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’.
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?
22 June 2013 (matinee), State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
The first thing to say about this performance of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake is that Leanne Stojmenov as Odette was absolutely stunning. It all began with that Act I wedding waltz. Partnered by Andrew Killian as Siegfried, Stojmenov not only danced with delicious fluidity in the upper body, she was also so attuned to the music and was so much the happy young bride. And how often does that beautiful white gown with its long, long train impede parts of the movement? Not this time. The gown was manipulated pretty much perfectly so that, as intended, it was an intrinsic part of the choreography. It was a beautiful and absolutely captivating moment so early into the show and it was followed by some charming encounters between Stojmenov and the guests, especially with the children.
From there Stojmenov delivered some technically sumptuous dancing and swept us through a whole range of emotions until her final disappearance into the depths of the dark waters of the lake. As Odette at the lakeside in Act II her solo, with its remarkable ending—a backwards slide along the floor, was magnificent, as was the pas de deux with Killian, again with its breathtaking ending that moves from Siegfried holding Odette as a limp, bent-over body, which is then stretched out fully but is held parallel to the floor, to a fish dive, and finally to another slide to the floor. And perhaps nothing was more moving in a dramatic sense than Stojmenov’s encounters with Killian in the final moments of Act III. They were danced with all the abandon of a woman in the full knowledge that these moments were to be her last with the man she loves. A series of very fast, perfectly executed turns down the diagonal towards Siegfried, arms flailing up and down, summed it all up.
The second thing to say is that Murphy’s choreography in this work is nothing short of remarkable. Perhaps it is seeing this Swan Lake so soon after Stephen Baynes’ more traditional version that highlights what an expressive choreographer Murphy is. Not many choreographers are able to use the classical medium as an expressive, narrative tool, to move the story along through movement. Murphy does. Take, for example, Siegfried’s solo in Act I as he is torn between his new bride and his old love. He bends into himself, opens his palms wide and places them on his face, and at times moves with little jerky or contorted steps. It all speaks of indecision, inner turmoil, unspoken guilt even. Or take Odette’s meeting with Siegfried in the asylum. Here Murphy gives us all the twitching movements we might associate with Odette’s state of mind and yet there is something about her arm movements that recall those of a more traditional Odette, which not only links us with other stagings of Swan Lake, but also presages Odette’s lakeside dream, which is soon to come.
There are some magnificent images that surface throughout the work. In Act III, as the guests leave the party following the little tantrum by the Baroness, unevenly played on this occasion by Amy Harris, we see Siegfried and his friends against a backcloth that is a representation of M. C. Escher’s linocut, Rippled Surface. They are frantically looking for Odette who has left the party and a very new vision of Siegfried, Benno and friends on their swan hunt (seen in very old productions!) comes straight to mind. And shortly afterwards, when Siegfried arrives suddenly at the lakeside, alone this time, the beautiful choreographic patterns being made by those black swans are just as suddenly scattered into a flurry of different poses and different arm movements. We are left with a fleeting image of a flight of birds disturbed from their ordered existence as if a shot had been fired into their formation.
And I can’t forget Harry Haythorne in Act I as the Marquis (the photographer). While he commands centre stage at times, he also spends a lot of time up in the back OP corner with his camera and his little hanky, a wave of which indicates that a shot has been completed. Taking my eye off the central action for a moment I noticed him arranging a group of children in a special pose, and also photographing a kite that one child was flying. Never one to stand still and just watch the action!
And the third thing to say is that all the drama that was missing from the recent Baynes production was there for all to see in this Murphy production. Murphy’s knack of moving seamlessly from one situation to another and back was evident in Act II as we saw the lakeside dream begin with Siegfried and the Baroness meet outside the asylum window, and saw the dream end with a return to that same meeting. But more than anything the drama was gripping as Odette teetered from one emotion to another.
I do have a couple of gripes. It is annoying that so few of the cast were mentioned by name on the cast sheet. I didn’t have the best seat in the house. It was a way back and a little too much on the side so it was quite hard to identify who was dancing in smaller roles. Who danced the two leading Hungarians in Act I, for example? I thought they did a splendid job, especially the female dancer. [It was Dana Stephensen—see comment from Anna below]. And who danced the little swans and the two leading swans? It is extremely frustrating to have some of the minor characters in Act I named, characters who really have very little to do and certainly no dancing to speak of, when dancers who have relatively substantial dancing roles are not named. And I will never understand why the magic of those last moments has to be spoilt as the black cloth disappears from that circular piece of wood that is the lake leaving us to see a bit of cut chipboard. Come on!
Gripes aside, I was immensely moved by this performance. It was one of those rare performances, I think, where so much pours out, so much underlying logic becomes apparent, so much of the detail of the choreography is made clear, and so much is impossible to record! A huge bouquet to Stojmenov for carrying the dramatic line so well and dancing so sublimely. Performances like this are why I keep going back for more.
Michelle Potter, 23 June 2013
Featured image: Artists of the Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, ca. 2003
IMAGES: I have no images of this current production as yet and in any case, with Stojmenov giving the performance she did I really am not inclined to post an image of another Odette. The featured image is one supplied by the Australian Ballet some years ago, probably around 2002 or 2003. No photographer’s name is mentioned but I would be more than happy to correct that if someone can supply the name. Looking closely you might notice some dancers who are now principals!
UPDATE (later, 23 June 2013): The second image on this post is indeed of Stojmenov in Murphy’s Swan Lake kindly supplied by the Australian Ballet and by one of my favourite and most generous photographers, Jeff Busby.
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.
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.
The Royal Ballet’s current production of Swan Lake is that of Anthony Dowell. It first went on show in 1987 after Dowell had engaged in a period of extensive research into the Petipa/Ivanov version of 1895. Australian audiences saw it in 2002 when the Royal Ballet, then under the direction of Ross Stretton, toured to various Australian cities. I admired it then. I thought it was danced beautifully (Darcey Bussell and Jonathan Cope were in the lead), and I loved the way the characters had been developed so each had a real presence in the production. Now I’m not so sure. Two Australian productions since then, one by Graeme Murphy and the most recent by Stephen Baynes, have had an effect.
This Royal Ballet production is set in fin-de-siècle Russia and so much about the production now seems overwrought, from the gilded excesses of Yolanda Sonnabend’s sets to the drunken excesses of Siegfried’s entourage. Act I seems to go on and on with much merrymaking and ‘let’s dance’ gestures. Act II begins with more drunken activities before the swans appear and this act is also distinguished by the addition of several young student dancers from the Royal Ballet School, who are part of Odette’s entourage. This addition apparently harks back to the 1895 version, although I don’t remember that they made it to Australia in 2002! Anyway, they looked beautifully schooled and did their job more than nicely but I’m not sure they added anything of significance to the ballet. Act III has that lovely Tarantella choreographed by Frederick Ashton—certainly an interpolation to the 1895 version (as was David Bintley’s Act I Waltz). Von Rothbart’s two attendant dwarfs also made their presence felt in Act III.
Apart from the mime in which Odette dramatically tells Siegfried that she is about to die because he has betrayed her, Act IV was comfortingly familiar—if slightly kitsch—as Odette and then Siegfried threw themselves into the lake and reappeared sailing heavenwards in a ‘swan vehicle’. But despite what Dowell may have discovered about the 1895 choreography for Act IV, to me those arrangements of swans standing more like wilis or sylphs around Odette and Siegfried, and the emphasis on storytelling through mime, made me long for our own Australian versions where in Act IV the literal storyline gives way to a more abstracted and choreographically-inspired scene.
The big attraction for me, however, was the prospect of seeing Steven McRae dance the role of Siegfried. Technically he could scarcely be faulted. His tours en l’air for example began and finished in a beautifully tight fifth and a lovely deep demi-plié—such soft and pliant landings. His bearing from his first entrance onwards was regal and set him apart from the rest of the characters. His reading of the role was intelligent. At pretty much every point in his dealings with Odette, the Princess (his mother), his friends, von Rothbart and so on his approach was clearly expressed. Nothing was indistinct. Yet I wished that he had been a little more adventurous, and had thrown himself into the steps with greater gusto even if it meant his execution was a little less perfect. It was all too careful.
McRae partnered Roberta Marquez as Odette/Odile. I’m not sure that Marquez is well suited to the role of Odette as her dancing in Acts II and IV had very little of the softness of arms and body that I associate with those acts. Odile suited her better although she struggled somewhat with some of the technical demands. Oh how I’d love to see someone handle with brilliance those double attitude turns at the beginning of Odile’s variation. Marquez simply went for a single.
I was impressed with the performance of Genesia Rosato as the Princess, Siegfried’s mother. She was a strong lady and demanding of her son. Her presence on stage was indeed commanding, even as she collapsed in a faint at the end of Act III. She had to make us look at her (and I did) and not the billowing red and white smoke that filled the stage as Odile and company departed in triumph. Others whose dancing stood out for me were Tara Bhavnani and Nathalie Harrison as the two leading swans. Both are tall, statuesque women with fluid backs and arms, which they used to the fullest advantage.
This production was not my ideal Swan Lake. It is always interesting to speculate on what the ‘real’ Swan Lake was like but quite honestly I don’t think anyone will ever know and dance is an art form that is constantly being reinvented. The performance made me look forward more than ever to another look at the Baynes/Colman Swan Lake.
In September The Canberra Times published my preview articles on Intensely Soul, a program by Odissi dancers Nirmal Jena and Pratibha Jena Singh, and on Swan Lake, the Australian Ballet’s new production with choreography by Stephen Baynes and design by Hugh Colman. The Intensely Soul preview was also syndicated into The Sydney Morning Herald under the heading ‘Siblings dance father’s philosophy into being’.
Sydney Long: spirit of the land
On 6 September I gave a lunchtime talk in conjunction with the National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition Sydney Long: spirit of the land. The text for the talk is available at this link. Images used can be seen at this link. As a follow up, I appeared with the curator of the exhibition, Anne Grey, on Radio National’s program Books and Arts Daily hosted by Michael Cathcart.
The Australian Ballet in 2013
The Australian Ballet launched its program for 2013 this month. I mentioned Garry Stewart’s commission to create a new work, Monument, in a previous post. Of the other offerings for 2013 I am looking forward in particular to seeing what Alexei Ratmansky creates for his Cinderella, which will premiere in Melbourne in September. I have very divided thoughts at the moment on Ratmansky’s choreography but am hoping his Cinderella will be as thrilling, choreographically speaking, as his Seven Sonatas.
I am also looking forward to the triple bill program Vanguard opening in Sydney in April most especially to see Jiri Kylian’s luscious Bella Figura again. George Balanchine’s Four Temperaments and Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, first seen in Australia in 2009, will provide startling contrasts to Bella and the program promises to be a challenging and exhilarating one for dancers and audiences alike.
The 2012 Helpmann Award winners were announced at the end of September. Open this link to see all the awardees who in the dance category included Stephen Page, Paul White and DV8 Physical Theatre’s production, Can we talk about this? (UPDATE August 2020: Link no longer available)
I was especially pleased to see that Sydney Dance Company’s Charmene Yap was the winner of the best female dancer in a dance or physical theatre work for her performance in Rafael Bonachela’s 2 one another. Her performances have been consistently thrilling since she joined Sydney Dance Company. Here is Yap in an ‘artist snapshot’ in which she talks about auditioning for Sydney Dance Company, creating her solo Bonachela’s 6 Breaths and her duet in Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models.
Dance also featured in the category best original score (David Page and Steve Francis for Bangarra’s Belong program) and best costume design (Toni Maticevski and Richard Nylon for BalletLab’s Aviary: A Suite for the Bird).
Tag cloud: popular tags
The ten most popular tags for September were: Graeme Murphy, Hannah O’Neill, The Australian Ballet, Benedicte Bemet, Dance diary, Madeleine Eastoe, Ty King-Wall, Ballets Russes, Canberra dance and Adam Bull. Some could probably have been predicted in advance, others perhaps not.
18 September 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
Stephen Baynes wanted his new Swan Lake for the Australian Ballet to reflect, as he put it in his notes, the ‘deeply Romantic aesthetic’ of Tchaikovsky’s score. A singularly musical choreographer, Baynes has succeeded in creating some absorbing, and often romantic in the wider sense of that word, choreographic moments. They come in particular in Act I with Baynes’ overall treatment of this act; in his newly conceived opening section of Act II when Siegfried first encounters Odette; and in an inserted pas de deux for Odette and Siegfried in Act IV.
In Act I Baynes’ choreography is beautifully paced. It fills out every note of the music, brings a real freshness to the dances and makes this opening act full of human interest. Ty King-Wall, Lana Jones and Dana Stephensen as Benno, the Countess and the Duchess respectively danced a thrilling pas de trois (or was it a pas de cinq since two other men joined King-Wall at one stage?). The meeting between Siegfried and Odette was a meeting between two human beings rather than a prince and a frightened swan protecting her brood and the choreography sank and rose in sighing movements. The inserted pas de deux too was Baynes at his best and is just what the last act needs, a final intimate encounter between Odette and Siegfried.
There was a new energy in the corps de ballet too. Perhaps it is a new production that has generated a precision in the work of the corps that I haven’t seen recently? Perhaps it is that the company has a new ballet mistress and repetiteur in Eve Lawson? Whatever the reason, it is a treat to see the dancers moving together so well.
Most of Act II, however, is classical (in the Ivanov manner) as Baynes has kept a lot of the choreography from older productions so as to keep this famous white act recognisably traditional. Amber Scott as Odette seems on the surface to be perfectly suited to the role. Her body is proportioned in true classical ballerina style and her technique is clean and centred. But Act II seemed to me to exude a particular coldness. I’m not sure whether the lack of passion was a result of Baynes and Ivanov (or ‘after’ Ivanov) being mixed together, or whether Scott and her Siegfried, Adam Bull, just weren’t reacting to each other in an emotional sense. There was just one moment in the pas de deux when Scott moved from supported arabesque to attitude and her foot seemed to caress Bull’s back as the leg bent into attitude and wrapped around Bull. But it was gone in a flash and it was the only time I thought there was an emotional connection between them. There were, however, lovely performances from the four little swans and from the leading swans, danced by Juliet Burnett and Amy Harris.
Act III had a little more emotional power and Bull finally seemed to overcome his depression, which admittedly was what we were intended to see as his mood, as he declared his love for Odile. Rothbart, played by Brett Simon sporting carrot-coloured hair, was a surprise arriving as he did with a retinue of Spanish dancers, and a Russian dancer and four Cossacks. His personality was further established as he sat on the throne next to the Queen (Lisa Bolte), engaging her in conversation. But again the recognisable pas de deux and variations from what we know as the traditional version seemed to me to intrude.
There is much else to say about this new production—the development of the role of Benno and others in Act I; the importance of Siegfried; the designs; the projections of a swan/menacing figure (Rothbart?); the funeral with which the work begins and much more, which I hope to consider in future posts. I wondered whether the work would have benefitted from having a dramaturge work with Baynes and designer Hugh Colman as there were times when I wondered who was who and what was happening—Rothbart’s lifting of a limp Siegfried from the lake as, in the final moments, Rothbart sailed by standing resplendent in a mechanical swan was a surprise as there was no previous indication that I saw that Siegfried had thrown himself in the lake. But it needs more than one viewing to be able to give an informed account and in depth critical analysis. At the moment I feel that leaving some traditional choreography was a mistake and that this Swan Lake would have worked better for me had it all been Baynes.
In March I spent a week in Wellington, New Zealand, looking into the work made by Kristian Fredrikson for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Wellington City Opera. I have nothing but praise for the staff of the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Film Archive of New Zealand, the Dowse Art Museum and the National Library of New Zealand (despite the fact that the Library is currently closed to the public due to renovations) for their generous help with my research activities.
I was especially interested to see a recording of Swan Lake (that ballet again) from 1985—a production by Harry Haythorne who was at the time the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s artistic director. It linked up nicely with some designs for this production I had recently been examining in the National Library’s Fredrikson collection and it is always a bonus to see designs transformed into costumes and worn by dancers. Not only that, Haythorne’s production was quite different from anything I had seen before concentrating as it did on the character of Siegfried more than Odette, making something quite different out of von Rothbart and making a strong distinction between reality and fantasy. It was then a further bonus to see some of the costumes themselves, with their quite astonishing layering of fabric to achieve a textured look, at the Dowse.
It was also a pleasure to speak to former Australian Ballet principal, Greg Horsman, currently ballet master with the Royal New Zealand. His recollections of working with Fredrikson complemented those I recorded last year with Miranda Coney. Coney and Horsman are pictured below in the pas de deux from Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker, in its first staging of 1992.
Bruce Morrow (1928–2012)
I was saddened to hear of the death in March of Bruce Morrow, whose career included performances with the National Theatre Ballet and the Borovansky Ballet. He danced in some ground-breaking Australian productions, including Rex Reid’s Corroboree and the Borovanksy Ballet’s full length Sleeping Princess. Following his career as a performer he was for many years a highly regarded teacher at the Australian Ballet School and elsewhere. He is seen below as one of the Three Ivans in the 1951 Borovansky production of The Sleeping Princess. I interviewed Bruce in 2000 for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. Here is the link to the catalogue record.
Stanton Welch’s Tapestry
I have been a fan of Houston Ballet since visiting Houston last year where, as in Wellington, I was treated more than generously by everyone with whom I came into contact. There’s a lovely clip available on YouTube from Welch’s newest work Tapestry.
With Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet playing a season in Brisbane during March interest has been revived in the posts and comments on this site relating to that production. In addition, Brisbane for the first time was one of the top five cities in terms of numbers of visitors accessing the site. It came in third behind Melbourne and Sydney and was followed by Canberra and London. The top post for March was the review of the Australian Ballet’s Infinity program.
This is an expanded version of a review written forThe Canberra Times. The original review is no longer available online.
Autumn in Canberra is usually the best of seasons. March 2012 has, however, been marked by excessive rain and a performance was touch and go on 16 March when the Australian Ballet arrived bringing its Telstra Ballet in the Park Gala to the city. But the company had not performed in Canberra for several years so people came in droves to Commonwealth Park for the performance, which was scheduled as part of the annual Canberra Festival. Dressed in rainwear, they sat under their umbrellas, picnicking regardless, and waiting. About five minutes before the show was due to start, the rain stopped, the umbrellas went down and the very large audience was treated to a series of ballet bonbons showcasing some of the company’s top dancers.
Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello, dashingly costumed in red, black and gold, opened the evening with Petal Miller-Ashmole’s pas de deux, La Favorita. Both Jones and Gaudiello have strong, sure techniques―those double fouettés from Jones were stunning―and cover the stage majestically with their movements. It was a joy to watch them dance together. They also both have great onstage personalities and what made this item the stand-out of the evening for me was their ability to project those personalities off the stage and into the audience. We weren’t seated in a space enclosed by walls and a roof and the extent of the ‘auditorium’ was vast, so being able to project in such a situation was some feat and not achieved to the same extent by others during the evening.
Another highlight was Rachel Rawlins and Ty King-Wall dancing the pas de deux from Giselle Act II. Rawlins is such a mature artist and captured beautifully the ethereal qualities of Giselle, as she danced to keep her one true love alive until dawn. Rawlins looks as though the balletic vocabulary is such a part of her very being that it is completely effortless, even during those demanding moments in Giselle’s variation where she travels backwards, upstage, executing a series of fast beats and relevés. King-Wall partnered her elegantly and his variation showed off his own fine beaten steps and elevation.
I was also impressed by Juliet Burnett and Andrew Killian who danced the pas de deux from Nutcracker. Burnett was poised and controlled in one of the most classical of pas de deux. Her adagio movements unfolded with an elegance and calm sense of control and she allowed us to see the structure of every développé, every arabesque. Killian was a suitably caring cavalier and danced his solos with great style.
We also saw the rising star of the company, Chengwu Guo, in two items, the pas de deux from Don Quixote and Le Corsaire. While Chengwu’s turns and jumps were spectacular, I missed the sexuality that more mature performers are able to bring to these works. There were strong flourishes every so often from Chengwu but there was a kind of restraint in the upper body rather than what I think the roles demand, the appearance of throwing caution to the wind in a display of unbridled passion. Chengwu partnered Reiko Hombo in Don Quixote and Miwako Kubota in Corsaire.
Also on the program was the Act III pas de trois from Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake with Amber Scott, Adam Bull and Amy Harris. It was especially interesting to see Murphy’s contemporary choreography on a program that consisted of works in an older classical style. The Murphy style stood up beautifully although this pas de trois generally suffered from being seen out of the context of the complete ballet and without the set, which on reflection adds a brooding quality to the unfolding drama of this particular moment in the work.
Completing the program were the pas de deux from Stephen Baynes’ Molto Vivace, smoothly danced by Amber Scott and Adam Bull, and excerpts from La Baydère where Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello returned as Nikiya and Solor and in which the three variations were danced by Hombo, Harris and Dimity Azoury.
Canberra region audiences used to see the Australian Ballet once a year but a decision, an unpopular one in the eyes of audiences, was made some years ago now to remove Canberra from the touring schedule. The size of the audience for the Telstra event, which took place in less than ideal weather conditions, seems to me to be a clear signal to the Australian Ballet that it is time to return to the national capital on a more regular basis. The announcement that Garry Stewart and an unnamed collaborative team will make a new work for Canberra’s centenary in 2013 is a start.
Last week I interviewed designer Hugh Colman for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. Colman is currently working on designs for the Australian Ballet’s new production of Swan Lake, due to open in Melbourne in September and, while Swan Lake did enter into the conversation, Colman was appropriately discreet on the recording about those aspects of the production, including his designs, which are not yet public property. But the discussion that did develop set my mind racing.
In 2004 I was invited to write a program note for the second season of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. The brief was that it was not to be so much about the Murphy production but about the popular appeal of the ballet. I loved writing this piece. I called it ‘Do you know Swan Lake?’ after the question, with its suggestion of what to do if the answer was yes, that was occasionally bandied around in schoolyards several decades ago, and that my father also loved to use to tease his daughter.
If I were writing the program piece now I would probably use other examples of how Swan Lake has permeated the popular imagination. There is a recent episode of that English detective series for television Midsomer Murders, for example, which is loosely based on Swan Lake. It features a (fictitious) former Russian ballerina preparing ballet students for a concert in a local church hall. And what are the students rehearsing? Why ‘Dance of the Little Swans’ of course. And the story reaches its high point when the former ballerina is rescued in the nick of time from following in the footsteps of Odette and being drowned in Swansdown Lake by the ‘perp’, as culprits are called in these kinds of shows. Not exactly great drama, but nevertheless it works on the assumption that the general audience for television knows Swan Lake. Then of course there’s The Black Swan, the movie, not great drama either in my opinion, but it has spawned a large amount of web comment from so many, from dancers to psychiatrists and of course the general public.
The question of popular appeal has been brought to the fore once again, in Melbourne only at this stage, with Gideon Obarzanek’s latest work There’s definitely a prince involvedreviewed elsewhere (with comments) on this site. Not everyone enjoyed the deconstructivist approach that Obarzanek took, but there’s no denying that There’s definitely a prince involved deals with that mysterious attraction that Swan Lake has over the public.
What is it about this ballet that continues to fascinate? And I continue to search in my mind for the production that most clearly captures the essence of the work for me. Perhaps that is yet to come, and perhaps that is what continues to fascinate.
Michelle Potter, 10 March 2012
Here is the link to my 2004 program article. I have not been able to find contact details for the photographer, Michael Cook, whose photograph appears with the article. I would be pleased to hear from anyone with information that might assist.
This is an expanded version of a review written for The Canberra Times.
24 February 2012, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
Infinity, the Australian Ballet’s first program in its 50th anniversary year, is a diverse and sometimes challenging evening of dance. But most of all it is thrilling experience to see the Australian Ballet putting itself out on a limb with three brand new works from three Australian choreographers: Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek and Stephen Page. All three works are danced to new scores by Australian composers and all three have new Australian designs. Definitely something to celebrate.
The show opens with the new work from Murphy, The narrative of nothing. To tell the truth, while there is a perfectly good explanation from Murphy for why this title was chosen—there’s no obvious narrative but the work may still be telling the audience something, I’d much rather dispense with titles that sound smart (with all due respects to Murphy). Untitled works just as well for me!
Murphy’s choreography often had a primeval feel as bodies twisted and curled around others. There were powerful performances from Lana Jones and Adam Bull, and I especially admired the sequence where Jones was partnered by several men who alternated between holding her aloft and letting her fall from side to side. Vintage Murphy really but Jones’ ability to hold her body in a perfect curve as she fell was breathtaking.
The supporting dancers deserve praise for their technical strength as they attacked the demanding choreography. Murphy has moved a step beyond his usual (always interesting) vocabulary and made a work that, in somewhat of a contradiction, asks the dancers to move with a kind of aggressive lyricism.
I didn’t read the program notes prior to watching this work so wasn’t aware in advance that the commissioned score, Fire Music by Brett Dean, was in response to the Victorian ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires of 2009. With the knowledge of what was behind Dean’s score, fire in some respects becomes the non-narrative. But the works stands without this knowledge and in fact I was pleased that I didn’t know in advance. The score sounded quite elemental—the thunder sheets certainly helped there—and, with some instruments positioned outside the pit, the sound was enveloping.
Jennifer Irwin’s body hugging costumes were decorated individually with black patterns, often swirling organically, and with what looked like silver studs or tiny mirrors. Depending on the lighting (by Damien Cooper) they changed from looking a little punk, to glowing in the dark, to looking slinky, and much more. Cooper’s design was uncompromising—a solo by Adam Bull performed pretty much on the spot in a strong downlight was another highlight. The design also included an onstage use of lighting rigs not normally on view to the audience, another technique that has often featured in works by Murphy. With the inclusion of a minimalist black space as a setting The narrative of nothing became an example of the very best of contemporary collaborative enterprises. It also looks back to some of Murphy’s strongest abstract works made for Sydney Dance Company—Piano sonata comes straight to mind.
Obarzanek’s piece also had a strange, or at least not very catchy title, There’s definitely a prince involved. It referred to his process of generating ideas and vocabulary for the work by asking a range of people about what they thought constitutes a ballet, and his subsequent deconstruction of the ballet Swan Lake. The work can be read on a number of levels. On the most simplistic it tells the story of Swan Lake, using the dancers as narrators, and focuses on the illogicality of the story. It relies on the dancers’ deadpan delivery of the text to raise laughter from the audience, and the various dancers who take on the role of narrator throughout the piece are more than adept. Unfortunately, even though they used a microphone, their voices were often inaudible above the crashing sounds of the orchestra playing Stefan Gregory’s fragmentation of Tchaikovsky’s familiar Swan Lake music.
On another level the work rips apart the traditional choreography of Swan Lake, and amusingly so, especially in the section based on the dance of the four little swans. It helps but is not essential if the audience is familiar with the traditional steps.
On yet another level the work can be seen as a comment on art asking the question of whether Swan Lake is indeed a work of art. Obarzanek has an acutely inquiring mind and his ability to force us to reconsider what we as a ballet audience might take for granted is powerful and actually quite respectful.
There’s definitely a prince involved uses dancers of the Australian Ballet augmented by dancers from Obarzanek’s company, Chunky Move. Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe showed her versatility as a performer and slotted beautifully into the varying demands associated with the role of a deconstructed Odette, the female lead. The few moments of classical movement—a fabulous grand jeté across the stage, and her ‘dying swan’ poses—did however make me yearn to see her dance a ‘real’ Swan Lake. Deconstruction is fine, entertaining and thought provoking, but the classic version transcends it all and it is that strength really that allows Obarzanek’s deconstruction to work so well.
The program closes with Page’s Warumuk—in the dark light with Bangarra Dance Theatre joining forces with the Australian Ballet. With its new score from David Page it presents an exploration of the myths associated with the night sky.
The Bangarra dancers performed with their usual, beautifully rehearsed ensemble work with particularly striking performances from Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco representing Full Moon. Vivienne Wong, stunningly dressed by Jennifer Irwin in a lacy black outfit cut with a long ‘tail’ at the back, stood out as the Evening Star. For me Wong was the sole Australian Ballet dancer who was able to transcend her balletic training and blend into the Bangarra way of moving. This was a real feat as Bangarra has now consolidated its own very distinctive style and company dancers are performing with added assurance and expertise.
The one disappointment for me was Jacob Nash’s set design. To me it looked a little too much like a previous Bangarra commission, his set designs for ‘About’, part of the Belong program of 2011.
This program is the Australian Ballet in an extreme mood. I have nothing but praise for the courage of the company in taking on, and succeeding in a program that far surpasses anything they have done in recent years. It makes the company look at last as though it is a company with a desire to move ballet into the future.
Michelle Potter, 27 February 2012
Postscript:The Canberra Times review appeared on 17 March 2012. It is no longer available online.