Coppélia

Went on a Friday night then to a Saturday matinée in Melbourne to the Palais Theatre – covered in scaffolding, but still somehow more atmosphere than the State Theatre in the Arts Centre. I understand the raked stage is not popular with the dancers as they are more used to dancing on flat stages, but somehow Coppélia suited the venue perfectly.

Friday night’s cast was Amy Harris as Swanilda with guest artist and former TAB dancer Luke Ingham as Franz, Saturday’s was Dimity Azoury and Jarryd Madden.

Lovely as it was to see Ingham dancing with the company again, I would hazard a guess that he and Harris had not had much rehearsal time together.

Azoury and Madden, on the other hand, have both gone from strength to strength in the last couple of years, and gave us a really rather sparkly and enjoyable performance.

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Casting the 2013 Swan Lake (Murphy) in Melbourne

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After spending much of 2012 creating and performing Stephen Baynes’ Swan Lake, The Australian Ballet will not be swan-free in 2013. The Baynes version will tour to Brisbane (February) and Adelaide in July. Between those dates, in addition to whooping it up in Don Quixote (Melbourne and Sydney), returning to contemporary in the Vanguard mixed bill (Sydney and Melbourne), and visiting the national capital with Etudes and a contemporary world premiere from Garry Stewart, the company will perform the now ten-year-old Graeme Murphy Swan Lake in Melbourne.

Four days after completing the Melbourne season, they’ll open the Baynes version in Adelaide. Luckily from the musical perspective Orchestra Victoria won’t be required to mentally rearrange the score, as the Adelaide season will use the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. The poor dancers, though!

Melbourne hasn’t seen the Murphy version since 2008, although it has in the meantime toured to Paris, Japan, and New York. Since 2008, Lynette Wills (a memorable Baroness), Robert Curran, Damien Welch, Danielle Rowe, Kirsty Martin, Jane Casson, and Rachel Rawlins have all left the company (all except Rowe have in fact retired), and Yosvani Ramos will be leaving at the end of April after Don Quixote‘s Sydney season.

So who will be dancing Odette, the Prince, and the Baroness? Princes Adam Bull and Kevin Jackson, Odettes Madeleine Eastoe, Amber Scott and Leanne Stojmenov, and Baronesses Olivia Bell, Lucinda Dunn, Lana Jones, and Amy Harris are all still with us (yay).

I expect to see Ty King-Wall, Andrew Killian, Daniel Gaudiello, and Rudy Hawkes as the Prince.

I’d like to see Miwako Kubota, Juliet Burnett, and Robyn Hendricks given the chance to dance Odette: each would bring something to a role I associate most indelibly with Eastoe.

I would love to see Natasha Kusen given the opportunity to dance the Baroness, and Reiko Hombo’s Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly so impressed me that I’ll call her a possible Odette as well.

Thoughts?

My Ballet Highlights of 2012

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Just a few notes on my 2012 highlights, in no particular order:

  • Leanne Stojmenov as Odette/Odile in the new Stephen Baynes Swan Lake – I was in tears by the end of Act II.
  • Andrew Killian as Beyond Thirty in the revival of Beyond Twelve – in Melbourne the lovely deep stage opened up at the end and the final walk upstage was into a visibly mundane world. Tears.

Rehearsing Beyond Twelve

  • Calvin Hannaford as Beyond Eighteen, with Brooke Lockett as First Love, also in the revival of Beyond Twelve
  • Steven Heathcote in Tim Harbour’s Sweedeedee – he has more artistry in his five-years-retired body than many current dancers, and there was fabulous live music
  • Daniel Gaudiello and Leanne Stojmenov as Romeo and Juliet, particularly in the “balcony” scene and the death scene – especially Leanne in the death scene, she was clearly just broken and the emotion audibly affected the audience
  • Amy Harris finally winning the Ballet Dancer Award, third time nominated clearly the charm
  • Yosvani Ramos in Etudes in the 50th anniversary gala – showing off his technique (link to rehearsal video by permission)
  • Stuttgart Ballet dancers Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo guesting in the 50th anniversary gala, in both their Bruhn Prize piece Little Monsters and the Don Quixote act 3 pas de deux – curtain went up for Little Monsters and 75% of the audience sucked in its breath, and then in Don Q the audience cheered raucously at nearly every move
  • Julie Kent of ABT in the bedroom pas de deux from Manon with Adam Bull in the 50th anniversary gala – I’ve never seen Adam that connected with any other partner
  • The gorgeous mishmash of costumes used in, and the concept of, Gideon Obarzanek’s There’s Definitely a Prince Involved

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  • Onegin – finally back in the rep, with the music, the costumes, the requirement for acting and partnering…Brett Simon as Prince Gremin stands out in my mind seven months on
  • Lana Jones in Gemini
  • Miwako Kubota as Odette
  • Madeleine Eastoe’s Odile – minxy!!
  • Kevin Jackson’s Lensky
  • Jessica Fyfe in her first major solo role as Olga in Onegin
  • Amber Scott in After the Rain© – she’d not been cast in this pas de deux previously, but danced it with San Francisco Ballet’s Damian Smith in the 50th anniversary gala, and wow.

Lowlight: Rachel Rawlins’ retirement.

What makes a principal artist?

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I’ve watched a fair bit of live ballet in the last few years: everything The Australian Ballet has performed (more than once), a Royal New Zealand Ballet performance of Christopher Hampson’s Romeo and Juliet.

I’ve watched a lot on DVD as well: the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, The Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opéra Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, and the Bolshoi Ballet.

My “local” company, The Australian Ballet, has promoted six dancers to principal in the last eighteen months (Daniel Gaudiello, Kevin Jackson, Lana Jones, Andrew Killian, Amber Scott, and Leanne Stojmenov). In that time, two principals have retired (Robert Curran and Kirsty Martin), Danielle Rowe has gone to Houston Ballet, and two more have been on maternity leave (Lucinda Dunn and Olivia Bell).

Paris Opéra Ballet recently promoted Josua Hoffalt to étoile: on stage at the Opéra Bastille, after a performance of La Bayadère in which he danced Solor for the first time.

In Australia, Gaudiello, Jackson, and Jones were promoted on stage at the end of a free performance in a football stadium, while Killian, Scott and Stojmenov were elevated on stage in the Sydney Opera House after a performance of a triple bill.

I ask myself, what should be the criteria for elevation to principal rank? Do I have the same criteria, as a reasonably ballet-educated, keen audience member, as an artistic director? I don’t know the answer to my second question – shall have to enquire.

First and foremost, I believe, should be the ability to dance leading roles. Not just the technical ability, but to dance with authority, conviction, and artistry.

I also believe a principal should be capable of carrying a full-length ballet. By this, I mean he or she takes on the role so thoroughly that the audience, however well they may know the dancer, can forget that it’s X up there and only see Des Grieux, or Pinkerton, or Solor.

Whether a dancer is too young at 19 to become a principal (see the recent furore surrounding a certain brilliant but immature former Royal Ballet principal), or too old at 30-something (what suddenly made them good enough in the supposed twilight of their career?), I don’t think chronological age really has much to do with it. A young dancer may just be that good, and an older one might suddenly find their groove, or a life event may act as a catalyst. Longevity shouldn’t be any sort of criterion.

I understand Royal Danish Ballet requires all its dancers to retire at 40. Company policy. But does it deprive audiences of some golden performances? One of the most moving things I’ve ever seen on stage was Steven Heathcote (with Kirsty Martin) in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain. It happens to be the last role he danced before retirement, but he was over 40 at the time. Leanne Benjamin was born the year before me, but she’s still a principal at the Royal Ballet, and was over 40 when I loved her in Manon in Sydney a few years ago. And then there’s Sylvie Guillem, and Margot Fonteyn.

Dragging myself back on topic: I think the French term étoile (literally, “star”) is more appropriate than “principal artist”. Someone dancing leading roles should truly shine. It’s terrible when you’re watching Giselle, for example, and the peasants are more riveting than Albrecht and Giselle.

Looks don’t really count in my criteria. I wouldn’t call either Mikhail Baryshnikov or Irek Mukhamedov handsome or beautiful, but I’d rather watch either of them than the undoubtedly gorgeous Roberto Bolle.

If your principals are your stars, they’re the ones you expect to fulfil the box office draw criterion as well. If people aren’t enthused by a particular dancer, seats to their performances won’t sell as well, nor will they be able to access guesting opportunities elsewhere.

So are my criteria sufficient? Are they the same as for an artistic director? Please let me know.

Infinity

The Narrative of Nothing
Choreography: Graeme Murphy
Creative associate: Janet Vernon
Music: Brett Dean
Costume design: Jennifer Irwin
Stage and lighting design: Damien Cooper
Sound design: Bob Scott

There’s Definitely a Prince Involved
Choreography: Gideon Obarzanek after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov
Music: Stefan Gregory after Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Costume design: Alexi Freeman assisted by Caroline Dickinson, with original costumes from
Swan Lake (1977) and Night Shadow (1993) designed by Tom Lingwood
Stage concept: Benjamin Cisterne and Gideon Obarzanek, with original backdrops designed for The Australian Ballet by Hugh Colman used with kind permission of Mr Colman
Lighting design: Benjamin Cisterne

Warumuk – in the dark night
Choreography: Stephen Page
Music: David Page (featuring Dhuwa and Yirritja songs and stories from North East Arnhem Land)
Orchestration: Jessica Wells
Costume design: Jennifer Irwin
Set design: Jacob Nash
Lighting design: Padraig O Suilleabhain
Sound design: Bob Scott

Melbourne, State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Monday 5 March and Tuesday 6 March 2012

First night: liked the costumes for the Murphy, love the dancers in it (Andrew Killian! Adam Bull! Lana Jones! Amy Harris! and everyone else), but the sidelights hit me in the eyes every time they came on, and the music was too “Night on Bald Mountain” (Mussorgsky) uncomfortable.

The Obarzanek was witty, well-presented, all the old costumes were gorgeous, I liked the use of faded backdrops, the fringes worked, and the musical arrangement was clever. There were some fabulous bits (the lift with the descending stream of people behind, the head-movement Little Swans…), and some ho-hum bits. But I love love love Madeleine Eastoe and her princely partner Kevin Jackson.

The Page I loved. Costumes, movement, people, MUSIC, everything.

Second night: got much more out of the Fire Music this time round – think I needed to hear it a second time. Still didn’t really love it though.

Still enjoyed the Obarzanek, he’s very good with groupings and stage patterns.

Still loved the Page.

After the first night it was a toss-up between the Page and the Obarzanek, but after two shows it’s definitely the Page, by a very short nose from the Obarzanek, with the Murphy a further length away in third (sorry Graeme’n’Janet). I think the Page will go down very well in NYC.

Centenary Symphony of Dance

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Not a very catchy name for what was a gala programme from The Australian Ballet accompanied by and featuring a scaled-down Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of Launceston’s Princess Theatre. As the film so cleverly put together by Matthew Donnelly told us, in fact the Princess has only been a live venue since 1970: despite having been originally planned as such it was used as a cinema for its first 59 years. The first live performance was by The Australian Ballet with the Elizabethan Sydney Orchestra, and featured Les Patineurs, Symphony in Gold, and Hamlet. Hem, hem, Mr McAllister. Les Patineurs!

The programme started with Peter Sculthorpe’s Overture for a Joyous Occasion, especially reworked for the event, featuring the brass section on stage. It was indeed a joyous piece, and received due recognition at each of the three performances.

As the weekend coincided with the Bodytorque.Muses programme in Sydney, and JACK Productions’ Animal in Melbourne, only a limited pool of dancers was available from which to draw. So little Launceston got 9 (of 14) principal artists, one (of 4) senior artist, and 3 soloists. Fantastic, and if I had been the casting director, unless I’d nearly killed him by casting Robert Curran in nearly everything, I couldn’t have chosen better myself.

The first pas de deux was the classical Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux with variations and coda, as seen in Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker as performed in 2010 in both Melbourne and Sydney. We were treated to the tall and elegant Adam Bull and the classically stylish Rachel Rawlins. Yummy. Lots of applause on opening night when the curtain went up, just at the pretty pink and silver and glittery costumes I think, although I still think the Prince’s jacket is too bunchy behind the neck.

Second on the programme was the 2nd movement pas de deux from Tim Harbour’s Halcyon, created in 2010 on Madeleine Eastoe, with partner Rudy Hawkes on this occasion as original partner Ty King-Wall was unavailable. It was wonderful to see it again, although a pity there were no programme notes so I had to summarise the ballet for those around me at all three performances. Eastoe and Hawkes were very well received at all shows, in fact the more modern pieces often received more applause than most of the “classical” ones. It did seem odd though for me not to see Zeus and Hera in the shadows.

The third item was the meltingly evocative pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, part of the British Liaisons programme that has just finished in Sydney and will go to Melbourne later this year. Originally choreographed for retiring NYCB dancer Jock Soto, it was Steven Heathcote’s swansong as a principal in 2007. For my money, the best man in the company right now for it is Robert Curran (whose retirement is not, to the best of my knowledge, imminent), and that’s who we got, with Robyn Hendricks, Ballet Dancer Award nominee this year. I felt the combination of the experienced, mature male with the less-experienced and much younger girl worked well, although I wonder how much more emotional it would be for the audience with two experienced, mature dancers…?

…And now for something completely different, the wedding pas de deux with variations and coda from Act III of Coppélia, from the dazzling Leanne Stojmenov and Yosvani Ramos. This pair danced the full-length ballet together in 2010, and they are obviously comfortable partnering each other. Ramos’ pirouettes a la seconde are one of my favourite things to watch, as he turns on the proverbial dime: sadly not the case with everyone’s pirouettes. Stojmenov has a very special charm, perfect for Swanilda.

The first half of the evening was closed by a taste of the forthcoming Melbourne season titled Elegy, two works by resident choreographer Stephen Baynes. We were treated to a snippet of Beyond Bach, featuring Amber Scott partnered by Andrew Killian with Brett Simon, and Juliet Burnett partnered by Adam Bull with Rudy Hawkes. The lovely Air, the deceptively simple Anna French frocks, and the beautiful dancing combined to send us uplifted to the freezing street at interval.

Returning inside, the curtain rose to reveal…a cinema screen. Accompanied by an excerpt from Elena Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans Suite, originally commissioned by the AB, company member Matthew Donnelly’s video history of the Princess Theatre was enjoyable and informative.

The curtains then rose again to reveal a backdrop: a forest at night, with a moonlit lake in the background. Upstage right was a simple cross-marked grave, with a bouquet of lilies…yep, act II of Giselle (no, silly woman behind me, not Les Sylphides, not with that grave). Rachel Rawlins was exquisite, and it was the first time I can remember seeing her partnered by Yosvani Ramos, whose broad experience overseas was well in evidence.

Amber Scott reappeared, waiting for Adam Bull to join her in a second excerpt from Stephen Baynes, Molto Vivace: a dreamy and very romantic pas de deux they performed with great success in-season in 2010. Gorgeous.

Game of Thrones

Along with many others, I have been waiting eagerly for the HBO series Game of Thrones. From George R R Martin’s epic and as yet incomplete book cycle A Song of Ice and Fire (still waiting dear sir), the good folks at HBO in America commissioned a series. Apparently the almost-equally-good folks at Showtime here in Australia have bought the series but won’t be showing it for another couple of months.

As with any book enjoyed, casting a TV or film version is very important to the readers. I think in most cases they’ve got it right.

I mean, Sean Bean.

And Peter Dinklage. Who won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor.

Isaac Hempstead-Wright and Maisie Williams as Bran and Arya Stark respectively are also very much as I hoped. Also the Dane Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Ser Jaime Lannister and Scot Iain Glen as Ser Jorah Mormont.

From the opening scene of the first episode, through the opening credits (is that stop-motion or whatever, they’re awesome), the costumes, the sets, the realisation of a world from the books to the screen…

Madame Butterfly

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Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly may not be the perfect full-length ballet, but the pas de deux that runs for a good chunk of the first act is one of the most perfect things I’ve seen – in the right hands (or should that be feet? or bodies?).

Casts seen:
Butterfly: Rachel Rawlins/Madeleine Eastoe/Kirsty Martin/Miwako Kubota/Reiko Hombo/Madeleine Eastoe/Miwako Kubota/Kirsty Martin
Pinkerton: Robert Curran/Kevin Jackson/Rudy Hawkes/Ty King-Wall/Daniel Gaudiello/Kevin Jackson/Ty King-Wall/Rudy Hawkes
Suzuki: Leanne Stojmenov/Reiko Hombo/Natasha Kusen/Vivienne Wong/Leanne Stojmenov/Reiko Hombo/Vivienne Wong/Natasha Kusen
Sharpless: Adam Bull/Daniel Gaudiello/Andrew Killian/Ben Davis/Andrew Killian/Daniel Gaudiello/Ben Davis/Andrew Killian
Goro: Tzu-Chao Chou/Chengwu Guo/Yosvani Ramos/Tzu-Chao Chou/Brett Chynoweth/Chengwu Guo/Chengwu Guo/Yosvani Ramos
Kate: Lana Jones/Juliet Burnett/Laura Tong/Amy Harris/Lana Jones/Amber Scott/Amy Harris/Juliet Burnett

The first act sees marriage broker Goro introducing Pinkerton, accompanied by two friends and the American Consul Sharpless, to Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly). Despite being about to go through a marriage ceremony with a Japanese girl (purely in order to get her in to bed may I add), Pinkerton dreams of his American fiancée Kate, which just about demonstrates his level of maturity. The ceremony proceeds, the guests are disturbed by Butterfly’s uncle who is furious she is demeaning the family by “marrying” an American and “becoming” a Christian, but Pinkerton gets rid of him and sends everyone not already scared off away, whereupon he proceeds to seduce his “bride” in the most ravishing (and exhausting with all those lifts) pas de deux.

Act 2 opens with Butterfly’s faithful companion Suzuki realising she and Butterfly are just about destitute, can’t pay the wages any more, and trying to make Butterfly realise that Pinkerton’s never coming back. Butterfly still believes, though, and despite a new suitor introduced by Goro, holds out for the father of her son, named Sorrow. Sharpless brings a letter from Pinkerton but cannot bring himself to tell Butterfly and Suzuki that although Pinkerton’s coming back, he’s bringing his American wife Kate and wants to take his son away. Butterfly doesn’t see Sharpless’ hesitation, only that Pinkerton’s returning, and she makes Suzuki and Sorrow sit up all night waiting for the ship to come in. She dreams Pinkerton returns, that he will take her to America, but she doesn’t fit in, and he takes his son and abandons her (again). Waking, she sees Pinkerton leaving, because he can’t watch his wife take Sorrow away from Butterfly. Devastated, she allows the child to leave with Kate, then takes her father’s sword and kills herself.

Very rough synopsis, but gets the main points across.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson’s Act 1 pas de deux was the most beautiful, effortless, romantic thing I’ve seen in a long time. Rudy Hawkes partnering Kirsty Martin, though lovely, was a bit of a mismatch: Kirsty’s one of the most experienced principals at The Australian Ballet, and Rudy is still relatively young, although I’m excited to watch him develop, particularly as he’s one of the Ballet Dancer Award nominees this year. I have to add that having seen the first 4 shows in Melbourne, then the 2nd week in Sydney, time and experience had improved many things, not least of which was Rudy and Kirsty’s partnership. Despite having not performed for nearly a month, and being a bit wobbly in some lifts, Rudy was much more of a match my second time around. Rachel Rawlins continues to grow on me, and I always love watching Robert Curran partner anybody. Miwako Kubota, on début, was beautiful and tragic, and Ty King-Wall continues to grow – I enjoyed his Pinkerton much more than his Nutcracker Prince – but that’s kind of backhanded as Pinkerton’s not a very sympathetic part! And it’s not his acting that’s growing: I wish it would!

On revisiting the production in Sydney, I got a special surprise bonus cast: Reiko Hombo and Daniel Gaudiello, which I was very pleased to have the opportunity to see. Reiko, who I’ve previously seen mainly in light-hearted roles, apart from a Suzuki in Melbourne, I felt would be good in the first act and she was. I was somewhat dubious about her for the second act but was very pleasantly surprised: although a bit rough around the edges (short notice, first show), she was absolutely heartbreaking. At times, I forgot it was Daniel as Pinkerton and got completely swept up in the story.

Suzuki is the one who realises Pinkerton and Kate are going to take Sorrow away, and as danced and acted by Leanne Stojmenov was really moving. Vivienne Wong and Natasha Kusen were both convincing and danced beautifully, with Reiko Hombo less convincing, and I’m not sure why that was – she’s tiny and delightful every time I see her dance – actually that’s probably why! And after seeing her Butterfly I still thought the same of her Suzuki; she was however following Leanne, who was her Suzuki.

Sharpless is a part with some meat to it, and Adam Bull took full advantage. He was just great, and that’s not because the others weren’t. Daniel Gaudiello, Andrew Killian, and Ben Davis all brought their own touches to the part: Daniel’s was definitely older than the other three (although if you’re gonna have silver temples that definite, better silver your moustache as well, dear), Ben’s was elegant as hell (I do believe there were curled ends on his moustache), and Andrew’s was almost wistful.

Second (and third in Andrew’s case) time around all the men dancing Sharpless were more assured in their characters. Daniel’s was definitely 45-50, Ben’s still elegant but much more assured, and Andrew is now, at least in my mind, at least equal to Adam (but I didn’t get to see Adam a second time).

Goro gets some great leaps and show-offy bits, perfect for Tzu-Chao Chou, Chengwu Guo, and Yosvani Ramos – but the most convincing was Tzu-Chao. The grimaces! Chengwu is the most inexperienced of the three, but he fitted better into his very strong cast than did Yosvani, whose Goro felt a bit flat to me. Sydney didn’t change my opinion on Yosvani, but Chengwu was extremely good, and Brett Chynoweth’s debut was, again on short notice, actually very promising.

Kate is an unsympathetic part, she’s Pinkerton’s romantic ideal who suffers under a very harsh blonde wig that’s curled within an inch of its life, and she’s the one who finally removes Butterfly’s son. She’s obviously not thrilled by his insistence on adopting his half-Japanese child, but she’s by God going to make the best of it…and Pinkerton’s going to suffer for it. Laura Tong and Amy Harris made Kate likeable in Melbourne.

In Sydney, Amber Scott’s Kate was just so beautiful and so affected by what she and her husband were doing, and Lana Jones’ was much softer than on opening night in Melbourne.

Madeleine Eastoe does heartbreaking so very well, but I was in tears at every performance: the climax of Un bel dí started me off every time, then Butterfly’s dance with her new suitor being mirrored by a dream or memory-Pinkerton, then Suzuki realising Pinkerton and Kate are going to take the child, then Butterfly realising it, then Butterfly’s absolute despair and suicide…

Other things: the five year old boys playing Sorrow had a lot to remember in terms of timing and placement and did jolly well, Paul de Masson as Butterfly’s elderly suitor (don’t ham it up so much please Matthew Donnelly), the scene where Butterfly’s bridesmaids rise through swirling smoke and criss-cross stage rear (Dana Stephensen really did glide), Orchestra Victoria under the direction of Kenneth Young did a wonderful job, as did the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under both Ormsby Wilkins and Tom Woods, Pinkerton’s friends Ben Davis and Andrew Wright (or as I like to call them the Glamour Twins), Butterfly and Suzuki’s silhouette fan performance (but please remember the audience is not blind and Shadow Butterfly should be the same height and have the same hair length as Real Butterfly), the simply gorgeous costumes, Pinkerton’s friends Jarryd Madden and Brett Simon, marriage officials Jacob Sofer and Brett Chynoweth, the stunning opening behind the gauze…

On a more critical note, Julie da Costa was never entirely convincing as Butterfly’s mother, the Sorrow boys remembered their timing and placement but didn’t really act much (but hey they’re five year olds!), all the flish flash at the wedding scene was so much superfluity and not always very well done, the American girls’ scenes are terribly contrived and the costumes appalling (dance-length frocks sure, but so gaudy they seemed to have come from a completely different milieu than that intended, and the day frocks looked more like Gaiety Girls of the 1890s), and the mime in all cases needs clarification/refinement.

The Nutcracker

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Oh my lordy. It’s been a month and only now am I sitting down to write about What I Did In December. I flew up to Sydney on Friday 3rd for the opening night of The Australian Ballet‘s Sydney season of Sir Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker, which was also the night on which the Telstra Ballet Dancer Award winner would be announced. Amy Harris was named winner of the $5,000 People’s Choice Award (her second!) and the joint winners of the $20,000 main event were Dana Stephensen and Ty King-Wall. Sponsors came to the party and instead of splitting the prize money, both were given $20,000. Very exciting waiting for the announcement, actually wanted all the nominees to win, was completely unsurprised by King-Wall being named, and delighted Stephensen shared the award.

Opening night casting: Lucinda Dunn and Robert Curran as Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince – sublime! Just a totally wonderful grand pas de deux, so glad I made the effort to get to Sydney as Curran hadn’t danced the role in Melbourne (where I saw 5 performances).

Memory standouts: Daniel Gaudiello and Kevin Jackson (both newly-promoted to Principal Artist) as Clara’s Dancing Partner, the amazing and ever-changing face makeup on Drosselmeyer’s Assistant (yes that’s Chengwu Guo and Tzu-Chao Chou I’m talking about), some wonderful Harlequins and Columbines (Ben Davis, Juliet Burnett), Kevin Jackson as the Prince, Snow Fairies Laura Tong and Lana Jones (also a new Principal Artist), Rose Fairies Amber Scott and Lana Jones, “Tea” divertissement danced by a certain pair of Chinese dancers, the Waltz of the Flowers, the Snowflakes and Snow Fairy every time, the scene in the forest where the Nutcracker doll turns into the Prince, King Rat (or Mouse) as danced by Rudy Hawkes and Ben Davis, Mirlitons who were always delightful even if it wasn’t individual dancers’ preferred roles, Clara as danced by Reiko Hombo, Miwako Kubota, and Leanne Stojmenov…

I made a second trip to Sydney on 15th December, watching 5 more performances, 3 from standing room (take your comfiest shoes and a bottle of water!), the last of which saw Madeleine Eastoe partnered by Chi Cao of Birmingham Royal Ballet, known to Australian audiences as “adult Li” in the film Mao’s Last Dancer.

Wow. My new favourite bit of the whole ballet is the scene in the pine forest where the Nutcracker Doll becomes the Prince, and Clara’s journey really begins.

The Royal Ballet in Cuba

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Documentary made by William Trevitt and Michael Nunn (ex-Royal Ballet, aka the Ballet Boyz). Carlos Acosta and the Royal Ballet dance in Havana, Cuba.

100 dancers, 50 backstage staff, costumes, sets, lights, 2 sprung dance floors, a generator…and they had trouble getting into the containers! Marianela Nunez went down with swine flu. Jonathan Cope performed 2 years into his retirement. A violinist performed on stage with his 1735-vintage instrument, which has a beautiful rich tone. Acosta danced Manon with Tamara Rojo.

Rojo has some kind of physical therapy and the fact that her leg is manipulated in a sweep from normal through 90 degrees to 180 degrees, i.e. with the ankle by her ear, without any apparent strain or discomfort, amazes me.

Roberto the barber is a huge ballet fan…”Ballet’s so popular here that people sometimes queue for weeks to see it.” The amazing queue for Manon tickets…”Ballet is culture. It makes us happy.” Why don’t we have that attitude in Australia?!

Opening night: Wayne McGregor’s Chroma: flesh-coloured singlets and pants, bare stage with large rectangular opening at the back, groups with urgent-sounding music, a pas de deux with more limpid piano music…Dyad 1929 (Australian Ballet) has given me some idea of McGregor’s work.

Rupert Pennefather has a back injury, so 45 year old Jonathan Cope comes out of retirement to dance Frederick Ashton’s A Month in the Country. I wish we could see it in Australia! Not perhaps with the incredibly beaky but still very watchable Cope, mostly known to me through film, often with Darcey Bussell…gorgeous music, Chopin arranged by John Lanchbery. I’d love to see the full ballet.

The final section of the evening is to be a dazzling array of excerpts…Acosta and Rojo in Le Corsaire…that silly feathered and jewelled headband! Then the generator fails. The lighting setup has to be reduced. Bits and pieces I find difficulty in recognising as I don’t know the Royal Ballet’s repertoire that well…something with 3 boys in white shirts and black trousers plus the aforementioned violinist, a bit that looks like Romeo and Juliet, something Eastern-costumed (La Bayadere?), a Giselle solo? Rojo and Cuban Joel Carreno in the Don Quixote pas de deux – she holds an arabesque en pointe and gets cheers from the audience, Cuban ballerina Viengsay Valdes and Thiago Soares in the Odile pas de deux from Swan Lake – again rapturously received by the audience.

Finally Acosta and Rojo in “what the entire country’s been waiting for”: Le Corsaire. The screams at his entry, indeed his every move, are amazing. Costume does her no favours, unlike the gorgeous black lace one for Kitri. His is more straight-leg trousers than the baggy pants I associate with this piece – and the waistband’s so tight it looks like his tummy’s bulging and he has love-handles (which he so doesn’t). But my golly gosh! Athleticism and artistry! She looks awfully tense the whole time though.

The dancers are bussed, still in makeup and costume, to the main square where they take bows in front of thousands of Havaneros (?) who’ve been watching on a video screen. Acosta, who’s put a hoodie vest on over his string almost-top, thanks the crowd.