Dance diary. December 2011

  • Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet

During 2011 I have published many thoughts on a whole variety of dance subjects, but there is no doubt that most interest has been generated by posts and comments associated with the Australian Ballet’s production of Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet. Traffic across this website has risen by 50% since the opening of R & J in September. My two posts on this show were quickly picked up. The original post has been the top post in terms of visitor numbers since October and the ‘second look’ post quickly took up the second spot from November onwards.*

The main thrust of the comments on R & J has been, it seems to me, that the story lost its depth as a result of the wildly changing locations and eras in which this production of the ballet is set. In response to one such comment following the Sydney season I wrote: ‘ I keep wondering about our expectations of ballet, and this ballet in particular. Does the story lose its profundity if it covers different territory and does so in a way that is not expected?’ I think most people believe the story did lose rather than gain in this production, but I still wonder and look forward to further comments when the work goes to Brisbane early in 2012.

  • Infinity: the Australian Ballet’s 2012 triple bill

Graeme Murphy is in the throes of creating another work for the Australian Ballet. It will form part of a triple bill entitled Infinity, which will open in Melbourne in February and comprise works by Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. While I have no inkling as to what Murphy will give us this time, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s December newsletter gives us a hint of what we might expect from Page’s work, which will use dancers from both his own Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet—definitely something to look forward to.

  • Scholars and Artists in Residence (SAR) Fellowship

In December I began my research into designer Kristian Fredrikson’s film and television commissions at the National Film and Sound Archive under a SAR Fellowship and will resume work there after the holiday break. I was especially pleased finally to be able to see a film called Undercover, made in 1983 and produced by David Elfick with Kristian Fredrikson as costume designer and Anna French as his assistant designer. This film is set in the 1920s and charts the growth of the Berlei undergarment enterprise in Australia. Fredrikson’s designs, especially for the women and for the dance sequences (choreographed by former Australian Ballet dancer Leigh Chambers) towards the end of the film, are beautifully realised within the spirit of the fashions of the 1920s. I suspect Fredrikson reimagined some of his work for Undercover when he began work on Tivoli, which he designed in 2001 for Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Ballet. In any case, despite the reservations I had (before I had seen the film I have to admit) about the subject matter, Undercover is a fascinating film and I hope to arrange a screening of it at a later date.

As a result of a mention I made of the SAR Fellowship in my dance diary post for November I was surprised and delighted to be contacted by one of Fredrikson’s assistants who worked with him on a production of Oedipus Rex, produced in 1965 by Wal Cherry for his Emerald Hill Theatre in Melbourne. It was only recently that I discovered that Fredrikson had designed this show, one of his earliest Australian design commissions, and I hope to include reference to it in a Spotlight Talk I will be giving for the Performing Arts Centre, Melbourne, in April when I will also talk about Fredrikson’s other early designs in New Zealand and Australia.

  • Meryl Tankard

Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac returned to Sydney in December following the opening of Tankard’s latest work, Cinderella, for Leipzig Ballet in November. As well as passing on news about Cinderella, Tankard also told me of the success that The Oracle had when it was shown in Lyon in November. Tankard made The Oracle in 2009 as a solo work for dancer Paul White and one clipping from a Lyon newspaper that Tankard sent me referred to Paul White as ‘a revelation to the French public’ and ‘a god of the stage’ and suggested that his solo had instantly attracted a cult following. Here is a link to another review (in French or, if you prefer, in English translation) from the Lyon Capitale that lauds, once again, White’s remarkable physicality and virtuosity and Tankard’s and Lansac’s extraordinary work. The Oracle was the recipient of two Australian Dance Awards in 2010.

  • Paul Knobloch
Alonzo King
Alonzo King rehearsing Daria Ivanova and Paul Knobloch in Figures of thought, Lausanne, June 2011. Photo: Valerie Lacaze.

Australian dancer Paul Knobloch was in Canberra over the holiday season visiting family and friends. Knobloch is excited at the new direction his career is about to take. He will take up a contract in February with Alonzo King LINES Ballet based in San Francisco. King recently made a work called Figures of thought for Béjart Ballet Lausanne, where Knobloch has been working for the past few years. King offered Knobloch a contract after working with him in Lausanne.

The BBL website has a photo gallery from this work. It contains several images of Knobloch in rehearsal. [Update April 2019: link no longer available].

  • Luminous: Celebrating 50 years of the Australian Ballet

In December The Canberra Times published my review of the Australian Ballet’s most recent publication, Luminous: Celebrating 50 years of the Australian Ballet. Here is a link to the article.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2011

*The third most popular post for both November and December was that relating to Stanton Welch and the other Australians working in Houston, Texas.

Romeo and Juliet. A second look

10 December 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet for the Australian Ballet continues to generate discussion and mixed reviews, and I recently took a second look at it at a Sydney mid-season matinee performance. It is impossible to ignore the dominance of the scenic elements and the challenges of the constantly changing times and locations, and why should we ignore them anyway as they are an intrinsic part of the collaboration and choreographic plan. So I still like to see this Romeo and Juliet as a postmodern work, despite all the problematic issues that the term ‘postmodern’ generates. Postmodernism, at least in areas of the visual arts, allows a collage of non-sequiturs and apparently frivolous allusions, which gives a pastiche we can either love or hate, but not ignore.

On this viewing, the sometimes overbearing scenic elements, and the episodic nature of the changes of time and location, did not startle to the same extent as they did that first time. On any second or subsequent viewing, whatever the work, one naturally notices different things. During the opening scene, set in what my ever-entertaining companion at these matiness thought looked like a scene from Dungeons and Dragons, it was Murphy’s attention to detail in his handling of the minor characters that attracted my attention. At the side of the main action and above it on the ‘bridge’, groups of bedraggled-looking townsfolk engaged in their own comments on the feuding being carried out centre stage. Murphy has always been a dab hand at this kind of background action—no standing round twiddling thumbs and admiring dresses. His works are choreographed down to the last detail.

The ball scene contains one of the best-known sections of the Prokofiev score, a section I will never be able to call anything other than ‘the cushion dance’. My approach to this scene will forever be coloured by my very first viewing of a ballet with the name Romeo and Juliet when, as a child, I saw a film of the Bolshoi Ballet with Galina Ulanova as Juliet. Well there were no cushions for the male guests to toss onto the floor in Murphy’s version of the magnificent ‘cushion dance’, but there was some startling and bold choreography. I especially admired the dramatic swirl of movement as the male guests held their partners, who leant back precariously as they were turned in a tight circle and who, with knees bent and feet together, jabbed the floor aggressively with their pointe shoes.

Akira Isogawa’s wedding dress for Juliet in the Japanese-inspired scene also caught my eye. Although it is pretty much impossible to learn much about the construction and detail of individual costumes from a seat in the auditorium, this dress seemed to be beautifully made from delicately patterned silk, or synthetic silken-look fabric. But it was the shoulder feature that surprised me. The straps that held the dress together over the shoulders were wide and crossed over just as they joined the bodice rather than in the middle of the of the upper back. It was a simple and almost unnoticeable touch, and perhaps not of major significance in the overall scheme of the ballet, but so elegant.

I was lucky enough to see Juliet Burnett in the leading role on this second viewing. She handled Murphy’s ever-changing and ever-challenging choreography as if she were born to dance his steps. She was bubbling with youth as she ran across the stage on pointe in the opening sequence. She soared through lifts in Murphy’s pas de deux and in those scenes in which the black-garbed holy men transported her across the stage. Her expressive arms gave a joyous quality to those moments where her young love for Romeo needed to be shown. But those arms also conjured up something entirely different, something leaden and full of fear when, for example, she reached out in an attempt to pick up the bottle of poison from her bed. It was this quality of being able to express emotion so well through the body, and not just through facial expression, that made her performance so exhilarating. But perhaps most of all it was a thrill to watch her portray the character of Juliet and to maintain that characterisation across the entire ballet, despite the changes of time and location. A stellar performance from Burnett who was partnered by Rudy Hawkes as Romeo.

Of the other cast members, Josef Brown made a welcome return to the ballet stage as Lord Capulet with Ingrid Gow as his Lady Capulet. Brown played Lord Capulet with a calm yet imposing presence. His handling of Juliet in the scenes with Paris rarely showed anger but rather some kind of fatherly determination. It allowed Murphy’s choreography, which in these scenes contains conflict within it, to shine through.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2011

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Romeo and Juliet', 2011. Photo: Jeff Busby

Here is the link to my original post and comments on this production of Romeo and Juliet.

UPDATE, 12 December 2011: I have just reread more carefully the original post written after opening night in Melbourne in September. In it I wrote: ‘Manion’s strongest contribution [Gerard Manion was the set designer for this work] was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work’. Well this was not part of the Sydney production! Why not? I have no idea, but it was a sad omission in my opinion.

Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet

This is an expanded version of my review first published in The Canberra Times, 17 September 2011, p. 30 under the title ‘Fluid postmodern take on a classic’.

13 September 2011, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

In an interview published in the September issue of the Qantas inflight magazine, choreographer Graeme Murphy said of his new production of Romeo and Juliet for the Australian Ballet that we should ‘bring a lifeboat’. Well he had a point because this production, which had its world premiere in Melbourne on 13 September, is a very fluid one indeed. It opens in a town setting, which could be Verona at the time Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is set. But over the course of the evening the location and the era change wildly. We see the marriage of Romeo and Juliet in Japan, the killing of Tybalt and Mercutio in India and the mourning of Juliet in a harsh, blood red desert setting. The characters ride bikes in one scene. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio find themselves in a row boat in another. And more.

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet is quintessentially postmodern. It has moments of humour and irony. It is filled with allusions to all kinds of cultural objects and issues—devotees of the Hare Krishna movement even make an appearance. Murphy also references himself and his work through some choreographic moments that look back to the vintage days of Sydney Dance Company. The scene in which Juliet receives a potion to induce a death-like sleep, when six black clad figures support Juliet in expansive swooping and flying movements, is just one example of this glance back at previous choreography.

Murphy also incorporates fabric into the choreography and the production overall. And while on this occasion his costume designer, Akira Isogawa, may well have had a strong input into how fabric has been used, Murphy has been playing with lengths of cloth and curtains of fabric throughout his choreographic career. One of the most dramatic uses of fabric in Romeo and Juliet occurs when a bolt of scarlet silk, initially resting amongst other rolls of fabric on the side of the stage in the Indian market place, unwinds and streams across the stage as the Capulets and the Montagues engage in their bloody feud.

This Romeo and Juliet is a collage of ideas playfully deconstructed and the remarkable thing is that it works. Everyone knows the story and Murphy has assumed this familiarity with the plot and has pursued a vision for a work that is like no other that the Australian Ballet has ever presented.

On opening night Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson as Juliet and Romeo led us on this journey of love and death. Eastoe in particular danced with joy, passion, despair, every emotion that the story requires. Her opening dance, with its quick footwork and fluid upper body movement, filled us with pleasure and anticipation.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Daniel Gaudiello continued to impress as Mercutio and moved, as his name in this ballet implies, like quicksilver, darting here and there, unpredictable and always impassioned in defence of his friends. Juliet’s nurse, usually played as a somewhat plump and bumbling if kind-hearted older woman, was intelligently performed by Elizabeth Hill and became (thankfully) a much less pantomimic role. A character introduced by Murphy—Death, the Prince of Darkness—provided a through line for the meandering locations and times. Death picks up bodies, which he places in a wooden cart (rather like the carts that carried the French to the guillotine in 1789—another reference). Or sometimes he just hovers menacingly in the background. It’s not a big dancing role but one that requires a very strong presence. It was very ably performed on opening night by Adam Bull.

In addition to Akira Isogawa, the collaborative team on this production included Murphy’s creative associate, Janet Vernon, set designer Gerard Manion, and Damien Cooper who lit the show. From among literally hundreds of costumes created by Isogawa, I especially liked the beautifully cut, high-collared black coat for Death and the pale olive, very simple costume for Juliet’s nurse. I was amused by the costume for Paris, which seemed to have a kind of gold ‘breast-plate’ of muscles. Paris is rarely portrayed in a sympathetic way and this addition to his costume suggested an inherent vanity. Manion’s strongest contribution was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work.

This Romeo and Juliet may not appeal to everyone, especially those who like their ballet to be more in a modernist vein, that is somewhat coherent in form. Did I miss the John Cranko version of Romeo and Juliet, which has been in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire for decades? Yes, a little, but in the same way as I occasionally yearn to see a traditional Swan Lake, rather than Murphy’s newer production. It’s part of the balletic legacy and we need to be reminded occasionally that we have a heritage.

But Murphy’s approach in 2011 raises many issues that are discussed across other art forms and it is refreshing to see this occurring in ballet, an art form that is so often seen as a little dowdy. Of course such issues include the notion that postmodernism is dead so we have to wonder whether this Romeo and Juliet is already outdated? But whatever one might think, it is a production worth seeing.

Michelle Potter, 19 September 2011

Featured image: Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

UPDATE, 11 December 2011: Romeo and Juliet. A second look

That ‘triple threat.’ The Australian Ballet in 2012

The Canberra Times recently published ‘Pushing 50 but still dancing’, my preview of the Australian Ballet’s 2012 season.

What didn’t get covered in that article was the Australian Ballet’s use of the term ‘triple threat’ in relation to the triple bill of new Australian works by Graeme Murphy, Stephen Page and Gideon Obarzanek, which is due to open in Melbourne in February. In subscriber brochures and media material these three choreographers are being described as the ‘triple threat of Australian dance’.

At first sight this looks like a typo. I almost fell into the trap of thinking this way, but thanks to a watchful editor I escaped.* It’s probably not a typo (although one can never be sure) since a ‘triple threat’ is, it seems, someone who excels in three areas, be it in baseball (where perhaps the term originated to describe someone who can catch, bat and run with equal skill) or show business, where apparently it can mean having skills in any three areas of activity.

But a ‘triple threat’ can also be something rather than someone. It can be a sports bar of the edible variety (with three ingredients?), or a game show—check your favourite search engine for more. There is also an interesting opinion piece published in The Guardian in 2006.

So where does this leave the Murphy/Page/Obarzanek trio? What are the three areas in which we might expect them to excel in this triple bill? I am a little amused at the idea of being threatened by them or by what they come up with, but quite honestly I’d rather be challenged, excited, enthused, or any number of other more appropriate expressions. The use of ‘triple threat’ is a gimmick in my opinion and takes its place alongside those images of dancers in costumes representing no ballet and taking poses from no ballet, which the Australian Ballet is currently so fond of using. And I know that it’s a bit hard to put dancers in costumes that haven’t been made yet but this fashionista thing has been going on for a while now.

It is a real thrill to see the 50th anniversary program containing so much new Australian choreography and I can’t wait for the season to begin. But it would be equally thrilling to see the Australian Ballet proudly promoting itself as an organisation with an understanding of the qualities that make dance the great art form that it is, rather than as a bunch of people at the forefront of the latest trendy but artistically empty ideas.

Michelle Potter, 18 September 2011

*On the subject of typos, the ‘Pushing 50’ article notes, wrongly, that Canberra audiences have been seeing Graeme Murphy’s choreography since the 1960s. It should read the 1970s!

The Silver Rose. The Australian Ballet

Elsewhere on this website I made a comment that referred to Graeme Murphy’s The Silver Rose, which I saw just recently towards the end of its Sydney season by the Australian Ballet. My comment was in response to what I thought was an excellent argument about the new magazine Fjord Review, which also brought up other issues relating to leadership and marketing of dance and dancers and in particular to perceived problems with Australian Ballet dancers ‘nailing the right atmosphere’ in their performances. My comment in its turn generated another comment picking up on The Silver Rose. All the comments are available at this link but I am reposting the last one below.

  • I was hoping Michelle would open a thread about The Silver Rose. I seem to be in a minority in thinking that Murphy acquitted himself well in the enormous task he set himself and his designer in taking on a danced version of Der Rosenkavalier.

Well, I was very disappointed with The Silver Rose. I thought the final trio for the Marschallin, Sophie and Octavian was brilliantly choreographed and well performed by Danielle Rowe, Amber Scott and Luke Ingham. It was a moment of nostalgia and in true Murphy fashion all the yearning, wistfulness and regret contained in that particular emotion came through in the choreography. But, there wasn’t all that much else in it for me. The first act, which had to establish the characters, cried out for words or surtitles or program notes that lit up in the dark, anything. The complications of who was who just couldn’t be established through choreographic means. I also found the pantomime of the hairdresser, couturier and make-up artist so over the top that it made me cringe. Personally I like my pantomime to be a little more subtle, and I don’t think that’s a contradiction in terms.

But the point I was making in the comment posted earlier was that I didn’t think the dancers of the Australian Ballet, with a few exceptions, really got the feel of Murphy’s brand of choreography on this occasion. There were so many moments when they simply looked awkward. It reminded me of Carolyn Brown, that great, great Cunningham dancer from the mid decades of the twentieth century, who said that when the Cunningham company went to watch Cunningham’s equally great, great work Summerspace performed by New York City Ballet (in 1966) that they all sat in the auditorium and cried.

However, this post is now open for comments.

Michelle Potter, 26 April 2010.

Newcomers to Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker

Nutcracker: The Australian Ballet, Sydney and Melbourne, 2009

The 2009 season of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The story of Clara has all but convinced me that this work is the closest thing we have in Australia to a dance masterpiece. It is, like all great works of art, a very giving work. It continues to reveal new layers of meaning with each viewing, and it continues to reveal those layers at every level—dramaturgically and choreographically as well as in terms of its visual impact and historical underpinnings. Now we are also in the fortunate position of having had this ballet staged by the Australian Ballet in four separate seasons over seventeen years. Its inaugural season in 1992 was followed by restagings in 1994 and 2000. So, in 2009 there is an opportunity to reflect on how this ballet has grown and been interpreted over those seasons.

Two newcomers to the ballet stood out in this 2009 season.

At the centre of the work is the character of Clara the Elder, a now-retired elderly woman who is still in her heart a dancer. It is her story we watch unfolding before us, her destiny and ultimately her death. In the 2009 season Marilyn Jones and Ai-Gul Gaisina, both now in their late sixties, were cast to alternate in this important role. For those of us who had watched the two original Elder Claras—Dame Margaret Scott and Valrene Tweedie—it was hard to imagine that anyone could bring such depth of characterisation to the role as these two did. But Gaisina, Russian-born and Russian-trained, seemed as though she was born to dance the role. She had all the elegance of a ballerina, which indeed she was when at the height of her career. There was also a certain flamboyance in the flick of a wrist or a tilt of the head that gave her dancing a particularly Russian flavour. This, combined with a special way of interacting with her fellow cast members so that eyes met eyes and looking meant seeing, made her performance a moving and utterly believable one. She also imbued the role with an edge of humour. It was quite understated and perhaps it was more a taking of pleasure in the role than anything else. But it was clearly there and very noticeable in Act I as she entertained her Russian émigré friends. It allowed us to sense that we were watching a real life story unfold before us.

Ai-Gul Gaisina as Clara the Elder in Nutcracker: The story of Clara Act 1. The Australian Ballet, 2009. Photo: © Branco Gaica

The other outstanding performance in the casts I saw came from Leanne Stojmenov as Clara the Ballerina. Stojmenov is now fulfilling the promise that marked her performances with West Australian Ballet as a new and very young member of the company in 1999 and 2000. She has such a strong and sure technique and handled the intricacies of Murphy’s choreography with aplomb and apparent ease. Her grand pas de deux with Marc Cassidy was thrilling and in the pas de deux between Clara and her Beloved Officer, although partnered very shakily by Yosvani Ramos, Stojmenov showed her growing ability to create dramatic tension through the use of the whole body. It augurs well for her future.

It is incredibly satisfying to have Murphy’s Nutcracker return to the stage. It is one of the great treasures of the Australian Ballet’s repertoire and a work that allows us the rare pleasure of being able to look back at an Australian work and compare and contrast.

Michelle Potter, 9 June 2009