NOTICE: Summer at the ballet

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The Australian Ballet
Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne
Notice of Friday, February 26

The sense of celebration and excitement was palpable on Friday night as the Australian Ballet took to the stage for the first time in nearly a year. “Summer at the Ballet was a diverse repertoire program mixing many beloved classics with contemporary works by Australian choreographers. It was also the first scheduled performance of the company’s new artistic director, David Hallberg. Delightfully, the choice of pieces wasn’t too predictable and all of them worked wonderfully in snippet form. This event was a really big deal for Melbourne, where we went through lockdown after lockdown. There was also the feeling of not realizing how hungry you are until a delicious platter of food is placed in front of you. The Friday night crowd ate the delicacies on offer with flying colors.

Even after a year of absence, the company was in fabulous shape, both technically and in its exuberance. On opening night, the public was treated to performances by all of the company’s major artists. The choice of Margaret Court Arena was another surprise, as were the staggered entry times. Members of the audience who were due to arrive early were able to see the company bar on stage followed by a few individual passages. (I had my gaze fixed on Chengwu Guo as he repeatedly practiced a series of effortless spins that ended quietly, suspended in a demi-pointe in a retired top. Happiness!)

The Victoria Orchestra, conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, was magnificent – more visible than usual, positioned on a raised platform behind the dancers and presented with a musical excerpt at the start of each act. The arena, despite its disproportionate size, ironically allowed a certain privacy because the dancers were closer to the public for lack of an orchestra pit. The lighting has remained simple and efficient and the lack of scenery does not detract from the staging.

The choice of works was great, as was the dance. Seven choreographers were represented, including four Australians. The Kingdom of Shadows of The Bayadere was a fascinating introduction to the evening. Bewitching by its precision and beauty, the 24 tutu’d dancers held perfect arabesques and carried out 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 brutal awakening from the world of Shadows, the trio of Tim Harbor’s Watermark and Shadow was suitably short, pointed and angular. Jill Ogai, Marcus Morelli and Shaun Andrews went all out.

A second Australian work, Molto Vivace, by Stephen Baynes brought the program back to a more serene atmosphere, with his handel score and his elegant and languid choreography. Amber Scott and Adam Bull were a beautiful couple, with their short stature contrasting with their stature. The pas de deux was danced with emotion.

After the lush romance of Molto Vivace, the excerpt from Lucas Jervies Spartacus was all about men. As gladiators, they trained and flexed their muscles as they sought to survive in their brutal world. This section made a great sample and the dancers were wonderful.

The highlight of the first half of the program was Act 3 Don Quixote No two. Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo made a perfect Kitri and Basilio. I will never get tired of Guo’s elastic ball and his perfectly mastered jumps and turns. Kondo was light as air in his solo – crisp and bossy in every way. Unsurprisingly, the audience went wild.

The second half of the program took us into the lyrical and romantic universe of Lehar The Merry Widow. Amber Scott made a lovely Hanna and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson a dashing Camille. The corps de ballet was lush in its costume adornments and swift waltzes. Sharni Spencer danced the carefree Valencian.

Robyn Hendricks and Callum Linnane looked stunning in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de deux, all softness and dynamism.

The star of this half was Karen Nanasca and Nathan Brook dancing Clay, from Alice Topp Logos. For me, it gave me chills, and not just because it was a new piece of work seen the last time the live dance was performed in Melbourne – this season has been cut short by the lockdown. It is also a most glorious choreography. It uses the seemingly simple but articulate interweaving of two bodies that are both combative and submissive. Bodies bend to create shapes and spaces until they finally separate in silence.

The big closing number was another work of Balanchine – Theme and Vaations. The pas de deux, performed by Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth, was very confident, channeling the precise classicism of Balanchine. Chynoweth showcased her ballerina to the max. The male dancers were particularly noted for their sharp drums and quick, crisp jumps. The rapid changes of direction seemed effortless on the part of the body and the directors. The polonaise finale, featuring all the actors, was a catchy conclusion to a triumphant ballet celebration.

– SUSAN BENDALL

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