13 May 2023. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
‘Paragon’ is a noun that means ‘a model of perfection and excellence’. The Australian Ballet’s resident choreographer, Alice Topp, set out in her latest production, named Paragon, to demonstrate something of the excellence and perfection (or attempts at perfection perhaps since perfection is something that we can only hope to achieve), which has characterised the past 60+ years since the Australian Ballet gave its first performance in 1962.
Following the overture to Christopher Gordon’s very danceable score, Paragon began with three performers on stage, one holding a swathe of white translucent fabric onto which were projected images of dancers from earlier Australian Ballet days. Once the white cloth was removed, the use of images from earlier eras was projected largely onto vertical panels positioned upstage, and continued as a significant feature of the work. The outstanding audio-visual editing was by Ario Dean Cook.
But links to the past were also featured as several former Australian Ballet dancers worked among and with current dancers. David McAllister and Paul Knobloch appeared with current dancers in a powerful section called ‘Quake’, for example. Then some of the most moving scenes were ‘Saudade’ (meaning ‘Yearning’) with Fiona Tonkin and Adam Bull, ‘Home’ with Lucinda Dunn and Joseph Caley, and ‘Sehnsucht Couple’ with Madeleine Eastoe and Marcus Morelli (with Sehnsucht also meaning ‘Yearning’ or ‘Desire’). In each of these the choreography was filled with unusual lifts, extraordinary extensions of the legs, bounding jumps and jetes, and other twists and turns of the body, often in an uncompromisingly upside down position or across the floor. And every dancer, retired or not, performed with more than admirable strength and exactitude, perhaps even bordering on perfection.
A scene that I found fascinating was ‘Vogue’, which made reference to the Australian Ballet’s commissioning of designers. In the background we saw projected images of various designs on paper for past Australian Ballet productions, while onstage every dancer wore something contemporary and quite ‘vogue-ish’, often a jacket worn over a sparse costume, mostly of bikini-like proportions. Costumes for Paragon were by Aleisa Jelbart, with set and lighting by Jon Buswell.
Yes, there was a strong feeling of nostalgia as the work progressed, which perhaps came to a head in the final section when Kirsty Martin and Steven Heathcote led the finale. But Paragon also gave the audience a remarkable look at Topp as a choreographer. It showed her working with a vocabulary that is clearly one of contemporary ballet, pushing boundaries, and thinking outside the square when it comes to what ballet can present in a narrative sense. Within it all was a beautiful tribute to the history of the Australian Ballet.
Paragon was part of the Australian Ballet’s double bill called Identity. THE HUM by Daniel Riley was the other work on the program. See below for a list of those retired performers who contributed to Paragon.
Retired dancers appearing in Paragon: Simon Dow, Lucinda Dunn, Madeleine Eastoe, Steven Heathcote, Paul Knobloch, Sarah Lehmann (Peace), Kirsty Martin, David McAllister, Marilyn Rowe, Leanne Stojmenov, Jessica Thompson and Fiona Tonkin.
29 April 2015, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
There were peaks and troughs in the Australian Ballet’s second program for 2015, a triple bill of works by Frederick Ashton. There were also a few surprises.
The undoubted highlight was TheDream, which was also used as the overarching title for the program.We have been told over and over that Ashton was a genius, and many aspects of his work that support that idea were apparent onstage in The Dream, Ashton’s take on Shakespeare’sMidsummer Night’s Dream. Most obvious is the incredible way in which Ashton is able to make a story so clear through movement and mime. No need to know the story beforehand. Everything is comprehensible and coherent. The entire cast of The Dream is to be congratulated for the way they handled Ashton’s approach, and bouquets to the two gentlemen who staged the work—Anthony Dowell and Christopher Carr.
Then there is Ashton’s complex choreography with all its tricky steps, swirling arms, fluid upper body, unexpected combinations, and so forth. Madeleine Eastoe as Titania was superbly in control and made even the trickiest of movements look easy. Her solo with its many hops, turns, swoons and swirls was captivating. And the final pas de deux between a reconciled Titania and Oberon (danced by Kevin Jackson) was a delight. Their partnership has grown into one from which we now expect, and receive, nothing but the best.
Chengwu Guo was a standout as Puck. I continue to gasp at his beautifully controlled multiple turns, his leaps, his beats. But best of all those amazing technical skills were, on this occasion, put to such good use. They combined perfectly with his particular brand of physicality, and with his personality, to advance the story. Guo was as puckish as they come.
Joseph Chapman delighted the audience as Bottom, the crazy mechanical who wears the head of an ass, courtesy of Puck, and who dances on pointe. His characterisation was strong and maintained consistently and, unbelieveably, he was believable. He was the one everyone was talking about as they left the auditorium.
The corps de ballet had been beautifully rehearsed and nothing was forgotten of the Ashton style—head and arm movements especially. And take a bow Benedicte Bemet as Moth. To me she looked like a born Ashton dancer. But then I think she is just a born dancer.
That’s where the peaks ended I’m afraid!
The first half of the program consisted of Monotones II and Symphonic Variations. Monotones II, danced by Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright, has not really stood the test of time for me. It looked quite outdated and very static. As for Symphonic Variations, could it really be the same ballet I was lucky enough to see in London last year danced by the Royal Ballet? As the curtain went up I got a thrill to see Robyn Hendricks and Cristiano Martino looking stunning as the lead couple—elegant with proud bearing promising much. But where was the ‘sensational twenty minutes of unstoppable beauty’ that I saw in London that set my heart singing? The dancing was all over the place, technically beyond the experience of one or two of the dancers, and with little feeling for the spacing and floor plan of the work. A huge disappointment as far as I am concerned.
As for the surprises, well one was pleasant, one wasn’t. Why on earth did the cast sheet say that the performance of Symphonic Variations was ‘The world-premiere performance’? The ballet was made in 1946. But a pleasant surprise came at the end of The Dream as the entire cast was taking its final curtain. The Australian Ballet’s ingrained manner of acknowledging the orchestra during the final curtain call by coming forward and leaning into the orchestra pit and clapping for an inordinate amount of time was gone, thankfully. Instead, the company moved forward, stood in poses that maintained the mood of the work they had just danced and, with an elegant sweep of one arm to the side, acknowledged the orchestra. The integrity of the dance was maintained and the company looked stylish and dignified. Thank you to whomever decided to dispense with what we have been watching over several years now, which I find crass. May this new-found elegance in curtain calls continue.
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.
It was a pleasure to be able to see Peter Wright’s Nutcracker once again, this time on film danced by the Australian Ballet and recorded in Melbourne on 17 September 2014. It was shown on ABC-TV on Christmas Eve and is due to be released on DVD by the ABC in early January.
The absolute star was Benedicte Bemet as Clara and I regret not having had the opportunity to see her on stage. She commanded the role from beginning to end, never losing strength or characterisation. She showed off a wonderfully fluid technique and I especially loved her use of épaulement, her gorgeous carriage of the head, those beautiful arabesques that seemed to soar upwards, and the way she always, but always, stepped forward onto a turned out foot. Those technical matters came as if they were second nature and she looked every inch the dancer from start to finish. And she showed her versatility as a performer in Act II as she joined in all the dances, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and so forth, according to Peter Wright’s vision for the role.
Ingrid Gow was also impressive as Clara’s mother where I could not help but notice how expressively she used her arms, especially in her dance with Clara’s father (Brett Simon). Andrew Killian made his presence felt as the occasionally frightening Drosselmeyer in Act I, an attitude he tempered beautifully with something more gentle in Act II as he involved Clara in the action.
But looking from a different perspective, one of the most interesting features of this recording was the way the lighting looked so different from what I remember from the Sydney performance I saw. Gone were the garish colours of that Act II set and what appears to have been a more subdued approach to the lighting design in fact made the set look quite beautiful at times. With what were always carefully selected close-up shots, it was possible to see elements of the set highlighted. Not having always to see the entire set gave a quite different impression. The downside, however, was that often the darker scenes, especially in Act I and in the final scene when Clara finds herself again by her family Christmas tree, were often scarcely visible.
The grand pas de deux was danced on this occasion by Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson and, unlike my previous experience, there was indeed a real connection between this Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. Jackson’s partnering was impeccable—those shoulder lifts, followed by a full circle swirl before Eastoe was lowered into a fish dive, were just wonderful. Eastoe’s command of the choreography was beyond question and her every movement was beautifully and clearly articulated. Together they danced as one.
But I was still a little disappointed. I wanted this pas de deux to look like more than just a lovely dance. It still seemed to lack excitement, daring and the power to thrill. I’m not sure what Peter Wright thinks the pas de deux should look like. I wondered whether in his version he just wanted it to be a lovely part of a lovely story? I wanted it also to be a show piece with the sense of grandeur that goes with the great classical tradition. I wanted it to be more than just a part of the storyline. It was an exquisite pas de deux but it wasn’t a ‘grand’ one for me.
Nevertheless this Nutcracker remains a joy to watch and the DVD will be a worthy addition to any ballet collection.
Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet was a controversial addition to the repertoire of the Australian Ballet in 2011. It has been one of the most discussed productions on this website and I recall being pleased when I was able to watch a recording where I could rewind sections to appreciate better both the choreography and the dancing. That ‘rewind experience’ was, however, on a plane and looking at a tiny screen was not ideal. Now the ABC has released a DVD so we can now have the luxury of watching the production at our leisure. It features Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in the leading roles.
I have received some photographs from the opening of Valery Voskresensky’s Ballets Russes exhibition in Moscow. I am curious about the two costumes on either side of the world map as shown above. Scheherazade and Prince Igor? I welcome other comments of course although they are difficult to see due to the lighting.
Mr Voskresensky, who received a number of awards at the opening of the exhibition, also sent a link to an article in Isvestia and as I know there are some Russian speakers amongst readers of this site here is the link. There are also some very interesting costumes shown in one of the Isvestia images.
Heath Ledger Project
In August I was delighted to record an interview with NAISDA graduate Thomas E. S. Kelly. Kelly gave a spirited account of his career to date. Kelly graduated from NAISDA in 2012 and has since been working as an independent artist. His work has included several weeks in Dubai with the Melbourne-based One Fire Dance Group when they appeared at Dubai’s Global Village celebrations earlier this year.
Press for August
‘Symmetries’. Review of the Australian Ballet’s Canberra program, Dance Australia, August/September 2013, pp. 44; 46. An online version appeared in May [but is now no longer available].
‘The vision and the spirit’. Review of Hit the floor together, QL2 Dance. The Canberra Times, 2 August 2013, ARTS p. 8.[ Online version no longer available].
‘And the awards go to…’. Article on the Australian Dance Awards. The Canberra Times, 6 August 2013, ARTS p. 6. [Online version no longer available].
‘What happens when two worlds collide’. Story on Project Rameau, Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The Canberra Times, 31 August 2013, Panorama pp. 6–7. [Online version no longer available].
30 August 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
The Australian Ballet’s Icons program is a truly exciting triple bill. Every work has particular interest historically and, while one really doesn’t measure up, two of the three are thrilling to watch. The absolute standout in terms of dancing is the middle work on the program, Gemini, Glen Tetley’s work made on the Australian Ballet in 1973. It was danced on opening night by Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Rudy Hawkes, with Jones in particular performing as if there were no tomorrow.
Against a modernist set of coloured horizontal slats by Nadine Baylis, Gemini unfolds as a series duets and solos embodying powerful, dynamic movement. Of the women, Jones is cool but bold, assertive, a powerhouse of energy. Her manège of grands jetés with arms stretched heavenwards in an open fifth position (à la Isadora in La Marseillaise) was breathtaking. Scott is more elusive, sinuous and deliciously sensuous. Of the men, Bull had that little extra movement in the chest and pelvis—in the torso I guess—that drew the eye towards him whenever the men were onstage. Hawkes’ performance lacked the same zing but was nevertheless a pleasure to watch. When Tetley was in Australia in 2003 to stage Voluntaries he told me that creating Gemini had made him love the energy of Australian dancers. I think he would have been thrilled with the electrifying way in which Jones, Scott, Bull and Hawkes performed.
Closing the evening was Graeme Murphy’s evocative Beyond Twelve, a work first shown in 1980 and a real bottler of an Australian ballet showing all Murphy’s theatricality, humour and unique choreographic hand. Beyond Twelve tells the story of a boy’s transition from football-playing youth to adolescent dancer and finally on to mature artist facing the uncertainties of life beyond dance. Brett Chynoweth, Calvin Hannaford and Andrew Killian took the three main male roles of Beyond Twelve, Beyond Eighteen and Beyond Thirty and their trio in which we see their lives intertwining was a real highlight. Showing the passage of time in a choreographic sense is one of Murphy’s great strengths and this trio is no exception. Brooke Lockett, a coryphée with the company, danced the role of First Love and played it with just the right feeling of delight in the pleasures of youth.
Beyond Twelve is an immensely moving work (as well as being full of wit and humour) and nothing captures that feeling more than when, as the ballet closes, we see the mature dancer joined momentarily by his first love. And just as it looks like they will remain together, a figure in evening dress appears in the background and the girl moves away to join the other man, her Escort. Murphy’s sense of theatricality is brilliant here, partly in his placement of the three characters on the stage, but also in the instant realisation the moment generates that life is full of changes.
Despite its historical interest, the big disappointment of the evening was The Display, Robert Helpmann’s 1964 production based on his and Katharine Hepburn’s sighting of the mating dance of the lyrebird. The Display opened the program and perhaps it was inevitable that a work so entrenched in Australian culture of the 1960s would never translate well into the twenty-first century. But I didn’t think it would be quite so problematic. Nothing to me looked like an Australian picnic in the bush. The girls, so pretty with their Renoir hairstyles and pink dresses, could have been peasants in Giselle—and incidentally, Sidney Nolan, whose designs were ‘refurbished’ for the occasion, wanted the girls’ dresses to be the colour of ‘dog biscuits’, which certainly wasn’t the case with this production. In addition, the boys looked like princes as they pointed their feet, stretched their legs, and stayed so thoroughly within their classical ballet heritage. I’m not sure that, when playing footy, drinking beer and punching people up, men look like that.
Kevin Jackson as the Outsider missed the point, I think, that this character was meant to be so culturally different from the rest of the men. A red shirt and blue trousers aren’t enough to show that he was meant to be an Italian in Australia in the 1960s, a time of significant European migration. Australians had scarcely heard of coffee then let alone of European attitudes to women. The role needs a different physicality as well as costume to get the point across and Jackson didn’t seem to me to be much different from the rest of the men. But then perhaps that was a result of the other men behaving as if they were dancing a nineteenth-century ballet.
The saving grace was Madeleine Eastoe as the Female. She made Helpmann’s choreography look quite respectable despite a series of fouettés that Helpmann suddenly dropped into it all for no apparent reason. And she managed to get across the sense of sexual arousal that needs to be apparent as, at the conclusion of the ballet, the Outsider leaves her after his attempted rape and the Male (the lyrebird) comes forward to cover her with his tail feathers.
It was interesting to see Barry Kitcher, Bryan Lawrence and Garth Welch from the 1964 cast of Display come onstage to take a bow during the curtain calls. They were joined by Julie da Costa who danced the Female in a later 1980s production. There was no note in the program to say that they had been involved in coaching the dancers. The Display certainly needed some good coaching to make it work.
Musically the program was extraordinarily diverse. Malcolm Williamson’s score for The Display remains as beautiful as ever with its quivering, bush sounds, and was perhaps the highlight of that ballet on this occasion; Tetley’s choice of Hans Werne Henze’s Symphony No. 3 for Gemini was inspired with music and choreography so well attuned; and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, whose movements had been reordered by Murphy to fit the storyline of Beyond Twelve, was played with customary elegance by Stuart Macklin.
Despite The Display having major problems, I thought this was a good triple bill. In my mind it sits within the spirit of the best of triple bills where there is a bit of everything, including the ‘serious’ work in the middle and the ‘feel good’ work to go home with.
Postscript: Looking back at a review of Beyond Twelve that I wrote for Dance Australia way back in 1994 (with David McAllister, Steven Woodgate, Greg Horsman and Vicki Attard in the leading roles), I mentioned that Horsman danced the role of Beyond Twenty-Five, rather than calling it Beyond Thirty. I’m not sure when the name change happened, but it is interesting to speculate that times have changed in (almost) twenty years and perhaps thirty is now the new twenty-five? Unless I got it wrong in 1994?
Update: Here are my comments after another look at the program in Sydney.
I finally managed to see the recording of Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet made by the SBS subscription channel Stvdio and recorded on 21 September 2011 at a live performance in Melbourne. Posts relating to this work continue to attract visitors to this site and it was interesting to notice that the number of visitors accessing the site from Adelaide rose dramatically when the work was shown there recently. Adelaide visits continue to remain high and the Romeo and Juliet posts continue to be the most accessed posts overall. Whatever opinions of the work might be out there, there is little doubt that it has inspired incredible interest amongst the dance community.
I was especially pleased to have the opportunity of watching the ballet close up through the Stvdio recording and also to have the opportunity to rewind certain sections that were especially powerful, or that attracted me for a particular reason.
It was rewarding, for example, to be able to watch several times Madeleine Eastoe’s stunning entrance into her bedroom early on in the work. There she is running on pointe so fast that her feet start to look blurred. And those lovely over-the-head claps as she jumps in the air, and those little piqué steps backwards, create such joyous, light as a feather dancing.
The recording made judicious use of a small number of close ups in this early section, which highlighted Elizabeth Hill’s beautiful portrayal of Juliet’s nurse. Hill watches her charge with such a caring look as Juliet tries her ball gown against her young and blossoming figure, and the rapport between them is clearly shown on their faces. Then eventually, off Juliet runs again, jumping onto a chair that happens to be in her way before she springs onto her bed. It’s wonderful choreography and wonderful acting and an absolute delight to watch again.
I also loved the serenity of the wedding scene and watching the Murphy touches unfold: the journey to the site of the wedding with Juliet walking across the shoulders of a group of black clad holy men; the duet with the monk that uses the feet as a point of contact between the two; and the playful role the train of Juliet’s wedding dress plays in her duet with Romeo during the ceremony. Murphy’s signature is there in full force!
In addition, I really took pleasure watching Adam Bull as Death and still think this role is one of the strong points of the production. Not only does the role act as a powerful through-line, it also acts as an element of dramatic irony. We know what is going to happen right from the beginning when Death picks up a bunch of lilies, a symbol of both purity and death and a recurring motif throughout the work, from the ground in the piazza as the piece opens.
But the scene I thought had the most dramatic power was Juliet’s visit the monk to seek a solution when it seemed that marriage to Paris was her ultimate fate. Murphy makes this a much more significant scene in the ballet than did Cranko in the version that we have been watching in Australia since the 1970s. In the Murphy production the story is told with choreographic and force and through powerful gestures, and we see Murphy using another of his signatures: Juliet is transported through to the country of the holy man held aloft by several black clad figures who carry her through the air in a display of expansive soaring movements.
The conclusion to this scene occurs when Death enters Juliet’s bedroom and stands behind her to slip on her nightdress, and also in the following, shuddering trio when Death places himself between Juliet and Romeo. Again we know there is no hope.
On a less positive note, the final desert scene is not my favourite part of the ballet and a close up look did nothing to make it look better. As one comment has indicated on the original post, Lady Capulet did look decidedly out of place in her high fashion gear, as beautiful as it was, stumbling around with high heels in hand.
In general, though, I thought this recording was beautifully and sensitively made. The more I look at this Romeo and Juliet the more interesting it becomes and the more I wonder about the difficulty we face with the ‘shock of the new’ when we watch a new dance production, in all its fleeting beauty, for the first time.
14 April 2012 (matinee), Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
A second look at the Australian Ballet’s triple bill program, Infinity, at a recent Saturday matinee in Sydney produced some new highlights, but largely reinforced my thoughts following my first viewing on opening night in Melbourne.
As a new highlight, it was especially pleasurable to see that the shocking conflict between orchestra and the spoken narrative in There’s definitely a prince involved had been solved. It made a huge difference to one’s understanding of choreographer Gideon Obarzanek’s approach to the piece when one could actually hear what the performers were saying. The narrative is much wittier than was apparent on opening night when clarity and audibility were pretty much non-existent and when it seemed more like a fight between the orchestra and the spoken word than anything else.
In addition, the printed handout now included a credit to Tom Lingwood, whose name was missing from the handout on opening night but whose costumes from Swan Lake and Night Shadow were used for Prince (with extra costumes by Alexi Freeman). I suspect there needs to be someone doing a better job at proof reading of Australian Ballet publications, from major books down to nightly cast sheets.
Kristina Chan and Sara Black gave strong performances in Prince. Chan is a powerful dancer and her contemporary skills were especially evident in the ‘Drone 2’ section of Prince (although I’m not sure what the ‘Drone’ sections were meant to achieve). Black stood out on this occasion mostly for her confident delivery of the spoken text. And as before I admired Madeleine Eastoe and continue to yearn to see her in a Swan Lake that will give full expression to her glorious classical technique.
In Stephen Page’s Warumuk—in the dark night, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes remain a highlight as does Vivienne Wong’s performance as the Evening Star. But it remains just a pretty work, evocative and atmospheric.
There is no doubt in my mind that the major piece on the Infinity program is Graeme Murphy’s The narrative of nothing. Halaina Hills and Amy Harris danced the female leads on this occasion but I was especially impressed by Benedicte Bemet, in her first year with the company, who danced securely and serenely in a duet with Jarryd Madden. An injured Andrew Killian was replaced by Andrew Wright but it was Adam Bull again who stole the show amongst the male performers. I admired the intensity with which he approached Murphy’s choreography with its quirky and demanding partnering and its detailed and often unexpected movements. And looking back to my original post and its comments, I don’t think I interpreted the work differently despite now knowing that the score by Brett Dean referred to the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. I continue to think that the work stands alone as an abstract piece and needs no context of bushfires or anything else of a specific narrative/contextual nature.
In fact, what I found most striking on this second viewing of Infinity was the choreographic power of The narrative of nothing. While we can look at this work as ‘vintage Murphy’ in so many ways, when seen alongside the other works that comprise Infinity the depth of Murphy’s choreographic invention, his devotion to making dance that speaks to the audience about the nature of dance, his ongoing explorations into the art of collaboration with the performers he chooses and with his creative team, is astonishing. While I love Infinity as a whole, especially for its admirable pushing of the boundaries of what the Australian Ballet stands for, Murphy stands out as the choreographer with the most to offer. He gave the dancers something to dance, something with guts, and he gave the audience something abstract, something in which they could immerse themselves in a way that only dance can offer.
This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times.
24 February 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
Infinity, the Australian Ballet’s first program in its 50th anniversary year, is a diverse and sometimes challenging evening of dance. But most of all it is thrilling experience to see the Australian Ballet putting itself out on a limb with three brand new works from three Australian choreographers: Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. All three works are danced to new scores by Australian composers and all three have new Australian designs. Definitely something to celebrate.
The show opens with the new work from Murphy, The narrative of nothing. To tell the truth, while there is a perfectly good explanation from Murphy for why this title was chosen—there’s no obvious narrative but the work may still be telling the audience something, I’d much rather dispense with titles that sound smart (with all due respects to Murphy). Untitled works just as well for me!
Murphy’s choreography often had a primeval feel as bodies twisted and curled around others. There were powerful performances from Lana Jones and Adam Bull, and I especially admired the sequence where Jones was partnered by several men who alternated between holding her aloft and letting her fall from side to side. Vintage Murphy really but Jones’ ability to hold her body in a perfect curve as she fell was breathtaking.
The supporting dancers deserve praise for their technical strength as they attacked the demanding choreography. Murphy has moved a step beyond his usual (always interesting) vocabulary and made a work that, in somewhat of a contradiction, asks the dancers to move with a kind of aggressive lyricism.
I didn’t read the program notes prior to watching this work so wasn’t aware in advance that the commissioned score, Fire Music by Brett Dean, was in response to the Victorian ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires of 2009. With the knowledge of what was behind Dean’s score, fire in some respects becomes the non-narrative. But the works stands without this knowledge and in fact I was pleased that I didn’t know in advance. The score sounded quite elemental—the thunder sheets certainly helped there—and, with some instruments positioned outside the pit, the sound was enveloping.
Jennifer Irwin’s body hugging costumes were decorated individually with black patterns, often swirling organically, and with what looked like silver studs or tiny mirrors. Depending on the lighting (by Damien Cooper) they changed from looking a little punk, to glowing in the dark, to looking slinky, and much more. Cooper’s design was uncompromising—a solo by Adam Bull performed pretty much on the spot in a strong downlight was another highlight. The design also included an onstage use of lighting rigs not normally on view to the audience, another technique that has often featured in works by Murphy. With the inclusion of a minimalist black space as a setting The narrative of nothing became an example of the very best of contemporary collaborative enterprises. It also looks back to some of Murphy’s strongest abstract works made for Sydney Dance Company—Piano sonata comes straight to mind.
Obarzanek’s piece also had a strange, or at least not very catchy title, There’s definitely a prince involved. It referred to his process of generating ideas and vocabulary for the work by asking a range of people about what they thought constitutes a ballet, and his subsequent deconstruction of the ballet Swan Lake. The work can be read on a number of levels. On the most simplistic it tells the story of Swan Lake, using the dancers as narrators, and focuses on the illogicality of the story. It relies on the dancers’ deadpan delivery of the text to raise laughter from the audience, and the various dancers who take on the role of narrator throughout the piece are more than adept. Unfortunately, even though they used a microphone, their voices were often inaudible above the crashing sounds of the orchestra playing Stefan Gregory’s fragmentation of Tchaikovsky’s familiar Swan Lake music.
On another level the work rips apart the traditional choreography of Swan Lake, and amusingly so, especially in the section based on the dance of the four little swans. It helps but is not essential if the audience is familiar with the traditional steps.
On yet another level the work can be seen as a comment on art asking the question of whether Swan Lake is indeed a work of art. Obarzanek has an acutely inquiring mind and his ability to force us to reconsider what we as a ballet audience might take for granted is powerful and actually quite respectful.
There’s definitely a prince involved uses dancers of the Australian Ballet augmented by dancers from Obarzanek’s company, Chunky Move. Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe showed her versatility as a performer and slotted beautifully into the varying demands associated with the role of a deconstructed Odette, the female lead. The few moments of classical movement—a fabulous grand jeté across the stage, and her ‘dying swan’ poses—did however make me yearn to see her dance a ‘real’ Swan Lake. Deconstruction is fine, entertaining and thought provoking, but the classic version transcends it all and it is that strength really that allows Obarzanek’s deconstruction to work so well.
The program closes with Page’s Warumuk—in the dark light with Bangarra Dance Theatre joining forces with the Australian Ballet. With its new score from David Page it presents an exploration of the myths associated with the night sky.
The Bangarra dancers performed with their usual, beautifully rehearsed ensemble work with particularly striking performances from Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco representing Full Moon. Vivienne Wong, stunningly dressed by Jennifer Irwin in a lacy black outfit cut with a long ‘tail’ at the back, stood out as the Evening Star. For me Wong was the sole Australian Ballet dancer who was able to transcend her balletic training and blend into the Bangarra way of moving. This was a real feat as Bangarra has now consolidated its own very distinctive style and company dancers are performing with added assurance and expertise.
The one disappointment for me was Jacob Nash’s set design. To me it looked a little too much like a previous Bangarra commission, his set designs for ‘About’, part of the Belong program of 2011.
This program is the Australian Ballet in an extreme mood. I have nothing but praise for the courage of the company in taking on, and succeeding in a program that far surpasses anything they have done in recent years. It makes the company look at last as though it is a company with a desire to move ballet into the future.
Michelle Potter, 27 February 2012
Postscript:The Canberra Times review appeared on 17 March 2012. It is no longer available online.
19 November 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Ronald Hynd’s Merry Widow has never been my favourite ballet. I dislike its nature as balletic operetta, with emphasis on the ‘etta’, and its stock comic characters and its silly story line with people hiding in and escaping from pavilions and so forth. And as I took my seat at the Sydney Opera House my companion said, from the perspective of someone whose parents were brought up in 1920s and 1930s Vienna, that she wasn’t looking forward to ‘Viennese schmaltz’, referring in particular to the Franz Lehar music. So I was surprised and delighted to discover that I actually enjoyed the performance (and so did my companion).
Much credit for the way the production sped along goes to the corps de ballet, who were dancing beautifully, and as an ensemble, which doesn’t always happen these days. The Pontevedrian dancers in Act II, especially the men, were outstanding and it was an absolute delight to see everyone engaging with the action even when standing on the sidelines at balls, soirees, and other occasions.
Madeleine Eastoe was delicious as Valencienne. She danced pretty much faultlessly, and what an expressive back she has, which was very much on show in Desmond Heeley’s ball gowns with their deeply cut backs. She gave the role such warmth and charm as she flashed her eyes at a dashing Camille (Andrew Killian), or showed attentiveness to her aged husband Baron Zeta (Colin Peasley).
Colin Peasley’s performance as Baron Zeta had some truly poignant moments. In particular I was moved by his resignation at the close of the ballet to the fact that Valencienne is in love with Camille. It made me wish that he didn’t always have to dance the comic roles—those where his knees always give way when he tries to dance! He has a bit more to offer I think.
On a downside, however, I was disappointed by the performance of Jin Yao, guest artist from the Hong Kong Ballet, as Hanna Glawari. She has beautifully long limbs and carries herself with elegance and her final pas de deux with Count Danilo (Brett Simon) was charming and flowed smoothly. But in general I thought her portrayal of Hanna lacked any warmth. Just a glimmer of what might have been came at the end of the show as she took her curtain call. A little too late unfortunately! Nor was there much strength of characterisation in the scene where Hanna and Danilo realise they are sweethearts from some years earlier and that important scene (important to the storyline) fell a little flat.
I was also disappointed with Matthew Donnelly’s portrayal of Njegus. Donnelly doesn’t seem to have a stage presence that is strong enough to sustain such roles. Or perhaps he needs better coaching or a role model to learn from. His apparent grooming to take on cameo roles of this kind just isn’t working at the moment.
All in all, despite some reservations, which also included for me some jarring aspects in the design, especially in relation to choice of colours, this production of The Merry Widow was a pleasurable experience. Perhaps thanks are due to John Meehan who was guest repetiteur for this production?