David Hallberg on rehabilitation and returning to the stage in Coppélia

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

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

David Hallberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coppélia - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

Revelations in New York, stars made at The Australian Ballet, Alina Cojocaru in Brisbane and more …

The Australian Ballet dubbed its 2015 season A Year of Beauty. Giselle, Swan Lake, Cinderella and Frederick Ashton’s The Dream were on the program, lovely ballets all, but essentially teasers for the main event – the new Sleeping Beauty, staged by artistic director David McAllister with opulent designs by Gabriela Tylesova. On the other side of the world an even grander production was unveiled. American Ballet Theatre’s Alexei Ratmansky sought to return The Sleeping Beauty to something close to its original form and style.

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

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

In Brisbane, Queensland Ballet staged Greg Horsman’s smaller-scaled interpretation (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011) and a visiting company, Russian National Ballet Theatre, toured Australia and New Zealand extensively with (inevitably) Swan Lake but also Beauty. The AB’s new Storytime Ballet venture for very young children was launched this year with, yes, The Sleeping Beauty (a miniature clocking in at well under an hour).

I thus had my own Year of Beauty in 2015 with 10 performances in all – two casts of the Ratmansky, four of McAllister’s, two of Horsman’s and just one Russian National Ballet Theatre (more than enough, alas) and one Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. 

This Beauty bounty inevitably drew me back to DVDs of productions including those by The Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and The Australian Ballet. Their stagings of Sleeping Beauty could be looked at anew, particularly in light of Ratmansky’s discoveries, and encouraged repeated returns to the complete score (the 2012 version by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi for Chandos is superb) although none of the versions I saw used all the music, as no one does. A little-admired four-hour 1999 Mariinsky version aiming for authenticity has been dropped from the repertoire. These days companies want – and need – to bring The Sleeping Beauty in under three hours. At American Ballet Theatre the reason was stated bluntly in the program: “The ballet has, however, had to be cut somewhat to fit within the union-defined time limitation.”

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora for ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

It’s worth quoting in length from David Nice’s scene-by-scene analysis that accompanies the Chandos recording to see the kind of thing that’s lost. In the second entr’acte (the first is rarely heard at all), “the note C is sustained by the strings, principally the violins, for exactly one hundred bars. This is time suspended: the ‘sleep’ chords … and the themes of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse pass and dissolve. Few if any productions observe the full symbolic duration of this hypnotic spell – Aurora is usually heard to sleep for a mere forty or so years.” Not that Petipa used every bit of the music Tchaikovsky wrote for his ballet either. Pragmatism reigned then as now.

All the productions I saw were traditional ones underpinned by Petipa’s 1890 staging for St Petersburg’s imperial Ballet. It and other ballets were recorded in the Stepanov system of notation and came to the West in the luggage of Nicholas Sergeyev, a regisseur who managed to exit Russia not long after the revolution of 1917. Diaghilev’s 1921 production The Sleeping Princess was based on these notations as was The Royal Ballet’s of 1939, staged by Sergeyev and also called The Sleeping Princess although claiming to be more true to Petipa’s original than Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes version (with which Sergeyev was also closely associated). When revived in 1946 – and famously winning over New York in 1949 – the ballet was now The Sleeping Beauty and contained some new choreography.

The Beauty staged by the RB to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2006 had further changes: it was billed as being produced by Monica Mason and Christopher Newton after Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev with additional choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon. That list in itself tells the story of how ballet is translated and transformed down the ages. The Australian Ballet’s 1993 recording has choreography by Petipa, “reproduced by Monica Parker from the Nicholas Sergeyev notation” with direction and additional choreography by Maina Gielgud.

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Sarah Lane and Herman CornejoŽ in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

The versions are very similar when it comes to the overall story arc and key passages but have many different details that give an individual stamp. Not all of them are improvements, as Ratmansky’s painstaking research into how The Sleeping Beauty would have looked in 1890 makes clear.

The choreographer made a close study of the Stepanov notations and created a revelatory version for ABT and La Scala, who shared the eye-watering cost, reported to be in the vicinity of $US6 million. The money was well spent: this was indisputably the dance event of the year. I saw it in New York in May following its premiere in California. The production was extraordinarily sumptuous, flooding the Metropolitan Opera stage with so many dancers and supernumeraries that at some points there were more than 100 people on stage.

Even so, Ratmansky used fewer people than were in Petipa’s original, with its hordes of children, pages, courtiers, cavaliers and minor royalty to attend upon their majesties, each carefully arranged according to rank. The Sleeping Beauty is not only a fairy tale celebrating the victory of good over evil. It depicts a formal, long-established power structure as the embodiment of harmony. Its traditions and ceremonies imply continuance and order. In such a world Carabosse’s exclusion from Aurora’s christening, the event that initiates the action, puts a great tear in the social fabric. Ratmansky shows that in a healing gesture she is invited to Aurora’s wedding. It makes perfect sense, even if in the vast congregation at the end of the ballet Carabosse was seen only fleetingly.

And that’s the thing about Ratmansky’s version. It feels right dramatically and musically at every point.

A brief moment in the Rose Adagio perfectly illustrates how ballet can shift from its original intention into a kind of never-never land of whispers only partly heard. Aurora steps forward on her left foot, on pointe, then lowers her heel to the floor. She bends forward in an arabesque penchée, inclines her head and upper body towards the audience, bends her right arm and holds it close to her chest. Her right hand is seen to touch her left cheek, or perhaps is held near her face without obscuring it. Aurora does this four times, and sometimes the four Princes kneel behind her, all together or else one by one. Sometimes she leans on each Prince as she passes (as in the Grigorovich version for the Bolshoi), sometimes not. Sometimes she gives the Princes a glance, sometimes not. What exactly is she doing here, in this very specific sequence of body and head inclines?

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Diana Vishneva with violin pages. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Ratmansky tells us. Aurora is listening to a group of little pages as they play violins. In the Grigorovich staging, filmed in 1989, we can see youngsters dancing in the background while holding violins; in the RB version, young boys stand in the background plucking mandolins in a haphazard and desultory fashion. So the idea there should be some young people on stage with stringed instruments has survived, sometimes, in some form, but not their reason for being there. It may seem odd to single out a sequence that lasts less than 20 seconds but it always looked meaningless to me; Ratmansky turns the light on.

It was also delightful to see the Precious Stones music of the third act danced by the rarely seen fairies of Gold, Silver, Sapphire and Diamond (in McAllister’s and Horsman’s productions the Prologue fairies are drafted in for these dances). The Sapphire music is, excitingly, in the tricky metre of 5/4, written this way because Petipa was thinking of a five-faceted stone. In 1946 the RB introduced the now-familiar characters of Florestan and his sisters to replace the jewel fairies, with choreography by Ashton.

Study of the Stepanov notations revealed a quality of movement that has changed dramatically since Petipa’s time although Ratmansky also examined many other sources to fill gaps. For guidance on upper-body style Ratmansky consulted Ballets Russes material, including film shot in Australia by Melbourne eye specialist and ballet enthusiast Ringland Anderson that McAllister was able to make available. In Ratmansky’s version there are no extreme extensions. Legs are held softly, there is extensive use of the demi-pointe and lines are more rounded. With less height comes more speed and time for intricate footwork. The ballet sparkles as much as it intrigues. A delightful aspect is the low retiré position in pirouettes, sometimes not much above the ankle. In supported pirouettes the men use one arm only to guide the ballerina rather than paddling her around, and there are many other surprises, such as the double air turn for the Prince that ends with a landing on one foot. A beguiling airiness prevails.

The production includes some elements from The Sleeping Princess and later versions of the ballet that are now considered standard, including fish dives in the grand pas de deux and the arms raised en couronne as Aurora pauses, balancing on pointe, in between greeting each suitor (said to be a Fonteyn innovation). Interestingly, the very poor production from Russian National Ballet Theatre is more faithful to Petita in both those respects although quite chaotic in others. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that the Russian Aurora I saw, Elizaveta Lobacheva, perhaps didn’t attempt the balances in the Rose Adagio as we know them because the taped music offered no room to move. (I saw her Odette-Odile too; she’s a very proficient dancer.)

David McAllister’s staging experience was quite limited before he took on the task of bringing a new Sleeping Beauty into his company’s repertoire to replace Stanton Welch’s 2005 production. It was a courageous move on his part, pulled off remarkably well. I have a handful of reservations about aspects of the storytelling but audiences have responded strongly and a long life seems assured. It needs to stick around: this Beauty cost the royal sum of $2 million or thereabouts, although more than 70 per cent of the budget came from about 2000 ballet-lovers, making donations big and small. Some gave individual gifts of more than $50,000, others put in $100. It was an impressive fund-raising feat.

Lana Jones in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Bal...

Lana Jones in David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

While the drain on the AB coffers wasn’t particularly great for such a large-scale production, the many people who donated would have a right to feel very cheated if it wasn’t a stayer. My prediction: when the AB vacates the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House for some months in 2017 to allow replacement of the ageing theatre machinery it will presumably perform elsewhere in the city and will need popular repertoire to entice the audience to follow. If it can get the Capitol – and I stress I have no information on this – the larger stage and the big, ornate auditorium would be perfect for this Sleeping Beauty.

I digress. As I wrote just after the Melbourne premiere in September, Gabriela Tylesova’s design “is almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revels in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There are columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas.” It is a sumptuous fantasia at one with Tchaikovsky’s magical score and I enjoyed it greatly each time I saw it, or at least most of it. I still think McAllister and dramaturg Lucas Jervies have muddled and muddied certain details of the story but McAllister was able to field strong casts and gave several dancers a career-defining break.

The AB seems to have hit the mark with Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Hordes of tutu-wearing, wand-waving little ones packed the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House to see a vastly simplified version of the ballet, helped along with clear, clever narration. The dancing from young Australian Ballet School graduates and members of the AB’s education ensemble was a touch on the careful side as they negotiated bits and pieces of Petipa on the small stage. (For the first time ever I regretted the absence of the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots from Act III; I think the children would have adored them.) The real fun came from panto-like interaction between narrator Catalabutte and an enthusiastic audience that was thrilled to warn of Carabosse’s appearance at Aurora’s birthday party – “Behind you! Look behind you!!” – and helped rouse the slumbering palace with lusty wake-up shouts.

Storytime Ballet The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. photo Jeff Busby 01

Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Queensland Ballet’s production, which I saw in October, is a great success. Greg Horsman made it for relatively small forces and his cuts and conflations are done with a keen eye to clarity and logic. The world he creates is coherent and consistent in tone. Everything makes sense in a world that’s perhaps not terribly grand but zesty and imaginative. Among the pleasant innovations is the presence at the christening of four young princes who will grow up to become Aurora’s suitors; the garland dance arranged for gardeners and their girls, making it happy and relaxed; and a youthful, glamorous Carabosse who has the ability to turn into a dragon.

Russian National Ballet Theatre toured New Zealand and Australia for three months, offering more than 100 performances divided between Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. They performed in a variety of venues, from modestly sized arts centres in small cities to large theatres such as Melbourne’s Regent and Sydney’s State. In October I saw The Sleeping Beauty in the Big Top at Sydney’s Luna Park, not the most atmospheric venue for grand classical ballet but RNBT was taking whatever venues it could. There was a set of the most meagre kind (well, an unchanging backcloth really), recorded music, far too few dancers and the story told in such broad strokes as to be incomprehensible.

It was depressing to see how basic everything was. The Princess Florine made no attempt to emulate the flutterings of the Bluebird with whom she was dancing, thus eliminating all charm and meaning; Carabosse, shorn of attendants, dashed about the stage manically and confusingly; the hunt scene appeared to be happening within the castle confines; and so on. RNBT’s ability to have so many dates on this tour is evidence, however, that there is audience demand for the ballet classics that is not being met by local companies, and that Russian companies, no matter how inadequate, can still pull a crowd.

While I greatly admired Ratmansky’s production, the first-cast Aurora of Gillian Murphy felt rather too modern for this staging despite the care taken to rein in her 21st-century facility. Her Prince, Marcelo Gomes, was a wonderfully charismatic figure. Although Sarah Lane, a soloist I saw at the second New York performance, was not as technically assured as Murphy she was warm, youthful and had lovely rapport with her Prince, the superlative Herman Cornejo. He bounded through the fleet, delicate, precise footwork with much ease and charm.

Queensland Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - International Ballet Stars Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao Image 6. Photo David Kelly

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

At Queensland Ballet there was the gift of Alina Cojocaru as guest artist. She is rightly thought to be among the very best, if not the best, Aurora of the moment. As I wrote at the time: “She radiates light and joy from a tiny body that gives the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing is brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything feels as if it is the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all is her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompasses the entire theatre.”

QB’s second-cast Aurora was the newish principal artist Yanela Piñera, who came to Brisbane from National Ballet of Cuba. She dances on a grand scale, making the Act III pas de deux a glittering highlight in concert with principal Hao Bin, who recently announced his retirement and will be missed in a company with few experienced leading men.

The AB ended its Year of Beauty on a high note by promoting three dancers who had made debuts in Sydney as Aurora and Prince Désiré. At the Melbourne premiere principals Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson gave stately performances that matched the grandeur of the setting. Two months later, on the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre stage in Sydney, there was a more intimate feel, at least in the performances I attended.

Brett Chynoweth was made a senior artist (the second-highest rank) after his soaring, heartfelt Prince Désiré. There was a felicitous pairing with senior artist Natasha Kusch as Aurora – though both are relatively small they make an abundant impression with legs like rapiers, exquisitely articulated feet and loads of height and speed. This was an incredibly important opportunity for Chynoweth, who has rarely been cast in leading classical roles (although he danced a very fine Prince in The Nutcracker in 2014). 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.

Robyn Hendricks’s first Aurora also won her a promotion to senior artist. She was a slightly mysterious young woman in whom you could see the queen she is destined to be. The watchfulness and engagement with her suitors created a whole, interesting, individual character and the elegance and quiet sophistication of her dancing spoke of great things ahead. Principal Adam Bull partnered her securely although he was not looking in peak physical form – a little tired at year’s end perhaps.

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Benedicte Bemet in rehearsal with Kevin Jackson. Photo: Kate Longley

McAllister astutely gave coryphée Benedicte Bemet the inestimable support of principal Kevin Jackson, who has been on fire all year, for her debut as Aurora. It could be the start of a very fruitful relationship following the retirement earlier this year of Jackson’s most frequent partner, Madeleine Eastoe. The possibilities for Bemet would appear to be boundless. 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.

I haven’t even got started on the many exquisite fairies and Bluebirds, the merits or otherwise of various Carabosses and Catalabuttes, the conducting and many other aspects of this endlessly fascinating ballet. But enough, I think, for now.

Dance in 2013

THE Australian dance-lover had plenty to enjoy in 2013, as long as there was a decent travel budget to hand. Paris Opera Ballet returned to Sydney, the Bolshoi had a season in Brisbane, The Australian Ballet premiered a new version of Cinderella by Alexei Ratmansky (Melbourne and Sydney only, although Adelaide sees it in 2014), Queensland Ballet had extended sell-out seasons under new artistic director Li Cunxin, West Australian Ballet brought Onegin into its repertoire and Sydney Dance Company got even more glamorous.

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

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

Those were the big events of 2013. Unfortunately there were fewer small-scale gems, or at least few I was able to see. In the wide, brown land it’s not always possible to find oneself in the right city at the right time to catch up with the leading contemporary companies and independent artists, particularly when seasons can be cruelly short.

There was also a lot of déjà vu when it came to international visitors. Of course one would never knock back the chance to see Sylvie Guillem, or Akram Khan’s work, or Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, but the names bob up again and again. I acknowledge, however, that I travel around the country to see dance more than most people do. Perhaps I just get out too much.

What follows, therefore, isn’t necessarily a reflection of what was best (although much was terrific), but what was memorable.

The dancers:

The AB nabbed Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev for performances of Don Quixote in Melbourne. Vasiliev roared on like a comet and didn’t let up from the get-go. He’s no text-book classicist, but gee he’s fun to watch. Dancing the lead gypsy, resident AB firecracker Chengwu Guo threw in a cheeky backwards somersault just to remind the audience there were other men on stage. Later in the year, after dancing Basilio with boyish charm, Guo was promoted to senior artist. By year’s end he was a principal artist, promoted onstage after a high-flying appearance as James in La Sylphide. A very wise call on the part of AB artistic director David McAllister.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Also at the AB, Daniel Gaudiello got more opening nights (Basilio, James, the Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella), and rightly so. QB’s Li Cunxin likes him too. Gaudiello was a guest artist in Brisbane for Giselle – making his role debut as Albrecht – and will appear in 2014’s Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio when QB stages the MacMillan production from late June.

Still with the AB, Leanne Stojmenov had the role of her career in Cinderella, and in The Four Temperaments and Dyad 1929 (part of the Vanguard program), evergreen principal Lucinda Dunn exuded wisdom and sensuousness in works that can look all too coolly intellectual. Also on that bill was Kylian’s Bella Figura, in which corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow had one of those break-out moments.

In Brisbane, it was adorable to see Alexander Idaszak, in his first year out of the Australian Ballet School, be given the chance to dance Albrecht and to do it with such composure (he’s already moving on, however, to Royal New Zealand Ballet, which also has a starry artistic director in Ethan Stiefel). Li showed faith in another newbie, Emilio Pavan, when he was cast as the Prince in The Nutcracker, an assignment he carried out with much promise. Li added Natasha Kusch to his already lustrous group of female principal artists, and she was astutely paired with former AB dancer and now Dutch National Ballet principal Remi Wortmeyer in Nutcracker. It was a sparkling partnership.

In Perth, new artistic director Aurelien Scannella has restructured the company, creating principal artist, soloist, demi-soloist and corps de ballet ranks. On the opening night of Onegin – secured for WAB by former artistic director Ivan Cavallari – WAB showed off its new principal, Jiri Jelinek, formerly with Stuttgart Ballet and National Ballet of Canada (he is now a guest principal with the latter). Senior women Jayne Smeulders and Fiona Evans, now principals, were completely different and very fine Tatianas, and Matthew Lehmann found himself promoted to the top rank after his Onegins.

POB’s Giselle performances gave us the luminous, diaphanous Dorothee Gilbert and the role debut of Myriam Ould-Braham, a dancer made for this role. Mathieu Ganio, aristocratic to the last molecule, partnered both but Ould-Braham’s sweet simplicity seemed to make him warmer and ever-so-slightly gentler. In the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream, a delight from beginning to end, Maria Alexandrova was exceptionally vibrant, witty and warm.

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The AB managed to insinuate itself into David Hallberg’s very full diary for three performances of Cinderella in Sydney. The refinement, grace and noble partnering of the American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal artist were a perfect fit for Ratmansky’s ballet, and Hallberg even managed to make something of the Prince’s travels, one of the slightly less successful parts of Cinderella. Hallberg’s Cinderella was Amber Scott, whose other-worldly delicacy made her a lovely match for this prince among princes.

A special mention goes to Sydney Dance Company as a whole. It’s a spectacularly good-looking ensemble.

The dances:

As you’ll see from the above, there wasn’t a lot of surprising work on offer. From the tourists, the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s down-and-dirty The Rite of Spring were outstanding. Locally, SDC’s Cacti, the exceptionally amusing work by Alexander Ekman, and the AB’s Surrealist Cinderella made most impact. Well, Cinders looked much better in Melbourne, but what can you do? I also was extremely taken by Dance Clan 3, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s studio showing of new work. This time four of the company’s women – Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, Tara Gower, Jasmin Sheppard – took up the challenge, and did so most movingly. One of those terrific evenings when you have no idea what’s ahead. I didn’t get a lot of that this year.

The ideas:

I’ve said this quite a lot elsewhere, but I love the way SDC’s Rafael Bonachela is engaged with other artists from other forms. Les Illuminations brought together SDC, string players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor Roland Peelman, singer Katie Noonan and fashion designer Toni Maticevski to celebrate the centenary of Benjamin Britten. It was a standout, and a pity there were so few performances.

In Brisbane Queensland Ballet has taken advantage of the state government’s new Superstar Fund to lock in big-name guest artists for its mid-year Romeo and Juliet. Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Sydney-born Royal Ballet luminary Steven McRae come to town. Gaudiello will be back too – it’s so good to see this wonderful dancer getting more recognition.

Another big idea for QB is the institution of The Nutcracker as an annual Christmas event. Time will tell whether it will catch on indefinitely, but this year’s season did boffo box-office.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season announcement showed a small but potentially important programming shift. Instead of the usual and unvarying number of performances given to each program, regardless of audience appeal, the AB will now give shorter seasons of the contemporary rep. This is most noticeable in Sydney, where there will be nine performances of  the Ballet Imperial/Suite en Blanc double bill (May 2-17) and 10 of the Chroma/Sechs Tanze/Petite Mort/ New Baynes work bill (April 29-May 17). Note the overlapping dates – yes, programs in repertory!

As mentioned, WAB has introduced the kind of ranking system most usually seen in larger companies. Aurelien Scannella has forcefully talked about having more dancers (predecessor Cavallari got WAB a huge boost during his time). Can Scannella manage a further upwards trajectory in a city that has a huge appetite for big stuff but not so much for throwing money at the arts? And at a difficult time for the state’s finances? Worth keeping an eye on. As is QB’s obvious ambition to provide not just an alternative, but a competitor, to the AB.

The dance that turned into a play but was still full of dance:

One of the sweetest pleasures of 2013 was Gideon Obarzanek‘s Dance Better at Parties for Sydney Theatre Company, a play based on his dance work for Chunky Move that had its genesis nearly a decade ago when Obarzanek interviewed men about movement. The play, a two-hander for Steve Rodgers and Elizabeth Nabben, was simplicity itself. A bereaved man comes to a dance studio to learn how to dance, which may help him fit in socially, but really he is in desperate need of contact. To be touched. And the audience was touched too, very deeply.

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

The disappointments:

The big, big loss this year was the cancellation of Spring Dance, the festival inaugurated by the Sydney Opera House and now pulled out of the calendar. Yes, it was costly, but gave contemporary dance a highly visible platform from which to entice audiences. Fragments of it remained – Les Illuminations (see above) and Akram Khan’s iTMOi – “In the Mind of Igor” – which did not entirely convince me.

Freeze Frame, the collaboration between the Brisbane Festival and Debbie Allen, was well-meaning but lacked coherence in just about every department. Allen wrote, choreographed and directed. And appeared in it. There’s a hint right there.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, is entirely inadequate for ballet of any scale. The sets for Onegin had to be cut back and squashed in and the sightlines are terrible from many seats. Tough cheese though. It’s unlikely there will be another new theatre in Perth for a decade or more – the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, home to Black Swan State Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, was opened in 2011. Poor old WAB is not well served at all.

What a shame that Australia’s smaller centres aren’t able to see the AB, QB and WAB regularly. Instead the gap is filled by touring Russian companies of extremely variable quality. This year I saw a Nutcracker from an outfit called Russian National Ballet Theatre, whose provenance is a little difficult to work out, although companies under that name have toured before. I paid nearly 100 bucks (no, let’s be fair, my sister paid) for no orchestra, a severely truncated story, classroom choreography and production values that were modest. I do understand that local companies wouldn’t be seen dead putting on productions of such a low standard and that it costs a great deal to do better, and that they already have full schedules. But if I had a magic wand …

The year’s most graceful tribute:

In July Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for The New York Times, set out to describe the attributes of an American ballerina, and was even prepared to say how many women in US companies currently deserve to bear the title of ballerina. The number is not great: “at least 10” is what Macaulay was prepared to say. In reply, in the December/January edition of Pointe magazine, Gillian Murphy – a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet – gave her perspective. Along the way she had this to say about RNZB’s Lucy Green, a young Australian being given important roles with the company: “I am excited to watch a young dancer with extraordinary promise grow into a star.” Murphy praises Green’s dance attributes, then continues: “However, for me, it is her work ethic, her imagination and her sensitivity to others that really classify her as a ballerina in the making.” Murphy admires dancers who “encourage greatness in everyone around them”. Beautiful.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

 The Trans-Tasman Prize for Sang-Froid:

I’m including RNZB here again because I can. The month is July, a performance of Swan Lake, featuring Lucy Green as Odette-Odile, has not long finished, and RNZB staff and dancers past and present have gathered for a late-afternoon party to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary. Wellington is shaken by an earthquake – a big one. Everyone dives to the floor, which is moving alarmingly. The tremors stop, we all get up and the party continues. Well, that’s one way to cut the speeches short.

Finally…

Many thanks to London-based writer and critic Ismene Brown, who gave unparalleled, necessary insight into the dance world’s biggest story in 2013, the Bolshoi crisis and its fallout. And moving right along, there’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze in St Petersburg. Follow her @ismeneb; ismeneb.com

Next up, what’s of interest in 2014?

2013: a retrospective

Here’s my take on the year’s high points. As many have noted before me, “best” is a useless word when applied to the cornucopia available in the arts. Here are the people and productions that most inspired me.

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia’s Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

“A SHORT show is a good show,” we all carol (me and my fellow critics) as we enter the auditorium for yet another 70- to 90-minute piece of theatre, but put a 10-hour marathon before us and we can’t get enough. So I have lists for big things, small things, individuals, a few words on musical theatre and a couple of miscellaneous thoughts.

It was a strong year, particularly in Sydney theatre, so it was hard to keep the lists tight. Please don’t take anything I say here as an indication of who has taken out honours in the Sydney Theatre Awards, of which I am but one judge on a panel of nine. Argument was fierce and the passions diverse, let me tell you! But here goes from me, in alphabetical order …

Big:

Angels in America, Parts One and Two, Belvoir, Sydney: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the best play to have been written in English in my lifetime. Belvoir’s production was very fine.

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The amazing Surrealist-inspired set looked waaaay better in Melbourne than in Sydney, but this version of the beloved fairytale to the bittersweet music of Prokofiev as choreographed by the world’s leading classicist is a keeper. (Also wonderful to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream with the Bolshoi in Brisbane mid-year – amazing how that company managed to block out the hideous backstage dramas that still dog it.)

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Melbourne Festival: The ums, ahs and pauses of an ordinary life rendered first as a dippy musical, then as a drawing-room mystery. You had to be there (for 10 hours indeed). Sublime, transcendent.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: Scintillating Stravinsky Firebird suite and glorious Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. Magic.

The Ring, Opera Australia, Melbourne: not a flawless production, but one that felt right for this place and this time. Director Neil Armfield’s strength is finding the humanity in situations where it may seem to be missing in action and he did it here. Under last-minute mini-maestro Pietari Inkinen (only 33!!) the Melbourne Ring Orchestra put in a blinder. Bravi.

The Threepenny Opera, Berliner Ensemble, Perth International Arts Festival: Not a huge company, but a Robert Wilson production simply cannot be put into any category other than outsized. Stupendously performed, gorgeous to the eye, a knockout band in the pit, witty, sardonic … you get the idea.

Small:

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney: A devastating production (Sam Strong directed) of John Romeril’s devastating play. I saw the last scene with tears pouring down my face. A rare occurrence.

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera: Apparently the most popular opera of 1649. Worked pretty damn well in 2013.

Independent theatre x 3: I have to mention this trio of splendid plays and productions thereof. I was thrilled to have been able to see Jez Butterworth’s brilliant Jerusalem in Sydney, and done so persuasively by the New Theatre. Workhorse Theatre Company’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat was hold-on-to-your-hats exhilarating, and is getting a re-run in 2014 at the new Eternity Playhouse. Hooray. And in Siren Theatre Company’s Penelope (by Enda Walsh), all sorts of trouble arises when Odysseus’s arrival back home is imminent. As with Workhorse, Siren did a superb job in the tiny confines of the theatre at TAP Gallery.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera: This young, tiny outfit did Benjamin Britten proud in his centenary year. Really memorable music-making.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane and Melbourne festivals: In the Rite of Spring centenary year, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s setting in a harsh, cold village was, not surprisingly, dark and threatening. His ending, however, stressed the renewal and healing that is to come. The score was played in Stravinsky’s four-hand version (on one piano); earlier in the year, in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (Raimund Hoghe for the Sydney Festival), we heard the score also played ravishingly by four hands, but on two pianos. Sacre was a difficult dance work for many; I admired it greatly.

School Dance, Windmill Theatre (seen at Sydney Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Festival): loved, loved, loved.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Super Discount, Back to Back Theatre: Deeply provocative on all sorts of levels. Can’t wait for Ganesh versus the Third Reich to come to Sydney – finally – next year.

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company: Luke Mullins, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were an immaculate quartet of players in one of the year’s most heart-piercing productions.

Individuals (performers):

David Hallberg (American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal): Luminous in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in Sydney. Prince of princes.

Peter Kowitz: Les in The Floating World (see above).

Ewen Leslie: A huge year on the Sydney stage as a desolate Brick in Belvoir’s contentious Australian-accented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Player in Sydney Theatre Company’s terrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and most powerfully – and impressively – as Hamlet for Belvoir, stepping in at short notice when original Dane Toby Schmitz was called overseas for filming duty. A rare change to compare and contrast in one of the roles by which men are judged. Closely.

Catherine McClements, Phedre, Bell Shakespeare: A scarifying performance in a production that was, in my opinion, sorely underrated. Not by me though.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Amber McMahon: Harper in Angels in America for Belvoir, various roles in School Dance for Windmill, special in everything.

Sharon Millerchip, Bombshells, Ensemble Theatre: Dazzling in Joanna Murray-Smith’s ode to the many faces of womanhood.

Tim Minchin: Lucky old us to see him not once but twice on stage, as a show-stealing Judas in the arena Jesus Christ Superstar and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Dead. Or is that Guildenstern? Don’t ask Claudius or Gertrude to help you out.

Luke Mullins: Prior Walter in Angels in America, the quiet centre of Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Fantastic in all of them. What a year!

Bojana Novakovic, The Blind Date Project, Sydney Festival: I adored this little improvised show. Wish I could have seen Novakovic with many more of her blind dates.

Myriam Ould-Braham, Paris Opera Ballet: Made her debut as Giselle in Sydney in February, making us here the envy of many a Paris balletomane. She was divine, as was fellow etoile Dorothee Gilbert. Both were partnered by the supremely elegant Mathieu Ganio. A joy to see the company here again.

Steve Rodgers: Rodgers has long been one of my favourite actors – so simpatico, even when taking on a difficult subject matter in Griffin’s Dreams in White. And especially in Gideon Obarzanek’s Dance Better at Parties for STC.

Individuals (behind the scenes):

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Bonachela sees everything and is bringing lots of strong artistic collaborations back for his astoundingly beautiful dancers.

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet: He’s taken the company back to the classics and people have voted with their wallets. All shows have been sold out and all shows have been extended. I think Brisbane likes him.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia: Got the Ring up. Respect.

Musical theatre:

It was an exceptionally patchy year for musical theatre in Sydney, although Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was really, really entertaining and super-well cast, and the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blast. The new consortium of music-theatre people, Independent Music Theatre, holds out promise for better things next year, and the feisty little Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre continues to impress.

Miscellaneous:

Best new (only new) theatre in Sydney in 2013: Best is a word that certainly applies here. All hail Sydney City Council for getting the Eternity Playhouse happening. It is a truly beautiful 200-seat house, and an adornment to the city.

Best seat in the house: A11 at Belvoir. The lucky incumbent – male or female, it didn’t matter- got a kiss from Toby Schmitz or Ewen Leslie during Hamlet. Alas I was not one of them.

Clearest indication that critics don’t matter much: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which got the kind of reviews cast members’ mothers would write, did poor business in Sydney. Those of us who wrote about it adored it. We had very little effect.

Doesn’t stop us though.

The Australian Ballet launches a new look

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season introduces a few surprises

IT used to be chiselled in stone. Every mainstage season of the Australian Ballet in Melbourne would have 11 or 12 performances and in Sydney, in the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre, there would be 20 or thereabouts.  It didn’t matter if it was Swan Lake or a harder-to-sell triple bill; the number of performances was pretty much the same. The AB would add a few extra shows for extremely popular repertoire, as it is doing for next year’s Nutcracker (the Peter Wright version), but there was no adjustment down for the mixed programs that are rarely as well attended as full-length ballets. Each season was also strictly dedicated to the one program.

AB dancer Benedicte Bernet in a promotional shot for the 2014 season. Photo: Paul Scala

AB dancer Benedicte Bernet in a promotional shot for the 2014 season. Photo: Paul Scala

For 2014 the AB has made several changes that look eminently sensible: win-win-win for audiences, dancers and the company’s bottom line. There is a reduction in the number of Sydney and Melbourne performances of the two mixed bills, Imperial Suite and Chroma, with Sydney seeing a big change – in the slot where you’d usually see one mixed bill, Sydney will divide the time more or less equally between two. The change in Melbourne is far less marked in this respect; it gets a reduction from the norm of only a couple of performances. The cities will each get exactly the same number of performances for Imperial Suite (nine) and Chroma (10), which suggests Melbourne is a rather stronger market for mixed bills than Sydney given the significant difference in theatre capacity between Melbourne’s State Theatre and the Joan Sutherland. Or perhaps that’s just how the juggling act had to work.

In Melbourne Chroma will precede Imperial Suite but in Sydney the programs will be presented in repertory – a major change. On Saturday May 17 it would be possible to see both by attending the matinee and evening performances.

Melbourne does have one little overlap. For the first time the new choreographers’ workshop, Bodytorque – in its 10th year – will be staged in Melbourne and one of the three performances (June 24) will be in the midst of the Imperial Suite season (June 20-28). This is good news for Melbourne dance-lovers who have been asking for Bodytorque, but it will be challenging for the choreographers. Instead of the Sydney Theatre’s friendly proportions for smaller-scale work they will have to come to grips with the huge State Theatre stage and auditorium.

Ako Kondo in a promotional shot for the AB's Bodytorque.DNA. Photo Paul Scala

Ako Kondo in a promotional shot for the AB’s Bodytorque.DNA. Photo Paul Scala

In her introduction to the season, the AB’s new executive director, Libby Christie, wrote that the changes would allow a more diverse selection of works, create flexibility for audiences and give dancers more opportunities to perform. In broad terms it means Sydney now has room for an extra mainstage program, although it loses Bodytorque. And it gives the AB the chance to get bigger houses for the contemporary work. Well, that’s obviously the idea, and good luck to it.

Work from both the AB’s resident choreographers will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney next year. Stephen Baynes will be part of the Chroma program (headlined, obviously, by Wayne McGregor’s Chroma from 2006 and including Jiri Kylian’s Petit Mort and Sechs Tanze). The AB has also programmed Stanton Welch’s 2010 production of La Bayadere, made for Houston Ballet where he is artistic director. The often omitted temple-tumbling fourth act is included and there is the promise of live snakes. If this photograph is any guide, the production will live up to its tag of being opulently Oriental in design – Peter Farmer is the man responsible.

Robyn Hendricks and Ty King-Wall give a taste of Stanton Welch's La Bayadere. Photo: Paul Scala

Robyn Hendricks and Ty King-Wall give a taste of Stanton Welch’s La Bayadere. Photo: Paul Scala

In addition, Brisbane is rapidly becoming ballet central: next year the AB gives it two programs, Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon (February 21-March 1) and Imperial Suite (February 26-27), a strong addition to the visit from American Ballet Theatre in August-September (Swan Lake; a mixed bill of Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins and Alexei Ratmansky) and Queensland Ballet’s presentation of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, featuring international guest artists Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo. It is worth noting that this year extra performances have been added to all QB’s seasons in artistic director Li Cunxin’s first full year, despite sell-out performances for the visiting Bolshoi.

Adelaide is also visited in 2014, and will see Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, which premieres in Melbourne later this month and is seen in Sydney from November 29.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 program in brief:

Manon (MacMillan), Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney

Imperial Suite (Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, Lifar’s Suite en blanc), Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney

Chroma (McGregor, Kylian, Baynes), Sydney and Melbourne

La Bayadere (Welch), Melbourne and Sydney

The Nutcracker (Wright), Melbourne and Sydney

Cinderella (Ratmansky), Adelaide

Bodytorque.DNA, Melbourne

Giselle

Queensland Ballet, Playhouse Theatre, Brisbane, June 21 and 22

BRISBANE is turning into quite the ballet town. All performances of the Bolshoi Ballet’s Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream were sold out and one might have expected the visit from such a starry company to have diverted dollars from the Queensland Ballet. Far from it. QB was able to put on extra performances of its year’s mainstage opener, Cinderella, and Giselle also has more performances than originally planned and is heading for a sell-out season.

Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence in Queensland Ballet's Giselle. Photo: David Kelly

Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence in Queensland Ballet’s Giselle. Photo: David Kelly

It was clear from reactions at the first three performances of Giselle that many in the audience were unfamiliar with it, despite its place in the canon. It was also clear by the end of all three shows that people were delighted with what they saw, and so they should have been. QB has a fine production, staged with great integrity and care by Ai-Gul Gaisina (it is based on Petipa’s revivals of the Coralli/Perrot choreography) and boasting some outstanding dancing. Gaisina clearly allowed each cast to find its own way into the key roles while honouring the ballet’s floating, romantic style. It was also extremely satisfying to see the attention paid to mime, here done in a lucid, unaffected way.

The challenge new artistic director Li Cunxin has set himself can’t be underestimated. He has a company numbering only 27 dancers, although he also has access to about 20 young dancers in the QB pre-professional program.

Not only that, there is a high proportion of new dancers. When Li held auditions late last year he greatly admired quite a few dancers from the Australian Ballet School’s graduating year. Half the company has been dancing professionally for only six months, and a handful more for only a couple of years.

Li did bring in two new principal artists, former Australian Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Matthew Lawrence, and Huang Junshuang, latterly of Houston Ballet, to beef up the upper end of the ranks. (Huang is listed as a guest international principal artist and his position is funded by private support; it was announced at the Giselle opening night party that this will continue next year.) The mid-tier was thinly populated and still is, although the recent and extremely well-deserved elevation of Lisa Edwards to the rank of soloist is a start in the building process.

It was an impressive feat, then, to be able to field three strong casts, one of them with a wild card in the shape of 20-year-old Alexander Idaszak, making his debut as Albrecht. Idaszak is one of the newbies half a year into his first job so it was a bold move to cast him, but with principal Hao Bin out of contention for Albrecht due to injury it was decided to take the gamble. Idaszak seemed not the slightest fazed by the assignment. Sure, he looks about 12 1/2 – an unusually well-built 12 1/2 – but he took to the stage with impressive aplomb. There were, not surprisingly, some rough patches but Idaszak has noble bearing, excellent form – his Act II cabrioles were crackers – and his partnering is a credit to his ABS teachers.

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

Clare Morehen and Alexander Idaszak. Photo: Daivd Kelly

He made a pretty good fist of the acting, too. Sensible choices were made: his Albrecht isn’t a cheating aristo cad; he’s just a puppyish kid who needs to marry well but is looking for love elsewhere. In this scenario it was quite right that his betrothed, Bathilde (Mia Thompson), was a condescending bitch and that Huang’s Hilarion (no chance of principal artists having too many rest days at QB; he was Albrecht only 18 hours earlier) was a tough, mature man.

At this Saturday matinee performance Idaszak was partnered with one of QB’s most vibrant and individual dancers. Clare Morehen was a lively, sunny Giselle, the kind for whom spreading her skirt on the small outdoors bench is a cheeky bit of flirtation rather than a protective move. She was engagingly wide-eyed in Bathilde’s presence but brought a glint of steel to Act II’s mysterious, moonlit world of the Wilis. Peter Cazalet’s set design and Ben Hughes’s lighting came into their own here after a perfectly correct but unexceptional Act I.

Friday’s opening came with added, unwanted drama when Meng Ningning injured her left foot badly early in the first act. Few would have realised, particularly as she beautifully negotiated the diagonal of hops on pointe – on her left foot. Meng danced on to the end of the first half, hiding her pain to play a girl of heartbreaking innocence and trust.  No wonder she looked so believably ill when her heart first starts to give way and so distraught in the mad scene that ends Act I.

With Meng unable to continue – and I would have loved to see her Act II; she is such an ethereal dancer – elegant Huang was out of the picture as Albrecht. Fellow principal artists Rachael Walsh and Matthew Lawrence stepped seamlessly into the breach to give a glowing account of the second act. Walsh had been sitting in the audience watching the first half; Lawrence had appeared in the Act I non-dancing role of the Duke of Courland.

Their full scheduled performance on Saturday night revealed Lawrence as a practised and charming lothario and Walsh as meltingly sweet. Walsh has a pre-Raphaelite face and adagio to die for, controlling the slowest of slow raises of her leg as if gravity were somehow banished for the moment. Lawrence’s high and handsome series of entrechats – the tight beaten steps Albrecht is forced to do unto death until he’s saved by the bell and the breaking dawn– were brilliantly executed on both Friday and Saturday. In this cast Vito Bernasconi played Hilarion as a good lad possibly not possessed of the quickest mind – a strong contrast with Lawrence’s savoir faire. In the first cast, Nathan Scicluna gave the gamekeeper a thoughtful, deep-hearted quality that was most attractive.

Daniel Gaudiello, a guest artist from the Australian Ballet, puts a fourth Albrecht into the mix and his two performances  with Walsh promise much. He is an immaculate artist making his role debut here, which makes it one for the diary.

Two dancers distinguished themselves greatly as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Lisa Edwards, seen on Friday and Saturday evening, has greatly grown in authority of late and demonstrated a commanding presence and gaze and wonderful elevation. Eleanor Freeman’s expressive use of her upper body at the Saturday matinee was magical.

The peasant pas de huit is the most problematic element. It spreads the load of what is frequently done as a pas de deux but exposes some weaknesses in style, unity and quality. Some of the women had not absorbed all the nuances of soft, rounded romantic mode and eloquent epaulement but the group of 12 wilis really came into their own with strikingly precise alighment and immaculately timed turns and gestures in their confrontations with Hilarion and Albrecht. Superb. Of the lead wilis I most enjoyed Eleanor Freeman’s other-worldly lightness and demeanour.

QB had originally planned to perform Giselle to taped music for budgetary reasons but was able to secure private support to engage Camerata of St John’s for the season. Adolphe Adam’s score was arranged for this quite small force – only 26 musicians – and QB music director Andrew Mogrelia drew performances that improved markedly from show to show. While there were still too many glitches from the brass and, to a lesser extent, the woodwinds, it was a fair start to what may be a continuing relationship. (Alas the July 6 performances will be performed to recorded music.)

After his Saturday matinee Idaszak was considerately taken out of the evening’s pas de huit, as I was told before the performance began. Given a well-deserved rest, I thought.  No, he was just doing the less demanding background stuff in the first act. That’s what happens in a small company:  lots of hard work, the need to keep ego well in check – and fantastic opportunities for those who are ready to grab them.

Giselle continues until July 6. Daniel Gaudiello appears as Albrecht with Rachael Walsh as Giselle on June 27 and July 4. Other casting has not been released.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 24.

The Bolshoi in Brisbane

Le Corsaire, May 30; The Bright Stream, June 7. Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

THERE is no more interesting, influential or thoughtful choreographer working in classical ballet than Alexei Ratmansky and Brisbane was fortunate to see two distinctly different examples of his art in its sell-out Bolshoi Ballet season.

And what a pleasure it was to concentrate on the Bolshoi’s qualities as a ballet company rather than the extremely unsavoury politics that appear to have led to the acid attack on artistic director Sergei Filin. The movement was easy and expansive, with no sense of bravura for its own sake – extensions were kept modest and refined even as the quality of attack was robust – and the dancers’ vivid, detailed acting filled the stage and energised the audience. (Mind you, the Lyric Theatre stage at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre is much smaller than the Bolshoi’s – no wonder some of the action in the sensation-packed Le Corsaire looked a bit cramped.)

Le Jardin Anime in Le Corsaire

Le Jardin Anime in Le Corsaire

In 2007, when Ratmansky was artistic director of the Bolshoi, he restaged Le Corsaire with Yuri Burlaka, basing the production on Petipa’s choreography and delving into early sources to provide a window into Imperial-era style and taste in classical dance. In 2003, while still with Royal Danish Ballet, Ratmansky had revived The Bright Steam for the Bolshoi, re-choreographing the comedy to the joyous, neglected score by Shostakovich. The Bolshoi brought both works to London in 2007, where I was lucky enough to see them – Le Corsaire’s Act I Pas d’Esclave was given a mighty jolt by a then very young Ivan Vasiliev; Filin appeared as the Ballet Dancer in The Bright Stream – and both ballets were a good choice for the just-completed Brisbane season for Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series.

There was no Vasiliev this time of course: after leaving the Bolshoi last year he briefly touched down in St Petersburg for the Mikhailovsky and is a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre (one of the in-and-out kind). He will, however, appear in the Bolshoi’s upcoming London season, dancing in The Flames of Paris with his partner Natalia Osipova, soon to join the Royal Ballet. (Neither did Brisbane see Bolshoi premier – principal – David Hallberg, but that was never going to be possible, alas. He was fulfilling his ABT responsibilities at the time.)

For a company of its size the Bolshoi has a small number of principal artists. There are 148 members of the corps de ballet named on the Bolshoi website but only 10 women and eight men in the top rank. Of the women, four came to Brisbane: Maria Alexandrova and Nina Kaptsova, who appeared on both opening nights, Ekaterina Krysanova and Ekaterina Shipulina. Only two principal men made the journey – Mikhail Lobukhin and Ruslan Skvortsov, both wonderful in The Bright Stream. First soloists Denis Medvedev and Denis Savin also stood out amongst the men. Not surprisingly there was no sign of the outspoken principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who has been much in the news giving his views on Filin’s acid attack and on the Bolshoi management. It has just been announced the Bolshoi will not renew Tsiskaridze’s contracts, which expire at the end of June.

The Bolshoi’s taste and gift for the large gesture has no better example than Le Corsaire. It isn’t just bolshoi – big – it is gigantic; an extravaganza that sets new standards for going over the top even before you get to the brief postscript, in which a pirate ship on stormy seas breaks in half. The show weighed in at about 3 1/2 hours, came with a cast list that named nearly 50 dancers before we got to the corps, children and supernumeraries, and offered a version of the ballet that harks back to the days when the Russian court was the last word in luxury. Le Corsaire is a mad amalgam of stun-gun and sugar hit and resistance was futile. The house was packed for eight performances.

Over the years Le Corsaire has been tinkered with greatly so it’s something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a piece, including using the music of enough composers – seven, headed by Adolphe Adam – to start up their own guild. The result is a feast of melody that was delivered in exceptionally fine form by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pavel Sorokin. The QSO sounded even better when accompanying The Bright Stream, but no surprise that Shostakovich should trump a stitched-together committee when it comes to a score.

The Le Corsaire plot need not detain us long (the synopsis takes nearly 2000 words to explain it) but involves pirates, slaves, kidnapped maidens who couldn’t be more cheerful or compliant, a harem, disguises and that shipwreck. It’s a highly perfumed fantasy that’s happy to deliver outrageous caricatures of Middle Eastern appearance and manners alongside a glittering stream of set-piece dances whose only aim is to delight with virtuosity or vivacity. It’s tutu heaven, essentially, with women plucking an opulent new ensemble out of thin air at a moment’s notice. The tutus, designed by Yelena Zaytseva, using Yevgeny Ponomaryov’s 1899 sketches, were gorgeously detailed and delightfully wide and floaty, with light layers of fabric over a smaller, more rigid base that acted as a support.

The logic, if such a word can be used with Le Corsaire, is that of the dream world and of Imperial-era classical ballet. The spectacle is the thing, and nowhere more mesmerisingly than in the lengthy Act II scene known as Le Jardin Anime. A strictly organised garden is a metaphor for the hierarchies of ballet, cascading down from heroine Medora (I saw Alexandrova) and seconda donna Gulnare (Nina Kaptsova) to the women of the generously stocked seraglio. Men are reduced to holding floral hoops in the background while the women – magisterial prima ballerina, lively solo ballerina, demi-soloists and the corps – present themselves to advantage and support one another in the sisterhood with some gentle partnering.

The whole ballet could, in fact, be seen as a bouquet to the art of the ballerina – the men’s big dance moments are fleeting. Denis Medvedev gave a bouncy account of the Pas d’Esclave and would perhaps have given a better account of the famous Corsaire solo than did Vladislav Lantratov, who played Medora’s pirate lover Conrad. In this production Conrad, the male lead, gets the showy solo rather than it being the province of the slave, as is frequently seen. Lantratov had a fairly ordinary night at the Brisbane opening, failing to deliver the thunderous impact one hoped for.

Alexandrova’s warm stage presence, big jump and her beautiful arms were entrancing, although she didn’t quite scale the heights of grandeur called for in Le Jardin Anime. Kaptsova’s quick precision and spark lit up the stage and the Odalisques pas de trois was illuminated by Maria Vinogradova’s quiet radiance and exquisite line.

Not all the dancing hit the dramatic heights one might have anticipated from this storied company, but it was a hell of a show.

The Bright Stream

The Bright Stream

The Bright Stream is a light-hearted romance set on a collective farm at harvest time and comes with a dark history. The ballet was initially applauded but Soviet authorities soon came down hard on the collaborators. The librettist was sent to the gulag, the director of the Bolshoi at the time was demoted and Shostakovich wrote nothing more for the ballet. The ballet’s front cloth indirectly alludes to this, bearing, in Russian, quotes from Stalin and Pravda’s denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, “Muddle instead of music”. Near the end of the ballet a man with a scythe appears – not a farm hand, but the Grim Reaper. He doesn’t prevail here, however. In this happy tale he is dismissed.

In restaging The Bright Stream with his own choreography, Ratmansky paid homage to those persecuted artists and, I think, to the ordinary folk of Stalinist Russia who lived their lives at that time as we all do: doing our best with the hand we’re dealt, working, loving and laughing when we can. He also refocused attention on a neglected ballet score of extraordinary richness and appeal. Bright brass tones constantly add unusual weight and colour, lush strings herald romance (or the appearance of it) and folk and jazz rhythms add spice to the ever-danceable melodies and Ratmansky is ever alert to the possibilities for illumination of character or comedy.

There are shades of the shenanigans of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the role-swapping in The Marriage of Figaro to add to the magical texture. This is a place where many strange things will happen before the resolution.

Intrigues, flirtations, complications, impersonations and disguises rule the day when a ballet troupe from the city comes to perform at an obscure farm’s harvest festival. Through dance full of light and overflowing with joy, everything will be sorted out for Pyotr, a local agricultural student with a roving eye, and his loving wife Zina. The visiting Ballerina and her Ballet Dancer partner (they have no names other than that) may be the catalysts for mayhem but they also find its solution, which features the cross-dressing male dancer on pointe as a fetching sylph. A bicycle-riding dog adds to the merriment.

The Bright Stream was stocked with superb dancing that turned on a pin’s head from comedy to rapturous classicism. Even better was the beautifully judged acting from everyone on stage, in big roles and small. Leading the pack at the first performance were Alexandrova’s Ballerina and Kaptsova as a delectably airy Zina, remembering her earlier days in ballet by whizzing though a few sets of fouettes. The first don’t quite come off:  Zina feels at a disadvantage, the country bumpkin compared with the glamorous big-city dancer who is incidentally an old friend. Later, when she knows her would-be love-rat of a husband (manly, slightly goofy Mikhail Lobukhin) won’t succeed in his wooing of the Ballerina, Zina can reel the turns off with great elan.

The plot required Alexandrova to dress as a man, in which guise she was high-flying and zesty; when dressed in the long tulle skirt of the Ballerina, Ruslan Skvortsov was modest and appealing, his evocations of ballerina roles and demeanour having a sweet air of homage rather than send-up.

The Bright Stream had only four performances, and undoubtedly more could have been filled had the ballet been more of a known quantity before the event. Producers Leo Schofield and Ian McRae can’t afford to get things wrong with a venture of this magnitude, however. Better to leave ‘em wanting more.

And there will be more. After QPAC’s presentations of Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Hamburg Ballet and the Bolshoi comes … Well, the announcement is likely to be made next month. Bravi Schofield and McRae.

Versions of the Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream reviews appeared in The Australian on June 3 and June 10.