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 will be a worthy addition to any ballet collection.

Michelle Potter, 29 December 2015

Paquita & La Sylphide. A second look

16 November 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I was startled to see, when looking at the Australian Ballet’s website to check the casting for my Sydney subscription performance of Paquita and La Sylphide, that Paquita was advertised as a Romantic ballet—’the last flowering of the Romantic ballet’. Elsewhere on the website the program was described as ‘the first and last [of the] great Romantic ballets on one double bill’. The original, full-length Paris production of Paquita (1846) might have been in the Romantic tradition, although that is disputed by some, but what the Australian Ballet has been presenting is definitely not a Romantic work. Marius Petipa made additions to the original Paquita when he restaged his version in Russia in 1881 (1882 new style date). Those interpolations with music by Minkus are, I believe, what most companies now perform. The complete ballet was staged relatively recently (2001) by Pierre Lacotte for the Paris Opera Ballet, but not many other companies have a full-length production in their repertoire. Without the rest of the ballet, the Petipa arrangements can scarcely be called Romantic, although the Spanish overtones we see and hear in the Petipa excerpts do allude to the Spanish elements of the full-length ballet.

Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet in 'Paquita'
Artists of the Paris Opera Ballet in Pierre Lacotte’s production of Paquita

That aside, it was a thrill to see Daniel Gaudiello taking the male role in my Sydney viewing of the Australian Ballet’s excerpts from Paquita. What I love about Gaudiello’s dancing (apart from his technical abilities) is his wonderful approach to partnering. He is so attentive to and caring of his partner (Lucinda Dunn on this occasion) without being merely a ‘porteur’. When he stands back from her and lifts his arms to an open fifth position he is not only triumphantly showing her off as the ballerina, but also showing his own polish and charisma as a true ‘danseur noble’. He has great style.

Of the variations I especially enjoyed the second variation, subtly and gently danced by Jessica Fyfe, and the dancing of the two demi-soloists, Vivienne Wong and Benedicte Bemet, the latter certainly a rising personality.

I was pleased too that my previous disappointment with the staging of La Sylphide dissipated somewhat with a second look. This time I thought there was much more feeling for the Romantic style in the second act and a better contrast between the first and second acts.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'La sylphide' Photo: Jeff Busby, 2013
Artists of the Australian Ballet in La sylphide. Photo: © Jeff Busby, 2013

Perhaps it was Reiko Hombo, who gave a strong, individualistic interpretation, beautifully danced, of the Sylph that made the difference. The lightness and height of her jump; her softly unfolding, beautifully controlled arabesques; her lovely rounded arms; and her supple upper body gave the right technical feel to the role. In addition, her interpretation was consistent and well thought through. There was a definite wickedness of intention there under all that charm as she made every effort to convince James of her wish that he join her in her forest realm. It brought home very nicely that ‘beautiful danger’ that respected Danish scholar Erik Aschengreen so perceptively wrote about many years ago as being a defining characteristic of the Romantic era. And Hombo carried this approach through into the second act.

Hombo was partnered by Chengwu Guo as James and he had, I thought, settled well into the role since my previous viewing. Perhaps again it was Hombo who made the difference. She gave him something to respond to, and as technical partners they work well together. Halaina Hills as Effie and Amy Harris as the lead Sylph in Act II also added a certain strength to the overall production. But I regret that the important role of Madge always seems to degenerate into something a little manic. It has been a long time since there has been a really powerful performance in Australia of that role. Without a strong and convincing Madge the ballet loses much of its intent.

Erik Bruhn as Madge in La Sylphide, the Australian Ballet, 1985. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

My earlier post on this program is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 17 November 2013

Infinity. A second look

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle Potter, 15 April 2012.

Dance diary. August 2011

  • The Dancers Company

During August The Canberra Times published my Canberra preview for Bangarra’s current production, Belong, and also my review of the Canberra season of the Dancers Company production of Don Quixote. The Dancers Company was a breath of fresh air for dance goers in the national capital, especially for those interested in ballet as a genre of dance.

I was especially impressed by Hannah O’Neill and Benedicte Bemet. It is well known now that Hannah O’Neill has a seasonal contract, beginning this month, for the Paris Opera Ballet, so it was good to see her in this early stage of her professional career. She was dancing beautifully as one of Kitri’s friends. She also took the role of the Queen of the Dryads in the dream sequence and it is not too much to say that her serenity in the Queen’s solo, in part deriving from her technical assurance, was thrilling to watch.

But it was Benedicte Bemet, also dancing as one of Kitri’s friends, and as Cupid in the dream scene, who really captured my attention. She too handled skillfully the quite different but equally demanding technical requirements of Cupid’s solo. But what really stood out was her engagement with the art form rather than with just the technique. Her dancing appears to come from deep within the soul. I hope she doesn’t lose such a rare and wholly engrossing quality as she moves into a professional company.

Benedicte Bemet in 'Paquita', 2011
Benedicte Bemet in ‘Paquita’, 2011. Photo: Sergey Konstantinov. Courtesy: The Australian Ballet School
  • Ted Shawn and Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild

Ted Shawn was the subject of an August post that drew some comments, including one regarding the sponsorship of the Shawn visit by Laurel Martyn’s Ballet Guild. While on the hunt for information about a production of The Little Mermaid, a work choreographed by Rex Reid and designed by Kristian Fredrikson for Martyn in 1967, I discovered that Shawn was a patron of Martyn’s company, which was variously called Ballet Guild, Victorian Ballet Company and Ballet Victoria depending on the date. Shawn’s name appears on programs as a patron of the company from at least 1958 through to at least 1968 (and perhaps before and after those dates? I have yet to examine earlier and later programs).

  • Paul De Masson

In last month’s dance diary I mentioned Paul De Masson and indicated that he was to perform in the Melbourne season of Checkmate in the Australian Ballet’s British Liaisons program. I have since discovered from Paul that this is no longer happening. It is unclear why, although it seems not to be his health!!

  • Jennifer Irwin

In August I also had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection with costume designer Jennifer Irwin. Long standing followers of Sydney Dance Company will remember her many costume designs for Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon, while those who have followed Bangarra will recall that she and Peter England produced costumes and sets for some of Bangarra’s most celebrated productions across the two decades of its history to date.

Irwin’s other design credits include the ‘Awakening’ section of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Opening Ceremony, much of the Closing Ceremony and the musical Dirty Dancing. In October audiences will see her designs for Stephen Page’s production of Bloodland for Sydney Theatre Company, and in 2012 her commissions include two new works for the Australian Ballet.

  • Land, sea and sky: contemporary art of the Torres Strait Islands

While in Brisbane for the Queensland Ballet Gala, I took the opportunity to visit an exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art called Land, sea and sky: contemporary art of the Torres Strait Islands. The exhibition included a variety of dance materials. Particularly interesting were several ‘dance machines’, hand held objects manipulated by dancers to give extra strength to the narrative line of the dance. I loved the one made by Patrick Thaiday and commissioned especially for the exhibition. It comprised 20 ‘machines’ each constructed as a stylised, blue cumulus cloud, made of wood and painted with white stars. From each cloud radiated a series of small, movable, dark red poles each with a white star at its top point. It was easy to imagine a dance representing the movement of the stars across the sky using these devices as a major inclusion.

Footage of Dennis Newie teaching dances on the beach to Islanders of various ages was another important feature of the show.

  • The Australian Ballet’s 2012 season

Late in August the Australian Ballet announced its season for 2012, its 50th anniversary year. What a great program it looks like too. In May I posted on the English National Ballet’s Swan Lake and remarked how satisfying it was to see a traditional version of this ballet, as much as I love Graeme Murphy’s new take on it. So I am especially looking forward to seeing Stephen Baynes’ new but old version, which will be seen first in Melbourne in September before moving on to Sydney in November.

The year will open with a triple bill of  new works by Australian choreographers: Graeme Murphy, Stephen Page and Gideon Obarzanek. Something to anticipate!

  • Statistics

In August the Australian Ballet’s Concord season of 2009 finally lost its top place as most accessed post of the month. My dance diary for July and my post on the Queensland Ballet gala shared top spot with Concord coming in in third place.

Michelle Potter, 30 August 2011