Concourse Theatre, Sydney
Beginning with a défilé honouring the late Dame Margaret Scott, the school’s founding director, this year’s Australian Ballet School Showcase was sometimes poignant but mostly exhilarating.
Simon Dow, a resident choreographer and teacher at the school choreographed the first work, Divertissement, that premiered for the entire school in 2016. This year he has added solos and quartets for the school graduates. Dow’s choreography is challenging but the dancers faced up to that challenge as they showed their particular talents, among them Shu Igarashi, whose manèges in the relatively small stage of the Concourse were impressive. The first quartet cast, Lilly Maskery, Benjamin Garrett, Heidi Freeman and Alain Jueig, opened Divertissement with confidence and charm.
The second piece, Journey, choreographed by the school’s resident choreographer, Margaret Wilson, in 2016, opens to the exquisite music of Max Richter’s album track, "November". The 22 dancers (Level 6 in the school) moved as quickly as the violins in the music as they assembled and clustered, as if hoping to survive. Wilson’s program note refers to the idea of migration from one region to another whether the migrants are humans, animals or birds. (The idea can be seen in two recent ballets, Akram Khan’s Giselle and Crystal Pite's Flight Path that both express the plight of refugees in the 21st century.)
Journey was a highlight of the showcase for both choreography and design. The women’s elegant purple and black leotards and sheer black tights blended well with a sky blue background.
Three premieres, Con Brio (Simon Dow), After Escher (Margaret Wilson) and Sketch Tone (Richard House) followed Journey. The youngest dancers (Level 4) made the most of Con Brio, dancing to Haydn’s Symphony in 6 in D major with all the spirit and vigour you’d expect in a piece with that name.
After Escher refers to Wilson’s fascination with the works of the artist, M. C. Escher, and the dance work is based on three of his quotes, including, “I’m always wandering around in enigmas”. Although the graduates danced with aplomb, the meaning of the work is a little too hazy, at least for me, and there are a few too many references to Jiri Kylian’s choreography as the women, wearing black pointe shoes, slide across the floor.
Sketch Tone, choreographed by Richard House, a former dancer with the Australian Ballet and now a soloist at the Sarasota Ballet, is set to André Messager’s piece for the ballet, Les deux pigeons, and was danced by a well trained Level 5 group of thirteen. House, I hope, continues his choreography alongside his ballet career.
La Tarantella Italiana, choreographed by guest teacher Leigh Rowles, brought the second group of works to an extra-exhilarating end as the Level 7 students danced with style, enthusiasm and big smiles.
How they did it I don’t know, but the school managed to persuade the Balanchine Trust to send Victoria Simon, one of the Trust's repetiteurs, to Australia to stage Who Cares?
Danced to the music of George Gershwin, the title was inspired by the lyrics in one of his songs, Who Cares?: “Life is one long jubilee, so long as I care for you and you care for me”.
Some see the ballet as a light-hearted acknowledgement to Balanchine’s days as a Broadway choreographer but if you look carefully you can see the references to his more classical ballets -- a touch of Apollo here and Theme and Variations there. Exuberant and nostalgic, Who Cares? is danced with pure joy in front of a New York City backdrop. Whether or not audience members are ballet lovers or not, who love Gershwin’s songs or not, they are likely to cheer the dancers on as they dance in groups or solos to 16 songs, beginning with "Strike Up the Band" and ending with "I Got Rhythm". The ballet is also a showcase for the dancers cast in duets. Each couple was trained well by Simon, dancing through the songbook and expressing the charm of Balanchine’s homage.
As for the soloists, the standouts were Lilly Maskery ("Fascinatin’ Rhythm"), Heidi Freeman ("I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise"), Larissa Kiyoto-Ward ("My One and Only") and Jett Ramsay ("Liza").
Throughout the program one audience member called out a loud “Bravo” after every work. He definitely cared but perhaps he should have left his shout-out to the end when, together, the entire audience showed how much they cared for the students and, or course, how much they hoped this year’s graduates would soon find a place in a professional company.
- VALERIE LAWSON