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.

Murphy

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).

Murphy

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).

Murphy

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.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, May 2.

Many decades ago, when I was visiting Canada, a young woman asked me whether Christmas was in June in Australia. She knew winter in the southern hemisphere happened in the middle months of the year. It followed then, that Christmas must be in June because Christmas is in the middle of winter. She was not in any way uneducated. It’s just that deep in her bones she knew Christmas was accompanied by snow and mistletoe. It was a winter festival.

Australians know all about a snowy Christmas in theory and not so long ago experienced aspects of it in practice. British colonialism and American influences – a huge roast for lunch, fivepences in the pudding and Bing crooning White Christmas – saw to that when I was a child. Except that on Christmas Day it was possibly going to be 40 degrees (celcius, of course), particularly in the southern states, and a roast with all the trimmings was an insane choice.

It’s this second kind of Christmas – our Christmas – that Graeme Murphy summons at the start of his Nutcracker – The Story of Clara. It speaks to us and our shared understanding of the way things are.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

As the ballet begins it is a hot, enervating Christmas Eve in Melbourne. Children play and squabble in the street as Clara slowly makes her way home after doing a bit of shopping. She is now elderly and ill and has no family, but there is a circle of friends who, like her, are former dancers who came to Australia after escaping the tumult of revolutionary Russia in 1917 and the mid-century European conflagration.

The ballet becomes a memory piece as Clara hears Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker music emerging scratchily from her wireless on this searing December evening. She and her friends dance joyously, if a bit creakily, to this music that means so much to them. What if these rackety old Russian chums go on a touch too much? In putting this Seniors Card group onstage Murphy pays sweet and profound homage to those who found refuge in Australia during and after World War II and sowed the seeds for his career and that of so many others. Indeed, those others include the great Colin Peasley, with TAB from the start in 1962. He’s now 82 and was onstage on opening night.

When her doctor comes to inquire after Clara’s health – yes, friends, the ballet is set in the 1950s – he brings a special gift, film of these dancers in their heyday. The fragile Clara’s mind turns even more deeply towards the past.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Amelia Soh, Leanne Stojmenov, Ai-Gul Gaisina and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Daniel Boud

Murphy weaves familiar Nutcracker images into Clara’s memories of student days, stage triumphs, her strife-torn homeland, her doomed lover and years of travel with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes. Most poignantly, Clara is now young.

Murphy, who created this narrative in 1992 with designer Kristian Fredrikson, lets us see Clara as a child and a starry ballerina as well as in her declining years. The moments when he puts all three together are deeply moving. On opening night there was intense pleasure in seeing septuagenarian Ai-Gul Gaisina’s Russian training brought to bear on Clara, the Elder – be in no doubt this is a dancing role, age be damned – and the restrained sorrow of her character. Eleven-year-old Amelia Soh was a beautifully poised Clara, the Child.

As the in-her-prime Clara, Leanne Stojmenov danced the heady first pas deux as if her spine were made of deluxe satin ribbon. She then transformed herself for the elegant, more contained formality of the splendid Act II grand pas deux, supported superbly by Jarryd Madden, who looks born to channel the Ballets Russes.

Kevin Jackson was Clara’s Beloved Officer on opening night. His dancing was big and generous and there is no higher praise than to say he continues the tradition of superb partnering established by the role’s originator, Steven Heathcote. Now a ballet master with the company, Heathcote is only one degree of separation from the Ballets Russes via his teacher in Perth, Kira Bousloff. Magic.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

The Snowflakes in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boyd

On opening night the corps looked somewhat ragged in the Snowflakes scene where tempestuous flurrying is the order of the day and the Waltz of the Flowers where it is not. In both sections, however, Fredrikson’s costumes were a fabulous diversion.

The application of Tchaikovsky’s score to this narrative isn’t always entirely satisfactory, a point underlined at the opening by a stolid performance from the Opera Australia Orchestra under Nicolette Fraillon. Murphy has always acknowledged the difficulties in Act II of inserting a string of divertissements into the action. He uses some of that music effectively in the depiction of Clara’s life and career – the Sugar Plum Fairy’s tinkling celesta accompanies a dance for Clara as she fends off jewel-bearing visitors to her dressing room – while the Spanish, Arabian and Chinese dances depict places Clara visits as she tours with Colonel de Basil’s company.

The Spanish dance is the most straightforward and the Chinese by far the best. After the sound of gongs there is a long silence as a group of tai chi practitioners emerges from the morning mist. When the Chinese music starts Clara enters to observe this new, to her, form of movement. What a relief it is to be spared the usual hideous caricature of the Chinese, all coolie hats, pointed fingers and waggling heads.

For this revival Murphy has reverted to his first thoughts for the Arabian music. We are portside in some Egyptian city and watch, lengthily and not terribly thrillingly, men haul on ropes and tumble about. It is preferable to the alternative seen in 2000 when Clara visited secluded women somewhere vaguely situated in the Middle East, but neither idea works brilliantly.

These are minor points. The ballet’s stream of emotional highs carry the day, in the ecstatic Act I pas deux, the richly furnished grand pas de deux in Act II, the touching depiction of young love cut short and the persistence of memories as life fades. And above all, of course, there’s that Christmas in summer, in Melbourne. Ours.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara celebrates its quarter century this year and there’s no reason to think it won’t be around for another 25 years.

Ends May 20 in Sydney. Melbourne, June 2-10.

The Australian Ballet in 2017

Next year the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre, home to both The Australian Ballet and Opera Australia when they are in Sydney, will close for seven months. It’s in a good cause, as theatre machinery that’s done sterling work but is now outdated will be replaced. It’s been there since the Opera House opened in 1973. But the closure also means the companies have had to find alternative performance venues from late May to December in 2017.

The Opera House is deeply important to both companies. Opera and ballet are accessible to tourists who may not speak English and the Opera House itself is a huge drawcard. Can those tourists be lured to other venues? And will locals – particularly those with long-held subscription seats with which they are comfortable – stay loyal or simply decide to sit the second half of the year out?

Opera Australia has already announced a vagabond-style program that sees it performing in the Concert Hall and the Playhouse at the Opera House, Sydney Town Hall and the City Recital Centre. It has also secured the Capitol Theatre for Moffatt Oxenbould’s enduringly popular production of Madama Butterfly, double cast so it can be performed nightly for just under two weeks from October 24, 2017.

The Capitol, not surprisingly, is where the AB will also hang its hat in the latter part of the year. It will stage two full-length ballets there, a return of artistic director David McAllister’s sumptuous 2015 version of The Sleeping Beauty (November 2017) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (December 2017). Both are large productions that will be seen to advantage at the Capitol, which was made for grand gestures. It is almost ridiculously ornate, full of visual surprises that border on kitsch but somehow manage to dodge it. There are alcoves full of statuary, a proscenium groaning with decoration and a light-studded ceiling that mimics the night sky. The 2000-seat Capitol is a show all by itself.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. 2015. photo Jef...

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

Beauty will also be staged in Brisbane and Melbourne in the usual theatres and Alice will premiere in Melbourne.

Just before the Joan Sutherland Theatre closes in May the AB will bring back Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, which premiered an astonishing 25 years ago. With its distinctively Australian take on the story, its touching references to the history of ballet in this country and Kristian Fredrikson’s gorgeous costumes, this Nutcracker has a special place in the AB’s repertoire. After Sydney it will be seen in Melbourne.

That’s it for full-length works. The annual contemporary program is a triple bill called Faster and will feature new works by Wayne McGregor and AB resident choreographer Tim Harbour alongside David Bintley’s Faster, which was created in 2012 to a score by the Australian composer Matthew Hindson. Bintley, the artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, made Faster in London’s Olympics year with the motto Faster, Higher, Stronger as his inspiration (Bintley originally called the ballet exactly that but the International Olympic Committee made him change the title). It will be fascinating to compare this with AB resident choreographer Stephen Baynes’s Personal Best, made for Sydney’s Olympic Arts Festival of 2000 to Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto. In a program note Baynes wrote of athletes’ “obsessive and isolating struggle” for supremacy and the speed with which disappointment can replace elation.

Hindson has described his score for Faster as “symphonic in scope”. Also of note on the music front is that McGregor’s work will have a new score by the indefatigable Steve Reich, who celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow, October 3. Faster will open in Melbourne in March and then travel to Sydney in April.

Melbourne gets an extra program, Symphony in C, which was seen in Sydney this year. Balanchine’s one-act ballet is preceded by a group of divertissements which will include two short works – Little Atlas and Scent of Love – made, respectively, by AB company members Alice Topp and Richard House. The pieces premiered alongside Symphony in C in Sydney in April.

Little Atlas - Symphony in C - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Vivienne Wong, Kevin Jackson and Rudy Hawkes in Little Atlas. Photo: Daniel Boud

Which leads us to the big gap in the AB’s programming. There is, again, no Bodytorque program. Bodytorque started in 2004 as a stand-alone showcase for new and relatively new choreographers, mostly drawn from the ranks of the AB. Bodytorque was distinguished from the main program by being held at the former Sydney Theatre, now the Roslyn Packer Theatre, for five performances. Until 2013 it was held annually in Sydney, except for a year off during the AB’s Ballets Russes centenary project. In one ambitious year all the choreographers were able to work to new commissioned scores.

In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne for the first time, for three performances in the AB’s usual (and big) home of the State Theatre. In 2015 the program dwindled to a couple of “pop-up” performances tacked on to the end of a mainstage show, free for anyone who wanted to stay on. And then Bodytorque essentially disappeared. This year Topp and House, both of whom had been Bodytorque regulars, were given a slot for a new work in the diverts half of the Symphony in C program in Sydney, as they will be again when the program is repeated in Melbourne next year – with the same 10-minute work.

Perhaps McAllister is thinking about a refreshed way of developing new choreographers. Or perhaps attention has been diverted to Storytime Ballet, a new venture directed at very young children. There’s no denying that the AB is a busy company and that 2017 is year in which it has to look closely at where it puts its resources. There’s also no rule that says everything has to stay the same, and it’s true to say that if you’re looking for a success story from Bodytorque, since its inception only Tim Harbour has emerged as a regular dancemaker. But if you don’t keep looking you’re not going to find anyone.

Character building: dance isn’t only for the young

The received wisdom is that ballet is strictly a young person’s game. When a classical dancer gets near or just beyond 40 there is much marveling at their longevity and conjecture about what they will do when they retire. There are always exceptions, of course. Think of the wondrous Alessandra Ferri, who on June 23 danced Juliet for American Ballet Theatre at the age of 53 (in the MacMillan version). Leanne Benjamin, long-serving Australian-born principal at the Royal Ballet, retired at 48 still looking spectacular.

And there is another, much larger, cohort of mature dancers whose contribution is great but less remarked upon. They are kings and queens; mothers, fathers and grandparents; attendants at court, kindly godmothers, clog-dancing widows, bad fairies and more. They bring experience, authority, wisdom and texture to the stage – not to mention sparing the audience the unpleasing sight of vigorous 20-somethings giving us their old-person acting. The character dancer is an essential part of any company.

Colin Peasley in Swan Lake Paris 2008 Photo Lisa Tomasetti 006

Colin Peasley ready to take the stage in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

“Once a dancer, always a dancer,” says David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet, who has in front of him one of the great examples in the business. When the AB opens its London tour on July 13 with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the role of the Lord Admiral will be taken – as usual – by Colin Peasley. Peasley, a founding member of the AB in 1962, will be 82 before the year is out (he celebrated his 80th birthday in the US while on tour with the AB in 2014). His role is not extensive but you know what they say: there are no small parts, only small actors. McAllister was a principal artist with the AB before becoming artistic director and says: “I remember as a young performer learning so much from watching people like Colin.” Young performers also need to watch out: an expertly judged cameo can shine far more brightly than a larger routine performance.

Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet (and also a former AB principal) says story ballets need experienced older artists to add depth and weight to the production. “No matter how brilliant young dancers are, they haven’t lived the ups and downs, the heart-breaking moments. The way you walk, the way you look at a person, the subtlety, is very hard to teach. “Furthermore, to have those marvelous dancers is such a great inspiration for the younger members of the company. Dancers are such visual learners so to have someone like that in front of you – it makes a huge difference.” McAllister agrees. It is invaluable for “all the company to witness that theatrical craft at such close range”.

Li invited Steven Heathcote to dance Lord Capulet when QB staged the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet in 2014. Heathcote was the AB’s alpha male principal artist for many years and is now a ballet master and regional touring associate for the national company. He also performs character roles for the AB and was most recently seen on stage in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake, bringing his considerable charisma to the role of the Lord Chancellor.

Rachael Walsh unforgettably made Lady Capulet in the QB Romeo and Juliet her final role before retiring as a principal dancer and taking the position of corporate partnerships manager at the company. Heathcote and Walsh are “fabulous artists, truly rare”, says Li. Walsh is now listed as one of QB’s character artists, alongside veteran Paul Boyd, members of the ballet staff and others.

QB-Paul Boyd-Catalabutte

Paul Boyd as Catalabutte in Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet

Other former AB principal artists seguing into character roles include Lisa Bolte (now working in philanthropy for the AB), who recently appeared as the Queen in the Baynes Swan Lake, and Lynette Wills. Wills created the role of the Godmother in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella in 2013 and Carabosse in McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty last year, these performances an adjunct to her frequent credits as a ballet photographer. In Sydney former Royal Ballet first soloist Gillian Revie was a memorable Carabosse in the McAllister production.

Bolte and Wills may be somewhat older than most of the dancers on stage but they are positively teenaged by comparison with some. “I think of Sir Robert Helpmann in Checkmate, Dame Margaret Scott in Nutcracker: The Story of Clara and pretty much every role that Colin Peasley does,” says McAllister. The Red King in Checkmate was Helpmann’s final role. He died in 1986 at the age of 77 only two months after he was last on stage. Scott was in her late 70s when she last danced in the Murphy Nutcracker – and dance she did, including a highly physical encounter with giant rats in a dream sequence.

AB-Lisa Bolte-Swan Lake

Lisa Bolte as the Queen in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake for The Australian Ballet

Peasley had more than 6000 performances under his belt when he formally retired in 2012 but in his farewell interviews flagged that he wouldn’t be averse to accepting further invitations to appear. I asked him then about the legendary Freddie Franklin, who died at 98 in 2013 and who had appeared as the Tutor in Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre when he was 94. Peasley seemed inclined to want to match or better that. You’d be mad to bet against it.

‘I am in the right place’

Robert Curran was a long-serving principal artist with The Australian Ballet, from which he retired in 2011. He’s now leading a small company in the United States and relishing a role that is both very similar – ballet is ballet, the studio is the studio – and yet very different from his  former life.

LOUISVILLE is a city of about 750,000 people lying west of the Appalachian Mountains on the Ohio River in Kentucky. It was founded in 1778 during the American Revolution, named after Louis XVI (the French were allies against the British), and is situated in the South, although very much in the north of the South – it takes little more than two hours in a not very large aircraft to fly there from New York. But a Southern city it is, proud of its hospitality and its role as a leading bourbon producer.

As everyone knows, Louisville is famous for the annual Kentucky Derby, which is kicked off by Thunder Over Louisville, a fireworks display described as the biggest in North America. The city is also the headquarters for the parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, the jauntily named Yum! Brands. (The city’s major sports complex, seating 22,000, is called the KFC Yum! Center.)

So – horses, booze and fast food are important in Louisville. And bluegrass music. But they are not what I went for in mid-April. In August last year Louisville Ballet named Robert Curran, former principal artist with The Australian Ballet, as its new artistic director. As I have always been keen to see one of the smaller-scale American companies in action, his appointment offered the perfect excuse to make it happen.

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

First, a bit of background. San Francisco Ballet is regarded as the oldest professional company in the US, founded in 1933 as San Francisco Opera Ballet and becoming a separate body in 1942. Just to muddy the waters a little, Atlanta Ballet was founded in 1929 and describes itself as “the longest continuously performing ballet company in the United States”. Presumably it started as an amateur outfit. Whatever the story, ballet started to take root in the US about 85 years ago. Interest had been stirred by touring European troupes in the 19th century and was cemented by Ballets Russes spin-off companies in the mid 20th century. George Balanchine came to the US in late 1933 and his School of American Ballet opened at the beginning of 1934.

By the beginning of the 21st century there would be 100 or more ballet companies in the US. They include a handful of world-renowned organisations – American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet – and other major-city outfits such as Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet that can support 40 or more dancers. Louisville Ballet belongs to a third category: smaller troupes established in sizeable cities with a lively arts scene.

After his appointment was announced Curran made a quick trip back home to sort out his visa and then returned to Louisville to dive in. He didn’t have long to become acquainted with his dancers before getting Giselle onstage by mid-September, and also wanted to immerse himself in Louisville cultural life as soon as possible.

Eight months later, Curran couldn’t look happier. Retiring director Bruce Simpson had programmed the first part of the 2014-2015 season so it wasn’t until April 10 that Curran unveiled his first program for Louisville Ballet: a triple bill of Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, George Balanchine’s Square Dance and a new piece by Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies, What Light Is to Our Eyes. It was extremely well received by public and critics, but perhaps more impressive was the demonstration of just how quickly Curran had moved on one of his most passionately desired goals. He wants Louisville Ballet to interact meaningfully and visibly with the local cultural scene and Director’s Choice: A New World was a strong beginning.

“That’s something I’m investing a lot of time in. Getting involved in the music scene, getting involved in the visual arts scene,” he says. Curran was given permission by the Balanchine Trust to commission new designs for Square Dance and asked Louisville artist Letitia Quesenberry to be involved. Her serene stage picture was dominated by a quietly glowing painting bisected by a horizontal stream of light. “Meeting Leticia was a great, great moment for me. Her work is so inspiring. It’s absolutely glorious.” Curran hadn’t expected the Balanchine Trust to give him so much freedom, although perhaps his commitment to offer Balanchine in Louisville every year helped. “I didn’t think that [redesigning the ballet] was a luxury that would be afforded a first-time director of a mid-west company with a small budget. When they offered, I had to jump at it.”

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Jervies created What Light Is to Our Eyes to young American composer Sebastian Chang’s first symphony, which was commissioned by and given its world premiere performance in late January by Louisville Orchestra. It was conducted by the orchestra’s new music director Teddy Abrams, a 27-year-old who is creating quite a stir in the city. As an interviewer for Louisville Insider put it to Curran recently just before Director’s Choice opened, “You can’t cross the street without running into Teddy – he’s everywhere.” Curran doesn’t want to make himself quite as visible as Abrams, preferring to put the spotlight on his dancers, but they seem to be on the same wavelength.

The intertwining of ballet and orchestra continues in March next year in a co-production called (R)evolution that will feature a new score from Abrams alongside music by Stravinsky and Philip Glass. Adam Hougland will choreograph. Curran also meets with the leaders of two other leading Louisville companies, Kentucky Opera and the famed Actors Theatre of Louisville, with an eye to co-operative ventures. “We’re all in really open communication. We spend time together, we talk together, we deal with tricky situations, but we deal with them together. It’s a really open dialogue, and that goes with the visual arts organisations as well. We’re all trying to work out how we can maximise our impact and minimise our impact on each other – that’s a really exciting thing.”

Drawing on the wider world of ballet connections, Curran was given permission to stage Suite en blanc himself after Claude Bessy, a former director of the Paris Opera Ballet School who is associated with the Serge Lifar Foundation, was unable to come to the US as planned. Curran got Bessy’s blessing after being introduced long-distance by ballet legend Violette Verdy, whom Curran knows from his AB days. Verdy is now a professor at Indiana University. It’s a small world.

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

In terms of repertoire Director’s Choice was very familiar territory for Curran. He has been acquainted with the Lifar ballet since his student days with the Australian Ballet School, danced Balanchine with the AB and with Jervies founded a small Melbourne-based contemporary ballet company, JACK.

Far less familiar was his new company’s structure. Louisville Ballet has 24 dancers and 15 apprentices, the latter at the stage of finishing vocational training and preparing to start professional careers. Dancers are contracted for 30 weeks of the year, a number Curran would like to see increase to 40 or 42. Houston Ballet, led by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, has 44-week contracts but that is uncommon. Even the mighty American Ballet Theatre contracts its dancers for only 36 weeks of the year. For the rest of the year they fend for themselves or go on unemployment benefits.

Perhaps even more surprising to an outsider is the small number of performances in each season given by Louisville Ballet and other companies of its size. Director’s Choice was seen only three times in the space of 28 hours – Friday night, Saturday matinee, Saturday night and it was done. The exception of course is Nutcracker, which is both sacred community tradition and indispensible money-spinner for virtually every American ballet company. That has a much longer run.

Nutcracker is a phenomenon I wasn’t exactly prepared for. It’s the most beautiful score ever written for ballet, it’s a beautiful tradition and I love seeing how many children come. It’s a brilliant production [choreographed by Val Caniparoli]. I’m biased but I would rate it in my top five in the world that I’ve seen. The integrity, the quality of the choreography, the through line are really wonderful. It’s unique and it’s also great to see a Nutcracker, a lot like Graeme’s [Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara], that is so specific to its audience. There are a lot of touches that are Louisville.’’

While the company is much smaller than Curran is used to, it means there’s plenty of room for growth. “There are no performances outside Louisville at the moment. That has to change. We are here to serve the whole state and we don’t. I would love for the company to do more performances, and that’s my ultimate goal.” Nutcracker would be a natural ballet to tour, although in a different, smaller-scale version. The Caniparoli production was designed for the vast – 2400 seats – Whitney Hall in Louisville’s Kentucky Center. (Curran’s Director’s Choice program was at the smaller Brown Theatre. Its 1400 seats make it a suitable size for a great deal of repertoire but backstage restrictions make it not entirely ideal.)

One area set to expand is the number of trainees. Curran says there will be a much bigger group next year than the current 15. “I had a phenomenal number of people applying.” As trainees are unpaid they don’t drain resources. There is a little government funding but Curran describes the company’s $3.5 million budget as primarily made up of “about one third box office, one third development [corporate sponsorship and private support] and one third school revenue”. The latter is something Curran, who is also artistic director of Louisville Ballet School, is looking at. If the school’s income is mainly siphoned off for the company it doesn’t get to invest in itself. There are 600 students, not all of whom want to take a vocational path, and Curran would like to see an organisation that better suits the needs of both recreational and vocational students.

The vocational students are the obvious candidates for apprenticeships and, ultimately, a place in the company. And it’s something Curran has to pay close attention to. Louisville Ballet dancers have a higher average age than in most companies, Curran says, with many in their mid to late 30s. That brings maturity and intelligence to the stage, but the careers can’t last forever.

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes. Photo: Renata Pavam

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes, by Lucas Jervies. Photo: Renata Pavam

Curran has no intention of letting people go – “I’ve become very fond of them” – but must keep an eye to the future. That means not only developing the next generation of dancers but also giving current company members challenging repertoire.

Suite en blanc was certainly that. It’s danced by the best companies in the world although has not been frequently staged in the US, which made it a clever choice for Louisville. Lifar’s tutu-laden, highly exposed test of classical prowess was greatly enjoyed by the audience at the two performances I saw and clearly stretched some of the apprentices in the corps. “It’s a really hard ballet,” Curran said when we spoke after the opening. “They’ve had to step up mentally and physically. I can see dramatic changes in the way they work and what they look like.”

Many dancers caught the eye, in particular Natalia Ashikhmina in the Cigarette variation and Erica De La O in the Flute variation in Suite; both leading pairs in Square Dance – Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland, De La O with Kristopher Wojtera; and the full cast of What Light Is to our Eyes, which the dancers invested not only with strong contemporary ballet energy but with mature dramatic qualities.

With the dancers going on leave for their long northern summer layoff, Curran and Louisville Ballet general manager Cara Hicks are turning their minds to a reorganisation of the company, which has a staff of about 15 apart from the dancers. Hicks is relatively new to her position (although not to the company), as previously Bruce Simpson combined the roles of artistic director and chief executive. Curran expresses nothing but great admiration and respect for Simpson, who some years ago guided the company out of extreme financial difficulties, but with both Curran and Hicks under 40 different emphases are inevitable.

Along with the major undertaking that is the company restructure, Curran has a new production to prepare, a version of Coppélia that will open Louisville Ballet’s 2015-2016 season in October. He plans to set it in Louisville’s Germantown area in 1917 as the US enters World War I. He also has “perhaps a foolishly ambitious plan” for the company’s 65th anniversary in 2017 about which he will say nothing at present.

He will say, however, how thrilled he is to be in Louisville. “I enjoy the people. They’re so welcoming. The city is fun; it’s really easy, although the food is a little bit too good. This community, they are brave, willing to look at things in a new light. Seeing that standing ovation after Lucas’s work – they were so willing to embrace it.

“I am in the right place. I didn’t know if I would find something as rewarding as my dancing; I really didn’t. But I wasn’t very long into this when I realised I’d found it. It’s a brilliant, brilliant job.”

Everything old is new again

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, February 20 and February 24.

GRAEME Murphy’s Swan Lake has been a touchstone production – and a fortunate one – not only for The Australian Ballet as a whole but for many dancers. At its premiere in Melbourne on September 17, 2002, Simone Goldsmith started the evening as a senior artist and ended it as a principal. Steven Heathcote was Prince Siegfried, as he would be so frequently until his retirement in 2007 and Margaret Illman was an unforgettable Baroness von Rothbart, the third party in the tangled triangle at the heart of the ballet.

By the time the production opened in Sydney on November 28, 2002, senior artist Lynette Wills had assumed the role of the Baroness and she, like Goldsmith, found herself promoted to the company’s highest rank at the after-show festivities. She had waited a long time, and this role gave her the breakthrough.

Over the years young dancers who started out as wedding guests or swans in 2002 graduated to larger roles: the corps de ballet list in September 2002 includes Adam Bull, Andrew Killian, Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Leanne Stojmenov and Danielle Rowe, all of whom would become principal artists and dance Odette, Siegfried or the Baroness. All are still with the company with the exception of Rowe, now with Netherlands Dance Theatre.

In the case of Madeleine Eastoe, then a soloist and now a long-serving principal artist, the path to Odette was swift. I first saw her in December of 2002 and most recently five days ago when Swan Lake opened in Sydney. She was lovely then and is extraordinary now.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

From the start audiences loved the interpretation created by Murphy, his creative associate Janet Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson. It looked absolutely luscious and its story, while being set in an Edwardian world, was clearly influenced by the troubled marriage of Prince Charles and Diana. It was, and is, a wildly glamorous and highly emotional piece of theatre. The AB didn’t hold back. The Murphy Swan Lake has been staged almost every year since 2002, although not always in Australia. It is the work invariably chosen to take on tour and has been seen in Paris, Tokyo, London, New York, Los Angeles and other cities. Later this year it will tour to Beijing.

For this Sydney season Swan Lake continues its role as a trailblazer. It’s not being seen at the AB’s usual home of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House but is at the Capitol, a venue devoted almost exclusively to large-scale musical theatre. Amusingly, this is because the Wicked juggernaut is tying up Queensland Performing Art Centre’s largest theatre, which is where one would expect the AB to be at this time of year – and the Capitol is the very theatre vacated only last month by Wicked before it headed north.

There is obvious potential to broaden the company’s reach beyond the rusted-on ballet crowd by coming to this venue and the undeniable truth is that Swan Lake looks much better on the Capitol stage than at the Opera House (Opera Australia is ensconced there as usual in February so the Joan Sutherland Theatre was unavailable anyway).

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Friday’s opening night was strong, which didn’t surprise given that the company knows the work inside out (this was the 185th performance). What lifted Swan Lake into another realm was the riveting connection between Eastoe and her Siegfried Kevin Jackson. This is truly one of the exceptional partnerships of Australian ballet.

She was all air, light as a feather blown across water; he was all earthy desire and anguish, a flawed and complicated man. As a partner Jackson is not quite in the league (who is?) of Heathcote and Robert Curran – they both danced with Eastoe many times in this ballet – but his immersion in the role and his interpretation of it were electrifying. He wasn’t afraid to look brutal in his treatment of Odette as she unravels on her wedding day, having seen the extent to which Siegfried is in thrall to the Baroness. But he seemed more desperately unhappy and frustrated than a hardened brute, and his Act II lakeside pas de deux was filled with tenderness.

Eastoe has not changed her approach to Odette; she just seems more and more luminous every time. Of the eight Murphy Odettes I’ve seen she is the most heart-rending. Each has had a strongly individual character – a hallmark of this production is that markedly different interpretations are equally valid – but with Eastoe you see innocence slaughtered. It is devastating.

Ako Kondo has exceptional allure but on Friday I thought her vampy Baroness was still a work in progress. In Tuesday’s cast Kondo’s fellow senior artist, Miwako Kubota, was more multi-layered and sympathetic. Kubota made you see the Baroness’s pain as well as her desire. (By the way, Kubota was also in the corps in 2002 when Swan Lake premiered.)

Senior artist Juliet Burnett finally got her chance to dance Odette, and did so partnered by fellow senior artist Rudy Hawkes. It was a persuasive match. Hawkes was an entirely different Siegfried from Jackson. Here was a prince entirely out of his emotional depth, fulfilling his duty as expected and finding things falling apart disastrously and unmanageably on his wedding day. Burnett’s Act I Odette was somewhat spiky in temperament and unstable. This bride, who appears compliant and unsure of herself, is not entirely subservient.

Burnett hasn’t entirely worked these contradictions into a seamless whole. It interests me that Burnett is a very fine writer about dance and thinks deeply about her work; on Tuesday, particularly in Act I, she telegraphed some of that thinking a little too forcefully. When her strong, clear ideas were transformed into action and into feeling they had powerful dramatic authority.

In pure dance terms Burnett and Hawkes had a few moments on Tuesday night that didn’t go entirely to plan – and they were just a few – but they also put their own stamp on the choreography, making many key images entirely fresh with different accents or textures. This is why balletomanes go to a particular ballet repeatedly: not to see it again, but to see it made anew.

Other thoughts:

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bernet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin must now be the Cygnets of choice. They are adorable.

No one does a dash across the stage and hair-raising body-slam as vividly as Reiko Hombo (Young Duchess-to-be).

Sometimes it’s just impossible to erase memories of past exponents of certain roles. Take the Guardian Swans, for example. I can still see Danielle Rowe and Lana Jones. Perfection.

Colin Peasley – what can you say? He’s 80 and still getting out there on stage as the Lord Admiral, as ramrod straight as ever.

 Swan Lake ends on Saturday February 28.