State Theatre, Melbourne, 24 August
It was an evening of divertissements: five self-contained short pieces in the first half and Balanchine's electric Symphony in C rounding out the night. Variety was key, and there was plenty to engage with and enjoy. The pieces were understandably somewhat uneven in quality though each had something to recommend it, and in every case the total commitment of the dancers to the choreography was in evidence.
The opening stage picture of Richard House's From Silence made a stunning start to the night and all credit to Kat Chan for costume and set design. A woman stands centre stage, a huge red skirt billowing out behind her to fill half the stage. As the skirt "magically" separates and disappears a couple begin a pas de deux (Amanda McGuigan and Nathan Brook), joined later by two more dancers (Amy Harris and Jarryd Madden). From Silence evolves in the contemporary pas de deux format with lifts, intertwining of bodies, and fluid slides. The red skirt re-enters to great effect with the orchestral strings in a fine theatrical moment. Overall, however, there is a lack of integration between the different elements of dance, music and costumes. The opening promises much but remains the best part of the work. In short, the dancing which emerges out of that initial stage picture is not in concert with the skirt, which creates its own set of lush, flowing expectations.
Lana Jones returned to the stage in Gsovsky's Grand Pas Classique and it was a most welcome return. The pure lines were all there as was the flawless technique and strength, the poise and control, with an added softness and womanliness. In short, a flawless performance well complemented by Brodie James's partnering and accomplished dancing.
The pas de trois from Stephen Baynes' Imaginary Masque was the first of two trios, programmed consecutively. Jarryd Madden and Nathan Brook returned from the opening piece as two attendants partnering Robyn Hendricks in a languidly drawn out trio. Again the highlight of the piece is the set design with the shimmering blue curtains parting to reveal Hendricks like an idol coming to life. The choreography is flavoured by reminiscences of the Faun and plenty of suspended aerial lifts. The piece was beautifully danced but it lacked a sense of momentum and progression and as a standalone work did not make for compelling viewing.
Alice Topp's trio Little Atlas, set to music by Ludovico Einaudi, is far more successful in that regard. Unlike the other contemporary works on offer this has a sense of real drama and tension. The set design is stark and simple and worked in well with the choreography.
A dancer (Leanne Stojmenov) begins the piece in a circle of lights which slowly lifts to release her, while the arc of light at the back of the stage becomes a pathway for another dancer (Andrew Killian) to traverse as he makes his entrance and the duet shifts to a trio, accompanied by a dissonant music which increases in volume and briefly takes over. The most contemporary of the works on offer, Little Atlas combines floorwork with an extended classically based vocabulary. Music, set, costumes and dancing are all of a piece and well integrated. The choreography sustains a sense of direction throughout which allowed for a build up of drama, while Stojmenov, Kevin Jackson and Andrew Killian were all excellent in their roles.
Alice Topp's explanation of the piece was interesting but happily not essential to a connection with the work which stood up on its own merits.
An undoubted highlight of the evening came in the sheer physical excitement of Chengwu Guo partnering Ako Kondo in the Vaganova/Mazilier Diana and Actéon pas de deux. This couple proved more than equal to the choreographic demands of what is unashamedly a display piece. From his first flying entrance Guo lit up the stage with his gravity defying leaps and thrilling turns. It was a strong and faultless performance in a perfect vehicle for both of the dancers’ skills, not least their excellent ballon, and fearless dancing together.
Symphony in C with its speed and structured formations, at times reminiscent of a chorus line, is a true American ballet for Americans. That was part of the genius of Balanchine - to seize the spirit of the New World and translate its energy into a classical format in tune with the land and its people, and a truly great performance needs ideally to capture some of that spirit.
The Australian Ballet gave a pleasingly exuberant performance of Symphony in C, although there was sometimes a sense that the dancers were struggling with the speed of the movements. Leanne Stojmenov claimed the stage with authority in the first movement. The centrepiece of the work, however, is the lyrical pas de deux of the second movement, the shimmering bourrées of the corps setting the tone. Amber Scott shone in the adagio with her quietly refined lyrical presence. Adam Bull in the crucial supportive role was the perfect partner to her radiant self-assurance.
Seated as I was at the back of the Circle it became an interesting exercise to see just who managed to project that far from the stage and connect with the audience. It is very noticeable and a vital part of the performer's art which should not be underestimated. That is where some of your most devoted and enthusiastic audience is to be found.
Top: 'Sheer physical excitement': Ako Kondo in 'Diana and Acteon'. Photo:: Jeff Busby.