The Australian Ballet in 2017

Next year the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre, home to both The Australian Ballet and Opera Australia when they are in Sydney, will close for seven months. It’s in a good cause, as theatre machinery that’s done sterling work but is now outdated will be replaced. It’s been there since the Opera House opened in 1973. But the closure also means the companies have had to find alternative performance venues from late May to December in 2017.

The Opera House is deeply important to both companies. Opera and ballet are accessible to tourists who may not speak English and the Opera House itself is a huge drawcard. Can those tourists be lured to other venues? And will locals – particularly those with long-held subscription seats with which they are comfortable – stay loyal or simply decide to sit the second half of the year out?

Opera Australia has already announced a vagabond-style program that sees it performing in the Concert Hall and the Playhouse at the Opera House, Sydney Town Hall and the City Recital Centre. It has also secured the Capitol Theatre for Moffatt Oxenbould’s enduringly popular production of Madama Butterfly, double cast so it can be performed nightly for just under two weeks from October 24, 2017.

The Capitol, not surprisingly, is where the AB will also hang its hat in the latter part of the year. It will stage two full-length ballets there, a return of artistic director David McAllister’s sumptuous 2015 version of The Sleeping Beauty (November 2017) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (December 2017). Both are large productions that will be seen to advantage at the Capitol, which was made for grand gestures. It is almost ridiculously ornate, full of visual surprises that border on kitsch but somehow manage to dodge it. There are alcoves full of statuary, a proscenium groaning with decoration and a light-studded ceiling that mimics the night sky. The 2000-seat Capitol is a show all by itself.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. 2015. photo Jef...

Amber Scott, centre, as the Lilac Fairy in The Australian Ballet’s Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Beauty will also be staged in Brisbane and Melbourne in the usual theatres and Alice will premiere in Melbourne.

Just before the Joan Sutherland Theatre closes in May the AB will bring back Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, which premiered an astonishing 25 years ago. With its distinctively Australian take on the story, its touching references to the history of ballet in this country and Kristian Fredrikson’s gorgeous costumes, this Nutcracker has a special place in the AB’s repertoire. After Sydney it will be seen in Melbourne.

That’s it for full-length works. The annual contemporary program is a triple bill called Faster and will feature new works by Wayne McGregor and AB resident choreographer Tim Harbour alongside David Bintley’s Faster, which was created in 2012 to a score by the Australian composer Matthew Hindson. Bintley, the artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, made Faster in London’s Olympics year with the motto Faster, Higher, Stronger as his inspiration (Bintley originally called the ballet exactly that but the International Olympic Committee made him change the title). It will be fascinating to compare this with AB resident choreographer Stephen Baynes’s Personal Best, made for Sydney’s Olympic Arts Festival of 2000 to Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto. In a program note Baynes wrote of athletes’ “obsessive and isolating struggle” for supremacy and the speed with which disappointment can replace elation.

Hindson has described his score for Faster as “symphonic in scope”. Also of note on the music front is that McGregor’s work will have a new score by the indefatigable Steve Reich, who celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow, October 3. Faster will open in Melbourne in March and then travel to Sydney in April.

Melbourne gets an extra program, Symphony in C, which was seen in Sydney this year. Balanchine’s one-act ballet is preceded by a group of divertissements which will include two short works – Little Atlas and Scent of Love – made, respectively, by AB company members Alice Topp and Richard House. The pieces premiered alongside Symphony in C in Sydney in April.

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Vivienne Wong, Kevin Jackson and Rudy Hawkes in Little Atlas. Photo: Daniel Boud

Which leads us to the big gap in the AB’s programming. There is, again, no Bodytorque program. Bodytorque started in 2004 as a stand-alone showcase for new and relatively new choreographers, mostly drawn from the ranks of the AB. Bodytorque was distinguished from the main program by being held at the former Sydney Theatre, now the Roslyn Packer Theatre, for five performances. Until 2013 it was held annually in Sydney, except for a year off during the AB’s Ballets Russes centenary project. In one ambitious year all the choreographers were able to work to new commissioned scores.

In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne for the first time, for three performances in the AB’s usual (and big) home of the State Theatre. In 2015 the program dwindled to a couple of “pop-up” performances tacked on to the end of a mainstage show, free for anyone who wanted to stay on. And then Bodytorque essentially disappeared. This year Topp and House, both of whom had been Bodytorque regulars, were given a slot for a new work in the diverts half of the Symphony in C program in Sydney, as they will be again when the program is repeated in Melbourne next year – with the same 10-minute work.

Perhaps McAllister is thinking about a refreshed way of developing new choreographers. Or perhaps attention has been diverted to Storytime Ballet, a new venture directed at very young children. There’s no denying that the AB is a busy company and that 2017 is year in which it has to look closely at where it puts its resources. There’s also no rule that says everything has to stay the same, and it’s true to say that if you’re looking for a success story from Bodytorque, since its inception only Tim Harbour has emerged as a regular dancemaker. But if you don’t keep looking you’re not going to find anyone.

Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich

Sydney Opera House, January 9.

In 1999 Jack Anderson reviewed Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich for The New York Times, reporting that Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker had “recently announced her wish to retire it from her repertory”. Fortunately she changed her mind. Fase has not only continued to be seen, but seen with De Keersmaeker in it.

She made the work in the early 1980s, in collaboration with Michèle Anne De Mey and Jennifer Everhard, when she was little more than 20. It premiered in Brussels in March 1982 with De Keersmaeker and De Mey as the performers and almost instantly made De Keersmaeker’s name as an important, influential contemporary dance artist. In its first three years it was much revived and in recent years has been shown frequently: Los Angeles in November of last year, New York in July 2014 and London in July 2012, each time with Tale Dolven, the dancer seen with De Keersmaeker at the Sydney Festival. Dolven was born in 1981, the year Fase was nearing completion; De Keersmaeker is now 55.

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De Keersmaeker and De Mey in Piano Phase. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Fase is highly formal and abstract, requiring extraordinary levels of precision and stamina. It may at first blush look cool – chilly, even – and austere but its dizzying wealth of detail and the illumination of Steve Reich’s music make Fase an incredibly rich, even voluptuous experience. It’s a demanding work to be sure, giving the audience a substantial workout too. So often watching is a passive business. With Fase, alertness and concentration are required and the rewards are great.

The choreographic material appears to be simple and there is ample time during many, many repetitions and small variations to observe its qualities and relationship with the music. In the first section, Piano Phase, the emphasis is on progression in a straight line while pivoting, walking and raising and lowering the arms, which also loosely wrap around the body. In Come Out, performed seated, the head is touched with the arm at an angle, there are bends from the waist and an arm stretches out strongly. Violin Phase is a solo for De Keersmaeker in which circling is the predominant motif and in the short, snappy Clapping Music the duo repeatedly rises sharply en pointe in sneakers with knees bent.

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By themselves these things have no meaning, even though they may spark ideas and responses. They do, crucially, impel close listening to the music and its almost imperceptible changes. At many times the dancers are in unison; at others move in and out of phase with one another. They may stop abruptly then start again. There are tiny gestures set against large ones, and so on. You note how the apparently plain, unassertive dresses worn in the first and third movements have a swirling life of their own (and, in Violin Phase, how the dress allows De Keersmaeker to be very flirty and folky as she lifts its to reveal shiningly white knickers). You also note the small variations in reaction time of the dancers and their different movement quality. In her mid-30s, Dolmen is a strong, juicy presence; De Keersmaeker in her mid-50s is more wiry, more intense.

While there are new things to apprehend in each individual moment, it’s also necessary to pay attention to the overall arc of a piece in which music, movement and design work together in a highly sophisticated way.

In Piano Phase the dancers’ shadows merge and separate, multiplying the performers in ghostly fashion. In Come Out the menacing mood created by overhead lights (lighting by Mark Schwentner) is amplified by the workmanlike shirts and trousers the women wear, so different from the pale, feminine frocks of Piano Phase.

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De Keersmaeker (left) and Dolven in Come Out. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The movement here is no less repetitive or contained than in Piano Phase but somehow more sombre. Reich’s distortion of a man’s voice – it is a repetition of the words “come out” until they are no longer recognisable – is chilling and there is an intimation of forced labour and a desire for contact. The bend from the waist would seem to suggest anguish and the outstretched arm a yearning for touch that is never fulfilled. (Others may well take away a quite different impression.) Clapping Music, with lighting by Remon Fromont, uses the same trousers-and-shirt combo but in this context they take on a sporty air, even as one can see a connection with Come Out via the lighting.

And to think this was only De Keersmaeker’s second work. Astounding. It’s no surprise that Fase has become a modern classic: 34 years after its creation, it feels timeless. There are just three Sydney Festival performances, the last of them tonight (January 11).

De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, also performs a relatively new work at the festival, Vortex Temporum, made in 2013, in collaboration with the contemporary music group Ictus. It opens on January 15 at Carriageworks.

Vanguard

 The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, April 30

GEORGE Balanchine was indisputably a game-changer, to use the Australian Ballet’s phrase in explaining the ethos behind Vanguard, the triple bill that opened in Sydney on April 30. The game-changer tag is somewhat less cut and dried in the case of Jiri Kylian and Wayne McGregor, who are also on the bill, but you have to give the program a name. And Vanguard is certainly a lot punchier than Trilogy, which is what the AB prosaically used to call such evenings. You could argue, I suppose, that Trilogy was an exact description, but gee, it’s not catnip, is it?

Let me take you back to one of the AB’s contributions to the Olympic Arts Festival in 2000, in which it danced, on the one bill, William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, Nacho Duato’s Por vos muero and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. It was dynamite. The AB called it Trilogy.

But that was then. Now back to Vanguard. The title may be a little imprecise but the program works in giving a sweeping view of what a classical company considers its territory. It’s exhilarating in its scope and comes with the bonus of wonderful music. Under Nicolette Fraillon’s baton the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra has as many changes of direction over the evening as do the dancers, starting with Paul Hindemith’s modernist Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperaments). This was a Balanchine commission, although it took a few years for music and dance to come together. Theme with Four Variations was written in 1940 and received its premiere as a concert work in 1944. Balanchine’s ballet appeared in 1946.

Vanguard ends with Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929 (2009), danced to Steve Reich’s minimalist, driving Double Sextet, a piece for which Reich was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In between, Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura uses a collage of Baroque and Baroque-style excerpts, including two movements from Lukas Foss’s bijou Salomon Rossi Suite. Fun degrees-of-separation note: Foss studied composition with Hindemith in New York, and he wasn’t just a composer; he was also a noted pianist. And guess who was the pianist when Theme with Four Variations (The Four Temperments) premiered on the concert stage? That would be Lukas Foss.

Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

Andrew Killian, Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

The palette is particularly rich and relies on dancers with acute musical responses. There are no characters or narratives to fall back on. Moreover, with many of the dancers cast in more than one of the works at any performance they have to be adept at switching from upright Balanchine to twisty, bendy McGregor within the space of an hour. On opening night in Sydney principals Lana Jones and Adam Bull and senior artist Rudy Hawkes scored the trifecta and danced in the Kylian as well – a feat something akin to an opera singer being asked to perform in Baroque, Romantic and 20th-century style in successive acts.

By the way, nine of the AB’s 11 principal artists appeared on opening night. That’s not something you often see. And if the casting stays as it is, it seems Jones will get precisely one performance off out of the 20 in Sydney. Respect. (Or does it mean the AB lacks depth: discuss.)

The remaining two principal artists, Lucinda Dunn and Olivia Bell, have been a little elusive of late but are lined up for Vanguard. Casting is online – take a look.

Balanchine said of ballet that “the visual spectacle is the essential element”. The assertion may seem at odds with The Four Temperaments’ austerity of costuming (black tights and white T-shirts for the men; plain black leotards for the women) and set (none). Balanchine, however, was talking about the spectacle of movement. There is no meaning other than that provided by bodies in time, space and with music as four discrete scenes named after the ancient Greek humours follow three iterations of the score’s themes.

When the 4Ts premiered it was costumed rather fantastically and busily. Those costumes were banished in 1951. “When things hindered the dance Balanchine eliminated them,” says former dancer Mary Ellen Moylan in a documentary on Balanchine. (Moylan is described in the film, Dancing for Mr B., by Maria Tallchief as the first Balanchine ballerina.) Moylan also said that the choreographer made great music – such as that by Stravinsky – “greater by the things he showed us visually”.

An intriguing view on this stripped-back look for the 4Ts was put forward in Vanity Fair in its March edition of this year. The magazine noted that in September 1951 the film of A Streetcar named Desire was released, in which Marlon Brando (as Stanley Kowalski) appeared to much advantage in a tight white T-shirt. The look took off immediately and Vanity Fair specifically links that trend with Balanchine’s November 1951 decision to re-costume the 4Ts as we now see it. Well, it’s an idea.

The first performance of The Four Temperaments in the AB’s Sydney season happened to fall on the 30th anniversary of Balanchine’s death. It was a timely tribute with a seminal piece. The 4Ts is astringent, precise, sophisticated, cerebral and incredibly exposing. It was thrilling to see it again, even if the ballet’s magisterial command and patrician wit and elegance were insufficiently projected.

There are two reasons for this. The first is one of space: the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House so often makes dancers look hemmed in. The 4Ts didn’t have the room to move that it had in 2003 in the American Masters program staged at the Capitol Theatre. The second reason is one of temperament, funnily enough, and the observation isn’t restricted only to this ballet. AB dancers are too often reticent in imposing their personalities and will in performance (it’s perhaps something related to the no-stars vibe of the company). I’m not talking about fake smiles or look-at-me superficialities; rather of largeness of spirit, clarity of intention and refinement of expression resulting in inner impulses being translated into movement that speaks rather than merely exists as an attractive object.

In relation to the 4Ts, the women of the corps were less warrior-like than the movement suggests, with its stabbing, advancing high kicks and jutting pelvises. While I say the stage was too small for the action, it’s also the case that on opening night the corps fell short in filling the stage dramatically. They were too tame; lacking in pride and ownership in a ballet where the women, choreographically speaking, lord it over the men.

There was much pleasure, however, in Jones’s force-of-nature Choleric – her turns were ferocious – and Leanne Stojmenov’s Sanguinic. Stojmenov was springy and elastic when needed and articulately captured the importance and value of Balanchine’s transfers of weight. The circle of low lifts were plush and pillowy, and in this Stojmenov was ably abetted by newly minted principal artist Ty King-Wall.

Kevin Jackson’s Melancholic was powerful and transfixing until the final moments, when he ran out of stage and back mobility for that astonishing exit in reverse. Adam Bull could be more free and expansive in the opening moments of Phlegmatic but he gains in stage presence with each appearance.

In complete contrast to the 4Ts, Kylian’s Bella Figura (1995) has a tentative, questioning quality laced with tenderness. It suits the company well. Pointe shoes are gone and movement comes in swirls and curves, sometimes serene, sometimes less so as swirls contract into twitches. It’s a dreamy, fragmentary, sensual piece that was beautifully danced by its cast of nine on opening night, although again space was an issue.

And another thing. Memory must always be consulted with caution, but its persistence is nevertheless telling. I find it impossible to see any performance of Bella Figura without comparing it to that seen in 2000 as part of the Olympic Arts Festival. It was at the generously sized Capitol Theatre and I remember being able to see it more clearly than just the other day. Perhaps the lighting state is exactly the same but the theatres are different, so I doubt it. At the Sydney Opera House Bella Figura looked more shadowy, and not in a good way. The lighting made the dancers harder to read, although it was possible to see that corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow, by far the most junior of the cast, was outstanding. Miwako Kubota was wonderful and Jones and Daniel Gaudiello were quite lovely in the final scene in which tension and release are quietly and enigmatically explored but not necessarily resolved.

That said, in my mind’s eye – as Shakespeare has it – I could still see performing in this ballet Steven Heathcote and Miranda Coney, Joshua Consadine and Nicole Rhodes, Sarah Peace and Felicia Palanca, all long gone from the AB. Funny thing, memory.

Dyad 1929 ruthlessly banishes any shadows. It’s a space-age ballet that dazzles with its bright white setting and bodies stretched, extended, manipulated and distorted to the max as the Reich music inexorably powers forward. Jones, Stojmenov and Gaudiello stood out in a cast of stand-outs at the opening. Dana Stephensen looked pleased as punch to be pulled every which way. Bull and Amber Scott scored with a sexy duo, Jones was sensational in a solo that turned her back into a question mark and there was always something to please the eye, in an insistent way.

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Dyad 1929. Photo: Branco Gaica

What it means is difficult to discern. If the movement speaks for itself, if that’s all there is, what’s with the program notes? You might be able to intuit Dyad 1929‘s nods to Antarctic exploration, what with all that white. You can find that the ballet’s name, if you peruse the notes, refers to the year of Diaghilev’s death and thus to the great impresario’s adventurousness. But you have to do your reading to get the picture.

There’s no doubt that Dyad 1929 looks amazing and is expertly constructed. And that the 4Ts, crisp as a glorious autumn day, still looks the revolutionary piece.

Vanguard, Sydney, until May 18. Melbourne, June 6-17.