Murphy: The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 6 (evening) and 11 (matinee).

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to give Graeme Murphy a conventional gala to celebrate his 50 years of association with The Australian Ballet, the company he joined as a member of the corps de ballet in 1968. The idea for the tribute came to TAB artistic director David McAllister when he decided to revive the choreographer’s Firebird (2009). The straightforward way to go would have been to precede Firebird with a selection of excerpts from Murphy’s greatest TAB hits’n’memories: Swan Lake, Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, Beyond Twelve, Romeo and Juliet, The Narrative of Nothing for a piece of abstraction and a humorous bit from Tivoli for a change of pace and there’s your first half.

That’s not what happened. Despite the many virtues and gala possibilities of those works, a by-the-book program would have been obvious and utterly safe. In other words, not remotely indicative of Murphy’s expansive, adventurous spirit. The counter-intuitive decision was made for Murphy’s first half to comprise dances not made for TAB, only one of which, The Silver Rose, has been previously danced by the company (it was created for Bayerisches Staatsballet in 2005). The rest of the pieces are from Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company days, where he reigned for more than 30 years and created a vast body of work – much more interesting and challenging for the dancers, undoubtedly, and good for rusted-on TAB audience members to see something from outside the square.

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Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

There is more coherence in the program than might be evident at first glance. First and most clearly there is the connective tissue built by Murphy’s choreographic style, with the audience able to see his intricate lifts, unusual partnering, witty details, human touches and erotic impulses thread their way through quite different pieces.

The need to move quickly from section to section meant some of Murphy’s most enticing larger productions featuring live music couldn’t be considered but, in the inclusion of Shéhérazade (1970), with its onstage mezzo-soprano soloist singing Ravel’s lush song cycle, and with pianist Scott Davie reprising his central onstage role in sections from Grand, there is a flavour of Murphy’s love for the integration of musicians and dancers. The excerpts from Air and Other Invisible Forces and Ellipse are a reminder of Murphy’s extensive collaborations with Australian composers (here Michael Askill and Matthew Hindson respectively).

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Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. Photo: Daniel Boud

The first act closer, a handful of sections from Grand, is not only vastly enjoyable but indispensable. Murphy made Grand (2005) in celebration of “the one pianist I adore above all others”, his mother Betty, whose music helped shape his artistic development.

The choice of excerpts from The Silver Rose (based on Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier) to open Murphy is of more value thematically than artistically. The ballet isn’t one of the choreographer’s best and I would be surprised to see TAB program it again, but Murphy’s choice of a work whose theme is ageing, time’s inexorable march forward and the loss of youthful potency was perhaps a wry comment on an occasion celebrating a half-century.

In a short film preceding the first half Murphy speaks of movingly of art’s capacity to transform and of his desire to allow dancers to become the artists they aspire to be. In an interview with me before Murphy opened in Melbourne, he consistently returned to the dancers and what would suit or stimulate them. At the Sydney opening night it was wonderful to see principal artist Lana Jones in ferocious form as the Firebird, a role made on her, and also her perfumed elegance in Shéhérazade, performed in its entirety. Senior artist Brett Chynoweth was Most Valuable Player on opening night, dancing Kostchei in Firebird and seen in three pieces in the first half, including whooping it up with Jade Wood, Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli in the zany cowboy-flavoured quartet from Ellipse and, with Morelli, doing a sharp, suave Alligator Crawl in Grand (to Fats Waller).

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Brett Chynoweth as Kostchei in Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

By and large the key roles on opening night went to dancers of soloist rank or above. An exception was the coryphée (but probably not for long) Callum Linnane, who calmly partnered principal Amber Scott in The Silver Rose. At the Wednesday matinee I attended he also partnered principal Leanne Stojmenov in Shéhérazade with distinction. At that performance the mezzo was Jacqueline Dark, who gave a marvellously seductive account of Ravel’s songs.

The Wednesday matinee was where one could more clearly see the cut of the company’s rising young talent. Some fell a fair way short of the brio and individuality SDC dancers brought to those roles but their delight in this very different way of moving was touching. The male corps member to watch is Shaun Andrews, a lithe young man of serious mien who stood out on opening night in a quartet from Grand (to Gershwin) and danced a sinuous Kostchei at the matinee. An airborne cartwheel looked magically weightless.

Also at the matinee, Jade Wood’s fluttering, frightened Firebird was fruitfully paired with Jarryd Madden’s alert, sensitive Ivan and principal artist Andrew Killian memorably partnered corps de ballet member Yuumi Yamada – gorgeous feet! – in a key pas de deux from Grand. Killian, who is in the latter stages of his career, has always been a potent presence in contemporary work and this was a timely reminder of his gifts in such repertoire. And what a joy to see soloist Benedicte Bemet back on stage after a long absence, quietly steaming up the stage with Madden in a close-contact duo from Air and Other Invisible Forces.

Ends April 23.

Swan Lake: Sydney summing up

The Australian Ballet, Sydney, March 31, April 2, April 5, April 16.

The Australian Ballet will undoubtedly stick with Stephen Baynes’s 2012 production of Swan Lake – now being revived for the first time – for many a year to come. It has sold out 21 performances at the Sydney Opera House and a check of the Arts Centre Melbourne website shows exceptionally strong demand for the 14 performances the AB has scheduled in June at the State Theatre (it is significantly bigger than Sydney’s Joan Sutherland Theatre). Before Melbourne there is Adelaide, where there are six performances in late May. It looks as if that’s where it will be easiest to nab a seat if you so desire.

Audiences, then, are happy with this traditional alternative to the perennially popular Graeme Murphy 2002 version, which will be revived for the umpteenth time in July for performances in London.

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The Australian Ballet in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake.

The ballet is, nevertheless, frustrating, although not without its virtues. Chief among them is a fourth act that transforms the predominantly straight-line, front-to-back patterns for the second act swans – Baynes reproduces the traditional Act II choreography – into a flurry of circles and angles as Odette’s sisters in captivity try to protect her after Siegfried’s betrayal. On first acquaintance, in 2012 that is, I thought they looked too busy. In these performances (I saw three and a dress rehearsal) the intent and emotion were abundantly clear.

This forceful display of solidarity in the face of tragedy stays with one powerfully, although it is soon undercut by a weak ending. Obscured by the mass of swans, Odette dashes offstage and is seen no more. Siegfried then also runs into the wings – to where? There is no visceral connection between his departure and the sight in the final moments of his body being hauled out of the lake at the back of the stage by the sorcerer Rothbart. You come to understand that Siegfried has drowned himself in guilt and remorse but are denied the drama of it. We also must assume the hazy projection of something flying palely up on high is Odette, although you need recourse to the program notes to tell you that although she is still a swan, Rothbart no longer has power over her. Puzzlingly, the synopsis refers to the projection as the released “soul of Odette”, which makes sense given the formless nature of the image but also makes it sound as if she is dead.

There are other aspects of the storytelling that aren’t sufficiently developed to give the kind of texture Baynes clearly wanted. The late 19th century setting (Hugh Colman designed sets and costumes) is Romantic in spirit, with the Prince a deeply melancholy man who shrinks from the burden of power. There is a suggestion at the beginning of the ballet that Baron von Rothbart has sway not only over the women-swans he has captured but also over the life of the royal family, a situation somewhat undercut by his giggle-inducing pretend violin-playing turn at the Act III ball. (I could be wrong, but Rothbart’s red wig seems to have been toned down significantly to advantage.)

And questions arise from the frame Baynes has devised. Did Siegfried’s father have his own lake encounter? What will Rothbart do now the last male in the royal family has done himself in? Are these questions too literal? All I know is that if I start thinking about why an idea is planted I am not fully engaged in the storytelling. Too often it seems Baynes is saying “just trust me, this is meaningful; if you read the program you’ll understand” rather than developing the idea fully onstage.

I wasn’t able to see Amber Scott on opening night in Sydney but at the dress rehearsal she showed the qualities that were so praised by her first-night admirers: exquisitely delicate and vulnerable as Odette; a strong, glamorous Odile. Her Siegfried, Adam Bull, and she looked more connected with the drama – less ghostly – than when I saw them in 2012.

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Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Swan Lake. Photo: Kate Longley

Each of the other three Odette-Odiles I saw during this season brought interestingly different qualities to their roles. I reviewed principal artist Ako Kondo’s debut performance at the matinee on April 2 here. I saw principal Lana Jones on April 5 with Ty King-Wall as her attentive but over-shadowed Siegfried, and I had been expecting to see senior artist Natasha Kusch at the April 16 matinee but she was indisposed. Long-serving senior artist Miwako Kubota took her place, partnered by Andrew Killian as she had been in earlier performances. Killian was also Kusch’s partner, having stepped in to replace Daniel Gaudiello after his surprise departure at the end of Melbourne’s Vitesse season.

Jones was very much the swan queen, a magnificently regal figure who dominated her realm despite being a captive. She may have been at this lake, in this form, for aeons. When Prince Siegfried and she came face to face Jones’s reaction suggested a challenge – who are you to come into my world? – before she realised he may be her salvation. At times she moved breathtakingly slowly without losing touch with the music in a sleight of hand that suggested water as her natural element (the ravishingly fast quivers of her foot as it beats against her ankle at the end of the Act II pas de deux brought to mind not only a bird’s fluttering but swift-flowing currents beneath the lake’s surface). As Odile, Jones was mesmerising, the sorcerer if you will, making light work of entrancing Siegfried.

Kubota’s passionate, desperate Act IV was thrilling and she was a fascinating Odile, some trouble with the fouetté turns notwithstanding. Far from being the cold, glittering creature in many readings, Kubota was abundantly sensual and inviting. At this performance Simon Thew’s conducting of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra felt too slow for Kubota in her Act II solo; there was an audible winding down that wasn’t helpful musically or for Kubota’s performance. (Andrew Mogrelia conducted the other three performances I saw with tempi that were responsive to the dancers without distorting the score.)

In secondary roles soloists Benedicte Bemet and Dimity Azoury and coryphée Jill Ogai did their best with the bitchy Duchess, a woman whose motives aren’t always clear. Perhaps she’s trying out for the role of Royal Mistress because the action makes it obvious she’s not in contention as bride. The three are very much on the must-watch list. Senior artist Robyn Hendricks and coryphée Valerie Tereshchenko were enticing Russian Princesses and the Cygnets, who I saw in various combinations, were all splendidly in tune with one another. All hail to coryphée Karen Nanasca, the common denominator in all four Cygnet casts and, I’ve read, a force to be reckoned with when it comes to revving Cygnets up to give their best.

Finally, a word about Brett Chynoweth. On hearing Gaudiello had retired before his advertised Swan Lake performances I thought Chynoweth might be asked to partner Kusch. They danced together in the new Sleeping Beauty late last year and it was after that performance as Prince Désiré that Chynoweth was rightly promoted to senior artist (very oddly the AB’s highly detailed new website doesn’t list that as a repertoire highlight for him – it was). I wrote then: “In Beauty he radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing.” I felt the same about his Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in 2014. Chynoweth gives his heart to roles such as this and infuses his faster, higher, sharper technique with rare eloquence. In a pretty thankless role such as Benno in the Baynes Swan Lake, Chynoweth compensated by being over-emphatic. He doesn’t need to try that hard. As his brilliantly danced Puck in the Ashton The Dream showed earlier last year, Chynoweth is such a bright presence on stage and a dazzling dancer. As Beauty and Nutcracker proved, he can also be a prince.