David Hallberg, The Sleeping Beauty

The Australian Ballet, Brisbane, February 25

When David Hallberg returned to the ballet stage in Sydney in November last year, in Coppélia with The Australian Ballet, he was coming out of a two-and-a-half year layoff due to injury, the last 12 months of which he spent in Melbourne working with TAB’s medical team. The choice of Franz as a comeback role was unplanned. Coppélia just happened to be what was in the schedule when Hallberg came to the understanding that his dancing career was not, in fact, over as he had feared. Nevertheless, the light-hearted part (a role debut) was just what the doctor ordered.

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David Hallberg. Photo: Renee Nowytarger for The Australian. Used with permission.

Hallberg is intensely grateful to the Australians who helped him through his dark hours and said he would be back regularly. He meant it. Last week it was announced Hallberg would be TAB’s first resident guest artist and it was in that capacity that he appeared as Prince Désiré in artistic director David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty in Brisbane on February 25 and 28. The agreement is that he will be in Australia twice a year, with his second 2017 visit coming at the end of the year in Sydney when The Sleeping Beauty has a return season there.

The 34-year-old American’s exceptional beauty of line and sophisticated bearing make him look born to this repertoire. He is a prince among men with his commanding yet seemingly effortless stage presence and he is the epitome of grace and courtliness. Hallberg gave Désiré (Florimund in other productions) a largeness of spirit not always found in a part that has little complexity of character. Désiré seeks love but needs the Lilac Fairy’s guidance to find it, he dances a little to express his yearning, is shown a vision of the lovely Princess Aurora, wakes the sleeping maiden with a kiss and marries her with much ceremony.

Who this man might be is glossed over, but Hallberg filled out the slender material with passion and tenderness. A clue might be found in something Hallberg said late last year. In a conversation with me about his recovery, he said he had come to Australia “so stripped of any sort of optimism”. In what he called his rebirth, he found perspective. “I feel now, as an artist proudly 34 years old, that I have such depth of resilience, and through that an artistic understanding that’s completely different from how it used to be. And it’s not driven by ego any more.”

His Prince Désiré embodied that selflessness and maturity and even though a handful of less than fully realised finishes were a reminder of his long absence from this cruelly exposed repertoire, the radiance of his performance was all-encompassing. His cabrioles, for example, in which he floated his outstretched legs in the air rather than beat them together as most men do, were not only individual but deeply poetic.

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Amber Scott as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Kate Longley

The quality of his partnering added further layers. Hallberg’s Aurora was TAB principal artist Amber Scott (his Swanilda in Coppélia) and the two look wonderful together, with Scott’s dark, delicate beauty even more lovely when set against the blond Hallberg’s tall, supremely elegant figure. The alchemy of stage rapport is a mystery, but suffice to say Scott seems more lustrous in Hallberg’s company and to project the spun-glass virtues of her dancing more eloquently. Hallberg’s connection with TAB will be wonderful for audiences and he will be a mentor and example for the men of the company, but perhaps his greatest gift is being the partner who brings out the best in Scott. She has often seemed too introverted but Hallberg makes her glow.

The Act III grand pas de deux was as grand as the situation demands yet suffused with intimacy. Individually Hallberg and Scott looked sublime and together they dazzled. I’ve never seen the famous trio of fish dives presented with such élan.

For the rest, with Nicolette Fraillon at the helm the Queensland Symphony Orchestra gave a full-blooded account of Tchaikovsky’s score, senior artist Brett Chynoweth was a buoyant Bluebird, Gillian Revie reprised her striking Carabosse and the fairies, looking a treat in Gabriela Tyselova’s luscious tutus, had more than their fair share of technical jitters. As the Lilac Fairy soloist Valerie Tereschenko showed her great promise and her relative inexperience. Her fragrant upper body and clearly articulated mime were lovely but she had a few too many slips. Another new soloist, Jade Wood, gave a good account of Princess Florine although her fixed expression betrayed tension. Still, the company (this year expanded to 77 in number) has plenty of up and coming talent – and needed it in Brisbane, as a fair handful of more senior dancers had niggles that kept them offstage.

McAllister has made some welcome tweaks to his 2015 production to clarify some of the early storytelling although, as with so many productions, the need to bring the show in at under three hours makes some aspects appear rushed. The excision of most of the Act III divertissements while still giving a flavour of them is astutely done but the account of the court in the Prologue is too abbreviated. That charge can’t be directed at Tylesova’s design, which on each viewing looks more opulent than ever.

Footnote: Hallberg’s Australian commitment is in addition to his other jobs as a principal artist with American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, although it’s not clear yet when he might be dancing again with the latter. For ABT he is first cast in Alexei Ratmansky’s new Whipped Cream, opening in Costa Mesa, California, on March 15 and he will then dance Onegin and possibly Albrecht in New York in ABT’s May-July season.

The Sleeping Beauty ends in Brisbane March 4. Then Melbourne, June 16-27 and Sydney, November 11-25.

Coppélia, The Australian Ballet

Benedicte Bemet (Swanilda) and Brett Chynoweth (Franz), Sydney Opera House, December 3 (matinee).

There are no dancers in The Australian Ballet today that interest me more than Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth, she a soloist and he a senior artist. No matter where they are on stage or in what role, it’s as if there’s a special spotlight picking them out. They shine just that little bit more brightly than those around them. You can’t fail to notice them, even in the more anonymous roles that fall to anyone not yet a principal artist.

Rankings are, to a degree, a matter of personal taste. There are many fine dancers who never make it to principal artist and whose fans will never be able to understand why. But Bemet and Chynoweth – well, I would be astounded if the AB’s highest level were denied them for much longer.

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Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth in Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley.

Last year both were promoted to their current rank after performances in artistic director David McAllister’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty. “The possibilities for Bemet would appear to be boundless,” I wrote at the time. “Her Aurora rates as the most exciting debut I’ve seen in more than 40 years of ballet-watching. At just 21 she brought the authentic glow of youth and promise to the stage. She was so entirely at one with the role that all the technical requirements and difficulties simply disappeared. Every step was part of her journey from innocent to prospective bride to woman on the brink of maturity.

“Usually one has a sympathetic butterfly or two as the dancer approaches the climactic balances and promenades of the Rose Adagio but not here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were astonishing – the audience went wild – and they were part of a story. There was purity, radiance and joy in Bemet’s dancing. She was enchanting; a promotion to soloist swiftly came her way.”

To be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if McAllister had bounded on to the stage to promote Bemet to principal on the spot. It would have been unorthodox, but the situation was far from usual.

When Chynoweth danced the Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in 2014 he gave notice that he was more than just a brilliant dancer in contemporary pieces; more than the speedy, not-so-tall guy who is seen as a natural Mercutio but perhaps not Romeo. Last year it was heartening to see him again given the chance to play the Prince, this time in Beauty. Chynoweth “radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing,” was how I wrote about it.

This year the two have been partnered in Coppélia, making role debuts as Swanilda and Franz at the first Saturday matinee of the Sydney season. They have two more performances in what is a crowded field taking on the principal roles – there are six leading pairs in all, including that of AB principal artist Amber Scott with American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal artist David Hallberg, who is making a return to the ballet stage from a long absence due to injury. Franz will be a role debut for him.

Coppélia is an almost weightless romance that holds hands briefly with darkness but firmly banishes it. Swanilda and Franz are betrothed, he falls for a time under the power of the strange doll-maker Dr Coppelius but is saved by Swanilda, who forgives his lapse of judgment. All rejoice as the young lovers marry, bringing harmony and all that is good to their little community.

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Chynoweth and Bemet in Act III of Coppelia. Photo: Kate Longley

It was delightful to see Bemet articulate Swanilda’s razor-sharp pointe work and beaten steps with such artlessness, sweetness, buoyancy and freedom. Where some Swanildas offer calculated flirtatiousness (and sometimes regrettably twee village-girl mannerisms), Bemet bubbles with natural gaiety. In Act II, when Swanilda pretends to be Dr Coppelius’s doll come to life, her resourcefulness comes to the fore and the brief Spanish and Scottish dances are done with a more knowing edge.

Swanilda drives all the action in Coppélia. It’s Franz’s job to be a bit silly, incredibly charming and – now the role is danced by a man rather than a woman en travesti, as was traditional – to dance his socks off and partner gallantly. (There was a spot of bother at one point in the complex partnering at Chynoweth’s first performance but recovery was swift.) Chynoweth needs to find more of Franz’s laddish sense of fun but there are few in the company to match his finesse and elegance. The outlines are defined with diamond-edged precision; the movement quality is bountifully plush. It’s a gorgeous combination.

Bemet and Chynoweth appear in Coppélia on December 6 and 15.

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.

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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.

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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.

Swan Lake: Sydney summing up

The Australian Ballet, Sydney, March 31, April 2, April 5, April 16.

The Australian Ballet will undoubtedly stick with Stephen Baynes’s 2012 production of Swan Lake – now being revived for the first time – for many a year to come. It has sold out 21 performances at the Sydney Opera House and a check of the Arts Centre Melbourne website shows exceptionally strong demand for the 14 performances the AB has scheduled in June at the State Theatre (it is significantly bigger than Sydney’s Joan Sutherland Theatre). Before Melbourne there is Adelaide, where there are six performances in late May. It looks as if that’s where it will be easiest to nab a seat if you so desire.

Audiences, then, are happy with this traditional alternative to the perennially popular Graeme Murphy 2002 version, which will be revived for the umpteenth time in July for performances in London.

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The Australian Ballet in Stephen Baynes’s Swan Lake.

The ballet is, nevertheless, frustrating, although not without its virtues. Chief among them is a fourth act that transforms the predominantly straight-line, front-to-back patterns for the second act swans – Baynes reproduces the traditional Act II choreography – into a flurry of circles and angles as Odette’s sisters in captivity try to protect her after Siegfried’s betrayal. On first acquaintance, in 2012 that is, I thought they looked too busy. In these performances (I saw three and a dress rehearsal) the intent and emotion were abundantly clear.

This forceful display of solidarity in the face of tragedy stays with one powerfully, although it is soon undercut by a weak ending. Obscured by the mass of swans, Odette dashes offstage and is seen no more. Siegfried then also runs into the wings – to where? There is no visceral connection between his departure and the sight in the final moments of his body being hauled out of the lake at the back of the stage by the sorcerer Rothbart. You come to understand that Siegfried has drowned himself in guilt and remorse but are denied the drama of it. We also must assume the hazy projection of something flying palely up on high is Odette, although you need recourse to the program notes to tell you that although she is still a swan, Rothbart no longer has power over her. Puzzlingly, the synopsis refers to the projection as the released “soul of Odette”, which makes sense given the formless nature of the image but also makes it sound as if she is dead.

There are other aspects of the storytelling that aren’t sufficiently developed to give the kind of texture Baynes clearly wanted. The late 19th century setting (Hugh Colman designed sets and costumes) is Romantic in spirit, with the Prince a deeply melancholy man who shrinks from the burden of power. There is a suggestion at the beginning of the ballet that Baron von Rothbart has sway not only over the women-swans he has captured but also over the life of the royal family, a situation somewhat undercut by his giggle-inducing pretend violin-playing turn at the Act III ball. (I could be wrong, but Rothbart’s red wig seems to have been toned down significantly to advantage.)

And questions arise from the frame Baynes has devised. Did Siegfried’s father have his own lake encounter? What will Rothbart do now the last male in the royal family has done himself in? Are these questions too literal? All I know is that if I start thinking about why an idea is planted I am not fully engaged in the storytelling. Too often it seems Baynes is saying “just trust me, this is meaningful; if you read the program you’ll understand” rather than developing the idea fully onstage.

I wasn’t able to see Amber Scott on opening night in Sydney but at the dress rehearsal she showed the qualities that were so praised by her first-night admirers: exquisitely delicate and vulnerable as Odette; a strong, glamorous Odile. Her Siegfried, Adam Bull, and she looked more connected with the drama – less ghostly – than when I saw them in 2012.

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Amber Scott and Adam Bull in Swan Lake. Photo: Kate Longley

Each of the other three Odette-Odiles I saw during this season brought interestingly different qualities to their roles. I reviewed principal artist Ako Kondo’s debut performance at the matinee on April 2 here. I saw principal Lana Jones on April 5 with Ty King-Wall as her attentive but over-shadowed Siegfried, and I had been expecting to see senior artist Natasha Kusch at the April 16 matinee but she was indisposed. Long-serving senior artist Miwako Kubota took her place, partnered by Andrew Killian as she had been in earlier performances. Killian was also Kusch’s partner, having stepped in to replace Daniel Gaudiello after his surprise departure at the end of Melbourne’s Vitesse season.

Jones was very much the swan queen, a magnificently regal figure who dominated her realm despite being a captive. She may have been at this lake, in this form, for aeons. When Prince Siegfried and she came face to face Jones’s reaction suggested a challenge – who are you to come into my world? – before she realised he may be her salvation. At times she moved breathtakingly slowly without losing touch with the music in a sleight of hand that suggested water as her natural element (the ravishingly fast quivers of her foot as it beats against her ankle at the end of the Act II pas de deux brought to mind not only a bird’s fluttering but swift-flowing currents beneath the lake’s surface). As Odile, Jones was mesmerising, the sorcerer if you will, making light work of entrancing Siegfried.

Kubota’s passionate, desperate Act IV was thrilling and she was a fascinating Odile, some trouble with the fouetté turns notwithstanding. Far from being the cold, glittering creature in many readings, Kubota was abundantly sensual and inviting. At this performance Simon Thew’s conducting of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra felt too slow for Kubota in her Act II solo; there was an audible winding down that wasn’t helpful musically or for Kubota’s performance. (Andrew Mogrelia conducted the other three performances I saw with tempi that were responsive to the dancers without distorting the score.)

In secondary roles soloists Benedicte Bemet and Dimity Azoury and coryphée Jill Ogai did their best with the bitchy Duchess, a woman whose motives aren’t always clear. Perhaps she’s trying out for the role of Royal Mistress because the action makes it obvious she’s not in contention as bride. The three are very much on the must-watch list. Senior artist Robyn Hendricks and coryphée Valerie Tereshchenko were enticing Russian Princesses and the Cygnets, who I saw in various combinations, were all splendidly in tune with one another. All hail to coryphée Karen Nanasca, the common denominator in all four Cygnet casts and, I’ve read, a force to be reckoned with when it comes to revving Cygnets up to give their best.

Finally, a word about Brett Chynoweth. On hearing Gaudiello had retired before his advertised Swan Lake performances I thought Chynoweth might be asked to partner Kusch. They danced together in the new Sleeping Beauty late last year and it was after that performance as Prince Désiré that Chynoweth was rightly promoted to senior artist (very oddly the AB’s highly detailed new website doesn’t list that as a repertoire highlight for him – it was). I wrote then: “In Beauty he radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing.” I felt the same about his Prince in the Peter Wright Nutcracker in 2014. Chynoweth gives his heart to roles such as this and infuses his faster, higher, sharper technique with rare eloquence. In a pretty thankless role such as Benno in the Baynes Swan Lake, Chynoweth compensated by being over-emphatic. He doesn’t need to try that hard. As his brilliantly danced Puck in the Ashton The Dream showed earlier last year, Chynoweth is such a bright presence on stage and a dazzling dancer. As Beauty and Nutcracker proved, he can also be a prince.

Vitesse

The Australian Ballet, State Theatre, Melbourne, March 11.

VITESSE presents three certified hits from three of the biggest names in contemporary ballet and turns the dial up as the evening progresses. It starts with one of Jiří Kylián’s mysterious appeals to the heart, takes a charge through the cerebral and physical complexities of William Forsythe and finishes with Christopher Wheeldon being fast, flashy and entertaining.

Only the Wheeldon requires a cast of significant size– four leading couples and a corps of 18 – but Vitesse is nevertheless a meaty program, and one that allows a closer-than-usual look at dancers at the lower end of the rankings. On opening night Kylián’s emotionally charged Forgotten Land, for instance, had three corps de ballet members and two coryphées among its six couples. At the curtain Ella Havelka (from the corps) had a smile radiant enough to light the auditorium, and why not? She looked wonderful in Kylian’s passionate, swooping choreography, as did the full cast.

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Lana Jones and Rudy Hawkes in Forgotten Land. Photo: Kate Longley

The AB has an affinity for Kylián and on opening night Forgotten Land (1981), an abstract dance that evokes life’s joys and sorrows, was the most fully realised (it was staged by Roslyn Anderson, the Australian-born former AB and Netherlands Dance Theatre dancer who had a long association with Kylián as his assistant). The curtain rises on a vast tempest-tossed landscape (by John McFarlane) and the desolate sound of wind. Six couples are buffeted by the elements, bending, quivering, swaying and challenging but not giving in. There are intimations of struggle, defiance and hope in this paean to resilience and to the deep connection people have with their own country, no matter how treacherous. In the opening night cast of 12, new senior artist Brett Chynoweth made an indelible impression with the fierce clarity of his attack.

Once upon a time the audience used to jump out of its skin at the first blast of Thom Willems and Lesley Stuck’s tough-as-nails electronic score for Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Not so much now, even though Willems travels around supervising the sound. He was in Melbourne, and also visited New Zealand recently for Royal New Zealand Ballet’s performances. Have the Occupational Heath & Safety police been on the case? If so, they haven’t helped. (I do admit that in Auckland, where I saw RNZB, the opening did provide a gratifying kick.)

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Aoo Kondo and Kevin Jackson in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Photo: Jeff Busby

Putting In the Middle on the bill is one of those crazy-brave things companies can’t resist. It is rightly considered a landmark work, one that showed how ballet could be very, very bolshie and sexy while being ultra classical. With a twist. Despite being nearly 30 years old, In the Middle still has the ability to disturb one’s equilibrium (a marvellous solitary boo from the stalls on Melbourne’s opening night proved that) as six women and three men take ballet to the wilder outskirts of town with way off-centre balances, split-second changes of direction, sinuous torqueing of the upper body and extreme extensions.

Not everyone in the AB’s first cast entirely captured the work’s formidable contrasts between action and stillness and thrust and resistance, but principal Kevin Jackson looked like a god and alone was worth the price of admission. Daniel Gaudiello, sporting a shorter, sleeker haircut, and Jarryd Madden were also thrilling. Soloist Madden was apparently a latish replacement for principal Chengwu Guo, who had been listed – indeed, as of the time of this writing was still listed – as being in the first cast with Jackson and Gaudiello. Maddyn might not be quite the star Guo is but he acquitted himself brilliantly. The women were a touch less persuasive, and a touch less is all you need for one to feel In the Middle hasn’t been conquered.

Guo isn’t injured, by the way, because he danced dashingly in Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. But he can look sometimes look a little undisciplined, something that will never, ever do for In the Middle. I’d like to see him do it though, and perhaps the Sydney season will provide an opportunity.

DGV is a large-scale hymn to going places as it evokes speed, travel and the momentum of technology. It couldn’t be called profound but it’s smart as paint and smartly danced by the AB, although without the drop-dead glamour New York City Ballet brings to it, a quality helpful to a work that’s essentially all surface.

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Robyn Hendricks and Kevin Jackson in DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse. Photo: Jeff Busby

It’s a terrific surface though, with the large corps suggesting the waves of departing crowds, the actions of a train in motion and the heady rush of groups in transit. Four strong pas de deux anchor DGV and Guo was responsible for some fancy fireworks, tossing off super-fast turns in a welcome injection of the speed that gives this ballet its title.

Nicolette Fraillon and Orchestra Victoria accompanied the first and third works with music that couldn’t be in greater contrast: Benjamin Britten’s intense, melancholy Sinfonia da Requiem and Michael Nyman’s perpetual-motion MGV: (Musique a Grande Vitesse). 

Vitesse ends in Melbourne on March 21. Sydney, April 26-May 16.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 14.

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

Revelations in New York, stars made at The Australian Ballet, Alina Cojocaru in Brisbane and more …

The Australian Ballet dubbed its 2015 season A Year of Beauty. Giselle, Swan Lake, Cinderella and Frederick Ashton’s The Dream were on the program, lovely ballets all, but essentially teasers for the main event – the new Sleeping Beauty, staged by artistic director David McAllister with opulent designs by Gabriela Tylesova. On the other side of the world an even grander production was unveiled. American Ballet Theatre’s Alexei Ratmansky sought to return The Sleeping Beauty to something close to its original form and style.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beau...

The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty, designed by Gabriela Tylesova

In Brisbane, Queensland Ballet staged Greg Horsman’s smaller-scaled interpretation (originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2011) and a visiting company, Russian National Ballet Theatre, toured Australia and New Zealand extensively with (inevitably) Swan Lake but also Beauty. The AB’s new Storytime Ballet venture for very young children was launched this year with, yes, The Sleeping Beauty (a miniature clocking in at well under an hour).

I thus had my own Year of Beauty in 2015 with 10 performances in all – two casts of the Ratmansky, four of McAllister’s, two of Horsman’s and just one Russian National Ballet Theatre (more than enough, alas) and one Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. 

This Beauty bounty inevitably drew me back to DVDs of productions including those by The Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and The Australian Ballet. Their stagings of Sleeping Beauty could be looked at anew, particularly in light of Ratmansky’s discoveries, and encouraged repeated returns to the complete score (the 2012 version by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi for Chandos is superb) although none of the versions I saw used all the music, as no one does. A little-admired four-hour 1999 Mariinsky version aiming for authenticity has been dropped from the repertoire. These days companies want – and need – to bring The Sleeping Beauty in under three hours. At American Ballet Theatre the reason was stated bluntly in the program: “The ballet has, however, had to be cut somewhat to fit within the union-defined time limitation.”

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Gillian Murphy as Princess Aurora for ABT. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

It’s worth quoting in length from David Nice’s scene-by-scene analysis that accompanies the Chandos recording to see the kind of thing that’s lost. In the second entr’acte (the first is rarely heard at all), “the note C is sustained by the strings, principally the violins, for exactly one hundred bars. This is time suspended: the ‘sleep’ chords … and the themes of the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse pass and dissolve. Few if any productions observe the full symbolic duration of this hypnotic spell – Aurora is usually heard to sleep for a mere forty or so years.” Not that Petipa used every bit of the music Tchaikovsky wrote for his ballet either. Pragmatism reigned then as now.

All the productions I saw were traditional ones underpinned by Petipa’s 1890 staging for St Petersburg’s imperial Ballet. It and other ballets were recorded in the Stepanov system of notation and came to the West in the luggage of Nicholas Sergeyev, a regisseur who managed to exit Russia not long after the revolution of 1917. Diaghilev’s 1921 production The Sleeping Princess was based on these notations as was The Royal Ballet’s of 1939, staged by Sergeyev and also called The Sleeping Princess although claiming to be more true to Petipa’s original than Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes version (with which Sergeyev was also closely associated). When revived in 1946 – and famously winning over New York in 1949 – the ballet was now The Sleeping Beauty and contained some new choreography.

The Beauty staged by the RB to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2006 had further changes: it was billed as being produced by Monica Mason and Christopher Newton after Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev with additional choreography by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell and Christopher Wheeldon. That list in itself tells the story of how ballet is translated and transformed down the ages. The Australian Ballet’s 1993 recording has choreography by Petipa, “reproduced by Monica Parker from the Nicholas Sergeyev notation” with direction and additional choreography by Maina Gielgud.

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Sarah Lane and Herman CornejoŽ in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

The versions are very similar when it comes to the overall story arc and key passages but have many different details that give an individual stamp. Not all of them are improvements, as Ratmansky’s painstaking research into how The Sleeping Beauty would have looked in 1890 makes clear.

The choreographer made a close study of the Stepanov notations and created a revelatory version for ABT and La Scala, who shared the eye-watering cost, reported to be in the vicinity of $US6 million. The money was well spent: this was indisputably the dance event of the year. I saw it in New York in May following its premiere in California. The production was extraordinarily sumptuous, flooding the Metropolitan Opera stage with so many dancers and supernumeraries that at some points there were more than 100 people on stage.

Even so, Ratmansky used fewer people than were in Petipa’s original, with its hordes of children, pages, courtiers, cavaliers and minor royalty to attend upon their majesties, each carefully arranged according to rank. The Sleeping Beauty is not only a fairy tale celebrating the victory of good over evil. It depicts a formal, long-established power structure as the embodiment of harmony. Its traditions and ceremonies imply continuance and order. In such a world Carabosse’s exclusion from Aurora’s christening, the event that initiates the action, puts a great tear in the social fabric. Ratmansky shows that in a healing gesture she is invited to Aurora’s wedding. It makes perfect sense, even if in the vast congregation at the end of the ballet Carabosse was seen only fleetingly.

And that’s the thing about Ratmansky’s version. It feels right dramatically and musically at every point.

A brief moment in the Rose Adagio perfectly illustrates how ballet can shift from its original intention into a kind of never-never land of whispers only partly heard. Aurora steps forward on her left foot, on pointe, then lowers her heel to the floor. She bends forward in an arabesque penchée, inclines her head and upper body towards the audience, bends her right arm and holds it close to her chest. Her right hand is seen to touch her left cheek, or perhaps is held near her face without obscuring it. Aurora does this four times, and sometimes the four Princes kneel behind her, all together or else one by one. Sometimes she leans on each Prince as she passes (as in the Grigorovich version for the Bolshoi), sometimes not. Sometimes she gives the Princes a glance, sometimes not. What exactly is she doing here, in this very specific sequence of body and head inclines?

Alexei Ratmansky's The Sleeping Beauty

Diana Vishneva with violin pages. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Ratmansky tells us. Aurora is listening to a group of little pages as they play violins. In the Grigorovich staging, filmed in 1989, we can see youngsters dancing in the background while holding violins; in the RB version, young boys stand in the background plucking mandolins in a haphazard and desultory fashion. So the idea there should be some young people on stage with stringed instruments has survived, sometimes, in some form, but not their reason for being there. It may seem odd to single out a sequence that lasts less than 20 seconds but it always looked meaningless to me; Ratmansky turns the light on.

It was also delightful to see the Precious Stones music of the third act danced by the rarely seen fairies of Gold, Silver, Sapphire and Diamond (in McAllister’s and Horsman’s productions the Prologue fairies are drafted in for these dances). The Sapphire music is, excitingly, in the tricky metre of 5/4, written this way because Petipa was thinking of a five-faceted stone. In 1946 the RB introduced the now-familiar characters of Florestan and his sisters to replace the jewel fairies, with choreography by Ashton.

Study of the Stepanov notations revealed a quality of movement that has changed dramatically since Petipa’s time although Ratmansky also examined many other sources to fill gaps. For guidance on upper-body style Ratmansky consulted Ballets Russes material, including film shot in Australia by Melbourne eye specialist and ballet enthusiast Ringland Anderson that McAllister was able to make available. In Ratmansky’s version there are no extreme extensions. Legs are held softly, there is extensive use of the demi-pointe and lines are more rounded. With less height comes more speed and time for intricate footwork. The ballet sparkles as much as it intrigues. A delightful aspect is the low retiré position in pirouettes, sometimes not much above the ankle. In supported pirouettes the men use one arm only to guide the ballerina rather than paddling her around, and there are many other surprises, such as the double air turn for the Prince that ends with a landing on one foot. A beguiling airiness prevails.

The production includes some elements from The Sleeping Princess and later versions of the ballet that are now considered standard, including fish dives in the grand pas de deux and the arms raised en couronne as Aurora pauses, balancing on pointe, in between greeting each suitor (said to be a Fonteyn innovation). Interestingly, the very poor production from Russian National Ballet Theatre is more faithful to Petita in both those respects although quite chaotic in others. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that the Russian Aurora I saw, Elizaveta Lobacheva, perhaps didn’t attempt the balances in the Rose Adagio as we know them because the taped music offered no room to move. (I saw her Odette-Odile too; she’s a very proficient dancer.)

David McAllister’s staging experience was quite limited before he took on the task of bringing a new Sleeping Beauty into his company’s repertoire to replace Stanton Welch’s 2005 production. It was a courageous move on his part, pulled off remarkably well. I have a handful of reservations about aspects of the storytelling but audiences have responded strongly and a long life seems assured. It needs to stick around: this Beauty cost the royal sum of $2 million or thereabouts, although more than 70 per cent of the budget came from about 2000 ballet-lovers, making donations big and small. Some gave individual gifts of more than $50,000, others put in $100. It was an impressive fund-raising feat.

Lana Jones in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Bal...

Lana Jones in David McAllister’s production of The Sleeping Beauty for The Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby

While the drain on the AB coffers wasn’t particularly great for such a large-scale production, the many people who donated would have a right to feel very cheated if it wasn’t a stayer. My prediction: when the AB vacates the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House for some months in 2017 to allow replacement of the ageing theatre machinery it will presumably perform elsewhere in the city and will need popular repertoire to entice the audience to follow. If it can get the Capitol – and I stress I have no information on this – the larger stage and the big, ornate auditorium would be perfect for this Sleeping Beauty.

I digress. As I wrote just after the Melbourne premiere in September, Gabriela Tylesova’s design “is almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revels in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There are columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas.” It is a sumptuous fantasia at one with Tchaikovsky’s magical score and I enjoyed it greatly each time I saw it, or at least most of it. I still think McAllister and dramaturg Lucas Jervies have muddled and muddied certain details of the story but McAllister was able to field strong casts and gave several dancers a career-defining break.

The AB seems to have hit the mark with Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Hordes of tutu-wearing, wand-waving little ones packed the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House to see a vastly simplified version of the ballet, helped along with clear, clever narration. The dancing from young Australian Ballet School graduates and members of the AB’s education ensemble was a touch on the careful side as they negotiated bits and pieces of Petipa on the small stage. (For the first time ever I regretted the absence of the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots from Act III; I think the children would have adored them.) The real fun came from panto-like interaction between narrator Catalabutte and an enthusiastic audience that was thrilled to warn of Carabosse’s appearance at Aurora’s birthday party – “Behind you! Look behind you!!” – and helped rouse the slumbering palace with lusty wake-up shouts.

Storytime Ballet The Sleeping Beauty. The Australian Ballet 2015. photo Jeff Busby 01

Storytime Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Queensland Ballet’s production, which I saw in October, is a great success. Greg Horsman made it for relatively small forces and his cuts and conflations are done with a keen eye to clarity and logic. The world he creates is coherent and consistent in tone. Everything makes sense in a world that’s perhaps not terribly grand but zesty and imaginative. Among the pleasant innovations is the presence at the christening of four young princes who will grow up to become Aurora’s suitors; the garland dance arranged for gardeners and their girls, making it happy and relaxed; and a youthful, glamorous Carabosse who has the ability to turn into a dragon.

Russian National Ballet Theatre toured New Zealand and Australia for three months, offering more than 100 performances divided between Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. They performed in a variety of venues, from modestly sized arts centres in small cities to large theatres such as Melbourne’s Regent and Sydney’s State. In October I saw The Sleeping Beauty in the Big Top at Sydney’s Luna Park, not the most atmospheric venue for grand classical ballet but RNBT was taking whatever venues it could. There was a set of the most meagre kind (well, an unchanging backcloth really), recorded music, far too few dancers and the story told in such broad strokes as to be incomprehensible.

It was depressing to see how basic everything was. The Princess Florine made no attempt to emulate the flutterings of the Bluebird with whom she was dancing, thus eliminating all charm and meaning; Carabosse, shorn of attendants, dashed about the stage manically and confusingly; the hunt scene appeared to be happening within the castle confines; and so on. RNBT’s ability to have so many dates on this tour is evidence, however, that there is audience demand for the ballet classics that is not being met by local companies, and that Russian companies, no matter how inadequate, can still pull a crowd.

While I greatly admired Ratmansky’s production, the first-cast Aurora of Gillian Murphy felt rather too modern for this staging despite the care taken to rein in her 21st-century facility. Her Prince, Marcelo Gomes, was a wonderfully charismatic figure. Although Sarah Lane, a soloist I saw at the second New York performance, was not as technically assured as Murphy she was warm, youthful and had lovely rapport with her Prince, the superlative Herman Cornejo. He bounded through the fleet, delicate, precise footwork with much ease and charm.

Queensland Ballet - The Sleeping Beauty - International Ballet Stars Alina Cojocaru and Chi Cao Image 6. Photo David Kelly

Chi Cao and Alina Cojocaru for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

At Queensland Ballet there was the gift of Alina Cojocaru as guest artist. She is rightly thought to be among the very best, if not the best, Aurora of the moment. As I wrote at the time: “She radiates light and joy from a tiny body that gives the impression not only of being buoyed by the music but indivisible from it. Her dancing is brilliant, each moment etched with great precision, yet everything feels as if it is the inspiration of that moment. Most potent of all is her warm generosity, seen in abundant, open-hearted gestures and an intense gaze that encompasses the entire theatre.”

QB’s second-cast Aurora was the newish principal artist Yanela Piñera, who came to Brisbane from National Ballet of Cuba. She dances on a grand scale, making the Act III pas de deux a glittering highlight in concert with principal Hao Bin, who recently announced his retirement and will be missed in a company with few experienced leading men.

The AB ended its Year of Beauty on a high note by promoting three dancers who had made debuts in Sydney as Aurora and Prince Désiré. At the Melbourne premiere principals Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson gave stately performances that matched the grandeur of the setting. Two months later, on the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre stage in Sydney, there was a more intimate feel, at least in the performances I attended.

Brett Chynoweth was made a senior artist (the second-highest rank) after his soaring, heartfelt Prince Désiré. There was a felicitous pairing with senior artist Natasha Kusch as Aurora – though both are relatively small they make an abundant impression with legs like rapiers, exquisitely articulated feet and loads of height and speed. This was an incredibly important opportunity for Chynoweth, who has rarely been cast in leading classical roles (although he danced a very fine Prince in The Nutcracker in 2014). In Beauty he radiated passion from every pore and his Act II solo, marked by pillowy elevation and immaculate airborne turns, was a glorious expression of longing.

Robyn Hendricks’s first Aurora also won her a promotion to senior artist. She was a slightly mysterious young woman in whom you could see the queen she is destined to be. The watchfulness and engagement with her suitors created a whole, interesting, individual character and the elegance and quiet sophistication of her dancing spoke of great things ahead. Principal Adam Bull partnered her securely although he was not looking in peak physical form – a little tired at year’s end perhaps.

Bernet-Kate Longley

Benedicte Bemet in rehearsal with Kevin Jackson. Photo: Kate Longley

McAllister astutely gave coryphée Benedicte Bemet the inestimable support of principal Kevin Jackson, who has been on fire all year, for her debut as Aurora. It could be the start of a very fruitful relationship following the retirement earlier this year of Jackson’s most frequent partner, Madeleine Eastoe. The possibilities for Bemet would appear to be boundless. Her Aurora rates as the most exciting debut I’ve seen in more than 40 years of ballet-watching. At just 21 she brought the authentic glow of youth and promise to the stage. She was so entirely at one with the role that all the technical requirements and difficulties simply disappeared. Every step was part of her journey from innocent to prospective bride to woman on the brink of maturity.

Usually one has a sympathetic butterfly or two as the dancer approaches the climactic balances and promenades of the Rose Adagio but not here. Bemet was absolutely in the moment and so was her audience. The balances were astonishing – the audience went wild – and they were part of a story. There was purity, radiance and joy in Bemet’s dancing. She was enchanting; a promotion to soloist swiftly came her way.

I haven’t even got started on the many exquisite fairies and Bluebirds, the merits or otherwise of various Carabosses and Catalabuttes, the conducting and many other aspects of this endlessly fascinating ballet. But enough, I think, for now.

The Australian Ballet’s 20:21

Sydney Opera House, November 5

After a year dominated by Giselle, Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella, the lavish new Sleeping Beauty and Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, the dancers of The Australian Ballet were undoubtedly delighted to dive into the pared-back costumes and sharp-edged choreography of 20:21 (the title refers to the 20th and 21st centuries). They certainly looked as if they’d been let off the leash.

The three works on the bill were well chosen – very different in choreographic style but sharing a clean, uncluttered aesthetic and each driven by a score to get the blood pumping. The oldest ballet, Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, was made in 1972 to music by Stravinsky (written in 1942-45); Tharp’s In the Upper Room premiered in 1986, powered by Philip Glass; and Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow is new, having made its debut in Melbourne in late August accompanied by a muscular commissioned electronic score from German duo 48nord.

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Tim Harbour's Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Andrew Killian and Vivienne Wong in Filigree and Shadow. Photo: Jeff Busby

Symphony in Three Movements is strongly hierarchical and fascinatingly structured. There is a corps of 16 women clad in white leotards and a group of five women in black leotards, the latter supported by partners in black tights and close-fitting white T-shirts. These two sets of dancers frame three principal couples, one of which is at the centre of the work, dancing the deeply sensuous pas de deux that comprises the second movement. (Amusingly, this lovely music was originally intended to form part of the soundtrack to the 1943 film The Song of Bernadette – a biography of the young woman who saw visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes and was later canonised; Stravinsky didn’t complete the project.)

On opening night the women in white were rather less crisp than one would wish, nor did all of them convey the assurance and chic required to carry off the martial gestures, pony-step prancing, showgirl high kicks, jogging and more, but the three first-cast leading couples (Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones and Andrew Killian, Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes) exuded command and sophistication. Scott and Hawkes danced the pas de deux with a sweet element of wistfulness as well as the lusciousness seen in swimming arms and entwining necks and the whimsicality of turned-in knees and hands. Scott, who is growing in stature with every season, was a glowing presence and also carried one of the ballet’s most enchanting moments as she whirled around the stage twice in a great circle of piqué turns as the corps jogged about insouciantly.

Hawkes (a senior artist) and Killian (principal artist) danced in all three works on opening night. It was an impressive feat given the demands of each. Filigree and Shadow is a non-stop display of angst and athleticism. It looks and sounds thrilling and the opening night audience gave it a huge cheer in Sydney, as I gather they did in Melbourne at the premiere, so it seems a bit churlish to point out that it doesn’t really say much about its theme of “catharsis for aggression”. Still, the cast of 12 was as sleek as seals in form-fitting grey, super-energised by the propulsive music and performed with the cocky insolence of those who know they are, essentially, as gods compared with the rest of us. Brett Chynoweth, Simon Plant and Marcus Morelli were particularly fine in their trio and Vivienne Wong and Dimity Azoury gave no quarter in their encounters with Killian and Hawkes. The elegant contributions of Kelvin Ho (set) and Benjamin Cisterne (lighting) added greatly to the sense of occasion.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. Photo: Jeff Busby

Wong and Azoury then turned up as “stompers” in In the Upper Room, the ones who wear sneakers and do a lot of running in a work that joins the languages of sport and training with that of dance. Here – and this is very rare in ballet – effort is made explicit. This is a ballet of sweat and exhaustion as well as grace and artistry. The magic comes from seeing the reach for transcendence as Glass’s music pulsates inexorably and builds towards its ecstatic final movement. In a fine first cast, principals Daniel Gaudiello and Chengwu Guo were exceptional.

A program such as this also gives opportunities for dancers from the lowest ranks to have a moment in the spotlight. From the Filigree and Shadow first cast Plant is in the corps de ballet and Morelli a coryphée, and coryphée Christopher Rodgers-Wilson drew the eye in In the Upper Room.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra had an early night, playing only Symphony in Three Movements (the other two scores are recorded). With AB music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm the AOBO gave a strong account of this vibrant, rhythmically bracing score.

Ends in Sydney on November 21.