Giselle, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, May 1

Graeme Murphy fell ill earlier this year and was unable to complete his new ballet, The Happy Prince, in time for its premiere in Melbourne, which was to have been in March. It was then to be performed in Sydney (it is now likely to be seen in 2020). Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella (2013) and Maina Gielgud’s Giselle (1986) were rushed into the Melbourne and Sydney schedules respectively – safe choices and understandable ones, given both ballets were staged recently.

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Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo in Giselle. Photo: Daniel Boud

Ako Kondo’s gentle, thistledown Giselle captivated from the moment she appeared. She seemed scarcely to touch the ground, levitated by her love for Albrecht. When she went mad she seemed even less substantial, sinking to her knees as if weightless. Kondo’s interpretation was delicately drawn and full of fine, illuminating detail – the shy, brief touching of hands with Albrecht, her quiet awe in the presence of Bathilde, the heartbreaking way in which she told Hilarion she didn’t love him, forced into a declaration her sweet soul shrank from making. Principal artist Andrew Killian is a highly experienced Hilarion who on this occasion appeared much more vulnerable than usual, a portrayal that meshed beautifully with Kondo’s approach.

She undoubtedly benefited from Leanne Benjamin’s insights. The former Royal Ballet principal artist was guest coach for this season.

As always, Olga Tamara was superb as Giselle’s mother. She is marvellous in the mime, which is the audience’s bridge from the first act to the second. It was also good to see the Peasant pas de deux pleasingly integrated into the action. It can often seem rather dull, overlong and extraneous but one felt that Jill Ogai and Marcus Morelli – Ogai in particular – were part of this community. With her natural, earthy quality Ogai would be an interesting Giselle.

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Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo. Photo: Daniel Boud

Chengwu Guo’s Albrecht was danced gleamingly although his acting was less layered in the first act than Kondo’s. The moment when Albrecht recognises the necklace his betrothed, Bathilde, has given Giselle went for little and appeared to be completely forgotten the next second while the upstairs-downstairs relationship with his attendant, Wilfred (Timothy Coleman, excellent), was sketchily rendered. Guo was more convincing in the second act as he tenderly supported Kondo, who was entirely of the air and at one with the melting Romantic style that gives Giselle its enduring appeal.

The women of the company were entrancing as the wilis in Act II and perhaps would have been more dramatically forceful had Nicola Curry as their queen, Myrtha, registered more forcefully herself.

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The Australian Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Daniel Boud

During this season of Giselle The Australian Ballet is also performing in New York at the Joyce Theater’s Australia Festival, presenting a mixed bill from May 9-12 featuring three of TAB’s four resident choreographers. Stephen Baynes’s Unspoken Dialogues and Alice Topp’s Aurum will be joined by a new work from Tim Harbour. With part of the company out of town a handful of more junior dancers will be seen as Hilarion, Myrtha and in the Peasant pas at some performances. It’s worth scanning the casting to see who and when.

Giselle ends on May 18.

Verve, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 5

The Australian Ballet’s contemporary triple bill Verve, having a Sydney season this year after its premiere in Melbourne last year, presents works from the company’s three resident choreographers, each with a distinctive style that serves the program well.

Veteran Stephen Baynes, who has held his post since 1995, is a classicist who puts his women on point and on a pedestal. Tim Harbour, who was appointed in 2014, offers hard-edged abstraction. Alice Topp, named a resident choreographer last year, makes work with emotional and sensual appeal. (Each was, or in the case of Topp still is, a dancer with the company.)

Harbour was nurtured through TAB’s Bodytorque new works program – where has that gone? – and so was Topp, with an eye-catching series of works that marked her out as a real talent. She was rewarded with a mainstage work in 2016, Little Atlas. Her latest, Aurum, is a significant step forward.

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Ako Kondo, Andrew Killian and Cristiano Martino in Constant Variants. Photo: Daniel Boud

Verve opens with Baynes’s elegant Constant Variants from 2007, danced to Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Its world is one in which partners address one another in a courtly fashion and women, who exude an air of containment and mystery, are admired by men as if they are precious jewels.

On opening night Ako Kondo took the role made on Madeleine Eastoe and made something different of it. Jon Buswell’s soft lighting summons thoughts of dim cloisters and Eastoe’s gentle radiance glowed like a candle in the dark whenever she appeared. Kondo has a different kind of appeal – more sophisticated and less knowable.

Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow, first seen in 2015, finishes the night with a frenetic – and, it must be said, formidable – display of athleticism. Eight men and four women stride on and off to a thunderous score by 48nord, looking in spectacular form as they fling themselves across the stage or at one another. On opening night the eye was particularly caught by Dimity Azoury, Jill Ogai, rising talent Shaun Andrews and Brett Chynoweth, who was made a principal artist last year and not before time.

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Marcus Morelli and Brett Chynoweth in Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Daniel Boud

Topp’s Aurum is inspired by the sophisticated Japanese art of kintsugi, by which broken ceramics are made whole again with gold lacquer. The use of gold honours the value of the original piece and at the same time highlights the damage suffered. The cracks show and become part of the piece’s history. Topp sees an analogy with human relationships. There will be breakages and flaws; and while restoration is possible, nothing will be exactly as it was.

Aurum is danced by five couples wearing simple white garments of Topp’s design. The mood is intense and yearning, supported by the rippling, swelling music of Ludovico Einaudi, a Topp favourite, and Jon Buswell’s golden lighting.

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Robyn Hendricks and Kevin Jackson in Aurum. Photo: Daniel Boud

Aurum is at its best in the smaller moments – a man and woman stand in separate pools of light far from one another and raise an arm in farewell, a woman’s head rests on a man’s chest as if she is listening to his heartbeat, the shadows of two men seem to take on a life of their own, a man leans backwards and a woman cradles his head. When the group dances in unison the effect is undeniably rousing but the meaning less clear than the touching duos danced so tenderly on opening night by Kevin Jackson, Robyn Hendricks, Adam Bull and Coco Mathieson. The first three are principals artists while Mathieson is still in the corps. Her fervent commitment was outstanding.

In a big coup for Topp so early in her mainstage choreographic career, Aurum will be seen at New York’s Joyce Theater next month as part of its Australia Festival, alongside Baynes’s Unspoken Dialogues (from 2004) and a new work from Harbour.

Verve ends in Sydney on April 25.

The Australian Ballet and Queensland Ballet reveal 2019 programs

Alice Topp was yesterday named The Australian Ballet’s fourth resident choreographer, joining Stephen Baynes and Stanton Welch, (both appointed in 1995) and Tim Harbour (2014). Topp, a coryphée with the company, is the second woman to be given the title following Natalie Weir. It’s been a long time between drinks: Weir held the post for several years from 2000.

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Alice Topp, The Australian Ballet’s new resident choreographer. Photo: Kate Longley

Topp was nurtured via TAB’s Bodytorque series, as was Harbour. The choreographic development program has, unfortunately, been put on the backburner after several years of diminishing numbers of performances and participants. Bodytorque was MIA this year and is nowhere in sight in TAB’s 2019 program, announced yesterday.

Still, the Topp appointment is extremely good news and the year’s two new productions are highly enticing – well, if you live in Sydney or Melbourne. Other cities will have to wait. Stanton Welch’s production of Sylvia (a co-production with Welch’s Houston Ballet) brings to the repertoire a ballet never before performed by TAB, and Graeme Murphy collaborates with brilliant designer Kim Carpenter on The Happy Prince, based on the Oscar Wilde story. The Happy Prince will feature a new score by Christopher Gordon.

TAB artistic director David McAllister said yesterday The Happy Prince would be a “beautiful, rich, whole of family experience”. In recent years TAB has put a great deal of energy into reaching young audiences, including offering child-friendly versions of the classics in performances that run for less than an hour. In 2019 the family audience will also be lured with repeats of Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker (Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Brisbane, Melbourne).

Having been staged only in Melbourne last year, Topp’s latest work, Aurum, will be seen in Sydney in 2019 as part of the contemporary program Verve. With Topp’s appointment it’s now a resident choreographers’ triple bill: alongside Aurum is Baynes’s Constant Variants from 1997 and Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow(2015). Aurum is also slated to appear at New York’s Joyce Theatre in May.

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Kevin Jackson and Leanne Stojmenov in Alice Topp’s Aurum. Photo: Jeff Busby

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo will perform Jean-Christophe Maillot’s contemporary Swan Lake, LAC, as part of TAB’s 2019 season in Melbourne only.

Queensland Ballet has also just announced its 2019 season. The big news is the world premiere of artistic associate Liam Scarlett’s Dangerous Liaisons to the music of Saint-Saëns, co-produced with Texas Ballet Theater. Tracy Grant Lord will design, as she did so delightfully for Scarlett’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which QB co-produced with Royal New Zealand Ballet. (QB takes Dream to Melbourne next week.)

QB will bring back the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet that was such a success for the company in 2014 and continues its annual Nutcracker tradition by restaging Ben Stevenson’s production for the seventh time.

A triple bill of ballets by George Balanchine, Jiří Kylián and Trey McIntyre and the very successful Bespoke program take care of contemporary ballet. Bespoke is where QB delivers a full evening of new choreography from experienced dance-makers – next year’s names are Lucy Guerin, Amy Hollingsworth and RNZB’s Loughlin Prior – while emerging choreographers will be seen in Synergy.

My year in dance

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Pina Bausch made my year. For his final Sydney Festival in January, artistic director Lieven Bertels programmed two bracing De Keersmaeker works, Fase and Vortex Temporum, and the huge thrill was seeing the choreographer herself in Fase (my review is here). Living dance history. Festival clout and money also made the Bausch experience possible. At the Adelaide Festival in March Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performed Nelken, which was obviously a necessity to see, but just a week later Wellington’s New Zealand International Arts Festival trumped Adelaide. In the repertoire carve-up the Wellington-based festival got the double bill of Café Muller and Rite of Spring. I had always longed to see both live. And now I have.

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Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: Matt Grace

The Perth International Arts Festival (February) and the Brisbane Festival (September) – there’s a theme here – also provided performances that made it into my best-of list. It was absolutely worth going to Perth for just one night from Sydney (flying time: five hours) to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Apocrifu, which was outstandingly beautiful, in a rough, sweaty kind of way, and accompanied by celestial a capella singing from the all-male group A Filetta. It was a much easier business to pop up to Brisbane for Jonah Bokaer’s Rules of the Game – not really for the much-hyped title work (its score was by Pharrell Williams) but for the chance to see earlier Bokaer pieces and the choreographer himself onstage.

More festival highlights, these from local choreographers: Stephanie Lake’s super-intelligent Double Blind at the Sydney Festival, Kristina Chan’s ravishing A Faint Existence at Performance Space’s Liveworks festival in October and Nicola Gunn and Jo Lloyd’s Mermermer, also at Liveworks.

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Kristina Chan in A Faint Existence. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

The rest of the key works in 2016 come from major companies. The Australian Ballet, which has been looking very, very conventional of late, stretched dancers and audiences with John Neumeier’s Nijinsky (which I reviewed for Limelight magazine); Bangarra Dance Theatre’s triple bill OUR land people stories was a luminous program; and Sydney Dance Company’s double bills Untamed (October) and CounterMove (February) yet again demonstrated the thoroughbred power and impressive individuality of Rafael Bonachela’s dancers.

In the year I saw dance in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Auckland and Wellington, but yet again I mourn the fact that I just wasn’t able to visit Melbourne more often to sample its contemporary dance riches. As so often, Samuel Beckett comes to mind: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

On the people front the biggest news of the year was the re-emergence of David Hallberg after a two-and-a-half year absence from the stage. The American superstar, a principal artist at both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, spent a year at The Australian Ballet’s headquarters in Melbourne undergoing extensive rehabilitation after having surgery for an ankle problem. His return to the stage was, fittingly, with the AB, and as it happened, the scheduled ballet gave Hallberg a role debut. He danced four performances as Franz in Coppélia. (You can read about the rehabilitation process here and the Coppélia performance here.)

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David Hallberg in Act I of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

Queensland Ballet made a splash when it announced the appointment, from 2017, of Liam Scarlett as artistic associate. Scarlett retains his artist in residence role at the Royal Ballet. At the same time QB announced artistic director Li Cunxin had signed on for four more years. The board must be happy about that.

Less happily, Royal New Zealand Ballet announced that its relatively new artistic director, Francesco Ventriglia, would be relinquishing that role in mid-2017. He will stay on to choreograph the announced new Romeo and Juliet, but then he’s off. What happened? I’ll let you know when I find out, although previously he had spoken to me enthusiastically about being in New Zealand. The RNZ website (Radio New Zealand) wrote in early December that as many as a dozen dancers and staff had left RNZB because of conflicts with Ventriglia, quoting a representative of the union that represents dancers.

I stress I have no information that suggests these departures are connected with Ventriglia’s, but leading Australian-born RNZB dancer Lucy Green has accepted a position with Queensland Ballet for 2017 and RNZB’s former music director Nigel Gaynor, who was hired by Ventriglia’s predecessor Ethan Stiefel, is now QB’s music director. These gains by QB could easily be explained by Li Cunxin’s voracious eye for talent – as in the Liam Scarlett coup (QB and RNZB share Scarlett’s lovely Midsummer Night’s Dream so there’s a close connection).

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Queensland Ballet’s Rian Thompson and Laura Hidalgo in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: David Kelly

The biggest disappointment of the year is the AB’s lack of commitment to developing new choreographers. It’s true that Bodytorque, which started in 2004, needed a fresh look, but it’s become the incredible shrinking show, offering less and less each year. The name is no longer used at all and the amount of new work from developing choreographers is minuscule.

Bodytorque was last seen in its familiar form in 2013 – six new or relatively inexperienced choreographers made works that were seen in a short special season at what is now the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney. In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne and featured five works, including a piece by newly minted resident choreographer Tim Harbour. The other four dance-makers included Alice Topp (her fourth year at Bodytorque) and Richard House (with his second piece).

In 2015 the name still lingered but the program had dwindled to the creation of just one work, House’s From Something, to Nothing, shown once in Sydney and once in Melbourne as a “pop-up” event called Bodytorque Up Late. This took place after performances of mainstage repertoire, once in Sydney and once in Melbourne. The audience could stay to watch for free if it wished. Or not.

In 2016 it was clear favour had fallen on Topp and House, which is fair enough. Both, but particularly Topp, are worth persevering with. This time their new works, each of about 10 minutes in length, were programmed as part of a group of divertissements that acted as a curtain-raiser to Balanchine’s Symphony in C, which gave the whole evening its name.

And for 2017? Those two pieces will be seen again, this time in Melbourne when that city gets Symphony in C. So – let’s add up the minutes. In the three years from 2015-2017, there will have been a bit under 40 minutes in total of new choreography from developing choreographers.

It’s possible AB artistic director David McAllister has big plans for Topp, or House, or both. After all, Harbour was developed via a series of Bodytorque commissions. But Harbour emerged from a quite a large pack. The window of opportunity has now narrowed excessively – and depressingly.

The Australian Ballet in 2017

Next year the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre, home to both The Australian Ballet and Opera Australia when they are in Sydney, will close for seven months. It’s in a good cause, as theatre machinery that’s done sterling work but is now outdated will be replaced. It’s been there since the Opera House opened in 1973. But the closure also means the companies have had to find alternative performance venues from late May to December in 2017.

The Opera House is deeply important to both companies. Opera and ballet are accessible to tourists who may not speak English and the Opera House itself is a huge drawcard. Can those tourists be lured to other venues? And will locals – particularly those with long-held subscription seats with which they are comfortable – stay loyal or simply decide to sit the second half of the year out?

Opera Australia has already announced a vagabond-style program that sees it performing in the Concert Hall and the Playhouse at the Opera House, Sydney Town Hall and the City Recital Centre. It has also secured the Capitol Theatre for Moffatt Oxenbould’s enduringly popular production of Madama Butterfly, double cast so it can be performed nightly for just under two weeks from October 24, 2017.

The Capitol, not surprisingly, is where the AB will also hang its hat in the latter part of the year. It will stage two full-length ballets there, a return of artistic director David McAllister’s sumptuous 2015 version of The Sleeping Beauty (November 2017) and Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (December 2017). Both are large productions that will be seen to advantage at the Capitol, which was made for grand gestures. It is almost ridiculously ornate, full of visual surprises that border on kitsch but somehow manage to dodge it. There are alcoves full of statuary, a proscenium groaning with decoration and a light-studded ceiling that mimics the night sky. The 2000-seat Capitol is a show all by itself.

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Amber Scott, centre, as the Lilac Fairy in The Australian Ballet’s Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Beauty will also be staged in Brisbane and Melbourne in the usual theatres and Alice will premiere in Melbourne.

Just before the Joan Sutherland Theatre closes in May the AB will bring back Graeme Murphy’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara, which premiered an astonishing 25 years ago. With its distinctively Australian take on the story, its touching references to the history of ballet in this country and Kristian Fredrikson’s gorgeous costumes, this Nutcracker has a special place in the AB’s repertoire. After Sydney it will be seen in Melbourne.

That’s it for full-length works. The annual contemporary program is a triple bill called Faster and will feature new works by Wayne McGregor and AB resident choreographer Tim Harbour alongside David Bintley’s Faster, which was created in 2012 to a score by the Australian composer Matthew Hindson. Bintley, the artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, made Faster in London’s Olympics year with the motto Faster, Higher, Stronger as his inspiration (Bintley originally called the ballet exactly that but the International Olympic Committee made him change the title). It will be fascinating to compare this with AB resident choreographer Stephen Baynes’s Personal Best, made for Sydney’s Olympic Arts Festival of 2000 to Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto. In a program note Baynes wrote of athletes’ “obsessive and isolating struggle” for supremacy and the speed with which disappointment can replace elation.

Hindson has described his score for Faster as “symphonic in scope”. Also of note on the music front is that McGregor’s work will have a new score by the indefatigable Steve Reich, who celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow, October 3. Faster will open in Melbourne in March and then travel to Sydney in April.

Melbourne gets an extra program, Symphony in C, which was seen in Sydney this year. Balanchine’s one-act ballet is preceded by a group of divertissements which will include two short works – Little Atlas and Scent of Love – made, respectively, by AB company members Alice Topp and Richard House. The pieces premiered alongside Symphony in C in Sydney in April.

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Vivienne Wong, Kevin Jackson and Rudy Hawkes in Little Atlas. Photo: Daniel Boud

Which leads us to the big gap in the AB’s programming. There is, again, no Bodytorque program. Bodytorque started in 2004 as a stand-alone showcase for new and relatively new choreographers, mostly drawn from the ranks of the AB. Bodytorque was distinguished from the main program by being held at the former Sydney Theatre, now the Roslyn Packer Theatre, for five performances. Until 2013 it was held annually in Sydney, except for a year off during the AB’s Ballets Russes centenary project. In one ambitious year all the choreographers were able to work to new commissioned scores.

In 2014 Bodytorque went to Melbourne for the first time, for three performances in the AB’s usual (and big) home of the State Theatre. In 2015 the program dwindled to a couple of “pop-up” performances tacked on to the end of a mainstage show, free for anyone who wanted to stay on. And then Bodytorque essentially disappeared. This year Topp and House, both of whom had been Bodytorque regulars, were given a slot for a new work in the diverts half of the Symphony in C program in Sydney, as they will be again when the program is repeated in Melbourne next year – with the same 10-minute work.

Perhaps McAllister is thinking about a refreshed way of developing new choreographers. Or perhaps attention has been diverted to Storytime Ballet, a new venture directed at very young children. There’s no denying that the AB is a busy company and that 2017 is year in which it has to look closely at where it puts its resources. There’s also no rule that says everything has to stay the same, and it’s true to say that if you’re looking for a success story from Bodytorque, since its inception only Tim Harbour has emerged as a regular dancemaker. But if you don’t keep looking you’re not going to find anyone.

About last week … June 20-26

Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co was the venue for another in the invaluable Neglected Musicals series (June 21). Rehearsal is minimal (a day only), there may be a sketchy set and a few props, and the actors – always very, very good – have books in hand. By some strange alchemy it always feels like a proper show. I’ve seen some beauties. Unfortunately Baby the Musical (1983) can’t be counted among them. We were told it was nominated for seven Tony awards but had the misfortune to be up against Sunday in the Park with George and La Cage aux Folles. Yes, well. I think it was kind of making up the category, as its competition included The Tap Dance Kid (I admit that’s a title entirely new to me) and Kander and Ebb’s The Rink, which did not meet with much critical favour and didn’t last a year (nor did Baby). Baby is little more than an extended skit really about three couples expecting a baby or hoping to. That’s it. Music is by David Shire, lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr and the book by Sybille Pearson. They’re not particularly scintillating except for the big women’s number I Want it All. That still works. The generous actors giving their all at the Hayes included Katrina Retallick, David Whitney (both fabulous) and the incredibly plucky Kate Maree Hoolihan who powered through a respiratory illness to keep the curtain up.

Next in Neglected Musicals (from August 3 for six performances) is Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s Calamity Jane, starring Virginia Gay. I’m absolutely up for that one.

Nederlands Dans Theater had one thing people could agree on during its brief Melbourne visit: the magnetism, authority and power of its dancers. Responses to the program (June 22) were more mixed. The evening opened and closed with works choreographed by NDT artistic director Paul Lightfoot and his associate Sol León that were long on visual glamour but rather shorter on emotional and visceral satisfaction.

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Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Sehnsucht (2009) was simultaneously overwrought and underdone. A man and a women played out a domestic drama in a small rotating box slightly elevated and set back – a kind of square tumble-drier with fixed table and chair and a window for escaping through. In front of them a solitary man emoted to Beethoven piano sonatas. In the second half a large ensemble was borne along by the majesty of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, although the connection between dance and music was tenuous. I couldn’t tell why this work in particular and not another one. One couldn’t deny, however, that Beethoven provided a thrillingly strong, familiar beat. The dancers looked marvelous, of course, although I did feel for Prince Credell, the solo man, who was forced to crouch at the front of the stage when Sehnsucht – the word suggests intense yearning – ended. The auditorium lights came up, he stayed, the audience stood about a bit and then he slowly unfurled himself.

Lightfoot/León’s Stop-Motion (2014), to music by Max Richter, had a similarly glossy air without convincing one that it meant anything other than generalised anguish. Too often the dancers stopped and posed either in arabesque or with legs held high to the side, either straight or with a bent knee. One admired the control, but admiring technical skill, particularly when invited to do so again and again, can get rather tiresome. Sehnsucht would have given the program a more striking ending but as Stop-Motion ends with quantities of flour being thrown about the stage, logistics demanded it closed the evening.

Thanks goodness for the central work (in all senses), Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo. There was a backdrop of falling snow, Brahms piano and cello sonatas, and an aching sense of need and loss. In the crepuscular light dancers swirled, slid and connected as if their lives depended on it. Breathtaking is an overused and frequently meaningless word of praise. Here it was entirely apposite. I wasn’t aware of myself, those around me, or of the need to breathe. Those dancers, that dance, that music, that experience filled every moment.

I won’t say too much about West Australian Ballet’s Genesis program (seen June 23) because I serve as a member of the company’s artistic review panel. The program gives WAB dancers a chance to develop their choreographic skills and is a vital part of the operation, as it is with Queensland Ballet’s Dance Dialogues. The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque program seems to have disappeared, although this year two alumni, Alice Topp and Richard House, had work programmed as part of the AB’s mainstage season. At WAB just-retired principal artist Jayne Smeulders and soloist Andre Santos have made it to the mainstage via earlier workshops.

You will note I name two women, which is cause for rejoicing. One of the hot topics of conversation in classical dance is the scarcity – it’s close to complete absence – of female choreographers, although Crystal Pite is breaking through, as she deserves to. At WAB this year a gratifying number of women were represented: Polly Hilton, Florence Leroux-Coléno and Melissa Boniface stepped up to the plate alongside Santos, Christopher Hill, Adam Alzaim and Alessio Scognamiglio.

At the end of this year WAB stages a new Nutcracker co-choreographed by Smeulders, WAB artistic director Aurélien Scannella and ballet mistress Sandy Delasalle.

 

Symphony in C: The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 29.

Symphony in C is one of George Balanchine’s grandest and most cherished pronouncements on the classical tradition. It features a strict hierarchy that cascades down from principals and soloists to an all-female corps and ends in exhilarating fashion with more than 40 dancers onstage – a number at the lower end of the spectrum for this work but the Sydney Opera House stage has limitations – and dazzling white tutus as far as the eye can see.

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The Australian Ballet in Symphony in C. Photo: Daniel Boud

It also gets the job done in a swift 30 minutes, meaning The Australian Ballet needed to fill the evening out with something else. Many choices could be made; artistic director David McAllister went the divertissement route, otherwise known as bite-sized audience-pleasers. A mini-gala of five works, each lasting about 10 minutes, was offered as a kind of warm-up act to the Balanchine and put three longstanding international favourites alongside what we could call the ghost of Bodytorque. In years past the AB gave four or five emerging choreographers a relatively low-key chance to test their work before the public. That seems to be gone, which is a real loss, but Bodytorque veterans Richard House and Alice Topp have been promoted to the main stage. Both are confident dance-makers and both have made better works.

House’s Scent of Love, to the music of Michael Nyman, is an idyll for two couples that is as attractive, gauzy and evanescent as the name suggests. There was the slight whiff of a narrative in which a young man and woman (Amanda McGuigan and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson) were perhaps then seen as their older, less happy selves (real-life couple Amy Harris and Jarryd Madden). It wasn’t a lot to hold on to. The piece started with a forceful visual statement – Kat Chan designed – that elicited immediate applause but had no further dramatic function, unless to posit McGuigan as a fashion model (she’s certainly beautiful enough). McGuigan rippled her arms fetchingly, there were close encounters and yearnings, and there were conventional images of the strong, protective man with his lovely woman. McGuigan ran to Rodgers-Wilson, he lifted and flipped her around, she was held upside down after a shoulder lift and so on. The relationships were obvious and not terribly interesting.

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Amanda McGuigan and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson in Scent of Love. photo: Daniel Boud

That said, House is worth sticking with. When last year’s From Something, To Nothing ended you wanted to know what happened next. That’s good. Topp also has thoughtful work on her CV but Little Atlas, for a woman and two men, also got caught up with ballet-land verities about men and women. He’s strong enough to hold her over his head so he does; she is super-bendy so let’s see just how stretchy she can look.

Topp describes Little Atlas as a memory piece and in her program note writes of events that “plague us” or provide “sanctuary” and “comfort”, but her work appeared to be mainly about anguish, romanticised and aestheticised. While it was not entirely clear what memories Vivienne Wong might be channeling, sexual imagery was much to the fore. Wong – always a ferocious force in new choreography – emerged from a circle of light to be draped, dragged, folded and lifted on high with legs dismayingly splayed.

With today’s work we must deal with today’s social and sexual politics. These things just aren’t shapes, they carry meaning, and I didn’t get from Little Atlas the sense of an independent woman confident in her individuality and ability to make choices. Neither did Topp appear to be taking a position on oppressive relationships. Topp seemed to have fallen victim, without realising it, to contemporary ballet’s fetish for displaying women as objects. It was cave-man stuff to pleasant, soft-grained music by Ludovico Einaudi. The audience gave it an ecstatic reception.

Little Atlas - Symphony in C - 1pm Dress Rehearsal

Vivienne Wong, Kevin Jackson and Rudy Hawkes in Little Atlas. Photo: Daniel Boud

The pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain closed the first half and provided much balm. AB senior artist – and surely very soon a principal – Robyn Hendricks and Australian-born guest Damian Smith quietly distilled the complexities of love. Smith, who retired from San Francisco Ballet in 2014 after a long and shining career, brought the gravitas and weight of a long, deep association with the role and Hendricks was outstandingly luxurious, mysterious and unknowable. Sublime. Well, apart from the mystifying musical glitch that had violinist Jun Yi Ma – he is concertmaster and artistic adviser for the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra so he knows his way around the instrument – sound as if he’d started on the wrong page and couldn’t to get back to where he needed to be. Stuart Macklin on piano played on serenely, Hendricks and Smith rose above it and conductor Nicolette Fraillon got things back on track after what felt like forever. It was probably the halfway mark, possibly sooner, but for a while Arvo Pärt’s translucent Spiegel im Spiegel sounded most strange indeed.

After The Rain - Symphony in C - 7pm Dress Rehearsal

Robyn Hendricks and Damian Smith in After the Rain. Photo: Daniel Boud

Incidentally, I suppose it’s too much to ask that we see the full After the Rain at some point. Interestingly, the Royal Ballet brought the whole work into its repertoire only this year despite its longstanding ties with Wheeldon. The AB performed it 2007. Time for a rerun?

The two older divertissements in the first half of the program were pieces seen in galas the world over and need a huge amount of splash and dash. Chengwu Guo was ridiculously entertaining in the Diana and Actéon pas de deux, helicoptering around the stage in pursuit of applause and the effervescent Ako Kondo. In the unforgiving technical showpiece Grand pas classique Miwako Kubota and Brett Chynoweth gave many flashes of brilliance but didn’t fully impose themselves on the piece. (I also attended the dress rehearsal the night before opening and Kubota and Chynoweth – another one knocking very loudly on the door of the principals’ dressing room – were on song. But that’s not the performance I was reviewing and that’s showbiz.)

One shouldn’t miss any opportunity to see Symphony in C, even if the too-small Joan Sutherland Theatre stage makes it difficult to appreciate the sparkling complexity of its construction in detail. It was also good to hear the AOBO play Bizet’s beguiling symphony with much verve under Fraillon’s baton. Symphony in C, written when Bizet was only 17, wasn’t discovered until after his death. Balanchine pounced on it for a work for Paris Opera Ballet (first called Le Palais de Cristal) in 1947 and put his individual stamp of genius on this homage to classicism.

Each of the four movements has a distinctively different quality, clearly defined by Friday’s glamorous opening-night cast (it fielded eight of the company’s nine principals). Each features a principal duo supported by two soloist pairs and a corps of women whose number squeezed on to the stage but only squeaked in as far as the ballet’s needs go. Larger companies with bigger stages put more than 50 dancers on at the end but the AB had to make do with 42. The men partnered gallantly and danced with panache but it’s the women’s ballet. Leanne Stojmenov (enchanting), Amber Scott (luscious), Ako Kondo (vivacious) and Lana Jones (grand) were all wonderful but the crowning glory was Scott’s otherworldly sensuousness in the famous slow second movement.

Symphony in C runs in repertory with Vitesse and ends May 14.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on May 2.