Don Quixote x 6

The Australian Ballet, six performances in March and April 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. Photo: Jeff Busby

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

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

Ty King-Wall. Photo: James Braund

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

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

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

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ty King-Wall

The Australian Ballet has a new principal artist

WHEN David McAllister walks onstage at the end of an Australian Ballet performance it usually means just one thing, and so it was the afternoon of April 6  in Sydney. McAllister named Ty King-Wall, 26, the AB’s newest principal artist after his performance as Basilio in Don Quixote.

King-Wall said the next day he had no warning, thinking his parents had come from his native New Zealand simply to see him dance. Afterwards they thought they should be receiving all the congratulations, not him, King-Wall joked. “And that’s right.”

Ty King-Wall, new principal artist of The Australian Ballet. Photo: James Braund

Ty King-Wall, new principal artist of The Australian Ballet. Photo: James Braund

With King-Wall it wasn’t a matter of if he would be promoted, but when. He has been dancing principal roles for years, taking the role of the Prince in Stanton Welch’s Sleeping Beauty as early as 2009, just three years after he joined the Australian Ballet. In 2010 he was the Prince in the Peter Wright version of The Nutcracker, Franz in Coppelia and Octavian in Graeme Murphy’s The Silver Rose.

McAllister needed to find the right moment to make the announcement, and more or less had it thrust upon him. He likes a dancer’s family to be in the auditorium if possible when he promotes a dancer so phoned King-Wall’s parents in New Zealand to suggest they might like to think about planning a trip to Sydney. He was told his call was timely: they were just about to get on a plane. So that sorted the date – April 6, at the matinee.

King-Wall’s father had not seen his son dance since his Australian Ballet School graduation performance – coincidentally of the third act of Don Quixote.

Fortunately for McAllister, King-Wall gave a principal-worthy performance on the 6th. He claims to have been “feeling a little bit down after the first act – there were a couple of things I wasn’t really happy with. I had to tell myself to pull it together and I really enjoyed the third act.” From the auditorium things looked just fine. King-Wall has lovely proportions and elegant bearing. He had easy elevation, the cleanest of pirouettes, the occasional special effect thrown in without triumphalism, his double tours were landed in firm, tight fifth positions and he confidently negotiated the tricky one-armed lifts in Act I. While King-Wall isn’t naturally an ebullient character, his Basilio was charming, sweet and amusing.

He was well matched with principal Leanne Stojmenov, a lively and funny Kitri with lovely touches of sensuality.

There had been buzz about King-Wall within the company during the Melbourne season of Don Quixote and in Brisbane when the AB performed Swan Lake (the Stephen Baynes version). On April 6 one enterprising dancer asked McAllister if he was going to promote King-Wall that day, basing his question on the fact McAllister was wearing a suit. McAllister was thus attired because he was taking part in a talk later, but when a story is on the move anything will be examined for signs.

In any event, it was that day. King-Wall had no warning but wasn’t especially surprised. He has been “working towards this for a long time”.

His parents weren’t initially followers of the ballet. King-Wall began taking classes when he was seven because a friend had started and “was a bit apprehensive and wanted a guy to keep him company. I said sure, I’ll give it a go.” The friend quickly fell by the wayside but King-Wall was hooked. At 16 he was accepted by the Australian Ballet School and joined the AB in 2006. McAllister describes him as “a born prince”.

“It felt the right time for him to take on that mantle,” says McAllister. “He’s really proved his worth.” Even though King-Wall is the youngest of the AB’s 12 principal artists (soon to be back to 11 when Yosvani Ramos leaves at the end of the Don Quixote Sydney season), he could have been elevated even sooner had he not had a significant back injury. “He did have a setback,” says McAllister, “but in a funny way the injury made me more sure that he was right for promotion. He was so professional and committed, and had the tenacity to make sure he rehabbed and rehabbed properly.

“Once he got back, I thought yep, he’s going to be fine. The way he approached it I knew that it was going to be all right.”

King-Wall says the company’s support during his period of injury has made him “relieved and grateful” that he now has reached the top rank. The promotion puts him at the same rank as his off-stage partner, AB principal Amber Scott. “I have a deep respect for the rank and what it means,” he says. “I understand the responsibilities and expectations.”

He’s happy, too, to be as busy as possible. “It’s a short career and you want to make absolutely the most of it.” The AB will be getting its money’s worth in the upcoming Vanguard triple bill, as King-Wall is cast in each work – Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura and Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, created on the company in 2009. He has danced only in Dyad 1929 and is looking forward to exploring the other two works.

Ty King-Wall is scheduled to appear in Don Quixote at the Sydney Opera House on April 12, 17 and 22. Vanguard opens at the Sydney Opera House on April 30 and in Melbourne on June 6.