Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in 'Dyad 1929'. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Branco Gaica

Vanguard. The Australian Ballet

11 May 2013 (matinee & evening), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House (The Four Temperaments, Bella Figura, Dyad 1929)

If this triple bill program from the Australian Ballet did one thing it was to show how far ahead of his time George Balanchine was in 1946 when he made The Four Temperaments.

Although the title, The Four Temperaments, suggests a link to the ancient practice of assigning behavioural characteristics to humans based on the extent to which certain fluids are present in the body, I think this is essentially an abstract ballet. It deconstructs classical ballet vocabulary before the idea of deconstruction in arts practice became a trendy phenomenon. So many of the movements—Balanchine’s different examples of supported pirouettes for example—show by the very act of deconstruction how the vocabulary of ballet is constructed. In addition, Balanchine’s use of turned in feet and legs, forward-thrusting pelvic movements, stabbing movements by the women on pointe, angular shapes made with the arms and palms of the hand, are all beyond what the eye is accustomed to think of as pure, classical movement. But seen within the context of the entire ‘Vanguard’ program, it is clear that similar movements surface in the work of choreographers coming after Balanchine. Such an attitude to the balletic vocabulary is especially noticeable in the choreography for Dyad 1929 made by Wayne McGregor in 2009.

Balanchine made his move in 1946 (at least) and I think the different look Dyad 1929 and others of McGregor’s works have, which is certainly a look more in keeping with the twenty first century, is as much a reflection of technical developments and changes in body shape since 1946 as anything else. The Four Temperaments is really a remarkable work.

The Australian Ballet has been beautifully coached and rehearsed for The Four Temperaments. There was a simple elegance and a clarity of technique in their dancing and they made the choreographic design very clear. At times, however, I wished some parts had been slightly more exaggerated—the movement in the pelvis for example. Balanchine was a showy choreographer at times and I think a little of the showiness that American companies seem to add to The Four Temperaments was missing.

Of the two casts I saw I most admired Daniel Gaudiello in the ‘Melancholic’ variation. I loved his unexpected falls, the theatrical way he threw his arms around his body, his very fluid movement, and his wonderful bend back from the waist as he made his (backwards) exit. I also enjoyed the pert and precise quality Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo brought to ‘Theme II’ and Juliet Burnett’s languorous and smooth flowing work in ‘Theme III’. Of the corps Dana Stephensen and Brooke Lockett (in different casts) stood out for me in supporting roles in ‘Melancholic’.

Felicia Palanca & Sarah Peace in 'Bella Figura'. Photo: Jeff Busby
Felicia Palanca and Sarah Peace in Bella Figura, ca. 2000. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Then came Jiri Kylian’s emotive work Bella Figura with its mysterious lighting and half-revealed spaces.

Bella was first performed by the Australian Ballet in 2000 when it had a more than memorable cast, and it has been restaged in the intervening period, again with strong casts. So it is a pleasure to record that one cast I saw on this occasion did not make me think back to other performances. It even opened up for me a new view of the piece. The closing duet, danced in silence by Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, in moody lighting with two braziers burning brightly in the background, was moving, intimate and deeply satisfying. What wonderful rapport these two dancers have and how affecting is their ability to project that rapport so strongly. Jones and Gaudiello were also outstanding in another duet earlier on in the work. I don’t remember such a comic element in that particular duet on previous occasions; this time it bordered on the slapstick. But it was brilliantly done as Jones and Gaudiello managed to retain ‘la bella figura’ in its best sense, while also making us laugh.

After these two works Dyad 1929 looked very thin to me. I have admired recent works by Wayne McGregor including his Chroma, FAR and Live fire exercise, and I was also impressed by Dyad 1929 when it was first shown in Australia in 2009. This time I didn’t get the feeling that the dancers saw any diversity within the work. They all performed the steps very nicely but brought little else. After The Four Temperaments and Bella Figura it was a disappointment, not so much choreographically as in terms of performance.

Michelle Potter, 13 May 2013

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Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in 'Dyad 1929'. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Branco Gaica
Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in Dyad 1929. The Australian Ballet, 2013. Photo: © Branco Gaica

Rachel Rawlins retires

The Canberra Times this morning published an abbreviated version of a story I wrote on the retirement of Rachel Rawlins. As the article was shortened, however, I am posting the full story below, in particular because it contains a further comment from Dell Brady, one of Rawlins’ early teachers, and more from Ty King-Wall, and indeed from Rawlins herself.

Rachel Rawlins, 2007. Photo: Justin Smith
Rachel Rawlins in Sir Peter Wright’s production of  Nutcracker, 2007. Photo: © Justin Smith. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Rachel Rawlins, principal artist with the Australian Ballet, has announced that she will retire at the end of this year. She will give her final performance in Sydney in December in the dual role of Odette/Odile in Stephen Baynes’ newly choreographed version of Swan Lake. ‘I’ve never danced the lead in a complete, traditional production of Swan Lake so I am looking forward to leaving on a high note by fulfilling that ambition,’ Rawlins says.

Rawlins can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to dance. ‘My desire to dance,’ she says, ‘happened really before I can recall. It was something I felt passionately about before I realised what dance was. When I look at the children of some of my friends I recognise that same desire today in some of them. They just love moving to music.’

Rawlins took her first ballet classes in Canberra, largely at the Dell Brady School of Ballet. She remembers those early years fondly and recalls that Brady was strict but in a way that made her pupils understand that it was important to dance properly. She passed on to her students her own passion for dance.

Brady for her part recalls that it was absolutely clear from the beginning that Rawlins was talented, ‘Even now when I look back on the photos of the first show she did with me when she was a ‘rose fairy’—a role she shared with Pia Miranda, now a successful film actor—her lovely long slender legs and beautifully pointed feet signalled what was to come. She was also very determined—in a quiet way—and when she was given a challenging role, as she was in subsequent shows at the ballet school, she would always push herself to achieve her best.’

From Canberra Rawlins went on to further study in Melbourne eventually at the Australian Ballet School. She counts getting a contract with the Australian Ballet at the end of her training as the first major highlight of her dancing life. It was the beginning of a stellar career, which subsequently included two years in London with the Royal Ballet in addition to her eighteen years with the Australian Ballet where she has been a principal since 2004.

She still has strong memories of preparing for her first principal role with the Australian Ballet, that of the Sylph in the iconic Romantic ballet, La Sylphide. ‘I worked intensively with Maina Gielgud, then artistic director of the company, on that role. Maina made sure that I was thoroughly prepared so that when I went on in that role I felt really confident and could enjoy being onstage’.

Other highlights for her have included dancing in the several ballets by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian that the Australian Ballet has in its repertoire, Bella Figura, Sinfonietta, Forgotten Land, Petite Mort, for example. She admires Kylian’s musical choices and his ability to make choreography that is so in tune with that music. But also she notes that as a principal dancer it is lovely to work sometimes as part of a group. Kylian makes works that are somewhat democratic in nature compared with more traditional ballets where there are obvious principal roles. Rawlins explains that it is a special experience to feel the freedom of movement that comes with being part of a group and being able to bond with other dancers onstage.

But of course she has consistently danced leading roles in more traditionally structured ballets and has been acclaimed for her performances in classical works and dramatic ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Manon, Onegin, Madame Butterfly, Romeo and Juliet  and a host of others.

Rachel Rawlins, 2011. Photo: Jeff Busby
Rachel Rawlins in Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy the Australian Ballet.

A frequent partner in recent years has been Ty King-Wall, currently a senior artist with the Australian Ballet. He recalls in particular dancing the pas de deux from Giselle with her, both in Canberra earlier this year and then in New York on the company’s recent overseas tour.

‘I have loved partnering Rachel’, he says. ‘She has such a natural sense of movement, such a rare quality I think. Dancing Giselle with her was a real highlight for me. The role suits her so well and the experience of dancing with her in the pas de deux has given me a taste for it. Now I’d love to do the complete ballet. I love watching her in rehearsals too. She has such humility and is unassuming about her talent.’

Rawlins says that she will go to Melbourne for a family Christmas and then maybe spend time at the beach. She has nothing planned yet in terms of the future direction her life will take but acknowledges that the Australian Ballet has a number of strategies in place for retraining dancers. She will look into possibilities a little later.

‘As a dancer I have aimed to bring my own experiences to my work and to give performances that reflect who I am’, she says. ‘Now I want to be realistic that that part of my life is coming to an end. I have been incredibly lucky in my career and done everything I have wanted to do with ballet. But it’s a hard, physical life, a travelling life. I’m sure I will miss being onstage but not so much the hard work that it takes to get onstage.’

King-Wall sees her retirement as one of those bitter-sweet moments. ‘We will miss her of course, but she is going while at her peak, which is something we all hope to do.’

Brady, her former Canberra teacher, says, ‘As I have continued to watch Rachel in nearly all her major roles over the years, it has been truly satisfying and often very moving to recognise the development of Rachel as an artist; an all too rare spectacle on the ballet stage today. I will miss seeing her taking up the challenge, as she always has, and I will miss the depth and intensity of interpretation she brought to all her performances.’

Michelle Potter, 23 November 2012

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Kaguyahime. Paris Opera Ballet

11 June 2010, Opéra Bastille, Paris

Kaguyahime is Jiri Kylian’s poetic, choreographic reflection on an ancient Japanese prose text, The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter. This story tells of Kaguyahime, the moon princess who comes to earth—she is discovered inside a stalk of bamboo—and astounds everyone with her radiant beauty. Many vie for her attention but she eventually and reluctantly takes leave of her adoptive parents and returns to the moon.

The work is divided into scenes that reflect the story: the descent of Kaguyahime from the moon, the dance by the village men who compete for her attention, the celebration of her coming of age, a violent combat and eventual war between the villagers and rival aristocrats who have heard of the beauty of Kaguyahime, the Emperor’s interest in her, and her final return to the moon.

But, rather than attempt to follow the story literally and make a quasi-oriental work, within the structure he set up Kylian chose to focus on what he understood as the universal themes emerging from the story—envy, rivalry, the desire to possess, and war set alongside more humanistic ideals such as love and peace. The result is something truly remarkable, which is neither but both oriental and occidental and in which the visual and aural accompaniment to the choreography sets up a surreal (or magical) environment in which our deepest sensibilities are awakened.

On opening night, the role of Kaguyahime was danced by Marie-Agnès Gillot and her execution of Kylian’s choreography for this role was beautifully controlled, reserved and tremulous as she moved around the stage during her descent and final ascent, yet seductive in its curving movements of the torso and limbs. A highlight was the duet between Gillot and Mathias Heymann as one of the men of the village who sought her love. It was a duet in which they seemed rarely to touch each other yet with every movement there was implied and imagined contact.

Other scenes, the celebration of Kaguyahime’s coming of age, the combat and the war for example, were filled with explosive movement, fast turns and strong jumps, which the dancers executed with breathtaking skill.

Kaguyahime was danced to music by Maki Ishii performed by seven artists of the Kodo Ensemble playing Japanese drums, the Gagaku Ensemble, a trio of musicians playing ancient Japanese wind instruments, and a group of seven French musicians playing an assortment of percussion instruments. The shimmering music that accompanied Kaguyahime’s descent from the moon was in stark contrast to the fire cracker sounds of the music for the combat between the villagers and the aristocrats and the insistent and dramatic rhythms of the onstage drums during the war scene.

Sets, costumes and lighting were simple and powerful. Use was made of expanses of silken cloth—grey at the end of the war scene when a complete curtain fell leaving a solitary figure, Kaguyahime, in front of it as it rippled through the air; gold during the scenes with the Emperor. Other devices, such as mirrors and shadowy projections continued the surrealistic mood opening up the work to subconscious thoughts and feelings.

If anything illustrates the notion put forward by Merce Cunningham that speaking (or writing) about dance is ‘like nailing Jell-O to the wall’ Kaguyahime is it. But I can think of few other works that have encapsulated so much, so brilliantly, so simply and honestly, in such a moving manner. A true masterpiece in my opinion.

Michelle Potter, 13 June 2010 

Postscript: Kaguyahime was originally created on Nederlands Dans Theater in 1988, when Kylian was the company’s director. My one huge regret is that I had the opportunity to see this remarkable work, and an equally remarkable performance of it, once only. It would make sensational addition to any of the many Australian arts festivals.