Ballet at the Quarry: Light and Shadow, West Australian Ballet

Quarry Amphitheatre, Perth, February 7

A woman climbs, higher and higher, on a path made by the bodies of other dancers. Later she will descend and fall, but her head will be caught by an enigmatic figure in black. Here, and at every point in Graeme Murphy’s deeply affecting Air and Other Invisible Forces, there are intimations of death, loss and grief but there’s transcendence too. Love blooms, life continues its inevitable cycle.

One of Murphy’s great attributes is that he never shies away from emotion. There are repeated motifs of cradled heads, arms encircling bodies, individuals enclosed protectively or physically supported by the group. A woman nuzzles a man’s back; he walks his fingers towards her. This is what being truly human looks like.

Chihiro Nomura and the dancers of West Australian Ballet in Air and Other Invisible Forces. Photo by Sergey Pevnev (3)

Chihiro Nomura and dancers of West Australian Ballet in Graeme Murphy’s Air and Other Invisible Forces. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Made in 1999 to Giya Kancheli’s moving lament Mourned by the Wind, Air and Other Invisible Forces still goes straight to the heart, even in the reduced form seen in West Australian Ballet’s 2020 Quarry season. There will be an extended staging (although not the complete work) in Perth mid-year, with the added bonus of Gerard Manion’s gorgeous designs that were no less than another dancer in the piece.

It will be a rare treat. I can’t think of another Australian company that has programmed dances Murphy made originally for SDC, apart from selections performed by The Australian Ballet in its 2018 Murphy tribute.

The Murphy extract opened the Quarry triple bill, followed by the world premiere of Dutch choreographer Wubkje Kuindersma’s Architecture of Hope. It’s a good-looking, well-constructed piece for four couples to the music of Ezio Bosso, although somewhat old-fashioned in its view of gender roles. I don’t really want to see women lie at men’s feet or flung over shoulders as if unconscious. But it’s still relatively early in Kuindersma’s career and she clearly has lots of good ideas to go with the more time-worn ones.  I particularly enjoyed the bounteous curtseys to the audience, the most obvious expression of Kuindersma’s thesis – that choreography “creates a space in which human connection is established – not only between the dancers themselves but also between the dancers and then audience”.

Matthew Lehmann and Dayana Hardy Acuna in In Light and Shadow. Photo by Sergey Pevnev (3)

Matthew Lehmann and Dayana Hardy Acuña in In Light and Shadow

Krzysztof Pastor’s In Light and Shadow is a rip-snorter to the music of Bach and an uplifting end to the evening. After a lovely pas de deux to the aria from the Goldberg Variations, 16 dancers whizz about joyously to the Orchestral Suite No 3, contemporary ballet and the baroque finding a whole lot in common and having the best time.

On opening night the WAB women shone brightest. Best of the best were Dayana Hardy Acuña, Candice Adea, Carina Roberts, the ever-striking Polly Hilton and Glenda Garcia Gomez superb in what will always be thought of as the Janet Vernon role in Air. Chihiro Nomura was divine in Murphy’s and Pastor’s works. Her artistry just grows and grows.

 Ballet at the Quarry ends on February 29

Giselle, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 13 and 14.

Was there ever a man who said his life’s ambition was to dance Hilarion? Probably not. He is the spurned lover in Giselle, a gamekeeper who can’t match the allure of his rival, aristo-in-disguise Albrecht. Hilarion offers dead birds to Giselle’s mother to shore up his position; the experienced Albrecht blows sexy kisses and ingratiates himself with Giselle’s friends.

So yes, Albrecht has all the glamour but who Hilarion is, what he does and what he feels is vitally important to the progress and texture of the drama. The same goes for all other secondary figures. The detail is where a company can make this much-performed, much-loved work sing.

Polly Hilton as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis with the dancers of West Australian Ballet in Giselle (2019) (2). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Polly Hilton as Myrtha in West Australian Ballet’s Giselle. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Aurélien Scannella and Sandy Delasalle’s staging for West Australian Ballet retains the usual scenic framework and much of the traditional choreography attributed to Coralli and Perrot, albeit with a few tweaks, while new touches to character and movement make the ballet WAB’s own. The production, first seen in 2014, looks lovely. Peter Cazalet’s design is appealingly modest in scale and Michael Rippon and Jon Buswell’s lighting a thing of beauty, particularly in the second act, which opens with a shaft of moonlight piercing the gloom of the forest where Giselle is buried.

A late injury to principal dancer Matthew Lehmann made changes to casting necessary, which may have accounted for the feeling that not every idea was expressed as convincingly as it could be. Nevertheless, those ideas were persuasive. It’s made abundantly clear, for instance, that Albrecht is deeply committed to Giselle, strengthening the moment when Giselle and Albrecht’s noble fiancée Bathilde realise they are talking about the same man. Hilarion stands by – Jesse Homes in the first cast judged it perfectly – hoping against hope that Giselle will acknowledge him as her betrothed.

Chihiro Nomura as Giselle and Oscar Valdes as Albrecht in Giselle (2019). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Chihiro Nomura and Oscar Valdés as Giselle and Albrecht. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

In the first act the men of the ensemble are given more to do, including repeated double tours (tidier at the second performance than the first) and exuberant splits in the air that fit well with a day of harvest festival celebrations and it was good to see the Peasant Pas de Deux couple as an integral part of the community. Candice Adea and Julio Blanes did the honours at the first two performances with charm and ease.

In Act II there are interesting choices for Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, who is less physically explosive than usual but no less in command with her eloquent balances on pointe. At the second performance Glenda Gardia Gomez was a sterner figure than Polly Hilton on opening night (Hilton had earlier appeared as a gracious, amused Bathilde) but with both there was a sense that Myrtha acts more from necessity than vindictiveness. The Leading Wilis at both performances were entrancing, with Mayume Noguromi and Claire Voss outstanding.

The soft, rounded romantic style – embodied marvellously by the WAB corps – is amplified by the first entrance of the Wilis in a swirling, circular group and at the end they shrink from the morning light in chilling fashion as Giselle greets the dawn with exultation. The restoration of a fugue that’s usually cut is intriguing but slightly problematic, delaying Giselle and Albrecht’s glorious pas de deux.

Alexa Tuzil as Giselle and Juan Carlos Osma as Albrecht in Giselle (2019) (2). Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Juan Carlos Osma and Alexa Tuzil in Giselle. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

In the first cast principal artist Chihiro Nomura was a sunny, delighted Giselle until her happiness was shattered. On Saturday corps member Alexa Tuzil’s peasant girl was a highly promising work in progress in the first act. Her second act was absolutely scorching: passionate, fearless and greatly moving in what was her role debut.

The respective Albrechts, Oscar Valdés and Juan Carlos Osma, are perhaps not the most natural actors but each was serviceable in Act I and wonderful in Act II. Both are Cuban and have a gorgeous combination of impeccable line and exciting power. Osma’s elevation is astonishing. (There is quite a Cuban contingent at WAB right now: soloists Valdés, Osma and Dayana Hardy Acuña; demi-soloist Blanes, who was so charming in the Peasant Pas; and corps members Glenda Garcia Gomez and Ana Gallardo Lobaina.)

In the pit the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was under the baton of Jessica Gethin, a rising conductor making her ballet debut. There were ups and downs on both nights. Gethin directed performances that had many pleasures but included a few issues with wayward horns and endings in which dancer and orchestra were not as one. At times in the second act she opted for tempos that were just the tiniest fraction too glacial.

The one true disappointment, though, was Giselle’s mother (Beth James), whose attitudes and motivations remained opaque when they weren’t confused. Not exactly disappointing but a bit puzzling was the inclusion of labradors in the hunting party, adorable though they may be. At the second performance one of them – I believe it was Treacle (there were three named on the cast sheet) – was situated well downstage and wagged his tail enthusiastically through the entire of the Peasant Pas. Well, it was good.

Ends September 28.