Marcus Morelli as the Swallow in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet

25 February 2020. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Graeme Murphy has said that his latest creation, The Happy Prince, is basically for children. He wants, he says, ‘to cater for the tiny imagination bud inside children’s heads, which needs just the tiniest bit of imagination, of fertilisation, to burst into a million thoughts.’* I am looking forward to taking my grandchildren to see it. But, from the moment the work opens with an explosive sound and much white smoke—’the war is over’ says the program note—to the closing moments set on a sunny Australian beach, you don’t have to be a child for hundreds of thoughts to rush into your mind.

The narrative line is based on the Oscar Wilde story reimagined slightly by Murphy and Kim Carpenter. (Wilde’s version is readily available to read online.) In the ballet the Prince (Adam Bull) has been brought up to know only happiness. But, when a statue in his honour is erected in his home town, he comes to realise that not everyone lives in a world of happiness, and that there is much disparity between the rich and the poor. He engages with the Little Swallow (Marcus Morelli), who has not kept up with his migrating swallow family, and together they strip the statue of its rich decorations, which they give to the poor. The story ends sadly for both the Prince and the Swallow. But, as the ballet concludes, they are united in a different, heavenly world.

Adam Bull in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Adam Bull as the Prince in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Instantly striking in the ballet are the visual aspects of the production. Sets and costumes by Carpenter, expressive lighting by Damien Cooper, and some fascinating projections by Fabian Astore created all kinds of resonances for me. Even though the production was meant to be set in post-war London, the township that was revealed as the smoke dissipated in the opening scene reminded me immediately of the architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser and his eccentric apartment buildings in Vienna and elsewhere with their assortment of shapes and colours. By the time we got to the end of the show, the sunny Australian beach scene recalled Charles Meere’s iconic painting Australian Beach Pattern, with the addition of a dominating reference in the background to Hokusai’s famous woodblock The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In between, how enchanting was the drop cloth in the scene where the Prince explained to the Little Swallow that happiness had pervaded his childhood. The cloth looked as if it had been borrowed from a kindergarten or a child care centre and was perfectly in tune with the box labelled ‘Toys’ in the downstage corner, from which emerged an assortment of toys who danced their way across the stage. Which brings up the question of the choreography.

Murphy has always been at home moving groups of dancers around the stage and this ability was an outstanding aspect of his Happy Prince choreography. The way he filled the stage with townspeople in the village in the opening scene, and the groupings he set up n the final beach scene were strong examples. Then there were the references to other theatrical genres. The characters of the Lord Mayor (Luke Marchant) and the Lady Mayoress (Jarryd Madden) came straight out of the pantomime tradition with the Lady Mayoress being the traditional Dame (always played by a man). Their extravagant costuming and outrageous movement also recalled this tradition.

Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden as the Mayor and the Lady Mayoress in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden as the Mayor and the Lady Mayoress in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Touches of vaudeville appeared in the scene where the Little Swallow engages with Rita Reed (Serena Graham) and her companion Reedettes. The choreography for this scene was appropriately in the Tivoli line-up mode.

Artists of the Australian Ballet as Reedettes in The Happy Prince, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Much of the production was filled with emotive and heartwarming moments. The characters who benefitted from the Prince’s generosity were finely drawn characters and beautifully portrayed: Corey Herbert as the Seamstress, Nathan Brook as the Artist and Benedicte Bemet as the Little Match Girl. They engaged our hearts and minds as their poverty was revealed prior to being helped by the Prince and the Swallow. And in true Murphy fashion, the Swallow was not always bird-like (although he did have moments of flying) but a teen guy with jeans ripped at the knees and occasionally a skateboard as a means of getting around.

A commissioned score from Christopher Gordon added to what was an exceptional collaboration.

I must admit, however, that I did find it hard to be convinced that the final beach scenes related to the migration to Australia of the so-called ‘£10 Poms’ (as I learnt later from the program notes). To me it was just Murphy in the same kind of mode as I thought was clear in his Romeo and Juliet where the story moved from place to place, era to era. I remember calling his R & J postmodern (to the annoyance of some) because it made reference to many aspects of many things. The Happy Prince was a bit the same.

I look forward to seeing this production again when I am sure I will notice other things, more of the choreography perhaps, and probably change my mind on some issues. But my first impressions are that The Happy Prince is exciting, surprising and heart warming theatre in which the whole is so much more than the sum of its enticing parts.

Michelle Potter, 27 February 2020

Featured image: Marcus Morelli as the Little Swallow in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Marcus Morelli as the Swallow in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

* Graeme Murphy quoted in ‘Darling Buds’ in program notes for The Happy Prince.

Memorial for Dame Margaret Scott

15 March 2019. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Dame Margaret Scott was farewelled with style and grace, and more than a little bit of emotion, in a memorial event arranged by the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School and presented in Melbourne on 15 March 2019.

It began with an initial surprise as we entered the auditorium of the State Theatre. I wondered why we were asked to enter through the door at the back of the auditoriun. Well, it was so that we would properly enjoy the guard of honour made by two rows of young dancers from the Australian Ballet School, the girls dressed in simple white tutus and the boys in black tights and white shirts. They were lined up on each side of the auditorium stretching pretty much from the last row of the stalls down to the stage. On the stage a giant screen had been lowered and we saw an image of a smiling Maggie, full of the joy of life. And standing in the middle of a row close to the front was Maggie’s husband, Professor Derek Denton, watching as we entered.

Following an introduction from Steven Heathcote and an opening tribute from Maggie’s younger son, Angus Denton, reminiscences were given by several of Maggie’s former students and colleagues including Colin Peasley, David McAllister, Graeme Murphy, Marilyn Rowe and Lisa Pavane. Those who auditioned for her as young and hopeful dancers all admitted to being in awe of Maggie at first, but all continued to say how much they had grown to love and respect her.

Interspersed among the spoken tributes were three short performances. The first was Embrace, created by Paulina Quinteros, which was accompanied on the printed program by the phrase ‘For Dick, Matthew and Angus’, to which was added the words ‘Lucky are those who have experienced the sweetness of loving’. It was danced by Chloe Reynolds and Daniel Savetta (with Steven Heathcote playing a small role). Embrace was followed by the Act II pas de deux from Nutcracker. The Story of Clara, danced by Benedicte Bemet and Jarryd Madden. Level 8 students of the Australian Ballet School gave the third performance, a movement from Stephen Baynes’ Ballo Barocco.

But the most moving moments were left till last when a series of images of Maggie, covering the gamut of her life and career, were flashed across the screen.

The end seemed to have been reached when Jim McFarlane’s iconic image from Nutcracker (above left) appeared and all went dark. But no, Earl Carter’s equally iconic Nutcracker image appeared of Maggie rejoicing in the pleasures she experienced in Act I of Nutcracker (above right). Then, from each side of the stage a procession of students, former dancers and others entered and, in single file, moved to the centre of the stage where each placed a single white rose on the floor in front of Maggie’s image before making a slow exit. A beautiful tribute to an exceptional woman.

A State Memorial for Dame Margaret will be held on 22 March at the National Gallery of Victoria International commencing at 10:00 am. My obituary for her is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 17 March 2019

Featured image: Maggie Scott in Gala Performance (detail with text added). From the Ballet Rambert souvenir program for its 1947–1949 Australian tour

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo Jeff Busby

Nutcracker. The Story of Clara. The Australian Ballet (2017)

10 June 2017 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

A lot has been written over the years about Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker—how it is an Australianised version of a well-loved classic, how it looks back to momentous events in Australian dance history, and so on. I am one of those lucky people who has seen every one of the seasons of Murphy’s Nutcracker since its premiere in 1992 and now I prefer to write personal thoughts rather than explanatory notes.

Murphy’s Nutcracker never loses its magic, its beauty, its theatricality, and in fact each season shows something more, something I haven’t noticed before, something surprising and unexpected. But most of all, it continues to tell me that this is a triumph for Murphy and his collaborators.

What came across really strongly for me this time was the theatricality with which the links across generations were made. I have always loved that moment, very close to the beginning, when Clara the Child picks up the package Clara the Elder has dropped as she makes her way to her home. They look at each other intently and in a brief instant we realise that they have recognised each other in some way. The child is looking at herself as an older woman, the older woman sees herself as a child. The moment was beautifully handled by Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder and Hannah Sergi as Clara the Child.

Keramidas was, in fact, a surprise as Clara the Elder. She is still very much the dancer, with her long, slim limbs, beautifully poised head, and pure line through her whole body. She danced with scarcely a hint, in a movement sense that is, that her character was that of an ageing former ballerina. What was surprising was that her exceptional grace of movement distinguished her from her elderly friends in a way that I haven’t seen before. She was truly the ballerina rather than the soloist or corps de ballet dancer, and her collapse as she watched and remembered her career with her friends was all the more poignant.

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: ©Jeff Busby

Chrissa Keramidas as Clara the Elder in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara. The Australian Ballet 2017. Photo: ©Jeff Busby

I have always been fascinated, too, by the very moving moment in Act II when Clara the Ballerina (danced on this occasion by Dimity Azoury) watches as her lover is killed during a revolutionary battle in Russia. As she takes in the enormity of the situation, a series of scrims lift and we see Clara the Elder in her white nightgown clutching a photograph of her lover, the lover we have just seen shot. The two Claras are one and dance together sharing their pain and loss. With Keramidas and Sergi having established such a strong bond in that fleeting early moment, the emotive power of the cross generational links, which are at the heart of this ballet, came once more to the fore (this time between Keramidas and Azoury). The impact of this scene was heightened, too, by John Drummond Montgomery’s lighting for this moment—hazy down lights against a dark background of emptiness—and perhaps also because I was sitting further back than usual and could focus on an overall picture.

This time I also noticed more clearly the choreographic beauty of the snowflake scene. As snowflakes fall gently to the ground, disintegrating on the way down, so too did Murphy have his snowflakes drop to the floor moving first through a clearly articulated bend to the supporting leg so the landing from there was like a crumbling of the movement rather than a deliberate fall. Against this were sharp, icy stabs of movement as the dancers lifted a leg into the air and, at one point, a myriad of hands and arms moving up and down recalling a flurry of snow. At least that’s how I saw it: an enchanting display of snowy qualities!

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

I also admired (more so than usual) Philippe Charluet’s film collage, especially those sections relating to the Russian Revolution. It has always been a treat to see how the film collage plays across the stage to add such a masterful context to this ballet, but this time the collage seemed even more pertinent to me, reading as I am at the moment a book that delves into the early life in Russia of George Balanchine.* And indeed Murphy’s inclusion of the two peasants in the picnic excursion that Clara and her friends enjoy before the Revolution begins in earnest had the same effect. The juxtaposition of wealth and privilege and lack of means to live comfortably was made clear with this small touch.

Azoury and Jarryd Madden danced strongly in the leading roles of Clara the Ballerina and the Beloved Officer, as did Andrew Wright as the Nutcracker Prince. Azoury has all the technique ready and waiting but just needs a little more feeling of freedom to make those curving, swirling lifts of the various pas de deux look as spectacular as they are. A little more time? Oh, and thank you to the new (to me) ‘older dancers’, friends of Clara the Elder. Graeme Hudson brought a certain gravitas and was it Terese Power who kept eating those chocolates and creating such a distinctive character?

Michelle Potter, 11 June 2017

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in the Imperial Ball scene from Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara, 2017. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2017. Photo Jeff Busby

* Elizabeth Kendall, Balanchine and the lost Muse. Revolution and the making of a choreographer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Infinity. A second look

14 April 2012 (matinee), Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

A second look at the Australian Ballet’s triple bill program, Infinity, at a recent Saturday matinee in Sydney produced some new highlights, but largely reinforced my thoughts following my first viewing on opening night in Melbourne.

As a new highlight, it was especially pleasurable to see that the shocking conflict between orchestra and the spoken narrative in There’s definitely a prince involved had been solved. It made a huge difference to one’s understanding of choreographer Gideon Obarzanek’s approach to the piece when one could actually hear what the performers were saying. The narrative is much wittier than was apparent on opening night when clarity and audibility were pretty much non-existent and when it seemed more like a fight between the orchestra and the spoken word than anything else.

In addition, the printed handout now included a credit to Tom Lingwood, whose name was missing from the handout on opening night but whose costumes from Swan Lake and Night Shadow were used for Prince (with extra costumes by Alexi Freeman). I suspect there needs to be someone doing a better job at proof reading of Australian Ballet publications, from major books down to nightly cast sheets.

Kristina Chan and Sara Black gave strong performances in Prince. Chan is a powerful dancer and her contemporary skills were especially evident in the ‘Drone 2’ section of Prince (although I’m not sure what the ‘Drone’ sections were meant to achieve). Black stood out on this occasion mostly for her confident delivery of the spoken text. And as before I admired Madeleine Eastoe and continue to yearn to see her in a Swan Lake that will give full expression to her glorious classical technique.

In Stephen Page’s Warumuk—in the dark night, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes remain a highlight as does Vivienne Wong’s performance as the Evening Star. But it remains just a pretty work, evocative and atmospheric.
Warumuk-in the dark night. Photo by Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet and Bangarra Dance Theatre as ‘The seven sisters’ in Warumuk—in the dark night, 2012. Photo Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

There is no doubt in my mind that the major piece on the Infinity program is Graeme Murphy’s The narrative of nothing. Halaina Hills and Amy Harris danced the female leads on this occasion but I was especially impressed by Benedicte Bemet, in her first year with the company, who danced securely and serenely in a duet with Jarryd Madden. An injured Andrew Killian was replaced by Andrew Wright but it was Adam Bull again who stole the show amongst the male performers. I admired the intensity with which he approached Murphy’s choreography with its quirky and demanding partnering and its detailed and often unexpected movements. And looking back to my original post and its comments, I don’t think I interpreted the work differently despite now knowing that the score by Brett Dean referred to the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. I continue to think that the work stands alone as an abstract piece and needs no context of bushfires or anything else of a specific narrative/contextual nature.

In fact, what I found most striking on this second viewing of Infinity was the choreographic power of The narrative of nothing. While we can look at this work as ‘vintage Murphy’ in so many ways, when seen alongside the other works that comprise Infinity the depth of Murphy’s choreographic invention, his devotion to making dance that speaks to the audience about the nature of dance, his ongoing explorations into the art of collaboration with the performers he chooses and with his creative team, is astonishing. While I love Infinity as a whole, especially for its admirable pushing of the boundaries of what the Australian Ballet stands for, Murphy stands out as the choreographer with the most to offer. He gave the dancers something to dance, something with guts, and he gave the audience something abstract, something in which they could immerse themselves in a way that only dance can offer.

Michelle Potter, 15 April 2012.