Coppélia. The Australian Ballet. Digital Season 2020

The Australian Ballet’s production of Coppélia dates back to 1979—thirty-one years ago—when it was staged by Peggy van Praggh with George Ogilvie as dramaturg. This 2020 digital screening was dedicated to Ogilvie, who died in April of this year. There is little doubt that Ogilvie’s input had a lot to do with the long-lasting success of the ballet and in fact he returned to work with the Australian Ballet for its 2016 production, which is the one we see in this online screening. Of course it can’t be denied that the visual beauty of the production, with sets and costumes by Kristian Fredrikson, added to its success. Fredrikson, who was born in Wellington, New Zealand, admitted that he designed Coppélia as a tribute to van Praagh who, back in the 1960s, gave him the opportunity to work in Australia. He regarded van Praagh as the person who nurtured his early career. It was indeed a lovely tribute from Fredrikson since Coppélia was a work in which van Praagh herself had shone during her own dancing career.

Peggy van Praagh as Swanilda. 'Coppélia', Act 11, 1940s. Photo: Anthony
Peggy van Praagh as”Swanhilda” (i.e. Swanilda) in Coppélia, Act 11, 1940s. Photo: Anthony. National Library of Australia

The dancing in many of the productions of Coppélia I have seen has often been of a rather mixed quality. But not this time. Led by Ako Kondo as Swanilda, Chengwu Guo as Franz and Andrew Killian as Dr Coppélius, with a stunning supporting cast, there was little to complain about, and everything to admire as far as performance goes.

Ako Kondo in the Spanish variation in Coppélia Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Kondo shone technically and in her acting, as did Guo. I especially loved the moments in Act I where the two of them stood in line to greet the official party arriving in the village square with Kondo declining, in no uncertain terms, to hold Guo’s hand (he had been paying too much attention to the doll on Dr Coppélius’ balcony). I also admired the grand pas de deux in Act III, which unfolded beautifully and was technically spectacular.

Andrew Killian was an interesting Dr Coppélius, not too over the top but very believable as an eccentric man totally absorbed in perfecting his magical powers. There was a lovely, calm rendition of the Prayer solo in Act III from Robyn Hendricks. And the corps de ballet deserves special mention for the vibrantly performed character dances in Act I. The Mazurka had its leading couple, but Guo joined in with a solo that added some spectacular moments in true principal artist fashion—exceptionally controlled turns, magnificent jumps and a truly beautiful showman-style use of head, chest and arms

As has been the case with pretty much every streamed production I have watched recently, it was great to see the occasional close-up shot of an individual dancer to give us a view of facial expressions and, of course, to give insight into the details of costumes.

My review of a 2016 performance, which I saw in Sydney with a quite different cast is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 20 July 2020

Featured image: Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in the grand pas de deux in Coppélia Act III. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Postscript: It was extremely annoying that the cast sheet that was available on the Australian Ballet’s website, supposedly to give us information about the cast, was not the correct one. It was dated the evening performance in Sydney of 16 December 2016 but the cast was entirely different from the one we saw, who also, apparently, performed on 16 December. Perhaps there was a matinee performance on 16 December? But at least there were credits at the end of the film, which helped.

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet (2019)

14 December 2019 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

This staging of Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker was a beautiful and magical end to the Australian Ballet’s 2019 season. I have written before about Sir Peter’s take on this much-loved Christmas ballet, in both its onstage and film productions, and the features I enjoyed on those other occasions—such as its moments of stage magic, and the inherent logic within the narrative structure—were apparent again. The experience was especially enjoyable on this occasion as I had the good fortune to see an outstanding cast of lead characters.

As Clara, Yuumi Yamada just took my breath away. From her very first entrance her delightful and youthful personality, so perfect for this role, were apparent. She acted and danced her way through the show in spectacular fashion— and there were few moments when she wasn’t onstage. Particular dancing highlights were her pas de deux with Marcus Morelli in the Christmas party scenes and another pas de deux with the Nutcracker-turned-Prince (François-Eloi Lavignac) just before the snow scene began.

Yuumi Yamada as Clara in The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

It was particularly pleasing too to see Chengwu Guo back on stage after an absence due to injury. The Act II pas de deux between Guo as the Nutcracker Prince and Ako Kondo as the Sugar Plum Fairy demonstrated what we, the audience, had been missing. His elevation; his soft, controlled landings; his multiple pirouettes (including those grands pirouettes à la seconde; and his spectacular entrechats were nothing short of thrillling. And I am always impressed by the way in which, as an intrinsic part of his performance, he treats his partner with such respect. All I can say is welcome back! Kondo performed beautifully too. I admired her absolute control, to the extent that we could see every movement unfold. It was as if she were dancing in slow motion.

The very young boy, Gabriel Bennett, who danced as Fritz also deserves a mention. His presence onstage and his acting made his performance a winning one. In fact all the young student extras, male and female, who danced as friends of Clara held their own throughout the opening party scene.

Andrew Killian as Drosselmeyer made an important contribution to the success of the performance, and the soloists and corps de ballet danced well throughout. I especially enjoyed the dancing of the four men who danced as the Winds in the snow scene, and who returned again (with one replacement) as Consorts to the Rose Fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers section.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Nutcracker, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

I am not a huge fan of John McFarlane’s designs for this Nutcracker. They often seem ‘loud’ to me and they simply don’t fit well on the Sydney Opera House stage. Nor does that frustratingly small stage lend itself well to the Christmas party that opens this Nutcracker. Too many people have to crowd onto it, which rather ruins the party. It’s an ongoing saga.

But nothing can really take away from the magical and enchanting performance that we were offered and accepted with loud applause.

Michelle Potter, 16 December 2019

Featured image: Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.

Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Stephen Baynes' 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Verve (2019). The Australian Ballet

13 April 2019 (matinee) Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I saw this program, a contemporary triple bill with works by Stephen Baynes, Alice Topp and Tim Harbour, last year, 2018, in Melbourne. My review is at this link. This time my thoughts remain basically the same. I liked or disliked each of the works for the same reasons as before, although in most cases the casting was different and Aurum probably didn’t have the power I felt it had at the performance I saw in 2018.

With regard to casting, I saw Ako Kondo and Andrew Killian in the leading roles in Baynes’ Constant Variants both times, and both times they handled themselves with the aplomb and expertise we have come to expect from these two principal dancers. But on this second viewing I especially enjoyed Yuumi Yamada with her beautiful smile and joyous execution of the steps, and an equally inspiring Lucien Xu.

Yuumi Yamada and Lucien Xu in Stephen Baynes' 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: Daniel Boud

Yuumi Yamada and Lucien Xu in Stephen Baynes’ Constant Variants. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

I was also transfixed by the dancing of Joseph Romancewicz, as I was when I noticed him in small parts in The Merry Widow and Spartacus. On this occasion Romancewicz had a role in Topp’s Aurum and, with fewer people on the stage this time compared with those previous occasions, it was easier to see some of what I admire. Mostly it is that power to engage with those around him—this time with his partner in a group section of about eight dancers (if I remember rightly). Not once did he move without thinking and showing that he was dancing with someone. But I also noticed more clearly this time that he moves with beautiful fluidity throughout his whole body.

It was also a pleasure to see Dimity Azoury in the final movement of Aurum, which she danced with Andrew Killian.

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Alice Topp's 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury_in Alice Topp’s Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The standout dancer for me in Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow was Marcus Morelli. I always enjoy the enthusiasm with which he takes on every role and the way he injects such a strong personal note into those roles.

Marcus Morelli and Brett Chynoweth in Tim Harbour's 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Stephen Baynes' 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Marcus Morelli and Brett Chynoweth (airborne) in Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But I guess what interested me particularly this time was the shape of movement throughout. Baynes’ use of classical movement showed how expansive and diverse the classical vocabulary is. It allows all the spectacular qualities that we see in contemporary vocabulary but as well brings to the surface a fluidity, a smoothness, and something that is filled with curving, as well as straight lines. The body is the medium.

Topp and Harbour seemed to want more than anything to make shapes, new shapes that we haven’t seen anywhere else before. Often they were spectacular shapes, particularly hard-edged in Harbour’s case. But while some were interesting, others seemed as though the choreographer was trying too hard to be different, and even at times trying to put a step to every note of music. The body is not so much the medium but the show place for shapes.

Constant Variants remains the work I want to come back to again and again. Verve is, nevertheless, a wonderful program that gives us much to think about.

Michelle Potter, 14 April 2019

Featured image: Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Stephen Baynes’ Constant Variants. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Murphy. The Australian Ballet … second viewing

14 April 2018 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I had the pleasure of seeing Murphy for a second time, this time in Sydney at a mid-season matinee and in a top-notch seat (as a result of many years of subscribing and slowly moving forward into a great position).

Much, if not all, that I wrote after the Melbourne opening still stands. One or two performers, however, stood out for me on this second occasion. In Grand,  ‘Alligator Crawl’ by Fats Waller was wonderfully danced by George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu. Xu in particular made the most of the opportunity and looked smart and sassy, as was appropriate in the jazz situation that the music demanded. Then, Yuumi Yamada and Andrew Killian danced beautifully in the duet to the Beethoven ‘Lento e mesto’ from his Piano Sonata in D major. There was a certain vulnerability in the way Yamada moved and yet technically her dancing was strong. Killian was a perfect partner in this situation.

I also omitted to mention the work of filmmaker Philippe Charluet in my previous post. His Reflections, the opening  filmed monologue from Murphy, and his introduction to Grand, which showed the incredible Wakako Asano from the Sydney Dance Company production of 2005, were fine examples of Charluet’ work and nostalgic reminders of how exceptional Sydney Dance Company was under Murphy and Vernon.

Shéhérazade, however, remained a disappointment without its silk tent. It might be one thing to perform an excerpt without the full set, which if I recall correctly was the case in Body of Work (2002) when just the opening pas de deux was performed. But the Murphy program presented the full work and it truly lost its mysterious and erotic quality without the original set.

Here is part of what Kristian Fredrikson wrote about the set: ‘Blue silk tent with applied gold patterns, a silk sling, a rope, 4 watchers on illuminated perspex—glittering gauze.’ And here is his description of one highlight where the silk plays a significant role in the choreography: ‘A girl arises from her silk trapeze and dances a yearning solo … at two points of the solo the girl is mirror-imaged by the first girl who slips in and out of the gauze.’ It would have been respectful, as well as giving audiences a true picture of what Shéhérazade was really like, had there been some effort to reproduce the original set.

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2018

Featured image: Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Brodie James, Lana Jones, Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in 'Shéhérazade'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Note: The National Library of Australia holds some colour photographs from the first performances (1979) of Shéhérazade taken by Don McMurdo, which show the blue tent with its gold designs. I have made concerted and repeated efforts to get permission to use them but I have had no response from the copyright owner. The National Library holds them in trust only and Don McMurdo’s permission is not sufficient. I still hold out hope that one day the Sydney Opera House’s legal team will respond.

UPDATE June 2020: It turns out that the National Library’s images are not from 1979 but from a revival in 1987. I have Janet Vernon and Chrissa Keramidas to thank for this information. One of the images appears in my book Kristian Fredrikson. Designer (with permission from and payment to the Sydney Opera House Trust).

Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in 'Forgotten Land'. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

Vitesse. The Australian Ballet

7 May 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The Australian Ballet’s triple bill, Vitesse, was not so much about vitesse (FR: speed) as about the look of ballet over the past thirty years or so. It began with Jiri Kylian’s Forgotten Land, moving, dramatic and emotion filled, continued with William Forsythe’s fiercely uncompromising In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and closed with Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV (Danse à grande vitesse), an attempt to capture the essence of speed and referring to France’s TGV (Train à grande vitesse) and Michael Nyman’s score MGV (Musique à grande vitesse).

Forgotten Land, a Kylian work from 1981, is in essence a series of duets expressing a yearning for past memories and events. I particularly enjoyed the dancing of first couple, Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian, who brought a delicious lyrical quality to their pas de deux and who brought out so well Kylian’s choreographic focus on bending bodies and swirling, extended arms. I also admired the performance by Rina Nemoto and Joseph Chapman as the last couple. Their delicacy and gentleness stood in contrast to some of the more fast-paced duets. The work is such a joy to watch and has a particularly emotive ending as the female dancers, backs to the audience, stretch their arms upwards, heavenwards, as if pining for what has been forgotten.

In the Middle left something to be desired, at least for those who remember it from 1996 when it first entered the Australian Ballet’s repertoire. It made a huge impression then with its high-energy choreography, its extraordinary off-centre poses, and its stunning performances in which the dancers missed no opportunity to draw the audience into the work. Not so much this time when it seemed a little tame. Although the dancers (again) executed the steps admirably enough, I missed (again) the physicality and the passion that needs to be added to the steps, to be the essence of movement, to make any ballet, but especially this one, have one on the edge of one’s seat with excitement. Surprisingly too, I also missed the Sylvie Guillem-style wig that was worn by Nicole Rhodes (as the leading female dancer) in the 1996 production. Not only did that wig have its own movement, it also set the work, which was made on Guillem and the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987, in a particular context. It had a definite role.

Amy Harris in 'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud

Amy Harris in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The leading trio of artists, Amy Harris, Nicola Curry and Ty King-Wall, danced admirably enough. But for me, the most interesting performance came from Chengwu Guo, who at the last minute replaced Jarryd Madden. I am used to seeing Guo throw himself around the stage, executing spectacular beats, turns and jumps (sometimes inappropriately as happened in Giselle). So it was a pleasure to see him dancing differently. I wondered whether he felt held back by the Forsythian choreography, which is spectacular in its own way of course, but which does not ask for excess in the old Russian manner? Without losing any of his technical skills, there was a certain austerity to his approach on this occasion and I enjoyed his performance immensely.

Wheeldon’s DGV is an interesting work but never seems to have the excitement that its name suggests. It’s interesting too that Australian Ballet publicity says that ‘Wheeldon hurtles his dancers through a high-speed journey’. What drew my attention, on the other hand, was the extent to which Wheeldon seemed to create static poses, especially in the several pas de deux that are sprinkled throughout the work. I started to look on DGV as a kind of series of travel posters rather than a comment on a fast train and speed. It is not my favourite Wheeldon work and a review of another performance is at this link.

Despite my various reservations, it was an experience to have the work of Kylian, Forsythe and Wheeldon on the one program. Kylian rarely fails to move, Forsythe sees the body in movement differently from most, and Wheeldon … well I’m still making up my mind.

Michelle Potter, 9 May 2016

Featured image: Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in Forgotten Land. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2016)

9 April 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake premiered in 2012 as a ‘traditional’ Australian Ballet production to stand alongside Graeme Murphy’s rather more radical version. After almost four years it is certainly an interesting experience to see the Baynes production again, but looking back at what I wrote in 2012 I find myself wanting to say much the same.

On the positive side, Hugh Colman’s costumes are still a highlight. They are so elegantly designed, especially those in Act I, where the women’s dresses not only look so stylish but move beautifully during the danced sequences. They also set the story so well in the nineteenth century, the era of Tchaikovsky. Then I was still thrilled to see such lovely, swirling choreography in so many places. I was especially taken this time with the patterns given to the swans, both when moving and when standing motionless.  I was also lucky to see a lovely performance from Miwako Kubota as Odette/Odile. She danced both roles with style and technical assurance and gave each role a distinctive characterisation.

Baynes and Colman have approached the story as a kind of psycho-drama and, in bringing out this aspect of the production, Andrew Killian as Siegfried gave a strong performance. He gave the role a brooding quality in Act I that at first made him appear not to be participating—and of course we are used to seeing Siegfried enjoying himself at his birthday celebrations before heading off to shoot swans with his mates. But slowly Killian brought us to the realisation that Siegfried was deeply unhappy with his life and at the end of Act I, as he stood before the gates that led to the lake, I couldn’t help feeling that he was thinking of drowning himself in it (which is eventually what happens).

On the not so positive side, I think this Swan Lake still badly needs the services of a dramaturg to bring out the narrative (or Baynes’ version of the story) more clearly. The psycho-drama seems to fall apart somewhat after Act I when the ballet reverts to the original storyline without enough emphasis on anything that might be called evil. Rothbart, who personifies evil in traditional productions, still remains an enigma in the Baynes version. Is he the personification of the blackness that consumes Siegfried? He seems just to hover in the background, except in Act III when he rudely sits beside the Queen, who on this occasion, surprisingly, took very little notice of him. And then Rothbart plays the violin for the the dance of the Russian Princess (beautifully performed by Rina Nemoto), which makes him a kind of Paganini figure, the Devil’s minion.  It is very difficult to reconcile exactly what role he is meant to be playing and, as a result, the production becomes unsatisfying.

Despite some very nice choreographic moments, and some strong dancing, I have to come to the conclusion that I prefer other productions of Swan Lake. I don’t want to go back to a Borovansky-style 1950s production (although it was really quite a good, straightforward one), and all credit to David McAllister for wanting to add a traditional Swan Lake to the Australian Ballet repertoire. But for preference I’d go to the Murphy production any day. It has a coherence that I think is lacking in the Baynes production.

Michelle Potter, 11 April 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake (2012 production). Photo: © Jeff Busby

Giselle. The Australian Ballet (2015 third viewing)

21 May 2015, Canberra Theatre Centre

This is an expanded version of a review published by Fairfax Media online on 22 May and which will appear shortly in print in The Canberra Times [published 25 May].

Giselle is one of the great works of the balletic repertoire. Its story of love, betrayal and forgiveness needs powerful acting as well as exceptional dancing, and its Romantic heritage (it was first performed in Paris in 1841) requires that its two acts be very different from each other. The first act, showing village life at harvest time, is grounded in reality; the second, set in a ghostly forest clearing at midnight, is just the opposite. The opening night of the Australian Ballet’s Canberra season of Giselle, the Maina Gielgud production, ticked all the boxes and was nothing short of stunning.

In the leading roles of the peasant girl Giselle, and Albrecht, the man Giselle loves, Lana Jones and Adam Bull danced exceptionally well, both together and in their respective solos. I have never seen Jones dance with such lightness and elevation and her held arabesques lingered beautifully every time. The relationship between Jones and Bull unfolded carefully throughout Act I as a result of their expressive faces and their constant eye contact. Then, when Albrecht’s true identity was revealed—he is not the peasant he seems to be but a Count in disguise—Jones brought compelling dramatic force to her mental collapse. Bull played Albrecht as a man genuinely in love and, although he could not deny his aristocratic lineage when confronted with it, we felt his anguish as he faced Giselle’s onstage death.

By Act II Giselle, as prefigured in Act I, has become a Wili and rises from the grave to join others like her who have been betrayed in love. They prey upon men who enter their domain at night and, at the command of Myrtha, their Queen, condemn them to dance until they die. Jones and Bull again showed their exceptional technical skills but also consistently stayed in character. Their first encounter, after Albrecht had entered the forest to mourn at Giselle’s grave, was a moving one. Jones drifted past Bull as an apparition whom he could not catch. As the act progressed we felt Bull’s desperation as he obeyed the command to keep dancing, and we felt Jones’ all-consuming love as she pleaded that he be saved. None of this was at the expense of their dancing in a technical sense, but neither did they allow their dancing to intrude on the development of the story.

As Myrtha, Ako Kondo was superb. She was, as ever, technically assured. But she also brought just the right imperious quality to her performance. No one could escape her cold-heartedness.

Ako Kondo as Myrtha in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo as Myrtha in Giselle. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Hilarion, the rough and untutored gamekeeper also in love with Giselle, was strongly danced by Andrew Killian. His role in unmasking Albrecht in Act I is crucial and Killian made his every move and thought unmistakably clear. As Wilfred, Albrecht’s right hand man, Andrew Wright also gave a strong performance. He was forever anxious as he tried again and again to persuade Albrecht not to pursue his deception of Giselle, and then was in the right place at the right time to usher him out of the village following Giselle’s death.

The peasant pas de deux, a highlight of Act I, was danced by Miwako Kubota and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson. They made a charming couple, both in their dancing and in the way they engaged with each other, and with us in the auditorium. What I especially admired was that they maintained their roles as two people from the village community. While technically they certainly matched others I have seen perform this pas de deux, they were the first who didn’t look as though they belonged elsewhere.

Natasha Kusen and Robyn Hendricks also caught my eye for their lyrical performance as the leading Wilis in Act II. Kusen in particular had a wonderfully fluid upper body and arms and continues to stand out as a dancer to watch.

Although the size of the Canberra stage caused one or two difficult moments, the dancers of the Australian Ballet performed as the true professionals they are. It was a wonderful Giselle, beautifully danced, thoroughly engaging, and dramatically convincing throughout.

Michelle Potter, 23 May 2015

 

Postscript

On the question of the size of the Canberra Theatre and its relation to the Australian Ballet’s abilities to stage its current repertoire in the present theatre, at the post-performance event, John Hindmarsh, current chair of the ACT Cultural Facilities Corporation announced that he had had some success in his ongoing initiative to develop a new Canberra Theatre. While there is, apparently, still much to achieve Hindmarsh was in a relatively buoyant mood about possibilities.

I am also curious that the name Loys, the pseudonym that used to be given to Albrecht while he assumes a village identity, seems to be disappearing. It didn’t appear in this production. And is he a Count as the Australian Ballet program says, or is he the Duke of Silesia as others note? Pedantic points perhaps, but interesting nevertheless.

And one disappointment, no media images were available of Jones and Bull, which seems a missed opportunity to me.

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in 'Monotones II'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Daniel Boud

The Dream. A second look

16 May 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

After feeling less than satisfied with my earlier viewing of the Australian Ballet’s triple bill of Ashton works—Monotones II, Symphonic Variations and The Dream—it was such a pleasure to have a second look and come away feeling much more fulfilled.

Monotones II was danced by the same cast that I saw on opening night, Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright, but all my feeling that the work was outdated disappeared. Gone too were those hideous shadows that marred my first viewing, although they linger a little on the photograph below. This time, the visually pristine quality of the work was all there. I had a much better seat, but was that the only reason? I suspect not.

There was a real serenity to the performance. All three dancers were attuned to each other’s movements. There were gorgeous moments of symmetry that gently broke into asymmetry. Bodies twisted and threaded through arched shapes. Winding and unwinding. It was a truly beautiful, calm, technically satisfying performance.

Symphonic Variations too was danced in a far superior fashion to what I saw on opening night. The three women, Lana Jones, Amanda McGuigan and Ingrid Gow were well cast together. They are of similar height and body shape and it made a huge difference. The men, Andrew Killian, Ty King-Wall and Andrew Wright, were experienced enough to manage the difficult partnering without looking as though they were fumbling around. They also handled better the experience of being on stage for the entire ballet.

Technically, all six dancers showed every beautiful and often intricate detail of Ashton’s choreography—the elongated fingers, the hands turned up from the wrists, the lines made between dancers, for example. The spacing and patterning of the work was also clear, and the movements flowed smoothly. A delight to watch. I loved that moment for the women when they turned chaînés around their partner, starting one after the other and with one arm spiralling upwards as if propelled by the twirling of the feet. And I gasped as the men, in a line upstage, all turned a double pirouette ending in attitude and finished perfectly, in the same line, in time, and with their attitudes at the same height. Just beautiful and surely how Ashton imagined this work would be danced.

Still something missing there though—that incredible feeling that I got from the Royal that this was an awakening from the darkness. And it was only after reading (much later) the Royal’s program notes that I realised the circumstances behind Ashton’s creation of the work. So I didn’t set out with a preconceived idea. But thank you to the six Australian Ballet dancers I saw on this occasion. It was a lovely, serene performance, despite the medical emergency that was going on in the auditorium at the time.

The Dream looked mostly as beautiful as it did on opening night, this time with Miwako Kubota and Jared Wright taking the leading roles of Titania and Oberon. Wright stood out in his solo variation in the final pas de deux. His movements were beautifully shaped and coordinated. Andrew Wright and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson gave excellent performances as Demetrius and Lysander. Wright in particular was able to demonstrate how skilled Ashton is at incorporating humour into his works. Marcus Morelli, with his exceptional elevation, made Puck look as if he belonged in the air.

Overall, what a difference!

Michelle Potter, 17 May 2015

Featured image: Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in Monotones II. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in 'Monotones II'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Daniel Boud

My initial review is at this link.

The Nutcracker on film. The Australian Ballet

It was a pleasure to be able to see Peter Wright’s Nutcracker once again, this time on film danced by the Australian Ballet and recorded in Melbourne on 17 September 2014. It was shown on ABC-TV on Christmas Eve and is due to be released on DVD by the ABC in early January.

The absolute star was Benedicte Bemet as Clara and I regret not having had the opportunity to see her on stage. She commanded the role from beginning to end, never losing strength or characterisation. She showed off a wonderfully fluid technique and I especially loved her use of épaulement, her gorgeous carriage of the head, those beautiful arabesques that seemed to soar upwards, and the way she always, but always, stepped forward onto a turned out foot. Those technical matters came as if they were second nature and she looked every inch the dancer from start to finish. And she showed her versatility as a performer in Act II as she joined in all the dances, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and so forth, according to Peter Wright’s vision for the role.

Benedicte Bemet and artists of the Australian Ballet in 'The Nutcracker', 2014. Photo Jeff Busby
Benedicte Bemet as Clara with artists of the Australian Ballet in The Nutcracker, 2014. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Ingrid Gow was also impressive as Clara’s mother where I could not help but notice how expressively she used her arms, especially in her dance with Clara’s father (Brett Simon). Andrew Killian made his presence felt as the occasionally frightening Drosselmeyer in Act I, an attitude he tempered beautifully with something more gentle in Act II as he involved Clara in the action.

But looking from a different perspective, one of the most interesting features of this recording was the way the lighting looked so different from what I remember from the Sydney performance I saw. Gone were the garish colours of that Act II set and what appears to have been a more subdued approach to the lighting design in fact made the set look quite beautiful at times. With what were always carefully selected close-up shots, it was possible to see elements of the set highlighted. Not having always to see the entire set gave a quite different impression. The downside, however, was that often the darker scenes, especially in Act I and in the final scene when Clara finds herself again by her family Christmas tree, were often scarcely visible.

The grand pas de deux was danced on this occasion by Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson and, unlike my previous experience, there was indeed a real connection between this Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. Jackson’s partnering was impeccable—those shoulder lifts, followed by a full circle swirl before Eastoe was lowered into a fish dive, were just wonderful. Eastoe’s command of the choreography was beyond question and her every movement was beautifully and clearly articulated. Together they danced as one.

But I was still a little disappointed. I wanted this pas de deux to look like more than just a lovely dance. It still seemed to lack excitement, daring and the power to thrill. I’m not sure what Peter Wright thinks the pas de deux should look like. I wondered whether in his version he just wanted it to be a lovely part of a lovely story? I wanted it also to be a show piece with the sense of grandeur that goes with the great classical tradition. I wanted it to be more than just a part of the storyline. It was an exquisite pas de deux but it wasn’t a ‘grand’ one for me.

Nevertheless this Nutcracker remains a joy to watch and the DVD (details at this link) will be a worthy addition to any ballet collection.

Michelle Potter, 29 December 2015

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in a study for Petite Mort. The Australian Ballet 2014. Photo Paul Scala

Chroma, Art to Sky, Petite Mort & Sechs Tänze. The Australian Ballet

10 May 2014 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

What an inspiring performance the Australian Ballet gave of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Not an easy ballet to bring off, but all the diverse features that make McGregor’s choreography so eminently watchable were there. Limbs extending through space, off-centre partnering, moves that were in turn twisted, contorted, angular and sometimes smooth and undulating. And all were all set cleanly and articulately against John Pawson’s stripped back, white box space with its rectangular ‘window’ of changing colours. McGregor is a master at exploiting the balletic body to produce astonishingly shaped movements—movements of the twenty-first century perhaps? What I especially like is that his choreography make us see how perfectly amazing the balletic vocabulary can be.

I particularly admired Vivienne Wong’s performance throughout the work and also a powerful trio from Brett Chynoweth, Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Killian—fast, assertive dancing from them all. But it was a duet from Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello that stole the show for me. McGregor’s choreography suits Jones with her strong, unassailable technique and Gaudiello has such a way of adding his own signature to everything he does while still remaining true to the intentions of the choreographer.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Chroma', 2014. courtesy the Australian Ballet

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Stephen Baynes’ new work, Art to Sky, began with some lovely, lingering choreography, beautifully performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Gaudiello again. It was romantic, softly falling from step to step. The corps de ballet also had some memorable choreography in the opening sections, surprising at times and always pure and fresh. But after that there were a few too many somersaults, cartwheels and legs in the air, not to mention twee sections of humour that didn’t quite work. It is a little problematic too that one of George Balanchine’s most exquisite ballets (in my mind anyway) is Mozartiana danced to the same music, Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana, that Baynes chose for Art to Sky. Balanchine has a habit of lingering in the mind, making it hard to accept anything else to the music he uses.

Hugh Colman’s shadowy, upstage portal that comprised the set, lit by Rachel Burke to give a hint of the mysterious, were strong additions to the look of Art to Sky. Colman, Burke and Baynes work well together as collaborators and bring a sense of visual cohesion to each other’s work.

The program concluded with Jiri Kylian’s companion pieces, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze and it was a treat to see some more Kylian back onstage with the Australian Ballet. It was interesting to have Kylian on the same program as McGregor, as also happened last year with Bella Figura and Dyad. Kylian, too, pushes the dance vocabulary and gives us a surprising array of movement, but he adds a degree of humanity and humour to his works that McGregor passes over (at least in Chroma, although perhaps not to the same extent in others of his works).

This mixed bill was a relief from the full-length ballets that we are told draw the best houses. To me the house looked pretty much full  for what was a diverse and well danced program. I’d like more in this vein.

Michelle Potter, 11 May 2014

Featured image: Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in a study for Petite Mort. The Australian Ballet 2014. Photo: © Paul Scala

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in 'Petite Mort'. Photo Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet