Swan Lake. Artists of the Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet (on film)

Friday 20 March 2020 (the day I began writing this) was the date I was to be sitting in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, watching Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake. Instead, with the world closing down as a result of COVID-19, I am sitting at home in Canberra having just watched a DVD of a 2018 performance of that production. Luckily I bought the DVD last time I was in London. I hadn’t had the chance to watch it until now. Here, then, are my thoughts.

Liam Scarlett’s production of Swan Lake is heart-stopping. I don’t think I can honestly say that of any other Swan Lakes I have watched over many decades of dance going. The main dancers—Marianela Nuñez as Odette/Odile, Vadim Muntagirov as Siegfried and Bennet Gartside as von Rothbart—not only dance with technical brilliance but project the underlying emotions of love, longing, loss, power and deception. Emotion pours out of every movement, every glance, every gesture. Powerfully.

Scarlett has made some choreographic changes, although they are not major. The production notes acknowledge Petipa, Ivanov, and Ashton as well as Scarlett. But some small non-choreographic changes that Scarlett has introduced make the storyline so much clearer. Many parts of the narrative we know just because we have read something, somewhere. But Scarlett explains things. He has an intellect and he transfers that intellect into the production, and hence to us. We are involved to a greater extent.

In Act I it is Prince Siegfried’s birthday and there is celebratory dancing. His mother the Queen (Elizabeth McGorian), acting a little sternly, suggests it is time for him to marry. But Siegfried decides to go out into the forest to shoot the swans he sees flying overhead. We know it all. We’ve seen it before. But are we ever really shown with clarity that it is Siegfried’s birthday? Or are we simply told that in the synopsis? In the Scarlett production, Siegfried’s friend Benno (Alexander Campbell) gives Siegfried a present, a golden goblet. And so begins the celebratory dancing, everyone with a goblet in hand for several moments. The Queen, when she arrives, also has a present for her son. It is a cross-bow, a family heirloom, and we know that Siegfried will use it in the next act.

It was also a change to see the introduction of an invitation, a paper prop clearly marked ‘Invitation’, to an event that would be held in the palace at which Siegfried would choose a marriage partner. It was shown to Siegfried by the Queen and his reaction paved the way for his anxiety, and ultimately to his going into the forest with his cross-bow.

But who was that mysterious rather supercilious man dressed in black who acted as some kind of adviser to the Queen? He seemed to be getting in the way a little and forbidding various things. Did he have the right? Well there was bit of dramatic irony introduced at this point. When, as Act I comes to a close, Siegfried goes against the wishes of the man in black and refuses to go inside, setting off instead with his cross-bow, the man in black drags himself upstage where he collapses as if shot. Is he von Rothbart in disguise? Has he been defeated in an attempt to keep Siegfried out of the forest where he might meet Odette? Or is this more a juxtaposition of innocence versus deviousness, good versus evil, with the Queen in the middle? Does it perhaps foretell von Rothbart’s end? It is simply exciting to ponder.

As the work transitions to Act II, the lakeside scenes (designs by John Macfarlane) are full of foreboding. A rocky outcrop and a bright moon dominate, although the lighting is quite dark. But then it is night time.

Marianela Nuñez as Odette in Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet, 2018. © ROH. Photo: Bill Cooper

Throughout Act II there is the usual structure, perhaps with a little more mime than is apparent in many other productions. But what is transcendent is that Muntagirov shows us how he feels, anxious at times but full of longing for Odette. Nuñez shows her own anxiety, and perhaps fear. Should she engage with this man who appears to love her? Her technique, that beautiful line and her ability to unfold each movement slowly, is also a highlight.

We also meet von Rothbart as von Rothbart rather than the man in black of Act I. Macfarlane has given him a long feathery coat, reflecting the owl-like character of many productions, and has added a touch of red to part of his body costume: he is ‘red beard’ after all. Gartside gives a powerful performance with dominance as a major characteristic.

The work is set in Victorian times, clearly shown by the costume worn by the Queen in each of the acts in which she appears. But when Act III opens we see a kind of Baroque splendour. The sweeping staircase, extravagant floor lamps and the throne on which the Queen sits to watch proceedings all are reminiscent of European Baroque buildings.

Again Act III proceeds as one might expect, although the national dances have a real freshness to them and are beautifully (and I suspect expensively) costumed.

Vadim Muntagirov as Prince Siegfried in Act III of Liam Scarlett’s Swan Lake. The Royal Ballet, 2018. Photo: © Alice Pennefather/ROH

But once again Muntagirov stands out for the way in which he carries the story forward. From the longing and anxiety of Act II he is now thrilled at having found his lost love, or so he believes.

The coda from the Act III pas de deux is simply stunning. Marianela Nuñez’s fouettés, starting with a triple and sprinkled throughout with doubles and another triple, are remarkable, as are Muntagirov’s double tours finishing in arabesque. And there he is smiling all the while. Watch below.

In Act IV the lakeside scenic elements are clearer although the moon has disappeared somewhat. I guess dawn is approaching? The final pas de deux is heart-wrenching and I won’t introduce a spoiler and give away the deeply moving ending. Buy the DVD. It is worth every dollar and terrific watching, especially when everything live is currently cancelled.

As far as the DVD goes, it is interesting, too, to see Scarlett taking a curtain call with the company in this 2018 presentation. Everyone onstage looks and acts as though they have huge admiration for his work and for him. There is also an ‘extra’ on the DVD showing Scarlett and Macfarlane discussing their vision for the production. It is heart-breaking that Scarlett’s career, so remarkable to date, may be cut short by events currently being examined.

Here is a link to posts on this website about the works from Scarlett that Jennifer Shennan and I have seen and written about.

And as a final comment, of course I wish I had been able to see the work live. But …

Michelle Potter, 21 March 2020

Featured image: Artists of the Royal Ballet in Liam Sarlett’s Swan Lake. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper

Swan Lake. Artists of the Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2018. Photo: Bill Cooper
Dancers of the Monte Carlo Ballet in 'LAC', 2019. Photo: © Alice Blangero

LAC. Les Ballets de Monte Carlo

29 June 2019. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre

This production was yet another re-imagining of Swan Lake. It centres, we are told, on the choice between good and evil and on connections to our childhood fears and nightmares, all against ‘a Machiavellian family backdrop’. It began with a short film clip in which the story we were to see on stage unfolded before us as moving image. Although I baulked slightly at the robotic depiction of the King and Queen, and at the von Rothbart/Black Swan/evil character with her black sunglasses, lovely to watch were the Prince as a little boy playing with his fair-haired companion dressed all in white (the future Odette/White Swan), and the dark haired child dressed in black (the future Odile/Black Swan) who tried to intervene.

The work closed dramatically and had me on the edge of my seat as a large dark cloth swirled across the stage engulfing the dead bodies that lay there.

In between the opening and closing scenes it was a different matter. The storyline was easy to follow, there was some good strong dancing, and one or two characters stood out for me. I especially admired the dancing and acting of Daniele Delvecchio as the Prince’s Confidant (Benno figure?). And I admired the stage presence and ‘architectural’ choreography of the Black Swan and the Archangels of Darkness who often accompanied her.

The Black Swan with the Archangels of Darkness in LAC. Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Photo: © Alice Blangero

But I truly disliked the way the Prince seemed so goofy, standing there with bent shoulders and head down. Yes, his father was trying to make a man of him, the notes tell us, but I wished he could have been a little more princely in bearing. On the whole I found the choreography quite bland and I also found the way Tchaikovsky score was chopped around a little hard to take.

Still it’s always interesting to see a new take on an old classic. Some are just better than others.

Michelle Potter, 4 July 2019

Featured image: Dancers of the Monte Carlo Ballet in LAC, 2019. Photo: © Alice Blangero

Dancers of the Monte Carlo Ballet in 'LAC', 2019. Photo: © Alice Blangero

Please consider supporting my Australian Cultural Fund project to raise money to have hi-res images made for my book on the career of designer Kristian Fredrikson, which is heading towards publication. See the project, which closes on 30 July 2019, at this link. Donations are tax deductible. [Update 1 August 2019: Project closed]

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský's 'Black Swan, White Swan', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court

Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet

31 May ̶ 2 June 2019, Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Black Swan, White Swan is a two-act ballet by Mário Radačovský performed to a recorded abridged version of Tchaikovsky’s score. It borrows some themes from the classic Swan Lake but introduces new features and motifs in a re-working of the story that has Siegfried at its centre. The choreography plays out less as dramatic theatre working towards a denouement, or as a poem about love and grief, and instead presents a psychological profile of a man undergoing painful and confusing experiences in his life. In the opening performance in Wellington, the role of Siegfried, on stage throughout, with naturalistic movement, stillness and passages of dancing combined, was performed by Paul Mathews. His presence and thoughtful expression has an actor’s depth, while his intuitively musical dancing and strengths as a partner put him in a class of his own.

Paul Mathews in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

It may be worth reproducing here “The Story” from the printed program.
Act 1:  On his birthday Siegfried receives devastating news. In his anguish, he sees a mysterious stranger, Von Rothbart. Siegfried’s wife has arranged a surprise birthday party, but he is not in the mood to celebrate. He collapses, and Von Rothbart returns. Von Rothbart begins to manipulate Siegfried’s emotions, including his feelings towards his wife, and he becomes confused, no longer able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Siegfried tries to resist Von Rothbart and looks to his doctor for support. She becomes his White Swan and he becomes obsessed with her as the saviour who can bring him back to health and sanity. But Von Rothbart is not defeated.

Act 2:  Siegfried struggles to regain his identity, but Von Rothbart has the upper hand. To further confuse him, Von Rothbart brings out Siegfried’s wife, transformed into the Black Swan, and no longer the woman that Siegfried knows and loves. The Black Swan toys with him and once again Siegfried has to fight to keep his grip on reality. As Siegfried fights harder and harder he finally begins to weaken Von Rothbart’s control, only to collapse once again. As Siegfried awakes, back at his birthday party, he has no idea what is real and what is not. But Von Rothbart is still there…

This conveys the situational rather than narrative or dramatic aspect chosen for choreographic treatment, with life for Siegfried much the same at the end as at the beginning. A clue in the program synopsis  “As Siegfried awakes…” (I had not picked up that he was asleep) perhaps suggests the whole thing was his nightmare?  There are effectively four soloists—Siegfried, von Rothbart (Kihiro Kusukami), White Swan (Sara Garbowski), Black Swan (Kirby Selchow). They all perform strongly but the three characters seem not required to interact with each other but only with Siegfried. Kusukami’s dancing is certainly striking and his evil force is sinister yet expressionless, giving him a two rather than three-dimensional impact, which reinforces his place within Siegfried’s psychological state. Kirby Selchow as Black Swan has a sparkling edge to her taunting of Siegfried. The dance highlight of the evening for me is the pas de deux between Siegfried and White Swan who has by now dropped her doctor’s coat and become his friend, enabling Garbowski and Mathews to dance with real rapport.

Kirby Selchow in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court
Sara Garbowski and Paul Mathews in Black Swan, White Swan. Royal New Zealand Ballet, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The large corps or chorus of dancers, some grinning, some blank-faced, a mix of party goers, nurses maybe, then swans, were given contemporary movement vocabulary, which reflected against the backdrop of shiny metal curtain strips used for entrances and exits. Twists and flexes of foot, turn-in, hooked hands at the end of raised arms to portray swan beaks, paddling legs to suggest swimming were gestures and motifs repeated to good effect. It seemed less convincing, however, when the Cygnets and Lead Swans danced.

My perception was that much of their dancing was shaded behind the beat, which is not musically what one expects with a Tchaikovsky score. (A similar tardiness among the corps was noted in the recent production of The Nutcracker). Musicality in a dancer involves anticipation of the beat and the note, much as a conductor does, so their movement can speak through the music. That work takes place in the studio on a daily basis, the light and lifeblood of ballet. Sometimes choreography allows dancers to create the illusion that their movement produces the music, dancing with rather than to it. To see that art and alchemy at work, watch a dancer like Paul Mathews.

The performance is peppered throughout with applause and calls that do nothing to sustain dramatic conviction, but it is not so long ago that the audience was invited ‘if you see us do something you specially like then clap, call out, stamp and let us know you liked it’. Audiences, mostly, do what you tell them so interruptions become part of the experience. Opera goers always applaud an aria, even if the singer’s character has just died, but this doesn’t happen in music concerts or at plays in the theatre, and it comes at a price, a bit like an ad break. Diaghilev and Stravinsky, Douglas Wright and Lin Hwai Min knew how to choreograph for the theatre without inviting, or even allowing, applause in fits and starts.

I was waiting and wondering how the themes might coalesce by the end, enjoying anticipation of that, but will confess I found the sudden dumping from a great height of a large bucket of water onto both Siegfried and von Rothbart, was a surprise ending more suggestive of The Wizard of Oz rather than the coup de theatre it might have been turned into. Further challenge to us to interpret the work as we will, which is no bad thing. 

It is true of many of our experiences that perception is the filter of facts—nothing altogether black and white but that saying makes it so. Radačovský has presented that trope in a choreography that sincerely recreates his personal experiences some decades ago of cancer and associated trauma. It is good to know from his artist’s profile that he has recovered from the illness, though he has deliberately chosen to end this ballet at an unresolved point in the story. 

Jennifer Shennan, 1 June 2019

Featured image: Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský’s Black Swan, White Swan, 2019. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Dancers of Royal New Zealand Ballet in Mário Radačovský's 'Black Swan, White Swan', 2019. Photo: © Stephen A'Court
Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

Swan Lake—Loch na hEala. Michael Keegan-Dolan

St James Theatre Wellington, 14 March 2018
Choreography: Michael Keegan-Dolan. Music: Slow Moving Clouds

Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

It is revealing to read an interview with Michael Keegan-Dolan in the local press in which he admits that he thinks this latest production, Swan Lake—Loch na hEala, is his best work to date. Many an artist would say the latest work is the best workbut it’s undeniably true that the thrust and ideas in this work are of unparalleled import and poignancy. It is hard to imagine another theatre work grappling so surely with old story and deep themes, revealing dark secrets and offering balm however briefly. This Lake of Swans is painfully beautiful, heartfelt, soulsprung, footstamped, wingborne, endearingly musiced, beyond reach and entirely present.

Keegan-Dolan’s earlier Giselle, Petrouchka and Rite of Spring, with his Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, were all courageous and hugely memorable works, but Loch na hEala may well prove to be the most outstanding visionary work of its generation. It is an honour to write about the production, and important to thank the New Zealand Festival for their decision to bring this astonishing work to our town.

It’s a thrill to see Alex Leonhartsberger, consummate performer, in the central role (revives memories of Douglas Wright’s choreographies when Alex was in the cast). The exquisite Rachel Poirier is a wounded Dying Swan for our time (as Kilda Northcott was a few years back, muse to Douglas). Keegan-Dolan is to Ireland what Wright has always been to New Zealand, and that has to be my highest praise to them both. Kia ora korua. Salute to the pair of you.

Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan's 'Loch na eHala (Swan Lake)', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival
Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na eHala (Swan Lake). Wellington, 2018

W. B. Yeats’ poem, The Wild Swans at Coole, resonates with great birds ‘mysterious, beautiful’ that in turn evoke the exquisite 16th century madrigal by Orlando Gibbons ‘The silver swan that, living, had no note…’ (Swans in old tales are often bewitched women, rendered mute) ‘when Death approached unlocked her silent throat’. This trope is achingly, beautifully caught in the final pas de deux of love and comfort that is permitted to the two wounded and damaged characters of this production—Jimmy O’Reilly (read Prince Siegfried), and his adored Finola, (read Odette). It has the fragility of life, held by love, yet dead and gone too soon. You’ll be weeping now if ever you wept at anything. You’ll be back tomorrow night for a repeat viewing. That’s not masochism, it’s just too beautiful to see only once.

W. B. Yeats The Wild Swans of Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Orlando Gibbons’ madrigal, The Silver Swan, is one of the Poems in the London Underground now. The seventh Autumn has come upon me since my Allan slipped down and away, leaving us mute, so shocked at his leaving. Unreal. Not real. Did he not love us enough to fight and slay the dreaded Count Leukaemia von Rothbart and stay with us in the happy nest of our home? What was he thinking to go away and leave the garden unweeded, the lawn all unmown, the orchard overgrowing, the path too thin as its spread of metal wears away, all his books on these shelves with bookmarks still upstanding, his dressing gown hanging on the back of the door, his gumboots by the garden shed, the plum tree that presages Spring, the Christmas pohutukawa of summer, the gold & red leafed grapevine ushering in Autumn, the darling tiny snowdrops so sweet, so perfect, so silent in cold Winter. Why did I waste you? Why did I lose you? Why did I not hold you tighter, stop you getting away? We could have made it. We could have fixed everything. We still could. Don’t unlock your silent throat, don’t sing or Count von Rothbart will get you. The clematis, the one you planted for Beth, needs pruning. Then there’s the little daffodil, the scented one you planted so tenderly under our window when Nell was born. I need you here to help me find that bulb gone underground. Don’t go. Please stay. Don’t leave. No wonder tears drenched my dress as Jimmy danced with Finola. You would have drenched yours too.

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival
Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O’Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na hEala (Swan Lake), Wellington, 2018

In the afore-mentioned interview Keegan-Dolan admits he is interested when people come back for repeat viewings of his show, and he wonders why they do. I’ll tell him why. I just did.

Jennifer Shennan, 20 March 2018

Follow this link to Jennifer Shennan’s review for Radio New Zealand’s Upbeat program.

Featured image: Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O’Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch na hEala (Swan Lake), Wellington, 2018

Alex Leonhartsberger as Jimmy O'Reilly and Rachel Poirier as Finola in 'Loch na hEala', Wellington, 2018. Photo: © Matt Grace/New Zealand Festival

‘Don’t be afraid of the dark—it is your friend’

All photos: 2018 New Zealand Festival. The Wellington Airport Season of Swan Lake/Loch Na hEala. © Photos: Matt Grace

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

Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet (2015)

21 February 2015 (matinee), Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy's 'Swan Lake'. Photo Jeff Busby

Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake is currently making a return to the stage for a brief season at the wonderfully ornate Capitol Theatre in Sydney’s Haymarket district. I was lucky enough to have a ticket for a performance with Juliet Burnett as Odette, Rudy Hawkes as Siegfried and Miwako Kubota as the Baroness von Rothbart. And what an interesting and transfixing performance it was.

I never tire of the brief prologue to this Swan Lake where we encounter the three main characters. We understand the apprehension of Odette, the bride to be, shown especially in a Murphy-esque motif of fluttering hands that are like palpitations of the heart, and that also prefigure Odette’s fantasy dream of swans by the lake. The mental fragility of Odette is set against the lust of her groom, Siegfried, as he takes the alluring Baroness to bed on the night before his wedding.

But as the first act, the wedding, began I was shaken a little. Both Odette and Siegfried seemed to be two-dimensional characters with little interest in interacting strongly with their guests. Only the sexed-up Baroness seemed to be in character as she flounced her way around the stage. There were a few standouts amongst the other characters—the very feisty leading Hungarian couple of Ella Havelka and Rohan Furnell, a delicious Brooke Lockett as the Young Duchess-to-be, and an elegant Amanda McGuigan as the Princess Royal. But I found the first act mostly underwhelming.

As the second act opened, however, Burnett was into her stride, and very convincing as she descended further into a state of mental torment. She twitched and shook as she was bathed by two nuns and collapsed into another world of anguish as Siegfried came to visit her, and when she noticed the Baroness outside the asylum impatiently waiting for Siegfried. And by the time she had moved into the icy world of swan maidens, Burnett had the audience in the palm of her hand. Now there was a calmness to her movements, in beautiful contrast to the twitchy anguish of the asylum.

Burnett and Hawkes make fine partners. They move together smoothly and sympathetically, as one really. As a result I wasn’t watching technique, although I did love those expansive sissones from Burnett in Odette’s solo and the very airy grands jetés from Ako Kondo and Dimity Azoury as the two Guardian Swans. But I was following the story, which was developing with immense clarity. And I got the feeling that the rest of the audience was as absorbed in the unfolding narrative as I was. A really unusual and very beautiful, almost palpable silence filled the auditorium.

As Act III began the atmosphere oozed glamour and perhaps superficiality, or so it seemed after the moving qualities that emerged from Act II. Kubota’s presence was strong as she took on the role of party hostess. Odette was radiant as she arrived at the party. The central pas de trois, however, between Odette, the Baroness and Siegfried, in which Siegfried’s struggle with himself over what has happened to his love-life comes to the fore, seemed somewhat weak. But with the return to the icy lake, now populated by black rather than white swans, the dancing qualities that marked the partnership between Burnett and Hawkes reappeared. Once again the story took over. It was deeply moving.

The trio of Burnett, Hawkes and Kubota has a way to go yet to reach the potential that seems inherent in it. But I was lucky I think to have been at this performance, which got the loud ovation it deserved as the curtain came down. I can’t remember this combination of dancers in these roles previously and it may well have been their first show together.

And on another line of thought, what I noticed more than I have on previous viewings of the Murphy Swan Lake was the choreography for the swan maidens’ arms. They are rarely lifted into a ‘regular’ fifth position, not always even a ‘regular’ fifth position with palms turned outwards. His swans have long, slender arms that intertwine, criss-cross, turn their palms in unusual directions, and otherwise form intricate patterns. They reminded me a little of the long necks of the real birds that seem to dip and curve and stretch in infinite ways. I love this aspect of Murphy’s work. There is always something new, something personal, to discover no matter how many times one sees the same show. I have noticed these intertwining arms before, but in this performance, perhaps because it was so beautifully focused on the story and had such a powerful inner strength to it, the choreographic imagery became more noticeable and more expressive.

Michelle Potter, 22 February 2015

A review from 2013 of the Murphy Swan Lake with Stojmenov, Killian and Harris is at this link

Twyla Tharp's 'Bach Partita', opening scene, American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre in Brisbane

My coverage of American Ballet Theatre’s first Australian visit as part of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series has just been posted on DanceTabs. Making the most of an expensive trip to Brisbane, I saw two performances on consecutive nights, the last night of Swan Lake and the first night of Three Masterpieces. I would have really liked to have seen Three Masterpieces again, especially Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which, given its complexity, was difficult to take in on one viewing.

In addition to what I wrote about Bach Partita in the DanceTabs post, I especially enjoyed a solo by Marcelo Gomes, who is seen below with Gillian Murphy. It is quite clear from this image that Gomes has a powerful presence and his solo was strong and controlled and lost nothing of that presence.

Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes in Twyla Tharp's 'Bach Partita', American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone
Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, American Ballet Theatre. Photo: © Gene Schiavone

The DanceTabs post is at this link.

Michelle Potter, 7 September 2014

Featured image: Opening scene from Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, American Ballet Theatre. Photo: © Gene Schiavone

Twyla Tharp's 'Bach Partita', opening scene, American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Gene Schiavone
Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Swan Lake, National Theatre Ballet, 1951. Photo Walter Stringer

Swan Lake. National Theatre Ballet

Some time ago now I posted a photo from Walter Gore’s ballet, The Crucifix, as staged for the National Theatre Ballet The photo had always fascinated me while working at the National Library of Australia and Athol Willoughby had some interesting words to say about it. Here is a link to the post.

Well, another photo, also from the days of the National Theatre Ballet has also always held a fascination. It is of Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Act III of the National’s full-length Swan Lake, the first ever full-length production to be presented in Australia. The stage presence of Graeme floods out of the picture and recalls the words of Keith Bain quoted in an obituary for Graeme: ‘once seen, never forgotten’.

Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Swan Lake, National Theatre Ballet, 1951. Photo Walter Stringer
Joyce Graeme as the Queen in Swan Lake, Act III, National Theatre Ballet, 1951. National Library of Australia. Photo: Walter Stringer

The costumes for the pages are rather unusual and, while looking through the Rex Reid Collection at the Artscentre Melbourne, I came across a note that describes the costumes. In a folder of material relating to Ann Church, the designer of the momentous full-length Swan Lake, I found the following, in handwriting that appears to be that of Church: ‘The Queen’s pages had scarlet and white jerkins, crimson-pink-and white striped tights’.

On the same scrap of paper there was also a description of costume for the ‘Queen Mother’. ‘This was a black taffeta coat, lined and faced with crimson satin. The sleeves, also lined with crimson, were jagged and also reached the floor, and the train was cut in points like a star. It fastened beneath the bust and the wide neck was trimmed with coq feathers. Underneath, the bodice was mauve jersey, outlined with black velvet and pearls. The sleeves were mauve jersey, covered with black net; black velvet points with pearls, over the hands. The underskirt was mauve taffeta covered with black net. The black net skirt was criss-crossed with black ribbon with large tassels at the joins’.

That description also conjures up a striking item but unfortunately it doesn’t accord with the costume Graeme is wearing so maybe it is her costume for Act I? Perhaps someone who was part of the production may be able to help?

Michelle Potter, 16 March 2014