Marcus Morelli as the Swallow in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet

25 February 2020. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

Graeme Murphy has said that his latest creation, The Happy Prince, is basically for children. He wants, he says, ‘to cater for the tiny imagination bud inside children’s heads, which needs just the tiniest bit of imagination, of fertilisation, to burst into a million thoughts.’* I am looking forward to taking my grandchildren to see it. But, from the moment the work opens with an explosive sound and much white smoke—’the war is over’ says the program note—to the closing moments set on a sunny Australian beach, you don’t have to be a child for hundreds of thoughts to rush into your mind.

The narrative line is based on the Oscar Wilde story reimagined slightly by Murphy and Kim Carpenter. (Wilde’s version is readily available to read online.) In the ballet the Prince (Adam Bull) has been brought up to know only happiness. But, when a statue in his honour is erected in his home town, he comes to realise that not everyone lives in a world of happiness, and that there is much disparity between the rich and the poor. He engages with the Little Swallow (Marcus Morelli), who has not kept up with his migrating swallow family, and together they strip the statue of its rich decorations, which they give to the poor. The story ends sadly for both the Prince and the Swallow. But, as the ballet concludes, they are united in a different, heavenly world.

Adam Bull in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Adam Bull as the Prince in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Instantly striking in the ballet are the visual aspects of the production. Sets and costumes by Carpenter, expressive lighting by Damien Cooper, and some fascinating projections by Fabian Astore created all kinds of resonances for me. Even though the production was meant to be set in post-war London, the township that was revealed as the smoke dissipated in the opening scene reminded me immediately of the architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser and his eccentric apartment buildings in Vienna and elsewhere with their assortment of shapes and colours. By the time we got to the end of the show, the sunny Australian beach scene recalled Charles Meere’s iconic painting Australian Beach Pattern, with the addition of a dominating reference in the background to Hokusai’s famous woodblock The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In between, how enchanting was the drop cloth in the scene where the Prince explained to the Little Swallow that happiness had pervaded his childhood. The cloth looked as if it had been borrowed from a kindergarten or a child care centre and was perfectly in tune with the box labelled ‘Toys’ in the downstage corner, from which emerged an assortment of toys who danced their way across the stage. Which brings up the question of the choreography.

Murphy has always been at home moving groups of dancers around the stage and this ability was an outstanding aspect of his Happy Prince choreography. The way he filled the stage with townspeople in the village in the opening scene, and the groupings he set up in the final beach scene were strong examples. Then there were the references to other theatrical genres. The characters of the Lord Mayor (Luke Marchant) and the Lady Mayoress (Jarryd Madden) came straight out of the pantomime tradition with the Lady Mayoress being the traditional Dame (always played by a man). Their extravagant costuming and outrageous movement also recalled this tradition.

Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden as the Mayor and the Lady Mayoress in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby
Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden as the Mayor and the Lady Mayoress in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Touches of vaudeville appeared in the scene where the Little Swallow engages with Rita Reed (Serena Graham) and her companion Reedettes. The choreography for this scene was appropriately in the Tivoli line-up mode.

Artists of the Australian Ballet as Reedettes in The Happy Prince, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Much of the production was filled with emotive and heartwarming moments. The characters who benefitted from the Prince’s generosity were finely drawn characters and beautifully portrayed: Corey Herbert as the Seamstress, Nathan Brook as the Artist and Benedicte Bemet as the Little Match Girl. They engaged our hearts and minds as their poverty was revealed prior to being helped by the Prince and the Swallow. And in true Murphy fashion, the Swallow was not always bird-like (although he did have moments of flying) but a teen guy with jeans ripped at the knees and occasionally a skateboard as a means of getting around.

A commissioned score from Christopher Gordon added to what was an exceptional collaboration.

I must admit, however, that I did find it hard to be convinced that the final beach scenes related to the migration to Australia of the so-called ‘£10 Poms’ (as I learnt later from the program notes). To me it was just Murphy in the same kind of mode as I thought was clear in his Romeo and Juliet where the story moved from place to place, era to era. I remember calling his R & J postmodern (to the annoyance of some) because it made reference to many aspects of many things. The Happy Prince was a bit the same.

I look forward to seeing this production again when I am sure I will notice other things, more of the choreography perhaps, and probably change my mind on some issues. But my first impressions are that The Happy Prince is exciting, surprising and heart warming theatre in which the whole is so much more than the sum of its enticing parts.

Michelle Potter, 27 February 2020

Featured image: Marcus Morelli as the Little Swallow in The Happy Prince. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Marcus Morelli as the Swallow in 'The Happy Prince'. The Australian Ballet, 2020. Photo: © Jeff Busby

* Graeme Murphy quoted in ‘Darling Buds’ in program notes for The Happy Prince.

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet (2019)

14 December 2019 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

This staging of Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker was a beautiful and magical end to the Australian Ballet’s 2019 season. I have written before about Sir Peter’s take on this much-loved Christmas ballet, in both its onstage and film productions, and the features I enjoyed on those other occasions—such as its moments of stage magic, and the inherent logic within the narrative structure—were apparent again. The experience was especially enjoyable on this occasion as I had the good fortune to see an outstanding cast of lead characters.

As Clara, Yuumi Yamada just took my breath away. From her very first entrance her delightful and youthful personality, so perfect for this role, were apparent. She acted and danced her way through the show in spectacular fashion— and there were few moments when she wasn’t onstage. Particular dancing highlights were her pas de deux with Marcus Morelli in the Christmas party scenes and another pas de deux with the Nutcracker-turned-Prince (François-Eloi Lavignac) just before the snow scene began.

Yuumi Yamada as Clara in The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

It was particularly pleasing too to see Chengwu Guo back on stage after an absence due to injury. The Act II pas de deux between Guo as the Nutcracker Prince and Ako Kondo as the Sugar Plum Fairy demonstrated what we, the audience, had been missing. His elevation; his soft, controlled landings; his multiple pirouettes (including those grands pirouettes à la seconde; and his spectacular entrechats were nothing short of thrillling. And I am always impressed by the way in which, as an intrinsic part of his performance, he treats his partner with such respect. All I can say is welcome back! Kondo performed beautifully too. I admired her absolute control, to the extent that we could see every movement unfold. It was as if she were dancing in slow motion.

The very young boy, Gabriel Bennett, who danced as Fritz also deserves a mention. His presence onstage and his acting made his performance a winning one. In fact all the young student extras, male and female, who danced as friends of Clara held their own throughout the opening party scene.

Andrew Killian as Drosselmeyer made an important contribution to the success of the performance, and the soloists and corps de ballet danced well throughout. I especially enjoyed the dancing of the four men who danced as the Winds in the snow scene, and who returned again (with one replacement) as Consorts to the Rose Fairy in the Waltz of the Flowers section.

Dancers of the Australian Ballet in 'Nutcracker', 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Dancers of the Australian Ballet in Nutcracker, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

I am not a huge fan of John McFarlane’s designs for this Nutcracker. They often seem ‘loud’ to me and they simply don’t fit well on the Sydney Opera House stage. Nor does that frustratingly small stage lend itself well to the Christmas party that opens this Nutcracker. Too many people have to crowd onto it, which rather ruins the party. It’s an ongoing saga.

But nothing can really take away from the magical and enchanting performance that we were offered and accepted with loud applause.

Michelle Potter, 16 December 2019

Featured image: Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in 'The Nutcracker'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to help Melbourne Books publish Kristian Fredrikson. Designer in a high quality format. Donations are tax deductible. See this link to the project, which closes on 31 December 2019.

Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Stephen Baynes' 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Verve (2019). The Australian Ballet

13 April 2019 (matinee) Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I saw this program, a contemporary triple bill with works by Stephen Baynes, Alice Topp and Tim Harbour, last year, 2018, in Melbourne. My review is at this link. This time my thoughts remain basically the same. I liked or disliked each of the works for the same reasons as before, although in most cases the casting was different and Aurum probably didn’t have the power I felt it had at the performance I saw in 2018.

With regard to casting, I saw Ako Kondo and Andrew Killian in the leading roles in Baynes’ Constant Variants both times, and both times they handled themselves with the aplomb and expertise we have come to expect from these two principal dancers. But on this second viewing I especially enjoyed Yuumi Yamada with her beautiful smile and joyous execution of the steps, and an equally inspiring Lucien Xu.

Yuumi Yamada and Lucien Xu in Stephen Baynes' 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: Daniel Boud

Yuumi Yamada and Lucien Xu in Stephen Baynes’ Constant Variants. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

I was also transfixed by the dancing of Joseph Romancewicz, as I was when I noticed him in small parts in The Merry Widow and Spartacus. On this occasion Romancewicz had a role in Topp’s Aurum and, with fewer people on the stage this time compared with those previous occasions, it was easier to see some of what I admire. Mostly it is that power to engage with those around him—this time with his partner in a group section of about eight dancers (if I remember rightly). Not once did he move without thinking and showing that he was dancing with someone. But I also noticed more clearly this time that he moves with beautiful fluidity throughout his whole body.

It was also a pleasure to see Dimity Azoury in the final movement of Aurum, which she danced with Andrew Killian.

Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury in Alice Topp's 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Andrew Killian and Dimity Azoury_in Alice Topp’s Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The standout dancer for me in Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow was Marcus Morelli. I always enjoy the enthusiasm with which he takes on every role and the way he injects such a strong personal note into those roles.

Marcus Morelli and Brett Chynoweth in Tim Harbour's 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Stephen Baynes' 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Marcus Morelli and Brett Chynoweth (airborne) in Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

But I guess what interested me particularly this time was the shape of movement throughout. Baynes’ use of classical movement showed how expansive and diverse the classical vocabulary is. It allows all the spectacular qualities that we see in contemporary vocabulary but as well brings to the surface a fluidity, a smoothness, and something that is filled with curving, as well as straight lines. The body is the medium.

Topp and Harbour seemed to want more than anything to make shapes, new shapes that we haven’t seen anywhere else before. Often they were spectacular shapes, particularly hard-edged in Harbour’s case. But while some were interesting, others seemed as though the choreographer was trying too hard to be different, and even at times trying to put a step to every note of music. The body is not so much the medium but the show place for shapes.

Constant Variants remains the work I want to come back to again and again. Verve is, nevertheless, a wonderful program that gives us much to think about.

Michelle Potter, 14 April 2019

Featured image: Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Stephen Baynes’ Constant Variants. The Australian Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in 'Monotones II'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Daniel Boud

The Dream. A second look

16 May 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

After feeling less than satisfied with my earlier viewing of the Australian Ballet’s triple bill of Ashton works—Monotones II, Symphonic Variations and The Dream—it was such a pleasure to have a second look and come away feeling much more fulfilled.

Monotones II was danced by the same cast that I saw on opening night, Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright, but all my feeling that the work was outdated disappeared. Gone too were those hideous shadows that marred my first viewing, although they linger a little on the photograph below. This time, the visually pristine quality of the work was all there. I had a much better seat, but was that the only reason? I suspect not.

There was a real serenity to the performance. All three dancers were attuned to each other’s movements. There were gorgeous moments of symmetry that gently broke into asymmetry. Bodies twisted and threaded through arched shapes. Winding and unwinding. It was a truly beautiful, calm, technically satisfying performance.

Symphonic Variations too was danced in a far superior fashion to what I saw on opening night. The three women, Lana Jones, Amanda McGuigan and Ingrid Gow were well cast together. They are of similar height and body shape and it made a huge difference. The men, Andrew Killian, Ty King-Wall and Andrew Wright, were experienced enough to manage the difficult partnering without looking as though they were fumbling around. They also handled better the experience of being on stage for the entire ballet.

Technically, all six dancers showed every beautiful and often intricate detail of Ashton’s choreography—the elongated fingers, the hands turned up from the wrists, the lines made between dancers, for example. The spacing and patterning of the work was also clear, and the movements flowed smoothly. A delight to watch. I loved that moment for the women when they turned chaînés around their partner, starting one after the other and with one arm spiralling upwards as if propelled by the twirling of the feet. And I gasped as the men, in a line upstage, all turned a double pirouette ending in attitude and finished perfectly, in the same line, in time, and with their attitudes at the same height. Just beautiful and surely how Ashton imagined this work would be danced.

Still something missing there though—that incredible feeling that I got from the Royal that this was an awakening from the darkness. And it was only after reading (much later) the Royal’s program notes that I realised the circumstances behind Ashton’s creation of the work. So I didn’t set out with a preconceived idea. But thank you to the six Australian Ballet dancers I saw on this occasion. It was a lovely, serene performance, despite the medical emergency that was going on in the auditorium at the time.

The Dream looked mostly as beautiful as it did on opening night, this time with Miwako Kubota and Jared Wright taking the leading roles of Titania and Oberon. Wright stood out in his solo variation in the final pas de deux. His movements were beautifully shaped and coordinated. Andrew Wright and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson gave excellent performances as Demetrius and Lysander. Wright in particular was able to demonstrate how skilled Ashton is at incorporating humour into his works. Marcus Morelli, with his exceptional elevation, made Puck look as if he belonged in the air.

Overall, what a difference!

Michelle Potter, 17 May 2015

Featured image: Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in Monotones II. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in 'Monotones II'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Daniel Boud

My initial review is at this link.

The Nutcracker. The Australian Ballet (2014)

6 December 2014 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

There is a lot to like in Peter Wright’s version of The Nutcracker, the Australian Ballet’s final show for 2015. But once again the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre showed its inadequacies as an opera/ballet venue. What a squash it was at times!

I admired in particular the logic that Wright has introduced into the story, including the expanded role played by Drosselmeyer, admirably performed by Rudy Hawkes whose sense of drama and onstage presence in Act I was exceptional. I also admired that elements in the mysterious happenings after midnight in Act I (scene ii, although not referred to as such in the synopsis) are prefigured earlier in the unfolding of the story. And I enjoyed too that Clara takes on an active part in Act II.

Most of John F Macfarlane’s costumes are a delight to the eye, especially that red dress worn by Clara’s mother, and the Jack-in-the-box costume with pants that look like they are made from expandable metal or wire. I’m not sure though about that musk-stick-pink doublet worn by the Prince in the Act II pas de deux—it did nothing to add a princely look, although I guess it was appropriately lolly-like. Macfarlane’s sets for Act I are also attractive, but those over-decorative elements in the Act II set, including a large bright sun and those huge, red flowers do not sit well with the pink marble columns, although the columns themselves are lovely. Perhaps the Act II set looks better on a bigger stage?

In the performance I saw, Karen Nanasca danced Clara and was impressive from the first moment she appeared. Her charm and sense of wonder at what was happening as the ballet progressed were appropriately youthful and quite beautiful. She has such lovely arms and a technique that just needs a little more strength to carry her through some of the more difficult movements. The other standout was Thomas Palmer, a young Sydney-based dance student who played the part of Fritz, Clara’s little brother. Apart from the fact that he danced well, his acting and his ability to engage with the audience were superb. In the cameo roles of the Grandmother and Grandfather, Kathleen Geldard and Colin Peasley were a delight and all in all the dancing throughout Act I was first-rate. Benedicte Bemet and Christiano Martino made a wonderful Columbine and Harlequin, while Simon Plant and Marcus Morelli danced with panache as the Jack-in-the-box and Drosselmeyer’s assistant respectively.

Act II, however, was a different matter. Sadly, what should be the highlight—the grand pas de deux—was a bit of a let down. I felt there was no emotion between Kevin Jackson as the Prince and Miwako Kubota as the Sugar Plum Fairy, although Jackson was trying to make something happen. But there was no sense of excitement, no sense of the thrill and the splendour of the choreography. Very frustrating. There were also some unsettling moments, especially in the Russian and the Arabian Dances when the gentlemen seemed to stumble around a few too many times. And there is no excuse for ribbons on pointe shoes to come untucked as they did, very obviously, on the shoes of one dancer.

Despite these grumbles a traditional-style Nutcracker is always a treat at Christmas time. At least in the first act I was transported. It was lovely too to see a lot of children in the audience, including one behind me who whispered loudly to her parents when the toy nutcracker’s head was ripped off and the doll was lying on the floor in two pieces,  ‘Oh, I hope he will be all right’.

Michelle Potter, 7 November 2014

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Nutcracker, 2014. Photo: © Jeff Busby