British Liaisons: The Australian Ballet Flowers From Its British Roots

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The Australian Ballet dances Ninette de Valois' Checkmate: The Black Queen (Miwako Kubota, front centre) cuts past the knights to the Red King (Colin Peasley, back centre). Photo: Jess Bialek.

British Liaisons
Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre: 7 May 2011
continues in Sydney until 21 May, in Melbourne from 25 August – 3 September 2011

The Australian Ballet
The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
conductor – Michael Lloyd

choreography – Sir Kenneth MacMillan
staged by Julie Lincoln
music – Dmitri Shostakovich, Piano Concerto No. 2 op. 102
costume and set design – Jürgen Rose
original lighting design – William Akers

piano – Duncan Salton
I. Allegro –
Reiko Hombo
Tzu-Chao Chou

II. Andante –
Juliet Burnett
Andrew Killian

III. Allegro –
Dana Stephensen

After the Rain
choreography – Christopher Wheeldon
staged by Jason Fowler
music – Arvo Pärt, Tabula Rasa 1st movement “Ludus” and Spiegel im Spiegel
costume design – Holly Hynes
lighting design – Mark Stanley

violin – Aubrey Murphy and Catalin Ungureanu
piano – Duncan Salton
Robyn Hendricks
Rudy Hawkes
Leanne Stojmenov
Andrew Wright
Juliet Burnett
Jarryd Madden

choreography – Ninette de Valois
music – Arthur Bliss
costume and set design – E. McKnight Kauffer
original lighting design – William Akers

Black Queen – Amy Harris
Red Knight – Ben Davis
Red King – Colin Peasley
Red Queen – Natasha Kusen

Ballet is very much an international art form, its artists often experience wanderlust. It was Catherine de Medici who brought Renaissance Italian balletto from Florence to Henri II’s court and encouraged theatrical dance there. In the following centuries, Louis XIV defined the French national ballet style a gave it a permanent home. Then over four generations, four french choreographers, Didelot (Pushkin was a fan), Perrot (Giselle), Saint-Léon (Coppélia) and Petipa (Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake with Lev Ivanov, and Nutcracker), each left France after completing their training, for St. Petersburg to do wonderful things for the Imperial Ballet. In the 20th Century, to finish a satisfying historical palindrome (see Margot Fonteyn’s book The Magic of Dance), four Russian dancers and choreographers immigrated to the west: Fokine, Massine, Nijinksy and Balanchine, all thanks in part to Serge Diaghilev. They, and other Russians traveled beyond Europe; Pavlova indefatigably spread her art over the globe, reaching Australia. This sloshing back and forth of Europe’s creative ballet talent kept the national styles fresh when they tended toward artificiality without destroying or making uniform their unique characters, often by sharing foreign folk dancing and inspiring a rediscovery of the local vernacular.

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.

Concerto was composed by Kenneth McMillan in 1966 for the Deutsche Oper Ballett in West Germany and takes Shostakovic’s second piano concerto. The first movement consists of playful exchanges between a couple and the corps de ballet, dancing in very tight formation. The setting is a simple, abstract tri-tone, the costumes are either a warm pumpkin-yellow, a cooler sunny yellow or bright clear red. Reiko Hombo and Tzu-Chao Chou danced with fast precision and strength. The movements are classical, though the choreography uses them unconventionally with the modern music. The partnering is occasional so the two mostly dance freely, but with a certain rapport. The corps de ballet felt the ebullience of the music strongly, their collective movements suggesting sometimes clockwork, sometimes a typewriter, definitely something analog.

A different couple danced the second (slow) movement, pianist Duncan Salton and Maestro Michael Lloyd carried a clear throbbing rhythm which supported the undercurrent of energy in the couple’s slow and tender pas de deux. They were very gentle with each other and Mr. Salton’s playing sympathized deeply with the soloists and the subtlety of the choreography.  Juliet Burnett’s soft port à bras and very expressive plastic hands showed an understanding of the choreography’s earth-bound but still very demanding graceful movements. The choreography has the two dancers touch occasionally for no practical supporting or lifting purpose, and uses these to very moving effect, also offering an opportunity for dramatic acting.


The Australian Ballet's corps de ballet in Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Concerto. Photo: Jess Bialek.


The last movement has no pas de deux, but a solo dancer. Dana Stephensen’s leaps had a relaxed, even suave appearance, giving her ‘character’ a nonchalance which suited the music and provided a nice contrast to the earlier allegro and andante movements’ respectively fast and slow dense activity. Finally the two couples from the earlier movements come back and make intricate patterns with the corps de ballet, the five soloists weaving through the corps’ ranks, which must have looked marvelous from the dress circle.

After the Rain (composed in 2005 for the New York City Ballet, a Yankee liaison too!) begins with three couples performing the same movement — the man supporting the woman who leans forward and lifts her leg in a kind of slow rond de jambe en l’air. The lighting is low and gray with stark spotlights on the dancers who wore steel-gray tights with tight gray-blue tops. Arvo Pärt’s music follows something like a double theme-and-variations form, where each variation is a very slight change on the previous, making the general development of the piece gradual, while the two themes alternating, one fast, one slow. Likewise the dancers alternate slow, expansive, lyrical movements with very high elevation and strong support from the male partners, with faster more athletic movements which cover the whole stage, though their elevation is no less. Sometimes the couples move together in unison, sometimes they follow pairwise in a fugal pattern. The choreography and setting don’t give a sense of the organic, though the music, which was played delicately with warmth and beauty, seems to suggest this. The violins, one playing a strong, slightly metallic tone, the other softer, more subdued but not recessive, and the cool prepared piano like bells in the fog, drive the movement rhythmically. The ballet progresses steadily but almost insensibly and near the end of this first part, the two dancers for the second part appear in their new costumes, offering a kind of climax, the man bare chested with pale gray tights, the woman in a pink leotard.


Artists of The Australian Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain, first part. Photo: Jess Bialek.


There is a vulnerability to them in this second part, not just from the contrasting costumes, hues and lighting which becomes warmer and subdued, but their pas de deux is so tender, close, unreserved and raw that it gives also a strong sense of privacy, they do not seem threatened in their vulnerability, but rather innocent and safe, as if they are the last two people on earth. It has a very different tone to the slow pas de deux of Concerto. The change from the first part is well suited by the musical choice, the entirely different Spiegel im Spiegel is very simple, but finely balanced monophonic music, where almost all the expression is in the tone of the playing of the instruments. In this second part the dancing becomes more dramatic and less obviously technical. Juliet Burnett moved with suppleness, continually from the limbering back bends with Jarryd Madden raising her very gently up to the slow turns and tricky lifts, one with her standing in arabesque on his knee. The pas de deux ends with the dancers letting eachother down gently into a repose in each others arms.

Katherine Sorley Walker in her excellent ballet biography of Ninette de Valois (Ninette de Valois : Idealist Without Illusions, 1998 ed.) gives a detailed description and history of the last and oldest piece in this triple bill, Checkmate. It premièred at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1937 on her Sadler’s Wells company’s first foreign tour, sharing the theatre with René Blum’s well established touring company the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. The idea of making a ballet out of a chess game came from Arthur Bliss, a keen chess fan who had had a conversation at a cocktail party about ideas for using games for new ballets, and chess’ all-powerful queen was mentioned with particular interest. I suppose the Diaghilev-Nijinsky-Debussy Jeux (1913), based on a tennis game, could be thought of as a precedent. De Valois said that she knew nothing of chess, but took to the idea, Bliss explaining enough of the rules, strategies and openings to give her a formal idea of the choreography and characterization and also the libretto. The French and also later the English took to the novel ballet at once and so the Sadler’s Wells got its international name. Ms. Walker also mentions that De Valois “loved to recall” that Toscanini called it his favorite ballet. De Valois staged Checkmate in Australia in 1986 and donated the rights to the Australian Ballet in honor of Robert Helpmann who contributed much to the its original success in his creation of the Red King’s character. He danced this part in the Australian restaging, and it was his last rôle before he died a few months later. Colin Peasley, who returns to play the Red King in the current production, danced character rôles alongside Helpmann in the 70’s and 80’s.

There is no question that Checkmate ages very well, partly I believe because it is epic, though it would have to be one of the shortest epics in western culture. Very tight and concise, it manages to convey so much so quickly, most of it between the lines, as it were, while remaining uncluttered and appearing at the surface plot-driven but so simple and ancient in story. It is absorbing and suspenseful and a very complete and integrated piece of theatre. All artistic elements share a definite and unique sensibility. The costumes are very inventive and structural (though do not seem to restrict movement at all) with the best of medieval and modern design, and the set is rather symbolist, the backdrop reminded me of Liberty’s modern fabric prints of the 1950s.

A prologue shows a tableau of the Players: Love, a woman with short curly platinum hair wearing a turquoise cloak, a sort of modern stylized medieval samite costume, lunging toward the chess board. Death poses sinisterly at the other side in a heavy red and black cloak and a mask with a jutting visor. Death takes black, Love red. The music is highly dramatic and portends the end of the world and on a rich dissonant chord, he pulls off a glove to reveal a skeleton hand.

The Players leave the stage and the pieces assemble. The corps de ballet come on as the Red Pawns, young and enthusiastic and blithe. The Bishops are pious and aloof, the Rooks stately but hawkish and militant, wearing hoods covering their entire head except for a slit for the eyes. The knights are sprightly, gallant and youthful, and as their counterparts in the game are the shape of horse heads without a rider, so these knights seem not entirely human but part animal, and this is reflected in their galloping dance. Knights from literature and history really aren’t wholly human, all gallantry and manners in court but clad in steel they devalue life when sallying forth. The Red King is old and dottery on his young Queen’s arm. She is dainty, always en pointe, making quick small turns. There is no black king in the ballet, but the Black Queen and her pieces now come on. After meeting her, the Red Knight dances a passionate solo mazurka, full of energy and exuberance, with some ambition but tempered by innocence and naïvety.

The Black Queen and the Red Knight dance together, she seems as much attracted as seductive, a bit more than plain artfulness. She drops her black handkerchief for him, and the Red Knight falls in love with her. Then the first real moves of the game take place: the four knights dance in a symmetrical square, one at each corner, they are chivalrous but the joust is inconclusive — one gets the sense that this is a very long game of chess —, so the Black Queen comes out aggressively (see photo at top), attacking the Red King. His Queen interposes herself nobly and loyally, bravely staring down the Black Queen, but the Black Knights prevail, carrying the Red Queen off the stage. It’s then all down to the Red Knight to take the Black Queen in response. Their dance alternates romance and agitation. He finally outmaneuvers her and she calmly kneels beneath his sword, but his sense of honor and conscience prevent him from finishing her. He turns to his king, kneels and drops his head. The king is distraught, not really angry but cannot comprehend why his knight would betray him. Meanwhile the Black Queen takes the knight’s sword and with her back to the audience brings it down on him. The checkmate of the Red King now inevitable, Love and Death come back to the stage and she resigns in a deep and dramatic curtsey.

Although the game is over, the ballet continues until the checkmate. The other red pieces come together to form a human bier to carry off the Red Knight, leaving the King alone. The Black Queen approaches and retreats threateningly with strong angular lines and simple but unpredictable movements. The Black Pawns close in carrying staffs, crossing and grasping them at either end, much like the traditional Scottish sword dance, enclosing the King in this cage while he staggers frightened about the stage trying to escape — it still seems to take many moves before the final checkmate. In an imposing grouping in the centre of the stage, the Queen, raised up by her subordinates, brings her two swords down on King.

The dancers all shone in their parts and were very much on the same wavelength, as a perfect mixture of all the primary paint colors makes black, so their harmony made for a very tightly woven piece of theatre, which seemed in a way understated at the surface, no one element shouting out too loudly, but this drew one in to the more profound workings. Surely Carl Jung would have had a field day with it had he seen it, the four protagonists no doubt representing the four functions of the psyche in his theories. In her book, Katherine Sorley Walker offers and quotes from the many interpretations of Checkmate. There is clearly a parallel with the contemporaneous build up to a second world war. Indeed, it is interesting not so much to compare academically, but to hold side by side this ballet with Roland Petit’s first ballets from the other side of the Channel which immediately followed the War, especially Le Rendez-vous. The tragic moments are similar though de Valois doesn’t seem to feel a need to use the ‘choque’ of Petit and Jean Cocteau. She also once mentioned fate, that the dancers should move as if by fate, under forces larger than themselves. Her only offered optimistic view of Checkmate was as a fall of an old order and beginning of a new. Perhaps there is a parallel here with Parsifal, though I found the Red King a little more pathetic than Amfortas. It did seem like a long game of chess, so Love certainly put up stiff resistance and the Red King didn’t give up his throne until the very last moment. I think there is more to the ballet than a tragic expression of destructive evil, for chess is a nonviolent game — the exercise of logic is pleasurable and the pieces are “captured” rather than “killed,” as King Arthur says in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King “My God thou hast forgotten me in my death: / Nay — God my Christ — I pass but shall not die.”

In Idylls of the King, Camelot is full of virtue and gallantry, knights and ladies choosing to do good deeds (albeit sometimes very violent ones) to create civilization in a rough, distorted world. But their edifice is unable to stand up to the strongest human feelings — their great capacity to love, especially the triangle of “the blameless king” Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, being their very undoing when jealousies, mistrust and misunderstanding or their very virtue, innocence and trusting credulity write their fall into their fate. I think ancient British lore is very much part of Checkmate, the fulcrum turning the story is reminiscent also of the Battle of Malden where in 991 AD Beorhtnoth, Duke of Essex, granted his cunning Viking opponent’s request for leave to cross a natural causeway so that they could fight on fairer terms, out of an undue sense of chivalry. Beorhtnoth lost the battle and his life, but a poem was written about him, some of which survives (and after which J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a kind of dramatic epilogue in The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son). A case where history, or at least art, remembers the defeated. Checkmate‘s Red Knight seems more understandable and forgivable than Beorhtnoth, when he falls in love with the ruthless Black Queen and refuses to kill her.

De Valois is able somehow to express in a way which defies analysis all different kinds of love in a short space — the Pawns’ camaraderie and wide circle of friendship, the blood lust of the Rooks, the pious love of the Bishops and the King, the young loyal Queen’s love for the old King, the young star-crossed love of the Red Knight for the Black Queen, the male friendship between the two Red Knights (it is the Second Red Knight who picks up and gives to the First the Queen’s handkerchief), and other more subtle relationships.

The close, sympathetic relationship of set, costume, choreography and music makes them inextricable from the whole, and creates a very real and absorbing sub-subworld (or tertiary world?). The marriage of the intellectual and the emotional, perhaps nowadays more usually expressed as a dichotomy, here is very close and the two seem inseparable. Partly this comes from the way chess’ rules and logic are so naturally integrated with the choreography and characterization and how de Valois carefully and infrequently breaks these rules to support the drama and avoid undermining the characters’ verisimilitude. So it is important that the Australian Ballet dancers shared the same understanding, taking it all seriously and having a sense of gravity, while lending support to the naturalistic aspect of the choreography.  It is a modernist piece of art, but is also in a sense a Gothic Ballet, in the end very much its own animal.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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