Jack Lister in 'We who are left'. Queensland ballet, 2016. Photo: David Kelly

Anzac Day 2020 in Australia. Who’s dancing?

Today, 25 April 2020, I watched Royal New Zealand Ballet’s streaming of Andrew Simmons’ Dear Horizon and Neil Ieremia’s Passchendaele, two works that reflected on the Anzac spirit. In these days of ‘digital stages’, ‘digital seasons’ and the like, I wondered why nothing similar had happened in Australia. Or did something escape my attention?

I have to admit to wondering what could have been streamed in Australia. For a start, in 2016 Queensland Ballet programmed an exceptional triple bill of three works under the title Lest we forget. Two were by non Australian choreographers and neither of them was exactly right for the occasion. But one was Natalie Weir’s We who are left. It would have been perfect. As my review of We who are left was published on the London-based site, Dancetabs, I am reproducing the text here for those who may not have seen the Dancetabs review.

Natalie Weir’s Lest we forget. Queensland Ballet, July 2016 (review first published on Dancetabs, 31 July 2016)

It was, I believe, Agnes de Mille who exhorted choreographers to aim to make an impact in the first 30 seconds of their works if they wanted to harness the interest of an audience. Choreographer Natalie Weir did exactly that in Queensland Ballet’s triple bill program, Lest We Forget, a program honouring the ANZAC soldiers of World War I. Weir’s work, We who are left, begins in darkness. One by one five male dancers are revealed, standing in individual pools of light. As we watch each man is joined by a woman and we can almost hear the women shouting ‘Don’t leave me’, ‘Stay’, ‘I love you’ as they throw themselves into the arms of their partners, cling to them, and reluctantly tear themselves away as their partners ready themselves to leave for the war zone. Instant emotional involvement is the only possible reaction. The five couples then lead us on a journey of parting, fighting, death, survival, longing, and memories of what was and what might have been.

Choreographically the work is outstanding throughout. After the strongly emotional opening scene, the men engage in their war activities. At first their movements have a quality of military precision to them. But as this section proceeds they throw themselves around the performing space in athletic leaps as they become more and more bound up in the process of war. Then, dramatically, an upstage screen lifts and four of the five men walk slowly backwards into the grey recesses that are revealed. The screen descends and just a single soldier, ‘The man who lived’ danced by Jack Lister, remains onstage. A lyrical pas de deux between Lina Kim and Camilo Ramos follows. It is a duet recalling memories of past times and is filled with Weir’s signature pas de deux style in which bodies tip, dive, twist and wrap around each other.

Perhaps the choreographic highlight, however, comes at the moment when Clare Morehen, ‘She who was left’, stands onstage with a pair of soldier’s boots in front of her. She dances around them, sometimes with sharp pique-style movements that suggest agony, sometimes with extended legs and stretched arms that suggest a range of other emotions. Then, surprisingly, she is joined by her man, Shane Wuerthner. They dance together but separately. Morehen stretches out to him but they never touch. They kiss but their lips never meet. He lies on the floor and she steps over him crisscrossing her way along the body. They are astonishing moments and present a totally different take on memory from what we saw from Kim and Ramos. Later, the other four women enter with pairs of boots and poignantly place them on the floor. But nothing can equal the dream-like moments we spend with Morehen and Wuerthner.

Clare Morehen in Natalie Weir's We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly
Clare Morehen in Natalie Weir’s We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

The work is danced to selections from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem Opus 66 and Weir has chosen largely from those sections of the score that include the spoken word in the form of poetry by Wilfred Owen. The score pounds relentlessly and adds a separate level of drama to the overall work. David Walters lighting design is spectacular throughout beginning with that striking downlighting in the opening moments, through to brooding lighting washing across the stage as the men find themselves in the act of war, and on to further pools of light highlighting the women as they survey the empty boots of those who did not return. Costumes by Noelene Hill are perfectly of the period and neutral in their colours.

We who are left has an innate simplicity—five couples, five sets of boots, basically a grey colour scheme. That’s about it on an obvious level. Yet it is masterful in its ability to communicate general thoughts about the effects of war, while at the same time conveying a sense of individuality. It is like a dagger in the heart with its theatricality, its choreographic sensibility, and its dramatic power. It is nothing less than a knockout.

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Then there’s Stephen Baynes’ 1914 made for the Australian Ballet way back in 1998. One of my ongoing gripes is that 1914 has never been revived. I am told by some that it ‘had problems’, but I thought it was an exceptional work. In 1998 I was writing for Dance Australia and my review appeared there. Here is what I wrote of this work.

Stephen Baynes’ 1914. The Australian Ballet, April 1998 (review first published in Dance Australia, June/July 1998)

Stephen Baynes’ new work, 1914, opened with many expectations riding on it. It was Baynes’ first evening-length work, his first narrative ballet and the first time he had taken a novel, David Malouf’s Fly away Peter, as specific inspiration. But most of all, it was a major Australian work: the Australian Ballet’s first ever full-length work with choreography, score and design all commissioned from Australian artists.

As a collaboration, 1914 achieves much. On the most obvious level, the ballet (and the book) follows a simple narrative centring on the lives of three Australians, Jim Saddler, Imogen Harcourt and Ashley Crowther. Jim and Ashley enlist and go to France to fight in the Great War and the lives of the three are torn apart and changed forever. But the collaborative team of Baynes, Graeme Koehne (composer), Andrew Carter (set and lighting designer) and Anna French (costume designer), have added to the simple story something of the poetic and impressionistic qualities of Fly away Peter. Through the contributions of this creative team the story becomes a journey from light to dark and, finally, back to light again with Imogen, who is left alone in the final moments of the ballet to resolve her—and our—feelings of loss and grief.

In his choreographic definition of the characters, Baynes’ greatest success is with Jim, whose movements are both unaffected and expansive. Especially in the first solo, with its emphasis on clean lines and movements that highlight an open chest and outstretched arms, Jim emerges as laconic but free-spirited. On opening night Steven Heathcote interpreted this choreography with a total lack of pretension. Damien Welch and Joshua Consandine performed the role of Jim later in the season but, while they both danced with style, neither had the combination of maturity and un-selfconsciousness that made Heathcote’s interpretation so satisfying.

Imogen is probably the most difficult role in the ballet. She must be the down-to-earth photographer whose relationship with Jim is based purely on a shared interest in birds; the dream figure who appears to Jim in France; and the solitary woman whose emotions must carry the ballet to a close. Her final solo requires a strong sense of balance and is full of steps that seem to twist and turn in on themselves, as she works to come to grips with Jim’s death. On opening night Lisa Bolte was clearly in control technically and brought a deep honesty to the role. In other casts Miranda Coney and Vick Attard both contributed individualistic interpretations and Attard, especially, was emotionally convincing in the final solo. But both Attard and Coney sometimes seemed to move with a kind of lightness and affectation that is at odds with the character of Imogen.

Study for 1914. Lisa Bolte as Imogen.

The English-educated Ashley is defined largely through other people—his cultivated friends who visit Jim who works for him and the soldiers he commands. Neither Adrian Burnett, Matthew Trent nor David McAllister seemed able to transform him into anything other than a distant and insubstantial figure. Marc Cassidy, on the other hand, brought life to one of the Australian soldiers in France brilliantly—a larrikin gambler and smoker who was clearly based on Malouf’s character, Clancy.

As an Australian work, 1914 is profoundly moving. Without being facile, there is a simplicity in the choreography that reflects the qualities of openness and directness, perhaps even naivety. There are times too when the sense of Australian sound, light and colour is overwhelmingly beautiful. Carter is the star of the creative team here—his abstractions of the landscape into a few trees, a couple of sand dunes and a patch of sky is awesome.

As a theatrical work, 1914 makes demands on a ballet audience. Probably the most affecting moment in the work has no dancing. When the scene changes from France to Australia following Jim’s death for the resolution of the ballet, all the audience has, for what seems like quite a long time, are changes of lighting, visual imagery and musical theme. But those moments are intensely enriching. Baynes and his team have made a quietly impressive work that asks the audience to see that emotions can be evoked through stillness, sound and visual imagery as well as movement.

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What will we see on Anzac Day 2021?

Michelle Potter, 25 April 2020

Featured image: Jack Lister in We who are left. Queensland Ballet, 2016. Photo: © David Kelly

Jack Lister in 'We who are left'. Queensland ballet, 2016. Photo: David Kelly
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

Memorial for Dame Margaret Scott

15 March 2019. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

Dame Margaret Scott was farewelled with style and grace, and more than a little bit of emotion, in a memorial event arranged by the Australian Ballet and the Australian Ballet School and presented in Melbourne on 15 March 2019.

It began with an initial surprise as we entered the auditorium of the State Theatre. I wondered why we were asked to enter through the door at the back of the auditoriun. Well, it was so that we would properly enjoy the guard of honour made by two rows of young dancers from the Australian Ballet School, the girls dressed in simple white tutus and the boys in black tights and white shirts. They were lined up on each side of the auditorium stretching pretty much from the last row of the stalls down to the stage. On the stage a giant screen had been lowered and we saw an image of a smiling Maggie, full of the joy of life. And standing in the middle of a row close to the front was Maggie’s husband, Professor Derek Denton, watching as we entered.

Following an introduction from Steven Heathcote and an opening tribute from Maggie’s younger son, Angus Denton, reminiscences were given by several of Maggie’s former students and colleagues including Colin Peasley, David McAllister, Graeme Murphy, Marilyn Rowe and Lisa Pavane. Those who auditioned for her as young and hopeful dancers all admitted to being in awe of Maggie at first, but all continued to say how much they had grown to love and respect her.

Interspersed among the spoken tributes were three short performances. The first was Embrace, created by Paulina Quinteros, which was accompanied on the printed program by the phrase ‘For Dick, Matthew and Angus’, to which was added the words ‘Lucky are those who have experienced the sweetness of loving’. It was danced by Chloe Reynolds and Daniel Savetta (with Steven Heathcote playing a small role). Embrace was followed by the Act II pas de deux from Nutcracker. The Story of Clara, danced by Benedicte Bemet and Jarryd Madden. Level 8 students of the Australian Ballet School gave the third performance, a movement from Stephen Baynes’ Ballo Barocco.

But the most moving moments were left till last when a series of images of Maggie, covering the gamut of her life and career, were flashed across the screen.

The end seemed to have been reached when Jim McFarlane’s iconic image from Nutcracker (above left) appeared and all went dark. But no, Earl Carter’s equally iconic Nutcracker image appeared of Maggie rejoicing in the pleasures she experienced in Act I of Nutcracker (above right). Then, from each side of the stage a procession of students, former dancers and others entered and, in single file, moved to the centre of the stage where each placed a single white rose on the floor in front of Maggie’s image before making a slow exit. A beautiful tribute to an exceptional woman.

A State Memorial for Dame Margaret will be held on 22 March at the National Gallery of Victoria International commencing at 10:00 am. My obituary for her is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 17 March 2019

Featured image: Maggie Scott in Gala Performance (detail with text added). From the Ballet Rambert souvenir program for its 1947–1949 Australian tour

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Alegrias'. Photo Sergey Konstantinov

Showcase 2018. The Australian Ballet School

22 September 2018. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

The Australian Ballet School’s annual Showcase came to Canberra this year, and what a treat it was. It is, of course, what it says it is, a showcase of dancing by students of different levels studying at the Australian Ballet School. But it was such an interesting and pleasurable experience to see these students, emerging professional dancers, in a program of eight very different items from seven different choreographers.

Showcase 2018 opened with Alegrias, a feisty flamenco item choreographed by Areti Boyaci, teacher of Spanish dance to Australian Ballet School’s senior students. It was danced by the graduating class (Level 8) to a live accompaniment by guitarist Werner Neumann. Then followed  Mark Annear’s Waltz from Birthday Celebration, danced by youthful, tutu-clad dancers largely from Level 5; the Dryad scene from Don Quixote Act II; a charming new creation, Wolfgang Dance, from Simon Dow, again performed by Level 5 students; Paul Knobloch’s Valetta for the graduating class, which Knobloch choreographed in memory of his grandmother whose name was Valetta; another new creation, Ballo Barocco, from Stephen Baynes made on Level 7 dancers; Heart Strings, also new, from contemporary teacher Margaret Wilson for Level 6 students; and finally a tango-flavoured item from Simon Dow, Danza de la Vida, for the graduating class.

Two items stood out for me: Ballo Barocco and Heart Strings. Ballo Barocco, danced to four excerpts from different concerti by J. S. Bach, showed Baynes, currently resident choreographer with the Australian Ballet, at his musical best.  The cast of 16 moved smoothly and fluidly from one sculptural pose to another. In between these poses we saw movements in canon form, some spectacular dancing from the men, along with admirable partnering. I loved too the simple, elegant lines of the costumes by Maree Strachan that did not distract from the choreography but, rather, allowed it to shine.

Level 7 dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Stephen Baynes' 'Ballet Barocco'. Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergeyev Konstantinov

Level 7 dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Stephen Baynes’ Ballet Barocco. Showcase 2018. Photo: © Sergey Konstantinov

Margaret Wilson teaches contemporary dance at the Australian Ballet School and I was expecting something rather different from what was presented to us in Heart Strings. With the girls on pointe and clear references to ballet technique, to me the work was contemporary ballet. It was beautifully performed and seemed to focus on limbs—long and extended, lifted and stretched. But what really tore at the heart strings for me was the underlying narrative, which drew on aspects of adolescent life: arguments, bullying, young love and the like. These dancers, adolescents themselves, captured so clearly  the emotion behind these life-moments and just swept us along.

Other highlights? The male dancing in Valetta, which is made for 13 male dancers and just one female artist, was often quite spectacular with its strong patterns and fast pace. The principal male dancer, Thomas McClintock, danced exceptionally well, but in addition had extraordinary stage presence. Someone to watch as he embarks on his professional career. Then it was impossible not to be charmed by the cheekiness of Wolfgang Dance. Performed to the Allegro from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the youngest of the students who toured to Canberra drew us into their games onstage and peeped at us from the wings as they made their exits.

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Valetta', Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergey Konstantinov

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Valetta, Showcase 2018. Photo: Sergey Konstantinov

The one item that left me a little cold was the Dryad scene from Don Quixote.  It was not the dancing that worried me and I especially enjoyed the performance by Ella Chambers as Cupid. But Barry Kay’s costumes are so over decorated, especially those headdresses. I feel it is time to retire them.

Despite the overdressed Dryads, Showcase 2018 gave us a glimpse of a promising future for ballet in Australia.

Michelle Potter, 24 September 2018

Featured image: Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in Alegrias. Photo: © Sergey Konstantinov

Dancers from the Australian Ballet School in 'Alegrias'. Photo Sergey Konstantinov

Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: Jeff Busby

Verve. The Australian Ballet

29 June 2018, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne

The Australian Ballet’s latest triple bill, Verve, once again raises the fascinating question of what is contemporary ballet? And once again the three works on the program, one each from Stephen Baynes, Tim Harbour, and Alice Topp are examples of how varied answers to that question can be.

Constant Variants from Baynes was first made in 2007 although this is the first time I have seen it. It opened the program. It is impeccably constructed and is so at one with the music, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, that it is like seeing as well as hearing the sound. It gives us lyrical movement and sculptural poses. There are moments of playfulness and moments of wonderful unison from the dancers—a male trio stands out in particular. Michael Pearce’s set of partial picture frames, variously coloured, glow beautifully under Jon Buswell’s lighting. Constant Variants is calming, beautiful and recognisably classical.

Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Brett Simon in 'Constant Variants'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Andrew Killian, Ako Kondo, and Brett Simon in Constant Variants. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The evening closed with Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, first seen in 2015. I felt uneasy in 2015 and still do. Choreographically it is detailed in the extreme and the dancers capture that detail beautifully. But they constantly move sharply, cutting the air with their limbs, and I longed for a bit of curve to break up the razor-edged look. Aggression and anger predominate. But what makes me especially uneasy is that Filigree and Shadow doesn’t lead anywhere. I can’t see a structure, just a constant coming and going. For me that doesn’t work.

Scene from 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Scene from Filigree and Shadow. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Placed in the middle of the program was Topp’s latest creation, Aurum, danced to four separate works by Ludovico Einaudi. And it was astonishing. There is a choreographer’s explanation for the inspiration behind the work, which is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold or metallic lacquer. But to tell the truth Aurum exists without an intellectual explanation. It is completely visceral. It is about us and how we connect and we are just carried along by its emotional power.

Its surging choreography is compelling (althought there were a few moments when I felt I was watching a phrase or two from a work by Jiri Kylian). But I loved the gorgeous, swooping lifts, the stretched and elongated bodies, and the often precarious balances. A particularly moving pas de deux between Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson stood out.

Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson in 'Aurum'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo:Scene from 'Filigree and Shadow'. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson in Aurum. The Australian Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

And of course there was that amazing group section, the third of the ‘movements’. It completely engulfed the audience as it pounded its way to a conclusion when the audience broke out into an uproar of pleasure and excitement (and it wasn’t even opening night). Then there was the final section, another pas de deux this time between Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov, which played with shadows and was thrillingly lit by Jon Buswell. It seemed to resolve all the emotional drama that had gone before it.

It is hard to remember another work that has had such an instant impact in Australia, except perhaps Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Let’s hope Aurum gets another showing soon.

Michelle Potter, 1 July 2018

Featured image: Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Aurum. The Australian Ballet 2018. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Dance diary. May 2016

  • von Rothbart

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.

Brett Simon and artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo Jeff Busby

Brett Simon as von Rothbart with artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: © Jeff Busby

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 site of the awards which gives a much longer account of the event, and includes a list of the nominees from whom the winners were selected.

  • Robert Helpmann

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.

Akers on Display

Akers on Yugen

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.

Dance Research 34:1 2016 Cover

Dance Research is published by Edinburgh University Press. Further details at this link.

 

Michelle Potter, 31 May 2016

Featured image: Detail of Kristian Fredrikson’s headdress for von Rothbart in Houston Ballet’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Michelle Potter, 2011

Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2016)

9 April 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake premiered in 2012 as a ‘traditional’ Australian Ballet production to stand alongside Graeme Murphy’s rather more radical version. After almost four years it is certainly an interesting experience to see the Baynes production again, but looking back at what I wrote in 2012 I find myself wanting to say much the same.

On the positive side, Hugh Colman’s costumes are still a highlight. They are so elegantly designed, especially those in Act I, where the women’s dresses not only look so stylish but move beautifully during the danced sequences. They also set the story so well in the nineteenth century, the era of Tchaikovsky. Then I was still thrilled to see such lovely, swirling choreography in so many places. I was especially taken this time with the patterns given to the swans, both when moving and when standing motionless.  I was also lucky to see a lovely performance from Miwako Kubota as Odette/Odile. She danced both roles with style and technical assurance and gave each role a distinctive characterisation.

Baynes and Colman have approached the story as a kind of psycho-drama and, in bringing out this aspect of the production, Andrew Killian as Siegfried gave a strong performance. He gave the role a brooding quality in Act I that at first made him appear not to be participating—and of course we are used to seeing Siegfried enjoying himself at his birthday celebrations before heading off to shoot swans with his mates. But slowly Killian brought us to the realisation that Siegfried was deeply unhappy with his life and at the end of Act I, as he stood before the gates that led to the lake, I couldn’t help feeling that he was thinking of drowning himself in it (which is eventually what happens).

On the not so positive side, I think this Swan Lake still badly needs the services of a dramaturg to bring out the narrative (or Baynes’ version of the story) more clearly. The psycho-drama seems to fall apart somewhat after Act I when the ballet reverts to the original storyline without enough emphasis on anything that might be called evil. Rothbart, who personifies evil in traditional productions, still remains an enigma in the Baynes version. Is he the personification of the blackness that consumes Siegfried? He seems just to hover in the background, except in Act III when he rudely sits beside the Queen, who on this occasion, surprisingly, took very little notice of him. And then Rothbart plays the violin for the the dance of the Russian Princess (beautifully performed by Rina Nemoto), which makes him a kind of Paganini figure, the Devil’s minion.  It is very difficult to reconcile exactly what role he is meant to be playing and, as a result, the production becomes unsatisfying.

Despite some very nice choreographic moments, and some strong dancing, I have to come to the conclusion that I prefer other productions of Swan Lake. I don’t want to go back to a Borovansky-style 1950s production (although it was really quite a good, straightforward one), and all credit to David McAllister for wanting to add a traditional Swan Lake to the Australian Ballet repertoire. But for preference I’d go to the Murphy production any day. It has a coherence that I think is lacking in the Baynes production.

Michelle Potter, 11 April 2016

Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake (2012 production). Photo: © Jeff Busby

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in a study for Petite Mort. The Australian Ballet 2014. Photo Paul Scala

Chroma, Art to Sky, Petite Mort & Sechs Tänze. The Australian Ballet

10 May 2014 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

What an inspiring performance the Australian Ballet gave of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Not an easy ballet to bring off, but all the diverse features that make McGregor’s choreography so eminently watchable were there. Limbs extending through space, off-centre partnering, moves that were in turn twisted, contorted, angular and sometimes smooth and undulating. And all were all set cleanly and articulately against John Pawson’s stripped back, white box space with its rectangular ‘window’ of changing colours. McGregor is a master at exploiting the balletic body to produce astonishingly shaped movements—movements of the twenty-first century perhaps? What I especially like is that his choreography make us see how perfectly amazing the balletic vocabulary can be.

I particularly admired Vivienne Wong’s performance throughout the work and also a powerful trio from Brett Chynoweth, Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Killian—fast, assertive dancing from them all. But it was a duet from Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello that stole the show for me. McGregor’s choreography suits Jones with her strong, unassailable technique and Gaudiello has such a way of adding his own signature to everything he does while still remaining true to the intentions of the choreographer.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in 'Chroma', 2014. courtesy the Australian Ballet

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Stephen Baynes’ new work, Art to Sky, began with some lovely, lingering choreography, beautifully performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Gaudiello again. It was romantic, softly falling from step to step. The corps de ballet also had some memorable choreography in the opening sections, surprising at times and always pure and fresh. But after that there were a few too many somersaults, cartwheels and legs in the air, not to mention twee sections of humour that didn’t quite work. It is a little problematic too that one of George Balanchine’s most exquisite ballets (in my mind anyway) is Mozartiana danced to the same music, Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana, that Baynes chose for Art to Sky. Balanchine has a habit of lingering in the mind, making it hard to accept anything else to the music he uses.

Hugh Colman’s shadowy, upstage portal that comprised the set, lit by Rachel Burke to give a hint of the mysterious, were strong additions to the look of Art to Sky. Colman, Burke and Baynes work well together as collaborators and bring a sense of visual cohesion to each other’s work.

The program concluded with Jiri Kylian’s companion pieces, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze and it was a treat to see some more Kylian back onstage with the Australian Ballet. It was interesting to have Kylian on the same program as McGregor, as also happened last year with Bella Figura and Dyad. Kylian, too, pushes the dance vocabulary and gives us a surprising array of movement, but he adds a degree of humanity and humour to his works that McGregor passes over (at least in Chroma, although perhaps not to the same extent in others of his works).

This mixed bill was a relief from the full-length ballets that we are told draw the best houses. To me the house looked pretty much full  for what was a diverse and well danced program. I’d like more in this vein.

Michelle Potter, 11 May 2014

Featured image: Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in a study for Petite Mort. The Australian Ballet 2014. Photo: © Paul Scala

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in 'Petite Mort'. Photo Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Lest we forget. English National Ballet

5 April 2014 (matinee), Barbican Theatre, London

Tamara Rojo’s recent mixed bill program, Lest we forget for English National Ballet, was created to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Having spent the ten days preceding my viewing of Lest we forget researching Ballet Rambert’s wartime experiences as a touring company during World War II, I was very curious to see what this program had to offer. Unfortunately I had to leave without seeing the full program (I didn’t want to miss my plane back to Australia!). However I was particularly pleased that I didn’t miss No Man’s Land, a commissioned ballet from Liam Scarlett, whose work I have never seen before, and whose Serpent will be seen in Sydney in May as part of the program being brought to Australia by BalletBoyz.

Scene-from-Liam-Scarlett's 'No Mans' Land'.Photo © Dave Morgan

Scene from Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. English National Ballet. Photo © Dave Morgan

Scarlett was moved to create a work that showed how men and women were involved in the war effort and how they related to each other and amongst themselves. A multilevel set (design Jon Bausor) had the women on a raised platform at the back of the stage where they carried out their work in factories making ammunition, explosives and other items. The men occupied the front of stage, the trenches of war, and a ramp linked the two areas. Evocatively lit by Paul Keogan, the work took place in what seemed like the shadow of the past. Although there was a simple storyline of men leaving the women behind as they went off to fight, with only six of the seven returning at the end, the lighting made it seem as though we were watching not a story but a series of hazy vignettes from the past.

I found the choreography, created on seven couples, sometimes complex and acrobatic with the highlight the concluding pas de deux between Tamara Rojo and Esteban Berlanga as her ghostly partner, the man who did not return. Rojo’s body language before the pas de deux even began told it all—the sorrow, the loss, the longing. The three pas de deux that took place in the battlefield area were also powerful. I especially admired that between Ksenia Ovsyanick and Laurent Liotardo with its anguished, flying bodies.

But some of the most hypnotic material was really very simple. The touch of a hand on the face as the men left for the battlefield; the women wrapping their arms over the shoulders of the men, simulating the straps of a burdensome backpack; the toss of dust in the air by the women as they worked at their factory benches, for example. Strong imagery works wonders especially when it contrasts with more complex movements as the men face their battles. Music was an arranged and orchestrated selection of material from Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses.

Second Breath from Russell Maliphant relied on the visual power of strong and ever-changing groupings of the cast of 20. The work was danced to a background score by Andy Cowton drawn from material in the Imperial War Museum. It was basically an audio compilation of voices reciting the numbers of the dead. Quite chilling material to juxtapose against those beautiful, spiralling groups of bodies. The other work that I was able to see on the program was something of an oddity, unrelated it seemed to me to the theme of war—a restaging of George Williamson’s reinvention of Firebird. Unfortunately I had to miss Akram Khan’s Dust,

A persistent thought occupied my mind as I thought about the program. I kept wondering if the Australian Ballet had considered bringing back Stephen Baynes’ 1914, with its original score by Graeme Koehne and those outstanding designs by Anna French? Although it seems not to have been a favourite with many, I really liked it and what a cast it had with Steven Heathcote and Lisa Bolte in the leading roles. I would love to see it again, perhaps with revisions that Baynes might like to make? It might have been more fitting for the 2014 Australian Ballet season than, say, Manon (of which more later).

Michelle Potter, 15 April 2014

Swan Lake. A second look

8 December 2012 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

I finally got a chance to take a second look at the Australian Ballet’s new production of Swan Lake. With Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in the lead there was much to enjoy. It was a pleasure to see Gaudiello back onstage and I admired his clear reading of the role. He was especially impressive in Act II. His meeting with Odette was full of excitement, tenderness, pleasure and love, expressed not just in the face but in his movement and partnering as well. It contrasted nicely with his moody behaviour in Act I. Stojmenov responded to his attention and together they made this meeting something that almost had me on the edge of my seat with anticipation of what was to come.

Stephen Baynes’ choreography remains impressive on a second viewing. I noticed in particular this time the elegant waltz of the princesses in Act III with its lovely swirling, bending bodies. And there are moments of exquisite beauty in Act IV where circles of movement predominate. This time I did notice what happened to Siegfried. He left the stage amid a bevy of swans just in time to get ready to be fished out of the lake as Rothbart sailed by. Nothing dramatic in his exit, but then Odette’s exit didn’t have much drama to it either. I admired Juliet Burnett’s pouting princess. Being used to princesses who all act the same and smile through everything, it was a pleasure to see her bringing real character to a role.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Swan Lake, 2012. Photo: Jeff BusbyArtists of the Australian Ballet in Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake, 2012. Photo: Jeff Busby. Courtesy: The Australian Ballet

The work still remains a disappointment, however. As I did during and after the first viewing, I wished that a dramaturg had been brought in. The story doesn’t quite hang together for me without the ongoing and menacing presence of von Rothbart, or at least of some kind constant figure or presence of evil throughout the acts (it doesn’t have to be an owl running around the stage with a cloak flying behind it). Although we are given flashes of lightning at various points, and projections of large flapping wings attached to a weird body and head at others, this is not the same as a continuing presence of evil. Without some kind of ongoing menace, the whole black/white, good/evil theme loses its strength. And without it, it makes nonsense of that moment at the end of Act II when Odette has to leave Siegfried, drawn away by a force more powerful than he is. What is drawing her back, automaton-like, in the Baynes production?

There was also a major problem in Act III with the set and the stage space it occupies in Sydney. Gaudiello in particular was denied the opportunity to execute his solo and his part in the coda to the fullest extent of his ability. It was cramped more than I have ever seen it on that stage with this production and Gaudiello’s dancing suffered badly through no fault of his own. I can’t see that that stage is going to get any bigger any time soon—it’s been like it is for forty years. So it seems to me that the Australian Ballet needs to commission sets that are capable of being used in Sydney without compromising any dancer’s performances.

This Swan Lake is, however, a visual treat. The corps de ballet continues to look beautifully rehearsed and their work has such clarity these days. Hugh Colman’s costumes are gorgeous. But I wish the dramatic line had more coherence.

Michelle Potter, 8 December 2012

The original Swan Lake post is at this link.

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