David Hallberg named next artistic director of The Australian Ballet

On December 4 last year David Hallberg tweeted that he’d loved revisiting The Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House but “there is a very good chance it was my last”. And so it probably was. Today the 37-year-old American superstar was announced as the next artistic director of The Australian Ballet – its eighth. He told The New York Times that while he will fulfil his current stage commitments this year and into 2021, “my shows are numbered”. He starts his new role at Australia’s national ballet company next year.

Today he wrote to his followers: “It has been a long and eventful (to say the least) career and I have always known that the time will come where I take all of my absorbed experience and become an Artistic Director. This is the time.”

AB-Coppelia 2016. Amber Scott, David Hallberg in performance1. Photo Kate Longley

David Hallberg in The Australian Ballet’s Coppélia. Photo: Kate Longley

Hallberg succeeds David McAllister, who will have been in the position for a record-breaking 20 years when he leaves. Perth-born McAllister was a principal artist with TAB when he was the surprise pick to follow Ross Stretton’s brief rein. The choice of Hallberg is far less of a surprise. The South Dakota native is practically an honorary Australian, having first appeared with TAB in 2010 (in the Peter Wright version of The Nutcracker) and returned regularly. Most pertinently, he spent more than a year in Melbourne in 2015-2016 undergoing rehabilitation with TAB’s crack medical team after a potentially career-ending ankle injury. He returned to the stage in late 2016 for Sydney performances as Franz in Coppélia. It was, fittingly, a role debut. Hallberg’s career had restarted and he has been unstinting in his praise for those who helped him heal.

Back on track, Hallberg then accepted the position of TAB resident guest artist. He is also currently a principal with American Ballet Theatre, which he joined in 2001, and principal guest artist with The Royal Ballet. In 2011 he made headlines when invited to join The Bolshoi Ballet as a principal artist, a position that lapsed after his injury and long recovery, although he has returned there as a guest artist.

Natalia Osipova’s Pure Dance

David Hallberg with Natalia Osipova in The Leaves Are Fading. Photo: Daniel Boud

Hallberg has long been considered one of the very finest male dancers of his generation and his globe-trotting career has taken him to the world’s leading companies. It has also included a special partnership with the incandescent and equally famous Natalia Osipova. But while still dancing at the top of his game, in interviews Hallberg was signalling his desire to have an artistic directorship in his future. McAllister’s announcement last year that he would leave TAB at the end of 2020 gave Hallberg and TAB’s board plenty of time for discussion.

There were, naturally, other candidates under consideration but it is hard to think of anyone else whose appointment would have been greeted with such approbation and such wide interest. Hallberg’s interests are eclectic and his connections deep and impeccable, desirable traits for his new job.

Craig Dunn, chair of the TAB board, said in a statement: “I am delighted to announce that The Australian Ballet’s search for an internationally recognised outstanding artistic talent with an exciting vision for The Australian Ballet has been successful and that the Board has appointed David Hallberg as our eighth Artistic Director. David’s highly successful international career as a classical ballet dancer and his leadership roles in the companies he has danced with regularly, mean David will bring a unique artistic lens and global view to his leadership at The Australian Ballet.”

The Happy Prince, The Australian Ballet

Choreographed by Graeme Murphy, adapted from Oscar Wilde by Murphy and Kim Carpenter. Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, February 25.

Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince was to have premiered last year but illness intervened and the choreographer wasn’t able to complete the ballet in time. The Australian Ballet quickly rescheduled it to open the 2020 season in Brisbane. The knock-on effect is that The Happy Prince will be seen in Melbourne from late August and wrap the year up in Sydney. That makes it look very much like a closing of the circle. Murphy’s wildly successful and much revived version of Swan Lake was the first ballet TAB artistic director David McAllister commissioned when very new in the job and The Happy Prince is his last new full-length ballet. McAllister announced his retirement last year and his two-decades reign will end in December this year.

It would be good to be able to say The Happy Prince is just the ballet with which to farewell McAllister; that it’s that marvellous beast, a ballet ostensibly for children that works for both young and old and will have a long life. It’s hard to see happening. The ballet is both too much and not enough.

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Adam Bull and Marcus Morelli in The Happy Prince. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Oscar Wilde morality tale that inspired the piece is brief and to the point. The imposing golden statue of a once-happy, cossetted Prince sees that the world at large is full of misery and misfortune. With the help of a gadabout Swallow he strips himself of all finery, gives it to the poor and achieves a state of grace.

Having been delayed by an abortive love affair with a slender reed (cue for reed instruments to feature in Christopher Gordon’s new score), Swallow misses the opportunity to migrate south with his family – to Australia, of course. That’s how he comes to be fluttering around the bejewelled statue and to learn the lesson that it is much better to be kind and generous than to be rich.

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Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden as Mayor and Mayoress. Photo: Jeff Busby

The visual possibilities are obvious and co-adapter Kim Carpenter’s designs are richly expressive. A bleak, jumbled cityscape represents the Prince’s former domain, here represented in the immediate aftermath of war to explain, not terribly successfully or necessarily, why a statue to the Prince has been erected. Swallow’s world is saturated with colours never seen in nature and cheeky flora and fauna who would be at home on a burlesque stage. The Mayor and Mayoress, the latter danced by a man, are grotesques in exaggerated finery. There are delightful toys from the Prince’s childhood and heavies who create mischief in the town square.

Moment by moment it looked just fine but the need to fill 90 minutes of stage time turned out to be too much for this slender story to bear. Wilde ended his story with the Happy Prince and Swallow in Heaven; Murphy’s paradise is a surf beach with a fine break. All ended in a blaze of showbiz razzle-dazzle and sunny optimism, a crowd-pleasing ending that drove away any thoughts of sacrifices made.

Extra characters and new incidents, not all of them crystal clear, blunted the focus, although it’s possible to argue that had Murphy provided more extensive pure dance sequences the time would have gone by in a flash. Marcus Morelli as Swallow had fewer Bluebird-style moments than expected, for instance and there was an underuse of the expressive possibilities of classical technique. One couldn’t help feeling the company’s talents were being under-exploited.

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Artists of The Australian Ballet as Reedettes in The Happy Prince. Photo: Jeff Busby

Turning a group of reeds – the Reedettes – into a rather underpowered version of the Rockettes didn’t quite cut the mustard.  It also didn’t help that on opening night Murphy’s blend of classical and contemporary movement  didn’t sit entirely comfortably on the company and there was a distinct whiff of a too-brief rehearsal period.

The best moments in The Happy Prince were when things were dialled down; when there was dance to stir the soul. A section for a neglected artist – a substitution for Wilde’s starving playwright – was overwrought and unmoving but a glowing, late-breaking duet for Swallow and Match Girl – Morelli and Benedicte Bemet in the first cast – fell on grateful eyes, ears and heart. So did several searching moments for the Prince (Adam Bull), who wasn’t given not quite enough to do.

At these times it was possible to appreciate more deeply Christopher Gordon’s new, highly detailed score, rendered vividly by the Queensland Symphony with Nicolette Fraillon at the helm. Gordon’s music registered as a sophisticated stream of consciousness that underscored character, mood and place but on an initial hearing, wasn’t as effective as a clear-cut driver of movement or emotional intensity.

And isn’t that what we want from a story ballet? To feel?

Ends February 29. Melbourne, August 28-September 5; Sydney, November 27-December 16.

The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, November 30.

The Australian Ballet doesn’t have an annual tradition of presenting The Nutcracker, although on present indications it could. The ballet doesn’t have as tight a grip on the public (or companies’ bottom lines) as it does in the United States but this year’s Nutcracker was pretty much sold out before it opened while other popular entertainments in Sydney are struggling.

TAB has two versions of Nutcracker in its repertoire. Graeme Murphy’s 1992 Nutcracker – The Story of Clara is a wonderful memory piece set during a hot Melbourne Christmas. For a more conventional take, TAB turned to Peter Wright’s 1990 Birmingham Royal Ballet version, giving the Australian premiere in 2007. Audiences loved it from the start, and it’s the Wright production currently packing out the Sydney Opera House.

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Benedicte Bemet as Clara in The Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

John F. McFarlane’s designs are delectable and are a huge part of the production’s enduring success. There’s inevitably a round of applause when a giant flying goose carries Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets and all the costumes, from Clara’s floaty white party frock to her mother’s spectacular red gown and the intense pinks and purples of the Flowers’ gorgeous tutus, greatly please the eye.

Wright plays a straight bat with the story. It’s Christmas Eve, the Stahlbaums give a party at which the magician Drosselmeyer entertains the guests with mechanical dancing dolls and a couple of tricks. Clara is given the gift of a Nutcracker doll, she falls asleep at midnight and the magic begins.

At 15 – the age is specified – Wright’s Clara is a little older than some. She’s by no means fully mature but has spark and a lively mind, brought to vivid life by newly minted principal artist Benedicte Bemet on opening night. A pivotal moment comes when the Nutcracker is transformed into the Prince at the end of the skirmish between giant rats and toy soldiers. He greets Clara with great courtesy; she views him with the wonder of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. One could say the Prince does very little here, except that he is opening the door to a world of life-changing growth and imagination. Senior artist Jarryd Madden was the epitome of grace and chivalry. He was less imposing in his grand pas with Amber Scott’s Sugar Plum Fairy, both dancing more correctly than radiantly. But ah, that earlier moment …

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Jarryd Madden in The Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

Other delights came with soloist Sharni Spencer’s all-conquering Snow Fairy and the appearance of TAB founding member Colin Peasley. He retired, sort of, when the company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012. Now 85, he played Clara’s Grandfather and looks to be on his way towards matching the late Frederic Franklin’s feat of taking small parts into his 90s.

One has to be happy that the Chinese Dance has been somewhat modified to remove the hideous finger-pointing and head-waggling that made it so distasteful but it really needs a complete overhaul. While it’s no longer insupportable, it is dull. Very, very dull. The slinky Arabian Dance, which presumably is supposed to conjure the sensual perfume of the mysterious Middle East or some such thing, could also do with a rethink.

There will be no Nutcracker next year, which is artistic director David McAllister’s last (an announcement on his successor is expected by April). Interestingly, he ends his reign with something of a gamble, a new production of The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. It opens in Brisbane in early 2020, will be seen in Melbourne in August and September and closes out the year, and McAllister’s tenure, in Sydney in November and December.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Choreographer Graeme Murphy was scheduled to deliver The Happy Prince this year but illness prevented him from completing the work and a quick shuffle ensued. Perhaps it was the universe speaking. A new Murphy ballet to end McAllister’s two decades at the helm of TAB completes a circle: the first ballet McAllister commissioned was Murphy’s Swan Lake, a huge success that was performed nationally and internationally almost every year for more than a decade.

The Nutcracker ends in Sydney on December 18.

Sylvia, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, November 8

The dash for bathrooms and bars was substantially less frantic than usual after the close of Act I of Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Heads everywhere bowed over their synopsis sheets. What in the name of all the gods in Ancient Greece was going on? How does one show via ballet that Artemis and Apollo – twin gods – “slay Queen Niobe’s army in revenge for a slight to their mother, Leto”? Or why Artemis turns Callisto into a bear? These gods and goddesses really do take a grudge to extremes and their actions are not always easily explained.

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The Australian Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Photo: Jeff Busby

Never mind. Once the head-spinning early part of the first act is out of the way Sylvia is an enjoyable romp. Even better, it gives Australian Ballet audiences their first chance to hear the enchanting Delibes score in full, sounding luscious in Sydney in the hands of Nicolette Fraillon and the Opera Australia Orchestra. (Read more about Delibes, the music and the history of Sylvia in my article for Limelight magazine in August.)

There was also a great deal of pleasure in the sparkling performances given on Sydney’s opening night of this co-pro with Houston Ballet. As a kind of corrective to the male-dominated Spartacus seen last year, Sylvia has plenty of strong roles for the women of the company. As in the original libretto, the nymph Sylvia, a huntress in Artemis’s army, falls in love with a lowly shepherd. Welch ups the ante by adding a second match-up between gods and mortals when Eros is smitten with Psyche and plucks Artemis from the periphery to give the ballet a third heroine.

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Benedicte Bemet as Psyche in Sylvia. Photo: Daniel Boud

Complications ensue, obviously, or there would be no story, but ultimately everything turns out well. On the way to that happy ending Welch floods the stage with Artemis’s band of women warriors; Eros’s retinue of cheeky, hyper-active fauns; various gods and goddesses, by turns stately and vengeful; and on a less elevated level, Psyche’s mum, dad and sisters.

Being from the realm of the gods, Sylvia stays youthful while her husband, known only as The Shepherd, suffers the fate of all mortals and ages, a situation that gives rise to one of the ballet’s most delightful passages. The Shepherd (Kevin Jackson on opening night) is given an older substitute (TAB artistic director David McAllister enjoying himself greatly) as successive generations of offspring are seen growing up. The Shepherd is then magically de-aged by Eros, whose lovely Psyche has also been given demi-god status and thus will not die. (Too much detail?)

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Ako Kondo as Sylvia and Kevin Jackson as The Shepherd. Photo: Jeff Busby

There are rich pickings for the dancers, and not only for principal artists Ako Kondo (Sylvia on opening night) and Robyn Hendricks (Artemis) and senior artist Benedicte Bemet (Psyche). Smaller roles were taken with much brio by Dimity Azoury, Dana Stephensen, Jade Wood, Imogen Chapman and Natasha Kusen, among others.

Jackson was a sweet presence and sterling partner to Kondo in Welch’s dramatic pas de deux and Marcus Morelli made a splash as Eros, spinning, jumping and flying his way through the action. His swift rise through the ranks (he joined the company in 2013) has been well earned.

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Benedicte Bemet as Psyche and Marcus Morelli as Eros. Photo: Daniel Boud

Kondo’s warmth and strength made Sylvia as multi-faceted a character as possible within the rom-com scenario and Bemet’s Psyche was adorably funny. Hendricks was meltingly beautiful as Artemis, a goddess indeed. How many other conventional ballets can one think of where there are three such diverse and rewarding leading roles for women?

We must hope Jérôme Kaplan’s set designs looked better in Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre, where Sylvia had its Australian premiere in September, than they did in the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. In the first act they looked too dark and solid, although later the stage picture was enlivened by Wendell K. Harrington’s projections, which enabled instantaneous scene changes. Kaplan’s costumes were, happily, just delectable.

Sylvia ends in Sydney on November 23.

The Australian Ballet announces its 2020 season and seeks a new artistic director

As David McAllister announced his last full season as artistic director of The Australian Ballet, the company formally launched its search for McAllister’s successor.

McAllister retires in December of next year after 20 years at the helm but will have significant input into the 2021 program. The new director is not expected to start until perhaps April, executive director Libby Christie told me yesterday.

Advertising for the position has begun, with applications to close on October 25. The company, which currently has about 80 dancers and  stages more than 240 performances a year, seeks “an inspirational, internationally recognised person with outstanding artistic and leadership qualities”. Among the many qualities required, the candidate must “be able to demonstrate an affinity for Australian culture”.

It’s undoubtedly no coincidence that TAB’s 2020 marketing images were taken in Broken Hill, in the far west of NSW. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Australians live around the edges of the continent, few things evoke Australia more immediately here and abroad than the red dust of the outback.

TAB 2020 season_Robyn Hendricks_photo credit Georges Antoni4

TAB principal artist Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Georges Antoni

TAB begins its year in Brisbane with Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. Murphy has adapted the story with designer Kim Carpenter. Christopher Gordon has composed a new score. The Happy Prince was to have premiered this year but Murphy became ill and was unable to complete the ballet in time. The postponement had its upside: McAllister’s first big commission and arguably greatest success was Murphy’s Swan Lake (2012) and The Happy Prince brings the connection full circle. It will also be staged in Melbourne and Sydney.

The year’s other two full-length works are also new, Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina, a co-production with Joffrey Ballet; and Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Petipa’s Harlequinade, a co-production with American Ballet Theatre. (Ratmansky has given it “the kiss of life”, says McAllister.) Anna Karenina opens in Sydney then goes to Melbourne and Adelaide. Harlequinade will be seen in Melbourne only next year; presumably Sydney and possibly other cities will see it in 2021.

TAB 2020 Repertoire Anna Karenina_Kevin Jackson Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook_photo credit Justin Ridler

Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a promotional image for Anna Karenina. Photo: Justin Ridler

Two mixed bills will be staged in Melbourne and Sydney. Volt features a new work by resident choreographer Alice Topp and two Wayne McGregor revivals, Chroma and Dyad 1929, the latter created for TAB. McAllister breaks the mould – well, his mould – for Molto by programming a heritage work, Ashton’s A Month in the Country (1976), alongside 21st century ballets by resident choreographers Tim Harbour (Squander and Glory) and Stephen Baynes (Molto Vivace).

If McAllister was feeling melancholy about his final season launch he hid it well. Looking relaxed and happy, he said the dancers would have much to learn from a new artistic director, as he did from Ross Stretton when Stretton succeeded Maina Gielgud. “It’s an exciting and positive time for the company.”

The Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet reveal 2019 programs

Alice Topp was yesterday named The Australian Ballet’s fourth resident choreographer, joining Stephen Baynes and Stanton Welch, (both appointed in 1995) and Tim Harbour (2014). Topp, a coryphée with the company, is the second woman to be given the title following Natalie Weir. It’s been a long time between drinks: Weir held the post for several years from 2000.

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Alice Topp, The Australian Ballet’s new resident choreographer. Photo: Kate Longley

Topp was nurtured via TAB’s Bodytorque series, as was Harbour. The choreographic development program has, unfortunately, been put on the backburner after several years of diminishing numbers of performances and participants. Bodytorque was MIA this year and is nowhere in sight in TAB’s 2019 program, announced yesterday.

Still, the Topp appointment is extremely good news and the year’s two new productions are highly enticing – well, if you live in Sydney or Melbourne. Other cities will have to wait. Stanton Welch’s production of Sylvia (a co-production with Welch’s Houston Ballet) brings to the repertoire a ballet never before performed by TAB, and Graeme Murphy collaborates with brilliant designer Kim Carpenter on The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. The Happy Prince will feature a new score by Christopher Gordon.

TAB artistic director David McAllister said yesterday The Happy Prince would be a “beautiful, rich, whole of family experience”. In recent years TAB has put a great deal of energy into reaching young audiences, including offering child-friendly versions of the classics in performances that run for less than an hour. In 2019 the family audience will also be lured with repeats of Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker (Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Brisbane, Melbourne).

Having been staged only in Melbourne last year, Topp’s latest work, Aurum, will be seen in Sydney in 2019 as part of the contemporary program Verve. With Topp’s appointment it’s now a resident choreographers’ triple bill: alongside Aurum is Baynes’s Constant Variants from 1997 and Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow(2015). Aurum is also slated to appear at New York’s Joyce Theatre in May.

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Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Alice Topp’s Aurum. Photo: Jeff Busby

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo will perform Jean-Christophe Maillot’s contemporary Swan Lake, LAC, as part of TAB’s 2019 season in Melbourne only.

Queensland Ballet has also just announced its 2019 season. The big news is the world premiere of artistic associate Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons to the music of Saint-Saëns, co-produced with Texas Ballet Theater. Tracy Grant Lord will design, as she did so delightfully for Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which QB co-produced with Royal New Zealand Ballet. (QB takes Dream to Melbourne next week.)

QB will bring back the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet that was such a success for the company in 2014 and continues its annual Nutcracker tradition by restaging Ben Stevenson’s production for the seventh time.

A triple bill of ballets by George Balanchine, Jiří Kylián and Trey McIntyre and the very successful Bespoke program take care of contemporary ballet. Bespoke is where QB delivers a full evening of new choreography from experienced dance-makers – next year’s names are Lucy Guerin, Amy Hollingsworth and RNZB’s Loughlin Prior – while emerging choreographers will be seen in Synergy.

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.