Lucinda Dunn: Act II, updated

When I spoke to former Australian Ballet principal artist Lucinda Dunn recently about her new career as artistic director of Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy she was deep in rehearsals for Sydney City Youth Ballet’s The Nutcracker. SCYB is where the academy’s students gain performing experience before – if they are good enough and fortunate enough – they join a professional ballet company.

SCYB’s Nutcracker, which I also saw last year, is now seen in a refreshed version and a new venue, Chatswood’s The Concourse, which has a very good auditorium for dance. The production was originally choreographed by Tanya Pearson and features some traditional elements, in particular in the grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. This year Act II features new sections by veteran dancer and choreographer Paul Boyd (he is on the teaching staff at Queensland Ballet), including a sophisticated and challenging Arabian dance.

It’s a fast-paced, entertaining production with plenty of opportunities for young dancers to show their mettle. Standing out at the 5pm performance on December 16 were Katherine Sonnekus (Snow Queen), Lana Tramonte (Sugar Plum) and April Maguire (Arabian). Each looks well prepared for a professional career. Gabe Jahnke partnered both the Snow Queen and Sugar Plum with pleasing care and he managed some difficult lifts admirably for one so young. 

The role of Clara is shared between two young women. Both Janae Kerr (Young Clara) and Stephanie Parthenos (Teenage Clara) were vivid, engaging characters in a production that, while relatively modest in scale, has loads of charm and the thrill that comes from seeing the next generation of dancers making the transition from student to artist.

The original story follows:

THE quiet suburban studio where seven young women are taking class is nothing special; just the usual anonymous space with an array of barres and a piano in the corner. What lifts it out of the ordinary is the teacher demonstrating, guiding and encouraging. More than in any other art, ballet is handed down from person to person, body to body, and these students are getting the benefit of the best. As Lucinda Dunn takes them through increasingly complex combinations of the classroom steps – pliés, fondus, ronds de jambe and so on – that form the basic ballet vocabulary, she is passing on wisdom gained from a career unparalleled in Australia. When she retired from The Australian Ballet in April last year she had been with the company for 23 years, 12 of them as a principal artist. She wasn’t just a dancer; she was the company’s longest-serving woman, a prima ballerina who had all the great roles in her repertoire and a devoted following.

Wearing the typical dancer’s layers of practice gear and her long hair caught in a bun, Dunn still looks as if she could step on stage at a moment’s notice. But when she decided to bring the curtain down she had turned 40 and had two young daughters, one of whom had started school. It was time to move on.

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Lucinda Dunn, artistic director of Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy. Photo: Erik Braun

While it’s usual to say a dancer has retired, the word is misleading. Dancers don’t stop working: they reinvent themselves. Some ballet stars extend their stage careers by moving into the contemporary sphere – Sylvie Guillem and Mikhail Baryshnikov pre-eminently – but many stay close to the profession in other ways. They open studios, teach and coach, or train as Pilates instructors, nutritionists or in a host of related fields.

Dunn’s transition was swift. Shortly before her final performances it was announced she would become artistic director of Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching Academy (TPCCA), a highly regarded private training establishment in Sydney’s St Leonards that offers full-time courses for those hoping to enter the profession as well as part-time training for all ages. Dunn studied there before going to the Royal Ballet School and maintained close ties with it: in announcing her appointment, academy founder Tanya Pearson described Dunn as “a brilliant coach and teacher”.

Within a few months of her emotional Australian Ballet farewell – her last role was Manon – Dunn, who has a Medal of the Order of Australia for her contribution to dance, was working at the academy several days a week before officially starting on January 1 this year. “I went from one massive position to the next,” she says over a cappuccino (double shot), speaking in between taking class for full-timers and overseeing a rehearsal for Sydney City Youth Ballet’s The Nutcracker, which opens on December 15. Tanya Pearson founded the company so she could offer performing experience and Dunn is also its artistic director along with her other duties.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s also talk about regenerating Mrs Pearson’s Sydney City Ballet Company. It would have a core of professional dancers but room for senior students too. “We’re in the initial stages of putting together a board, getting not-for-profit paperwork done, talking about logistics,” says Dunn. “It’s just an exciting prospect at this stage.”

The role, which she acknowledges is rather bigger than she had envisaged, is still evolving and expanding – “minute by minute”. Having stopped dancing only recently, it’s not surprising that she loves the direct, hands-on connection of teaching and feels it is her forte. “It’s why I was brought in.” But it is only one part of the picture. As well as taking classes and the preparation that entails, Dunn has responsibility for strategic planning and oversight of the teaching faculty as well as progress meetings with pupils and parents, among other calls on her time such as the upcoming Senior Summer School in January. There is also strong demand, impossible to be met fully, for individual coaching. She is less involved with the busy part-time academy but gives advice and has final say in its decision-making. (Happily she doesn’t have to wrangle spreadsheets and budgets. Business management is the province of general manager Nicole Sharp, daughter of Mrs Pearson, or Mrs P as she is known to all. Mrs P may have withdrawn from day-to-day operations but is still a much-loved presence at the academy, attending a Nutcracker rehearsal on the day I visited.)

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A scene from The Nutcracker, 2014. Photo: Erik Sawaya

There’s a lot to fit into a working day – a day that inevitably stretches into the evening at home with her girls and her husband, Danilo Radojevic – and Dunn says she may have to retreat somewhat from the studio next year to have more time to observe, plan and set goals. “I have spoken to so many artistic directors in my travels this year and when I ask, ‘how many classes do you teach?’, they say: ‘None.’ They don’t do any. I’m trying to do everything.”

Her goal, however, is simple: “I want to attract the best students so I have the best talent to work with and I want to have the best possible training for these students so they have the best possible careers.” The academy’s full-time program (there are 24 enrolled this year) includes classical, contemporary and character classes. There is also a lecture series encompassing dance psychology, nutrition and ballet-specific anatomy. “I wish I’d had more knowledge of that when I started my career. I sort of worked things out as I went along,” says Dunn. Next year TPCCA will offer choreographic workshops.

Dunn would like to see stronger desire and more opportunity for careers in this country. “I would love to see my students go to places within Australia first,” she says, finding it “incredibly sad” that many young competition winners have their eyes on Europe only. She is delighted that a TPCCA graduate, Vida Polakov, was this year accepted as a Young Artist with West Australian Ballet.

It is, nevertheless, the case that many young dancers want to test themselves against the best in international forums and Dunn is excited that two TPCCA students have made it into the final 74 participants (from nearly 300 aspirants) for the 2016 Prix de Lausanne, being held from January 31 to February 7. Dunn will have an unusually privileged position from which to view their efforts. A former winner in Lausanne, she will serve on the 2016 jury alongside international luminaries including former American Ballet Theatre star and now director of Uruguay’s national ballet company Julio Bocca (the jury president), fellow former prix winners Viviana Durante and Marcelo Gomes, Paris Opera Ballet School director Elisabeth Platel and Vaganova Ballet Academy principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze.

But before that there is the annual Sydney City Youth Ballet production to shepherd to the stage for 10 performances. The Nutcracker is a perennial favourite and offers plenty of roles for senior and junior students: mice, snowflakes, partygoers, dolls and denizens of the Kingdom of Sweets among them. For the most experienced students there’s the chance they might be chosen for the Sugar Plum Fairy or the Prince, roles they will aspire to once they join a professional company – and after they’ve served their apprenticeship in the corps de ballet, a likelihood Dunn prepares them for. “In the repertoire classes students don’t just do solo after solo after solo. They do things that require the dancers to come back into line, because that’s where they’ll be,” Dunn says laughing. She started there herself.

During her long career Dunn was often a guest artist with Sydney City Youth Ballet. It is inspiring for students to be able to dance alongside stars and Dunn is continuing the practice, inviting glamorous on- and off-stage couple Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo, both principal artists with The Australian Ballet, to dance the lead Nutcracker roles at some performances. “They are among the most exciting principals in the world,” says Dunn, who seems content to be looking forward rather than regretting that the Sugar Plum Fairy is now in her rearview mirror.

Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran in The Nutcracker Photography Jim McFarlane

Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran in The Australian Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Photo: Jim McFarlane

“It’s definitely a massive amount I’ve bitten off but I like being with the students. Some of these dancers were at my final performance. I want to give them all I know while it’s still fresh in my mind. I’ve still got my leotard and my shoes on so I’m still dancing in some capacity. I suppose it’s why I don’t miss it so much.”

Sydney City Youth Ballet’s The Nutcracker, December 15-20, matinee and evening performances. The Concourse, Chatswood, Sydney.

The Bolshoi in Brisbane

Le Corsaire, May 30; The Bright Stream, June 7. Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

THERE is no more interesting, influential or thoughtful choreographer working in classical ballet than Alexei Ratmansky and Brisbane was fortunate to see two distinctly different examples of his art in its sell-out Bolshoi Ballet season.

And what a pleasure it was to concentrate on the Bolshoi’s qualities as a ballet company rather than the extremely unsavoury politics that appear to have led to the acid attack on artistic director Sergei Filin. The movement was easy and expansive, with no sense of bravura for its own sake – extensions were kept modest and refined even as the quality of attack was robust – and the dancers’ vivid, detailed acting filled the stage and energised the audience. (Mind you, the Lyric Theatre stage at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre is much smaller than the Bolshoi’s – no wonder some of the action in the sensation-packed Le Corsaire looked a bit cramped.)

Le Jardin Anime in Le Corsaire

Le Jardin Anime in Le Corsaire

In 2007, when Ratmansky was artistic director of the Bolshoi, he restaged Le Corsaire with Yuri Burlaka, basing the production on Petipa’s choreography and delving into early sources to provide a window into Imperial-era style and taste in classical dance. In 2003, while still with Royal Danish Ballet, Ratmansky had revived The Bright Steam for the Bolshoi, re-choreographing the comedy to the joyous, neglected score by Shostakovich. The Bolshoi brought both works to London in 2007, where I was lucky enough to see them – Le Corsaire’s Act I Pas d’Esclave was given a mighty jolt by a then very young Ivan Vasiliev; Filin appeared as the Ballet Dancer in The Bright Stream – and both ballets were a good choice for the just-completed Brisbane season for Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series.

There was no Vasiliev this time of course: after leaving the Bolshoi last year he briefly touched down in St Petersburg for the Mikhailovsky and is a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre (one of the in-and-out kind). He will, however, appear in the Bolshoi’s upcoming London season, dancing in The Flames of Paris with his partner Natalia Osipova, soon to join the Royal Ballet. (Neither did Brisbane see Bolshoi premier – principal – David Hallberg, but that was never going to be possible, alas. He was fulfilling his ABT responsibilities at the time.)

For a company of its size the Bolshoi has a small number of principal artists. There are 148 members of the corps de ballet named on the Bolshoi website but only 10 women and eight men in the top rank. Of the women, four came to Brisbane: Maria Alexandrova and Nina Kaptsova, who appeared on both opening nights, Ekaterina Krysanova and Ekaterina Shipulina. Only two principal men made the journey – Mikhail Lobukhin and Ruslan Skvortsov, both wonderful in The Bright Stream. First soloists Denis Medvedev and Denis Savin also stood out amongst the men. Not surprisingly there was no sign of the outspoken principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who has been much in the news giving his views on Filin’s acid attack and on the Bolshoi management. It has just been announced the Bolshoi will not renew Tsiskaridze’s contracts, which expire at the end of June.

The Bolshoi’s taste and gift for the large gesture has no better example than Le Corsaire. It isn’t just bolshoi – big – it is gigantic; an extravaganza that sets new standards for going over the top even before you get to the brief postscript, in which a pirate ship on stormy seas breaks in half. The show weighed in at about 3 1/2 hours, came with a cast list that named nearly 50 dancers before we got to the corps, children and supernumeraries, and offered a version of the ballet that harks back to the days when the Russian court was the last word in luxury. Le Corsaire is a mad amalgam of stun-gun and sugar hit and resistance was futile. The house was packed for eight performances.

Over the years Le Corsaire has been tinkered with greatly so it’s something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a piece, including using the music of enough composers – seven, headed by Adolphe Adam – to start up their own guild. The result is a feast of melody that was delivered in exceptionally fine form by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pavel Sorokin. The QSO sounded even better when accompanying The Bright Stream, but no surprise that Shostakovich should trump a stitched-together committee when it comes to a score.

The Le Corsaire plot need not detain us long (the synopsis takes nearly 2000 words to explain it) but involves pirates, slaves, kidnapped maidens who couldn’t be more cheerful or compliant, a harem, disguises and that shipwreck. It’s a highly perfumed fantasy that’s happy to deliver outrageous caricatures of Middle Eastern appearance and manners alongside a glittering stream of set-piece dances whose only aim is to delight with virtuosity or vivacity. It’s tutu heaven, essentially, with women plucking an opulent new ensemble out of thin air at a moment’s notice. The tutus, designed by Yelena Zaytseva, using Yevgeny Ponomaryov’s 1899 sketches, were gorgeously detailed and delightfully wide and floaty, with light layers of fabric over a smaller, more rigid base that acted as a support.

The logic, if such a word can be used with Le Corsaire, is that of the dream world and of Imperial-era classical ballet. The spectacle is the thing, and nowhere more mesmerisingly than in the lengthy Act II scene known as Le Jardin Anime. A strictly organised garden is a metaphor for the hierarchies of ballet, cascading down from heroine Medora (I saw Alexandrova) and seconda donna Gulnare (Nina Kaptsova) to the women of the generously stocked seraglio. Men are reduced to holding floral hoops in the background while the women – magisterial prima ballerina, lively solo ballerina, demi-soloists and the corps – present themselves to advantage and support one another in the sisterhood with some gentle partnering.

The whole ballet could, in fact, be seen as a bouquet to the art of the ballerina – the men’s big dance moments are fleeting. Denis Medvedev gave a bouncy account of the Pas d’Esclave and would perhaps have given a better account of the famous Corsaire solo than did Vladislav Lantratov, who played Medora’s pirate lover Conrad. In this production Conrad, the male lead, gets the showy solo rather than it being the province of the slave, as is frequently seen. Lantratov had a fairly ordinary night at the Brisbane opening, failing to deliver the thunderous impact one hoped for.

Alexandrova’s warm stage presence, big jump and her beautiful arms were entrancing, although she didn’t quite scale the heights of grandeur called for in Le Jardin Anime. Kaptsova’s quick precision and spark lit up the stage and the Odalisques pas de trois was illuminated by Maria Vinogradova’s quiet radiance and exquisite line.

Not all the dancing hit the dramatic heights one might have anticipated from this storied company, but it was a hell of a show.

The Bright Stream

The Bright Stream

The Bright Stream is a light-hearted romance set on a collective farm at harvest time and comes with a dark history. The ballet was initially applauded but Soviet authorities soon came down hard on the collaborators. The librettist was sent to the gulag, the director of the Bolshoi at the time was demoted and Shostakovich wrote nothing more for the ballet. The ballet’s front cloth indirectly alludes to this, bearing, in Russian, quotes from Stalin and Pravda’s denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, “Muddle instead of music”. Near the end of the ballet a man with a scythe appears – not a farm hand, but the Grim Reaper. He doesn’t prevail here, however. In this happy tale he is dismissed.

In restaging The Bright Stream with his own choreography, Ratmansky paid homage to those persecuted artists and, I think, to the ordinary folk of Stalinist Russia who lived their lives at that time as we all do: doing our best with the hand we’re dealt, working, loving and laughing when we can. He also refocused attention on a neglected ballet score of extraordinary richness and appeal. Bright brass tones constantly add unusual weight and colour, lush strings herald romance (or the appearance of it) and folk and jazz rhythms add spice to the ever-danceable melodies and Ratmansky is ever alert to the possibilities for illumination of character or comedy.

There are shades of the shenanigans of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the role-swapping in The Marriage of Figaro to add to the magical texture. This is a place where many strange things will happen before the resolution.

Intrigues, flirtations, complications, impersonations and disguises rule the day when a ballet troupe from the city comes to perform at an obscure farm’s harvest festival. Through dance full of light and overflowing with joy, everything will be sorted out for Pyotr, a local agricultural student with a roving eye, and his loving wife Zina. The visiting Ballerina and her Ballet Dancer partner (they have no names other than that) may be the catalysts for mayhem but they also find its solution, which features the cross-dressing male dancer on pointe as a fetching sylph. A bicycle-riding dog adds to the merriment.

The Bright Stream was stocked with superb dancing that turned on a pin’s head from comedy to rapturous classicism. Even better was the beautifully judged acting from everyone on stage, in big roles and small. Leading the pack at the first performance were Alexandrova’s Ballerina and Kaptsova as a delectably airy Zina, remembering her earlier days in ballet by whizzing though a few sets of fouettes. The first don’t quite come off:  Zina feels at a disadvantage, the country bumpkin compared with the glamorous big-city dancer who is incidentally an old friend. Later, when she knows her would-be love-rat of a husband (manly, slightly goofy Mikhail Lobukhin) won’t succeed in his wooing of the Ballerina, Zina can reel the turns off with great elan.

The plot required Alexandrova to dress as a man, in which guise she was high-flying and zesty; when dressed in the long tulle skirt of the Ballerina, Ruslan Skvortsov was modest and appealing, his evocations of ballerina roles and demeanour having a sweet air of homage rather than send-up.

The Bright Stream had only four performances, and undoubtedly more could have been filled had the ballet been more of a known quantity before the event. Producers Leo Schofield and Ian McRae can’t afford to get things wrong with a venture of this magnitude, however. Better to leave ‘em wanting more.

And there will be more. After QPAC’s presentations of Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Hamburg Ballet and the Bolshoi comes … Well, the announcement is likely to be made next month. Bravi Schofield and McRae.

Versions of the Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream reviews appeared in The Australian on June 3 and June 10.