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.

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.