Spartacus and Jewels, Bolshoi Ballet

QPAC International Series, Brisbane, June 27 and June 29

The Bolshoi’s pairing of Yuri Grigorovich’s Spartacus and George Balanchine’s Jewels could not be more fascinating. They were made only a year apart, in 1968 and 1967 respectively, and come from the hands of men with a common lineage but different destinies. Their shared birthplace tells the story. Grigorovich was born in 1927 in Leningrad, 23 years after Balanchine was born in St Petersburg. Same city, another name. Grigorovich’s career was made and prospered in Soviet Russia. Balanchine left the country in 1924 to rattle around Western Europe and ultimately settle in the US, where he had a profound influence on the direction of classical dance.

If you want to see how things turned out, Spartacus and Jewels couldn’t be better guides.

Igor Tsvirko Spartacus

Igor Tsvirko as Spartacus. Photo: Darren Thomas

Even now, nearly 30 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Bolshoi clings to the idea of Spartacus as its standard-bearer. The narrative of a decadent ruling class putting its foot on the neck of the people fits snugly into the Soviet drambalet mould and is deeply old-fashioned. It’s not entirely a case of nostalgia, though. The Bolshoi has built its brand around dancing on an heroic scale and Spartacus certainly offers plenty of that.

The beefy crowd-pleaser wears its heart entirely on its sleeve. The slave rebellion led by Spartacus against the vicious, rapacious Imperial Romans is delivered in broad, sweeping strokes and performed the same way, propelled by Aram Khachaturian’s enjoyably bombastic score. Every action is delivered as if in capital letters. Good. Bad. Love. Hate. Leap. Turn. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. (Grigorovich takes an emphatic approach. A series of stag leaps, for instance, is seen executed directly to the audience, from one side of the stage to the other and in diagonals.)

On the evil side of the ledger the spotlight is on military leader Crassus (Alexander Volchkov at the gala opening performance on June 27) and his wily concubine, Aegina (Olga Smirnova). Spartacus (Igor Tsvirko) and his “sweetheart” Phrygia (Margarita Shrayner) represent all that is noble. Swirling around them are soldiers, insurgents and members of Crassus’s household, mostly dancing in unison and operating as a kind of moving wallpaper against which the back-and-forth power struggle between Crassus and Spartacus plays out, with an assist from the resourceful Aegina. Smirnova danced the courtesan with glittering intelligence and hauteur, even in Aegina’s supposedly erotic dance with a pole that somehow distracts wavering rebels so they can be captured. It’s perhaps not the ballet’s finest moment but at least the woman has a bit of self-determination.

Poor Phrygia is just the anguished lover, tossed about by fate and her man, who expresses his love in their great love duet by draping her around his shoulders like a sack of grain and holding her upside down on his back. The gorgeously pliant Shrayner was unshakeable in her commitment to the part, even though required to throw her arms wide in supplication far too often.

Alexander Volchkov

Alexander Volchkov as Crassus. Photo: Darren Thomas

Grigorovich’s choreography is often highly eccentric and twee or simply baffling. Soldiers alternate between goose-steps and capering, for instance, and the bacchanal scene could not be less sexy. It’s fair to say, though, that the ballet has its passionate admirers and its two leading men are given every opportunity to get the house pumping. On opening night Tsvirko was nothing short of sensational, with thrilling pyrotechnics and dynamic stage presence. Volchkov struck the right note as the decadent Crassus, even if it was just one note.

The ballet opens with a display of power by Crassus and his men, full of those endless stag leaps for Crassus and some regrettable prancing for the soldiers. A “monologue” for the captured Spartacus follows, one of nine solos that separate the action scenes. They are designed to give insights into the key characters’ emotional states although one-size-fits-all emoting would be a more accurate term for the generic angst of Grigorovich’s choreography, long on beseeching arms, splayed fingers and clutched bodies.

The wondrous Tsvirko somehow made something touching of his moments of limited introspection and in the bigger moments his attack was bold and precise and his elevation high and pillowy. He seemed to have all the time in the world for sublime double air turns and high-flying back arches during which head and feet were thrown back to meet. His ferocious movement transcended gymnastics, something not always achieved elsewhere.

Pavel Sorokin conducted with a deep understanding of the muscular score. Queensland Symphony Orchestra sounded terrific, especially the hard-working brass section. At the opening of Jewels the QSO was equally impressive in the Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky music that so vividly establishes the very different qualities of each section of Balanchine’s abstract triptych.

Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko

Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko in Rubies. Photo: Darren Thomas

Jewelsis the last word in glamour, a quality the Bolshoi dancers have in abundance. Expressive physicality is built into the Bolshoi DNA and in the first section, Emeralds, it translated into appealing sensuality and full-hearted immersion in the delectable Fauré – selections from Pélleas et Mélisandeand Shylock. Emeralds glowed.

Rubies was made to Stravinsky’s irresistibly propulsive, restless Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra. There were moments when a little more Broadway-style fizz and snap would have been welcome from the corps. There was more than enough compensation, though, from Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko in their dramatically large-scaled pas de deux and Ovcharenko’s quiet wit as the men delightfully jogged as if on a run in New York’s Central Park.

Diamonds, to the music of Tchaikovsky (Symphony No.3 in D major, minus the first movement), celebrates Imperial Russian classicism. At the first performance it was also a celebration of a gleaming young talent. Alyona Kovalyova is only 20 but has the sophistication, refinement, self-possession and star quality of a much more experienced artist. The central pas de deux, in which Kovalyova was partnered gracefully by Jacopo Tissi, made time stand still.

Spartacus ends July 7; Jewels ends July 3. Spartacus will be broadcast to regional Queensland centres on July 6.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on July 1.

Woolf Works, The Royal Ballet

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, June 29.

Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works is a monumental act of artistic daring, claiming for dance the right, and the ability, to bring one of the great voices in English literature to the stage. The translation from printed word to wordless movement is of necessity very free but McGregor’s profound respect for Woolf is evident at every moment of this shape-shifting triptych. Woolf Works should send every viewer back to her trailblazing novels.

Those who are acquainted at least in passing with Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and, to a lesser extent, The Waves, would get the deepest satisfaction from Woolf Works but no one could fail to be moved and excited. And not just by the dances. The Royal Ballet, which was last seen in Australia in 2002, has in its ranks some of the world’s most distinctive and dramatically alert dancers.

Woolf Works 4 - C. ROH Tristram Kenton 2015

The Royal Ballet in Tuesday from Woolf Works. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Brisbane’s first cast – mostly the same as that in London’s 2015 premiere season – included Edward Watson, whose irretrievably broken soldier in the first part of Woolf Works was heart-stopping; Sydney-born Steven McRae, whose presence and speed were electric; Russian superstar Natalia Osipova, who had charisma to burn; and young principal Francesca Hayward, who darted and floated like a luminous dragonfly.

Above all Woolf Works had the apparently ageless Alessandra Ferri at its centre, as Clarissa Dalloway in the triptych’s first section and as Virginia Woolf in the third. She is still an extraordinarily eloquent dancer and, at 54, brought the wisdom born of experience to these stories of love, remembrance and loss. McGregor’s rigorous intellectualism was taken into another realm, that of deeply affecting emotional resonance.

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Alessandra Ferri, centre, in Tuesday. Photo: Darren Thomas

Woolf Works begins with I now, I then, a distillation of Mrs Dalloway. A woman slides between present and past, remembering the joys and possibilities that have now evaporated. We see her glowing younger self (Beatriz Stix-Brunell), the man she might have married (Federico Bonelli) and the young woman she once kissed (Hayward). These shadows and reflections are seen more darkly in the figure of Septimus Smith, the soldier maddened by war. He too is haunted by thoughts of an unreachable ideal companion (Tristan Dyer).

On an austere set of revolving frames by Ciguë, illuminated softly by Lucy Carter’s elegiac lighting, memories float, intersect and dissipate. City sounds – bells, traffic, voices, the tick-tock of a day passing – waft through Max Richter’s superlative score.

McGregor’s choreography is delicate, restrained and very much on a human scale, even for Watson’s Septimus, whose anguish is palpable but tightly reined in. Richter’s music carries the load for him in huge sheets of dark sound, which retreat after Septimus and Clarissa have a moment together that isn’t in the novel but draws the threads together powerfully in the ballet (writer Uzma Hameed was the invaluable dramaturg).

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Edward Watson in I now, I then. Photo: Darren Thomas

The wow factor is sky-high in the swaggering second section, Becomings, which takes a flying leap from the shoulders of Orlando into a sci-fi world of Carter’s restless lasers, Moritz Junge’s punk-Elizabethan costumes, Richter’s electronica and top-gear momentum. The dance captures the tumbling energy of Woolf’s writing and a sense of the novel’s race through time although little of Woolf’s witty view of sexual politics.

The speedy, stretchy physicality puts us in more conventional – for him – McGregor territory and the cast of 12 goes at it with ferocious attack. Dancers move in and out of hazy corners to offer a glimpse of Orlando in his/her journey through gender and the centuries. Osipova and McRae are the clear standouts, with McRae doing Olympics-standard higher and faster feats and Osipova stunningly authoritative. She might not entirely bring to mind Woolf’s charming poet, with his “eyes like drenched violets”, but her command is complete.

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Natalia Osipova, left, in Orlando. Photo: Darren Thomas

The third section, Tuesday, contracts the multiple interior voices that intertwine in The Waves to a single viewpoint, that of the author as she chooses to end her life. Woolf wrote to her husband Leonard on a Tuesday, telling him how much happiness he had given her and that she could no longer go on. We had heard Woolf herself speaking at the beginning of the evening, in a BBC talk about language. In Tuesday her suicide letter is spoken beautifully in voiceover by Gillian Anderson as the work begins.

Dwarfed against a vast projection of breaking waves (film by Ravi Deepres) and enclosed in Richter’s heart-swelling score, Ferri as Woolf is buffeted by memories. This final short section is both itself and a circle back to the beginning: in an echo of I now, I then, a younger woman (Itziar Mendizabal) poignantly evokes a bright time when everything is still to come. In a further connection, Ferri is partnered tenderly by Bonelli, who gently lifts, tilts and sways her as if he were a ghost figure and she had already been claimed by the water. Virginia Woolf and Clarissa Dalloway, the creator and the created, are inseparable; indivisible perhaps.

A large corps of men, women and children comes and goes in surges like waves and flocks of birds but her aloneness is as complete as it is devastating.

Woolf Works ended on July 1 but more of the Royal’s exceptional dancers come to the Brisbane stage from July 5 in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale. The Brisbane season marks the first time the Royal has performed Woolf Works and The Winter’s Tale outside the UK, for which much thanks. It’s much more common for a company to decide that international touring requires the safety net, yet again, of Swan Lake.

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra is in the pit, and was in mighty form when conducted by the Royal’s music director Koen Kessels for Woolf Works. Conducting duties for The Winter’s Tale will be divided between QSO music director Alondra de la Parra and Royal Ballet guest conductor Tom Seligman.

Hallberg’s date with Beauty

Just before Christmas David Hallberg made his debut as Franz in Coppélia with The Australian Ballet at the Sydney Opera House. It marked his return to the stage after a two-and-a-half year absence due to injury, a year of which was spent in rehabilitation with the AB’s medical team in Melbourne.

He danced four performances of Coppélia in Sydney, the last of them on December 21. The New York Times described it as a “discreet comeback”. He then went home to Phoenix for Christmas. By January 3 he was in New York, taking class with his home company American Ballet Theatre. In a statement ABT said Hallberg will perform in its (northern) Spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House, which starts in May. There is no word on repertoire, although ABT’s casting shows a couple of promising TBAs in Giselle and Alexei Ratmansky’s new ballet Whipped Cream.

Well before that, however, Hallberg has another date with the stage. It’s back in Australia – Brisbane this time – with the AB in February. When the national company kicks off 2017 with The Sleeping Beauty, Hallberg will dance the role of Prince Désiré in two of the nine scheduled performances. Hallberg’s Aurora will be Amber Scott, with whom he danced in Coppélia.

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David Hallberg takes a curtain call after Coppélia in December. Photo: Kate Longley

This will give Brisbane a much delayed chance to see Hallberg, and in a role more characteristic of his career than Franz. Hallberg had been expected to appear with ABT in Swan Lake when it had a season at Queensland Performing Arts Centre in 2014 but shortly before that tour he had to withdraw from all engagements to attend to his injury.

The AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, said Hallberg hadn’t thought about returning so soon to this challenging central repertoire, “but if he wanted to return to the AB in 2017 it was the ballet that made sense”. The other full-length works on offer this year are Graeme Murphy’s version of Nutcracker, built around the memories of an aged former Ballets Russes ballerina, and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (McAllister also says he and Hallberg are speaking about further visits: “He has said to me he really wants to spend about a month every year here. That’s a pretty big commitment.”)

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David Hallberg. Photo: Renee Nowytarger for The Australian. 

Talking in Sydney before his return to the US, Hallberg was frank about the challenge of returning to Beauty at this time. “It’s really going to take a year to know where I stand, to know what I want to tackle. It was important to me to be able to see if this is in my future. And if it’s not, fine. But what better place to do it than with the company that has supported me through this complete restructure and rebirth?” Saying yes to Beauty felt right. “It’s just like Coppélia. It all has just fallen into place. It’s very fortuitous like that. I think it’s the universe saying, this is what’s being presented to you.”

Hallberg referred to his performances as Franz as getting his feet wet. How did they feel after the first few performances? “Wettish,” he said, with a little laugh. “It will take a while for my feet to get completely wet.”

With Beauty he is really plunging in. “In essence, there are definite technical challenges that I need to analyse, and I will have the [AB medical] team to help me analyse. That’s first and foremost,” he said. “The hard thing is going to be not comparing what I have done on DVD or what I have done at Bolshoi theatre or Mariinsky or ABT or wherever but to approach Beauty exactly the way I approached Coppélia.”

He says that just as he has a differently honed instrument following his lengthy rehabilitation, he also has “a different artistic perspective on even the classics. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with a lot of the classics. I’ve struggled through the years to find validity in characters I portray in those classics. But I think there’s two sides coming out of this. One, that I discover new things, I create new things with what I’ve experienced, and I also give a sort of rebirth to the roles that essentially I’ve been known for.”

There have been other discoveries. The rehabilitation experience has taught Hallberg he needs to spend more time on strengthening and conditioning his body and he now knows how to do that. “Second, I really came to Australia so stripped of any sort of optimism. I had lost all optimism artistically, emotionally and physically. Through hardship you gain perspective. What I feel now as an artist – proudly 34 years old – is that I have such depth of resilience and, through that, an artistic understanding that’s completely different from how it used to be. And it’s not driven by ego any more.”

An idle aside: Hallberg’s fellow ABT principal artist Misty Copeland, then a soloist, made her ground-breaking debut as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake in Brisbane during the 2014 tour. She was the first African-American to dance the role for the company and it was big news, to say the least. ABT was, however, clearly aiming for a low-key introduction; an out-of-hemisphere tryout if you will. Indeed, the company made no announcement of this historic event and the news broke, on this blog, after I spotted Copeland’s name in the casting. She was given just one performance in Brisbane, at a Wednesday matinee. Now that’s what I would call discreet.

The Sleeping Beauty opens in Brisbane on February 24. The dates of Hallberg’s performances are yet to be announced.

Ladies in Black

Queensland Theatre Company, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, November 19

BY the end of Ladies in Black its sweet, gawky duckling of a heroine has been transformed into a soignée swan, and in just six weeks. Why, without her glasses and with her hair up, young Lisa Miles is quite a looker. Goodbye school, hello world. This is no superficial alteration: Lisa is on the brink of something momentous, a life where she gets to choose who and what she wants to be. If a beautiful, lusted-after dress is part of the picture after years of wearing garments made at home lovingly, but badly, by mum, well that’s OK.

The slender and charming novel that inspired Ladies in Black, Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black, is a comedy of manners and fable of empowerment. Published in 1993 but set in the late 1950s, it casts an amused eye on an Australia slowly emerging from its blokey, monocultural straitjacket. A young woman blossoms; another discovers literature and the attractions of an experienced European man; a long-married woman has a sexual awakening; and the sophistications of a recent arrival to these shores work their magic. There is one delectable discovery after another.

Kate Cole, Christen O,Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer

The cast of Ladies in Black

In a version of Jane Austen’s famous two inches of ivory – her “four or five families in a country village”- The Women in Black (and thus Ladies in Black, which is a faithful adaptation) inhabits a deliberately limited world, viewed from a female perspective. Like Austen, St John is witty and acerbic while maintaining an aura of smooth politesse. (How about this seemingly throwaway word in The Women in Black? Men talking about their families “joined in with remarks about their own sons and even their daughters”. Even. It’s a killer.)

St John had long been an expat, living in England where she felt she belonged, but her evocation of Sydney in summer is vivid and not without affection as she expertly registers and skewers the social attitudes and restrictions that drove so many Australians like her to flee (she was at the University of Sydney at the same time as Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and other luminaries). She touches on inequality between the sexes, the limiting of women’s ambition and the galvanising effect of migration with a soupçon of the sexual revolution thrown in for spice – heavy issues all, but rendered with an airy hand. This is the fable part: pretty much everything turns out wonderfully well.

At the centre of the story is Lisa (née Lesley, a name she feels doesn’t quite suit her). She has just finished her exams for the Leaving certificate and secured a holiday job at Goode’s department store, the place to shop in Sydney. She is assigned to Ladies’ Cocktail (not the alcoholic beverage; frocks) and promised as an additional pair of hands to the cosmopolitan Magda in Model Gowns.

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda

Lisa is a very clever girl and likely to win a Commonwealth Scholarship to university, although as her father points out, what does a girl need with a degree when she’ll shortly be looking after a husband and kiddies? She isn’t a natural rebel but knows her life has more promise than that. The excitingly stylish Magda, a New Australian, as we used to call them (“Continental” to her confrères at Goode’s), treats Lisa like an adult and introduces her to thrilling new ideas. It’s a tumultuous few weeks for all in the domestic sphere and of course at work, where the women are rushed off their feet just before Christmas.

Singer-songwriter Tim Finn came across a copy of The Women in Black at Brisbane Airport and thought it might make a good musical. He hadn’t written one before but seems to be a natural. His openhearted, immediately likeable songs (Finn wrote music and lyrics) are deliciously melodic and flow easily through Carolyn Burns’s lively, compact book. Occasionally the joins show, but Ladies in Black is in excellent shape for a musical having its first outing and succeeds where it really counts by creating warm, believable, engaging characters and by having a top-notch cast bring them to life. Relative unknown Sarah Morrison, who plays Lisa, is a tremendous asset. She is radiant.

Anyone expecting a 21st-century gloss on issues about which it’s difficult to laugh these days will be disappointed. Ladies in Black is about how it was then, bathed in a rosily nostalgic glow that is even equal to the task of laughing at bad husbands. The Bastard Song, sung with sturdy relish by a quartet of women, had the show’s opening-night audience hooting, loving lyrics that include: “He’s a bastard, a bastard, a standard issue bastard, a bastard, coming home half plastered, I don’t know how it’s lasted …” You get the idea.

Kathryn McIntyre, Deidre Rubenstein, Kate Cole, Lucy Maunder

Kathryn McIntyre, Deidre Rubenstein, Kate Cole and Lucy Maunder

There’s no room here for cynics, ironists or revolutionaries. Ladies in Black unashamedly plucks the heartstrings and may even cause a certain dampness in the ocular area. For Australian women of a certain age there is much to remember. “I can see the future and everything I’ve dreamed is waiting there for me,” goes the rousing final number, and Ladies in Black means every buoyant, life-affirming word of it.

Queensland Theatre Company, backed by Queensland Performing Arts Centre, threw a lot of resources into Ladies in Black. Set and costumes are by the go-to designer for big occasions, Gabriela Tylesova (the staging boasts three revolves to facilitate the many changes of scene), and director Simon Phillips, who knows a thing or two about musical theatre, is at the helm. There is plenty to admire but the production nevertheless has the feeling of falling somewhat between two stools: it could be done on a rather more intimate scale or, alternatively, would profit from a grander staging with a lot more bells and whistles. There’s no money pit like the musical theatre.

The former outcome is perhaps more likely than the latter but however it goes, Ladies in Black deserves to have an audience after these premiere seasons in Brisbane and, from January 16, in Melbourne.

Brisbane season ends December 6. Melbourne Theatre Company, January 16-February 27.

Further reading: Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John, by Helen Trinca. Text Publishing, 2013. (Co-Winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, 2014)

In which I fail to stop my list at 10

THIS year I saw more than 200 performances and, over the past week or so, have written about the people, plays, operas, dance works and musicals that spoke to me most strongly. Now I cull the list to 14 – just because that’s how it turned out – and a supplementary, the last being something I haven’t previously mentioned.

There’s also the one that got away. And one that almost got away.

What struck me most about 2014 was how unlike 2013 it was. Last year there were plenty of kapow! events on stage – among them Opera Australia’s Ring cycle, Belvoir’s Angels in America, The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, Melbourne Festival’s Life and Times from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, the Berliner Ensemble at the Perth Festival with The Threepenny Opera, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle in Sydney – while this year the pleasures tended to be on a smaller scale.

But while there may have been a shortage of big-bang events there were movements afoot of great moment, chief among them more visibility for women playwrights and directors and more indigenous and queer stories taken out of little theatres and put into big ones. These movements didn’t magically appear this year but they did get traction and the texture of our theatre is more interesting and relevant because of them.

My earlier lists were presented in alphabetical order. Not here. I start at the top and work down, although I know that tomorrow I’d probably shuffle a few things around. The non-traditional number can be put down to the multi-art form nature of the list.

MY TOP 14 AND A FEW RING-INS

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Declan Greene, directed by Lee Lewis), Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

Madama Butterfly (Puccini, directed by Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus), Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck, directed by Lindy Hume), Pinchgut Opera

Trisha Brown: From All Angles (Trisha Brown), Melbourne Festival

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, directed by Tim Carroll), Shakespeare’s Globe, New York

Three Masterpieces (Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins), American Ballet Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, directed by John Tiffany, movement by Steven Hoggett), American Repertory Theater, New York

King Charles III (Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold), Almeida Theatre, London

Henry V (Shakespeare, directed by Damien Ryan), Bell Shakespeare Company, Canberra

Pete the Sheep (adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the book by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, directed by Jonathan Biggins, composer/lyricist Phil Scott), Monkey Baa Theatre

A Christmas Carol (adapted by Benedict Hardie & Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Sarks), Belvoir

The Drowsy Chaperone (music by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, lyrics by Bob Martin & Don McKellar, directed by Jay James-Moody), Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co

Switzerland (Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Sarah Goodes), Sydney Theatre Company

Keep Everything (Antony Hamilton), Chunky Move

The supplementary event:

Limbo (Strut & Fret, Underbelly Productions), Sydney Festival. This circus-cabaret didn’t fit into any of my categories so it bobs up from out of left field, which is entirely appropriate for such an outrageously sexy, something-for-everyone show. It was one of the most wildly enjoyable experiences of my quite lengthy viewing career so I went twice during the 2014 Sydney Festival and I’m going again – possibly twice – when Limbo returns to the festival next month.

The one that got away:

Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare, directed by Ivo van Hove) Adelaide Festival. Now this would have been the year’s biggie, had I been able to get to Adelaide. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon performance of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was by all reports life-changing. I believe it, and missing it will remain one of the great regrets of my theatre-going life.

The one that almost got away:

Skylight (David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry). My London trip ended a day before previews started for Skylight, Hare’s ravishing play in which the political becomes very personal indeed. It was written nearly 20 years ago and its arguments resound ever more loudly today. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were starring. Desolation. Until National Theatre Live came to the rescue in October. Bliss.

Heart untouched; soul unshaken

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, August 28.

KEVIN McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre is a medieval fairy tale of transformation. A woman is turned into a swan. An evil lake-dwelling sorcerer becomes a devastatingly attractive nobleman in the blink of an eye. Two lovers die by drowning but moments later, in an apotheosis, suffuse the air with their benevolence.

These things are important elements, but are a kind of outer skin. They tell us what is happening, but not why. What of the underlying purpose – the desperate love and profound act of forgiveness that bring Swan Lake into the human realm, give it immediacy and make it so moving? They are not to be encountered here, or at least not at ABT’s opening night performance, which was filled with admirable dancing but empty of emotional resonance.

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake

It is possible things may have been different if the originally announced opening night Prince Siegfried, David Hallberg, had not had to withdraw due to injury. Perhaps he draws more from the reticent Hee Seo than did his replacement, Cory Stearns, on the evening of ABT’s Australian premiere. Stearns is a fine classicist with aristocratic lineaments and the plushest of plies, but he and Seo lack chemistry. The approaches each took didn’t catch fire when put together.

Stearns conveyed ennui rather than melancholy and superciliousness rather than noblesse oblige, qualities that did not entirely recommend him, even though his handsome carriage, light landings and princely line made a strong impression. Seo’s theatrically muted Odette was beautifully shaped in the physical sense but there was little idea of what she wanted, or did not. After meeting Siegfried, of whom she seemed not terribly afraid, Seo rarely looked at him, rather gazing down demurely or looking up to the heavens piously. Her eyes and face were not expressive and with her feelings a closed book, the loveliness of her shapes and exquisite articulation went for far less than they might and a couple of fumbles acquired more prominence than they should have.

It was therefore not entirely surprising in the third act to find Odette’s doppelganger Odile short on charisma. Seo wore a black tutu and a wide smile but the spark stopped there. There were no fireworks to be had, just a dutiful set of unadorned fouettes.

McKenzie opens the ballet with a prologue showing Odette’s capture by Von Rothbart. In Zack Brown’s otherwise unimpeachable designs, the sorceror looks like the Incredible Hulk (poor Roman Zhurbin on opening night) but tricks Odette by assuming exceptionally alluring human form (in this guise he was played by lucky Alexandre Hammoudi). The latter’s appearance in Act III is thus signaled. He is the super-confident, ultra-seductive gatecrasher who will bring disaster in the form of Odile. It’s a gift of a part as Von Rothbart sexily reels in all the princesses who are being paraded for Siegfried’s approval and makes the Queen Mother not a little hot and bothered. It probably shouldn’t have been the highlight of the evening, but it was.

Hammoudi, a soloist, smouldered enjoyably although he doesn’t quite have the impact of principal Marcelo Gomes in the role (could anyone?). Gomes is in Brisbane but not cast in Swan Lake it would appear. Brisbane has been denied a great pleasure. (Gomes is scheduled to appear in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita on Friday and Saturday evenings in the Three Masterpieces triple bill and in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free at Saturday’s matinee.)

The third act of Swan Lake slides into a brutally truncated fourth act – a decision that unbalances the ballet badly, giving more weight to the first and third acts set at court than to the white second and fourth acts at the lake. We see something of the swans’ anguish at their queen’s betrayal but the promise of tragedy explored and amplified is only minimally delivered. Instead the action moves briskly to Odette’s death leap and then Siegfried’s (Stearns went for broke here), followed by dawn, Von Rothbart’s broken spell, and Odette and Siegfried as lovers forever in the afterlife. Curtain. Heart untouched; soul unshaken.

It was a treat to see ABT’s music director Ormsby Wilkins authoritatively at the helm of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in what was something of a homecoming for the Sydney-born conductor. He will lead other performances in this short season, in which I hope different partnerships I am to see – Misty Copeland with Hammoudi, Gillian Murphy with James Whiteside and Paloma Herrera with Stearns – offer greater passion and nourishment.

Swan Lake ends Thursday. Three Masterpieces, ballets by Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky and Jerome Robbins has four performances from Friday.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 1.

Affecting ardour

Queensland Ballet, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, June 27

KENNETH MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is big in every way. At street level testosterone-fuelled gangs jostle and fight in the marketplace, revelling in their ancient grudge, as Shakespeare called it. Inside the great house of Lord Capulet the tumult is even greater, but is within the hearts of young lovers from different sides of the divide. Passion, sweat, blood and grief saturate Verona.

From its opening moments the ballet is one headlong rush to tragedy. MacMillan’s choreography, nearly 50 years old but still thrillingly immediate, blazes with energy and is swept along by the vivid drama of Prokofiev’s score.

Tamara Rojo in Queensland Ballet's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

Tamara Rojo in Queensland Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

The forces required to do the production justice are immense and are normally found within companies two or three times the size of Queensland Ballet – the Royal Ballet, where it originated; American Ballet Theatre; La Scala; Birmingham Royal Ballet. QB is small, with a company of just 27. And yet, with a display of will breathtaking in its ambition and lavish in its provision of stellar guest artists, QB has brought it to Brisbane with affecting ardour.

Friday’s opening was crowned by the exceptional Juliet of guest Tamara Rojo, but that was to be expected. Rojo, prima ballerina of English National Ballet and its artistic director too, was entrancing at every moment as conflicting emotions flashed across her face and intense feelings through her eloquent body, each one legible and theatrically potent. She made every moment appear as if freshly experienced and newly thought and it simply defies belief that Rojo is 40. She makes you believe in the cosseted young girl who needs her Nurse, loves her doll and is both a little bit curious about and strongly resistant to the attentions of Paris. Her skittering little circle of bourees around Paris (stern, reticent Hao Bin) was delightful: a circumnavigation to see what she thought of him, which wasn’t much.

But the idea of love had been put into her head, and when she saw Romeo, any notion that she may have come around to Paris was futile.

QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin has paired his international guests – the others are Steven McRae and Carlos Acosta  – with QB principals. Rojo’s Romeo was Matthew Lawrence, who took some time to disappear into the role. He appeared more distanced from events than Rojo, a mature presence rather than a youth giddily in love, and therefore less touching in the earlier scenes, but his all-stops-out tomb scene with the apparently lifeless Juliet was tremendous. The great balcony pas de deux of the first act wasn’t entirely seamless, perhaps as a result of limited rehearsal time – a reason that could possibly also be applied to the trio for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio in the first act, which was scrappy and failed to fizz.

Also failing to fizz initially was the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Mogrelia, but after a safe and stolid start the QSO got back into the game decisively after the first interval to give a cracking performance that matched the grandeur of Paul Andrews’s glowing design. The strings that usher in the ballet’s final scene were particularly ravishing.

There were fine performances from former Australian Ballet principal artist Steven Heathcote as a magisterial Lord Capulet and current AB principal Daniel Gaudiello as the witty, razor-sharp Mercutio. Far less able to be predicted was the showing by young QB men in two key roles, Vito Bernasconi as “Prince of Cats” Tybalt and Rian Thompson as Romeo’s friend Benvolio. Thompson’s never faltering watchfulness commanded attention and Bernasconi, who graduated from the Australian Ballet School only in 2012, has stage presence to burn.

Of the QB women, principal Rachael Walsh was super-luxury casting as Lady Capulet and Eleanor Freeman, Meng Ningning and Sophie Zoricic roamed the stage avidly as women of lusty appetites.

Filling out crowd scenes and a few small ensemble roles for this performance and for the rest of the season are young artists, pre-professional program dancers and senior students – a fair number but not really quite enough of them, as in the ballroom scene QB can field only 12 couples rather than the 16 the Royal Ballet can easily summon. The stage did look a little under-populated at this point but otherwise the ensemble was splendid, and its part in the creation of the ballet’s teeming world crucial.

The relative inexperience of these dancers was the greatest risk for this Romeo and Juliet but their unwavering engagement on Friday night was in some ways the greatest achievement.

Coming later in the week: the cast led by QB principals Hao Bin and Meng Ningning (July 1); and Steven McRae (July 2) and Carlos Acosta (July 3).

Romeo and Juliet ends on July 5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 30.

‘This is for the little brown girls’

ON March 26 this year American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland told website blacknews.com that “I would love to be Odette-Odile in Swan Lake one day. I think that would be the ultimate role.”

Copeland will get her wish when ABT visits Brisbane in late August and early September. At a date yet to be announced Copeland will make her debut in the role – perhaps the most coveted in the repertoire – marking a signal event for ABT. She will be the first African American Odette in its history, although not in American ballet history. Lauren Anderson, who retired from Houston Ballet in 2006, danced the role of Odette and her doppelgänger Odile in 1996.

“It’s always exciting to see a dancer make their debut in a great role and it will be particularly exciting to have Misty doing this in Brisbane,” said Ian McRae, co-producer of ABT’s visit with Leo Schofield and Queensland Performing Arts Centre.

Copeland’s roles include Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird, Gamzatti in La Bayadere, Swanilda in Coppelia and Lescaut’s Mistress in Manon.

Copeland, 31, joined ABT in 2001 and was made a soloist in 2007, the first black dancer to reach that rank in 20 years (ABT has only three ranks, principal, soloist and corps de ballet). She has written she would like to be the company’s first African American principal artist. The company is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

The scarcity of black classical dancers in the US has led to Copeland becoming a highly visible and plain-speaking spokeswoman for diversity. In March this year she published her autobiography Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina (Simon & Schuster), in which she writes of her struggle to be accepted in a field described in late 2012 by The Huffington Post in this manner: ”White skin is not just the norm but the uniform.”

The Huffington Post also went on to write – erroneously – that there had not yet been a black Odette-Odile (perhaps understandable given the lack) but the following comments could well be relevant to Copeland’s upcoming debut: “… there are accomplished black dancers with definitive box office appeal. If even one major ballet company were to entrust a black dancer with such a career-changing turn, surely it could inspire the next generation in a dramatic way, as effectively, perhaps, as increased regional youth classes. That such a casting evolution would be welcomed is no excuse for it not having transpired as yet.”

In October 2012 Trinidad-born Celine Gittins danced the lead in Swan Lake for Birmingham Royal Ballet and was described as the first black dancer in the UK to perform the role. Tyrone Singleton, also of mixed race, was her Prince Siegfried. Their performances highlighted a conversation that has been growing in both the UK and the US about the lack of racial diversity in classical dance. Stars at the level of Cuban-born Royal Ballet principal guest artist Carlos Acosta – who appears next week with Queensland Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet – are rare.

In her autobiography Copeland unflinchingly recalls the unsettled childhood that made her early training difficult and recounts the entrenched thinking in ballet that counted against her. She writes of her early mentor, Cindy Bradley: “She was different from most people in the ballet world, who felt Giselle and Odette were best performed by dovelike sprites, lissome and ivory-skinned. Cindy believed that ballet was richer when it embraced diverse shapes and colors. There would be times in my career when I would struggle to remember that …”

The burden of expectation on her has been great, as she makes clear in the opening pages of her book. Copeland describes opening in New York in the title role of Firebird:

 … the first black woman to star in Igor Stravinsky’s iconic role for American Ballet Theatre, one of the most prestigious dance companies in the world.

As the Firebird.

This is for the little brown girls.

ABT will visit Queensland Performing Arts Centre as part of QPAC’s International Series, which last year brought the Bolshoi Ballet to Brisbane. ABT, which is making its first Australian appearances this year, is also part of this year’s Brisbane Festival.

ABT will give nine performances of Swan Lake from August 28 to September 4 and four performances of the triple bill Three Masterpieces (works by Tharp, Ratmansky and Robbins) from September 5-7.

ABT is Brisbane-bound

ONE way of looking at the repertoire for American Ballet Theatre’s Brisbane visit in August and September – its first to Australia – is with absolute pragmatism: there’s Swan Lake, of course, which is for many audience members the ballet gold standard, and there’s a triple bill made up of pieces the company is currently performing.

But the pieces very much describe ABT too – its nature as a company of stars and its history as an organisation that has had extremely close relationships with some of the most admired choreographers in the field. In 2006 Congress recognised ABT as the national ballet company of the United States and it is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in Bach Partita.

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita.

On a visit to Sydney last week to promote the tour (Brisbane, Melbourne and Auckland were also on the whirlwind agenda), ABT’s artistic director Kevin McKenzie described a company on a firm footing. ABT recently added more New York performances to its annual schedule, although there will be a loss next year when Nutcracker moves from the Brooklyn Academy of Music (one of three venues for ABT in New York) to Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center in California’s Orange County.

“It makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. We have a long-term relationship with Segerstrom Center out there and it’s crowded [in NYC]. We found it difficult frankly to market a season in three different venues, sometimes marketing three different venues at the same time. We know we go to Washington every year. This will ensure we go to Orange County every year. Frankly it’s a better venue to see the production [by Alexei Ratmansky].”

While in Sydney McKenzie spoke engagingly for an hour to a Friends of the Australian Ballet gathering. He said that while George Balanchine was carrying out his unique vision for what would become New York City Ballet, early ABT patron and director Lucia Chase “collected the best of the best” for Ballet Theatre (ABT’s name until 1957). On the choreographic front there were Agnes de Mille and Anthony Tudor, and “getting Tudor was the defining moment. Energy begot energy. ABT became a company of dancers who could do it all. ABT didn’t have a school for decades so talent came from around the world. Everyone fits into ABT. They all took from each other. There was individualism.’’

While there is now a school to feed ABT, the company didn’t want to lose the international influences that built it. “Style is a thing we take on and off like our clothes,” McKenzie said. “There are fundamentals we all agree on.” (Even now the ABT corps is only 30 per cent a product of the school.)

Sitting at the apex of the company is a roster of 16 principal artists, some with dual associations that must make scheduling a nightmare for McKenzie. David Hallberg is also a principal at the Bolshoi Ballet, Roberto Bolle is resident guest artist at La Scala and Polina Semionova is a guest artist at St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, where Ivan Vasiliev is a principal dancer. Diana Vishneva regularly appears in her Russian homeland, and Gillian Murphy has been principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet for the past three years, although that position is unlikely to continue when Ethan Stiefel, her fiancé, relinquishes his post as RNZB artistic director on September 1.

Vasiliev will not be coming to Brisbane, says McKenzie, but he hopes Bolle’s schedule will permit his presence. “He’s got a tight schedule, but it could work. The objective is to get him here.” Hallberg is on board for the tour, as is Murphy and, it is anticipated, most or all of the other ABT principals.

McKenzie, artistic director of ABT for 22 years (and still happy in the service, he says) told the Friends in Sydney that nothing about the way the company operates had changed from the first performance. “There’s a chaotic scrappiness. A tale of too much with too little time and too little resources and coming out looking good. There’s a passion to do it; everything else needs to be gotten around.”

The version of Swan Lake to be performed in Brisbane is McKenzie’s, which premiered in 2000. It is staged annually. “It’s mainly for marketing reasons,” McKenzie said frankly. They know they can sell it every single year so they want to do it. To quote George Balanchine, I wish everything was called Swan Lake.”

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Photo: Gene Schiavone

For the Brisbane mixed bill, called Three Masterpieces, McKenzie chose the three choreographers who he said have had or will have the greatest impact on the company: Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Alexei Ratmansky, who is ABT’s artist in residence with a contract stretching to 2023. (That contract allows Ratmansky to work with other companies for half the year; he recently made a new Cinderella for The Australian Ballet.)

Robbins’s Fancy Free (1944) follows the fortunes of three high-spirited sailors on leave and is a happy showcase for exuberant male dancing. Tharp’s Bach Partita (1983) is fascinating because 28 years passed between its premiere and its revival last year, and Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas (2009) is the work of the busiest and most feted exponent of classical ballet working today. I spoke to McKenzie about the two newer works.

“This is the finest classical ballet since Balanchine’s death, which also took place in 1983.”

– Robert Gottleib, New York Observer, 2013, on Tharp’s Bach Partita

“Bach Partita celebrates the grand architecture of ballet and also each disappearing moment, each inimitable person … Tharp has built a wondrously strange thing: a monument to evanescence.”

– Apollinaire Scherr, Financial Times, 2013

Kevin McKenzie:  A 28-year gap [he laughs]. I think it was largely because of the violinist issue [the work was made to Bach’s Partita in D minor]. For a period of time it had to do with our venue issues, but I think it was really more about the violinist. Twyla created this work to a recording of Jascha Heifetz and he had a particular rendition of particular parts of it that were really fast, and it was a choice. It was an interpretation of it that is incredibly difficult to replicate.

When we first did it we didn’t really have the proper sort of representation, that kind of speed. Twyla wanted us to do it to tape. We can’t do that. By mandate, by union rules, if it can be played it must be played. And I agree with it. That’s part of the magic of live theatre. Then it became apparent that it was hard to find a violinist worth their salt who was going to deliver Heifetz’s performance. They wanted to deliver their own performance. It was either put on the back shelf or it was a stand-off: ‘do it to tape or don’t do it at all’. Suddenly a fair amount of time went by.

When I became director I asked about it, doing it at City Center, and Twyla said, ‘It’s not big enough [the theatre]; you just can’t do it. The stage won’t support the patterns.’ I commissioned from her Brahms-Haydn [The Brahms-Haydn Variations, 2000] and it just brought [Bach Partita] to mind. I thought it’s getting to be 20 years, it’s time we did it.

And then the violinist issue came up again. I think really through time it was about breaking down the barriers about who had the chops to do it; should it be a big-name person or should it be a discovery, whose choice should it be? Ultimately we found this wonderful violinist, Charles Yang, who is a product of his age. He can play those Bach partitas with a real personality of his own but deliver the tempos that Twyla wanted. He’ll do that for us one night and then he’s off doing some new-wave project the next night. It’s remarkable. [Yang will come to Brisbane with ABT.]

In the end, that’s it. One can always look for a juicy story but sometimes it really is a matter of waiting for all the stars to align.

It was astounding to see it come to life, a 28-year memory. And what is memory, how accurate is it? It’s really made up of impressions. When I saw it come to life whole swaths of it that looked familiar and I could see the dancers that it was created on behind the choreography. Other parts I had no memory of. Ultimately what was really astounding to me, and riveting, was how exactly like the music the structure of the ballet is – intensely intricate and fierce.

The music is layered with information, and the structure of it, the designs, the floor plans, if you will, the patterns, are just ingenious and they have the intensity of the music and it takes 36 dancers to execute. The one thing I had never considered was that – I walked away and thought I’d seen a visual version of the music.

 “Three gentle-mannered couples in simple, fluid white clothing by Holly Hynes treat the music as if it were a glade in which to dance together, alone, and in couples. One of Ratmansky’s great gifts is stitching together classical steps in ways that are full of trickery. Yet the unexpected twists or changes of directions or choice of movements never look plotted. His choreography breathes, sighs, pauses, plays a joke, and runs off laughing, as if complex, difficult dancing were a simple, easy-to deliver utterance.”

– Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice, 2009, on Seven Sonatas

McK: Seven Sonatas is like putting your head into a very private dinner party. I wanted [Ratmansky] represented, and this was the work that was going to be in repertory this year. He’s doing a new Sleeping Beauty for us in our 75th anniversary so there’s no time for him to create a new smaller work, so we’re beginning to curate the smaller works that we have already.

The thing that is representative of Ratmansky in Seven Sonatas is it is incredibly personable. One feels as if they are making it up as they go along. It seems to be a signature of his – it’s like you’re listening in on a conversation between the artists. It’s a very intimate piece. That notion of a conversation between artists was something that the music really drove.

[DJ: Is there a link with Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering?] To some degree. Yes, if you were to say that Dances at a Gathering is a genre, yes, to that degree. That’s where the likeness begins and ends. It’s so definitely Ratmansky in the way that Robbins is so definitely Robbins. Tudor’s Leaves are Fading – that is very Dances at a Gathering genre too, but they have no resemblance to one another.  One is absolutely Tudor, the other absolutely Robbins.

Visiting Australia with McKenzie were principals Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside, who described their experience of dancing Swan Lake together.

James Whiteside: When I joined ABT that was my first Swan Lake. First of all I needed to learn the steps. That’s where we started. Obviously we had met before. Kevin [McKenzie] would get us into the studio and say, okay, you start over there, and go step, step, kick, step. Not really.

Gillian Murphy: No, that’s not the choreography!

JW: We took it from there, one step at the time.

GM: I was excited to dance with James for his very first performance of Swan Lake and I’d say I am spoiled from dancing with Ethan [Stiefel], Angel [Corella], Marcelo [Gomes], David [Hallberg] – pretty much everyone. I’d never danced with James before, so before we even did anything I said, James, I need to tell you I’m spoiled, I’ve done this ballet with so many amazing men and it’s one of my favourite ballets, love it so much, and so I’m not usually difficult at all but I may have some things I’ve learned over the years so …

When we had our first rehearsal I wasn’t worried at all but didn’t know what to expect exactly, and from the first moment James partnered me I was like, oh, ok. I’m in really good hands here, so this is going to be really fun. And from the first rehearsal we were getting really excited about it. For me, just to dance it with James in his first performance is a special thing because I wanted to be there for him and to make it a special debut.

In terms of talking about the characters and whatnot, once James had learned the choreography it was a matter of we would do parts of the pas de deux and Kevin would say, this is looking good, but what are you saying there? This is where the conversation starts.

JW: If there’s a moment where I am unsure of what something means, I’ll speak up and say, I don’t understand why I’m doing this. Please enlighten me. I think it’s important to infuse your dancing with meaning instead of mindless steps. That’s why I felt so confident dancing with Gillian because I could read her movements so easily and see it in her eyes exactly what she was thinking and it made the conversation very simple in a way, and I think that’s the best policy when it comes to acting.

GM: James and I respond to each other’s body language very innately which is good. This is not a verbal art form. So we could talk about it ad nauseum and we could both talk about our characters and what we’re feeling here and what we’re feeling there, and sometimes we would do that, but for the most part there are a lot of things that are best said through your body, and that’s what we’re responding to. So that conversation happens in the moment, and it’s different every moment. The premiere that we did together was a very special performance I thought. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

JW: When you’re premiering a role and especially a ballet as iconic as Swan Lake, there’s a certain expectation and pressure. I have to say I was incredibly surprised that I enjoyed every moment of it. It was such a comfortable performance. I couldn’t have been happier to dance with Gil and having literally such a great time on stage, feeding off of each other’s energy and the energy of the audience and our peers and making art.

American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (nine performances), August 28-September 4; Three Masterpieces (four performances), September 5-7, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

Footnote: I read that former ABT principal Cynthia Harvey was in the first cast of Bach Partita so, having interviewed her before, I got in touch to ask what she remembered of the piece. Harvey described her thoughts as only “my vague recollection over a great many years”, but despite the passing of so many years her description is useful and interesting.

Cynthia Harvey: I was not a principal dancer in the original cast, I was one of the soloists but later I did dance, I believe it was the part originally done on Magali Messac. All I can recall is that the choreography was intricate – Twyla used a lot of phrases that were repeated either in retrograde (like movie film going backwards) or we did phrases that were in canon – perhaps facing another direction. I recall a certain formality but simplicity. I don’t know if it was intentional to NOT “go for Baroque” in terms of gesture, but the intricacy might have been the tribute. I think the formality and sweep of the movement reflected the music. I remember there were issues regarding using our ABT musicians to perform the partita as Twyla had the tempi and especially the emphasis of dynamics based on one recording. That she choreographed those emphases, or at the very least, we couldn’t avoid placing musical emphasis in parts she choreographed, was part and parcel of the recording she had been inspired by.

The Bolshoi in Brisbane

Le Corsaire, May 30; The Bright Stream, June 7. Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane.

THERE is no more interesting, influential or thoughtful choreographer working in classical ballet than Alexei Ratmansky and Brisbane was fortunate to see two distinctly different examples of his art in its sell-out Bolshoi Ballet season.

And what a pleasure it was to concentrate on the Bolshoi’s qualities as a ballet company rather than the extremely unsavoury politics that appear to have led to the acid attack on artistic director Sergei Filin. The movement was easy and expansive, with no sense of bravura for its own sake – extensions were kept modest and refined even as the quality of attack was robust – and the dancers’ vivid, detailed acting filled the stage and energised the audience. (Mind you, the Lyric Theatre stage at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre is much smaller than the Bolshoi’s – no wonder some of the action in the sensation-packed Le Corsaire looked a bit cramped.)

Le Jardin Anime in Le Corsaire

Le Jardin Anime in Le Corsaire

In 2007, when Ratmansky was artistic director of the Bolshoi, he restaged Le Corsaire with Yuri Burlaka, basing the production on Petipa’s choreography and delving into early sources to provide a window into Imperial-era style and taste in classical dance. In 2003, while still with Royal Danish Ballet, Ratmansky had revived The Bright Steam for the Bolshoi, re-choreographing the comedy to the joyous, neglected score by Shostakovich. The Bolshoi brought both works to London in 2007, where I was lucky enough to see them – Le Corsaire’s Act I Pas d’Esclave was given a mighty jolt by a then very young Ivan Vasiliev; Filin appeared as the Ballet Dancer in The Bright Stream – and both ballets were a good choice for the just-completed Brisbane season for Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s International Series.

There was no Vasiliev this time of course: after leaving the Bolshoi last year he briefly touched down in St Petersburg for the Mikhailovsky and is a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre (one of the in-and-out kind). He will, however, appear in the Bolshoi’s upcoming London season, dancing in The Flames of Paris with his partner Natalia Osipova, soon to join the Royal Ballet. (Neither did Brisbane see Bolshoi premier – principal – David Hallberg, but that was never going to be possible, alas. He was fulfilling his ABT responsibilities at the time.)

For a company of its size the Bolshoi has a small number of principal artists. There are 148 members of the corps de ballet named on the Bolshoi website but only 10 women and eight men in the top rank. Of the women, four came to Brisbane: Maria Alexandrova and Nina Kaptsova, who appeared on both opening nights, Ekaterina Krysanova and Ekaterina Shipulina. Only two principal men made the journey – Mikhail Lobukhin and Ruslan Skvortsov, both wonderful in The Bright Stream. First soloists Denis Medvedev and Denis Savin also stood out amongst the men. Not surprisingly there was no sign of the outspoken principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who has been much in the news giving his views on Filin’s acid attack and on the Bolshoi management. It has just been announced the Bolshoi will not renew Tsiskaridze’s contracts, which expire at the end of June.

The Bolshoi’s taste and gift for the large gesture has no better example than Le Corsaire. It isn’t just bolshoi – big – it is gigantic; an extravaganza that sets new standards for going over the top even before you get to the brief postscript, in which a pirate ship on stormy seas breaks in half. The show weighed in at about 3 1/2 hours, came with a cast list that named nearly 50 dancers before we got to the corps, children and supernumeraries, and offered a version of the ballet that harks back to the days when the Russian court was the last word in luxury. Le Corsaire is a mad amalgam of stun-gun and sugar hit and resistance was futile. The house was packed for eight performances.

Over the years Le Corsaire has been tinkered with greatly so it’s something of a Frankenstein’s monster of a piece, including using the music of enough composers – seven, headed by Adolphe Adam – to start up their own guild. The result is a feast of melody that was delivered in exceptionally fine form by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Pavel Sorokin. The QSO sounded even better when accompanying The Bright Stream, but no surprise that Shostakovich should trump a stitched-together committee when it comes to a score.

The Le Corsaire plot need not detain us long (the synopsis takes nearly 2000 words to explain it) but involves pirates, slaves, kidnapped maidens who couldn’t be more cheerful or compliant, a harem, disguises and that shipwreck. It’s a highly perfumed fantasy that’s happy to deliver outrageous caricatures of Middle Eastern appearance and manners alongside a glittering stream of set-piece dances whose only aim is to delight with virtuosity or vivacity. It’s tutu heaven, essentially, with women plucking an opulent new ensemble out of thin air at a moment’s notice. The tutus, designed by Yelena Zaytseva, using Yevgeny Ponomaryov’s 1899 sketches, were gorgeously detailed and delightfully wide and floaty, with light layers of fabric over a smaller, more rigid base that acted as a support.

The logic, if such a word can be used with Le Corsaire, is that of the dream world and of Imperial-era classical ballet. The spectacle is the thing, and nowhere more mesmerisingly than in the lengthy Act II scene known as Le Jardin Anime. A strictly organised garden is a metaphor for the hierarchies of ballet, cascading down from heroine Medora (I saw Alexandrova) and seconda donna Gulnare (Nina Kaptsova) to the women of the generously stocked seraglio. Men are reduced to holding floral hoops in the background while the women – magisterial prima ballerina, lively solo ballerina, demi-soloists and the corps – present themselves to advantage and support one another in the sisterhood with some gentle partnering.

The whole ballet could, in fact, be seen as a bouquet to the art of the ballerina – the men’s big dance moments are fleeting. Denis Medvedev gave a bouncy account of the Pas d’Esclave and would perhaps have given a better account of the famous Corsaire solo than did Vladislav Lantratov, who played Medora’s pirate lover Conrad. In this production Conrad, the male lead, gets the showy solo rather than it being the province of the slave, as is frequently seen. Lantratov had a fairly ordinary night at the Brisbane opening, failing to deliver the thunderous impact one hoped for.

Alexandrova’s warm stage presence, big jump and her beautiful arms were entrancing, although she didn’t quite scale the heights of grandeur called for in Le Jardin Anime. Kaptsova’s quick precision and spark lit up the stage and the Odalisques pas de trois was illuminated by Maria Vinogradova’s quiet radiance and exquisite line.

Not all the dancing hit the dramatic heights one might have anticipated from this storied company, but it was a hell of a show.

The Bright Stream

The Bright Stream

The Bright Stream is a light-hearted romance set on a collective farm at harvest time and comes with a dark history. The ballet was initially applauded but Soviet authorities soon came down hard on the collaborators. The librettist was sent to the gulag, the director of the Bolshoi at the time was demoted and Shostakovich wrote nothing more for the ballet. The ballet’s front cloth indirectly alludes to this, bearing, in Russian, quotes from Stalin and Pravda’s denunciation of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, “Muddle instead of music”. Near the end of the ballet a man with a scythe appears – not a farm hand, but the Grim Reaper. He doesn’t prevail here, however. In this happy tale he is dismissed.

In restaging The Bright Stream with his own choreography, Ratmansky paid homage to those persecuted artists and, I think, to the ordinary folk of Stalinist Russia who lived their lives at that time as we all do: doing our best with the hand we’re dealt, working, loving and laughing when we can. He also refocused attention on a neglected ballet score of extraordinary richness and appeal. Bright brass tones constantly add unusual weight and colour, lush strings herald romance (or the appearance of it) and folk and jazz rhythms add spice to the ever-danceable melodies and Ratmansky is ever alert to the possibilities for illumination of character or comedy.

There are shades of the shenanigans of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the role-swapping in The Marriage of Figaro to add to the magical texture. This is a place where many strange things will happen before the resolution.

Intrigues, flirtations, complications, impersonations and disguises rule the day when a ballet troupe from the city comes to perform at an obscure farm’s harvest festival. Through dance full of light and overflowing with joy, everything will be sorted out for Pyotr, a local agricultural student with a roving eye, and his loving wife Zina. The visiting Ballerina and her Ballet Dancer partner (they have no names other than that) may be the catalysts for mayhem but they also find its solution, which features the cross-dressing male dancer on pointe as a fetching sylph. A bicycle-riding dog adds to the merriment.

The Bright Stream was stocked with superb dancing that turned on a pin’s head from comedy to rapturous classicism. Even better was the beautifully judged acting from everyone on stage, in big roles and small. Leading the pack at the first performance were Alexandrova’s Ballerina and Kaptsova as a delectably airy Zina, remembering her earlier days in ballet by whizzing though a few sets of fouettes. The first don’t quite come off:  Zina feels at a disadvantage, the country bumpkin compared with the glamorous big-city dancer who is incidentally an old friend. Later, when she knows her would-be love-rat of a husband (manly, slightly goofy Mikhail Lobukhin) won’t succeed in his wooing of the Ballerina, Zina can reel the turns off with great elan.

The plot required Alexandrova to dress as a man, in which guise she was high-flying and zesty; when dressed in the long tulle skirt of the Ballerina, Ruslan Skvortsov was modest and appealing, his evocations of ballerina roles and demeanour having a sweet air of homage rather than send-up.

The Bright Stream had only four performances, and undoubtedly more could have been filled had the ballet been more of a known quantity before the event. Producers Leo Schofield and Ian McRae can’t afford to get things wrong with a venture of this magnitude, however. Better to leave ‘em wanting more.

And there will be more. After QPAC’s presentations of Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Hamburg Ballet and the Bolshoi comes … Well, the announcement is likely to be made next month. Bravi Schofield and McRae.

Versions of the Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream reviews appeared in The Australian on June 3 and June 10.