Coppélia. Queensland Ballet

22 June 2024 (matinee). The Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

I didn’t see Greg Horsman’s version of Coppélia, a joint production between Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet, when it was first performed back in 2014. But, having admired his reimagining of La Bayadère (despite efforts by some to remove it, and other productions of Bayadère, from the world-wide repertoire), I was looking forward to Queensland Ballet’s presentation of Horsman’s Coppélia. I was not disappointed.

Horsman has kept enough of the original storyline of Coppélia so that the work is recognisable to those of us who have been brought up on the traditional version. Dr Coppélius is bent on bringing a doll to life while the people of the town try to discover what is happening inside his house. And there is the usual love interest wending its way through the story. But Horsman has set this Coppélia in South Australia, in the small town of Hahndorf, which was the home in the early 1800s of German settlers.

But before Act I begins, with its presentation of the activities of the Hahndorf townsfolk, we are given some background in an outstanding prelude. It introduces us to Dr Coppélius and his daughter Coppélia as they prepare to set out on a journey to settle in Australia. The prelude contains a brief moment on stage and then some film (stills and footage) as the boat traverses the oceans. As the voyage continues we see Coppélia’s death and her burial at sea.

The scene then moves to Hahndorf and follows the story largely as we know it, with some exceptions and additions. A notable addition is a brief, moving moment when we see Dr Coppélius (D’Arcy Brazier) making the decision to try to return Coppélia to life. Then there are changes to how the music is used choreographically. The Mazurka from Act I becomes a celebration of a recent win by Hahndorf’s football team. Later, parts of the music for the Czardas in Act I become an accompaniment to a German-style dance with lots of slapping of the knees.

Artists of Queensland Ballet in Act I of Coppélia. Queensland Ballet, 2024. Photo: © David Kelly .

Act II keeps closely to the traditional production as Swanilda (Laura Tosar) and her friends discover the studio of Dr Coppélius, and Franz (Edison Manuel) climbs through a window in Dr Coppélius’ house to make his own discoveries. Act II ends as we might expect with Swanilda and Franz escaping while Dr Coppélius is left holding the doll he was hoping would be his daughter brought to life.

Artists of Queensland Ballet in Act III of Coppélia. Queensland Ballet, 2024. Photo: © David Kelly .

Act III adds some developments to the original story, including the appearance of an angry Dr Coppélius, who usually does not appear in this last Act, carrying his lifeless doll. But after a scuffle or two peace is reached between him and the townsfolk. Swanilda and Franz make plans for the future and the work ends happily.

I was at the second last performance of this Coppélia and, as often happens in such situations. it is not always principal artists who take on leading roles. In particular, I enjoyed immensely seeing company artist Edison Manuel dance Franz. He was engaging in his characterisation and displayed a nicely placed and developed technique. He is someone to watch over the coming years.

There was so much to like in Horsman’s Coppélia. It was appealing in design with lighting by Jon Buswell, set design by Hugh Colman, and costumes by Noelene Hill. But what I especially loved was the way Dr Coppélius had been transformed. Gone was the bumbling, eccentric pantomime-style character that we so often see in traditional productions. Horsman’s Dr Coppélius was a man whose life had been rocked by the death of his daughter and we could see in his every move that he was not the eccentric person of the traditional ballet but someone whose emotions are like our own.

Some of the best choreographers in Australia and overseas have reimagined old stories and made them more relevant in some way. Greg Horsman has joined them and created a thoroughly enjoyable ballet with a coherent, Australianised storyline.

Michelle Potter, 26 June 2024

Featured image: Dr Coppélius and the doll he hoped he could bring to life. Queensland Ballet, 2024. Photo: © David Kelly

Dance diary. December 2021

  • Season’s greetings

Thank you to all those who have accessed this website over 2021. Your loyalty is much appreciated and I look forward to your visits, and comments, in 2022. Happy New Year and here’s hoping there will be more live performances for us to see in 2022.

  • Dance and disability

Canberra has long had a strong and diverse dance program for those with a disability. Nowhere was this more clear than on 3 December, the International Day of People with a Disability—Australia. An event held at the National Portrait Gallery, led by Liz Lea, presented short works by various Canberra-based groups including ZEST—Dance for Parkinsons, the Deaf Butterflies Group and Lea’s new group, Chameleon Collective. As a particular highlight, a group of dancers from Canberra’s company of senior performers, the GOLDS, along with dancers from QL2 Dance and elsewhere also gave a performance as part of ON DISPLAY GLOBAL, a ‘human sculpture court’ initiative that began in 2015 in New York as part of a now-world-wide event celebrating the occasion.

A moment from the Canberra contribution to ON DISPLAY GLOBAL, 2021. Photo: Michelle Potter
  • ‘In remembrance of times past’

When writing my post The Best of 2021 I used the phrase ’in remembrance of times past’ (a common translation of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu). I used the phrase in a specific sense, one relating to changes in the way newspapers report (or don’t) on the arts these days. But shortly after using that phrase in my post, I chanced to come across some images taken in 2010 during a day spent in Auvers-sur-Oise in France.  At the time we were there—just for a day to see the town where Vincent van Gogh spent his final days—a community dance group from Brittany was visiting. Here are some photos that date back to that day.

That controversial ballet

Not so long ago I received a message in the contact box for this website about La Bayadère. In my Dance diary. July 2021 I had posted a piece about the ballet and the issues that were arising around the world, in particular in the United States, about the Indian context of that work. Well it seems that similar issues are now arising in Australia. The contact box message came from a member of the Hindu community in Australia and was similar in content to the comments that were circulating elsewhere in the world. In part the message I received said, ‘Hindus are urging “The Australian Ballet” to discard “La Bayadère” performance from its “Summertime Ballet Gala”; scheduled for February 17-19, 2022 in Melbourne; which they feel seriously trivializes Eastern religious and other traditions.’

I am, of course, curious to know if anything will eventuate, but I think it is important to add that it is The Kingdom of the Shades scene that is being presented in Melbourne, not the full-length Bayadère.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2021 

Featured image: Sulphur-crested cockatoos enjoying seeds in a Cootamundra Wattle tree, Canberra 2021

Dance diary. July 2021

  • La Bayadère. A problematic ballet?

Houston Ballet has, as a result of concerns and protests from various groups, removed its production of La Bayadère from its current season. The ballet looks back to the nineteenth century when ‘orientalism’ or interest in ‘exotic lands’ beyond Europe was a much-used theme in ballets and other theatrical productions. Recent media reports from Houston have suggested that the ballet contains ‘orientalist stereotypes, dehumanizing cultural portrayal and misrepresentation, offensive and degrading elements, needless cultural appropriation, essentialism, shallow exoticism, caricaturing’ and more.

In Australia, in addition to the middle act, ‘Kingdom of the Shades’, which has often been seen out of its context within the full-length ballet, we have seen three different productions of the full-length Bayadère. Two have been performed by the Australian Ballet—Natalia Makarova’s production staged by Makarova herself during the directorship of Ross Stretton and seen in 1998, and Stanton Welch’s production made originally for Houston Ballet, which is the one recently cancelled, staged on the Australian Ballet in 2014. As well, Greg Horsman produced a new version for Queensland Ballet in 2018.

I have no intention of commenting on the issues raised in Houston, although I am especially interested in ideas about cultural appropriation. But I will say that I thought Greg Horsman’s rethink of the work for Queensland Ballet was a winner from a number of points of view. Horsman has commented to me that he thought his restaging was not, in general, well received. Horsman’s version turned the story on its head somewhat and gave audiences much to ponder, so it is a shame that it hasn’t been shown and discussed more widely. Here is a link to my review of the Horsman production.

Front cloth for Queensland Ballet's 'La Bayadere'. Design Gary Harris
Gary Harris’ front cloth for Greg Horsman’s 2018 production of La Bayadère for Queensland Ballet

  • Philip Chatfield (1927–2021)

Philip Chatfield, who has died aged 93 on the Gold Coast just south of Brisbane, came to Australia in 1958 on the momentous tour by the Royal Ballet. He and his wife, Rowena Jackson, stand out in my memories of that tour, especially for the roles of Swanilda and Franz in Coppélia. Just a few months before they left London on that tour, Chatfield and Jackson married and at the end of the tour settled in New Zealand where Jackson was born. Chatfield became artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet (1975–1978) and they both taught at the National Ballet School, now New Zealand School of Dance. Chatfield and Jackson moved to the Gold Coast in 1993 in order to be closer to family members.

Jennifer Shennan’s obituary for Chatfield is not yet available, but a link will be added in due course. UPDATE: Follow this link to read the obituary.

For more on the Royal Ballet’s Australasian tour of 1958–1959 see this link. There is contentious material contained in that post and in the several comments it received (although not about Chatfield and Jackson).

  • Sydney Choreographic Centre

The recently established Sydney Choreographic Centre, a project headed by artistic director Francesco Ventriglia and managing director Neil Christopher, has moved into its new premises in Alexandria, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. It will be the home of the Sydney Choreographic Ensemble and will offer a range of courses and open classes. A launch has been postponed due to the Sydney lockdown.

For more information about the Centre, and the courses that will commence once covid restrictions have been lifted, see the Centre’s website at this link.

  • And we danced

The third episode of And We Danced, a three part documentary charting the growth of the Australian Ballet, has now been released and all three episodes are currently available (for a limited time) on ABCiview. The second episode remains in my mind the strongest and most interesting, but the third episode does contain some interesting material and again has a focus on social and political matters as they have affected the Australian Ballet. A longer post on the third session follows soon but at this stage I can’t help but mention how moving I found the archival footage of Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Goldsmith was the original Odette in this production and her immersion in the role was exceptional.

Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2002. Photo: © Jim McFarlane
  • Late addition

For just the second time in 60 or so years of watching dance (and even performing it), I walked out of a show. I found Joel Bray’s I liked it but …. unwatchable. I left because I really couldn’t accept the way that various dance styles were described. Perhaps it changed later after I had left, I don’t know, but basically I am opposed to dance, in whatever format, being put down, often in a way that seems ignorant of the true nature of that format.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2021

Featured image: Ako Kondo in Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in 'Petite Mort'. Photo Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet in 2014

The Australian Ballet recently announced its season for 2014. The inclusion of Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère, made for Houston Ballet in 2010, seems to have caused the biggest stir in the press with reports that live snakes and a snake wrangler will make an appearance. Reptiles and their handlers aside, it is certainly a step in an interesting direction to have a new work from Welch (new to Australia anyway) on the program given that he has continued to hold the post of a resident choreographer while also being artistic director of Houston Ballet since 2003.

Although I was not overly impressed with Welch’s recent Rite of Spring, I look forward to seeing this full-length Bayadère and hope that he has tightened up the story a little. ‘La Bayadère is a recurring problem’, as American Dance Magazine noted not so long ago.

But for me the most interesting program on the 2014 list is a mixed bill entitled Chroma. It includes Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, an exciting work made on the Royal Ballet in 2006. I loved its minimalism and its collaborative aesthetic when I saw it a couple of years ago. The Chroma program also includes two short pieces by Jiří Kylián, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze.

The Australian Ballet showed these two Kylián pieces in 2005 and who can forget those wonderfully fluid duets from Petite Mort, not to mention the fencing foils that the men manipulate in the opening sequences, or those roll-along, black ballgowns! It’s hard to forget Sechs Tänze too, a curiously playful work in which the dancers wear costumes designed by Kylián, which he calls ‘Mozartian underwear’. This program also includes a new work by Stephen Baynes.

A second mixed bill entitled Imperial Suite consists of George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc. The season also includes Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, which we have seen so many times in Australia, and Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker.

I am looking forward to an exciting season in 2014 although I’d rather something other than Manon as a third evening length work.

Michelle Potter, 6 September 2013

Here is a is a link to a Houston Ballet preview of Welch’s Bayadère. Watch out for a variation from the Kingdom of the Shades scene danced by Nozomi Iijima. It comes towards the end of the four minute preview.

Featured image: Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in Petite Mort. Photo: Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in 'Petite Mort'. Photo Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Ethan Stiefel to direct the Royal New Zealand Ballet

In an astonishing coup, the Royal New Zealand Ballet has just announced that Ethan Stiefel, currently principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and dean of the School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, will be its next artistic director, taking up the position in the second half of 2011.  Stiefel will be joined by Gillian Murphy, his partner in life and also a principal with ABT.

Stiefel’s comments on his appointment are: ‘I am enormously appreciative and enthusiastic about having been appointed the next Artistic Director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Becoming RNZB’s Artistic Director provides me with an exceptional opportunity to professionally and personally evolve and to contribute to the art form I truly love. It is very encouraging to see how much the company has already achieved, the potential it possesses and how the nation embraces its national ballet company. I look forward to building on the company’s fine reputation, while seeking to be a fresh, innovative and inspiring new leader for the RNZB in any way I can. Both myself and my partner in life; American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer, Gillian Murphy, are ready for this new chapter in our lives and wholeheartedly make a commitment to the new adventures and prospects it holds. Finally, I also look forward to connecting with my relatives living in New Zealand today and, being a sports enthusiast with Kiwi blood, I’m also looking forward to supporting the All Blacks!’

I can see that ‘crossing the ditch’ will become more common for Australian dance folk. One of my fondest memories of living in New York between 2006 and 2008 was seeing an ABT production of La Bayadère in which Stiefel danced Solor, Murphy Gamzatti and Diana Vishneva Nikiya.

Michelle Potter, 30 October 2010