The Royal Danish Ballet has had a close relationship with Jacob’s Pillow, that beautiful dance venue in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, since the 1950s. Ted Shawn, founder of the Pillow, was even given a knighthood by the King of Denmark in 1957 for initiating the cultural exchange that brought the Danes to the attention of an American dance audience.
Most recently the company, presently led by Nikolaj Hübbe, performed at the Pillow in 2018. Highlights from that 2018 program have just been streamed by Jacob’s Pillow as they, like all of us around the world, attempt to manage a situation in which live performance is pretty much impossible. The streamed program consisted of the pas de sept from A Folk Tale, the pas de deux from Act II of La Sylphide, the pas de deux from Act I of Kermesse in Bruges, the pas de deux from Act II of Giselle, and the pas de six and tarantella fromNapoli. With the exception of Giselle, all had choreography by August Bournonville, whose unique style has become synonymous with the Royal Danish Ballet (although of course these days the company dances the choreography of many others).
This program was danced without scenery, which put the focus firmly on the choreography, and it enabled us, I think, to look beyond the complexity of those incredible beaten steps and the beautiful ballon that has always seemed to be the cornerstone of the Bournonville technique. Not that those particular features, and the complexity of the combinations of steps, was unclear, but other aspects of the technique became more apparent (at least to me). I was moved especially by the use of the upper body, the epaulement and the incline of the head; by the simplicity of some of the steps that provided a contrast to the more complex ones; and by the use of academic positions of the arms—constant use of bras bas, and third position captured my attention in particular.
I loved too the interactions between the dancers when they weren’t dancing. At times they were casual onlookers, at others they applauded their colleagues efforts, or they showed them off to the audience. The dance became a regular human activity rather than an eisteddfod-like showcase.
While Napoli was the highlight as the closing work, and it was danced with strength, joy and vibrancy, I admired in particular the pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges. Andreas Kaas had great presence on stage and an exceptional ability to connect with his partner, Ida Praetorius on this occasion. They gave the pas de deux a real storyline. But that pas de deux also demonstrated how duets from Bournonville often involve a particular structure in which the partners often dance side by side, sometimes in unison, sometimes executing the same steps next to each other but as a kind of mirror image. There are fewer high lifts as a result (although, of course, they are not missing).
The one jarring issue for me occurred in the pas de deux from La Sylphide danced by Amy Watson and Marcin Kupinski—nothing to do with the performance itself but with the shirt Kupinski wore. It seemed to be made of very light material and every time he jumped (which was often) it moved up and down to the extent that I kept thinking he was lifting his shoulders and destroying the line of his body. He wasn’t and his performance in Napoli showed his physical composure. But in La Sylphide that shirt made it seem as if he wasn’t in control.
The one non-Bournonville work, the Act II pas de deux from Giselle, seemed a little lack-lustre to me. Perhaps it did need something else—if not some scenery then the presence of Myrthe. I did admire, however, the way J’aime Crandall used her arms with so much expression.
But shirts and lack-lustre aside, what a wonderful hour of dancing. And follow this link for an excerpt from A Folk Tale courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive.
Afterthought (from an Australian perspective): Given the Australian connections in the Danish Royal Family, perhaps we need to persuade the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) to make an effort to partner with the Royal Danish Ballet in QPAC’s very successful International Series. The Series has so far seen American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, La Scala Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, and others, come to Brisbane for a summer season. The Royal Danish Ballet would be a magnificent addition.
I saw this program twice in 2013 and have to admit that, apart from outstanding performances by one or two dancers in each of the casts I saw, I was somewhat underwhelmed. But this screening by the Australian Ballet as part of its 2020 digital season left me absolutely thrilled.
The Paquita we see is really an excerpt from a full-length ballet of the same name that is rarely seen these days. Its choreography is by Marius Petipa and what we see in this excerpt is Petipa’s classicism. We see it in spades, especially in the way the dancers hold their bodies, erect and proud, with a straight spine as the central axis, and in the kinds of steps the dancers perform. In his introductory remarks to the streamed production, David McAllister calls it a ‘ballet ballet’. And so it is.
The cast is led by Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson. They show off their classical technique brilliantly. Jones. for example, has a series of fouetté turns in one solo and she launched straight into eight (or it could even have been nine) double turns in succession. Spectacular. The four soloists, Amy Harris, Juliet Burnett, Ako Kondo and Miwako Kubota, all danced with extraordinary skill. Standing out for me were Amy Harris with her perfectly controlled fouetté relevés, and Ako Kondo who made a thrilling entrance with a series of grands jetés and then proceeded to dazzle us with some exceptional turning steps, including some pretty much perfect double turns in attitude. Then I can’t forget the corps de ballet (which in fact included some of today’s principal artists such as Benedicte Bemet and Dimity Azoury). The corps danced with great style and each one of them looked as though she loved performing.
Then came La Sylphide with Leanne Stojmenov as the Sylph and Daniel Gaudiello as James, with choreography by Erik Bruhn after August Bournonville. Act I raced along and I enjoyed Gaudiello’s acting from the opening moments when, asleep in his armchair, a little dream-like smile kept hovering across his face as the Sylph danced around him. Stojmenov was a truly beautiful Sylph with an understanding of the needs of the Romantic style of movement. She seemed so light, so supernatural, so at home with the gentle tilt of the head and the forward-leaning style of movement we expect in the Romantic style. She has a beautifully coordinated body and it is quite fascinating to watch the relationship between legs, arms, upper body and head, each seeming to be separate actions yet at the same time part of an alluring whole.
Of course both Gaudiello and Stojmenov came into their own in Act II. Gaudiello’s beats were breathtaking as was his ability to perform with the ballon and apparent ease that characterises the Bournonville style. And Stojmenov continued with her Romantic and supernatural manner. Apart from the technical aspects of their performance, Stojmenov and Gaudiello also interacted so well that the story simply sped along, taking us with it. It was a perfect pairing for this ballet. The issues I felt when I saw the program live were mostly still there, but seemed no longer to matter, thanks to Stojmenov and Gaudiello. Bouquets to them both.
Colin Peasley as Madge and Andrew Wright as Gurn also gave strong performances and I enjoyed as well being backstage at the Sydney Opera House while the overture to La Sylphide was playing. I can’t wait to look again.
My reviews of previous performances are at these links: Melbourne; Sydney. I was also lucky enough to see the full-length Paquita as restaged by Pierre Lacotte for the Paris Opera Ballet but it was before I started this website and, unfortunately, I have no written record of the performance.
Below is a expanded version of my review for The Canberra Times of Queensland Ballet’s Cinderella.The online version of that review is at this link.
Cinderella. Queensland Ballet. Choreographer: Ben Stevenson. Composer: Sergei Prokofiev. Designers: Thomas Boyd (sets), Tracy Grant Lord (costumes), David Walters (lighting). Canberra Theatre, until November 10.
Ballet’s Cinderella tells the familiar story of the young girl whose
step-mother and step-sisters have reduced her existence to that of their
servant, but whose life is transformed by a fairy godmother and a prince whom she
meets at a royal ball. Choreographed by English-born, American resident Ben
Stevenson, currently director of Texas Ballet Theater, this version of Cinderella
is great family fun. Its old-style pantomime scenes have the audience laughing
out loud throughout the entire course of the production, while its fairy-like moments
and glittering ballroom scenes evoke palpable pleasure.
The panto elements are largely the realm of the two step-sisters played by Camilo Ramos as Ugly Sister Short and Alexander Idaszak as Ugly Sister Tall. Dressed outrageously, most memorably in extravagant pink outfits for the ball, they trip, totter and tumble their way through the story, pushing and shoving the long-suffering Cinderella (Laura Hidalgo) until in the end they are forced to curtsey to her as she becomes a princess. Ramos and Idaszak are joined in their treatment of Cinderella by Janette Mulligan as the Step Mother who is not at all innocent in her treatment of Cinderella. In fact she is decidedly nasty at times and occasionally turns her back on Cinderella and gives a sneering laugh.
But if Stevenson has drawn the step-family as lacking in a certain degree of humanity, he presents Cinderella as a young girl filled with love and compassion. She supports her Father (Ari Thompson) when he is set upon by his wife and step-children, and she welcomes a mysterious, black-clad stranger into the family home, and sits her by the fire and offers her food, when Cinderella’s step-family wants nothing to do with her (shades of a scene from Act I of La Sylphide?). This stranger is in fact the Fairy Godmother (Yanela Piñera) in disguise and her true identity is revealed when the black cloak drops away to reveal the purity of a Fairy Godmother dressed in white and wearing a sparkling tiara. Cinderella undergoes a transformation at the hands of the Godmother and goes to the royal ball where she meets her Prince (Victor Estévez). And so the familiar story continues until the happy pair is united. And of course the ballet includes the scene where the step-sisters try to squash their feet into the shoe that Cinderella leaves behind at the ball when the clock strikes midnight. More slapstick humour!
As we have come to expect from Queensland Ballet the dancing was exceptional. A standout performer was Kohei Iwamoto as the Jester at the ball. His leaps in the air with legs extended in splits to the side drew applause and his presence was consistently strong as he moved among the guests. The four fairies, Spring (Lou Spichtig), Summer (Mia Heathcote), Autumn (Neneka Yoshida), and Winter (Georgia Swan), who help Cinderella make her transformation into her costume for the ball, also danced their variations with panache and admirable technique.
Cinderella’s solo the morning after the ball was full of joy, despite having to use a broom rather than a prince as her partner! But perhaps the choreographic highlight was the pas de deux between the Prince and Cinderella after the Prince had discovered that Cinderella was the owner of the shoe left behind at the ball. Beautifully lit by David Walters to bring out the romance of the situation, this pas de deux was filled with lyricism and swirling lifts.
Stevenson’s Cinderella is very much in an old-style format, which may not appeal to some. But the pleasure it brings to so many others, young and old, makes it an evergreen show. Queensland Ballet always gives us outstanding dancing and strong production values, and I loved the way many of the dancers maintained their characterisations during the curtain calls.
Disclaimer: I had a family member in the children’s cast for this production of Cinderella.
Michelle Potter, 6 November 2019
Featured image: Laura Hidalgo as Cinderella. Queensland Ballet 2019. Photo supplied
An armchair conversation with Sir Jon Trimmer was the brainchild of Garry Trinder, Director of New Zealand School of Dance. It was held in the theatre at Te Whaea, mid-week of the school’s winter intensive national seminar, so that many young students, parents and teachers could attend. It was also open to the public and a large contingent of Friends and friends, colleagues, admirers, teachers and audience-goers took the chance to express publicly their appreciation of, and thanks for, this dancer’s phenomenal career. It was twilight hour, so a poignant echo that, on innumerable performance nights across the past six decades, warm-up, make-up, dress-up, curtain-up would have been taking place at around the same time. In reviving the memories and pleasures of those performances, the conversation summoned many ghosts, all of them good. No bad ghosts arrived. Love was in the air.
The names of the main players in his early story include: Jonty’s parents and siblings who danced and sang their way around the family home; Pamela Lowe, his older sister whose dance school in Petone he attended; Poul Gnatt who arrived in 1953 like a lightning bolt from afar and established a ballet company on zero resources yet with the highest of aspirations; Russell Kerr, a quiet genius of ballet, music and theatre arts who succeeded him as Artistic Director of the company in 1962, contributing to its growing international recognition; Alexander Grant, our legendary character dancer expatriate; Peggy van Praagh who offered support during the early years of her directorate of The Australian Ballet—including an enterprising initiative whereby several dancers had three-month exchange residencies between the two companies. Jacqui and Jon Trimmer were later invited to dance with The Australian Ballet on an international tour with guest artists Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and entertaining tales were told of those times.
Harry Haythorne, a subsequent director of New Zealand Ballet, was another Australasian success story. He and Jonty were obviously great mates (‘We both knew all the hit songs and numbers from vaudeville and music-hall era—had a ball outdoing each other’). There’s no better illustration of that rapport than their twin roles in A Servant of Two Masters, Gray Veredon’s classic commission with inspired design by Kristian Fredrikson. The Film Archive’s copy of that commedia dell’ arte ballet is still worth viewing for the dazzling line-up of its stellar cast—Trimmer and Haythorne, Kerry-Anne Gilberd, Cathy Goss, Karin Wakefield, Lee Patrice, Eric Languet, Warren Douglas, Kilian O’Callaghan. The earlier romp, TheRagtime Dance Company to Scott Joplin, was another of Veredon’s and Fredrikson’s hits. Bernard Hourseau’s Carmina Burana and Ashley Killar’s choreographies No Exit and Dark Waves also gave Jon some of his strongest roles. Many of the heritage works of the Company’s repertoire exist only in memory, but are no less real for that, and a number of them could do with re-visiting.
Christopher Hampson’s Romeo & Juliet, and Cinderella, Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly, Liam Scarlett’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are further impeccable works that secured RNZB’s reputation for full-length choreographies, combining all the power that dancing, music and design can offer. If asked to name one indelible image of Jon Trimmer on stage, I’d probably first lodge a conscientious objection—What, only one?’ but then describe his power as the Duke of Verona in R&J. He strode in, on a high, elevated back platform, glared down first at the Montagues, then at the Capulets—at everyone stunned by the horror of what had played out, then again at both houses —turned and strode off. His demand that warring end and a truce be declared, delivered in so few gestures, carried all the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The timing and the minimalism of those few moments on stage, said it all.
We should tell our
grandchildren what we saw. Find the music, tell them the story, show them
photos, keep the dress-ups box at hand, take them to a matinee, suggest they
draw and write afterwards what they saw, maybe send a postcard to their
favourite dancer. Who knows where it might lead, but it can only be a good
important international parts of Jon’s career, with Sadler’s Wells Ballet, and
Royal Danish Ballet, were referenced, (‘It certainly helped in Denmark to have
Poul Gnatt’s mantle on my shoulders. He was still vividly remembered by
everyone there—and clearly had been one of their top dancers’) but it is
overwhelmingly apparent that the Trimmers’ commitment and loyalty to the Royal
New Zealand Ballet has shaped their lives, and that of so many younger dancers and
colleagues here whose artistry they have helped to develop. For that we say
Garry asked: ‘When did it first occur to you that the recreation and pleasure you took in dancing as a boy could become your life work, your career?’ Jon replied: ‘Well, you know I’m not sure I can say. I just kept on doing what I loved.’
‘What he loved’ included Poul’s pedigree productions of Bournonville ballets—La Sylphide and Napoli; the talisman Prismatic Variations, Russell’s Prince Igor, Petrouchka, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppélia, Christmas Carol, Peter Pan; interesting new work with Russell Kerr in an interlude at Auckland Dance Centre; plus 100 more… Servant, Ragtime Dance Company, La Fille mal Gardée, Cinderella, Romeo & Juliet … who’s counting and where do we stop? Clearly this is significant repertoire that earned the Company an international recognition and reputation, as well as its royal charter.
The sagas of
company politics, funding and management highs and lows over the years were
referred to in the briefest of terms, as also the devastating challenge of the
fire that destroyed almost all the company’s resources in 1967. The abiding
impression one gains is of the resilience and determination to somehow hold on
to the reins—with Poul Gnatt, Beatrice Ashton, Richard Campion, Russell Kerr
and the Trimmers as the heroes in those early battles.
Young dancers listening will have taken on board Jon’s words about the importance of breathing while moving—to shape and sustain an arabesque, to support a jump, to control a pirouette … ‘oh and the music of course, that helps enormously.’
Another tip, this one he had from Russell Kerr—’Go and sit outside a café, watch people as they walk by. Study their gait, their timing, how they hold their body. That will tell you much about their character which you can then put into your performance, make it lifelike.’
Jon: ‘I stopped dancing princes at a certain age but went on to old men, old women and witches. Look, it’s been just wonderful to work with all those talented people.’ Jon, one could guess it’s been just as wonderful for them, as it has been for us too.
A friend in the audience commented later—’One
thing that struck me was his presence when speaking. When Trinder was
talking Jonty seemed like just a genial old man, but as soon as he started to
speak you couldn’t take your eyes, or attention, away from him.’ That magnetic presence
and practice of paying attention has also worked in the opposite direction and been
a way of life for Jon for years. He has watched countless RNZB rehearsals and
performances with the most attentive eye, and always found a way of gently
encouraging younger dancers, suggesting a tip to a colleague as to how the smallest shift in
physics of limbs or expression of eyes or face might enhance their performance. Such
generosity in the competitive world of ballet arts is rare, but makes the man worth his
weight in gold.
There are more stories to be found in
Jon’s recently published memoir, Why
Dance?and details of the
Company productions are listed in the three published histories of the
RNZBallet—at 25, 50 and at 60 years.
Jon has also
explored pottery and painting as further means of expression. He is a legendary
gardener —and, one senses, a deeply happy man Of course he’s not stupid and
wants a much better world for dancers, but the knowledge that he has used his
own given talents to the maximum has allowed him to remain positive throughout
a career that has seen some tortured ups and downs of politics and make-overs
during the decades (every ballet company knows them). His humour is quick but
never biting, always gentle with wry amusement, a rich sense of irony, patience
in waiting for time to resolve troubles of the political variety, and
truckloads of performance memories.
Also apparent is a
deep and genuine love of his country—’Oh it was wonderful to travel through the
whole countryside as we toured everywhere in the early days—we saw so much, and
made so many wonderful friends as billets. We’re still friends.’
Sheat, a pillar in many areas of the arts community in New Zealand, says: ‘During
my long term as Chairman of the Board of RNZB I was lucky enough to see Jon T.
perform countless times. Whenever he made his first appearance there would be a
wave of whispered delight as the audience recognised him. It was a mixture of
love, ownership and appreciation.’
Tuesday evening was a sweetheart affair—no notes, no microphones, no bullshit, no self-aggrandisement, no lecturing, no breathless promotions, no shouting and whistling, just an ocean of smiling faces and sustained, warm applause that is echoing yet, and holding history. There is no future without the past.
So what did Jonty
do? He joined in the applause of course.
Jennifer Shennan, 12 July 2019
Featured image: Sir Jon Trimmer (left) makes a point during his conversation with Garry Trinder. New Zealand School of Dance, Wellington, 2019
Please consider supporting the Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for a book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link.[Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]
New Zealand School of Dance is one school with two discrete streams, Classical Ballet and Contemporary Dance. Their Graduation season is always an uplifting affair as the fledgling dancers leave the nest where they have spent the past three years in intensive training. We can guess they’ll each be wishing for just one thing—life as a dancer. I can see no reason why they shouldn’t all get what they wish for, though over time that will, for some of them at least, stretch to include ‘teacher’ and ‘choreographer’ as well.
There are students from New Zealand, including Maori and Pasifika, and several countries beyond, Australia and Asia. The seeds of teacher training included in the curriculum here would help them find work for life back home if not here. We won’t be done with our life on Earth until everyone, in every country, has had a chance to dance, if only as a way to enhance recognition of choreographic masterpieces when they see them. There was such a masterpiece on each of the two programs and I’m shivering to tell you about them, as well as share a few thoughts about possible future directions.
The Ballet program, Tradition, opened with an excerpt of La Sylphide, from Bournonville heritage. Nadine Tyson (alumna of the School and a long-term dancer with RNZB), staged the work which was danced with care and love. The fact that Henning Albrechtsen, the world’s finest free-lance Bournonville teacher, had a residency at the School just last year, will have paid off in the students’ understanding of this demanding and darling style, renowned for its contained vigour and life-affirming ebullient spirit within ballet heritage. (A pity no program note could remind us that Poul Gnatt was for years the most renowned interpreter in the world of the leading role of James. His oral history includes a fabulous story about that, and relates to New Zealand).
It was Gnatt who first raised the voice to form a School to serve the needs of the Company he had already established in 1953. It would be 1967 before the National School of Ballet opened its doors. A paragraph to that effect could be included within the printed program, with further reference to its 50 year history recently written by Turid Revfeim (alumna of the School and long-term dancer with RNZB). History will not go away just by our staying quiet, and a background program essay is needed to pick up and weave back together the threads between School and Company that have recently, by neglect, been torn asunder.
It is deeply satisfying to sight a young dancer in the back row of the corps of La Sylphide who, as have others, used her time at the School to develop the technique and to hone the style that she simply did not have three years ago, but that she will now carry back to her Asian homeland and thus spread good in the world. She may not know that this sentence is about her, but I do. Well done all.
The following Tarantella, by Balanchine, 1964, a romp to Gottschalk music, gave a superb chance to a pair of young students to strut some marvellous stuff. There’s also a link across to Bournonville via the tambourine, but these days dancers with tambourines are so polite. If you’re going to dance with one, don’t you need to thrash hell out of it and rattle the discs to let everyone know that dancing with one is different from dancing without one?
Sfumato by Betsy Erikson (we need program notes to identify the choreographers) was an extended work, from 1986, to Boccherini, but that does not carry the vitality of the Baroque repertoire that preceded his era. The work is staged by Christine Gunn, long-term teacher at the School, and by Nadine Tyson. The dancers all do well, but the challenges of choreographic structure on this music remain. In past years there has been one work on the program done to live piano accompaniment (after all, the two best ballet pianists in town—Phillip O’Malley and Craig Newsome—are on the staff here) but this line-up did not offer that opportunity.
Then followed After the Rain, a pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon, and the theatre fell silent. A man and a woman, dancing to Arvo Pärt’s music, Spiegel im Spiegel, for piano and violin (offering resonance back some years to alumna Raewyn Hill’s memorable choreography, Angels with Dirty Feet, to the same music). Every moment, every gesture, every position held and line followed, every lifting, sliding and lowering, shows choreographic mastery. They are not having sex, they are making love, in any generous understanding of those words you care to bring to reading them. It’s a triumph for a School anywhere to include Wheeldon’s work in its Graduation program. It was rehearsed by Qi Huan, premier dancer for years at RNZB, and the calibre of his work shines through the students’ performance.
Emerge, a solo for a male, by Australian choreographer Louise Deleur, was a world premiere. Also rehearsed by Qi Huan, it received a focused performance.
Christopher Hampson’s Saltarello, choreographed for RNZB in 2001, is a smart and sultry number and a fitting finale to this satisfyingly varied program. Here staged by Turid Revfeim, again a School alumna as well as long-term Company stalwart dancer, teacher, choreographer and administrator there, and now teacher at the School, it gives scope to a large cast who find the style and pizzaz to mix humour into its moves.
2018 marks 20 years since Garry Trinder became Director of the School and there can be no doubting his commitment to the wellbeing and developing careers of the students. Chair of the Board, Russell Bollard, spoke in tribute. The small print in the program reminds us that dancer and staff reps are included on the Board. Any decent workplace these days knows to represent the spectrum of its people among its governance. It’s a mark of confidence, high morale, respect, common sense and fair play. Top marks to this institution for that
My recent visit to Copenhagen, and the amazing production of John Neumeier’s Romeo and Juliet I saw there, sent me searching for something I wrote in 2005 for ballet.co in the UK (now DanceTabs). It was published in the ballet.co magazine in August 2005 as Royal Danish Ballet, 3rd Bournonville Fesitval, some personal thoughts.
As my ballet.co articles are not presently available online due to a server change, and also because I only recently found the text of the Bournonville article, which I thought was lost, I am re-publishing it below. Sadly, I do not have access to the images that accompanied the article, but I am including a wonderful photo of Erik Bruhn from an Australian production, which I mention in the text.
I suspect there aren’t many choreographers whose 200th birthday is marked by a display of fireworks. But as we spilled out onto the square in front of the beautiful old Royal Theatre in Copenhagen on the final night of the 3rd Bournonville Festival, fireworks cascaded from the clear night sky. The square was packed with onlookers and the Danish royal family stood on the theatre balcony to watch. August Bournonville, ballet master, choreographer and theorist, whose work lives on in the repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet, would probably have been surprised. He is recorded as saying that he thought his work would quickly be forgotten after his death. It hasn’t, as nine days in Copenhagen between 3–11 June 2005 made clear.
Performances of nine different Bournonville works, plus a gala performance, gave a wonderful insight into the rich heritage that the Danes enjoy as inheritors of the Bournonville legacy. And pretty much every museum in Copenhagen, along with the famous Tivoli Gardens, had embraced the Bournonville festivities in some way and exhibitions and other events added context to the danced performances. To the large contingent of Danish and international press, the Royal Danish Ballet School also opened its classrooms, and the main company was more than generous with company classes to watch, receptions every night, a bulging press pack, and a host of guided tours—all to give us the best possible understanding of the nature of the Bournonville legacy.
I have to admit, however, to feeling a little Bournonvilled-out by the end of nine days. Quite honestly some of the Bournonville repertoire probably should be put out to pasture, or perhaps not paraded so publicly. In particular Far from Denmark, a work which describes how Danish naval marines hosted a party on board their ship to repay hospitality they had received while in Buenos Aires, sits uneasily (to put it mildly) in the context of the twenty-first century when it is not ‘done’ to stereotype others according to ethnic and racial characteristics. Gone are the days when people can black-up as Creoles and move a little like performers in a Black and White Minstrel show, or perform a ‘Red Indian’ dance as if at a pow-wow, without it looking embarrassingly out of place. Curiously, we can still go to an art gallery and look at paintings depicting events and aspects of life in ways that are now considered out of place. But put this kind of thing into dance, onto living, breathing twenty-first century human bodies, and it becomes inappropriate and, what’s more, laughable.
But there is, of course, so much about the Bournonville repertoire that is not like this. Two Festival performances of the best known of Bournonville’s still-extant creations, La Sylphide, would alone have been worth the trip from the other side of the world. In Australia La Sylphide is well-known to us, having been first staged here for the Australian Ballet in 1984 by Erik Bruhn, who then also danced the role of Madge in some performances. It has been restaged several times, most recently early in 2005.
So to see another staging, especially in Copenhagen by the Danes, was a much-awaited treat. Two casts, the first, led by Gudrun Bojesen and Thomas Lund, the second by Caroline Cavallo and Mads Blangstrup offered very different experiences. Thomas Lund is a breathtaking Bournonville technician, buoyantly soaring through jumps, beats and turns with apparent ease. And as James he alternated between bewilderment at what was happening to him and a passionate involvement with his Slyph. Bojesen, on the other hand, seemed not so involved, and not so easily able to connect with Lund as he was with her. With the second cast the roles were reversed, with Cavallo entering the role in a way that Blangstrup did not, despite his prodigious technique.
But perhaps most interesting of all with this Danish La Sylphide for me was the fact that the role of Madge, in both shows, was danced by a woman: Jette Buchwald in one cast, Lis Jeppesen in another. When the role is taken by a man it seems too easy for it to degenerate into pantomime and become sillier and sillier—certainly this has become the case with the Australian Ballet’s production where Madge seems to be less and less part of the Romantic duality of La Sylphide as time goes on. There was nothing silly or in the mould of pantomime from Buchwald or Jeppesen, just a quiet strength that allowed the story to move forward without unwanted distraction.
The presence of Buchwald and Jeppesen, who also appeared in senior roles in other performances during the Festival, was a reminder of the European custom of keeping older dancers on to perform character roles, and usually to teach as well. The other side of this custom was also noticeable in La Sylphide, although perhaps more so in Napoli. Bournonville choreographed for the children of the Royal Danish Ballet School as well as his company dancers, old and young. Almost any current dancer in the Royal Danish Ballet will regale you with stories of being ‘on the bridge’ as a child in the last act of Napoli to watch the onstage festivities as the two young lovers, Gennaro and Teresina, celebrate with their friends. It is so satisfying to see dance and its performance being shared across generations in this way
A conversation during the Festival with Royal Danish Ballet principal, Andrew Bowman, however, drew out a rather more political or perhaps nationalistic side of dancing Bournonville. Bowman was born in New Zealand where he received his early dance training from his mother. He completed his formal ballet training at the Australian Ballet School and was instantly noticeable when he joined the Australian Ballet. His attention to his partner was always visible, and still is, as was and is the huge pleasure he takes from being onstage. He joined the Royal Danish Ballet in 1996 and he still relishes telling the story of how he asked for a job after drinking tequila shots with Danish dancer and teacher Johnny Eliason in Brisbane, Australia, during one of Eliason’s coaching stints for the Australian Ballet. Now Bowman could easily pass for a Danish dancer so accomplished and at ease is he with the Bournonville technique. But during the interview Bowman reminds me, without bitterness I should add, that he will probably never dance the coveted role of James in La Sylphide. These leading Bournonville roles, with one or two notable exceptions— Lloyd Riggins being one, are reserved exclusively for Danes.
Beyond the performances one major, gorgeous-to-look-at, exhibition, called Tulle and Tricot: Costumes for the Bournonville Ballets, which was curated by Viben Bech of the National Museum of Denmark where it was on show, generated some philosophical questions. For example, how do you make an exhibition of dance costumes and related material come to life in the manner in which dance is alive? Can such a show ever capture the feeling of the live performance? Many costume exhibitions don’t even come close to being theatrical but Tulle and Tricot was a wonderful exhibition that engaged the viewer in so many ways. Costumes were hung so that they swayed gently in the breeze. Video footage showed them in motion in the ballets for which they were made. The space was lit beautifully. The captions were inviting. It was a real coup and deserves many bouquets.
And back to the Danish royal family: as an Australian I was of course fascinated when Crown Princess Mary, though now officially a Dane but always to us an Australian from Tasmania our ‘Apple Isle’, accompanied her mother-in-law, Queen Margrethe II to two performances at this Festival. The Queen herself attended every show and some of the receptions. She even received the press on one occasion. I couldn’t help but think how lucky the Danes are to have such prominent artistic leadership.
I look back on this Danish experience with much pleasure.
Although the Paris Opera Ballet’s website is still listing Australian Ballet School graduate Hannah O’Neill as a coryphée on its organisational chart, O’Neill is now a sujet with the company. Several French websites are carrying this news including Danser canal historique. O’Neill’s promotion took place as a result of a competitive examination, held at the end of 2014, for promotion within the company. O’Neill performed a set piece, Gamzatti’s variation from Act II of Rudolf Nureyev’s La Bayadère, and her chosen piece, a variation from George Balanchine’s Walpurgis Night.
O’Neill will also make her debut as Odette/Odile in the Nureyev Swan Lake at the Opéra Bastille on 8 April, and the performance is sold out! Quite an astonishing rise for someone who joined the Paris Opera Ballet on a temporary, seasonal contract only in late 2011 (the same year she graduated from the Australian Ballet School). O’Neill was given a life-time contract in 2013, another astonishing feat for someone who is not French by birth; was promoted to coryphée at the end of 2013; and now is a sujet (closest Australian equivalent is probably soloist).
And what a beautiful photograph from Sébastien Mathé. That ‘Dutch tilt’ is so perfect for conveying the feeling of a Forsythe piece.
The news that Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe will retire at the end of the current season of Giselle set my mind racing. How lucky I have been over the years. She has given me so many wonderful dancing moments to remember. Some were unexpected: a mid-season matinee in Sydney many years ago (probably during the Ross Stretton era come to think of it) when she made her debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet—the Cranko version. Some were thrilling: those fouettés in Stanton Welch’s Divergence! Some have rightly been universally acclaimed: her performances in works by Graeme Murphy, notably the leading roles in Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet. One made history: her debut in Giselle in Sydney in 2006 after which she was promoted to principal. But, from my extensive personal store of memories, I loved her debut as the Sylph in La Sylphide in Melbourne in 2005. Looking back:
At the next day’s matinee, the leading roles of the Sylphide and James were danced by Madeleine Eastoe and Tim Harbour. Eastoe caught easily the feathery and insubstantial nature of the Sylphide but she also conveyed a bit of artifice in her dealings with James. She hovered. She darted. She was here. She was there. Her bourrees were as delicate as the wings of the butterfly she catches for James in Act II. But when she wept at the window in Act I, when she melted with grief as she rebuked James that he loved another, and when she capriciously snatched the ring meant for Effie from his hand, we knew that James was trapped not by love but by the trickery of a fey person. Here was the beautiful danger. This was Eastoe’s debut performance as the Sylphide and she showed all the technical and dramatic strengths that mark her as one of the Australian Ballet’s true stars. (Michelle Potter, ballet.co magazine, April 2005)
Again, a stunning image and one that has inspired my writing about the Romantic era. And may Eastoe lead a fulfilling life after Giselle.
The Goddess of Air at the Stray Dog Café
This blog article from the British Library is a lovely read and includes a gorgeous portrait of Tamara Karsavina by John Singer Sargent.
Press for March 2019 (Update May 2019: (Online links to articles published by The Canberra Times before early 2015 are no longer available)
‘Note [on Quintett].’ Program note for Sydney Dance Company’s Frame of Mind season.
‘Undercover Designs.’ Article on Kristian Fredrikson’s designs for the film Undercover (1983), The National Library of Australia Magazine, March 2015, pp. 20–23. Online version.
‘Classical ballet a dance to the death.’ Article on Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle, The Canberra Times (Panorama), 7 March 2015, p. 18.
Harry Haythorne, child performer extraordinaire, well-travelled dancer, ballet master, artistic director, teacher and mentor, has died in Melbourne aged 88.
Haythorne was the child of an English father and an Australian mother of Irish descent who met at a dance hall in Adelaide: both parents loved ballroom dancing. But they were barred from many dance halls in Adelaide because they dared to introduce what Haythorne jokingly referred to in an interview as ‘filthy foreign dances’ such as the foxtrot and the quickstep. His father had brought these dance styles with him when he migrated to Australia. They were unknown at the time in Adelaide.
Haythorne began his own dance training with Jean Bedford who taught ‘operatic dancing’ and shortly afterwards began tap classes with Herbert Noye. His initial ambitions were to go into vaudeville. Even with the arrival of the Ballets Russes in Australia in the 1930s, which was an exciting time for him, he still did not have ambitions to take up ballet seriously.
When Haythorne was about 14 he began his professional performing career with Harold Raymond’s Varieties, a Tivoli-style vaudeville group established initially as a concert party to entertain troops as World War II began. With Harold Raymond he took part in comedy sketches, played his piano accordion, sang and danced. His star act, which would feature again much later in his life, was his tap dancing routine on roller-skates.
Eventually, in the late 1940s, he took ballet classes from Joanna Priest and performed in her South Australian Ballet before leaving for England. It was seeing Ballet Rambert during its Australasian tour 1947–1949 that inspired him to change direction and look to ballet as a career. In London he took classes with Anna Northcote and Stanislas Idzikowski before auditioning successfully for Metropolitan Ballet, later joining Mona Ingelsby’s International Ballet. But his career in England and Europe was an eclectic one and he also worked on the Max Bygraves Show, danced on early British television shows, performed in the Cole Porter musical Can Can and toured to South Africa with a production of The Pyjama Game.
Haythorne listed the three greatest influences on his early career as Léonide Massine, for whom he acted as personal assistant and ballet master for Massine’s company, Les ballets européens; Walter Gore, for whom he was ballet master for Gore’s London Ballet; and Peter Darrell who hired him as manager of Western Theatre Ballet and then as his assistant artistic director of Scottish Ballet in Glasgow.
Always an Australian at heart, Haythorne began to miss his homeland and made various moves to return. He eventually came back as artistic director of Queensland Ballet, a position he took up in 1975. With Queensland Ballet he mounted works by Australian choreographers including Graeme Murphy, Garth Welch and Don Asker and had Hans Brenaa stage La sylphide and other Bournonville ballets. But it was a short directorship. Haythorne was unhappy at how his contract was terminated in 1978 and always maintained that no reason was given other than ‘boards don’t have to give reasons’. But he remained in Queensland for the next few years and worked to established the tertiary dance course at Kelvin Grove College of Advanced Education (now Queensland University of Technology).
But after deciding that he did not want to head a school but direct a company he accepted the position of artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1981. Haythorne’s directorship of the Royal New Zealand Ballet was a fruitful one and lasted until 1992. During his tenure the company staged works by New Zealand and Australian choreographers as well as ballets by major international artists. Haythorne oversaw the company’s 30th anniversary in 1983; toured the company to China, the United States, Australia and Europe; and staged his own, full-length Swan Lake. For the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 60th anniversary in 2013, encapsulating his attitude to his appointment in 1981, and also his approach to directorship in general, he wrote:
I knew I had to learn much more about New Zealand and its history, familiarise myself not only with its dance world but also with its literature, music and visual arts, while still keeping a finger on the international pulse.*
On his return to Australia in 1993 Haythorne was always in demand. He taught dance history at the Victorian College of the Arts and repertoire at the National Theatre Ballet School. He returned to the stage on several occasions with productions by the Australian Ballet, taking cameo roles in Stanton Welch’s Cinderella, Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker and Swan Lake, Ronald Hynd’s Merry Widow, and the joint Australian Ballet/Sydney Dance company production of Murphy’s Tivoli.
Many will remember clearly his role in Tivoli where he was cast as an old vaudeville trouper and, at the age of 75, reprised his tap dancing/roller-skating/skipping routine from the 1940s. For his performances in this role he received a 2001 Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer. I also especially enjoyed his performance as the Marquis in Act I of Murphy’s Swan Lake. His role required him to assemble guests at the wedding into various groups and to photograph them using an old camera on a tripod. Much of this action took place upstage outside of the main activities. But Haythorne made the role his own and his interactions with the guests, including the children who were part of the crowd, were always fascinating and he never paused to stand and watch what was happening downstage.
But perhaps my fondest memory is of sitting in his Melbourne flat after recording an interview with Robin Haig, who was staying with him at the time. Harry got out a bottle of wine and some huge goblets that looked like they could have been a prop from Swan Lake. After a glass or two and much talk and laughter I realised that my plane home to Canberra had already departed. Consternation! Several hurried phone calls later a taxi arrived. I was hustled into the taxi, we sped down the freeway and I made the next plane.
Harry Haythorne: born Adelaide, 7 October 1926; died Melbourne, 24 November 2014
* Harry Haythorne quoted in Jennifer Shennan and Anne Rowse, The Royal New Zealand Ballet at Sixty (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013), p. 86
Michelle Potter, 25 November 2014
Featured image: Harry Haythorne, c. 2000. Photographer unknown
UPDATE: See Jennifer Shennan’s tribute to Harry Haythorne at this link.
16 November 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
I was startled to see, when looking at the Australian Ballet’s website to check the casting for my Sydney subscription performance of Paquita and La Sylphide, that Paquita was advertised as a Romantic ballet—’the last flowering of the Romantic ballet’. Elsewhere on the website the program was described as ‘the first and last [of the] great Romantic ballets on one double bill’. The original, full-length Paris production of Paquita (1846) might have been in the Romantic tradition, although that is disputed by some, but what the Australian Ballet has been presenting is definitely not a Romantic work. Marius Petipa made additions to the original Paquita when he restaged his version in Russia in 1881 (1882 new style date). Those interpolations with music by Minkus are, I believe, what most companies now perform. The complete ballet was staged relatively recently (2001) by Pierre Lacotte for the Paris Opera Ballet, but not many other companies have a full-length production in their repertoire. Without the rest of the ballet, the Petipa arrangements can scarcely be called Romantic, although the Spanish overtones we see and hear in the Petipa excerpts do allude to the Spanish elements of the full-length ballet.
That aside, it was a thrill to see Daniel Gaudiello taking the male role in my Sydney viewing of the Australian Ballet’s excerpts from Paquita. What I love about Gaudiello’s dancing (apart from his technical abilities) is his wonderful approach to partnering. He is so attentive to and caring of his partner (Lucinda Dunn on this occasion) without being merely a ‘porteur’. When he stands back from her and lifts his arms to an open fifth position he is not only triumphantly showing her off as the ballerina, but also showing his own polish and charisma as a true ‘danseur noble’. He has great style.
Of the variations I especially enjoyed the second variation, subtly and gently danced by Jessica Fyfe, and the dancing of the two demi-soloists, Vivienne Wong and Benedicte Bemet, the latter certainly a rising personality.
I was pleased too that my previous disappointment with the staging of La Sylphide dissipated somewhat with a second look. This time I thought there was much more feeling for the Romantic style in the second act and a better contrast between the first and second acts.
Perhaps it was Reiko Hombo, who gave a strong, individualistic interpretation, beautifully danced, of the Sylph that made the difference. The lightness and height of her jump; her softly unfolding, beautifully controlled arabesques; her lovely rounded arms; and her supple upper body gave the right technical feel to the role. In addition, her interpretation was consistent and well thought through. There was a definite wickedness of intention there under all that charm as she made every effort to convince James of her wish that he join her in her forest realm. It brought home very nicely that ‘beautiful danger’ that respected Danish scholar Erik Aschengreen so perceptively wrote about many years ago as being a defining characteristic of the Romantic era. And Hombo carried this approach through into the second act.
Hombo was partnered by Chengwu Guo as James and he had, I thought, settled well into the role since my previous viewing. Perhaps again it was Hombo who made the difference. She gave him something to respond to, and as technical partners they work well together. Halaina Hills as Effie and Amy Harris as the lead Sylph in Act II also added a certain strength to the overall production. But I regret that the important role of Madge always seems to degenerate into something a little manic. It has been a long time since there has been a really powerful performance in Australia of that role. Without a strong and convincing Madge the ballet loses much of its intent.
4 September 2013, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
This double bill opened with Paquita (or parts of it), a work in the classical tradition of Marius Petipa. It concluded with a Romantic work, La Sylphide, with the Erik Bruhn choreography after August Bournonville. Putting a work from the classical era with one from the Romantic age is probably a little risky. For such a program to be a success stylistically the company involved needs to have a good understanding of the differences between the styles and, more importantly, dancers who can demonstrate those differences. With the cast I saw, I’m not sure this happened.
Paquita was led strongly by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello and the corps de ballet worked beautifully together giving a performance that made me smile with pleasure at how exciting pure classical ballet can look. The brilliance, the formality, the elegance and decorum that characterise classicism in ballet were all there. Ako Kondo was the absolute star in this performance of Paquita. She hadthe third solo and her series of relevé turns in attitude and arabesque, and her diagonal of double pirouettes were spectacular. And how gorgeous to see her execute a grand jeté en tournant with the arms lifting and lifting into and through 5th position as if the arms were (as they should be) part of the movement and not just an add on. Wonderful. Other soloists performed well but could not come anywhere near Kondo for pushing the ballet technique to the limit.
On the other hand, La Sylphide, led by Lana Jones as the Sylph and Chengwu Guo as James, was a little disappointing. I don’t believe Jones is suited to the Romantic style, or else she was not well coached in her preparation for this role. Although she is more than capable in a technical sense of executing all that is needed throughout the ballet, she looked more than a little coy and her movements seemed stiff, especially in the upper body. She certainly didn’t seem ethereal to me. Chengwu Guo has a a beautiful jump and technique in general. His entrechats and other beaten steps were outstanding, especially in his Act II solo. But it all looked so forced, as if he were trying too hard. And for me the beautiful ballon that so characterises Bournonville was missing. Bournonville doesn’t have to look spectacular, it has to look easy, which is different from hard-edged spectacular. In looking easy it gains its own very distinctive, remarkable appearance.
But what was really disappointing was that I thought the supernatural element was totally missing in Act II. Little of the mood had changed from Act I and, really, if the Australian Ballet is going to stage a work of the Romantic era it needs to work to make the dichotomy between the real and the surreal more clear, whatever cast we might be looking at. That dichotomy is at the heart of Romanticism in ballet.