Heart and soul

Sydney Opera House, June 11

IN Frances Rings’s Sheoak, her new work for Bangarra Dance Theatre, there is a greatly touching section for two women, on the Sydney opening night danced by Elma Kris and Yolanda Lowatta. The duo is one of protection, nurturing and teaching, and was enriched immeasurably by Kris’s radiant maturity and Lowatta’s shiny youth. Kris, now 43, is one of the longest-serving members of the Bangarra company while Lowatta, 23, is still a trainee, although a future in dance looks very secure indeed. She was awarded the 2015 Russell Page Fellowship and catches the eye effortlessly on stage.

But Lowatta is right at the beginning of her journey. Kris has travelled a long way from her earliest days with Bangarra as a rather shy figure whose world seemed to hold secrets we’d never learn. She was always intriguing because of that but you had to seek her out on stage. Now she is in the full flowering of her artistry. She is still a very modest performer, never appearing to seek the spotlight, but transmits a dance’s purpose with the greatest clarity.

Elma Kris and company in Sheoak. Photo: Jhuny Boy Borja

Elma Kris and company in Sheoak. Photo: Jhuny Boy Borja

Kris has never been the most obviously polished dancer in Bangarra’s ranks but she has qualities that transcend technical finish. She has heart and soul. She can take you to the realm most important to Bangarra – an understanding of traditional Indigenous culture.

As well as anchoring the ancient mysteries of Sheoak, Kris had a central role in I.B.I.S., the here-and-now work that gets the lore double bill off to a rollicking start. Who would have thought that going down to the shop to stock up on food could be so much fun? I.B.I.S. is named after a Queensland Government statutory body – Islanders Board of Industry & Service – that operates stores in the Torres Strait. One of its responsibilities (I got this from a 2013 report) is to “provide healthy food choices at lowest possible prices”.

With the lightest of touches, co-choreographers Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco remind us that people (and not only Indigenous people) are increasingly removed from their own food gathering. Want some crayfish? It comes out of the freezer. (The freezer also provides some welcome cooling air for a group of exceptionally sinous shoppers.)

I.B.I.S. starts with a delightful gathering of friends amongst the shelves, the women in pretty flowery frocks (longtime Bangarra associate Jennifer Irwin created all the terrific costumes for this program) and the men full of high spirits. There’s singing, horsing about and some business with shopping baskets, and then things start getting surreal as turtles and crayfish come to life with sinuous grace and flickering legs. The fantastical then gives way to the traditional as the company performs vibrant stamping dances.

Wanneer Blanco, Yolanda Lowatta and Tara Gower in I.B.I.S. Photo: Jeff Tan

Waangenga Blanco, Yolanda Lowatta and Tara Gower in I.B.I.S. Photo: Jeff Tan

I.B.I.S. is a first work from Brown and Blanco and it’s a great success. The theme of change in practices and the environment is delivered with much humour and vitality. Bangarra doesn’t have a huge ensemble so Brown and Blanco didn’t get the night off work to enjoy I.B.I.S. from the auditorium. They both looked terrific, as did the whole company.

Sheoak is a serious, dramatically beautiful response to timeless imperatives. As the work starts a disintegrating mass of bodies shows the fracturing of an old way of life but essential parts remain through troubled times and in renewal. The tree is re-imagined as fragments in a series of vignettes touching on loss and recovery. The meaning is at times elusive but the atmospherics powerful. Jacob Nash designed both works with Karen Norris on lighting. As ever, it is hard to think of dance works that consistently look as ravishing as Bangarra’s. David Page composed for Sheoak and Steve Francis wrote the I.B.I.S. score, both of them using Indigenous language as an integral aspect of music and meaning.

Sydney until July 4. Canberra, July 9-11; Wollongong, July 23-25; Brisbane, August 7-15; Melbourne, August 28-September 5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 15.

Where there’s muck there’s brass

Belvoir, Sydney, June 10

MOTHER Courage is one of the little people, born somewhere undesirable at the wrong time. A war she didn’t have anything to do with starting grinds on, stops for a bit and then starts up again. What’s a woman to do? Mother Courage goes on to the front foot. As a Yorkshireman might say, “where’s there’s muck there’s brass”. That’s a 20th-century saying but apparently there was a 17th-century English proverb that covered pretty much the same ground. Wherever there’s unpleasant work there is money to be made. Certainly where there is destruction on a grand scale many people will lose everything. But some people make a lot. Consider, for instance, KBR Inc, a former subsidiary of the well-connected company Halliburton, which received US government contracts worth nearly $US40 billion for work relating to the Iraq war. Mother Courage works on a rather less elevated level, hanging around the fringes of conflict with her wagon, selling a bit of this and a bit of that. She makes a living. (That phrase takes on some piquancy when used in relation to a war zone.)

Robyn Nevin in Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin in Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Brecht set his play during the cataclysmic Thirty Years War that occupied a substantial part of the first half of 17th-century Europe but its story is imperishable. Kingdoms and principalities may come and go but war is a sure thing and so are the profits that go with it. Brecht’s war isn’t the clash of bodies and armaments and a little touch of Harry in the night; it’s the one that runs parallel with it, the one that feeds off the fighting while feeding those who fight, and possibly keeps it all going longer than it might otherwise. Who can possibly say?

As John Willett writes in Brecht in Context (Methuen, 1984), “Brecht does that seemingly simple thing which his often mystifying theory of alienation is intended to make possible. He takes a new look at a familiar area, and by so doing he suggests to others how they too can look at it afresh.” In other words, we need to be able to see things doubly – in the light of deeply ingrained beliefs but also with a mind open to new and perhaps strange ways of perceiving. Things are rarely as cut and dried as black hats versus white hats.

Mother Courage – the character – brilliantly embodies the kind of duality that’s constantly shifting. For every good quality she displays there is evidence of its opposite. She is funny and grim, brave and cowardly, generous and venal, protective of her children while failing to protect them, open to a spot of romance and hard as a nut, and on it goes. Is she really courageous or a vulture opportunistically picking at whatever bones come her way?

Under Eamon Flack’s direction for Belvoir, Robyn Nevin shows you all this in a riveting performance that feels perfectly true to the intentions of the work and the process of conveying it. I came across the following when reading Eric Bentley’s The Theory of the Modern Stage (Penguin, 1968) and it resounded greatly. This is Brecht on his wife Helene Weigel, saying that she had learned to let attention “move away from her, the actress, to the content: to what was enacted … never did she set out to show her own greatness, but always the greatness of those whom she portrayed.” (Translation by John Berger and Anna Bostock.) Weigel was the first Mother Courage.

Flack has also been very astute in the selection of supporting actors. It’s true that Belvoir has an increasingly good record of looking beyond performers who match the predominately white audience, but here the casting has particular bite. (Most people don’t notice absence. It’s why for aeons there were female directors were incredibly scarce: male artistic directors just didn’t notice they weren’t there. People get used to seeing people who are like them and assuming all is right with the world. It’s not a state particularly conducive to creative thinking.) In Mother Courage the diversity of the actors’ appearances forces you to attend just that little bit more actively. A Kattrin whose work we are already familiar and therefore comfortable with? A young woman who looks rather like a young Nevin? Too easy. Newcomer Emele Ugavule was an inspired choice and she is unforgettable as Mother Courage’s daughter, her muteness explained in one terrible throwaway line that efficiently covers the kinds of things that happen to young women during wartime and demonstrates Mother Courage’s practical acceptance of it.

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

The production is a bare-bones one, clearly in a theatrical setting although not one with lots of bells and whistles. It is modest in its means and that modesty becomes it. It is particularly endearing, for instance, that while the evidence suggests Nevin’s exceptional gifts do not extend to singing and dancing, she does these things nevertheless. This play – this production – can incorporate gear shifts such as this that make one smile. (Paula Arundell, on the other hand, lends considerable vocal skills, along with a sizzling, gleeful presence, to the role of Yvette, another woman who uses what she has to get by.)

The ideas come through loud and clear in Michael Gow’s strong, clear translation and in the hands of all the actors. But then what? Horace Walpole comes to the rescue (as do my long-ago drama studies at the University of Newcastle). Walpole wrote that the world was a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. Same thing, different outcomes. If you didn’t laugh you’d cry, and all that.

Mother Courage chooses to laugh, if you like. We can choose to cry, if we want. We can do both.

Mother Courage and Her Children has one of Western theatre’s indelible endings. There are no children left after a brief breakout of peace has been stamped out by a resumption of hostilities, but Mother Courage does not crack. She stands in front of her wagon, hoists up the shafts and starts pulling. In Nevin’s face I saw stoicism and determination mixed with dread, or at least that is what I believe I saw, which amounts to the same thing. The defiance is thrilling and terrifying. Who amongst us would have her guts in such circumstances?

Mother Courage and Her Children was written just before the start of World War II and first produced in 1941, in Zurich. Did Samuel Beckett, writing (in French) in 1948 learn something from this dogged expression of the will to endure? Certainly another of Western theatre’s indelible endings expresses a similar spirit.

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

Staying, going, surviving, whatever it takes. Would we do any better?

Everything old is new again

Metropolitan Opera House, New York, May 29 and May 30.

WHEN Serge Diaghilev decided to stage The Sleeping Beauty in London the monumental Russian Imperial-era ballet was not an obvious stablemate for the modernist dance works he had introduced with his Ballets Russes. But Diaghilev had his reasons. There was Tchaikovsky’s music, which he admired greatly and which was championed by Stravinsky (who reorchestrated part of the score for Diaghilev), and, more pragmatically, the cash-strapped Diaghilev was inspired by the success of the popular Oscar Asche musical comedy Chu Chin Chow. It ran for five years in London from 1916 and Diaghilev wanted, he said, to put on a show that would run “forever”. As Lynn Garofola writes in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, financial statements demonstrate “the precarious thread on which survival of the post-Armistice Ballets Russes hung”. As ever, being daring and experimental was not a guarantee of lasting security. The impresario badly needed money.

Titled The Sleeping Princess – apparently Diaghilev didn’t think all his Auroras were beautiful, hence the more prosaic wording – the production didn’t do badly by today’s standards, having a three-month run of more than 100 performances from November 1921 to February 1922. It didn’t, however, recoup its costs. Diaghilev left London quickly to give creditors the slip and Ballets Russes sets, scores, costumes, designs and other items were impounded. That they weren’t widely dispersed and lost is something of a miracle, but at various auctions in the 1960s and 1970s large tranches of the material were bought by cultural institutions, including what would later become the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Its rich Ballets Russes holdings, including some Léon Bakst costumes and sketches for The Sleeping Princess (the NGA has the Bluebird’s costume, a wonderful jewel), were shown in a fascinating 2011 exhibition Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume. When designer Richard Hudson used Bakst as inspiration for Alexei Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre, there was plenty of excellent research material available.

Léon Bakst Costume for the Bluebird c.1921 from the Ballets Russes' production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant] National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1980

Léon Bakst. Costume for the Bluebird c.1921 from the Ballets Russes’ production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant]. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

While Hudson’s opulent design references the 1921 production, Ratmansky’s choreography seeks to revive as nearly as possible that of Petipa’s 1890 St Petersburg original, a task made possible by study of the Stepanov notation of the ballet that was taken out of Russia after the 1917 revolution by St Petersburg ballet master Nikolai Sergeyev. Diaghilev also used this resource for his production.

An aside: Ratmansky’s Act III wedding celebration includes many storybook characters including Chinese Porcelain Princesses, who dance very little but walk with their hands raised and a finger pointed skywards – just as we can see in this sketch from the NGA’s collection. Dance critic Judith Mackrell wrote in The Guardian in March: “While the notation is very specific in certain respects, recording the height and positions of the legs, the direction of a phrase, the way the body is bent, it gives almost no information about the positions of the arms.” Direction would have to have come from elsewhere, and Ratmansky suggested that “Perhaps they just used the port de bras that were conventional – the ones everybody knew – or perhaps the principals were given the freedom to do what they wanted.”

Léon Bakst Costume design for the Chinese from The Sleeping Princess  1921 Souvenir programme for The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra Theatre Research Library, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Léon Bakst. Costume design for the Chinese from The Sleeping Princess 1921. Souvenir programme for The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra Theatre. Research Library, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The 1921 venture was by no means a dead end. The Sleeping Beauty had failed to get traction in revolutionary Russia but Diaghilev would change its fortunes. The Sleeping Princess may not have achieved its financial goal but it did have a lasting effect on British ballet and beyond. When Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now The Royal Ballet) went to New York in 1949 it opened with The Sleeping Beauty, with Margot Fonteyn in the title role, and made an enormous impact. The company’s director, Ninette de Valois, had appeared in the Diaghilev production, writes Mary Clarke in her 1955 Sadler’s Wells Ballet history, with Clarke commenting that the 1939 Sadler’s Wells production of Beauty, its first, “came far nearer the original” than the Diaghilev version, “many numbers being included which had not been seen since St Petersburg days”.

Sadler’s Wells marked important occasions with performances of The Sleeping Beauty and the work would become a touchstone work for The Royal Ballet. It would also become the benchmark classical work for any company. It’s the big one.

As with all the Petipa ballets, The Sleeping Beauty has been revised and reinterpreted many times. The Mariinsky staged a reconstruction of the original in 1999 that was not universally admired, not even by the Mariinsky itself it would appear, as the company has retreated from it. (It ran about four hours including intervals and allowed contemporary flourishes such as very high leg extensions for the women.) Now there is Ratmansky’s somewhat slimmer version to give audiences a window into the storied world of Russian Imperial ballet and to shine a light on Petipa’s choreographic style. ABT’s production lasts three hours including two intervals, although rather candidly the ABT program notes that the ballet was cut “somewhat to fit within the union defined time limitation”. Some mime and music had to go.

 

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.  Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Ratmansky’s Beauty is visually extravagant – mostly but not entirely successfully – but nevertheless a deeply impressive spectacle. The scale of the enterprise becomes apparent immediately as members of the court enter to celebrate the christening of Princess Aurora. The King and Queen preside over a large establishment of courtiers, cavaliers, attendants and pages, all gorgeously costumed. The Queen has a huge panniered gown with a lengthy train that requires the constant presence of small boys to carry, arrange and stumble over adorably. The fairies who have come to bestow gifts have their own brilliantly attired cavaliers and cushion-carrying children. The Lilac Fairy, being the highest ranked, has no fewer than eight men to accompany her. There are wigs for all and spectacular hats for many. The wicked fairy Carabosse arrives in a chariot and is supported by rats large and small, the little ones being particularly malevolent while also being on duty to prevent Carabosse from tripping over her extensive train. That is just the Prologue. In the Act I Garland Dance there are no fewer than 48 dancers: 32 adults and 16 students from ABT’s Jacqueline Onassis School. In Act III, Aurora and Prince Désiré enter the ballroom in wonderfully sumptuous white costumes entirely suitable for a royal wedding but not for dancing, so after a few minutes they slip away to change – returning in much simpler garments that from where I was sitting gave the impression that the couple was ready for bed once they’d completed their grand pas de deux.

(It is easy to see where the money – reportedly cost $US6 million – went. Not surprisingly Beauty is a co-production, with Teatro alla Scala presenting Beauty in Milan from September 26. Bolshoi principal and La Scala étoile Svetlana Zakharova is slated to dance three of the eight performances partnered by Bolshoi and ABT principal David Hallberg, who has been absent from the stage for many months while recovering from foot surgery.)

While the display is lavish, it frames a story told with strong, clear mime and many intimate, modest details. In this environment the music sounds immediate and fresh. Many familiar passages make a livelier impact because the more contained physicality means the music is not slowed for multiple fouettés (there are absolutely none here) or high-flying manéges of jetés with double sauts de basque thrown in. Leg extensions are relatively low and there are delightful pirouettes in which the retiré position – where one leg is pulled up and the foot placed against the supporting leg – is not much higher than the ankle. The effect is refined and charming, entirely suitable for a young woman at her birthday party. For both men and women there is a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkles. It is as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and more intricate and sophisticated.

Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone

It was pleasing to note alterations in choreography to suit the different gifts and temperaments of the lead dancers. For instance, Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo, a less grand couple than the first cast of Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes, didn’t do the famous series of fish dives in the Act III pas de deux, and they weren’t missed. In fact, I felt the spirit of romance was better sustained without them, because the fish dives sent the audience’s applause-o-meter off the scale and interrupted the mood – for me, anyway.

At both performances I saw those around me were tickled by the Canari qui chante (Canary) fairy variation in the Prologue, its speed and fluttery quality bringing to mind the hummingbird as never before (in the Diaghilev production she is described as the Fairy of the Hummingbird). There were countless felicitious moments, but I particularly relished the double air turn landed on one foot that Cornejo, in the second performance, made look so elegant, and the way he held Lane in a series of supported pirouettes, using just one hand to turn her while his other arm was out-stretched. Darting eyelines and changing head and torso positions added texture and animation to dances, with the Diamond Fairy’s Act III variation particularly notable in this regard.

It was fascinating to see the Sapphire Fairy’s vivacissimo variation included. It rarely is. In notes to the full version of the score recorded by Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic (Chandos), David Nice writes: “The Sapphire Fairy is given one of the most original miniatures in the ballet, a racy number in the unusual metre of 5/4 to illustrate Petipa’s specified ‘five-pointed’ quality. And devilishly difficult it is to dance to – hence its usual absence from productions.”

The Chandos disc runs to two hours and 35 minutes of music and in his introduction Nice writes: “Neither at [the 1890] premiere … nor in more than a handful of subsequent choreographies has every note of Tchaikovsky’s score been heard (substantial cuts in 1890 included the music for the ladies of the Prince’s retinue in Act II and for the Fairies of the precious stones in Act III).”

The music for the Sapphire Fairy’s variation lasts only about 40 seconds, so there wouldn’t have been much of a saving there. A bigger cut was made by eliminating entrancing music that follows the Panorama in which the Prince sets off to find his sleeping princess. There are two entr’actes, the first excluded entirely and the second truncated, I think. Fascinatingly, Nice remarks of the latter entr’acte: “Not previously noted, I think, is the fact that the note C is sustained by the strings, principally for violins, for exactly 100 bars. This is time suspended: the ‘sleep’ chords … and the themes of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse pass before us in shadow plan until the mists finally dissolve. Few if any productions observe the full symbolic duration of this hypnotic spell …”

The spell cast by Ratmansky is substantial, although not entirely complete. There are several puzzling dramaturgical decisions. For instance, Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy enter the wedding party together. There has been no repeat of the terrible mistake that saw Carabosse forgotten from the invitation list for the christening with such drastic consequences. All is forgiven and peace reigns. But if you’d blinked twice you would have missed this vital gesture of reconciliation as Carabosse whizzes across the back of the stage and is swallowed up by the throng. Another key moment, the kiss, is similarly underplayed. Aurora’s bed is to the audience’s right and would be difficult to see by those on that side of the theatre. I was seated quite centrally and only just had it fully in my line of vision. You really do want to see that kiss.

Léon Bakst Costume for a lady-in-waiting c.1921 from the Ballets Russes' production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant] National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1973

Léon Bakst. Costume for a lady-in-waiting c.1921 from the Ballets Russes’ production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant]
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.Purchased 1973

These are matters easily remedied. Something less easy to find is a sense of deep emotional engagement with the production. It is gracious, grand, meticulous, regal and restrained. It was fascinating to behold and I could easily have watched a third cast, and a fourth, and found more in it. It is a wonderful work of scholarship and I admired it greatly but there was a chill in the air.

American Ballet Theatre ends its Sleeping Beauty performances on June 13.

Light and shade

Sydney Opera House, June 3

MARK Morris is a master of light. You see this in all sorts of ways: the deeply satisfying structures where formality is leavened by little quirks and surprises; unassuming costumes that flatter bodies and let you see the dance; and clarity of purpose that means the viewer is in no doubt as to Morris’s intent.

There is also light in Morris’s joyfulness, the way he so often uses folk or social dance references that give a sense of a bonded community, and his gorgeous optimism. You come away from Morris and his engaging, good-humoured dancers feeling happy and, yes, light.

All of this made Morris’s newest work, Whelm, the wonderful surprise in this Sydney program of four works. Whelm, which premiered in New York only six weeks before its Sydney appearance, dwells in the dark and is strange and mysterious, hinting at conflict and death. Three enigmatic Debussy solo piano pieces propel a quartet in which tight interaction between somberly clad dancers alternates with moments of menace and uncertainty, and the movement switches without notice from flowing balletic turns and leaps to spiky, angular gestures or robotic walks. The pale faces of the dancers stand out spookily from their crepuscular costumes, even that of the woman who is veiled as if in mourning. There are hints of German Expressionist film in jerky movements (I loved the twitches of the lower arm that seem to come out of nowhere) alongside spins and jetes executed at frantic speed.

Mark Morris Dance Group in Whelm. Photo: Prudence Upton

Mark Morris Dance Group in Whelm. Photo: Prudence Upton

At the piano, Morris’s music director Colin Fowler was pivotal in establishing the spectral mood. The unknown permeates Whelm – the word means to engulf, and not in a good way – and leaves the viewer intrigued and unsettled.

A second surprise came with A Wooden Tree (2012). Morris has a rule. If anyone wants to present his dance company there has to be provision for live music, whether it be a local symphony orchestra or his own music ensemble. It’s non-negotiable. Morris’s deep and passionate knowledge of music and his insistence on live performance are a large part of his indisputable greatness, along with his largeness of spirit. (Unfortunately Australian festivals tend to be the only ones who can afford the major Morris works that require an orchestra, such as Mozart Dances. Danced to three Mozart piano concertos, Mozart Dances was a centerpiece of this year’s Perth International Arts Festival, at which I saw it twice and would have been happy to enjoy a third time.)

A Wooden Tree happily breaks Morris’s no-exceptions provision: what fun is a rule if not broken every now and again? A recorded series of short songs by Scottish songwriter and poet Ivor Cutler covers subjects such as romance, family, friendship and other quotidian stuff, rendered in ditties that combine fun, satire and truth in an apparently artless, even inarticulate, way but in fact are sharply observed and touching. The dances illustrate the songs goofily and were utterly adorable.

Mind you, had Guest been alive at the time of A Wooden Tree’s making in 2012 – he died in 2006 at the age of 83 – it wouldn’t have been a surprise had he appeared in person. Morris seems to be able to get pretty much anyone he wants, and it’s worth noting that at the New York premiere of A Wooden Tree in 2013 the ensemble of eight dancers included none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov, who has worked much with Morris.

Mark Morris Dance Group in Pacific. Photo: Prudence Upton

Mark Morris Dance Group in Pacific. Photo: Prudence Upton

A Wooden Tree and Whelm were bookended by the sunny warmth of Pacific and Festival Dance, the first performed to two movements from a Lou Harrison piano trio and the second to a trio by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (Morris has wide musical interests). Both were bracingly played by Fowler, violinist Georgy Valtchev and cellist Andrew Janss.

Pacific was created in 1996 for San Francisco Ballet and the women danced on pointe. The Mark Morris Dance Group version, premiered in February this year, has everyone in soft shoes, a fact that aligns the men and women more closely and perhaps flattens it out a little. Nine dancers, wearing long floaty skirts in shades of green, blue and orange, sweep in and out in swiftly changing permutations and striking arm and upper-body shapes that evoke ocean and sky, not in specifics but in strong, harmonious and serene atmospherics. Festival Dance (2011) is an uplifting, generously scaled romance – an ode to dance itself if you will – with six couples whizzing about in the highest of spirits.

MMDG has visited Australia only three times before, for the 1994 Adelaide Festival, to Sydney in 2003 and for this year’s Perth International Arts Festival. This was, in other words, a rare chance to see the work of this living master. Would it have been more powerful to see one of the full-length works? Yes. But any opportunity to see Morris must be seized without reservation.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 5.

Soulmates

American Ballet Theatre, May 28

IN the life of an inveterate dance-lover there are many Giselles and many new insights into the ballet and its characters, or at least one always goes in hope that will be the case. Details and nuances that create character register differently with each exponent. How does Giselle react when Albrecht wants to share her little bench; is she overwhelmed or fascinated by Princess Bathilde; to what degree does she reveal her heart condition; how is Albrecht’s betrayal absorbed? These and myriad other things are woven together to make an individual interpretation. Albrecht too will appear in many different lights, from the boy out of his depth to practised deceiver and anything in between.

This week in New York I was able to see two interpreters new to me, both of whom I had wanted to see for some time. I wrote about Stella Abrera’s New York debut here. On Thursday night the wondrous Royal Ballet pairing of Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae electrified the Metropolitan Opera House. It was one of the great, great nights in the theatre.

Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae. Photo: Gene Schiavone

I realised then that Osipova has given me three of my most memorable ballet experiences. The first was in 2007 when she took London by storm in Don Quixote with the Bolshoi. She was still a teenager, dancing with the even younger Ivan Vasiliev. The company was then led by Alexei Ratmansky, whose iconoclastic ways – favouring this young pair to open the season over established Bolshoi stars!! – did not endear him to that sclerotic institution. The second time was in New York in 2012 when she danced with David Hallberg in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Their first act was so overwhelming that the audience would not leave the auditorium when the lights went up for interval but kept cheering until the pair appeared before the curtain to take an exceptionally rare mid-show call (they do that in the opera here, but not the ballet).

Osipova’s Giselle had London aflame last year and had this week’s New York audience entranced and exhilarated. She tore through the ballet with a passion, leaping higher, turning more quickly and covering ground more voraciously than any other. In the diagonal of hops on pointe during Act I she moved so expansively that she had time to circle about near the end; when she circumnavigated the stage with a series of tight turns, she was an unstoppable force, the small whirls within a larger one giving the effect of a tornado.

Her dramatic choices – and they can’t be separated from her dance choices – are equally thrilling. I was particularly struck, for instance, by the way she revealed the strain on Giselle’s heart during the crowd dance of Act I. Many dancers make this a big moment, obviously struggling for breath and hunching over before going to rest on a bench. Osipova stiffened, then walked a little to and fro to compose herself, as if willing herself to be well, and then rejoined the dance.

Where was Albrecht in all this? Vitally, tenderly present in the form of Steven McRae. I have never seen the peasant girl and high-born man seem such powerful soulmates. The clarity and complexity of McRae’s acting is wonderful. He gives not just the broad picture but makes every moment vivid, fresh, illuminating and dramatically coherent. His dancing, it goes without saying, was full of brilliance without being bombastic. But there was no more riveting moment than one of complete stillness, when Albrecht heard the distant horns of the Royal hunting party and understood the chaos to come.

Osipova is a risk-taking dancer and on Thursday night she fell heavily towards the end of her final solo and took several agonising seconds to recover enough to stand. She limped back to the centre and resumed dancing, finishing the ballet not only courageously but with melting beauty. The curtain call was reorganised to limit her movement and it is unclear to what degree she is injured.

Veronika Part, who danced the Queen of the Wilis (perhaps with not the same degree of imperiousness as in the Abrera performance), took on the task of welcoming conductor Ormsby Wilkins to the stage, but Osipova took her calls before the curtain generously. As with Abrera, the audience was unwilling to leave when the house lights went up and Osipova and McRae received several more ovations.

Room at the top

Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, May 23; La Sylphide, New York City Ballet, May 24; All Robbins, New York City Ballet, May 26

IF this had been The Australian Ballet, this is what would have happened. During the curtain calls the artistic director would have come on to the stage, microphone in hand, and elevated the evening’s Giselle to the rank of principal. But it was American Ballet Theatre, and although AD Kevin McKenzie was in the house – he made a pre-performance announcement – he did not right what many observers think is a long-standing wrong. Soloist Stella Abrera remained unpromoted. It was, in fact, only injury to another dancer that delivered Abrera her New York premiere as Giselle (last month she danced the role with the AB in Sydney and has also danced it in the Philippines).

ABT principal artist Polina Semionova was to have danced on Saturday night but was announced as injured on May 18. Abrera therefore got the nod at fairly short notice that she would finally be appearing as Giselle before her home crowd, and would do so with starry Mariinsky guest artist Vladimir Shklyarov.

Veronica Part, Stella Abrera and Vladimir Shklyarov in Giselle. Photo: MIRA

Veronica Part, Stella Abrera and Vladimir Shklyarov in Giselle. Photo: MIRA

There are eight ABT performances of Giselle in the current Spring season and eight casts. (Just one to go as I write, featuring the exciting partnership of Natalia Osipova and the Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae. I will be there.) Interestingly two of the performances were farewells to veteran ABT principal artists – Paloma Herrera, 39, and Xiomara Reyes, 42, at the matinee and evening performances of May 27. Another of the Giselles, Julie Kent, 45, retires on June 20 in Romeo and Juliet. So it’s not as if there’s not room at the top for another principal woman (and let’s not forget Misty Copeland, also still a soloist but who also dances many principal roles). On the subject of Reyes, she said something very telling to The New York Times when it ran a piece on the three imminent departures from ABT: “I thought it would end when my body would tell me. My body hasn’t told me yet… I cannot tell you I am ready to retire… Where I am as a dancer is not necessarily where the company is as an institution.”

But let’s not dwell on negatives. Abrera’s New York debut was a triumphant occasion, made even more special by the presence in the house of about 200 former ABT dancers, who were to attend a party after the performance as part of the company’s 75th anniversary celebrations (that was the reason McKenzie stepped before the curtains: to ask us to applaud the contribution of the alumni). There’s nothing like an incredibly knowledgeable and supportive audience to ramp up the excitement level.

Abrera’s warmth and simplicity informed every moment of her performance; there wasn’t a thing that didn’t feel genuine. The story was told clearly and modestly in Act I, culminating in a mad scene that tore at the heart. As she loses her reason Giselle re-enacts the plucking of flower petals, which earlier had quieted her anxiety about Albrecht – he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. Now there was no anticipation or light. Abrera shook her head piteously. He doesn’t love me. Act II was full of love, tenderness and sublime dancing from her and Shklyarov.

Come curtain-call time, no amount of partisanship could have accounted for the tumultuous reception, which went on after the house lights came up. Shklyarov, who had been such a responsive partner as well as dancing with extraordinary clarity and beauty, repeatedly kissed Abrera’s hand and knelt to her. The house went wild.

At this performance there were memorable supporting performances, first and foremost from Veronika Part as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, ruling her empire with icy hauteur, knockout speed and elevation, and most particularly the chilling power of the frozen moment on pointe. Thomas Forster was an ardent, salt-of-the-earth Hilarion who went to his death heroically; Misty Copeland was on song in the peasant pas; and (in a bonus for an Australian visitor) former AB dancer Stephanie Williams was a fine Zulma, one of the two lead Wilis.

The next day at New York City Ballet’s La Sylphide I saw the joyously buoyant Sylphide of Lauren Lovette, almost childlike in the way she persuaded James to flee from the weight of his obligations into the light of the forest, and as James, the incredibly impressive Anthony Huxley, like Lovette an NYCB soloist. Huxley played James as a very angry young man indeed in the first act. He was unnecessarily rough with Troy Schumacher’s warm-hearted Gurn and even more so with Gretchen Smith’s Madge. Not a happy bridegroom-to-be at all, but gloriously in command of the Bournonville style with its poised upper body, soaring leaps and fast, crisp footwork.

The production itself is unpleasing. The first-act farm house is featureless and the second act glade is remarkably ugly (designs by Susan Tammany), its colours and swirls reminding me somewhat of 1960s tie-dying. The corps de ballet of sylphs was lovely but the atmospherics quite inimical to their Romantic shapes. And as for the garish tartans! Poor James is a riot of intense purple. Least said soonest mended.

NYCB ballet master in chief Peter Martins does give value for money though. He ran La Sylphide without an interval and preceded it with Bournonville Divertissements, a set of bits and pieces from various Bournonville works. It didn’t hang terribly well together but there were compensations in the form of Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle in the pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano, both vivacious, flirtatious and alert in all the tricky oppositions of head, shoulders and torso; and the lively full-cast Tarantella from the third act of Napoli.

Another suite of dances that didn’t do the trick for me is West Side Story Suite, seen after a performance of Jerome Robbins’s Goldberg Variations. Robbins put together selections from West Side Story for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway in 1989 and re-staged them for NYCB in 1995, and they haven’t aged particularly well. That said, had they been performed better when I saw them they would have been more tolerable. The dancers are required to talk a little and sing a bit, neither things of which they did to any high degree of accomplishment, but then the professional singers who stepped into for Something’s Coming and Somewhere weren’t top drawer either. Even The Dance at the Gym and America didn’t really catch fire, which says it all.

Happily Goldberg Variations was infinitely more absorbing. A long work at nearly an hour and a half, it at times feels as if Robbins fell in love with the notion of variations a little too deeply, but there is always something of interest to catch the eye in each section and a lovely sense of flow as each part overlaps with the next so there’s constant refreshment. Along with courtly Baroque gestures that pay homage to Bach there are many contemporary demotic touches as dancers somersault, lie on the floor for a moment or walk about. On Tuesday night there was also plenty of radiant classical dancing, most decisively from the three pairs of principals who dominate the final section, Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia, Rebecca Krohn and Jared Angle and Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle.

Berlin, Paris, Verona, Worcester County

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Belasco Theatre, May 21; An American in Paris, Palace Theatre, May 22; The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Polonsky Shakespeare Centre, Brooklyn, May 23 (matinee); The Flick, Barrow Street Theatre, May 24

IS there a more gallant, a more scintillating, a more lovable character on Broadway right now than Hedwig, in the person of Darren Criss, lately of Glee? Well, perhaps Jerry Mulligan, as brought to life by New York City Ballet heartthrob Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris, could give Hedwig a run for her money, albeit for a different demographic. And if we extend the search to Off-Broadway, in Fiasco Theater’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona we have the generous, upstanding, truly honourable (and handsome) Valentine played by Zachary Fine, who also doubles felicitously as the naughty but terribly charming dog Crab.

Zachary Fine as Crab in Fiasco Theater's The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goldstein

Zachary Fine as Crab in Fiasco Theater’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Also Off-Broadway are the three most affecting people you could encounter anywhere – the beaten-down-but-not-out trio of Annie Baker’s miraculous play The Flick. One couldn’t say they are scintillating personalities, but they are gallant in their own ways, and heart-breaking.

Robert Fairchild in flight during rehearsals for An American in Paris. Photo: Matt Trent

Robert Fairchild in flight and Leanne Cope held aloft during rehearsals for An American in Paris. Photo: Matt Trent

The Broadway revival of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch is wildly entertaining, for the most part, although not without its oddities. To explain the unlikelihood of the “internationally ignored song stylist” appearing on Broadway, the conceit is that a new musical has just closed – at interval on its premiere – and the Belasco Theatre’s stage has been freed up for a one-night-only performance by Hedwig. And the musical that bombed, if you will excuse my language? It was Hurt Locker: The Musical, discarded Playbills for which litter the floor of the Belasco (they are very amusing). The Hurt Locker set – all exploded bits and bobs plus a derelict car – is now Hedwig’s to play with and she uses it with manic energy. The sight of Darren Criss in his high heels bounding on and off the car and bouncing up and down the walls will not soon be forgotten.

Being on Broadway gives Hedwig the opportunity to delve into a bit of Belasco theatrical history and to muse on the Great White Way’s current crappy shows and various performers who don’t come up to Hedwig’s pitiless standards. Kinky Boots, for instance, does not get a good mark from Hedwig (I’m kinda with her on that). It’s all very meta-theatrical, given that Hedwig was born in East Germany in 1961 and the Berlin Wall plays an important part in proceedings. No way is she anywhere near mid-50s now, not with hot young Mr Criss in the sequins! No, the dates don’t exactly work, but who cares? Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a fabulous, glam-rock hallucination about a singular, genderqueer soul who is prepared to expose everything about his/her life and desires.

Criss is an impish, rather sweet Hedwig despite the torrents of trash talk and inventive vulgarities. At 28 Criss is far too tender for world-weariness; what he has instead is youthful excess, electrifying physicality and exuberance to burn. He’s an unstoppable whirlwind in lavish wigs, glittery outfits and make-up enough for all of Broadway’s chorines.

If Criss was perhaps working just the tiniest bit too hard the night I saw the show, I would have to point the finger at the audience, bless it. A lot of the show’s references, both current and historical, clearly went through to the keeper. Fans of Glee, where much of Criss’s renown resides, are not necessarily fully up on glam rock, mid-20th century European history or indeed the history of Broadway. And that’s the dilemma: we have here a truly Broadway-worthy show (it won last year’s Tony Award for best revival of a musical) in the sense that it deserves attention, status and big audiences, but it’s a show with an Off-Broadway heart.

So it was that the audience I was in seemed somewhat flummoxed by much of Hedwig. It was a bit sad that one of the filthiest, funniest quips didn’t really register. At one point Criss licks the floor and claims to pick up the taste of John Cameron Mitchell, not only Hedwig’s author but one of the roster of stars who has taken on the role in the show’s current incarnation. The name didn’t seem to ring a bell. But everyone was absolutely delighted to be in Darren Criss’s orbit, as they should have been. He is wonderful.

The show itself, however, did feel a little bit baggy and over-extended. It’s billed as running for 90 minutes. The night I went it was a good 20 minutes longer than that, what with all the extra schtick.

Sometimes a gamble pays off spectacularly well. Who would have thought choreographer Christopher Wheeldon could take on the direction of a new Broadway musical as well as provide the dances? Well, as we now know, An American in Paris is a huge, huge hit (12 Tony Award nominations!). Blitzing Broadway after its premiere in Paris, it is packing them in and is fifth in the list of New York’s top-grossing shows, after The Lion King (of course), Wicked (naturally), The Book of Mormon (ditto) and Aladdin (the only show of these five I haven’t seen, but obviously there is family appeal).

The plot is not much more than serviceable: it’s just after World War II and while everyone just wants to get on with life there are still some lurking shadows. The dark side of things feels a little contrived (Craig Lucas wrote the book) but is there to provide a bit of ballast for the main attraction: the pursuit of love in Paris. Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes are divinely elegant and it goes without saying that the music, courtesy George Gershwin, s’wonderful.

A sketch by Andrea Selby of costumes for An American in Paris

A sketch by Andrea Selby of costumes for An American in Paris

Another enormous gamble was the casting of ballet dancers in the lead roles of Jerry Mulligan (Robert Fairchild) and Lise Dassin (Leanne Cope, soloist with the Royal Ballet). We all know ballet dancers can’t speak, let alone sing, right? Wrong. Fairchild and Cope are delightfully natural on stage and sing with ease and grace. That settled, their dancing can shine without opening up a huge gulf between it and the acting side of things. The centrepiece ballet in the second act is exhilarating – Fairchild is phenomenal – but Wheeldon makes the whole show dance and allows himself a lot of fun with show’s brief gala ballet naughtily entitled The Eclipse of Uranus and a big fantasy number for Jerry’s friend Henri (Max von Essen) involving showgirls, feathers, a glamorous kick-line and I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise. I don’t think I’ve seen another musical where the transitions from everyday movement to dance seemed so right.

An American in Paris should have a very long and happy life. It’s also a very, very strong advertisement for ballet. S’wonderful.

The small theatre company Fiasco is a shining jewel in the Shakesphere. A couple of years ago I saw its persuasive production of Cymbeline – who knew it could be so entertaining? – and just now its The Two Gentlemen of Verona, another Shakespeare (possibly his first play) not exactly everyone’s must-see list. This production is changing minds about that as we speak.

The plot involves bosom buddies, ardent love affairs, a change of heart, friendship betrayed, banishment, brigands and, finally, reconciliation. There are funny characters made actually funny by Fiasco, which is no small thing, and – this is where Geoffrey Rush’s theatre owner Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love would have been thrilled – the blissful business with the dog.

It’s not Hamlet, to be sure and comes to its happy ending rather abruptly, but, when performed as radiantly as it is here, Two Gentlemen nevertheless has useful things to impart about self-knowledge, steadfastness and coming to maturity.

The cast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goldstein

The cast of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Fiasco gets the job done with just six actors and a surfeit of wit, elegance and imagination. The lightness of spirit is evident everywhere. Derek McLane’s set is a sylvan glade, riotous with white blooms that are actually crumpled letters, there are two columns to left and right sprouting branches at their upper reaches to continue the theme of growth and renewal (and handy for concealing a few props), and benches to either side where the actors sit when not required. Costume designer Whitney Locher gives the men a preppy look suitable for the Sirs this and that in the play, dressing them in pale shirts and trousers redolent of a warm, lazy afternoon, and she makes the women look just luscious in the prettiest pastel-coloured knee-length frocks. A few adjustments to attire – a rolled-up trouser leg here, the addition of a scarf or hat there – is sufficient to signal a change of character and the occasional line or two will be thrown in from the side. The six actors – Jessie Austrian (who co-directed with Ben Steinfeld), Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffery, Zachary Fine, Andy Grotelueschen and Emily Young – sing a little in sweet close harmony, play a few instruments, engage directly with the audience and are altogether incredibly charming. The apparent simplicity is disarming and so is the lack of pretension.

There is no concept imposed on the play. There is just nimble, fresh, vivid and highly alert acting that makes everything abundantly clear, telling and engrossing. Shakespeare was quite a dab hand at theatrical language and Fiasco serves it transcendently well.

I can’t remember when I have been so moved by a play as by Annie Baker’s The Flick. (Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see Red Stitch’s production in Melbourne last year.) It is in revival at the downtown Barrow Street Theatre with the original cast from 2013 – Matthew Maher as Sam, Aaron Clifton Moten as Avery, Louisa Krause as Rose and Alex Hanna in two small roles. This isn’t a play that sits up on its hind legs and begs for attention and approbation. Quite the reverse. It makes strong demands on its audience, or at least today’s audience. It deliberately, defiantly lacks spectacle of any kind. It makes no large gestures, much of its meaning is discovered in silences or underneath what is being said, and it takes its time. On Sunday night we were in the theatre for close to three and a half hours. This makes some people impatient. Well, so be it.

It is summer, 2012, in Worcester County, Massachusetts. Rose and Sam have been working at a crappy one-screen cinema for some time; Avery is a withdrawn college dropout with a vast store of knowledge about film. And he does mean film: this cinema still shows movies on 35-millimetre, more because the (unseen) owner is a poor businessman than a cineaste, but still. Avery can find a place here. Perhaps.

When the film is over and the patrons are gone, Sam and Avery have to clean up their mess, including, to Sam’s great disgust, the detritus of food brought in from outside. Sweeping up popcorn, picking up garbage and mopping the floor are, indeed, the only things one might call action in The Flick. The rest is the business of getting on with life with various degrees of hope and anxiety as the three employees dance gingerly around one another. Avery’s closed-in caution, Sam’s disappointments and Rose’s truculence preclude any real closeness, although there are moments when their impulses align, or almost do. The three have the false intimacy of the workplace along with the inherent tensions – Sam is crushed that Rose was trained as the projectionist even though he’d worked there longer – and yet there is something very delicate, true and sweet about their connection.

Photographs of the original production at Playwrights Horizons suggest that David Zinn’s cinema-seating set has been made a touch more grungy for Barrow Street. Perhaps not, but it is certainly effective, with the rows of empty seats an eloquent image of loneliness. And film may be beautiful and a repository of much genius, but its day is over. Unlike Avery, Rose and Sam can’t afford to be too romantic about that. They need work, poorly paid and dead-end though it may be.

Baker writes with great insight and compassion about these people and she takes all the time she needs to make us understand them. It is a remarkable piece.

Darren Criss stars as Hedwig until July 19, after which Taye Diggs takes over the role. The Two Gentlemen of Verona has been extended until June 20. The Flick runs until August 30.