Cinderella, the Australian Ballet

Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. State Theatre, Melbourne, September 17

I CAN say one thing with absolute certainty about the Australian Ballet’s new Cinderella: it will take many viewings to reveal all its riches and intricacies. For that reason it’s likely to be a keeper for the AB and a rarity. A new full-length story ballet that can be revived many times is a prize devoutly sought and so rarely found.

Alexei Ratmansky choreographed Cinderella as his first full-length ballet, for the Mariinsky in 2002. His version for the Australian Ballet is a new one, and a big one in every way. It has a large heart and a tender one, wrapped in a visual landscape of great sophistication. Jerome Kaplan’s designs are beautiful, colourful, dramatically apt and often highly amusing, and they would crush a lesser choreographer. Fortunately the elan of the design is more than matched by Ratmansky’s vision.

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

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

When the production was announced it was stressed from the outset that we wouldn’t be seeing any tutus, nor would there be mice or a pumpkin or tiaras or other bits and bobs that have come to be attached to the story like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. By choosing Surrealism as their version of a fairytale world, Ratmansky and Kaplan put down layer upon layer of complexity and intrigue, embracing the darker side of the fairytale genre and the context in which Prokofiev composed his bittersweet music. The score was written in the early 1940s and premiered at the Bolshoi, to choreography by Rostislav Zakharov, in 1945. It was born in the shadow of war.

On a first hearing the music can seem deceptively unassuming, another reason why return visits to Cinderella are valuable. The AB’s music director Nicolette Fraillon led Orchestra Victoria in a truly luscious, moving and dramatically aware account of the score, bringing out the wealth of colours and rhythms that drive the action as well as the wistfulness – very Russian! – that lingers like scent in a room after a person has left it.

There were many ballets on the Cinderella theme before 1945 and many since, but, as Ratmansky says, there isn’t a definitive classical-era version. Frederick Ashton’s 1948 choreography has come to be seen as the yardstick but that view may well be fading. Ashton’s grotesque stepsisters, danced by men (Ashton and Robert Helpmann in the original cast), hijack the piece and his ballroom scene has far too many pallid spots. Prokofiev’s score, on the other hand, has endured as Cinderella enjoys a recent resurgence.

Ratmansky places his Cinderella between the two great wars of the 20th century when, for a moment, some thought there would be no more great wars. The Surrealists’ bracing, unsentimental take on the world is fruitful here. The look is fantastical but astute in its mining of deep-seated human impulses. Not surprisingly for a work so concerned with the passing of time and our perception of it, Cinderella includes a homage to Salvador Dali’s melting clock (from The Persistence of Memory). There’s much more in that vein. Huge eyes survey the scene, topiary turns into metronomes and a full moon morphs into a clock inexorably ticking its way towards midnight. Other Surrealism-inspired props include a nod to the Dali sofa that paid tribute to Mae West’s pillowy lips and hats in the shape of shoes that giddily adorn the heads of Cinderella’s Stepmother and her stepsisters, Skinny and Dumpy.

Kaplan, acknowledging the theatricality of this art movement, frames Cinderella in a false proscenium arch. We are seeing theatre within a theatre and a fantasy within a fantasy. Cinderella, her mother gone, is unloved in her new household. Her father is barely present and she dreams of being swept away and cherished. When the Fairy Godmother arrives, she isn’t some old mystery crone who appears out of nowhere and rewards Cinderella for being kind to her. She is a projection of Cinderella’s longing.

Such an idea makes Cinderella a rather more interesting figure than the usual drudge whisked away from the hearth. Ratmansky gives her a moment of pleasurable day-dreaming in which her stepsisters, Skinny and Dumpy, try their hand at a few chores. They manage poorly, being useless bobbleheads. It seems proper in this reading that the stepmother and her daughters are vain, silly and thoughtless, but mostly not vicious. True, they take early pleasure in destroying Cinderella’s mother’s portrait, but their nouveau-riche gaucheries are very funny and expressed in spiky, tumbling choreography that makes them quite endearing in an empty-headed way.

On opening night Amy Harris (Stepmother), Ingrid Gow (Skinny) and Halaina Hills (Dumpy) rose magnificently to the challenges while dressed exquisitely and eccentrically. (A glance at the AB’s cast list just before opening showed that Juliet Burnett and Reiko Hombo were originally in the first cast. Burnett was a late scratching due to injury and there was only one other pair ready – Gow and Hills. Hombo was then paired with Gow for an early performance; now she dances with Robyn Hendricks’s Skinny. Yes, it’s hilarious to think of Hombo and Hills in a role designated Dumpy, but a good call for them not to be kitted out in fat suits. A voluminous puffball skirt does the trick. There are only two Stepmothers at this point too – Harris and Dana Stephenson – an indication of how exacting these parts are.)

The central pillar of Ratmansky’s dance-making is his love for the classical tradition, made individual and new. It’s a joy, too, to see how he knits in shapes and gestures that illuminate character or illustrate the music’s intention. The formality of mime is gone, softened into dance phrases that speak. References as disparate as traditional European folk dance (raised and bent arms; circling pattern), smart society dance (sexy hip-swivelling) and more formal classical shapes meld seamlessly in the gorgeous corps work in the Act II ball scene, the men and women looking good enough to eat in their slinky, lusciously coloured suits. The women later change into dresses similar to Cinderella’s elegant below-the-knee gown, reminiscent of Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947, but by then it’s too late for any of them to nab the Only Man Who Mattters.

The Prince’s first entrance is spectacular, a rousing flurry of high-flying jetes and quicksilver entrechats. The alpha male is commanding his rightful attention; of such things are character and story built. Best of all, though, is the meltingly beautiful series of solos for Cinderella and her pas de deux with the Prince. The swirls of Cinderella’s upper body are simultaneously delicate and luscious. Often there is a contrast between the sumptuous, yielding torso and strong, searching arms – all so very, very eloquent, entrancing and full of meaning. And what a dreamy moment when the ballroom melts away to reveal a garden in the moonlight. Ratmansky and Kaplan really know how to deliver romance. On opening night Daniel Gaudiello, resplendent in a white suite, and Leanne Stomenjov – I just loved her hair, so chic with its Marcel Wave – surrendered themselves with grace and impeccable style.

Ratmansky wanted to take another look at Cinderella because he felt his Mariinsky version didn’t entirely work. These things are relative of course. Obviously the Mariinsky is quite happy as it revives the production regularly. But Ratmansky wanted to try other things. Apart from pulling back on mime in favour of dance (hurrah!), a significant change is to the section in which the four seasons appear before Cinderella, representing the passage of time. Ratmansky felt there was too little happening for all the music at this point in the scenario and inserted instead a large set of celestial bodies – Sun, Moon, stars, all the planets. His canvas isn’t just the world; it’s the cosmos, overseeing Cinderella’s fate.

It’s a powerful idea, but not entirely successful. The scenario is not a little confusing as one tries to make sense of this whirling, leaping bunch of forces outfitted in Kaplan’s most extravagant costumes. Later, as the Prince goes on his travels, one can see why many choreographers take the easy route and cut substantially here. The “many lands” and “many temptations” of the synopsis are compressed into a couple of scenes that give the perverse impression of being too much and not enough. Graeme Murphy came up against the same knotty issue in his Nutcracker: The Story of Clara. Like Murphy before him, Ratmansky hasn’t resolved this section entirely satisfactorily.

The celestial bodies in Ratmansky's Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

The celestial bodies in Ratmansky’s Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Perhaps further viewings in Sydney will alter my feelings. The December diary is begging to be filled with more visits and other casts. Speaking of which, there’s the prospect of seeing American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal David Hallberg as a guest artist in Sydney, as the Prince naturally. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Melbourne, until September 28. Sydney, November 29-December 18. Adelaide next year.

Li Cunxin and Queensland Ballet, one year on

LI Cunxin arrived at Queensland Ballet as artistic director-designate on July 16, 2012. He took full control of the company’s reins this year and has made significant changes already with more in store. When I was in Brisbane to review QB’s Giselle, which closes this weekend, I took the opportunity to talk to Li about his goals and plans. At the June 21 opening performance, less than 24 hours before, Li had to tackle one of the most difficult issues any artistic director faces. His first cast Giselle, Meng Ningning, had injured her foot during the first act and at interval Li was told he urgently needed to go backstage. After an only slightly longer interval than advertised, Li made an announcement from the stage that Act II would be danced by Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin

Queensland Ballet artistic director Li Cunxin. Photo: Christian Aas

AS a director it’s your worst nightmare when they said at interval, Ningning is in tears, please come back. She says to me she can’t feel her foot. She doesn’t know if she can go on. I asked her to rate her pain out of 10. Eight or nine she says, tears pouring down her face. But she says she’ll go on if I want her to. I say, “No, no!”

I’m lucky as a director to have two alternative couples [Walsh and Lawrence; Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak, who was scheduled to make his Brisbane debut as Albrecht the next day]. Rachael was in the audience, and we had to stop her going into the intermission reception [Li laughs]. I did consider Alex and Clare because they were made up and warmed up [Idaszak had danced in the peasant pas de huit; Morehen played the role of Bathilde; Lawrence had appeared as the Duke of Courland], but I really felt that for Alex it was already an enormous ask for him to go on today [at the June 22 Saturday matinee]. Often you can destroy a young dancer’s confidence, destroy their careers by pushing them too far. In my heart, when I sat there and closed my eyes, [I asked], what is the right thing, what is the best experience you can give to the audience?

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

Alex is 20 [Li smiles like an indulgent father]. He has an innate noble quality. He’s a very natural partner and a very elegant dancer. Wonderful form. It’s always a big step for a director to give someone who is first year out of [the Australian Ballet School] and give them such an opportunity, but I was the beneficiary of such opportunities. When you have that kind of talent you have to give them opportunities when they arise. It wasn’t intended to be, because one of our top principals, Hao Bin, had a wrist surgery, he had a chipped bone. So I thought, well, you know, [for Idaszak] that’s the kind of opportunity you dream to have. The other thing is, it really sends a very clear message to all dancers that if you work hard, the opportunities will be there. It takes enormous faith and trust from a director to give opportunities like that, but I think it’s very important to do that.

My goals were, at the very beginning, I want to get the right team together. The team is key to realising the vision – the artistic team, the music, the production, the wardrobe, closely under my supervision. All these key people have to be right to allow me to reach the artistic goal. I think we’ve done very well to have the calibre of teachers and coaches to allow the dancers to reach their potential – to challenge them, to push them, to help them improve on a daily basis, and to have that innate understanding and knowledge [of classical ballet]. Classical ballets are the most difficult to do well. The most challenging. I really think we have that team.

Also we have to be able to – it’s not a one-year thing – we have to have a vibrant, talented and exciting group of dancers. I think we’re nearly there. I would never say we are there, because there’s continual improvement, continual fine-tuning.

There was a significant turnover in dancers after Li arrived.

IT was very much dependent on what I was going to find in the audition process. I wasn’t sure about what calibre of talent I was going to find. In particular there were ABS graduates of really good quality, good standard, so I felt it was an opportunity for QB. [This gave him a very junior company; about half the dancers are in their first professional job.]

Matthew Lawrence as Albrecht. Photo: David Kelly

Matthew Lawrence as Albrecht. Photo: David Kelly

It’s an enormous challenge. I felt there were two ways to go about adding experience. Obviously the knowledgeable and experienced artistic staff is one important element; the other was to balance it out with experienced dancers. So Matt Lawrence for us was a godsend addition [the former Australian Ballet principal dancer was subsequently a principal at Birmingham Royal Ballet, which he left to join QB]. Then we also have Huang [Junshuang] from the US [where he danced with Houston Ballet], He’s a phenomenal dancer. Absolutely phenomenal. His skill set is really way up there in the international standard. So we have him and Matt and also Hao Bin, three male dancers at the top, coupled with three female experienced dancers, Ningning, Rachel and Clare. So we’ve got three star couples to lead. The middle rank, the soloist rank, is what I want to be able to bring up.

Li recently promoted Lisa Edwards to soloist and she was first cast Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis in Giselle.

SHE is fabulous. I couldn’t have asked any more from that girl, in every area. Leadership, commitment, the care for her dancing, anything you ask her. Clare had a hip injury so I had to rest her for a couple of days and I wanted her partner, Alex, to keep working, so I asked Lisa to step in. She knew everything. She knew every step. She’s thriving. She’s the happiest. A happy dancer is a good dancer.

If Ningning doesn’t come back [Edwards] would be a very logical person to give the opportunity [to dance Giselle]. [This indeed happened; Edwards danced two performances with Huang. Morehen was also given a performance with Huang.]

I really think as a dancer you want to do different things. You can’t be just typecast as the prince. That’s not my company. My company has to be versatile. Huang was Albrecht last night and Hilarion today. I think it’s fabulous. As they mature they take these kinds of experiences with them and it makes them better artists at the end. Matt Lawrence did [the non-dancing role of] the Duke last night. He was fabulous as the Duke. He did Ugly Sister in Cinderella [QB’s first major production this year]. It’s wonderful to have that humility and that willingness to give it a go rather than, ‘’I’m a star’’. I don’t want that kind of company.

Li’s fund-raising skills have been in early evidence.

MY goal was to be able to have as many performances to live music as possible. When we announced the [2013] season we did not have the funding [for live music for Giselle]. I really struggled with myself. I thought, I cannot let the audience see this ballet with taped music. I cannot let my dancers dance this ballet with taped music. On tour, it’s a different story. It’s hard to take an orchestra [QB performed a pre-Brisbane regional Queensland tour]. But I felt it would take a lot of the magic away [from the main season] so I’m so pleased we found the generosity and the support for this. [Private money was raised so QB could engage St John’s Camerata to play for Giselle.]

I went to these two dear friends of ours from Melbourne, Bruce Parncutt and Robin Campbell, and they said, ‘’we will support you’’. They love the music, they love the ballet, but they really gave me a challenge: “You need to find Queensland-based support. You need to match what [we] give you. So  Philip Bacon, who is a very generous soul, he came forward and said, ‘’I see your vision’’.  He’s passionate about music. It’s a nice fit.

QB, it would appear, has attracted a lot of new money this year, although Li will not elaborate.

I WOULD like to keep that to ourselves for the time being. Let’s say it’s substantial. The government money is really static. But definitely our box office is hitting incredible strides. We’re adding 10 extra shows this year throughout the season, including the Dance Dialogues. But we are definitely on target to sell out all the main seasons. Even with the 10 extra shows. That’s absolutely unprecedented. It’s thrilling. It’s thrilling for our dancers to perform to full houses, to sold-out houses, and for the audiences when they place that kind of faith and enthusiasm in you. But you have to give them quality. [The Giselle season was extended from nine to 12 performances and is sold out.]

A goal was to focus on quality sets and costumes. I really felt particularly for story ballets, and even for contemporary ballets, you’ve got to do it with taste and quality. So again we found these really generous donors to allow us to have a brand new Cinderella, Gerry and Valerie Ryan from Melbourne. Their reason was simple. They said, we didn’t make our money just in Victoria. We made our money nationwide. So this is something we’d like to give to Queensland. They wanted to help me with my vision too.

Another goal was on the business side, the admin side. From marketing to PR to development to education to finance. Every aspect of the company would really have to work together to share the same vision, to strive towards the same goal. Everybody has really risen to the challenge. It’s a paradigm shift in people’s minds. I saw people in development, reception, greeting [guests] on opening night with generosity. I was proud, not only did the dancers shine on stage but the whole organisation took pride in what they did.

Dancer numbers are, not surprisingly for a company of this size and ambition, a concern.

I WOULD like to have more. We have 27 now. We will have 28 by August, so we have one more dancer coming. I can’t talk about it now. Somebody who’s fantastic. We have about 20 pre-professional dancers. This year they are really fantastic. They are a good foundation to build upon. My aspiration from day one, I thought 35 dancers is our goal. That’s the ideal number for us. It will probably take us a few years to get there, but 35, plus around 20 pre-professionals, that gives us 55. Then we can do any size ballets.

At the moment 27 – we do need a few more. We don’t have much room for error. Injuries always happen with this many performances. We work our dancers really hard. [For this reason, at this stage QB does not announce casting ahead of performances. Its small numbers and the casting of dancers in multiple roles can mean, and allow, significant re-arrangements at short notice.]

A way to increase numbers is with guest artists. For the Giselle season the Australian Ballet principal artist Daniel Gaudiello was invited to dance two performances with Rachael Walsh.

I’M really gung-ho about artist exchanges. I think it’s very important. Daniel really wants to work with us. It’s a natural fit. He’s a graduate of QDSE [Queensland Dance School of Excellence] and the pre-professional program. He’s a Queenslander. This is a wonderful connection for him to still have. We can give him … [Li pauses]. He hasn’t danced Albrecht before. He’s very excited.

I’m very picky about who I have dancing with the company, so not just anybody can come in. I’m open about collaboration, but it has to be the right fit. We have three beautiful principal couples, so I want to give our dancers the opportunity first. But Daniel is quite unique in his relationship with Queensland Ballet. I think he and Rachael will be just magic. There’s already wonderful chemistry.

Next year Tamara Rojo, artistic director and prima ballerina of English National Ballet, and the Royal Ballet’s Carlos Acosta, will be guest artists when QB stages Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet – but they will not dancing together.

YOU cannot sentence a smaller company to always do smaller ballets. It’s not fair. We’re going to do this in a very innovative way. I convinced Lady Deborah MacMillan that we are going to do a very high quality production. To have stars like Tamara and Carlos to appear with our own principal dancers, for them to agree to it, was very generous. But they see my vision. It [would be] easy for me to say, you two dance together, you know each other … My idea was always, I want them to dance with our stars. Because that experience will be with our dancers forever. That knowledge is going to carry them for the rest of their lives. To watch Tamara and Carlos dancing [together], it’s not the same.

There are also negotiations with ENB on other collaborations. Can he talk about the exact nature of the relationship?

I CAN’T! But I would like to say I’m so excited. Tamara and I have really built a wonderful rapport and relationship. We share a similar vision and we see it as so important for companies to collaborate. Artist exchanges, coach exchanges, production collaborations. Those are the areas. The reason I can’t tell you is that we still have ongoing discussions. We definitely have a partnership, but on what scale, exactly what will happen, to what extent, we are still in discussions. I would like to stress, ENB will not be the only one. We will be collaborating with other international companies as well. I would like to think we will have a few really closely aligned international partners in the future. It’s exciting. I truly believe in collaboration, in partnership. It will be of enormous mutual benefit.

Could I add another goal? Both [QB chief executive] Anna Marsden and I said on day one we really want to make QB’s image very appealing. I want the company to feel there is a whole refreshed approach, with sex appeal on stage and offstage. I want to be fashionable. I want to say we do quality, but interesting works. That aspiration has permeated to every aspect of the organisation, not just on stage. We are definitely hitting that goal too.

Li Cunxin with senior Queensland Ballet dancers. Photo: Alexia Sinclair

Li Cunxin with senior Queensland Ballet dancers. Photo: Alexia Sinclair

I’m very happy. I am truly proud of how our dancers have performed. To be totally honest, the company is very young. For us to do these full-length story-telling productions – it takes the Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi and ABT [American Ballet Theatre] with 90 to 250 dancers to do these ballets, so for us it’s very ambitious.  Our company has done them very well. There’s always a way to improve. There’s always more experience needed, [but] so there is at ABT, so there is at the Bolshoi. They will never say, that is perfect.

I’ve only taken over total charge since January. Before then I was doing a lot of planning and preparation work and assembling a new team. So it’s really only six months.

Does he ever think he has ambitions for the company that are too great?

Never. No, never.

Ty King-Wall

The Australian Ballet has a new principal artist

WHEN David McAllister walks onstage at the end of an Australian Ballet performance it usually means just one thing, and so it was the afternoon of April 6  in Sydney. McAllister named Ty King-Wall, 26, the AB’s newest principal artist after his performance as Basilio in Don Quixote.

King-Wall said the next day he had no warning, thinking his parents had come from his native New Zealand simply to see him dance. Afterwards they thought they should be receiving all the congratulations, not him, King-Wall joked. “And that’s right.”

Ty King-Wall, new principal artist of The Australian Ballet. Photo: James Braund

Ty King-Wall, new principal artist of The Australian Ballet. Photo: James Braund

With King-Wall it wasn’t a matter of if he would be promoted, but when. He has been dancing principal roles for years, taking the role of the Prince in Stanton Welch’s Sleeping Beauty as early as 2009, just three years after he joined the Australian Ballet. In 2010 he was the Prince in the Peter Wright version of The Nutcracker, Franz in Coppelia and Octavian in Graeme Murphy’s The Silver Rose.

McAllister needed to find the right moment to make the announcement, and more or less had it thrust upon him. He likes a dancer’s family to be in the auditorium if possible when he promotes a dancer so phoned King-Wall’s parents in New Zealand to suggest they might like to think about planning a trip to Sydney. He was told his call was timely: they were just about to get on a plane. So that sorted the date – April 6, at the matinee.

King-Wall’s father had not seen his son dance since his Australian Ballet School graduation performance – coincidentally of the third act of Don Quixote.

Fortunately for McAllister, King-Wall gave a principal-worthy performance on the 6th. He claims to have been “feeling a little bit down after the first act – there were a couple of things I wasn’t really happy with. I had to tell myself to pull it together and I really enjoyed the third act.” From the auditorium things looked just fine. King-Wall has lovely proportions and elegant bearing. He had easy elevation, the cleanest of pirouettes, the occasional special effect thrown in without triumphalism, his double tours were landed in firm, tight fifth positions and he confidently negotiated the tricky one-armed lifts in Act I. While King-Wall isn’t naturally an ebullient character, his Basilio was charming, sweet and amusing.

He was well matched with principal Leanne Stojmenov, a lively and funny Kitri with lovely touches of sensuality.

There had been buzz about King-Wall within the company during the Melbourne season of Don Quixote and in Brisbane when the AB performed Swan Lake (the Stephen Baynes version). On April 6 one enterprising dancer asked McAllister if he was going to promote King-Wall that day, basing his question on the fact McAllister was wearing a suit. McAllister was thus attired because he was taking part in a talk later, but when a story is on the move anything will be examined for signs.

In any event, it was that day. King-Wall had no warning but wasn’t especially surprised. He has been “working towards this for a long time”.

His parents weren’t initially followers of the ballet. King-Wall began taking classes when he was seven because a friend had started and “was a bit apprehensive and wanted a guy to keep him company. I said sure, I’ll give it a go.” The friend quickly fell by the wayside but King-Wall was hooked. At 16 he was accepted by the Australian Ballet School and joined the AB in 2006. McAllister describes him as “a born prince”.

“It felt the right time for him to take on that mantle,” says McAllister. “He’s really proved his worth.” Even though King-Wall is the youngest of the AB’s 12 principal artists (soon to be back to 11 when Yosvani Ramos leaves at the end of the Don Quixote Sydney season), he could have been elevated even sooner had he not had a significant back injury. “He did have a setback,” says McAllister, “but in a funny way the injury made me more sure that he was right for promotion. He was so professional and committed, and had the tenacity to make sure he rehabbed and rehabbed properly.

“Once he got back, I thought yep, he’s going to be fine. The way he approached it I knew that it was going to be all right.”

King-Wall says the company’s support during his period of injury has made him “relieved and grateful” that he now has reached the top rank. The promotion puts him at the same rank as his off-stage partner, AB principal Amber Scott. “I have a deep respect for the rank and what it means,” he says. “I understand the responsibilities and expectations.”

He’s happy, too, to be as busy as possible. “It’s a short career and you want to make absolutely the most of it.” The AB will be getting its money’s worth in the upcoming Vanguard triple bill, as King-Wall is cast in each work – Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura and Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, created on the company in 2009. He has danced only in Dyad 1929 and is looking forward to exploring the other two works.

Ty King-Wall is scheduled to appear in Don Quixote at the Sydney Opera House on April 12, 17 and 22. Vanguard opens at the Sydney Opera House on April 30 and in Melbourne on June 6.

 

Don Quixote, The Australian Ballet

Melbourne, March 16. With guest stars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev

IF you were looking for a well-balanced Don Quixote, the Australian Ballet’s opening night in Melbourne on March 15 was probably the go, as Eamonn Kelly’s excellent review in The Australian on March 18 indicated. The following night was when star-power ruled, with Russian guests Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev getting people to their feet even before the end of the show.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote with The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote with The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Although their styles differ greatly, Osipova and Vasiliev have made Don Q their signature piece together and are ridiculously entertaining in it. Perhaps the AB was lucky to get their hands on the pair right now – albeit for only two performances – as there’s a suggestion Don Q may start disappearing from the Osipova/Vasiliev repertoire. An interview with Vasiliev published in London’s The Sunday Times on March 17 said the pair “now decline companies who only want them to bounce through this slice of colourful virtuosity”. Apart from the AB dates Osipova and Vasiliev are down to dance Don Q at the end of this month when one of their home companies, the St Petersburg-based Mikhailovsky, goes to London. (They are also principal artists with American Ballet Theatre.)

They will dance Giselle together in London in a few weeks’ time on the Mikhailovsky tour and Vasiliev is quoted in The Sunday Times as saying Albrecht is a role “I could perform all my life”. Albrecht would certainly give Vasiliev a chance to show more than the one mood he brought to Basilio in Melbourne, which was essentially manic from the get-go. Osipova on the other hand has a full armoury and brought most of it out. She is light and incredibly quick with razor-sharp footwork, a huge jump and fearless attack but can also be intensely lyrical. It was noticeable in the lively first act how whisper quiet Osipova was, even when landing from the most daring leaps or performing intricate allegro work. Her shining-eyed Kitri was in striking contrast to the silken Dulcinea of the Act II vision scene. In the Act III grand pas de deux Osipova fluffed one of her pirouettes in second but otherwise delivered all the expected fireworks with bells on.

Vasiliev is elastic and bouncy with elevation that defies gravity and speed that defies time. That he is short and stocky helps here. Vasiliev gets lift-off from powerful glutes and thighs that give him a decidedly non-streamlined look but oodles of acceleration. In his first Melbourne performance Vasiliev threw off apparently impossible flying turns and added loads of extra details to already jam-packed choreography. Not everything came off and Vasiliev could have pulled back a notch or two but the sense of danger was energising. Frequently the stage could scarcely contain his range of movement – nor was there always perfect agreement between him and Orchestra Victoria under the baton of AB music director Nicolette Fraillon. There was a fair bit of colouring outside the lines.

Vasiliev didn’t quite nail his most audacious trick, that of rising to demi-pointe in arabesque while holding Osipova aloft in a one-armed lift, but it was huge fun to see for a second. His series of pirouettes finished with a perfect arabesque in attitude, however, was a thing of great beauty.

The AB audience pretty much had only had eyes and cheers for Osipova and Vasiliev; despite some lovely moments from members of the AB their light was dimmed by the glare thrown out by the supernovas. Unquestionably the performance wasn’t the best Don Q possible. The level of energy thrown out by the visitors was of quite a different extent and nature from that of the AB dancers, whose outlines looked softer as a result (this was particularly true of the men).

In an interview in the March edition of Dance Europe magazine Osipova talked about being a guest artist and said: “Our presentation of one ballet, for example, Don Quixote, will vary depending on where we are performing it. I correlate the temperament and the role with the place we’re performing and their specific traditions. Because if you come in and just do it as you want, without any adaptation, that doesn’t create any good impressions …”

This reflection is undoubtedly why Osipova blended well in a dramatic sense with the AB dancers. It was far less the case with Vasiliev, who overplayed the comedy. Steven Heathcote’s Don Quixote – how good to see him on stage again – and Matthew Donnelly’s Gamache had a much better sense of where to pitch their characters. Both were surprisingly touching.

But if there was some disconnect in a purely dance sense between the guests and the AB, the audience certainly didn’t seem to mind and it is certain the AB dancers would have found it challenging and illuminating to see Osipova and Vasiliev at work.