Counterpointe, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 27.

Does Counterpointe shine an illuminating light on the journey of classical dance from the 19th century to the 20th or is it a mighty clash of opposing forces? The Australian Ballet’s new artistic director, David Hallberg, sees it as the former. The Australian Ballet’s social media ads, on the other hand, frame Counterpointe as a battle between foreign principalities: classical versus contemporary, tutus versus tights is how they alliteratively describe it. 

Both views make sense, as it happens. The gulf between Act III of Marius Petipa’s Raymonda (1898) and William Forsythe’s knock-your-socks-off Artifact Suite (2004) looks vast but without Petipa, there’s no Forsythe.

Amber Scott and Ty King-Wall in Raymonda Act III. Photo: Daniel Boud

Raymonda is 19th century classical dance as widely understood: formal, elegant, upright and emotionally contained. There are gorgeous tutus and a strict hierarchy. A starry ballerina and her cavalier, dressed differently from the rest, take precedence. A second, subsidiary ballerina is given a solo and there’s a kind of cascading effect in a pas de trois for women, a pas de quatre for men and a corps formed of eight couples.

What you see is what you get.

Hallberg, who has come out of the starting blocks at speed in his new role, staged Raymonda himself. This after overseeing a project that’s central to his vision of what a ballet company should be doing, Pam Tanowitz’s world premiere Watermark. It opened just a few weeks ago in the New York Dialects program (reviewed below).

Hallberg’s Raymonda was something of a watermark itself, identifying the maker of the piece while laying something over it.

Amber Scott in Raymonda Act III. Photo: Daniel Boud

Raymonda Act III is an abstraction. Its theme is classical ballet rather than that of Petipa’s Raymonda, in which the third act is a wedding celebration set in a Hungarian court at the time of the crusades. In a traditional full production – not so often done – the women of the corps in Act III would wear folk dress and dance in character shoes. Here Raymonda is timeless, danced under elegant swagged curtains and a chandelier with the dancers attired in Hugh Colman’s costumes originally made for a work by none other than George Balanchine: his Theme and Variations (1947). Colman’s costumes – dazzling white for Raymonda and her knight, gold and coffee for the rest – were designed in 1998. You could just call it being thrifty, but given that Hallberg also put Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux on the Counterpointe bill it’s also pleasing to consider this choice as another sign of connection and continuity. The dancers looked madly glamorous.

The Hungarian flavour is embedded in the choreography, with hands placed behind heads, the occasional flexed foot and, in Raymonda’s delicious variation, folk-inspired hand claps but there is not the slightest suggestion of narrative. It’s all dance and music, with the lovely Glazunov score sounding suitably lush in the hands of Nicolette Fraillon and the Opera Australia Orchestra.  

Amber Scott was the serene lodestar of Raymonda on opening night – delicate and sensuous all at once. Sharni Spencer, a senior artist one wants to see more and more, was the shining soloist. Partnering Scott gallantly, Ty King-Wall looked more assertive in his dance than he has often done in the past. Perhaps it’s the Hallberg factor. As for the rest, not everything was quite as polished as one would wish from those lower down the chain but last year’s hiatus meant there’s been a long, long break from this kind of highly exposed classicism. 

Nicola Curry and Jarryd Madden in Artifact Suite. Photo: Daniel Boud

Artifact Suite is danced in its first half to the consolations of familiar Bach, the Chaconne from Partita No.2, but looks at first to be an entirely different matter from Raymonda. It certainly doesn’t let its audience settle in for an enjoyable bout of the expected. The lines are much more off-centre, extreme and even dangerous. Two couples alternate in the spotlight but attention is constantly drawn to a mysterious woman who leads a large corps in what might be described as semaphore. Everyone is dressed alike in second-skin costumes that emphasise the dancers’ physiques.

In the first section the fire curtain crashes down four or five times, prompting the audience to applaud as if Pavlov’s dogs. The curtain rises again to show the dancers in other arrangements, as enigmatic as before.

What you don’t see is part of what you get.

This is not Raymonda, to be sure, yet classical principles absolutely drive the sleek modernity of Artifact Suite even as they stretch and expand them. You could even look at the semaphore as a squared-off form of ballet’s rounded ports de bras. The hand claps of Raymonda find an echo in Artifact Suite too, although the impression is of regimentation rather than folksy joy. 

Linking Raymonda and Artifact Suite is the brief and brilliant Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux (Balanchine preferred this spelling of Tchaikovsky’s name). This neo-classical work, made in 1960 to music from Swan Lake, is swift, effervescent and floaty. On opening night Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo raced through it joyously. Kondo was spectacular, with a luxurious, satiny finish in the upper body and razor-sharp lower limbs. Guo’s cat-like landings were a dream and his very fast pirouettes in second delightful, even if he and the pit were not entirely in accord about the matter of timing. 

The floating ribbon quality Kondo brought to Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux was all the more impressive when compared with the diamond-edged flexibility she displayed in Artifact Suite. Benedicte Bemet and Brett Chynoweth were also standouts in Artifact Suite.

Ako Kondo In Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. Photo: Daniel Boud

It really was a thrilling evening. The only niggle is the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage. It’s is far too small for such large gifts. Counterpointe isn’t programmed for Melbourne, Adelaide or Brisbane this year but if it pops up in any of those places in 2021 it would be well worth Sydneysiders taking a trip.

Hallberg has now ushered three productions to the stage in 2020, including Summertime at the Ballet, the Melbourne-only gala that celebrated TAB’s return to the stage. Two of the three forthcoming ballets in the 2021 season were inherited, having been held over from last year (Anna Karenina, Harlequinade) and the third, Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet, is a TAB staple.

The programs already staged are all Hallberg’s own work and show his intentions for the company. Watermark introduced a new style of movement and a choreographer previously unknown here. Artifact Suite was a company premiere of an important work from one of the great game-changers of the 20th century. And it’s clear Hallberg wants to see the company’s dancers take their ambition up a notch. To impose themselves a little more forcefully on the stage. They seem to be listening. 

Other things to note? Looking through the casting for Counterpointe is revealing. There are very junior dancers being given important assignments that will test their mettle. And Hallberg seems to like pairing husband-and-wife teams on stage, with principal artists Kondo and Guo, Scott and King-Wall and Amy Harris and her senior artist husband Jarryd Madden all down for Raymonda. Certain names from the corps and coryphée ranks are popping up regularly. Keep an eye out for Yuumi Yamada, Isobelle Dashwood and Coco Mathieson in particular. What fun.

Counterpointe ends May 15.

Verve, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, April 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Verve ends in Sydney on April 25.