The Australian Ballet and its long dance with The Merry Widow

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

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

The Merry Widow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAB_The Merry Widow_Adam Bull and Kirsty Martin_Photo Jeff Busby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Merry Widow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carmen & The Firebird, Queensland Ballet

Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 26.

You win some and you lose some.

Queensland Ballet is a co-producer of Carlos Acosta’s Carmen with The Royal Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater, which means QB’s name is attached to it forever. I doubt I’ve seen a worse ballet from reputable companies in more than 40 years.

I’m not exaggerating, nor do I say it frivolously. Carmen should never have passed muster at the RB. This is where I should say I can’t understand how it happened, but unfortunately it’s all too common to see serious ballet companies fail to save choreographers from themselves. Mostly the results aren’t quite as bad as Carmen but ballet is littered with the corpses of narrative works whose condition didn’t have to be terminal.

On a brighter note for QB, Liam Scarlett’s Firebird, made for Norwegian National Ballet in 2013, is a brilliant interpretation of Stravinsky’s glittering, gleaming, intoxicating score. Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also in the QB repertory and with the addition of Firebird the company has the choreographer’s two most successful new narrative ballets. (I don’t include Scarlett’s staging of Swan Lake – by all reports a huge success – for the RB this month given its firm foundation in the Petipa-Ivanov 1895 version.)

QB The Firebird 2018. Principal Artist Lucy Green. Photo David Kelly

Lucy Green in the title role of Liam Scarlett’s The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett, who is 32, has a youthful, contemporary sensibility that gives Firebird a modern edge while remaining true to the mythic elements of Mikhail Fokine’s original 1910 work for the Ballets Russes.

It looks wonderful, with a monumental set by Jon Bausor, bathed in James Farncombe’s painterly light. In the shadow of a vast tree with claw-like roots, the magical Firebird (Lucy Green at the performance I attended) and wicked sorcerer Koschei (Jack Lister) battle for supremacy, equal in force of will and with a palpable erotic charge between them. She tempts him with a golden apple and strokes his face; he embraces her with ardour. It may well be a game they’ve played for aeons. Then the wandering Prince Ivan (Camilo Ramos) finds his way into their realm and the Firebird finds him interesting. She dances with him, but not as a frightened captive. She dazzles and teases, whispering in his ear as she lets him have one of her precious feathers.

Scarlett effectively contrasts the Firebird’s strength and exoticism with the innocence and playfulness of the young women enslaved by Koschei. Among them is a Princess (Lina Kim), who is tender, curious and alert. Kim and Ramos glowed in their romantic, silken pas de deux and – how delightful! – the Princess is the one who gets to destroy the egg containing Koschei’s soul.

QB The Firebird 2018. Company Artist Jack Lister and Artists of the Queensland Ballet. Photo David Kelly

Jack Lister (top) as Koschei in The Firebird. Photo: David Kelly

The end of Koschei’s malign rule means the Princess is free to leave with Ivan although Scarlett – unlike Fokine – is less interested in the happy couple than in the representatives of light and darkness. The lovers quietly disappear and the Firebird exults in her power, although not before paying respect to the dead Koschei in one of Scarlett’s many perceptive details.

Scarlett’s success with narrative ballets has been somewhat patchy but Stravinsky’s music and the original libretto give him the best of roadmaps. Scarlett uses the 50-minute version of the score from 1910, played blazingly by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra with Nigel Gaynor at the helm. Jonathan McPhee’s arrangement is for orchestral forces rather smaller than those asked for by Stravinsky – he wrote for quadruple woodwinds and three harps – but it gets the job done impressively.

Other choreographers of this much-visited work have chosen Stravinsky’s shorter 1945 suite (Balanchine in 1949; the 2009 Graeme Murphy recently revived by The Australian Ballet) but the suites were arranged for concert performance and for dramatic impact it’s hard to go past Stravinsky’s first thoughts.

The cast I saw at the first Saturday matinee was testament to the strong ensemble built by Li Cunxin in his six years as artistic director. Performances were vividly realised all round and Green’s mesmerising Firebird was deservedly greeted with a huge ovation. While his dance is made entirely within the classical idiom, Scarlett gives his Firebird – the Princess too – qualities of independence and authority so often missing on the classical stage. This is particularly welcome in light of how women appear in Carmen although, to be fair, Acosta doesn’t do the men any favours either.

QB Carmen 2018. Principal Artist Camilo Ramos and Company Artist Sophie Zoricic 5. Photo David Kelly

Camilo Ramos and Sophie Zoricic in Carlos Acosta’s Carmen. Photo: David Kelly

There are problems with Carmen just about everywhere you look. The storytelling is incoherent, skating over the top of anything that might give insights into Carmen’s character. She’s a sex-mad cipher. Don José (Camilo Ramos, backing up after his Prince Ivan earlier) is similarly superficial, just weaker, and therefore deeply uninteresting. Escamillo is there to toss off a whole lot of ballet tricks. There is no Micaëla, no Frasquita, no Mercedes, no context.

What else? Too frequently there’s no apparent relationship between the music (chiefly an arrangement of bits from Bizet’s opera) and the steps performed to that music. A tavern scene veers off into ersatz flamenco territory, indifferently done. Every now and again a man wearing preposterous bulls’ horns and a bit of bondage appears in the background to represent Fate.

Most problematic is the piece’s depiction of desire. Desire can be many things, not just sexual, and in Bizet’s opera it’s Carmen’s burning need to be free. That desire was dangerous for a woman then and still is. Carmen is murdered for her courage, not that this ballet makes you think about it or care. She’s just someone who dances in her underwear and rolls around the floor locking lips with her lovers.

Carmen is at one point surrounded by men who slap the floor vigorously and proceed to strip. It looked to me like nothing less than preparation for gang rape but also looked so ludicrous (think male strippers at a hens’ night) that the audience roared. Ghastly. I think we can safely say that at this point, as at others, there had been insufficient thought given to meaning and tone.

I felt very sorry for the Carmen I saw, Sophie Zoricic, to whom I send condolences. It was a big chance for her and she gave her all. That said, I suspect Carmen could have only the slightest chance of squeaking past the post if stocked with the biggest stars. Acosta danced both Don José and Escamillo during the London premiere season in 2015 and the RB’s most lustrous female principal, Marianela Nuñez, was the first Carmen.

Acosta is, of course, a relatively inexperienced choreographer while having been one of the RB’s most durable stars. Obviously the company wanted to please him. It should have helped him.

QB is on much safer ground with Scarlett. The young Englishman has a deal with the company to present one of his works annually for four years. The artistic associate arrangement started last year with the one-act No Man’s Land, originally made for English National Ballet. (His delectable Dream, a co-production with Royal New Zealand Ballet, was made in 2015 and isn’t counted.)

That leaves two more works to come. Scarlett’s international demand means it’s too much to hope that both would be new creations but I’m told there will certainly be one ballet made on the QB dancers.

Carmen & The Firebird ends in Brisbane on June 3.

Murphy: The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 6 (evening) and 11 (matinee).

It would have been the easiest thing in the world to give Graeme Murphy a conventional gala to celebrate his 50 years of association with The Australian Ballet, the company he joined as a member of the corps de ballet in 1968. The idea for the tribute came to TAB artistic director David McAllister when he decided to revive the choreographer’s Firebird (2009). The straightforward way to go would have been to precede Firebird with a selection of excerpts from Murphy’s greatest TAB hits’n’memories: Swan Lake, Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, Beyond Twelve, Romeo and Juliet, The Narrative of Nothing for a piece of abstraction and a humorous bit from Tivoli for a change of pace and there’s your first half.

That’s not what happened. Despite the many virtues and gala possibilities of those works, a by-the-book program would have been obvious and utterly safe. In other words, not remotely indicative of Murphy’s expansive, adventurous spirit. The counter-intuitive decision was made for Murphy’s first half to comprise dances not made for TAB, only one of which, The Silver Rose, has been previously danced by the company (it was created for Bayerisches Staatsballet in 2005). The rest of the pieces are from Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company days, where he reigned for more than 30 years and created a vast body of work – much more interesting and challenging for the dancers, undoubtedly, and good for rusted-on TAB audience members to see something from outside the square.

Murphy

Kevin Jackson and Lana Jones in Graeme Murphy’s Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

There is more coherence in the program than might be evident at first glance. First and most clearly there is the connective tissue built by Murphy’s choreographic style, with the audience able to see his intricate lifts, unusual partnering, witty details, human touches and erotic impulses thread their way through quite different pieces.

The need to move quickly from section to section meant some of Murphy’s most enticing larger productions featuring live music couldn’t be considered but, in the inclusion of Shéhérazade (1979), with its onstage mezzo-soprano soloist singing Ravel’s lush song cycle, and with pianist Scott Davie reprising his central onstage role in sections from Grand, there is a flavour of Murphy’s love for the integration of musicians and dancers. The excerpts from Air and Other Invisible Forces and Ellipse are a reminder of Murphy’s extensive collaborations with Australian composers (here Michael Askill and Matthew Hindson respectively).

Murphy

Leanne Stojmenov and Jarryd Madden in Shéhérazade. Photo: Daniel Boud

The first act closer, a handful of sections from Grand, is not only vastly enjoyable but indispensable. Murphy made Grand (2005) in celebration of “the one pianist I adore above all others”, his mother Betty, whose music helped shape his artistic development.

The choice of excerpts from The Silver Rose (based on Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier) to open Murphy is of more value thematically than artistically. The ballet isn’t one of the choreographer’s best and I would be surprised to see TAB program it again, but Murphy’s choice of a work whose theme is ageing, time’s inexorable march forward and the loss of youthful potency was perhaps a wry comment on an occasion celebrating a half-century.

In a short film preceding the first half Murphy speaks of movingly of art’s capacity to transform and of his desire to allow dancers to become the artists they aspire to be. In an interview with me before Murphy opened in Melbourne, he consistently returned to the dancers and what would suit or stimulate them. At the Sydney opening night it was wonderful to see principal artist Lana Jones in ferocious form as the Firebird, a role made on her, and also her perfumed elegance in Shéhérazade, performed in its entirety. Senior artist Brett Chynoweth was Most Valuable Player on opening night, dancing Kostchei in Firebird and seen in three pieces in the first half, including whooping it up with Jade Wood, Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli in the zany cowboy-flavoured quartet from Ellipse and, with Morelli, doing a sharp, suave Alligator Crawl in Grand (to Fats Waller).

Murphy

Brett Chynoweth as Kostchei in Firebird. Photo: Daniel Boud

By and large the key roles on opening night went to dancers of soloist rank or above. An exception was the coryphée (but probably not for long) Callum Linnane, who calmly partnered principal Amber Scott in The Silver Rose. At the Wednesday matinee I attended he also partnered principal Leanne Stojmenov in Shéhérazade with distinction. At that performance the mezzo was Jacqueline Dark, who gave a marvellously seductive account of Ravel’s songs.

The Wednesday matinee was where one could more clearly see the cut of the company’s rising young talent. Some fell a fair way short of the brio and individuality SDC dancers brought to those roles but their delight in this very different way of moving was touching. The male corps member to watch is Shaun Andrews, a lithe young man of serious mien who stood out on opening night in a quartet from Grand (to Gershwin) and danced a sinuous Kostchei at the matinee. An airborne cartwheel looked magically weightless.

Also at the matinee, Jade Wood’s fluttering, frightened Firebird was fruitfully paired with Jarryd Madden’s alert, sensitive Ivan and principal artist Andrew Killian memorably partnered corps de ballet member Yuumi Yamada – gorgeous feet! – in a key pas de deux from Grand. There was a touchingly elegiac mood as Killian is in the latter stages of his career. He has always been a potent presence in contemporary work and this was a timely reminder of his gifts in such repertoire. And what a joy to see soloist Benedicte Bemet back on stage after a long absence, quietly steaming up the stage with Madden in a close-contact duo from Air and Other Invisible Forces.

Ends April 23.

A new year dawns at RNZB

Biographies of the new intake at Royal New Zealand Ballet are now on the website after last year’s bruising and very public exodus of a large number of dancers.

There are currently 32 dancers pictured on the site, 22 of whom were still standing at the end of 2017. Now the dust has settled it appears that 16 dancers left during the last three months of 2017 (there was quite a lot of churn during the past two years, somewhat muddying the numbers and increasing the perception of instability).

The reasons for departure are various, as they usually are, but the company’s handling of this significant turnover was poor and contributed to the drubbing it received in the NZ media. It is not true, as a media report wildly claimed on January 28, that “most” of the company’s dancers left or did not have their contracts renewed but the public perception was of a company in crisis. Even the new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was drawn into the furore, although in fairness one has to add that she is also arts minister.

Patricia Barker, Artistic Director, The Royal New Zealand Ballet

Patricia Barker in the studio at Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo: Stephen A’Court

RNZB usually employs about 36 dancers but new artistic director Patricia Barker is keeping a few contracts up her sleeve. Early in January she told American publication Dance Magazine she would continue to hold auditions through the year. This is to take account of the difference in contract periods between the northern and southern hemispheres.

One of the 10 new names at RNZB, Nadia Yanowsky, is an experienced European soloist who is listed as a guest artist for The Piano: the ballet and Dancing with Mozart seasons. The other nine comprise three New Zealanders, three Australians, two from the US and one from China. One of the Americans, Caroline Wiley, was formerly with Barker’s company Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan. Barker remains artistic director of Grand Rapids until mid-year, when San Francisco Ballet soloist James Sofranko takes over. Wiley’s signing appears to be recent – she was not named in a January 12 announcement by the company about its new team.

About half the dancers are New Zealanders and Australians, with some of the latter having trained at the New Zealand School of Dance; the others come from Europe, Asia, South America and the US. The mix of nationalities is not at all unusual when one looks at RNZB’s history, although in mid-December, during discussions about the company’s make-up, the RNZB Board asserted – clearly in panic mode – that 42% of its dancers were either from NZ or were NZ-trained, and that the goal for 2018 was for that percentage to be higher.

The company as it exists today can boast about one-third of its dancers having that NZ connection, and that seems in line with other years. I suppose it’s possible Barker could hire another four New Zealanders during the year to boost the percentage to about 45% although that doesn’t seem the most obvious way to create the right mix of dancers for a company.

More interesting is the level of experience of the incoming group. The biographies of eight of the 10 new dancers show only a few years of professional performance, recent membership of Young Artist or pre-professional programs or recent graduation from training institutions. One newcomer, Olivia Moore, is only 16.

In other newcomer news, The Australian Ballet is steadily heading towards its goal of having 85 dancers within the next few years. It is taking seven young graduates into the corps this year while four dancers have left. There are now 77 company members. In addition, American Ballet Theatre principal artist David Hallberg is resident guest artist.

Queensland Ballet has significantly boosted its stocks, including three dancers newly arrived from RNZB. This year it has 37 main company members, up from 33 last year, and 12 Young Artists. It will also have two dancers in the new rank of Apprentice. When Li Cunxin became artistic director in 2012 there were 25 main company members.

Footnote: Patricia Barker took a lot of the flak for RNZB’s tumultuous situation. Some of it was unfair, although as I have written before, it would have been humane to let all dancers stay for one full year under her leadership and then make decisions about contract renewal. As it was, Barker let four dancers go and that fuelled much of the outrage, along with her continued association with Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan.

Never mind that the Board that hired Barker agreed to let her continue as artistic director of Grand Rapids for the rest of that company’s season, which ends in May. That was known before she set foot in Wellington. Obviously the Board didn’t do a very good job of selling the information, but then it needed Barker to come quickly because her predecessor, Francesco Ventriglia, was about to leave.

Ventriglia’s tenure was not without its upheavals and he announced in 2016, only two years after arriving, that he wouldn’t be staying. He remained to choreograph his new Romeo and Juliet last year, thus giving the Board time to conduct a search for his successor. They just didn’t find someone free of all current commitments.

Ventriglia had been preceded by Ethan Stiefel, who declined to renew his contract after his initial three-year term, which he took up in late 2011. And remember, the company had waited close to a year for Stiefel to take up the job after his appointment was announced, necessitating the hiring of an interim director to fill the gap after Stiefel’s predecessor, Gary Harris, left at the end of 2010. Still with me? Former RNZB artistic director Matz Skoog stepped into the breach for eight months. This means there are dancers at RNZB who have had five artistic directors stand in front of them since 2010.

Doubtless with all these comings and goings in mind, the Board asked Barker to sign on for five years rather than the usual three. Time will tell how that works out but you have to admire Barker’s sang froid. She said this to Dance Magazine about the intense scrutiny: “All of the attention towards that gives me a sense the community really cares about the organisation and I hope that we continue to get this much media coverage as we move into the next season and the wonderful ballets are done.”

Meanwhile, the NZ PM has had a chat to the company, reportedly saying the organisation is aware of her concerns. In addition RNZB has commissioned a report into its processes and how it manages complaints, which may be completed by next month. And the Board is seeking someone with experience in classical dance as well as governance to become a Trustee. Yes, detailed art form knowledge seems to have been lacking to date. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

RNZB’s first work for 2018, The Piano: the ballet, opens on February 23.

Misty Copeland debuts as Aurora

The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, November 22.

With her unstinting advocacy for greater diversity in ballet, Misty Copeland’s fame extends well beyond the stage. She is a drawcard no matter what the repertoire.

Copeland’s appearances in Sydney aren’t her first in Australia. Three years ago she danced in Brisbane with her home company, American Ballet Theatre, where later she became ABT’s first African-American principal artist. It’s worth noting she made her highly newsworthy role debut as Odette-Odile in Swan Lake in Brisbane.

Misty Copeland2

Misty Copeland. Photo: Jade Young

Her second visit to this part of the world brought another important role debut, that of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. This time she was a guest with The Australian Ballet in the visually splendid production created in 2015 by the company’s artistic director, David McAllister and regularly revived. Copeland was greeted like a rock star by an excited capacity audience, which was captivated by her vivacity and great personal charm.

The conquest of Aurora was less fully achieved in this fairy tale of good prevailing over evil, order restored and a prince’s kiss sealing the deal. (McAllister takes a brisk approach to the work.) Copeland was an alert and good-humoured young princess on her birthday and approached a more serene grandeur in the climactic wedding pas de deux, shedding the slight but palpable tension of the first act. There was, nevertheless, an overall sense of containment, seen in the restrained use of her back instead of the plush sweep that speaks so eloquently of love and a sense that her energy stopped neatly at the fingertips when she was poised on pointe.

Copeland shone brightly in motion with delectable cut-glass footwork and luxurious arms but her radiance was not the mysterious, all-enveloping kind that takes heart and soul prisoner.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beau...

The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, designed by Gabriela Tylesova

Kevin Jackson is TAB’s prince du jour and put in a blinder, partnering Copeland with gorgeous gallantry and tearing up the stage in his Act III solo with a blisteringly fast circle of jetés. Conductor Philip Ellis favoured sprightly tempi and Tchaikovsky’s score sounded marvellous in the hands of the Opera Australia Orchestra but there was the occasional loss of breathing space for the dance to really bloom.

Of the others, Marcus Morelli and Jade Wood had an excellent night as Bluebird and Princess Florine, with Wood particularly fetching. She’s more relaxed now than when she first took on the role and the freedom is exhilarating. It lets her fly.

The opulence of Gabriela Tylesova’s designs always makes McAllister’s production a treat to behold although there remains a lingering sense that a court of such magnificence really should have a hell of a lot more nobles, courtiers, attendants and functionaries to hand. Still, The Sleeping Beauty looked right at home in TAB’s temporary Sydney home, the ornate Capitol Theatre, while the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House  undergoes renovation. It would be good to see more of the company’s bigger productions there (Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is seen at the Capitol shortly, and can be programmed in Sydney only because the JST is closed).

There was more international stardust at the end of the Sydney season when ABT and Bolshoi Ballet principal David Hallberg returned to dance Prince Désiré with TAB star Amber Scott as he did in February in Brisbane at the beginning of The Australian Ballet’s year. Hallberg is practically part of the family, of course, becoming a resident guest artist with the company after recuperating under the care of its rehabilitation specialists when he had a potentially career-ending injury. The ballet world thanks them.

Don Quixote, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, May 11 and 12.

Don Quixote is all fluff and high spirits. Based glancingly on the Cervantes novel, the ballet foregrounds the romance between Kitri, an innkeeper’s daughter, and the impecunious barber Basilio. Kitri’s father would prefer her to marry money, which turns up in the form of Gamache, a fool.

Crusading knight Don Quixote bumbles upon the scene and complications ensue before everything is sorted. A fancy wedding entirely out of keeping with Kitri and Basilio’s meagre fortunes follows but what the heck. This is a rom-com, a fantasy and a chance for dancers to show off their classical chops while having fun.

Gakuro Matsui, Chihiro Nomura and dancers of West Australian Ballet in Don Quixote. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Chihiro Nomura and Gakuro Matsui, centre, in Lucette Aldous’s production of Don Quixote for West Australian Ballet. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

West Australian Ballet’s production is a judiciously slimmed-down staging created in 2010 by Lucette Aldous, a celebrated Kitri in her day. It could be argued that bigger is better when it comes to Don Q: hordes of merry townsfolk, a substantial band of gypsies and a gorgeously attired corps in the vision scene can do much to buoy the featherweight narrative. Nevertheless, Aldous’s production is mostly effective theatrically, albeit with one big, regrettable loss. Don Quixote’s reverie, in which he sees Kitri as his beloved Dulcinea, is ruthlessly pulled back to feature only the leading characters. The scene lacks meaning and magic.

In Allan Lees’s warm design the first image is of a huge page flapping and floating in the air as if torn from a gigantic book: Don Quixote is dreaming of chivalrous deeds. Later, when the Don famously tilts at windmills, pages swirl about evocatively as the wind howls. It’s an elegant solution in a production that moves swiftly from scene to scene. After their very brief introduction Don Quixote and sidekick Sancho Panza head off on their adventures, the Don seated, endearingly, on a wine cask. Within a minute or so the main action has begun in San Sebastian’s town square.

At the first performance newly minted principal dancers Chihiro Nomura and Gakuro Matsui were sweet, charming lovers whose appeal was that of light playing on dappled leaves rather than the midday-sun swelter of the second cast Kitri and Basilio, soloists Florence Leroux-Coléno and Cuban-trained newcomer Oscar Valdés.

Gakuro Matsui and Chihiro Nomura in Don Quixote. Photo by Sergey Pevnev (5)

Chihiro Nomura and Gakuro Matsui in Don Quixote. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Nomura and Matsui are both finely tuned classicists – and Matsui a fine partner – who made light work of the barrage of small beaten steps and flurries of manèges and pirouettes that keep the principals very busy indeed. The next night Leroux-Coléno and Valdés turned up the wattage with a knowing and vivacious account of Kitri and Basilio. True, they over-indulged themselves with the tricky one-arm lift in Act I – Valdés held Leroux-Coléno aloft, twice, for longer than I’ve seen anywhere and it was frankly just showing off, although one had to admire the chutzpah. Well, perhaps Li Cunxin, now artistic director of Queensland Ballet, held the moment just as long when appearing as Basilio for The Australian Ballet in 1999 but he was entitled – it was his farewell performance. Less would have been more for Leroux-Coléno and Valdés at that point.

At times Valdés’s dash trumped finesse but his ebullience and daring are exciting. He gets thrilling height and speed in his double saut de basque and when he danced the Lead Gypsy on opening night the temperature on stage rose dramatically.

Valdés was well matched with Leroux-Coléno, whose good humour and spark made her a witty, flavourful, memorable Kitri. It is beyond understanding why she is not a principal artist in this company.

Andre Santos was the highly enjoyable Gamache in the first performance and a high-octane Lead Gypsy the next night, tossing in an airborne cartwheel as if in answer to the “get that” 540 (a complicated air turn that comes from martial arts) with which Valdés punctuated his Lead Gypsy pyrotechnics. Santos is leaving at the end of this season after eight years with WAB to return to Brazil and will be sorely missed, particularly in light of some disappointing performances from higher ranked dancers on Thursday and Friday. The company is looking somewhat uneven.

Principal Matthew Lehmann did not appear match fit for the role of the matador Espada in the first performance. At the second, Alessio Scognamiglio heroically carried off Espada’s unforgiving pink satin outfit with oodles of the matador’s self-regarding glamour, displayed in luxurious backbends and arrogant strides about the stage. Brooke Widdison-Jacobs, also a principal artist, was miscast as the flashy street-dancer Mercedes in the second cast but at the opening demi-soloist Polly Hilton was alluring in the role. Swings and roundabouts.

Looking further down the ranks, corps de ballet member Carina Roberts continues to make her mark on the company and was a fleet, enchanting Cupid in the vision scene and the alternative Gamache, corps member Adam Alzaim, was goofily appealing. The Don is something of a dancing role in this production and both Christian Luck and Christopher Hill affectingly captured a man who still has some physical vigour while his faculties dim.

Minkus’s score may not be a masterpiece but it’s cheerful earworm material and West Australian Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Canadian guest conductor Judith Yan gave a rollicking account of it.

Don Quixote ends in Perth on May 27. Performances in Albany, June 24; Kalgoorlie, June 30; and Bunbury, July 7.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, May 2.

Many decades ago, when I was visiting Canada, a young woman asked me whether Christmas was in June in Australia. She knew winter in the southern hemisphere happened in the middle months of the year. It followed then, that Christmas must be in June because Christmas is in the middle of winter. She was not in any way uneducated. It’s just that deep in her bones she knew Christmas was accompanied by snow and mistletoe. It was a winter festival.

Australians know all about a snowy Christmas in theory and not so long ago experienced aspects of it in practice. British colonialism and American influences – a huge roast for lunch, fivepences in the pudding and Bing crooning White Christmas – saw to that when I was a child. Except that on Christmas Day it was possibly going to be 40 degrees (celcius, of course), particularly in the southern states, and a roast with all the trimmings was an insane choice.

It’s this second kind of Christmas – our Christmas – that Graeme Murphy summons at the start of his Nutcracker – The Story of Clara. It speaks to us and our shared understanding of the way things are.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Jarryd Madden and Leanne Stojmenov in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boud

As the ballet begins it is a hot, enervating Christmas Eve in Melbourne. Children play and squabble in the street as Clara slowly makes her way home after doing a bit of shopping. She is now elderly and ill and has no family, but there is a circle of friends who, like her, are former dancers who came to Australia after escaping the tumult of revolutionary Russia in 1917 and the mid-century European conflagration.

The ballet becomes a memory piece as Clara hears Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker music emerging scratchily from her wireless on this searing December evening. She and her friends dance joyously, if a bit creakily, to this music that means so much to them. What if these rackety old Russian chums go on a touch too much? In putting this Seniors Card group onstage Murphy pays sweet and profound homage to those who found refuge in Australia during and after World War II and sowed the seeds for his career and that of so many others. Indeed, those others include the great Colin Peasley, with TAB from the start in 1962. He’s now 82 and was onstage on opening night.

When her doctor comes to inquire after Clara’s health – yes, friends, the ballet is set in the 1950s – he brings a special gift, film of these dancers in their heyday. The fragile Clara’s mind turns even more deeply towards the past.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Amelia Soh, Leanne Stojmenov, Ai-Gul Gaisina and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Daniel Boud

Murphy weaves familiar Nutcracker images into Clara’s memories of student days, stage triumphs, her strife-torn homeland, her doomed lover and years of travel with Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes. Most poignantly, Clara is now young.

Murphy, who created this narrative in 1992 with designer Kristian Fredrikson, lets us see Clara as a child and a starry ballerina as well as in her declining years. The moments when he puts all three together are deeply moving. On opening night there was intense pleasure in seeing septuagenarian Ai-Gul Gaisina’s Russian training brought to bear on Clara, the Elder – be in no doubt this is a dancing role, age be damned – and the restrained sorrow of her character. Eleven-year-old Amelia Soh was a beautifully poised Clara, the Child.

As the in-her-prime Clara, Leanne Stojmenov danced the heady first pas deux as if her spine were made of deluxe satin ribbon. She then transformed herself for the elegant, more contained formality of the splendid Act II grand pas deux, supported superbly by Jarryd Madden, who looks born to channel the Ballets Russes.

Kevin Jackson was Clara’s Beloved Officer on opening night. His dancing was big and generous and there is no higher praise than to say he continues the tradition of superb partnering established by the role’s originator, Steven Heathcote. Now a ballet master with the company, Heathcote is only one degree of separation from the Ballets Russes via his teacher in Perth, Kira Bousloff. Magic.

Nutcracker - The Story of Clara - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

The Snowflakes in Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker. Photo: Daniel Boyd

On opening night the corps looked somewhat ragged in the Snowflakes scene where tempestuous flurrying is the order of the day and the Waltz of the Flowers where it is not. In both sections, however, Fredrikson’s costumes were a fabulous diversion.

The application of Tchaikovsky’s score to this narrative isn’t always entirely satisfactory, a point underlined at the opening by a stolid performance from the Opera Australia Orchestra under Nicolette Fraillon. Murphy has always acknowledged the difficulties in Act II of inserting a string of divertissements into the action. He uses some of that music effectively in the depiction of Clara’s life and career – the Sugar Plum Fairy’s tinkling celesta accompanies a dance for Clara as she fends off jewel-bearing visitors to her dressing room – while the Spanish, Arabian and Chinese dances depict places Clara visits as she tours with Colonel de Basil’s company.

The Spanish dance is the most straightforward and the Chinese by far the best. After the sound of gongs there is a long silence as a group of tai chi practitioners emerges from the morning mist. When the Chinese music starts Clara enters to observe this new, to her, form of movement. What a relief it is to be spared the usual hideous caricature of the Chinese, all coolie hats, pointed fingers and waggling heads.

For this revival Murphy has reverted to his first thoughts for the Arabian music. We are portside in some Egyptian city and watch, lengthily and not terribly thrillingly, men haul on ropes and tumble about. It is preferable to the alternative seen in 2000 when Clara visited secluded women somewhere vaguely situated in the Middle East, but neither idea works brilliantly.

These are minor points. The ballet’s stream of emotional highs carry the day, in the ecstatic Act I pas deux, the richly furnished grand pas de deux in Act II, the touching depiction of young love cut short and the persistence of memories as life fades. And above all, of course, there’s that Christmas in summer, in Melbourne. Ours.

Nutcracker – The Story of Clara celebrates its quarter century this year and there’s no reason to think it won’t be around for another 25 years.

Ends May 20 in Sydney. Melbourne, June 2-10.