The Australian Ballet is concurrently showing two groups of varied works at Sydney Opera House which give audiences a taste of both the classical and the contemporary in one evening, embodying their motto of “Caring for tradition, daring to be different.”
Each piece in the triptych Vitesse is impressive. The first, Forgotten Land, with choreography by Kylián and music by Benjamin Britten, is an overlapping, intertwining series of paz de deux, intense, wishful, beautiful. I would suggest that in this case, reading the program does not help. The choreographer’s note about “East Anglia, a coastline of England slowly submerging under the sea…” takes one down a path towards the dry, dull world of politics. Even the title itself does this. But watching the dancers in their intimate, almost tango-style couplings, this ballet speaks to me about love, not about land. It is all about people, about personalities and relationships. For me it is more beautiful watched without knowledge of the intended subtext. As important as the message of human abuse and neglect of nature is, the story just doesn’t seem to fit the visual, and this could distract from the dreamy romance of what is actually portrayed.
In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated, the second part of the Vitesse triple-bill, is a work which “split ballet history”, according to Ismene Browne. Choreographer William Forsythe premiered the work in 1987 at Paris Opera Ballet, and since then contemporary ballets can be classed as either pre or post-In The Middle. Forsythe endeavoured to do more than use the then-known vocabulary of ballet movement to express feelings or a story. He wanted to experiment, inquire, make a change, create new steps. He gave his female dancer strong, sharp, slashing moves to basically duel with her partner, extending her limbs to extreme strain and tautness, making her the diametric opposite of the submissive classical ballerina, with her soft, flowing, feminine lines and curves. In this production, the modernism is heightened by the theatricality of the bright turquoise leotards, un-done hairstyles and amplified electric music with heavy drumming, instead of the traditional live orchestra. However, all of this, which can be simplistically seen as ripping up the rules of ballet, is done with what is actually a very classical focus. Looking at the details – it is impossible to achieve the perfect point, the spectacular vertical leg raises, the controlled, articulated dévéloppeés or the precise engineering and balance of the men’s holds, without the focused preparation of academic ballet training. This is classical ballet pushed to its physical limits.
The third, DGV: A Grande Vitesse, is set to music written by Michael Nyman, who is best know for his score for the film The Piano. The rhythmically energetic, propulsive repetitions of the music, written to commemorate the inauguration of a high-speed train line in France, create hurtling momentum, which is matched by Christopher Wheeldon’s abstract neo-classical choreography. Vitesse means speed, or velocity, and this comes through in the dynamism and exhilaration of the movement. The formations are varied and fast, geometrically complex, the movements of limbs often low to the ground and there is a lot of running and sliding across the stage. This is all set against a background of curved sheets of steel, which hints at the industrial nature of the piece’s origin. Additionally, the costumes are leotards of coloured panels in mosaic style, resembling shattered glass, adding to the feeling of fragmented, technological precision. After four sets of lyrical pas de deux on fast-forward, including a jaw-dropping high lift, the thrilling finale sees the full cast on stage at once, in a dense, diverse, energetic coda.
Whilst each of the three individual pieces in Vitesse are successful on their own and transition smoothly so that the set also works as a whole, the six pieces that make up the evening program for Symphony in C feel like more of a mixed bag. This is great for those who do not frequent the ballet and want to experience a little bit of everything in one go – they get a taste of the traditional classical style and the modern-contemporary too. I, however, am not a fan of having my ballet served up to me as a mystery dish, with a dash of surprise on the side. My first bone of contention is the program. Neither the A4 sheet each audience member is handed nor the $20 program identify clearly the order of works, so I was confused as to what to expect when. Secondly, the little petit fours de ballet were each so short and so different that the flow kept being broken and the switch between styles felt rather random. The modern pieces worked well in this format, but not so the classical ones.
First up, Australian choreographer Richard House makes his world premiere performance of Scent of Love, set to the visceral, passionate, yet tranquil score of Michael Nyman. The opening image – an impressive immense crimson dress that flows from a ballerina in the centre to span the entire stage like a grand curtain-cum-carpet and then splits and is dragged away to reveal both the ballerina and her male partner underneath – elicited a spontaneous round of applause and a wave of oohs and aahs from the opening night audience. The piece is a stirringly beautiful interplay of pas de deux with two couples, danced with personal meaning and emotion by Amanda McGuigan, Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, Amy Harris and Jarryd Madden.
The second piece, Grand Pas Classique, is worlds away in terms of style. As the title indicates, it is typically classical. On a completely bare stage, with no props, no decoration, no other dancers, and no flowing costumes, the two senior artists, Miwako Kunota and Brett Chynoweth cannot hide. On opening night at least, the blatant display of strict steps in what seemed like a recital or assessment task, revealed some shaky technique on the part of Kubota, whose failed arabesque was predicted by the quivering of her hand on the support arm of Chynoweth. As soon as the support was removed, she could not hold her own. Unlike her feet, her perfectly plastered smile, however, never faltered. Chynoweth, on the other hand, definitely shone, with his powerful jetés and whirling pirouettes reaching impressive heights and speeds and delighting the audience.
The third piece is another world premiere performance – Little Atlas by Australian choreographer Alice Topp. This is my pick of the night. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and was mesmerised throughout. The three dancers, Vivienne Wong, Rudy Hawkes and Kevin Jackson, merge, meld and mould with such fluid movement into such interesting shapes, morphing from one form into another in such unexpected ways that it’s as if their bodies were one. The lone, simple prop of a halo of lights that encircles Wong at the beginning, which she emerges out of and then returns back to at the end, is effective both symbolically and atmospherically. Topp explains the basis of her creation as being the nature of our memories, which fade, adjust and conform to what we think we remember. It’s an ever-present, ever- evolving process, like the transformation of the dancers’ bodies. The three dancers can be seen to represent the trinity of past, present and future, interconnected, fluid, transient, yet eternal. It’s a beautiful notion, beautifully portrayed. And yet, despite knowing the choreographer’s intention, I can’t help feeling that what’s really happening is that I’m peeping into a woman’s fantasy, as one female is the centre of attention for two gorgeous men, being tenderly pulled, stretched and adored by both at the same time. It is a very gentle, feminine vision of a ménage á trois.
Diana and Actéon, the fourth piece in the set, is another strange placement of a neat, dry classical piece amidst emotive contemporary ones. Again, as in Grand Pas Classique, the female ballerina is outshone and outclassed by her male counterpart. In this case, on opening night, Ako Kondo had no moments of disaster, did display some strength and skill and was generally pleasant to watch, but nothing to write home about. Chengwu Guo, however, burst in with explosion after explosion of pure power. This is the second time I have been impressed to see what Guo is able to do with his short legs, long torso and low bottom. The gymnastic heights he reaches with ballet precision and grace go to show that body type is not as important as we might think. He shone in Vitesse and as Actéon he stole the show.
In the fifth piece, Pas de Deux from After The Rain, we go back to contemporary ballet with an exquisite little love duet choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon to the memorable minimalist piano and violin piece Spiegel Im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt. The moves and the connection between the two dancers, Robyn Hendricks and guest artist Damian Smith, are intimate and idyllically romantic. Everything about it is beautiful. It is a shame, though, that I kept being woken from the dream of the dance by the bones sticking out of Hendricks. She is an incredible dancer, but the low-lighting and nude pink leotard reveal her entire ribcage, which I found rather disconcerting. Next to the tall, broad, muscle-bound, tattooed Smith, she appears so tiny and fragile as to be either anorexic or a little girl in the arms of a grown man – neither message of which is healthy or appropriate.
Finally we get to the eponymous piece, Symphony in C, which is a regular in the repertoire of the Australian Ballet, created by the most prolific of the 20th century’s choreographers, George Balanchine, founder of the American Ballet and New York City Ballet. Switch back to classical mode. It is always impressive to see the stage full of white tutus, tiaras, pointe shoes and chandeliers. It reminds the audience of the grand story ballets like Swan Lake. This is no disappointment. Each of the three movements is structured with a central pas de deux of principal artists, two other senior artist or soloist coulplings and the coryphées and corps de ballet in symmetrical formation. The second movement sees the favourite couple from this season’s Swan Lake, Amber Scott and Adam Bull together again, with their unique on-stage chemistry. In the third movement Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo reappear as a pair as they did earlier in the night in Diana and Actéon. Allegro vivace is the ideal tempo for Guo’s energetic style to dazzle again.
I must isolate one ballerina who catches my eye every time I see her dance. Soloist Benedicte Bemet just seems to sparkle. Although she does not have a particularly large role in either Vitesse or Symphony in C, there is something about her which makes her pop out from the line. Every one of the ballerinas dance with elegance and they are all physically beautiful to look at, but they do not all exude personality. Especially when they are all lined up, moving in perfect unison, they generally meld together into one perfect blurred image. Not so with Bemet. There is something about the tilt of her head and poise of her neck. Something about the earnestness of her facial expression, with her perpetually raised brows and pouting cherry mouth. Something about her subtle, genuine smile. She is immediately identifiable, and as she seems to be really enjoying herself, I enjoy watching her.
In summary, both Vitesse and Symphony in C are successful productions. Although less harmonious in style and less consistent in standard, Symphony in C is well worth going to see, at least for the two new works Scent of Love and Little Atlas, which are the first works for the mainstage for choreographers Richard House and Alice Topp, who both currently dance in the Australian Ballet’s corps de ballet. What a joy it is to see glorious, interesting new works coming out of our own local ranks.
Vitesse is showing at Sydney Opera House until 16 May and Symphony in C until 14 May.
By Alicia Tripp
Alicia is the Theatre Specialist for The Plus Ones, reviewing the premiere concerts, symphonies, operas, ballets and stage shows in Sydney. She is a seasoned arts and music critic, as a former journalist for the ABC Limelight magazine and State of the Arts. She has a degree in Media & Communications, English and Music from the University of Sydney.
Disclaimer: The Plus Ones were invited guests of The Sydney Australian Ballet