The Australian Ballet
Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne
Reviewed Friday, February 26
The sense of celebration and excitement was palpable on Friday evening as The Australian Ballet took to the stage for the first time in almost a year. "Summertime at the Ballet" was a variegated program of repertoire mixing many well-loved classics with contemporary works by Australian choreographers. It was also the first programmed performance by the company’s new Artistic Director, David Hallberg. Delightfully, the choice of pieces was not too predictable and all worked beautifully as excerpts. This event was a very big deal for Melbourne, where we have been through lockdown after lockdown. There was also a feeling of not realising how hungry you are until a delicious platter of food is set before you. The crowd on Friday night ate up the delights on offer with gusto.
Even after a year away from performing, the company was in fabulous form, both technically and in its exuberance. On opening night the audience was treated to performances by all the company's principal artists. The choice of Margaret Court Arena was another surprise, as were the staggered entrance times. Audience members who were required to arrive early were able to see company barre on the stage followed by some individual run-throughs. (I had my gaze firmly on Chengwu Guo as he repeatedly practised a series of effortless pirouettes which came to a tranquil end, suspended on demi-pointe in a high retiré. Bliss!)
Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, was wonderful – more visible than usual, positioned on a raised platform behind the dancers and showcased with a musical excerpt at the beginning of each act. The arena, despite its huge size, ironically allowed for a certain intimacy as the dancers were closer to the audience for lack of an orchestra pit. The lighting was kept simple and effective and the lack of scenery took nothing away from the staging.
The choice of works was terrific, as was the dancing. Seven choreographers were represented – four of them Australian. The Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadere was a riveting introduction to the evening. Mesmerising in its precision and beauty, The 24 tutu’d dancers held perfect arabesques and executed their port de bras with delicacy. The performance, led by Amy Harris as Nikiya and Ty King-Wall as Solor, was sublime, perfectly in unison and with glorious musicality.
In a rude awakening from the world of the Shades, the trio from Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow was suitably short, sharp and angular. Jill Ogai, Marcus Morelli and Shaun Andrews pulled out all the stops.
A second Australian work, Molto Vivace, by Stephen Baynes brought the program back into a more serene mood, with its Handel score and elegant, languid choreography. Amber Scott and Adam Bull made a fine couple, with her petiteness a contrast to his stature. The pas de deux was danced with emotion.
After the luxuriant romanticism of Molto Vivace, the excerpt from Lucas Jervies’s Spartacus was all about the men. As gladiators they trained and flexed their muscles as they sought to survive in their brutal world. This section made an excellent excerpt and the dancers were wonderful.
The great highlight of the first half of the program was the Act 3 Don Quixote Pas de deux. Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo made a perfect Kitri and Basilio. I will never tire of Guo’s elastic ballon and perfectly controlled leaps and turns. Kondo was light as air in her solo – crisp and commanding in every way. Unsurprisingly, the audience went wild.
The second half of the program took us to the lyrical and romantic world of Lehar's The Merry Widow. Amber Scott made a ravishing Hanna and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson a dashing Camille. The corps de ballet was lush in its costume finery and sweeping waltzes. Sharni Spencer danced the carefree Valencienne.
Robyn Hendricks and Callum Linnane were stunning in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de deux, all sweetness and dynamism.
The stand-out of this half was Karen Nanasca and Nathan Brook dancing Clay, from Alice Topp’s Logos. For me it brought chills, and not only because it was a new work seen the last time live dance was performed in Melbourne – that season was cut short by lock-down. It is also a most glorious piece of choreography. It uses the seemingly simple but articulate intertwining of two bodies that are at once combative and surrendering. The bodies fold to create shapes and spaces until they finally separate in silence.
The big closing number was another Balanchine work – Theme and Vaiations. The pas de deux, performed by Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth, was very assured, channelling Balanchine's precise classicism. Chynoweth showcased his ballerina to the fullest. The male dancers were especially notable for their needle-sharp batterie and swift, clean jumps. Whip-fast changes of direction looked effortless from the corps and principals alike. The final polonaise, bringing on stage the full cast, was a rousing conclusion to a triumphant celebration of ballet.
– SUSAN BENDALL
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