‘Madame Butterfly’. The Australian Ballet

What impressed me most about this revival of Stanton Welch’s 1995 work Madame Butterfly was Welch’s ability to create a strong, dramatic effect by the simple, yet strategic placement of characters on the stage. It was especially, but not exclusively, noticeable towards the end of the work when Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki with is American wife Kate. It is then, with Sharpless, Suzuki, Butterfly and Sorrow also onstage, that the drama of what has occurred is fully realised. While various of the characters are the centre of attention at particular points during the unfolding of this part of the saga, the placement of the characters across the stage, and their attention—demanding stillness when the action is not especially focused on them—is powerfully moving. The girlish scenes between Butterfly and Suzuki are also memorable. Again it is often the placement of the two onstage in relation to the rest of the action that gives the scenes their strength, although the recurring motif of wiping away each other’s tears is also a strong device.

But despite the above, I find it hard to see a major artistic reason to justify the revival of Madame Butterfly. I can of course see that it attracts an audience and so can only imagine that the artistic team sees money as the main reason for staging a production. But no one looked comfortable in those shuffling ‘Japanese’ walking movements, heel leading in so obvious a manner. And how illogical it seems when shuffling and obsequious bowing are followed by full-on contemporary ballet, as in that long and demanding wedding night pas de deux for example. And how can one shuffle to the top of a flight of steps and then extend a beautifully arched foot, clad in a pointe shoe, and descend the stairs in balletic style. It looked just silly to me.

Madeleine Eastoe danced brilliantly as Butterfly. What a secure, fluid technique she has now. But she lacked the vulnerability needed for the role and quite honestly, with that soaringly beautiful technique, she is just not cut out to be a fifteen year old Japanese Geisha sublimating herself to a man the likes of Pinkerton. Juliet (about the same age) yes, but Butterfly—not in my opinion. But then again, maybe it’s the double-edged choreography that’s the problem?

The strongest performances to my mind came from Daniel Gaudiello as Sharpless and Reiko Hombo as Suzuki. Gaudiello had the advantage of playing a European character (the US Consul in Nagasaki) and so was not burdened by the fake Japanese movements. But that aside, his performance was impressive for the manner in which he created a distinctive character, often not so much through dancing but though small mannerisms such as the twist of a cuff or a slight movement of the head, all of which indicated a certain awkwardness at the situations in which he found himself.

Hombo as Suzuki was perfectly cast. She was ever attentive to Butterfly, sad when Butterfly was sad, happy and excited when Butterfly felt those emotions. Technically pretty much flawless too. A great job.

Sheree da Costa also gave a strong performance in the cameo role of Butterfly’s mother. But how I wish the Australian Ballet would delve into its extensive repertoire and give us some programming that is truly stimulating and forward looking. As the recent (traditional) production of Swan Lake by the English National Ballet showed, ballet isn’t dead. But sometimes it seems like it is.

Michelle Potter, 19 April 2011

The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet (2010)

There was a time when Christmas in Sydney without a production of The Nutcracker was unimaginable. The ballet attracts a festive audience, there is no doubt about it. So it is hardly a surprise that the Australian Ballet’s staging of Peter Wright’s Nutcracker as its final offering for the 2010 Sydney season was a total sell-out.

This Nutcracker does not strive too hard for psychological explanations or modernisations and the production has a clear and very welcome logic to it. Nothing happens in the transformation scene, when the Christmas tree grows, mice (rats I think in this production?) emerge and engage in a fight in which they are ultimately the losers, and Clara’s Christmas gift of a nutcracker doll turns into a handsome prince, which is not prefigured in some way in the party scene. The second act too has more logic than usual. Clara’s involvement with the dances is a welcome addition, as is her transformation—she is an aspiring dancer in this production—into the Sugar Plum Fairy. While the ballet still of course requires suspension of belief, there is a coherence that is unusual in a staging that does not diverge markedly from the traditional storyline.

The production was also pleasing from a technical point of view. And by this I mean that for once there were no loud bangs and crashes from backstage as scenery was moved in and out. I have winced more than once throughout the 2010 season at noises off stage that were never meant to be heard in the auditorium.

There was also some great dancing, and what a treat that is! A total standout was Madeleine Eastoe as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She was technically assured, her feet sparkled and there was such a delicious flow of movement in her torso as her spine stretched upwards through to her beautifully poised head. She gave such light and shade to the choreography with some unexpected changes of pace in her movements. She was every inch the ballerina—commanding but never overbearingly so. And what a magnificent, beautifully placed and perfectly executed diagonal of fouettés at the beginning of the coda!

As for her partner, Yosvani Ramos, he was sadly encumbered by a jacket in a startling shade of lolly pink—very unbecoming I thought. And to make matters worse the neckline seemed quite stiff and much too high for him. It made him look as though he had an incredibly short neck—not good when he is not the tallest of dancers in the first place. It quite detracted from some really nice dancing on his part.

Reiko Hombo danced the role of Clara and acquitted herself well showing absolute engagement with the role. Leanne Stojmenov as the Rose Fairy could scarcely put a foot wrong. The choreography here demands a dancer with a strong sense of classical order and in such situations Stojmenov always displays a natural ability and an exceptional level of expertise. Daniel Gaudiello had a small role in the first act as Drosselmeyer’s assistant. With his ability to realise a character, his powerful presence on stage and his technical prowess, especially when it comes to beaten steps and steps of elevation, Gaudiello turned this role into something exceptional and quite idiosyncratic. There were also fine performances from Andrew Killian as Drosselmeyer and Tzu-Chao Chou as the Jack-in-the-Box

There were moments when I found the costume and set design by John F. Macfarlane overbearing and fussy. Apart from wishing that the Prince’s pink jacket was not quite so inelegant, I also craved a little more subtlety in the set for Act II, which suffered in my opinion from a surfeit of colourful motifs including two different kinds of very large flowers, a stylised (anthropomorphised) sun and a bunch of swirly ribbons. But this Nutcracker is a Christmas treat to delight young and old alike and closed the Australian Ballet’s 2010 season on a high note.

Michelle Potter, 12 December 2010