In its 2019 season – dubbed A Year of Enchantment – The Australian Ballet will perform two new full-length ballets by Australian choreographers Graeme Murphy and Stanton Welch, while Alice Topp has been appointed as the company’s new Resident Choreographer.
TAB principal dancer Ako Kondo. Photograph supplied
In 2018, TAB paid tribute to Murphy with a program of works selected from across his 50-year career simply called Murphy. For the 2019 season, he creates a new full-length ballet based on Oscar Wilde’s famous story The Happy Prince about a golden statue who is moved by the suffering he sees across the city. Befriending a swallow, lost on its way south for the winter, the Prince and the bird give the jewels and gold from the statue to the poor. Murphy will work with theatre director and designer Kim Carpenter to bring a modern twist to the classical tale. Carpenter has previously staged an acclaimed theatre production for children, which his company Theatre of Image premiered in 1993.
TAB Artistic Director David McAllister says that the production has been in development since 2015. Murphy is creating “gorgeous little vignettes” about the struggling characters that the Prince and the swallow help, including the Little Match-girl and the seamstress with the sick child, says McAllister.
“He has also built the relationship between the swallow and the Prince to give it more dance opportunities. So the sparrow has a fascination with a reed, Rita the Reed, who is a beautiful showgirl reed with a whole lot of reedettes, and the sparrow family are like vaudevillians who are flying south to Australia to avoid the winter. In the end, of course, the swallow dies and the Happy Prince gets melted down and they go to paradise – which in Graeme’s mind is actually 1950s Australia, so we’ve got this great thing where he rides in on a surfboard on a big wave and it’s all Bondi Beach circa 1950s, so lots of great Murphyisms!”
The Happy Prince has a specially commissioned score by Christopher Gordon who wrote the music for the films Ladies in Black (now in cinemas), Mao’s Last Dancer and Master and Commander. Having met Murphy during the filming of Mao’s Last Dancer, Gordon wrote the score for Murphy’s 2015 ballet Giselle and the Wraith Queen, created for the Universal Ballet, Korea.
“He did such a beautiful score for Giselle so we are really excited about this,” says McAllister. The Happy Prince premieres in Melbourne in March then comes to Sydney in May.
Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, who has been Artistic Director of Houston Ballet since 2003, will create a new version of Sylvia to a lush score by Léo Delibes (Coppélia). The co-production between the two companies will premiere in Houston in February then play in Melbourne in September and Sydney in November.
TAB Senior Artist Brett Chynoweth. Photograph supplied
First staged as a ballet in Paris in 1876, Frederick Ashton choreographed a popular version for The Royal Ballet in 1952. This is the first time the ballet will have been staged by TAB. Transporting audiences into a mythological Arcadian setting, Sylvia centres on a fierce, arrow-wielding nymph who falls for a mortal shepherd.
Tchaikovsky adored Délibes’s score, writing in 1877: “Without any false modesty whatsoever, I can assure you that The Lake of Swans is not fit even to hold a candle to Sylvia. I was utterly enchanted!”
McAllister says that when he and Welch discussed various ideas, “Sylvia was the one that really jumped out at me because I love the score. I had it on one of those ballet compilations when I was a kid. This is a really great opportunity to do a ballet for the first time that has been in the lexicon since the 1870s and when I read that Tchaikovsky believed that it was the perfect ballet score I was like, yep, we need to add it to our rep.”
“As Stanton always does, he loves to dig into these productions and make it a big grand dance for the whole company. I think he wants to look not just at the Sylvia story, he is looking at how all of these Greek mythology stories intersect. He has got Cupid in there and Diana. It’s going to be big,” says McAllister.
Where the male dancers in Spartacus found themselves learning wrestling techniques, the female dancers in Sylvia will learn sword-fighting. Jérôme Kaplan, the designer of TAB’s Spartacus and Cinderella, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, will design the sets and costumes.
Tchaikovsky’s music will feature in two ballets – Lac, a version of Swan Lake from Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and The Nutcracker – though his score has been edited for Lac. Choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot, who worked with writer Jean Ronaud on his personal re-telling of the ballet, Lac is a dark, erotic ballet. In this updated version, the Prince’s childhood sweetheart, the White Swan, is kidnapped by Her Majesty the Night who tries to get the Prince to marry her own daughter the Black Swan (who it turns out is also the daughter of the Prince’s father).
The ballet begins with a silent black-and-white film that introduces us to the dysfunctional family. It premiered in 2011 and has received mixed reviews. The New York Times called it “a trashy reinterpretation” that is “just as convoluted as it is misogynistic”. The Guardian said that it “offers an interestingly fresh take” but found that while it is “dramatic, sexy, even scary, the essential poetry and tragedy elude it”, though praised the dancers to the hilt. The Times said: “Maillot’s high-energy, space-consuming choreography is well versed in the language of classical ballet, engaging fluently with the music and accentuating the length and suppleness of the dancers’ elegant technique”.
McAllister says that TAB has been talking to Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo about presenting them in Australia for a long time.“They have been to Australia before but we love the idea of them coming back and I think Jean-Christophe is such a unique choreographic voice. He has just done the most extraordinary Taming of the Shrew for the Bolshoi which was a big departure for them and a wonderful success.”
“There are so many versions of Swan Lake but I think it’s always fascinating to see other people’s interpretations of that particular story and it seems that every time it gets done it unlocks another possibility. And they were really keen to come and that was the production they wanted to bring. I haven’t actually seen it I have to admit. I’ve seen the teaser reel which looks incredible. But for me it was actually about the company. They are such an interesting ballet company and they are very of today.” Lac plays in Melbourne in June/July.
Amy Harris and Ako Kondo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Photograph © Jeff Busby
Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland choreographed to music by Joby Talbot and designed by Bob Crowley, returns with seasons in Brisbane in February/March and Melbourne in June, having proved an award-winning, sell-out hit for TAB in Sydney and Melbourne in 2017.
Verve, a triple bill featuring Alice Topp’s latest piece Aurum, Stephen Baynes’ Constant Variants and Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, which had a 2018 season in Melbourne, plays in Sydney in April. Topp’s work, which is inspired by Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing cracked ceramics with precious metals, generated a great deal of excitement and standing ovations when it premiered in Melbourne.
As a result of her success, TAB announced today that Topp has been appointed as the company’s new Resident Choreographer. “Alice has this incredible way of really connecting with an audience and I think Aurum was a really big step on from her Bodytorque pieces and then Little Atlas which she did for the Symphony in C program,” says McAllister.
“Aurum was in the midst of Stephen Baynes’s very elegant, cool, neo-romantic style and then the slap-down, in-your-face Tim Harbour piece so I think as a program it seemed to really gel. And on the strength of that we are announcing today that she is going to be our new Resident Choreographer.”
Peter Wright’s much-loved, traditional, exceptionally beautiful production of The Nutcracker brings the year to an end with seasons in Melbourne in September, Adelaide in October and Sydney in November/December: a delightful, fitting way to end a Year of Enchantment.