The recently released online tribute to retiring director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, has much to enjoy. Titled Celebrate David McAllister, it is hosted by Virginia Trioli with concept and curatorship from Fiona Tonkin. Tonkin, towards the end of the stream, explains the origin of the initiative.
We never gave up David. We had mainstage galas set for you, we had a one-off ‘gala-ette’, and now we have this online streaming tribute. We could not let COVID-19 stop us offering you a collective, heartfelt thank you
In three parts, it covers first up McAllister’s performing career with some wonderful footage—those fabulous turns in La Fille mal gardée—; the second looks at what Trioli refers to as ‘some of the milestones David has achieved’ during his term as artistic director; and in the final section artists from around the world—dancers, choreographers, directors, crew and others—pass on memories and good wishes for the future.
I especially enjoyed the final section. Some messages were a little tearful, others somewhat hesitant, but all were heartfelt. I loved Liz Toohey leaning forward towards the camera and saying ‘best partner in the world’. Then there was Lisa Pavane stringing together adjectives that began with D, then A, then V, then I and then D again. And just fancy Richard Evans, Executive Director 2002-2007, being taught Giselle in his kitchen (by David of course). ‘I can’t look at Giselle the same way again,’ Evans admits ‘It was a famous night.’
Below is a link to the full feature.
As a sideline to the above, a short video made by the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the Peter Brew-Bevan photograph that is in the NPG collection, is also a good watch, even though it has no focus on the retirement.
And on a personal note, David launched two of my books A collector’s book of Australian dance (2002) and Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance (2012). He is a terrific speaker! Now there’s a potential future.
Michelle Potter, 15 December 2020
Featured image: David McAllister and Liz Toohey in the Bluebird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 1984. Photo: Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia
David McAllister (with Amanda Dunn), Soar. A life freed by dance (Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 2020)
Mary Li, Mary’s last dance (Penguin Australia, 2020)
When faced with two dance books recently published in Australia, one by David McAllister and one by Mary Li, my first reaction was, are they memoirs or autobiographies and what is the difference? I didn’t really know the difference until a bit of online searching suggested that a memoir is generally focused on a particular aspect of the author’s life, whereas an autobiography covers an entire life: ‘Although it’s subjective, [an autobiography] primarily focuses on facts – the who-what-when-where-why-how of [an author’s] entire timeline.’ Both books, I concluded are memoirs. Soar focuses on McAllister’s sexuality, Mary’s last dance on Li’s first daughter, Sophie, and how Li managed Sophie’s profound deafness. Both of course, also give us other information about the life and career of two significant figures in the Australian dance world, but a particular focus is definitely there.
The writing in Mary’s last dance is forthright. We are left in no doubt about Li’s stand on pretty much everything she writes about. The early part, in which we learn of her family background as Mary McKendry, is both entertaining and informative, as are the stories about her professional career, her meeting with her husband Li Cunxin, and their subsequent life together. But it is the focus on managing Sophie’s deafness that is compelling, giving an insight into the concerns that plagued Li as she and her husband sought to make life for Sophie a comfortable and fruitful one. How the situation developed as Sophie took control of her own life is great reading. This book speeds along and constantly touches the heart.
Soar has a quite different quality. There are some lovely anecdotes and some interesting comments by McAllister about his various engagements around the world. The Prologue, ‘Ballet boy lost’, comes with a jolt and sets the scene for McAllister’s search to understand his sexual identity and find peace with himself, which he says in the final chapter he thinks he has achieved. And the image of McAllister on the back cover by Lisa Tomasetti is brilliant. But the tone of the book is somewhat shy and retiring and there seems to be an overriding concern to speak kindly of those who have crossed his path. McAllister has been a popular artistic director, as much as anything for his kind and generous nature.
Two memoirs. Both easy reads. Two very different personalities revealed.
My book, Kristian Fredrikson. Designer, is now available in bookshops across Australia, and from online outlets, including the publisher’s site, Melbourne Books, and specialist online sellers such as Booktopia and Book Depository. I am indebted to those generous people and organisations who contributed to the crowd funding projects I initiated to help with the acquisition of hi-res images, where purchase was necessary, and to other photographers and curators who contributed their work and collection material without charge. I am more than happy with the reproduction quality of the images throughout the book.
The featured image on this post is from a New Zealand production of Swan Lake and, in addition to Fredrikson’s work in Australia, his activities in New Zealand are an integral part of the book. So too is his work for Stanton Welch and Houston Ballet, and reflections from Houston Ballet staff on the Fredrikson-designed Pecos and Swan Lake also are integral to the story. The book features some spectacular images from those two works.
It is a while since I saw a performance by the Royal Danish Ballet so I am looking forward to watching the company dance via a stream from Jacob’s Pillow taken from a performance they gave there in 2018. More later… In the meantime, read my thoughts on the 2005 Bournonville Festival in Copenhagen. I was there on behalf of ballet.co (now Dancetabs).
Further on streaming
Two productions, which streamed in July, which I watched but haven’t reviewed in detail, were Trisha Brown’s Opal Loop/Cloud Installation and Aszure Barton’s Over/Come. Both were streamed via the Baryshnikov Arts Centre site. I was especially interested in Opal Loop/Cloud Installation because the installation, which provided the visual background for the work, was by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya. Nakaya is renown in Canberra for his fog installation (Foggy wake in a desert: an ecosphere) in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery. My grandchildren love it, some for the way the fog comes from the ground-level structure that generates it, others simply for the presence of the fog! I wondered what it was like to dance amid the cloud/fog in Opal Loop.
But I love watching the loose-limbed dancing that characterises Brown’s choreography and have great memories of watching various of her pieces performed, several years ago now, at the Tate Modern.
As for Aszure Barton, Over/Come was created while Barton was in residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Centre, and was filmed in 2005. Efforts to find out a bit more about it, especially the dancers’ names, have been pretty much unsuccessful. Two dancers stood out—a tall gentleman wearing white pants that reached just below the knee (his fluidty of movement was exceptional), and a young lady who danced a cha-cha section. I’d love to know who they are.
The Australian Ballet
How devastating that the Australian Ballet has had to cancel its Sydney season for November-December, meaning that very few performances from the company have made it to the stage in 2020. I guess I was lucky that I managed to get to Brisbane in February to see The Happy Prince. 2020 is not the kind of farewell year David McAllister would have liked I’m sure.
16 November 2019 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
There is one facet of Stanton Welch’s choreography that I always find admirable and exciting to watch. It is his ability to handle different groups of dancers on stage. He is able to give each group different steps to do and arrange them in different formations, while also achieving an overall cohesion. This ability to create choreography that is beautifully blended and yet has individuality within it was again on show in Sylvia, his new work for 2019. Unfortunately, none of the images to which I have access really shows that facet of his choreography but it was clearest in the penultimate scene from Act III when the life of Sylvia (Robyn Hendricks) with her beloved Shepherd (Callum Linnane) unfolded.
This second last scene was also the most enjoyable from the point of view of the narrative. The surprise of the children and grandchildren of Sylvia and the Shepherd appearing suddenly was a beautifully human touch, and again I was impressed by the dancing and stage presence of Yuumi Yamada as the couple’s Daughter. In this scene too David McAllister made a guest appearance as the Older Shepherd and reminded us of his qualities as a performer.
But the ease with which we could understand the narrative in this scene stood in stark contrast to much of the rest of the ballet. The story was a very complex one and difficult to follow, especially in Act I when the scene was being set for what was to follow. Maybe it’s just one of those ballets that one has to see many times before any strength it has can be understood?
Both Hendricks and Linnane danced well especially in the various pas de deux that unfolded between them. Dana Stephensen as Artemis was also a strong performer and her partnership with Brodie James as Orion was also nicely executed. The final scene in which the two are united in the starry, heavenly environment was staged with evocative lighting by Lisa J Pinkham.
But I came away feeling frustrated. While Welch is a choreographer whose work I admire, dance doesn’t lend itself to the kind of complexities of storyline that Sylvia contains. I was reminded of a recent interview I did with contemporary choreographer Lloyd Newson in which he talked about why he introduced speech into his works. There are some things that dance can’t do, he believes, and he’s right. Even though he wasn’t talking about ballet his ideas are relevant, nevertheless, to all forms of dance.
The news for May is headlined by the announcement that David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet since 2002, will retire at the end of 2020. McAllister has always been generous in situations that are about dance but fall outside performances. He launched, for example, two of my books, A Collector’s Book of Australian Dance and Dame Maggie Scott. A Life in Dance. In this month’s featured image (above) he is seen in the Chunky Move studios in Melbourne launching A Collector’s Book. The banner on the left shows an image that appears in the book and that was taken by Greg Barrett.
I have also enjoyed seeing McAllister at various conferences, including the first BOLD Festival held in Canberra in 2017.
Who will be the next director? The names that have been mentioned in the press so far (I have arranged them alphabetically by family name) include Leanne Benjamin, David Hallberg, Li Cunxin, Graeme Murphy, and Stanton Welch. One or two of them have declared they are not interested (not sure if I necessarily believe that). I have one or two others in my mind but I won’t mention them here! I do hope, however, that whoever survives the selection process and becomes McAllister’s successor will be someone who will be audacious in repertoire choices.
Shaun Parker and Company
In September 2010, dancer (and singer in the counter tenor mode) Shaun Parker registered a name: Shaun Parker and Company. Next year the company that bears that name will celebrate its 10th anniversary with, I believe, a special program.
The company has just recently returned from the Middle East and Austria where Parker’s most recent production, KING, was performed. In the meantime, Parker is now working on a new show for young people, IN THE ZONE, which will premiere in Sydney this coming September. It will feature street dancer Libby Montilla and the technology of AirSticks.
Archibald Prize 2019
Among the finalists for the 2019 Archibald Prize, Australia’s well-known portrait prize hosted by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, was a portrait entitled Mao’s Last Dancer by Chinese-born artist Jun Chen. Chen, who is currently based in Brisbane, was commissioned last year by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra to paint a portrait of Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet. It was one of twenty portraits commissioned to celebrate the Gallery’s twentieth anniversary. Chen followed up with a second portrait of Li and entered it for the Archibald Prize. While it didn’t take first place it was good to see a portrait of a dancer among the 2019 finalists. See all the finalists here.
Following new posts
I have had a number of requests recently asking how to join up to receive notification of new posts. Here’s how to do it:
1, Make a comment by going to the ‘Leave a reply’ form, which you will find at the end of every post. 2. Before hitting the ‘Post comment’ field, check the box that says ‘Notify me of new posts by email’. (Make sure you have also filled out your name and email address. A website address is not necessary). 3. After you have submitted the comment you will receive a follow-up email asking you to confirm. It will say ‘Confirm follow’. Once you have clicked on this field you should begin to receive notifications of new posts.
15 March 2019. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
Dame Margaret Scott was farewelled with style and grace, and more than a little bit of emotion, in a memorial event arranged by the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School and presented in Melbourne on 15 March 2019.
It began with an initial surprise as we entered the auditorium of the State Theatre. I wondered why we were asked to enter through the door at the back of the auditoriun. Well, it was so that we would properly enjoy the guard of honour made by two rows of young dancers from the Australian Ballet School, the girls dressed in simple white tutus and the boys in black tights and white shirts. They were lined up on each side of the auditorium stretching pretty much from the last row of the stalls down to the stage. On the stage a giant screen had been lowered and we saw an image of a smiling Maggie, full of the joy of life. And standing in the middle of a row close to the front was Maggie’s husband, Professor Derek Denton, watching as we entered.
Following an introduction from Steven Heathcote and an opening tribute from Maggie’s younger son, Angus Denton, reminiscences were given by several of Maggie’s former students and colleagues including Colin Peasley, David McAllister, Graeme Murphy, Marilyn Rowe and Lisa Pavane. Those who auditioned for her as young and hopeful dancers all admitted to being in awe of Maggie at first, but all continued to say how much they had grown to love and respect her.
Interspersed among the spoken tributes were three short performances. The first was Embrace, created by Paulina Quinteros, which was accompanied on the printed program by the phrase ‘For Dick, Matthew and Angus’, to which was added the words ‘Lucky are those who have experienced the sweetness of loving’. It was danced by Chloe Reynolds and Daniel Savetta (with Steven Heathcote playing a small role). Embrace was followed by the Act II pas de deux from Nutcracker. The Story of Clara, danced by Benedicte Bemet and Jarryd Madden. Level 8 students of the Australian Ballet School gave the third performance, a movement from Stephen Baynes’ Ballo Barocco.
But the most moving moments were left till last when a series of images of Maggie, covering the gamut of her life and career, were flashed across the screen.
The end seemed to have been reached when Jim McFarlane’s iconic image from Nutcracker (above left) appeared and all went dark. But no, Earl Carter’s equally iconic Nutcracker image appeared of Maggie rejoicing in the pleasures she experienced in Act I of Nutcracker (above right). Then, from each side of the stage a procession of students, former dancers and others entered and, in single file, moved to the centre of the stage where each placed a single white rose on the floor in front of Maggie’s image before making a slow exit. A beautiful tribute to an exceptional woman.
A State Memorial for Dame Margaret will be held on 22 March at the National Gallery of Victoria International commencing at 10:00 am. My obituary for her is at this link.
Michelle Potter, 17 March 2019
Featured image: Maggie Scott in Gala Performance (detail with text added). From the Ballet Rambert souvenir program for its 1947–1949 Australian tour
15 October 2016. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
The National Portrait Gallery is currently showing a number of images from its performing arts collection—mainly images of dancers but also musicians and designers. Along with Jenny Sages’ wonderful image of Irina Baronova ‘passing on the torch’ to an unknown (seen from the back only) young dancer, there are images of Steven Heathcote, Graeme Murphy, Meryl Tankard, Russell Page, Stephen Page, Marilyn Rowe (not the Gallery’s best acquisition I have to say), Kenneth Rowell, Sidney Nolan, Peter Sculthorpe, and others. They are there to support a new acquisition, a photographic portrait of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, David McAllister, by Peter Brew-Bevan.
And as has been happening with a certain frequency recently, the National Portrait Gallery commissioned four dancers, Elle Cahill, Julia Cotton, Anca Frankenhaeuser, and Patrick Harding-Irmer, to present a short program of dances to celebrate the acquisition. There were four dances in all: Solo from steppingstone by Patrick Harding-Irmer, Duet for David by Julia Cotton and Elle Cahill, Ebba by Anca Frankenhaeuser, and Quartet for David by all four dancers. All dances had a certain technical simplicity to them, which is not to deny their appropriateness for the occasion.
Two of the pieces, those featuring Harding-Irmer, seemed to refer specifically to McAllister. The duet from Cotton and Cahill seemed to be more of a dedication to the art that McAllister has promoted throughout his career, while the connection that Frankenhaeuser’s quite beautiful but mysterious solo with a hanging garment had to McAllister wasn’t all that clear to me.
Harding-Irmer’s Solo was a work of poses. Some were quite a simple ballet positions—first position of the feet, fifth positions of the arms. for example. We all start our careers learning the basics. As the piece progressed the poses became more introspective but always searchingly so. And Harding-Irmer, impeccably dressed in suit and tie (although he did remove the coat at one stage), suggested that a dancer’s life moves more and more into a complexity of thought.
Duet for David was the most balletic of the dances and in many respects it reminded me of the Jenny Sages portrait of Baronova ‘passing on the baton’. Cahill’s youth in relation to Cotton (and Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser) was clear and, as Cahill and Cotton danced together, they seemed to change places in the performing space. There was a lovely entrance by Cahill followed by a quiet arrival from Cotton, who then seemed to take the dominant position. But as they circled each other, dancing simple but fluid and attractive steps in differing spatial patterns, Cahill came to the fore, as if representing the future of classical dance.
But if Duet for David was the most balletic in a technical sense, the closing piece, Quartet for David, was filled poses (again) that recalled the manner of McAllister in the classroom or rehearsal process, along with references to ballets with which McAllister might be identified. From Swan Lake, for example, we had a reference to the linked arms of the Four Little Swans and from The Sleeping Beauty there was a nod to the Rose Adagio. And the final moment saw Harding-Irmer taking the very pose McAllister takes in the Brew-Bevan portrait.
What was especially attractive about this show was the element of time that it encompassed—time past, time present, and time future all seemed to have a place. But I wish I knew more about Frankenhaeuser’s Ebba. For the first time in my experience with these Portrait Gallery shows there was a mini printed program, which listed the names of the works and the creatives behind them—a welcome initiative. I am dead against judging a work according to the artist’s intention, but I would have liked a bit more information. A search online didn’t help all that much.
Dance in Canberra is flourishing as a result of this kind of show. And it is refreshingly ‘underground’ in the sense that it doesn’t rely on the fads and puffery of popular mainstream organisations. Good, honest dance with something to say.
Michelle Potter, 17 October 2016
Featured image: (l-r) Julia Cotton, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Elle Cahill and Anca Frankenhaeuser in Quartet for David, 2016.
In September I had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery of Victoria’s recent exhibition of works by Edgar Degas, entitled Degas. A new vision. I enjoyed discovering his non-dance paintings and drawings, in particular those that gave an insight into his family and social life. But I especially enjoyed some of his lesser known (to me anyway) dance works, including the two below: Little girl practising at the barre (1878–1880), although it is a shame about the turn-out being forced onto that little body, and Russian dancer (1985).
The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra continues to offer short dance events as part of its public programs with Dances for David scheduled for October and a work by James Batchelor coming in early November.
Dances for David—four dances reflecting moments in the career of David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet—will be performed by Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Julia Cotton and Elle Cahill. Each work is inspired by a photographic image of McAllister. Dances for David takes place on 15-16 October and 29-30 October.
In November James Batchelor will present Smooth Translation, a commission from the Portrait Gallery, which is being advertised as ‘an ode to Barbara Hepworth’. Batchelor’s works are often about process of some kind and Smooth Translation purports to be concerned with the process of sculpting a landscape. Intriguing? But then all Batchelor’s works are. Smooth Translation is on 5–6 November. (UPDATE: See this link for a review of Smooth Translation).
The Australian Ballet in 2017
The Australian Ballet, the national ballet company, once again will not be visiting Canberra, the national capital, in 2017!
Press for September 2016
‘Blood ties.’ A look at the career of Bangarra dance Luke Currie-Richardson as Bangarra heads to New York and Paris. The Canberra Times—Panorama, 17 September 2016, pp. 8–9. Online version.
The death earlier in June of film maker Paul Cox sent me in search of a DVD copy of his film The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The backstory is that Cox heard actor Paul Schofield on British radio reading from Nijinsky’s diaries (cahiers), which were first released in 1936 after having been rearranged and edited dramatically by Nijinsky’s wife, Romola.1 From that moment Cox was smitten and wanted to make a film based on the diaries. The making was a drawn-out experience (it took three years),2 but the film was eventually completed in 2001 and released in 2002. Cox has referred to it as a ‘cinematic poem’: it is certainly far from a documentary in the commonly understood meaning of the term.
Nijinsky began writing down his thoughts as a kind of diary on the morning of his last public performance, which he gave at the Suvretta Hotel in St Moritz on 19 January 1919. He wrote his last entry on 4 March that same year, the day he was to go to Zurich to see the psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler, who would decide that he was suffering from incurable schizophrenia and who would advise, among other things, that he be admitted to a sanatorium. There are three exercise books of writing and drawing, with the first two books containing sections of Nijinsky’s own form of dance notation. The fourth notebook contains several letters to family, friends and others. The three diary books are held by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The fourth book of letters is held in Paris by the Department of Music, Bibliothèque nationale.
I found Cox’s film (which I must admit I had never seen before) absolutely mesmerising. It is in many respects a collage of images that flash past us, some of which return hauntingly throughout the film. Sometimes they are photographs of Nijinsky in his well-known roles for the Ballets Russes, such as the image at the top if this post, which shows Nijinsky as Petrushka. Sometimes they are images from nature, with flowing water and birds, in particular a crane, appearing frequently. Cox also plays with light and shade and there are many fleeting, emotive moments where shadows flicker over walls, water, and natural features of the landscape. The images reflect Nijinsky’s words as they are written in the diaries and are spoken as a voice over by Derek Jacobi.
The film begins with a funeral procession, Nijinsky’s funeral. As the coffin and the mourning party move down a pathway we see ‘ghosts’ of Nijinsky hovering in the background and sometimes merging with the funeral procession. They are characters Nijinsky played in the ballets that made him the famous male dancer that he was—the Spirit of the Rose from Le spectre de la rose, the Golden Slave from Scheherazade, the Faune from L’Après-midi d’un faune, and so on. These characters appear, disappear and reappear throughout the film, slipping between the other images, always reminding us of Nijinsky’s remarkable dancing career.
The dancing components, like the characters who hover around the funeral procession, are interspersed seemingly randomly between the flow of non-dancing imagery. David McAllister and Vicki Attard appear as the two characters in Le Spectre de la rose, while dancers from Leigh Warren and Dancers take on most of the other dancing roles. I admired Aidan Kane Munn’s ‘War Dance’, which he choreographed as a tormented, quivering solo and danced blank-faced. This was the item Nijinsky chose to dance at Suvretta House: ‘Now I will dance you the war … the war which you did not prevent.’ It is described by Joan Acocella (following Romola Nijinsky’s description) as ‘a violent solo, presumably improvised’ and analysed by Ramsay Burt in relation to Nijinsky’s thoughts on war and peace.3 I also especially admired Csaba Buday’s performance as the Faune in a version of L’Après-midi d’un faune choreographed by Alida Chase and set outdoors in a clearing surrounded by trees and bushes. There was an animal-like awareness to Munn’s reactions as the Nymphs passed by, and his closing scene with the veil was gentle yet blatantly sexual.
There is a kind of narrative component to anchor the imagery and dancing. We meet Romola and her parents and the various doctors who examined Nijinsky, for example. But we never hear them speak, although their body language and facial expressions give us clues as to how the story and their thoughts about Nijinsky are unfolding. Their presence forces us to face the reality that is behind the film.
The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky is a truly beautiful, painterly film. Like John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which Hamburg Ballet performed in Australia in 2012, it is absolutely compelling and arouses so many thoughts about the nature of Nijinsky—the man and the dancer. But, in contrast to the Neumeier work, the Cox film is almost serene in its overall mood, despite some confronting and bloody images relating to Nijinsky’s vegetarianism, and the challenging words and ideas spoken forcefully by Jacobi. That I find the mood serene is is not to suggest, however, that Cox has not presented the drama and the confusion of thought that permeated Nijinsky’s life. It is just felt in a different manner. The film and the dance work complement each other in a very unusual way and, having at last seen the film, I look forward immensely to seeing the Neumeier work again when it is performed by the Australian Ballet later this year.
Michelle Potter, 25 June 2016
Featured image: Vaslav Nijinsky as Petrushka. Photographer and source unknown
1. Joan Acocella, in her introduction to the unexpurgated edition of the diaries, published in English in 1999 as The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, explains in detail how Romola altered the diaries in that first publishing endeavour of 1936. In particular Acocella notes that around 40% of the contents of the diaries was omitted. Acocella’s introduction is, as is all her writing, lucid and informed: Joan Acocella (ed.), The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999).
2. Philip Tyndall describes the development of the film saying that Cox ‘did much of the cinematography himself in addition to the writing, directing, co-producing and editing.’ Philip Tyndall, ‘The diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky. The culmination of a career.’ In Sense of Cinema. Issue 20, May 2002. Accessed 25 June 2016.
3. Ramsay Burt, ‘Alone in the world. Reflections on solos from 1919 by Vaslav Nijinsky and Mary Wigman’. In On Stage Alone. Soloists and the modern dance canon, eds Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy (Gainesville FL: University of Florida Press, 2012).
9 April 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake premiered in 2012 as a ‘traditional’ Australian Ballet production to stand alongside Graeme Murphy’s rather more radical version. After almost four years it is certainly an interesting experience to see the Baynes production again, but looking back at what I wrote in 2012 I find myself wanting to say much the same.
On the positive side, Hugh Colman’s costumes are still a highlight. They are so elegantly designed, especially those in Act I, where the women’s dresses not only look so stylish but move beautifully during the danced sequences. They also set the story so well in the nineteenth century, the era of Tchaikovsky. Then I was still thrilled to see such lovely, swirling choreography in so many places. I was especially taken this time with the patterns given to the swans, both when moving and when standing motionless. I was also lucky to see a lovely performance from Miwako Kubota as Odette/Odile. She danced both roles with style and technical assurance and gave each role a distinctive characterisation.
Baynes and Colman have approached the story as a kind of psycho-drama and, in bringing out this aspect of the production, Andrew Killian as Siegfried gave a strong performance. He gave the role a brooding quality in Act I that at first made him appear not to be participating—and of course we are used to seeing Siegfried enjoying himself at his birthday celebrations before heading off to shoot swans with his mates. But slowly Killian brought us to the realisation that Siegfried was deeply unhappy with his life and at the end of Act I, as he stood before the gates that led to the lake, I couldn’t help feeling that he was thinking of drowning himself in it (which is eventually what happens).
On the not so positive side, I think this Swan Lake still badly needs the services of a dramaturg to bring out the narrative (or Baynes’ version of the story) more clearly. The psycho-drama seems to fall apart somewhat after Act I when the ballet reverts to the original storyline without enough emphasis on anything that might be called evil. Rothbart, who personifies evil in traditional productions, still remains an enigma in the Baynes version. Is he the personification of the blackness that consumes Siegfried? He seems just to hover in the background, except in Act III when he rudely sits beside the Queen, who on this occasion, surprisingly, took very little notice of him. And then Rothbart plays the violin for the the dance of the Russian Princess (beautifully performed by Rina Nemoto), which makes him a kind of Paganini figure, the Devil’s minion. It is very difficult to reconcile exactly what role he is meant to be playing and, as a result, the production becomes unsatisfying.
Despite some very nice choreographic moments, and some strong dancing, I have to come to the conclusion that I prefer other productions of Swan Lake. I don’t want to go back to a Borovansky-style 1950s production (although it was really quite a good, straightforward one), and all credit to David McAllister for wanting to add a traditional Swan Lake to the Australian Ballet repertoire. But for preference I’d go to the Murphy production any day. It has a coherence that I think is lacking in the Baynes production.