Dance in 2013

THE Australian dance-lover had plenty to enjoy in 2013, as long as there was a decent travel budget to hand. Paris Opera Ballet returned to Sydney, the Bolshoi had a season in Brisbane, The Australian Ballet premiered a new version of Cinderella by Alexei Ratmansky (Melbourne and Sydney only, although Adelaide sees it in 2014), Queensland Ballet had extended sell-out seasons under new artistic director Li Cunxin, West Australian Ballet brought Onegin into its repertoire and Sydney Dance Company got even more glamorous.

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Those were the big events of 2013. Unfortunately there were fewer small-scale gems, or at least few I was able to see. In the wide, brown land it’s not always possible to find oneself in the right city at the right time to catch up with the leading contemporary companies and independent artists, particularly when seasons can be cruelly short.

There was also a lot of déjà vu when it came to international visitors. Of course one would never knock back the chance to see Sylvie Guillem, or Akram Khan’s work, or Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, but the names bob up again and again. I acknowledge, however, that I travel around the country to see dance more than most people do. Perhaps I just get out too much.

What follows, therefore, isn’t necessarily a reflection of what was best (although much was terrific), but what was memorable.

The dancers:

The AB nabbed Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev for performances of Don Quixote in Melbourne. Vasiliev roared on like a comet and didn’t let up from the get-go. He’s no text-book classicist, but gee he’s fun to watch. Dancing the lead gypsy, resident AB firecracker Chengwu Guo threw in a cheeky backwards somersault just to remind the audience there were other men on stage. Later in the year, after dancing Basilio with boyish charm, Guo was promoted to senior artist. By year’s end he was a principal artist, promoted onstage after a high-flying appearance as James in La Sylphide. A very wise call on the part of AB artistic director David McAllister.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Also at the AB, Daniel Gaudiello got more opening nights (Basilio, James, the Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella), and rightly so. QB’s Li Cunxin likes him too. Gaudiello was a guest artist in Brisbane for Giselle – making his role debut as Albrecht – and will appear in 2014’s Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio when QB stages the MacMillan production from late June.

Still with the AB, Leanne Stojmenov had the role of her career in Cinderella, and in The Four Temperaments and Dyad 1929 (part of the Vanguard program), evergreen principal Lucinda Dunn exuded wisdom and sensuousness in works that can look all too coolly intellectual. Also on that bill was Kylian’s Bella Figura, in which corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow had one of those break-out moments.

In Brisbane, it was adorable to see Alexander Idaszak, in his first year out of the Australian Ballet School, be given the chance to dance Albrecht and to do it with such composure (he’s already moving on, however, to Royal New Zealand Ballet, which also has a starry artistic director in Ethan Stiefel). Li showed faith in another newbie, Emilio Pavan, when he was cast as the Prince in The Nutcracker, an assignment he carried out with much promise. Li added Natasha Kusch to his already lustrous group of female principal artists, and she was astutely paired with former AB dancer and now Dutch National Ballet principal Remi Wortmeyer in Nutcracker. It was a sparkling partnership.

In Perth, new artistic director Aurelien Scannella has restructured the company, creating principal artist, soloist, demi-soloist and corps de ballet ranks. On the opening night of Onegin – secured for WAB by former artistic director Ivan Cavallari – WAB showed off its new principal, Jiri Jelinek, formerly with Stuttgart Ballet and National Ballet of Canada (he is now a guest principal with the latter). Senior women Jayne Smeulders and Fiona Evans, now principals, were completely different and very fine Tatianas, and Matthew Lehmann found himself promoted to the top rank after his Onegins.

POB’s Giselle performances gave us the luminous, diaphanous Dorothee Gilbert and the role debut of Myriam Ould-Braham, a dancer made for this role. Mathieu Ganio, aristocratic to the last molecule, partnered both but Ould-Braham’s sweet simplicity seemed to make him warmer and ever-so-slightly gentler. In the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream, a delight from beginning to end, Maria Alexandrova was exceptionally vibrant, witty and warm.

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The AB managed to insinuate itself into David Hallberg’s very full diary for three performances of Cinderella in Sydney. The refinement, grace and noble partnering of the American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal artist were a perfect fit for Ratmansky’s ballet, and Hallberg even managed to make something of the Prince’s travels, one of the slightly less successful parts of Cinderella. Hallberg’s Cinderella was Amber Scott, whose other-worldly delicacy made her a lovely match for this prince among princes.

A special mention goes to Sydney Dance Company as a whole. It’s a spectacularly good-looking ensemble.

The dances:

As you’ll see from the above, there wasn’t a lot of surprising work on offer. From the tourists, the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s down-and-dirty The Rite of Spring were outstanding. Locally, SDC’s Cacti, the exceptionally amusing work by Alexander Ekman, and the AB’s Surrealist Cinderella made most impact. Well, Cinders looked much better in Melbourne, but what can you do? I also was extremely taken by Dance Clan 3, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s studio showing of new work. This time four of the company’s women – Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, Tara Gower, Jasmin Sheppard – took up the challenge, and did so most movingly. One of those terrific evenings when you have no idea what’s ahead. I didn’t get a lot of that this year.

The ideas:

I’ve said this quite a lot elsewhere, but I love the way SDC’s Rafael Bonachela is engaged with other artists from other forms. Les Illuminations brought together SDC, string players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor Roland Peelman, singer Katie Noonan and fashion designer Toni Maticevski to celebrate the centenary of Benjamin Britten. It was a standout, and a pity there were so few performances.

In Brisbane Queensland Ballet has taken advantage of the state government’s new Superstar Fund to lock in big-name guest artists for its mid-year Romeo and Juliet. Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Sydney-born Royal Ballet luminary Steven McRae come to town. Gaudiello will be back too – it’s so good to see this wonderful dancer getting more recognition.

Another big idea for QB is the institution of The Nutcracker as an annual Christmas event. Time will tell whether it will catch on indefinitely, but this year’s season did boffo box-office.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season announcement showed a small but potentially important programming shift. Instead of the usual and unvarying number of performances given to each program, regardless of audience appeal, the AB will now give shorter seasons of the contemporary rep. This is most noticeable in Sydney, where there will be nine performances of  the Ballet Imperial/Suite en Blanc double bill (May 2-17) and 10 of the Chroma/Sechs Tanze/Petite Mort/ New Baynes work bill (April 29-May 17). Note the overlapping dates – yes, programs in repertory!

As mentioned, WAB has introduced the kind of ranking system most usually seen in larger companies. Aurelien Scannella has forcefully talked about having more dancers (predecessor Cavallari got WAB a huge boost during his time). Can Scannella manage a further upwards trajectory in a city that has a huge appetite for big stuff but not so much for throwing money at the arts? And at a difficult time for the state’s finances? Worth keeping an eye on. As is QB’s obvious ambition to provide not just an alternative, but a competitor, to the AB.

The dance that turned into a play but was still full of dance:

One of the sweetest pleasures of 2013 was Gideon Obarzanek‘s Dance Better at Parties for Sydney Theatre Company, a play based on his dance work for Chunky Move that had its genesis nearly a decade ago when Obarzanek interviewed men about movement. The play, a two-hander for Steve Rodgers and Elizabeth Nabben, was simplicity itself. A bereaved man comes to a dance studio to learn how to dance, which may help him fit in socially, but really he is in desperate need of contact. To be touched. And the audience was touched too, very deeply.

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

The disappointments:

The big, big loss this year was the cancellation of Spring Dance, the festival inaugurated by the Sydney Opera House and now pulled out of the calendar. Yes, it was costly, but gave contemporary dance a highly visible platform from which to entice audiences. Fragments of it remained – Les Illuminations (see above) and Akram Khan’s iTMOi – “In the Mind of Igor” – which did not entirely convince me.

Freeze Frame, the collaboration between the Brisbane Festival and Debbie Allen, was well-meaning but lacked coherence in just about every department. Allen wrote, choreographed and directed. And appeared in it. There’s a hint right there.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, is entirely inadequate for ballet of any scale. The sets for Onegin had to be cut back and squashed in and the sightlines are terrible from many seats. Tough cheese though. It’s unlikely there will be another new theatre in Perth for a decade or more – the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, home to Black Swan State Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, was opened in 2011. Poor old WAB is not well served at all.

What a shame that Australia’s smaller centres aren’t able to see the AB, QB and WAB regularly. Instead the gap is filled by touring Russian companies of extremely variable quality. This year I saw a Nutcracker from an outfit called Russian National Ballet Theatre, whose provenance is a little difficult to work out, although companies under that name have toured before. I paid nearly 100 bucks (no, let’s be fair, my sister paid) for no orchestra, a severely truncated story, classroom choreography and production values that were modest. I do understand that local companies wouldn’t be seen dead putting on productions of such a low standard and that it costs a great deal to do better, and that they already have full schedules. But if I had a magic wand …

The year’s most graceful tribute:

In July Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for The New York Times, set out to describe the attributes of an American ballerina, and was even prepared to say how many women in US companies currently deserve to bear the title of ballerina. The number is not great: “at least 10” is what Macaulay was prepared to say. In reply, in the December/January edition of Pointe magazine, Gillian Murphy – a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet – gave her perspective. Along the way she had this to say about RNZB’s Lucy Green, a young Australian being given important roles with the company: “I am excited to watch a young dancer with extraordinary promise grow into a star.” Murphy praises Green’s dance attributes, then continues: “However, for me, it is her work ethic, her imagination and her sensitivity to others that really classify her as a ballerina in the making.” Murphy admires dancers who “encourage greatness in everyone around them”. Beautiful.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

 The Trans-Tasman Prize for Sang-Froid:

I’m including RNZB here again because I can. The month is July, a performance of Swan Lake, featuring Lucy Green as Odette-Odile, has not long finished, and RNZB staff and dancers past and present have gathered for a late-afternoon party to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary. Wellington is shaken by an earthquake – a big one. Everyone dives to the floor, which is moving alarmingly. The tremors stop, we all get up and the party continues. Well, that’s one way to cut the speeches short.

Finally…

Many thanks to London-based writer and critic Ismene Brown, who gave unparalleled, necessary insight into the dance world’s biggest story in 2013, the Bolshoi crisis and its fallout. And moving right along, there’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze in St Petersburg. Follow her @ismeneb; ismeneb.com

Next up, what’s of interest in 2014?

Onegin, West Australian Ballet

 West Australian Ballet, His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 20 and 21

WEST Australian Ballet recently took to the streets of Perth with a camera to teach people how to pronounce the name of its latest production (no, it’s not One Gin). There’s a view that if people are wary they’ll get it wrong, they may decide to stay at home. On the other hand, there’s nothing like positive word of mouth to get box office moving, and the volley of bravos for Onegin on its opening night bodes well. The reception was well deserved.

Jayne Smeuldersas Tatiana  and Christian Luck as Gremin in Onegin. Photo: Jon Green

Jayne Smeulders as Tatiana and Christian Luck as Gremin in Onegin. Photo: Jon Green

John Cranko made his version of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin in 1965 for Stuttgart Ballet and it quickly became a ballet loved by dancers and one that most important companies have in their repertoire, although it’s odd that the Bolshoi staged it for the first time only this year. That addition to the Boshoi’s repertoire precipitated one of the biggest ballet scandals of the year, as it happens, when superstar Svetlana Zakharova, who had been learning the role of Tatiana, was passed over for opening night and decided to take her bat and ball and go home. The decision to relegate Zakharova to second cast for an important new production underlined the incredibly tight grip held on the rights, controlled by owner Dieter Graefe and Stuttgart Ballet’s artistic director Reid Anderson.

So how does West Australian Ballet get to do Onegin? It was programmed by former WAB artistic director Ivan Cavallari before he left at the end of last year, in a former life a principal dancer with Stuttgart Ballet. He is one of the people entrusted with staging Onegin around the world. Snap. Now artistic director of Ballet de l’Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, Cavallari was on hand in Perth to polish the performances. Earlier coaching had been in the hands of Egon Madsen, the greatly admired dancer on whom Cranko created the role of Lensky.

Cranko follows the essentials of Pushkin’s poem. A bored aristocrat toys with the affections of a guileless country girl, rejects her, and gets embroiled in a matter of honour. Perhaps he didn’t really mean to rouse her passions, but he is far more sophisticated than she and looking for diversion. Years later Onegin is made to suffer the same agonies he once so carelessly caused Tatiana. Caught up in the maelstrom are Tatiana’s lively sister Olga and her lover, the ill-starred Lensky.

Unrequited passion, jealousy, death and renunciation are tightly packed into six swiftly flowing scenes danced to a patchwork quilt of Tchaikovsky melodies arranged and orchestrated by Kurt-Heinze Stolze (Cranko was steered away from using Tchaikovsky’s opera).  As played by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Myron Romanul at the helm, the music is driven hard and occasionally sounds too rushed. But there’s no doubt it’s a high old time at the ballet.

WAB is fielding two casts, neither without blemishes but each with much to offer. On Friday new leading artist Jiri Jelinek, a glamorous Onegin, and WAB’s prima ballerina Jayne Smeulders set the bar high for mastery of Cranko’s sweeping lines and challenging pas de deux. Jelinek comes to the company with a great deal of experience in the role, having been a principal artist with Stuttgart Ballet, home of Onegin, and National Ballet of Canada. He is now a guest principal artist with NBC and perhaps more rightly should be listed as a guest principal at WAB, given that his contract runs only until January. Presumably if everyone is happy it will be extended.

There are many moments in the choreography that could be called repetitive and unsubtle; whether they strike the viewer as so during the heat of performance is dependent on the conviction of the principal players. Jelinek is well suited to the highly coloured drama of Cranko’s story-telling with its unfolding elongations, deep lunges, sweeping legs and swift, crystalline turns and he establishes the character through aristocratic bearing and an air of disdain for the country society in which he finds himself in the first act. This is a man who wears his superiority like a second suit.

Smeulders is something of a bluestocking Tatiana, an intelligent and perhaps slightly severe young woman who will fall hard. When she writes a letter to Onegin declaring her love, it is done feverishly. Smeulders makes it clear there is a great outpouring of sentiment. She makes it a moment of great urgency rather than a girlish error of judgment. Against that, there was less of a gulf between Tatiana as a girl and the mature woman of the third act who has married a Prince and is in charge of a grand household.

On Saturday Fiona Evans and Matthew Lehmann raised the emotional stakes in what turned out to be an inspired pairing. Lehmann had a scratchy start in the exposing – and important – Act I solo. Onegin needs to be established as a very confident man. But Lehmann clearly took a deep breath during interval, started giving a sense of the character he wanted to be, and the performance took off. Evans had already shown a quite different Tatiana, a fresh, impressionable girl smitten by the man in black. Her transformation into Prince Gremin’s loving but sorely tempted wife was transfixing. Lehmann is a strong partner and the set-piece pas de deux were taken daringly, particularly the Act III renunciation scene. It crackled with passion. Smeulders was a deeper thinker, Evans initially the greater innocent; Jelinek was an elegant thoroughbred, Lehmann a darker soul. Take your pick (or see both).

Dane Holland’s Lensky (Friday) had the musicality and control that sometimes eluded Daniel Roberts in the second cast, although, as with Lehmann on Saturday, Act I nerves led Holland to hurry and blur some turns. His Act II solo, however, showed him to be an expressive dancer of great promise, although as yet his characterisation is not deep. Roberts seemed to be spooked by that lovely, difficult aria of regret and longing, chopping up the dance phrases so they were disconnected from the music. As Lensky’s wayward love Olga, Sarah Sutcliffe (Saturday) edged out Melissa Boniface in conveying the careless high spirits that set tragedy in train. Both danced stylishly and with feeling, although I felt each could have surrendered more freely to the lavish backbends Cranko bestowed on the character. Sutcliffe’s effervescence felt naturally and engagingly expressed. Boniface was a little too tightly wound, the tension expressed in a too-fixed smile. In the small, crucial role of Prince Gremin, the good man who Tatiana marries, Christian Luck and David Mack both impressed.

The rest of the company is relegated to friends (the women of the company needing softer landings in the first act frolics), country folk and some rather irritating pseudo old folk doing too much old folk shtick. This really is a ballet that needs a goodly array of former dancers to take such roles and fill in the society represented, but of course that’s a budgetary issue, and I expect well out of WAB’s means.

A special mention must be made of the sets, borrowed from Prague. The severe limitations of His Majesty’s mean swaths of the Onegin design can’t be used and the production looks sadly under-dressed, diminishing the experience. The small stage also means dancers have to pull themselves in, making smaller what should be grand and expansive. Perth desperately needs a new lyric theatre, right now.

Onegin ends October 5.

La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s, June 1

IN her program note for West Australian Ballet’s La Sylphide, stager Dinna Bjorn wrote that while the steps of Bournonville’s 1836 ballet remain true to the original, “the way of executing the steps has changed through the the times with the development of the ballet technique and the body types of the dancers”. Bjorn sees in this inevitable change a way of maintaining authenticity but keeping the ballet fresh.

West Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jon Green

West Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jon Green

That is, of course, the ideal. La Sylphide deserves its continuing place in the repertoire: in the story of a spirit who lures a young man away from his fiancee and the responsibilities of family, society and work lie some difficult and enduring life lessons. Accommodations may need be made when it is brought before a modern audience, but it’s also necessary for the essential essence of the ballet to be preserved.

Watching WAB in two performances on the last day of its recent season, it struck me, however, that different body types and greater technical facility weren’t that much of an issue. There was much more at stake in the crucial area of emotional expressiveness, the inner light of the character.

When it came to absorbing the principles of early Romantic ballet, the WAB dancers were on secure ground. It was wonderful to see the buoyancy of many of the men and the height and elasticity of their jumps, along with swift, sharp footwork (Andre Santos really stood out in this respect). The women combined lightness and precision although most of the corps found it necessary to wear a bright look, giving the superficial impression of a bunch of healthy girls out for a walk in the woods rather than spirits of the forest. (More filtered lighting wouldn’t have gone astray here either.)

And it wasn’t just the corps who seemed unable to divest themselves of an essentially contemporary attitude. Both Sylphs, Brooke Widdison-Jacobs and Fiona Evans, smiled rather too expansively and seemed rather too knowing. Widdison-Jacobs, who was first cast, was praised for her freshness on her first performance, but by the last appeared to me to be quite brittle. Perhaps the burden of dancing six of the 12 performances was showing. At the matinee on June 1 Evans beautifully captured the airy nature of the Sylph’s movement.

Dancing with Evans, Daniel Roberts was a bright, engaging James who nailed that gorgeous “hang” in the air so essential in the  Bournonville style. In the first cast Sergey Pevnev didn’t have quite that degree of height and stage coverage (although it was very attractive dancing) but his experience was invaluable when it came to convincing characterisation.

The same was true with Craig Lord-Sole, Madge in both casts. Lord-Sole, WAB’s ballet master, was compelling, creating a particularly malevolent figure whose enjoyment of the tragedy was chilling.

Craig Lord-Sole as Madge in La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet. Photo: Jon Green

Craig Lord-Sole as Madge in La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet. Photo: Jon Green

It was also a joy to see Jayne Smeulders’s Lead Sylph in the first cast. Again, experience and refined artistry resulted in a connection with the work that was deep and true.

WAB is incredibly lucky to have the West Australian Symphony Orchestra as its musical partner. With ebullient guest conductor Wolfgang Heinz at the helm, the WASO gave a striking account of the Lovenskiold music. After the performance Heinz – who is assistant music director at Stuttgart Ballet and adorably wore a kilt for the evening performance – was loud in his praise for the orchestra, and rightly so.

WAB has an ambitious time ahead, with the company premiere of John Cranko’s intensely dramatic Onegin coming up in September. There couldn’t be a greater contrast with the delicate perfume of La Sylphide, and it is much anticipated.