Everything old is new again

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, February 20 and February 24.

GRAEME Murphy’s Swan Lake has been a touchstone production – and a fortunate one – not only for The Australian Ballet as a whole but for many dancers. At its premiere in Melbourne on September 17, 2002, Simone Goldsmith started the evening as a senior artist and ended it as a principal. Steven Heathcote was Prince Siegfried, as he would be so frequently until his retirement in 2007 and Margaret Illman was an unforgettable Baroness von Rothbart, the third party in the tangled triangle at the heart of the ballet.

By the time the production opened in Sydney on November 28, 2002, senior artist Lynette Wills had assumed the role of the Baroness and she, like Goldsmith, found herself promoted to the company’s highest rank at the after-show festivities. She had waited a long time, and this role gave her the breakthrough.

Over the years young dancers who started out as wedding guests or swans in 2002 graduated to larger roles: the corps de ballet list in September 2002 includes Adam Bull, Andrew Killian, Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Leanne Stojmenov and Danielle Rowe, all of whom would become principal artists and dance Odette, Siegfried or the Baroness. All are still with the company with the exception of Rowe, now with Netherlands Dance Theatre.

In the case of Madeleine Eastoe, then a soloist and now a long-serving principal artist, the path to Odette was swift. I first saw her in December of 2002 and most recently five days ago when Swan Lake opened in Sydney. She was lovely then and is extraordinary now.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

From the start audiences loved the interpretation created by Murphy, his creative associate Janet Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson. It looked absolutely luscious and its story, while being set in an Edwardian world, was clearly influenced by the troubled marriage of Prince Charles and Diana. It was, and is, a wildly glamorous and highly emotional piece of theatre. The AB didn’t hold back. The Murphy Swan Lake has been staged almost every year since 2002, although not always in Australia. It is the work invariably chosen to take on tour and has been seen in Paris, Tokyo, London, New York, Los Angeles and other cities. Later this year it will tour to Beijing.

For this Sydney season Swan Lake continues its role as a trailblazer. It’s not being seen at the AB’s usual home of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House but is at the Capitol, a venue devoted almost exclusively to large-scale musical theatre. Amusingly, this is because the Wicked juggernaut is tying up Queensland Performing Art Centre’s largest theatre, which is where one would expect the AB to be at this time of year – and the Capitol is the very theatre vacated only last month by Wicked before it headed north.

There is obvious potential to broaden the company’s reach beyond the rusted-on ballet crowd by coming to this venue and the undeniable truth is that Swan Lake looks much better on the Capitol stage than at the Opera House (Opera Australia is ensconced there as usual in February so the Joan Sutherland Theatre was unavailable anyway).

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Friday’s opening night was strong, which didn’t surprise given that the company knows the work inside out (this was the 185th performance). What lifted Swan Lake into another realm was the riveting connection between Eastoe and her Siegfried Kevin Jackson. This is truly one of the exceptional partnerships of Australian ballet.

She was all air, light as a feather blown across water; he was all earthy desire and anguish, a flawed and complicated man. As a partner Jackson is not quite in the league (who is?) of Heathcote and Robert Curran – they both danced with Eastoe many times in this ballet – but his immersion in the role and his interpretation of it were electrifying. He wasn’t afraid to look brutal in his treatment of Odette as she unravels on her wedding day, having seen the extent to which Siegfried is in thrall to the Baroness. But he seemed more desperately unhappy and frustrated than a hardened brute, and his Act II lakeside pas de deux was filled with tenderness.

Eastoe has not changed her approach to Odette; she just seems more and more luminous every time. Of the eight Murphy Odettes I’ve seen she is the most heart-rending. Each has had a strongly individual character – a hallmark of this production is that markedly different interpretations are equally valid – but with Eastoe you see innocence slaughtered. It is devastating.

Ako Kondo has exceptional allure but on Friday I thought her vampy Baroness was still a work in progress. In Tuesday’s cast Kondo’s fellow senior artist, Miwako Kubota, was more multi-layered and sympathetic. Kubota made you see the Baroness’s pain as well as her desire. (By the way, Kubota was also in the corps in 2002 when Swan Lake premiered.)

Senior artist Juliet Burnett finally got her chance to dance Odette, and did so partnered by fellow senior artist Rudy Hawkes. It was a persuasive match. Hawkes was an entirely different Siegfried from Jackson. Here was a prince entirely out of his emotional depth, fulfilling his duty as expected and finding things falling apart disastrously and unmanageably on his wedding day. Burnett’s Act I Odette was somewhat spiky in temperament and unstable. This bride, who appears compliant and unsure of herself, is not entirely subservient.

Burnett hasn’t entirely worked these contradictions into a seamless whole. It interests me that Burnett is a very fine writer about dance and thinks deeply about her work; on Tuesday, particularly in Act I, she telegraphed some of that thinking a little too forcefully. When her strong, clear ideas were transformed into action and into feeling they had powerful dramatic authority.

In pure dance terms Burnett and Hawkes had a few moments on Tuesday night that didn’t go entirely to plan – and they were just a few – but they also put their own stamp on the choreography, making many key images entirely fresh with different accents or textures. This is why balletomanes go to a particular ballet repeatedly: not to see it again, but to see it made anew.

Other thoughts:

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bernet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin must now be the Cygnets of choice. They are adorable.

No one does a dash across the stage and hair-raising body-slam as vividly as Reiko Hombo (Young Duchess-to-be).

Sometimes it’s just impossible to erase memories of past exponents of certain roles. Take the Guardian Swans, for example. I can still see Danielle Rowe and Lana Jones. Perfection.

Colin Peasley – what can you say? He’s 80 and still getting out there on stage as the Lord Admiral, as ramrod straight as ever.

 Swan Lake ends on Saturday February 28.

Cinderella, the Australian Ballet

Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. State Theatre, Melbourne, September 17

I CAN say one thing with absolute certainty about the Australian Ballet’s new Cinderella: it will take many viewings to reveal all its riches and intricacies. For that reason it’s likely to be a keeper for the AB and a rarity. A new full-length story ballet that can be revived many times is a prize devoutly sought and so rarely found.

Alexei Ratmansky choreographed Cinderella as his first full-length ballet, for the Mariinsky in 2002. His version for the Australian Ballet is a new one, and a big one in every way. It has a large heart and a tender one, wrapped in a visual landscape of great sophistication. Jerome Kaplan’s designs are beautiful, colourful, dramatically apt and often highly amusing, and they would crush a lesser choreographer. Fortunately the elan of the design is more than matched by Ratmansky’s vision.

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

When the production was announced it was stressed from the outset that we wouldn’t be seeing any tutus, nor would there be mice or a pumpkin or tiaras or other bits and bobs that have come to be attached to the story like barnacles on the bottom of a boat. By choosing Surrealism as their version of a fairytale world, Ratmansky and Kaplan put down layer upon layer of complexity and intrigue, embracing the darker side of the fairytale genre and the context in which Prokofiev composed his bittersweet music. The score was written in the early 1940s and premiered at the Bolshoi, to choreography by Rostislav Zakharov, in 1945. It was born in the shadow of war.

On a first hearing the music can seem deceptively unassuming, another reason why return visits to Cinderella are valuable. The AB’s music director Nicolette Fraillon led Orchestra Victoria in a truly luscious, moving and dramatically aware account of the score, bringing out the wealth of colours and rhythms that drive the action as well as the wistfulness – very Russian! – that lingers like scent in a room after a person has left it.

There were many ballets on the Cinderella theme before 1945 and many since, but, as Ratmansky says, there isn’t a definitive classical-era version. Frederick Ashton’s 1948 choreography has come to be seen as the yardstick but that view may well be fading. Ashton’s grotesque stepsisters, danced by men (Ashton and Robert Helpmann in the original cast), hijack the piece and his ballroom scene has far too many pallid spots. Prokofiev’s score, on the other hand, has endured as Cinderella enjoys a recent resurgence.

Ratmansky places his Cinderella between the two great wars of the 20th century when, for a moment, some thought there would be no more great wars. The Surrealists’ bracing, unsentimental take on the world is fruitful here. The look is fantastical but astute in its mining of deep-seated human impulses. Not surprisingly for a work so concerned with the passing of time and our perception of it, Cinderella includes a homage to Salvador Dali’s melting clock (from The Persistence of Memory). There’s much more in that vein. Huge eyes survey the scene, topiary turns into metronomes and a full moon morphs into a clock inexorably ticking its way towards midnight. Other Surrealism-inspired props include a nod to the Dali sofa that paid tribute to Mae West’s pillowy lips and hats in the shape of shoes that giddily adorn the heads of Cinderella’s Stepmother and her stepsisters, Skinny and Dumpy.

Kaplan, acknowledging the theatricality of this art movement, frames Cinderella in a false proscenium arch. We are seeing theatre within a theatre and a fantasy within a fantasy. Cinderella, her mother gone, is unloved in her new household. Her father is barely present and she dreams of being swept away and cherished. When the Fairy Godmother arrives, she isn’t some old mystery crone who appears out of nowhere and rewards Cinderella for being kind to her. She is a projection of Cinderella’s longing.

Such an idea makes Cinderella a rather more interesting figure than the usual drudge whisked away from the hearth. Ratmansky gives her a moment of pleasurable day-dreaming in which her stepsisters, Skinny and Dumpy, try their hand at a few chores. They manage poorly, being useless bobbleheads. It seems proper in this reading that the stepmother and her daughters are vain, silly and thoughtless, but mostly not vicious. True, they take early pleasure in destroying Cinderella’s mother’s portrait, but their nouveau-riche gaucheries are very funny and expressed in spiky, tumbling choreography that makes them quite endearing in an empty-headed way.

On opening night Amy Harris (Stepmother), Ingrid Gow (Skinny) and Halaina Hills (Dumpy) rose magnificently to the challenges while dressed exquisitely and eccentrically. (A glance at the AB’s cast list just before opening showed that Juliet Burnett and Reiko Hombo were originally in the first cast. Burnett was a late scratching due to injury and there was only one other pair ready – Gow and Hills. Hombo was then paired with Gow for an early performance; now she dances with Robyn Hendricks’s Skinny. Yes, it’s hilarious to think of Hombo and Hills in a role designated Dumpy, but a good call for them not to be kitted out in fat suits. A voluminous puffball skirt does the trick. There are only two Stepmothers at this point too – Harris and Dana Stephenson – an indication of how exacting these parts are.)

The central pillar of Ratmansky’s dance-making is his love for the classical tradition, made individual and new. It’s a joy, too, to see how he knits in shapes and gestures that illuminate character or illustrate the music’s intention. The formality of mime is gone, softened into dance phrases that speak. References as disparate as traditional European folk dance (raised and bent arms; circling pattern), smart society dance (sexy hip-swivelling) and more formal classical shapes meld seamlessly in the gorgeous corps work in the Act II ball scene, the men and women looking good enough to eat in their slinky, lusciously coloured suits. The women later change into dresses similar to Cinderella’s elegant below-the-knee gown, reminiscent of Christian Dior’s New Look of 1947, but by then it’s too late for any of them to nab the Only Man Who Mattters.

The Prince’s first entrance is spectacular, a rousing flurry of high-flying jetes and quicksilver entrechats. The alpha male is commanding his rightful attention; of such things are character and story built. Best of all, though, is the meltingly beautiful series of solos for Cinderella and her pas de deux with the Prince. The swirls of Cinderella’s upper body are simultaneously delicate and luscious. Often there is a contrast between the sumptuous, yielding torso and strong, searching arms – all so very, very eloquent, entrancing and full of meaning. And what a dreamy moment when the ballroom melts away to reveal a garden in the moonlight. Ratmansky and Kaplan really know how to deliver romance. On opening night Daniel Gaudiello, resplendent in a white suite, and Leanne Stomenjov – I just loved her hair, so chic with its Marcel Wave – surrendered themselves with grace and impeccable style.

Ratmansky wanted to take another look at Cinderella because he felt his Mariinsky version didn’t entirely work. These things are relative of course. Obviously the Mariinsky is quite happy as it revives the production regularly. But Ratmansky wanted to try other things. Apart from pulling back on mime in favour of dance (hurrah!), a significant change is to the section in which the four seasons appear before Cinderella, representing the passage of time. Ratmansky felt there was too little happening for all the music at this point in the scenario and inserted instead a large set of celestial bodies – Sun, Moon, stars, all the planets. His canvas isn’t just the world; it’s the cosmos, overseeing Cinderella’s fate.

It’s a powerful idea, but not entirely successful. The scenario is not a little confusing as one tries to make sense of this whirling, leaping bunch of forces outfitted in Kaplan’s most extravagant costumes. Later, as the Prince goes on his travels, one can see why many choreographers take the easy route and cut substantially here. The “many lands” and “many temptations” of the synopsis are compressed into a couple of scenes that give the perverse impression of being too much and not enough. Graeme Murphy came up against the same knotty issue in his Nutcracker: The Story of Clara. Like Murphy before him, Ratmansky hasn’t resolved this section entirely satisfactorily.

The celestial bodies in Ratmansky's Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

The celestial bodies in Ratmansky’s Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Perhaps further viewings in Sydney will alter my feelings. The December diary is begging to be filled with more visits and other casts. Speaking of which, there’s the prospect of seeing American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal David Hallberg as a guest artist in Sydney, as the Prince naturally. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Melbourne, until September 28. Sydney, November 29-December 18. Adelaide next year.

Don Quixote x 6

The Australian Ballet, six performances in March and April 2013

BALLET’S reliance on and reverence for its history is powerful in so many ways. In the Australian Ballet’s 2013 Melbourne and Sydney seasons of Don Quixote the women dancing Kitri were coached by former American Ballet Theatre principal Cynthia Harvey; the leading men prepared under the eye of former AB principal artist Steven Heathcote, who also appeared with distinction as the Don in many performances.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvey for a program essay and discovered that among the sources for her interpretation of Kitri – captured on DVD with Mikhail Baryshnikov – was Kirov star Ninel Kurgapkina, who was one of the last pupils of Agrippina Vaganova, who in turn had a direct connection with Marius Petipa. Rudolf Nureyev’s production, made on the AB in 1970, is based on Petipa’s work, and of course Nureyev brought to the company his own web of important connections.

Daniel Gaudiello and Lana Jones in Don Quixote. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Lana Jones in Don Quixote. Photo: Jeff Busby

That’s the big picture. Ballet connections work on the micro scale as well. I took my young great-niece to see Don Q at the April 20 matinee, as she has become a keen student about to embark on the next step of taking private lessons to supplement her ballet classes. Her mother, my niece, came along too and was reminded of her own days as a ballet student: at one point she danced alongside AB soloist Matthew Donnelly, who that day was performing the role of Gamache with considerable elan.

Which is a long way of saying it didn’t seem an entirely mad thing for me to see six performances of Don Q in the space of four and a half weeks, with five of them crammed into two weeks. I’m finding the jaunty Minkus ear-worms hard to banish but it turned out to be a valuable exercise. That is, if one can discount the completely mad plot, such as it is, and the regrettable lapse into jazz hands and shoulders amongst the gypsies of Act II.

In order of Kitri/Basilio pairings it went like this: Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev guesting in Melbourne; Leanne Stojmenov and Ty King-Wall; Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo, guesting from Stuttgart Ballet in Sydney; Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo; Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello; and Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. When the season ends on April 24 I will have missed only one cast, that led by Reiko Hombo and Yosvani Ramos – a pity, as Ramos leaves the company immediately after Don Q.

One dancer we unfortunately wouldn’t see is the AB’s longest-serving principal artist (since 2002), Lucinda Dunn. She was a spectacular Kitri when the AB last staged Don Q in 2007, but has been with the company for 22 years and it wasn’t a surprise to see her name missing from the casting this time around. Dunn is rightly choosing her repertoire carefully now.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

Osipova and Vasiliev (March 16) were, of course astonishing. Osipova can zip across and around a stage about twice as fast as anyone else and throws out megawatts of charisma and polish. Vasiliev seems to have a jet-pack somewhere about his person as he performs the apparently impossible, both in the air and on the ground. It isn’t fair to compare anyone to them, although Badenes (April 6, evening) wasn’t far behind Osipova from a technical perspective and I preferred her characterisation, which was sunny and effortlessly on top of all the by-play. Perhaps Badenes’s Spanish heritage is the key. Camargo was exceptionally confident and charming, if a touch untidy from time to time. Still, they made a sparky couple and the AB seemed energised by them and – if this isn’t a paradox – more relaxed than when faced with the Vasipova tornado.

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

I thought I should try to see senior artist King-Wall as it was clear he was knocking on the door of the principals’ dressing room. The afternoon of April 6 looked good for this, and so did King-Wall. AB artistic director David McAllister came on stage at the end of the performance to announce the promotion. King-Wall isn’t the most natural choice for Basilio. He is more the prince than the joker, but he hit the right comic moments without over-playing them, exploited his elegant line and partnered Stojmenov beautifully. (An aside: it’s a pleasure to see the care with which most of the AB men partner, with what we might describe as manly tenderness.)

Stojmenov is a terrific Kitri, fleet of foot, cheerful of temperament and with a good dash of sexiness. Of all the women, she made the most of a moment in Kitri’s grand pas de deux variation when a swirling fan movement around the torso contrasts sensuously with a series of crisp echappes.

The next must-see was Guo/Kondo (April 13, evening). Guo is a real fire-cracker and a self-selector for Basilio. He came into the season as a soloist and emerged as a senior artist. Quite right too. It was interesting to see his Gypsy Boy in the Osipova/Vasiliev performance in Melbourne. He finished off with an unorthodox but joyous backflip, as if to acknowledge the excitement and virtuosity of the evening – essentially to put himself in the same show as the superstars. Gorgeous.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

As Basilio Guo showed a very clean pair of heels. Like Vasiliev he isn’t tall and it helps him in the air, where he is exciting. The stage – particularly in Sydney – is too small for his space-eating energy. And he’s a sweetheart, fun and bubbly. Guo didn’t attempt the one-arm lift in Act I but tossed in a little something else, cheekily scratching his calf with his foot while holding Kondo aloft.

Kondo is a lovely soloist whose interpretation is still somewhat unformed. It felt as if the role was sitting on top of her rather than being part of her and she doesn’t have the most fluent back, which is a fine attribute to have in a Kitri. But Kondo and Guo were well matched in ballon and elevation.

The first cast of Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello got a well-deserved and well-received opening night (I saw them later, on April 16). Jones offered big, expansive dancing, extending everything to the max. Gaudiello was immaculately precise in allegro and plush in adagio. And he gave great guitar spin as he tossed the instrument over his head after Basilio’s pseudo musical interlude in Act I. It was a performance full of attractive brio.

Finally came Eastoe and Jackson (April 20, matinee). Don Q isn’t the ballet that best suits their temperaments – the soulful side of the street is where they excel. It goes without saying Eastoe was an enchanting Dulcinea and her floaty balances were divine, but there were few fireworks, apart from when Jackson pulled off a v-e-r-y long-held single-arm lift in Act I.

There was mixed success in some of the secondary roles. Principal Andrew Killian (Espada) upped the ante after a quite subdued showing in the Osipova/Vasiliev  performance but could have projected even more and Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Wright got the bullfighter’s shapes without much of his macho glamour. Senior artists Miwako Kubota and Juliet Burnett were fine Dryad queens but principal Amber Scott, a dancer of great lyrical gifts, was spooked by the grand fouette sequence.

It’s always worth taking a close look at those cast as Amour as they are often on the up and up (the role reminds me of Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro – it’s a small soprano part aficionados scope out for stars of the future). Hombo is perhaps a little too assertive for Amour these days; Halaina Hills, Jessica Fyfe and Benedicte Bernet were warmer, sweeter. Hills could cut back on the sugar a bit, Fyfe was delightful but wayward musically at the performance I saw, and Benedicte Bernet – a candidate in this year’s Telstra Ballet Dancer Award – was very good.

What other stray thoughts emerged? Well, that the women of the corps were too often out of kilter in the vision scene; that the long diaphanous cape Kitri wears at the beginning of the ballet should never, not ever, be worn over a tutu as it is at the beginning of the vision scene; that Brett Chynoweth, recently promoted to soloist, does a great Gypsy Boy whip crack and it’s energising to see how passionately he dances; and that after all those Don Qs it will be a relief to get to the palate cleansers that the upcoming Vanguard and the brief Canberra-only program Symmetries promise to be.

Vanguard, Sydney, April 30-May 18; Melbourne, June 6-17.

Symmetries, Canberra, May 23-25. It features a new Garry Stewart work, Monument, alongside Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments (also part of the Vanguard program) and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux.