Butterflies and memories

The faces of some dancers remain imprinted in the memory long after the dancers have retired. One still sees that face as another dancer dances. Watching Rachel Rawlins’ sensitive performance in Madame Butterfly last week I also saw in my mind’s eye the face of Vicki Attard who was a guest repetiteur for this current Australian Ballet season and who created the title role in Stanton Welch’s ballet in 1995.

In the same way, I will see Valrene Tweedie’s face when Marilyn Jones performs her role in Stephen Baynes’s Requiem next June and the face of Marilyn Rowe when I see whoever is cast as Hanna in The Merry Widow later this year. But the memories don’t spoil the present. Each is layered onto the next to form a complex series of impressions.

Returning to Butterfly again after so many years brings back other memories – many performances of Kenneth Macmillan’s Manon. That ballet and Madame Butterfly have much in common. Both gain their strength from beautiful pas de deux with similar scissoring legs, sweeping lifts and daring throws and catches, and both hit road blocks when they have to tell a complex story through gesture and facial expressions – the card game in Manon, the letter scene in Butterfly, for example.

Stanton Welch was well supported back in 1995 by John Lanchbery’s arrangement of Puccini’s score and Peter Farmer’s exquisite set and costume design, but it remains a remarkable achievement that he was able to create this ballet when he was only 25 years old. The ballet is now in the repertoire of nine companies, mainly in North America but also in New Zealand and Singapore.

The highlight of Madame Butterfly is one of the most beautiful but difficult pas de deux in the classical repertoire, especially for the male lead, Pinkerton. Not only is it extremely long, but the Act 1 wedding night pas de deux also ends with very arduous lifts, all of which were accomplished with skill and flair by Robert Curran dancing with Rachel Rawlins on opening night.

Returning to Attard, she made her farewell performance with The Australian Ballet at the end of 1999.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“Under a sea of streamers thrown by a cheering crowd, ballerina Vicki Attard took the final curtsey of her 14-year career at the Sydney Opera House on Wednesday night.

Attard, 33, who is retiring as a principal of the Australian Ballet, wept as the audience stood and roared their approval throughout the curtain calls.

The reception was more vocal and emotional than any in recent memory at the Opera House, with the audience appearing to acknowledge both the fragility and brevity of a dancer’s life.

Attard said yesterday that after the show, her husband, Sydney restaurateur Ross Annas, was “a real mess” although “he cries at all my shows”.

Attard danced the role of the 18th century convent girl turned courtesan, Manon, with Damien Welch, who is also leaving the company to audition overseas. But it was clearly her night, from the moment she stepped from the coach in which she makes her first appearance on stage.

She said yesterday she felt for the other five dancers who are also leaving the company this year, but “Damien just kept pushing me forward into the limelight. I had a little tear in the coach just before I came out but I thought `no, too early’.”

Attard said she and Welch had “both felt pressured to make it work” in the difficult roles of Manon and her lover, Des Grieux. In the last of four challenging pas de deux, Manon dies in a swamp in Louisiana, punished for her sybaritic life in Paris, the “death” being the cue on Wednesday for the full house to rise to its feet.

Hundreds of cameras flashed as Attard was presented with flowers by principal dancer David McAllister, with whom she often danced in her long career.

© The Sydney Morning Herald
24 December 1999

Madame Butterfly is at The Sydney Opera House until 27 April

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