The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, November 30.

The Australian Ballet doesn’t have an annual tradition of presenting The Nutcracker, although on present indications it could. The ballet doesn’t have as tight a grip on the public (or companies’ bottom lines) as it does in the United States but this year’s Nutcracker was pretty much sold out before it opened while other popular entertainments in Sydney are struggling.

TAB has two versions of Nutcracker in its repertoire. Graeme Murphy’s 1992 Nutcracker – The Story of Clara is a wonderful memory piece set during a hot Melbourne Christmas. For a more conventional take, TAB turned to Peter Wright’s 1990 Birmingham Royal Ballet version, giving the Australian premiere in 2007. Audiences loved it from the start, and it’s the Wright production currently packing out the Sydney Opera House.

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Benedicte Bemet as Clara in The Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

John F. McFarlane’s designs are delectable and are a huge part of the production’s enduring success. There’s inevitably a round of applause when a giant flying goose carries Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets and all the costumes, from Clara’s floaty white party frock to her mother’s spectacular red gown and the intense pinks and purples of the Flowers’ gorgeous tutus, greatly please the eye.

Wright plays a straight bat with the story. It’s Christmas Eve, the Stahlbaums give a party at which the magician Drosselmeyer entertains the guests with mechanical dancing dolls and a couple of tricks. Clara is given the gift of a Nutcracker doll, she falls asleep at midnight and the magic begins.

At 15 – the age is specified – Wright’s Clara is a little older than some. She’s by no means fully mature but has spark and a lively mind, brought to vivid life by newly minted principal artist Benedicte Bemet on opening night. A pivotal moment comes when the Nutcracker is transformed into the Prince at the end of the skirmish between giant rats and toy soldiers. He greets Clara with great courtesy; she views him with the wonder of a girl on the cusp of womanhood. One could say the Prince does very little here, except that he is opening the door to a world of life-changing growth and imagination. Senior artist Jarryd Madden was the epitome of grace and chivalry. He was less imposing in his grand pas with Amber Scott’s Sugar Plum Fairy, both dancing more correctly than radiantly. But ah, that earlier moment …

The Nutcracker - 7pm Dress

Jarryd Madden in The Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

Other delights came with soloist Sharni Spencer’s all-conquering Snow Fairy and the appearance of TAB founding member Colin Peasley. He retired, sort of, when the company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012. Now 85, he played Clara’s Grandfather and looks to be on his way towards matching the late Frederic Franklin’s feat of taking small parts into his 90s.

One has to be happy that the Chinese Dance has been somewhat modified to remove the hideous finger-pointing and head-waggling that made it so distasteful but it really needs a complete overhaul. While it’s no longer insupportable, it is dull. Very, very dull. The slinky Arabian Dance, which presumably is supposed to conjure the sensual perfume of the mysterious Middle East or some such thing, could also do with a rethink.

There will be no Nutcracker next year, which is artistic director David McAllister’s last (an announcement on his successor is expected by April). Interestingly, he ends his reign with something of a gamble, a new production of The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. It opens in Brisbane in early 2020, will be seen in Melbourne in August and September and closes out the year, and McAllister’s tenure, in Sydney in November and December.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Choreographer Graeme Murphy was scheduled to deliver The Happy Prince this year but illness prevented him from completing the work and a quick shuffle ensued. Perhaps it was the universe speaking. A new Murphy ballet to end McAllister’s two decades at the helm of TAB completes a circle: the first ballet McAllister commissioned was Murphy’s Swan Lake, a huge success that was performed nationally and internationally almost every year for more than a decade.

The Nutcracker ends in Sydney on December 18.

David Hallberg in Coppélia

In late November David Hallberg told The New York Times that he wanted to “just step onstage quietly here” – the American dancer was referring to Sydney – “and see what transpires”. Realistically there was never going to be much chance of quiet when Hallberg made his first entrance as Franz in The Australian Ballet’s Coppélia last night. A packed auditorium which included a significant number of current and former dancers saw to that. Hallberg’s re-emergence after a two-and-a-half year layoff due to an ankle injury was big news internationally, but it was more than that. Hallberg has spent the past 12 months of his rehabilitation with the AB at its home base of Melbourne and he’s like family.

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Amber Scott and David Hallberg during their Coppelia curtain call. Photo: Kate Longley

Hallberg has been very careful to talk about his return to the stage not as the end of a process, but a beginning. His recovery has been long and laborious and over the past couple of weeks Hallberg has spoken candidly about its difficulties and what led him to seek out the AB medical team, led by principal physiotherapist Sue Mayes. “I was so physically and emotionally broken. I really came with nothing,” he told me recently.

No wonder he looked so happy last night, getting his feet wet (his phrase) in a ballet that celebrates love and community. (In the figure of deluded doll-maker Dr Coppelius it also introduces a splash of darkness as a corrective to all that sweetness. Where there is sunshine there is also shadow, and growing up means learning to accept that.)

Franz was a role debut for Hallberg and something of a departure for a man widely acclaimed for his aristocratic roles. Could he be credible as an uncomplicated village lad? Indeed he could. Hallberg’s Franz is a young man vitally interested in everything, for a second. This girl, that girl, this friend who has just turned up, another friend who is hanging about, that older woman with whom he dances and kisses gallantly on the hand. He has the attention span of a mayfly but wherever it is directed there is a little beam of light. Most cherishable moment – of many? When, in Act II, Dr Coppelius offers Franz a drink that surely anyone would regard with suspicion, Hallberg comes up with an endearing touch of pride at being thought worldly.

No wonder Amber Scott’s Swanilda is prepared to persist with him, even when he has absolutely no idea – not the smallest part of a smidgeon of a clue – what she wants from him in the “stalk of wheat”dance. Scott falls into a few stock village-girl mannerisms in the first act but in the second act, in which she impersonates Dr Coppelius’s “daughter”-doll, she uses the theatricality of the situation with wit and brio.

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David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Coppélia’s slender narrative is carried along joyously by the bountiful Delibes score, which includes the irresistible mazurka and czardas in Act I. Hallberg said he had been told in rehearsal to “simplify, simplify, simplify” his mazurka, and clearly listened to the advice. His naturalness and ease, along with his musicality, made the heart sing.

In Act III Swanilda and Franz are seen in a more serious light. They are part of a solemn ceremony to mark their marriage and their new maturity. Hallberg and Scott’s adagio in the wedding pas deux was radiant; her variation airy, poised and delicate; and his variation full of eye-catching expressions of elegant classicism. His remarkable feet are still a thing of great wonder and I can still see in my mind’s eye the gracious forward extension of his leg from a beautifully high retiré: the silly young man is improving his understanding of how to behave and widening his horizons.

At first blush Coppélia may seem little more than a lively cartoon with more hummable music than any score has a right to possess (the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was in the very safe stewardship of guest conductor Barry Wordsworth, the Royal Ballet’s music director). In the right hands, though, it is very human. That quality was to the fore last night in an emotional evening of many treasures (Sharni Spencer’s Prayer: divine), a few smudged moments and an audience united in delight.

Hallberg has said he is looking no further than Coppélia at the moment. The principal artist with American Ballet Theatre and premier danseur of the Bolshoi will then assess what is right for him. He and Scott have three more performances, on December 16, 19 and 21.

A new generation rises to the challenge

Sydney Opera House, April 29.

THE Australian Ballet’s first staging of Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations alongside revivals of his coolly mysterious Monotones II and lucid, delightful one-act version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is well overdue. Ashton’s choreography hasn’t surfaced at the AB since 2004 (the last time La Fille mal gardée was presented) and other works have been absent since the 1970s and 1980s.

That means few of the AB’s dancers have experience with Ashton, something that may account for the very late announcement of casting. Ashton ballets seem to be protected like the crown jewels by those charged with their care. Fair enough. The Royal Ballet’s founder choreographer is one of the 20th century’s most important dance figures and his style, in which wit, high sophistication and virtuosity are seen through a veil of modesty and restraint, is not an easy one to capture.

This program is far and away the most challenging of the year for these dancers and the most intriguing for balletomanes. On opening night the AB met the challenges with great integrity. (Scroll down for updates on later casts.)

Madeleine Eastoe and Joseph Chapman in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Madeleine Eastoe and Joseph Chapman in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Dream couldn’t look prettier in David Walker’s gossamer designs as fairies and mortals fall in and out of love in a whirlwind 50 minutes. Ballet is so very good at compression; all the essentials are there, starting with the tussle between Oberon and Titania for possession of the little Indian Boy that leads to much meddling in everyone’s affairs.

Airiness and delicacy reign in this moonlit world, even in the case of whirling, spinning, high-flying Puck and rustic Bottom when turned into an ass, his black pointe shoes a splendid stand-in for hoofs. Ashton calls for almost impossibly fleet, sparkling feet contrasted with luscious upper bodies and inner glow rather than external show. Wednesday’s first cast caught the light as did Nicolette Fraillon and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s radiant music.

Combining muscular presence with a poetic soul, Kevin Jackson (Oberon) grows in stature with every performance; about-to-retire Madeleine Eastoe (Titania) was as dewy as a teenager; Joseph Chapman (Bottom) hopped and ran on pointe as if born to it; and Chengwu Guo was a gravity-defying, ultra-charming Puck who won every heart. His speed, and elevation were a wonder but much more thrilling was the way he used bravura steps to illuminate Puck’s character and story. Just as it should be.

Kondo, Martino, Hendricks and Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo, Cristiano Martino, Robyn Hendricks and Amber Scott in Symphonic Variations. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Dream draws the evening to a happy close but the more important event is the acquisition of Symphonic Variations, considered to be Ashton’s defining work. An 18-minute sextet to Cesar Franck’s music for piano and orchestra, the plotless paean to beauty, peace, simplicity and classical harmony was made in 1946 and embraced by a British public deeply scarred by World War II. In Ashton simplicity, of course, does not mean simple. The bodies of the dancers are like willows – graceful, infinitely flexible, turning this way and that, tranquil yet resilient.

Symphonic Variations is intricately structured and overflows with lustrous, evocative imagery. In a particularly lovely repeated gesture the women curve an arm protectively around a partner’s head; several times after all have skimmed across and around the stage – the women and the men in separate groups of three – the six dancers join hands in an echo of bucolic folk-dancing. In the pared-back white costumes and in some groupings there are also intimations of Balanchine’s Apollo but the glorious flow of bodies and action is all Ashton’s own.

While occasionally there was evidence of some strain there was a fine account of Symphonic Variations from its first cast: soloist Robyn Hendricks and principals Amber Scott and Ako Kondo (elevated to that rank during the Sydney Giselle season just passed); and corps member (as he was then) Cristiano Martino, choryphée Christopher Rodgers-Wilson and soloist Brett Chynoweth. Hendricks in particular glowed from within, Martino was an imposing presence and Chynoweth’s buoyancy and crystalline shapes in the air linger in the memory.

Jared Wright, Natasha Kusen and Brett Simon in Monotones II. Photo: Daniel Boud

Wright, Kusen and Simon in Monotones II. Photo: Daniel Boud

The presence of dancers from right across the ranks made for an opening night of unusual interest. As future casting shows, Martino would appear to be one to watch as he is also down for Monotones II and has several appearances as Oberon to come, as do other junior men. Chynoweth is, not surprisingly, one of the Pucks, but that role will also be danced by corps men Marcus Morelli and Cameron Hunter.

Monotones II, which opens the program, is a trio for one woman and two men made in 1965 for a gala, no less. It must be one of the most enduring works ever made for such an event. Ashton was inspired by 1960s moon exploration and the way people might move in its tenuous gravity. The woman – refined, poised soloist Natasha Kusen in the first cast – could be some kind of remote goddess attended by her male acolytes. Certainly the three appear suitably alien, clad entirely in second-skin white bodysuits and caps.

It’s a look that takes quite a lot of personal glamour to carry off and Brett Simon and Jared Wright could have exuded a touch more of that. Still, Monotones II stands up much, much better than you might expect as its three living, moving sculptures serenely move through the ethereal orchestral version of Erik Satie’s Trois Gymnopédies.

With so many dancers in featured roles in this program it is, well, a dream for talent spotters. It was a great pleasure to see Hendricks and Kusen also featured in The Dream on opening night (as Hermia and Helena), playing the comedy sweetly with the Lysander of Rudy Hawkes and Demetrius of Jacob Sofer.

I see The Dream twice more, at the May 6 matinee and May 8. I will update as I go.

Matinee, Wednesday May 6

On a Saturday matinee the house is packed with exuberant youngsters. Not so on a school day. It was a fairly quiet audience – let’s put it that way – although The Dream got a rousing reception. Things were quieter for Monotones II and Symphonic Variations, and fair enough. Neither was given a performance for the ages. The Monotones II cast was the one I saw on opening night – Natasha Kusen, Brett Simon and Jared Wright. Kusen was again luminous – her line pristine, her arms glorious – but the men’s support of her was a little wobbly. This is performance under an unforgiving microscope.

Symphonic Variations was unacceptably scrappy. Andrew Killian had a bad day with his double tours and the cast – the others were Lana Jones, Ingrid Gow, Amanda McGuigan, Ty King-Wall and Andrew Wright – didn’t seem fully at one with each other or all of the work’s complexities, although Jones stood out for her calm poise. Another good thing: McGuigan, a long-legged beauty in the corps de ballet who joined the AB last year, is the real deal. Not that she’s a novice. McGuigan has danced with American Ballet Theatre and Dutch National Ballet and has international gloss. Put her on the watch list. (I see her in Monotones II on Friday, which should be wonderful.)

Also on the watch list is Cristiano Martino, also in the corps but surely not for long. [Note: Martino was promoted to coryphée on May 11.] He’s been with the company for only two years and yet finds himself first-cast Symphonic Variations, cast in Monotones II for some performances and – this is the biggie – is one of the Oberons in The Dream. The others are principals Kevin Jackson, Adam Bull and Ty King-Wall, with coryphée Jared Wright – he recently made his debut as Albrecht – also getting two performances in Sydney. Vastly experienced senior artist Miwako Kubota is Titania to both the junior men.

Martino has stage presence, alert dramatic instincts, a powerful leap and he and Kubota sparked sexily off one another. Martino’s partnering is a work in progress and he appeared to be getting very, very tired by the end of this tough role but it was a surprisingly mature and highly promising performance from one so new to the business.

Another corps de ballet member, Marcus Morelli, was the Puck and his exuberance and sense of fun conquered the audience. He managed the technical challenges well although he needs more polish and finesse. But he’s fast, full of beans and put on a great show.

Friday May 8

The Australian Ballet’s choreographic development program Bodytorque started 11 years ago as a Sydney-only project with an individual personality. It was staged not at the Sydney Opera House but at the Sydney Theatre (recently renamed the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay) and usually had five performances featuring five choreographers or thereabouts, with some building on the experience of having made work for previous Bodytorques. Last year the program decamped to Melbourne, where there were three performances in the State Theatre. Among last year’s participants was Richard House – also a 2013 Bodytorquer – and he is a featured Bodytorque artist this year. Indeed he is one of only two Bodytorque choreographers this year.

Richard House's From Something, To Nothing. Photo: Daniel Boud

Richard House’s From Something, To Nothing. Photo: Daniel Boud

Bodytorque 2015 has just four dates in the calendar, two in Sydney and two in Melbourne, and on each evening there is just one new work, presented after a mainstage performance. The audience is invited to stay on to see it after the all-Ashton The Dream program or the contemporary program 20:21 at no additional cost.

House’s From Something, To Nothing, for three couples, received its premiere in Sydney last Friday following The Dream. The music of Satie (Gnossiennes 4 and 5) and Rachmaninov (Elegie for piano and cello) beautifully played by Christian Lillicrap and Andrew Hines, the soft dusk of Graham Silver’s lighting design and Kat Chan’s romantically layered pale costumes established a restrained and enigmatic atmosphere in which stillness and calm alternated with complex close partnering. House creates strong stage pictures and attractive classically based dance and I would have been happy to see where the work might go. But perhaps in calling it From Something, To Nothing, House is acknowledging that a piece lasting 10 or 15 minutes doesn’t really have anywhere to go and that creating a wistful, elegiac mood is the most one can do. The three couples – Heidi Martin and Charles Thompson, Rina Nemoto and Mitchell Rayner and particularly Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden – were elegant and sophisticated.

Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden. Photo: Daniel Boud

Sharni Spencer and Jarryd Madden. Photo: Daniel Boud

House’s work will be seen again after The Dream in Melbourne on June 12. Another choreographer, as yet unnamed, will create work to be seen after 20:21 in Melbourne on September 4 and Sydney on November 20.

House was seen earlier in the evening in dancer mode, joining Amanda McGuigan and Brodie James for The Dream program’s opening ballet, Monotones II. Although they several times rushed a pose or movement in a ballet that relies on seamless flow, they looked wonderful together.

Another viewing of The Dream confirmed how splendidly the AB women have absorbed the darting, weaving, swooping qualities that define the fairy attendants. The gorgeous sweep of necks, arms and upper bodies, the alert heads and eyes and quicksilver feet are all there.

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Brett Chenoweth as Puck in The Dream. Photo: Daniel Boud

Friday’s performance was also notable for Brett Chynoweth’s Puck. The part is a whirlwind of multiple pirouettes, leaps during which the lower legs carve out tight little circles, heady dashes across the stage and the humorous byplay that makes Puck a character, not just a marvel of pyrotechnics. Chynoweth’s razor-sharp accuracy is a marvel and he seems to find plenty of time in the air to get all the complexities done and dusted without strain.

One might think he is typecasting for this type of role, but that would be to forget his debut as the Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in Sydney last year. Chynoweth gave a deeply poetic performance – indeed, one of the most affecting I’ve seen in this ballet. And I’ve seen a few.

The Dream ends May 16. Melbourne, June 4-14; Adelaide, July 8-9.