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