Dance diary. July 2021

  • La Bayadère. A problematic ballet?

Houston Ballet has, as a result of concerns and protests from various groups, removed its production of La Bayadère from its current season. The ballet looks back to the nineteenth century when ‘orientalism’ or interest in ‘exotic lands’ beyond Europe was a much-used theme in ballets and other theatrical productions. Recent media reports from Houston have suggested that the ballet contains ‘orientalist stereotypes, dehumanizing cultural portrayal and misrepresentation, offensive and degrading elements, needless cultural appropriation, essentialism, shallow exoticism, caricaturing’ and more.

In Australia, in addition to the middle act, ‘Kingdom of the Shades’, which has often been seen out of its context within the full-length ballet, we have seen three different productions of the full-length Bayadère. Two have been performed by the Australian Ballet—Natalia Makarova’s production staged by Makarova herself during the directorship of Ross Stretton and seen in 1998, and Stanton Welch’s production made originally for Houston Ballet, which is the one recently cancelled, staged on the Australian Ballet in 2014. As well, Greg Horsman produced a new version for Queensland Ballet in 2018.

I have no intention of commenting on the issues raised in Houston, although I am especially interested in ideas about cultural appropriation. But I will say that I thought Greg Horsman’s rethink of the work for Queensland Ballet was a winner from a number of points of view. Horsman has commented to me that he thought his restaging was not, in general, well received. Horsman’s version turned the story on its head somewhat and gave audiences much to ponder, so it is a shame that it hasn’t been shown and discussed more widely. Here is a link to my review of the Horsman production.

Front cloth for Queensland Ballet's 'La Bayadere'. Design Gary Harris
Gary Harris’ front cloth for Greg Horsman’s 2018 production of La Bayadère for Queensland Ballet

  • Philip Chatfield (1927–2021)

Philip Chatfield, who has died aged 93 on the Gold Coast just south of Brisbane, came to Australia in 1958 on the momentous tour by the Royal Ballet. He and his wife, Rowena Jackson, stand out in my memories of that tour, especially for the roles of Swanilda and Franz in Coppélia. Just a few months before they left London on that tour, Chatfield and Jackson married and at the end of the tour settled in New Zealand where Jackson was born. Chatfield became artistic director of the New Zealand Ballet (1975–1978) and they both taught at the National Ballet School, now New Zealand School of Dance. Chatfield and Jackson moved to the Gold Coast in 1993 in order to be closer to family members.

Jennifer Shennan’s obituary for Chatfield is not yet available, but a link will be added in due course.

For more on the Royal Ballet’s Australasian tour of 1958–1959 see this link. There is contentious material contained in that post and in the several comments it received (although not about Chatfield and Jackson).

  • Sydney Choreographic Centre

The recently established Sydney Choreographic Centre, a project headed by artistic director Francesco Ventriglia and managing director Neil Christopher, has moved into its new premises in Alexandria, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. It will be the home of the Sydney Choreographic Ensemble and will offer a range of courses and open classes. A launch has been postponed due to the Sydney lockdown.

For more information about the Centre, and the courses that will commence once covid restrictions have been lifted, see the Centre’s website at this link.

  • And we danced

The third episode of And We Danced, a three part documentary charting the growth of the Australian Ballet, has now been released and all three episodes are currently available (for a limited time) on ABCiview. The second episode remains in my mind the strongest and most interesting, but the third episode does contain some interesting material and again has a focus on social and political matters as they have affected the Australian Ballet. A longer post on the third session follows soon but at this stage I can’t help but mention how moving I found the archival footage of Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Goldsmith was the original Odette in this production and her immersion in the role was exceptional.

Simone Goldsmith as Odette in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. The Australian Ballet, 2002. Photo: © Jim McFarlane
  • Late addition

For just the second time in 60 or so years of watching dance (and even performing it), I walked out of a show. I found Joel Bray’s I liked it but …. unwatchable. I left because I really couldn’t accept the way that various dance styles were described. Perhaps it changed later after I had left, I don’t know, but basically I am opposed to dance, in whatever format, being put down, often in a way that seems ignorant of the true nature of that format.

Michelle Potter, 31 July 2021

Featured image: Ako Kondo in Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère. The Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo: © Jeff Busby

The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet (2021)

4 June 2021. Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

I last saw Greg Horsman’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet) back in 2015. Then I made a flying, unanticipated trip to Brisbane because I needed to see a different version from the one created by David McAllister for the Australian Ballet. I disliked the McAllister production, which was not about Aurora to my eyes, and in which everything was overpowered by the design elements. I came away from that initial Brisbane experience much more satisfied that Aurora had a role in the ballet, and that the collaborative elements worked with each other to create a whole without one element dominating all.

Having all that out of my system, this time I was able to concentrate on other aspects of the production. Horsman has reimagined certain parts of the storyline and, while this is now a relatively commonplace procedure, it has to be done really well and with a sound reason for changing things. The main issue for me was making Carabosse too much like the other fairies. She wore the same style tutu as the others (except it was black and had transparent sleeves). But sometimes she danced together with the other fairies and somehow, despite representing the spirit of evil, she seemed to recede into the background as a major player in the narrative. The role was performed quite nicely, technically speaking, by Georgia Swan but I wanted a Carabosse who stood apart, strongly, from the others. It just didn’t happen.

Carabosse (centre) and the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The leading roles of Aurora and the Prince were danced by Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez. Yoshida danced pretty much faultlessly but didn’t seem to be as involved in her role as I have seen from her on previous occasions. On the other hand, Estévez was not only a strong performer in a technical sense (his entrance at the beginning of the second act—the Prince’s hunting party—was spectacular and drew applause), but he had the carriage and demeanour of a prince at every moment.

Neneka Yoshida and Victor Estévez in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato were the Bluebirds for this performance. While Green and Iwamoto performed beautifully in terms of technique—and all those beats, including the series of brisés volés, need strong techniques—I was disappointed (and I often am). The story behind the Bluebird section is that he is teaching her how to fly and that she is listening to him. This backstory rarely comes across and it didn’t on this opening night. It was a shame about Iwamato’s costume, too. It had a very high neckline that practically removed his neck from sight.

Lucy Green and Kohei Iwamato as the Bluebirds in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The highlight of the evening for me was the Prince’s hunting party scene. Estévez I have mentioned. His friends, danced by David Power and Joel Woellner, and Gallifron the Prince’s tutor, a role taken by Vito Bernasconi, brought light and shade, some amusement, and good dancing and acting to the scene.

Choreographically Horsman has kept much of what we think of as the original movements, especially in the various pas de deux and solos. But where he has made choreographic changes there is little excitement. Much is predictable. Lots of arabesques. Lots of retiré relevé type movements.

So, all in all I found the production and the performance somewhat disappointing. In fact I began to wonder about remakes of well-known classics. While there will always be changes of one sort or another to any ballet, it takes an exceptional choreographer to do a remake. Those who succeed usually bring a completely new work to the stage. Liam Scarlett did it with his Midsummer Night’s Dream. Graeme Murphy has done it on several occasions. I thought Horsman did it (almost) with his Bayadère, despite the fact that there were certain issues associated in some minds with current thoughts re political correctness.

But this Sleeping Beauty was not a remake, just the same story with a few elements added, a few removed, and some changes to the way the story unfolded. It made me long for someone to do something completely new, or to revive an old fashioned production! Seeing it in 2015 was just a relief after the McAllister production. In 2021 perhaps my reservations were a result of having watched the Royal Ballet’s recent streaming of its hugely engaging presentation of the Ninette de Valois Beauty of 1946?

Michelle Potter, 7 June 2021

Featured image: Serena Green, Laura Tosar, Chiara Gonzalez and Mia Heathcote as the Fairies in The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet, 2021. Photo: © David Kelly

The Sleeping Beauty. Royal New Zealand Ballet/Orchestra Wellington

29 October 2020, Opera House, Wellington
reviewed by Jennifer Shennan

This is a long-awaited season since the Company’s program, Venus Rising, had to be cancelled due to the Covid situation earlier this year. That had offered an interesting quartet of works, which we could hope to still see at some future date.

The Sleeping Beauty is a major undertaking for any ballet company, demanding high technical skills from a large cast of soloists. Those we saw perform on opening night were all equal to the challenges and danced with much aplomb, carried by the quality of the Tchaikovsky composition, a masterpiece of instrumental wonder, with Hamish McKeich conducting Orchestra Wellington. My seat allowed a view into the orchestra pit which was an extra thrill since there’s a whole other ‘ballet’ of tension, movement, drama and passion going on there.

2018 was the bicentenary of the birth of Marius Petipa, choreographer of this and other iconic ballets from 19th century Russia. That has occasioned new biographies as well as re-worked productions of his ballets, with the recent version by Alexei Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre winning widespread acclaim for its historical aesthetic coupled with contemporary sensibility. (It is worth looking into The New Yorkers of 1 & 8 June 2016 for Joan Acocella’s brilliant appraisal of the Ratmansky production and style, illustrating how a ballet classic can combine the best of old, though that takes both research and vision). Disney’s Maleficent from 2014 offers another take on who is in charge of evil in the world, updating his 1959 animation classic.

It is always the choices of style and setting, design and drama that, dancing aside, carries a production’s conviction in the passage of time from a christening to a 16th birthday to a sleeping spell of 100 years, to a dénouement and a wedding. This production, originally planned by Danielle Rowe, was instead here staged by Artistic Director Patricia Barker, with Clytie Campbell, Laura McQueen Schultz and Nicholas Schultz, and Michael Auer as dramaturg. With five different credits for various aspects of design, they took a generalised fairystory line, concentrating on light and bright pastel colours for the good, to contrast with the dark and shadowy world of evil.

It was a nice touch to have a poetic verse of the storyline projected onto the screen at the beginning of each ‘chapter’ but the design of set and costumes for the Court of the Rose seemed lightweight rather than royal. The courtiers were reserved in personality and confidence, yet overdressed in costume detail, rather than majestic as befits the mighty orchestral score. Only Loughlan Prior as the addled nervous M.C., (whose initial mistake was to leave Carabosse off the guest list, thus causing all the mayhem) brought caricature and comedy to the play, though the courtiers seemed unwilling to respond in character.   

Children in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

The already-long ballet incorporated several groups of small children—page boys and court attendants. Charming as they were, they seemed more reminiscent of The Nutcracker than this classic which has an important story with a moral thrust in the forces of good versus evil. The King and Queen stood stiff and passionless with gestures portraying this or that but little in the way of emotion at their impending tragedy—and the seating of them and their baby directly upstage of all the court action effectively disappeared them from the scene as they sat behind all the dancing that followed.

Each of the good fairies performed their brief variations with technical flair and aplomb—Generosity by Ana Gallardo Lobaina, Honesty by Lara Flannery, Serenity by Caroline Wiley, Joy by Cadence Barrack, Curiosity by Madeleine Graham and Clarity by Katherine Skelton.  (It is impressive to note that four different castings of Aurora are planned over the season. Skelton will be one of them and her delicate precision should carry the role well). Sara Garbowski as the Lilac Fairy offered particular warmth in the portrayal of her promise to save the day. My young companions were impressed at the Aurora Borealis lighting effects—‘Hey, that’s where the baby’s name comes from.’ they whispered in delighted recognition. 

Kate Kadow as Princess Aurora danced radiantly and with an assured technique. Kirby Selchow as Carabosse took her role with relish, conveying macabre delight in wreaking havoc and trouble. Disguising her sidekick Morfran, Paul Mathews, to attend as one of the four suitors to the Princess Aurora on her 16th birthday was a clever ruse to introduce the dreaded spindle disguised as a black rose.

Kirby Selchow as Carabosse in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

[Intermission. Some day a production might use the auditorium and foyer to help convey the passage of 100 years? That always seems too long a time for a production to ignore].

In Chapter Three, ‘The Hunt Picnic’ brought a group from a faraway court in Lithuania with a lonely Prince ready for a challenge, so the Lilac Fairy showed him the way to wake the sleeping kingdom. The Prince’s name is Laurynas Vėjalis—whoops, that’s the dancer’s name but I’ll use it for the character too since he was immediately apparent as one and the same. From his first entrance, there was the lyricism, strength, nobility and grace one always hopes for in a Principal dancer. Even while standing still, he conveyed those—then his dancing combined agility and strength with musical cadencing that flooded me with joy. This ability to merge the preparation for, together with delivery of, bravura steps into nonchalant movement, is the true heritage of baroque noble dancing, whence the original fairytale hails.

Laurynas Vėjalis as the Prince in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court

Vėjalis’ strength and speed of allegro movements of his legs and feet, with a simultaneous bone-creaming adagio quality of arm, head and épaulement movements, all without the slightest suggestion of effort or concentration, is a rare natural talent, in the line of Poul Gnatt, Jon Trimmer, Martin James, Ou Lu, Qi Huan, Kohei Iwamoto, Abigail Boyle, proud legacy of this company. It is good, as always, to see the printed program full of content (the work of Susannah Lees-Jeffries) acknowledging the Company’s previous productions.

In the variations from the guests at the wedding—The White Cat by Leonora Voigtlander, and Puss in Boots  by Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson were suitably coquettish, the Bluebirds by Katherine Minor and Kihiro Kusukami in striking flight, Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf by Georgia Baxter and Jack Lennon bringing character to the scene.

So, all told, a big ballet to big music—though with design of both set and costume in the first two acts less authoritative than might have been. The dancing was stronger and more accomplished than the sense of theatre throughout, where the timing of action needed attention—until along came a Prince who changed all that. I’ll aim to catch the last performance of the tour and see if the production has travelled well, which I’m sure it will.

Jennifer Shennan, 31 October 2020

Featured image: Laurynas Vėjalis as the Prince and Kate Kadow as Princess Aurora in Royal New Zealand Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Wellington 2020. Photo: © Stephen A’Court.

The Sleeping Beauty. The Royal Ballet. Digital Season 2020

I have often wondered about Ninette de Valois’ 1946 staging of The Sleeping Beauty, which opened up Covent Garden after World War II. My interest was sparked after examining dance in wartime London while undertaking research for my 2014 biography of Dame Margaret Scott.* More recently I have been interested in Oliver Messel, who designed that 1946 production, given that Kristian Fredrikson, as an emerging designer in the 1960s, admired Messel’s work, and in fact some of his 1960s designs are indebted to Messel.** So, it was interesting to be able to watch a recent revival of the de Valois production, a revival staged by Monica Mason and repetiteur Christopher Newton, originally in 2006.

The streamed production was a performance from early 2020 and featured Fumi Kaneko as Aurora and Federico Bonelli as Prince Florimund. I had not seen Kaneko, a Royal Ballet First Soloist, dance before and for me the most startling feature of her dancing was her exceptional sense of balance. It showed itself throughout the performance and, in fact, was more startling outside the Rose Adagio than within it. I also admired her characterisation as the 16 year old Aurora In Act I. She was full of youthful joy and excitement, although I would have liked a little more contrast in her Aurora of the last act, which would have strengthened her overall performance. She was, however, absolutely enchanting in this last act in her solo variation from the grand pas de deux. Her beautifully expressive arms and hands, for example, told us of the process of her becoming an adult.

Bonelli is a dab hand at playing princely figures and did not disappoint. I especially admired the emotional quality he brought to Act II as a lonely prince looking for love. Then, as with Kaneko, his solo variation in Act III was beautifully danced with exceptional control of those assorted leaps and turns. In fact, the grand pas de deux was thrilling from start to finish. Of the other characters, Elizabeth McGorian was an outstanding Queen, full of love and then concern for her daughter, while Kristen McNally was an individualistic and highly theatrical and flamboyant Carabosse. Thomas Whitehead developed the character of Catalabutte well and Yasmine Naghdi and Matthew Ball showed off their excellent techniques as Princess Florisse and the Bluebird. I especially enjoyed Naghdi’s understanding of what is behind that particular dance, that is she is listening to the Bluebird teaching her how to fly.

But how things have changed since 1946, at least from where I stand. This production had so much more mime than what I am used to seeing. Has it been lost in later productions? If so, why I wonder because in the Royal Ballet production it made the story much stronger, and there were no problems in understanding what was being ‘said’. And there were moments when certain aspects of the story were opened up. We know that the King banned all spindles from his kingdom after Carabosse declared that Aurora would die from pricking her finger on such an item. But I can’t remember seeing a production where three village women, trying to hide their spindles, were brought before the King who wanted to execute them. Such moments fill out the story and give back the narrative to what is essentially a narrative ballet. I loved it.

All in all, and as ever, the Royal Ballet gave us an exceptional performance from every point of view.

As for the Messel costumes, I thought many were just too much. Too much colour, too much decoration. I’m not sure why the Lilac Fairy had those bright pink layers of tulle to her tutu. It was only in the darkness of the forests of Act II that the glints of lilac could be seen peeking through the lolly pink. But it was interesting to see those characteristics of Messel tutus that Fredrikson picked up on in his early work—wide decorative shoulder straps, and an overlay of feathery (or leafy) patterns spilling down from the bodice onto the tulle skirt of the tutu, for example. This style was exemplified by the tutu for the Lilac Fairy (danced by Gina Storm-Jensen). Those few of Fredrikson‘s designs that are still readily available for Peggy van Praagh’s 1964 staging of Aurora’s Wedding, his first Australian Ballet production, show a similar approach. Fredrikson acknowledged his interest in Messel’s work when he said he admired Messel’s ‘extraordinary richness and imagination’.

Michelle Potter, 29 July 2020

Featured image: Fumi Kaneko in a still from Act I, The Sleeping Beauty. The Royal Ballet, 2020

*Dame Maggie Scott. A life in dance (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2014)
**Kristian Fredrikson. Designer (Melbourne: Melbourne Books, 2020)

Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015

The Sleeping Beauty. A second look

5 December 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

My second viewing of David McAllister’s Sleeping Beauty simply confirmed my opinion that this production is the most over-designed ballet I have ever seen since I saw my first professional ballet performance many years ago. Sold-out houses mean nothing artistically as far as I am concerned. At least this time, however, I knew what to expect and so made a concerted effort to block out the design and look at the dancing, as much as was possible.

This matinee performance belonged to Miwako Kubota and Daniel Gaudiello as Aurora and Prince Desiré respectively. As the sixteen year old Aurora, Kubota performed charmingly and was technically close to faultless. But it was in the wedding scene that she took my breath away. She was radiant. She brought so much light and shade to her dancing and, amazingly, the light and shade came mostly through her technical execution. She leant into movements, she used her head and shoulders beautifully, every movement had an expressive power. I especially loved that part in one of her variations in the pas de deux where her delicate wrist movements, enhanced by such a beautiful smile, such a fluid body, and such perfect feet, told the story of how she had grown from a child to a woman, reflecting back to her father’s similar mime sequence at her sixteenth birthday.

As her prince, Gaudiello once again showed what a wonderful dancer and partner he is. I love watching him take care of his ballerina and, as usual, his technical execution of the choreography was outstanding. I was especially taken by those moments in his variation in the coda of the grand pas de deux where his light and beautifully elevated cabrioles to the front (also beautifully beaten) were followed by a sweep of one leg, the foot passing through first position, into an attitude at the back. That foot caressed the floor making those small movements that join larger ones so clear.

The only other male dancer who has made me so aware of the beautiful tiny details that make up larger and more obvious movements is Ethan Stiefel, whom I was once lucky enough to see as Solor in Makarova’s Bayadère.

For the first time in a long time I felt that this grand pas de deux, with Kubota and Gaudiello performing as they did, was actually grand. Hurrah!

Sympathy to the gentleman in the Garland Dance in Act I who had a major wig malfunction, but bouquets to the other gentleman who, wig intact, managed to remove the fallen part from the floor. The dance went on, the gentleman left the stage and returned with wig fixed. But sadly that Garland Dance has, in this production, lost all its honourable simplicity and choreographic design as a result of those garlands that looked quite burdensome with far too many lolly-pink and ghastly-green flowers (matching the ladies’ dresses that are similarly coloured and burdened).

As I had previously, I enjoyed the newly-imagined role of Carabosse, which was carefully thought through by former Royal Ballet dancer Gillian Revie. Benedicte Bemet, fresh from the triumph of receiving the award of the 2015 Telstra Ballet Dancer of the Year, was partnered by Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in the Bluebird pas de deux. Both danced nicely but did not have the attack of Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. They need a little more time to reach greater heights in roles such as the Bluebird pas de deux. I’m sure those greater heights are on their way.

Michelle Potter, 7 December 2015

Featured image: Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as the Prince in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015

My earlier review of the Australian Ballet’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty is at this link.

The Sleeping Beauty. Queensland Ballet

24 October 2015 (matinee), Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

After my Australian Ballet brush with Beauty I was longing to see another production and so took a flying visit to Brisbane to see what Greg Horsman had done with this classic of the ballet repertoire. Horsman’s Sleeping Beauty was originally made for the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011 and is being performed for the first time in Australia by Queensland Ballet. I did not see the international stars who have been engaged as special guests for the season, which did not bother me as it was the production that particularly interested me.

The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet's 'Sleeping Beauty', 2015
The Fairies and their Cavaliers in Queensland Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty, 2015

Horsman has made some small changes to the story, some of which may well be as a result of working with a medium-sized company in both New Zealand and Queensland. Perhaps the most startling change is that Catalabutte, assistant to the King, and Catalabutte’s wife, Lady Florine, are cats. This at first is a shock. But they are so beautifully, and at times humorously, worked into the story—their dance together in the last act takes the place of Puss and Boots and the White Cat—that suspending disbelief is easy. Jack Lister as Catalabutte made a strong impression throughout, but especially as he pursued the Bluebird in the wedding scene.

There is also quite a lot of mime as explanation of the story. This is not an innovation, of course, but unless well done mime passages tend to get lost in translation as it were. The dancers of Queensland Ballet have, however, been well coached in this aspect of the ballet and they have an expansive quality to their gestures. Everything is perfectly clear. Nothing drags along.

The dancing itself had some ups and downs. The corps de ballet worked nicely together for the most part and Teri Crilly and Camilo Ramos stood out as the lead couple in what is usually the Garland Dance (although in this production there were no garlands). Ramos, who has a wonderful stage presence as well as a stellar technique, also danced strongly as one of the Prince’s friends in Act II. The fairies, too, danced nicely throughout, although my eyes kept turning to the Orange Fairy of Grace danced by Lisa Edwards. I loved the charm with which she performed and the delicious fluidity of her movement. She shone.

I found Yanela Piñera, Queensland Ballet’s 2015 guest principal artist, very engaging as Aurora. Piñera handled the rose adagio and the final grand pas de deux with strength and attack, but what really stood out was her joyful presence throughout. She involved herself in everything, and with everyone. She smiled, made eye contact, and used her head and arms beautifully. It was a real pleasure watching her.

Hao Bin as the Prince did not, however, always live up to my expectations. I enjoyed his acting at the start of Act II where he kept himself apart from his friends in the forest as he pondered the lack of love in his life. But once he started dancing I found him a little wooden. I wished he would move his upper body with more fluidity and use his feet more strongly.

Gary Harris’ sets are gorgeous. His interiors recall Gothic architecture with its emphasis on soaring space; his exteriors are airy, beautiful places in which the story can unfold; and the final scene with its starry background provides an especially elegant setting for the wedding of Aurora and the Prince. His work was evocatively lit by Jon Buswell.

The jarring elements for me in Harris’ design input were the costumes for the two Bluebirds, although perhaps it was the very heavy eye make-up they wore that made the costumes seem over the top compard with the general elegance of the last scene. Teri Crilly was a lovely female bluebird. Whether listening, fluttering her hands, or simply executing a step, everything was performed cleanly and with great style. Her partner, Zhi Fang, seemed very nervous and so did not really show himself to advantage.

Nigel Gaynor conducted a vibrant Queensland Symphony Orchestra where tempi, volume and orchestral colour contributed to the unfolding of the story and to the development of the characters in the ballet. The orchestra added an extra emotional layer to the performance and it was such a pleasure to be hearing this kind of collaboration between music and dance. From 2016 Gaynor will take up the position of principal conductor and music director of Queensland Ballet.

I came away from this Queensland Ballet performance loving the passion that the dancers put into their performance, despite the odd stumble or other mishap. But most of all I came away thrilled that the collaborative elements of music and design were working to enhance the dance, rather than ignoring it or trying to outdo it.

Michelle Potter, 25 October 2015

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet

15 September 2015, State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne

On a day when Australia got a new Prime Minister, dance-goers also got a new production of The Sleeping Beauty from David McAllister and the Australian Ballet, with McAllister being credited with ‘Production and additional choreography’. I don’t know how our new PM will fare but, as for Beauty, there was good and not so good.

The good things first. The narrative flows clearly and smoothly. Bringing in Lucas Jervies as dramaturg clearly paid dividends, especially as this Beauty is a little different from what many of us have become used to watching. Act II, for example, is somewhat changed from other productions, of which more later. And Carabosse is ‘the ancient fairy of Wisdom’ according to program notes, so she doesn’t display as much evil intent as we have seen in previous productions, although of course she is furious at being left off the invitation list to Aurora’s christening party.

Which brings me to the second good thing. Lynette Wills as Carabosse is outstanding, just as she was as the Godmother in Cinderella.

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo Jeff Busby
Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Wills is powerful yet restrained. Nothing is overplayed and yet we sense her presence and her impact on the unfolding story. And all this despite having a very strangely dressed entourage of rats who wear giant puppet-like heads and sport collars and black bow ties.

After that there isn’t much else that I found exhilarating. Benedicte Bemet as the Fairy of Musicality gave a distinctive interpretation to this role and brought a gorgeously lively quality to her exceptional technical capacity. Kevin Jackson as Prince Desiré made every effort to appear human. His two solos in Act II were mostly well performed, and there were moments when, as he looked at the spirit of Aurora, which the Lilac Fairy has conjured up in this Act, he sent shivers down my spine, such was his look of longing.

As for the Bluebird and Princess Florine, Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo could scarcely be faulted technically. Guo’s beats and turns are astonishing, as I have said many times before. But how I missed the fluttering hands that are so often part of the choreography for Princess Florine. She is meant to be listening to the Bluebird who is teaching her how to fly, and the listening bit was all there. But in other versions, beautiful fluttering movements of the hands show her attempts to fly, to put into practice what she is hearing. This fluttering has been part of the Australian heritage of Beauty for decades. Let’s be proud of our heritage. Why leave it out now even if it is (maybe) an addition from the era of Soviet realism?

Which brings up the question of the other fairy tale characters who usually appear at the wedding of Aurora and her Prince. It was a lovely touch to include various fairy tale characters, properly disguised but recognisable, in Act II, which in McAllister’s production is a kind of picnic rather than a straight out hunting party, with the Prince joining in the excursion carrying his book of fairy tales. But what happened to the variations of Puss in Boots and the White Cat and Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Act III? If these characters appear, somewhat in disguise, in Act II why do they have such a tiny role in Act III (and yet turn up in the final mazurka as if they had danced major parts)? It doesn’t make sense to me to leave out their pas de deux and variations. Where was the dramaturg at this point? Apart from anything else they are also part of our Sleeping Beauty heritage and I missed them.

Lana Jones as Aurora missed the youthfulness that I think gives the early part of Act I so much of its charm. She looked beautifully elegant and performed everything with aplomb, but she wasn’t a sixteen year old princess. The grand pas de deux, despite being soundly performed, lacked the excitement that this part of Act III should bring.

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby
Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Other choreographic features, especially in Act II, seemed to me to be a little too close to parts of Swan Lake and Nutcracker. The woodland nymphs, who inhabit the overgrown forest in Act II, often split into small groups, link hands à la Four Little Swans, and perform various piqué-style movements. And there is a scene, also in Act II, where Carabosse’s rats fight with the Prince in an attempt to extract from him the key that will open the glass-domed casket in which Aurora has slept for 100 years. Shades of a certain part of Nutcracker?

Gabriela Tylesova’s designs for costumes and set are extraordinarily lavish and, for me, they are the most curious mixture of Baroque extravagance and Rococo excess, with a Louis XIV party thrown in at the end, which occasionally looked like Carnevale in Venice, complete with a Tiepolo-style ceiling as an added attraction. And why did those three massive chandeliers start on the floor and majestically rise to the ceiling at the beginning of Act III? The audience greeted this strange chandelier behaviour with applause, although I’m not sure why. And what was the most disappointing feature of all this excess across the prologue and three acts? The dancing became secondary to the visual appearance.

Tylesova’s choice of colours for her costumes was also unattractive to my eyes. It shouted excess once again. As for those large wings worn by the fairies, they just got in the way of the dancers’ line, which is such an important part of the ballet technique we associate with Petipa and classicism.

In a feature published in the September 2015 issue of Vogue Australia, McAllister is quoted as saying: ‘With big classics like Sleeping Beauty, I really believe it’s around the staging, the look of it.’ Well, yes, he is right that the staging is important in a narrative ballet. But when the staging is such that it overwhelms the dancing it simply doesn’t work.

The audience was wildly enthusiastic as the curtain went down amid much gold, including shimmering gold leaf floating in the air, and a huge gold sun that descended over the Tiepolo ceiling. I went home dejected that such a beautiful ballet could be turned into an event like some kind of football grand final. The dancing was lost in a world of visual excess and technical invention.

Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister's 'The Sleeping Beauty', 2015. Photo: Jeff Busby
Artists of the Australian Ballet in David McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Michelle Potter, 17 September 2015

Featured image: Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo: © Jeff Busby

Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. The Australian Ballet, 2015. Photo Jeff Busby

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty: the film

Matthew Bourne’s film of his re-imagined Sleeping Beauty, a work that premiered as a live show late in 2012, was recorded over a week during performances at the Bristol Hippodrome. It was filmed in HD, not 3D. Personally, I remain a sceptic of dance in 3D and Bourne’s film confirms for me that in this day and age a well thought through and edited film of a live performance can have all the visual impact and passion for dance that one might wish to see. As I have not seen the live show at this stage my comments on the film are also comments on Bourne’s version of what is generally regarded as an iconic work in the ballet repertoire. My preview story, published in The Canberra Times on 7 September 2013, is at this link. It gives something of the background to the work, which I won’t go over in this post.

Count Lilac and the baby Aurora in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty'. Courtesy Sharmill Films
Count Lilac with the baby Aurora in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Annand. Courtesy Sharmill Films

What struck me instantly about the work itself was that Bourne is an amazing storyteller and has a great way with theatrical tricks. Nothing surprising there though. We have seen it before from Bourne. Nevertheless, I need to say it again. Moving the storyline from 1890 and the babyhood of Aurora, to 1911 and her coming of age and on to the present and her marriage—and the surprise of what comes right at the end, Bourne has indeed as he says ‘created a different look and set of manners, including theatrical manners, for each era’. I loved the dancing in the Edwardian scenes (Aurora’s coming of age) with great use made of Tchaikovsky’s well known waltz. But my favourite ‘set of manners’ came as the 100 years of sleep passed by and Aurora’s palace home became legendary and a spot for tourists to gather and take photos of themselves and the site with their mobile devices.

Perhaps the most difficult ‘era’ to reconcile (for those who have been brought up with Aurora’s Wedding as a staple in their dance-going experiences) is the present day nightclub scene when Aurora is sacrificed on the altar of Caradoc, son of Carabosse and the rival love interest. Aurora’s Wedding was never like this! But her rescue and the subsequent events washed away any feeling of being ill at ease.

I couldn’t help feeling at times that Bourne was making allusions to other ballets as the work proceeded. Those tennis players who appeared in the Edwardian scene were surely a reference to Nijinsky’s Jeux and as Aurora lay on the ground falling into her deep sleep with her mother leaning over her, grief-stricken, we seemed to be seeing an allusion to the end of Giselle Act I. And was that bespectacled man in the white suit and hat lurking in the background as the Edwardian scene came to an end a reference to Aschenbach in the Visconti film Death in Venice? I saw those allusions whether or not they were intended and I guess this is what made this Sleeping Beauty so rich and engrossing for me. There was never a moment when one tended to drift away. Too much happening, too much to think about.

Looking at the work as a film, I admired in particular the way close-ups were judiciously shot to advance our understanding of the characters. I am thinking in particular of the close-up shots of Caradoc. Dressed magnificently in red and black by Lez Brotherston, whose designs for the work are extraordinary, we got the picture pretty quickly—a scheming, brooding man. Takes after his mother no doubt!

Caradoc and the sleeping Aurora in Matthew Bourne's 'Sleeping Beauty.
Caradoc and the sleeping Aurora in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Simon Annand. Courtesy Sharmill Films

Filmed live as it was, it was charming to have an audience reaction—both laughter and applause—that wasn’t canned. And the intertitles that told the story as the work moved along from scene to scene were set inside a border of roses that themselves told a story—a black rose, a white rose, a red rose. All had a special meaning within the work. The production sped along. I was immersed in it all and relished the performances, especially from Hannah Vassallo as Aurora. Even the credits were gorgeous with action shots of the main characters as their names flashed up.

This is one to see a few more times and, although Bourne says that it is good to know the traditional version as then it becomes more apparent how he has treated the storyline and developed the characters, I suspect this is a film that can also be enjoyed by those who aren’t so aware of the traditional version.

Michelle Potter, 8 September 2013

International Gala 2011. Queensland Ballet

Asaf Messerer’s brief pas de deux, Spring Waters, was first seen in Australia around five decades ago when the Bolshoi Ballet visited the country. Then it was the most technically exciting pas de deux most people had ever seen. Now those high lifts with the man using just one arm to hold his partner aloft, and the sight of a female dancer throwing herself through the air into the arms of her partner, are not so rare. But Spring Waters remains a delight and its inclusion on the Queensland Ballet’s 2011 International Gala was something of a treat. Despite having to perform it to what sounded like an ancient recording, two of the guests artists who joined the dancers of Queensland Ballet for the gala, Ambra Vallo and Tyrone Singleton from Birmingham Royal Ballet, danced it with just the right sense of youthfulness and joy.

Vallo and Singleton also danced the pas de deux from Frederick Ashton’s Two Pigeons. This charming yet elegant pas de deux was a reminder that choreographers whose voice is distinctive are rare and precious. It was a joy to watch Ashton’s placement of the two dancers in relation to each other, often in unexpected but always harmonious juxtapositions.

Other works on the program were not so well served by international performers, or by their choreographers. Two very youthful dancers from Singapore Dance Theatre made a brave effort with the final pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. Kenya Nakamura as the Prince was inflexible in the upper body and very nervous. It meant that his performance was stilted and wooden. His partner, Tomoko Takahashi, had a lovely smile and was technically capable of executing the steps, but her performance suffered from inadequate partnering.

Two dancers from Berlin’s Staatsballett, Krasina Pavlova and Rainer Krenstetter, each had a solo on the program, although Krenstetter’s solo, Barocco by Renato Zanella, was little more than a series of poses. They also danced together in Grand pas classique, choreographed by Victor Gsovsky. Their performance in this pas de deux with variations in the traditional manner needed much more vivacity than we were given. I think both dancers needed to be reminded that dance happens with the human body and thus is inherently sexy (if not necessarily overtly sexual), especially if it is a pas de deux. There was little engagement between Krenstretter and Pavlova in Grand pas classique, and little engagement with the audience other than an occasional, unwarranted look of triumph on completion of certain steps. A great disappointment.

Probably the most interesting, and certainly the most anticipated work on the program was Nils Christe’s Short Dialogues, a new work for three couples. Set to music by Philip Glass, Christe’s choreography is ‘of the moment’. Bodies wrap around bodies and stretch into seemingly impossible positions, Visually it is often hard to disentangle one body from another. The work was expertly performed by Clare Morehen and Keian Langdon, Meng Ningning and Hao Bin formerly of the National Ballet of China but now dancing with Queensland Ballet, and Rachael Walsh and Christian Tátchev. And while the choreography and its performance were impressive, what made this work really stand out for me was the lighting design by David Walters. It gave the work an almost liquid quality: Short Dialogues seemed to pass before our eyes like an unexpected breeze—here one minute, gone the next.

At this International Gala the strongest performers were rarely the international guests but rather the dancers of Queensland Ballet. Apart from the execution of Christe’s slick, contemporary choreography, they also showed their theatricality in François Klaus’ Overture and Finale. His choreography for the opening and closing sequences of the gala had overtones of a contemporary commedia dell’arte and the dancers responded in a manner that was beautifully playful and slightly humorous. Noelene Hill’s pert red and orange costumes, including the cheeky frill on the women’s costume and the equally cheeky short shorts that were part of the men’s outfit, were perfect in carrying through the style.

The dancers carried their ability to move between diverse choreographic styles into Rosetta Cook’s homage to the tango, Hall of Flame, a work dedicated to former artistic director of Queensland Ballet, Harold Collins, who died just a week before the gala. I especially admired Kathleen Doody in Hall of Flame. She gave a cool, sophisticated reading of her character in a slightly over-long work that required cameo performances from each dancer.

Galas are always touch and go events. Unless the performers and the choreography are exceptional, and this was not always the case with this gala, such occasions are inevitably beset with problems of uneven quality and interest, as was the case.

Michelle Potter, 8 August 2011

Peggy! The Australian Ballet

The first part of Peggy!, the Australian Ballet’s tribute to the company’s founding director Dame Peggy van Praagh, may well have delighted her. Mark Annear’s Birthday Celebration, a work made originally to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Australian Ballet School in 2004, was a joyous offering. Dame Peggy, who cared deeply about teaching and the training of dancers, would I think have been delighted to see that the Australian Ballet School, whose founding she fostered, is alive and well under its present director, Marilyn Rowe. The work showcased students of the school, including some very young children. Almost without exception their dancing was filled with the joy of movement—so refreshing.

The rest was not so exciting. A series of short excerpts from various ballets—van Praagh’s Garland Dance from the 1973 production of The Sleeping Beauty; an Act I pas de deux from Giselle, inserted into the ‘standard’ production by van Praagh in 1973; and extracts from Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella—suffered from lack of context and from ordinary dancing. The Giselle pas de deux, for example, is a beautiful addition to a great Romantic classic. As I mentioned in a much earlier post, dramatically it serves to establish early on, and in more depth than is usual in other productions, the relationship between Giselle and Albrecht. To perform it in isolation requires much more than Kirsty Martin and Ty King-Wall were able to give. Their interpretation was bland in my opinion. I also missed the choreographic delights I recall from the performance of this pas de deux in the Australian Ballet’s 2001 production—its Cecchetti-inspired use of épaulement and its light as a feather jumps for example. They just weren’t there.

The final work on the program, Antony Tudor’s Gala Performance, in which van Praagh herself once played the leading role of the Russian Ballerina, lacked the satirical subtlety that I was hoping to see. Like most of the ‘comedy’ staged recently by the Australian Ballet the roles were exaggerated making them a travesty of what was originally intended. However, if we are talking about roles suiting particular dancers, as we were in the comments on Coppélia recently, I have to say that Reiko Hombo was well suited to the role of the French dancer. She was properly bubbly and flighty.

In many respects in this program I preferred the ancillary material to the dancing. The archival film footage and interviews with those who had been close to Dame Peggy, which preceded each major segment on the program, gave interesting insights into the way Dame Peggy worked. And the small exhibition of photos and other items, which was set up in the foyer of Melbourne’s State Theatre, captured some key moments in Dame Peggy’s life. It’s a shame it wasn’t given a better space but it attracted a lot of interest both before and after the show.

Michelle Potter, 30 June 2010