Melbourne Ballet Company

Concourse Theatre, Sydney, March 12

Melbourne Ballet Company’s new triple bill Being & Time has lofty aspirations. It takes its title from Martin Heidegger and its themes from existentialism, or at least that is what one gathers from the program notes, which baffle more than they enlighten. In the case of MBC resident director Simon Hoy’s Dasein there is talk of “authentic being” explored though the analysis of random movement and gesture; Lucas Jervies wants his Four Ballet to show conflicting relationships “between the body and/or inanimate objects”.

In the event, Dasein is a gaudy, relentlessly on-the-beat dance that revealed nothing about its performers, who were in any case locked in mortal combat for attention with the dominating projections behind them. Four Ballet is sleek in a twisty, juddery style incorporating classical shapes and gives little away. Its quartet of dancers looked cool and composed, with Kristy Lee Denovan standing out. Jervies is a very experienced hand who knows how to keep interest going by alternating solo spots with duos or groups but I was rather dismayed to see the one male (Alexander Baden Bryce) in the quartet asked to fling the women from him and, at one point, place his foot on a woman’s back. What this was meant to reveal remained hidden.

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Lucas Jervies’s Four Four Ballet. Photo: Ron Fung

Both pieces were performed to electronic music (respectively Ben Prunty and Ólafur Arnalds; Adam Ster) that increased a sense of emotional distance. Both were danced in soft shoes, as was Tim Podesta’s Architecture of Loss, by far the pick of this short program, which runs to less than an hour of dance in total.

Architecture of Loss, for five dancers, was billed as a world premiere. It seems to have had its genesis last year as a solo for Mara Galeazzi, the former Royal Ballet principal artist who, despite being based in Oman with her family, collaborates closely with Podesta, who is based in Wodonga, on the Victorian-NSW border. They work around the world on dance projects as M&T In Motion and Galeazzi came to Sydney to appear in Architecture of Loss. She will also dance at the next port of call, Wodonga, and give master classes there at Podesta’s Regional Academy of Performing Arts.

Galeazzi still appears a guest artist with the Royal from time to time and will dance in Woolf Works when the RB visits Brisbane in June and July.

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Mara Galeazzi in an earlier incarnation of Architecture of Loss. Photo: Slava Samodurov

Architecture of Loss, performed to music by Valgeir Sigurdsson, is an affecting piece in which individuals seek connection and solace while couples love and battle and is built around Galeazzi’s dramatic gifts. Her opening solo fully and forcefully embodied the idea of painful isolation and longing. Denovan, a former member of The Australian Ballet (she was then Kristy Corea) was deeply evocative in her introspective duo with Robbie Moorcroft and Chloe Henderson added a touch of fire in a combative interaction with Luke Mangraviti.

As seen in Sydney, Architecture of Loss sagged structurally, undoubtedly as a result of last-minute adjustments having to be made when American guest artist Joseph Phillips became injured late last week. Mangriviti was hastily brought in and made a strong impression in what was clearly a truncated part.

Phillips has had an interesting career, dancing with a clutch of important US companies including American Ballet Theatre before joining the State Primorsky Theatre of Opera and Ballet (as it was then known) in Vladivostok, Russia, where he is a principal artist. That company is now connected with St Petersburg’s Mariinsky and was last year renamed the Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre.

I am told Phillips, a former colleague of Hoy’s from many years back, will be able to appear when Architecture of Loss is presented at Hawthorn Art Centre at the end of the month, although Galeazzi will not perform there. Her role at the three performances will be taken by MBC dancers.

Footnote: Queensland Ballet this week announced that principal artist Clare Morehen will leave the company after its upcoming contemporary bill, Raw, which opens on March 17 with works by Christopher Bruce, Greg Horsman and QB’s new artistic associate, Liam Scarlett. She has been with QB for 13 years. Morehen, who trained at the Victorian College of the Arts and the Royal Ballet School, will now concentrate on contemporary ballet and contemporary dance. Her first post-QB assignment is with Podesta and Galeazzi’s M&T In Motion and The Covent Garden Dance Company on a work to premiere in London mid-year. Small world, ballet.

There are further performances of Being & Time in Wodonga (March 17 and 18) and Hawthorn (March 29-31).

Hidden Sydney and other current theatre

Poor old Kings Cross. It used to have a bit of glamour back in the day, what with its famous crims, flamboyant, unconventional characters and nightclubs that could attract international performers. Now a stroll up Darlinghurst Road of an evening is an exercise in swerving around backpackers and wondering how the small businesses manage to stay afloat.

But 40, 50, 60 years ago the place did have a bit of thrill about it, a louche charm that Hidden Sydney – The Glittering Mile enterprisingly tries to recapture. It’s what’s known as immersive theatre, which essentially means the audience is in the thick of the action and might play some part in it. You needn’t worry though; Hidden Sydney is very gentle in its co-option of patrons.

Up Mansion Lane, just off Ward Avenue in the Cross, audience members mill about in a makeshift box office and bar area before heading inside a building that once housed The Nevada, a famous brothel and gathering place for some of the city’s more colourful identities. It was obviously a pretty swanky place, although now rather down at heel. Still, with the lights kept low it’s possible to get some sense of the long-gone allure.

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Fiona Jopp and Thomas Gundry Greenfield in Hidden Sydney. Photo: Jamie Williams

A small group – about 30 at a time at half-hour intervals – is led through rooms and corridors and up and down stairs, pausing here and there for vignettes of life at the margins of legality and respectability. Along the way you find yourself jammed into a Les Girls dressing room hearing some drag-queen confidences up close; a lounge where cheerful and candid advice is delivered about sex work; and a balcony where the inimitable eccentric Bea Miles touches patrons up for a dollar or two. If you don’t care for close contact with your fellow human beings this isn’t the place for you.

Some sections of the 75-minute show are more successful than others. The lengthy – or so it felt – drama relating to the disappearance of activist Juanita Nielsen doesn’t come up trumps and a bartender’s self-congratulatory story about drug-dealing isn’t revelatory. But much can be forgiven when a show includes Virginia Gay as Bea Miles, Ben Gerrard as a delightfully chatty drag performer and Christa Hughes as Judy Garland at The Silver Spade – remember that? – even if Hughes could afford to pull back the act a notch or three. Director Lucas Jervies has an extensive background in dance and it was an inspiration to celebrate the White Witch of Kings Cross, Rosaleen Norton, via a steamy pas de deux from Fiona Jopp and Thomas Gundry Greenfield. Luxury casting indeed if you know your dance world, and fabulously enticing even if you don’t.

Truth to tell the dance is as dangerous as Hidden Sydney gets. A little more edge wouldn’t go astray but it’s a fun idea – and it’s a shame the audience can’t linger too long at The Silver Spade, where Rob Mills, Grant Galea and Aaron Robuck preside smoothly. It’s the final stop in the show and the next group is inexorably on its way.

If you can see only one piece of theatre in Sydney in the next two weeks that would have to be The Drover’s Wife at Belvoir, written by and starring Leah Purcell. You might have to put your name down for returns, mind you, as it’s completely sold out except, at the time of writing, for one performance.

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Leah Purcell and Will McDonald in The Drover’s Wife. Photo: Brett Boardman

Henry Lawson’s short story provides the bones for Purcell’s play but she gives it very different flesh. Within the frame of an old-fashioned story of harsh colonial life there is a harrowing demonstration of how entrenched, brutal power works. The unforgiving landscape is as much an antagonist as the undeserving, appallingly vicious men who grab it for themselves. A woman has to be over-flowing with courage, resourcefulness and resilience to control the trouble constantly at her door. When an Indigenous man on the run turns up, the stark white-hat, black-hat scenario turns into something quite other. It becomes a mysterious and ultimately uplifting exploration of identity and connection that transcends the almost unbearably brutal day-to-day existence.

Over at the Old Fitz Theatre in Wooloomooloo there are two plays worth catching and you need only one evening in which to accomplish the feat if you choose the right night (not many left). The early show, James Fritz’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, sends a woman into a spin when she gradually learns via that most banal of things, the sex video put online, that her beloved son and her husband are not who she thought they were. It’s a taut, tense drama with a terrific central performance from Danielle King. The current late show at the Old Fitz is Threnody, a new work for six women by Michael McStay that is perceptive and often very amusing about a young woman’s journey from innocence to experience. Its observations about freedom, sex and the great wide world are delivered via a poetic text that packs a lot into 50 minutes. Threnody is perhaps more a curiosity than a stayer but all the women are terrific, particularly Josephine Starte as the inquisitive Virginia.

Hidden Sydney – The Glittering Mile ends October 9; The Drover’s Wife ends October 16; Four Minutes Twelve Seconds and Threnody both end October 8.

Thrills and spills: the year in dance

We’ll get to the year’s most interesting work and dancers shortly but 2015 was also notable for offstage developments, particularly at Australia’s three leading classical companies, The Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet. So let’s begin there.

OFFSTAGE

The national company

At The Australian Ballet, David McAllister became the company’s longest-serving artistic director, surpassing Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign. McAllister took over in July 2001 after the relatively brief tenure of Ross Stretton, who cut his time at the AB short to go to the Royal Ballet in London. McAllister was named to the post while he was still dancing, although retirement followed swiftly. It was a huge leap of faith on the part of the AB board as he had had no leadership experience but it is now emphatically his company. Of the AB’s current roster of 68 dancers, only two were members of the company before 2001 and two joined in 2001.

In another big first, this year McAllister put himself forward to stage a new production of The Sleeping Beauty. He had previously staged only a handful of minor pieces. The production is thought to have cost about $2 million and in a dazzling feat of fundraising, about 70 per cent came from 2000 or so ballet-lovers giving sums ranging from $100 to $50,000 or more. Audiences flocked to it, several dancers in Sydney were given career-changing opportunities and despite reservations from some critics (including me) about some aspects of the production, it must be counted a significant success for McAllister and The Australian Ballet.

McAllister shows absolutely no sign of becoming jaded and it wouldn’t surprise one to see him celebrate his 20th anniversary in the job in 2021.

The state companies

Queensland Ballet was the real surprise package of the year from a backstage perspective, making the position of its high-profile CEO Anna Marsden redundant. The announcement was made on July 9 and was supposed to take effect from September 1 but Marsden was quickly out of the picture. On July 29 QB’s chair, Brett Clark, said in a statement the company would appoint an executive director, whose role would be to enable the vision of artistic director Li Cunxin and drive operations.  Dilshani Weerasinghe, previously the company’s development director, was announced as acting executive director but she was soon the board’s permanent choice.

I spoke at length to Clark in early December about the move, very shortly after the company’s announcement that the Queensland Government would give QB an extra $1.2 million annually (bringing its contribution to $2.7 million annually) to support an increase in dancer numbers (an additional eight by 2020), expansion of its headquarters, increased international touring and a greater number of performances. In 2016 QB will have 31 company members and seven young artists.

The announcement by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also contained news of a $5 million gift from the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End.

Clark said negotiations regarding both announcements had been “a long work in progress”. He said specific goals were for QB to be seen as a “powerhouse in the Asia-Pacific region” and to perform more frequently in regional Queensland. Touring to Sydney and Melbourne was not on the cards. “I think the AB services Sydney and Melbourne extremely well. They’re an amazing company.”

Clark declined to speak about the working relationship between Li and Marsden. He said, however, it had become “apparent that for us to get agreed goals and visions, it needed to be an artistic director-led strategy”. He said an executive director can have input into strategy and vision but the core role is to support the board and the company, “and in the case of Queensland Ballet, the artistic director on his or her vision for the company”. He also said that “Dilshani reports through Li to the board”.

Clark acknowledged Marsden’s role in QB’s rapid growth since Li became artistic director in 2011. He also said: “We needed Li’s vision and strategy leading the way forward.”

Clark would not discuss what went on behind the scenes but the implication is clear. Although Marsden was a key player in QB’s revival of fortunes following the departure of previous artistic director François Klaus, a structure in which both CEO and artistic director reported to the board created tension. The board chose Li.

I approached Marsden but she did not wish to comment.

West Australian Ballet will also be under new management next year following the announcement on December 14 that its CEO, Steven Roth, will be leaving in February to work with Scottish Ballet. Roth joined WAB in 2007 when the company had 19 very unhappy dancers who were agitating for the right to strike over their pay and conditions. (Their accommodation in His Majesty’s Theatre, where the company mainly performs, was limited to one studio and cramped production and administration space.) The dancers prevailed: the West Australian Government upped its funding and WAB now has 32 company members and eight young artists. One of the great achievements of Roth’s tenure can be seen in WAB’s gleaming State Ballet Centre in the Perth suburb of Maylands; another is the increase in the company’s operating revenue from $3.2 million in 2007 to $10 million in 2015.

Interestingly, Roth goes to Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet, the country’s national company, as executive director. That company already has a CEO – Christopher Hampson, who is also the company’s artistic director. He added CEO duties earlier this year after the sudden departure of chief executive Cindy Sughrue. In June Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported: “Scottish Ballet will now also begin a search for an executive director who will sit on the national company’s board and report to Hampson, with a remit for ‘clear focus on strategic vision and commercial success’.”

The Herald also reported Scottish Ballet’s chairman, Norman Murray, as saying “the board had undertaken a review of how the company was run, with aid from consultants, and believed it should be ‘artistically led’.”

ONSTAGE – CLASSICAL AND CONTEMPORARY

There are, I admit, a lot of gaps: no 2015 Melbourne Festival, no 2015 Adelaide Festival, no 2015 Dance Massive (Melbourne), although I had already seen one or two things on that program. I mention this because I travelled a fair bit in 2015 but not to everywhere or everything. My list doesn’t leave these things out because there was nothing of note, but because I wasn’t there. Adelaide would have been my big chance to see – at long last – Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet but that is now impossible. Cedar Lake’s financial backer closed the company not long after Adelaide. At Melbourne I could have caught up with the latest work from Batsheva, which I’ve seen regularly at Australian arts festivals, but no.

And a work that I reviewed reasonably strictly on first seeing it makes the list for its daring and its dancers. While I have issues with some of the dramaturgy in The Australian Ballet’s new Sleeping Beauty it is nevertheless a considerable achievement that provided three artists with role debuts that saw each immediately promoted to the next rank.

The productions are in the order in which I saw them and the performers in alphabetical order. The list is heavily skewed towards ballet because that’s the way the year panned out for me.

The best of the best? A Sleeping Beauty double: Alexei Ratmansky’s back-to-Petipa production for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala; and Benedicte Bemet’s dazzling debut as Aurora for The Australian Ballet.

PRODUCTIONS

Nothing to Lose, Force Majeure, Sydney Festival, January

Force Majeure founder Kate Champion has now moved on, leaving the company in new hands. Nothing to Lose, made with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, was a great farewell piece. It put the following propositions on stage: that fat people should not hide away, that they should be heard, that they are entitled to make choices, that they may actually like the way they are, and, by god, they can and will dance.

Puncture, Legs on the Wall, FORM Dance Projects, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Festival, January

Puncture started with “Hello” and ended with “I love you”. Is there anything more life-affirming? Six couples collided, grappled, touched, fought, flew, supported, changed partners, argued and loved. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evoked the formalities of Elizabethan court dance, the uniformity of line dancing, the romance of the waltz, the zing of the tango, the group spirit of folk and much more, but ultimately the dance was about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, Perth International Arts Festival, February

In this seemingly carefree work Morris offered principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women were equal, each was an individual, there was strength to be gained from one another and there was belief in the power of love and joy.

Quintett, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, March

The first cast was more balletic, the second more ferocious in this thrilling, heart-catching William Forsythe work. Not many companies are allowed to do it; Sydney Dance Company did it proud.

Sydney Dance Company's Quintett featuring Chloe Leong and David Mack 1. Photo by Peter Greig

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

The Sleeping Beauty, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Alexei Ratmansky’s production took us as nearly as possible back to what the original 1890 audience would have seen: super-lavish setting, strong mime and many intimate, modest details. The physicality looked startlingly different. Instead of height and bravura there was refinement and great charm. For both men and women there was a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkled. It was as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and much more intricate and sophisticated.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Auckland, September

What a gorgeous production! Designed by New Zealander Tracy Grant Lord and choreographed by hotter-than-hot Brit Liam Scarlett, this co-pro between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet was funny, sexy and ravishing to behold. Brisbane sees it in April.

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Hayley Dennison in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The Sleeping Beauty, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne and Sydney, September and December

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drank deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, was almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revelled in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There were columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that threw out a huge challenge to David McAllister: match this if you can, buddy. Well, he asked for it. There have been a few rumblings about the design being oppressively opulent but this greatest of ballet scores can bear the weight. It invites and deserves a magnificent mise en scène. It also requires storytelling that can fill the space and amplify the music. It’s in the latter sphere that Beauty doesn’t fully succeed despite the involvement of Lucas Jervies, a choreographer and director working as McAllister’s sounding board and adviser. It was extremely cheering, though, to see many very fine performances through the ranks and exciting role debuts (see below).

Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, November

It was a joy to see Ochres revived at Carriageworks with a dynamic new generation of dancers. Not that it was exactly the work originally choreographed by Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene, nor should it be. Dance texts are particularly susceptible to change and Bangarra has developed greatly since the early 1990s. This revival was in the spirit of the original rather than a faithful dusting off of the old steps. The company called it a re-imagining and it looked wonderful. Bangarra has a unique aesthetic based on the connection with Indigenous ceremony and the land. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and invigorating.

Cinderella, choreographed by Jayne Smeulders, West Australian Ballet, Perth, December

How many full-length, mainstage classical ballets choreographed by women were there on Australian stages this year? Just the one I think, Jayne Smeulders’s Cinderella. She reworked her 2011 production to advantage and scored a huge hit with Perth audiences. See: it can be done.

Coppélia, choreographed by Maina Gielgud for Christine Walsh’s Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Melbourne, December

There was quite a lot of new choreography and loads of rearranging but basically Gielgud’s production was a staging rather than a new work. But what a beauty. It was hard to believe this was a student production, so high were its standards. The young dancers were not just technically assured, they gave terrifically engaged and engaging performances, working seamlessly with the delightful guest artists from Tokyo Ballet, Maria Kawatani and Arata Miyagawa. Christine Walsh designed the many costumes, all of them splendid.

PERFORMANCES

Stella Abrera, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Abrera’s warmth and simplicity informed every moment of her performance; there wasn’t a thing that didn’t feel genuine. The mad scene tore at the heart. As she loses her reason Giselle re-enacts the plucking of flower petals, which earlier had quieted her anxiety about Albrecht – he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. Now there was no anticipation or light. Abrera shook her head piteously. He doesn’t love me. (Abrera was at that time an ABT soloist; she was promoted to principal – very belatedly in the opinion of many – at the end of June.)

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Veronica Part, Stella Abrera and Vladimir Shklyarov in Giselle. Photo: MIRA

Benedicte Bemet, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December

Quite simply one of the most exciting nights in the theatre, ever. Bemet, just 21, had the dew and radiance of youth, purity and joy in her dancing and was beyond fearless. You know how you almost always get butterflies when Aurora nears those balances and promenades in the Rose Adagio? Not so here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were extraordinary, the crowd went wild, and Bemet just went from strength to strength. She went on as a coryphée and shortly afterwards was promoted to soloist. To be honest, it wouldn’t have surprised me if David McAllister had bounded on to the stage to make her a principal artist on the spot. But she has plenty of time for that.

Brett Chynoweth, Puck in The Dream, debut as Prince Désiré, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, May and December

Chynoweth is one of The Australian Ballet’s finest male technicians – he is fast, sleek, has fabulous feet and exciting elevation. This, however, is not what makes him so interesting. He is a passionate, poetic man who connects deeply with his roles and therefore with the audience. As Désiré his longing for love was palpable, and earlier in the year his Puck was a marvel of pyrotechnics and other-worldly humour. He is now, rightfully, a senior artist.

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Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Alina Cojocaru, Aurora, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, October

She radiated light and joy from a tiny body that gave the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing was brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything felt as if it were the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all was her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompassed the entire theatre.

Thaji Dias, Dancing for the Gods, Chitrasena Dance Company, Sydney Festival, January

I got my first, and so far only, view of Thaji Dias during this year’s Sydney Festival. She is a ravishing artist, dancing in the Kandyan style from Sri Lanka with megawatts of charisma. The dance was dramatic and seductive and Dias’s command of it exhilarating with her divinely articulated wrists, rippling shoulders, jaunty strides, the deepest and plushest plies and the liveliest eyes.

Sylvie Guillem, Life in Progress, Sydney, August

At 50 Guillem left the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that showed her as a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. She was known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art. But that was then. Her farewell program celebrated Guillem in the here and now, with new and recent work.

Robyn Hendricks, debut in Symphonic Variations, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April and December

Hendricks is something of a late bloomer but no less valuable for that. Her willowy body gives her a regal air and she also seems a little unknowable, qualities that of course make one intensely aware of her. She looked serenely beautiful in the first cast of Symphonic Variations; as Aurora she was a queen in the making: watchful, elegant, sophisticated and lusciously aware of her suitors. She was promoted to senior artist immediately after her debut.

The Dream - Symphonic Variations

Aka Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

Xavier Le Roy, Self Untitled, Carriageworks, Sydney, November

Xavier Le Roy’s 1998 solo Self Unfinished had particular resonance at the time of viewing, days after the terrorist attacks on Paris, summoning thoughts of the fragility of life, the resilience of the human spirit, the truth that we exist only at this moment, right now, and that we are all in it together. He didn’t make a big thing of it, but Le Roy’s piece had a strong sense of erasing the invisible barrier between audience and performer. He intrigued, delighted and provoked during a performance of quite intimacy.

Natalia Osipova/Steven McRae, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Osipova’s Giselle had London aflame last year and this year had the New York audience entranced and exhilarated. She tore through the ballet with a passion, leaping higher, turning more quickly and covering ground more voraciously than any other. Osipova is a risk-taking dancer. She fell heavily towards the end of her final solo and took several agonising seconds to recover enough to stand. She limped back to the centre and resumed dancing, finishing the ballet not only courageously but with melting beauty. The clarity and complexity of McRae’s acting was wonderful. He gave not just the broad picture but made every moment vivid, fresh, illuminating and dramatically coherent. His dancing, it goes without saying, was full of brilliance without being bombastic. But there was no more riveting moment than one of complete stillness, when Albrecht heard the distant horns of the Royal hunting party and understood the chaos to come.

CHOREOGRAPHY

Kristina Chan, Conform, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, December

“I am interested in what it means to be a man in this modern day,” Chan wrote in the program note to Conform, part of the annual New Breed program. She has a sombre view. When we first saw her men – there was an all-male cast of eight – they visibly buckled under the weight of expectation. They were either desperately alone with their thoughts or they fell in with the majority, losing individuality but absorbing the power of the pack. Conform was beautifully structured, vibrated with repressed emotion and had a very strong, pulsating and often ominous score by James Brown. It should be a keeper.

Justin Peck, Rōdē,ō, New York City Ballet, May

We haven’t seen a step of Peck’s in Australia as far as I know and it’s about time someone did something about it. His Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes, to the music of Aaron Copland, is wondrous. (Don’t ask me about the odd accents in the title; perhaps Peck wanted to differentiate it from Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo, to this music.) A piece for 15 men and one fabulous woman, it surprises, invigorates and enchants at every turn. Peck, still dancing as a soloist with New York City Ballet, has the magic touch. This apparently abstract ballet is packed with ideas, relationships and really zingy choreography. NYCB probably doesn’t want to let it go just yet because it premiered only in February this year, but can someone please beg?

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

Revelations in New York, stars made at The Australian Ballet, Alina Cojocaru in Brisbane and more …

The Australian Ballet dubbed its 2015 season A Year of Beauty. Giselle, Swan Lake, Cinderella and Frederick Ashton’s The Dream were on the program, lovely ballets all, but essentially teasers for the main event – the new Sleeping Beauty, staged by artistic director David McAllister with opulent designs by Gabriela Tylesova. On the other side of the world an even grander production was unveiled. American Ballet Theatre’s Alexei Ratmansky sought to return The Sleeping Beauty to something close to its original form and style.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beau...

The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, designed by Gabriela Tylesova

In Brisbane, Queensland Ballet staged Greg Horsman’s smaller-scaled interpretation (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011) and a visiting company, Russian National Ballet Theatre, toured Australia and New Zealand extensively with (inevitably) Swan Lake but also Beauty. The AB’s new Storytime Ballet venture for very young children was launched this year with, yes, The Sleeping Beauty (a miniature clocking in at well under an hour).

I thus had my own Year of Beauty in 2015 with 10 performances in all – two casts of the Ratmansky, four of McAllister’s, two of Horsman’s and just one Russian National Ballet Theatre (more than enough, alas) and one Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. 

This Beauty bounty inevitably drew me back to DVDs of productions including those by The Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and The Australian Ballet. Their stagings of Sleeping Beauty could be looked at anew, particularly in light of Ratmansky’s discoveries, and encouraged repeated returns to the complete score (the 2012 version by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi for Chandos is superb) although none of the versions I saw used all the music, as no one does. A little-admired four-hour 1999 Mariinsky version aiming for authenticity has been dropped from the repertoire. These days companies want – and need – to bring The Sleeping Beauty in under three hours. At American Ballet Theatre the reason was stated bluntly in the program: “The ballet has, however, had to be cut somewhat to fit within the union-defined time limitation.”

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora for ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

It’s worth quoting in length from David Nice’s scene-by-scene analysis that accompanies the Chandos recording to see the kind of thing that’s lost. In the second entr’acte (the first is rarely heard at all), “the note C is sustained by the strings, principally the violins, for exactly one hundred bars. This is time suspended: the ‘sleep’ chords … and the themes of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse pass and dissolve. Few if any productions observe the full symbolic duration of this hypnotic spell – Aurora is usually heard to sleep for a mere forty or so years.” Not that Petipa used every bit of the music Tchaikovsky wrote for his ballet either. Pragmatism reigned then as now.

All the productions I saw were traditional ones underpinned by Petipa’s 1890 staging for St Petersburg’s imperial Ballet. It and other ballets were recorded in the Stepanov system of notation and came to the West in the luggage of Nicholas Sergeyev, a regisseur who managed to exit Russia not long after the revolution of 1917. Diaghilev’s 1921 production The Sleeping Princess was based on these notations as was The Royal Ballet’s of 1939, staged by Sergeyev and also called The Sleeping Princess although claiming to be more true to Petipa’s original than Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes version (with which Sergeyev was also closely associated). When revived in 1946 – and famously winning over New York in 1949 – the ballet was now The Sleeping Beauty and contained some new choreography.

The Beauty staged by the RB to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2006 had further changes: it was billed as being produced by Monica Mason and Christopher Newton after Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev with additional choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon. That list in itself tells the story of how ballet is translated and transformed down the ages. The Australian Ballet’s 1993 recording has choreography by Petipa, “reproduced by Monica Parker from the Nicholas Sergeyev notation” with direction and additional choreography by Maina Gielgud.

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Sarah Lane and Herman CornejoŽ in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

The versions are very similar when it comes to the overall story arc and key passages but have many different details that give an individual stamp. Not all of them are improvements, as Ratmansky’s painstaking research into how The Sleeping Beauty would have looked in 1890 makes clear.

The choreographer made a close study of the Stepanov notations and created a revelatory version for ABT and La Scala, who shared the eye-watering cost, reported to be in the vicinity of $US6 million. The money was well spent: this was indisputably the dance event of the year. I saw it in New York in May following its premiere in California. The production was extraordinarily sumptuous, flooding the Metropolitan Opera stage with so many dancers and supernumeraries that at some points there were more than 100 people on stage.

Even so, Ratmansky used fewer people than were in Petipa’s original, with its hordes of children, pages, courtiers, cavaliers and minor royalty to attend upon their majesties, each carefully arranged according to rank. The Sleeping Beauty is not only a fairy tale celebrating the victory of good over evil. It depicts a formal, long-established power structure as the embodiment of harmony. Its traditions and ceremonies imply continuance and order. In such a world Carabosse’s exclusion from Aurora’s christening, the event that initiates the action, puts a great tear in the social fabric. Ratmansky shows that in a healing gesture she is invited to Aurora’s wedding. It makes perfect sense, even if in the vast congregation at the end of the ballet Carabosse was seen only fleetingly.

And that’s the thing about Ratmansky’s version. It feels right dramatically and musically at every point.

A brief moment in the Rose Adagio perfectly illustrates how ballet can shift from its original intention into a kind of never-never land of whispers only partly heard. Aurora steps forward on her left foot, on pointe, then lowers her heel to the floor. She bends forward in an arabesque penchée, inclines her head and upper body towards the audience, bends her right arm and holds it close to her chest. Her right hand is seen to touch her left cheek, or perhaps is held near her face without obscuring it. Aurora does this four times, and sometimes the four Princes kneel behind her, all together or else one by one. Sometimes she leans on each Prince as she passes (as in the Grigorovich version for the Bolshoi), sometimes not. Sometimes she gives the Princes a glance, sometimes not. What exactly is she doing here, in this very specific sequence of body and head inclines?

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Diana Vishneva with violin pages. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Ratmansky tells us. Aurora is listening to a group of little pages as they play violins. In the Grigorovich staging, filmed in 1989, we can see youngsters dancing in the background while holding violins; in the RB version, young boys stand in the background plucking mandolins in a haphazard and desultory fashion. So the idea there should be some young people on stage with stringed instruments has survived, sometimes, in some form, but not their reason for being there. It may seem odd to single out a sequence that lasts less than 20 seconds but it always looked meaningless to me; Ratmansky turns the light on.

It was also delightful to see the Precious Stones music of the third act danced by the rarely seen fairies of Gold, Silver, Sapphire and Diamond (in McAllister’s and Horsman’s productions the Prologue fairies are drafted in for these dances). The Sapphire music is, excitingly, in the tricky metre of 5/4, written this way because Petipa was thinking of a five-faceted stone. In 1946 the RB introduced the now-familiar characters of Florestan and his sisters to replace the jewel fairies, with choreography by Ashton.

Study of the Stepanov notations revealed a quality of movement that has changed dramatically since Petipa’s time although Ratmansky also examined many other sources to fill gaps. For guidance on upper-body style Ratmansky consulted Ballets Russes material, including film shot in Australia by Melbourne eye specialist and ballet enthusiast Ringland Anderson that McAllister was able to make available. In Ratmansky’s version there are no extreme extensions. Legs are held softly, there is extensive use of the demi-pointe and lines are more rounded. With less height comes more speed and time for intricate footwork. The ballet sparkles as much as it intrigues. A delightful aspect is the low retiré position in pirouettes, sometimes not much above the ankle. In supported pirouettes the men use one arm only to guide the ballerina rather than paddling her around, and there are many other surprises, such as the double air turn for the Prince that ends with a landing on one foot. A beguiling airiness prevails.

The production includes some elements from The Sleeping Princess and later versions of the ballet that are now considered standard, including fish dives in the grand pas de deux and the arms raised en couronne as Aurora pauses, balancing on pointe, in between greeting each suitor (said to be a Fonteyn innovation). Interestingly, the very poor production from Russian National Ballet Theatre is more faithful to Petita in both those respects although quite chaotic in others. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that the Russian Aurora I saw, Elizaveta Lobacheva, perhaps didn’t attempt the balances in the Rose Adagio as we know them because the taped music offered no room to move. (I saw her Odette-Odile too; she’s a very proficient dancer.)

David McAllister’s staging experience was quite limited before he took on the task of bringing a new Sleeping Beauty into his company’s repertoire to replace Stanton Welch’s 2005 production. It was a courageous move on his part, pulled off remarkably well. I have a handful of reservations about aspects of the storytelling but audiences have responded strongly and a long life seems assured. It needs to stick around: this Beauty cost the royal sum of $2 million or thereabouts, although more than 70 per cent of the budget came from about 2000 ballet-lovers, making donations big and small. Some gave individual gifts of more than $50,000, others put in $100. It was an impressive fund-raising feat.

Lana Jones in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Bal...

Lana Jones in David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

While the drain on the AB coffers wasn’t particularly great for such a large-scale production, the many people who donated would have a right to feel very cheated if it wasn’t a stayer. My prediction: when the AB vacates the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House for some months in 2017 to allow replacement of the ageing theatre machinery it will presumably perform elsewhere in the city and will need popular repertoire to entice the audience to follow. If it can get the Capitol – and I stress I have no information on this – the larger stage and the big, ornate auditorium would be perfect for this Sleeping Beauty.

I digress. As I wrote just after the Melbourne premiere in September, Gabriela Tylesova’s design “is almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revels in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There are columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas.” It is a sumptuous fantasia at one with Tchaikovsky’s magical score and I enjoyed it greatly each time I saw it, or at least most of it. I still think McAllister and dramaturg Lucas Jervies have muddled and muddied certain details of the story but McAllister was able to field strong casts and gave several dancers a career-defining break.

The AB seems to have hit the mark with Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Hordes of tutu-wearing, wand-waving little ones packed the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House to see a vastly simplified version of the ballet, helped along with clear, clever narration. The dancing from young Australian Ballet School graduates and members of the AB’s education ensemble was a touch on the careful side as they negotiated bits and pieces of Petipa on the small stage. (For the first time ever I regretted the absence of the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots from Act III; I think the children would have adored them.) The real fun came from panto-like interaction between narrator Catalabutte and an enthusiastic audience that was thrilled to warn of Carabosse’s appearance at Aurora’s birthday party – “Behind you! Look behind you!!” – and helped rouse the slumbering palace with lusty wake-up shouts.

Storytime Ballet The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. photo Jeff Busby 01

Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Queensland Ballet’s production, which I saw in October, is a great success. Greg Horsman made it for relatively small forces and his cuts and conflations are done with a keen eye to clarity and logic. The world he creates is coherent and consistent in tone. Everything makes sense in a world that’s perhaps not terribly grand but zesty and imaginative. Among the pleasant innovations is the presence at the christening of four young princes who will grow up to become Aurora’s suitors; the garland dance arranged for gardeners and their girls, making it happy and relaxed; and a youthful, glamorous Carabosse who has the ability to turn into a dragon.

Russian National Ballet Theatre toured New Zealand and Australia for three months, offering more than 100 performances divided between Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. They performed in a variety of venues, from modestly sized arts centres in small cities to large theatres such as Melbourne’s Regent and Sydney’s State. In October I saw The Sleeping Beauty in the Big Top at Sydney’s Luna Park, not the most atmospheric venue for grand classical ballet but RNBT was taking whatever venues it could. There was a set of the most meagre kind (well, an unchanging backcloth really), recorded music, far too few dancers and the story told in such broad strokes as to be incomprehensible.

It was depressing to see how basic everything was. The Princess Florine made no attempt to emulate the flutterings of the Bluebird with whom she was dancing, thus eliminating all charm and meaning; Carabosse, shorn of attendants, dashed about the stage manically and confusingly; the hunt scene appeared to be happening within the castle confines; and so on. RNBT’s ability to have so many dates on this tour is evidence, however, that there is audience demand for the ballet classics that is not being met by local companies, and that Russian companies, no matter how inadequate, can still pull a crowd.

While I greatly admired Ratmansky’s production, the first-cast Aurora of Gillian Murphy felt rather too modern for this staging despite the care taken to rein in her 21st-century facility. Her Prince, Marcelo Gomes, was a wonderfully charismatic figure. Although Sarah Lane, a soloist I saw at the second New York performance, was not as technically assured as Murphy she was warm, youthful and had lovely rapport with her Prince, the superlative Herman Cornejo. He bounded through the fleet, delicate, precise footwork with much ease and charm.

Queensland Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - International Ballet Stars Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao Image 6. Photo David Kelly

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

At Queensland Ballet there was the gift of Alina Cojocaru as guest artist. She is rightly thought to be among the very best, if not the best, Aurora of the moment. As I wrote at the time: “She radiates light and joy from a tiny body that gives the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing is brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything feels as if it is the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all is her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompasses the entire theatre.”

QB’s second-cast Aurora was the newish principal artist Yanela Piñera, who came to Brisbane from National Ballet of Cuba. She dances on a grand scale, making the Act III pas de deux a glittering highlight in concert with principal Hao Bin, who recently announced his retirement and will be missed in a company with few experienced leading men.

The AB ended its Year of Beauty on a high note by promoting three dancers who had made debuts in Sydney as Aurora and Prince Désiré. At the Melbourne premiere principals Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson gave stately performances that matched the grandeur of the setting. Two months later, on the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre stage in Sydney, there was a more intimate feel, at least in the performances I attended.

Brett Chynoweth was made a senior artist (the second-highest rank) after his soaring, heartfelt Prince Désiré. There was a felicitous pairing with senior artist Natasha Kusch as Aurora – though both are relatively small they make an abundant impression with legs like rapiers, exquisitely articulated feet and loads of height and speed. This was an incredibly important opportunity for Chynoweth, who has rarely been cast in leading classical roles (although he danced a very fine Prince in The Nutcracker in 2014). In Beauty he radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing.

Robyn Hendricks’s first Aurora also won her a promotion to senior artist. She was a slightly mysterious young woman in whom you could see the queen she is destined to be. The watchfulness and engagement with her suitors created a whole, interesting, individual character and the elegance and quiet sophistication of her dancing spoke of great things ahead. Principal Adam Bull partnered her securely although he was not looking in peak physical form – a little tired at year’s end perhaps.

Bernet-Kate Longley

Benedicte Bemet in rehearsal with Kevin Jackson. Photo: Kate Longley

McAllister astutely gave coryphée Benedicte Bemet the inestimable support of principal Kevin Jackson, who has been on fire all year, for her debut as Aurora. It could be the start of a very fruitful relationship following the retirement earlier this year of Jackson’s most frequent partner, Madeleine Eastoe. The possibilities for Bemet would appear to be boundless. Her Aurora rates as the most exciting debut I’ve seen in more than 40 years of ballet-watching. At just 21 she brought the authentic glow of youth and promise to the stage. She was so entirely at one with the role that all the technical requirements and difficulties simply disappeared. Every step was part of her journey from innocent to prospective bride to woman on the brink of maturity.

Usually one has a sympathetic butterfly or two as the dancer approaches the climactic balances and promenades of the Rose Adagio but not here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were astonishing – the audience went wild – and they were part of a story. There was purity, radiance and joy in Bemet’s dancing. She was enchanting; a promotion to soloist swiftly came her way.

I haven’t even got started on the many exquisite fairies and Bluebirds, the merits or otherwise of various Carabosses and Catalabuttes, the conducting and many other aspects of this endlessly fascinating ballet. But enough, I think, for now.

Into the woods

Melbourne, September 15

THE Australian Ballet and its audiences have a great deal invested in David McAllister’s new Sleeping Beauty, in both senses of the word. The first is financial: this Beauty cost more than $2 million to produce and 70 per cent of its financing was provided by ballet-lovers. The program lists hundreds of supporters, some of whom gave gifts of more than $50,000 and others more than $20,000. The second investment arises from the first. Because the enterprise is so grand and so expensive, The Australian Ballet has promoted The Sleeping Beauty to saturation point through every channel possible. Even those only slightly interested in the AB would have known of its progress. When expectations are raised to this extent the pressure to succeed is equally intense.

Lana Jones as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lana Jones as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

The first performance – described in grandiose manner as a “global premiere” – was greeted with a standing ovation, an event relatively rare for ballet in this country. The sense of relief was palpable. The Sleeping Beauty looked every bit as sumptuous as promised, and more. The first-cast Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré, Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson, were a glowing pair at the centre of a setting that could effortlessly overshadow dancers of less consequence; Amber Scott created an indelible impression as the Lilac Fairy, gossamer-delicate, dispensing calm and goodness and making one believe implicitly in her natural authority; and it was wonderful to see former AB principal artist Lisa Bolte, who now works behind the scenes with patrons, as a radiant Queen in whom it was easy to see the Aurora she once was. This was inspired casting.

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drinks deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, is almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revels in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There are columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She has created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that throws out a huge challenge to McAllister: match this if you can, buddy. Well, he asked for it. There have been a few rumblings about the design being oppressively opulent but this greatest of ballet scores can bear the weight. It invites and deserves a magnificent mise en scène. It also requires storytelling that can fill the space and amplify the music. It’s in the latter sphere that Beauty doesn’t fully succeed despite the involvement of Lucas Jervies, a choreographer and director working as McAllister’s sounding board and adviser.

Amber Scott, centre, as the Lilac Fairy in The Australian Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Amber Scott, centre, as the Lilac Fairy in The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Sleeping Beauty is set in a strictly hierarchical society that cascades down from the King and Queen. Knowing your place is paramount. Order is everything. In the ballet harmony is disrupted and then restored through the superior might of good and the healing power of pure love.

The production takes a fresh line on the event that sets the story in motion, the lack of an invitation for the fairy Carabosse to Aurora’s christening. In a quite lengthy piece of business it’s made clear that Catalabutte – I suppose these days you’d call him the King’s principal private secretary – is an active participant in the Carabosse disaster. He is loath to invite the dark fairy, the synopsis tells us, although the ballet itself does not, indeed would not be able to, indicate why. (Apparently she hasn’t been around for a while.) Catalabutte dithers a bit, makes a weak attempt to run the matter past a preoccupied King, then tears up the invitation. McAllister must have thought this stronger than having Carabosse left off the list because of system failure but it’s odd that a functionary would be given such agency. Carabosse is a powerful figure, as we soon see.

The failure of the palace administration to run smoothly, effectively and according to protocol reveals a crack in the structure, and that precipitates a devastating event. That’s why most productions present the exclusion of Carabosse as a clerical error rather than an active, personal decision on the part of an underling.

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty

The Carabosse issue is compounded in this production: she reappears at points in the story where her presence is simply not called for. Once the Lilac Fairy has ruled that Aurora will not die when she pricks her finger, when it’s abundantly plain that the influence of the Lilac Fairy trumps that of Carabosse, why would Carabosse turn up, only to be routed once more? She might have a wicked streak but she isn’t stupid: in fact in this production she is titled the ancient Fairy of Wisdom. On opening night former AB principal artist Lynette Wills invested Carabosse with much dark allure, although it was puzzling she should wear pointe shoes when there is little choreographic call for them. It’s not a flattering look.

The nature of this world would also have been more clearly defined by the presence of supernumeraries to fill out the court, which looked under-populated for such a lavish establishment. And I missed the presence of children acting as pages and rounding out the garland dance. A court such as the one Tylesova creates would be replete with pages attending the courtiers who wait upon minor royalty who attend the monarch. Yes, it would cost, but the ship sailed on that aspect a long time ago.

Another idle thought. Would the King and Queen walk about holding their baby in the manner of fond 21st century parents? It diminished their grandeur for me.

Matt Donnelly, Lana Jones and Lisa Bolte. Photo: Jeff Busby

Matt Donnelly, Lana Jones and Lisa Bolte. Photo: Jeff Busby

McAllister has kept key passages of traditional choreography, put his own stamp on some elements and created linking material to make the transitions needed to cover cuts. The ballet was made to come in at under three hours (with two intervals) for family-friendly reasons. Well that, and I imagine also for cost reasons involving orchestra and crew. (Even Alexei Ratmansky in his reconstruction for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala this year cut the Panorama and Entr’acte that accompany the Prince’s journey to the castle where he will discover Aurora. It’s lovely music but if you have your eye on the clock …)

It was a bold move to excise most of the traditional fairytale divertissements from the Act III wedding celebration (though not Bluebird/Princess Florine) but they aren’t much missed. The wedding party is a stupendously lavish affair, presented as a masked ball in the style of Louis XIV. Very clever, eye-poppingly decorated, and showing footmen lighting candles on huge chandeliers that then rise up majestically is a splendid touch. Fairytale characters including the cats, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and Cinderella are evoked in fancy-dress costumes worn by the Prince’s friends – people we saw rather too briefly in the very heavily truncated hunting scene of Act II after which the Lilac Fairy shows the lonely Prince his future love in a vision. It would have been helpful to see just a little more of the friends in Act II to make the connection more evident in Act III. But the basic logic works and it’s an imaginative decision.

Gabriela Tylesova's Act III setting for The Australian Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Gabriela Tylesova’s Act III setting for The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

I am very much looking forward to seeing Beauty again – and other casts – when it comes to Sydney in November. After that, in honour of the title McAllister bestowed on his whole 2015 program, I will examine my own Year of Beauty. By November I will have seen four different productions: the Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre, McAllister’s, Greg Horsman’s for Queensland Ballet and the touring version from Russian National Ballet. At that time I will write in detail about the performances, including that of Alina Cojocaru in Brisbane, Gillian Murphy and Sarah Lane for ABT and further Australian Ballet casts.

The Sleeping Beauty ends in Melbourne on Saturday. Perth, October 7-10. Sydney, November 27-December 16.

‘I am in the right place’

Robert Curran was a long-serving principal artist with The Australian Ballet, from which he retired in 2011. He’s now leading a small company in the United States and relishing a role that is both very similar – ballet is ballet, the studio is the studio – and yet very different from his  former life.

LOUISVILLE is a city of about 750,000 people lying west of the Appalachian Mountains on the Ohio River in Kentucky. It was founded in 1778 during the American Revolution, named after Louis XVI (the French were allies against the British), and is situated in the South, although very much in the north of the South – it takes little more than two hours in a not very large aircraft to fly there from New York. But a Southern city it is, proud of its hospitality and its role as a leading bourbon producer.

As everyone knows, Louisville is famous for the annual Kentucky Derby, which is kicked off by Thunder Over Louisville, a fireworks display described as the biggest in North America. The city is also the headquarters for the parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, the jauntily named Yum! Brands. (The city’s major sports complex, seating 22,000, is called the KFC Yum! Center.)

So – horses, booze and fast food are important in Louisville. And bluegrass music. But they are not what I went for in mid-April. In August last year Louisville Ballet named Robert Curran, former principal artist with The Australian Ballet, as its new artistic director. As I have always been keen to see one of the smaller-scale American companies in action, his appointment offered the perfect excuse to make it happen.

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

Robert Curran in rehearsal with Louisville Ballet dancers. Photo: Sam English

First, a bit of background. San Francisco Ballet is regarded as the oldest professional company in the US, founded in 1933 as San Francisco Opera Ballet and becoming a separate body in 1942. Just to muddy the waters a little, Atlanta Ballet was founded in 1929 and describes itself as “the longest continuously performing ballet company in the United States”. Presumably it started as an amateur outfit. Whatever the story, ballet started to take root in the US about 85 years ago. Interest had been stirred by touring European troupes in the 19th century and was cemented by Ballets Russes spin-off companies in the mid 20th century. George Balanchine came to the US in late 1933 and his School of American Ballet opened at the beginning of 1934.

By the beginning of the 21st century there would be 100 or more ballet companies in the US. They include a handful of world-renowned organisations – American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet – and other major-city outfits such as Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet and Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet that can support 40 or more dancers. Louisville Ballet belongs to a third category: smaller troupes established in sizeable cities with a lively arts scene.

After his appointment was announced Curran made a quick trip back home to sort out his visa and then returned to Louisville to dive in. He didn’t have long to become acquainted with his dancers before getting Giselle onstage by mid-September, and also wanted to immerse himself in Louisville cultural life as soon as possible.

Eight months later, Curran couldn’t look happier. Retiring director Bruce Simpson had programmed the first part of the 2014-2015 season so it wasn’t until April 10 that Curran unveiled his first program for Louisville Ballet: a triple bill of Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, George Balanchine’s Square Dance and a new piece by Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies, What Light Is to Our Eyes. It was extremely well received by public and critics, but perhaps more impressive was the demonstration of just how quickly Curran had moved on one of his most passionately desired goals. He wants Louisville Ballet to interact meaningfully and visibly with the local cultural scene and Director’s Choice: A New World was a strong beginning.

“That’s something I’m investing a lot of time in. Getting involved in the music scene, getting involved in the visual arts scene,” he says. Curran was given permission by the Balanchine Trust to commission new designs for Square Dance and asked Louisville artist Letitia Quesenberry to be involved. Her serene stage picture was dominated by a quietly glowing painting bisected by a horizontal stream of light. “Meeting Leticia was a great, great moment for me. Her work is so inspiring. It’s absolutely glorious.” Curran hadn’t expected the Balanchine Trust to give him so much freedom, although perhaps his commitment to offer Balanchine in Louisville every year helped. “I didn’t think that [redesigning the ballet] was a luxury that would be afforded a first-time director of a mid-west company with a small budget. When they offered, I had to jump at it.”

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland in Square Dance. Photo: Wade Bell

Jervies created What Light Is to Our Eyes to young American composer Sebastian Chang’s first symphony, which was commissioned by and given its world premiere performance in late January by Louisville Orchestra. It was conducted by the orchestra’s new music director Teddy Abrams, a 27-year-old who is creating quite a stir in the city. As an interviewer for Louisville Insider put it to Curran recently just before Director’s Choice opened, “You can’t cross the street without running into Teddy – he’s everywhere.” Curran doesn’t want to make himself quite as visible as Abrams, preferring to put the spotlight on his dancers, but they seem to be on the same wavelength.

The intertwining of ballet and orchestra continues in March next year in a co-production called (R)evolution that will feature a new score from Abrams alongside music by Stravinsky and Philip Glass. Adam Hougland will choreograph. Curran also meets with the leaders of two other leading Louisville companies, Kentucky Opera and the famed Actors Theatre of Louisville, with an eye to co-operative ventures. “We’re all in really open communication. We spend time together, we talk together, we deal with tricky situations, but we deal with them together. It’s a really open dialogue, and that goes with the visual arts organisations as well. We’re all trying to work out how we can maximise our impact and minimise our impact on each other – that’s a really exciting thing.”

Drawing on the wider world of ballet connections, Curran was given permission to stage Suite en blanc himself after Claude Bessy, a former director of the Paris Opera Ballet School who is associated with the Serge Lifar Foundation, was unable to come to the US as planned. Curran got Bessy’s blessing after being introduced long-distance by ballet legend Violette Verdy, whom Curran knows from his AB days. Verdy is now a professor at Indiana University. It’s a small world.

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

Erica De La O in Suite en blanc. Photo: Renata Pavam

In terms of repertoire Director’s Choice was very familiar territory for Curran. He has been acquainted with the Lifar ballet since his student days with the Australian Ballet School, danced Balanchine with the AB and with Jervies founded a small Melbourne-based contemporary ballet company, JACK.

Far less familiar was his new company’s structure. Louisville Ballet has 24 dancers and 15 apprentices, the latter at the stage of finishing vocational training and preparing to start professional careers. Dancers are contracted for 30 weeks of the year, a number Curran would like to see increase to 40 or 42. Houston Ballet, led by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, has 44-week contracts but that is uncommon. Even the mighty American Ballet Theatre contracts its dancers for only 36 weeks of the year. For the rest of the year they fend for themselves or go on unemployment benefits.

Perhaps even more surprising to an outsider is the small number of performances in each season given by Louisville Ballet and other companies of its size. Director’s Choice was seen only three times in the space of 28 hours – Friday night, Saturday matinee, Saturday night and it was done. The exception of course is Nutcracker, which is both sacred community tradition and indispensible money-spinner for virtually every American ballet company. That has a much longer run.

Nutcracker is a phenomenon I wasn’t exactly prepared for. It’s the most beautiful score ever written for ballet, it’s a beautiful tradition and I love seeing how many children come. It’s a brilliant production [choreographed by Val Caniparoli]. I’m biased but I would rate it in my top five in the world that I’ve seen. The integrity, the quality of the choreography, the through line are really wonderful. It’s unique and it’s also great to see a Nutcracker, a lot like Graeme’s [Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker: The Story of Clara], that is so specific to its audience. There are a lot of touches that are Louisville.’’

While the company is much smaller than Curran is used to, it means there’s plenty of room for growth. “There are no performances outside Louisville at the moment. That has to change. We are here to serve the whole state and we don’t. I would love for the company to do more performances, and that’s my ultimate goal.” Nutcracker would be a natural ballet to tour, although in a different, smaller-scale version. The Caniparoli production was designed for the vast – 2400 seats – Whitney Hall in Louisville’s Kentucky Center. (Curran’s Director’s Choice program was at the smaller Brown Theatre. Its 1400 seats make it a suitable size for a great deal of repertoire but backstage restrictions make it not entirely ideal.)

One area set to expand is the number of trainees. Curran says there will be a much bigger group next year than the current 15. “I had a phenomenal number of people applying.” As trainees are unpaid they don’t drain resources. There is a little government funding but Curran describes the company’s $3.5 million budget as primarily made up of “about one third box office, one third development [corporate sponsorship and private support] and one third school revenue”. The latter is something Curran, who is also artistic director of Louisville Ballet School, is looking at. If the school’s income is mainly siphoned off for the company it doesn’t get to invest in itself. There are 600 students, not all of whom want to take a vocational path, and Curran would like to see an organisation that better suits the needs of both recreational and vocational students.

The vocational students are the obvious candidates for apprenticeships and, ultimately, a place in the company. And it’s something Curran has to pay close attention to. Louisville Ballet dancers have a higher average age than in most companies, Curran says, with many in their mid to late 30s. That brings maturity and intelligence to the stage, but the careers can’t last forever.

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes. Photo: Renata Pavam

Kristopher Wojtera and Erica De La O in What Light Is to Our Eyes, by Lucas Jervies. Photo: Renata Pavam

Curran has no intention of letting people go – “I’ve become very fond of them” – but must keep an eye to the future. That means not only developing the next generation of dancers but also giving current company members challenging repertoire.

Suite en blanc was certainly that. It’s danced by the best companies in the world although has not been frequently staged in the US, which made it a clever choice for Louisville. Lifar’s tutu-laden, highly exposed test of classical prowess was greatly enjoyed by the audience at the two performances I saw and clearly stretched some of the apprentices in the corps. “It’s a really hard ballet,” Curran said when we spoke after the opening. “They’ve had to step up mentally and physically. I can see dramatic changes in the way they work and what they look like.”

Many dancers caught the eye, in particular Natalia Ashikhmina in the Cigarette variation and Erica De La O in the Flute variation in Suite; both leading pairs in Square Dance – Kateryna Sellers and Brandon Ragland, De La O with Kristopher Wojtera; and the full cast of What Light Is to our Eyes, which the dancers invested not only with strong contemporary ballet energy but with mature dramatic qualities.

With the dancers going on leave for their long northern summer layoff, Curran and Louisville Ballet general manager Cara Hicks are turning their minds to a reorganisation of the company, which has a staff of about 15 apart from the dancers. Hicks is relatively new to her position (although not to the company), as previously Bruce Simpson combined the roles of artistic director and chief executive. Curran expresses nothing but great admiration and respect for Simpson, who some years ago guided the company out of extreme financial difficulties, but with both Curran and Hicks under 40 different emphases are inevitable.

Along with the major undertaking that is the company restructure, Curran has a new production to prepare, a version of Coppélia that will open Louisville Ballet’s 2015-2016 season in October. He plans to set it in Louisville’s Germantown area in 1917 as the US enters World War I. He also has “perhaps a foolishly ambitious plan” for the company’s 65th anniversary in 2017 about which he will say nothing at present.

He will say, however, how thrilled he is to be in Louisville. “I enjoy the people. They’re so welcoming. The city is fun; it’s really easy, although the food is a little bit too good. This community, they are brave, willing to look at things in a new light. Seeing that standing ovation after Lucas’s work – they were so willing to embrace it.

“I am in the right place. I didn’t know if I would find something as rewarding as my dancing; I really didn’t. But I wasn’t very long into this when I realised I’d found it. It’s a brilliant, brilliant job.”

Distinctions and evaluations

Les Misérables, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, April 26; Aida, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Fleet Steps, Sydney, April 27

A COUPLE of years ago I interviewed Stephen Sondheim ahead of the Melbourne season of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and I’m afraid I really didn’t get anything out of him that he hadn’t said many, many times before. This included his definition of the difference between opera and musical theatre. When, for instance, Sweeney Todd was presented on Broadway, it was a musical, he said. When Sweeney Todd was staged by an opera company, it was an opera.

It’s a reasonable point. As Bernard Williams writes frankly in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1992 edition), after discussing operetta, Singspiel, the use of Sprechgesang and so on: “The relations between opera and the other forms that are contrasted with it are thus complex, and the distinctions (in particular, that between opera and operetta) are to some degree arbitrary. The present position is that ‘opera’ is to some extent an evaluative term, used to refer to sung drama which is either ‘serious’ enough, or traditional enough in form and technique, to be staged in an opera house.”

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

That last phrase points to the circular nature of this knotty question of classification. A sung drama can be called an opera because it’s considered worthy of being in an opera house – which of course depends on whom is doing the considering, or evaluating. Sweeney Todd in an opera house? It’s an opera. Perhaps, although I don’t care what you want to call it, other than a great, great work. (Grove: Opera, It., from Lat. opera, plural of opus, ‘work’.)

Just to muddy the issue, the work of a contemporary company such as Sydney Chamber Opera is staged at Carriageworks, a multi-arts venue that concentrates on new work. I doubt that Kate Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s hour-long work The Rabbits, of which Opera Australia was a co-producer, will be seen in a traditional opera space, not to mention that the singers are amplified, which for many people would bar it from being called an opera. Perth International Arts Festival, a co-commissioner with the Melbourne Festival, cannily called The Rabbits “a new work of operatic theatre”.

PIAF was right to make that distinction, and I don’t think in this case it is arbitrary. The Rabbits’ music, while it had some qualities one might consider operatic (overlapping vocal lines, for instance), was not of the complexity one associates with opera – not quite “traditional enough in form and technique”. But to get back to my point about Sweeney Todd, who cares what box you put it in, as long as it’s good?

The openings in Sydney of Les Misérables and Aida on consecutive nights brought to the fore these distinctions and evaluations.

It goes without saying that musically speaking, Aida, this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, starts any face-off with the unbridgeable advantage of having been written by Verdi. The composer of Les Mis, Claude-Michel Schönberg, is no Verdi, although the same can be said of many – most? – composers of opera, let alone those firmly assigned to the musical theatre realm. Schönberg nevertheless writes memorable, effective melodies that vividly colour and support the stage action.

Walter Fraccaro arrives in triumph in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Walter Fraccaro arrives in triumph in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Schönberg also allows himself a few “serious” references as most Le Mis aficionados know, and they fit seamlessly into his score, which is interesting. Jean Valjean’s Bring Him Home may well remind lovers of Madama Butterfly of the Humming Chorus, and I am grateful to Robert J. Elisberg’s blog for alerting me to the ways in which Little Cosette’s Castle on a Cloud has resonances of Rameau.

One reason, though, why Schönberg and his music theatre confrères will never sound like operatic composers is the non-negotiable requirement that music-theatre lyrics be clearly understood at every moment. In his fine New Yorker obituary for Andrew Porter, the greatly esteemed music critic who died a few days ago, Alex Ross wrote: “Like Wagner, he believed that operas should generally be performed in the native language of the audience—a conviction that marked him as something other than a purist.” Like opera used to be, musical theatre is the theatre of the people and therefore presented in the language of its audience – although when opera is sung in English one sometimes still needs recourse to the surtitles, partly because there may be multiple vocal lines and partly because sometimes diction isn’t what it could be or the conductor isn’t being helpful with the orchestral balance.

Another difference is that music-theatre lyrics pretty much say what they mean and mean what they say. There are few music-theatre lyricists as sophisticated and multi-layered as Sondheim. One may enter a production of a successful musical with no knowledge and leave with full, uncomplicated apprehension of every turn of plot and emotion. You can call it unsubtle if you will, but it’s powerful magic and it’s why Andrew Lloyd Webber is a very rich man. (He likes his Puccini too – Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera employs a phrase very like one in Quello che tacete in La fanciulla del West. Let’s put it this way: royalties were paid to Puccini heirs.

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

So far Aida is out in front by quite a margin, although it’s fun to think that perhaps Les Mis could be considered the more serious drama, in that its love triangle (Eponine-Marius-Cosette) is subordinate to the theme of oppression and revolution. In Aida the love triangle (Amneris-Radamès-Aida) is to the fore with political upheaval secondary.

Musically, though, Aida is the goods. Late-stage Verdi in his pomp.

But we’re not just listening. Sung drama is a combination of score, libretto, vocal quality, acting and staging.

In its current production Aida’s musical splendours are forced into the service of an astonishingly vulgar presentation. What was director Gale Edwards thinking? The dominating scenic element in Mark Thompson’s design, a giant head of Nefertiti, is inspired but presides over a sad mish-mash of images and ideas. It is one of those concepts that throws in costuming from across the ages to indicate that the themes are timeless. So there are modern business-suited guards, Fascist soldiers, priests of Ancient Egypt, women overpowered by gargantuan gowns, female dancers in a kick-line (don’t ask) wearing abbreviated versions of traditional African attire and male dancers got up as jackals with a 1970s rock-star vibe by way of a D-grade sci-fi film. Well, it’s work for the dancers, although not choreographer Lucas Jervies’s finest hour.

The mute reference to current Middle East oil politics is very odd. Why all those barrels stacked up the back? It’s not as if Egypt is one of the great oil-producing countries and at war with Ethiopia over the resource. Obviously we were meant to think about current geo-politics but the idea looked and felt tacked on.

Les Mis, ensconced at the rather operatic Capitol Theatre, pulls together its various themes brilliantly. I saw it first in Melbourne in July last year and wrote then: “The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.”

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Photo: Matt Murphy

There seem to be more directors than you can poke a stick at for Les Mis but despite the crowd (two directors, two in charge of musical staging) the production is exceptionally coherent. From a staging perspective, Les Mis is the goods. Producer Cameron Mackintosh has done it again, and this summation indicates the most fundamental difference between opera and musical theatre. The first is the art of the composer, the second the art of the producer. And yes, I know there are many who think producers aren’t artists, but then I think of Diaghilev and dismiss that argument. And yes, there are exceptions, such as Sondheim, who is always the exception.

Fortunately for Aida, on opening night there were two stellar performances. Soprano Latonia Moore was a glorious Aida with dark power at the bottom of the range and warm glow at the top. She acted every moment with conviction and made Ritorna Vincitor and O Patria mia the shining dramatic highlights. As Amneris, mezzo Milijana Nikolic, tall and glamorous, deftly wrangled her series of eye-popping frocks – brava! – and persuasively made the transition from haughty, conniving princess to woman of feeling.

The principal artists over at Les Mis were equally thrilling. Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) are tremendous singing actors who have different challenges – Gleeson has to make saintliness compelling and touching; Tee to make blind obsession worthy of understanding. And may the gods of opera forgive me, but both were much more vocally interesting than Walter Fraccaro as Aida’s Radamès. The night I heard him Fraccaro gave a performance that was unsubtle and unvarying. He can sing loudly, that’s for sure. (There were some issues with the amplification at Aida, but all the principals were singing under the same conditions …)

Further down the cast list Aida was graced by the splendid Amonasro of Michael Honeyman and David Parkin’s Ramfis. In Les Mis, Kerrie Anne Greenland (Eponine), for whom this is her first professional engagement, was spectacularly good. In Melbourne I thought her voice wonderful but that she sang the notes all in the right places and rather too dutifully in her big song, On My Own. In Sydney she was able to move within the music to make it individual. She’s a tremendous talent. After what sounded a nervous start – there was a very pronounced beat in the voice – Patrice Tipoki sang feelingly and movingly as the unfortunate Fantine.

Others in Les Mis fared less well. I thought the directors allowed Lara Mulcahy as Madame Thénardier to overdo the grotesque comic business (when you overshadow the Thénardier of Trevor Ashley it’s quite a feat), that Euan Doidge was a too small-voiced Marius, that Emily Langridge was a very unsettled-sounding Cosette and that Chris Durling lacked that last necessary drop of personal and vocal charisma as Enjolras, leader of the student revolutionaries.

Wouldn’t you think those quite serious reservations would knock Les Mis out of the running for Best Sung Drama in the final week of March 2015? But no, they didn’t. Les Mis was, despite the glories of Latonia Moore and despite Verdi, the much more satisfying theatrical experience. And don’t blame Opera on Sydney Harbour, an innovation I adore: Last year’s Best Sung Drama? That would be Madama Butterfly, on the harbour.