The Australian Ballet and its long dance with The Merry Widow

In her biography of Robert Helpmann, Robert Helpmann: A Servant of Art, Anna Bemrose describes how Helpmann, then artistic director of The Australian Ballet, was grilled by the Industries Assistance Commission in 1975. The IAC had been asked by the prime minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, to examine government arts funding and clearly some IAC members were not enamoured of the ballet company’s direction or its financial prospects.

Helpmann was asked, inter alia, to justify his decision to stage The Merry Widow. What relevance did it have to Australian culture? Then there was the question of money. As Bemrose amusingly points out, Helpmann was asked by the IAC whether he’d found a way of getting “on the cheap” the beauty ballet audiences wanted. “No, I am not a genius,” Helpmann replied.

The Merry Widow

Amber Scott as Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow with Adam Bull (left) as Danilo and Andrew Killian (right) as Camille. Photo: Daniel Boud

Widow was indeed expensive but it went ahead and, while its direct relevance to Australian culture may not have been as obvious as, say, Helpmann’s one-act contemporary ballet The Display (1964), it was an extraordinary success from opening night onwards. Its popularity prompted the company to put on season after season in the early years to the benefit of the bottom line, then and now. TAB has perpetual rights to the ballet – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

As it happened, Whitlam’s government was dismissed two days before Widow opened in Melbourne on November 13, 1975, and Helpmann left the company not long after, having been dumped by the board. (Fences were mended. A decade later he was the Red King in Ninette de Valois’s Checkmate when it entered the TAB repertoire, nearly 50 years after he’d created the role. He left his hospital bed to play the part in July of 1986 and died that September.) Widow, however, would never be evicted. Helpmann’s long-held desire to translate the romance and glamour of Franz Lehár’s operetta to the ballet stage proved to be just the ticket. It was performed 178 times in the first two years alone.

TAB_The Merry Widow_Leanne Stojmenov and Artists of The Australian Ballet_Photo Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov as Valencienne in The Merry Widow. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Widow finishes its latest Melbourne run on June 16 it will have racked up more than 440 performances and be snapping at the heels of Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote for the honour of being TAB’s most-performed production. Only a handful of shows will separate them. Not surprisingly, various versions of Swan Lake together total more performances (767 from four productions ) and two versions of Giselle account for 700 performances. But worldwide favourite The Nutcracker (358 performances of four productions) doesn’t come anywhere near the Widow for durability.

It’s easy to list the Widow’s charms – well-known tunes, sumptuous sets and costumes, light comedy, lost-and-found love story – but they don’t by themselves suggest a work for all time. Widow is, nevertheless, embedded in TAB history in ways that make it glow more brightly for the home audience than for those, say, at American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and the handful of other leading companies that have it in their repertoire, even though it’s great enjoyed as an entertainment. (Houston and NBC have both scheduled revivals of Widow for next year.)

TAB_The Merry Widow_Adam Bull and Kirsty Martin_Photo Jeff Busby

Adam Bull as Danilo and Kirsty Martin as Hanna. Photo: Jeff Busby

Widow was the first full-length ballet commissioned by TAB, which was founded in 1962 (it opened with Swan Lake, of course). Helpmann’s choice was astute. The operetta was well known and much loved in Australia and TAB’s music director John Lanchbery was just the man to arrange and orchestrate, with Alan Abbott, the music based on Lehár’s delectable melodies. Helpmann, whose theatrical instincts were legendary, wrote the scenario and wrested the rights from the estates, heirs and publishers who controlled Widow. Ronald Hynd was contracted to choreograph and Desmond Heeley to design in the opulent manner of the belle époque.

In the late 1920s Helpmann danced in Lehár’s operetta in Melbourne when Gladys Moncrieff took the title role and he said he’d always thought it would make a wonderful ballet. It’s certainly no intellectual heavyweight but underneath the surface buffoonery and rom-com shenanigans there are many delights, chief of which is the title role. It’s not true that Widow was made for Margot Fonteyn, as some think – Marilyn Rowe created the part – but it was choreographed with Helpmann’s long-time ballet partner in mind. Fonteyn called it “the most wonderful present”.

Surely it was Helpmann, credited with staging as well as scenario, who devised that marvellous entrance for Hanna, in which she sweeps down a broad staircase in her stunning black gown after pausing elegantly for effect, and for the inevitable applause.

Fonteyn was the first Hanna I saw when TAB toured to London in the sweltering summer of 1976, seven months or so after the ballet premiered in Melbourne. She was then 57 and her name helped bring attention to the company, as would Nureyev and his Don Q. Fonteyn also appeared many times in Australia and called Hanna “the most delightful role I could possibly have had”, wishing only that it had come to her rather earlier in her career.

There was, naturally, no particularly virtuosic choreography for Hanna but it required – and requires – effortless stage presence, melting luxuriance and an understanding of the thread of melancholy that underpins Widow and gives it some necessary shadows.

In the slender storyline, machinations are afoot to bring Hanna together in marriage with the rakish Count Danilo to prevent her money from leaving the small, impoverished Balkan country of Pontevedro. Danilo and Hanna were lovers when young but parted unhappily. In TAB’s current Widow program John Meehan, who was the first Danilo and partnered Fonteyn frequently in the ballet, describes how he saw her shoulders shaking as he rehearsed placing a cloak around her in the show’s final moments. He thought she was laughing at the ballet’s simplicity. “And she turned around and she was crying. It was so real to her.”

The Merry Widow

Colin Peasley as Baron Zeta with Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian. Photo: Daniel Boud

TAB has produced a long line of illustrious home-grown Widows, including the lustrous current principal artist Amber Scott, who opened the Sydney season in April. During that season former principal Kirsty Martin, who last danced Hanna in 2011 during her final year with TAB, returned as a guest artist. Now in her early 40s – a perfect age for Hanna – she opens the 2018 Melbourne season.

As I look through my old Widow programs, a snowstorm of cast sheets falls out. There are two from 1994, when two of TAB’s most luminous artists, Lisa Bolte and Miranda Coney, danced Hanna. They did so again in 2000, a year I which I somehow managed to see six performances. One was during the Olympic Arts Festival in Sydney when Widow was called upon to represent TAB to the visiting world.

For some reason I found myself in Perth in October that year and happened to see Widow with Coney again. At the end of that performance conductor Charles Barker, then TAB’s music director and now principal conductor at American Ballet Theatre, came onstage and asked Coney to marry him. (She said yes.)

Every time Widow has been revived it’s been possible to see Colin Peasley reprise his role as Baron Zeta, the much older husband of young Valencienne, who is in love with Camille. Peasley was the Baron at the ballet’s premiere in 1975 and was already a company veteran, having been a founding member. He’s now 83 but his artistry is undimmed. It’s such a joy to see there is still a place for him onstage, and not just in a walk-on. The Widow offers him a substantial part and the audience a priceless link to TAB history.

More links are added with each revival. This year TAB’s current artistic director, David McAllister, decided to cast himself in the small role of Njegus. The reason? Ballet master and former principal artist Steven Heathcote would be taking the role of Baron Zeta at some performances and McAllister thought it would be fun to be onstage with him again. Back in the day you couldn’t see Widow casting better than Heathcote as Danilo and McAllister as Camille. The embedding of The Merry Widow in TAB history continues.

The Merry Widow, Arts Centre Melbourne, June 7-16.

Daniel Gaudiello exits The Australian Ballet

When The Australian Ballet stages Stephen Baynes’s traditional Swan Lake in Sydney from April 1 for 21 performances it will field six couples in the leading roles of Odette-Odile and Siegfried. One of those couples was to have been senior artist Natasha Kusch with principal Daniel Gaudiello, a partnership that promised a great deal. Kusch, then a soloist with Vienna State Opera Ballet, first danced with Gaudiello in a Queensland Ballet gala in 2012 where they were clearly an excellent match on stage. Soon after Kusch joined QB and then the AB in 2015, where she and Gaudiello danced together regularly.

As late as Wednesday of this week – March 23 – casting on The Australian Ballet’s website listed Kusch and Gaudiello. On Thursday a press release came late in the afternoon, advising that Gaudiello was leaving the company after 12 years, the past six as principal artist. His performance in Melbourne on Monday March 21 in the Vitesse program was his last. I saw him on the opening night of that season in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, which he danced with passionate intensity and impeccable technical gifts. He was sporting a new, sleeker haircut that was much remarked-upon. He was at the top of his game.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. photo by Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Obviously Gaudiello’s decision had come quickly in one way, in that he was expected to appear in Swan Lake, but he must also have been weighing up what was best for him for many months. The AB’s press release said Gaudiello “for some time has been working towards this decision”.

Possibly he wished to avoid the high-visibility public farewell usually accorded a principal artist. Alternatively, he simply woke up on Tuesday and thought, today’s the day.

There were no specifics in the press release about Gaudiello’s plans, other than he had “decided to step away from the stage and focus on new artistic and personal pursuits”. Gaudiello wrote on Facebook: “The humanity in dance is what has kept the art form alive, and what has kept me coming back after the hard knocks it gives us all. No one escapes this time in their careers, where something dies but something is born again.” He went on to write that his “drive to succeed is at an all time high” and that he still has “a lot to say”. He is believed to be interested in an acting career, something for which he would seem well suited. Among his many successes in roles requiring a strong ability to create a believable character are Petrouchka, Basilio in Don Quixote, Franz in Coppélia and, outstandingly, Mercutio in the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet at Queensland Ballet, in which he appeared – brilliantly – alongside the Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae as Romeo.

Daniel Gaudiello (Mercutio) Steven McRae (Romeo) Rian Thompson (Benvolio)

Daniel Gaudiello as Mercutio, Steven McRae as Romeo and Rian Thompson as Benvolio in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

Gaudiello’s announcement was followed immediately by heartfelt expressions of love and admiration from dancers and dance-lovers. British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon was just one to express dismay at Gaudiello’s retirement from dance, writing “even I’m not ready and I was only there for 10 minutes”. (Wheeldon refers to his brief visit to Melbourne to put the finishing touches on DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, the ballet that gave the Vitesse program its name.)

Gaudiello is 33 and at the peak of his powers, but also at an age when the future starts looming large for dancers. (I recall having a vivid, detailed conversation with him about choreography, in which he has some experience, although it’s not clear that he intends to pursue this.) For all its beauty dance is a brutal business, exacting a great toll on the body. Not only is a career usually winding down when a performer is in his or her late 30s or early 40s, she or he has also usually been training and working in dance for more than 30 years. Gaudiello started dancing at the age of six in his hometown, Brisbane. (The AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, was 37 when he left dancing to succeed Ross Stretton at the company.)

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella, 2013 photo Jeff Busby_3765

Daniel Gaudiello with Leanne Stojmenov in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

With Gaudiello now not dancing in Swan Lake, the AB hastily rearranged its schedule. Amber Scott and Adam Bull are first cast, followed by Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones (she is married to Gaudiello) and Ty King-Wall, Leanne Stojmenov (happily back from maternity leave) and Kevin Jackson and senior artist Miwako Kubota with principal Andrew Killian.

The sixth cast is Kusch with hard-working Killian, a pairing that gets its first outing on April 13, with two further performances to follow. The show always goes on. For Gaudiello it will just be a different one.

‘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.

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.

Vanguard

 The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, April 30

GEORGE Balanchine was indisputably a game-changer, to use the Australian Ballet’s phrase in explaining the ethos behind Vanguard, the triple bill that opened in Sydney on April 30. The game-changer tag is somewhat less cut and dried in the case of Jiri Kylian and Wayne McGregor, who are also on the bill, but you have to give the program a name. And Vanguard is certainly a lot punchier than Trilogy, which is what the AB prosaically used to call such evenings. You could argue, I suppose, that Trilogy was an exact description, but gee, it’s not catnip, is it?

Let me take you back to one of the AB’s contributions to the Olympic Arts Festival in 2000, in which it danced, on the one bill, William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, Nacho Duato’s Por vos muero and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. It was dynamite. The AB called it Trilogy.

But that was then. Now back to Vanguard. The title may be a little imprecise but the program works in giving a sweeping view of what a classical company considers its territory. It’s exhilarating in its scope and comes with the bonus of wonderful music. Under Nicolette Fraillon’s baton the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra has as many changes of direction over the evening as do the dancers, starting with Paul Hindemith’s modernist Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments). This was a Balanchine commission, although it took a few years for music and dance to come together. Theme with Four Variations was written in 1940 and received its premiere as a concert work in 1944. Balanchine’s ballet appeared in 1946.

Vanguard ends with Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 (2009), danced to Steve Reich’s minimalist, driving Double Sextet, a piece for which Reich was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In between, Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura uses a collage of Baroque and Baroque-style excerpts, including two movements from Lukas Foss’s bijou Salomon Rossi Suite. Fun degrees-of-separation note: Foss studied composition with Hindemith in New York, and he wasn’t just a composer; he was also a noted pianist. And guess who was the pianist when Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperments) premiered on the concert stage? That would be Lukas Foss.

Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

The palette is particularly rich and relies on dancers with acute musical responses. There are no characters or narratives to fall back on. Moreover, with many of the dancers cast in more than one of the works at any performance they have to be adept at switching from upright Balanchine to twisty, bendy McGregor within the space of an hour. On opening night in Sydney principals Lana Jones and Adam Bull and senior artist Rudy Hawkes scored the trifecta and danced in the Kylian as well – a feat something akin to an opera singer being asked to perform in Baroque, Romantic and 20th-century style in successive acts.

By the way, nine of the AB’s 11 principal artists appeared on opening night. That’s not something you often see. And if the casting stays as it is, it seems Jones will get precisely one performance off out of the 20 in Sydney. Respect. (Or does it mean the AB lacks depth: discuss.)

The remaining two principal artists, Lucinda Dunn and Olivia Bell, have been a little elusive of late but are lined up for Vanguard. Casting is online – take a look.

Balanchine said of ballet that “the visual spectacle is the essential element”. The assertion may seem at odds with The Four Temperaments’ austerity of costuming (black tights and white T-shirts for the men; plain black leotards for the women) and set (none). Balanchine, however, was talking about the spectacle of movement. There is no meaning other than that provided by bodies in time, space and with music as four discrete scenes named after the ancient Greek humours follow three iterations of the score’s themes.

When the 4Ts premiered it was costumed rather fantastically and busily. Those costumes were banished in 1951. “When things hindered the dance Balanchine eliminated them,” says former dancer Mary Ellen Moylan in a documentary on Balanchine. (Moylan is described in the film, Dancing for Mr B., by Maria Tallchief as the first Balanchine ballerina.) Moylan also said that the choreographer made great music – such as that by Stravinsky – “greater by the things he showed us visually”.

An intriguing view on this stripped-back look for the 4Ts was put forward in Vanity Fair in its March edition of this year. The magazine noted that in September 1951 the film of A Streetcar named Desire was released, in which Marlon Brando (as Stanley Kowalski) appeared to much advantage in a tight white T-shirt. The look took off immediately and Vanity Fair specifically links that trend with Balanchine’s November 1951 decision to re-costume the 4Ts as we now see it. Well, it’s an idea.

The first performance of The Four Temperaments in the AB’s Sydney season happened to fall on the 30th anniversary of Balanchine’s death. It was a timely tribute with a seminal piece. The 4Ts is astringent, precise, sophisticated, cerebral and incredibly exposing. It was thrilling to see it again, even if the ballet’s magisterial command and patrician wit and elegance were insufficiently projected.

There are two reasons for this. The first is one of space: the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House so often makes dancers look hemmed in. The 4Ts didn’t have the room to move that it had in 2003 in the American Masters program staged at the Capitol Theatre. The second reason is one of temperament, funnily enough, and the observation isn’t restricted only to this ballet. AB dancers are too often reticent in imposing their personalities and will in performance (it’s perhaps something related to the no-stars vibe of the company). I’m not talking about fake smiles or look-at-me superficialities; rather of largeness of spirit, clarity of intention and refinement of expression resulting in inner impulses being translated into movement that speaks rather than merely exists as an attractive object.

In relation to the 4Ts, the women of the corps were less warrior-like than the movement suggests, with its stabbing, advancing high kicks and jutting pelvises. While I say the stage was too small for the action, it’s also the case that on opening night the corps fell short in filling the stage dramatically. They were too tame; lacking in pride and ownership in a ballet where the women, choreographically speaking, lord it over the men.

There was much pleasure, however, in Jones’s force-of-nature Choleric – her turns were ferocious – and Leanne Stojmenov’s Sanguinic. Stojmenov was springy and elastic when needed and articulately captured the importance and value of Balanchine’s transfers of weight. The circle of low lifts were plush and pillowy, and in this Stojmenov was ably abetted by newly minted principal artist Ty King-Wall.

Kevin Jackson’s Melancholic was powerful and transfixing until the final moments, when he ran out of stage and back mobility for that astonishing exit in reverse. Adam Bull could be more free and expansive in the opening moments of Phlegmatic but he gains in stage presence with each appearance.

In complete contrast to the 4Ts, Kylian’s Bella Figura (1995) has a tentative, questioning quality laced with tenderness. It suits the company well. Pointe shoes are gone and movement comes in swirls and curves, sometimes serene, sometimes less so as swirls contract into twitches. It’s a dreamy, fragmentary, sensual piece that was beautifully danced by its cast of nine on opening night, although again space was an issue.

And another thing. Memory must always be consulted with caution, but its persistence is nevertheless telling. I find it impossible to see any performance of Bella Figura without comparing it to that seen in 2000 as part of the Olympic Arts Festival. It was at the generously sized Capitol Theatre and I remember being able to see it more clearly than just the other day. Perhaps the lighting state is exactly the same but the theatres are different, so I doubt it. At the Sydney Opera House Bella Figura looked more shadowy, and not in a good way. The lighting made the dancers harder to read, although it was possible to see that corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow, by far the most junior of the cast, was outstanding. Miwako Kubota was wonderful and Jones and Daniel Gaudiello were quite lovely in the final scene in which tension and release are quietly and enigmatically explored but not necessarily resolved.

That said, in my mind’s eye – as Shakespeare has it – I could still see performing in this ballet Steven Heathcote and Miranda Coney, Joshua Consadine and Nicole Rhodes, Sarah Peace and Felicia Palanca, all long gone from the AB. Funny thing, memory.

Dyad 1929 ruthlessly banishes any shadows. It’s a space-age ballet that dazzles with its bright white setting and bodies stretched, extended, manipulated and distorted to the max as the Reich music inexorably powers forward. Jones, Stojmenov and Gaudiello stood out in a cast of stand-outs at the opening. Dana Stephensen looked pleased as punch to be pulled every which way. Bull and Amber Scott scored with a sexy duo, Jones was sensational in a solo that turned her back into a question mark and there was always something to please the eye, in an insistent way.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

What it means is difficult to discern. If the movement speaks for itself, if that’s all there is, what’s with the program notes? You might be able to intuit Dyad 1929‘s nods to Antarctic exploration, what with all that white. You can find that the ballet’s name, if you peruse the notes, refers to the year of Diaghilev’s death and thus to the great impresario’s adventurousness. But you have to do your reading to get the picture.

There’s no doubt that Dyad 1929 looks amazing and is expertly constructed. And that the 4Ts, crisp as a glorious autumn day, still looks the revolutionary piece.

Vanguard, Sydney, until May 18. Melbourne, June 6-17.