Swan Lake, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 5.

Queensland Ballet’s Swan Lake had a 42nd Street quality on opening night as junior company member Joel Woellner was chosen to dance Prince Siegfried alongside the seasoned Odette-Odile of QB principal artist – and former top-ranked star at the National Ballet of Cuba – Yanela Piñera.

Piñera has presence in spades and technical prowess to burn. She laid out her credentials within seconds of taking to the stage with a pure, extended balance on pointe that was an eloquent expression of the Swan Queen’s sorrow and entrapment. As the imposter Odile she decorated the treacherous (for some; not her) fouette sequence with triple pirouettes and gave a magisterial account of her solo.

Qld Ballet

Yanela Piñera and Joel Woellner in Ben Stevenson’s Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Piñera nailed the big effects that seem to be a Cuban birthright, including sky-high extensions and Odile’s don’t-mess-with-me grand pirouettes in Act 3 but it was the delicate detail that lingered. Odette’s tiny flutters of foot against ankle in Act II were exquisite.

Woellner was going out a courageous youngster but had to come back a star, or at least as close to one as possible in a nearly impossible assignment. The desperate, deep-seated passion that should drive Siegfried eluded him, resulting in a muted relationship with Odette. There was, nevertheless, gleaming beauty in almost all his dancing. Double tours were plush and precisely landed and lovely air turns finished in stretched, poised arabesques. It was impressive to see how much value he gave each moment, never smudging or cutting steps short. Woellner is not yet a fully-fledged prince but is a hugely promising princeling.

Qld Ballet

Joel Woellner as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

For the first Swan Lake of his tenure as QB artistic director, Li not surprisingly chose Ben Stevenson’s 1985 version made for Houston Ballet. It makes sense for the size of the company – currently at 32 permanent members and 10 Young Artists – and Li knows the production well, having danced in it in those early days. One can also never underestimate the affection and loyalty Li has for Stevenson, now in his early 80s. Stevenson was responsible for Li’s American career and therefore in a sense all that followed.

It’s a conventional production based on the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov version. Stevenson retains some of the best-known choreography, although much is new. The 1985 designs by David Walker placed Stevenson’s ballet in the late 19th century but for this incarnation QB has borrowed Kristian Fredrikson’s luxuriant Renaissance-tinged designs made for Russell Kerr’s Royal New Zealand Ballet version in 1996.

The beating heart of Swan Lake is the first lakeside act in which Siegfried comes across Odette and her retinue of swan maidens, here a corps of 24 that sensibly incorporates the two Big Swans and four Cygnets. It’s a significant number for a company of QB’s size and was augmented by Queensland Ballet Academy pre-professional students. The teaching is clearly excellent. The corps as a whole looked beautifully schooled and had the strength-in-unity power that makes Act 2 so captivating. (And these dancers have to be strong: Lucy Green, newly appointed soloist at QB, on opening night danced in the Act 1 pas de trois, was a Cygnet in Act 2 and the Spanish Princess in Act 3. This was the night before her Odette-Odile.)

Qld Ballet

Lucy Green, Neneka Yoshida, Lina Kim and Teri Crilly. Photo: David Kelly

Different details in storytelling mean the fit isn’t always exact between Stephenson’s vision of the ballet and Fredrikson’s designs. The white acts looked wonderful, of course, but in the first and fourth acts it wasn’t always easy to get a grip on all-important distinctions of rank. It was surprising in this respect to see the Queen arrive without a suitable entourage to Siegfried’s coming-of-age celebration, symbolically set in a thick glade through which there’s a glimpse of decaying grandeur.

In Act 3, when foreign princesses are presented to Siegfried so he can choose a bride, the princesses lead the national dance of the country they represent. At RNZB the princesses wore distinctive, decorative tutus; here they are dressed similarly to all the other women in their troupe and dance like entertainers, some friskily showing quite a lot of leg and behaving quite unregally.

Stevenson trims the action significantly, for good and bad. Act 1 is enjoyably fast-paced while shortened Acts 3 and 4 elide with dramatically convincing sleight of hand. I was less convinced by the transition from Acts 1 to 2, in which the Prince dances his yearning solo while his mother (Zenia Tátcheva) pressures – no, harangues – him about the weighty responsibilities of State he must take on. It rather spoils the mood.

With the production coming in at under two hours of dancing, Tchaikovsky’s music at times sounds chopped back to its detriment although at the opening the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under QB music director Nigel Gaynor delivered a sympathetic account of what is there. Concertmaster Warwick Adeney’s violin solos in Act II and III were sublime.

Qld Ballet

Lina Kim and Victor Estévez in Act 1 of Swan Lake. Photo: David Kelly

Stevenson’s choice of music for Siegfried and Odette’s final pas de deux in Act 4 comes from left field. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 and Riccardo Drigo had a hand in arranging music for the 1985 Petipa-Ivanov production, orchestrating Tchaikovsky’s piano piece Un poco di Chopin, a mazurka, for this section. Drigo smoothed out the mazurka’s prominent accents and slowed the conventionally bright tempo to achieve a romantic quality, but to these ears the music underplays the depths of Siegfried’s agony and contrition. Stevenson, however, obviously feels it better expresses Siegfried’s remorse for having betrayed Odette. In any event, it is rarely heard these days.

Perhaps transcendence was hard to come by on opening night but there was plenty of fine dancing, particularly from Lucy Green, Lima Kim and Victor Estevez as they whizzed and fizzed through the Act I pas de trois. Vito Bernasconi as Von Rothbart didn’t have a huge amount to do but looked imposing, albeit perhaps rather too emphatic in his directions to Odile in the ballroom scene. It was too much of a giveaway.

As is the case in every production I’ve seen, Von Rothbart and Odile are immediately accepted as having a right to be at the ball with no questions asked. It’s always bemusing. (Kevin McKenzie’s American Ballet Theatre version has a red-hot go at dramatic coherence by making Von Rothbart amazingly sexy and charismatic. He makes every woman in the room, including Siegfried’s mother, bewitched, bothered and bewildered.)

Those lucky enough to have tickets for May 11 will see guest artist Evgenia Obratszova from the Bolshoi as Odette-Odile (she also danced on May 9). And at certain performances there is the interesting – but by no means revolutionary – splitting of those roles as Mia Heathcote dances Odette and Neneka Yoshida tackles Odile.

Swan Lake ends on May 13.

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.

Odette to the power of four

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane. August 28, September 3 (matinee), September 3 (evening), September 4.

THE first act of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake ends as evening falls. Prince Siegfried has hurried away from his birthday party with no ceremony, disquieted by the realisation his carefree days are numbered. Because he is about to become king – this is no ordinary birthday; this is his coming of age – his mother has said he must marry.

In McKenzie’s version of this endlessly fascinating ballet there are some aspects of the narrative that are drawn too sketchily and details to quibble over, but after seeing four performances I have been won over by the central idea. With Zack Brown’s storybook designs providing a sumptuous setting, McKenzie creates a fantasy world in which myth can thrive, in which a sorcerer could cast a spell that turns a princess into a swan by day, and in which he can himself shape-shift between monster and suave nobleman.

Act III of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Act III of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

The atmospherics are nowhere better captured than at the Act I finale, in which the peasants who have been enjoying Siegfried’s festivities are the last to leave. Without the aristocracy present and bathed in Duane Schuler’s lustrous lighting design, they start gamboling more freely as the light fades, picking up wine goblets to take with them as they depart. I was reminded of Matisse’s painting La Danse, which celebrates the primal joy of communal celebration, and it is an image I will carry with me for a long time.

All this can only work, of course, if the dancers persuade one to enter their imaginative realm.

There was much to interest balletomanes. Misty Copeland made her debut as Odette and Paloma Herrera gave what was possibly her final performance in the role – the decision will come when Swan Lake is staged in ABT’s next season, which will be Herrera’s last (she recently announced her impending retirement). Newly minted principal artist Isabella Boylston appeared (unfortunately I missed her and Daniil Simkin, but people raved; I also missed Veronika Part). Martine Van Hamel, former ABT great, played the Queen Mother at some performances and radiated command. Recently elevated soloist Joseph Gorak showed why he has been plucked from the corps and two men still in the corps, Arron Scott and Calvin Royal III caught the eye. Yet another corps member, Thomas Forster, made a saturnine, panther-like Von Rothbart in several casts.

Three conductors shared Swan Lake duty over the nine performances, two of them with Australian connections. Music director Ormsby Wilkins was born in Sydney and was The Australian Ballet’s resident conductor in 1982, thereafter being a frequent guest conductor while making his career in the northern hemisphere. ABT principal conductor Charles Barker was the AB’s music director from 1997 to 2001 and is married to former AB principal dancer Miranda Coney. Each directed the Queensland Symphony Orchestra quite differently, and each time the QSO acquitted itself handsomely.

The ABT season, the company’s first in Australia, unfortunately got off to a lacklustre start. There may have been extenuating factors. David Hallberg was to have partnered Hee Seo on the August 28 opening night but withdrew relatively late to have ankle surgery. Cory Stearns was moved in. Whether it was jetlag or just one of those unfathomable matters of chemistry who knows, but Seo and Stearns failed to catch fire. Seo has many beautiful qualities as a dancer but looked uninvolved, Stearns operated on one supercilious level and the relationship was unprofitable. Alexandre Hammoudi’s Act III Von Rothbart was therefore left to provide the fireworks, and if Von Rothbart is the highlight of the show there’s a problem. The corps was untidy too. Not a great night all round.

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

Misty Copeland as Odile. Photo: Darren Thomas, Photo Co

I returned a week later to see Copeland’s historic debut as Odette. Tucked away at a Wednesday Brisbane matinee she gave an impassioned performance that brought the house to its feet. Her Odette was intense, warm and dramatically alert; her Odile sparkled seductively. It was a wonderful first performance. Indeed, it was the only one to bring tears to my eyes, even though her Siegfried, Hammoudi (also making a debut) was off form technically. Still, he partnered beautifully, and that ultimately mattered most.

That evening (September 3) Gillian Murphy gave an entirely different performance, imbued with the deep, deep understanding she has absorbed over many years. She, more than any other I have seen, evoked the eternal nature of Odette’s predicament. She was captured aeons ago and there is nothing but sorrow in her future. All those years in Von Rothbart’s thrall have altered her irrevocably. Murphy’s Odile was equally distinctive – fascinatingly hard, cold and vindictive. James Whiteside’s all-American boy Siegfried (divinely danced, with a blinder of an Act I solo) didn’t stand a chance.

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake Act III. Photo: Gene Schiavone

On September 4 Paloma Herrera was stupendous, filling the stage with old-world glamour of a kind exceptionally rare these days. She took much of Odette’s choreography incredibly slowly – David LaMarche conducted – and claimed rapt attention at every instant. She commanded the stage more as a distillation of Swan Lake’s themes than the embodiment of two opposing characters. She seemed somehow abstract, yet entirely mesmerising. Odile has a balance on pointe in arabesque that often lasts only a split second; Herrera held it for an age: poised, implacable, timeless. Herrera has been a principal with ABT for 20 years and looks as if she could dance another 20. If it turns out this was her swan song, if you will, it was a great one.

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie's Swan Lake for ABT

Paloma Herrera in Act II of Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake for ABT

Herrera was partnered by Stearns, whose dancing was as handsome and velvety as it had been on opening night but this time he was engaged and vivid. He looked an entirely different man. I’m sometimes asked how I can go to the same show again and again. It’s because it’s never the same show, not ever.

ABT is Brisbane-bound

ONE way of looking at the repertoire for American Ballet Theatre’s Brisbane visit in August and September – its first to Australia – is with absolute pragmatism: there’s Swan Lake, of course, which is for many audience members the ballet gold standard, and there’s a triple bill made up of pieces the company is currently performing.

But the pieces very much describe ABT too – its nature as a company of stars and its history as an organisation that has had extremely close relationships with some of the most admired choreographers in the field. In 2006 Congress recognised ABT as the national ballet company of the United States and it is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in Bach Partita.

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita.

On a visit to Sydney last week to promote the tour (Brisbane, Melbourne and Auckland were also on the whirlwind agenda), ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie described a company on a firm footing. ABT recently added more New York performances to its annual schedule, although there will be a loss next year when Nutcracker moves from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (one of three venues for ABT in New York) to Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center in California’s Orange County.

“It makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. We have a long-term relationship with Segerstrom Center out there and it’s crowded [in NYC]. We found it difficult frankly to market a season in three different venues, sometimes marketing three different venues at the same time. We know we go to Washington every year. This will ensure we go to Orange County every year. Frankly it’s a better venue to see the production [by Alexei Ratmansky].”

While in Sydney McKenzie spoke engagingly for an hour to a Friends of the Australian Ballet gathering. He said that while George Balanchine was carrying out his unique vision for what would become New York City Ballet, early ABT patron and director Lucia Chase “collected the best of the best” for Ballet Theatre (ABT’s name until 1957). On the choreographic front there were Agnes de Mille and Anthony Tudor, and “getting Tudor was the defining moment. Energy begot energy. ABT became a company of dancers who could do it all. ABT didn’t have a school for decades so talent came from around the world. Everyone fits into ABT. They all took from each other. There was individualism.’’

While there is now a school to feed ABT, the company didn’t want to lose the international influences that built it. “Style is a thing we take on and off like our clothes,” McKenzie said. “There are fundamentals we all agree on.” (Even now the ABT corps is only 30 per cent a product of the school.)

Sitting at the apex of the company is a roster of 16 principal artists, some with dual associations that must make scheduling a nightmare for McKenzie. David Hallberg is also a principal at the Bolshoi Ballet, Roberto Bolle is resident guest artist at La Scala and Polina Semionova is a guest artist at St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, where Ivan Vasiliev is a principal dancer. Diana Vishneva regularly appears in her Russian homeland, and Gillian Murphy has been principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet for the past three years, although that position is unlikely to continue when Ethan Stiefel, her fiancé, relinquishes his post as RNZB artistic director on September 1.

Vasiliev will not be coming to Brisbane, says McKenzie, but he hopes Bolle’s schedule will permit his presence. “He’s got a tight schedule, but it could work. The objective is to get him here.” Hallberg is on board for the tour, as is Murphy and, it is anticipated, most or all of the other ABT principals.

McKenzie, artistic director of ABT for 22 years (and still happy in the service, he says) told the Friends in Sydney that nothing about the way the company operates had changed from the first performance. “There’s a chaotic scrappiness. A tale of too much with too little time and too little resources and coming out looking good. There’s a passion to do it; everything else needs to be gotten around.”

The version of Swan Lake to be performed in Brisbane is McKenzie’s, which premiered in 2000. It is staged annually. “It’s mainly for marketing reasons,” McKenzie said frankly. They know they can sell it every single year so they want to do it. To quote George Balanchine, I wish everything was called Swan Lake.”

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone

For the Brisbane mixed bill, called Three Masterpieces, McKenzie chose the three choreographers who he said have had or will have the greatest impact on the company: Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Alexei Ratmansky, who is ABT’s artist in residence with a contract stretching to 2023. (That contract allows Ratmansky to work with other companies for half the year; he recently made a new Cinderella for The Australian Ballet.)

Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944) follows the fortunes of three high-spirited sailors on leave and is a happy showcase for exuberant male dancing. Tharp’s Bach Partita (1983) is fascinating because 28 years passed between its premiere and its revival last year, and Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas (2009) is the work of the busiest and most feted exponent of classical ballet working today. I spoke to McKenzie about the two newer works.

“This is the finest classical ballet since Balanchine’s death, which also took place in 1983.”

– Robert Gottleib, New York Observer, 2013, on Tharp’s Bach Partita

“Bach Partita celebrates the grand architecture of ballet and also each disappearing moment, each inimitable person … Tharp has built a wondrously strange thing: a monument to evanescence.”

– Apollinaire Scherr, Financial Times, 2013

Kevin McKenzie:  A 28-year gap [he laughs]. I think it was largely because of the violinist issue [the work was made to Bach’s Partita in D minor]. For a period of time it had to do with our venue issues, but I think it was really more about the violinist. Twyla created this work to a recording of Jascha Heifetz and he had a particular rendition of particular parts of it that were really fast, and it was a choice. It was an interpretation of it that is incredibly difficult to replicate.

When we first did it we didn’t really have the proper sort of representation, that kind of speed. Twyla wanted us to do it to tape. We can’t do that. By mandate, by union rules, if it can be played it must be played. And I agree with it. That’s part of the magic of live theatre. Then it became apparent that it was hard to find a violinist worth their salt who was going to deliver Heifetz’s performance. They wanted to deliver their own performance. It was either put on the back shelf or it was a stand-off: ‘do it to tape or don’t do it at all’. Suddenly a fair amount of time went by.

When I became director I asked about it, doing it at City Center, and Twyla said, ‘It’s not big enough [the theatre]; you just can’t do it. The stage won’t support the patterns.’ I commissioned from her Brahms-Haydn [The Brahms-Haydn Variations, 2000] and it just brought [Bach Partita] to mind. I thought it’s getting to be 20 years, it’s time we did it.

And then the violinist issue came up again. I think really through time it was about breaking down the barriers about who had the chops to do it; should it be a big-name person or should it be a discovery, whose choice should it be? Ultimately we found this wonderful violinist, Charles Yang, who is a product of his age. He can play those Bach partitas with a real personality of his own but deliver the tempos that Twyla wanted. He’ll do that for us one night and then he’s off doing some new-wave project the next night. It’s remarkable. [Yang will come to Brisbane with ABT.]

In the end, that’s it. One can always look for a juicy story but sometimes it really is a matter of waiting for all the stars to align.

It was astounding to see it come to life, a 28-year memory. And what is memory, how accurate is it? It’s really made up of impressions. When I saw it come to life whole swaths of it that looked familiar and I could see the dancers that it was created on behind the choreography. Other parts I had no memory of. Ultimately what was really astounding to me, and riveting, was how exactly like the music the structure of the ballet is – intensely intricate and fierce.

The music is layered with information, and the structure of it, the designs, the floor plans, if you will, the patterns, are just ingenious and they have the intensity of the music and it takes 36 dancers to execute. The one thing I had never considered was that – I walked away and thought I’d seen a visual version of the music.

 “Three gentle-mannered couples in simple, fluid white clothing by Holly Hynes treat the music as if it were a glade in which to dance together, alone, and in couples. One of Ratmansky’s great gifts is stitching together classical steps in ways that are full of trickery. Yet the unexpected twists or changes of directions or choice of movements never look plotted. His choreography breathes, sighs, pauses, plays a joke, and runs off laughing, as if complex, difficult dancing were a simple, easy-to deliver utterance.”

– Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice, 2009, on Seven Sonatas

McK: Seven Sonatas is like putting your head into a very private dinner party. I wanted [Ratmansky] represented, and this was the work that was going to be in repertory this year. He’s doing a new Sleeping Beauty for us in our 75th anniversary so there’s no time for him to create a new smaller work, so we’re beginning to curate the smaller works that we have already.

The thing that is representative of Ratmansky in Seven Sonatas is it is incredibly personable. One feels as if they are making it up as they go along. It seems to be a signature of his – it’s like you’re listening in on a conversation between the artists. It’s a very intimate piece. That notion of a conversation between artists was something that the music really drove.

[DJ: Is there a link with Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering?] To some degree. Yes, if you were to say that Dances at a Gathering is a genre, yes, to that degree. That’s where the likeness begins and ends. It’s so definitely Ratmansky in the way that Robbins is so definitely Robbins. Tudor’s Leaves are Fading – that is very Dances at a Gathering genre too, but they have no resemblance to one another.  One is absolutely Tudor, the other absolutely Robbins.

Visiting Australia with McKenzie were principals Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside, who described their experience of dancing Swan Lake together.

James Whiteside: When I joined ABT that was my first Swan Lake. First of all I needed to learn the steps. That’s where we started. Obviously we had met before. Kevin [McKenzie] would get us into the studio and say, okay, you start over there, and go step, step, kick, step. Not really.

Gillian Murphy: No, that’s not the choreography!

JW: We took it from there, one step at the time.

GM: I was excited to dance with James for his very first performance of Swan Lake and I’d say I am spoiled from dancing with Ethan [Stiefel], Angel [Corella], Marcelo [Gomes], David [Hallberg] – pretty much everyone. I’d never danced with James before, so before we even did anything I said, James, I need to tell you I’m spoiled, I’ve done this ballet with so many amazing men and it’s one of my favourite ballets, love it so much, and so I’m not usually difficult at all but I may have some things I’ve learned over the years so …

When we had our first rehearsal I wasn’t worried at all but didn’t know what to expect exactly, and from the first moment James partnered me I was like, oh, ok. I’m in really good hands here, so this is going to be really fun. And from the first rehearsal we were getting really excited about it. For me, just to dance it with James in his first performance is a special thing because I wanted to be there for him and to make it a special debut.

In terms of talking about the characters and whatnot, once James had learned the choreography it was a matter of we would do parts of the pas de deux and Kevin would say, this is looking good, but what are you saying there? This is where the conversation starts.

JW: If there’s a moment where I am unsure of what something means, I’ll speak up and say, I don’t understand why I’m doing this. Please enlighten me. I think it’s important to infuse your dancing with meaning instead of mindless steps. That’s why I felt so confident dancing with Gillian because I could read her movements so easily and see it in her eyes exactly what she was thinking and it made the conversation very simple in a way, and I think that’s the best policy when it comes to acting.

GM: James and I respond to each other’s body language very innately which is good. This is not a verbal art form. So we could talk about it ad nauseum and we could both talk about our characters and what we’re feeling here and what we’re feeling there, and sometimes we would do that, but for the most part there are a lot of things that are best said through your body, and that’s what we’re responding to. So that conversation happens in the moment, and it’s different every moment. The premiere that we did together was a very special performance I thought. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

JW: When you’re premiering a role and especially a ballet as iconic as Swan Lake, there’s a certain expectation and pressure. I have to say I was incredibly surprised that I enjoyed every moment of it. It was such a comfortable performance. I couldn’t have been happier to dance with Gil and having literally such a great time on stage, feeding off of each other’s energy and the energy of the audience and our peers and making art.

American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (nine performances), August 28-September 4; Three Masterpieces (four performances), September 5-7, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

Footnote: I read that former ABT principal Cynthia Harvey was in the first cast of Bach Partita so, having interviewed her before, I got in touch to ask what she remembered of the piece. Harvey described her thoughts as only “my vague recollection over a great many years”, but despite the passing of so many years her description is useful and interesting.

Cynthia Harvey: I was not a principal dancer in the original cast, I was one of the soloists but later I did dance, I believe it was the part originally done on Magali Messac. All I can recall is that the choreography was intricate – Twyla used a lot of phrases that were repeated either in retrograde (like movie film going backwards) or we did phrases that were in canon – perhaps facing another direction. I recall a certain formality but simplicity. I don’t know if it was intentional to NOT “go for Baroque” in terms of gesture, but the intricacy might have been the tribute. I think the formality and sweep of the movement reflected the music. I remember there were issues regarding using our ABT musicians to perform the partita as Twyla had the tempi and especially the emphasis of dynamics based on one recording. That she choreographed those emphases, or at the very least, we couldn’t avoid placing musical emphasis in parts she choreographed, was part and parcel of the recording she had been inspired by.

The year ahead

And coming up in 2014 …

LAST year it was easy to point to the events in dance one thought would be unmissable (not so very many) and theatre (vast amounts). Mostly performances and productions delivered pretty much what one thought they would and moments of transcendence were few, but I guess they always are. Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, Griffin Theatre Company’s The Floating World and Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times (for the Melbourne Festival) are among the shining few, and opera offered tremendous occasions in Opera Australia’s Ring cycle and Pinchgut’s Giasone.

This year is a bit harder to read, particularly in theatre. There’s a handful of sure things – well, likely sure things, if that makes any sense at all – alongside some more intriguing propositions. Note that I’m only talking about Sydney theatre because that’s where I see most in this art form. Otherwise I get around a bit.

The events are in chronological order – which incidentally reveals a few unfortunate clashes for the dedicated dance fan – American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (Brisbane) and The Australian Ballet’s La Bayadere (Melbourne) open August 28; West Australian Ballet’s La fille mal gardee (Perth) and ABT’s Three Masterpieces triple bill opens September 5. Akram Khan’s DESH opens in Brisbane on September 6.

Dance:

Dido & Aeneas, Sasha Waltz & Guests. From January 16, Sydney Festival. Purcell, the Akademie fur Alte Musik, singers, dancers and a huge tank of water.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre. From June 13 in Sydney, then Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne. Stephen Page’s new work on the meeting of minds between Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young indigenous woman, in colonial Sydney.

Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet. From June 27, Brisbane. Kenneth MacMillan’s version (the best in my opinion) and guest stars Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae and Daniel Gaudiello.

The Red Shoes, Expressions Dance Company, from July 18, Brisbane. Choreographer Natalie Weir tackles this much-loved, influential – albeit rather creepy – story of obsession in the ballet world. Intriguing.

American Ballet Theatre, from August 28, Brisbane only. First up is Kevin Mackenzie’s Swan Lake, but I’m more interested in the triple bill, which includes Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus. From September 5.

La Bayadere, The Australian Ballet, from August 28 in Melbourne, then Sydney. Choreographer Stanton Welch promises Bollywood colour and energy and a clearer, speedier version than usual. The beloved Kingdom of the Shades scene will, of course, be as expected.

La Fille mal gardee, West Australian Ballet, from September 5. This sweet and sunny ballet, updated to 1950s rural France, is seen in Perth and then will go to Queensland Ballet in 2015. QB’s Coppelia, choreographed by ballet master Greg Horsman (opening April 24 this year), goes to WAB next year in a sensible sharing of resources.

DESH, Akram Khan, from September 6, Brisbane Festival. I have longed to see this since its premiere and missed it at the Melbourne Festival in 2012. This is one occasion on which I won’t rail against the tendency of arts festivals to program work from a fairly small (admittedly stellar) group of dance artists.

Theatre:

Noises Off, Sydney Theatre Company, from February 17. I first saw Michael Frayn’s brilliant farce about 30 years ago and laughed like a loon. The memories are vivid; let’s hope they can be matched – surpassed even! – by this new production.

Ganesh versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Carriageworks, from March 12. At long last Sydney gets to see this hugely admired work.

Hedda Gabler, Belvoir, from June 28. Ash Flanders will star. And yes, he’s a bloke who often performs in female guise. Flagrant nicking of a role a woman should have or a revelation? We shall see.

Macbeth, Sydney Theatre Company, from July 21. STC is giving over the auditorium of the Sydney Theatre to the actors and putting the audience on the stage. Hugo Weaving stars. Sounds promising, no?

Emerald City, Griffin Theatre Company, from October 17. David Williamson never really went away, despite the protestations of retirement, but he’s having quite the resurgence these days (Travelling North gets things moving at STC from January 9).

Opera and musical theatre:

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Opera Australia, from March 21. No explanation required.

Strictly Ballroom the Musical, from March 25, Sydney. No explanation required.

The King and I, Opera Australia and John Frost, Brisbane, from April 15, then Melbourne and Sydney. I saw this lovely production when it premiered in 1991, directed by Christopher Renshaw, designed by Brian Thomson and with frocks by Roger Kirk that got their own applause. There’s no reason to think it won’t be a winner again, particularly with Lisa McCune rather than Hayley Mills as Anna.

Into the Woods, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from July 19. Stephen Sondheim. Say no more.

The Riders, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from September 23. New Australian opera from Iain Grandage with libretto by Alison Croggon, based on Tim Winton’s book.

Robert Curran

In the first of an occasional conversation and discussion series, former Australian Ballet principal artist Robert Curran talks about his sometimes frustrating, not yet achieved but deeply considered and tenaciously sought transition from dancing to an artistic directorship

ROBERT Curran gave his last performance with The Australian Ballet on November 26, 2011 – as Danilo in The Merry Widow – and took a year off to prepare for what he hoped would be his second act: running a ballet company. Such a role hasn’t yet come his way so the preparations continue, with Curran determined to prove he has what it takes.

To that end, earlier this year he took the position of rehearsal director for Bangarra Dance Theatre, a company with 13 permanent dancers based in Sydney. He still has a mortgage in Melbourne so doesn’t have a permanent base in the harbour city. He couch-hops, he says. Curran has a long-distance relationship, another sacrifice he’s prepared to make to achieve his goal.

Robert Curran at Bangarra's Sydney headquarters. Photo: Quentin Jones

Robert Curran at Bangarra’s Sydney headquarters. Photo: Quentin Jones

Curran, now 36, spent his entire 16-year career at the AB, where for a decade he held the top rank. He succeeded Steven Heathcote as the AB’s undisputed leading man, a title that is still up for grabs at the national company. He was much missed during last year’s season of Onegin. The title role in John Cranko’s ballet would have been a perfect fit for someone whose partnering gifts were unequalled in his time with the AB and still remain unequalled. But, as Curran says about the timing of his retirement, there’s never a good time to stop, but there is a right one.

He has been setting himself up for the future more than a decade. He has a degree in business studies (including psychology, human resources and marketing) and a certificate of elite dance instruction from the Australian Ballet School. He choreographed four short works for the AB’s experimental Bodytorque program and co-founded a small Melbourne-based, project-based, contemporary ballet company, JACK, which is currently on hiatus.

As well as working with indigenous dance company Bangarra, Curran has been asked to choreograph Nixon in China for Victorian Opera.

Curran and I spoke recently at length about his commitments with Bangarra and how he has gone about making himself an attractive candidate for an artistic directorship. His openness is engaging and his insights enlightening. This is an edited transcript of his views on ballet. – DEBORAH JONES

The ballet of the future:

I DEVOUTLY believe the classic ballets are just as important as a Turner or a Manet. Everyone should see the Coppelias and Giselles. That foundation is very important. For a dancer, the kind of training needed is invaluable. Those ballets need to be ongoing.

But we need new versions of the classics, and at the same time we need to push into collaboration with actors, onstage musicians, circus artists, to create works that will be tomorrow’s classics. Collaborations that come out of a more multi-disciplinary approach might create something that could be considered worthy of joining the canon of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, Giselle. It might be a version of a story we haven’t heard of yet and [performance artist] Marina Abramovic is involved somehow. It might be that in 100 years dancers are fighting to keep that alive.

“I have this vision of a classical ballet dancer who has full dramatic skills, who can sing, can speak, can project their voice, can be in film, can be up in the air, multi-disciplinary, rich in their art form.”

I love going to the theatre, hearing the rumpty-tumpty music of Don Quixote or La Bayadere, or sitting in the dark hearing the overture to Suite en Blanc. You know you’re in for a pure classical treat. But I also like sitting in a traverse theatre [as he did recently] with 20 other people seeing a show with one actor playing every single role. The weirder, the crazier the better. I have this vision of a classical ballet dancer who has full dramatic skills, who can sing, can speak, can project their voice, can be in film, can be up in the air, multi-disciplinary, rich in their art form.

You need to be talking on stage, singing on stage, miming, putting yourself way outside your comfort zone. What you learn about your art from experimentation you can apply to Swanhilda or Odette. There is a maelstrom of activity [elsewhere] that is sometimes lacking in classical ballet. For many dancers there’s no awareness that you need to extend yourself.

I was reading Jennifer Homans’s Apollo’s Angels and was incensed at her last chapter [in which she expressed the view that ballet was in its death throes] … We could talk about this for hours. People have this expectation that we’re going to have to grow another limb to make dance new and exciting. The beauty of classical ballet is the rigour that results from that training; it’s the collaboration and trying new combinations rather than trying to come up with new movements.

There is no new movement. You go forward and back and sideways and up and down. You have two arms and two legs and one head. That’s kind of it.

Life at Bangarra:

I ARRIVE at around 8 o’clock and try to get as much administration done before class, which is at 10. So I’m doing schedules, co-ordinating a lot of the Safe Dance program for the dancers. I’m in charge of all their physio with the in-house team, organising teachers and pianists. There’s a lot, a lot of admin. I enjoy doing it; it gives me a good insight into management, dealing with a lot of different people, getting things to work for people as much as possible, and then I either teach class or I try to do class with the dancers.

“If you see someone working on their own body with a focus that starts before class and finishes after class it’s an important example.”

They have class every day for an hour and a half – ballet, contemporary, theatre craft, yoga, Pilates. It depends on what they need at the time. There’s a long-term and a short-term strategic thing in my mind about what’s best [to develop the dancers] technically and what’s appropriate for the time of week and year.

Stephen [Page, Bangarra’s artistic director] is very trusting about that – he’s too busy to deal with it. He has his over-arching artistic vision for the company and he would most certainly let me know if that wasn’t being reached or was heading in a different direction. He’s great about giving me the responsibility about doing what’s best for the dancers to facilitate their work.

[After the early administration work] either I teach class or do it. I’m trying to keep in shape. Where possible it’s good to set an example and I like the idea of being fit and healthy and being able to demonstrate without risking life and limb. It’s for my own safety but it’s also important for younger dancers to observe someone who knows what they’re doing for themselves.  If you see someone working on their own body with a focus that starts before class and finishes after class it’s an important example.

Rehearsals start at 12. At the moment Blak is being created – I’m not actively involved in those rehearsals but like to be in the room wherever possible.  Daniel [Riley McKinley, 27] is a dancer and choreographer for Blak, so he’ll need another set of eyes to help him. He’s very open to collaborating with the dancers and with me. He’s very open-minded and intelligent about opening up a dialogue. A very smart man.

Soon after he joined Bangarra Curran went to northeast Arnhem Land with the company on one of its regular trips back to country …

AND what a mind-blowing experience that was! Of course I had my mental model of what it was like and it was a very strange experience to have that mental model blown away. I was really happy to have it blown away.

We went to local sacred sites and held a workshop [in Dhalinybuy]. Bangarra dancers were teaching and being taught by the local children. Then we went to Bremer Island where [Bangarra cultural consultant] Kathy Marika is from. And that was amazing too. It was a tropical holiday but with such intense, wonderful cultural saturation.I found it almost intimidating.

I felt my perception of my responsibility growing exponentially, which was a little bit disturbing but also inspiring. It reaffirmed this opportunity I’d been given, but it’s impossible not to notice that I’m not one of them. Impossible to not notice that and to be aware that this is not my world. My world is traditional ballet and the future of that. It’s challenging.

So how did Curran come to be at Bangarra?

I’M not embarassed to say that I got a little disillusioned with my search for artistic directorships. I do think there is a prevailing conservatism; either that or people are lying to me. Because everyone that gave me feedback on all of my applications said that my vision was exciting and inspiring but my lack of experience was the only thing that meant it couldn’t go forward. I began to get very disillusioned about the whole process, thinking, how am I going to get the experience before I get a job that’s going to give me the experience?

“Robert said to me straight up if a ballet job came up he would go. We’re very open. I just hope that job doesn’t come up just yet. He’s a decent man and he’s passionate, he just hunts quietly.”

– Stephen Page in The Australian, February 14, 2013

I wanted to have 12 months off [after leaving the AB] but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that about two months in I began to get itchy and not content to have it last that long. By November I was starting to really get my feet back in the water and I heard on the grapevine that my predecessor at Bangarra was leaving. It’s such a small world.

I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for Stephen. I’ve watched all of Bangarra’s shows; I really do respect what this company has done and is doing. So when the job came up I thought, well, I’m back in the studio, out of my comfort zone. I’ve always taken for granted what ballet staff do and artistic administration do, and it’s been great for me to get a deeper understanding of how much is involved. That’s a very valuable lesson for me.

The year off:

[AFTER his last show in Sydney] I had one night in Melbourne then went straight to New York for four or five weeks. I spent almost every day with American Ballet Theatre. They were wonderful. They opened the doors, said go where you want, meet who you want. Do what you want. In reality I didn’t spend that much time hovering behind Kevin McKenzie. It’s a really difficult thing to organise. I spent the time getting to know the company and their operations.

Then I went to [UK dance leaders’ forum] DanceEast. That was an interesting exercise because it really was getting at the crux of leadership. Not concentrating on networking or skills development, but very much more exploring what it means to be a leader in the arts.

A standout experience was the World Theatre Festival in Brisbane [in February 2012]. The potential for collaboration across artistic genres and artistic technologies was something I spent two weeks revelling in. It was such a wonderful two weeks. I went from London to Russia – I spent a lot of time in Russia, then went to Japan and then straight to Brisbane. There were some pretty exciting people – Belarus Free Theatre, Il Pixel Rosso, the Italian-British multimedia arts company, [Italian theatre company] Motus. It was really thrilling and inspiring.

I did a workshop with Il Pixel Rosso and and Motus. Il Pixel Rosso was specifically about multimedia, Motus was about the creative process and their methods of creation. I was really open and ready for it. I wanted to be outside my comfort zone, I wanted to get away from plies and fondus – for a period of time. Not to shun them, but get away from them for a time.

I thought it would be a good idea for me to spend some time exposing myself to other forms of theatre. I went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I saw the Bolshoi any number of times, I went to Kabuki theatre in Japan, symphonies, Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company. Any night I had free I was filling up with being in the theatre. Which is something I never got to do as a dancer. That was also contributing to my desire to experience more and see how it can apply to dance.

Does he feel he is now on his way?

IT depends on the day, to be honest. What I’m desperate for is for some company to take a risk and employ someone who has a really exciting vision, and then trust in the rest of their organisation – that there will be conversation and the existing administration, the existing dancers will safeguard the organisation. It’s a risk; I do get that.

“I should never, ever be artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, ever. I wouldn’t want to be … It’s not the right job for me and I’m not the right person for the job.”

I’m busy, I’m working hard, but Stephen knows that I’m looking for bigger things … I want more responsibility. I love the dancers in Bangarra, I love what this company does, and at the moment that’s fuelling me to go in and do the best I can do, but at the end of the day I have got a vision for ballet that I would like to put on a company.

We’re talking about a classical ballet company. We’re talking between 30 and however many classically trained dancers and what their potential is and fully exploring that potential. As I have respect for the heritage of Aboriginal dance, I have the same respect for the heritage of classical ballet, but I am really, really excited about throwing a bunch of actors and musicians and designers and classical dancers together in a room and seeing what exciting things they can come up with for whatever medium, be it film, stage, site-specific, flash mob-y, whatever.

It sounds trite, and it’s been said before, but they become the classics of tomorrow. That’s in my mind. That’s not being fulfilled at Bangarra. It’s not possible. I should never, ever be artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, ever. I wouldn’t want to be. It’s not the right fit. It’s not the right job for me and I’m not the right person for the job.

What is the involvement with Nixon in China?

THE second half of the second act is a scene where Pat and Richard Nixon go to the National Ballet of China to see The Red Detachment of Women. I’m not going to try to recreate it – the production is contemporary, a little bit sparse, and Victorian Opera doesn’t have the budget for 50 women in military costume.

There are four dancers and there is a lot of interaction with the principals. I’m trying to focus on ideas of liberation and what kind of emotional involvement there is in that, all framed within the American visit. Is America there to liberate China, or is China already liberated and trying to show America that they are?

I’m working on it only for three weeks so it’s a very short turnaround, but Bangarra’s tour to Melbourne coincides with the production of Nixon so it’s perfect for me. It will be stressful, but I’m really excited about collaborating and extending myself.

Are there any boundaries?

WOULD I go anywhere? Yes. Sydney is not my home. I’m couch-hopping. I wouldn’t say I’m hedging my bets, but it’s ridiculous to spend $400 a week on rent … I’m seeing this year as an opportunity to clarify my vision so when the opportunity arrives I can confidently say, “Look, I’d like to do a new version of this; I’d like to put this ballet with this ballet with this ballet.” I’ve done that in however many applications I’ve done. But I am contemplating and consolidating that vision.

Last year was a year of flux [vacancies came up at Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet]. Whether I’ve missed the boat and it’s another 10 years before there’s this kind of flux I don’t know. But I keep my ear to the ground. It’s a really difficult transition to make. I thought I was doing the right thing with my teacher’s course, bachelor of business, starting JACK Productions – but it’s not enough. I’ve made sure in the [Bangarra] contract that the company won’t have difficulty if I leave [early]. It clashes a bit with my feelings about how things should be done, but the [ballet] year in Europe and America starts in September; here in January. There’s a disconnect.

“It’s important to have leadership experiences that are not limited to your own art form. I believe passionately that ballet is still relevant, and have a great passion for it, but we do need to keep up, to be adaptable, flexible and open-minded.”

– Robert Curran, The Australian, November 29, 2011.

Applying to Queensland Ballet was by far the best experience. Their recruiting process was really, really good. It was my first [application] and they really walked me through it. It was a time full of hope for me, but they managed my disappointment as well. The fact that Li [Cunxin]  turned up with all his wonderful assets, there was no way anyone was getting to get a look in. And West Australian Ballet had their eye on Europe. [WAB appointed Belgian ballet master and rehearsal director Aurelien Scannella to the post.]

Leaving The Australian Ballet:

NOT dancing Onegin was a real wrench. It was difficult. I didn’t want to do Onegin and not enjoy it because of all the other things going through my head at that time. There was no other way for me to look at it than I was on the other side of the hill and sliding down. I was never going to be opening night Onegin. That decision had already been made. It wasn’t just that in and of itself [that sparked his retirement]. It was a combination of things – can I constantly prove that I’m worthy of doing the work that these young boys are ready to do?

I was being told that these people were ready and I needed to share. I had an awesome year with The Merry Widow, After the Rain, Concerto, then after that was told I needed to step back, to share. I understood that; but that didn’t happen to Steven Heathcote. I was his understudy until he decided to go.

But I got to do a traditional Swan Lake in Hong Kong in August 2011 with Jin Yao [previously a guest artist with the AB]; a beautiful production. I really, really loved it. I miss performing, and I really, really miss partnering. It could bring me to tears talking about it.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Blak opens on May 3 in Melbourne before touring to Wollongong, Sydney and Brisbane.

Victorian Opera’s Nixon in China opens in Melbourne on May 16.