Vitesse

The Australian Ballet, State Theatre, Melbourne, March 11.

VITESSE presents three certified hits from three of the biggest names in contemporary ballet and turns the dial up as the evening progresses. It starts with one of Jiří Kylián’s mysterious appeals to the heart, takes a charge through the cerebral and physical complexities of William Forsythe and finishes with Christopher Wheeldon being fast, flashy and entertaining.

Only the Wheeldon requires a cast of significant size– four leading couples and a corps of 18 – but Vitesse is nevertheless a meaty program, and one that allows a closer-than-usual look at dancers at the lower end of the rankings. On opening night Kylián’s emotionally charged Forgotten Land, for instance, had three corps de ballet members and two coryphées among its six couples. At the curtain Ella Havelka (from the corps) had a smile radiant enough to light the auditorium, and why not? She looked wonderful in Kylian’s passionate, swooping choreography, as did the full cast.

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Lana Jones and Rudy Hawkes in Forgotten Land. Photo: Kate Longley

The AB has an affinity for Kylián and on opening night Forgotten Land (1981), an abstract dance that evokes life’s joys and sorrows, was the most fully realised (it was staged by Roslyn Anderson, the Australian-born former AB and Netherlands Dance Theatre dancer who had a long association with Kylián as his assistant). The curtain rises on a vast tempest-tossed landscape (by John McFarlane) and the desolate sound of wind. Six couples are buffeted by the elements, bending, quivering, swaying and challenging but not giving in. There are intimations of struggle, defiance and hope in this paean to resilience and to the deep connection people have with their own country, no matter how treacherous. In the opening night cast of 12, new senior artist Brett Chynoweth made an indelible impression with the fierce clarity of his attack.

Once upon a time the audience used to jump out of its skin at the first blast of Thom Willems and Lesley Stuck’s tough-as-nails electronic score for Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Not so much now, even though Willems travels around supervising the sound. He was in Melbourne, and also visited New Zealand recently for Royal New Zealand Ballet’s performances. Have the Occupational Heath & Safety police been on the case? If so, they haven’t helped. (I do admit that in Auckland, where I saw RNZB, the opening did provide a gratifying kick.)

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Aoo Kondo and Kevin Jackson in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Photo: Jeff Busby

Putting In the Middle on the bill is one of those crazy-brave things companies can’t resist. It is rightly considered a landmark work, one that showed how ballet could be very, very bolshie and sexy while being ultra classical. With a twist. Despite being nearly 30 years old, In the Middle still has the ability to disturb one’s equilibrium (a marvellous solitary boo from the stalls on Melbourne’s opening night proved that) as six women and three men take ballet to the wilder outskirts of town with way off-centre balances, split-second changes of direction, sinuous torqueing of the upper body and extreme extensions.

Not everyone in the AB’s first cast entirely captured the work’s formidable contrasts between action and stillness and thrust and resistance, but principal Kevin Jackson looked like a god and alone was worth the price of admission. Daniel Gaudiello, sporting a shorter, sleeker haircut, and Jarryd Madden were also thrilling. Soloist Madden was apparently a latish replacement for principal Chengwu Guo, who had been listed – indeed, as of the time of this writing was still listed – as being in the first cast with Jackson and Gaudiello. Maddyn might not be quite the star Guo is but he acquitted himself brilliantly. The women were a touch less persuasive, and a touch less is all you need for one to feel In the Middle hasn’t been conquered.

Guo isn’t injured, by the way, because he danced dashingly in Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. But he can look sometimes look a little undisciplined, something that will never, ever do for In the Middle. I’d like to see him do it though, and perhaps the Sydney season will provide an opportunity.

DGV is a large-scale hymn to going places as it evokes speed, travel and the momentum of technology. It couldn’t be called profound but it’s smart as paint and smartly danced by the AB, although without the drop-dead glamour New York City Ballet brings to it, a quality helpful to a work that’s essentially all surface.

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Robyn Hendricks and Kevin Jackson in DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse. Photo: Jeff Busby

It’s a terrific surface though, with the large corps suggesting the waves of departing crowds, the actions of a train in motion and the heady rush of groups in transit. Four strong pas de deux anchor DGV and Guo was responsible for some fancy fireworks, tossing off super-fast turns in a welcome injection of the speed that gives this ballet its title.

Nicolette Fraillon and Orchestra Victoria accompanied the first and third works with music that couldn’t be in greater contrast: Benjamin Britten’s intense, melancholy Sinfonia da Requiem and Michael Nyman’s perpetual-motion MGV: (Musique a Grande Vitesse). 

Vitesse ends in Melbourne on March 21. Sydney, April 26-May 16.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 14.

Three for the road

The King and I, Princess Theatre, July 22; Into the Woods, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, July 22; Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s, Melbourne

COME October next year Les Miserables will have been running for 30 years in London, longer than any other musical. Well, I suppose it’s possible Cameron Mackintosh will close the show before then, just as it is possible I will win a large amount of money in the lottery, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Thirty years! Who would have thought it? Certainly not the critics who failed to see its merits when it opened at the Barbican in a Royal Shakespeare Company production staged by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. It was described by Michael Ratcliffe in The Observer as “a witless and synthetic entertainment” and by Francis King in The Sunday Telegraph as “a lurid Victorian melodrama produced with Victorian lavishness”.

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

As Lyn Gardner – who was one of the nay-sayers in 1985 – suggested in The Guardian in 2010 on the occasion of the show’s 25th anniversary, Les Mis succeeds precisely because it is a Victorian melodrama, a story that deals in big emotions and wears its heart on its sleeve. There is no ambiguity in this version of Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel. Against a roiling background of social injustice, a good man is hounded by a self-righteous one. The nobility of self-sacrifice, the pain of unrequited love, the pathos of early death, the rapacity of opportunists, the gallantry of young idealists – these qualities are deliberately drawn in bold strokes.

So no, this isn’t subtle theatre nor is it intellectual theatre. It is the theatre of the direct hit to the heart. If this is synthetic entertainment, so be it. The more than 65 million people who have seen it love it to bits and its creators are crying all the way to the bank.

The staging that opened in Melbourne this month hasn’t supplanted the original version – Mackintosh claims the West End production may have another decade of life in it – but is in the interesting position of being a revival of something that never went away. Thirty years is a long time in theatre technology and this version takes advantage of them. The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.

At the matinee I saw Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) were riveting antagonists and both in superb voice. Gleeson sang Bring Him Home with touching grace and crowned it with streams of pure gold in falsetto; Tee was equally persuasive in creating character through timbre and phrasing, dark and aggressive. As Fantine Patrice Tipoki brought fresh insights to I Dreamed a Dream, starting simply and almost conversationally, while Kerrie Anne Greenland, making her professional music theatre debut as Eponine, is a huge find. The vile but perversely life-affirming Thenadiers were in the effortlessly scene-stealing hands of Trevor Ashley and Octavia Barron Martin, the latter substituting brilliantly for injured Lara Mulcahy. Light-voiced Euan Doidge (Marius) was a little under-powered in this company but gave a sensitive reading of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.

Is Les Miserables a better musical than Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods? No, it’s not. There can be no argument that the Les Mis music, while exceptionally tuneful and stirring, can draw too often on bombast for effect and some of the lyrics land with a thud. Sondheim is, as we all know, a genius. But there was no doubt that Les Mis offered much more pleasure than did Victorian Opera’s production of Into the Woods. And yes, I’m taking into account the great differential in budget between the two. Obviously one has to cut one’s cloth according to one’s purse, but I have seen many cash-strapped theatre productions that have found better solutions to staging issues than did VO for Into the Woods. The main set element, cut-outs of trees that slid back and forth, failed rather dismally in its task of creating a sense of place and atmosphere.

Queenie van de Zandt was in killer voice as the Witch, Lucy Maunder was a lovely Cinderella, Rowan Witt was an appealing Jack and in the pivotal roles of Baker and Baker’s Wife David Harris and Christina O’Neill each had fine moments. Overall, though, there was a decided air of the production having been put on too quickly and without the best solutions found to stretching finite funds. (Not that the tickets were cheap – mine was $100 and that wasn’t top price.) The people involved were all highly experienced and Orchestra Victoria sounded just fine in the pit, but I couldn’t help but think a concert version may have been the way to go.

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

I took advantage of being in Melbourne to see Lou Diamond Phillips in the Opera Australia/John Frost production of The King and I. When the show opened in Brisbane Teddy Tahu Rhodes played the King and will do so again in Sydney. (He is currently appearing for OA in the title role in Don Giovanni.)

Phillips appeared in this production of The King and I when it went to Broadway in 1996 after premiering in Adelaide in 1991. He was nominated for a Tony award so he has good form in the role, and, as he is partly Filipino in heritage, has the advantage of looking a credible King of Siam. He’s a charismatic, forceful one too and has excellent chemistry with Lisa McCune’s pitch-perfect Anna. I enjoyed his performance greatly.

So, three musicals in the space of 36 hours and I had not exhausted Melbourne’s music-theatre possibilities. See what can happen if you don’t pull down all your theatres?

Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. Then Perth in January and Sydney in March 2015. The King and I, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, until August 17. Sydney, September 7-November 1.

Don Quixote, The Australian Ballet

Melbourne, March 16. With guest stars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev

IF you were looking for a well-balanced Don Quixote, the Australian Ballet’s opening night in Melbourne on March 15 was probably the go, as Eamonn Kelly’s excellent review in The Australian on March 18 indicated. The following night was when star-power ruled, with Russian guests Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev getting people to their feet even before the end of the show.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote with The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote with The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

Although their styles differ greatly, Osipova and Vasiliev have made Don Q their signature piece together and are ridiculously entertaining in it. Perhaps the AB was lucky to get their hands on the pair right now – albeit for only two performances – as there’s a suggestion Don Q may start disappearing from the Osipova/Vasiliev repertoire. An interview with Vasiliev published in London’s The Sunday Times on March 17 said the pair “now decline companies who only want them to bounce through this slice of colourful virtuosity”. Apart from the AB dates Osipova and Vasiliev are down to dance Don Q at the end of this month when one of their home companies, the St Petersburg-based Mikhailovsky, goes to London. (They are also principal artists with American Ballet Theatre.)

They will dance Giselle together in London in a few weeks’ time on the Mikhailovsky tour and Vasiliev is quoted in The Sunday Times as saying Albrecht is a role “I could perform all my life”. Albrecht would certainly give Vasiliev a chance to show more than the one mood he brought to Basilio in Melbourne, which was essentially manic from the get-go. Osipova on the other hand has a full armoury and brought most of it out. She is light and incredibly quick with razor-sharp footwork, a huge jump and fearless attack but can also be intensely lyrical. It was noticeable in the lively first act how whisper quiet Osipova was, even when landing from the most daring leaps or performing intricate allegro work. Her shining-eyed Kitri was in striking contrast to the silken Dulcinea of the Act II vision scene. In the Act III grand pas de deux Osipova fluffed one of her pirouettes in second but otherwise delivered all the expected fireworks with bells on.

Vasiliev is elastic and bouncy with elevation that defies gravity and speed that defies time. That he is short and stocky helps here. Vasiliev gets lift-off from powerful glutes and thighs that give him a decidedly non-streamlined look but oodles of acceleration. In his first Melbourne performance Vasiliev threw off apparently impossible flying turns and added loads of extra details to already jam-packed choreography. Not everything came off and Vasiliev could have pulled back a notch or two but the sense of danger was energising. Frequently the stage could scarcely contain his range of movement – nor was there always perfect agreement between him and Orchestra Victoria under the baton of AB music director Nicolette Fraillon. There was a fair bit of colouring outside the lines.

Vasiliev didn’t quite nail his most audacious trick, that of rising to demi-pointe in arabesque while holding Osipova aloft in a one-armed lift, but it was huge fun to see for a second. His series of pirouettes finished with a perfect arabesque in attitude, however, was a thing of great beauty.

The AB audience pretty much had only had eyes and cheers for Osipova and Vasiliev; despite some lovely moments from members of the AB their light was dimmed by the glare thrown out by the supernovas. Unquestionably the performance wasn’t the best Don Q possible. The level of energy thrown out by the visitors was of quite a different extent and nature from that of the AB dancers, whose outlines looked softer as a result (this was particularly true of the men).

In an interview in the March edition of Dance Europe magazine Osipova talked about being a guest artist and said: “Our presentation of one ballet, for example, Don Quixote, will vary depending on where we are performing it. I correlate the temperament and the role with the place we’re performing and their specific traditions. Because if you come in and just do it as you want, without any adaptation, that doesn’t create any good impressions …”

This reflection is undoubtedly why Osipova blended well in a dramatic sense with the AB dancers. It was far less the case with Vasiliev, who overplayed the comedy. Steven Heathcote’s Don Quixote – how good to see him on stage again – and Matthew Donnelly’s Gamache had a much better sense of where to pitch their characters. Both were surprisingly touching.

But if there was some disconnect in a purely dance sense between the guests and the AB, the audience certainly didn’t seem to mind and it is certain the AB dancers would have found it challenging and illuminating to see Osipova and Vasiliev at work.