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Review 1, 4-10: Casting for Stars
From Australian Ballet, Uneven Dancing in a Cranko Masterpiece
By Suzanne Davidson
Copyright 2003 Suzanne Davidson
SYDNEY -- Had it been
opening a season at Covent Garden or the Palais Garnier, the Australian
Ballet would surely have presented a "Romeo & Juliet" with leading
players in all the principal roles of the John Cranko ballet. So
what does it say about the company's attitude to its Sydney market
(its largest and most enthusiastic at home) that opening night at
the Sydney Opera House featured a cast uneven at best, while most
of the premium performers were reserved for the second night? The
decision didn't serve the dancers well, and it didn't serve the
audience well. What was it the King of Siam was fond of saying?
"It's a puzzlement."
Having got that off
my chest, the surprise of the evening was Steven Heathcote's interpretation
of the role of Tybalt. Heathcote's accepted stage persona has mostly
been that of the handsome hero. At last Saturday's Sydney premiere
of "Romeo & Juliet," he became the archetypal, convincing villain.
His interpretation of the frequently one-dimensional Tybalt put
the final seal on his ascendancy, not only in the Australian Ballet,
but in the world of classical ballet, into the list as one of "the
greats." From his first entrance, Heathcote's Tybalt is filled with
unforgiving fury and ugly malevolence, yet without ever degenerating
into melodrama -- a trap that many a younger and lesser dancer has
fallen into when faced with the challenge of this role.
Goldsmith and Steven Heathcote in the Australian Ballet's production
of John Cranko's "Romeo & Juliet." Jeff Busby photo courtesy
But let's start at the
beginning. Playing the Overture under the baton of the company's
new music director and chief conductor, Nicolette Fraillon, the
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra sounded suspiciously like
a symphony orchestra, which was exciting. Unfortunately this quality
didn't continue all the way through the performance, with some surprising
sounds emanating from the wind section at times. Nevertheless, Fraillon
is more at one with the dancers than most conductors of the Australian
Ballet have been of late, and this is a great plus, giving confidence
to those watching, and, no doubt, relief to those performing.
Guest conductor Andrew
Mogrelia lead the orchestra for the second performance. Under his
baton it sounded better on the whole, which could have been a result
of having benefited from another 'go.' Unfortunately. the wind section
still struggled at a couple of dramatic moments.
Cranko first staged
this production of his "Romeo & Juliet" in Stuttgart in 1962, the
same year the Australian Ballet was formed. The late Anne Woolliams,
Cranko's ballet mistress at the time of its creation, introduced
the work into the Australian repertoire when she was the company's
artistic director. Woolliams was recognised as one of the world's
greatest ballet producers, especially of Cranko's works. In her
production of this work, each person on the stage was a real, living,
breathing Veronese. This is very different to a well-trained classical
ballet ensemble of talented young dancers, which is what we have
in the current version of the production, with the result that the
ensemble scenes in general are in danger of looking dated.
The challenge of maintaining
the highest possible standard of classical technique, and then disguising
it in the service of the drama of a performance, is one that separates
a run-of-the-mill performance from an artistic experience. But then
that is what the art of classical ballet is meant to be about. Simone
Goldsmith, the Juliet on the second night, achieves this ideal to
perfection. Her technical command is total and she makes it serve
her art. The result, from the point of view of the audience, is
a highly satisfying artistic experience. And this is only her first
season of playing Juliet! One looks forward to watching her characterization
develop even further.
Over some 50 years of
watching ballets and performing in them, I have seen countless Juliets,
many of them very moving. The partnership of Heathcote and Goldsmith
as Romeo and Juliet worked for me on the same level as Ulanova and
Fadeyechev's had in 1956. That was almost fifty years ago, yet many
of its details are as clear in my mind as if I had watched it yesterday.
In fact, a genuine partnership
between the two leads is probably more important to the success
of this ballet than to most. (Editor's note: For more on this point,
Ts'ao's Flash Review of the Stuttgart Ballet's recent
performances of the same work.) On opening night Lucinda Dunn's
Juliet was a beautiful study of a young girl falling in love unexpectedly
and overwhelmingly. Being an intelligent dancer, Dunn is bound to
grow in the role, especially if she is fortunate enough to happen
on the ideal partner. To me, Robert Curran, who was Dunn's Romeo,
was far more convincing as Tybalt in the Heathcote/Goldsmith cast.
Playing an interesting
'good guy' is far more difficult than holding an audience's attention
as the villain.
Romeo can come across
as a nice boy bewildered by what's going on about him. But Romeo
is in fact a bit of a lad, who goes about town with his mates, Mercutio
and Benvolio, indulging in light-hearted flirtatious adventures
(see the business with Rosaline and her fan). When he sets eyes
on Juliet, however, Romeo suddenly becomes a man absolutely and
unreservedly in love. Few Romeos are able to convey this with sufficient
realism to move us; yet without this sudden transformation, the
dramatic premise upon which the whole structure is built falls down.
In the supporting role
of Mercutio we saw Mathew Lawrence on the first night and Campbell
McKenzie on the second. Lawrence smiles a great deal but lacks the
impish humour inherent in this character. McKenzie is more interesting
as a character, with a nicely judged death scene, but his technique
has become blurred and careless. In fact, surprisingly, both Lawrence
and McKenzie's performances lack clarity and physical power. Matthew
Donnelly's Benvolio in both performances was charming, with a wholesome
persona and a clean technique, dancing true to the choreography.
He also starts and finishes his double tours in a demi-plie, facing
front, a refreshing change these days.
Martyn Fleming's Lord
Capulet was disappointing in that Fleming failed to project the
absolute power of the Head of the Capulets. Lynette Wills's Lady
Capulet was a good study of mother love in Shakespeare's aristocratic
Italy. She displayed regal elegance and hauteur, with the right
amount of indecision when required to "throw her daughter to the
wolves" (in the shape of the hapless Paris) but her reaction to
Juliet's death was unexpectedly flat.
The role of Paris is
generally a pretty thankless one, but on opening night Tristan Message
managed to give him an interesting edge.
The Australian Ballet
has traditionally been known for the excitement and dramatic reality
of its performances. That quality has not changed in the individual
dancers. However, it needs to be harnessed.
Despite having a production
supervisor from Stuttgart, Anne Woolliams's touch is missed. Artistic
director David McAllister has an as yet unsolved problem of finding
someone, perhaps within his own ballet staff, who can bring out
a genuinely dramatic performance from his company as a whole.
It's a mark of Cranko's
genius that, despite the odd individual weakness of characterIzation,
the work as a whole can still move an audience.
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