30 June 2016, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
My review of Stanton Welch’s spectacular Romeo and Juliet for Houston Ballet is now available on DanceTabs at this link. In relation to the DanceTabs review, below is an image of Karina Gonzalez as Juliet and Jessica Collado as Lady Capulet showing the ‘exclamation mark’ arabesque I mention in the review.
While in the review I didn’t go into much detail about the children who appeared in the work (courtesy of the Australian Ballet School), I am am curious to know the name of the fair-haired boy who led the Blind Man’s Buff game, and who appeared whenever children were required. He had such charisma for someone so young.
Since seeing Stephen Baynes’ production of Swan Lake, first in 2012 and more recently in its revival of 2016, I have been thinking frequently about the nature of the character of von Rothbart, ‘an evil geni’, according to the cast lists of the earliest Russian productions. After reading on the Australian Ballet’s website that, in the Baynes Swan Lake, Rothbart is a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’ my interest quickened.
Hugh Colman has dressed Baynes’ Rothbart in a red wig when he appears in the palace ballroom in Act III. I was startled the first time I saw it to tell the truth, so carrot-coloured was it. It is not new knowledge, of course, that Rothbart means ‘red beard’ in German and many designers have referred to that meaning. Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for Rothbart in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake for Houston Ballet, for example, has straggling red ‘hair’ emerging from it and a pair of glassy red eyes on the sides (as seen in the featured image above). I was interested too to discover that, in Cyril Beaumont’s in-depth analysis of the ballet in his book The ballet called Swan Lake, there is a very detailed account of how Rothbart was meant to look in the Petipa-Ivanov version of the story—even down to the angle of the eyebrows and the shape of the beard.
But perhaps most interesting of all about Beaumont’s analysis is that he suggests that a character like Rothbart (one who is able to take on a variety of forms as he does in most traditional productions of Swan Lake) is often encountered in medieval romances and other early forms of literature—he gives an example of Archimago in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, who also has the power to assume diverse forms. In the story as adapted by Petipa for the production of Swan Lake on which most traditional productions centre, the swans are the victims of a character who has bewitched them, and who assumes the form of an owl to watch over them. The owl at times takes on a human form and in Act II appears in various places around the lake as an evil sorcerer. He listens to the conversation between Odette and Siegfried before disappearing. It then makes sense that he assumes another form in Act III, when he brings Odile to the palace, since he knows of Siegfried’s plan to marry Odette, which would outsmart him and remove his power.
I have no issues whatsoever in rethinking the story or the characters—Rothbart can even be a ‘dangerously seductive dandy’. But can he just turn up in Act III without there having some kind of manifestation of what he represents in the previous act? It makes a mockery of the story if some kind of force, call it evil, sorcery, seductive dandyism, or a combination of features, has not had an impact previously.
In the Baynes production, I kept wanting the projections that appear in the sky in Act II to be some manifestation of Rothbart. But I am reliably assured by a well-known dance writer/critic who spoke to an equally well-known member of the ballet staff at the Australian Ballet that those projections are swans and only swans. So for the moment I’ll just keep thinking that the Baynes Swan Lake is dramatically unsatisfying because I can find nothing that strongly prefigures Rothbart’s appearance in Act III.
Benois de la danse
Recipients of the 2016 Benois de la danse awards were announced in mid-May. It was a pleasure to read that Hannah O’Neill was the joint recipient of the award for Best Female Dancer for her performance in the title role in Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Paquita. She shared the award with Alicia Amartriain of Stuttgart Ballet.
But I was also delighted to see that John Neumeier had received a Lifetime Achievement Award. I still get shivers down my spine thinking of his exceptional Romeo and Juliet, which I saw recently in Copenhagen. And we have the pleasure of seeing his Nijinsky later this year in Australia.
I am also a fan of the choreography of Yuri Possokhov, who received the award for Best Choreographer (also shared). I haven’t seen the work for which he was awarded, the Bolshoi Ballet’s Hero of our time, but I have great memories of his version of Rite of Spring made for San Francisco Ballet.
The full list of awardees is at this link from Pointe Magazine. There is also the official siteof the awards which gives a much longer account of the event, and includes a list of the nominees from whom the winners were selected. [Update: Link to official site no longer available]
While searching for audio excerpts to use in my recent 2016 Dance Week talk, I came across some interesting snippets in an oral history interview I recorded with Bill Akers in 2002. Akers, who held several positions with the Borovansky Ballet and the Australian Ballet, worked closely with Helpmann on many occasions and, in particular, lit Helpmann’s Australian-produced ballets. I found his comments on the relationship between The Display and Yugen especially insightful. Although it is well-known that The Display was, in part, based on an incident that occurred early in Helpmann’s life, before he went to London in the 1930s, that Yugen was in some ways the antithesis of The Display is perhaps not so well-known. In the first audio excerpt, Akers talks about the early incident that clearly stayed in Helpmann’s mind throughout his life. In the second Akers reminds us of that incident, and then mentions how Yugen relates to it.
The full interview with Akers is available online via the National Library’s oral history site.
Press for April
My article ‘Robert Helpmann: Behind the Scenes with the Australian Ballet, 1963-1965’ has been published in Dance Research, 34: 1 (Summer 2016), pp. 47-62. It fleshes out some of the ideas I have considered on this website relating to Helpmann’s two early ballets for the Australian Ballet, The Display and Yugen. The cover image on this issue of Dance Research is by Walter Stringer from the collection of the National Library of Australia. It shows Gail Ferguson as a Woman of the Village, in Yugen, mostly likely taken during a 1970s revival.
Mixed in with old faithfuls like Swan Lake and Coppélia, the Australian Ballet’s program for 2016 contains one or two works that we can anticipate with a bit of excitement. One of them is John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, which will be seen in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, although we will have to wait until the last few months of the year.
Nijinsky was created in 2000 for Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet and was seen recently in Australia when Hamburg Ballet performed it in Brisbane in 2012. On that occasion it received a standing ovation on its opening night—and I mean a real standing ovation where the theatre rose as one. No stragglers, no people leaving to catch the subway before the rush, no one standing up because they couldn’t see what was happening because the person in the row in front was blocking their view. A proper standing ovation. Neumeier calls Nijinsky ‘a biography of the soul, of feelings, emotions, and of states of mind’. It needs wonderful dancing, and fabulous acting. My fingers are crossed. Here is what I wrote about it from Brisbane.
Another program that fills me with anticipation is a triple bill called Vitesse presenting works by Christopher Wheeldon (DGV: Danse à grande vitesse), Jiri Kylian (Forgotten Land) and William Forsythe (In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated). It is scheduled for the early part of the year and will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney.
Forgotten Land and In the Middle are not new to the Australian Ballet repertoire having been introduced during Maina Gielgud’s artistic directorship. I remember watching people leave the auditorium after the opening sounds of Thom Willems score for In the Middle (it was 20 years ago), but it showed off certain dancers of that era absolutely brilliantly. But the Wheeldon is new to Australia. It is a work for 26 dancers with four pairs of dancers at the heart of the work. It shows in particular Wheeldon’s skill at creating pas de deux. In the Royal Ballet program notes from its showing in 2011, Roslyn Sulcas writes of Wheeldon that ‘[He]—like his ballets—is both traditional and innovative, able to inhabit an older world while moving firmly forward towards the new.’ Here is what I wrote after seeing it, on a very different mixed bill program, in London in 2011.
Then I await Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet, exclusive to Melbourne in June and July, with anticipation mixed with trepidation. I was not a fan of his Bayadère, although I have loved some of his shorter works. But the word is that his R & J is ‘quite good’. Fingers crossed again.
As for the rest of the year, Brisbane will get Ratmansky’s Cinderella in February; Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake returns with seasons in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne; a program called Symphony in C will run concurrently in Sydney with the Vitesse program, although it is not exactly clear as yet of what the Symphony in C program will consist; and Coppélia will be in Sydney and Melbourne towards the end of the year. I think this is the Peggy van Praagh/George Ogilvie production from 1979, but the media release is a little confusing. ‘Having first revisited Coppélia in 1979, the great choreographer re-invigorated it thirty years later with this joyful and sumptuous production.’ Who is that great choreographer? Not PVP who was not really the choreographer and who died anyway in 1990.
And for my Canberra readers, we won’t be seeing the Australian Ballet in 2016 in the national capital where we too pay taxes.
Last Saturday, 22 November 2014, I had the pleasure of seeing Gillian Murphy, whose dancing I have admired for some time now, guesting with the Australian Ballet in Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère. My comments for DanceTabs are at this link. For other posts on Gillian Murphy follow this link.
29 August (evening) and 30 August (matinee), 2014. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
Stanton Welch made his new version of La Bayadère for Houston Ballet, of which he has been artistic director for ten years. Its premiere was in 2010. He has now restaged it for the Australian Ballet, where he still holds the position of resident choreographer.
It was always going to be a problematic ballet: an updated version of a work that is entrenched in nineteenth-century cultural values where countries beyond Europe were regarded as little more than examples of exotica, and were represented as such in the theatre. Choreographically, Welch’s Bayadère makes passing references to traditional Indian greetings and hand movements from forms of Indian dance. There are also plenty of attitudes (the ballet step) with angular elbows and hands bent at the wrist, palms facing upwards. They remind us of a dancing Shiva. But there is also a lot of waltzing at certain points and the mixture doesn’t ring true today. So much of what we can accept from a production that claims to look back to the original (Makarova’s production for example), we can’t accept from a new production made in the twenty-first century. It all becomes a frustrating jumble.
So too with the costuming. There are no tutus (thankfully) until the Kingdom of the Shades scene, although there is a confusion of costuming, especially with Solor who is dressed like a balletic prince in tights and jacket while everyone else has a costume that approximates an Indian-style outfit.
My enjoyment of the work depended very much on the casting. The first show I saw, with Lana Jones as Nikiya and Adam Bull as Solor, was a lack-lustre performance, which only highlighted the feeling that the work was a cultural and choreographic jumble. While Jones’ first solo was beautifully danced—she has such a fluid upper body—she and Bull were not connecting and it seemed like a very sullen pairing. Robyn Hendricks as Gamzatti, whose villainous nature Welch has strengthened nicely, overplayed the role somewhat and didn’t look good in that harem costume, which reveals the rib cage rather dramatically.
In that first viewing, I loved the two children who accompanied Solor’s mother wherever she appeared. They were an absolute delight and took an active interest in everything happening on stage. And Vivenne Wong executed the first solo in the Shades scene with precision and attack—those relevés on pointe down the diagonal were spectacular.
In a second viewing I had the pleasure of seeing Amber Scott as Nikiya and Ty King-Wall as Solor. My interest in the work soared.
King-Wall and Scott danced beautifully together and their various pas de deux were silky smooth and imbued with tenderness. This was the first time I have seen King-Wall in a principal role since he was promoted and he certainly lived up to that promotion, both technically and in terms of successfully entering a role and developing a partnership. Ako Kondo as Gamzatti once again danced with superb technical skill. Perhaps she was a little too nice for the role in its new guise, but she engaged well with Laura Tong as Ajah, her servant, and it is impossible not to be swept away by her superb dancing.
The issue of Indian references aside, Welch’s choreography is always interesting to watch. I have written elsewhere that I think his best works are abstract rather than story ballets and I enjoyed watching how he structured scenes for larger numbers of people in Bayadère. His choreography for the Rajah’s four guards was simply constructed but often surprising in the way each came forward for a mini solo. And later, during the wedding celebrations for Solor and Gamzatti, Welch handled a bevy of guards and guests easily and maintained interest, despite the waltzing, in each of the different groups throughout that sequence of dancing.
Design-wise, Peter Farmer’s chaise-longue, on which Solor reclined to smoke his opium before the shades of Nikiya began their procession down the ramp, was gorgeous. Its luscious curves gave it an art nouveau feel and its back reminded me of the underside of a mushroom, magic mushrooms no doubt.
This production of La Bayadère is full of melodrama, a ‘cat fight’ between Nikiya, Gamzatti and Ajah; people being killed left right and centre; appearances by men in gold paint; and temples tumbling into ruins. But Petipa’s choreography has been maintained in certain places and, with a good cast, the story speeds along and much can be forgiven.
31 October 2013, Théâtre des Champs Élysées, Paris
It was, apparently, the wish of Chinese concert pianist, Lang Lang, to stage a dance project in which a group of sixteen dancers from Houston Ballet would perform with him in Paris. Lang Lang was credited with the ‘artistic conception’ of the show in which he played a selection of works by Chopin, with all the individualism for which he is renowned, while the dancers performed the choreography of Stanton Welch. At its best it was an evening to enjoy, although there were moments when Welch’s choreography was so complicated, especially in some of the partnering, that the show looked overwrought.
The best moments came when there was a real connection between Lang Lang and the dancers. When that connection was missing, as it occasionally was, the whole concept became a little meaningless. The first section after interval was a real highlight. With Lang Lang playing Chopin’s Waltz no. 19 in A minor and dancer Joseph Walsh performing solo, it was notable for the constant connection between pianist and dancer through gesture and eye contact. Walsh’s solo was also beautifully executed and showed off his lovely line and smooth technique. It was a brief, but clean and classically inspired performance.
The opening section of the show, danced by Derek Dunn as soloist accompanied by the full complement of Houston dancers performing to Ballade no. 1 in G minor opus 23, was another highlight, largely due to an exceptional performance by Dunn. He reminded me of what I imagine Nijinsky might have looked like. Dunn soared across the stage with broad, expansive movements, executed multiple turns with extraordinary ease and showed lovely fluidity in the upper body. I found him quite thrilling with a charisma that matched that of Lang Lang. As a result, a powerful and emotive connection was set up between dancer and pianist.
Other sections that worked for me included that performed to the well-known Waltz no. 1 in E flat major, Opus 18 (Grand valse brilliante) in which Oliver Halkowich and Jim Nowakowski deftly handled the humorous elements Welch introduced into what has never seemed to me to be a humorous piece of music; the closing duet between Karina Gonzalez and Ian Casady, which brought the evening to a beautifully calm end; and a duet for Lauren Strongin and Connor Walsh in which the lovely lightness of the choreography, especially the succession of lifts when Strongin scarcely touched the floor before becoming airborne again, perfectly matched the music (Andante spianato, Opus 22).
One section that didn’t work so well for me was a duet for Jessica Collado and Ian Casady in which Welch’s use of palms facing outwards and feet turned up smacked too much of Nacho Duato. The ‘Duato effect’ was mixed with more classical movements and the whole was, choreographically speaking, a somewhat messy combination.
I have always felt that Welch is at his best when choreographing non-narrative works and, despite some twisted and contorted moments of partnering, there was much to enjoy in Sounds of the Soul. Some effective lighting by Lisa J. Pinkham, including some lovely slow blackouts, added to a pleasant evening.
The Australian Ballet recently announced its season for 2014. The inclusion of Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère, made for Houston Ballet in 2010, seems to have caused the biggest stir in the press with reports that live snakes and a snake wrangler will make an appearance. Reptiles and their handlers aside, it is certainly a step in an interesting direction to have a new work from Welch (new to Australia anyway) on the program given that he has continued to hold the post of a resident choreographer while also being artistic director of Houston Ballet since 2003.
Although I was not overly impressed with Welch’s recent Rite of Spring, I look forward to seeing this full-length Bayadère and hope that he has tightened up the story a little. ‘La Bayadère is a recurring problem’, as American Dance Magazine noted not so long ago.
But for me the most interesting program on the 2014 list is a mixed bill entitled Chroma. It includes Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, an exciting work made on the Royal Ballet in 2006. I loved its minimalism and its collaborative aesthetic when I saw it a couple of years ago. The Chroma program also includes two short pieces by Jiri Kylian, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze.
The Australian Ballet showed these two Kylian pieces in 2005 and who can forget those wonderfully fluid duets from Petite Mort, not to mention the fencing foils that the men manipulate in the opening sequences, or those roll-along, black ballgowns! It’s hard to forget Sechs Tänze too, a curiously playful work in which the dancers wear costumes designed by Kylian, which he calls ‘Mozartian underwear’. This program also includes a new work by Stephen Baynes.
A second mixed bill entitled Imperial Suite consists of George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc. The season also includes Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, which we have seen so many times in Australia, and Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker.
I am looking forward to an exciting season in 2014 although I’d rather something other than Manon as a third evening length work.
Michelle Potter, 6 September 2013
Here is a is a link to a Houston Ballet preview of Welch’s Bayadère. Watch out for a variation from the Kingdom of the Shades scene danced by Nozomi Iijima. It comes towards the end of the four minute preview.
Featured image: Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in Petite Mort. Photo: Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet
15 March, Brown Theater, Wortham Center, Houston, TX
Houston Ballet’s most recent program had the slightly confusing title of The Rite of Spring when in fact it was a triple bill in which Stanton Welch’s reimagining of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was simply the final offering on the program. Nevertheless, it was probably the most anticipated of the three works on show although I’m not sure the extensive media build-up was entirely justified.
Welch dispensed with the narrative of human sacrifice that marked the original, infamous 1913 production of Rite of Spring. His production began in something of a primeval manner with a horde of Neanderthal-looking men whose fearsome arrival onstage caused a band of women to flee the stage, thus establishing a primitive, tribal background to the work. But from there the piece seemed to disintegrate into a mixture of cultural references culminating midway through in some kind of wedding or association between a man and a woman, who for the occasion was bound in white garments by her female friends. Just what happened to the couple later on was not clear to me other than that they danced with the rest of the tribe in a passionate frenzy of movement. The work seemed to peter out at the end.
Nor was it clear just exactly who theses tribes were. Costumes and make-up, which included heavy body markings, recalled Aztec ornamentation, a least to me, although there were times when the grass skirts of Polynesia and Melanesia seemed to surface. Heavy, black eye make-up sometimes made the dancers look like they were wearing sunglasses and at other times made their eyes look quite red as though they had been caught in a camera flash. I thought overall the costume/make-up design was considerably overwrought.
This stood in sharp contrast to two magnificent backcloths created from two paintings by Australian indigenous artist Rosella Namok. Namok’s works, ‘Stinging Rain’ and ‘Marks on the Sand, After King Tide’, were beautifully enlarged by Houston Ballet’s backstage team. They had a strong but simple message and it is curious that Welch, according to all press material and published interviews, chose her work because he thought it had a universal quality to it. Well that’s just what Welch’s production didn’t have. It lacked a simple, strong message and a clear sense of focus and, with its myriad of references to other cultures, couldn’t be called universal.
Choreographically Welch worked very closely with the music and there was scarcely a note that didn’t have a corresponding step. Everything looked very busy and as a result the Stravinsky score sounded quite different. To me it seemed to have lost its integrity.
Creating a new Rite of Spring will always bring out a very personal side of any choreographer it seems. The Welch production was not to my liking I’m afraid and I’m beginning to suspect that the versions that work best for me maintain the links to the original narrative or else diverge entirely from it. Welch was unable to establish a new, satisfying pathway or a link to the old one.
The evening opened with Mark Morris’ Pacific danced to Lou Harrison’s Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano. It seemed a little like a religious celebration possibly because of the constant use of uplifted arms and the placing of the hands in front of the body, palms facing each other, as if holding an devotional item between the hands, or as if in a kind of open praying gesture. Morris’ choreography followed the impetus of the music but the constant bending to the floor as if in homage to something (the music?) also emphasised a kind of religiosity.
Edwaard Liang’s Murmuration, especially created on Houston Ballet and receiving its world premiere in this program, began with a single female dancer moving slowly down a diagonal, But just as one began to ponder the serenity with which she accomplished this walk, the stage was filled with dancers. They formed groups broke apart, met and left the stage in a flurry of movement that lasted for the entire first movement of Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Esoconcerto. As explained in a program note the title of the work refers to the intricate patterns formed by starlings during flight and the constantly changing choreographic groupings alluded to these patterns.
The second movement consisted of a series of duets which showed Liang’s emphasis on how bodies can work together as they intertwine and contort, and in so doing how they often appear as one. The men hold our attention in the third movement and for a while the women group themselves at the back and watch the men display their athleticism.
Murmuration is beautifully designed. The simple, grey costumes, designed by Liang and Houston Ballet’s wardrobe manager Laura Lynch, move beautifully with the dancers. The pale grey leotards with attached chiffon panels for the women, and the wide legged trousers softy gathered at the waist for the men enhance and never detract from the choreography. The background, which relies on Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting for its strongest effect, changes from a simple grey-lit cloth in the first movement to what looks like a cascade of fireflies in the second. And as the third movement progresses the fireflies turn to small white shapes (of paper I guess) falling softly to the ground.
Murmuration deserved the ecstatic reaction it received from the audience at the performance I attended although there were times when I thought there was a little too much repetition in the choreography.
In 2007, during time spent working in the United States, I had the pleasure of being invited to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival to sit on a panel with Gideon Obarzanek, whose company Chunky Move was showing his very popular I want to dance better at parties at the Pillow that year. You can just see us in the top left image (left to right: the presenter, Obarzanek and myself)) in the background over the heads of the audience, a good sized one and one that was definitely interested in the state of dance on the other side of the world.
The session was part of the Pillow’s ‘Pillow Talk’ series held regularly during the Festival on the deck space of the beautiful red barn known as Blake’s Barn. The 18th century barn, seen in the image below, was a gift to the Pillow from the American dancer and choreographer Marge Champion and named in memory of her son Blake. It was moved from its former location in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in the 1990s. Blake’s Barn is just one of the lovely buildings on the Pillow site in the stunning countryside of the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts. The Doris Duke Studio Theatre and part of the outdoor area are pictured below the Blake’s Barn image.
I have been reminded of the occasion of the Pillow Talk, and of the Pillow itself, several times recently while watching (from afar) the program for 2012 take shape. This year Australia is represented by the Brisbane-based circus arts ensemble, Circa, and by Stanton Welch. A brand new work from Welch will be presented by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.
The Pillow has extensive dance archives, also housed in Blake’s Barn, and the section of its website called ‘Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive’ is a model for making archival film clips accessible to all. Many hours can be spent watching these little snippets of dance. Here are links to two, vastly different in style and indicative of the broad approach of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival: the irrepressible Twyla Tharp in a community-style undertaking in 2001; and Cynthia Gregory, with her beautifully expressive port de bras—such a sweep through space—in a re-creation in 1982 of a work by Ruth St Denis. The still images at the end of each clip are often outstanding shots too.