Beauty in the eye of the beholder

Revelations in New York, stars made at The Australian Ballet, Alina Cojocaru in Brisbane and more …

The Australian Ballet dubbed its 2015 season A Year of Beauty. Giselle, Swan Lake, Cinderella and Frederick Ashton’s The Dream were on the program, lovely ballets all, but essentially teasers for the main event – the new Sleeping Beauty, staged by artistic director David McAllister with opulent designs by Gabriela Tylesova. On the other side of the world an even grander production was unveiled. American Ballet Theatre’s Alexei Ratmansky sought to return The Sleeping Beauty to something close to its original form and style.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beau...

The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, designed by Gabriela Tylesova

In Brisbane, Queensland Ballet staged Greg Horsman’s smaller-scaled interpretation (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011) and a visiting company, Russian National Ballet Theatre, toured Australia and New Zealand extensively with (inevitably) Swan Lake but also Beauty. The AB’s new Storytime Ballet venture for very young children was launched this year with, yes, The Sleeping Beauty (a miniature clocking in at well under an hour).

I thus had my own Year of Beauty in 2015 with 10 performances in all – two casts of the Ratmansky, four of McAllister’s, two of Horsman’s and just one Russian National Ballet Theatre (more than enough, alas) and one Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. 

This Beauty bounty inevitably drew me back to DVDs of productions including those by The Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and The Australian Ballet. Their stagings of Sleeping Beauty could be looked at anew, particularly in light of Ratmansky’s discoveries, and encouraged repeated returns to the complete score (the 2012 version by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi for Chandos is superb) although none of the versions I saw used all the music, as no one does. A little-admired four-hour 1999 Mariinsky version aiming for authenticity has been dropped from the repertoire. These days companies want – and need – to bring The Sleeping Beauty in under three hours. At American Ballet Theatre the reason was stated bluntly in the program: “The ballet has, however, had to be cut somewhat to fit within the union-defined time limitation.”

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora for ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

It’s worth quoting in length from David Nice’s scene-by-scene analysis that accompanies the Chandos recording to see the kind of thing that’s lost. In the second entr’acte (the first is rarely heard at all), “the note C is sustained by the strings, principally the violins, for exactly one hundred bars. This is time suspended: the ‘sleep’ chords … and the themes of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse pass and dissolve. Few if any productions observe the full symbolic duration of this hypnotic spell – Aurora is usually heard to sleep for a mere forty or so years.” Not that Petipa used every bit of the music Tchaikovsky wrote for his ballet either. Pragmatism reigned then as now.

All the productions I saw were traditional ones underpinned by Petipa’s 1890 staging for St Petersburg’s imperial Ballet. It and other ballets were recorded in the Stepanov system of notation and came to the West in the luggage of Nicholas Sergeyev, a regisseur who managed to exit Russia not long after the revolution of 1917. Diaghilev’s 1921 production The Sleeping Princess was based on these notations as was The Royal Ballet’s of 1939, staged by Sergeyev and also called The Sleeping Princess although claiming to be more true to Petipa’s original than Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes version (with which Sergeyev was also closely associated). When revived in 1946 – and famously winning over New York in 1949 – the ballet was now The Sleeping Beauty and contained some new choreography.

The Beauty staged by the RB to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2006 had further changes: it was billed as being produced by Monica Mason and Christopher Newton after Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev with additional choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon. That list in itself tells the story of how ballet is translated and transformed down the ages. The Australian Ballet’s 1993 recording has choreography by Petipa, “reproduced by Monica Parker from the Nicholas Sergeyev notation” with direction and additional choreography by Maina Gielgud.

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Sarah Lane and Herman CornejoŽ in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

The versions are very similar when it comes to the overall story arc and key passages but have many different details that give an individual stamp. Not all of them are improvements, as Ratmansky’s painstaking research into how The Sleeping Beauty would have looked in 1890 makes clear.

The choreographer made a close study of the Stepanov notations and created a revelatory version for ABT and La Scala, who shared the eye-watering cost, reported to be in the vicinity of $US6 million. The money was well spent: this was indisputably the dance event of the year. I saw it in New York in May following its premiere in California. The production was extraordinarily sumptuous, flooding the Metropolitan Opera stage with so many dancers and supernumeraries that at some points there were more than 100 people on stage.

Even so, Ratmansky used fewer people than were in Petipa’s original, with its hordes of children, pages, courtiers, cavaliers and minor royalty to attend upon their majesties, each carefully arranged according to rank. The Sleeping Beauty is not only a fairy tale celebrating the victory of good over evil. It depicts a formal, long-established power structure as the embodiment of harmony. Its traditions and ceremonies imply continuance and order. In such a world Carabosse’s exclusion from Aurora’s christening, the event that initiates the action, puts a great tear in the social fabric. Ratmansky shows that in a healing gesture she is invited to Aurora’s wedding. It makes perfect sense, even if in the vast congregation at the end of the ballet Carabosse was seen only fleetingly.

And that’s the thing about Ratmansky’s version. It feels right dramatically and musically at every point.

A brief moment in the Rose Adagio perfectly illustrates how ballet can shift from its original intention into a kind of never-never land of whispers only partly heard. Aurora steps forward on her left foot, on pointe, then lowers her heel to the floor. She bends forward in an arabesque penchée, inclines her head and upper body towards the audience, bends her right arm and holds it close to her chest. Her right hand is seen to touch her left cheek, or perhaps is held near her face without obscuring it. Aurora does this four times, and sometimes the four Princes kneel behind her, all together or else one by one. Sometimes she leans on each Prince as she passes (as in the Grigorovich version for the Bolshoi), sometimes not. Sometimes she gives the Princes a glance, sometimes not. What exactly is she doing here, in this very specific sequence of body and head inclines?

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Diana Vishneva with violin pages. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Ratmansky tells us. Aurora is listening to a group of little pages as they play violins. In the Grigorovich staging, filmed in 1989, we can see youngsters dancing in the background while holding violins; in the RB version, young boys stand in the background plucking mandolins in a haphazard and desultory fashion. So the idea there should be some young people on stage with stringed instruments has survived, sometimes, in some form, but not their reason for being there. It may seem odd to single out a sequence that lasts less than 20 seconds but it always looked meaningless to me; Ratmansky turns the light on.

It was also delightful to see the Precious Stones music of the third act danced by the rarely seen fairies of Gold, Silver, Sapphire and Diamond (in McAllister’s and Horsman’s productions the Prologue fairies are drafted in for these dances). The Sapphire music is, excitingly, in the tricky metre of 5/4, written this way because Petipa was thinking of a five-faceted stone. In 1946 the RB introduced the now-familiar characters of Florestan and his sisters to replace the jewel fairies, with choreography by Ashton.

Study of the Stepanov notations revealed a quality of movement that has changed dramatically since Petipa’s time although Ratmansky also examined many other sources to fill gaps. For guidance on upper-body style Ratmansky consulted Ballets Russes material, including film shot in Australia by Melbourne eye specialist and ballet enthusiast Ringland Anderson that McAllister was able to make available. In Ratmansky’s version there are no extreme extensions. Legs are held softly, there is extensive use of the demi-pointe and lines are more rounded. With less height comes more speed and time for intricate footwork. The ballet sparkles as much as it intrigues. A delightful aspect is the low retiré position in pirouettes, sometimes not much above the ankle. In supported pirouettes the men use one arm only to guide the ballerina rather than paddling her around, and there are many other surprises, such as the double air turn for the Prince that ends with a landing on one foot. A beguiling airiness prevails.

The production includes some elements from The Sleeping Princess and later versions of the ballet that are now considered standard, including fish dives in the grand pas de deux and the arms raised en couronne as Aurora pauses, balancing on pointe, in between greeting each suitor (said to be a Fonteyn innovation). Interestingly, the very poor production from Russian National Ballet Theatre is more faithful to Petita in both those respects although quite chaotic in others. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that the Russian Aurora I saw, Elizaveta Lobacheva, perhaps didn’t attempt the balances in the Rose Adagio as we know them because the taped music offered no room to move. (I saw her Odette-Odile too; she’s a very proficient dancer.)

David McAllister’s staging experience was quite limited before he took on the task of bringing a new Sleeping Beauty into his company’s repertoire to replace Stanton Welch’s 2005 production. It was a courageous move on his part, pulled off remarkably well. I have a handful of reservations about aspects of the storytelling but audiences have responded strongly and a long life seems assured. It needs to stick around: this Beauty cost the royal sum of $2 million or thereabouts, although more than 70 per cent of the budget came from about 2000 ballet-lovers, making donations big and small. Some gave individual gifts of more than $50,000, others put in $100. It was an impressive fund-raising feat.

Lana Jones in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Bal...

Lana Jones in David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

While the drain on the AB coffers wasn’t particularly great for such a large-scale production, the many people who donated would have a right to feel very cheated if it wasn’t a stayer. My prediction: when the AB vacates the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House for some months in 2017 to allow replacement of the ageing theatre machinery it will presumably perform elsewhere in the city and will need popular repertoire to entice the audience to follow. If it can get the Capitol – and I stress I have no information on this – the larger stage and the big, ornate auditorium would be perfect for this Sleeping Beauty.

I digress. As I wrote just after the Melbourne premiere in September, Gabriela Tylesova’s design “is almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revels in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There are columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas.” It is a sumptuous fantasia at one with Tchaikovsky’s magical score and I enjoyed it greatly each time I saw it, or at least most of it. I still think McAllister and dramaturg Lucas Jervies have muddled and muddied certain details of the story but McAllister was able to field strong casts and gave several dancers a career-defining break.

The AB seems to have hit the mark with Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Hordes of tutu-wearing, wand-waving little ones packed the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House to see a vastly simplified version of the ballet, helped along with clear, clever narration. The dancing from young Australian Ballet School graduates and members of the AB’s education ensemble was a touch on the careful side as they negotiated bits and pieces of Petipa on the small stage. (For the first time ever I regretted the absence of the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots from Act III; I think the children would have adored them.) The real fun came from panto-like interaction between narrator Catalabutte and an enthusiastic audience that was thrilled to warn of Carabosse’s appearance at Aurora’s birthday party – “Behind you! Look behind you!!” – and helped rouse the slumbering palace with lusty wake-up shouts.

Storytime Ballet The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. photo Jeff Busby 01

Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Queensland Ballet’s production, which I saw in October, is a great success. Greg Horsman made it for relatively small forces and his cuts and conflations are done with a keen eye to clarity and logic. The world he creates is coherent and consistent in tone. Everything makes sense in a world that’s perhaps not terribly grand but zesty and imaginative. Among the pleasant innovations is the presence at the christening of four young princes who will grow up to become Aurora’s suitors; the garland dance arranged for gardeners and their girls, making it happy and relaxed; and a youthful, glamorous Carabosse who has the ability to turn into a dragon.

Russian National Ballet Theatre toured New Zealand and Australia for three months, offering more than 100 performances divided between Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. They performed in a variety of venues, from modestly sized arts centres in small cities to large theatres such as Melbourne’s Regent and Sydney’s State. In October I saw The Sleeping Beauty in the Big Top at Sydney’s Luna Park, not the most atmospheric venue for grand classical ballet but RNBT was taking whatever venues it could. There was a set of the most meagre kind (well, an unchanging backcloth really), recorded music, far too few dancers and the story told in such broad strokes as to be incomprehensible.

It was depressing to see how basic everything was. The Princess Florine made no attempt to emulate the flutterings of the Bluebird with whom she was dancing, thus eliminating all charm and meaning; Carabosse, shorn of attendants, dashed about the stage manically and confusingly; the hunt scene appeared to be happening within the castle confines; and so on. RNBT’s ability to have so many dates on this tour is evidence, however, that there is audience demand for the ballet classics that is not being met by local companies, and that Russian companies, no matter how inadequate, can still pull a crowd.

While I greatly admired Ratmansky’s production, the first-cast Aurora of Gillian Murphy felt rather too modern for this staging despite the care taken to rein in her 21st-century facility. Her Prince, Marcelo Gomes, was a wonderfully charismatic figure. Although Sarah Lane, a soloist I saw at the second New York performance, was not as technically assured as Murphy she was warm, youthful and had lovely rapport with her Prince, the superlative Herman Cornejo. He bounded through the fleet, delicate, precise footwork with much ease and charm.

Queensland Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - International Ballet Stars Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao Image 6. Photo David Kelly

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

At Queensland Ballet there was the gift of Alina Cojocaru as guest artist. She is rightly thought to be among the very best, if not the best, Aurora of the moment. As I wrote at the time: “She radiates light and joy from a tiny body that gives the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing is brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything feels as if it is the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all is her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompasses the entire theatre.”

QB’s second-cast Aurora was the newish principal artist Yanela Piñera, who came to Brisbane from National Ballet of Cuba. She dances on a grand scale, making the Act III pas de deux a glittering highlight in concert with principal Hao Bin, who recently announced his retirement and will be missed in a company with few experienced leading men.

The AB ended its Year of Beauty on a high note by promoting three dancers who had made debuts in Sydney as Aurora and Prince Désiré. At the Melbourne premiere principals Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson gave stately performances that matched the grandeur of the setting. Two months later, on the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre stage in Sydney, there was a more intimate feel, at least in the performances I attended.

Brett Chynoweth was made a senior artist (the second-highest rank) after his soaring, heartfelt Prince Désiré. There was a felicitous pairing with senior artist Natasha Kusch as Aurora – though both are relatively small they make an abundant impression with legs like rapiers, exquisitely articulated feet and loads of height and speed. This was an incredibly important opportunity for Chynoweth, who has rarely been cast in leading classical roles (although he danced a very fine Prince in The Nutcracker in 2014). In Beauty he radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing.

Robyn Hendricks’s first Aurora also won her a promotion to senior artist. She was a slightly mysterious young woman in whom you could see the queen she is destined to be. The watchfulness and engagement with her suitors created a whole, interesting, individual character and the elegance and quiet sophistication of her dancing spoke of great things ahead. Principal Adam Bull partnered her securely although he was not looking in peak physical form – a little tired at year’s end perhaps.

Bernet-Kate Longley

Benedicte Bemet in rehearsal with Kevin Jackson. Photo: Kate Longley

McAllister astutely gave coryphée Benedicte Bemet the inestimable support of principal Kevin Jackson, who has been on fire all year, for her debut as Aurora. It could be the start of a very fruitful relationship following the retirement earlier this year of Jackson’s most frequent partner, Madeleine Eastoe. The possibilities for Bemet would appear to be boundless. Her Aurora rates as the most exciting debut I’ve seen in more than 40 years of ballet-watching. At just 21 she brought the authentic glow of youth and promise to the stage. She was so entirely at one with the role that all the technical requirements and difficulties simply disappeared. Every step was part of her journey from innocent to prospective bride to woman on the brink of maturity.

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

I haven’t even got started on the many exquisite fairies and Bluebirds, the merits or otherwise of various Carabosses and Catalabuttes, the conducting and many other aspects of this endlessly fascinating ballet. But enough, I think, for now.

Into the woods

Melbourne, September 15

THE Australian Ballet and its audiences have a great deal invested in David McAllister’s new Sleeping Beauty, in both senses of the word. The first is financial: this Beauty cost more than $2 million to produce and 70 per cent of its financing was provided by ballet-lovers. The program lists hundreds of supporters, some of whom gave gifts of more than $50,000 and others more than $20,000. The second investment arises from the first. Because the enterprise is so grand and so expensive, The Australian Ballet has promoted The Sleeping Beauty to saturation point through every channel possible. Even those only slightly interested in the AB would have known of its progress. When expectations are raised to this extent the pressure to succeed is equally intense.

Lana Jones as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lana Jones as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

The first performance – described in grandiose manner as a “global premiere” – was greeted with a standing ovation, an event relatively rare for ballet in this country. The sense of relief was palpable. The Sleeping Beauty looked every bit as sumptuous as promised, and more. The first-cast Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré, Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson, were a glowing pair at the centre of a setting that could effortlessly overshadow dancers of less consequence; Amber Scott created an indelible impression as the Lilac Fairy, gossamer-delicate, dispensing calm and goodness and making one believe implicitly in her natural authority; and it was wonderful to see former AB principal artist Lisa Bolte, who now works behind the scenes with patrons, as a radiant Queen in whom it was easy to see the Aurora she once was. This was inspired casting.

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drinks deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, is almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revels in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There are columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She has created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that throws out a huge challenge to McAllister: match this if you can, buddy. Well, he asked for it. There have been a few rumblings about the design being oppressively opulent but this greatest of ballet scores can bear the weight. It invites and deserves a magnificent mise en scène. It also requires storytelling that can fill the space and amplify the music. It’s in the latter sphere that Beauty doesn’t fully succeed despite the involvement of Lucas Jervies, a choreographer and director working as McAllister’s sounding board and adviser.

Amber Scott, centre, as the Lilac Fairy in The Australian Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Amber Scott, centre, as the Lilac Fairy in The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Sleeping Beauty is set in a strictly hierarchical society that cascades down from the King and Queen. Knowing your place is paramount. Order is everything. In the ballet harmony is disrupted and then restored through the superior might of good and the healing power of pure love.

The production takes a fresh line on the event that sets the story in motion, the lack of an invitation for the fairy Carabosse to Aurora’s christening. In a quite lengthy piece of business it’s made clear that Catalabutte – I suppose these days you’d call him the King’s principal private secretary – is an active participant in the Carabosse disaster. He is loath to invite the dark fairy, the synopsis tells us, although the ballet itself does not, indeed would not be able to, indicate why. (Apparently she hasn’t been around for a while.) Catalabutte dithers a bit, makes a weak attempt to run the matter past a preoccupied King, then tears up the invitation. McAllister must have thought this stronger than having Carabosse left off the list because of system failure but it’s odd that a functionary would be given such agency. Carabosse is a powerful figure, as we soon see.

The failure of the palace administration to run smoothly, effectively and according to protocol reveals a crack in the structure, and that precipitates a devastating event. That’s why most productions present the exclusion of Carabosse as a clerical error rather than an active, personal decision on the part of an underling.

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty

The Carabosse issue is compounded in this production: she reappears at points in the story where her presence is simply not called for. Once the Lilac Fairy has ruled that Aurora will not die when she pricks her finger, when it’s abundantly plain that the influence of the Lilac Fairy trumps that of Carabosse, why would Carabosse turn up, only to be routed once more? She might have a wicked streak but she isn’t stupid: in fact in this production she is titled the ancient Fairy of Wisdom. On opening night former AB principal artist Lynette Wills invested Carabosse with much dark allure, although it was puzzling she should wear pointe shoes when there is little choreographic call for them. It’s not a flattering look.

The nature of this world would also have been more clearly defined by the presence of supernumeraries to fill out the court, which looked under-populated for such a lavish establishment. And I missed the presence of children acting as pages and rounding out the garland dance. A court such as the one Tylesova creates would be replete with pages attending the courtiers who wait upon minor royalty who attend the monarch. Yes, it would cost, but the ship sailed on that aspect a long time ago.

Another idle thought. Would the King and Queen walk about holding their baby in the manner of fond 21st century parents? It diminished their grandeur for me.

Matt Donnelly, Lana Jones and Lisa Bolte. Photo: Jeff Busby

Matt Donnelly, Lana Jones and Lisa Bolte. Photo: Jeff Busby

McAllister has kept key passages of traditional choreography, put his own stamp on some elements and created linking material to make the transitions needed to cover cuts. The ballet was made to come in at under three hours (with two intervals) for family-friendly reasons. Well that, and I imagine also for cost reasons involving orchestra and crew. (Even Alexei Ratmansky in his reconstruction for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala this year cut the Panorama and Entr’acte that accompany the Prince’s journey to the castle where he will discover Aurora. It’s lovely music but if you have your eye on the clock …)

It was a bold move to excise most of the traditional fairytale divertissements from the Act III wedding celebration (though not Bluebird/Princess Florine) but they aren’t much missed. The wedding party is a stupendously lavish affair, presented as a masked ball in the style of Louis XIV. Very clever, eye-poppingly decorated, and showing footmen lighting candles on huge chandeliers that then rise up majestically is a splendid touch. Fairytale characters including the cats, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and Cinderella are evoked in fancy-dress costumes worn by the Prince’s friends – people we saw rather too briefly in the very heavily truncated hunting scene of Act II after which the Lilac Fairy shows the lonely Prince his future love in a vision. It would have been helpful to see just a little more of the friends in Act II to make the connection more evident in Act III. But the basic logic works and it’s an imaginative decision.

Gabriela Tylesova's Act III setting for The Australian Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Gabriela Tylesova’s Act III setting for The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

I am very much looking forward to seeing Beauty again – and other casts – when it comes to Sydney in November. After that, in honour of the title McAllister bestowed on his whole 2015 program, I will examine my own Year of Beauty. By November I will have seen four different productions: the Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre, McAllister’s, Greg Horsman’s for Queensland Ballet and the touring version from Russian National Ballet. At that time I will write in detail about the performances, including that of Alina Cojocaru in Brisbane, Gillian Murphy and Sarah Lane for ABT and further Australian Ballet casts.

The Sleeping Beauty ends in Melbourne on Saturday. Perth, October 7-10. Sydney, November 27-December 16.

Everything old is new again

Metropolitan Opera House, New York, May 29 and May 30.

WHEN Serge Diaghilev decided to stage The Sleeping Beauty in London the monumental Russian Imperial-era ballet was not an obvious stablemate for the modernist dance works he had introduced with his Ballets Russes. But Diaghilev had his reasons. There was Tchaikovsky’s music, which he admired greatly and which was championed by Stravinsky (who reorchestrated part of the score for Diaghilev), and, more pragmatically, the cash-strapped Diaghilev was inspired by the success of the popular Oscar Asche musical comedy Chu Chin Chow. It ran for five years in London from 1916 and Diaghilev wanted, he said, to put on a show that would run “forever”. As Lynn Garofola writes in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, financial statements demonstrate “the precarious thread on which survival of the post-Armistice Ballets Russes hung”. As ever, being daring and experimental was not a guarantee of lasting security. The impresario badly needed money.

Titled The Sleeping Princess – apparently Diaghilev didn’t think all his Auroras were beautiful, hence the more prosaic wording – the production didn’t do badly by today’s standards, having a three-month run of more than 100 performances from November 1921 to February 1922. It didn’t, however, recoup its costs. Diaghilev left London quickly to give creditors the slip and Ballets Russes sets, scores, costumes, designs and other items were impounded. That they weren’t widely dispersed and lost is something of a miracle, but at various auctions in the 1960s and 1970s large tranches of the material were bought by cultural institutions, including what would later become the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Its rich Ballets Russes holdings, including some Léon Bakst costumes and sketches for The Sleeping Princess (the NGA has the Bluebird’s costume, a wonderful jewel), were shown in a fascinating 2011 exhibition Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume. When designer Richard Hudson used Bakst as inspiration for Alexei Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty for American Ballet Theatre, there was plenty of excellent research material available.

Léon Bakst Costume for the Bluebird c.1921 from the Ballets Russes' production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant] National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1980

Léon Bakst. Costume for the Bluebird c.1921 from the Ballets Russes’ production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant]. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1980

While Hudson’s opulent design references the 1921 production, Ratmansky’s choreography seeks to revive as nearly as possible that of Petipa’s 1890 St Petersburg original, a task made possible by study of the Stepanov notation of the ballet that was taken out of Russia after the 1917 revolution by St Petersburg ballet master Nikolai Sergeyev. Diaghilev also used this resource for his production.

An aside: Ratmansky’s Act III wedding celebration includes many storybook characters including Chinese Porcelain Princesses, who dance very little but walk with their hands raised and a finger pointed skywards – just as we can see in this sketch from the NGA’s collection. Dance critic Judith Mackrell wrote in The Guardian in March: “While the notation is very specific in certain respects, recording the height and positions of the legs, the direction of a phrase, the way the body is bent, it gives almost no information about the positions of the arms.” Direction would have to have come from elsewhere, and Ratmansky suggested that “Perhaps they just used the port de bras that were conventional – the ones everybody knew – or perhaps the principals were given the freedom to do what they wanted.”

Léon Bakst Costume design for the Chinese from The Sleeping Princess  1921 Souvenir programme for The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra Theatre Research Library, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Léon Bakst. Costume design for the Chinese from The Sleeping Princess 1921. Souvenir programme for The Sleeping Princess at the Alhambra Theatre. Research Library, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The 1921 venture was by no means a dead end. The Sleeping Beauty had failed to get traction in revolutionary Russia but Diaghilev would change its fortunes. The Sleeping Princess may not have achieved its financial goal but it did have a lasting effect on British ballet and beyond. When Sadler’s Wells Ballet (now The Royal Ballet) went to New York in 1949 it opened with The Sleeping Beauty, with Margot Fonteyn in the title role, and made an enormous impact. The company’s director, Ninette de Valois, had appeared in the Diaghilev production, writes Mary Clarke in her 1955 Sadler’s Wells Ballet history, with Clarke commenting that the 1939 Sadler’s Wells production of Beauty, its first, “came far nearer the original” than the Diaghilev version, “many numbers being included which had not been seen since St Petersburg days”.

Sadler’s Wells marked important occasions with performances of The Sleeping Beauty and the work would become a touchstone work for The Royal Ballet. It would also become the benchmark classical work for any company. It’s the big one.

As with all the Petipa ballets, The Sleeping Beauty has been revised and reinterpreted many times. The Mariinsky staged a reconstruction of the original in 1999 that was not universally admired, not even by the Mariinsky itself it would appear, as the company has retreated from it. (It ran about four hours including intervals and allowed contemporary flourishes such as very high leg extensions for the women.) Now there is Ratmansky’s somewhat slimmer version to give audiences a window into the storied world of Russian Imperial ballet and to shine a light on Petipa’s choreographic style. ABT’s production lasts three hours including two intervals, although rather candidly the ABT program notes that the ballet was cut “somewhat to fit within the union defined time limitation”. Some mime and music had to go.

 

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.  Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Ratmansky’s Beauty is visually extravagant – mostly but not entirely successfully – but nevertheless a deeply impressive spectacle. The scale of the enterprise becomes apparent immediately as members of the court enter to celebrate the christening of Princess Aurora. The King and Queen preside over a large establishment of courtiers, cavaliers, attendants and pages, all gorgeously costumed. The Queen has a huge panniered gown with a lengthy train that requires the constant presence of small boys to carry, arrange and stumble over adorably. The fairies who have come to bestow gifts have their own brilliantly attired cavaliers and cushion-carrying children. The Lilac Fairy, being the highest ranked, has no fewer than eight men to accompany her. There are wigs for all and spectacular hats for many. The wicked fairy Carabosse arrives in a chariot and is supported by rats large and small, the little ones being particularly malevolent while also being on duty to prevent Carabosse from tripping over her extensive train. That is just the Prologue. In the Act I Garland Dance there are no fewer than 48 dancers: 32 adults and 16 students from ABT’s Jacqueline Onassis School. In Act III, Aurora and Prince Désiré enter the ballroom in wonderfully sumptuous white costumes entirely suitable for a royal wedding but not for dancing, so after a few minutes they slip away to change – returning in much simpler garments that from where I was sitting gave the impression that the couple was ready for bed once they’d completed their grand pas de deux.

(It is easy to see where the money – reportedly cost $US6 million – went. Not surprisingly Beauty is a co-production, with Teatro alla Scala presenting Beauty in Milan from September 26. Bolshoi principal and La Scala étoile Svetlana Zakharova is slated to dance three of the eight performances partnered by Bolshoi and ABT principal David Hallberg, who has been absent from the stage for many months while recovering from foot surgery.)

While the display is lavish, it frames a story told with strong, clear mime and many intimate, modest details. In this environment the music sounds immediate and fresh. Many familiar passages make a livelier impact because the more contained physicality means the music is not slowed for multiple fouettés (there are absolutely none here) or high-flying manéges of jetés with double sauts de basque thrown in. Leg extensions are relatively low and there are delightful pirouettes in which the retiré position – where one leg is pulled up and the foot placed against the supporting leg – is not much higher than the ankle. The effect is refined and charming, entirely suitable for a young woman at her birthday party. For both men and women there is a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkles. It is as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and more intricate and sophisticated.

Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Herman Cornejo and Sarah Lane in Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Gene Schiavone

It was pleasing to note alterations in choreography to suit the different gifts and temperaments of the lead dancers. For instance, Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo, a less grand couple than the first cast of Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes, didn’t do the famous series of fish dives in the Act III pas de deux, and they weren’t missed. In fact, I felt the spirit of romance was better sustained without them, because the fish dives sent the audience’s applause-o-meter off the scale and interrupted the mood – for me, anyway.

At both performances I saw those around me were tickled by the Canari qui chante (Canary) fairy variation in the Prologue, its speed and fluttery quality bringing to mind the hummingbird as never before (in the Diaghilev production she is described as the Fairy of the Hummingbird). There were countless felicitious moments, but I particularly relished the double air turn landed on one foot that Cornejo, in the second performance, made look so elegant, and the way he held Lane in a series of supported pirouettes, using just one hand to turn her while his other arm was out-stretched. Darting eyelines and changing head and torso positions added texture and animation to dances, with the Diamond Fairy’s Act III variation particularly notable in this regard.

It was fascinating to see the Sapphire Fairy’s vivacissimo variation included. It rarely is. In notes to the full version of the score recorded by Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic (Chandos), David Nice writes: “The Sapphire Fairy is given one of the most original miniatures in the ballet, a racy number in the unusual metre of 5/4 to illustrate Petipa’s specified ‘five-pointed’ quality. And devilishly difficult it is to dance to – hence its usual absence from productions.”

The Chandos disc runs to two hours and 35 minutes of music and in his introduction Nice writes: “Neither at [the 1890] premiere … nor in more than a handful of subsequent choreographies has every note of Tchaikovsky’s score been heard (substantial cuts in 1890 included the music for the ladies of the Prince’s retinue in Act II and for the Fairies of the precious stones in Act III).”

The music for the Sapphire Fairy’s variation lasts only about 40 seconds, so there wouldn’t have been much of a saving there. A bigger cut was made by eliminating entrancing music that follows the Panorama in which the Prince sets off to find his sleeping princess. There are two entr’actes, the first excluded entirely and the second truncated, I think. Fascinatingly, Nice remarks of the latter entr’acte: “Not previously noted, I think, is the fact that the note C is sustained by the strings, principally for violins, for exactly 100 bars. This is time suspended: the ‘sleep’ chords … and the themes of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse pass before us in shadow plan until the mists finally dissolve. Few if any productions observe the full symbolic duration of this hypnotic spell …”

The spell cast by Ratmansky is substantial, although not entirely complete. There are several puzzling dramaturgical decisions. For instance, Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy enter the wedding party together. There has been no repeat of the terrible mistake that saw Carabosse forgotten from the invitation list for the christening with such drastic consequences. All is forgiven and peace reigns. But if you’d blinked twice you would have missed this vital gesture of reconciliation as Carabosse whizzes across the back of the stage and is swallowed up by the throng. Another key moment, the kiss, is similarly underplayed. Aurora’s bed is to the audience’s right and would be difficult to see by those on that side of the theatre. I was seated quite centrally and only just had it fully in my line of vision. You really do want to see that kiss.

Léon Bakst Costume for a lady-in-waiting c.1921 from the Ballets Russes' production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant] National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1973

Léon Bakst. Costume for a lady-in-waiting c.1921 from the Ballets Russes’ production of The Sleeping Princess [La Belle au Bois Dormant]
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.Purchased 1973

These are matters easily remedied. Something less easy to find is a sense of deep emotional engagement with the production. It is gracious, grand, meticulous, regal and restrained. It was fascinating to behold and I could easily have watched a third cast, and a fourth, and found more in it. It is a wonderful work of scholarship and I admired it greatly but there was a chill in the air.

American Ballet Theatre ends its Sleeping Beauty performances on June 13.

Tharp, Ratmansky, Robbins

American Ballet Theatre, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, September 5 and 6.

TWYLA Tharp was never one to make things easy for dancers or viewers. It would take many more than the two shows I saw in Brisbane to absorb even a fraction of the beauties and complexities of Bach Partita, but it took only one performance to prove the work’s worth. It’s a knockout.

Bach Partita is grand in scale, full of delicious detail and made with superb craftsmanship. There may be a great deal going on but no sense that the structure will not hold. It is a worthy partner for its score, Bach’s glorious Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin, and was played wonderfully from the pit by Charles Yang, a true collaborator with the dancers.

Tharp’s use of three principal couples, seven soloist couples and a corps of 16 women acknowledges the conventional hierarchy of ballet although Bach Partita is essentially a neo-classical piece with modern dance accents and attitudes seamlessly absorbed. The stage vibrated with energy as leading couples, soloists, flocks of corps women and secondary couples constantly changed the movement dynamics, attentive to those of the music.

Stella Abrera, Calvin Royal III, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in Bach Partita. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Stella Abrera, Calvin Royal III, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

The first cast was led by Misty Copeland and James Whiteside, Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes and Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III, each with a different mood (sensual, vibrant, dramatic) but also able to come together for some moments before spinning off on their own tangents. I loved Tharp’s use of the secondary couples and the corps, whose comings and goings add texture and intrigue to the world of the main couples.

The great glamour and individuality of the first cast wasn’t entirely replicated by the second cast, featuring April Giangeruso and Eric Tamm, Paloma Herrera and Joseph Gorak, and Isabella Boylston with Craig Salstein, although each was equal to the very testing technical demands of the ballet. But it was clear from seeing the first performance that Bach Partita also demands the mysterious but ultra-potent quality of distinctive stage presence. Herrera has it, of course; the others less so. That said, soloist Gorak is a particularly special dancer who has much ahead of him.

Bach Partita premiered in December 1983 and was not revived until last year. It is a mystery why that should be so, but it’s back and it provided a rich, stimulating opener to this triple bill.

Three Masterpieces was a program designed to give a snapshot of American Ballet Theatre’s nearly 75-year history and included one much earlier work than Bach Partita and one much newer. Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas was made in 2009 to solo piano pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, exquisitely played on stage by Barbara Bilach. The luminous music was interpreted by three couples whose interactions were playful, eloquent, romantic and occasionally something a little darker. There may have been no narrative but there were many stories. Although Ratmansky very much has his own voice as a choreographer Seven Sonatas is somewhat reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, which is no bad thing.

Joseph Gorak in Seven Sonatas. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Joseph Gorak in Seven Sonatas. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

The first cast included Abrera and Royal paired again (they look so silken together), Gorak with fellow soloist Christine Shevchenko and Sarah Lane with the miraculous Herman Cornejo. The second cast gave an opportunity to see principal Hee Seo (with Alexandre Hammoudi) in a much more relaxed mood than she had been for the Swan Lake opening and to see lovely corps members Luciana Paris and Arron Scott together. Principal Veronika Part was partnered with corps member Blaine Hoven, who had been such a worried-looking Benno in the Swan Lake premiere. Here, in his poetic responses, it was possible to see what ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie sees in him.

The program came to a happy close with Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944), in which three sailors on shore leave come to a bar to let off steam and flirt with passing women. Its boisterous innocence, buoyed by Leonard Bernstein’s zippy score, was appealing and, in these most difficult times, touching. Casting was top of the line all the way, but it is impossible not to single out Gomes in the second cast. He was funny, charming and incredibly charismatic. I was disappointed not to see him in Swan Lake – he’s a stunning Von Rothbart on DVD – but Bach Partita and Fancy Free were pretty good consolations.

Cory Stearns, Isabella Boylston, Daniil Simkon, Luciana Paris and James Whiteside in Fancy Free. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Cory Stearns, Isabella Boylston, Daniil Simkin, Luciana Paris and James Whiteside in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

It was fascinating to see the number of corps members given serious duties in both Swan Lake and Three Masterpieces. Well, they were principal dancer duties. A key reason is that ABT has only three ranks – principal, soloist and corps – so the best of the lowly ranked dancers get great opportunities. On the other hand it does appear difficult for them to enter the soloist ranks. At present ABT has 14 principal artists, only nine soloists and a corps of 60. The competition down there must be ferocious.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 8.

Odette to the power of four

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane. August 28, September 3 (matinee), September 3 (evening), September 4.

THE first act of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake ends as evening falls. Prince Siegfried has hurried away from his birthday party with no ceremony, disquieted by the realisation his carefree days are numbered. Because he is about to become king – this is no ordinary birthday; this is his coming of age – his mother has said he must marry.

In McKenzie’s version of this endlessly fascinating ballet there are some aspects of the narrative that are drawn too sketchily and details to quibble over, but after seeing four performances I have been won over by the central idea. With Zack Brown’s storybook designs providing a sumptuous setting, McKenzie creates a fantasy world in which myth can thrive, in which a sorcerer could cast a spell that turns a princess into a swan by day, and in which he can himself shape-shift between monster and suave nobleman.

Act III of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Act III of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

The atmospherics are nowhere better captured than at the Act I finale, in which the peasants who have been enjoying Siegfried’s festivities are the last to leave. Without the aristocracy present and bathed in Duane Schuler’s lustrous lighting design, they start gamboling more freely as the light fades, picking up wine goblets to take with them as they depart. I was reminded of Matisse’s painting La Danse, which celebrates the primal joy of communal celebration, and it is an image I will carry with me for a long time.

All this can only work, of course, if the dancers persuade one to enter their imaginative realm.

There was much to interest balletomanes. Misty Copeland made her debut as Odette and Paloma Herrera gave what was possibly her final performance in the role – the decision will come when Swan Lake is staged in ABT’s next season, which will be Herrera’s last (she recently announced her impending retirement). Newly minted principal artist Isabella Boylston appeared (unfortunately I missed her and Daniil Simkin, but people raved; I also missed Veronika Part). Martine Van Hamel, former ABT great, played the Queen Mother at some performances and radiated command. Recently elevated soloist Joseph Gorak showed why he has been plucked from the corps and two men still in the corps, Arron Scott and Calvin Royal III caught the eye. Yet another corps member, Thomas Forster, made a saturnine, panther-like Von Rothbart in several casts.

Three conductors shared Swan Lake duty over the nine performances, two of them with Australian connections. Music director Ormsby Wilkins was born in Sydney and was The Australian Ballet’s resident conductor in 1982, thereafter being a frequent guest conductor while making his career in the northern hemisphere. ABT principal conductor Charles Barker was the AB’s music director from 1997 to 2001 and is married to former AB principal dancer Miranda Coney. Each directed the Queensland Symphony Orchestra quite differently, and each time the QSO acquitted itself handsomely.

The ABT season, the company’s first in Australia, unfortunately got off to a lacklustre start. There may have been extenuating factors. David Hallberg was to have partnered Hee Seo on the August 28 opening night but withdrew relatively late to have ankle surgery. Cory Stearns was moved in. Whether it was jetlag or just one of those unfathomable matters of chemistry who knows, but Seo and Stearns failed to catch fire. Seo has many beautiful qualities as a dancer but looked uninvolved, Stearns operated on one supercilious level and the relationship was unprofitable. Alexandre Hammoudi’s Act III Von Rothbart was therefore left to provide the fireworks, and if Von Rothbart is the highlight of the show there’s a problem. The corps was untidy too. Not a great night all round.

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

I returned a week later to see Copeland’s historic debut as Odette. Tucked away at a Wednesday Brisbane matinee she gave an impassioned performance that brought the house to its feet. Her Odette was intense, warm and dramatically alert; her Odile sparkled seductively. It was a wonderful first performance. Indeed, it was the only one to bring tears to my eyes, even though her Siegfried, Hammoudi (also making a debut) was off form technically. Still, he partnered beautifully, and that ultimately mattered most.

That evening (September 3) Gillian Murphy gave an entirely different performance, imbued with the deep, deep understanding she has absorbed over many years. She, more than any other I have seen, evoked the eternal nature of Odette’s predicament. She was captured aeons ago and there is nothing but sorrow in her future. All those years in Von Rothbart’s thrall have altered her irrevocably. Murphy’s Odile was equally distinctive – fascinatingly hard, cold and vindictive. James Whiteside’s all-American boy Siegfried (divinely danced, with a blinder of an Act I solo) didn’t stand a chance.

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

On September 4 Paloma Herrera was stupendous, filling the stage with old-world glamour of a kind exceptionally rare these days. She took much of Odette’s choreography incredibly slowly – David LaMarche conducted – and claimed rapt attention at every instant. She commanded the stage more as a distillation of Swan Lake’s themes than the embodiment of two opposing characters. She seemed somehow abstract, yet entirely mesmerising. Odile has a balance on pointe in arabesque that often lasts only a split second; Herrera held it for an age: poised, implacable, timeless. Herrera has been a principal with ABT for 20 years and looks as if she could dance another 20. If it turns out this was her swan song, if you will, it was a great one.

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake for ABT

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake for ABT

Herrera was partnered by Stearns, whose dancing was as handsome and velvety as it had been on opening night but this time he was engaged and vivid. He looked an entirely different man. I’m sometimes asked how I can go to the same show again and again. It’s because it’s never the same show, not ever.

Heart untouched; soul unshaken

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, August 28.

KEVIN McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre is a medieval fairy tale of transformation. A woman is turned into a swan. An evil lake-dwelling sorcerer becomes a devastatingly attractive nobleman in the blink of an eye. Two lovers die by drowning but moments later, in an apotheosis, suffuse the air with their benevolence.

These things are important elements, but are a kind of outer skin. They tell us what is happening, but not why. What of the underlying purpose – the desperate love and profound act of forgiveness that bring Swan Lake into the human realm, give it immediacy and make it so moving? They are not to be encountered here, or at least not at ABT’s opening night performance, which was filled with admirable dancing but empty of emotional resonance.

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake

It is possible things may have been different if the originally announced opening night Prince Siegfried, David Hallberg, had not had to withdraw due to injury. Perhaps he draws more from the reticent Hee Seo than did his replacement, Cory Stearns, on the evening of ABT’s Australian premiere. Stearns is a fine classicist with aristocratic lineaments and the plushest of plies, but he and Seo lack chemistry. The approaches each took didn’t catch fire when put together.

Stearns conveyed ennui rather than melancholy and superciliousness rather than noblesse oblige, qualities that did not entirely recommend him, even though his handsome carriage, light landings and princely line made a strong impression. Seo’s theatrically muted Odette was beautifully shaped in the physical sense but there was little idea of what she wanted, or did not. After meeting Siegfried, of whom she seemed not terribly afraid, Seo rarely looked at him, rather gazing down demurely or looking up to the heavens piously. Her eyes and face were not expressive and with her feelings a closed book, the loveliness of her shapes and exquisite articulation went for far less than they might and a couple of fumbles acquired more prominence than they should have.

It was therefore not entirely surprising in the third act to find Odette’s doppelganger Odile short on charisma. Seo wore a black tutu and a wide smile but the spark stopped there. There were no fireworks to be had, just a dutiful set of unadorned fouettes.

McKenzie opens the ballet with a prologue showing Odette’s capture by Von Rothbart. In Zack Brown’s otherwise unimpeachable designs, the sorceror looks like the Incredible Hulk (poor Roman Zhurbin on opening night) but tricks Odette by assuming exceptionally alluring human form (in this guise he was played by lucky Alexandre Hammoudi). The latter’s appearance in Act III is thus signaled. He is the super-confident, ultra-seductive gatecrasher who will bring disaster in the form of Odile. It’s a gift of a part as Von Rothbart sexily reels in all the princesses who are being paraded for Siegfried’s approval and makes the Queen Mother not a little hot and bothered. It probably shouldn’t have been the highlight of the evening, but it was.

Hammoudi, a soloist, smouldered enjoyably although he doesn’t quite have the impact of principal Marcelo Gomes in the role (could anyone?). Gomes is in Brisbane but not cast in Swan Lake it would appear. Brisbane has been denied a great pleasure. (Gomes is scheduled to appear in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita on Friday and Saturday evenings in the Three Masterpieces triple bill and in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free at Saturday’s matinee.)

The third act of Swan Lake slides into a brutally truncated fourth act – a decision that unbalances the ballet badly, giving more weight to the first and third acts set at court than to the white second and fourth acts at the lake. We see something of the swans’ anguish at their queen’s betrayal but the promise of tragedy explored and amplified is only minimally delivered. Instead the action moves briskly to Odette’s death leap and then Siegfried’s (Stearns went for broke here), followed by dawn, Von Rothbart’s broken spell, and Odette and Siegfried as lovers forever in the afterlife. Curtain. Heart untouched; soul unshaken.

It was a treat to see ABT’s music director Ormsby Wilkins authoritatively at the helm of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in what was something of a homecoming for the Sydney-born conductor. He will lead other performances in this short season, in which I hope different partnerships I am to see – Misty Copeland with Hammoudi, Gillian Murphy with James Whiteside and Paloma Herrera with Stearns – offer greater passion and nourishment.

Swan Lake ends Thursday. Three Masterpieces, ballets by Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky and Jerome Robbins has four performances from Friday.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 1.

ABT is Brisbane-bound

ONE way of looking at the repertoire for American Ballet Theatre’s Brisbane visit in August and September – its first to Australia – is with absolute pragmatism: there’s Swan Lake, of course, which is for many audience members the ballet gold standard, and there’s a triple bill made up of pieces the company is currently performing.

But the pieces very much describe ABT too – its nature as a company of stars and its history as an organisation that has had extremely close relationships with some of the most admired choreographers in the field. In 2006 Congress recognised ABT as the national ballet company of the United States and it is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in Bach Partita.

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita.

On a visit to Sydney last week to promote the tour (Brisbane, Melbourne and Auckland were also on the whirlwind agenda), ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie described a company on a firm footing. ABT recently added more New York performances to its annual schedule, although there will be a loss next year when Nutcracker moves from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (one of three venues for ABT in New York) to Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center in California’s Orange County.

“It makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. We have a long-term relationship with Segerstrom Center out there and it’s crowded [in NYC]. We found it difficult frankly to market a season in three different venues, sometimes marketing three different venues at the same time. We know we go to Washington every year. This will ensure we go to Orange County every year. Frankly it’s a better venue to see the production [by Alexei Ratmansky].”

While in Sydney McKenzie spoke engagingly for an hour to a Friends of the Australian Ballet gathering. He said that while George Balanchine was carrying out his unique vision for what would become New York City Ballet, early ABT patron and director Lucia Chase “collected the best of the best” for Ballet Theatre (ABT’s name until 1957). On the choreographic front there were Agnes de Mille and Anthony Tudor, and “getting Tudor was the defining moment. Energy begot energy. ABT became a company of dancers who could do it all. ABT didn’t have a school for decades so talent came from around the world. Everyone fits into ABT. They all took from each other. There was individualism.’’

While there is now a school to feed ABT, the company didn’t want to lose the international influences that built it. “Style is a thing we take on and off like our clothes,” McKenzie said. “There are fundamentals we all agree on.” (Even now the ABT corps is only 30 per cent a product of the school.)

Sitting at the apex of the company is a roster of 16 principal artists, some with dual associations that must make scheduling a nightmare for McKenzie. David Hallberg is also a principal at the Bolshoi Ballet, Roberto Bolle is resident guest artist at La Scala and Polina Semionova is a guest artist at St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, where Ivan Vasiliev is a principal dancer. Diana Vishneva regularly appears in her Russian homeland, and Gillian Murphy has been principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet for the past three years, although that position is unlikely to continue when Ethan Stiefel, her fiancé, relinquishes his post as RNZB artistic director on September 1.

Vasiliev will not be coming to Brisbane, says McKenzie, but he hopes Bolle’s schedule will permit his presence. “He’s got a tight schedule, but it could work. The objective is to get him here.” Hallberg is on board for the tour, as is Murphy and, it is anticipated, most or all of the other ABT principals.

McKenzie, artistic director of ABT for 22 years (and still happy in the service, he says) told the Friends in Sydney that nothing about the way the company operates had changed from the first performance. “There’s a chaotic scrappiness. A tale of too much with too little time and too little resources and coming out looking good. There’s a passion to do it; everything else needs to be gotten around.”

The version of Swan Lake to be performed in Brisbane is McKenzie’s, which premiered in 2000. It is staged annually. “It’s mainly for marketing reasons,” McKenzie said frankly. They know they can sell it every single year so they want to do it. To quote George Balanchine, I wish everything was called Swan Lake.”

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone

For the Brisbane mixed bill, called Three Masterpieces, McKenzie chose the three choreographers who he said have had or will have the greatest impact on the company: Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Alexei Ratmansky, who is ABT’s artist in residence with a contract stretching to 2023. (That contract allows Ratmansky to work with other companies for half the year; he recently made a new Cinderella for The Australian Ballet.)

Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944) follows the fortunes of three high-spirited sailors on leave and is a happy showcase for exuberant male dancing. Tharp’s Bach Partita (1983) is fascinating because 28 years passed between its premiere and its revival last year, and Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas (2009) is the work of the busiest and most feted exponent of classical ballet working today. I spoke to McKenzie about the two newer works.

“This is the finest classical ballet since Balanchine’s death, which also took place in 1983.”

– Robert Gottleib, New York Observer, 2013, on Tharp’s Bach Partita

“Bach Partita celebrates the grand architecture of ballet and also each disappearing moment, each inimitable person … Tharp has built a wondrously strange thing: a monument to evanescence.”

– Apollinaire Scherr, Financial Times, 2013

Kevin McKenzie:  A 28-year gap [he laughs]. I think it was largely because of the violinist issue [the work was made to Bach’s Partita in D minor]. For a period of time it had to do with our venue issues, but I think it was really more about the violinist. Twyla created this work to a recording of Jascha Heifetz and he had a particular rendition of particular parts of it that were really fast, and it was a choice. It was an interpretation of it that is incredibly difficult to replicate.

When we first did it we didn’t really have the proper sort of representation, that kind of speed. Twyla wanted us to do it to tape. We can’t do that. By mandate, by union rules, if it can be played it must be played. And I agree with it. That’s part of the magic of live theatre. Then it became apparent that it was hard to find a violinist worth their salt who was going to deliver Heifetz’s performance. They wanted to deliver their own performance. It was either put on the back shelf or it was a stand-off: ‘do it to tape or don’t do it at all’. Suddenly a fair amount of time went by.

When I became director I asked about it, doing it at City Center, and Twyla said, ‘It’s not big enough [the theatre]; you just can’t do it. The stage won’t support the patterns.’ I commissioned from her Brahms-Haydn [The Brahms-Haydn Variations, 2000] and it just brought [Bach Partita] to mind. I thought it’s getting to be 20 years, it’s time we did it.

And then the violinist issue came up again. I think really through time it was about breaking down the barriers about who had the chops to do it; should it be a big-name person or should it be a discovery, whose choice should it be? Ultimately we found this wonderful violinist, Charles Yang, who is a product of his age. He can play those Bach partitas with a real personality of his own but deliver the tempos that Twyla wanted. He’ll do that for us one night and then he’s off doing some new-wave project the next night. It’s remarkable. [Yang will come to Brisbane with ABT.]

In the end, that’s it. One can always look for a juicy story but sometimes it really is a matter of waiting for all the stars to align.

It was astounding to see it come to life, a 28-year memory. And what is memory, how accurate is it? It’s really made up of impressions. When I saw it come to life whole swaths of it that looked familiar and I could see the dancers that it was created on behind the choreography. Other parts I had no memory of. Ultimately what was really astounding to me, and riveting, was how exactly like the music the structure of the ballet is – intensely intricate and fierce.

The music is layered with information, and the structure of it, the designs, the floor plans, if you will, the patterns, are just ingenious and they have the intensity of the music and it takes 36 dancers to execute. The one thing I had never considered was that – I walked away and thought I’d seen a visual version of the music.

 “Three gentle-mannered couples in simple, fluid white clothing by Holly Hynes treat the music as if it were a glade in which to dance together, alone, and in couples. One of Ratmansky’s great gifts is stitching together classical steps in ways that are full of trickery. Yet the unexpected twists or changes of directions or choice of movements never look plotted. His choreography breathes, sighs, pauses, plays a joke, and runs off laughing, as if complex, difficult dancing were a simple, easy-to deliver utterance.”

– Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice, 2009, on Seven Sonatas

McK: Seven Sonatas is like putting your head into a very private dinner party. I wanted [Ratmansky] represented, and this was the work that was going to be in repertory this year. He’s doing a new Sleeping Beauty for us in our 75th anniversary so there’s no time for him to create a new smaller work, so we’re beginning to curate the smaller works that we have already.

The thing that is representative of Ratmansky in Seven Sonatas is it is incredibly personable. One feels as if they are making it up as they go along. It seems to be a signature of his – it’s like you’re listening in on a conversation between the artists. It’s a very intimate piece. That notion of a conversation between artists was something that the music really drove.

[DJ: Is there a link with Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering?] To some degree. Yes, if you were to say that Dances at a Gathering is a genre, yes, to that degree. That’s where the likeness begins and ends. It’s so definitely Ratmansky in the way that Robbins is so definitely Robbins. Tudor’s Leaves are Fading – that is very Dances at a Gathering genre too, but they have no resemblance to one another.  One is absolutely Tudor, the other absolutely Robbins.

Visiting Australia with McKenzie were principals Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside, who described their experience of dancing Swan Lake together.

James Whiteside: When I joined ABT that was my first Swan Lake. First of all I needed to learn the steps. That’s where we started. Obviously we had met before. Kevin [McKenzie] would get us into the studio and say, okay, you start over there, and go step, step, kick, step. Not really.

Gillian Murphy: No, that’s not the choreography!

JW: We took it from there, one step at the time.

GM: I was excited to dance with James for his very first performance of Swan Lake and I’d say I am spoiled from dancing with Ethan [Stiefel], Angel [Corella], Marcelo [Gomes], David [Hallberg] – pretty much everyone. I’d never danced with James before, so before we even did anything I said, James, I need to tell you I’m spoiled, I’ve done this ballet with so many amazing men and it’s one of my favourite ballets, love it so much, and so I’m not usually difficult at all but I may have some things I’ve learned over the years so …

When we had our first rehearsal I wasn’t worried at all but didn’t know what to expect exactly, and from the first moment James partnered me I was like, oh, ok. I’m in really good hands here, so this is going to be really fun. And from the first rehearsal we were getting really excited about it. For me, just to dance it with James in his first performance is a special thing because I wanted to be there for him and to make it a special debut.

In terms of talking about the characters and whatnot, once James had learned the choreography it was a matter of we would do parts of the pas de deux and Kevin would say, this is looking good, but what are you saying there? This is where the conversation starts.

JW: If there’s a moment where I am unsure of what something means, I’ll speak up and say, I don’t understand why I’m doing this. Please enlighten me. I think it’s important to infuse your dancing with meaning instead of mindless steps. That’s why I felt so confident dancing with Gillian because I could read her movements so easily and see it in her eyes exactly what she was thinking and it made the conversation very simple in a way, and I think that’s the best policy when it comes to acting.

GM: James and I respond to each other’s body language very innately which is good. This is not a verbal art form. So we could talk about it ad nauseum and we could both talk about our characters and what we’re feeling here and what we’re feeling there, and sometimes we would do that, but for the most part there are a lot of things that are best said through your body, and that’s what we’re responding to. So that conversation happens in the moment, and it’s different every moment. The premiere that we did together was a very special performance I thought. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

JW: When you’re premiering a role and especially a ballet as iconic as Swan Lake, there’s a certain expectation and pressure. I have to say I was incredibly surprised that I enjoyed every moment of it. It was such a comfortable performance. I couldn’t have been happier to dance with Gil and having literally such a great time on stage, feeding off of each other’s energy and the energy of the audience and our peers and making art.

American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (nine performances), August 28-September 4; Three Masterpieces (four performances), September 5-7, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

Footnote: I read that former ABT principal Cynthia Harvey was in the first cast of Bach Partita so, having interviewed her before, I got in touch to ask what she remembered of the piece. Harvey described her thoughts as only “my vague recollection over a great many years”, but despite the passing of so many years her description is useful and interesting.

Cynthia Harvey: I was not a principal dancer in the original cast, I was one of the soloists but later I did dance, I believe it was the part originally done on Magali Messac. All I can recall is that the choreography was intricate – Twyla used a lot of phrases that were repeated either in retrograde (like movie film going backwards) or we did phrases that were in canon – perhaps facing another direction. I recall a certain formality but simplicity. I don’t know if it was intentional to NOT “go for Baroque” in terms of gesture, but the intricacy might have been the tribute. I think the formality and sweep of the movement reflected the music. I remember there were issues regarding using our ABT musicians to perform the partita as Twyla had the tempi and especially the emphasis of dynamics based on one recording. That she choreographed those emphases, or at the very least, we couldn’t avoid placing musical emphasis in parts she choreographed, was part and parcel of the recording she had been inspired by.