The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, November 30.

The Australian Ballet doesn’t have an annual tradition of presenting The Nutcracker, although on present indications it could. The ballet doesn’t have as tight a grip on the public (or companies’ bottom lines) as it does in the United States but this year’s Nutcracker was pretty much sold out before it opened while other popular entertainments in Sydney are struggling.

TAB has two versions of Nutcracker in its repertoire. Graeme Murphy’s 1992 Nutcracker – The Story of Clara is a wonderful memory piece set during a hot Melbourne Christmas. For a more conventional take, TAB turned to Peter Wright’s 1990 Birmingham Royal Ballet version, giving the Australian premiere in 2007. Audiences loved it from the start, and it’s the Wright production currently packing out the Sydney Opera House.

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Benedicte Bemet as Clara in The Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

John F. McFarlane’s designs are delectable and are a huge part of the production’s enduring success. There’s inevitably a round of applause when a giant flying goose carries Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets and all the costumes, from Clara’s floaty white party frock to her mother’s spectacular red gown and the intense pinks and purples of the Flowers’ gorgeous tutus, greatly please the eye.

Wright plays a straight bat with the story. It’s Christmas Eve, the Stahlbaums give a party at which the magician Drosselmeyer entertains the guests with mechanical dancing dolls and a couple of tricks. Clara is given the gift of a Nutcracker doll, she falls asleep at midnight and the magic begins.

At 15 – the age is specified – Wright’s Clara is a little older than some. She’s by no means fully mature but has spark and a lively mind, brought to vivid life by newly minted principal artist Benedicte Bemet on opening night. A pivotal moment comes when the Nutcracker is transformed into the Prince at the end of the skirmish between giant rats and toy soldiers. He greets Clara with great courtesy; she views him with the wonder of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. One could say the Prince does very little here, except that he is opening the door to a world of life-changing growth and imagination. Senior artist Jarryd Madden was the epitome of grace and chivalry. He was less imposing in his grand pas with Amber Scott’s Sugar Plum Fairy, both dancing more correctly than radiantly. But ah, that earlier moment …

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Jarryd Madden in The Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

Other delights came with soloist Sharni Spencer’s all-conquering Snow Fairy and the appearance of TAB founding member Colin Peasley. He retired, sort of, when the company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012. Now 85, he played Clara’s Grandfather and looks to be on his way towards matching the late Frederic Franklin’s feat of taking small parts into his 90s.

One has to be happy that the Chinese Dance has been somewhat modified to remove the hideous finger-pointing and head-waggling that made it so distasteful but it really needs a complete overhaul. While it’s no longer insupportable, it is dull. Very, very dull. The slinky Arabian Dance, which presumably is supposed to conjure the sensual perfume of the mysterious Middle East or some such thing, could also do with a rethink.

There will be no Nutcracker next year, which is artistic director David McAllister’s last (an announcement on his successor is expected by April). Interestingly, he ends his reign with something of a gamble, a new production of The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. It opens in Brisbane in early 2020, will be seen in Melbourne in August and September and closes out the year, and McAllister’s tenure, in Sydney in November and December.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Choreographer Graeme Murphy was scheduled to deliver The Happy Prince this year but illness prevented him from completing the work and a quick shuffle ensued. Perhaps it was the universe speaking. A new Murphy ballet to end McAllister’s two decades at the helm of TAB completes a circle: the first ballet McAllister commissioned was Murphy’s Swan Lake, a huge success that was performed nationally and internationally almost every year for more than a decade.

The Nutcracker ends in Sydney on December 18.

Sylvia, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, November 8

The dash for bathrooms and bars was substantially less frantic than usual after the close of Act I of Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Heads everywhere bowed over their synopsis sheets. What in the name of all the gods in Ancient Greece was going on? How does one show via ballet that Artemis and Apollo – twin gods – “slay Queen Niobe’s army in revenge for a slight to their mother, Leto”? Or why Artemis turns Callisto into a bear? These gods and goddesses really do take a grudge to extremes and their actions are not always easily explained.

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The Australian Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Photo: Jeff Busby

Never mind. Once the head-spinning early part of the first act is out of the way Sylvia is an enjoyable romp. Even better, it gives Australian Ballet audiences their first chance to hear the enchanting Delibes score in full, sounding luscious in Sydney in the hands of Nicolette Fraillon and the Opera Australia Orchestra. (Read more about Delibes, the music and the history of Sylvia in my article for Limelight magazine in August.)

There was also a great deal of pleasure in the sparkling performances given on Sydney’s opening night of this co-pro with Houston Ballet. As a kind of corrective to the male-dominated Spartacus seen last year, Sylvia has plenty of strong roles for the women of the company. As in the original libretto, the nymph Sylvia, a huntress in Artemis’s army, falls in love with a lowly shepherd. Welch ups the ante by adding a second match-up between gods and mortals when Eros is smitten with Psyche and plucks Artemis from the periphery to give the ballet a third heroine.

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Benedicte Bemet as Psyche in Sylvia. Photo: Daniel Boud

Complications ensue, obviously, or there would be no story, but ultimately everything turns out well. On the way to that happy ending Welch floods the stage with Artemis’s band of women warriors; Eros’s retinue of cheeky, hyper-active fauns; various gods and goddesses, by turns stately and vengeful; and on a less elevated level, Psyche’s mum, dad and sisters.

Being from the realm of the gods, Sylvia stays youthful while her husband, known only as The Shepherd, suffers the fate of all mortals and ages, a situation that gives rise to one of the ballet’s most delightful passages. The Shepherd (Kevin Jackson on opening night) is given an older substitute (TAB artistic director David McAllister enjoying himself greatly) as successive generations of offspring are seen growing up. The Shepherd is then magically de-aged by Eros, whose lovely Psyche has also been given demi-god status and thus will not die. (Too much detail?)

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Ako Kondo as Sylvia and Kevin Jackson as The Shepherd. Photo: Jeff Busby

There are rich pickings for the dancers, and not only for principal artists Ako Kondo (Sylvia on opening night) and Robyn Hendricks (Artemis) and senior artist Benedicte Bemet (Psyche). Smaller roles were taken with much brio by Dimity Azoury, Dana Stephensen, Jade Wood, Imogen Chapman and Natasha Kusen, among others.

Jackson was a sweet presence and sterling partner to Kondo in Welch’s dramatic pas de deux and Marcus Morelli made a splash as Eros, spinning, jumping and flying his way through the action. His swift rise through the ranks (he joined the company in 2013) has been well earned.

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Benedicte Bemet as Psyche and Marcus Morelli as Eros. Photo: Daniel Boud

Kondo’s warmth and strength made Sylvia as multi-faceted a character as possible within the rom-com scenario and Bemet’s Psyche was adorably funny. Hendricks was meltingly beautiful as Artemis, a goddess indeed. How many other conventional ballets can one think of where there are three such diverse and rewarding leading roles for women?

We must hope Jérôme Kaplan’s set designs looked better in Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre, where Sylvia had its Australian premiere in September, than they did in the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. In the first act they looked too dark and solid, although later the stage picture was enlivened by Wendell K. Harrington’s projections, which enabled instantaneous scene changes. Kaplan’s costumes were, happily, just delectable.

Sylvia ends in Sydney on November 23.

Benedicte Bemet’s Giselle

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, May 8

For many ballet-lovers the second act of Giselle is what brings them back repeatedly and Maina Gielgud’s much-revived production for The Australian Ballet doesn’t let them down. She created it in 1986, which means that more than a few generations of TAB dancers have been schooled in its mysteries. Gielgud’s dedication to and understanding of the soft, ethereal Romantic style is complete and the Sydney season now coming to an end shows that even though Gielgud wasn’t able to oversee these performances – Giselle was a late addition to the program – the women currently in the company (and therefore the audience) have been well served by the ballet staff.

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Benedicte Bemet as Giselle for The Australian Ballet. Photo: Kate Longley

It’s the first act, though, where a dancer creates the role, not so much through her dancing but her acting: the arranging of her skirt on the bench so Albrecht initially has no room to sit; the “he loves me, he loves me not” plucking of petals; how she tells Hilarion she does not, in fact, return his affection; the way in which her weak heart makes her falter; her reaction to the nobles, and in particular Bathilde, who interrupt the villagers’ harvest celebrations; her reception of Bathilde’s gift of a pendant; the losing of her reason; and much more.

All these moments between the dancing coalesce, or should do, into a whole and believable character, every idea of a piece with the next. (That doesn’t mean Giselle can’t do contradictory things but if she does, they must be understood as part of that young woman’s make-up rather than notions the dancer rather fancies and didn’t want to leave out.)

Principal artist Kondo was TAB’s glorious opening night Giselle in Sydney, reviewed here. A week later I returned to see senior artist Benedicte Bemet in the role.

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Benedicte Bemet in Act I of Giselle. Photo: Kate Longley

Bemet’s Giselle was in some ways quite conventional. It is far from unusual to see the village girl played as very, very young, sweet, pure and innocent. Bemet’s gift is in the detail and her ability to be entirely in the moment. Not to see her thinking, but to see her being. I know this production well and yet in Bemet’s performance the arrival of the Peasant pas couple came as a surprise, as if Giselle had just that instant thought of asking them to dance. This immediacy was evident in her triumphant first Aurora too.

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Bemet with Cristiano Martino as Albrecht. Photo: Kate Longley

Bemet’s Albrecht was fellow senior artist Cristiano Martino (both were promoted recently), who proved an excellent match. He was an openhearted man clearly intoxicated with Giselle and too young to think about the consequences. The relationship was utterly clear and yes, simple, but not simplistic.

It felt absolutely right. As did, to give one example, a partnering choice in the second act that replaced a difficult lift with one less treacherous. Giselle didn’t float above Albrecht’s head as if about to fly into the aether, a heart-stopping move when achieved flawlessly (bravi Kondo and her Albrecht Chengwu Guo) but disconcerting when not. Here, Martino held Bemet’s waist, raised her vertically, and she softly curved her upper body over his. I have no way of knowing whether this was an artistic decision or a practical one but it felt intimate and loving. Just right for this Giselle and this Albrecht.

Murphy: The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 6 (evening) and 11 (matinee).

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to give Graeme Murphy a conventional gala to celebrate his 50 years of association with The Australian Ballet, the company he joined as a member of the corps de ballet in 1968. The idea for the tribute came to TAB artistic director David McAllister when he decided to revive the choreographer’s Firebird (2009). The straightforward way to go would have been to precede Firebird with a selection of excerpts from Murphy’s greatest TAB hits’n’memories: Swan Lake, Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, Beyond Twelve, Romeo and Juliet, The Narrative of Nothing for a piece of abstraction and a humorous bit from Tivoli for a change of pace and there’s your first half.

That’s not what happened. Despite the many virtues and gala possibilities of those works, a by-the-book program would have been obvious and utterly safe. In other words, not remotely indicative of Murphy’s expansive, adventurous spirit. The counter-intuitive decision was made for Murphy’s first half to comprise dances not made for TAB, only one of which, The Silver Rose, has been previously danced by the company (it was created for Bayerisches Staatsballet in 2005). The rest of the pieces are from Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company days, where he reigned for more than 30 years and created a vast body of work – much more interesting and challenging for the dancers, undoubtedly, and good for rusted-on TAB audience members to see something from outside the square.

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Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

There is more coherence in the program than might be evident at first glance. First and most clearly there is the connective tissue built by Murphy’s choreographic style, with the audience able to see his intricate lifts, unusual partnering, witty details, human touches and erotic impulses thread their way through quite different pieces.

The need to move quickly from section to section meant some of Murphy’s most enticing larger productions featuring live music couldn’t be considered but, in the inclusion of Shéhérazade (1979), with its onstage mezzo-soprano soloist singing Ravel’s lush song cycle, and with pianist Scott Davie reprising his central onstage role in sections from Grand, there is a flavour of Murphy’s love for the integration of musicians and dancers. The excerpts from Air and Other Invisible Forces and Ellipse are a reminder of Murphy’s extensive collaborations with Australian composers (here Michael Askill and Matthew Hindson respectively).

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Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. Photo: Daniel Boud

The first act closer, a handful of sections from Grand, is not only vastly enjoyable but indispensable. Murphy made Grand (2005) in celebration of “the one pianist I adore above all others”, his mother Betty, whose music helped shape his artistic development.

The choice of excerpts from The Silver Rose (based on Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier) to open Murphy is of more value thematically than artistically. The ballet isn’t one of the choreographer’s best and I would be surprised to see TAB program it again, but Murphy’s choice of a work whose theme is ageing, time’s inexorable march forward and the loss of youthful potency was perhaps a wry comment on an occasion celebrating a half-century.

In a short film preceding the first half Murphy speaks of movingly of art’s capacity to transform and of his desire to allow dancers to become the artists they aspire to be. In an interview with me before Murphy opened in Melbourne, he consistently returned to the dancers and what would suit or stimulate them. At the Sydney opening night it was wonderful to see principal artist Lana Jones in ferocious form as the Firebird, a role made on her, and also her perfumed elegance in Shéhérazade, performed in its entirety. Senior artist Brett Chynoweth was Most Valuable Player on opening night, dancing Kostchei in Firebird and seen in three pieces in the first half, including whooping it up with Jade Wood, Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli in the zany cowboy-flavoured quartet from Ellipse and, with Morelli, doing a sharp, suave Alligator Crawl in Grand (to Fats Waller).

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Brett Chynoweth as Kostchei in Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

By and large the key roles on opening night went to dancers of soloist rank or above. An exception was the coryphée (but probably not for long) Callum Linnane, who calmly partnered principal Amber Scott in The Silver Rose. At the Wednesday matinee I attended he also partnered principal Leanne Stojmenov in Shéhérazade with distinction. At that performance the mezzo was Jacqueline Dark, who gave a marvellously seductive account of Ravel’s songs.

The Wednesday matinee was where one could more clearly see the cut of the company’s rising young talent. Some fell a fair way short of the brio and individuality SDC dancers brought to those roles but their delight in this very different way of moving was touching. The male corps member to watch is Shaun Andrews, a lithe young man of serious mien who stood out on opening night in a quartet from Grand (to Gershwin) and danced a sinuous Kostchei at the matinee. An airborne cartwheel looked magically weightless.

Also at the matinee, Jade Wood’s fluttering, frightened Firebird was fruitfully paired with Jarryd Madden’s alert, sensitive Ivan and principal artist Andrew Killian memorably partnered corps de ballet member Yuumi Yamada – gorgeous feet! – in a key pas de deux from Grand. There was a touchingly elegiac mood as Killian is in the latter stages of his career. He has always been a potent presence in contemporary work and this was a timely reminder of his gifts in such repertoire. And what a joy to see soloist Benedicte Bemet back on stage after a long absence, quietly steaming up the stage with Madden in a close-contact duo from Air and Other Invisible Forces.

Ends April 23.

Coppélia, The Australian Ballet

Benedicte Bemet (Swanilda) and Brett Chynoweth (Franz), Sydney Opera House, December 3 (matinee).

There are no dancers in The Australian Ballet today that interest me more than Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth, she a soloist and he a senior artist. No matter where they are on stage or in what role, it’s as if there’s a special spotlight picking them out. They shine just that little bit more brightly than those around them. You can’t fail to notice them, even in the more anonymous roles that fall to anyone not yet a principal artist.

Rankings are, to a degree, a matter of personal taste. There are many fine dancers who never make it to principal artist and whose fans will never be able to understand why. But Bemet and Chynoweth – well, I would be astounded if the AB’s highest level were denied them for much longer.

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Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth in Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley.

Last year both were promoted to their current rank after performances in artistic director David McAllister’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty. “The possibilities for Bemet would appear to be boundless,” I wrote at the time. “Her Aurora rates as the most exciting debut I’ve seen in more than 40 years of ballet-watching. At just 21 she brought the authentic glow of youth and promise to the stage. She was so entirely at one with the role that all the technical requirements and difficulties simply disappeared. Every step was part of her journey from innocent to prospective bride to woman on the brink of maturity.

“Usually one has a sympathetic butterfly or two as the dancer approaches the climactic balances and promenades of the Rose Adagio but not here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were astonishing – the audience went wild – and they were part of a story. There was purity, radiance and joy in Bemet’s dancing. She was enchanting; a promotion to soloist swiftly came her way.”

To be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if McAllister had bounded on to the stage to promote Bemet to principal on the spot. It would have been unorthodox, but the situation was far from usual.

When Chynoweth danced the Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in 2014 he gave notice that he was more than just a brilliant dancer in contemporary pieces; more than the speedy, not-so-tall guy who is seen as a natural Mercutio but perhaps not Romeo. Last year it was heartening to see him again given the chance to play the Prince, this time in Beauty. Chynoweth “radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing,” was how I wrote about it.

This year the two have been partnered in Coppélia, making role debuts as Swanilda and Franz at the first Saturday matinee of the Sydney season. They have two more performances in what is a crowded field taking on the principal roles – there are six leading pairs in all, including that of AB principal artist Amber Scott with American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist David Hallberg, who is making a return to the ballet stage from a long absence due to injury. Franz will be a role debut for him.

Coppélia is an almost weightless romance that holds hands briefly with darkness but firmly banishes it. Swanilda and Franz are betrothed, he falls for a time under the power of the strange doll-maker Dr Coppelius but is saved by Swanilda, who forgives his lapse of judgment. All rejoice as the young lovers marry, bringing harmony and all that is good to their little community.

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Chynoweth and Bemet in Act III of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

It was delightful to see Bemet articulate Swanilda’s razor-sharp pointe work and beaten steps with such artlessness, sweetness, buoyancy and freedom. Where some Swanildas offer calculated flirtatiousness (and sometimes regrettably twee village-girl mannerisms), Bemet bubbles with natural gaiety. In Act II, when Swanilda pretends to be Dr Coppelius’s doll come to life, her resourcefulness comes to the fore and the brief Spanish and Scottish dances are done with a more knowing edge.

Swanilda drives all the action in Coppélia. It’s Franz’s job to be a bit silly, incredibly charming and – now the role is danced by a man rather than a woman en travesti, as was traditional – to dance his socks off and partner gallantly. (There was a spot of bother at one point in the complex partnering at Chynoweth’s first performance but recovery was swift.) Chynoweth needs to find more of Franz’s laddish sense of fun but there are few in the company to match his finesse and elegance. The outlines are defined with diamond-edged precision; the movement quality is bountifully plush. It’s a gorgeous combination.

Bemet and Chynoweth appear in Coppélia on December 6 and 15.

Swan Lake: Sydney summing up

The Australian Ballet, Sydney, March 31, April 2, April 5, April 16.

The Australian Ballet will undoubtedly stick with Stephen Baynes’s 2012 production of Swan Lake – now being revived for the first time – for many a year to come. It has sold out 21 performances at the Sydney Opera House and a check of the Arts Centre Melbourne website shows exceptionally strong demand for the 14 performances the AB has scheduled in June at the State Theatre (it is significantly bigger than Sydney’s Joan Sutherland Theatre). Before Melbourne there is Adelaide, where there are six performances in late May. It looks as if that’s where it will be easiest to nab a seat if you so desire.

Audiences, then, are happy with this traditional alternative to the perennially popular Graeme Murphy 2002 version, which will be revived for the umpteenth time in July for performances in London.

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The Australian Ballet in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake.

The ballet is, nevertheless, frustrating, although not without its virtues. Chief among them is a fourth act that transforms the predominantly straight-line, front-to-back patterns for the second act swans – Baynes reproduces the traditional Act II choreography – into a flurry of circles and angles as Odette’s sisters in captivity try to protect her after Siegfried’s betrayal. On first acquaintance, in 2012 that is, I thought they looked too busy. In these performances (I saw three and a dress rehearsal) the intent and emotion were abundantly clear.

This forceful display of solidarity in the face of tragedy stays with one powerfully, although it is soon undercut by a weak ending. Obscured by the mass of swans, Odette dashes offstage and is seen no more. Siegfried then also runs into the wings – to where? There is no visceral connection between his departure and the sight in the final moments of his body being hauled out of the lake at the back of the stage by the sorcerer Rothbart. You come to understand that Siegfried has drowned himself in guilt and remorse but are denied the drama of it. We also must assume the hazy projection of something flying palely up on high is Odette, although you need recourse to the program notes to tell you that although she is still a swan, Rothbart no longer has power over her. Puzzlingly, the synopsis refers to the projection as the released “soul of Odette”, which makes sense given the formless nature of the image but also makes it sound as if she is dead.

There are other aspects of the storytelling that aren’t sufficiently developed to give the kind of texture Baynes clearly wanted. The late 19th century setting (Hugh Colman designed sets and costumes) is Romantic in spirit, with the Prince a deeply melancholy man who shrinks from the burden of power. There is a suggestion at the beginning of the ballet that Baron von Rothbart has sway not only over the women-swans he has captured but also over the life of the royal family, a situation somewhat undercut by his giggle-inducing pretend violin-playing turn at the Act III ball. (I could be wrong, but Rothbart’s red wig seems to have been toned down significantly to advantage.)

And questions arise from the frame Baynes has devised. Did Siegfried’s father have his own lake encounter? What will Rothbart do now the last male in the royal family has done himself in? Are these questions too literal? All I know is that if I start thinking about why an idea is planted I am not fully engaged in the storytelling. Too often it seems Baynes is saying “just trust me, this is meaningful; if you read the program you’ll understand” rather than developing the idea fully onstage.

I wasn’t able to see Amber Scott on opening night in Sydney but at the dress rehearsal she showed the qualities that were so praised by her first-night admirers: exquisitely delicate and vulnerable as Odette; a strong, glamorous Odile. Her Siegfried, Adam Bull, and she looked more connected with the drama – less ghostly – than when I saw them in 2012.

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Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Swan Lake. Photo: Kate Longley

Each of the other three Odette-Odiles I saw during this season brought interestingly different qualities to their roles. I reviewed principal artist Ako Kondo’s debut performance at the matinee on April 2 here. I saw principal Lana Jones on April 5 with Ty King-Wall as her attentive but over-shadowed Siegfried, and I had been expecting to see senior artist Natasha Kusch at the April 16 matinee but she was indisposed. Long-serving senior artist Miwako Kubota took her place, partnered by Andrew Killian as she had been in earlier performances. Killian was also Kusch’s partner, having stepped in to replace Daniel Gaudiello after his surprise departure at the end of Melbourne’s Vitesse season.

Jones was very much the swan queen, a magnificently regal figure who dominated her realm despite being a captive. She may have been at this lake, in this form, for aeons. When Prince Siegfried and she came face to face Jones’s reaction suggested a challenge – who are you to come into my world? – before she realised he may be her salvation. At times she moved breathtakingly slowly without losing touch with the music in a sleight of hand that suggested water as her natural element (the ravishingly fast quivers of her foot as it beats against her ankle at the end of the Act II pas de deux brought to mind not only a bird’s fluttering but swift-flowing currents beneath the lake’s surface). As Odile, Jones was mesmerising, the sorcerer if you will, making light work of entrancing Siegfried.

Kubota’s passionate, desperate Act IV was thrilling and she was a fascinating Odile, some trouble with the fouetté turns notwithstanding. Far from being the cold, glittering creature in many readings, Kubota was abundantly sensual and inviting. At this performance Simon Thew’s conducting of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra felt too slow for Kubota in her Act II solo; there was an audible winding down that wasn’t helpful musically or for Kubota’s performance. (Andrew Mogrelia conducted the other three performances I saw with tempi that were responsive to the dancers without distorting the score.)

In secondary roles soloists Benedicte Bemet and Dimity Azoury and coryphée Jill Ogai did their best with the bitchy Duchess, a woman whose motives aren’t always clear. Perhaps she’s trying out for the role of Royal Mistress because the action makes it obvious she’s not in contention as bride. The three are very much on the must-watch list. Senior artist Robyn Hendricks and coryphée Valerie Tereshchenko were enticing Russian Princesses and the Cygnets, who I saw in various combinations, were all splendidly in tune with one another. All hail to coryphée Karen Nanasca, the common denominator in all four Cygnet casts and, I’ve read, a force to be reckoned with when it comes to revving Cygnets up to give their best.

Finally, a word about Brett Chynoweth. On hearing Gaudiello had retired before his advertised Swan Lake performances I thought Chynoweth might be asked to partner Kusch. They danced together in the new Sleeping Beauty late last year and it was after that performance as Prince Désiré that Chynoweth was rightly promoted to senior artist (very oddly the AB’s highly detailed new website doesn’t list that as a repertoire highlight for him – it was). I wrote then: “In Beauty he radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing.” I felt the same about his Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in 2014. Chynoweth gives his heart to roles such as this and infuses his faster, higher, sharper technique with rare eloquence. In a pretty thankless role such as Benno in the Baynes Swan Lake, Chynoweth compensated by being over-emphatic. He doesn’t need to try that hard. As his brilliantly danced Puck in the Ashton The Dream showed earlier last year, Chynoweth is such a bright presence on stage and a dazzling dancer. As Beauty and Nutcracker proved, he can also be a prince.

Thrills and spills: the year in dance

We’ll get to the year’s most interesting work and dancers shortly but 2015 was also notable for offstage developments, particularly at Australia’s three leading classical companies, The Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet. So let’s begin there.

OFFSTAGE

The national company

At The Australian Ballet, David McAllister became the company’s longest-serving artistic director, surpassing Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign. McAllister took over in July 2001 after the relatively brief tenure of Ross Stretton, who cut his time at the AB short to go to the Royal Ballet in London. McAllister was named to the post while he was still dancing, although retirement followed swiftly. It was a huge leap of faith on the part of the AB board as he had had no leadership experience but it is now emphatically his company. Of the AB’s current roster of 68 dancers, only two were members of the company before 2001 and two joined in 2001.

In another big first, this year McAllister put himself forward to stage a new production of The Sleeping Beauty. He had previously staged only a handful of minor pieces. The production is thought to have cost about $2 million and in a dazzling feat of fundraising, about 70 per cent came from 2000 or so ballet-lovers giving sums ranging from $100 to $50,000 or more. Audiences flocked to it, several dancers in Sydney were given career-changing opportunities and despite reservations from some critics (including me) about some aspects of the production, it must be counted a significant success for McAllister and The Australian Ballet.

McAllister shows absolutely no sign of becoming jaded and it wouldn’t surprise one to see him celebrate his 20th anniversary in the job in 2021.

The state companies

Queensland Ballet was the real surprise package of the year from a backstage perspective, making the position of its high-profile CEO Anna Marsden redundant. The announcement was made on July 9 and was supposed to take effect from September 1 but Marsden was quickly out of the picture. On July 29 QB’s chair, Brett Clark, said in a statement the company would appoint an executive director, whose role would be to enable the vision of artistic director Li Cunxin and drive operations.  Dilshani Weerasinghe, previously the company’s development director, was announced as acting executive director but she was soon the board’s permanent choice.

I spoke at length to Clark in early December about the move, very shortly after the company’s announcement that the Queensland Government would give QB an extra $1.2 million annually (bringing its contribution to $2.7 million annually) to support an increase in dancer numbers (an additional eight by 2020), expansion of its headquarters, increased international touring and a greater number of performances. In 2016 QB will have 31 company members and seven young artists.

The announcement by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also contained news of a $5 million gift from the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End.

Clark said negotiations regarding both announcements had been “a long work in progress”. He said specific goals were for QB to be seen as a “powerhouse in the Asia-Pacific region” and to perform more frequently in regional Queensland. Touring to Sydney and Melbourne was not on the cards. “I think the AB services Sydney and Melbourne extremely well. They’re an amazing company.”

Clark declined to speak about the working relationship between Li and Marsden. He said, however, it had become “apparent that for us to get agreed goals and visions, it needed to be an artistic director-led strategy”. He said an executive director can have input into strategy and vision but the core role is to support the board and the company, “and in the case of Queensland Ballet, the artistic director on his or her vision for the company”. He also said that “Dilshani reports through Li to the board”.

Clark acknowledged Marsden’s role in QB’s rapid growth since Li became artistic director in 2011. He also said: “We needed Li’s vision and strategy leading the way forward.”

Clark would not discuss what went on behind the scenes but the implication is clear. Although Marsden was a key player in QB’s revival of fortunes following the departure of previous artistic director François Klaus, a structure in which both CEO and artistic director reported to the board created tension. The board chose Li.

I approached Marsden but she did not wish to comment.

West Australian Ballet will also be under new management next year following the announcement on December 14 that its CEO, Steven Roth, will be leaving in February to work with Scottish Ballet. Roth joined WAB in 2007 when the company had 19 very unhappy dancers who were agitating for the right to strike over their pay and conditions. (Their accommodation in His Majesty’s Theatre, where the company mainly performs, was limited to one studio and cramped production and administration space.) The dancers prevailed: the West Australian Government upped its funding and WAB now has 32 company members and eight young artists. One of the great achievements of Roth’s tenure can be seen in WAB’s gleaming State Ballet Centre in the Perth suburb of Maylands; another is the increase in the company’s operating revenue from $3.2 million in 2007 to $10 million in 2015.

Interestingly, Roth goes to Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet, the country’s national company, as executive director. That company already has a CEO – Christopher Hampson, who is also the company’s artistic director. He added CEO duties earlier this year after the sudden departure of chief executive Cindy Sughrue. In June Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported: “Scottish Ballet will now also begin a search for an executive director who will sit on the national company’s board and report to Hampson, with a remit for ‘clear focus on strategic vision and commercial success’.”

The Herald also reported Scottish Ballet’s chairman, Norman Murray, as saying “the board had undertaken a review of how the company was run, with aid from consultants, and believed it should be ‘artistically led’.”

ONSTAGE – CLASSICAL AND CONTEMPORARY

There are, I admit, a lot of gaps: no 2015 Melbourne Festival, no 2015 Adelaide Festival, no 2015 Dance Massive (Melbourne), although I had already seen one or two things on that program. I mention this because I travelled a fair bit in 2015 but not to everywhere or everything. My list doesn’t leave these things out because there was nothing of note, but because I wasn’t there. Adelaide would have been my big chance to see – at long last – Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet but that is now impossible. Cedar Lake’s financial backer closed the company not long after Adelaide. At Melbourne I could have caught up with the latest work from Batsheva, which I’ve seen regularly at Australian arts festivals, but no.

And a work that I reviewed reasonably strictly on first seeing it makes the list for its daring and its dancers. While I have issues with some of the dramaturgy in The Australian Ballet’s new Sleeping Beauty it is nevertheless a considerable achievement that provided three artists with role debuts that saw each immediately promoted to the next rank.

The productions are in the order in which I saw them and the performers in alphabetical order. The list is heavily skewed towards ballet because that’s the way the year panned out for me.

The best of the best? A Sleeping Beauty double: Alexei Ratmansky’s back-to-Petipa production for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala; and Benedicte Bemet’s dazzling debut as Aurora for The Australian Ballet.

PRODUCTIONS

Nothing to Lose, Force Majeure, Sydney Festival, January

Force Majeure founder Kate Champion has now moved on, leaving the company in new hands. Nothing to Lose, made with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, was a great farewell piece. It put the following propositions on stage: that fat people should not hide away, that they should be heard, that they are entitled to make choices, that they may actually like the way they are, and, by god, they can and will dance.

Puncture, Legs on the Wall, FORM Dance Projects, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Festival, January

Puncture started with “Hello” and ended with “I love you”. Is there anything more life-affirming? Six couples collided, grappled, touched, fought, flew, supported, changed partners, argued and loved. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evoked the formalities of Elizabethan court dance, the uniformity of line dancing, the romance of the waltz, the zing of the tango, the group spirit of folk and much more, but ultimately the dance was about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, Perth International Arts Festival, February

In this seemingly carefree work Morris offered principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women were equal, each was an individual, there was strength to be gained from one another and there was belief in the power of love and joy.

Quintett, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, March

The first cast was more balletic, the second more ferocious in this thrilling, heart-catching William Forsythe work. Not many companies are allowed to do it; Sydney Dance Company did it proud.

Sydney Dance Company's Quintett featuring Chloe Leong and David Mack 1. Photo by Peter Greig

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

The Sleeping Beauty, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Alexei Ratmansky’s production took us as nearly as possible back to what the original 1890 audience would have seen: super-lavish setting, strong mime and many intimate, modest details. The physicality looked startlingly different. Instead of height and bravura there was refinement and great charm. For both men and women there was a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkled. It was as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and much more intricate and sophisticated.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Auckland, September

What a gorgeous production! Designed by New Zealander Tracy Grant Lord and choreographed by hotter-than-hot Brit Liam Scarlett, this co-pro between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet was funny, sexy and ravishing to behold. Brisbane sees it in April.

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

Hayley Dennison in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The Sleeping Beauty, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne and Sydney, September and December

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drank deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, was almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revelled in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There were columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that threw out a huge challenge to David 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. It was extremely cheering, though, to see many very fine performances through the ranks and exciting role debuts (see below).

Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, November

It was a joy to see Ochres revived at Carriageworks with a dynamic new generation of dancers. Not that it was exactly the work originally choreographed by Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene, nor should it be. Dance texts are particularly susceptible to change and Bangarra has developed greatly since the early 1990s. This revival was in the spirit of the original rather than a faithful dusting off of the old steps. The company called it a re-imagining and it looked wonderful. Bangarra has a unique aesthetic based on the connection with Indigenous ceremony and the land. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and invigorating.

Cinderella, choreographed by Jayne Smeulders, West Australian Ballet, Perth, December

How many full-length, mainstage classical ballets choreographed by women were there on Australian stages this year? Just the one I think, Jayne Smeulders’s Cinderella. She reworked her 2011 production to advantage and scored a huge hit with Perth audiences. See: it can be done.

Coppélia, choreographed by Maina Gielgud for Christine Walsh’s Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Melbourne, December

There was quite a lot of new choreography and loads of rearranging but basically Gielgud’s production was a staging rather than a new work. But what a beauty. It was hard to believe this was a student production, so high were its standards. The young dancers were not just technically assured, they gave terrifically engaged and engaging performances, working seamlessly with the delightful guest artists from Tokyo Ballet, Maria Kawatani and Arata Miyagawa. Christine Walsh designed the many costumes, all of them splendid.

PERFORMANCES

Stella Abrera, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Abrera’s warmth and simplicity informed every moment of her performance; there wasn’t a thing that didn’t feel genuine. The mad scene tore at the heart. As she loses her reason Giselle re-enacts the plucking of flower petals, which earlier had quieted her anxiety about Albrecht – he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. Now there was no anticipation or light. Abrera shook her head piteously. He doesn’t love me. (Abrera was at that time an ABT soloist; she was promoted to principal – very belatedly in the opinion of many – at the end of June.)

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Veronica Part, Stella Abrera and Vladimir Shklyarov in Giselle. Photo: MIRA

Benedicte Bemet, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December

Quite simply one of the most exciting nights in the theatre, ever. Bemet, just 21, had the dew and radiance of youth, purity and joy in her dancing and was beyond fearless. You know how you almost always get butterflies when Aurora nears those balances and promenades in the Rose Adagio? Not so here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were extraordinary, the crowd went wild, and Bemet just went from strength to strength. She went on as a coryphée and shortly afterwards was promoted to soloist. To be honest, it wouldn’t have surprised me if David McAllister had bounded on to the stage to make her a principal artist on the spot. But she has plenty of time for that.

Brett Chynoweth, Puck in The Dream, debut as Prince Désiré, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, May and December

Chynoweth is one of The Australian Ballet’s finest male technicians – he is fast, sleek, has fabulous feet and exciting elevation. This, however, is not what makes him so interesting. He is a passionate, poetic man who connects deeply with his roles and therefore with the audience. As Désiré his longing for love was palpable, and earlier in the year his Puck was a marvel of pyrotechnics and other-worldly humour. He is now, rightfully, a senior artist.

Chynoweth Boud

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Alina Cojocaru, Aurora, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, October

She radiated light and joy from a tiny body that gave the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing was brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything felt as if it were the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all was her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompassed the entire theatre.

Thaji Dias, Dancing for the Gods, Chitrasena Dance Company, Sydney Festival, January

I got my first, and so far only, view of Thaji Dias during this year’s Sydney Festival. She is a ravishing artist, dancing in the Kandyan style from Sri Lanka with megawatts of charisma. The dance was dramatic and seductive and Dias’s command of it exhilarating with her divinely articulated wrists, rippling shoulders, jaunty strides, the deepest and plushest plies and the liveliest eyes.

Sylvie Guillem, Life in Progress, Sydney, August

At 50 Guillem left the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that showed her as a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. She was known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art. But that was then. Her farewell program celebrated Guillem in the here and now, with new and recent work.

Robyn Hendricks, debut in Symphonic Variations, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April and December

Hendricks is something of a late bloomer but no less valuable for that. Her willowy body gives her a regal air and she also seems a little unknowable, qualities that of course make one intensely aware of her. She looked serenely beautiful in the first cast of Symphonic Variations; as Aurora she was a queen in the making: watchful, elegant, sophisticated and lusciously aware of her suitors. She was promoted to senior artist immediately after her debut.

The Dream - Symphonic Variations

Aka Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

Xavier Le Roy, Self Untitled, Carriageworks, Sydney, November

Xavier Le Roy’s 1998 solo Self Unfinished had particular resonance at the time of viewing, days after the terrorist attacks on Paris, summoning thoughts of the fragility of life, the resilience of the human spirit, the truth that we exist only at this moment, right now, and that we are all in it together. He didn’t make a big thing of it, but Le Roy’s piece had a strong sense of erasing the invisible barrier between audience and performer. He intrigued, delighted and provoked during a performance of quite intimacy.

Natalia Osipova/Steven McRae, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Osipova’s Giselle had London aflame last year and this year had the New York audience entranced and exhilarated. She tore through the ballet with a passion, leaping higher, turning more quickly and covering ground more voraciously than any other. Osipova is a risk-taking dancer. She fell heavily towards the end of her final solo and took several agonising seconds to recover enough to stand. She limped back to the centre and resumed dancing, finishing the ballet not only courageously but with melting beauty. The clarity and complexity of McRae’s acting was wonderful. He gave not just the broad picture but made every moment vivid, fresh, illuminating and dramatically coherent. His dancing, it goes without saying, was full of brilliance without being bombastic. But there was no more riveting moment than one of complete stillness, when Albrecht heard the distant horns of the Royal hunting party and understood the chaos to come.

CHOREOGRAPHY

Kristina Chan, Conform, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, December

“I am interested in what it means to be a man in this modern day,” Chan wrote in the program note to Conform, part of the annual New Breed program. She has a sombre view. When we first saw her men – there was an all-male cast of eight – they visibly buckled under the weight of expectation. They were either desperately alone with their thoughts or they fell in with the majority, losing individuality but absorbing the power of the pack. Conform was beautifully structured, vibrated with repressed emotion and had a very strong, pulsating and often ominous score by James Brown. It should be a keeper.

Justin Peck, Rōdē,ō, New York City Ballet, May

We haven’t seen a step of Peck’s in Australia as far as I know and it’s about time someone did something about it. His Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes, to the music of Aaron Copland, is wondrous. (Don’t ask me about the odd accents in the title; perhaps Peck wanted to differentiate it from Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo, to this music.) A piece for 15 men and one fabulous woman, it surprises, invigorates and enchants at every turn. Peck, still dancing as a soloist with New York City Ballet, has the magic touch. This apparently abstract ballet is packed with ideas, relationships and really zingy choreography. NYCB probably doesn’t want to let it go just yet because it premiered only in February this year, but can someone please beg?