Retirement and promotion at the AB

 La Sylphide, Sydney Opera House, November 25

IT’S one of the Australian Ballet’s most striking images.

Olivia Bell looks at the camera with a cool expression, her head inclined slightly downwards so the effect is of mystery rather than direct challenge. Her hands are on her hips and her weight is placed on her left leg, giving her torso a lithe S-bend. She looks strong, sleek, glamorous, ultra-modern and enigmatic.

That’s about right. Justin Smith’s photo was taken in 2005, two years before Bell became a principal artist at the AB and was a promotional image rather than a production shot, but it astutely captured the qualities Bell brought to the stage as one of the AB’s top-ranked dancers.

Last night Bell, 35, called it quits, retiring after a glowing performance of Paquita at the Sydney Opera House. Bell has for some years tried to juggle dance and the demands of being a mother – and not just of one child, but of three, including twins. This in a company that moves around more than most. Indeed, it’s a tribute to the AB and its enlightened maternity leave provisions that Bell had been able to stay this long.

Newcastle-born Bell trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School after winning a scholarship at the Prix de Lausanne. Her pristine, elegant line and sophisticated demeanour are no doubt legacies of that time. She joined the AB in 1995.

Bell was also marked out by her imposing height. Speaking at the time of her elevation to principal in December, 2007, the AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, told me: “She owns up to five feet nine and three quarters (177cm), which is really five feet 10.” On pointe, of course, Bell easily broke the 180cm mark. Fortunately the AB soon had Adam Bull on hand, who at 193cm is the tallest man in the company. His partnering in Paquita last night presented Bell exactly as she should have been, as a glittering, precious jewel.

Bell’s notable roles included the Baroness in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, Zobeide in Scheherazade, Choleric in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Peter Wright version of Nutcracker, the role she danced on the night of her promotion to principal. She was a powerful presence in Kylian and Forsythe works.

Bell said after last night’s performance that there would be others to replace her. Yes, of course there are always other dancers, but from the beginning of her time at the AB to the end, there has been no other dancer like her.

When Bell bowed out, at about 8pm last night after the one-act Paquita, the AB had 10 principal artists remaining – five women and five men. When the evening’s main event, La Sylphide, ended the AB had a new star, Chengwu Guo. McAllister came onstage to announce his elevation to the top rank after Guo had given a luminous performance as James. His technical gifts are prodigious and were used entirely in the service of the Bournonville style. I saw him earlier in the run as well as last night and was enchanted not only with his swift, brilliant footwork, soaring elevation and beautifully placed upper body, but with the way he had thought about the character in a manner right for him.

As I wrote in my DJ’s Diary on November 16: “Guo was a soaring James in La Sylphide, his command of shape and structure magnificent and his elevation a thing of immense beauty. He looked as feather-light as his Sylph on this occasion, Reiko Hombo. In the mix’n’match season Guo also partners Ako Kondo and Miwako Kubota. Guo is obviously the next male principal artist of the Australian Ballet. Just a matter of when. Do see him if you can.” McAllister has wisely wasted no time. (On the subject of Kubota, she was Guo’s Sylph last night and danced with gossamer lightness and fascinating shades of character. A memorable performance.)

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo as Basilio. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Last night’s promotion wasn’t the first this year for Guo, who at 24 is the youngest of the principal artists. He was made a senior artist in April after his delightful Basilio in Don Quixote. At the time I wrote: “As Basilio Guo showed a very clean pair of heels. Like [Ivan] Vasiliev [a guest artist with the AB in Melbourne] he isn’t tall and it helps him in the air, where he is exciting. The stage – particularly in Sydney – is too small for his space-eating energy. And he’s a sweetheart, fun and bubbly.”

So – a night of losses and gains.

The Pilates phenomenon

THERE’S more to getting ready for a ballet performance than donning a stunning costume, doing a stage-worthy make-up and rubbing a rabbit’s foot for luck. Before the curtain goes up there will have been countless hours of rehearsal over weeks and months (not to mention the decade or so of training to get to that point). Before rehearsal comes class, every day. And for a great many professional dancers, before class comes Pilates.

Far from being just another fitness fad whose popularity waxes and wanes with public taste, Pilates has long been a favourite with dancers. It helps keep them in peak form but has a further benefit. From its earliest days Pilates has also been associated with rehabilitation, and because of the physically arduous nature of the business, dancing and rehab go together like Nureyev and Fonteyn.

Juliet Burnett in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Juliet Burnett in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Juliet Burnett knows this well. The Australian Ballet senior artist, 30, was back onstage for the Sydney season of La Sylphide after a two-month hiatus caused by a foot injury. “It was a stress reaction in my second metatarsal. Luckily it was caught at an early stage so it didn’t progress to a stress fracture, which would have seen me off for quite a bit more time.” Part of her rehab program was Pilates, of which Burnett was a particularly early adopter. “I started on the recommendation of my ballet teacher when I was 12, so probably I was younger than many younger students would have followed it back then. It was still relatively new – it used to be ballet dancers and athletes who had cottoned on to it, and gymnasts.”

Burnett, who started dancing at about the age of five and joined the AB in 2003, always does Pilates daily but it was more intense during her time offstage, making up for the physical work she was missing in class and rehearsals. “You can still work the muscles in a horizontal plane,” says Burnett. “For the first couple of weeks I was not allowed to bear weight. I wasn’t to walk around too much, wasn’t allowed to stand around and cook. People waited on me. I relished that.”

Pilates is named after its German founder, Joseph Pilates, who made a study of practices such as yoga, martial arts, bodybuilding, gymnastics and boxing to improve his fitness – he was apparently a weedy youth. During his internment in the UK during World War I Pilates helped care for injured servicemen, a circumstance that inspired his trademark resistance exercises, which he developed using springs taken from beds. The exercises could be done while the men were lying down with their heads, shoulders and backs supported. “That’s basically the crux of what we have now,” says Pilates teacher-trainer Penelope Hoess.

Pilates ultimately made his home in New York in the mid-1920s and his evolving method was taken up by some of the biggest names in dance, including the fledgling New York City Ballet.

“Before Pilates I had no concept of how vital core stability was for a dancer when performing,” says Annabel Knight, formerly with Sydney Dance Company and now in the ensemble of the musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney. “A strong core is the foundation to your movement.”

Annabel Knight demonstrates Darren Spowart's ConsciousControl Pilates program

Annabel Knight demonstrates Darren Spowart’s ConsciousControl Pilates program

Ah yes, the core. Core strength is a term much bandied about these days but what exactly is it? Not just the abs, that’s for sure. “It’s a great question,” says Hoess, who describes the core as the area from the base of the pelvis to the lower ribcage, from front to back. Within this area is a set of deep abdominals (such as the transversus abdominus),  the multifidi (which connect the vertebrae), and a collection of pelvic floor muscles – essentially the group of muscles that support the spine and upper and lower torso.

“Physiologically, our centre of gravity lies in our pelvis,” says Hoess, a council member of the Australian Pilates Method Association (she was also a dancer who trained at London Contemporary Dance School). “It’s a really important area to base your strength and range from. Pilates balances muscles around a joint and that increases the range of movement. Because of the systematic approach, you’re also gaining strength and flexibility to support that increased range.”

Naturally this is of keen interest to dancers. AB artistic director David McAllister says Pilates enables targeting of the muscle groups that support ballet technique. Learning about the importance of the small and linking muscles and not just the prime movers such as quads, glutes and hamstrings helps dancers prevent injury, improve technically and perform their heavy workload consistently (the AB has about 170 main stage performances a year). On a personal note, he says: “I think danced for as long as I did 100 per cent because of Pilates. I had so many shocking injuries but I could continue because I worked those small muscles.”

Burnett says that many dancers who come to Pilates later in their career “do comment they wished they’d started it earlier because it would have helped them ground the right technique much earlier. When you’re preparing for a role, you can cater your Pilates program to help you out with those technical aspects.” For the title role in La Sylphide, for instance, Burnett does lots of targeted upper leg and calf exercises.

Knight, 30, calls Pilates “such a vital tool for me. You’ve got so much more extreme movement when you’re stable within your core and centred. It’s a larger range of movement, but also I’m stronger, I’m fitter.”

Rohan Furnell Photo: James Braund

The AB’s Rohan Furnell Photo: James Braund

Darren Spowart, a former dancer with the AB and Sydney Dance Company, takes AB dancers for Pilates when the company is in Sydney. It is vital preparation says Rohan Furnell, 26, who “simply wouldn’t be able to perform at the required level if not for Pilates”.  As a member of the corps, the largest and busiest rank in a ballet company, he is likely to be dancing in every show. Like Burnett and Knight, Furnell does Pilates daily.

“It gives me a confidence in my ability. I never feel as secure in what I’m trying to achieve on stage and in class and in rehearsals when I haven’t done Pilates,” he says. There are further benefits too. “Our repertoire and rehearsal schedule is so varied throughout the year that you can be so busy one week and then not so busy the next week.

“The Pilates is a constant that’s really important for me. It allows a consistency in my workload that really helps for maintenance and injury prevention.”

Spowart, 49, was regularly asked by members of the AB if he could record some of his classes for them so has produced a series of DVDs. They are based on his AB work and have found acceptance within the wider dance world. Additionally, he has been asked by the Skating Coaches Federation of Switzerland to speak and present videos at a seminar in May in Zurich.

But the programs can also be used by non-dancers (this writer is a devotee). “Elite dancer work can translate to non-elite people. I have delved deeply into each exercise, to what they are achieving and why they are achieving,” Spowart says of his ConsciousControl Pilates series, which has five levels through which practitioners can progress. Burnett, Knight, Furnell, AB senior artist Rudy Hawkes and soloist Robyn Hendricks are among dancers who demonstrate the programs, which are also available online.

Rudy Hawkes demonstrates ConsciousControl Pilates

AB senior artist Rudy Hawkes demonstrates ConsciousControl Pilates

Pilates is not for the flighty. It is technically challenging and requires patience and perseverance. “It’s definitely no quick-fix process,” says Hoess. “It’s part of the methodology to commit. We’re teaching your nervous system a particular language. Like learning anything, regular practice gets you to where you want to go.” Spowart says it takes a 10 to 12-month commitment for someone to get his program into their body. Essentially it’s a mind-driven process, with the Pilates principles of concentration, centering and control leading to the desired precision and flow.

“Pilates definitely has its role in creating the ideal classical ballet dancer with a good and sound technique,” says Burnett, but she is also convinced of its wider application.  “My husband is a musician and he spends a lot of his days in front of a computer. Pilates is such a great way to get realigned and grounded,” she says. “Now it is very much a ubiquitous thing and that’s fantastic because it should be an essential practice for everyone.”

Knight agrees. “No matter who you are or what you do, you’ll always find benefits in every way,” she says.

Not everyone will end up looking like Burnett, Knight or Furnell, but if they put the work in they will look and feel stronger, more flexible and more aware. That much is guaranteed.

The Australian Ballet’s La Sylphide, Sydney, until November 25. Juliet Burnett dances the title role on November 18 and at the November 23 matinee. She appears in the La Sylphide curtain-raiser Paquita on November 20, 21, 22 and 25.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Theatre Royal, Sydney. Ends December 8.

Darren Spowart’s program: www.consciouscontrolpilates.com

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in The Australian, November 15.

La Sylphide

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, November 7

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

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

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don Quixote x 6

The Australian Ballet, six performances in March and April 2013

BALLET’S reliance on and reverence for its history is powerful in so many ways. In the Australian Ballet’s 2013 Melbourne and Sydney seasons of Don Quixote the women dancing Kitri were coached by former American Ballet Theatre principal Cynthia Harvey; the leading men prepared under the eye of former AB principal artist Steven Heathcote, who also appeared with distinction as the Don in many performances.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvey for a program essay and discovered that among the sources for her interpretation of Kitri – captured on DVD with Mikhail Baryshnikov – was Kirov star Ninel Kurgapkina, who was one of the last pupils of Agrippina Vaganova, who in turn had a direct connection with Marius Petipa. Rudolf Nureyev’s production, made on the AB in 1970, is based on Petipa’s work, and of course Nureyev brought to the company his own web of important connections.

Daniel Gaudiello and Lana Jones in Don Quixote. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Lana Jones in Don Quixote. Photo: Jeff Busby

That’s the big picture. Ballet connections work on the micro scale as well. I took my young great-niece to see Don Q at the April 20 matinee, as she has become a keen student about to embark on the next step of taking private lessons to supplement her ballet classes. Her mother, my niece, came along too and was reminded of her own days as a ballet student: at one point she danced alongside AB soloist Matthew Donnelly, who that day was performing the role of Gamache with considerable elan.

Which is a long way of saying it didn’t seem an entirely mad thing for me to see six performances of Don Q in the space of four and a half weeks, with five of them crammed into two weeks. I’m finding the jaunty Minkus ear-worms hard to banish but it turned out to be a valuable exercise. That is, if one can discount the completely mad plot, such as it is, and the regrettable lapse into jazz hands and shoulders amongst the gypsies of Act II.

In order of Kitri/Basilio pairings it went like this: Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev guesting in Melbourne; Leanne Stojmenov and Ty King-Wall; Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo, guesting from Stuttgart Ballet in Sydney; Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo; Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello; and Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. When the season ends on April 24 I will have missed only one cast, that led by Reiko Hombo and Yosvani Ramos – a pity, as Ramos leaves the company immediately after Don Q.

One dancer we unfortunately wouldn’t see is the AB’s longest-serving principal artist (since 2002), Lucinda Dunn. She was a spectacular Kitri when the AB last staged Don Q in 2007, but has been with the company for 22 years and it wasn’t a surprise to see her name missing from the casting this time around. Dunn is rightly choosing her repertoire carefully now.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

Osipova and Vasiliev (March 16) were, of course astonishing. Osipova can zip across and around a stage about twice as fast as anyone else and throws out megawatts of charisma and polish. Vasiliev seems to have a jet-pack somewhere about his person as he performs the apparently impossible, both in the air and on the ground. It isn’t fair to compare anyone to them, although Badenes (April 6, evening) wasn’t far behind Osipova from a technical perspective and I preferred her characterisation, which was sunny and effortlessly on top of all the by-play. Perhaps Badenes’s Spanish heritage is the key. Camargo was exceptionally confident and charming, if a touch untidy from time to time. Still, they made a sparky couple and the AB seemed energised by them and – if this isn’t a paradox – more relaxed than when faced with the Vasipova tornado.

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

I thought I should try to see senior artist King-Wall as it was clear he was knocking on the door of the principals’ dressing room. The afternoon of April 6 looked good for this, and so did King-Wall. AB artistic director David McAllister came on stage at the end of the performance to announce the promotion. King-Wall isn’t the most natural choice for Basilio. He is more the prince than the joker, but he hit the right comic moments without over-playing them, exploited his elegant line and partnered Stojmenov beautifully. (An aside: it’s a pleasure to see the care with which most of the AB men partner, with what we might describe as manly tenderness.)

Stojmenov is a terrific Kitri, fleet of foot, cheerful of temperament and with a good dash of sexiness. Of all the women, she made the most of a moment in Kitri’s grand pas de deux variation when a swirling fan movement around the torso contrasts sensuously with a series of crisp echappes.

The next must-see was Guo/Kondo (April 13, evening). Guo is a real fire-cracker and a self-selector for Basilio. He came into the season as a soloist and emerged as a senior artist. Quite right too. It was interesting to see his Gypsy Boy in the Osipova/Vasiliev performance in Melbourne. He finished off with an unorthodox but joyous backflip, as if to acknowledge the excitement and virtuosity of the evening – essentially to put himself in the same show as the superstars. Gorgeous.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

As Basilio Guo showed a very clean pair of heels. Like Vasiliev he isn’t tall and it helps him in the air, where he is exciting. The stage – particularly in Sydney – is too small for his space-eating energy. And he’s a sweetheart, fun and bubbly. Guo didn’t attempt the one-arm lift in Act I but tossed in a little something else, cheekily scratching his calf with his foot while holding Kondo aloft.

Kondo is a lovely soloist whose interpretation is still somewhat unformed. It felt as if the role was sitting on top of her rather than being part of her and she doesn’t have the most fluent back, which is a fine attribute to have in a Kitri. But Kondo and Guo were well matched in ballon and elevation.

The first cast of Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello got a well-deserved and well-received opening night (I saw them later, on April 16). Jones offered big, expansive dancing, extending everything to the max. Gaudiello was immaculately precise in allegro and plush in adagio. And he gave great guitar spin as he tossed the instrument over his head after Basilio’s pseudo musical interlude in Act I. It was a performance full of attractive brio.

Finally came Eastoe and Jackson (April 20, matinee). Don Q isn’t the ballet that best suits their temperaments – the soulful side of the street is where they excel. It goes without saying Eastoe was an enchanting Dulcinea and her floaty balances were divine, but there were few fireworks, apart from when Jackson pulled off a v-e-r-y long-held single-arm lift in Act I.

There was mixed success in some of the secondary roles. Principal Andrew Killian (Espada) upped the ante after a quite subdued showing in the Osipova/Vasiliev  performance but could have projected even more and Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Wright got the bullfighter’s shapes without much of his macho glamour. Senior artists Miwako Kubota and Juliet Burnett were fine Dryad queens but principal Amber Scott, a dancer of great lyrical gifts, was spooked by the grand fouette sequence.

It’s always worth taking a close look at those cast as Amour as they are often on the up and up (the role reminds me of Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro – it’s a small soprano part aficionados scope out for stars of the future). Hombo is perhaps a little too assertive for Amour these days; Halaina Hills, Jessica Fyfe and Benedicte Bernet were warmer, sweeter. Hills could cut back on the sugar a bit, Fyfe was delightful but wayward musically at the performance I saw, and Benedicte Bernet – a candidate in this year’s Telstra Ballet Dancer Award – was very good.

What other stray thoughts emerged? Well, that the women of the corps were too often out of kilter in the vision scene; that the long diaphanous cape Kitri wears at the beginning of the ballet should never, not ever, be worn over a tutu as it is at the beginning of the vision scene; that Brett Chynoweth, recently promoted to soloist, does a great Gypsy Boy whip crack and it’s energising to see how passionately he dances; and that after all those Don Qs it will be a relief to get to the palate cleansers that the upcoming Vanguard and the brief Canberra-only program Symmetries promise to be.

Vanguard, Sydney, April 30-May 18; Melbourne, June 6-17.

Symmetries, Canberra, May 23-25. It features a new Garry Stewart work, Monument, alongside Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments (also part of the Vanguard program) and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux.

Ty King-Wall

The Australian Ballet has a new principal artist

WHEN David McAllister walks onstage at the end of an Australian Ballet performance it usually means just one thing, and so it was the afternoon of April 6  in Sydney. McAllister named Ty King-Wall, 26, the AB’s newest principal artist after his performance as Basilio in Don Quixote.

King-Wall said the next day he had no warning, thinking his parents had come from his native New Zealand simply to see him dance. Afterwards they thought they should be receiving all the congratulations, not him, King-Wall joked. “And that’s right.”

Ty King-Wall, new principal artist of The Australian Ballet. Photo: James Braund

Ty King-Wall, new principal artist of The Australian Ballet. Photo: James Braund

With King-Wall it wasn’t a matter of if he would be promoted, but when. He has been dancing principal roles for years, taking the role of the Prince in Stanton Welch’s Sleeping Beauty as early as 2009, just three years after he joined the Australian Ballet. In 2010 he was the Prince in the Peter Wright version of The Nutcracker, Franz in Coppelia and Octavian in Graeme Murphy’s The Silver Rose.

McAllister needed to find the right moment to make the announcement, and more or less had it thrust upon him. He likes a dancer’s family to be in the auditorium if possible when he promotes a dancer so phoned King-Wall’s parents in New Zealand to suggest they might like to think about planning a trip to Sydney. He was told his call was timely: they were just about to get on a plane. So that sorted the date – April 6, at the matinee.

King-Wall’s father had not seen his son dance since his Australian Ballet School graduation performance – coincidentally of the third act of Don Quixote.

Fortunately for McAllister, King-Wall gave a principal-worthy performance on the 6th. He claims to have been “feeling a little bit down after the first act – there were a couple of things I wasn’t really happy with. I had to tell myself to pull it together and I really enjoyed the third act.” From the auditorium things looked just fine. King-Wall has lovely proportions and elegant bearing. He had easy elevation, the cleanest of pirouettes, the occasional special effect thrown in without triumphalism, his double tours were landed in firm, tight fifth positions and he confidently negotiated the tricky one-armed lifts in Act I. While King-Wall isn’t naturally an ebullient character, his Basilio was charming, sweet and amusing.

He was well matched with principal Leanne Stojmenov, a lively and funny Kitri with lovely touches of sensuality.

There had been buzz about King-Wall within the company during the Melbourne season of Don Quixote and in Brisbane when the AB performed Swan Lake (the Stephen Baynes version). On April 6 one enterprising dancer asked McAllister if he was going to promote King-Wall that day, basing his question on the fact McAllister was wearing a suit. McAllister was thus attired because he was taking part in a talk later, but when a story is on the move anything will be examined for signs.

In any event, it was that day. King-Wall had no warning but wasn’t especially surprised. He has been “working towards this for a long time”.

His parents weren’t initially followers of the ballet. King-Wall began taking classes when he was seven because a friend had started and “was a bit apprehensive and wanted a guy to keep him company. I said sure, I’ll give it a go.” The friend quickly fell by the wayside but King-Wall was hooked. At 16 he was accepted by the Australian Ballet School and joined the AB in 2006. McAllister describes him as “a born prince”.

“It felt the right time for him to take on that mantle,” says McAllister. “He’s really proved his worth.” Even though King-Wall is the youngest of the AB’s 12 principal artists (soon to be back to 11 when Yosvani Ramos leaves at the end of the Don Quixote Sydney season), he could have been elevated even sooner had he not had a significant back injury. “He did have a setback,” says McAllister, “but in a funny way the injury made me more sure that he was right for promotion. He was so professional and committed, and had the tenacity to make sure he rehabbed and rehabbed properly.

“Once he got back, I thought yep, he’s going to be fine. The way he approached it I knew that it was going to be all right.”

King-Wall says the company’s support during his period of injury has made him “relieved and grateful” that he now has reached the top rank. The promotion puts him at the same rank as his off-stage partner, AB principal Amber Scott. “I have a deep respect for the rank and what it means,” he says. “I understand the responsibilities and expectations.”

He’s happy, too, to be as busy as possible. “It’s a short career and you want to make absolutely the most of it.” The AB will be getting its money’s worth in the upcoming Vanguard triple bill, as King-Wall is cast in each work – Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura and Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, created on the company in 2009. He has danced only in Dyad 1929 and is looking forward to exploring the other two works.

Ty King-Wall is scheduled to appear in Don Quixote at the Sydney Opera House on April 12, 17 and 22. Vanguard opens at the Sydney Opera House on April 30 and in Melbourne on June 6.