The current corona virus situation has given us many opportunities to see streamed productions from many of the world’s best companies. Some have been thrilling, and have been works, or have involved casts, that I am unlikely to see outside this streaming arrangement. One or two, however, have left me wondering.
The Australian Ballet’s decision to stream its 1986 production of Giselle was an odd one I thought. In the thirty-four years since 1986 much has changed in terms of filming techniques and in what we expect from dancers. I was underwhelmed in particular by the poor quality of the footage and I was not a fan of the characterisations of the leading characters, except perhaps by that of Paul de Masson as Hilarion. Techniques are stronger now as well.
It was also touted as Maina Gielgud’s production, which it no doubt was even it was staged by Colin Peasley. But Gielgud had been director of the company for just a few years in 1986 and, having seen more recent productions that have involved her input, most recently in 2018 but also in 2015, her production has grown in so many ways. Could we not have had something closer to 2020? The 1986 recording was a poor choice.
Then there was Smuin Ballet’s staging of Stanton Welch’s Indigo. I have often wondered about Indigo made originally for Houston Ballet in 1999. Its title seemed curious: how do you make a ballet about a colour? Well of course the title referred to the colour of the costumes, although that is also something of a curiosity to my mind. That aside, I was really disappointed by Welch’s choreography. It was filled with jerky staccato movements and I longed for a bit of lyrical relief. It also seemed to sit awkwardly, I thought, on the physiques of the Smuin dancers. But at least now I have seen it and needn’t muse about the title any more.
Australian activity in New Zealand
It is interesting to note that two Australian choreographers are to have their work performed in the coming months by Royal New Zealand Ballet, which will shortly return to full-scale performing. Alice Topp’s Aurum will be part of a mixed bill program called Venus Rising. The program is due to take place in August/September and will also feature works by Twyla Tharp, Andrea Schermoly, and Sarah Foster-Sproull.
See these links for my reviews of Aurum: Melbourne (2018), Sydney (2019). In both cases Aurum was part of a triple bill called Verve.
Later, in October through to December, Danielle Rowe, former principal with the Australian Ballet and now making a name for herself as a choreographer, will present her new Sleeping Beauty, also for Royal New Zealand Ballet.
The closing date for nominations for the 2019 and 2020 Australian Dance Awards has been extended. These two sets of awards cover work presented in 2018 and 2019. The closing date is now 20 July. For further information and to nominate follow this link.
30 & 31 August 2018, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
Maina Gielgud’s Giselle, brought back once more by the Australian Ballet for a Melbourne only season, began beautifully—so beautifully that it gave me goose bumps. Small groups of villagers moved across the stage, interacting with each other, laughing and joking, while Orchestra Victoria, masterfully led by Simon Hewett, put us in the mood for what was to follow. It all seemed beautifully real rather than staged and distant. Much of this kind of interaction continued throughout with only a few moments where everyone stood around in a semi-circle of inactivity.
The opening night cast of Ako Kondo as Giselle and Ty King-Wall as Albrecht left me a little cold, although Kondo, who always dances superbly, was charmingly shy, perhaps even naive about what was happening to her. She needed a stronger Albrecht to give extra meaning to her portrayal. It takes two for the nature of any relationship to be seen and understood by an audience.
Andrew Killian did a sterling job as Hilarion and Lisa Bolte played Berthe as a motherly figure consumed by domesticity. I have, however, always imagined Berthe as a somewhat more feisty character, who is respectful towards the Duke (Steven Heathcote), Bathilde (Alice Topp) and their entourage, but who doesn’t behave obsequiously towards them. Perhaps the Duke was Giselle’s father? (This was an interpretation in the mind of Laurel Martyn and others and influences how Berthe encounters and interacts with the Duke and his party).
But the real stars of Act I on opening night were Brett Chynoweth and Jade Wood who danced the Peasant pas de deux. Chynoweth in particular danced spectacularly well with beautiful control and great placement at the end of those airborne tours. It was wonderful to watch him, too, when Wood was dancing her variations. There he was going from friend to friend telling them all how wonderful she was.
The mad scene was adequate, but that’s about it.
Act II on opening night also began beautifully with visions of Wilis appearing in the mist as Hilarion ran through the forest in search of Giselle’s grave. But I didn’t feel moved as events unfolded, due perhaps to an ongoing lack of strength in the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht. Valerie Tereshchenko as Myrtha had a fierce look on her face but her gestures and the way she attacked the choreography didn’t quite match the facial expression, which also lessened the emotional impact one expects from Act II.
I was lucky, however, to be at the second performance in which Leanne Stojmenov as Giselle danced with David Hallberg as Albrecht. Act II this time was the stronger of the two acts, although it was interesting to see Stojmenov’s reading of Giselle in Act I as a somewhat less naive character, a little coy at times but certainly in it (to start with anyway) for the ride. This of course made her collapse, when she realised she had been betrayed, much stronger.
Hallberg and Stojmenov gave a moving performance in Act II. She had the right ethereal, supernatural touch, he could plead for mercy from Myrtha and make us feel for him. Their central pas de deux unfolded slowly and exquisitely before our eyes. Hallberg’s solo of entrechats six was spectacular from a technical point of view and yet he managed not to look like he was dancing in an eisteddfod. At last I felt emotionally involved, even from a distance since I was sitting in the gallery (aka the gods of former times). Amy Harris as Myrtha in this cast was forceful in her gestures and body language as a whole, and so she drove the action along nicely.
I often wonder to what extent the dancers of the Australian Ballet think about the nature of the characters they are portraying in ballets like Giselle. Do they wonder what goes on inside the minds of those characters? Do they wonder what kind of existence the characters might have beyond the immediate story? And so on. And do they then consider how to encapsulate that character in movement?
But there was a lot beyond interpretation of characters to admire about this production. The corps de ballet in Act I, for example, appeared to have had someone working with them on the use of head, arms and upper body. Fluidity of movement was thus more noticeable than usual. I also admired Hewett’s leadership of Orchestra Victoria. I felt I was listening not to a concert performance of the Adolphe Adam score, but to music to accompany the story as it was unfolding onstage. It was also an experience to sit high up in the auditorium. Apart from the fact that Stojmenov and Hallberg were able to project emotion the way they did right up into the gods, I have never been so aware before of the spatial patterns of the choreography for the corps de ballet.
To finish, there were two interesting happenings with regard to curtain calls. On opening night, minor principals who only appear in Act I joined the cast of Act II for a curtain call—not a usual occurrence. Then, following the second night’s performance, as Stojmenov and Hallberg moved downstage to take another bow together, the cast of Wilis behind them broke into applause—now that’s an accolade.
Immigration Museum, Melbourne, until 8 October 2018
The story of Li Cunxin, current artistic director of Queensland Ballet, and his journey from China to the West, is well-known from Li’s autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer, published in 2003. But the Immigration Museum’s exhibition, subtitled ‘A Portrait of Li Cunxin’ also seen last year in Brisbane, adds very nicely to that story. In one exhibition case, for example, there is a handwritten document that is a draft of Mao’s Last Dancer. The ‘devices’ we use these days for drafting material for publication clearly were not as ubiquitous then as they are now.
But there are some very personal items in this exhibition and many are quite moving. In particular, there is a short film, around 8 minutes of footage, in which Li’s parents are interviewed about their son. They give their side of the story (in their language but translated with subtitles) including their thoughts on seeing Li performing in Nutcracker with Houston Ballet when they were first permitted to visit him. ‘But didn’t you get dizzy?’ his mother says talking about Li’s astonishing capacity for performing multiple (and I mean multiple) pirouettes. Three tiny folding stools are another memento from Li’s days in China. They were made by Li’s father for his family of nine to use around the small table at which they ate. It conjured up some quite lovely images of a family that seemed so closely knit in its poverty
There are also some beautiful photos of Li and his fellow artists, mainly from his days at Houston Ballet where he was mentored by artistic director Ben Stevenson. And another filmed segment gives us an insight into Stevenson’s thoughts on Li’s story.
But perhaps the section I enjoyed most was a compilation of footage from Li’s performances, again largely from Houston. While most of the footage was showing its age and was grainy and cloudy at times, what emerged was Li’s beautifully articulated movement and the wide range of choreography he performed. My favourite was a tiny section—no more than a few seconds— from the solo from Le Corsaire. It made me realise how lucky we were in Australia to have had Li performing with the Australian Ballet in the 1990s. Those were also the days when writers like me were welcomed into the classroom (with undying thanks to Maina Gielgud) and I recall Li staying on after class was officially finished and practising manège after manège of spectacular movement.
Everyone who visits this show will have his or her favourite items. Do go and have a look. It’s well worth a visit.
I have to admit to disliking intensely the dumbing down of Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. The story of Clara with the ridiculous description of it as ‘The Gum-Nutcracker.’ The work might have strong Australian resonances, but it is much more than a story about early developments in Australian ballet. The so-called ‘affectionate dubbing’ of it with reference to the fruit of the eucalyptus tree makes the work sound pathetic. Below are a few published comments that suggest that we should grow up and resist the temptation to trivialise.
Speaking of the slight nature of, and problematic issues surrounding the more traditional productions of Nutcracker (going right back to 1892), Professor Rodney Stenning Edgecombe writes:
‘When foundations are sandy, it’s better to re-lay them in concrete. And that is indeed what the brilliant Graeme Murphy has done in his version of the ballet, which, having subtitled The Story of Clara, he conceives it, as Bournonville did his ballets, as ‘frames around the biographical and travel pictures which constitute [an] actual theatre life’.
He then proceeds to analyse the ballet, its story, its choreography, its music, and its place within the history of ballet (not necessarily Australian ballet), in the most erudite terms, making reference to, and using quotations from some of the great names of world scholarship—August Bournonville, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Marcel Proust, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Patrick White, and others. Speaking about the Snowflakes scene, for example, he writes:
‘The snowflakes’ wild pirouettes with upflung arms … show how inventively Murphy can work within restrictive confines of the danse d’école. Indeed one can’t help thinking that the writing for this ensemble is deliberately transitional, Petipa Duncanised as it were. And because ‘Petipa Duncanised’ is all but a synonym for ‘Fokine’—at least the Fokine of Les Sylphides—this episode illustrates the transformation that the very art of ballet witnessed during Clara’s childhood.’
What thrills me is that Edgecombe treats the work as an artistic creation of the highest order, one that deserves to be interpreted within the widest cultural context, not as some Snugglepot and Cuddlepie story (with apologies to May Gibbs). In his final paragraph, after discussing some issues he has with Marius Petipa’s work, and a similar issue he sees relating to the way Murphy has used a section of the music, Edgecombe says:
‘And what one allows to Petipa, one must allow to Murphy, a choreographer, in my opinion, of entirely comparable genius.’1
I am aware that not everyone will relate to the way Edgecombe writes and analyses but, like Edgecombe, Dame Margaret Scott, who danced Clara the Elder in 1992, 1994 and 2000, also speaks of the slight nature of traditional productions and recognises the extent to which Murphy’s ballet recontextualises the traditional work into something with more narrative and choreographic depth. In an interview in 2000, in which she replies to a question about why some found the Murphy production hard to accept, Dame Margaret says:
‘In the crits in the 1892 production, there was one critic who said, ‘It’s a pity that [such] fine music is expended on nonsense unworthy of attention.’ And in the 1992 production here, one of the crits said: ‘One of the great achievements of this production is that Tchaikovsky’s music sounds as if it was written to a brief from Murphy.
And then it goes on about the ballet itself. In 1892 the crit said, ‘Ballet is sliding downhill having lost its footing and moving away towards some kind of fragile and sugary Nutcracker.’ And then in Australia, ‘With Nutcracker the Australian Ballet came of age.’ I juxtaposed those two because it is relevant to the production.
I think if it had been called from the beginning, The Story of Clara, they would have accepted it. But it’s difficult to change the traditionalists. They still want the tutu ballet. And I mean, people don’t realise that the history of Nutcracker itself is a very chequered one. It only came into this popularity when the pantomimes died and it took the place of pantomimes because of its Christmas story. It became the cash cow, the Christmas entertainment. So to say it is popular because of a great love [is wrong] because a lot of people find it very dissatisfying.’2
It is common knowledge that Murphy was at first hesitant to accept the commission from Maina Gielgud to create a new Nutcracker. In an interview in 1996 he says:
‘Maina Gielgud had asked me years ago to think about doing a Nutcracker and I’d rejected the idea on the basis that the story was silly, the piece was clichéd, and I’d never really seen one I liked.’
But, thankfully, he eventually did accept the commission. He explains:
‘The clinch for me was the music, which I adore. So Kristian [Fredrikson] came over and we played the tape and I think somewhere in the course of that listening I was going ‘I can’t do a Nutcracker set in a postcard snowland, white Christmases and all that stuff. It doesn’t really mean anything. Maybe if you could do a Nutcracker set in arid Melbourne suburbia …’ And that was really the beginning of it.’3
What we have with Murphy’s visionary production should be regarded, especially by those who write media notes, as a ballet of international reach. Save gumnuts for other less sophisticated things. But if some see a need to dumb down the work with a crazy name (in order to attract more people and bring in more money?) then perhaps they should rename the Australian Ballet the Ocker Ballet?
Michelle Potter, 17 June 2017
All quotes from Professor Edgecombe are from Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, ‘Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker.’ Brolga, 17 (December 2002), pp. 23–32.
Lee Christofis, ‘Coming of age. Retrieving history with Dame Margaret Scott and Valrene Tweedie OAM.’ Brolga, 13 (December 2000), pp. 44–58.
All quotes from Murphy are from ‘Graeme Murphy. Humanity revealed’ in Michelle Potter, A passion for dance (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1997), pp. 61–77.
See also the text of a program article I wrote for the Australian Ballet’s 2009 season of Nutcracker. The story of Clara. As a concluding remark I wrote,‘This is a Nutcracker to be loved and cherished. Its Australian connections are heart warming and a source of pride and pleasure. But the dramatic text is universal.‘ Here is the link.
18 December 2015 (evening), Hamer Hall, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
What a wonderful surprise this performance was! The venue was interesting—Hamer Hall is basically a venue for concerts and so the performance space is without a proscenium arch. But the unusual space was used thoughtfully and little of the theatricality that is achieved with a proscenium-style theatre was lost.
This Coppélia was staged by Maina Gielgud especially for the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, a training establishment led by former Australian Ballet dancers Christine Walsh and Ricardo Ella. Gielgud had added some choreography and had made some changes in order to accommodate her cast, including giving Swanilda (Swanhilda in this production) a little sister called Elysia, adding two extra friends for Swanilda and, with fewer male dancers than might be available in a company, rearranging some dances slightly. Gielgud also re-imagined somewhat the character of Dr Coppélius having him make two swans, a spider, a caterpillar and other creatures, which we saw in his workshop in Act II, in addition to his ultimate creation, the doll Coppélia. Otherwise the ballet ran as we have come to expect.
But this was no ordinary school production. The dancers had been beautifully trained, thoroughly rehearsed and looked like professionals. It was a thrill to see such a sense of engagement among the cast throughout the show, which of course transfers across into the auditorium and gives the audience a sense of engagement as well. And this theatricality began early with a wonderful performance of the Act I Mazurka. This was not one of those staid renditions that we often see. This was real character dancing with bodies bending, faces beaming with pleasure, and steps being performed strongly. And the same can be said of the Czardas that followed later in the act
Two guest artists from Tokyo Ballet, Maria Kawantani and Arata Miyagawa, took the leading roles. Both were beautiful dancers but, in particular, Miyagawa as Franz was technically superb. Everything was so cleanly executed. His double tours were done with such perfection in the body and feet (and amazing landings in a perfectly placed demi-plié), but they also soared upwards in a way that made me gasp. Then there were the manèges of various steps, the pirouettes, his partnering—he was just brilliant. But more than that, he too had that sense of engagement with everything and everyone on stage. I just loved the way he blew kisses across the stage to Swanilda as she was about to start a variation in Act III.
Another standout performer was the young girl, Hana Glasgow-Palmer, who played Swanilda’s little sister. Too young yet to be part of the Conservatoire’s professional training program, she nevertheless gave the role real character. Her outstanding stage presence and, again, that ability to engage, augurs well for her future. I also especially enjoyed Prayer, danced calmly and serenely by Victoria Norris. But every dancer contributed beautifully to this performance and, quite honestly, in a number of ways it outshone many a professional show I have seen.
The music was played by the Australian Conservatoire of Ballet Orchestra, with some musicians seated on a dais upstage, others above the stage space. The orchestra was led by conductor Peter Tandy and there were times when the music gave me goose bumps, again something I don’t normally feel when listening to orchestral accompaniments at the ballet.
This Coppélia was a significant achievement for all concerned.
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.
My review of Giselle with the Australian Ballet is now available on DanceTabs at this link.
I am disappointed that I was not able to be more positive in this review. But the experience did set me thinking about the importance of every character in a narrative ballet having a strong vision of where their character fits within the overall story. When it happens audiences are the beneficiaries, but the experience also reflects back really well on the dancers and the company. In the performance of Giselle I saw there were occasions when there seemed to be a lack of understanding of why certain things were happening, and a consequent lack of reaction between characters. Ballet companies are time-poor these days, I know, and it struck me that perhaps a dramaturg is needed occasionally?
I look forward to seeing other casts in Sydney and Canberra.
Michelle Potter, 16 March 2015
Update (7 April 2015): My review of another Giselle cast, featuring Juliet Burnett and Jared Wright, is at this link.
Dimity Azoury, currently a coryphée with the Australian Ballet, remembers her grandmother with great fondness. She was a ballet student in Wellington, New Zealand, and even went on as an extra when the Ballets Russes companies visited New Zealand in the late 1930s. But, Azoury tells me, her grandmother’s parents thought that ballet was not an appropriate career for a young lady, which was not an uncommon attitude at the time. So her grandmother gave up her ambitions, married and moved to Australia.
‘I often used to look at a photo of her wearing a long, Romantic tutu,’ Azoury recalls, ‘and I think it was from her that my love of ballet came.’
Azoury’s career as a ballet dancer, a career now (happily) considered a worthy course to take in life, moved another step forward just recently when he received the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award, worth the substantial amount of $20,000. Her win was announced on stage at the Sydney Opera House at the final rehearsal for Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker.
‘I was in a state of shock when my name was called,’ Azoury says. ‘I was shaking and found it really hard to hold on to the flowers I was given. Then, when the curtain came down, all the dancers hugged me and were so supportive. This is one of the lovely things about working in the Australian Ballet. Everyone is so generous.’
Azoury was trained first in Queanbeyan and then in Canberra at the Kim Harvey School of Dance. She was twice rejected for the Australian Ballet School but, encouraged by her parents and by Harvey, she auditioned again and was accepted in the 2005 intake. She spent three years at the school and was taken into the Australian Ballet in 2008.
‘My aspirations are all with the Australian Ballet. I love the company and feel totally involved. And now I feel I am getting opportunities.’
She is looking forward to the company’s production of Maina Gielgud’s Giselle, a highlight of the 2015 season, and has enjoyed rehearsing under Gielgud’s direction. Gielgud, Azoury says, knows exactly what she wants and so it is easy to find a clear focus in rehearsals. It has also been especially exciting for her to have the opportunity to try the role of Myrthe, Queen of the Wilis. There are also rumours that her much-loved deerhound, Gunther, may have a walk-on part in Act I. ‘I guess he’ll have to audition,’ she muses.
In addition to regular company repertoire, since joining the company Azoury has also performed in every one of the annual Bodytorque programs, in which her fellow dancers try their hand at choreography.
‘Bodytorque feels like a collaboration. There is no pressure on the dancers and I love being able to help my friends bring their vision to the stage.’
The year long journey as a Telstra nominee has proven to be an exciting one for Azoury. She looks back with particular pleasure on making the video each of the six nominees created as part of the year’s work.
‘We were given a lot of freedom. We were each given a colour and an element to work with —my colour was blue and my element paint. While the camera angles were set, at one stage I was given the opportunity to show how many ways I could make the paint move. It was a wonderful experience for me and a way of celebrating the Telstra sponsorship of the Australian Ballet.’
Azoury recently married Australian Ballet senior artist Rudy Hawkes. Her no-strings-attached Telstra award will most likely be spent on renovations to their house in North Melbourne.
It seems that the Australian Ballet will be bringing back Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle in 2015. Gielgud’s web page indicates that she will be in Australia from late 2014, firstly teaching in Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne and then working on staging Giselle for the Australian Ballet.
This news sent me looking at some of my favourite, easily available online images from Giselle. I didn’t have the opportunity to see Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the Ballet Victoria production of 1975. But some of my favourite Giselle photos come from that production, an amazing event when one considers that Makarova defected in 1970 and Baryshnikov did so in 1974 and here they were in Australia in 1975 so early in their careers in the West. Walter Stringer’s photos are often slightly blurry but I think he has captured something of the quality of the performance.
In the meantime, Graeme Murphy has been in South Korea workshopping a new version of Giselle. It seems that we won’t see this production in Australia, at least not in the short term. The idea of a Murphy reworking is tantalising and I can’t help wondering why a ballet company in South Korea had the prescience to commission it rather than the Australian Ballet.
I love to see a high quality ‘traditional’ version and still sigh over the Paris Opera Ballet’s production we saw in Australia in 2012. But the most moving production I have ever seen was created by Sylvie Guillem in 1998 for the Finnish National Ballet, which I saw in 2001. On the surface it certainly wasn’t a traditional Giselle, as the photo below indicates, although anyone familiar in the slightest degree with the ballet will recognise the dance sequence from Act I shown here. Below the surface though, I found that not only did it pull at the heart strings but it was deeply and intellectually satisfying as well.
I wrote about the Guillem Giselle in 2001 for Brolga, then an old-fashioned print journal. I declined to give permission for it to be digitised by Ausdance when they began digitising back issues, but here is a section from it.
Guillem as producer and choreographer (after Coralli-Perrot-Petipa according to the program), reconceived the ballet according to her wish for it to be a work that would evoke both the past and the present, and that would be meaningful to contemporary audiences. In program notes she stated:
‘Giselle’s story is a timeless one. To die of love, not so much for a man as for loss of love. Naturally the texts by Théophile Gautier and Heinrich Heine clearly laid down the basic intentions. Over the years, these intentions have been buried beneath set choreographic habits, mainly with regard to gesture, thereby becoming a sort of incoherent language expected to “speak” the story … I wanted to rediscover Giselle and make the blood flow again in the veins of the various protagonists’.*
And elsewhere she is quoted as saying: ‘Even if Giselle hadn’t had a heart attack, the ballet was dying by itself. It was becoming more and more stupid, without any sense’.**
Strong words from Guillem. We know the Gielgud production. As for the Murphy version … we will have to wait.
Michelle Potter, 15 June 2014
* Sylvie Guillem, ‘Waiting for curtain-up’. Program for Giselle, Théâtre du Chatelet, Paris 2000–2001, p. 12.
**Debra Crane, ‘Made for fame’. Dance Now, vol. 9 (No. 4, Winter 2000–2001), p. 16.
I am working on making available in full my article from Brolga and will include it in my dance diary for June.
The Canberra Times this morning published an abbreviated version of a story I wrote on the retirement of Rachel Rawlins. As the article was shortened, however, I am posting the full story below, in particular because it contains a further comment from Dell Brady, one of Rawlins’ early teachers, and more from Ty King-Wall, and indeed from Rawlins herself.
Rachel Rawlins, principal artist with the Australian Ballet, has announced that she will retire at the end of this year. She will give her final performance in Sydney in December in the dual role of Odette/Odile in Stephen Baynes’ newly choreographed version of Swan Lake. ‘I’ve never danced the lead in a complete, traditional production of Swan Lake so I am looking forward to leaving on a high note by fulfilling that ambition,’ Rawlins says.
Rawlins can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to dance. ‘My desire to dance,’ she says, ‘happened really before I can recall. It was something I felt passionately about before I realised what dance was. When I look at the children of some of my friends I recognise that same desire today in some of them. They just love moving to music.’
Rawlins took her first ballet classes in Canberra, largely at the Dell Brady School of Ballet. She remembers those early years fondly and recalls that Brady was strict but in a way that made her pupils understand that it was important to dance properly. She passed on to her students her own passion for dance.
Brady for her part recalls that it was absolutely clear from the beginning that Rawlins was talented, ‘Even now when I look back on the photos of the first show she did with me when she was a ‘rose fairy’—a role she shared with Pia Miranda, now a successful film actor—her lovely long slender legs and beautifully pointed feet signalled what was to come. She was also very determined—in a quiet way—and when she was given a challenging role, as she was in subsequent shows at the ballet school, she would always push herself to achieve her best.’
From Canberra Rawlins went on to further study in Melbourne eventually at the Australian Ballet School. She counts getting a contract with the Australian Ballet at the end of her training as the first major highlight of her dancing life. It was the beginning of a stellar career, which subsequently included two years in London with the Royal Ballet in addition to her eighteen years with the Australian Ballet where she has been a principal since 2004.
She still has strong memories of preparing for her first principal role with the Australian Ballet, that of the Sylph in the iconic Romantic ballet, La Sylphide. ‘I worked intensively with Maina Gielgud, then artistic director of the company, on that role. Maina made sure that I was thoroughly prepared so that when I went on in that role I felt really confident and could enjoy being onstage’.
Other highlights for her have included dancing in the several ballets by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian that the Australian Ballet has in its repertoire, Bella Figura, Sinfonietta, Forgotten Land, Petite Mort, for example. She admires Kylian’s musical choices and his ability to make choreography that is so in tune with that music. But also she notes that as a principal dancer it is lovely to work sometimes as part of a group. Kylian makes works that are somewhat democratic in nature compared with more traditional ballets where there are obvious principal roles. Rawlins explains that it is a special experience to feel the freedom of movement that comes with being part of a group and being able to bond with other dancers onstage.
But of course she has consistently danced leading roles in more traditionally structured ballets and has been acclaimed for her performances in classical works and dramatic ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Manon, Onegin, Madame Butterfly, Romeo and Juliet and a host of others.
A frequent partner in recent years has been Ty King-Wall, currently a senior artist with the Australian Ballet. He recalls in particular dancing the pas de deux from Giselle with her, both in Canberra earlier this year and then in New York on the company’s recent overseas tour.
‘I have loved partnering Rachel’, he says. ‘She has such a natural sense of movement, such a rare quality I think. Dancing Giselle with her was a real highlight for me. The role suits her so well and the experience of dancing with her in the pas de deux has given me a taste for it. Now I’d love to do the complete ballet. I love watching her in rehearsals too. She has such humility and is unassuming about her talent.’
Rawlins says that she will go to Melbourne for a family Christmas and then maybe spend time at the beach. She has nothing planned yet in terms of the future direction her life will take but acknowledges that the Australian Ballet has a number of strategies in place for retraining dancers. She will look into possibilities a little later.
‘As a dancer I have aimed to bring my own experiences to my work and to give performances that reflect who I am’, she says. ‘Now I want to be realistic that that part of my life is coming to an end. I have been incredibly lucky in my career and done everything I have wanted to do with ballet. But it’s a hard, physical life, a travelling life. I’m sure I will miss being onstage but not so much the hard work that it takes to get onstage.’
King-Wall sees her retirement as one of those bitter-sweet moments. ‘We will miss her of course, but she is going while at her peak, which is something we all hope to do.’
Brady, her former Canberra teacher, says, ‘As I have continued to watch Rachel in nearly all her major roles over the years, it has been truly satisfying and often very moving to recognise the development of Rachel as an artist; an all too rare spectacle on the ballet stage today. I will miss seeing her taking up the challenge, as she always has, and I will miss the depth and intensity of interpretation she brought to all her performances.’