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Australian Ballet inspired by story

by Suzanne Yanko

The Australian Ballet has danced its way back to Sydney, leaving in its wake the announcement of an alluring program for 2015 that seems to consist of everyone’s favourite story-ballet. There’s a world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty as envisaged by David McAllister, Giselle, Cinderella, Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake: these are choices that are sure to please.

For those who would like to see new works added, the two story-ballets just presented in Melbourne may have some lessons to offer. Both were undeniably great vehicles for dancers at all levels of the company – from Principals to guest artists to the corps and students of the Australian Ballet School. However, the tried and true Nutcracker was, in my view, the stand-out success compared with La Bayadere, however lavish the staging of the French ballet. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison: the audience alone was proof positive that The Nutcracker is the ballet of choice for children, with no shortage of adults happy to accompany them.

The Australian Ballet’s hype urged audiences to “fall in love with the spectacular world of La Bayadere.” Spectacular it was, beyond question, an “epic story of forbidden passion” in which “a beautiful temple dancer and a heroic warrior fight for their love against a backdrop inspired by 19th-century visions of the exotic East”. Whew.

David L. Groover’s synopsis (at more than1000 words, difficult to digest just before curtain-up) went something like this: “Land of four-faced Lord Brahma, god of creations, and four-armed Kali, fearsome goddess of destruction … Land of the ferocious man-eating Bengal tiger and the delicate exquisitely colored krait, the tiny serpent whose bite is lethal. Land of the mystic fakir, the magician with his rope trick. Land of the temple dancer, the bayadère, pledged for life to dance only for the gods.”

I got the picture. I expected La Bayadère to be one of those overblown French or Russian ballets that delivered the contemporary 19th century view of the “exotic”. And so it was, with an impressive pedigree: choreography by the French Marius Petipa to the music of Russian Ludwig Minkus, and first performed by the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg in 1877.

This version was choreographed by Stanton Welch who introduced some particularly charming elements. There was more than a touch of Bollywood, noticeable in the costumes by Peter Farmer, who also did the workable set design. (Costumes and sets were courtesy of Houston Ballet).

Opening night saw Lana Jones in the lead role of Nikiya, the temple-dancer of the title, and Adam Bull as her dance partner, in the role of the warrior Solor. These trusted Principals of the Australian Ballet had the important task of making the dancing soar above the rather cluttered set and plot – and this they did. Jones has a grace that translates into every role she is given, at times being simply lovely to watch. Bull is notable for his strength, height and amazing ease with lifts, and did not disappoint.

There were two leading ladies (the other being Robyn Hendricks as Gazmatti, the Rajah’s daughter), putting the eternal triangle at the heart of this ballet. But while all three dancers were superb their interaction lacked heart, with Bull giving the same attention to both. Herein lay the problem with La Bayadère as compared with, say, Swan Lake, with its delineation of the difference between the White and Black Swan, and the tenderness shown by the Prince to Odette. Is it too much to want both spectacle and believable characters?

Even more startling, however, was our hero’s drug-induced dream of the Kingdom of the Shades in hope of seeing his lost love. Again, this was not a new concept for the ballet. But, unlike the wraiths of Act ll of Giselle, these women were in frothy short tutus and enjoyed a long sequence of apparently joyful, energetic dances. For the most part, the corps was coordinated and the dancers in step with each other; it’s just that the scene seemed to fit awkwardly into a ballet of eastern temples and palaces, dense gardens and intrigue.

In contrast the men who played guards, groomsmen and other roles had more interesting choreography than in more traditional ballets, where partnering and lifts can be the order of the day. On centre stage, they had the more fluid movements more often given to ballerinas – but with no loss of masculinity.

In a ballet crowded with characters it is virtually impossible to single out dancers from a fine array of soloists, although Brett Chynoweth was an agile and arresting God of Fire. Guest conductor Philip Ellis and Orchestra Victoria literally played an important part, sympathetic to the needs of the dancers, with concertmaster Yi Wang’s violin solos evocative and beautiful.

To conclude, I need again to quote the Australian Ballet’s pride in this production. “A kaleidoscope of beauty, colour and spell-binding movement, La Bayadère will leave you in awe. Don’t miss this spectacular night out at the ballet.” Many ballet-goers simply expect colour, music and sensation from their visits to the ballet. They could not possibly have been disappointed.

Certainly there was no disappointment with the 88th performance of the Peter Wright production of The Nutcracker, which also happened to be opening night for the Melbourne season. People of all ages thronged the Arts Centre for the sell-out performance, with Lana Jones as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Ty King-Wall as the Ptince, Miwako Kubota as Clara and Rudy Hawkes as the magician, Drosselmeyer.

Some of the special features of this delightful production were the children at the party (who had personality as well as dancing skills) and clever effects with the suddenly shrinking Christmas tree and, of course, the giant rats that scuttled across the floor (complementing the “real” King Rat, danced by Rohan Furnell).

The set-piece dances are an important element of The Nutcracker and were well danced and choreographed, especially the Arabian dance. Orchestra Victoria, under Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon, supported the dancers literally at every turn, and proved a major part of the ballet’s success.

But, as with Bayadere, there came a point at which one wanted to take a journey with a believable hero or heroine. This, of course, had to be Clara, and Miwako Kubota beautifully fulfilled the role. She was credible both as a child excited by her Christmas gifts, and a young woman exploring new worlds and sensations, and in large measure this was due to her dancing: at times tentative, at others simply joyous.

These two ballets proved great curtain-raisers for the year ahead, as new audiences discover the delights of the story-ballet and faithful supporters sign up for as much as the Australian Ballet has for them. And that’s a good deal!

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Editor’s notes:

Part of this story was originally written as a review of La Bayadère for artsHub Australia. Copyright belongs to the author, Suzanne Yanko).

Image: Daniel Gaudiello and Leanne Stojmenov in Cinderella. Photo Jeff Busby

 

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