Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Reviewed April 6
Opening nights are always special - but the opening night of the Australian Ballet’s New York Dialects program was especially so as it marked the AB’s return to Sydney in over a year. Sixteen long months have passed since the company’s last performance – Peter Wright’s Nutcracker in December 2019. And during its absence, the role of artistic director passed from David McAllister to David Hallberg.
The program began and closed with two iconic, yet distinctly different Balanchine works – Serenade and The Four Temperaments. Sandwiched in the middle was a brand-new work choreographed by Pam Tanowitz called Watermark. This is Hallberg’s first choreographic commission for the Australian Ballet and I’m a little sorry to report being largely underwhelmed by it. Every newly commissioned work is a gamble but I expected more from this work based on the choreographer’s critical reception and reputation.
Danced to a dramatic piano concerto by Caroline Shaw and by dancers of both genders wearing loosely fitted white jumpsuits (designed by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme) with thin-soled white jazz shoes, the work was envisioned as a kind of counterpoint to Serenade. Just as the focus in Serenade is on the largely female cast, so would this new work showcase the AB’s male dancers. This was certainly reflected in the predominantly male ratio of the cast. But I don’t feel Tanowitz’s choreography really showcased the dancers’ collective ability despite being distinctively quirky and unusual.
Picture several dancers alternately bouncing around like pogo sticks with one arm folded overhead and the other straight by their sides … or a simple changement punctuated by sudden flexion of both feet at the jump's highest point. Inverting classical technique or contrasting it with contemporary movements can be wonderful when it’s done well but on opening night the cast of dancers this ballet was meant to showcase frequently looked awkward, unco-ordinated and possibly even a little self-conscious.
To be fair, there was one terrifically nuanced (both in dramatic and musical terms) yet enigmatic solo danced by corps de ballet member Adam Elmes about 15 minutes in. Jill Ogai also executed a repeated chaine turn sequence with aplomb (the s-curve of her arms produced an interesting visual effect of contrasting spirals orbiting around the central axis of her spinning torso).
But a few memorable sections do not constitute a successful new work. I am not completely sure whether it is the work itself or the dancers’ performance of it that didn’t gel. Perhaps if all the dancers were more able to “let go” of their classical training, posture and self-image I would be more convinced by their performance. I have read that Tanowitz’s approach to choreography encourages the dancers’ own input and it will certainly be interesting to see if Watermark builds and develops with further rehearsals and performances.
Opening a program with Serenade is always a good idea as this lyrically romantic, yet essentially abstract work is a pleasure for both the eyes and the ears. At this performance the three leading female roles were danced by Robyn Hendricks, Dimity Azoury and Valerie Tereshchenko – who more than held her own despite being one rank lower than her two colleagues. Tereshchenko is blessed with rather long legs and a comparatively short torso but it is the radiance and amplitude of her extensions that really capture your attention.
Barbara Karinska’s powder-blue romantic-length tutus against a deeper hued blue backdrop are reminiscent of the moonlit “white acts” from Giselle, Swan Lake and Les Sylphides. The Australian Ballet’s female corps de ballet performed well as an ensemble – astonishingly so, given their extended break from the studio, group rehearsals and live performances last year. Coryphee Jacqueline Clark stood out as being outstandingly graceful and unaffected in style.
The Four Temperaments was well danced all round, giving rising and more established soloist and principal dancers ample opportunities to take centre stage. Brett Chynoweth danced the Melancholic solo with technical and artistic prowess – the incredible control through his feet on those slow landings a lesson for every young dancer. Ako Kondo and Ty King-Wall danced the Sanguinic duet with great spirit and verve. Kondo in particular is fast and fleet of foot, underscored by a physical strength matched by few of the Australian Ballet’s other dancers.
At the close of this performance soloist Nathan Brook was announced onstage as the winner of both of the 2021 Telstra Ballet Dancer Awards. Congratulations both to him and to the Australian Ballet on their welcome return to the stage.
– GERALDINE HIGGINSON