17 April 2021 (matinee). Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
The first thing to say about this first Sydney program for 2021 from the Australian Ballet is that the dancers look fabulous. They are in terrific form in a technical sense and seem absolutely to relish being back onstage after a grim 2020. Watching them perform was a real thrill.
The program was certainly an interesting one and at the end it became clear what the ‘dialect’ of the title was (or was not) all about. The language of each of the three works, Serenade and The Four Temperaments, both by George Balanchine, and Watermark by Pam Tanowitz, was very much about the vocabulary of ballet (contemporary and otherwise) and the way that vocabulary can be arranged onstage. I’m not sure, however, that this is specifically a New York dialect, except that the two choreographers are or were New Yorkers. If we think of dialect as being a form of language specific to a particular region, it seems to me that what we saw was a choreographic dialect from people who happen to be New Yorkers. I guess I didn’t much like the title of the program. But I did like the dancing and in some cases the choreography.
Serenade has always been a beautiful way to start a program. Although Balanchine liked to say his ballets didn’t usually have a story behind them, I love those moments when there is a backstory there. In Serenade there is the girl who arrives late, for example, and also the mystery ending when two dancers embrace and one is then lifted high and carried into the distance. What has happened? What will happen? Then there’s the opening scene. It always generates a frisson of delight, even though it is expected.
Throughout the work, Balanchine’s masterful groupings and use of the stage space, and his particular take on the classical vocabulary, are clearly on view. A work to watch over and over.
Second on the program was a new work from Pam Tanowitz, Watermark. I have to ignore that title because it seemed meaningless in relation to the work. Tanowitz’s vocabulary was quirky in parts, with its beats done with feet as if in first position, its jerky arm and hand gestures and its frequent use of drooping bodies. Tanowitz counts former Cunningham dancer Viola Farber as one of her mentors and where the vocabulary was not so eccentric it reminded me a lot of the Cunningham style with its off centre movements and its jetés that never tried to look as though they were like splits in the air.
I also wondered why a line of dancers, midway through the piece, needed to come onstage from the auditorium? And I couldn’t enjoy the ending when the stage space was virtually empty and all the dancers were lined up along the wings. It just seemed like trying too hard to be different. This is the second work by Tanowitz that I have seen and I can’t say I have really enjoyed either of them.
The Four Temperaments was beautifully danced. Some of Balanchine’s vocabulary in this work might also be called quirky but its flow and role in the overall piece was arresting rather than seeming out of place. There is a coherence there.
The Sydney Opera House was making an exceptional effort with its COVID plan, even though the venue was pretty much at 100% capacity. But one aspect of it all was exceptionally annoying. Cast sheets were not available so it was not always possible to identify the performers with accuracy (and so I have not mentioned any names in this review). There was the option to scan a cast list onto one’s phone but how would that list look on a screen the size of a phone, apart from the fact that there is nothing more annoying than audience members looking at their phones during a performance. At least there could have been a cast sheet affixed to a board somewhere in the foyer. Next time I guess I need to print off a cast list from the Australian Ballet’s website and trust that it will be accurate on the day? Perhaps we could have been warned in advance? Or did I miss something along the line?
Bold Moves is a ‘something for everyone’ mixed bill of four works that include
old, older, new and not so new, with the dancers proving more than equal to the
demands of stylistic versatility for each of the contrasting choreographies.
The program requires a majority of female dancers across all the pieces, and
among them are three standout performers.
Serenade (to Tchaikovsky, Serenade for Strings), was choreographed
85 years ago by George Balanchine for students at his company’s ballet school.
Among the prolific choreographer’s scores of works, it sits lyrically apart, an
abstract style of classical movement with tweaks here and whimsy there, as he
built little mistakes made in rehearsal into the choreography, reflecting his
sense of fun when working with young dancers. The work was first staged here by
Una Kai, renowned former dancer with New York City Ballet, and our company’s
artistic director in 1970s. Harry Haythorne, subsequent director, staged it on
New Zealand School of Dance in 1980s and found there the perfect setting for it
with a student cast.
This line-up of 17 females in ‘moonlight blue’ danced the long first section with line and ensemble aspects finely wrought, but I missed the lightness of subtleties remembered (and a number of dancers from those earlier productions who were in the audience later agreed). Some performers had ethereal and distant facial expressions, while others grinned cheerfully at the audience—somewhat distracting since it’s not just the movement we are watching, but also the dancers’ thoughts we are following. What are they thinking? The second section with fewer dancers has a range of sculptured arm shapes and attractive groupings that are satisfying to follow. The woman beside me swooned and gasped with pleasure throughout as she sipped her wine. It’s always good to witness people enjoying themselves, but to my taste this was an oaked chardonnay.
The pas de deux that followed, Russian style
from 1932 but fashioned as though much earlier, Flames of Paris, is a sizzler for ballet competitions and the
virtuoso display of gala nights, so no great poetry here. Wrong. It’s all in
the how, not the what—and the quality of dancing by Mayu Tanigaito is a
revelation, as always. Her technique is so fabulously assured she can afford to
toss it to one side and simply offer us her pure pleasure at delivering a clean
line, an effortless turn, a nonchalant pose, all effort masked, a laughing toss
of the head, a loving smile, a way to live. She is the company’s longstanding
leading dancer in all these respects. Her partner was Laurynas Vejalis, also a
dancer of great technical ability, but he did not seem to be offering that as a
gift to her, so she instead offered hers to us. Lucky us. This was top-shelf
Stand to Reason, by South African choreographer, Andrea Schermoly, commissioned by RNZB in 2018, marks 125 years since the beginnings of universal suffrage. Danced by eight women who gave it a wonderfully strong and motivated reading, it encourages everyone to believe in democracy in a wider society, and in all the institutions within it. There are numerous back projections of text from suffragettes’ writings, which were not legible however from many areas of the auditorium, and it could seem wise to reduce this distraction since the text is already reproduced in the printed program, and its message built in to the choreography. Kirby Selchow and Madeleine Graham were truly standout performers among the totally focused cast. Brandy for courage, methinks.
William Forsythe’s Artifact II, 1984, perhaps with Orwell in mind, was brought here by his Ballett Frankfurt to an International Arts Festival season in 1994. It employs his hallmark extremism of anatomy +, with over-extensions of limbs creating shapes and thrusts that soon amount to shouting rather than speaking. (‘It’s hard to lip-read a shouting man’—Leonardo da Vinci warned us in the 15th century, and that is still the case). Two couples embark on simultaneous pas de deux, which is like four people speaking at once, impossible to watch or ‘hear’ them all. My eye gratefully went to Mayu Tanigaito and Massimo Margaria who danced with a totally immersed care and attention to each other, making quite the quality highlight of the piece. I know there exist interviews galore with Forsythe that explain the aesthetic and the choreographic intention of this work, but the reality is what comes to us across the footlights.
The Bach Chaconne used here means what we hear is the opposite of what we see. A chaconne is a baroque dance & music form that moves ever forward over a ground bass, without the theme & variations/verse & chorus structure of other baroque dances, and thus represents a through-composed journey. Douglas Lilburn caught well the notion of journeying in his solo piano composition by that title (worth choreographing some time?), but Bach’s chaconne is so wedded now to the talisman choreography by Jose Limon (given stellar performances by Baryshnikov in this same venue back in 1990s) with the solo musician alongside him on the stage. The dance, staged by Louis Solino, was also a number of times nobly performed here by Paul Jenden with Richard Mapp playing the Busoni piano transcription. Those achingly beautiful memories create a challenge to reconcile the use of the same music with a ballet like Artifact.
The curtain is
rung down numerous times while the work continues onstage (except in this
production we had the impression the dancing stopped then started again each
time the curtain rose). It has a point the first time, perhaps, but the
numerous repeats of the curtain crashing down become increasingly tiresome. I
still find this as cynical and fragmented a work as I did on earlier viewing,
and one cannot help but wonder what price the dancers pay for such extreme
physical demands made on them in its delivery. We have seen Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated in
several seasons by RNZB, also an extreme work, though the aesthetic there draws
on its thunderbolt percussive accompaniment. Excitement always won the day when
our former company dancers performed that work (most memorably Abigail Boyle,
Kohei Iwamotu, Laura Saxon Jones, Jacob Chown) who made it strikingly their
own. Artifact though is a cocktail of
For years our
company has had an equal weighting of female and male dancers, without a star
ranking system but with recognition of the strengths in individual dancers—as
classicists and actors, with character or humour—and with seasons extended over
ten days to offer opportunities for us to savour alternate casts in lead roles.
There was also a number of stellar visiting ballet masters, among the world’s
best, who brought refreshing stimulation to the dancers. The company now has a
new line-up and a new look—a system of star ranking introduced, seasons reduced
to only a few days, no visiting ballet masters, an increased number of dancers,
many more females than males, with a number of young performers and apprentices
it is too soon to identify individually, some trained locally but still
including many more imported to swell the ranks. That recruiting is difficult
to accept, given how many fine young dancers are in training throughout this
country, and how many other New Zealand dancers continue to search for work
abroad. (Wouldn’t a young dancer/graduate ensemble here offer them and the
country something to fill that gap?) And the company without Sir Jon Trimmer
retained to assist in the styling and staging of works, and as a quietly
masterful mentor to younger dancers, is not the one we have known for decades,
and a decision that remains indeed difficult to fathom.
Ballet companies, like families, grow from
their whakapapa. Every generation is itself, has parents and grandparents,
children and grandchildren. Our company’s early repertoire includes classics of New Zealand
vintage that could well be re-staged, (consider if you will—Tell me a Tale, Ragtime Dance Company, A Servant of Two Masters,
Bliss, No Exit, Dark Waves, The Decay of Lying, rose and fell, halo, Napoli.
Broadcast News, Sweet Sorrow, Mantodea, Charade, Prismatic Variations… none of which is older than Serenade) and many of our
choreographers and ballet masters with the required experience are
free-lancing here and abroad. If we don’t stage these works, no-one will. Kia mau te wehi, kia kaha. Ka tu ka ora, ka
noho ka mate.
Mauri, mauri, kam na mauri. Tekeraoi.(Bold Moves. Take courage. Standing up,
all is well, lying down, all is not well. Spirit, courage, blessings).
17 May 2019. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
One of the strongest aspects of Queensland Ballet’s programming at the moment is Li Cunxin’s masterful ability to curate an engrossing triple bill. This is no easy task, but it is something that has characterised the work of the best companies across the decades. The Masters Series, the current Queensland Ballet offering, is no exception. Li has put together an exceptional triple bill. It gives us George Balanchine’s Serenade, and Jiří Kylián’s Soldier’s Mass, both outstanding works from two of the world’s most respected choreographers. These two works are joined by a new work, The Shadows Behind Us, from American choreographer Trey McIntyre.
I have no hesitation in saying that, for me at least, Serenade, the first work of the evening, was the highlight. It was the first original work that Balanchine created in America, and it gives a foretaste of what his future works would be like—at least from a technical point of view. At times the spatial patterns Balanchine creates are so arresting that they seem to be the main feature of the work. He is a master of placing dancers on, and moving them around the stage.
But looking beyond the beautiful patterns, the steps that Balanchine asks of the dancers are complex— full of turns and fast footwork—and the dancers of Queensland Ballet rose to the occasion. Standout performances came from Yanela Piñera and Victor Estévez, who had the main pas de deux, and Lucy Green, Georgia Swan and Patricio Revé, who had soloist roles. The final few moments in which these dancers held the stage were quite moving. But the entire corps de ballet danced with thrilling technique throughout, and with a great feeling for the changing moods of the ballet.
The closing work was Kylián’s Soldiers’ Mass a work for 12 male dancers with choreography that is driving and relentless. The fascinating aspect of the work is the way in which Kylián manipulates the group. The dancers form into lines, break apart, regather, divide up again, leaping, falling, and partnering each other, and moving all the time to the very powerful 1939 composition by Bohuslav Martinu, Field Mass. Kylián’s work is a comment on war and the emotional toll it takes on those who are forced to engage in it. Emotion and drama surge throughout the work. Kohei Iwamoto was the star for me. Whether in his solos, or when he was dancing with his fellow soldiers, every inch of his body told the story. But then every dancer seemed totally committed.
In the middle, The Shadows Behind Us was, for me, the least successful work of the evening. Danced to songs by Jimmy Scott, it was brash and slick in an American idiom. Made on ten dancers, it consisted basically of six duets, including one between two men, in which relationships were played out. The set by Thomas Mika was a great addition to the work. It gave some kind of narrative element to the action. It consisted of a large white frame, or partial frame, in the downstage area, forming a kind of proscenium where the action was located. Behind it was a black void into which the dancers disappeared as they finished their duet (the shadows behind us). But I have to admit to finding the choreography quite stilted in many respects and some of the poses the men were asked to take seemed quite awkward.
Despite my reservations about The Shadows Behind Us, The Masters Series was a great evening of dance, and a triple bill that fulfilled one’s expectations of the variety of dance that good mixed bills should contain.
Ballet companies anticipate repertoire and book programs in long to mid-term time frames. Perhaps for that reason, the four works in Dancing with Mozart sit somewhat unevenly. The opening Balanchine Divertimento No. 15, and a newly commissioned work were the choices of the current artistic director, whereas the two Kylián works, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze were chosen by the previous artistic director some time ago.
My guess is that Mozart would have found the Divertimento No. 15 somewhat laboured, with its numerous unmotivated entrances and exits, delivering the patterns that are its only content. I am not against patterns per se, in truth I love them if they are danced with élan and clarity, when they can represent all manner of things. In this work, however, there is little hint of meaningful rapport between dancers, and no development of a relationship to the audience, so zero effect of theatre from this extended piece.
The use of guest stars who are of varying aesthetic is hard to understand when the company has so many fine dancers, or until very recently did have, within its ranks. Mayu Tanigaito and Alexandre Ferreira save the day in their brief solos when with sparkling nonchalance they mask the effort involved in the demanding virtuosity.
This is the only work on the program played by Orchestra Wellington. Recorded music is used for the two Kylián works, evidently as required by the choreographic contract, but that is not made clear in the marketing of the season and has caused some upset reactions among those who booked to attend expecting live orchestra throughout.
The Corey Baker commission, The Last Dance, is a challenged work—no aspersion on the dancers who give it their best, but its ideas and images seem oddly static. All new choreographic challenge has to take risks and no one can guarantee the outcome, but whoever commissions and whoever choreographs needs to know a company’s strengths and production values as starting points. A pick-up group of dancers may have been a better choice for this project. It gives me no pleasure to report that it is the least appropriate use of Mozart’s Requiem that I could imagine.
How grateful we are then for some real choreography that claims space and gives dancers the moves they need to show the complexity and ambiguity, the serious, the strong and the playful options available to those of us who want to recognise life celebrated in dance. Both Kylián works, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze, would have pleased Mozart no end, alive as they are with vitality and madcap, laced with wicked wit and the spin of genius. Every image and every move is deliciously carved and carried, suggestive and sensual, teeming with nuances from the choreographer’s rich train of thought.
Both these dances, performed by Nederlands Dans Theater, are on YouTube, with Stephan Zeromsky, who has so ably staged the works here, in that cast. The fact that you can watch on Youtube is no reason to stay away from a live performance. But it does give you and me the real and rare chance to study the works in all the depth and detail that repeat viewings allow. Kylián’s personal website also offers much insight into his remarkable career, prolific choreography, and his haunting muse.
I also welcomed several memories that this season triggered—for starters, during Ashley Killar’s term here, probably the definitive Balanchine work ever seen in this country, Agon, exquisitely performed by Ou Lu and Amy Hollingsworth. Pure Balanchine at his best.
Another treasured memory is Harry Haythorne’s beautiful staging of Balanchine’s Serenade on the New Zealand School of Dance in 1984. (It is a little known but fascinating fact that Haythorne was the first person to script Serenade into Laban Notation. The original score held in the Dance Notation Bureau in New York carries his signature, H.H., in the bottom corner. Dance history is a mercurial creature).
None of us is likely to forget Kylián’s masterwork Soldatenmis/Soldiers’ Mass, to Martinu’s Mass of the Unknown Soldier, which has been twice so brilliantly staged by RNZB, during Matz Skoog’s and again during Francesco Ventriglia’s directorates. The work throbs with the urgency and pain and horror and courage required in battle. It demands extraordinary stamina. Every male dancer in the company is cast. If one injures there is no recourse but to bring in the strongest female dancer in the company to replace him. In the first season that was Pieter Symonds. I wrote at the time this was the night Joan of Arc came to town—andPieter has used that epithet in her cv ever since. In the most recent season, another male dancer injured, and Laura Saxon-Jones was brought in to replace him. I wrote then that Joan of Arc had returned to town. Laura’s fine dancing, and her own spunky choreography that we have seen in two of the Harry Haythorne award seasons, are much missed from the company’s ranks.
Back to 1991 and there was something!—the full-length Wolfgang Amadeus, the life and work of the composer, choreographed by Gray Veredon, combining story, drama, poetry, comedy and heartbreak. RNZB seasons were longer then, spanning two weeks, so we had more chance for repeat viewings. The entire celebratory work was accompanied by live orchestra, and the Requiem sung by live choir, with singers crowded into the boxes to the sides of the stalls and circle levels. Eric Languet danced Wolfgang. Jon Trimmer played his father, Leopold. Who could forget them? Dance history might be mercurial but it is also tidal, and never dies completely.
Hannah O’Neill is now half way through her second year with the Paris Opera Ballet, having successfully negotiated another temporary contract at the annual examinations the company conducts each year.
In her second year with the company O’Neill has taken particular delight in performing in George Balanchine’s Serenade, part of a program of three Balanchine ballets that began the 2012‒2013 season. Sadly for her Australian admirers however, she is not coming to Sydney for the Paris Opera Ballet’s season of Giselle to be staged in January‒February. She says that, as she is still on a temporary contract, she wasn’t expecting to tour but that the bonus is that she will be performing in Paris in February in Jiri Kylian’s Kaguyahime. With a company of over 150 dancers, the Paris Opera Ballet has the luxury of being able to tour while maintaining a regular program in Paris at the same time. Kaguyahime, a spectacular piece of theatre, will be O’Neill’s first experience dancing a contemporary work since she has been in Paris.
Michelle Ryan: new artistic director at Restless Dance Theatre
Early in December Michelle Ryan was appointed artistic director of Restless Dance Theatre in Adelaide. Many will remember Ryan I am sure from her performance days with Meryl Tankard. She joined the Meryl Tankard Company in Canberra in 1992 and then moved to Adelaide in 1993 remaining with Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre until it disbanded. More recently Ryan has been working as rehearsal director with Dance North.
For more about the history of Restless Dance, a contemporary company working with people with and without a disability, the National Library holds an extensive interview with Kat Worth, artistic director of Restless Dance 2001–2006.
Meryl Tankard: an original voice
Here are some shout-lines from some who have read Meryl Tankard: an original voice: ‘It has a sense of drama but also balance, and it brings Meryl and her work to life’; and ‘The best and most comprehensive study of Tankard I have read’.
I am always interested to see which tags are being accessed most frequently by visitors to this site. It usually changes slightly from month to month depending on what has been posted in any particular month. But it is perhaps more telling to look at which tags have been accessed over a full year. In 2012 the Australian Ballet topped the list. Here are the top ten:
A recent comment posted on this website spoke of the differences between the styles of three major ballet companies visiting Australia in the mid-decades of the twentieth century: de Basil’s Ballets Russes, Ballet Rambert and New York City Ballet. The comment went on to note that perhaps the most enthusiastic attendees at New York City Ballet performances when that company first visited Australia in 1958 were those interested in stage and film musicals. The full remark about the attendees can be read in the comments section at the end of the post at this link, and it prompted me to post the small picture gallery below.
Most of the repertoire brought to Australia by New York City Ballet was by Balanchine although works by Jerome Robbins and Todd Bolender were also included. But even looking at the small number of images in the gallery, it is clear that the range of works was diverse. The gallery includes images of some of Balanchine’s works that might be seen as redolent of musical theatre, along with others from some of his most glorious pared-back, abstract creations.
New York City Ballet did not receive the attention in Australia that it deserved and the company was disappointed with its reception, according to Valrene Tweedie. Tweedie was a close friend of several of the dancers as a result of her decade of dancing in the Americas. She believed that New York City Ballet’s repertoire and style of dancing were way ahead of Australian audiences’ expectations at the time. Tweedie also noted that there were financial issues that caused the dancers some unhappiness. She has remarked in an oral history interview that the dancers were not able to take their salary, paid to them in Australian dollars, out of the country but had to spend it in Australia. It was the reason, she maintains, that Andre Eglevsky came but stayed only a week or so. He had a family to support in America and could not afford to spend his money on frivolous items such as souvenirs.
All the images in the gallery were taken during performance by Walter Stringer, an enthusiastic amateur photographer based in Melbourne. His photographic record of almost every dance company that performed in Melbourne between about 1940 and 1980 is of inestimable documentary value, especially given that his archive is now in public hands and so available to all for research.
Further comments, including identification of dancers in the Stringer images, are welcome. All photos are reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Australia.
Michelle Potter, 17 December 2009
Featured image: New York City Ballet in Western Symphony. Melbourne, Australian tour, 1958