‘This is for the little brown girls’

ON March 26 this year American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland told website blacknews.com that “I would love to be Odette-Odile in Swan Lake one day. I think that would be the ultimate role.”

Copeland will get her wish when ABT visits Brisbane in late August and early September. At a date yet to be announced Copeland will make her debut in the role – perhaps the most coveted in the repertoire – marking a signal event for ABT. She will be the first African American Odette in its history, although not in American ballet history. Lauren Anderson, who retired from Houston Ballet in 2006, danced the role of Odette and her doppelgänger Odile in 1996.

“It’s always exciting to see a dancer make their debut in a great role and it will be particularly exciting to have Misty doing this in Brisbane,” said Ian McRae, co-producer of ABT’s visit with Leo Schofield and Queensland Performing Arts Centre.

Copeland’s roles include Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird, Gamzatti in La Bayadere, Swanilda in Coppelia and Lescaut’s Mistress in Manon.

Copeland, 31, joined ABT in 2001 and was made a soloist in 2007, the first black dancer to reach that rank in 20 years (ABT has only three ranks, principal, soloist and corps de ballet). She has written she would like to be the company’s first African American principal artist. The company is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

The scarcity of black classical dancers in the US has led to Copeland becoming a highly visible and plain-speaking spokeswoman for diversity. In March this year she published her autobiography Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Simon & Schuster), in which she writes of her struggle to be accepted in a field described in late 2012 by The Huffington Post in this manner: ”White skin is not just the norm but the uniform.”

The Huffington Post also went on to write – erroneously – that there had not yet been a black Odette-Odile (perhaps understandable given the lack) but the following comments could well be relevant to Copeland’s upcoming debut: “… there are accomplished black dancers with definitive box office appeal. If even one major ballet company were to entrust a black dancer with such a career-changing turn, surely it could inspire the next generation in a dramatic way, as effectively, perhaps, as increased regional youth classes. That such a casting evolution would be welcomed is no excuse for it not having transpired as yet.”

In October 2012 Trinidad-born Celine Gittins danced the lead in Swan Lake for Birmingham Royal Ballet and was described as the first black dancer in the UK to perform the role. Tyrone Singleton, also of mixed race, was her Prince Siegfried. Their performances highlighted a conversation that has been growing in both the UK and the US about the lack of racial diversity in classical dance. Stars at the level of Cuban-born Royal Ballet principal guest artist Carlos Acosta – who appears next week with Queensland Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet – are rare.

In her autobiography Copeland unflinchingly recalls the unsettled childhood that made her early training difficult and recounts the entrenched thinking in ballet that counted against her. She writes of her early mentor, Cindy Bradley: “She was different from most people in the ballet world, who felt Giselle and Odette were best performed by dovelike sprites, lissome and ivory-skinned. Cindy believed that ballet was richer when it embraced diverse shapes and colors. There would be times in my career when I would struggle to remember that …”

The burden of expectation on her has been great, as she makes clear in the opening pages of her book. Copeland describes opening in New York in the title role of Firebird:

 … the first black woman to star in Igor Stravinsky’s iconic role for American Ballet Theatre, one of the most prestigious dance companies in the world.

As the Firebird.

This is for the little brown girls.

ABT will visit Queensland Performing Arts Centre as part of QPAC’s International Series, which last year brought the Bolshoi Ballet to Brisbane. ABT, which is making its first Australian appearances this year, is also part of this year’s Brisbane Festival.

ABT will give nine performances of Swan Lake from August 28 to September 4 and four performances of the triple bill Three Masterpieces (works by Tharp, Ratmansky and Robbins) from September 5-7.

The Bolshoi in Brisbane

Le Corsaire, May 30; The Bright Stream, June 7. Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

THERE is no more interesting, influential or thoughtful choreographer working in classical ballet than Alexei Ratmansky and Brisbane was fortunate to see two distinctly different examples of his art in its sell-out Bolshoi Ballet season.

And what a pleasure it was to concentrate on the Bolshoi’s qualities as a ballet company rather than the extremely unsavoury politics that appear to have led to the acid attack on artistic director Sergei Filin. The movement was easy and expansive, with no sense of bravura for its own sake – extensions were kept modest and refined even as the quality of attack was robust – and the dancers’ vivid, detailed acting filled the stage and energised the audience. (Mind you, the Lyric Theatre stage at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre is much smaller than the Bolshoi’s – no wonder some of the action in the sensation-packed Le Corsaire looked a bit cramped.)

Le Jardin Anime in Le Corsaire

Le Jardin Anime in Le Corsaire

In 2007, when Ratmansky was artistic director of the Bolshoi, he restaged Le Corsaire with Yuri Burlaka, basing the production on Petipa’s choreography and delving into early sources to provide a window into Imperial-era style and taste in classical dance. In 2003, while still with Royal Danish Ballet, Ratmansky had revived The Bright Steam for the Bolshoi, re-choreographing the comedy to the joyous, neglected score by Shostakovich. The Bolshoi brought both works to London in 2007, where I was lucky enough to see them – Le Corsaire’s Act I Pas d’Esclave was given a mighty jolt by a then very young Ivan Vasiliev; Filin appeared as the Ballet Dancer in The Bright Stream – and both ballets were a good choice for the just-completed Brisbane season for Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series.

There was no Vasiliev this time of course: after leaving the Bolshoi last year he briefly touched down in St Petersburg for the Mikhailovsky and is a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre (one of the in-and-out kind). He will, however, appear in the Bolshoi’s upcoming London season, dancing in The Flames of Paris with his partner Natalia Osipova, soon to join the Royal Ballet. (Neither did Brisbane see Bolshoi premier – principal – David Hallberg, but that was never going to be possible, alas. He was fulfilling his ABT responsibilities at the time.)

For a company of its size the Bolshoi has a small number of principal artists. There are 148 members of the corps de ballet named on the Bolshoi website but only 10 women and eight men in the top rank. Of the women, four came to Brisbane: Maria Alexandrova and Nina Kaptsova, who appeared on both opening nights, Ekaterina Krysanova and Ekaterina Shipulina. Only two principal men made the journey – Mikhail Lobukhin and Ruslan Skvortsov, both wonderful in The Bright Stream. First soloists Denis Medvedev and Denis Savin also stood out amongst the men. Not surprisingly there was no sign of the outspoken principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who has been much in the news giving his views on Filin’s acid attack and on the Bolshoi management. It has just been announced the Bolshoi will not renew Tsiskaridze’s contracts, which expire at the end of June.

The Bolshoi’s taste and gift for the large gesture has no better example than Le Corsaire. It isn’t just bolshoi – big – it is gigantic; an extravaganza that sets new standards for going over the top even before you get to the brief postscript, in which a pirate ship on stormy seas breaks in half. The show weighed in at about 3 1/2 hours, came with a cast list that named nearly 50 dancers before we got to the corps, children and supernumeraries, and offered a version of the ballet that harks back to the days when the Russian court was the last word in luxury. Le Corsaire is a mad amalgam of stun-gun and sugar hit and resistance was futile. The house was packed for eight performances.

Over the years Le Corsaire has been tinkered with greatly so it’s something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a piece, including using the music of enough composers – seven, headed by Adolphe Adam – to start up their own guild. The result is a feast of melody that was delivered in exceptionally fine form by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pavel Sorokin. The QSO sounded even better when accompanying The Bright Stream, but no surprise that Shostakovich should trump a stitched-together committee when it comes to a score.

The Le Corsaire plot need not detain us long (the synopsis takes nearly 2000 words to explain it) but involves pirates, slaves, kidnapped maidens who couldn’t be more cheerful or compliant, a harem, disguises and that shipwreck. It’s a highly perfumed fantasy that’s happy to deliver outrageous caricatures of Middle Eastern appearance and manners alongside a glittering stream of set-piece dances whose only aim is to delight with virtuosity or vivacity. It’s tutu heaven, essentially, with women plucking an opulent new ensemble out of thin air at a moment’s notice. The tutus, designed by Yelena Zaytseva, using Yevgeny Ponomaryov’s 1899 sketches, were gorgeously detailed and delightfully wide and floaty, with light layers of fabric over a smaller, more rigid base that acted as a support.

The logic, if such a word can be used with Le Corsaire, is that of the dream world and of Imperial-era classical ballet. The spectacle is the thing, and nowhere more mesmerisingly than in the lengthy Act II scene known as Le Jardin Anime. A strictly organised garden is a metaphor for the hierarchies of ballet, cascading down from heroine Medora (I saw Alexandrova) and seconda donna Gulnare (Nina Kaptsova) to the women of the generously stocked seraglio. Men are reduced to holding floral hoops in the background while the women – magisterial prima ballerina, lively solo ballerina, demi-soloists and the corps – present themselves to advantage and support one another in the sisterhood with some gentle partnering.

The whole ballet could, in fact, be seen as a bouquet to the art of the ballerina – the men’s big dance moments are fleeting. Denis Medvedev gave a bouncy account of the Pas d’Esclave and would perhaps have given a better account of the famous Corsaire solo than did Vladislav Lantratov, who played Medora’s pirate lover Conrad. In this production Conrad, the male lead, gets the showy solo rather than it being the province of the slave, as is frequently seen. Lantratov had a fairly ordinary night at the Brisbane opening, failing to deliver the thunderous impact one hoped for.

Alexandrova’s warm stage presence, big jump and her beautiful arms were entrancing, although she didn’t quite scale the heights of grandeur called for in Le Jardin Anime. Kaptsova’s quick precision and spark lit up the stage and the Odalisques pas de trois was illuminated by Maria Vinogradova’s quiet radiance and exquisite line.

Not all the dancing hit the dramatic heights one might have anticipated from this storied company, but it was a hell of a show.

The Bright Stream

The Bright Stream

The Bright Stream is a light-hearted romance set on a collective farm at harvest time and comes with a dark history. The ballet was initially applauded but Soviet authorities soon came down hard on the collaborators. The librettist was sent to the gulag, the director of the Bolshoi at the time was demoted and Shostakovich wrote nothing more for the ballet. The ballet’s front cloth indirectly alludes to this, bearing, in Russian, quotes from Stalin and Pravda’s denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, “Muddle instead of music”. Near the end of the ballet a man with a scythe appears – not a farm hand, but the Grim Reaper. He doesn’t prevail here, however. In this happy tale he is dismissed.

In restaging The Bright Stream with his own choreography, Ratmansky paid homage to those persecuted artists and, I think, to the ordinary folk of Stalinist Russia who lived their lives at that time as we all do: doing our best with the hand we’re dealt, working, loving and laughing when we can. He also refocused attention on a neglected ballet score of extraordinary richness and appeal. Bright brass tones constantly add unusual weight and colour, lush strings herald romance (or the appearance of it) and folk and jazz rhythms add spice to the ever-danceable melodies and Ratmansky is ever alert to the possibilities for illumination of character or comedy.

There are shades of the shenanigans of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the role-swapping in The Marriage of Figaro to add to the magical texture. This is a place where many strange things will happen before the resolution.

Intrigues, flirtations, complications, impersonations and disguises rule the day when a ballet troupe from the city comes to perform at an obscure farm’s harvest festival. Through dance full of light and overflowing with joy, everything will be sorted out for Pyotr, a local agricultural student with a roving eye, and his loving wife Zina. The visiting Ballerina and her Ballet Dancer partner (they have no names other than that) may be the catalysts for mayhem but they also find its solution, which features the cross-dressing male dancer on pointe as a fetching sylph. A bicycle-riding dog adds to the merriment.

The Bright Stream was stocked with superb dancing that turned on a pin’s head from comedy to rapturous classicism. Even better was the beautifully judged acting from everyone on stage, in big roles and small. Leading the pack at the first performance were Alexandrova’s Ballerina and Kaptsova as a delectably airy Zina, remembering her earlier days in ballet by whizzing though a few sets of fouettes. The first don’t quite come off:  Zina feels at a disadvantage, the country bumpkin compared with the glamorous big-city dancer who is incidentally an old friend. Later, when she knows her would-be love-rat of a husband (manly, slightly goofy Mikhail Lobukhin) won’t succeed in his wooing of the Ballerina, Zina can reel the turns off with great elan.

The plot required Alexandrova to dress as a man, in which guise she was high-flying and zesty; when dressed in the long tulle skirt of the Ballerina, Ruslan Skvortsov was modest and appealing, his evocations of ballerina roles and demeanour having a sweet air of homage rather than send-up.

The Bright Stream had only four performances, and undoubtedly more could have been filled had the ballet been more of a known quantity before the event. Producers Leo Schofield and Ian McRae can’t afford to get things wrong with a venture of this magnitude, however. Better to leave ‘em wanting more.

And there will be more. After QPAC’s presentations of Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Hamburg Ballet and the Bolshoi comes … Well, the announcement is likely to be made next month. Bravi Schofield and McRae.

Versions of the Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream reviews appeared in The Australian on June 3 and June 10.

Dorothee Gilbert, Ludmila Pagliero, Myriam Ould-Braham: three Giselles

Paris Opera Ballet, Capitol Theatre, Sydney: January 29, February 4, February 5

IT’S always something of an occasion when a dancer takes on a big role for the first time, particularly in one of the small handful of works in which ballerinas cement their reputation.  I remember being thrilled to discover that Alina Cojocaru, then just 21, would tackle her first Odette-Odile in Sydney in 2002 when the Royal Ballet was visiting. That performance at the Capitol Theatre remains fresh in my mind. As will two debuts in Giselle this week, also on the stage of the Capitol Theatre – that of Paris Opera Ballet etoiles Ludmila Pagliero (February 4) and Myriam Ould-Braham (February 5).

The corps de ballet of Paris Opera Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Sebastien Mathe

The corps de ballet of Paris Opera Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Sebastien Mathe

POB doesn’t just bring a production to town; it brings history. It’s worth noting that this year is the 300th anniversary of what would become POB’s school, the place at which most of its company members have trained to become not just dancers, but Paris Opera Ballet dancers with in a very specific tradition and style.  A glance at the program for Giselle shows that all POB’s etoiles trained at the school, with the exception of Argentinian-born Pagliero. Is this why her Giselle was so different in texture from that of Ould-Braham and the etoile who entranced on opening night, Dorothee Gilbert? (My review of the first performance can be seen below.)

The aura of the spirit world hovered over Gilbert from the first. She was modest in manner, quietly radiant in the sweep and romance of her upper body and uncannily quiet in landing from swift, high entrechats and pillowy jetes. Her audience acknowledgement in Act II, after her solo, will stay with me for a very long time. Gilbert came onstage only a short way, curving in on herself and giving the impression of something already disintegrating. In her performance there was the clearest line of action, leading to distraction and death at the end of the first act and diaphanous immateriality in the second.

On Monday Pagliero gave a dramatically different reading. She was large in gesture, flirtatious, wilful, mature. It seemed as if this Giselle was creating an invisible perimeter around her with swooping bends that looked exaggerated when set against the way in which others used their upper bodies. It appeared of little significance to her when her lover Loys – Albrecht in smart peasant-wear – presented her with the daisy from which he has surreptitiously pulled a petal so the message now is, yes, he loves me. Well of course he does. And when Giselle and Albrecht went through their little game of pulling hands away, Giselle was teasingly in charge, quite the forward one. When her exuberant dancing brought on a heart scare, Pagliero made it a moment of high impact, contracting extravagantly with a shudder.

I found it difficult to believe this Giselle would go mad from grief. But rage – that’s possible. She has been mightily humiliated. I got the compelling impression Giselle would be a formidable presence in the woods at night: Myrtha might have to watch her back. I could even believe she saves Albrecht as a demonstration of her abilities.

Pagliero covered the ground voraciously and astonished with super-high entrechats. As with Gilbert and, the following night with Ould-Braham, the audience gasped at the blurringly fast bourrees that zoomed her backwards offstage in Act II. The performance was marred for me by overly noisy footwork and because the Albrecht, Stephane Bullion, had a fairly ordinary night. He didn’t impose himself strongly on the piece and his substitution of double sauts de basque for part of the series of entrechats that represent Albrecht’s forced dance in Act II wasn’t particularly effective. Pagliero didn’t look terribly happy at the curtain call – or is that just a projection of mine? Perhaps things will gel better in the performances tonight (Wednesday February 6) and Friday (February 8).

It was lovely to see Pagliero and Bullion acknowledge the corps, whose contribution is so central to Giselle. They are superlative in their unity of style and purpose and the formations are exceptionally trenchant for this group of “zombie virgins”, as British critic Richard Buckle memorably called the Wilis in a 1962 review. The manner of their final exit in two tightly bunched groups is chilling.

Another relevant Buckle witticism I’d like to share: “Have you noticed, by the way, that the heroine … in French ballets always has eight Friends? That in itself is not so remarkable as the fact of their all being in town on the same day.” The eight Friends in POB’s Giselle are delightful, by the way, making one notice just how good for dance and for this ballet the often maligned Giselle score is.

And now to Ould-Braham, whose natural, girlish appearance – she looks about 16 – and sweet (never saccharine) manner could not be more perfect. You could see she would be putty in the hands of an experienced man, and he would be likely to find her utterly adorable. Buoyant jetes, melting turns, delicate epaulement and the kind of security that banishes any sense of artifice were at Ould-Braham’s command. She was ravishing, carrying into the second act some of the gentle life force that illuminated the first half. This Giselle isn’t really dead until she has saved Albrecht.

Mathieu Ganio partnered both Gilbert and Ould-Braham, and it was fascinating to see him make similar dramatic choices with each, and how they took on a different hue. With both he asserted himself firmly, controlling – albeit most courteously – some of their movements. But he seemed warmer with Ould-Braham; less remote. He danced divinely of course – that exquisite line, magnificent elevation and whisper-quiet control! – and is scheduled to appear again with Ould-Braham tomorrow (February 7) and Saturday evening (February 9). If I were not in Perth for the festival I’d be there again. (Saturday’s matinee is danced by Melanie Hurel – lovely, if her peasant pas is any guide – with fellow premier danseur Florian Magnenet.)

A few final thoughts:

POB’s Giselle has the most brilliant ending to Act I. Usually a bit of a melee forms around Giselle’s body. Here Berthe, Giselle’s mother, simply sees Albrecht off with a long, penetrating stare. Perfect.

No one can really match Marie-Agnes Gillot for command of the stage. Second-cast Emilie Cozette is fine as Myrtha if you haven’t seen Gillot, but doesn’t have her grandeur, nor her ability to come down from a jete without a sound. Nolwenn Daniel made her debut as Myrtha alongside Ould-Braham, and impressed with serious balances on pointe and the way she used the air – the wind beneath her wings, if you like – to convey weightlessness.

Sydney Lyric Orchestra played well for conductor Koen Kessels, who liked to set a lively pace. The brass didn’t have a great night on Monday.

The Capitol Theatre is excellent for large-scale ballet. It would be very pleasant to see more big companies there more often.

A bouquet for premier danseur Audric Bezard, who has danced Hilarion every night so far and did get one thinking seriously about whether Giselle was an extremely silly girl to knock him back.

And many bouquets to Leo Schofield and Ian McRae for bringing POB back to Sydney. In a world in which ballet commentators are forever banging on about the internationalisation of companies and the consequent dilution of national style, POB remains sui generis.