Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittelberger in 'Six Years Later'. 'Pure Dance, Sydney Opera House, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Dance diary. August 2019

  • Pure Dance

A performance highlight for August was undoubtedly Natalia Osipova’s Pure Dance, a program of six short works curated by Osipova and featuring Osipova and David Hallberg, along with two guest artists Jonathan Goddard and Jason Kittelberger. A link to my review of the show, written for Limelight Magazine, appears below.

Of course Pure Dance reminded me a little of a similar show Sylvie Guillem put together four or so years ago called Life in Progress. Osipova and Guillem, fabulous classical technicians, both have an abiding interest in contemporary choreography and it is an exceptional experience to see how their skills translate into dance works beyond classical ballet.

  • Youth Dance Festival, Canberra

Canberra has long been a centre for youth and community dance and September sees the 35th season of the city’s Youth Dance Festival, or Youth Fest as it is more commonly known. An inclusive, non-competitive dance festival, it brings together dancers from schools across Canberra and surrounding districts for performances staged by Ausdance ACT at the Canberra Theatre Centre. The 2019 program, called Generation Next, is made up of 61 different dance works created by 40 high schools and colleges from the region!

Jamie Winbank, creative director of the show, tells me that 45,000 young dancers have participated since the festival began in 1985, an astonishing number really. Winbank sees Dance Fest as ‘a platform for young people to express their ideas and opinions, and have their voices heard through dance.’ Generation Next runs from 7-13 September and bookings can be made through the Canberra Theatre Centre website.

  • New Breed from Sydney Dance Company

Sydney Dance Company recently announced the four emerging choreographers who have been commissioned to make a work for the 2019 New Breed season. They are Josh Mu and Lauren Langlois, both from Melbourne, and Ariella Casu and Davide Di Giovanni both from Sydney. This will be the sixth New Breed season and takes place at Carriageworks in Sydney from 28 November to 7 December. Book via sydneydancecompany.com

Davide Di Giovanni in Rafael Bonachela’s Cinco. Sydney Dance Company, 2019. Photo: © Wendell Teodoro
  • Demise of Ausdance National

The most distressing dance news for August was the announcement that Ausdance National, the national advocacy body for dance in Australia over the past 42 years, has been forced to close. Ausdance National was responsible for organising the Australian Dance Awards, but its work extended to industry development, conferences, publications, and a host of other initiatives. Decreasing government funding has had a weakening effect over several years and, while state-based offices of Ausdance will continue to operate (at least for the moment), the national body no longer exists to bring broad, national issues to the fore. A huge loss.

  • Oral history: Lloyd Newson

I had the privilege of recording an oral history interview in August with Lloyd Newson, Australian-born choreographer and founder of the London-based company DV8. It will join the National Library’s ever expanding collection of dance-related interviews. As you read this, Newson will be in Europe working towards the opening of Enter Achilles, reworked for Rambert Dance Company. We will see Enter Achilles in Australia next year. Stay tuned for details of when and where.

  • Press for August 2019

Review of Pure Dance. Limelight Magazine (online), 28 August 2019.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2019

Featured image: Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittelberger in ‘Six Years Later’. Pure Dance, Sydney Opera House, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittelberger in 'Six Years Later'. 'Pure Dance, Sydney Opera House, 2019. Photo: © Daniel Boud
Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Globalisation or culturalism. Is ballet at the crossroads?

In December 2002 I wrote an article, at the request of Bruce Marriott, for ballet.co magazine (now no longer available) to coincide, if I remember correctly, with a conference of artistic directors held in the United Kingdom somewhere (perhaps London?). I think the commission came because David McAllister, then quite new in the role of artistic director of the Australian Ballet, was attending. As with many of my other articles and reviews for ballet.co, I thought it had disappeared from my computer files and I had not made a print out. But just recently it appeared when I was searching with the term ‘Nutcracker’ for another thought-to-be lost file. So I am posting it here and welcome comments from a 2018 perspective.

As artistic directors of some of the world’s best-known ballet companies meet to discuss the issue of globalisation, I am reminded of a now well-known debate that emerged in Australia in the 1960s and the 1970s. It concerned the nature of the country’s cultural development. Two camps sprang up: one centred on the idea of the tyranny of distance, the other on the notion that from the deserts the prophets come. Those who spoke for the tyranny of distance believed that Australia was a cultural desert isolated from the great centres of civilisation, especially from the so-called mother country of Great Britain. Those on the other side believed that Australians did not need to rely on their colonists for what they required to nourish their souls—in the midst of their isolation they could have their own uniquely beautiful culture that could define them, equally uniquely, as Australian. This group took as a catch cry some lines from a poem written by renowned Australian poet A. D. Hope in 1960:

Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come
Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste.

The debate is historically interesting, and the discussion generated two of the best-known period books on Australian culture and identity: Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance and Geoffrey Serle’s From the Deserts the Prophets Come (later, in an attempt to popularise, or globalise perhaps, the Serle book was renamed The Creative Spirit in Australia).

Advances in technology of various kinds have, of course, made the idea of the tyranny of distance pretty much an obsolete concept. Globalisation, however, is clearly with us: it is  part of the fabric of our contemporary existence. It has permeated every aspect of the way we live and operate in the twenty-first century. And while many of the inhabitants of the northern hemisphere may still think of Australia as out of scope, few Australians (thankfully) now believe that distance hampers their ability to interact with the rest of the world. So where does this leave the individualism that we rightly prize so highly? What do we do with the savage and scarlet that has so flamboyantly grown? Or even with the green hills if we are on the other side of the world? Do we sit back and allow globalisation to turn what is unique about our individual dance cultures into something bland and universal? Or do we embrace culturalism, accepting that, while communications may have changed the way we operate in the world, our individual cultures cannot develop in a similar way? Do we sit in our theatres from London to Sydney, from New York to Melbourne, all seeing the same works: a Giselle respectfully produced, Manon, a couple of items from Balanchine, The Merry Widow and so on.  Or do we each go for something culturally specific (a Murphy Nutcracker, an Ashton work from the early repertoire), and for individualistic reworkings of the tried and true (a Guillem Giselle, a Murphy Swan Lake)? Is one way the only way? The right way? The wrong way?

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

Neither bowing to globalisation nor strictly adhering to culturalism is the answer. Culturalism smacks of attitudes of superiority and cultural elitism—my culture is better than yours. It closes the mind to innovation and change. It indulges in smugness and name calling (the vile expression ‘Eurotrash’, beloved by one particular British critic, springs immediately to mind). It is a stultifying attitude. On the other hand, globalisation removes what we value about ourselves as individuals in unique cultures, what our specific histories have created and asked us to cherish. But defiantly, ballet is perfectly able to accommodate itself within a global society without losing anything. Ballet isn’t dying. It isn’t even at the crossroads as it encounters globalisation. Ballet is like a sponge. It can soak up change: it has been doing so for centuries. It can absorb new vocabulary. It can keep renewing itself from what it absorbs. It has to be able to operate in this way because it is a living, breathing art form. Even the most superficial glance at photographs of acclaimed dancers in the same role taken over several decades, in Giselle for example, makes it very clear that while we may want Giselle to stay the same—the past is very comforting—it can’t and hasn’t and won’t. In fifty years time dancers won’t want to dance Giselle like Alina Cojocaru (hard as that idea may be to comprehend at the moment).

In the twenty-first century the ballet-going public is entitled to green hills sprinkled liberally with some savage and scarlet (and I mean this more widely, more figuratively, than simply British works sprinkled with Australian ones). Dancers are, for their growth as artists, entitled to experience the work of choreographers outside their immediate, culturally-specific environment. Choreographers are entitled to wonder (and experience) how their works might look when danced by dancers trained outside the choreographer’s home country: the great ones do (and have) and are open and generous about the experience, as any dancer from the Australian Ballet who has worked with Jiří Kylián on any work from the Australian Ballet’s Kylián repertoire will tell you. Critics need to open-minded enough to embrace change and innovation while caring about the past. And artistic directors need to understand it all! The artistic director of a truly great company needs courage, intelligence and drive. Courage not to be swayed from his or her vision. Intelligence to have a vision that looks both forward and in a lateral direction and, going hand-in-hand, intelligence to understand that looking in this manner and direction is not a denial of the past. Drive to put the vision into practice.

Globalisation is a much-maligned concept. It doesn’t have to exclude anything really. But to react to globalisation uncritically, and to allow it to dictate to us is the problem. To do this is to lack courage, intelligence and drive. That we can see new works and restagings of old ones from London to Sydney, New York to Melbourne is a gift of globalisation. If we wish to deny that gift by insisting on culturalism it is a measure of an inability to exist in a global culture, in today’s culture, and a pitifully conservative attitude. But one thing is certain, whatever the response of individual people ballet will keep moving forward. It will never fall victim to a narrow culturalism. Only people will do that. Let’s hope that the new breed of artistic directors understands.

Michelle Potter, December 2002, reposted 14 June 2018

Featured image: Artists of Finnish National Ballet in Sylvie Guillem’s Giselle, 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli
Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Obsidian Tear, Marguerite and Armand, Elite Syncopations. The Royal Ballet

18 April, 2018, Royal Opera House, London

It would be hard to think of a more diverse triple bill than the most recent from the Royal Ballet: Wayne McGregor’s intellectually clinical Obsidian Tear, Frederick Ashton’s emotionally captivating Marguerite and Armand, and Kenneth MacMillan’s joyously entertaining Elite Syncopations. There is, as ever, little to fault technically with the dancing by this incredible company so my thoughts are largely guided by other matters.

The absolute standout work of the evening was Marguerite and Armand, which occupied the middle position on the program. Yes, it is so closely associated with Fonteyn and Nureyev, and perhaps Sylvie Guillem and various partners, but Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli gave an absolutely stunning performance that brought out every bit of Ashton’s wildly free and exciting, and beautifully musical choreography. And what a grand performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, to which the work is set, we heard from the accomplished pianist Robert Clark.

In my mind I continue to have a vision of Bonelli standing upstage about to rush forward to sweep Marguerite up in his arms and begin the main pas de deux. He took an arabesque on half pointe, arms flung upwards and outwards. And there he stood, balancing perfectly, body filled with passion and daring. Brilliant, as was the pas de deux itself with Ferri being flung from pose to pose and both artists projecting the ravishing excitement of what their love could be. And so it continued with the narrative flowing so clearly to the very end. I’m not sure how long this ballet is—twenty five minutes maybe—but it was over in a flash so captivating was it.

The opening work, McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, left me a little cold and its choreography seemed stark and emotionless—but then I guess obsidian is a hard substance. Everything seemed to happen suddenly. Lighting cut out rather than faded and movement, while it showed McGregor’s interest in pushing limits, had little that was lyrical.

The most interesting aspect for me was the set, designed by McGregor. It resembled a black box theatre space but looking closely it reminded me of an Ad Reinhardt painting. At first Reinhardt’s paintings look monochromatic, as did McGregor’s set, but a closer look reveals small, intimate details, as also happened with the set for Obsidian Tear. Of the dancers, I especially enjoyed the dancing of Benjamin Ella and Marcelino Sambé. But Obsidian Tear did not engage me the way so many others of McGregor’s works have.

Royal Ballet artists in 'Obsidian Tear'. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper
Royal Ballet artists in Obsidian Tear. © ROH, 2016. Photo: Bill Cooper

The final work on the program was Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, danced to a selection of music by Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers, and played by an onstage band. Beautifully set on a stripped-back stage space with the dancers and band members in spectacular costumes by Ian Spurling, it was a buoyant, joyous, even reckless show.

Without wishing to detract from any of the twelves dancers who gave us such pleasure, stars were Sarah Lamb and Ryoichi Hirano. Hirano in particular knocked me for six. I have always seen him in more classical or dramatic roles (and have enjoyed his work in such ballets) but in Elite Syncopations he showed another side of his skills. He was smooth, persuasive, suave, flirtatious and a great partner. And he never stepped out of character.

As a conclusion to a decidedly mixed triple bill, Elite Syncopations sent us home smiling.

Michelle Potter, 19 April 2018 

Featured image: Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli. in Marguerite and Armand. The Royal Ballet. © ROH, 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton
English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

Giselle. English National Ballet

1 March 2018, Aotea Centre, Auckland
Reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

Aforethoughts and Afterthoughts.

English National Ballet’s season of Giselle, in an acclaimed new production choreographed by Akram Khan, has just played at the Auckland Arts Festival. The setting has migrant workers stranded after a clothing factory closes down, and the clash between workers and factory bosses echoes the contrast of villagers and nobles in the 19th century ballet by Coralli and Perrot. Dancing is of the highest standard, the set is monumental, costumes inspired, lighting striking and the atmospheric music composed by Vincenzo Lamagna, scored and conducted by Gavin Sutherland, performed by Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra, makes major impact.

Many of us are thrilled by the contemporary relevance of this setting (Khan is Bangla Deshi. He works in the sophisticated milieu of European dance yet does not resort to any conventions and clichés of ballet). The gesture of Giselle’s arms down-stretched, hands slowly, so slowly, turning palms up as she asks Albrecht ‘Why? What is this about? What am I supposed to do? What are you going to do?’ The cast of co-workers repeat her gesture, as well they might. More Asian than European, more baroque than balletic, it is a telling opening to the story about to enfold.

Others are continuing to think about the echoes of the original storyline, the music, the choreography. There are about four fleeting fragments of ‘the old Giselle’ in the ‘new’ one, and they pull at your heart. Good. The ballet is engaging. No one is unmoved, no one denies the power of the production.

Fernanda Oliveira and Fernando Bufala in Akram Khan's 'Giselle', English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo
Fernanda Oliveira and Fernando Bufala in Akram Khan’s Giselle, Act I. English National Ballet. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

In 2016, Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the company, and herself still a performer in the lead role, commissioned this new version of the classic Giselle from Akram Khan, following a one-act work he had earlier made for the company. We have seen some of Khan’s work performed here by Sylvie Guillem several Festivals ago, and there are trailers aplenty on YouTube to give you the strength of his dance-making. It is poignant to learn that just after the Khan premiere season in London, there followed another season of the production by Mary Skeaping of the original ballet. Now that’s imaginative programming.

This is the first ever visit to New Zealand of English National Ballet, formerly known as Festival Ballet. A number of celebrated New Zealand dancers have been members of the company over decades—Russell Kerr, June Greenhalgh-Kerr, Anne Rowse, Ken Sudell, Donald McAlpine, Loma Rogers, Sue Burch, Martin James, Adrienne Matheson, Cameron McMillan among them. The company was for a time directed by Matz Skoog, former artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, with Fiona Tonkin as assistant. Amber Hunt, New Zealand dancer, is currently in the company’s ranks.

Rosemary (Johnston) Buchanan, a leading dancer with New Zealand Ballet in 1960s, is now a patron of the company, and her artistic opinions are valued by ENB. It is poignant to witness the camaraderie and loyalty this company maintains for its heritage and history. The program essays are as good as you’ll find anywhere. It is reassuring that archivist Jane Pritchard writes about original and earlier versions of the ballet in a way that they do not need to be put down for new versions to be put up. In 1959, I slept three nights in the queue in His Majesty’s Arcade to buy a ticket in the Gods to see the Royal Ballet with Margot Fonteyn performing Giselle. The theatre and the arcade have since disappeared but the memory remains. Mindful of the achievements in that title role of such dancers as Margot Fonteyn, Patricia Rianne, Olga Spessivtseva, Carla Fracci, that ballet is not something I’m going to let go lightly. Fortunately, I don’t have to.

Old productions. New productions. There’s room for all. Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Giselle (by the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre) was staged in Wellington several Festivals back—with Albrecht as a two-timing transgender line-dance teacher. (Well, you know the Irish). This man, whose Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring were staged in Melbourne in 2013 (the music played on two grand pianos on stage), is the fearless mover & shaker you won’t want to miss—though you might need a medicinal whisky, before the show and maybe after as well. He is arguably the best communicator about his choreography I have encountered, and he writes his own program essays. Stand by for his Swan Lake Loch na Neal due in the Wellington Festival mid-March. If you don’t like heat, stay out of the kitchen, but no one should write a feeble-minded review of his work.

There’s always much evidence of the well-to-do among ballet audiences, though we would of course claim that you and I are there for the right reasons. Everyone wishes for fairness in the workplace. There’s always been,and will always be uneven distribution of wealth in the world, no choreography will change that. We should think long and hard about this production of Giselle we have just seen, and maybe also about the time we first encountered it. Ask if any garment in your wardrobe was made in Bangla Desh, or in a sweat factory somewhere else?  Also ask ‘Do all ballet companies, worldwide and close to home, treat their dancers fairly?’ since that would be a good place to start, if this remarkable production with its ethos is to be honoured.

Jennifer Shennan, 9 March 2018

Featured image: English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle., Act II. Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

English National Ballet in Akram Khan's Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

Follow this link for a review of Akram Khan’s Giselle posted in 2016.

Vitesse. The Australian Ballet

7 May 2016 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The Australian Ballet’s triple bill, Vitesse, was not so much about vitesse (FR: speed) as about the look of ballet over the past thirty years or so. It began with Jiri Kylian’s Forgotten Land, moving, dramatic and emotion filled, continued with William Forsythe’s fiercely uncompromising In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and closed with Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV (Danse à grande vitesse), an attempt to capture the essence of speed and referring to France’s TGV (Train à grande vitesse) and Michael Nyman’s score MGV (Musique à grande vitesse).

Forgotten Land, a Kylian work from 1981, is in essence a series of duets expressing a yearning for past memories and events. I particularly enjoyed the dancing of first couple, Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian, who brought a delicious lyrical quality to their pas de deux and who brought out so well Kylian’s choreographic focus on bending bodies and swirling, extended arms. I also admired the performance by Rina Nemoto and Joseph Chapman as the last couple. Their delicacy and gentleness stood in contrast to some of the more fast-paced duets. The work is such a joy to watch and has a particularly emotive ending as the female dancers, backs to the audience, stretch their arms upwards, heavenwards, as if pining for what has been forgotten.

In the Middle left something to be desired, at least for those who remember it from 1996 when it first entered the Australian Ballet’s repertoire. It made a huge impression then with its high-energy choreography, its extraordinary off-centre poses, and its stunning performances in which the dancers missed no opportunity to draw the audience into the work. Not so much this time when it seemed a little tame. Although the dancers (again) executed the steps admirably enough, I missed (again) the physicality and the passion that needs to be added to the steps, to be the essence of movement, to make any ballet, but especially this one, have one on the edge of one’s seat with excitement. Surprisingly too, I also missed the Sylvie Guillem-style wig that was worn by Nicole Rhodes (as the leading female dancer) in the 1996 production. Not only did that wig have its own movement, it also set the work, which was made on Guillem and the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987, in a particular context. It had a definite role.

Amy Harris in 'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud
Amy Harris in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

The leading trio of artists, Amy Harris, Nicola Curry and Ty King-Wall, danced admirably enough. But for me, the most interesting performance came from Chengwu Guo, who at the last minute replaced Jarryd Madden. I am used to seeing Guo throw himself around the stage, executing spectacular beats, turns and jumps (sometimes inappropriately as happened in Giselle). So it was a pleasure to see him dancing differently. I wondered whether he felt held back by the Forsythian choreography, which is spectacular in its own way of course, but which does not ask for excess in the old Russian manner? Without losing any of his technical skills, there was a certain austerity to his approach on this occasion and I enjoyed his performance immensely.

Wheeldon’s DGV is an interesting work but never seems to have the excitement that its name suggests. It’s interesting too that Australian Ballet publicity says that ‘Wheeldon hurtles his dancers through a high-speed journey’. What drew my attention, on the other hand, was the extent to which Wheeldon seemed to create static poses, especially in the several pas de deux that are sprinkled throughout the work. I started to look on DGV as a kind of series of travel posters rather than a comment on a fast train and speed. It is not my favourite Wheeldon work and a review of another performance is at this link.

Despite my various reservations, it was an experience to have the work of Kylian, Forsythe and Wheeldon on the one program. Kylian rarely fails to move, Forsythe sees the body in movement differently from most, and Wheeldon … well I’m still making up my mind.

Michelle Potter, 9 May 2016

Featured image: Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in Forgotten Land. The Australian Ballet, 2016. Photo: © Daniel Boud

Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian in 'Forgotten Land'. The Australian Ballet 2016. Photo: Daniel Boud
techne. Sylvie Guillem. Photo by Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem. Life in Progress

19 August 2015, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

Sylvie Guillem is an extraordinary dancer, no doubt about it, and her farewell show of four very different works demonstrated her astonishing capacity as a performer. But what emerged most clearly for me was that Guillem is first and foremost a ballet dancer. Her body, with its flexibility, slender frame, beautifully arched feet, impeccable ‘turn-out’, and limbs that extend seemingly forever, is so perfectly suited to the vocabulary of ballet that, whatever other dance style she is performing, she makes me long to see her dancing in a ballet again. Guillem has, for the last ten years or so, focused on contemporary dance and, while I have every respect for her desire to work that way, it is a little sad that not all of the movement we see in her farewell show does justice to her qualities as a dancer.

The program opened with technê choreographed by Akram Khan. Its setting was instantly attractive—a silver mesh tree positioned centre stage and surrounded by a circle of light. Across the upstage area sat a dimly-lit orchestra of three, composer Alies Sluiter (voice, laptop and violin), Prathap Ramachandra (percussion), and Grace Savage (beatbox). And the live soundscape they produced was thrilling.

But, watching Guillem emerge from the darkness in the opening moments—our first sight of her—only to scuttle around the circle of light on all fours like an insect was not thrilling. Sure she scuttles brilliantly and every inch of her body scuttled. But for me it was an uninspired opening moment and it was hard to maintain interest in the movement of technê from then on.

Then followed William Forsythe’s DUO2015, remade from his 1996 DUO and danced by two men, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, to a very sparse score by Thom Willems. They danced together and apart, at times with panache and bravura, and sometimes with a kind of throwaway attitude. It was a communication between friends. They sometimes mirrored each other in their movements, and at other times they maintained their differences—a diverse dancing communication, and a wonderful one.

Dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in 'DUO2015'. Photo by Carl Fox
 Dancers Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in DUO2015. Photo: © Carl Fox

The last piece before intermission was another duet, Here & After, this time danced by two women, Guillem and Emanuela Montanari. Choreographed by Russell Maliphant to music by Andy Cowton, it was pleasant dancing, often sculptural and having a light touch towards the end when the Cowton score included the sounds of a yodelling voice. It was enhanced by a strong lighting design from Michael Hulls, a constantly changing chessboard of squares of light. It added a hard-edged quality that sat well against the softness of the choreography.

By far the most satisfying piece, however, was the closing item, Bye, with choreography by Mats Ek and danced to Beethoven’s Arietta from his Piano Sonata Opus 111. The choice of music was an inspired one given its position in Beethoven’s oeuvre, Opus 111 being his last piano sonata, and given the inventive nature of the Arietta within it.

Sylvie Guillem in 'Bye'. Photo: Bill Cooper
Sylvie Guillem in Bye. Photo: © Bill Cooper

In Bye we first see Guillem peering through a keyhole of a door positioned upstage, which eventually becomes a screen for the projection of filmed images of people and animals. As Guillem emerges from behind this door/screen and begins to dance, Ek’s choreographic style is instantly recognisable. Guillem crosses the stage with long, loping walks, shoulders slightly hunched and head pushed forward. From then on she engages in a variety of moves that often seem to be an examination of the world, including one quiet moment when she stands on the side of the stage and surveys the space. At one point she stands on her head, legs spread in a kind of upside down 2nd position plié. Finally, she joins a growing crowd of men, women, children and dogs who appear in film on the door/screen. In the closing moments she joins them and walks into the distance.

Life in Progress was an interesting experience, and it certainly made me more than aware of Guillem’s astonishing abilities. But I would rather watch beetles scuttle and a clown stand on his (or her) head and watch Guillem dancing a ballet. I feel very lucky to have seen her during her ballet days and, in particular, will always carry with me treasured memories of the most moving Giselle I have ever seen—Guillem’s own production (with Guillem in the lead) for Finnish National Ballet in Paris in 2001.

Bye. Or is it au revoir?

Michelle Potter, 22 August 2015

Featured image: Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan’s technê. Photo: © Bill Cooper

techne. Sylvie Guillem. Photo by Bill Cooper

Giselle in the news

It seems that the Australian Ballet will be bringing back Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle in 2015. Gielgud’s web page indicates that she will be in Australia from late 2014, firstly teaching in Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne and then working on staging Giselle for the Australian Ballet.

This news sent me looking at some of my favourite, easily available online images from Giselle. I didn’t have the opportunity to see Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in the Ballet Victoria production of 1975. But some of my favourite Giselle photos come from that production, an amazing event when one considers that Makarova defected in 1970 and Baryshnikov did so in 1974 and here they were in Australia in 1975 so early in their careers in the West. Walter Stringer’s photos are often slightly blurry but I think he has captured something of the quality of the performance.

Mikhail Baryshnikov as Albrecht in 'Giselle', Ballet Victoria 1975. Photo: Walter Stringer

In the meantime, Graeme Murphy has been in South Korea workshopping a new version of Giselle. It seems that we won’t see this production in Australia, at least not in the short term. The idea of a Murphy reworking is tantalising and I can’t help wondering why a ballet company in South Korea had the prescience to commission it rather than the Australian Ballet.

I love to see a high quality ‘traditional’ version and still sigh over the Paris Opera Ballet’s production we saw in Australia in 2012. But the most moving production I have ever seen was created by Sylvie Guillem in 1998 for the Finnish National Ballet, which I saw in 2001. On the surface it certainly wasn’t a traditional Giselle, as the photo below indicates, although anyone familiar in the slightest degree with the ballet will recognise the dance sequence from Act I shown here. Below the surface though, I found that not only did it pull at the heart strings but it was deeply and intellectually satisfying as well.

Artists of Finnish National Ballet in 'Giselle', 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli
Artists of Finnish National Ballet in Giselle, 1998. Photo: © Kari Hakli

I wrote about the Guillem Giselle in 2001 for Brolga, then an old-fashioned print journal. I declined to give permission for it to be digitised by Ausdance when they began digitising back issues, but here is a section from it.

Guillem as producer and choreographer (after Coralli-Perrot-Petipa according to the program), reconceived the ballet according to her wish for it to be a work that would evoke both the past and the present, and that would be meaningful to contemporary audiences. In program notes she stated:

‘Giselle’s story is a timeless one. To die of love, not so much for a man as for loss of love. Naturally the texts by Théophile Gautier and Heinrich Heine clearly laid down the basic intentions. Over the years, these intentions have been buried beneath set choreographic habits, mainly with regard to gesture, thereby becoming a sort of incoherent language expected to “speak” the story … I wanted to rediscover Giselle and make the blood flow again in the veins of the various protagonists’.*

And elsewhere she is quoted as saying: ‘Even if Giselle hadn’t had a heart attack, the ballet was dying by itself. It was becoming more and more stupid, without any sense’.**

Strong words from Guillem. We know the Gielgud production. As for the Murphy version … we will have to wait.

Michelle Potter, 15 June 2014

NOTES:

* Sylvie Guillem, ‘Waiting for curtain-up’. Program for Giselle, Théâtre du Chatelet, Paris 2000–2001, p. 12.

**Debra Crane, ‘Made for fame’. Dance Now, vol. 9 (No. 4, Winter 2000–2001), p. 16.

I am working on making available in full my article from Brolga and will include it in my dance diary for June.

Giselle. Paris Opera Ballet (2013)

29 January 2013, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

The Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Giselle is breathtaking, poetic and immensely moving. It is steeped in the two nineteenth century traditions from which it emerged: ballet-pantomime and romanticism. And it is danced by artists whose technical expertise is a benchmark for today.

The production is so clear in its story-telling. The dancers appear to live rather than act out their parts and the evening just sweeps along. Giselle, danced by Dorothée Gilbert, draws us into her peasant world and shares her inconsolable sorrow at being betrayed in Act I, and in Act II she almost seems to melt away at times so fragile and vaporous is her reading of her role as a Wili. Her mimed tears as she tells us how much she had loved Albrecht simply melt the heart.

But, while it is clear, the production is also subtle, beautifully so. Nothing screams out, everything is harmonious as the story moves to an inevitable conclusion.

As for the dancing, well there’s just nothing like the Paris Opera Ballet. The corps de ballet is so beautifully rehearsed and they danced to perfection in both acts; Mathieu Ganio as Albrecht performed the most exquisite series of entrechats in Act II; Marie-Agnès Gillot was a commanding Myrthe and the Act I Peasant pas de deux, danced by Mélanie Hurel and Emmanuel Thibault, was joyously captivating.

But although there were some (or many) outstanding moments of performance, the evening was about the entire company. What makes this company so outstanding is the way in which the dancers perform in the classical mode. Every movement is a complete one. The dancers are able to take a bend of the body, a circular movement, a lift of the arms, anything really, and one can see where the movements starts, how it moves along its trajectory and how it finishes and moves into the next movement. This kind of dancing, so smooth and fluid, so sweeping, having such clarity, is rare and it is such a huge pleasure to see.

The Sydney Lyric Orchestra, consisting of musicians drawn together from a variety of organisations and directed by concertmaster Adrian Keating, was conducted by Belgian, Koen Kessels. The music never intrudes but is always clearly and strongly present, moving the story along. Perfect. It also presents a new perspective on Adolphe Adam’s music, reinstating some of the passages that have long been removed from the score as a result of the ballet having been whittled away over the decades from its original ballet-pantomime intentions. And the cello solo in Act II was as moving as the dance it accompanied.

Much has been made of this production being the ‘most authentic’ production of Giselle, and I began this review by mentioning the two traditions from which the first Giselle emerged. It is true that the ballet-pantomime tradition has been given a focus to a certain extent with the mime scenes, such as Giselle’s mother Berthe, danced by Amélie Lamoureux, telling in an extended way the story of the Wilis and prophesying the death of Giselle; the insertion of the men playing dice in the forest as Act II begins; and so on. The romanticism is well and truly there in the qualities the Paris Opera Ballet brings to Act II—that feeling, explored through technical means as much as anything else, of the Wilis drifting in and out of a real world and a world beyond the real.

But I have seen both these traditions explored in several other productions of Giselle—that of Sylvie Guillem for the Finnish National Ballet, the Royal Ballet’s production where the Act I mime is extensive, and even parts of Peggy van Praagh’s production for the Australian Ballet. So for me it is not so much a ‘return to authenticity’ that marks this production as remarkable, as interesting as this is. It is the skill and beauty of the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, who are transcendent artists, and the direction of the company that understands that the classical technique can accomplish so much when exploited to its limits and used as an expressive vocabulary.

As a side issue, I admired the program cover for Giselle, reproduced below.

It captures so much of the essence of Act II, the fragility of the world of the Wili and the overwhelming presence of the forces of nature and the night. And, best of all, it isn’t a fashion shot that has nothing to do with what happens in the ballet. The cover photo is by © Jacques Moatti.

Michelle Potter, 30 January 2013

Update (3 February 2013): I have it on reliable authority that the sublime cello solo was, on opening night, played by Peter Morrison.

Balletgoers love Giselle

As Jack Anderson says in a recently published article, balletgoers love Giselle. It has been some time since I have seen this classic of the Romantic repertoire performed live, which I regret. Still very clear in my mind is the Finnish National Ballet’s production of Sylvie Guillem’s staging, which while not the most recent I have seen—it goes back to the 1990s—for me is easily the most intelligent and most moving production I have had the good fortune to see. I still recall, however, Clement Crisp’s remark in a review in London’s Financial Times that this staging was ‘ultimately wilful as a view of an old text.’

Anderson’s article in New York Theatre Wire concerns a recent production of Giselle by Pacific Northwest Ballet under the direction of Peter Boal, and is also a comment on the recent meeting in Seattle of the Dance Critics’ Association. Although I will never be convinced that there is not also a place for those ‘wilful’ productions like that of Guillem, the Anderson article is a terrific piece of writing offering many insights into what is a remarkable ballet.

Read the article at this link

Michelle Potter, 2 July 2011