The Great Gatsby, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 14.

Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon is an old and highly successful hand at creating narrative ballets but he gave himself a tough assignment with this one. His 2013 dance translation of The Great Gatsby is entirely faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best novel while at the same time floating over what really lies at its heart.

Gatsby’s exterior world of frenetic parties and unattainable lovers is eminently stage-worthy and West Australian Ballet looks wonderful in Nixon’s evocation of jazz-age, Prohibition-flouting high society. The frocks are divine, the women glamorous, the men have never seemed sleeker and the 1920s dances are a delight.

Matthew Edwardson and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Edwardson (front) as Young Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Far more difficult to convey are the fluttering nuances of character and shades of meaning that make the novel such an unsettling picture of a changing country with the post-war jitters.

How to express that Daisy’s voice is “full of money”, as Gatsby puts it? Or that Gatsby was once the impoverished nobody Jimmy Gatz? Or that Nick Carraway is the cousin of Gatsby’s lost love Daisy, and thus is being used by his now fabulously wealthy neighbour? (I am reminded of George Balanchine’s famous assertion that “there are no mothers-in-law in ballet”. Certain specifics of kinship are not easily conveyed wordlessly.)

Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s fruitless pursuit of Daisy at several removes through Nick’s eyes as he looks back. In its concentration on the surface narrative the ballet loses those layers and Fitzgerald’s mood of evanescence with them, despite Nixon’s repeated flashbacks showing a young Gatsby wooing Daisy. The cartoonish depiction of Gatsby’s mob connections – men slinking about in black trench coats – doesn’t help.

The Great Gatsby nevertheless has much to enjoy, even if it’s advisable for those not steeped in the novel to take a solid look at the synopsis ahead of time.

A lively selection of 1920s-flavoured music by Richard Rodney Bennett, some taken from his film scores, accompanies lots of swiftly changing scenes. The use of a movement from his 1990 Percussion Concerto is particularly effective and Bennett’s history as a jazz pianist informs the score’s best moments. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, with Myron Romanul at the helm, gave a zesty account of it on opening night.

Melissa Boniface and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Lehmann (rear) and Melissa Boniface (front) in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Above all there were terrific performances from all in the first cast, no mean feat when there are nine key characters.

Gakuro Matsui (the elegant, mysterious Gatsby), Chihiro Nomura (careless, feckless Daisy) and Oliver Edwardson (watchful Nick Carraway) were as effective as the limits of their characters allowed. Gatsby is the outsider who stands aloof at his own parties, is seen gazing wistfully across the water at the light on the end of Daisy’s jetty, or remembering his early days with Daisy. It makes him an elusive character, even when he finally gets Daisy in his arms for rapturous pas de deux in both acts. Which is as it should be from the Fitzgerald point of view, even if it makes the role a difficult one onstage.

Matthew Edwardson and Carina Roberts were fresh as the young Gatsby and Daisy while Brooke Widdison-Jacobs was superbly cast as Daisy’s golf-champion friend Jordan Baker, wielding a cool, amused demeanour and long sporty limbs.

The really juicy parts, however, are for Daisy’s unfaithful husband Tom, his lover Myrtle and Myrtle’s husband George. They get to be vividly steamy and sexy. Matthew Lehmann looked super sharp and gave Tom virile presence. He had looked out of sorts earlier in the year in Don Quixote but now seemed refreshed and renewed. Liam Green’s George was urgent with longing for his errant wife and Melissa Boniface was sensational as the passionate, doomed Myrtle. Now here was a character for a dancer to get her teeth into.

The Great Gatsby ends September 30.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on September 18.

Ballet at the Quarry

Five by Night, West Australian Ballet, Perth, February 10

The Quarry Amphitheatre is one of the loveliest performing arts venues in the world. The former limestone quarry is situated in bushland with views of the city beyond and on a balmy night – and that’s pretty much expected in February – there is nothing finer than to sit on one of the terraced rows with a picnic and some delicious West Australian wine as the sun goes down.

(Idle thought: is the only good thing about Western Australia’s refusal to participate in daylight saving that Quarry performances can start at 8pm rather than 9pm?)

Not surprisingly, West Australian Ballet’s long-standing annual Quarry season is a perennial favourite with Perth audiences and indeed for many may be their only ballet experience of the year. So be it. The season is usually a sell-out or close to it and the relaxed atmosphere means a different kind of programming can be offered than that in WAB’s home theatre, His Majesty’s.

The amphitheatre celebrates its 30th anniversary in November this year and WAB has been with it pretty much all the way. It’s a valuable tradition.

Polly Hilton performing In Black in Five by Night Ballet at the Quarry. Photo Sergey Pevnev

Polly Hilton in Andre Santos’s In Black. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

This year there are five short works: two by David Dawson, whose work hasn’t been seen at WAB for 16 years; one by European-based Australian dancer and choreographer Craig Davidson; and two from WAB dancers. One of the latter pieces is a group effort, something that could seem a recipe for disaster but which in fact was light-hearted and enjoyable.

Soloist Andre Santos is responsible for the clear standout of the night, In Black. It’s an extension of a piece he made in 2014 for WAB’s choreographic development program Genesis and it’s tremendous fun, giving an ambitiously large group of dancers – 13 – a fizzingly fast workout. Despite his relative inexperience as a choreographer Santos has an excellent eye. His construction is sound as he confidently groups and regroups dancers to concentrate the eye on the whole, on smaller gatherings or on individuals. The fact that he has created his dance on eight women and five men tells something in itself: he understands the interest one can get from unequal numbers even in completely abstract work. And he would appear to be pragmatic. The truth is that WAB’s women are stronger at present as a group than the men. Why not use more of them?

Perhaps the most striking feature of In Black was its dynamics. Santos has dancers moving very quickly indeed to the beat – the music is a mixed bag of tracks by French composers René Aubry and Woodkid and Canadian dancer and composer Davidson Jaconello – and then he throws in a luxurious leg extension that stretches not only the body but time and rhythm too. And then the dancer is off again. It’s exhilarating.

In Black features a leading couple (Polly Hilton and Christian Luck on the night I attended), a trio of women (Sarah Hepburn, Kymberleigh Cowley and Vida Polokov) and four male-female couples (Florence Leroux-Coléno and Liam Green, Meg Parry and Adam Alzaim, Victoria Maughan and Alessio Scognamiglio, Phebe Sleeman and Jesse Homes).

Santos gives the women terrifically lively material and celebrates their attack. I loved that they are not manhandled endlessly and that he gives the four secondary men a punchy quartet in which they occasionally support one another. All the dancers were wonderful but Hilton has to be singled out for her leggy glamour and to-the-edge fearlessness.

In Black closed Five by Night in style. The title, by the way, is echoed in the costume design, also by Santos. He put the men in sleek tops and shorts and the women in elegant variations of little black dresses.

Earlier in the evening Hilton was also prominent in To the Pointe, choreographed by WAB dancers including Santos with Melissa Boniface, Victoria Maughan, Meg Parry, Jayne Smeulders and breakdancer and guest artist Pepito. To the Pointe isn’t a ballet for the ages but it is the kind of entertainment that suits the Quarry. In a mash-up of classical moves, gymnastics and street dance, Pepito wowed with virtuosic spins on head and shoulders and Smeulders amazed with super-fast backflips and a no-hands cartwheel. Smeulders is apparently to retire this year but looks as if she could continue for much longer. She turned 40 last year but is ageless.

Matthew Lehmann and Sandy Delasalle-Scannella performing On the Nature of Daylight in Five by Night Ballet at the Quarry. Photo Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Lehman and Sandy Delasalle in On the Nature of Daylight. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

David Dawson’s 5, to an arrangement by David Coleman of music by Adolphe Adam for Giselle (you’d be hard-pressed to recognise it), puts three women in the crispest of white tutus by Yumiko Takeshima and gives them two male supporters. It’s an energetic start to Five by Night, danced with exceptional verve, polish and poise at the performance I saw by the trio of Sarah Hepburn, Chihiro Nomura and Carina Roberts. It was the first appearance in their roles for twins Oliver and Matthew Edwardson, who needed to impose themselves rather more strongly and precisely on the classical material.

Dawson’s On the Nature of Daylight is a pas de deux for WAB ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle and principal artist Matthew Lehmann, who last year had a moment with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s La Pluie. On the Nature of Daylight is notable for its difficult lifts, Max Richter score and Lehmann’s strong partnering of the elegant Delasalle but is more a pièce d’occasion than anything else.

Craig Davidson’s Ambiguous Content, for four couples (Florence Leroux-Coléno and Alessio Scognamiglio, Nikki Blain and Andrew Radak, Chihiro Nomura and Oliver Edwardson, Brook Widdison-Jacobs and Christopher Hill), is highly competent but generic neo-classical dance. Leroux-Coléno lit up the stage whenever she appeared – she is a wonderful artist – and Widdison-Jacobs looked sleek and refined, although also somewhat chilly and abstracted. She had reason to look distant, however, as she had the misfortune to be manipulated by one man, then two, then three. Why do (mostly male) choreographers insist on this tediousness?

Five by Night ends on February 27.

Disclosure: I am a member of West Australian Ballet’s artistic review panel, which makes independent reports to the WAB board on artistic matters.