15 April 2017, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
It was a treat to see Tim Harbour’s Squander and Glory for a second time. This time I had the pleasure of seeing Vivienne Wong and Kevin Jackson dancing major parts, along with Jill Ogai and Jake Mangakahia, all of whom used their technical expertise to enhance Harbour’s choreography.
I was once again transfixed by the seamless quality of the collaboration and I enjoyed in particular watching the changing coloured light that played over Kelvin Ho’s design—it gently moved from russet-orange to silver to blue—which I hadn’t noticed to the same extent on my first viewing.
This time I was also fascinated by the tiny choreographic details that Harbour used throughout—the changing relationship between the wrist and hand, for example. The wrist demanded that the hand sometimes stretch, sometimes drop, sometimes lift. Every part of the body had a defined role to play in Squander and Glory. What can the body do? Every part of the body is significant.
I hope Squander and Glory remains in the repertoire. It is a work that will continue to reveal, I feel sure, more moments to delight the eye with every new viewing.
Looking at Wayne McGregor’s Infra for the second time I admired the dancing of Cristiano Martino, especially in a solo section where his very fluid body was quite mesmerising, and Dimity Azoury’s work in the final pas de deux (and apologies to her equally admirable partner as I am not sure who he was).
In Jane Albert’s interview with Alice Topp and Richard House in the printed program, Topp speaks of her hopes for the future. She says: ‘…my ultimate dream would be to become [the first female] resident choreographer of The Australian Ballet.’ It isn’t clear who actually said or inserted the bit in square brackets but it’s not correct. The honour of being the first female resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet is already taken. It belongs to Natalie Weir who was resident choreographer during the directorship of Ross Stretton.
Looking back to 2010, when I last saw Balanchine’s Symphony in C, I can’t believe I was so lucky to see the cast I did. My review of that performance is at this link.
Looking back even earlier, I was also lucky way to see the Diana and Acteon pas de deux when it was first performed by the Australian Ballet in 1964. It featured Rudolf Nureyev and Lupe Serrano! The photographer Walter Stringer captured a few images of Nureyev and Serrano from the wings.
14 November 2015 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
What a pleasure it was to see the Australian Ballet’s triple bill program, 20:21, for a second time, in a different theatre, and with a different cast. Clearly the dancers have become more familiar with the works over the series of performances that have been staged since I saw it in Melbourne. I suspect it also looks better on the smaller stage of the Sydney Opera House (for once). In addition, I have inched myself forward over many years of subscribing to a Sydney matinee series so that I have an almost perfect seat in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. It all adds up.
This time In the Upper Room had a simply fabulous cast. Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch were stunning throughout, as were Ako Kondo, Miwako Kubota, Ingrid Gow (great to see her in a featured role again), Chengwu Guo and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson.
These seven dancers worked together in different combinations in the more balletic of the various sections of Upper Room. Not only did they show off their superb technical skills, they brought their individual personalities to these sections—a perfect approach for Tharp’s choreography. Gaudiello finished off his phrases of movement with his remarkable sense of theatricality; Guo finished his with a kind of nonchalance, which was equally as satisfying. But it was Kusch who stole the show with her joyous manner and her ability to make even the most difficult move, the most outrageous lift, look so easy.
It is such a thrill to see this work performed by the Australian Ballet’s dancers and it was not just the seven I have mentioned who danced wonderfully. I could feel the excitement building from the moment the curtain rose on Dimity Azoury and Vivenne Wong in their sneakers and stripey costumes. As I have said before, for me the Australian Ballet’s dancers have the staying power, the determination to succeed,and just the right personalities to make Tharp’s Upper Room look fabulous. This time they nailed it and for once I didn’t keep thinking of previous casts I saw umpteen years ago!
Kusch was also the star attraction for me in the Balanchine piece, Symphony in Three Movements. She had the central, andante movement, which she danced with Adam Bull. Technically she was quite outstanding. Her extensions took the breath away, and her turns were spectacular. But it was her musicality that stood out. She brought out the changing rhythms and the jazzy overtones of Stravinsky’s score not just in her way of moving but also in her facial expression. She was a delight to watch. Bull was a strong partner but perhaps a little too tall for Kusch?
Gaudiello also had a leading role in Symphony in Three Movements, mostly partnering Dimity Azoury, and I never tire of watching his approach to partnering. He is so attentive to his ballerina in a way that is rarely achieved by others, but he manages at the same time to perform as an outstanding artist himself. Miwako Kubota and Brett Simon danced the third of the leading couples and the corps, wonderfully rehearsed as ever by Eve Lawson, showed off Balanchine’s choreographic patterns to advantage.
Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow was again strongly danced but, as before, I saw little in it that was substantial enough to excite the mind or eye. It is admirable that the Australian Ballet is exploring new choreographic ideas of course, and large sections of the audience were thrilled with what they saw, but I am still not sure where Harbour was trying to take us.
29 August (evening) and 30 August (matinee), 2014. State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne
Stanton Welch made his new version of La Bayadère for Houston Ballet, of which he has been artistic director for ten years. Its premiere was in 2010. He has now restaged it for the Australian Ballet, where he still holds the position of resident choreographer.
It was always going to be a problematic ballet: an updated version of a work that is entrenched in nineteenth-century cultural values where countries beyond Europe were regarded as little more than examples of exotica, and were represented as such in the theatre. Choreographically, Welch’s Bayadère makes passing references to traditional Indian greetings and hand movements from forms of Indian dance. There are also plenty of attitudes (the ballet step) with angular elbows and hands bent at the wrist, palms facing upwards. They remind us of a dancing Shiva. But there is also a lot of waltzing at certain points and the mixture doesn’t ring true today. So much of what we can accept from a production that claims to look back to the original (Makarova’s production for example), we can’t accept from a new production made in the twenty-first century. It all becomes a frustrating jumble.
So too with the costuming. There are no tutus (thankfully) until the Kingdom of the Shades scene, although there is a confusion of costuming, especially with Solor who is dressed like a balletic prince in tights and jacket while everyone else has a costume that approximates an Indian-style outfit.
My enjoyment of the work depended very much on the casting. The first show I saw, with Lana Jones as Nikiya and Adam Bull as Solor, was a lack-lustre performance, which only highlighted the feeling that the work was a cultural and choreographic jumble. While Jones’ first solo was beautifully danced—she has such a fluid upper body—she and Bull were not connecting and it seemed like a very sullen pairing. Robyn Hendricks as Gamzatti, whose villainous nature Welch has strengthened nicely, overplayed the role somewhat and didn’t look good in that harem costume, which reveals the rib cage rather dramatically.
In that first viewing, I loved the two children who accompanied Solor’s mother wherever she appeared. They were an absolute delight and took an active interest in everything happening on stage. And Vivenne Wong executed the first solo in the Shades scene with precision and attack—those relevés on pointe down the diagonal were spectacular.
In a second viewing I had the pleasure of seeing Amber Scott as Nikiya and Ty King-Wall as Solor. My interest in the work soared.
King-Wall and Scott danced beautifully together and their various pas de deux were silky smooth and imbued with tenderness. This was the first time I have seen King-Wall in a principal role since he was promoted and he certainly lived up to that promotion, both technically and in terms of successfully entering a role and developing a partnership. Ako Kondo as Gamzatti once again danced with superb technical skill. Perhaps she was a little too nice for the role in its new guise, but she engaged well with Laura Tong as Ajah, her servant, and it is impossible not to be swept away by her superb dancing.
The issue of Indian references aside, Welch’s choreography is always interesting to watch. I have written elsewhere that I think his best works are abstract rather than story ballets and I enjoyed watching how he structured scenes for larger numbers of people in Bayadère. His choreography for the Rajah’s four guards was simply constructed but often surprising in the way each came forward for a mini solo. And later, during the wedding celebrations for Solor and Gamzatti, Welch handled a bevy of guards and guests easily and maintained interest, despite the waltzing, in each of the different groups throughout that sequence of dancing.
Design-wise, Peter Farmer’s chaise-longue, on which Solor reclined to smoke his opium before the shades of Nikiya began their procession down the ramp, was gorgeous. Its luscious curves gave it an art nouveau feel and its back reminded me of the underside of a mushroom, magic mushrooms no doubt.
This production of La Bayadère is full of melodrama, a ‘cat fight’ between Nikiya, Gamzatti and Ajah; people being killed left right and centre; appearances by men in gold paint; and temples tumbling into ruins. But Petipa’s choreography has been maintained in certain places and, with a good cast, the story speeds along and much can be forgiven.
10 May 2014 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
What an inspiring performance the Australian Ballet gave of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Not an easy ballet to bring off, but all the diverse features that make McGregor’s choreography so eminently watchable were there. Limbs extending through space, off-centre partnering, moves that were in turn twisted, contorted, angular and sometimes smooth and undulating. And all were all set cleanly and articulately against John Pawson’s stripped back, white box space with its rectangular ‘window’ of changing colours. McGregor is a master at exploiting the balletic body to produce astonishingly shaped movements—movements of the twenty-first century perhaps? What I especially like is that his choreography make us see how perfectly amazing the balletic vocabulary can be.
I particularly admired Vivienne Wong’s performance throughout the work and also a powerful trio from Brett Chynoweth, Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Killian—fast, assertive dancing from them all. But it was a duet from Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello that stole the show for me. McGregor’s choreography suits Jones with her strong, unassailable technique and Gaudiello has such a way of adding his own signature to everything he does while still remaining true to the intentions of the choreographer.
Stephen Baynes’ new work, Art to Sky, began with some lovely, lingering choreography, beautifully performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Gaudiello again. It was romantic, softly falling from step to step. The corps de ballet also had some memorable choreography in the opening sections, surprising at times and always pure and fresh. But after that there were a few too many somersaults, cartwheels and legs in the air, not to mention twee sections of humour that didn’t quite work. It is a little problematic too that one of George Balanchine’s most exquisite ballets (in my mind anyway) is Mozartiana danced to the same music, Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana, that Baynes chose for Art to Sky. Balanchine has a habit of lingering in the mind, making it hard to accept anything else to the music he uses.
Hugh Colman’s shadowy, upstage portal that comprised the set, lit by Rachel Burke to give a hint of the mysterious, were strong additions to the look of Art to Sky. Colman, Burke and Baynes work well together as collaborators and bring a sense of visual cohesion to each other’s work.
The program concluded with Jiří Kylián’s companion pieces, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze and it was a treat to see some more Kylián back onstage with the Australian Ballet. It was interesting to have Kylián on the same program as McGregor, as also happened last year with Bella Figura and Dyad. Kylián, too, pushes the dance vocabulary and gives us a surprising array of movement, but he adds a degree of humanity and humour to his works that McGregor passes over (at least in Chroma, although perhaps not to the same extent in others of his works).
This mixed bill was a relief from the full-length ballets that we are told draw the best houses. To me the house looked pretty much full for what was a diverse and well danced program. I’d like more in this vein.
16 November 2013 (matinee), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
I was startled to see, when looking at the Australian Ballet’s website to check the casting for my Sydney subscription performance of Paquita and La Sylphide, that Paquita was advertised as a Romantic ballet—’the last flowering of the Romantic ballet’. Elsewhere on the website the program was described as ‘the first and last [of the] great Romantic ballets on one double bill’. The original, full-length Paris production of Paquita (1846) might have been in the Romantic tradition, although that is disputed by some, but what the Australian Ballet has been presenting is definitely not a Romantic work. Marius Petipa made additions to the original Paquita when he restaged his version in Russia in 1881 (1882 new style date). Those interpolations with music by Minkus are, I believe, what most companies now perform. The complete ballet was staged relatively recently (2001) by Pierre Lacotte for the Paris Opera Ballet, but not many other companies have a full-length production in their repertoire. Without the rest of the ballet, the Petipa arrangements can scarcely be called Romantic, although the Spanish overtones we see and hear in the Petipa excerpts do allude to the Spanish elements of the full-length ballet.
That aside, it was a thrill to see Daniel Gaudiello taking the male role in my Sydney viewing of the Australian Ballet’s excerpts from Paquita. What I love about Gaudiello’s dancing (apart from his technical abilities) is his wonderful approach to partnering. He is so attentive to and caring of his partner (Lucinda Dunn on this occasion) without being merely a ‘porteur’. When he stands back from her and lifts his arms to an open fifth position he is not only triumphantly showing her off as the ballerina, but also showing his own polish and charisma as a true ‘danseur noble’. He has great style.
Of the variations I especially enjoyed the second variation, subtly and gently danced by Jessica Fyfe, and the dancing of the two demi-soloists, Vivienne Wong and Benedicte Bemet, the latter certainly a rising personality.
I was pleased too that my previous disappointment with the staging of La Sylphide dissipated somewhat with a second look. This time I thought there was much more feeling for the Romantic style in the second act and a better contrast between the first and second acts.
Perhaps it was Reiko Hombo, who gave a strong, individualistic interpretation, beautifully danced, of the Sylph that made the difference. The lightness and height of her jump; her softly unfolding, beautifully controlled arabesques; her lovely rounded arms; and her supple upper body gave the right technical feel to the role. In addition, her interpretation was consistent and well thought through. There was a definite wickedness of intention there under all that charm as she made every effort to convince James of her wish that he join her in her forest realm. It brought home very nicely that ‘beautiful danger’ that respected Danish scholar Erik Aschengreen so perceptively wrote about many years ago as being a defining characteristic of the Romantic era. And Hombo carried this approach through into the second act.
Hombo was partnered by Chengwu Guo as James and he had, I thought, settled well into the role since my previous viewing. Perhaps again it was Hombo who made the difference. She gave him something to respond to, and as technical partners they work well together. Halaina Hills as Effie and Amy Harris as the lead Sylph in Act II also added a certain strength to the overall production. But I regret that the important role of Madge always seems to degenerate into something a little manic. It has been a long time since there has been a really powerful performance in Australia of that role. Without a strong and convincing Madge the ballet loses much of its intent.
14 April 2012 (matinee), Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
A second look at the Australian Ballet’s triple bill program, Infinity, at a recent Saturday matinee in Sydney produced some new highlights, but largely reinforced my thoughts following my first viewing on opening night in Melbourne.
As a new highlight, it was especially pleasurable to see that the shocking conflict between orchestra and the spoken narrative in There’s definitely a prince involved had been solved. It made a huge difference to one’s understanding of choreographer Gideon Obarzanek’s approach to the piece when one could actually hear what the performers were saying. The narrative is much wittier than was apparent on opening night when clarity and audibility were pretty much non-existent and when it seemed more like a fight between the orchestra and the spoken word than anything else.
In addition, the printed handout now included a credit to Tom Lingwood, whose name was missing from the handout on opening night but whose costumes from Swan Lake and Night Shadow were used for Prince (with extra costumes by Alexi Freeman). I suspect there needs to be someone doing a better job at proof reading of Australian Ballet publications, from major books down to nightly cast sheets.
Kristina Chan and Sara Black gave strong performances in Prince. Chan is a powerful dancer and her contemporary skills were especially evident in the ‘Drone 2’ section of Prince (although I’m not sure what the ‘Drone’ sections were meant to achieve). Black stood out on this occasion mostly for her confident delivery of the spoken text. And as before I admired Madeleine Eastoe and continue to yearn to see her in a Swan Lake that will give full expression to her glorious classical technique.
In Stephen Page’s Warumuk—in the dark night, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes remain a highlight as does Vivienne Wong’s performance as the Evening Star. But it remains just a pretty work, evocative and atmospheric.
There is no doubt in my mind that the major piece on the Infinity program is Graeme Murphy’s The narrative of nothing. Halaina Hills and Amy Harris danced the female leads on this occasion but I was especially impressed by Benedicte Bemet, in her first year with the company, who danced securely and serenely in a duet with Jarryd Madden. An injured Andrew Killian was replaced by Andrew Wright but it was Adam Bull again who stole the show amongst the male performers. I admired the intensity with which he approached Murphy’s choreography with its quirky and demanding partnering and its detailed and often unexpected movements. And looking back to my original post and its comments, I don’t think I interpreted the work differently despite now knowing that the score by Brett Dean referred to the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. I continue to think that the work stands alone as an abstract piece and needs no context of bushfires or anything else of a specific narrative/contextual nature.
In fact, what I found most striking on this second viewing of Infinity was the choreographic power of The narrative of nothing. While we can look at this work as ‘vintage Murphy’ in so many ways, when seen alongside the other works that comprise Infinity the depth of Murphy’s choreographic invention, his devotion to making dance that speaks to the audience about the nature of dance, his ongoing explorations into the art of collaboration with the performers he chooses and with his creative team, is astonishing. While I love Infinity as a whole, especially for its admirable pushing of the boundaries of what the Australian Ballet stands for, Murphy stands out as the choreographer with the most to offer. He gave the dancers something to dance, something with guts, and he gave the audience something abstract, something in which they could immerse themselves in a way that only dance can offer.
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.