Misty Copeland debuts as Aurora

The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, November 22.

With her unstinting advocacy for greater diversity in ballet, Misty Copeland’s fame extends well beyond the stage. She is a drawcard no matter what the repertoire.

Copeland’s appearances in Sydney aren’t her first in Australia. Three years ago she danced in Brisbane with her home company, American Ballet Theatre, where later she became ABT’s first African-American principal artist. It’s worth noting she made her highly newsworthy role debut as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake in Brisbane.

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Misty Copeland. Photo: Jade Young

Her second visit to this part of the world brought another important role debut, that of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. This time she was a guest with The Australian Ballet in the visually splendid production created in 2015 by the company’s artistic director, David McAllister and regularly revived. Copeland was greeted like a rock star by an excited capacity audience, which was captivated by her vivacity and great personal charm.

The conquest of Aurora was less fully achieved in this fairy tale of good prevailing over evil, order restored and a prince’s kiss sealing the deal. (McAllister takes a brisk approach to the work.) Copeland was an alert and good-humoured young princess on her birthday and approached a more serene grandeur in the climactic wedding pas de deux, shedding the slight but palpable tension of the first act. There was, nevertheless, an overall sense of containment, seen in the restrained use of her back instead of the plush sweep that speaks so eloquently of love and a sense that her energy stopped neatly at the fingertips when she was poised on pointe.

Copeland shone brightly in motion with delectable cut-glass footwork and luxurious arms but her radiance was not the mysterious, all-enveloping kind that takes heart and soul prisoner.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beau...

The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, designed by Gabriela Tylesova

Kevin Jackson is TAB’s prince du jour and put in a blinder, partnering Copeland with gorgeous gallantry and tearing up the stage in his Act III solo with a blisteringly fast circle of jetés. Conductor Philip Ellis favoured sprightly tempi and Tchaikovsky’s score sounded marvellous in the hands of the Opera Australia Orchestra but there was the occasional loss of breathing space for the dance to really bloom.

Of the others, Marcus Morelli and Jade Wood had an excellent night as Bluebird and Princess Florine, with Wood particularly fetching. She’s more relaxed now than when she first took on the role and the freedom is exhilarating. It lets her fly.

The opulence of Gabriela Tylesova’s designs always makes McAllister’s production a treat to behold although there remains a lingering sense that a court of such magnificence really should have a hell of a lot more nobles, courtiers, attendants and functionaries to hand. Still, The Sleeping Beauty looked right at home in TAB’s temporary Sydney home, the ornate Capitol Theatre, while the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House  undergoes renovation. It would be good to see more of the company’s bigger productions there (Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is seen at the Capitol shortly, and can be programmed in Sydney only because the JST is closed).

There was more international stardust at the end of the Sydney season when ABT and Bolshoi Ballet principal David Hallberg returned to dance Prince Désiré with TAB star Amber Scott as he did in February in Brisbane at the beginning of The Australian Ballet’s year. Hallberg is practically part of the family, of course, becoming a resident guest artist with the company after recuperating under the care of its rehabilitation specialists when he had a potentially career-ending injury. The ballet world thanks them.

David Hallberg, The Sleeping Beauty

The Australian Ballet, Brisbane, February 25

When David Hallberg returned to the ballet stage in Sydney in November last year, in Coppélia with The Australian Ballet, he was coming out of a two-and-a-half year layoff due to injury, the last 12 months of which he spent in Melbourne working with TAB’s medical team. The choice of Franz as a comeback role was unplanned. Coppélia just happened to be what was in the schedule when Hallberg came to the understanding that his dancing career was not, in fact, over as he had feared. Nevertheless, the light-hearted part (a role debut) was just what the doctor ordered.

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David Hallberg. Photo: Renee Nowytarger for The Australian. Used with permission.

Hallberg is intensely grateful to the Australians who helped him through his dark hours and said he would be back regularly. He meant it. Last week it was announced Hallberg would be TAB’s first resident guest artist and it was in that capacity that he appeared as Prince Désiré in artistic director David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty in Brisbane on February 25 and 28. The agreement is that he will be in Australia twice a year, with his second 2017 visit coming at the end of the year in Sydney when The Sleeping Beauty has a return season there.

The 34-year-old American’s exceptional beauty of line and sophisticated bearing make him look born to this repertoire. He is a prince among men with his commanding yet seemingly effortless stage presence and he is the epitome of grace and courtliness. Hallberg gave Désiré (Florimund in other productions) a largeness of spirit not always found in a part that has little complexity of character. Désiré seeks love but needs the Lilac Fairy’s guidance to find it, he dances a little to express his yearning, is shown a vision of the lovely Princess Aurora, wakes the sleeping maiden with a kiss and marries her with much ceremony.

Who this man might be is glossed over, but Hallberg filled out the slender material with passion and tenderness. A clue might be found in something Hallberg said late last year. In a conversation with me about his recovery, he said he had come to Australia “so stripped of any sort of optimism”. In what he called his rebirth, he found perspective. “I feel now, as an artist proudly 34 years old, that I have such depth of resilience, and through that an artistic understanding that’s completely different from how it used to be. And it’s not driven by ego any more.”

His Prince Désiré embodied that selflessness and maturity and even though a handful of less than fully realised finishes were a reminder of his long absence from this cruelly exposed repertoire, the radiance of his performance was all-encompassing. His cabrioles, for example, in which he floated his outstretched legs in the air rather than beat them together as most men do, were not only individual but deeply poetic.

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Amber Scott as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Kate Longley

The quality of his partnering added further layers. Hallberg’s Aurora was TAB principal artist Amber Scott (his Swanilda in Coppélia) and the two look wonderful together, with Scott’s dark, delicate beauty even more lovely when set against the blond Hallberg’s tall, supremely elegant figure. The alchemy of stage rapport is a mystery, but suffice to say Scott seems more lustrous in Hallberg’s company and to project the spun-glass virtues of her dancing more eloquently. Hallberg’s connection with TAB will be wonderful for audiences and he will be a mentor and example for the men of the company, but perhaps his greatest gift is being the partner who brings out the best in Scott. She has often seemed too introverted but Hallberg makes her glow.

The Act III grand pas de deux was as grand as the situation demands yet suffused with intimacy. Individually Hallberg and Scott looked sublime and together they dazzled. I’ve never seen the famous trio of fish dives presented with such élan.

For the rest, with Nicolette Fraillon at the helm the Queensland Symphony Orchestra gave a full-blooded account of Tchaikovsky’s score, senior artist Brett Chynoweth was a buoyant Bluebird, Gillian Revie reprised her striking Carabosse and the fairies, looking a treat in Gabriela Tyselova’s luscious tutus, had more than their fair share of technical jitters. As the Lilac Fairy soloist Valerie Tereschenko showed her great promise and her relative inexperience. Her fragrant upper body and clearly articulated mime were lovely but she had a few too many slips. Another new soloist, Jade Wood, gave a good account of Princess Florine although her fixed expression betrayed tension. Still, the company (this year expanded to 77 in number) has plenty of up and coming talent – and needed it in Brisbane, as a fair handful of more senior dancers had niggles that kept them offstage.

McAllister has made some welcome tweaks to his 2015 production to clarify some of the early storytelling although, as with so many productions, the need to bring the show in at under three hours makes some aspects appear rushed. The excision of most of the Act III divertissements while still giving a flavour of them is astutely done but the account of the court in the Prologue is too abbreviated. That charge can’t be directed at Tylesova’s design, which on each viewing looks more opulent than ever.

Footnote: Hallberg’s Australian commitment is in addition to his other jobs as a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, although it’s not clear yet when he might be dancing again with the latter. For ABT he is first cast in Alexei Ratmansky’s new Whipped Cream, opening in Costa Mesa, California, on March 15 and he will then dance Onegin and possibly Albrecht in New York in ABT’s May-July season.

The Sleeping Beauty ends in Brisbane March 4. Then Melbourne, June 16-27 and Sydney, November 11-25.

Hallberg’s date with Beauty

Just before Christmas David Hallberg made his debut as Franz in Coppélia with The Australian Ballet at the Sydney Opera House. It marked his return to the stage after a two-and-a-half year absence due to injury, a year of which was spent in rehabilitation with the AB’s medical team in Melbourne.

He danced four performances of Coppélia in Sydney, the last of them on December 21. The New York Times described it as a “discreet comeback”. He then went home to Phoenix for Christmas. By January 3 he was in New York, taking class with his home company American Ballet Theatre. In a statement ABT said Hallberg will perform in its (northern) Spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, which starts in May. There is no word on repertoire, although ABT’s casting shows a couple of promising TBAs in Giselle and Alexei Ratmansky’s new ballet Whipped Cream.

Well before that, however, Hallberg has another date with the stage. It’s back in Australia – Brisbane this time – with the AB in February. When the national company kicks off 2017 with The Sleeping Beauty, Hallberg will dance the role of Prince Désiré in two of the nine scheduled performances. Hallberg’s Aurora will be Amber Scott, with whom he danced in Coppélia.

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David Hallberg takes a curtain call after Coppélia in December. Photo: Kate Longley

This will give Brisbane a much delayed chance to see Hallberg, and in a role more characteristic of his career than Franz. Hallberg had been expected to appear with ABT in Swan Lake when it had a season at Queensland Performing Arts Centre in 2014 but shortly before that tour he had to withdraw from all engagements to attend to his injury.

The AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, said Hallberg hadn’t thought about returning so soon to this challenging central repertoire, “but if he wanted to return to the AB in 2017 it was the ballet that made sense”. The other full-length works on offer this year are Graeme Murphy’s version of Nutcracker, built around the memories of an aged former Ballets Russes ballerina, and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (McAllister also says he and Hallberg are speaking about further visits: “He has said to me he really wants to spend about a month every year here. That’s a pretty big commitment.”)

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David Hallberg. Photo: Renee Nowytarger for The Australian. 

Talking in Sydney before his return to the US, Hallberg was frank about the challenge of returning to Beauty at this time. “It’s really going to take a year to know where I stand, to know what I want to tackle. It was important to me to be able to see if this is in my future. And if it’s not, fine. But what better place to do it than with the company that has supported me through this complete restructure and rebirth?” Saying yes to Beauty felt right. “It’s just like Coppélia. It all has just fallen into place. It’s very fortuitous like that. I think it’s the universe saying, this is what’s being presented to you.”

Hallberg referred to his performances as Franz as getting his feet wet. How did they feel after the first few performances? “Wettish,” he said, with a little laugh. “It will take a while for my feet to get completely wet.”

With Beauty he is really plunging in. “In essence, there are definite technical challenges that I need to analyse, and I will have the [AB medical] team to help me analyse. That’s first and foremost,” he said. “The hard thing is going to be not comparing what I have done on DVD or what I have done at Bolshoi theatre or Mariinsky or ABT or wherever but to approach Beauty exactly the way I approached Coppélia.”

He says that just as he has a differently honed instrument following his lengthy rehabilitation, he also has “a different artistic perspective on even the classics. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with a lot of the classics. I’ve struggled through the years to find validity in characters I portray in those classics. But I think there’s two sides coming out of this. One, that I discover new things, I create new things with what I’ve experienced, and I also give a sort of rebirth to the roles that essentially I’ve been known for.”

There have been other discoveries. The rehabilitation experience has taught Hallberg he needs to spend more time on strengthening and conditioning his body and he now knows how to do that. “Second, I really came to Australia so stripped of any sort of optimism. I had lost all optimism artistically, emotionally and physically. Through hardship you gain perspective. What I feel now as an artist – proudly 34 years old – is that I have such depth of resilience and, through that, an artistic understanding that’s completely different from how it used to be. And it’s not driven by ego any more.”

An idle aside: Hallberg’s fellow ABT principal artist Misty Copeland, then a soloist, made her ground-breaking debut as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake in Brisbane during the 2014 tour. She was the first African-American to dance the role for the company and it was big news, to say the least. ABT was, however, clearly aiming for a low-key introduction; an out-of-hemisphere tryout if you will. Indeed, the company made no announcement of this historic event and the news broke, on this blog, after I spotted Copeland’s name in the casting. She was given just one performance in Brisbane, at a Wednesday matinee. Now that’s what I would call discreet.

The Sleeping Beauty opens in Brisbane on February 24. The dates of Hallberg’s performances are yet to be announced.

David Hallberg in Coppélia

In late November David Hallberg told The New York Times that he wanted to “just step onstage quietly here” – the American dancer was referring to Sydney – “and see what transpires”. Realistically there was never going to be much chance of quiet when Hallberg made his first entrance as Franz in The Australian Ballet’s Coppélia last night. A packed auditorium which included a significant number of current and former dancers saw to that. Hallberg’s re-emergence after a two-and-a-half year layoff due to an ankle injury was big news internationally, but it was more than that. Hallberg has spent the past 12 months of his rehabilitation with the AB at its home base of Melbourne and he’s like family.

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Amber Scott and David Hallberg during their Coppelia curtain call. Photo: Kate Longley

Hallberg has been very careful to talk about his return to the stage not as the end of a process, but a beginning. His recovery has been long and laborious and over the past couple of weeks Hallberg has spoken candidly about its difficulties and what led him to seek out the AB medical team, led by principal physiotherapist Sue Mayes. “I was so physically and emotionally broken. I really came with nothing,” he told me recently.

No wonder he looked so happy last night, getting his feet wet (his phrase) in a ballet that celebrates love and community. (In the figure of deluded doll-maker Dr Coppelius it also introduces a splash of darkness as a corrective to all that sweetness. Where there is sunshine there is also shadow, and growing up means learning to accept that.)

Franz was a role debut for Hallberg and something of a departure for a man widely acclaimed for his aristocratic roles. Could he be credible as an uncomplicated village lad? Indeed he could. Hallberg’s Franz is a young man vitally interested in everything, for a second. This girl, that girl, this friend who has just turned up, another friend who is hanging about, that older woman with whom he dances and kisses gallantly on the hand. He has the attention span of a mayfly but wherever it is directed there is a little beam of light. Most cherishable moment – of many? When, in Act II, Dr Coppelius offers Franz a drink that surely anyone would regard with suspicion, Hallberg comes up with an endearing touch of pride at being thought worldly.

No wonder Amber Scott’s Swanilda is prepared to persist with him, even when he has absolutely no idea – not the smallest part of a smidgeon of a clue – what she wants from him in the “stalk of wheat”dance. Scott falls into a few stock village-girl mannerisms in the first act but in the second act, in which she impersonates Dr Coppelius’s “daughter”-doll, she uses the theatricality of the situation with wit and brio.

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David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Coppélia’s slender narrative is carried along joyously by the bountiful Delibes score, which includes the irresistible mazurka and czardas in Act I. Hallberg said he had been told in rehearsal to “simplify, simplify, simplify” his mazurka, and clearly listened to the advice. His naturalness and ease, along with his musicality, made the heart sing.

In Act III Swanilda and Franz are seen in a more serious light. They are part of a solemn ceremony to mark their marriage and their new maturity. Hallberg and Scott’s adagio in the wedding pas deux was radiant; her variation airy, poised and delicate; and his variation full of eye-catching expressions of elegant classicism. His remarkable feet are still a thing of great wonder and I can still see in my mind’s eye the gracious forward extension of his leg from a beautifully high retiré: the silly young man is improving his understanding of how to behave and widening his horizons.

At first blush Coppélia may seem little more than a lively cartoon with more hummable music than any score has a right to possess (the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was in the very safe stewardship of guest conductor Barry Wordsworth, the Royal Ballet’s music director). In the right hands, though, it is very human. That quality was to the fore last night in an emotional evening of many treasures (Sharni Spencer’s Prayer: divine), a few smudged moments and an audience united in delight.

Hallberg has said he is looking no further than Coppélia at the moment. The principal artist with American Ballet Theatre and premier danseur of the Bolshoi will then assess what is right for him. He and Scott have three more performances, on December 16, 19 and 21.

David Hallberg on rehabilitation and returning to the stage in Coppélia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

State Theatre, Melbourne, June 30

Stanton Welch looked thrilled after the premiere of his Romeo and Juliet in Melbourne, as he should have. The former Australian Ballet dancer and current AB resident choreographer had brought his own company, Houston Ballet, home. In the audience – along with supporters from Houston – was a galaxy of AB principal artists former and present. I saw Amber Scott, Ty King-Wall, Madeleine Eastoe, Rachel Rawlins, Olivia Bell (she is on the AB board) and, of course Stanton’s brother Damien and his wife Kirsty Martin. Ballet royalty Marilyn Jones, the Welch brothers’ mother, was there too. It was quite a night. (Also watching: American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist David Hallberg, who has been kept offstage for some time due to injury. His Kenneth MacMillan Romeo with Natalia Osipova as his Juliet, seen in New York with ABT in 2012, remains one of my greatest of great nights in the theatre.)

Perhaps it’s not surprising to see in Houston Ballet qualities similar to those of The Australian Ballet. This is in Welch’s blood. I suspect, too, that his Texan audience delights in the way the company dances spaciously, with natural ease and lack of pretension. These are exceptionally attractive traits. There’s no shortage of technical dash but character, presence and skin-bursting vitality are to the fore. Welch honours the traditional classical language but loosens it too so it doesn’t look or feel stagey. Well, mostly. The Friar Lawrence scenes were welcome for giving local audiences a chance to see former AB member Steven Woodgate again but looked rather old-fashioned.

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Karina Gonzalez as Juliet in Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Jeff Busby

The swift, headlong drama of Shakespeare’s play is given full value in Welch’s production and was buoyed on opening night by a full-blooded performance of the Prokofiev score by Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Houston Ballet’s music director Ermanno Florio. Welch is a choreographer for whom more is more and in Romeo and Juliet he uses that tendency to strong dramatic effect. The city of Verona is a robust, busy, lively society with strong, individual women and men always ready for a lark or a fight. The big picture was terrific and given handsome visual appeal by Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s Renaissance-flavoured sets and costumes.

Most productions of Romeo and Juliet shorten the list of dramatis personae for the sake of clarity. It’s easier for the audience to grasp who is who. Welch dives right in at the deep end. Shakespeare wrote about “two households, both alike in dignity” – the Montagues and the Capulets. Welch makes more prominent the third house in the drama, that of the ruler Prince Escalus, which includes Romeo’s wild friend Mercutio and Juliet’s intended husband Count Paris. Welch gives Mercutio’s brother Valentine a part and enjoyably includes another of Romeo’s friends, Balthasar. Friar John, bearing the letter to the banished Romeo that goes astray, is also seen in an effective vignette. It takes a little while to sort out who is who but adds greatly to the texture of the story and the stage picture.

Welch took out a bit of insurance for Thursday’s opening by fielding all his principal artists bar one (Yuriko Kajiya is Rosaline at some performances). Sara Webb, for instance, took the relatively small role of Romeo’s former love Rosaline and also dances Juliet in this season, as does Melody Mennite, who on opening night was a tavern owner’s daughter. Ian Casady, who is Mennite’s Romeo, was Count Paris on opening night. The lusty, magnetic first-cast Mercutio, former American Ballet Theatre soloist Jared Matthews, also dances Romeo (partnering Webb). Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, who was promoted to principal only three weeks ago after debuting as Albrecht (he is still listed as a first soloist in the program; that’s how new his promotion is), took the minor role of Gregory, member of the house of Capulet.

That said, Welch’s production demands that everyone, from top to bottom, be individual and engaged. The company looked splendid.

First-cast leads Katrina González and Connor Walsh were a fresh, glowing pair of lovers most credibly besotted with each other. The balcony pas de deux was rapturous, studded with exciting lifts and catches that Walsh made look instinctive. And why not, with a Juliet as entrancing as González? Her smile almost made Lisa J. Pinkham’s excellent lighting redundant and she has eyes eloquent and beautiful enough to make angels weep.

Welch’s desire to keep the action flowing and swelling sometimes leads to an over-reliance on certain surefire steps – the men certainly do many double tours (and do them well) – but the fire and passion make it a very seductive evening.

Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet ends in Melbourne July 9.