About last week … March 26-April 1

A CLASH of ballet opening nights saw Queensland Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake go head to head – well, from my perspective. They were in different cities at the time. For reasons both artistic and logistical, I went to the first performance of Dream in Brisbane on April 1 and the second Swan Lake performance at the April 2 matinee. I reviewed both for The Australian and both will be up separately on the blog in the next few days.

The artistic reason for putting Dream first? It was the premiere in Australia of a Liam Scarlett work – a notable event in the ballet business – whereas Swan Lake, a traditional version choreographed by Stephen Baynes, is a revival. (I’ll have more to say about Swan Lake later after I get a few more performances under my belt.)

Queensland Ballets Midsummer Nights Dream -  Laura Hidalgo and Victor Estevez. Photo David Kelly HR

Victor Estevez, Laura Hidalgo and members of Queensland Ballet in Liam Scarlett’s new A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The Scarlett is a co-production between QB and Royal New Zealand Ballet, which premiered the work last year. I saw it in Auckland and loved its sensuousness. (Tracy Grant Lord’s designs are a wonderful part of the equation.) Scarlett came through the Royal Ballet School and danced with the Royal Ballet until his choreographic career really started taking off (he was identified and encouraged while still at the school). The post of artist in residence was created at the Royal for him although it doesn’t tie him exclusively to the company. (If you’re interested I wrote about him at length here.)

He’s acutely aware of his dance heritage, and that of course includes a thorough knowledge of Frederick Ashton, founder choreographer of the Royal. I’ve seen earlier Scarlett works – the narrative Sweet Violets with the RB in London and the abstract Acheron performed by New York City Ballet – and wasn’t entirely bowled over by either. With Dream, however, you can see the Ashtonian influence and also that Scarlett isn’t merely copying but has his own voice. The intricate, detailed upper-body work and sharp, fast footwork is incredibly complicated yet looks unrushed, harmonious and gorgeously musical. In Dream Scarlett keeps most of the dancing quite close to the ground, which allows the dancers the trick of appearing feather-light but also more natural and characterful.

QB is a company of about the same size as RNZB and has plenty of zesty dancers, some of whom are quite new. QB artistic director Li Cunxin has hired three dancers from National Ballet of Cuba – principals Yanela Piñera and Victor Estévez and soloist Camilo Ramos – and principal Laura Hidalgo, an Argentinian-born dancer who was lately with National Ballet of Flanders. All danced at the Dream opening performance. (At only 22 Estévez is young to be a principal artist but he has handsome stage presence.)

Interestingly, after the performance I was asked not once or twice but three times who I thought had danced Dream better: QB or RNZB. It’s a tough one. Both companies clearly relished the style, humour and emotion and transmitted it joyously. But QB had only a few days with Scarlett, who made it on the RNZB dancers over some weeks. And, I will note, I saw the RNZB performance a few shows in, after the short Wellington season had been completed. The connection was deep. An example is Tonia Looker’s rapturous Titania in the big Act II pas de deux – I can still see the luscious abandon of her curved back. Hidalgo is a poetic dancer who I am keen to see in more key roles but she wasn’t quite as inside the role as Looker.

I’m talking cigarette papers here, as in minute differences, but that’s how it goes in ballet. I wonder too if there’s something about the feel of a ranked company (QB) versus an unranked (RNZB). We’re talking something quite elusive here and possibly there’s not a lot in it. But the idea did pop into my head. I might come back to this later.

Fiddler-on-the-Roof-Aust-Production-03-PIC-CREDIT-JEFF-BUSBY

Tevye (Anthony Warlow) and daughters in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Jeff Busby

Earlier in the week (March 29) Fiddler on the Roof arrived in Sydney after its Melbourne opening season. Director Roger Hodgman plays a very straight bat with it but it’s a production that works where it matters. Which starts, not surprisingly, with Tevye, the impoverished milkman living in early 20th century Russia with three daughters who are starting to think for themselves. Anthony Warlow inhabits this funny, dogmatic, sometimes infuriating man with salt-of-the-earth ease. Whether Tevye is having one of his many man-to-man chats with God or roaring at his daughters, there’s a great, enveloping feeling of warmth. This is a Tevye you can admire even when you don’t agree with him and love for his steadfast commitment to beliefs and family. Warlow’s burnished baritone is still a glorious instrument (now in his mid-50s, Warlow is in the sweet spot for the role in terms of age) and it adds incomparable lustre to songs we know so well but rarely experience sung with such glow. To hear If I Were a Rich Man as if new is a true gift. And is there a musical that begins with a more thrilling, information-rich number than Tradition? (Well, some friends immediately cited The Lion King’s admittedly roof-raising opening, but I think they’re talking about staging.)

Warlow has a mostly strong cast around him: Tegan Wouters, Monica Swayne and Jessica Vickers as the loving, clever daughers; Mark Mitchell as rejected suitor Lazar Wolf; and Blake Bowden as the passionate student Perchik are all spot-on. Pop singer Lior, making his music-theatre debut as Motel, had a rocky start to Miracle of Miracles on opening night but rallied nicely to give a nuanced performance. Much has been said about Sigrid Thornton’s too-fragile voice for Tevye’s wife, Golde, and there is indeed a huge mismatch between her and Warlow; and Nicki Wendt’s turn as matchmaker Yente felt too hungry for laughs.

Dana Jolly’s reproduction of Jerome Robbins’s choreography is most welcome and musical director Kellie Dickerson is in charge of a small but very effective orchestra. I found Richard Roberts’s design somewhat uninspiring but the musical’s themes are undimmed and they resonate strongly under Hodgman’s expert direction. When, in 1964, Joseph Stein (book), Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) and Jerry Bock (music) looked back to the early 20th century for a story about family disintegration, religious persecution and widespread displacement, they could well have been looking forward to today. Fiddler on the Roof is at the Capitol in Sydney until early May.

A quick word about the Le Corbusier tapestry Les Dés Sont Jetés (The Dice Are Cast) unveiled Tapestryat the Sydney Opera House on March 29 in the Western Foyers. It was commissioned by Jörn Utzon in 1958 when the Danish architect was already thinking about what might be possible in the interior of his magical building (he wanted vibrant colours inside), and delivered to him two years later. Then came his dismissal and the tapestry from the great Swiss-French architect took up residence in the Utzon home. A group of benefactors and SOH staff members helped fund its acquisition at auction last year, it has been restored, and now hangs in the Opera House as a tribute to Utzon – not to mention its value as a work from the imagination of one of the key architects of the 20th century. If you’re in Sydney don’t fail to pop down to the Western Foyers to take a look.

In which I fail to stop my list at 10

THIS year I saw more than 200 performances and, over the past week or so, have written about the people, plays, operas, dance works and musicals that spoke to me most strongly. Now I cull the list to 14 – just because that’s how it turned out – and a supplementary, the last being something I haven’t previously mentioned.

There’s also the one that got away. And one that almost got away.

What struck me most about 2014 was how unlike 2013 it was. Last year there were plenty of kapow! events on stage – among them Opera Australia’s Ring cycle, Belvoir’s Angels in America, The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, Melbourne Festival’s Life and Times from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, the Berliner Ensemble at the Perth Festival with The Threepenny Opera, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle in Sydney – while this year the pleasures tended to be on a smaller scale.

But while there may have been a shortage of big-bang events there were movements afoot of great moment, chief among them more visibility for women playwrights and directors and more indigenous and queer stories taken out of little theatres and put into big ones. These movements didn’t magically appear this year but they did get traction and the texture of our theatre is more interesting and relevant because of them.

My earlier lists were presented in alphabetical order. Not here. I start at the top and work down, although I know that tomorrow I’d probably shuffle a few things around. The non-traditional number can be put down to the multi-art form nature of the list.

MY TOP 14 AND A FEW RING-INS

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Declan Greene, directed by Lee Lewis), Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

Madama Butterfly (Puccini, directed by Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus), Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck, directed by Lindy Hume), Pinchgut Opera

Trisha Brown: From All Angles (Trisha Brown), Melbourne Festival

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, directed by Tim Carroll), Shakespeare’s Globe, New York

Three Masterpieces (Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins), American Ballet Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, directed by John Tiffany, movement by Steven Hoggett), American Repertory Theater, New York

King Charles III (Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold), Almeida Theatre, London

Henry V (Shakespeare, directed by Damien Ryan), Bell Shakespeare Company, Canberra

Pete the Sheep (adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the book by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, directed by Jonathan Biggins, composer/lyricist Phil Scott), Monkey Baa Theatre

A Christmas Carol (adapted by Benedict Hardie & Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Sarks), Belvoir

The Drowsy Chaperone (music by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, lyrics by Bob Martin & Don McKellar, directed by Jay James-Moody), Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co

Switzerland (Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Sarah Goodes), Sydney Theatre Company

Keep Everything (Antony Hamilton), Chunky Move

The supplementary event:

Limbo (Strut & Fret, Underbelly Productions), Sydney Festival. This circus-cabaret didn’t fit into any of my categories so it bobs up from out of left field, which is entirely appropriate for such an outrageously sexy, something-for-everyone show. It was one of the most wildly enjoyable experiences of my quite lengthy viewing career so I went twice during the 2014 Sydney Festival and I’m going again – possibly twice – when Limbo returns to the festival next month.

The one that got away:

Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare, directed by Ivo van Hove) Adelaide Festival. Now this would have been the year’s biggie, had I been able to get to Adelaide. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon performance of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was by all reports life-changing. I believe it, and missing it will remain one of the great regrets of my theatre-going life.

The one that almost got away:

Skylight (David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry). My London trip ended a day before previews started for Skylight, Hare’s ravishing play in which the political becomes very personal indeed. It was written nearly 20 years ago and its arguments resound ever more loudly today. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were starring. Desolation. Until National Theatre Live came to the rescue in October. Bliss.

Top 10 in dance for 2014

DANCE is my great passion but this year there wasn’t a huge amount to bowl me over.Certainly I saw plenty of fine dancing – when does one not? – but in classical ballet there were few new works of substance. Well, none actually. There were pleasing new versions of existing ballets, although they didn’t quite make it to the list. New versions of oft-told stories is business as usual for ballet.

In Sydney there were new contemporary works I failed to see because the seasons were so short – this city isn’t exactly dance central – but there were a couple of new (or newish) pieces that added some excitement. Happily I was able to travel a bit and that helped me see enough to constitute what I might consider a quorum for a list of notable productions. If I saw it in this country I’ve included it, which is why American Ballet Theatre and Trisha Brown Dance Company appear alongside the locals.

As in my earlier posts looking back on 2014, works are mentioned in the order in which I saw them. There is a supplementary international section at the end. I intend to do a separate post on the men and women of the year so if someone rather than something appears to be missing, they may well be mentioned tomorrow.

DANCE WORKS OF NOTE IN 2014

Am I, Shaun Parker & Company, Sydney Festival and Sydney Opera House (January): A strong addition to this meticulous choreographer’s body of work. It looked and sounded stunning. Nick Wales, who has worked many times with Parker, contributed a new score full of fascinating colours, rhythms and sonorities, played and sung by a group of seven musicians. Meticulous, elegant and sophisticated, Am I ambitiously took ideas from physics, astronomy, neurology, anthropology and other branches of science to chart the path of human development. We are the only creatures who can apprehend ourselves as conscious beings with a limited span. Having evolved to that point, our drive is to survive and replicate, to make love and war, and to think about things too much.

Gudirr Gudirr, Marrugeku, Sydney Festival (January): Dalisa Pigram is a passionate advocate for life in Australia’s north-west. She wove a memorable solo from themes relating to the area’s indigenous history, polyglot population, environmental beauties and present-day challenges. Simultaneously wiry and elastic, Pigram seamlessly incorporated shapes from indigenous dance, martial arts, animal imagery, gymnastics, the nightclub and the circus for a wholly individual effect. When she spoke in her traditional language, Yawuru, it became a liquid element in Sam Serruys’s score, which also included songs from Stephen Pigram.

Interplay, Sydney Dance Company (March): The triple bill of Rafael Bonachela’s 2 in D Minor, Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models and Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim! made a cracking evening. Bonachela’s take on Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor was an intellectually challenging engagement between movement and music; the second new piece, Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim!, had heart and joy; and the revival of Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models – well, that gave the libido a workout.

Chroma, The Australian Ballet (April): Wayne McGregor’s Chroma wasn’t as brilliantly danced as it can be when I saw it but it’s a tremendous work. In seven swiftly moving, grandly conceived scenes the choreographer captures on the dancer’s body some of the myriad neural impulses that make it move, think and feel. Undulation, distortion and hyper-extension are a big part of the movement language but we can also see fragments of the classical ideal shimmering through Chroma. The juxtapositions are absorbing: small and large, inner and outer, action and repose, contemporary and traditional, the body and the space it occupies. Also on this generous quadruple bill, Jiri Kylián’s Petite Mort. The AB always does Kylián well and in Petite Mort there is so much to love: men with fencing foils, intimations of darkness and some outstandingly sexy dancing with lots of little orgasmic shudders.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre (June): The story of Lieutenant William Dawes and young indigenous woman Patyegarang in colonial Sydney should be better known. In the tumultuous first years of white settlement, as the British colonisers imposed themselves and their culture on what is now the glittering city of Sydney but was then the Eora nation, Dawes studied and recorded the local language. Patyegarang appears to have been his most important teacher. Stephen Page turned this rare and precious relationship into an impressionistic, meditative work.

The Arrangement, Australian Dance Artists (July): This little jewel could be seen by invitation only, and I was one of the lucky ones. Prime mover was artist Ken Unsworth, who may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest for the complexities of human existence, often casting an absurdist eye on events. He made a cameo appearance at the beginning of The Arrangement to usher in a series of scenes connected not by any narrative but by themes of love, longing, the passage of time and the cycle of life. The mature ADA dancers were former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. The Song Company sang texts by A.E. Houseman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke to Jonathan Cooper’s commissioned music, and it was all very fine indeed. Unsworth finances ADA productions entirely – a great labour of love.

Keep Everything, choreographed by Antony Hamilton for Chunky Move (August): There wasn’t much that was more fun than this. A stage strewn with trash, three incredibly virtuosic and multi-skilled performers, a race through the human story from pre-history to the stars and back again and plenty of stimulating ideas along the way.

American Ballet Theatre, Brisbane (September): Forget Swan Lake; the Three Masterpieces program was the one to see. Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free was highly enjoyable, but the real treats were Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas. Glorious works both.

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Melbourne Festival (October): Trisha Brown was a leading figure in the post-modern dance movement in New York and her influence runs deep. The survey of her work at the Melbourne Festival showed exactly why, but it was far from a history lesson or an academic exercise. Brown’s intellectually rigorous and highly technical dance-making is deeply concerned with the physics and geometry of the body and its relation to the space in which it moves, and her purpose is not to mimic or evoke emotional states. Yet the varied program demonstrated one quality above all that animates the work: intense, soul-filling joy.

The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet (November): Peter Wright’s version of The Nutcracker is frequently said to be the most beautiful in existence, and there is a lot of competition. When I see Alexei Ratmansky’s newish production for American Ballet Theatre I’ll get back to you on who is the winner. But quibbles aside, this certainly is a sumptuous-looking production, even if it looks rather cramped on the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. Even better, it touches the heart.

INTERNATIONAL NOTES:

A highlight of my New York visit early this year was finally getting to see the Jerome Robbins masterpiece Dances at a Gathering, a suite of dances to Chopin piano pieces that has no narrative but is full of connections between the dancers. To see it performed by the company for which it was made in 1969 was a dream come true.

On an all-Balanchine bill at New York City Ballet, Concerto Barocco (1941), was a revelation. Made to the music of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, Concerto Barocco is said to mark the first appearance of Balanchine dancers in practice clothes, something that would become a feature of many works. Here the women are all in white, with a little skirt. Eight women who form a kind of chorus of handmaidens, two principal women and one man move in unison, canon, mirror one another, and enter and leave in response to the music. Poetry and harmony reign and the detail is delicious: at one point the solo man is gently entangled in a thicket of the supporting women; at another he turns a simple promenade of his partner into courtly admiration. Just lovely.

 Tomorrow: The people who mattered

Tharp, Ratmansky, Robbins

American Ballet Theatre, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, September 5 and 6.

TWYLA Tharp was never one to make things easy for dancers or viewers. It would take many more than the two shows I saw in Brisbane to absorb even a fraction of the beauties and complexities of Bach Partita, but it took only one performance to prove the work’s worth. It’s a knockout.

Bach Partita is grand in scale, full of delicious detail and made with superb craftsmanship. There may be a great deal going on but no sense that the structure will not hold. It is a worthy partner for its score, Bach’s glorious Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin, and was played wonderfully from the pit by Charles Yang, a true collaborator with the dancers.

Tharp’s use of three principal couples, seven soloist couples and a corps of 16 women acknowledges the conventional hierarchy of ballet although Bach Partita is essentially a neo-classical piece with modern dance accents and attitudes seamlessly absorbed. The stage vibrated with energy as leading couples, soloists, flocks of corps women and secondary couples constantly changed the movement dynamics, attentive to those of the music.

Stella Abrera, Calvin Royal III, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in Bach Partita. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Stella Abrera, Calvin Royal III, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, Misty Copeland and James Whiteside in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

The first cast was led by Misty Copeland and James Whiteside, Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes and Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III, each with a different mood (sensual, vibrant, dramatic) but also able to come together for some moments before spinning off on their own tangents. I loved Tharp’s use of the secondary couples and the corps, whose comings and goings add texture and intrigue to the world of the main couples.

The great glamour and individuality of the first cast wasn’t entirely replicated by the second cast, featuring April Giangeruso and Eric Tamm, Paloma Herrera and Joseph Gorak, and Isabella Boylston with Craig Salstein, although each was equal to the very testing technical demands of the ballet. But it was clear from seeing the first performance that Bach Partita also demands the mysterious but ultra-potent quality of distinctive stage presence. Herrera has it, of course; the others less so. That said, soloist Gorak is a particularly special dancer who has much ahead of him.

Bach Partita premiered in December 1983 and was not revived until last year. It is a mystery why that should be so, but it’s back and it provided a rich, stimulating opener to this triple bill.

Three Masterpieces was a program designed to give a snapshot of American Ballet Theatre’s nearly 75-year history and included one much earlier work than Bach Partita and one much newer. Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas was made in 2009 to solo piano pieces by Domenico Scarlatti, exquisitely played on stage by Barbara Bilach. The luminous music was interpreted by three couples whose interactions were playful, eloquent, romantic and occasionally something a little darker. There may have been no narrative but there were many stories. Although Ratmansky very much has his own voice as a choreographer Seven Sonatas is somewhat reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, which is no bad thing.

Joseph Gorak in Seven Sonatas. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Joseph Gorak in Seven Sonatas. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

The first cast included Abrera and Royal paired again (they look so silken together), Gorak with fellow soloist Christine Shevchenko and Sarah Lane with the miraculous Herman Cornejo. The second cast gave an opportunity to see principal Hee Seo (with Alexandre Hammoudi) in a much more relaxed mood than she had been for the Swan Lake opening and to see lovely corps members Luciana Paris and Arron Scott together. Principal Veronika Part was partnered with corps member Blaine Hoven, who had been such a worried-looking Benno in the Swan Lake premiere. Here, in his poetic responses, it was possible to see what ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie sees in him.

The program came to a happy close with Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944), in which three sailors on shore leave come to a bar to let off steam and flirt with passing women. Its boisterous innocence, buoyed by Leonard Bernstein’s zippy score, was appealing and, in these most difficult times, touching. Casting was top of the line all the way, but it is impossible not to single out Gomes in the second cast. He was funny, charming and incredibly charismatic. I was disappointed not to see him in Swan Lake – he’s a stunning Von Rothbart on DVD – but Bach Partita and Fancy Free were pretty good consolations.

Cory Stearns, Isabella Boylston, Daniil Simkon, Luciana Paris and James Whiteside in Fancy Free. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Cory Stearns, Isabella Boylston, Daniil Simkin, Luciana Paris and James Whiteside in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

It was fascinating to see the number of corps members given serious duties in both Swan Lake and Three Masterpieces. Well, they were principal dancer duties. A key reason is that ABT has only three ranks – principal, soloist and corps – so the best of the lowly ranked dancers get great opportunities. On the other hand it does appear difficult for them to enter the soloist ranks. At present ABT has 14 principal artists, only nine soloists and a corps of 60. The competition down there must be ferocious.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 8.

Heart untouched; soul unshaken

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, August 28.

KEVIN McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre is a medieval fairy tale of transformation. A woman is turned into a swan. An evil lake-dwelling sorcerer becomes a devastatingly attractive nobleman in the blink of an eye. Two lovers die by drowning but moments later, in an apotheosis, suffuse the air with their benevolence.

These things are important elements, but are a kind of outer skin. They tell us what is happening, but not why. What of the underlying purpose – the desperate love and profound act of forgiveness that bring Swan Lake into the human realm, give it immediacy and make it so moving? They are not to be encountered here, or at least not at ABT’s opening night performance, which was filled with admirable dancing but empty of emotional resonance.

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake

It is possible things may have been different if the originally announced opening night Prince Siegfried, David Hallberg, had not had to withdraw due to injury. Perhaps he draws more from the reticent Hee Seo than did his replacement, Cory Stearns, on the evening of ABT’s Australian premiere. Stearns is a fine classicist with aristocratic lineaments and the plushest of plies, but he and Seo lack chemistry. The approaches each took didn’t catch fire when put together.

Stearns conveyed ennui rather than melancholy and superciliousness rather than noblesse oblige, qualities that did not entirely recommend him, even though his handsome carriage, light landings and princely line made a strong impression. Seo’s theatrically muted Odette was beautifully shaped in the physical sense but there was little idea of what she wanted, or did not. After meeting Siegfried, of whom she seemed not terribly afraid, Seo rarely looked at him, rather gazing down demurely or looking up to the heavens piously. Her eyes and face were not expressive and with her feelings a closed book, the loveliness of her shapes and exquisite articulation went for far less than they might and a couple of fumbles acquired more prominence than they should have.

It was therefore not entirely surprising in the third act to find Odette’s doppelganger Odile short on charisma. Seo wore a black tutu and a wide smile but the spark stopped there. There were no fireworks to be had, just a dutiful set of unadorned fouettes.

McKenzie opens the ballet with a prologue showing Odette’s capture by Von Rothbart. In Zack Brown’s otherwise unimpeachable designs, the sorceror looks like the Incredible Hulk (poor Roman Zhurbin on opening night) but tricks Odette by assuming exceptionally alluring human form (in this guise he was played by lucky Alexandre Hammoudi). The latter’s appearance in Act III is thus signaled. He is the super-confident, ultra-seductive gatecrasher who will bring disaster in the form of Odile. It’s a gift of a part as Von Rothbart sexily reels in all the princesses who are being paraded for Siegfried’s approval and makes the Queen Mother not a little hot and bothered. It probably shouldn’t have been the highlight of the evening, but it was.

Hammoudi, a soloist, smouldered enjoyably although he doesn’t quite have the impact of principal Marcelo Gomes in the role (could anyone?). Gomes is in Brisbane but not cast in Swan Lake it would appear. Brisbane has been denied a great pleasure. (Gomes is scheduled to appear in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita on Friday and Saturday evenings in the Three Masterpieces triple bill and in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free at Saturday’s matinee.)

The third act of Swan Lake slides into a brutally truncated fourth act – a decision that unbalances the ballet badly, giving more weight to the first and third acts set at court than to the white second and fourth acts at the lake. We see something of the swans’ anguish at their queen’s betrayal but the promise of tragedy explored and amplified is only minimally delivered. Instead the action moves briskly to Odette’s death leap and then Siegfried’s (Stearns went for broke here), followed by dawn, Von Rothbart’s broken spell, and Odette and Siegfried as lovers forever in the afterlife. Curtain. Heart untouched; soul unshaken.

It was a treat to see ABT’s music director Ormsby Wilkins authoritatively at the helm of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in what was something of a homecoming for the Sydney-born conductor. He will lead other performances in this short season, in which I hope different partnerships I am to see – Misty Copeland with Hammoudi, Gillian Murphy with James Whiteside and Paloma Herrera with Stearns – offer greater passion and nourishment.

Swan Lake ends Thursday. Three Masterpieces, ballets by Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky and Jerome Robbins has four performances from Friday.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 1.

The King and I

 Presented by John Frost and Opera Australia, April 19, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane.

LISA McCune has probably never sounded or looked lovelier. As Anna Leonowens in The King and I, McCune has all the sweet-spot songs – Hello, Young Lovers, I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance? – and gets to sing them wearing Roger Kirk’s ravishing gowns. She is the calm, commanding centre of the piece and a joy to behold.

This is not unexpected. McCune is a music theatre veteran despite still looking as dewy fresh as a teenager and she has something of the sexy primness of the head prefect about her – perfect for the role of a Western governess in the Siamese court in the 19th century.

Lisa McCune in South Pacific. Photo: Brian Geach

Lisa McCune as Anna Leonowens in The King and I. Photo: Brian Geach

In 1862 the exceptionally adventurous Leonowens, a widow, went to what was then called Siam to teach the multitudinous wives, consorts and children of King Mongkut, a man who apparently prided himself on his English-language skills and wanted his court to learn them. A wise move, as the West’s roving eye meant great vigilance was required. Leonowens wrote two memoirs full of vivid detail about culture, art, religious practice and her combative relationship with the monarch, books that inspired the 1944 Margaret Landon novel that is the basis of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical.

It’s clear from Leonowens’s writing that while there were many practices in Siam she abhorred, she found much to admire in her pupils and in King Mongkut. Rodgers and Hammerstein were socially progressive too – think of the plea for racial tolerance in South Pacific – and while there’s an element of condescension in their portrayal of the Siamese court, so exotic to 1950s Western eyes, there are nevertheless Asian characters that claim the audience’s understanding. The secondary figures of Lady Thiang, Tuptim and Lun Tha aren’t given a lot of stage time and aren’t integrated into the musical entirely satisfactorily, but they are highly sympathetic.

Most crucially the musical within the musical, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, is full of riches. In a narrated dance piece lasting about a quarter of an hour – an audaciously long interruption to the main body of the musical – the unhappy Tuptim, one of the king’s concubines, presents a fervent and touching distillation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, putting it into a Buddhist context. It is an act of protest on her part, beautiful but dangerous. At this point Jerome Robbins’s choreography (reproduced in this production by Susan Kikuchi), Brian Thomson’s design, Rodgers’s Eastern-inflected music, Hammerstein’s inspired writing and the performances of Jenny Lui (Tuptim) and the ensemble work together to create unforgettable magic.

I can’t help wondering to what degree The King and I’s earliest American audiences would have been reminded of their history of slavery at a time when segregation was still in force in the US.

In The Small House of Uncle Thomas Rodgers’s music quotes from It’s a Puzzlement when referring to the slave-owner Simon Legree – a rebuke to King Mongkut. There are also a couple of phrases from Hello, Young Lovers, linking the plight of the runaway Eliza and her lover George to that of Tuptim and her secret love, Lun Tha.

It’s a pity that a song that previously opened the second act, Western People Funny, was excised from this production for length reasons – the production, not the song – before it went to Broadway in 1996 and has stayed excised. In it Lady Thiang and women of the court criticise Western attitudes towards them. They have been asked to wear Western dress, and this is what they have to say about it: “To prove we’re not barbarians/ They dress us up like savages! … Western people funny/ Of that there is no doubt/ They feel so sentimental/ About the Oriental/ They always try to turn us/ Upside out and inside down!”

In Christopher Renshaw’s staging while this song is missing we do see Mongkut’s wives trying on vast hooped skirts. And, very regrettably, flashing a bit of bare bottom.

The King and I is far from being a work that casually dismisses Asians as childlike and amusing, although directorial choices can take one in that direction if they do not take into account changing attitudes. An audience today will look at the musical with very different eyes from those of 63 years ago when it premiered, and even from 23 years ago when this production was first staged – that’s a whole generation.

I was surprised last Saturday night that a production I had much enjoyed when first seeing it in 1991 now felt so heavy-handed, McCune excepted. Memory is a treacherous thing but I don’t recall Thomson’s design looking quite so gaudy with its riot of red and gold accessorised with a tsunami of crystals and multitudinous points of light. The look brought to mind the bold colours and outlines of a child’s picture book. And the opening scene when Anna and her son arrive in Bangkok – was it really that unsubtle in its tawdry depiction of a bustling Asian port and the gradations of power between court officials and minions?

The casting of Teddy Tahu Rhodes makes commercial sense after his music-theatre debut in South Pacific as Emile de Becque, a role that needs a fine bass baritone. Rhodes’s singing of Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine added great lustre to South Pacific. That he and McCune, who starred as Nellie Forbush, are now off-stage partners is presumably also a factor.

He is, however, not ideal casting for the role of the King of Siam. Most obviously, he is not Asian. Leaving politics aside (that’s a whole other and very large subject), it’s not convincing theatrically. It’s not even as if there’s an imperative to have the King played by someone who has been operatically trained.

Rhodes’s key gift isn’t needed here, although I admit it was fun to hear him make It’s a Puzzlement sound as if it actually has a melody. The King was originally played by non-singer Yul Brynner (triumphantly) and at one point late in his life by Rudolf Nureyev (disastrously), and the role has minimal musical commitments that can be negotiated by speaking in rhythm and occasionally going up and down. As for the acting requirements, Rhodes is allowed to give a one-note performance for most of the musical’s length. Much stomping and arms akimbo suggest childish petulance rather than a mature ruler’s implacable authority, although at the end Rhodes unleashes anger that at last feels authentic.

The more ambitious music is given to secondary figures, here cast from strength. Shu-Cheen Yu’s Lady Thiang, Lui’s Tuptim and Adrian Li Donni’s Lun Tha are all sung superbly, with Yu’s Something Wonderful a standout. The looser-than-ideal structure often grates, but it also allows room for The Small House of Uncle Thomas, with its radiant dance inspired by the classical Siamese tradition. And for this gift I can forgive quite a lot.

Brisbane until June 1. Melbourne, June 10-August 17; Sydney, September 7-November 1. Rhodes will appear in the Sydney season of The King and I but is unavailable for Melbourne, where Jason Scott Lee, an American of Chinese-Hawaiian descent who sang the role opposite Elaine Paige in London in 2000-2001, will appear with McCune.

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow

In March 2008, when I was still on staff at The Australian, I wrote a piece about musical theatre ahead of an Opera Australia production of My Fair Lady. With OA and John Frost opening The King and I in Brisbane, with Melbourne and Sydney seasons to follow, I pulled it out of the vault.

THE golden age of musical theatre started quietly. A young man was heard offstage – it was March 31, 1943 – extolling the joys of life and of that day in particular. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” he sang, a cappella. “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow …” Oklahoma!, and a new era, was under way.

The show was the first collaboration between composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, and its opening is one of the most inspired, and concise, pieces of scene and character setting in all musical theatre.

Hammerstein wrote the lyrics first, and with those first eight words (of which two are definite or indefinite articles) established an indelible image of open farmland on a sunny morning and, by association, the pleasant, optimistic nature of the man who notices such things. The rhythm of the line is clear and uncomplicated, and Rodgers supports it with a sweet melody that strolls along as easily as an old-fashioned country boy.

All this takes perhaps 10 seconds to get across.

Oklahoma! has a perfect structure and the score is one of the greatest light music scores ever written,” says David King, head of musical theatre at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

Most of the competition for greatness comes from Rodgers and Hammerstein themselves, with Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music coming from the pair in the space of 16 years. But they didn’t entirely corner the market. The dream run in the 1940s and 50s included Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story, remarkable for the quality of their source material (from George Bernard Shaw, Damon Runyon and Shakespeare respectively) and the brilliance of their music and lyrics. More recent musicals might have one or two hit songs; shows in this group string them together like well-matched pearls. Expensive ones, too. If you’d invested $1000 in the original Oklahoma! your return would have been $2.5million.

That Oklahoma! has enduring appeal more than 60 years after its premiere attests to its quality: in 2008 there would be about 500 productions worldwide, including one at Perth-based WAAPA. But it goes further than mere popularity. Rodgers and Hammerstein set the standard and style for an era. The shows created in the space of little more than two decades, from 1943 to 1964, when Fiddler on the Roof opened, are the undisputed classics of the genre.

Writer Peter Stone [explains] Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove.

Gerald Bordman, author of American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, heads his chapter on this period The American Musical as a Conscious Art Form. What would become the musical started in the mid-1800s and developed out of popular theatrical traditions including operetta, melodrama, burlesque and revue.

Most commentators nominate 1866 as the start of the native art form, when a touring French ballet company found itself without a theatre and enterprising producers combined the talents of the danseuses with a melodrama that did have a theatre, The Black Crook. The young women of the ballet weren’t the only ones with legs, and the show ran and ran.

In the post-war 1920s the taste was for entertainment; in the 30s theatregoers wanted either escape from the Depression or socially relevant drama because of it. There was, however, a cluster of supremely talented people working in New York who would bring the light and shade together.

Hammerstein is a pivotal figure. His grandfather was a New York theatre district pioneer and, with Jerome Kern, he wrote the groundbreaking Show Boat (1927). With its racially integrated cast and a troubling theme of miscegenation, it foreshadowed the kind of work Hammerstein would do when he joined forces with Rodgers 15 years later. He was also an important mentor to Sondheim, who would much later reign over the high end of the market.

And Hammerstein was a lyricist of exceptional and subtle gifts. In their book Broadway: The American Musical, Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon quote writer Peter Stone on Hammerstein’s use of the “conditional ballad”, where love doesn’t happen miraculously but is expressed as being in the future, or a possibility, or at one remove. In Carousel it’s If I Loved You, in Show Boat it’s Only Make Believe, in Oklahoma! there’s People Will Say We’re in Love.

Just how different Oklahoma! was from its immediate predecessors is illustrated by something that quickly passed into music theatre legend. A talent scout for the critic Walter Winchell went to New Haven to see a show, at that stage called Away We Go, which was having its out-of-town tryout. He cabled to Winchell the following assessment: No legs, no jokes, no chance!

The audience saw it differently, happy to view work that not only entertained and thrilled but often challenged as well. Oklahoma! became the first music theatre phenomenon, running for more than 2000 performances on Broadway.

The new breed of creators didn’t shy away from themes such as gang warfare (West Side Story), racism (South Pacific) and dispossession (Fiddler on the Roof), but it was in the context of well-made theatre that also provided the popular music of the day: Maria, Some Enchanted Evening, If I Were a Rich Man.

The genius, says Andrew Greene, who conducts My Fair Lady for Opera Australia in June, lies in the fact that “in (the classic) musicals it’s about the team: wonderful music, words, book and great choreography and direction, all coming together to create a wonderful night in the theatre”. No longer was the piece designed to revolve around a big-name star who sucked up most of the oxygen. Everything had to be in the service of the whole.

When a [Cole] Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Michael Grandage, director of the Donmar Warehouse production in London of Guys and Dolls, which is being staged in Melbourne, points to the detail and cohesion of its book. “From a directorial point of view, you’re able to approach a musical like Guys and Dolls exactly as you would one of the most perfectly made plays,” he says.

As with most classic periods, the golden age of the American musical was created by a relatively small number of people. They included composer and conductor Bernstein, the youthful Sondheim (as lyricist), producer David Merrick and director Hal Prince. The stellar Cole Porter and Irving Berlin wrote words as well as music: when a Porter acquaintance praised Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Some Enchanted Evening, Porter replied insouciantly that it was indeed powerful, “if you can imagine it taking two men to write one song”.

Crucially, dance became a force for concentrated storytelling, often psychologically revealing, for which Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins can take much of the credit. De Mille’s dream ballet for Oklahoma! and another for Carousel were so influential that she perhaps never received quite her due: soon everyone was doing what she did.

Robbins and de Mille came from the classical ballet world and didn’t see it as slumming from their duties at American Ballet Theatre. In fact Robbins, a forceful character who directed as well as choreographed, got the idea that became West Side Story while studying at the Actors Studio in New York, where Marlon Brando was among his peers. The exhilarating Act I Mambo in the re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet isn’t there for colour and movement. It reveals the depth of rivalry between the Puerto Rican and American gangs and, in the setting of a social dance, brings Tony and Maria together.

The porous divide between high art and the commercial theatre was manifest in a version of Aida, using Verdi’s music but translated to an American Confederacy setting and called My Darlin’ Aida. Obviously it didn’t enter the pantheon, but it does point to a general taste for music written for a more classic tradition of vocal training. Opera singer Ezio Pinza had huge success as Emile in South Pacific, and My Fair Lady called for a gifted soprano and got one in Julie Andrews. Rising opera star Taryn Fiebig will sing the role for Opera Australia.

OA’s chief executive Adrian Collette says the strong book is central to the appeal of My Fair Lady. It’s adapted from “a tough and polemical play by George Bernard Shaw … what the music unfailingly brings to it is the potential for romance. It keeps its essential ambiguity to the very end, but overlays it with this wonderfully romantic music.”

Greene says American musicals have been part of the lighter repertoire in European opera houses for many years, and is pleased to see OA tackling My Fair Lady after many years of Gilbert and Sullivan (OA has also staged Fiddler on the Roof).

“[Frederick] Loewe was amazing. He was a direct descendant of a 19th-century lieder composer of Austrian descent. We find him not only being able to write wonderful romantic-style pop tunes. He was able to [write in the manner of] the British music-hall style for My Fair Lady – Get Me to the Church on Time, With a Little Bit of Luck – and also something like They Call the Wind Maria from Paint Your Wagon. He was a musical chameleon.”

Like all movements, this one was finite. Times, tastes and methods changed. A show such as Cabaret (1966) mostly presented its songs not as rising out of ordinary activity but within the context of the Kit Kat Klub where Sally Bowles worked. A Chorus Line (1975) stripped away all the trappings and was a more or less plotless show about people trying to get into a show.

The bubble had very much burst by the Broadway season of 1967-68. William Goldman in his book The Season saw everything that year. There were 14 new musicals and only one hit: the endearing but chaotic Hair. To come: the rock musical, Sondheim (a kind of one-man style), the British “popera” invasion spearheaded by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, Disneyfication and the jukebox musical.

It’s hard to see anything other than Sondheim lasting another 50 years but that doesn’t stop people from trying, year after year, to write the next hit. King says the New York Music Theatre Festival each year premieres about 40 new musicals – “there’s an enormous amount of stuff written” – and a few composers, Adam Guettel (Rodgers’s grandson) and Michael John LaChiusa chief among them, are writing works of note.

And a Broadway that can offer, simultaneously, musical versions of Frank Wedekind’s wildly controversial 1891 play dealing with youthful sexuality, Spring Awakening, and the perky Legally Blonde – King calls it imaginative and witty – is far from being dead, no matter how much people hanker for the glory days and start reading it the last rites.

The King and I, presented by Opera Australia and John Frost, QPAC, Brisbane, until June 1. Melbourne, June 10-August 17; Sydney, September 7-November 1.

THE BEST OF THE BEST FROM THE GOLDEN AGE

Oklahoma!, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1943

On the Town, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, developed from Jerome Robbins’s ballet Fancy Free for American Ballet Theatre, 1944

Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein, choreography by Agnes de Mille, 1945

Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin, 1946

Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter, 1948

South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1949

Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser, 1950

The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1951

My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, 1956

West Side Story, music by Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1957

The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1959

Gypsy, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1959

Fiddler on the Roof, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, 1964