The Great Gatsby, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 14.

Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon is an old and highly successful hand at creating narrative ballets but he gave himself a tough assignment with this one. His 2013 dance translation of The Great Gatsby is entirely faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best novel while at the same time floating over what really lies at its heart.

Gatsby’s exterior world of frenetic parties and unattainable lovers is eminently stage-worthy and West Australian Ballet looks wonderful in Nixon’s evocation of jazz-age, Prohibition-flouting high society. The frocks are divine, the women glamorous, the men have never seemed sleeker and the 1920s dances are a delight.

Matthew Edwardson and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Edwardson (front) as Young Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Far more difficult to convey are the fluttering nuances of character and shades of meaning that make the novel such an unsettling picture of a changing country with the post-war jitters.

How to express that Daisy’s voice is “full of money”, as Gatsby puts it? Or that Gatsby was once the impoverished nobody Jimmy Gatz? Or that Nick Carraway is the cousin of Gatsby’s lost love Daisy, and thus is being used by his now fabulously wealthy neighbour? (I am reminded of George Balanchine’s famous assertion that “there are no mothers-in-law in ballet”. Certain specifics of kinship are not easily conveyed wordlessly.)

Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s fruitless pursuit of Daisy at several removes through Nick’s eyes as he looks back. In its concentration on the surface narrative the ballet loses those layers and Fitzgerald’s mood of evanescence with them, despite Nixon’s repeated flashbacks showing a young Gatsby wooing Daisy. The cartoonish depiction of Gatsby’s mob connections – men slinking about in black trench coats – doesn’t help.

The Great Gatsby nevertheless has much to enjoy, even if it’s advisable for those not steeped in the novel to take a solid look at the synopsis ahead of time.

A lively selection of 1920s-flavoured music by Richard Rodney Bennett, some taken from his film scores, accompanies lots of swiftly changing scenes. The use of a movement from his 1990 Percussion Concerto is particularly effective and Bennett’s history as a jazz pianist informs the score’s best moments. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, with Myron Romanul at the helm, gave a zesty account of it on opening night.

Melissa Boniface and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Lehmann (rear) and Melissa Boniface (front) in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Above all there were terrific performances from all in the first cast, no mean feat when there are nine key characters.

Gakuro Matsui (the elegant, mysterious Gatsby), Chihiro Nomura (careless, feckless Daisy) and Oliver Edwardson (watchful Nick Carraway) were as effective as the limits of their characters allowed. Gatsby is the outsider who stands aloof at his own parties, is seen gazing wistfully across the water at the light on the end of Daisy’s jetty, or remembering his early days with Daisy. It makes him an elusive character, even when he finally gets Daisy in his arms for rapturous pas de deux in both acts. Which is as it should be from the Fitzgerald point of view, even if it makes the role a difficult one onstage.

Matthew Edwardson and Carina Roberts were fresh as the young Gatsby and Daisy while Brooke Widdison-Jacobs was superbly cast as Daisy’s golf-champion friend Jordan Baker, wielding a cool, amused demeanour and long sporty limbs.

The really juicy parts, however, are for Daisy’s unfaithful husband Tom, his lover Myrtle and Myrtle’s husband George. They get to be vividly steamy and sexy. Matthew Lehmann looked super sharp and gave Tom virile presence. He had looked out of sorts earlier in the year in Don Quixote but now seemed refreshed and renewed. Liam Green’s George was urgent with longing for his errant wife and Melissa Boniface was sensational as the passionate, doomed Myrtle. Now here was a character for a dancer to get her teeth into.

The Great Gatsby ends September 30.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on September 18.

About last week … June 20-26

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co was the venue for another in the invaluable Neglected Musicals series (June 21). Rehearsal is minimal (a day only), there may be a sketchy set and a few props, and the actors – always very, very good – have books in hand. By some strange alchemy it always feels like a proper show. I’ve seen some beauties. Unfortunately Baby the Musical (1983) can’t be counted among them. We were told it was nominated for seven Tony awards but had the misfortune to be up against Sunday in the Park with George and La Cage aux Folles. Yes, well. I think it was kind of making up the category, as its competition included The Tap Dance Kid (I admit that’s a title entirely new to me) and Kander and Ebb’s The Rink, which did not meet with much critical favour and didn’t last a year (nor did Baby). Baby is little more than an extended skit really about three couples expecting a baby or hoping to. That’s it. Music is by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr and the book by Sybille Pearson. They’re not particularly scintillating except for the big women’s number I Want it All. That still works. The generous actors giving their all at the Hayes included Katrina Retallick, David Whitney (both fabulous) and the incredibly plucky Kate Maree Hoolihan who powered through a respiratory illness to keep the curtain up.

Next in Neglected Musicals (from August 3 for six performances) is Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s Calamity Jane, starring Virginia Gay. I’m absolutely up for that one.

Nederlands Dans Theater had one thing people could agree on during its brief Melbourne visit: the magnetism, authority and power of its dancers. Responses to the program (June 22) were more mixed. The evening opened and closed with works choreographed by NDT artistic director Paul Lightfoot and his associate Sol León that were long on visual glamour but rather shorter on emotional and visceral satisfaction.

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Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Sehnsucht (2009) was simultaneously overwrought and underdone. A man and a women played out a domestic drama in a small rotating box slightly elevated and set back – a kind of square tumble-drier with fixed table and chair and a window for escaping through. In front of them a solitary man emoted to Beethoven piano sonatas. In the second half a large ensemble was borne along by the majesty of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, although the connection between dance and music was tenuous. I couldn’t tell why this work in particular and not another one. One couldn’t deny, however, that Beethoven provided a thrillingly strong, familiar beat. The dancers looked marvelous, of course, although I did feel for Prince Credell, the solo man, who was forced to crouch at the front of the stage when Sehnsucht – the word suggests intense yearning – ended. The auditorium lights came up, he stayed, the audience stood about a bit and then he slowly unfurled himself.

Lightfoot/León’s Stop-Motion (2014), to music by Max Richter, had a similarly glossy air without convincing one that it meant anything other than generalised anguish. Too often the dancers stopped and posed either in arabesque or with legs held high to the side, either straight or with a bent knee. One admired the control, but admiring technical skill, particularly when invited to do so again and again, can get rather tiresome. Sehnsucht would have given the program a more striking ending but as Stop-Motion ends with quantities of flour being thrown about the stage, logistics demanded it closed the evening.

Thanks goodness for the central work (in all senses), Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. There was a backdrop of falling snow, Brahms piano and cello sonatas, and an aching sense of need and loss. In the crepuscular light dancers swirled, slid and connected as if their lives depended on it. Breathtaking is an overused and frequently meaningless word of praise. Here it was entirely apposite. I wasn’t aware of myself, those around me, or of the need to breathe. Those dancers, that dance, that music, that experience filled every moment.

I won’t say too much about West Australian Ballet’s Genesis program (seen June 23) because I serve as a member of the company’s artistic review panel. The program gives WAB dancers a chance to develop their choreographic skills and is a vital part of the operation, as it is with Queensland Ballet’s Dance Dialogues. The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque program seems to have disappeared, although this year two alumni, Alice Topp and Richard House, had work programmed as part of the AB’s mainstage season. At WAB just-retired principal artist Jayne Smeulders and soloist Andre Santos have made it to the mainstage via earlier workshops.

You will note I name two women, which is cause for rejoicing. One of the hot topics of conversation in classical dance is the scarcity – it’s close to complete absence – of female choreographers, although Crystal Pite is breaking through, as she deserves to. At WAB this year a gratifying number of women were represented: Polly Hilton, Florence Leroux-Coléno and Melissa Boniface stepped up to the plate alongside Santos, Christopher Hill, Adam Alzaim and Alessio Scognamiglio.

At the end of this year WAB stages a new Nutcracker co-choreographed by Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélien Scannella and ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle.

 

Ballet at the Quarry

Five by Night, West Australian Ballet, Perth, February 10

The Quarry Amphitheatre is one of the loveliest performing arts venues in the world. The former limestone quarry is situated in bushland with views of the city beyond and on a balmy night – and that’s pretty much expected in February – there is nothing finer than to sit on one of the terraced rows with a picnic and some delicious West Australian wine as the sun goes down.

(Idle thought: is the only good thing about Western Australia’s refusal to participate in daylight saving that Quarry performances can start at 8pm rather than 9pm?)

Not surprisingly, West Australian Ballet’s long-standing annual Quarry season is a perennial favourite with Perth audiences and indeed for many may be their only ballet experience of the year. So be it. The season is usually a sell-out or close to it and the relaxed atmosphere means a different kind of programming can be offered than that in WAB’s home theatre, His Majesty’s.

The amphitheatre celebrates its 30th anniversary in November this year and WAB has been with it pretty much all the way. It’s a valuable tradition.

Polly Hilton performing In Black in Five by Night Ballet at the Quarry. Photo Sergey Pevnev

Polly Hilton in Andre Santos’s In Black. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

This year there are five short works: two by David Dawson, whose work hasn’t been seen at WAB for 16 years; one by European-based Australian dancer and choreographer Craig Davidson; and two from WAB dancers. One of the latter pieces is a group effort, something that could seem a recipe for disaster but which in fact was light-hearted and enjoyable.

Soloist Andre Santos is responsible for the clear standout of the night, In Black. It’s an extension of a piece he made in 2014 for WAB’s choreographic development program Genesis and it’s tremendous fun, giving an ambitiously large group of dancers – 13 – a fizzingly fast workout. Despite his relative inexperience as a choreographer Santos has an excellent eye. His construction is sound as he confidently groups and regroups dancers to concentrate the eye on the whole, on smaller gatherings or on individuals. The fact that he has created his dance on eight women and five men tells something in itself: he understands the interest one can get from unequal numbers even in completely abstract work. And he would appear to be pragmatic. The truth is that WAB’s women are stronger at present as a group than the men. Why not use more of them?

Perhaps the most striking feature of In Black was its dynamics. Santos has dancers moving very quickly indeed to the beat – the music is a mixed bag of tracks by French composers René Aubry and Woodkid and Canadian dancer and composer Davidson Jaconello – and then he throws in a luxurious leg extension that stretches not only the body but time and rhythm too. And then the dancer is off again. It’s exhilarating.

In Black features a leading couple (Polly Hilton and Christian Luck on the night I attended), a trio of women (Sarah Hepburn, Kymberleigh Cowley and Vida Polokov) and four male-female couples (Florence Leroux-Coléno and Liam Green, Meg Parry and Adam Alzaim, Victoria Maughan and Alessio Scognamiglio, Phebe Sleeman and Jesse Homes).

Santos gives the women terrifically lively material and celebrates their attack. I loved that they are not manhandled endlessly and that he gives the four secondary men a punchy quartet in which they occasionally support one another. All the dancers were wonderful but Hilton has to be singled out for her leggy glamour and to-the-edge fearlessness.

In Black closed Five by Night in style. The title, by the way, is echoed in the costume design, also by Santos. He put the men in sleek tops and shorts and the women in elegant variations of little black dresses.

Earlier in the evening Hilton was also prominent in To the Pointe, choreographed by WAB dancers including Santos with Melissa Boniface, Victoria Maughan, Meg Parry, Jayne Smeulders and breakdancer and guest artist Pepito. To the Pointe isn’t a ballet for the ages but it is the kind of entertainment that suits the Quarry. In a mash-up of classical moves, gymnastics and street dance, Pepito wowed with virtuosic spins on head and shoulders and Smeulders amazed with super-fast backflips and a no-hands cartwheel. Smeulders is apparently to retire this year but looks as if she could continue for much longer. She turned 40 last year but is ageless.

Matthew Lehmann and Sandy Delasalle-Scannella performing On the Nature of Daylight in Five by Night Ballet at the Quarry. Photo Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Lehman and Sandy Delasalle in On the Nature of Daylight. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

David Dawson’s 5, to an arrangement by David Coleman of music by Adolphe Adam for Giselle (you’d be hard-pressed to recognise it), puts three women in the crispest of white tutus by Yumiko Takeshima and gives them two male supporters. It’s an energetic start to Five by Night, danced with exceptional verve, polish and poise at the performance I saw by the trio of Sarah Hepburn, Chihiro Nomura and Carina Roberts. It was the first appearance in their roles for twins Oliver and Matthew Edwardson, who needed to impose themselves rather more strongly and precisely on the classical material.

Dawson’s On the Nature of Daylight is a pas de deux for WAB ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle and principal artist Matthew Lehmann, who last year had a moment with Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s La Pluie. On the Nature of Daylight is notable for its difficult lifts, Max Richter score and Lehmann’s strong partnering of the elegant Delasalle but is more a pièce d’occasion than anything else.

Craig Davidson’s Ambiguous Content, for four couples (Florence Leroux-Coléno and Alessio Scognamiglio, Nikki Blain and Andrew Radak, Chihiro Nomura and Oliver Edwardson, Brook Widdison-Jacobs and Christopher Hill), is highly competent but generic neo-classical dance. Leroux-Coléno lit up the stage whenever she appeared – she is a wonderful artist – and Widdison-Jacobs looked sleek and refined, although also somewhat chilly and abstracted. She had reason to look distant, however, as she had the misfortune to be manipulated by one man, then two, then three. Why do (mostly male) choreographers insist on this tediousness?

Five by Night ends on February 27.

Disclosure: I am a member of West Australian Ballet’s artistic review panel, which makes independent reports to the WAB board on artistic matters.

Onegin, West Australian Ballet

 West Australian Ballet, His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 20 and 21

WEST Australian Ballet recently took to the streets of Perth with a camera to teach people how to pronounce the name of its latest production (no, it’s not One Gin). There’s a view that if people are wary they’ll get it wrong, they may decide to stay at home. On the other hand, there’s nothing like positive word of mouth to get box office moving, and the volley of bravos for Onegin on its opening night bodes well. The reception was well deserved.

Jayne Smeuldersas Tatiana  and Christian Luck as Gremin in Onegin. Photo: Jon Green

Jayne Smeulders as Tatiana and Christian Luck as Gremin in Onegin. Photo: Jon Green

John Cranko made his version of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin in 1965 for Stuttgart Ballet and it quickly became a ballet loved by dancers and one that most important companies have in their repertoire, although it’s odd that the Bolshoi staged it for the first time only this year. That addition to the Boshoi’s repertoire precipitated one of the biggest ballet scandals of the year, as it happens, when superstar Svetlana Zakharova, who had been learning the role of Tatiana, was passed over for opening night and decided to take her bat and ball and go home. The decision to relegate Zakharova to second cast for an important new production underlined the incredibly tight grip held on the rights, controlled by owner Dieter Graefe and Stuttgart Ballet’s artistic director Reid Anderson.

So how does West Australian Ballet get to do Onegin? It was programmed by former WAB artistic director Ivan Cavallari before he left at the end of last year, in a former life a principal dancer with Stuttgart Ballet. He is one of the people entrusted with staging Onegin around the world. Snap. Now artistic director of Ballet de l’Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, Cavallari was on hand in Perth to polish the performances. Earlier coaching had been in the hands of Egon Madsen, the greatly admired dancer on whom Cranko created the role of Lensky.

Cranko follows the essentials of Pushkin’s poem. A bored aristocrat toys with the affections of a guileless country girl, rejects her, and gets embroiled in a matter of honour. Perhaps he didn’t really mean to rouse her passions, but he is far more sophisticated than she and looking for diversion. Years later Onegin is made to suffer the same agonies he once so carelessly caused Tatiana. Caught up in the maelstrom are Tatiana’s lively sister Olga and her lover, the ill-starred Lensky.

Unrequited passion, jealousy, death and renunciation are tightly packed into six swiftly flowing scenes danced to a patchwork quilt of Tchaikovsky melodies arranged and orchestrated by Kurt-Heinze Stolze (Cranko was steered away from using Tchaikovsky’s opera).  As played by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Myron Romanul at the helm, the music is driven hard and occasionally sounds too rushed. But there’s no doubt it’s a high old time at the ballet.

WAB is fielding two casts, neither without blemishes but each with much to offer. On Friday new leading artist Jiri Jelinek, a glamorous Onegin, and WAB’s prima ballerina Jayne Smeulders set the bar high for mastery of Cranko’s sweeping lines and challenging pas de deux. Jelinek comes to the company with a great deal of experience in the role, having been a principal artist with Stuttgart Ballet, home of Onegin, and National Ballet of Canada. He is now a guest principal artist with NBC and perhaps more rightly should be listed as a guest principal at WAB, given that his contract runs only until January. Presumably if everyone is happy it will be extended.

There are many moments in the choreography that could be called repetitive and unsubtle; whether they strike the viewer as so during the heat of performance is dependent on the conviction of the principal players. Jelinek is well suited to the highly coloured drama of Cranko’s story-telling with its unfolding elongations, deep lunges, sweeping legs and swift, crystalline turns and he establishes the character through aristocratic bearing and an air of disdain for the country society in which he finds himself in the first act. This is a man who wears his superiority like a second suit.

Smeulders is something of a bluestocking Tatiana, an intelligent and perhaps slightly severe young woman who will fall hard. When she writes a letter to Onegin declaring her love, it is done feverishly. Smeulders makes it clear there is a great outpouring of sentiment. She makes it a moment of great urgency rather than a girlish error of judgment. Against that, there was less of a gulf between Tatiana as a girl and the mature woman of the third act who has married a Prince and is in charge of a grand household.

On Saturday Fiona Evans and Matthew Lehmann raised the emotional stakes in what turned out to be an inspired pairing. Lehmann had a scratchy start in the exposing – and important – Act I solo. Onegin needs to be established as a very confident man. But Lehmann clearly took a deep breath during interval, started giving a sense of the character he wanted to be, and the performance took off. Evans had already shown a quite different Tatiana, a fresh, impressionable girl smitten by the man in black. Her transformation into Prince Gremin’s loving but sorely tempted wife was transfixing. Lehmann is a strong partner and the set-piece pas de deux were taken daringly, particularly the Act III renunciation scene. It crackled with passion. Smeulders was a deeper thinker, Evans initially the greater innocent; Jelinek was an elegant thoroughbred, Lehmann a darker soul. Take your pick (or see both).

Dane Holland’s Lensky (Friday) had the musicality and control that sometimes eluded Daniel Roberts in the second cast, although, as with Lehmann on Saturday, Act I nerves led Holland to hurry and blur some turns. His Act II solo, however, showed him to be an expressive dancer of great promise, although as yet his characterisation is not deep. Roberts seemed to be spooked by that lovely, difficult aria of regret and longing, chopping up the dance phrases so they were disconnected from the music. As Lensky’s wayward love Olga, Sarah Sutcliffe (Saturday) edged out Melissa Boniface in conveying the careless high spirits that set tragedy in train. Both danced stylishly and with feeling, although I felt each could have surrendered more freely to the lavish backbends Cranko bestowed on the character. Sutcliffe’s effervescence felt naturally and engagingly expressed. Boniface was a little too tightly wound, the tension expressed in a too-fixed smile. In the small, crucial role of Prince Gremin, the good man who Tatiana marries, Christian Luck and David Mack both impressed.

The rest of the company is relegated to friends (the women of the company needing softer landings in the first act frolics), country folk and some rather irritating pseudo old folk doing too much old folk shtick. This really is a ballet that needs a goodly array of former dancers to take such roles and fill in the society represented, but of course that’s a budgetary issue, and I expect well out of WAB’s means.

A special mention must be made of the sets, borrowed from Prague. The severe limitations of His Majesty’s mean swaths of the Onegin design can’t be used and the production looks sadly under-dressed, diminishing the experience. The small stage also means dancers have to pull themselves in, making smaller what should be grand and expansive. Perth desperately needs a new lyric theatre, right now.

Onegin ends October 5.