My 2016 Artists of the Year …

Last year I decided to institute my personal Artist of the Year award. There’s no money attached, of course, and I think we’d have to say it confers only a modest amount of fame. I was rather thrilled , however, to see that my inaugural winner, the multi-faceted mezzo Jacqui Dark, was subsequently featured in her home town newspaper, the Courier in Ballarat, Victoria, so that was nice. I was a little dismayed that the Courier didn’t realise that I, too, am Ballarat-born – this played no part in the AOTY decision-making, I hasten to say – and my father was once editor of that newspaper. But it was a long time ago.

This year’s recipients – and yes, it’s a group I honour in 2016 – will be used to getting little or no money. They also mostly escape the glare of widespread publicity and can walk the streets unmolested by fans keen for a selfie. They are, however, heroes to me. They are the independent artists who simply will not go away and shut up, despite bearing the brunt of our Federal Government’s unforgiveable raid on the Australia Council in 2015. They put on new work, take creative risks, nurture talent, and their ticket prices are often astonishingly low. And they might be doing this in a profit-share arrangement.

It is not a good time for the arts in Australia. There were, of course, plenty of pieces of theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre I was very happy to see in 2016. A small number were exceptional, as were a good handful of performances. We can still manage that. What we don’t have is any true, deeply engrained reverence for culture as a necessity of life. That’s why some of our brightest and most interesting artists are working for tuppence ha’penny.

In this context I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Red Line Productions team who run Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre; to Sport for Jove, which consistently punches way above its weight; to Hayes Theatre Co for giving a dedicated home to musical theatre; and to the wonderful Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) group. WITS has been indefatigable in giving encouragement to and increasing visibility and opportunities for women in the arts.

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Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

So, best shows of the year?

Starting with the indies, Sport for Jove’s tremendously affecting Antigone; the absorbing revival of Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices from Don’t Look Away in association with Red Line Productions; and – this one surprised me – a deeply, deeply touching production of the 1928 R. C. Sheriff classic Journey’s End, from Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Norton Crumlin and Associates. I was very keen to see the play as it’s a name I keep coming across in reading about early 20th century drama, but I thought it might be drearily musty by now. Not in Samantha Young’s production, seen at Australian Theatre for Young People’s Walsh Bay base.

Also seen at ATYP was a marvellous production of the musical Spring Awakening, sensitively directed by Mitchell Butel. He might soon find he is in more demand as a director than he is as an actor, which would be a lot. The other huge musical theatre highlight was Little Shop of Horrors at Hayes Theatre Co. This was a mainstream production (Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co) that toured after its debut but it was born at the indie Hayes. Also on the music front, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a glorious trio of concerts, conducted by David Robertson, featuring Stravinsky dance scores The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. Absolute heaven for this balletomane.

Two of Sydney’s smaller mainstream theatre companies, the Ensemble and Darlinghurst Theatre Company, provided some of this year’s most memorable productions. At the Ensemble, Tara Morice led a terrific cast in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People; and I can’t tell you how riveting it was to see Patricia Cornelius’s gut-punching Savages at the Darlinghurst with a matinee audience comprised almost entirely of teenaged boys. I bet their post-show discussion was interesting – and one could feel just how forcefully this brilliant piece of writing about masculinity and pack behaviour struck them. Also at the Darlinghurst, Mary Anne Butler’s Broken was eloquently realised.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

The invaluable Griffin Theatre Company is unfortunately struggling with pressing funding issues but soldiers on stoutly to provide a platform for new Australian work. And who would have thunk it? After the, ahem, disappointment of his playwriting debut Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012), Benedict Andrews came up with a fascinating portrait of a woman’s disintegration in Gloria.

Mainstream theatre wasn’t overflowing with riches. However, at Sydney Theatre Company I did love Hay Fever, directed by Imara Savage, who has a great feel for comedy; and the devastating production of All My Sons, directed by Kip Williams.

I won’t write about dance again (my post yesterday gave a round-up in that area) but will mention a few dance performances in my baker’s dozen list of stand-outs – Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky in John Neumeier’s ballet of that name for The Australian Ballet, Elma Kris of Bangarra Dance Theatre in the title role in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa, and Kristina Chan in her own work A Faint Existence for Force Majeure (one of the small-to-medium companies that has to reinvent itself after funding cuts). In theatre and musical theatre, in no particular order I was entranced by Robyn Nevin (All My Sons), Anthony Warlow (Fiddler on the Roof), Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill (Little Shop of Horrors), Alex Jennings (My Fair Lady), Heather Mitchell (Hay Fever), Sam O’Sullivan (Journey’s End), Marta Dusseldorp (Gloria), and Andrea Demetriades and William Zappa (Antigone).

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Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Opera Australia’s revival in Melbourne of the Neil Armfield Ring Cycle was extraordinary, and splendidly cast from top to bottom. The themes of greed and lust for power resonated particularly strongly. Earlier in the year the rarely performed Verdi opera Luisa Miller was given a striking production and had a dream cast; and My Fair Lady was deservedly wildly successful. Also from OA, the al fresco version of The Eighth Wonder – we sat in front of the sublime building that is the subject of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’s opera – was a sensational idea, superbly executed. One couldn’t help but think of Joe Cahill when, as premier of NSW, he convened a conference in 1954 to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said then: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …”

We could probably do with a Joe Cahill or two right now.

Nijinsky: The Australian Ballet

State Theatre, Melbourne, September 7; Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, November 11.

JOHN Neumeier, the choreographer and longtime artistic director of Hamburg Ballet, has made a deep study of Vaslav Nijinsky and is a noted collector of material associated with the dancer. Neumeier’s ballet on the subject is a natural extension of that passion, and he holds the ballet close. The Australian Ballet is only the third company to perform Nijinsky, after the Hamburg Ballet (the premiere was in 2000) and National Ballet of Canada.

Neumeier was, of course, in Melbourne when the AB opened Nijinsky on September 7 with one of his Hamburg dancers, Alexandre Riabko, in the title role. This, by the way, was a first for the AB in many decades. During Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign and so far in McAllister’s 15-year tenure opening night honours have been reserved –always – for an AB dancer.

Riabko is back for the Sydney season of Nijinsky – there are four casts – but AB principal Kevin Jackson danced the first performance and had a mighty success. It was touching to see him kneel to Neumeier when the choreographer came on stage to take a bow. McAllister said later that Neumeier, who was in Sydney for just a couple of days, had made a detour on his way from Hamburg to Canada to be at the opening. It’s a long detour, and a measure perhaps of how much this ballet means to him.

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Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

It’s an important ballet for the AB too. Its repertoire of full-length narrative works is otherwise heavily weighted towards a small number of ballets guaranteed to be box-office friendly: last year there were Swan Lake (the Graeme Murphy version, Sydney only), Giselle, Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty; this year featured Swan Lake (the Stephen Baynes version), Coppélia, Romeo & Juliet (resident choreographer Stanton Welch visiting with his Houston Ballet); and next year audiences are offered The Sleeping Beauty again, Nutcracker (the Murphy version) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In those three years only Alice, made in 2011, is truly new.

The AB could, I suppose, try to argue that in 2017 there’s a necessity to stage familiar titles in the second half of the year as it then has to decamp from the Sydney Opera House while the Joan Sutherland Theatre’s stage machinery is upgraded. That would work if the program looked different from any other year, but it doesn’t. (It is true, however, that next year Sydney will see Gabriela Tylesova’s Beauty sets to much greater advantage in the Capitol Theatre than at the Opera House, and that Alice also needs a larger stage than the Joan Sutherland’s.)

Nijinsky could not be more different from those works, with their crystal-clear, linear, familiar storylines told in conventional ballet language. Neumeier stretched the company and, if audience chatter is anything to go by, gave patrons a significant shot in the arm.

We have no film of Nijinsky performing, only the reports of those who saw him. Of the four works he choreographed, only one, L’après-midi d’un faune, was notated. It’s not much to go on but no one argues against Nijinsky’s status as the performing artist who changed the way men danced and what they danced.

Despite being socially awkward offstage, onstage Nijinsky could be anything. He was the strange and shockingly lascivious creature in L’après-midi d’un faune, the tragic puppet Petrouchka, the exotic Golden Slave in Schéhérazade, the soulful Poet in Les Sylphides, the skittish young man in Jeux. As the star dancer in Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes he became one of the hottest properties on the European stage, a sex symbol whose undies were filched as trophies. As a choreographer he made only a handful of works but they landed like hand-grenades.

Nijinsky was always a bit odd, and then much more than that. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919 and left the stage after a career lasting only a decade. His last public performance was for an invited audience and was held in a St Moritz hotel ballroom. According to his wife Romola, after an extended silence Nijinsky told his audience, “Now I will dance you the war … the war which you did not prevent.”

The ballroom, with its curved white balcony and glittering chandeliers (Neumeier also designed), is where the piece poignantly starts. There is some semblance of normalcy as the chattering classes come to see Nijinsky, although it is best to draw a veil over the AB’s handling of this non-dancing scene of mixing, mingling and air-kisses, particularly as seen in Sydney. It was painful. Finally, thankfully, they take their seats and Nijinsky enters. Soon the reality of the room fades and images from Nijinsky’s ballets, his family and his torments mingle freely with the topsy-turvy logic of an imperfectly remembered world.

The fractured evocations of the Ballets Russes days are thrilling as familiar characters dash in and out, just as they might in a dream. Diaghilev appears, carrying the Golden Slave, who then performs a dance of extraordinary sensuality. Here are ballerinas from the Mariinsky in their snowy white tutus, and there the harem girls from Schéhérazade glowing in gorgeous hues. The Faun returns again and again with his enigmatic two-dimensional walk and erotic charge (a working knowledge of Nijinsky’s ballets is exceptionally helpful to getting the most from the evening).

Neumeier balances this heady rush of mashed-up history with more intimate scenes between Vaslav and Romola and, in Act II, with members of his family. Here we also see Petrouchka, clad in a black and white version of his costume – a superb inspiration – as one of war’s victims. The puppet’s pain and that of the world are inextricably tangled.

At the Melbourne premiere, Nijinsky’s torment was darkly internalised by Riabko, who was like a tightly coiled spring. Jackson’s emotions were closer to the surface; his wounded innocence was greatly affecting. While Romola is at best a divisive figure as far as history is concerned, Neumeier treats her sympathetically while not shying away from the rumours of infidelity. With Riabko, Amy Harris gave Romola strength and resilience while in Sydney, Amber Scott’s fragility made visible the shared tragedy of husband and wife.

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Dimity Azoury, Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov (Melbourne) gave a brilliantly etched Bronislava Nijinska, rather more convincingly than Ako Kondo (Sydney). A special mention must go to Brett Simon, a heart-wrenching Petrouchka in Melbourne. In Sydney Andrew Killian made less of an impression. In both casts Adam Bull smouldered darkly as Diaghilev and young corps de ballet member François-Eloi Lavignac was riveting as Vaslav’s afflicted brother Stanislav. Dancing both the Golden Slave and the Faun, soloist Jarryd Madden was breathtakingly sensuous.

Nijinsky’s first half is danced to three movements from Rimsky-Korsakov’s luscious score for Schéhérazade – you could feel the audience almost fainting with delight – alongside Chopin, Schumann and Shostakovich. The second half is given over to Shostakovich’s brooding, troubling Symphony No. 11. Orchestra Victoria (Melbourne) and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (Sydney) did the honours with the AB’s music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm. At the Sydney opening night curtain call she seemed to be fighting back tears as the crowd stood and cheered lustily. Well, it is a rare sight in that house. Too rare.

Nijinsky, Sydney Opera House until November 28.

Parts of this review first appeared in Limelight Magazine.

The Australian Ballet performs John Neumeier’s Nijinsky

Because The Australian Ballet’s Nijinsky opened in Melbourne I didn’t review it for The Australian – my colleague Eamonn Kelly did the honours. I did, however, travel from Sydney to be the opening – how not? – and wrote about it for arts magazine Limelight. You can read that review here. And below are a few more images from this beautiful production – designed by choreographer John Neumeier – which I will see again in Sydney with different casts and without doubt write about again.

The expectation had been that AB principal Kevin Jackson, who featured strongly in all the publicity, would head the opening night cast. In the event Neumeier, artistic director of Hamburg Ballet, gave that honour to a longtime member of his company and a man much experienced in the role, Alexandre Riabko. Jackson danced the role of Vaslav at the second performance.

It’s always fascinating to see a company through new eyes. The really intriguing casting is that of Jake Mangakahia, who dances in the third cast as Vaslav. In fact, he should be just about taking the curtain calls after his debut performance as I write this on Saturday afternoon. Mangakahia is still in the corps de ballet and recently took two years off to undertake missionary work. He rejoined the company this year and has obviously lost none of the promise he had shown before taking his sabbatical. To be given this hugely demanding role in a ballet so close to Neumeier’s heart says much about his talent.

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Cristiano Martino as the Faun in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, right, with Alexandre Riabko, Leanne Stojmenov and Ako Kondo in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Dimity Azoury, Alexandre Riabko, Francois-Eloi Lavignac and Leanne Stojmenov in Nijinsky. Photo: Jeff Busby