Heart untouched; soul unshaken

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, August 28.

KEVIN McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre is a medieval fairy tale of transformation. A woman is turned into a swan. An evil lake-dwelling sorcerer becomes a devastatingly attractive nobleman in the blink of an eye. Two lovers die by drowning but moments later, in an apotheosis, suffuse the air with their benevolence.

These things are important elements, but are a kind of outer skin. They tell us what is happening, but not why. What of the underlying purpose – the desperate love and profound act of forgiveness that bring Swan Lake into the human realm, give it immediacy and make it so moving? They are not to be encountered here, or at least not at ABT’s opening night performance, which was filled with admirable dancing but empty of emotional resonance.

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake

It is possible things may have been different if the originally announced opening night Prince Siegfried, David Hallberg, had not had to withdraw due to injury. Perhaps he draws more from the reticent Hee Seo than did his replacement, Cory Stearns, on the evening of ABT’s Australian premiere. Stearns is a fine classicist with aristocratic lineaments and the plushest of plies, but he and Seo lack chemistry. The approaches each took didn’t catch fire when put together.

Stearns conveyed ennui rather than melancholy and superciliousness rather than noblesse oblige, qualities that did not entirely recommend him, even though his handsome carriage, light landings and princely line made a strong impression. Seo’s theatrically muted Odette was beautifully shaped in the physical sense but there was little idea of what she wanted, or did not. After meeting Siegfried, of whom she seemed not terribly afraid, Seo rarely looked at him, rather gazing down demurely or looking up to the heavens piously. Her eyes and face were not expressive and with her feelings a closed book, the loveliness of her shapes and exquisite articulation went for far less than they might and a couple of fumbles acquired more prominence than they should have.

It was therefore not entirely surprising in the third act to find Odette’s doppelganger Odile short on charisma. Seo wore a black tutu and a wide smile but the spark stopped there. There were no fireworks to be had, just a dutiful set of unadorned fouettes.

McKenzie opens the ballet with a prologue showing Odette’s capture by Von Rothbart. In Zack Brown’s otherwise unimpeachable designs, the sorceror looks like the Incredible Hulk (poor Roman Zhurbin on opening night) but tricks Odette by assuming exceptionally alluring human form (in this guise he was played by lucky Alexandre Hammoudi). The latter’s appearance in Act III is thus signaled. He is the super-confident, ultra-seductive gatecrasher who will bring disaster in the form of Odile. It’s a gift of a part as Von Rothbart sexily reels in all the princesses who are being paraded for Siegfried’s approval and makes the Queen Mother not a little hot and bothered. It probably shouldn’t have been the highlight of the evening, but it was.

Hammoudi, a soloist, smouldered enjoyably although he doesn’t quite have the impact of principal Marcelo Gomes in the role (could anyone?). Gomes is in Brisbane but not cast in Swan Lake it would appear. Brisbane has been denied a great pleasure. (Gomes is scheduled to appear in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita on Friday and Saturday evenings in the Three Masterpieces triple bill and in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free at Saturday’s matinee.)

The third act of Swan Lake slides into a brutally truncated fourth act – a decision that unbalances the ballet badly, giving more weight to the first and third acts set at court than to the white second and fourth acts at the lake. We see something of the swans’ anguish at their queen’s betrayal but the promise of tragedy explored and amplified is only minimally delivered. Instead the action moves briskly to Odette’s death leap and then Siegfried’s (Stearns went for broke here), followed by dawn, Von Rothbart’s broken spell, and Odette and Siegfried as lovers forever in the afterlife. Curtain. Heart untouched; soul unshaken.

It was a treat to see ABT’s music director Ormsby Wilkins authoritatively at the helm of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in what was something of a homecoming for the Sydney-born conductor. He will lead other performances in this short season, in which I hope different partnerships I am to see – Misty Copeland with Hammoudi, Gillian Murphy with James Whiteside and Paloma Herrera with Stearns – offer greater passion and nourishment.

Swan Lake ends Thursday. Three Masterpieces, ballets by Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky and Jerome Robbins has four performances from Friday.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 1.

The persistence of memory

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 27

HOFESH Shechter’s Sun has toured extensively since its world premiere at the Melbourne Festival about 10 months ago. It’s now briefly in Sydney for five performances only. I had quite a few reservations on first seeing Sun – my initial review is below – and some remain, but I liked it significantly better last night than last year. The piece looks more coherent, seems less jokey and feels much angrier.

Sun cr Jess Bialek 14

Returning to a piece after a fair amount of time is always an interesting challenge. How accurate is one’s memory? How much has the choreographer put in or left out as the work has travelled and evolved? What difference in one’s perception is due to relatively small changes in attack, duration, emphasis? Does the omission of a couple of labored touches that last only a few moments (dummy hanging from a noose; a woman leaping up in the audience screaming) help more than you might think?

Sun is still remarkably plain about its politics and its indictment of colonialism and its fruits. The message is blunt and is done in a way that’s not so very new: assailing you, the audience member, for being in the comfortable position of being able to attend this performance. But it felt to me as if Shechter’s concerns were being expressed with a higher level of seriousness. Sun seemed a whole lot tougher, impassioned and therefore more affecting and effective.

Shechter’s choreography is rooted in muscular folk dance but there are fragments of many other movement languages woven into a rich tapestry by the company’s extraordinary dancers. They were mesmerising last October and remain so.

One more thing: there were no free earplugs in sight. Yes, the music is loud, but honestly, not that loud. Good to see the affectation – or was it nanny-state overkill? – dropped.

Sun ends Saturday.

And from last year:

SUN finds Hofesh Shechter in a jocund mood, or what passes for it. The title implies warmth and light. Facsimile sheep wander and gambol. Every now and again a woman leaps up from the front row of the auditorium to utter a brief, piercing scream and then sits right back down again. One of Irving Berlin’s most swoon-worthy songs keeps punctuating Shechter’s thumping score and I swear there is twerking too, for just a moment (although not to Berlin).

Of course where there is sun there is shadow. The announcement at Sun’s outset that “everything will be just fine” is contradicted at every turn and the apparently playful takes on a sinister light. The Berlin song is Let’s Face the Music and Dance; the sheep are occasionally joined by a wolf. There’s even a snippet of Wagner in the score, an acid touch from the Israeli-born choreographer. African colonialism gets a moment too, along with flashes of contemporary urban behaviour. If Sun has a theme it is this: lambs to the slaughter.

The imagery is obvious, heavy-handed and in the case of the sheep, tediously over-extended. Shechter’s surrealist collage pulls together an eclectic range of references to political and social oppression but there’s no real weight there. Ideas clearly important to Shechter have a trivial air. And if I could institute a ban on strenuous fake laughing in dance works it would take place from this instant.

It’s a different story with the dance itself, which forms a fast-flowing, often turbulent river on which this other material bobs about. As with his breakout hit Political Mother (2010), Shechter finds power and purpose in the group although it is rare to see any physical contact. He understands that togetherness and separateness co-exist inextricably and from this fact much of life’s tumult emerges.

Sun, which is having its world premiere at the Melbourne Festival, is performed almost entirely in unison, the movement often rooted to the spot or covering little ground. Gestures are forceful and highly eloquent and there is frequent repetition, within a section of dance and within the overall structure. All this is done to a loud, foursquare beat – the kind of firm, regular beat that speaks to the blood.

Ritual and history are embedded in Shechter’s choreography. Fragments of folk and social dance from all sorts of places flicker and are then integrated back into the whole, although sometimes, as near the end of Sun, they harden into something less benign. The dance and these superb dancers tell the story.

By the way, the offer of earplugs at Sun is unnecessary as the music really isn’t that loud. It could have been much more over-powering, something I very much wished for Sun as a whole.

Inaccessible glamour

Choreographed by Narelle Benjamin. Performance Space, Sydney, August 22.

HIDING in Plain Sight is like a remote beauty, a super-something with abundant personal assets who glides through the world as if not quite of it – cool, guarded, cocooned, separate. Lesser mortals may look but not touch. They may admire, but not presume to approach.

Kristina Chan in Hiding in Plain Sight

Kristina Chan in Hiding in Plain Sight

On a rectangular performance area, watched over by a divided audience on opposing banks of seats, two dancers engage in intensely private solos. At first they are seen facing one another and moving in similar fashion although the physical closeness offers no sense of intimacy, even when heads touch shoulders as they do at the start.

Each woman is in her own half of the space, delineated by Karen Norris’s ultra-sophisticated lighting design. Soon the two go their own ways, staying deeply within themselves as Huey Benjamin’s electronic score continues on an unvaryingly introspective path. Hiding in Plain Sight is well named.

I admire Narelle Benjamin’s rigorous austerity and she has worked with two exquisite dancers in Kristina Chan and Sara Black, but Hiding in Plain Sight is a distancing piece. It was inspired by art and ideas on the subject of loss and displacement but at the end of what felt a longish 50 minutes seemed to have little to reveal about that disorienting, troubling state. Instead it evoked a kind of inaccessible glamour, lacking the complex emotional engagement one would have hoped for from Benjamin’s intent.

Carriageworks, Sydney. Ends August 30.

‘She makes you laugh then makes you cry’

Hayes Theatre Co, August 20

IT’S little wonder so many former child stars go off piste spectacularly, particularly those who started very young. Right from the get-go they learned that to be a success they would have to know how to please. To please Mommy, who took her to all those dance lessons. To please Daddy, if he was around, who paid for those lessons. To please the judges of the talent shows, and the advertising people picking out the prettiest, most compliant kids to be in the commercial. To work really, really hard because they were very likely the family breadwinner, and not to screw that up by not pleasing.

If you’re a pleaser, perhaps you get taken advantage of. It’s hard to lose the habit of being the one who is the approval-seeker. It’s sad. Even if you have a bulging bank account to ease the pain.

Christie Whelan Browne

Christie Whelan Browne

In the case of Britney Jean Spears, for quite a while she didn’t even have control of the bank account. Her father did that when she was judged unfit to manage her affairs and to take care of her children. She’d pulled quite a few stunts, true, but perhaps they too were another aspect – a more adult one – of trying to please. The paparazzi sure liked what she did, and she obliged big time.

Out of Spears’s very public woes writer/director Dean Bryant and the glorious Christie Whelan Browne have fashioned a new (relatively; Britney Spears the Cabaret first saw the light in 2009) take on a very old tale: fame as nightmare. It’s the “be careful what you wish for” story.

Whelan Browne delivers her performance with laser precision, switching in a nano-second from dumb broad to sweet innocent without you seeing it coming. She makes you laugh at Britney’s naivety and then makes you cry. Well, I got a bit teary. People can be so very cruel, particularly when they wield the power. And the fans do. They get to decide who is in and who out; who is not longer adored; who is to be chased and who ignored.

Obviously there are worse things in the world than being an over-impulsive, undoubtedly under-educated, far too rich and silly young woman (or young man, guess who?), but they’re with us, and they say something about us as well as themselves.

Assisted superbly by music director Matthew Frank at the piano, Whelan Browne interprets Spears’s songs with ferocious energy (she’s a great singer – no Auto-Tune required here!) and point. Circus, Piece of Me, … Baby One More Time, I’m a Slave 4 U, Womanizer, Oops! … I Did It Again, Toxic … well, you can see how songs with such titles might fit into the depiction of a troubled life. Frank’s arrangements do the rest by ripping them out of the pop realm and making them sound very unsettling indeed. Brilliant.

Britney Spears the Cabaret ends September 7.

‘I cannot wait to see what we create together’

THEY work quickly at Louisville Ballet. In April Robert Curran applied for the role of artistic director, he was interviewed twice in June and by early July he learned he was the successful candidate. His appointment was announced in Louisville yesterday and he starts in Kentucky possibly as early as next week once his visa has been finalised. He was selected from more than 80 applicants.

Curran, 38, couldn’t be happier. “I am thrilled to be leading a company that has such a rich history and that is so excited and enthusiastic about the future,” he said in Sydney earlier this week, during a whistle-stop trip home.

Louisville Ballet board chairman Joel Stone said via email: “We needed someone who could move the organisation forward over the next 10 years. So much has changed with our patron base and how they interact with dance and art. Robert’s vision for the company meshed perfectly with where we need to go.”

Curran, formerly one of the most loved principal artists at The Australian Ballet and noted as an exceptional partner, has been preparing for this moment since retiring at the top of his game at the end of 2011. He has an Advanced Diploma of Dance from The Australian Ballet School, a Bachelor of Business from Monash University and is undertaking a Master of Applied Theatre Studies from the University of New England. After he left the AB he took a year off to travel and observe the work of other ballet companies and directors.

Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran in The Nutcracker. Photo: Jim McFarlane

Robert Curran with Lucinda Dunn in The Nutcracker for the AB. Photo: Jim McFarlane

The Louisville board wasn’t deterred by the fact Curran had not previously run a company; in fact they liked it.

“They wanted somebody who was going to bring a level of freshness and innovation. They weren’t afraid of what that might look like,” Curran says. “The company has a really sound structure – sufficiently established so the organisation can run really efficiently but not so rigid that it’s not open for a bit of interpretation and adaptation as each of our initiatives start to take hold.”

The board sought someone who would continue retiring artistic director Bruce Simpson’s commitment to the classical tradition but also “someone who was interested in exploring where that [tradition] might go”. Louisville Ballet’s repertoire includes work by Ashton, Balanchine, Tudor, Cranko, Tharp, Fokine and Bournonville, and its next production is next month’s Giselle, which Curran will stage.

While it may seem a significant alteration in direction to appoint an Australian to the position, the move from Simpson to Curran is perhaps more like a baton change. Simpson’s taste in repertoire is similar to that of The Australian Ballet, says Curran, and indeed “Bruce has an enormous respect for the AB; enormous respect both for the company and the Australian Ballet School”. Ballet can be a very small world. (Australian Stanton Welch, is artistic director of Houston Ballet, a position he has held for 10 years.)

After spending 12 years at the helm Simpson will stay in Louisville, says Curran, who expresses great affection for him. “He has been incredibly respectful of what I need and want. He’s a really great man.”

Louisville Ballet was founded in 1952 as a project-based operation, bringing in artistic directors and dancers. It became a fully professional company in 1975 with eight dancers on contract. Today there are 24 dancers and 15 trainees, making it somewhat similar in size to Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet, albeit with much shorter seasons. The dancers are on 30-weeks contracts and the number of performances for each program is short – only three for Giselle, for example, with 11 for the seasonal favourite The Nutcracker.

Louisville has a population of about three-quarters of a million people and is the oldest city in Kentucky. It has a strong arts culture, being home to Kentucky Opera, Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Louisville Orchestra as well as the ballet company. Financial difficulties in the past have curtailed the use of live music but Louisville Orchestra is expected to play for Nutcracker. Curran hopes there will be opportunities for a closer relationship under Louisville Orchestra’s new young music director Teddy Abrams, who is just 27.

“The relationship has ebbed and flowed over the years. One of the things that is definitely in the future for Louisville Ballet is a stronger relationship with the orchestra. There was no discord in the past, just a financial thing. The orchestra has its costs that it needs to meet. The ballet has its budget that it needs to maintain. Hopefully there will be more flexibility and more of a combined fund-raising focus. At least they are interested in exploring that,” says Curran.

He will also be artistic director of Louisville Ballet School. “There is a school director who takes on the majority of the work, but there is definitely a level of commitment that is expected of me,” he says. “And I am very much looking forward to delivering on that expectation. The Vocational Graduate Certificate in Elite Dance Instruction that I studied through the ABS has given me plenty of ideas, and fortuitously, both schools teach the Vaganova training program.”

In a long conversation with me published on this site last year, Curran talked frankly about his ambition to lead a company, one from which he has not wavered since he stopped performing. He said he would go anywhere in the world, and it was not surprising to hear he had found an opportunity in the US, home to so many classical companies.

“I know that working with Louisville Ballet will be a joy and I cannot wait to see what we create together,” he told me. His first ideas will be seen In April when he stages his Director’s Choice program.

Incredibly virtuosic, highly expressive

Director and choreographer Antony Hamilton. The Performance Space, Carriageworks, Sydney, August 13.

WITH a bit of Einstein on the Beach over here, a spot of 2001: A Space Odyssey over there, a suggestion of wonky 1950s sci-fi film, images of sleek robotics and a sliver or two of domestic life, Keep Everything is both an eclectic treasure trove of references and utterly and beguilingly itself.

With only three performers and a set consisting of bits and bobs of rubbish there’s a hand-made quality to Keep Everything entirely in keeping with the original impulse of choreographer Antony Hamilton: to take dance ideas he’d previously discarded and see where they went. Where they went was somewhere much more intriguing than you might expect from airing a few ideas that didn’t made the cut.

Lauren Langlois in Antony Hamilton's Keep Everything

Lauren Langlois and BenjaminHancock in Antony Hamilton’s Keep Everything

Keep Everything is nothing less than a breathless (literally at many points) race through human history from the primordial swamp to a mechanistic future and back again. It may have a deceptively grungy air but is, in fact, incredibly virtuosic, highly expressive and tightly organised.

Often working with complex rhythms or durations that must be calibrated precisely to the micro-second the dancers – Benjamin Hancock, Lauren Langlois and Alisdair Macindoe – seamlessly evolve sounds and movements from primitive to futuristic via the quotidian stuff of everyday life: getting the dog to come in, having sex, giving birth, that sort of thing. The phrase “keep everything” takes on a multiplicity of meanings: Hamilton’s use of material; the junk strewn around that speaks of our over-stuffed material society; the need to hang on to other people; the desire to gather experiences and sensations; the need to keep making a noise, whether grunting, conversing, screaming or spewing strings of numbers. (The last sees Langlois and Macindoe in tremendous form – the Einstein moment.)

All this – and there’s a lot packed into a fast-flowing hour – happens to a whiz-bang sound design from Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes (The Presets), Benjamin Cisterne’s exceptional lighting design and Robin Fox’s AV design. There’s a lot of serious talent on board.

Best of all, Keep Everything is effortlessly witty. Not always something you can count on in contemporary dance. I’m sure I heard Langlois whisper “this isn’t working” at one point, and I hope I did. It was funny because obviously everything was going like a rocket, and funny because it was like a little ghost bobbing up from a time when Hamilton was choreographing and decided not to use this scrap of an idea.

The moment passed quickly and I accept I may have been mistaken. I may have misheard. But I’ll take Hamilton’s advice and, you know, keep everything.

Keep Everything was Chunky Move’s 2013 Next Move commission. You can’t fault their taste.

Keep Everything finishes at Carriageworks on Saturday. Melbourne, August 20-24.

Daring smoke-and-mirrors act

Queensland Ballet, Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane, August 1.

ONE masterwork, a party piece and two relatively new dances that look far better than they are provide an entertaining but creatively uneven program at Queensland Ballet. Very much on the plus side is that the company looks energised despite the rigours of the Romeo and Juliet season that ended only four weeks ago. Very much on the down side is that Flourish, as this quadruple bill is titled, is performed without live music. Everyone is ill-served: Tchaikovsky, Cesare Pugni, Philip Glass, Ravel, the audience and particularly the dancers.

Katherine Rooke (top), Emilio Pavan and Meng Ningning in Serenade. Photo: David Kelly

Katherine Rooke (top), Emilio Pavan and Meng Ningning in Serenade. Photo: David Kelly

It’s not that QB is penny-pinching in this regard. It’s that the company has ambitions it can’t entirely afford at the moment. Mind you, it’s not clear who could play for QB at this time of the year. On the last night of Flourish (August 9), Queensland Symphony Orchestra is in the Concert Hall at QPAC playing Berlioz, Sibelius and a world premiere of a commissioned score, Gordon Hamilton’s Ghosts in the Orchestra. QB has also worked several times with the chamber orchestra Camerata of St John’s, which at present is in Townsville for that city’s annual chamber music festival.

Nevertheless, QB is charging forward in a way one has to admire even while wincing at George Balanchine’s Serenade – the masterwork of the evening – being performed to a recording. It didn’t help that the sound system emitted a nasty burst of static at one point. Rather ironically, on August 1, while QB was dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, up in Townsville the Camerata was also playing Serenade for Strings, although this one by Dvorak. The Tchaikovsky would have been too, too cruel.

Serenade (1934) is the first Balanchine to be acquired by QB and the company acquitted itself well. On opening night Meng Ningning, whose triumph as Juliet seems to have released her, was a romantic, eloquent Waltz Girl and Lina Kim’s Russian Girl was poised and distinguished by pillowy elevation. Katherine Rooke started a little nervously as the Dark Angel but there is promise in those sometimes unruly, coltish limbs. The large ensemble of women, filled out with Young Artists and Pre-Professional Program dancers, was not entirely as one stylistically (Balanchine mastery is not achieved in a moment) but their commitment was total. Matthew Lawrence and Emilio Pavan were strong and sensitive in support.

After Serenade came Flourish’s party piece, the grand pas de deux from La Esmeralda (to Pugni’s music), choreographed by Ben Stevenson after Petipa. It gave long-serving QB dancer Teri Crilly a much-deserved chance to shine alongside diminutive but powerful guest artist Dmitry Zagrebin from Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet. The two were a lovely match – sunny, flirty and carrying off the technical fireworks with self-possession without being self-regarding. Utterly charming.

Nils Christe’s Short Dialogues (created for QB in 2011 to the music of Glass) and Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero (2008), to the famous Ravel score, are negligible works in the glossy, sexy, crowd-pleasing vein. The choreographers are both big names in the field but both have better works in their portfolio. I would have been very pleased, for instance, to see again Christe’s Fearful Symmetries, staged at QB in 2010.

Short Dialogues has three couples entering and leaving the stage through gloom and haze – the process is reminiscent of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room – in a manner that appears meaningful about relationships but has little to say. Clare Morehen with Keian Langdon, Lina Kim with Matthew Lawrence and Meng Ningning with Alexander Idaszak looked wonderful but the work failed to register with me. (Kim, incidentally, impresses more and more with each outing.)

Bolero is surprisingly blank despite the propulsive music and, again, splendid dancing. Clare Morehen (in both works) and Natasha Kusch (Bolero) were magnetic and it was a treat to see former QB principal artist Langdon return as a guest for Short Dialogues.

Indeed, guests were absolutely necessary on the night, an indication of QB artistic director Li Cunxin’s daring smoke-and-mirrors act. He wants to present work that needs many more dancers than QB has at the moment. The MacMillan Romeo and Juliet showed that in the most emphatic way, but Flourish also sends the message, albeit a little more quietly. Li wants to show what is possible and he is pushing very hard to make the case.

Serenade needs 20 women. With the retirement of principal Rachael Walsh at the end of the Romeo and Juliet season there are only 25 full company members and eight Young Artists, of whom 18 are women. Hence the use of Pre-Professional Program dancers – that is, students – in Serenade. (Incidentallly, Walsh was repetiteur on Short Dialogues, so she has already started the next phase of her career.)

In addition, there is a shortage of senior men, which is why there were no fewer than three male guest artists at the Flourish opening – Zagrebin, Langdon and Idaszak, back after a short stint with Royal New Zealand Ballet, and working as a guest with QB, his former company. QB’s international guest principal Huang Junshuang is not in the country at the moment and principal Hao Bin is injured. That leaves Matthew Lawrence to fly the flag for the company’s principal men.

The margin of error is tiny. Lawrence will need to keep very fit.

Flourish ends August 9.