The Australian Ballet and its long dance with The Merry Widow

In her biography of Robert Helpmann, Robert Helpmann: A Servant of Art, Anna Bemrose describes how Helpmann, then artistic director of The Australian Ballet, was grilled by the Industries Assistance Commission in 1975. The IAC had been asked by the prime minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, to examine government arts funding and clearly some IAC members were not enamoured of the ballet company’s direction or its financial prospects.

Helpmann was asked, inter alia, to justify his decision to stage The Merry Widow. What relevance did it have to Australian culture? Then there was the question of money. As Bemrose amusingly points out, Helpmann was asked by the IAC whether he’d found a way of getting “on the cheap” the beauty ballet audiences wanted. “No, I am not a genius,” Helpmann replied.

The Merry Widow

Amber Scott as Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow with Adam Bull (left) as Danilo and Andrew Killian (right) as Camille. Photo: Daniel Boud

Widow was indeed expensive but it went ahead and, while its direct relevance to Australian culture may not have been as obvious as, say, Helpmann’s one-act contemporary ballet The Display (1964), it was an extraordinary success from opening night onwards. Its popularity prompted the company to put on season after season in the early years to the benefit of the bottom line, then and now. TAB has perpetual rights to the ballet – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

As it happened, Whitlam’s government was dismissed two days before Widow opened in Melbourne on November 13, 1975, and Helpmann left the company not long after, having been dumped by the board. (Fences were mended. A decade later he was the Red King in Ninette de Valois’s Checkmate when it entered the TAB repertoire, nearly 50 years after he’d created the role. He left his hospital bed to play the part in July of 1986 and died that September.) Widow, however, would never be evicted. Helpmann’s long-held desire to translate the romance and glamour of Franz Lehár’s operetta to the ballet stage proved to be just the ticket. It was performed 178 times in the first two years alone.

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Leanne Stojmenov as Valencienne in The Merry Widow. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Widow finishes its latest Melbourne run on June 16 it will have racked up more than 440 performances and be snapping at the heels of Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote for the honour of being TAB’s most-performed production. Only a handful of shows will separate them. Not surprisingly, various versions of Swan Lake together total more performances (767 from four productions ) and two versions of Giselle account for 700 performances. But worldwide favourite The Nutcracker (358 performances of four productions) doesn’t come anywhere near the Widow for durability.

It’s easy to list the Widow’s charms – well-known tunes, sumptuous sets and costumes, light comedy, lost-and-found love story – but they don’t by themselves suggest a work for all time. Widow is, nevertheless, embedded in TAB history in ways that make it glow more brightly for the home audience than for those, say, at American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and the handful of other leading companies that have it in their repertoire, even though it’s great enjoyed as an entertainment. (Houston and NBC have both scheduled revivals of Widow for next year.)

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Adam Bull as Danilo and Kirsty Martin as Hanna. Photo: Jeff Busby

Widow was the first full-length ballet commissioned by TAB, which was founded in 1962 (it opened with Swan Lake, of course). Helpmann’s choice was astute. The operetta was well known and much loved in Australia and TAB’s music director John Lanchbery was just the man to arrange and orchestrate, with Alan Abbott, the music based on Lehár’s delectable melodies. Helpmann, whose theatrical instincts were legendary, wrote the scenario and wrested the rights from the estates, heirs and publishers who controlled Widow. Ronald Hynd was contracted to choreograph and Desmond Heeley to design in the opulent manner of the belle époque.

In the late 1920s Helpmann danced in Lehár’s operetta in Melbourne when Gladys Moncrieff took the title role and he said he’d always thought it would make a wonderful ballet. It’s certainly no intellectual heavyweight but underneath the surface buffoonery and rom-com shenanigans there are many delights, chief of which is the title role. It’s not true that Widow was made for Margot Fonteyn, as some think – Marilyn Rowe created the part – but it was choreographed with Helpmann’s long-time ballet partner in mind. Fonteyn called it “the most wonderful present”.

Surely it was Helpmann, credited with staging as well as scenario, who devised that marvellous entrance for Hanna, in which she sweeps down a broad staircase in her stunning black gown after pausing elegantly for effect, and for the inevitable applause.

Fonteyn was the first Hanna I saw when TAB toured to London in the sweltering summer of 1976, seven months or so after the ballet premiered in Melbourne. She was then 57 and her name helped bring attention to the company, as would Nureyev and his Don Q. Fonteyn also appeared many times in Australia and called Hanna “the most delightful role I could possibly have had”, wishing only that it had come to her rather earlier in her career.

There was, naturally, no particularly virtuosic choreography for Hanna but it required – and requires – effortless stage presence, melting luxuriance and an understanding of the thread of melancholy that underpins Widow and gives it some necessary shadows.

In the slender storyline, machinations are afoot to bring Hanna together in marriage with the rakish Count Danilo to prevent her money from leaving the small, impoverished Balkan country of Pontevedro. Danilo and Hanna were lovers when young but parted unhappily. In TAB’s current Widow program John Meehan, who was the first Danilo and partnered Fonteyn frequently in the ballet, describes how he saw her shoulders shaking as he rehearsed placing a cloak around her in the show’s final moments. He thought she was laughing at the ballet’s simplicity. “And she turned around and she was crying. It was so real to her.”

The Merry Widow

Colin Peasley as Baron Zeta with Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian. Photo: Daniel Boud

TAB has produced a long line of illustrious home-grown Widows, including the lustrous current principal artist Amber Scott, who opened the Sydney season in April. During that season former principal Kirsty Martin, who last danced Hanna in 2011 during her final year with TAB, returned as a guest artist. Now in her early 40s – a perfect age for Hanna – she opens the 2018 Melbourne season.

As I look through my old Widow programs, a snowstorm of cast sheets falls out. There are two from 1994, when two of TAB’s most luminous artists, Lisa Bolte and Miranda Coney, danced Hanna. They did so again in 2000, a year I which I somehow managed to see six performances. One was during the Olympic Arts Festival in Sydney when Widow was called upon to represent TAB to the visiting world.

For some reason I found myself in Perth in October that year and happened to see Widow with Coney again. At the end of that performance conductor Charles Barker, then TAB’s music director and now principal conductor at American Ballet Theatre, came onstage and asked Coney to marry him. (She said yes.)

Every time Widow has been revived it’s been possible to see Colin Peasley reprise his role as Baron Zeta, the much older husband of young Valencienne, who is in love with Camille. Peasley was the Baron at the ballet’s premiere in 1975 and was already a company veteran, having been a founding member. He’s now 83 but his artistry is undimmed. It’s such a joy to see there is still a place for him onstage, and not just in a walk-on. The Widow offers him a substantial part and the audience a priceless link to TAB history.

More links are added with each revival. This year TAB’s current artistic director, David McAllister, decided to cast himself in the small role of Njegus. The reason? Ballet master and former principal artist Steven Heathcote would be taking the role of Baron Zeta at some performances and McAllister thought it would be fun to be onstage with him again. Back in the day you couldn’t see Widow casting better than Heathcote as Danilo and McAllister as Camille. The embedding of The Merry Widow in TAB history continues.

The Merry Widow, Arts Centre Melbourne, June 7-16.

Carmen & The Firebird, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 26.

You win some and you lose some.

Queensland Ballet is a co-producer of Carlos Acosta’s Carmen with The Royal Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater, which means QB’s name is attached to it forever. I doubt I’ve seen a worse ballet from reputable companies in more than 40 years.

I’m not exaggerating, nor do I say it frivolously. Carmen should never have passed muster at the RB. This is where I should say I can’t understand how it happened, but unfortunately it’s all too common to see serious ballet companies fail to save choreographers from themselves. Mostly the results aren’t quite as bad as Carmen but ballet is littered with the corpses of narrative works whose condition didn’t have to be terminal.

On a brighter note for QB, Liam Scarlett’s Firebird, made for Norwegian National Ballet in 2013, is a brilliant interpretation of Stravinsky’s glittering, gleaming, intoxicating score. Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also in the QB repertory and with the addition of Firebird the company has the choreographer’s two most successful new narrative ballets. (I don’t include Scarlett’s staging of Swan Lake – by all reports a huge success – for the RB this month given its firm foundation in the Petipa-Ivanov 1895 version.)

QB The Firebird 2018. Principal Artist Lucy Green. Photo David Kelly

Lucy Green in the title role of Liam Scarlett’s The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett, who is 32, has a youthful, contemporary sensibility that gives Firebird a modern edge while remaining true to the mythic elements of Mikhail Fokine’s original 1910 work for the Ballets Russes.

It looks wonderful, with a monumental set by Jon Bausor, bathed in James Farncombe’s painterly light. In the shadow of a vast tree with claw-like roots, the magical Firebird (Lucy Green at the performance I attended) and wicked sorcerer Koschei (Jack Lister) battle for supremacy, equal in force of will and with a palpable erotic charge between them. She tempts him with a golden apple and strokes his face; he embraces her with ardour. It may well be a game they’ve played for aeons. Then the wandering Prince Ivan (Camilo Ramos) finds his way into their realm and the Firebird finds him interesting. She dances with him, but not as a frightened captive. She dazzles and teases, whispering in his ear as she lets him have one of her precious feathers.

Scarlett effectively contrasts the Firebird’s strength and exoticism with the innocence and playfulness of the young women enslaved by Koschei. Among them is a Princess (Lina Kim), who is tender, curious and alert. Kim and Ramos glowed in their romantic, silken pas de deux and – how delightful! – the Princess is the one who gets to destroy the egg containing Koschei’s soul.

QB The Firebird 2018. Company Artist Jack Lister and Artists of the Queensland Ballet. Photo David Kelly

Jack Lister (top) as Koschei in The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

The end of Koschei’s malign rule means the Princess is free to leave with Ivan although Scarlett – unlike Fokine – is less interested in the happy couple than in the representatives of light and darkness. The lovers quietly disappear and the Firebird exults in her power, although not before paying respect to the dead Koschei in one of Scarlett’s many perceptive details.

Scarlett’s success with narrative ballets has been somewhat patchy but Stravinsky’s music and the original libretto give him the best of roadmaps. Scarlett uses the 50-minute version of the score from 1910, played blazingly by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with Nigel Gaynor at the helm. Jonathan McPhee’s arrangement is for orchestral forces rather smaller than those asked for by Stravinsky – he wrote for quadruple woodwinds and three harps – but it gets the job done impressively.

Other choreographers of this much-visited work have chosen Stravinsky’s shorter 1945 suite (Balanchine in 1949; the 2009 Graeme Murphy recently revived by The Australian Ballet) but the suites were arranged for concert performance and for dramatic impact it’s hard to go past Stravinsky’s first thoughts.

The cast I saw at the first Saturday matinee was testament to the strong ensemble built by Li Cunxin in his six years as artistic director. Performances were vividly realised all round and Green’s mesmerising Firebird was deservedly greeted with a huge ovation. While his dance is made entirely within the classical idiom, Scarlett gives his Firebird – the Princess too – qualities of independence and authority so often missing on the classical stage. This is particularly welcome in light of how women appear in Carmen although, to be fair, Acosta doesn’t do the men any favours either.

QB Carmen 2018. Principal Artist Camilo Ramos and Company Artist Sophie Zoricic 5. Photo David Kelly

Camilo Ramos and Sophie Zoricic in Carlos Acosta’s Carmen. Photo: David Kelly

There are problems with Carmen just about everywhere you look. The storytelling is incoherent, skating over the top of anything that might give insights into Carmen’s character. She’s a sex-mad cipher. Don José (Camilo Ramos, backing up after his Prince Ivan earlier) is similarly superficial, just weaker, and therefore deeply uninteresting. Escamillo is there to toss off a whole lot of ballet tricks. There is no Micaëla, no Frasquita, no Mercedes, no context.

What else? Too frequently there’s no apparent relationship between the music (chiefly an arrangement of bits from Bizet’s opera) and the steps performed to that music. A tavern scene veers off into ersatz flamenco territory, indifferently done. Every now and again a man wearing preposterous bulls’ horns and a bit of bondage appears in the background to represent Fate.

Most problematic is the piece’s depiction of desire. Desire can be many things, not just sexual, and in Bizet’s opera it’s Carmen’s burning need to be free. That desire was dangerous for a woman then and still is. Carmen is murdered for her courage, not that this ballet makes you think about it or care. She’s just someone who dances in her underwear and rolls around the floor locking lips with her lovers.

Carmen is at one point surrounded by men who slap the floor vigorously and proceed to strip. It looked to me like nothing less than preparation for gang rape but also looked so ludicrous (think male strippers at a hens’ night) that the audience roared. Ghastly. I think we can safely say that at this point, as at others, there had been insufficient thought given to meaning and tone.

I felt very sorry for the Carmen I saw, Sophie Zoricic, to whom I send condolences. It was a big chance for her and she gave her all. That said, I suspect Carmen could have only the slightest chance of squeaking past the post if stocked with the biggest stars. Acosta danced both Don José and Escamillo during the London premiere season in 2015 and the RB’s most lustrous female principal, Marianela Nuñez, was the first Carmen.

Acosta is, of course, a relatively inexperienced choreographer while having been one of the RB’s most durable stars. Obviously the company wanted to please him. It should have helped him.

QB is on much safer ground with Scarlett. The young Englishman has a deal with the company to present one of his works annually for four years. The artistic associate arrangement started last year with the one-act No Man’s Land, originally made for English National Ballet. (His delectable Dream, a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet, was made in 2015 and isn’t counted.)

That leaves two more works to come. Scarlett’s international demand means it’s too much to hope that both would be new creations but I’m told there will certainly be one ballet made on the QB dancers.

Carmen & The Firebird ends in Brisbane on June 3.

ab [intra], Sydney Dance Company

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, May 15.

This one is all about the dancers. It’s about how, to the audience, they look, feel and taste. How astonishing they are in form and function. How magnificent the human body can be and how powerful its effects on an observer.

On the dancers’ side of the fourth wall there’s something more private and alluring going on. Rafael Bonachela’s dancers have always been an integral part of the choreographer’s creative process but they have never looked more fundamentally embedded in the fabric of the piece than here, nor more mysterious.

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Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll in Rafael Bonachela’s ab [intra]. Photo: Pedro Greig

ab [intra] (meaning from within) has not the slightest degree of narrative. It is moulded from moods and sensations, aided in no small way by the spare, elegant designs by Damien Cooper (lighting) and David Fleischer (production and costumes). The visual austerity is arrestingly achieved and gorgeous to look at. Fleischer’s vast white space is filled only with light and the dancers’ energy. Cooper sometimes lifts the wattage but his illumination is mostly restrained and filtered, primarily through the persistent haze that gives ab [intra] a dreamy quality.

The exacting simplicity is counterbalanced by Nick Wales’s sumptuous electronica-meets-cello score that intersperses new music by Wales with movements from works by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. While the cello is the dominant voice (one is reminded that it’s an instrument played with the body intimately wrapped around it), Wales also uses other strings, often heard played pizzicato, the piano and percussion in his richly furnished, emotionally involving aural soundscape.

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Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni in ab [intra]. Photo: Pedro Grieg

It’s fascinating to see how the ferocious, out-there physicality of the dancers is used in the service of a work that teems with secrets. Everywhere you look there are unexpected moves, groupings, gestures and connections that don’t reveal themselves fully, even when certain images or phrases return.

At the beginning light is diffused through slats high above the stage and at all times if dancers come to the front of the stage they are in silhouette. The closer they get to the audience the less they can be seen and the more intriguing they appear.

One very brief interaction, seen early and later repeated, consists of a crouching person stroking the leg of one standing. The two are by no means the centre of attention and, because they are so far forward and to the side, there is little light on them. The meaning is impossible to decipher and yet the image lingers, as do many other small, pungent moments.

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Nelson Earl and Sydney Dance Company in ab [intra]. Photo: Pedro Grieg

These swirl around more formal set pieces. Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll’s erotically entwined duo has a glowing, mystical quality. They scarcely leave the ground and are literally wrapped in one another. In the second central duo, Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni are  tender and ecstatic but not entirely knowable either. Their partnering is lush, intricate, often surprising and exceptionally beautiful.

Phenomenal Nelson Earl has an anguished, torso-twisting solo in which he seems to seek escape from himself, implacably observed by a stock-still line of eerily lit others; later, Ariella Casu similarly removes herself from the group to dance to her own rhythm but is euphoric.

And what is happening in all those trios? Three is a magic number – third time lucky – but three’s also a crowd. There is inherent drama in groups of uneven number, a situation Bonachela amplifies when two groups of five face off. And there are, as it happens, eight women and seven men in ab [intra].

It’s impossible to catch everything, no matter how hard you try, which only adds to the intensity of the experience. Everyone on stage has their own part to play, enacting intimate dramas or watching closely as they unfold. Over the years Sydney Dance Company has been home to dancers of remarkable presence and personality. Dufty has been there for a decade, Yap not much less. Both are glorious. At the other end of the scale, Earl joined in 2016, Carroll and Di Giovanni last year and Casu this year. It’s incredibly satisfying to see that even though there’s been quite a bit of change in the ranks recently, that bracing individuality remains. ab [intra] is proof positive.

Ends in Sydney May 26. Then Melbourne, May 30-June 2; Darwin, June 15; Perth, June 28-30; Canberra, August 30-September 1. Regional centres in Western Australia, Queensland and NSW, June 20-August 11.

Murphy: The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 6 (evening) and 11 (matinee).

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to give Graeme Murphy a conventional gala to celebrate his 50 years of association with The Australian Ballet, the company he joined as a member of the corps de ballet in 1968. The idea for the tribute came to TAB artistic director David McAllister when he decided to revive the choreographer’s Firebird (2009). The straightforward way to go would have been to precede Firebird with a selection of excerpts from Murphy’s greatest TAB hits’n’memories: Swan Lake, Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, Beyond Twelve, Romeo and Juliet, The Narrative of Nothing for a piece of abstraction and a humorous bit from Tivoli for a change of pace and there’s your first half.

That’s not what happened. Despite the many virtues and gala possibilities of those works, a by-the-book program would have been obvious and utterly safe. In other words, not remotely indicative of Murphy’s expansive, adventurous spirit. The counter-intuitive decision was made for Murphy’s first half to comprise dances not made for TAB, only one of which, The Silver Rose, has been previously danced by the company (it was created for Bayerisches Staatsballet in 2005). The rest of the pieces are from Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company days, where he reigned for more than 30 years and created a vast body of work – much more interesting and challenging for the dancers, undoubtedly, and good for rusted-on TAB audience members to see something from outside the square.

Murphy

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

There is more coherence in the program than might be evident at first glance. First and most clearly there is the connective tissue built by Murphy’s choreographic style, with the audience able to see his intricate lifts, unusual partnering, witty details, human touches and erotic impulses thread their way through quite different pieces.

The need to move quickly from section to section meant some of Murphy’s most enticing larger productions featuring live music couldn’t be considered but, in the inclusion of Shéhérazade (1979), with its onstage mezzo-soprano soloist singing Ravel’s lush song cycle, and with pianist Scott Davie reprising his central onstage role in sections from Grand, there is a flavour of Murphy’s love for the integration of musicians and dancers. The excerpts from Air and Other Invisible Forces and Ellipse are a reminder of Murphy’s extensive collaborations with Australian composers (here Michael Askill and Matthew Hindson respectively).

Murphy

Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. Photo: Daniel Boud

The first act closer, a handful of sections from Grand, is not only vastly enjoyable but indispensable. Murphy made Grand (2005) in celebration of “the one pianist I adore above all others”, his mother Betty, whose music helped shape his artistic development.

The choice of excerpts from The Silver Rose (based on Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier) to open Murphy is of more value thematically than artistically. The ballet isn’t one of the choreographer’s best and I would be surprised to see TAB program it again, but Murphy’s choice of a work whose theme is ageing, time’s inexorable march forward and the loss of youthful potency was perhaps a wry comment on an occasion celebrating a half-century.

In a short film preceding the first half Murphy speaks of movingly of art’s capacity to transform and of his desire to allow dancers to become the artists they aspire to be. In an interview with me before Murphy opened in Melbourne, he consistently returned to the dancers and what would suit or stimulate them. At the Sydney opening night it was wonderful to see principal artist Lana Jones in ferocious form as the Firebird, a role made on her, and also her perfumed elegance in Shéhérazade, performed in its entirety. Senior artist Brett Chynoweth was Most Valuable Player on opening night, dancing Kostchei in Firebird and seen in three pieces in the first half, including whooping it up with Jade Wood, Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli in the zany cowboy-flavoured quartet from Ellipse and, with Morelli, doing a sharp, suave Alligator Crawl in Grand (to Fats Waller).

Murphy

Brett Chynoweth as Kostchei in Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

By and large the key roles on opening night went to dancers of soloist rank or above. An exception was the coryphée (but probably not for long) Callum Linnane, who calmly partnered principal Amber Scott in The Silver Rose. At the Wednesday matinee I attended he also partnered principal Leanne Stojmenov in Shéhérazade with distinction. At that performance the mezzo was Jacqueline Dark, who gave a marvellously seductive account of Ravel’s songs.

The Wednesday matinee was where one could more clearly see the cut of the company’s rising young talent. Some fell a fair way short of the brio and individuality SDC dancers brought to those roles but their delight in this very different way of moving was touching. The male corps member to watch is Shaun Andrews, a lithe young man of serious mien who stood out on opening night in a quartet from Grand (to Gershwin) and danced a sinuous Kostchei at the matinee. An airborne cartwheel looked magically weightless.

Also at the matinee, Jade Wood’s fluttering, frightened Firebird was fruitfully paired with Jarryd Madden’s alert, sensitive Ivan and principal artist Andrew Killian memorably partnered corps de ballet member Yuumi Yamada – gorgeous feet! – in a key pas de deux from Grand. There was a touchingly elegiac mood as Killian is in the latter stages of his career. He has always been a potent presence in contemporary work and this was a timely reminder of his gifts in such repertoire. And what a joy to see soloist Benedicte Bemet back on stage after a long absence, quietly steaming up the stage with Madden in a close-contact duo from Air and Other Invisible Forces.

Ends April 23.

La Bayadère, Queensland Ballet

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, March 16.

La Bayadère is a difficult ballet to take seriously in the 21st century and Queensland Ballet’s new production does it few favours. Despite some fine dancing the abiding impression is of a narrative in sore need of stringent dramaturgical intervention. Greg Horsman’s revision invites – no, demands – nuanced reflections on colonialism and a sophisticated appreciation of Indian culture but there is only unthinking and at times cringe-making entertainment that could have been made 150 years ago.

Marius Petipa’s sprawling melodrama, created for the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg in 1877, played to the 19th-century fascination with the exotic East. The scenario called for a consecrated forest, a Great Brahmin, warriors, fakirs, bayadères (temple dancers), a rajah’s magnificent palace, the destruction thereof, and “in the distance, the peaks of the Himalayas”. Given that nobody ever went there, the setting was an India of the imagination: romanticised, vividly coloured, sensual and excitingly foreign.

QB La Bayadere 2018. Principal Artist Camilo Ramos. Photo David Kelly

Camilo Ramos in Queensland Ballet’s La Bayadère. Photo: David Kelly

Bayadère isn’t on high rotation – it’s too odd and hokey for that – but even if one thinks the story is occasionally worth retelling there is a lot of work to be done regarding how to tell it. The choreography was revised in Petipa’s lifetime and chunks of it altered after his death, key solos in particular. The magisterial dance for the Golden (sometimes Bronze) Idol was a Soviet-era interpolation and Petipa’s fourth and final act, in which the gods exact revenge for the death of the bayadère Nikiya by bringing down a palace hall and killing all within, was omitted in Soviet productions. It was likely not an artistic decision but because the sets had been destroyed at some point and simply not rebuilt.

Until Natalia Makarova restored the last act for American Ballet Theatre in 1980 (the first full production in the West), Bayadère ended abruptly after The Kingdom of the Shades, one of the most celebrated scenes in classical dance. It’s the glowing heart of the ballet (so singular it’s frequently seen as a standalone one-act work) and the reason Bayadère persists in the standard repertoire, albeit at the fringes.

Horsman duly stages The Kingdom of the Shades faithfully while significantly altering the surrounding landscape. The action moves to the dying gasp of the British East India Company in mid-19th century India, adding a political and racial dimension to the love triangle involving Nikiya, the princely warrior Solor and the high-born woman he is promised to, Gamzatti. In this version Gamzatti is recast as Edith, daughter of the British Governor General of India.

QB La Bayadere 2018. Artists of Queensland Ballet 2. Photo David Kelly

Queensland Ballet’s La Bayadère. Photo: David Kelly

To the welcome sound of the sitar, a prologue shows the Governor General and a Maharajah deciding on a treaty to end deadly conflict between their forces. The pact is to be sealed with a marriage between Solor and Edith.

In its own way this scenario is as much a fantasy as Petipa’s, even if more rooted in a real society, but its superficial handling is the real problem. Horsman’s broad brush turns Indian servants into figures of parody, makes Edith an inexplicably forward and vulgar opportunist and strips Solor of his dignity with a drunken dance and an act of violence that makes nonsense of the apotheosis that immediately follows. This is pantomime, not tragedy.

Decorum, subtlety and an understanding of tone are in short supply again and again. When attendants in Solor’s opium den play for laughs in the prelude to the solemn Kingdom of the Shades, misjudgment is taken to an impressive level.

It is one of the mysteries of the age that ballet companies persistently ignore the need for expert dramaturgy. They do choreographers no favours by enabling virtually impossible quadruple duty as librettist, dramaturg, dance-maker and director.

At the QB premiere Yanela Pinera danced Nikiya with a diamond edge and little spiritual dimension. The admirable Georgia Swan did what was asked of her as Edith and the three soloist Shades – Neneka Yoshida, Lucy Green and Laura Hidalgo – brought much balm after the 20-strong corps made an unfortunately shaky start to the hallucinatory Kingdom scene.

The Shades represent Solor’s multiple vision of his lost love Nikiya and their hypnotic power resides in breathing and moving as one, a state not achieved at the first performance.

QB La Bayadere 2018. Soloist Joel Woellner. Photo David Kelly

Joel Woellner as Solor in La Bayadère. Photo: David Kelly

Soloist Joel Woellner scored a big personal success as Solor. His unaffected sincerity, ardour and noble bearing showed what this ballet could be. He still has some way to go to be in full command of his technique and stamina but is the real deal. He was rewarded several days later with a promotion to senior soloist, QB’s second-highest rank.

There was also a great deal to enjoy musically. QB’s music director Nigel Gaynor reorchestrated significant sections of the score to feature Indian instruments and modes. Minkus’s pleasant, danceable melodies were much enlivened.

La Bayadère is a co-production with West Australian Ballet and Royal Winnipeg Ballet. It ends in Brisbane on March 31.

Adelaide Festival: Split and Memorial

Split, Lucy Guerin Inc. AC Main Arts Theatre, Adelaide. March 3.

Memorial, Brink Productions, Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, March 3.

The opening weekend of this year’s Adelaide Festival, the second under the co-artistic directorship of Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, had brilliance and breadth in equal measure.

The marquee work was Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet, which premiered at Glyndebourne last year to much acclaim. It wasn’t exactly a surprise when Hamlet was announced for Adelaide given that Armfield is its director, but wonderful to see it on home soil and with many roles taken by Australian singers. Cheryl Barker scored a considerable success as Gertrude and Lorina Gore was a tremendously affecting Ophelia alongside the original, extraordinary Hamlet of British tenor Allan Clayton.

Hamlet cast a long shadow but all hail to the works of smaller scale that followed and made their own mark.

20170316-GL-Split-0724 Gregory Lorenzutti

Lilian Steiner (top) and Melanie Lane in Split. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

Lucy Guerin Inc’s Split was a big hit at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival last year, deservedly so. Its theme is nothing less than the forces of time and space as they impinge on the individual.

Guerin’s work is supremely elegant in construction. In a softly lit square marked out with white tape, two women – Melanie Lane and Lilian Steiner, both breathtaking, danced in unison.

Their movements were dazzlingly intricate as they covered the space, driven by the beats of British composer Scanner’s pulsating electronic score. Big, tough slicing sweeps of the arms contrasted with warm curves for hips, torsos and shoulders. They moved neatly around the square, diagonally and in straight lines, their degree of synchronisation both a technical wonder and a suggestion that the women were two sides of the one coin.

That idea was given extra momentum by the work’s alternating moods and the decision to have one woman (Lane) clothed and the other (Steiner) unclothed. Nakedness on stage almost always brings with it a sense of vulnerability but Steiner’s composure banished any notion of fragility. She was all strength and essence, gleaming in Paul Lim’s beautiful lighting design like a goddess.

Split is divided into eight sections, each lasting half the time of the preceding one and performed in a space half the size. The mesmerising togetherness of the first section and its choreographic material are repeated in the third, fifth and seventh sections. In the other sections, order is disrupted. There is no attempt at unity and antagonism erupts. On one level we might have been watching two different individuals competing for resources – room to move being the obvious but not the only one – but there was also the sense of internal conflicts made visible.

Right at the end there was only space enough for both women to stand, upright and close together, perhaps in harmony, perhaps forced into uneasy proximity. The wealth of ideas in this brief work, lasting only 40 minutes, was immense.

British poet Alice Oswald’s version of The Iliad, Memorial, is subtitled “an excavation”. In Oswald’s telling, the men identified in her text – 215 of them – are not the familiar heroes of Trojan War legend; they are individuals with families and occupations who lived, as we do, with hopes and dreams, and then died violently.

Brink_Productions_Memorial_Actor_Helen_Morse1_AF_2018_Credit_Shane_Reid

Helen Morse in Memorial. Photo: Shane Reid

Adelaide’s Brink Productions has carved an almost unbearably moving piece of theatre from this threnody, one in which poetry, music and movement seamlessly join hands, as do Australian and British artists in the making of it. British composer Jocelyn Pook wrote the ravishing score, drenched in the vibrant colours of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and it was played and sung by a lustrous group of musicians led by UK countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny.

The singers and instrumentalists were arrayed on high at the back of the stage while beneath them a “soldier chorus” of more than 200 people represented Oswald’s 215 named characters. Among them were members of several choirs whose voices, raised en masse at the end, brought Memorial to a conclusion both exalting and emotionally devastating.

At the centre of everything was Helen Morse, who carried the weight of Oswald’s lengthy text on her slight shoulders. Directed by Brink’s Chris Drummond, she was a self-effacing presence as she stood quietly or wended her unassuming way through the army of everyday men, women and children who thronged the stage, sometimes walking in seemingly endless lines, sometimes circling, sometimes standing mute, and at one lovely moment, dancing gently in couples.

As humanity swirled around her, Morse, clad in a red dress of rough cut, told the many stories of lives lost – and the manner in which they were lost – with deep compassion and a voice of infinitely sad beauty.

Drummond’s partner in creating the concept for Memorial, Yaron Lifschitz from famed Brisbane circus company Circa, devised the movement – a monumental task. There were several short sections for three dancers (Tobiah Booth-Remmers, Lina Limosani and Larissa McGowan) but otherwise Lifschitz required nothing remotely virtuosic from the chorus in the way they used their bodies. His direction of the group as a whole, however, was a marvel of complexity as this mass of ordinary folk stood in for those long dead and reminded us of those still to die in countless wars across the globe.

Among Memorial’s co-commissioners is 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts program for the centenary of World War I, and the piece will be staged at the Barbican in London in September this year.

A new year dawns at RNZB

Biographies of the new intake at Royal New Zealand Ballet are now on the website after last year’s bruising and very public exodus of a large number of dancers.

There are currently 32 dancers pictured on the site, 22 of whom were still standing at the end of 2017. Now the dust has settled it appears that 16 dancers left during the last three months of 2017 (there was quite a lot of churn during the past two years, somewhat muddying the numbers and increasing the perception of instability).

The reasons for departure are various, as they usually are, but the company’s handling of this significant turnover was poor and contributed to the drubbing it received in the NZ media. It is not true, as a media report wildly claimed on January 28, that “most” of the company’s dancers left or did not have their contracts renewed but the public perception was of a company in crisis. Even the new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was drawn into the furore, although in fairness one has to add that she is also arts minister.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

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

RNZB usually employs about 36 dancers but new artistic director Patricia Barker is keeping a few contracts up her sleeve. Early in January she told American publication Dance Magazine she would continue to hold auditions through the year. This is to take account of the difference in contract periods between the northern and southern hemispheres.

One of the 10 new names at RNZB, Nadia Yanowsky, is an experienced European soloist who is listed as a guest artist for The Piano: the ballet and Dancing with Mozart seasons. The other nine comprise three New Zealanders, three Australians, two from the US and one from China. One of the Americans, Caroline Wiley, was formerly with Barker’s company Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan. Barker remains artistic director of Grand Rapids until mid-year, when San Francisco Ballet soloist James Sofranko takes over. Wiley’s signing appears to be recent – she was not named in a January 12 announcement by the company about its new team.

About half the dancers are New Zealanders and Australians, with some of the latter having trained at the New Zealand School of Dance; the others come from Europe, Asia, South America and the US. The mix of nationalities is not at all unusual when one looks at RNZB’s history, although in mid-December, during discussions about the company’s make-up, the RNZB Board asserted – clearly in panic mode – that 42% of its dancers were either from NZ or were NZ-trained, and that the goal for 2018 was for that percentage to be higher.

The company as it exists today can boast about one-third of its dancers having that NZ connection, and that seems in line with other years. I suppose it’s possible Barker could hire another four New Zealanders during the year to boost the percentage to about 45% although that doesn’t seem the most obvious way to create the right mix of dancers for a company.

More interesting is the level of experience of the incoming group. The biographies of eight of the 10 new dancers show only a few years of professional performance, recent membership of Young Artist or pre-professional programs or recent graduation from training institutions. One newcomer, Olivia Moore, is only 16.

In other newcomer news, The Australian Ballet is steadily heading towards its goal of having 85 dancers within the next few years. It is taking seven young graduates into the corps this year while four dancers have left. There are now 77 company members. In addition, American Ballet Theatre principal artist David Hallberg is resident guest artist.

Queensland Ballet has significantly boosted its stocks, including three dancers newly arrived from RNZB. This year it has 37 main company members, up from 33 last year, and 12 Young Artists. It will also have two dancers in the new rank of Apprentice. When Li Cunxin became artistic director in 2012 there were 25 main company members.

Footnote: Patricia Barker took a lot of the flak for RNZB’s tumultuous situation. Some of it was unfair, although as I have written before, it would have been humane to let all dancers stay for one full year under her leadership and then make decisions about contract renewal. As it was, Barker let four dancers go and that fuelled much of the outrage, along with her continued association with Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan.

Never mind that the Board that hired Barker agreed to let her continue as artistic director of Grand Rapids for the rest of that company’s season, which ends in May. That was known before she set foot in Wellington. Obviously the Board didn’t do a very good job of selling the information, but then it needed Barker to come quickly because her predecessor, Francesco Ventriglia, was about to leave.

Ventriglia’s tenure was not without its upheavals and he announced in 2016, only two years after arriving, that he wouldn’t be staying. He remained to choreograph his new Romeo and Juliet last year, thus giving the Board time to conduct a search for his successor. They just didn’t find someone free of all current commitments.

Ventriglia had been preceded by Ethan Stiefel, who declined to renew his contract after his initial three-year term, which he took up in late 2011. And remember, the company had waited close to a year for Stiefel to take up the job after his appointment was announced, necessitating the hiring of an interim director to fill the gap after Stiefel’s predecessor, Gary Harris, left at the end of 2010. Still with me? Former RNZB artistic director Matz Skoog stepped into the breach for eight months. This means there are dancers at RNZB who have had five artistic directors stand in front of them since 2010.

Doubtless with all these comings and goings in mind, the Board asked Barker to sign on for five years rather than the usual three. Time will tell how that works out but you have to admire Barker’s sang froid. She said this to Dance Magazine about the intense scrutiny: “All of the attention towards that gives me a sense the community really cares about the organisation and I hope that we continue to get this much media coverage as we move into the next season and the wonderful ballets are done.”

Meanwhile, the NZ PM has had a chat to the company, reportedly saying the organisation is aware of her concerns. In addition RNZB has commissioned a report into its processes and how it manages complaints, which may be completed by next month. And the Board is seeking someone with experience in classical dance as well as governance to become a Trustee. Yes, detailed art form knowledge seems to have been lacking to date. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

RNZB’s first work for 2018, The Piano: the ballet, opens on February 23.