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.

To each her own

Sydney Opera House, April 2, 4 and 7

TWO and bit years ago, when Paris Opera Ballet came to Sydney with its production of Giselle, I was able to see three excitingly different readings of the title role, two of them from debutantes. We seem to get our fair share of important firsts in Australia. Apart from POB’s Ludmila Pagliero and Myriam Ould-Braham in Giselle, many years ago Sydney saw Alina Cojocaru’s first Odette-Odile (for the Royal Ballet) and Brisbane was graced with the historic debut of Misty Copeland as the Swan Queen when American Ballet Theatre visited last year. (Copeland has just made her US debut as Odette-Odile with Washington Ballet and in June finally makes her first O/O appearances in New York. It’s big news.

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet’s Sydney season of Giselle gave me the opportunity of seeing another notable title-role debut, that of Juliet Burnett at the first Saturday matinee. The opening night Giselle was, not surprisingly, principal artist Madeleine Eastoe, who makes this role her last with the company when she retires mid-year. There’s some symmetry here, as it was after her 2006 performance in Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle that Eastoe was elevated to the highest rank at The Australian Ballet. Adelaide has the privilege of the farewell performance on July 6 and I will be there to close a circle for myself – Eastoe joined the AB in 1997 and I have watched her entire career. And on April 7 I saw the Sydney debut of Ako Kondo, whose first performances as Giselle were in the Melbourne season last month. After Kondo’s third Sydney performance, on April 14, the senior artist was promoted to principal, an event that has been expected for some time.

Eastoe’s Giselle was a gentle, open-hearted girl with the bloom and fragrance of an easily bruised rose. Every thought and feeling was exposed without barrier or reservation, her inner world made visible as if her skin were transparent. Eastoe’s lighter than light dancing and aura of fragility in the first act prefigured her absorption into the spirit world of the second act.

Burnett made a memorable debut at the April 4 matinee. Here was an enchantingly radiant lass whose joy and excitement were vibrantly captured in sparkling eyes and a glowing face. Burnett’s Giselle was a little bit flirty with Albrecht and sweetly starstruck by Princess Bathilde. When she stroked the fabric of Bathilde’s lavish gown she was enjoying its beauty rather than being overawed by such splendour. And I loved the way Burnett scrunched up the side of her simple yellow skirt when walking beside Bathilde so it wouldn’t touch the Princess’s costly attire. She made these details and many others fresh and individual.

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

Depite warnings from her frail heart and her foreboding mother, Burnett’s Giselle was alert and full of life. In the weightless curve of her arms and poised balances that reached upwards Burnett was not so much a spirit in waiting but a young woman buoyed by love. Then, when she learned of Albrecht’s perfidy, the light was switched off. White-faced and stricken, Burnett’s Giselle was crushed beyond endurance. The mad scene was frantic and incredibly moving. Burnett’s second act was beautifully composed and she looked wonderful in the soft, forward-leaning stretches and airborne beaten steps that show Giselle scarcely tethered to the ground.

Kondo was a skittish Giselle, at first glancing back to the cottage often as if to see whether her mother might suddenly appear, or perhaps thinking she should go back inside. But along with the skittishness there was more than a hint of sensuality, amplified by her expansive dancing. In the second act Kondo had something of an avenging angel quality as she protected Albrecht from the icy commands of Robyn Hendricks’s Myrtha in a thrilling battle of wills.

Ako Kondo, The Australian Ballet's newest principal. Photo: James Braund

Ako Kondo, The Australian Ballet’s newest principal. Photo: James Braund

I would have liked to see Kondo with an Albrecht who provided greater contrasts. Her pairing with the exciting Chengwu Guo is a public-relations dream as they are partners offstage, but the plush physicality of his dancing was, for me, too similar to hers for this ballet. Albrecht and Giselle are not from the same world. On Eastoe’s opening night, when they were cast in the Peasant Pas, they looked just perfect together. Guo also partners the very different Natasha Kusch as Giselle this season; I’m sorry I won’t be able to see them.

Eastoe was given a Rolls-Royce ride with the deeply felt, superbly danced Albrecht of Kevin Jackson. His intentions and reactions were natural, meaningful and expressed clearly through gesture and movement. The snap and height of his Act II entrechats had the audience gasping (Nicolette Fraillon, conducting the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, had to really slow things down in the pit) but more telling was the weight of sorrow he conveyed as he entered to mourn Giselle. This level of connection with character is as yet unavailable to the much less experienced Jared Wright, who partnered Burnett. His lines are noble, his looks princely, and at this point he is a leading man in development.