When John Cranko came to England from South Africa in 1946 at the age of 19 to learn at the Sadler’s Wells School, Ninette de Valois recognized and watered his talent, putting him to work the same year creating ballets for her Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet. She gave him opportunities and encouraged him to create at a time when she herself, though an excellent and very thoughtful choreographer in either a modern or the traditional styles, found herself with less and less time while seeing to her companies, schools and dancers and artists. De Valois made him resident choreographer of the company for the 1950 season. Cranko’s earlier work seems to show his comedic bent, e.g. Pineapple Pole (1950), and in his collaboration with Benjamin Britten in Prince of the Pagodas (1957), though by 1958 showed his full dramatic sense in creating his own version of Romeo and Juliet for Milan, which is now in many companies’ repertoires. In 1960, he left England to direct and choreograph the Württemberger Staatstheaterballett in Stuttgart, though only 33 years old, after remounting Prince of the Pagodas. His dramatic sense and keenly observed characterization, his talent for telling a story led him on to ‘adapt’ to, perhaps more to metamorphose into ballet, the literary giants, finding inspiration in unexpected places: Pushkin-Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin (Onegin, 1965) and Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1969).
With the Evening Star just about to set, hanging a little above a Harbour Bridge pylon, and, by the second interval, a waning gibbous moon rising through a back-lit bank of cloud, so the Sydney season of the Australian Ballet opens, with three new short ballets. They cover a broad range, like three points of a very large triangle, showing some of the versatility of the company. The Narrative of Nothing as the name implies is an abstract ballet, mostly. The Australian Ballet along with the BBC and the Stockholm Symphony Orchestra, has commissioned from Australian composer Brett Dean “Fire Music“, a new score specially for this ballet, and the music and lighting contribute almost as major a part as the dancing.
Bonachela’s new creation begins with calm, silent (without even music) gesturing from the whole company gathered on stage. The gestures seem as organized and complex as a sign language but are not really comprehensible except for a gist, at least not until later, a bit like when a (wild) parrot lands on your balcony railing and starts chattering to you, very slightly reproachful when you don’t give the proper response in the same language. For the first half, the dancers wear plain gray body stockings of varying length with vivid lime green zippers up the back (see photo), almost as if they were wind up toys or soft animals with music boxes. The scene gives way to a more frenetic one with unsettled, fraught music, more electronic sounds, sometimes recalling a jackhammer, or thunder, or like some science fictional machine. Even where the music sounds a bit video gamish and repetitive, the choreography manages to retain its humanity, though the movements can be combative — the high sudden kicks give a little jolt of comic bookishness and though this movement is used too often so its effect is diluted, the dancing manages to veer away from falling into any such mundane tendency. In fact, the piece has much more to it generally than these stylized fights, as alarming and sensational as they are. The movements are rarely naturalistic, only in brief lingering gestures or flashes — a reach towards the other partner, a quarter roll prostrate on the floor, a weightier dropping movement of despair or just release or what have you, or letting the other partner, both man and woman at different times, provide all of the support. The photos here give a very good feel of the work, though it is not so posed as they might lead one to think; theses “poses” are fleeting. Where there is a clichéd gesture — an unsubtle one-shoulder shrug, a splayed crouch, one of those exaggerated martial arts-style high kicks — it is very brief and there is so much going on at once in the multiple groups of dancers so often on the stage, each has their own steps and movements in the detailed and intricate choreography.
Parody as a technique of satire ought to suit theatrical dance well. Irish poets, known as some of the greatest masters of this form, in imitating and reversing the meter of their victim’s poems in order to devastate them are said to have used the same technique as Russian witches: “they walk quietly behind their victim, exactly mimicking his gate; then when in perfect sympathy with him suddenly stumble and fall, taking care to fall soft while he falls hard.”  Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s piece Babel (words) takes on the modern world, in a deliberate mixture of satire, serious avant-garde dance, science fiction, declamatory monologues and something bordering on a three-ring circus.
William Shakespeare, though he did not of course invent all his stories, rather drawing them from history or myth, makes them seem like his in his vivid tellings. His characters gain real personalities by virtue of the dense poetry but also from their actions and behavior in the plays and the strong linkages of cause, motivation, effect, imagery and expressive action from foot to foot, line to line, scene to scene and act to act give the plays strong coherence through the internal logics, whether ‘real’, poetical, linguistic or dramatic. In a phrase, he had a sense of theater, he magically created real worlds, not just existing in his private imagination, but in seemingly solid words and acting which create in the theater believable atmospheres of battle, or forest serene or sinister, or anything else from any part of the world. Perhaps most of all the stories we grant Shakespeare possession of that of Romeo and Juliet. Ballet has a history of borrowing Shakespeare’s pieces, though it may seem self-defeating to leave the Bard’s words and take only the story, many are successful as theater in their own right, perhaps because they avoid a direct translation into mime and movement rather taking across the essence of their drama and characters.
The Merry Widow as a ballet was invented by the Australian Ballet and it has their spirit written all over it: irreverence without sarcasm or cynicism, joie de vivre and any feelings of desperation generally surmountable. It was Robert Helpmann’s brainchild, the Australian actor and dancer who got his launch in the 1930’s in Ninette de Valois’ Sadler’s Wells company becoming a very fine dancer especially in the character and demi-character rôles and a legendary Shakespearean actor too. The idea to make the famous operetta into a ballet came in 1975 when Helpmann was the Artistic Director and the Australian Ballet was only 13 years old and in a bit of a financial pickle. The Merry Widow on the one hand was created to be popular and bring in some money from the box office and succeeded in this, but it was really a very ambitious and visionary idea for it was the company’s first new full length ballet, a genre Ninette de Valois, speaking from experience, emphasized as very important for a growing company to undertake — in the full ‘three act’ ballet in the imperial Russian and earlier French tradition a company must tell a single story over an entire evening. The way Hynd, Heeley and Lanchbery went about putting the idea on the stage goes far beyond mere populism which they knew wouldn’t have helped the young company at all.
The boronia and the pink eriostemon are at the height of their bloom, most of the wattles are just finishing, the parrots, lorikeets and galahs are busy eating and nesting while the magpies are belligerent again and the air has taken on that warm, sweet, dusty polliniferous fragrance of spring. At least it has in this neck of the woods around 33 degrees South, but it isn’t so unlike May in New England. It was when these times came around my piano teacher in school would drop everything to play something with sharps — nothing too hairy, G or D or A major, say. As spring suggests sharps, seeming to say ‘up,’ so does ballet. In the classical technique one seems to dance always thinking ‘up’: relevé, sauté, piqué, even in a simple run across the stage or studio, the feet press up, up, up. Even standing in place, the hips tip up and the body seems to lift buoyantly. Even coming down from a jump, the feet and legs push up as the dancer lands. A dancer maintains a respectful and gentle relationship with the ground, as the surfer to the sea. Naturally, it is spring the Australian Ballet announces its new season and we turn our thoughts to a new year of ballet, but those already looking for wildflowers in the Bush need not turn their heads far.
Stilettos, ready! To keep the audience entertained, the postwar French choreographer Roland Petit resorted to high jinks, low jinks, whatever jinks he could summon. He’s a one-man, nonstop coup de theatre. Petit’s women, long-legged and aloof, aren’t asked to be graceful so much as dangerous and strange: they slither, prance and stamp, opening and closing their knees in insectoid twitches and mechanical jerks. It’s as if they are perched on high-heeled toes. The men must earn advanced degrees in acrobatics (with post-graduate liniment for their abused muscles) to perform Petit’s Cirque de Soleil cartwheels, tumbling, and feats of strength (such as forming a human bridge for the ballerina to stretch out on — at least she doesn’t walk over it in stilettos). These antics were on display in a triple bill mounted by the ever-ebullient English National Ballet, the romping younger sibling of the Royal Ballet, which soberly covets its right of primogeniture.