The Australian Ballet and its long dance with The Merry Widow

In her biography of Robert Helpmann, Robert Helpmann: A Servant of Art, Anna Bemrose describes how Helpmann, then artistic director of The Australian Ballet, was grilled by the Industries Assistance Commission in 1975. The IAC had been asked by the prime minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, to examine government arts funding and clearly some IAC members were not enamoured of the ballet company’s direction or its financial prospects.

Helpmann was asked, inter alia, to justify his decision to stage The Merry Widow. What relevance did it have to Australian culture? Then there was the question of money. As Bemrose amusingly points out, Helpmann was asked by the IAC whether he’d found a way of getting “on the cheap” the beauty ballet audiences wanted. “No, I am not a genius,” Helpmann replied.

The Merry Widow

Amber Scott as Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow with Adam Bull (left) as Danilo and Andrew Killian (right) as Camille. Photo: Daniel Boud

Widow was indeed expensive but it went ahead and, while its direct relevance to Australian culture may not have been as obvious as, say, Helpmann’s one-act contemporary ballet The Display (1964), it was an extraordinary success from opening night onwards. Its popularity prompted the company to put on season after season in the early years to the benefit of the bottom line, then and now. TAB has perpetual rights to the ballet – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

As it happened, Whitlam’s government was dismissed two days before Widow opened in Melbourne on November 13, 1975, and Helpmann left the company not long after, having been dumped by the board. (Fences were mended. A decade later he was the Red King in Ninette de Valois’s Checkmate when it entered the TAB repertoire, nearly 50 years after he’d created the role. He left his hospital bed to play the part in July of 1986 and died that September.) Widow, however, would never be evicted. Helpmann’s long-held desire to translate the romance and glamour of Franz Lehár’s operetta to the ballet stage proved to be just the ticket. It was performed 178 times in the first two years alone.

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Leanne Stojmenov as Valencienne in The Merry Widow. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Widow finishes its latest Melbourne run on June 16 it will have racked up more than 440 performances and be snapping at the heels of Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote for the honour of being TAB’s most-performed production. Only a handful of shows will separate them. Not surprisingly, various versions of Swan Lake together total more performances (767 from four productions ) and two versions of Giselle account for 700 performances. But worldwide favourite The Nutcracker (358 performances of four productions) doesn’t come anywhere near the Widow for durability.

It’s easy to list the Widow’s charms – well-known tunes, sumptuous sets and costumes, light comedy, lost-and-found love story – but they don’t by themselves suggest a work for all time. Widow is, nevertheless, embedded in TAB history in ways that make it glow more brightly for the home audience than for those, say, at American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and the handful of other leading companies that have it in their repertoire, even though it’s great enjoyed as an entertainment. (Houston and NBC have both scheduled revivals of Widow for next year.)

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Adam Bull as Danilo and Kirsty Martin as Hanna. Photo: Jeff Busby

Widow was the first full-length ballet commissioned by TAB, which was founded in 1962 (it opened with Swan Lake, of course). Helpmann’s choice was astute. The operetta was well known and much loved in Australia and TAB’s music director John Lanchbery was just the man to arrange and orchestrate, with Alan Abbott, the music based on Lehár’s delectable melodies. Helpmann, whose theatrical instincts were legendary, wrote the scenario and wrested the rights from the estates, heirs and publishers who controlled Widow. Ronald Hynd was contracted to choreograph and Desmond Heeley to design in the opulent manner of the belle époque.

In the late 1920s Helpmann danced in Lehár’s operetta in Melbourne when Gladys Moncrieff took the title role and he said he’d always thought it would make a wonderful ballet. It’s certainly no intellectual heavyweight but underneath the surface buffoonery and rom-com shenanigans there are many delights, chief of which is the title role. It’s not true that Widow was made for Margot Fonteyn, as some think – Marilyn Rowe created the part – but it was choreographed with Helpmann’s long-time ballet partner in mind. Fonteyn called it “the most wonderful present”.

Surely it was Helpmann, credited with staging as well as scenario, who devised that marvellous entrance for Hanna, in which she sweeps down a broad staircase in her stunning black gown after pausing elegantly for effect, and for the inevitable applause.

Fonteyn was the first Hanna I saw when TAB toured to London in the sweltering summer of 1976, seven months or so after the ballet premiered in Melbourne. She was then 57 and her name helped bring attention to the company, as would Nureyev and his Don Q. Fonteyn also appeared many times in Australia and called Hanna “the most delightful role I could possibly have had”, wishing only that it had come to her rather earlier in her career.

There was, naturally, no particularly virtuosic choreography for Hanna but it required – and requires – effortless stage presence, melting luxuriance and an understanding of the thread of melancholy that underpins Widow and gives it some necessary shadows.

In the slender storyline, machinations are afoot to bring Hanna together in marriage with the rakish Count Danilo to prevent her money from leaving the small, impoverished Balkan country of Pontevedro. Danilo and Hanna were lovers when young but parted unhappily. In TAB’s current Widow program John Meehan, who was the first Danilo and partnered Fonteyn frequently in the ballet, describes how he saw her shoulders shaking as he rehearsed placing a cloak around her in the show’s final moments. He thought she was laughing at the ballet’s simplicity. “And she turned around and she was crying. It was so real to her.”

The Merry Widow

Colin Peasley as Baron Zeta with Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian. Photo: Daniel Boud

TAB has produced a long line of illustrious home-grown Widows, including the lustrous current principal artist Amber Scott, who opened the Sydney season in April. During that season former principal Kirsty Martin, who last danced Hanna in 2011 during her final year with TAB, returned as a guest artist. Now in her early 40s – a perfect age for Hanna – she opens the 2018 Melbourne season.

As I look through my old Widow programs, a snowstorm of cast sheets falls out. There are two from 1994, when two of TAB’s most luminous artists, Lisa Bolte and Miranda Coney, danced Hanna. They did so again in 2000, a year I which I somehow managed to see six performances. One was during the Olympic Arts Festival in Sydney when Widow was called upon to represent TAB to the visiting world.

For some reason I found myself in Perth in October that year and happened to see Widow with Coney again. At the end of that performance conductor Charles Barker, then TAB’s music director and now principal conductor at American Ballet Theatre, came onstage and asked Coney to marry him. (She said yes.)

Every time Widow has been revived it’s been possible to see Colin Peasley reprise his role as Baron Zeta, the much older husband of young Valencienne, who is in love with Camille. Peasley was the Baron at the ballet’s premiere in 1975 and was already a company veteran, having been a founding member. He’s now 83 but his artistry is undimmed. It’s such a joy to see there is still a place for him onstage, and not just in a walk-on. The Widow offers him a substantial part and the audience a priceless link to TAB history.

More links are added with each revival. This year TAB’s current artistic director, David McAllister, decided to cast himself in the small role of Njegus. The reason? Ballet master and former principal artist Steven Heathcote would be taking the role of Baron Zeta at some performances and McAllister thought it would be fun to be onstage with him again. Back in the day you couldn’t see Widow casting better than Heathcote as Danilo and McAllister as Camille. The embedding of The Merry Widow in TAB history continues.

The Merry Widow, Arts Centre Melbourne, June 7-16.

Murphy: The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 6 (evening) and 11 (matinee).

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to give Graeme Murphy a conventional gala to celebrate his 50 years of association with The Australian Ballet, the company he joined as a member of the corps de ballet in 1968. The idea for the tribute came to TAB artistic director David McAllister when he decided to revive the choreographer’s Firebird (2009). The straightforward way to go would have been to precede Firebird with a selection of excerpts from Murphy’s greatest TAB hits’n’memories: Swan Lake, Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, Beyond Twelve, Romeo and Juliet, The Narrative of Nothing for a piece of abstraction and a humorous bit from Tivoli for a change of pace and there’s your first half.

That’s not what happened. Despite the many virtues and gala possibilities of those works, a by-the-book program would have been obvious and utterly safe. In other words, not remotely indicative of Murphy’s expansive, adventurous spirit. The counter-intuitive decision was made for Murphy’s first half to comprise dances not made for TAB, only one of which, The Silver Rose, has been previously danced by the company (it was created for Bayerisches Staatsballet in 2005). The rest of the pieces are from Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company days, where he reigned for more than 30 years and created a vast body of work – much more interesting and challenging for the dancers, undoubtedly, and good for rusted-on TAB audience members to see something from outside the square.

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Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

There is more coherence in the program than might be evident at first glance. First and most clearly there is the connective tissue built by Murphy’s choreographic style, with the audience able to see his intricate lifts, unusual partnering, witty details, human touches and erotic impulses thread their way through quite different pieces.

The need to move quickly from section to section meant some of Murphy’s most enticing larger productions featuring live music couldn’t be considered but, in the inclusion of Shéhérazade (1979), with its onstage mezzo-soprano soloist singing Ravel’s lush song cycle, and with pianist Scott Davie reprising his central onstage role in sections from Grand, there is a flavour of Murphy’s love for the integration of musicians and dancers. The excerpts from Air and Other Invisible Forces and Ellipse are a reminder of Murphy’s extensive collaborations with Australian composers (here Michael Askill and Matthew Hindson respectively).

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Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. Photo: Daniel Boud

The first act closer, a handful of sections from Grand, is not only vastly enjoyable but indispensable. Murphy made Grand (2005) in celebration of “the one pianist I adore above all others”, his mother Betty, whose music helped shape his artistic development.

The choice of excerpts from The Silver Rose (based on Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier) to open Murphy is of more value thematically than artistically. The ballet isn’t one of the choreographer’s best and I would be surprised to see TAB program it again, but Murphy’s choice of a work whose theme is ageing, time’s inexorable march forward and the loss of youthful potency was perhaps a wry comment on an occasion celebrating a half-century.

In a short film preceding the first half Murphy speaks of movingly of art’s capacity to transform and of his desire to allow dancers to become the artists they aspire to be. In an interview with me before Murphy opened in Melbourne, he consistently returned to the dancers and what would suit or stimulate them. At the Sydney opening night it was wonderful to see principal artist Lana Jones in ferocious form as the Firebird, a role made on her, and also her perfumed elegance in Shéhérazade, performed in its entirety. Senior artist Brett Chynoweth was Most Valuable Player on opening night, dancing Kostchei in Firebird and seen in three pieces in the first half, including whooping it up with Jade Wood, Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli in the zany cowboy-flavoured quartet from Ellipse and, with Morelli, doing a sharp, suave Alligator Crawl in Grand (to Fats Waller).

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Brett Chynoweth as Kostchei in Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

By and large the key roles on opening night went to dancers of soloist rank or above. An exception was the coryphée (but probably not for long) Callum Linnane, who calmly partnered principal Amber Scott in The Silver Rose. At the Wednesday matinee I attended he also partnered principal Leanne Stojmenov in Shéhérazade with distinction. At that performance the mezzo was Jacqueline Dark, who gave a marvellously seductive account of Ravel’s songs.

The Wednesday matinee was where one could more clearly see the cut of the company’s rising young talent. Some fell a fair way short of the brio and individuality SDC dancers brought to those roles but their delight in this very different way of moving was touching. The male corps member to watch is Shaun Andrews, a lithe young man of serious mien who stood out on opening night in a quartet from Grand (to Gershwin) and danced a sinuous Kostchei at the matinee. An airborne cartwheel looked magically weightless.

Also at the matinee, Jade Wood’s fluttering, frightened Firebird was fruitfully paired with Jarryd Madden’s alert, sensitive Ivan and principal artist Andrew Killian memorably partnered corps de ballet member Yuumi Yamada – gorgeous feet! – in a key pas de deux from Grand. There was a touchingly elegiac mood as Killian is in the latter stages of his career. He has always been a potent presence in contemporary work and this was a timely reminder of his gifts in such repertoire. And what a joy to see soloist Benedicte Bemet back on stage after a long absence, quietly steaming up the stage with Madden in a close-contact duo from Air and Other Invisible Forces.

Ends April 23.

David Hallberg, The Sleeping Beauty

The Australian Ballet, Brisbane, February 25

When David Hallberg returned to the ballet stage in Sydney in November last year, in Coppélia with The Australian Ballet, he was coming out of a two-and-a-half year layoff due to injury, the last 12 months of which he spent in Melbourne working with TAB’s medical team. The choice of Franz as a comeback role was unplanned. Coppélia just happened to be what was in the schedule when Hallberg came to the understanding that his dancing career was not, in fact, over as he had feared. Nevertheless, the light-hearted part (a role debut) was just what the doctor ordered.

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David Hallberg. Photo: Renee Nowytarger for The Australian. Used with permission.

Hallberg is intensely grateful to the Australians who helped him through his dark hours and said he would be back regularly. He meant it. Last week it was announced Hallberg would be TAB’s first resident guest artist and it was in that capacity that he appeared as Prince Désiré in artistic director David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty in Brisbane on February 25 and 28. The agreement is that he will be in Australia twice a year, with his second 2017 visit coming at the end of the year in Sydney when The Sleeping Beauty has a return season there.

The 34-year-old American’s exceptional beauty of line and sophisticated bearing make him look born to this repertoire. He is a prince among men with his commanding yet seemingly effortless stage presence and he is the epitome of grace and courtliness. Hallberg gave Désiré (Florimund in other productions) a largeness of spirit not always found in a part that has little complexity of character. Désiré seeks love but needs the Lilac Fairy’s guidance to find it, he dances a little to express his yearning, is shown a vision of the lovely Princess Aurora, wakes the sleeping maiden with a kiss and marries her with much ceremony.

Who this man might be is glossed over, but Hallberg filled out the slender material with passion and tenderness. A clue might be found in something Hallberg said late last year. In a conversation with me about his recovery, he said he had come to Australia “so stripped of any sort of optimism”. In what he called his rebirth, he found perspective. “I feel now, as an artist proudly 34 years old, that I have such depth of resilience, and through that an artistic understanding that’s completely different from how it used to be. And it’s not driven by ego any more.”

His Prince Désiré embodied that selflessness and maturity and even though a handful of less than fully realised finishes were a reminder of his long absence from this cruelly exposed repertoire, the radiance of his performance was all-encompassing. His cabrioles, for example, in which he floated his outstretched legs in the air rather than beat them together as most men do, were not only individual but deeply poetic.

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Amber Scott as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Kate Longley

The quality of his partnering added further layers. Hallberg’s Aurora was TAB principal artist Amber Scott (his Swanilda in Coppélia) and the two look wonderful together, with Scott’s dark, delicate beauty even more lovely when set against the blond Hallberg’s tall, supremely elegant figure. The alchemy of stage rapport is a mystery, but suffice to say Scott seems more lustrous in Hallberg’s company and to project the spun-glass virtues of her dancing more eloquently. Hallberg’s connection with TAB will be wonderful for audiences and he will be a mentor and example for the men of the company, but perhaps his greatest gift is being the partner who brings out the best in Scott. She has often seemed too introverted but Hallberg makes her glow.

The Act III grand pas de deux was as grand as the situation demands yet suffused with intimacy. Individually Hallberg and Scott looked sublime and together they dazzled. I’ve never seen the famous trio of fish dives presented with such élan.

For the rest, with Nicolette Fraillon at the helm the Queensland Symphony Orchestra gave a full-blooded account of Tchaikovsky’s score, senior artist Brett Chynoweth was a buoyant Bluebird, Gillian Revie reprised her striking Carabosse and the fairies, looking a treat in Gabriela Tyselova’s luscious tutus, had more than their fair share of technical jitters. As the Lilac Fairy soloist Valerie Tereschenko showed her great promise and her relative inexperience. Her fragrant upper body and clearly articulated mime were lovely but she had a few too many slips. Another new soloist, Jade Wood, gave a good account of Princess Florine although her fixed expression betrayed tension. Still, the company (this year expanded to 77 in number) has plenty of up and coming talent – and needed it in Brisbane, as a fair handful of more senior dancers had niggles that kept them offstage.

McAllister has made some welcome tweaks to his 2015 production to clarify some of the early storytelling although, as with so many productions, the need to bring the show in at under three hours makes some aspects appear rushed. The excision of most of the Act III divertissements while still giving a flavour of them is astutely done but the account of the court in the Prologue is too abbreviated. That charge can’t be directed at Tylesova’s design, which on each viewing looks more opulent than ever.

Footnote: Hallberg’s Australian commitment is in addition to his other jobs as a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, although it’s not clear yet when he might be dancing again with the latter. For ABT he is first cast in Alexei Ratmansky’s new Whipped Cream, opening in Costa Mesa, California, on March 15 and he will then dance Onegin and possibly Albrecht in New York in ABT’s May-July season.

The Sleeping Beauty ends in Brisbane March 4. Then Melbourne, June 16-27 and Sydney, November 11-25.

Hallberg’s date with Beauty

Just before Christmas David Hallberg made his debut as Franz in Coppélia with The Australian Ballet at the Sydney Opera House. It marked his return to the stage after a two-and-a-half year absence due to injury, a year of which was spent in rehabilitation with the AB’s medical team in Melbourne.

He danced four performances of Coppélia in Sydney, the last of them on December 21. The New York Times described it as a “discreet comeback”. He then went home to Phoenix for Christmas. By January 3 he was in New York, taking class with his home company American Ballet Theatre. In a statement ABT said Hallberg will perform in its (northern) Spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, which starts in May. There is no word on repertoire, although ABT’s casting shows a couple of promising TBAs in Giselle and Alexei Ratmansky’s new ballet Whipped Cream.

Well before that, however, Hallberg has another date with the stage. It’s back in Australia – Brisbane this time – with the AB in February. When the national company kicks off 2017 with The Sleeping Beauty, Hallberg will dance the role of Prince Désiré in two of the nine scheduled performances. Hallberg’s Aurora will be Amber Scott, with whom he danced in Coppélia.

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David Hallberg takes a curtain call after Coppélia in December. Photo: Kate Longley

This will give Brisbane a much delayed chance to see Hallberg, and in a role more characteristic of his career than Franz. Hallberg had been expected to appear with ABT in Swan Lake when it had a season at Queensland Performing Arts Centre in 2014 but shortly before that tour he had to withdraw from all engagements to attend to his injury.

The AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, said Hallberg hadn’t thought about returning so soon to this challenging central repertoire, “but if he wanted to return to the AB in 2017 it was the ballet that made sense”. The other full-length works on offer this year are Graeme Murphy’s version of Nutcracker, built around the memories of an aged former Ballets Russes ballerina, and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (McAllister also says he and Hallberg are speaking about further visits: “He has said to me he really wants to spend about a month every year here. That’s a pretty big commitment.”)

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David Hallberg. Photo: Renee Nowytarger for The Australian. 

Talking in Sydney before his return to the US, Hallberg was frank about the challenge of returning to Beauty at this time. “It’s really going to take a year to know where I stand, to know what I want to tackle. It was important to me to be able to see if this is in my future. And if it’s not, fine. But what better place to do it than with the company that has supported me through this complete restructure and rebirth?” Saying yes to Beauty felt right. “It’s just like Coppélia. It all has just fallen into place. It’s very fortuitous like that. I think it’s the universe saying, this is what’s being presented to you.”

Hallberg referred to his performances as Franz as getting his feet wet. How did they feel after the first few performances? “Wettish,” he said, with a little laugh. “It will take a while for my feet to get completely wet.”

With Beauty he is really plunging in. “In essence, there are definite technical challenges that I need to analyse, and I will have the [AB medical] team to help me analyse. That’s first and foremost,” he said. “The hard thing is going to be not comparing what I have done on DVD or what I have done at Bolshoi theatre or Mariinsky or ABT or wherever but to approach Beauty exactly the way I approached Coppélia.”

He says that just as he has a differently honed instrument following his lengthy rehabilitation, he also has “a different artistic perspective on even the classics. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with a lot of the classics. I’ve struggled through the years to find validity in characters I portray in those classics. But I think there’s two sides coming out of this. One, that I discover new things, I create new things with what I’ve experienced, and I also give a sort of rebirth to the roles that essentially I’ve been known for.”

There have been other discoveries. The rehabilitation experience has taught Hallberg he needs to spend more time on strengthening and conditioning his body and he now knows how to do that. “Second, I really came to Australia so stripped of any sort of optimism. I had lost all optimism artistically, emotionally and physically. Through hardship you gain perspective. What I feel now as an artist – proudly 34 years old – is that I have such depth of resilience and, through that, an artistic understanding that’s completely different from how it used to be. And it’s not driven by ego any more.”

An idle aside: Hallberg’s fellow ABT principal artist Misty Copeland, then a soloist, made her ground-breaking debut as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake in Brisbane during the 2014 tour. She was the first African-American to dance the role for the company and it was big news, to say the least. ABT was, however, clearly aiming for a low-key introduction; an out-of-hemisphere tryout if you will. Indeed, the company made no announcement of this historic event and the news broke, on this blog, after I spotted Copeland’s name in the casting. She was given just one performance in Brisbane, at a Wednesday matinee. Now that’s what I would call discreet.

The Sleeping Beauty opens in Brisbane on February 24. The dates of Hallberg’s performances are yet to be announced.

My year in dance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pina Bausch made my year. For his final Sydney Festival in January, artistic director Lieven Bertels programmed two bracing De Keersmaeker works, Fase and Vortex Temporum, and the huge thrill was seeing the choreographer herself in Fase (my review is here). Living dance history. Festival clout and money also made the Bausch experience possible. At the Adelaide Festival in March Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performed Nelken, which was obviously a necessity to see, but just a week later Wellington’s New Zealand International Arts Festival trumped Adelaide. In the repertoire carve-up the Wellington-based festival got the double bill of Café Muller and Rite of Spring. I had always longed to see both live. And now I have.

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Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: Matt Grace

The Perth International Arts Festival (February) and the Brisbane Festival (September) – there’s a theme here – also provided performances that made it into my best-of list. It was absolutely worth going to Perth for just one night from Sydney (flying time: five hours) to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu, which was outstandingly beautiful, in a rough, sweaty kind of way, and accompanied by celestial a capella singing from the all-male group A Filetta. It was a much easier business to pop up to Brisbane for Jonah Bokaer’s Rules of the Game – not really for the much-hyped title work (its score was by Pharrell Williams) but for the chance to see earlier Bokaer pieces and the choreographer himself onstage.

More festival highlights, these from local choreographers: Stephanie Lake’s super-intelligent Double Blind at the Sydney Festival, Kristina Chan’s ravishing A Faint Existence at Performance Space’s Liveworks festival in October and Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer, also at Liveworks.

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Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

The rest of the key works in 2016 come from major companies. The Australian Ballet, which has been looking very, very conventional of late, stretched dancers and audiences with John Neumeier’s Nijinsky (which I reviewed for Limelight magazine); Bangarra Dance Theatre’s triple bill OUR land people stories was a luminous program; and Sydney Dance Company’s double bills Untamed (October) and CounterMove (February) yet again demonstrated the thoroughbred power and impressive individuality of Rafael Bonachela’s dancers.

In the year I saw dance in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington, but yet again I mourn the fact that I just wasn’t able to visit Melbourne more often to sample its contemporary dance riches. As so often, Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

On the people front the biggest news of the year was the re-emergence of David Hallberg after a two-and-a-half year absence from the stage. The American superstar, a principal artist at both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, spent a year at The Australian Ballet’s headquarters in Melbourne undergoing extensive rehabilitation after having surgery for an ankle problem. His return to the stage was, fittingly, with the AB, and as it happened, the scheduled ballet gave Hallberg a role debut. He danced four performances as Franz in Coppélia. (You can read about the rehabilitation process here and the Coppélia performance here.)

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David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Queensland Ballet made a splash when it announced the appointment, from 2017, of Liam Scarlett as artistic associate. Scarlett retains his artist in residence role at the Royal Ballet. At the same time QB announced artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for four more years. The board must be happy about that.

Less happily, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced that its relatively new artistic director, Francesco Ventriglia, would be relinquishing that role in mid-2017. He will stay on to choreograph the announced new Romeo and Juliet, but then he’s off. What happened? I’ll let you know when I find out, although previously he had spoken to me enthusiastically about being in New Zealand. The RNZ website (Radio New Zealand) wrote in early December that as many as a dozen dancers and staff had left RNZB because of conflicts with Ventriglia, quoting a representative of the union that represents dancers.

I stress I have no information that suggests these departures are connected with Ventriglia’s, but leading Australian-born RNZB dancer Lucy Green has accepted a position with Queensland Ballet for 2017 and RNZB’s former music director Nigel Gaynor, who was hired by Ventriglia’s predecessor Ethan Stiefel, is now QB’s music director. These gains by QB could easily be explained by Li Cunxin’s voracious eye for talent – as in the Liam Scarlett coup (QB and RNZB share Scarlett’s lovely Midsummer Night’s Dream so there’s a close connection).

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The biggest disappointment of the year is the AB’s lack of commitment to developing new choreographers. It’s true that Bodytorque, which started in 2004, needed a fresh look, but it’s become the incredible shrinking show, offering less and less each year. The name is no longer used at all and the amount of new work from developing choreographers is minuscule.

Bodytorque was last seen in its familiar form in 2013 – six new or relatively inexperienced choreographers made works that were seen in a short special season at what is now the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney. In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne and featured five works, including a piece by newly minted resident choreographer Tim Harbour. The other four dance-makers included Alice Topp (her fourth year at Bodytorque) and Richard House (with his second piece).

In 2015 the name still lingered but the program had dwindled to the creation of just one work, House’s From Something, to Nothing, shown once in Sydney and once in Melbourne as a “pop-up” event called Bodytorque Up Late. This took place after performances of mainstage repertoire, once in Sydney and once in Melbourne. The audience could stay to watch for free if it wished. Or not.

In 2016 it was clear favour had fallen on Topp and House, which is fair enough. Both, but particularly Topp, are worth persevering with. This time their new works, each of about 10 minutes in length, were programmed as part of a group of divertissements that acted as a curtain-raiser to Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which gave the whole evening its name.

And for 2017? Those two pieces will be seen again, this time in Melbourne when that city gets Symphony in C. So – let’s add up the minutes. In the three years from 2015-2017, there will have been a bit under 40 minutes in total of new choreography from developing choreographers.

It’s possible AB artistic director David McAllister has big plans for Topp, or House, or both. After all, Harbour was developed via a series of Bodytorque commissions. But Harbour emerged from a quite a large pack. The window of opportunity has now narrowed excessively – and depressingly.

David Hallberg on rehabilitation and returning to the stage in Coppélia

Just after I filed my story to The Australian on David Hallberg’s keenly anticipated return to the stage on December 13, with The Australian Ballet in Sydney, the paper’s deputy editor sent me an email. She simply wrote: “He has amazing feet …”

He does indeed. With their dramatic arch and superhuman articulation, they carve shapes that leave an indelible afterimage and give a marvellous sense of elongation and suspension when he is airborne but, as with so much, you don’t get anything for nothing. “Every dancer has different issues – hips, knees, whatever. For me, as much as my feet have become a kind of trademark, I do pay a price for the flexibility,” Hallberg said.

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David Hallberg in Sydney ahead of his return to the stage for the first time in more than two years. Photo: Copyright Renee Nowytarger for The Australian. Published with permission.

For the past year the American dancer has been based in Melbourne undergoing intensive rehabilitation with the AB’s medical team, a group of people Hallberg says gave him back his artistic life. The work was set in motion by a troublesome ankle injury but became something much more radical as Hallberg and a team led by Sue Mayes took a root-and-branch approach to recovery. It wasn’t just about fixing an ankle, but rebuilding a body.

In July 2014 Hallberg was burnishing his reputation as ballet’s biggest male star, performing with the Bolshoi Ballet in his home town of New York. A few weeks later an image popped up on social media of Hallberg’s left leg in a cast. He’d decided it was time to attend to his long-standing ankle problem. “It was basically wear and tear and something I was more or less in denial about. My schedule was very packed. And then I had to face the music.”

He thought he’d be back on stage in maybe four to eight months. “And here we are, two and a half years later.”

While offstage in the US, having had to cancel many performances, Hallberg nevertheless kept busy. He led master classes, coached, continued to support a scholarship for boys at the School of Ballet Arizona, and created a program for last year’s Youth America Grand Prix. Called Legacy, it illustrated the individual “texture, vocabulary and singular place in dance history” of five international ballet companies. Late last year he appeared at New York’s Performa festival in a work he created with artist Francesco Vezzoli called Fortunata Desperata. That was on November 1.

“Right after Performa, I shaved my head and got on a plane to Australia and have been here since,” Hallberg said. On November 5 he tweeted: “Goodbye New York. There’s some stuff I have to take care of once and for all.” The accompanying photograph showed the shaven head and a sombre expression. Next thing he was in front of Flinders St station, saying to Melbourne: “Your arms were wide open to me.”

Speaking in a studio located deep in the bowels of the Sydney Opera House on a theatrically stormy afternoon, Hallberg looked relaxed and content. He has come a long way in those 12 months, and is happy to give all the credit to the AB’s medical team and three women in particular. “I was so physically and emotionally broken. I really came with nothing,” he said. Principal physiotherapist Mayes, body conditioning specialist Paula Baird Colt and rehabilitation specialist Megan Connolly “worked as a team to give me the education to be able to really support the entire body and not just the ankle. I’m not shy of saying I have completely restructured my entire instrument and my technique, and that’s taken as long as it’s taken.

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Amber Scott and David Hallberg in rehearsal for Coppélia. Photo: Kate Longley

“I had to fight just as much mentally as I did physically. I’ve had to completely rebuild myself in every aspect. It was so intricate that I really just had to devote my complete time and energy and complete mental capacity to this.”

Hallberg was aware of the AB’s reputation in rehabilitation long before his injury (he has been a guest artist with the company on several occasions). “I can’t express enough how knowledgeable and committed and devoted they are to not only rehabbing an injury such as mine, but furthering the field and dispelling myths about what dancer and even athlete injury is.”

Mayes said key elements of the team’s strategy are time, commitment, dancer education, research and something perhaps less tangible but vitally important: hope. “I always give hope. I believe the human body and mind have the most incredible capacity to heal and cope with adversity and often people don’t give the body enough time. We do very little surgery. We’ll commit even a year of rehabilitation before we’d go down that track. The great thing with David is that he had the time, so there were no limitations.” She says this is often not the case elsewhere, in sport as well as ballet.

“With most dancers, their goal is to get back to pre-injury status. Our goal, and I think that’s what we’re unique at, is getting people better than they were before. Not just in strength and resilience, but also technique. We’re training them to be the masters of their own body.”

Sometimes this will mean stopping dancing, “which can be devastating to a dancer”, but Mayes says all the dancers treated by the team emerge from rehab stronger, happier and better. “There was no ballet for months for David. Paula worked with him every day for months on motor control and strength.” Nevertheless, the work is intensely ballet-specific. “For Paula, every exercise has a balletic meaning. She says, ‘even though this exercise doesn’t look anything like an attitude, or an arabesque, this is the groundwork for that move’. You have to keep them engaged with the fact that they are still a dancer. We respect the dancer and we respect the art.”

Extensive research means the work is evidence-based, but put into ballet language. Dancers are educated in anatomy and the detail of movement. “It’s no good relying on us. We give them the knowledge so they can make the right decisions for themselves. I think our dancers are spectacular at that. They are very clever at working out what they need, but they have been taught all these tools right from the time they join the company.”

Hallberg’s comeback starts in Sydney when, for four performances, he stars as Franz alongside the Swanilda of AB principal artist Amber Scott, a “dear friend”, in the AB’s handsome production of Coppélia (based on the traditional Saint-Léon version, revised by Petipa and Cecchetti, with additional choreography by Peggy van Praagh and direction by George Ogilvie)It’s a role debut for Hallberg and a far cry from the aristocrats for which the tall, supremely elegant and sophisticated dancer is famous.

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Kristian Fredrikson’s design for Act III of Coppélia. Photo: Daniel Boud

Franz is a village lad whose charm far outweighs his smarts (although engaged to Swanilda he is strangely attracted to a still, silent young woman who takes no notice of him and is, in fact, a life-size doll). “Maybe what I connect to the most is that Franz has a good heart,” Hallberg said. “If I look back on the time I’ve spent here, I’ve had to just open myself up and really express only honesty with the medical team and with the dancers. They’ve seen me at my lowest. This strips you of all pretence, of all princeliness. I can bring that to Franz.”

It isn’t a fireworks role but does bring its own challenges, particularly for a dancer renowned for specialising in princeliness. In rehearsal, AB ballet master Steven Heathcote and AB artistic associate and principal coach Fiona Tonkin have had to tell Hallberg to “simplify, simplify, simplify”. “They keep saying this. I was doing the mazurka the other day and Fiona didn’t seem entirely pleased, which I like, because I respond well to brutal honesty, and she said, ‘you know, I think it needs to be simpler’. So that’s one of the things I’ve had to work on.

“I honestly can’t think of a better way to return – with the company that has brought me back to life. And really they have brought me back to artistic life. I didn’t want to just kiss them and hug them and leave. They aren’t comfortable with this word, but I am very indebted to them for the life they have given me again.”

It is not yet settled when Hallberg will return to American Ballet Theatre, where he has been a principal artist since 2006, and the Bolshoi, which he joined in 2011. “That’s what is actually taking most time now, getting my feelers out, and it’s more now the question of what repertoire will suit me. It’s not so much what company when, it’s what repertoire I’m able to do, and Coppélia is such a focus right now. I want to get my feet wet with Coppélia and assess where I’m at.”

Anyone who thinks Hallberg might be less attached to the Bolshoi because of the changes in leadership since he’s been offstage would be quite wrong. He described it as “a home to me, just as much as ABT”. Hallberg became a principal at the Bolshoi at the invitation of then artistic director Sergei Filin, who in 2013 was severely injured in an acid attack. Filin was replaced as artistic director earlier this year by Makhar Vaziev, with whom Hallberg has worked at La Scala, Vaziev’s previous directorship. Hallberg also said the Bolsahoi’s general director, Vladimir Urin, “has always been a huge supporter”.

“I’ve had a lot of time to reflect, of course, and I do realise, as I have before but even more so now, that Bolshoi is one of the most extraordinary ballet companies in the world. In terms of the tradition it upholds, in terms of the dancers they produce, in terms of the audience in Russia, and really the interest of audiences globally. It’s such an influential company. I’m so honoured to have been a part of that and to be a part of that in the future.”

Hallberg’s future may well also involve coaching and mentoring at the AB, which he described as having a “healthy energy” that helped him emotionally during a difficult period. “There’s so much talent in the company. If I can help in any way other than just coming and dancing and leaving, then I’m more than happy to do it.”

AB artistic director David McAllister said that Hallberg’s “incredibly difficult rehab” and the manner in which he persevered with its ups and down had already given young dancers important insights. “That’s what you need to be to be successful. It’s actually the hard yards of ballet, and [injury] happens to everyone. He’s incredibly generous. He’s such a gentleman.”

Coppélia, The Australian Ballet

Benedicte Bemet (Swanilda) and Brett Chynoweth (Franz), Sydney Opera House, December 3 (matinee).

There are no dancers in The Australian Ballet today that interest me more than Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth, she a soloist and he a senior artist. No matter where they are on stage or in what role, it’s as if there’s a special spotlight picking them out. They shine just that little bit more brightly than those around them. You can’t fail to notice them, even in the more anonymous roles that fall to anyone not yet a principal artist.

Rankings are, to a degree, a matter of personal taste. There are many fine dancers who never make it to principal artist and whose fans will never be able to understand why. But Bemet and Chynoweth – well, I would be astounded if the AB’s highest level were denied them for much longer.

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Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth in Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley.

Last year both were promoted to their current rank after performances in artistic director David McAllister’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty. “The possibilities for Bemet would appear to be boundless,” I wrote at the time. “Her Aurora rates as the most exciting debut I’ve seen in more than 40 years of ballet-watching. At just 21 she brought the authentic glow of youth and promise to the stage. She was so entirely at one with the role that all the technical requirements and difficulties simply disappeared. Every step was part of her journey from innocent to prospective bride to woman on the brink of maturity.

“Usually one has a sympathetic butterfly or two as the dancer approaches the climactic balances and promenades of the Rose Adagio but not here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were astonishing – the audience went wild – and they were part of a story. There was purity, radiance and joy in Bemet’s dancing. She was enchanting; a promotion to soloist swiftly came her way.”

To be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if McAllister had bounded on to the stage to promote Bemet to principal on the spot. It would have been unorthodox, but the situation was far from usual.

When Chynoweth danced the Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in 2014 he gave notice that he was more than just a brilliant dancer in contemporary pieces; more than the speedy, not-so-tall guy who is seen as a natural Mercutio but perhaps not Romeo. Last year it was heartening to see him again given the chance to play the Prince, this time in Beauty. Chynoweth “radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing,” was how I wrote about it.

This year the two have been partnered in Coppélia, making role debuts as Swanilda and Franz at the first Saturday matinee of the Sydney season. They have two more performances in what is a crowded field taking on the principal roles – there are six leading pairs in all, including that of AB principal artist Amber Scott with American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist David Hallberg, who is making a return to the ballet stage from a long absence due to injury. Franz will be a role debut for him.

Coppélia is an almost weightless romance that holds hands briefly with darkness but firmly banishes it. Swanilda and Franz are betrothed, he falls for a time under the power of the strange doll-maker Dr Coppelius but is saved by Swanilda, who forgives his lapse of judgment. All rejoice as the young lovers marry, bringing harmony and all that is good to their little community.

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Chynoweth and Bemet in Act III of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

It was delightful to see Bemet articulate Swanilda’s razor-sharp pointe work and beaten steps with such artlessness, sweetness, buoyancy and freedom. Where some Swanildas offer calculated flirtatiousness (and sometimes regrettably twee village-girl mannerisms), Bemet bubbles with natural gaiety. In Act II, when Swanilda pretends to be Dr Coppelius’s doll come to life, her resourcefulness comes to the fore and the brief Spanish and Scottish dances are done with a more knowing edge.

Swanilda drives all the action in Coppélia. It’s Franz’s job to be a bit silly, incredibly charming and – now the role is danced by a man rather than a woman en travesti, as was traditional – to dance his socks off and partner gallantly. (There was a spot of bother at one point in the complex partnering at Chynoweth’s first performance but recovery was swift.) Chynoweth needs to find more of Franz’s laddish sense of fun but there are few in the company to match his finesse and elegance. The outlines are defined with diamond-edged precision; the movement quality is bountifully plush. It’s a gorgeous combination.

Bemet and Chynoweth appear in Coppélia on December 6 and 15.