David Hallberg to return to the ballet stage in The Australian Ballet’s Coppélia

AFTER a long recuperation after injury, American danseur noble David Hallberg will return to the ballet stage in December – in a place and a part not many would have anticipated. Hallberg will appear with The Australian Ballet during its Sydney Opera House pre-Christmas season, dancing the sunny, wayward Franz in Coppélia. It will be a role debut, for which four performances are scheduled: December 13, 16, 19 and 21.

The AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, confirmed the dates. “We’re very excited to have him do his first shows [on his return from injury] with us,” he said.

David Hallberg photo Wendell Teodoro 4083

David Hallberg at the Sydney Opera House in 2013, when he appeared in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Hallberg’s choice of the AB for his return performances makes sense, in that AB staff have been involved in his rehabilitation over the past year or so. As for Coppélia, that’s just what the AB had on its schedule at the moment, but its cheerful, uncomplicated nature is perhaps a bonus. Hallberg will be able to have fun after an extended period of recovery.

Hallberg, 34, had surgery on his left ankle in August 2014, which led him to cancel engagements for that year. Withdrawals from performances in 2015 were later announced. He is a principal artist with both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, joining the latter in 2011. He is the only American to be invited into the Bolshoi’s highest rank.

Hallberg is also a sought-after guest artist and has formed a close connection with the AB. He first danced with the company in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in 2010 and was to have starred in the AB’s 50th anniversary gala in 2012, although injury prevented that engagement. He danced the role of the Prince in the new version of Cinderella created for the company by Alexei Ratmansky in 2013. Last year Hallberg devised a program called David Hallberg Presents: Legacy, which was presented during the 2015 Youth America Grand Prix. The AB was one of a handful of companies he selected to take part to illuminate their individual “texture, vocabulary and singular place in dance history”.

He wasn’t entirely missing in action as a performer last year. With artist Francesco Vezzoli he created a piece called Fortunata Desperata for New York’s Performa festival, a biennial visual arts performance event that embraces cross-disciplinary work. As Gia Kourlas described it in a review for The New York Times, Fortuna Desperata explored “15th century Italian court dance, which put down the roots for classical ballet. In other words, no leaps required: at the most, lilting, gentle hops.”

While he has an extensive and varied repertoire, Hallberg has been particularly admired in ballet’s core princely roles. The chief dance critic of The New York Times, Alastair Macaulay, wrote in 2014, just before Hallberg was forced to step out of the limelight: “By the time he joined the Bolshoi in 2011, Mr. Hallberg was already the world’s foremost paragon of classical style … His virtues grow when he dances, thanks to the purity and singing lyricism of his line and the dazzling clarity of his execution.”

These qualities will certainly be of use in Coppélia, but in a rather more light-hearted context than ballets already in Hallberg’s repertoire. Franz is a lively young man whose larrikin charm exceeds his mental acuity. Franz’s attention drifts from his fiancée Swanilda when he spots the apparently aloof Coppélia. Her lack of interest in him – chiefly because she is a life-size doll made by the mysterious Dr Coppelius – leads Franz into trouble from which the resourceful Swanilda must rescue him. They can then proceed with their wedding.

At the AB the ballet is performed in a 1979 version based on the original choreography by Arthur Saint-Leon, as revised by Petipa and Cecchetti with additional choreography by Peggy van Praagh, the AB’s founding artistic director. Theatre director George Ogilvie “devised and directed” the production and has been involved in its restaging this year. Designs are by Kristian Fredrikson.

Proof; Boys Like Me

Proof, Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, February 25 (matinee)

Boys Like Me, Courtney Act, Sydney Theatre, February 25

DAVID Auburn’s Proof had a Sydney Theatre Company season in 2003 with George Ogilvie directing Jacqueline McKenzie and Barry Otto as the father and daughter maths whizzes who share a genius for numbers and potentially a similar fate. The play won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award for that year, but I failed to see why. Proof has some sterling qualities, it’s true, but they are contained within a highly conventional and disappointingly creaky structure. It was an enjoyable experience because of the quality of the performances, but not a wholly satisfying one.

I’ve just caught up with The Ensemble’s current production, which is also impressive from a performance perspective (Sandra Bates directed) but no more plausible from a dramatic one. Matilda Ridgway beautifully negotiates the task of making bolshie, anxious Catherine highly sympathetic and the scenes with her father Robert (Michael Ross) are most moving. Catherine McGraffin and Adriano Cappelletta have the unenviable job of playing a pushy sister and a not terribly successful mathematician who are there to set the conflict in motion.

Matilda Ridgway and Michael Ross in Proof. Photo: Clare Hawley

Matilda Ridgway and Michael Ross in Proof. Photo: Clare Hawley

The notion of proof that gives the play its title is given very short shrift indeed. Odd that Auburn should have been so garlanded for it. Still, the production is worth seeing for those lovely few scenes between Catherine and Robert.

COURTNEY Act’s cabaret show, for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, is called Boys Like Me. Depending on where you put the emphasis, the title can means two things; both of which meanings, as Act explains, are true. Men are extremely attracted to Act, and how not? She is a witty, glamorous beauty. But as Act was born Shane Jenek, she is also a man. The most beautiful man in the world, as the promotional material has it, and I’m not going to argue. Certainly there is industrial-level maquillage to aid the impression, but it’s flawlessly done. And the drag persona is just part of the story, one that Act describes as living on the divide between genders.

Boys Like Me is a touching, generous and warm-hearted show about the fluidity of gender as it applies to Act and to many others in their individual ways. Her special guest last night, for instance, was Chaz Bono, a transsexual, although the point of their song together, Gender Rebels (a version of Bosom Buddies) was pretty much that you should forget about the labels. Bono isn’t the singer his parents – Cher and Sono Bono – were but you had to admire the attitude and the statement.

Act got cosy with her audience very early, confiding aspects of her, ahem, personal life that would be considered waaaaay too much information in many circles. It takes a lot of class and style to make intimate anecdotes such as these seem amusing and appealing rather than crass – and they did. It was delightful to hear that Act’s parents were in the house and had always backed their boy. Yes, apparently even when hearing sex-life details no parent would actively seek out. Bless.

It helps that Act has lovely comic timing and a sweet way with a putdown. “I was in Adelaide. Always a precarious start to a story …” was the introduction to one story, swiftly followed by an apology to that city.

Act is a fine singer as well as a charming raconteur. Highlights for me were Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl and, from Wicked, I’m Not that Girl. So touching in this context.

Act played the diva role to perfection, donning a series of glittering gowns and showing a great deal of extremely well-turned leg. The show would have benefited from running straight through rather than losing momentum with an interval but Act manages to carry the day nevertheless, aided by an excellent band.

Act now lives in Los Angeles and is a contestant in the current series of the show RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality series about drag queens now in its sixth season. RuPaul is a showbiz legend so this is no small thing. It was divine, then, to know this hasn’t gone to Act’s head in any way. She has a sharp eye for absurdity and captured beautifully Hollywood’s boundless appetite for the unusual. She reckons that when she discovered the existence of an American TV show called Hillbilly Handfishin’ she knew there was a place for her. I looked it up, and it’s true. It’s a series about catching fish with your bare hands and feet. Go Courtney.

Proof ends at the Ensemble Theatre on March 8.