A new generation rises to the challenge

Sydney Opera House, April 29.

THE Australian Ballet’s first staging of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations alongside revivals of his coolly mysterious Monotones II and lucid, delightful one-act version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is well overdue. Ashton’s choreography hasn’t surfaced at the AB since 2004 (the last time La Fille mal gardée was presented) and other works have been absent since the 1970s and 1980s.

That means few of the AB’s dancers have experience with Ashton, something that may account for the very late announcement of casting. Ashton ballets seem to be protected like the crown jewels by those charged with their care. Fair enough. The Royal Ballet’s founder choreographer is one of the 20th century’s most important dance figures and his style, in which wit, high sophistication and virtuosity are seen through a veil of modesty and restraint, is not an easy one to capture.

This program is far and away the most challenging of the year for these dancers and the most intriguing for balletomanes. On opening night the AB met the challenges with great integrity. (Scroll down for updates on later casts.)

Madeleine Eastoe and Joseph Chapman in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Madeleine Eastoe and Joseph Chapman in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Dream couldn’t look prettier in David Walker’s gossamer designs as fairies and mortals fall in and out of love in a whirlwind 50 minutes. Ballet is so very good at compression; all the essentials are there, starting with the tussle between Oberon and Titania for possession of the little Indian Boy that leads to much meddling in everyone’s affairs.

Airiness and delicacy reign in this moonlit world, even in the case of whirling, spinning, high-flying Puck and rustic Bottom when turned into an ass, his black pointe shoes a splendid stand-in for hoofs. Ashton calls for almost impossibly fleet, sparkling feet contrasted with luscious upper bodies and inner glow rather than external show. Wednesday’s first cast caught the light as did Nicolette Fraillon and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s radiant music.

Combining muscular presence with a poetic soul, Kevin Jackson (Oberon) grows in stature with every performance; about-to-retire Madeleine Eastoe (Titania) was as dewy as a teenager; Joseph Chapman (Bottom) hopped and ran on pointe as if born to it; and Chengwu Guo was a gravity-defying, ultra-charming Puck who won every heart. His speed, and elevation were a wonder but much more thrilling was the way he used bravura steps to illuminate Puck’s character and story. Just as it should be.

Kondo, Martino, Hendricks and Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Dream draws the evening to a happy close but the more important event is the acquisition of Symphonic Variations, considered to be Ashton’s defining work. An 18-minute sextet to Cesar Franck’s music for piano and orchestra, the plotless paean to beauty, peace, simplicity and classical harmony was made in 1946 and embraced by a British public deeply scarred by World War II. In Ashton simplicity, of course, does not mean simple. The bodies of the dancers are like willows – graceful, infinitely flexible, turning this way and that, tranquil yet resilient.

Symphonic Variations is intricately structured and overflows with lustrous, evocative imagery. In a particularly lovely repeated gesture the women curve an arm protectively around a partner’s head; several times after all have skimmed across and around the stage – the women and the men in separate groups of three – the six dancers join hands in an echo of bucolic folk-dancing. In the pared-back white costumes and in some groupings there are also intimations of Balanchine’s Apollo but the glorious flow of bodies and action is all Ashton’s own.

While occasionally there was evidence of some strain there was a fine account of Symphonic Variations from its first cast: soloist Robyn Hendricks and principals Amber Scott and Ako Kondo (elevated to that rank during the Sydney Giselle season just passed); and corps member (as he was then) Cristiano Martino, choryphée Christopher Rodgers-Wilson and soloist Brett Chynoweth. Hendricks in particular glowed from within, Martino was an imposing presence and Chynoweth’s buoyancy and crystalline shapes in the air linger in the memory.

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in Monotones II. Photo: Daniel Boud

Wright, Kusen and Simon in Monotones II. Photo: Daniel Boud

The presence of dancers from right across the ranks made for an opening night of unusual interest. As future casting shows, Martino would appear to be one to watch as he is also down for Monotones II and has several appearances as Oberon to come, as do other junior men. Chynoweth is, not surprisingly, one of the Pucks, but that role will also be danced by corps men Marcus Morelli and Cameron Hunter.

Monotones II, which opens the program, is a trio for one woman and two men made in 1965 for a gala, no less. It must be one of the most enduring works ever made for such an event. Ashton was inspired by 1960s moon exploration and the way people might move in its tenuous gravity. The woman – refined, poised soloist Natasha Kusen in the first cast – could be some kind of remote goddess attended by her male acolytes. Certainly the three appear suitably alien, clad entirely in second-skin white bodysuits and caps.

It’s a look that takes quite a lot of personal glamour to carry off and Brett Simon and Jared Wright could have exuded a touch more of that. Still, Monotones II stands up much, much better than you might expect as its three living, moving sculptures serenely move through the ethereal orchestral version of Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies.

With so many dancers in featured roles in this program it is, well, a dream for talent spotters. It was a great pleasure to see Hendricks and Kusen also featured in The Dream on opening night (as Hermia and Helena), playing the comedy sweetly with the Lysander of Rudy Hawkes and Demetrius of Jacob Sofer.

I see The Dream twice more, at the May 6 matinee and May 8. I will update as I go.

Matinee, Wednesday May 6

On a Saturday matinee the house is packed with exuberant youngsters. Not so on a school day. It was a fairly quiet audience – let’s put it that way – although The Dream got a rousing reception. Things were quieter for Monotones II and Symphonic Variations, and fair enough. Neither was given a performance for the ages. The Monotones II cast was the one I saw on opening night – Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright. Kusen was again luminous – her line pristine, her arms glorious – but the men’s support of her was a little wobbly. This is performance under an unforgiving microscope.

Symphonic Variations was unacceptably scrappy. Andrew Killian had a bad day with his double tours and the cast – the others were Lana Jones, Ingrid Gow, Amanda McGuigan, Ty King-Wall and Andrew Wright – didn’t seem fully at one with each other or all of the work’s complexities, although Jones stood out for her calm poise. Another good thing: McGuigan, a long-legged beauty in the corps de ballet who joined the AB last year, is the real deal. Not that she’s a novice. McGuigan has danced with American Ballet Theatre and Dutch National Ballet and has international gloss. Put her on the watch list. (I see her in Monotones II on Friday, which should be wonderful.)

Also on the watch list is Cristiano Martino, also in the corps but surely not for long. [Note: Martino was promoted to coryphée on May 11.] He’s been with the company for only two years and yet finds himself first-cast Symphonic Variations, cast in Monotones II for some performances and – this is the biggie – is one of the Oberons in The Dream. The others are principals Kevin Jackson, Adam Bull and Ty King-Wall, with coryphée Jared Wright – he recently made his debut as Albrecht – also getting two performances in Sydney. Vastly experienced senior artist Miwako Kubota is Titania to both the junior men.

Martino has stage presence, alert dramatic instincts, a powerful leap and he and Kubota sparked sexily off one another. Martino’s partnering is a work in progress and he appeared to be getting very, very tired by the end of this tough role but it was a surprisingly mature and highly promising performance from one so new to the business.

Another corps de ballet member, Marcus Morelli, was the Puck and his exuberance and sense of fun conquered the audience. He managed the technical challenges well although he needs more polish and finesse. But he’s fast, full of beans and put on a great show.

Friday May 8

The Australian Ballet’s choreographic development program Bodytorque started 11 years ago as a Sydney-only project with an individual personality. It was staged not at the Sydney Opera House but at the Sydney Theatre (recently renamed the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay) and usually had five performances featuring five choreographers or thereabouts, with some building on the experience of having made work for previous Bodytorques. Last year the program decamped to Melbourne, where there were three performances in the State Theatre. Among last year’s participants was Richard House – also a 2013 Bodytorquer – and he is a featured Bodytorque artist this year. Indeed he is one of only two Bodytorque choreographers this year.

Richard House's From Something, To Nothing. Photo: Daniel Boud

Richard House’s From Something, To Nothing. Photo: Daniel Boud

Bodytorque 2015 has just four dates in the calendar, two in Sydney and two in Melbourne, and on each evening there is just one new work, presented after a mainstage performance. The audience is invited to stay on to see it after the all-Ashton The Dream program or the contemporary program 20:21 at no additional cost.

House’s From Something, To Nothing, for three couples, received its premiere in Sydney last Friday following The Dream. The music of Satie (Gnossiennes 4 and 5) and Rachmaninov (Elegie for piano and cello) beautifully played by Christian Lillicrap and Andrew Hines, the soft dusk of Graham Silver’s lighting design and Kat Chan’s romantically layered pale costumes established a restrained and enigmatic atmosphere in which stillness and calm alternated with complex close partnering. House creates strong stage pictures and attractive classically based dance and I would have been happy to see where the work might go. But perhaps in calling it From Something, To Nothing, House is acknowledging that a piece lasting 10 or 15 minutes doesn’t really have anywhere to go and that creating a wistful, elegiac mood is the most one can do. The three couples – Heidi Martin and Charles Thompson, Rina Nemoto and Mitchell Rayner and particularly Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden – were elegant and sophisticated.

Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden. Photo: Daniel Boud

Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden. Photo: Daniel Boud

House’s work will be seen again after The Dream in Melbourne on June 12. Another choreographer, as yet unnamed, will create work to be seen after 20:21 in Melbourne on September 4 and Sydney on November 20.

House was seen earlier in the evening in dancer mode, joining Amanda McGuigan and Brodie James for The Dream program’s opening ballet, Monotones II. Although they several times rushed a pose or movement in a ballet that relies on seamless flow, they looked wonderful together.

Another viewing of The Dream confirmed how splendidly the AB women have absorbed the darting, weaving, swooping qualities that define the fairy attendants. The gorgeous sweep of necks, arms and upper bodies, the alert heads and eyes and quicksilver feet are all there.

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Friday’s performance was also notable for Brett Chynoweth’s Puck. The part is a whirlwind of multiple pirouettes, leaps during which the lower legs carve out tight little circles, heady dashes across the stage and the humorous byplay that makes Puck a character, not just a marvel of pyrotechnics. Chynoweth’s razor-sharp accuracy is a marvel and he seems to find plenty of time in the air to get all the complexities done and dusted without strain.

One might think he is typecasting for this type of role, but that would be to forget his debut as the Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in Sydney last year. Chynoweth gave a deeply poetic performance – indeed, one of the most affecting I’ve seen in this ballet. And I’ve seen a few.

The Dream ends May 16. Melbourne, June 4-14; Adelaide, July 8-9.

Bodytorque.Technique

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Theatre, October 31.

THIS year they called the annual choreographic workshop Bodytorque.Technique. It would have been rather closer to the mark to call it Bodytorque.Influences. Five of the six new works paid such homage to established choreographers you’d think royalties would be in order. But for all the sense there wasn’t a huge amount of originality in movement language, there was a consistently high standard in the work, probably more than in any other year of Bodytorque’s decade-long history. It gave the audience an extremely enjoyable and accomplished evening of dance and the program had consistency and coherence.

The “technique” part of the title steered the choreographers towards a use of classical vocabulary, as it did a couple of years ago when the pointe shoe was the focus of attention. There was no dance theatre or contemporary dance as there had been in other years, giving the evening a satisfying unanimity of purpose.

But of course that’s not the primary purpose of Bodytorque. It seeks to discover and promote new choreographic talent, and it’s extremely rare to find a keeper. In the first decade of Bodytorque there has been only one graduate to the main stage, Tim Harbour, and he has been quiet of late.

It’s not surprising to see new choreographers take inspiration from established dance-makers when they are starting out and this crop has been touched by some of the highest-profile people in the business. For instance, Benjamin Stuart-Carberry’s Polymorphia, with its sudden silences and blackouts, summoned memories of William Forsythe. The complicated, tangled pas de deux in Alice Topp’s Tinted Windows recalled Christopher Wheeldon. Halaina Hills made no bones about her debt to George Balanchine, smartly acknowledging it early in Mode.L by referring to one of the key images from Apollo. Ty King-Wall’s The Art of War, in which four men vie for the favour of one woman, reminded me somewhat of Robert Helpmann’s The Display in its male jostling for ascendancy. And Richard House’s Finding the Calm perhaps scored the Jiri Kylian guernsey for its cool sexiness, elegant arrangements and the suggestion of complex relationships. I could happily have watched Finding the Calm again right away because I wanted to know more about his two couples. Job done.

All the works were confident and, for the most part, extremely well structured. These are gifts that can’t be borrowed. Only Stuart-Carberry got a bit stuck on technique at the expense of direction in Polymorphia, although I enjoyed his strong, expansive upper-body work as two women (Imogen Chapman and Valerie Tereshchenko, both exquisite), mostly occupying separate pools of light and often mirroring one another, looked ravishing but oh so distant. His choice of music,48 Responses to Polymorphia by Jonny Greenwood, worked well with its dissonances that resolve themselves into harmonics in that Stuart-Carberry was interested in symmetry and asymmetry. It’s likely Stuart-Carberry has absorbed lessons from being (a brief) part of Sylvie Guillem’s 6000 Miles Away program. While it was just performed in Melbourne, Stuart-Carberry was also involved when 6000 Miles Away showed in Sydney in March last year. A great opportunity for this former AB dancer.

Hills showed an extremely sure hand in the way she shaped the variety of her groups, duos, solos, entrances, exits and the details that add texture to a work – a terrific ending, too, although the piece overall was too derivative with its Balanchinean hip thrusts and swivels. But as they say, if you’re going to steal, take from the best. Mode.L’s pluses included the ambitious use of Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments, played live, and Ako Kondo’s sparkling central role. Hills should be encouraged to work on ideas for next year’s Bodytorque pronto.

Topp, who has previously impressed at Bodytorque (twice) was over-enthusiastic in the way her couples grappled and the manipulation of the women went too far in the direction of manhandling for my taste, but she has a touch for mood and atmosphere. Tinted Windows over-stretched itself in the search for a marriage of and differentiation between technique and feeling, an impression compounded by the use of Leif Sundstrup’s rather soft-grained music. There was an odd pause in the middle, too, that simply didn’t work as a dramatic moment. I thought at first that a dancer had been injured or missed a cue. Topp’s coup in securing fashion designer Toni Maticevski to create the romantic costumes added glamour and the opening night audience gave Tinted Windows a huge cheer. Despite my reservations about aspects of the ballet, it would be so good to see Topp given further chances to develop.

It was heartening, by the way, to see two women on the bill. One of the big discussions in classical dance is the paucity of female choreographers.

King-Wall’s melding of martial arts-inflected moves with classicism in The Art of War wasn’t quite as seamless as it might be but there was virtuosic work for the men and a pleasing sense of intrigue with his solo woman in the red dress. The music, a selection of pieces from the group Coda, didn’t strike exactly the right note with the choreography but that’s part of the process – finding the most fruitful correlations between dance and music.

As Hills had earlier in the program and Josh Consandine would do after, King-Wall understood that putting an uneven number of dancers onstage can create tension, narrative and structural interest all by itself. The choreographers were allowed a maximum of five dancers each, and these three took the full option.

Consandine, a former principal dancer with the Australian Ballet and a Sydney Dance Company alumnus, was a natural choice for the program’s closer as he’d come up with the most polished piece of the evening. In-finite was also the most purely classical work, leavened with jokiness and humour but knowing when to stop. The group of two men and three women demonstrated the need to work as a team and the impulse to be an individual; they showed the joy and anguish of dance; they got in some fouettes and pirouettes a la seconde; principal Andrew Killian found himself in a headstand; and there was a brief, antic breakout of jazz hands. A delight.

I could see In-finite being a big hit on the circuit of the Dancers Company, the AB’s touring arm made up of graduating students from the Australian Ballet School and AB guests. I could also see Finding the Calm doing business. A good result for Bodytorque this year.

The provision of live music for several pieces was a bonus, with Simon Thew conducting a small ensemble of players from the Australia Opera and Ballet Orchestra. It does make a big difference. As always Bodytorque gives lower-ranked dancers a moment in the spotlight. There really were far too many to mention (isn’t that good?), but those who like to go talent-spotting at the AB had plenty to work with.

Kat Chan was billed as design co-ordinator for all the pieces and costume designer for In-finite (loved the cheeky little minimalist tutus) and Finding the Calm; Graham Silver lit all the works. The choreographers were most handsomely supported.

Next year Sydney loses Bodytorque to Melbourne. I hope the city cherishes it, although there will need to be patience. In 2014 Bodytorque – subtitled DNA, whatever that may mean – is slated for the State Theatre, three performances only, and not in one block. So there’s a huge stage, a huge auditorium, lack of continuity in performance and lack of heft in the number of performances. I do understand that the AB has the theatre for its use at that time and to go elsewhere would cost, but the venue is far from ideal.

The word is that Melbourne has always asked for Bodytorque. Well, now it’s going to get it, and needs to put its money where its mouth is.