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.
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.
Resident Australian Ballet choreographer Stephen Baynes just in the act of choosing Fauré’s Requiem mass for a new ballet for the (Australian) Federation Centenary in 2001 clearly stated his concept. He bravely steered to a huge and personal topic in creating a ballet around death with that intimate choral music, and his keen understanding of the music and inventive choreography insure that neither the dancing nor the musical elements step on the other’s toes, as it were. On the contrary the close marriage of choreography and music, though of course not written with the slightest intention for the ballet, sets it as an excellent example of ‘old’ music though already near perfect, benefiting from the added dancing, the choreography finding new depths, no deeper or shallower than the music’s alone, but different depths found only in theatrical arts. Indeed, Stephen Baynes’ ballet introduced me to new approaches to Fauré’s music. Beyond Bach, the other ballet in this all-Baynes double bill showing only in Melbourne, is powerful enough to stand alongside Requiem with neither overshadowing the other. It is almost abstract and shows a deep love for history and J. S. Bach.
The Australian Ballet has of course a long history of commissioning new works, often from Australian choreographers. For the last several years, the Company has encouraged this activity under the ‘Bodytorque’ moniker — five dancers from the company with an interest in choreography are given the opportunity to create a short (15-20 minute) ballet with dancers from the company, which they produce for the general public in a smaller theatre (smaller than the opera house, anyway) — a safe enough environment for experimentation. We balletomanes get the opportunity to see fresh creativity and serious, experimental modern ballet choreography and dancing, as well as what the future holds for the larger national company. This year’s program is certainly varied in inspiration and execution even though, or perhaps because the scale of the productions is small. Some have plots and some have concepts, more like ‘interpretive dance,’ if I can use that term without a negative connotation.
Australia and Britain have particularly close artistic ties, cooperatively sharing artists, as is well documented in the British Liaisons program, along with fascinating pictures. For example, the Irish Briton Ninette de Valois, who helped found the Royal Ballet, sent expertise to many countries in the form of dancers and teachers from her company, Peggy van Praagh in Australia’s case, and she also traveled much herself, for example to Turkey and the Yugoslav nations to help set up their national ballet companies. De Valois also gave Robert Helpmann opportunities to use his acting and dancing talent after he came to England from Australia as a young man. Not mentioned in the program, de Valois in 1928 commissioned a score from the avant garde Australian composer Elsie Hamilton for her ballet The Scorpions of Ysit, though the original failed at the time, it would be interesting to restore it. A good 21st Century example is Peter Wright and John MacFarlane’s (an Englishman and Scot respectively) Nutcracker, which is also now in the Australian Ballet’s repetoire. In any case, the three ballets in this program, all from British choreographers, give a much more articulate description of modern artistic collaboration with Britain and show off its diversity. In addition, this program offers an opportunity to hear well played 20th century music that is not often heard.