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, Rudy Hawkes, Adam Bull and Amber Scott in 'Gemini', 2012 Photo: Jeff BusbyLana 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.

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.

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.
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

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

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

The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet (2010)

There was a time when Christmas in Sydney without a production of The Nutcracker was unimaginable. The ballet attracts a festive audience, there is no doubt about it. So it is hardly a surprise that the Australian Ballet’s staging of Peter Wright’s Nutcracker as its final offering for the 2010 Sydney season was a total sell-out.

This Nutcracker does not strive too hard for psychological explanations or modernisations and the production has a clear and very welcome logic to it. Nothing happens in the transformation scene, when the Christmas tree grows, mice (rats I think in this production?) emerge and engage in a fight in which they are ultimately the losers, and Clara’s Christmas gift of a nutcracker doll turns into a handsome prince, which is not prefigured in some way in the party scene. The second act too has more logic than usual. Clara’s involvement with the dances is a welcome addition, as is her transformation—she is an aspiring dancer in this production—into the Sugar Plum Fairy. While the ballet still of course requires suspension of belief, there is a coherence that is unusual in a staging that does not diverge markedly from the traditional storyline.

The production was also pleasing from a technical point of view. And by this I mean that for once there were no loud bangs and crashes from backstage as scenery was moved in and out. I have winced more than once throughout the 2010 season at noises off stage that were never meant to be heard in the auditorium.

There was also some great dancing, and what a treat that is! A total standout was Madeleine Eastoe as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She was technically assured, her feet sparkled and there was such a delicious flow of movement in her torso as her spine stretched upwards through to her beautifully poised head. She gave such light and shade to the choreography with some unexpected changes of pace in her movements. She was every inch the ballerina—commanding but never overbearingly so. And what a magnificent, beautifully placed and perfectly executed diagonal of fouettés at the beginning of the coda!

As for her partner, Yosvani Ramos, he was sadly encumbered by a jacket in a startling shade of lolly pink—very unbecoming I thought. And to make matters worse the neckline seemed quite stiff and much too high for him. It made him look as though he had an incredibly short neck—not good when he is not the tallest of dancers in the first place. It quite detracted from some really nice dancing on his part.

Reiko Hombo danced the role of Clara and acquitted herself well showing absolute engagement with the role. Leanne Stojmenov as the Rose Fairy could scarcely put a foot wrong. The choreography here demands a dancer with a strong sense of classical order and in such situations Stojmenov always displays a natural ability and an exceptional level of expertise. Daniel Gaudiello had a small role in the first act as Drosselmeyer’s assistant. With his ability to realise a character, his powerful presence on stage and his technical prowess, especially when it comes to beaten steps and steps of elevation, Gaudiello turned this role into something exceptional and quite idiosyncratic. There were also fine performances from Andrew Killian as Drosselmeyer and Tzu-Chao Chou as the Jack-in-the-Box

There were moments when I found the costume and set design by John F. Macfarlane overbearing and fussy. Apart from wishing that the Prince’s pink jacket was not quite so inelegant, I also craved a little more subtlety in the set for Act II, which suffered in my opinion from a surfeit of colourful motifs including two different kinds of very large flowers, a stylised (anthropomorphised) sun and a bunch of swirly ribbons. But this Nutcracker is a Christmas treat to delight young and old alike and closed the Australian Ballet’s 2010 season on a high note.

Michelle Potter, 12 December 2010

Body Torque 2.2. The Australian Ballet

27-30 May 2009, Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay

Two works saved the Australian Ballet’s 2009 Body Torque season from drifting totally out of the memory the minute the curtain came down. They were Reed Luplau’s Bleecker and Remi Wortmeyer’s Fade Not. Both Luplau and Wortmeyer made very different works in every sense imaginable, but both were able to grab the audience’s attention from the opening moment and hold it throughout. Wortmeyer’s Fade Out was very short—probably no longer than three minutes; Luplau’s was a little longer. But both choreographers stood apart from the others in that neither tried to say too much in the amount of time they had given themselves. Both had thought through a basic premise and moved forward with a strongly focused approach.

Bleecker, named after a well known street in Greenwich Village, New York, showed the influence of Luplau’s work with Sydney Dance Company in its recent post-Murphy iteration, especially in terms of vocabulary. The dancers moved in a physically extreme manner, well away from the balanced, centred, refined look we are accustomed to seeing at the Australian Ballet. And what a gutsy performance from Dana Stephensen, the one female in the cast of four. Luplau’s choreography poured out of her body, making dance look like the kinaesthetic art that it is. She was more than ably accompanied by Andrew Killian, Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Wright.

Luplau says in his choreographic statement that Bleecker is ‘a journey of self discovery’, and he reflects that there is ‘a certain captivating moment you experience as you explore one of the world’s greatest cities’. Well Bleecker was a captivating moment in Luplau’s journey as a choreographer. We can only hope that the journey will be an ongoing one.

Wortmeyer’s Fade Not began with the piercing and unexpected sound of a human voice and the piece was a courageous experiment at linking dancer and singer, movement and voice. Wortmeyer used a librettist, Malcolm Rock, whose written words telling of a dying mother’s wish to see her newborn child flourish in life were sung onstage by Naomi Johns. Wortmeyer choreographed Johns into the work without it seeming unnatural or contrived and, while his choreography for the leading (and only) dancer—an able Gina Brescianini—was classically based and without any real sense of invention, the work generated an innate sense of clarity and harmony.

Three other works completed the program: Damien Welch’s Chemical Trigger, notable for the fact that Welch composed the music as well as the choreography, Robert Curran’s Veiled in Flesh, and Kevin Jackson’s Enter Closer.

Body Torque has been a feature of the Australian Ballet’s annual season for a number of years now and is the most recent development in a long line of similar Australian Ballet workshop activities dating back to the earliest days of the company under Peggy van Praagh. Choreographic workshops need strong direction however and only Bleecker and Fade Out looked as though they had been subjected to any sort of rigorous discussion with peers and elders before being put on the stage.

Michelle Potter, 1 June 2009