One evening, four works

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, April 29.

LET’S start with the very best bit first. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra had a particularly good night on Tuesday under Australian Ballet music director Nicolette Fraillon’s leadership. The quadruple bill Chroma covers a lot of ground: Mozart for Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort and Sechs Tanze, Tchaikovsky’s homage to Mozart for a new piece by Stephen Baynes and Joby Talbot’s White Stripes-inspired score, written in 2006 for the Wayne McGregor work that gives this program its title.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Wayne McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Jess Bialek

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. Photo: Jess Bialek

Talbot’s music is gorgeously textured and richly coloured as well as providing a super-solid yet flexible base for McGregor’s out-there movement. It rocks and it rolls, often luxuriously and lyrically, and the AOBO conveyed the excitement and tension. The Kylian works are performed to Mozart’s Six German Dances and the sublime slow movements from his piano concertos numbers 21 and 23 (at the first performance the AB’s principal pianist Stuart Macklin was the fine soloist), and as a bonus Fraillon threw in the allegro first movement from Mozart’s Divertimento in D to provide a lively entr’acte between the two short Kylians.

McGregor’s piece is not without intimations of human connection but they are fleeting and enigmatic, as is so much else. 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.

On Tuesday night the AB cast of 10 didn’t entirely get on top of Chroma’s fantastically difficult transitions, many happening in a microsecond, from crisp to liquid and back again. There wasn’t enough bite and drama, although plenty of lovely moments in a work that repays repeated viewings. Andrew Killian, Brett Chynoweth and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson had plenty of attack in the fierce trio in the middle of the work and Amber Scott and Adam Bull gave a beautiful account of the quiet pas de deux that immediately follows.

Adam Bull and Robyn Hendricks in Petite Mort. Photo: Jess Bialek

Adam Bull and Robyn Hendricks in Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort. Photo: Jess Bialek

Petite Mort and Sechs Tanze were given rousing performances on Tuesday, possibly a little over the top in Sechs Tanze but in keeping with its gaiety in the face of whatever the fates decree. Four couples, dressed in what look like 18th century undergarments, engage in lots of horseplay, bouncing and jumping in unexpected, often surreal, but very playful ways. They could be servants breaking loose while the master is away, perhaps. There is certainly an undercurrent of trouble. The piece is introduced with the sound of thunder and at the end, when the music stops, the men and women retreat a little fearfully – an aspect of the work not fully brought out at this performance.

Despite one or two scrappy moments Petite Mort (performed before Sechs Tanze) again demonstrated the AB’s affinity for Kylian. In this ballet rousing is indeed the mot juste, as the title is a euphemism for orgasm. There are men with fencing foils, women in corsets, intimations of darkness and some outstandingly sexy dancing with lots of little orgasmic shudders.

In the middle came Baynes’s new Art to Sky. At its premiere it felt uncertain in tone and looked uninspiring in construction. There was a main man (Andrew Killian), a woman who seemed to represent a romantic ideal (Madeleine Eastoe, wasted) and a ballerina with a tiara (Lana Jones), but little sense of tension or compelling purpose. Elements of jocularity emerged that had the audience tittering a little unsurely and that felt unmotivated. Perhaps it would have been better to revive one of Baynes’s earlier one-act ballets, of which there are many stronger examples.

The costumes and set for Art to Sky do not help matters – there is a kind of grotto effect and most of the dancers are dressed as if in very neat practice gear. Hugh Colman, responsible for both aspects of the design, appeared to be having a very rare off day. Only days before Chroma I admired Colman’s charming design for Queensland Ballet’s Coppelia and he is also the designer of the glamorous tutus for Ballet Imperial, part of the Imperial Suite program that is in repertory with Chroma.

The decision to have two mixed-bill programs rather than the usual one would appear to be a very good one. It’s hard to sell 20 performances of anything other than a known story ballet, so to divide the season between Chroma and Imperial Suite could pay dividends. If audiences aren’t attracted by the likes of McGregor and Kylian, there’s the classical double of Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc to offer a big tutu fest.

Chroma alternates with Imperial Suite. Both end on May 17.

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

Imperial Suite

The Australian Ballet, Brisbane, February 26

THE men of The Australian Ballet get an occasional look-in but the double bill Imperial Suite is really all about the women. In Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc there is a flurry of white tutus and only one male dance of any substance. In George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial a leading ballerina, a secondary ballerina and two demi-soloists reign with the backing of several admiring and supportive danseurs.

Laura Tong in Suite en blanc. Photo: David Kelly

Laura Tong in Suite en blanc. Photo: David Kelly

Both are abstract works from the early 1940s over which not the tiniest shadow of world war falls. Their eyes are firmly on the 19th century, which helps account for the female-centric nature. The Balanchine pays homage to the transformative era of Tchaikovsky and Petipa in Imperial Russia and the Lifar is a bouquet to classical technique and the glamour of ballet. Together they present challenges very different from those of the three-act story ballet Manon, which was being staged in Brisbane at the same time.

The AB is trying out a new way of scheduling works – instead of every season being a solid block of performances of a single work there are several seasons that feature two works. To use Sydney as an example, in the past there would be 20 uninterrupted performances of a program, whether it was Swan Lake or a triple bill of contemporary work. Guess which program was more popular? This year there will be bills of newer work that get nine or 10 performances but together form a season of the usual length. A sensible move.

But back to Imperial Suite. Whereas MacMillan’s Manon asks for detailed characterisation in the British tradition of dramatic intensity that is also part of the AB’s heritage, both parts of Imperial Suite are displays of style and personality. Or, to put it another way, the character of the dancers themselves is tested, as is their mettle. Their individual qualities as artists are on display in a mercilessly bright light.

Suite en blanc opens with its full complement of performers seen frozen in a beautifully composed tableaux that never fails to elicit applause and gasps of appreciation. The AB is entirely comfortable with this diverse set of variations to the springy music of Edouard Lalo and glittered away happily at the first performance. Amber Scott, Laura Tong and Daniel Gaudiello shone in their respective solos (Flute, Cigarette, Mazurka) and Ako Kondo’s zesty turn – and her dazzling turns – in the Pas de Cinq were a delight. It is extremely satisfying to see performers who can bring strong individual gifts to a work without blurring its style. Suite en blanc is a white ballet with touches of black, warmed up at this performance by Scott’s other-worldly mystery and beauty, Tong’s womanly warmth, Gaudiello’s exuberance and Kondo’s old-style glamour (I know I keep using that word about Kondo, but it’s a quality not found as frequently at the ballet as you may think).

Rudy Hawkes and Amber Scott in Suite en blanc. Photo: David Kelly

Rudy Hawkes and Amber Scott in Suite en blanc. Photo: David Kelly

The more elusive qualities of Ballet Imperial were not entirely captured at the first performance. The AB performs Balanchine’s first thoughts on this ballet, decking it out in sparkling tutus in homage to Imperial Russia; later Balanchine had it recostumed in simple fashion and titled the work after its music, Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No.2 (Balanchine preferred this spelling of the composer’s name).

It is such a difficult ballet and only Lana Jones, in the first ballerina role, fully embodied the sophisticated, complex grandeur of the choreography and illuminated the bold drama of Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto. As the second ballerina Amy Harris was daringly fleet but didn’t project sufficient star wattage and nor did the main cavalier, Adam Bull. He was hampered, however, as were all the men, by costumes that made them look like bellboys at a leading Ruritanian hotel.

Ballet Imperial will undoubtedly get richer performances the more deeply it gets into the minds and bodies of the dancers. The shapes are there, but not a sense that the work is completely understood. All those echoes of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty have a purpose.

Imperial Suite is a big night musically. It starts with the Tchaikovsky, and in Brisbane Nicolette Fraillon conducted the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in a muscular performance. It is bold music, grand in concept and sweeping in nature. Hoang Pham was the admirable solo pianist. After interval comes Lalo, the music adapted from the unsuccessful ballet Namouna. The music is by turns sexy, witty and rousing, all of it fabulously danceable.

There were just two performances of Imperial Suite in Brisbane, but many more to come in Sydney and Melbourne in May and June.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 28.

Manon

The Australian Ballet, Brisbane, February 21

MANON, which premiered 40 years ago next month (March 7, 1974), is in an exclusive club, the handful of full-length 20th century ballets that have insinuated themselves firmly into the repertoire. The Australian Ballet doesn’t exactly have it on high rotation but, including this year, Manon has shown up five times in the 20 years since the AB first presented it, including a short Melbourne Festival season guest-starring Sylvie Guillem, for whom the title role was a signature one. Indeed, so well does Manon suit Guillem that despite her almost exclusive concentration on contemporary dance these days she appeared in the role as recently as 2011, with La Scala when she was 46.

Lucinda Dunn and Steven Heathcote in The Australian Ballet's Manon

Lucinda Dunn and Steven Heathcote in The Australian Ballet’s Manon

At the AB notable Manons have included Vicki Attard, Justine Summers, Kirsty Martin, Amber Scott, Rachel Rawlins and others – I have seen perhaps a dozen Manons and they all were quite different, as they need to be. One doesn’t go to Manon after Manon to remind oneself of the steps, just as repeated viewings of opera or hearings of a symphony are not undertaken so the experience can be repeated exactly. The role of Manon is greatly coveted because of the flexibility it offers, and for the unparalleled stream of shiveringly sexy pas de deux Kenneth MacMillan lavished on his heroine and her lover, the student des Grieux. Manon’s is a story of choices made and consequences suffered, with a flesh-and-blood immediacy that sets her quite apart from the supernatural and fairytale heroines who dominate the classical stage.

The AB’s 2014 season opened in Brisbane on Friday with Manon, featuring Lucinda Dunn in what was – and this is scarcely believable – her debut in the role. Dunn has been with the AB for 23 years and in the top rank since 2002 but was on maternity leave in 2008 when the production last surfaced. In 2001, the Melbourne Festival year, it was Guillem’s show. In 1999 Dunn was a senior artist and various principals had claims on the part. The wait was worth it. Dunn’s artistry deepens with each passing year and she must have a doppelganger in the attic absorbing the physical wear and tear that bedevils ballet dancers.

As the ballet opens Manon is on her way to join a convent, not because she has a vocation but because she is poor. She is diverted from this grim fate by chance, swept away by the handsome poet who is, alas, also impoverished. An opportunity to move up the greasy pole of prosperity is taken as money and slightly shop-worn glamour trump penniless young love. It will not end well. Now well versed in the ways of seduction and offered material rewards for it, Manon rides high in demi-mondaine society, falls low and pays with her life, as women must in 18th century operatic stories such as this. Easier to order the moon to relinquish control of the tides than to have the woman prosper, even though she is taking the only path open to her. Well, other than the convent.

In her first performance Dunn was wonderfully alert and active, the driver of her own destiny in co-operation with her brother, Lescaut. This is another role that can be played in a variety of ways – Lescaut can be brutal and controlling, or an amoral cad, or a louche charmer who is cannily opportunistic when he’s not drinking too much, which is the way it felt on Friday. The rakish dash of Lescaut’s choreography suited the first-cast Lescaut, Andrew Killian, extremely well and he and Dunn seemed like siblings, making sense of actions that can seem unmotivated in MacMillan’s headlong dash through the story’s reversals. Their trio with predatory Monsieur GM – scarily attractive Steven Heathcote, himself a former des Grieux of great note – was superb.

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

It was always worth focusing on the key players even when there was abundant colour and movement to distract attention. While the ensemble work is undeniably lively it is mostly inferior flim-flam. In what is supposed to be an upmarket brothel, for instance, the cavortings of MacMillan’s cutsey-pie scrubbers, decked out in appalling wigs, could not be less sexually alluring. In the opening scene there are cart-wheeling lads with grubby faces who are exceptionally cheerful, as such characters usually are in balletland, and entirely unbelievable. And they all conveniently go to sleep at the very same time so Manon and des Grieux can have their first gorgeous pas de deux.

It was much better to watch Lana Jones, dancing with wit and diamond brilliance as Lescaut’s mistress, and the des Grieux of Adam Bull, who started cautiously but got better and better – it will be good to see him after he has a few performances under his belt. That first long, slow solo, in which des Grieux yearningly offers himself to Manon is a tricky one and one could see Bull negotiating the steps rather than the character. His partnering in the first bedroom pas de deux had a couple of clunky moments, and then he seemed to click into gear and submit to the passionate drive of the piece.

The silken way in which Dunn approached the choreography excluded any element of coquettishness, a quality that is brittle and artificial. It is perfectly reasonable to treat Manon as a version of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, the knowing little madam whose first action on leaving school is to toss the farewell gift of a bible straight out the window of her carriage. But that kind of hard-edged calculation is not what Dunn showed. The luscious back bends and delicious ripples in the shoulder spoke of deep pleasure in Manon’s sexual awakening and the goodies it delivered. She didn’t have to work hard at attracting men; she just did.

The production, designed by Peter Farmer, looks suitably sumptuous on the stage of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Lyric Theatre, although I felt at one or two moments the lighting was brighter, and less evocative, than remembered, particularly in the final scene in the Louisiana swamps where Manon meets her end. Still, much of the staging looks like a luscious 18th-century painting come to life.

Along with Dunn’s debut, Friday’s performance brought the first opportunity to hear the newish (dating from 2011) arrangement and orchestration of the score by Martin Yates. Bits and pieces of Massenet, but not anything from his opera on this subject, were sourced and arranged for MacMillan by Leighton Lewis with input from Hilda Gaunt. It worked reasonably well, but after its overhaul the material now sounds more coherent and has a better sense of dramatic build.

The opening pages of the score have an attractive gauzy quality and the sense of transparency continues as a way of underscoring the fragility of the Manon-des Grieux romance before it builds into an outpouring of sexual urgency. The key melodies are lovely and work well as returning motifs that help the drama cohere, and overall Yates seems to have toned down aspects that could fall into the overly sentimental or vulgar category. I hope to get a few more hearings under the belt when Manon comes to Sydney, although undoubtedly one heard the music to greater advantage in the Lyric Theatre. Certainly it was very handsome on Friday in the hands of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the AB’s music director Nicolette Fraillon.

In the end, though, it was Dunn’s night as a woman who delighted in her power and thrilled to the sex, the gifts and the attention but most of all, I think, had that most human of desires: to belong.

The AB opened the year in Brisbane for scheduling rather than strategic reasons, but ballet is becoming a hot commodity here. With Queensland Ballet’s star-studded MacMillan Romeo and Juliet coming up and the American Ballet Theatre visit hot on its heels, you’d have to say Brisbane is now ballet central.

Queensland Performing Arts Centre until March 1. Melbourne March 14-24, Sydney April 3-23.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 24.

La Sylphide

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, November 7

WHAT to do about a ballet as dreamily brief as La Sylphide? In the middle of this year West Australian Ballet took the minimalist approach and added nothing to fill out the evening. Over the years the Australian Ballet has taken several paths.

In 1996, under Maina Gielgud’s directorship (and in her final year at the AB), I saw Bournonville’s La Sylphide (1836) in Brisbane in July paired with the premiere of Stanton’s Welch’s Red Earth. Later in the year, in Sydney, La Sylphide shared the bill with Jiri Kylian’s Stepping Stones (1991). Both were a “something old, something new” combination that may appear to be, as Gielgud wrote about the Kylian program, ‘’as extreme a contrast as you can get”. In fact a case can be made for a connection, not only between La Sylphide and Stepping Stones, but also Stepping Stones and Red Earth, and therefore La Sylphide, if that’s not too circuitous.

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Kylian, who came to Australia to oversee the final rehearsals of the first AB season of Stepping Stones, wrote in a program note of attending a 1980 gathering of Aborigines in northern Australia and being “deeply impressed by the central role which dance seemed to play in their lives”. He asked an old man why this was so, and received this response: “Because my father taught me and because I must hand my dance on to my son.” Culture equals history.

Kylian then wrote: “There is a line in my work which has – since then – been reflecting on this view of existence.” He was interested in “the traces old civilisations have left, traditions which show the way from out of a living past”. Welch’s Red Earth was concerned with the struggles white settlers had in trying to impose themselves on the ancient soil of Australia, and was danced to Peter Sculthorpe’s Nourlangie. (I think I’m right in saying Red Earth hasn’t been revived by the AB, although Welch staged it for Houston Ballet, where he is artistic director, in 2007.) As Sculthorpe wrote in a program note, the music’s name comes from a sacred rock in Kakadu and while the piece is not intended to be descriptive, “its concern is with my feelings about this powerful and serene place”.

It can be profitable to think of La Sylphide in the light of such reflections as more than just a silly fairy story, gossamer-light though it may appear. While its history is the swiftest blink of an eye compared with that of Aboriginal dance, La Sylphide comes, nevertheless, from the earliest days of what we recognise as ballet performance. Furthermore, ballet shares the old Aboriginal man’s tradition of – and reverence for – transmitting stories and history from person to person and body to body.

As for spiritual significance, the two traditions are divided by a gulf as wide and as old as the Australian continent. Yet in La Sylphide, as in Swan Lake and Giselle, there is a deep yearning for something beyond the tangible; a transcendence of quotidian relationships and responsibilities. In those three ballets, however, the spirit world represents the elusive and unattainable rather than Sculthorpe’s serenity.

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Colin Peasley as Madge in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

My cast list from the November 30, 1996, matinee performance of Stepping Stones, by the way, shows it was danced by Vicki Attard, Miranda Coney, Lynette Wills, Rachael Read, Geon van der Wyst, Damien Welch, Li Cunxin and Adam Marchant. Lucinda Dunn was the Sylph on that occasion. I saw three other performances in that Sydney season, and other casts of Stepping Stones included Lisa Bolte, Kirsty Martin, Robert Curran and David McAllister. What riches.

In 2005, under McAllister’s directorship, the AB went for stylistic unity, prefacing La Sylphide with two short Bournonville pieces – an excerpt from Le Conservatoire and the pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano – and Walter Bourke’s fizzy, taxing1974 Grand Tarantella. The Grand Tarantella casts included current principals Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello (then coryphée and corp de ballet member respectively); and Lana Jones (then a coryphée) with Remi Wortmeyer, now a principal with Dutch National Ballet. Good to see McAllister’s eye was nicely in.

Which is all a long way of getting to the current AB La Sylphide, in which the Romantic ballet is preceded by the wedding celebration from Petipa’s version of Paquita (1881), based on Joseph Mazilier’s 1846 original, in which Petipa himself once danced. Early Romantic ballet had given way to the grand classical style dominated by Petipa, but the bloodline is there.

Of these five approaches – one from WAB, four from the AB – my heart and my head are with the Stepping Stones solution. The connection was one of imagination rather than style, which is more interesting, I think – and I must also be honest and say Stepping Stones is an enduring favourite of mine.

Furthermore, on opening night last Thursday the AB didn’t really make a big case for the huge chunk of dance ripped from context that is Paquita. Given its essential meaninglessness, Paquita can work only as spectacle and illumination of the classical form with its array of principals, soloists, demi-soloists and corps.

Lana Jones was divine as leader of the pack, I’ll say that much. She presented a glowing image of the all-conquering ballerina, glamorous yet highly aware of her role as benefactress as she graciously inclined her head this way and that to acknowledge our presence. Her role was to be adored; ours was to adore. That was also the task of her cavalier, Kevin Jackson, who had his successes and shortcomings in the proceedings. Uncompromising purity of line and pinpoint accuracy were not always his to command, although his self-effacing demeanour and seamless partnering were attractive.

There was too much untidiness in the ranks for comfort and while the four solos were all attractively danced, only Ako Kondo in the third raised the spirits to the required level. Along with Jones she radiated the qualities of grandeur, composure, elegance, ease and sophistication that are the non-negotiable requirements if Paquita is to have any reason for being.

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

While Hugh Colman’s tutus are beyond delicious, Paquita otherwise has an unappealingly basic look. There are two chandeliers, which are fine; a backdrop of little points of light in a dark cloth, which is OK; and nothing else other than black tabs at the side of the stage. Talk about dreary.

To end on a happy note, La Sylphide is exquisitely staged and on opening night conductor Paul Murphy, a guest from Birmingham Royal Ballet, shaped the Lovenskjold score superbly, particularly in the overture. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra did honour (mostly) to this uncomplicated but charming and effective music.

Gielgud used to say the AB “always had an instinctive understanding” of La Sylphide and under McAllister – who was invited to join the AB by Gielgud and whose career was shaped by her – that understanding continues. The airy delicacy of the upper body, crisp batterie, the upward trajectory in leaps, precision of mime, the softest of landings – all were present and correct.

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello as James in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

With her slightly otherworldly air, Madeleine Eastoe is a natural for the Sylph. Daniel Gaudiello – and how wonderful it is to see him getting more opening nights – has matured greatly as an actor and on opening night gave James a credibly dark hue. Andrew Wright (Gurn) soared in his solo and also created a well-shaded character.

It was a joy to see Colin Peasley back on stage. A founding AB member, he retired formally last year during the company’s 50th anniversary celebrations – such a nice round number, he said of his half-century – but of course we hadn’t seen the last of him, nor should we.

Peasley is a quintessential creature of the stage. His Madge is better than ever, perhaps more nuanced than in the past and delivered with the wisdom of ages.

La Sylphide ends at the Sydney Opera House on November 25.

Symmetries

Monument, The Four Temperaments, After the Rain pas de deux. The Australian Ballet, Canberra Theatre, May 23.

MANY a distinguished artist has come a cropper when asked to create something to order for a special occasion, whether they be a poet laureate, a painter or, in this case, a choreographer. Being handed weighty, worthy subject matter can have a limiting effect it seems. The work of Garry Stewart, the celebrated artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre, has never looked as tame or confined as it does in Monument.

Andrew Killian and Lana Jones in Monument. Photo: Branco Gaica

Andrew Killian and Lana Jones in Monument. Photo: Branco Gaica

Monument pays homage to Parliament House as part of the Centenary of Canberra festival (and marks the building’s 25th anniversary). The idea isn’t as odd as it may at first sound. Choreographers are expert builders. Using dancers as material they make a piece of architecture that, despite its evanescence, exists moment by moment in three-dimensional form. The architecture, however, needs to be animated by some vital force. George Balanchine’s modernist masterpiece The Four Temperaments, which opened this Canberra-only program, is overflowing with spirit. Stewart’s building blocks, although expertly assembled, were beautiful but inert.

Nineteen dancers clad in anonymous, body-hugging white (costumes by Mary Moore) industriously came and went. Angled arms, hands and legs, super-fast supported pirouettes and rippled torsos evoked work, construction, lines, planes and space in a lofty, clean-hands kind of way. No sweaty singlets on this build!

For all its busyness, Monument’s energy level felt surprisingly low. This is partly, I think, because the dancers soon had to compete with projections of ever-more detailed and attention-grabbing 3D computer graphics of Parliament House, created by Paul Lawrence-Jennings. They were fascinating, to be sure, but increasingly over-powering. They gave the feeling of being in a high-end architect’s office where everything is done on computer and there’s no place for emotion.(Yes, I’m sure architects do have emotions, but they didn’t emerge in Monument.)

Richard House and Rudy Hawkes in Monument. Photo: Branco Gaica

Richard House and Rudy Hawkes in Monument. Photo: Branco Gaica

A set of mirrored actions given to two small groups of dancers gave a hint of parliamentary disputation but the human element was almost entirely missing from here, and elsewhere. When Andrew Killian held Lana Jones’s leg to her ear as she struck a perfect six o’clock position, one imagined we were seeing Parliament House’s flagpole – a highly specific thing rather than something allusive.

But surely the story of Parliament House is what it represents, not the nuts and bolts of how it was built? Or that it was built? Stewart knows this, of course, as his final, simple, eloquent image shows. Those last few seconds were worth more than any of the 25 minutes or so that went before. Until that moment the concept of democracy didn’t enter the picture, except to rear its head in a more metaphorical and sterile way: apart from several duos that gave Jones and Killian the attention, Monument put all its dancers pretty much on the same impersonal footing. Principal artist Daniel Gaudiello kept catching the eye because he is so charismatic but he was criminally underused.

Huey Benjamin’s electronic score for Monument is one I’d like to hear again. It was spacious, rhythmically alert and gave a good sense of the subject matter. But I suspect this is a work unlikely to have a life beyond the occasion for which it was created.

I couldn’t help thinking about two other dance works with building as their driving principle – Lucy Guerin’s Structure and Sadness (2005) and Tanje Liedtke’s Construct (2007). Guerin’s piece took what seemed a terribly difficult subject – the fatal collapse of Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge – and made an eloquent statement about community and grief.

In my 2008 review of Construct for The Australian I wrote:

[Liedtke] took the idea of building and let loose all of the associated meanings. There is the physical reality of making things but also the building and breaking of relationships. A construct can be something material or philosophical. Building implies competence, practicality, strength and creativity. There is a need for balance, ingenuity, problem-solving, co-operation. A structure can be a home or a prison, it can stand or it can fall … you could go on and on, so rich is this apparently basic notion.

The Four Temperaments came to Canberra well-honed from its Sydney outing in the Vanguard program and was in excellent shape. In the way of Christian Dior’s New Look couture – both were launched in the mid-1940s – its sophistications and coolly intellectual approach are timeless. Set to Paul Hindemith’s bracing and endlessly intriguing score, the 4Ts puts frilly ballet to the sword in a series of sleek, dramatic responses to the music and to the ancient Greek humours (the piece isn’t without humour in the conventional sense, either). The cast included seven of the AB’s principal artists, with Kevin Jackson (Melancholic) and Adam Bull (Phlegmatic) both more deeply and satisfyingly immersed in their roles than on opening night in Sydney. But at the Canberra opening the highlight was Lucinda Dunn’s luxurious Sanguinic pas de deux with Ty King-Wall. Dunn’s dancing was full of juice as she filled every phrase fully, at the same time carving the small, fast movements of foot and lower leg with forensic precision. She is a wonder.

The Canberra Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, played nobly for the 4Ts given the Canberra Theatre’s less than glowing acoustic.

An aside: the AB originally planned to pair Monument with Harald Lander’s Etudes, but happily reconsidered. Apart from its being more sensible to program a piece already tuned up (the 4Ts) rather than spend time honing Etudes, the 4Ts is a far more stimulating work. And there was the bonus of needing another piece to fill out the evening.

The pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain (2008) is a favourite with ballet companies and audiences the world over. As with the 4Ts it has a rigorously stripped-back form but where Balanchine invites a cerebral response, Wheeldon’s piece is all emotion, albeit held chastely in check. The music, Arvo Part’s luminous Spiegel im Spiegel (The mirror in the mirror), is simultaneously transparent and mysterious as it flows up and down the scale, the violin melody floating above repeated triads on the piano. The serene legato of the music is a pillow on which the dancers float, their relationship one of endless, unrevealed possibilities.

Lana Jones’s undertow of erotic abandon was barely veiled while Adam Bull, looking more imposing by the day, partnered with superlative strength and ease. Ten minutes of bliss.

This is an extended version of a review that appeared in The Australian on May 27.

Vanguard

 The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, April 30

GEORGE Balanchine was indisputably a game-changer, to use the Australian Ballet’s phrase in explaining the ethos behind Vanguard, the triple bill that opened in Sydney on April 30. The game-changer tag is somewhat less cut and dried in the case of Jiri Kylian and Wayne McGregor, who are also on the bill, but you have to give the program a name. And Vanguard is certainly a lot punchier than Trilogy, which is what the AB prosaically used to call such evenings. You could argue, I suppose, that Trilogy was an exact description, but gee, it’s not catnip, is it?

Let me take you back to one of the AB’s contributions to the Olympic Arts Festival in 2000, in which it danced, on the one bill, William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, Nacho Duato’s Por vos muero and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. It was dynamite. The AB called it Trilogy.

But that was then. Now back to Vanguard. The title may be a little imprecise but the program works in giving a sweeping view of what a classical company considers its territory. It’s exhilarating in its scope and comes with the bonus of wonderful music. Under Nicolette Fraillon’s baton the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra has as many changes of direction over the evening as do the dancers, starting with Paul Hindemith’s modernist Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments). This was a Balanchine commission, although it took a few years for music and dance to come together. Theme with Four Variations was written in 1940 and received its premiere as a concert work in 1944. Balanchine’s ballet appeared in 1946.

Vanguard ends with Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 (2009), danced to Steve Reich’s minimalist, driving Double Sextet, a piece for which Reich was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In between, Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura uses a collage of Baroque and Baroque-style excerpts, including two movements from Lukas Foss’s bijou Salomon Rossi Suite. Fun degrees-of-separation note: Foss studied composition with Hindemith in New York, and he wasn’t just a composer; he was also a noted pianist. And guess who was the pianist when Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperments) premiered on the concert stage? That would be Lukas Foss.

Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

The palette is particularly rich and relies on dancers with acute musical responses. There are no characters or narratives to fall back on. Moreover, with many of the dancers cast in more than one of the works at any performance they have to be adept at switching from upright Balanchine to twisty, bendy McGregor within the space of an hour. On opening night in Sydney principals Lana Jones and Adam Bull and senior artist Rudy Hawkes scored the trifecta and danced in the Kylian as well – a feat something akin to an opera singer being asked to perform in Baroque, Romantic and 20th-century style in successive acts.

By the way, nine of the AB’s 11 principal artists appeared on opening night. That’s not something you often see. And if the casting stays as it is, it seems Jones will get precisely one performance off out of the 20 in Sydney. Respect. (Or does it mean the AB lacks depth: discuss.)

The remaining two principal artists, Lucinda Dunn and Olivia Bell, have been a little elusive of late but are lined up for Vanguard. Casting is online – take a look.

Balanchine said of ballet that “the visual spectacle is the essential element”. The assertion may seem at odds with The Four Temperaments’ austerity of costuming (black tights and white T-shirts for the men; plain black leotards for the women) and set (none). Balanchine, however, was talking about the spectacle of movement. There is no meaning other than that provided by bodies in time, space and with music as four discrete scenes named after the ancient Greek humours follow three iterations of the score’s themes.

When the 4Ts premiered it was costumed rather fantastically and busily. Those costumes were banished in 1951. “When things hindered the dance Balanchine eliminated them,” says former dancer Mary Ellen Moylan in a documentary on Balanchine. (Moylan is described in the film, Dancing for Mr B., by Maria Tallchief as the first Balanchine ballerina.) Moylan also said that the choreographer made great music – such as that by Stravinsky – “greater by the things he showed us visually”.

An intriguing view on this stripped-back look for the 4Ts was put forward in Vanity Fair in its March edition of this year. The magazine noted that in September 1951 the film of A Streetcar named Desire was released, in which Marlon Brando (as Stanley Kowalski) appeared to much advantage in a tight white T-shirt. The look took off immediately and Vanity Fair specifically links that trend with Balanchine’s November 1951 decision to re-costume the 4Ts as we now see it. Well, it’s an idea.

The first performance of The Four Temperaments in the AB’s Sydney season happened to fall on the 30th anniversary of Balanchine’s death. It was a timely tribute with a seminal piece. The 4Ts is astringent, precise, sophisticated, cerebral and incredibly exposing. It was thrilling to see it again, even if the ballet’s magisterial command and patrician wit and elegance were insufficiently projected.

There are two reasons for this. The first is one of space: the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House so often makes dancers look hemmed in. The 4Ts didn’t have the room to move that it had in 2003 in the American Masters program staged at the Capitol Theatre. The second reason is one of temperament, funnily enough, and the observation isn’t restricted only to this ballet. AB dancers are too often reticent in imposing their personalities and will in performance (it’s perhaps something related to the no-stars vibe of the company). I’m not talking about fake smiles or look-at-me superficialities; rather of largeness of spirit, clarity of intention and refinement of expression resulting in inner impulses being translated into movement that speaks rather than merely exists as an attractive object.

In relation to the 4Ts, the women of the corps were less warrior-like than the movement suggests, with its stabbing, advancing high kicks and jutting pelvises. While I say the stage was too small for the action, it’s also the case that on opening night the corps fell short in filling the stage dramatically. They were too tame; lacking in pride and ownership in a ballet where the women, choreographically speaking, lord it over the men.

There was much pleasure, however, in Jones’s force-of-nature Choleric – her turns were ferocious – and Leanne Stojmenov’s Sanguinic. Stojmenov was springy and elastic when needed and articulately captured the importance and value of Balanchine’s transfers of weight. The circle of low lifts were plush and pillowy, and in this Stojmenov was ably abetted by newly minted principal artist Ty King-Wall.

Kevin Jackson’s Melancholic was powerful and transfixing until the final moments, when he ran out of stage and back mobility for that astonishing exit in reverse. Adam Bull could be more free and expansive in the opening moments of Phlegmatic but he gains in stage presence with each appearance.

In complete contrast to the 4Ts, Kylian’s Bella Figura (1995) has a tentative, questioning quality laced with tenderness. It suits the company well. Pointe shoes are gone and movement comes in swirls and curves, sometimes serene, sometimes less so as swirls contract into twitches. It’s a dreamy, fragmentary, sensual piece that was beautifully danced by its cast of nine on opening night, although again space was an issue.

And another thing. Memory must always be consulted with caution, but its persistence is nevertheless telling. I find it impossible to see any performance of Bella Figura without comparing it to that seen in 2000 as part of the Olympic Arts Festival. It was at the generously sized Capitol Theatre and I remember being able to see it more clearly than just the other day. Perhaps the lighting state is exactly the same but the theatres are different, so I doubt it. At the Sydney Opera House Bella Figura looked more shadowy, and not in a good way. The lighting made the dancers harder to read, although it was possible to see that corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow, by far the most junior of the cast, was outstanding. Miwako Kubota was wonderful and Jones and Daniel Gaudiello were quite lovely in the final scene in which tension and release are quietly and enigmatically explored but not necessarily resolved.

That said, in my mind’s eye – as Shakespeare has it – I could still see performing in this ballet Steven Heathcote and Miranda Coney, Joshua Consadine and Nicole Rhodes, Sarah Peace and Felicia Palanca, all long gone from the AB. Funny thing, memory.

Dyad 1929 ruthlessly banishes any shadows. It’s a space-age ballet that dazzles with its bright white setting and bodies stretched, extended, manipulated and distorted to the max as the Reich music inexorably powers forward. Jones, Stojmenov and Gaudiello stood out in a cast of stand-outs at the opening. Dana Stephensen looked pleased as punch to be pulled every which way. Bull and Amber Scott scored with a sexy duo, Jones was sensational in a solo that turned her back into a question mark and there was always something to please the eye, in an insistent way.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

What it means is difficult to discern. If the movement speaks for itself, if that’s all there is, what’s with the program notes? You might be able to intuit Dyad 1929‘s nods to Antarctic exploration, what with all that white. You can find that the ballet’s name, if you peruse the notes, refers to the year of Diaghilev’s death and thus to the great impresario’s adventurousness. But you have to do your reading to get the picture.

There’s no doubt that Dyad 1929 looks amazing and is expertly constructed. And that the 4Ts, crisp as a glorious autumn day, still looks the revolutionary piece.

Vanguard, Sydney, until May 18. Melbourne, June 6-17.

Don Quixote x 6

The Australian Ballet, six performances in March and April 2013

BALLET’S reliance on and reverence for its history is powerful in so many ways. In the Australian Ballet’s 2013 Melbourne and Sydney seasons of Don Quixote the women dancing Kitri were coached by former American Ballet Theatre principal Cynthia Harvey; the leading men prepared under the eye of former AB principal artist Steven Heathcote, who also appeared with distinction as the Don in many performances.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvey for a program essay and discovered that among the sources for her interpretation of Kitri – captured on DVD with Mikhail Baryshnikov – was Kirov star Ninel Kurgapkina, who was one of the last pupils of Agrippina Vaganova, who in turn had a direct connection with Marius Petipa. Rudolf Nureyev’s production, made on the AB in 1970, is based on Petipa’s work, and of course Nureyev brought to the company his own web of important connections.

Daniel Gaudiello and Lana Jones in Don Quixote. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Lana Jones in Don Quixote. Photo: Jeff Busby

That’s the big picture. Ballet connections work on the micro scale as well. I took my young great-niece to see Don Q at the April 20 matinee, as she has become a keen student about to embark on the next step of taking private lessons to supplement her ballet classes. Her mother, my niece, came along too and was reminded of her own days as a ballet student: at one point she danced alongside AB soloist Matthew Donnelly, who that day was performing the role of Gamache with considerable elan.

Which is a long way of saying it didn’t seem an entirely mad thing for me to see six performances of Don Q in the space of four and a half weeks, with five of them crammed into two weeks. I’m finding the jaunty Minkus ear-worms hard to banish but it turned out to be a valuable exercise. That is, if one can discount the completely mad plot, such as it is, and the regrettable lapse into jazz hands and shoulders amongst the gypsies of Act II.

In order of Kitri/Basilio pairings it went like this: Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev guesting in Melbourne; Leanne Stojmenov and Ty King-Wall; Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo, guesting from Stuttgart Ballet in Sydney; Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo; Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello; and Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. When the season ends on April 24 I will have missed only one cast, that led by Reiko Hombo and Yosvani Ramos – a pity, as Ramos leaves the company immediately after Don Q.

One dancer we unfortunately wouldn’t see is the AB’s longest-serving principal artist (since 2002), Lucinda Dunn. She was a spectacular Kitri when the AB last staged Don Q in 2007, but has been with the company for 22 years and it wasn’t a surprise to see her name missing from the casting this time around. Dunn is rightly choosing her repertoire carefully now.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

Osipova and Vasiliev (March 16) were, of course astonishing. Osipova can zip across and around a stage about twice as fast as anyone else and throws out megawatts of charisma and polish. Vasiliev seems to have a jet-pack somewhere about his person as he performs the apparently impossible, both in the air and on the ground. It isn’t fair to compare anyone to them, although Badenes (April 6, evening) wasn’t far behind Osipova from a technical perspective and I preferred her characterisation, which was sunny and effortlessly on top of all the by-play. Perhaps Badenes’s Spanish heritage is the key. Camargo was exceptionally confident and charming, if a touch untidy from time to time. Still, they made a sparky couple and the AB seemed energised by them and – if this isn’t a paradox – more relaxed than when faced with the Vasipova tornado.

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

I thought I should try to see senior artist King-Wall as it was clear he was knocking on the door of the principals’ dressing room. The afternoon of April 6 looked good for this, and so did King-Wall. AB artistic director David McAllister came on stage at the end of the performance to announce the promotion. King-Wall isn’t the most natural choice for Basilio. He is more the prince than the joker, but he hit the right comic moments without over-playing them, exploited his elegant line and partnered Stojmenov beautifully. (An aside: it’s a pleasure to see the care with which most of the AB men partner, with what we might describe as manly tenderness.)

Stojmenov is a terrific Kitri, fleet of foot, cheerful of temperament and with a good dash of sexiness. Of all the women, she made the most of a moment in Kitri’s grand pas de deux variation when a swirling fan movement around the torso contrasts sensuously with a series of crisp echappes.

The next must-see was Guo/Kondo (April 13, evening). Guo is a real fire-cracker and a self-selector for Basilio. He came into the season as a soloist and emerged as a senior artist. Quite right too. It was interesting to see his Gypsy Boy in the Osipova/Vasiliev performance in Melbourne. He finished off with an unorthodox but joyous backflip, as if to acknowledge the excitement and virtuosity of the evening – essentially to put himself in the same show as the superstars. Gorgeous.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

As Basilio Guo showed a very clean pair of heels. Like Vasiliev he isn’t tall and it helps him in the air, where he is exciting. The stage – particularly in Sydney – is too small for his space-eating energy. And he’s a sweetheart, fun and bubbly. Guo didn’t attempt the one-arm lift in Act I but tossed in a little something else, cheekily scratching his calf with his foot while holding Kondo aloft.

Kondo is a lovely soloist whose interpretation is still somewhat unformed. It felt as if the role was sitting on top of her rather than being part of her and she doesn’t have the most fluent back, which is a fine attribute to have in a Kitri. But Kondo and Guo were well matched in ballon and elevation.

The first cast of Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello got a well-deserved and well-received opening night (I saw them later, on April 16). Jones offered big, expansive dancing, extending everything to the max. Gaudiello was immaculately precise in allegro and plush in adagio. And he gave great guitar spin as he tossed the instrument over his head after Basilio’s pseudo musical interlude in Act I. It was a performance full of attractive brio.

Finally came Eastoe and Jackson (April 20, matinee). Don Q isn’t the ballet that best suits their temperaments – the soulful side of the street is where they excel. It goes without saying Eastoe was an enchanting Dulcinea and her floaty balances were divine, but there were few fireworks, apart from when Jackson pulled off a v-e-r-y long-held single-arm lift in Act I.

There was mixed success in some of the secondary roles. Principal Andrew Killian (Espada) upped the ante after a quite subdued showing in the Osipova/Vasiliev  performance but could have projected even more and Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Wright got the bullfighter’s shapes without much of his macho glamour. Senior artists Miwako Kubota and Juliet Burnett were fine Dryad queens but principal Amber Scott, a dancer of great lyrical gifts, was spooked by the grand fouette sequence.

It’s always worth taking a close look at those cast as Amour as they are often on the up and up (the role reminds me of Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro – it’s a small soprano part aficionados scope out for stars of the future). Hombo is perhaps a little too assertive for Amour these days; Halaina Hills, Jessica Fyfe and Benedicte Bernet were warmer, sweeter. Hills could cut back on the sugar a bit, Fyfe was delightful but wayward musically at the performance I saw, and Benedicte Bernet – a candidate in this year’s Telstra Ballet Dancer Award – was very good.

What other stray thoughts emerged? Well, that the women of the corps were too often out of kilter in the vision scene; that the long diaphanous cape Kitri wears at the beginning of the ballet should never, not ever, be worn over a tutu as it is at the beginning of the vision scene; that Brett Chynoweth, recently promoted to soloist, does a great Gypsy Boy whip crack and it’s energising to see how passionately he dances; and that after all those Don Qs it will be a relief to get to the palate cleansers that the upcoming Vanguard and the brief Canberra-only program Symmetries promise to be.

Vanguard, Sydney, April 30-May 18; Melbourne, June 6-17.

Symmetries, Canberra, May 23-25. It features a new Garry Stewart work, Monument, alongside Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments (also part of the Vanguard program) and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux.