Bonachela/Obarzanek, Sydney Dance Company

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, November 2

What better way to mark a milestone birthday than by getting some of the old gang back together again? Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50, choreographed for Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary program, returned to the stage some of SDC’s most memorable artists, among them Bradley Chatfield, Wakako Asano, Sheree da Costa and Lea Francis. It was a graceful way of paying tribute to earlier days, as was a short film that preceded the Bonachela/Obarzanek double bill.

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Jesse Scales and Sheree da Costa in Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50. Photo: Don Arnold

The film reminded the audience of the dramatic, theatrical style of former artistic director Graeme Murphy, who with Janet Vernon led SDC for an astonishing 31 years. There were snippets from Poppy, Some Rooms, Synergy with Synergy, Berlin, Tivoli and Grand, among others. The film also showed the very different approach to contemporary dance of current artistic director Rafael Bonachela, who this year celebrates 10 years with the company. He was represented by We Unfold, Raw Models, 2 One Another, Nude Live, ab [intra] and more.

Murphy and Bonachela may have little in common as choreographers but they’ve put heart and soul into the company. That it is still a potent force in Australian and international dance is remarkable. “Graeme’s influence can’t be overstated,” Bonachela told the audience before the performance, noting the “beautiful coincidence” of its being Murphy’s birthday on opening night. (Murphy is now 69 but far from retired, continuing his work as an opera director. A new ballet, The Happy Prince, is part of The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season.)

Obarzanek, himself a former dancer with SDC, chose 10 alumni to take part in Us 50, and they were not there simply to bask in the glory of once having been a star. Some of them won’t see 60 again but they were there to dance and dance they did, holding their own glowingly alongside SDC’s current ensemble of young ‘uns.

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Wakako Asano (front) in Us 50. Photo: Pedro Greig

Among much else in Us 50 Obarzanek explored how movement looks on older bodies versus younger ones, how dance is passed from one person to another, the fascination of two people working as one and the power of a large group. The piece looked deceptively simple but ebbed and flowed to Chris Clark’s propulsive score with a great deal of subtlety and a deep vein of emotion.

At one point Chatfield was left alone on stage as others melted away. He walked a little, as if trying out some ideas. Then he was joined by a few others, then more who watched Chatfield closely. Pedestrian movement morphed into dance and alumna Kathryn Dunn broke away to enjoy the freedom of being, well, one of the most glamorous dancers SDC has produced. Other cherishable moments: Stefan Karlsson (alumnus) and Emily Seymour (current member) shimmying away to one side as the pack moved on; da Costa and young Jesse Scales with their heads on one another’s shoulders; the current SDC dancers forming what looked like a protective huddle around the older dancers (the others were Bill Pengelly, Kip Gamblin, Nina Veretennikova and Linda Ridgeway Gamblin). There was a moment for everyone, with Asano looking particularly radiant. She spent 17 years with SDC and along with Vernon was one of Murphy’s great muses. It was so touching to see her again.

Ten alumni and 15 SDC dancers added up to 25. Making up the 50 was a group of untrained, unrehearsed non-dancers, drawn from the audience anew each evening. They represented the part in SDC’s history played by those who only sit and watch. (On opening night as a special treat the unrehearsed group included another 10 former dancers, including Ross Philip and Tracey Carrodus. Ah the memories!)

If Obarzanek’s concept sounded iffy, it was utter bliss in practice. The untrained, who rose from their seats part-way through Us 50 to go onstage, were not asked for anything outside of their capabilities. Guided via earpieces by assistant choreographer and SDC’s new rehearsal associate Charmene Yap – she will be much missed from the stage – the citizen-dancers’ faces shone as they mingled with the professionals.

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Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s 6 Breaths. Photo: Don Arnold

A revival of Bonachela’s 6 Breaths opened the evening. First seen in 2010, it takes on a different complexion in this new context. A series of meditations on different aspects of breath, including the first and the last, it now conjures thoughts of the evanescence of a dance career. It was danced thrillingly at the opening and put the spotlight on some of Bonachela’s newer recruits, particularly Riley Fitzgerald and Dimitri Kleoris in the work’s central duet. Longstanding company member Juliette Barton has returned from maternity leave in even more striking form than before, if that were possible.

The evening’s laurels, though, went to the glorious SDC alumni who brought back so many memories and the untrained civilian bodies who proved that yes, anyone can dance.

Ends November 9.

Queensland and West Australian ballet companies of one mind in 2020

Queensland Ballet announced its 2020 season in mid-September; West Australian Ballet in this past week. The nation’s leading state ballet companies are different in scale and usually in repertoire but their seasons next year have some striking similarities.

Oscar Valdes as Jonathan Harker and Matthew Lehmann as Young Dracula with the dancers of West Australian Ballet. Photo by Jon Green

Oscar Valdés (seated left) as Jonathan Harker and Matthew Lehmann (right) as Young Dracula in WAB’s Dracula, choreographed by Krzysztof Pastor. Photo: Jon Green

West Australian Ballet offers a repeat season of Krzysztof Pastor’s full-length Dracula in September 2020 after its big success with the Perth public last year. Queensland Ballet, a co-producer, will show it to Brisbane audiences for the first time in May. Both companies have programmed The Sleeping Beauty, with QB reprising Greg Horsman’s 2015 production and WAB premiering a version by Mexican choreographer Javier Torres created for Finnish National Ballet in 2012. Perth and Brisbane audiences will also see a traditional Nutcracker at year’s end. QB has established Ben Stevenson’s Nutcracker as an annual event while in Perth audiences see the ballet every other year. WAB’s current production was co-choreographed by former WAB principal artist Jayne Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélian Scannella and WAB principal ballet mistress and artistic associate Sandy Delasalle.

The similarities continue with each company staging a gala program for a number of performances. QB’s is to celebrate its 60th anniversary; WAB’s will feature highlights from its repertoire. In Perth the gala performances will be seen in repertory with The Nutcracker.

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Queensland Ballet in Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: David Kelly

As always QB and WAB will offer choreographic development seasons – titled Synergy and Genesis respectively – and a contemporary program. WAB’s Ballet at the Quarry has been staged for nearly 30 years in the breathtaking open-air City Beach Quarry Amphitheatre while QB’s Bespoke is a relatively new and important addition to its programming, staged at Brisbane’s Powerhouse.

A splendid development for WAB is an extra annual contemporary program to be performed at Perth’s State Theatre Centre. Titled STATE, the inaugural season will feature the return of Garry Stewart’s Reincarnation, which premiered at Ballet at the Quarry this year. The piece sees WAB collaborate with Western Australia’s state contemporary dance company, Co:3.

Also on the program is Graeme Murphy’s beautiful Air and Other Invisible Forces, made for Sydney Dance Company in 1999. Part of the work will be staged during the 2020 Quarry season and it will be seen in full in STATE.

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Rian Thompson and Yanela Pinera in Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons. Photo: David Kelly

In its 60th anniversary year QB, which started life as The Lisner Ballet in 1960, will present Shanghai Ballet in Derek Deane’s The Lady of the Camellias in March before starting its season proper with the gala program. Continuing to expand its footprint in Australia, QB will travel to Melbourne to stage Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons, originally seen in Brisbane this year.

Under the artistic direction of Li Cunxin over the past eight years QB has grown remarkably in size. It now has 43 dancers, two apprentices and 12 young artists. The older WAB – founded in 1952 by Kira Bousloff – is significantly smaller with 29 dancers and six young artists.

A notable feature of both companies, however, is the enlivening presence of Cuban-trained dancers, including three of QB’s five principal artists – Victor Estévez, Camilo Ramos and Yanela Piñera. The six Cubans at WAB include Dayana Hardy Acuña, who was promoted to principal artist after dancing Giselle in September. In May this year she was the brightest presence in WAB’s staging of Greg Horsman’s dismal La Bayadère (another co-production with QB), in which she was the temple dancer Nikiya. After the retirement this year of Brooke Widdison-Jacobs the top rank at WAB was looking very slender indeed with only Chihiro Nomura and Matthew Lehmann remaining as principals. Hardy Acuña’s elevation is most welcome.

Dayana Hardy Acuna as Giselle with Guest Artist Kevin Jackson as Albrecht. Photo by Scott Dennis (3)

Dayana Hardy Acuña as Giselle with guest artist Kevin Jackson of The Australian Ballet as Albrecht in WAB’s 2019 production of Giselle. Photo: Scott Dennis

The Australian Ballet announces its 2020 season and seeks a new artistic director

As David McAllister announced his last full season as artistic director of The Australian Ballet, the company formally launched its search for McAllister’s successor.

McAllister retires in December of next year after 20 years at the helm but will have significant input into the 2021 program. The new director is not expected to start until perhaps April, executive director Libby Christie told me yesterday.

Advertising for the position has begun, with applications to close on October 25. The company, which currently has about 80 dancers and  stages more than 240 performances a year, seeks “an inspirational, internationally recognised person with outstanding artistic and leadership qualities”. Among the many qualities required, the candidate must “be able to demonstrate an affinity for Australian culture”.

It’s undoubtedly no coincidence that TAB’s 2020 marketing images were taken in Broken Hill, in the far west of NSW. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Australians live around the edges of the continent, few things evoke Australia more immediately here and abroad than the red dust of the outback.

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TAB principal artist Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Georges Antoni

TAB begins its year in Brisbane with Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. Murphy has adapted the story with designer Kim Carpenter. Christopher Gordon has composed a new score. The Happy Prince was to have premiered this year but Murphy became ill and was unable to complete the ballet in time. The postponement had its upside: McAllister’s first big commission and arguably greatest success was Murphy’s Swan Lake (2012) and The Happy Prince brings the connection full circle. It will also be staged in Melbourne and Sydney.

The year’s other two full-length works are also new, Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina, a co-production with Joffrey Ballet; and Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Petipa’s Harlequinade, a co-production with American Ballet Theatre. (Ratmansky has given it “the kiss of life”, says McAllister.) Anna Karenina opens in Sydney then goes to Melbourne and Adelaide. Harlequinade will be seen in Melbourne only next year; presumably Sydney and possibly other cities will see it in 2021.

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Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a promotional image for Anna Karenina. Photo: Justin Ridler

Two mixed bills will be staged in Melbourne and Sydney. Volt features a new work by resident choreographer Alice Topp and two Wayne McGregor revivals, Chroma and Dyad 1929, the latter created for TAB. McAllister breaks the mould – well, his mould – for Molto by programming a heritage work, Ashton’s A Month in the Country (1976), alongside 21st century ballets by resident choreographers Tim Harbour (Squander and Glory) and Stephen Baynes (Molto Vivace).

If McAllister was feeling melancholy about his final season launch he hid it well. Looking relaxed and happy, he said the dancers would have much to learn from a new artistic director, as he did from Ross Stretton when Stretton succeeded Maina Gielgud. “It’s an exciting and positive time for the company.”

Giselle, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, May 1

Graeme Murphy fell ill earlier this year and was unable to complete his new ballet, The Happy Prince, in time for its premiere in Melbourne, which was to have been in March. It was then to be performed in Sydney (it is now likely to be seen in 2020). Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella (2013) and Maina Gielgud’s Giselle (1986) were rushed into the Melbourne and Sydney schedules respectively – safe choices and understandable ones, given both ballets were staged recently.

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Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in Giselle. Photo: Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo’s gentle, thistledown Giselle captivated from the moment she appeared. She seemed scarcely to touch the ground, levitated by her love for Albrecht. When she went mad she seemed even less substantial, sinking to her knees as if weightless. Kondo’s interpretation was delicately drawn and full of fine, illuminating detail – the shy, brief touching of hands with Albrecht, her quiet awe in the presence of Bathilde, the heartbreaking way in which she told Hilarion she didn’t love him, forced into a declaration her sweet soul shrank from making. Principal artist Andrew Killian is a highly experienced Hilarion who on this occasion appeared much more vulnerable than usual, a portrayal that meshed beautifully with Kondo’s approach.

She undoubtedly benefited from Leanne Benjamin’s insights. The former Royal Ballet principal artist was guest coach for this season.

As always, Olga Tamara was superb as Giselle’s mother. She is marvellous in the mime, which is the audience’s bridge from the first act to the second. It was also good to see the Peasant pas de deux pleasingly integrated into the action. It can often seem rather dull, overlong and extraneous but one felt that Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli – Ogai in particular – were part of this community. With her natural, earthy quality Ogai would be an interesting Giselle.

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Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. Photo: Daniel Boud

Chengwu Guo’s Albrecht was danced gleamingly although his acting was less layered in the first act than Kondo’s. The moment when Albrecht recognises the necklace his betrothed, Bathilde, has given Giselle went for little and appeared to be completely forgotten the next second while the upstairs-downstairs relationship with his attendant, Wilfred (Timothy Coleman, excellent), was sketchily rendered. Guo was more convincing in the second act as he tenderly supported Kondo, who was entirely of the air and at one with the melting Romantic style that gives Giselle its enduring appeal.

The women of the company were entrancing as the wilis in Act II and perhaps would have been more dramatically forceful had Nicola Curry as their queen, Myrtha, registered more forcefully herself.

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The Australian Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Daniel Boud

During this season of Giselle The Australian Ballet is also performing in New York at the Joyce Theater’s Australia Festival, presenting a mixed bill from May 9-12 featuring three of TAB’s four resident choreographers. Stephen Baynes’s Unspoken Dialogues and Alice Topp’s Aurum will be joined by a new work from Tim Harbour. With part of the company out of town a handful of more junior dancers will be seen as Hilarion, Myrtha and in the Peasant pas at some performances. It’s worth scanning the casting to see who and when.

Giselle ends on May 18.

The Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet reveal 2019 programs

Alice Topp was yesterday named The Australian Ballet’s fourth resident choreographer, joining Stephen Baynes and Stanton Welch, (both appointed in 1995) and Tim Harbour (2014). Topp, a coryphée with the company, is the second woman to be given the title following Natalie Weir. It’s been a long time between drinks: Weir held the post for several years from 2000.

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Alice Topp, The Australian Ballet’s new resident choreographer. Photo: Kate Longley

Topp was nurtured via TAB’s Bodytorque series, as was Harbour. The choreographic development program has, unfortunately, been put on the backburner after several years of diminishing numbers of performances and participants. Bodytorque was MIA this year and is nowhere in sight in TAB’s 2019 program, announced yesterday.

Still, the Topp appointment is extremely good news and the year’s two new productions are highly enticing – well, if you live in Sydney or Melbourne. Other cities will have to wait. Stanton Welch’s production of Sylvia (a co-production with Welch’s Houston Ballet) brings to the repertoire a ballet never before performed by TAB, and Graeme Murphy collaborates with brilliant designer Kim Carpenter on The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. The Happy Prince will feature a new score by Christopher Gordon.

TAB artistic director David McAllister said yesterday The Happy Prince would be a “beautiful, rich, whole of family experience”. In recent years TAB has put a great deal of energy into reaching young audiences, including offering child-friendly versions of the classics in performances that run for less than an hour. In 2019 the family audience will also be lured with repeats of Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker (Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Brisbane, Melbourne).

Having been staged only in Melbourne last year, Topp’s latest work, Aurum, will be seen in Sydney in 2019 as part of the contemporary program Verve. With Topp’s appointment it’s now a resident choreographers’ triple bill: alongside Aurum is Baynes’s Constant Variants from 1997 and Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow(2015). Aurum is also slated to appear at New York’s Joyce Theatre in May.

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Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Alice Topp’s Aurum. Photo: Jeff Busby

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo will perform Jean-Christophe Maillot’s contemporary Swan Lake, LAC, as part of TAB’s 2019 season in Melbourne only.

Queensland Ballet has also just announced its 2019 season. The big news is the world premiere of artistic associate Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons to the music of Saint-Saëns, co-produced with Texas Ballet Theater. Tracy Grant Lord will design, as she did so delightfully for Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which QB co-produced with Royal New Zealand Ballet. (QB takes Dream to Melbourne next week.)

QB will bring back the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet that was such a success for the company in 2014 and continues its annual Nutcracker tradition by restaging Ben Stevenson’s production for the seventh time.

A triple bill of ballets by George Balanchine, Jiří Kylián and Trey McIntyre and the very successful Bespoke program take care of contemporary ballet. Bespoke is where QB delivers a full evening of new choreography from experienced dance-makers – next year’s names are Lucy Guerin, Amy Hollingsworth and RNZB’s Loughlin Prior – while emerging choreographers will be seen in Synergy.

Carmen & The Firebird, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 26.

You win some and you lose some.

Queensland Ballet is a co-producer of Carlos Acosta’s Carmen with The Royal Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater, which means QB’s name is attached to it forever. I doubt I’ve seen a worse ballet from reputable companies in more than 40 years.

I’m not exaggerating, nor do I say it frivolously. Carmen should never have passed muster at the RB. This is where I should say I can’t understand how it happened, but unfortunately it’s all too common to see serious ballet companies fail to save choreographers from themselves. Mostly the results aren’t quite as bad as Carmen but ballet is littered with the corpses of narrative works whose condition didn’t have to be terminal.

On a brighter note for QB, Liam Scarlett’s Firebird, made for Norwegian National Ballet in 2013, is a brilliant interpretation of Stravinsky’s glittering, gleaming, intoxicating score. Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also in the QB repertory and with the addition of Firebird the company has the choreographer’s two most successful new narrative ballets. (I don’t include Scarlett’s staging of Swan Lake – by all reports a huge success – for the RB this month given its firm foundation in the Petipa-Ivanov 1895 version.)

QB The Firebird 2018. Principal Artist Lucy Green. Photo David Kelly

Lucy Green in the title role of Liam Scarlett’s The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett, who is 32, has a youthful, contemporary sensibility that gives Firebird a modern edge while remaining true to the mythic elements of Mikhail Fokine’s original 1910 work for the Ballets Russes.

It looks wonderful, with a monumental set by Jon Bausor, bathed in James Farncombe’s painterly light. In the shadow of a vast tree with claw-like roots, the magical Firebird (Lucy Green at the performance I attended) and wicked sorcerer Koschei (Jack Lister) battle for supremacy, equal in force of will and with a palpable erotic charge between them. She tempts him with a golden apple and strokes his face; he embraces her with ardour. It may well be a game they’ve played for aeons. Then the wandering Prince Ivan (Camilo Ramos) finds his way into their realm and the Firebird finds him interesting. She dances with him, but not as a frightened captive. She dazzles and teases, whispering in his ear as she lets him have one of her precious feathers.

Scarlett effectively contrasts the Firebird’s strength and exoticism with the innocence and playfulness of the young women enslaved by Koschei. Among them is a Princess (Lina Kim), who is tender, curious and alert. Kim and Ramos glowed in their romantic, silken pas de deux and – how delightful! – the Princess is the one who gets to destroy the egg containing Koschei’s soul.

QB The Firebird 2018. Company Artist Jack Lister and Artists of the Queensland Ballet. Photo David Kelly

Jack Lister (top) as Koschei in The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

The end of Koschei’s malign rule means the Princess is free to leave with Ivan although Scarlett – unlike Fokine – is less interested in the happy couple than in the representatives of light and darkness. The lovers quietly disappear and the Firebird exults in her power, although not before paying respect to the dead Koschei in one of Scarlett’s many perceptive details.

Scarlett’s success with narrative ballets has been somewhat patchy but Stravinsky’s music and the original libretto give him the best of roadmaps. Scarlett uses the 50-minute version of the score from 1910, played blazingly by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with Nigel Gaynor at the helm. Jonathan McPhee’s arrangement is for orchestral forces rather smaller than those asked for by Stravinsky – he wrote for quadruple woodwinds and three harps – but it gets the job done impressively.

Other choreographers of this much-visited work have chosen Stravinsky’s shorter 1945 suite (Balanchine in 1949; the 2009 Graeme Murphy recently revived by The Australian Ballet) but the suites were arranged for concert performance and for dramatic impact it’s hard to go past Stravinsky’s first thoughts.

The cast I saw at the first Saturday matinee was testament to the strong ensemble built by Li Cunxin in his six years as artistic director. Performances were vividly realised all round and Green’s mesmerising Firebird was deservedly greeted with a huge ovation. While his dance is made entirely within the classical idiom, Scarlett gives his Firebird – the Princess too – qualities of independence and authority so often missing on the classical stage. This is particularly welcome in light of how women appear in Carmen although, to be fair, Acosta doesn’t do the men any favours either.

QB Carmen 2018. Principal Artist Camilo Ramos and Company Artist Sophie Zoricic 5. Photo David Kelly

Camilo Ramos and Sophie Zoricic in Carlos Acosta’s Carmen. Photo: David Kelly

There are problems with Carmen just about everywhere you look. The storytelling is incoherent, skating over the top of anything that might give insights into Carmen’s character. She’s a sex-mad cipher. Don José (Camilo Ramos, backing up after his Prince Ivan earlier) is similarly superficial, just weaker, and therefore deeply uninteresting. Escamillo is there to toss off a whole lot of ballet tricks. There is no Micaëla, no Frasquita, no Mercedes, no context.

What else? Too frequently there’s no apparent relationship between the music (chiefly an arrangement of bits from Bizet’s opera) and the steps performed to that music. A tavern scene veers off into ersatz flamenco territory, indifferently done. Every now and again a man wearing preposterous bulls’ horns and a bit of bondage appears in the background to represent Fate.

Most problematic is the piece’s depiction of desire. Desire can be many things, not just sexual, and in Bizet’s opera it’s Carmen’s burning need to be free. That desire was dangerous for a woman then and still is. Carmen is murdered for her courage, not that this ballet makes you think about it or care. She’s just someone who dances in her underwear and rolls around the floor locking lips with her lovers.

Carmen is at one point surrounded by men who slap the floor vigorously and proceed to strip. It looked to me like nothing less than preparation for gang rape but also looked so ludicrous (think male strippers at a hens’ night) that the audience roared. Ghastly. I think we can safely say that at this point, as at others, there had been insufficient thought given to meaning and tone.

I felt very sorry for the Carmen I saw, Sophie Zoricic, to whom I send condolences. It was a big chance for her and she gave her all. That said, I suspect Carmen could have only the slightest chance of squeaking past the post if stocked with the biggest stars. Acosta danced both Don José and Escamillo during the London premiere season in 2015 and the RB’s most lustrous female principal, Marianela Nuñez, was the first Carmen.

Acosta is, of course, a relatively inexperienced choreographer while having been one of the RB’s most durable stars. Obviously the company wanted to please him. It should have helped him.

QB is on much safer ground with Scarlett. The young Englishman has a deal with the company to present one of his works annually for four years. The artistic associate arrangement started last year with the one-act No Man’s Land, originally made for English National Ballet. (His delectable Dream, a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet, was made in 2015 and isn’t counted.)

That leaves two more works to come. Scarlett’s international demand means it’s too much to hope that both would be new creations but I’m told there will certainly be one ballet made on the QB dancers.

Carmen & The Firebird ends in Brisbane on June 3.

Murphy: The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 6 (evening) and 11 (matinee).

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to give Graeme Murphy a conventional gala to celebrate his 50 years of association with The Australian Ballet, the company he joined as a member of the corps de ballet in 1968. The idea for the tribute came to TAB artistic director David McAllister when he decided to revive the choreographer’s Firebird (2009). The straightforward way to go would have been to precede Firebird with a selection of excerpts from Murphy’s greatest TAB hits’n’memories: Swan Lake, Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, Beyond Twelve, Romeo and Juliet, The Narrative of Nothing for a piece of abstraction and a humorous bit from Tivoli for a change of pace and there’s your first half.

That’s not what happened. Despite the many virtues and gala possibilities of those works, a by-the-book program would have been obvious and utterly safe. In other words, not remotely indicative of Murphy’s expansive, adventurous spirit. The counter-intuitive decision was made for Murphy’s first half to comprise dances not made for TAB, only one of which, The Silver Rose, has been previously danced by the company (it was created for Bayerisches Staatsballet in 2005). The rest of the pieces are from Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company days, where he reigned for more than 30 years and created a vast body of work – much more interesting and challenging for the dancers, undoubtedly, and good for rusted-on TAB audience members to see something from outside the square.

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Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

There is more coherence in the program than might be evident at first glance. First and most clearly there is the connective tissue built by Murphy’s choreographic style, with the audience able to see his intricate lifts, unusual partnering, witty details, human touches and erotic impulses thread their way through quite different pieces.

The need to move quickly from section to section meant some of Murphy’s most enticing larger productions featuring live music couldn’t be considered but, in the inclusion of Shéhérazade (1979), with its onstage mezzo-soprano soloist singing Ravel’s lush song cycle, and with pianist Scott Davie reprising his central onstage role in sections from Grand, there is a flavour of Murphy’s love for the integration of musicians and dancers. The excerpts from Air and Other Invisible Forces and Ellipse are a reminder of Murphy’s extensive collaborations with Australian composers (here Michael Askill and Matthew Hindson respectively).

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Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. Photo: Daniel Boud

The first act closer, a handful of sections from Grand, is not only vastly enjoyable but indispensable. Murphy made Grand (2005) in celebration of “the one pianist I adore above all others”, his mother Betty, whose music helped shape his artistic development.

The choice of excerpts from The Silver Rose (based on Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier) to open Murphy is of more value thematically than artistically. The ballet isn’t one of the choreographer’s best and I would be surprised to see TAB program it again, but Murphy’s choice of a work whose theme is ageing, time’s inexorable march forward and the loss of youthful potency was perhaps a wry comment on an occasion celebrating a half-century.

In a short film preceding the first half Murphy speaks of movingly of art’s capacity to transform and of his desire to allow dancers to become the artists they aspire to be. In an interview with me before Murphy opened in Melbourne, he consistently returned to the dancers and what would suit or stimulate them. At the Sydney opening night it was wonderful to see principal artist Lana Jones in ferocious form as the Firebird, a role made on her, and also her perfumed elegance in Shéhérazade, performed in its entirety. Senior artist Brett Chynoweth was Most Valuable Player on opening night, dancing Kostchei in Firebird and seen in three pieces in the first half, including whooping it up with Jade Wood, Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli in the zany cowboy-flavoured quartet from Ellipse and, with Morelli, doing a sharp, suave Alligator Crawl in Grand (to Fats Waller).

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Brett Chynoweth as Kostchei in Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

By and large the key roles on opening night went to dancers of soloist rank or above. An exception was the coryphée (but probably not for long) Callum Linnane, who calmly partnered principal Amber Scott in The Silver Rose. At the Wednesday matinee I attended he also partnered principal Leanne Stojmenov in Shéhérazade with distinction. At that performance the mezzo was Jacqueline Dark, who gave a marvellously seductive account of Ravel’s songs.

The Wednesday matinee was where one could more clearly see the cut of the company’s rising young talent. Some fell a fair way short of the brio and individuality SDC dancers brought to those roles but their delight in this very different way of moving was touching. The male corps member to watch is Shaun Andrews, a lithe young man of serious mien who stood out on opening night in a quartet from Grand (to Gershwin) and danced a sinuous Kostchei at the matinee. An airborne cartwheel looked magically weightless.

Also at the matinee, Jade Wood’s fluttering, frightened Firebird was fruitfully paired with Jarryd Madden’s alert, sensitive Ivan and principal artist Andrew Killian memorably partnered corps de ballet member Yuumi Yamada – gorgeous feet! – in a key pas de deux from Grand. There was a touchingly elegiac mood as Killian is in the latter stages of his career. He has always been a potent presence in contemporary work and this was a timely reminder of his gifts in such repertoire. And what a joy to see soloist Benedicte Bemet back on stage after a long absence, quietly steaming up the stage with Madden in a close-contact duo from Air and Other Invisible Forces.

Ends April 23.