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.
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.
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.
I have to admit to being slightly taken aback when I heard that Garry Stewart would relinquish his directorship of Australian Dance Theatre at the end of 2021. He leaves behind an incredible legacy I think. My first recollection of his choreography goes back to the time in the 1990s when he was running a company called Thwack! I recall in particular a production called Plastic Space, which was shown at the 1999 Melbourne Festival. It examined our preoccupation with aliens and I wrote in The Canberra Times, ‘[Stewart’s] dance-making is risky, physically daring and draws on a variety of sources….’ I also wrote program notes for that Melbourne Festival and remarked on three preoccupations I saw in his work. They were physical virtuosity, thematic abstraction and technology as a choreographic tool. Most of Stewart’s work that I have seen with ADT has continued to embody those concepts.
Although since the 1990s I have seen fewer Stewart works than I would have liked, the three that have engaged me most of all have beenG (2008), Monument (2013), which I regret was never seen outside Canberra, and The Beginning of Nature (2018), which won the 2018 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Performance by a Company.
At this stage I don’t know where life will lead Garry Stewart after 2021 but I wish him every success. His contribution to dance in Australia has been exceptional.
Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet Digital Season
The last time I saw Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, made in 1963 for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, was in 2018. Then I had the good fortune to see Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli leading a strong Royal Ballet cast. It was in fact the standout performance on a triple bill. I also remember seeing a remarkable performance by Sylvia Guillem as Marguerite when the Royal visited Australia in 2002, although I was not so impressed with her partners. (I saw two performances with different dancers taking the male role on each of those occasions).
The streamed performance offered by the Royal Ballet recently featured Zenaida Yanowsky and Roberto Bolle. It was filmed in 2017 and was Yanowsky’s farewell performance with the Royal Ballet. She is a strong technician and a wonderful actor and her performance was exceptional in both those areas. Yet, I was somewhat disappointed. Bolle was perhaps not her ideal partner. Yanowsky is quite tall and seemed at times to overpower Bolle. But in addition I found her take on the role a little cold. She was extraordinarily elegant but I missed a certain emotional, perhaps even guileless quality that I saw in Ferri and Guillem.
La Fille mal gardée. The Royal Ballet
The Royal Ballet is once more streaming a performance of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée, this time featuring Steven McRae and Natalia Osipova in the leading roles. But, as I was investigating the streaming conditions and watching the trailer, I came across a twelve minute mini-documentary about the ballet, focusing especially on its English qualities. It is a really entertaining and informative twelves minutes and includes footage of the beautifully groomed white pony, called Peregrine, who has a role in the ballet. We see him entering the Royal Opera House via the stage door and climbing the stairs to the stage area. Isn’t there a adage that says never share the stage with children or animals? Well Peregrine steals the show in this documentary! But there are many other moments of informative and lively discussion about the ballet and the documentary is worth watching. Link below.
The Australian Ballet on the International Stage. Lisa Tomasetti’s new book
Lisa Tomasetti is a photographer whose work I have admired for some time. She has a great eye for catching an unusual perspective on whatever she photographs. Late in 2020 she issued a book of photographs of the Australian Ballet on various of its international tours, including visits to London, New York (and elsewhere in the United States), Beijing, Tokyo and Paris. This book of exceptional images is available from Tomasetti’s website at this link.
Coming in April: The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet
The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet has been a long-time in production but it will be released in April. The book is extensive in scope with a wide list of contributors including scholars, critics and choreographers from across the world. Here is a link to information about the publication. The list of contents, extracted from the link, is at the end of this post.
Sir Robert Cohan (1925-2021)
I was sorry to hear that Sir Robert Cohan had died recently. He made a huge impact on contemporary dance and its development in the United Kingdom, and his influence on many Australian dancers and choreographers, including Sydney-based artists Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser, was exceptional. An obituary in The Guardian, written by Jane Pritchard, is at this link.
Kristian Fredrikson. Designer. More reviews and comments
The Canberra Times recently published a review of Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in its Saturday supplement, Panorama. The review was written by Emeritus Professor of Art History at the Australian National University, Sasha Grishin. Here is the review as it appeared in the print run of the paper on 16 January 2021.
The review is also available online at this link and is perhaps easier to read there.
CONTENTS FOR THE OXFORD HANDBOOK OF CONTEMPORARY BALLET
Acknowledgments About the Contributors Introduction On Contemporaneity in Ballet: Exchanges, Connections, and Directions in Form Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel and Jill Nunes Jensen Part I: Pioneers, or Game Changers Chapter 1: William Forsythe: Stuttgart, Frankfurt, and the Forsythescape Ann Nugent Chapter 2: Hans van Manen: Between Austerity and Expression Anna Seidl Chapter 3: Twyla Tharp’s Classical Impulse Kyle Bukhari Chapter 4: Ballet at the Margins: Karole Armitage and Bronislava Nijinska Molly Faulkner and Julia Gleich Chapter 5: Maguy Marin’s Social and Aesthetic Critique Mara Mandradjieff Chapter 6: Fusion and Renewal in the Works of Jiří Kylián Katja Vaghi Chapter 7: Wayne McGregor: Thwarting Expectation at The Royal Ballet Jo Butterworth and Wayne McGregor Part II: Reimaginings Chapter 8: Feminist Practices in Ballet: Katy Pyle and Ballez Gretchen Alterowitz Chapter 9: Contemporary Repetitions: Rhetorical Potential and The Nutcracker Michelle LaVigne Chapter 10: Mauro Bigonzetti: Reimagining Les Noces (1923) Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel Chapter 11: New Narratives from Old Texts: Contemporary Ballet in Australia Michelle Potter Chapter 12: Cathy Marston: Writing Ballets for Literary Dance(r)s Deborah Kate Norris Chapter 13: Jean-Christophe Maillot: Ballet, Untamed Laura Cappelle Chapter 14: Ballet Gone Wrong: Michael Clark’s Classical Deviations Arabella Stanger Part III: It’s Time Chapter 15: Dance Theatre of Harlem: Radical Black Female Bodies in Ballet Tanya Wideman-Davis Chapter 16: Huff! Puff! And Blow the House Down: Contemporary Ballet in South Africa Gerard M. Samuel Chapter 17: The Cuban Diaspora: Stories of Defection, Brain Drain and Brain Gain Lester Tomé Chapter 18: Balancing Reconciliation at The Royal Winnipeg Ballet Bridget Cauthery and Shawn Newman Chapter 19: Ballet Austin: So You Think You Can Choreograph Caroline Sutton Clark Chapter 20: Gender Progress and Interpretation in Ballet Duets Jennifer Fisher Chapter 21: John Cranko’s Stuttgart Ballet: A Legacy E. Hollister Mathis-Masury Chapter 22: “Ballet” Is a Dirty Word: Where Is Ballet in São Paulo? Henrique Rochelle Part IV: Composition Chapter 23: William Forsythe: Creating Ballet Anew Susan Leigh Foster Chapter 24: Amy Seiwert: Okay, Go! Improvising the Future of Ballet Ann Murphy Chapter 25: Costume Caroline O’Brien Chapter 26: Shapeshifters and Colombe’s Folds: Collective Affinities of Issey Miyake and William Forsythe Tamara Tomić-Vajagić Chapter 27: On Physicality and Narrative: Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern (2017) Lucía Piquero Álvarez Chapter 28: Living in Counterpoint Norah Zuniga Shaw Chapter 29: Alexei Ratmansky’s Abstract-Narrative Ballet Anne Searcy Chapter 30: Talking Shop: Interviews with Justin Peck, Benjamin Millepied, and Troy Schumacher Roslyn Sulcas Part V: Exchanges Inform Chapter 31: Royal Ballet Flanders under Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui Lise Uytterhoeven Chapter 32: Akram Khan and English National Ballet Graham Watts Chapter 33: The Race of Contemporary Ballet: Interpellations of Africanist Aesthetics Thomas F. DeFrantz Chapter 34: Copy Rites Rachana Vajjhala Chapter 35: Transmitting Passione: Emio Greco and the Ballet National de Marseille Sarah Pini and John Sutton Chapter 36: Narratives of Progress and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal Melissa Templeton Chapter 37: Mark Morris: Clarity, a Dash of Magic, and No Phony Baloney Gia Kourlas Part VI: The More Things Change . . . Chapter 38: Ratmansky: From Petipa to Now Apollinaire Scherr Chapter 39: James Kudelka: Love, Sex, and Death Amy Bowring and Tanya Evidente Chapter 40: Liam Scarlett: “Classicist’s Eye . . . Innovator’s Urge” Susan Cooper Chapter 41: Performing the Past in the Present: Uncovering the Foundations of Chinese Contemporary Ballet Rowan McLelland Chapter 42: Between Two Worlds: Christopher Wheeldon and The Royal Ballet Zoë Anderson Chapter 43: Christopher Wheeldon: An Englishman in New York Rachel Straus Chapter 44: The Disappearance of Poetry and the Very, Very Good Idea Freya Vass Chapter 45: Justin Peck: Everywhere We Go (2014), a Ballet Epic for Our Time Mindy Aloff Part VII: In Process Chapter 46: Weaving Apollo: Women’s Authorship and Neoclassical Ballet Emily Coates Chapter 47: What Is a Rehearsal in Ballet? Janice Ross Chapter 48: Gods, Angels, and Björk: David Dawson, Arthur Pita, and Contemporary Ballet Jennie Scholick Chapter 49: Alonzo King LINES Ballet: Voicing Dance Jill Nunes Jensen Chapter 50: Inside Enemy Thomas McManus Chapter 51: On “Contemporaneity” in Ballet and Contemporary Dance: Jeux in 1913 and 2016 Hanna Järvinen Chapter 52: Reclaiming the Studio: Observing the Choreographic Processes of Cathy Marston and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa Carrie Gaiser Casey Chapter 53: Contemporary Partnerships Russell Janzen Index
I had the pleasure recently of watching, via its digital streaming season, a performance by the Royal Ballet of Frederick Ashton’s La Fille mal gardée. It featured Marianela Nuñez as Lise and Carlos Acosta as Colas and dates back to 2005. The partnership between Nuñez and Acosta was technically outstanding and delightful from the point of view of the interactions between the two dancers. Ashton’s choreography, of course, was full of beautiful and often unexpected movements, including his constant use of epaulement; and scenes that I relished seeing again—the storm scene for example, with the cast rushing hither and thither was quite absorbing.
Below is a link to the Act I Pas de ruban.
But the production also brought back memories of some other productions I had seen, and some wider contextual issues that have arisen over the years.
Memories of Fille
Paris Opera Ballet
Perhaps the most memorable production I have seen was a performance by the Paris Opera Ballet in 2009. It happened on 14 July, the French national day, so there were one or two moments before and during that performance where that significance of that day was not forgotten. Here is a link to the review I wrote.
A thoughtful young man
On a contextual issue, I am curious about the image below from an Australian Ballet performance of Fille during the 1970s. Who is the young man standing there looking thoughtful? I have my suspicions! The image was taken by Walter Stringer and is part of his collection held in the National Library in Canberra. Sadly, the colour is fading, or changing, and I have had to put a filter on it so that the face of the dancer is a little clearer.
(Update on the photograph above: Confirming my suspicion, those who know suggest the thoughtful young man is Graeme Murphy).
And on another contextual issue, I recently made a timed summary of an oral history interview I did with Alan Alder back in 1999. The interview and its summary will shortly go online. In the meantime, below I have posted a short (1 min 12 secs) excerpt from the interview.
Alder was well-known for his portrayal of Alain, Lise’s rich but slightly unusual suitor in Fille, both during his time with the Royal Ballet and later with the Australian Ballet. The role was created by Ashton on Alexander Grant, and later the role was taken on by Donald Britton. But due to circumstances, which Alder explains in the interview, while with the Royal Ballet’s touring company Alder took over the role from Britton. On one occasion, when the touring company was in Edinburgh, Ashton decided to take a trip from London to see how Alder was handling the role. In the brief extract below Alder speak of Ashton’s reaction.
The production by the Royal also brought back memories of my late colleague David Vaughan, former archivist for the Merce Cunningham company and author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets. Cunningham and Ashton were the two choreographers Vaughan admired most of all (although some correspondence I had with him shortly before he died suggests that, had he lived on, he would have added Alexei Ratmansky to that list). But I often wondered what he considered were the characteristics of Cunningham and Ashton that drew him towards these two choreographers. Did he see similarities in their approaches to choreography? Sadly, I never asked and now I will never know.
The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season, announced earlier this month, looks to be the most interesting the company has offered for years. I was thrilled to see that Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina was on the list. Although I haven’t seen this particular work I was lucky enough to see San Francisco Ballet perform Possokhov’s Rite of Spring back in 2013. It was totally mesmerising and I can’t wait to see Anna Karenina.
Another work I have seen elsewhere, which I am also anticipating with pleasure, is Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country, which dates back to 1976. Seeing it just a few years ago I wrote, ‘I found myself swept along by a strong performance from Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and by Ashton’s ability to define characters through movement. The young, the old, different levels of society, everything was there in the choreography’.
The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season includes A Month in the Country as part of a triple bill, Molto, which also comprises Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory, one of his best works I think, and a revival of Stephen Baynes’ crowd pleasing Molto Vivace. A Month in the Country needs strong acting (as no doubt Anna Karenina does too), so fingers crossed that the company’s coaching is good.
For other good things on the 2020 program, including Graeme Murphy’s delayed Happy Prince and a new work, Logos, from Alice Topp, see the Australian Ballet’s website.
In the wings
Two stories that were meant to be posted in September were held up for various reasons. One is a profile of Shaun Parker who is currently in Taiwan performing at the Kuandu Arts festival in Taipei. The other is Jennifer Shennan’s account of a tribute held recently in Wellington to celebrate 40 years of teaching by Christine Gunn at the New Zealand School of Dance. Jennifer’s story is reflective and personal without ignoring the stellar input from Gunn over 40 years.
The issues that delayed these two posts have been sorted and the stories will appear shortly.
Press for September 2019
None! I am reminded of Martin Portus’ comment to me in a recent email ‘Ah! The death of the [print] outlet!’
It would be hard to think of a more diverse triple bill than the most recent from the Royal Ballet: Wayne McGregor’s intellectually clinical Obsidian Tear, Frederick Ashton’s emotionally captivating Marguerite and Armand, and Kenneth MacMillan’s joyously entertaining Elite Syncopations. There is, as ever, little to fault technically with the dancing by this incredible company so my thoughts are largely guided by other matters.
The absolute standout work of the evening was Marguerite and Armand, which occupied the middle position on the program. Yes, it is so closely associated with Fonteyn and Nureyev, and perhaps Sylvie Guillem and various partners, but Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli gave an absolutely stunning performance that brought out every bit of Ashton’s wildly free and exciting, and beautifully musical choreography. And what a grand performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, to which the work is set, we heard from the accomplished pianist Robert Clark.
In my mind I continue to have a vision of Bonelli standing upstage about to rush forward to sweep Marguerite up in his arms and begin the main pas de deux. He took an arabesque on half pointe, arms flung upwards and outwards. And there he stood, balancing perfectly, body filled with passion and daring. Brilliant, as was the pas de deux itself with Ferri being flung from pose to pose and both artists projecting the ravishing excitement of what their love could be. And so it continued with the narrative flowing so clearly to the very end. I’m not sure how long this ballet is—twenty five minutes maybe—but it was over in a flash so captivating was it.
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.
The most interesting aspect for me was the set, designed by McGregor. It resembled a black box theatre space but looking closely it reminded me of an Ad Reinhardt painting. At first Reinhardt’s paintings look monochromatic, as did McGregor’s set, but a closer look reveals small, intimate details, as also happened with the set for Obsidian Tear. Of the dancers, I especially enjoyed the dancing of Benjamin Ella and Marcelino Sambé. But Obsidian Tear did not engage me the way so many others of McGregor’s works have.
The final work on the program was Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, danced to a selection of music by Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers, and played by an onstage band. Beautifully set on a stripped-back stage space with the dancers and band members in spectacular costumes by Ian Spurling, it was a buoyant, joyous, even reckless show.
Without wishing to detract from any of the twelves dancers who gave us such pleasure, stars were Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano. Hirano in particular knocked me for six. I have always seen him in more classical or dramatic roles (and have enjoyed his work in such ballets) but in Elite Syncopations he showed another side of his skills. He was smooth, persuasive, suave, flirtatious and a great partner. And he never stepped out of character.
As a conclusion to a decidedly mixed triple bill, Elite Syncopations sent us home smiling.
9 August 2017. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
It is always refreshing to see a different version of a well-known work. And so it was with Queensland Ballet’s La Fille mal gardée. The version that is well-known to many Australian dance-goers is by Frederick Ashton, which Ashton made for the Royal Ballet in 1960, and which has been in the repertoire of the Australian Ballet since 1967 (although it hasn’t been shown for several years). On the other hand, Queensland Ballet, in a co-production with West Australian Ballet, staged a relatively new version by French-born, freelance choreographer Marc Ribaud, which he made in 2000 for the Nice Opera Ballet.
Ribaud has retained the basic narrative. It follows the story of Lise and Colas who wish to marry, but whose wishes are thwarted by Lise’s mother, the Widow Simone—she would prefer that Lise marry the eccentric and wealthy Alain whose greatest love is for his umbrella. But the overall tone of Ribaud’s Fille, which is set in the south of France in the 1950s, is quite different from that in the Ashton work. The choreography for Ribaud’s work is classically based but is boisterous and full of fast-paced dancing. It seems to fill the stage in an entirely different way from Ashton’s work, which seems very English in its rather gentle and considered choreographic approach. Ribaud’s Fille, at least with the cast I saw, also has strong overtones of slapstick. While Ashton gives us references to pantomime, his are much more restrained. Perhaps more subtle?
Ribaud has also retained some audience favourites from the Ashton version, albeit with changes. The famous clog dance is there although the Widow is accompanied by four village lads who tap away beside her as she goes through her clog routine. The chicken dance is also there but in a variant form. There are no dancers dressed in chicken outfits, just four male friends of Colas and Lise, dressed in jeans and giving us chicken-like gestures—chins poking forward as they move, hands with fingers spread to represent a chicken’s comb and so on. It was hilarious and very clever.
As Lise, Lina Kim with her smooth and lyrical technique was absolutely charming—it was her first performance in the role too. She showed such a variety of emotion, depending on who else was involved at any one time, and her mime scene in the last act, when she imagines what might be should she marry Colas, was just gorgeous, as was her later embarrassment when she thought Colas had seen her. Shane Wuerthner was an ardent Colas and in the opening pas de deux set the scene beautifully for what was to follow. I was impressed, in fact, with all Ribaud’s pas de deux, which often reminded me of the style of Bournonville as so often Lise and Colas danced side by side in a complementary manner rather than the man having a more supportive role. That is not to say, of course, that there were no lifts and, in fact, when they occurred they varied from soaring lifts to shapes, often with upturned feet, in which Lise’s body wrapped round or curled up to that of Colas.
Despite a little trouble with his umbrella (it broke) and his hat, Ze Wu gave a strong performance as Alain and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future—his technical range looks prodigious. The umbrella and hat problems were beautifully and professionally handled by the cast, to the extent that the Widow Simone adopted the broken umbrella and stroked it lovingly! Joel Woellner as the Widow was totally outrageous. He was the slapstick hero(ine) and milked the audience at every opportunity. And of course the audience loved it and responded with laughter and cheers. And I enjoyed that Lina Kim gave back the way she did every time she was scolded.
Costumes by Lexi De Silva, sets by Richard Roberts and lighting by Jon Buswell provided a great background for the dancers of Queensland Ballet. Music was performed by Camerata—Queensland’s Chamber Orchestra and conducted with his usual skill by Nigel Gaynor. This Fille is a little gem and Queensland Ballet continues to show what a terrific company it has become. Bouquets to all.
(I have no images of the cast I saw, unfortunately. But below are some from another cast.)
I was saddened to hear of the death of Andris Toppe whose contribution to the world of dance in Australia has been extraordinarily varied. The most lasting image I have of him in performance is as one of Clara’s Russian émigré friends in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: the story of Clara where his portrayal was strong and individualistic. Just a few weeks ago, too, I had an email from him saying how much he enjoyed reading my biography of Dame Margaret Scott. At the time I had no idea he was so ill but now I am hugely pleased that he derived pleasure from the book in his final weeks of life.
For a biography and gallery of images see Andris’ website.
Andris Toppe: born 16 May 1945, died 20 February 2016
Janet. A Silent Ballet Film
In February I was unexpectedly contacted by film maker Adam E Stone who sent me a link to a work he directed called Janet. A Silent Ballet Film. The Janet of the title is Janet Collins, an African-American dancer who is remembered as the first black dancer to dance full-time with a major dance company, in this case the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, which Collins joined in 1951.
Janet is moving in the way it conveys a political message, and in the complexity of the message it sets out to convey. It is interesting to speculate on why Stone chose to use the medium of silent film (the silencing of so-called minority cultures?), and also to speculate on the role the paintings of Degas play (some well known Degas ballet images are brought to life throughout the film). The dancer who plays Janet is Kiara Felder from Atlanta Ballet and she is a joy to watch.
Steven McRae in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody
I have always found Steven McRae, Australian-born principal with Britain’s Royal Ballet, a little polite on those occasions when I have seen him live in performance. There has always seemed to be something he is holding back in his dancing, in spite of a very sound technique. Well, I now have seen another side of him in the Royal Ballet’s recently-screened film of an Ashton program consisting of Rhapsody and The Two Pigeons. As the leading male dancer (partnering Natalia Osipova) in Rhapsody, a work Ashton made in 1980, McRae was technically outstanding, handling the intricacies and speed of the Ashton choreography with apparent ease. He also gave his role a strength of character allowing us to imagine a storyline, if we so chose. Great performance. Terrific immersion in the role.
I published my first post on this site in June 2009, almost seven years ago. So much has changed in web design and development since then and I am pleased to announce that the design team at Racket is working on a new look for this site. Stay tuned.
Press for February
‘Dancing for survival.’ Preview of Indigenous dance programs at the National Film and Sound Archive. The Canberra Times, Panorama 6 February 2016, pp. 8–9. Online version.
16 May 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
After feeling less than satisfied with my earlier viewing of the Australian Ballet’s triple bill of Ashton works—Monotones II, Symphonic Variations and The Dream—it was such a pleasure to have a second look and come away feeling much more fulfilled.
Monotones II was danced by the same cast that I saw on opening night, Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright, but all my feeling that the work was outdated disappeared. Gone too were those hideous shadows that marred my first viewing, although they linger a little on the photograph below. This time, the visually pristine quality of the work was all there. I had a much better seat, but was that the only reason? I suspect not.
There was a real serenity to the performance. All three dancers were attuned to each other’s movements. There were gorgeous moments of symmetry that gently broke into asymmetry. Bodies twisted and threaded through arched shapes. Winding and unwinding. It was a truly beautiful, calm, technically satisfying performance.
Symphonic Variations too was danced in a far superior fashion to what I saw on opening night. The three women, Lana Jones, Amanda McGuigan and Ingrid Gow were well cast together. They are of similar height and body shape and it made a huge difference. The men, Andrew Killian, Ty King-Wall and Andrew Wright, were experienced enough to manage the difficult partnering without looking as though they were fumbling around. They also handled better the experience of being on stage for the entire ballet.
Technically, all six dancers showed every beautiful and often intricate detail of Ashton’s choreography—the elongated fingers, the hands turned up from the wrists, the lines made between dancers, for example. The spacing and patterning of the work was also clear, and the movements flowed smoothly. A delight to watch. I loved that moment for the women when they turned chaînés around their partner, starting one after the other and with one arm spiralling upwards as if propelled by the twirling of the feet. And I gasped as the men, in a line upstage, all turned a double pirouette ending in attitude and finished perfectly, in the same line, in time, and with their attitudes at the same height. Just beautiful and surely how Ashton imagined this work would be danced.
Still something missing there though—that incredible feeling that I got from the Royal that this was an awakening from the darkness. And it was only after reading (much later) the Royal’s program notes that I realised the circumstances behind Ashton’s creation of the work. So I didn’t set out with a preconceived idea. But thank you to the six Australian Ballet dancers I saw on this occasion. It was a lovely, serene performance, despite the medical emergency that was going on in the auditorium at the time.
The Dream looked mostly as beautiful as it did on opening night, this time with Miwako Kubota and Jared Wright taking the leading roles of Titania and Oberon. Wright stood out in his solo variation in the final pas de deux. His movements were beautifully shaped and coordinated. Andrew Wright and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson gave excellent performances as Demetrius and Lysander. Wright in particular was able to demonstrate how skilled Ashton is at incorporating humour into his works. Marcus Morelli, with his exceptional elevation, made Puck look as if he belonged in the air.
29 April 2015, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
There were peaks and troughs in the Australian Ballet’s second program for 2015, a triple bill of works by Frederick Ashton. There were also a few surprises.
The undoubted highlight was TheDream, which was also used as the overarching title for the program.We have been told over and over that Ashton was a genius, and many aspects of his work that support that idea were apparent onstage in The Dream, Ashton’s take on Shakespeare’sMidsummer Night’s Dream. Most obvious is the incredible way in which Ashton is able to make a story so clear through movement and mime. No need to know the story beforehand. Everything is comprehensible and coherent. The entire cast of The Dream is to be congratulated for the way they handled Ashton’s approach, and bouquets to the two gentlemen who staged the work—Anthony Dowell and Christopher Carr.
Then there is Ashton’s complex choreography with all its tricky steps, swirling arms, fluid upper body, unexpected combinations, and so forth. Madeleine Eastoe as Titania was superbly in control and made even the trickiest of movements look easy. Her solo with its many hops, turns, swoons and swirls was captivating. And the final pas de deux between a reconciled Titania and Oberon (danced by Kevin Jackson) was a delight. Their partnership has grown into one from which we now expect, and receive, nothing but the best.
Chengwu Guo was a standout as Puck. I continue to gasp at his beautifully controlled multiple turns, his leaps, his beats. But best of all those amazing technical skills were, on this occasion, put to such good use. They combined perfectly with his particular brand of physicality, and with his personality, to advance the story. Guo was as puckish as they come.
Joseph Chapman delighted the audience as Bottom, the crazy mechanical who wears the head of an ass, courtesy of Puck, and who dances on pointe. His characterisation was strong and maintained consistently and, unbelieveably, he was believable. He was the one everyone was talking about as they left the auditorium.
The corps de ballet had been beautifully rehearsed and nothing was forgotten of the Ashton style—head and arm movements especially. And take a bow Benedicte Bemet as Moth. To me she looked like a born Ashton dancer. But then I think she is just a born dancer.
That’s where the peaks ended I’m afraid!
The first half of the program consisted of Monotones II and Symphonic Variations. Monotones II, danced by Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright, has not really stood the test of time for me. It looked quite outdated and very static. As for Symphonic Variations, could it really be the same ballet I was lucky enough to see in London last year danced by the Royal Ballet? As the curtain went up I got a thrill to see Robyn Hendricks and Cristiano Martino looking stunning as the lead couple—elegant with proud bearing promising much. But where was the ‘sensational twenty minutes of unstoppable beauty’ that I saw in London that set my heart singing? The dancing was all over the place, technically beyond the experience of one or two of the dancers, and with little feeling for the spacing and floor plan of the work. A huge disappointment as far as I am concerned.
As for the surprises, well one was pleasant, one wasn’t. Why on earth did the cast sheet say that the performance of Symphonic Variations was ‘The world-premiere performance’? The ballet was made in 1946. But a pleasant surprise came at the end of The Dream as the entire cast was taking its final curtain. The Australian Ballet’s ingrained manner of acknowledging the orchestra during the final curtain call by coming forward and leaning into the orchestra pit and clapping for an inordinate amount of time was gone, thankfully. Instead, the company moved forward, stood in poses that maintained the mood of the work they had just danced and, with an elegant sweep of one arm to the side, acknowledged the orchestra. The integrity of the dance was maintained and the company looked stylish and dignified. Thank you to whomever decided to dispense with what we have been watching over several years now, which I find crass. May this new-found elegance in curtain calls continue.
18 October 2014 (evening), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
The prospect of four works by Frederick Ashton on the one program is something that fills those not brought up in an Ashton environment with anticipation. Of the four works on the Royal Ballet’s recent program, Scènes de Ballet, Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, Symphonic Variations and A Month in the Country, I had never seen Five Brahms Waltzes and had seen the others on only one previous occasion each.
Symphonic Variations, led by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov supported by Yasmine Naghdi and James Hay and Yuhui Choe and Tristan Dyer, perhaps moved me most. What clarity and fluidity those six dancers brought to the work. It was a breathtaking performance where everyone was a star, although perhaps it was Muntagirov, with his elegant bearing and his exceptional technical accomplishments, who attracted my attention most. But the ballet as a whole was beautifully danced to an elegant rendition by pianist Paul Stobart of Cesar Franck’s SymphonicVariations. And I had forgotten how fresh and entrancing Sophie Fedorovitch’s decor is—a spring green, box-like space with fine black lines weaving a flowing pattern across the backdrop and flats. It was a sensational twenty minutes of unstoppable beauty of movement. No in depth analysis can ever do it justice.
Five Brahms Waltzes was danced by Helen Crawford, replacing an injured Lauren Cuthbertson. The sense of gravity and weight in her dancing in the first and second waltzes contrasted nicely with her performance of the third waltz in which she manipulated a soaring rectangle of silk. Equally impressive was the contrast between a somewhat fierce fourth waltz and the gentle fifth with its rose petals falling liberally from her arms. I loved too the contrast between those light skips à la Isadora and the lower, almost crouching poses with fists clenched that appeared every so often. It was a finely thought through performance.
Scènes de ballet, which opened the program, was distinguished by the presence of Sarah Lamb as the ballerina. The quality of her dancing was especially noticeable in her main solo with its loosely swinging wrists and arms and lyrical movement of the whole body. But this ballet really needs to have every performer dancing with exactness. I missed straight lines, equal spacing and sameness in height of legs. The geometry of the work falls apart without such precision. And it was a disappointment to see Steven McRae, who partnered Lamb, begin with such promise—those sharp turns of the head and the pride with which he held his upper body were mesmerising—only to falter often as the work progressed.
The program closed with A Month in the Country and I found myself swept along by a strong performance from Zenaida Yanowsky as Natalia Petrovna and by Ashton’s ability to define characters through movement. The young, the old, different levels of society, everything was there in the choreography.
It was a real pleasure to see four quite different Ashton works brought together in one program but it was curious to see how those little runs on pointe kept appearing over and over. I was almost waiting for the next one by the time we reached A Month in the Country.