Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet

State Theatre, Melbourne, June 30

Stanton Welch looked thrilled after the premiere of his Romeo and Juliet in Melbourne, as he should have. The former Australian Ballet dancer and current AB resident choreographer had brought his own company, Houston Ballet, home. In the audience – along with supporters from Houston – was a galaxy of AB principal artists former and present. I saw Amber Scott, Ty King-Wall, Madeleine Eastoe, Rachel Rawlins, Olivia Bell (she is on the AB board) and, of course Stanton’s brother Damien and his wife Kirsty Martin. Ballet royalty Marilyn Jones, the Welch brothers’ mother, was there too. It was quite a night. (Also watching: American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist David Hallberg, who has been kept offstage for some time due to injury. His Kenneth MacMillan Romeo with Natalia Osipova as his Juliet, seen in New York with ABT in 2012, remains one of my greatest of great nights in the theatre.)

Perhaps it’s not surprising to see in Houston Ballet qualities similar to those of The Australian Ballet. This is in Welch’s blood. I suspect, too, that his Texan audience delights in the way the company dances spaciously, with natural ease and lack of pretension. These are exceptionally attractive traits. There’s no shortage of technical dash but character, presence and skin-bursting vitality are to the fore. Welch honours the traditional classical language but loosens it too so it doesn’t look or feel stagey. Well, mostly. The Friar Lawrence scenes were welcome for giving local audiences a chance to see former AB member Steven Woodgate again but looked rather old-fashioned.

HB2016_R&J_Karina González_1660_Photo Jeff Busby

Karina Gonzalez as Juliet in Stanton Welch’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Jeff Busby

The swift, headlong drama of Shakespeare’s play is given full value in Welch’s production and was buoyed on opening night by a full-blooded performance of the Prokofiev score by Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Houston Ballet’s music director Ermanno Florio. Welch is a choreographer for whom more is more and in Romeo and Juliet he uses that tendency to strong dramatic effect. The city of Verona is a robust, busy, lively society with strong, individual women and men always ready for a lark or a fight. The big picture was terrific and given handsome visual appeal by Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s Renaissance-flavoured sets and costumes.

Most productions of Romeo and Juliet shorten the list of dramatis personae for the sake of clarity. It’s easier for the audience to grasp who is who. Welch dives right in at the deep end. Shakespeare wrote about “two households, both alike in dignity” – the Montagues and the Capulets. Welch makes more prominent the third house in the drama, that of the ruler Prince Escalus, which includes Romeo’s wild friend Mercutio and Juliet’s intended husband Count Paris. Welch gives Mercutio’s brother Valentine a part and enjoyably includes another of Romeo’s friends, Balthasar. Friar John, bearing the letter to the banished Romeo that goes astray, is also seen in an effective vignette. It takes a little while to sort out who is who but adds greatly to the texture of the story and the stage picture.

Welch took out a bit of insurance for Thursday’s opening by fielding all his principal artists bar one (Yuriko Kajiya is Rosaline at some performances). Sara Webb, for instance, took the relatively small role of Romeo’s former love Rosaline and also dances Juliet in this season, as does Melody Mennite, who on opening night was a tavern owner’s daughter. Ian Casady, who is Mennite’s Romeo, was Count Paris on opening night. The lusty, magnetic first-cast Mercutio, former American Ballet Theatre soloist Jared Matthews, also dances Romeo (partnering Webb). Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, who was promoted to principal only three weeks ago after debuting as Albrecht (he is still listed as a first soloist in the program; that’s how new his promotion is), took the minor role of Gregory, member of the house of Capulet.

That said, Welch’s production demands that everyone, from top to bottom, be individual and engaged. The company looked splendid.

First-cast leads Katrina González and Connor Walsh were a fresh, glowing pair of lovers most credibly besotted with each other. The balcony pas de deux was rapturous, studded with exciting lifts and catches that Walsh made look instinctive. And why not, with a Juliet as entrancing as González? Her smile almost made Lisa J. Pinkham’s excellent lighting redundant and she has eyes eloquent and beautiful enough to make angels weep.

Welch’s desire to keep the action flowing and swelling sometimes leads to an over-reliance on certain surefire steps – the men certainly do many double tours (and do them well) – but the fire and passion make it a very seductive evening.

Houston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet ends in Melbourne July 9.

Manon

The Australian Ballet, Brisbane, February 21

MANON, which premiered 40 years ago next month (March 7, 1974), is in an exclusive club, the handful of full-length 20th century ballets that have insinuated themselves firmly into the repertoire. The Australian Ballet doesn’t exactly have it on high rotation but, including this year, Manon has shown up five times in the 20 years since the AB first presented it, including a short Melbourne Festival season guest-starring Sylvie Guillem, for whom the title role was a signature one. Indeed, so well does Manon suit Guillem that despite her almost exclusive concentration on contemporary dance these days she appeared in the role as recently as 2011, with La Scala when she was 46.

Lucinda Dunn and Steven Heathcote in The Australian Ballet's Manon

Lucinda Dunn and Steven Heathcote in The Australian Ballet’s Manon

At the AB notable Manons have included Vicki Attard, Justine Summers, Kirsty Martin, Amber Scott, Rachel Rawlins and others – I have seen perhaps a dozen Manons and they all were quite different, as they need to be. One doesn’t go to Manon after Manon to remind oneself of the steps, just as repeated viewings of opera or hearings of a symphony are not undertaken so the experience can be repeated exactly. The role of Manon is greatly coveted because of the flexibility it offers, and for the unparalleled stream of shiveringly sexy pas de deux Kenneth MacMillan lavished on his heroine and her lover, the student des Grieux. Manon’s is a story of choices made and consequences suffered, with a flesh-and-blood immediacy that sets her quite apart from the supernatural and fairytale heroines who dominate the classical stage.

The AB’s 2014 season opened in Brisbane on Friday with Manon, featuring Lucinda Dunn in what was – and this is scarcely believable – her debut in the role. Dunn has been with the AB for 23 years and in the top rank since 2002 but was on maternity leave in 2008 when the production last surfaced. In 2001, the Melbourne Festival year, it was Guillem’s show. In 1999 Dunn was a senior artist and various principals had claims on the part. The wait was worth it. Dunn’s artistry deepens with each passing year and she must have a doppelganger in the attic absorbing the physical wear and tear that bedevils ballet dancers.

As the ballet opens Manon is on her way to join a convent, not because she has a vocation but because she is poor. She is diverted from this grim fate by chance, swept away by the handsome poet who is, alas, also impoverished. An opportunity to move up the greasy pole of prosperity is taken as money and slightly shop-worn glamour trump penniless young love. It will not end well. Now well versed in the ways of seduction and offered material rewards for it, Manon rides high in demi-mondaine society, falls low and pays with her life, as women must in 18th century operatic stories such as this. Easier to order the moon to relinquish control of the tides than to have the woman prosper, even though she is taking the only path open to her. Well, other than the convent.

In her first performance Dunn was wonderfully alert and active, the driver of her own destiny in co-operation with her brother, Lescaut. This is another role that can be played in a variety of ways – Lescaut can be brutal and controlling, or an amoral cad, or a louche charmer who is cannily opportunistic when he’s not drinking too much, which is the way it felt on Friday. The rakish dash of Lescaut’s choreography suited the first-cast Lescaut, Andrew Killian, extremely well and he and Dunn seemed like siblings, making sense of actions that can seem unmotivated in MacMillan’s headlong dash through the story’s reversals. Their trio with predatory Monsieur GM – scarily attractive Steven Heathcote, himself a former des Grieux of great note – was superb.

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

It was always worth focusing on the key players even when there was abundant colour and movement to distract attention. While the ensemble work is undeniably lively it is mostly inferior flim-flam. In what is supposed to be an upmarket brothel, for instance, the cavortings of MacMillan’s cutsey-pie scrubbers, decked out in appalling wigs, could not be less sexually alluring. In the opening scene there are cart-wheeling lads with grubby faces who are exceptionally cheerful, as such characters usually are in balletland, and entirely unbelievable. And they all conveniently go to sleep at the very same time so Manon and des Grieux can have their first gorgeous pas de deux.

It was much better to watch Lana Jones, dancing with wit and diamond brilliance as Lescaut’s mistress, and the des Grieux of Adam Bull, who started cautiously but got better and better – it will be good to see him after he has a few performances under his belt. That first long, slow solo, in which des Grieux yearningly offers himself to Manon is a tricky one and one could see Bull negotiating the steps rather than the character. His partnering in the first bedroom pas de deux had a couple of clunky moments, and then he seemed to click into gear and submit to the passionate drive of the piece.

The silken way in which Dunn approached the choreography excluded any element of coquettishness, a quality that is brittle and artificial. It is perfectly reasonable to treat Manon as a version of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, the knowing little madam whose first action on leaving school is to toss the farewell gift of a bible straight out the window of her carriage. But that kind of hard-edged calculation is not what Dunn showed. The luscious back bends and delicious ripples in the shoulder spoke of deep pleasure in Manon’s sexual awakening and the goodies it delivered. She didn’t have to work hard at attracting men; she just did.

The production, designed by Peter Farmer, looks suitably sumptuous on the stage of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Lyric Theatre, although I felt at one or two moments the lighting was brighter, and less evocative, than remembered, particularly in the final scene in the Louisiana swamps where Manon meets her end. Still, much of the staging looks like a luscious 18th-century painting come to life.

Along with Dunn’s debut, Friday’s performance brought the first opportunity to hear the newish (dating from 2011) arrangement and orchestration of the score by Martin Yates. Bits and pieces of Massenet, but not anything from his opera on this subject, were sourced and arranged for MacMillan by Leighton Lewis with input from Hilda Gaunt. It worked reasonably well, but after its overhaul the material now sounds more coherent and has a better sense of dramatic build.

The opening pages of the score have an attractive gauzy quality and the sense of transparency continues as a way of underscoring the fragility of the Manon-des Grieux romance before it builds into an outpouring of sexual urgency. The key melodies are lovely and work well as returning motifs that help the drama cohere, and overall Yates seems to have toned down aspects that could fall into the overly sentimental or vulgar category. I hope to get a few more hearings under the belt when Manon comes to Sydney, although undoubtedly one heard the music to greater advantage in the Lyric Theatre. Certainly it was very handsome on Friday in the hands of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the AB’s music director Nicolette Fraillon.

In the end, though, it was Dunn’s night as a woman who delighted in her power and thrilled to the sex, the gifts and the attention but most of all, I think, had that most human of desires: to belong.

The AB opened the year in Brisbane for scheduling rather than strategic reasons, but ballet is becoming a hot commodity here. With Queensland Ballet’s star-studded MacMillan Romeo and Juliet coming up and the American Ballet Theatre visit hot on its heels, you’d have to say Brisbane is now ballet central.

Queensland Performing Arts Centre until March 1. Melbourne March 14-24, Sydney April 3-23.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 24.

The best of 2012 and my picks for 2013

The long list for my top 10 shows of 2012 numbered more than 20 – a pretty good indication of a strong year in the arts. So why restrict myself to 10? No point really, so here are the shows that worked for me last year:

At the Sydney Festival: Babel (Words), a wild dance-theatre ride from choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet; Griffin Theatre Company’s searing production of Gordon Graham’s The Boys, directed with frighteningly effective violence by Sam Strong; The Hayloft Project’s Thyestes, making a welcome Sydney appearance after rocking Melbourne; and the superb I’m Your Man at Belvoir, verbatim theatre about boxing by Roslyn Oades with an authentic whiff of sweat.

In other theatre, Lee Lewis’s spot-on direction made Bell Shakespeare’s School for Wives a delight from start to finish. At Belvoir, Kate Mulvaney and Anne-Louise Sarks’s version of Medea, directed by Sarks, was a triumph. The audacity of the approach – the play is seen from the perspective of the little boys who have no idea what is coming – and superb performances from its two young actors made it one of the year’s absolute best. The final show of the year (and it’s sort of the first production of 2013) came with Sport for Jove’s terrific Shakespeare festival, and you can see my review below.

In the pure dance arena, the first whammy of the year came at the Perth International Arts Festival with American legend Lucinda Childs’s Dance; one of the most intricate, delicate, mesmerising, atmospheric, bloody difficult pieces you’re ever likely to see. Sydney Opera House’s Spring Dance festival, curated by Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela, scored a big hit with Tao Dance Theatre, another demonstration of how apparently minimal means can imply so much.

Also in dance, retiring Australian Ballet principal artist Rachel Rawlins was exquisite in her final performance for the company, as Odette/Odile in the new Stephen Baynes Swan Lake. The torment of Odette’s situation and her desperate need for love’s saving grace have never been more clearly articulated or more moving.

On the opera front Opera Australia’s Lyndon Terracini became a metaphorical rainmaker and a literal rain stopper when Sydney’s weather somehow turned obedient for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. La traviata somehow simultaneously offered intimacy and grand spectacle against one of the most astonishing backdrops anywhere in the world, and threw in Emma Matthews’s gorgeous Violetta too. Matthews backed up with a stellar Lucia in the new John Doyle Lucia di Lammermoor for OA. Its austerity didn’t appeal to those who like a bit of bling to go with their big night out, but Doyle put the performers and the music above all else with stunning results.

Sydney Symphony showed that a big orchestra, huge chorus and a group of top-flight singers can take an audience places that elude many opera productions. The concert performance of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades was outstanding.

I liked Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies more than many – it had everything but a truly convincing story. Top-notch in all departments was South Pacific, the Lincoln Centre production mounted by Opera Australia to huge acclaim and monster box office (and a hugely welcome alternative to Gilbert & Sullivan). South Pacific went so well it gets a return season in Sydney this year. Another instance of Terracini rain-making. A much smaller piece of music theatre – cabaret really – grabbed my attention earlier in the year. Christie Whelan’s portrayal of troubled songstress Britney Spears in Britney Spears: The Cabaret was remarkable for its wit, insight and sensitivity. Not all audiences were in tune with the show’s vein of melancholy and saw it as a send-up. It was much more than that.

Synaesthesia, the music festival staged at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, was extraordinarily stimulating. Involving talents as disparate as Brian Ritchie, David Walsh and Lyndon Terracini (yes, him again), Synaesthesia presented a wide array of music inside MONA, which proved to have wonderfully spacious and sympathetic acoustics. A real winner.

Looking offshore, in New York superstars David Hallberg and Natalia Osipova danced Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for American Ballet Theatre and, at the performance I saw, had to come out for an ovation after the first act so vociferous was the audience demand; later in the year Royal New Zealand Ballet staged Giselle in a new, beautifully lucid production from the hands of RNZB artistic director Ethan Stiefel and Royal Ballet star Johan Kobborg.

And in 2013 …

Frequent Flyer points at the ready, I am greatly looking forward to (in no particular order):

Dance: Sacre, Sydney Festival, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle (Sydney), Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev in Don Quixote for the Australian Ballet (Melbourne only), The Bolshoi Ballet with Le Corsaire and The Bright Stream (Brisbane), Alexei Ratmansky’s new Cinderella for the Australian Ballet (Melbourne and Sydney), West Australian Ballet’s Onegin (Perth)

Theatre: The Threepenny Opera from the Berliner Ensemble, Perth Festival, One Man, Two Guvnors (Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne),Elevator Repair Service’s The Select (The Sun Also Rises), Ten Days on the Island festival (Hobart), Angels in America Parts One and Two, Belvoir (Sydney), The Maids, with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, Sydney Theatre Company, Venus in Fur, Queensland Theatre Company (Brisbane), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz, STC (Sydney), The Cherry Orchard with Pamela Rabe, Melbourne Theatre Company, Waiting for Godot with Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh, STC (Sydney)

Opera: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Carmen, (Sydney), A Masked Ball, in a La Fura dels Baus production, Opera Australia (Sydney, Melbourne), Sunday in the Park with George, Victorian Opera (Melbourne), The Flying Dutchman in Concert, Sydney Symphony, The Ring Cycle, if I can get my hands on a ticket (Melbourne)

Exhibitions: Turner from the Tate – The Making of a Master, Art Gallery of South Australia (Adelaide), The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (Brisbane)