West Australian Ballet: Beauty and the Beast -
His Majesty's Theatre, 13 May -
Based on La Belle et la Bête, the traditional fairy tale by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve published in 1740, Canadian choreographer (and artistic director of Northern Ballet) David Nixon's Beauty and the Beast premièred in Leeds UK in 2011. His interpretation is a multi-layered, two act narrative ballet designed for contemporary audiences of all ages. With a moral message at heart, many joyous and tender moments and elements of humour and pantomime, the production has been performed widely but this is the Australian première. Nixon's Beauty requires versatile dancers with fine dramatic abilities along with a strong classical technique and is an ideal fit for West Australian Ballet and its dancers.
Multi-purpose and visually striking abstract settings with mirrored and patterned structures and a stunning image of a beautiful white rose as an emblem of love and hope are designed by Duncan Hayler, and effectively enhanced by Tim Mitchell's lighting. Completing the vision are eye-catching costume designs by David Nixon, with flowing, coloured and shimmering fabrics for the ladies and modish tunic-style apparel for the men.
The music is a rich, rewarding compilation of Saint-Saëns, Bizet, Debussy, Poulenc and Glazunov, played by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in the safe hands of conductor Myron Romanul and skilfully orchestrated and arranged by John Longstaff. (The Poulenc and Saint-Saëns organ pieces, due to logistical difficulties, were recorded).
With settings in a castle, a village and a forest in a "far-away land", supernatural elements and magic spells mix comfortably with slightly over-the-top 'human' characters. Act I is long (and will tighten-up as scene changes get slicker) as it establishes the characters, but it was easy to follow Prince Orian (Christian Luck)'s transformation to Beast (Matthew Lehmann), the financial misfortune of Beauty’s father (Andrew Radak), the kindness of Beauty (Brooke Widdison-Jacobs), the superficiality of her spendthrift sisters (Sarah Hepburn and Melissa Boniface), and Beauty's first encounters and developing affection for the Beast.
Act II sees the Beast despairing of his plight and its self-inflicted causes, explores the redemptive power of love and the blossoming relationship between Beauty and the Beast, and culminates in joyful resolution and celebration.
Widdison-Jacobs created a charming, compassionate Beauty and found a softer fluency to add to her exquisite footwork and glorious arabesques. Lehmann created a potent, muscular Beast with an untamed physicality, ferocious athleticism and the pent-up frustration of a trapped creature. In a compelling performance, his distress was visible in his darting, despairing eyes and he became impossible to despise. Christian Luck danced and partnered splendidly and was excellent as the vain, arrogant prince who constantly admires himself in the mirror and offends La Fée Magnifique (Jayne Smeulders), which is why she casts a spell on him and turns him into a beast. Lehmann’s partnering in several emotive encounters with Widdison-Jacobs's Beauty was seamless, and a dream-sequence pas de trois with Widdison-Jacobs, Luck and the Lehmann was masterly, magical and moving as it revealed the Beast's exclusion and hopelessness. Another dream-sequence to Debussy's 'Clair de Lune' with Widdison-Jacob and Luck dancing tenderly together was magical.
Hepburn and Boniface nailed the choreography and the comic, though less-than-admirable, character traits of the sisters; Florence Leroux-Coléno (La Fée Luminaire) with divine, silvery wings danced immaculately and reigned supreme in another quality performance in this benevolent, 'fixer' role, and Smeulders, in her final season with West Australian Ballet, lived up to her name, danced magnificently and threw in a double saut de basque for good measure. André Santos as the manservant Alfred was always interesting to watch, and humorous light-relief was provided throughout by four jaunty trolls who accompany the Beast.
A spectacular, lively wedding scene with exceptional dancing by all of the cast, immaculate in white and gold in front of massive glistening 'organ pipes' the height and width of the stage, concluded a very successful opening night.