The Bright Stream. Bolshoi Ballet

7 June 2013, Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

The back story to The Bright Stream has been told and retold. Originally created in 1935 with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov and with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich, the ballet lasted just months. Set on a Soviet-style farm at harvest time, but with some eccentric touches to the story of collective agriculture, the ballet was banned by Joseph Stalin.

As the overture begins in Alexei Ratmansky’s restaging of The Bright Stream for the Bolshoi Ballet, which dates to 2003, we understand something of this back story. We are faced with a front cloth covered with various Soviet slogans and some headlines from Russian newspapers, said to be those of Pravda in its review of The Bright Stream, and in its review of another of Shostakovich’s scores, that for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which Stalin also hated. Amongst the extracts and slogans are ‘Ballet falsehood’, ‘Muddle instead of music’, ‘Tractors and kindergartens are the gearbox of the new village’, and others of a similar nature.

Working from the original libretto, but without any choreographic notation from the 1930s, Ratmansky has built his version of The Bright Stream, the title being the name of the collective farm, using his classical heritage mixed with his unique choreographic sensibilities and a clear talent for humour and characterisation. What emerges over two hours is a comic ballet based on the lives of a group of peasants living in the steppes of the northern part of the Causcasus region. They become entangled with a visiting group of entertainers from the city and what ensues is a world of flirtatious encounters and mistaken identities, the latter largely as a result of moments of cross dressing.

Maria Aleksandrova in 'The Bright Stream'. Photo: Damir Yusupov
Maria Aleksandrova as the Ballerina in The Bright Stream. Photo: Damir Yusupov

What a joy it was to see the beautifully accomplished Bolshoi dancers performing Ratmansky’s choreography. Whether whipping off a few fouettés (with never a hint of moving across the stage), performing a series of jetés, or tossing off a manège of jumps, they danced with such attack, made everything look so easy, and always looked as though performing was pure pleasure for them. The two leading ladies, Maria Aleksandrova as the ballerina from the city and Nina Kapstova as Zina the local entertainment organiser, both gave finely sculpted performances, but the entire cast deserves bouquets.

Ratmansky’s choreography for groups of women was especially captivating. He often arranged steps in canon and the overall image that emerged as arabesque followed arabesque, for example, was a little like the movement of plaiting and unplaiting. I loved too the characters that populated The Bright Stream—the elderly folk in particular—and I especially liked that, while they were all drawn with broad, comic brush strokes, there seemed to be no desire by the dancers to overplay their characterisations. As a result these folk were funny and eccentric but believably so.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Bright Stream was Ratmansky’s development of those scenes in which, as a joke, two of the main characters, the Ballerina from the city and her partner, dress in each other’s costumes and set up a romantic tryst with two elderly dacha dwellers who have joined the harvest festivities. Ruslan Skvortsov, dressed in a long white Romantic tutu, gave a wonderful performance as the (cross-dressed) Ballerina. Ratmanksy’s choreography for him was an absolute delight. It had moments that recalled Giselle, Pas de Quatre, Les Sylphides and La Sylphide, all arranged in a topsy-turvy mix. The image of Skvortsov with his index finger under his chin à la Pas de Quatre will remain in my mind for some time.

So was there any hint of politics in this work? After all, collective farms did not always operate as happy and productive initiatives in Soviet Russia. Well, the Grim Reaper appears during the final scenes as the harvest festival begins. He joins in the dancing with his scythe swinging wildly round and round. But the people largely ignore him and he disappears as unexpectedly as he appeared. We can make what we like of this appearance but it adds a touch of politics to a fascinating ballet that shows Ratmansky as a choreographer of unusual and diverse strengths and abilities.

Michelle Potter, 9 June 2013

Scotch Symphony, Within the Golden Hour, From Foreign Lands. San Francisco Ballet

09 March 2013 (matinee), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

What a glorious program Helgi Tomasson put together as Program 3 in San Francisco Ballet’s current repertory season. With works by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky, to me it said the 20th century had a great choreographer in Balanchine but look where the 21st century is heading with Wheeldon and Ratmansky.

This triple bill program opened with Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, a work dating back to 1952. It was more than ably led on this occasion by principals Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan, she in particular combining a crisp technique with an elusive element to her dancing and thus perfectly fitting the role. Scotch Symphony shows the delight Balanchine took in making references to other dance styles and techniques and blending them with the technical strengths of his classically trained dancers and with his own characteristic choreographic patterns. In this case the precise footwork of Highland dancing sat side by side with the floating, beyond-this-world feeling of the Romantic movement in ballet. But always obvious were those unexpected Balanchine groupings and his use of the shapes and spaces thus made to develop new groupings.

The corps de ballet shone throughout, especially the men and especially Diego Cruz and Lonnie Weeks in their leading roles in the corps. They gave their roles real personality and one of them knocked me for six with a fabulous saut de basque with arms in 5th in which the lift to 5th was at least as exciting as the saut de basque. The one jarring area to my mind was the backcloth, a dark grey shadow of a castle structure by Broadway designer Arnold Abramson. To me it captured little of an elusive and blended world that the ballet itself presents.

In the middle of the program was Christopher Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, made for San Francisco Ballet in 2008. It is a series of interludes, seemingly unrelated, beginning and ending with sequences for the full cast. In between the beginning and the ending we see a quirky waltz for for a couple, which is picked up almost as it ends by several other couples; a fast and technically demanding duet for two men filled with turns and beats; a pas de deux that scarcely moves through space, a quartet of ladies performing at first as shadows; and a second pas deux that does move around the stage a little more.

Wheeldon’s choreography in Within the Golden Hour mixes ballet technique with all kinds of other styles from ballroom to his own take on contemporary dance. This work was by far the most popular with the audience, who gave it a standing ovation at the matinee I attended. I enjoyed its changing momentum and its quirkiness, but it isn’t a great work.

From Foreign Lands was specially commissioned by San Francisco Ballet from Alexei Ratmansky and had its world premiere on 1 March 2013. The performance I saw was just the ninth show and there were still a few moments when the dancers looked a little unsteady. But what a lovely work it is, exciting to watch, often surprising, often funny, and even redolent at times of those ubiquitous visits we used to have decades ago from groups performing ethnic dances from their homeland. Those tours showed us dancers happily competing with each other to jump higher, turn faster, execute the most difficult steps, and ultimately to win their lady-love.

Made up of six parts, ‘Russian’, ‘Italian’, ‘German’, Spanish’, ‘Polish’ and ‘Hungarian’, From Foreign Lands is performed to an 1884 score by German composer and pianist Morris Moszkowski. The ballet, however, begins in silence with a brief introductory section for the full ensemble of twelve dancers. It suggests to us that dancing is to be the order if the day. But apart from that it is an opportunity to see the charming, tiered, older style tutus (finishing just above the knee) designed by Colleen Atwood. Then follow the six sections, which choreographically are largely quartets, or a variation on the quartet.

San Francisco Ballet in 'From Foreign Lands'
San Francisco Ballet in ‘German’  from Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Ratmansky’s choreography in this work contains some quite unexpected movement. He drops a supported cartwheel into ‘Spanish’, for example; elsewhere two men perform a simple jump on sequential beats so that they look like pistons going up and down; and occasionally the dancers face each other and dance mirror images. And all this alongside some glorious, ‘straightforward’ classical technique. I found ‘German’ one of the most interesting of the six sections, despite the fact that program notes suggest that it is ‘over-the-top romanticism’. As a quartet for three men and one woman it had a different feel from other combinations and I loved its lushness and the smooth and flowing dancing of Jennifer Stahl.

All in all a wonderfully uplifting program!

Michelle Potter, 10 March 2013

Featured image: San Francisco Ballet in ‘German’ from Alexei Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands. Photo: © Erik Tomasson, 2013. Courtesy San Francisco Ballet

Within the Golden Hour

Dance diary. October 2012

  • Dancing bronzes

During October I was utterly transfixed by an exhibition called Bronze on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. I was sceptical when I read so many reviews all with glowing descriptions that seemed to border on hyperbole. But the exhbition was absolutely mind-blowing in its scope, in the intelligence of its presentation and in the power of the objects on display.

The centrepiece of the show is the ‘Dancing Satyr’, a slightly larger than life figure around 2,300 years old, which was dragged out of the sea by fishermen in 1998. It is the first object one encounters on entering the exhibition space and, although it is missing both arms and one leg, the sense of movement emanating from the figure is brilliant. No matter from which angle one looks at the figure it is dancing, wildly. Bathed in a soft, moody light this beautiful figure is the sole object in a quite large space. The impact is almost overpowering.

Dancing SatyrDancing Satyr, Greek, Hellenistic period, Third–second centuries BCE; Bronze, with white alabaster for eyes, H. 200 cm; Museo del Satiro, Church of Sant’Egidio, Mazara del Vallo; Photo Sicily, Regione Siciliana—Assessorato Regionale dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana—Dipartimento dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana—Servizio Museo interdisciplinare Regionale “A. Pepoli” Trapani / © 2012. Photo Scala, Florence

The show contains other dancing items including a serene dancing Shiva.

Of course many of the bronzes have nothing to do at all with dance but they are astonishing as well and include some unexpected (to me) items from Africa. The show covers an exceptionally wide period of time from the ancient world to the present. On the non-dancing front I loved a spider, hovering high on a wall, by Louise Bourgeois and a couple of beer cans in bronze from Jasper Johns.

Bronze is at the Royal Acaemy of Arts, London, 15 September 2012 to 9 December 2012. It’s a great show.

  • Bolshoi Ballet in Brisbane

The Queensland Performing Arts Centre today announced its latest dance coup. Australian dance-goers will have the opportunity to see two programs by the Bolshoi Ballet in Brisbane in a season lasting from 30 May-9 June 2013. The Bolshoi is bringing two full-length works. The season opens with Le Corsaire based on the production created by Marius Petipa in the nineteenth century but in a revival by Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka. The second program is another revival, this time of a 1935 work from the Soviet era, The bright stream, again with input from Alexei Ratmansky, who has given the work a fresh breath of life with new choreography.

Both works promise to be curiosities—The bright stream, for example, is set during a harvest festival on a collective farm in the Russian steppes where a Moscow dance troupe arrives to entertain the workers. The season is, however, an opportunity to consider Ratmansky’s work once more, especially in a year when his new Cinderella will be a feature of the Australian Ballet’s 2013 season.

'The bright stream', Bolshoi BalletDancers of the Bolshoi Ballet in The bright stream

More about the season at this link.

  • Yvonne Mounsey/Irina Zarova (1919–2012)

Late in September one of the few remaining dancers who performed in Australia with the Ballets Russes died in Los Angeles. Yvonne Mounsey, born Yvonne Leibbrandt in 1919 in Pretoria, South Africa, danced in Australia during the 1939‒1940 Original Ballet Russe tour under the name Irina Zarova. A quick scan of programs from that tour indicates that she danced in at least Pavane (see below), Scheherazade, Thamar, Le Coq d’or, Petrouchka, Francesca da Rimini, Coppélia and Etude. Mounsey then travelled with the de Basil company on to South America where she was involved in the infamous dancers’ strike.

'Pavane', Original Ballet Russe, 1940Tamara Grigorieva and Irina Zarova in Serge Lifar’s Pavane, Original Ballet Russe, 1940. Photo: National Library of Australia

Mounsey’s major career was in the United States with New York City Ballet and she had a long career as a teacher in Los Angeles. Here is a link to Alastair Macaulay’s obituary in The New York Times, the only one I have seen so far that mentions the Australian part of her life.

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2012

Dance diary. September 2012

  • The Canberra Times

In September The Canberra Times published my preview articles on Intensely Soul, a program by Odissi dancers Nirmal Jena and Pratibha Jena Singh, and on Swan Lake, the Australian Ballet’s new production with choreography by Stephen Baynes and design by Hugh Colman. The Intensely Soul preview was also syndicated into The Sydney Morning Herald under the heading ‘Siblings dance father’s philosophy into being’.

  • Sydney Long: spirit of the land

On 6 September I gave a lunchtime talk in conjunction with the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition Sydney Long: spirit of the land. The text and PowerPoint images for the talk are available at this link. As a follow up, I appeared with the curator of the exhibition, Anne Grey, on Radio National’s program Books and Arts Daily hosted by Michael Cathcart.

  • The Australian Ballet in 2013

The Australian Ballet launched its program for 2013 this month. I mentioned Garry Stewart’s commission to create a new work, Monument, in a previous post. Of the other offerings for 2013 I am looking forward in particular to seeing what Alexei Ratmansky creates for his Cinderella, which will premiere in Melbourne in September. I have very divided thoughts at the moment on Ratmansky’s choreography but am hoping his Cinderella will be as thrilling, choreographically speaking, as his Seven Sonatas.

I am also looking forward to the triple bill program Vanguard opening in Sydney in April most especially to see Jiri Kylian’s luscious Bella Figura again. George Balanchine’s Four Temperaments and Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, first seen in Australia in 2009, will provide startling contrasts to Bella and the program promises to be a challenging and exhilarating one for dancers and audiences alike.

Felicia Palanca & Sarah Peace in 'Bella Figura'. Photo Jeff Busby
Felicia Palanca and Sarah Peace in Bella Figura. The Australian Ballet. Photo: © Jeff Busby
  • Helpmann awards

The 2012 Helpmann Award winners were announced at the end of September. Open this link to see all the awardees who in the dance category included Stephen Page, Paul White and DV8 Physical Theatre’s production, Can we talk about this? (UPDATE August 2020: Link no longer available)

I was especially pleased to see that Sydney Dance Company’s Charmene Yap was the winner of the best female dancer in a dance or physical theatre work for her performance in Rafael Bonachela’s 2 one another. Her performances have been consistently thrilling since she joined Sydney Dance Company. Here is Yap in an ‘artist snapshot’ in which she talks about auditioning for Sydney Dance Company, creating her solo Bonachela’s 6 Breaths and her duet in Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models.

Dance also featured in the category best original score (David Page and Steve Francis for Bangarra’s Belong program) and best costume design (Toni Maticevski and Richard Nylon for BalletLab’s Aviary: A Suite for the Bird).

  • Tag cloud: popular tags

The ten most popular tags for September were: Graeme Murphy, Hannah O’Neill, The Australian Ballet, Benedicte Bemet, Dance diary, Madeleine Eastoe, Ty King-Wall, Ballets Russes, Canberra dance and Adam Bull. Some could probably have been predicted in advance, others perhaps not.

Hannah O'Neill, Paris May 2012

Hannah O’Neill, Paris, May 2012. Photo: Michelle Potter

Michelle Potter, 29 September 2012

American Ballet Theatre. Fall season 2011

12–13 November 2011, City Center, New York

New York City’s newly refurbished City Center theatre was the venue for American Ballet Theatre’s Fall season, a program of nine, one-act works by contemporary choreographers presented over a short period of a few days. Just three of those works, Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, Demis Volpi’s Private Light and The Garden of Villandry choreographed by Martha Clarke, Robby Barnett and Felix Blaska, were accompanied by live music. This music was played on stage in each case: a grand piano for Seven Sonatas, four guitars played alternately by one musician for Private Light and a piano trio for The Garden of Villandry. The remaining works were performed to taped music.

The highlight for me was Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, about which I have written separately. But I was also pleased to see Merce Cunningham’s Duets, originally made in 1980. In this work for six couples Cunningham’s inventiveness was patently clear, especially in the complex partnering that was an essential feature of the work. But there were also moments when his choreography showed its modernist qualities, movement stripped back to essentials with an emphasis on clear shapes filling the space around the body, and with a strong sense of focus and line, albeit often set off centre. There were jarring moments, however, when the dancers seemed unable to detach themselves from a balletic need to project emotion through the face and via bodily embellishments to the choreography. Paloma Herrera, for example, dancing the second duet with Eric Tamm looked a little too much like a swan queen at one stage as she nestled into her partner’s shoulder and wrapped an arm around him at hip level. As beautiful as she looked, it was not quite Cunningham.

Paul Taylor had two works in the season, the classic Company B, always enjoyable, and a new work choreographed in 2011 called Black Tuesday. This latter work, danced to songs from the era of the Great Depression, provided a great showcase for some of the company’s soloists. Misty Copeland for example danced with verve and panache from beginning to end and especially in a solo, ‘The boulevard of broken dreams’, while Gemma Bond gave a gutsy, crowd-pleasing performance in her solo ‘I went hunting and the big bad wolf was dead’. Santo Loquasto dressed the dancers for Black Tuesday in brown, black and grey outfits in 1930s style with an eye catching assortment of fabrics and patterns and a range of accessories: hats, caps, stockings, gaiters, suspenders and the like. While perhaps not world-shattering choreographically with its mix of musical comedy routines and 1930s jitterbug-style movements, it was a fun work, well structured and full of interest from start to finish.

Twyla Tharp had three works on the program. Sadly I missed Sinatra Suite on this occasion but caught two performances of In the Upper Room and one of a duet entitled Known by Heart (‘Junk’) Duet. In the Upper Room was something of a disappointment. I have seen it danced better in Australia and it was unfortunate that the first cast I saw seemed not to be able to last the distance let alone look as though they were dancing together in the same ballet. In the end the remarkable Herman Cornejo looked quite idiosyncratic without a strong backup from his colleagues.

The second performance was, however, distinguished by a spectacular performance from Paloma Herrera as the main pointe girl. She had such assertiveness, such control of those slow turns, and such powerful technique as she handled slides into splits followed by a lift from the floor into a fish dive pose, or when hurling her body through space to be caught in some astonishing position. Misty Copeland danced strongly as the third sneaker girl (a role I can’t help but identify with the former Australian Ballet dancer Katie Ripley). Sascha Radetsky, Blaine Hoven and Patrick Ogle showed how they had lasted the distance when they came on for their curtain calls and each reprised a step from the work.

Known by Heart was new to me. Dating to 1998 and danced to selections from Donald Knaack’s Junk Music, it was performed by an ebullient Gillian Murphy partnered by Blaine Hoven. Basically the work is a variation on the traditional format of the pas de deux with duet, variations and coda, and the scene was set with an explosive opening as a diagonal shaft of light highlighted a generous grand jete from Murphy, who was supported by a finger tip hold from Hoven. There followed a battery of fast paced movements. Murphy at times even seemed to be tap dancing on pointe. Both Murphy and Hoven stylishly carried off the mixed nature of the choreography—a bit of ballroom, a bit of musical comedy, a bit of classical while all the time maintaining a somewhat cheeky partnership.

The Garden of Villandry, a work made in 1979 was very pretty but was without a huge amount of depth, although it was beautifully expressive of the Schubert Trio No 1 in B Flat, Opus 99 to which it was danced. I admired the lilting movements of bodies and the intertwining of arms throughout. As a kind of Edwardian love triangle it was understated and lingeringly melancholic as two men vied for the attentions of one woman. It was given a pleasant performance by a lovely Veronika Part partnered by Roddy Doble and Gennadi Saveliev.

I was least impressed by the Volpi work, Private Light, especially the sections where the choreography seemed to be more classically oriented. Then the dancers seemed almost to be engaging in centre practice and centre practice with little choreographic interest. And there was a lot of lining up and breaking out of line, huddling together and kissing in the dark. Volpi seemed too to be unable to choreograph for the arms, which were often left hanging unimaginatively at the dancer’s side. But one dancer, Simone Messmer, stood out for her beautifully articulated body and her ability to use her chest to project emotion. It was  a shame that the lighting was so dark that it was almost impossible to see her until the lights were raised for curtain calls. Perhaps the darkness was the source of the title?

It is always a pleasure to see a strong company performing a range of works that challenge the dancers stylistically. And is an equal pleasure to be challenged oneself by such a range of contemporary choreography as ABT presented in this short season.

Michelle Potter, 17 November 2011

Alexei Ratmansky. ‘The real thing’

12–13 November 2011, City Center, New York

When I wrote unaffectionately about Alexei Ratmansky’s 2009 work for the Australian Ballet, a new version of the 1933 Massine ballet Scuola di ballo, I received some feedback from friend and colleague David Vaughan. David wrote that he wished I could see work made by Ratmansky for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. ‘I am sure you would realize’, he wrote ‘that he is the real thing’.

It has been interesting, too, over the two years since I wrote that review to hear comments from dancers and others who worked with Ratmansky on that Australian production. They all found it a huge pleasure and had nothing but praise for Ratmansky. But nothing changes my opinion of his Scuola di ballo, and I had nothing to go on other than what I saw on stage, which is as it should be for any reviewer.

However, I now believe that David was right, at least in the wider scheme of things. I recently had the good fortune to see two performances of Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas during American Ballet Theatre’s recent Fall season at City Center, New York.

Seven Sonatas, also first made in 2009, is danced to keyboard sonatas by Domencio Scarlatti. The work is for three couples who engage with each other in a variety of combinations. They dance with and for each other. At the heart of the work, and centrally in the structure, are three pas de deux. The first and the longest had a note of anguish to it. Maria Riccetto and Blaine Hoven, in the first cast I saw, danced an intense and emotive pas de deux. Was this couple breaking apart? The woman seemed to be wanting to end the relationship as she extended her body away from the man. But it was never clear cut and Ratmansky’s gift to us was to leave us wondering.

The second pas de deux was also the shortest. It was full of unabashed pleasure, in life, dancing and partnership. Of the two casts I saw Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo best managed the spectacular choreography with its sudden changes of direction and its difficult turns. The third was a teasing game in which Julie Kent and Alexandre Hammoudi excelled. I loved Kent’s expressions, both facial and bodily, as she played with Hammoudi’s emotions, leading him on all the time. At one stage he was left alone briefly to dance a solo hoping Kent was watching from the wings. And she no doubt was as she re-entered the game to bring it to a satisfying conclusion with a leap into his arms.

Before and after these pas de deux we were treated to such lyrical movement in which the arms and upper body played a major role. Sometimes the arms and hands seemed very natural—clasped in front or behind the body, although clearly choreographed to be that way. Other times, rather than the palms facing each other in classical mode, the arms were held with the palms facing outwards and the arms opened as if pushing the air away. Sometimes the arm and hand movements were just totally surprising. At one stage Julie Kent executed a set of turns with arms in fifth position. But a closer look revealed that her fists were clenched and her wrists crossed. But diversity and surprise were features across every aspect of the work, especially in the way steps were combined and conceived as part of the work’s structure.

This work also presented every one of the six dancers as individuals. Individuality extended beyond the choreography even to the women’s hairstyles—beautifully braided in some cases but always drawn well off the face showing the elegance of the neck. And mention should be made of Holly Hynes’ costumes. The women wore soft white dresses, reaching well below the knee and with bodices decorated with pinkish brown trimmings, each slightly different. The men were costumed in white tights and short white jackets, again each slightly different in cut and trimming.

Seven Sonatas is a ballet for all. If you want to see a delicious work, which is also somehow very calming, then this is it. You don’t have to work hard to be given a special experience. But if you want more then it’s all there too. It could be watched multiple times and would always keep giving. But perhaps best of all, Ratmansky has made a work that speaks of, and asks questions about life and love through movement. I can think of nothing better or more admirable.

Michelle Potter, 15 November 2011

And to the Australian Ballet: give us the real thing please!

Por vos muero. The Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet’s triple bill Concord is currently in its Sydney season. It’s at the Opera House until 30 November.

Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 is as startling as ever, although the cast I saw did not manage to achieve the same degree of technical precision and sense of purpose that made the opening night in Melbourne this past August such a brilliant occasion. Alexei Ratmansky’s Scuola di Ballo remains pantomime for those who like their ballet that way. As for Nacho Duato’s sublime Por vos muero, it continues to give and give of itself in a way that only the very best works of art can do.

Por vos in its Australian Ballet production goes back to the directorship of Ross Stretton who introduced it to Australian audiences in 2000. Who can forget the ravishing Felicia Palanca in the leading female role in that first season? Her passion for her role knew no bounds. But then who can forget Daniel Gaudiello on opening night in Melbourne this year with his capacity to show to advantage the intricacies of Duato’s choreography?

On the second matinee of the Sydney season no dancer really stood out, which allowed the opportunity to think more about the work itself, especially its seamless yet choreographically idiosyncratic duets, its use of humour and its delicious sensuousness. In fact it sent me back to the DVD to look more closely at how Duato had structured the work and at his use of props, especially the masks in his dance for six women and his decorative screens at the back of the stage space and the way they were used by the dancers to link each section.

But in addition I turned on the DVD’s subtitles and saw for the first time an English translation of the narrator’s Spanish words. The work stands brilliantly by itself—no translation of the words is necessary to feel that it is about love and passion in their many manifestations. Duato also explains on the DVD that everyone danced in fifteenth and sixteenth century Spain: dance was not thought of as an art but simply as a way of expressing oneself on pretty much any occasion. Such a desire to dance is also inherent in the choreography without our being told. Both the words of the narrator and Duato’s explanation simply confirm what we know. Por vos is an exceptional work.

But the words of the narrator are deeply affecting. As six dancers, clothed in stripped back skin-coloured costumes, move off and give up the stage for a final solo by the leading female dancer, whose consort appears in the closing moment to enfold her in his arms, we are told:

For thee I was born/Through thee I have life/For thee I must die/And for thee I die.

Por vos is an exceptional work.

Michelle Potter, 23 November 2009

Featured image: Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Por vos muero, 2009. Photo: © Jim McFarlane.

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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