In conversation with the stars of Harlequinade

Posted on 16 June 2022 By Behind Ballet Editor

What does it feel like to dance the lead character, Harlequin? How do dancers navigate the flurry of energy on stage in Harlequinade? What about mastering those tricky mime sequences?

Behind Ballet spoke to the stars of Harlequinade to find out more about the intricacies and compexities of this action-packed ballet inspired by archetypal characters from commedia dell'arte. Read on for exclusive insights from Daniil Simkin, who takes to the stage in Australia for the first time as the company's Guest Artist in selected performances of this classic comedy ballet. 

Benedicte Bemet (Columbine) and Brett Chynoweth (Harlequin)

BB: Can you share some insights into the characters of Harlequin and Columbine?

Brett: Harlequin is a high energy, unpredictable and enigmatic character. He does exactly what he wants, and he knows how to handle every situation. He is an iconic character from art history. He’s the fastest runner, the highest jumper, the most mischievous… he is one step ahead of everyone else. It takes a lot of energy to create the right feeling in this character. The more energy I put into the role, the more it snowballs, and that energy multiplies and explodes through my dancing.

Benedicte: Columbine is a sweet lady who love Harlequin, music, and her friends. She is a very light-hearted and innocent character. She loves to enjoy  all the good things in life. For me, the character is a celebration of ballet in its purest form. 

BB: What will audiences take from Harlequinade?

Brett: This ballet is a very expressive and comedic look back through time into another world. It’s based originally on street performers, so it’s an attention-grabbing, highly theatrical story of two lovers who just want to be together. Through all the trials and tribulation of the plot, it’s a love story. I think the characters in this ballet are famous archetypes that keep reappearing in art history and culture, even advertising. These characters are well known and loved from books and movies, and this ballet is another version of that.

Benedicte: Stylistically, it’s a glimpse into the origins of ballet. It’s not a 21st century aesthetic with high legs. Technically, it’s super challenging. Audiences might feel like they’re watching Anna Pavlova dancing when they see some of the shapes made on stage. It’s quite a different style to what we do in our modern day ballets. I think audiences will see this ballet and recognise these characters that reappear time and time again; the grumpy Dad, the Good Fairy, the couple who are in love. These characters definitely feel familiar to a lot of people.

Principal Artists Bemet and Brett Chynoweth bring elements of their own personalities to the roles of Harlequin and Columbine. Photo Christopher Rodgers-Wilson

BB: Do you feel there’s a deeper dialogue between you as a pair when you’re dancing, or does it all feel quite fun and comedic for the whole show?

Brett: It’s a bit of both. It's been very interesting learning how to craft what we’re saying very clearly with our bodies and our expressions. There’s a lot of mime that involves the whole body, and this goes into how we dance and tell our character’s stories. You have to be very clear about what you’re saying. In order to create the shapes and express what we’re feeling between us, there’s a lot of unspoken energy that is required.

Benedicte: We have a few mime scenes together that are ‘funny’. Because we’re not touching each other in these scenes it feels more light-hearted. But I feel the dancing we do together requires a deeper connection and a lot of trust, because you need to trust each other to commit to these extreme shapes. It required a layered connection.

BB: How did you work with Alexei Ratmansky to unearth the ‘comedy’ aspect of this ballet?

Brett: We’re not necessarily trying to be comedic, but the heightened nature of the characters are funny in themselves. What’s been so great about Alexei unearthing the notation and finding out he origins of these stories and characters is that we can bring our own personalities to them. When you get a giggle out of someone else in the studio, you know it’s working! I hope the audience really feel that the comedy and emotion is genuinely gushing out of us though the performance, because that’s what it feels like in the moment.

Benedicte: People often say you don’t want to try to hard to be funny in a comedy ballet. I think what Alexei has done so well through revising the notation is stripping it all back, using musical timing to make a comedic impact. There’s such structure in the music, and such a deep understanding what each of our characters are saying through it. As an artist, it's such a great feeling to understand who you are in a character, especially one you feel so comfortable dancing.

Benedicte Bemet reflects on a 'layered connection' with partner Brett Chynoweth in Harlequinade. Photo Christopher Rodgers-Wilson.

Sharni Spencer (Pierette) and Callum Linnane (Pierrot)

BB: Can you share some insights into the characters of Pierette and Pierrot?

Sharni: I’m playing the role of Pierette, the wife of Pierrot. She is probably the smartest character of the bunch I feel. She is very clever and quick-witted. I’d say Pierette definitely wears the pants in the relationship.

Callum: Pierrot is quite an easily recognisable character, I think. He’s the sad servant clown with the long white sleeves. He’s very simple-minded, quite naïve, and he always seems to end up being the butt of the joke.

BB: What has been your experience with all the mime elements in this ballet?

Sharni: Alexei showed us how important it was to consider the ideas and thoughts we have behind the physical mime. He has such a great way of expressing this, and he would pick apart a scene through gestures. He would explore every little conversation characters have with each other, and suggest ways of doing it in a different tone or different style.

Callum: Alexei is a treasure trove of knowledge for all the mime elements. The bulk of rehearsals involved learning the mime, which is very specific, and integral to telling the audience what is happening in the story. It needs to come across clearly. Alexei is incredible, he can mime every character perfectly. He would do character mimes from his chair at the front of the studio, and his whole physicality changes in a split second depending on what character he’s portraying. It’s really inspiring to watch him. Alexei is very open to us trying things, but it isn’t free reign. There needs to be something very clear that you’re saying. He wants us to play with things, but he is there to tell us what works and what doesn’t when it comes to the mime.

Senior Artist Sharni Spencer reflects that her character Pierette is clever and quick-witted. Photo Christopher Rodgers-Wilson.

BB: What is the most exciting aspect of performing Harlequinade?

Sharni: I think because it is a comedy, it feels fun to dance. It’s also very tricky, there’s a lot of hopping on pointe for the females and the choreography is challenging. You also need to learn the specific style of dance from 1900s, which is different to what we would usually do in class. It’s been fun to try this style on and see how it adds to your character. It all feels playful, and it’s just a really fun ballet to be part of.  

Callum: There’s a lightness to the story which is nice to perform. This ballet is very much of a certain time, it feels like a journey back in time through the history of dance and art. Its been such an enjoyable process to embrace this, and to embrace the theatricality of mime. I’ve enjoyed diving head first into this style of mime, and the very specific way to tell this story. Typically, I wouldn’t choose a comic ballet as my first preference, but this has been really fun.

Harlequinade choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has been a 'treasure trove' of knowledge for learning the ballet's mime sequences.

Meet Guest Artist Daniil Simkin (Harlequin)

BB: How does it feel being invited by Artistic Director David Hallberg to join the company as Guest Artist in Harlequinade?

Daniil: It's a great honor to be invited to Australia again by David, who has been a friend of mine for many years. Our careers crossed many times, on many continents on many occasions. To reprise the role of Harlequin is a beautiful "blast from the past." I believe this ballet was the last time we shared the stage together with David.

BB: You have known David Hallberg for many years now, when did you first work together ?

Daniil: Throughout the years we shared many beautiful moments, as well as stages together. The first time we met was, now almost 15 years ago, in 2008 at the "Stars of the 21st Century" Ballet gala at the then New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, before I joined American Ballet Theatre. Funnily enough, even then it felt like we knew each other because we had many mutual friends who connected us.

BB: How has your creative relationship evolved over the years?

Daniil: We mutually supported each other in various endeavors. From discussing important professional decisions to attending each other's shows there was always a sense of brotherhood to our personal as well as professional relationship. He used to call me his mini-me (as the character from Mike Myers' Austin Powers) and at the same time I called him my 'maxi-me.'

BB: What is the best part of performing Harlequinade? How does it make you feel as an artist?

Daniil: Despite this ballet being a classical ballet with most things being very set, in the role of Harlequin (which I am dancing) there is a lot of freedom in the expression of his mannerisms. I find it exciting to search for a personal approach,  finding a certain key' to help me portray this role. It may be a specific running style, or even a gesture in the mime. At times, the comedy aspect borders on camp... it's a beautiful challenge to find a tasteful approach to slapstick (literally, as at times I carry a slapstick in this ballet).

Guest Artist Daniil Simkin dancing the role of Harlequin in American Ballet Theatre's Harlequinade (2018). Photo Erin Baiano.

BB: As a producer as well as a dancer, what are some of the other projects you have in the works at the moment?

Daniil: I currently have a few projects in the pre- and post-production phase. The latest being an immersive event where I want to create a hybrid experience of a nightlife event and a performance in an immersive space with Martha Graham Dance Company and Hofesh Shechter. Another project is a specifically created neo-classical variation for film, which has Sci-Fi undertones to it. I find there is ample potential for the language of dance to evolve with the help of the new possibilities provided with emerging technologies as well as present dance in non-conform venues to bring our beloved art form to a new audience. I always try to innovate the relationship of dance with the new world, a world full of screens and current evolving values.

BB: Can you share your experiences guesting with other dance companies? How have these experiences helped nurture your professional and personal growth?

Daniil: Everytime you enter a new working environment you learn. Through the accumulation of this information you see what works (and in some instances, what doesn't). Every environment has something to give to you as an Artist. It's important to stay open to these experiences.

BB: What are some of the first things you do when you arrive in a new city for a guesting opportunity? 

Daniil: It really depends how much time I have and how much 'on a schedule' I have to be. The first Google Maps search I do is for a good coffee place. Judging from what everyone says, I dont' think I will have any probelms finding one in Melbourne. In general, as I'm usually quite tired, I focus on culinary experience to explore more so than others.

BB: What advice would you give to younger dancers who are starting out in their professional careers?

Daniil: Focus on consistency and honing your emotional intelligence. Not only as a worker, but also as a person. A ballet company is a complicated and intricate construct, where an individual has to find his or her place. 

Daniil is delighted to be reunited with Artistic Director David Hallberg in the Australian premiere of Harlequinade, with whom he shared the stage in American Ballet Theatre's production in 2018.