Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

State Theatre, Melbourne, June 30

Stanton Welch looked thrilled after the premiere of his Romeo and Juliet in Melbourne, as he should have. The former Australian Ballet dancer and current AB resident choreographer had brought his own company, Houston Ballet, home. In the audience – along with supporters from Houston – was a galaxy of AB principal artists former and present. I saw Amber Scott, Ty King-Wall, Madeleine Eastoe, Rachel Rawlins, Olivia Bell (she is on the AB board) and, of course Stanton’s brother Damien and his wife Kirsty Martin. Ballet royalty Marilyn Jones, the Welch brothers’ mother, was there too. It was quite a night. (Also watching: American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist David Hallberg, who has been kept offstage for some time due to injury. His Kenneth MacMillan Romeo with Natalia Osipova as his Juliet, seen in New York with ABT in 2012, remains one of my greatest of great nights in the theatre.)

Perhaps it’s not surprising to see in Houston Ballet qualities similar to those of The Australian Ballet. This is in Welch’s blood. I suspect, too, that his Texan audience delights in the way the company dances spaciously, with natural ease and lack of pretension. These are exceptionally attractive traits. There’s no shortage of technical dash but character, presence and skin-bursting vitality are to the fore. Welch honours the traditional classical language but loosens it too so it doesn’t look or feel stagey. Well, mostly. The Friar Lawrence scenes were welcome for giving local audiences a chance to see former AB member Steven Woodgate again but looked rather old-fashioned.

HB2016_R&J_Karina González_1660_Photo Jeff Busby

Karina Gonzalez as Juliet in Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Jeff Busby

The swift, headlong drama of Shakespeare’s play is given full value in Welch’s production and was buoyed on opening night by a full-blooded performance of the Prokofiev score by Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Houston Ballet’s music director Ermanno Florio. Welch is a choreographer for whom more is more and in Romeo and Juliet he uses that tendency to strong dramatic effect. The city of Verona is a robust, busy, lively society with strong, individual women and men always ready for a lark or a fight. The big picture was terrific and given handsome visual appeal by Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s Renaissance-flavoured sets and costumes.

Most productions of Romeo and Juliet shorten the list of dramatis personae for the sake of clarity. It’s easier for the audience to grasp who is who. Welch dives right in at the deep end. Shakespeare wrote about “two households, both alike in dignity” – the Montagues and the Capulets. Welch makes more prominent the third house in the drama, that of the ruler Prince Escalus, which includes Romeo’s wild friend Mercutio and Juliet’s intended husband Count Paris. Welch gives Mercutio’s brother Valentine a part and enjoyably includes another of Romeo’s friends, Balthasar. Friar John, bearing the letter to the banished Romeo that goes astray, is also seen in an effective vignette. It takes a little while to sort out who is who but adds greatly to the texture of the story and the stage picture.

Welch took out a bit of insurance for Thursday’s opening by fielding all his principal artists bar one (Yuriko Kajiya is Rosaline at some performances). Sara Webb, for instance, took the relatively small role of Romeo’s former love Rosaline and also dances Juliet in this season, as does Melody Mennite, who on opening night was a tavern owner’s daughter. Ian Casady, who is Mennite’s Romeo, was Count Paris on opening night. The lusty, magnetic first-cast Mercutio, former American Ballet Theatre soloist Jared Matthews, also dances Romeo (partnering Webb). Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, who was promoted to principal only three weeks ago after debuting as Albrecht (he is still listed as a first soloist in the program; that’s how new his promotion is), took the minor role of Gregory, member of the house of Capulet.

That said, Welch’s production demands that everyone, from top to bottom, be individual and engaged. The company looked splendid.

First-cast leads Katrina González and Connor Walsh were a fresh, glowing pair of lovers most credibly besotted with each other. The balcony pas de deux was rapturous, studded with exciting lifts and catches that Walsh made look instinctive. And why not, with a Juliet as entrancing as González? Her smile almost made Lisa J. Pinkham’s excellent lighting redundant and she has eyes eloquent and beautiful enough to make angels weep.

Welch’s desire to keep the action flowing and swelling sometimes leads to an over-reliance on certain surefire steps – the men certainly do many double tours (and do them well) – but the fire and passion make it a very seductive evening.

Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet ends in Melbourne July 9.

La Sylphide

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, November 7

WHAT to do about a ballet as dreamily brief as La Sylphide? In the middle of this year West Australian Ballet took the minimalist approach and added nothing to fill out the evening. Over the years the Australian Ballet has taken several paths.

In 1996, under Maina Gielgud’s directorship (and in her final year at the AB), I saw Bournonville’s La Sylphide (1836) in Brisbane in July paired with the premiere of Stanton’s Welch’s Red Earth. Later in the year, in Sydney, La Sylphide shared the bill with Jiri Kylian’s Stepping Stones (1991). Both were a “something old, something new” combination that may appear to be, as Gielgud wrote about the Kylian program, ‘’as extreme a contrast as you can get”. In fact a case can be made for a connection, not only between La Sylphide and Stepping Stones, but also Stepping Stones and Red Earth, and therefore La Sylphide, if that’s not too circuitous.

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kylian, who came to Australia to oversee the final rehearsals of the first AB season of Stepping Stones, wrote in a program note of attending a 1980 gathering of Aborigines in northern Australia and being “deeply impressed by the central role which dance seemed to play in their lives”. He asked an old man why this was so, and received this response: “Because my father taught me and because I must hand my dance on to my son.” Culture equals history.

Kylian then wrote: “There is a line in my work which has – since then – been reflecting on this view of existence.” He was interested in “the traces old civilisations have left, traditions which show the way from out of a living past”. Welch’s Red Earth was concerned with the struggles white settlers had in trying to impose themselves on the ancient soil of Australia, and was danced to Peter Sculthorpe’s Nourlangie. (I think I’m right in saying Red Earth hasn’t been revived by the AB, although Welch staged it for Houston Ballet, where he is artistic director, in 2007.) As Sculthorpe wrote in a program note, the music’s name comes from a sacred rock in Kakadu and while the piece is not intended to be descriptive, “its concern is with my feelings about this powerful and serene place”.

It can be profitable to think of La Sylphide in the light of such reflections as more than just a silly fairy story, gossamer-light though it may appear. While its history is the swiftest blink of an eye compared with that of Aboriginal dance, La Sylphide comes, nevertheless, from the earliest days of what we recognise as ballet performance. Furthermore, ballet shares the old Aboriginal man’s tradition of – and reverence for – transmitting stories and history from person to person and body to body.

As for spiritual significance, the two traditions are divided by a gulf as wide and as old as the Australian continent. Yet in La Sylphide, as in Swan Lake and Giselle, there is a deep yearning for something beyond the tangible; a transcendence of quotidian relationships and responsibilities. In those three ballets, however, the spirit world represents the elusive and unattainable rather than Sculthorpe’s serenity.

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

My cast list from the November 30, 1996, matinee performance of Stepping Stones, by the way, shows it was danced by Vicki Attard, Miranda Coney, Lynette Wills, Rachael Read, Geon van der Wyst, Damien Welch, Li Cunxin and Adam Marchant. Lucinda Dunn was the Sylph on that occasion. I saw three other performances in that Sydney season, and other casts of Stepping Stones included Lisa Bolte, Kirsty Martin, Robert Curran and David McAllister. What riches.

In 2005, under McAllister’s directorship, the AB went for stylistic unity, prefacing La Sylphide with two short Bournonville pieces – an excerpt from Le Conservatoire and the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano – and Walter Bourke’s fizzy, taxing1974 Grand Tarantella. The Grand Tarantella casts included current principals Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello (then coryphée and corp de ballet member respectively); and Lana Jones (then a coryphée) with Remi Wortmeyer, now a principal with Dutch National Ballet. Good to see McAllister’s eye was nicely in.

Which is all a long way of getting to the current AB La Sylphide, in which the Romantic ballet is preceded by the wedding celebration from Petipa’s version of Paquita (1881), based on Joseph Mazilier’s 1846 original, in which Petipa himself once danced. Early Romantic ballet had given way to the grand classical style dominated by Petipa, but the bloodline is there.

Of these five approaches – one from WAB, four from the AB – my heart and my head are with the Stepping Stones solution. The connection was one of imagination rather than style, which is more interesting, I think – and I must also be honest and say Stepping Stones is an enduring favourite of mine.

Furthermore, on opening night last Thursday the AB didn’t really make a big case for the huge chunk of dance ripped from context that is Paquita. Given its essential meaninglessness, Paquita can work only as spectacle and illumination of the classical form with its array of principals, soloists, demi-soloists and corps.

Lana Jones was divine as leader of the pack, I’ll say that much. She presented a glowing image of the all-conquering ballerina, glamorous yet highly aware of her role as benefactress as she graciously inclined her head this way and that to acknowledge our presence. Her role was to be adored; ours was to adore. That was also the task of her cavalier, Kevin Jackson, who had his successes and shortcomings in the proceedings. Uncompromising purity of line and pinpoint accuracy were not always his to command, although his self-effacing demeanour and seamless partnering were attractive.

There was too much untidiness in the ranks for comfort and while the four solos were all attractively danced, only Ako Kondo in the third raised the spirits to the required level. Along with Jones she radiated the qualities of grandeur, composure, elegance, ease and sophistication that are the non-negotiable requirements if Paquita is to have any reason for being.

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

While Hugh Colman’s tutus are beyond delicious, Paquita otherwise has an unappealingly basic look. There are two chandeliers, which are fine; a backdrop of little points of light in a dark cloth, which is OK; and nothing else other than black tabs at the side of the stage. Talk about dreary.

To end on a happy note, La Sylphide is exquisitely staged and on opening night conductor Paul Murphy, a guest from Birmingham Royal Ballet, shaped the Lovenskjold score superbly, particularly in the overture. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra did honour (mostly) to this uncomplicated but charming and effective music.

Gielgud used to say the AB “always had an instinctive understanding” of La Sylphide and under McAllister – who was invited to join the AB by Gielgud and whose career was shaped by her – that understanding continues. The airy delicacy of the upper body, crisp batterie, the upward trajectory in leaps, precision of mime, the softest of landings – all were present and correct.

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

With her slightly otherworldly air, Madeleine Eastoe is a natural for the Sylph. Daniel Gaudiello – and how wonderful it is to see him getting more opening nights – has matured greatly as an actor and on opening night gave James a credibly dark hue. Andrew Wright (Gurn) soared in his solo and also created a well-shaded character.

It was a joy to see Colin Peasley back on stage. A founding AB member, he retired formally last year during the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations – such a nice round number, he said of his half-century – but of course we hadn’t seen the last of him, nor should we.

Peasley is a quintessential creature of the stage. His Madge is better than ever, perhaps more nuanced than in the past and delivered with the wisdom of ages.

La Sylphide ends at the Sydney Opera House on November 25.