To each her own

Sydney Opera House, April 2, 4 and 7

TWO and bit years ago, when Paris Opera Ballet came to Sydney with its production of Giselle, I was able to see three excitingly different readings of the title role, two of them from debutantes. We seem to get our fair share of important firsts in Australia. Apart from POB’s Ludmila Pagliero and Myriam Ould-Braham in Giselle, many years ago Sydney saw Alina Cojocaru’s first Odette-Odile (for the Royal Ballet) and Brisbane was graced with the historic debut of Misty Copeland as the Swan Queen when American Ballet Theatre visited last year. (Copeland has just made her US debut as Odette-Odile with Washington Ballet and in June finally makes her first O/O appearances in New York. It’s big news.

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natasha Kusen and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet’s Sydney season of Giselle gave me the opportunity of seeing another notable title-role debut, that of Juliet Burnett at the first Saturday matinee. The opening night Giselle was, not surprisingly, principal artist Madeleine Eastoe, who makes this role her last with the company when she retires mid-year. There’s some symmetry here, as it was after her 2006 performance in Maina Gielgud’s production of Giselle that Eastoe was elevated to the highest rank at The Australian Ballet. Adelaide has the privilege of the farewell performance on July 6 and I will be there to close a circle for myself – Eastoe joined the AB in 1997 and I have watched her entire career. And on April 7 I saw the Sydney debut of Ako Kondo, whose first performances as Giselle were in the Melbourne season last month. After Kondo’s third Sydney performance, on April 14, the senior artist was promoted to principal, an event that has been expected for some time.

Eastoe’s Giselle was a gentle, open-hearted girl with the bloom and fragrance of an easily bruised rose. Every thought and feeling was exposed without barrier or reservation, her inner world made visible as if her skin were transparent. Eastoe’s lighter than light dancing and aura of fragility in the first act prefigured her absorption into the spirit world of the second act.

Burnett made a memorable debut at the April 4 matinee. Here was an enchantingly radiant lass whose joy and excitement were vibrantly captured in sparkling eyes and a glowing face. Burnett’s Giselle was a little bit flirty with Albrecht and sweetly starstruck by Princess Bathilde. When she stroked the fabric of Bathilde’s lavish gown she was enjoying its beauty rather than being overawed by such splendour. And I loved the way Burnett scrunched up the side of her simple yellow skirt when walking beside Bathilde so it wouldn’t touch the Princess’s costly attire. She made these details and many others fresh and individual.

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

Juliet Burnett rehearses with Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Lynette Wills

Depite warnings from her frail heart and her foreboding mother, Burnett’s Giselle was alert and full of life. In the weightless curve of her arms and poised balances that reached upwards Burnett was not so much a spirit in waiting but a young woman buoyed by love. Then, when she learned of Albrecht’s perfidy, the light was switched off. White-faced and stricken, Burnett’s Giselle was crushed beyond endurance. The mad scene was frantic and incredibly moving. Burnett’s second act was beautifully composed and she looked wonderful in the soft, forward-leaning stretches and airborne beaten steps that show Giselle scarcely tethered to the ground.

Kondo was a skittish Giselle, at first glancing back to the cottage often as if to see whether her mother might suddenly appear, or perhaps thinking she should go back inside. But along with the skittishness there was more than a hint of sensuality, amplified by her expansive dancing. In the second act Kondo had something of an avenging angel quality as she protected Albrecht from the icy commands of Robyn Hendricks’s Myrtha in a thrilling battle of wills.

Ako Kondo, The Australian Ballet's newest principal. Photo: James Braund

Ako Kondo, The Australian Ballet’s newest principal. Photo: James Braund

I would have liked to see Kondo with an Albrecht who provided greater contrasts. Her pairing with the exciting Chengwu Guo is a public-relations dream as they are partners offstage, but the plush physicality of his dancing was, for me, too similar to hers for this ballet. Albrecht and Giselle are not from the same world. On Eastoe’s opening night, when they were cast in the Peasant Pas, they looked just perfect together. Guo also partners the very different Natasha Kusch as Giselle this season; I’m sorry I won’t be able to see them.

Eastoe was given a Rolls-Royce ride with the deeply felt, superbly danced Albrecht of Kevin Jackson. His intentions and reactions were natural, meaningful and expressed clearly through gesture and movement. The snap and height of his Act II entrechats had the audience gasping (Nicolette Fraillon, conducting the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, had to really slow things down in the pit) but more telling was the weight of sorrow he conveyed as he entered to mourn Giselle. This level of connection with character is as yet unavailable to the much less experienced Jared Wright, who partnered Burnett. His lines are noble, his looks princely, and at this point he is a leading man in development.

Kusch joins the AB; Cubans come to Brisbane

AS I foreshadowed on December 15 on my Diary page, Queensland Ballet has lost one of its principal artists, Natasha Kusch, to The Australian Ballet. Kusch was with QB for less than 18 months after leaving the Vienna State Opera Ballet. She joins the AB as a senior artist. In a press statement released today the AB says Kusch will make her debut as Giselle when Maina Gielgud’s production opens in Melbourne in March.

Kusch is pictured here as Juliet with Australian superstar Steven McRae, who was a guest artist from the Royal Ballet when QB staged Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet last year.

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

Natasha Kusch and Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet

There is significant movement at several of the country’s leading dance companies, but none more striking than at QB. It’s possible to interpret Kusch’s move as something that could create tension between QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin and the AB’s David McAllister (the two, of course, danced together at the AB) but it also points to how greatly Li has increased QB’s strength and visibility.

And Li was able to bury news of Kusch’s departure in an early-December press release. The big announcement he had to trumpet was the hiring of two dancers from the National Ballet of Cuba – premier Yanela Piñera and principal Camilo Ramos (the top two ranks at NBC).

As I wrote on my Diary page at the time, the pair, partners in life, join at the end of this month. Piñera joined NBC in 2005 and was promoted to premier dancer in 2011. She would have gained some knowledge of Brisbane when NBC visited in 2010. Unfortunately she wasn’t in the opening night cast of Don Quixote so I haven’t seen her dance live but there are, naturally, many clips on YouTube. It will be fascinating to see how the Cubans fit into the QB repertoire for next year – La Sylphide, Coppelia, Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan and The Sleeping Beauty.

The QB press release said Piñera’s position would exist under Queensland Ballet’s International Guest Artist program, funded by the Jani Haenke Charitable Trust, but Li told me that Piñera will be a full-time principal – her position is not apparently like that of Huang Junshuang, who for two years was QB’s very welcome guest principal but not permanently with the company.

Further down the press release was news of comparable interest, the retirement of incredibly valuable principal Matthew Lawrence and long-serving soloist Nathan Scicluna. However, with the arrival of Piñera to join principals Hao Bin, Clare Morehen and Meng Ningning and with Ramos joining soloists Lisa Edwards and Shane Wuerthner (an American who joined QB last year), the senior ranks are close to full strength.

West Australian Ballet is seeking a new senior man after the announcement that soloist Daniel Roberts has joined Sydney Dance Company, where there have been extensive changes in the 16-member troupe. Chloe Leong, Josephine Weise and Sam Young-Wright have also joined and former member Richard Cilli has returned. Leaving are Chen Wen, Tom Bradley and Jessica Thompson, while Chris Aubrey is taken a year’s sabbatical. Company member Petros Treklis joined only last year.

Lee Johnston is SDC’s new rehearsal director.

Bangarra Dance Theatre also announced the return of two former dancers who left last year but are now back in the fold – and it’s very good news. Deborah Brown and Daniel Riley, both of whom also choreograph, are back with the company.

The AB also has three new junior dancers, coryphée Nicola Curry, who was formerly with American Ballet Theatre, and corps members Shaun Andrews and Callum Linnane, who are Australian Ballet School graduates.

West Australian Ballet opens its 2015 season with Zip Zap Zoom: Ballet at the Quarry, Perth, from February 6; The Australian Ballet’s 2015 season starts in Sydney with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake from February 20 and Giselle opens in Melbourne on March 13; Sydney Dance Company opens Frame of Mind in Sydney on March 6; Queensland Ballet’s La Sylphide opens in Brisbane on March 20; Bangarra’s Lore opens in Sydney on June 11 and before then the company works on a film of Spear, based onStephen Page’s wonderful 2000 work of that name, which will premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in October.

‘A time of renewal’

Maina Gielgud, artistic director of The Australian Ballet from 1983 to 1997, is in Sydney preparing to restage her acclaimed 1986 production of Giselle, last performed by the company in 2008. It will premiere in Melbourne on March 13, 2015, with seasons to follow in Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide. In a frank and lively conversation with AB artistic director David McAllister at a Friends of the Australian Ballet gathering, Gielgud spoke extensively about her love for the ballet, issues of style and her personal breakthrough from dancing Myrtha to being cast as Giselle.

She is emphatic that ballet is thriving. “There’s been all this talk about classical ballet being dead; what is most interesting about this period of classical dance is that it’s in a time of renewal,” she says. Gielgud sees in Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon choreographers who make work that will endure, and strongly believes that Royal Ballet principal artist Natalia Osipova has brought new life to the art form, giving her perhaps the ultimate compliment: “Osipova is the Pavlova of the 21st century.”

After leaving the AB Gielgud directed Royal Danish Ballet for two years and since 1999 has worked in a freelance capacity around the world. After 15 years of an exceptionally peripatetic life she has no desire to slow down, despite, she says, spending only two days of the year at her London apartment. In addition to her many freelance commitments she recently accepted the position of artistic adviser to Hungarian National Ballet, for which she will stage Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon in between rehearsals for Giselle in Australia and the production’s opening in March. “I’ve been a gypsy all my life,” she says. “I want to continue to teach and coach. One never tires of it, and continues to learn along the way.”

David McAllister and Maina Gielgud speak to Friends of The Australian Ballet

David McAllister and Maina Gielgud speak to Friends of The Australian Ballet

McAllister: The dancers are so excited about working on this production. It’s one of the most beautiful productions of Giselle in the world and we haven’t had in the repertoire since we did the season in 2006 and took it to Brisbane in 2008 for just six shows. For you it must be almost like working with a completely different company.

Gielgud: It is. Most of them have not touched any of Giselle – certainly the Giselles and Albrechts. I think there are only two – Madeleine Eastoe and Adam Bull. The others are all completely new to it. Some have done a friend or a peasant, but very, very few. When I first staged Giselle for this company the ballet was much more familiar to the dancers then through Peggy van Praagh’s version. [In an email to me later, Gielgud wrote that while she didn’t stage the van Praagh version for the AB, “I seem to remember that I rehearsed dancers in it, and she was in the studio with me…” She also wrote that while she did not mention it at the Friends gathering, she was aware of current principal artist Daniel Gaudiello’s appearances as Albrecht with Queensland Ballet: “I love Dani’s dancing and artistry!”]

McAllister: In 1985 when the company was on tour [with the van Praagh Giselle] there was a fire in Whyalla in South Australia and everything was burned. [Gielgud: I’d completely forgotten that.] The costumes were in another part of the theatre and they were fine. It was the set – and the only thing that was left standing was the Giselle cross. The only thing left standing.

Gielgud: It reminds me that Giselle in Russia is known as the holy ballet. Maybe that’s why the cross survived. This was an opportunity for a new Giselle, which I’ve loved all my life. I wanted to do a very beautiful production and I wanted to do a very logical production in terms of the storytelling of the first act. Sometimes there are Giselles where the choreography is there but the communication between the characters and the storytelling are not terribly logical. It’s so important that the first act is telling the story so the audience can really care about the characters and therefore this wonderful transition to the second act: this eerie place and the importance of forgiveness and transformation through love.

I did love Anton Dolin’s version and Mary Skeaping’s second act particularly. The stylistic qualities that she brought to it, I felt were very, very important and often overlooked. Not only because that was the style of the period, but I don’t think I realised to what extent that style brings out the eerie quality of the ballet. I have seen many productions where the style seems to be completely overlooked. Though it’s very well danced, it’s danced like Sleeping Beauty could be, or Bayadere or any classical ballet. It’s quite bizarre. You see the arms up here and it could be Swan Lake. I wanted the feeling for the Wilis, and particularly the Lead Wilis, as if they are moved by the wind in the forest.

I’ve done this production many times here, three times in Boston, a couple of times with Ballet du Rhin, once in Houston – always looking for that quality in the Lead Wilis. I discovered that the way of moving – perhaps particularly with [the AB’s] Miranda Coney, why she had that extraordinary ethereal quality – was it’s the same thing as contemporary dance. Now you really think I’m crazy. But it’s a way of moving, of using the weight of the body, which often in classical ballet – wrongly in my opinion – gets completely forgotten.

I can go on about this quite a lot. There’s such an emphasis on being correct in classical ballet, and that you have to be absolutely straight and on your leg and so on, and actually the most interesting thing, especially in Romantic ballet, is to know how your weight is – am I boring you? [cries of “no” from the audience] – on your leg so you can transition to being off-balance in whichever way you want. When you push yourself off balance it looks as though it’s not the dancer trying to do something but they’re being swept by the movement, by the weight of their body. Which happens in contemporary work. There’s much more use of the head as well. So I keep telling the dancers, don’t think of it as a classical ballet, think it’s contemporary – and they’ve done so much contemporary they really understand what I’m talking about.

In the early days I watched many, many performances and would go home and practise madly in the bathroom mirror what I would do with the mad scene if I ever got the chance of performing it. I danced in countless productions as Queen of the Wilis, which I loved doing, a wonderful role and a role that people thought I was suited to. But I desperately wanted to do Giselle. All that practising the mad scene. I think I was in my late 20s when Rosella Hightower gave me the chance of doing it.

I wanted people to realise I would make a really good Giselle. I worked out that Myrtha, when she comes out of the grave before the Wilis come in, before she summons them, she was also one of those who loved to dance, that’s why she was transformed into a Wili. So I thought I could show a very lyrical quality in the first dance before the wilis come in, then make her commanding.

Shortly after doing Giselle in Cannes with Hightower I was doing Mary Skeaping’s version with London Festival Ballet. Anton Dolin, who was the person staging Giselle all over the world and who I worked with quite a bit, came to see my performance and he came backstage afterwards. He looked at me and said [Gielgud assumes a very surprised tone]: ‘That was very good.’

[Gielgud laughs heartily.] ‘’I was really upset. ‘I could have told you before.’

“So the ballet meant a lot to me.”

This is an edited version of a conversation that took place in Sydney on December 7, 2014, under the auspices of the Sydney-based Friends of The Australian Ballet.

David McAllister in conversation

THE Australian Ballet has designated 2015 its Year of Beauty, driving the point home with sumptuous imagery. Not since 2009 has the AB’s promotional material had such a romantic feel.

The program, announced on September 16, culminates in a new production of Sleeping Beauty, to be staged by AB artistic director David McAllister, and begins with a Sydney-only revival of Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. In between are Maina Gielgud’s much-admired production of Giselle, a program of Frederick Ashton works and a Melbourne-only revival of Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. There is just one contemporary program, 20:21, and a stripped-back version of the new choreography showcase Bodytorque.

In a particularly busy year the AB will appear in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide (twice), Perth, Canberra and Brisbane (although the latter gets only a single outdoor concert) and also visits Beijing and Shanghai.

Last week David McAllister spoke in detail about his choices and his plan to increase the size of the company from 72 to 85 dancers.

DJ: The 2015 season could be described as highly traditional. Are audiences becoming more conventional in their tastes?

DMcA: This year the contemporary program actually outsold everything. Everyone loved Chroma [the mixed bill headlined by Wayne McGregor’s Chroma]. In fact, I was thinking of calling everything Chroma! But a couple of years ago, when we were doing a business plan, I sat down with the dancers and said, “In five years’ time what do you want this company to look like?” The feedback I got was really interesting. We have this motto, “Caring for tradition, daring to be different”, and the dancers said to me loud and clear they felt we were too daring and not caring enough with the repertoire. They want to be doing more of that repertoire they feel is important to them as ballet dancers. So I said okay. I took it on board.

If you look at this year’s repertoire as well as next year’s it does have a bit more of a heritage feel. If they want to be doing that work, I want to do it for them. Equally, there have been irons in the fire for a number of years. Originally we were going to do Giselle last year but then Paris Opera Ballet announced they were coming [to Sydney with Giselle]. So that fell into 2015. It’s been way too long out of the repertoire. It’s great to get Maina’s production back.

Juliet Burnett and Adam Bull in a promotional image for Giselle. Photo: Georges Antoni

Juliet Burnett and Adam Bull in a promotional image for Giselle. Photo: Georges Antoni

Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, which premiered in 2002 and has been rarely out of the repertoire, will be seen in Beijing in October and have a commercial season in Sydney.

That’s exactly what it is [commercial]. That’s something the board has wanted us to do; the board have kept on at us about why haven’t we been more commercial with our seasons. The dates that we [were going to have] in Brisbane were gobbled up by Wicked so we had two weeks available, there were two weeks at the Capitol [in Sydney] and bingo.

Normally in Sydney we have the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra but they are with Opera Australia at that time [February] so we have to factor in the orchestra as a cost. But now that we have an orchestra [the AB recently took over management of Orchestra Victoria] we can bring them up. It’s exciting.

Beijing particularly asked for Swan Lake. It’s opening the dance festival at the National Centre for the Performing Arts [in October 2015]. They wanted our big international success. There will also be a mixed program – Suite en Blanc, [Stephen Baynes’s] Unspoken Dialogues and [Twyla Tharp’s] In the Upper Room.

In Shanghai we’ll do Cinderella and the mixed bill.

Is there a danger of The Australian Ballet appearing to be a one-trick pony with the many repeats of the Murphy Swan Lake?

We’re negotiating to go back to London and they are asking us to bring Swan Lake again. In 2005 it was compromised [the AB season started only days after terrorist bombings in London]. It’s still got currency. I’m cognisant that we shouldn’t do it too often, but it hasn’t been seen in Sydney since 2008. That’s coming on for seven years. The company looks so good in it; it’s in their DNA.

The Ashton program will be seen in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. It features The Dream, which gives its name to the program, plus Monotones II and Symphonic Variations.

The Ashton program has been in and out of planning for the last four years. I finally managed to nail it. The Dream is such an amazing, beautiful ballet, and we haven’t done any Ashton now for 10 years. We did La Fille mal gardee in 2004. The last time we did The Dream was 1980. Symphonic’s never been done. Monotones was done in 1991 and we did Birthday Offering in the 90s. Les Patineurs was even earlier – before I joined the company. There’s a real gap in our Ashton repertoire, and because it played such an important part in the formation of the company I felt it was time to get a bit of Ashton happening again.

Chengwu Guo and Madeleine Eastoe in a promotional image for The Dream. Photo: Georges Antoni

Chengwu Guo and Madeleine Eastoe, The Dream. Photo: Georges Antoni

I know Dame Peggy van Praagh wanted the company to do Symphonic but Ashton wouldn’t let anyone much do it except for the Royal Ballet. I really wanted it. [Rights owner] Wendy Somes and I have been having these discussions and I was thrilled she thought it would be good for us to do it.

The Ashton style – lyrical, with luxurious and expressive use of the upper body and filigree footwork – is notoriously difficult.

I saw the Royal do Scènes de ballet and remember watching it and saying, “Now I know what the Ashton style is, and the RB do it like no one else. They were unbelievable. The use of body, that quickness of the footwork. It was so beautiful. I thought, “It’s going to be really good for us to attempt that. It is very different to what we do so it will be interesting to have that challenge. We’re going to send some of the principals over to work with Anthony Dowell [who owns the rights to The Dream and who is unable to travel to Australia to stage the ballet]. We wanted him to come out, but he can’t.

McAllister felt the company needed a new Sleeping Beauty. Stanton Welch’s 2005 production had two sell-out seasons and covered its costs in the first season, but was considered flawed in some respects. It will not be revived.

We needed to do another Sleeping Beauty. I could have brought in a production – Marcia Haydee’s, or Peter Wright’s. Then I thought, maybe I should have a crack at it. Why not? In my career I’ve always thrown myself in at the deep end. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it. I’m seeing my production in the way Maina approached hers and Peggy approached hers. There will be choreography and I will be choreographing, but in the style of Petipa and embroidering what the existing choreography is. That’s why I’m not crediting myself as a choreographer. I’m a curator, I guess, of Petipa’s choreographic input. It’s exciting. It is an apprenticeship, seeing all of those productions I’ve commissioned in my time and being in all those productions in the past. Watching Alexei creating Cinderella last year was just amazing. Being in the studio with Graeme and Janet [Vernon] when they did Swan Lake and Firebird and Nutcracker – you get a sense of what you like, what you don’t like. If I’d commissioned someone to do a Sleeping Beauty I would have annoyed the shit out of them.

Lana Jones, Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Georges Antoni

Lana Jones, Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Georges Antoni

The one contemporary program, 20:21, offers George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, a revival of Tharp’s In the Upper Room and a new work from resident choreographer Tim Harbour. It will have unbroken seasons in Melbourne and Sydney, despite the success this year in Sydney of what McAllister calls his “zipper”, two programs in repertory sharing the season of 20 performances. Did the zipper not work?

It went off like a frog in a sock. Played to 93 per cent capacity over the whole season. We were desperately trying to do it again this year. When the Brisbane dates fell out [due to Wicked] it all went in a heap. We were going to do 20:21 and Ashton in a zipper but didn’t have time to get it up for Sydney. [The logistics are complicated, but essentially a Brisbane season would have allowed some of the work to be rehearsed and performance-ready earlier in the year.] The zipper’s going to come back in 2016. The thing is having two mixed programs that are quite different. [This year’s] Ballet imperial was so different to Chroma. That’s the plan going forward. But we have to have something in the bag or premiere it somewhere else for it to work. In 2016 we can do it without compromise. It’s a great concept.

Has Bodytorque been pushed aside?

We sandwich Bodytorque in wherever we can. It’s never really had a home. It did [physically] in the Sydney Theatre but sometimes it was in October, sometimes in May, wherever we could shove it. Next year, the Canberra time just ate the Bodytorque opportunity. I didn’t want to lose it completely, so said let’s think creatively about how we can have Bodytorque humming along. I got the idea for the up-late, pop-up Bodytorque. As with the 50th anniversary year [in 2012], I couldn‘t find space for it. It tends to be the first thing that drops off. It was a bit the same this year, but I said, no, we’re not going to give it up. It will be in both the 20:21 and Dream programs as an add-on after performances.

How does it work? It will be on the stage. We’ll invite the audience to stay. We’re still working through the logistics. I think we will be in touch with people who will be in the audience on the nights we’re doing it and ask them to register. Then we’ll know how many people will be there. We will also build a Bodytorque group – groupies – through social media networks. Those people will just turn up for the [Bodytorque] show and then we might have a bit of a drink afterwards. There will be just one 15-minute piece.

The Australian Ballet nominally has 72 dancers, although in practice usually 69 or 70. McAllister wants to increase that to 85 by 2017.

It’s to enable us to do other things – children’s ballet for instance. We’ve been talking about this for two years. Every time we get to the logistics of staging it we can’t do it. In 2016 and 2017 we’re hoping to add eight and then seven into the company. It’s primarily to work on the kids’ ballet, regional touring and the choreographic program. But I don’t want to start AB II. That’s not what we want. It just gives us a bit more flexibility. We’re not going to be staging two seasons at the one time. Well, we’ll be doing a kids’ ballet while we’re doing mainstage, but we’re not trying to double our coverage. This is a way of extending our reach and giving our dancers a little bit of breathing space. We do a lot of shows and the dancers are highly worked. And I want to be able to field 24 swans in Swan Lake and 24 Shades in Bayadere without having to employ [extra] people, which we currently do. We want a company closer in size to the Royal Ballet.

Next year McAllister will overtake Maina Gielgud as The Australian Ballet’s longest-serving artistic director – she reigned for 14 years – and is contracted until 2017.

What happens then? I don’t know. I’ve been very honest with the board. I’ve said I don’t see this job as a right. I’m well aware of the length of my service. They’ve said they are very happy with what I’m doing. We’ll keep the dialogue going.

 

La Sylphide

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, November 7

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

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

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jeff Busby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

Ako Kondo in Paquita. Photo: Jeff Busby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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