One director, two principals and four days: American Ballet Theatre’s pre-tour tour of Australia

American Ballet Theatre’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, and principal dancers, Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside, whizzed through three capital cities in Australia this week, promoting the company’s season at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in August and September.

Their 24-hour Sydney schedule began with a reception hosted by the Friends of the Australian Ballet where McKenzie spoke of the company’s past and present, seamlessly blending one liners and anecdotes with the history itself.

He’s a natural at the podium – after all, as the artistic director of ABT he has been making speeches for 22 years.

In 1979 McKenzie was the last dancer to be offered a contract at ABT by Lucia Chase, the company’s founding patron and later artistic director, and he was last dancer to be promoted by her the following year. She died in 1986.

Lucia Chase, a daughter of very wealthy parents (Irving Hall Chase and Elizabeth Kellogg) devoted most of her life to the company not only as a dancer and artistic director, but also a major benefactor of the company first known as Ballet Theater (without the “American” tag).

The New York Times’ critic, Anna Kisselgoff, wrote in Chase’s obituary in 1986:

“A major American ballet company of proven continuity in a country without a native ballet tradition was, for instance, very much a hypothetical venture in the 1930s. Yet when the late Richard Pleasant, Ballet Theater’s founder, presented his grand design for a large-scale company with an eclectic repertory to Miss Chase in 1939, she agreed to be its sole backer. Miss Chase had previously contributed to the Mordkin Ballet, where she had been a dancer and Mr Pleasant the administrator.

“In retrospect, it is typical that she was not content to remain with a small troupe but wished to transform the Mordkin Ballet’s nucleus into a company of international level, with a roster of both American and foreign dancers or choreographers”.

For me, McKenzie’s memories of Lucia’s life and references to her biography by her son, Alex Ewing, were the most fascinating aspects of his speech.

He told how Lucia asked Natalia Makarova to teach the company’s dancers, and the Russian ballerina’s response: the one thing ABT needed most was a well trained corps de ballet, and the way to do it would be to coach them to dance the Kingdom of the Shades scene from La Bayadere, one of the biggest challenges for a female corps. Lucia agreed and Makarova staged the Shades for ABT in 1974.

Makarova was one of the Soviet superstars who defected to the west and made a huge impact at American Ballet Theatre as of course did Mikhail Baryshnikov.

McKenzie said that his idols as a young man were Makarova, Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn all of whom were strongly linked to ABT and McKenzie is following past traditions with a roster of star principals some of whom have dual Russian-American connections among them Diana Vishneva, David Hallberg (a principal of both the Bolshoi Ballet and ABT), and Ivan Vasiliev, who dances with companies around the world and who seems to be aiming for more fame and fortune. He recently told a reporter in London that he hopes one day to become “a Hollywood star”.

James Whiteside, who travelled to Australia, is not, yet, a fashion magazine idol (like David Hallberg) or an actor, but he already has his own fan clan excited by his alter ego –pop singer/dancer, JbDubs – an abbreviation of James, his second name, Bruce, and Dubs for W, also known as the man with “the fiercest legs in pop music”.

When Whiteside was promoted to the rank of principal last year The New York Times’ chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, wrote: “What newcomer to New York has ever invaded a repertory more surely than James Whiteside?”

Last Wednesday morning, Whiteside and Murphy, warmed up in the green room of the Nine Network studios in Willoughby before performing a brief excerpt from Swan Lake’s Act II Odette/Siegfried pas de deux for the Mornings show hosted by Sonia Kruger and David Campbell.

McKenzie had already been a guest of Fran Kelly on her breakfast show on ABC National radio and followed the visit to Channel Nine with an interview with Margaret Throsby on ABC Classic FM.

Onwards to Melbourne – more interviews, class for the dancers with the Australian Ballet and an even speedier visit to Auckland before flying home to New York.

Coming soon after the ABT’s 2014 spring tour to Australia is the start of a long run up to the company’s 75th anniversary, a year that will be marked by many events including a new Sleeping Beauty choreographed by the company’s artist in residence, Alexei Ratmansky.

The premiere is scheduled for March 2015 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California and the $US2.5 million ballet will form part of the company’s 2015 spring season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.

The sets and costumes by Richard Hudson will be based on those in the Diaghilev production of 1921 designed by Leon Bakst.

Before the Australian tour, I’ll update dancelines with McKenzie’s plans for the future and more memories of the past.

I’m leading a Renaissance Tour group to Brisbane early in September when we will see two ABT programs, Swan Lake and the triple bill comprising Fancy Free (Robbins), Bach Partita (Tharp) and Seven Sonatas (Ratmansky).

2 Comments

  1. Adrian Ryan
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    I got the impression from an announcement elsewhere, that Ratmansky is going to attempt to entirely recreate the 1921 Diaghilev production of “The Sleeping Beauty”. So not only will the Bakst designs for settings and costumes be utilised but I presume he will try to produce it with the emendations and additions of Diaghilev, Sergeyev and Nijinska. What a project ! The biography of Lucia Chase by Alex Ewing that you mention Valerie is a real “must read’.

  2. valerie
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    That’s a huge project then! Ratmansky loves digging into the past so I guess it’s going to be a labour of love. I’ve just bought the Lucia Chase biography – it’s on its way from the US. At the gathering, McKenzie said how much he enjoyed it. Some time ago I bought (second hand) a book on ABT’s history, from the company’s beginnings to the mid-1970s, published in 1978, two years before the company’s 40th anniversary. It’s a gigantic volume with a gold cover and more than 500 photos. It has its own particular smell – hard to explain, not unpleasant, but it seems it was on a library shelf for many lonely years. The book looks dated now but it’s a treasure trove of detail.

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Lucia Chase, Les Sylphides, 1940

Lucia Chase, Les Sylphides, 1940

David Campbell, Gillian Murphy, James Whiteside and Sonia Kruger at Channel 9's Mornings show

David Campbell, Gillian Murphy, James Whiteside and Sonia Kruger at Channel 9’s Mornings show

Kevin McKenzie, photo © Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

Kevin McKenzie, photo © Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

Alexei Ratmansky, photo © Fabrizio Ferri

Alexei Ratmansky, photo © Fabrizio Ferri

James Whiteside as Siegfried, Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Gene Schiavone

James Whiteside as Siegfried, Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy, Odette, Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Rosalie O'Connor

Gillian Murphy, Odette, Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Rosalie O’Connor

Gillian Murphy as Odile in Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre, photo  © Gene Schiavone

Gillian Murphy as Odile in Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre, photo © Gene Schiavone