A new generation rises to the challenge

Sydney Opera House, April 29.

THE Australian Ballet’s first staging of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations alongside revivals of his coolly mysterious Monotones II and lucid, delightful one-act version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is well overdue. Ashton’s choreography hasn’t surfaced at the AB since 2004 (the last time La Fille mal gardée was presented) and other works have been absent since the 1970s and 1980s.

That means few of the AB’s dancers have experience with Ashton, something that may account for the very late announcement of casting. Ashton ballets seem to be protected like the crown jewels by those charged with their care. Fair enough. The Royal Ballet’s founder choreographer is one of the 20th century’s most important dance figures and his style, in which wit, high sophistication and virtuosity are seen through a veil of modesty and restraint, is not an easy one to capture.

This program is far and away the most challenging of the year for these dancers and the most intriguing for balletomanes. On opening night the AB met the challenges with great integrity. (Scroll down for updates on later casts.)

Madeleine Eastoe and Joseph Chapman in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Madeleine Eastoe and Joseph Chapman in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Dream couldn’t look prettier in David Walker’s gossamer designs as fairies and mortals fall in and out of love in a whirlwind 50 minutes. Ballet is so very good at compression; all the essentials are there, starting with the tussle between Oberon and Titania for possession of the little Indian Boy that leads to much meddling in everyone’s affairs.

Airiness and delicacy reign in this moonlit world, even in the case of whirling, spinning, high-flying Puck and rustic Bottom when turned into an ass, his black pointe shoes a splendid stand-in for hoofs. Ashton calls for almost impossibly fleet, sparkling feet contrasted with luscious upper bodies and inner glow rather than external show. Wednesday’s first cast caught the light as did Nicolette Fraillon and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s radiant music.

Combining muscular presence with a poetic soul, Kevin Jackson (Oberon) grows in stature with every performance; about-to-retire Madeleine Eastoe (Titania) was as dewy as a teenager; Joseph Chapman (Bottom) hopped and ran on pointe as if born to it; and Chengwu Guo was a gravity-defying, ultra-charming Puck who won every heart. His speed, and elevation were a wonder but much more thrilling was the way he used bravura steps to illuminate Puck’s character and story. Just as it should be.

Kondo, Martino, Hendricks and Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

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

The Dream draws the evening to a happy close but the more important event is the acquisition of Symphonic Variations, considered to be Ashton’s defining work. An 18-minute sextet to Cesar Franck’s music for piano and orchestra, the plotless paean to beauty, peace, simplicity and classical harmony was made in 1946 and embraced by a British public deeply scarred by World War II. In Ashton simplicity, of course, does not mean simple. The bodies of the dancers are like willows – graceful, infinitely flexible, turning this way and that, tranquil yet resilient.

Symphonic Variations is intricately structured and overflows with lustrous, evocative imagery. In a particularly lovely repeated gesture the women curve an arm protectively around a partner’s head; several times after all have skimmed across and around the stage – the women and the men in separate groups of three – the six dancers join hands in an echo of bucolic folk-dancing. In the pared-back white costumes and in some groupings there are also intimations of Balanchine’s Apollo but the glorious flow of bodies and action is all Ashton’s own.

While occasionally there was evidence of some strain there was a fine account of Symphonic Variations from its first cast: soloist Robyn Hendricks and principals Amber Scott and Ako Kondo (elevated to that rank during the Sydney Giselle season just passed); and corps member (as he was then) Cristiano Martino, choryphée Christopher Rodgers-Wilson and soloist Brett Chynoweth. Hendricks in particular glowed from within, Martino was an imposing presence and Chynoweth’s buoyancy and crystalline shapes in the air linger in the memory.

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in Monotones II. Photo: Daniel Boud

Wright, Kusen and Simon in Monotones II. Photo: Daniel Boud

The presence of dancers from right across the ranks made for an opening night of unusual interest. As future casting shows, Martino would appear to be one to watch as he is also down for Monotones II and has several appearances as Oberon to come, as do other junior men. Chynoweth is, not surprisingly, one of the Pucks, but that role will also be danced by corps men Marcus Morelli and Cameron Hunter.

Monotones II, which opens the program, is a trio for one woman and two men made in 1965 for a gala, no less. It must be one of the most enduring works ever made for such an event. Ashton was inspired by 1960s moon exploration and the way people might move in its tenuous gravity. The woman – refined, poised soloist Natasha Kusen in the first cast – could be some kind of remote goddess attended by her male acolytes. Certainly the three appear suitably alien, clad entirely in second-skin white bodysuits and caps.

It’s a look that takes quite a lot of personal glamour to carry off and Brett Simon and Jared Wright could have exuded a touch more of that. Still, Monotones II stands up much, much better than you might expect as its three living, moving sculptures serenely move through the ethereal orchestral version of Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies.

With so many dancers in featured roles in this program it is, well, a dream for talent spotters. It was a great pleasure to see Hendricks and Kusen also featured in The Dream on opening night (as Hermia and Helena), playing the comedy sweetly with the Lysander of Rudy Hawkes and Demetrius of Jacob Sofer.

I see The Dream twice more, at the May 6 matinee and May 8. I will update as I go.

Matinee, Wednesday May 6

On a Saturday matinee the house is packed with exuberant youngsters. Not so on a school day. It was a fairly quiet audience – let’s put it that way – although The Dream got a rousing reception. Things were quieter for Monotones II and Symphonic Variations, and fair enough. Neither was given a performance for the ages. The Monotones II cast was the one I saw on opening night – Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright. Kusen was again luminous – her line pristine, her arms glorious – but the men’s support of her was a little wobbly. This is performance under an unforgiving microscope.

Symphonic Variations was unacceptably scrappy. Andrew Killian had a bad day with his double tours and the cast – the others were Lana Jones, Ingrid Gow, Amanda McGuigan, Ty King-Wall and Andrew Wright – didn’t seem fully at one with each other or all of the work’s complexities, although Jones stood out for her calm poise. Another good thing: McGuigan, a long-legged beauty in the corps de ballet who joined the AB last year, is the real deal. Not that she’s a novice. McGuigan has danced with American Ballet Theatre and Dutch National Ballet and has international gloss. Put her on the watch list. (I see her in Monotones II on Friday, which should be wonderful.)

Also on the watch list is Cristiano Martino, also in the corps but surely not for long. [Note: Martino was promoted to coryphée on May 11.] He’s been with the company for only two years and yet finds himself first-cast Symphonic Variations, cast in Monotones II for some performances and – this is the biggie – is one of the Oberons in The Dream. The others are principals Kevin Jackson, Adam Bull and Ty King-Wall, with coryphée Jared Wright – he recently made his debut as Albrecht – also getting two performances in Sydney. Vastly experienced senior artist Miwako Kubota is Titania to both the junior men.

Martino has stage presence, alert dramatic instincts, a powerful leap and he and Kubota sparked sexily off one another. Martino’s partnering is a work in progress and he appeared to be getting very, very tired by the end of this tough role but it was a surprisingly mature and highly promising performance from one so new to the business.

Another corps de ballet member, Marcus Morelli, was the Puck and his exuberance and sense of fun conquered the audience. He managed the technical challenges well although he needs more polish and finesse. But he’s fast, full of beans and put on a great show.

Friday May 8

The Australian Ballet’s choreographic development program Bodytorque started 11 years ago as a Sydney-only project with an individual personality. It was staged not at the Sydney Opera House but at the Sydney Theatre (recently renamed the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay) and usually had five performances featuring five choreographers or thereabouts, with some building on the experience of having made work for previous Bodytorques. Last year the program decamped to Melbourne, where there were three performances in the State Theatre. Among last year’s participants was Richard House – also a 2013 Bodytorquer – and he is a featured Bodytorque artist this year. Indeed he is one of only two Bodytorque choreographers this year.

Richard House's From Something, To Nothing. Photo: Daniel Boud

Richard House’s From Something, To Nothing. Photo: Daniel Boud

Bodytorque 2015 has just four dates in the calendar, two in Sydney and two in Melbourne, and on each evening there is just one new work, presented after a mainstage performance. The audience is invited to stay on to see it after the all-Ashton The Dream program or the contemporary program 20:21 at no additional cost.

House’s From Something, To Nothing, for three couples, received its premiere in Sydney last Friday following The Dream. The music of Satie (Gnossiennes 4 and 5) and Rachmaninov (Elegie for piano and cello) beautifully played by Christian Lillicrap and Andrew Hines, the soft dusk of Graham Silver’s lighting design and Kat Chan’s romantically layered pale costumes established a restrained and enigmatic atmosphere in which stillness and calm alternated with complex close partnering. House creates strong stage pictures and attractive classically based dance and I would have been happy to see where the work might go. But perhaps in calling it From Something, To Nothing, House is acknowledging that a piece lasting 10 or 15 minutes doesn’t really have anywhere to go and that creating a wistful, elegiac mood is the most one can do. The three couples – Heidi Martin and Charles Thompson, Rina Nemoto and Mitchell Rayner and particularly Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden – were elegant and sophisticated.

Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden. Photo: Daniel Boud

Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden. Photo: Daniel Boud

House’s work will be seen again after The Dream in Melbourne on June 12. Another choreographer, as yet unnamed, will create work to be seen after 20:21 in Melbourne on September 4 and Sydney on November 20.

House was seen earlier in the evening in dancer mode, joining Amanda McGuigan and Brodie James for The Dream program’s opening ballet, Monotones II. Although they several times rushed a pose or movement in a ballet that relies on seamless flow, they looked wonderful together.

Another viewing of The Dream confirmed how splendidly the AB women have absorbed the darting, weaving, swooping qualities that define the fairy attendants. The gorgeous sweep of necks, arms and upper bodies, the alert heads and eyes and quicksilver feet are all there.

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

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

Friday’s performance was also notable for Brett Chynoweth’s Puck. The part is a whirlwind of multiple pirouettes, leaps during which the lower legs carve out tight little circles, heady dashes across the stage and the humorous byplay that makes Puck a character, not just a marvel of pyrotechnics. Chynoweth’s razor-sharp accuracy is a marvel and he seems to find plenty of time in the air to get all the complexities done and dusted without strain.

One might think he is typecasting for this type of role, but that would be to forget his debut as the Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in Sydney last year. Chynoweth gave a deeply poetic performance – indeed, one of the most affecting I’ve seen in this ballet. And I’ve seen a few.

The Dream ends May 16. Melbourne, June 4-14; Adelaide, July 8-9.

One evening, four works

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, April 29.

LET’S start with the very best bit first. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra had a particularly good night on Tuesday under Australian Ballet music director Nicolette Fraillon’s leadership. The quadruple bill Chroma covers a lot of ground: Mozart for Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort and Sechs Tanze, Tchaikovsky’s homage to Mozart for a new piece by Stephen Baynes and Joby Talbot’s White Stripes-inspired score, written in 2006 for the Wayne McGregor work that gives this program its title.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Wayne McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Jess Bialek

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Photo: Jess Bialek

Talbot’s music is gorgeously textured and richly coloured as well as providing a super-solid yet flexible base for McGregor’s out-there movement. It rocks and it rolls, often luxuriously and lyrically, and the AOBO conveyed the excitement and tension. The Kylian works are performed to Mozart’s Six German Dances and the sublime slow movements from his piano concertos numbers 21 and 23 (at the first performance the AB’s principal pianist Stuart Macklin was the fine soloist), and as a bonus Fraillon threw in the allegro first movement from Mozart’s Divertimento in D to provide a lively entr’acte between the two short Kylians.

McGregor’s piece is not without intimations of human connection but they are fleeting and enigmatic, as is so much else. In seven swiftly moving, grandly conceived scenes the choreographer captures on the dancer’s body some of the myriad neural impulses that make it move, think and feel. Undulation, distortion and hyper-extension are a big part of the movement language but we can also see fragments of the classical ideal shimmering through Chroma. The juxtapositions are absorbing: small and large, inner and outer, action and repose, contemporary and traditional, the body and the space it occupies.

On Tuesday night the AB cast of 10 didn’t entirely get on top of Chroma’s fantastically difficult transitions, many happening in a microsecond, from crisp to liquid and back again. There wasn’t enough bite and drama, although plenty of lovely moments in a work that repays repeated viewings. Andrew Killian, Brett Chynoweth and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson had plenty of attack in the fierce trio in the middle of the work and Amber Scott and Adam Bull gave a beautiful account of the quiet pas de deux that immediately follows.

Adam Bull and Robyn Hendricks in Petite Mort. Photo: Jess Bialek

Adam Bull and Robyn Hendricks in Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort. Photo: Jess Bialek

Petite Mort and Sechs Tanze were given rousing performances on Tuesday, possibly a little over the top in Sechs Tanze but in keeping with its gaiety in the face of whatever the fates decree. Four couples, dressed in what look like 18th century undergarments, engage in lots of horseplay, bouncing and jumping in unexpected, often surreal, but very playful ways. They could be servants breaking loose while the master is away, perhaps. There is certainly an undercurrent of trouble. The piece is introduced with the sound of thunder and at the end, when the music stops, the men and women retreat a little fearfully – an aspect of the work not fully brought out at this performance.

Despite one or two scrappy moments Petite Mort (performed before Sechs Tanze) again demonstrated the AB’s affinity for Kylian. In this ballet rousing is indeed the mot juste, as the title is a euphemism for orgasm. There are men with fencing foils, women in corsets, intimations of darkness and some outstandingly sexy dancing with lots of little orgasmic shudders.

In the middle came Baynes’s new Art to Sky. At its premiere it felt uncertain in tone and looked uninspiring in construction. There was a main man (Andrew Killian), a woman who seemed to represent a romantic ideal (Madeleine Eastoe, wasted) and a ballerina with a tiara (Lana Jones), but little sense of tension or compelling purpose. Elements of jocularity emerged that had the audience tittering a little unsurely and that felt unmotivated. Perhaps it would have been better to revive one of Baynes’s earlier one-act ballets, of which there are many stronger examples.

The costumes and set for Art to Sky do not help matters – there is a kind of grotto effect and most of the dancers are dressed as if in very neat practice gear. Hugh Colman, responsible for both aspects of the design, appeared to be having a very rare off day. Only days before Chroma I admired Colman’s charming design for Queensland Ballet’s Coppelia and he is also the designer of the glamorous tutus for Ballet Imperial, part of the Imperial Suite program that is in repertory with Chroma.

The decision to have two mixed-bill programs rather than the usual one would appear to be a very good one. It’s hard to sell 20 performances of anything other than a known story ballet, so to divide the season between Chroma and Imperial Suite could pay dividends. If audiences aren’t attracted by the likes of McGregor and Kylian, there’s the classical double of Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc to offer a big tutu fest.

Chroma alternates with Imperial Suite. Both end on May 17.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on May 1.

Don Quixote x 6

The Australian Ballet, six performances in March and April 2013

BALLET’S reliance on and reverence for its history is powerful in so many ways. In the Australian Ballet’s 2013 Melbourne and Sydney seasons of Don Quixote the women dancing Kitri were coached by former American Ballet Theatre principal Cynthia Harvey; the leading men prepared under the eye of former AB principal artist Steven Heathcote, who also appeared with distinction as the Don in many performances.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvey for a program essay and discovered that among the sources for her interpretation of Kitri – captured on DVD with Mikhail Baryshnikov – was Kirov star Ninel Kurgapkina, who was one of the last pupils of Agrippina Vaganova, who in turn had a direct connection with Marius Petipa. Rudolf Nureyev’s production, made on the AB in 1970, is based on Petipa’s work, and of course Nureyev brought to the company his own web of important connections.

Daniel Gaudiello and Lana Jones in Don Quixote. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Lana Jones in Don Quixote. Photo: Jeff Busby

That’s the big picture. Ballet connections work on the micro scale as well. I took my young great-niece to see Don Q at the April 20 matinee, as she has become a keen student about to embark on the next step of taking private lessons to supplement her ballet classes. Her mother, my niece, came along too and was reminded of her own days as a ballet student: at one point she danced alongside AB soloist Matthew Donnelly, who that day was performing the role of Gamache with considerable elan.

Which is a long way of saying it didn’t seem an entirely mad thing for me to see six performances of Don Q in the space of four and a half weeks, with five of them crammed into two weeks. I’m finding the jaunty Minkus ear-worms hard to banish but it turned out to be a valuable exercise. That is, if one can discount the completely mad plot, such as it is, and the regrettable lapse into jazz hands and shoulders amongst the gypsies of Act II.

In order of Kitri/Basilio pairings it went like this: Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev guesting in Melbourne; Leanne Stojmenov and Ty King-Wall; Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo, guesting from Stuttgart Ballet in Sydney; Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo; Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello; and Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. When the season ends on April 24 I will have missed only one cast, that led by Reiko Hombo and Yosvani Ramos – a pity, as Ramos leaves the company immediately after Don Q.

One dancer we unfortunately wouldn’t see is the AB’s longest-serving principal artist (since 2002), Lucinda Dunn. She was a spectacular Kitri when the AB last staged Don Q in 2007, but has been with the company for 22 years and it wasn’t a surprise to see her name missing from the casting this time around. Dunn is rightly choosing her repertoire carefully now.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

Osipova and Vasiliev (March 16) were, of course astonishing. Osipova can zip across and around a stage about twice as fast as anyone else and throws out megawatts of charisma and polish. Vasiliev seems to have a jet-pack somewhere about his person as he performs the apparently impossible, both in the air and on the ground. It isn’t fair to compare anyone to them, although Badenes (April 6, evening) wasn’t far behind Osipova from a technical perspective and I preferred her characterisation, which was sunny and effortlessly on top of all the by-play. Perhaps Badenes’s Spanish heritage is the key. Camargo was exceptionally confident and charming, if a touch untidy from time to time. Still, they made a sparky couple and the AB seemed energised by them and – if this isn’t a paradox – more relaxed than when faced with the Vasipova tornado.

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

I thought I should try to see senior artist King-Wall as it was clear he was knocking on the door of the principals’ dressing room. The afternoon of April 6 looked good for this, and so did King-Wall. AB artistic director David McAllister came on stage at the end of the performance to announce the promotion. King-Wall isn’t the most natural choice for Basilio. He is more the prince than the joker, but he hit the right comic moments without over-playing them, exploited his elegant line and partnered Stojmenov beautifully. (An aside: it’s a pleasure to see the care with which most of the AB men partner, with what we might describe as manly tenderness.)

Stojmenov is a terrific Kitri, fleet of foot, cheerful of temperament and with a good dash of sexiness. Of all the women, she made the most of a moment in Kitri’s grand pas de deux variation when a swirling fan movement around the torso contrasts sensuously with a series of crisp echappes.

The next must-see was Guo/Kondo (April 13, evening). Guo is a real fire-cracker and a self-selector for Basilio. He came into the season as a soloist and emerged as a senior artist. Quite right too. It was interesting to see his Gypsy Boy in the Osipova/Vasiliev performance in Melbourne. He finished off with an unorthodox but joyous backflip, as if to acknowledge the excitement and virtuosity of the evening – essentially to put himself in the same show as the superstars. Gorgeous.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

As Basilio Guo showed a very clean pair of heels. Like Vasiliev he isn’t tall and it helps him in the air, where he is exciting. The stage – particularly in Sydney – is too small for his space-eating energy. And he’s a sweetheart, fun and bubbly. Guo didn’t attempt the one-arm lift in Act I but tossed in a little something else, cheekily scratching his calf with his foot while holding Kondo aloft.

Kondo is a lovely soloist whose interpretation is still somewhat unformed. It felt as if the role was sitting on top of her rather than being part of her and she doesn’t have the most fluent back, which is a fine attribute to have in a Kitri. But Kondo and Guo were well matched in ballon and elevation.

The first cast of Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello got a well-deserved and well-received opening night (I saw them later, on April 16). Jones offered big, expansive dancing, extending everything to the max. Gaudiello was immaculately precise in allegro and plush in adagio. And he gave great guitar spin as he tossed the instrument over his head after Basilio’s pseudo musical interlude in Act I. It was a performance full of attractive brio.

Finally came Eastoe and Jackson (April 20, matinee). Don Q isn’t the ballet that best suits their temperaments – the soulful side of the street is where they excel. It goes without saying Eastoe was an enchanting Dulcinea and her floaty balances were divine, but there were few fireworks, apart from when Jackson pulled off a v-e-r-y long-held single-arm lift in Act I.

There was mixed success in some of the secondary roles. Principal Andrew Killian (Espada) upped the ante after a quite subdued showing in the Osipova/Vasiliev  performance but could have projected even more and Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Wright got the bullfighter’s shapes without much of his macho glamour. Senior artists Miwako Kubota and Juliet Burnett were fine Dryad queens but principal Amber Scott, a dancer of great lyrical gifts, was spooked by the grand fouette sequence.

It’s always worth taking a close look at those cast as Amour as they are often on the up and up (the role reminds me of Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro – it’s a small soprano part aficionados scope out for stars of the future). Hombo is perhaps a little too assertive for Amour these days; Halaina Hills, Jessica Fyfe and Benedicte Bernet were warmer, sweeter. Hills could cut back on the sugar a bit, Fyfe was delightful but wayward musically at the performance I saw, and Benedicte Bernet – a candidate in this year’s Telstra Ballet Dancer Award – was very good.

What other stray thoughts emerged? Well, that the women of the corps were too often out of kilter in the vision scene; that the long diaphanous cape Kitri wears at the beginning of the ballet should never, not ever, be worn over a tutu as it is at the beginning of the vision scene; that Brett Chynoweth, recently promoted to soloist, does a great Gypsy Boy whip crack and it’s energising to see how passionately he dances; and that after all those Don Qs it will be a relief to get to the palate cleansers that the upcoming Vanguard and the brief Canberra-only program Symmetries promise to be.

Vanguard, Sydney, April 30-May 18; Melbourne, June 6-17.

Symmetries, Canberra, May 23-25. It features a new Garry Stewart work, Monument, alongside Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments (also part of the Vanguard program) and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux.