Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in the pas de deux from The Kermesse in Bruges. Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

The Royal Danish Ballet. Jacob’s Pillow Virtual Festival 2020

The Royal Danish Ballet has had a close relationship with Jacob’s Pillow, that beautiful dance venue in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, since the 1950s. Ted Shawn, founder of the Pillow, was even given a knighthood by the King of Denmark in 1957 for initiating the cultural exchange that brought the Danes to the attention of an American dance audience.

Most recently the company, presently led by Nikolaj Hübbe, performed at the Pillow in 2018. Highlights from that 2018 program have just been streamed by Jacob’s Pillow as they, like all of us around the world, attempt to manage a situation in which live performance is pretty much impossible. The streamed program consisted of the pas de sept from A Folk Tale, the pas de deux from Act II of La Sylphide, the pas de deux from Act I of Kermesse in Bruges, the pas de deux from Act II of Giselle, and the pas de six and tarantella from Napoli. With the exception of Giselle, all had choreography by August Bournonville, whose unique style has become synonymous with the Royal Danish Ballet (although of course these days the company dances the choreography of many others).

This program was danced without scenery, which put the focus firmly on the choreography, and it enabled us, I think, to look beyond the complexity of those incredible beaten steps and the beautiful ballon that has always seemed to be the cornerstone of the Bournonville technique. Not that those particular features, and the complexity of the combinations of steps, was unclear, but other aspects of the technique became more apparent (at least to me). I was moved especially by the use of the upper body, the epaulement and the incline of the head; by the simplicity of some of the steps that provided a contrast to the more complex ones; and by the use of academic positions of the arms—constant use of bras bas, and third position captured my attention in particular.

I loved too the interactions between the dancers when they weren’t dancing. At times they were casual onlookers, at others they applauded their colleagues efforts, or they showed them off to the audience. The dance became a regular human activity rather than an eisteddfod-like showcase.

Royal Danish Ballet in the Tarantella from Napoli, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

While Napoli was the highlight as the closing work, and it was danced with strength, joy and vibrancy, I admired in particular the pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges. Andreas Kaas had great presence on stage and an exceptional ability to connect with his partner, Ida Praetorius on this occasion. They gave the pas de deux a real storyline. But that pas de deux also demonstrated how duets from Bournonville often involve a particular structure in which the partners often dance side by side, sometimes in unison, sometimes executing the same steps next to each other but as a kind of mirror image. There are fewer high lifts as a result (although, of course, they are not missing).

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in the pas de deux from The Kermesse in Bruges. Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan
Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in the pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges. Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

The one jarring issue for me occurred in the pas de deux from La Sylphide danced by Amy Watson and Marcin Kupinski—nothing to do with the performance itself but with the shirt Kupinski wore. It seemed to be made of very light material and every time he jumped (which was often) it moved up and down to the extent that I kept thinking he was lifting his shoulders and destroying the line of his body. He wasn’t and his performance in Napoli showed his physical composure. But in La Sylphide that shirt made it seem as if he wasn’t in control.

Ida Praetorius, Marcin Kupinski and Kizzy Matiakis in Napoli, Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

The one non-Bournonville work, the Act II pas de deux from Giselle, seemed a little lack-lustre to me. Perhaps it did need something else—if not some scenery then the presence of Myrthe. I did admire, however, the way J’aime Crandall used her arms with so much expression.

But shirts and lack-lustre aside, what a wonderful hour of dancing. And follow this link for an excerpt from A Folk Tale courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive.

Michelle Potter, 1 August 2020

Featured image: Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in the pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges. Royal Danish Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Christopher Duggan

Afterthought (from an Australian perspective): Given the Australian connections in the Danish Royal Family, perhaps we need to persuade the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) to make an effort to partner with the Royal Danish Ballet in QPAC’s very successful International Series. The Series has so far seen American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, La Scala Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, and others, come to Brisbane for a summer season. The Royal Danish Ballet would be a magnificent addition.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Dance diary. June 2020

  • On streaming

The current corona virus situation has given us many opportunities to see streamed productions from many of the world’s best companies. Some have been thrilling, and have been works, or have involved casts, that I am unlikely to see outside this streaming arrangement. One or two, however, have left me wondering.

The Australian Ballet’s decision to stream its 1986 production of Giselle was an odd one I thought. In the thirty-four years since 1986 much has changed in terms of filming techniques and in what we expect from dancers. I was underwhelmed in particular by the poor quality of the footage and I was not a fan of the characterisations of the leading characters, except perhaps by that of Paul de Masson as Hilarion. Techniques are stronger now as well.

It was also touted as Maina Gielgud’s production, which it no doubt was even it was staged by Colin Peasley. But Gielgud had been director of the company for just a few years in 1986 and, having seen more recent productions that have involved her input, most recently in 2018 but also in 2015, her production has grown in so many ways. Could we not have had something closer to 2020? The 1986 recording was a poor choice.

Then there was Smuin Ballet’s staging of Stanton Welch’s Indigo. I have often wondered about Indigo made originally for Houston Ballet in 1999. Its title seemed curious: how do you make a ballet about a colour? Well of course the title referred to the colour of the costumes, although that is also something of a curiosity to my mind. That aside, I was really disappointed by Welch’s choreography. It was filled with jerky staccato movements and I longed for a bit of lyrical relief. It also seemed to sit awkwardly, I thought, on the physiques of the Smuin dancers. But at least now I have seen it and needn’t muse about the title any more.

  • Australian activity in New Zealand

It is interesting to note that two Australian choreographers are to have their work performed in the coming months by Royal New Zealand Ballet, which will shortly return to full-scale performing. Alice Topp’s Aurum will be part of a mixed bill program called Venus Rising. The program is due to take place in August/September and will also feature works by Twyla Tharp, Andrea Schermoly, and Sarah Foster-Sproull.

See these links for my reviews of Aurum: Melbourne (2018), Sydney (2019). In both cases Aurum was part of a triple bill called Verve.

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Alice Topp's 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Alice Topp’s Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Later, in October through to December, Danielle Rowe, former principal with the Australian Ballet and now making a name for herself as a choreographer, will present her new Sleeping Beauty, also for Royal New Zealand Ballet.

For more information see the website of Royal New Zealand Ballet.

  • Australian Dance Awards

The closing date for nominations for the 2019 and 2020 Australian Dance Awards has been extended. These two sets of awards cover work presented in 2018 and 2019. The closing date is now 20 July. For further information and to nominate follow this link.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2020

Featured image: Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Giselle. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in 'Giselle'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

A little closer to 2020!

Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in 'Giselle' Act I. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Giselle. The Australian Ballet (2018)

30 & 31 August 2018, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Maina Gielgud’s Giselle, brought back once more by the Australian Ballet for a Melbourne only season, began beautifully—so beautifully that it gave me goose bumps. Small groups of villagers moved across the stage, interacting with each other, laughing and joking, while Orchestra Victoria, masterfully led by Simon Hewett, put us in the mood for what was to follow. It all seemed beautifully real rather than staged and distant.  Much of this kind of interaction continued throughout with only a few moments where everyone stood around in a semi-circle of inactivity.

The opening night cast of Ako Kondo as Giselle and Ty King-Wall as Albrecht left me a little cold, although Kondo, who always dances superbly, was charmingly shy, perhaps even naive about what was happening to her. She needed a stronger Albrecht to give extra meaning to her portrayal. It takes two for the nature of any relationship to be seen and understood by an audience.

Andrew Killian did a sterling job as Hilarion and Lisa Bolte played Berthe as a motherly figure consumed by domesticity. I have, however, always imagined Berthe as a somewhat more feisty character, who is respectful towards the Duke (Steven Heathcote), Bathilde (Alice Topp) and their entourage, but who doesn’t behave obsequiously towards them. Perhaps the Duke was Giselle’s father? (This was an interpretation in the mind of Laurel Martyn and others and influences how Berthe encounters and interacts with the Duke and his party).

But the real stars of Act I on opening night were Brett Chynoweth and Jade Wood who danced the Peasant pas de deux. Chynoweth in particular danced spectacularly well with beautiful control and great placement at the end of those airborne tours. It was wonderful to watch him, too, when Wood was dancing her variations. There he was going from friend to friend telling them all how wonderful she was.

Brett Chynoweth, and Jade Wood in the Peasant pas de deux, 'Giselle' Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Brett Chynoweth and Jade Wood in the Peasant pas de deux, Giselle Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The mad scene was adequate, but that’s about it.

Act II on opening night also began beautifully with visions of Wilis appearing in the mist as Hilarion ran through the forest in search of Giselle’s grave. But I didn’t feel moved as events unfolded, due perhaps to an ongoing lack of strength in the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht. Valerie Tereshchenko as Myrtha had a fierce look on her face but her gestures and the way she attacked the choreography didn’t quite match the facial expression, which also lessened the emotional impact one expects from Act II.

Ako Kondo, Ty King-Wall, and Valerie Tereshchenko in 'Giselle' Act II. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Ty King-Wall, Ako Kondo and Valerie Tereshcheko, Giselle Act II. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I was lucky, however, to be at the second performance in which Leanne Stojmenov as Giselle danced with David Hallberg as Albrecht. Act II this time was the stronger of the two acts, although it was interesting to see Stojmenov’s reading of Giselle in Act I as a somewhat less naive character, a little coy at times but certainly in it (to start with anyway) for the ride. This of course made her collapse, when she realised she had been betrayed, much stronger.

Hallberg and Stojmenov gave a moving performance in Act II. She had the right ethereal, supernatural touch, he could plead for mercy from Myrtha and make us feel for him. Their central pas de deux unfolded slowly and exquisitely before our eyes. Hallberg’s solo of entrechats six was spectacular from a technical point of view and yet he managed not to look like he was dancing in an eisteddfod. At last I felt emotionally involved, even from a distance since I was sitting in the gallery (aka the gods of former times). Amy Harris as Myrtha in this cast was forceful in her gestures and body language as a whole, and so she drove the action along nicely.

I often wonder to what extent the dancers of the Australian Ballet think about the nature of the characters they are portraying in ballets like Giselle. Do they wonder what goes on inside the minds of those characters? Do they wonder what kind of existence the characters might have beyond the immediate story? And so on. And do they then consider how to encapsulate that character in movement?

But there was a lot beyond interpretation of characters to admire about this production. The corps de ballet in Act I, for example, appeared to have had someone working with them on the use of head, arms and upper body. Fluidity of movement was thus more noticeable than usual. I also admired Hewett’s leadership of Orchestra Victoria. I felt I was listening not to a concert performance of the Adolphe Adam score, but to music to accompany the story as it was unfolding onstage. It was also an experience to sit high up in the auditorium. Apart from the fact that Stojmenov and Hallberg were able to project emotion the way they did right up into the gods, I have never been so aware before of the spatial patterns of the choreography for the corps de ballet.

To finish, there were two interesting happenings with regard to curtain calls. On opening night, minor principals who only appear in Act I joined the cast of Act II for a curtain call—not a usual occurrence. Then, following the second night’s performance, as Stojmenov and Hallberg moved downstage to take another bow together, the cast of Wilis behind them broke into applause—now that’s an accolade.

Michelle Potter, 1 September 2018

Featured mage: Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in Giselle Act I. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall in 'Giselle' Act I. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Globalisation or culturalism. Is ballet at the crossroads?

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?

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake'. Photo Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Jeff Busby

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

Featured image: Artists of Finnish National Ballet in Sylvie Guillem’s Giselle, 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli
English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

Giselle. English National Ballet

1 March 2018, Aotea Centre, Auckland
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Aforethoughts and Afterthoughts.

English National Ballet’s season of Giselle, in an acclaimed new production choreographed by Akram Khan, has just played at the Auckland Arts Festival. The setting has migrant workers stranded after a clothing factory closes down, and the clash between workers and factory bosses echoes the contrast of villagers and nobles in the 19th century ballet by Coralli and Perrot. Dancing is of the highest standard, the set is monumental, costumes inspired, lighting striking and the atmospheric music composed by Vincenzo Lamagna, scored and conducted by Gavin Sutherland, performed by Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra, makes major impact.

Many of us are thrilled by the contemporary relevance of this setting (Khan is Bangla Deshi. He works in the sophisticated milieu of European dance yet does not resort to any conventions and clichés of ballet). The gesture of Giselle’s arms down-stretched, hands slowly, so slowly, turning palms up as she asks Albrecht ‘Why? What is this about? What am I supposed to do? What are you going to do?’ The cast of co-workers repeat her gesture, as well they might. More Asian than European, more baroque than balletic, it is a telling opening to the story about to enfold.

Others are continuing to think about the echoes of the original storyline, the music, the choreography. There are about four fleeting fragments of ‘the old Giselle’ in the ‘new’ one, and they pull at your heart. Good. The ballet is engaging. No one is unmoved, no one denies the power of the production.

Fernanda Oliveira and Fernando Bufala in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo
Fernanda Oliveira and Fernando Bufala in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act I. English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

In 2016, Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the company, and herself still a performer in the lead role, commissioned this new version of the classic Giselle from Akram Khan, following a one-act work he had earlier made for the company. We have seen some of Khan’s work performed here by Sylvie Guillem several Festivals ago, and there are trailers aplenty on YouTube to give you the strength of his dance-making. It is poignant to learn that just after the Khan premiere season in London, there followed another season of the production by Mary Skeaping of the original ballet. Now that’s imaginative programming.

This is the first ever visit to New Zealand of English National Ballet, formerly known as Festival Ballet. A number of celebrated New Zealand dancers have been members of the company over decades—Russell Kerr, June Greenhalgh-Kerr, Anne Rowse, Ken Sudell, Donald McAlpine, Loma Rogers, Sue Burch, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them. The company was for a time directed by Matz Skoog, former artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, with Fiona Tonkin as assistant. Amber Hunt, New Zealand dancer, is currently in the company’s ranks.

Rosemary (Johnston) Buchanan, a leading dancer with New Zealand Ballet in 1960s, is now a patron of the company, and her artistic opinions are valued by ENB. It is poignant to witness the camaraderie and loyalty this company maintains for its heritage and history. The program essays are as good as you’ll find anywhere. It is reassuring that archivist Jane Pritchard writes about original and earlier versions of the ballet in a way that they do not need to be put down for new versions to be put up. In 1959, I slept three nights in the queue in His Majesty’s Arcade to buy a ticket in the Gods to see the Royal Ballet with Margot Fonteyn performing Giselle. The theatre and the arcade have since disappeared but the memory remains. Mindful of the achievements in that title role of such dancers as Margot Fonteyn, Patricia Rianne, Olga Spessivtseva, Carla Fracci, that ballet is not something I’m going to let go lightly. Fortunately, I don’t have to.

Old productions. New productions. There’s room for all. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Giselle (by the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre) was staged in Wellington several Festivals back—with Albrecht as a two-timing transgender line-dance teacher. (Well, you know the Irish). This man, whose Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring were staged in Melbourne in 2013 (the music played on two grand pianos on stage), is the fearless mover & shaker you won’t want to miss—though you might need a medicinal whisky, before the show and maybe after as well. He is arguably the best communicator about his choreography I have encountered, and he writes his own program essays. Stand by for his Swan Lake Loch na Neal due in the Wellington Festival mid-March. If you don’t like heat, stay out of the kitchen, but no one should write a feeble-minded review of his work.

There’s always much evidence of the well-to-do among ballet audiences, though we would of course claim that you and I are there for the right reasons. Everyone wishes for fairness in the workplace. There’s always been,and will always be uneven distribution of wealth in the world, no choreography will change that. We should think long and hard about this production of Giselle we have just seen, and maybe also about the time we first encountered it. Ask if any garment in your wardrobe was made in Bangla Desh, or in a sweat factory somewhere else?  Also ask ‘Do all ballet companies, worldwide and close to home, treat their dancers fairly?’ since that would be a good place to start, if this remarkable production with its ethos is to be honoured.

Jennifer Shennan, 9 March 2018

Featured image: English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle., Act II. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

Follow this link for a review of Akram Khan’s Giselle posted in 2016.

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', Act I, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan’s Giselle. English National Ballet

15 November 2016, Sadler’s Wells, London

Akram Khan’s Giselle begins in gloom. A grey wall confronts us and the figures onstage are shadowy. Greyness and gloom in fact pervade much of the production. But it is a truly fascinating work in which we are given enough clues, choreographically (a version of the famous ‘cow hop’ crossing of the stage by the Wilis appears in Act II) and musically, to remind us that we are indeed watching a version of Giselle. All the main characters are there and they have the same relationships with each other as they do in traditional productions. But they inhabit a very different world from the peasants and gentry of the Rhineland.

english-national-ballet-in-akram-khans-giselle-c-laurent-liotardo-4_800x534
English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Khan’s Giselle is set in a community of migrant workers, workers marginalised by factory landlords. Albrecht is a member of the wealthy class. Hilarion is an outcast but a ‘foxy’ person who is able to cross boundaries and broker exchanges. Giselle is a former garment factory worker exiled from her home and family. And so the story goes. Act II takes place behind the wall, in a kind of ghost factory where female factory workers have laboured and where many have died. And so the story goes.

But the fascination is in the choreography as much as in the reimagining of the story and the relocation of it in a world in which globalisation and its effects are powerful forces. The factory workers dance in an orderly fashion, even in a militaristic manner somewhat like factory machines. Hilarion, wonderfully danced by Cesar Corrales, is often animal-like as he insinuates himself into the lives of others. He throws himself acrobatically around the stage. He is everywhere. The music, by Vincenzo Lamagna after Adolphe Adam, is relentless, the dancing compulsive.

Cesar Corrales as Hilarion in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo
Cesar Corrales as Hilarion in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act I. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

When Albrecht (James Streeter) arrives on the scene the music stops and he has a solo in silence. A duet between Albrecht and Giselle (Tamara Rojo) takes place in the shadows. Then at the wailing sound of a siren (referencing the horn of Adam’s score) the wall lifts and the landlords arrive. The party includes a cold and distant Bathilde (Begoña Cao) to whom Albrecht is engaged. The landlords wear outlandish clothes and pose decoratively, or move in a highly stylised fashion. Giselle recognises the dress Bathilde is wearing. It is a dress she has sewn. Eventually Albrecht leaves with Bathilde and chaos ensues. The dancing becomes frenzied, the grey wall turns red, the music gathers in volume and then stops. Curtain.

Act II is sometimes quite balletic by comparison. The Willis dance on pointe for one thing. Myrtha, strongly and impressively performed by Stina Quagebeur, drags Giselle’s body centre stage and reanimates it. The Wilis wield sticks like giant needles—references perhaps to a former life the Wilis have spent in a garment factory. The Wilis are relentless in their dancing and in their torment of Hilarion. They often crouch like witches, hair streaming down.

Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: Lauren Liotardo
Stina Quagebeur as Myrtha in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Giselle and Albrecht have a pas de deux of swirling lifts, of sweeping proportions and of reconciliation. Eventually Albrecht finds himself alone. Final curtain.

james-streeter-and-tamara-rojo-3_ak-giselle_c-laurent-liotardo-800x534
James Streeter as Albrecht and Tamara Rojo as Giselle in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

There have been many different productions of Giselle over the many years I have been involved with dance. I have my favourites. But the Akram Khan version is perhaps the most startling I have seen. It has a deeply searching quality to it that questions life in our time. And yet it also addresses the themes of the traditional Giselle: love, life, betrayal and reconciliation. I guess, however, I would have liked the characters of Giselle and Albrecht to have been more clearly articulated in the narrative, or in the choreography. I’m not sure it was all that clear just who they were, or where they fitted into the world we were seeing. They have a very clear societal position in the traditional ballet but not so much in Khan’s. Or perhaps this is because I have seen so many traditional productions of Giselle that there is no doubt in my mind where they fit into the story?

But I have nothing but praise for the dancers of English National Ballet. They performed Khan’s choreography with stunning success. A ballet to be seen again and again I think.

Michelle Potter, 16 November 2016

Featured image: Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act II. English National Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Akram Khan's 'Giselle', Act II, English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo
Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple, 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper

Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet

12 & 13 August 2016, St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand

There are a number of things to admire in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s current production of Giselle, choreographed and produced for the company by Ethan Stiefel and Johan Kobborg in 2012. As one enters the theatre a front curtain is down and it immediately promises something interesting. We see a finely drawn tree with a brown trunk and spreading brown branches with small, red, heart-shaped leaves attached. The colours set the season (the ballet traditionally takes place at harvest time), as well as giving a clue to the emotional story we will encounter. As the curtain rises, small white shapes, a little like tear drops, appear on the cloth, and dark twisted roots emerge and move mysteriously (lighting by Kendall Smith). It is a wonderful piece of scenic art by American designer Howard C Jones. It has a beautiful simplicity and yet prefigures so many of the ballet’s themes.

As Act I unfolded, I admired the way in which Stiefel and Kobborg had developed the male characters. The peasant men seemed a rough and tumble lot and at one stage engaged in a bout of light-hearted pushing and shoving. They were not the overly genteel peasants we so often see standing in perfect ballet poses. In fact we often saw them slouching around in the background.

The character of Hilarion was also nicely developed. He was given a solo in the first act, which drew more attention to his participation in the life of the village and his place in the story as Giselle’s long-term admirer. The role was strongly danced by Jacob Chown in one cast and Paul Mathews in another. Mathews in particular showed some exceptional elevation and seemed to relish every vigorous moment of the Act I solo. On the other hand, Chown was the one who put up a thrilling fight against the Wilis in Act II and in his dancing seemed to be buffeted back and forth by some supernatural power.

Jacob chown as Hilarion in 'Giselle'. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper
Jacob Chown as Hilarion in Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Wilfred, aide to Albrecht (disguised as Lenz—not Loys!), was also encouraged to be a stronger character than usual. It was not that he was given anything extra to do, so bouquets to the dancers and to the coaching staff. I saw Jacob Chown and William Fitzgerald and enjoyed both interpretations, although Chown seemed to add a mature factor to his characterisation, which I thought particularly suitable.

I also was surprised, but pleased, to find, with the arrival of the titled landowners (usually on a hunting excursion, but in this production out riding), that the Duke and and his daughter Bathilde did not enter Giselle’s cottage to rest, as usually happens—I have often pondered why they would take a rest in such a rudimentary structure. Instead, in this production, they headed off to continue their ride. This of course meant that other arrangements had to be made to call them back to the village for the unmasking of Albrecht, of which more later.

I also enjoyed the inclusion of children and older people as extras in the village scenes of Act I. It made for a more natural look than what we are used to.

Choreographically Stiefel and Kobborg have kept some of the well-known sections, especially in Act II where the steps performed by Giselle and Albrecht (pas de deux and solos); some sections by Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis; and some of the corps de ballet work were familiar. But large sections of Act I, especially the dances for the corps de ballet, had been reworked and were more like character dances than the classically-based choreography we usually see. Some of the group dances for the Wilis in Act II had also been reworked and there seemed to be focus on circular patterns and movements.

I saw two casts in the leading roles of Giselle and Albrecht—Mayu Tanigaito partnered by Daniel Gaudiello and Lucy Green partnered by Qi Huan and all danced more than adequately. Gaudiello made something spectacular of Albrecht’s solo dances in Act II. His cabrioles were breathtaking in their precision and he soared into his jumps. A triple attitude turn was a thrill to see, and his set of entrechats was stunning. But he also brought many charming extras to his portrayal—a little brush of his hand along Tanigaito’s arm before taking her hand, a benign glance here and there. Such things have long been a feature of Gaudiello’s acting and it was a treat to see him once again.

Daniel Gaudiello and Mayu Tanigaito in rehearsal for 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2016
Daniel Gaudiello and Mayu Tanigaito in rehearsal for Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

But in this production of Giselle, there were also a number of things not to like. Much impact was lost in Act I when Berthe, who needs to recount the story of the Wilis and the effect they have on jilted young girls, had been allocated a much reduced story to tell. Neither of the dancers I saw as Berthe—Alayna Ng and Madeleine Graham—was able to impart a sense of impending doom. And not only that, Giselle’s friends took absolutely no notice of  Berthe’s story. They were busy upstage admiring a friend’s wedding outfit. And sadly, nothing in a mime or choreographic sense was made of the musical leitmotif for the Wilis, which we hear during Berthe’s mime scene. It is the musical link between the first and second acts and recurs during the mad scene and then at the beginning of Act II. Berthe needs to be clearly aware of this leitmotif in her mime, or with some kind of reaction, so she can begin a dramaturgical link.

Then there was the issue of the horn, usually hung outside the cottage by a member of the hunting party when the Duke and Bathilde retire to the cottage. Hilarion uses it to call the hunting party back after he has discovered Albrecht’s true identity. But since there was a change to the storyline in the Stiefel/Kobborg production, Albrecht arrives in the village with a sword at his side and the horn around his neck. Now why would he be carrying a horn? It didn’t make sense to me and looked like a clumsy addition and simply (as indeed it was) a way of sneaking the horn in so that Hilarion had something to use when he needs to summon the hunting/riding party.

I also wondered why there was a need to remove the grape harvest part of the original narrative, thus weakening the story. The grape harvest is a rationale for the Duke and his party to stop to quench their thirst at Giselle’s village. They drink the wine of the area, which is served with pride by Giselle and/or Berthe. Removing this aspect of the story also denies Giselle a place as the Harvest Queen and makes her, in many ways, a lesser person in the village. Replacing the Harvest Queen with a Wedding Couple, who also dance the peasant pas de deux, is interesting but to my mind is playing with the story for no apparent purpose.

I was also unimpressed by some of the costumes (designed by Natalia Stewart) especially that for Albrecht in Act II. His jacket had such a high collar that his neck all but disappeared and occasionally reduced the classical look of the choreography. And there were times when Albrecht seemed to have a hunchback due, I can only surmise, to the cut of the jacket. This happened more in the case of Gaudiello as the costume seemed to be a better fit on Qi. I wish too that Myrtha had been given the wreath of flowers she usually wears as a headdress. It would have given Clytie Campbell, whom I saw as Myrtha at both performances, added presence and would have distinguished her somewhat from the band of Wilis she leads. It may not have seemed so annoying had the role of Myrtha been given the same attention as the minor principal roles of Hilarion and Wilfred. As it was parts of the second act seemed a little underwhelming.

Stiefel and Kobborg have added a rather nice framework within which the story unfolds. When the ballet opens we see, through a scrim and seemingly within the swirling roots of the tree of the front curtain, the figure of a man, the Older Albrecht. He appears briefly at the beginning and end of both acts as an observer and relives, as a program note tells us, ‘the story that has possessed his being for nearly a decade.’ But for me this Giselle does not stand up to those productions that have brought tears to my eyes and sent me home from the theatre on a high.

Michelle Potter, 15 August 2016

Featured image: Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple in Giselle. Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: © Bill Cooper

Bronte Kelly and Joseph Skelton as the Wedding Couple, 'Giselle', Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Bill Cooper

Giselle. The Royal Ballet

28 March 2016, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

I have been a fan of Peter Wright’s production of Giselle, which dates back to 1985, ever since I saw it in Australia in 2002 during the Royal Ballet’s tour that year. I like that Wright’s research into the historical background of the ballet has informed the work, especially in relation to character development. The current season by the Royal Ballet confirms my conviction that Wright’s production is an exceptional one.

Sarah Lamb as Giselle and Ryoichi Hirano as Albrecht perhaps don’t reach the emotional heights of others I have seen in these roles, but technically they danced beautifully: their Act II pas de deux in particular was quite breathtaking. Hirano’s partnering skills were remarkable and he made those beautiful high lifts looked effortless—Giselle became the weightless sylph she is meant to be. And the pair’s final parting in Act II, as Giselle disappeared into her grave, was as moving as one could hope for.

In addition, and thankfully, there was no emphasis on the execution of steps for the sake of steps in the course of Albrecht having to dance on and on. The choreography was used to convey the dramatic line, although of course the steps were beautifully performed. In fact I found it mightily impressive that the whole of Albrecht’s ‘dance until you drop’ section flowed on so smoothly and logically from the earlier sequence when Hilarion was sentenced to die, something that I can’t remember ever seeing so clearly before.

Being used to seeing a peasant pas de deux in other productions, the pas de six in Act I was something of a curiosity for me, which I can’t remember from 2002. But it was nicely danced and I especially admired a gentleman with dark curly hair who seemed to be someone other than those mentioned on the cast sheet. Whoever he was, he performed with wonderful attack.

The Royal Ballet’s corps danced strongly throughout. As peasants in Act I they were boisterously beautiful, as Wilis in Act II they were both mysteriously supernatural in their movements and heartlessly cold in their damnation of Hilarion and Albrecht.

John Macfarlane’s design does not pretend to be prettily peasant. The cottages in Act I are rough, the forest in Act II is wild, and it makes for just the right visual effect. And to my surprise and pleasure (I had forgotten it from previous viewings), the village folk in Act I didn’t all wear exactly the same costume.

The one thing that bothered me was that the long Act I mime scene from Berthe (Elizabeth McGorian) focused on explaining the legend of the Wilis without, to my mind, relating it enough to Giselle in particular. Berthe seemed to be talking to everyone except Giselle. On the other hand, it was interesting to see how class distinctions between the village folk and the Duke and his entourage were developed. I have never seen such a Bathilde as that of Sian Murphy who seemed positively dismissive of the peasants. And, as ever, the printed program was full of extra information including an excellent interview with Peter Wright and an explanation of the mime scene mentioned above.

All in all a very satisfying production with so much of interest that I could see it again and again.

Michelle Potter, 29 March 2016

Also as ever, this review is not accompanied by images as no one at the Royal Ballet seems inclined even to acknowledge my requests over the years for images, let alone agree to supply any.

techne. Sylvie Guillem. Photo by Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem. Life in Progress

19 August 2015, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Sylvie Guillem is an extraordinary dancer, no doubt about it, and her farewell show of four very different works demonstrated her astonishing capacity as a performer. But what emerged most clearly for me was that Guillem is first and foremost a ballet dancer. Her body, with its flexibility, slender frame, beautifully arched feet, impeccable ‘turn-out’, and limbs that extend seemingly forever, is so perfectly suited to the vocabulary of ballet that, whatever other dance style she is performing, she makes me long to see her dancing in a ballet again. Guillem has, for the last ten years or so, focused on contemporary dance and, while I have every respect for her desire to work that way, it is a little sad that not all of the movement we see in her farewell show does justice to her qualities as a dancer.

The program opened with technê choreographed by Akram Khan. Its setting was instantly attractive—a silver mesh tree positioned centre stage and surrounded by a circle of light. Across the upstage area sat a dimly-lit orchestra of three, composer Alies Sluiter (voice, laptop and violin), Prathap Ramachandra (percussion), and Grace Savage (beatbox). And the live soundscape they produced was thrilling.

But, watching Guillem emerge from the darkness in the opening moments—our first sight of her—only to scuttle around the circle of light on all fours like an insect was not thrilling. Sure she scuttles brilliantly and every inch of her body scuttled. But for me it was an uninspired opening moment and it was hard to maintain interest in the movement of technê from then on.

Then followed William Forsythe’s DUO2015, remade from his 1996 DUO and danced by two men, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, to a very sparse score by Thom Willems. They danced together and apart, at times with panache and bravura, and sometimes with a kind of throwaway attitude. It was a communication between friends. They sometimes mirrored each other in their movements, and at other times they maintained their differences—a diverse dancing communication, and a wonderful one.

Dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in 'DUO2015'. Photo by Carl Fox
 Dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in DUO2015. Photo: © Carl Fox

The last piece before intermission was another duet, Here & After, this time danced by two women, Guillem and Emanuela Montanari. Choreographed by Russell Maliphant to music by Andy Cowton, it was pleasant dancing, often sculptural and having a light touch towards the end when the Cowton score included the sounds of a yodelling voice. It was enhanced by a strong lighting design from Michael Hulls, a constantly changing chessboard of squares of light. It added a hard-edged quality that sat well against the softness of the choreography.

By far the most satisfying piece, however, was the closing item, Bye, with choreography by Mats Ek and danced to Beethoven’s Arietta from his Piano Sonata Opus 111. The choice of music was an inspired one given its position in Beethoven’s oeuvre, Opus 111 being his last piano sonata, and given the inventive nature of the Arietta within it.

Sylvie Guillem in 'Bye'. Photo: Bill Cooper
Sylvie Guillem in Bye. Photo: © Bill Cooper

In Bye we first see Guillem peering through a keyhole of a door positioned upstage, which eventually becomes a screen for the projection of filmed images of people and animals. As Guillem emerges from behind this door/screen and begins to dance, Ek’s choreographic style is instantly recognisable. Guillem crosses the stage with long, loping walks, shoulders slightly hunched and head pushed forward. From then on she engages in a variety of moves that often seem to be an examination of the world, including one quiet moment when she stands on the side of the stage and surveys the space. At one point she stands on her head, legs spread in a kind of upside down 2nd position plié. Finally, she joins a growing crowd of men, women, children and dogs who appear in film on the door/screen. In the closing moments she joins them and walks into the distance.

Life in Progress was an interesting experience, and it certainly made me more than aware of Guillem’s astonishing abilities. But I would rather watch beetles scuttle and a clown stand on his (or her) head and watch Guillem dancing a ballet. I feel very lucky to have seen her during her ballet days and, in particular, will always carry with me treasured memories of the most moving Giselle I have ever seen—Guillem’s own production (with Guillem in the lead) for Finnish National Ballet in Paris in 2001.

Bye. Or is it au revoir?

Michelle Potter, 22 August 2015

Featured image: Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan’s technê. Photo: © Bill Cooper

techne. Sylvie Guillem. Photo by Bill Cooper

Dance diary. May 2015

  • Oral history

I recently had the pleasure of recording an oral history interview for the National Library with Marilyn Jones. I first interviewed Jones in 1990 as part of the Esso Performing Arts and Oral History Archive Project, so this 2015 interview was a follow-up after 25 years. The image below captures, I think, the essence of Les Sylphides and Jones’ ability to dance that elusiveness.

Marilyn Jones and Jonathan Watts in 'Les Sylphides'. The Australian Ballet 1963. Photo Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia
Marilyn Jones and Jonathan Watts in Les Sylphides. The Australian Ballet, 1963. Photo: Walter Stringer, National Library of Australia

The interview requires written permission for use so will not be available online, but in many respects oral history is for the future. I certainly have become more and more aware of its intrinsic value as time passes. The full story of the Australian Ballet strike of 1981, for example, which took place during the artistic directorship of Jones, is yet to be told. Several interviews in the National Library’s collection give a variety of perspectives and await the historian.

Other dance interviews I have recorded in the past six months have been with Peter Bahen, Lisa Pavane and David Deverelle-Hill.

On the subject of the Esso Performing Arts material, there are 41 interviews, not all of which are dance-related, in that collection and a list can be accessed via the National Library catalogue. Many are available online.

  • Juliet Burnett

It came as something of a shock to learn that Juliet Burnett is leaving (has already left I think) the Australian Ballet. She has given me, and I’m sure many others, such a lot of pleasure over the past few years. Just recently, her performances in the leading roles in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake and Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle have suggested wonderful things to come. But let’s hope that wherever the future takes her she will find much happiness. My posts mentioning Burnett are at this link.

  • Press for May

‘Visiting dance troupe’s double bill a triumph.’ Review of Quintett and  Frame of Mind, Sydney Dance Company. The Canberra Times, 2 May 2015, p. 19. Online version.

‘Circus acts unmissable.’ Review of ‘Le Noir: the dark side of Circque.’ The Canberra Times, 8 May 2015, ARTS p. 6. Online version.

‘Magical production of a great Giselle.’ Review of the Australian Ballet’s Canberra season of Giselle, The Canberra Times, 25 May 2015, ARTS p. 6. Online version.

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2015