Roméo et Juliette. Paris Opera Ballet

20 May 2012, Opera Bastille, Paris

Sasha Waltz’s production of Roméo et Juliette, originally made for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2007, is about as far from other danced interpretations of those ‘star-cross’d lovers’ that I can imagine. In program notes for the 2012 staging Waltz herself said that the only production with which she was familiar was that of Maurice Béjart but that she never thinks about other productions when making a work. She simply draws on herself for inspiration. Whether this is possible or not is a matter of contention but, from the point of view of an audience member, it is close to impossible not to situate a work with the title Romeo and Juliet within the context of one’s previous experiences in the theatre.

In her production, Waltz reduced the named characters to three: Romeo, Juliet and Friar Laurence. She then focused on the links between love and death and the redemptive power of the death of Romeo and Juliet for their feuding families. She maintains that her work is not a narrative work but an emotional one. Yet the chorus sings a narrative. Not only that, it is more than tempting to interpret the roles taken by some of the dancers—those without specified roles—as other characters in the story (and the ballets) we all know. And there is very clearly a ballroom scene (more a party in this case) that is quite literal with dancers (women in tutus, men in shiny suits) miming eating, drinking and other party-going activities. So, for me, the question of is there or isn’t there a narrative was never really resolved.

That said, Waltz’s Roméo et Juliette was a breathtaking, highly theatrical production in many ways. Set to the Symphonie dramatique of Hector Berlioz, it employed three soloists and the chorus of the opera company―mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac was outstanding―as well as twenty-two dancers from the ballet company, including on the night I went two étoiles, Aurélie Dupont as Juliet and Hervé Moreau as Romeo. It was the Paris Opera machine at its best, utilising its stars from both the opera and ballet companies to produce a collaborative work of magnificent proportions.

The work was quite spare visually, and effectively so, with the set attributed to Pia Maier Schriever, Thomas Schenk and Sasha Waltz. It appeared to be two large white quadrilateral-shaped platforms, one placed on top of the other but with the top one overlapping the bottom one in some sections. But as the work progressed the top platform was pulled upwards and it was eventually apparent that the two platforms were hinged and they opened into a single, huge quadrilateral platform. The dance action largely took place on these platforms in their various stages of unfolding. Occasionally the singers appeared there too, but mostly they performed at the side of the set. Costumes, by Bernd Skodzig, for singers and dancers were for the most part black or white and emphasised Waltz’s focus on a duality between life and death.

But in many other ways the work was a huge disappointment. While there were some beautifully fluid groupings of dancers, and times when the wide sweep of the body through space was exciting to watch, I found Waltz’s choreography repetitive and often unbecoming with its frequent karate-style movements and its angularity. The pas de deux between Dupont and Moreau was perhaps a highlight. But to tell the truth, while it was flawlessly executed by two exceptional dancers, the choreography seemed cold to me and only rarely allowed Dupont and Moreau to show their humanity and their vulnerability.

Scenically and musically this Roméo et Juliette was spectacular. As ever the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet were also a joy to watch. But so much of the way the show was conceived and choreographed did not support the exceptional qualities of the dancers and singers and production personnel. In the end it seemed like an evening of missed opportunities and mixed messages.

Michelle Potter, 22 May 2012

Dance diary. December 2011

  • Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet

During 2011 I have published many thoughts on a whole variety of dance subjects, but there is no doubt that most interest has been generated by posts and comments associated with the Australian Ballet’s production of Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet. Traffic across this website has risen by 50% since the opening of R & J in September. My two posts on this show were quickly picked up. The original post has been the top post in terms of visitor numbers since October and the ‘second’ look’ post quickly took up the second spot from November onwards.*

The main thrust of the comments on R & J has been, it seems to me, that the story lost its depth as a result of the wildly changing locations and eras in which this production of the ballet is set. In response to one such comment following the Sydney season I wrote: ‘ I keep wondering about our expectations of ballet, and this ballet in particular. Does the story lose its profundity if it covers different territory and does so in a way that is not expected?’ I think most people believe the story did lose rather than gain in this production, but I still wonder and look forward to further comments when the work goes to Brisbane early in 2012.

  • Infinity: the Australian Ballet’s 2012 triple bill

Graeme Murphy is in the throes of creating another work for the Australian Ballet. It will form part of a triple bill entitled Infinity, which will open in Melbourne in February and comprise works by Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. While I have no inkling as to what Murphy will give us this time, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s December newsletter gives us a hint of what we might expect from Page’s work, which will use dancers from both his own Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Australian Ballet — definitely something to look forward to.

  • Scholars and Artists in Residence (SAR) Fellowship

In December I began my research into designer Kristian Fredrikson’s film and television commissions at the National Film and Sound Archive under a SAR Fellowship and will resume work there after the holiday break. I was especially pleased finally to be able to see a film called Undercover, made in 1983 and produced by David Elfick with Kristian Fredrikson as costume designer and Anna French as his assistant designer. This film is set in the 1920s and charts the growth of the Berlei undergarment enterprise in Australia. Fredrikson’s designs, especially for the women and for the dance sequences (choreographed by former Australian Ballet dancer Leigh Chambers) towards the end of the film, are beautifully realised within the spirit of the fashions of the 1920s. I suspect Fredrikson reimagined some of his work for Undercover when he began work on Tivoli, which he designed in 2001 for Sydney Dance Company and the Australian Ballet. In any case, despite the reservations I had (before I had seen the film I have to admit) about the subject matter, Undercover is a fascinating film and I hope to arrange a screening of it at a later date.

As a result of a mention I made of the SAR Fellowship in my dance diary post for November I was surprised and delighted to be contacted by one of Fredrikson’s assistants who worked with him on a production of Oedipus Rex, produced in 1965 by Wal Cherry for his Emerald Hill Theatre in Melbourne. It was only recently that I discovered that Fredrikson had designed this show, one of his earliest Australian design commissions, and I hope to include reference to it in a Spotlight Talk I will be giving for the Performing Arts Centre, Melbourne, in April when I will also talk about Fredrikson’s other early designs in New Zealand and Australia.

  • Meryl Tankard

Meryl Tankard and Régis Lansac returned to Sydney in December following the opening of Tankard’s latest work, Cinderella, for Leipzig Ballet in November. As well as passing on news about Cinderella, Tankard also told me of the success that The Oracle had when it was shown in Lyon in November. Tankard made The Oracle in 2009 as a solo work for dancer Paul White and one clipping from a Lyon newspaper that Tankard sent me referred to Paul White as ‘a revelation to the French public’ and ‘a god of the stage’ and suggested that his solo had instantly attracted a cult following. Here is a link to another review (in French or, if you prefer, in English translation) from the Lyon Capitale that lauds, once again, White’s remarkable physicality and virtuosity and Tankard’s and Lansac’s extraordinary work. The Oracle was the recipient of two Australian Dance Awards in 2010.

  • Paul Knobloch

Australian dancer Paul Knobloch was in Canberra over the holiday season visiting family and friends. Knobloch is excited at the new direction his career is about to take. He will take up a contract in February with Alonzo King LINES Ballet based in San Francisco. King recently made a work called Figures of thought for Béjart Ballet Lausanne, where Knobloch has been working for the past few years. King offered Knobloch a contract after working with him in Lausanne. Alonzo King

Alonzo King rehearsing Daria Ivanova and Paul Knobloch in Figures of thought, Lausanne, June 2011. Photo: Valerie Lacaze.

The BBL website has a photo gallery from this work. It contains several images of Knobloch in rehearsal. [Update April 2019: link no longer available].

      • Luminous: Celebrating 50 years of the Australian Ballet

In December The Canberra Times published my review of the Australian Ballet’s most recent publication, Luminous: Celebrating 50 years of the Australian Ballet. Here is a link to the article.

Michelle Potter, 31 December 2011

*The third most popular post for both November and December was that relating to Stanton Welch and the other Australians working in Houston, Texas.

Romeo and Juliet. A second look

10 December 2011, Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet for the Australian Ballet continues to generate discussion and mixed reviews, and I recently took a second look at it at a Sydney mid-season matinee performance. It is impossible to ignore the dominance of the scenic elements and the challenges of the constantly changing times and locations, and why should we ignore them anyway as they are an intrinsic part of the collaboration and choreographic plan. So I still like to see this Romeo and Juliet as a postmodern work, despite all the problematic issues that the term ‘postmodern’ generates. Postmodernism, at least in areas of the visual arts, allows a collage of non-sequiturs and apparently frivolous allusions, which gives a pastiche we can either love or hate, but not ignore.

On this viewing, the sometimes overbearing scenic elements, and the episodic nature of the changes of time and location, did not startle to the same extent as they did that first time. On any second or subsequent viewing, whatever the work, one naturally notices different things. During the opening scene, set in what my ever-entertaining companion at these matiness thought looked like a scene from Dungeons and Dragons, it was Murphy’s attention to detail in his handling of the minor characters that attracted my attention. At the side of the main action and above it on the ‘bridge’, groups of bedraggled-looking townsfolk engaged in their own comments on the feuding being carried out centre stage. Murphy has always been a dab hand at this kind of background action—no standing round twiddling thumbs and admiring dresses. His works are choreographed down to the last detail.

The ball scene contains one of the best-known sections of the Prokofiev score, a section I will never be able to call anything other than ‘the cushion dance’. My approach to this scene will forever be coloured by my very first viewing of a ballet with the name Romeo and Juliet when, as a child, I saw a film of the Bolshoi Ballet with Galina Ulanova as Juliet. Well there were no cushions for the male guests to toss onto the floor in Murphy’s version of the magnificent ‘cushion dance’, but there was some startling and bold choreography. I especially admired the dramatic swirl of movement as the male guests held their partners, who leant back precariously as they were turned in a tight circle and who, with knees bent and feet together, jabbed the floor aggressively with their pointe shoes.

Akira Isogawa’s wedding dress for Juliet in the Japanese-inspired scene also caught my eye. Although it is pretty much impossible to learn much about the construction and detail of individual costumes from a seat in the auditorium, this dress seemed to be beautifully made from delicately patterned silk, or synthetic silken-look fabric. But it was the shoulder feature that surprised me. The straps that held the dress together over the shoulders were wide and crossed over just as they joined the bodice rather than in the middle of the of the upper back. It was a simple and almost unnoticeable touch, and perhaps not of major significance in the overall scheme of the ballet, but so elegant.

I was lucky enough to see Juliet Burnett in the leading role on this second viewing. She handled Murphy’s ever-changing and ever-challenging choreography as if she were born to dance his steps. She was bubbling with youth as she ran across the stage on pointe in the opening sequence. She soared through lifts in Murphy’s pas de deux and in those scenes in which the black-garbed holy men transported her across the stage. Her expressive arms gave a joyous quality to those moments where her young love for Romeo needed to be shown. But those arms also conjured up something entirely different, something leaden and full of fear when, for example, she reached out in an attempt to pick up the bottle of poison from her bed. It was this quality of being able to express emotion so well through the body, and not just through facial expression, that made her performance so exhilarating. But perhaps most of all it was a thrill to watch her portray the character of Juliet and to maintain that characterisation across the entire ballet, despite the changes of time and location. A stellar performance from Burnett who was partnered by Rudy Hawkes as Romeo.

Of the other cast members, Josef Brown made a welcome return to the ballet stage as Lord Capulet with Ingrid Gow as his Lady Capulet. Brown played Lord Capulet with a calm yet imposing presence. His handling of Juliet in the scenes with Paris rarely showed anger but rather some kind of fatherly determination. It allowed Murphy’s choreography, which in these scenes contains conflict within it, to shine through.

Michelle Potter, 11 December 2011

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Here is the link to the original post and comments on this production of Romeo and Juliet.

UPDATE, 12 December 2011: I have just reread more carefully the original post written after opening night in Melbourne in September. In it I wrote: ‘Manion’s strongest contribution [Gerard Manion was the set designer for this work] was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work’. Well this was not part of the Sydney production! Why not? I have no idea, but it was a sad omission in my opinion.

Dance diary. September 2011

  • Publication news

In September The Canberra Times published my preview of the Australian Ballet’s 2012 season, a review of the recent book The Ballets Russes in Australia and Beyond under the title ‘Dancing round a few home truths’, and my review of Graeme Murphy’s new take on Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet has certainly sparked some discussion and the amount of traffic that the extended review has generated over this website has been quite astonishing. It has more than quadrupled the previous record of visits to any one post. The suggestion that this Romeo and Juliet is just not a profound work has been made, not only in published comments but also in other communications to me. But whatever we think, it appears to be selling remarkably well and it will be interesting to see what Sydney audiences make of it when it opens there in December.

Editing and design began in September on an article of mine to be published in the December issue of The National Library Magazine. This article looks at the ballet designs of Arthur Boyd for Robert Helpmann’s Elektra, and those of Sidney Nolan for Kenneth MacMillan’s Rite of Spring. Both ballets were given their premieres by the Royal Ballet in London in the early 1960s. We’ve never seen the MacMillan Rite of Spring here in Australia, but Elektra was staged by the Australian Ballet in 1966 when there were some interesting changes to Boyd’s designs, which in fact had already undergone changes before they even made it to the Covent Garden stage.

joseph-janusaitis

Joseph Janusaitis in make-up for Elektra, the Australian Ballet, 1966. Photo by Walter Stringer. National Library of Australia, permission pending

  • Nijinsky’s costume for Le Dieu bleu

While the Romeo and Juliet post has attracted instant interest, the post from late last year on Nijinsky’s costume for the Blue God quietly continues to generate visits. I was recently contacted by author Denise Heywood, whose book Cambodian dance: celebration of the gods was published in 2008 in Bangkok by River Books. The book is an interesting examination of the history of Cambodian dance and reproduces some remarkable photographs from across many decades. Denise suggests in her recent communication with me that it is not just the costume has links to the Khmer culture, as I suggested in the post, but the choreography for the ballet Le Dieu bleu must surely also have been influenced by Khmer dance, especially the ‘slow, statuesque movements’.

  • The Royal New Zealand Ballet

The Royal New Zealand Ballet has just announced its 2012 season, its first full year under the directorship of Ethan Stiefel. Stiefel will begin the year in February with a very American program entitled NYC, ‘New Young Classic’ (although the other meaning of that acronym is in there too). NYC will feature works by Larry Keigwin, Benjamin Millepied and George Balanchine. Keigwin has a big following in New York and he will create a new work on the dancers of RNZB. Millepied is now probably best known for his contribution to The Black Swan, but he has been making dances for several years for a range of high profile companies including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Paris Opera Ballet. RNZB will dance Millepied’s 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini (2005).  The program will also include Who Cares?, Balanchine’s popular and beautifully polished work set to songs by George Gershwin.

Later in the year RNZB will restage its production of Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella and in November Gillian Murphy will take the lead role in a new staging of Giselle to be co-produced by Stiefel and that exceptional interpreter of the role of Albrecht, Johann Kobborg.

tonia-looker-2012-giselle-h-photo-ross-brown1

Tonia Looker in a study for Giselle 2012. Photo: © Ross Brown. Courtesy Royal New Zealand Ballet

  • Memory lane

Canberra is currently in the middle of Floriade, its annual celebration of spring (although the weather is decidedly cold). I have never forgotten a remarkable Floriade, the only one I have ever attended I have to admit, back in 1990. The Meryl Tankard Company was then Canberra’s resident dance company and Tankard staged Court of Flora outdoors against the backdrop of Commonwealth Gardens.

Inspired by the engravings in J. J. Grandville’s book, Les Fleurs animées first published in 1847, Court of Flora was given eleven performances in October 1990. Its spectacular costumes, designed by Sydney-based couturier Anthony Phillips, drew sighs of delight from audiences. So too did the ability of Tankard’s dancers to pose decoratively behind bushes and around trees while at the same time investing the flowers that they represented with clearly discernible human qualities, as indeed Grandville had done with his illustrations. In particular, an impish Paige Gordon as Thistle and an elegant Carmela Care as Rose still remain in the mind’s eye.

  • The Little Mermaid

I continue to be confounded by Rex Reid’s Little Mermaid, the version he made for Laurel Martyn’s Victorian Ballet Company in 1967. All sources seem to indicate that it opened as part of a mixed bill on 1 September 1967, but reviews seem to have appeared in Melbourne papers on the same day, 1 September. There is probably a simple explanation—perhaps there was a preview before 1 September to which reviewers were invited? But if anyone was there and can assure me that it did open on 1 September, despite reviews appearing on the same day, I would be thrilled to hear.

  • Site news

Traffic across the site during September increased by over 20% compared with August, due largely to the exceptional interest in Romeo and Juliet. The review attracted a large number of visits, more than any other post in the two year history of the site. Not surprisingly visits from Melbourne topped the list. Other Australian cities generating significant numbers of visits during September were, in order, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide.

Some small updates will be made to the site in the next few weeks. On the home page I am having a link to the full tag cloud inserted under the list of top 20 tags. This will facilitate searching from the home page.

I am also having two new sub-pages added to the Resource page. One will be for National Library of Australia articles and will allow me to separate articles written for National Library of Australia News/The National Library Magazine from other online publications. The second will be for articles written for theatre programs.

Michelle Potter, 1 October 2011

Romeo and Juliet. The Australian Ballet

This is an expanded version of my review first published in The Canberra Times, 17 September 2011, p. 30 under the title ‘Fluid postmodern take on a classic’.

13 September 2011, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

In an interview published in the September issue of the Qantas inflight magazine, choreographer Graeme Murphy said of his new production of Romeo and Juliet for the Australian Ballet that we should ‘bring a lifeboat’. Well he had a point because this production, which had its world premiere in Melbourne on 13 September, is a very fluid one indeed. It opens in a town setting, which could be Verona at the time Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is set. But over the course of the evening the location and the era change wildly. We see the marriage of Romeo and Juliet in Japan, the killing of Tybalt and Mercutio in India and the mourning of Juliet in a harsh, blood red desert setting. The characters ride bikes in one scene. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio find themselves in a row boat in another. And more.

Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet is quintessentially postmodern. It has moments of humour and irony. It is filled with allusions to all kinds of cultural objects and issues—devotees of the Hare Krishna movement even make an appearance. Murphy also references himself and his work through some choreographic moments that look back to the vintage days of Sydney Dance Company. The scene in which Juliet receives a potion to induce a death-like sleep, when six black clad figures support Juliet in expansive swooping and flying movements, is just one example of this glance back at previous choreography.

Murphy also incorporates fabric into the choreography and the production overall. And while on this occasion his costume designer, Akira Isogawa, may well have had a strong input into how fabric has been used, Murphy has been playing with lengths of cloth and curtains of fabric throughout his choreographic career. One of the most dramatic uses of fabric in Romeo and Juliet occurs when a bolt of scarlet silk, initially resting amongst other rolls of fabric on the side of the stage in the Indian market place, unwinds and streams across the stage as the Capulets and the Montagues engage in their bloody feud.

This Romeo and Juliet is a collage of ideas playfully deconstructed and the remarkable thing is that it works. Everyone knows the story and Murphy has assumed this familiarity with the plot and has pursued a vision for a work that is like no other that the Australian Ballet has ever presented.

On opening night Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson as Juliet and Romeo led us on this journey of love and death. Eastoe in particular danced with joy, passion, despair, every emotion that the story requires. Her opening dance, with its quick footwork and fluid upper body movement, filled us with pleasure and anticipation.

Daniel Gaudiello continued to impress as Mercutio and moved, as his name in this ballet implies, like quicksilver, darting here and there, unpredictable and always impassioned in defence of his friends. Juliet’s nurse, usually played as a somewhat plump and bumbling if kind-hearted older woman, was intelligently performed by Elizabeth Hill and became (thankfully) a much less pantomimic role. A character introduced by Murphy—Death, the Prince of Darkness—provided a through line for the meandering locations and times. Death picks up bodies, which he places in a wooden cart (rather like the carts that carried the French to the guillotine in 1789—another reference). Or sometimes he just hovers menacingly in the background. It’s not a big dancing role but one that requires a very strong presence. It was very ably performed on opening night by Adam Bull.

In addition to Akira Isogawa, the collaborative team on this production included Murphy’s creative associate, Janet Vernon, set designer Gerard Manion, and Damien Cooper who lit the show. From among literally hundreds of costumes created by Isogawa, I especially liked the beautifully cut, high-collared black coat for Death and the pale olive, very simple costume for Juliet’s nurse. I was amused by the costume for Paris, which seemed to have a kind of gold ‘breast-plate’ of muscles. Paris is rarely portrayed in a sympathetic way and this addition to his costume suggested an inherent vanity. Manion’s strongest contribution was a visually arresting painted front cloth comprising a huge bunch of gold, pink and blood red lilies from which the deepest colours drained to grey as the cloth rose at the beginning of the work.

This Romeo and Juliet may not appeal to everyone, especially those who like their ballet to be more in a modernist vein, that is somewhat coherent in form. Did I miss the John Cranko version of Romeo and Juliet, which has been in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire for decades? Yes, a little, but in the same way as I occasionally yearn to see a traditional Swan Lake, rather than Murphy’s newer production. It’s part of the balletic legacy and we need to be reminded occasionally that we have a heritage.

But Murphy’s approach in 2011 raises many issues that are discussed across other art forms and it is refreshing to see this occurring in ballet, an art form that is so often seen as a little dowdy. Of course such issues include the notion that postmodernism is dead so we have to wonder whether this Romeo and Juliet is already outdated? But whatever one might think, it is a production worth seeing.

Michelle Potter, 19 September 2011

Featured image: Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson in Romeo and Juliet, 2011. Photo: © Jeff Busby. Courtesy of the Australian Ballet

UPDATE, 11 December 2011: Romeo and Juliet. A second look