Into the woods

Melbourne, September 15

THE Australian Ballet and its audiences have a great deal invested in David McAllister’s new Sleeping Beauty, in both senses of the word. The first is financial: this Beauty cost more than $2 million to produce and 70 per cent of its financing was provided by ballet-lovers. The program lists hundreds of supporters, some of whom gave gifts of more than $50,000 and others more than $20,000. The second investment arises from the first. Because the enterprise is so grand and so expensive, The Australian Ballet has promoted The Sleeping Beauty to saturation point through every channel possible. Even those only slightly interested in the AB would have known of its progress. When expectations are raised to this extent the pressure to succeed is equally intense.

Lana Jones as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lana Jones as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

The first performance – described in grandiose manner as a “global premiere” – was greeted with a standing ovation, an event relatively rare for ballet in this country. The sense of relief was palpable. The Sleeping Beauty looked every bit as sumptuous as promised, and more. The first-cast Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré, Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson, were a glowing pair at the centre of a setting that could effortlessly overshadow dancers of less consequence; Amber Scott created an indelible impression as the Lilac Fairy, gossamer-delicate, dispensing calm and goodness and making one believe implicitly in her natural authority; and it was wonderful to see former AB principal artist Lisa Bolte, who now works behind the scenes with patrons, as a radiant Queen in whom it was easy to see the Aurora she once was. This was inspired casting.

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drinks deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, is almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revels in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There are columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She has created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that throws out a huge challenge to McAllister: match this if you can, buddy. Well, he asked for it. There have been a few rumblings about the design being oppressively opulent but this greatest of ballet scores can bear the weight. It invites and deserves a magnificent mise en scène. It also requires storytelling that can fill the space and amplify the music. It’s in the latter sphere that Beauty doesn’t fully succeed despite the involvement of Lucas Jervies, a choreographer and director working as McAllister’s sounding board and adviser.

Amber Scott, centre, as the Lilac Fairy in The Australian Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Amber Scott, centre, as the Lilac Fairy in The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Sleeping Beauty is set in a strictly hierarchical society that cascades down from the King and Queen. Knowing your place is paramount. Order is everything. In the ballet harmony is disrupted and then restored through the superior might of good and the healing power of pure love.

The production takes a fresh line on the event that sets the story in motion, the lack of an invitation for the fairy Carabosse to Aurora’s christening. In a quite lengthy piece of business it’s made clear that Catalabutte – I suppose these days you’d call him the King’s principal private secretary – is an active participant in the Carabosse disaster. He is loath to invite the dark fairy, the synopsis tells us, although the ballet itself does not, indeed would not be able to, indicate why. (Apparently she hasn’t been around for a while.) Catalabutte dithers a bit, makes a weak attempt to run the matter past a preoccupied King, then tears up the invitation. McAllister must have thought this stronger than having Carabosse left off the list because of system failure but it’s odd that a functionary would be given such agency. Carabosse is a powerful figure, as we soon see.

The failure of the palace administration to run smoothly, effectively and according to protocol reveals a crack in the structure, and that precipitates a devastating event. That’s why most productions present the exclusion of Carabosse as a clerical error rather than an active, personal decision on the part of an underling.

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty

The Carabosse issue is compounded in this production: she reappears at points in the story where her presence is simply not called for. Once the Lilac Fairy has ruled that Aurora will not die when she pricks her finger, when it’s abundantly plain that the influence of the Lilac Fairy trumps that of Carabosse, why would Carabosse turn up, only to be routed once more? She might have a wicked streak but she isn’t stupid: in fact in this production she is titled the ancient Fairy of Wisdom. On opening night former AB principal artist Lynette Wills invested Carabosse with much dark allure, although it was puzzling she should wear pointe shoes when there is little choreographic call for them. It’s not a flattering look.

The nature of this world would also have been more clearly defined by the presence of supernumeraries to fill out the court, which looked under-populated for such a lavish establishment. And I missed the presence of children acting as pages and rounding out the garland dance. A court such as the one Tylesova creates would be replete with pages attending the courtiers who wait upon minor royalty who attend the monarch. Yes, it would cost, but the ship sailed on that aspect a long time ago.

Another idle thought. Would the King and Queen walk about holding their baby in the manner of fond 21st century parents? It diminished their grandeur for me.

Matt Donnelly, Lana Jones and Lisa Bolte. Photo: Jeff Busby

Matt Donnelly, Lana Jones and Lisa Bolte. Photo: Jeff Busby

McAllister has kept key passages of traditional choreography, put his own stamp on some elements and created linking material to make the transitions needed to cover cuts. The ballet was made to come in at under three hours (with two intervals) for family-friendly reasons. Well that, and I imagine also for cost reasons involving orchestra and crew. (Even Alexei Ratmansky in his reconstruction for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala this year cut the Panorama and Entr’acte that accompany the Prince’s journey to the castle where he will discover Aurora. It’s lovely music but if you have your eye on the clock …)

It was a bold move to excise most of the traditional fairytale divertissements from the Act III wedding celebration (though not Bluebird/Princess Florine) but they aren’t much missed. The wedding party is a stupendously lavish affair, presented as a masked ball in the style of Louis XIV. Very clever, eye-poppingly decorated, and showing footmen lighting candles on huge chandeliers that then rise up majestically is a splendid touch. Fairytale characters including the cats, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and Cinderella are evoked in fancy-dress costumes worn by the Prince’s friends – people we saw rather too briefly in the very heavily truncated hunting scene of Act II after which the Lilac Fairy shows the lonely Prince his future love in a vision. It would have been helpful to see just a little more of the friends in Act II to make the connection more evident in Act III. But the basic logic works and it’s an imaginative decision.

Gabriela Tylesova's Act III setting for The Australian Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Gabriela Tylesova’s Act III setting for The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

I am very much looking forward to seeing Beauty again – and other casts – when it comes to Sydney in November. After that, in honour of the title McAllister bestowed on his whole 2015 program, I will examine my own Year of Beauty. By November I will have seen four different productions: the Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre, McAllister’s, Greg Horsman’s for Queensland Ballet and the touring version from Russian National Ballet. At that time I will write in detail about the performances, including that of Alina Cojocaru in Brisbane, Gillian Murphy and Sarah Lane for ABT and further Australian Ballet casts.

The Sleeping Beauty ends in Melbourne on Saturday. Perth, October 7-10. Sydney, November 27-December 16.

Everything old is new again

Metropolitan Opera House, New York, May 29 and May 30.

WHEN Serge Diaghilev decided to stage The Sleeping Beauty in London the monumental Russian Imperial-era ballet was not an obvious stablemate for the modernist dance works he had introduced with his Ballets Russes. But Diaghilev had his reasons. There was Tchaikovsky’s music, which he admired greatly and which was championed by Stravinsky (who reorchestrated part of the score for Diaghilev), and, more pragmatically, the cash-strapped Diaghilev was inspired by the success of the popular Oscar Asche musical comedy Chu Chin Chow. It ran for five years in London from 1916 and Diaghilev wanted, he said, to put on a show that would run “forever”. As Lynn Garofola writes in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, financial statements demonstrate “the precarious thread on which survival of the post-Armistice Ballets Russes hung”. As ever, being daring and experimental was not a guarantee of lasting security. The impresario badly needed money.

Titled The Sleeping Princess – apparently Diaghilev didn’t think all his Auroras were beautiful, hence the more prosaic wording – the production didn’t do badly by today’s standards, having a three-month run of more than 100 performances from November 1921 to February 1922. It didn’t, however, recoup its costs. Diaghilev left London quickly to give creditors the slip and Ballets Russes sets, scores, costumes, designs and other items were impounded. That they weren’t widely dispersed and lost is something of a miracle, but at various auctions in the 1960s and 1970s large tranches of the material were bought by cultural institutions, including what would later become the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Its rich Ballets Russes holdings, including some Léon Bakst costumes and sketches for The Sleeping Princess (the NGA has the Bluebird’s costume, a wonderful jewel), were shown in a fascinating 2011 exhibition Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume. When designer Richard Hudson used Bakst as inspiration for Alexei Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre, there was plenty of excellent research material available.

Léon Bakst Costume for the Bluebird c.1921 from the Ballets Russes' production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant] National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1980

Léon Bakst. Costume for the Bluebird c.1921 from the Ballets Russes’ production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant]. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

While Hudson’s opulent design references the 1921 production, Ratmansky’s choreography seeks to revive as nearly as possible that of Petipa’s 1890 St Petersburg original, a task made possible by study of the Stepanov notation of the ballet that was taken out of Russia after the 1917 revolution by St Petersburg ballet master Nikolai Sergeyev. Diaghilev also used this resource for his production.

An aside: Ratmansky’s Act III wedding celebration includes many storybook characters including Chinese Porcelain Princesses, who dance very little but walk with their hands raised and a finger pointed skywards – just as we can see in this sketch from the NGA’s collection. Dance critic Judith Mackrell wrote in The Guardian in March: “While the notation is very specific in certain respects, recording the height and positions of the legs, the direction of a phrase, the way the body is bent, it gives almost no information about the positions of the arms.” Direction would have to have come from elsewhere, and Ratmansky suggested that “Perhaps they just used the port de bras that were conventional – the ones everybody knew – or perhaps the principals were given the freedom to do what they wanted.”

Léon Bakst Costume design for the Chinese from The Sleeping Princess  1921 Souvenir programme for The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra Theatre Research Library, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Léon Bakst. Costume design for the Chinese from The Sleeping Princess 1921. Souvenir programme for The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra Theatre. Research Library, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The 1921 venture was by no means a dead end. The Sleeping Beauty had failed to get traction in revolutionary Russia but Diaghilev would change its fortunes. The Sleeping Princess may not have achieved its financial goal but it did have a lasting effect on British ballet and beyond. When Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now The Royal Ballet) went to New York in 1949 it opened with The Sleeping Beauty, with Margot Fonteyn in the title role, and made an enormous impact. The company’s director, Ninette de Valois, had appeared in the Diaghilev production, writes Mary Clarke in her 1955 Sadler’s Wells Ballet history, with Clarke commenting that the 1939 Sadler’s Wells production of Beauty, its first, “came far nearer the original” than the Diaghilev version, “many numbers being included which had not been seen since St Petersburg days”.

Sadler’s Wells marked important occasions with performances of The Sleeping Beauty and the work would become a touchstone work for The Royal Ballet. It would also become the benchmark classical work for any company. It’s the big one.

As with all the Petipa ballets, The Sleeping Beauty has been revised and reinterpreted many times. The Mariinsky staged a reconstruction of the original in 1999 that was not universally admired, not even by the Mariinsky itself it would appear, as the company has retreated from it. (It ran about four hours including intervals and allowed contemporary flourishes such as very high leg extensions for the women.) Now there is Ratmansky’s somewhat slimmer version to give audiences a window into the storied world of Russian Imperial ballet and to shine a light on Petipa’s choreographic style. ABT’s production lasts three hours including two intervals, although rather candidly the ABT program notes that the ballet was cut “somewhat to fit within the union defined time limitation”. Some mime and music had to go.

 

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.  Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Ratmansky’s Beauty is visually extravagant – mostly but not entirely successfully – but nevertheless a deeply impressive spectacle. The scale of the enterprise becomes apparent immediately as members of the court enter to celebrate the christening of Princess Aurora. The King and Queen preside over a large establishment of courtiers, cavaliers, attendants and pages, all gorgeously costumed. The Queen has a huge panniered gown with a lengthy train that requires the constant presence of small boys to carry, arrange and stumble over adorably. The fairies who have come to bestow gifts have their own brilliantly attired cavaliers and cushion-carrying children. The Lilac Fairy, being the highest ranked, has no fewer than eight men to accompany her. There are wigs for all and spectacular hats for many. The wicked fairy Carabosse arrives in a chariot and is supported by rats large and small, the little ones being particularly malevolent while also being on duty to prevent Carabosse from tripping over her extensive train. That is just the Prologue. In the Act I Garland Dance there are no fewer than 48 dancers: 32 adults and 16 students from ABT’s Jacqueline Onassis School. In Act III, Aurora and Prince Désiré enter the ballroom in wonderfully sumptuous white costumes entirely suitable for a royal wedding but not for dancing, so after a few minutes they slip away to change – returning in much simpler garments that from where I was sitting gave the impression that the couple was ready for bed once they’d completed their grand pas de deux.

(It is easy to see where the money – reportedly cost $US6 million – went. Not surprisingly Beauty is a co-production, with Teatro alla Scala presenting Beauty in Milan from September 26. Bolshoi principal and La Scala étoile Svetlana Zakharova is slated to dance three of the eight performances partnered by Bolshoi and ABT principal David Hallberg, who has been absent from the stage for many months while recovering from foot surgery.)

While the display is lavish, it frames a story told with strong, clear mime and many intimate, modest details. In this environment the music sounds immediate and fresh. Many familiar passages make a livelier impact because the more contained physicality means the music is not slowed for multiple fouettés (there are absolutely none here) or high-flying manéges of jetés with double sauts de basque thrown in. Leg extensions are relatively low and there are delightful pirouettes in which the retiré position – where one leg is pulled up and the foot placed against the supporting leg – is not much higher than the ankle. The effect is refined and charming, entirely suitable for a young woman at her birthday party. For both men and women there is a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkles. It is as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and more intricate and sophisticated.

Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone

It was pleasing to note alterations in choreography to suit the different gifts and temperaments of the lead dancers. For instance, Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo, a less grand couple than the first cast of Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes, didn’t do the famous series of fish dives in the Act III pas de deux, and they weren’t missed. In fact, I felt the spirit of romance was better sustained without them, because the fish dives sent the audience’s applause-o-meter off the scale and interrupted the mood – for me, anyway.

At both performances I saw those around me were tickled by the Canari qui chante (Canary) fairy variation in the Prologue, its speed and fluttery quality bringing to mind the hummingbird as never before (in the Diaghilev production she is described as the Fairy of the Hummingbird). There were countless felicitious moments, but I particularly relished the double air turn landed on one foot that Cornejo, in the second performance, made look so elegant, and the way he held Lane in a series of supported pirouettes, using just one hand to turn her while his other arm was out-stretched. Darting eyelines and changing head and torso positions added texture and animation to dances, with the Diamond Fairy’s Act III variation particularly notable in this regard.

It was fascinating to see the Sapphire Fairy’s vivacissimo variation included. It rarely is. In notes to the full version of the score recorded by Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic (Chandos), David Nice writes: “The Sapphire Fairy is given one of the most original miniatures in the ballet, a racy number in the unusual metre of 5/4 to illustrate Petipa’s specified ‘five-pointed’ quality. And devilishly difficult it is to dance to – hence its usual absence from productions.”

The Chandos disc runs to two hours and 35 minutes of music and in his introduction Nice writes: “Neither at [the 1890] premiere … nor in more than a handful of subsequent choreographies has every note of Tchaikovsky’s score been heard (substantial cuts in 1890 included the music for the ladies of the Prince’s retinue in Act II and for the Fairies of the precious stones in Act III).”

The music for the Sapphire Fairy’s variation lasts only about 40 seconds, so there wouldn’t have been much of a saving there. A bigger cut was made by eliminating entrancing music that follows the Panorama in which the Prince sets off to find his sleeping princess. There are two entr’actes, the first excluded entirely and the second truncated, I think. Fascinatingly, Nice remarks of the latter entr’acte: “Not previously noted, I think, is the fact that the note C is sustained by the strings, principally for violins, for exactly 100 bars. This is time suspended: the ‘sleep’ chords … and the themes of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse pass before us in shadow plan until the mists finally dissolve. Few if any productions observe the full symbolic duration of this hypnotic spell …”

The spell cast by Ratmansky is substantial, although not entirely complete. There are several puzzling dramaturgical decisions. For instance, Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy enter the wedding party together. There has been no repeat of the terrible mistake that saw Carabosse forgotten from the invitation list for the christening with such drastic consequences. All is forgiven and peace reigns. But if you’d blinked twice you would have missed this vital gesture of reconciliation as Carabosse whizzes across the back of the stage and is swallowed up by the throng. Another key moment, the kiss, is similarly underplayed. Aurora’s bed is to the audience’s right and would be difficult to see by those on that side of the theatre. I was seated quite centrally and only just had it fully in my line of vision. You really do want to see that kiss.

Léon Bakst Costume for a lady-in-waiting c.1921 from the Ballets Russes' production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant] National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1973

Léon Bakst. Costume for a lady-in-waiting c.1921 from the Ballets Russes’ production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant]
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.Purchased 1973

These are matters easily remedied. Something less easy to find is a sense of deep emotional engagement with the production. It is gracious, grand, meticulous, regal and restrained. It was fascinating to behold and I could easily have watched a third cast, and a fourth, and found more in it. It is a wonderful work of scholarship and I admired it greatly but there was a chill in the air.

American Ballet Theatre ends its Sleeping Beauty performances on June 13.

‘I am in the right place’

Robert Curran was a long-serving principal artist with The Australian Ballet, from which he retired in 2011. He’s now leading a small company in the United States and relishing a role that is both very similar – ballet is ballet, the studio is the studio – and yet very different from his  former life.

LOUISVILLE is a city of about 750,000 people lying west of the Appalachian Mountains on the Ohio River in Kentucky. It was founded in 1778 during the American Revolution, named after Louis XVI (the French were allies against the British), and is situated in the South, although very much in the north of the South – it takes little more than two hours in a not very large aircraft to fly there from New York. But a Southern city it is, proud of its hospitality and its role as a leading bourbon producer.

As everyone knows, Louisville is famous for the annual Kentucky Derby, which is kicked off by Thunder Over Louisville, a fireworks display described as the biggest in North America. The city is also the headquarters for the parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, the jauntily named Yum! Brands. (The city’s major sports complex, seating 22,000, is called the KFC Yum! Center.)

So – horses, booze and fast food are important in Louisville. And bluegrass music. But they are not what I went for in mid-April. In August last year Louisville Ballet named Robert Curran, former principal artist with The Australian Ballet, as its new artistic director. As I have always been keen to see one of the smaller-scale American companies in action, his appointment offered the perfect excuse to make it happen.

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

First, a bit of background. San Francisco Ballet is regarded as the oldest professional company in the US, founded in 1933 as San Francisco Opera Ballet and becoming a separate body in 1942. Just to muddy the waters a little, Atlanta Ballet was founded in 1929 and describes itself as “the longest continuously performing ballet company in the United States”. Presumably it started as an amateur outfit. Whatever the story, ballet started to take root in the US about 85 years ago. Interest had been stirred by touring European troupes in the 19th century and was cemented by Ballets Russes spin-off companies in the mid 20th century. George Balanchine came to the US in late 1933 and his School of American Ballet opened at the beginning of 1934.

By the beginning of the 21st century there would be 100 or more ballet companies in the US. They include a handful of world-renowned organisations – American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet – and other major-city outfits such as Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet that can support 40 or more dancers. Louisville Ballet belongs to a third category: smaller troupes established in sizeable cities with a lively arts scene.

After his appointment was announced Curran made a quick trip back home to sort out his visa and then returned to Louisville to dive in. He didn’t have long to become acquainted with his dancers before getting Giselle onstage by mid-September, and also wanted to immerse himself in Louisville cultural life as soon as possible.

Eight months later, Curran couldn’t look happier. Retiring director Bruce Simpson had programmed the first part of the 2014-2015 season so it wasn’t until April 10 that Curran unveiled his first program for Louisville Ballet: a triple bill of Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, George Balanchine’s Square Dance and a new piece by Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies, What Light Is to Our Eyes. It was extremely well received by public and critics, but perhaps more impressive was the demonstration of just how quickly Curran had moved on one of his most passionately desired goals. He wants Louisville Ballet to interact meaningfully and visibly with the local cultural scene and Director’s Choice: A New World was a strong beginning.

“That’s something I’m investing a lot of time in. Getting involved in the music scene, getting involved in the visual arts scene,” he says. Curran was given permission by the Balanchine Trust to commission new designs for Square Dance and asked Louisville artist Letitia Quesenberry to be involved. Her serene stage picture was dominated by a quietly glowing painting bisected by a horizontal stream of light. “Meeting Leticia was a great, great moment for me. Her work is so inspiring. It’s absolutely glorious.” Curran hadn’t expected the Balanchine Trust to give him so much freedom, although perhaps his commitment to offer Balanchine in Louisville every year helped. “I didn’t think that [redesigning the ballet] was a luxury that would be afforded a first-time director of a mid-west company with a small budget. When they offered, I had to jump at it.”

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Jervies created What Light Is to Our Eyes to young American composer Sebastian Chang’s first symphony, which was commissioned by and given its world premiere performance in late January by Louisville Orchestra. It was conducted by the orchestra’s new music director Teddy Abrams, a 27-year-old who is creating quite a stir in the city. As an interviewer for Louisville Insider put it to Curran recently just before Director’s Choice opened, “You can’t cross the street without running into Teddy – he’s everywhere.” Curran doesn’t want to make himself quite as visible as Abrams, preferring to put the spotlight on his dancers, but they seem to be on the same wavelength.

The intertwining of ballet and orchestra continues in March next year in a co-production called (R)evolution that will feature a new score from Abrams alongside music by Stravinsky and Philip Glass. Adam Hougland will choreograph. Curran also meets with the leaders of two other leading Louisville companies, Kentucky Opera and the famed Actors Theatre of Louisville, with an eye to co-operative ventures. “We’re all in really open communication. We spend time together, we talk together, we deal with tricky situations, but we deal with them together. It’s a really open dialogue, and that goes with the visual arts organisations as well. We’re all trying to work out how we can maximise our impact and minimise our impact on each other – that’s a really exciting thing.”

Drawing on the wider world of ballet connections, Curran was given permission to stage Suite en blanc himself after Claude Bessy, a former director of the Paris Opera Ballet School who is associated with the Serge Lifar Foundation, was unable to come to the US as planned. Curran got Bessy’s blessing after being introduced long-distance by ballet legend Violette Verdy, whom Curran knows from his AB days. Verdy is now a professor at Indiana University. It’s a small world.

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

In terms of repertoire Director’s Choice was very familiar territory for Curran. He has been acquainted with the Lifar ballet since his student days with the Australian Ballet School, danced Balanchine with the AB and with Jervies founded a small Melbourne-based contemporary ballet company, JACK.

Far less familiar was his new company’s structure. Louisville Ballet has 24 dancers and 15 apprentices, the latter at the stage of finishing vocational training and preparing to start professional careers. Dancers are contracted for 30 weeks of the year, a number Curran would like to see increase to 40 or 42. Houston Ballet, led by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, has 44-week contracts but that is uncommon. Even the mighty American Ballet Theatre contracts its dancers for only 36 weeks of the year. For the rest of the year they fend for themselves or go on unemployment benefits.

Perhaps even more surprising to an outsider is the small number of performances in each season given by Louisville Ballet and other companies of its size. Director’s Choice was seen only three times in the space of 28 hours – Friday night, Saturday matinee, Saturday night and it was done. The exception of course is Nutcracker, which is both sacred community tradition and indispensible money-spinner for virtually every American ballet company. That has a much longer run.

Nutcracker is a phenomenon I wasn’t exactly prepared for. It’s the most beautiful score ever written for ballet, it’s a beautiful tradition and I love seeing how many children come. It’s a brilliant production [choreographed by Val Caniparoli]. I’m biased but I would rate it in my top five in the world that I’ve seen. The integrity, the quality of the choreography, the through line are really wonderful. It’s unique and it’s also great to see a Nutcracker, a lot like Graeme’s [Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara], that is so specific to its audience. There are a lot of touches that are Louisville.’’

While the company is much smaller than Curran is used to, it means there’s plenty of room for growth. “There are no performances outside Louisville at the moment. That has to change. We are here to serve the whole state and we don’t. I would love for the company to do more performances, and that’s my ultimate goal.” Nutcracker would be a natural ballet to tour, although in a different, smaller-scale version. The Caniparoli production was designed for the vast – 2400 seats – Whitney Hall in Louisville’s Kentucky Center. (Curran’s Director’s Choice program was at the smaller Brown Theatre. Its 1400 seats make it a suitable size for a great deal of repertoire but backstage restrictions make it not entirely ideal.)

One area set to expand is the number of trainees. Curran says there will be a much bigger group next year than the current 15. “I had a phenomenal number of people applying.” As trainees are unpaid they don’t drain resources. There is a little government funding but Curran describes the company’s $3.5 million budget as primarily made up of “about one third box office, one third development [corporate sponsorship and private support] and one third school revenue”. The latter is something Curran, who is also artistic director of Louisville Ballet School, is looking at. If the school’s income is mainly siphoned off for the company it doesn’t get to invest in itself. There are 600 students, not all of whom want to take a vocational path, and Curran would like to see an organisation that better suits the needs of both recreational and vocational students.

The vocational students are the obvious candidates for apprenticeships and, ultimately, a place in the company. And it’s something Curran has to pay close attention to. Louisville Ballet dancers have a higher average age than in most companies, Curran says, with many in their mid to late 30s. That brings maturity and intelligence to the stage, but the careers can’t last forever.

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes. Photo: Renata Pavam

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes, by Lucas Jervies. Photo: Renata Pavam

Curran has no intention of letting people go – “I’ve become very fond of them” – but must keep an eye to the future. That means not only developing the next generation of dancers but also giving current company members challenging repertoire.

Suite en blanc was certainly that. It’s danced by the best companies in the world although has not been frequently staged in the US, which made it a clever choice for Louisville. Lifar’s tutu-laden, highly exposed test of classical prowess was greatly enjoyed by the audience at the two performances I saw and clearly stretched some of the apprentices in the corps. “It’s a really hard ballet,” Curran said when we spoke after the opening. “They’ve had to step up mentally and physically. I can see dramatic changes in the way they work and what they look like.”

Many dancers caught the eye, in particular Natalia Ashikhmina in the Cigarette variation and Erica De La O in the Flute variation in Suite; both leading pairs in Square Dance – Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland, De La O with Kristopher Wojtera; and the full cast of What Light Is to our Eyes, which the dancers invested not only with strong contemporary ballet energy but with mature dramatic qualities.

With the dancers going on leave for their long northern summer layoff, Curran and Louisville Ballet general manager Cara Hicks are turning their minds to a reorganisation of the company, which has a staff of about 15 apart from the dancers. Hicks is relatively new to her position (although not to the company), as previously Bruce Simpson combined the roles of artistic director and chief executive. Curran expresses nothing but great admiration and respect for Simpson, who some years ago guided the company out of extreme financial difficulties, but with both Curran and Hicks under 40 different emphases are inevitable.

Along with the major undertaking that is the company restructure, Curran has a new production to prepare, a version of Coppélia that will open Louisville Ballet’s 2015-2016 season in October. He plans to set it in Louisville’s Germantown area in 1917 as the US enters World War I. He also has “perhaps a foolishly ambitious plan” for the company’s 65th anniversary in 2017 about which he will say nothing at present.

He will say, however, how thrilled he is to be in Louisville. “I enjoy the people. They’re so welcoming. The city is fun; it’s really easy, although the food is a little bit too good. This community, they are brave, willing to look at things in a new light. Seeing that standing ovation after Lucas’s work – they were so willing to embrace it.

“I am in the right place. I didn’t know if I would find something as rewarding as my dancing; I really didn’t. But I wasn’t very long into this when I realised I’d found it. It’s a brilliant, brilliant job.”

To each her own

Sydney Opera House, April 2, 4 and 7

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

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

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

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

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

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kusch joins the AB; Cubans come to Brisbane

AS I foreshadowed on December 15 on my Diary page, Queensland Ballet has lost one of its principal artists, Natasha Kusch, to The Australian Ballet. Kusch was with QB for less than 18 months after leaving the Vienna State Opera Ballet. She joins the AB as a senior artist. In a press statement released today the AB says Kusch will make her debut as Giselle when Maina Gielgud’s production opens in Melbourne in March.

Kusch is pictured here as Juliet with Australian superstar Steven McRae, who was a guest artist from the Royal Ballet when QB staged Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet last year.

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

There is significant movement at several of the country’s leading dance companies, but none more striking than at QB. It’s possible to interpret Kusch’s move as something that could create tension between QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and the AB’s David McAllister (the two, of course, danced together at the AB) but it also points to how greatly Li has increased QB’s strength and visibility.

And Li was able to bury news of Kusch’s departure in an early-December press release. The big announcement he had to trumpet was the hiring of two dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba – premier Yanela Piñera and principal Camilo Ramos (the top two ranks at NBC).

As I wrote on my Diary page at the time, the pair, partners in life, join at the end of this month. Piñera joined NBC in 2005 and was promoted to premier dancer in 2011. She would have gained some knowledge of Brisbane when NBC visited in 2010. Unfortunately she wasn’t in the opening night cast of Don Quixote so I haven’t seen her dance live but there are, naturally, many clips on YouTube. It will be fascinating to see how the Cubans fit into the QB repertoire for next year – La Sylphide, Coppelia, Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan and The Sleeping Beauty.

The QB press release said Piñera’s position would exist under Queensland Ballet’s International Guest Artist program, funded by the Jani Haenke Charitable Trust, but Li told me that Piñera will be a full-time principal – her position is not apparently like that of Huang Junshuang, who for two years was QB’s very welcome guest principal but not permanently with the company.

Further down the press release was news of comparable interest, the retirement of incredibly valuable principal Matthew Lawrence and long-serving soloist Nathan Scicluna. However, with the arrival of Piñera to join principals Hao Bin, Clare Morehen and Meng Ningning and with Ramos joining soloists Lisa Edwards and Shane Wuerthner (an American who joined QB last year), the senior ranks are close to full strength.

West Australian Ballet is seeking a new senior man after the announcement that soloist Daniel Roberts has joined Sydney Dance Company, where there have been extensive changes in the 16-member troupe. Chloe Leong, Josephine Weise and Sam Young-Wright have also joined and former member Richard Cilli has returned. Leaving are Chen Wen, Tom Bradley and Jessica Thompson, while Chris Aubrey is taken a year’s sabbatical. Company member Petros Treklis joined only last year.

Lee Johnston is SDC’s new rehearsal director.

Bangarra Dance Theatre also announced the return of two former dancers who left last year but are now back in the fold – and it’s very good news. Deborah Brown and Daniel Riley, both of whom also choreograph, are back with the company.

The AB also has three new junior dancers, coryphée Nicola Curry, who was formerly with American Ballet Theatre, and corps members Shaun Andrews and Callum Linnane, who are Australian Ballet School graduates.

West Australian Ballet opens its 2015 season with Zip Zap Zoom: Ballet at the Quarry, Perth, from February 6; The Australian Ballet’s 2015 season starts in Sydney with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake from February 20 and Giselle opens in Melbourne on March 13; Sydney Dance Company opens Frame of Mind in Sydney on March 6; Queensland Ballet’s La Sylphide opens in Brisbane on March 20; Bangarra’s Lore opens in Sydney on June 11 and before then the company works on a film of Spear, based onStephen Page’s wonderful 2000 work of that name, which will premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in October.

In which I fail to stop my list at 10

THIS year I saw more than 200 performances and, over the past week or so, have written about the people, plays, operas, dance works and musicals that spoke to me most strongly. Now I cull the list to 14 – just because that’s how it turned out – and a supplementary, the last being something I haven’t previously mentioned.

There’s also the one that got away. And one that almost got away.

What struck me most about 2014 was how unlike 2013 it was. Last year there were plenty of kapow! events on stage – among them Opera Australia’s Ring cycle, Belvoir’s Angels in America, The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, Melbourne Festival’s Life and Times from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, the Berliner Ensemble at the Perth Festival with The Threepenny Opera, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle in Sydney – while this year the pleasures tended to be on a smaller scale.

But while there may have been a shortage of big-bang events there were movements afoot of great moment, chief among them more visibility for women playwrights and directors and more indigenous and queer stories taken out of little theatres and put into big ones. These movements didn’t magically appear this year but they did get traction and the texture of our theatre is more interesting and relevant because of them.

My earlier lists were presented in alphabetical order. Not here. I start at the top and work down, although I know that tomorrow I’d probably shuffle a few things around. The non-traditional number can be put down to the multi-art form nature of the list.

MY TOP 14 AND A FEW RING-INS

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Declan Greene, directed by Lee Lewis), Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

Madama Butterfly (Puccini, directed by Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus), Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck, directed by Lindy Hume), Pinchgut Opera

Trisha Brown: From All Angles (Trisha Brown), Melbourne Festival

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, directed by Tim Carroll), Shakespeare’s Globe, New York

Three Masterpieces (Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins), American Ballet Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, directed by John Tiffany, movement by Steven Hoggett), American Repertory Theater, New York

King Charles III (Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold), Almeida Theatre, London

Henry V (Shakespeare, directed by Damien Ryan), Bell Shakespeare Company, Canberra

Pete the Sheep (adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the book by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, directed by Jonathan Biggins, composer/lyricist Phil Scott), Monkey Baa Theatre

A Christmas Carol (adapted by Benedict Hardie & Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Sarks), Belvoir

The Drowsy Chaperone (music by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, lyrics by Bob Martin & Don McKellar, directed by Jay James-Moody), Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co

Switzerland (Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Sarah Goodes), Sydney Theatre Company

Keep Everything (Antony Hamilton), Chunky Move

The supplementary event:

Limbo (Strut & Fret, Underbelly Productions), Sydney Festival. This circus-cabaret didn’t fit into any of my categories so it bobs up from out of left field, which is entirely appropriate for such an outrageously sexy, something-for-everyone show. It was one of the most wildly enjoyable experiences of my quite lengthy viewing career so I went twice during the 2014 Sydney Festival and I’m going again – possibly twice – when Limbo returns to the festival next month.

The one that got away:

Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare, directed by Ivo van Hove) Adelaide Festival. Now this would have been the year’s biggie, had I been able to get to Adelaide. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon performance of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was by all reports life-changing. I believe it, and missing it will remain one of the great regrets of my theatre-going life.

The one that almost got away:

Skylight (David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry). My London trip ended a day before previews started for Skylight, Hare’s ravishing play in which the political becomes very personal indeed. It was written nearly 20 years ago and its arguments resound ever more loudly today. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were starring. Desolation. Until National Theatre Live came to the rescue in October. Bliss.

Naming names: looking back on 2014

I’VE avoided making neat lists of 10 of this and 10 of that in my survey of 2014, which is good when it comes to the individuals who made the deepest impression on me. I decided not to divide the names by art form or vocation. There are dancers, opera singers, actors, actresses, directors and playwrights here and it pleases me to put them side by side. Or more precisely, one after the other in alphabetical order. Included are Australians who live in Europe but were home to perform and non-Australians I saw here.

NOTABLE WOMEN:

Nicole Car (singer, Eugene Onegin, Opera Australia, Sydney, March): Car’s debut as Tatyana firmed up what we already knew. Car is a major, major talent. Her supple, warm soprano sounded as fresh, free and glowing at the extremes as it did throughout and her expression of text and character was most moving. That fact that she’s slim as a reed with a graceful, natural ease on stage does not hurt at all. She made her US debut as Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro for Dallas Opera in October; next up she sings Marguerite in Faust in Sydney. An exciting prospect.

Misty Copeland (dancer, Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre, Brisbane, September): Copeland, an African American, has become a powerful advocate for diversity in classical ballet and is on her way to becoming that rare beast – a ballet dancer recognised by the public at large. At 31 (she is now 32), she had waited a very long time to dance Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, and Brisbane had the privilege of seeing her role debut. Call it an out-of-hemisphere tryout if you want to, but I was thrilled to be at this history-making event. Copeland is the first African-American Odette in American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history. Yes, the first. She had earned it, and she claimed it in Brisbane. She will dance the role for the first time in the US for Washington Ballet in April and then in her hometown, New York, for ABT in June. It will be a huge event, but we saw it first.

Lucinda Dunn (dancer, Manon, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April): Dunn retired from dance in April after an extraordinary 23 years with the company and more than a decade as a principal artist. She was a true prima, accomplished in every aspect of her art and with huge respect for her audience. Her farewell performance was in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, a cornerstone role for ballerinas. She looked as if she could dance for another 23 years, but she was 40 and in an art form that exacts a brutal toll on bodies. As much as balletomanes would have wished it otherwise, she had to choose a moment to call it quits.

Christine Goerke (singer, Elektra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, February): The American dramatic soprano was electrifying in the SSO’s exceptional semi-staged production, pacing the stage like a lioness kept too long in too small a cage. Her opulent voice was transfixing and boldly rode the tsunami of sound produced by the stupendous orchestral forces conducted by David Robertson.

Caitlin Hulcup (singer, Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut 0pera, Sydney, December): Gluck’s ravishing opera is rarely performed here and Pinchgut did it great honour. In the title role, mezzo Hulcup – an Australian who performs mainly in Europe – was heart-stoppingly good, singing with passion, glorious control and silvery beauty.

Lindy Hume (director, Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut 0pera, Sydney, December): The City Recital Hall in Sydney where Pinchgut Opera performs each year is what it says – a hall. Hume’s direction of Iphigénie on Tony Assness’s powerfully conceived (and of necessity static) set was a model of dramatic clarity and restraint, giving the tempestuous emotions of the piece room to breathe.

Lauren Langlois (dancer, Keep Everything, Chunky Move, Sydney, July; and The Complexity of Belonging, Chunky Move, Melbourne, October): Langlois trained as a dancer and she’s very fine one. She also a knockout with text, as Antony Hamilton’s Keep Everything and Anouk van Dijk and Falk Richter’s Complexity of Belonging proved. Her ability to combine the two disciplines in spectacular fashion had audiences shaking their heads in disbelief.

Meng Ningning (dancer, Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet, July): There were many fine performances in Queensland Ballet’s audacious presentation of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet but the revelation was QB principal Meng, who was partnered with superstar Carlos Acosta for his two performances. Meng has always appeared to keep her emotions locked well within but Romeo and Juliet produced the key and the release was tremendous. Even when Meng was the excitable young girl of her first scene there were intimations of tragedy in those questioning eyes, and her long, silken limbs always seemed to be searching and reaching for the overwhelming feelings Juliet discovered could exist.

Joanna Murray-Smith (playwright, Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company, November): This is Murray-Smith in magisterial form. While rigorously maintaining the style and appearance of a naturalistic – even old-fashioned – bio-drama, Switzerland morphs into a psychological thriller and then what Dostoevsky called fantastic realism. It’s risky, surprising and very apt as Murray-Smith’s play takes on the qualities of Patricia Highsmith’s art, in form and atmospherics, and applies them to the writer’s life.

Hiromi Omura (singer, Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, March): Omura was a devastating Butterfly, singing with lyric beauty and spinto charge. She also unerringly charted Butterfly’s trajectory from radiant bride to the trusting wife who is discarded and utterly bereft. The expansive stage of rolling hills (Act I) and a crappy housing development (Act II) gave Omura a stunning canvas. I have never seen a Butterfly so convincingly transformed from submissive girl to a whirlwind of despair as her child is taken from her.

Pamela Rabe (actress, The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September): I was less enthusiastic about Eamon Flack’s production of the Tennessee Williams classic than were many others, but there is no dispute about Pamela Rabe as Amanda Wingfield, living on the edge of her nerves and trying vainly to keep up appearances. As always, Rabe is able to make one sympathise with a character who is in many ways monstrous. Amanda’s rage and disappointment were contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. But Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that was the case here.

Sue Smith (playwright, Kryptonite, State Theatre Company of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney, September): Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. Lian and Dylan meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to survive. He’s a laidback Australian devoted to surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. There are so few plays that explore our regional issues and identity, and this is a beauty.

Christie Whelan-Browne (Britney Spears: The Cabaret, Sydney, August): The train wreck that was Britney Spears’s earlier life is well known. Whelan-Browne’s rendering of that life, lavishly illustrated by Spears songs, didn’t descend to ridicule. Yes, it was often funny, but at the same time exceptionally compassionate. An outstanding performance.

Doris Younane (Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela, Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney, March): I loved the whole Jump for Jordan cast (and the play) but Doris Younane was outstanding. She expressed with heart-rending anguish the plight of a migrant who has never felt Sydney was her home. How does one leave behind everything that has been dear – family, traditions, language, the sights, smells and sounds of home – and plant oneself in new and alien soil? This performance put you in that place.

NOTABLE MEN:

Declan Greene (playwright, Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, Sydney, May): Greene takes two uneasy souls and exposes their every weakness and slender hopes. A man and a woman meet via a dating site. He is married and obsessively into pornography, she is a nurse with an out-of-control shopping habit. Both have a core of self-loathing covered with a thin layer of coping. He is the greater fantasist and she the more self-aware but they’re both in deep, deep trouble. I can’t stop thinking about this play and how acutely it expresses the inner lives of desperate people.

Chengwu Guo (The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December): Guo is something of a human flying machine and in The Nutcracker there were times when you’d swear he was suspended by invisible wires, such is his elevation and ability to hang in the air. Guo added the plushest of silent landings and pristine pirouettes for a performance of technical brilliance, but of course The Nutcracker isn’t just about the moves. Guo also showed he can be a Prince – always good news in the ballet world.

Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry (Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, Sydney, October): Mark O’Rowe’s double monologue is sometimes performed by a single actor; here the duty was divided. The play is in two equal and equally exhilarating parts – two sides of the one coin – so let’s consider Hawkins and Henry together. In Howie the Rookie Hawkins and Henry guided the audience through a toxic night in an insalubrious part of Dublin, taking us on a wild ride expressed in some of the most violent, vulgar and baroque language you’re likely to encounter. Both actors were scintillating.

Jay James-Moody (The Drowsy Chaperone, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co, March): Jay James-Moody may be considered rather too young for Man in Chair, the narrator and orchestrator of this wacky, heartfelt homage to the light-hearted musical theatre of bygone eras. Nevertheless he succeeded brilliantly. While he was arguably too fresh to be the quintessential bitter and bitchy show queen that is Man in Chair, he brought unexpected and memorable poignancy to the part.

Simon Laherty (Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Sydney, March): Finally this wonderful piece came to Sydney. The story of the Elephant-headed god Ganesh’s quest to reclaim the swastika from the Nazis is typically explosive Back to Back subject matter as most of the company’s performers would have been considered extermination material by Hitler. It’s a wonderful ensemble piece, but nevertheless Laherty made, as he has before, the deepest impression on me. His deliberate voice, grave demeanour and the clarity and poise of his interactions made an indelible mark.

Josh McConville (actor, Noises Off, Sydney Theatre Company, February): The thing is, I could hardly tell you what McConville looks like. He is a theatre chameleon, shape-shifting into whatever is required and so very good at it all. He’s played some pretty desperate men and perhaps his character in Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off could be described as such, but what fun to see McConville doing it for laughs. His stair work was exquisite.

Steven McRae (Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, July): The Australian-born principal dancer with London’s Royal Ballet showed why he is one of the most admired Romeos on the stage today. The impulsive, passionate youth of this dance-drama could have been made for him, so natural was the fit. McRae has a slight, elegant figure but radiated huge amounts of energy, taking the stage like a whirlwind. His crystal-clear line, the way he hovered in the air for precious moments in a turn or jeté, his vibrant attack and heady speed were treasures in themselves but given point and purpose by the way these technical gifts created character.

Steve Rodgers (actor, Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, Sydney, May): Who better to illuminate Declan Greene’s play than Rodgers? Although the unnamed character he played is deceptive and cunning, Rodgers willed us to find some empathy. There was much before us that was messy, humiliating and ugly; Rodgers didn’t shy from the darkness but also revealed the pitiable emptiness of the life.

Richard Roxburgh (Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company, November): Not a lot needs to be said here. Roxburgh’s Cyrano was darkly self-aware, exceptionally witty and heart-breaking. A superlative performance from one of the greats of our stage.

Damien Ryan (artistic director, Sport for Jove, Sydney): Ryan’s Sport for Jove productions always reveal fresh insights into classic texts, and this year’s Henry V, which he directed for Bell Shakespeare was perhaps his best. Which is saying a lot, because his All’s Well That End’s Well for Sport for Jove was magnificent.

Monday: Best of the best

Top 10 in dance for 2014

DANCE is my great passion but this year there wasn’t a huge amount to bowl me over.Certainly I saw plenty of fine dancing – when does one not? – but in classical ballet there were few new works of substance. Well, none actually. There were pleasing new versions of existing ballets, although they didn’t quite make it to the list. New versions of oft-told stories is business as usual for ballet.

In Sydney there were new contemporary works I failed to see because the seasons were so short – this city isn’t exactly dance central – but there were a couple of new (or newish) pieces that added some excitement. Happily I was able to travel a bit and that helped me see enough to constitute what I might consider a quorum for a list of notable productions. If I saw it in this country I’ve included it, which is why American Ballet Theatre and Trisha Brown Dance Company appear alongside the locals.

As in my earlier posts looking back on 2014, works are mentioned in the order in which I saw them. There is a supplementary international section at the end. I intend to do a separate post on the men and women of the year so if someone rather than something appears to be missing, they may well be mentioned tomorrow.

DANCE WORKS OF NOTE IN 2014

Am I, Shaun Parker & Company, Sydney Festival and Sydney Opera House (January): A strong addition to this meticulous choreographer’s body of work. It looked and sounded stunning. Nick Wales, who has worked many times with Parker, contributed a new score full of fascinating colours, rhythms and sonorities, played and sung by a group of seven musicians. Meticulous, elegant and sophisticated, Am I ambitiously took ideas from physics, astronomy, neurology, anthropology and other branches of science to chart the path of human development. We are the only creatures who can apprehend ourselves as conscious beings with a limited span. Having evolved to that point, our drive is to survive and replicate, to make love and war, and to think about things too much.

Gudirr Gudirr, Marrugeku, Sydney Festival (January): Dalisa Pigram is a passionate advocate for life in Australia’s north-west. She wove a memorable solo from themes relating to the area’s indigenous history, polyglot population, environmental beauties and present-day challenges. Simultaneously wiry and elastic, Pigram seamlessly incorporated shapes from indigenous dance, martial arts, animal imagery, gymnastics, the nightclub and the circus for a wholly individual effect. When she spoke in her traditional language, Yawuru, it became a liquid element in Sam Serruys’s score, which also included songs from Stephen Pigram.

Interplay, Sydney Dance Company (March): The triple bill of Rafael Bonachela’s 2 in D Minor, Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models and Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim! made a cracking evening. Bonachela’s take on Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor was an intellectually challenging engagement between movement and music; the second new piece, Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim!, had heart and joy; and the revival of Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models – well, that gave the libido a workout.

Chroma, The Australian Ballet (April): Wayne McGregor’s Chroma wasn’t as brilliantly danced as it can be when I saw it but it’s a tremendous work. In seven swiftly moving, grandly conceived scenes the choreographer captures on the dancer’s body some of the myriad neural impulses that make it move, think and feel. Undulation, distortion and hyper-extension are a big part of the movement language but we can also see fragments of the classical ideal shimmering through Chroma. The juxtapositions are absorbing: small and large, inner and outer, action and repose, contemporary and traditional, the body and the space it occupies. Also on this generous quadruple bill, Jiri Kylián’s Petite Mort. The AB always does Kylián well and in Petite Mort there is so much to love: men with fencing foils, intimations of darkness and some outstandingly sexy dancing with lots of little orgasmic shudders.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre (June): The story of Lieutenant William Dawes and young indigenous woman Patyegarang in colonial Sydney should be better known. In the tumultuous first years of white settlement, as the British colonisers imposed themselves and their culture on what is now the glittering city of Sydney but was then the Eora nation, Dawes studied and recorded the local language. Patyegarang appears to have been his most important teacher. Stephen Page turned this rare and precious relationship into an impressionistic, meditative work.

The Arrangement, Australian Dance Artists (July): This little jewel could be seen by invitation only, and I was one of the lucky ones. Prime mover was artist Ken Unsworth, who may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest for the complexities of human existence, often casting an absurdist eye on events. He made a cameo appearance at the beginning of The Arrangement to usher in a series of scenes connected not by any narrative but by themes of love, longing, the passage of time and the cycle of life. The mature ADA dancers were former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. The Song Company sang texts by A.E. Houseman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke to Jonathan Cooper’s commissioned music, and it was all very fine indeed. Unsworth finances ADA productions entirely – a great labour of love.

Keep Everything, choreographed by Antony Hamilton for Chunky Move (August): There wasn’t much that was more fun than this. A stage strewn with trash, three incredibly virtuosic and multi-skilled performers, a race through the human story from pre-history to the stars and back again and plenty of stimulating ideas along the way.

American Ballet Theatre, Brisbane (September): Forget Swan Lake; the Three Masterpieces program was the one to see. Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free was highly enjoyable, but the real treats were Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas. Glorious works both.

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Melbourne Festival (October): Trisha Brown was a leading figure in the post-modern dance movement in New York and her influence runs deep. The survey of her work at the Melbourne Festival showed exactly why, but it was far from a history lesson or an academic exercise. Brown’s intellectually rigorous and highly technical dance-making is deeply concerned with the physics and geometry of the body and its relation to the space in which it moves, and her purpose is not to mimic or evoke emotional states. Yet the varied program demonstrated one quality above all that animates the work: intense, soul-filling joy.

The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet (November): Peter Wright’s version of The Nutcracker is frequently said to be the most beautiful in existence, and there is a lot of competition. When I see Alexei Ratmansky’s newish production for American Ballet Theatre I’ll get back to you on who is the winner. But quibbles aside, this certainly is a sumptuous-looking production, even if it looks rather cramped on the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. Even better, it touches the heart.

INTERNATIONAL NOTES:

A highlight of my New York visit early this year was finally getting to see the Jerome Robbins masterpiece Dances at a Gathering, a suite of dances to Chopin piano pieces that has no narrative but is full of connections between the dancers. To see it performed by the company for which it was made in 1969 was a dream come true.

On an all-Balanchine bill at New York City Ballet, Concerto Barocco (1941), was a revelation. Made to the music of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, Concerto Barocco is said to mark the first appearance of Balanchine dancers in practice clothes, something that would become a feature of many works. Here the women are all in white, with a little skirt. Eight women who form a kind of chorus of handmaidens, two principal women and one man move in unison, canon, mirror one another, and enter and leave in response to the music. Poetry and harmony reign and the detail is delicious: at one point the solo man is gently entangled in a thicket of the supporting women; at another he turns a simple promenade of his partner into courtly admiration. Just lovely.

 Tomorrow: The people who mattered

Tharp, Ratmansky, Robbins

American Ballet Theatre, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, September 5 and 6.

TWYLA Tharp was never one to make things easy for dancers or viewers. It would take many more than the two shows I saw in Brisbane to absorb even a fraction of the beauties and complexities of Bach Partita, but it took only one performance to prove the work’s worth. It’s a knockout.

Bach Partita is grand in scale, full of delicious detail and made with superb craftsmanship. There may be a great deal going on but no sense that the structure will not hold. It is a worthy partner for its score, Bach’s glorious Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin, and was played wonderfully from the pit by Charles Yang, a true collaborator with the dancers.

Tharp’s use of three principal couples, seven soloist couples and a corps of 16 women acknowledges the conventional hierarchy of ballet although Bach Partita is essentially a neo-classical piece with modern dance accents and attitudes seamlessly absorbed. The stage vibrated with energy as leading couples, soloists, flocks of corps women and secondary couples constantly changed the movement dynamics, attentive to those of the music.

Stella Abrera, Calvin Royal III, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in Bach Partita. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Stella Abrera, Calvin Royal III, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

The first cast was led by Misty Copeland and James Whiteside, Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes and Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III, each with a different mood (sensual, vibrant, dramatic) but also able to come together for some moments before spinning off on their own tangents. I loved Tharp’s use of the secondary couples and the corps, whose comings and goings add texture and intrigue to the world of the main couples.

The great glamour and individuality of the first cast wasn’t entirely replicated by the second cast, featuring April Giangeruso and Eric Tamm, Paloma Herrera and Joseph Gorak, and Isabella Boylston with Craig Salstein, although each was equal to the very testing technical demands of the ballet. But it was clear from seeing the first performance that Bach Partita also demands the mysterious but ultra-potent quality of distinctive stage presence. Herrera has it, of course; the others less so. That said, soloist Gorak is a particularly special dancer who has much ahead of him.

Bach Partita premiered in December 1983 and was not revived until last year. It is a mystery why that should be so, but it’s back and it provided a rich, stimulating opener to this triple bill.

Three Masterpieces was a program designed to give a snapshot of American Ballet Theatre’s nearly 75-year history and included one much earlier work than Bach Partita and one much newer. Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas was made in 2009 to solo piano pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, exquisitely played on stage by Barbara Bilach. The luminous music was interpreted by three couples whose interactions were playful, eloquent, romantic and occasionally something a little darker. There may have been no narrative but there were many stories. Although Ratmansky very much has his own voice as a choreographer Seven Sonatas is somewhat reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, which is no bad thing.

Joseph Gorak in Seven Sonatas. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Joseph Gorak in Seven Sonatas. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

The first cast included Abrera and Royal paired again (they look so silken together), Gorak with fellow soloist Christine Shevchenko and Sarah Lane with the miraculous Herman Cornejo. The second cast gave an opportunity to see principal Hee Seo (with Alexandre Hammoudi) in a much more relaxed mood than she had been for the Swan Lake opening and to see lovely corps members Luciana Paris and Arron Scott together. Principal Veronika Part was partnered with corps member Blaine Hoven, who had been such a worried-looking Benno in the Swan Lake premiere. Here, in his poetic responses, it was possible to see what ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie sees in him.

The program came to a happy close with Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944), in which three sailors on shore leave come to a bar to let off steam and flirt with passing women. Its boisterous innocence, buoyed by Leonard Bernstein’s zippy score, was appealing and, in these most difficult times, touching. Casting was top of the line all the way, but it is impossible not to single out Gomes in the second cast. He was funny, charming and incredibly charismatic. I was disappointed not to see him in Swan Lake – he’s a stunning Von Rothbart on DVD – but Bach Partita and Fancy Free were pretty good consolations.

Cory Stearns, Isabella Boylston, Daniil Simkon, Luciana Paris and James Whiteside in Fancy Free. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Cory Stearns, Isabella Boylston, Daniil Simkin, Luciana Paris and James Whiteside in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

It was fascinating to see the number of corps members given serious duties in both Swan Lake and Three Masterpieces. Well, they were principal dancer duties. A key reason is that ABT has only three ranks – principal, soloist and corps – so the best of the lowly ranked dancers get great opportunities. On the other hand it does appear difficult for them to enter the soloist ranks. At present ABT has 14 principal artists, only nine soloists and a corps of 60. The competition down there must be ferocious.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 8.

Odette to the power of four

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane. August 28, September 3 (matinee), September 3 (evening), September 4.

THE first act of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake ends as evening falls. Prince Siegfried has hurried away from his birthday party with no ceremony, disquieted by the realisation his carefree days are numbered. Because he is about to become king – this is no ordinary birthday; this is his coming of age – his mother has said he must marry.

In McKenzie’s version of this endlessly fascinating ballet there are some aspects of the narrative that are drawn too sketchily and details to quibble over, but after seeing four performances I have been won over by the central idea. With Zack Brown’s storybook designs providing a sumptuous setting, McKenzie creates a fantasy world in which myth can thrive, in which a sorcerer could cast a spell that turns a princess into a swan by day, and in which he can himself shape-shift between monster and suave nobleman.

Act III of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Act III of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

The atmospherics are nowhere better captured than at the Act I finale, in which the peasants who have been enjoying Siegfried’s festivities are the last to leave. Without the aristocracy present and bathed in Duane Schuler’s lustrous lighting design, they start gamboling more freely as the light fades, picking up wine goblets to take with them as they depart. I was reminded of Matisse’s painting La Danse, which celebrates the primal joy of communal celebration, and it is an image I will carry with me for a long time.

All this can only work, of course, if the dancers persuade one to enter their imaginative realm.

There was much to interest balletomanes. Misty Copeland made her debut as Odette and Paloma Herrera gave what was possibly her final performance in the role – the decision will come when Swan Lake is staged in ABT’s next season, which will be Herrera’s last (she recently announced her impending retirement). Newly minted principal artist Isabella Boylston appeared (unfortunately I missed her and Daniil Simkin, but people raved; I also missed Veronika Part). Martine Van Hamel, former ABT great, played the Queen Mother at some performances and radiated command. Recently elevated soloist Joseph Gorak showed why he has been plucked from the corps and two men still in the corps, Arron Scott and Calvin Royal III caught the eye. Yet another corps member, Thomas Forster, made a saturnine, panther-like Von Rothbart in several casts.

Three conductors shared Swan Lake duty over the nine performances, two of them with Australian connections. Music director Ormsby Wilkins was born in Sydney and was The Australian Ballet’s resident conductor in 1982, thereafter being a frequent guest conductor while making his career in the northern hemisphere. ABT principal conductor Charles Barker was the AB’s music director from 1997 to 2001 and is married to former AB principal dancer Miranda Coney. Each directed the Queensland Symphony Orchestra quite differently, and each time the QSO acquitted itself handsomely.

The ABT season, the company’s first in Australia, unfortunately got off to a lacklustre start. There may have been extenuating factors. David Hallberg was to have partnered Hee Seo on the August 28 opening night but withdrew relatively late to have ankle surgery. Cory Stearns was moved in. Whether it was jetlag or just one of those unfathomable matters of chemistry who knows, but Seo and Stearns failed to catch fire. Seo has many beautiful qualities as a dancer but looked uninvolved, Stearns operated on one supercilious level and the relationship was unprofitable. Alexandre Hammoudi’s Act III Von Rothbart was therefore left to provide the fireworks, and if Von Rothbart is the highlight of the show there’s a problem. The corps was untidy too. Not a great night all round.

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

I returned a week later to see Copeland’s historic debut as Odette. Tucked away at a Wednesday Brisbane matinee she gave an impassioned performance that brought the house to its feet. Her Odette was intense, warm and dramatically alert; her Odile sparkled seductively. It was a wonderful first performance. Indeed, it was the only one to bring tears to my eyes, even though her Siegfried, Hammoudi (also making a debut) was off form technically. Still, he partnered beautifully, and that ultimately mattered most.

That evening (September 3) Gillian Murphy gave an entirely different performance, imbued with the deep, deep understanding she has absorbed over many years. She, more than any other I have seen, evoked the eternal nature of Odette’s predicament. She was captured aeons ago and there is nothing but sorrow in her future. All those years in Von Rothbart’s thrall have altered her irrevocably. Murphy’s Odile was equally distinctive – fascinatingly hard, cold and vindictive. James Whiteside’s all-American boy Siegfried (divinely danced, with a blinder of an Act I solo) didn’t stand a chance.

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

On September 4 Paloma Herrera was stupendous, filling the stage with old-world glamour of a kind exceptionally rare these days. She took much of Odette’s choreography incredibly slowly – David LaMarche conducted – and claimed rapt attention at every instant. She commanded the stage more as a distillation of Swan Lake’s themes than the embodiment of two opposing characters. She seemed somehow abstract, yet entirely mesmerising. Odile has a balance on pointe in arabesque that often lasts only a split second; Herrera held it for an age: poised, implacable, timeless. Herrera has been a principal with ABT for 20 years and looks as if she could dance another 20. If it turns out this was her swan song, if you will, it was a great one.

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake for ABT

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake for ABT

Herrera was partnered by Stearns, whose dancing was as handsome and velvety as it had been on opening night but this time he was engaged and vivid. He looked an entirely different man. I’m sometimes asked how I can go to the same show again and again. It’s because it’s never the same show, not ever.