Three of this country's best dance critics of the last 20-odd years have all worked for The Australian. Alan Brissenden in Adelaide, Robin Grove and then Lee Christofis in Melbourne. Grove went to The Age, but lost his mojo. (Editing, no doubt.) Christofis recently replaced Michelle Potter as curator of dance at the National Library in Canberra. Their gain, our loss. (The New York Public Library's gain, too. Michelle is now heading the Dance Division there.)
Of the three, the one I most admire -- I guess -- is Grove. His ballet reviews in the late 80s and early 90s were a revelation to me. I'm sure they frustrated the living crap out of the Australian Ballet. With scrupulous care and tact, he would pen these mini masterpieces of post-structural criticism.
He was never so coarse as to liken pointe work to foot binding... but you could just tell
he was thinking it.
Grove was a part of the English Department (now Culture and Communication?) at the University of Melbourne, but his background is in music, as a composer.
I thought of Robin -- and how he might review Graeme Murphy's new take on Firebird
-- while I was watching it on Friday night. (Firebird
had its premiere in Adelaide, last month, so I'm hoping that Alan's review will be on-line. Haven't looked yet. I always finish my own before thinking about checking out anyone else's opinion.) [UPDATE: It's here
Some dance, of course, is easier to review than others. Ballet, theatre dance, story ballets. "Hammering out porridge" says Alison
, bravely tackling the harder stuff in the repertoire.
As a general rule, reviewing dance is a bit like using a computer to translate English to Russian and back. Remember the ancient jokes? Input: "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" and you get back "the vodka is good but the meat is rotten." (Puzzlingly, this [doubtless apocryphal] story was always used as proof that machines were stupid, not that programmers were! Or that translation was, on the whole, a pretty bloody futile exercise!)
Sometimes, though, the effort of translating what you see on stage -- or hear in the concert hall -- into words, cracks the code. Betrays the origins. I say this a lot, privately. It's very easy to look smart as a critic. The very effort of moving something from one lobe to another, from the parts of the cortex devoted to sensing to the bits devoted to conceptualising and expressing in words, helps you learn about the thing you've been passively watching. [Well, it helps me
at least. Other people need to do
, to learn. Me, I just need to write.]
Graeme Murphy has a knack of reworking classics in a way that gives young dancers a way into the story. He gives them an emotional scaffolding. He turned Swan Lake
from a musty piece about doppelgangers and an evil genius who 'forces' the Prince to hook up with the 'ho' into a realistic story of betrayal. A love triangle.
In my Herald Sun review, published Tuesday, I claimed that Murphy had turned the Firebird
story into one of coercion and date rape rather than mere capture.Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson in Graeme Murphy's Firebird
(production photographs ⓒ Alex Makayev, used with permission)
In the first cast, Lana Jones takes the title role; it's a career-defining performance. Jones is not an obvious choice for this role. And, indeed, her body -- her training -- resists the jerky choreography. Her flighty behaviour, her mad pecking, is betrayed by the flow and grace of her extending leg. And Murphy, I feel certain, capitalises on the tension created by putting his spiky choreography on her Balanchine body and her refined classical technique.
Semiotically, and narratively, this is dead wrong. Misleading at the very least. The firebird is captive, yes, but she's not trapped in a different form, unlike "the enslaved" souls around her. (Interestingly, Murphy and his collaborators Janet Vernon and Leon Krasenstein have made this ballet's evil genius Kostchei a reptile, a kind of lizard with a rattesnake tail. Egg shells are a recurrent design motif in this and many other productions of Firebird. This Kostchei is just another kind of hatchling.) Having said that, Jones's performance liminally establishes the changeling theme of the ballet. And, in that sense, it is highly effective.
The other part of Friday's performance that fascinated me -- made me wish Robin was still writing, or that I was better at this game -- was Kevin Jackson's performance as Ivan Tsarevich, the dude who captures the bird, falls for a trapped girl and frees the enslaved... with a little help from the bird, his Ariel.
Jackson's/Tsarevich's treatment of the firebird -- on Friday night -- was shocking. He swaggered on with the assurance of ruler, of a hunter, of a man. I daresay that Peter Singer would add to that list "of a human." Jackson's/Tsarevich's abuse of the firebird was, simultaneously, speciesist, sexist and classist. The firebird was his for the taking. For the plucking.
Now, you might very well wonder if I'm overreading here. (Or overreaching!) But, two things... Firstly, when Jackson/Tsarevich meets seven of the enslaved, immediately after he has manhandled the quivering bird, he's suddenly all boyish smiles... like a shearer in a Big Brother household. Cock of the proverbial walk. Yeah, sure, they flirt their frocks off, competing for his attention/attentions, but -- rather suddenly -- he's no longer the Royal hunter.
Secondly, I saw this cast again, last night, and Jackson's performance has been pulled right back. Maybe it was considered a wee bit too shocking. Shame, really. It was one of those rare moments in which ballet deconstructed itself. This Firebird brought its own butterball basting.
That's enough for one posting I reckon. Except to say that Petrouchka, on the same billing, is a mighty piece of theatre, it will be appreciated and adored by young and old, balletomane and first-timer, any kind of theatre- or concert-goer.
Leanne Stojmenov, Luke Ingham and Marc Cassidy
in Petrouchka (click on the image to see full size)
The Australian Ballet hasn't done a Petrouchka since the 1970s. They've borrowed the sets and costumes from Birmingham Royal Ballet for this season. It's a knock-out performance, dazzling at every level. Marc Cassidy (in cast 1) and Daniel Gaudiello (cast 3) are bloody remarkable in the title role. As is Amber Scott as The Ballerina in the third cast. Scott, by the way, turned in a superb performance in the first cast (of five!) in Les Sylphides.
Australian Ballet's Firebird and other legends triple bill (Les Sylphides, Petrouchka and Firebird) is at the State Theatre, the Arts Centre, Melbourne, until March 24 with Orchestra Victoria. Then Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, from April 2-22 with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra.
Firebird. Concept and choreography by Graeme Murphy. Creative associate: Janet Vernon. Set and costume design by Leon Krasenstein. Lighting design by Damien Cooper. [Firebird uses the 1945 version of Stravinsky's The Firebird Suite.]
Labels: Australian Ballet, criticism, Graeme Murphy, Leon Krasenstein, Robin Grove