Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

State Theatre, Melbourne, June 30

Stanton Welch looked thrilled after the premiere of his Romeo and Juliet in Melbourne, as he should have. The former Australian Ballet dancer and current AB resident choreographer had brought his own company, Houston Ballet, home. In the audience – along with supporters from Houston – was a galaxy of AB principal artists former and present. I saw Amber Scott, Ty King-Wall, Madeleine Eastoe, Rachel Rawlins, Olivia Bell (she is on the AB board) and, of course Stanton’s brother Damien and his wife Kirsty Martin. Ballet royalty Marilyn Jones, the Welch brothers’ mother, was there too. It was quite a night. (Also watching: American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist David Hallberg, who has been kept offstage for some time due to injury. His Kenneth MacMillan Romeo with Natalia Osipova as his Juliet, seen in New York with ABT in 2012, remains one of my greatest of great nights in the theatre.)

Perhaps it’s not surprising to see in Houston Ballet qualities similar to those of The Australian Ballet. This is in Welch’s blood. I suspect, too, that his Texan audience delights in the way the company dances spaciously, with natural ease and lack of pretension. These are exceptionally attractive traits. There’s no shortage of technical dash but character, presence and skin-bursting vitality are to the fore. Welch honours the traditional classical language but loosens it too so it doesn’t look or feel stagey. Well, mostly. The Friar Lawrence scenes were welcome for giving local audiences a chance to see former AB member Steven Woodgate again but looked rather old-fashioned.

HB2016_R&J_Karina González_1660_Photo Jeff Busby

Karina Gonzalez as Juliet in Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Jeff Busby

The swift, headlong drama of Shakespeare’s play is given full value in Welch’s production and was buoyed on opening night by a full-blooded performance of the Prokofiev score by Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Houston Ballet’s music director Ermanno Florio. Welch is a choreographer for whom more is more and in Romeo and Juliet he uses that tendency to strong dramatic effect. The city of Verona is a robust, busy, lively society with strong, individual women and men always ready for a lark or a fight. The big picture was terrific and given handsome visual appeal by Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s Renaissance-flavoured sets and costumes.

Most productions of Romeo and Juliet shorten the list of dramatis personae for the sake of clarity. It’s easier for the audience to grasp who is who. Welch dives right in at the deep end. Shakespeare wrote about “two households, both alike in dignity” – the Montagues and the Capulets. Welch makes more prominent the third house in the drama, that of the ruler Prince Escalus, which includes Romeo’s wild friend Mercutio and Juliet’s intended husband Count Paris. Welch gives Mercutio’s brother Valentine a part and enjoyably includes another of Romeo’s friends, Balthasar. Friar John, bearing the letter to the banished Romeo that goes astray, is also seen in an effective vignette. It takes a little while to sort out who is who but adds greatly to the texture of the story and the stage picture.

Welch took out a bit of insurance for Thursday’s opening by fielding all his principal artists bar one (Yuriko Kajiya is Rosaline at some performances). Sara Webb, for instance, took the relatively small role of Romeo’s former love Rosaline and also dances Juliet in this season, as does Melody Mennite, who on opening night was a tavern owner’s daughter. Ian Casady, who is Mennite’s Romeo, was Count Paris on opening night. The lusty, magnetic first-cast Mercutio, former American Ballet Theatre soloist Jared Matthews, also dances Romeo (partnering Webb). Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, who was promoted to principal only three weeks ago after debuting as Albrecht (he is still listed as a first soloist in the program; that’s how new his promotion is), took the minor role of Gregory, member of the house of Capulet.

That said, Welch’s production demands that everyone, from top to bottom, be individual and engaged. The company looked splendid.

First-cast leads Katrina González and Connor Walsh were a fresh, glowing pair of lovers most credibly besotted with each other. The balcony pas de deux was rapturous, studded with exciting lifts and catches that Walsh made look instinctive. And why not, with a Juliet as entrancing as González? Her smile almost made Lisa J. Pinkham’s excellent lighting redundant and she has eyes eloquent and beautiful enough to make angels weep.

Welch’s desire to keep the action flowing and swelling sometimes leads to an over-reliance on certain surefire steps – the men certainly do many double tours (and do them well) – but the fire and passion make it a very seductive evening.

Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet ends in Melbourne July 9.

Flying high

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, June 26.

TREY McIntyre is a prolific American choreographer who has made more than 100 works – he is only 45 – and is widely known and admired in the US. When he announced last year he was closing his Trey McIntyre Project as a fulltime ensemble to concentrate on a broader range of cultural projects it was big news in the dance world. The company, wrote Marina Harss in The New York Times a year ago, had become “something almost unheard-of in the often beleaguered cultural landscape: a small, independent dance troupe that was a familiar name both at home in Boise, Idaho, and nationwide”. It was a “darling of festivals” and an “uncommon success”.

It’s unusual that success drives someone to pull back from the very thing that made them a success, but McIntyre wants to spend more time on film, photography and writing. That said, there are companies still wishing to stage his works and that circumstance brought him to Brisbane to oversee final rehearsals for Peter Pan, the 2002 work that was his first full-length ballet. It was certainly a belated introduction to Australia but a welcome one. Peter Pan was a big success on its premiere at Houston Ballet, other companies have taken it into their repertoire and Houston revived it in 2013.

Peter Pan leads the Darling children to Neverland. Photo: David Kelly

Peter Pan leads the Darling children to Neverland. Photo: David Kelly

Houston Ballet of course is what connects QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and McIntyre. Li was a principal dancer there when McIntyre started choreographing as a 20-year-old during his first year with the company. In a program note McIntyre says Li and another Houston principal Mary McKendry – now Mary Li and a ballet mistress at QB – were “incredibly supportive and protective of me”. (Li doesn’t forget his old friends. Queensland Ballet’s Nutcracker and Cinderella are from the hand of Ben Stevenson, who was Li’s artistic director and father figure in Houston.)

It’s no surprise that the current season was almost completely sold out before it opened because that’s been the happy state of affairs at QB since Li took over the artistic directorship three years ago. Ticket buyers may have known nothing about this ballet apart from its name but they were prepared to take it on trust. They were right to. It’s a child-friendly work for the school holidays that has enough sophistication for an adult audience without losing the essential element of wonder.

At the time of making Peter Pan McIntyre was in his early 30s but still, as he writes in his program note, “basically just a kid”. That sense of himself as both boy and adult is absolutely crucial to Peter Pan, a story steeped in dualities. Sunlight and shadow, romance and adventure, fantasy and reality, spectacle and intimacy all have their place. The boy who would not grow up is also the Lost Boy who can’t grow up, bitter-sweet knowledge that anchors the sometimes unruly narrative and makes the final encounter between Peter and Wendy exceptionally affecting. He is in the air, poised to return to Neverland, and she is back in her rightful home, unable to fly and needing to stay. They must part. On opening night a technical glitch interrupted this touching scene (there had also been a spot of bother earlier) and the curtain had to be lowered for several minutes, but the emotional weight of the scene was present. I was sorry not to see the full radiance of Peter’s flying.

The story’s broader strokes would be easily comprehended by young viewers. Tinkerbell and a surprisingly sexy band of fairies flutter around the Darling children, who then fly off with wild-haired Peter into an exciting world where lissome mermaids frolic, pirates attack enthusiastically, dastardly Captain Hook masterminds the mayhem and a large croc makes several show-stealing appearances. McIntyre’s movement flows with happy ease between classically based choreography and energetic group shenanigans and his “just a kid” imagination lights up every scene.

And how astute to use music by Edward Elgar – an exact contemporary of Peter Pan’s creator J.M. Barrie – for the ballet’s score. Expressive, melodic selections from the British composer’s oeuvre provide abundant colour for dance and action along with a finely calibrated atmosphere of becoming modesty. The Queensland Symphony under Andrew Mogrelia sounded wonderful.

The vivid children’s-book designs by Thomas Boyd (sets), Jeanne Button (costumes) and Christina R. Giannelli (lighting) are a treat but ultimately McIntyre’s shiny-eyed affection for all his characters is the key to the production’s success. That’s not to say it’s perfect. McIntyre’s overall telling of the narrative is strong and clear but his story-ballet inexperience at the time of creation is evident in occasionally confusing or obscure detail, particularly in the framing scenes at the Darling home. There is also action involving Hook’s son James that requires a dip into the program for clarification, although at every moment this is a wonderful role.

McIntyre, however, is far from being alone in falling short in the area of drum-tight dramatic structure. Many, many seasoned makers of story ballets have made greater errors. (As to why this should be – well, that’s a long discussion to do with choreographers frequently acting as maker of steps, writer or co-writer of libretto, director and dramaturge all in one.)

QB is taking on a strikingly international look in the higher ranks and the opening performance gave audiences the chance to see the company’s newest principal artist, Laura Hidalgo, as a luscious Tinkerbell and recent Cuban recruits Camilo Ramos (soloist) and Yanela Piñera (principal) as Peter and Wendy. But there are entertaining parts for everyone in this sweet, effervescent ballet and among those who made a fine impression were young artist Liam Geck as timid, put-upon James Hook who finally finds his rightful place; company dancer Lina Kim as the littlest Darling, Michael; and company dancer Vito Bernasconi as a robustly commanding Hook.

Ends July 11. Limited availability.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 29.

‘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.”

‘This is for the little brown girls’

ON March 26 this year American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland told website blacknews.com that “I would love to be Odette-Odile in Swan Lake one day. I think that would be the ultimate role.”

Copeland will get her wish when ABT visits Brisbane in late August and early September. At a date yet to be announced Copeland will make her debut in the role – perhaps the most coveted in the repertoire – marking a signal event for ABT. She will be the first African American Odette in its history, although not in American ballet history. Lauren Anderson, who retired from Houston Ballet in 2006, danced the role of Odette and her doppelgänger Odile in 1996.

“It’s always exciting to see a dancer make their debut in a great role and it will be particularly exciting to have Misty doing this in Brisbane,” said Ian McRae, co-producer of ABT’s visit with Leo Schofield and Queensland Performing Arts Centre.

Copeland’s roles include Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird, Gamzatti in La Bayadere, Swanilda in Coppelia and Lescaut’s Mistress in Manon.

Copeland, 31, joined ABT in 2001 and was made a soloist in 2007, the first black dancer to reach that rank in 20 years (ABT has only three ranks, principal, soloist and corps de ballet). She has written she would like to be the company’s first African American principal artist. The company is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

The scarcity of black classical dancers in the US has led to Copeland becoming a highly visible and plain-speaking spokeswoman for diversity. In March this year she published her autobiography Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Simon & Schuster), in which she writes of her struggle to be accepted in a field described in late 2012 by The Huffington Post in this manner: ”White skin is not just the norm but the uniform.”

The Huffington Post also went on to write – erroneously – that there had not yet been a black Odette-Odile (perhaps understandable given the lack) but the following comments could well be relevant to Copeland’s upcoming debut: “… there are accomplished black dancers with definitive box office appeal. If even one major ballet company were to entrust a black dancer with such a career-changing turn, surely it could inspire the next generation in a dramatic way, as effectively, perhaps, as increased regional youth classes. That such a casting evolution would be welcomed is no excuse for it not having transpired as yet.”

In October 2012 Trinidad-born Celine Gittins danced the lead in Swan Lake for Birmingham Royal Ballet and was described as the first black dancer in the UK to perform the role. Tyrone Singleton, also of mixed race, was her Prince Siegfried. Their performances highlighted a conversation that has been growing in both the UK and the US about the lack of racial diversity in classical dance. Stars at the level of Cuban-born Royal Ballet principal guest artist Carlos Acosta – who appears next week with Queensland Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet – are rare.

In her autobiography Copeland unflinchingly recalls the unsettled childhood that made her early training difficult and recounts the entrenched thinking in ballet that counted against her. She writes of her early mentor, Cindy Bradley: “She was different from most people in the ballet world, who felt Giselle and Odette were best performed by dovelike sprites, lissome and ivory-skinned. Cindy believed that ballet was richer when it embraced diverse shapes and colors. There would be times in my career when I would struggle to remember that …”

The burden of expectation on her has been great, as she makes clear in the opening pages of her book. Copeland describes opening in New York in the title role of Firebird:

 … the first black woman to star in Igor Stravinsky’s iconic role for American Ballet Theatre, one of the most prestigious dance companies in the world.

As the Firebird.

This is for the little brown girls.

ABT will visit Queensland Performing Arts Centre as part of QPAC’s International Series, which last year brought the Bolshoi Ballet to Brisbane. ABT, which is making its first Australian appearances this year, is also part of this year’s Brisbane Festival.

ABT will give nine performances of Swan Lake from August 28 to September 4 and four performances of the triple bill Three Masterpieces (works by Tharp, Ratmansky and Robbins) from September 5-7.

La Sylphide

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, November 7

WHAT to do about a ballet as dreamily brief as La Sylphide? In the middle of this year West Australian Ballet took the minimalist approach and added nothing to fill out the evening. Over the years the Australian Ballet has taken several paths.

In 1996, under Maina Gielgud’s directorship (and in her final year at the AB), I saw Bournonville’s La Sylphide (1836) in Brisbane in July paired with the premiere of Stanton’s Welch’s Red Earth. Later in the year, in Sydney, La Sylphide shared the bill with Jiri Kylian’s Stepping Stones (1991). Both were a “something old, something new” combination that may appear to be, as Gielgud wrote about the Kylian program, ‘’as extreme a contrast as you can get”. In fact a case can be made for a connection, not only between La Sylphide and Stepping Stones, but also Stepping Stones and Red Earth, and therefore La Sylphide, if that’s not too circuitous.

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kylian, who came to Australia to oversee the final rehearsals of the first AB season of Stepping Stones, wrote in a program note of attending a 1980 gathering of Aborigines in northern Australia and being “deeply impressed by the central role which dance seemed to play in their lives”. He asked an old man why this was so, and received this response: “Because my father taught me and because I must hand my dance on to my son.” Culture equals history.

Kylian then wrote: “There is a line in my work which has – since then – been reflecting on this view of existence.” He was interested in “the traces old civilisations have left, traditions which show the way from out of a living past”. Welch’s Red Earth was concerned with the struggles white settlers had in trying to impose themselves on the ancient soil of Australia, and was danced to Peter Sculthorpe’s Nourlangie. (I think I’m right in saying Red Earth hasn’t been revived by the AB, although Welch staged it for Houston Ballet, where he is artistic director, in 2007.) As Sculthorpe wrote in a program note, the music’s name comes from a sacred rock in Kakadu and while the piece is not intended to be descriptive, “its concern is with my feelings about this powerful and serene place”.

It can be profitable to think of La Sylphide in the light of such reflections as more than just a silly fairy story, gossamer-light though it may appear. While its history is the swiftest blink of an eye compared with that of Aboriginal dance, La Sylphide comes, nevertheless, from the earliest days of what we recognise as ballet performance. Furthermore, ballet shares the old Aboriginal man’s tradition of – and reverence for – transmitting stories and history from person to person and body to body.

As for spiritual significance, the two traditions are divided by a gulf as wide and as old as the Australian continent. Yet in La Sylphide, as in Swan Lake and Giselle, there is a deep yearning for something beyond the tangible; a transcendence of quotidian relationships and responsibilities. In those three ballets, however, the spirit world represents the elusive and unattainable rather than Sculthorpe’s serenity.

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

My cast list from the November 30, 1996, matinee performance of Stepping Stones, by the way, shows it was danced by Vicki Attard, Miranda Coney, Lynette Wills, Rachael Read, Geon van der Wyst, Damien Welch, Li Cunxin and Adam Marchant. Lucinda Dunn was the Sylph on that occasion. I saw three other performances in that Sydney season, and other casts of Stepping Stones included Lisa Bolte, Kirsty Martin, Robert Curran and David McAllister. What riches.

In 2005, under McAllister’s directorship, the AB went for stylistic unity, prefacing La Sylphide with two short Bournonville pieces – an excerpt from Le Conservatoire and the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano – and Walter Bourke’s fizzy, taxing1974 Grand Tarantella. The Grand Tarantella casts included current principals Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello (then coryphée and corp de ballet member respectively); and Lana Jones (then a coryphée) with Remi Wortmeyer, now a principal with Dutch National Ballet. Good to see McAllister’s eye was nicely in.

Which is all a long way of getting to the current AB La Sylphide, in which the Romantic ballet is preceded by the wedding celebration from Petipa’s version of Paquita (1881), based on Joseph Mazilier’s 1846 original, in which Petipa himself once danced. Early Romantic ballet had given way to the grand classical style dominated by Petipa, but the bloodline is there.

Of these five approaches – one from WAB, four from the AB – my heart and my head are with the Stepping Stones solution. The connection was one of imagination rather than style, which is more interesting, I think – and I must also be honest and say Stepping Stones is an enduring favourite of mine.

Furthermore, on opening night last Thursday the AB didn’t really make a big case for the huge chunk of dance ripped from context that is Paquita. Given its essential meaninglessness, Paquita can work only as spectacle and illumination of the classical form with its array of principals, soloists, demi-soloists and corps.

Lana Jones was divine as leader of the pack, I’ll say that much. She presented a glowing image of the all-conquering ballerina, glamorous yet highly aware of her role as benefactress as she graciously inclined her head this way and that to acknowledge our presence. Her role was to be adored; ours was to adore. That was also the task of her cavalier, Kevin Jackson, who had his successes and shortcomings in the proceedings. Uncompromising purity of line and pinpoint accuracy were not always his to command, although his self-effacing demeanour and seamless partnering were attractive.

There was too much untidiness in the ranks for comfort and while the four solos were all attractively danced, only Ako Kondo in the third raised the spirits to the required level. Along with Jones she radiated the qualities of grandeur, composure, elegance, ease and sophistication that are the non-negotiable requirements if Paquita is to have any reason for being.

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

While Hugh Colman’s tutus are beyond delicious, Paquita otherwise has an unappealingly basic look. There are two chandeliers, which are fine; a backdrop of little points of light in a dark cloth, which is OK; and nothing else other than black tabs at the side of the stage. Talk about dreary.

To end on a happy note, La Sylphide is exquisitely staged and on opening night conductor Paul Murphy, a guest from Birmingham Royal Ballet, shaped the Lovenskjold score superbly, particularly in the overture. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra did honour (mostly) to this uncomplicated but charming and effective music.

Gielgud used to say the AB “always had an instinctive understanding” of La Sylphide and under McAllister – who was invited to join the AB by Gielgud and whose career was shaped by her – that understanding continues. The airy delicacy of the upper body, crisp batterie, the upward trajectory in leaps, precision of mime, the softest of landings – all were present and correct.

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

With her slightly otherworldly air, Madeleine Eastoe is a natural for the Sylph. Daniel Gaudiello – and how wonderful it is to see him getting more opening nights – has matured greatly as an actor and on opening night gave James a credibly dark hue. Andrew Wright (Gurn) soared in his solo and also created a well-shaded character.

It was a joy to see Colin Peasley back on stage. A founding AB member, he retired formally last year during the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations – such a nice round number, he said of his half-century – but of course we hadn’t seen the last of him, nor should we.

Peasley is a quintessential creature of the stage. His Madge is better than ever, perhaps more nuanced than in the past and delivered with the wisdom of ages.

La Sylphide ends at the Sydney Opera House on November 25.

The Australian Ballet launches a new look

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season introduces a few surprises

IT used to be chiselled in stone. Every mainstage season of the Australian Ballet in Melbourne would have 11 or 12 performances and in Sydney, in the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre, there would be 20 or thereabouts.  It didn’t matter if it was Swan Lake or a harder-to-sell triple bill; the number of performances was pretty much the same. The AB would add a few extra shows for extremely popular repertoire, as it is doing for next year’s Nutcracker (the Peter Wright version), but there was no adjustment down for the mixed programs that are rarely as well attended as full-length ballets. Each season was also strictly dedicated to the one program.

AB dancer Benedicte Bernet in a promotional shot for the 2014 season. Photo: Paul Scala

AB dancer Benedicte Bernet in a promotional shot for the 2014 season. Photo: Paul Scala

For 2014 the AB has made several changes that look eminently sensible: win-win-win for audiences, dancers and the company’s bottom line. There is a reduction in the number of Sydney and Melbourne performances of the two mixed bills, Imperial Suite and Chroma, with Sydney seeing a big change – in the slot where you’d usually see one mixed bill, Sydney will divide the time more or less equally between two. The change in Melbourne is far less marked in this respect; it gets a reduction from the norm of only a couple of performances. The cities will each get exactly the same number of performances for Imperial Suite (nine) and Chroma (10), which suggests Melbourne is a rather stronger market for mixed bills than Sydney given the significant difference in theatre capacity between Melbourne’s State Theatre and the Joan Sutherland. Or perhaps that’s just how the juggling act had to work.

In Melbourne Chroma will precede Imperial Suite but in Sydney the programs will be presented in repertory – a major change. On Saturday May 17 it would be possible to see both by attending the matinee and evening performances.

Melbourne does have one little overlap. For the first time the new choreographers’ workshop, Bodytorque – in its 10th year – will be staged in Melbourne and one of the three performances (June 24) will be in the midst of the Imperial Suite season (June 20-28). This is good news for Melbourne dance-lovers who have been asking for Bodytorque, but it will be challenging for the choreographers. Instead of the Sydney Theatre’s friendly proportions for smaller-scale work they will have to come to grips with the huge State Theatre stage and auditorium.

Ako Kondo in a promotional shot for the AB's Bodytorque.DNA. Photo Paul Scala

Ako Kondo in a promotional shot for the AB’s Bodytorque.DNA. Photo Paul Scala

In her introduction to the season, the AB’s new executive director, Libby Christie, wrote that the changes would allow a more diverse selection of works, create flexibility for audiences and give dancers more opportunities to perform. In broad terms it means Sydney now has room for an extra mainstage program, although it loses Bodytorque. And it gives the AB the chance to get bigger houses for the contemporary work. Well, that’s obviously the idea, and good luck to it.

Work from both the AB’s resident choreographers will be seen in Melbourne and Sydney next year. Stephen Baynes will be part of the Chroma program (headlined, obviously, by Wayne McGregor’s Chroma from 2006 and including Jiri Kylian’s Petit Mort and Sechs Tanze). The AB has also programmed Stanton Welch’s 2010 production of La Bayadere, made for Houston Ballet where he is artistic director. The often omitted temple-tumbling fourth act is included and there is the promise of live snakes. If this photograph is any guide, the production will live up to its tag of being opulently Oriental in design – Peter Farmer is the man responsible.

Robyn Hendricks and Ty King-Wall give a taste of Stanton Welch's La Bayadere. Photo: Paul Scala

Robyn Hendricks and Ty King-Wall give a taste of Stanton Welch’s La Bayadere. Photo: Paul Scala

In addition, Brisbane is rapidly becoming ballet central: next year the AB gives it two programs, Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon (February 21-March 1) and Imperial Suite (February 26-27), a strong addition to the visit from American Ballet Theatre in August-September (Swan Lake; a mixed bill of Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins and Alexei Ratmansky) and Queensland Ballet’s presentation of MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, featuring international guest artists Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo. It is worth noting that this year extra performances have been added to all QB’s seasons in artistic director Li Cunxin’s first full year, despite sell-out performances for the visiting Bolshoi.

Adelaide is also visited in 2014, and will see Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, which premieres in Melbourne later this month and is seen in Sydney from November 29.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 program in brief:

Manon (MacMillan), Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney

Imperial Suite (Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, Lifar’s Suite en blanc), Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney

Chroma (McGregor, Kylian, Baynes), Sydney and Melbourne

La Bayadere (Welch), Melbourne and Sydney

The Nutcracker (Wright), Melbourne and Sydney

Cinderella (Ratmansky), Adelaide

Bodytorque.DNA, Melbourne