Onegin, West Australian Ballet

 West Australian Ballet, His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 20 and 21

WEST Australian Ballet recently took to the streets of Perth with a camera to teach people how to pronounce the name of its latest production (no, it’s not One Gin). There’s a view that if people are wary they’ll get it wrong, they may decide to stay at home. On the other hand, there’s nothing like positive word of mouth to get box office moving, and the volley of bravos for Onegin on its opening night bodes well. The reception was well deserved.

Jayne Smeuldersas Tatiana  and Christian Luck as Gremin in Onegin. Photo: Jon Green

Jayne Smeulders as Tatiana and Christian Luck as Gremin in Onegin. Photo: Jon Green

John Cranko made his version of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin in 1965 for Stuttgart Ballet and it quickly became a ballet loved by dancers and one that most important companies have in their repertoire, although it’s odd that the Bolshoi staged it for the first time only this year. That addition to the Boshoi’s repertoire precipitated one of the biggest ballet scandals of the year, as it happens, when superstar Svetlana Zakharova, who had been learning the role of Tatiana, was passed over for opening night and decided to take her bat and ball and go home. The decision to relegate Zakharova to second cast for an important new production underlined the incredibly tight grip held on the rights, controlled by owner Dieter Graefe and Stuttgart Ballet’s artistic director Reid Anderson.

So how does West Australian Ballet get to do Onegin? It was programmed by former WAB artistic director Ivan Cavallari before he left at the end of last year, in a former life a principal dancer with Stuttgart Ballet. He is one of the people entrusted with staging Onegin around the world. Snap. Now artistic director of Ballet de l’Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, Cavallari was on hand in Perth to polish the performances. Earlier coaching had been in the hands of Egon Madsen, the greatly admired dancer on whom Cranko created the role of Lensky.

Cranko follows the essentials of Pushkin’s poem. A bored aristocrat toys with the affections of a guileless country girl, rejects her, and gets embroiled in a matter of honour. Perhaps he didn’t really mean to rouse her passions, but he is far more sophisticated than she and looking for diversion. Years later Onegin is made to suffer the same agonies he once so carelessly caused Tatiana. Caught up in the maelstrom are Tatiana’s lively sister Olga and her lover, the ill-starred Lensky.

Unrequited passion, jealousy, death and renunciation are tightly packed into six swiftly flowing scenes danced to a patchwork quilt of Tchaikovsky melodies arranged and orchestrated by Kurt-Heinze Stolze (Cranko was steered away from using Tchaikovsky’s opera).  As played by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Myron Romanul at the helm, the music is driven hard and occasionally sounds too rushed. But there’s no doubt it’s a high old time at the ballet.

WAB is fielding two casts, neither without blemishes but each with much to offer. On Friday new leading artist Jiri Jelinek, a glamorous Onegin, and WAB’s prima ballerina Jayne Smeulders set the bar high for mastery of Cranko’s sweeping lines and challenging pas de deux. Jelinek comes to the company with a great deal of experience in the role, having been a principal artist with Stuttgart Ballet, home of Onegin, and National Ballet of Canada. He is now a guest principal artist with NBC and perhaps more rightly should be listed as a guest principal at WAB, given that his contract runs only until January. Presumably if everyone is happy it will be extended.

There are many moments in the choreography that could be called repetitive and unsubtle; whether they strike the viewer as so during the heat of performance is dependent on the conviction of the principal players. Jelinek is well suited to the highly coloured drama of Cranko’s story-telling with its unfolding elongations, deep lunges, sweeping legs and swift, crystalline turns and he establishes the character through aristocratic bearing and an air of disdain for the country society in which he finds himself in the first act. This is a man who wears his superiority like a second suit.

Smeulders is something of a bluestocking Tatiana, an intelligent and perhaps slightly severe young woman who will fall hard. When she writes a letter to Onegin declaring her love, it is done feverishly. Smeulders makes it clear there is a great outpouring of sentiment. She makes it a moment of great urgency rather than a girlish error of judgment. Against that, there was less of a gulf between Tatiana as a girl and the mature woman of the third act who has married a Prince and is in charge of a grand household.

On Saturday Fiona Evans and Matthew Lehmann raised the emotional stakes in what turned out to be an inspired pairing. Lehmann had a scratchy start in the exposing – and important – Act I solo. Onegin needs to be established as a very confident man. But Lehmann clearly took a deep breath during interval, started giving a sense of the character he wanted to be, and the performance took off. Evans had already shown a quite different Tatiana, a fresh, impressionable girl smitten by the man in black. Her transformation into Prince Gremin’s loving but sorely tempted wife was transfixing. Lehmann is a strong partner and the set-piece pas de deux were taken daringly, particularly the Act III renunciation scene. It crackled with passion. Smeulders was a deeper thinker, Evans initially the greater innocent; Jelinek was an elegant thoroughbred, Lehmann a darker soul. Take your pick (or see both).

Dane Holland’s Lensky (Friday) had the musicality and control that sometimes eluded Daniel Roberts in the second cast, although, as with Lehmann on Saturday, Act I nerves led Holland to hurry and blur some turns. His Act II solo, however, showed him to be an expressive dancer of great promise, although as yet his characterisation is not deep. Roberts seemed to be spooked by that lovely, difficult aria of regret and longing, chopping up the dance phrases so they were disconnected from the music. As Lensky’s wayward love Olga, Sarah Sutcliffe (Saturday) edged out Melissa Boniface in conveying the careless high spirits that set tragedy in train. Both danced stylishly and with feeling, although I felt each could have surrendered more freely to the lavish backbends Cranko bestowed on the character. Sutcliffe’s effervescence felt naturally and engagingly expressed. Boniface was a little too tightly wound, the tension expressed in a too-fixed smile. In the small, crucial role of Prince Gremin, the good man who Tatiana marries, Christian Luck and David Mack both impressed.

The rest of the company is relegated to friends (the women of the company needing softer landings in the first act frolics), country folk and some rather irritating pseudo old folk doing too much old folk shtick. This really is a ballet that needs a goodly array of former dancers to take such roles and fill in the society represented, but of course that’s a budgetary issue, and I expect well out of WAB’s means.

A special mention must be made of the sets, borrowed from Prague. The severe limitations of His Majesty’s mean swaths of the Onegin design can’t be used and the production looks sadly under-dressed, diminishing the experience. The small stage also means dancers have to pull themselves in, making smaller what should be grand and expansive. Perth desperately needs a new lyric theatre, right now.

Onegin ends October 5.

Don Quixote x 6

The Australian Ballet, six performances in March and April 2013

BALLET’S reliance on and reverence for its history is powerful in so many ways. In the Australian Ballet’s 2013 Melbourne and Sydney seasons of Don Quixote the women dancing Kitri were coached by former American Ballet Theatre principal Cynthia Harvey; the leading men prepared under the eye of former AB principal artist Steven Heathcote, who also appeared with distinction as the Don in many performances.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Harvey for a program essay and discovered that among the sources for her interpretation of Kitri – captured on DVD with Mikhail Baryshnikov – was Kirov star Ninel Kurgapkina, who was one of the last pupils of Agrippina Vaganova, who in turn had a direct connection with Marius Petipa. Rudolf Nureyev’s production, made on the AB in 1970, is based on Petipa’s work, and of course Nureyev brought to the company his own web of important connections.

Daniel Gaudiello and Lana Jones in Don Quixote. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Lana Jones in Don Quixote. Photo: Jeff Busby

That’s the big picture. Ballet connections work on the micro scale as well. I took my young great-niece to see Don Q at the April 20 matinee, as she has become a keen student about to embark on the next step of taking private lessons to supplement her ballet classes. Her mother, my niece, came along too and was reminded of her own days as a ballet student: at one point she danced alongside AB soloist Matthew Donnelly, who that day was performing the role of Gamache with considerable elan.

Which is a long way of saying it didn’t seem an entirely mad thing for me to see six performances of Don Q in the space of four and a half weeks, with five of them crammed into two weeks. I’m finding the jaunty Minkus ear-worms hard to banish but it turned out to be a valuable exercise. That is, if one can discount the completely mad plot, such as it is, and the regrettable lapse into jazz hands and shoulders amongst the gypsies of Act II.

In order of Kitri/Basilio pairings it went like this: Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev guesting in Melbourne; Leanne Stojmenov and Ty King-Wall; Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo, guesting from Stuttgart Ballet in Sydney; Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo; Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello; and Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. When the season ends on April 24 I will have missed only one cast, that led by Reiko Hombo and Yosvani Ramos – a pity, as Ramos leaves the company immediately after Don Q.

One dancer we unfortunately wouldn’t see is the AB’s longest-serving principal artist (since 2002), Lucinda Dunn. She was a spectacular Kitri when the AB last staged Don Q in 2007, but has been with the company for 22 years and it wasn’t a surprise to see her name missing from the casting this time around. Dunn is rightly choosing her repertoire carefully now.

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

Osipova and Vasiliev (March 16) were, of course astonishing. Osipova can zip across and around a stage about twice as fast as anyone else and throws out megawatts of charisma and polish. Vasiliev seems to have a jet-pack somewhere about his person as he performs the apparently impossible, both in the air and on the ground. It isn’t fair to compare anyone to them, although Badenes (April 6, evening) wasn’t far behind Osipova from a technical perspective and I preferred her characterisation, which was sunny and effortlessly on top of all the by-play. Perhaps Badenes’s Spanish heritage is the key. Camargo was exceptionally confident and charming, if a touch untidy from time to time. Still, they made a sparky couple and the AB seemed energised by them and – if this isn’t a paradox – more relaxed than when faced with the Vasipova tornado.

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

I thought I should try to see senior artist King-Wall as it was clear he was knocking on the door of the principals’ dressing room. The afternoon of April 6 looked good for this, and so did King-Wall. AB artistic director David McAllister came on stage at the end of the performance to announce the promotion. King-Wall isn’t the most natural choice for Basilio. He is more the prince than the joker, but he hit the right comic moments without over-playing them, exploited his elegant line and partnered Stojmenov beautifully. (An aside: it’s a pleasure to see the care with which most of the AB men partner, with what we might describe as manly tenderness.)

Stojmenov is a terrific Kitri, fleet of foot, cheerful of temperament and with a good dash of sexiness. Of all the women, she made the most of a moment in Kitri’s grand pas de deux variation when a swirling fan movement around the torso contrasts sensuously with a series of crisp echappes.

The next must-see was Guo/Kondo (April 13, evening). Guo is a real fire-cracker and a self-selector for Basilio. He came into the season as a soloist and emerged as a senior artist. Quite right too. It was interesting to see his Gypsy Boy in the Osipova/Vasiliev performance in Melbourne. He finished off with an unorthodox but joyous backflip, as if to acknowledge the excitement and virtuosity of the evening – essentially to put himself in the same show as the superstars. Gorgeous.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

As Basilio Guo showed a very clean pair of heels. Like Vasiliev he isn’t tall and it helps him in the air, where he is exciting. The stage – particularly in Sydney – is too small for his space-eating energy. And he’s a sweetheart, fun and bubbly. Guo didn’t attempt the one-arm lift in Act I but tossed in a little something else, cheekily scratching his calf with his foot while holding Kondo aloft.

Kondo is a lovely soloist whose interpretation is still somewhat unformed. It felt as if the role was sitting on top of her rather than being part of her and she doesn’t have the most fluent back, which is a fine attribute to have in a Kitri. But Kondo and Guo were well matched in ballon and elevation.

The first cast of Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello got a well-deserved and well-received opening night (I saw them later, on April 16). Jones offered big, expansive dancing, extending everything to the max. Gaudiello was immaculately precise in allegro and plush in adagio. And he gave great guitar spin as he tossed the instrument over his head after Basilio’s pseudo musical interlude in Act I. It was a performance full of attractive brio.

Finally came Eastoe and Jackson (April 20, matinee). Don Q isn’t the ballet that best suits their temperaments – the soulful side of the street is where they excel. It goes without saying Eastoe was an enchanting Dulcinea and her floaty balances were divine, but there were few fireworks, apart from when Jackson pulled off a v-e-r-y long-held single-arm lift in Act I.

There was mixed success in some of the secondary roles. Principal Andrew Killian (Espada) upped the ante after a quite subdued showing in the Osipova/Vasiliev  performance but could have projected even more and Rudy Hawkes and Andrew Wright got the bullfighter’s shapes without much of his macho glamour. Senior artists Miwako Kubota and Juliet Burnett were fine Dryad queens but principal Amber Scott, a dancer of great lyrical gifts, was spooked by the grand fouette sequence.

It’s always worth taking a close look at those cast as Amour as they are often on the up and up (the role reminds me of Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro – it’s a small soprano part aficionados scope out for stars of the future). Hombo is perhaps a little too assertive for Amour these days; Halaina Hills, Jessica Fyfe and Benedicte Bernet were warmer, sweeter. Hills could cut back on the sugar a bit, Fyfe was delightful but wayward musically at the performance I saw, and Benedicte Bernet – a candidate in this year’s Telstra Ballet Dancer Award – was very good.

What other stray thoughts emerged? Well, that the women of the corps were too often out of kilter in the vision scene; that the long diaphanous cape Kitri wears at the beginning of the ballet should never, not ever, be worn over a tutu as it is at the beginning of the vision scene; that Brett Chynoweth, recently promoted to soloist, does a great Gypsy Boy whip crack and it’s energising to see how passionately he dances; and that after all those Don Qs it will be a relief to get to the palate cleansers that the upcoming Vanguard and the brief Canberra-only program Symmetries promise to be.

Vanguard, Sydney, April 30-May 18; Melbourne, June 6-17.

Symmetries, Canberra, May 23-25. It features a new Garry Stewart work, Monument, alongside Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments (also part of the Vanguard program) and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux.