State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Reviewed June 17
Moments before the orchestra struck up the overture to Harlequinade, David Hallberg joked with the audience. “For those of you who saw Kunstkamer - this is nothing like it. … This ballet is like a sugar rush." And indeed the counterpointing works are a tribute to the versatility of the company: its dancers, orchestra, technical creatives and all involved. Kunstkamer was a tidal wave of dark complexity, stamped by the 21st century while referencing the past. It takes unpacking and commitment from its audience. Harlequinade is nothing too much more than what you see. However, it bears an underlying richness implied in the faithful restoration of the work of a master.
Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa in 1900, famed choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and wife Tatiana have worked meticulously with archival Stepanov dance notation to reconstruct the ballet based on characters from the Commedia dell’arte. In the tradition of Commedia, the cast consists of broadly-drawn characters representing stereotypes - characters that reappeared and were recognisable from performance to performance, down to prescribed costumes. Ratmansky stays true to all of this, presenting the work in its time context, rather than transposing to a modern setting.
We have a simple tale of thwarted love - Harlequin and Columbine are in love, but Columbine’s dad disapproves because of Harlequin’s lack of means. Secondary couple, Pierette and Pierrot, step in to assist or further confound the lovers. A wish-giving fairy, a magic slap-stick and a very extensive cast of children and corps de ballet dancers fill in the story.
Brett Chynoweth as Harlequin was lithe and whip-fast. His light and airy dancing was punctuated with effortless batterie and cheeky glances. He channeled an air of old-school athleticism, more than that of a 21st century ballet dancer, thus capturing a softer, looser movement idiom. As Columbine, Benedicte Bemet was a natural - sweetly passionate but displaying a crisper physicality than her beloved. Pierrot, the sad-faced clown, was played with doltish delight by Callum Linnane. Sharni Spencer as Pierette played her role as far too spunky for the droopy, easily manipulated Pierrot. Pierette was also ably partnered by Jarryd Madden in Act One.
The ballet is revealed through a number of distinct short scenes across its two acts. The story is slight and easily followed and a mere vehicle for an array of group dances, pas de deux and episodes of mime. I am not a great fan of extended mime sequences (being impatient for the dancing to start) but they are a hallmark of the classical and romantic artform and a means for gluing the narrative together. Highlights include a double pas de deux for the two main couples and a late ballet within a ballet, where Columbine, as a lark, is pursued by her hunter, Harlequin, symbolising their union. (One has to suspend disbelief here, lest a 21st century sensibility leads to moral outrage over the hunter/captive trope.)
On this opening night the audience seemed to enjoy Harleqinade but my impression was that they did not love it. There were no standing ovations, stamping of feet or expressions of awe.
I am in two minds about the extensive use of young dance students. Although they were tidy, disciplined and delightful, I wonder if we needed to see so much of them in a professional performance.
Orchestra Victoria brought Drigo’s score to life, under the wonderful Nicolette Fraillon. The 1900 set design and authentic costuming was also interesting to see.
The variety and diversity of work being presented by our national company under David Hallberg is to be appreciated. I hope that this commitment continues, even though, in this case, as any sugar rush reveals, there can be some empty calories among the nutrition.
- SUSAN BENDALL