The Australian Ballet and its long dance with The Merry Widow

In her biography of Robert Helpmann, Robert Helpmann: A Servant of Art, Anna Bemrose describes how Helpmann, then artistic director of The Australian Ballet, was grilled by the Industries Assistance Commission in 1975. The IAC had been asked by the prime minister of the time, Gough Whitlam, to examine government arts funding and clearly some IAC members were not enamoured of the ballet company’s direction or its financial prospects.

Helpmann was asked, inter alia, to justify his decision to stage The Merry Widow. What relevance did it have to Australian culture? Then there was the question of money. As Bemrose amusingly points out, Helpmann was asked by the IAC whether he’d found a way of getting “on the cheap” the beauty ballet audiences wanted. “No, I am not a genius,” Helpmann replied.

The Merry Widow

Amber Scott as Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow with Adam Bull (left) as Danilo and Andrew Killian (right) as Camille. Photo: Daniel Boud

Widow was indeed expensive but it went ahead and, while its direct relevance to Australian culture may not have been as obvious as, say, Helpmann’s one-act contemporary ballet The Display (1964), it was an extraordinary success from opening night onwards. Its popularity prompted the company to put on season after season in the early years to the benefit of the bottom line, then and now. TAB has perpetual rights to the ballet – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

As it happened, Whitlam’s government was dismissed two days before Widow opened in Melbourne on November 13, 1975, and Helpmann left the company not long after, having been dumped by the board. (Fences were mended. A decade later he was the Red King in Ninette de Valois’s Checkmate when it entered the TAB repertoire, nearly 50 years after he’d created the role. He left his hospital bed to play the part in July of 1986 and died that September.) Widow, however, would never be evicted. Helpmann’s long-held desire to translate the romance and glamour of Franz Lehár’s operetta to the ballet stage proved to be just the ticket. It was performed 178 times in the first two years alone.

TAB_The Merry Widow_Leanne Stojmenov and Artists of The Australian Ballet_Photo Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov as Valencienne in The Merry Widow. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Widow finishes its latest Melbourne run on June 16 it will have racked up more than 440 performances and be snapping at the heels of Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote for the honour of being TAB’s most-performed production. Only a handful of shows will separate them. Not surprisingly, various versions of Swan Lake together total more performances (767 from four productions ) and two versions of Giselle account for 700 performances. But worldwide favourite The Nutcracker (358 performances of four productions) doesn’t come anywhere near the Widow for durability.

It’s easy to list the Widow’s charms – well-known tunes, sumptuous sets and costumes, light comedy, lost-and-found love story – but they don’t by themselves suggest a work for all time. Widow is, nevertheless, embedded in TAB history in ways that make it glow more brightly for the home audience than for those, say, at American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and the handful of other leading companies that have it in their repertoire, even though it’s great enjoyed as an entertainment. (Houston and NBC have both scheduled revivals of Widow for next year.)

TAB_The Merry Widow_Adam Bull and Kirsty Martin_Photo Jeff Busby

Adam Bull as Danilo and Kirsty Martin as Hanna. Photo: Jeff Busby

Widow was the first full-length ballet commissioned by TAB, which was founded in 1962 (it opened with Swan Lake, of course). Helpmann’s choice was astute. The operetta was well known and much loved in Australia and TAB’s music director John Lanchbery was just the man to arrange and orchestrate, with Alan Abbott, the music based on Lehár’s delectable melodies. Helpmann, whose theatrical instincts were legendary, wrote the scenario and wrested the rights from the estates, heirs and publishers who controlled Widow. Ronald Hynd was contracted to choreograph and Desmond Heeley to design in the opulent manner of the belle époque.

In the late 1920s Helpmann danced in Lehár’s operetta in Melbourne when Gladys Moncrieff took the title role and he said he’d always thought it would make a wonderful ballet. It’s certainly no intellectual heavyweight but underneath the surface buffoonery and rom-com shenanigans there are many delights, chief of which is the title role. It’s not true that Widow was made for Margot Fonteyn, as some think – Marilyn Rowe created the part – but it was choreographed with Helpmann’s long-time ballet partner in mind. Fonteyn called it “the most wonderful present”.

Surely it was Helpmann, credited with staging as well as scenario, who devised that marvellous entrance for Hanna, in which she sweeps down a broad staircase in her stunning black gown after pausing elegantly for effect, and for the inevitable applause.

Fonteyn was the first Hanna I saw when TAB toured to London in the sweltering summer of 1976, seven months or so after the ballet premiered in Melbourne. She was then 57 and her name helped bring attention to the company, as would Nureyev and his Don Q. Fonteyn also appeared many times in Australia and called Hanna “the most delightful role I could possibly have had”, wishing only that it had come to her rather earlier in her career.

There was, naturally, no particularly virtuosic choreography for Hanna but it required – and requires – effortless stage presence, melting luxuriance and an understanding of the thread of melancholy that underpins Widow and gives it some necessary shadows.

In the slender storyline, machinations are afoot to bring Hanna together in marriage with the rakish Count Danilo to prevent her money from leaving the small, impoverished Balkan country of Pontevedro. Danilo and Hanna were lovers when young but parted unhappily. In TAB’s current Widow program John Meehan, who was the first Danilo and partnered Fonteyn frequently in the ballet, describes how he saw her shoulders shaking as he rehearsed placing a cloak around her in the show’s final moments. He thought she was laughing at the ballet’s simplicity. “And she turned around and she was crying. It was so real to her.”

The Merry Widow

Colin Peasley as Baron Zeta with Leanne Stojmenov and Andrew Killian. Photo: Daniel Boud

TAB has produced a long line of illustrious home-grown Widows, including the lustrous current principal artist Amber Scott, who opened the Sydney season in April. During that season former principal Kirsty Martin, who last danced Hanna in 2011 during her final year with TAB, returned as a guest artist. Now in her early 40s – a perfect age for Hanna – she opens the 2018 Melbourne season.

As I look through my old Widow programs, a snowstorm of cast sheets falls out. There are two from 1994, when two of TAB’s most luminous artists, Lisa Bolte and Miranda Coney, danced Hanna. They did so again in 2000, a year I which I somehow managed to see six performances. One was during the Olympic Arts Festival in Sydney when Widow was called upon to represent TAB to the visiting world.

For some reason I found myself in Perth in October that year and happened to see Widow with Coney again. At the end of that performance conductor Charles Barker, then TAB’s music director and now principal conductor at American Ballet Theatre, came onstage and asked Coney to marry him. (She said yes.)

Every time Widow has been revived it’s been possible to see Colin Peasley reprise his role as Baron Zeta, the much older husband of young Valencienne, who is in love with Camille. Peasley was the Baron at the ballet’s premiere in 1975 and was already a company veteran, having been a founding member. He’s now 83 but his artistry is undimmed. It’s such a joy to see there is still a place for him onstage, and not just in a walk-on. The Widow offers him a substantial part and the audience a priceless link to TAB history.

More links are added with each revival. This year TAB’s current artistic director, David McAllister, decided to cast himself in the small role of Njegus. The reason? Ballet master and former principal artist Steven Heathcote would be taking the role of Baron Zeta at some performances and McAllister thought it would be fun to be onstage with him again. Back in the day you couldn’t see Widow casting better than Heathcote as Danilo and McAllister as Camille. The embedding of The Merry Widow in TAB history continues.

The Merry Widow, Arts Centre Melbourne, June 7-16.

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.

Everything old is new again

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, February 20 and February 24.

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

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

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

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

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other thoughts:

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

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

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

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

 Swan Lake ends on Saturday February 28.

Rojo, McRae, Acosta at QB

 Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, June 27, July 1,2,3

ROMEO and Juliet was a success in every possible way for Queensland Ballet, starting with the very fact of its presence in Brisbane. Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet is the gold standard for dance versions of Shakespeare’s play and is monumental, needing much larger forces than QB can ordinarily summon. It’s not just a numbers game of course – it requires performers of rare distinction and authority. QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin was able to persuade the MacMillan Trust his company could provide the dancers and the environment to pull it off, and so it did.

The season was illuminated by international guests Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae and Carlos Acosta and Australian guests Steven Heathcote and Daniel Gaudiello, and the key decision to pair Rojo, McRae and Acosta with QB principals was a triumph. Before the event it was made clear that QB’s leading dancers would not be relegated to support-act status. In performance they proved they would not be eclipsed by the superstars’ wattage.

Steven McRae and Natasha Kusch in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

Steven McRae and Natasha Kusch. Photo: David Kelly

Li fielded five casts, of which I saw four: the premiere on June 27 headed by Rojo and QB’s Matthew Lawrence, QB’s Meng Ningning with Hao Bin on July 1, Steven McRae and QB’s Natasha Kusch on July 2 and Acosta and Meng on July 3. (Well, I say five casts – Gaudiello, borrowed from The Australian Ballet for the season, danced Mercutio in six out of eight performances; the QB’s Rian Thompson was Benvolio the same number of times.)

The revelation was QB principal Meng, who was partnered with Acosta for his two performances. Meng has always appeared to keep her emotions locked well within but Romeo and Juliet produced the key and the release was tremendous. (“MacMillan will do that to you,” McRae commented to me when we were talking later.) Even when Meng was the excitable young girl of her first scene there were intimations of tragedy in those questioning eyes, and her long, silken limbs always seemed to be searching and reaching for the overwhelming feelings Juliet discovered could exist.

It initially seemed a big call to put Meng with Acosta, who is such a passionate stage animal. He’s announced that he will quit classical roles in two years (he is now 40) but his dancing still has panther-like strength and smoothness. Perhaps there’s a little less speed and snap but you can’t take your eyes off him.

Any fears about Meng’s ability to throw off her reticence were put to rest when she made her role debut two days ahead of her first performance with Acosta. She danced on this occasion with her husband, fellow QB principal Hao Bin, and while he wasn’t entirely at home with all the allegro aspects of Romeo’s choreography he partnered ardently. And it was clear one had to recalibrate one’s thoughts about Meng.

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin. Photo: David Kelly

Meng Ningning and Hao Bin. Photo: David Kelly

At her first performance with Acosta, the moment when Romeo and Juliet come face to face in the Capulet’s ballroom and are shocked into stillness was electrifying and, with this cast, so touching. Not only does the story tell us these two come from different tribes; the point was made visually with the Cuban-born Acosta on one side and the Chinese Meng on the other. Different externals but hearts and minds as one.

The great pas de deux that ends the first act was heart-stopping. When the would-be lovers kiss near the end, these two hesitated tremulously and longingly before making that irrevocable commitment. You could feel the entire house hold its breath. And Meng’s impetuous rush from her bedroom in search of Friar Laurence was quite magical.

The night before, McRae showed why he is one of the most admired Romeos on the stage today. The impulsive, passionate youth of this dance-drama could have been made for him, so natural is the fit. McRae lit up the stage with his boyish charm. He has a slight, elegant figure but radiates huge amounts of energy, taking the stage like a whirlwind. His crystal-clear line, the way he hangs in the air for precious moments in a turn or jete, his vibrant attack and heady speed are treasures in themselves but given point and purpose by the way these technical gifts create character.

This was Romeo lifted and buffeted by love. In the centrepiece pas deux under Juliet’s balcony McRae soared as if weightless. When the Nurse gave him Juliet’s letter he exited with delirious spins. When he was goaded into fighting with Tybalt after Mercutio’s death his sword-play was desperate and aggressive.

He was a wonderful partner too with his well-matched Juliet. Kusch was the most girlish of the three Juliets I saw and her interpretation meshed with McRae’s although was less fully developed. She seemed a little too flighty and a bit too much in love with love to make Juliet as tragic a figure as she should be. Physically, however, McRae and Kusch, who has a very clean, strong technique, looked wonderful together.

The gala opening was crowned by Rojo’s exceptional Juliet. Rojo, prima ballerina of English National Ballet and its artistic director too, was entrancing at every moment as conflicting emotions flashed across her face and intense feelings through her eloquent body, each one legible and theatrically potent. The chemistry between Rojo and her Romeo, Lawrence, took some time to gel but Lawrence’s all-stops-out tomb scene with the apparently lifeless Juliet was riveting.

Tamara Rojo and Matthew Lawrence. Photo: David Kelly

Tamara Rojo and Matthew Lawrence. Photo: David Kelly

I was sorry to miss Clare Morehen’s Juliet with QB corps de ballet member Emilio Pavan. Pavan has been with the company only since last year, having graduated from the Australian Ballet School in 2012, and Li has already given him some big roles. Also being fast-tracked is Vito Bernasconi (another 2012 ABS graduate), who was an imposing Tybalt – indeed, given that honour on opening night. Bernasconi had some performances as Mercutio as well, a bravura role of great complexity in which he was less effective.

There wasn’t any fat at all in the casting (hence the greatly gifted Gaudiello’s six Mercutios, four of them in a row). QB has only 27 dancers and its numbers essentially needed to double for R&J. At the upper end, apart from the visiting superstars and Gaudiello, there were other guests needed for important parts, including Heathcote as Lord Capulet, proving yet again what superb command he brings to the stage in character roles after his long and stellar career as the AB’s leading man. (Lovely, too, to see his daughter, Mia, shining away in the QB company.)

On top of their day jobs QB ballet mistresses Janette Mulligan and Mary Li shared the role of the Nurse and were both highly enjoyable. In addition, several former QB dancers were spotted among those creating the lively market scenes and the grave formality of the Capulets’ ball, alongside QB’s company dancers, eight young artists (essentially apprentices), professional year dancers and senior students.

One imagines Li was making a point: see what we can do if we have more dancers. It will be fascinating to see if the funding bodies agree QB should be significantly bigger.

Meanwhile, yesterday QB announced R&J had played to 97 per cent capacity in the 2000-seat Lyric Theatre with more than half of the audience new ticket-buyers. They’ll be very happy with that, particularly as I understand the production ended up in profit – not always the case even when huge amounts of money are taken at the box office.

Next up QB presents a quadruple bill under the title Flourish. It includes George Balanchine’s glorious Serenade, a ballet for a large corps of women and a small corps of men, three superb female soloists and two imposing men. With the retirement of lovely principal Rachael Walsh at the end of the R&J season (the photo below shows her as Lady Capulet – she was stunning). QB has only three female principals, and there is just one soloist, Lisa Edwards. There aren’t enough women in the ranks of the corps and young artists to make up the numbers, so, as with R&J, students will have to come into play. That’s fine for Serenade, which was created on student dancers, but this is nevertheless skating on fairly thin ice.

Rachael Walsh as Lady Capulet. Photo: David Kelly

Rachael Walsh as Lady Capulet, her final role for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

Li’s ambitions for Queensland Ballet are huge and he’s prepared to take big risks to show what he thinks is possible. As I said at the start in relation to Romeo and Juliet, it’s not only a numbers game, but make no mistake. For what Li wants, numbers are very, very important.

Queensland Ballet’s Flourish runs August 1-9.

Affecting ardour

Queensland Ballet, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, June 27

KENNETH MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is big in every way. At street level testosterone-fuelled gangs jostle and fight in the marketplace, revelling in their ancient grudge, as Shakespeare called it. Inside the great house of Lord Capulet the tumult is even greater, but is within the hearts of young lovers from different sides of the divide. Passion, sweat, blood and grief saturate Verona.

From its opening moments the ballet is one headlong rush to tragedy. MacMillan’s choreography, nearly 50 years old but still thrillingly immediate, blazes with energy and is swept along by the vivid drama of Prokofiev’s score.

Tamara Rojo in Queensland Ballet's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

Tamara Rojo in Queensland Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: David Kelly

The forces required to do the production justice are immense and are normally found within companies two or three times the size of Queensland Ballet – the Royal Ballet, where it originated; American Ballet Theatre; La Scala; Birmingham Royal Ballet. QB is small, with a company of just 27. And yet, with a display of will breathtaking in its ambition and lavish in its provision of stellar guest artists, QB has brought it to Brisbane with affecting ardour.

Friday’s opening was crowned by the exceptional Juliet of guest Tamara Rojo, but that was to be expected. Rojo, prima ballerina of English National Ballet and its artistic director too, was entrancing at every moment as conflicting emotions flashed across her face and intense feelings through her eloquent body, each one legible and theatrically potent. She made every moment appear as if freshly experienced and newly thought and it simply defies belief that Rojo is 40. She makes you believe in the cosseted young girl who needs her Nurse, loves her doll and is both a little bit curious about and strongly resistant to the attentions of Paris. Her skittering little circle of bourees around Paris (stern, reticent Hao Bin) was delightful: a circumnavigation to see what she thought of him, which wasn’t much.

But the idea of love had been put into her head, and when she saw Romeo, any notion that she may have come around to Paris was futile.

QB’s artistic director Li Cunxin has paired his international guests – the others are Steven McRae and Carlos Acosta  – with QB principals. Rojo’s Romeo was Matthew Lawrence, who took some time to disappear into the role. He appeared more distanced from events than Rojo, a mature presence rather than a youth giddily in love, and therefore less touching in the earlier scenes, but his all-stops-out tomb scene with the apparently lifeless Juliet was tremendous. The great balcony pas de deux of the first act wasn’t entirely seamless, perhaps as a result of limited rehearsal time – a reason that could possibly also be applied to the trio for Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio in the first act, which was scrappy and failed to fizz.

Also failing to fizz initially was the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Mogrelia, but after a safe and stolid start the QSO got back into the game decisively after the first interval to give a cracking performance that matched the grandeur of Paul Andrews’s glowing design. The strings that usher in the ballet’s final scene were particularly ravishing.

There were fine performances from former Australian Ballet principal artist Steven Heathcote as a magisterial Lord Capulet and current AB principal Daniel Gaudiello as the witty, razor-sharp Mercutio. Far less able to be predicted was the showing by young QB men in two key roles, Vito Bernasconi as “Prince of Cats” Tybalt and Rian Thompson as Romeo’s friend Benvolio. Thompson’s never faltering watchfulness commanded attention and Bernasconi, who graduated from the Australian Ballet School only in 2012, has stage presence to burn.

Of the QB women, principal Rachael Walsh was super-luxury casting as Lady Capulet and Eleanor Freeman, Meng Ningning and Sophie Zoricic roamed the stage avidly as women of lusty appetites.

Filling out crowd scenes and a few small ensemble roles for this performance and for the rest of the season are young artists, pre-professional program dancers and senior students – a fair number but not really quite enough of them, as in the ballroom scene QB can field only 12 couples rather than the 16 the Royal Ballet can easily summon. The stage did look a little under-populated at this point but otherwise the ensemble was splendid, and its part in the creation of the ballet’s teeming world crucial.

The relative inexperience of these dancers was the greatest risk for this Romeo and Juliet but their unwavering engagement on Friday night was in some ways the greatest achievement.

Coming later in the week: the cast led by QB principals Hao Bin and Meng Ningning (July 1); and Steven McRae (July 2) and Carlos Acosta (July 3).

Romeo and Juliet ends on July 5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 30.

Manon

The Australian Ballet, Brisbane, February 21

MANON, which premiered 40 years ago next month (March 7, 1974), is in an exclusive club, the handful of full-length 20th century ballets that have insinuated themselves firmly into the repertoire. The Australian Ballet doesn’t exactly have it on high rotation but, including this year, Manon has shown up five times in the 20 years since the AB first presented it, including a short Melbourne Festival season guest-starring Sylvie Guillem, for whom the title role was a signature one. Indeed, so well does Manon suit Guillem that despite her almost exclusive concentration on contemporary dance these days she appeared in the role as recently as 2011, with La Scala when she was 46.

Lucinda Dunn and Steven Heathcote in The Australian Ballet's Manon

Lucinda Dunn and Steven Heathcote in The Australian Ballet’s Manon

At the AB notable Manons have included Vicki Attard, Justine Summers, Kirsty Martin, Amber Scott, Rachel Rawlins and others – I have seen perhaps a dozen Manons and they all were quite different, as they need to be. One doesn’t go to Manon after Manon to remind oneself of the steps, just as repeated viewings of opera or hearings of a symphony are not undertaken so the experience can be repeated exactly. The role of Manon is greatly coveted because of the flexibility it offers, and for the unparalleled stream of shiveringly sexy pas de deux Kenneth MacMillan lavished on his heroine and her lover, the student des Grieux. Manon’s is a story of choices made and consequences suffered, with a flesh-and-blood immediacy that sets her quite apart from the supernatural and fairytale heroines who dominate the classical stage.

The AB’s 2014 season opened in Brisbane on Friday with Manon, featuring Lucinda Dunn in what was – and this is scarcely believable – her debut in the role. Dunn has been with the AB for 23 years and in the top rank since 2002 but was on maternity leave in 2008 when the production last surfaced. In 2001, the Melbourne Festival year, it was Guillem’s show. In 1999 Dunn was a senior artist and various principals had claims on the part. The wait was worth it. Dunn’s artistry deepens with each passing year and she must have a doppelganger in the attic absorbing the physical wear and tear that bedevils ballet dancers.

As the ballet opens Manon is on her way to join a convent, not because she has a vocation but because she is poor. She is diverted from this grim fate by chance, swept away by the handsome poet who is, alas, also impoverished. An opportunity to move up the greasy pole of prosperity is taken as money and slightly shop-worn glamour trump penniless young love. It will not end well. Now well versed in the ways of seduction and offered material rewards for it, Manon rides high in demi-mondaine society, falls low and pays with her life, as women must in 18th century operatic stories such as this. Easier to order the moon to relinquish control of the tides than to have the woman prosper, even though she is taking the only path open to her. Well, other than the convent.

In her first performance Dunn was wonderfully alert and active, the driver of her own destiny in co-operation with her brother, Lescaut. This is another role that can be played in a variety of ways – Lescaut can be brutal and controlling, or an amoral cad, or a louche charmer who is cannily opportunistic when he’s not drinking too much, which is the way it felt on Friday. The rakish dash of Lescaut’s choreography suited the first-cast Lescaut, Andrew Killian, extremely well and he and Dunn seemed like siblings, making sense of actions that can seem unmotivated in MacMillan’s headlong dash through the story’s reversals. Their trio with predatory Monsieur GM – scarily attractive Steven Heathcote, himself a former des Grieux of great note – was superb.

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

Lucinda Dunn and Adam Bull in Manon

It was always worth focusing on the key players even when there was abundant colour and movement to distract attention. While the ensemble work is undeniably lively it is mostly inferior flim-flam. In what is supposed to be an upmarket brothel, for instance, the cavortings of MacMillan’s cutsey-pie scrubbers, decked out in appalling wigs, could not be less sexually alluring. In the opening scene there are cart-wheeling lads with grubby faces who are exceptionally cheerful, as such characters usually are in balletland, and entirely unbelievable. And they all conveniently go to sleep at the very same time so Manon and des Grieux can have their first gorgeous pas de deux.

It was much better to watch Lana Jones, dancing with wit and diamond brilliance as Lescaut’s mistress, and the des Grieux of Adam Bull, who started cautiously but got better and better – it will be good to see him after he has a few performances under his belt. That first long, slow solo, in which des Grieux yearningly offers himself to Manon is a tricky one and one could see Bull negotiating the steps rather than the character. His partnering in the first bedroom pas de deux had a couple of clunky moments, and then he seemed to click into gear and submit to the passionate drive of the piece.

The silken way in which Dunn approached the choreography excluded any element of coquettishness, a quality that is brittle and artificial. It is perfectly reasonable to treat Manon as a version of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, the knowing little madam whose first action on leaving school is to toss the farewell gift of a bible straight out the window of her carriage. But that kind of hard-edged calculation is not what Dunn showed. The luscious back bends and delicious ripples in the shoulder spoke of deep pleasure in Manon’s sexual awakening and the goodies it delivered. She didn’t have to work hard at attracting men; she just did.

The production, designed by Peter Farmer, looks suitably sumptuous on the stage of Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s Lyric Theatre, although I felt at one or two moments the lighting was brighter, and less evocative, than remembered, particularly in the final scene in the Louisiana swamps where Manon meets her end. Still, much of the staging looks like a luscious 18th-century painting come to life.

Along with Dunn’s debut, Friday’s performance brought the first opportunity to hear the newish (dating from 2011) arrangement and orchestration of the score by Martin Yates. Bits and pieces of Massenet, but not anything from his opera on this subject, were sourced and arranged for MacMillan by Leighton Lewis with input from Hilda Gaunt. It worked reasonably well, but after its overhaul the material now sounds more coherent and has a better sense of dramatic build.

The opening pages of the score have an attractive gauzy quality and the sense of transparency continues as a way of underscoring the fragility of the Manon-des Grieux romance before it builds into an outpouring of sexual urgency. The key melodies are lovely and work well as returning motifs that help the drama cohere, and overall Yates seems to have toned down aspects that could fall into the overly sentimental or vulgar category. I hope to get a few more hearings under the belt when Manon comes to Sydney, although undoubtedly one heard the music to greater advantage in the Lyric Theatre. Certainly it was very handsome on Friday in the hands of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the AB’s music director Nicolette Fraillon.

In the end, though, it was Dunn’s night as a woman who delighted in her power and thrilled to the sex, the gifts and the attention but most of all, I think, had that most human of desires: to belong.

The AB opened the year in Brisbane for scheduling rather than strategic reasons, but ballet is becoming a hot commodity here. With Queensland Ballet’s star-studded MacMillan Romeo and Juliet coming up and the American Ballet Theatre visit hot on its heels, you’d have to say Brisbane is now ballet central.

Queensland Performing Arts Centre until March 1. Melbourne March 14-24, Sydney April 3-23.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 24.

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.