Murphy: The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 6 (evening) and 11 (matinee).

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to give Graeme Murphy a conventional gala to celebrate his 50 years of association with The Australian Ballet, the company he joined as a member of the corps de ballet in 1968. The idea for the tribute came to TAB artistic director David McAllister when he decided to revive the choreographer’s Firebird (2009). The straightforward way to go would have been to precede Firebird with a selection of excerpts from Murphy’s greatest TAB hits’n’memories: Swan Lake, Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, Beyond Twelve, Romeo and Juliet, The Narrative of Nothing for a piece of abstraction and a humorous bit from Tivoli for a change of pace and there’s your first half.

That’s not what happened. Despite the many virtues and gala possibilities of those works, a by-the-book program would have been obvious and utterly safe. In other words, not remotely indicative of Murphy’s expansive, adventurous spirit. The counter-intuitive decision was made for Murphy’s first half to comprise dances not made for TAB, only one of which, The Silver Rose, has been previously danced by the company (it was created for Bayerisches Staatsballet in 2005). The rest of the pieces are from Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company days, where he reigned for more than 30 years and created a vast body of work – much more interesting and challenging for the dancers, undoubtedly, and good for rusted-on TAB audience members to see something from outside the square.

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Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

There is more coherence in the program than might be evident at first glance. First and most clearly there is the connective tissue built by Murphy’s choreographic style, with the audience able to see his intricate lifts, unusual partnering, witty details, human touches and erotic impulses thread their way through quite different pieces.

The need to move quickly from section to section meant some of Murphy’s most enticing larger productions featuring live music couldn’t be considered but, in the inclusion of Shéhérazade (1979), with its onstage mezzo-soprano soloist singing Ravel’s lush song cycle, and with pianist Scott Davie reprising his central onstage role in sections from Grand, there is a flavour of Murphy’s love for the integration of musicians and dancers. The excerpts from Air and Other Invisible Forces and Ellipse are a reminder of Murphy’s extensive collaborations with Australian composers (here Michael Askill and Matthew Hindson respectively).

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Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. Photo: Daniel Boud

The first act closer, a handful of sections from Grand, is not only vastly enjoyable but indispensable. Murphy made Grand (2005) in celebration of “the one pianist I adore above all others”, his mother Betty, whose music helped shape his artistic development.

The choice of excerpts from The Silver Rose (based on Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier) to open Murphy is of more value thematically than artistically. The ballet isn’t one of the choreographer’s best and I would be surprised to see TAB program it again, but Murphy’s choice of a work whose theme is ageing, time’s inexorable march forward and the loss of youthful potency was perhaps a wry comment on an occasion celebrating a half-century.

In a short film preceding the first half Murphy speaks of movingly of art’s capacity to transform and of his desire to allow dancers to become the artists they aspire to be. In an interview with me before Murphy opened in Melbourne, he consistently returned to the dancers and what would suit or stimulate them. At the Sydney opening night it was wonderful to see principal artist Lana Jones in ferocious form as the Firebird, a role made on her, and also her perfumed elegance in Shéhérazade, performed in its entirety. Senior artist Brett Chynoweth was Most Valuable Player on opening night, dancing Kostchei in Firebird and seen in three pieces in the first half, including whooping it up with Jade Wood, Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli in the zany cowboy-flavoured quartet from Ellipse and, with Morelli, doing a sharp, suave Alligator Crawl in Grand (to Fats Waller).

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Brett Chynoweth as Kostchei in Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

By and large the key roles on opening night went to dancers of soloist rank or above. An exception was the coryphée (but probably not for long) Callum Linnane, who calmly partnered principal Amber Scott in The Silver Rose. At the Wednesday matinee I attended he also partnered principal Leanne Stojmenov in Shéhérazade with distinction. At that performance the mezzo was Jacqueline Dark, who gave a marvellously seductive account of Ravel’s songs.

The Wednesday matinee was where one could more clearly see the cut of the company’s rising young talent. Some fell a fair way short of the brio and individuality SDC dancers brought to those roles but their delight in this very different way of moving was touching. The male corps member to watch is Shaun Andrews, a lithe young man of serious mien who stood out on opening night in a quartet from Grand (to Gershwin) and danced a sinuous Kostchei at the matinee. An airborne cartwheel looked magically weightless.

Also at the matinee, Jade Wood’s fluttering, frightened Firebird was fruitfully paired with Jarryd Madden’s alert, sensitive Ivan and principal artist Andrew Killian memorably partnered corps de ballet member Yuumi Yamada – gorgeous feet! – in a key pas de deux from Grand. There was a touchingly elegiac mood as Killian is in the latter stages of his career. He has always been a potent presence in contemporary work and this was a timely reminder of his gifts in such repertoire. And what a joy to see soloist Benedicte Bemet back on stage after a long absence, quietly steaming up the stage with Madden in a close-contact duo from Air and Other Invisible Forces.

Ends April 23.

The Australian Ballet in 2017

Next year the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre, home to both The Australian Ballet and Opera Australia when they are in Sydney, will close for seven months. It’s in a good cause, as theatre machinery that’s done sterling work but is now outdated will be replaced. It’s been there since the Opera House opened in 1973. But the closure also means the companies have had to find alternative performance venues from late May to December in 2017.

The Opera House is deeply important to both companies. Opera and ballet are accessible to tourists who may not speak English and the Opera House itself is a huge drawcard. Can those tourists be lured to other venues? And will locals – particularly those with long-held subscription seats with which they are comfortable – stay loyal or simply decide to sit the second half of the year out?

Opera Australia has already announced a vagabond-style program that sees it performing in the Concert Hall and the Playhouse at the Opera House, Sydney Town Hall and the City Recital Centre. It has also secured the Capitol Theatre for Moffatt Oxenbould’s enduringly popular production of Madama Butterfly, double cast so it can be performed nightly for just under two weeks from October 24, 2017.

The Capitol, not surprisingly, is where the AB will also hang its hat in the latter part of the year. It will stage two full-length ballets there, a return of artistic director David McAllister’s sumptuous 2015 version of The Sleeping Beauty (November 2017) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (December 2017). Both are large productions that will be seen to advantage at the Capitol, which was made for grand gestures. It is almost ridiculously ornate, full of visual surprises that border on kitsch but somehow manage to dodge it. There are alcoves full of statuary, a proscenium groaning with decoration and a light-studded ceiling that mimics the night sky. The 2000-seat Capitol is a show all by itself.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. 2015. photo Jef...

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

Beauty will also be staged in Brisbane and Melbourne in the usual theatres and Alice will premiere in Melbourne.

Just before the Joan Sutherland Theatre closes in May the AB will bring back Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, which premiered an astonishing 25 years ago. With its distinctively Australian take on the story, its touching references to the history of ballet in this country and Kristian Fredrikson’s gorgeous costumes, this Nutcracker has a special place in the AB’s repertoire. After Sydney it will be seen in Melbourne.

That’s it for full-length works. The annual contemporary program is a triple bill called Faster and will feature new works by Wayne McGregor and AB resident choreographer Tim Harbour alongside David Bintley’s Faster, which was created in 2012 to a score by the Australian composer Matthew Hindson. Bintley, the artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, made Faster in London’s Olympics year with the motto Faster, Higher, Stronger as his inspiration (Bintley originally called the ballet exactly that but the International Olympic Committee made him change the title). It will be fascinating to compare this with AB resident choreographer Stephen Baynes’s Personal Best, made for Sydney’s Olympic Arts Festival of 2000 to Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto. In a program note Baynes wrote of athletes’ “obsessive and isolating struggle” for supremacy and the speed with which disappointment can replace elation.

Hindson has described his score for Faster as “symphonic in scope”. Also of note on the music front is that McGregor’s work will have a new score by the indefatigable Steve Reich, who celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow, October 3. Faster will open in Melbourne in March and then travel to Sydney in April.

Melbourne gets an extra program, Symphony in C, which was seen in Sydney this year. Balanchine’s one-act ballet is preceded by a group of divertissements which will include two short works – Little Atlas and Scent of Love – made, respectively, by AB company members Alice Topp and Richard House. The pieces premiered alongside Symphony in C in Sydney in April.

Little Atlas - Symphony in C - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Vivienne Wong, Kevin Jackson and Rudy Hawkes in Little Atlas. Photo: Daniel Boud

Which leads us to the big gap in the AB’s programming. There is, again, no Bodytorque program. Bodytorque started in 2004 as a stand-alone showcase for new and relatively new choreographers, mostly drawn from the ranks of the AB. Bodytorque was distinguished from the main program by being held at the former Sydney Theatre, now the Roslyn Packer Theatre, for five performances. Until 2013 it was held annually in Sydney, except for a year off during the AB’s Ballets Russes centenary project. In one ambitious year all the choreographers were able to work to new commissioned scores.

In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne for the first time, for three performances in the AB’s usual (and big) home of the State Theatre. In 2015 the program dwindled to a couple of “pop-up” performances tacked on to the end of a mainstage show, free for anyone who wanted to stay on. And then Bodytorque essentially disappeared. This year Topp and House, both of whom had been Bodytorque regulars, were given a slot for a new work in the diverts half of the Symphony in C program in Sydney, as they will be again when the program is repeated in Melbourne next year – with the same 10-minute work.

Perhaps McAllister is thinking about a refreshed way of developing new choreographers. Or perhaps attention has been diverted to Storytime Ballet, a new venture directed at very young children. There’s no denying that the AB is a busy company and that 2017 is year in which it has to look closely at where it puts its resources. There’s also no rule that says everything has to stay the same, and it’s true to say that if you’re looking for a success story from Bodytorque, since its inception only Tim Harbour has emerged as a regular dancemaker. But if you don’t keep looking you’re not going to find anyone.