Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2017

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s search for a choreographer to make a new Romeo and Juliet for the company in 2017 was a short one. After the sell-out success of artistic director Francesco Ventriglia’s The Wizard of Oz in May this year, the ballet company’s board asked Ventriglia to take the job himself. In a big coup for the company Romeo and Juliet will be designed by James Acheson, a triple Academy Award winner for costume design who happens to live in Wellington. Acheson was responsible for the lavish costumes in The Last Emperor, Dangerous Liaisons and Restoration and is setting Romeo and Juliet conventionally, and no doubt sumptuously, in Verona in the late Renaissance. It is Acheson’s first ballet assignment and Ventriglia says the initial discussions with him have been “extremely interesting, challenging and inspirational”.

Ventriglia promises a big, “really classical” production and will use the Prokofiev score. He knows the MacMillan version intimately from his dancing days – “I was Paris, I was Tybalt; it’s part of my DNA, if you want” – but says the MacMillan and the equally admired Cranko versions were perfect “for their moment”. In other words, those productions, which premiered in 1965 and 1962 respectively, are now more than 50 years old. There’s room for other interpretations.

So Ventriglia is doing what he calls a lot of diving into the text and music to find his own way into the story, and is working with a dramaturg to make sure there is “a reason for everything”. A key issue for him, for instance, is the relationship between Lady Capulet and Tybalt, whose connection he wants to strengthen. Romeo and Juliet opens in Wellington in August 2017.

Two mixed bills in 2017 will buck the usual mix’n’match trend by focusing on a single choreographer. RNZB’s opening season, which runs from February to April, features two works by Roland Petit, a choreographer who featured strongly in Ventriglia’s dance career at La Scala (“I grew up with him”) and whose work is rarely seen in this part of the world. New Zealand audiences will see L’Arlesienne (1974) and Carmen (1949), both to the music of Bizet. (The Australian Ballet performed Carmen in 1973.)

rnzb-carmen-credit-ross-brown

Abigail Boyle and Massimo Margaria in a promotional image for Carmen. Photo: Ross Brown

Petit died in 2011 after a long and celebrated career. The second featured choreographer, Swedish-born Alexander Ekman, is just 32 and has been choreographing only since 2006. In the middle of the year RNZB will revive Ekman’s wildly popular Cacti (2010) – which it performed earlier this year as part of a triple bill titled Speed of Light – alongside company premieres of Tuplet (2012) and Episode 31 (2011). Ekman’s website describes Tuplet as “a swift, pulsating, eighteen-minute tour-de-force for six dancers which asks the question, what is rhythm?”. Episode 31 was made for Juilliard students in New York and is for a large group of dancers.

Ventrigila plans to organise offstage events to complement both programs. “They will open a new communication with the public,” he says.

RNZB will also help celebrate New Zealand School of Dance’s 50th anniversary at a gala in November. NZSD is the Official School of the Royal New Zealand Ballet and senior students undertake corps de ballet roles in some productions, as they will in next year’s Romeo and Juliet. RNZB’s repertoire is yet to be announced but will include a work to be staged during the 2018 season but unveiled early for the anniversary celebrations.

Next year is a Tutus on Tour year and in 2017 RNZB will take a gala program to regional centres – “a good, proper repertoire gala; even in the small cities they will see the real Royal New Zealand Ballet”. While the program hasn’t yet been finalised, Ventriglia is thinking along the lines of the Le Corsaire pas de deux and Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.

There is no international touring locked in at the moment but it’s something Ventriglia always has his eye on. He’d like to take the company back to Italy soon and a return to China is on the cards. “I want to build a bridge between New Zealand and the rest of the world,” he says.

Ventriglia will have a slightly larger company with which to do that. Next year he is able to increase his dancer number to 36 from the current 34.

Sydney Dance Company

CounterMove. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, Sydney, February 29.

LUX Tenebris – Light in Darkness – is the name of Rafael Bonachela’s new work but it could well have been chosen to describe Sydney Dance Company’s new double bill as a whole. The company’s reprise of Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, which opens the evening, puts the audience in a happy, buoyant mood. Lux Tenebris then takes a violent journey into the shadows with extreme physicality and bruising encounters.

Bonachela has taken the gloves off with Lux Tenebris. It’s not often his company looks this wild and tough. As the work starts the dancers prowl around like feral cats, get into lightning-fast tussles with others and then do a runner. It ends that way too, everyone fleeing from something.

The title may suggest a dichotomy but Lux Tenebris operates almost entirely in the dark recesses of the mind. Illumination in a technical sense (Benjamin Cisterne designed) either flickers on and off nervily or is a crepuscular veil or cone. Where there is some light it seems to indicate a place to inhabit briefly then retreat from. Bonachela appears to have wanted to suggest balance between the two forces but Lux Tenebris has a mind of its own and makes a different call. It’s an unequal contest.

Sydney Dance Company, Lux Tenebris (5). Dancers Charmene Yap and Todd Sutherland

Charmene Yap and Todd Sutherland in Lux Tenebris. Photo: Peter Greig

The atmosphere is edgy and mysterious, created in no small part by the commissioned electronic score from Nick Wales that evokes the vastness of the universe as it buzzes, hums, clanks and drones. Again darkness predominates, although there are melodic chords suggesting chinks of light that insinuate themselves from time to time into the dense fabric.

(Speaking of fabric, the only misstep in Lux Tenebris is the costuming from Aleisa Jelbart, who puts some surprisingly daggy shorts and shirts on stage.)

The 40-minute work feels challenging and unsettling, despite the underlying formality of the structure that follows Bonachela’s penchant for series of solos (Juliette Barton’s, in which she appears to be trying to escape from herself, is magnificent), duos and groups. The only sense of real connection is in two incredibly close, sexy, needy duos from Charmene Yap and Todd Sutherland (both superb), and the lovely, momentary linking of the whole group in a line that soon disintegrates.

The dancers always look sharp but here sleekness gives way to ferociously strong and muscular attack. They need it for this hugely demanding work.

The evening starts with the return of Cacti, first danced by SDC in 2013. Ekman made it in 2010 as a riposte to pretentious critics – surely he had not yet experienced the clarity and wisdom of Australian reviewers – and the dance took off like wildfire. About 20 companies have it in their repertoire (Royal New Zealand Ballet has Cacti in its current season, Speed of Light, and National Ballet of Canada premieres it on March 9).

Sydney Dance Company Cacti (1). Photo by Peter Greig

Sydney Dance Company in Cacti. Photo: Peter Greig

What’s in it for the audience? Happily Ekman turned his dismay at being misunderstood into a laugh-aloud funny jeux d’esprit that fizzes with energy, particularly in the goofy opening in which a string quartet wanders around playing Schubert amidst music hall-style clowning and complicated manipulations of small platforms. Ekman is even-handed enough to poke fun at the choreographic process too and a delightful time is had by all.

The choreographer raises fewer questions than he may think but I’m not going to argue with a piece this attractive and well made.

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

CounterMove ends in Sydney on March 12. Canberra, May 19-21. Melbourne, May 25-June 4. Regional tour of NSW, Queensland Northern Territory and Western Australia June 17-August 13.

POSTSCRIPT:

On the CounterMove opening night it was announced that Sydney Dance Company would take 2014’s Interplay on tour to Switzerland, Germany, Brazil, Chile and Argentina in April and May. In Europe the company is part of Dance Festival Steps, a multi-city biennial showcase for contemporary dance that this year also includes work from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Wayne McGregor, Aakash Odedra with Rising, seen last year in Perth and Brisbane, and Huang Yi, whose Huang Yi and Kuka will be seen in Sydney in mid-March before its appearances at Dance Festival Steps. Sometimes the dance world can seem a rather small place.

Interplay is a terrific triple bill, the memory of which sent me back to my review of March 2014. Who knows? You may want to take a trip to one of the seven venues at which SDC is appearing. Well, you could go to one of six. The performance at Neuchâtel on April 23 is listed as sold out (the website is http://www.steps.ch).

The Australian, March 19, 2014

WHAT a rich, diverse evening. Sydney Dance Company’s Interplay offers three works, any two of which would have given a stimulating experience, but who’s complaining? Each makes a strong appeal to a different human need and shows the SDC dancers in shape-shifting, magisterial form.

Rafael Bonachela takes on Bach’s Violin Partita No 2 in D Minor for an intellectually challenging engagement between movement and music; the second new piece, Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim!, has heart and joy; and the revival of Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models well, that gives the libido a workout.

SDC Interplay Raw Models. Production photo by Wendell Teodoro 1

Sydney Dance Company in Raw Models, part of Interplay. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Violinist Veronique Serret plays for Bonachela’s piece, called 2 in D Minor, planting her feet firmly on the stage and engaging fiercely with the dancers. Also on the program is new music from Stefan Gregory (invigorating, rhythmic tunes for L’Chaim!) and Nick Wales (intriguing electronic miniatures that act as contemporary interludes for in 2 in D Minor, based on Serret’s playing). This is a big, big show.

Bonachela’s piece doesn’t always rise to the complexities and nuances of Bach but has many luscious moments, particularly in sections involving Charmene Yap, David Mack and Cass Mortimer Eipper. On Monday night Yap embodied the music with alert, sinuous grace, frequently making eye contact with Serret, and David Mack and Cass Mortimer Eipper’s closely intertwined duo in the first movement also gave the sense of bodies merging with the music and emerging from it. There was a fine contrast in the second movement, Corrente, when Fiona Jopp’s lively solo was more external: a performance bubbling on top of the music.

As the piece progressed some of the dance material and structures lost their juice when familiarity set in. The solo interludes between movements were the surprise element, with white-clad figures offering present-day, somewhat anguished homage to Bach. These interpolated pieces were danced on a square of light on the stage, mirroring the skylight-like light that hovered above the Bach movements. (Benjamin Cisterne created the set and lighting.) I couldn’t help but think these little dances referred to the noble struggle involved in living up to the genius of Bach.

When Raw Models premiered in 2011 I was struck by the various meanings of the word model it evoked: fashion, mechanical device, computer modelling. This time the piece felt a little different. Overall there isn’t quite the level of chic and haughty sheen the original cast brought to it but it is still very sexy. The ripples, poses and elongations of seven dancers dressed in skin-tight black bring to mind the enacting of a creation story or perhaps, given the gloom and frequent blackouts, rebirth from a catastrophe.

Whatever it is, it’s happening in a galaxy far, far away. These superb physical specimens may look human but could well be aliens from the planet Glamour Major. The opening night crowd went wild, particularly (and rightly) for Yap’s knockout duo with Andrew Crawford, a man with the wingspan and majesty of a golden eagle, both of which he puts to excellent use in Raw Models (Crawford is unfortunately no longer with SDC).

Where Raw Models demonstrates the vast gulf between elite performers and their audience, L’Chaim! seeks connection. Folk dancing is the choreographic impulse and the illustration of community. A disembodied voice (that of Zoe Coombs Marr, text is by David Woods) asked company members questions – some banal, some impertinent, some useful – about themselves and what they felt about dancing. The idea is an extension of a long-running interest Obarzanek has in why people dance and what dance means, and there is a work of greater depth there for the taking. L’Chaim! is already an endearing addition to the inquiry.

Wearing a motley array of ordinary clothes, the full SDC company beautifully illustrated how highly trained bodies can move in ways denied the rest of us. Then, as they almost imperceptibly let go of their technique, they movingly showed how a civilian may be absorbed into the dance.

Footnote: for the European performances Serret will once again be the violin soloist for 2 in D Minor and Obarzanek will take on the role of the interrupting actor in L’Chaim!

Royal New Zealand Ballet: Speed of Light

Auckland Arts Festival, March 2.

Francesco Ventriglia was named artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet back in September 2014 but hasn’t been able to put his stamp on programming until now. Of necessity his predecessor, former American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel, was responsible for what was seen on stage in 2015. These things aren’t done in the blink of an eye. From here on, though, it’s all Ventriglia’s taste and direction.

He’s bolted out of the gate with a triple bill that certainly earns its name. Speed of Light doesn’t bother much with the concept of balance in that all three works go like a rocket. There’s no quiet, reflective piece to give contrast to the more forceful works although there are substantial differences in style and mood. The opener, Andonis Foniadakis’s Selon Désir is anguished; William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is still the epitome of glamour and cool despite being nearly 30 years old; and Alexander Ekman’s Cacti is exuberant and original and a happy final piece.

Cacti was made in 2010 and the dance has proved as tenacious as the succulents that give it its name. Sydney Dance Company is dancing it at the moment in Sydney alongside artistic director Rafael Bonachela’s Lux Tenebris (I’ll put that review up in a day or so), having first performed it in 2013. National Ballet of Canada opens in it on March 9 and the number of companies who have it in their repertoire is now at least 20.

Speed of Light  dancers Georgia Powley and Leonora Voigtlander credt Maarten Holl sml

Georgia Powley and Leonora Voigtlander in Cacti. Photo: Maarten Holl

Cacti was born of Ekman’s dismay at dance criticism. He felt those commenting on his work didn’t understand what he was doing and this pained him. If being successful is the best revenge, Ekman nailed it, and fortunately he does it with good humour and a pleasing degree of sweetness. He even has a dig or two at contemporary choreographic processes.

Ekman has pulled off one of the most difficult challenges in dance, which is to be genuinely funny. (I’m shamelessly lifting now from my 2013 review for The Australian.) The dancers, identically dressed in roomy dark trousers over flesh-coloured bodysuits and wearing hair-covering caps (of Ekman’s design), at first kneel on low platforms and whack the platforms and themselves in an exhilarating display of energy, rhythm and co-ordination. It’s a bit music hall, a bit commedia dell’arte and all fabulous. (I think there’s also a little tribute to Jiří Kylián tucked in there as dancers fall comically to the floor and puffs of powder rise into the air, and why not?)

Later the dancers strip down to basics and pose with cacti as if it were the most natural thing in the world and there is a very funny pas de deux during which one hears in voiceover the thoughts of a man and a woman as they rehearse a tricky bit. There’s also a wandering a string quartet that plays some of the score live, and there’s a dead cat. What’s not to like?

On seeing it again – twice – this week I loved Cacti’s goofiness and playfulness. The RNZB dancers weren’t quite as tongue in cheek as Sydney Dance Company, seeming in the unison drumming and comic striding just that little bit more mystified about why they were doing this stuff. (It’s a perfectly valid interpretation on their part.) A brief way to describe the difference between the performances would be to say SDC foregrounds the satire, RNZB the sweetness. SDC Is more knowing, RNZB more innocent. In the rehearsal duo, RNZB’s Veronika Maritati (dancing with Shane Urton) put into my mind a fleeting image of Giulietta Masina as the tragic Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada. It was just a stray thought, but it pleased me. Although perhaps I shouldn’t have voiced that. I suspect Ekman would find the idea outstandingly pretentious.

Of course he probably won’t read this. Ekman says – at least he does in the SDC program – that he doesn’t really care about the reviews or the critics any more. That said, the marketing still needs to get done. Fascinatingly, despite all the companies doing Cacti and all the reviews that must have appeared, RNZB and National Ballet of Canada are using exactly the same sentence from a review of Cacti that appeared in The Australian in 2013 (yes, mine). It says: “Cacti is a delight: witty, effervescent, playful, surreal and joyously physical.” Which is true.

Royal New Zealand Ballet in Selon Desir. Photo: Bill Cooper

Royal New Zealand Ballet in Selon Desir. Photo: Bill Cooper

Speed of Light kicks off with Selon Désir, which offers a great deal of colour and movement but not much in the way of subtlety. It operates at a relentless level with very few changes of rhythm. People rush off and on, throw each other about (the women are too often treated like rag dolls) and there is no repose. Bach’s St Matthew Passion and St John Passion provide the score (with some electronic interventions), used to create a generalised atmosphere of angst. It was danced at the 2009 Perth Festival by the company for which it was made in 2004, Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève. I found it unvarying and tedious then and a second viewing hasn’t changed my mind. The RNZB dancers, bless them, gave it their all.

Many congratulations must go to four company members in particular – Abigail Boyle, William Fitzgerald, Shaun James Kelly and Massimo Margaria who, after this high-octane workout, also appeared in Cacti and in the hugely demanding In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.

In the Middle is a work all ballet companies want to do. It truly was a game-changer, pushing classical technique in a way that honoured the tradition but stretched it dramatically and threw it off-kilter. The thrilling, rock-hard electronic score by Thom Willems in collaboration with Les Stuck drives a theme-and-variations construction for six women and three men who, when they are not centre stage, prowl around in the shadows waiting for their moment to pounce.

In The Middle Somewhat Elevated, RNZB_Linbury Studio,Mayau Tanigaiti,

Mayu Tanigaito in In The Middle Somewhat Elevated. Photo: Bill Cooper

Everything is more in In the Middle, except that it needs to look almost casually achieved. When, for instance, a dancer stops on a dime, on pointe with a leg raised high, there must be a meeting of sophisticated poise and total command of perilous off-centre balance. Nothing less will do: the exposure is total.

At the opening night performance I attended in Auckland, the RNZB dancers dealt with the intoxicating technical complexities with much confidence. Mayu Tanigaito stood out for her extraordinary pliancy and attack and Boyle made a fierce impression in the role indelibly associated with Sylvie Guillem, who was a member of the original Paris Opera Ballet cast. Fitzgerald is something of a boy wonder, given that he started fulltime dance training in only 2012 and has been with RNZB for just two years. He danced the central male role elegantly and partnered with only one or two hesitations. Magaria (especially), Kelly, Tonia Looker, Yang Liu, Alayna Ng and Clytie Campbell completed the impressive first cast.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of In the Middle is the way dancers control the dynamics of immense force, implacable resistance and unexpected emphases. The RNZB dancers had the necessary clarity and sang froid; perhaps the only thing missing was a finishing touch of hauteur.

Ventriglia knows In the Middle through and through, having been chosen by Forsythe to do it when he was a young dancer, and indeed having danced the three male roles. This is therefore quite personal for him and the stakes were high. He should be very happy.

Next week I get to see The Australian Ballet do In the Middle in its Vitesse program. That makes me very happy.

Francesco Ventriglia and Royal New Zealand Ballet

A year into his artistic directorship, Francesco Ventriglia talks about his goals for Royal New Zealand Ballet and his first program for the company

 “My life is where I can have a theatre, where I can have dancers, where I can have a space to express my creativity. I don’t care if it’s Milan or Florence or Wellington or New York.”

Not everyone would mention Wellington, New Zealand, in the same breath as New York and Milan, but Francesco Ventriglia is more than happy to. And why not? We’re sitting in one of the New Zealand capital’s fine restaurants, drinking excellent local wine and talking, amongst other things, about the impending Royal New Zealand Ballet’s world premiere of Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (It opened in late August.) Life is good.

Francesco Ventriglia, Royal New Zealand Ballet artistic director. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Francesco Ventriglia, RNZB’s artistic director. Photo: Stephen A’Court

Then there are all the things he wants to do as the company’s newest artistic director, a position he took up late last year after former American Ballet Theatre star Ethan Stiefel decided to return to the US after three years at the helm. Even when seated Ventriglia throws out megawatts of energy, face alight with enthusiasm and wreathed in smiles. He talks a million to the dozen in charmingly accented English which he says is improving but is already excellent – not entirely idiomatic, to be sure, but pouring out fluently and vividly. (“I feel more comfortable now, even with the Kiwi accent, which is a little bit different,” he says.)

Essentially it comes down to this. When he arrived in New Zealand he was warmly welcomed. People liked his outgoing nature and his vibrant optimism. “They like me and I really like them. I try to put things on the table in a very honest way, no strategy. I am what I am, I’m here. We can work and make the future. Everyone gives me the space to do that. So I feel free.”

Lucy Green, an Australian dancer with the company, says Ventriglia is very passionate. “You really get that enthusiasm and energy every time he’s in the studio. He loves to push us very, very hard, and that’s exactly what we need. He’s always telling us: ‘more, more; more body, more emotion, more heart’, which is really lovely. ‘More turnout, more quality.’ He loves quality. I love the way he describes things – ‘be royal, be expensive’. From day one he was fully here and fully committed. ‘I’m here for everyone and I’m here for the long haul.’ That’s really nice.”

Ventriglia inherited the 2015 season from Stiefel, including the gift of the full-length Scarlett that proved to be a very big hit and which will feature on RNZB’s 2016 Asian tour (it is a co-production with Queensland Ballet, which will perform it in Brisbane early next year). The 2016 season, his first full program, was announced this week.

Sonia Looker and MacLean Hopper in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Tonia Looker and MacLean Hopper in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

He spent his first year getting know the dancers, bringing in a series of guest ballet masters and mistresses before deciding who he wants to hire permanently, and getting acquainted with other companies and dance directors in the region (The Australian Ballet’s David McAllister, Queensland Ballet’s Li Cunxin, Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela). “Very nice and open” is how he describes his early encounters and he is keen for connections, collaborations and exchanges in this part of the world as well as in Europe.

“New Zealand arrived at a moment of my life and career where I was really ready to jump into a new thing, a new energy, even in the dark a little bit,” he says. Ventriglia was working at the Bolshoi last year, staging his Boléro and Carmina Burana, when he got the message that RNZB was trying to get in touch with him. They called and said he was their choice to succeed Stiefel. He’d got the job.

Naturally he’d thought seriously about his application. The life of an artistic director is very different from that of a freelance choreographer who also occasionally likes to design sets and costumes. There’s time in that life for personal study, deep immersion in scores, lots of travel. But RNZB beckoned and he said yes. In Moscow, “at that moment I thought, that’s not my choice; it’s what life chooses for me”.

Ventriglia, who is in his mid-30s, made his dance career at La Scala. It was a good one. When he was just 19 Natalia Makarova came to stage her version of La Bayadère and chose him for the virtuoso Golden Idol solo; when he was even younger and newer to the company, William Forsythe hand-picked him to be in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. He danced Hilarion to Sylvie Guillem’s Giselle and appeared in ballets by Neumeier, Bejart, Preljocaj, Kylian, Mats Ek, Nureyev, “always in the lead role”. He retired at the early age of 31, becoming artistic directorship of Florence’s MaggioDanza. The company closed abruptly in 2013, a victim of funding cuts.

RNZB is in a happier situation as the country’s much-admired national ballet company. Ventriglia understands the importance. “What is great from my point of view is that the company can spread ballet culture through the country, from tiny, tiny cities to Auckland. This is a great, great responsibility.” There is also an imperative to tour internationally, “because it’s quite important to spread the New Zealand brand”. This year’s tour, from October 27 to early December, takes the production of Giselle created for the company by Stiefel and Johan Kobborg in 2012 to the UK and (naturally) Italy, along with a mixed bill. “We do one tour a year, and we hope two in the future.”

Ventriglia is also keen for the company, which has 37 dancers (they are unranked), to be seen at festivals. “We could send just a group – 10 to 15 dancers – and the other group can dance here,” he says. “We can be present in the same moment in an international place and national place. That’s what I want to do. It’s great – a national company. National! It’s a big responsibility. It’s for all New Zealand, not just your city.”

The first festival in Ventriglia’s schedule is the 2016 New Zealand Festival, and it will be the first time in a dozen years that RNZB has appeared at the event. The program, called Speed of Light, is an exuberant one: In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated; Alexander Ekman’s Cacti and Andonis Foniadakis’s Selon désir, which is also being seen on this year’s northern hemisphere tour.

The year continues with a world premiere, Ventriglia’s family-friendly The Wizard of Oz, which was to have been seen in Florence but “between the dress rehearsal and the opening night the theatre was closed. So after five years the ballet will be reborn in New Zealand.” Giselle will again be seen on home soil, and the Asian tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will follow. Ventriglia also talks obliquely about a further project, something very big, but will give no details at this stage.

The RNZB dancers are an international lot – New Zealanders, of course; a handful of Australians; a group of Americans, part of the Stiefel era (they were all still there a year later despite Stiefel’s departure); and now some Italians. There are dancers from the UK, Japan and China. “Artists don’t have any passports. They don’t have any nationality. They are good artists or bad artists,” Ventriglia says robustly. “Dancers want to dance the right choreographers – Forsythe, Ekman, Naharin. If you have the quality you attract the dancers. If you have the best choreographers in the world the best dancers want to come.”

 Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 2016 program

Speed of Light: Forsythe, Ekman, Foniadakis

The Wizard of Oz, Ventriglia

Giselle, Stiefel/Kobborg

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Scarlett

Dance in 2013

THE Australian dance-lover had plenty to enjoy in 2013, as long as there was a decent travel budget to hand. Paris Opera Ballet returned to Sydney, the Bolshoi had a season in Brisbane, The Australian Ballet premiered a new version of Cinderella by Alexei Ratmansky (Melbourne and Sydney only, although Adelaide sees it in 2014), Queensland Ballet had extended sell-out seasons under new artistic director Li Cunxin, West Australian Ballet brought Onegin into its repertoire and Sydney Dance Company got even more glamorous.

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

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

Those were the big events of 2013. Unfortunately there were fewer small-scale gems, or at least few I was able to see. In the wide, brown land it’s not always possible to find oneself in the right city at the right time to catch up with the leading contemporary companies and independent artists, particularly when seasons can be cruelly short.

There was also a lot of déjà vu when it came to international visitors. Of course one would never knock back the chance to see Sylvie Guillem, or Akram Khan’s work, or Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, but the names bob up again and again. I acknowledge, however, that I travel around the country to see dance more than most people do. Perhaps I just get out too much.

What follows, therefore, isn’t necessarily a reflection of what was best (although much was terrific), but what was memorable.

The dancers:

The AB nabbed Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev for performances of Don Quixote in Melbourne. Vasiliev roared on like a comet and didn’t let up from the get-go. He’s no text-book classicist, but gee he’s fun to watch. Dancing the lead gypsy, resident AB firecracker Chengwu Guo threw in a cheeky backwards somersault just to remind the audience there were other men on stage. Later in the year, after dancing Basilio with boyish charm, Guo was promoted to senior artist. By year’s end he was a principal artist, promoted onstage after a high-flying appearance as James in La Sylphide. A very wise call on the part of AB artistic director David McAllister.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Also at the AB, Daniel Gaudiello got more opening nights (Basilio, James, the Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella), and rightly so. QB’s Li Cunxin likes him too. Gaudiello was a guest artist in Brisbane for Giselle – making his role debut as Albrecht – and will appear in 2014’s Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio when QB stages the MacMillan production from late June.

Still with the AB, Leanne Stojmenov had the role of her career in Cinderella, and in The Four Temperaments and Dyad 1929 (part of the Vanguard program), evergreen principal Lucinda Dunn exuded wisdom and sensuousness in works that can look all too coolly intellectual. Also on that bill was Kylian’s Bella Figura, in which corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow had one of those break-out moments.

In Brisbane, it was adorable to see Alexander Idaszak, in his first year out of the Australian Ballet School, be given the chance to dance Albrecht and to do it with such composure (he’s already moving on, however, to Royal New Zealand Ballet, which also has a starry artistic director in Ethan Stiefel). Li showed faith in another newbie, Emilio Pavan, when he was cast as the Prince in The Nutcracker, an assignment he carried out with much promise. Li added Natasha Kusch to his already lustrous group of female principal artists, and she was astutely paired with former AB dancer and now Dutch National Ballet principal Remi Wortmeyer in Nutcracker. It was a sparkling partnership.

In Perth, new artistic director Aurelien Scannella has restructured the company, creating principal artist, soloist, demi-soloist and corps de ballet ranks. On the opening night of Onegin – secured for WAB by former artistic director Ivan Cavallari – WAB showed off its new principal, Jiri Jelinek, formerly with Stuttgart Ballet and National Ballet of Canada (he is now a guest principal with the latter). Senior women Jayne Smeulders and Fiona Evans, now principals, were completely different and very fine Tatianas, and Matthew Lehmann found himself promoted to the top rank after his Onegins.

POB’s Giselle performances gave us the luminous, diaphanous Dorothee Gilbert and the role debut of Myriam Ould-Braham, a dancer made for this role. Mathieu Ganio, aristocratic to the last molecule, partnered both but Ould-Braham’s sweet simplicity seemed to make him warmer and ever-so-slightly gentler. In the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream, a delight from beginning to end, Maria Alexandrova was exceptionally vibrant, witty and warm.

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The AB managed to insinuate itself into David Hallberg’s very full diary for three performances of Cinderella in Sydney. The refinement, grace and noble partnering of the American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal artist were a perfect fit for Ratmansky’s ballet, and Hallberg even managed to make something of the Prince’s travels, one of the slightly less successful parts of Cinderella. Hallberg’s Cinderella was Amber Scott, whose other-worldly delicacy made her a lovely match for this prince among princes.

A special mention goes to Sydney Dance Company as a whole. It’s a spectacularly good-looking ensemble.

The dances:

As you’ll see from the above, there wasn’t a lot of surprising work on offer. From the tourists, the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s down-and-dirty The Rite of Spring were outstanding. Locally, SDC’s Cacti, the exceptionally amusing work by Alexander Ekman, and the AB’s Surrealist Cinderella made most impact. Well, Cinders looked much better in Melbourne, but what can you do? I also was extremely taken by Dance Clan 3, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s studio showing of new work. This time four of the company’s women – Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, Tara Gower, Jasmin Sheppard – took up the challenge, and did so most movingly. One of those terrific evenings when you have no idea what’s ahead. I didn’t get a lot of that this year.

The ideas:

I’ve said this quite a lot elsewhere, but I love the way SDC’s Rafael Bonachela is engaged with other artists from other forms. Les Illuminations brought together SDC, string players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor Roland Peelman, singer Katie Noonan and fashion designer Toni Maticevski to celebrate the centenary of Benjamin Britten. It was a standout, and a pity there were so few performances.

In Brisbane Queensland Ballet has taken advantage of the state government’s new Superstar Fund to lock in big-name guest artists for its mid-year Romeo and Juliet. Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Sydney-born Royal Ballet luminary Steven McRae come to town. Gaudiello will be back too – it’s so good to see this wonderful dancer getting more recognition.

Another big idea for QB is the institution of The Nutcracker as an annual Christmas event. Time will tell whether it will catch on indefinitely, but this year’s season did boffo box-office.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season announcement showed a small but potentially important programming shift. Instead of the usual and unvarying number of performances given to each program, regardless of audience appeal, the AB will now give shorter seasons of the contemporary rep. This is most noticeable in Sydney, where there will be nine performances of  the Ballet Imperial/Suite en Blanc double bill (May 2-17) and 10 of the Chroma/Sechs Tanze/Petite Mort/ New Baynes work bill (April 29-May 17). Note the overlapping dates – yes, programs in repertory!

As mentioned, WAB has introduced the kind of ranking system most usually seen in larger companies. Aurelien Scannella has forcefully talked about having more dancers (predecessor Cavallari got WAB a huge boost during his time). Can Scannella manage a further upwards trajectory in a city that has a huge appetite for big stuff but not so much for throwing money at the arts? And at a difficult time for the state’s finances? Worth keeping an eye on. As is QB’s obvious ambition to provide not just an alternative, but a competitor, to the AB.

The dance that turned into a play but was still full of dance:

One of the sweetest pleasures of 2013 was Gideon Obarzanek‘s Dance Better at Parties for Sydney Theatre Company, a play based on his dance work for Chunky Move that had its genesis nearly a decade ago when Obarzanek interviewed men about movement. The play, a two-hander for Steve Rodgers and Elizabeth Nabben, was simplicity itself. A bereaved man comes to a dance studio to learn how to dance, which may help him fit in socially, but really he is in desperate need of contact. To be touched. And the audience was touched too, very deeply.

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

The disappointments:

The big, big loss this year was the cancellation of Spring Dance, the festival inaugurated by the Sydney Opera House and now pulled out of the calendar. Yes, it was costly, but gave contemporary dance a highly visible platform from which to entice audiences. Fragments of it remained – Les Illuminations (see above) and Akram Khan’s iTMOi – “In the Mind of Igor” – which did not entirely convince me.

Freeze Frame, the collaboration between the Brisbane Festival and Debbie Allen, was well-meaning but lacked coherence in just about every department. Allen wrote, choreographed and directed. And appeared in it. There’s a hint right there.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, is entirely inadequate for ballet of any scale. The sets for Onegin had to be cut back and squashed in and the sightlines are terrible from many seats. Tough cheese though. It’s unlikely there will be another new theatre in Perth for a decade or more – the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, home to Black Swan State Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, was opened in 2011. Poor old WAB is not well served at all.

What a shame that Australia’s smaller centres aren’t able to see the AB, QB and WAB regularly. Instead the gap is filled by touring Russian companies of extremely variable quality. This year I saw a Nutcracker from an outfit called Russian National Ballet Theatre, whose provenance is a little difficult to work out, although companies under that name have toured before. I paid nearly 100 bucks (no, let’s be fair, my sister paid) for no orchestra, a severely truncated story, classroom choreography and production values that were modest. I do understand that local companies wouldn’t be seen dead putting on productions of such a low standard and that it costs a great deal to do better, and that they already have full schedules. But if I had a magic wand …

The year’s most graceful tribute:

In July Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for The New York Times, set out to describe the attributes of an American ballerina, and was even prepared to say how many women in US companies currently deserve to bear the title of ballerina. The number is not great: “at least 10” is what Macaulay was prepared to say. In reply, in the December/January edition of Pointe magazine, Gillian Murphy – a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet – gave her perspective. Along the way she had this to say about RNZB’s Lucy Green, a young Australian being given important roles with the company: “I am excited to watch a young dancer with extraordinary promise grow into a star.” Murphy praises Green’s dance attributes, then continues: “However, for me, it is her work ethic, her imagination and her sensitivity to others that really classify her as a ballerina in the making.” Murphy admires dancers who “encourage greatness in everyone around them”. Beautiful.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

 The Trans-Tasman Prize for Sang-Froid:

I’m including RNZB here again because I can. The month is July, a performance of Swan Lake, featuring Lucy Green as Odette-Odile, has not long finished, and RNZB staff and dancers past and present have gathered for a late-afternoon party to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary. Wellington is shaken by an earthquake – a big one. Everyone dives to the floor, which is moving alarmingly. The tremors stop, we all get up and the party continues. Well, that’s one way to cut the speeches short.

Finally…

Many thanks to London-based writer and critic Ismene Brown, who gave unparalleled, necessary insight into the dance world’s biggest story in 2013, the Bolshoi crisis and its fallout. And moving right along, there’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze in St Petersburg. Follow her @ismeneb; ismeneb.com

Next up, what’s of interest in 2014?

De Novo

Sydney Dance Company. Choreography by Rafael Bonachela, Alexander Ekman and Larissa McGowan.

IF Alexander Ekman is true to his program note he won’t read this review, or any other. It’s a shame, because I’d like to let him know how much I enjoyed Cacti. Perhaps someone at Sydney Dance Company will pass the word on, but then perhaps he doesn’t care. Cacti is, after all, a dance work sending up critics and what Ekman sees as judgmental intellectualising and pretentious dribbling on about meaning. In his half-hour romp Ekman puts a cactus up the critical fundament in quite an extensive fashion – which may mean he really does care, in which case I might point out that cacti thrive in arid climes, and that Ekman did tell The Australian recently he thinks there’s a lot of contemporary dance that’s too self-absorbed.

Thomas Bradley in Larissa McGowan's Fanatic. Photograph: Jessica Bialek

Thomas Bradley in Larissa McGowan’s Fanatic. Photograph: Jessica Bialek

But enough of this theorising. Ekman has pulled off one of the most difficult challenges in dance, which is to be genuinely funny. Cacti is a delight: witty, effervescent, playful, surreal and joyously physical. The dancers, identically dressed in roomy dark trousers over flesh-coloured bodysuits and wearing hair-covering caps, at first kneel on low platforms and whack the platforms and themselves in an exhilarating display of energy, rhythm and co-ordination. Later they will strip down to basics and pose with cacti as if it were the most glamorous thing in the world to do. There’s lots more besides, but this is a piece to see rather than read about. The 16 dancers are adorable, there’s a glamorous string quartet that plays some of the score live and there’s a dead cat.

Larissa McGowan showed last year in Sydney’s Spring Dance festival (curated by Rafael Bonachela) that she, too, can cause mayhem in the theatre and it was a great delight to see her short work Fanatic given a larger forum. It’s a riotous homage to and send-up of the Alien and Predator films and fans of the genre. Natalie Allen, Thomas Bradley and Chris Aubrey deliver their roles with gusto (there is also a second cast).

De Novo opens with Bonachela’s Emergence, a work in which equal power lies with the music of Sarah Blasko and Nick Wales, the terrific costumes from Dion Lee in his first dance outing, Benjamin Cisterne’s super-sleek stage and lighting design and Bonachela’s dancers. You’ll note I say the dancers rather than the dance itself. The movement language fits these gorgeous people like a glove but for frequent Bonachela-watchers Emergence has no surprises. Bonachela has, however, an inexhaustible gift and appetite for collaboration with intriguing artists from other disciplines. This may be his strongest suit.

De Novo ends on March 23.

This review first appeared in The Australian on March 4.