Scene from QL2's 'EAT', 2016. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Dance diary. October 2016

  • EAT

Canberra’s youth dance organisation, QL2 Dance, runs an annual project for younger dancers in Canberra and beyond. This year, with a program called EAT, the theme was food, including marketing issues associated with what we eat.

For various reasons, I looked with different eyes this year and was impressed with how the choreographers, all professionals working with contemporary dance, handled the situation. With technical capacity varying so much between the dancers (they ranged in age from 8 to 18), it was illuminating to see the theatrical concepts that were being taught to these young people—how to make entrances and exits, how to occupy the performing space, how to be in line and so on. In fact, young people in Canberra are lucky to have the opportunities that QL2 offers. May it continue.

  • The Royal Ballet’s Australian tour, 2017

The Royal Ballet will tour to Australia (Brisbane only as part of QPAC’s International Series) in June and July 2017 with a contemporary repertoire of Woolf Works from Wayne McGregor and The Winter’s Tale from Christopher Wheeldon. Further details are on QPAC’s website.

The Royal last visited Australia in June 2002 when Ross Stretton was the company’s artistic director. They brought Swan Lake, Giselle, and a mixed bill comprising Tryst, Marguerite and Armand and The Leaves are Fading. For that tour I wrote a piece for DanceTabs (sadly a link is no longer available) subtitled ‘Some personal reflections on the recent Royal Ballet tour to Sydney…’.  Here is what I wrote as a conclusion:

The highlights

To die for: Alina Cojocaru’s double attitude turns in Giselle. So turned out, so light, so controlled. Divine.

Partnership of the season: Alina Cojacaru and Johan Kobborg in Giselle and Leaves. This partnership looks good physically and Cojocaru draws out a tenderness in Kobborg that adds an emotional dimension to the technical strength of the partnership.

Favourite moment: Belinda Hatley giving an audible whoop of excitement before launching into a joyous, absolutely irresistible Neapolitan dance in Swan Lake.

Australian moment: Leanne Benjamin’s deliciously playful but very mature interpretation of the central pas de deux in Leaves.

Non-dancing moment: The backcloth/lighting in Tryst, which had the dramatic and expressive qualities of a Mark Rothko painting.

Most annoying comment: ‘Darcey Bussell fell over in the fouettes in Swan Lake on opening night.’  (What happened was that she turned 27 or 28, went for a big finish, did a triple pirouette, had too much momentum but couldn’t go for four, finished slightly off balance and ended the sequence with a bit of a hop as she put her back foot down). But what attack! She was ferocious.

Favourite comment: ‘I had the two best cries I’ve had for years.’ (On the Cojacaru/Kobborg Giselle).

Disappointment: Neither Jonathan Cope nor Massimo Murru as Armand could match Sylvie Guillem’s Marguerite.

Dancer to watch: Corps de ballet dance Lauren Cuthbertson who made her presence felt in a soloist role in Tryst.

What an astonishing season that was! But recent viewings of the Royal in London suggest we can expect something spectacular this time too. In the meantime, I found the two images below from Les Patineurs. They are from a much earlier visit from a touring arm of the company, when the company was, in fact, in a state of flux (which I won’t go into now)!

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Royal Ballet tour, Melbourne 1958, Les patineurs. Photos: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2016

Featured image: Scene from EAT, QL2 Dance. Photo: © Lorna Sim

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Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet

17 October 2012, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The Royal Ballet’s current production of Swan Lake is that of Anthony Dowell. It first went on show in 1987 after Dowell had engaged in a period of extensive research into the Petipa/Ivanov version of 1895. Australian audiences saw it in 2002 when the Royal Ballet, then under the direction of Ross Stretton, toured to various Australian cities. In 2002 I admired it. I thought it was danced beautifully (Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope were in the lead), and I loved the way the characters had been developed so each had a real presence in the production. Now I’m not so sure. Two Australian productions since then, one by Graeme Murphy and the most recent by Stephen Baynes, have had an effect.

This Royal Ballet production is set in fin-de-siècle Russia and so much about the production now seems overwrought, from the gilded excesses of Yolanda Sonnabend’s sets to the drunken excesses of Siegfried’s entourage. Act I seems to go on and on with much merrymaking and ‘let’s dance’ gestures.  Act II begins with more drunken activities before the swans appear and this act is also distinguished by the addition of several young student dancers from the Royal Ballet School, who are part of Odette’s entourage. This addition apparently harks back to the 1895 version, although I don’t remember that they made it to Australia in 2002! Anyway, they looked beautifully schooled and did their job more than nicely but I’m not sure they added anything of significance to the ballet. Act III has that lovely Tarantella choreographed by Frederick Ashton—certainly an interpolation to the 1895 version (as was David Bintley’s Act I Waltz). Von Rothbart’s two attendant dwarfs also made their presence felt in Act III.

Apart from the mime in which Odette dramatically tells Siegfried that she is about to die because he has betrayed her, Act IV was comfortingly familiar—if slightly kitsch—as Odette and then Siegfried threw themselves into the lake and reappeared sailing heavenwards in a ‘swan vehicle’. But despite what Dowell may have discovered about the 1895 choreography for Act IV, to me those arrangements of swans standing more like wilis or sylphs around Odette and Siegfried, and the emphasis on storytelling through mime, made me long for our own Australian versions where in Act IV the literal storyline gives way to a more abstracted and choreographically-inspired scene.

The big attraction for me, however, was the prospect of seeing Steven McRae dance the role of Siegfried. Technically he could scarcely be faulted. His tours en l’air for example began and finished in a beautifully tight fifth and a lovely deep demi-plié—such soft and pliant landings. His bearing from his first entrance onwards was regal and set him apart from the rest of the characters. His reading of the role was intelligent. At pretty much every point in his dealings with Odette, the Princess (his mother), his friends, von Rothbart and so on his approach was clearly expressed. Nothing was indistinct. Yet I wished that he had been a little more adventurous, and had thrown himself into the steps with greater gusto even if it meant his execution was a little less perfect. It was all too careful.

McRae partnered Roberta Marquez as Odette/Odile. I’m not sure that Marquez is well suited to the role of Odette as her dancing in Acts II and  IV had very little of the softness of arms and body that I associate with those acts. Odile suited her better although she struggled somewhat with some of the technical demands. Oh how I’d love to see someone handle with brilliance those double attitude turns at the beginning of Odile’s variation. Marquez simply went for a single.

I was impressed with the performance of Genesia Rosato as the Princess, Siegfried’s mother. She was a strong lady and demanding of her son. Her presence on stage was indeed commanding, even as she collapsed in a faint at the end of Act III. She had to make us look at her (and I did) and not the billowing red and white smoke that filled the stage as Odile and company departed in triumph. Others whose dancing stood out for me were Tara Bhavnani and Nathalie Harrison as the two leading swans. Both are tall, statuesque women with fluid backs and arms, which they used to the fullest advantage.

This production was not my ideal Swan Lake.  It is always interesting to speculate on what the ‘real’ Swan Lake was like but quite honestly I don’t think anyone will ever know and dance is an art form that is constantly being reinvented. The performance made me look forward more than ever to another look at the Baynes/Colman Swan Lake.

Michelle Potter, 20 October 2012

Darcey and Rafael in conversation.

The ticket said ‘Darcey and Rafael in conversation’. The menu cover said ‘Dance—collaboration, creativity and choreography’. A tall order? This luncheon event associated with the National Gallery of Australia’s current exhibition Ballets Russes: the art of costume featured former Royal Ballet star Darcey Bussell, now living with her family in Sydney, and Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of the revamped Sydney Dance Company. So what happened?

Well, about 200 people gathered in Gandel Hall, the Gallery’s new-ish public event space. Seated at round tables accommodating nine or ten people per table, we started with a main course, a most acceptable meal given that it clearly needed to be prepared in advance. Then, as dessert was brought in, Darcey and Rafael, made their way to the stage and, seated in armchairs, began to talk about dance. So far fairly predictable. Things began to get interesting as dance became the focus.

Some footage was shown. We saw the amazing Ms Bussell, with those incredibly articulate arms and legs not to mention face and entire body, in excerpts from Christopher Wheeldon’s Tryst, which Australian audiences were lucky enough to see when Ross Stretton brought the Royal Ballet to Australia in 2001, then in parts of the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake Act III, and finally in the last pas de deux from Manon. Footage of Bonachela’s recent works followed, including segments from We Unfold and 6 Breaths. The conversation centred for a while on the similarities between classical and contemporary dance in terms of the athleticism required by dancers whatever style they are performing, and on the nature of collaboration. Bonachela stressed his aesthetic of commissioning artistic collaborators to produce new work and outlined the importance of moving the art form forward through the creation of new work. Bussell introduced a certain degree of humour as she recounted the trials of rehearsal and the pitfalls (and pleasures) of performance. They both showed a beautifully human side of themselves.

But perhaps the most interesting moments came when the floor was opened up to questions. For me there were three particularly provocative questions. The first concerned narrative in contemporary dance. Did it exist? And was its lack (or apparent lack outside of ballet) what differentiated contemporary dance from ballet? Bonachela’s answer was beautifully phrased. ‘I believe’, he said ‘that the body has a narrative and I am interested in finding it through my choreography. I want to engage with the audience in an emotional way. I am interested in ideas and think the body is a strong communicative tool’. He did add however, tongue in cheek, that perhaps he would wake up tomorrow and want to make a narrative work!

The second question of particular interest to me concerned the Australian Ballet and its now apparently entrenched decision not to perform in Canberra. How, asked the audience member posing the question, do we continue to engage with ballet when the flagship company denies Canberra audiences the opportunity to see Australian Ballet performances other than by spending large amounts of money to travel out of Canberra? Bussell rightly outlined the various problems associated with touring especially by major companies. But because she may not be aware of the situation, she didn’t mention the Australian Ballet’s apparent problems with the size and nature of the Canberra Theatre’s stage, nor its perceived issues with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. But she did say that in the end it is up to us, the people of Canberra, to make it known that we do constitute an audience for ballet and that we want to see performances by the main company, not only those of the Dancers Company or specially contrived one-off events. Well, I’m not sure that any movement from the people would have the slightest effect.

And the third question of particular interest to me concerned the difference in physicality between the dancers of the Ballets Russes era and those of today. It is clear from watching old footage from the 1930s that the dancers who came to Australia between 1936 and 1940 were different in musculature, in technique and in the performance values they brought to the stage. But probably the luncheon conversation was not the forum in which to elaborate on the various changes we see in the way dancers look and perform today. The responses petered out a little. Another occasion perhaps?

The National Gallery of Australia has provided some inspiring events associated with its Ballet Russes exhibition. This was one of them. May there be more events where an audience feels free to ask and comment in the way it did at this event.

Michelle Potter, 10 March 2011