While in New Zealand to see Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Cinderella, I had the pleasure of engaging in an extended conversation with choreographer Loughlan Prior. Not unexpectedly, much of the conversation focused on his production of Cinderella, a production dense with allusions of various kinds.
One aspect of the production that intrigued me was the references to Swan Lake that were noticeable during the show. The first was not enormously obvious, but perfectly clear to anyone who had seen Swan Lake multiple times. It happened quite early in the first act when the image of a bird flew across the digital backdrop. Prince Charming, who was somewhat frustrated by his domineering mother, the Queen, gathered up his hunting gear and set off, clearly with the intention of shooting the bird. Shades of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake as he sets off after his birthday celebrations to shoot swans! But Prior’s Cinderella changes the story when the Queen, in an act that demonstrated her overbearing behaviour, shot the bird first. I learnt later that the bird was a magpie and, to emphasise the Queen’s reaction and her overbearing behaviour, a black and white magpie decoration was layered onto the dress she wore to the ball in Act II.
A much more obvious reference to Swan Lake appeared in the second act of Prior’s Cinderella, when guests at the ball were dancing and generally cavorting.
The two Step-Sisters, whose behaviour became more and more outrageous as the night wore on (swinging from chandeliers for example), linked arms and performed steps in a manner that was instantly recognisable. If the arms and movements weren’t recognisable to some then the music (performed in this production by a brass band) certainly would have been. Those Step-Sisters were dancing (or trying to dance) the so-well-known Dance of the Little Swans from Swan Lake. Why I wondered?
Prior tells me he had Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake in his mind and also Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in which Wheeldon had the Queen of Hearts parody the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty. But he also added that the Little Swans in this case also referred back to the Stepmother who, he said, was ‘an ultra stage-mum’ who had had her daughters taught a fabulous dance that they were not capable of doing properly.
‘This show is quite irreverent,’ Prior explains. ‘It pokes fun at various things.’ He also uses the words ‘eclecticism’, ‘flamboyant’, ‘many cultural references’ and ‘set in a world of excess’. As I wrote in my review, one viewing is definitely not enough to absorb everything about this multi-faceted production.
Prior also spoke of his admiration for and ongoing collaboration with Claire Cowan, composer of the score for Cinderella. ‘Claire is not afraid to use unusual instruments,’ he says. ‘She loves percussion, and there are also four recorders in the orchestra [for Cinderella] giving a medieval feel at times.’ With Cowan he has also established a company called Lo Co Arts and the first full-length work from Lo Co Arts will premiere at New Zealand’s next Tempo Festival.
Prior, now a dual citizen of Australia and New Zealand, plans to work across Australasia (and beyond). To date his major works have been in New Zealand but he is quite clear that he has to be able to work elsewhere as well. ‘It’s crucial for me to be working around Australasia,’ he says. ‘There’s not enough work to be choreographing full-time if I’m just in New Zealand.’ But, going back to Cinderella, he remarks, ‘My real passion is in storytelling. I’m really pleased with what the company has let me do. They trusted me to follow a particular journey.’
Loughlan Prior’s journey is one to follow I suggest. See my review of Cinderella at this link.
Choreographer Loughlan Prior was born and educated in Australia before moving to New Zealand for further dance training. He is now a dual citizen of those countries and his latest work for Royal New Zealand Ballet, where he has been choreographer in residence since 2018, is a production of Cinderella. But it is Cinderella in a whole new guise.
Many of the basics of the storyline we know from traditional productions of Cinderella, even from a few more up-to-date productions, are still there. Cinderella is still subject to bullying and other poor behaviour from the two Step-Sisters and is pushed into compliance by the Stepmother. She still goes to the ball aided by a Fairy Godmother, and the shoe (a pointe shoe as it happens) that is left behind after the ball finds its way to her home (and fits, of course).
But Prior has looked beyond and beneath the well-worn narrative and has created a ballet that investigates the notion of having the courage to follow one’s dreams and desires in whatever form they may take. Cinderella (Mayu Tanigaito) doesn’t marry Prince Charming (Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson). He has found love elsewhere with another Prince, Prince Dashing (Shae Berney) from a neighbouring kingdom. The question of sexual orientation is probably the major change Prior has made to the storyline. As for Cinderella, she finds her happiness with the Royal Messenger (Laurynas Véjalis), whom she first meets when he comes to her home with invitations to the ball.
Prior’s Cinderella moves the audience well into the present day, and not simply with the focus on sexual orientation. There are moments when present day fashions for living and entertainment are introduced. In a scene where Cinderella chooses a ball gown we meet the Fab Five, five outrageously garbed gentlemen who act, in a way, as influencers. But perhaps the move to the present is nowhere more apparent than in the final scene at the ball where by the end of the evening alcohol and drugs have been consumed to the extent that some, the Step-Sisters (Sara Garbowski and Kirby Selchow) for example, are somewhat the worse for wear.
And yet there are times too when Prior asks us to look to the past. Before the ballet begins the stage space (with curtain raised) is occupied by a large structure representing a tapestry weaving machine. There three adult dancers and eight or so young children (child labour?) are busy at the machine. We are reminded that in times past stories were told on large tapestries that filled the walls of stately homes. ‘Cinderella’ is the the word being woven and we see this as the house lights go down and the ballet begins.
Prior’s choreography for this ballet covers a range of styles from classical (or perhaps neo-classical is more appropriate) to the crazed disco-style movement that we see in the final ‘Happily ever after’ scene. Highly memorable were the four duets between Cinderella and the Royal Messenger, which grew in intensity as their relationship blossomed. Similarly the duets between Prince Charming and Prince Dashing showed, in choreographic terms, an equality between the two men. Each had moments of partnering and being partnered.
One of the great strengths of the work was the way in which Prior has developed the various characters so strongly, and how, as a result, the way the dancers rise to the occasion with extraordinarily believable performances. Véjalis stood out for me as the Royal Messenger. He held his body proudly and there was just a subtle lift of the chin and a lilt in his walk that gave him a charm that was somehow quite seductive. No wonder Cinderella fell for him. I also enjoyed the performance by Paul Mathews as Cinderella’s father. The role of the father is often not well-developed in productions of Cinderella but here we understood his plight and rejoiced when Cinderella came to his rescue and allowed him the freedom to be a well and happy man once more. Ana Gallardo Lobaina was a vindictive Stepmother and her performance drew out a spiteful, hateful nature.
I enjoyed the full-of-fun scene when Cinderella chose the dress that she was to wear to the ball and the final moments when she was lifted off the floor and rose into the space above wearing the magnificent, Spanish-style, golden gown of Emma Kingsbury’s design. Kingsbury’s design was an absolute highlight throughout and was as diverse as Prior’s choreography and character development.
But perhaps the most moving scene was that when Cinderella and Prince Charming were alone on stage, each dancing separately and each recalling the lives into which they had been drawn and from which they longed to escape. It was not only beautifully and movingly danced but was lit by Jeremy Fern so that the two dancers were seen as separate people but, as we could see from the projections that appeared in the background, with similar problems that they needed to overcome.
The score for this Cinderella was commissioned from Claire Cowan, who has worked before with Prior and with whom he shares a strong collaborative aesthetic. It too was diverse in musical styles and influences. It had a strong percussion component and a lot of brass, but at times looked back to medieval sounds, Baroque court dances and a host of other new and old musical allusions.
Prior calls this work ‘maximalist’ and it certainly wasn’t minimalist, not choreographically, not musically, not thematically, not in design which included some great visual effects from POW Studios, not in any way. I found some parts of the work, especially the way the Step-Sisters were portrayed, somewhat overdone, and audiences need to be prepared for the unexpected. Audience reaction on opening night in Auckland varied and included spontaneous clapping along with the music and dancing at various times, as well as a few people not returning after interval. Only several viewings would allow us to appreciate and follow fully the extraordinary diversity of ideas that fill the work. There is no doubt that we will never see another Cinderella like this one.
MIchelle Potter, 13 August 2022
A shortened version of this review appeared in Dance Australia. Follow this link.
Ahead of any further remarks, I have to make it quite clear that basically I am a fan of the work of Alexei Ratmansky. I have been writing about his productions on this website since 2009. Here is a link to the Ratmansky tag. His interest in creating new versions of well-known works has been fascinating to watch—Cinderellacomes immediately to mind—and those of his newly created works that I have seen have mostly been absolutely beautiful and engaging—and here I am thinking in particular of Seven Sonatas and From Foreign Lands.
Harlequinade is slightly different. It is one of those works from the past that Ratmansky decided could and should be revived for today’s audiences (and there have been a few others he has worked on in the same manner). The original Harlequinade ballet was first performed in 1900. It had choreography by Marius Petipa and, according to George Balanchine, was performed in St Petersburg at the Hermitage Theatre. It followed the story of the love between Harlequin and Columbine; the role of Cassandre, Columbine’s father, in attempting to have Columbine marry Léandre, a rich man; and how this plan was thwarted with the help of Pierette and Pierrot (and a Good Fairy). The work’s links back to the stock commedia dell’arte characters, and to the pantomime tradition, were strong in the original and in the Ratmansky revival.
It is interesting to read Balanchine’s brief discussion of the original Harlequinade in his book Balanchine’s Festival of Ballet. Balanchine refers to the original work as Harlequin’s Millions and writes, in part:
I remember very well dancing in this production when I was a student at the Imperial Ballet School. What I liked about it was its wit and pace and its genius in telling a story with clarity and grace. It was a different kind of ballet from The Sleeping Beauty and showed the range of [Petipa’s] genius.
Balanchine as a choreographer looked back to the original Harlequinade on several occasions. In 1950 he created a pas de deux that referred to the 1900 production, in 1965 he created a two act ballet called Harlequinade, in which he used his own choreography, and in 1973 he revived that two act work adding new material.
That Ratmansky wanted to revive the original work is fine and his choice, but quite honestly I can’t understand why the Australian Ballet needed to present it to us in 2022. For me the pantomime element made it hard to watch. Some characters were totally over-the-top, especially the rich old man Léandre. Dance, including ballet, has moved on since 1900 and the ballets that have survived from around that time (Swan Lake for example) have been constantly updated in so many ways. Not only that, pantomime in Australia, which was once a hugely popular style of Christmas entertainment, began to die a slow death in the mid-20th century. So in my mind the Harlequinade we saw from the Australian Ballet might have looked acceptable 60 or so years ago when pantomime was a flourishing entertainment for the whole family, but I don’t think it has the same impact in 2022.
Nevertheless, there was some excellent dancing to watch in this 2022 production. Benedicte Bemet was well suited to the role of Columbine and smiled her way through the evening while performing the Petipa/Ratmansky choreography with her usual technical skill. Her 32 fouettés that closed out the finale were just spectacular! She rarely moved off her centre stage spot as she turned, which is a rare occurrence and a thrill to see. And while the out-of-date nature of some of the characters was not to my liking, mostly those characters were played according to the tradition and with skill. Timothy Coleman as the foppish Léandre did a sterling job in this unforgiving (for me) role, and Steven Heathcote’s gestures in the mime scenes were clear and precise. As Harlequin Brett Chynoweth showed some great elevation and skilfully took on a range of traditional, Harlequin-style poses. The storyline was ably supported by Callum Linnane as Pierrot and Sharni Spencer as Pierette with Ingrid Gow as an elegant Good Fairy.
But I won’t be looking forward to a return season.
Athol Willoughby, OAM, professional dancer, dance teacher, educator, examiner, adjudicator, board member and patron of Cecchetti Ballet Australia, has died in Melbourne at the age of 87.
Athol Willoughby was born and educated in Tasmania. His interest in dance began in Hobart when, with a friend, he would go to the movies every Friday night. It was the era of Hollywood musicals and he would watch outstanding male dancers, including Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, both of whom he greatly admired. But it was not until the Borovansky Ballet toured to Hobart, when Willoughby was aged 14, that he was given an opportunity to take ballet classes with Hobart teacher, Beattie Jordan. He began formal ballet training in 1946.
Willoughby’s career began in earnest, however, when the Melbourne-based National Theatre Ballet visited Hobart. Willoughby took some classes with the company and, as a result, Leon Kellaway, the company ballet master, suggested he should move to Melbourne to take classes at the National Theatre Ballet School. In Melbourne, Willoughby was taught by esteemed Cecchetti teacher, Lucie Saronova, whose influence on his future was immense. Remembering Saronova’s classes Willoughby recalled:
I enjoyed Madam’s classes but they lasted exactly an hour and she packed a lot into a class. There was very little correction. It was doing the exercises that was supposed to get you there, not breaking the exercises down, as is the custom today. But a terrifying aspect of Madam’s classes was that she had been a fantastic turner. She always, at the end of every class, gave a series of diagonal turns. And it didn’t matter whether you were male or female you had to do these diagonal turns. Well I hadn’t been brought up to expect anything like this—perhaps a few chaînés, petits tours as Cechetti calls them, or posé turns—but not these complex diagonals. I used to hate it. I used to try to be the last one down the diagonal until I subsequently figured out that if you were first you had the least attention and you were out of the way and forgotten.
Later in the 1950s he gained his own qualifications as a Cecchetti teacher and began working across Melbourne, including for Dame Margaret Scott at her ballet school, which she set up in Toorak in 1955. But his performance career continued in Melbourne and he eventually joined the National Theatre Ballet and performed with them, dancing both the classics and the repertoire of two directors of the company, Walter Gore and Valrene Tweedie. Tweedie, also Cecchetti trained, remained a close colleague until her death in 2008.
In 1958 Willoughby left for London where he took classes with Anna Northcote and Stanislas Idzikowski. He took on various theatrical and non-theatrical jobs before joining Peter Darrell’s Western Theatre Ballet. But an illness in the family necessitated a return to Australia in 1961. He danced in Tivoli shows during the 1960s, including in a pantomime production of Cinderella in which he played one of the Ugly Sisters. He also continued to teach, travelling across the city and into regional centres before buying the Essendon Academy of Ballet in 1962. He directed the Essendon Academy until 1997 and the students whose careers he nurtured over more than three decades have gone on to dance across the world. Some have become teachers and examiners. But all had their lives enriched by his continued service to dance, in particular to the Cecchetti approach to ballet. But his humility was such that he was able to say, ‘I was just there to try to teach them classical ballet correctly—I like to see it done correctly—and with discipline.’
But before he retired from teaching he twice returned to the stage as a guest artist with the Australian Ballet: in Anne Woolliams’ 1990 revival of Swan Lake in which he took the role of the Hungarian Ambassador, and in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The Story of Clara in 1992 and 1994 where he played one of Clara the Elder’s émigré friends.
Willoughby once described himself as ‘a born collector of books and clothes and bits and pieces’. His home in Carlton North, which he shared with his partner James O’Donnell, was evidence of his collecting obsession, and of his interest in many forms of art. Both Willoughby and O’Donnell would often visit Canberra to take in the latest exhibition at the National Gallery, or National Library. I was fortunate enough to be able to have lunch with them on a number of those visits. Sharing a meal with them was always a very special occasion. Vale Athol.
Athol Willoughby: born Campbell Town, Tasmania, 1 September 1932; died Melbourne, Victoria, 19 July 2020
Read more about Athol Willoughby at these links: Athol Willoughby. Lifetime Achievement Award 2018; Athol Willoughby. An oral history; Dance diary. March 2013 (on Walter Gore’s ballet The Crucifix—scroll down!). Please note that Athol Willoughby’s oral history interview for the National Library is not at present available online. This reflects certain permissions that Willoughby placed on public use of the material. I hope the situation may be able to be changed. It is a wonderful interview, full of fascinating anecdotes as well as being a good outline of Willoughby’s career.
This year, for the first time in over 100 years, all public gatherings to mark Anzac Day were cancelled, due to the lockdown imposed as part of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic: an enemy if ever there was one, not war between nations this time but a hope that all countries might join a common fight.
Traditionally Anzac Day commemorations shape up as a kind of countrywide choreography, starting with a Dawn Parade in every city, town, village or marae—a bugle, a salute, a karakia, a march, a haka, a hymn, a prayer, a poem—‘They shall grow not old’—a minute’s silence and The Last Post
There are church services, radio and television broadcasts, concerts, gatherings and wakes throughout the day to remember sacrifice—the war dead and wounded, refugees and fugitives, and the whole sad sorry waste of it all. It is a statutory public holiday, restaurants, shops, schools and theatres are closed, normal life is on hold for a day, then it’s back to busy business. But ‘normal life’ has been on hold these many weeks now. So how was this Anzac Day different from other years?
Some today stood alone at the roadside in front of their home, before dawn at 6am, holding a candle perhaps, and a transistor radio to hear the national broadcast, or watched television coverage of the Prime Minister standing at her gate. Many families had made sculptures or graphics of poppies to display in their gardens. Some of the 1000s of teddy bears in house windows to cheer passersby these past weeks were today wearing poppies too. Many of us will have been mindful of the shocking statistic that in two months of the 1918 influenza pandemic more New Zealanders died than had been killed during the whole of World War I.
We’ve grown so accustomed to the commercialisation of Christmas and to a degree Easter, surrounded as we are by tsunamis of merchandise ‘to show we care’. Today was differently focused. Some folk had developed their own ideas and found resources to express an experience, share a thought, address a concern, tell a story, to give a voice to hope. Isn’t that what art does? Mere entertainment has to me never seemed sufficient, either in peace or wartime.
Numerous dance companies worldwide, stymied by the current pandemic and obliged to cancel many performances and productions, have in past weeks moved to make selected works from their repertoire available online. The Royal New Zealand Ballet have already screened video of Loughlan Prior’s Hansel & Gretel, Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella. For today their program from 2015, Salute, was aired, comprising two works—Andrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele. My review of the Company’s season in 2015 is at this link.
What a pity this broadcast could not have included Jiri Kylian’s masterwork, Soldatenmis/Soldiers’ Mass, to Martinu, from the same program—(prohibitive fees or copyright issues perhaps?) since it was a work that suited the Company’s dancers of that time to the drumbeat of their hearts and ours. Laura Saxon Jones, sole female performing alongside all the male dancers of the Company, will never be forgotten.
Other outstanding choreographies with a war, or anti-war theme, include Jose Limon’s noble Missa Brevis, dedicated to the spirit of Polish resistance; Young Men, Ivan Perez’ choreography startlingly performed by Ballet Boyz; and of course the legendary work Der grüne Tisch/The Green Table, by Kurt Jooss, a work I used to dream might one day be performed by RNZB, so well it would have suited them until just a few years ago. I remain grateful to have seen the Joffrey Ballet’s authoritative performances however, and another unforgettable production in which the late Pina Bausch played The Old Woman—a performance of such chiselled beauty stays with one for life, as though she had stepped from a painting by Modigliani, or Munch, or a figure from the mediaeval Danse Macabre of Lübeck Cathedral.
(I’m often reminded of the very fine study by William McNeill, Harvard historian, who in his book Keeping Together in Time, considers how coordinated rhythmic movement, and the shared feelings it evokes, has been a powerful force in holding human groups together—how armies of the world, train and march and move—be that in quick, slow, double or dead march, the goose step, the North Koreans’ grand battement smash, or the soldiers’ antics at the Pakistan-Indian border).
Both RNZB works, Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Ieremia’s Passchendaele, retain all the impact and power of their first staging, with the New Zealand Army Band playing to precise perfection, for the former the music of Gareth Farr, for the latter the composition by Dwayne Bloomfield. The contained emotion of the music, particularly in cello and brass solos, stops time.
Ieremia’s early career, as for so many of the dancers who worked with Douglas Wright, absorbed much influence from the driven and airborne choreography of that master dance-maker. An indelible image that remains with me is from Wright’s The Kiss Inside—a scene in which a gorilla-suited figure passes a tray of cut oranges around a group of boys (a team of rugby players, refreshments at half time?). Soon, just a little older, the same young men are in a faraway other place, a different game, writhing on the ground, in an agony of wounds, bleating like sheep. The gorilla passes a microphone among them to record their messages for relaying home. The bleating becomes recognisable as a cry of pathos, ‘Mummy, Mummy’ from one dying soldier after another. Says it all really.
Like most arts companies around the world, the Australian Ballet is offering audiences a streaming service during the COVID-19 lockdown. Each performance is available for a short time only, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, first seen in Australia in 2013, is the second offering on the program. The cast is led by Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in a partnership that is both moving and elegant. The performance was filmed in Brisbane in 2016.*
This Cinderella is not the usual take on the old fairy tale, although the characters from that fairy tale are present, albeit often in something of a new guise. For the most part the story also follows the narrative of a young girl being brought up in less than agreeable circumstances who finds love after attending a ball, and who then goes through the process of waiting for her Prince to find her after she leaves the ball in a hurry.
The unusual characteristics of Ratmansky’s version were made all the more powerful given that I had, the day before, watched Royal New Zealand Ballet’s streaming of Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella created originally for the New Zealand company in 2007. Hampson’s production had some lovely moments—a moving prologue, for example, in which we witnessed a young Cinderella at her mother’s funeral. It set a context for the rest of the story. There were some exceptional performances too including Jon Trimmer’s brilliant portrayal of the Royal Shoemaker who attempts to discover the inherent qualities of the shoe left behind at the ball by Cinderella.
But choreographically Hampson’s work was not especially inventive and fell within a very traditional balletic mode. Ratmansky’s choreography was still classically based but there was a distinctive touch to it. For a start, there were fewer easily recognisable classroom-style steps, and a much freer use of the arms and upper body.
In addition to this distinctive choreographic vocabulary, I was struck in particular by Ratmansky’s approach to the relationship between his vocabulary and Prokofiev’s score. Watching his choreography made the score sound quite different from what I had heard while watching the Hampson production. Ratmansky appeared to be strongly motivated by the music, more so than Hampson it seemed to me, and created steps specifically to match passages, even notes, in the score. This is not to say that Hampson’s choreography was unmusical, just that for Ratmansky music seemed to be the major force in the development of his movement.
I have reviewed the Ratmansky Cinderella elsewhere on this website so don’t intend to go further into the production. Here is a link to my original review. There is a place for both a traditional production, such as Hampson gives us, and a production that moves in a different direction. The same holds for Nutcracker, Swan Lake and others of the classics. But I loved being able to see the Hampson and the Ratmansky Cinderella side by side. It opened my eyes to an aspect of Ratmansky’s work that I hadn’t noticed in such depth before.
Michelle Potter, 23 April 2020
*For copyright reasons the Australian Ballet’s streamed performances are available to viewers in Australia only.
Royal New Zealand Ballet is making available a range of videos of productions from the repertoire for free home viewing for a brief period during the covid-19 lockdown. The dress rehearsal of their 2015 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream screened last week.
This ballet was originally commissioned by director Ethan Stiefel in a promising initiative for Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet to share resources, production and performance rights. The project could have grown to include other productions, teacher and dancer exchanges and residencies, and the concept of trans-Tasman co-productions was heartening. The premiere season of MND was staged here during the term of the next director Francesco Ventriglia.
The shimmering overture of Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream evokes a humming faerie world. The dark blue-black midnight stage flickers alight with fireflies and glow worms. This is a visit to Waitomo Caves, after-dark Zealandia, Otari Bush or Botanical Gardens, the remembered hush of night in those places. You don’t need a grandchild holding your hand, though it helps, to know the feeling that magic could be out there, or look there, or quick another one over there. This entire production delivers on the promise caught in those quivering opening moments—with choreography, design and music inseparably part of what is arguably one of the best works in the company’s repertoire.
Liam Scarlett’s exquisite choreography drew galvanised performances from each of the dancers who were members of RNZB back in 2015. This viewing is a welcome reminder of their verve and style, the stage positively buzzing with the wit of a team of dancers who knew each other well and could together rise to a performance of such assured calibre. It is poignant in the extreme that we have loved and then lost so many of these artists in the swift turnover of dancers during the months that followed. There’s always a mobility of dancers amongst ballet companies but the scale and timing of that particular exodus wrought a major shift in the RNZB’s artistic identity.
Nigel Gaynor, music director back in the day, made an inspired full-length score by extending Mendelssohn’s original incidental music with seamlessly interpolated excerpts from others of his compositions. Gaynor conducted the NZ Symphony Orchestra and the result was a transport of delight.
Tracy Grant Lord produced fabulous designs for a number of major RNZB productions—for Christopher Hampsons’s Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet, as well as this Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lighting design by Kendall Smith positively sparkles with the wit of illuminating fairies and caverns themselves, rather than simply throwing light at them.
My review in 2015 was based on the performance by Lucy Green as Titania, Qi Huan as Oberon, both splendidly cast. This video has Tonia Looker and Maclean Hopper as leads and they do an equally fine job. Harry Skinner plays Bottom with a grounded quality that delights without overplaying the role, revealing an actor’s sensibility. Kohei Iwamoto is the quintessential Puck that Shakespeare must have had in mind when he wrote the character—daredevil, wicked, witty, mercurial rascal. Whatever the role, Kohei has always absorbed his virtuosic technique into characterisation and never used it for display. Even to watch him in a studio class was to see how his strength, precision and swiftness could grow into grace and the sprezzatura that Shakespeare knew all about ‘…that you would e’er do nothing but that.’
You could be moved by every moment of this ballet, beginning with a vulnerable young child caught in the crossfire of his quarrelling parents and their eventual hard-earned reconciliation, but one hilarious mid-moment breaks in to the action narrative as all of the cast dash en diagonale across the stage in pursuit of each other for the wrong and/or the right reasons—it’s a like a side-stage glimpse of the backstage life of all these characters—a cheeky wave and a wink to savour forever.
The fairies are a shimmering line-up—Lucy Green and Mayu Tanigaito among them—and Scarlett’s sense of comic timing draws a host of terrific performances—from Abigail Boyle, Paul Mathews, Laura Saxon Jones, Joseph Skelton, William Fitzgerald, Loughlan Prior, Jacob Chown. These assured performers really did work as a magic team, lucky we were. ‘Hence away. Now all is well. One alone stand sentinel …’
A recent saga has seen Liam Scarlett’s career with the Royal Ballet and elsewhere collapse into apparent ruin. The media fair bristled with leaked early reports (oh how salaciousness boosts ratings) but now the investigation seems to be over and the word is mum with the Royal Ballet declaring ‘There were no matters to pursue…’ So through that vagueness all we know is the heartbreak of Scarlett’s gifts destroyed, his career for now anyway at a standstill. Let’s meantime be grateful for the wondrous talents and team that made this ballet in the first place, and hope there can be some eventual resolution to the current impasse. Good on RNZB for screening his choreographic masterwork.
Below is a expanded version of my review for The Canberra Times of Queensland Ballet’s Cinderella.The online version of that review is at this link.
Cinderella. Queensland Ballet. Choreographer: Ben Stevenson. Composer: Sergei Prokofiev. Designers: Thomas Boyd (sets), Tracy Grant Lord (costumes), David Walters (lighting). Canberra Theatre, until November 10.
Ballet’s Cinderella tells the familiar story of the young girl whose
step-mother and step-sisters have reduced her existence to that of their
servant, but whose life is transformed by a fairy godmother and a prince whom she
meets at a royal ball. Choreographed by English-born, American resident Ben
Stevenson, currently director of Texas Ballet Theater, this version of Cinderella
is great family fun. Its old-style pantomime scenes have the audience laughing
out loud throughout the entire course of the production, while its fairy-like moments
and glittering ballroom scenes evoke palpable pleasure.
The panto elements are largely the realm of the two step-sisters played by Camilo Ramos as Ugly Sister Short and Alexander Idaszak as Ugly Sister Tall. Dressed outrageously, most memorably in extravagant pink outfits for the ball, they trip, totter and tumble their way through the story, pushing and shoving the long-suffering Cinderella (Laura Hidalgo) until in the end they are forced to curtsey to her as she becomes a princess. Ramos and Idaszak are joined in their treatment of Cinderella by Janette Mulligan as the Step Mother who is not at all innocent in her treatment of Cinderella. In fact she is decidedly nasty at times and occasionally turns her back on Cinderella and gives a sneering laugh.
But if Stevenson has drawn the step-family as lacking in a certain degree of humanity, he presents Cinderella as a young girl filled with love and compassion. She supports her Father (Ari Thompson) when he is set upon by his wife and step-children, and she welcomes a mysterious, black-clad stranger into the family home, and sits her by the fire and offers her food, when Cinderella’s step-family wants nothing to do with her (shades of a scene from Act I of La Sylphide?). This stranger is in fact the Fairy Godmother (Yanela Piñera) in disguise and her true identity is revealed when the black cloak drops away to reveal the purity of a Fairy Godmother dressed in white and wearing a sparkling tiara. Cinderella undergoes a transformation at the hands of the Godmother and goes to the royal ball where she meets her Prince (Victor Estévez). And so the familiar story continues until the happy pair is united. And of course the ballet includes the scene where the step-sisters try to squash their feet into the shoe that Cinderella leaves behind at the ball when the clock strikes midnight. More slapstick humour!
As we have come to expect from Queensland Ballet the dancing was exceptional. A standout performer was Kohei Iwamoto as the Jester at the ball. His leaps in the air with legs extended in splits to the side drew applause and his presence was consistently strong as he moved among the guests. The four fairies, Spring (Lou Spichtig), Summer (Mia Heathcote), Autumn (Neneka Yoshida), and Winter (Georgia Swan), who help Cinderella make her transformation into her costume for the ball, also danced their variations with panache and admirable technique.
Cinderella’s solo the morning after the ball was full of joy, despite having to use a broom rather than a prince as her partner! But perhaps the choreographic highlight was the pas de deux between the Prince and Cinderella after the Prince had discovered that Cinderella was the owner of the shoe left behind at the ball. Beautifully lit by David Walters to bring out the romance of the situation, this pas de deux was filled with lyricism and swirling lifts.
Stevenson’s Cinderella is very much in an old-style format, which may not appeal to some. But the pleasure it brings to so many others, young and old, makes it an evergreen show. Queensland Ballet always gives us outstanding dancing and strong production values, and I loved the way many of the dancers maintained their characterisations during the curtain calls.
Disclaimer: I had a family member in the children’s cast for this production of Cinderella.
Michelle Potter, 6 November 2019
Featured image: Laura Hidalgo as Cinderella. Queensland Ballet 2019. Photo supplied
An armchair conversation with Sir Jon Trimmer was the brainchild of Garry Trinder, Director of New Zealand School of Dance. It was held in the theatre at Te Whaea, mid-week of the school’s winter intensive national seminar, so that many young students, parents and teachers could attend. It was also open to the public and a large contingent of Friends and friends, colleagues, admirers, teachers and audience-goers took the chance to express publicly their appreciation of, and thanks for, this dancer’s phenomenal career. It was twilight hour, so a poignant echo that, on innumerable performance nights across the past six decades, warm-up, make-up, dress-up, curtain-up would have been taking place at around the same time. In reviving the memories and pleasures of those performances, the conversation summoned many ghosts, all of them good. No bad ghosts arrived. Love was in the air.
The names of the main players in his early story include: Jonty’s parents and siblings who danced and sang their way around the family home; Pamela Lowe, his older sister whose dance school in Petone he attended; Poul Gnatt who arrived in 1953 like a lightning bolt from afar and established a ballet company on zero resources yet with the highest of aspirations; Russell Kerr, a quiet genius of ballet, music and theatre arts who succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, contributing to its growing international recognition; Alexander Grant, our legendary character dancer expatriate; Peggy van Praagh who offered support during the early years of her directorate of The Australian Ballet—including an enterprising initiative whereby several dancers had three-month exchange residencies between the two companies. Jacqui and Jon Trimmer were later invited to dance with The Australian Ballet on an international tour with guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and entertaining tales were told of those times.
Harry Haythorne, a subsequent director of New Zealand Ballet, was another Australasian success story. He and Jonty were obviously great mates (‘We both knew all the hit songs and numbers from vaudeville and music-hall era—had a ball outdoing each other’). There’s no better illustration of that rapport than their twin roles in A Servant of Two Masters, Gray Veredon’s classic commission with inspired design by Kristian Fredrikson. The Film Archive’s copy of that commedia dell’ arte ballet is still worth viewing for the dazzling line-up of its stellar cast—Trimmer and Haythorne, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Cathy Goss, Karin Wakefield, Lee Patrice, Eric Languet, Warren Douglas, Kilian O’Callaghan. The earlier romp, TheRagtime Dance Company to Scott Joplin, was another of Veredon’s and Fredrikson’s hits. Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana and Ashley Killar’s choreographies No Exit and Dark Waves also gave Jon some of his strongest roles. Many of the heritage works of the Company’s repertoire exist only in memory, but are no less real for that, and a number of them could do with re-visiting.
Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are further impeccable works that secured RNZB’s reputation for full-length choreographies, combining all the power that dancing, music and design can offer. If asked to name one indelible image of Jon Trimmer on stage, I’d probably first lodge a conscientious objection—What, only one?’ but then describe his power as the Duke of Verona in R&J. He strode in, on a high, elevated back platform, glared down first at the Montagues, then at the Capulets—at everyone stunned by the horror of what had played out, then again at both houses —turned and strode off. His demand that warring end and a truce be declared, delivered in so few gestures, carried all the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The timing and the minimalism of those few moments on stage, said it all.
We should tell our
grandchildren what we saw. Find the music, tell them the story, show them
photos, keep the dress-ups box at hand, take them to a matinee, suggest they
draw and write afterwards what they saw, maybe send a postcard to their
favourite dancer. Who knows where it might lead, but it can only be a good
important international parts of Jon’s career, with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and
Royal Danish Ballet, were referenced, (‘It certainly helped in Denmark to have
Poul Gnatt’s mantle on my shoulders. He was still vividly remembered by
everyone there—and clearly had been one of their top dancers’) but it is
overwhelmingly apparent that the Trimmers’ commitment and loyalty to the Royal
New Zealand Ballet has shaped their lives, and that of so many younger dancers and
colleagues here whose artistry they have helped to develop. For that we say
Garry asked: ‘When did it first occur to you that the recreation and pleasure you took in dancing as a boy could become your life work, your career?’ Jon replied: ‘Well, you know I’m not sure I can say. I just kept on doing what I loved.’
‘What he loved’ included Poul’s pedigree productions of Bournonville ballets—La Sylphide and Napoli; the talisman Prismatic Variations, Russell’s Prince Igor, Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Christmas Carol, Peter Pan; interesting new work with Russell Kerr in an interlude at Auckland Dance Centre; plus 100 more… Servant, Ragtime Dance Company, La Fille mal Gardée, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet … who’s counting and where do we stop? Clearly this is significant repertoire that earned the Company an international recognition and reputation, as well as its royal charter.
The sagas of
company politics, funding and management highs and lows over the years were
referred to in the briefest of terms, as also the devastating challenge of the
fire that destroyed almost all the company’s resources in 1967. The abiding
impression one gains is of the resilience and determination to somehow hold on
to the reins—with Poul Gnatt, Beatrice Ashton, Richard Campion, Russell Kerr
and the Trimmers as the heroes in those early battles.
Young dancers listening will have taken on board Jon’s words about the importance of breathing while moving—to shape and sustain an arabesque, to support a jump, to control a pirouette … ‘oh and the music of course, that helps enormously.’
Another tip, this one he had from Russell Kerr—’Go and sit outside a café, watch people as they walk by. Study their gait, their timing, how they hold their body. That will tell you much about their character which you can then put into your performance, make it lifelike.’
Jon: ‘I stopped dancing princes at a certain age but went on to old men, old women and witches. Look, it’s been just wonderful to work with all those talented people.’ Jon, one could guess it’s been just as wonderful for them, as it has been for us too.
A friend in the audience commented later—’One
thing that struck me was his presence when speaking. When Trinder was
talking Jonty seemed like just a genial old man, but as soon as he started to
speak you couldn’t take your eyes, or attention, away from him.’ That magnetic presence
and practice of paying attention has also worked in the opposite direction and been
a way of life for Jon for years. He has watched countless RNZB rehearsals and
performances with the most attentive eye, and always found a way of gently
encouraging younger dancers, suggesting a tip to a colleague as to how the smallest shift in
physics of limbs or expression of eyes or face might enhance their performance. Such
generosity in the competitive world of ballet arts is rare, but makes the man worth his
weight in gold.
There are more stories to be found in
Jon’s recently published memoir, Why
Dance?and details of the
Company productions are listed in the three published histories of the
RNZBallet—at 25, 50 and at 60 years.
Jon has also
explored pottery and painting as further means of expression. He is a legendary
gardener —and, one senses, a deeply happy man Of course he’s not stupid and
wants a much better world for dancers, but the knowledge that he has used his
own given talents to the maximum has allowed him to remain positive throughout
a career that has seen some tortured ups and downs of politics and make-overs
during the decades (every ballet company knows them). His humour is quick but
never biting, always gentle with wry amusement, a rich sense of irony, patience
in waiting for time to resolve troubles of the political variety, and
truckloads of performance memories.
Also apparent is a
deep and genuine love of his country—’Oh it was wonderful to travel through the
whole countryside as we toured everywhere in the early days—we saw so much, and
made so many wonderful friends as billets. We’re still friends.’
Sheat, a pillar in many areas of the arts community in New Zealand, says: ‘During
my long term as Chairman of the Board of RNZB I was lucky enough to see Jon T.
perform countless times. Whenever he made his first appearance there would be a
wave of whispered delight as the audience recognised him. It was a mixture of
love, ownership and appreciation.’
Tuesday evening was a sweetheart affair—no notes, no microphones, no bullshit, no self-aggrandisement, no lecturing, no breathless promotions, no shouting and whistling, just an ocean of smiling faces and sustained, warm applause that is echoing yet, and holding history. There is no future without the past.
So what did Jonty
do? He joined in the applause of course.
Jennifer Shennan, 12 July 2019
Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer (left) makes a point during his conversation with Garry Trinder. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019
Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link.[Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]
7 September 2018. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella, which Queensland Ballet performed in its latest season, was first made in 1970, almost 50 years ago. I’m afraid it is showing its age a little. While Queensland Ballet’s dancers go from strength to strength every time I see them, I think they need something more powerful to dance than this Cinderella. Perhaps there is an issue here too in that Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, in which the story has been given a new touch, has had several showings in Australia recently and is due to be seen in Sydney again shortly.
Having had my first professional engagements in pantomime, it was interesting, however, to see the way Stevenson built the Stepsisters (Vito Bernasconi and Camilo Ramos) into the show—outrageous behaviour, over the top costumes, pratfalls everywhere, and of course the roles taken by men. But this kind of acting/dancing belongs to the 1960s (and earlier) when it was a panto tradition. We have moved on a little.
But on the whole the ballet was nicely danced. Liam Geck as the Jester in the ball scene was outstanding but, again, a jester is such an old-fashioned tradition, this time from Russia. So while his performance was spectacular it was frustrating that there was a jester in there. Why?
All the fairies, Spring (Lina Kim), Summer (Mia Heathcote), Autumn (Neneka Yoshida) and Winter (Georgia Swan), acquitted themselves beautifully, as did Yanela Piñera as Cinderella. Joel Woellner was a very traditional Prince.
This Cinderella is not my favourite ballet. But it did please most of the people in the audience.