Giselle: The Australian Ballet Regional Tour

Concourse Theatre, Chatswood, Sydney, October 4

The Australian Ballet’s regional touring program has undergone a quiet change. It was created about 35 years ago as The Dancers Company but since earlier this year has gone by an even more prosaic name: The Australian Ballet Regional Tour. Why the change? Presumably so the AB’s ownership is stressed. The new name bluntly asserts that the national company isn’t just performing in the capital cities.

The Dancers Company was designed to give performance opportunities to advanced students from the Australian Ballet School. They would be seen alongside a couple of guests from the AB but focus was essentially on the students. If Giselle is any guide that focus is shifting a little.

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Karen Nanasca and Andrew Killian in Giselle with Edward Smith (at rear). Photo: Jeff Busby

Those with long memories will remember an attempt by the AB in 2002 to extend its reach and live up to its national-company status by taking a contemporary program to the regions. The triple bill – The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Other Dances and Por vos muero – didn’t catch fire with that audience and some performances had to be cancelled. Responsibility for performing ballet outside the capital cities went back to The Dancers Company. (Responsibility for Australian ballet, that is – there are several Russian companies who undertake regular, extensive regional tours, primarily with Swan Lake and Nutcracker.)

Staging of this touring Giselle, which is on entirely traditional lines, is attributed rather anonymously to “The Australian Ballet”. It’s danced to a recording that isn’t directly credited but is, I assume, the version advertised on the cast sheet as a new CD of Adolphe Adams’s score with AB music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. It’s never ideal to be without a live orchestra but it’s also an economic impossibility in these circumstances and the recording is a vibrant one with some lively tempi to challenge the dancers.

At the early October performance I saw in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood, Karen Nanasca, an AB coryphée, was an enchanting Giselle with her wonderfully expressive face and eyes. Nanasca told her story with clarity and admirable simplicity. The elements weren’t surprising but they felt fresh and cohered into a convincing and touching whole, the dancer at one with the character. When Giselle’s heart broke, the ground had been prepared. Everything led up to an emotional, involving mad scene. Nanasca’s second act was less individual although again it was noticeable how she used her gaze eloquently.

Andrew Killian’s elegantly danced Albrecht was less fully fleshed. There was something of the detached, amused playboy about him so Albrecht’s repeated lunges towards Giselle’s dead body at the end of Act I appeared to come from nowhere. Nevertheless, Killian did give the evening leading-man sheen. (At some performances during this short tour Albrecht will be danced by another AB principal artist, Ty King-Wall, so the AB isn’t stinting on its stars.)

The aristocratic Bathilde, who is engaged to Albrecht, was in the very sure hands of AB soloist Dana Stephenson (she dances Giselle at some performances) and Giselle’s spurned admirer Hilarion was beautifully danced by ABS student Jackson Fisch. His Hilarion, so young and hopeful, was no match for Albrecht’s mature confidence.

AB corps member Aya Watanabe gave a neat account of the peasant pas alongside former AB member Simon Plant, whose duties were pleasingly shared with two unnamed men from The Dancers Company. (Confused yet? That’s what the ABS dancers are billed as, a kind of subset within the cast.)

Watanabe doubled up as a Lead Wili in the second act with fellow AB corps member Ella Havelka, both under the command of Isobelle Dashwood’s Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Dashwood joined the AB as a corps de ballet member only this year (as did Watanabe) so it’s a big role for her. She acquitted herself exceptionally well, not only technically – impressively fast, tight bourées; a majestically deep arabesque penchée – but with her poise in the face of the role’s intense demands.

Giselle is to be performed again on the Regional Tour next year, providing more chances to see up-and-coming AB dancers in roles they would be unlikely to assume in capital city performances.

A final point though. The AB is foolishly using, on its website, a quote about Giselle from The New York Times: “Phenomenal dramatic impact.” That phrase is from a 1990 review by Anna Kisselgoff of Maina Gielgud’s production when it was performed by the AB in New York. There are some details (and set elements and costumes by Peter Farmer) from Gielgud’s production used in these current performances but, as I noted above, Gielgud is not credited as the stager and some of her most telling dramatic touches are not present (nor should they be if she has not produced this version).

This current production is pleasing but it does not feature the full resources of The Australian Ballet performing Maina Gielgud’s internationally admired staging of Giselle. It is careless to imply it.

Remaining performances of Giselle: Griffith, October 12; Wagga Wagga, October 14 and 15; Newcastle, October 19 and 20.

An earlier version of this review had an incorrect caption. It is Edward Smith in the rear of the photo with Nanasca and Killian. My apologies.

Vanguard

 The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, April 30

GEORGE Balanchine was indisputably a game-changer, to use the Australian Ballet’s phrase in explaining the ethos behind Vanguard, the triple bill that opened in Sydney on April 30. The game-changer tag is somewhat less cut and dried in the case of Jiri Kylian and Wayne McGregor, who are also on the bill, but you have to give the program a name. And Vanguard is certainly a lot punchier than Trilogy, which is what the AB prosaically used to call such evenings. You could argue, I suppose, that Trilogy was an exact description, but gee, it’s not catnip, is it?

Let me take you back to one of the AB’s contributions to the Olympic Arts Festival in 2000, in which it danced, on the one bill, William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, Nacho Duato’s Por vos muero and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. It was dynamite. The AB called it Trilogy.

But that was then. Now back to Vanguard. The title may be a little imprecise but the program works in giving a sweeping view of what a classical company considers its territory. It’s exhilarating in its scope and comes with the bonus of wonderful music. Under Nicolette Fraillon’s baton the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra has as many changes of direction over the evening as do the dancers, starting with Paul Hindemith’s modernist Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments). This was a Balanchine commission, although it took a few years for music and dance to come together. Theme with Four Variations was written in 1940 and received its premiere as a concert work in 1944. Balanchine’s ballet appeared in 1946.

Vanguard ends with Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 (2009), danced to Steve Reich’s minimalist, driving Double Sextet, a piece for which Reich was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In between, Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura uses a collage of Baroque and Baroque-style excerpts, including two movements from Lukas Foss’s bijou Salomon Rossi Suite. Fun degrees-of-separation note: Foss studied composition with Hindemith in New York, and he wasn’t just a composer; he was also a noted pianist. And guess who was the pianist when Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperments) premiered on the concert stage? That would be Lukas Foss.

Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

The palette is particularly rich and relies on dancers with acute musical responses. There are no characters or narratives to fall back on. Moreover, with many of the dancers cast in more than one of the works at any performance they have to be adept at switching from upright Balanchine to twisty, bendy McGregor within the space of an hour. On opening night in Sydney principals Lana Jones and Adam Bull and senior artist Rudy Hawkes scored the trifecta and danced in the Kylian as well – a feat something akin to an opera singer being asked to perform in Baroque, Romantic and 20th-century style in successive acts.

By the way, nine of the AB’s 11 principal artists appeared on opening night. That’s not something you often see. And if the casting stays as it is, it seems Jones will get precisely one performance off out of the 20 in Sydney. Respect. (Or does it mean the AB lacks depth: discuss.)

The remaining two principal artists, Lucinda Dunn and Olivia Bell, have been a little elusive of late but are lined up for Vanguard. Casting is online – take a look.

Balanchine said of ballet that “the visual spectacle is the essential element”. The assertion may seem at odds with The Four Temperaments’ austerity of costuming (black tights and white T-shirts for the men; plain black leotards for the women) and set (none). Balanchine, however, was talking about the spectacle of movement. There is no meaning other than that provided by bodies in time, space and with music as four discrete scenes named after the ancient Greek humours follow three iterations of the score’s themes.

When the 4Ts premiered it was costumed rather fantastically and busily. Those costumes were banished in 1951. “When things hindered the dance Balanchine eliminated them,” says former dancer Mary Ellen Moylan in a documentary on Balanchine. (Moylan is described in the film, Dancing for Mr B., by Maria Tallchief as the first Balanchine ballerina.) Moylan also said that the choreographer made great music – such as that by Stravinsky – “greater by the things he showed us visually”.

An intriguing view on this stripped-back look for the 4Ts was put forward in Vanity Fair in its March edition of this year. The magazine noted that in September 1951 the film of A Streetcar named Desire was released, in which Marlon Brando (as Stanley Kowalski) appeared to much advantage in a tight white T-shirt. The look took off immediately and Vanity Fair specifically links that trend with Balanchine’s November 1951 decision to re-costume the 4Ts as we now see it. Well, it’s an idea.

The first performance of The Four Temperaments in the AB’s Sydney season happened to fall on the 30th anniversary of Balanchine’s death. It was a timely tribute with a seminal piece. The 4Ts is astringent, precise, sophisticated, cerebral and incredibly exposing. It was thrilling to see it again, even if the ballet’s magisterial command and patrician wit and elegance were insufficiently projected.

There are two reasons for this. The first is one of space: the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House so often makes dancers look hemmed in. The 4Ts didn’t have the room to move that it had in 2003 in the American Masters program staged at the Capitol Theatre. The second reason is one of temperament, funnily enough, and the observation isn’t restricted only to this ballet. AB dancers are too often reticent in imposing their personalities and will in performance (it’s perhaps something related to the no-stars vibe of the company). I’m not talking about fake smiles or look-at-me superficialities; rather of largeness of spirit, clarity of intention and refinement of expression resulting in inner impulses being translated into movement that speaks rather than merely exists as an attractive object.

In relation to the 4Ts, the women of the corps were less warrior-like than the movement suggests, with its stabbing, advancing high kicks and jutting pelvises. While I say the stage was too small for the action, it’s also the case that on opening night the corps fell short in filling the stage dramatically. They were too tame; lacking in pride and ownership in a ballet where the women, choreographically speaking, lord it over the men.

There was much pleasure, however, in Jones’s force-of-nature Choleric – her turns were ferocious – and Leanne Stojmenov’s Sanguinic. Stojmenov was springy and elastic when needed and articulately captured the importance and value of Balanchine’s transfers of weight. The circle of low lifts were plush and pillowy, and in this Stojmenov was ably abetted by newly minted principal artist Ty King-Wall.

Kevin Jackson’s Melancholic was powerful and transfixing until the final moments, when he ran out of stage and back mobility for that astonishing exit in reverse. Adam Bull could be more free and expansive in the opening moments of Phlegmatic but he gains in stage presence with each appearance.

In complete contrast to the 4Ts, Kylian’s Bella Figura (1995) has a tentative, questioning quality laced with tenderness. It suits the company well. Pointe shoes are gone and movement comes in swirls and curves, sometimes serene, sometimes less so as swirls contract into twitches. It’s a dreamy, fragmentary, sensual piece that was beautifully danced by its cast of nine on opening night, although again space was an issue.

And another thing. Memory must always be consulted with caution, but its persistence is nevertheless telling. I find it impossible to see any performance of Bella Figura without comparing it to that seen in 2000 as part of the Olympic Arts Festival. It was at the generously sized Capitol Theatre and I remember being able to see it more clearly than just the other day. Perhaps the lighting state is exactly the same but the theatres are different, so I doubt it. At the Sydney Opera House Bella Figura looked more shadowy, and not in a good way. The lighting made the dancers harder to read, although it was possible to see that corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow, by far the most junior of the cast, was outstanding. Miwako Kubota was wonderful and Jones and Daniel Gaudiello were quite lovely in the final scene in which tension and release are quietly and enigmatically explored but not necessarily resolved.

That said, in my mind’s eye – as Shakespeare has it – I could still see performing in this ballet Steven Heathcote and Miranda Coney, Joshua Consadine and Nicole Rhodes, Sarah Peace and Felicia Palanca, all long gone from the AB. Funny thing, memory.

Dyad 1929 ruthlessly banishes any shadows. It’s a space-age ballet that dazzles with its bright white setting and bodies stretched, extended, manipulated and distorted to the max as the Reich music inexorably powers forward. Jones, Stojmenov and Gaudiello stood out in a cast of stand-outs at the opening. Dana Stephensen looked pleased as punch to be pulled every which way. Bull and Amber Scott scored with a sexy duo, Jones was sensational in a solo that turned her back into a question mark and there was always something to please the eye, in an insistent way.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

What it means is difficult to discern. If the movement speaks for itself, if that’s all there is, what’s with the program notes? You might be able to intuit Dyad 1929‘s nods to Antarctic exploration, what with all that white. You can find that the ballet’s name, if you peruse the notes, refers to the year of Diaghilev’s death and thus to the great impresario’s adventurousness. But you have to do your reading to get the picture.

There’s no doubt that Dyad 1929 looks amazing and is expertly constructed. And that the 4Ts, crisp as a glorious autumn day, still looks the revolutionary piece.

Vanguard, Sydney, until May 18. Melbourne, June 6-17.