Last time I wrote a book review for this site I was puzzled by the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. Well there is no struggle this time. Leanne Benjamin’s Built for Ballet is clearly an autobiography of a woman who has had an absolutely stellar career as a dancer across continents. It focuses not on one aspect of her life but, going back to where earlier I went searching for definitions, it ‘primarily focuses on facts—the who-what-when-where-why-how of [an author’s] entire timeline.’ We are privy to Benjamin’s dance-focused life from the time she took her first dance lessons, aged three, in Rockhampton, to 2020 when the book was completed. And it is a fascinating account of that life, written in a very conversational tone. It is hard to put the book down once one starts.
I am, however, curious about that conversational tone. While it is lovely to be carried along with the story, I couldn’t help wondering how it was written. Was it partly constructed as a result of oral interviews, with Benjamin’s words translated straight to written form? This would perhaps account for certain grammatical issues that I found a little grating. Speaking isn’t always grammatically correct, especially when agreements between verb and subject, and the use of ‘me’ and ‘I’ as subject or object are concerned. I am perhaps a pedant but I do find certain things annoying and wish that strict copy editing could remain an essential part of book production so that the written word retains its grammatical structure.
Moving on, however, Benjamin is thoroughly honest about her relationships with coaches, directors, other dancers and the like and it is great to read of her approaches to rehearsals, classes, being coached, partners, and performing. Then, one can vicariously feel the exhaustion of the extensive travel that Benjamin undertook both with the companies with which she was involved and as a guest artist around the world. The way Benjamin addresses the various injuries all dancers sustain over the course of a career also arouses a feeling of empathy for the pain and the loss of performances that have to be endured.
I especially enjoyed Benjamin’s discussion of her work with some of the most outstanding choreographers of her time. Her work with Kenneth MacMillan, and later with Wayne McGregor, stand out. What did she gain from being coached by them? And how was she able to pass on what she had gained to younger dancers when she became a coach herself? It’s all there. And yes, her thoughts on Ross Stretton and his time both with the Australian Ballet and the Royal Ballet are featured at one stage.
Benjamin does not gloss over her personal life either. We learn of her various love interests, her marriage and the birth of her son, and the fate of her extended family including her mother-in-law and father-in-law, both of whom had major dance or dance-related careers.
Perhaps one section that I found fascinating, largely because of where I live, concerned the photo that appears on the back cover of the book (although all the photos in the book are interesting and often quite personal). The back cover has a photograph taken in 2006 by Jason Bell at a location outside Alice Springs. It is a spectacular image. A print is in the collection of the National Library of Australia in Canberra and is often used as a publicity shot for anything to do with dance and the National Library. It is etched in my mind as a result. Benjamin discusses the circumstances surrounding the photo shoot.
Queensland Ballet has today announced that artistic director Li Cunxin has renewed his contract for a further three years from 2022. This is excellent news as Li’s directorship has been one of the great success stories of dance in Australia. Queensland Ballet is now an exceptional company with an exciting repertoire and, in addition, the company has expanded its reach beyond Brisbane, and has now also developed a first class training academy at Kelvin Grove State College.
Watching Li take a rehearsal gives a clear picture of his commitment to his role and his unquenchable thirst to achieve only the best. He has a strong team of teaching and administrative staff behind him, a resident choreographer in Natalie Weir, with Jack Lister as associate choreographer, and an outstanding musical director in Nigel Gaynor. It’s a company with everything to offer.
This announcement came at the same time as Queensland Ballet announced its 2022 season. Two programs, The Sleeping Beauty and a double bill of Rooster and B-Sides, will be performed on the Gold Coast where Queensland Ballet has set up a new home. In Brisbane four programs will be performed at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC)—Giselle in April (following a regional tour in March); a triple bill entitled Li’s Choice in June; Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon in September/October; and The Nutcracker in December. The company will also perform at the Thomas Dixon Centre with Peter and the Wolf slated for June/July; Bespoke, the annual program of new choreography, for July; and Queensland Ballet Academy Gala for August. Full details of the season are set out in this link. Information about three performances of Manon featuring Li and Mary Li can also be found there!
If I had to choose just one program to see in 2022 it would be Li’s Choice. Natalie’s Weir’s work We who are left is a moving, beautifully structured and choreographed work first seen in 2016, which I have wanted to see again for a while. It will share the program with Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto and Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations. A decidedly mixed triple bill. Read my review of We who are left at this link.
Let’s hope that in 2022 the Queensland Government will allow those of us who live outside that state (and who have been double-vaccinated and are happy to wear masks and engage in social distancing etc, etc) to enter Queensland to see a show or two.
28 August 2019. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
With its production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet once again displayed its constantly growing position as one of Australia’s leading dance companies. This Romeo and Juliet, for which the premiere dates back over 50 years to 1965, was first performed by Queensland Ballet in 2014 when the cast included several international guest artists. In 2019 the cast was home grown. The night really belonged, however, to Mia Heathcote as Juliet and Patricio Revé as Romeo. Both were promoted onstage at the conclusion of the performance.
The Heathcote/Revé partnership was an engaging one throughout. They shone in the several pas de deux on which the MacMillan production centres, and both provided us with believable interpretations of the characters they represented. Mia Heathcote’s confidence onstage and her ability to maintain her characterisation (and technique) throughout what is a long ballet with many changes of location, not to mention changes of emotional mood, was admirable. Revé clearly has many talents, although I suspect he probably needs a little more time before he has the stage presence that will match his technique.
I loved the group scenes in this production, all of which were imbued with great energy and so much interaction between all those on stage. Particularly impressive was the Capulet Ball, led magnificently by Steven Heathcote, guesting on this occasion from the Australian Ballet. There was just a touch of pride in the way he held his chest and turned his head that told us he was in charge. He maintained that dominance, a calm but obvious dominance, throughout, whether he was dismissing Tybalt’s attempts to remove Romeo from the ballroom, or demanding later that Juliet marry Paris. The ball scene was also distinguished by MacMillan’s beautiful choreographic approach in which the guests all danced with a slight tilt to the body. So appropriate to the era in which the ballet takes place.
The several fight scenes, staged by Gary Harris, were dramatic and spirited and, in the earliest of those scenes, the whole stage was abuzz with fiery action. The death of Mercutio at the hands of Tybalt was equally as dramatic with Kohei Iwamoto performing strongly throughout as Mercutio.
I was entranced too by a dancer (unnamed) playing the part of a disabled old man in the market place. Mostly he was high up on a kind of balcony that surrounded the market square but he was so involved with what was happening below that it was often hard to take one’s eyes away from him to watch the main action.
What confused me slightly (and probably only because I had not so long ago seen London’s Royal Ballet perform the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet) were the designs used by Queensland Ballet. I was, I have to admit, expecting the Georgiadis designs, which I admired greatly) but it turned out that Queensland Ballet has what Li Cunxin calls the ‘touring’ designs, which were rented from a company in Uruguay and are by Paul Andrews. For me they couldn’t match those of Georgiadis, although I admired Juliet’s bedroom with its red/orange drapes and its religious icon/prayer point in one corner. The costumes for the musicians who accompany the wedding procession in the market place were also impressive. They spun out beautifully during turning movements.
All in all though, another wonderful show from Queensland Ballet.
4 May 2019 (matinee). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
It is always exceptional to see a work by a choreographer who is not the familiar one from one’s previous experiences of that work. Having seen John Cranko’s production of Romeo and Juliet countless times, as performed by the Australian Ballet, along with several versions by other choreographers, the Royal Ballet’s production of Kenneth MacMillan’s version of the Shakespearian tragedy was indeed an exceptional experience. I was lucky too, I think, to have seen Sarah Lamb and Vadim Muntagirov in the leading roles. While I thought Lamb’s interpretation was a little too child-like, I was fascinated by the changing emotions displayed by Muntagirov. In addition, the partnership between Lamb and Muntagirov was very secure technically and, as a result, MacMillan’s often swirling, curving, diving lifts were realised beautifully.
The MacMillan version of Romeo and Juliet received its premiere in 1965. It is a gutsy production from the beginning when the market place of the opening scene buzzes with activity and is filled with people who seem so real (and was that a side of a dead cow being carried through the crowd on the way to the market?). The sense of the real continues through to the middle scenes when Mercutio and then Tybalt die from sword wounds and do so in such a dramatically convincing fashion, and on to the end where Romeo’s and Juliet’s death scenes leave us emotionally exhausted.
Then, Nicholas Georgiadis’ sets have little of the romantic to them. The Capulets live in a fortress, as we see when the guests arrive for the Capulet ball. And, as Jann Parry tells us in her program notes, the inclusion of a fortress looks back to the Franco Zeffirelli theatre production, made for the Old Vic in 1960-61, when Zeffirelli had the Capulets live in such a structure as protection from enemies and in order to preserve their family treasures. Then the crypt in which the Capulets place the apparently dead Juliet is spectacular with its huge stone sculptures and its flights of dark stairs of stone. The production has a kind of rawness to it and just speeds along.
Muntagirov danced superbly showing off his spectacularly light and seemingly effortless jumps; his wonderfully controlled turns, including some in attitude devant as well as attitude derrière, along with some great manèges with various showy steps. But what I especially admired about his Romeo was the way he made his emotions so visible. A highlight was when he watched a wedding parade enter the market place (to the accompaniment of mandolins) in the early moments of Act II. As he stood downstage, almost motionless, we could read that he was thinking that he and Juliet could and should follow that very example. Another was his undisguised anger at what Tybalt had done to Mercutio, and his determination to avenge the death of his friend.
Sarah Lamb is not my favourite Juliet I’m afraid. I know Juliet is a mere 13 or 14 years old but, within the MacMillan structure, I would have preferred a more feisty Juliet. But with her beautifully proportioned limbs and sound technique she danced superbly and was a joy to watch from that point of view
I enjoyed Thomas Whitehead’s commanding presence as Tybalt, especially in the scenes in the market place where his dislike of Romeo was constantly visible, and in the ball scene where his carriage of the upper body marked him as being a proud and aristocratic Capulet. And incidentally, the corps danced beautifully in the ball scene as they tilted their bodies slightly back from the waist upwards in a show of historical deportment. Other dancers to admire especially were Marcelino Sambé as a vibrant Mercutio, Téo Dubreuil as a constantly concerned Benvolio, and Christina Arestis as a very haughty Lady Montague who clearly could not bear the Capulet family.
This production was highly engaging and I love to ponder its character beside the others that I have seen—those of Cranko, Graeme Murphy, John Neumeier, Stanton Welch, and the two versions that take particular liberties for one reason or another—those of Sasha Waltz and Natalie Weir. (I have no review on this site of the Cranko production. It has been a while since the Australian Ballet showed it).
Viviana Durante has just directed a short program of early works by Kenneth MacMillan, namely excerpts from House of Birds and Dansesconcertantes and the full Laiderette. Her dancers on this occasion came from several companies including the Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Ballet Black.I wanted more than anything to see Laiderette.Apart from anything else, the title had been a source of fascination for ages. What did it mean?EventuallyI discovered that it is a contraction of ‘laideronette’, and means ‘little ugly one’.
But it was its Australian connections that interested me in particular. Originally performed at a Sadler’s Wells choreographic workshop in 1954, it was designed by Australian artist Kenneth Rowell. It was his first commission from MacMillan (he later designed MacMillan’s Le baiser de la fée), and one of his earliest works after arriving in England on a British Council scholarship. In the Durante revival the printed program did not acknowledge Rowell (although he is acknowledged elsewhere) but gave the names of two costume designers covering the evening’s works: Rossella D’Agostino and Tjasha Stroud. How closely (if at all) they had investigated Rowell’s original designs is, unfortunately, not at all clear.
Laiderette was acquired by Marie Rambert for her company in 1955 and was in the Rambert repertoire until the late 1960s. The other interesting Australian connection, resulting from the Rambert acquisition, is that well-known Melbourne-based ballet teacher, academic, and former dancer with a range of companies in England and Australia, Maggie Lorraine, danced the leading role of Laiderette when the work was filmed in 1966.
As the story goes, the leading lady, Laiderette, is a member of an itinerant group of circus performers and is left by her colleagues outside a house where a masked ball is taking place. While she is sleeping a mask-seller puts a mask on her face. She is eventually discovered by guests at the ball. The Host is called and dances with her until, when masks are removed, her wig comes off at the same time. She is discovered to be bald and is rejected by all at the masked ball, notably the Host who has shown particular interest in her.
In the performance I saw the role of Laiderette was danced by Francesca Hayward and the host by Thiago Soares, both principals with the Royal Ballet. I could not have hoped for a better pair of dancers to bring MacMillan’s story to life, and in particular to advance the somewhat dark subtext of alienation, exclusion and rejection. It was a fascinating early insight into MacMillan’s interest in examining through dance certain psychological states of mind.
Of the other two works shown, the excerpt from Danses concertantes, a duet,was over almost before it had started, so short was it, and the costumes were breathtakingly awful, especially the black, tight-fitting wigs/skull caps each surmounted by a golden ornament of dubious meaning. Choreographically it seemed quite stilted, even somewhat awkward to me, although I took this to mean that MacMillan was making an effort to reflect the sharpness of Stravinsky’s music to which it was danced, and/or it was an indication of MacMillan’s counter intuitive approach to making dance. At the performance I saw, Australian dancer Benjamin Ella, now a soloist with the Royal Ballet, partnered Akane Takada, although the shortness of the excerpt gave little opportunity to make any sensible comment on their performance.
House of Birds opened the program and perhaps the best performance in the cast I saw came from the Bird Woman, danced by Sayaka Ichikawa from Ballet Black, whose pecking head was mesmerising. Based on a tale by the Brothers Grimm, also dark in its subtext, it follows the consequences that emerge when a Boy (Thiago Soares) and a Girl (Meaghan Grace Hinkis) are captured by a Bird Woman.
Bouquets to Durante for having the courage to restage these three works, thus providing an opportunity to consider how MacMillan’s later work developed from them. A video of the program in its entirety is available (with in some places a different cast from the one that I saw) at this link.
UPDATE July 2020: This video is now ‘private’ and only available with permission.
Michelle Potter, 22 April 2018
Featured image: Scene from Laiderette, Viviana Durante Company, 2018
It would be hard to think of a more diverse triple bill than the most recent from the Royal Ballet: Wayne McGregor’s intellectually clinical Obsidian Tear, Frederick Ashton’s emotionally captivating Marguerite and Armand, and Kenneth MacMillan’s joyously entertaining Elite Syncopations. There is, as ever, little to fault technically with the dancing by this incredible company so my thoughts are largely guided by other matters.
The absolute standout work of the evening was Marguerite and Armand, which occupied the middle position on the program. Yes, it is so closely associated with Fonteyn and Nureyev, and perhaps Sylvie Guillem and various partners, but Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli gave an absolutely stunning performance that brought out every bit of Ashton’s wildly free and exciting, and beautifully musical choreography. And what a grand performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, to which the work is set, we heard from the accomplished pianist Robert Clark.
In my mind I continue to have a vision of Bonelli standing upstage about to rush forward to sweep Marguerite up in his arms and begin the main pas de deux. He took an arabesque on half pointe, arms flung upwards and outwards. And there he stood, balancing perfectly, body filled with passion and daring. Brilliant, as was the pas de deux itself with Ferri being flung from pose to pose and both artists projecting the ravishing excitement of what their love could be. And so it continued with the narrative flowing so clearly to the very end. I’m not sure how long this ballet is—twenty five minutes maybe—but it was over in a flash so captivating was it.
The opening work, McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, left me a little cold and its choreography seemed stark and emotionless—but then I guess obsidian is a hard substance. Everything seemed to happen suddenly. Lighting cut out rather than faded and movement, while it showed McGregor’s interest in pushing limits, had little that was lyrical.
The most interesting aspect for me was the set, designed by McGregor. It resembled a black box theatre space but looking closely it reminded me of an Ad Reinhardt painting. At first Reinhardt’s paintings look monochromatic, as did McGregor’s set, but a closer look reveals small, intimate details, as also happened with the set for Obsidian Tear. Of the dancers, I especially enjoyed the dancing of Benjamin Ella and Marcelino Sambé. But Obsidian Tear did not engage me the way so many others of McGregor’s works have.
The final work on the program was Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, danced to a selection of music by Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers, and played by an onstage band. Beautifully set on a stripped-back stage space with the dancers and band members in spectacular costumes by Ian Spurling, it was a buoyant, joyous, even reckless show.
Without wishing to detract from any of the twelves dancers who gave us such pleasure, stars were Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano. Hirano in particular knocked me for six. I have always seen him in more classical or dramatic roles (and have enjoyed his work in such ballets) but in Elite Syncopations he showed another side of his skills. He was smooth, persuasive, suave, flirtatious and a great partner. And he never stepped out of character.
As a conclusion to a decidedly mixed triple bill, Elite Syncopations sent us home smiling.
This program was a dazzling line-up of works that showcased and celebrated the strengths and talent of young dancers and graduands of New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD). The moment when fledglings leave the nest is always poignant. Some of these young dancers have taken instant wing and are moving straight into positions with prestigious companies—Queensland Ballet, West Australian Ballet for example. Godspeed to them. Most curiously, not one is joining Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB).
With numerous dancers departing from RNZB this week, that raises a number of questions, which this review is not placed to answer, but should none-the-less be somewhere, somehow addressed. Eva Radich in her Radio New Zealand Concert Upbeat program recently asked the question in interview with the company’s artistic director—’Royal New Zealand Ballet. What’s the New Zealand moniker mean?’ We all need to think about the answer. A major part of New Zealand’s dance identity is at stake. That belongs within, not apart from, international dance identity.
In years back, NZSD graduation was always staged in the Opera House, a similar proscenium theatre to the St.James. Some years ago the School moved into newly refurbished premises, Te Whaea, which includes an in-house theatre, which naturally became the venue for dance performances. While that suited some of the contemporary repertoire and choreographic experimentation programs, it is a truth that ballet repertoire had to become differently scaled and proportioned to fit the much smaller venue. Here, back in a proscenium arch theatre with scope and size on their side, all the students were launched into orbit and became dancers. They’ll have now become infected with what Lincoln Kirstein called ‘the red and gold disease’.
It is pleasing to note that of the 11 works on the program, 5 are choreographed by NZSD alumni.
The opening, Beginners, Please! offers a glimpse of two small children at the barre, in a simple sequence of plié to rond-de-jambe; then light moved to another young pair; then to two current NZSD students. Staged by Sue Nicholls, this was a beguiling cameo that evoked the celebrated ballet Etudes, by Harald Lander, 1948. It is poignant to think that Poul Gnatt would have danced in that work in Royal Danish Ballet, and Anne Rowse, director emeritus of NZSD, sitting to my left, danced it many times in Festival Ballet, as also did Russell Kerr. Martin James, single most illustrious graduate in NZSD’s history, no contest, is sitting to my right. He trained at the School, danced most wonderfully in RNZB, then performed in English National Ballet and elsewhere in Europe, eventually to Royal Danish Ballet where he became leading solo dancer, was knighted for his services to ballet, and eventually became the company’s ballet master. These are the seeding sources that cast prismatic variations across professional dance in New Zealand that students need to know about. We can give more than lip service to that. Given the Danish heritage of RNZB, Etudes is a work many of us have waited years to see here, and why wouldn’t Martin James stage it? This echoes the Maori whakatauki proverb, ‘walking backwards into the future’. We can only see what has already happened. Look at that as you go. All these thoughts were caught in the little opening miniature. Well done, Sue.
Tempo di Valse, arranged by Nadine Tyson, to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers, was ‘an exuberant work for a large ensemble, festive in mood’. Program notes are not always accurate but this one certainly was.
Aria, solo for a masked male, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, to Handel/Rinaldo overture and aria, is a remarkable dance, performed to breathtaking perfection by Mali Comlekci. Small wonder he flies straight into a contract at Queensland Ballet where an outstanding career awaits him. What a shame we won’t be able to see that develop, but we wish him airborne joy.
Curious Alchemy by Loughlan Prior, to Beethoven and Saint-Saens, is a fresh lively lovely dance in which youth is celebrated, and hints of the ties of friendship and the possibilities of relationship are subtly subtexted to the movement which suits the young dancers extremely well. The cast—Clementine Benson, Saul Newport, Jaidyn Cumming and Song Teng —are thrilled to be dancing, and that excitement shines through. Loughlan, himself a spirited dancer with RNZB, and a former graduate of NZSD, is loaded with choreographic energy and ideas, so that is fortunately one continuing career we will be able to follow.
Forgotten Things, by Sarah Foster-Sproull, is a very special choreography, initially developed on students at NZSD in 2015, and here brought to a stunning re-staging with a cast of 23 contemporary dance students. The music composed by Andrew Foster, begins full of life-affirming rhythms that evoke the best Renaissance dance music, then moves to percussive richness that support this mysterious procession—Sarah’s best work to date in my opinion. It is a stunning achievement to use parts of the dancers’ bodies, beautifully lit, as nano units of life force, and then thread these as metaphor into life at the level of society and community. This is a work that could be performed by any school or company, classical or contemporary dancers. Now there’s something for every choreographer to aspire to, since that’s nearer the reality of the dance profession today.
The wedding pas de deux from Don Quixote was danced, by Mayu Tanigaito and Joseph Skelton, as a gift from RNZB—and what a gift. That pas de deux would have been danced in New Zealand several hundred times over the decades, but never has it steamed and sizzled like this. Skelton dances with calm control of his prodigious technique and has a most interesting career we are always keen to follow. The transition from class-in-the-studio to role-on-stage that Tanigaito always brings to her performances is rare, and something to study, if only you can. She reveals the nature of dance.
Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto pas de deux, dates from 1966 but carries its vintage timelessly. With two grand pianos soixante-neuf on stage, the Shostakovich beautifully played by the School’s pianists, Craig Newsome and Phillip O’Malley, the stage was set for Olivia Moore and Calum Gray to give the performance of their young lives to date.
S.U.B. (Salubrious Unified Brotherhood) was a duo by Victoria Columbus working with performers Connor Masseurs and Toa Paranihi. The ‘Nesian identity with rap and break dance, its isolations, its nonchalance, its cut & thrust, its mock battling, was brilliantly timed and caught in this sassy little number.
Allegro Brillante, by George Balanchine, dates from 1956 and is more of a period piece. It was performed with great verve and aplomb by the cast of eight dancers.
The Bach, by Michael Parmenter, to a Bach cantata, Erfreut euch, had a cast of 15 dancers who revelled in the exuberant dance sequences and sets of striking ensemble patterns. These were interspersed with walking sequences that stood rhythmically quite apart from the baroque energy and motivation of the danced sections.
The final work, William Forsythe’s In the middle somewhat elevated, was first performed in this theatre by Frankfurt Ballet during the international arts festival 1990. The choreography is as challenging and confrontational now as it was then, as is also the score by Thom Willems. The intensely asymmetrical and aggressive aesthetic comes across as thrilling, or scary, depending on the viewer. I am in the former camp, but can hear what others say—it is either loved or hated. Passionate opinions about dance in a theatre in New Zealand are no bad thing, but it’s for sure that the asymmetries that pull within the classical technique represent a post-modern departure from the canon that Forsythe represents. It’s a pity that the two gilded cherries hanging from on high, giving title to the choreography, are set so high they are noticed by no-one.
The RNZB dancers in the cast who stood out most memorably include Abigail Boyle, Tonia Looker, Alayna Ng, Shaun James Kelly, Kirby Selchow, Mayu Tanigaito, Kohei Iwamoto, Paul Mathews, Felipe Domingos. We wish all the Company dancers and all the School’s students well.
12 November 2016 (matinee), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Having recently reread Different Drummer, Jann Parry’s biography of Kenneth MacMillan, I was full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing MacMillan’s Anastasia, a work that traces the story of Anna Anderson, who believed (wrongly it eventually turned out) that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia who had survived the murderous attack on her parents and siblings, the Imperial Russian family, by Russian revolutionaries in 1918. Parry’s account of the various problems that surrounded the creation and casting of MacMillan’s ballet, which began as a one act work for Deutsche Oper Ballet in Berlin in 1967, was absorbing reading.
I guess more than anything else, I came away from the performance with renewed admiration for MacMillan’s classical choreography, clearly on view in the first two acts, which were added when MacMillan transformed his one act work into a full-length one in 1971. I loved the way he handled groups, as in the ball scene in Act II where a large corps of swirling dancers wove their way across and around the stage in ever fascinating curving, threading, and criss-crossing patterns. I was also impressed with his use of a kind of canon-style of movement throughout, but especially in Act I where his approach to the choreography for Anastasia’s three sisters stood out.
And I admired his pas de deux in Act II which, although it seemed somewhat as though it had been inserted in order to have a grand pas de deux in the ballet, was beautifully lyrical and smoothly integrated within itself—there was no stopping and restarting to separate pas de deux from variations from coda, for example. It also had some breathtaking moments, including that astonishing tilt of the full body by the ballerina as the pas de deux began.
I also admired Bob Crowley’s designs, which in terms of costumes ranged from opulence in the ball scene to stripped back simplicity in Act III, the scene in the hospital/asylum where Anna/Anastasia relives her life. His set designs were also worthy of admiration, with the inherent drama of Anna Anderson’s mental state being foreshadowed with the tilted shapes of the ship on which Act I takes place, and the chandeliers of the palace in Act II, captured forever in mid-swing.
As for the dancing, I saw Lauren Cuthbertson as Anna/Anastasia partnered by Thomas Whitehead as the officer to whom she was attracted in Act II and as her husband in Act III. Cuthbertson was charmingly youthful in Act I and handled Act II nicely as she welcomed and interacted with guests at her coming of age ball.
But she and Whitehead didn’t really suit each other as partners, largely because their physical attributes are quite different: Cuthbertson is taller and finer in build and more classically proportioned than Whitehead. As a result, the emotional connection that was needed between them was not as powerful as I would have hoped.
Sarah Lamb dancing with Federico Bonelli, as Mathilde Kschessinska and her partner (not given a name in the story’s cast of characters), sailed through the difficult choreography of the pas de deux in Act II making it all look easy. Great to watch. Another Act II highlight was the quartet between Kschessinska and her partner and Tsar Nicholas II, played by Gary Avis, and his wife the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, danced by Itziar Mendizabal, in which personal relationships within the royal court were brought into question. Anastasia hovered in the background, wondering.
As Rasputin, Eric Underwood was moodily present throughout, taking part in the dancing at times, hovering darkly at others. Rory Thomas as the Tsarevitch Alexey, the sickly child and brother to Anastasia and her sisters, handled his role with aplomb.
The production itself, however, which was realised by Deborah MacMillan and staged by Gary Harris, wasn’t entirely satisfying. The third act looks back to the first two acts as Anna relives scenes, largely horror scenes from her life as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and as we see characters from this earlier life move across the stage in front of her eyes.
But, as there is a such a clear and strong disconnect stylistically between the first two acts and the third when MacMillan draws so strongly on a contemporary, expressionist mode of dancing, albeit with Anna in pointe shoes, it is hard to reconcile the notion that the last act is part of the same ballet as the first two acts. Design-wise the third act is superb with its stark grey walls and its single iron bed, and choreographically it is mostly quite gripping. But as I left the theatre, having felt the power of the work at many points, I nevertheless wondered whether it would not have been better to have left Anastasia as a one-act production.
Another note for my Australian readers: As the image of the pas de deux in this post indicates, Sarah Lamb usually dances as Kschessinska with Steven McRae as her partner. McRae was replaced at the last moment by Bonelli.
The New Zealand School of Dance (NZSD) graduation program opened with Paquita, staged by Anna-Marie Holmes, after Petipa’s vintage choreography from 1846, offering as many challenges today as it no doubt did back then. In another layer of heritage Nadine Tyson, the tutor who rehearsed the work, danced in it at her own NZSD graduation back in 1988. The luxuriant music by Minkus demands a festive commitment, and the students aspired to this with flair. Soloist Lola Howard in one of the variations caught our eye with her sense of line, and technical command.
Sarah Foster-Sproull, also a former NZSD graduate, created Forgotten Things, to music by Andrew Foster, in a premiere work for this season. A series of highly effective images, with light shining on skin of limbs in a kinetic sculptural effect, cohered the piece throughout. The mediaeval dance-like rhythms supported well the work’s theme of community undergoing change.
Cnoditions [not a typo] of Entry, an enigmatic and somewhat troubling work choreographed by Thomas Bradley, (no program profile so perhaps he prefers the anonymity?) had a line of robed and hooded figures in very low light levels that suggested sinister or secret machinations of covert behaviour among the members of a small and closed group. The program notes also appear to be in code (and a pity that the printed program is overall an uneven affair).
Tarantella, Balanchine’s quirky number from 1964, to Gottschalk’s jaunty music, was danced with effervescent style and vivacity by Mayuri Hashimoto and Felipe Domingos (the latter a promising young dancer from Brazil who has been confirmed in a contract to join Royal New Zealand Ballet). Diana White staged the piece which was rehearsed by Qi Huan, until recently a fine lead dancer with RNZB. His artistic conviction shone through the students’ performance (though Poul Gnatt would have required their somewhat quiet tambourines to be shredded by the end of the performance).
As It Fades, choreographed by Kuik Swee Boon of Singapore, to an atmospheric score, was performed here in excerpts, so it’s hard to gauge the work’s context. There was noticeable contrast within its structure—speed and flight, moving through to a calm and quietly iexplored place, performed with strong focus—as if above ground, but then under water.
The final and major work on the program was Concerto, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, premiered in Berlin in 1966. The rapport between MacMillan and dancer Lynn Seymour, whose distinctive qualities as a richly poetic and dramatic dancer inspired the making of the main duet, survives to again inspire the very fine and fresh performance it received here from Lola Howard and Jerry Wan Jiajing. Lynn Wallis staged the work, with Stephen Beagley and Turid Revfeim also involved. The Shostakovich piano concerto #2 was beautifully performed by Ludwig Treviranus and Craig O’Malley on two pianos sidestage. The colour gradations of costumes made attractive foil to each other and were the most successful of the evening.
Ballet is nothing if not faithful to its repertoire, but new choreographies in that idiom are very rarely commissioned or forthcoming—yet its movement vocabulary is able to speak to us of our lives and loves and concerns—witness that serene and timeless Concerto pas de deux. Contemporary dance, by contrast, is rarely studied or staged here through the classics of its own heritage repertoire and too often it has only a single season life. These are not parallel streams in choreography since they are one and the same art. Only through studying and seeing both repertoires do we know and understand that, and ourselves, as performers and as audiences. No doubt the School’s upcoming 50th anniversary will draw attention to the legacy of those decades.
This program offers challenges to the students, and opportunities to be savoured by the audience. The fact that your favourites will be different from mine is the rich treasure that the musical and non-verbal nature of dancing invites. It matters not whether old or new, borrowed or blue, ballet or contemporary dance. What matters is that it be good, and that choreographers and dancers know what to do with their music. All encouragement to the students as they make their way into careers in dance.
12 September 2015, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
For the first time in its history, the Australian Dance Awards ceremony was held in Adelaide, a fitting location given that 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre. The recipients of awards this year represented a cross-section of Australian dance styles and performers, as did the program of entertainment that accompanied the awards.
The much-anticipated awards for Outstanding Achievement by a Female Dancer and Outstanding Achievement by a Male Dancer were won by Lucinda Dunn, just recently retired from the Australian Ballet, for her performance in Manon, and Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Waangenga Blanco for his role in Stephen Page’s Patygerang.
Queensland Ballet walked away with outstanding performance by a company for its production of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.
Marilyn Jones and Dr Elizabeth Cameron Dalman were formally inducted into the Hall of Fame for their distinguished contributions to dance in Australia and internationally, and Marilyn Rowe was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. The Ausdance Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship, a bequest from the first director of the Australian Ballet, Dame Peggy van Praagh, was made to Lina Limosani.
From a very personal point of view I was thrilled to see photographer Jeff Busby take out the award for Services to Dance. I have used so many Jeff Busby photographs throughout my career as a dance writer for a wide variety of outlets in Australia and overseas, and he has always been incredibly generous with his permissions. A well-deserved award.
The awards night always includes a series of short performances and snatches of film. The 2015 ceremony was distinguished, I thought, by a brief excerpt from Garry Stewart’s Birdbrain, the first full-length work Stewart made as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre. While we are now somewhat used to the extreme physicality that characterises much contemporary dance in 2015, and Stewart’s vocabulary in particular, looking at the vocabulary of Birdbrain I was stunned that Stewart had made such a work 15 years ago. There is a whisper that it may be revived next year.
In something of a jaw-dropping juxtaposition, current ADT dancers Kimball Wong and Lonii Garnons-Williams performed ‘Moon Woman’ from Creation, Elizabeth Dalman’s 1970 work for ADT. What a difference 45 years of choreographic development makes, although Dalman’s slow, controlled movement language, redolent of American dance of the 1960s, was carefully realised by Wong and Garnons-Williams.
I also enjoyed the extract from Leigh Warren’s Mayakovsky performed by students of the BA dance program at the Adelaide College of the Arts. Danced to Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia of 1968, it was reflective and soul-searching dancing.