Icons. The Australian Ballet

30 August 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The Australian Ballet’s Icons program is a truly exciting triple bill. Every work has particular interest historically and, while one really doesn’t measure up, two of the three are thrilling to watch. The absolute standout in terms of dancing is the middle work on the program, Gemini, Glen Tetley’s work made on the Australian Ballet in 1973. It was danced on opening night by Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Rudy Hawkes, with Jones in particular performing as if there were no tomorrow.

Lana Jones and Rudy Hawkes (rear) and Adam Bull and Amber Scott (foreground) in Gemini. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Against a modernist set of coloured horizontal slats by Nadine Baylis, Gemini unfolds as a series duets and solos embodying powerful, dynamic movement. Of the women, Jones is cool but bold, assertive, a powerhouse of energy. Her manège of grands jetés with arms stretched heavenwards in an open fifth position (à la Isadora in La Marseillaise) was breathtaking. Scott is more elusive, sinuous and deliciously sensuous. Of the men, Bull had that little extra movement in the chest and pelvis—in the torso I guess—that drew the eye towards him whenever the men were onstage. Hawkes’ performance lacked the same zing but was nevertheless a pleasure to watch. When Tetley was in Australia in 2003 to stage Voluntaries he told me that creating Gemini had made him love the energy of Australian dancers. I think he would have been thrilled with the electrifying way in which Jones, Scott, Bull and Hawkes performed.

Closing the evening was Graeme Murphy’s evocative Beyond Twelve, a work first shown in 1980 and a real bottler of an Australian ballet showing all Murphy’s theatricality, humour and unique choreographic hand. Beyond Twelve tells the story of a boy’s transition from football-playing youth to adolescent dancer and finally on to mature artist facing the uncertainties of life beyond dance. Brett Chynoweth, Calvin Hannaford and Andrew Killian took the three main male roles of Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty and their trio in which we see their lives intertwining was a real highlight. Showing the passage of time in a choreographic sense is one of Murphy’s great strengths and this trio is no exception. Brooke Lockett, a coryphée with the company, danced the role of First Love and played it with just the right feeling of delight in the pleasures of youth.

Beyond Twelve is an immensely moving work (as well as being full of wit and humour) and nothing captures that feeling more than when, as the ballet closes, we see the mature dancer joined momentarily by his first love. And just as it looks like they will remain together, a figure in evening dress appears in the background and the girl moves away to join the other man, her Escort. Murphy’s sense of theatricality is brilliant here, partly in his placement of the three characters on the stage, but also in the instant realisation the moment generates that life is full of changes.

Despite its historical interest, the big disappointment of the evening was The Display, Robert Helpmann’s 1964 production based on his and Katharine Hepburn’s sighting of the mating dance of the lyrebird. The Display opened the program and perhaps it was inevitable that a work so entrenched in Australian culture of the 1960s would never translate well into the twenty-first century. But I didn’t think it would be quite so problematic. Nothing to me looked like an Australian picnic in the bush. The girls, so pretty with their Renoir hairstyles and pink dresses, could have been peasants in Giselle—and incidentally, Sidney Nolan, whose designs were ‘refurbished’ for the occasion, wanted the girls’ dresses to be the colour of ‘dog biscuits’, which certainly wasn’t the case with this production. In addition, the boys looked like princes as they pointed their feet, stretched their legs, and stayed so thoroughly within their classical ballet heritage. I’m not sure that, when playing footy, drinking beer and punching people up, men look like that.

Kevin Jackson as the Outsider missed the point, I think, that this character was meant to be so culturally different from the rest of the men. A red shirt and blue trousers aren’t enough to show that he was meant to be an Italian in Australia in the 1960s, a time of significant European migration. Australians had scarcely heard of coffee then let alone of European attitudes to women. The role needs a different physicality as well as costume to get the point across and Jackson didn’t seem to me to be much different from the rest of the men. But then perhaps that was a result of the other men behaving as if they were dancing a nineteenth-century ballet.

The saving grace was Madeleine Eastoe as the Female. She made Helpmann’s choreography look quite respectable despite a series of fouettés that Helpmann suddenly dropped into it all for no apparent reason. And she managed to get across the sense of sexual arousal that needs to be apparent as, at the conclusion of the ballet, the Outsider leaves her after his attempted rape and the Male (the lyrebird) comes forward to cover her with his tail feathers.

It was interesting to see Barry Kitcher, Bryan Lawrence and Garth Welch from the 1964 cast of Display come onstage to take a bow during the curtain calls. They were joined by Julie da Costa who danced the Female in a later 1980s production. There was no note in the program to say that they had been involved in coaching the dancers. The Display certainly needed some good coaching to make it work.

Musically the program was extraordinarily diverse. Malcolm Williamson’s score for The Display remains as beautiful as ever with its quivering, bush sounds, and was perhaps the highlight of that ballet on this occasion; Tetley’s choice of Hans Werne Henze’s Symphony No. 3 for Gemini was inspired with music and choreography so well attuned; and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, whose movements had been reordered by Murphy to fit the storyline of Beyond Twelve, was played with customary elegance by Stuart Macklin.

Despite The Display having major problems, I thought this was a good triple bill. In my mind it sits within the spirit of the best of triple bills where there is a bit of everything, including the ‘serious’ work in the middle and the ‘feel good’ work to go home with.

Michelle Potter, 1 September 2012

Featured image: Lana Jones in Gemini. The Australian Ballet, 2012. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Postscript: Looking back at a review of Beyond Twelve that I wrote for Dance Australia way back in 1994 (with David McAllister, Steven Woodgate, Greg Horsman and Vicki Attard in the leading roles), I mentioned that Horsman danced the role of Beyond Twenty-Five, rather than calling it Beyond Thirty. I’m not sure when the name change happened, but it is interesting to speculate that times have changed in (almost) twenty years and perhaps thirty is now the new twenty-five? Unless I got it wrong in 1994?

Update: Here are my comments after another look at the program in Sydney.

Romeo and Juliet on screen

I finally managed to see the recording of Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet made by the SBS subscription channel Stvdio and recorded on 21 September 2011 at a live performance in Melbourne. Posts relating to this work continue to attract visitors to this site and it was interesting to notice that the number of visitors accessing the site from Adelaide rose dramatically when the work was shown there recently. Adelaide visits continue to remain high and the Romeo and Juliet posts continue to be the most accessed posts overall. Whatever opinions of the work might be out there, there is little doubt that it has inspired incredible interest amongst the dance community.

I was especially pleased to have the opportunity of watching the ballet close up through the Stvdio recording and also to have the opportunity to rewind certain sections that were especially powerful, or that attracted me for a particular reason.

It was rewarding, for example, to be able to watch several times Madeleine Eastoe’s stunning entrance into her bedroom early on in the work. There she is running on pointe so fast that her feet start to look blurred. And those lovely over-the-head claps as she jumps in the air, and those little piqué steps backwards, create such joyous, light as a feather dancing.

The recording made judicious use of a small number of close ups in this early section, which highlighted Elizabeth Hill’s beautiful portrayal of Juliet’s nurse. Hill watches her charge with such a caring look as Juliet tries her ball gown against her young and blossoming figure, and the rapport between them is clearly shown on their faces. Then eventually, off Juliet runs again, jumping on to a chair that happens to be in her way before she springs onto her bed. It’s wonderful choreography and wonderful acting and an absolute delight to watch again.

I also loved the serenity of the wedding scene and watching the Murphy touches unfold: the journey to the site of the wedding with Juliet walking across the shoulders of a group of black clad holy men; the duet with the monk that uses the feet as a point of contact between the two; and the playful role the train of Juliet’s wedding dress plays in her duet with Romeo during the ceremony. Murphy’s signature is there in full force!

In addition, I really took pleasure watching Adam Bull as Death and still think this role is one of the strong points of the production. Not only does the role act as a powerful through-line, it also acts as an element of dramatic irony. We know what is going to happen right from the beginning when Death picks up a bunch of lilies, a symbol of both purity and death and a recurring motif throughout the work, from the ground in the piazza as the piece opens.

But the scene I thought had the most dramatic power was Juliet’s visit the monk to seek a solution when it seemed that marriage to Paris was her ultimate fate. Murphy makes this a much more significant scene in the ballet than did Cranko in the version that we have been watching in Australia since the 1970s. In the Murphy production the story is told with choreographic and force and through powerful gestures, and we see Murphy using another of his signatures: Juliet is transported through to the country of the holy man held aloft by several black clad figures who carry her through the air in a display of expansive soaring movements.

The conclusion to this scene occurs when Death enters Juliet’s bedroom and stands behind her to slip on her nightdress, and also in the following, shuddering trio when Death places himself between Juliet and Romeo. Again we know there is no hope.

On a less positive note, the final desert scene is not my favourite part of the ballet and a close up look did nothing to make it look better. As one comment has indicated on the original post, Lady Capulet did look decidedly out of place in her high fashion gear, as beautiful as it was, stumbling around with high heels in hand.

In general, though, I thought this recording was beautifully and sensitively made. The more I look at this Romeo and Juliet the more interesting it becomes and the more I wonder about the difficulty we face with the ‘shock of the new’ when we watch a new dance production, in all its fleeting beauty, for the first time.

Michelle Potter, 24 June 2012

Here are links to the first post, and the second.

Infinity. A second look

14 April 2012 (matinee), Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

A second look at the Australian Ballet’s triple bill program, Infinity, at a recent Saturday matinee in Sydney produced some new highlights, but largely reinforced my thoughts following my first viewing on opening night in Melbourne.

As a new highlight, it was especially pleasurable to see that the shocking conflict between orchestra and the spoken narrative in There’s definitely a prince involved had been solved. It made a huge difference to one’s understanding of choreographer Gideon Obarzanek’s approach to the piece when one could actually hear what the performers were saying. The narrative is much wittier than was apparent on opening night when clarity and audibility were pretty much non-existent and when it seemed more like a fight between the orchestra and the spoken word than anything else.

In addition, the printed handout now included a credit to Tom Lingwood, whose name was missing from the handout on opening night but whose costumes from Swan Lake and Night Shadow were used for Prince (with extra costumes by Alexi Freeman). I suspect there needs to be someone doing a better job at proof reading of Australian Ballet publications, from major books down to nightly cast sheets.

Kristina Chan and Sara Black gave strong performances in Prince. Chan is a powerful dancer and her contemporary skills were especially evident in the ‘Drone 2’ section of Prince (although I’m not sure what the ‘Drone’ sections were meant to achieve). Black stood out on this occasion mostly for her confident delivery of the spoken text. And as before I admired Madeleine Eastoe and continue to yearn to see her in a Swan Lake that will give full expression to her glorious classical technique.

Warumuk-in the dark night. Photo by Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre as ‘The seven sisters’ in Warumuk—in the dark night, 2012. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

In Stephen Page’s Warumuk—in the dark night, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes remain a highlight as does Vivienne Wong’s performance as the Evening Star. But it remains just a pretty work, evocative and atmospheric.

There is no doubt in my mind that the major piece on the Infinity program is Graeme Murphy’s The narrative of nothing. Halaina Hills and Amy Harris danced the female leads on this occasion but I was especially impressed by Benedicte Bemet, in her first year with the company, who danced securely and serenely in a duet with Jarryd Madden. An injured Andrew Killian was replaced by Andrew Wright but it was Adam Bull again who stole the show amongst the male performers. I admired the intensity with which he approached Murphy’s choreography with its quirky and demanding partnering and its detailed and often unexpected movements. And looking back to my original post and its comments, I don’t think I interpreted the work differently despite now knowing that the score by Brett Dean referred to the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. I continue to think that the work stands alone as an abstract piece and needs no context of bushfires or anything else of a specific narrative/contextual nature.

In fact, what I found most striking on this second viewing of Infinity was the choreographic power of The narrative of nothing. While we can look at this work as ‘vintage Murphy’ in so many ways, when seen alongside the other works that comprise Infinity the depth of Murphy’s choreographic invention, his devotion to making dance that speaks to the audience about the nature of dance, his ongoing explorations into the art of collaboration with the performers he chooses and with his creative team, is astonishing. While I love Infinity as a whole, especially for its admirable pushing of the boundaries of what the Australian Ballet stands for, Murphy stands out as the choreographer with the most to offer. He gave the dancers something to dance, something with guts, and he gave the audience something abstract, something in which they could immerse themselves in a way that only dance can offer.

Michelle Potter, 15 April 2012.

Telstra Ballet in the Park. The Australian Ballet in Canberra

This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times

Autumn in Canberra is usually the best of seasons. March 2012 has, however, been marked by excessive rain and a performance was touch and go on 16 March when the Australian Ballet arrived bringing its Telstra Ballet in the Park Gala to the city. But the company had not performed in Canberra for several years so people came in droves to Commonwealth Park for the performance, which was scheduled as part of the annual Canberra Festival. Dressed in rainwear, they sat under their umbrellas, picnicking regardless, and waiting. About five minutes before the show was due to start, the rain stopped, the umbrellas went down and the very large audience was treated to a series of ballet bonbons showcasing some of the company’s top dancers.

Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, dashingly costumed in red, black and gold, opened the evening with Petal Miller-Ashmole’s pas de deux, La Favorita. Both Jones and Gaudiello have strong, sure techniques―those double fouettés from Jones were stunning―and cover the stage majestically with their movements. It was a joy to watch them dance together. They also both have great onstage personalities and what made this item the stand-out of the evening for me was their ability to project those personalities off the stage and into the audience. We weren’t seated in a space enclosed by walls and a roof and the extent of the ‘auditorium’ was vast, so being able to project in such a situation was some feat and not achieved to the same extent by others during the evening.

Another highlight was Rachel Rawlins and Ty King-Wall dancing the pas de deux from Giselle Act II. Rawlins is such a mature artist and captured beautifully the ethereal qualities of Giselle, as she danced to keep her one true love alive until dawn. Rawlins looks as though the balletic vocabulary is such a part of her very being that it is completely effortless, even during those demanding moments in Giselle’s variation where she travels backwards, upstage, executing a series of fast beats and relevés. King-Wall partnered her elegantly and his variation showed off his own fine beaten steps and elevation.

I was also impressed by Juliet Burnett and Andrew Killian who danced the pas de deux from Nutcracker. Burnett was poised and controlled in one of the most classical of pas de deux. Her adagio movements unfolded with an elegance and calm sense of control and she allowed us to see the structure of every développé, every arabesque. Killian was a suitably caring cavalier and danced his solos with great style.

We also saw the rising star of the company, Chengwu Guo, in two items, the pas de deux from Don Quixote and Le Corsaire. While Chengwu’s turns and jumps were spectacular, I missed the sexuality that more mature performers are able to bring to these works. There were strong flourishes every so often from Chengwu but there was a kind of restraint in the upper body rather than what I think the roles demand, the appearance of throwing caution to the wind in a display of unbridled passion. Chengwu partnered Reiko Hombo in Don Quixote and Miwako Kubota in Corsaire.

Also on the program was the Act III pas de trois from Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake with Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Amy Harris. It was especially interesting to see Murphy’s contemporary choreography on a program that consisted of works in an older classical style. The Murphy style stood up beautifully although this pas de trois generally suffered from being seen out of the context of the complete ballet and without the set, which on reflection adds a brooding quality to the unfolding drama of this particular moment in the work.

Artists of the Australian Ballet. Telstra Ballet in the Park
Artists of the Australian Ballet in an excerpt from ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’ from La Bayadère, 2012. Photo: William Hall. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Completing the program were the pas de deux from Stephen Baynes’ Molto Vivace, smoothly danced by Amber Scott and Adam Bull, and excerpts from La Baydère where Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello returned as Nikiya and Solor and in which the three variations were danced by Hombo, Harris and Dimity Azoury.

Canberra region audiences used to see the Australian Ballet once a year but a decision, an unpopular one in the eyes of audiences, was made some years ago now to remove Canberra from the touring schedule. The size of the audience for the Telstra event, which took place in less than ideal weather conditions, seems to me to be a clear signal to the Australian Ballet that it is time to return to the national capital on a more regular basis. The announcement that Garry Stewart and an unnamed collaborative team will make a new work for Canberra’s centenary in 2013 is a start.

Michelle Potter, 20 March 2012

Infinity. The Australian Ballet

This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times.

24 February 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Infinity, the Australian Ballet’s first program in its 50th anniversary year, is a diverse and sometimes challenging evening of dance. But most of all it is thrilling experience to see the Australian Ballet putting itself out on a limb with three brand new works from three Australian choreographers: Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. All three works are danced to new scores by Australian composers and all three have new Australian designs. Definitely something to celebrate.

The show opens with the new work from Murphy, The narrative of nothing.  To tell the truth, while there is a perfectly good explanation from Murphy for why this title was chosen—there’s no obvious narrative but the work may still be telling the audience something, I’d much rather dispense with titles that sound smart (with all due respects to Murphy). Untitled works just as well for me!

Murphy’s choreography often had a primeval feel as bodies twisted and curled around others. There were powerful performances from Lana Jones and Adam Bull, and I especially admired the sequence where Jones was partnered by several men who alternated between holding her aloft and letting her fall from side to side. Vintage Murphy really but Jones’ ability to hold her body in a perfect curve as she fell was breathtaking.

Lana Jones and Amy Harris The narrative of nothing PhotoJeff Busby
Lana Jones (right) and Amy Harris, The narrative of nothing, 2012. Photo Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The supporting dancers deserve praise for their technical strength as they attacked the demanding choreography. Murphy has moved a step beyond his usual (always interesting) vocabulary and made a work that, in somewhat of a contradiction, asks the dancers to move with a kind of aggressive lyricism.

I didn’t read the program notes prior to watching this work so wasn’t aware in advance that the commissioned score, Fire Music by Brett Dean, was in response to the Victorian ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires of 2009. With the knowledge of what was behind Dean’s score, fire in some respects becomes the non-narrative. But the works stands without this knowledge and in fact I was pleased that I didn’t know in advance. The score sounded quite elemental—the thunder sheets certainly helped there—and, with some instruments positioned outside the pit, the sound was enveloping.

Jennifer Irwin’s body hugging costumes were decorated individually with black patterns, often swirling organically, and with what looked like silver studs or tiny mirrors. Depending on the lighting (by Damien Cooper) they changed from looking a little punk, to glowing in the dark, to looking slinky, and much more. Cooper’s design was uncompromising—a solo by Adam Bull performed pretty much on the spot in a strong downlight was another highlight. The design also included an onstage use of lighting rigs not normally on view to the audience, another technique that has often featured in works by Murphy. With the inclusion of a minimalist black space as a setting The narrative of nothing became an example of the very best of contemporary collaborative enterprises. It also looks back to some of Murphy’s strongest abstract works made for Sydney Dance Company—Piano sonata comes straight to mind.

Obarzanek’s piece also had a strange, or at least not very catchy title, There’s definitely a prince involved.  It referred to his process of generating ideas and vocabulary for the work by asking a range of people about what they thought constitutes a ballet, and his subsequent deconstruction of the ballet Swan Lake. The work can be read on a number of levels. On the most simplistic it tells the story of Swan Lake, using the dancers as narrators, and focuses on the illogicality of the story. It relies on the dancers’ deadpan delivery of the text to raise laughter from the audience, and the various dancers who take on the role of narrator throughout the piece are more than adept. Unfortunately, even though they used a microphone, their voices were often inaudible above the crashing sounds of the orchestra playing Stefan Gregory’s fragmentation of Tchaikovsky’s familiar Swan Lake music.

On another level the work rips apart the traditional choreography of Swan Lake, and amusingly so, especially in the section based on the dance of the four little swans. It helps but is not essential if the audience is familiar with the traditional steps.

On yet another level the work can be seen as a comment on art asking the question of whether Swan Lake is indeed a work of art. Obarzanek has an acutely inquiring mind and his ability to force us to reconsider what we as a ballet audience might take for granted is powerful and actually quite respectful.

There’s definitely a prince involved uses dancers of the Australian Ballet augmented by dancers from Obarzanek’s company, Chunky Move. Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe showed her versatility as a performer and slotted beautifully into the varying demands associated with the role of a deconstructed Odette, the female lead. The few moments of classical movement—a fabulous grand jeté across the stage, and her ‘dying swan’ poses—did however make me yearn to see her dance a ‘real’ Swan Lake. Deconstruction is fine, entertaining and thought provoking, but the classic version transcends it all and it is that strength really that allows Obarzanek’s deconstruction to work so well.

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette and Artists of the Australian Ballet, There's definitely a prince involved, 2012 Photo Jeff Busby Courtesy the Australian Ballet
Madeleine Eastoe as Odette with artists of the Australian Ballet and Chunky Move, There’s definitely a prince involved, 2012. Photo Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The program closes with Page’s Warumuk—in the dark light with Bangarra Dance Theatre joining forces with the Australian Ballet. With its new score from David Page it presents an exploration of the myths associated with the night sky.

The Bangarra dancers performed with their usual, beautifully rehearsed ensemble work with particularly striking performances from Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco representing Full Moon. Vivienne Wong, stunningly dressed by Jennifer Irwin in a lacy black outfit cut with a long ‘tail’ at the back, stood out as the Evening Star. For me Wong was the sole Australian Ballet dancer who was able to transcend her balletic training and blend into the Bangarra way of moving. This was a real feat as Bangarra has now consolidated its own very distinctive style and company dancers are performing with added assurance and expertise.

The one disappointment for me was Jacob Nash’s set design. To me it looked a little too much like a previous Bangarra commission, his set designs for ‘About’, part of the Belong program of 2011.

This program is the Australian Ballet in an extreme mood. I have nothing but praise for the courage of the company in taking on, and succeeding in a program that far surpasses anything they have done in recent years. It makes the company look at last as though it is a company with a desire to move ballet into the future.

Michelle Potter, 27 February 2012

Postscript: The Canberra Times review appeared on 17 March 2012. It is no longer available online.

Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet

This is an expanded version of my review first published in The Canberra Times, 17 September 2011, p. 30 under the title ‘Fluid postmodern take on a classic’.

13 September 2011, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

In an interview published in the September issue of the Qantas inflight magazine, choreographer Graeme Murphy said of his new production of Romeo and Juliet for the Australian Ballet that we should ‘bring a lifeboat’. Well he had a point because this production, which had its world premiere in Melbourne on 13 September, is a very fluid one indeed. It opens in a town setting, which could be Verona at the time Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is set. But over the course of the evening the location and the era change wildly. We see the marriage of Romeo and Juliet in Japan, the killing of Tybalt and Mercutio in India and the mourning of Juliet in a harsh, blood red desert setting. The characters ride bikes in one scene. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio find themselves in a row boat in another. And more.

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet is quintessentially postmodern. It has moments of humour and irony. It is filled with allusions to all kinds of cultural objects and issues—devotees of the Hare Krishna movement even make an appearance. Murphy also references himself and his work through some choreographic moments that look back to the vintage days of Sydney Dance Company. The scene in which Juliet receives a potion to induce a death-like sleep, when six black clad figures support Juliet in expansive swooping and flying movements, is just one example of this glance back at previous choreography.

Murphy also incorporates fabric into the choreography and the production overall. And while on this occasion his costume designer, Akira Isogawa, may well have had a strong input into how fabric has been used, Murphy has been playing with lengths of cloth and curtains of fabric throughout his choreographic career. One of the most dramatic uses of fabric in Romeo and Juliet occurs when a bolt of scarlet silk, initially resting amongst other rolls of fabric on the side of the stage in the Indian market place, unwinds and streams across the stage as the Capulets and the Montagues engage in their bloody feud.

This Romeo and Juliet is a collage of ideas playfully deconstructed and the remarkable thing is that it works. Everyone knows the story and Murphy has assumed this familiarity with the plot and has pursued a vision for a work that is like no other that the Australian Ballet has ever presented.

On opening night Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson as Juliet and Romeo led us on this journey of love and death. Eastoe in particular danced with joy, passion, despair, every emotion that the story requires. Her opening dance, with its quick footwork and fluid upper body movement, filled us with pleasure and anticipation.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Daniel Gaudiello continued to impress as Mercutio and moved, as his name in this ballet implies, like quicksilver, darting here and there, unpredictable and always impassioned in defence of his friends. Juliet’s nurse, usually played as a somewhat plump and bumbling if kind-hearted older woman, was intelligently performed by Elizabeth Hill and became (thankfully) a much less pantomimic role. A character introduced by Murphy—Death, the Prince of Darkness—provided a through line for the meandering locations and times. Death picks up bodies, which he places in a wooden cart (rather like the carts that carried the French to the guillotine in 1789—another reference). Or sometimes he just hovers menacingly in the background. It’s not a big dancing role but one that requires a very strong presence. It was very ably performed on opening night by Adam Bull.

In addition to Akira Isogawa, the collaborative team on this production included Murphy’s creative associate, Janet Vernon, set designer Gerard Manion, and Damien Cooper who lit the show. From among literally hundreds of costumes created by Isogawa, I especially liked the beautifully cut, high-collared black coat for Death and the pale olive, very simple costume for Juliet’s nurse. I was amused by the costume for Paris, which seemed to have a kind of gold ‘breast-plate’ of muscles. Paris is rarely portrayed in a sympathetic way and this addition to his costume suggested an inherent vanity. Manion’s strongest contribution was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work.

This Romeo and Juliet may not appeal to everyone, especially those who like their ballet to be more in a modernist vein, that is somewhat coherent in form. Did I miss the John Cranko version of Romeo and Juliet, which has been in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire for decades? Yes, a little, but in the same way as I occasionally yearn to see a traditional Swan Lake, rather than Murphy’s newer production. It’s part of the balletic legacy and we need to be reminded occasionally that we have a heritage.

But Murphy’s approach in 2011 raises many issues that are discussed across other art forms and it is refreshing to see this occurring in ballet, an art form that is so often seen as a little dowdy. Of course such issues include the notion that postmodernism is dead so we have to wonder whether this Romeo and Juliet is already outdated? But whatever one might think, it is a production worth seeing.

Michelle Potter, 19 September 2011

Featured image: Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

UPDATE, 11 December 2011: Romeo and Juliet. A second look

British Liaisons. The Australian Ballet

14 May 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

This triple bill program, designed to highlight the strong links between British ballet and the growth of ballet in Australia, produced some moments that were absolute show stoppers.

None of those show stopping moments came, however, in Checkmate. Choreographed in 1937 by Dame Ninette de Valois as a battle between love and death played out on a chessboard, it opened the program. While for the most part it was adequately danced, it lacked any sustained suspense, which pretty much made a mockery of the whole thing. There is no doubt that Checkmate is an old fashioned work, highly stylised in its narrative and choreography. But some stronger characterisation, especially from Lucinda Dunn as the Black Queen, the seductress who ultimately brings about the downfall of the Red King, would have helped to make the work more enticing and anchored it in some kind of reality. Only Amy Harris as the Red Queen made anything of her role, a relatively minor one too, as she ushered in the Red King with kindness and concern. But without any strength of purpose from the other characters, Colin Peasley as the Red King had an uphill battle to make anything of his very important part.

But Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, programmed as the middle piece, made up for the disappointments of Checkmate. The first section was strongly danced by Lana Jones, Amy Harris and Miwako Kubota partnered by Adam Bull, Andrew Killian and Brett Simon respectively. But it was the second section, the seductively beautiful pas de deux danced by Jones and Bull, that was the show stopper. Jones in particular captured the inner calm of this duet— ‘at the still point, there the dance is’ wrote T. S Eliot. Not only was Jones able capture the elusive quality of stillness and repose even as she moved or was moved by her partner, but with each lift one could only gasp at the curving line of her body as it cut through space until it reached the high point of the movement . There  it settled into its final, classically perfect shape. Bull partnered her with care and the tenderness that befits the emotional underpinning of the duet, but nothing could match the star quality of Jones.

Jones appeared again as the leading dancer in the first movement of Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto, which closed the program. Here she showed another side of her technique, her clear, precise footwork and her ability to turn—especially her ability to turn as she executed a faultless series of chaîné turns across the stage from one downstage corner to the other. She also imbued her dancing in this movement with a beautifully pert quality bringing the audience into her ambit with smiling eyes and a sparkle to her every move. It made me long to see her dance the lead in Balanchine’s Rubies.

Concerto needed, however, a little more precision of technique from the corps de ballet to do justice to MacMillan’s spatial arrangements, which any straggly lines instantly destroy. And they were destroyed on more than one occasion. Juliet Burnett, however, made a strong impression with a beautifully controlled performance in the pas de deux that comprises the second movement. She was partnered by Andrew Killian who almost stole the limelight from her with his deliciously unexpected changes of expression and mood.

Company pianist Stuart Macklin deserves accolades too for his solo piano performances, first in Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel to which the pas de deux in After the Rain is performed, and then as soloist in the Shostakovich second piano concerto to which Concerto is danced.

At last, a few moments of excitement from an Australian Ballet performance. Oh that there could be more!

Michelle Potter, 16 May 2011

Concord. The Australian Ballet

Por vos muero, Scuola di ballo & Dyad 1929, 21 August to 1 September 2009, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, MelbourneJ

The Australian Ballet finally hit the jackpot! In the dying months of its four year long celebration of the Ballets Russes, Wayne McGregor arrived in Melbourne and created his Dyad 1929—a work that is truly in the adventurous spirit of the Diaghilev period.

Dyad 1929 is made for a cast of twelve dancers, six women and six men. It is danced against a white backcloth, patterned all over with regular rows of black dots, which extends to a floorcloth. A thin horizontal bar of acid yellow light is raised and lowered in the extreme downstage area during the piece. Occasionally yellow light floods onto the backcloth. This ‘stage concept’ is by McGregor and the work’s lighting designer Lucy Carter. The dancers are costumed by Moritz Junge in close-fitting leotards, or all-overs, or trunks and tops in various combinations and patterns of white, black and fawn. The overall design concept is startling and exhilarating, as is the music—Double Sextet by Steve Reich.

But it is the choreography that lifts Dyad 1929 beyond the startling to the brave and the challenging. There is a matter-of-factness in the way the dancers enter and leave the stage. A la William Forsythe they walk, simply but decisively, on and off. Once on, however, their bodies become an experimental field. They are pushed, pulled and stretched. They crumple, bend and fold. Sometimes the movements look hard-edged. At other times they look more curvaceous. And what seems quite extraordinary is that often movements that are commonplace in a particular situation are put into completely new context. A stretching exercise commonly done at the barre becomes part of a duet, for example. And again extraordinarily, McGregor occasionally follows a twisted movement with a classical, centred one so that the eye can better discern what is central to each.

Standout dancers in two viewings were Lana Jones, cool and poised in a duet with Tzu-Chao Chou, and Danielle Rowe, more softly sinuous in a duet with Adam Bull—Jones a diamond, Rowe a pearl, both using their prodigious technical capacity to dance this audacious and demanding choreography. They dance purposefully, but also with what borders on ecstasy so intently and intensely do they articulate the choreography. This is what dancers crave: to be challenged to use their bodies to do the seemingly impossible, and thus to understand more about their art form.

This triple bill with the overarching name of ‘Concord’ opened with Nacho Duato’s sublime Por vos muero. Por vos remains a compelling work swinging between a stripped back look at human relationships, which we see in the three duets that open the work, to highly theatrical moments as in the scene in which six men in brocade cloaks swirl across the stage swinging censers that fill the air with incense. Daniel Gaudiello gave a particularly strong performance. It highlighted all the remarkable nuances of Duato’s choreography.

The third work on the program, also part of the Ballets Russes project, was a new production of Léonide Massine’s 1933 work, Scuola di ballo, in this case  choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky adhered to the narrative and choreographic structure of Massine’s work but, in terms of movement, the work looked more like a homage to August Bournonville. Ratmansky emphasised beaten footwork for the men and his pas de deux contained very few lifts, especially big overhead lifts. In typical Bournonville style the man for the most part danced alongside his partner. This was especially noticeable in the pas de deux between the characters Rosina and Carlino, which was prettily danced by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in one cast and Danielle Rowe and Ty King-Wall in another.

Scuola‘s comic elements were a hit with the audience but I am not convinced that attempting to reproduce what was clearly not Massine’s best ballet was a worthwhile endeavour. What it did was remind me that not all ballets from the Ballets Russes era (whether from the Diaghilev period or from that of his followers) are worth recalling. Restaging or reproducing works as museum or celebratory pieces only works if the original was a piece of major importance in the first place. I don’t believe that Scuola di ballo was. Ballet has moved on. Thankfully.

And thankfully there are choreographers like Wayne McGregor to show that the way ahead can be as adventurous as it was under Diaghilev.

Michelle Potter, 23 August 2009

Featured  image: Tzu-Chao Chou & Lana Jones in Dyad 1929. Photo: © Jim McFarlane. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Footnote: Showing in Melbourne at the same time as ‘Concord’ is an exhibition documenting the career of Salvador Dali. Included in the show, which is at the National Gallery of Victoria, is film footage of Massine’s 1939 collaboration with Dali on the ballet Bacchanale for Sergei Denham’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. It makes an interesting comparison with Scuola di ballo and comments on Bacchanale and its reception by Frederic Franklin, one of the original cast, are  easily found via any search engine and are eminently readable.

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