The Great Gatsby, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 14.

Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon is an old and highly successful hand at creating narrative ballets but he gave himself a tough assignment with this one. His 2013 dance translation of The Great Gatsby is entirely faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best novel while at the same time floating over what really lies at its heart.

Gatsby’s exterior world of frenetic parties and unattainable lovers is eminently stage-worthy and West Australian Ballet looks wonderful in Nixon’s evocation of jazz-age, Prohibition-flouting high society. The frocks are divine, the women glamorous, the men have never seemed sleeker and the 1920s dances are a delight.

Matthew Edwardson and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Edwardson (front) as Young Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Far more difficult to convey are the fluttering nuances of character and shades of meaning that make the novel such an unsettling picture of a changing country with the post-war jitters.

How to express that Daisy’s voice is “full of money”, as Gatsby puts it? Or that Gatsby was once the impoverished nobody Jimmy Gatz? Or that Nick Carraway is the cousin of Gatsby’s lost love Daisy, and thus is being used by his now fabulously wealthy neighbour? (I am reminded of George Balanchine’s famous assertion that “there are no mothers-in-law in ballet”. Certain specifics of kinship are not easily conveyed wordlessly.)

Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s fruitless pursuit of Daisy at several removes through Nick’s eyes as he looks back. In its concentration on the surface narrative the ballet loses those layers and Fitzgerald’s mood of evanescence with them, despite Nixon’s repeated flashbacks showing a young Gatsby wooing Daisy. The cartoonish depiction of Gatsby’s mob connections – men slinking about in black trench coats – doesn’t help.

The Great Gatsby nevertheless has much to enjoy, even if it’s advisable for those not steeped in the novel to take a solid look at the synopsis ahead of time.

A lively selection of 1920s-flavoured music by Richard Rodney Bennett, some taken from his film scores, accompanies lots of swiftly changing scenes. The use of a movement from his 1990 Percussion Concerto is particularly effective and Bennett’s history as a jazz pianist informs the score’s best moments. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, with Myron Romanul at the helm, gave a zesty account of it on opening night.

Melissa Boniface and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Lehmann (rear) and Melissa Boniface (front) in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Above all there were terrific performances from all in the first cast, no mean feat when there are nine key characters.

Gakuro Matsui (the elegant, mysterious Gatsby), Chihiro Nomura (careless, feckless Daisy) and Oliver Edwardson (watchful Nick Carraway) were as effective as the limits of their characters allowed. Gatsby is the outsider who stands aloof at his own parties, is seen gazing wistfully across the water at the light on the end of Daisy’s jetty, or remembering his early days with Daisy. It makes him an elusive character, even when he finally gets Daisy in his arms for rapturous pas de deux in both acts. Which is as it should be from the Fitzgerald point of view, even if it makes the role a difficult one onstage.

Matthew Edwardson and Carina Roberts were fresh as the young Gatsby and Daisy while Brooke Widdison-Jacobs was superbly cast as Daisy’s golf-champion friend Jordan Baker, wielding a cool, amused demeanour and long sporty limbs.

The really juicy parts, however, are for Daisy’s unfaithful husband Tom, his lover Myrtle and Myrtle’s husband George. They get to be vividly steamy and sexy. Matthew Lehmann looked super sharp and gave Tom virile presence. He had looked out of sorts earlier in the year in Don Quixote but now seemed refreshed and renewed. Liam Green’s George was urgent with longing for his errant wife and Melissa Boniface was sensational as the passionate, doomed Myrtle. Now here was a character for a dancer to get her teeth into.

The Great Gatsby ends September 30.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on September 18.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala

Teac Damsa, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 30.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake is unsparingly black in so many ways, starting with its indelible image of a near-naked, bleating man tethered to a block of concrete. The people in this midlands Irish community are damaged, the humour plentiful but grim and the prospects grimmer.

“Nature is stronger than will,” says the inappropriately named Holy Man (actor Mikel Murfi), describing the appalling event that led to the disappearance of four young women and their transformation into swans. Murfi, our narrator, will later also morph into a despotic county politician and the local law. There’s not much difference between them. They’re all called McLoughlin, petty tyrants each one.

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Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake/Loch naEala. Photo: Prudence Upton

The bare surroundings – some scaffolding, a few ladders – speak of the town’s poverty, not just in material things but in spirit. The ghastly birthday party (funny, though) sums things up. It’s thrown by Nancy for her son Jimmy so he might meet a local girl, shake off his depression and get married. Things don’t look promising.

In amongst the wreckage, though, there is great beauty and freedom. Keegan-Dolan’s depiction of abuse and debilitating grief doesn’t deny the harshness of life but he mitigates it with the consolation of optimism. The abiding memories of Loch na hEala are a love duet of exquisite tenderness and white feathers banishing the darkness as music plays and the ensemble dances joyously.

The story of a woman turned into a bird or sea creature is found in many mythologies, including Irish legend. Keegan-Dolan takes from that and is also strikingly faithful to the essentials of the familiar 19th-century ballet version while making them utterly contemporary.

His emotionally frozen anti-hero, Jimmy (Alexander Leonhartsberger), finds release when he meets swan-woman Fionnuala (Rachel Poirier) by the lake. His flinching tentativeness when he first sees Fionnuala is deeply touching and so right. Keegan-Dolan has a splendid eye for detail.

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Rachel Poirier and Alexander Leonhartsberger. Photo: Pridence Upton

Jimmy and Fionnuala can’t escape their fate but they are part of a much larger and longer history of endurance and resilience. Their sublime second pas de deux is an unforgettable paean to the power of love over malignity even as Keegan-Dolan doesn’t shy away from showing the pain that surrounds them.

Keegan-Dolan, who wrote the brilliant text as well as choreographed and directed, blends folk-inspired dance, spoken word and music into a seamless whole. The marvellous trio Slow Moving Clouds plays and sings Celtic and Nordic melodies live and the nine-member dance ensemble makes the heart sing. It’s a pity the season was so brief.

This review first appeared in The Australian on September 1.

New era at RNZB

The question had to be asked. Is Patricia Barker at Royal New Zealand Ballet for the long haul?

Her predecessor but one as artistic director, fellow American Ethan Stiefel, saw out his three-year contract but decided not to renew. Barker’s immediate predecessor, Francesco Ventriglia, announced his resignation last November only two years into his tenure (he stayed in the job until June). A different approach was clearly needed.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

“The Board asked me to sign on for five years,” Barker says. It’s a wise call in the circumstances and Barker looks to be just what the dance doctor ordered. Beneath her quiet, warm, calm demeanour there would seem to exist super-powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, or women.

Barker gave nearly three decades of service to Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet, where she long reigned as an internationally renowned prima ballerina before retiring in 2007 in her mid-40s. A few years later she went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to run a company that was “a week or two from closing its doors”. It had big, big problems but Barker took the job on because she didn’t want to see another company disappear, putting dancers on the street. “When things get hard I don’t give up,” she says. Seven years on, GRB is thriving.

Making deep commitments seems to sit easily with Barker. “I bring a sense of settlement. I’m settled, I’m consistent, I’m passionate about this industry, I care about the organisation I work for and the people that are here and I’m experienced in my position. The company hasn’t had somebody with my skill set in quite a while,” she said, sitting in the RNZB boardroom the morning after the company opened Romeo and Juliet. (Ventriglia stayed on to choreograph it.)

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Madeleine Graham, Patricia Barker, dramaturg Mario Mattia Giorgetti and Joseph Skelton after the opening of Francesco Ventriglia’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: RNZB/Jeremy Brick

This doesn’t come across as anything remotely approaching self-promotion, by the way. Barker speaks carefully and plainly. It’s just the way things are.

RNZB was obviously keen for Barker to start more or less instantly after she’d accepted the Board’s invitation. She was announced as artistic director on June 7, within about a week a visa had been secured and less than two weeks later she had arrived. “I grabbed two suitcases and came. I was sitting in my chair on the 18th or 19th. It was a whirlwind,” she says.

On Barker’s second day she attended a full board meeting; on her third she hopped on a plane to Timaru, a city halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. That was to catch a performance of Tutus on Tour, a touring program to small centres designed to fulfil RNZB’s brief as the country’s national ballet company.

It was a full-on start for a woman whose life was frankly busy enough already. She is still GRB’s artistic director and thus holds down two jobs, but Barker is unfazed. The timing of seasons is different, there are things that can be done from a distance, she had already planned GRB’s 2017-2018 season and Ventriglia had pretty much locked down RNZB’s 2018 program, although Barker has had room to add a few touches of her own.

And Grand Rapids, one hastens to add, has already made some staff adjustments and its search for a new artistic director is well and truly on. Nevertheless, it’s a measure of how much RNZB needed Barker in New Zealand as soon as possible that it’s prepared to see her juggle responsibilities for both companies for some while.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

Patricia Barker in the studio at Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Eight weeks in when we speak, Barker is still learning new things about how RNZB operates and “the Kiwi accent throws me a little bit”, but there’s no hesitation when it comes to what she intends for the company. At the repertoire level, given Barker’s Balanchine-rich background at PNB, can we expect to see more of that master’s works? “Yes, in one easy word. They are food for the dancers and delight for the audiences.” Barker knows Jîrí Kylián well, having been a co-artistic adviser with him at Slovak National Ballet, and describes him as someone audiences need to see and whose works dancers desire to dance.

“Works by Balanchine, Kylián, Forsythe – they will attract talented dancers to our shores,” Barker says. She’s also a strong supporter of female choreographers, a group very under-represented in classical dance. And proving the value of doing two jobs at once, she is backing the talents of a company dancer and choreographer, Loughlan Prior, by sending him to Grand Rapids to make a work for her contemporary dance program MOVEMEDIA: Diversity.

Barker is working on 2019 and beyond, as she must. That involves “looking for the big ideas, the big works” and then working out audience appeal, touring logistics, how productions can be built and the many other details that underpin a season.

First though, come the dancers. “One of the reasons why we all agreed for me to come as soon as possible was for me to get a feel for the dancers, for the talent in the room for the works that are being done next year and then building for ‘19, ‘20, ‘21,” Barker says. “I believe in using the talents you have in front of you, but definitely looking towards the future and talents that may turn up on our doorstep. At the moment dancers are making life decisions and we’re making decisions for this organisation. We want the brightest talents in the studio.”

Some dancers will choose to leave, she says – “it’s in dancers’ DNA to move around” – but others may well be encouraged by plans Barker has for a more stable in-house structure.

“There’s been a big change in artistic staff over the past six years and that’s something I’m committed to settling down. We will have a team and will have a permanent team. I feel very confident in the people for 2018. The goal is to have permanence for a length of time.”

Someone it wouldn’t be surprising to see in the RNZB studios is Barker’s husband, Michael Auer, also a former principal artist with PNB. Auer is currently creative director at the school associated with Grand Rapids Ballet but he and Barker don’t propose to have a long-distance relationship. She might have abandoned him (her word) to move to New Zealand as quickly as possible but he will be joining her in Wellington. “As long as we’re together we feel that’s home.”

Romeo and Juliet, RNZB

St James Theatre, Wellington, August 16.

Francesco Ventriglia was artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet when he proposed making a new Romeo and Juliet to replace Christopher Hampson’s highly regarded version, made in 2003 to mark RNZB’s 50th anniversary and revived for four more seasons. Ventriglia’s tenure didn’t quite work out as planned and in November last year, two years into the job, it was announced he would leave the post in June. He would however stay on as a guest choreographer to complete R&J.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham as Romeo and Juliet. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Hampson’s version was set in the 1950s. Ventriglia returns the story to the 15th century and Italian aristocratic life, vividly evoking a society in which excitable young men with not enough to do are constantly on the prowl for mischief while young noblewomen must face the prospect of marrying Prince Wrong to shore up the family’s standing.

Renaissance Verona comes up a treat in British designer James Acheson’s sets and costumes. He was clearly the right man for the job, what with a mantelpiece laden with Oscars including for The Last Emperor and Dangerous Liaisons. This is a man who knows his way around opulence. The elder Capulets gleam in crimson, Juliet shimmers in floaty white and pastels and the inevitable harlots make whoopee in sexy swagged frocks that are a riot of saturated colours, set off by fabulous boots. Business must be excellent.

The only disappointment is that Acheson – one assumes he must take the blame – has apparently agreed to fall obediently in line with classical ballet’s inviolable harlot rule. It states that women in this profession must be identified, without fail, by a desperately unbecoming explosion of frizz on their heads (cf. Manon). Most tiresome.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Kirby Selchow, Katie Hurst-Saxon and Veronika Maritati. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

This irritation aside, Acheson’s design is a powerful character. There are great arches, a wide central staircase and tall columns that deftly redefine spaces. For the balcony scene Juliet at first appears, Rapunzel-like, in an opening carved out of a tall, otherwise faceless tower that speaks of a material world that has stood, and will stand, for generations to defend its inhabitants from envious outsiders (or perhaps a young man who might want to take liberties).

We don’t know why the Capulets and Montagues hate one another but it doesn’t matter. Their enmity is woven into the fabric of their lives, as is religion. It must be observed. In a brilliant touch, Juliet’s bedchamber is dominated by a huge painting of Madonna and Child under which Romeo and Juliet consummate their marriage, mute testimony to the role Friar Laurence plays in the tragedy and the inescapable influence of the Church.

The visual richness is a wonderful match for Prokofiev’s music, which conductor Hamish McKeich and Orchestra Wellington played to the hilt at the opening. They gave urgency and sweep to the big moments that give brass and percussion occasion to let rip and McKeich drew lush playing from the strings. While the sound was more persuasive at full bore than in the score’s more intimate sections (possibly a function of the St James acoustic), McKeich’s reading of this exceptionally familiar music gratifyingly offered new things to hear in it.

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Abigail Boyle as Lady Capulet. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Ventriglia responds to the music with choreography that is always fluent and apposite but not greatly revelatory or distinctive. He does, however, give the staging plenty of piquant flavour, a result, no doubt, of his collaboration with dramaturg Mario Mattia Giorgetti. Their work pays handsome dividends. There is no alteration to the broad sweep of the narrative – everything is in its expected place – but close attention is paid to the spaces in between. You see this at the Capulet’s masked ball when Tybalt warns Juliet off Romeo with the smallest shake of his head, a moment that adds texture to their relationship. Don’t do this, he’s telling her. Don’t go there. It’s the tinest thing yet adds to our understanding of the relationship between the cousins. There are a myriad other examples that give characters nuance and actions a reason for being. Of course Tybalt, who sees what’s going on, would let Juliet know he knows.

Most striking is the depiction of Lady Capulet and her relationship with Tybalt. At the masked ball their desire is barely suppressed and when Romeo kills Tybalt, Lady Capulet’s grief and rage explode like napalm. She rips off the mask of propriety and doesn’t care who sees the naked passion beneath. Just in case anyone was under the misapprehension she was mourning a favourite nephew, Lady Capulet marks her territory with a voracious kiss almost as shocking as the one Oscar Wilde’s Salome gives the head of John the Baptist. Abigail Boyle’s ice-and-fire Lady Capulet was a sensation, well matched by Paul Mathews’s deeply attractive Tybalt.

Not surprisingly, the younger lovers came to look a little pallid in the shadow of such drama, or at least did on opening night. Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham acted engagingly and danced their series of complicated pas de deux with much skill. Skelton is handsome and an able partner, Graham is adorable and both were very sweet, but neither clawed their way to the peak of great tragedy nor plumbed the depths of exhilaration and desperation.

Romeo and Juliet, by the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Joseph Skelton and Madeleine Graham. Photo: RNZB/Stephen A’Court

Massimo Margaria was a wild Mercutio, Filippo Valmorbida enchanting as Benvolio (I think he’d be a rather good Romeo) and Laura Saxon Jones all elbows and daffy kindness as the Nurse. Mayu Tanigaito stood out in the quartet of Juliet’s friends and dances Juliet at some performances, partnered by Kohei Iwamoto, who managed to make something of the fairly thankless role of Paris on opening night. Jacob Chown was tremendously good in the tricky part of Lord Capulet, who has to keep up appearances as a man of substance in the face of his wife’s barely veiled contempt.

Romeo and Juliet ends in Wellington on Sunday August 20 then tours to seven cities around the country, ending on September 24.

Jacqueline Dark: Pinning Clouds

Anyone expecting a conventional crossover disc from mezzo Jacqueline Dark hasn’t been paying attention. In recent years Dark’s career has ranged far and wide. Few singers, one ventures, would have followed a year as the Abbess in The Sound of Music with Fricka in Opera Australia’s Melbourne Ring cycle and then, just to mix things up, hit the Adelaide Cabaret Festival with Strange Bedfellows – Bedlam.

Jacqui Dark cd cover pic

There is no Strange Bedfellows material on Pinning Clouds (the Weimaresque material is fabulous and far too filthy) but Dark’s first CD does, nevertheless, owe something to that aspect of her work. The Beddies, as Dark and Bedfellow-in-crime Kanen Breen are affectionately known, are democratic in their tastes, happily erasing distinctions between what purists – pedants? – might characterise as high and low art.

In Bedlam, there is a moment, I understand, where the Ramones meet Schumann. While Pinning Clouds doesn’t go quite so far you can hear something of that “there are only two kinds of music, good and bad” sensibility in it, along with the generous, vulnerable spirit that is one of Dark’s loveliest qualities as a performer. To this she adds the blessing of pristine diction, for which much thanks.

It’s an act of courage, really, to include Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on a collection, so well-trodden are those paths, but Dark has an affectingly intimate and individual way with them and Hallelujah has the further advantage of being sung with Breen, who is in supple, velvety voice. Music director Daryl Wallis’s transparent, elegiac arrangement is perfect.

Also squarely in well-known territory but given a fresh sound is Sondheim’s Our Time from Merrily We Roll Along, on which Dark is sweetly joined by her son Alexander and children who appeared with her in The Sound of Music. Less familiar but no less pleasing are Debra Byrne’s touching So Soon and Lance Horne’s Last Day on Earth. Climb Ev’ry Mountain from The Sound of Music obviously had to be included on Pinning Clouds as Dark shook the heavens with it – rightly and nightly – in the theatre but here it sounds a little vibrato-heavy in comparison with the lighter touch taken elsewhere, nowhere more entrancingly than on Both Sides Now. The floating vocalise at its end is ravishing.

So far so conventional, you might say, but there’s more. On almost half the tracks on Pinning Clouds there are musical references to classical or operatic composers, some applied sparingly and others to the fore. There’s homage to Mozart in Hallelujah, for example, gracefully done. You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel is interwoven with Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending surprisingly effectively; and in Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay’s Gold von den Sternen (Gold from the Stars) from Mozart! (yes, such a musical does exist), opera–lovers will identify Soave sia il vento from Cosi fan tutte, by Mozart, naturally. Each repays careful, repeated listening.

In what would have to be the most audacious collision of composers ever conceived, Barry Manilow’s One Voice takes on the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Does it work? Not to these ears, although one has to admire the passion that inspired it. Pinning Clouds has that in spades.

Pinning Clouds is available from fishfinemusic.com.au or to order via https://jacquelinedark.com/contact/

Strange Bedfellows – Bedlam, Leadbelly Newtown, Sydney, August 7 and 8.

SHIT, by Patricia Cornelius

A Dee & Cornelius/Milke Production. Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, July 20

Patricia Cornelius gets right to the point, as the titles of recent plays attest. Savages (2013) is the one about men off the leash, and how a toxic mix of testosterone, grievances real and perceived, booze and group dynamics plays out on a cruise ship. Not well, as you might imagine. In SLUT (2008), a young girl is brutally labelled and shamed; in SHIT (2015), three women who have been treated as such pretty much from birth both fight their destiny and fulfil it.

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Nicci Wilks, Peta Brady and Sarah Ward in SHIT

Cornelius is, obviously, a provocateur. Note the capital letters. Note the bolshie challenge to an audience member who might want to ring up the box office for a ticket or tell a friend the name of the play they’re about to see. Not to mention the challenge to mainstream theatre companies, who by and large have decided to duck it.  You don’t see Cornelius on our big stages even though, as absolutely everyone points out, she has a mantelpiece groaning under the weight of prestigious awards.

There’s no mystery really. Cornelius is a superb playwright whose chief objective is to disrupt while Australian mainstream theatre is – to co-opt a term with a lot of currency these days – a safe space for middle-class audiences. Not a lot of horse-frightening goes on at companies with large overheads that depend hugely on box office and private sponsorship.

Cornelius wants to scare the shit out of you. She certainly did with Savages, which I saw at a schools performance with a full house of young men from a private secondary college. They were practically shell-shocked from what I could tell – in complete silence when not gasping involuntarily.

SHIT is equally confronting. Well, confronting for the kinds of people who usually go to the theatre and who usually don’t meet the likes of Billy (Nicci Wilks), Bobby (Sarah Ward) and Sam (Peta Brady), women with masculine names to go with their battle-hardened exteriors. The products of neglect and abuse, they’ve done whatever it takes to claim some place in the world. Their resilience is admirable in theory but you’d swap train carriages or cross the road to get away from them. These women are trouble and the damage is too extreme to fix.

Sam was only four and placed with a family where she understood without question that she would never really belong. What she did about it made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pugnacious Billy can never forget hearing someone say she had been forsaken, the temerity of which makes her shake with rage. Bobby recalls abundant physical contact that, unusually, appears to have been benign, or something approaching it. Kindness is a rare commodity.

Billy, Bobby and Sam are used to the ground constantly shifting under them so it’s no surprise they are mercurial women with hair-trigger tempers. Like poorly trained dogs they might lick you one minute and bite the next. Cornelius’s writing effortlessly straddles the divide. There is so much to like about these sharp, funny, incredibly vivid people but they are also untameable and therefore dangerous. And loud. God, are they loud. Sweary too, of course. “Fuck” and “cunt” get a heavy-duty workout.

Susie Dee’s highly physical production matches the restlessness of the characters and Cornelius’s shifts in place and time. Even when they are apparently still you can feel the jumpy energy coursing through Billy, Bobby and Sam. Marg Horwell’s set is a bleak wall with three openings, emblematic of the women’s cheerless past and descriptive of their inevitable future.

Wilks, Ward and Brady, who have been with the production since its earliest days, are all tremendous. Wilks is like a bantamweight boxer, all mouth, aggression, lean muscle and attitude; Ward’s fascinating Bobby is more complicated and more unknowable. Brady’s Sam hasn’t yet had all the longing and hope knocked out of her but it won’t be long before that’s sorted.

All this in just 60 uncompromising minutes. Cornelius doesn’t moralise, philosophise, offer solutions or platitudes, certainly doesn’t offer comfort and above all doesn’t judge. She just shows. We all should look.

Postscript: Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEON independent theatre project first brought SHIT to mainstream attention, and for this it deserves much thanks. And now Cornelius is in the first cohort of Australian playwrights commissioned to write for MTC’s visionary Next Stage program, announced last month. Perhaps mainstage theatre is about to get a bit less safe.

SHIT ends at the Seymour Centre on July 29. Darwin Festival, August 22, 25, 26 and 27.

The Winter’s Tale, The Royal Ballet

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, July 5.

The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s wondrously strange, knotty late works. The pitfalls are many but so are the rewards. Compassion, contrition, forgiveness for great wrongs and reconciliation are its towering themes.

Dance gives direct access to such heart-stirring emotions, or does at its best. Christopher Wheeldon and his brilliant collaborators, chief among them composer Joby Talbot and designer Bob Crowley, have created an essentially faithful reading of The Winter’s Tale that does honour to the text and even improves on it at one point. Along the way they prove the three-act story ballet still has plenty of juice left.

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Edward Watson as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Darren Thomas

Leontes, King of Sicilia, believes his wife, Hermione, has broken her marriage vows with his lifelong friend the Bohemian king Polixenes, and a mad obsession takes hold. The fallout is catastrophic as family and friendships are wilfully demolished.

That would be more than enough for a meaty tragedy but it’s just the beginning: The Winter’s Tale seeks the light. A lost child is found, a woman thought dead comes back to life, amity between kings is restored and their offspring fall in love, offering bright hope for the future.

Wheeldon’s telling is lucid, tightly focused and gorgeously arrayed in sound and sight. Talbot’s score overflows with energy, generated by lusty rhythms, Eastern flavours and tremendously effective, scene-setting instrumentation, revealed sumptuously by Queensland Symphony Orchestra under music director Alondra de la Parra.

Crowley’s designs are just as potent a narrative element too, juxtaposing the austere formality of the Sicilian court with the buoyant, colour-drenched Bohemian countryside where, 16 years after the events in Sicilia, young lovers Perdita and prince-in-disguise Florizel frolic with friends who are bursting out of their skins with boundless energy and good humour.

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Francesca Hayward and Steven McRae in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Darren Thomas

The zesty, folk-meets-ballet dances in this second act are intricately constructed, utterly delightful and really do go on too long, although Wheeldon knows his audience. Cheers greeted the outpouring of youthful virtuosity. Francesca Hayward’s fresh, unaffected radiance as Perdita and McRae’s soaring, ardent, fleet-footed Florizel were thrilling.

Apart from Hayward, who replaced the injured Sarah Lamb, on the first night of The Winter’s Tale Brisbane saw the dancers on whom the ballet was made. They included the incomparable Edward Watson as Leontes and, as Hermione’s confidante Paulina, glorious Zenaida Yanowsky, who retires from the Royal after the final Brisbane performance tomorrow (July 9). Yanowsky recently farewelled London audiences after starring in Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand but perhaps she isn’t unhappy that Paulina, the conscience of The Winter’s Tale, truly marks her exit.

Wheeldon gave his most pungent and distinctive choreography to Paulina and the tormented Leontes and Yanowsky and Watson, both superlative dance artists, made starkly expressionistic movement a window into the soul. They were matched in impact by Lauren Cuthbertson’s dignity and strength as the ill-treated Hermione.

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Zenaida Yanowsky as Paulina in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Darren Thomas

Watson wasn’t afraid to walk a treacherously slippery highwire. Leontes is very close to insanity as he insists on believing that Hermione is an adulterer and Watson gave the character something of the extreme intensity seen in silent films. Leontes’s restless, angular movement takes its cue from an agonised speech in Shakespeare’s Act II in which a highly unsettling image is conjured: “I have drunk, and seen the spider,” says the king. Watson looked feverish and distraught in a dangerous, on-the-edge performance.

He was therefore all the more touching when Leontes realises Perdita is the daughter he abandoned (a scene not shown by Shakespeare but related by characters called First Gentleman, Second Gentleman and Third Gentleman). Soon after, Leontes discovers that Hermione, too, is still alive but Wheeldon again departs from Shakespeare by reminding the audience that some things can never be truly mended.

Shakespeare’s Leontes decides to promote a marriage for Paulina, just to round off the happy ending. Wheeldon leaves her alone and mourning. He and Talbot, who collaborated with Wheeldon on the scenario, have revived hope for serious narrative ballet.

The Winter’s Tale ends in Brisbane tomorrow (Sunday, July 9).