Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

State Theatre, Melbourne, June 30

Stanton Welch looked thrilled after the premiere of his Romeo and Juliet in Melbourne, as he should have. The former Australian Ballet dancer and current AB resident choreographer had brought his own company, Houston Ballet, home. In the audience – along with supporters from Houston – was a galaxy of AB principal artists former and present. I saw Amber Scott, Ty King-Wall, Madeleine Eastoe, Rachel Rawlins, Olivia Bell (she is on the AB board) and, of course Stanton’s brother Damien and his wife Kirsty Martin. Ballet royalty Marilyn Jones, the Welch brothers’ mother, was there too. It was quite a night. (Also watching: American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist David Hallberg, who has been kept offstage for some time due to injury. His Kenneth MacMillan Romeo with Natalia Osipova as his Juliet, seen in New York with ABT in 2012, remains one of my greatest of great nights in the theatre.)

Perhaps it’s not surprising to see in Houston Ballet qualities similar to those of The Australian Ballet. This is in Welch’s blood. I suspect, too, that his Texan audience delights in the way the company dances spaciously, with natural ease and lack of pretension. These are exceptionally attractive traits. There’s no shortage of technical dash but character, presence and skin-bursting vitality are to the fore. Welch honours the traditional classical language but loosens it too so it doesn’t look or feel stagey. Well, mostly. The Friar Lawrence scenes were welcome for giving local audiences a chance to see former AB member Steven Woodgate again but looked rather old-fashioned.

HB2016_R&J_Karina González_1660_Photo Jeff Busby

Karina Gonzalez as Juliet in Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Jeff Busby

The swift, headlong drama of Shakespeare’s play is given full value in Welch’s production and was buoyed on opening night by a full-blooded performance of the Prokofiev score by Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Houston Ballet’s music director Ermanno Florio. Welch is a choreographer for whom more is more and in Romeo and Juliet he uses that tendency to strong dramatic effect. The city of Verona is a robust, busy, lively society with strong, individual women and men always ready for a lark or a fight. The big picture was terrific and given handsome visual appeal by Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s Renaissance-flavoured sets and costumes.

Most productions of Romeo and Juliet shorten the list of dramatis personae for the sake of clarity. It’s easier for the audience to grasp who is who. Welch dives right in at the deep end. Shakespeare wrote about “two households, both alike in dignity” – the Montagues and the Capulets. Welch makes more prominent the third house in the drama, that of the ruler Prince Escalus, which includes Romeo’s wild friend Mercutio and Juliet’s intended husband Count Paris. Welch gives Mercutio’s brother Valentine a part and enjoyably includes another of Romeo’s friends, Balthasar. Friar John, bearing the letter to the banished Romeo that goes astray, is also seen in an effective vignette. It takes a little while to sort out who is who but adds greatly to the texture of the story and the stage picture.

Welch took out a bit of insurance for Thursday’s opening by fielding all his principal artists bar one (Yuriko Kajiya is Rosaline at some performances). Sara Webb, for instance, took the relatively small role of Romeo’s former love Rosaline and also dances Juliet in this season, as does Melody Mennite, who on opening night was a tavern owner’s daughter. Ian Casady, who is Mennite’s Romeo, was Count Paris on opening night. The lusty, magnetic first-cast Mercutio, former American Ballet Theatre soloist Jared Matthews, also dances Romeo (partnering Webb). Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, who was promoted to principal only three weeks ago after debuting as Albrecht (he is still listed as a first soloist in the program; that’s how new his promotion is), took the minor role of Gregory, member of the house of Capulet.

That said, Welch’s production demands that everyone, from top to bottom, be individual and engaged. The company looked splendid.

First-cast leads Katrina González and Connor Walsh were a fresh, glowing pair of lovers most credibly besotted with each other. The balcony pas de deux was rapturous, studded with exciting lifts and catches that Walsh made look instinctive. And why not, with a Juliet as entrancing as González? Her smile almost made Lisa J. Pinkham’s excellent lighting redundant and she has eyes eloquent and beautiful enough to make angels weep.

Welch’s desire to keep the action flowing and swelling sometimes leads to an over-reliance on certain surefire steps – the men certainly do many double tours (and do them well) – but the fire and passion make it a very seductive evening.

Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet ends in Melbourne July 9.

Retirement and promotion at the AB

 La Sylphide, Sydney Opera House, November 25

IT’S one of the Australian Ballet’s most striking images.

Olivia Bell looks at the camera with a cool expression, her head inclined slightly downwards so the effect is of mystery rather than direct challenge. Her hands are on her hips and her weight is placed on her left leg, giving her torso a lithe S-bend. She looks strong, sleek, glamorous, ultra-modern and enigmatic.

That’s about right. Justin Smith’s photo was taken in 2005, two years before Bell became a principal artist at the AB and was a promotional image rather than a production shot, but it astutely captured the qualities Bell brought to the stage as one of the AB’s top-ranked dancers.

Last night Bell, 35, called it quits, retiring after a glowing performance of Paquita at the Sydney Opera House. Bell has for some years tried to juggle dance and the demands of being a mother – and not just of one child, but of three, including twins. This in a company that moves around more than most. Indeed, it’s a tribute to the AB and its enlightened maternity leave provisions that Bell had been able to stay this long.

Newcastle-born Bell trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School after winning a scholarship at the Prix de Lausanne. Her pristine, elegant line and sophisticated demeanour are no doubt legacies of that time. She joined the AB in 1995.

Bell was also marked out by her imposing height. Speaking at the time of her elevation to principal in December, 2007, the AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, told me: “She owns up to five feet nine and three quarters (177cm), which is really five feet 10.” On pointe, of course, Bell easily broke the 180cm mark. Fortunately the AB soon had Adam Bull on hand, who at 193cm is the tallest man in the company. His partnering in Paquita last night presented Bell exactly as she should have been, as a glittering, precious jewel.

Bell’s notable roles included the Baroness in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, Zobeide in Scheherazade, Choleric in Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Peter Wright version of Nutcracker, the role she danced on the night of her promotion to principal. She was a powerful presence in Kylian and Forsythe works.

Bell said after last night’s performance that there would be others to replace her. Yes, of course there are always other dancers, but from the beginning of her time at the AB to the end, there has been no other dancer like her.

When Bell bowed out, at about 8pm last night after the one-act Paquita, the AB had 10 principal artists remaining – five women and five men. When the evening’s main event, La Sylphide, ended the AB had a new star, Chengwu Guo. McAllister came onstage to announce his elevation to the top rank after Guo had given a luminous performance as James. His technical gifts are prodigious and were used entirely in the service of the Bournonville style. I saw him earlier in the run as well as last night and was enchanted not only with his swift, brilliant footwork, soaring elevation and beautifully placed upper body, but with the way he had thought about the character in a manner right for him.

As I wrote in my DJ’s Diary on November 16: “Guo was a soaring James in La Sylphide, his command of shape and structure magnificent and his elevation a thing of immense beauty. He looked as feather-light as his Sylph on this occasion, Reiko Hombo. In the mix’n’match season Guo also partners Ako Kondo and Miwako Kubota. Guo is obviously the next male principal artist of the Australian Ballet. Just a matter of when. Do see him if you can.” McAllister has wisely wasted no time. (On the subject of Kubota, she was Guo’s Sylph last night and danced with gossamer lightness and fascinating shades of character. A memorable performance.)

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo as Basilio. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Last night’s promotion wasn’t the first this year for Guo, who at 24 is the youngest of the principal artists. He was made a senior artist in April after his delightful Basilio in Don Quixote. At the time I wrote: “As Basilio Guo showed a very clean pair of heels. Like [Ivan] Vasiliev [a guest artist with the AB in Melbourne] he isn’t tall and it helps him in the air, where he is exciting. The stage – particularly in Sydney – is too small for his space-eating energy. And he’s a sweetheart, fun and bubbly.”

So – a night of losses and gains.

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.