Everything old is new again

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, February 20 and February 24.

GRAEME Murphy’s Swan Lake has been a touchstone production – and a fortunate one – not only for The Australian Ballet as a whole but for many dancers. At its premiere in Melbourne on September 17, 2002, Simone Goldsmith started the evening as a senior artist and ended it as a principal. Steven Heathcote was Prince Siegfried, as he would be so frequently until his retirement in 2007 and Margaret Illman was an unforgettable Baroness von Rothbart, the third party in the tangled triangle at the heart of the ballet.

By the time the production opened in Sydney on November 28, 2002, senior artist Lynette Wills had assumed the role of the Baroness and she, like Goldsmith, found herself promoted to the company’s highest rank at the after-show festivities. She had waited a long time, and this role gave her the breakthrough.

Over the years young dancers who started out as wedding guests or swans in 2002 graduated to larger roles: the corps de ballet list in September 2002 includes Adam Bull, Andrew Killian, Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Leanne Stojmenov and Danielle Rowe, all of whom would become principal artists and dance Odette, Siegfried or the Baroness. All are still with the company with the exception of Rowe, now with Netherlands Dance Theatre.

In the case of Madeleine Eastoe, then a soloist and now a long-serving principal artist, the path to Odette was swift. I first saw her in December of 2002 and most recently five days ago when Swan Lake opened in Sydney. She was lovely then and is extraordinary now.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

From the start audiences loved the interpretation created by Murphy, his creative associate Janet Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson. It looked absolutely luscious and its story, while being set in an Edwardian world, was clearly influenced by the troubled marriage of Prince Charles and Diana. It was, and is, a wildly glamorous and highly emotional piece of theatre. The AB didn’t hold back. The Murphy Swan Lake has been staged almost every year since 2002, although not always in Australia. It is the work invariably chosen to take on tour and has been seen in Paris, Tokyo, London, New York, Los Angeles and other cities. Later this year it will tour to Beijing.

For this Sydney season Swan Lake continues its role as a trailblazer. It’s not being seen at the AB’s usual home of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House but is at the Capitol, a venue devoted almost exclusively to large-scale musical theatre. Amusingly, this is because the Wicked juggernaut is tying up Queensland Performing Art Centre’s largest theatre, which is where one would expect the AB to be at this time of year – and the Capitol is the very theatre vacated only last month by Wicked before it headed north.

There is obvious potential to broaden the company’s reach beyond the rusted-on ballet crowd by coming to this venue and the undeniable truth is that Swan Lake looks much better on the Capitol stage than at the Opera House (Opera Australia is ensconced there as usual in February so the Joan Sutherland Theatre was unavailable anyway).

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Friday’s opening night was strong, which didn’t surprise given that the company knows the work inside out (this was the 185th performance). What lifted Swan Lake into another realm was the riveting connection between Eastoe and her Siegfried Kevin Jackson. This is truly one of the exceptional partnerships of Australian ballet.

She was all air, light as a feather blown across water; he was all earthy desire and anguish, a flawed and complicated man. As a partner Jackson is not quite in the league (who is?) of Heathcote and Robert Curran – they both danced with Eastoe many times in this ballet – but his immersion in the role and his interpretation of it were electrifying. He wasn’t afraid to look brutal in his treatment of Odette as she unravels on her wedding day, having seen the extent to which Siegfried is in thrall to the Baroness. But he seemed more desperately unhappy and frustrated than a hardened brute, and his Act II lakeside pas de deux was filled with tenderness.

Eastoe has not changed her approach to Odette; she just seems more and more luminous every time. Of the eight Murphy Odettes I’ve seen she is the most heart-rending. Each has had a strongly individual character – a hallmark of this production is that markedly different interpretations are equally valid – but with Eastoe you see innocence slaughtered. It is devastating.

Ako Kondo has exceptional allure but on Friday I thought her vampy Baroness was still a work in progress. In Tuesday’s cast Kondo’s fellow senior artist, Miwako Kubota, was more multi-layered and sympathetic. Kubota made you see the Baroness’s pain as well as her desire. (By the way, Kubota was also in the corps in 2002 when Swan Lake premiered.)

Senior artist Juliet Burnett finally got her chance to dance Odette, and did so partnered by fellow senior artist Rudy Hawkes. It was a persuasive match. Hawkes was an entirely different Siegfried from Jackson. Here was a prince entirely out of his emotional depth, fulfilling his duty as expected and finding things falling apart disastrously and unmanageably on his wedding day. Burnett’s Act I Odette was somewhat spiky in temperament and unstable. This bride, who appears compliant and unsure of herself, is not entirely subservient.

Burnett hasn’t entirely worked these contradictions into a seamless whole. It interests me that Burnett is a very fine writer about dance and thinks deeply about her work; on Tuesday, particularly in Act I, she telegraphed some of that thinking a little too forcefully. When her strong, clear ideas were transformed into action and into feeling they had powerful dramatic authority.

In pure dance terms Burnett and Hawkes had a few moments on Tuesday night that didn’t go entirely to plan – and they were just a few – but they also put their own stamp on the choreography, making many key images entirely fresh with different accents or textures. This is why balletomanes go to a particular ballet repeatedly: not to see it again, but to see it made anew.

Other thoughts:

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bernet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin must now be the Cygnets of choice. They are adorable.

No one does a dash across the stage and hair-raising body-slam as vividly as Reiko Hombo (Young Duchess-to-be).

Sometimes it’s just impossible to erase memories of past exponents of certain roles. Take the Guardian Swans, for example. I can still see Danielle Rowe and Lana Jones. Perfection.

Colin Peasley – what can you say? He’s 80 and still getting out there on stage as the Lord Admiral, as ramrod straight as ever.

 Swan Lake ends on Saturday February 28.

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Nederlands Dans Theater

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, June 13; Nederlands Dans Theater, Sydney, June 12.

TO its eternal credit Bangarra Dance Theatre has never shied away from difficult material. Yes, it wants the riches of Aboriginal culture to be widely seen and appreciated, but it also tackles the seemingly intractable issues facing many indigenous Australians: the grog, violence, suicide, hopelessness, oppression, dispossession. I’ve been watching the company for more than two decades and each time I am touched by the presence of grace where there could so easily be despair. Even when the subject matter is as wrenching as the story of a young Aboriginal girl taken up and then abandoned by the governor’s family in colonial Tasmania (Mathinna, 2008) or the atomic tests at Maralinga in the 1950s (X300, 2007), the way in which it is presented is unfailingly generous and optimistic. To know and to think is to begin to understand. Not to mention that Bangarra productions always look so inspiringly beautiful.

Bangarra Dance Theatre's Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

Bangarra is in the middle of touring its newest work, a triptych called Blak. It opened in Melbourne in May and is now in Sydney, where it has had to extend its season by a week. Canberra and Brisbane follow.

In many ways Blak is a follow-up to Bangarra’s Sydney Olympics Festival work, the two-part Skin, comprising Spear for the men and Shelter for the women. Blak has a similar structure and many of the same concerns, although comes with an extra section. It opens with Daniel Riley McKinley’s terrific all-male Scar, continues with Stephen Page’s Yearning for the company’s women, and then the two choreographers join to provide the whole company with a celebratory coda, Keepers.

Riley McKinley’s first work, Riley (2010), celebrated the art of his kinsman, Michael Riley, and was an unusually poised beginning. In Scar Riley McKinley doesn’t disappoint on his second outing, showing a genuine gift for structure, the telling stage picture and dramatic clarity. The piece starts with a compelling circle dance, viewed through a powerful, unsettling red haze (Matt Cox’s lighting). Seven men stamp, whirl and tumble in a way that speaks of ritual and the search for it. There are quick vignettes of menace and harm but also of the way contemporary life can learn from the ways of the past, if there is someone to teach them. Waangenga Blanco powerfully takes a central role here.

Yearning is a more diffuse piece with elements of varying strength. But as with 2000’s Skin – it had images that have stayed with me to this day – Page has created some indelible moments. The group opening is fairly anodyne but there are grittier sections that economically show how grim urban life can be: a top pinned to a line is an image of a life lost; women are hunted down by an unsparing spotlight; we hear traditional language emerge from a dropped telephone handset, calling to someone who doesn’t connect with it any more.

Keepers harks back to tradition in a way that’s been more memorably evoked in other works, although it brings the evening to a serene close with another of those knockout Bangarra visuals that are a hallmark this company  (Jacob Nash designed the unfailingly effective sets).

David Page and Paul Mac are the composers, always keeping the regular beat that brings to mind the pulse of the didgeridoo and mixing urban sounds with the lovely melody of traditional language – I say melody, because for us, and for so many indigenous Australians, its meaning is sadly locked away from us.

Bangarra, Sydney Opera House until June 29; then Canberra, July 11-13; Brisbane, July 18-27.

Nederlands Dans Theater

THERE are few companies as glamorous as Nederlands Dans Theater, hence the giddy excitement with which it is greeted by audiences. The dancers are sensual, sophisticated, muscular and theatrically and emotionally alert. In their bodies the elegant rigour of classicism meets and melts into contemporary movement of a particularly assertive kind. Add the attendant celebrity of NDT’s most powerful – we may even say overpowering – influence, choreographer Jiri Kylian, and you have an explosive mix.

It was recently revealed, by the way, that Kylian will withhold his works from NDT for three years from late next year. Not to punish but to challenge, as current NDT artistic director and resident choreographer Paul Lightfoot puts it. On the evidence of last week’s Sydney program – half Kylian, half Lightfoot and his co-choreographer Sol Leon – the hole left will be great and the challenge will be to see what NDT is without Kylian. Tough love indeed.

Two of Kylian’s famous black and white dances, both made in 1990, opened the program. In Sweet Dreams (1990) squares and rectangles of light fade in and out to reveal mysterious actions and interactions. To Anton Webern’s clamorous and astringent Sechs Stucke fur orchester – a bracing, stimulating score women sit on men’s backs, heads, feet; arms are widely spread and angled as if for flight; a couple is spied on high in the distance; apples are walked on, chased or stop up gaping mouths. What it means is up to you and your subconscious.

NDT in Sarabande. Photo: Prudence Upton

NDT in Sarabande. Photo: Prudence Upton

Sarabande followed without pause. It’s an aggressive, mostly unison piece for six men who groan, shout, slap and generally flaunt their masculinity although at times they are hobbled or challenged by it. Only when Bach’s music – the Sarabande from his second Partita – enters in extended form (it is heard at the beginning and then in snippets during most of the piece) is there a sense of calm. Otherwise, despite the references to Japanese ritual, the atmosphere is one of unrest and unease, cemented by the unison howls of laughter at the end. The NDT men looked spectacular: if you wanted you could see this as a piece about the burden of male beauty.

After Kylian the Lightfoot-Leon pieces looked lightweight and, in the case of SH-BOOM! (a 2000 revision of an earlier, shorter piece), tiresome. I found the caperings as amusing as a self-appendectomy except for a sweet nude dance from Cesar Faria Fernandes lit only by flashlight. It ends with a cheeky, boyish pull of the penis, which perhaps doesn’t sound like the greatest of moments but in this context it counts as genius; a human touch among the laboured schtick.

Shoot the Moon (2006) is an attractively staged little psycho-drama much enhanced by Philip Glass’s lovely Tirol Concerto for piano and orchestra. Revolving walls reveal two couples in various states of anguish and a solo man, also anguished. It says nothing more than that people have emotional issues, but does it stylishly. The plush, committed dancing was a treat, with the opening night cast including former Australian Ballet principal artist Danielle Rowe, who looked divine.

The NDT review first appeared in a slightly different form in The Australian on June 14.