Thrills and spills: the year in dance

We’ll get to the year’s most interesting work and dancers shortly but 2015 was also notable for offstage developments, particularly at Australia’s three leading classical companies, The Australian Ballet, Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet. So let’s begin there.

OFFSTAGE

The national company

At The Australian Ballet, David McAllister became the company’s longest-serving artistic director, surpassing Maina Gielgud’s 14-year reign. McAllister took over in July 2001 after the relatively brief tenure of Ross Stretton, who cut his time at the AB short to go to the Royal Ballet in London. McAllister was named to the post while he was still dancing, although retirement followed swiftly. It was a huge leap of faith on the part of the AB board as he had had no leadership experience but it is now emphatically his company. Of the AB’s current roster of 68 dancers, only two were members of the company before 2001 and two joined in 2001.

In another big first, this year McAllister put himself forward to stage a new production of The Sleeping Beauty. He had previously staged only a handful of minor pieces. The production is thought to have cost about $2 million and in a dazzling feat of fundraising, about 70 per cent came from 2000 or so ballet-lovers giving sums ranging from $100 to $50,000 or more. Audiences flocked to it, several dancers in Sydney were given career-changing opportunities and despite reservations from some critics (including me) about some aspects of the production, it must be counted a significant success for McAllister and The Australian Ballet.

McAllister shows absolutely no sign of becoming jaded and it wouldn’t surprise one to see him celebrate his 20th anniversary in the job in 2021.

The state companies

Queensland Ballet was the real surprise package of the year from a backstage perspective, making the position of its high-profile CEO Anna Marsden redundant. The announcement was made on July 9 and was supposed to take effect from September 1 but Marsden was quickly out of the picture. On July 29 QB’s chair, Brett Clark, said in a statement the company would appoint an executive director, whose role would be to enable the vision of artistic director Li Cunxin and drive operations.  Dilshani Weerasinghe, previously the company’s development director, was announced as acting executive director but she was soon the board’s permanent choice.

I spoke at length to Clark in early December about the move, very shortly after the company’s announcement that the Queensland Government would give QB an extra $1.2 million annually (bringing its contribution to $2.7 million annually) to support an increase in dancer numbers (an additional eight by 2020), expansion of its headquarters, increased international touring and a greater number of performances. In 2016 QB will have 31 company members and seven young artists.

The announcement by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk also contained news of a $5 million gift from the Melbourne-based Ian Potter Foundation, earmarked for improvements to the company’s facilities at the Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End.

Clark said negotiations regarding both announcements had been “a long work in progress”. He said specific goals were for QB to be seen as a “powerhouse in the Asia-Pacific region” and to perform more frequently in regional Queensland. Touring to Sydney and Melbourne was not on the cards. “I think the AB services Sydney and Melbourne extremely well. They’re an amazing company.”

Clark declined to speak about the working relationship between Li and Marsden. He said, however, it had become “apparent that for us to get agreed goals and visions, it needed to be an artistic director-led strategy”. He said an executive director can have input into strategy and vision but the core role is to support the board and the company, “and in the case of Queensland Ballet, the artistic director on his or her vision for the company”. He also said that “Dilshani reports through Li to the board”.

Clark acknowledged Marsden’s role in QB’s rapid growth since Li became artistic director in 2011. He also said: “We needed Li’s vision and strategy leading the way forward.”

Clark would not discuss what went on behind the scenes but the implication is clear. Although Marsden was a key player in QB’s revival of fortunes following the departure of previous artistic director François Klaus, a structure in which both CEO and artistic director reported to the board created tension. The board chose Li.

I approached Marsden but she did not wish to comment.

West Australian Ballet will also be under new management next year following the announcement on December 14 that its CEO, Steven Roth, will be leaving in February to work with Scottish Ballet. Roth joined WAB in 2007 when the company had 19 very unhappy dancers who were agitating for the right to strike over their pay and conditions. (Their accommodation in His Majesty’s Theatre, where the company mainly performs, was limited to one studio and cramped production and administration space.) The dancers prevailed: the West Australian Government upped its funding and WAB now has 32 company members and eight young artists. One of the great achievements of Roth’s tenure can be seen in WAB’s gleaming State Ballet Centre in the Perth suburb of Maylands; another is the increase in the company’s operating revenue from $3.2 million in 2007 to $10 million in 2015.

Interestingly, Roth goes to Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet, the country’s national company, as executive director. That company already has a CEO – Christopher Hampson, who is also the company’s artistic director. He added CEO duties earlier this year after the sudden departure of chief executive Cindy Sughrue. In June Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported: “Scottish Ballet will now also begin a search for an executive director who will sit on the national company’s board and report to Hampson, with a remit for ‘clear focus on strategic vision and commercial success’.”

The Herald also reported Scottish Ballet’s chairman, Norman Murray, as saying “the board had undertaken a review of how the company was run, with aid from consultants, and believed it should be ‘artistically led’.”

ONSTAGE – CLASSICAL AND CONTEMPORARY

There are, I admit, a lot of gaps: no 2015 Melbourne Festival, no 2015 Adelaide Festival, no 2015 Dance Massive (Melbourne), although I had already seen one or two things on that program. I mention this because I travelled a fair bit in 2015 but not to everywhere or everything. My list doesn’t leave these things out because there was nothing of note, but because I wasn’t there. Adelaide would have been my big chance to see – at long last – Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet but that is now impossible. Cedar Lake’s financial backer closed the company not long after Adelaide. At Melbourne I could have caught up with the latest work from Batsheva, which I’ve seen regularly at Australian arts festivals, but no.

And a work that I reviewed reasonably strictly on first seeing it makes the list for its daring and its dancers. While I have issues with some of the dramaturgy in The Australian Ballet’s new Sleeping Beauty it is nevertheless a considerable achievement that provided three artists with role debuts that saw each immediately promoted to the next rank.

The productions are in the order in which I saw them and the performers in alphabetical order. The list is heavily skewed towards ballet because that’s the way the year panned out for me.

The best of the best? A Sleeping Beauty double: Alexei Ratmansky’s back-to-Petipa production for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala; and Benedicte Bemet’s dazzling debut as Aurora for The Australian Ballet.

PRODUCTIONS

Nothing to Lose, Force Majeure, Sydney Festival, January

Force Majeure founder Kate Champion has now moved on, leaving the company in new hands. Nothing to Lose, made with activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater, was a great farewell piece. It put the following propositions on stage: that fat people should not hide away, that they should be heard, that they are entitled to make choices, that they may actually like the way they are, and, by god, they can and will dance.

Puncture, Legs on the Wall, FORM Dance Projects, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Festival, January

Puncture started with “Hello” and ended with “I love you”. Is there anything more life-affirming? Six couples collided, grappled, touched, fought, flew, supported, changed partners, argued and loved. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evoked the formalities of Elizabethan court dance, the uniformity of line dancing, the romance of the waltz, the zing of the tango, the group spirit of folk and much more, but ultimately the dance was about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, Perth International Arts Festival, February

In this seemingly carefree work Morris offered principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women were equal, each was an individual, there was strength to be gained from one another and there was belief in the power of love and joy.

Quintett, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, March

The first cast was more balletic, the second more ferocious in this thrilling, heart-catching William Forsythe work. Not many companies are allowed to do it; Sydney Dance Company did it proud.

Sydney Dance Company's Quintett featuring Chloe Leong and David Mack 1. Photo by Peter Greig

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

The Sleeping Beauty, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Alexei Ratmansky’s production took us as nearly as possible back to what the original 1890 audience would have seen: super-lavish setting, strong mime and many intimate, modest details. The physicality looked startlingly different. Instead of height and bravura there was refinement and great charm. For both men and women there was a great deal of petit allegro; low, laser-sharp, extremely swift footwork that sparkled. It was as virtuosic, or more so, than today’s emphatic gestures and much more intricate and sophisticated.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Liam Scarlett, Royal New Zealand Ballet, Auckland, September

What a gorgeous production! Designed by New Zealander Tracy Grant Lord and choreographed by hotter-than-hot Brit Liam Scarlett, this co-pro between Royal New Zealand Ballet and Queensland Ballet was funny, sexy and ravishing to behold. Brisbane sees it in April.

Hayley Donnison as a fairy credit Stephen A'Court

Hayley Dennison in Liam Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

The Sleeping Beauty, The Australian Ballet, Melbourne and Sydney, September and December

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drank deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, was almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revelled in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There were columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that threw out a huge challenge to David McAllister: match this if you can, buddy. Well, he asked for it. There have been a few rumblings about the design being oppressively opulent but this greatest of ballet scores can bear the weight. It invites and deserves a magnificent mise en scène. It also requires storytelling that can fill the space and amplify the music. It’s in the latter sphere that Beauty doesn’t fully succeed despite the involvement of Lucas Jervies, a choreographer and director working as McAllister’s sounding board and adviser. It was extremely cheering, though, to see many very fine performances through the ranks and exciting role debuts (see below).

Ochres, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, November

It was a joy to see Ochres revived at Carriageworks with a dynamic new generation of dancers. Not that it was exactly the work originally choreographed by Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene, nor should it be. Dance texts are particularly susceptible to change and Bangarra has developed greatly since the early 1990s. This revival was in the spirit of the original rather than a faithful dusting off of the old steps. The company called it a re-imagining and it looked wonderful. Bangarra has a unique aesthetic based on the connection with Indigenous ceremony and the land. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and invigorating.

Cinderella, choreographed by Jayne Smeulders, West Australian Ballet, Perth, December

How many full-length, mainstage classical ballets choreographed by women were there on Australian stages this year? Just the one I think, Jayne Smeulders’s Cinderella. She reworked her 2011 production to advantage and scored a huge hit with Perth audiences. See: it can be done.

Coppélia, choreographed by Maina Gielgud for Christine Walsh’s Australian Conservatoire of Ballet, Melbourne, December

There was quite a lot of new choreography and loads of rearranging but basically Gielgud’s production was a staging rather than a new work. But what a beauty. It was hard to believe this was a student production, so high were its standards. The young dancers were not just technically assured, they gave terrifically engaged and engaging performances, working seamlessly with the delightful guest artists from Tokyo Ballet, Maria Kawatani and Arata Miyagawa. Christine Walsh designed the many costumes, all of them splendid.

PERFORMANCES

Stella Abrera, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Abrera’s warmth and simplicity informed every moment of her performance; there wasn’t a thing that didn’t feel genuine. The mad scene tore at the heart. As she loses her reason Giselle re-enacts the plucking of flower petals, which earlier had quieted her anxiety about Albrecht – he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me. Now there was no anticipation or light. Abrera shook her head piteously. He doesn’t love me. (Abrera was at that time an ABT soloist; she was promoted to principal – very belatedly in the opinion of many – at the end of June.)

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Veronica Part, Stella Abrera and Vladimir Shklyarov in Giselle. Photo: MIRA

Benedicte Bemet, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December

Quite simply one of the most exciting nights in the theatre, ever. Bemet, just 21, had the dew and radiance of youth, purity and joy in her dancing and was beyond fearless. You know how you almost always get butterflies when Aurora nears those balances and promenades in the Rose Adagio? Not so here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were extraordinary, the crowd went wild, and Bemet just went from strength to strength. She went on as a coryphée and shortly afterwards was promoted to soloist. To be honest, it wouldn’t have surprised me if David McAllister had bounded on to the stage to make her a principal artist on the spot. But she has plenty of time for that.

Brett Chynoweth, Puck in The Dream, debut as Prince Désiré, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, May and December

Chynoweth is one of The Australian Ballet’s finest male technicians – he is fast, sleek, has fabulous feet and exciting elevation. This, however, is not what makes him so interesting. He is a passionate, poetic man who connects deeply with his roles and therefore with the audience. As Désiré his longing for love was palpable, and earlier in the year his Puck was a marvel of pyrotechnics and other-worldly humour. He is now, rightfully, a senior artist.

Chynoweth Boud

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

Alina Cojocaru, Aurora, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, October

She radiated light and joy from a tiny body that gave the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing was brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything felt as if it were the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all was her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompassed the entire theatre.

Thaji Dias, Dancing for the Gods, Chitrasena Dance Company, Sydney Festival, January

I got my first, and so far only, view of Thaji Dias during this year’s Sydney Festival. She is a ravishing artist, dancing in the Kandyan style from Sri Lanka with megawatts of charisma. The dance was dramatic and seductive and Dias’s command of it exhilarating with her divinely articulated wrists, rippling shoulders, jaunty strides, the deepest and plushest plies and the liveliest eyes.

Sylvie Guillem, Life in Progress, Sydney, August

At 50 Guillem left the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that showed her as a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. She was known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art. But that was then. Her farewell program celebrated Guillem in the here and now, with new and recent work.

Robyn Hendricks, debut in Symphonic Variations, debut as Aurora, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April and December

Hendricks is something of a late bloomer but no less valuable for that. Her willowy body gives her a regal air and she also seems a little unknowable, qualities that of course make one intensely aware of her. She looked serenely beautiful in the first cast of Symphonic Variations; as Aurora she was a queen in the making: watchful, elegant, sophisticated and lusciously aware of her suitors. She was promoted to senior artist immediately after her debut.

The Dream - Symphonic Variations

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

Xavier Le Roy, Self Untitled, Carriageworks, Sydney, November

Xavier Le Roy’s 1998 solo Self Unfinished had particular resonance at the time of viewing, days after the terrorist attacks on Paris, summoning thoughts of the fragility of life, the resilience of the human spirit, the truth that we exist only at this moment, right now, and that we are all in it together. He didn’t make a big thing of it, but Le Roy’s piece had a strong sense of erasing the invisible barrier between audience and performer. He intrigued, delighted and provoked during a performance of quite intimacy.

Natalia Osipova/Steven McRae, Giselle, American Ballet Theatre, New York, May

Osipova’s Giselle had London aflame last year and this year had the New York audience entranced and exhilarated. She tore through the ballet with a passion, leaping higher, turning more quickly and covering ground more voraciously than any other. Osipova is a risk-taking dancer. She fell heavily towards the end of her final solo and took several agonising seconds to recover enough to stand. She limped back to the centre and resumed dancing, finishing the ballet not only courageously but with melting beauty. The clarity and complexity of McRae’s acting was wonderful. He gave not just the broad picture but made every moment vivid, fresh, illuminating and dramatically coherent. His dancing, it goes without saying, was full of brilliance without being bombastic. But there was no more riveting moment than one of complete stillness, when Albrecht heard the distant horns of the Royal hunting party and understood the chaos to come.

CHOREOGRAPHY

Kristina Chan, Conform, Sydney Dance Company, Sydney, December

“I am interested in what it means to be a man in this modern day,” Chan wrote in the program note to Conform, part of the annual New Breed program. She has a sombre view. When we first saw her men – there was an all-male cast of eight – they visibly buckled under the weight of expectation. They were either desperately alone with their thoughts or they fell in with the majority, losing individuality but absorbing the power of the pack. Conform was beautifully structured, vibrated with repressed emotion and had a very strong, pulsating and often ominous score by James Brown. It should be a keeper.

Justin Peck, Rōdē,ō, New York City Ballet, May

We haven’t seen a step of Peck’s in Australia as far as I know and it’s about time someone did something about it. His Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes, to the music of Aaron Copland, is wondrous. (Don’t ask me about the odd accents in the title; perhaps Peck wanted to differentiate it from Agnes de Mille’s 1942 Rodeo, to this music.) A piece for 15 men and one fabulous woman, it surprises, invigorates and enchants at every turn. Peck, still dancing as a soloist with New York City Ballet, has the magic touch. This apparently abstract ballet is packed with ideas, relationships and really zingy choreography. NYCB probably doesn’t want to let it go just yet because it premiered only in February this year, but can someone please beg?

Sylvie Guillem: Life in Progress

Sydney Opera House, August 19.

LET’S not talk in the past tense about Sylvie Guillem. She may be on her farewell tour but she is still one of the greatest of the greats. Until December, when she calls it quits, she is still a dancer and still a superstar.

At 50 she leaves the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that shows her as she is now, a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. That was then. It’s enough that she is known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art.

Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan's techne. Photo: Bill Cooper Choreographer; Akram Khan, Dancer; Sylvie Guillem, Compose;r Alies Sluiter published by Mushroom Music Publishing/BMG Chrysalis Lighting Designer; Lucy Carter, Costume Designer; Kimie Nakano, Dancer; Sylvie Guillem, Musician;s Prathap Ramachandra, Grace Savage, Alies Sluiter,

Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan’s techne. Photo: Bill Cooper

Not many dancers would announce their retirement by appearing in premieres but Guillem is exploring possibilities to the end. There are two new works and one favourite for her on the Life in Progress bill, which opens with the solo technê by Akram Khan. The title refers to skill or art and Guillem is seen in all her mysterious majesty, whether scuttling insect-like, pawing the ground with those magnificent legs and feet or circumnavigating a circle of light as her body twists around itself: wheels within wheels. There is thunder in the air, a gauzy tree in the centre to which she is inexorably drawn and a strong sense of the numinous. It’s a wonderful work, performed with the luxury of three musicians on stage with Guillem.

Russell Maliphant’s Here & After, also new, sees Guillem for the first time in a duo for two women. It presents Guillem’s qualities of thoroughbred line, whipping and slicing legs and elegant wit so no complaints, even if it’s one of Maliphant’s less substantial works. La Scala soloist Emanuela Montanari is Guillem’s partner, inevitably outshone.

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in Duo2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in William Forsythe’s Duo2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

William Forsythe’s Duo2015 (originally from 1996) gives Guillem a break while giving a nod to the choreographer’s place in her legend. In 1987 he made In the middle, somewhat elevated for Paris Opera Ballet and exploited Guillem’s explosive strength, awe-inspiring elasticity and supreme elegance. It made a sensation. Duo2015 is a riveting, sinewy pas de deux for two men (Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, both thrilling) who don’t touch but can’t seem to part. It has something of the eternal quality of Waiting for Godot. Nothing and everything happens.

Guillem returns to Mats Ek’s Bye (2011) as her finale (it was part of her 6000 Miles Away program, seen in Sydney in 2013). In this context Bye feels weightier than before as ordinary life, seen through a doorway, exerts its pull. Guillem is seen at her least glamorous and most vulnerable in this wry, unsentimental exit.

Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek's Bye. Photo: Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek’s Bye. Photo: Bill Cooper

But then Guillem has never done things like anyone else, including signing off. Life in Progress ends in Tokyo on December 20 but during that month Guillem also joins her beloved Tokyo Ballet for a touring program that includes Maurice Béjart’s popular Boléro. Guillem’s website lists Hiroshima on December 28 as her last performance but I am told – thank you Naomi from Tokyo! – that there will also be a performance on December 30 in Yokohama.

And a further update. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see Guillem in conversation today at the Sydney Opera House but I am reliably told she said she will exit with Boléro in Tokyo just before the stroke of midnight. That, I have to assume, will be on December 31, seconds before her final year in dance ends. Spectacular.

What a way to go, the dancer on a table – in the middle, somewhat elevated we might say – responding to Ravel’s increasingly ecstatic music as a circle of adoring men pays homage.

What a woman.

Life in Progress ends at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday. It then travels to Birmingham, Paris, Taipei, Beijing, Singapore, Shanghai, New York, St Pölten (Austria) and Tokyo.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on August 21.

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.

Bodytorque.Technique

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Theatre, October 31.

THIS year they called the annual choreographic workshop Bodytorque.Technique. It would have been rather closer to the mark to call it Bodytorque.Influences. Five of the six new works paid such homage to established choreographers you’d think royalties would be in order. But for all the sense there wasn’t a huge amount of originality in movement language, there was a consistently high standard in the work, probably more than in any other year of Bodytorque’s decade-long history. It gave the audience an extremely enjoyable and accomplished evening of dance and the program had consistency and coherence.

The “technique” part of the title steered the choreographers towards a use of classical vocabulary, as it did a couple of years ago when the pointe shoe was the focus of attention. There was no dance theatre or contemporary dance as there had been in other years, giving the evening a satisfying unanimity of purpose.

But of course that’s not the primary purpose of Bodytorque. It seeks to discover and promote new choreographic talent, and it’s extremely rare to find a keeper. In the first decade of Bodytorque there has been only one graduate to the main stage, Tim Harbour, and he has been quiet of late.

It’s not surprising to see new choreographers take inspiration from established dance-makers when they are starting out and this crop has been touched by some of the highest-profile people in the business. For instance, Benjamin Stuart-Carberry’s Polymorphia, with its sudden silences and blackouts, summoned memories of William Forsythe. The complicated, tangled pas de deux in Alice Topp’s Tinted Windows recalled Christopher Wheeldon. Halaina Hills made no bones about her debt to George Balanchine, smartly acknowledging it early in Mode.L by referring to one of the key images from Apollo. Ty King-Wall’s The Art of War, in which four men vie for the favour of one woman, reminded me somewhat of Robert Helpmann’s The Display in its male jostling for ascendancy. And Richard House’s Finding the Calm perhaps scored the Jiri Kylian guernsey for its cool sexiness, elegant arrangements and the suggestion of complex relationships. I could happily have watched Finding the Calm again right away because I wanted to know more about his two couples. Job done.

All the works were confident and, for the most part, extremely well structured. These are gifts that can’t be borrowed. Only Stuart-Carberry got a bit stuck on technique at the expense of direction in Polymorphia, although I enjoyed his strong, expansive upper-body work as two women (Imogen Chapman and Valerie Tereshchenko, both exquisite), mostly occupying separate pools of light and often mirroring one another, looked ravishing but oh so distant. His choice of music,48 Responses to Polymorphia by Jonny Greenwood, worked well with its dissonances that resolve themselves into harmonics in that Stuart-Carberry was interested in symmetry and asymmetry. It’s likely Stuart-Carberry has absorbed lessons from being (a brief) part of Sylvie Guillem’s 6000 Miles Away program. While it was just performed in Melbourne, Stuart-Carberry was also involved when 6000 Miles Away showed in Sydney in March last year. A great opportunity for this former AB dancer.

Hills showed an extremely sure hand in the way she shaped the variety of her groups, duos, solos, entrances, exits and the details that add texture to a work – a terrific ending, too, although the piece overall was too derivative with its Balanchinean hip thrusts and swivels. But as they say, if you’re going to steal, take from the best. Mode.L’s pluses included the ambitious use of Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments, played live, and Ako Kondo’s sparkling central role. Hills should be encouraged to work on ideas for next year’s Bodytorque pronto.

Topp, who has previously impressed at Bodytorque (twice) was over-enthusiastic in the way her couples grappled and the manipulation of the women went too far in the direction of manhandling for my taste, but she has a touch for mood and atmosphere. Tinted Windows over-stretched itself in the search for a marriage of and differentiation between technique and feeling, an impression compounded by the use of Leif Sundstrup’s rather soft-grained music. There was an odd pause in the middle, too, that simply didn’t work as a dramatic moment. I thought at first that a dancer had been injured or missed a cue. Topp’s coup in securing fashion designer Toni Maticevski to create the romantic costumes added glamour and the opening night audience gave Tinted Windows a huge cheer. Despite my reservations about aspects of the ballet, it would be so good to see Topp given further chances to develop.

It was heartening, by the way, to see two women on the bill. One of the big discussions in classical dance is the paucity of female choreographers.

King-Wall’s melding of martial arts-inflected moves with classicism in The Art of War wasn’t quite as seamless as it might be but there was virtuosic work for the men and a pleasing sense of intrigue with his solo woman in the red dress. The music, a selection of pieces from the group Coda, didn’t strike exactly the right note with the choreography but that’s part of the process – finding the most fruitful correlations between dance and music.

As Hills had earlier in the program and Josh Consandine would do after, King-Wall understood that putting an uneven number of dancers onstage can create tension, narrative and structural interest all by itself. The choreographers were allowed a maximum of five dancers each, and these three took the full option.

Consandine, a former principal dancer with the Australian Ballet and a Sydney Dance Company alumnus, was a natural choice for the program’s closer as he’d come up with the most polished piece of the evening. In-finite was also the most purely classical work, leavened with jokiness and humour but knowing when to stop. The group of two men and three women demonstrated the need to work as a team and the impulse to be an individual; they showed the joy and anguish of dance; they got in some fouettes and pirouettes a la seconde; principal Andrew Killian found himself in a headstand; and there was a brief, antic breakout of jazz hands. A delight.

I could see In-finite being a big hit on the circuit of the Dancers Company, the AB’s touring arm made up of graduating students from the Australian Ballet School and AB guests. I could also see Finding the Calm doing business. A good result for Bodytorque this year.

The provision of live music for several pieces was a bonus, with Simon Thew conducting a small ensemble of players from the Australia Opera and Ballet Orchestra. It does make a big difference. As always Bodytorque gives lower-ranked dancers a moment in the spotlight. There really were far too many to mention (isn’t that good?), but those who like to go talent-spotting at the AB had plenty to work with.

Kat Chan was billed as design co-ordinator for all the pieces and costume designer for In-finite (loved the cheeky little minimalist tutus) and Finding the Calm; Graham Silver lit all the works. The choreographers were most handsomely supported.

Next year Sydney loses Bodytorque to Melbourne. I hope the city cherishes it, although there will need to be patience. In 2014 Bodytorque – subtitled DNA, whatever that may mean – is slated for the State Theatre, three performances only, and not in one block. So there’s a huge stage, a huge auditorium, lack of continuity in performance and lack of heft in the number of performances. I do understand that the AB has the theatre for its use at that time and to go elsewhere would cost, but the venue is far from ideal.

The word is that Melbourne has always asked for Bodytorque. Well, now it’s going to get it, and needs to put its money where its mouth is.

Rising

Aakash Odedra Company, Brisbane Festival, September 27.

IN Rising, young British dancer Aakash Odedra presents four solos, one by himself (exquisite) and the others from Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. That towering trio of dance-makers says it all. The evening may be very brief – perhaps 45 minutes of dance in all – but the quality is exceptional and there was no feeling of being short-changed. Quite the reverse.

Aakash Odedra in Nritta. Photo: Nisha Kajal Patel

Aakash Odedra in Nritta. Photo: Nisha Kajal Patel

Odedra’s credentials are established in the opening piece Nritta, his own work. He is revealed as a man of light build dressed in the long, slender-fitting jacket and trousers that immediately evoke the subcontinent. While all the pieces use elements of the classical Indian dance in which Odedra was trained, Nritta stays closest to the source. Enveloped in murky, diffuse lighting Odedra is all light and blistering speed, like a gambolling, exceptionally elegant sprite. Little balletic little leaps punctuate rapid-fire spins that sometimes come to a sudden stop for a moment of repose then continue on their way, decorated with sensuous upper-body swirls. The mood is prayerful, in a pantheistic, pan-sexual kind of way.

Odedra’s astonishing plasticity is exploited in a very different way in Khan’s In the Shadow of Man. Stripped to the waist, he yelps and writhes like a wounded animal. The swift circling on his knees, wheeling arms, splayed fingers and liquid torso come from Indian classicism but are rendered anguished and ultra-contemporary by Khan. The crepuscular lighting is by Michael Hulls, who also lights Russell Maliphant’s CUT. This piece has many similarities with Maliphant’s Two, in which Sylvie Guillem has appeared in Australia. The dancer is mostly in semi-darkness as parts of the body flicker in and out of the light. In CUT Odedra’s fingers glow like coals, his arms pulsate convulsively and he spins like a dervish as Andy Cowton’s wall-of-sound music ramps up the vibrations.

After these excitements Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Constellations looks uncharacteristically soft-centred. Lights sway across the space and come on and off as Odedra moves amongst them. Again his plasticity is seen to advantage, but the piece itself isn’t really terribly interesting. Pretty, but a wee bit sentimental.

That didn’t stop last Friday’s Brisbane Festival audience from jumping to its feet instantly at the end, something I haven’t previously seen there.

Next stop, Sydney …

Rising, Parramatta Riverside Theatres, Sydney, October 5-6.

6000 miles away

Choreography by William Forsythe, Mats Ek and Jiri Kylian. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, March 8

MATS Ek’s Bye is the crowd-pleasing work in this rich, concentrated evening of dance but William Forsythe’s Rearray is where the real nourishment is. Forsythe and Sylvie Guillem go way back – nearly a quarter of a century – and his understanding of her unique gifts runs deep. The outstanding physical qualities are still in thrilling shape despite Guillem now being closer (much closer) to 50 than 40. Her plasticity is extraordinary, the limbs long and ultra-refined, the arch of her foot dramatic in its intensity, her line and placement exquisite. But despite their luxurious quality, these things are merely the tools at Guillem’s disposal. In recent years Guillem has taken an adventurous approach to her work, and her celebrity is such that audiences will go where she goes.

Sylvie Guillem in Bye, by Mats Ek. Photo: Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in Bye, by Mats Ek. Photo: Bill Cooper

Rearray was made on Guillem and one of her regular partners, Paris Opera Ballet’s Nicolas Le Riche: classical ballet royalty, in other words. Le Riche has been injured of late and for that reason wasn’t seen in the recent POB season of Giselle in Sydney. For this tour of 6000 miles away Guillem appears with another of her (few) frequent partners, Massimo Murru of La Scala.

Rearray is something of a love letter to classical dance in that it persistently returns to ballet steps and positions while removing them entirely from a conventional ballet setting. There are gorgeous ports de bras, sharp beaten steps, creamy pirouettes, a frequent stop in an open fourth position and so on, but they are seen in a dreamlike context, given astringency by David Morrow’s austere score.

The light, never strong at any point, fades in and out of a space enclosed with dark curtains. Guillem and Murru, dressed in simple dark trousers and tops, enter and leave. They dance together and separately, giving suggestions of other worlds. At one point Guillem does a little hip twirl accompanied by feet that could come from a square dance; Murru, with his hands clasped behind his back, has his body in planes that make one think of Merce Cunningham. But these are hints only.

As the relatively brief work unfolds the desire to see more grows ever greater but is thwarted. It’s impossible, Forsythe seems to be saying, to see and know everything. Guillem and Murru leave for the last time, the light dies away and the mystery continues.

Bye starts with the startling filmed image of Guillem’s eye in close-up. It is quite an unsparing view but Guillem, bless her, seems to have little vanity. Fair enough when you are as naturally elegant as she is, I suppose. This elegance is something to be overcome in Bye, which shows a woman breaking free of home and hearth for a moment to cut the tiniest bit loose. Guillem is dressed by Katrin Brannstrom in a skirt, blouse and cardy which on anyone else would look exceptionally daggy and which on her has the air of being by Miuccia Prada. She makes ungainly shapes with those glorious limbs and even stands on her head a couple of times. Probably only she could get away with it, but Guillem makes Bye, danced to the lovely Arietta from Beethoven’s Piano sonata Op.111, a touching picture of the everyday housewife. It’s done with humour, touches of the unexpected and a lovely combination of play and wistfulness.

Jiri Kylian’s 27’52” acts as a kind of curtain-raiser to Guillem’s pieces and shares something of their mood and appearance. There is an almost bare stage, a spare sound, crepuscular lighting and something not entirely knowable being enacted, although the result is not in the same league as Bye and, especially, Rearray. This is minor Kylian as a man and a woman negotiate a space in which intimacy and separation play equal parts but it’s given top-notch performances by former Nederlands Dans Theater members Natasa Novotna and Vaclav Kunes. What they do has a strong degree of obviousness but their melting fluidity is mesmerising.  27’52” – I’m pretty sure it didn’t last that long, but what the heck – is billed as being performed “with the participation of Benjamin Stuart-Carberry”. Until last year he was a member of the Australian Ballet and I looked forward to seeing what he would do here. Alas his role is the briefest walk-on as he appears in the gloom, just onstage, to cover Novotna with the end of a long strip of material. Puzzling that one would ask a highly trained dancer to do so little.

6000 miles away continues until Friday March 15.