Character building: dance isn’t only for the young

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

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

Colin Peasley in Swan Lake Paris 2008 Photo Lisa Tomasetti 006

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

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

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

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

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

QB-Paul Boyd-Catalabutte

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

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

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

AB-Lisa Bolte-Swan Lake

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

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

Bodytorque.Technique

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Theatre, October 31.

THIS year they called the annual choreographic workshop Bodytorque.Technique. It would have been rather closer to the mark to call it Bodytorque.Influences. Five of the six new works paid such homage to established choreographers you’d think royalties would be in order. But for all the sense there wasn’t a huge amount of originality in movement language, there was a consistently high standard in the work, probably more than in any other year of Bodytorque’s decade-long history. It gave the audience an extremely enjoyable and accomplished evening of dance and the program had consistency and coherence.

The “technique” part of the title steered the choreographers towards a use of classical vocabulary, as it did a couple of years ago when the pointe shoe was the focus of attention. There was no dance theatre or contemporary dance as there had been in other years, giving the evening a satisfying unanimity of purpose.

But of course that’s not the primary purpose of Bodytorque. It seeks to discover and promote new choreographic talent, and it’s extremely rare to find a keeper. In the first decade of Bodytorque there has been only one graduate to the main stage, Tim Harbour, and he has been quiet of late.

It’s not surprising to see new choreographers take inspiration from established dance-makers when they are starting out and this crop has been touched by some of the highest-profile people in the business. For instance, Benjamin Stuart-Carberry’s Polymorphia, with its sudden silences and blackouts, summoned memories of William Forsythe. The complicated, tangled pas de deux in Alice Topp’s Tinted Windows recalled Christopher Wheeldon. Halaina Hills made no bones about her debt to George Balanchine, smartly acknowledging it early in Mode.L by referring to one of the key images from Apollo. Ty King-Wall’s The Art of War, in which four men vie for the favour of one woman, reminded me somewhat of Robert Helpmann’s The Display in its male jostling for ascendancy. And Richard House’s Finding the Calm perhaps scored the Jiri Kylian guernsey for its cool sexiness, elegant arrangements and the suggestion of complex relationships. I could happily have watched Finding the Calm again right away because I wanted to know more about his two couples. Job done.

All the works were confident and, for the most part, extremely well structured. These are gifts that can’t be borrowed. Only Stuart-Carberry got a bit stuck on technique at the expense of direction in Polymorphia, although I enjoyed his strong, expansive upper-body work as two women (Imogen Chapman and Valerie Tereshchenko, both exquisite), mostly occupying separate pools of light and often mirroring one another, looked ravishing but oh so distant. His choice of music,48 Responses to Polymorphia by Jonny Greenwood, worked well with its dissonances that resolve themselves into harmonics in that Stuart-Carberry was interested in symmetry and asymmetry. It’s likely Stuart-Carberry has absorbed lessons from being (a brief) part of Sylvie Guillem’s 6000 Miles Away program. While it was just performed in Melbourne, Stuart-Carberry was also involved when 6000 Miles Away showed in Sydney in March last year. A great opportunity for this former AB dancer.

Hills showed an extremely sure hand in the way she shaped the variety of her groups, duos, solos, entrances, exits and the details that add texture to a work – a terrific ending, too, although the piece overall was too derivative with its Balanchinean hip thrusts and swivels. But as they say, if you’re going to steal, take from the best. Mode.L’s pluses included the ambitious use of Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments, played live, and Ako Kondo’s sparkling central role. Hills should be encouraged to work on ideas for next year’s Bodytorque pronto.

Topp, who has previously impressed at Bodytorque (twice) was over-enthusiastic in the way her couples grappled and the manipulation of the women went too far in the direction of manhandling for my taste, but she has a touch for mood and atmosphere. Tinted Windows over-stretched itself in the search for a marriage of and differentiation between technique and feeling, an impression compounded by the use of Leif Sundstrup’s rather soft-grained music. There was an odd pause in the middle, too, that simply didn’t work as a dramatic moment. I thought at first that a dancer had been injured or missed a cue. Topp’s coup in securing fashion designer Toni Maticevski to create the romantic costumes added glamour and the opening night audience gave Tinted Windows a huge cheer. Despite my reservations about aspects of the ballet, it would be so good to see Topp given further chances to develop.

It was heartening, by the way, to see two women on the bill. One of the big discussions in classical dance is the paucity of female choreographers.

King-Wall’s melding of martial arts-inflected moves with classicism in The Art of War wasn’t quite as seamless as it might be but there was virtuosic work for the men and a pleasing sense of intrigue with his solo woman in the red dress. The music, a selection of pieces from the group Coda, didn’t strike exactly the right note with the choreography but that’s part of the process – finding the most fruitful correlations between dance and music.

As Hills had earlier in the program and Josh Consandine would do after, King-Wall understood that putting an uneven number of dancers onstage can create tension, narrative and structural interest all by itself. The choreographers were allowed a maximum of five dancers each, and these three took the full option.

Consandine, a former principal dancer with the Australian Ballet and a Sydney Dance Company alumnus, was a natural choice for the program’s closer as he’d come up with the most polished piece of the evening. In-finite was also the most purely classical work, leavened with jokiness and humour but knowing when to stop. The group of two men and three women demonstrated the need to work as a team and the impulse to be an individual; they showed the joy and anguish of dance; they got in some fouettes and pirouettes a la seconde; principal Andrew Killian found himself in a headstand; and there was a brief, antic breakout of jazz hands. A delight.

I could see In-finite being a big hit on the circuit of the Dancers Company, the AB’s touring arm made up of graduating students from the Australian Ballet School and AB guests. I could also see Finding the Calm doing business. A good result for Bodytorque this year.

The provision of live music for several pieces was a bonus, with Simon Thew conducting a small ensemble of players from the Australia Opera and Ballet Orchestra. It does make a big difference. As always Bodytorque gives lower-ranked dancers a moment in the spotlight. There really were far too many to mention (isn’t that good?), but those who like to go talent-spotting at the AB had plenty to work with.

Kat Chan was billed as design co-ordinator for all the pieces and costume designer for In-finite (loved the cheeky little minimalist tutus) and Finding the Calm; Graham Silver lit all the works. The choreographers were most handsomely supported.

Next year Sydney loses Bodytorque to Melbourne. I hope the city cherishes it, although there will need to be patience. In 2014 Bodytorque – subtitled DNA, whatever that may mean – is slated for the State Theatre, three performances only, and not in one block. So there’s a huge stage, a huge auditorium, lack of continuity in performance and lack of heft in the number of performances. I do understand that the AB has the theatre for its use at that time and to go elsewhere would cost, but the venue is far from ideal.

The word is that Melbourne has always asked for Bodytorque. Well, now it’s going to get it, and needs to put its money where its mouth is.

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 Dumpty.

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.