David Hallberg named next artistic director of The Australian Ballet

On December 4 last year David Hallberg tweeted that he’d loved revisiting The Sleeping Beauty at the Royal Opera House but “there is a very good chance it was my last”. And so it probably was. Today the 37-year-old American superstar was announced as the next artistic director of The Australian Ballet – its eighth. He told The New York Times that while he will fulfil his current stage commitments this year and into 2021, “my shows are numbered”. He starts his new role at Australia’s national ballet company next year.

Today he wrote to his followers: “It has been a long and eventful (to say the least) career and I have always known that the time will come where I take all of my absorbed experience and become an Artistic Director. This is the time.”

AB-Coppelia 2016. Amber Scott, David Hallberg in performance1. Photo Kate Longley

David Hallberg in The Australian Ballet’s Coppélia. Photo: Kate Longley

Hallberg succeeds David McAllister, who will have been in the position for a record-breaking 20 years when he leaves. Perth-born McAllister was a principal artist with TAB when he was the surprise pick to follow Ross Stretton’s brief rein. The choice of Hallberg is far less of a surprise. The South Dakota native is practically an honorary Australian, having first appeared with TAB in 2010 (in the Peter Wright version of The Nutcracker) and returned regularly. Most pertinently, he spent more than a year in Melbourne in 2015-2016 undergoing rehabilitation with TAB’s crack medical team after a potentially career-ending ankle injury. He returned to the stage in late 2016 for Sydney performances as Franz in Coppélia. It was, fittingly, a role debut. Hallberg’s career had restarted and he has been unstinting in his praise for those who helped him heal.

Back on track, Hallberg then accepted the position of TAB resident guest artist. He is also currently a principal with American Ballet Theatre, which he joined in 2001, and principal guest artist with The Royal Ballet. In 2011 he made headlines when invited to join The Bolshoi Ballet as a principal artist, a position that lapsed after his injury and long recovery, although he has returned there as a guest artist.

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David Hallberg with Natalia Osipova in The Leaves Are Fading. Photo: Daniel Boud

Hallberg has long been considered one of the very finest male dancers of his generation and his globe-trotting career has taken him to the world’s leading companies. It has also included a special partnership with the incandescent and equally famous Natalia Osipova. But while still dancing at the top of his game, in interviews Hallberg was signalling his desire to have an artistic directorship in his future. McAllister’s announcement last year that he would leave TAB at the end of 2020 gave Hallberg and TAB’s board plenty of time for discussion.

There were, naturally, other candidates under consideration but it is hard to think of anyone else whose appointment would have been greeted with such approbation and such wide interest. Hallberg’s interests are eclectic and his connections deep and impeccable, desirable traits for his new job.

Craig Dunn, chair of the TAB board, said in a statement: “I am delighted to announce that The Australian Ballet’s search for an internationally recognised outstanding artistic talent with an exciting vision for The Australian Ballet has been successful and that the Board has appointed David Hallberg as our eighth Artistic Director. David’s highly successful international career as a classical ballet dancer and his leadership roles in the companies he has danced with regularly, mean David will bring a unique artistic lens and global view to his leadership at The Australian Ballet.”

The Happy Prince, The Australian Ballet

Choreographed by Graeme Murphy, adapted from Oscar Wilde by Murphy and Kim Carpenter. Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, February 25.

Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince was to have premiered last year but illness intervened and the choreographer wasn’t able to complete the ballet in time. The Australian Ballet quickly rescheduled it to open the 2020 season in Brisbane. The knock-on effect is that The Happy Prince will be seen in Melbourne from late August and wrap the year up in Sydney. That makes it look very much like a closing of the circle. Murphy’s wildly successful and much revived version of Swan Lake was the first ballet TAB artistic director David McAllister commissioned when very new in the job and The Happy Prince is his last new full-length ballet. McAllister announced his retirement last year and his two-decades reign will end in December this year.

It would be good to be able to say The Happy Prince is just the ballet with which to farewell McAllister; that it’s that marvellous beast, a ballet ostensibly for children that works for both young and old and will have a long life. It’s hard to see happening. The ballet is both too much and not enough.

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Adam Bull and Marcus Morelli in The Happy Prince. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Oscar Wilde morality tale that inspired the piece is brief and to the point. The imposing golden statue of a once-happy, cossetted Prince sees that the world at large is full of misery and misfortune. With the help of a gadabout Swallow he strips himself of all finery, gives it to the poor and achieves a state of grace.

Having been delayed by an abortive love affair with a slender reed (cue for reed instruments to feature in Christopher Gordon’s new score), Swallow misses the opportunity to migrate south with his family – to Australia, of course. That’s how he comes to be fluttering around the bejewelled statue and to learn the lesson that it is much better to be kind and generous than to be rich.

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Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden as Mayor and Mayoress. Photo: Jeff Busby

The visual possibilities are obvious and co-adapter Kim Carpenter’s designs are richly expressive. A bleak, jumbled cityscape represents the Prince’s former domain, here represented in the immediate aftermath of war to explain, not terribly successfully or necessarily, why a statue to the Prince has been erected. Swallow’s world is saturated with colours never seen in nature and cheeky flora and fauna who would be at home on a burlesque stage. The Mayor and Mayoress, the latter danced by a man, are grotesques in exaggerated finery. There are delightful toys from the Prince’s childhood and heavies who create mischief in the town square.

Moment by moment it looked just fine but the need to fill 90 minutes of stage time turned out to be too much for this slender story to bear. Wilde ended his story with the Happy Prince and Swallow in Heaven; Murphy’s paradise is a surf beach with a fine break. All ended in a blaze of showbiz razzle-dazzle and sunny optimism, a crowd-pleasing ending that drove away any thoughts of sacrifices made.

Extra characters and new incidents, not all of them crystal clear, blunted the focus, although it’s possible to argue that had Murphy provided more extensive pure dance sequences the time would have gone by in a flash. Marcus Morelli as Swallow had fewer Bluebird-style moments than expected, for instance and there was an underuse of the expressive possibilities of classical technique. One couldn’t help feeling the company’s talents were being under-exploited.

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Artists of The Australian Ballet as Reedettes in The Happy Prince. Photo: Jeff Busby

Turning a group of reeds – the Reedettes – into a rather underpowered version of the Rockettes didn’t quite cut the mustard.  It also didn’t help that on opening night Murphy’s blend of classical and contemporary movement  didn’t sit entirely comfortably on the company and there was a distinct whiff of a too-brief rehearsal period.

The best moments in The Happy Prince were when things were dialled down; when there was dance to stir the soul. A section for a neglected artist – a substitution for Wilde’s starving playwright – was overwrought and unmoving but a glowing, late-breaking duet for Swallow and Match Girl – Morelli and Benedicte Bemet in the first cast – fell on grateful eyes, ears and heart. So did several searching moments for the Prince (Adam Bull), who wasn’t given not quite enough to do.

At these times it was possible to appreciate more deeply Christopher Gordon’s new, highly detailed score, rendered vividly by the Queensland Symphony with Nicolette Fraillon at the helm. Gordon’s music registered as a sophisticated stream of consciousness that underscored character, mood and place but on an initial hearing, wasn’t as effective as a clear-cut driver of movement or emotional intensity.

And isn’t that what we want from a story ballet? To feel?

Ends February 29. Melbourne, August 28-September 5; Sydney, November 27-December 16.

New Breed, Sydney Dance Company

Carriageworks, Sydney, December 6

The mysteries of dance and dancemaking are great. What drives the need to watch this person closely and not that one? Why does a work speak to something deep within while another is superficially entertaining? How is it that one is engaged intellectually and emotionally with one piece of dance while finding another pleasing enough in the moment but forgotten shortly after?

It is, of course, the job of the critic to analyse these matters and build an argument. It’s important, too, to convey a sense of the occasion so the reader may come away thinking they’d rather like the piece the writer did not rate highly, or would rather remove their own appendix than endure the work so lavishly praised.

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Holly Doyle (foreground) in Creeper by Lauren Langlois. Photo: Pedro Greig

A program such as Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed (or Queensland Ballet’s Synergy, or The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque) bring these thoughts into even greater focus than usual. This is where new work is presented, sometimes by experienced choreographers and often by relative or total neophytes. It’s a given that all pieces are danced spectacularly well by company members. The works may not have much – or anything – in the way of sets but they will be professionally lit and costumed. Nothing will last more than about 25 minutes and some much less. There are always four or sometimes five works on the program, often coming from incredibly different directions. Variety is a given and because the viewer is unlikely to be deeply familiar with any choreographer’s work the element of surprise can be great. You’re not necessarily going to like everything but almost certain to come away satisfied that you got your money’s worth. Which, because New Breed tickets were $35, you most certainly did.

Repertoire building is not the primary goal of these programs – their focus is on giving choreographers an opportunity to develop their craft – but bringing more experienced independent choreographers to a wider audience can be beneficial to both sides. New Breed is where SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela found Gabrielle Nankivell’s Wildebeestand Melanie Lane’s WOOF, which he then put into mainstage seasons. On the development front, Bodytorque is where TAB nurtured Alice Topp, now a resident choreographer, and before her Tim Harbour, ditto. Rising star Jack Lister got his start at QB in its studio presentations, he recently choreographed for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s main program which was seen in Birmingham and at Sadlers Wells, and is now transferring to Brisbane’s Australian Dance Collective (formerly Expressions Dance Company) where he will be both dancer and choreographer from next year.

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Chloe Leong in In Walked Bud by Davide Di Giovanni. Photo: Pedro Greig

So what of this year’s New Breed? There are four works, two by SDC company members Davide Di Giovanni and Ariella Casu and the others by Lauren Langlois and Josh Mu, both of whom are old hands in the independent contemporary dance scene.

Di Giovanni’s In Walked Bud, a dance for two women and a man to the music of Thelonius Monk, looked sophisticated and fun. Guy Hastie dressed Holly Doyle and Chloe Leong in to-die-for black unitards with cheeky pink fringing on one leg, Alexander Berlage lit the stage with expanding ovals of light, unlit it with a handful of blackouts and threw shadows with backlighting. Doyle, Leong and Luke Hayward were Hollywood glamorous and were almost enough compensation for a lumpy structure that had audiences at sea about whether the piece had ended or was continuing.

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Sydney Dance Company in Ariella Casu’s Arise for New Breed. Photo: Pedro Greig

Casu’s Arise was clearly heartfelt but its territory is well-worn. A group of nine dancers was at first aggressive, frantic, robotic and impassive in tight shiny hoodies (Aleisa Jelbart designed, as she did three of the four New Breed works). When they shed this dark upper garment it was if they were reborn into a state of innocence and unworldliness.

Josh Mu’s Zero, which ended the program, was danced to the energising beat of Huey Benjamin’s electronic score. While it perhaps didn’t fully convey Mu’s theme of humanity teetering on the edge of existence, the large group of 11 dancers made the piece zing from go to whoa and hyperactive Chloe Young, intriguingly hiding much of the time behind a long veil of hair, threw herself into the moment and consumed space and energy as if there were no tomorrow. Emily Seymour’s superbly controlled rotations while lying on the floor were less easy to fit into the picture but were quite magical.

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Sydney Dance Company in Josh Mu’s Zero. Photo: Pedro Greig

Which leaves Creeper, by Lauren Langlois. At 25 minutes her piece for four women was the longest (by a few minutes) of the evening’s works. It was also the only one that to me felt fully formed and realised. Only in Creeper did I feel any curiosity about who these people were and what they felt.

The immediate impression was of a strange, unsettling place and restless, unsettled people. Berlage’s lighting (he worked on all four pieces) at first gave the stage a light green tinge and later a purply wash; eerie or sickly, depending on your interpretation. Jason Wright’s sound design was equally elusive and disorienting. The women – Jesse Scales, Ariella Casu, Holly Doyle and Chloe Leong, all memorable – stood apart from one another although the focus was on Scales, moving slowly as the others moved even more slowly, each apparently with her own thoughts. Staggering steps brought them together, stuttering, ungainly, awkward, even ugly, but affecting. This is what the internal conflict and anguish we usually hide beneath a polite exterior look like.

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Jesse Scales (centre) with Ariella Casu (and Chloe Leong in Creeper. Photo: Pedro Greig

The woman needed one another even as they also took their own paths, looking for – who knows what? It could be consolation in difficult times, the strength of the group, or the basic drive to survive even though the world is a blasted desert. In some ways Creeper could be a companion piece to Antony Hamilton’s unforgettable Keep Everything (2014), in which Langlois performed, brilliantly. There’s the same fractured, extreme physicality and interest in how technology challenges the whole of humanity and our personal interactions with others. That said, Creeper is very much its own work, with much greater emphasis on the possibility of emotional engagement. I could see it again and again, for the way the women huddled together for comfort; that repeated gesture of raising a foot behind them and brushing it with a hand; the phenomenal Scales’s intense upwards gaze that searched the universe; and so much more.

The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, November 30.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jarryd Madden in The Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

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

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

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

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

The Nutcracker ends in Sydney on December 18.

Sylvia, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, November 8

The dash for bathrooms and bars was substantially less frantic than usual after the close of Act I of Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Heads everywhere bowed over their synopsis sheets. What in the name of all the gods in Ancient Greece was going on? How does one show via ballet that Artemis and Apollo – twin gods – “slay Queen Niobe’s army in revenge for a slight to their mother, Leto”? Or why Artemis turns Callisto into a bear? These gods and goddesses really do take a grudge to extremes and their actions are not always easily explained.

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The Australian Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Photo: Jeff Busby

Never mind. Once the head-spinning early part of the first act is out of the way Sylvia is an enjoyable romp. Even better, it gives Australian Ballet audiences their first chance to hear the enchanting Delibes score in full, sounding luscious in Sydney in the hands of Nicolette Fraillon and the Opera Australia Orchestra. (Read more about Delibes, the music and the history of Sylvia in my article for Limelight magazine in August.)

There was also a great deal of pleasure in the sparkling performances given on Sydney’s opening night of this co-pro with Houston Ballet. As a kind of corrective to the male-dominated Spartacus seen last year, Sylvia has plenty of strong roles for the women of the company. As in the original libretto, the nymph Sylvia, a huntress in Artemis’s army, falls in love with a lowly shepherd. Welch ups the ante by adding a second match-up between gods and mortals when Eros is smitten with Psyche and plucks Artemis from the periphery to give the ballet a third heroine.

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Benedicte Bemet as Psyche in Sylvia. Photo: Daniel Boud

Complications ensue, obviously, or there would be no story, but ultimately everything turns out well. On the way to that happy ending Welch floods the stage with Artemis’s band of women warriors; Eros’s retinue of cheeky, hyper-active fauns; various gods and goddesses, by turns stately and vengeful; and on a less elevated level, Psyche’s mum, dad and sisters.

Being from the realm of the gods, Sylvia stays youthful while her husband, known only as The Shepherd, suffers the fate of all mortals and ages, a situation that gives rise to one of the ballet’s most delightful passages. The Shepherd (Kevin Jackson on opening night) is given an older substitute (TAB artistic director David McAllister enjoying himself greatly) as successive generations of offspring are seen growing up. The Shepherd is then magically de-aged by Eros, whose lovely Psyche has also been given demi-god status and thus will not die. (Too much detail?)

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Ako Kondo as Sylvia and Kevin Jackson as The Shepherd. Photo: Jeff Busby

There are rich pickings for the dancers, and not only for principal artists Ako Kondo (Sylvia on opening night) and Robyn Hendricks (Artemis) and senior artist Benedicte Bemet (Psyche). Smaller roles were taken with much brio by Dimity Azoury, Dana Stephensen, Jade Wood, Imogen Chapman and Natasha Kusen, among others.

Jackson was a sweet presence and sterling partner to Kondo in Welch’s dramatic pas de deux and Marcus Morelli made a splash as Eros, spinning, jumping and flying his way through the action. His swift rise through the ranks (he joined the company in 2013) has been well earned.

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Benedicte Bemet as Psyche and Marcus Morelli as Eros. Photo: Daniel Boud

Kondo’s warmth and strength made Sylvia as multi-faceted a character as possible within the rom-com scenario and Bemet’s Psyche was adorably funny. Hendricks was meltingly beautiful as Artemis, a goddess indeed. How many other conventional ballets can one think of where there are three such diverse and rewarding leading roles for women?

We must hope Jérôme Kaplan’s set designs looked better in Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre, where Sylvia had its Australian premiere in September, than they did in the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. In the first act they looked too dark and solid, although later the stage picture was enlivened by Wendell K. Harrington’s projections, which enabled instantaneous scene changes. Kaplan’s costumes were, happily, just delectable.

Sylvia ends in Sydney on November 23.

Bonachela/Obarzanek, Sydney Dance Company

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, November 2

What better way to mark a milestone birthday than by getting some of the old gang back together again? Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50, choreographed for Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary program, returned to the stage some of SDC’s most memorable artists, among them Bradley Chatfield, Wakako Asano, Sheree da Costa and Lea Francis. It was a graceful way of paying tribute to earlier days, as was a short film that preceded the Bonachela/Obarzanek double bill.

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Jesse Scales and Sheree da Costa in Gideon Obarzanek’s Us 50. Photo: Don Arnold

The film reminded the audience of the dramatic, theatrical style of former artistic director Graeme Murphy, who with Janet Vernon led SDC for an astonishing 31 years. There were snippets from Poppy, Some Rooms, Synergy with Synergy, Berlin, Tivoli and Grand, among others. The film also showed the very different approach to contemporary dance of current artistic director Rafael Bonachela, who this year celebrates 10 years with the company. He was represented by We Unfold, Raw Models, 2 One Another, Nude Live, ab [intra] and more.

Murphy and Bonachela may have little in common as choreographers but they’ve put heart and soul into the company. That it is still a potent force in Australian and international dance is remarkable. “Graeme’s influence can’t be overstated,” Bonachela told the audience before the performance, noting the “beautiful coincidence” of its being Murphy’s birthday on opening night. (Murphy is now 69 but far from retired, continuing his work as an opera director. A new ballet, The Happy Prince, is part of The Australian Ballet’s 2020 season.)

Obarzanek, himself a former dancer with SDC, chose 10 alumni to take part in Us 50, and they were not there simply to bask in the glory of once having been a star. Some of them won’t see 60 again but they were there to dance and dance they did, holding their own glowingly alongside SDC’s current ensemble of young ‘uns.

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Wakako Asano (front) in Us 50. Photo: Pedro Greig

Among much else in Us 50 Obarzanek explored how movement looks on older bodies versus younger ones, how dance is passed from one person to another, the fascination of two people working as one and the power of a large group. The piece looked deceptively simple but ebbed and flowed to Chris Clark’s propulsive score with a great deal of subtlety and a deep vein of emotion.

At one point Chatfield was left alone on stage as others melted away. He walked a little, as if trying out some ideas. Then he was joined by a few others, then more who watched Chatfield closely. Pedestrian movement morphed into dance and alumna Kathryn Dunn broke away to enjoy the freedom of being, well, one of the most glamorous dancers SDC has produced. Other cherishable moments: Stefan Karlsson (alumnus) and Emily Seymour (current member) shimmying away to one side as the pack moved on; da Costa and young Jesse Scales with their heads on one another’s shoulders; the current SDC dancers forming what looked like a protective huddle around the older dancers (the others were Bill Pengelly, Kip Gamblin, Nina Veretennikova and Linda Ridgeway Gamblin). There was a moment for everyone, with Asano looking particularly radiant. She spent 17 years with SDC and along with Vernon was one of Murphy’s great muses. It was so touching to see her again.

Ten alumni and 15 SDC dancers added up to 25. Making up the 50 was a group of untrained, unrehearsed non-dancers, drawn from the audience anew each evening. They represented the part in SDC’s history played by those who only sit and watch. (On opening night as a special treat the unrehearsed group included another 10 former dancers, including Ross Philip and Tracey Carrodus. Ah the memories!)

If Obarzanek’s concept sounded iffy, it was utter bliss in practice. The untrained, who rose from their seats part-way through Us 50 to go onstage, were not asked for anything outside of their capabilities. Guided via earpieces by assistant choreographer and SDC’s new rehearsal associate Charmene Yap – she will be much missed from the stage – the citizen-dancers’ faces shone as they mingled with the professionals.

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Sydney Dance Company in Rafael Bonachela’s 6 Breaths. Photo: Don Arnold

A revival of Bonachela’s 6 Breaths opened the evening. First seen in 2010, it takes on a different complexion in this new context. A series of meditations on different aspects of breath, including the first and the last, it now conjures thoughts of the evanescence of a dance career. It was danced thrillingly at the opening and put the spotlight on some of Bonachela’s newer recruits, particularly Riley Fitzgerald and Dimitri Kleoris in the work’s central duet. Longstanding company member Juliette Barton has returned from maternity leave in even more striking form than before, if that were possible.

The evening’s laurels, though, went to the glorious SDC alumni who brought back so many memories and the untrained civilian bodies who proved that yes, anyone can dance.

Ends November 9.

The Australian Ballet announces its 2020 season and seeks a new artistic director

As David McAllister announced his last full season as artistic director of The Australian Ballet, the company formally launched its search for McAllister’s successor.

McAllister retires in December of next year after 20 years at the helm but will have significant input into the 2021 program. The new director is not expected to start until perhaps April, executive director Libby Christie told me yesterday.

Advertising for the position has begun, with applications to close on October 25. The company, which currently has about 80 dancers and  stages more than 240 performances a year, seeks “an inspirational, internationally recognised person with outstanding artistic and leadership qualities”. Among the many qualities required, the candidate must “be able to demonstrate an affinity for Australian culture”.

It’s undoubtedly no coincidence that TAB’s 2020 marketing images were taken in Broken Hill, in the far west of NSW. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Australians live around the edges of the continent, few things evoke Australia more immediately here and abroad than the red dust of the outback.

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TAB principal artist Robyn Hendricks. Photo: Georges Antoni

TAB begins its year in Brisbane with Graeme Murphy’s The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. Murphy has adapted the story with designer Kim Carpenter. Christopher Gordon has composed a new score. The Happy Prince was to have premiered this year but Murphy became ill and was unable to complete the ballet in time. The postponement had its upside: McAllister’s first big commission and arguably greatest success was Murphy’s Swan Lake (2012) and The Happy Prince brings the connection full circle. It will also be staged in Melbourne and Sydney.

The year’s other two full-length works are also new, Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina, a co-production with Joffrey Ballet; and Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Petipa’s Harlequinade, a co-production with American Ballet Theatre. (Ratmansky has given it “the kiss of life”, says McAllister.) Anna Karenina opens in Sydney then goes to Melbourne and Adelaide. Harlequinade will be seen in Melbourne only next year; presumably Sydney and possibly other cities will see it in 2021.

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Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks and Nathan Brook in a promotional image for Anna Karenina. Photo: Justin Ridler

Two mixed bills will be staged in Melbourne and Sydney. Volt features a new work by resident choreographer Alice Topp and two Wayne McGregor revivals, Chroma and Dyad 1929, the latter created for TAB. McAllister breaks the mould – well, his mould – for Molto by programming a heritage work, Ashton’s A Month in the Country (1976), alongside 21st century ballets by resident choreographers Tim Harbour (Squander and Glory) and Stephen Baynes (Molto Vivace).

If McAllister was feeling melancholy about his final season launch he hid it well. Looking relaxed and happy, he said the dancers would have much to learn from a new artistic director, as he did from Ross Stretton when Stretton succeeded Maina Gielgud. “It’s an exciting and positive time for the company.”

Benedicte Bemet’s Giselle

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, May 8

For many ballet-lovers the second act of Giselle is what brings them back repeatedly and Maina Gielgud’s much-revived production for The Australian Ballet doesn’t let them down. She created it in 1986, which means that more than a few generations of TAB dancers have been schooled in its mysteries. Gielgud’s dedication to and understanding of the soft, ethereal Romantic style is complete and the Sydney season now coming to an end shows that even though Gielgud wasn’t able to oversee these performances – Giselle was a late addition to the program – the women currently in the company (and therefore the audience) have been well served by the ballet staff.

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Benedicte Bemet as Giselle for The Australian Ballet. Photo: Kate Longley

It’s the first act, though, where a dancer creates the role, not so much through her dancing but her acting: the arranging of her skirt on the bench so Albrecht initially has no room to sit; the “he loves me, he loves me not” plucking of petals; how she tells Hilarion she does not, in fact, return his affection; the way in which her weak heart makes her falter; her reaction to the nobles, and in particular Bathilde, who interrupt the villagers’ harvest celebrations; her reception of Bathilde’s gift of a pendant; the losing of her reason; and much more.

All these moments between the dancing coalesce, or should do, into a whole and believable character, every idea of a piece with the next. (That doesn’t mean Giselle can’t do contradictory things but if she does, they must be understood as part of that young woman’s make-up rather than notions the dancer rather fancies and didn’t want to leave out.)

Principal artist Kondo was TAB’s glorious opening night Giselle in Sydney, reviewed here. A week later I returned to see senior artist Benedicte Bemet in the role.

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Benedicte Bemet in Act I of Giselle. Photo: Kate Longley

Bemet’s Giselle was in some ways quite conventional. It is far from unusual to see the village girl played as very, very young, sweet, pure and innocent. Bemet’s gift is in the detail and her ability to be entirely in the moment. Not to see her thinking, but to see her being. I know this production well and yet in Bemet’s performance the arrival of the Peasant pas couple came as a surprise, as if Giselle had just that instant thought of asking them to dance. This immediacy was evident in her triumphant first Aurora too.

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Bemet with Cristiano Martino as Albrecht. Photo: Kate Longley

Bemet’s Albrecht was fellow senior artist Cristiano Martino (both were promoted recently), who proved an excellent match. He was an openhearted man clearly intoxicated with Giselle and too young to think about the consequences. The relationship was utterly clear and yes, simple, but not simplistic.

It felt absolutely right. As did, to give one example, a partnering choice in the second act that replaced a difficult lift with one less treacherous. Giselle didn’t float above Albrecht’s head as if about to fly into the aether, a heart-stopping move when achieved flawlessly (bravi Kondo and her Albrecht Chengwu Guo) but disconcerting when not. Here, Martino held Bemet’s waist, raised her vertically, and she softly curved her upper body over his. I have no way of knowing whether this was an artistic decision or a practical one but it felt intimate and loving. Just right for this Giselle and this Albrecht.

Giselle, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, May 1

Graeme Murphy fell ill earlier this year and was unable to complete his new ballet, The Happy Prince, in time for its premiere in Melbourne, which was to have been in March. It was then to be performed in Sydney (it is now likely to be seen in 2020). Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella (2013) and Maina Gielgud’s Giselle (1986) were rushed into the Melbourne and Sydney schedules respectively – safe choices and understandable ones, given both ballets were staged recently.

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Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in Giselle. Photo: Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo’s gentle, thistledown Giselle captivated from the moment she appeared. She seemed scarcely to touch the ground, levitated by her love for Albrecht. When she went mad she seemed even less substantial, sinking to her knees as if weightless. Kondo’s interpretation was delicately drawn and full of fine, illuminating detail – the shy, brief touching of hands with Albrecht, her quiet awe in the presence of Bathilde, the heartbreaking way in which she told Hilarion she didn’t love him, forced into a declaration her sweet soul shrank from making. Principal artist Andrew Killian is a highly experienced Hilarion who on this occasion appeared much more vulnerable than usual, a portrayal that meshed beautifully with Kondo’s approach.

She undoubtedly benefited from Leanne Benjamin’s insights. The former Royal Ballet principal artist was guest coach for this season.

As always, Olga Tamara was superb as Giselle’s mother. She is marvellous in the mime, which is the audience’s bridge from the first act to the second. It was also good to see the Peasant pas de deux pleasingly integrated into the action. It can often seem rather dull, overlong and extraneous but one felt that Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli – Ogai in particular – were part of this community. With her natural, earthy quality Ogai would be an interesting Giselle.

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Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. Photo: Daniel Boud

Chengwu Guo’s Albrecht was danced gleamingly although his acting was less layered in the first act than Kondo’s. The moment when Albrecht recognises the necklace his betrothed, Bathilde, has given Giselle went for little and appeared to be completely forgotten the next second while the upstairs-downstairs relationship with his attendant, Wilfred (Timothy Coleman, excellent), was sketchily rendered. Guo was more convincing in the second act as he tenderly supported Kondo, who was entirely of the air and at one with the melting Romantic style that gives Giselle its enduring appeal.

The women of the company were entrancing as the wilis in Act II and perhaps would have been more dramatically forceful had Nicola Curry as their queen, Myrtha, registered more forcefully herself.

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The Australian Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Daniel Boud

During this season of Giselle The Australian Ballet is also performing in New York at the Joyce Theater’s Australia Festival, presenting a mixed bill from May 9-12 featuring three of TAB’s four resident choreographers. Stephen Baynes’s Unspoken Dialogues and Alice Topp’s Aurum will be joined by a new work from Tim Harbour. With part of the company out of town a handful of more junior dancers will be seen as Hilarion, Myrtha and in the Peasant pas at some performances. It’s worth scanning the casting to see who and when.

Giselle ends on May 18.

Verve, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 5

The Australian Ballet’s contemporary triple bill Verve, having a Sydney season this year after its premiere in Melbourne last year, presents works from the company’s three resident choreographers, each with a distinctive style that serves the program well.

Veteran Stephen Baynes, who has held his post since 1995, is a classicist who puts his women on point and on a pedestal. Tim Harbour, who was appointed in 2014, offers hard-edged abstraction. Alice Topp, named a resident choreographer last year, makes work with emotional and sensual appeal. (Each was, or in the case of Topp still is, a dancer with the company.)

Harbour was nurtured through TAB’s Bodytorque new works program – where has that gone? – and so was Topp, with an eye-catching series of works that marked her out as a real talent. She was rewarded with a mainstage work in 2016, Little Atlas. Her latest, Aurum, is a significant step forward.

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Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Constant Variants. Photo: Daniel Boud

Verve opens with Baynes’s elegant Constant Variants from 2007, danced to Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Its world is one in which partners address one another in a courtly fashion and women, who exude an air of containment and mystery, are admired by men as if they are precious jewels.

On opening night Ako Kondo took the role made on Madeleine Eastoe and made something different of it. Jon Buswell’s soft lighting summons thoughts of dim cloisters and Eastoe’s gentle radiance glowed like a candle in the dark whenever she appeared. Kondo has a different kind of appeal – more sophisticated and less knowable.

Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, first seen in 2015, finishes the night with a frenetic – and, it must be said, formidable – display of athleticism. Eight men and four women stride on and off to a thunderous score by 48nord, looking in spectacular form as they fling themselves across the stage or at one another. On opening night the eye was particularly caught by Dimity Azoury, Jill Ogai, rising talent Shaun Andrews and Brett Chynoweth, who was made a principal artist last year and not before time.

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Marcus Morelli and Brett Chynoweth in Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Daniel Boud

Topp’s Aurum is inspired by the sophisticated Japanese art of kintsugi, by which broken ceramics are made whole again with gold lacquer. The use of gold honours the value of the original piece and at the same time highlights the damage suffered. The cracks show and become part of the piece’s history. Topp sees an analogy with human relationships. There will be breakages and flaws; and while restoration is possible, nothing will be exactly as it was.

Aurum is danced by five couples wearing simple white garments of Topp’s design. The mood is intense and yearning, supported by the rippling, swelling music of Ludovico Einaudi, a Topp favourite, and Jon Buswell’s golden lighting.

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Robyn Hendricks and Kevin Jackson in Aurum. Photo: Daniel Boud

Aurum is at its best in the smaller moments – a man and woman stand in separate pools of light far from one another and raise an arm in farewell, a woman’s head rests on a man’s chest as if she is listening to his heartbeat, the shadows of two men seem to take on a life of their own, a man leans backwards and a woman cradles his head. When the group dances in unison the effect is undeniably rousing but the meaning less clear than the touching duos danced so tenderly on opening night by Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks, Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson. The first three are principals artists while Mathieson is still in the corps. Her fervent commitment was outstanding.

In a big coup for Topp so early in her mainstage choreographic career, Aurum will be seen at New York’s Joyce Theater next month as part of its Australia Festival, alongside Baynes’s Unspoken Dialogues (from 2004) and a new work from Harbour.

Verve ends in Sydney on April 25.