men, along with admirable partnering. I loved too the simple, elegant lines of the costumes by Maree Strachan that did not distract from the choreography but, rather, allowed it to shine.

Level 7 dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Stephen Baynes' 'Ballet Barocco'. Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergeyev Konstantinov

Level 7 dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Stephen Baynes’ Ballet Barocco. Showcase 2018. Photo: © Sergey Konstantinov

Margaret Wilson teaches contemporary dance at the Australian Ballet School and I was expecting something rather different from what was presented to us in Heart Strings. With the girls on pointe and clear references to ballet technique, to me the work was contemporary ballet. It was beautifully performed and seemed to focus on limbs—long and extended, lifted and stretched. But what really tore at the heart strings for me was the underlying narrative, which drew on aspects of adolescent life: arguments, bullying, young love and the like. These dancers, adolescents themselves, captured so clearly  the emotion behind these life-moments and just swept us along.

Other highlights? The male dancing in Valetta, which is made for 13 male dancers and just one female artist, was often quite spectacular with its strong patterns and fast pace. The principal male dancer, Thomas McClintock, danced exceptionally well, but in addition had extraordinary stage presence. Someone to watch as he embarks on his professional career. Then it was impossible not to be charmed by the cheekiness of Wolfgang Dance. Performed to the Allegro from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the youngest of the students who toured to Canberra drew us into their games onstage and peeped at us from the wings as they made their exits.

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Valetta', Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergey Konstantinov

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Valetta, Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergey Konstantinov

The one item that left me a little cold was the Dryad scene from Don Quixote.  It was not the dancing that worried me and I especially enjoyed the performance by Ella Chambers as Cupid. But Barry Kay’s costumes are so over decorated, especially those headdresses. I feel it is time to retire them.

Despite the overdressed Dryads, Showcase 2018 gave us a glimpse of a promising future for ballet in Australia.

Michelle Potter, 24 September 2018

Featured image: Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Alegrias. Photo: © Sergey Konstantinov

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Alegrias'. Photo Sergey Konstantinov

Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Crying Men. Black Grace

20 September 2018. Te Rauparaha Stadium, Porirua

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Crying Men broke powerful new ground for Black Grace and director Neil Ieremia in a three-performance season at Te Rauparaha stadium in Porirua.

The opening work, Gone, resulted from a recent workshop conducted with 16 pupils from local schools, Porirua College, Mana College and Aotea College. Its taut atmosphere centred on the theme of sudden disappearance of family and the familiarity of home. The work was accompanied by The Virtuoso Strings, a local young orchestral ensemble (along the lines of  El Sistema) conducted by Liz Sneyd. They played an astonishingly sustained and inventive composition by Craig Utting (tho’ the central string section had over-loud amplification—my impression was it did not need amplification at all).

The second work, E Toa, E Toa, choreographed by Ieremia and by Tuaine Robati, was performed by students from Whitireia Performing Arts. Its beautiful opening image, a circle of female and male dancers, arms intertwined, red hibiscus flowers bright on the dark costumes and bare skin glowing in the light, had a prayer-like quality as the dancers chanted their hope for a better world. It was a focused work from a large cast who moved with compelling energy, and the drum accompaniment was with them every beat of the way.

Both these works made strong atmospheric contribution to the serious theme of the following major work. Gone in particular reminded me of the Urban Youth Movement  workshop projects in South Auckland that were part of Black Grace’s program some time ago.

In Crying Men, a powerful element of theatre was introduced through the script of playwright Victor Roger, centering on the desperation and sorrow of a man unable to break free from the physical violence that has marked his life as husband, father and grandfather. A major work in four scenes, its recorded narration by Nathaniel Lees was poignant but would be wonderful to include as a live component of the work.

Black Grace, 'Crying Men'. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Black Grace, Crying Men. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: © Duncan Cole

Ieremia’s role as the grandfather had pathos, and the early scene of his wife being led away by female aitua (spirits) of death to the afterworld was shocking in its beauty.

A group dance of abstract design, simple in gestures but intricate in the canon and syncopation of its delivery, was a memorable gem that echoed weaving and carving patterns familiar from Pacifica arts.

The tense and violent encounters between three generation of males in one family was the continuing theme of darkness to the dance-play. A shot of humour was allowed in male/female interaction but there was no attempt made to cover up the central issue that remains a challenge in all societies as gender dynamics play out.

It seemed a pity not to employ the very considerable dramatic talents of Sean MacDonald, a foundation member of Black Grace back in 1995—but overall this was a  powerful group performance. If at times sections of the work seemed repetitive or over-long, that I suspect was intended to echo the very point … where is this violence going?  Where does it end?  Not on Mars I think, but right here, in New Zealand, and in the Pacific. In India. How’s Australia doing? Probably every country on Earth has issues that choreography could help to confront. Black Grace is equal to that task.

Jennifer Shennan, 21 September 2018

Featured image: Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: © Duncan Cole

Black Grace + Friends. Artistic Direction, Neil Ieremia. Photo: Duncan Cole

Featured image: Scott Elstermann in a moment from a performance by Cunningham Residency dancers. National Gallery of Australia, 2018.

Merce Cunningham Residency. National Gallery of Australia

The National Gallery of Australia, with support from the Embassy of the United States of America, has just finished hosting a dance residency in conjunction with its exhibition American Masters 1940–1980. Three dancers were selected to work with Jamie Scott, a former Cunningham dancer and now one of a number of such dancers charged with staging the Cunningham repertoire.

Cunningham Residency dancers with Jamie Scott (far right?) next to works by Frank Stella and Al Held. National Gallery of Australia, 2018. Photographer not identified. Dance artists not named.

The residency also relates to the centenary of the birth of Cunningham, which occurs next year, 2019.

The first thing to say is the original brief specified that one dancer was to come from the ACT. Well this didn’t happen. I can’t believe that there was not one dancer in the ACT who could have been part of the program in some way. Who knows what might have happened? Merce had courage, took risks, and loved chance. Could not those running the residency have had more courage?

It was a shame too that there seemed to be no way of knowing what exactly the dancers were performing—part of the Cunningham repertoire, but what part(s)? People who watched the performances, but who perhaps came mainly to look at the art on show, may not have cared, but I think the dance community likes to know these things. I certainly do. And who was the musician who accompanied the performances. And what composition was he playing? An announcement, or a cast sheet was needed.

Nevertheless, the three dancers, who had worked with Scott for the time that they did (one week, two, not sure), danced beautifully. It was refreshing to see again the clarity of movement that emerges from the Cunningham technique—the juxtaposition of curves and straight lines, the tilt of bodies, a delicious jump with the leg in a low arabesque that reminded me of Cunningham’s 1958 work Summerspace, the unique partnering where body builds on body, tiny detailed movements of the shoulders or hands or feet, the changing balance of the body, and so on. Aspects of Cunningham technique sometimes look simple, deceptively so, but extraordinary control and strength are needed. The performance, which lasted around 40 minutes (with an abbreviated version performed at an evening event), resonated beautifully against the background of a Sol Le Witt wall drawing, whose apparently simple structure also has a deep, conceptual strength.

It was very disappointing, however, that reference to Cunningham did not appear in the exhibition itself. Why spend what must have been a large amount of money, along with major input from the US Embassy, on a dance residency and then have so little reference to the way in which the artists represented in the exhibition collaborated with Cunningham and his company? Nor, it seems, was there anything in the publication that accompanied the exhibition, apart from a reference to a video made by Nam June Paik with film maker Charles Atlas in 1978. The video, Merce by Merce by Paik, was in fact on show but not in the exhibition. It was on another floor of the Gallery, which I only discovered after asking several people where it was.

This residency was a lost opportunity, and media support was very poor. One expects at least to be given media images that are properly labelled, and to have the performing artists adequately recognised, their work documented, and that information made available to the public.

Michelle Potter, 16 September 2018

Featured image: Scott Elstermann in a moment from a performance by Cunningham Residency dancers. National Gallery of Australia, 2018. Private collection

Featured image: Scott Elstermann in a moment from a performance by Cunningham Residency dancers. National Gallery of Australia, 2018.

 

 

Liam Geck as the Jester in ‘Cinderella’ Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo:David Kelly

Cinderella. Queensland Ballet

7 September 2018. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella, which Queensland Ballet performed in its latest season, was first made in 1970, almost 50 years ago. I’m afraid it is showing its age a little. While Queensland Ballet’s dancers go from strength to strength every time I see them, I think they need something more powerful to dance than this Cinderella. Perhaps there is an issue here too in that Alexi Ratmansky’s Cinderella, in which the story has been given a new touch, has had several showings in Australia recently and is due to be seen in Sydney again shortly.

Having had my first professional engagements in pantomime, it was interesting, however, to see the way Stevenson built the Stepsisters (Vito Bernasconi and Camilo Ramos) into the show—outrageous behaviour, over the top costumes, pratfalls everywhere, and of course the roles taken by men. But this kind of acting/dancing belongs to the 1960s (and earlier) when it was a panto tradition. We have moved on a little.

Vito Bernasconi as a Stepsister in Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: David Kelly

Vito Bernasconi as a Stepsister in Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

But on the whole the ballet was nicely danced. Liam Geck as the Jester in the ball scene was outstanding but, again, a jester is such an old-fashioned tradition, this time from Russia. So while his performance was spectacular it was frustrating that there was a jester in there. Why?

All the fairies, Spring (Lina Kim), Summer (Mia Heathcote), Autumn (Neneka Yoshida) and Winter (Georgia Swan), acquitted themselves beautifully, as did Yanela Piñera as Cinderella. Joel Woellner was a very traditional Prince.

Yanela Pinera as Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

Yanela Piñera as Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

This Cinderella is not my favourite ballet. But it did please most of the people in the audience.

Michelle Potter, 12 September 2018

Featured image: Liam Geck as the Jester in Cinderella. Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo: © David Kelly

Liam Geck as the Jester in ‘Cinderella’ Queensland Ballet, 2018. Photo:David Kelly

ab [intra]. Sydney Dance Company

1 September 2018, Canberra Theatre

In his first full-length work for several years, Rafael Bonachela has made a startling, extraordinarily powerful dance piece to an original score by Nick Wales (extra music by Peteris Vasks), with lighting from the remarkable Damien Cooper and production design from David Fleischer. The title ab [intra] (Latin: from within) we are told refers to ‘the energy transfer between the internal and the external’. The external energy is absolutely clear from beginning to end in ab [intra]. The internal aspect giving rise to the external we can only ponder. But Bonachela likes us to ponder (I think).

Choreographically the piece has two main duets, several shorter duets and trios, a major solo, and several sections for the entire company. The standout section for me was the duet between Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni. The partnering was spectacular, as was the energy of the relationship between the two dancers. It was almost R & J  à la Bonachela. I especially admired it for the clarity of movement it contained. The duet that preceded it, danced by Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll, also had some amazing partnering and it was impossible not to be stunned by the contortions of the body that it contained. How did those two dancers get into and then extract themselves from some of those moves? But quite honestly I preferred the cleaner, and yet still highly physical, look of the Yap/Di Giovanni duet.

Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni in 'ab [intra]', Sydney Dance Company, 2018. Photo: Pedro Greig

Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni in ab [intra], Sydney Dance Company, 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig]

Another choreographic highlight was a solo danced by Nelson Earl. Earl emerged to take centre stage from a line of dancers who walked solemnly onto the performance space to stand in a row around the back and sides of the stage. His solo was characterised by stretched lines of the body and was largely without the curving fluidity of much of the rest of the choreography. At times I even started to think of Charlie Chaplin’s rather eccentric style of moving! But Earl performed with great panache and the rather different look of the choreography was refreshing.

I continue to admire the way Rafael Bonachela handles large groups of dancers. In ab [intra] there were several occasions when the whole company (or sometimes almost the whole company) were onstage together. It is fascinating to see how at times Bonachela has his larger groups of dancers look like a collection of individuals in different poses, making different moves, only for the group suddenly to be moving in unison. It is also fascinating to look harder at what the dancers are doing because it often is that what looks different is actually the same move done with back to the audience, or facing another direction.

Dancers of sydney Dance Company in 'ab [intra]', 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

Dancers of Sydney Dance Company in ab [intra], 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

As far as staging went, ab [intra] was distinguished by a certain restrained power. The lighting was always quite startling and consisted variously of haze, brightness, strong downlights, and occasionally a bank of small, bright lights that moved up and down limiting and then expanding on the space the dancers occupied.  Costuming was quite minimal in appearance. Everything added to the unfolding of the work.

In a brief conversation I had earlier with Bonachela about ab [intra] he mentioned that he hoped the work might continue to be part of the Sydney Dance Company repertoire.  I think it is probably one of those ‘giving’ works in which audiences will see more on second and subsequent viewings. So I hope Bonachela’s wish for it to continue to be shown is realised. At times it seemed slightly too long (at 70 mins) but mostly the strong staging, the remarkable and constantly changing look of the choreography, and the exceptional physicality of the dancers made it one of Bonachela’s (and Sydney Dance Company’s) strongest works to date.

Michelle Potter, 3 September 2018

Featured image: Nelson Earl in ab [intra], Sydney Dance Company 2018. Photo: © Pedro Greig

 

Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in 'Giselle' Act I. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Giselle. The Australian Ballet (2018)

30 & 31 August 2018, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Maina Gielgud’s Giselle, brought back once more by the Australian Ballet for a Melbourne only season, began beautifully—so beautifully that it gave me goose bumps. Small groups of villagers moved across the stage, interacting with each other, laughing and joking, while Orchestra Victoria, masterfully led by Simon Hewett, put us in the mood for what was to follow. It all seemed beautifully real rather than staged and distant.  Much of this kind of interaction continued throughout with only a few moments where everyone stood around in a semi-circle of inactivity.

The opening night cast of Ako Kondo as Giselle and Ty King-Wall as Albrecht left me a little cold, although Kondo, who always dances superbly, was charmingly shy, perhaps even naive about what was happening to her. She needed a stronger Albrecht to give extra meaning to her portrayal. It takes two for the nature of any relationship to be seen and understood by an audience.

Andrew Killian did a sterling job as Hilarion and Lisa Bolte played Berthe as a motherly figure consumed by domesticity. I have, however, always imagined Berthe as a somewhat more feisty character, who is respectful towards the Duke (Steven Heathcote), Bathilde (Alice Topp) and their entourage, but who doesn’t behave obsequiously towards them. Perhaps the Duke was Giselle’s father? (This was an interpretation in the mind of Laurel Martyn and others and influences how Berthe encounters and interacts with the Duke and his party).

But the real stars of Act I on opening night were Brett Chynoweth and Jade Wood who danced the Peasant pas de deux. Chynoweth in particular danced spectacularly well with beautiful control and great placement at the end of those airborne tours. It was wonderful to watch him, too, when Wood was dancing her variations. There he was going from friend to friend telling them all how wonderful she was.

Brett Chynoweth, and Jade Wood in the Peasant pas de deux, 'Giselle' Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Brett Chynoweth and Jade Wood in the Peasant pas de deux, Giselle Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The mad scene was adequate, but that’s about it.

Act II on opening night also began beautifully with visions of Wilis appearing in the mist as Hilarion ran through the forest in search of Giselle’s grave. But I didn’t feel moved as events unfolded, due perhaps to an ongoing lack of strength in the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht. Valerie Tereshchenko as Myrtha had a fierce look on her face but her gestures and the way she attacked the choreography didn’t quite match the facial expression, which also lessened the emotional impact one expects from Act II.

Ako Kondo, Ty King-Wall, and Valerie Tereshchenko in 'Giselle' Act II. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Ty King-Wall, Ako Kondo and Valerie Tereshcheko, Giselle Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I was lucky, however, to be at the second performance in which Leanne Stojmenov as Giselle danced with David Hallberg as Albrecht. Act II this time was the stronger of the two acts, although it was interesting to see Stojmenov’s reading of Giselle in Act I as a somewhat less naive character, a little coy at times but certainly in it (to start with anyway) for the ride. This of course made her collapse, when she realised she had been betrayed, much stronger.

Hallberg and Stojmenov gave a moving performance in Act II. She had the right ethereal, supernatural touch, he could plead for mercy from Myrtha and make us feel for him. Their central pas de deux unfolded slowly and exquisitely before our eyes. Hallberg’s solo of entrechats six was spectacular from a technical point of view and yet he managed not to look like he was dancing in an eisteddfod. At last I felt emotionally involved, even from a distance since I was sitting in the gallery (aka the gods of former times). Amy Harris as Myrtha in this cast was forceful in her gestures and body language as a whole, and so she drove the action along nicely.

I often wonder to what extent the dancers of the Australian Ballet think about the nature of the characters they are portraying in ballets like Giselle. Do they wonder what goes on inside the minds of those characters? Do they wonder what kind of existence the characters might have beyond the immediate story? And so on. And do they then consider how to encapsulate that character in movement?

But there was a lot beyond interpretation of characters to admire about this production. The corps de ballet in Act I, for example, appeared to have had someone working with them on the use of head, arms and upper body. Fluidity of movement was thus more noticeable than usual. I also admired Hewett’s leadership of Orchestra Victoria. I felt I was listening not to a concert performance of the Adolphe Adam score, but to music to accompany the story as it was unfolding onstage. It was also an experience to sit high up in the auditorium. Apart from the fact that Stojmenov and Hallberg were able to project emotion the way they did right up into the gods, I have never been so aware before of the spatial patterns of the choreography for the corps de ballet.

To finish, there were two interesting happenings with regard to curtain calls. On opening night, minor principals who only appear in Act I joined the cast of Act II for a curtain call—not a usual occurrence. Then, following the second night’s performance, as Stojmenov and Hallberg moved downstage to take another bow together, the cast of Wilis behind them broke into applause—now that’s an accolade.

Michelle Potter, 1 September 2018

Featured mage: Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in Giselle Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in 'Giselle' Act I. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Mao’s Last Dancer. The Exhibition

Immigration Museum, Melbourne, until 8 October 2018

The story of Li Cunxin, current artistic director of Queensland Ballet, and his journey from China to the West, is well-known from Li’s autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer, published in 2003. But the Immigration Museum’s exhibition, subtitled ‘A Portrait of Li Cunxin’ also seen last year in Brisbane, adds very nicely to that story. In one exhibition case, for example, there is a handwritten document that is a draft of Mao’s Last Dancer. The ‘devices’ we use these days for drafting material for publication clearly were not as ubiquitous then as they are now.

But there are some very personal items in this exhibition and many are quite moving. In particular, there is a short film, around 8 minutes of footage, in which Li’s parents are interviewed about their son. They give their side of the story (in their language but translated with subtitles) including their thoughts on seeing Li performing in Nutcracker with Houston Ballet when they were first permitted to visit him. ‘But didn’t you get dizzy?’ his mother says talking about Li’s astonishing capacity for performing multiple (and I mean multiple) pirouettes. Three tiny folding stools are another memento from Li’s days in China. They were made by Li’s father for his family of nine to use around the small table at which they ate. It conjured up some quite lovely images of a family that seemed so closely knit in its poverty

There are also some beautiful photos of Li and his fellow artists, mainly from his days at Houston Ballet where he was mentored by artistic director Ben Stevenson. And another filmed segment gives us an insight into Stevenson’s thoughts on Li’s story.

Mary McKendry and Li Cunxin in the pas de deux from La Esmeralda. Houston Ballet, 1980s. Photographer not identified

But perhaps the section I enjoyed most was a compilation of footage from Li’s performances, again largely from Houston. While most of the footage was showing its age and was grainy and cloudy at times, what emerged was Li’s beautifully articulated movement and the wide range of choreography he performed. My favourite was a tiny section—no more than a few seconds— from the solo from Le Corsaire. It made me realise how lucky we were in Australia to have had Li performing with the Australian Ballet in the 1990s. Those were also the days when writers like me were welcomed into the classroom (with undying thanks to Maina Gielgud) and I recall Li staying on after class was officially finished and practising manège after manège of spectacular movement.

Portrait of Li Cunxin in Brisbane. Photo: © Eduardo Vieira

Everyone who visits this show will have his or her favourite items. Do go and have a look. It’s well worth a visit.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2018

 

 

Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in 'Remember, Mama', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Strength and Grace. Royal New Zealand Ballet

17 & 18 August 2018. Opera House, Wellington

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Strength & Grace program consists of  four choreographies by women invited to mark the 125th anniversary of women achieving suffrage, with Kate Sheppard and her many New Zealand followers having led the world in that. It’s Sheppard’s face on our $10 bill, she is honoured in many parts of the country, particularly Christchurch her home town, and is considered by many to be New Zealand’s second most influential person, so a good choice by RNZB to allow choreographies to grow from her inspiration.

Overall, each of the four works has considerable strengths, but it is the dancers’ outstanding performances of commitment and calibre that made the night. I consider one of the works would be a true standout in any context or themed season, but each of them will have appealed to one section or another of the audience. It was in fact easy to find colleagues and friends, both younger and older, who had chosen a different favourite. Thankfully it is not a competition.

The first piece, So To Speak, by American choreographer Penny Saunders, explored the domestic relationships within a family. Kirby Selchow and Loughlan Prior, as Mother and Father, used striking gestures of clarity and fine timing in a highly effective opening motif, around a table downstage left, though the work became somewhat diffused when a large chorus-like cast entered. The use of pointe shoes for the Mothers but soft shoes for the Daughters, with close to identical dress for both generations of women, were subtle design choices lost on many I suspect. Dramatic opportunity to express the tensions between parents and children was lightly referenced, but the music of four different composers made for a somewhat meandering choreographic structure. Nonetheless the work made its mark and the performances were strong.

Loughlan Prior and Kirby Selchow in 'So to Speak', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Loughlan Prior and Kirby Selchow in So to Speak, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The second piece, Despite the Loss of Small Detail, by New Zealander Sarah Foster-Sproull, was sharp and spunky, and held great appeal for younger audience members. Eden Mulholland provided a lively percussive accompaniment, and the strength of movement delivered by the dancers certainly matched it. Abigail Boyle was a compelling central figure, supported by a somewhat enigmatic group of dancers. One memorable sequence had them stabbing the stage using pointe shoes as weapons, in a trope reminiscent of Akram Khan’s recent Giselle. The fashion-led design choice of costuming brought whimsy to what was nonetheless a serious declaration of independence.

Abigail Boyle in Despite the Loss of Small Detail, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

Abigail Boyle in Despite the Loss of Small Detail, Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeremy Brick

The third work, Remember, Mama, by Australian Danielle Rowe, was to my mind the clearest work overall in both structure and theme. Although it also used four different composers, there was a distinct adjustment within the choreography at each section which made for welcome coherence to its unfolding. Nadia Yanowsky gave a strongly felt performance as The Mother, relating to The Son at various ages played by three different dancers. Shaun James Kelly always dances with quality and was a sparkling delight as the young child, using Mozart’s Ah! Vous Dirais-je Maman to great effect. Fabio lo Giudice was a sultry teenager, but Paul Mathews danced the adult son with a deep empathy and tenderness for his mother that will have touched many. He is a dancer with the intuition of an actor for how to portray character, and is one of the company’s real strengths. The group of men seemed like soldiers lost to the call of war, perhaps. The group of women fought as hard as any soldiers.

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in 'Remember, Mama', 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Remember, Mama, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The fourth work, Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer Andrea Schermoly, took as reference one of the pamphlets Sheppard had produced in her stalwart campaigning years, projected as text behind the dancers. (That raised laughs among the audience but would have seemed anything but comic 125 years ago). Of the three composers used, the richest and most eloquent dance music of the whole evening was the Folie d’Espagne of Marin Marais, in a recording by Jordi Savall (the highlight performer of Wellington’s Arts Festival earlier this year). That drew a strong response from the cast of eight women, with particularly galvanised and striking performances from Mayu Tanigaito, Madeleine Graham and Kirby Selchow. Despite many standout performances of the program, a following solo by Selchow gave her a true claim to being the dancer of the evening. The work was at its strongest at that point and might well have finished there, in orbit.

Madeleine Graham in 'Stand to Reason'. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

 

(left) Madeleine Graham and (right) Kirby Selchow in Stand to Reason. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2018. Photos: © Stephen A’Court

So overall, this is a program of strong choreographic ventures, a few unusual costume design choices, and effective lighting throughout by Andrew Lees. There’s a mosaic of different music compositions (12 in all across four works) and I know that can pose a distracting challenge for musicians and music-followers who tend to stay away because of that. Most memorably there is stunning dancing from a pedigree company that is half the age of the Suffragettes’ achievements

Jennifer Shennan, 19 August 2018 

Featured image: Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in Remember, Mama, Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Nadia Yanowski and Paul Mathews in 'Remember, Mama', Royal New Zealand Ballet 2018. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

 

Afterthoughts:
The sightlines in the Opera House are quite different from those in the St. James Theatre where the company usually performs, and that needs to be borne in mind for choreographic staging and video projections, both of which were compromised on several occasions. (My two immediate neighbours left at half-time since their view was seriously affected, and the seats were not classed as restricted viewing at the box office). The sound system is also perhaps settling in, and music volumes were at times uncomfortably loud.

This Wellington season of only two performances, and no tour to other centres, has left many dance followers further afield hoping for a future opportunity to see this program. The company website lists “Details Soon” for the Harry Haythorne Choreographic Awards towards the end of the year, now in its fourth year, so they may be planning to attend that season instead. New choreography brings fresh blood, and these stalwart dancers always perform, new work and old, as though lives depended on it. JS