Benedicte Bemet’s Giselle

The Australian Ballet, Sydney Opera House, May 8

For many ballet-lovers the second act of Giselle is what brings them back repeatedly and Maina Gielgud’s much-revived production for The Australian Ballet doesn’t let them down. She created it in 1986, which means that more than a few generations of TAB dancers have been schooled in its mysteries. Gielgud’s dedication to and understanding of the soft, ethereal Romantic style is complete and the Sydney season now coming to an end shows that even though Gielgud wasn’t able to oversee these performances – Giselle was a late addition to the program – the women currently in the company (and therefore the audience) have been well served by the ballet staff.

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Benedicte Bemet as Giselle for The Australian Ballet. Photo: Kate Longley

It’s the first act, though, where a dancer creates the role, not so much through her dancing but her acting: the arranging of her skirt on the bench so Albrecht initially has no room to sit; the “he loves me, he loves me not” plucking of petals; how she tells Hilarion she does not, in fact, return his affection; the way in which her weak heart makes her falter; her reaction to the nobles, and in particular Bathilde, who interrupt the villagers’ harvest celebrations; her reception of Bathilde’s gift of a pendant; the losing of her reason; and much more.

All these moments between the dancing coalesce, or should do, into a whole and believable character, every idea of a piece with the next. (That doesn’t mean Giselle can’t do contradictory things but if she does, they must be understood as part of that young woman’s make-up rather than notions the dancer rather fancies and didn’t want to leave out.)

Principal artist Kondo was TAB’s glorious opening night Giselle in Sydney, reviewed here. A week later I returned to see senior artist Benedicte Bemet in the role.

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Benedicte Bemet in Act I of Giselle. Photo: Kate Longley

Bemet’s Giselle was in some ways quite conventional. It is far from unusual to see the village girl played as very, very young, sweet, pure and innocent. Bemet’s gift is in the detail and her ability to be entirely in the moment. Not to see her thinking, but to see her being. I know this production well and yet in Bemet’s performance the arrival of the Peasant pas couple came as a surprise, as if Giselle had just that instant thought of asking them to dance. This immediacy was evident in her triumphant first Aurora too.

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Bemet with Cristiano Martino as Albrecht. Photo: Kate Longley

Bemet’s Albrecht was fellow senior artist Cristiano Martino (both were promoted recently), who proved an excellent match. He was an openhearted man clearly intoxicated with Giselle and too young to think about the consequences. The relationship was utterly clear and yes, simple, but not simplistic.

It felt absolutely right. As did, to give one example, a partnering choice in the second act that replaced a difficult lift with one less treacherous. Giselle didn’t float above Albrecht’s head as if about to fly into the aether, a heart-stopping move when achieved flawlessly (bravi Kondo and her Albrecht Chengwu Guo) but disconcerting when not. Here, Martino held Bemet’s waist, raised her vertically, and she softly curved her upper body over his. I have no way of knowing whether this was an artistic decision or a practical one but it felt intimate and loving. Just right for this Giselle and this Albrecht.

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.

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.

Ako Kondo’s Odette/Odile debut in The Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake

Sydney Opera House, April 2.

The chance to see a dancer’s first Odette/Odile will always be a drawcard for the truly dedicated ballet-goer, no matter how many times they have seen Swan Lake. Early this month Australian Ballet principal artist Ako Kondo added the role to her repertoire with a performance that revealed many individual touches while having room to deepen.

Stephen Baynes’s production, which premiered in 2012 and is getting its first revival, has mostly new choreography around the set pieces audiences expect and is traditional in character. The setting is late 19th-century (Hugh Colman designed) although with a distinct tinge of the earlier romantic era when artists took inspiration from the natural and supernatural worlds.

Baynes tops and tails the story with brief action – set well backstage and seen only dimly in Rachel Burke’s lighting design – that suggests the magician Baron von Rothbart has enduring power over Prince Siegfried’s family as well as the women he has transformed into swans. This line however, like other aspects of the storytelling, is sketchily drawn.

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Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo in Swan Lake. Photo: Daniel Boud

After a series of competent but routine dances, the ballet really gets going at the end of Act I when Siegfried, whose melancholy is profound, is called inexorably to the lake. In this telling he’s not a hunter out for sport with a few friends. He is unarmed, alone and tormented. Chengwu Guo imbued his introspective solo with weighty sorrow. When Odette appeared he was as startled as she.

Baynes eliminates the mime in which Odette describes her enslavement. We’re left with what it has done to her body (and with the traditional choreography). Kondo acutely showed Odette as one trapped, frightened and in pain. The emotional connection with Siegfried was less clearly expressed although she had a wonderful moment during her Act II solo in which her arms, unfurling slowly behind her, said everything about her aching need to be free. Guo partnered lovingly – as well he should; he and Kondo are off-stage partners too – and there was a tremendously exciting moment when he dashed on right at the last minute to lift Kondo on high in the middle of the massed swans just before the final moments of Act II. Who knows? Guo could possibly have misjudged his entry by a few seconds but whatever the reason, it looked dramatically right.

Kondo’s Odile was fascinating in that she looked more Odette-like than many interpreters as she seduced Siegfried. There was no lack of confidence but less obvious irony; it made Siegfried appear less gullible than usual and Guo’s silken command of every virtuosic step added lustre. Kondo ripped through Odile’s climax to the pas de deux, aided by guest conductor Andrew Mogrelia’s highly supportive tempi. He led the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra in a strong, dynamic accompaniment that was sensitive to dancers’ individual needs. (There were, however, a couple of noticeable bloopers from the pit.)

When I first saw this Swan Lake I described Act IV as sometimes over-busy. This time it had more impact, possibly because I had a slightly higher perspective on the complex patterns. The corps of swans builds an ever-shifting wall around grieving Odette, advancing and retreating en masse protectively and emphatically, and allowing Siegfried and Odette a private moment or two for a pas deux before returning to claim her. The contrast between their formal behaviour in Act II and the wilder flurries in Act IV is effective.

There’s more to come though. To give pride of place to his notion of Rothbart as scourge of the royal family, Baynes diminishes the depth of Siegfried and Odette’s love. They dash off separately and the final image – a boat, Rothbart, a dead royal – mirrors the opening. The tears stay unshed.

The Sydney season of Swan Lake ends on April 20. Adelaide, May 26-31; Melbourne, June 7-18.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on April 5.

Daniel Gaudiello exits The Australian Ballet

When The Australian Ballet stages Stephen Baynes’s traditional Swan Lake in Sydney from April 1 for 21 performances it will field six couples in the leading roles of Odette-Odile and Siegfried. One of those couples was to have been senior artist Natasha Kusch with principal Daniel Gaudiello, a partnership that promised a great deal. Kusch, then a soloist with Vienna State Opera Ballet, first danced with Gaudiello in a Queensland Ballet gala in 2012 where they were clearly an excellent match on stage. Soon after Kusch joined QB and then the AB in 2015, where she and Gaudiello danced together regularly.

As late as Wednesday of this week – March 23 – casting on The Australian Ballet’s website listed Kusch and Gaudiello. On Thursday a press release came late in the afternoon, advising that Gaudiello was leaving the company after 12 years, the past six as principal artist. His performance in Melbourne on Monday March 21 in the Vitesse program was his last. I saw him on the opening night of that season in William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, which he danced with passionate intensity and impeccable technical gifts. He was sporting a new, sleeker haircut that was much remarked-upon. He was at the top of his game.

Daniel Gaudiello and Natasha Kusch in In the Upper Room. photo by Jeff Busby

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

Obviously Gaudiello’s decision had come quickly in one way, in that he was expected to appear in Swan Lake, but he must also have been weighing up what was best for him for many months. The AB’s press release said Gaudiello “for some time has been working towards this decision”.

Possibly he wished to avoid the high-visibility public farewell usually accorded a principal artist. Alternatively, he simply woke up on Tuesday and thought, today’s the day.

There were no specifics in the press release about Gaudiello’s plans, other than he had “decided to step away from the stage and focus on new artistic and personal pursuits”. Gaudiello wrote on Facebook: “The humanity in dance is what has kept the art form alive, and what has kept me coming back after the hard knocks it gives us all. No one escapes this time in their careers, where something dies but something is born again.” He went on to write that his “drive to succeed is at an all time high” and that he still has “a lot to say”. He is believed to be interested in an acting career, something for which he would seem well suited. Among his many successes in roles requiring a strong ability to create a believable character are Petrouchka, Basilio in Don Quixote, Franz in Coppélia and, outstandingly, Mercutio in the Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet at Queensland Ballet, in which he appeared – brilliantly – alongside the Royal Ballet’s Steven McRae as Romeo.

Daniel Gaudiello (Mercutio) Steven McRae (Romeo) Rian Thompson (Benvolio)

Daniel Gaudiello as Mercutio, Steven McRae as Romeo and Rian Thompson as Benvolio in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet for Queensland Ballet. Photo: David Kelly

Gaudiello’s announcement was followed immediately by heartfelt expressions of love and admiration from dancers and dance-lovers. British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon was just one to express dismay at Gaudiello’s retirement from dance, writing “even I’m not ready and I was only there for 10 minutes”. (Wheeldon refers to his brief visit to Melbourne to put the finishing touches on DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, the ballet that gave the Vitesse program its name.)

Gaudiello is 33 and at the peak of his powers, but also at an age when the future starts looming large for dancers. (I recall having a vivid, detailed conversation with him about choreography, in which he has some experience, although it’s not clear that he intends to pursue this.) For all its beauty dance is a brutal business, exacting a great toll on the body. Not only is a career usually winding down when a performer is in his or her late 30s or early 40s, she or he has also usually been training and working in dance for more than 30 years. Gaudiello started dancing at the age of six in his hometown, Brisbane. (The AB’s artistic director, David McAllister, was 37 when he left dancing to succeed Ross Stretton at the company.)

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Daniel Gaudiello with Leanne Stojmenov in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

With Gaudiello now not dancing in Swan Lake, the AB hastily rearranged its schedule. Amber Scott and Adam Bull are first cast, followed by Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo, Lana Jones (she is married to Gaudiello) and Ty King-Wall, Leanne Stojmenov (happily back from maternity leave) and Kevin Jackson and senior artist Miwako Kubota with principal Andrew Killian.

The sixth cast is Kusch with hard-working Killian, a pairing that gets its first outing on April 13, with two further performances to follow. The show always goes on. For Gaudiello it will just be a different one.

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.

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.