Madame Butterfly. The Australian Ballet

What impressed me most about this revival of Stanton Welch’s 1995 work Madame Butterfly was Welch’s ability to create a strong, dramatic effect by the simple, yet strategic placement of characters on the stage. It was especially, but not exclusively, noticeable towards the end of the work when Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki with is American wife Kate. It is then, with Sharpless, Suzuki, Butterfly and Sorrow also onstage, that the drama of what has occurred is fully realised. While various of the characters are the centre of attention at particular points during the unfolding of this part of the saga, the placement of the characters across the stage, and their attention—demanding stillness when the action is not especially focused on them—is powerfully moving. The girlish scenes between Butterfly and Suzuki are also memorable. Again it is often the placement of the two onstage in relation to the rest of the action that gives the scenes their strength, although the recurring motif of wiping away each other’s tears is also a strong device.

But despite the above, I find it hard to see a major artistic reason to justify the revival of Madame Butterfly. I can of course see that it attracts an audience and so can only imagine that the artistic team sees money as the main reason for staging a production. But no one looked comfortable in those shuffling ‘Japanese’ walking movements, heel leading in so obvious a manner. And how illogical it seems when shuffling and obsequious bowing are followed by full-on contemporary ballet, as in that long and demanding wedding night pas de deux for example. And how can one shuffle to the top of a flight of steps and then extend a beautifully arched foot, clad in a pointe shoe, and descend the stairs in balletic style. It looked just silly to me.

Madeleine Eastoe danced brilliantly as Butterfly. What a secure, fluid technique she has now. But she lacked the vulnerability needed for the role and quite honestly, with that soaringly beautiful technique, she is just not cut out to be a fifteen year old Japanese Geisha sublimating herself to a man the likes of Pinkerton. Juliet (about the same age) yes, but Butterfly—not in my opinion. But then again, maybe it’s the double-edged choreography that’s the problem?

The strongest performances to my mind came from Daniel Gaudiello as Sharpless and Reiko Hombo as Suzuki. Gaudiello had the advantage of playing a European character (the US Consul in Nagasaki) and so was not burdened by the fake Japanese movements. But that aside, his performance was impressive for the manner in which he created a distinctive character, often not so much through dancing but though small mannerisms such as the twist of a cuff or a slight movement of the head, all of which indicated a certain awkwardness at the situations in which he found himself.

Hombo as Suzuki was perfectly cast. She was ever attentive to Butterfly, sad when Butterfly was sad, happy and excited when Butterfly felt those emotions. Technically pretty much flawless too. A great job.

Sheree da Costa also gave a strong performance in the cameo role of Butterfly’s mother. But how I wish the Australian Ballet would delve into its extensive repertoire and give us some programming that is truly stimulating and forward looking. As the recent (traditional) production of Swan Lake by the English National Ballet showed, ballet isn’t dead. But sometimes it seems like it is.

Michelle Potter, 19 April 2011

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