Counterpointe, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 27.

Does Counterpointe shine an illuminating light on the journey of classical dance from the 19th century to the 20th or is it a mighty clash of opposing forces? The Australian Ballet’s new artistic director, David Hallberg, sees it as the former. The Australian Ballet’s social media ads, on the other hand, frame Counterpointe as a battle between foreign principalities: classical versus contemporary, tutus versus tights is how they alliteratively describe it. 

Both views make sense, as it happens. The gulf between Act III of Marius Petipa’s Raymonda (1898) and William Forsythe’s knock-your-socks-off Artifact Suite (2004) looks vast but without Petipa, there’s no Forsythe.

Amber Scott and Ty King-Wall in Raymonda Act III. Photo: Daniel Boud

Raymonda is 19th century classical dance as widely understood: formal, elegant, upright and emotionally contained. There are gorgeous tutus and a strict hierarchy. A starry ballerina and her cavalier, dressed differently from the rest, take precedence. A second, subsidiary ballerina is given a solo and there’s a kind of cascading effect in a pas de trois for women, a pas de quatre for men and a corps formed of eight couples.

What you see is what you get.

Hallberg, who has come out of the starting blocks at speed in his new role, staged Raymonda himself. This after overseeing a project that’s central to his vision of what a ballet company should be doing, Pam Tanowitz’s world premiere Watermark. It opened just a few weeks ago in the New York Dialects program (reviewed below).

Hallberg’s Raymonda was something of a watermark itself, identifying the maker of the piece while laying something over it.

Amber Scott in Raymonda Act III. Photo: Daniel Boud

Raymonda Act III is an abstraction. Its theme is classical ballet rather than that of Petipa’s Raymonda, in which the third act is a wedding celebration set in a Hungarian court at the time of the crusades. In a traditional full production – not so often done – the women of the corps in Act III would wear folk dress and dance in character shoes. Here Raymonda is timeless, danced under elegant swagged curtains and a chandelier with the dancers attired in Hugh Colman’s costumes originally made for a work by none other than George Balanchine: his Theme and Variations (1947). Colman’s costumes – dazzling white for Raymonda and her knight, gold and coffee for the rest – were designed in 1998. You could just call it being thrifty, but given that Hallberg also put Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux on the Counterpointe bill it’s also pleasing to consider this choice as another sign of connection and continuity. The dancers looked madly glamorous.

The Hungarian flavour is embedded in the choreography, with hands placed behind heads, the occasional flexed foot and, in Raymonda’s delicious variation, folk-inspired hand claps but there is not the slightest suggestion of narrative. It’s all dance and music, with the lovely Glazunov score sounding suitably lush in the hands of Nicolette Fraillon and the Opera Australia Orchestra.  

Amber Scott was the serene lodestar of Raymonda on opening night – delicate and sensuous all at once. Sharni Spencer, a senior artist one wants to see more and more, was the shining soloist. Partnering Scott gallantly, Ty King-Wall looked more assertive in his dance than he has often done in the past. Perhaps it’s the Hallberg factor. As for the rest, not everything was quite as polished as one would wish from those lower down the chain but last year’s hiatus meant there’s been a long, long break from this kind of highly exposed classicism. 

Nicola Curry and Jarryd Madden in Artifact Suite. Photo: Daniel Boud

Artifact Suite is danced in its first half to the consolations of familiar Bach, the Chaconne from Partita No.2, but looks at first to be an entirely different matter from Raymonda. It certainly doesn’t let its audience settle in for an enjoyable bout of the expected. The lines are much more off-centre, extreme and even dangerous. Two couples alternate in the spotlight but attention is constantly drawn to a mysterious woman who leads a large corps in what might be described as semaphore. Everyone is dressed alike in second-skin costumes that emphasise the dancers’ physiques.

In the first section the fire curtain crashes down four or five times, prompting the audience to applaud as if Pavlov’s dogs. The curtain rises again to show the dancers in other arrangements, as enigmatic as before.

What you don’t see is part of what you get.

This is not Raymonda, to be sure, yet classical principles absolutely drive the sleek modernity of Artifact Suite even as they stretch and expand them. You could even look at the semaphore as a squared-off form of ballet’s rounded ports de bras. The hand claps of Raymonda find an echo in Artifact Suite too, although the impression is of regimentation rather than folksy joy. 

Linking Raymonda and Artifact Suite is the brief and brilliant Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (Balanchine preferred this spelling of Tchaikovsky’s name). This neo-classical work, made in 1960 to music from Swan Lake, is swift, effervescent and floaty. On opening night Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo raced through it joyously. Kondo was spectacular, with a luxurious, satiny finish in the upper body and razor-sharp lower limbs. Guo’s cat-like landings were a dream and his very fast pirouettes in second delightful, even if he and the pit were not entirely in accord about the matter of timing. 

The floating ribbon quality Kondo brought to Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux was all the more impressive when compared with the diamond-edged flexibility she displayed in Artifact Suite. Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth were also standouts in Artifact Suite.

Ako Kondo In Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. Photo: Daniel Boud

It really was a thrilling evening. The only niggle is the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage. It’s is far too small for such large gifts. Counterpointe isn’t programmed for Melbourne, Adelaide or Brisbane this year but if it pops up in any of those places in 2021 it would be well worth Sydneysiders taking a trip.

Hallberg has now ushered three productions to the stage in 2020, including Summertime at the Ballet, the Melbourne-only gala that celebrated TAB’s return to the stage. Two of the three forthcoming ballets in the 2021 season were inherited, having been held over from last year (Anna Karenina, Harlequinade) and the third, Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, is a TAB staple.

The programs already staged are all Hallberg’s own work and show his intentions for the company. Watermark introduced a new style of movement and a choreographer previously unknown here. Artifact Suite was a company premiere of an important work from one of the great game-changers of the 20th century. And it’s clear Hallberg wants to see the company’s dancers take their ambition up a notch. To impose themselves a little more forcefully on the stage. They seem to be listening. 

Other things to note? Looking through the casting for Counterpointe is revealing. There are very junior dancers being given important assignments that will test their mettle. And Hallberg seems to like pairing husband-and-wife teams on stage, with principal artists Kondo and Guo, Scott and King-Wall and Amy Harris and her senior artist husband Jarryd Madden all down for Raymonda. Certain names from the corps and coryphée ranks are popping up regularly. Keep an eye out for Yuumi Yamada, Isobelle Dashwood and Coco Mathieson in particular. What fun.

Counterpointe ends May 15.

New York Dialects, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 6 and 21.

The Australian Ballet returned to the stage in February with Summertime at the Ballet – a Melbourne-only gala celebration after last year’s disappointments. New York Dialects was something else entirely; a manifesto really. This was new artistic director David Hallberg saying this is me and this is where I want to take you. 

So where were we going? To an unaccustomed level of brilliance right through the company’s ranks if the two Balanchines were any guide. On opening night (April 6) Serenadewas beyond luscious and The Four Temperaments – such a bracing work – was dispatched with cool sophistication. 

But first to Pam Tanowitz’s Watermark, which fittingly sat between the two Balanchines and not only because it’s central to Hallberg’s view of what ballet audiences need. On a deeper level Watermark knitted the program together. The three works vibrated as one with Watermark as the conduit.

Adam Elmes in Pam Tanowitz’s Watermark. Photo: Daniel Boud

It was something of a coup to have Tanowitz here as the American contemporary choreographer rockets up international ballet companies’ wish-lists, a situation made possible by the face she and Hallberg go back a long way. He commissioned her to make a work for American Ballet Theatre’s Incubator new choreography program when he was its director and she made a dance film with him last year that was one of his very last performances. They have been friends for more than a decade, which is how Hallberg was able to get into her calendar for his very first commission at TAB.

Watermark is named after its phenomenal score, written by lauded young American composer Caroline Shaw in 2019 and expanded for Tanowitz’s 30-minute ballet (let’s call it a ballet; it was made for a ballet company). Shaw’s music dances with Beethoven’s third piano concerto, sometimes quoting directly but excitingly taking its own path. This duality of a living composer communing with a giant of the past is a quality also embedded in Tanowitz’s dance, albeit more glancingly. (Watermark is such a beautiful and apt title, evoking the idea and the delicacy of something overlaid on something else but visible only when held to the light.)  

Watermark is conceived on a grand scale for 18 dancers, mostly men (and mostly from the coryphée and corps ranks). The gender ratio roughly reverses that in Serenade, with its indelible opening of 17 women standing with one arm upstretched to the heavens. Watermark alludes to that gesture of wonder and mystery, as it does to some shapes from The Four Temperaments and the wider ballet canon. 

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Watermark. Photo: Daniel Boud

Unusually, the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House was opened to the back. It created a deep space, gorgeously lit by Jon Buswell, where groups or individuals danced, stood, sat or reclined. To the front there were flurries of hopping, skittering, scattering activity, fast and precise or quietly contemplative. Clusters formed and dissolved, people came and went, simply dressed in white by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme.

This is a plotless work but questions arose nonetheless. Who are these people? What are they thinking? Where are they going? Can I join in, particularly in that brief circle dance up the back? Who is that divine young man given an achingly lovely solo? (That would be Adam Elmes, one of the most junior members of the company.)

It was a joy to see how Tanowitz’s contemporary sensibility meshed with the classical vocabulary, particularly in the razor-sharp footwork, buoyant vertical jumps and sideways jetés that suddenly morphed into something unexpected, eccentric even. Tanowitz’s impulses could be thought austere, given the pristine quality of each movement, but that movement looked rich and juicy on the dancers. A beautiful conundrum, as was the fact that a work this big felt so intimate. 

Dimity Azoury in Serenade. Photo: Daniel Boud

The gifts were not given up lightly and Watermark, with its huge amount of detail and multiple focus points, could be seen many times. Heard again too, because there was so much from Shaw to absorb, as there was in Tchaikovsky (Serenade) and Hindemith (The Four Temperaments). The Opera Australia Orchestra and Nicolette Fraillon had a great opening night as did solo pianists Stefan Cassomenos and Duncan Salton. Simon Thew conducted the performance I saw on April 21, with Cassomenos the soloist in both Watermark and The Four Temperaments.

One could have forgiven TAB for not looking entirely match fit given – the brief gala season apart – its long absence from the stage. No indulgence was needed. There were standout performances wherever one looked, none more gratifying than that of soloist Nathan Brook (a stunning Phlegmatic, The Four Temperaments, April 21). In an announcement made on opening night, Brook won both prizes in the 2020 Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards – the Rising Star and People’s Choice awards. The voters clearly got it right. 

The Sydney season of New York Dialects ends April 24. Melbourne, June 3-12.

Sylvia, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, November 8

The dash for bathrooms and bars was substantially less frantic than usual after the close of Act I of Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Heads everywhere bowed over their synopsis sheets. What in the name of all the gods in Ancient Greece was going on? How does one show via ballet that Artemis and Apollo – twin gods – “slay Queen Niobe’s army in revenge for a slight to their mother, Leto”? Or why Artemis turns Callisto into a bear? These gods and goddesses really do take a grudge to extremes and their actions are not always easily explained.

TAB _Sylvia_Artists of The Australian Ballet_photo Jeff Busby (2)

The Australian Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Photo: Jeff Busby

Never mind. Once the head-spinning early part of the first act is out of the way Sylvia is an enjoyable romp. Even better, it gives Australian Ballet audiences their first chance to hear the enchanting Delibes score in full, sounding luscious in Sydney in the hands of Nicolette Fraillon and the Opera Australia Orchestra. (Read more about Delibes, the music and the history of Sylvia in my article for Limelight magazine in August.)

There was also a great deal of pleasure in the sparkling performances given on Sydney’s opening night of this co-pro with Houston Ballet. As a kind of corrective to the male-dominated Spartacus seen last year, Sylvia has plenty of strong roles for the women of the company. As in the original libretto, the nymph Sylvia, a huntress in Artemis’s army, falls in love with a lowly shepherd. Welch ups the ante by adding a second match-up between gods and mortals when Eros is smitten with Psyche and plucks Artemis from the periphery to give the ballet a third heroine.

Sylvia - 1pm

Benedicte Bemet as Psyche in Sylvia. Photo: Daniel Boud

Complications ensue, obviously, or there would be no story, but ultimately everything turns out well. On the way to that happy ending Welch floods the stage with Artemis’s band of women warriors; Eros’s retinue of cheeky, hyper-active fauns; various gods and goddesses, by turns stately and vengeful; and on a less elevated level, Psyche’s mum, dad and sisters.

Being from the realm of the gods, Sylvia stays youthful while her husband, known only as The Shepherd, suffers the fate of all mortals and ages, a situation that gives rise to one of the ballet’s most delightful passages. The Shepherd (Kevin Jackson on opening night) is given an older substitute (TAB artistic director David McAllister enjoying himself greatly) as successive generations of offspring are seen growing up. The Shepherd is then magically de-aged by Eros, whose lovely Psyche has also been given demi-god status and thus will not die. (Too much detail?)

Sylvia - 1pm

Ako Kondo as Sylvia and Kevin Jackson as The Shepherd. Photo: Jeff Busby

There are rich pickings for the dancers, and not only for principal artists Ako Kondo (Sylvia on opening night) and Robyn Hendricks (Artemis) and senior artist Benedicte Bemet (Psyche). Smaller roles were taken with much brio by Dimity Azoury, Dana Stephensen, Jade Wood, Imogen Chapman and Natasha Kusen, among others.

Jackson was a sweet presence and sterling partner to Kondo in Welch’s dramatic pas de deux and Marcus Morelli made a splash as Eros, spinning, jumping and flying his way through the action. His swift rise through the ranks (he joined the company in 2013) has been well earned.

Sylvia - 1pm

Benedicte Bemet as Psyche and Marcus Morelli as Eros. Photo: Daniel Boud

Kondo’s warmth and strength made Sylvia as multi-faceted a character as possible within the rom-com scenario and Bemet’s Psyche was adorably funny. Hendricks was meltingly beautiful as Artemis, a goddess indeed. How many other conventional ballets can one think of where there are three such diverse and rewarding leading roles for women?

We must hope Jérôme Kaplan’s set designs looked better in Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre, where Sylvia had its Australian premiere in September, than they did in the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. In the first act they looked too dark and solid, although later the stage picture was enlivened by Wendell K. Harrington’s projections, which enabled instantaneous scene changes. Kaplan’s costumes were, happily, just delectable.

Sylvia ends in Sydney on November 23.

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.