David Hallberg on rehabilitation and returning to the stage in Coppélia

Just after I filed my story to The Australian on David Hallberg’s keenly anticipated return to the stage on December 13, with The Australian Ballet in Sydney, the paper’s deputy editor sent me an email. She simply wrote: “He has amazing feet …”

He does indeed. With their dramatic arch and superhuman articulation, they carve shapes that leave an indelible afterimage and give a marvellous sense of elongation and suspension when he is airborne but, as with so much, you don’t get anything for nothing. “Every dancer has different issues – hips, knees, whatever. For me, as much as my feet have become a kind of trademark, I do pay a price for the flexibility,” Hallberg said.

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David Hallberg in Sydney ahead of his return to the stage for the first time in more than two years. Photo: Copyright Renee Nowytarger for The Australian. Published with permission.

For the past year the American dancer has been based in Melbourne undergoing intensive rehabilitation with the AB’s medical team, a group of people Hallberg says gave him back his artistic life. The work was set in motion by a troublesome ankle injury but became something much more radical as Hallberg and a team led by Sue Mayes took a root-and-branch approach to recovery. It wasn’t just about fixing an ankle, but rebuilding a body.

In July 2014 Hallberg was burnishing his reputation as ballet’s biggest male star, performing with the Bolshoi Ballet in his home town of New York. A few weeks later an image popped up on social media of Hallberg’s left leg in a cast. He’d decided it was time to attend to his long-standing ankle problem. “It was basically wear and tear and something I was more or less in denial about. My schedule was very packed. And then I had to face the music.”

He thought he’d be back on stage in maybe four to eight months. “And here we are, two and a half years later.”

While offstage in the US, having had to cancel many performances, Hallberg nevertheless kept busy. He led master classes, coached, continued to support a scholarship for boys at the School of Ballet Arizona, and created a program for last year’s Youth America Grand Prix. Called Legacy, it illustrated the individual “texture, vocabulary and singular place in dance history” of five international ballet companies. Late last year he appeared at New York’s Performa festival in a work he created with artist Francesco Vezzoli called Fortunata Desperata. That was on November 1.

“Right after Performa, I shaved my head and got on a plane to Australia and have been here since,” Hallberg said. On November 5 he tweeted: “Goodbye New York. There’s some stuff I have to take care of once and for all.” The accompanying photograph showed the shaven head and a sombre expression. Next thing he was in front of Flinders St station, saying to Melbourne: “Your arms were wide open to me.”

Speaking in a studio located deep in the bowels of the Sydney Opera House on a theatrically stormy afternoon, Hallberg looked relaxed and content. He has come a long way in those 12 months, and is happy to give all the credit to the AB’s medical team and three women in particular. “I was so physically and emotionally broken. I really came with nothing,” he said. Principal physiotherapist Mayes, body conditioning specialist Paula Baird Colt and rehabilitation specialist Megan Connolly “worked as a team to give me the education to be able to really support the entire body and not just the ankle. I’m not shy of saying I have completely restructured my entire instrument and my technique, and that’s taken as long as it’s taken.

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Amber Scott and David Hallberg in rehearsal for Coppélia. Photo: Kate Longley

“I had to fight just as much mentally as I did physically. I’ve had to completely rebuild myself in every aspect. It was so intricate that I really just had to devote my complete time and energy and complete mental capacity to this.”

Hallberg was aware of the AB’s reputation in rehabilitation long before his injury (he has been a guest artist with the company on several occasions). “I can’t express enough how knowledgeable and committed and devoted they are to not only rehabbing an injury such as mine, but furthering the field and dispelling myths about what dancer and even athlete injury is.”

Mayes said key elements of the team’s strategy are time, commitment, dancer education, research and something perhaps less tangible but vitally important: hope. “I always give hope. I believe the human body and mind have the most incredible capacity to heal and cope with adversity and often people don’t give the body enough time. We do very little surgery. We’ll commit even a year of rehabilitation before we’d go down that track. The great thing with David is that he had the time, so there were no limitations.” She says this is often not the case elsewhere, in sport as well as ballet.

“With most dancers, their goal is to get back to pre-injury status. Our goal, and I think that’s what we’re unique at, is getting people better than they were before. Not just in strength and resilience, but also technique. We’re training them to be the masters of their own body.”

Sometimes this will mean stopping dancing, “which can be devastating to a dancer”, but Mayes says all the dancers treated by the team emerge from rehab stronger, happier and better. “There was no ballet for months for David. Paula worked with him every day for months on motor control and strength.” Nevertheless, the work is intensely ballet-specific. “For Paula, every exercise has a balletic meaning. She says, ‘even though this exercise doesn’t look anything like an attitude, or an arabesque, this is the groundwork for that move’. You have to keep them engaged with the fact that they are still a dancer. We respect the dancer and we respect the art.”

Extensive research means the work is evidence-based, but put into ballet language. Dancers are educated in anatomy and the detail of movement. “It’s no good relying on us. We give them the knowledge so they can make the right decisions for themselves. I think our dancers are spectacular at that. They are very clever at working out what they need, but they have been taught all these tools right from the time they join the company.”

Hallberg’s comeback starts in Sydney when, for four performances, he stars as Franz alongside the Swanilda of AB principal artist Amber Scott, a “dear friend”, in the AB’s handsome production of Coppélia (based on the traditional Saint-Léon version, revised by Petipa and Cecchetti, with additional choreography by Peggy van Praagh and direction by George Ogilvie)It’s a role debut for Hallberg and a far cry from the aristocrats for which the tall, supremely elegant and sophisticated dancer is famous.

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Kristian Fredrikson’s design for Act III of Coppélia. Photo: Daniel Boud

Franz is a village lad whose charm far outweighs his smarts (although engaged to Swanilda he is strangely attracted to a still, silent young woman who takes no notice of him and is, in fact, a life-size doll). “Maybe what I connect to the most is that Franz has a good heart,” Hallberg said. “If I look back on the time I’ve spent here, I’ve had to just open myself up and really express only honesty with the medical team and with the dancers. They’ve seen me at my lowest. This strips you of all pretence, of all princeliness. I can bring that to Franz.”

It isn’t a fireworks role but does bring its own challenges, particularly for a dancer renowned for specialising in princeliness. In rehearsal, AB ballet master Steven Heathcote and AB artistic associate and principal coach Fiona Tonkin have had to tell Hallberg to “simplify, simplify, simplify”. “They keep saying this. I was doing the mazurka the other day and Fiona didn’t seem entirely pleased, which I like, because I respond well to brutal honesty, and she said, ‘you know, I think it needs to be simpler’. So that’s one of the things I’ve had to work on.

“I honestly can’t think of a better way to return – with the company that has brought me back to life. And really they have brought me back to artistic life. I didn’t want to just kiss them and hug them and leave. They aren’t comfortable with this word, but I am very indebted to them for the life they have given me again.”

It is not yet settled when Hallberg will return to American Ballet Theatre, where he has been a principal artist since 2006, and the Bolshoi, which he joined in 2011. “That’s what is actually taking most time now, getting my feelers out, and it’s more now the question of what repertoire will suit me. It’s not so much what company when, it’s what repertoire I’m able to do, and Coppélia is such a focus right now. I want to get my feet wet with Coppélia and assess where I’m at.”

Anyone who thinks Hallberg might be less attached to the Bolshoi because of the changes in leadership since he’s been offstage would be quite wrong. He described it as “a home to me, just as much as ABT”. Hallberg became a principal at the Bolshoi at the invitation of then artistic director Sergei Filin, who in 2013 was severely injured in an acid attack. Filin was replaced as artistic director earlier this year by Makhar Vaziev, with whom Hallberg has worked at La Scala, Vaziev’s previous directorship. Hallberg also said the Bolsahoi’s general director, Vladimir Urin, “has always been a huge supporter”.

“I’ve had a lot of time to reflect, of course, and I do realise, as I have before but even more so now, that Bolshoi is one of the most extraordinary ballet companies in the world. In terms of the tradition it upholds, in terms of the dancers they produce, in terms of the audience in Russia, and really the interest of audiences globally. It’s such an influential company. I’m so honoured to have been a part of that and to be a part of that in the future.”

Hallberg’s future may well also involve coaching and mentoring at the AB, which he described as having a “healthy energy” that helped him emotionally during a difficult period. “There’s so much talent in the company. If I can help in any way other than just coming and dancing and leaving, then I’m more than happy to do it.”

AB artistic director David McAllister said that Hallberg’s “incredibly difficult rehab” and the manner in which he persevered with its ups and down had already given young dancers important insights. “That’s what you need to be to be successful. It’s actually the hard yards of ballet, and [injury] happens to everyone. He’s incredibly generous. He’s such a gentleman.”

Coppélia, The Australian Ballet

Benedicte Bemet (Swanilda) and Brett Chynoweth (Franz), Sydney Opera House, December 3 (matinee).

There are no dancers in The Australian Ballet today that interest me more than Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth, she a soloist and he a senior artist. No matter where they are on stage or in what role, it’s as if there’s a special spotlight picking them out. They shine just that little bit more brightly than those around them. You can’t fail to notice them, even in the more anonymous roles that fall to anyone not yet a principal artist.

Rankings are, to a degree, a matter of personal taste. There are many fine dancers who never make it to principal artist and whose fans will never be able to understand why. But Bemet and Chynoweth – well, I would be astounded if the AB’s highest level were denied them for much longer.

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Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth in Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley.

Last year both were promoted to their current rank after performances in artistic director David McAllister’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty. “The possibilities for Bemet would appear to be boundless,” I wrote at the time. “Her Aurora rates as the most exciting debut I’ve seen in more than 40 years of ballet-watching. At just 21 she brought the authentic glow of youth and promise to the stage. She was so entirely at one with the role that all the technical requirements and difficulties simply disappeared. Every step was part of her journey from innocent to prospective bride to woman on the brink of maturity.

“Usually one has a sympathetic butterfly or two as the dancer approaches the climactic balances and promenades of the Rose Adagio but not here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were astonishing – the audience went wild – and they were part of a story. There was purity, radiance and joy in Bemet’s dancing. She was enchanting; a promotion to soloist swiftly came her way.”

To be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if McAllister had bounded on to the stage to promote Bemet to principal on the spot. It would have been unorthodox, but the situation was far from usual.

When Chynoweth danced the Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in 2014 he gave notice that he was more than just a brilliant dancer in contemporary pieces; more than the speedy, not-so-tall guy who is seen as a natural Mercutio but perhaps not Romeo. Last year it was heartening to see him again given the chance to play the Prince, this time in Beauty. Chynoweth “radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing,” was how I wrote about it.

This year the two have been partnered in Coppélia, making role debuts as Swanilda and Franz at the first Saturday matinee of the Sydney season. They have two more performances in what is a crowded field taking on the principal roles – there are six leading pairs in all, including that of AB principal artist Amber Scott with American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist David Hallberg, who is making a return to the ballet stage from a long absence due to injury. Franz will be a role debut for him.

Coppélia is an almost weightless romance that holds hands briefly with darkness but firmly banishes it. Swanilda and Franz are betrothed, he falls for a time under the power of the strange doll-maker Dr Coppelius but is saved by Swanilda, who forgives his lapse of judgment. All rejoice as the young lovers marry, bringing harmony and all that is good to their little community.

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Chynoweth and Bemet in Act III of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

It was delightful to see Bemet articulate Swanilda’s razor-sharp pointe work and beaten steps with such artlessness, sweetness, buoyancy and freedom. Where some Swanildas offer calculated flirtatiousness (and sometimes regrettably twee village-girl mannerisms), Bemet bubbles with natural gaiety. In Act II, when Swanilda pretends to be Dr Coppelius’s doll come to life, her resourcefulness comes to the fore and the brief Spanish and Scottish dances are done with a more knowing edge.

Swanilda drives all the action in Coppélia. It’s Franz’s job to be a bit silly, incredibly charming and – now the role is danced by a man rather than a woman en travesti, as was traditional – to dance his socks off and partner gallantly. (There was a spot of bother at one point in the complex partnering at Chynoweth’s first performance but recovery was swift.) Chynoweth needs to find more of Franz’s laddish sense of fun but there are few in the company to match his finesse and elegance. The outlines are defined with diamond-edged precision; the movement quality is bountifully plush. It’s a gorgeous combination.

Bemet and Chynoweth appear in Coppélia on December 6 and 15.

New Breed, Sydney Dance Company

Carriageworks, Sydney, November 29.

Who knew gloom could come in so many shades? This year’s New Breed program must have tested the ingenuity of Benjamin Cisterne, Sydney Dance Company’s go-to man for lighting design, but he came up trumps, magnificently meeting the challenge of finding four different ways of illuminating darkness.

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What You See, choreographed by Jesse Scales. Photo: Pedro Greig

The program is curated – by SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela – to present emerging choreographers or those who should be seen more widely. This year they are SDC dancers Jesse Scales and Richard Cilli and independent artists Rachel Arianne Ogle (from Perth) and Shian Law (from Melbourne), all of whom have made sombre works that don’t exactly add up to a night of contrasts.

Ogle’s Of Dust is made to a commissioned score by Ned Beckley that evokes cosmic storms in endless space. Order and disorder are expressed in counter-balance, movements in canon or succession, complex swirling circles and lines that sweep, falter, fragment and coalesce. It is mesmerising and lovely to watch but rather long for its one idea: that we are made of stardust and to dust we will return.

Law’s Epic Theatre starts in the foyer with two men grappling. Inside the auditorium we are initially kept from our seats by a long line of people with linked arms, although some of the more bolshie break through to sit down.

Law is interested in blurring the lines between audience and performer and, once we are seated, transfers that idea to the stage by mixing non-dancers and dancers. People fight, they recline like statues, they lift others as if they were mannequins and they walk. They walk a lot, to Marco Cher-Gibard’s trance-inducing new score (Cher-Gibard performed lived) and in Cisterne’s gauzy, hazy light.

There is, Law says at the end, “one irreducible fact” about theatre: one group of people is looking at another. This is true, but as with Ogle’s piece it would be good to have more than meets the eye. Both are sophisticated dance-makers who failed, at least with this viewer, to make an intellectual or emotional connection of any substance. Great-looking pieces though.

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Of Dust, choreographed by Rachel Arianne Ogle. Photo: Pedro Greig

Cilli’s Hinterland stitches together elements that unfortunately don’t add up to a coherent whole. The overlong beginning looks like something that should have stayed in the rehearsal room as dancers vocalise to the movements of others. Later, some chitchat about icebergs and the film Titanic is simplistic and too poorly projected to offer insights into Cilli’s idea of “the tension between outward appearance and the vast inner landscape”. The slow motion entwining of nine bodies into an undifferentiated mass at one point is, however, enticing.

Scales’s What You See is danced to Max Richter music, well chosen. The modestly scaled piece for two men and a woman, each in their own world of emotional anguish, is on a well-worn theme but Scales has an appealing delicacy of touch and feeling that suggests she could and should expand her horizons.

It goes without saying that the SDC dancers are tremendous, one and all, in each of the works.

The choreographers chosen for New Breed get top-of-the-line support. They make their work on a bunch of the finest dance bodies in the country, are seen at one of the country’s most prestigious performing arts addresses and are given a generous season of nine performances. That last point is important. There seems to be a good appetite for new work presented in the right place at the right price – the top Carriageworks ticket price is just $35. It’s also excellent to note that The Balnaves Foundation, a supporter of New Breed for the past three years, is coming back for a further three.

Ends December 10.

David Hallberg to return to the ballet stage in The Australian Ballet’s Coppélia

AFTER a long recuperation after injury, American danseur noble David Hallberg will return to the ballet stage in December – in a place and a part not many would have anticipated. Hallberg will appear with The Australian Ballet during its Sydney Opera House pre-Christmas season, dancing the sunny, wayward Franz in Coppélia. It will be a role debut, for which four performances are scheduled: December 13, 16, 19 and 21.

The AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, confirmed the dates. “We’re very excited to have him do his first shows [on his return from injury] with us,” he said.

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David Hallberg at the Sydney Opera House in 2013, when he appeared in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Hallberg’s choice of the AB for his return performances makes sense, in that AB staff have been involved in his rehabilitation over the past year or so. As for Coppélia, that’s just what the AB had on its schedule at the moment, but its cheerful, uncomplicated nature is perhaps a bonus. Hallberg will be able to have fun after an extended period of recovery.

Hallberg, 34, had surgery on his left ankle in August 2014, which led him to cancel engagements for that year. Withdrawals from performances in 2015 were later announced. He is a principal artist with both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, joining the latter in 2011. He is the only American to be invited into the Bolshoi’s highest rank.

Hallberg is also a sought-after guest artist and has formed a close connection with the AB. He first danced with the company in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in 2010 and was to have starred in the AB’s 50th anniversary gala in 2012, although injury prevented that engagement. He danced the role of the Prince in the new version of Cinderella created for the company by Alexei Ratmansky in 2013. Last year Hallberg devised a program called David Hallberg Presents: Legacy, which was presented during the 2015 Youth America Grand Prix. The AB was one of a handful of companies he selected to take part to illuminate their individual “texture, vocabulary and singular place in dance history”.

He wasn’t entirely missing in action as a performer last year. With artist Francesco Vezzoli he created a piece called Fortunata Desperata for New York’s Performa festival, a biennial visual arts performance event that embraces cross-disciplinary work. As Gia Kourlas described it in a review for The New York Times, Fortuna Desperata explored “15th century Italian court dance, which put down the roots for classical ballet. In other words, no leaps required: at the most, lilting, gentle hops.”

While he has an extensive and varied repertoire, Hallberg has been particularly admired in ballet’s core princely roles. The chief dance critic of The New York Times, Alastair Macaulay, wrote in 2014, just before Hallberg was forced to step out of the limelight: “By the time he joined the Bolshoi in 2011, Mr. Hallberg was already the world’s foremost paragon of classical style … His virtues grow when he dances, thanks to the purity and singing lyricism of his line and the dazzling clarity of his execution.”

These qualities will certainly be of use in Coppélia, but in a rather more light-hearted context than ballets already in Hallberg’s repertoire. Franz is a lively young man whose larrikin charm exceeds his mental acuity. Franz’s attention drifts from his fiancée Swanilda when he spots the apparently aloof Coppélia. Her lack of interest in him – chiefly because she is a life-size doll made by the mysterious Dr Coppelius – leads Franz into trouble from which the resourceful Swanilda must rescue him. They can then proceed with their wedding.

At the AB the ballet is performed in a 1979 version based on the original choreography by Arthur Saint-Leon, as revised by Petipa and Cecchetti with additional choreography by Peggy van Praagh, the AB’s founding artistic director. Theatre director George Ogilvie “devised and directed” the production and has been involved in its restaging this year. Designs are by Kristian Fredrikson.

Nijinsky: The Australian Ballet

State Theatre, Melbourne, September 7; Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, November 11.

JOHN Neumeier, the choreographer and longtime artistic director of Hamburg Ballet, has made a deep study of Vaslav Nijinsky and is a noted collector of material associated with the dancer. Neumeier’s ballet on the subject is a natural extension of that passion, and he holds the ballet close. The Australian Ballet is only the third company to perform Nijinsky, after the Hamburg Ballet (the premiere was in 2000) and National Ballet of Canada.

Neumeier was, of course, in Melbourne when the AB opened Nijinsky on September 7 with one of his Hamburg dancers, Alexandre Riabko, in the title role. This, by the way, was a first for the AB in many decades. During Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign and so far in McAllister’s 15-year tenure opening night honours have been reserved –always – for an AB dancer.

Riabko is back for the Sydney season of Nijinsky – there are four casts – but AB principal Kevin Jackson danced the first performance and had a mighty success. It was touching to see him kneel to Neumeier when the choreographer came on stage to take a bow. McAllister said later that Neumeier, who was in Sydney for just a couple of days, had made a detour on his way from Hamburg to Canada to be at the opening. It’s a long detour, and a measure perhaps of how much this ballet means to him.

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Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

It’s an important ballet for the AB too. Its repertoire of full-length narrative works is otherwise heavily weighted towards a small number of ballets guaranteed to be box-office friendly: last year there were Swan Lake (the Graeme Murphy version, Sydney only), Giselle, Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty; this year featured Swan Lake (the Stephen Baynes version), Coppélia, Romeo & Juliet (resident choreographer Stanton Welch visiting with his Houston Ballet); and next year audiences are offered The Sleeping Beauty again, Nutcracker (the Murphy version) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In those three years only Alice, made in 2011, is truly new.

The AB could, I suppose, try to argue that in 2017 there’s a necessity to stage familiar titles in the second half of the year as it then has to decamp from the Sydney Opera House while the Joan Sutherland Theatre’s stage machinery is upgraded. That would work if the program looked different from any other year, but it doesn’t. (It is true, however, that next year Sydney will see Gabriela Tylesova’s Beauty sets to much greater advantage in the Capitol Theatre than at the Opera House, and that Alice also needs a larger stage than the Joan Sutherland’s.)

Nijinsky could not be more different from those works, with their crystal-clear, linear, familiar storylines told in conventional ballet language. Neumeier stretched the company and, if audience chatter is anything to go by, gave patrons a significant shot in the arm.

We have no film of Nijinsky performing, only the reports of those who saw him. Of the four works he choreographed, only one, L’après-midi d’un faune, was notated. It’s not much to go on but no one argues against Nijinsky’s status as the performing artist who changed the way men danced and what they danced.

Despite being socially awkward offstage, onstage Nijinsky could be anything. He was the strange and shockingly lascivious creature in L’après-midi d’un faune, the tragic puppet Petrouchka, the exotic Golden Slave in Schéhérazade, the soulful Poet in Les Sylphides, the skittish young man in Jeux. As the star dancer in Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes he became one of the hottest properties on the European stage, a sex symbol whose undies were filched as trophies. As a choreographer he made only a handful of works but they landed like hand-grenades.

Nijinsky was always a bit odd, and then much more than that. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919 and left the stage after a career lasting only a decade. His last public performance was for an invited audience and was held in a St Moritz hotel ballroom. According to his wife Romola, after an extended silence Nijinsky told his audience, “Now I will dance you the war … the war which you did not prevent.”

The ballroom, with its curved white balcony and glittering chandeliers (Neumeier also designed), is where the piece poignantly starts. There is some semblance of normalcy as the chattering classes come to see Nijinsky, although it is best to draw a veil over the AB’s handling of this non-dancing scene of mixing, mingling and air-kisses, particularly as seen in Sydney. It was painful. Finally, thankfully, they take their seats and Nijinsky enters. Soon the reality of the room fades and images from Nijinsky’s ballets, his family and his torments mingle freely with the topsy-turvy logic of an imperfectly remembered world.

The fractured evocations of the Ballets Russes days are thrilling as familiar characters dash in and out, just as they might in a dream. Diaghilev appears, carrying the Golden Slave, who then performs a dance of extraordinary sensuality. Here are ballerinas from the Mariinsky in their snowy white tutus, and there the harem girls from Schéhérazade glowing in gorgeous hues. The Faun returns again and again with his enigmatic two-dimensional walk and erotic charge (a working knowledge of Nijinsky’s ballets is exceptionally helpful to getting the most from the evening).

Neumeier balances this heady rush of mashed-up history with more intimate scenes between Vaslav and Romola and, in Act II, with members of his family. Here we also see Petrouchka, clad in a black and white version of his costume – a superb inspiration – as one of war’s victims. The puppet’s pain and that of the world are inextricably tangled.

At the Melbourne premiere, Nijinsky’s torment was darkly internalised by Riabko, who was like a tightly coiled spring. Jackson’s emotions were closer to the surface; his wounded innocence was greatly affecting. While Romola is at best a divisive figure as far as history is concerned, Neumeier treats her sympathetically while not shying away from the rumours of infidelity. With Riabko, Amy Harris gave Romola strength and resilience while in Sydney, Amber Scott’s fragility made visible the shared tragedy of husband and wife.

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Dimity Azoury, Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov (Melbourne) gave a brilliantly etched Bronislava Nijinska, rather more convincingly than Ako Kondo (Sydney). A special mention must go to Brett Simon, a heart-wrenching Petrouchka in Melbourne. In Sydney Andrew Killian made less of an impression. In both casts Adam Bull smouldered darkly as Diaghilev and young corps de ballet member François-Eloi Lavignac was riveting as Vaslav’s afflicted brother Stanislav. Dancing both the Golden Slave and the Faun, soloist Jarryd Madden was breathtakingly sensuous.

Nijinsky’s first half is danced to three movements from Rimsky-Korsakov’s luscious score for Schéhérazade – you could feel the audience almost fainting with delight – alongside Chopin, Schumann and Shostakovich. The second half is given over to Shostakovich’s brooding, troubling Symphony No. 11. Orchestra Victoria (Melbourne) and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (Sydney) did the honours with the AB’s music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm. At the Sydney opening night curtain call she seemed to be fighting back tears as the crowd stood and cheered lustily. Well, it is a rare sight in that house. Too rare.

Nijinsky, Sydney Opera House until November 28.

Parts of this review first appeared in Limelight Magazine.

Li Cunxin extends his Queensland Ballet tenure and Liam Scarlett joins as artistic associate

IN October Queensland Ballet announced that artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for another four years, doubtless much to the relief of the QB board. Li succeeded François Klaus in July 2012 and in his first four years has transformed a lacklustre company into one of significant growth, steadily increasing artistic standards and apparently boundless ambition.

The achievements include introducing a young artist program; securing more State government funding that will, by 2020, boost the size of the company to 36 dancers (not including the eight young artists); performing at least one large-scale work annually in Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s 2000-seat Lyric Theatre; beefing up the senior ranks, including hiring three dancers from National Ballet of Cuba; and selling out just about every performance for every program, every year.

QB has also been successful in attracting significant private donations to the company, a happy state of affairs that tends to be attributed to Li’s networking skills and charisma. Last year the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation announced a gift of $5 million, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End (Li was a long-time Melbourne resident, working there as a stockbroker after his retirement as a principal dancer with The Australian Ballet) and in its statement regarding Li’s contract extension, QB revealed that an anonymous donor is “committed to supporting Li’s appointment over the next four years”.

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Liam Scarlett rehearsing principal dancer Yanela Pinera in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Queensland Ballet. Photo: Eduardo Vieira

There was more to come. High-profile young British choreographer Liam Scarlett, who is artist in residence at London’s Royal Ballet and has a busy international career, joins QB next year as artistic associate (he keeps his RB role). A QB representative said Scarlett’s tenure was for four years “initially”, with extension possible, and that the position is being fully funded by one private donor.

In a statement released by QB on November 4, Scarlett said the company had “a commitment to excellence and a desire to push the boundaries and that’s an exciting creative environment to work in”.

The details of the association aren’t yet clear but it is likely QB will perform one Scarlett work each year, either one made on the company or an existing ballet. In 2017 QB will stage No Man’s Land, the one-act work Scarlett made for English National Ballet’s World War I centenary program Lest We Forget in 2014.

Scarlett’s talent was identified when he was a student at the Royal Ballet School. He juggled dance-making and performing with the Royal Ballet until 2012, when he became a fulltime choreographer. He has works in the repertoires of American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, among other leading companies.

The introduction to QB was made when Royal New Zealand Ballet’s then artistic director, Ethan Stiefel, invited Scarlett to create a full-length Midsummer Night’s Dream for RNZB and asked QB to be a co-producer. Dream premiered in Wellington last year to wide approval – it is captivatingly musical and sensual and has a sweet sense of humour – and sold out its performances in Brisbane earlier this year.

Scarlett’s one-act abstract works have been regarded rather more favourably by leading dance critics than his narrative ballets, although his three-act Carmen, made last year to the music of Bizet for Norwegian National Ballet, must have been received well: the company is reviving it in February and March next year. RNZB took A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Hong Kong in October and gives four more performances of it in Wellington from November 25. This year’s three-act Frankenstein, however, was handed particularly stinging reviews on its London premiere in May this year. (It is a co-production with San Francisco Ballet and opens there in February.)

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

When I interviewed Scarlett ahead of the Dream premiere in Wellington last year, at a time he was also deep into planning for Frankenstein, he said he was “very aware I wanted to do narrative – I grew up with all these story ballets and loved them. They were my favourite to do when I was dancing. I soaked them up. But I was very aware you needed tools to do that.”

It’s those tools, or lack of them, that have come under close critical scrutiny. Scarlett’s approach is to work closely with his artistic collaborators, but not with a dramaturg. “I have been criticised for that,” he told me. “But I’ve also worked with people who have worked with a dramaturg and they’ve been criticised equally. No, I run things by people but if I want to do it, I will do it, and if I make a mistake then it’s my mistake that I will learn from eventually.”

His lengthy CV might suggest otherwise but Scarlett is only 30. He doubtless has more mistakes to make along with his successes, but his name will add lustre to QB and Queensland audiences will have the chance to see at close range the further growth of a significant choreographer.

Liveworks: Chan, Gunn & Lloyd, Choy

Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art. The Performance Space at Carriageworks, Sydney, October 27, November 2.

A pulsating, unforgiving light picks out Kristina Chan’s forehead and underscores her cheekbones, sculpting her face into an eerie mask. A lone figure in the gloom, she rises to the balls of her feet then drives her heels into the floor.

Up and down, up and down, again and again she goes. The beat imposed by big, industrial blocks of sound is relentless, as if Chan is being driven deep into the earth. Perhaps she is the last person on Earth.

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Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

A Faint Existence is Chan’s eloquent, despairing view of the world’s physical degradation. There is no anger or call to action. This is the end. What you choose to do about it is up to you. As is often the way of these things, there is exceptional beauty in the depiction of existential threat. The visual elements are few and they are rigorously austere, although there is an oddly calming suggestion of repose in the use of curves rather than straight lines and the way light glows rather than burns. Clare Britton’s design has a central mound that suggests by turns a parched landscape and a dying sun. At the back of the space, high up, a slender, twisting ribbon of fabric sparkles with life-enhancing colours although the great rushes of air that occasionally animate it feel less benign.

There is a moment of immense poignancy when Chan lies motionless beneath that ribbon, so far out of her reach. Chan, who is choreographer as well as dancer, has an ability to suspend time that is as exquisite as her phenomenal physical control. She understands the power of stillness and uses it potently.

James Brown’s score and Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting are integral to the intense impact made by A Faint Existence, and it is interesting to note the involvement of a dramaturg, Victoria Hunt. If only more choreographers took this path. This is a dark work whose intent is absolutely clear while having an air of ineffable mystery. There were only a handful of performances but A Faint Existence is surely destined for many more.

Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer premiered about six weeks ago in Chunky Move’s Next Move program in Melbourne so it, like A Faint Existence, is hot off the presses. While the two works share a less-than-optimistic view of the future, Mermermer has slapstick energy and deep devotion to the ridiculous in the face of encroaching darkness. This is Waiting for Godot, if only Beckett had jazzed it up with shiny party streamers and not repeated himself quite so much (Mermermer runs a tight 50 minutes). Gunn and Lloyd chat away to one another and seem to find not only comfort but necessity in their tangling, tumbling, sweaty physical connection.

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Jo Lloyd and Nicola Gunn in Mermermer. Photo: Gregory Lorenzuti 

While the big curtain at the back of the performance area suggests overt theatricality, and therefore the presence of the audience, Gunn and Lloyd don’t look beyond each other. There are no ironic quotation marks around their actions. This immersion in one another is touching and the effect is amplified by the era-style-forgot costuming (Shio Otani designed). The women look very, very ordinary. They look human.

The work’s title carries implications of the persistence or otherwise of memory. It also implies a fading of language and perhaps therefore a weakening of ties between people. Gunn and Lloyd have tried to keep it all going but it looks as if larger, less chaotic and impersonal forces will prevail. Still, like Didi and Gogo, they have gallantly given it their best shot.

Choy Ka Fai’s SoftMachine: XiaoKe x ZiHan was another highlight of Liveworks, sadly only in the first week. Choy, a Berlin-based Singaporean artist, has created a series of contemporary dance portraits combining video with text and movement. This one, featuring dancer Xioa Ke and her artist husband Zhou Zihan (who perform as XiaoKe and ZiHan), takes a critical look at censorship and control in China. Much of it is wryly humorous, there is a glorious piss-take of a propaganda song and a chilling conclusion.

In about 40 minutes it covers a lot of territory and offers keen insights. I wish, though, I’d read Keith Gallasch’s interview with Choy Ka Fai in RealTime magazine before seeing XiaoKe x ZiHan. Apparently an invitation from the Cultural Bureau of China to pop in for a cup of tea is not something you want to receive, knowledge that would have enhanced an exchange between Xaio Ke and Zhou Zihan near the end of the work. Good to know now though. Read the piece here. It’s terrific.

Liveworks continues at Carriageworks, Sydney, until November 6. Mermermer ends November 5.