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
In December 2002 I wrote an article, at the request of Bruce Marriott, for ballet.co magazine (now no longer available) to coincide, if I remember correctly, with a conference of artistic directors held in the United Kingdom somewhere (perhaps London?). I think the commission came because David McAllister, then quite new in the role of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, was attending. As with many of my other articles and reviews for ballet.co, I thought it had disappeared from my computer files and I had not made a print out. But just recently it appeared when I was searching with the term ‘Nutcracker’ for another thought-to-be lost file. So I am posting it here and welcome comments from a 2018 perspective.
As artistic directors of some of the world’s best-known ballet companies meet to discuss the issue of globalisation, I am reminded of a now well-known debate that emerged in Australia in the 1960s and the 1970s. It concerned the nature of the country’s cultural development. Two camps sprang up: one centred on the idea of the tyranny of distance, the other on the notion that from the deserts the prophets come. Those who spoke for the tyranny of distance believed that Australia was a cultural desert isolated from the great centres of civilisation, especially from the so-called mother country of Great Britain. Those on the other side believed that Australians did not need to rely on their colonists for what they required to nourish their souls—in the midst of their isolation they could have their own uniquely beautiful culture that could define them, equally uniquely, as Australian. This group took as a catch cry some lines from a poem written by renowned Australian poet A. D. Hope in 1960:
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare Springs in that waste.
The debate is historically interesting, and the discussion generated two of the best-known period books on Australian culture and identity: Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance and Geoffrey Serle’s From the Deserts the Prophets Come (later, in an attempt to popularise, or globalise perhaps, the Serle book was renamed The Creative Spirit in Australia).
Advances in technology of various kinds have, of course, made the idea of the tyranny of distance pretty much an obsolete concept. Globalisation, however, is clearly with us: it is part of the fabric of our contemporary existence. It has permeated every aspect of the way we live and operate in the twenty-first century. And while many of the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere may still think of Australia as out of scope, few Australians (thankfully) now believe that distance hampers their ability to interact with the rest of the world. So where does this leave the individualism that we rightly prize so highly? What do we do with the savage and scarlet that has so flamboyantly grown? Or even with the green hills if we are on the other side of the world? Do we sit back and allow globalisation to turn what is unique about our individual dance cultures into something bland and universal? Or do we embrace culturalism, accepting that, while communications may have changed the way we operate in the world, our individual cultures cannot develop in a similar way? Do we sit in our theatres from London to Sydney, from New York to Melbourne, all seeing the same works: a Giselle respectfully produced, Manon, a couple of items from Balanchine, The Merry Widow and so on. Or do we each go for something culturally specific (a Murphy Nutcracker, an Ashton work from the early repertoire), and for individualistic reworkings of the tried and true (a Guillem Giselle, a Murphy Swan Lake)? Is one way the only way? The right way? The wrong way?
Neither bowing to globalisation nor strictly adhering to culturalism is the answer. Culturalism smacks of attitudes of superiority and cultural elitism—my culture is better than yours. It closes the mind to innovation and change. It indulges in smugness and name calling (the vile expression ‘Eurotrash’, beloved by one particular British critic, springs immediately to mind). It is a stultifying attitude. On the other hand, globalisation removes what we value about ourselves as individuals in unique cultures, what our specific histories have created and asked us to cherish. But defiantly, ballet is perfectly able to accommodate itself within a global society without losing anything. Ballet isn’t dying. It isn’t even at the crossroads as it encounters globalisation. Ballet is like a sponge. It can soak up change: it has been doing so for centuries. It can absorb new vocabulary. It can keep renewing itself from what it absorbs. It has to be able to operate in this way because it is a living, breathing art form. Even the most superficial glance at photographs of acclaimed dancers in the same role taken over several decades, in Giselle for example, makes it very clear that while we may want Giselle to stay the same—the past is very comforting—it can’t and hasn’t and won’t. In fifty years time dancers won’t want to dance Giselle like Alina Cojocaru (hard as that idea may be to comprehend at the moment).
In the twenty-first century the ballet-going public is entitled to green hills sprinkled liberally with some savage and scarlet (and I mean this more widely, more figuratively, than simply British works sprinkled with Australian ones). Dancers are, for their growth as artists, entitled to experience the work of choreographers outside their immediate, culturally-specific environment. Choreographers are entitled to wonder (and experience) how their works might look when danced by dancers trained outside the choreographer’s home country: the great ones do (and have) and are open and generous about the experience, as any dancer from the Australian Ballet who has worked with Jiří Kylián on any work from the Australian Ballet’s Kylián repertoire will tell you. Critics need to open-minded enough to embrace change and innovation while caring about the past. And artistic directors need to understand it all! The artistic director of a truly great company needs courage, intelligence and drive. Courage not to be swayed from his or her vision. Intelligence to have a vision that looks both forward and in a lateral direction and, going hand-in-hand, intelligence to understand that looking in this manner and direction is not a denial of the past. Drive to put the vision into practice.
Globalisation is a much-maligned concept. It doesn’t have to exclude anything really. But to react to globalisation uncritically, and to allow it to dictate to us is the problem. To do this is to lack courage, intelligence and drive. That we can see new works and restagings of old ones from London to Sydney, New York to Melbourne is a gift of globalisation. If we wish to deny that gift by insisting on culturalism it is a measure of an inability to exist in a global culture, in today’s culture, and a pitifully conservative attitude. But one thing is certain, whatever the response of individual people ballet will keep moving forward. It will never fall victim to a narrow culturalism. Only people will do that. Let’s hope that the new breed of artistic directors understands.
Michelle Potter, December 2002, reposted 14 June 2018
Details of the Australian Ballet’s 2018 season were revealed in September and this year Canberra audiences can anticipate a program from the national company. The Merry Widow, which David McAllister has called ‘a fantastically well-constructed soufflé’, was created for the Australian Ballet in 1975 as the first full-length production commissioned by the company. It will open at the Canberra Theatre Centre on 25 May and run until 30 May. Based on the operetta of the same name, it has choreography by Ronald Hynd, a scenario by Robert Helpmann (in 1975 artistic director of the Australian Ballet), and music by Franz Lehar. It will also have seasons in Sydney and Melbourne.
But beyond soufflés, and for those who like their ballet to have more intellectual input, an interesting program is scheduled for Melbourne and Sydney. Called Murphy, it honours the contribution Graeme Murphy has made to the Australian Ballet, which he joined from the Australian Ballet School in 1968. Programming is not yet complete, apparently, but we know that the main item on the program will be the return of Murphy’s Firebird, which he created for the Australian Ballet in 2009.
Here is a quote from Murphy from a story I wrote for The Weekend Australian in February 2009:
I want to give the audience the magic that they believe Firebird is. It will be a rich and opulent experience for them. Besides, the score is completely dictative of the narrative, which makes it hard to stray from the story. Firebird is imbued with Diaghilev’s thumbprint. I am keeping all the elements of the work, the symbols of good and evil for example, but I will be focusing in a slightly different way. It will be a little like the world of winter opening up to let in the spring.
As for the rest of the season: Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle will return for a season in Melbourne, while Sydney will have a return season of Alexei Ratmansky’s wonderful Cinderella; there is a new production of Spartacus in the pipeline, which will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney; Melbourne will have an exclusive season of a triple bill called Verve with works by Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour and Alice Topp; and Adelaide will see The Sleeping Beauty.
Jennifer Irwin. Frocks, Tales and Tea
Jennifer Irwin, costume designer par excellence and recipient of the 2017 Australian Dance Award for Services to Dance, will be the special guest at an event hosted by ‘UsefulBox’ on 14 October at the Boronia tea rooms in the Sydney suburb of Mosman. Irwin will talk about her creative process and what inspired her as an artist. Further information at this link.
Andrée Grau (1954–2017)
The death has occurred, unexpectedly in France, of Andrée Grau, well-known dance anthropologist, and long-standing staff member of the University of Roehampton. Grau’s achievements, which include work in Australia, appear on the Roehampton website at this link.
Press for September 2017
‘Great flair shown in austere setting.’ Review of Circa’s Landscape with monsters. The Canberra Times, 8 September 2017, p. 31. Online version.
‘Untangling the truth.’ Preview of Gudirr, Gudirr, Dalisa Pigram and Marrugeku. The Canberra Times, 16 September 2017, Panorama p. 16. Online version.
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.
5 December 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
My second viewing of David McAllister’s Sleeping Beauty simply confirmed my opinion that this production is the most over-designed ballet I have ever seen since I saw my first professional ballet performance many years ago. Sold-out houses mean nothing artistically as far as I am concerned. At least this time, however, I knew what to expect and so made a concerted effort to block out the design and look at the dancing, as much as was possible.
This matinee performance belonged to Miwako Kubota and Daniel Gaudiello as Aurora and Prince Desiré respectively. As the sixteen year old Aurora, Kubota performed charmingly and was technically close to faultless. But it was in the wedding scene that she took my breath away. She was radiant. She brought so much light and shade to her dancing and, amazingly, the light and shade came mostly through her technical execution. She leant into movements, she used her head and shoulders beautifully, every movement had an expressive power. I especially loved that part in one of her variations in the pas de deux where her delicate wrist movements, enhanced by such a beautiful smile, such a fluid body, and such perfect feet, told the story of how she had grown from a child to a woman, reflecting back to her father’s similar mime sequence at her sixteenth birthday.
As her prince, Gaudiello once again showed what a wonderful dancer and partner he is. I love watching him take care of his ballerina and, as usual, his technical execution of the choreography was outstanding. I was especially taken by those moments in his variation in the coda of the grand pas de deux where his light and beautifully elevated cabrioles to the front (also beautifully beaten) were followed by a sweep of one leg, the foot passing through first position, into an attitude at the back. That foot caressed the floor making those small movements that join larger ones so clear.
The only other male dancer who has made me so aware of the beautiful tiny details that make up larger and more obvious movements is Ethan Stiefel, whom I was once lucky enough to see as Solor in Makarova’s Bayadère.
For the first time in a long time I felt that this grand pas de deux, with Kubota and Gaudiello performing as they did, was actually grand. Hurrah!
Sympathy to the gentleman in the Garland Dance in Act I who had a major wig malfunction, but bouquets to the other gentleman who, wig intact, managed to remove the fallen part from the floor. The dance went on, the gentleman left the stage and returned with wig fixed. But sadly that Garland Dance has, in this production, lost all its honourable simplicity and choreographic design as a result of those garlands that looked quite burdensome with far too many lolly-pink and ghastly-green flowers (matching the ladies’ dresses that are similarly coloured and burdened).
As I had previously, I enjoyed the newly-imagined role of Carabosse, which was carefully thought through by former Royal Ballet dancer Gillian Revie. Benedicte Bemet, fresh from the triumph of receiving the award of the 2015 Telstra Ballet Dancer of the Year, was partnered by Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in the Bluebird pas de deux. Both danced nicely but did not have the attack of Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. They need a little more time to reach greater heights in roles such as the Bluebird pas de deux. I’m sure those greater heights are on their way.
15 September 2015, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne
On a day when Australia got a new Prime Minister, dance-goers also got a new production of The Sleeping Beauty from David McAllister and the Australian Ballet, with McAllister being credited with ‘Production and additional choreography’. I don’t know how our new PM will fare but, as for Beauty, there was good and not so good.
The good things first. The narrative flows clearly and smoothly. Bringing in Lucas Jervies as dramaturg clearly paid dividends, especially as this Beauty is a little different from what many of us have become used to watching. Act II, for example, is somewhat changed from other productions, of which more later. And Carabosse is ‘the ancient fairy of Wisdom’ according to program notes, so she doesn’t display as much evil intent as we have seen in previous productions, although of course she is furious at being left off the invitation list to Aurora’s christening party.
Which brings me to the second good thing. Lynette Wills as Carabosse is outstanding, just as she was as the Godmother in Cinderella.
Wills is powerful yet restrained. Nothing is overplayed and yet we sense her presence and her impact on the unfolding story. And all this despite having a very strangely dressed entourage of rats who wear giant puppet-like heads and sport collars and black bow ties.
After that there isn’t much else that I found exhilarating. Benedicte Bemet as the Fairy of Musicality gave a distinctive interpretation to this role and brought a gorgeously lively quality to her exceptional technical capacity. Kevin Jackson as Prince Desiré made every effort to appear human. His two solos in Act II were mostly well performed, and there were moments when, as he looked at the spirit of Aurora, which the Lilac Fairy has conjured up in this Act, he sent shivers down my spine, such was his look of longing.
As for the Bluebird and Princess Florine, Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo could scarcely be faulted technically. Guo’s beats and turns are astonishing, as I have said many times before. But how I missed the fluttering hands that are so often part of the choreography for Princess Florine. She is meant to be listening to the Bluebird who is teaching her how to fly, and the listening bit was all there. But in other versions, beautiful fluttering movements of the hands show her attempts to fly, to put into practice what she is hearing. This fluttering has been part of the Australian heritage of Beauty for decades. Let’s be proud of our heritage. Why leave it out now even if it is (maybe) an addition from the era of Soviet realism?
Which brings up the question of the other fairy tale characters who usually appear at the wedding of Aurora and her Prince. It was a lovely touch to include various fairy tale characters, properly disguised but recognisable, in Act II, which in McAllister’s production is a kind of picnic rather than a straight out hunting party, with the Prince joining in the excursion carrying his book of fairy tales. But what happened to the variations of Puss in Boots and the White Cat and Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Act III? If these characters appear, somewhat in disguise, in Act II why do they have such a tiny role in Act III (and yet turn up in the final mazurka as if they had danced major parts)? It doesn’t make sense to me to leave out their pas de deux and variations. Where was the dramaturg at this point? Apart from anything else they are also part of our Sleeping Beauty heritage and I missed them.
Lana Jones as Aurora missed the youthfulness that I think gives the early part of Act I so much of its charm. She looked beautifully elegant and performed everything with aplomb, but she wasn’t a sixteen year old princess. The grand pas de deux, despite being soundly performed, lacked the excitement that this part of Act III should bring.
Other choreographic features, especially in Act II, seemed to me to be a little too close to parts of Swan Lake and Nutcracker. The woodland nymphs, who inhabit the overgrown forest in Act II, often split into small groups, link hands à la Four Little Swans, and perform various piqué-style movements. And there is a scene, also in Act II, where Carabosse’s rats fight with the Prince in an attempt to extract from him the key that will open the glass-domed casket in which Aurora has slept for 100 years. Shades of a certain part of Nutcracker?
Gabriela Tylesova’s designs for costumes and set are extraordinarily lavish and, for me, they are the most curious mixture of Baroque extravagance and Rococo excess, with a Louis XIV party thrown in at the end, which occasionally looked like Carnevale in Venice, complete with a Tiepolo-style ceiling as an added attraction. And why did those three massive chandeliers start on the floor and majestically rise to the ceiling at the beginning of Act III? The audience greeted this strange chandelier behaviour with applause, although I’m not sure why. And what was the most disappointing feature of all this excess across the prologue and three acts? The dancing became secondary to the visual appearance.
Tylesova’s choice of colours for her costumes was also unattractive to my eyes. It shouted excess once again. As for those large wings worn by the fairies, they just got in the way of the dancers’ line, which is such an important part of the ballet technique we associate with Petipa and classicism.
In a feature published in the September 2015 issue of Vogue Australia, McAllister is quoted as saying: ‘With big classics like Sleeping Beauty, I really believe it’s around the staging, the look of it.’ Well, yes, he is right that the staging is important in a narrative ballet. But when the staging is such that it overwhelms the dancing it simply doesn’t work.
The audience was wildly enthusiastic as the curtain went down amid much gold, including shimmering gold leaf floating in the air, and a huge gold sun that descended over the Tiepolo ceiling. I went home dejected that such a beautiful ballet could be turned into an event like some kind of football grand final. The dancing was lost in a world of visual excess and technical invention.
I am pleased to note that my biography of Dame Margaret Scott, Dame Maggie Scott: a life in dance, is now available from Australian book shops and from the publisher, Text Publishing, Melbourne. It is also available as an e-book from the usual suppliers. Further details and a link to e-distributors are available on the Text page.
Many thanks to all those who have supported me in this venture.
Michelle Potter, 22 October 2014
THE LAUNCH: Australian Ballet studios, 10 November 2014
Read another account of the launch (and opinions on other matters) on Shane Wombat’s post of 12 November 2014. The lady in the wheelchair in Mr (or is it Ms?) Wombat’s book signing photograph is Lucy Henty, Maggie’s much admired secretary and bursar in the early days of the Australian Ballet School.
MEDIA: [Update October 2018: most audio links are no longer available]
Listen to an interview with Maggie Scott recorded by Jon Faine on his Conversation Hour for Radio 774 ABC Melbourne at this link [Link no longer available]. Maggie’s voice begins at 23:22 mins. This is a particularly interesting interview for its engagement not just between Maggie and Jon Faine, but also between Maggie and Faine’s co-host, oncologist Dr Ranjana Srivastava, and his other guest on the program, former President of the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia, Jim Beggs.
Listen to an interview with Maggie Scott recorded by Philip Adams for ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live at this link.
For those who read French, listen to an interview with Penny Hueston, Senior Editor, Text Publishing, for SBS Radio at this link. [Link no longer available]
Read the mention of the launch of the book by David McAllister at this link. [Link no longer available]
The Australian Women’s Weekly, December issue, suggests the book would make an ideal Christmas present.
REVIEWS and COMMENTS
‘Impeccably researched … a fascinating biography of a major luminary.’ Sydney Arts Guide, 29 November 2014.
‘A fascinating, multi-faceted read, not the least for [a] great insight into Australia during the 1940s.’ The Examiner (Launceston), 13 December 2014.
‘…a fitting tribute to an outstanding woman of influence.’ The culture concept, 19 December 2014.
‘…[among] the best memoirs of 2014 … gorgeous archival photography.’ The New Daily, 23 December 2014.
‘There are peaks and troughs to the Life, with Michelle Potter truly excelling in the political lobbying involved in the setting up of the Australian Ballet…’ Limelight, February 2015.
‘… a most welcome and important record of a remarkable woman … a substantial book, and a valuable addition to our dance history.’ Dance Australia, February/March 2015.