Misty Copeland debuts as Aurora

The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, November 22.

With her unstinting advocacy for greater diversity in ballet, Misty Copeland’s fame extends well beyond the stage. She is a drawcard no matter what the repertoire.

Copeland’s appearances in Sydney aren’t her first in Australia. Three years ago she danced in Brisbane with her home company, American Ballet Theatre, where later she became ABT’s first African-American principal artist. It’s worth noting she made her highly newsworthy role debut as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake in Brisbane.

Misty Copeland2

Misty Copeland. Photo: Jade Young

Her second visit to this part of the world brought another important role debut, that of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. This time she was a guest with The Australian Ballet in the visually splendid production created in 2015 by the company’s artistic director, David McAllister and regularly revived. Copeland was greeted like a rock star by an excited capacity audience, which was captivated by her vivacity and great personal charm.

The conquest of Aurora was less fully achieved in this fairy tale of good prevailing over evil, order restored and a prince’s kiss sealing the deal. (McAllister takes a brisk approach to the work.) Copeland was an alert and good-humoured young princess on her birthday and approached a more serene grandeur in the climactic wedding pas de deux, shedding the slight but palpable tension of the first act. There was, nevertheless, an overall sense of containment, seen in the restrained use of her back instead of the plush sweep that speaks so eloquently of love and a sense that her energy stopped neatly at the fingertips when she was poised on pointe.

Copeland shone brightly in motion with delectable cut-glass footwork and luxurious arms but her radiance was not the mysterious, all-enveloping kind that takes heart and soul prisoner.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beau...

The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, designed by Gabriela Tylesova

Kevin Jackson is TAB’s prince du jour and put in a blinder, partnering Copeland with gorgeous gallantry and tearing up the stage in his Act III solo with a blisteringly fast circle of jetés. Conductor Philip Ellis favoured sprightly tempi and Tchaikovsky’s score sounded marvellous in the hands of the Opera Australia Orchestra but there was the occasional loss of breathing space for the dance to really bloom.

Of the others, Marcus Morelli and Jade Wood had an excellent night as Bluebird and Princess Florine, with Wood particularly fetching. She’s more relaxed now than when she first took on the role and the freedom is exhilarating. It lets her fly.

The opulence of Gabriela Tylesova’s designs always makes McAllister’s production a treat to behold although there remains a lingering sense that a court of such magnificence really should have a hell of a lot more nobles, courtiers, attendants and functionaries to hand. Still, The Sleeping Beauty looked right at home in TAB’s temporary Sydney home, the ornate Capitol Theatre, while the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House  undergoes renovation. It would be good to see more of the company’s bigger productions there (Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is seen at the Capitol shortly, and can be programmed in Sydney only because the JST is closed).

There was more international stardust at the end of the Sydney season when ABT and Bolshoi Ballet principal David Hallberg returned to dance Prince Désiré with TAB star Amber Scott as he did in February in Brisbane at the beginning of The Australian Ballet’s year. Hallberg is practically part of the family, of course, becoming a resident guest artist with the company after recuperating under the care of its rehabilitation specialists when he had a potentially career-ending injury. The ballet world thanks them.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, May 2.

Many decades ago, when I was visiting Canada, a young woman asked me whether Christmas was in June in Australia. She knew winter in the southern hemisphere happened in the middle months of the year. It followed then, that Christmas must be in June because Christmas is in the middle of winter. She was not in any way uneducated. It’s just that deep in her bones she knew Christmas was accompanied by snow and mistletoe. It was a winter festival.

Australians know all about a snowy Christmas in theory and not so long ago experienced aspects of it in practice. British colonialism and American influences – a huge roast for lunch, fivepences in the pudding and Bing crooning White Christmas – saw to that when I was a child. Except that on Christmas Day it was possibly going to be 40 degrees (celcius, of course), particularly in the southern states, and a roast with all the trimmings was an insane choice.

It’s this second kind of Christmas – our Christmas – that Graeme Murphy summons at the start of his Nutcracker – The Story of Clara. It speaks to us and our shared understanding of the way things are.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

As the ballet begins it is a hot, enervating Christmas Eve in Melbourne. Children play and squabble in the street as Clara slowly makes her way home after doing a bit of shopping. She is now elderly and ill and has no family, but there is a circle of friends who, like her, are former dancers who came to Australia after escaping the tumult of revolutionary Russia in 1917 and the mid-century European conflagration.

The ballet becomes a memory piece as Clara hears Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker music emerging scratchily from her wireless on this searing December evening. She and her friends dance joyously, if a bit creakily, to this music that means so much to them. What if these rackety old Russian chums go on a touch too much? In putting this Seniors Card group onstage Murphy pays sweet and profound homage to those who found refuge in Australia during and after World War II and sowed the seeds for his career and that of so many others. Indeed, those others include the great Colin Peasley, with TAB from the start in 1962. He’s now 82 and was onstage on opening night.

When her doctor comes to inquire after Clara’s health – yes, friends, the ballet is set in the 1950s – he brings a special gift, film of these dancers in their heyday. The fragile Clara’s mind turns even more deeply towards the past.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Amelia Soh, Leanne Stojmenov, Ai-Gul Gaisina and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Daniel Boud

Murphy weaves familiar Nutcracker images into Clara’s memories of student days, stage triumphs, her strife-torn homeland, her doomed lover and years of travel with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes. Most poignantly, Clara is now young.

Murphy, who created this narrative in 1992 with designer Kristian Fredrikson, lets us see Clara as a child and a starry ballerina as well as in her declining years. The moments when he puts all three together are deeply moving. On opening night there was intense pleasure in seeing septuagenarian Ai-Gul Gaisina’s Russian training brought to bear on Clara, the Elder – be in no doubt this is a dancing role, age be damned – and the restrained sorrow of her character. Eleven-year-old Amelia Soh was a beautifully poised Clara, the Child.

As the in-her-prime Clara, Leanne Stojmenov danced the heady first pas deux as if her spine were made of deluxe satin ribbon. She then transformed herself for the elegant, more contained formality of the splendid Act II grand pas deux, supported superbly by Jarryd Madden, who looks born to channel the Ballets Russes.

Kevin Jackson was Clara’s Beloved Officer on opening night. His dancing was big and generous and there is no higher praise than to say he continues the tradition of superb partnering established by the role’s originator, Steven Heathcote. Now a ballet master with the company, Heathcote is only one degree of separation from the Ballets Russes via his teacher in Perth, Kira Bousloff. Magic.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

The Snowflakes in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boyd

On opening night the corps looked somewhat ragged in the Snowflakes scene where tempestuous flurrying is the order of the day and the Waltz of the Flowers where it is not. In both sections, however, Fredrikson’s costumes were a fabulous diversion.

The application of Tchaikovsky’s score to this narrative isn’t always entirely satisfactory, a point underlined at the opening by a stolid performance from the Opera Australia Orchestra under Nicolette Fraillon. Murphy has always acknowledged the difficulties in Act II of inserting a string of divertissements into the action. He uses some of that music effectively in the depiction of Clara’s life and career – the Sugar Plum Fairy’s tinkling celesta accompanies a dance for Clara as she fends off jewel-bearing visitors to her dressing room – while the Spanish, Arabian and Chinese dances depict places Clara visits as she tours with Colonel de Basil’s company.

The Spanish dance is the most straightforward and the Chinese by far the best. After the sound of gongs there is a long silence as a group of tai chi practitioners emerges from the morning mist. When the Chinese music starts Clara enters to observe this new, to her, form of movement. What a relief it is to be spared the usual hideous caricature of the Chinese, all coolie hats, pointed fingers and waggling heads.

For this revival Murphy has reverted to his first thoughts for the Arabian music. We are portside in some Egyptian city and watch, lengthily and not terribly thrillingly, men haul on ropes and tumble about. It is preferable to the alternative seen in 2000 when Clara visited secluded women somewhere vaguely situated in the Middle East, but neither idea works brilliantly.

These are minor points. The ballet’s stream of emotional highs carry the day, in the ecstatic Act I pas deux, the richly furnished grand pas de deux in Act II, the touching depiction of young love cut short and the persistence of memories as life fades. And above all, of course, there’s that Christmas in summer, in Melbourne. Ours.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara celebrates its quarter century this year and there’s no reason to think it won’t be around for another 25 years.

Ends May 20 in Sydney. Melbourne, June 2-10.