Character building: dance isn’t only for the young

The received wisdom is that ballet is strictly a young person’s game. When a classical dancer gets near or just beyond 40 there is much marveling at their longevity and conjecture about what they will do when they retire. There are always exceptions, of course. Think of the wondrous Alessandra Ferri, who on June 23 danced Juliet for American Ballet Theatre at the age of 53 (in the MacMillan version). Leanne Benjamin, long-serving Australian-born principal at the Royal Ballet, retired at 48 still looking spectacular.

And there is another, much larger, cohort of mature dancers whose contribution is great but less remarked upon. They are kings and queens; mothers, fathers and grandparents; attendants at court, kindly godmothers, clog-dancing widows, bad fairies and more. They bring experience, authority, wisdom and texture to the stage – not to mention sparing the audience the unpleasing sight of vigorous 20-somethings giving us their old-person acting. The character dancer is an essential part of any company.

Colin Peasley in Swan Lake Paris 2008 Photo Lisa Tomasetti 006

Colin Peasley ready to take the stage in Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

“Once a dancer, always a dancer,” says David McAllister, artistic director of The Australian Ballet, who has in front of him one of the great examples in the business. When the AB opens its London tour on July 13 with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the role of the Lord Admiral will be taken – as usual – by Colin Peasley. Peasley, a founding member of the AB in 1962, will be 82 before the year is out (he celebrated his 80th birthday in the US while on tour with the AB in 2014). His role is not extensive but you know what they say: there are no small parts, only small actors. McAllister was a principal artist with the AB before becoming artistic director and says: “I remember as a young performer learning so much from watching people like Colin.” Young performers also need to watch out: an expertly judged cameo can shine far more brightly than a larger routine performance.

Li Cunxin, artistic director of Queensland Ballet (and also a former AB principal) says story ballets need experienced older artists to add depth and weight to the production. “No matter how brilliant young dancers are, they haven’t lived the ups and downs, the heart-breaking moments. The way you walk, the way you look at a person, the subtlety, is very hard to teach. “Furthermore, to have those marvelous dancers is such a great inspiration for the younger members of the company. Dancers are such visual learners so to have someone like that in front of you – it makes a huge difference.” McAllister agrees. It is invaluable for “all the company to witness that theatrical craft at such close range”.

Li invited Steven Heathcote to dance Lord Capulet when QB staged the MacMillan Romeo and Juliet in 2014. Heathcote was the AB’s alpha male principal artist for many years and is now a ballet master and regional touring associate for the national company. He also performs character roles for the AB and was most recently seen on stage in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake, bringing his considerable charisma to the role of the Lord Chancellor.

Rachael Walsh unforgettably made Lady Capulet in the QB Romeo and Juliet her final role before retiring as a principal dancer and taking the position of corporate partnerships manager at the company. Heathcote and Walsh are “fabulous artists, truly rare”, says Li. Walsh is now listed as one of QB’s character artists, alongside veteran Paul Boyd, members of the ballet staff and others.

QB-Paul Boyd-Catalabutte

Paul Boyd as Catalabutte in Greg Horsman’s The Sleeping Beauty for Queensland Ballet

Other former AB principal artists seguing into character roles include Lisa Bolte (now working in philanthropy for the AB), who recently appeared as the Queen in the Baynes Swan Lake, and Lynette Wills. Wills created the role of the Godmother in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella in 2013 and Carabosse in McAllister’s The Sleeping Beauty last year, these performances an adjunct to her frequent credits as a ballet photographer. In Sydney former Royal Ballet first soloist Gillian Revie was a memorable Carabosse in the McAllister production.

Bolte and Wills may be somewhat older than most of the dancers on stage but they are positively teenaged by comparison with some. “I think of Sir Robert Helpmann in Checkmate, Dame Margaret Scott in Nutcracker: The Story of Clara and pretty much every role that Colin Peasley does,” says McAllister. The Red King in Checkmate was Helpmann’s final role. He died in 1986 at the age of 77 only two months after he was last on stage. Scott was in her late 70s when she last danced in the Murphy Nutcracker – and dance she did, including a highly physical encounter with giant rats in a dream sequence.

AB-Lisa Bolte-Swan Lake

Lisa Bolte as the Queen in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake for The Australian Ballet

Peasley had more than 6000 performances under his belt when he formally retired in 2012 but in his farewell interviews flagged that he wouldn’t be averse to accepting further invitations to appear. I asked him then about the legendary Freddie Franklin, who died at 98 in 2013 and who had appeared as the Tutor in Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre when he was 94. Peasley seemed inclined to want to match or better that. You’d be mad to bet against it.

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.

Coppelia

Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, April 24

GREG Horsman’s appealing new production of the 19th century comedy Coppelia gives it a human scale and an Australian setting. It is the late 1800s and we are in the South Australian town of Hahndorf, settled in 1839 by German migrants and thus celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. I don’t think Queensland Ballet has a visit to Hahndorf on the 2014 schedule but it really should.

The essentials of the original ballet remain. Franz, not the brightest bloke, falls for a remote beauty who is, in fact, a life-sized mechanical doll. His sidelined girlfriend, the plucky Swanilda, has to come to his rescue when he falls into the clutches of the man who made the doll, Dr Coppelius, and in the third act everything comes right.

Clare Morehen and Huant Junshuang in Queensland Ballet's Coppelia.

Clare Morehen and Huang Junshuang in Queensland Ballet’s Coppelia.

In Horsman’s revision Dr Coppelius (the wonderful Paul Boyd) is a migrant from the Old World, a medical man rather than a dark-hearted magician. In a prologue that mixes stage action and effective sepia animations, Coppelius and his young daughter are seen preparing to leave their home in Germany. But the girl is sickly and dies on the sea voyage to Australia. Coppelius’s doll-making is an attempt to restore her to him.

Meanwhile the little town goes about its business, which mainly involves lots of larking about to the pretty Delibes score, neatly arranged by QB’s music director Andrew Mogrelia and played by Camerata of St John’s. The good folk of Hahndorf are a lively lot – there are some rather cheeky Scots – but even the Lutherans don’t seem to mind a bit of banter. If I were queen of the world, however, I would place a ban on children holding hands and prancing about in a circle. Surely there are other ways in which youngsters can move.

Horsman’s push towards realism, or as far as you can go when lifelike dolls are involved, has its pluses and minuses. In setting up his story Horsman takes a little time to get the action moving but he does build a pleasing picture of community and individuals within in it. In his sweetest inspiration he brings on the local footy team – Australian football, of course. Some of the QB lads need to work on their handpass skills and on opening night the Sherrin was definitely too soft for an effective bounce, but the audience enthusiastically applauded a high mark. Yes, in Brisbane.

The downside is a lack of magic in the second act, in which the usual cave of wonders is reduced to a couple of half-finished automatons. It fits Horsman’s scenario but is far from a sparkling setting for Swanilda’s centrepiece impersonation of Coppelius’s doll.

For key moments – including Swanilda’s solos and the big Act III pas de deux – Horsman has kept choreography familiar from traditional versions and at the opening performance Clare Morehen (Swanilda) and Huang Junshuang (Franz) despatched the high points with ease and verve. Eleanor Freeman and Vito Bernasconi lit up the stage as the second pair of lovers and Lina Kim’s joyous dancing delighted every time she appeared with Swanilda’s flock of girlfriends.

Also delightful are Hugh Colman’s sets, which bring to mind colonial paintings (Louis Buvelot perhaps), and Jon Buswell’s exquisite lighting, in which bright day fades to velvety evening. This kind of quality is possible because in a venture that makes a great deal of sense, Coppelia is a co-production between QB and West Australian Ballet. Perth will see the ballet next year. Expect the footy to go down extremely well indeed.

Coppelia ends on May 10.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on April 28.

Cinderella

Queensland Ballet, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, April 5

QUEENSLAND Ballet’s ambitious Cinderella has much to say about what new artistic director Li Cunxin wants for his company and a little something to say about Li himself.

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin in Cinderella. Photo David Kelly

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin in Cinderella. Photo David Kelly

Li’s story is well known. He was plucked from deepest obscurity in rural China to be trained in ballet and then defected to the West. There he was taken under the wing of Ben Stevenson at Houston Ballet where one of the first productions he saw – Li says it was the first that touched him – was Stevenson’s Cinderella, a story ballet created in 1970 in the classical style.

Li wants to make that style the bedrock of his QB and doubtless he can identify with a rags-to-riches transformation set in train by magical intervention. Cinderella is therefore a touching choice for QB’s first mainstage production under Li’s direction and has the advantage of being something of a rarity: a full-length romantic piece with instant name recognition that hasn’t been done to death.

Brisbane has bought into it with gusto: the extended season is sold out and a vast store of goodwill for Li was evident on opening night. The production was greeted with a standing ovation, and Li seems to have secured corporate and private funding on a new level for QB’s work. The Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, was in the first-night audience, as were four government ministers. Important friends travelled to Brisbane for the occasion.

Sounding uncharacteristically nervous, Li spoke to the audience on April 5 before the curtain went up at Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Playhouse and said – to mighty cheers – that Cinderella had broken a 53-year sales record. He added that he wanted to tour this production around Australia and internationally. On a personal note, he said that Ben Stevenson had made him what he became.

It was, therefore, an incredibly highly charged evening for Li, who would have been thrilled with the reception. The opening night audience lustily acclaimed a production that the company has invested so much in, financially and emotionally.

Yu Hui as the Jester in Ben Stevenson's Cinderella. Photo: David Kelly

Yu Hui as the Jester in Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella. Photo: David Kelly

QB commissioned lovely new sets and costumes (by Thomas Boyd and Tracy Grant Lord respectively) for Stevenson’s production and it looks pretty as a picture book. The interior of the cheerless home where Cinderella lives with her dysfunctional family dissolves swiftly into the light and airy realm of the Fairy Godmother. The Prince’s ballroom is perhaps somewhat less opulent than possible, but serviceable.

Underneath the attractive makeover, however, are several disappointing flaws. The story-telling is often perfunctory and sometimes muddled and a lumpy structure makes room for lengthy swaths of dance but rushes over key matters of character and nuance. As with Frederick Ashton’s influential version of the ballet, Cinderella’s step-sisters are played, panto-style, by men. As in Ashton’s version they are the most vividly realised and memorable figures, diverting attention from what should surely be the unwavering impulse and glowing centre of the work: to celebrate virtue. The balance is out of kilter. (When Cinderella, at the ball, gives her orange to a step-sister who has missed out, the emphasis in this production isn’t on the generous gesture but rather the comedy of the step-sister’s dimness at sort-of but not quite recognising Cinderella in this setting.)

Not only that, if one is to acknowledge the primacy of virtue, there must be darkness to overcome. Prokofiev’s wonderful score explicitly says that, but Stevenson – as Ashton before him – chose to underplay that conflict. The pain of the lost mother registers only fleetingly, the step-mother is a cardboard figure and the father is Mr Cellophane.

Towards the end of the first act there is a series of dances depicting the seasons, each designed to have a very particular flavour, although in Stevenson’s choregraphy there isn’t quite enough differentiation. Why does the Fairy Godmother introduce fairies who illustrate the seasons to Cinderella? Surely it is to show her the passage of time in action, as time is crucial to this story. But more than that, it speaks of mortality. Not for nothing do the dances start with Spring, the season of life-giving, and end with Winter. Well, it should be not for nothing.

On opening Cinderella’s step-sisters were danced by new principal artist Matthew Lawrence and guest Paul Boyd. They were sweetly silly and self-regarding rather than vicious, which is presumably why Cinderella felt free to whack them around a bit with her broom. So it was a huge mystery why Cinders should shortly after be presented as a reluctant, almost cowering figure when the Prince came calling with the shoe; a shoe that matched the one she pulled from her skirt pocket with some radiance not moments before. The sisters’ and step-mother’s capitulation to Cinderella at that point was thrown away, just one example of how the production skates over the darker threads of the tale for a generalised feel-good display.

At the first performance the main pleasure came from two sources, the music and the luxurious quality of dancing from the leads. QB’s music director and chief conductor Andrew Mogrelia presided over a reduced Queensland Symphony that sounded anything but diminished in the Playhouse’s small pit. The score, lovingly played, repays close attention. Onstage, Clare Morehen (Fairy Godmother) radiated calm, grace and benevolence while Yu Hui gave the Jester’s generic acrobatics real sparkle and charm. He made light work of all those turns with tucked legs, high-flying splits, cartwheels and jauntily angled arms and legs.

Meng Ningning (Cinderella) and Hao Bin (the Prince) are QB’s reigning classicists and their purity of line, unmannered style and understated assurance are undoubtedly Li’s desired benchmark for the company. Both were trained in Beijing, as Li was so many years ago. Hao is a danseur noble who, in Cinderella, has nothing to do but look aristocratic. An easy task for this handsome, elegant man. Meng was more comfortable in the serene set pieces in the ballroom than when trying to make sense of Cinderella’s nature and feelings, for which it’s hard to blame her. Meng looked ethereal in her glittering pink tutu and danced impeccably.

Li, by the way, isn’t stacking QB with Chinese dancers even if his predilection is for their style of performance. Meng and Hao were hired by his predecessor, Francois Klaus, as was Yu, who was initially trained in China and then at New Zealand School of Dance. The new position of guest international principal is this year held by Huang Junshuang, who was trained in Shanghai and danced with Guangzhou Ballet Company, but was also a principal artist with Houston Ballet.

Those who watch QB closely will know that the present company line-up is significantly different from last year’s. There has been a big turnover: of the QB’s 27 permanent dancers, 11 are new this year. Of that 11, no fewer than nine came to QB straight from training. In other words, fully one third of the company is as junior as they come. A further five dancers joined the company in 2011 after being trainees, so Li has the opportunity to shape these young men and women in exactly the way he wants.

This situation puts a big workload on the senior dancers, but such is the way of smaller companies. (By comparison the Australian Ballet currently has 70 dancers on its roster.) There are three principal casts for Cinderella, but that doesn’t mean too many nights off for the top-ranked dancers. Lawrence and Hao are both cast as the Prince and Tall Stepsister and Hao is also listed as appearing in the small role of Father; each Cinderella – Meng, Rachael Walsh and Clare Morehen – has a second role. Yu, a soloist, is also cast as Short Stepsister. QB’s only other soloist, Nathan Scicluna, is second-cast Short Stepsister but was spotted on opening night filling out the ranks of dancers at the Prince’s second-act ball.

The corps was augmented with students from QB’s Pre-Professional Program, Junior Program and Queensland Dance School of Excellence, and it did one’s heart good to see the glowing pride on the faces of the young girls who appeared briefly as attendants at the union of Cinderella to her Prince.

It was also heartening to get the sense that the Brisbane audience was personally invested in the production and the company. I haven’t seen a more excited and proud set of people at the ballet – any ballet – for a very long time.

The Queensland Ballet’s Cinderella continues until April 20.

This is an extended version of a review that appeared in The Australian on April 8.