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is timeless, danced under elegant swagged curtains and a chandelier with the dancers attired in Hugh Colman’s costumes originally made for a work by none other than George Balanchine: his Theme and Variations (1947).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.

Giselle: The Australian Ballet Regional Tour

Concourse Theatre, Chatswood, Sydney, October 4

The Australian Ballet’s regional touring program has undergone a quiet change. It was created about 35 years ago as The Dancers Company but since earlier this year has gone by an even more prosaic name: The Australian Ballet Regional Tour. Why the change? Presumably so the AB’s ownership is stressed. The new name bluntly asserts that the national company isn’t just performing in the capital cities.

The Dancers Company was designed to give performance opportunities to advanced students from the Australian Ballet School. They would be seen alongside a couple of guests from the AB but focus was essentially on the students. If Giselle is any guide that focus is shifting a little.

tab_regionaltour_giselle_karen-nanasca-andrew-killian-photo-jeff-busby-1074

Karen Nanasca and Andrew Killian in Giselle with Edward Smith (at rear). Photo: Jeff Busby

Those with long memories will remember an attempt by the AB in 2002 to extend its reach and live up to its national-company status by taking a contemporary program to the regions. The triple bill – The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Other Dances and Por vos muero – didn’t catch fire with that audience and some performances had to be cancelled. Responsibility for performing ballet outside the capital cities went back to The Dancers Company. (Responsibility for Australian ballet, that is – there are several Russian companies who undertake regular, extensive regional tours, primarily with Swan Lake and Nutcracker.)

Staging of this touring Giselle, which is on entirely traditional lines, is attributed rather anonymously to “The Australian Ballet”. It’s danced to a recording that isn’t directly credited but is, I assume, the version advertised on the cast sheet as a new CD of Adolphe Adams’s score with AB music director Nicolette Fraillon at the helm of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. It’s never ideal to be without a live orchestra but it’s also an economic impossibility in these circumstances and the recording is a vibrant one with some lively tempi to challenge the dancers.

At the early October performance I saw in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood, Karen Nanasca, an AB coryphée, was an enchanting Giselle with her wonderfully expressive face and eyes. Nanasca told her story with clarity and admirable simplicity. The elements weren’t surprising but they felt fresh and cohered into a convincing and touching whole, the dancer at one with the character. When Giselle’s heart broke, the ground had been prepared. Everything led up to an emotional, involving mad scene. Nanasca’s second act was less individual although again it was noticeable how she used her gaze eloquently.

Andrew Killian’s elegantly danced Albrecht was less fully fleshed. There was something of the detached, amused playboy about him so Albrecht’s repeated lunges towards Giselle’s dead body at the end of Act I appeared to come from nowhere. Nevertheless, Killian did give the evening leading-man sheen. (At some performances during this short tour Albrecht will be danced by another AB principal artist, Ty King-Wall, so the AB isn’t stinting on its stars.)

The aristocratic Bathilde, who is engaged to Albrecht, was in the very sure hands of AB soloist Dana Stephenson (she dances Giselle at some performances) and Giselle’s spurned admirer Hilarion was beautifully danced by ABS student Jackson Fisch. His Hilarion, so young and hopeful, was no match for Albrecht’s mature confidence.

AB corps member Aya Watanabe gave a neat account of the peasant pas alongside former AB member Simon Plant, whose duties were pleasingly shared with two unnamed men from The Dancers Company. (Confused yet? That’s what the ABS dancers are billed as, a kind of subset within the cast.)

Watanabe doubled up as a Lead Wili in the second act with fellow AB corps member Ella Havelka, both under the command of Isobelle Dashwood’s Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. Dashwood joined the AB as a corps de ballet member only this year (as did Watanabe) so it’s a big role for her. She acquitted herself exceptionally well, not only technically – impressively fast, tight bourées; a majestically deep arabesque penchée – but with her poise in the face of the role’s intense demands.

Giselle is to be performed again on the Regional Tour next year, providing more chances to see up-and-coming AB dancers in roles they would be unlikely to assume in capital city performances.

A final point though. The AB is foolishly using, on its website, a quote about Giselle from The New York Times: “Phenomenal dramatic impact.” That phrase is from a 1990 review by Anna Kisselgoff of Maina Gielgud’s production when it was performed by the AB in New York. There are some details (and set elements and costumes by Peter Farmer) from Gielgud’s production used in these current performances but, as I noted above, Gielgud is not credited as the stager and some of her most telling dramatic touches are not present (nor should they be if she has not produced this version).

This current production is pleasing but it does not feature the full resources of The Australian Ballet performing Maina Gielgud’s internationally admired staging of Giselle. It is careless to imply it.

Remaining performances of Giselle: Griffith, October 12; Wagga Wagga, October 14 and 15; Newcastle, October 19 and 20.

An earlier version of this review had an incorrect caption. It is Edward Smith in the rear of the photo with Nanasca and Killian. My apologies.