Nijinsky: The Australian Ballet

State Theatre, Melbourne, September 7; Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, November 11.

JOHN Neumeier, the choreographer and longtime artistic director of Hamburg Ballet, has made a deep study of Vaslav Nijinsky and is a noted collector of material associated with the dancer. Neumeier’s ballet on the subject is a natural extension of that passion, and he holds the ballet close. The Australian Ballet is only the third company to perform Nijinsky, after the Hamburg Ballet (the premiere was in 2000) and National Ballet of Canada.

Neumeier was, of course, in Melbourne when the AB opened Nijinsky on September 7 with one of his Hamburg dancers, Alexandre Riabko, in the title role. This, by the way, was a first for the AB in many decades. During Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign and so far in McAllister’s 15-year tenure opening night honours have been reserved –always – for an AB dancer.

Riabko is back for the Sydney season of Nijinsky – there are four casts – but AB principal Kevin Jackson danced the first performance and had a mighty success. It was touching to see him kneel to Neumeier when the choreographer came on stage to take a bow. McAllister said later that Neumeier, who was in Sydney for just a couple of days, had made a detour on his way from Hamburg to Canada to be at the opening. It’s a long detour, and a measure perhaps of how much this ballet means to him.

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Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

It’s an important ballet for the AB too. Its repertoire of full-length narrative works is otherwise heavily weighted towards a small number of ballets guaranteed to be box-office friendly: last year there were Swan Lake (the Graeme Murphy version, Sydney only), Giselle, Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty; this year featured Swan Lake (the Stephen Baynes version), Coppélia, Romeo & Juliet (resident choreographer Stanton Welch visiting with his Houston Ballet); and next year audiences are offered The Sleeping Beauty again, Nutcracker (the Murphy version) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In those three years only Alice, made in 2011, is truly new.

The AB could, I suppose, try to argue that in 2017 there’s a necessity to stage familiar titles in the second half of the year as it then has to decamp from the Sydney Opera House while the Joan Sutherland Theatre’s stage machinery is upgraded. That would work if the program looked different from any other year, but it doesn’t. (It is true, however, that next year Sydney will see Gabriela Tylesova’s Beauty sets to much greater advantage in the Capitol Theatre than at the Opera House, and that Alice also needs a larger stage than the Joan Sutherland’s.)

Nijinsky could not be more different from those works, with their crystal-clear, linear, familiar storylines told in conventional ballet language. Neumeier stretched the company and, if audience chatter is anything to go by, gave patrons a significant shot in the arm.

We have no film of Nijinsky performing, only the reports of those who saw him. Of the four works he choreographed, only one, L’après-midi d’un faune, was notated. It’s not much to go on but no one argues against Nijinsky’s status as the performing artist who changed the way men danced and what they danced.

Despite being socially awkward offstage, onstage Nijinsky could be anything. He was the strange and shockingly lascivious creature in L’après-midi d’un faune, the tragic puppet Petrouchka, the exotic Golden Slave in Schéhérazade, the soulful Poet in Les Sylphides, the skittish young man in Jeux. As the star dancer in Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes he became one of the hottest properties on the European stage, a sex symbol whose undies were filched as trophies. As a choreographer he made only a handful of works but they landed like hand-grenades.

Nijinsky was always a bit odd, and then much more than that. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919 and left the stage after a career lasting only a decade. His last public performance was for an invited audience and was held in a St Moritz hotel ballroom. According to his wife Romola, after an extended silence Nijinsky told his audience, “Now I will dance you the war … the war which you did not prevent.”

The ballroom, with its curved white balcony and glittering chandeliers (Neumeier also designed), is where the piece poignantly starts. There is some semblance of normalcy as the chattering classes come to see Nijinsky, although it is best to draw a veil over the AB’s handling of this non-dancing scene of mixing, mingling and air-kisses, particularly as seen in Sydney. It was painful. Finally, thankfully, they take their seats and Nijinsky enters. Soon the reality of the room fades and images from Nijinsky’s ballets, his family and his torments mingle freely with the topsy-turvy logic of an imperfectly remembered world.

The fractured evocations of the Ballets Russes days are thrilling as familiar characters dash in and out, just as they might in a dream. Diaghilev appears, carrying the Golden Slave, who then performs a dance of extraordinary sensuality. Here are ballerinas from the Mariinsky in their snowy white tutus, and there the harem girls from Schéhérazade glowing in gorgeous hues. The Faun returns again and again with his enigmatic two-dimensional walk and erotic charge (a working knowledge of Nijinsky’s ballets is exceptionally helpful to getting the most from the evening).

Neumeier balances this heady rush of mashed-up history with more intimate scenes between Vaslav and Romola and, in Act II, with members of his family. Here we also see Petrouchka, clad in a black and white version of his costume – a superb inspiration – as one of war’s victims. The puppet’s pain and that of the world are inextricably tangled.

At the Melbourne premiere, Nijinsky’s torment was darkly internalised by Riabko, who was like a tightly coiled spring. Jackson’s emotions were closer to the surface; his wounded innocence was greatly affecting. While Romola is at best a divisive figure as far as history is concerned, Neumeier treats her sympathetically while not shying away from the rumours of infidelity. With Riabko, Amy Harris gave Romola strength and resilience while in Sydney, Amber Scott’s fragility made visible the shared tragedy of husband and wife.

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Dimity Azoury, Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov (Melbourne) gave a brilliantly etched Bronislava Nijinska, rather more convincingly than Ako Kondo (Sydney). A special mention must go to Brett Simon, a heart-wrenching Petrouchka in Melbourne. In Sydney Andrew Killian made less of an impression. In both casts Adam Bull smouldered darkly as Diaghilev and young corps de ballet member François-Eloi Lavignac was riveting as Vaslav’s afflicted brother Stanislav. Dancing both the Golden Slave and the Faun, soloist Jarryd Madden was breathtakingly sensuous.

Nijinsky’s first half is danced to three movements from Rimsky-Korsakov’s luscious score for Schéhérazade – you could feel the audience almost fainting with delight – alongside Chopin, Schumann and Shostakovich. The second half is given over to Shostakovich’s brooding, troubling Symphony No. 11. Orchestra Victoria (Melbourne) and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (Sydney) did the honours with the AB’s music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm. At the Sydney opening night curtain call she seemed to be fighting back tears as the crowd stood and cheered lustily. Well, it is a rare sight in that house. Too rare.

Nijinsky, Sydney Opera House until November 28.

Parts of this review first appeared in Limelight Magazine.

The Australian Ballet performs John Neumeier’s Nijinsky

Because The Australian Ballet’s Nijinsky opened in Melbourne I didn’t review it for The Australian – my colleague Eamonn Kelly did the honours. I did, however, travel from Sydney to be the opening – how not? – and wrote about it for arts magazine Limelight. You can read that review here. And below are a few more images from this beautiful production – designed by choreographer John Neumeier – which I will see again in Sydney with different casts and without doubt write about again.

The expectation had been that AB principal Kevin Jackson, who featured strongly in all the publicity, would head the opening night cast. In the event Neumeier, artistic director of Hamburg Ballet, gave that honour to a longtime member of his company and a man much experienced in the role, Alexandre Riabko. Jackson danced the role of Vaslav at the second performance.

It’s always fascinating to see a company through new eyes. The really intriguing casting is that of Jake Mangakahia, who dances in the third cast as Vaslav. In fact, he should be just about taking the curtain calls after his debut performance as I write this on Saturday afternoon. Mangakahia is still in the corps de ballet and recently took two years off to undertake missionary work. He rejoined the company this year and has obviously lost none of the promise he had shown before taking his sabbatical. To be given this hugely demanding role in a ballet so close to Neumeier’s heart says much about his talent.

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Cristiano Martino as the Faun in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, right, with Alexandre Riabko, Leanne Stojmenov and Ako Kondo in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Dimity Azoury, Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

 

The Bolshoi in Brisbane

Le Corsaire, May 30; The Bright Stream, June 7. Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

THERE is no more interesting, influential or thoughtful choreographer working in classical ballet than Alexei Ratmansky and Brisbane was fortunate to see two distinctly different examples of his art in its sell-out Bolshoi Ballet season.

And what a pleasure it was to concentrate on the Bolshoi’s qualities as a ballet company rather than the extremely unsavoury politics that appear to have led to the acid attack on artistic director Sergei Filin. The movement was easy and expansive, with no sense of bravura for its own sake – extensions were kept modest and refined even as the quality of attack was robust – and the dancers’ vivid, detailed acting filled the stage and energised the audience. (Mind you, the Lyric Theatre stage at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre is much smaller than the Bolshoi’s – no wonder some of the action in the sensation-packed Le Corsaire looked a bit cramped.)

Le Jardin Anime in Le Corsaire

Le Jardin Anime in Le Corsaire

In 2007, when Ratmansky was artistic director of the Bolshoi, he restaged Le Corsaire with Yuri Burlaka, basing the production on Petipa’s choreography and delving into early sources to provide a window into Imperial-era style and taste in classical dance. In 2003, while still with Royal Danish Ballet, Ratmansky had revived The Bright Steam for the Bolshoi, re-choreographing the comedy to the joyous, neglected score by Shostakovich. The Bolshoi brought both works to London in 2007, where I was lucky enough to see them – Le Corsaire’s Act I Pas d’Esclave was given a mighty jolt by a then very young Ivan Vasiliev; Filin appeared as the Ballet Dancer in The Bright Stream – and both ballets were a good choice for the just-completed Brisbane season for Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series.

There was no Vasiliev this time of course: after leaving the Bolshoi last year he briefly touched down in St Petersburg for the Mikhailovsky and is a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre (one of the in-and-out kind). He will, however, appear in the Bolshoi’s upcoming London season, dancing in The Flames of Paris with his partner Natalia Osipova, soon to join the Royal Ballet. (Neither did Brisbane see Bolshoi premier – principal – David Hallberg, but that was never going to be possible, alas. He was fulfilling his ABT responsibilities at the time.)

For a company of its size the Bolshoi has a small number of principal artists. There are 148 members of the corps de ballet named on the Bolshoi website but only 10 women and eight men in the top rank. Of the women, four came to Brisbane: Maria Alexandrova and Nina Kaptsova, who appeared on both opening nights, Ekaterina Krysanova and Ekaterina Shipulina. Only two principal men made the journey – Mikhail Lobukhin and Ruslan Skvortsov, both wonderful in The Bright Stream. First soloists Denis Medvedev and Denis Savin also stood out amongst the men. Not surprisingly there was no sign of the outspoken principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who has been much in the news giving his views on Filin’s acid attack and on the Bolshoi management. It has just been announced the Bolshoi will not renew Tsiskaridze’s contracts, which expire at the end of June.

The Bolshoi’s taste and gift for the large gesture has no better example than Le Corsaire. It isn’t just bolshoi – big – it is gigantic; an extravaganza that sets new standards for going over the top even before you get to the brief postscript, in which a pirate ship on stormy seas breaks in half. The show weighed in at about 3 1/2 hours, came with a cast list that named nearly 50 dancers before we got to the corps, children and supernumeraries, and offered a version of the ballet that harks back to the days when the Russian court was the last word in luxury. Le Corsaire is a mad amalgam of stun-gun and sugar hit and resistance was futile. The house was packed for eight performances.

Over the years Le Corsaire has been tinkered with greatly so it’s something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a piece, including using the music of enough composers – seven, headed by Adolphe Adam – to start up their own guild. The result is a feast of melody that was delivered in exceptionally fine form by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pavel Sorokin. The QSO sounded even better when accompanying The Bright Stream, but no surprise that Shostakovich should trump a stitched-together committee when it comes to a score.

The Le Corsaire plot need not detain us long (the synopsis takes nearly 2000 words to explain it) but involves pirates, slaves, kidnapped maidens who couldn’t be more cheerful or compliant, a harem, disguises and that shipwreck. It’s a highly perfumed fantasy that’s happy to deliver outrageous caricatures of Middle Eastern appearance and manners alongside a glittering stream of set-piece dances whose only aim is to delight with virtuosity or vivacity. It’s tutu heaven, essentially, with women plucking an opulent new ensemble out of thin air at a moment’s notice. The tutus, designed by Yelena Zaytseva, using Yevgeny Ponomaryov’s 1899 sketches, were gorgeously detailed and delightfully wide and floaty, with light layers of fabric over a smaller, more rigid base that acted as a support.

The logic, if such a word can be used with Le Corsaire, is that of the dream world and of Imperial-era classical ballet. The spectacle is the thing, and nowhere more mesmerisingly than in the lengthy Act II scene known as Le Jardin Anime. A strictly organised garden is a metaphor for the hierarchies of ballet, cascading down from heroine Medora (I saw Alexandrova) and seconda donna Gulnare (Nina Kaptsova) to the women of the generously stocked seraglio. Men are reduced to holding floral hoops in the background while the women – magisterial prima ballerina, lively solo ballerina, demi-soloists and the corps – present themselves to advantage and support one another in the sisterhood with some gentle partnering.

The whole ballet could, in fact, be seen as a bouquet to the art of the ballerina – the men’s big dance moments are fleeting. Denis Medvedev gave a bouncy account of the Pas d’Esclave and would perhaps have given a better account of the famous Corsaire solo than did Vladislav Lantratov, who played Medora’s pirate lover Conrad. In this production Conrad, the male lead, gets the showy solo rather than it being the province of the slave, as is frequently seen. Lantratov had a fairly ordinary night at the Brisbane opening, failing to deliver the thunderous impact one hoped for.

Alexandrova’s warm stage presence, big jump and her beautiful arms were entrancing, although she didn’t quite scale the heights of grandeur called for in Le Jardin Anime. Kaptsova’s quick precision and spark lit up the stage and the Odalisques pas de trois was illuminated by Maria Vinogradova’s quiet radiance and exquisite line.

Not all the dancing hit the dramatic heights one might have anticipated from this storied company, but it was a hell of a show.

The Bright Stream

The Bright Stream

The Bright Stream is a light-hearted romance set on a collective farm at harvest time and comes with a dark history. The ballet was initially applauded but Soviet authorities soon came down hard on the collaborators. The librettist was sent to the gulag, the director of the Bolshoi at the time was demoted and Shostakovich wrote nothing more for the ballet. The ballet’s front cloth indirectly alludes to this, bearing, in Russian, quotes from Stalin and Pravda’s denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, “Muddle instead of music”. Near the end of the ballet a man with a scythe appears – not a farm hand, but the Grim Reaper. He doesn’t prevail here, however. In this happy tale he is dismissed.

In restaging The Bright Stream with his own choreography, Ratmansky paid homage to those persecuted artists and, I think, to the ordinary folk of Stalinist Russia who lived their lives at that time as we all do: doing our best with the hand we’re dealt, working, loving and laughing when we can. He also refocused attention on a neglected ballet score of extraordinary richness and appeal. Bright brass tones constantly add unusual weight and colour, lush strings herald romance (or the appearance of it) and folk and jazz rhythms add spice to the ever-danceable melodies and Ratmansky is ever alert to the possibilities for illumination of character or comedy.

There are shades of the shenanigans of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the role-swapping in The Marriage of Figaro to add to the magical texture. This is a place where many strange things will happen before the resolution.

Intrigues, flirtations, complications, impersonations and disguises rule the day when a ballet troupe from the city comes to perform at an obscure farm’s harvest festival. Through dance full of light and overflowing with joy, everything will be sorted out for Pyotr, a local agricultural student with a roving eye, and his loving wife Zina. The visiting Ballerina and her Ballet Dancer partner (they have no names other than that) may be the catalysts for mayhem but they also find its solution, which features the cross-dressing male dancer on pointe as a fetching sylph. A bicycle-riding dog adds to the merriment.

The Bright Stream was stocked with superb dancing that turned on a pin’s head from comedy to rapturous classicism. Even better was the beautifully judged acting from everyone on stage, in big roles and small. Leading the pack at the first performance were Alexandrova’s Ballerina and Kaptsova as a delectably airy Zina, remembering her earlier days in ballet by whizzing though a few sets of fouettes. The first don’t quite come off:  Zina feels at a disadvantage, the country bumpkin compared with the glamorous big-city dancer who is incidentally an old friend. Later, when she knows her would-be love-rat of a husband (manly, slightly goofy Mikhail Lobukhin) won’t succeed in his wooing of the Ballerina, Zina can reel the turns off with great elan.

The plot required Alexandrova to dress as a man, in which guise she was high-flying and zesty; when dressed in the long tulle skirt of the Ballerina, Ruslan Skvortsov was modest and appealing, his evocations of ballerina roles and demeanour having a sweet air of homage rather than send-up.

The Bright Stream had only four performances, and undoubtedly more could have been filled had the ballet been more of a known quantity before the event. Producers Leo Schofield and Ian McRae can’t afford to get things wrong with a venture of this magnitude, however. Better to leave ‘em wanting more.

And there will be more. After QPAC’s presentations of Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Hamburg Ballet and the Bolshoi comes … Well, the announcement is likely to be made next month. Bravi Schofield and McRae.

Versions of the Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream reviews appeared in The Australian on June 3 and June 10.