The Australian Ballet and its long dance with The Merry Widow

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

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

The Merry Widow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Merry Widow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quakes and tremors at RNZB

The party to mark Royal New Zealand Ballet’s 60th anniversary was in full swing at Wellington’s St James Theatre when the earthquake struck. The special matinee performance of Swan Lake on July 21, 2013, had been attended by many former dancers, staff and friends and now it was time to raise a glass and reminisce. At 5.09pm the building started to shake. To the sound of scores of wine glasses rattling mightily, everyone dropped to the floor. After what seemed like an age but was only 20 seconds, the movement stopped. It had been a big quake, no doubt about it, but no one in the room was injured. People stood and the party continued.

Lucy Green as Odette credit Evan Li

Lucy Green, now with Queensland Ballet, as Odette for RNZB in 2013. Photo: Evan Li

RNZB’s artistic director at the time was Ethan Stiefel, the starry former American Ballet Theatre principal artist whose appointment was seen as a great coup for the company. He took up the role in 2011 on a three-year contract. It was hoped he would stay for at least five years but one never got the impression that he felt entirely comfortable. He left in September 2014 to return to the US.

Stiefel was replaced by the Italian choreographer and former La Scala dancer Francesco Ventriglia, previously director of MaggioDanza in Florence. He started in November 2014 but just two years later, amid reports of some staff and dancer dissatisfaction, RNZB announced Ventriglia had decided to end his contract with them and would finish in mid 2017, some months short of his first three-year term. Ventriglia was recently announced as adjunct artistic director of Ballet Nacional Sodre in Montevideo, Uruguay.

On June 7 this year, the former Pacific Northwest Ballet prima ballerina Patricia Barker was anointed RNZB’s 12th artistic director. Signalling that the Board realised there needed to be rather more stability, Barker was asked to sign for five years, not three. By December there were new reports of dancer unrest and predictions that, for various reasons, perhaps half the company’s complement of 36 dancers would not be returning in 2018. That’s quite an upheaval.

Is RNZB experiencing an earthquake that will leave it seriously damaged? Or is it simply subject to all-too-familiar tremors that rattle the nerves, but only temporarily? The next month or so will give a strong indication of which way things go.

Right now, some dancers – perhaps four, the number is unclear – are reportedly unhappy that their annual contracts haven’t been renewed and have made grievance claims against RNZB. That’s a process to keep an eye on. The new New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is also Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage and has said she’s concerned about RNZB’s situation. She’s asked the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to do a report for her. That should be interesting.

Adding to the impression of tumoil, half a dozen dancers, mainly Italian, left around the time Ventriglia departed in August. (After Barker’s arrival he stayed on as guest choreographer to stage a sumptuous new version of Romeo and Juliet.) Three other dancers are off to Queensland Ballet and its magnetic artistic director Li Cunxin, yet others are retiring, some possibly reluctantly. Can all these departures be sheeted home to Barker? It doesn’t matter really. It’s happened under her watch. She gets to wear it.

One might suggest it would have been a reasonable, politically astute and – let’s put it out there, humane – move to give 2018 contracts to all current dancers who wanted them. It would give everyone a chance to get to know one another properly and acknowledge the upheaval visited upon the dancers over the past six years. Three artistic directors in that time. It’s brutal.

RNZB dancers begin the 2018 year on January 8. The company will announce their names on that day, a list that will be closely scrutinised. How many New Zealanders? How many people who trained at the New Zealand School of Dance, which is RNZB’s official school? How many names of long-serving company members are missing? How many dancers will come from Grand Rapids Ballet, the US company of which Barker is still artistic director, concurrently with RNZB, as Grand Rapids seeks her successor?

It won’t be unusual, of course, if Barker brings in some Americans. Stiefel hired dancers associated with his former employer, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; Ventriglia brought in a group of Italians. Many left when or shortly after their AD left, again not unusual. But Barker is reaping that particular whirlwind and it’s been mighty breezy out there. I can identify close to 70 names of people who have danced with RNZB in the past five years and January will bring more. The level of churn is high.

Behind all these questions and anxieties is the one big question: what is the nature and purpose of a national ballet company? There are fundamental concerns, such as how the company’s identity is described and forged; how the relationship with its home audience is cemented; and the degree of responsibility in nurturing, developing, employing and celebrating home-grown artists. New Zealand isn’t short of tremendous talent.

These concerns, by the way, really should be greatly exercising the minds of Board members. Perhaps this is happening as we speak but there’s no way of telling. The current chair, Steven Fyfe, has made no comment so far, not even a word of support for the artistic director so recently appointed.

As I’ve mentioned before, RNZB’s current Strategic Plan ends this year. I assume the Board has a new one ready to go (one more thing to watch out for). Its current Mission, by the way, is: “To become a compelling expression of New Zealand’s creative spirit”. You can read the whole Strategic Plan here.

Meanwhile, the show will go on. It always does. RNZB turns 65 this year, starting the celebrations with a ballet version of the Jane Campion film The Piano (commissioned by Ventriglia). Barker plans to mark the milestone with a series of new commissions from female choreographers that will do double duty as a tribute to the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand.

The Wellington season of Strength and Grace: Women will be seen not at the company’s usual home, the St James Theatre, but at the Opera House, as will the earlier program Dancing with Mozart. That’s due to strengthening work to be undertaken at the St James, due to start around the middle of 2018. The upgrade will make the theatre less vulnerable to the quakes and tremors so prevalent in this part of the world. If only RNZB itself could be assured of such security.

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.

Swan Lake, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 5.

Queensland Ballet’s Swan Lake had a 42nd Street quality on opening night as junior company member Joel Woellner was chosen to dance Prince Siegfried alongside the seasoned Odette-Odile of QB principal artist – and former top-ranked star at the National Ballet of Cuba – Yanela Piñera.

Piñera has presence in spades and technical prowess to burn. She laid out her credentials within seconds of taking to the stage with a pure, extended balance on pointe that was an eloquent expression of the Swan Queen’s sorrow and entrapment. As the imposter Odile she decorated the treacherous (for some; not her) fouette sequence with triple pirouettes and gave a magisterial account of her solo.

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Yanela Piñera and Joel Woellner in Ben Stevenson’s Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Piñera nailed the big effects that seem to be a Cuban birthright, including sky-high extensions and Odile’s don’t-mess-with-me grand pirouettes in Act 3 but it was the delicate detail that lingered. Odette’s tiny flutters of foot against ankle in Act II were exquisite.

Woellner was going out a courageous youngster but had to come back a star, or at least as close to one as possible in a nearly impossible assignment. The desperate, deep-seated passion that should drive Siegfried eluded him, resulting in a muted relationship with Odette. There was, nevertheless, gleaming beauty in almost all his dancing. Double tours were plush and precisely landed and lovely air turns finished in stretched, poised arabesques. It was impressive to see how much value he gave each moment, never smudging or cutting steps short. Woellner is not yet a fully-fledged prince but is a hugely promising princeling.

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Joel Woellner as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

For the first Swan Lake of his tenure as QB artistic director, Li not surprisingly chose Ben Stevenson’s 1985 version made for Houston Ballet. It makes sense for the size of the company – currently at 32 permanent members and 10 Young Artists – and Li knows the production well, having danced in it in those early days. One can also never underestimate the affection and loyalty Li has for Stevenson, now in his early 80s. Stevenson was responsible for Li’s American career and therefore in a sense all that followed.

It’s a conventional production based on the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov version. Stevenson retains some of the best-known choreography, although much is new. The 1985 designs by David Walker placed Stevenson’s ballet in the late 19th century but for this incarnation QB has borrowed Kristian Fredrikson’s luxuriant Renaissance-tinged designs made for Russell Kerr’s Royal New Zealand Ballet version in 1996.

The beating heart of Swan Lake is the first lakeside act in which Siegfried comes across Odette and her retinue of swan maidens, here a corps of 24 that sensibly incorporates the two Big Swans and four Cygnets. It’s a significant number for a company of QB’s size and was augmented by Queensland Ballet Academy pre-professional students. The teaching is clearly excellent. The corps as a whole looked beautifully schooled and had the strength-in-unity power that makes Act 2 so captivating. (And these dancers have to be strong: Lucy Green, newly appointed soloist at QB, on opening night danced in the Act 1 pas de trois, was a Cygnet in Act 2 and the Spanish Princess in Act 3. This was the night before her Odette-Odile.)

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Lucy Green, Neneka Yoshida, Lina Kim and Teri Crilly. Photo: David Kelly

Different details in storytelling mean the fit isn’t always exact between Stephenson’s vision of the ballet and Fredrikson’s designs. The white acts looked wonderful, of course, but in the first and fourth acts it wasn’t always easy to get a grip on all-important distinctions of rank. It was surprising in this respect to see the Queen arrive without a suitable entourage to Siegfried’s coming-of-age celebration, symbolically set in a thick glade through which there’s a glimpse of decaying grandeur.

In Act 3, when foreign princesses are presented to Siegfried so he can choose a bride, the princesses lead the national dance of the country they represent. At RNZB the princesses wore distinctive, decorative tutus; here they are dressed similarly to all the other women in their troupe and dance like entertainers, some friskily showing quite a lot of leg and behaving quite unregally.

Stevenson trims the action significantly, for good and bad. Act 1 is enjoyably fast-paced while shortened Acts 3 and 4 elide with dramatically convincing sleight of hand. I was less convinced by the transition from Acts 1 to 2, in which the Prince dances his yearning solo while his mother (Zenia Tátcheva) pressures – no, harangues – him about the weighty responsibilities of State he must take on. It rather spoils the mood.

With the production coming in at under two hours of dancing, Tchaikovsky’s music at times sounds chopped back to its detriment although at the opening the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under QB music director Nigel Gaynor delivered a sympathetic account of what is there. Concertmaster Warwick Adeney’s violin solos in Act II and III were sublime.

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Lina Kim and Victor Estévez in Act 1 of Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Stevenson’s choice of music for Siegfried and Odette’s final pas de deux in Act 4 comes from left field. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 and Riccardo Drigo had a hand in arranging music for the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov production, orchestrating Tchaikovsky’s piano piece Un poco di Chopin, a mazurka, for this section. Drigo smoothed out the mazurka’s prominent accents and slowed the conventionally bright tempo to achieve a romantic quality, but to these ears the music underplays the depths of Siegfried’s agony and contrition. Stevenson, however, obviously feels it better expresses Siegfried’s remorse for having betrayed Odette. In any event, it is rarely heard these days.

Perhaps transcendence was hard to come by on opening night but there was plenty of fine dancing, particularly from Lucy Green, Lima Kim and Victor Estevez as they whizzed and fizzed through the Act I pas de trois. Vito Bernasconi as Von Rothbart didn’t have a huge amount to do but looked imposing, albeit perhaps rather too emphatic in his directions to Odile in the ballroom scene. It was too much of a giveaway.

As is the case in every production I’ve seen, Von Rothbart and Odile are immediately accepted as having a right to be at the ball with no questions asked. It’s always bemusing. (Kevin McKenzie’s American Ballet Theatre version has a red-hot go at dramatic coherence by making Von Rothbart amazingly sexy and charismatic. He makes every woman in the room, including Siegfried’s mother, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.)

Those lucky enough to have tickets for May 11 will see guest artist Evgenia Obratszova from the Bolshoi as Odette-Odile (she also danced on May 9). And at certain performances there is the interesting – but by no means revolutionary – splitting of those roles as Mia Heathcote dances Odette and Neneka Yoshida tackles Odile.

Swan Lake ends on May 13.

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 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.

David Hallberg

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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