Beauty in the eye of the beholder

Revelations in New York, stars made at The Australian Ballet, Alina Cojocaru in Brisbane and more …

The Australian Ballet dubbed its 2015 season A Year of Beauty. Giselle, Swan Lake, Cinderella and Frederick Ashton’s The Dream were on the program, lovely ballets all, but essentially teasers for the main event – the new Sleeping Beauty, staged by artistic director David McAllister with opulent designs by Gabriela Tylesova. On the other side of the world an even grander production was unveiled. American Ballet Theatre’s Alexei Ratmansky sought to return The Sleeping Beauty to something close to its original form and style.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beau...

The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, designed by Gabriela Tylesova

In Brisbane, Queensland Ballet staged Greg Horsman’s smaller-scaled interpretation (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011) and a visiting company, Russian National Ballet Theatre, toured Australia and New Zealand extensively with (inevitably) Swan Lake but also Beauty. The AB’s new Storytime Ballet venture for very young children was launched this year with, yes, The Sleeping Beauty (a miniature clocking in at well under an hour).

I thus had my own Year of Beauty in 2015 with 10 performances in all – two casts of the Ratmansky, four of McAllister’s, two of Horsman’s and just one Russian National Ballet Theatre (more than enough, alas) and one Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. 

This Beauty bounty inevitably drew me back to DVDs of productions including those by The Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and The Australian Ballet. Their stagings of Sleeping Beauty could be looked at anew, particularly in light of Ratmansky’s discoveries, and encouraged repeated returns to the complete score (the 2012 version by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi for Chandos is superb) although none of the versions I saw used all the music, as no one does. A little-admired four-hour 1999 Mariinsky version aiming for authenticity has been dropped from the repertoire. These days companies want – and need – to bring The Sleeping Beauty in under three hours. At American Ballet Theatre the reason was stated bluntly in the program: “The ballet has, however, had to be cut somewhat to fit within the union-defined time limitation.”

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora for ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

It’s worth quoting in length from David Nice’s scene-by-scene analysis that accompanies the Chandos recording to see the kind of thing that’s lost. In the second entr’acte (the first is rarely heard at all), “the note C is sustained by the strings, principally the violins, for exactly one hundred bars. This is time suspended: the ‘sleep’ chords … and the themes of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse pass and dissolve. Few if any productions observe the full symbolic duration of this hypnotic spell – Aurora is usually heard to sleep for a mere forty or so years.” Not that Petipa used every bit of the music Tchaikovsky wrote for his ballet either. Pragmatism reigned then as now.

All the productions I saw were traditional ones underpinned by Petipa’s 1890 staging for St Petersburg’s imperial Ballet. It and other ballets were recorded in the Stepanov system of notation and came to the West in the luggage of Nicholas Sergeyev, a regisseur who managed to exit Russia not long after the revolution of 1917. Diaghilev’s 1921 production The Sleeping Princess was based on these notations as was The Royal Ballet’s of 1939, staged by Sergeyev and also called The Sleeping Princess although claiming to be more true to Petipa’s original than Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes version (with which Sergeyev was also closely associated). When revived in 1946 – and famously winning over New York in 1949 – the ballet was now The Sleeping Beauty and contained some new choreography.

The Beauty staged by the RB to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2006 had further changes: it was billed as being produced by Monica Mason and Christopher Newton after Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev with additional choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon. That list in itself tells the story of how ballet is translated and transformed down the ages. The Australian Ballet’s 1993 recording has choreography by Petipa, “reproduced by Monica Parker from the Nicholas Sergeyev notation” with direction and additional choreography by Maina Gielgud.

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Sarah Lane and Herman CornejoŽ in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

The versions are very similar when it comes to the overall story arc and key passages but have many different details that give an individual stamp. Not all of them are improvements, as Ratmansky’s painstaking research into how The Sleeping Beauty would have looked in 1890 makes clear.

The choreographer made a close study of the Stepanov notations and created a revelatory version for ABT and La Scala, who shared the eye-watering cost, reported to be in the vicinity of $US6 million. The money was well spent: this was indisputably the dance event of the year. I saw it in New York in May following its premiere in California. The production was extraordinarily sumptuous, flooding the Metropolitan Opera stage with so many dancers and supernumeraries that at some points there were more than 100 people on stage.

Even so, Ratmansky used fewer people than were in Petipa’s original, with its hordes of children, pages, courtiers, cavaliers and minor royalty to attend upon their majesties, each carefully arranged according to rank. The Sleeping Beauty is not only a fairy tale celebrating the victory of good over evil. It depicts a formal, long-established power structure as the embodiment of harmony. Its traditions and ceremonies imply continuance and order. In such a world Carabosse’s exclusion from Aurora’s christening, the event that initiates the action, puts a great tear in the social fabric. Ratmansky shows that in a healing gesture she is invited to Aurora’s wedding. It makes perfect sense, even if in the vast congregation at the end of the ballet Carabosse was seen only fleetingly.

And that’s the thing about Ratmansky’s version. It feels right dramatically and musically at every point.

A brief moment in the Rose Adagio perfectly illustrates how ballet can shift from its original intention into a kind of never-never land of whispers only partly heard. Aurora steps forward on her left foot, on pointe, then lowers her heel to the floor. She bends forward in an arabesque penchée, inclines her head and upper body towards the audience, bends her right arm and holds it close to her chest. Her right hand is seen to touch her left cheek, or perhaps is held near her face without obscuring it. Aurora does this four times, and sometimes the four Princes kneel behind her, all together or else one by one. Sometimes she leans on each Prince as she passes (as in the Grigorovich version for the Bolshoi), sometimes not. Sometimes she gives the Princes a glance, sometimes not. What exactly is she doing here, in this very specific sequence of body and head inclines?

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Diana Vishneva with violin pages. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Ratmansky tells us. Aurora is listening to a group of little pages as they play violins. In the Grigorovich staging, filmed in 1989, we can see youngsters dancing in the background while holding violins; in the RB version, young boys stand in the background plucking mandolins in a haphazard and desultory fashion. So the idea there should be some young people on stage with stringed instruments has survived, sometimes, in some form, but not their reason for being there. It may seem odd to single out a sequence that lasts less than 20 seconds but it always looked meaningless to me; Ratmansky turns the light on.

It was also delightful to see the Precious Stones music of the third act danced by the rarely seen fairies of Gold, Silver, Sapphire and Diamond (in McAllister’s and Horsman’s productions the Prologue fairies are drafted in for these dances). The Sapphire music is, excitingly, in the tricky metre of 5/4, written this way because Petipa was thinking of a five-faceted stone. In 1946 the RB introduced the now-familiar characters of Florestan and his sisters to replace the jewel fairies, with choreography by Ashton.

Study of the Stepanov notations revealed a quality of movement that has changed dramatically since Petipa’s time although Ratmansky also examined many other sources to fill gaps. For guidance on upper-body style Ratmansky consulted Ballets Russes material, including film shot in Australia by Melbourne eye specialist and ballet enthusiast Ringland Anderson that McAllister was able to make available. In Ratmansky’s version there are no extreme extensions. Legs are held softly, there is extensive use of the demi-pointe and lines are more rounded. With less height comes more speed and time for intricate footwork. The ballet sparkles as much as it intrigues. A delightful aspect is the low retiré position in pirouettes, sometimes not much above the ankle. In supported pirouettes the men use one arm only to guide the ballerina rather than paddling her around, and there are many other surprises, such as the double air turn for the Prince that ends with a landing on one foot. A beguiling airiness prevails.

The production includes some elements from The Sleeping Princess and later versions of the ballet that are now considered standard, including fish dives in the grand pas de deux and the arms raised en couronne as Aurora pauses, balancing on pointe, in between greeting each suitor (said to be a Fonteyn innovation). Interestingly, the very poor production from Russian National Ballet Theatre is more faithful to Petita in both those respects although quite chaotic in others. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that the Russian Aurora I saw, Elizaveta Lobacheva, perhaps didn’t attempt the balances in the Rose Adagio as we know them because the taped music offered no room to move. (I saw her Odette-Odile too; she’s a very proficient dancer.)

David McAllister’s staging experience was quite limited before he took on the task of bringing a new Sleeping Beauty into his company’s repertoire to replace Stanton Welch’s 2005 production. It was a courageous move on his part, pulled off remarkably well. I have a handful of reservations about aspects of the storytelling but audiences have responded strongly and a long life seems assured. It needs to stick around: this Beauty cost the royal sum of $2 million or thereabouts, although more than 70 per cent of the budget came from about 2000 ballet-lovers, making donations big and small. Some gave individual gifts of more than $50,000, others put in $100. It was an impressive fund-raising feat.

Lana Jones in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Bal...

Lana Jones in David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

While the drain on the AB coffers wasn’t particularly great for such a large-scale production, the many people who donated would have a right to feel very cheated if it wasn’t a stayer. My prediction: when the AB vacates the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House for some months in 2017 to allow replacement of the ageing theatre machinery it will presumably perform elsewhere in the city and will need popular repertoire to entice the audience to follow. If it can get the Capitol – and I stress I have no information on this – the larger stage and the big, ornate auditorium would be perfect for this Sleeping Beauty.

I digress. As I wrote just after the Melbourne premiere in September, Gabriela Tylesova’s design “is almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revels in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There are columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas.” It is a sumptuous fantasia at one with Tchaikovsky’s magical score and I enjoyed it greatly each time I saw it, or at least most of it. I still think McAllister and dramaturg Lucas Jervies have muddled and muddied certain details of the story but McAllister was able to field strong casts and gave several dancers a career-defining break.

The AB seems to have hit the mark with Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Hordes of tutu-wearing, wand-waving little ones packed the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House to see a vastly simplified version of the ballet, helped along with clear, clever narration. The dancing from young Australian Ballet School graduates and members of the AB’s education ensemble was a touch on the careful side as they negotiated bits and pieces of Petipa on the small stage. (For the first time ever I regretted the absence of the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots from Act III; I think the children would have adored them.) The real fun came from panto-like interaction between narrator Catalabutte and an enthusiastic audience that was thrilled to warn of Carabosse’s appearance at Aurora’s birthday party – “Behind you! Look behind you!!” – and helped rouse the slumbering palace with lusty wake-up shouts.

Storytime Ballet The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. photo Jeff Busby 01

Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Queensland Ballet’s production, which I saw in October, is a great success. Greg Horsman made it for relatively small forces and his cuts and conflations are done with a keen eye to clarity and logic. The world he creates is coherent and consistent in tone. Everything makes sense in a world that’s perhaps not terribly grand but zesty and imaginative. Among the pleasant innovations is the presence at the christening of four young princes who will grow up to become Aurora’s suitors; the garland dance arranged for gardeners and their girls, making it happy and relaxed; and a youthful, glamorous Carabosse who has the ability to turn into a dragon.

Russian National Ballet Theatre toured New Zealand and Australia for three months, offering more than 100 performances divided between Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. They performed in a variety of venues, from modestly sized arts centres in small cities to large theatres such as Melbourne’s Regent and Sydney’s State. In October I saw The Sleeping Beauty in the Big Top at Sydney’s Luna Park, not the most atmospheric venue for grand classical ballet but RNBT was taking whatever venues it could. There was a set of the most meagre kind (well, an unchanging backcloth really), recorded music, far too few dancers and the story told in such broad strokes as to be incomprehensible.

It was depressing to see how basic everything was. The Princess Florine made no attempt to emulate the flutterings of the Bluebird with whom she was dancing, thus eliminating all charm and meaning; Carabosse, shorn of attendants, dashed about the stage manically and confusingly; the hunt scene appeared to be happening within the castle confines; and so on. RNBT’s ability to have so many dates on this tour is evidence, however, that there is audience demand for the ballet classics that is not being met by local companies, and that Russian companies, no matter how inadequate, can still pull a crowd.

While I greatly admired Ratmansky’s production, the first-cast Aurora of Gillian Murphy felt rather too modern for this staging despite the care taken to rein in her 21st-century facility. Her Prince, Marcelo Gomes, was a wonderfully charismatic figure. Although Sarah Lane, a soloist I saw at the second New York performance, was not as technically assured as Murphy she was warm, youthful and had lovely rapport with her Prince, the superlative Herman Cornejo. He bounded through the fleet, delicate, precise footwork with much ease and charm.

Queensland Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - International Ballet Stars Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao Image 6. Photo David Kelly

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

At Queensland Ballet there was the gift of Alina Cojocaru as guest artist. She is rightly thought to be among the very best, if not the best, Aurora of the moment. As I wrote at the time: “She radiates light and joy from a tiny body that gives the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing is brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything feels as if it is the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all is her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompasses the entire theatre.”

QB’s second-cast Aurora was the newish principal artist Yanela Piñera, who came to Brisbane from National Ballet of Cuba. She dances on a grand scale, making the Act III pas de deux a glittering highlight in concert with principal Hao Bin, who recently announced his retirement and will be missed in a company with few experienced leading men.

The AB ended its Year of Beauty on a high note by promoting three dancers who had made debuts in Sydney as Aurora and Prince Désiré. At the Melbourne premiere principals Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson gave stately performances that matched the grandeur of the setting. Two months later, on the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre stage in Sydney, there was a more intimate feel, at least in the performances I attended.

Brett Chynoweth was made a senior artist (the second-highest rank) after his soaring, heartfelt Prince Désiré. There was a felicitous pairing with senior artist Natasha Kusch as Aurora – though both are relatively small they make an abundant impression with legs like rapiers, exquisitely articulated feet and loads of height and speed. This was an incredibly important opportunity for Chynoweth, who has rarely been cast in leading classical roles (although he danced a very fine Prince in The Nutcracker in 2014). In Beauty he radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing.

Robyn Hendricks’s first Aurora also won her a promotion to senior artist. She was a slightly mysterious young woman in whom you could see the queen she is destined to be. The watchfulness and engagement with her suitors created a whole, interesting, individual character and the elegance and quiet sophistication of her dancing spoke of great things ahead. Principal Adam Bull partnered her securely although he was not looking in peak physical form – a little tired at year’s end perhaps.

Bernet-Kate Longley

Benedicte Bemet in rehearsal with Kevin Jackson. Photo: Kate Longley

McAllister astutely gave coryphée Benedicte Bemet the inestimable support of principal Kevin Jackson, who has been on fire all year, for her debut as Aurora. It could be the start of a very fruitful relationship following the retirement earlier this year of Jackson’s most frequent partner, Madeleine Eastoe. The possibilities for Bemet would appear to be boundless. Her Aurora rates as the most exciting debut I’ve seen in more than 40 years of ballet-watching. At just 21 she brought the authentic glow of youth and promise to the stage. She was so entirely at one with the role that all the technical requirements and difficulties simply disappeared. Every step was part of her journey from innocent to prospective bride to woman on the brink of maturity.

Usually one has a sympathetic butterfly or two as the dancer approaches the climactic balances and promenades of the Rose Adagio but not here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were astonishing – the audience went wild – and they were part of a story. There was purity, radiance and joy in Bemet’s dancing. She was enchanting; a promotion to soloist swiftly came her way.

I haven’t even got started on the many exquisite fairies and Bluebirds, the merits or otherwise of various Carabosses and Catalabuttes, the conducting and many other aspects of this endlessly fascinating ballet. But enough, I think, for now.

Dance in 2013

THE Australian dance-lover had plenty to enjoy in 2013, as long as there was a decent travel budget to hand. Paris Opera Ballet returned to Sydney, the Bolshoi had a season in Brisbane, The Australian Ballet premiered a new version of Cinderella by Alexei Ratmansky (Melbourne and Sydney only, although Adelaide sees it in 2014), Queensland Ballet had extended sell-out seasons under new artistic director Li Cunxin, West Australian Ballet brought Onegin into its repertoire and Sydney Dance Company got even more glamorous.

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

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

Those were the big events of 2013. Unfortunately there were fewer small-scale gems, or at least few I was able to see. In the wide, brown land it’s not always possible to find oneself in the right city at the right time to catch up with the leading contemporary companies and independent artists, particularly when seasons can be cruelly short.

There was also a lot of déjà vu when it came to international visitors. Of course one would never knock back the chance to see Sylvie Guillem, or Akram Khan’s work, or Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, but the names bob up again and again. I acknowledge, however, that I travel around the country to see dance more than most people do. Perhaps I just get out too much.

What follows, therefore, isn’t necessarily a reflection of what was best (although much was terrific), but what was memorable.

The dancers:

The AB nabbed Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev for performances of Don Quixote in Melbourne. Vasiliev roared on like a comet and didn’t let up from the get-go. He’s no text-book classicist, but gee he’s fun to watch. Dancing the lead gypsy, resident AB firecracker Chengwu Guo threw in a cheeky backwards somersault just to remind the audience there were other men on stage. Later in the year, after dancing Basilio with boyish charm, Guo was promoted to senior artist. By year’s end he was a principal artist, promoted onstage after a high-flying appearance as James in La Sylphide. A very wise call on the part of AB artistic director David McAllister.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Also at the AB, Daniel Gaudiello got more opening nights (Basilio, James, the Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella), and rightly so. QB’s Li Cunxin likes him too. Gaudiello was a guest artist in Brisbane for Giselle – making his role debut as Albrecht – and will appear in 2014’s Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio when QB stages the MacMillan production from late June.

Still with the AB, Leanne Stojmenov had the role of her career in Cinderella, and in The Four Temperaments and Dyad 1929 (part of the Vanguard program), evergreen principal Lucinda Dunn exuded wisdom and sensuousness in works that can look all too coolly intellectual. Also on that bill was Kylian’s Bella Figura, in which corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow had one of those break-out moments.

In Brisbane, it was adorable to see Alexander Idaszak, in his first year out of the Australian Ballet School, be given the chance to dance Albrecht and to do it with such composure (he’s already moving on, however, to Royal New Zealand Ballet, which also has a starry artistic director in Ethan Stiefel). Li showed faith in another newbie, Emilio Pavan, when he was cast as the Prince in The Nutcracker, an assignment he carried out with much promise. Li added Natasha Kusch to his already lustrous group of female principal artists, and she was astutely paired with former AB dancer and now Dutch National Ballet principal Remi Wortmeyer in Nutcracker. It was a sparkling partnership.

In Perth, new artistic director Aurelien Scannella has restructured the company, creating principal artist, soloist, demi-soloist and corps de ballet ranks. On the opening night of Onegin – secured for WAB by former artistic director Ivan Cavallari – WAB showed off its new principal, Jiri Jelinek, formerly with Stuttgart Ballet and National Ballet of Canada (he is now a guest principal with the latter). Senior women Jayne Smeulders and Fiona Evans, now principals, were completely different and very fine Tatianas, and Matthew Lehmann found himself promoted to the top rank after his Onegins.

POB’s Giselle performances gave us the luminous, diaphanous Dorothee Gilbert and the role debut of Myriam Ould-Braham, a dancer made for this role. Mathieu Ganio, aristocratic to the last molecule, partnered both but Ould-Braham’s sweet simplicity seemed to make him warmer and ever-so-slightly gentler. In the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream, a delight from beginning to end, Maria Alexandrova was exceptionally vibrant, witty and warm.

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The AB managed to insinuate itself into David Hallberg’s very full diary for three performances of Cinderella in Sydney. The refinement, grace and noble partnering of the American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal artist were a perfect fit for Ratmansky’s ballet, and Hallberg even managed to make something of the Prince’s travels, one of the slightly less successful parts of Cinderella. Hallberg’s Cinderella was Amber Scott, whose other-worldly delicacy made her a lovely match for this prince among princes.

A special mention goes to Sydney Dance Company as a whole. It’s a spectacularly good-looking ensemble.

The dances:

As you’ll see from the above, there wasn’t a lot of surprising work on offer. From the tourists, the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s down-and-dirty The Rite of Spring were outstanding. Locally, SDC’s Cacti, the exceptionally amusing work by Alexander Ekman, and the AB’s Surrealist Cinderella made most impact. Well, Cinders looked much better in Melbourne, but what can you do? I also was extremely taken by Dance Clan 3, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s studio showing of new work. This time four of the company’s women – Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, Tara Gower, Jasmin Sheppard – took up the challenge, and did so most movingly. One of those terrific evenings when you have no idea what’s ahead. I didn’t get a lot of that this year.

The ideas:

I’ve said this quite a lot elsewhere, but I love the way SDC’s Rafael Bonachela is engaged with other artists from other forms. Les Illuminations brought together SDC, string players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor Roland Peelman, singer Katie Noonan and fashion designer Toni Maticevski to celebrate the centenary of Benjamin Britten. It was a standout, and a pity there were so few performances.

In Brisbane Queensland Ballet has taken advantage of the state government’s new Superstar Fund to lock in big-name guest artists for its mid-year Romeo and Juliet. Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Sydney-born Royal Ballet luminary Steven McRae come to town. Gaudiello will be back too – it’s so good to see this wonderful dancer getting more recognition.

Another big idea for QB is the institution of The Nutcracker as an annual Christmas event. Time will tell whether it will catch on indefinitely, but this year’s season did boffo box-office.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season announcement showed a small but potentially important programming shift. Instead of the usual and unvarying number of performances given to each program, regardless of audience appeal, the AB will now give shorter seasons of the contemporary rep. This is most noticeable in Sydney, where there will be nine performances of  the Ballet Imperial/Suite en Blanc double bill (May 2-17) and 10 of the Chroma/Sechs Tanze/Petite Mort/ New Baynes work bill (April 29-May 17). Note the overlapping dates – yes, programs in repertory!

As mentioned, WAB has introduced the kind of ranking system most usually seen in larger companies. Aurelien Scannella has forcefully talked about having more dancers (predecessor Cavallari got WAB a huge boost during his time). Can Scannella manage a further upwards trajectory in a city that has a huge appetite for big stuff but not so much for throwing money at the arts? And at a difficult time for the state’s finances? Worth keeping an eye on. As is QB’s obvious ambition to provide not just an alternative, but a competitor, to the AB.

The dance that turned into a play but was still full of dance:

One of the sweetest pleasures of 2013 was Gideon Obarzanek‘s Dance Better at Parties for Sydney Theatre Company, a play based on his dance work for Chunky Move that had its genesis nearly a decade ago when Obarzanek interviewed men about movement. The play, a two-hander for Steve Rodgers and Elizabeth Nabben, was simplicity itself. A bereaved man comes to a dance studio to learn how to dance, which may help him fit in socially, but really he is in desperate need of contact. To be touched. And the audience was touched too, very deeply.

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

The disappointments:

The big, big loss this year was the cancellation of Spring Dance, the festival inaugurated by the Sydney Opera House and now pulled out of the calendar. Yes, it was costly, but gave contemporary dance a highly visible platform from which to entice audiences. Fragments of it remained – Les Illuminations (see above) and Akram Khan’s iTMOi – “In the Mind of Igor” – which did not entirely convince me.

Freeze Frame, the collaboration between the Brisbane Festival and Debbie Allen, was well-meaning but lacked coherence in just about every department. Allen wrote, choreographed and directed. And appeared in it. There’s a hint right there.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, is entirely inadequate for ballet of any scale. The sets for Onegin had to be cut back and squashed in and the sightlines are terrible from many seats. Tough cheese though. It’s unlikely there will be another new theatre in Perth for a decade or more – the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, home to Black Swan State Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, was opened in 2011. Poor old WAB is not well served at all.

What a shame that Australia’s smaller centres aren’t able to see the AB, QB and WAB regularly. Instead the gap is filled by touring Russian companies of extremely variable quality. This year I saw a Nutcracker from an outfit called Russian National Ballet Theatre, whose provenance is a little difficult to work out, although companies under that name have toured before. I paid nearly 100 bucks (no, let’s be fair, my sister paid) for no orchestra, a severely truncated story, classroom choreography and production values that were modest. I do understand that local companies wouldn’t be seen dead putting on productions of such a low standard and that it costs a great deal to do better, and that they already have full schedules. But if I had a magic wand …

The year’s most graceful tribute:

In July Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for The New York Times, set out to describe the attributes of an American ballerina, and was even prepared to say how many women in US companies currently deserve to bear the title of ballerina. The number is not great: “at least 10” is what Macaulay was prepared to say. In reply, in the December/January edition of Pointe magazine, Gillian Murphy – a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet – gave her perspective. Along the way she had this to say about RNZB’s Lucy Green, a young Australian being given important roles with the company: “I am excited to watch a young dancer with extraordinary promise grow into a star.” Murphy praises Green’s dance attributes, then continues: “However, for me, it is her work ethic, her imagination and her sensitivity to others that really classify her as a ballerina in the making.” Murphy admires dancers who “encourage greatness in everyone around them”. Beautiful.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

 The Trans-Tasman Prize for Sang-Froid:

I’m including RNZB here again because I can. The month is July, a performance of Swan Lake, featuring Lucy Green as Odette-Odile, has not long finished, and RNZB staff and dancers past and present have gathered for a late-afternoon party to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary. Wellington is shaken by an earthquake – a big one. Everyone dives to the floor, which is moving alarmingly. The tremors stop, we all get up and the party continues. Well, that’s one way to cut the speeches short.

Finally…

Many thanks to London-based writer and critic Ismene Brown, who gave unparalleled, necessary insight into the dance world’s biggest story in 2013, the Bolshoi crisis and its fallout. And moving right along, there’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze in St Petersburg. Follow her @ismeneb; ismeneb.com

Next up, what’s of interest in 2014?

Nutcracker, Russian National Ballet Theatre

Civic Theatre, Newcastle, October 2

ON Wednesday night I went to Newcastle for a family outing to the ballet, the Russian National Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker, which is touring in repertory with – no surprises here – Swan Lake. Newcastle’s lovely Civic Theatre wasn’t exactly overflowing with eager ballet fans, despite the city being famed for its production of high-level dancers.

There were a couple of possible reasons. Only the night before RNBT had performed Swan Lake, and just two weeks earlier the Imperial Russian Ballet Company, also on tour around Australia, had presented its wacky but generous triple bill A Festival of Russian Ballet. (This consists of Nutcracker condensed into one act, Bolero, and a series of divertissements.)

Whatever the reason, it was a pretty good call on the part of Newcastle to steer clear of Nutcracker. Tickets were nearly $100 for the following: a severely truncated ballet with only the vaguest storyline; choreography consisting almost entirely and repetitively of classroom combinations; and a production of modest scale, to put it kindly. Press material describes the ballet as having a “huge cast”, but that isn’t true, unless you think of about 30 dancers as a huge company. The Stahlbaum’s party was a very wretched affair indeed.

Of course there was no orchestra; just a tape of Tchaikovsky’s score, reduced and indifferently played.

There was no cast list available so I bought the $20 program, which revealed very little other than there are four principal dancers – this for a tour with 53 performances and not many nights off – and that the promoter is a Chinese outfit, which may explain why more than a handful of the dancers look as if they may be Chinese rather than Russian. (I do acknowledge the vast extent of Russia across Europe and Asia.) The “company director” is Evgeny Omosov, described in the program as the co-founder, in 2001, of RNBT (one assumes he is the choreographer of this Nutcracker).

Recent reviews from the US of a company called Russian National Ballet Theatre say the outfit is led by Elena Radchenko and it is described as having been founded in the late 1980s, although at first called Soviet National Ballet. It is Radchenko’s company that seems to have attracted the description of being “a cut above many of its rivals”. That seems fairly faint praise but the phrase is requoted everywhere, as it is said to come from The Washington Post.

These words are emblazoned on the cover of the program I bought in Newcastle. Is this the same company? Who the hell knows? I do know that Elena Radchenko’s name is nowhere mentioned, and the founding dates don’t match up.

Anyone at all familiar with the development of ballet in the 20th century knows that it stood on the backs of dancers who were prepared to tour anywhere and everywhere, spreading the gospel. Some of the very biggest names in ballet were the most indefatigable. So this treadmill touring isn’t anything new. It’s also not new that the Russian brand is being exploited. For many people, “Russian” is a guarantee of authenticity.  Alas, this isn’t necessarily the case.

I can understand the desire of Australia’s smaller cities to get an experience of the ballet, but it is so disheartening to see productions like RNBT’s Nutcracker promoted as keepers of the flame. Both my nieces, former ballet students, said it reminded them of an end-of-year production from a not-so-good ballet school.

I think I must have seen Anastasiia Kolesnikova as Maria (usually known as Clara) and Sergei Zolotarev as the Prince, although don’t quote me on that. Both leading dancers were clearly much better than their material and Kolesnikova (if indeed it were she) acted vividly. The guy dancing the Mouse King was pretty good, but I have no idea who he is.

I was much taken by a dark beauty in the corps, a dancer of subtlety and grace who looked as if she were in another world entirely rather than a sparsely attended show quite unworthy of her talents, and with another 30-plus shows to come, most in one or two-night stands. It’s Wollongong tonight, Sydney’s Chatswood tomorrow (Swan Lake, sold out), Sunday off, Wagga Wagga Monday and so on until the tour ends at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre on November 19 having started in Mackay on September 21.

In the interests of fairness I must report that the small audience reacted very warmly to the performance.

As for the Imperial Russian Ballet Company, it started its tour in Mandurah, Western Australia, on September 4 and ends in Sydney at the State Theatre on October 27. It appears to have built a popular following Australia, having toured several times. It promises to return next year. If you want my opinion, Imperial Russian Ballet Company is a cut above the version of the Russian National Ballet Theatre I saw this week, but what they both offer is a simulacrum of ballet, a vague appearance of the real thing with unidentified dancers in threadbare productions, churning their way through dates to canned music. All at very steep prices.

This is proof indeed of a big appetite for ballet in regional Australia, and that people will pay for it. A niche has been identified. Sadly, however, it appears that to fill that niche you need a commercial producer prepared to treat dancers as if they were anonymous assembly line workers, have extremely modest standards when it comes to staging, be happy to present the greatest classical repertoire in bastardised forms and without live music, and trade off having a connection with Russia.