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.

Symphony in C: The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 29.

Symphony in C is one of George Balanchine’s grandest and most cherished pronouncements on the classical tradition. It features a strict hierarchy that cascades down from principals and soloists to an all-female corps and ends in exhilarating fashion with more than 40 dancers onstage – a number at the lower end of the spectrum for this work but the Sydney Opera House stage has limitations – and dazzling white tutus as far as the eye can see.

Symphony in C - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

The Australian Ballet in Symphony in C. Photo: Daniel Boud

It also gets the job done in a swift 30 minutes, meaning The Australian Ballet needed to fill the evening out with something else. Many choices could be made; artistic director David McAllister went the divertissement route, otherwise known as bite-sized audience-pleasers. A mini-gala of five works, each lasting about 10 minutes, was offered as a kind of warm-up act to the Balanchine and put three longstanding international favourites alongside what we could call the ghost of Bodytorque. In years past the AB gave four or five emerging choreographers a relatively low-key chance to test their work before the public. That seems to be gone, which is a real loss, but Bodytorque veterans Richard House and Alice Topp have been promoted to the main stage. Both are confident dance-makers and both have made better works.

House’s Scent of Love, to the music of Michael Nyman, is an idyll for two couples that is as attractive, gauzy and evanescent as the name suggests. There was the slight whiff of a narrative in which a young man and woman (Amanda McGuigan and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson) were perhaps then seen as their older, less happy selves (real-life couple Amy Harris and Jarryd Madden). It wasn’t a lot to hold on to. The piece started with a forceful visual statement – Kat Chan designed – that elicited immediate applause but had no further dramatic function, unless to posit McGuigan as a fashion model (she’s certainly beautiful enough). McGuigan rippled her arms fetchingly, there were close encounters and yearnings, and there were conventional images of the strong, protective man with his lovely woman. McGuigan ran to Rodgers-Wilson, he lifted and flipped her around, she was held upside down after a shoulder lift and so on. The relationships were obvious and not terribly interesting.

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Amanda McGuigan and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in Scent of Love. photo: Daniel Boud

That said, House is worth sticking with. When last year’s From Something, To Nothing ended you wanted to know what happened next. That’s good. Topp also has thoughtful work on her CV but Little Atlas, for a woman and two men, also got caught up with ballet-land verities about men and women. He’s strong enough to hold her over his head so he does; she is super-bendy so let’s see just how stretchy she can look.

Topp describes Little Atlas as a memory piece and in her program note writes of events that “plague us” or provide “sanctuary” and “comfort”, but her work appeared to be mainly about anguish, romanticised and aestheticised. While it was not entirely clear what memories Vivienne Wong might be channeling, sexual imagery was much to the fore. Wong – always a ferocious force in new choreography – emerged from a circle of light to be draped, dragged, folded and lifted on high with legs dismayingly splayed.

With today’s work we must deal with today’s social and sexual politics. These things just aren’t shapes, they carry meaning, and I didn’t get from Little Atlas the sense of an independent woman confident in her individuality and ability to make choices. Neither did Topp appear to be taking a position on oppressive relationships. Topp seemed to have fallen victim, without realising it, to contemporary ballet’s fetish for displaying women as objects. It was cave-man stuff to pleasant, soft-grained music by Ludovico Einaudi. The audience gave it an ecstatic reception.

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Vivienne Wong, Kevin Jackson and Rudy Hawkes in Little Atlas. Photo: Daniel Boud

The pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain closed the first half and provided much balm. AB senior artist – and surely very soon a principal – Robyn Hendricks and Australian-born guest Damian Smith quietly distilled the complexities of love. Smith, who retired from San Francisco Ballet in 2014 after a long and shining career, brought the gravitas and weight of a long, deep association with the role and Hendricks was outstandingly luxurious, mysterious and unknowable. Sublime. Well, apart from the mystifying musical glitch that had violinist Jun Yi Ma – he is concertmaster and artistic adviser for the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra so he knows his way around the instrument – sound as if he’d started on the wrong page and couldn’t to get back to where he needed to be. Stuart Macklin on piano played on serenely, Hendricks and Smith rose above it and conductor Nicolette Fraillon got things back on track after what felt like forever. It was probably the halfway mark, possibly sooner, but for a while Arvo Pärt’s translucent Spiegel im Spiegel sounded most strange indeed.

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Robyn Hendricks and Damian Smith in After the Rain. Photo: Daniel Boud

Incidentally, I suppose it’s too much to ask that we see the full After the Rain at some point. Interestingly, the Royal Ballet brought the whole work into its repertoire only this year despite its longstanding ties with Wheeldon. The AB performed it 2007. Time for a rerun?

The two older divertissements in the first half of the program were pieces seen in galas the world over and need a huge amount of splash and dash. Chengwu Guo was ridiculously entertaining in the Diana and Actéon pas de deux, helicoptering around the stage in pursuit of applause and the effervescent Ako Kondo. In the unforgiving technical showpiece Grand pas classique Miwako Kubota and Brett Chynoweth gave many flashes of brilliance but didn’t fully impose themselves on the piece. (I also attended the dress rehearsal the night before opening and Kubota and Chynoweth – another one knocking very loudly on the door of the principals’ dressing room – were on song. But that’s not the performance I was reviewing and that’s showbiz.)

One shouldn’t miss any opportunity to see Symphony in C, even if the too-small Joan Sutherland Theatre stage makes it difficult to appreciate the sparkling complexity of its construction in detail. It was also good to hear the AOBO play Bizet’s beguiling symphony with much verve under Fraillon’s baton. Symphony in C, written when Bizet was only 17, wasn’t discovered until after his death. Balanchine pounced on it for a work for Paris Opera Ballet (first called Le Palais de Cristal) in 1947 and put his individual stamp of genius on this homage to classicism.

Each of the four movements has a distinctively different quality, clearly defined by Friday’s glamorous opening-night cast (it fielded eight of the company’s nine principals). Each features a principal duo supported by two soloist pairs and a corps of women whose number squeezed on to the stage but only squeaked in as far as the ballet’s needs go. Larger companies with bigger stages put more than 50 dancers on at the end but the AB had to make do with 42. The men partnered gallantly and danced with panache but it’s the women’s ballet. Leanne Stojmenov (enchanting), Amber Scott (luscious), Ako Kondo (vivacious) and Lana Jones (grand) were all wonderful but the crowning glory was Scott’s otherworldly sensuousness in the famous slow second movement.

Symphony in C runs in repertory with Vitesse and ends May 14.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on May 2.

Ako Kondo’s Odette/Odile debut in The Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake

Sydney Opera House, April 2.

The chance to see a dancer’s first Odette/Odile will always be a drawcard for the truly dedicated ballet-goer, no matter how many times they have seen Swan Lake. Early this month Australian Ballet principal artist Ako Kondo added the role to her repertoire with a performance that revealed many individual touches while having room to deepen.

Stephen Baynes’s production, which premiered in 2012 and is getting its first revival, has mostly new choreography around the set pieces audiences expect and is traditional in character. The setting is late 19th-century (Hugh Colman designed) although with a distinct tinge of the earlier romantic era when artists took inspiration from the natural and supernatural worlds.

Baynes tops and tails the story with brief action – set well backstage and seen only dimly in Rachel Burke’s lighting design – that suggests the magician Baron von Rothbart has enduring power over Prince Siegfried’s family as well as the women he has transformed into swans. This line however, like other aspects of the storytelling, is sketchily drawn.

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Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in Swan Lake. Photo: Daniel Boud

After a series of competent but routine dances, the ballet really gets going at the end of Act I when Siegfried, whose melancholy is profound, is called inexorably to the lake. In this telling he’s not a hunter out for sport with a few friends. He is unarmed, alone and tormented. Chengwu Guo imbued his introspective solo with weighty sorrow. When Odette appeared he was as startled as she.

Baynes eliminates the mime in which Odette describes her enslavement. We’re left with what it has done to her body (and with the traditional choreography). Kondo acutely showed Odette as one trapped, frightened and in pain. The emotional connection with Siegfried was less clearly expressed although she had a wonderful moment during her Act II solo in which her arms, unfurling slowly behind her, said everything about her aching need to be free. Guo partnered lovingly – as well he should; he and Kondo are off-stage partners too – and there was a tremendously exciting moment when he dashed on right at the last minute to lift Kondo on high in the middle of the massed swans just before the final moments of Act II. Who knows? Guo could possibly have misjudged his entry by a few seconds but whatever the reason, it looked dramatically right.

Kondo’s Odile was fascinating in that she looked more Odette-like than many interpreters as she seduced Siegfried. There was no lack of confidence but less obvious irony; it made Siegfried appear less gullible than usual and Guo’s silken command of every virtuosic step added lustre. Kondo ripped through Odile’s climax to the pas de deux, aided by guest conductor Andrew Mogrelia’s highly supportive tempi. He led the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in a strong, dynamic accompaniment that was sensitive to dancers’ individual needs. (There were, however, a couple of noticeable bloopers from the pit.)

When I first saw this Swan Lake I described Act IV as sometimes over-busy. This time it had more impact, possibly because I had a slightly higher perspective on the complex patterns. The corps of swans builds an ever-shifting wall around grieving Odette, advancing and retreating en masse protectively and emphatically, and allowing Siegfried and Odette a private moment or two for a pas deux before returning to claim her. The contrast between their formal behaviour in Act II and the wilder flurries in Act IV is effective.

There’s more to come though. To give pride of place to his notion of Rothbart as scourge of the royal family, Baynes diminishes the depth of Siegfried and Odette’s love. They dash off separately and the final image – a boat, Rothbart, a dead royal – mirrors the opening. The tears stay unshed.

The Sydney season of Swan Lake ends on April 20. Adelaide, May 26-31; Melbourne, June 7-18.

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

Daniel Gaudiello exits The Australian Ballet

When The Australian Ballet stages Stephen Baynes’s traditional Swan Lake in Sydney from April 1 for 21 performances it will field six couples in the leading roles of Odette-Odile and Siegfried. One of those couples was to have been senior artist Natasha Kusch with principal Daniel Gaudiello, a partnership that promised a great deal. Kusch, then a soloist with Vienna State Opera Ballet, first danced with Gaudiello in a Queensland Ballet gala in 2012 where they were clearly an excellent match on stage. Soon after Kusch joined QB and then the AB in 2015, where she and Gaudiello danced together regularly.

As late as Wednesday of this week – March 23 – casting on The Australian Ballet’s website listed Kusch and Gaudiello. On Thursday a press release came late in the afternoon, advising that Gaudiello was leaving the company after 12 years, the past six as principal artist. His performance in Melbourne on Monday March 21 in the Vitesse program was his last. I saw him on the opening night of that season in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, which he danced with passionate intensity and impeccable technical gifts. He was sporting a new, sleeker haircut that was much remarked-upon. He was at the top of his game.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. photo by Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Obviously Gaudiello’s decision had come quickly in one way, in that he was expected to appear in Swan Lake, but he must also have been weighing up what was best for him for many months. The AB’s press release said Gaudiello “for some time has been working towards this decision”.

Possibly he wished to avoid the high-visibility public farewell usually accorded a principal artist. Alternatively, he simply woke up on Tuesday and thought, today’s the day.

There were no specifics in the press release about Gaudiello’s plans, other than he had “decided to step away from the stage and focus on new artistic and personal pursuits”. Gaudiello wrote on Facebook: “The humanity in dance is what has kept the art form alive, and what has kept me coming back after the hard knocks it gives us all. No one escapes this time in their careers, where something dies but something is born again.” He went on to write that his “drive to succeed is at an all time high” and that he still has “a lot to say”. He is believed to be interested in an acting career, something for which he would seem well suited. Among his many successes in roles requiring a strong ability to create a believable character are Petrouchka, Basilio in Don Quixote, Franz in Coppélia and, outstandingly, Mercutio in the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet at Queensland Ballet, in which he appeared – brilliantly – alongside the Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae as Romeo.

Daniel Gaudiello (Mercutio) Steven McRae (Romeo) Rian Thompson (Benvolio)

Daniel Gaudiello as Mercutio, Steven McRae as Romeo and Rian Thompson as Benvolio in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

Gaudiello’s announcement was followed immediately by heartfelt expressions of love and admiration from dancers and dance-lovers. British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon was just one to express dismay at Gaudiello’s retirement from dance, writing “even I’m not ready and I was only there for 10 minutes”. (Wheeldon refers to his brief visit to Melbourne to put the finishing touches on DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, the ballet that gave the Vitesse program its name.)

Gaudiello is 33 and at the peak of his powers, but also at an age when the future starts looming large for dancers. (I recall having a vivid, detailed conversation with him about choreography, in which he has some experience, although it’s not clear that he intends to pursue this.) For all its beauty dance is a brutal business, exacting a great toll on the body. Not only is a career usually winding down when a performer is in his or her late 30s or early 40s, she or he has also usually been training and working in dance for more than 30 years. Gaudiello started dancing at the age of six in his hometown, Brisbane. (The AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, was 37 when he left dancing to succeed Ross Stretton at the company.)

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella, 2013 photo Jeff Busby_3765

Daniel Gaudiello with Leanne Stojmenov in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

With Gaudiello now not dancing in Swan Lake, the AB hastily rearranged its schedule. Amber Scott and Adam Bull are first cast, followed by Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones (she is married to Gaudiello) and Ty King-Wall, Leanne Stojmenov (happily back from maternity leave) and Kevin Jackson and senior artist Miwako Kubota with principal Andrew Killian.

The sixth cast is Kusch with hard-working Killian, a pairing that gets its first outing on April 13, with two further performances to follow. The show always goes on. For Gaudiello it will just be a different one.

The Australian Ballet’s 20:21

Sydney Opera House, November 5

After a year dominated by Giselle, Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, the lavish new Sleeping Beauty and Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the dancers of The Australian Ballet were undoubtedly delighted to dive into the pared-back costumes and sharp-edged choreography of 20:21 (the title refers to the 20th and 21st centuries). They certainly looked as if they’d been let off the leash.

The three works on the bill were well chosen – very different in choreographic style but sharing a clean, uncluttered aesthetic and each driven by a score to get the blood pumping. The oldest ballet, Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, was made in 1972 to music by Stravinsky (written in 1942-45); Tharp’s In the Upper Room premiered in 1986, powered by Philip Glass; and Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow is new, having made its debut in Melbourne in late August accompanied by a muscular commissioned electronic score from German duo 48nord.

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Tim Harbour's Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Symphony in Three Movements is strongly hierarchical and fascinatingly structured. There is a corps of 16 women clad in white leotards and a group of five women in black leotards, the latter supported by partners in black tights and close-fitting white T-shirts. These two sets of dancers frame three principal couples, one of which is at the centre of the work, dancing the deeply sensuous pas de deux that comprises the second movement. (Amusingly, this lovely music was originally intended to form part of the soundtrack to the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette – a biography of the young woman who saw visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes and was later canonised; Stravinsky didn’t complete the project.)

On opening night the women in white were rather less crisp than one would wish, nor did all of them convey the assurance and chic required to carry off the martial gestures, pony-step prancing, showgirl high kicks, jogging and more, but the three first-cast leading couples (Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Andrew Killian, Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes) exuded command and sophistication. Scott and Hawkes danced the pas de deux with a sweet element of wistfulness as well as the lusciousness seen in swimming arms and entwining necks and the whimsicality of turned-in knees and hands. Scott, who is growing in stature with every season, was a glowing presence and also carried one of the ballet’s most enchanting moments as she whirled around the stage twice in a great circle of piqué turns as the corps jogged about insouciantly.

Hawkes (a senior artist) and Killian (principal artist) danced in all three works on opening night. It was an impressive feat given the demands of each. Filigree and Shadow is a non-stop display of angst and athleticism. It looks and sounds thrilling and the opening night audience gave it a huge cheer in Sydney, as I gather they did in Melbourne at the premiere, so it seems a bit churlish to point out that it doesn’t really say much about its theme of “catharsis for aggression”. Still, the cast of 12 was as sleek as seals in form-fitting grey, super-energised by the propulsive music and performed with the cocky insolence of those who know they are, essentially, as gods compared with the rest of us. Brett Chynoweth, Simon Plant and Marcus Morelli were particularly fine in their trio and Vivienne Wong and Dimity Azoury gave no quarter in their encounters with Killian and Hawkes. The elegant contributions of Kelvin Ho (set) and Benjamin Cisterne (lighting) added greatly to the sense of occasion.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Wong and Azoury then turned up as “stompers” in In the Upper Room, the ones who wear sneakers and do a lot of running in a work that joins the languages of sport and training with that of dance. Here – and this is very rare in ballet – effort is made explicit. This is a ballet of sweat and exhaustion as well as grace and artistry. The magic comes from seeing the reach for transcendence as Glass’s music pulsates inexorably and builds towards its ecstatic final movement. In a fine first cast, principals Daniel Gaudiello and Chengwu Guo were exceptional.

A program such as this also gives opportunities for dancers from the lowest ranks to have a moment in the spotlight. From the Filigree and Shadow first cast Plant is in the corps de ballet and Morelli a coryphée, and coryphée Christopher Rodgers-Wilson drew the eye in In the Upper Room.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra had an early night, playing only Symphony in Three Movements (the other two scores are recorded). With AB music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm the AOBO gave a strong account of this vibrant, rhythmically bracing score.

Ends in Sydney on November 21.

A new generation rises to the challenge

Sydney Opera House, April 29.

THE Australian Ballet’s first staging of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations alongside revivals of his coolly mysterious Monotones II and lucid, delightful one-act version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is well overdue. Ashton’s choreography hasn’t surfaced at the AB since 2004 (the last time La Fille mal gardée was presented) and other works have been absent since the 1970s and 1980s.

That means few of the AB’s dancers have experience with Ashton, something that may account for the very late announcement of casting. Ashton ballets seem to be protected like the crown jewels by those charged with their care. Fair enough. The Royal Ballet’s founder choreographer is one of the 20th century’s most important dance figures and his style, in which wit, high sophistication and virtuosity are seen through a veil of modesty and restraint, is not an easy one to capture.

This program is far and away the most challenging of the year for these dancers and the most intriguing for balletomanes. On opening night the AB met the challenges with great integrity. (Scroll down for updates on later casts.)

Madeleine Eastoe and Joseph Chapman in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Madeleine Eastoe and Joseph Chapman in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Dream couldn’t look prettier in David Walker’s gossamer designs as fairies and mortals fall in and out of love in a whirlwind 50 minutes. Ballet is so very good at compression; all the essentials are there, starting with the tussle between Oberon and Titania for possession of the little Indian Boy that leads to much meddling in everyone’s affairs.

Airiness and delicacy reign in this moonlit world, even in the case of whirling, spinning, high-flying Puck and rustic Bottom when turned into an ass, his black pointe shoes a splendid stand-in for hoofs. Ashton calls for almost impossibly fleet, sparkling feet contrasted with luscious upper bodies and inner glow rather than external show. Wednesday’s first cast caught the light as did Nicolette Fraillon and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s radiant music.

Combining muscular presence with a poetic soul, Kevin Jackson (Oberon) grows in stature with every performance; about-to-retire Madeleine Eastoe (Titania) was as dewy as a teenager; Joseph Chapman (Bottom) hopped and ran on pointe as if born to it; and Chengwu Guo was a gravity-defying, ultra-charming Puck who won every heart. His speed, and elevation were a wonder but much more thrilling was the way he used bravura steps to illuminate Puck’s character and story. Just as it should be.

Kondo, Martino, Hendricks and Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Dream draws the evening to a happy close but the more important event is the acquisition of Symphonic Variations, considered to be Ashton’s defining work. An 18-minute sextet to Cesar Franck’s music for piano and orchestra, the plotless paean to beauty, peace, simplicity and classical harmony was made in 1946 and embraced by a British public deeply scarred by World War II. In Ashton simplicity, of course, does not mean simple. The bodies of the dancers are like willows – graceful, infinitely flexible, turning this way and that, tranquil yet resilient.

Symphonic Variations is intricately structured and overflows with lustrous, evocative imagery. In a particularly lovely repeated gesture the women curve an arm protectively around a partner’s head; several times after all have skimmed across and around the stage – the women and the men in separate groups of three – the six dancers join hands in an echo of bucolic folk-dancing. In the pared-back white costumes and in some groupings there are also intimations of Balanchine’s Apollo but the glorious flow of bodies and action is all Ashton’s own.

While occasionally there was evidence of some strain there was a fine account of Symphonic Variations from its first cast: soloist Robyn Hendricks and principals Amber Scott and Ako Kondo (elevated to that rank during the Sydney Giselle season just passed); and corps member (as he was then) Cristiano Martino, choryphée Christopher Rodgers-Wilson and soloist Brett Chynoweth. Hendricks in particular glowed from within, Martino was an imposing presence and Chynoweth’s buoyancy and crystalline shapes in the air linger in the memory.

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in Monotones II. Photo: Daniel Boud

Wright, Kusen and Simon in Monotones II. Photo: Daniel Boud

The presence of dancers from right across the ranks made for an opening night of unusual interest. As future casting shows, Martino would appear to be one to watch as he is also down for Monotones II and has several appearances as Oberon to come, as do other junior men. Chynoweth is, not surprisingly, one of the Pucks, but that role will also be danced by corps men Marcus Morelli and Cameron Hunter.

Monotones II, which opens the program, is a trio for one woman and two men made in 1965 for a gala, no less. It must be one of the most enduring works ever made for such an event. Ashton was inspired by 1960s moon exploration and the way people might move in its tenuous gravity. The woman – refined, poised soloist Natasha Kusen in the first cast – could be some kind of remote goddess attended by her male acolytes. Certainly the three appear suitably alien, clad entirely in second-skin white bodysuits and caps.

It’s a look that takes quite a lot of personal glamour to carry off and Brett Simon and Jared Wright could have exuded a touch more of that. Still, Monotones II stands up much, much better than you might expect as its three living, moving sculptures serenely move through the ethereal orchestral version of Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies.

With so many dancers in featured roles in this program it is, well, a dream for talent spotters. It was a great pleasure to see Hendricks and Kusen also featured in The Dream on opening night (as Hermia and Helena), playing the comedy sweetly with the Lysander of Rudy Hawkes and Demetrius of Jacob Sofer.

I see The Dream twice more, at the May 6 matinee and May 8. I will update as I go.

Matinee, Wednesday May 6

On a Saturday matinee the house is packed with exuberant youngsters. Not so on a school day. It was a fairly quiet audience – let’s put it that way – although The Dream got a rousing reception. Things were quieter for Monotones II and Symphonic Variations, and fair enough. Neither was given a performance for the ages. The Monotones II cast was the one I saw on opening night – Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright. Kusen was again luminous – her line pristine, her arms glorious – but the men’s support of her was a little wobbly. This is performance under an unforgiving microscope.

Symphonic Variations was unacceptably scrappy. Andrew Killian had a bad day with his double tours and the cast – the others were Lana Jones, Ingrid Gow, Amanda McGuigan, Ty King-Wall and Andrew Wright – didn’t seem fully at one with each other or all of the work’s complexities, although Jones stood out for her calm poise. Another good thing: McGuigan, a long-legged beauty in the corps de ballet who joined the AB last year, is the real deal. Not that she’s a novice. McGuigan has danced with American Ballet Theatre and Dutch National Ballet and has international gloss. Put her on the watch list. (I see her in Monotones II on Friday, which should be wonderful.)

Also on the watch list is Cristiano Martino, also in the corps but surely not for long. [Note: Martino was promoted to coryphée on May 11.] He’s been with the company for only two years and yet finds himself first-cast Symphonic Variations, cast in Monotones II for some performances and – this is the biggie – is one of the Oberons in The Dream. The others are principals Kevin Jackson, Adam Bull and Ty King-Wall, with coryphée Jared Wright – he recently made his debut as Albrecht – also getting two performances in Sydney. Vastly experienced senior artist Miwako Kubota is Titania to both the junior men.

Martino has stage presence, alert dramatic instincts, a powerful leap and he and Kubota sparked sexily off one another. Martino’s partnering is a work in progress and he appeared to be getting very, very tired by the end of this tough role but it was a surprisingly mature and highly promising performance from one so new to the business.

Another corps de ballet member, Marcus Morelli, was the Puck and his exuberance and sense of fun conquered the audience. He managed the technical challenges well although he needs more polish and finesse. But he’s fast, full of beans and put on a great show.

Friday May 8

The Australian Ballet’s choreographic development program Bodytorque started 11 years ago as a Sydney-only project with an individual personality. It was staged not at the Sydney Opera House but at the Sydney Theatre (recently renamed the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay) and usually had five performances featuring five choreographers or thereabouts, with some building on the experience of having made work for previous Bodytorques. Last year the program decamped to Melbourne, where there were three performances in the State Theatre. Among last year’s participants was Richard House – also a 2013 Bodytorquer – and he is a featured Bodytorque artist this year. Indeed he is one of only two Bodytorque choreographers this year.

Richard House's From Something, To Nothing. Photo: Daniel Boud

Richard House’s From Something, To Nothing. Photo: Daniel Boud

Bodytorque 2015 has just four dates in the calendar, two in Sydney and two in Melbourne, and on each evening there is just one new work, presented after a mainstage performance. The audience is invited to stay on to see it after the all-Ashton The Dream program or the contemporary program 20:21 at no additional cost.

House’s From Something, To Nothing, for three couples, received its premiere in Sydney last Friday following The Dream. The music of Satie (Gnossiennes 4 and 5) and Rachmaninov (Elegie for piano and cello) beautifully played by Christian Lillicrap and Andrew Hines, the soft dusk of Graham Silver’s lighting design and Kat Chan’s romantically layered pale costumes established a restrained and enigmatic atmosphere in which stillness and calm alternated with complex close partnering. House creates strong stage pictures and attractive classically based dance and I would have been happy to see where the work might go. But perhaps in calling it From Something, To Nothing, House is acknowledging that a piece lasting 10 or 15 minutes doesn’t really have anywhere to go and that creating a wistful, elegiac mood is the most one can do. The three couples – Heidi Martin and Charles Thompson, Rina Nemoto and Mitchell Rayner and particularly Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden – were elegant and sophisticated.

Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden. Photo: Daniel Boud

Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden. Photo: Daniel Boud

House’s work will be seen again after The Dream in Melbourne on June 12. Another choreographer, as yet unnamed, will create work to be seen after 20:21 in Melbourne on September 4 and Sydney on November 20.

House was seen earlier in the evening in dancer mode, joining Amanda McGuigan and Brodie James for The Dream program’s opening ballet, Monotones II. Although they several times rushed a pose or movement in a ballet that relies on seamless flow, they looked wonderful together.

Another viewing of The Dream confirmed how splendidly the AB women have absorbed the darting, weaving, swooping qualities that define the fairy attendants. The gorgeous sweep of necks, arms and upper bodies, the alert heads and eyes and quicksilver feet are all there.

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Friday’s performance was also notable for Brett Chynoweth’s Puck. The part is a whirlwind of multiple pirouettes, leaps during which the lower legs carve out tight little circles, heady dashes across the stage and the humorous byplay that makes Puck a character, not just a marvel of pyrotechnics. Chynoweth’s razor-sharp accuracy is a marvel and he seems to find plenty of time in the air to get all the complexities done and dusted without strain.

One might think he is typecasting for this type of role, but that would be to forget his debut as the Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in Sydney last year. Chynoweth gave a deeply poetic performance – indeed, one of the most affecting I’ve seen in this ballet. And I’ve seen a few.

The Dream ends May 16. Melbourne, June 4-14; Adelaide, July 8-9.

To each her own

Sydney Opera House, April 2, 4 and 7

TWO and bit years ago, when Paris Opera Ballet came to Sydney with its production of Giselle, I was able to see three excitingly different readings of the title role, two of them from debutantes. We seem to get our fair share of important firsts in Australia. Apart from POB’s Ludmila Pagliero and Myriam Ould-Braham in Giselle, many years ago Sydney saw Alina Cojocaru’s first Odette-Odile (for the Royal Ballet) and Brisbane was graced with the historic debut of Misty Copeland as the Swan Queen when American Ballet Theatre visited last year. (Copeland has just made her US debut as Odette-Odile with Washington Ballet and in June finally makes her first O/O appearances in New York. It’s big news.

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet’s Sydney season of Giselle gave me the opportunity of seeing another notable title-role debut, that of Juliet Burnett at the first Saturday matinee. The opening night Giselle was, not surprisingly, principal artist Madeleine Eastoe, who makes this role her last with the company when she retires mid-year. There’s some symmetry here, as it was after her 2006 performance in Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle that Eastoe was elevated to the highest rank at The Australian Ballet. Adelaide has the privilege of the farewell performance on July 6 and I will be there to close a circle for myself – Eastoe joined the AB in 1997 and I have watched her entire career. And on April 7 I saw the Sydney debut of Ako Kondo, whose first performances as Giselle were in the Melbourne season last month. After Kondo’s third Sydney performance, on April 14, the senior artist was promoted to principal, an event that has been expected for some time.

Eastoe’s Giselle was a gentle, open-hearted girl with the bloom and fragrance of an easily bruised rose. Every thought and feeling was exposed without barrier or reservation, her inner world made visible as if her skin were transparent. Eastoe’s lighter than light dancing and aura of fragility in the first act prefigured her absorption into the spirit world of the second act.

Burnett made a memorable debut at the April 4 matinee. Here was an enchantingly radiant lass whose joy and excitement were vibrantly captured in sparkling eyes and a glowing face. Burnett’s Giselle was a little bit flirty with Albrecht and sweetly starstruck by Princess Bathilde. When she stroked the fabric of Bathilde’s lavish gown she was enjoying its beauty rather than being overawed by such splendour. And I loved the way Burnett scrunched up the side of her simple yellow skirt when walking beside Bathilde so it wouldn’t touch the Princess’s costly attire. She made these details and many others fresh and individual.

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

Depite warnings from her frail heart and her foreboding mother, Burnett’s Giselle was alert and full of life. In the weightless curve of her arms and poised balances that reached upwards Burnett was not so much a spirit in waiting but a young woman buoyed by love. Then, when she learned of Albrecht’s perfidy, the light was switched off. White-faced and stricken, Burnett’s Giselle was crushed beyond endurance. The mad scene was frantic and incredibly moving. Burnett’s second act was beautifully composed and she looked wonderful in the soft, forward-leaning stretches and airborne beaten steps that show Giselle scarcely tethered to the ground.

Kondo was a skittish Giselle, at first glancing back to the cottage often as if to see whether her mother might suddenly appear, or perhaps thinking she should go back inside. But along with the skittishness there was more than a hint of sensuality, amplified by her expansive dancing. In the second act Kondo had something of an avenging angel quality as she protected Albrecht from the icy commands of Robyn Hendricks’s Myrtha in a thrilling battle of wills.

Ako Kondo, The Australian Ballet's newest principal. Photo: James Braund

Ako Kondo, The Australian Ballet’s newest principal. Photo: James Braund

I would have liked to see Kondo with an Albrecht who provided greater contrasts. Her pairing with the exciting Chengwu Guo is a public-relations dream as they are partners offstage, but the plush physicality of his dancing was, for me, too similar to hers for this ballet. Albrecht and Giselle are not from the same world. On Eastoe’s opening night, when they were cast in the Peasant Pas, they looked just perfect together. Guo also partners the very different Natasha Kusch as Giselle this season; I’m sorry I won’t be able to see them.

Eastoe was given a Rolls-Royce ride with the deeply felt, superbly danced Albrecht of Kevin Jackson. His intentions and reactions were natural, meaningful and expressed clearly through gesture and movement. The snap and height of his Act II entrechats had the audience gasping (Nicolette Fraillon, conducting the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, had to really slow things down in the pit) but more telling was the weight of sorrow he conveyed as he entered to mourn Giselle. This level of connection with character is as yet unavailable to the much less experienced Jared Wright, who partnered Burnett. His lines are noble, his looks princely, and at this point he is a leading man in development.