Once more with feeling

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Robyn Hendricks and Adam Bull as Anna and Alexey in 'Anna Karenina'. Photo: Jeff Busby.
Robyn Hendricks and Adam Bull as Anna and Alexey in 'Anna Karenina'. Photo: Jeff Busby.

David Hallberg is at last able to bring his plans to the stage, writes Karen van Ulzen, beginning with a beautiful, new 'Anna Karenina'.

After a much interrupted first year as artistic director of the Australian Ballet, David Hallberg is finally about to present a new season – this time (fingers crossed) with far more chance of getting it underway. It includes some of the best bits of last year’s program which never, or only partly, made it onto stage. There are also some exciting new additions, representing the best in contemporary European and American ballet.

One is Kunstkamer, which brings four of Europe’s most celebrated choreographers together in one work. They are all associated with the continuing genius that is Netherlands Dance Theatre (NDT) – husband and wife team Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon, Crystal Pite and Marco Goeke.

Kunstkamer was commissioned for NDT’s 60th anniversary in 2019. Hallberg thinks this a nice coincidental precursor to AB’s 60th anniversary coming up in 2023. A “kunstkamer” is a display cabinet of collections of rare and strange objects, and the ballet is inspired by The Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, an illustrated book of collectibles published in 1734 by the Dutch collector Albertus Seba. Similarly, the ballet is a compendium of music, song, spoken word and dance. Australia will be the first to see it since it premiered in The Hague.

The latest in contemporary American ballet is represented in Justin Peck’s Everywhere We Go, created in 2014 for the New York City Ballet, where he is resident choreographer. Peck is very much in the tradition of the company’s founder, George Balanchine, with his crisp, fast pointe work, swift changes of direction and complex organisation of ensemble groups, and Everywhere We Go, says Hallberg, is his “magnum opus, it really put him on the map”. Hallberg is looking forward to welcoming Peck to Australia to stage the work, with his “great energy”.

“With Justin there’s no pretence, he just gets down to work," Hallberg says. "That's what defines him, this quick energy, it has informed his work ever since and is indicative of the NYCB style – ahead of the music, and with this sharp attack. That’s how I’m trying to mould the dancers here. I really want the dancers to absorb his kind of movement and that attack.” He believes Peck’s style and the AB’s freshness and culture will be a great match.

Callum Linnane in 'Kunstkamer'. Photo: Simon Eeles.
Callum Linnane in 'Kunstkamer'. Photo: Simon Eeles.

On the same program he has scheduled Wayne McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, which features an all male cast. While Australians have seen a number of McGregor’s ballets, Hallberg is keen to present Obsidian Tear because it shows a different side of of the choreographer, a more “flowing and introspective quality” than Australians are familiar with.

Alongside these gems of modern ballet are some landmark traditional story ballets, such as Ratmansky's revival of Petipa's Harlequinade and the ever popular, ever heart-breaking Romeo and Juliet (Cranko's version). in addition, the year opens with a brand new retelling of the Russian classic, Anna Karenina. This version of the ballet is choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, formerly a principal dancer with Bolshoi Ballet and San Francisco Ballet and now a major international choreographer, and has a specially commissioned orchestral score by Ilya Demutsky which includes Russian folksongs sung on stage by a mezzo-soprano. A co-production with the Chicago Ballet, it was meant to be seen in Melbourne and Sydney last year, but because of the pandemic was only seen in Adelaide. It was hailed as "a triumph": see Maggie Tonkin's review here.

Bringing out choreographers to Australia to stage their works, along with their assistants, is no mean feat during a pandemic. To stage his Harlequinade, Alexei Ratmansky and his wife spent several weeks in August in quarantine; Kunstkamer requires all four choreographers and their assistants. Hallberg believes it is essential to have them come in person so the dancers learn the work from the source. With Ratmansky, for instance, “it’s not just about the body of the of the steps but about the details and nuances.”

The company received a special exemption to continue rehearsing through the Melbourne lockdown last year, with a strict Covid testing regime and no administrative staff on site. Though it was frustrating to not be able to perform, such prolonged studio time enabled an intensive period of training and preparation, uninterrupted by the usual frantic touring schedule.

“I was able to teach class. I took small groups of 12 over a two week periods and homed in on their style, technique, refinement, quality. It’s been really productive. I wouldn’t have had the time usually to work in such an intimate way with all the dancers.”

Hallberg has seen numerous dance companies during his glittering career, many of which have their particular style and stamp on the artform. Is there anything distinctive about the Australian Ballet?

“The dancers have the openness of character and culture I haven’t experienced anywhere else,” he replies. “The benefit is that they can absorb new styles and executions. They have the ability to morph. It’s a great quality to have as company, because they are open to new approaches.”

'Anna Karenina' opens in Melbourne on Friday and runs till March 9; then moves to Sydney from April 5-23. 


Since this article was written, Hallberg has announced that he will return to the stage and dance in Kunstkamer in Sydney and Melbourne. He will appear as a guest artist in the opening night performances in both Sydney (29 April) and Melbourne (3 June) as well as further selected performances throughout both seasons (see below).

David Hallberg performance dates:

David Hallberg. Photo: Daniel Boud
David Hallberg. Photo: Daniel Boud


Friday 29 April, 7:30pm
Saturday 30 April, 7:30pm
Tuesday 3 May, 7:30pm
Wednesday 4 May, 7:30pm
Friday 6 May, 7:30pm
Saturday 7 May, 7:30pm
Monday 9 May, 7:30pm
Wednesday 11 May, 7:30pm
Friday 13 May, 7:30pm
Saturday 14 May, 7:30pm


Friday 3 June, 7:30pm
Saturday 4 June, 7:30pm
Tuesday 7 June, 7:30pm
Wednesday 8 June, 7:30pm
Friday 10 June, 7:30pm
Saturday 11 June, 7:30pm


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