The Great Gatsby, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, September 14.

Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon is an old and highly successful hand at creating narrative ballets but he gave himself a tough assignment with this one. His 2013 dance translation of The Great Gatsby is entirely faithful to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best novel while at the same time floating over what really lies at its heart.

Gatsby’s exterior world of frenetic parties and unattainable lovers is eminently stage-worthy and West Australian Ballet looks wonderful in Nixon’s evocation of jazz-age, Prohibition-flouting high society. The frocks are divine, the women glamorous, the men have never seemed sleeker and the 1920s dances are a delight.

Matthew Edwardson and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Edwardson (front) as Young Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Far more difficult to convey are the fluttering nuances of character and shades of meaning that make the novel such an unsettling picture of a changing country with the post-war jitters.

How to express that Daisy’s voice is “full of money”, as Gatsby puts it? Or that Gatsby was once the impoverished nobody Jimmy Gatz? Or that Nick Carraway is the cousin of Gatsby’s lost love Daisy, and thus is being used by his now fabulously wealthy neighbour? (I am reminded of George Balanchine’s famous assertion that “there are no mothers-in-law in ballet”. Certain specifics of kinship are not easily conveyed wordlessly.)

Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s fruitless pursuit of Daisy at several removes through Nick’s eyes as he looks back. In its concentration on the surface narrative the ballet loses those layers and Fitzgerald’s mood of evanescence with them, despite Nixon’s repeated flashbacks showing a young Gatsby wooing Daisy. The cartoonish depiction of Gatsby’s mob connections – men slinking about in black trench coats – doesn’t help.

The Great Gatsby nevertheless has much to enjoy, even if it’s advisable for those not steeped in the novel to take a solid look at the synopsis ahead of time.

A lively selection of 1920s-flavoured music by Richard Rodney Bennett, some taken from his film scores, accompanies lots of swiftly changing scenes. The use of a movement from his 1990 Percussion Concerto is particularly effective and Bennett’s history as a jazz pianist informs the score’s best moments. The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, with Myron Romanul at the helm, gave a zesty account of it on opening night.

Melissa Boniface and Dancers of West Australian Ballet in The Great Gatsby. Photo by Sergey Pevnev

Matthew Lehmann (rear) and Melissa Boniface (front) in The Great Gatsby. Photo: Sergey Pevnev

Above all there were terrific performances from all in the first cast, no mean feat when there are nine key characters.

Gakuro Matsui (the elegant, mysterious Gatsby), Chihiro Nomura (careless, feckless Daisy) and Oliver Edwardson (watchful Nick Carraway) were as effective as the limits of their characters allowed. Gatsby is the outsider who stands aloof at his own parties, is seen gazing wistfully across the water at the light on the end of Daisy’s jetty, or remembering his early days with Daisy. It makes him an elusive character, even when he finally gets Daisy in his arms for rapturous pas de deux in both acts. Which is as it should be from the Fitzgerald point of view, even if it makes the role a difficult one onstage.

Matthew Edwardson and Carina Roberts were fresh as the young Gatsby and Daisy while Brooke Widdison-Jacobs was superbly cast as Daisy’s golf-champion friend Jordan Baker, wielding a cool, amused demeanour and long sporty limbs.

The really juicy parts, however, are for Daisy’s unfaithful husband Tom, his lover Myrtle and Myrtle’s husband George. They get to be vividly steamy and sexy. Matthew Lehmann looked super sharp and gave Tom virile presence. He had looked out of sorts earlier in the year in Don Quixote but now seemed refreshed and renewed. Liam Green’s George was urgent with longing for his errant wife and Melissa Boniface was sensational as the passionate, doomed Myrtle. Now here was a character for a dancer to get her teeth into.

The Great Gatsby ends September 30.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on September 18.

The giants inside

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby. Royal Court Theatre and Lisa Dwan, State Theatre Centre of WA, February 14.

Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, His Majesty’s Theatre, February 13.

THERE were giants inside as well as outside during Perth’s first festival weekend. While Mark Morris and Mozart ruled with joie de vivre at His Majesty’s, Lisa Dwan and Beckett shook the soul at the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground in three short works of obsidian darkness.

Lisa Dwan in Footfalls. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

Lisa Dwan in Footfalls. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

It takes less than an hour to experience Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby but their essence is timeless and, for the duration of the performance, time is suspended. All extraneous light is rigorously excluded from the Studio Underground and Dwan is seen but dimly through James Farncombe’s hazy but finely focused lighting. The audience, rendered almost unnaturally still and quiet in the blackness, is however on high alert internally as Dwan embodies terrifying visions of disintegration, loneliness and death.

Not I is a tumbling stream of words from which key phrases emerge and are then dragged back into the jumble. Sharp little barks, cackles, growls and gasps punctuate the flow of an old woman’s fractured recollections that keep circling back to something that apparently happened on an April morning to “she”, the younger self. Only the actress’s mouth is visible as the woman remembers many harsh things but finds her voice, in that beautiful use of the word. It means finding the true self.

In Footfalls the finding of the voice has been more difficult for a woman attending a dying mother. A rectangle of light imprisons her as she paces up and down – there is room for nine steps only – but at least she can hear her steps on a floor from which she has removed the covering. They confirm her existence. Dwan, her voice low and melodious, also speaks the words of the unseen mother, a woman who seems to have sucked the life from her daughter.

Rockaby also heads inexorably towards the void as a woman sits in a rocking chair with only her face and hands visible as she sways in and out of the light. The sense of desolation is immense as the woman describes looking through the window to other windows, always alone despite searching for others like her. Towards the end of the piece one can see only half Dwan’s face, a nightmarish effect.

Dwan is directed flawlessly by Walter Asmus, a longtime friend of Beckett. This trio of works and collaborators is a rare gift.

The season ends on Friday.

MOZART Dances reveals Mark Morris as the great magician of contemporary dance and its foremost optimist. In this seemingly carefree work Morris offers principles of profound beauty, not in a didactic way but with simplicity and grace. In Mozart Dances men and women are equal, each is an individual, there is strength to be gained from one another and there is belief in the power of love and joy.

From Double, the middle work in Mozart Dances

From Double, the middle work in Mozart Dances. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

The work is abstract but packed with relationships, the foremost of which is with the score. Morris choreographs to three substantial Mozart piano works, each with three movements – about 90 minutes of music for orchestra and two solo pianists. It’s a huge canvas, yet Mozart Dances feels deliciously intimate as Morris sends 16 dancers whirling across the stage in a constant and felicitous flow in answer to the spring and essence of the music. They cover ground as bountifully as gazelles.

First up is Eleven, choreographed to Mozart’s relatively little known Piano Concerto No.11, in which Morris concentrates on the women, led by elfin Lauren Grant. There is a short introduction to the men of the company, bare-chested and wearing breeches that hint at the 18th century. After some lively unison dancing they stride off and the women take over, introducing motifs that will recur throughout the work.

Eleven is followed by Double for the men to the Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, the composer’s only work in that form. Echoing the structure of Eleven in reverse, Morris brings the women of the company on in the third movement. They are now wearing long floating skirts, reminiscent of those worn in Balanchine’s Serenade (just as Grant’s sudden fall to the ground in Eleven recalls a similar moment in that ballet). There’s a visual link to the diaphanous black the women wear in Eleven, but the atmospherics are completely different. The first costume is bold, the second is romantic.

Double, from Mark Morris's Mozart Dances

Double, from Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances. Photo: Tanya Voltchanskaya

Aaron Loux was the charming and fleet soloist in Double, wearing a frock coat that also nods to the 18th century. It moves beautifully and brings a whiff of gallantry to proceeedings. Again one notices the jaunty comings and goings, the powerful unison work and Morris’s unerring eye for pacing and timing but, above all, the emotional value of a movement and moment.

Finally, all 16 dancers, now dressed in white although not identically, come together for the 27th piano concerto (Mozart’s last) to mix, mingle, separate and connect in ways that delight the spirit.

While the mood of each dance is distinct, Morris propels each with nimble legs and feet, open-hearted upper bodies and multitudinous cheeky exits and entrances. With dancers as warmly engaged and witty as Morris’s there is every reason to believe that offstage life is just as interesting to them as what awaits onstage. These are not performers who disappear when you can’t see them.

Morris seamlessly interweaves steps and shapes from folk, the court, ballet and ordinary life while building a series of motifs that are sprinkled throughout, often with a new or unexpected touch. In Eleven the women at one point gather In a group and look upwards as if there is something mesmerising out of our sight, but not theirs. The men will later have their version of it. The same happens with fingers that are pointed as if to say, “you need to pay extra attention right now”. Often dancers will throw themselves into a generous, wide-armed whirl that feels less like a choreographed move than a spontaneous outburst of ecstasy.

The much-repeated action of falling has different qualities but always ends in recovery and re-entry into the group, nowhere more potently expressed than in the glorious slow movement of Double. It is central to Mozart Dances in position (it is the fifth of the nine movements played) and content and has the most sombre tones. Even so, there are gleams of light as the fallen and isolated are gathered up. Darkness is then quickly banished in the final dance, Twenty-Seven, and Mozart Dances ends on a highly playful note with all the men and women, dressed in fresh, non-identical white, getting on like a house on fire.

For its brief Perth engagement Mark Morris Dance Group was vividly accompanied by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne pianist Amir Farid, conducted by MMDG music director Colin Fowler. Fowler joined Farid for the sonata, a tremendous musical highlight.

I am sorry Mozart Dances won’t be on the program when MMDG comes to Sydney in June as it can be seen again and again with pleasure. But an orchestra has to be available, and a second pianist, which is undoubtedly the barrier. So Sydney will get a smaller-scale program of four works – A Wooden Tree, Festival Dance, Pacific and Whelm – accompanied by the MMDG Music Ensemble.

‘My work’s about love, basically’

One of the key works of the 2015 Perth International Arts Festival is Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances from 2006. There will be four performances only, on February 13, 14 and 15.

PIAF artistic director Jonathan Holloway calls Morris “one of the greatest choreographers alive today and he is the great American choreographer. He’s never been to Western Australia. From day one I wanted to start my first festival with Lucinda Childs, who is another of my favourite choreographers, and finish with Mark Morris.” (Childs’s shimmering 1979 work Dance was seen exclusively in Perth in 2012.)

Morris has made more than 140 works for Mark Morris Dance Group, which this year celebrates its 35th anniversary, and is also feted for his work with classical companies. Since 1996 MMDG has undertaken no international tour without live music, which for the three-part Mozart Dances in its entirety means the availability of a symphony orchestra – the West Australian Symphony Orchestra will play for PIAF – and two solo pianists.

This is an expanded version of my interview with Morris written for The Weekend Australian’s Culture 2015 magazine, published on November 15-16, 2014.

EVERYTHING about Mark Morris is big: his exuberant laugh, his passion for music, the uncensored chat and bawdy talk, his endlessly inquiring nature. He’s a stayer, too. The American choreographer started making dances when he was 13 (although says he didn’t make his first good one until he was 15) and founded his own company at 24. He’s now 58 and Mark Morris Dance Group has not only survived, but is one of the world’s finest contemporary companies.

Morris has choreographed more than 150 works, mostly for his group but also for leading ballet companies, and works extensively as an opera director, conductor and music teacher. An indication of his tendency to over-achievement is found in his list of honours: among the many fellowships and awards are 11 honorary doctorates, membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the 2010 Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society (hotshot conductor Gustavo Dudamel won it last year).

Eleven, from Mozart Dances. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Eleven, from Mozart Dances. Photo: Stephanie Berger

So when Morris says of his Perth International Arts Festival-bound Mozart Dances that it is performed to “more piano than anyone would ever do in an evening of Mozart”, what he means is anyone except himself. And this being Morris, live music is a non-negotiable part of the deal. When we spoke the West Australian Symphony Orchestra was on board and Morris was listening to recordings by Australian pianists to choose a soloist. Amir Farid, the Melbourne-based pianist and member of the Benaud Trio, was selected. MMDG music director Colin Fowler will be the other soloist.

“I will not work with taped music,” Morris says emphatically. “I absolutely will not. If you want my dance company you have live music. People see it as crazy diva, but it’s also my work, and so here’s how it’ll be done. If people don’t want that, that’s ok,” he says comfortably, speaking from his headquarters in Brooklyn.

Not surprisingly, most people find Morris’s terms entirely acceptable because they have resulted in a singular body of work that includes the adored and frequently revived L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), to the music of Handel; his famed production of the Purcell opera Dido and Aeneas (1989); and Mozart Dances (2006).

Mozart Dances is a triptych for 16 dancers comprising Eleven, Double and Twenty-Seven, named after their music – Mozart’s 11th and 27th piano concertos flank the composer’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major. Eleven foregrounds the women of the company, Double features the men and in Twenty-Seven “everyone is happily reunited”. After the New York premiere of Mozart Dances in August 2006, John Rockwell of The New York Times wrote he felt “safe in pronouncing it a masterpiece”. Morris had made “something as serious and profound as dance gets”.

While some audience members may be familiar with Piano Concerto No.27, the 11th is likely to surprise. “Eleven is a rare one. It’s a fabulous, very, very delicate, turbulent piece. It’s very emotionally complicated,’’ says Morris, who describes the evening with some understatement as “a good big show” of a scale appropriate for MMDG’s Perth debut. (The company visited Adelaide in 1994 and Sydney in 2003.)

The 11th concerto appealed for another reason. Mozart arranged a chamber version of it, meaning that if there is no symphony orchestra available, Morris can present just the first two sections of Mozart Dances with a smaller number of live musicians and perform something else in place of Twenty-Seven, which needs a full orchestra. Morris may not make any concessions on the subject of live music but he is pragmatic, and Mozart Dances can be adjusted according to circumstances.

“If we’ve just got chamber music then I do another piece in place of Twenty-Seven. Twenty-Seven can’t be done without an orchestra but the others can, which is why I chose them,” he says.

Holloway had considered asking Morris for L’Allegro but Perth has no theatre big enough for it. “It’s enormous. Mozart Dances is only huge. It’s just a full company of dancers, a full orchestra, piano soloists, and two hours of some of the most joyous dancing you’ll ever see in your life.“

Morris’s large, generous spirit is the bedrock of all his dance. “I’m a horrible monster from time to time but my work is all kind,” he says. “My work’s about love, basically, so when you get over the fact that I talk dirty and I’m very loud, I’m also really, really nice.”

He’s also wonderfully frank about the state of dance. “My work isn’t overtly political but of course I have feelings about things and one thing is the infantilisation of dancers in general, and generally the low-level misogyny and racism that’s inherent everywhere I look in the dance world,” he says.

“I have no problem being a middle-aged, white, male – that’s what I am. But I wonder where all the female choreographers are. Everyone who wants to make up a dance should [do so]. I’m not damning, it’s not a competition thing at all, but a lot of it seems if you’re in the corps de ballet of any ballet company and you’re a boy, suddenly you’re a choreographer. I don’t really understand that. You’ve been looking at the back of everyone for your whole career. [Big laugh.] It’s like wait, how do you … oh, fine. It’s crazy. And I wish ‘em all luck. I’m all for dancing. It’s just that I don’t see a lot that I like that much.”

What he does like is sharing his dance with other cultures and learning from theirs. “I go to Asia a lot. People want to see what you do and you get to see what they do. I love that. It’s not like becoming fake Cambodian when I go to their country, but to notice and respect and to adore what they do. I love to see traditional dance and music and whatever crazy new thing they’re doing. I’m not a big tourist; I’m more of a cultural vampire.”

Morris is travelling to Perth with his company. “I know I’m eager to go, and I’m not going to talk about how far away it is, because if you live in Perth it’s everything else that’s far away,” he says with undeniable logic. “You’re right where you belong if you’re in Perth.”

La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet

His Majesty’s, June 1

IN her program note for West Australian Ballet’s La Sylphide, stager Dinna Bjorn wrote that while the steps of Bournonville’s 1836 ballet remain true to the original, “the way of executing the steps has changed through the the times with the development of the ballet technique and the body types of the dancers”. Bjorn sees in this inevitable change a way of maintaining authenticity but keeping the ballet fresh.

West Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jon Green

West Australian Ballet in La Sylphide. Photo: Jon Green

That is, of course, the ideal. La Sylphide deserves its continuing place in the repertoire: in the story of a spirit who lures a young man away from his fiancee and the responsibilities of family, society and work lie some difficult and enduring life lessons. Accommodations may need be made when it is brought before a modern audience, but it’s also necessary for the essential essence of the ballet to be preserved.

Watching WAB in two performances on the last day of its recent season, it struck me, however, that different body types and greater technical facility weren’t that much of an issue. There was much more at stake in the crucial area of emotional expressiveness, the inner light of the character.

When it came to absorbing the principles of early Romantic ballet, the WAB dancers were on secure ground. It was wonderful to see the buoyancy of many of the men and the height and elasticity of their jumps, along with swift, sharp footwork (Andre Santos really stood out in this respect). The women combined lightness and precision although most of the corps found it necessary to wear a bright look, giving the superficial impression of a bunch of healthy girls out for a walk in the woods rather than spirits of the forest. (More filtered lighting wouldn’t have gone astray here either.)

And it wasn’t just the corps who seemed unable to divest themselves of an essentially contemporary attitude. Both Sylphs, Brooke Widdison-Jacobs and Fiona Evans, smiled rather too expansively and seemed rather too knowing. Widdison-Jacobs, who was first cast, was praised for her freshness on her first performance, but by the last appeared to me to be quite brittle. Perhaps the burden of dancing six of the 12 performances was showing. At the matinee on June 1 Evans beautifully captured the airy nature of the Sylph’s movement.

Dancing with Evans, Daniel Roberts was a bright, engaging James who nailed that gorgeous “hang” in the air so essential in the  Bournonville style. In the first cast Sergey Pevnev didn’t have quite that degree of height and stage coverage (although it was very attractive dancing) but his experience was invaluable when it came to convincing characterisation.

The same was true with Craig Lord-Sole, Madge in both casts. Lord-Sole, WAB’s ballet master, was compelling, creating a particularly malevolent figure whose enjoyment of the tragedy was chilling.

Craig Lord-Sole as Madge in La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet. Photo: Jon Green

Craig Lord-Sole as Madge in La Sylphide, West Australian Ballet. Photo: Jon Green

It was also a joy to see Jayne Smeulders’s Lead Sylph in the first cast. Again, experience and refined artistry resulted in a connection with the work that was deep and true.

WAB is incredibly lucky to have the West Australian Symphony Orchestra as its musical partner. With ebullient guest conductor Wolfgang Heinz at the helm, the WASO gave a striking account of the Lovenskiold music. After the performance Heinz – who is assistant music director at Stuttgart Ballet and adorably wore a kilt for the evening performance – was loud in his praise for the orchestra, and rightly so.

WAB has an ambitious time ahead, with the company premiere of John Cranko’s intensely dramatic Onegin coming up in September. There couldn’t be a greater contrast with the delicate perfume of La Sylphide, and it is much anticipated.