Études/Circle Electric. The Australian Ballet

15 May 2024 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Études and Circle Electric—it is hard to imagine two more different ballets (or perhaps dance works is a better expression than ballets). But they were the two works that shared the Australian Ballet’s Sydney program in May.

Danish-born Harald Lander choreographed Études in 1948 for the Royal Danish Ballet. It is essentially a non-narrative work (an unusual departure for the Danish company at that time) and is based on the structure of a ballet class. It begins with exercises at the barre and moves on to centre work building up to various, often complex, aspects of a class. There are many moments when we can see the relationship between class work and the art of ballet as it appears onstage. This happens as the choreography develops patterns and groupings of dancers, and also in references to other well-known productions, including the Danish classic, August Bournonville’s La Sylphide.

Circle Electric, on the other hand, is a newly commissioned work from recently appointed resident choreographer for the Australian Ballet, Stephanie Lake. The official synopsis says that the work ‘starts as a microscopic investigation of the intricate and the intimate, ultimately expanding to encompass a telescopic view of humanity.’

Circle Electric opened the program and for a moment it looked promising as two lines of dancers, positioned close together and wearing startling costumes (designer Paula Levis), held their arms to the front with fingers dramatically stretched out, then lifted the arms skywards, heads looking up expectantly.

A moment from the opening scene of Circle Electric. The Australian Ballet 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But suddenly the dancers leaned forwards/downwards and engaged in a weird set of shivers, shakes and odd poses. They reminded me of animals in a zoo to tell the truth. Then they stretched upwards again, and dropped down again. This would not have been so bad had there only been one or two iterations of the up/down construction. But it went on and on and on. It was, admittedly, broken up between repeats with duets from other dancers (costumed quite differently) coming out from the wings but then rushing back before the up/down bit began again. Why repeat so many times? It was just frustrating to see it over and over and over again.

The frustrations continued as the work progressed. The many sections that followed seemed not to relate to each other and, when we got past the ‘intricate and intimate’ bit, crowds of dancers came together as a group of some kind and shouted across the stage to each other. Then they turned on the audience and shouted at us. Why?

Then there was the length of the piece. After a 1:30pm start, interval came at about 2:45pm. That’s 70+ minutes of what seemed like disconnected material. It was just too long and much repeated material could easily have been removed. A 30 minute piece perhaps?

The best part of Circle Electric was the outstanding dancing. The bodies of the highly trained dancers of the Australian Ballet can adapt pretty much to any style and they did adapt beautifully to Lake’s individualistic contemporary style.

After Circle Electric, Études was blessed relief. It has an engrossing beginning with its choreography reflecting exercises at the barre made to look so theatrically engaging with shaded lighting and moments when only feet, or some other sections of the body, are lit up. What follows is equally engrossing as it leads us through more examples of ballet technique put side by side with reflections on what makes it to the stage. It is a technically demanding work and there were times when a few wobbles occurred. But basically it was a thrill to watch. All I want to say is, ‘What a relief!’.

I find it hard to understand how David Hallberg would appoint a resident choreographer whose creative impulses can deliver something like Circle Electric, even more so when looking back at the choreographers who have held the position of resident choreographer over the past decades (going way back to Maina Gielgud’s tenure as director). Dance must move ahead for sure, but 70 minutes of dance that seems composed of sections and sections of movement that appear not to have any overall coherence just doesn’t cut it for me (especially when I paid $215 for my ticket).

Michelle Potter, 17 May 2024

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in an early moment from Etudes, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Carmen. The Australian Ballet

17 April 2024 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Changes to artistic directorship in any dance company invariably bring changes to repertoire and this current production of Carmen is quite unlike the Carmen many older dance-goers may remember—Roland Petit’s Carmen first performed by the Australian Ballet in 1973. The current production, created in 2015 by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger, follows the love life of Carmen as told originally in Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella. But Inger has recontextualised the story, giving it something of a focus on the relationships, often violent and aggressive, between men and women.

But wider than repertoire, new directors usually have a personal vision for a company. Two comments from audience members in relation to Inger’s Carmen, had me thinking about Hallberg’s vision for the Australian Ballet. One person was moved to say, ‘The choreography was magnificent’ but I heard another say as she left, ‘Well I won’t be coming to see that again!’.

Choreographically this Carmen is indeed magnificent, and it was danced magnificently by the artists of the company. It is balletic in a sense, especially in regard to the arms, which are often curved up and over the head in a fourth or fifth position of sorts, and also in the spatial patterns that are formed when a group of dancers moves across the stage space as one.

Jill Ogai (centre) and Australian Ballet artists in a scene from Carmen. The Australian Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But there is a very contemporary feel and look to the choreography for much of the time. The feet aren’t pointed to any great extent and, in fact, the heel is often emphasised over the balletic style of the pointed toe, and there is a lot that seems grounded and attached to the floor in some way. In addition the dancers scream and shout about various events that occur, and they do it loudly. It is an unexpected addition but adds an effect that is highly theatrical.

Callum Linnane in a scene from Johan Inger’s Carmen. The Australian Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But whatever the choreography, every single person in the cast, led by Jill Ogai as Carmen, Callum Linnane as Don José, Marcus Morelli as Torero, and Brett Chynoweth as Zuñiga, enters into the spirit of the work, and into their individual roles, with gusto. In addition to the principals, special mention goes to Larissa Kiyoto Ward as Manuela, who has an explosive fight with Carmen at one stage, and Lilla Harvey as an addition to the story as the Boy who watches on throughout.

As for the second comment—’Well I won’t be coming to see that again!’—Inger’s Carmen is certainly not for the faint-hearted. It pulls no punches about sexuality, the often violent interaction of men and women, various traumatic and often abusive moments in life, and the like. But to counter this, there are content warnings given such as, ‘Carmen contains mature adult themes including sexual content and depictions of violence that some people may find disturbing’. It’s probably not a work that one would take children to see but, nevertheless, with input from a dramaturg (Gregor Acuña-Pohl), there is a clarity in the way the narrative unfolds that is absorbing and it would be well worth seeing more than once.

There is a certain simplicity to the design elements of the work including lighting by Tom Visser, costumes by David Delfin and a set of moving rectangular structures by Curt Allen Wilmer and Leticia Gañán. The music from Rodion Shchedrin after Georges Bizet with some additional music from Marc Alvarez was thrilling to the ear.

So what to conclude regarding repertoire and the vision of David Hallberg? Let’s hope he continues to give us outstanding contemporary dance works from across the world (like the Inger Carmen), while not forgetting the occasional item that has something pure and classical about it, and material from Australian choreographers.

Michelle Potter, 18 April 2024

Featured image: Jill Ogai as Carmen and Callum Linnane as Don José in Johan Inger’s Carmen. The Australian Ballet, 2024. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2023). A second look

9 December 2023 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

There’s nothing like being there!

My first impressions of David Hallberg’s vision for a new Swan Lake were not entirely positive—but I saw it first on film. My second viewing was a live performance and, while the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre is really too small (as we have all known for years) to stage a fully successful production of any large scale ballet, being there rather than watching ‘from the comfort of my own home’ gave me a new and more positive impression.

In Act I, following an interesting Prologue in which we learnt of the long-standing role of von Rothbart, the dancing from those gathered to celebrate Prince Siegfried’s name day was joyful and just gorgeous to watch. As often happens, my eye was drawn to Joseph Romancewicz* who always seems to inhabit the role he has taken on, even when it’s simply a character in the corps de ballet. But everyone in the corps of dancers looked and performed just beautifully. Nathan Brook as Siegfried was suitably withdrawn as he pondered his future, although his solo, which concludes the first act, was a little shaky in parts. It would have been a stronger Act I, however, if the Queen Mother (Gillian Revie) had had more dominance in the unfolding of the narrative. She seemed almost superfluous.

Unfortunately however, my original thoughts on Act II didn’t change much with the stage performance I saw. The dancing, especially from the corps de ballet and soloists, was exceptional but there was still little emotion on display, including from Dimity Azoury who danced Odette. I have never seen Act II of Swan Lake danced with the coldness, or apparent lack of emotion, that seems to be what is required in this production. Why is it like this? Very disappointing.

Things changed a little in Act III. The national dances were more spirited than what I saw on film and both Odile and Siegfried were more believable as characters, even if Azoury as Odile needed to be more seductive (rather than just smiling out at the audience). Sadly too Azoury’s 32 fouettés were somewhat out of control.

The last act, however, was quite stunning. I was transfixed by the beautifully minimal aspect of the choreographic structure, and how the dancers’ performance made this structure very clear. I also loved the way the four little swans and the two leading swans (Isobelle Dashwood and Saranja Crowe) were so clearly included in the group sections of the choreography in this act. In addition, the unfolding of the story in this final act was very clearly shown and, to my immense pleasure, there was at last some measure of emotion between Odette and Siegfried, especially noticeable from Brook’s strong input in relation to his feelings for Odette and for his betrayal of her in the previous act. What a difference a bit of emotional input makes!

As for the curtain calls, they were distinguished by the loud boo-ing that greeted von Rothbart (Jarryd Madden) as he entered to take his call. A real accolade for Madden’s fine interpretation of von Rothbart especially in Act III where his belief in his superiority (even to the extent of his sitting in the vacant chair next to the Queen Mother), and his absolute single-mindedness that Odile would triumph, were very clear.

And as a final point, the orchestra, led by Jonathan Lo, was in fine form. We could almost see the music and hear the choreography so well were they together.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2023

Featured image: A choreographic moment from the corps de ballet in Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Daniel Boud

*Joseph Romancewicz danced von Rothbart at some performances. I regret that I didn’t see him in that role. I’m sure he would have made it his own!

Postscript: One of my recent second-hand purchases was a book I previously never knew existed: Misha. The Mikhail Baryshnikov Story (London: Robson Books, 1989) by Barbara Aria. In it the author talks about the Baryshnikov staging of Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre. Speaking of Swan Lake as brought out of Russia in annotated form by Nikolai Sergeyev, Aria writes on p. 175, ‘It was these contemporary Soviet versions that Misha restaged at ABT, adapting and streamlining them in the process.’ While Hallberg was not part of ABT when Baryshnikov was leading the company, I can’t help wondering whether there is some influence from the ‘adapting and streamlining’ that Aria suggests characterised the Baryshnikov ABT production (which perhaps was also there in subsequent ABT productions?) in the ‘boiled down and refined’ production that Hallberg was seeking, which I mentioned in my previous review.

In the same book the author quotes from a review by esteemed New York-based dance critic Joan Acocella. Writing on p. 197 on Baryshnikov’s portrayal of Siegfried in Swan Lake’, Acocella is quoted as saying, ‘[Baryshnikov’s] mere shoulder, seen from behind, told you everything you need to know about the Act III Siegfried: that he’s a prince, that he is in love, that he is in doubt.’ There it is—the way in which simple movements can portray aspects of narrative!

Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2023)

Digital screening, September–October (filmed on 29 September 2023 during the Melbourne season of Swan Lake)

I am not a huge fan of this latest production of Swan Lake from the Australian Ballet—a version directed by artistic director David Hallberg but based on the 1970s production by Anne Woolliams with dramaturgy and a little extra choreography from Lucas Jervies.

On a positive note, the corps de ballet of 26 swans danced as a group with exceptional precision. Whether they were making and holding a line, a circle, a V-shape as in the opening to Act IV, or any other shape for that matter, their groupings were beautifully precise. And their dancing was in unison to the extent that, for example, they usually managed to lift their legs in arabesque to the same height as each other, and execute other steps with amazing togetherness. The four little swans—Evie Ferris, Jill Ogai, Aya Watanabe and Yuumi Yamada—stood out with regard to this unison and precision. It was pure perfection.

Then there were the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. They were exceptional in design, colour and cut. I especially admired the costumes for the character dances, and the very elegant black and white striped suit worn by von Rothbart in ACT III, befitting a Baron I thought.

But that’s about all the positivity I can muster.

I found the production quite lacking in emotional content. While in his between-acts spiel on this streaming platform Hallberg made much of the partnership between Benedicte Bemet as Odette/Odile and Joseph Caley as Prince Siegfried, and while technically they danced well both separately and together, I could not feel or see any passion, or even affection, between them. And there was certainly no changing emotion visible as the situation between them changed. Ballet is a wordless art but when there is a narrative, as there definitely is in Swan Lake, the story has to be clear and prominent enough in a physical sense for the audience to see and understand the narrative, even if, as in the case of Swan Lake, so many of us have seen it so many times that we have a clear idea already about the storyline. Clarity of narrative and the changing of emotions can be achieved by a simple movement of the head, a lift of the arm that is different from what went before, or something quite simple. But it has to be a physical change that we as the audience can notice and feel, not just a thought in the dancer’s head.

Then I was taken aback by the character dances in Act III. There were three (one each from Spain, Hungary and Italy) rather than the more usual four and they were danced largely without any of the passion that characterises national dancing. Everything seemed to be angled towards a perfect, balletic technique—mostly with the frame of the body held erect and little expression in a physical sense or even through facial expression. Character dances are full of physical expression and theatricality growing from a pride by the characters (as played by the dancers) in a particular heritage.

Perhaps my dislike of this Swan Lake reflects a remark made by Lucas Jervies when speaking to Hallberg and Livinia Nixon in the conversations between acts as part of the streaming. Jervies mentioned that Hallberg asked for the production to be ‘boiled down and refined’, and Hallberg confirmed that this was his aim. The ‘boiling down’ just took everything away. A strong (refined?) focus on technique and little else doesn’t make a theatrical production. At least not for me.

I have a subscription ticket to see this Swan Lake in Sydney towards the end of the season there. Perhaps I will feel differently then?

Michelle Potter, 2 October 2023

Featured image: A moment from Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Kate Longley

Don Quixote. The Australian Ballet (2023)

This post contains two reviews of the 2023 Don Quixote. The first and longer one is of the digital screening; the second, shorter one refers, with particular reference to one dancer, to a matinee performance I saw in Sydney towards the end of the season.

Digital screening, March 2023. (Filmed live on 24 March 2023, Arts Centre, Melbourne)

This production of Don Quixote is meant to pay homage to the 1973 Australian Ballet film of the work and, in fact, has been spoken of as being ‘transposed from screen to stage’, especially with regard to the set. The early film production was choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev and was directed by Nureyev in conjunction with Robert Helpmann. Helpmann played the role of the Don, Nureyev was Basilio and Lucette Aldous danced Kitri/Dulcinea. To tell the truth I’m not sure why the ‘screen to stage’ comment was necessary as the ballet stands by itself without any pretence that it is a transposition. The 1970s film is, however, worth watching, especially now that it has been restored and remastered in high definition. It contains some exceptional performances, especially from Lucette Aldous whose performance in my opinion outshines that of Nureyev.

But to the production of 2023. I found this staging beautifully paced and full of action from every performer. Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo as the leading characters were just brilliant, both technically and in terms of the emotional and dramatic relationship they built up between them. They also dance so well as partners with bodies and limbs moving smoothly together and with complementary line through the two bodies always obvious. Then there were those amazing moments when Guo lifted Kondo into the air and held her there with one hand (as seen in the featured image). The music paused momentarily for us to have a good look! Spectacular.

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in Don Quixote Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Rainee Lantry

Adam Bull was an impressive Don Quixote. He had worked on a particular portrayal of the Don and maintained the behaviour of his character from beginning to end. He was eccentric but introspective and contemplative, and I got the feeling he was lost in another world, a world where windmills can be monsters and dreams can become reality in his mind. What I liked was that his character was strong but without any overplay.

Adam Bull as Don Quixote in Don Quixote, Prologue. The Australian Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Rainee Lantry

Amy Harris as the Street Dancer performed nicely but I would have liked a little more colour in her characterisation. Sharni Spencer as the Queen of the Dryads managed her difficult variation skilfully and Yuumi Yamada was a charming Cupid. A highlight of the last act (apart from the grand pas de deux from Kondo and Guo) was an exciting Fandango danced by sixteen, magnificently dressed dancers led by Dana Stephensen and Nathan Brook.

Ludwig Minkus’ score was played by Orchestra Victoria conducted by Charles Barker, who was, I am assuming, visiting from New York. As with other conductors whom I admire, Barker ensured that the music and the dance worked beautifully as one. Then, as part of the curtain calls the dancers moved forward and, with a simple sweep of the arm, acknowledged the orchestra. It was a perfect, dancerly, elegant acknowledgement rather than the lengthy clapping by the dancers leaning towards, almost into, the pit that we have had to get used to over the past 20 years or so from the Australian Ballet.

The streaming also featured David Hallberg and Catherine Murphy discussing various aspects of the production with some segments featuring various artists associated with the production, including backstage staff.

Michelle Potter, 28 March 2023

22 April 2023 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Apart from the fact that there is ‘nothing like being there’ as the saying goes, most of my comments above from watching the streamed version of the Australian Ballet’s 2023 Don Quixote apply equally to the live performance I saw towards the end of the company’s Sydney season. The Australian Ballet is, in general, dancing beautifully, even stunningly at the moment. Apart from the technical standard being high, there seems to be an inherent joy emanating from the dancers. And what’s more I don’t feel the need to complain about the production looking squashed on the Sydney Opera House stage. For some reason (perhaps the joy mentioned above?), instead of looking squashed the production looked intimate. What a thrill!

But the highlight of the afternoon came from Yuumi Yamada dancing the leading female role of Kitri/Dulcinea. She isn’t a tall dancer, but then nor was Lucette Aldous in the Nureyev/Helpmann film made in 1972. As Kitri/Dulcinea Aldous gave Nureyev a run for his money. Yamada was, similarly, a deliciously feisty Kitri in Act I and was outstanding technically throughout. It was a performance that I feel privileged to have seen. Yamada was partnered by Brett Chynoweth as Basilio.

I also admired the dancing of Lilly Maskery as Cupid in Act II. She has a good presence onstage and gave the role a characterisation that attracted the eye, as well as dancing strongly. I look forward to seeing more of her work.

Unfortunately, I have no images of the cast from this matinee performance.

Michelle Potter, 25 April 2023

Featured image: Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in Don Quixote, ACT I. The Australian Ballet, 2023. Photo: © Rainee Lantry

Instruments of dance. The Australian Ballet

26 November 2022 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

After watching Kunstkamer earlier this year, I felt such positivity about the future direction of the Australian Ballet under the direction of David Hallberg. I wrote, ‘Kunstkamer is a complete change for the Australian Ballet. It is a magnificent, brilliantly conceived, exceptionally performed work giving audiences (and perhaps even the dancers) a whole new look at what dance can achieve, and maybe even what we can expect for the next several years under Hallberg?’ After Instruments of dance I am not so sure about those expectations. I found Instruments of dance, which consisted of three works by choreographers working across the world today, decidedly underwhelming, and as my companion succinctly put it, ’Things can only get better.’

The program opened with Wayne McGregor’s Obsidian tear, which I first saw in London in 2018. Then I found it a cold work. This time it certainly wasn’t cold, in fact it was the opposite. After the opening emotion-filled duet, it showed anger, aggression and even a sense of hatred and ill feeling between the nine members of the all-male cast. It was a comment by McGregor, to my mind anyway, on aspects of sexuality. But what bothered me on this occasion was the choreography, which was often full of McGregor’s body-bending movement, but at other times seemed really static with dancers simply standing with arms in geometric shapes. Somehow it didn’t come together as a unified whole and I remain convinced that Obsidian tear is not one of McGregor’s outstanding works, despite some extraordinary and heart-wrenching moments.

The middle work on the program, Annealing, came from Alice Topp, whose brilliant Aurum remains fixed in my mind four years after I saw it first. Annealing means, we are told, ‘ the process of heating metal or glass to a temperature below its melting point in order to make it softer’. It began with a startling duet, which was followed by an equally startling group section. The duet was dressed simply and elegantly but the costumes for the group section that followed were extravagantly designed, to put it mildly, with all dancers wearing gold clothing that concealed most of the working body. This of course limited the kind of movement that could be executed and in this group section Topp often focused on unison movements of the arms and hands, and bends of the upper body. This looked fine when unison was strongly executed but it was really a dance for costumes more than anything.

Scene from Annealing, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Justin Peck’s Everywhere we go closed the program. It had, perhaps not surprisingly, a strong American look given that Peck is currently artistic director of New York City Ballet and was a dancer with the company for many years. It had a distinct show bizz feel, which I would enjoy (perhaps) if I went to see a musical but it was frustrating to say the least when in the repertoire of a ballet company. It was repetitious and in fact the audience clapped and cheered at one point thinking that the work had come to an end. But it hadn’t and it continued in its repetitious manner for several more minutes. In addition to many fast turning steps (a little a la Balanchine), Peck used lines of dancers whose numbers grew and diminished constantly and also often used what to my mind were quite ugly poses in which the dancers lent forward with curved backs that somehow mirrored the statically held, curved arms that accompanied the leaning. Then there was all that grinning out to the audience. No thanks.

Scene from Justin Peck’s Everywhere we go, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

As a subscriber (I am not regarded as a legitimate reviewer apparently and so do not enjoy any reviewer privileges), I paid $236 to see this show. It is a big price to pay for a program that delivered little that I could admire and enjoy. I am hoping I will see something better next year.

Michelle Potter, 28 November 2022

Featured image: Scene from Obsidian tear, 2022. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet in 2023

David Hallberg has put together an interesting selection of works for the Australian Ballet’s 2023 season. Perhaps most interesting, or perhaps surprisingly unexpected, is a double bill called Identity, which will be seen in Sydney in May and Melbourne in June. Identity will feature two new works, The Hum from Daniel Riley and Paragon from Alice Topp. Topp is currently resident choreographer with the company while Riley is artistic director of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre. The pairing of works from Riley and Topp promises to bring a certain diversity with the two choreographers coming from quite different dance and ethnic backgrounds. Paragon aims to pay tribute to the heritage of the Australian Ballet while The Hum will be a collaboration between the Australian Ballet and Australian Dance Theatre and will feature Indigenous artists as key artistic collaborators. Both works aim to explore the concept of identity whether it is that of Australia, of community. or of art.

I will also be interested to see Swan Lake, which will be shown in Melbourne in September, Adelaide and Brisbane in October, and Sydney in December. Hallberg will be working from the 1977 production by Anne Woolliams and is aiming to bring new insights into what I thought, way back when it was first shown, was a magnificent production which, with various rearrangements of parts of the storyline, gave audiences a very logical understanding of the narrative. This time, however, it will have new designs, some additional choreography by Lucas Jervies, and some filmic influences.

The work of George Balanchine will be on show with Jewels as will that of Frederick Ashton with a double bill of The Dream and Marguerite and Armand. Jewels, which will be seen in Sydney in May and Melbourne in July, will have costumes and sets by the original designers Barbara Karinska for costumes and Peter Harvey for set. This is a shame really as there have been some stunning new designs for Jewels and I am reminded of a remark made in France that the original designs were ‘fussy and outmoded’. But the work itself is stunning with its three separate sections, each representing a different precious stone. On seeing a performance of Jewels by New York City Ballet in 2010 I wrote:

‘Emeralds’ is at once moody and mysterious, romantic and sombre, and sometimes like a whisper in a forest glade. ‘Rubies’ is all sass and neon. ‘Diamonds’ is pure and clean, a dance in an arctic cave filled with cool yet intricate ice carvings.

I am looking forward to seeing it again.

Amy Harris, Benedicte Bemet and Dimity Azoury in a study for Jewels. Photo: © Simon Eeles

Australian audiences saw Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand during a Royal Ballet tour in 2002 when we had the good fortune to see the leading role of Marguerite danced by Sylvie Guillem partnered by Jonathan Cope, and later in the season by Massimo Murru. Since then I have seen stunning performances by Alessandra Ferri partnered by Federico Bonelli and by Zenaida Yanowsky partnered by Roberto Bolle. A line up of stars for sure, so it will be interesting to see who in the Australian Ballet will take on the roles.

Ashton’s The Dream was performed by the Australian Ballet in 2015. Read my review at this link. The Ashton program will be staged in November and only in Sydney.

The 2023 season will also feature a production of Don Quixote adapted for stage from the 1973 film, which starred Rudolf Nureyev, Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann.

Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann in rehearsal for the film, 'Don Quixote', the Australian Ballet 1972. Photo: Don Edwards
Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann in rehearsal for the film, Don Quixote. The Australian Ballet, 1972. Photo: Don Edwards

Don Quixote will play in Melbourne in March and Sydney in April.

In addition, and as part of the Australian Ballet’s 2023 program, the Tokyo Ballet will visit Melbourne in July bringing their staging of Giselle.

Michelle Potter, 6 September 2022

Featured image: Robyn Hendricks in a study for Swan Lake. Photo: © Simon Eeles

Dance diary. May 2022

  • The Johnston Collection. On Kristian Fredrikson

My talk for Melbourne’s Johnston Collection, Kristian Fredrikson. Theatre Designer Extraordinaire, will finally take place on 22 June 2022 just one year later than scheduled. No need, I am sure, to give a reason for its earlier cancellation. I am very much looking forward to presenting this talk, which will include short extracts from some of the film productions for which Fredrikson created designs, including Undercover, which tells the story of the founding of the Berlei undergarment brand.

Further information about the talk is at this link: The Johnston Collection: What’s On.

  • Australian Ballet News

The Australian Ballet has announced a number of changes to its performing and administrative team. In May, at the end of the company’s Sydney season, ten dancers were promoted:

Jill Ogai from Soloist to Senior Artist
Nathan Brook from Soloist to Senior Artist
Imogen Chapman Soloist to Senior Artist
Rina Nemoto from Soloist to Senior Artist
Lucien Xu from Coryphée to Soloist
Mason Lovegrove from Coryphée to Soloist
Luke Marchant from Coryphée to Soloist
Katherine Sonnekus from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée
Aya Watanabe from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée
George-Murray Nightingale from Corps de Ballet to Coryphée

George-Murray Nightingale and Lucien Xu in Graeme Murphy’s Grand. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Kate Longley

In administrative news, the chairman of the board of the Australian Ballet has announced that Libby Christie, the company’s Executive Director, will step down from the position at the end of 2022, after a tenure of close to ten years.

But the Australian Ballet will also face a difficult time in 2024 when the State Theatre at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, where the Australian Ballet performs over several months, and which it regards really as its home, will close for three years as part of the redevelopment of the arts precinct. Apparently David Hallberg is busy trying to find an alternative theatre in Melbourne. But then the company faced similar difficulties a few years ago in Sydney when the Opera Theatre of the Sydney Opera House was unavailable as it too went through renovations. It was perhaps less than three years of closure in Sydney but the company survived then and I’m sure it will this time too.

  • And from Queensland Ballet

Queensland Ballet’s Jette Parker Young Artists, along with artistic director Li Cunxin, a group of dancers from the main company, and Christian Tátchev from Queensland Ballet Academy, will head to London any day now. The dancers will perform in the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House from 4-6 June as part of a cultural exchange between Australia and the United Kingdom. They will be taking an exciting program of three works under the title of Southern Lights. Those three works are Perfect Strangers by Jack Lister, associate choreographer with Queensland Ballet and a dancer with Australasian Dance Collective; Fallen by Natalie Weir, Queensland Ballet’s resident choreographer; and Appearance of Colour by Loughlan Prior, resident choreographer with Royal New Zealand Ballet.

In addition to the performances, Li will be joined by Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare and dancer Leanne Benjamin for an ‘In Conversation’ session, and Tátchev will conduct open classes for dancers from the Royal Ballet School

  • Not forgetting New Zealand

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has also announced a retirement. Katherine and Joseph Skelton will give their last performance with the company in June. It has been a while since I saw Royal New Zealand Ballet perform live but I have especially strong memories of Joseph Skelton dancing the peasant pas de deux with Bronte Kelly in Giselle in 2016. Both dancers are mentioned in various posts on this website. See Katherine Skelton and Joseph Skelton.

RNZB is filming the pair in the pas de deux from Giselle Act II and the film will be made available on RNZB’s Facebook page on 1 June.

  • Street names in Whitlam (a new-ish Canberra suburb)

There has been discussion at various times about naming streets in Canberra suburbs after people who are thought to be distinguished Australians. There was quite recently discussion about abandoning the process completely with complaints being made that the process was not an inclusive one, and that in particular men outnumbered women (along with several other issues). Well not so long ago I joined Julie Dyson and Lauren Honcope in helping the ACT Government select names of those connected with dance to be used as street names in the new-ish suburb of Whitlam. The suburb was named after former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and the decision was to name the streets after figures who had been prominent in the arts (given Whitlam’s strong support of the arts). I looked back at what was eventually chosen (and it was for an initial stage of development of the suburb), and its seems to me that the argument that diversity was lacking is not correct (at least not in this case). The names selected for this stage included men, women, First Nations people, and people known to belong to the LGBTI… community. Some have a lovely ring to them too—Keith Bain Crest, Laurel Martyn View, Arkwookerum Street for example. I’m looking forward to what the next stage will bring.

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2022

Featured image: Still from Undercover, Palm Beach Pictures, 1982

Kunstkamer. The Australian Ballet

7 May 2022 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

David Hallberg has given his directorship of the Australian Ballet a name, a conceptual idea, for us to ponder—’A New Era’. The company’s latest production, Kunstkamer, brings reality to Hallberg’s concept. Kunstkamer is a complete change for the Australian Ballet. It is a magnificent, brilliantly conceived, exceptionally performed work giving audiences (and perhaps even the dancers) a whole new look at what dance can achieve, and maybe even what we can expect for the next several years under Hallberg?.

Inspired by an eighteenth-century publication Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, and first performed by Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) in its 2019-2020 season, Kunstkamer (literally art room in Dutch) is the work of four choreographers, Sol León, Paul Lightfoot, Crystal Pite and Marco Goecke. Cabinets of curiosities date back several centuries and were collections of paintings and other items—curiosities—from around the world and were precursors to what we think of today as museums. Kunstkamer is a dance work in 18 separate sections and, to my mind, fits beautifully within the notion of a collection of unusual, beautiful, incredible items, and even within the idea of a room or several rooms containing such items.

Take the set by León and Lightfoot and the lighting (Tom Bevoort, Ubo Haberland and Tom Visser) for example. The set was architecturally inspired and as each dance section began the screens that made up the set slid into a new formation, or lighting changed our perspective of the ‘room’. It was as if we had moved from one room of a museum to another. Of course there are other ways of looking at how the set was used. Dancers entered and left through a series of doors built into one part of the set, often slamming them noisily. Coming and going. Changing styles. Any number of thoughts come to mind.

Then there were the various sections that made up the dance component. Each section was unique and all carried allusions of various kinds—to the work of other choreographers for example and William Forsythe and Jiří Kylián spring straight to mind. The opening scene for Part II, seen in the image below, was motionless but somehow incredibly moving and, as the dancer sat there, a front curtain descended and rose again reminding us of Forsythe’s Artifact. Then there were references to various trends in the visual arts, especially those of the late 19th, early 20th century; and even allusions to other theatrical styles, Butoh for example when dancers appeared white-faced and open-mouthed.

Opening scene from Part II, Kunstkamer. The Australian Ballet 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

As for the choreography, it was contemporary movement—angular poses, stretched limbs, movement that often seemed quite raw rather than controlled, but often an emphasis on group shapes and unison movement.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Kunstkamer, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The standout dancer at the performance I saw was Benedicte Bemet, who seemed totally transformed. I have always admired her dancing but this time gone was the ‘ballerina look’ (as beautiful as that can be) and there onstage was an artist able to move into a new world when required. She was magnificent. I also particularly enjoyed the performances by Callum Linnane and Adam Bull and the very strong introductory moments from guest dancer Jorge Nozal, who appeared with NDT in the same role (described in the printed program as ‘the enigmatic ghost character’). But every dancer rose to the occasion brilliantly. I got the feeling that they just loved dancing Kunstkamer with all its weird and wonderful aspects, including the speech, often incomprehensible chatter, and the singing by the dancers that was included. The music itself was as as varied as the choreography and ranged from Beethoven to Janis Joplin and included at one stage a pianist playing onstage.

What an unbelievably incredible show this was from beginning to end! I understand it is being streamed on 10 June. If you can’t get to see it live, check out the streaming details.


Michelle Potter, 10 May 2022

Featured image: Benedicte Bemet in Kunstkamer. The Australian Ballet, 2022. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. October 2021

  • The Australian Ballet in 2022

The Australian Ballet is returning in 2022 with a program that perhaps more than anything reflects the strong international background of artistic director David Hallberg. One work, John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, is well-known already to Australian ballet audiences but the rest of the offerings are not quite so well-known.

Anna Karenina is familiar to Australian audiences but not in the version that Hallberg has secured. This Anna Karenina has choreography by Yuri Possokhov and has a commissioned score by Ilya Demutsky, which includes a mezzo-soprano singing live on stage. It was meant to be danced by the Australian Ballet in several locations in 2021 but, in the end, it received just a few performances in Adelaide. It is slated to be seen in 2022 in Melbourne and Sydney and I hope that will eventuate. I tried three times to see it this year but three times I had to cancel! I have been a fan of Possokhov’s work since 2013 when I saw his Rite of Spring for San Francisco Ballet. Bring it on.

A work from a several collaborating choreographers, Paul Lightfoot, Sol León, Marco Goecke and Crystal Pite will also be shown in Melbourne and Sydney. With the name Kunstkamer it promises to be an eye-opener. Originally made for Nederlands Dans Theater, notes on that company’s website say:

Inspired by Albertus Seba’s The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities (1734), the choreographers use the stage to be their own Kunstkamer that presents NDT as its own multifaceted ‘Company of Curiosities’.

Musically eclectic as well (Beethoven, Bach, Purcell, Britten, Janis Joplin, Joby Talbot and others) eye-opener is perhaps too gentle a word?

Dimity Azoury in a study for Kunstkamer, 2021. The Australian Ballet Season 2022. Photo: © Simon Eeles

Then there is the triple bill for the year, Instruments of Dance, a name that I find somewhat unmoving, or at least uninviting. It will feature a new work by Alice Topp, a 2014 work from Justin Peck called Everywhere We Go, and Wayne McGregor’s Obsidian Tear made in 2016 and featuring an all-male cast. While I am a definite fan of McGregor I have seen Obsidian Tear and to me it is not one of his best works. Here is part of what I wrote about the work as danced by the Royal Ballet in 2018:

The opening work, McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, left me a little cold and its choreography seemed stark and emotionless—but then I guess obsidian is a hard substance. Everything seemed to happen suddenly. Lighting cut out rather than faded and movement, while it showed McGregor’s interest in pushing limits, had little that was lyrical.

Royal Ballet artists in 'Obsidian Tear'. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper
Artists of the Royal Ballet in Obsidian Tear. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper

My full review of that Royal Ballet season is at this link.

There are aspects of the season that I have not mentioned here. The full story is on the Australian Ballet’s website. My fingers are crossed that 2022 will be the year we go to the ballet!

  • Wudjang. Not the Past. Bangarra Dance Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company

Bangarra Dance Theatre is joining forces with Sydney Theatre Company to produce a new work by Stephen Page to be shown at the Sydney Festival in January 2022 and then two months later in Adelaide. Page has described it as ‘an epic-scale contemporary corroboree’ and it will be performed by seventeen dancers, four musicians and five actors.

Publicity image for Wudjang. Not the Past. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The narrative for the work is written by Page and Alana Valentine and Page has described the inspiration for that narrative:

In the deep darkness just before dawn, workmen find bones while excavating for a dam. Among the workers is Bilin, a Yugambeh man, who convinces his colleagues to let him keep the ancestral remains. This ancestor is Wudjang, who, along with her young companion spirit, Gurai, longs to be reburied in the proper way. With her young companion spirit, Gurai, she dances and teaches and sings of the past, of the earth, of songlines. With grace and authentic power, a new generation is taught how to listen, learn and carry their ancestral energy into the future. Wudjang: Not the Past follows the journey to honour Wudjang with a traditional resting place on Country.

The production features poetry, spoken story-telling, live music and the choreography of Page. Something to look forward to as we (hopefully) come out of the difficulties of the past two years. 

  • QL2 Dance: Not giving in

Like so many dance organisations, QL2 Dance, Canberra’s much-loved youth dance organisation, has had to cancel so many of its activities over the last several months as a result of the ACT’s covid lockdown. Not giving in is the organisation’s answer to the situation. Watch it below. (Link removed. Video no longer available)

Michelle Potter, 31 October 2021

Featured image: Nathan Brook in a study for Instruments of Dance. The Australian Ballet Season 2022. Photo: © Simon Eeles